Driving up costs

Posted Sept. 12, 2008, at 8:11 p.m.

Gas prices have had an effect on everyone’s pocketbook, but imagine if you had nearly 3,400 vehicles in your garage.

The state of Maine is struggling with just that scenario.

Taxpayers are dishing out roughly $30 million annually to maintain the state’s motor pool, which has 3,394 cars, small trucks and specialty vehicles in three major branches: Maine State Police, the Department of Transportation and Central Fleet Management, which oversees most of the other state agencies.

A good portion of that funding is for gas or diesel fuel, but it’s not enough, officials say.

“We are budgeted at $1.75 per gallon” through 2009, Maj. Ray Bassette of the Maine State Police said recently. With gas more than $3.60 a gallon, that means the agency goes “about $25,000 in the hole each month.”

Also, the $29.8 million budgeted for maintenance does not include the cost of buying new vehicles — at least 330 of which were bought for state agencies this year — which takes several million dollars more annually out of taxpayers’ pocketbooks.

Residents also pay for vehicles owned by county government and the cities and towns they live in and for federal vehicles maintained in-state, which when added to state-owned numbers totaled 25,387 during 2006, according to a publicly owned vehicles report on the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration Web site.

Exactly how much it costs to own and operate all the state and federal vehicles is not an easy number to total with so many individual groups to account for. What is quickly apparent is that the jump in gas prices has thrown budgets into red ink with budget personnel scrambling to find ways to fill the gaps.

The state police fuel budget is $2.055 million. With the massive jump in the cost of fuel, the state police fleet maintenance budget is $762,831 more than projected costs for fiscal year 2008, which ended for the agency in August, Bassette said. Although the same amount for fuel has been budgeted for 2009, it will be increased to $3.60 a gallon for 2010-11, he said. Until then, it’s causing fiscal pain for the state police.

“We’re taking these funds from other budget areas to make up the difference,” he said.

For example, empty state police positions are not being filled, no new positions are being created and “everybody is being asked to reduce their budgets by 10 percent,” Bassette said.

Services that troopers provide so far have not suffered, but without more funding for fuel, it’s only a matter of time before they face the chopping block, he said.

The state police agency has 475 cruisers, plus other equipment, such as hazardous material and portable command posts, for a total of 654 vehicles. The agency has lease-purchase agreements for its cruisers and pays $1.8 million annually for them. The allowable lease-purchase amount has not changed for several years and is not expected to change this year, which means fewer vehicles are being purchased.

“I can tell you that’s not enough,” Bassette said. “We may be able to order 70 new cruisers. We probably need 90.”

To save money, state police vehicles are being serviced every 8,000 miles, instead of 6,000 miles as in previous years, and they are being rotated out of service at 140,000 miles or more, instead of the typical 100,000 miles.

“That was unheard of six or seven years ago,” he said. “Every year, it seems like we’re falling further behind.”

DOT faces moving target

The DOT, which maintains roads all over the state, including plowing and fixing them, easily has the largest fleet maintenance budget at around $20 million. Nearly half of the DOT’s budget for fiscal year 2008, about $8.6 million, was for gas and diesel to keep the DOT’s approximately 1,075 vehicles and pieces of heavy equipment on the roads.

“That $8.6 million is what we actually spent [for fuel]. We budgeted $5.5 million,” Mark Latti, DOT public information officer, said Friday. “That figure was budgeted two years ago with gas estimated at $2.50 a gallon and diesel fuel estimated at $2.80 a gallon.”

For 2009, the DOT budget is $23 million for fleet management with “$7.4 million in fuel, which is obviously less than what we paid this year,” but nearly $2 million more than what was budgeted for 2008, he said.The fuel budget is “pretty much a moving target,” Herb Thompson, DOT spokesman said recently. “It’s based on the rack price, which changes daily.”

One benefit for state agencies is that they don’t pay state or federal gas tax, which means their “rack price” ends up being about 30 to 40 cents less than what residents pay at the pump. But the recent price increases still have wreaked havoc with budgets.

“The fuel [costs] for what was budgeted to what we actually spent is quite different,” Mike Burns, assistant director for DOT maintenance and operations, said recently.

Brian Burne, state highway maintenance engineer for DOT, explained that the budget is based “on the prices that we receive. They don’t allow us to speculate, and sometimes the numbers can be unrealistic.”

“You really have no way of knowing what it’s going to be next February,” he said.

DOT officials this year did the only thing they could do and what state police did: They shifted where the money was spent, Burns said.

“What we did was cut back on regular [vehicle] maintenance to have the money to pay the fuel bill,” he said.

State legislators did provide the DOT with $7 million in additional funds this spring for fuel and salt through the governor’s supplemental budget, approved in March, “because of the above-average severity of the winter and increases in prices for fuel,” Latti said.

The supplemental budget increased the allowable spending from $1.75 a gallon for gas and $2.12 for diesel to $2.80 a gallon for both gas and diesel for the DOT, but that’s still nearly $1 shy of what fuel costs today, Burns said.

