Creating a strong fund balance and reserve policy that has the support of the local community takes work. Following are some do’s and don’ts municipal leaders should keep in mind as they make plans to create, maintain, and use a fund balance. This article will focus on the fund balance in the General Fund, but many points can be applicable to fund balance in other funds.
At its simplest, a fund balance is the difference between assets and liabilities. It can help ensure a municipality has enough money so essential public services don’t need to be cut or taxes raised due to unexpected expenses or events.
When managed strategically and effectively, using fund balance to balance municipal budget can help a community mitigate risk and weather economic downturns; ensure consistent delivery of essential services; respond to and rebound from the effects of a natural disaster; fund capital improvements; build a strong credit rating and benefit from lower debt costs; and more.
To maximize the potential advantages of a fund balance:
- Establish a written policy to specify the scope and purpose of the fund; set an appropriate minimum and maximum balance level; define how funds can be used and replenished; reveal what happens when the balance drops below defined levels; and related time frames.
- Communication in local government with the community about the general fund balance guidelines, especially when there are large changes, so you can manage expectations and minimize the type of speculation that can hurt trust in local government.
- Identify minimum fund levels through fund balance accounting to ensure uninterrupted service delivery and financial stability for the first two to three months while property taxes are collected. (A municipality primarily dependent on property taxes should have a larger fund balance than one with other revenue sources.) Focus on the general fund, although “financial resources available in other funds should also be considered in assessing the adequacy of unrestricted fund balance in the general fund.” (Source: GFOA Fund Balance Guidelines for the General Fund)
- Think ahead. Consider public entity risks to which the municipality may be exposed that are outside your insurance coverage. Not only will a strong fund balance help minimize risks, but it can also help fund future capital outlays. While reducing associated borrowing and interest for new infrastructure and equipment, it can also improve the municipality’s credit rating (for example, a fund balance between 15% and 30% earns an “Aa” rating from Moody’s).
To avoid negative public scrutiny and potential loss of community support and trust, do not just use your fund balance as a place to store extra money. Also, don’t use fund balance for recurring expenditures. Funding recurring expenditures means revenues are not covering every day expenditures; your fund balance will quickly be depleted and the municipality may be forced to raise taxes significantly. Finally, don’t minimize risks that should be addressed by the fund. “Research cited by GFOA has found that human judgment alone typically underestimates risks by about 50%.”
For additional information on managing fund balance, refer to these resources:
- New York’s Local Government Management Guide for Reserve Funds
- Best practices from the GFOA
- Financial Condition Analysis
- Understanding the Budget Process
- Government Finance Review: Stress Testing Your Reserves with Advanced Analytical Techniques
For tax, auditing, and consulting services related to your General Fund, contact RBT CPAs.