Fuel prices also pinch city and counties

June 24, 2008|By Steven Stanek | Steven Stanek,Sun Reporter

In Anne Arundel County, all but a handful of take-home vehicles have been taken off the road.

Government workers on their way to meetings in Harford County are being urged to carpool in the county's new hybrid vehicles.

And in Baltimore, officials are seeking a variety of ways to cut the use of fuel, including considering an order that would bar city employees from letting their government cars idle for more than a few minutes.

As oil prices reach record highs, jurisdictions across Maryland are feeling the pinch and searching for ways to save money.

Baltimore's director of public works says big changes are needed to control fuel-related costs.

"I am challenging all of our agencies to look at ways to reduce fuel usage through changes in operation," said David E. Scott, who added that the city is planning to downsize its fleet. "Sedans, pickup trucks, the dump trucks - all of our equipment is subject to review right now."

The average price for a gallon of regular unleaded gas in the U.S. in May was $3.77, a 35 percent jump over the 2007 average of $2.80, according to the Energy Information Administration.

As of yesterday, the average price in Maryland was $4.05 for a gallon of regular unleaded and $4.80 for diesel, according to AAA's Daily Fuel Gauge Report.

David S. Bliden, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties, called the impact on government budgets for the fiscal year that begins July 1 unprecedented, adding that roughly three-quarters of local government activities involve using fuel.

"You've got school buses, you have police cars, you have ambulances, fire engines, road maintenance vehicles - local governments are the primary service provider in the state," he said.

Baltimore, which budgeted $10.1 million for gasoline and diesel fuel in 2008, has set aside the same amount for next year, but city officials hope to keep the overruns to less than $2 million, Scott said.

Anne Arundel's fuel budget of $6.4 million for the coming fiscal year is $420,000 more than this year's; Harford County tacked on close to $1 million.

Baltimore County has set aside almost $3 million more for fuel than it did for the current year, raising its total to close to $10 million. In Carroll County, money for gasoline and diesel fuel doubled to $2.5 million, but that figure accounts for overspending from the previous year.

Howard County, which budgeted $4 million in 2008 for gasoline and diesel, plans to spend $5.4 million in fiscal year 2009.

"If the price continues to rise and doesn't fall back, we could be in trouble," said Howard County budget director Raymond S. Wacks, adding that the projection was based on the bulk price of $3.59 per gallon, up from $3 per gallon used in last year's budget.

County and city governments often draw up their budgets several months before the start of the fiscal year, making it difficult to accurately estimate gasoline costs, said Deborah L. Henderson, director of the Harford County procurement office.

Henderson said she drew up this year's budget in October - when the average cost of a gallon of gasoline was $2.80 - and she based the figures on a projected $3.50 per gallon.

"With the prices the way they are, you'd have to have a crystal ball to figure it out," she said.

In Anne Arundel County, where County Executive John R. Leopold recently switched from an SUV to a relatively fuel-efficient Chevrolet Impala, officials suspended the use of 174 county-owned cars that government employees were driving to and from work. Officials said the measure would save the county 8,000 gallons of gasoline per month.

Fred Schram, the county's central services officer, said the county is considering a change that would require the tires of the county's cars to be filled with nitrogen instead of air. Nitrogen has been shown to keep tires inflated longer and improve miles per gallon, according to the Get Nitrogen Institute, a Denver-based nonprofit that touts the benefits of using the substance in tires.

Baltimore County has added 50 hybrid cars to its 500-vehicle fleet; Harford County has added 18 of the fuel-efficient cars, and officials said they now schedule meetings in centralized locations to encourage employees to walk or share rides.

Baltimore City is considering an initiative to remind city workers to be more fuel-conscious, and Scott said Mayor Sheila Dixon was considering an executive order to stop city workers from sitting in city cars while the engine runs, though no details were given on how the measure would be enforced.

A Baltimore police spokesman said the department has started moving officers into more fuel-efficient cars, though Ford Crown Victorias still make up most of the fleet.

School systems have also been hit hard by climbing fuel prices, which increase costs for bus service and make it costlier to heat and cool buildings.

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