The County Press

High gas prices impact police budgeting

Sheriff’s department has already made adjustments

The high cost of gasoline is impacting local police agency budgets. Photo by Jeff Hogan

The high cost of gasoline is impacting local police agency budgets. Photo by Jeff Hogan

LAPEER COUNTY — As the summer months arrive, Lapeer County citizens might have to think twice before planning to hit the road for vacations.

As of Monday, gas prices in Michigan set a new record high at an average of $4.38 per gallon for regular unleaded. Last week’s gas price average is 48 cents more than it was in mid-April, and a whopping $1.43 more than May of 2021. Around Lapeer County, most gas prices are hovering around $4.59 this weekend.

As much as the climbing gas prices might affect the area’s citizenry, the fuel pump woes are compounded for county services that rely on operating fleets of vehicles.

Law enforcement services throughout the county keep a watchful eye on gas price trends, and the increasing prices are a point of concern, said Imlay City Police Chief Brett Selby. “There’s no doubt gas prices are on the mind of everyone, especially administrators who are watching the prices eat away at the fuel budgets of state and local first responders,” he said.

In most cases, budgeting takes place once per fiscal year, and even when allowing for fluctuations in a line item like fuel, the abnormally high prices are something impossible to account for. The Lapeer County Sheriff’s Dept. typically has six to nine cars on the road during both day and night shifts, and according to Lapeer County Sheriff Scott McKenna, they’ve already had to make adjustments. “We have always left the line item at a higher amount because of the drastic changes in gas prices over the years,” he said. “If we have a surplus at the end of the year then we do a budget amendment to move to another line item that needs additional funding.”

This year is different, said McKenna. “We currently have spent 49% of our gas line item in the first five months of the budget,” he said. Including contract deputies and general cars, the six-to-nine cars on shift cover the entire county, but “due to us being drastically down people, that number is lower recently for obvious reasons,” said McKenna.

In Lapeer, the budgetary process is finalized in March of the current year, and the approved new budget runs from July 1 through June 30 of the following year, said Lapeer Police Dept. Chief Dave Frisch. Costs like fuel expenses are projected using a formula based on data such as previous years’ miles driven, number of vehicles per city department and anticipated fuel cost increases.

On average per day, 10 vehicles will be in operation in the city of Lapeer, between patrol services, school resource officers, code enforcement and detectives, with mileage driven yet another variable that can be different depending on the job assignment. “Should the increase in fuel costs continue, these costs could exceed projected cost expectations,” Frisch said. “Adjustments would then need to be made with no increase to the overall police operational budget.”

The increasing fuel prices affect law enforcement “drastically in all areas,” said McKenna. “We’re only five months into our fiscal year and already see that multiple adjustments or cut backs are going to have to occur to fall within those budgeted line items,” he said. Sheriff’s department administrators monitor each line item on a weekly basis, juggling multiple factors impacting each, “but I am expecting that we are going to have to do multiple budget amendments,” said McKenna.

In Imlay City, the police department enacted a “no idle” order before the current price hike due to recommendations from the department’s vehicle’s manufacturer. “We drive Ford Explorers, and Ford engineers will tell you that idling is the worst thing for a patrol car to do,” said Selby.

But as summer arrives, the question of idling a police vehicle gets a little more complicated than simply turning the key. “Today’s police cars are equipped internally with thousands of dollars of electronics and wireless computer modules, yards of wires and components along with a pricey laptop,” said Selby. “In 80-plus degree weather, with the car off and no air on, it would only take 20 minutes of the car being shut off to reach a potential internal temperature of the patrol car of 112+ degrees.”

That’s not the best environment for the sensitive equipment within the car, because while it’s built to withstand the elements, the contrast in heat and cool can be detrimental to the life of the hardware, and in some cases, cause a reboot, said Selby. “In addition to the computer system, there is an in-car video and audio system that is a pull on the battery whether the car is on or off as well,” he said. “With some wiring systems, the police car is required to be kept on in order to log into the laptop to be able to send and receive data.”

That’s a “very important” caveat when it comes to dispatch calls as well as writing reports and logging evidence, Selby said. If the computer shuts off because the car’s ignition is off, all data is lost as well as the connection to the law enforcement database. “Now this is always not the case, some cars will allow the computer to be on and a connection to be kept by running off of the in-car battery,” he said. “In many cases each car is unique as to the way it is wired by the contractor as to what stays on and what does not.”

Further, the in-car video system has a storage capacity and requires a download from the car. “Sometimes this could take a half hour or so depending on the gig speed of the download, and if the car is not running, this may affect the life of the car battery,” said Selby.

While a limitation on idling is in effect, reducing some strain on the budget in terms of fuel costs, there are still cases in which the cars will be running, thus using fuel. It’s not “wasting gas,” Selby said, but idling for short periods of time “out of necessity.”