ST. JOSEPH — In the face of a national diesel fuel shortage and an increasingly uncertain bid process, the Berrien County Road Department has locked in diesel fuel prices for the next six months.

Commissioners approved a road department resolution at their Nov. 3 meeting, contracting with Ceres for unleaded gasoline and diesel fuel until May 3, 2023.

The contract locks in a price of $3.09 per gallon for unleaded and $4.11 for diesel for the Benton Harbor, Baroda, Three Oaks and Bakertown garages. The Watervliet and Eau Claire garages will pay $4.21 per gallon for diesel, because of a costlier delivery.

Their tanks hold only 1,000 gallons of fuel, as opposed to the 8,000-gallon tanks at the Benton Harbor, Baroda, Three Oaks and Bakertown garages.

The road department estimated it will use 66,000 gallons of diesel fuel and 14,000 gallons of unleaded gasoline in that six-month timeframe.

Previously, the road department had placed orders with vendors the day of. Because of a shortage of drivers, vendors were unable to transport the fuel, leaving the department stuck, said Barbi Hoge, the road department’s senior accountant, to commissioners Thursday.

“Just a couple of months ago, we had one of our garages without fuel for three days. We can’t have that going into winter season. Snow event: we don’t have fuel; we cannot plow the roads,” she said.

Especially with winter upcoming, Hoge said it was critical for the department to have a guaranteed source of fuel to keep roads clear. If it’s not successful, the board can decide not to renew.

“It’s not a matter of pricing,” Hoge said. “It’s a matter of need.”

Berrien County submitted bids with several companies. Only Ceres responded with an offer. Hoge said companies typically contract for 12 or 18 months at a time. A six-month contract was the shortest one the county could request.

“These prices are only going to go up,” said Board Chair Mac Elliott.

Elliott, commissioners Ezra Scott and Jon Hinkelman all said the country was facing a diesel fuel shortage.

“This is a response to a dynamic and truly remarkable set of circumstances,” Elliott said.

Budget

Berrien County commissioners got a first-hand look for the 2023 budget on Nov. 3.

The proposed $184 million budget would reduce fundbalances by $5.3 million. However, Berrien County Administrator Brian Dissette said this move would not deplete the general fund balance.

Doug James, the county’s finance services director, presented on the budget, but no action was taken.

Commissioner Ezra Scott raised concerns about expenditures already budgeted to outpace revenues with uncertain costs in the year ahead.

“We don’t know what fuel is going to be like. We don’t know what the economy is going to be like,” he said.

Dissette said the $5.3 million would not be taken from the general fund.

“The net change in fund balance – that’s across all funds, so to assume that we’re drawing down (the) general fund balance by $5.3 million is not a correct assumption,” Dissette said. The recommended budget also did not factor in American Rescue Plan Act funds. Once those become allocated, James said the budget could be amended.

Additionally, Berrien County voters will decide whether to approve the County Law Enforcement and Public Safety Millage replacement next Tuesday, which would increase the rate of 0.3496 mills to 0.4500 mills. The budget presented Thursday used the current millage of0.3496, James said.

Property taxes made up 36.5 percent of the proposed primary governmental revenues for 2023, and intergovernmental revenue made up another 34.6 percent. The revenue from property taxes is expected to increase by $2.3 million – or 4.3 percent – in 2023, the growth being driven by an increase in taxable value, James said.

Primary government expenses are expected to growby 2.2 percent – or $3.5 million. Salaries and wages, as well as benefits, make up almost half of these costs, at $79 million. These personnel costs are expected to increase by $906,000, or 1.2 percent.

The recommended 2023 budget projects the county will have 812.7 full-time equivalent employees, an increase of 7.1 from 2022 and 23.3 from 2021.

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