The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

March 19, 2011

County commissioners look to ease up on the gas

By Robert Barron, Staff Writer
Enid News and Eagle

— It isn’t a good time to be a county commissioner in Garfield County.

Budgets are shorter, supplies and materials are more expensive and it doesn’t seem to be getting better.

James Simunek, serving his first term as District 3 commissioner, said it gets tougher as fuel prices climb.

“Everything we buy is going up, and our revenue, mostly oil and gas tax revenue, is dropping off,” Simunek said.

When fuel is high, he said, people still have to purchase it, but they have eliminated extra trips and are conserving. In the next five years he sees budget challenges as the commission’s biggest problem.

“In the next five years we must figure how to do the same or more projects with less money,” he said.

Higher fuel prices make it more difficult to keep six graders and five trucks operating. Simunek said county operations use a lot of fuel.

Currently his staff is maintaining roads, both shale and gravel, and cleaning and reconfiguring ditches to increase drainage. During recent severe winter weather, blacktop roads developed potholes, and his crews are trying to patch those.

Looking ahead, Simunek said he hopes to see new oil and gas exploration in Garfield County or construction of a wind farm to boost revenue. But, mostly, fuel prices must drop back to an affordable level so they can keep equipment running.

Meanwhile, he is looking at other ways to stay efficient. During a recent extended dry weather period, he took graders off roads and operators performed tree trimming. That saved an estimated 60-80 gallons of fuel per grader every day, he said.

“Right now, we’re trying to keep looking for ways to keep from eating up on maintenance and operation,” Simunek said. “We’re not looking at layoffs now. If the thing keeps going I’ll do whatever on the other end to prevent layoffs, but I don’t see that down the road anywhere yet.”

District 2 Commissioner Mike Postier agrees: Challenges are the same and fuel prices hurt operations.

“Since I took office in 2004, just about everything we deal with — consumables, steel, rock, road oils, supplies we use to maintain roads and build bridges — have all gone up between 75 percent and 125 percent. In some cases 150 percent,” Postier said.

At the same time county funding has declined. Postier said he first noticed it a few years ago when fuel prices hit $4 per gallon. County income mainly is comprised from consumption of diesel, gasoline and special fuels, like kerosene and propane, a portion of which goes to county governments. When prices get high, residents take note of the amount of fuel they buy, which shows as a decline in county revenues.

“We feel it at both ends,” he said, adding they have to purchase the fuels, as well, at the higher prices.

The last time District 2 purchased fuel for the Garber shop it was more than $20,000. When he took office in 2004 the district paid $1.24 per gallon for diesel. It now is $3.30.

“We’re having to get really creative in ways we maintain and approach all of our projects. We used to run seven graders in District 2. We have that number down to four full time and one part-time grader,” Postier said. “Also, we have incorporated some drags, which we pull behind a four-wheel-drive pickup, and that helps to take up the slack.”

A drag, used primarily for rock roads, pulls material from the edge of the road toward the center. While a grader runs 6 mph on rock roads, the drag runs 15-20 mph. It will not fill in potholes, however.

“We get over a few more miles with one person and use less fuel when doing it. That’s just one idea we have incorporated so far,” Postier said. “So far we have saved a lot on rock and the amount of fuel we use.”

District 2 has seen five bridges closed by the state in the past six months due to low load ratings. There is not enough money to re-open them.

Previously when gas prices went back down, costs did not follow, he said, and the commissioners are “feeling the pinch” because of oil and market prices across the board.