How to Track Reserves

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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