High fuel costs are posing additional challenges to local government officials in an already difficult budget season.

“From what we’re hearing here, this is going to be one of the toughest municipal budget years ever — ever. Rising fuel prices are only going to make that tougher,” said Eric Conrad, spokesman for the Maine Municipal Association.

It’s not just the gasoline and diesel that go into vehicles or the heating oil for buildings that are getting more expensive, Conrad said. Because oil is used in liquid asphalt, local officials may see costs for road construction projects rise as well, he said.

Bridgton Town Manager Mitchell Berkowitz started putting together his proposed budget in the fall, when heating season was just beginning, so he’ll have to go back and rework the numbers. It’s too early to know exactly how he might make up the difference, but higher fuel prices could result in changes such as using one less vehicle to plow roads or delays in the town’s paving schedule, he said.

“I think I’d be lying if I said things haven’t changed and things are really easy,” Berkowitz said.

South Portland Finance Director Greg L’Heureux said the city has in the past had great timing with its commodities bids, locking in when fuel prices are at their lowest. But that looks unlikely for the fiscal year starting in July because prices have risen and are likely to remain high.

“For next year, it’s a totally different situation,” he said. “The coming fiscal year starting in July is truly an unknown at this point.”

Officials note that fuel costs are one of the many factors affecting budget plans. In some cases, high fuel costs have been mitigated by the mild winter, reducing the amount of heating oil used, for example. Some communities have realized other savings, by regionalizing services, negotiating with union employees to change health insurance plans, or switching to cheaper natural gas for heat.

Portland is trying to realize savings with steps such as reminding employees about its anti-idling policy and replacing its police cruisers with more fuel-efficient models.

Portland budgets for 400,000 gallons of fuel a year. Public services accounts for roughly half that, and the rest is used by fire and police.

City employees are supposed to turn off their engines unless the temperature falls below 30 degrees or if there are items such as police electronics that require the engine to function, said Michael Bobinsky, director of public services. The city is experimenting with on-board equipment that officers can use even when the engine is off.

“It all adds up. When you’re looking at fuel prices that are over $3 a gallon for the city, it’s a reminder for all of us to use best practices, use equipment wisely, minimize trips — that kind of stuff,” he said.

Portland is also replacing its Crown Victoria police cruisers with the Ford Interceptor, which has a six-cylinder engine rather than eight. Two have already been replaced and the city may replace another six to 12 in the next fiscal year, said Nicole Clegg, a city spokeswoman.

Staff Writer Ann S. Kim can be contacted at 791-6383 or at:

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