Saturday, April 16, 2011

Fuel cost spike boosts state revenues but also criminal justice costs

The Texas Tribune had a brief piece on rising gas prices and their effect on the state budget, linking to this interesting report from LBB (pdf) about increased costs during the 2008 spike in gas prices. Since I paid about $3.70 per gallon when I last filled up the Gritsmobile, I suppose it's a timely moment to examine the criminal-justice implications of higher fuel prices.

In 2008, according to LBB, both oil and natural gas prices spiked, and I was interested to learn that TDCJ utility costs from rising fuel prices that year actually outstripped the much-more publicized added cost to transportation from more expensive gasoline. Fuel costs for utilities went up $8.8 million in 2008 from the previous year, or 9.7%. For now that's not an issue. The Tribune notes that "prices for other types of electricity tend to track natural gas prices, so electricity prices have not shot up — for the moment." TDCJ's total fuel-related costs associated with utilities were a whopping $99.9 million in 2008. That's a big number.

Transportation fuel costs, by contrast, increased 31.9% when gas prices spiked, but that represented just $4.1 million extra to TDCJ's budget, for a total of $17 million spent by TDCJ on transportation fuels in 2008. That line item will inevitably go up for them now, as well.

More severely affected by higher transportation fuel costs is the Department of Public Safety, where troopers spend lots of hours just driving the highways looking for traffic violators. In 2008, DPS fuel costs increased $6.4 million, or 56.3%. I'm sure they're already seeing a similar increase right now, budget cuts or no. Ditto for local police and sheriffs who operate patrol units - an ill-timed extra expense in an era of declining budgets and local property tax revenue.

Perhaps this bespeaks an hidden agenda behind the push for "checkpoints" for driver licenses, insurance, DWIs, border security, etc. ... why should troopers or local police spend money on gasoline driving around looking for violators when they can sit in one place, cast a huge net, and force the public to filter through it like a sieve while their vehicles remain inexpensively parked?

Oil selling at $110 per barrel certainly helps replenish the state's coffers, but that doesn't automatically translate into higher line items for fuel costs in state agency budgets. And especially when it comes to things like prisoner transport, there's only a limited extent to which it's possible to reduce the number of miles driven and still perform the core functions of the agency. If TDCJ is going to house prisoners in Dalhart or Fort Stockton, for example, they'll at a minimum have to drive them out there after initial processing and back to a regional release center when their time is up. If they have a health crisis, become a discipline problem, or need to be moved for any other operational reasons, the number of miles driven grows even higher. Short of closing such outlying units, which might not be a bad idea since they're also notoriously hard to keep staffed, you don't get to not pay for transportation cost as long as prisoners are housed there.


ckikerintulia said...

Some taxi companies impose a fuel surcharge if gas prices go beyond a certain level. Maybe DPS could set up check points, and just level a fuel surcharge,say $5.00, to every vehicle stopped. It could go to help pay the extra fuel costs for the fuel the troopers are not using while they're manning the check points. No new tax, mind you. Just a surcharge.

Tongue firmly in cheek.

The Homeless Cowboy said...

When I was in TDC, (in the 1970's) they ran 2 chain buses a week. I was at the Ferguson Unit and if you had a medical appt (Dr. or Dentist) you took the chain to the walls to see them. Releases, prereleases, transfers etc. were all handled like that. So I would think that fuel prices would have quite an effect on thier operating cost, if they still do that.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

It's worse now, THC. Back then nobody had to drive out to friggin' Dalhart! That's a long damn way from anywhere. By the time you hit Amarillo, you've still got 86 miles to go! If memory serves, Dalhart is closer to the capitals of six other states than to Austin.

My late grandparents on both sides lived in Dalhart and growing up we made the drive twice per year from Tyler - it took 12 hours in the family car, without any prisoner security protocols, etc.. And Huntsville is even farther away.

ckikerintulia said...

Dalhart is nearer to Santa Fe, Denver, Cheyenne, Lincoln, Topeka, and Oklahoma City than it is to Austin.

Anonymous said...

All state employees should not be allowed to driver a state owned vehicle home or conduct personal business in.

The only exception I would consider in taking home cases is when a trooper is on call. Otherwise, the cars stay put.

The Homeless Cowboy said...

Thats true Grits Dahart is two miles past east Jesus. So the yearly fuel costs for Uncle Bud farms must be pretty near astronomical. If not downright outrageous. Dont you think??

A Texas PO said...

Another part of this that wasn't mentioned is the effect these higher gas prices have on home visits for probation and parole officers. Several counties have fleet cards at some of the most expensive gas stations in the state which only adds to the cost. Then you have officers who complete this work in their personal vehicles and have a really difficult time getting their money back for the mileage at varying rates across the state.

And Anon 8:52- State employees who take home a state car have been required to reimburse the state for any mileage and fuel used for personal matters. To what extent each agency monitors this, I can't say.

Anonymous said...

For some reason I liken the Gritsmobile to that godawful family roadster station wagon the Griswalds had in the original Family Vacation. How funny.