When law enforcement agencies were putting together their fiscal year budgets for 2008, few municipal or county administrators could have forecast the impact of skyrocketing gas prices.
But the impact has been significant. Many departments have seen their fuel prices increase by 20 to 30 percent compared with what they budgeted for the year. That has resulted in departments developing a number of formal and informal solutions to helping reduce their fuel costs without scrimping on the necessary community services.
Departments across the country have come up with a variety of strategies to help reduce fuel and other fleet-related costs. The list ranges from added bicycle patrols to more alternative fueled vehicle options to sharing patrol cars. They have also mandated changes in the ways that officers operate their vehicles such as reducing idling, eliminating the warm-up of vehicles in the morning, and restricting take-home vehicle usage.
No Warming Up
Bay County (Mich.) Sheriff's Department deputies are parking and turning off their cars for 10 minutes each hour, setting up in a strategic location to monitor traffic. The policy has been in place since early May says Sheriff John Miller.
Another option might be to add new substations across the county to cut down on fuel bills. However the upfront cost for building those substations can be prohibitive.
Such informal fuel-saving measures have also been put into place for the Bowling Green (Ken.) Police Department. The city had budgeted spending around $25,000 per month on fuel for its 127 vehicles, which include 85 patrol cars, 27 administrative Chevrolet Impala sedans, and a handful of trucks, trailers, and parking enforcement vehicles. As gas prices have been rising, monthly costs now top $30,000 per month for law enforcement vehicles alone.
Some of the informal measures that have been recommended by the department's administration include not warming up vehicles in the morning, increasing bike patrols and reducing idling time as conditions permit says Jon Lewis, fleet manager for the city of Bowling Green, which oversees the police department's fleet.
"Some informal recommendations have gone out but as prices rise some of them may become more formal and more emphasized," Lewis says. "The jump in gas prices has been significant and somewhat unexpected over the past four months."
Lewis expects the department to save $1,000 to $2,000 by reducing idling times and not warming up vehicles in the mornings. There are bicycle racks on the backs of all police cruisers and that strategy could save an extra few hundred dollars per month he added.
Bowling Green has also had a successful take-home vehicle program over the years, and rising gas prices are not expected to greatly impact that policy. Officers take home their vehicles each night and that is seen as a significant advantage by residents of the city, which measures 36.5 square miles.
"There are too many benefits at this point for (the department) to reconsider the take-home vehicle program," Lewis says. "The ability to respond to an incident directly from their homes and the benefits of having that visible law enforcement presence in neighborhoods is worth the extra few hundred dollars a month."
The Alachua (Fla.) County Sheriff's Department also has a long established take-home vehicle program that involves part of its fleet of more than 400 law enforcement vehicles. But in April, the cost of the department's fuel was more than $90,000—the highest monthly fuel cost in the department's history—and something needed to be done, according to public information officer Art Forge.
So a formal declaration was made that take-home vehicles could no longer be used for anything other than trips to work or a fitness center for exercise. Forge says this measure is expected to save the department a few thousand dollars each month.
"If that doesn't cut the costs as much as we need to, I'm sure that the concept of our take-home vehicle program will be revisited or there may be some other changes made," Forge says. "We're seeing how big of an impact this will have on our bottom-line."
The bottom line is staring the Redlands (Calif.) Police Department in the face even as the department has significantly reduced its gas consumption. The Redlands PD has cut back its take-home program from 78 to 50 vehicles based on the location of where officers live and their rank and position says Gary Van Dorst, the department's quality of life director.
The take-home vehicle cutback could help the Redlands PD reduce the number of gallons consumed by as much as 20,000 gallons this year for a total of 60,000 gallons, compared with the 82,131 gallons of gas consumed in 2007. However with gas prices $1 or more higher than the average $2.90 the city paid for gas last year, the actual money spent on gas could still rise.
"And we don't know how much farther the price of gas will rise this year," Van Dorst says. "It's conceivable that we could hit $5 a gallon."
Taking Away Cars
The Alachua County Sheriff's Department has also eliminated vehicle use for some law enforcement positions such as sworn or unsworn bureau chiefs and some corrections officers and employees. Any non-essential department vehicle use will also be eliminated or closely monitored. Forge says this will help reduce not only fuel costs but other maintenance costs associated with added department vehicle use.
"We have to look at other ways to cut our (fleet-related) vehicle costs across the board to help offset rising gas prices," Forge says, "even if these strategies aren't directly tied to the use of fuel."
Bicycle patrols are also seeing a resurgence as the price of gasoline approaches or surpasses $4 a gallon across the country. In many ways, these patrols can be even more effective than the typical motorized vehicle in urban or densely-populated and traveled areas. So both small and large communities are reconsidering their bike patrol strategies.
High gas prices forced Hollidaysburg, Pa., Police Chief Jeff Ketner to reinstitute regular bike patrols earlier this spring once the weather warmed. It was one of the strategies Ketner used to deal with the fact his department was $6,000 over budget on the department's four vehicles because of rising gas costs.
"That's not an insignificant amount of money for our budget and plus there are so many advantages with using bike patrols." Ketner says.
"It makes good fiscal and logistical sense," Ketner said, referring to the resumption of the bicycle patrol program.
Getting Off Gas
Using alternative fuels is also fast becoming one way that governmental fleet managers are addressing the rising impact of gas prices. The city of Santa Monica, Calif., was an early adopter of alternative fuels and now the city's police department is increasing its efforts in reducing fuel costs using this strategy.
Santa Monica developed this policy to reduce its vehicle emissions in 1993 with an overriding goal that included having at least 75 percent of its vehicles be powered by alternative fuels. These alternative fuels could include a combination of options, from natural gas to propane to electric.
Some 15 years after the city's policy was implemented, more than 84 percent of the municipal fleet vehicles are now using some sort of alternative fuel and the police department is increasing its efforts.
With the natural gas vehicles, the cost per gallon of fuel is equivalent to $1.40 per gallon of what it would cost for standard gasoline-powered vehicles, a cost per gallon that is significantly cheaper that either gasoline or diesel, according to Santa Monica Fleet Administrator Rick Sykes.
The quality of an alternative-fueled vehicle's drive is also significantly better Sykes says. Police officers and other city employees have reported less vibration in vehicles powered by natural gas and other alternative fuels. And given that the City of Santa Monica spans just eight square miles, developing a natural gas fueling infrastructure has been relatively simple. Natural gas fueling stations have been installed at the city's main garage and at the municipal bus line station.
Clean Energy, the largest provider of natural gas for vehicle use in North America, has also opened a natural gas station available to the public within the city limits.
"There is fuel savings associated long-term, even with the short-term costs of infrastructure," Sykes said. "The more gas prices rise, the more money we plan on saving long-term."
Midland County (Mich.) Sheriff Jerry Nielsen mandated that his deputies drive no more than 180 miles per 12-hour shift to cut down on gas consumption, according to a May 2008 article in the Bay City Times. That fact has Nielsen and his department considering propane as an alternative fuel source which could help the department save money.
"(Propane is) supposed to burn cleaner, get better gas mileage, and it's cheaper than gasoline," Nielsen told the newspaper. On average propane is selling for $1 a gallon less than gasoline in mid-Michigan.
Mike Scott is a Michigan-based freelance journalist who specializes in fleet management topics.