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Fuel prices soar, straining counties, schools

April 16, 2008
Almost everyone has begun to feel the sting of higher fuel prices, not only at the gas pump, but at the grocery stores and other businesses that depend on trucks, trains and towboats, most of which use diesel fuel, to deliver their products. The price of diesel fuel has increased even more than gasoline and is already over $4 a gallon in most areas.

But there's also many services which are not as prominent but just as important that are also feeling the crunch.

"We're spending between $2,000 to $3,000 a month more for fuel this year than we spent last year," Crawford County Highway Superintendent Lee Holzbog said. "Of course, it's been a busy month with the flood and snow that we've had, but we've spent over $4,000 in March on fuel alone."

The county uses off-road fuel, which is taxed less, in the graders and tractors, but is not allowed to use it in their trucks. The off-road fuel contains a dye that stays in a fuel tank and can be checked by state authorities to prevent illegal use in trucks.

"Another cost that has to be considered is lube and hydraulic oil," Holzbog said. "Every time we buy a drum of lube oil now, we're paying more for it. The same for hydraulic oil. We only get about six oil changes out of a drum of oil, so it doesn't last long. And a lot of our equipment is still under warranty, and we have to use the oil that is recommended or it voids the warranty. Once the warranty runs out, we may be able to use a less expensive oil. But let's face it, when the price of crude oil goes up, our expenses go up, also."

Harrison County Highway Superintendent Glenn Bube agreed with Holzbog.

"We had to request more from riverboat funds last year," Bube said. "We have more equipment on the road, and we only have about a half year's fuel money in our budget. Actually, we have $200,000 for fuel in our budget, and we've already used over $125,000 so far this year. So, we're going to have to go back to the (county) council to ask for more. There's also been some cuts in funding from the state. We try to conserve as much as we can, but if we have a drop in services, we hear about it — real quick."

The Crawford County Sheriff's Dept. has also seen a significant increase in expenses due to the fuel prices.

"We have $20,000 in our budget for fuel," office manager Russ Beals said, "but that's not going to be near enough. In February, we spent $3,148 for fuel. In March, that was up to $3,634. That's almost a $500 increase in one month. We've already spent $13,500 out of the $20,000 budget. The way it looks right now, we only have enough in our budget to last us until June. After that, I don't know what we'll do."

School corporations are also feeling the fuel price increases. Some of the school buses are owned by the corporations, but many of the buses are owned and operated by contract drivers.

"We take a reading every 45 days," said Mike Key, transportation director of the Crawford County Community School Corp. "We took one at the end of the first semester and another one on March 6. We'll also take one at the end of the school year.

"We have an escalation clause in the contract with our drivers, and we'll issue them a lump sum check for the difference in fuel cost.

"The buses get about 8 miles per gallon, so it can make a big difference. But I also asked for a de-escalation clause, as well, so if fuel prices drop, we're not committed to keep paying the higher prices. I think it would make a difference if we could get a break in this weather. If we get some warmer weather, people will be using less fuel oil for heating, and I can see prices decreasing some."

North Harrison Community School Corp. has a similar arrangement with its drivers.

"We're OK right now," Transportation Director Dr. Ken Oppel said. "We have a fixed price on our unleaded, diesel fuel and fuel oil until June 30. We bid these out and our board agreed on a fixed price. We will have to rebid it in July, and we expect a tremendous increase. But by bidding it out earlier, our budget is not as strained.

"Some of our buses are corporation owned, and some of them are contract buses. We have an escalation clause in the contract for anything above $2.89 a gallon, and we adjust that every 45 days to help our contract drivers out."

On a national level, three airlines, including Indiana-based ATA Airlines, as well as Skybus and Aloha Airlines, ceased operations in the last two weeks, citing fuel costs increases as the main factor in their decisions to shut down. Last week, Frontier Airlines filed for bankruptcy, but plans to continue operating under bankruptcy protection, at least for the immediate future.

In Washington, D.C., truckers have been protesting high diesel prices in recent days by driving the city in convoys, blowing their horns, and holding rallies near the capitol.

As of last week, oil prices have again hit a record high of $112 per barrel.

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