“They recognized they had to do something,” he said.

Central fleet seeks boost

Central Fleet Management, which falls under the Department of Administrative and Financial Services, was created in 1993 to purchase, distribute and dispose of passenger and light trucks for most state agencies.

The bureau, which is getting $2.50 a gallon as part of this year’s supplemental budget, owns 1,665 vehicles outright and has partnerships with the other agencies to either lease or maintain their fleets, said Central Fleet and Central Service Director Dwain McKenney.

Its fiscal year 2008 budget was $5.96 million, and fuel made up $3.46 million of that.

The agency’s 2009 budget is about $100,000 more at $6.09 million, and a request has been made for just over $1 million in additional funds from the governor’s 2009 supplemental budget for fuel, McKenney said.

The goal of the agency over the last couple of years has been to reduce fuel consumption by replacing vehicles with more efficient ones, including hybrids, reducing miles driven and “making sure the most cost-effective vehicle is used,” the Central Fleet Management director said.

“Overall, with the decrease in miles driven by agencies and with the increase in fuel efficiencies, we’ve seen that in fiscal year ’08 Central Fleet Management did keep within its budget, even though there was a considerable fuel increase,” McKenney said.

The state owns 79 hybrids, or electric-gas cars, as of June 30, and has nine more hybrids on order, he said, adding, “They are literally spread out through basically every state agency.”

Part of the reason for purchasing more efficient vehicles is Gov. John Baldacci’s March 2004 executive order “concerning increasing the efficiency of state government’s transportation sector.”

“When I took office in 2003, oil was selling for $20 a barrel,” the governor said recently. “I created the Office of Energy Independence because it was clear to me that oil would not stay that inexpensive. We are trying to lead by example by increasing the number of hybrid vehicles,” reducing miles driven and by “adding biodiesel to the fuel mix for state buildings.”

Baldacci is the lone state official who is provided with a driver and vehicle, which is a 2008 GMC Yukon flex-fuel vehicle. It has a cylinder-disabling feature that shuts down half of the engine when it is not needed, going from eight cylinders to four.

In addition to the three big fleets statewide, other smaller fleets are maintained by the University of Maine System, the Maine State Library, the Departments of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, Marine Resources, Health and Human Services, Corrections, Conservation, and Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources.

The UMS alone maintains 94 vehicles at a cost to taxpayers of nearly $407,000, according to figures provided by university spokesman John Diamond.

Tax dollars on wheels

Many communities across the state also have their own fleets, which are paid for with local tax dollars.

Bangor has 225 vehicles and this year has budgeted $2.5 million to maintain them, said Bob Dawes, fleet maintenance supervisor for the city. Included in the list of vehicles for Bangor are police cruisers and other emergency equipment, firetrucks, plowing equipment, maintenance vehicles and others.

The jump in the cost of diesel fuel has “almost doubled” that budget line, Dawes said.

“Diesel fuel in ’07 was $445,000 and $701,000 in ’08,” he said. The Queen City has put aside nearly $1.2 million this year for gasoline and diesel.

To help reduce costs, the department has implemented preventive maintenance, which includes maintaining proper tire pressure and driving techniques that result in better gas mileage, Dawes said.

Across the river, Brewer has 62 vehicles and has budgeted $291,436 for fiscal year 2009 to operate and maintain them.

By counting vehicles owned by the state, county and communities across Maine, taxpayers are paying for 23,602 vehicles, which includes automobiles, buses, trucks, motorcycles and tractor-trailers according to the U.S. DOT’s Web site. The December 2007 report, the latest available, was based on 2006 figures provided by the state.

The federal government also maintains an added 1,785 in-state vehicles, which means there are 25,387 taxpayer-funded vehicles in Maine, the site states.

While residents are paying more to fill their gas tanks and worrying about how the increased costs are affecting them, state officials have the same anxieties.

“It’s affected us just like every homeowner,” Burns said.

In other words

Mainers are paying for approximately 25,400 vehicles operated all over Maine by state, county, municipal and federal government officials, according to 2006 figures provided by the U.S. Department of Transportation. The following is the breakdown of the numbers:

– State-, county- and municipal-owned public vehicles total 23,602, which includes 5,489 automobiles, 2,838 buses, 12,363 trucks and big rigs, 2,793 trailers and semitrailers, and 119 motorcycles.

– The federal government maintains another 1,785 in-state vehicles, which includes 437 automobiles, 14 buses, 1,325 trucks and big rigs, and nine trailers and semitrailers.

The state’s motor pool has about 3,400 cars, small trucks and specialty vehicles for fiscal year 2008, including

– 1,665 managed by Central Fleet Management.

– 654 under the Maine State Police with 475 cruisers.

– 1,075 for the Department of Transportation.

In addition,

– Eight other state agencies maintain smaller fleets under their own budgets.

– 334 new vehicles were purchased in 2008 for the various state agencies.

– 79 hybrids, or electric-gas cars, are operated in Maine, and nine more are on order.

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