Davis Should Set Its Utility Reserve Targets with a Transparent and Rigorous Method

The City of Davis Utilities Commission is considering on February 19 whether to disregard the preliminary recommendations of the Commission’s Enterprise Fund Reserve Policies subcommittee to establish a transparent, relatively rigorous and consistent method for setting City reserves. The Staff Report, written by the now-departed finance director, ignored the stated objectives of both the Utilities and Finance and Budget Commissions to develop a consistent set of policies that did not rely on the undocumented and opaque practices of other communities. Those practices had no linkage whatsoever to risk assessment, and the American Water Works Association’s report that the Staff relied on again to reject the Commission’s recommendation again fails to provide any documentation on how the proposed targets reflect risk mitigation—they are simply drawn from past practices.[1]

The City’s Finance & Budget Committee raised the question of whether the City held too much in reserves over five years ago, and the Utilities Commission agreed in 2017 to evaluate the status of the reserves for the four City enterprise funds—water, sanitation/waste disposal, sewer/wastewater, and stormwater. A Utilities Commission subcommittee reviewed the current reserve policies and what is being done by other cities. (I was on that subcommittee.) First, the subcommittee found that the City was using different methods for each fund, and that other cities had not conducted risk analyses to set their targets either. The subcommittee conducted a statistical analysis that allows the City to adjust its reserve targets for changing conditions rather than just relying on the heuristic values provided by consultants.

The subcommittee’s proposal adopted initially by the Utilities Commission achieved three objectives that had been missing from the previous informal reserves policy. Two of these would still be missing under the Staff’s proposal:

  1. Clearly defining and documenting the reserves held for debt coverage. While these amounts were shown in previous rate studies, the documented source of those amounts generally not included and the subcommittee’s requests brought those to the fore. The Staff method appears to accept continuance of that practice. The Staff proposes to keep those separate, which differs from past practice which rolled all reserves together.
  2. Reserve targets are first set based on the historic volatility of enterprise net income. In other words, the reserves would be determined transparently with a rigorous method on the basis of the need for those reserves. The method uses a target that is statistically beyond the 99th percentile in the probability distribution. And this target can be readily updated for new information each year. The Staff report rejects this method to adopt a target that refers to the practice of other communities, and none of those practices appear to be based on analytic methods from research done by the subcommittee.
  3. Reserve targets are then adjusted to cover the largest single year capital improvement/replacement investment made historically to ensure enough cash for non-debt expenditures. Because the net income volatility is a joint function of revenues, operating expenditures and non-debt capital expenditures, the latter category is not separated out of the analysis. However, an added margin can be incorporated. That said, the data set for the fiscal years of 2008/2009 to 2016/2017 used by the subcommittee found that setting the target based on the volatility has been sufficient to date. The Staff report appears to call for a separate, unnecessary reserve fund for this purpose based on annual depreciation that has no relationship to risk exposure, and implicitly duplicates the debt payments already being made on these utility systems. This would be a wasteful duplication that sets the reserves too high.

The Finance and Budget raised at least two important issues in its review:

  1. Water and sewer usage and revenues may be correlated so that the reserves may be shared between the two funds. However, further review shows that the funds have a slight negative correlation, indicating that the reserves should be held separately.
  2. The water fund already has an implicit reserve source when a drought emergency is declared because a surcharge of 25% is added to water utility charges. I agree that this should be accounted for in the historic volatility analysis. This reduces the volatility in fiscal years 2014/2015 and 2015/2016, and reduces the water fund volatility reserve from 26% to 21%.
  3. Working cash reserves are unnecessary because the utility funds are already well established (not needing a start up reserve), and that the volatility reserves already cover any significant lags in the revenues that may occur. This observation is valid, and I agree that the working cash reserves are duplicative of the other reserve requirements. The working cash reserves should be eliminated from the reserve targets for this reason.

Finally, the Staff proposal raises an issue about the appropriate basis for determining the sanitation/waste removal reserve target. The Staff proposes to base it solely on direct City expenses. However, the enterprise fund balance shows a deficit that includes the revenues and expenses incurred by the contractor, first Davis Waste Removal and then Recology. We need more specificity on which party is bearing the risk of these shortfalls before determining the appropriate reserve target. Given the current City accounting stance that incorporates those shortfalls, I propose using the Utility Commission’s proposed method for now.

Based the analysis done by Utilities Commission subcommittee and the recommendations of the Finance & Budget Committee, the chart above shows the target % reserves for each fund without the debt coverage target. It also shows the % reserve targets implied by the Staff’s proposed method.[2] The chart also shows corresponding dollar amount for the proposed total target reserves, including the debt reserves, and the cash assets held for those funds in fiscal year 2016/2017. Importantly, this new reserve target shows that the City held about $30 million of excess reserves in 2016/2017.

[1] It appears the Staff may have misread the Utilities Commission’s recommendation memorandum and confused the proposed targets policies with the inferred existing policies. This makes it uncertain as to whether the Staff fully considered what had been proposed by the Utilities Commission.

[2] The amounts shown in the October 16, 2019 Staff Report on Item 6B do not appear to be consistent with the methodology shown in Table 1 of that report.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s