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Soaring gas prices ravaging local budgets


Soaring gasoline prices are slamming cities, school districts and sheriff’s departments across the United States, forcing local governments to scrimp, save and borrow to pay the price at the pump.

School buses, snowplows and squad cars, which burn millions of gallons of gas a year, can burn million-dollar holes in budgets.

“It’s really wreaking havoc,” says Jeff Esser, CEO of the Government Finance Officers Association. “They really have two choices: raise taxes or cut back on other programs or services. That’s it.”

Some examples:

• In Boston, school buses ferry 33,000 students from home to classroom every day. Last year, the city budgeted $1.9 million to fuel its buses. The actual cost was $2.8 million.

This year, officials increased the budget to $3.4 million and are keeping their fingers crossed.

“It’s not a pretty picture,” says Richard Jacobs, transportation director of Boston Public Schools. “You don’t know where you’re going to be six months from now.”

Drivers are being asked not to let their vehicles idle too long, Jacobs says.

• In Atlanta, the city has already burned up its 2005 budget of $3.5 million for fuel and is running a deficit, says Chuck Meadows, budget chief for the city. “We haven’t yet started altering routes for police officers, but that may be something that we have to consider.”

• In Omaha, Neb., the city’s 1,700 squad cars, trucks and other vehicles consumed 1.3 million gallons of fuel last year. It cost $1.7 million, largely because the city had locked into a favorable contract with an enviable price of $1.49 a gallon for unleaded gas and $1.10 for diesel, says Carol Ebdon, city finance director.

That contract expired this year, and costs shot up. Omaha expects to pay $2.5 million for fuel this year, she says.

“It will come from taxpayers,” Ebdon says. “We have not raised taxes; we’ve saved through efficiencies. But ultimately, it’s the taxpayers who pay.”

• In Kansas City, Mo., city vehicles burn 1.7 million gallons a year, city spokeswoman Mary Charles says.

“So each 10-cent increase costs about $170,000. We’ve gone up 80 cents. That means it’s over a million dollars that we’ll have to fund,” she says.

• In Pecos County, Texas, 14 sheriff’s deputies patrol 4,700 square miles of west Texas mesas and deserts. They put 2,000 miles on a squad car in a month. With gas at about $2.50 a gallon, they’re feeling the pinch.

“It’s affected us tremendously,” says Chief Deputy Thomas Perkins. Last year, the Sheriff’s Department had to ask county officials for more money and probably will have to do so this year, he says.

• In Los Angeles, school district officials anticipated rising costs last year and spent $5.5 million of $6 million budgeted to transport 75,000 students each day, says Antonio Rodriguez, director of transportation for Los Angeles Unified School District. This year, they plan to ask for more during budget deliberations, he says.

Keeping buses running is critical, says Anne L. Bryant, executive director of the National School Boards Association. “We often forget that, particularly in rural America, the bus is really the connection to a child’s learning and their future,” she says.

But fueling them is costly.

The Fairfax County, Va., school district, which transports 110,000 students daily, pays $2.19 a gallon for diesel fuel, says Mary Shaw, a spokeswoman for the school system in suburban Washington. A typical school bus takes 65 gallons. That makes the price of a full tank $142, and it doesn’t go far on a vehicle that gets seven miles per gallon.

The Fairfax district spent $3.7 million on gas last year, $1.1 million more than it had budgeted, Shaw says. This year, the Fairfax fuel budget for buses is $4.9 million. For all of its vehicles, the fuel budget is $5.4 million, which translates into less than 1 percent of the district’s overall spending, she says.

Local government officials say many of the costs are non-negotiable.

“How are you going to ask ambulance drivers to save gas?” asks Dick McKinley, director of public works in Bellingham, Wash.

Watch for cutbacks in services and layoffs if gas prices continue to bust budgets, says Tom Goodman, a spokesman for the National Association of Counties.

“Counties that have fleets of trucks for hauling, squads for sheriffs, ambulances, they’re going to feel the rising costs,” Goodman says. “What they’ll try to do is reduce services or staff before they raise taxes.”

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