04/08/05 — Gas prices hurting local government expense budgets

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Gas prices hurting local government expense budgets

By News-Argus Staff
Published in News on April 8, 2005 1:46 PM

From staff reports

The recent, rapid rise in gas prices is hurting local governmental agencies' budgets, and few expect to find much relief soon.

Goldsboro and Wayne County departments and the Wayne County Public Schools are all looking for ways to cut costs after sharp increases in fuel costs.

Joe Sawyer, Goldsboro's general services director, said that the city is currently paying $1.68 per gallon for unleaded regular, up from $1.34 in February.

Diesel fuel has also gone up, although not as steeply -- from $1.54 a gallon two months ago to $1.70 now.

The city pays less at the pump than an average consumer because it buys fuel wholesale, in 5,500-gallon shipments, and is exempt from some fuel taxes.

Sawyer believes gas prices will remain high through at least Labor Day. So he has been trying for three weeks to come up with some ideas on ways to conserve fuel, he said.

"I don't have anything concrete yet," he said, but he is looking at possible changes to city employees' work schedules, shifts and protocols. He would like to find ways to tweak routines and find savings without harming services.

Any proposal would have to be reviewed by City Manager Joe Huffman and approved by the City Council, he said.

The Goldsboro Police Department has no real options to conserve, Chief Tim Bell said. "We're just bearing up and paying it."

Police officers try to turn off their cars when they know they will be parked for a while, Bell said. But they often have to keep engines and equipment running, for example, at accident scenes, as a safety precaution.

During past fuel shortages, some police departments have cut patrols or asked officers to spend parts of their shifts parked in their districts. "But if you do that, you're being re-active, not pro-active, and we've worked to get away from that," Bell said.

Wayne County Manager Lee Smith has met with all the employees recently in what he calls "visioning sessions."

Those sessions give Smith and the employees an opportunity to discuss issues facing the county, and to look at unique ways to move forward.

"We're looking at a number of things regarding the rising cost of gas," Smith said. "I've asked employees to look at the use of county vehicles, and cut out unnecessary driving."

The county is also looking at buying cars that get better gas mileage. "We're looking at how we can do it cheaper," he said.

The county has even looking at ways to curb gas use in the sheriff's department.

"Obviously they have to have patrols," Smith said. "But we're looking at rotating cars every three years for better mileage."

The county's Social Services department took into account the rising cost of gas when submitting its budget last week. Director Judy Pelt said travel expenses increased by about $1,500 due partially to gas prices.

County Finance Director Norman Ricks said that the per-gallon figure for the county's 2004-05 budget was projected to be $2. The county buys its gas from a local gas station using a county credit card, and is exempt from the federal fuel tax.

Original projections for the county's 2005-06 budget set the per gallon figure at $2.25, but Ricks said he isn't sure that would cover fuel expenses.

"We're planning to raise it by 25 cents, but we don't know if that will be enough," he said. "It's anybody's guess. This is definitely going to have an effect on the budget."

Sprunt Hill, Wayne County Public Schools' assistant superintendent for auxiliary services, said the situation "absolutely plays havoc on us."

Fuel for buses in the school system comes under the state budget, with each county given an allotment. The formula to determine the amount is based on such components as the number of students and buses in a school district.

Assistant Director of Transportation Ricky Carter said the state contract allows the school system to purchase diesel fuel at a cheaper rate. But prices have risen so drastically this year, that even the state funding may not be sufficient, he said.

"It's been a problem the last few years, but it's not been this drastic," he said. "This year has been by far the worst."

The state had projected fuel costs would not rise above $1.38 per gallon for the school system's contract. By March 2, the amount was closer to $1.40 a gallon.

"The last fuel we bought in March was $1.64 a gallon," he said.

The school system regularly runs 223 buses daily, Carter said, with 20 spare buses on hand and 31 activity buses. He said the buses travel 13,500 miles daily, using an estimated 1,700 gallons of fuel.

Between 7,000 and 8,000 gallons of fuel are purchased at a time, Carter said, brought in by tanker load. Two trucks travel to the schools and usually refuel the buses every other day.

The school system regularly looks at ways to streamline its transportation system, officials say. The state uses a computerized routing and scheduling system to help the buses run as efficiently as possible. Other belt-tightening measures are also being explored, such as preventive maintenance and minimizing unnecessary trips.

"It's one of those things where we try to look at other areas where we can cut costs," he said. "We can't cut corners on safety."

Even though it is the state's intent to keep up with rising fuel costs, Smith said, that might not happen.

"This is a wait and see situation," he said. "We really can't predict what the outcome's going to be."

He said local funding sources might have to be used if the budget exceeds what the state appropriated.