There are two sides to every coin: Or is there Common Sense about Cost Accounting in Government?

In the 1990s there was a wave of euphoria about cost accounting and particularly Activity Based Costing (ABC).  One book in particular stands out in my mind as particularly euphoric: Common Cents: The ABC Performance Breakthrough by Stephen Turney.  While it had a clever title, few people remember this book now, but many people remember ABC.  Many finance and budget managers do not recall ABC with fondness.  In fact, when government budget and finance managers are asked about the use of ABC in their organizations now, most will say that they are not using it.  However, when asked if they are doing some form of cost accounting, the measure is much higher.  In this post, I explore why budget and finance managers are willing to say that they are doing cost accounting and not ABC.  I further explore (and mix) the metaphor of common sense/cents about cost accounting by thinking of its uses as two sides of the same coin.

Some background on cost accounting…

Cost accounting is the measurement and use of both direct and indirect cost information for an organizational purpose like rate setting, grant overhead recovery, performance measurement or cost management. For private businesses, cost accounting is essential for pricing goods and services.  In government, cost accounting has many uses as well.  It can be used to price goods as businesses do, to collect overhead for grants, and to improve performance measurement systems.  These are all beneficial uses that are broadly supported by most organizations. The other side of the coin is that cost accounting can be used for intensive cost management purposes, but these uses may generate resistance in organizations. Intensive cost management such as contracting out services and service cutbacks or eliminations can generate resistance from employees.  It is important for managers and budget officers that are looking to use cost accounting for the first time, or more intensively, to consider both sides of the coin and plan accordingly.


The easy side of the cost accounting coin

– Collecting grant overhead

– Accurately price goods or services

– Improve performance management systems

In my research and as described in my forthcoming edited book, cost accounting has many acknowledged uses in government.  The oldest use of cost accounting was to collect grant overhead costs from the federal government as described in the A-87 circular.  The benefit of A-87 cost accounting is that when local governments provide federal services that they should be able to charge indirect costs like HR, IT, and Accounting costs to the grant so that the local government does not have to subsidize services that are most appropriately paid for by the federal government.

Cost accounting also has an important place in accurately pricing goods and services that government “sells” to consumers.  Like federal grants, services that are sold to private consumers need to have indirect costs added into them so that the general tax is not unintentionally subsidizing the service.  Finally, cost accounting is important for performance management systems.  The work of the North Carolina Benchmarking Program most directly speaks to this issue.  Without cost accounting, we cannot be sure if performance differences come from differences in processes that we can learn from or whether they come from simple differences in resources.  Generally, few people inside an organization object to these purposes and may readily assist if they believe that it can be used to generate new revenues for their programs.

The difficult side of the cost accounting coin

– Contracting out services

– Service cutbacks and eliminations

– Overhead cost management

 

Cost accounting also has some more difficult uses.  I suggest that these are difficult only because they are difficult for people in the organization.  Analysts and managers have told me that people believe that when the government starts collecting data on the “full” cost of services they think that sweet Ms. Betty in Animal Licenses is going to lose her job.  They believe this because cost accounting allows governments to more accurately estimate the benefit associated with contracting or eliminating services.  If we only look at the budgeted costs of a services like animal licensing, we leave out important indirect costs or the budgeted cost is aggregated at such a level that it obscures the individual cost of services.  So, cost accounting can be used to both combine direct and indirect costs and track expenses at a more granular level, which becomes very beneficial for contracting and service analysis.

Cost accounting also often shows that building space, which is an often untracked overhead expense in the budget, is an important cost of services.  If the cost of building space is added into the cost estimate, the service managers often have to justify the high cost of the space for things like storage.  This is something that managers do not want to have to justify and defend.

The improved ability to evaluate contracting, service elimination, and overhead cost management are all important and appropriate uses of cost accounting from the budget officer’s perspective. However, this side of the coin may appear negative from the employee and service manager’s perspective, and organizational resistance may ensue.  Often this resistance is seen in the form of service managers focusing on the excessive time and data requirements of cost accounting.

 

My common sense suggestions about both sides of the cost accounting coin

The previous discussion of the “other” side of the coin that generates resistance in the organization has suggested why cost accounting (and ABC in particular) has been limited in government.  If the resistance hypothesis is correct, then the next question is what can be done about it? In my forthcoming edited book and in my dissertation (found here: see chapter 3 in particular), I note that the cost accounting used in practice by local governments is not completely an ABC cost accounting system, which may help this problem of resistance and minimize the time and data requirements.  I call this development “hybrid” cost accounting.  These hybrid cost accounting systems are neither very basic or exactly like ABC.  They have a mix of basic and specific cost drivers, the level of cost is passed down to some broad programs and some very specific activities, and that the “fullness” of the system is mixed.  In other words, the systems that are developed and used by cities over time are not purebred ABC systems.  The system is more basic in areas where it is not as important to have a specific activity cost and in areas that generate the most resistance.

