The rapid rise in the cost of oil in recent weeks because of turmoil in the Middle East is adding to the financial burdens of already hard-pressed local school systems and governments, according to local officials.
The price of fuel to run police cars and public buses, heat schools and turn the wheels of local government in the Washington region has jumped by as much as 50 percent since the Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait shook world oil markets, a regional purchasing official said last week.
Counties, cities, school districts, and transportation and utility systems participating in the Metropolitan Washington Council of Government's cooperative fuel purchasing program are paying an average of 89 cents a gallon for fuels, said program coordinator Carl Kalish. Before the invasion, the average was about 58 cents a gallon, he said.
Officials throughout the region said the higher fuel costs are manageable, at least for the moment.
"It is creeping up, based on what is happening in the Middle East, and if it gets to be a shooting situation, it will go higher," said Thomas Newman, transportation supervisor for the Arlington school district.
None of those interviewed expected the higher bills to lead immediately to higher taxes or reduced services.
The District, the only major government in the region that does not participate in the COG purchase program, is paying about 30 percent more for fuel supplied by its contractors than it did before the invasion, according to Raymond Lambert, director of administrative services.
A spokesman for Lambert's department said that unleaded 87 octane gasoline costs the city $1.05 cents a gallon, compared with the Aug. 1 price of 74 cents, a 42 percent increase. The department did not respond to repeated requests for information about the prices that the city pays for diesel and heating oil.
Montgomery County Transportation Director Robert McGarry estimated that the cost for fuel to operate the county's buses, police cars and road maintenance vehicles will be about $72,000 more in September than budgeted. Over a full year, that would add more than $800,000 to county fuel costs.
"A big number," McGarry said, "but I don't think it is enough right now to break any county government."
Fuel is a major portion of any budget and it could be a problem, said Prince George's County Executive Parris N. Glendening. "What is most alarming," he said, "is that it could become a problem at a time when all state and local revenues are declining."
There is one ray of sunshine: So far, there are ample supplies of gasoline, diesel and heating oil.
The availability of those fuels has enabled schools, police, buses and other local services to operate as usual. Procurement officers, as a result, have kept their cool.
"You only find hysteria when the product is not available," Kalish said. "And there is product available."
That is in sharp contrast, he said, to last winter, when colder-than-usual weather set off a scramble for heating oil to keep schools warm and for diesel fuel to operate buses.
The short supplies at that time resulted in a "significant spike" in the price for heating oil and diesel, but those prices dropped back to normal in the spring and summer as demand lessened, Kalish said.
Established in 1982, after federal allocation rules were relaxed, the Council of Governments cooperative fuel purchasing program enables local governments to pool their purchasing power to obtain the best possible price, Kalish said.
Actual prices for COG members can vary, depending on whether they pick up the fuel from the supplier or have it delivered. But they typically pay far less than a motorist filling up at the pump. A gallon of 87 octane unleaded gasoline, excluding federal and state taxes, delivered by truck transport to a COG participant was 94.3 cents last week, compared with 65.76 cents on Aug. 1.
The diesel price for COG participants last week was 85.6 cents a gallon, compared with 50.5 cents on Aug. 1, Kalish said. Heating oil prices are 86.3 cents a gallon, compared with 57.3 cents a gallon on Aug. 1, he said.
Altogether, the COG members purchase about 60 million gallons of fuel each year.
One of the biggest users of the fuel is the Metro transit system, which annually buys about 17 million gallons of diesel, mainly for its fleet of buses.
Metro spokeswoman Beverly Silverberg said that the transit system budgeted $11.2 million for fuel for the fiscal year that began July 1. But if prices remain at their current levels, Metro will have to spend at least $3 million more than that, she said. Metro's operating budget is $625 million.
This spring, the D.C. Council voted to require the city to abandon its traditional contract arrangement for fuel and join COG, to take advantage of the savings.
In a March memo, council member Betty Ann Kane (D-At Large) estimated that the city could save about $2 million a year through the COG program. The memo said that gasoline cost an average of 15 percent less when purchased through COG.
But Lambert, the administrative services director, said the city's contract with Tri-Continental Petroleum runs to October 1991.
That means the city cannot join COG -- or realize any of the savings available through COG purchases -- for more than a year.