They say that what goes up must come down. Although oil prices have fallen since the summer surge, communities are constantly looking for ways to fuel their fleets without breaking the budget. After all, petroleum prices not only impact the cost of gas at the pump, but also the products used resurface roads: Both must be carefully considered by municipalities.
“There is no real magic for anticipating fuel prices,” said Centerville, Ohio, City Manager Wayne Davis. “When we put our budget together for 2022, we anticipated that there would be a price increase, but we weren’t counting on $5 a gallon. I think we assumed it would be $4 a gallon, and then we rode out the wave.”
The trick, for local governments, is to manage the cost of fueling a fleet without sacrificing services. According to Taylor Gronau, assistant city administrator for the city of Buffalo, Minn., not only do communities shop around for the best possible fuel price, but they also ask employees to take a wide range of steps to help make the most of their fuel consumption.
“It’s difficult to adjust to higher-than-expected fuel prices because most of the travel is necessary to provide services. So, we do end up prioritizing fuel, which leads to budget adjustments and delayed purchases,” he said.
In addition to buying and using the most fuel-efficient vehicles and equipment as possible for the required trip or job, Gronau also encourages city employees to reduce the amount of weight they carry, avoid extended idling and warm-up periods, anticipate traffic conditions and have the tire pressure checked regularly to conserve fuel.
However, these efforts hardly offset the pain at the pump when gas prices hit historic highs. Buffalo is projecting it will exceed its $199,000 fuel budget for the year.
“Budget-wise, our 2023 preliminary fuel budget is $299,000, or $100,000 higher than 2022,” he said. “That amounts to about a 1% tax levy increase just on that one item alone, never mind the other price increases we’re seeing and have to budget for. This puts significant pressure on decisionmakers to cut costs everywhere.”
Big investments to beat big oil
Experts say one of the best ways to beat the rise in oil and gas prices is to invest in electric and hybrid vehicles/equipment. Davis said there are hidden costs to that option as well.
Centerville has 80 city vehicles on the road and a $300,000 fuel budget for the year. While the city certainly looks to more energy efficient vehicles when it has the opportunity to buy one, no community has the funds it would take to convert an entire fleet at once. There is also the issue of charging and storing them.
“One of the challenges with electricity is that it has to be produced too, and there is a substantial cost to that. The vehicles are more expensive than the traditional gas-powered ones too and we would have to build new buildings in which to store them,” he said. “Make no mistake, we are not opposed to it, and we will continue to look into it. But the market has not caught up with it yet, and no one will convince me that we have enough electricity on the grid to do it.”
In the meantime, Davis looks for ways to cut costs and stretch every dollar a little further. He uses route assessment software and platforms to help plan the most efficient routes for waste management collection. He realizes that after a couple of unpredictable years, city leaders have to be able to adjust on the fly and deal with each fluctuation as it comes.
“You have to constantly focus on value and realize that these things will continue to happen,” he said. “You have to anticipate that coming out of a pandemic, we’re not going to be in the same world as we were before. There are so many things that don’t seem normal anymore, including fuel prices, so you have to be proactive and communicate with your constituents so that they can adjust as well.”
Tips for making your gas go further
Gronau said if a community budgets conservatively, high fuel prices won’t force big changes in the budget or delays in purchasing supplies and equipment. He also suggests staff take the following steps to conserve fuel on the road:
- Reduce the amount of weight carried and, if possible, eliminate items that create drag or wind resistance.
- Avoid extended idling and warm-up periods.
- Start up the vehicle and proceed to the work assignment as soon as the vehicle is drivable.
- Always drive at a moderate speed and accelerate as though an egg is between your foot and the fuel pedal.
- Do not increase engine speed or “rev up” prior to shutting an engine off. It wastes fuel and increases engine wear.
- Anticipate traffic conditions, signals and slowdowns while driving at a consistent speed.
- Have the tire pressure checked regularly, at least once a month. A low tire can increase fuel consumption by as much as 10%.
- Brake early and slowly to maximize fuel economy.
- Use air conditioning sparingly in stop-and-go traffic. At steady freeway speeds, however, it may be better to use the air conditioner than to drive with your windows down, which increases wind resistance.
- Rideshare to meetings or walk whenever possible.
- If you have several stops to make, plan carefully. It’s best to start the engine while it’s still hot.