Fuel costs force ADCNR to adjust budgets

Published 4:22 pm Monday, September 29, 2008

With gasoline and diesel fuel prices hovering around the $4 per gallon mark, the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources must meet the same challenges faced by families, businesses and agencies across the nation. Budgets that worked in 2007 will not balance in 2008 with the same expenditures.

No matter if the recent spike in prices caused by Hurricane Ike subsides, the long-term outlook for fuel prices means adjustments throughout ADCNR’s five divisions: Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, Marine Resources, Marine Police, State Parks, and State Lands.

“Our budget is based on actual expenses from the year before,” said Barnett Lawley, ADCNR Commissioner. “With the increase in fuel prices, we’ve tried to address that in several meetings. We provided each division with charts that showed how many gallons and how many dollars each division used. Basically, each division will have to reduce the gallons to get the dollars back in the budget. They have come up with several novel ideas of how to do that, and I’m quite proud of them. We’re using the phone a lot more. The timing of the routine patrols is being adjusted. The Marine Police, for example, is not patrolling when there’s nobody on the water. They can be there to answer complaints and go on calls, but they’re not going out on the water just because of a shift change. It’s mainly common sense and making everybody in their departments aware of what they’re doing. We’re trying to make one trip result in three solutions, where otherwise you would be making three trips.

“Hopefully, this will be a temporary spike. It’s a big hit in the budget. And you’ve got to do it every month. You can’t wait until the end of the year and see where you are. You’ve got to manage it monthly.”

M.N. “Corky” Pugh, Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Director, said the bulk of the division’s budget is devoted to wages and compensation, which makes dealing with higher fuel prices even more of a challenge.

“The higher fuel prices, as well as the cost of commodities, are forcing us to make choices of how we do business,” Pugh said. “A very high percentage of our budget is in people. Salaries and benefits account for 62 percent of our budget. Front-line employees are the most important people in our outfit. It’s through those employees that we provide critical management and protection of Alabama’s fish and wildlife resources. When you think about the way business in our division is carried out, it’s very decentralized, spread out all over the state. Without vehicles and gasoline to put in them, it’s really impossible for our front-line employees to do what they need to do.”

Pugh said to delay consumption-reduction measures in hopes of lower prices would be a huge mistake.

“We’re squarely facing the challenges of the increased cost of providing the services expected by the hunters, anglers, landowners and other citizens,” he said. “We’re responsibly acting now, rather than later, to rethink the basic ways we do business. When you look at the figures, it’s apparent that mere fuel conservation won’t deal with the problem. The most recent figures we have shows that fuel usage, when comparing usage this year to last year, is down 5.8 percent. Yet, the cost is up 24.9 percent. We’re struggling with what everybody who drives a vehicle is struggling with, and that’s trying to conserve as best we can but still seeing an astronomical increase in prices.

“It also shows up in commodities we utilize, like fertilizer and seed. While we’re aggressively cutting our fuel usage, we’re also looking for more effective ways to do the work we do. Because we are a user-funded program, and we already squeeze a dollar and have a pretty lean outfit, there’s just not a lot of fat to cut.”

Pugh said the Enforcement Section is an example of how the division is making the most of its resources.

“Our enforcement section, which has 135 or so field officers at present, only has three administrative level officers in the Montgomery office, which is about two percent,” he said. “I would challenge anybody to find a statewide enforcement program anywhere that operates with a two-percent centralized administrative arm. Most of our resources are, obviously, on the ground in the field on a district level, where it matters. At the same time, Allan Andress (Chief of Enforcement) and his folks are rethinking the way they do business. There are some good examples of the increased effectiveness in some of the changes already made to that program. For instance, there’s the 24/7 coverage that enables any citizen with a complaint to call here and within a matter of minutes be able to talk to an on-the-ground enforcement officer in their part of the state. The officer can make an evaluation of the nature of the complaint and whether to dispatch someone at that moment in time or if it’s something that can be handled otherwise.

“There’s a far more effective deployment of people in the enforcement section than has ever existed. It has required more flexibility in working across county lines and assigning people to work special details where there is a need for extra enforcement.”

Meanwhile, Pugh said the Wildlife Section is exploring more cost-effective ways to maintain wildlife openings on Wildlife Management Areas that involve plantings every two years and mowing in between, as well as experimenting with perennials and other plants that can be maintained for a number of years without replanting.

On the Fisheries Section front, state lake fertilization schedules and fish-stocking routines are being retuned to reduce costs.

