Consumers Suffer From Gas Indigestion

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Charlie Hall is no stranger to leaks.

As a self-employed plumber, he plugs them all the time.

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Like many Payson residents, post office mail carrier Dianne Engle is adjusting her driving habits to compensate for the rising price of gas. "Before I go anywhere I think, ‘Do I really need to go on this trip?'" Engle said.

But there's one leak Hall, owner of Wrangler Plumbing, can't seem to fix -- it's the one flowing out of his wallet.

"This is the highest I've seen (gas prices) go," Hall said. "It has put our overhead way up there."

If your empty gasoline tank makes you want to kick something, you're not alone. Since Valentine's Day, national fuel prices have jumped 38.2 cents, topping off at about $2.53 a gallon earlier this week, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA).

On the West coast, including Arizona, drivers are paying more than $2.60 a gallon for premium-grade gasoline, $2.58 for diesel, and this region's prices are beating out the rest of the nation.

In Carmel, Calif., a gallon of gasoline is going for $3.12.

The extra fuel costs have many small business owners in a quandary. Hall said he's struggling to maintain his affordable prices while the bottom line crumbles underneath him.

Hall's three work vehicles and two septic pump trucks live on plenty of diesel-power. The pump trucks alone consume 60 to 70 gallons each.

At $2.36 a gallon -- the going rate in Payson -- that's more than $165 to fill 'er up.

"We can't have fuel efficient vehicles because we can't do our work in a small truck," said Hall who drives as far as Tonto Basin and Forest Lakes to pump septic tanks. "You can't drive up in a Toyota pickup and expect to have everything you need."

Joseph Weathersby, owner of Lightning Transportation, a limousine service in Payson, said between fuel costs and his $1,100-a-month insurance premium to be properly licensed, he and his business partner and wife, Debbie can only hope gas prices take a downturn.

Weathersby said monthly fuel expenses for his two service vehicles -- a van and a limo -- hovered around $400 about four weeks ago. With the recent spike in fuel costs, he pays at least $200 more.

The Weathersbys are especially concerned about their long-distance service. Their business takes them to the Valley five to seven times a week, and as far as Gallup, N.M. "It's affecting the bottom line," Debbie said. "We haven't put it on our customers because it's not their fault that the gas prices have gone up."

Well, sort of. Consumers, first and foremost, drive the petroleum market -- supply and demand -- basic economics. As international demand gets drunk on the world's petroleum supply, prices will remain high, reported the EIA. Don't be surprised if the kegger continues into the summer as Americans fuel up their Winnebagos, SeaDos and all-terrain vehicles.

Perhaps you bought a diesel truck, admiring its pulling prowess and economic grace. Leisure enthusiasts all over the Rim country could find disappointment instead of recreation bliss if fuel prices don't drop by June.

Diesel has increased nearly 60 percent from this time last year. Earlier this week, the EIA said that a gallon of diesel tipped at $2.58.

Diesel is becoming increasingly expensive, according to the EIA, because of rising crude oil prices. Political instability in the Middle East, stagnant petroleum supplies, limited output, and excessive refinery costs are the villains. In accordance with new Environmental Protection Agency standards, low-sulfur diesel is more expensive to manufacture -- and some motorists are already feeling the squeeze.

"Am I upset about the pricing? You bet I am," said Don Monteath who's planning an RV trek north this summer.

He hasn't yet canceled his vacation, but he's reconsidering, especially if gas prices don't stabilize, and his road-trip ends up covering 6,000 miles like it did last summer.

"If it gets too ridiculous. I may call the long trip off," he said. "We won't give up, but we'll pull it back."

All things considered, fuel prices are still a few cents short of what motorists paid 20 years ago.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in April 1985, a gallon of unleaded was $1.20 -- seems cheap compared to what gasoline costs today. But, if you provide for inflation, the Consumer Price Index calculates the same gallon of gasoline at $2.79 in the current economy.

Even government agencies can't shake ugly gasoline prices.

Payson Police Department Chief Gordon Gartner said his $38,000 fuel budget for 2004-2005 is all but a dream. He estimated that if gas prices don't recede, the department could spill over its fuel allotment by as much as $10,000.

Gartner emphasized that gasoline is, unfortunately, a cost of doing police work, and will not affect their level of service.

"We pretty much have to do what we have to do," Gartner said. "There's not a lot we can do about it."

Joe Martin, director of support operations, assessed his fleet of Payson Unified School District's 25 buses that transport 742 students. Martin said the school district is trying to cut down on fuel costs by encouraging employees to carpool to meetings during business hours in government-owned vehicles.

Martin said the scheduled maintenance of buses keeps them running efficiently.

"If there are any vehicles that are gas hogs, we try to rotate them out," Martin said.

And, be sure to rotate out any bad gasoline-guzzling habits to conserve fuel.

Dianne Engle, a post office letter carrier in Payson, said gas prices have forced her to think more about driving.

"Before I go anywhere, I think, ‘Do I really need to go on this trip?'" Engle said. "I try to combine things and get more done with each trip."

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency suggests that drivers obey the speed limit, minimize idling, use cruise controls and overdrive gears, and refrain from goosing the engine and slamming on the brakes.

For more information about gas prices, visit: www.gaspricewatch.com.

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