Salt Lake County leaders are pinching their pocketbooks and rushing to find reprieve from skyrocketing gas prices.

The county is doing everything from driving less to investing more in new technologies designed to curb oil consumption, said John Webster, the county's fleet director.

"The cost of fuel, we know we can't change that," Webster said. "But we can continually find improvements in how we are going forward. We think we can constantly improve and keep weaning ourselves away."

Some departments are even working on a four-day workweek or using flex time to cut back on travel costs to and from work. However, the four-day week is not a set policy, like Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s recently announced plan for the state.

Allowing employees to use the shortened workweek is purely up to the discretion of individual county supervisors.

"Right now our goal, of course, is conservation," said Darrin Casper, the county's chief financial officer. "We're having to look at all sorts of ways."

On Tuesday, a gallon of regular unleaded reached a record high average of $4.091 in Utah, according to the AAA. County departments planned ahead and budgeted for an increase in gas prices. But nobody saw record-high prices coming.

"This has caught everybody off guard. I don't know that anybody could have foreseen that," Casper said.

Several county offices are already on track to overspend their fuel budgets, Casper said.

The county parks and recreation department is about 2 percent over budget, and the sheriff's office is about .07 percent over on its fuel budget so far this year, Casper said.

However, no department heads asked for a budget adjustment last month to make up for the rising gas prices. Individual departments are just taking the hit in other areas, Casper said.

"It's tough right now, every time you mow the lawn, every time you put gas in that mower, every penny it goes up it costs us a lot of money," said Martin Jensen, spokesman for Salt Lake County Parks and Recreation. "That budget is tight."

For the past few years, the county has been slowly cutting out gas-guzzlers from the fleet and replacing them with more environmentally friendly vehicles.

Employees at the district attorney's office used to drive eight-cylinder Ford Crown Victorias but now drive four-cylinder Chevy Malibus. And the sheriff's office just nabbed 10 new Malibu hybrids for its administrative staff, Webster said.

The county is also getting ready to purchase two hybrid aerial trucks used for street light maintenance.

The purchases are in line with the county's policy requiring departments to use the most fuel-efficient vehicle for the job.

"We're starting to purchase hybrids or much more fuel-efficient vehicles," Webster said. "We're starting to make much more fuel-efficient purchases. That is really a much better way of managing that, managing that through technology."

Webster is also constantly looking for new technology to conserve energy.

Recently, Webster replaced the sheriff's Ford F-150s in the fleet with another half-ton pickup and was able to come up with a way to get two more miles to the gallon.

The new pickups use a multi-displacement management system, which will take the V-8 engine and switch it to a four-cylinder when the truck is idling.

Webster said the county will soon add biodiesel options in its fleet. And he is crafting a plan to reduce idling in the county's fleet.

"We're aligning ourselves with all the options," Webster said. "I don't think there's one silver bullet out there."


E-mail: ldethman@desnews.com