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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Running on Empty

High Gas Prices Drive Volunteers Away From Nonprofits

May 03, 2000|CATHERINE BLAKE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The folks at Meals on Wheels haven't had any volunteers up and quit. But some have asked to be reassigned.

Where?

To jobs that don't require driving.

Charities and nonprofit agencies across Ventura County are facing an unpleasant side effect of soaring gas prices: Already-pinched drivers are asking for more reimbursement money or to transfer to jobs that don't involve sitting behind a wheel.

"Five volunteers have said that it's too expensive for them," said Victoria Herrera, executive director of Meals on Wheels, which provides food to about 130 seniors across the west county.

"They told me they had to stop driving, but if there was something else they could do to help around the program, they would."

Many volunteers are on fixed incomes and can't afford the added expense, she said. Herrera used to have nine volunteer drivers serving the Santa Paula area; now there are four. The remaining drivers and Herrera's husband have picked up the slack, she said.

Judy Madaj of Shop-A-Hoy, a nonprofit service that grocery-shops for needy seniors, attributes the low number of drivers in her program to the gas prices.

"We expected to have more volunteers at this point and we think it's because of the high price of gasoline," she said. "We've considered asking gas stations for passes to give to volunteers for a free tank of gasoline, because we are swamped with requests for service. We need those drivers."

In California, the average price of self-serve regular unleaded gasoline has climbed more than 44 cents a gallon, to $1.79, since the end of January, a 33% increase, according to federal energy officials.

Jeff Spring, a spokesman for the Automobile Club of Southern California, said the average gas price in the county in mid-April was $1.76, a few cents lower than the peak, but not much.

Although prices are high, they aren't equivalent to what they were in the late '70s and early '80s when the cost is adjusted for inflation, according to Trilby Lundberg, president of Lundberg Survey, a market research firm specializing in petroleum.

Although gas prices never can be predicted, Lundberg said, she does not expect further increases this summer because of the stabilizing gasoline market.

But that's no consolation for drivers now, who are seeing the gas pump eat up more and more of their disposable income. Several area nonprofit agencies also report that employees have asked for an increase in the per-mile compensation rate.

"It's had a $17,000 impact on our bottom line," said Deborah Roberts, chief executive of Livingston Memorial Visiting Nurse Assn., a home health-care agency. She said her employees, many of them nurses, asked for a raise, so she bumped the compensation rate up from 28 to 30 cents a mile.

"What we do is drive from our office to people's homes all day long," she said. "We have a nursing shortage anyway, and we can't afford to lose someone because of something as simple as this."

Other agencies have made the same decision.

Kim Dawson, the Meals on Wheels coordinator for Simi Valley, said the compensation rate for her 18 drivers has gone from 31 cents to 33 cents a mile in the last month. "My husband usually puts gas in my car, but when he was out of town I had to do it and I thought, 'Oh my God,' when I saw how much it was," she said.

None of the drivers have grumbled about the prices, she said. "But why wait for them to complain?"

Jim Mangis, executive director of Food Share, the county's largest food bank, said transportation is one of the agency's largest expenses.

"We aren't as quick to send a truck out," he said. "We think twice about it."

Mangis said Food Share has seen a 10% increase in freight expenses from the delivery agencies. "We get food offered from all over and we have to make decisions like, 'Can we afford to bring a truckload of potatoes from Idaho?' " he said.

Last month, Assemblyman Tony Strickland (R-Thousand Oaks) introduced a bill to eliminate the state sales tax on gasoline, but the bill was killed in committee, Strickland said.

"Seniors are the No. 1 group to volunteer," he said. "It's a shame that people can't drive to help a charity because they can't afford gas to get from point A to point B."

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