NEW PORT RICHEY — It's one thing for soaring fuel prices to tighten the finances in a two-car household. Chuck Bellerose has 2,100 vehicles to keep running.
What's the Pasco County fleet manager doing?
"Like everybody else — scrimping," Bellerose said.
County employees have been asked to carpool and cut down on idling. The county is slowly adding hybrid vehicles as well as smaller ones that use less fuel.
Gas prices for the county have gone up more than 35 percent a gallon since last fall, even more for diesel.
Last fall, Pasco paid $2.70 a gallon for gas. Now it's paying $3.69.
And the county enjoys savings consumer don't: discounts for buying in bulk with contracts, plus an exemption from federal tax as a public agency.
Instead of the $5-million Pasco budgeted to spend this year, budget director Michael Nurrenbrock estimates $7-million will be spent on fuel.
It gets worse. Next year's proposed budget, which will come out Tuesday, will set aside $8.8-million.
It's not just the gas bill growing. The county, after years of construction and population growth, has increased its fleet by about 200 vehicles a year the past several years. That has required more than 2-million gallons of fuel a year for the fleet.
But the county has already taken a few steps to reduce costs. Employees use eight-person vans to carpool to meetings outside the county, and are asked to share rides to meetings inside Pasco.
The county also has sent memos encouraging employees not to leave cars idling, if possible. But those tactics have limits. An ambulance, for example, cannot be asked to shut off while stopped at the scene of an emergency, Bellerose said.
Hybrids and half-tons
Pasco also has begun using more fuel-efficient cars, and moving toward buying hybrid sport utility vehicles for Fire Rescue officials.
Hybrids work well for the stop-and-go traffic in west Pasco, where the electric engine runs at stops. But the longer drives in east Pasco make hybrids less useful, because the electricity stores aren't tapped, Bellerose said.
Instead of three-quarter-ton trucks, the county has begun buying half-ton versions in recent years, too.
Pasco also has bought four-cylinder vehicles for less rugged jobs, such as neighborhood code enforcement patrols. "We're a little bit ahead of the curve, but not by much," Bellerose said.
Similar savings have been taken across Florida, including the Tampa Bay area. Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee directed deputies to avoid idling and use other means to save gas this month. Pasco Sheriff Bob White has barred 50 civilian and jail vehicles from being take-home cars under cost pressures and political criticism.
But other communities have gone even farther, building their own biodiesel production sites in Tallahassee and Jacksonville.
County Commissioner Jack Mariano has pressed for using more biofuel, such as hydrogen. He's hoping for a report by the county transit agency next month on whether such a fuel might work here.
The county also has studied ways to encourage ethanol production, either privately or at its Shady Hills landfill and incinerator site. Attempts to win a state grant failed, but Mariano said Pasco will try again.
Tax rate staying the same
For the first time since 2000, Pasco County's proposed property tax rate isn't going down. But homeowners should still pay less when their bills arrive.
The 2008-09 budget to be unveiled Tuesday will have the same rates as this year, budget director Michael Nurrenbrock said. That's $5.43 of tax per $1,000 in taxable property for the county's general fund, and 99 cents of tax per $1,000 in taxable property for fire services. For the owner of a home assessed at $245,000 with the standard homestead exemptions, the county portion of the bill should be $115 less than this year.
That's mostly because of the additional $25,000 homestead exemption that voters approved statewide this year.
That cut and mandated reductions last year still leave the County Commission with a $17-million shortfall in property taxes projected for next year. County Administrator John Gallagher was optimistic no layoffs would be included, but said the final spending plan wasn't finished.David DeCamp can be reached at email@example.com or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6232.