Hitting a Moving Target: How to Stay on Budget this Fiscal Year

Hitting a Moving Target: How to Stay on Budget this Fiscal Year

[ Blog/News ]

Hitting a Moving Target: How to Stay on Budget this Fiscal Year

Year 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.
Target IconBudget Adequately

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.

Target IconReview 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.

Target IconCheck 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.

Target IconConsider Delinquencies

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.

Target IconTrack 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.

Target IconDon’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.

Target IconBudget 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!

Target IconCheck 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. 
End Of Article

This article first appeared in the Jan/Feb Issue of Community Associations Journal.

By Karen McDonald, CMCA, AMS, PCAM, RS

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.

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Establishing Your Reserve Funding Plan: Considerations & Strategies

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Establishing Your Reserve Funding Plan: Considerations & Strategies

Association approaches to preparing for major repair and replacement projects have varied widely over the years—from completely ignoring, to detailed analysis of building components and their related costs, and all variations in between. While next year’s operating expenses and the resulting regular assessments are rarely viewed as “discretionary,” reserve expenses and the offsetting Funding Plan often are, particularly when projects are slated more than a few years away.

Sarah Anderson, PCAM, Director of Marketing & Operations of EMB Management, Inc., AAMC, discusses some of the challenges of reserve planning with industry veteran Jim Talaga, RS, President of the Association Reserves – Washington regional office. Their goal is to present some new ways to view and approach this important task and establish some best practices.

Best Practice 1

Because of the havoc of special assessments and their disruptive effect on the community, boards should address the reserve funding plan early in the annual budget process. Being overly optimistic about a monthly landscape budget, for instance, rarely causes financial challenges. But years of underfunding Reserves will almost certainly result in the need for a Special Assessment.

Sarah: Why do you think it has been difficult for many associations to increase their reserve contributions and follow the recommendations within their Reserve Study?

Jim: There are three reasons for this in my view. First, many associations began their lives in an era where little to no reserve planning was ever undertaken. The misconception among board members and homeowners (that continues to this day) is that the Reserve Fund is for some far off future expense. In reality, funding reserves is necessary to offset ongoing common area deterioration as it occurs. The second reason is that addressing the reserve contribution is often left until the end of the budget process and board members are often unprepared to make wise funding plan decisions. In most instances, the reserve contribution is one of the largest budget line items, and an increase in the rate often means an increase in overall assessments, which is always viewed as unpopular. Finally, we have found there is a general misunderstanding of how to read and use the Reserve Study.

Although there is a statutory requirement in Washington for a 30-year reserve funding plan, the expense projections can and should be broken down into five- and ten-year action plans. With simple addition and subtraction, an association can clearly see how much reserves they currently have in the bank, and what expenses they need to prepare for in the near term. There is also confusion and emotion surrounding the concept of “% Funded” and “Fully Funded”—industry terminology that should not get in the way of a simple planning task.

Sarah: Can you suggest some other ways for association boards to explain what their reserves are for and, if an increase is necessary, how to get them moving in the right direction?

Jim: Boards can use the information in the Reserve Study to create a summary of specific projects that will be completed during the next five or ten years. It will become much clearer to homeowners when, for example, they see there is a need to paint the buildings, replace the fence, and reseal the decks. This makes the expenses tangible, not just a list of meaningless numbers on a page. When we have clients facing a special assessment in order to afford timely repairs, we often counsel that those funds be allocated to specific projects, or a combination of specific projects and rebuilding their reserves. People like to know how their money is being used.

The current budget disclosure requirements that were implemented within the RCW (both the Condominium and HOA Acts) in 2011 for budgets adopted on or after January 1, 2012 are also a wonderfully illustrative tool. The disclosures clearly show the cash flow path the community is on by comparing their current budgeted reserve contribution rate to the funding levels recommended in their Reserve Study.

Homeowners need to appreciate that reserve expenses are inevitable and should be a question of when, not if. There are only four ways to pay for the expenses listed in the Reserve Study: 1) set aside sufficient reserves (many Declarations actually require this) 2) levy a special assessment 3) obtain a bank loan 4) endure deferred maintenance and the decline in property values associated with doing nothing. When you include compounding interest over time with regular reserve contributions, properly funding reserves is always the least expensive funding option by a significant margin.

Best Practice 2

Provide access to the entire Reserve Study to each owner, along with links to video tutorials, webinars and articles. You’re all in this together, sharing expenses and creating your community. Also, have your studies prepared and therefore available for distribution well in advance of the budget process, allowing time for owners to digest and formulate questions.

Sarah: But what if the Funding Plan in the Reserve Study requires a large increase, which the association cannot financially tolerate?

Jim: The Funding Plan is based on a scope and schedule of reserve expenses, as determined by the actual condition of each item on the component list. The repair and replacement costs won’t go away, and in fact are likely to increase during the life cycle of the association. Remember that all reserve components are inflating over time, and the lower the association’s current reserve fund strength, the harder it will be for them to meet those expenses if they don’t get going now.

