Accountants employ the term fund balance to describe the net assets of governmental funds calculated in accordance with generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP). Budget professionals commonly use this same term to describe the net assets of governmental funds calculated on a government’s budgetary basis.1 In both cases, fund balance is intended to serve as a measure of the financial resources available in a governmental fund.
Accountants distinguish up to five separate categories of fund balance, based on the extent to which the government is bound to honor constraints on the specific purposes for which amounts can be spent: nonspendable fund balance, restricted fund balance, committed fund balance, assigned fund balance, and unassigned fund balance.2 The total of the last three categories, which include only resources without a constraint on spending or for which the constraint on spending is imposed by the government itself, is termed unrestricted fund balance.
It is essential that governments maintain adequate levels of fund balance to mitigate current and future risks (e.g., revenue shortfalls and unanticipated expenditures) and to ensure stable tax rates. Fund balance levels are a crucial consideration, too, in long-term financial planning.
In most cases, discussions of fund balance will properly focus on a government’s general fund. Nonetheless, financial resources available in other funds should also be considered in assessing the adequacy of unrestricted fund balance (i.e., the total of the amounts reported as committed, assigned, and unassigned fund balance) in the general fund.
Credit rating agencies monitor levels of fund balance and unrestricted fund balance in a government’s general fund to evaluate a government’s continued creditworthiness. Likewise, laws and regulations often govern appropriate levels of fund balance and unrestricted fund balance for state and local governments.
Those interested primarily in a government’s creditworthiness or economic condition (e.g., rating agencies) are likely to favor increased levels of fund balance. Opposing pressures often come from unions, taxpayers and citizens’ groups, which may view high levels of fund balance as "excessive."
GFOA recommends that governments establish a formal policy on the level of unrestricted fund balance that should be maintained in the general fund.3 Such a guideline should be set by the appropriate policy body and should provide both a temporal framework and specific plans for increasing or decreasing the level of unrestricted fund balance, if it is inconsistent with that policy.4
The adequacy of unrestricted fund balance in the general fund should be assessed based upon a government’s own specific circumstances. Nevertheless, GFOA recommends, at a minimum, that general-purpose governments, regardless of size, maintain unrestricted fund balance in their general fund of no less than two months of regular general fund operating revenues or regular general fund operating expenditures.5 The choice of revenues or expenditures as a basis of comparison may be dictated by what is more predictable in a government’s particular circumstances.6 Furthermore, a government’s particular situation often may require a level of unrestricted fund balance in the general fund significantly in excess of this recommended minimum level. In any case, such measures should be applied within the context of long-term forecasting, thereby avoiding the risk of placing too much emphasis upon the level of unrestricted fund balance in the general fund at any one time.
In establishing a policy governing the level of unrestricted fund balance in the general fund, a government should consider a variety of factors, including:
- The predictability of its revenues and the volatility of its expenditures (i.e., higher levels of unrestricted fund balance may be needed if significant revenue sources are subject to unpredictable fluctuations or if operating expenditures are highly volatile);
- Its perceived exposure to significant one-time outlays (e.g., disasters, immediate capital needs, state budget cuts);
- The potential drain upon general fund resources from other funds as well as the availability of resources in other funds (i.e., deficits in other funds may require that a higher level of unrestricted fund balance be maintained in the general fund, just as, the availability of resources in other funds may reduce the amount of unrestricted fund balance needed in the general fund);7
- Liquidity (i.e., a disparity between when financial resources actually become available to make payments and the average maturity of related liabilities may require that a higher level of resources be maintained); and
- Commitments and assignments (i.e., governments may wish to maintain higher levels of unrestricted fund balance to compensate for any portion of unrestricted fund balance already committed or assigned by the government for a specific purpose).
Furthermore, governments may deem it appropriate to exclude from consideration resources that have been committed or assigned to some other purpose and focus on unassigned fund balance rather than on unrestricted fund balance.
Naturally, any policy addressing desirable levels of unrestricted fund balance in the general fund should be in conformity with all applicable legal and regulatory constraints. In this case in particular, it is essential that differences between GAAP fund balance and budgetary fund balance be fully appreciated by all interested parties.
2 These categories are set forth in Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB) Statement No. 54, Fund Balance Reporting and Governmental Fund Type Definitions, which must be implemented for financial statements for periods ended June 30, 2011 and later.
3 Sometimes restricted fund balance includes resources available to finance items that typically would require the use of unrestricted fund balance (e.g., a contingency reserve). In that case, such amounts should be included as part of unrestricted fund balance for purposes of analysis.
4 See Recommended Practice 4.1 of the National Advisory Council on State and Local Budgeting governments on the need to "maintain a prudent level of financial resources to protect against reducing service levels or raising taxes and fees because of temporary revenue shortfalls or unpredicted one-time expenditures" (Recommended Practice 4.1).
5 In practice, a level of unrestricted fund balance significantly lower than the recommended minimum may be appropriate for states and America’s largest governments (e.g., cities, counties, and school districts) because they often are in a better position to predict contingencies (for the same reason that an insurance company can more readily predict the number of accidents for a pool of 500,000 drivers than for a pool of fifty), and because their revenues and expenditures often are more diversified and thus potentially less subject to volatility.
6 In either case, unusual items that would distort trends (e.g., one-time revenues and expenditures) should be excluded, whereas recurring transfers should be included. Once the decision has been made to compare unrestricted fund balance to either revenues or expenditures, that decision should be followed consistently from period to period.