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Pain at the pump

Fuel prices that continue to soar like SCUD missiles are aggravating existing budget problems for several agencies vital to Whidbey Island.

Island Transit, which runs the county’s free bus service, is especially affected by increases in the price of gas, but it’s a mixture of good and bad news.

Executive Director Martha Rose said the agency is still in the process of budget cutting in the aftermath of Initiative 695, the car-tab initiative that cut motor vehicle excise taxes. The agency lost 20 percent of its operating budget, even after a make-up sales tax increase.

Rose said she’s continually evaluating and modifying bus routes in order to cut costs. A continued fuel price spike would mean more drastic changes.

Yet Rose said “a saving grace” for Island Transit is that they’ve been gradually switching over from unleaded fuel-burning buses to diesel-fueled models. She said even a full-sized diesel bus runs “more efficiently and burns cleaner” than the unleaded mini buses.

In fact, Rose said fuel consumption last month was 60 percent of what it was a year ago.

The good thing about high gas prices, Rose said, is that more people ride the free buses. “We see an increase in ridership,” she said, “as fuel prices go up.”

Rose said a percentage of people who rise public transit during times of inflated fuel prices find they like it and continue to ride even after prices go down.

Since deputies respond to emergencies no matter what gas prices are at, fuel cost spikes also have a real effect on the Sheriff’s Office.

Sheriff Mike Hawley said his budget is already very tight, so high fuel prices mean he has to “cut back on the training budget or find the money somewhere else.” Hawley said his office spent $55,000 on gas last year.

“If prices go up 20 percent,” he said, “you can do the math.” Hmmm....that would be an additional $11,000.

Deputies fill their tanks with gas from the county road department. The fuel is purchased in bulk through a state contract. It costs about 40 cents a gallon less than what the public pays.

In addition, Hawley said the office has been purchasing more fuel-efficient mid-sized cars for patrol deputies in order to conserve gas and cut costs. He said they are “transitioning from Crown Vics to Chevy Malibus.”

He also said deputies are using their cellular phones a little more to cut travel. But still, most of the work deputies do — from responding to car crashes to investigating burglaries — involves driving.

“If prices continue to go up,” he said, “we may have to make some real tough decisions.”

Probably the biggest fuel burners outside of the Navy are the state ferries. Susan Harris with Washington State Ferries said a jumbo ferry goes through about 38,000 gallons of diesel fuel a year.

Currently, Harris said the ferry systems is paying a two-year high of $1.21 a gallon. The only time in recent history that the price was higher was after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. A year ago, the price was about 55 cents a gallon.

Harris said the agency budgeted for gas at 84 cents a gallon. So if the price remains high or get worse, the ferry service may go over budget.

Celia Schorr, the community outreach coordinator with WSF, explained that fuel appropriation is in a completely separate fund from other ferry operations. If the agency uses up its fuel budget, Schorr said officials can go back to the legislature and ask for more gas money.

You can reach News-Times reporter Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611.

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