Additionally, many cities have found that they have multiple cost accounting systems for different purposes like A-87 cost accounting plans for federal grants and then “full” cost accounting for purposes of setting rates and evaluating the cost of services.  All of this points to the new understanding that there needs to be multiple estimates of cost for the multiple purposes of government.

In conclusion, cost accounting has many significant benefits for government, but we have to use some common sense about our expectations for cost accounting and how it will be received by the organization.  In other words, we need to consider both sides of the coin and especially from the perspective of the service managers and employees. By using hybrid cost accounting systems and multiple cost systems, we may be able to minimize the resistance from the organization and maximize benefits.

Zach Mohr is an Assistant Professor at UNC Charlotte.  He has a forthcoming, edited book on cost accounting titled Cost Accounting in Government: Theory and Applications.  It will be published by Routledge in May 2017.  Links to actual local government cost accounting documents and other useful cost accounting resources can be found on his faculty website.

Invitation to Comment – Or Invitation to Disaster?? The Long Slog to a New Financial Reporting Model Begins!

Well, it was inevitable. While we all are still reeling from the fun that has been GASB Statement No. 34, Basic Financial Statements – and Management’s Discussion and Analysis – for State and Local Governments that was issued in June 1999, another chapter in the never-ending saga has begun. Yes, the Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB) recently added a new financial reporting model project to their official agenda. Now, the good news is that this type of project takes time – lots of time. The project that culminated in GASB Statement No. 34 was a 15-year process. The first implementers of GASB Statement No. 34 did so 15 years ago. So, one would hope that this is the beginning of another 15 year adventure and, at the end, most of us will be retired. Well, no such luck this time. While we do have time to possibly retire, the potential release of a new reporting model standard is currently slated for November 2021, with implementation certainly several years after that. However, we are not looking at a 15-year process.

Continue reading

Mirror, Mirror on the wall, How much revenue will we generate this fall?

Yup, you guessed it, today’s blog post is on revenue forecasting!  My current blog series is about some of the non-legal finance issues that are out there and revenue forecasting, while required by law, is a really important one!  There are many people that are involved with revenue forecasting in local governments. While many outside of government may just assume that there is some accountant or budget wonk sitting in a back room who is somehow magically able (or has some very scientific formula) to predict how much money is going to be coming in next year, we know better.

There are many reasons to forecast revenues including planning for the future (are we going to have enough money coming to support our expenditures in five years) and to balance this year’s budget, but in North Carolina local governments are also required by law to forecast revenues.  Our forecasted revenues set the parameters on the budget, they define how much we can spend this year and may cause policy choices on both the expenditure and finance side (like setting the property tax rate).

This is why it is explicitly required in the Local Government Budget and Fiscal Control Act or simply the Fiscal Control Act.  The Fiscal Control Act requires that the budget is balanced and that the estimated revenue for the following year, used to create the balanced budget, be reasonable, reliable, and justifiable.  The question is, how do we do that?

In this blog post I am going to discuss forecasting methods broadly, if this is something you are more interested in and you want more details (and math!) please see my chapter in the Introduction to Local Government Finance textbook.

First, of all what do we need to successfully forecast our revenues? We need: data, institutional insight, and judgement.  We need data on the revenues we have collected in the past, policy changes, changes to our tax base, and whatever else we think may be important to know about past revenues and future revenues.  For example, beyond just property tax collections it is important to have data on property tax rate changes, reassessment cycles, etc.

Data is foundational, but without institutional insight it would be easy to misinterpret that data.  Institutional insight and knowledge helps a forecaster know what data needs to be collected, what effect changes have had on your community, what population or demographic changes may be occurring, whether firms are entering or exiting, etc.  Institutional insight provides the context for the data.  In a course I was teaching, I had the opportunity to talk with a budget officer from Fayetteville and we were talking about unexpected shocks to budgets.  She mentioned how the federal government shut down that occurred in 2013 really hit them hard because of the importance of Fort Bragg to their community.  They were affected by the shutdown in ways that most jurisdictions outside of metro D.C. were not.  If you had no context and were looking at their revenue receipts for that period and comparing them to other jurisdictions you would not only be confused but you would also let that shock affect your forecast in inappropriate ways.

Lastly, you have to always use your judgement.  You need to make sense of the numbers, look at the trends, and not rely exclusively on the numbers spit out of models.  I sometimes refer to this as the “gut check.”  You can use real numbers and reasonable forecasting methods and get unrealistic forecasts.  There are a lot of reasons this may happen and we are going to discuss some of them below!

