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Hitting a Moving Target: How to Stay on Budget this Fiscal Year
Y ear after year, many associations struggle with the same concern: staying on budget. While there are certainly times where unforeseen expenses arise that send your budget into a tail spin no matter how proactive you were, there are a few steps your association can take to help your budget stay in the black by the end of the year.
Your budget is never going to stay on track if it wasn’t adequate in the first place. If your association’s water and sewer bills have averaged $8,000 per year for the past three years, it isn’t reasonable to budget $6,000 for the upcoming year. Therefore, take a moment to review your budget in depth to make sure that it is adequate. Compare the 2019 budgeted amounts to last year’s actual expenses, and if there is a significant variance, find out why. If you didn’t do so during budget season, consider calling your local utility companies to determine what, if any, rate increase will take effect this year. Even a moderate utility increase can affect an association that consumes significant utilities, such as a condominium that includes water and sewer in the assessments. We all understand an association’s drive to keep assessments as reasonable for the membership as possible, however the association also has certain operating expenses to cover and it is important that the budget adequately represents those expenses.
Review Your Contracts
Take a moment to review your recurring contracts, such as management and landscaping, to determine what is included in the monthly rate to reduce the risk of any surprise expenses. As an example, most landscape contracts exclude tree trimming above a certain height; if your association finds a need to trim trees this year, it may be an extra expense and it would be helpful to know this in advance, so the association can prepare accordingly. It is also helpful to anticipate what administrative expenses may arise that are not included in your management contract, such as special mail-outs to the membership.
Check Your Reserve Study
It is important that your association is familiar with the components which are, and are not, included in your reserve study. This will ensure that expenses are paid out of the correct account and that your budget accurately represents your actual anticipated expenses. Many smaller routine maintenance expenses, such as annual roof moss treatment and gutter cleaning, should be handled as an operating expense and not through the reserve account so it is important to ensure that your budget includes line items for these expenses. It is also important that your association contributes to the reserve fund at one of the rates recommended by your reserve study. Under Washington State Law, your reserve study must provide baseline and 100% full funding recommendations; the association should ensure that it is budgeting somewhere within this range to lessen the risk of a future special assessment. My firm recommends that the association budget at the 70% to 100% full funding level, however that is a topic for another article.
Most associations determine the assessments amount after they have calculated the exact amount of the anticipated expenses. This approach assumes that all owners will pay their assessments on time, which we know is often not the case. If your association has considerable delinquencies, it should consider how to adjust the operating budget to ensure that adequate operating funds are available. Most associations include a line item for “bad debt expense” that is based on a percentage of assessments from historical trends, or an actual calculation based on current and projected delinquencies. Your management company and/or CPA, who knows your association best, will be a great resource for advice on how best to proceed. As part of this process, the association should also consider the resources which will be needed to collect on delinquencies. While most governing documents permit the cost of collection to be billed back to the owner’s account, the association still needs to have funds available to pay those fees up front.
Track Utilities and Conserve
Most associations have some sort of utility bill, even if it is just for irrigation of the common area landscaping, and most utility bills include consumption data. Your association may consider tracking consumption so it can more easily identify unexplained spikes in usage. Some utilities are going to fluctuate based on the time of the year; water usage, for example, often peaks during the summer months when landscape is being irrigated. However, if your water usage spikes in February, it may be an indicator of a leak. Since utilities can be one of an association’s largest operating expenses, consult with your landscape vendor to see if inexpensive conservation methods are available (rain sensors added to irrigation systems or drought tolerant plantings, for example), and encourage residents to conserve. Many utility companies offer free or discounted utility conservation packages to residents which include low-flow shower heads and sink aerators so be sure to check with your local utility company to see what is available in your area.
Don’t Let Budget Shortfalls Affect Reserves
Many associations make their monthly reserve transfers as the last transaction of the month. In theory this makes sense because the association wants to ensure that funds are available to pay all the other bills first, such as landscaping, utilities and insurance. For an association that is struggling to stay on budget, the transfers to reserves that were not made begin to pile up on the balance sheet as a liability to the reserve account and at the end of the year, that association must decide whether to increase assessments the next year to make up those reserve transfers. It is important that the association create a plan to catch up on reserve transfers, and ideally, create a budget that is adequate so they don’t fall behind again in the future. As a side note about budgeting for reserves, it is recommended that the association include the reserve contributions as either a line item under income or expenses, and not at the end of the budget. Reserve contributions are a true “expense” to the association; they represent the annual deterioration of the association’s assets and are quantifiable through the association’s reserve study. By listing them at the bottom of the budget, it gives the membership the impression that not only are they less important than the other line items in the budget, but that they are a “catch all” for excess income which is not the case at all.
Budget for Contingencies
One way of helping to ensure that the association will not go over budget or need to borrow from reserves for unexpected operating expenses is to budget for contingencies. Some associations set up a contingency line item and the amount depends on the association’s history of overruns and circumstances. Other associations include a contingency amount in most budgeted line items, such as 5%. This is highly recommended as the association should expect the unexpected!
Check Your FDIC Limits
While it isn’t necessarily budget related, it is also a good idea to review your bank balances annually to ensure that they are not exceeding the FDIC limit. FDIC stands for Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation which provides insurance coverage for the balances that are held in a bank account(s) at an FDIC insured institution in the case that the bank were to fail. The current FDIC limit is $250k per depositor (not per account). If your association has more than $250k held at one banking institution, it should consider moving funds in excess of the $250k to another institution to ensure that those funds would be insured/protected in the rare case that the bank were to fail. Budget time is a great time to review these limits, as oftentimes reserve contributions in the upcoming year may cause the association’s balances to exceed the FDIC limit. There are a few unique circumstances which may affect FDIC limits when it comes to certain investments, therefore it is best to consult with your banker and/or CPA prior to moving any funds.
Hopefully you have now reviewed your budget and checked all the boxes that indicate that it is adequate. But what happens if you are concerned that the association may fall short this year? In this instance, many associations have the ability to pass a supplemental budget, which essentially replaces any budget that was previously ratified by the membership. The process for passing a supplemental budget is often the same as it was for the original budget, however do check your governing documents and consult with legal counsel if any questions arise.
Budgeting is both an art and a science. You will never completely hit the mark as the budget is an estimate, however using these principles will help you stay closer to your target.
This article first appeared in the Jan/Feb Issue of Community Associations Journal.
By Karen McDonald, CMCA, AMS, PCAM, RS
Karen McDonald, CMCA, AMS, PCAM, RS is a Project Manager at Association Reserves of WA. A former association manager, 2019 marks Karen’s 19th year in the community association industry where she now helps bridge the gap between associations and their reserve studies. Karen is the current President for the WSCAI Chapter and serves on the Market Expansion Committee and as liaison to the Membership Committee. Outside of the office, she enjoys gardening and traveling.