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Monthly Archives: March 2014


I read a recent article in Roads and Bridges on the reconstruction of the roadways to Estes Park.  An excellent effort by state officials and private contractors to rebuild over 20 miles of roads that were wiped away in mid-September when unprecedented rainstorms cut Estes Park off from the front range.  I actually had reservations in Estes Park as part of a plan to go hiking at Lawn Lake, among others.  Lawn Lake was one the harder hit areas in the park.  Went to Leadville.  If you have never been, go.  The early money in Colorado came out of Leadville – silver was the money-maker.   I did a 12 mile hike thought the mining district as it snowed – note it is the 2 mile high City.  Great hike in the am – the photos were fantastic as well.  

But the point is that people expect government to solve problems like the roadways in Colorado.  They expect we will solve water, sewer and storm water problems.  We have done a great job of it because people take these services for granted.  What we don’t want is to have a catastrophic failure, natural or otherwise.. ..

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Sorry I have been off-blog for over a week.  Things can get crazy as we all know.  Collegiate activities accelerate after Spring Break, which was the first week of March for the Florida universities.  Now we are on to midterms, finishing projects and competitions.  So this weekend is the southeast competition for ASCE student chapters.  Those of you who are civil engineers likely remember the competitions.  Concrete canoes, steel bridges, soil stabilization, water treatment (filters), and a variety of other “contest” abound.  We had concrete Frisbees when I was in school.  I think I saw where a school in Oregon has carried on a tradition that has never made it to the southeast competition.  Some think these competitions are purely a weekend on fun, but that fails to recognize the effort put into the contests by students.  Yeah, it’s fun, but a concrete canoe takes many hours of effort by dozens of student to insure it floats.  Problem solving is needed to insure the concrete is both lightweight and strong enough to hold up.  Might get rammed you know.  Seen it happen. It is a good place to meet other students and faculty to exchange ideas.  Many practicioners act as judges to the connection to the “real” world is present as well.

We get back from the ASCE contest for the Concrete Expo on campus, which is an opportunity for the students to meet practicioners in a seminar environment (outside of course).  It is an opportunity to meet students and very helpful if you are looking for the next generation of people to fill your jobs.  Except that we are seeing most of our seniors with jobs before they graduate, sometimes as early as late junior year. That means the economy is improving so jump on the good students early.

After the concrete expo we have the FWEA student water/wastewater design contest.  So our students are competing and their project is an indirect potable reuse concept to recharge wellfields for a local community that has looked at the idea.  We have researched the subject here before and did some work to demonstrate we could remove phosphorous to under 10 ppb and remove the constituents of emerging concern – the pharmaceuticals etc.  Worked great and I think most of our papers are out on the project.  Our students looked at and improved it for their contest entry.  Then it is time for the FE, final capstone projects and graduation.  So much in a month. 

And somehow I missed St. Paddy’s day…… 

 


We all know that our infrastructure is deteriorating.  Deferred maintenance increases the risk of system failure. The need for capital reinvestment within the utility industry has historically been very low. As a result, in its “2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure,” the American Society of Civil Engineers assigned a grade of “D” to America’s drinking water systems, citing billions of dollars of annual funding shortfalls to replace aging facilities near the end of their useful lives and to comply with existing future federal water regulations (ASCE, 2013).  AWWA estimates that investments of at least $1 trillion are needed over the next 25 years.

While a pay-as-you-go capital funding seems like the best way to go, that is difficult to accomplish with the large outlays needed to upgrade the infrastructure system and the controls on rates often exercised by local officials.  As a result, borrowing is required and the condition of infrastructure and the lack of reserves are a part of how the utility is viewed by those who lend monies.   Utility managers need to understand how the lending agencies evaluate risk. 

Lenders use many tests.  Among them are: whether the utility’s annual depreciation expense is used of accumulated as reinvestment in the system, whether adequate reserves are present, whether  annual capital spending that is below the amount of annual depreciation and the amount of revenues in excess of projected debt (debt service coverage).  The target debt service coverage may depend upon the requirements of the underwriter, the rating agencies and the investors.  Debt service coverage could be as low as 15% or as high as 50%.  In 2012, the median all-in annual debt service coverage excluding connection fees for utilities rated “AAA” by Fitch Ratings was 220%, while the median for AA-rated and A-rated utilities was 180% and 140%, respectively. (Fitch, 2012).  

