Officials struggle with high cost of gas

Officials struggle with high cost of gas

By JOHN BRANNON Messenger Staff Reporter Larry Parks characterized the soaring cost of diesel fuel as the hydra of Greek mythology. “It is a monster,” said Parks, director of transportation for the Obion County School System. Folklore has it that for each of the Hydra’s heads cut off, two grew back. Parks’ monster is neither myth nor make believe and the frustration factor is real, very real. He winces as he crunches numbers and prepares a budget for upcoming fiscal year 2008-09, which begins July 1. And he’s not alone. Other county officials calculate how much fuel they’ll need. They do the math, shake their heads and soberly submit their requests for funding to the Obion County Budget Committee. The budget committee is writing a new budget to submit to the Obion County Commission for an up or down vote in late July. Meanwhile, a continuing resolution approved by the commission May 19 allows county government to continue operating under the current budget until a new one is adopted. Parks’ plight The county school system has a fleet of 61 diesel-powered school buses to transport 3,900 students on 47 routes to and from six schools. There are also spare buses and other school functions such as field trips and athletic events. A school bus carrying 50 to 60 students gets 7.5 to 8 miles per gallon of diesel. In the last few years, Parks has seen the hydra grow head after head as diesel fuel costs escalate to new heights. With each increase, he’s had to adjust his budgets and operations accordingly. This year, he will ask for $365,000 to purchase diesel fuel for school year 2008-09. “I’m afraid that’s going to be way short,” he said. And it’s not over yet. He sees through a glass, darkly, knowing not where prices will peak. “If diesel fuel goes to $7 per gallon, we could be looking at a half million dollars,” he surmised. Parks provided this brief history of quantities and costs of diesel fuel purchased by the school system: • Fiscal year 2002-03. Purchased 89,228 gallons at a cost of $84,445. • Fiscal year 2004-05. Purchased 88,904 gallons at a cost of $135,073. • Fiscal year 2006-07. Purchased 94,765 gallons at a cost of $194,230. • Fiscal year 2007-08. Purchased 87,199 gallons at a cost of $251,077, as of May 15. Soaring fuel prices are not just a local phenomenon, Parks added, but “a monster that’s hitting everybody. After all, fossil fuel is the common denominator of modern and mobile societies. If this thing called a vehicle has wheels and an internal combustion engine, it requires petroleum products such as diesel fuel and gasoline. “We are going to convention in Pigeon Forge in June,” he said. “I know it’s going to be a big topic. I want to listen to what other school systems across the state are doing.” Parks said if fuel costs keep going up and up, something will have to be done to compensate for the hydra’s insatiable appetite for dollars. “We’ll have to decrease services or do without a lot of things we normally have,” he said. Obion County Director of Schools David Huss said his administration is studying bus routes very carefully to ensure each one is necessary. “If we find one or two routes that can be eliminated, we will eliminate them,” Huss said. Taxes Rogers Oil Co., Reynolds Brothers Oil Co. and the Obion County Co-op are the three local vendors who bid competitively each year to supply gasoline and diesel fuel to the Obion County School System. Allen Rogers of Rogers Oil Co. said he sells fuel to the school system tax-free. “It actually costs us money. We do it to try to help them out,” he said. As of 11 a.m. Tuesday, the pump price at Rogers’ facility in Union City was $3.88 for gasoline and $4.70 for diesel. Also at that time and date, a barrel of crude oil traded for $130.05, as compared to $66 a barrel a year ago. On the retail side, state and federal taxes are included in the “pump” price of gasoline and diesel fuel. The retail price of a gallon of gasoline includes 21.3 cents state tax and 18.4 cents federal tax. The retail price of a gallon of diesel includes 18.4 cents state tax and 24.4 cents federal tax. Highway Department Gary Lofton, superintendent of the Obion County Highway Department, said he buys diesel fuel “at a little over $4 a gallon” now and he is preparing his new budget to reflect $4.50 a gallon. “I don’t know that $4.50 a gallon will be enough, though,” he said. Lofton has a fleet of 20 vehicles, all diesel-powered except for a pickup truck, and a workforce of 30 personnel. His current budget includes $175,000 for diesel fuel purchases. Lofton said he’ll request $350,000 for diesel fuel in the new budget. He, too, has seen year after year of escalating fuel costs: • Fiscal year 2002-03. $87,591. • FY 2004-05. $131,918. • FY 2005-06. $169,733. • FY 2006-07. $158,549. (The department went to a four-day work week.) • FY 2007-08. Estimated to spend $209,000. “I never, ever expected it to go off the scale the way it has,” Lofton said. Sheriff’s Department Obion County Sheriff Jerry Vastbinder has a fleet of 29 vehicles — patrol cars, a prisoner transport van and a litter pick-up bus. There are alternate vehicles to use while others are being serviced, for whatever reason. The patrol cars are gasoline-powered. In his new budget, Vastbinder plans to request $135,000 for fuel purchases to support departmental operations during fiscal year 2008-09. The $135,000 is an increase over what he requested in June 2007. “We budgeted $102,375,” he said. “As of April 30, we had spent $83,993.” He, too, has had to cope with ever-increasing fuel prices. He provided this data gleaned from previous budget years: • Fiscal year 2003-04. $45,000. • FY 2004-05. $69,000. • FY 2005-06. $75,000. • FY 2006-07. $95,000. What will Vastbinder do if gasoline goes to $5 a gallon? He answers by saying what he will not do. “We are not going to stop patrolling. But on midnights when we have multiple cars running, we’ll pair up officers in patrol cars,” he said. “We’ll save some fuel that way.” The taxpayers expect the sheriff’s department to patrol, and that’s what it’s going to do, he added. “If we don’t patrol … well, let me say it this way,” he said. “One of our patrol cars did a traffic stop the other night. The people in the car had been out trying to steal some anhydrous (ammonia).” Thieves steal the chemical from farms to use in making methamphetamine, or “meth.” “They hadn’t stolen any yet, but they had tanks in the car,” Vastbinder said. “They fled the vehicle. We know who it was, and we’re still looking for them.” But get this, he added. “In the vehicle we found a UHF portable radio programmed exactly like the sheriff’s department radios. They were listening to us,” he said. Published in The Messenger 5.29.08

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