Avoiding the pump isn't an option

Government workers keep paying for gas as costs keep rising

July 26, 2005|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

The morning sun is still low in the sky when Mike Huber of the Baltimore County Fire Department tops off the tank in Truck 91.

The Towson fire company's backup ladder truck has to be fully gassed up so it can, if needed, answer emergency calls from far beyond the county seat. No matter that it gets all of about 4 miles to the gallon. No matter that the price of gas is higher than ever.

"We're not going to go out and drive less because of fuel costs," says county Fire Chief John J. Hohman, "and no one would want us to."

Local governments in the Baltimore metropolitan area are joining consumers in feeling pain at the pump. With costs for some area governments rising last week to more than $2 a gallon for regular gas, and with thousands of tanks to fill, some officials are hoping that the huge increases they accounted for while preparing their budgets will be enough.

"The market went crazy. We had to gear up for that," said Fred Schram, whose office oversees purchasing for Anne Arundel County.

Governments tend to pay less than the average motorist for gas, thanks to bulk buying agreements. But as Maryland's consumer prices hit an all-time high last week, averaging just over $2.35 per gallon for regular gas before leveling off, various governments reported numbers that weren't too far behind.

The state was paying anywhere from $2.08 to $2.22 a gallon last week, depending on the type of gas, said Dave Humphrey, spokesman for the state's Department of General Services. Baltimore County was paying $2.07 for gasoline, $2.04 for diesel, officials said.

This comes shortly after some governments were forced to transfer money from other accounts to cover their extra gas costs. In Baltimore County, estimates that motor fuel would cost $5.9 million in the fiscal year that ended June 30 ended up more than $1 million off the mark. Carroll officials figure they were about $130,000 over budget for gas.

While consumers might choose to go forward with their summer trips despite the rising gas prices, government officials say they have few options but to find the money to conduct their business: repairing pot holes and cutting grass, patrolling the streets and putting out fires, among other duties.

So police cruisers, fire engines, work trucks and other government vehicles continued to fuel up as usual Thursday morning at the Baltimore County fuel depot on the edge of downtown Towson - and at government gas pumps throughout the area.

"It's just the reality," said Ted Zaleski, Carroll County's director of management and budget. "It's not like there's a great deal of discretionary travel."

Through a regional purchasing group organized by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, several area governments have banded together for years to negotiate contracts to buy below retail.

The governments have the option to lock into a price based on futures for a period of time, but the current market has made them leery of doing so, said Donald Mohler, a Baltimore County government spokesman.

"At this point, it's advantageous to county taxpayers that we monitor prices closely on a week-by-week basis," he said.

All of which leaves area governments vulnerable to the fluctuations of the market.

"What we're experiencing is the same thing the everyday citizen is experiencing," Schram said. "Costs are going up so we have to watch very closely what we're doing."

For Anne Arundel, that means trying to avoid buying gas during weeks when the price is the highest. For some governments, it also means taking a close look at the few hybrid vehicles they've bought to see whether they are more cost-efficient.

In Baltimore City, which was paying an average of about 30 cents a gallon more than last year for regular gas and 50 cents more for diesel, officials were experimenting with cleaner fuels and hybrid vehicles even before the most recent spike in prices, said Kurt L. Kocher, spokesman for the city Department of Public Works. The city, with its fleet of 5,600 vehicles, is not currently participating in the metropolitan council regional gas agreement.

But the response from area governments is less drastic than during the early 1970s Mideast oil embargo and a later gas shortage in 1979 and 1980, when government officials put restrictions on who could gas up when. In the latter situation, Baltimore City officials eventually decided to ration gas to employees. During the embargo, state troopers were instructed on ways to conserve fuel, Harford County Administrator John J. O'Neill Jr., a former civilian state police official, recalled.

"From my perspective, we're better off letting people do their jobs," he said. "It's not a shortage, it's a price increase."

Oil prices, which hit highs of more than $60 per barrel this month, have also contributed to another set of issues: higher contract costs for paving projects, which use petroleum-based asphalt, and the potential for an economic slowdown.

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