A working capital target of 90 days of rate revenue is a minimum, but since 2008, more is likely to be required depending on the size of the system and the history of revenues.  Where the revenues were stable despite 2008, less may be required.  For those utilities that suffered major decreases, reserves should be far larger – perhaps a year or more.  Other criteria that could be used to evaluate the projects when borrowing money include public health and safety, regulatory compliance, system reliability, the risk and consequences of asset failure, redundancy, community/customer benefit  and sustainability. At the same time, the expectation is that  the utility systems that retain all monies in the system to be utilized to improve the system and pay for debt service, except those used  for the purchase of indirect services from the General Fund that are justified with indirect cost studies. 

 

Despite the above, rate are an issue.  Fitch Ratings has indicated that it considers rates for combined water and wastewater service that are higher than 2% of the median household income – or 1% for an individual water or wastewater utility – to be financially burdensome (Fitch, 2012).  The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers that rates for an individual water or wastewater utility that are greater than 2% of median household income may have a high financial impact on customers. (EPA, 1997). Utilities with a stronger financial profile might have residential charges for combined water and wastewater service that are less than or equal to 1.2% of median household income, or less than or equal to 0.6% for an individual water or wastewater utility. All revenues generated through system operations generally must remain within the system and can only be used for lawful purposes of the system.

Canadian utilities employ more formal polices to establish fiscal policies to provide reserves to insure stability in the event of unforeseen circumstances. Reserve targets focus on ensuring liquidity in the event there is an interruption in funding, increased capital costs due to new regulatory requirements or a short term funding emergency – all the issues evaluated by the bankers.  Reserve targets are policy decisions. Benchmarking is an evolving practice within Canadian public sector utilities particularly as it relates to financial planning and capital financing. The benchmarking exercise provides valuable information to help assess fiscal performance, the needs of customers, and provide the tools to help support optimum performance. 


We have talked about reserves, the need for them, reasons why they are neglected and how to establish appropriate numbers (an area where more research is needed).  Reserves are an issue when the economy tanks.  We all recall the problem in 2008, but this is where utilities need to look beyond just their system to see what might be coming.  2008 was a problem that we should have seen coming, or at least planned for, but did not.  But it means that we need to look at the national and local economic picture and understand a little about events beyond our reach that can affect us.  Utilities and governments generally do not do this well. 

In 2005-2007, it was very clear we had a property bubble going on.  There was discussion on the news, financial channels, Wall Street Journal and even columns by economist like Paul Krugman.  A few of us may have taken advantage of the bubble through prudent real estate sales, but many did not.  Likewise, few utilities or governments planned for its inevitable fall.  After the crunch hit, those who owed the least amount of money, had savings and had stable incomes fared better than those who did not.  Same for governments.  Unfortunately most Americans and most governments fell into the “did not” category. 

So let’s look at a couple issues.  First, we knew there was a bubble and should know that all bubbles pop.  We had the tech stock bubble in the late 1990s.  People on Wall Street knew that the investments had turned to real estate and bankers where busy loaning money out with no interest for two years, no money down, adjustable rate mortgages and the like.  If you owned a computer you were inundated with Countryside and various other folks trying to loan you money.  Or buy your house and pay you an annuity if you were older. 

The reason that these “opportunities” were so prevalent was to help speculators who expected to own the property for short periods of time, or help those who might not have the means to buy time to get the means to support the payments.  All the subsequent financial instruments discussed in books like “Too Big to Fail” come from tools used by bankers to disperse the risk associated with speculators and the risky.  It made money for bankers and investment houses (remember they are private businesses beholden to their private stockholders). 

Like all bubbles, we get caught up in the money being made by speculators (and yes if you invest in the stock market you are speculating).  We try to grab onto the rising instruments to get ahead, but we forget that especially with real estate, the growth overall rate across the nation could only grow at the rate of population growth.  It is basic supply and demand. 

For governments, revenues rise, especially during real estate bubbles.  Some bubbles last for years, which creates a distorted view of the future.  In south Florida, there was a lot of buzz concerning water supply projections and arguments between regulatory staff and utilities over water supplies that were projected 20 years in the future, based on demand projections from 2000-2005.  When the dust settled in 22011, most of those issued disappeared because virtually all projections were substantially revised downward.  And most revenue growth projections were likewise revised downward and capacity needs delayed.  Planning 20 years out is historically inaccurate because the global economy can impact local growth.

