S.J. towns reel from pinch at the pump

By LISA GRZYBOSKI and BRIDGET SMITH Courier-Post Staff June 29, 2008

That giant sucking sound heard at gas pumps throughout the South Jersey region isn't coming only from the wallets of ordinary motorists reeling from average gasoline prices of $3.98 a gallon.

It's also coming from the coffers of area municipalities, county governments and school districts.

"I don't know that anybody could predict how far these prices were going to climb," said Bob Cummings, Pennsauken's business administrator.

Right now, the township is continuing to provide vehicle-dependent services such as police patrol, leaf collection and snow removal that residents need, he said.

"We can't see eliminating that. But who knows what changes might be completely forced on upon us if gas prices continue to skyrocket," Cummings said.

Explained Cherry Hill spokesman Dan Keashen: "We are, just like households, experiencing the burden and new reality of fuel costs."

Such sticker shock has forced government entities around the state to reevaluate how they operate, said William Dressel, executive director of the New Jersey League of Municipalities. While the fuel increases are beyond local governments' control, it is their responsibility to find the best ways to manage the pain at the pump, he said.

"They can try to aggregate and get into cooperative purchasing to reduce the cost by buying in bulk. They can plan more efficient routes. They can rethink how they use their vehicles and what vehicles they purchase," Dressel said.

The Trenton-based group suggests towns and cities prohibit their employees from idling work vehicles, encourage car-pooling wherever possible, consider doing inspections every other day, and answer nonemergency phone calls from homeowners on an as needed basis.

Creative solutions

Governments in South Jersey are attempting to do all of the above because the alternative -- inaction isn't an option.

For example, Gloucester County has already used more than half of the $625,000 it budgeted in 2008 for fuel costs and predicts it will finish the year with an overexpenditure, said Chad Bruner, the county administrator. Gloucester Township had such an overexpenditure in the fiscal budget year that ends June 30 and was recently forced to transfer $250,000 into the fuel account from other line items, said Mayor Cindy Rau-Hatton.

The township hopes its decision to move to a four-day workweek, which starts on June 30, puts a dent in the fuel costs, she said.

In fiscal year 2007, Cherry Hill budgeted $550,000 for gasoline and diesel fuel, Keashen said. This fiscal year, it's up to $650,000.

Cherry Hill has 376 motorized vehicles and machines -- 120 of them police cars -- that are used on a consistent basis. The township really can't reduce their use because they're needed for important services such as police patrols, road repairs and park maintenance, Keashen said.

For years, the township has participated in a cooperative fuel agreement with the state to help keep costs down. Other government entities such as Mount Laurel and Camden County have joined in as well. In recent weeks, the state cooperative price has hovered around $3.53 per gallon, said Keashen, who noted there's a 5- to 6-cent markup that covers transportation-related costs. Other officials also explained government agencies are exempt from certain taxes such as sales levies.

While the price is lower than what people pay at gas stations, it's still a substantial cost, he said.

For that reason, Cherry Hill is looking for creative ways to deal with the situation, Keashen said.

It's considering replacing some of the senior citizen transportation program's buses with smaller vans and changing some of the routes to make more efficient use of time and bus seats. Also, the township's public works department installed global positioning systems in its vehicles so employees can chart out driving routes that will use the least amount of fuel.

Cherry Hill has two public works employees and 17 police officers who are allowed to take township-owned vehicles home with them because they're on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week and may need to quickly respond to an emergency, Keashen said. They're only allowed to use them for township business, he said. Mayor Bernie Platt is currently reviewing that arrangement because of how high fuel costs are.

Until about two months ago, police officers in Washington Township were allowed to take their vehicles home at night and use them to run personal errands, said Jack Lipsett, the business administrator. Now, though, they're expected to use the cars only for their commutes to and from work.

"We're being more aware when it comes to using municipal vehicles in general," said Lipsett, explaining Washington Township's fuel budget jumped more than $100,000 in 2008 to about $500,000.

