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County feels pain at the gas pump

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By Jenny Hartley

Like most everybody else, county officials are looking for ways to save on gasoline costs.

"The fuel costs have really gone up. For example, the week of July 16, 2007, we spent $15,858 in fuel," County Administrator Steve Willis said. "The week of May 26, 2008, we spent $22,468 with the same size fleet."

County Finance Director Veronica Thompson said for the current budget year, about $1.1 million was budgeted for fuel and vehicle maintenance, and county departments have spent about $759,000 of that so far.

Departments cut down to save gas

For the proposed 2008-09 budget, the county's fuel and maintenance budget is about $1.2 million.

County staff met recently to discuss ways to conserve fuel.

Some ideas are still under consideration, while others have already been implemented, Willis said.

The Assessor's Office is shortening its work week for its field employees. They will spend more time in the field four days a week and no longer work a fifth day.

The Building and Zoning Department is carpooling when there are multiple inspectors on a single site, such as Sun City Carolina Lakes.

"Sun City provides them golf carts to use (while on site) and this has been very successful," Willis said.

County officials are also reviewing the use of every take-home vehicle in the county's fleet, Willis said.

Many sheriff's deputies take vehicles home, and there are a few take-home vehicles with Lancaster County Emergency Medical Service, Animal Control, the coroner's office, Building and Zoning and information technology offices.

"Of course, for constitutional officers such as the sheriff and coroner, those decisions are theirs, not mine or council's," Willis said.

Sheriff's office saving money

Maj. Barry Faile of the Lancaster County Sheriff's Office said his department has done a few things to cut down on fuel use.

Off-duty officers are not allowed to drive their vehicles, and the office is starting to assign officers to the areas of the county where they live to cut down on how far they drive to work. If officers live out of the county, they will not be able to drive their vehicles home.

Officers will also be getting their vehicles serviced while on-duty, so they aren't driving the cars for this on their days off.

Panhandle neighborhoods such as Legacy Park and Sun City Carolina Lakes are paying off-duty officers to patrol their streets.

Faile said the communities' homeowners associations are responsible for paying a $10 fee per sheriff's vehicle while the officer is working those neighborhoods, plus 51 cents per mile if the officer uses the sheriff's vehicle for patrols.

At Sun City, officers drive a vehicle to the community, but use a Sun City vehicle for patrols.

The sheriff's office is also responsible for transporting some patients to mental hospitals in Columbia, and in the past, have done this up to five times a day, Faile said. Now, the sheriff's office will only make transports twice a day.

Smaller, fuel-saving cars

In light of increasing fuel costs in recent years, the county had already started using mid-size cars, such as Chevrolet Impalas, rather than Ford Crown Victorias, in several departments, Willis said.

Willis said county staff will continue to study its options to reduce fuel costs, such as considering hybrid or alternative-fuel vehicles. Most of the county's newer vehicles could fuel up on ethanol, but ethanol isn't sold in Lancaster.

Officials are also looking at potential cuts in the county's fleet.

"I gave up my car allowance last year – the only one in the county – and we used that money to buy the County Administration Building car," Willis said. "The county car stays here overnight and I commute in my own car, like the rest of the employees."

Contact senior reporter Jenny Hartley at jhartley@thelancasternews.com or at (803) 283-1151