Of course these new projections are incorrect as well.  Because the test period was 2005-2010 or 2000- 2010, the growth is stunted.  So they are likely underestimating demand and revenues.  Uncertainty with time means that the accuracy of projection decreases with time.  As a result, simply relying on past projection methods increases risk that of significant deviations.

I do an exercise n class where I give students three sets of projections.  10 years apart, for 50 years.  I tell them nothing else.  The examples are The State of Nevada, Cleveland, and Collier County, FL.  All are in the past (Cleveland is 1910-1950) There is absolutely no easy method that can project the growth in either Collier County or the State of Nevada, or that Cleveland’s population will drop in half. We could do the same with Detroit and never project that decrease either.  But when you tell them where the population are and what year, the wheels start to turn.  They realize that economics is a major issue.  While Nevada and Collier grew from 1960-2000, the rate of change is likely to be very different in 2010 to 2020 due to the 2008 recession. 

Tracking economic activity is a utility responsibility.  We need to know what is really happening, and understand bubbles.  We need to recognize that when property values and housing number increase fast, it will be short term.  Plan for savings and reserves.  Figure out what your recovery period might be.  We need to understand our economic base.  For example try this out and see what your conclusion is.  Florida’s economy is based on three major industries: agriculture, tourism and housing.  What could possibly go wrong with that model?  Well if we have an economic problem nationally, 2 of 3 take major hits because people outside the state do not travel to Florida and retirements get put off.  The economy gets hit hard and recovery is slow.  We have experienced that exact phenomenon from 2009 to date.  And many of those jobs are low wage positions which means the people who struggle most get hit hardest.  Storm events can impact the state.  Bit hits to all three, and agriculture is also a low wage industry.  It is a precarious economic model that sets itself up for potential fluctuations.  We need to plan for this.  It is our responsibility, utility staff and decision-makers to plan and prepare for the next big event.  


We have spent some time talking about the need to fund and maintain reserves.  I think most people reading this concur but how do you track reserves?  Every public sector utility gets audited annually.  How many people have actually looked at that audit?  Or attend the discussion with the elected officials with the auditors.  Or know how to read it?  This is an important part of our job.  We need to defend the utility and knowing the financial position is part of the defense. 

The annual audit is commonly called the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report of CAFR.  The finance director normally controls the process.  The CAFR is many, many pages long and include information on revenues and expenses, but also a bunch of other things like assets, depreciated assets, transfers to other funds, outstanding long and short term debt, fund balance and reserves.   The CAFR is designed to be a management tool to help with tracking performance of the entity with time.  CAFRs were redesigned by the Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB) about 15 years ago to provide more useful information to lenders and oversight agencies.  It was redesigned to help with management, discussion and analysis of the financial position.  The utility director should be a part of this management, discussion and analysis team and should fully understand its contents as it affects the utility. The CAFR should not be viewed simply as a compliance tool to submit and forget about. 

For example, the assets should include the value of all installed infrastructure (fixed) and all mobile equipment (non-fixed) as assets.  The depreciation is the total amount of depreciation, assigned as a straight line, since the acquisition of the assets.  You should always have more than 50% of the asset value remaining.  You should understand outstanding debt and debt plus depreciation should be less than your asset values, otherwise you are underwater with your assets.  You should understand the transfers to other funds and the justification for same.

But the reserves are key.  Some of these reserves may be restricted, which means they are likely impact fees, reserves to cover debt coverage requirements or covenants for repair and replacement of other purposes.  Most utilities do not have a separate repair and replacement reserve, but this would be useful for those capital expenses,  Likewise, operating reserves, for use to balance the budget in lean periods should be identified.  The reporting reserves for rate stabilization should be separate from the operating reserves (usually 1.5 to 3 months) to cover the day-to-day expenses.  An understanding of the value and tracking of these reserves is useful to long and short term decision making by utility managers.  Unfortunately most auditors and most finance director do not make separate reserves and tracking becomes a challenge.  But the utility is an operating entity.  Finance, like purchasing and human resources and support agencies designed to provide service to help accomplish the mission of the operating elements of the utility.  You need the support agencies to provide the necessary information to help your decision-making.  Doubtful your finance director wants to hear this, but really, does the utility operate because the finance department does the work or because the utility does?  Just food for though.

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