A transparent municipal utility’s reserve target

Reserves chart

As one of my civic activities, I sat on the City of Davis Utility Rates Advisory Commission. In my final action with that commission, along with Elaine Roberts-Musser and Lorenzo Kristov, we prepared what might be a first-of-its kind enterprise fund reserve policy for the four utilities managed by the city. Up to this point, the URAC had been presented with rates development reports that appeared to use somewhat arbitrary, and inconsistent, methods of setting reserve targets. The city also appeared to be holding tens of millions of dollars in those funds that might be unneeded to meet expected reserve requirements.

With the City Council’s approval and support from the staff and the Finance and Budget Commission, we identified the elements that needed to be covered by reserves, including working capital, debt covenants, unanticipated capital replacements, and revenue-expense volatility. The first two elements were fairly straightforward to calculate, and unanticipated replacements didn’t appear to be significant. It was the analysis of the relationship of revenue and expense volatility where the report innovates. Previous studies had used some variation of a percentage of capital assets with no underlying explanation. Our solution was to derive an estimate of the outerbound of an annual revenue shortfall for a utility as buffer to allow rate or management adjustments.

In the end, the target reserves generally didn’t change much, but the City now has a transparent target that it can use to determine when it has excess funds that might be used in different fashions instead.

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