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Escalating Gasoline Costs Add Fuel to the Fire

Written by Arthur G. Sharp

The last thing an officer en route to a call needs is to run out of fuel on the way. That may not happen often, if at all, but with the dramatic increases in fuel prices nowadays, it is a distinct possibility. As the results of a recent author-conducted survey suggest, rising fuel costs are affecting law enforcement agencies’ (LEAs) budgets adversely, and many of them are imposing restrictions on their personnel as a result.

Thirty-six of the 50 LEAs invited to participate in the survey responded. (Other sources, such as newspaper articles, supplemented their responses.) Two-thirds of them reported that rising fuel costs are affecting their budgets adversely. Several others added the caveat “not yet.” However, only one-third of them have imposed or considered mandatory or voluntary restrictions of various types. Another 31% are considering doing so.

Some departments have a tiered approach to gasoline prices, like one rural sheriff’s department with take-home cars. When the retail price of gasoline reached $2.20, the personal use of the vehicle was changed from unlimited to one out-of-county trip per week. When the retail price reached $2.50 per gallon, out-of-county trips for personal use were eliminated, but in-county personal use continued. The big step came when the retail price exceeded $3.00 per gallon. Random and routine patrol and traffic enforcement was eliminated. The police cars were parked at the department and dispatched only for calls-for-service and service of court papers.

Other sample restrictions, actions being contemplated or implemented include: 1) We have considered a memo stating anytime they are sitting idle to please turn vehicle off. (Adams County, IL); 2) More foot and bike patrols. Team-up of officers when more than one officer is on. (American Falls, ID); 3) No “Sit and Talks” with engines running. When officers arrive on scene, they turn off the vehicles and lock them. Phone reports/handle calls by phone (Ballard County, KY).

Still other counter-measures include: 4) Limit use of gas cards to emergencies, with commander’s approval; stress use of agency tanks; and lower price per gallon when purchased by tanker load. (Indiana State Police); 5) Run double-officer units (Rome, GA); 6) Limit flight hours for helicopters (Omaha, NE); and 7) At this point the restrictions are voluntary. All staff have been asked to do what they can to eliminate unnecessary driving. (Nebraska State Patrol).

There is good reason for the Nebraska State Patrol to worry about fuel costs. The agency budgeted in 2005 for a bulk rate of $1.75 per gallon for fuel. As of mid-year, its price per gallon was up to $1.90. That increase, based on its average purchase of 666,000 gallons per year, can mean an additional $99,000 per year in fuel costs. (The agency purchases its fuel from the Nebraska Department of Roads.) That is a major hit to any budget. But, as the survey results demonstrate, the Nebraska State Patrol is by no means alone in experiencing hefty fuel cost increases—and the increases are not restricted to cars.

An article in the August 21, 2005, Omaha [NE] World-Herald reported that the price of “jet A” fuel, “the typical fuel used to power helicopters’ turbine engines,” rose from 90 cents per gallon in 2003 to the current $2.35. That has affected the use of the Omaha Police Department’s four helicopters, whose use has been limited. Other agencies, e.g., the Pasadena, CA, Police Department, which has three helicopters, have reported similar concerns about aviation fuel prices. No wonder LEA administrators at all levels are seeking innovative measures to cope with increasing fuel costs.

Chief of Police Dennis Veach, Carthage, MO, is trying to keep pace with rising fuel prices. “We have raised our fuel budget 10-15% the last two years in anticipation of rising prices,” he averred. “So far, we have been able to stay in budget without any adjustments.” There is no guarantee that the department can continue to do so, though, especially when natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 exacerbate the fuel cost situation. That explains in part why so many administrators are becoming more innovative in dealing with the effects on their fuel budgets.

Consider the case of the Baxter County, AR, Sheriff’s Department. Sheriff John Montgomery reported, “We, too, are feeling the effects of higher gasoline prices. We received the same dollars in our budget this year as last, even though that fuel line item went over budget last year by 20%. Gas prices are up even higher this year.” Yet, Montgomery is adjusting.

“We have changed our patrol procedure which, in effect, gives more coverage even though our deputies are driving fewer miles,” he noted. As he explained, “Being a Sheriff’s department, we have a lot of rural roads to patrol. The biggest complaint I have heard over the years is the lack of patrol in the rural areas. We have always divided the county up into areas for assignment for the patrol deputy, but beginning in January 2005, we divided the county up even more into zones.

