Cause for Crime and Cutbacks
Police, Agencies Modify Budgets To Keep Pace With Gas Prices
Sunday, July 6, 2008; Page C01
Virginia State Police officials estimated that they would spend $2.9 million on gasoline for troopers to drive 2.4 million miles in the past year. The actual bill: more than $6 million.
In response to soaring gas prices, many motorists are driving less. Some agencies, including police and fire departments, do not have that option.
"If there's a call for service, departments are going to go," said Dana Schrad, executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police. "The consumption of gas for some agencies has been a tremendous burden. When you look at the larger agencies, we're looking at thousands and thousands of dollars per month that is just not in the budget."
To help make up the difference, state police are making cuts, including postponing recruit training, curbing travel and eliminating voicemail for some employees. Other law-enforcement agencies are cutting back on the idling of cars, trading in sport-utility vehicles for hybrids and allowing employees to attend meetings through video conferencing.
Governments and school boards across the Washington region, facing millions of dollars in budget cuts because of the economy, are also struggling from the spike in gas prices. Rising costs of many products, including food, drugs, asphalt and ammunition, have agencies scrambling to feed prisoners, cool schools and supply bullets for guns.
"It costs more to do everything," said Barry Green, Virginia deputy secretary of public safety. "You have to cut somewhere."
In Maryland and the District, agencies are also spending millions of dollars more on gas, although the impact appears to be less than in Virginia.
Maryland State Police spent $1 million more this year than last year but stayed within budget by conserving fuel in several ways, including restricting off-duty car use and transferring employees to offices closer to their homes.
David A. Treasure, executive director of the Maryland Department of Budget and Management, said he has not heard much complaining from state agencies.
The state had budgeted $46.7 million to fuel cars, buses and boats this year. By May, a month before the fiscal year ended, the state had spent $42.6 million because agencies had cut back on driving, a savings so far of about $200,000.
The District budgeted $12 million for gas for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30 but has revised the estimate to $16.6 million. William Singer, chief of budget execution, said the city used money that was saved this year because the police department did not move its headquarters.
"When the prices exploded, it wasn't as bad as it could have been," Singer said.
In Virginia and elsewhere, police, schools and transportation departments are among the hardest hit, along with other agencies whose work includes patrols, including the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. Governments can save money by buying fuel in bulk, which offers a discount as much as $1 a gallon, but even bulk costs are rising quickly.
"It's an issue across the nation," said Arturo Perez, a fiscal analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver. "Agencies are being told to deal with it and address it within their existing budgets."
Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) said higher prices are hurting the state because of increased business costs and reduced gas taxes as people cut back on driving. Kaine said that could mean a greater deficit than the $2 billion predicted through 2010 and lead to more cuts at state agencies, local governments, schools and colleges.
In the months before gas reached $4 a gallon, Kaine and the General Assembly agreed to give state police an additional $2.4 million to cover fuel costs. In recent weeks, Kaine's Cabinet has discussed the increasing statewide problem.
"It's put a dent in things," said Gregory A. Whirley, chief deputy commissioner at the Virginia Department of Transportation. "When fuel starts going up and the budget gets tighter, you can't spend what you don't have."
The transportation department spent $2.5 million on diesel fuel in May, more than $1 million from a year earlier. The department has frozen hiring, decreased travel and training and postponed some equipment maintenance.
In Fairfax County, officials spent $5.2 million on gas in the fiscal year that ended June 2007. The county spent $7 million this year and expects to spend $8.7 million next year.
In recent years, the county has bought about 100 hybrid cars. Fairfax police have about 13 hybrids, and Arlington County police have 10.
"We believe that gas prices are never going to go back down significantly, so we need to make it a long-term priority, not just quick-fix kind of thinking," said Mary Ann Jennings, a Fairfax police spokeswoman.
Staff writer Tom Jackman contributed to this report.