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Fuel price hikes impact schools and government

Sky-rocketing fuel costs are pinching local school and government budgets, forcing adjustments in future spending and services.

"This is impacting us heavily. We have seen a large jump in fuel prices," Snoqualmie School District Transportation Supervisor Jim Garhart said.

Garhart has been the transportation supervisor in the Valley for about five years. He said the school district is in the process of changing equipment to save fuel, but the recent price hikes have come too soon to see a benefit just yet. The school will have three new buses arriving this summer. These are upgraded, cleaner burning fuel efficient buses, which were paid for with funds from the 2002 school levy.

The school purchases its fuel through the state wholesale bidding process, which saves money because the school can benefit from bulk discount rates.

In addition, the school is exempt from federal fuel taxes. For regular unleaded gas, the federal tax is 18 cents per gallon. For diesel fuel, the federal tax is about 24 cents per gallon, a significant savings.

Still, Garhart said the price goes up for the school just like it does at the commercial pumps.

"We buy between 8,000 and 10,000 gallons of fuel every three weeks. Currently, we pay about $2.84 per gallon for regular unleaded and $2.57 per gallon for diesel," Garhart said.

Eventually, Garhart will be replacing the entire fleet of school buses with more fuel efficient and cleaner burning diesel engines.

Garhart said the school district hasn't had to cut services this year. Next year, his plans may change.

"We will take a look at more efficient bus routes around our district for next year. We incurred costs we didn't count on," Garhart said.

By taking into consideration the ridership and the fuel price increases, state leaders decided to fund some of the increased costs for schools, but Garhart doesn't know if this is enough.

While school officials scramble to make budget adjustments, the city and county governments are experiencing the same problem.

In one case, the school district and the city of Snoqualmie work together to lower fuel costs.

For the last two years, the city and the school district have had an interlocal purchase agreement to buy fuel through the same source.

"It's a win-win situation for the school and city," Snoqualmie City Clerk Jodi Warren said. She explained that the city and the school district benefit from the lower costs by buying higher volumes at wholesale prices.

According to Warren, the city is paying $3.08 per gallon on regular unleaded gas and $2.59 for diesel.

"The staff is very conscious of the rising fuel costs and how it affects each of our [departments'] budgets," Warren said.

As far as the day-to-day operations of the city, nothing significant has changed. According to Snoqualmie police officials, they have not changed patrol patterns and do not plan to slow policing activities.

To save fuel costs and to comply with the Commute Trip Reduction Act, the city participates in practicing environmentally sound fuel consumption activities such as car pooling, commuting by bus and working flex hours to reduce the number of commute trips. A quarterly report is submitted to the state via the county.

The city of North Bend is also taking steps to shave down fuel costs. The city has just signed an agreement with Pacific Pride, a retail fuel company that offers fuel at about 10 cents below the cost of other retail outlets.

"With the 10-cent discount and the federal tax exemption, we will pay substantially less than regular retail prices," said North Bend Finance Director Elena Montgomery.

Despite the cost-saving efforts, North Bend City Council Member Jonathan Rosen stated that he thinks he knows when and where the city will be affected first.

"I have a feeling we will start to see it soon. Bills are two months out. Road pavement project costs will rise the most because there is so much petroleum in the paving materials," Rosen said.

Co-council member Chris Garcia agreed with Rosen and added, "It effects any construction the city has for bid."

At the county level, officials said they, too, have seen a substantial jump in fuel costs.

Karen Fitzthum, procurement supervisor for King County, said that the transit and solid waste budgets are being impacted the most.

"In April 2005, we were paying about $1.79 per gallon for diesel fuel. In April 2006, we paid $2.46; up 70 cents in 12 months," she said.

Like the school district, the county pays wholesale prices for fuel.

Though the fuel price hikes are causing budget adjustments this year, many community leaders say that next year may reflect the increased fuel costs more.

"We are actually starting our budget process for 2007. Fuel costs will be a factor in each of the departmental budgets. It will be up to each department to project costs," Warren said.

Garhart said school bus services will remain, but the district may have to factor in fuel costs for the next school levy.

King County Sheriff's Public Relations Officer John Urquhart said there will be no changes in police activities.

"People do not want to see our patrol cars parked. They want us out in the community doing our job," Urquhart said.

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