County feels sting of rising fuel costs

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By Gabriel Vasquez

Several county departments are feeling the squeeze as fuel costs continue to rise around the nation.

With no relief in sight, temporary changes are quickly becoming policy.

“We’ve gotten down to minimal trips at this point,” said public works director Kyle Zimmerman. “We’re doing a lot more carpooling.”

At Los Alamos Public Schools, bus drivers are undergoing training to improve their driving habits, with the aid of maintenance software that individually graphs and reports their driving patterns.

LAPS anticipates increasing the fuel allotment for buses once school is back in session, which includes funding for 21 daily routes and five activity buses.

“Being that it’s summer, we haven’t encountered the real spike,” said LAPS school bus director Geoff Rodgers. “I do know that there is not enough money for current prices for next year. That’s depending on how high gas prices go, which is anybody’s guess.”

He added that additional funds from the schools alone may not be enough, and that money may have to come from other programs, or even worse, by a reduction in service.

In Moriarty and Edgewood, the company that has handled school bus transportation for more than 20 years has grounded its entire fleet, citing the high price of diesel fuel as the main cause. School officials there are scrambling to come up with a solution before school resumes in August.

In Los Alamos, school buses now come equipped with Mercedez-Benz diesel engines, which Rodgers said are significantly more fuel-efficient. The engines were acquired last year in anticipation of the rising energy costs.

At the fire department, fuel usage is peaking, as fires increase from the extremely dry conditions the county is experiencing.

“Right now is a very busy time for us,” said Deputy Fire Chief Doug Tucker. “Emergency runs do affect the amount of fuel we use. We send only the appropriate amount of equipment. Everything we do is with taxpayers’ money, so we really try to guard that and protect it the best we can.”

Tucker said his department has reduced the number of people required to attend meetings, and encourages others to stay at the office and join in via teleconference. He said that although the LAFD is looking into purchasing non-emergency alternative-fuel vehicles, there are no options yet to purchase industrial or emergency hybrid vehicles.

“I do not know of any fire department that is using a hybrid-type emergency vehicle,” he said. “But as we order new ambulances and staff vehicles, we will work at finding some that are more fuel-efficient.”

The county’s fleet division is also seeking additional gas money. A request for a budget revision to accommodate for rising fuel prices will be presented at Tuesday’s council meeting.

“We have put in some conservation tips in our local county connection on how to conserve fuel, such as consolidating trips,” said fleet division manager Marina Wells. “When several gentlemen are going to the same work-site, we encourage them to use as few vehicles as possible – and no idling of vehicles.”

She added that many county administrators have also begun using the public transit system when attending meetings or traveling across town.

“The cost [of fuel] is obviously affecting everyone’s budget,” said Wayne Kohlrust, the county’s internal services division manager. “Sooner or later, you’ll wind up having to make some very tough decisions as far as service decrease, and I don’t think anyone wants to go there.”

Kohlrust said that although there has been a recent surge in the development of alternative fuels, the reality of effectively implementing that technology locally is much harder than it seems.

“It’s making all the news and headlines,” he said. “But actually getting (alternative fuel) here is the issue. There’s really nobody in the Española or Santa Fe Area providing it.”

He added that currently the Pueblo of Nambé has been “kicking around” the idea of becoming a bio-diesel provider, a non-petroleum based diesel fuel made by the transesterification of vegetable oil. If that happens, the county may look into using the new fuel in some of its industrial vehicles, he said.

“As technology improves, driven by high gas prices, we may see some new advances, but not right now,” Kohlrust said.

Chevrolet has also just released a hybrid version of its Tahoe, a full-size SUV commonly used by county departments. The Los Alamos Police Department in particular may soon be getting some of these new hybrids, which Green Car Journal has called “The Green Car of the Year.”

Thus far, no patrol routes or decreases in service have been made at the LAPD as a result of rising gas costs.

Despite the current spike, Wells said if trends stay true, gas prices should drop in a couple of months.

“We usually see prices dip after Labor Day,” she said. “Although this year they did peak a little higher than we had calculated, we plan to see them go down.”