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Lower fuel costs ease Hall County's budget woes
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In a year in which local governments face tight budgets and low revenues, the sharp decrease in fuel prices could save Hall County from running a deficit, Finance Director Michaela Thompson said.

"Based on how rapidly (fuel prices) increased at the beginning of our fiscal year, we were in a budget deficit," Thompson said. "Now with the decrease in fuel (prices), we’re monitoring our costs, so what we’re projecting is that we actually make our budget number, where as before we had concerns we would be over budget.

"So thankfully, the fuel will be an area of budget control, and that will be right on what we put in the budget. It’s still too early to tell, but that’s what our thought process is."

Last summer, the outlook for the fiscal year was not good for Hall County, with tax revenues down and gas prices up at $4 per gallon and not projected to go down.

The county even held a special summit that brought together department heads and the board of commissioners to come up with ways to reduce fuel consumption.

But in just a few months, gas has dropped rapidly to as low as $1.50 per gallon. Yet county departments are still using the fuel-saving techniques they started over the summer to help ease losses in other areas.

"We began these to assist with the fuel costs, but as the fuel prices have come down we have kept these in place and that helps with the overall budget in these tough economic times," said Col. Jeff Strickland of the Hall County Sheriff’s Office.

Strickland said the sheriff’s office encourages employees to ride motorcycles, which are more fuel efficient than cars, when it’s above 40 degrees outside, car pool when possible, and spend 10 minutes out of every hour patrolling on foot instead of in the car.

"Of course, the drop in fuel per gallon has eased our costs somewhat, but we still have our fuel-saving measures in place; we have not changed any of those," Strickland said. "There’s a number of things we’ve implemented and we really haven’t eased up any."

Fire Marshal Scott Cagle said Hall County Fire Services has also maintained its fuel-saving measures.

"Even though the prices have gone down, we are still implementing our conservation efforts," Cagle said.

Fire services has kept up measures similar to the sheriff’s office, including car pooling and doing work by phone when possible.

Inspectors also consolidate trips by "not going to say, Flowery Branch, for one inspection; they’ll wait until they have two or three," Cagle said.

Purchasing Manager Tim Sims said the low gas prices have helped but not totally relieved the county’s budget woes.

"Our dollar goes a little further on other things besides fuel," Sims said. "That’s helped us out with our other downturn in the economy with some of our other revenues that are not coming in as expected."

One new way the county is saving money on fuel is through switching gas credit cards.

"We have converted to the BP card now from Citgo so we’re getting an extra 10 cents off per gallon that we purchase. In addition to all the taxes and things being taken off our bill, it’s like we’re buying it wholesale," Sims said.

Countywide, Sims believes people are trying their best to cut costs.

"Any way we can find ways to cut expenses, we’re doing that. And I think the departments are still in that mode," Sims said.