This year, Evesham started asking police officers who take their work vehicles home to reimburse the township the gas money it costs to drive to and from work, said Tom Czerniecki, the township manager. The goal is to recoup between $6,000 and $7,000, he said.

But that's small potatoes compared to what Evesham could save if it had its own gasoline fueling station because then it could buy gasoline from a wholesaler under a cooperative purchasing agreement with either the state or county, Czerniecki said. Right now, the township has a competitively bid contract with a Lukoil gas station on Route 70 in Medford where it receives a discount for the more than 200 vehicles in its fleet. Township officials are currently talking with the Evesham Municipal Utilities Authority about sharing the MUA's gasoline fueling station, Czerniecki said. Towns such as Mount Laurel that have their own fueling stations are quite literally locking them down to prevent people from opening the storage tanks to steal gasoline and diesel fuel. Like other government entities, Mount Laurel is also closely monitoring work vehicles' mileage reports and fuel fill-ups to make sure the vehicles are being used appropriately, said township administrator Debbie Fourre.

Evesham, Cherry Hill, Deptford and other governments in the region are looking at hybrid and fuel efficient vehicles.

Camden County won't purchase a vehicle that doesn't get at least 30 miles per gallon, said Ross Angilella, the county administrator. It's trying to replace as many of the sport utility vehicles, or SUVs, in its fleet with economy-sized, four-door sedans, he said.

Burlington County bought two hybrid vehicles for the parks division in October 2006 and has since ordered two more, said county spokesman David Wyche. Officials will monitor the vehicles to see how they hold up and what kind of fuel savings materialize before the county decides if it wants to purchase more of the cars, Wyche said.

Cherry Hill right now has 30 police vehicles that are able to accept E85, a fuel that's mostly ethanol and about 16 percent cheaper than regular gasoline, Keashen said. The problem is there are currently no E85 fueling stations in New Jersey and township mechanics have found vehicles that use the fuel have a 10 percent loss in engine efficiency, he stated.

Cuts to cover costs

Unlike Cherry Hill Township, the Cherry Hill school district outsources most of its vehicle services -- think school buses -- which helps cushion the blow of rising costs, said Susan Bastnagel, a district spokeswoman.

"Our costs are fixed, and to some extent, it's the bus companies that are more affected," she said.

But, she added, that doesn't mean Cherry Hill is immune to the financial crunch.

"Growth in transit costs has been an issue for the district for a while, a long time," Bastnagel said.

From 2007-08 to 2008-09, the district's transportation budget skyrocketed by just under $1 million, to $11 million. Bastnagel couldn't say exactly how much of that increase could be attributed to fuel costs.

A surplus from the 2006-07 budget offset the increase, but Bastnagel said officials worry about what could happen next year, when that surplus isn't there.

One item that could see the chopping block is the district's hazardous courtesy bus service, Bastnagel said.

The state requires that buses be provided for students who live a certain distance away from their school. Cherry Hill currently extends that service to students who live closer than the state's limit, but who have to cross major roads to get to school.

In a worst-case scenario, the district could turn to subscription service for those routes, Bastnagel said.

"I'm not saying that might come out for the immediate future," she said. "But looking over the long term, I think it's a possibility."

Deptford had to shift money away from certain departments to keep its fuel account in the black this year, said Denise Rose, the township's administrator.

That means a number of positions that are currently vacant will stay that way, at least for the forseeable future.

"Costs have kept pace with what everybody else is paying at the fuel pump," she said.

Evesham has already cut back on mowing its open space areas, said Czerniecki, the township's business administrator. It may be forced to do the same for road maintenance. Costs for asphalt, a byproduct of the oil refining process, have significantly increased, which means municipalities and counties may not be able to do as many road overlays, he said.

"That's really a big dilemma for towns because if you don't do regular road overlays, then you risk real damage to the road and having to reengineer a road is extremely expensive," Czerniecki said.

Reach Lisa Grzyboski at (856) 486-2931 or lgrzyboski@courierpostonline.com

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