As motorists here and across the nation gripe about fueling their cars with gas prices that rose sharply after the Northeast power failure and pipeline rupture near Phoenix, what is the cost spike is like when the garage is filled with almost 70 cars instead of the usual two or three?

The city of Astoria owns and operates 68 passenger vehicles, which include police cars and fire trucks, 10 pieces of heavy construction equipment as well as about 200 other pieces of gasoline-powered equipment such as air compressors, welders and yard tools said Public Works Director Mitch Mitchum.

That's a lot of gas.

With prices that jumped about 20 cents in a few weeks, to just under $2 a gallon, is that an extra burden on the city's coffers?

City Manager Dan Bartlett said it can be, but in his career in public service he hasn't seen gas prices disrupt city operations since the oil crisis of the 1970s.

Like all other expenses, each department that uses vehicles budgets what it expects it will need to cover gas spending during the fiscal year. If those funds prove insufficient, Bartlett said a department manager may have to ask his or her employees to decrease the number of miles they are driving.

"As gas prices go up you decrease miles driven or take money from other line items," he said.

But as the city has its own gas supply that is less responsive to the periodic jumps and dips in gas prices, Bartlett said the most recent increase is something he's not too worried about.

"This is something that the department heads should be able to handle," he said.

And while saying he didn't want to sound too "cynical," Bartlett said he expects the price increase was more of a short term blip for oil companies to take advantage of consumers making road trips during the Labor Day Holiday.

Mitchum said for public works, the cost of driving is far less than paying an employee, so it would not make economic sense to stop work because a gallon of gas costs about a quarter more.

He said the city's fueling station, near the public works department city shops on 30th Street, can hold 8,000 gallons of gasoline and 6,000 gallons of diesel.

Because of that storage capacity, Mitchum said the city tries to time its fuel purchases to take advantage of the market. When the price is high, as it is now, he said the city will buy just enough to last it until prices are expected to drop again.

"We'll make a small buy, enough to keep us going, but not fill up our tanks," he said.

As an example, he said the last time the city purchased gasoline was earlier this month when it purchased 1,500 gallons at about $1.63 per gallon. In addition to saving by not having to pay the same taxes as the average consumer, Mitchum said the city also benefits by buying large volumes of fuel.

Mitchum said the city spent a total of $46,968 on fuel last year. He said having a private fueling station allows the city to control costs better, as well as ensures a steady supply.

In the past, when fierce storms have knocked power out, Mitchum said, other government agencies like the Oregon Department of Transportation and the Oregon State Police have used Astoria's fuel when they can't access their "card-lock" gas systems.

Clatsop County also has its own fuel tanks, two 12,000-gallon ones for diesel and gasoline and smaller tanks in Jewell and Knappa.

Randy Trevillian, public works director for the County, said he's been working for the county since 1979 and has never had to use contingency funds to cover fuel costs.

He said the increase hasn't affected operations, as the last time the county bought fuel was in July.

"Probably next time we go buy we'll go ouch," he said.

But there's about $140,000 budgeted for fuel, and Trevillian said that should be enough. The county buys its fuel from companies in the Portland area that use what's called the "rack" price that is set about every two weeks.

"It's not too complicated for us, but obviously we prefer that it would drop. They say it's going to drop," he said.

County public works operates about 35 to 40 vehicles, and Trevillian said he believes the sheriff's office has about 30 or maybe more.


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