Lower Gas Prices Fueling Boost In Services

February 3, 2015       The NonProfit Times      

Every year Easy Lift Transportation’s 28 vehicles collectively travel more than 840,000 miles, the equivalent of about 300 trips from New York City to Los Angeles. The organization spent some $300,000 last year on gasoline. This year, that bill will be cut by roughly $40,000.

“It’s almost like a small grant,” said Ernesto Paredes, executive director of the Goleta, Calif.-based organization. “Although it has been fantastic, we haven’t seen the savings because we use them to provide more service hours.”

In south Santa Barbara County, where Easy Lift operates, gas was around $2.80 a gallon at the end of January. At the same time the year before, it was around $4. According to the American Automobile Association, the average price at the end of January for a gallon of regular-grade gas was $2.04. In late December 2014 it was $2.28. Just a year before, gas cost on average a dollar per gallon more: $3.27.

Paredes estimates his organization is saving between $3,000 and $4,000 every month the gas price remains low. When Paredes joined the organization 24 years ago, he didn’t expect to become as conversant with gasoline prices as any oil speculator. But with so many vehicles logging so many miles, it’s a big part of the job.

“Every year when we budget gas prices, we do as much homework as we can,” he said. “We try to follow national and world trends, what can we anticipate. There’s always seasonal dips and increases.” Easy Lift’s current budget assumed an average gas price of $4.15 per gallon.

Paredes said there’s almost always an increase in April, and at least one more throughout the year. “That part is a little like a dartboard. We try to get the best information we can from analysts, but there’s no rhyme or reason,” he said. “Sometimes a refinery is down for repairs, or there’s a fire, or there’s tension in the Middle East. The people who speculate really drive the prices at the pumps.”

The windfall of low gas prices has come at just the right time for Easy Lift. With implementation of the Affordable Care Act, “a lot more individuals are now qualified for health care. Of them, a good percentage have transit issues,” said Paredes. As a result, demand for Easy Lift’s services has gone up, and the organization now has to turn people away. But, lower gas prices means fewer people turned away.

Without the extra funds freed up from lower prices at the pump, Easy Lift would have to rely more on fundraising to meet the growing demand. “We appeal to major funders, foundations, the community, individuals. We appeal to families of passengers. We go after adult children whose parents need our services,” Paredes said.

Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston doesn’t trouble itself too much with gas prices. While its Meals on Wheels program is affected by rising and falling gas prices, “We have to go deliver meals every day” whether it costs $25 or $50 to fill a tank, said communications manager Andrea Fineman.

Fineman said keeping Interfaith Ministries’ fleet of 24 vehicles topped off cost about $98,500 last year. “When gas prices soar, it does put a little dent in our budget. It’s not a huge difference that we see,” she said.

Interfaith Ministries budgets for the year. Keeping vehicles fueled does figure into the budget. Fineman said the organization has to make “an educated guess to see what prices are going to do. Despite being in Texas — “Oil is big down here,” said Fineman — Interfaith Ministries did not expect a drastic drop in gas prices.

“Whatever we save we can put back into the program, for sure,” said Fineman. “We don’t necessarily have a big plan for what to do with (cost savings), but theoretically whatever we don’t spend on gas we can spend on other areas.”

Interfaith Ministries is one of about 5,000 Meals on Wheels programs in the U.S. Routes can be one mile in a major city or 150 miles in rural areas. Jenny Bertolette, communications director for the Alexandria, Va.-based Meals on Wheels Association of America (MOWAA), said the nature of the programs varies greatly.

“Some rely solely on volunteer drivers who own their own cars and pay for their own gas,” she said. Some have a fleet of vehicles, and some, like Interfaith Ministries, utilize their own vehicles and those of volunteers.

MOWAA does not track its members’ gas expenditures, but anecdotally, Bertolette said lower gas prices often boosts volunteer recruitment and allows more meals to be delivered.

“We’ve heard from some local Meals on Wheels programs that since a lot of volunteers live on fixed incomes, the lower prices enable them to keep filling their tanks and keep delivering meals,” she said. “The less volunteers asking for gas reimbursements, the more funding can go towards actual meals served. And, for those programs that have their own fleet of vehicles and staff drivers, savings in gas can free up room in the budget to take on other initiatives, shorten wait-lists or expand services.”