County keeping eye on costs, but crisis over with

LAWRENCEVILLE - In the past year, Gwinnett County government has spent more than $10 million on gasoline.

About a year after Hurricane Katrina started a gas crunch across the South and then Hurricane Rita drove the situation into a crisis, the price of fuel is becoming more bearable.

But Michael Lindsey, the director in charge of maintaining Gwinnett's fleet of police cars, fire engines and other vehicles, said the government hasn't been hit as hard as regular consumers.

While the price of a gallon of gas hit a high of $2.98 in July at gas stations nationwide, the county paid an average of $2.471 per gallon of unleaded that month.

The county got a break of $0.0078 per gallon by its vendor on unleaded, but paid a markup of between $0.0103 and $0.0264 for diesel gas above the nationally set market value. The county buys about twice the amount of diesel fuel than unleaded.

Lindsey said the markup was still well below the markup that people experience at the gas stations.

And the county was lucky to receive bids that placed the amount below the state contract.

"We're probably paying one of the better prices in the country," he said.

At the end of 2005, when prices were beginning their quick climb, Lindsey said the county had to reshuffle money to keep buying fuel, which is important in getting firefighters and police officers to scenes and also key in keeping ballfields and road shoulders mowed.

In fact, the county cut out "nonessential" services such as mowing alongside roads and in passive parks for several months to conserve fuel and money.

Support Services Director Connie Hinson said the policy only lasted a couple of months, but it did help in the critical time after Hurricane Rita, when the governor closed schools for two days because of worries about enough fuel to run buses.

Since then, the county agreed to contracts with two fuel vendors to help obtain gas if the supply becomes low again.

"We've gone back to mowing full-time. We're doing all of our normal activities," she said. "But if gas continues to rise, we will look at conservation because of the price. We haven't talked about a golden number yet."

But both Hinson and Lindsey noted that conversation may not have to happen, at least for the time being.

"Prices have started to drop, so we're doing well," Lindsey said.