New York State tax cap law is fraught with gotchas. You can increase your tax levy each year by a certain amount, but if you don't go as high as that amount the dollars you can recover next year are reduced. Taxing authorities are therefore motivated to raise their taxes, if nothing else, to insure they can get more money in future years if they need it. Lansing Fire Commissioners chose Tuesday to keep the same tax rate as last year, charging 92 cents per $1,000 of assessed value instead of the 94 cents they are allowed to charge.
"We usually have a surplus at the end because we save money on one thing or another," said Fire Commission Chairman Robert Wagner. "I don't think we need to worry about recovering the $20,000. I think we should leave it at $0.92."
Lansing Fire District treasurer George Gesslein reported the apparatus reserve currently has almost $2 million. $1.3 million of that is slated to replace a heavy rescue vehicle that will be 24 years old next year. In the next seven years the district is slated to replace two pumper-tankers at about $1 million each, and in 2024 commissioners plan to replace the aerial, the ladder truck, at an estimated $2 million. Gesslein says his long-term plan allows for filling the apparatus reserve sufficiently to cover these expenses when the money is needed, to avoid having to pay bond or interest rates.
"What kind of image do you want to present to your voters?" he asked. "You're talking about small amounts of money. What do you want to do? Do you want to say we kept it at 92 cents? Do you want to say we kept it under the tax cap? The budget that I proposed has nothing going into reserves because we have an extra $300,000 because we didn't do the Station 3 expansion. We can dump that into the equipment reserve. And I have $150,000 in contingency that you can use anywhere you need it."
Gesslein said that keeping the same tax rate or raising it wouldn't make a significant difference in district finances. He noted that a 20 year capital plan has insured commissioners have money for building projects and new fire apparatus when they need it.
That $300,000 was the amount commissioners hoped an expansion to Station 3, in Lansingville, would cost. That project was put on hold in June when the only bid commissioners received came in $96,000 higher than expected. Gesslein said it makes sense to flip that money into the apparatus reserve, because there is plenty of money in the capital reserve that can be used for Station 3 and/or other building projects.
"We need a lot of money in the apparatus reserve, because we've got some big purchases coming up in the next five or six years," he said. "The important thing is to keep our apparatus reserve up so we don't run into what we ran into 20 years ago, which was trying to get voters to agree to buy a new truck when one wears out. That's the purpose of a 20 year plan."
While that approach does make it easier to keep the fleet current, it doesn't mean the voters are taken out of the decision. Expenditures from capital reserves are subject to permissive referendums. Once commissioners vote to make a purchase of a new fire truck, if a percentage of voters petition they can require a district vote. That has not happened, because long term planning has meant that the department can pay cash for new apparatus, rather than incurring interest payments, thus saving taxpayer dollars.
"This year we're going to put a half million in," Gesslein said. "Probably by the end of the year we're going to drop another three or four hundred thousand into it. I don't think we have money worries. I think we basically want the community to know that we're giving them a fair deal for their dollar."
Wagner said the district will try the Lansingville project again next year. The key objective of that project was to enlarge the equipment bay so it would be big enough to hold modern fire trucks.
"It's on hold until next year," Wagner said. "We're going to put it out for bid again. We'll put the money into reserves rather than take it out of next year's budget."
Wagner said he favored keeping the tax rate at 92 cents, and the other four commissioners concurred. Gesslein said he would finalize the $1,290,872 budget budget for the commissioners' review based on a projected 92 cent tax rate.
Town Liaison Connie Wilcox said, "I don't think anyone can complain about 92 cents per $1,000 and you keep all your equipment up to date. I think the way you are doing it is the perfect way to do it. You already have the money there because of good fiscal planning."
As of September 1 Lansing Fire Department members have responded to 633 emergencies so far this year.