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Fuel costs burning holes in area budgets
Schools and local governments shift money, curb driving
By MARION CALLAHAN
By MARION CALLAHAN A surge in gas prices is draining some local school and government fuel budgets so fast they're having to raid emergency savings and change how they do business.
Although most government agencies get fuel at wholesale prices, typically 30 cents cheaper than what motorists pay at the pump, they are experiencing the same sticker shock. The cost crunch is pressing some agencies to consider job cuts, while less-affected agencies are simply posting fuel-saving tips or re-routing buses.
Area energy forecasters say no relief is in sight. Gasoline prices in the Carolinas continue to hover at the highest levels since AAA Carolinas began recording gasoline prices 20 years ago. Prices may level off sometime next weekend, but officials expect to see slight increases throughout the summer driving season.
Local officials, unsure whether the prices will continue to linger any longer than the end of summer, have taken some cost-saving measures:
Schools in Charlotte-Mecklenburg are using 14 fewer buses, packing them tighter and picking up students a few minutes earlier and dropping them off later.
Lincoln County's schools are dipping into money put aside for a new high school so they can fuel their buses. If prices don't drop significantly or the state doesn't step in with extra cash, the district may have to trim technology and vocational programs - and possibly jobs - next year just to keep buses rolling.
In Mecklenburg County, park watch coordinators are riding bikes instead of driving cars to patrol parks and greet visitors. Trips to the landfill are being reduced and some maintenance employees can no longer take county vehicles home. The surge in fuel costs comes at a time when schools are already facing cuts because of a possible $125 million shortfall in state contributions. Traditionally, the state has provided schools with enough money to fuel buses. But now, districts are using local funds to make up for the rise in fuel costs.
Counties, which provide local funds for schools, are facing revenue crunches of their own; several are considering hiking property taxes.
It's particularly hard for a low-wealth district like Lincoln County Schools to cope.
"The fuel increase combined with the state budget crunch is like another knife stuck in the back when it comes to budgeting," said Steve Zickefoose, the district's director of finance.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools spokesman Damon Ford said the district has been able to deal with the increases by consolidating 14 daily bus routes. The district runs 992 buses daily, he said.
"Nobody is able to avoid this fuel hike," said Ford. "But parents here don't have to worry about cuts in the classroom. We all just have our own way of dealing with the situation because we have a different budget and different needs."
In Charlotte, city budget planners expect the expense of fueling the city's 2,400 vehicles to jump from $4.7 million to $7.7 million, most of that from increased fuel prices.
"We can only go on what we've spent and what we're anticipating," said city spokeswoman Julie Hill. "If the prices go down, we'll have some savings. We just wouldn't spend it."
Schools and governments around the country are suffering similar pains at the pump as the cost of gasoline and diesel fuel climbs to its highest levels, with a per-gallon retail price in the Charlotte area hovering at about $1.48 for diesel and $1.56 a gallon for gasoline.
Nationwide, prices are higher, seesawing at $1.57 for diesel and $1.71 for gasoline.
At least one Colorado school district may cut textbook purchases to keep buses fueled, while counties in Florida and New York have issued "fuel alerts" asking employees to limit how much they drive county vehicles. Transit agencies in Missouri are scaling back on bus routes.
Locally, the hike spurred Catawba County to consider hiking reimbursements for employees who use their personal cars for work. Right now, the county pays 32 cents a mile, which no longer is enough, said Rodney Miller, the county's deputy finance director.
Iredell-Statesville schools may have to dip into other departments' budgets. However, district spokeswoman Cathy Davidson said, "We would cut just about anything else before we would cut instructional programs."
Lincoln schools may not have an option. "Everything has basically doubled," said Zickefoose. Fuel expenses there have jumped from $50,000 to $100,000 for the year. "We may have to look at cutting instructional programs just so we can transport our students."
Officials for Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, where the fuel increase represents a smaller hit on the total budget, say they're able to absorb the higher fuel costs by dipping into contingency funds set aside for such emergencies. Here, the pinch will be felt in more subtle ways, as departments scale back on purchases and scour for efficiency in business practices and equipment.
"This was certainly an unanticipated increase," Hill said. "Departments are trying to manage as best they can - without cutting services."
The Charlotte Fire Department recently debuted five smaller fire trucks, replacing larger trucks that use nearly twice as much diesel fuel. The decision to purchase smaller-motor vehicles was made earlier in the year, in large part because fuel prices were climbing, said Capt. Buddy Caldwell.
"Our goal is to look at more efficient equipment without compromising safety, but otherwise it's hard for an emergency service organization to do much more to cut back," Caldwell said.
Mecklenburg County officials say they were prepared for higher fuel prices. Jim Cathey, assistant fleet director, said he had planned for a sharp increase in operational expenses and began posting fuel-saving tips on the county's employee Web page months ago. The county also started purchasing smaller vehicles.
One local agency hopes to benefit from the hike.
Charlotte Area Transit System, which runs the city's 250 buses and 70 van pools, expects fuel costs to increase by nearly a third next year. But officials anticipate an increase in ridership will offset the costs as prices at the pump convert car drivers to bus passengers.
Officials say they're already seeing ridership increasing. During the last nine months, the number of people riding in buses and van pools has increased 4.2 percent and calls to the information line have jumped 43 percent. This week, CATS ran out of printed schedules.
"It's rare that we get that much interest," said Olaf Kinard, communication manager for CATS. "As gas prices affect pocketbooks, we're seeing increased interest. We are about the only agency in the community who has the ability to offset the cost of this fuel spike."
Keith Parker, chief operating officer of CATS, said: "For us, it could be an expense that's well worth it."
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Marion Callahan can be reached at (704) 868-7747 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
"The surge in fuel costs comes at a time when schools are already facing cuts because of a possible $125 million shortfall in state contributions."
-- Martin Thompson (email@example.com), May 19, 2001