Every cent at the gas pump adds up. Rising fuel prices are costing the city of Lawrence an additional $100,000 this fiscal year.
While fuel consumption through the first five months of the year — 175,000 gallons — is similar to 2010 — 172,000 — the 65-cent-per-gallon fuel increase is taking a bigger bite out of the city budget.
To power its fleet of 573 vehicles, the city purchases fuel in bulk — about 7,000 gallons at a time. With the most recent fuel purchase of $26,000, the city has spent nearly $620,000 of the $1.8 million allotted in the 2011 budget for fuel — an increase from the $1.35 million budgeted in 2010.
“We’re watching fuel prices, of course, on a regular basis,” city fleet manager Steve Stewart said. “We try to watch the market closer and see if we can try to determine the best possible time to buy it.”
The city fleet includes a range of cars and trucks, which includes three gas-efficient Toyota Prius hybrids for environmental code enforcement and parking that get about 30 miles per gallon, to guzzlers like a rear-loading garbage truck that averages 3.2 miles per gallon.
The city’s ongoing effort to limit fuel use began in 2009 with the adoption of an official idle policy and continued with the addition of solar panels to some emergency vehicles last year.
The idle policy, which applies to all city employees and vehicles, is aimed at saving money and fuel by limiting the time vehicle engines are allowed to idle — specifically warming up or cooling down a cab in winter and summer months. The “30-second rule” encourages operators to turn off the engine if the idle time is expected to exceed 30 seconds.
Some departments have shown little change in fuel expenditures, while others have improved efficiency under the policy. For example, garbage trucks showed nearly identical statistics in 2008 and in 2010 after the policy’s implementation. Meanwhile, the police patrol division improved average miles per gallon in a standard Crown Victoria from 8.36 to 8.84, a 5.7 percent increase. It also trimmed average fuel cost per vehicle by about 7.6 percent.
“(The patrol commanders) changed patrol habits and tried to focus on where they could stop and write their reports in high visibility areas so that they didn’t have to run as many miles and use as much fuel,” Stewart said. “They did an excellent job of cutting the miles driven and the fuel uses, I thought, and still did an excellent job of protecting the public.”
The city uses GPS monitoring systems to check vehicles’ fuel-conserving practices and is currently observing idle time in trash collection vehicles, which consume about 200,000 gallons of fuel annually.
“The idea of the GPS is not only can we better tell where our people are at and how the job’s getting done, but we can look at ways to change the routes and make the operations more efficient, so this is going to be a long-term project,” Stewart said.
The solar panels utilized on two ambulances and one fire truck allows vehicle operators to shut down the engines in nonemergency situations. The trucks use solar-powered batteries for functions such as monitoring equipment and lights while on routine calls. The panels have no effect on emergency operations when vehicles are left running and fully functional.
The solar panel project is still in the pilot phase while city officials gather information about cost and energy efficiency before deciding whether to implement the technology on additional vehicles, Stewart said.
Each city department has its own estimated fuel budget, but for every department it’s a balance between saving money and properly serving the community.
“Our top priority is essential services,” city communications manager Megan Gilliland said. “We’re going to make sure our trash trucks can run; we’re going to make sure that police, fire, medical can get out and do what they need to do.”
City government will continue to test ways to curb fuel usage.
“It’s very simple steps that on a consumer level, a you-and-me level, we should think about those things when gas prices are going up and affecting us,” Gilliland said. “We (the city) think about the same things — just on a lot bigger scale.”
Miss the first story in our series about rising fuel prices? Check out some summer day trips that won't break the bank.