FINANCIAL MANAGEMENT/Running on empty
Rising fuel prices have hit local governments in several areas, including critical infrastructure maintenance, public transportation, and heating, cooling and powering public facilities. Yet high fuel costs also are affecting local governments by reducing the Highway Users Tax Fund (HUTF), a tax on motor fuel and vehicle licensing fees that states collect and disperse to cities and counties.
Sticker shock at the gas pump is causing consumers to change their driving habits, and less driving means consumers are pumping fewer gallons of gas, which translates to less money for public works operations that rely heavily on HUTF. HUTF rates vary from state to state but are generally around 15 cents to 20 cents per gallon of gas. Because HUTF funds generally are earmarked for roadway maintenance and improvements, they have become the backbone of roadway repairs and enhancements for cities, counties and state departments of transportation. “[HUTF] funds our whole department,” says Bill Clark, assistant road and bridge superintendent for Grand County, Colo. “Out of our $7 million budget, only about $280,000 comes from property tax revenue.”
Transportation infrastructure managers at all levels of government are grappling with how to cut, and for many cities and counties, aesthetics are the first to go. “In cutting services, we try to cut things like street sweeping, which is nice but not really required,” says Chris Jacobson, infrastructure maintenance engineer for Lakewood, Colo. “Streets may not look as nice, but it’s not a safety issue.”
After those types of cuts, which projects to trim can become a more difficult decision. Managers can ask for recommendations from city councils and county commissioners, or department staff members. “We are looking at what can we not pave and what can we not chip,” says Tammi Crawford, field coordinator for Rout County, Colo., Road and Bridge. “We go and eyeball [the roads] and decide what we can get away with.”
For empirical data, some decision-makers rely on reports generated by work management software that tracks time, materials and equipment invested in roads, bridges, facilities and improvement projects. Based on that information, users can identify worker productivity levels and inefficiencies in equipment usage.
Some work management applications also can help with cost-projections for work plans. They can help answer questions such as, “What if we cleaned our streets twice per year instead of four times per year?” or, “What if we only plowed snow on arterial roads versus secondary and/or tertiary roadways?” Some projects do not need to be cancelled, but merely modified. Mesa County, Colo., Road and Bridge, for example, is overlaying 21 miles of road this year rather than the annual goal of 35 miles. For next year, Kevin Holderness, the county’s engineering coordinator anticipates overlaying only four miles, unless special funding comes through. Meanwhile, Johnson County, Wyo., is looking at gravel overlay instead of complete reconstruction of certain roads.
By relying on all available resources from people to software, managers can gather the information they need to make the best decisions for residents, regardless of how high or low gas prices may go.
The author is president of Snowmass Village, Colo.-based Tracker Software.