Never mind the nation's strategic oil reserve. In Columbia County, some government officials are considering taking matters in their own hands, possibly having their own emergency fuel supply for government vehicles in the face of rising gasoline costs.
"For years, no one has wanted to be in the fuel business,'' said Clayton Galloway, Columbia County's Fleet Services manager. "The liability is so high. However, now that's something that's beginning to start looking a whole lot more attractive only because of the cost of fuel, and it seems to be ever escalating.''
Mr. Galloway said he might have a county contingency fueling station included in his department's upcoming fiscal year budget, which would need county commission approval. The idea would involve moving gas tanks from the county's Baker Place Road Landfill, which is closing, to the fleet services department and having them filled when gas costs are lower. That would ensure that fuel is available during times of a crisis, such as the one that followed Hurricane Katrina.
The landfill tanks have been used by landfill vehicles that can't leave the site, Mr. Galloway said. Currently, other county departments must fuel up their vehicles using a payment card at commercial gas stations.
"When all of this craziness with fuel settles down, we would like to have (the tanks used for alternative fuels) because we have our own tanks to be able to put some alternative fuels out here which are not now available in the retail market, like biodiesel as well as ethanol,'' he said.
In many county governments, fuel costs are exceeding budgets. Columbia County Commission recently approved allocating $100,000 in contingency funds to help departments pay for gas costs above their budget through June.
In Richmond County, Ron Crowden, the head of Augusta's Fleet Management department, said government fuel costs were about 6 percent higher than normal for the first quarter of this year.
"The same discussions you have at your kitchen table are the ones that we have in our commission room,'' Mr. Crowden said. The county's budget for fuel for this calendar year is $2.6 million, he said. In the first quarter, the county spent $668,572 for fuel.
"If the trend continues or we go upward, I'd have to say that September or October are going to look real bleak,'' he said.
Reserve fuel tanks aren't likely in Richmond County, Mr. Crowden said.
"That's been discussed, but the volume that we would need makes it impractical. ... You've got to concern yourself with EPA requirements, too. And that's why we got out of the business of gas,'' he said.
Columbia, Aiken and Richmond counties already are making sure vehicles stay well maintained, tire pressure is optimal and engine idling is reduced whenever possible.
In Aiken County, the road maintenance department and road inspectors are saving gas costs by going to 10-hour-day, four-day work weeks, County Administrator Clay Killian said. This fiscal year's fuel budget was increased by $240,000, but he said it still won't be enough.
Aiken County already has a fuel station and receives a bulk rate on its gas, but Mr. Killian said the discount isn't dramatic and costs are still taking a toll.
In Richmond County, weekly fuel reports are being issued to county department heads.
"Now, with the fuel prices, we're making it much more important,'' Mr. Crowden said. "We're also screening the weekly fuel usage for any exceptions, which would be anything unusual. When we find those, we're asking the departments/employee to explain what the exception is all about.''
Reach Preston Sparks at 868-1222, ext. 115, or firstname.lastname@example.org.