EFFICIENCY School districts, state agencies face fuel costs

For some entities, there are few options for cutting back on fuel use.
High gas prices have some school districts cutting extra outings on buses, and government agencies across the state are reconsidering whether employees should take home cars in an effort to conserve fuel.
The school year began about the same time the state's average gas price reached about $3 a gallon. Besides cutting back on field trips, districts that already are over budget aren't finding many other ways to increase transportation efficiency.
Districts are required to provide morning and afternoon busing, and many drivers already run dual routes, said Bill Zanders, superintendent of the St. Clairsville-Richland School District in eastern Ohio.
"That is going to be a tremendous drain on our budget," Zanders said of prices at the pump, which have far exceeded what the district expected when it budgeted fuel costs.
Stretched budgets are making it hard for cities and counties to absorb increasing gas costs.
"I can't think of anything we can do to conserve," said Jane Leaver, the mayor of Medina in Northeast Ohio, where the city spent $7,000 more on gas in July than it did in July 2004.
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Governments have few options for cutbacks to save costs. Unlike residents who may be able to change their transportation habits, agencies are expected to bus students, pick up garbage and patrol neighborhoods.
Agencies that buy in bulk usually get reduced prices, but they aren't immune to the increases consumers have seen at stations across the state.
Toledo Mayor Jack Ford said the city will ban its drivers from idling nondiesel vehicles when no one is in the car. Ford also said he will cut back on the city's fleet by 10 percent by the end of the year.
City departments also will closely monitor employee purchasing to try to prevent fuel theft and will have to justify the practices of letting some employees take city vehicles home.
Officials hope such measures will save Toledo $300,000 on the $2.8 million it expects to pay in fuel costs at current prices.
Canton also is scrutinizing the 30 vehicles employees take home. Budget Director Bill Allen said the city will likely go at least $350,000 over budget on fuel costs.
"We've got services to deliver through the police department, the fire department and the street department," said Robert Kellogg, city manager in northeast Ohio's Rittman.
"I don't see where there's much we can do to decrease it. I can't tell a firetruck not to respond to a fire. We've just got to find it. It's that simple."
Skyrocketing prices
With 11,589 vehicles in its fleet, the state spent $24.5 million on gas last year. With Hurricane Katrina pushing gas prices higher, the state could spend $41.4 million this year, said Ben Piscitelli, spokesman for the Department of Administrative Services.
But options are limited for reducing costs at the Ohio State Highway Patrol, Department of Transportation and Department of Natural Resources.
"We have to be out there," said patrol spokesman Sgt. Lance Shearer. "It would be much more costly to the state's residents if we weren't."
The higher gas prices also slowed traffic on the nation's highways over the Labor Day weekend. In Ohio, patrol Sgt. Michael Forshe in Zanesville said traffic was definitely down this weekend on Interstate 70, the main east-west artery through the central part of the state.
"I don't see it as the end-of-summer blowout like it used to be," Forshe said.

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