August 8, 2013

Editorial: Give system chance to work


---- — Franklin County is spending $1,000 more a month on fuel than it did previously, which seems, on the surface, to be a poor decision. But the county manager promises the new program will create a substantial savings.

The issue arose when two auditors questioned Franklin County’s change from filling up at Highway Department pumps to purchasing gas with credit cards at regular gas stations. The switch came in March, and fuel bills are running about $1,000 higher monthly.

The gas cards, from a company called Wright Express, are being used by Public Transportation, Building and Grounds, the District Attorney’s Office, Emergency Services and the Sheriff’s Department.

The Press-Republican secured documents, through the Freedom of Information Act, showing that county gas-card users paid an average of $3.12 per gallon for unleaded fuel compared to $2.99 a gallon at the Highway Garage fuel station in April and that diesel was $3.54 a gallon at gas stations and $3.14 a gallon at the Highway Garage. That trend continued in May and June.

Legislators rightfully expressed concern about the higher costs. But County Manager Thomas Leitz tells the Press-Republican there are factors that will mitigate the expenses.

Public Transportation is by far the biggest user of the credit cards, and he said the bus costs are reimbursable on a per-mile basis through state and federal aid. We have concerns about thinking those sources should pay more either, as it is all taxpayer money, but Leitz assures us the county cost through Wright Express is less than regular gas-station customers and also that the county won’t be charged tax.

He says the switch will reduce mileage for drivers now going out of their way to the highway pumps — only two or three miles for the north-end pump but about 15 miles roundtrip in the south end.

The county will also have more information about purchases, as the credit cards provide the transaction date, exact time, driver number, total cost, place of purchase and the distance driven between that and the previous purchase. All the county knows at the highway pumps is the department code and the amount and cost of the fuel.

Better accountability is always important, both for calculating costs and reducing the chance of fraud.

There is also concern about the north-end pump, which Leitz describes as a “creaky, aging system.” The potential for environmental concerns could translate to future costly penalties. The pump would cost about $300,000 to replace, which legislators removed from the budget to save money. Using gas-station pumps would expunge that replacement cost.

Although only 15 to 20 counties are using the credit-card system, Leitz believes that spending more monthly will be offset by reimbursement revenue, elimination of environmental concerns and better accountability.

Leitz has been a smart manager of county operations to this point, so we suggest he be given a chance to prove this new system can save the county money.