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Hall reduces money in emergency pot
County keeps just one months worth of expenses on hand
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If Hall County finance officials' predictions are right, the budget passed on June 30 leaves the government with a little more than a month's worth of expenditures stashed away for emergencies.

Whether that amount is enough is yet to be determined.

Organizations for government accounting encourage at least two months' reserve. And bond rating agencies look closely at reserve funds before determining a government's credit worthiness.

Hall County's average monthly expenses total about $7.1 million, according to Lisa Johnsa, who finished her interim term as the county's finance director on Friday.

Johnsa estimates that when the books from last fiscal year are closed, the Hall government's reserve fund will equal about $9 million.

The Hall County Board of Commissioners has already decided to use $708,650 of that fund to shore up a deficit for the new fiscal year's budget of $85.6 million.

For years before Johnsa came to Hall to serve as the temporary finance director, she was the chief financial officer for Gwinnett County.

There, she said, the government had as much as three months of its operating expenditures stashed away in a reserve fund.

"(It) positions you very well, because then when the lean years came, it also paved the way to allow more flexibility," Johnsa said.

Gwinnett's policy toward reserve funds contributed to its ability to gain the highest rating by all three bond rating agencies. Cobb is the only other county in Georgia to boast that bond rating, Johnsa said.

Bond ratings affect interest rates and, therefore, how much taxpayers have to shell out for government loans.

But also, they affect an area's ability to attract industry and jobs, Johnsa said.

Both Gainesville and Hall County have strong "Aa3" bond ratings.

"Having a good credit rating saves you money over all," Johnsa said.

City officials in Gainesville are working with about six weeks' of reserves under their mattress.

Until this year, the city tried to keep at least one month's expenditures on the backburner.

But in January, council members directed Administrative Services Director Melody Marlowe to begin building the fund balance to about two months' worth of operating expenses for this fiscal year.

With a projected $5.4 million in surplus funds this year, Marlowe said the city kept about $3.2 million in a management reserve, moving the balance of the surplus into an account used for big-ticket items.

The amount backs up a contingency fund of 2 percent of the general fund's operating expenses.

Hall County eliminated its contingency account this year.

The city's change in policy — to beef reserves up to as much as two months' worth of expenditures — reflects so-called best practices for finance outlined by the Government Finance Officers Association.

In a 2009 report, the association encouraged governments to maintain "adequate levels" of fund balance to ensure stable tax rates and mitigate risks such as shortfalls in revenue and unexpected expenses.

Specifically, the agency recommends a reserve or fund balance of no less than two months' worth of operating expenses.

For Gainesville, the change in policy came with experience of the impact of the economic recession on government revenues, Marlowe said.

"Where one month used to be acceptable, now we are seeing that maybe that doesn't give you enough time to react to serious situation," she said. "It's kind of been a change in philosophy in the last few years, actually."

 

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