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Published: 7/5/2008

Rising fuel costs exact high toll on budgets

BY CHAUNCEY ALCORN
AND ALEX M. PARKER
BLADE STAFF WRITERS

County officials across northwest Ohio are spending more on gas this year than ever before, and with gas prices above $4-a-gallon and expected to go higher, they are turning to conservation methods to save money.

The Wood County commissioners on Tuesday issued a directive requiring county employees to make every effort to carpool and use county vehicles when going to meetings.

Lucas County Commissioner Ben Konop on Wednesday issued a directive to county departments, calling on them to reduce their gas consumption by 20 percent by 2010.

Mr. Konop said the departments under the commissioners' control use 10,000 gallons of gasoline a month.

"When you're talking about $7 a gallon for gas, I think everything has to be on the table, and we have to think out of the box," Mr. Konop said.

Oil analysts have been talking about gas prices pushed to $7 a gallon and beyond in recent months, driven by speculation in the petroleum commodities market, surging global demand, and tight refining capacity.

County governments spend less on gas than the general public, about $3.62 per gallon right now, because they don't pay the federal gas tax, but budgets are still being busted by increasing prices.

Sandy Burmeister, the business manager in Sandusky County's facilities management department, said the county is spending about 122 percent more on gas and diesel fuel than it did in 2000.

Department heads are asking for more money for gas purchases more often.

"We used to have to go in about October and talk to the commissioners and get some extra money put into our budget to pay for gas and diesel. This year we'll probably be in a month or two early," she said.

Mr. Konop is suggesting Lucas County workers use cruise control, eliminate aggressive driving and unnecessary trips, check tire pressure, and that the county consider purchasing hybrid vehicles.

He said the county is looking into using cooking grease as a fuel replacement in some vehicles, a process San Francisco uses to cut down on fuel expenses.

The grease from the Lucas County jail's cooking facilities could be mixed with bio-diesel fuels to cut down on overall fuel costs, Mr. Konop said.

Mr. Konop said the county would be instituting, for the first time, a system for tracking its fuel use.

Area county officials said sheriff's offices typically use the most gas, and several offices are buying smaller vehicles that get better gas mileage.

The Lucas County sheriff's office spent $231,911 last year on gasoline, nearly $20,000 more than was budgeted.

So far, the sheriff has spent $150,685 this year, putting the agency on track to spend more than $300,000 by year's end.

Ottawa County Commissioner James Sass said his county's sheriff's deputies are shutting off their cars for 10 minutes an hour.

"They stay someplace where they're visible but shut the car off," he said. "It still maintains a presence."

Tina Skeldon Wozniak, president of the Lucas County commissioners and a longtime advocate for green practices in government, said she supported Mr. Konop's efforts and hoped to reduce the overall number of county vehicles.

"I believe that reducing the fleet is the No. 1 way to deal with this problem," Ms. Wozniak said.

The Lucas County commissioners implemented a no-idling policy in April, which banned idling a county vehicle "solely for the comfort of the driver or passengers."

But many of the county's gas-guzzling departments claim they have no choice about the trips they take.

The county engineer's office saw its fuel costs rise from $177,595 in 2007 to $250,529 so far this year.

County Engineer Keith Earley said there's little he can do to cut down on fuel costs.

"We can try to conserve, but there's not a lot we can do if we have to provide services," Mr. Earley said.

He also said the increase in driving costs is dwarfed by the increase in construction costs for the department's projects.

Construction materials such as asphalt use petroleum, and their costs have risen as much or more than the price of gasoline.

He said the office has had to scale back its projects in order to meet rising costs.

"If you need to pave 20 miles a year, and you're only doing 15, sooner or later those shortages are going to cause real problems," Mr. Earley said.

Local governments have been hit especially hard by the high gas prices because their vehicles often use diesel fuel, which has risen in price even faster than regular gasoline.

According to AAA, the average cost of a gallon of diesel rose from $2.87 last year to $4.67 today.

Contact Chauncey Alcorn at:

calcorn@theblade.com

or 419-724-6168.



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