The Jefferson County commissioners had to shift more than $930,000 from a contingency fund to pay for fuel for the rest of 2008.
"I don't anticipate it is going to get any better," said Buck Benke, the county's director of fleet services.
More than half of the money — $545,330 — will go to the fleet services fund, and the remaining $385,000 will go to the patrol fund for law enforcement vehicles.
The county annually uses about 1.2 million gallons of diesel fuel and unleaded gasoline to power more than 1,100 vehicles, according to a briefing paper given to the commissioners. Prices have risen 49 percent for unleaded gasoline and 46 percent for diesel fuel since January, Benke said.
District 3 Commissioner Kathy Hartman told Benke nobody was surprised by the request.
"I don't think anyone is going to ask you why you aren't getting a better deal," Hartman said.
Heavy equipment, light-duty trucks and sedans consume an average of 48,000 gallons of unleaded and 54,000 gallons of diesel fuel per month.
Benke said in an interview after the briefing that the county paid an average of $2.31 per gallon for unleaded and $2.48 per gallon for diesel fuel in August 2007. In August 2008, that went up to $3.36 and $3.66, respectively. In July 2008, the rates were up to $3.52 per gallon of unleaded and $4.10 per gallon of diesel.
The county doesn't pay taxes on fuel, which come to about 40 cents per gallon.
Benke projected a $545,330 shortfall through the end of 2008 for the fleet services fund. The 2008 fuel budget is $2.4 million, and the county had spent $1.63 million through July. Based on previous years' consumption rates, Benke projects he will need to spend $1.3 million through the end of the year, but only has $765,000 left.
Jeffco Sheriff Ted Mink said the 2008 patrol fund budget for fuel was $490,513. For 2009 he is asking for $1.1 million for fuel, $600,000 more than in the 2008 budget. Mink said his 2009 request is based on an average for unleaded and diesel of $3.65.
Mink said the average patrol car isn't the problem — it's the big prisoner transport vans and trucks that are costing the most. The county is required by statute to transport prisoners to and from prisons statewide, using vans all the way up to vehicles capable of ferrying more than 30 people.
The issue doesn't end with the latest allocation, as forecasting becomes increasingly difficult.
"It's conceivable that we could be in the same position we are right now (next year)," Benke said. "But it's also conceivable we won't be that high."
He said his original projection for 2009 was roughly $5 per gallon of unleaded and a bit higher per gallon of diesel fuel, levels he said "made a lot of our departments shiver."
Benke said there was "a large amount of panic" by department heads and bean counters. He was asked to lower his projections a bit, bringing them down to $4 per gallon of unleaded and $4.75 per gallon of diesel fuel. Benke gave the estimates to the county two months ago so the 2009 budgeting process could get started.
Benke said it's a "coin toss" as to which way gas prices will go over the next year. He added that all he and other county employees can do is to take steps to increase efficiency. As fleet manager, he wants to replace older vehicles with more efficient ones when possible, and said the county is expanding storage capacity at some fuel sites to decrease delivery costs.
"There are limited things we can do that we're doing," Benke said.
Benke said fuel costs are so erratic and depend on so many uncontrollable factors that accurate projections are difficult.
"Fuel is a headline away from being $6," Benke said. "Some country could get mad at us, there could be a hurricane, who knows."