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Tri-State cities weigh options as soaring gas prices threaten to bust budgets

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Posted at 10:08 PM, Jun 06, 2022

HAMILTON, Ohio — Soaring gas prices could bust budgets for municipalities like Hamilton, where more than half the city's yearly fuel allowance is gone. Others feel growing pressure too.

"It's frustrating," said James Williams, director of public works for the City of Hamilton. "We're kind of at the mercy of the market."

Williams' fleet management team feels squeezed by record fuel prices. His department buys fuel wholesale and stores it in tanks that feed pumps for city crews.

While Hamilton Public Works pays less than consumers thanks to a bidding process that allows the city to lock in lower rates for 14- to 17-day periods, managers see quickly rising costs. Between January 1 and June 6, the city is paying 50% more, managers said.

"Nowhere could you foresee budgeting those kinds of numbers," said Chris Haynes, the street fleet supervisor for the City of Hamilton.

Essential city services rely on the department's 350 vehicles so there are no plans to cut services. Policies already prevent employees from idling city vehicles and wasting fuel. Still, the city spent 57% of its annual budget in six months.

"Based off our spend rate, we'll probably be asking city council for some supplemental to our budget around that August-September time frame," Williams said.

"That's going to be a significant decision that a city council is going to have to make to make sure that we have enough fuel to do the jobs that we're required to do," Haynes added.

Even with $.25 per gallon discounts, the City of Fairfield spends on average $10,000 a month more on fuel than last year. 14 years ago, rising gas prices forced the city to spend more than budgeted on fuel. City leaders moved money from other services to cover the cost. Since then, Fairfield allowed for a larger budget for unleaded gasoline and diesel fuels. Currently, the city is not near a budget-breaking point.

The pressure building in Hamilton has Williams thinking differently about his city's fleet too.

"If we can then convert our entire fleet over to electric we'd have no more worries," he said.

Hamilton owns two hydroelectric power plants capable of delivering an energy supply for vehicles. Using a grant from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, the city installed three charging stations, which is a step toward Williams' goal.

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