Area fleets endure gas-price pain |

Area fleets endure gas-price pain

“I have always been a gambler,” Lowell Robinson said recently, but the surge in Nevada County’s fuel prices has caused even the veteran entrepreneur to lose some sleep.

“It makes you get up earlier in the morning and stay a little later,” said Robinson, owner of Robinson Enterprises in Grass Valley, which is involved in timber harvesting, construction, hauling, excavation and petroleum.

Robinson’s long days are caused by the $150 a day increase in fuel costs he is paying to keep his transport trucks and off-highway equipment running, a surge that has played havoc with his ability to bid profitably on jobs.

“We haven’t started any of our logging trucks yet to see what is going to happen as far as the prices we’re working for,” he said.

Robinson’s concern reflects the attitude of western Nevada County business leaders who have watched prices climb at the gas pump less than two months before the area’s heavy tourist season begins.

Some retailers who rely on day trippers to the Gold County have already noticed a drop in visitors, while area businesses that run on fuel look for ways to pass on increased costs to their customers – all reflections of our fuel-dependent economy.

A statewide survey conducted Wednesday by AAA of Northern California found that the average price for a gallon of regular unleaded was $2.51, the highest in the nation.

Area motorists would probably settle for those prices now. A survey this week of seven gas stations in the Grass Valley area showed an average price of $2.56 a gallon, an increase of 31 cents, or 14 percent, since March 15.

“The luxury things like travel are really going to be affected,” said Cathy Whittlesey, executive manager of the Nevada City Chamber of Commerce. “You have to buy gas to go to work, but you don’t have to go visit a town. You can find something else to do.”

Whittlesey said Nevada City merchants have been expressing concern about gas prices for several months. “They feel it is affecting people visiting Nevada City,” she said.

Mary Ann Mueller, president/CEO of the Grass Valley Chamber of Commerce, said inquiries at the Chamber office are virtually unchanged from the year-earlier period.

“We are not seeing any significant drop in folks coming to our area as a result of increased gas prices,” she said. “The real story will unfold as the ‘season’ begins in June.

“Hopefully, gas prices will come down by then, but who can tell.”

For Doug Sowell, co-owner of Ernie’s Van and Storage in Grass Valley, the prices can’t go down soon enough. His business delivers furniture and other goods to all parts of the nation.

Diesel fuel, traditionally cheaper than gasoline, now sells at a record price of $2.69 a gallon, according to AAA. That development mystifies Sowell.

“It increases the cost of doing business for us,” he said. “It affects us greatly in terms of profit margin, but there is not much I can do to pass it on.”

The company’s rates are set by the state Public Utilities Commission, so Ernie’s has to live with smaller profit margins, barring a rate increase.

Ernie’s has been in the business long enough to know the shortest routes to its customers, so the company focuses on its 18 trucks to try to cut costs. “We keep our trucks tuned up and run them as efficiently as we can,” Sowell said.

Bob Buhlis, owner of Nevada City Postal Company, said all of the package delivery companies have fuel surcharges built into their rates. Currently, those charges range from 5.75 percent to 10.5 percent for air overnight service.

Durham School Services uses 69 buses to transport western Nevada County students, and general manager Allen Wiseman said the price increases “are killing us.”

Most of Durham’s contracts have provisions for fuel price surcharges, but Wiseman said the company is reluctant to pass on the costs to school districts because of their tight budget situations.

Durham’s current contract was renewed in 1996, when fuel prices were considerably lower, and Wiseman said he asked for one increase of 15 to 20 cents a gallon since then, “which still puts us in the hole about 40 or 50 cents a gallon.”

“We’re stuck,” he said. “We can’t pass on too much of the increase because we know the schools have budget problems, and there’s not much we can do to economize.”

Robinson Enterprises also supplies fuel for commercial and heavy-duty vehicles in the area, and Lowell Robinson said his customers are beginning to feel the pinch of high prices.

“It’s hitting a lot of people,” he said. “We sell a lot of fuel, and every one of our customers is in a tight situation. The fuel costs so much that I can’t give people much credit.”

Perhaps Whittlesey has the best approach to the issue. “I don’t even look at the price,” she said. “I don’t want to know.”

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