July 14, 2008 / 5:57 AM / 9 years ago

Small towns get creative as fuel costs bite

<p>A resident fuels-up his car at a gas station in Florida June 9, 2008.Carlos Barria</p>

SCOTCH PLAINS, New Jersey (Reuters) - Police officer James Denman gets a cup of coffee at a local convenience store as he prepares to swap his gas-guzzling squad car for a more energy-efficient patrol vehicle -- a bicycle.

In Scotch Plains, New Jersey, police are doing more cruising on bikes, while elsewhere across America, small towns are taking unusual measures to rein in rising costs.

One Connecticut town plans to put century-old dams back to work generating electricity, while other communities are telling workers to turn off their vehicles when stopped instead of letting them idle.

Gasoline and heating oil prices have soared, electricity has grown more expensive and health care costs keep rising, prompting municipalities to do what they can to cut costs.

Despite the summer heat, police in Scotch Plains see benefits from working on bicycles.

"Bicycle patrol has been effective for certain types of policing but our officers are doing them even a little more because of the energy problems that exist in our world today," said Tom Atkins, manager of the township of about 23,000 residents located some 20 miles west of Newark.

While riding a bike on a hot summer day may not sound as pleasant as riding in an air-conditioned car, some officers have volunteered for the assignment, Atkins said.

"It's a win-win situation for the community and the police. I love it," Denman said. "You see a policeman in a patrol car and then on a bike and ... the whole dynamic changes."

Residents also like the idea. "I'm thrilled to have a walking or riding police officer. It fosters a sense of community and security while saving on energy costs," said Lynn Caporoso, who owns an antiques store in Scotch Plains.

The town also recently bought its first police motorcycle.

FUEL COSTS HURTING

A survey released in June found that 90 percent of the 132 mayors surveyed by the U.S. Conference of Mayors said climbing fuel prices have had a significant impact on city budgets and operations.

In New Hampshire, the small city of Franklin floated the idea of turning off nearly half of its 513 street lamps to stem rising costs and shave up to $24,000 off the annual budget.

The proposal was narrowly defeated in a vote this month but officials in the city of around 10,000 are still looking for new ways to save money.

"Our problem is every year that we have another round of increases in health care costs, in the retirement system, in electricity costs, fuel costs. We just can't keep up," said Franklin Fire Chief Scott Clarenbach, who backed the proposal. "We are going to end up cutting into services here."

In Bisbee, a former copper mining town of 6,000 in southeastern Arizona, city workers are being told not to idle their vehicles but switch them off when stopped to save fuel.

Another measure involves recycling engine oil from city vehicles and using it to heat municipal garages in winter.

"A lot of the gestures are small, but they will all add up over time," said Bisbee community development manager John Charley.

Reverting to more traditional means of battling energy costs, the town of Canton, Connecticut, wants to harness power from two century-old local dams to cover rising costs.

"We are in the process of obtaining licenses to put them back online as operating facilities again," said Richard Barlow, the de facto mayor of the town of about 10,000 located about 13 miles west of Hartford.

Water from the dams, built in 1837, generated power for a local manufacturer until it went out of business in 1965.

Barlow estimates the dams can produce enough electricity to supply up to 800 homes that would be sold to the energy grid.

The town hopes for other benefits too.

"The hydropower would raise the water level ... and that would spur more recreational kayaking," Barlow said.

Additional reporting by Tim Gaynor in Arizona, Jason Szep in Boston; Editing by Eric Walsh

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