With many of our client associations, we are able to craft a strategy of lower initial increases followed by some periods of time with larger than typical (e.g., 5% to 10%) annual increases. This type of “ramping” as we call it can get an association moving in the right direction more effectively rather than trying to implement a large leap in assessments. If some combination of reserve contributions and Special Assessment is inevitable, the earlier in the process the board can communicate the funding strategy to the homeowners, the better.

Because Community Associations are volunteer organizations with comparatively high turnover of board and committee members, financial transparency and basic education will likely always be at the center of successful communities. Many boards do not provide homeowners with a copy of the Reserve Study, nor utilize many educational resources and tools. We see this as a huge mistake.

Sarah: We have seen Washington state go from little or no guidance for Reserve issues, to requiring mandatory Reserve Studies and disclosures. What do you think the future may hold?

Jim: Well, the trend has clearly been for more scrutiny of an association’s financial health, not less, and more encouragement for the board to “do the right thing” on behalf of the homeowners. This trend is a good thing in my opinion. There is no reason for homeowners to be surprised by a repair or replacement expense that gradually approached over many years, often in plain sight! Association-governed communities are most successful with owners who are a good fit, including their ability to afford the “true cost of ownership.” If they can’t, delinquencies and foreclosures can result in major impacts to the cash flow and financial wellbeing of the association. We review association budgets every day, and often see “collection costs” as one of the largest line items in the operating budget.

I think it will continue to be important to educate and create a system where good financial stewardship of an association is rewarded, not punished. There has been a misperception in the real estate world that lower monthly assessments are, by themselves, very attractive, and is often a selling point in a buyer’s purchase decision. However, if a comparable property nearby has higher monthly assessments but sufficient reserves and a solid Funding Plan in place, the property with the lower monthly assessments may not be the better deal financially. Reserves “% Funded” is a fair way to compare property to property. Washington could follow the lead of California, where one of the mandated disclosure requirements is to show a per-unit reserves deficit or surplus.

I recently presented an educational seminar to an influential group of real estate professionals in the downtown Seattle core to illustrate these concepts. They warmly embraced the message, knowing that the ability to provide some basic financial insight into an association for their buyers would set them apart, resulting in happier customers and referrals. Board members and Managers should do the same—make sure you understand basic Reserve Funding concepts and that real estate agents and prospective homeowners are aware that you have a current Reserve Study, a strong reserve fund, and are pursuing a reasonable Funding Plan. That will set your association apart from competing properties in your market area.

Best Practice3

You should be continually recruiting volunteers— those who take time to read and understand the Reserve Study may be your next community leaders.

Sarah: To circle back to the beginning, and put you on the spot a little, what Funding Objective should an association pursue: Baseline, Threshold, or Full Funding?

Jim: Most people who debate this issue are unaware that reserve contributions associated with the higher-risk “Baseline” objective and the more conservative “Full Funding” objective averages only a 13% difference. Having said that, this is a question that will likely be debated until the end of time!Unfortunately, it’s been our experience that people who get caught up in this funding plan detail often miss the bigger picture.

After establishing a well-conceived budget and disclosing the association’s complete financial picture to the homeowners (of both current and future needs) the board will want to be sure that their decisions and actions comply with their Declaration and state law, as well as fall under the protection of the Business Judgment Rule: Made in “good faith,” in the “best interests of the association as a whole,” and “with reasonable inquiry.” That’s the bottom line.

Co-Authored By Sarah Anderson, PCAM

Director of Marketing & Operations, EMB Management, Inc., AAMC

Co-Authored By Jim Talaga, RS

President, Association Reserves

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Tying Up Loose Ends: End of the Year Checklist for Self-Managed Communities

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Tying Up Loose Ends: End of the Year Checklist for Self-Managed Communities

As we near the end of the year, it’s time to take care of loose ends and prepare for the upcoming year. This can often prove a difficult balancing act, especially without the help of professional management. However, just because you’re a self-managed community doesn’t mean you must do without professional assistance. In fact, under the Washington Nonprofit Corporation Act, a board of directors is allowed to do just that: rely on information, opinions, reports, and statements from professionals in a given field. What follows is a basic primer on what you, as a self-managed community, need to do at year-end.

Balancing the Books — Financial Statement, Budget, Audit & Tax Return

Whether you’re a homeowners association or a condominium owners association, year-end means it’s time to balance the books and take stock financially.

Annual Financials & Budgeting

Both the Condominium Act and the HOA Act require every association to prepare, at least annually, a “financial statement.”  A financial statement consists of a balance sheet and an income-and-expense statement.  The Condominium Act provides that the statement must be prepared in accordance with generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP).  This means that all figures have to be shown on an accrual basis, which records income when earned and expenses when incurred, as opposed to a cash-basis model, where income and expenses are recorded when cash actually flows in and out.  The HOA Act does not mandate compliance with GAAP, but doing so constitutes best practices.

