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This much is known: So far this year, Salt Lake County's expenses are down quite a bit because of falling oil prices and the mild winter.

What's not known: Exactly how much those savings amount to, what will happen with volatile fuel markets over the next 10 months, and what costly calamities might befall the county from the flip side of all this dry weather, namely summer wildfires.

To get a better handle on how the known and unknown might mesh as the year proceeds, the County Council on Tuesday instructed its staff to prepare a report by mid-May quantifying the budget savings from lower-than-projected oil prices and the almost complete absence of expenses this winter for snowplows.

"It's important to discuss this now," said Council Chairman Richard Snelgrove, contending the council's expression of interest in the "potentially significant" cost savings will put departments on notice not to come up with big plans to spend any extra money that would appear to be available in their budgets.

"Taxpayers should come first," Snelgrove said, hinting that he would like to see any windfalls returned to taxpayers or set aside. "The more we can build up in a reserve, the more we can forestall a tax increase in the future," he said.

There is likely to be a fair amount of savings, said the council's analyst, Dave Delquadro.

The 2015 budget adopted in December used last year's average gas prices in projecting transportation costs for departments with vehicle fleets, he said. Those prices are now down more than a dollar a gallon for regular gas and almost as much for diesel.

Snelgrove also theorized that county sales-tax revenues will be up because consumers will spend money no longer going into their gas tanks on "furnishings at RC Willey, to take vacations or buy a new car." He asked Delquadro to have the mid-May report include calculations of the impact of lower gas prices on sales-tax collections.

The chairman's approach appealed to Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton, who noted that if gas prices were skyrocketing and expensive snowplows were operating day and night for weeks on end, county officials would be eager to know the financial implications.

"It makes sense to look at it both ways," she said.

Councilman Michael Jensen agreed, to a certain extent. Speaking also as the chief of the Unified Fire Authority, he advised council members not to count up the savings too quickly because the county could face consequences this summer and fall from the unusually dry winter.

"We've already had four wildland fires in February. I've never seen wildfires in February before," Jensen said. "If we stay with this kind of moisture [totals], come June, July or August we'll be burning the canyons down."

Fellow councilman Max Burdick also urged caution. "Things can go a lot of different directions fast," he said.

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