“Instead of two halves, we now have seven zones. The officers are assigned two or three zones and are asked to stay in the zones unless an emergency exists.” That has helped save fuel, but the department has taken additional steps.

“Another area that has helped us conserve fuel is in the service of paper,” Montgomery continued. “Warrants and civil process papers are now assigned zones and are put in folders accordingly. Officers can take the papers that are in the zones to which they are assigned and serve many of them while out on patrol.” He noted that the results have been great.

“We now receive numerous compliments on our patrols, we are covering the rural areas more efficiently, and we are using less fuel,” he concluded. And, he observed, “An added benefit is that the deputies are now becoming even more familiar to the areas they are assigned.” Significantly, he stressed, “We have not, nor do we plan to, cut patrol services. I believe protection of our citizens is our number one priority.” He is not alone in expressing that priority—which remains uppermost in his counterparts’ minds as they strive to compensate for rising fuel costs by “buying smart.”

LEAs of all shapes and sizes have in place a variety of purchase plans for fuel. Some provide price fluctuation security on at least a limited basis. Other plans are subject to market prices. For example, only 29% of the respondents indicated that they have fixed fuel pricing for a certain period of time, as opposed to 65% who do not. (The remaining 6% was not sure.).

In a similar vein, only 22% of them use blanket orders to purchase their gasoline, compared to 72% who do not. (Again, the other 6% was not sure.) Some “piggyback” off other entities, while others purchase fuel through bid processes, although the figures are not particularly high in either case.

Fifty-nine percent of the respondents said that they piggyback off city, state, etc., government agencies to purchase their fuel, while 35% do not. Conversely, there was an even split regarding bidding processes. Forty-four percent of the respondents do employ some type of bidding process, e.g., annual bidding or local/state plan. An equal percentage does not. Those who do cited a variety of reasons for engaging in bidding. Those who don’t might want to look into it.

The most-often mentioned reason for bidding was that “it reduces the cost of gasoline.” In descending order of frequency, other reasons were “required by law to use bid process,” “guarantees a steady supply of gasoline,” and “easy process.” Bidding and piggybacking work well for some agencies, but they are not feasible in all cases, especially when their comparative sizes are taken into account.

Two factors to consider in bulk purchases are “cash on hand” and storage facilities. Even if some smaller departments could afford to buy fuel by the tanker load, they might not have the facilities to store it. An August 23, 2005, article in the Daily News of Los Angeles, CA, reported that, “None of the local agencies has storage tanks they can use to hold long-term gas reserves.” Larger departments are more likely to have the storage facilities to accommodate bulk deliveries, especially those that share fuel purchases. But, such arrangements merely defer escalating costs at times.

Look at Lakeland, FL, for example. The city generally has 7-10 days of fuel on hand. That comprises 15,000 gallons of unleaded gas and 15,000 gallons of diesel. City vehicles consume an average of 2,000 gallons of gasoline each day, half of which is used by police cars. In nearby Winter Haven, reserve tanks hold about 24,000 gallons of fuel, split evenly between unleaded and diesel. City vehicles use an average of about 4,000 gallons of fuel per week.

That concerns local administrators, who asked city employees in mid-2005, especially those in the police department, to stop running their vehicle engines, especially with the air conditioning on. They did so out of concern for fuel price and availability. Both issues and their potential effects on LEAs were highlighted in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Although the hurricane affected a limited area, it disrupted fuel supplies nationwide and sent prices spiraling. In Connecticut, for example, an 8,500-gallon load of fuel went from $21,000 to $27,000 within a matter of hours—and that was on a cash-only basis. Agencies that buy their fuel without fixed contracts or piggyback deals would be hard pressed to pay cash, even assuming they had the storage facilities for a tanker full. But, fuel prices fluctuate nowadays even without hurricanes—or even if LEAs have fixed contracts.

For instance, Forsyth County, GA has a contract with a fuel wholesaler. The county puts fuel out for bid. The state sets the price, however, through its Oil Price Information Service. That price changes weekly, which creates a problem not only for county administrators, but for LEA administrators in other jurisdictions, as evidenced by the high percentage of respondents who noted the adverse effects on their budgets.

