— Like the general public, local governments throughout the Catawba Valley are struggling with high fuel costs, according to the Charlotte Observer
Some cities and counties have already budgeted more fuel money for the 2004-05 fiscal year, which begins July 1. Others, like Hickory County, have kept fuel budgets steady, hoping prices already beginning to fall will continue to do so. Another, Conover County, raised property taxes — from 36 to 38 cents per $100 assessed value — in part to pay for costlier fuel.
All agencies have encouraged employees to do little things, such as avoid idling vehicles and combine trips in order to save. “And those are not just fluffy, feel-good things,” said Warren Wood, Hickory's executive assistant over administration. “Those are real things to try and conserve fuel.”
Some three months ago, Hickory Public Services Director Chuck Hansen began stressing the need to conserve to employees who run mostly diesel-powered vehicles such as backhoes, dump trucks, and garbage trucks — the city's high-consumption fleet vehicles. “We're letting guys use their common-sense judgment,” Hansen said. “But the general rule is, if you get out of (a vehicle) for any reason, go ahead and turn it off.”
Most local governments pay far less for fuel than the average Joe. Governments pay wholesale prices for bulk fuel from local or national distributors, said Tim Watson, Catawba County's facilities and fleet maintenance manager. The county uses three underground sites to store fuel for its fleet, Watson said. The last time the county bought fuel, on June 7, it paid about $1.36 per gallon for premium gasoline.
“Thank goodness we're able to realize a lot of savings,” Watson said. “But it's way up there from what we were paying last year,” when the county was paying about 90 cents per gallon for premium. As a result, the county has increased its fleet fuel budget for about 250 vehicles from $254,000 in 2003-04 to $294,000 for 2004-05, said Budget Manager Judy Ikerd. In addition, as of July 1, the county will increase reimbursement for employees who use their own vehicles for county business from 34.5 to 36 cents per mile, she said.
Hickory, though, is hoping its fuel-saving measures pay off and prices go back down. In the 2003-04 fiscal year, the city budgeted $652,236 for fuel; with 91 percent of the fiscal year passed, the city has spent $595,676, or 91 percent of the fuel budget, Wood said. The city has budgeted $661,716 for the 2004-05 fiscal year, just 1.5 percent more. “We are counting on gas prices to come down next year. If they don't, we'll go over budget,” Wood said. “We just don't have money lying around.”
In any local government, public works, police, and fire are the gas-guzzling departments. The fire department can do only so much, said spokeswoman Terri Byers. “Our biggest fuel consumption is in response to calls,” she said, “and you can't cut that.” The department expects to meet its $45,000 fuel budget for the 2003-04 fiscal year, Byers said. As of April 30, it had spent $29,983 in fuel. But to be safe, the department budgeted an extra $5,000 for next year, she said.
Police can't indiscriminately turn off patrol car ignitions either, said Capt. Clyde Deal, the commander in charge of the department's fleet. During traffic stops and responses to calls, officers still keep the motor running because blue lights and strobes would drain the battery otherwise, he said. But the department has begun urging officers to avoid idling whenever possible, and Deal said he's been reviewing fuel reports from each unit to track consumption.
In addition, the department is considering switching to Chevrolet Impala police cars, smaller in size and slightly more fuel-efficient than the standard-issue Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptors that make up most of the department's fleet, Deal said. Police began using nine Impalas this year.
Two of the few lucky local departments this year are the county tax office and Piedmont Wagon, Hickory's public transit system. The tax office began using hybrid Honda Civics two years ago for its appraisers, and they've been averaging about 40 miles per gallon, said Tax Administrator Randy Moose. The hybrids work well for stop-and-go driving, which works the electric component of the engine more than the fuel-driven part, Moose said, “so it works real well for our appraisers.”
Piedmont Wagon actually overbudgeted for the 2003-04 fiscal year. The department expects to come in under its $82,437 budget, said Manager Cynthia McGinnis. For next year, the department has budgeted $77,848.