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EditorialEvery once in a while I decide to be a pain in the neck (or other parts of the anatomy) to school administrators and try to pin them down on why they don't have a long term capital replacement plan like the Lansing Fire District does.  Sometimes I wonder that about the Town as well.  School officials give me a story about the uncertainty of revenues because of the bizarre way Albany doles out state aid.  I get that, but they seem able to plan for other things that cost a lot of money.

It seems like a town would be more like a fire district with predictable needs based on a long term comprehensive plan and more stable revenues.  No taxing authority has a guarantee that revenues will be as expected, but there is a lot less state mambo jumbo for towns than for schools.  or if that's not right it is fair to say that towns don't have the Albany bullseye on them right now that schools do.

That Lansing Fire District plan is a work of art.  It lays out equipment needs for the next 20 years and estimates changes in the tax rate.  It is not written in stone, but rather serves as a road map that allows commissioners to plan for money they need in reserves leading up to projects that then will require no bonding or additional taxes.  It's like we all say we want to do with our savings but rarely do: put a little away at a time so it will be there when we need a new car or a refrigerator or something.

Wednesday's colorful discussion (I am being polite) about the town fund balance and how it impacts long term planning was an eye opener.  You can't plan unless you know that money is being put away.  The Deputy Highway Superintendent said he had been told that $50,000 has been put away for the past four years, saving up for an expensive piece of equipment the department will need soon to continue building and maintaining our town roads.  Sounds smart, doesn't it?  Except the rug was pulled out from under him when he was told that it isn't true.

The thing is, planning not only takes the stress off of town employees who, after all, don't want the money for themselves.  They want it so they can do the job they are entrusted with, ultimately by the taxpayers.  Without spending lavishly, if a pot hole appears on my street I want them to have the tools to fix it.  And so do they.

Planning also takes the stress off the budget process, and provides for emergencies.  If a truck breaks down you can either scramble reactively to find the money or you can simply take it from a fund that has been saving up for a new truck.

I have heard people disparage the fire district, saying things like 'boys with their toys' to imply they make unnecessary purchases at taxpayer expense.  But those people have not attended the fire commission meetings I have been attending for almost a decade.  If they did I'll wager they would be impressed by the district's careful planning and fiscal stewardship.  And I don't hear anyone complain when those 'toys' show up at their house to put out a fire.

The Town went through a period of cuts a handful of years ago that may or may not have been beneficial to taxpayers.  In hindsight I would say that they could have been beneficial if specific long term plans had been part of the equation.  On Wednesday some board members were saying that long term planning is tied to the Town's fund balance policy, and since the Town doesn't have a fund balance policy there is no planning.

I am pretty sure there are other revenue sources that could be applied to long term plans, but the main thing is to sock a little away for that rainy day when you have to buy a truck or a tractor or whatever it is that is going to need to be replaced.  When you know the money is there you can take advantage of the best prices instead of reactively spending in a frenzy when you are stuck with replacing equipment unexpectedly or not getting the job done.

Over the past couple of administrations Lansing has had boards that have been split on major issues, and it seems that has prevented our leaders from getting some important things accomplished.  That's too bad, because whatever the details of how you plan, planning could make their tasks a lot easier.  After all, when you plan for equipment replacement you don't have to make any decisions.  You pretty much just follow the plan.  That saves municipal ulcers for the employees and elected officials alike.  And maybe saves taxpayers some cash in the long run.

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