“Being totally user funded, we have to be responsible about the way we spend money,” Pugh said. “And the responsible thing for us to do is adapt quickly to increased costs and make the changes we need to make now. If things improve, everything will be fine. If we don’t adapt and don’t make these changes and it doesn’t get better, there’s a train wreck coming. So it’s better to plan for the worst and hope for the best.”

Vernon Minton, Director of Marine Resources, said his division is considering a variety of different ways to meet the budget restrictions, including adjusting work schedules.

“What we’re looking at is possibly going to a 10-hour work day,” Minton said. “Enforcement is trying that. A 10-hour day would allow us to get better utilization of the resources. We would stay on the water longer, which will give us better coverage without putting another boat out the next day. Again, it’s one of those things we want to try before we commit to it. A lot of it is just common sense stuff. We’re looking at scheduling work where two people can share a boat instead of each using a different boat. We’re looking at different planers for boat motors to make them plane off easier. We’re also looking at cutting back on RPMs, based on manufacturers’ recommendations for optimized performance, based on the boat’s hull and weight.

“We’re trying to get the best economy of what we’re doing without cutting out services. We’re looking at the possibility of cutting out some of the roving creels – going from boat to boat. We’ve gotten some good information from that, but we’re asking biologists to evaluate whether it’s contributing enough to justify keeping that boat out there all day. The other problem is enough labor to go around. We do not want to close the office on Fridays. We need to be open to the public. And we need officers to be able to cover 24/7. It’s a touchy thing. We’ve gotten to the point where we’re confident with our coverage. But we’ve also gotten to the point that if we don’t do something with the gas, we’re going to be sitting at home. So, we’ve got to come up with something.”

Marine Police faces a situation similar to Marine Resources with extensive use of marine vessels as well as land vehicles. Marine Police has had to double the amount budgeted for gasoline and alter patrol techniques in order to conserve fuel.

“Because our officers have been placed under strict mileage limitations for both the patrol vehicles and patrol boats, providing the maximum amount of coverage with a minimum amount of travel has proven challenging,” Marine Police Director John Thomas Jenkins said. “We are utilizing floating patrols whenever possible and teaming up with officers from other divisions in order to share equipment and cut down on gasoline expense.”

Jenkins said Marine Police also buys bulk fuel, if available, from other divisions within the Department in order to lower overall costs, as well exploring other fuel-saving alternatives.

“We are looking at changing the type of air filter used on our patrol vehicles and changing the type of backfire flame arrestor used on our patrol boats in order to optimize engine efficiency and improve fuel economy.” Jenkins said. “We have even experimented with using a hydrogen generator to run one of our patrol boats. But because of compatibility issues with the on-board computer in the boat, this is not a viable option at this time.”

Marine Police is also looking at the possibility of installing bracket drives (extended motor mounts) on some of the patrol boats to increase fuel efficiency.

“Even though we are under such rigid restrictions, we will still provide the service and patrol coverage that Alabama’s boaters have come to expect and depend on from the Marine Police Division,” Jenkins said.

Tim Wishum, State Parks Division Operations and Maintenance Supervisor, said the State Parks has no choice but to reduce fuel consumption because of the budget numbers, which means several changes are in store.

“We’re making sure we use the most fuel-efficient vehicles,” Wishum said. “The construction crews that travel, they have been told to car pool when they can. Park managers, when they go to meetings, try to car pool when possible. For instance, the park manager at Guntersville would stop and pick up the Oak Mountain park manager on his way to Montgomery. We’ll use conference calling more. We’ve also asked the parks to stretch their mowing schedules to add a few more days between cuttings. And we’re looking at more natural areas with wildflowers and other native vegetation.”

Wishum also said a change in the purchase limit to $1000 from $500 would eliminate multiple trips for supplies and materials, while maintaining vehicles for the highest fuel efficiency is a high priority.

“We’re also conducting more foot patrols in high density areas,” he said. “With 800 buildings, we’re also going to have to deal with increasing power bills. TVA went up 20 percent and Alabama Power is asking for an increase.

“We’re trying to keep our prices down as much as we can. The use of camping facilities and cabins is up. I think people who can’t afford to go as much are looking at camping or renting a cabin where they can fix their own food versus eating out.”

Assistant Director Greg Lein said although State Lands might not have as many employees or vehicles, each division must do its part.

“In a nutshell, we’re dropping some of our routine patrols,” Lein said. “We’re rescheduling some of our field work to coincide with some of our peers so that we can put multiple people in a vehicle. We’re cutting non-essential travel. We’re implementing normal efficiency measures for the vehicles – making sure the tires are properly inflated and the engines are tuned up.

“In the big scheme of things, we all have our own budgets, so each of us has to deal with our own budget crunch. Basically, we all have the same problem.”