In addition to the financial statement, associations should prepare an annual budget that projects anticipated operating costs and reserve contributions for the coming year.  This is required by the bylaws of most associations, although it is not a statutory requirement.  However, before a new schedule of assessments may be used, there must be a budget that supports the assessment amounts.  If a budget proposed by the board of directors is not ratified by the association, the last budget that was ratified must remain in effect.

What’s an audit, and can I waive it?

Audits, which are conducted by certified public accountants (CPAs), verify the accuracy and fairness of an association’s financial activity and reports.  Condominiums with 50 or more units are required to have their financial statements audited annually by a CPA.  Condominiums with fewer than 50 units can waive the annual audit if 60% of the units (not including units owned by the declarant) vote to waive.  Homeowner associations with annual assessments of $50,000 or more are required to have an annual audit, unless waived by a 67% vote at a meeting at which a quorum is present.  Waiver must be done one year at a time: multi-year waivers are not allowed under the statute.

Taxes, Taxes, Taxes

An association must file a federal tax return each year, even though it is a nonprofit corporation or association.  The return is due March 15, unless an extension is requested.  One of two IRS forms is used.  Form 1120 is considered the “Corporate Method,” and graduated tax rates begin at 15%.  Form 1120H is the “Exempt Method” and uses a flat tax rate of 30%.  If the association has no taxable income, the tax rate may be irrelevant.  Form 1120 can save you money if there is taxable income to report, but it is more complex to fill out and requires advance planning.  Form 1120H is easier to complete but the following four criteria must be satisfied: (1) 85% of the units must be for residential use; (2) at least 60% of gross income must be tax exempt income; (3) 90% of expenses must be to acquire, build, manage, maintain, and care for property; and (4) residual income must not be used for members’ benefit.

Given the complexities of tax laws, consult with a tax professional to ensure compliance with federal requirements and the most favorable tax treatment for your association.

Preserving Your Investment – Reserve Study and Maintenance Plan

Next on the list are those items which keep your buildings and improvements in good repair over the long term: reserve studies and inspections.

Confused about Reserve Studies?

Under a law passed in 2008, all Washington condominium associations (including old-Act condos) must conduct a reserve study and update it annually.  Non-condo homeowner associations are not subject to this requirement.  A full reserve study includes a physical assessment of all building components and improvements that are expected to require replacement, and a financial analysis.

The purpose of annual updates is to ensure that reserve funding is on track and, if not, to adjust the funding schedule. This means comparing actual wear of components to anticipated wear, adjusting estimates of remaining service life as needed, and checking actual funding and investment returns against expected revenues and investment returns. The update must include an onsite inspection every third year; interim-year updates do not require onsite inspections.  Annual updates are not required for associations with ten or fewer units.

Inspect and Repair Every Year

Annual inspections and regular maintenance and repair are key to the long-term well being of any association.  The reserve study may include physical inspection of buildings and improvements, but inspection is not the same as maintenance.  As board members, it is your responsibility to make sure that regular maintenance and repairs are carried out to preserve the condition of the buildings and improvements.  Since board members change year, having a maintenance plan that specifies the schedule for maintenance of each component helps provide continuity as members rotate off the board – particularly in self-managed associations.  Most reserve study analysts can also prepare maintenance plans.

Legal Housekeeping – License Renewal

The reserve study and annual inspections help preserve the physical well-being of your buildings, but ensuring the legal life of your association is important as well.  Nonprofit corporations must register annually with the Secretary of State.  An Annual Report must be filed with the Secretary of State.  This can be done online and includes verifying the names and addresses of all officers and directors, the principal place of business, your corporation activities, a signature from an authorized board member, and paying a fee. (See http://www.sos.wa.gov/corps/).  Failure to renew your registration will trigger an administrative dissolution of the corporation.  The corporate license can be reinstated for three years after dissolution, but there is an extra fee for reinstatement.  A corporation must be in good standing with the Secretary of State to maintain any court action – such as a collection action – so annual renewal is important.

Fostering a Sense of Community – the Annual Meeting

The above items are needed to keep your association in good order, but remember what creates a sense of community: the people.  While the law (and probably your bylaws) requires every condominium and homeowner association to have an annual meeting, the annual meeting is also a great opportunity to strengthen your community.  Adding a social element to the meeting, by having food and beverages, brings people in and creates a positive atmosphere for participation.  If alcoholic beverages are involved, it is prudent to complete the annual meeting business before opening the bar!  Putting photos from the annual meeting on the association website reinforces the sense of community and fun.

Conclusion

Managing your own association can be a daunting task.  Knowing the things you have to do at year-end to satisfy legal requirements is critical.  By getting started early in the fall on financial matters, annual inspections and reserve study updates, and license renewal, you will keep your association on track and be ready for a productive and fun annual meeting.

By Tony Rafel

Managing Partner, Rafel Law Group PLLC

Tony Rafel is the Managing Partner of Rafel Law Group PLLC, a law firm that represents community associations
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Chapter Magazine

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