According to a report in the August 31, 2005, Forsyth County News, the county purchased 33,660 gallons of fuel for all its vehicles in February 2005 at $1.65 per gallon, for a total of $55,539. By July, the price had gone up to $1.87 a gallon, which meant a difference of $7,239 in just five months on the same number of gallons. (The difference was actually considerably more, since the county purchased 40,834 gallons in July, at a cost of $76,360.)

Granted, that money did not come out of the sheriff’s pocket, since the county’s fuel purchases are used for its entire fleet of vehicles. But, fuel price increases for entire municipal fleets do result eventually in demands on LEA administrators to cut back on fuel use, if not service. That explains in part why some of them are taking proactive steps to compensate for rising fuel costs, without asking taxpayers for more money.

Some administrators have suggested that they can simply pass the fuel cost increases on to taxpayers to make the added expenditures transparent. However, that could turn into a public relations disaster for LEAs. That thought drives them to seek solutions that do not add more “fuel to the fire,” so to speak.

Sheriff Steven Kieliszewski, Alpena County, MI, has succeeded in that respect. “We have charge cards for deputies when they do out-of-county transports,” he explained. “The charge cards are adjusted to remove appropriate taxes.” He noted, “We also contract with [a company] that takes care of the appropriate taxes. If we pay [the company] within a certain time period after billing, they give us an additional reduction on the price per gallon. If we don’t pay it within that time period, then we are charged a higher rate. Either way, we are still paying less per gallon.” His agency has a couple advantages in that respect.

First, not all LEAs have the benefit of charge cards for their personnel. Second, many do not get tax breaks when they purchase fuel. Sixty-one percent of the respondents noted their personnel use gas cards at local retailers to purchase gasoline. Of those who do, two-thirds of them have their charges adjusted to remove the appropriate taxes. Some agencies—albeit only 12%—allow their personnel to use their personal gas cards to purchase fuel and then reimburse them. Local police departments generally do not need such arrangements, but others that cover more widespread territories might.

For example, the South Dakota Highway Patrol purchases gasoline at both retail establishments and at state DOT maintenance shops. There might be times in such situations where officers have no choice but to use personal or agency-provided charge cards. Nowadays, such arrangements are subject to much closer scrutiny than they might have been before fuel prices started rising dramatically, and individual agencies are placing more emphasis on ways to control the increases.

Some are considering switching from Ford Crown Victorias, which get about 13 miles a gallon, to Chevrolet Impalas, which get about 18 miles per gallon. Others are looking at four-cylinder or hybrid cars or new policies regarding take-home vehicles—or a combination thereof.

Police Chief Kim C. Dine, Frederick, MD, is looking at multiple solutions. Dine noted that the department shares contracts with other government users, e.g., public school systems, state highway department, and/or other state/county/city agencies. The gas is purchased by the tanker load by the city purchasing department.

And, Dine said, “The agency is also in the process of reviewing ‘take-home’ policies and other measures.” For example, “If take-home vehicles are used, [we might] charge employees for vehicle commuting expenses. “Another possibility is to purchase 4-cylinder vehicles for in-city administrative use.” Four-cylinder or hybrid cars are becoming more popular choices for LEAs.

Several police departments in Florida have purchased hybrid cars recently, primarily for administrative purposes. Boca Raton bought four Toyota Priuses in January 2005 for police administrators’ use. The Martin County Sheriff’s Department has a combination of 23 Toyota and Honda hybrids in its fleet. Administrators have no illusions about their limitations as patrol vehicles, however. As Martin County Sheriff Robert Crowder told a reporter for the Little Rock, AR, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (5/16/2005), “They are real cars. They are not golf carts.”

He emphasized to the reporter that the Ford Crown Vics will still be used for most police work, while the hybrids will be used for light patrols, parking enforcement and special investigative assignments. More importantly, he said, in some cases the hybrids have reduced gas consumption by 60% in the first year of purchase.

To be sure, the list of controls is growing as LEA administrators seek innovative ways to control fuel costs. None of the methods by itself is sufficient to resolve the problem. All of them have advantages and disadvantages. LEA administrators simply have to choose which ones will work best for their agencies. The ideas in this article will provide them with fuel for thought—which is the first step in applying workable solutions to an escalating problem.

Arthur Sharp is a professional writer, educator and frequent contributor. He may be reached via e-mail at sharp_arthur_g@sbcglobal.net.

Photos by Christy Whitehead and Missouri State Highway Patrol.

Published in Law and Order, Apr 2006

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