The falling price of gas was hailed at this week's commission meeting when Chief Procurement Officer Russ Wetherington said the county could realize a $205,000 savings by adjusting the fuel budget.
It was one of the few bright spots at Tuesday's meeting where commissioners were discussing cost-cutting options to close a $6 million shortfall in the general fund.
But there is disagreement as to how much of that $205,000 savings will actually help eliminate the shortfall, especially since most of the fuel revenue will not affect the general fund.
And, as if to underscore that concern, the price of gasoline rose a nickel Wednesday in some area stations.
Wetherington said the county fleet department has seen "a dramatic decrease" in the costs of fuel.
Under a revised budget projection chart, Wetherington said the county has the ability to save $34,000 for unleaded fuel (based on 200,000 gallons), and $93,000 in diesel fuel, using about 300,000 gallons. The sheriff's office should save $78,000, Wetherington said.
"Those are immediate reductions in the budget that can be taken," Wetherington said.
But budget manager George Zoettlein said the general fund — where most of the concern is focused — would realize only an $8,000 to $10,000 reduction because most of the fuel revenue is in other departments, such as the public works, utilities, the fire department and THE Bus.
But Wetherington disagreed and said the budget manager was figuring the savings based on the current budget and not fiscal year 2013, which is the one currently being assembled.
Sheriff Al Nienhuis called Wetherington's $78,000 cost savings estimate of his office's fuel savings a little too optimistic.
"I think that might be a little aggressive in cutting," Nienhuis said Thursday.
Nienhuis said it is dicey trying to calculate a budget based on gas pries because they are ever-changing.
If he budgets low there is the chance of running out of money. Budget too high and he is accused of not cutting enough.
"Either way you can be criticized," Nienhuis said.
Nienhuis said he prefers to budget on the higher side for fuel and return the money at the end of the budget year if he overestimates.
Nienhuis said all deputies and employees are encouraged to gas up at the sheriff's office whenever possible. But whenever they are in the field, such as Aripeka or Spring Hill, they use gas cards at local stations and receive a discount.
Steve Whittaker, assistant director of public works, said the new fuel reduction estimates are a result of a 20-cent per gallon adjustment from the fleet department based on the recent decrease in gas costs.
While the savings benefit the countywide budget, it doesn't have a huge effect on the general fund, which is where the revenue shortfall is most glaring.
And, given the volubility of the fuel industry, it is difficult to predict what the county will be paying going forward.
"To try and predict what we'll be paying for fuel 12 months from now is extremely tough," Whittaker said.
Still, every little bit helps, and even these modest cost savings add up if there are enough of them, he said.
"I think it does show the board is looking at every area of expense the county has," he said.
County Commissioner John Druzbick said this and all the cost-savings initiatives staff have presented to this point are not enough to satisfy him that the county will be able to close the shortfall without raising property taxes.
He favors an increase of .4572 mills, which would still leave the county $2.6 million in the red.