Governments look for ways to cut energy
By Angela Couloumbis, Matt Katz and Nick Pipitone
Inquirer Staff Writers
By the end of this month, the government in Gloucester Township in New Jersey will turn out the lights on Fridays - literally.
And in Berks County, Pa., a number of office cubicles could soon go dark one day a week.
All across the country, municipal and state governments are scrambling for solutions to their ballooning energy bills, and are considering everything from changing to energy-efficient lightbulbs to cutting the traditional five-day workweek.
As early as tomorrow, Berks County commissioners could consider whether to put some departments on a four-day workweek, following the lead of several local governments across the nation that have done so to save commuters and taxpayers money.
Gloucester Township will soon join those ranks, although grudgingly.
Facing steep cuts in state aid, Mayor Cindy Rau-Hatton said the township would cut energy and other costs by shutting its municipal offices on Fridays beginning June 30. The exceptions: the police force, which will operate as normal, and a senior citizen center and the gym at a recreation center, which will also remain open on Fridays.
"We have big budget problems," Rau-Hatton said. "This is going to be permanent. I don't foresee the governor giving us millions of dollars back, so we have to find new ways of doing things."
During the gas crisis of the 1970s, the township also went to a four-day schedule. It stayed that way until 1994.
Proponents of the four-day workweek say it helps reduce heating expenses and saves workers money on commuting.
The idea has caught on nationwide: counties in South Carolina and Michigan offer shortened weeks for some workers, as do state agencies in Florida, Kentucky and Oklahoma.
Other states, including New Mexico, are considering the four-day week.
But critics counter that the shortened workweek could end up reducing worker productivity and ultimately thwart the ideal of government's being easily accessible to the public.
"I am not enamored of the four-day" workweek, said Gov. Rendell, who outlined a different series of measures yesterday to trim state energy bills. "I think you have a significant loss in productivity."
He wants to increase the state's purchase of so-called green energy, such as solar, wind and biomass; raise office thermostats over the summer; convert from manual switches to sensor lighting in certain Capitol offices; and switch from incandescent to fluorescent lighting as bulbs burn out.
And although Rendell will not yet switch to a hybrid vehicle - he is driven around in a 2008 Cadillac DTS sedan - he hopes to increase the state's hybrid fleet so other state employees can do so.
The governor acknowledged that some of his plans would cost more in the short run - such as replacing incandescent bulbs - but believed they would cut expenses over the long haul.
Though shortening the workweek could reduce energy bills faster, it is not an option Rendell is considering for the state. He prefers carpooling as a more immediate solution.
Rau-Hatton, Gloucester Township's mayor, expects there will be a 15 percent to 20 percent saving in electric, water and gas costs at the township building, amounting to as much as $35,000 a year.
In addition, with diesel fuel up 80 percent from last year, she believes the township will reduce costs by not operating vehicles and machinery one day a week.
As for Rau-Hatton, she said she may still work on Fridays to get paperwork done. But with two big windows in her office, she might not have to turn on the lights.
"When not in use, turn off the juice," she said.
In Berks County, it was unclear yesterday how much money a shortened workweek would save.
Commissioners there are considering a voluntary, short-term program involving a flexible schedule for workers of four days at 10 hours per day.
As many as 500 employees would be eligible, but all emergency services workers and employees in the county court system would be exempt.
"I think the idea is not one size fits all, but would have to be looked at department by department," Berks County Solicitor Alan Miller said.
Miller said a shortened workweek was also a morale booster because it would give employees flexible hours and the enticing possibility of a three-day weekend.
Saving money on gas would also help morale, although Miller said it was not the driving factor behind the county's decision to consider a four-day workweek.
Tim Boyde, county administrator for Centre County, Pa., said he didn't understand why local governments were only now moving to try four-day workweeks.
"It's been around a long time in the private sector," he said.
On Monday, the county launched a trial run of a four-day week in its commissioners office.
And so far, Boyde said, "it's working fine."