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Fueling Cuts
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The skyrocketing cost of fuel, combined with flat-lining sales tax revenues and property assessments throughout the county and municipalities, is forcing everyone to look at doing things a little differently in an effort to save money and gas.

But for first responders tasked with maintaining public safety, cutting back fuel use can be a little more difficult.

After all, pointed out Sheriff Joe Nichols, deputies and officers still need to respond to calls and perform patrols throughout the county.

"We can't cut services," Nichols said. "We have not and will not cut back patrol or response to situations that call for our presence."

Covington Police Chief Stacey Cotton agreed. "Police officers have to patrol and we have to use fuel to patrol," he said, adding that police work requires proactively preventing crime. "However, that doesn't mean we can't take steps to reduce our fuel use."

In the city of Covington, department heads were recently asked to look at how they might reduce fuel consumption by about 10 percent in their respective departments.

Over the last month, the CPD, which has more than 20 cars in its fleet, began requiring its officers get out of their cars during less busy times and walk through businesses, said CPD spokesperson Lt. Wendell Wagstaff, who described it as the 40-20 model - officers ride for 40 minutes and walk for 20 minutes.

"Not only are we deterring crime, but we're trying to lower our fuel costs as much as we can," Wagstaff said.

In addition, about half of department vehicles that used to be taken home are now parked at the station.

The Covington Fire Department also recently reduced the number of take-home cars, and is sending pickup trucks instead of large, diesel burning units for its fire hydrant maintenance

program, said CFD Chief Don Floyd.

The city is also looking at possibly converting vehicles or outfitting any new vehicles purchased to run on natural gas, which is currently about $1.50 per gallon compared to about $4 per gallon for regular gasoline, said Floyd.

At the NCSO, which began implementing fuel saving measures three years ago, deputies have been asked to patrol at slower speeds, get out and walk more and to be mindful of routing their patrols more efficiently, said Nichols.

Deputies, who are allowed to take home their patrol vehicles, can log out from their cars at the end of the shift if they don't need to come back to the law enforcement center. Only a few deputies with take-home cars live outside the county, said Nichols, and park their vehicles at the fire station on Ga. Highway 212.

Transport of inmates is being timed more carefully to allow full vehicles instead of transporting individual inmates. More of the department's training is also being done in-house instead of outside, further saving money.

NCSO, which has a fleet of more than 100 vehicles and consumed an average of 10,000 gallons of gasoline a month in the last year, is also beginning to replace some of the eight cylinder Ford Crown Victorias, used by its transport and civil service divisions, with more efficient four-cylinder cars such as Dodge Chargers and Chrysler Sebrings.

The rising price of fuel also translates to higher costs for supplies such as food, clothing and detergent and the delivery of those supplies, said Nichols. NCSO, which runs the 600-bed Newton County Detention Center, has begun stockpiling some items before prices jump even further.

At the Newton County Fire Department, battalion chiefs used to visit each of the department's stations every day, but that has been reduced to once a week per shift, or three visits to each station per week, which saves the department about $300 of gas per month, according to NCFD Chief Mike Satterfield.

All the agencies have factored in much higher fuel costs into the upcoming 2008- 2009 fiscal year budget, but it can be a guessing game to estimate how much prices might increase.

"When it moves as fast as it does, it's hard to keep up when you're doing a 12 month projection of your budgetary needs," said Satterfield.

He estimated the NCFD is slated to run about 20 percent over its gas budget and about 12 percent over its diesel budget for this fiscal year.

NCSO, which is paying about 40 percent more for the same amount of gas than it did around this time last year, is currently on track with its budget, said Nichols, but only because of cuts made in replacing equipment and training. The department bumped up its fuel budget for the 2008-2009 fiscal year by about 25 percent.

CPD increased its gas budget by about 24 percent, and CFD more than doubled its diesel budget and increased its gas budget by 74 percent for FY 2008-2009.

If further cost cuts are required, the agencies say they would cut non-emergency and non-essential items before cutting services.

For NCFD, that means auxiliary work such as hydrant checks, fire inspections, and pre-fire checks.

"It's kind of a Catch-22," said Satterfield. "If you stop doing those things, you may generate more emergency calls and injuries and loss of property. It's a tough call."

Currently, NCSO deputies qualify with their service weapon five times a year, but that number would be reduced if further cost cuts were required, because of the high cost of ammunition (gunpowder is a petroleum-based product) said Nichols.

Across the state, municipalities and counties are looking at ways of reducing fuel consumption.

More inter-agency meetings are taking place by conference call or online, said Nichols.

Georgia State Patrol has reduced the number of miles driven by 15 to 25 percent from the beginning of the year by using more discretion in their patrols and concentrating more on road checks and DUI checkpoints.

According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, in Gainesville, officers are encouraged to use bicycles for part of their routes and to walk during their shift as well. Suwanee police are encouraged to turn off their car engines whenever they can.

In Cherokee county, the city of Holly Springs recently approved a $12 surcharge on tickets for moving violations, which is expected to generate an additional $19,500 to $26,000 in revenue per year for the general fund. The Atlanta city council is looking at a similar proposal to add a $10 to $15 fee on drivers ticketed for speeding and other moving violations, which would be in effect until gas prices return to a "more reasonable level," according to the AJC.