- By Dan Veaner
"We're getting a little tight on the dollar," Gesslein said. "One reason is because the assessed value in Lansing hasn't increased as much as we thought it would. Another reason is I probably recommended too much of a drop last year, that 4% drop. And the other reason is that the apparatus is running really heavy increases compared to what we projected many years ago. it's a budget we could probably live with. But we're going to be boxed into a corner if we don't start kicking the rate up a little bit in the next few years, and think about what exactly what equipment we actually need."
Fire Commissioners have been using Gesslein's 20 year capital plan as a guide that has allowed them to make major purchases without adding taxes to pay for them at the time of purchase. The strategy projects what equipment and building projects will be needed over a 20 year period, and provides for saving money in reserves so it will be there to pay for projects in full when the time comes. That allowed the district to complete a $1.34 million addition to Central station in 2013 and a nearly $800,000 63,000 square foot building that replaced the old Station 5, a 1972 building that was too small for modern fire equipment and had deteriorated to the point where fire department officials feared it would be condemned.
Renovations to Station 4 in North Lansing are almost complete. Improvements have been made to the heavily used community room and kitchen, bathrooms, and a new entryway has been added. The capital plan enabled the district to pay for all these projects without asking for additional tax revenue.
The Lansing department has been good about maintaining its vehicles, often stretching their usable life. Fire Chief Scott Purcell noted that a couple of vehicles had been renovated, adding at least five years to their useful lifetime, and other purchases have been postponed when possible.
The district is looking at two major apparatus purchases in the next couple of years. Heavy rescue vehicle 1141 is 20 years old, and will need to be replaced within the next few years. Another big purchase was supposed to be a new quint for Station 5. A quint (quintuple combination pumper) is a kind of fire truck that doubles as a fire engine and a ladder truck. With more than half of the annual emergency calls coming from the Village of Lansing, the idea was to house a quint, a fire engine, and a duty-chief EMS vehicle, in the four-bay station with the extra bay available for future expansion.
When a 911 call is routed to Lansing, volunteers go to the nearest station to get equipment and apparatus to drive to the emergency. Most volunteer firefighters go to Central Station, no matter where a fire call is in the town. Part of the justification for building the new station in the Village was to reduce response time by housing more equipment there. Borders living in the station would also increase response time because they would already be in the Village when calls come in.
But Purcell said that the volume of responders at Station 5 is still much smaller than those who go to Central Station.
"We don't have the membership down there," he said. "You're going to spend over a million dollars to have a shiny piece of equipment sitting in the station. If we didn't have a ladder (housed at Central Station) I wouldn't say, 'well, Cayuga Heights has got one so we'll use their money to protect us.' That wouldn't be right. But we do."
Deputy Chief Brad George said he expects to begin working out the specifications for a new heavy rescue truck to replace the 20 year old apparatus the department currently uses. He said it would cost at least $1.3 million plus about $250,000 of tools it will carry, and estimated it will be another two years before it can be replaced because of the time needed to create the specifications, put it to bid and have it constructed. While that is considered a necessary replacement, commissioners questioned whether the department needs a new quint.
"One of the key items is whether or not we buy the quint for Station 5," Gesslein said. "That's a pretty big piece of apparatus. Of course if you don't spend $1.3 million your budget goes out a lot longer."
The district's aerial ladder truck is scheduled to be replaced in 2036. Gesslein estimated that replacing it will cost at least a million and a half, if not more. George added that fire calls in the Village are well covered, not only by the Lansing Fire Department, but by neighboring fire departments, just as the Lansing department assists when nearby communities need help.
"For any structure-related incident they're coming with a mutual aid full response," George said. "(Purchasing the quint) doesn't make sense at this time. If things change we can consider it again."
Purcell said that raising the tax rate by a penny or two makes sense when it is part of a responsible spending plan that eventually saves taxpayers more burden in the future. One cent per thousand dollars of property valuation translates to $15,000 or revenue for the district.
"We dropped the tax rate. We tried to save people money," Purcell said. "But if it's not going to work it's not going to work. If you have to raise it a couple of pennies don't be like the guys up the road -- nobody wants a tax rate increase, but if we drop, drop, drop we won't be able to afford (what we need)."
"Well now there are three or four trucks that need to be replaced," he said. "Of course that's going to deplete the funds. We dealt with this 20 years ago when we had to replace our old fleet. We had a nice plan in place, but we deviated from it. It threw us off track."
Gesslein said the district is in good financial shape, and modest incremental increases in the tax rate will keep it that way. Typically the district has been able to make expensive purchases and capital improvements by building its reserves over a period of years so the money would be there when the time came to build a new fire station, renovate an old one, or replace aging fire trucks, which run from about a half million dollars to a million and a half, depending on the kind of truck and the equipment it must carry.
"It's nothing critical," he said. "We still have the ability to pay our bills, and it looks like we could, at least until 2024. But you might want to think about starting to increase the rate now. If you raise it a penny or two and need to do it every year, pretty soon you're talking about significant money. That's the whole purpose of a capital plan, to give you time to respond to inflation. So we should consider bringing it up by a penny or two this year."
Fire Commissioner Chairman Robert Wagner polled the other commissioners, who agreed that a two cent rise would be prudent.
"We should probably raise it two cents this year," said Fire Commissioner Chairman Robert Wagner. "Let's see how that works out."
Gesslein said he is going to revamp the capital plan with higher estimates for equipment costs over the next 20 years. The budget is far from set. Commissioners will continue to work on it, and it will be approved after a budget hearing later this year.