By Bill Oakey – Updated June 13, 2015
Late Friday, we received word that Mr. Ed Van Eenoo, Austin’s Deputy Chief Financial Officer, wrote a response to the City Council regarding this blog’s reported “budget surplus.” He states that the $26.9 million cited in the City document referenced on the blog last Thursday is “not a surplus.” To be clear, he identified that same amount and described it as part of the Budget Stabilization Reserve Fund, but he stopped short of labeling it as a surplus. Excerpts from Mr. Van Eenoo’s email to the Council are attached to the end of this posting.
Do We Have a Surplus or Don’t We?
After the end of each fiscal year, any surplus funds from the annual operating budget will flow into the Budget Stabilization Reserve Fund. These surpluses come from increased revenues and / or lower expenditures than what were budgeted. Mr. Van Eenoo Identified $12.3 million in surplus funds from the FY 2014 budget that were transferred to that reserve fund this year. But that $12.3 million is only a small portion of the Budget Stabilization Reserve Fund. It has grown from $31.4 million in 2008 to $54 million in 2010 to an estimated $86.7 million for FY 2016. Since the source for those reserves is annual budget surpluses and interest, then the $26.9 million that has been deemed available to spend in the upcoming budget could be classified as surplus funds. Not all of it is a “new budget surplus,” but a look at the complete picture should settle the splitting of hairs. The important issue here is that funds transferred into the budget from a source other than new taxes creates an opportunity to lower the amount of new taxes needed.
What Are the City’s Financial Policies On Using Reserve Funds for Spending In the Budget?
In any given year, the City can spend up to 1/3 of the Budget Stabilization Reserve Fund. But, there is a caveat. Another policy requires that the City maintain a total balance in the 3 General Fund reserve accounts that equals 12% of the General Fund requirements in the upcoming budget. The limit of $26.9 million is derived from the second of those two policies.
What’s the Bottom Line for the New Council and the Taxpayers?
The City’s official record shows an estimated amount of $26.9 million in reserves that can be spent in the upcoming budget. The big challenge for City staff and the new City Council will be selecting the ideal set of one-time expenditures that can be funded from the reserves. If the City can identify critical one-time items that do not stretch overall spending too far beyond last year’s budget, then we could see tangible tax relief. It’s a matter of perspective. They can save money by picking items that were included in previous budget forecasts, but were not tied to assumptions of future surpluses. Or, they can regard the $26.9 million as an opportunity to create new “wish lists” and thus, higher spending. What needs to go onto everyone’s list is the word “affordability.” Helping the taxpayer’s is one of this year’s biggest “unmet needs.”
Last Year’s Proposed Staff Budget Included $29 Million From the Same Reserve Fund
Take a look at this Budget Office response to an information request from former City Council Member Mike Martinez:
2014‐2015 PROPOSED BUDGET RESPONSE TO REQUEST FOR INFORMATION
DEPARTMENT: Financial Services – Budget Office REQUEST NO.: 125
REQUESTED BY: Martinez
DATE REQUESTED: 9/2/14
DATE POSTED: 9/5/14
REQUEST: Please provide a breakdown of every expense in the proposed budget that is funded by the Budget Stabilization Reserve Fund, including a justification for each expense request.
Included in the Proposed Budget is a transfer from the Budget Stabilization Reserve Fund to the Critical One‐Time Fund of $29,029,312. The list of items proposed to be funded along with the justification for those expenditures is attached.
Here is the link to that document and the attached list of proposed expenditures.
Excerpts From Mr. Ed Van Eenoo’s Response to the City Council On Friday June 12, 2015
Regarding the $26.9 Million – “That figure, which was presented as part of our financial forecast, is our preliminary estimate of the allowable amount that the City’s Budget Stabilization Reserve will be able to be drawn down by in FY 2016 while remaining within Council’s adopted financial policies.” Then he goes on to say, “As you well know, reserves represent a one-time source of funding and as such their use is limited to non-recurring expenditures. Therefore, it would not be allowable under the City’s financial policies (nor advisable under any circumstance) to use those funds as a means of offsetting a recurring revenue reduction resulting from the implementation of a general homestead exemption.”
My Comment – I stand corrected on the last point. My suggestion in last Thursday’s blog posting that the surplus might be applied towards offsetting the homestead exemption is not valid. I have edited the posting and removed it. Perhaps a teacher should slap my hand with a ruler, because I have a copy of that financial policy in my affordability archives. But, we all make mistakes and hopefully, we learn from them. You can see the revised blog posting here.
Regarding the $12.3 Million – “The actual year-end surplus for FY 2014 was $12.3 million, roughly in line with prior-year surpluses. These funds flow into the Budget Stabilization Reserve for appropriation by Council in the subsequent fiscal year pursuant to the City’s aforementioned financial policies.”