There are two main categories of forecasting methods: qualitative and quantitative.

Qualitative forecasting relies on expert judgement.  The experts can be internal (like budget directors) or external (like local economists).  This is extremely common and can be very reliable when the expert understands the revenue source, the economy, and the community.  Can’t decide on just one expert? You can also use a panel of experts who bring different knowledge and perspectives to the process.  This often means internal experts as well as economists, business owners, bankers, etc.  There are many strengths to qualitative forecasting such as it is typically low cost, straightforward, and not too data intensive.  ***Note: This does not mean that our experts do not use data though!***  However, it has its share of weaknesses too.  You need to identify the correct experts, it is not as transparent a process, and it is hard to avoid forecaster bias.  Forecaster bias comes in many shapes and sizes but an example of it is that your expert remembers last time there was a downturn and it took your community 5 years to get back to previous sales tax collections, never mind that the previous economic downturn was the Great Recession and the next downturn will likely (hopefully!) be much less dramatic.  Or they know that this new box store coming in is going to generate tons of revenue, they just know it!

Quantitative judgement relies on data very heavily and there are numerous ways it can be accomplished.  For some tax sources, like property taxes, they can be forecasted through formulas because you have all the data you need (like tax base, rate, and collection rate) to calculate it.  Unfortunately this information is not available for the majority of taxes and fees.  A common method of quantitative forecasting is trend analysis, where the forecaster uses previous collections (and the changes from year to year) to estimate future collections.  There are many ways to forecast using trends including applying the average growth over the period to the previous year’s revenue.  The issue you here is that trend analysis is always backward looking and will lag behind changes to the economy.

A final way that is more common in larger jurisdictions is causal modeling where not just previous revenue is used, but also other economic drivers.  The advantage is that it can be forward looking and it incorporates the “why” of changing revenue collections.  It requires a lot of data though and for most local governments that data is not available, at least not for the most recent time periods.  And when it comes to data you should always remember GIGO: Garbage in, Garbage out.

So how do we choose? Well resources are the first hurdle.  What capacity do you have on staff (not just skill set but time)? Do you have the money to hire consultants?  Do you have the data?  The second consideration is to think about the revenue being forecasted, you should not be using the same (quantitative) forecasting technique for all your revenue sources.  ***See the book chapter for more on this.*** The third consideration is what works on previous data?  I suggest you forecast for previous years using a few different methods.  You know what the actual revenue collections are, so you will be able to identify which quantitative methods work best for different revenue sources.

Final thoughts on revenue forecasting.

  • All forecasts are wrong. The goal is to minimize how wrong they are.
  • Be cautious, but not too cautious. It is prudent to air on the conservative side of forecasting but too conservative and you are either taxing people too much or you are missing opportunities by not budgeting your revenues.
  • Expert judgement should always be incorporated, even when doing quantitative forecasting. The gut check of “does this make sense” is valuable.  I suggest you graph your estimate against the previous years to eyeball your forecast to help inform that gut check.

 

 

Journey to Assessment Excellence

All great journeys start by asking three questions:

  1. Where do I want to go?
  2. What is my current location?
  3. What path do I need to take to arrive at my desired location?

In instructing IAAO and Excel classes throughout North Carolina, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many great assessment professionals. This article seeks to assist assessing professionals and assessing offices to chart their journey.  I hope you find this article helpful as you plan your journey to assessing excellence!

David Cornell, 2017: Journey to Assessment Excellence: Using the Assessor’s Maturity Curve Model as a Guide [PDF]

This article was published in the IAAO’s January edition of “Fair and Equitable”.

To Lower, or Not to Lower, That is the Question

Although there are no deaths to avenge in this story, it can be a tragedy to lower a  business personal assessment when it is not warranted. Reducing a value, is a de facto exemption. It is an expense to the county. Accounts (parcels) with the highest value in local governments are quite often business personal property accounts. When a BPP assessment is reduced without proper reason, it can create de facto classifications. This means your largest taxpayers could be assessed at a lower assessment ratio than the smallest residential taxpayers. That doesn’t sit well with me. There are certainly many variables to consider when faced with a request to lower an assessed value. Read on for this 5 act, I mean 5 question, blog post.

Continue reading

Whose Assets Are They Anyway?

The Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB) issued GASB Statement No. 84, Fiduciary Activities the last week in January 2017.  Obviously, this is breaking news – stop the presses!  The standard is the culmination of a long-term, wide-ranging project to address accounting and financial reporting for the following:

GASB Statement No. 68)

With GASB Statement No. 84, the GASB provides definitive guidance on how all fiduciary activities of a governmental entity should be reported. It is now definitive that assets that are associated with a fiduciary activity and are legally entrusted should be reported in one of three specific fiduciary fund types.  Those assets that are not legally entrusted but still meet the definition of a fiduciary activity are to be reported in a separate fiduciary fund type. This does clear some inconsistencies with fiduciary fund reporting currently where entrusted and non-entrusted assets may be reported in the same fund type (although many of us probably never lost much sleep over it).

Continue reading

North Carolina Budget & Evaluation Officer Certification: FAQ

There is always room on the wall for a new shiny credential and on your resume for that matter.

The mission of the North Carolina Local Government Budget Association (NCLGBA) is to promote the budgeting profession through education, networking, and advocacy. As a strategy to promote the educational component of this mission, the NCLGBA created a certification program in July 2008 for members of the association to become Certified Budget & Evaluation Officers. Individuals seeking to become a Certified Budget & Evaluation Officer must possess a certain level of professional experience, must take four courses, and must pass three exams. I am writing this blog to respond to some of the most common questions associated with the certification, with the goal of promoting the certification program among budget and evaluation professionals.

Where can I obtain information on the certification program?

The website (www.nclgba.org) of the NCLGBA contains information on how to become certified, the benefits and values of certification, the upcoming courses and exams, and the list of certified budget & evaluation officers.

Do I have to be a member of the NCLGBA?

Yes. Individuals must be a member of the NCLGBA, including the association’s listserv.

How many years of professional experience do I need before seeking certification?

Individuals must have eight or more years of professional experience in local government budget and evaluation. This number decreases for individuals who possess more formal education. For example, individuals with an undergraduate degree need five or more years of professional experience and individuals with a master’s degree need three or more years of professional experience.

Do I have to complete my professional experience before taking the courses and respective exams?

No. In fact, individuals are encouraged to complete the courses and exams while obtaining the necessary years of experience.

How many courses do I have to take?

You must take four courses in the areas of budgeting, capital finance, performance measurement, and evaluation.

Where can I take the courses?

The School of Government offers courses in these areas on an annual basis. Another possibility is courses offered by the Government Finance Officers Association.

The 2017 courses are:

Budgeting in Local Government: 10/31-11/3 in Chapel Hill

Capital Financing in Local Government: 8/2-4 in Asheville

Performance Management in Local Government: 10/19 in Chapel Hill

Introduction to Program Evaluation for Budget and Management Analysts: 7/11-12 at NCLGBA’s Summer Conference

Practical Analytic Techniques for Local Government: 9/8 in Chapel Hill

While these are the dates for 2017 they are the approximate dates for these courses every year.

Do I have to take all four courses if I have taken related courses in pursuing my master’s degree?

Yes. Master-level courses cannot be substituted for continuing educational courses associated with the certification program.

How many exams must I take and what constitutes a pass?

You must take three exams in the areas of budgeting, capital finance, and performance measurement and must successfully answer 80 percent or more of the questions on each exam (there is not an exam related to the evaluation course).

Do I have to wait until I have taken all the courses before taking the exams?

No. In fact, you are encouraged to take the respective exam for each course as soon as you have taken the course to increase the probability of success.

How many times can I take an exam?

There is not limit on the number of times an individual may retake the exam.

Is a study guide available for the exams?

Yes. It can be found on the NCLGBA’s website.

What else should I do to prepare for my exams?

Of course you should look at the guide, but even better would be to go through your notes, readings, and slides from your coursework that you took to meet the requirements.

When are exams offered?

Exams are only offered twice a year in conjunctions with the summer and winter conferences of the NCLGBA.  This is the only opportunity to take the exams and they are only offered once per conference. There are no exceptions.

How do I become certified once I have completed the certification requirements?

You must complete the certification application form, which can be found on the NCLGBA’s website.

When will I receive my certification?

You will receive a letter from the president of the NCLGBA once your application has been approved. You will receive the actual certificate at the following conference of the NCLGBA!  Please note: Applications must be received before the planning meeting for the upcoming NCLGBA conference.  If it is received after the planning meeting you will be eligible to receive your certification at the following NCLGBA conference.

Let’s play “Who’s Paying That Tax?”

In my last blog I talked about the limitations that we all have on decision making and how we satisfice and make decisions based on incomplete information.  That is all true, but it does not mean that we should not strive to have a more robust understanding of the landscape we are working in.  To that end, I am going to be devoting some of my blogs to topics that are both interesting and important to understand for those working in government, especially those in budget and finance positions.  This week: tax incidence!

 

Hopefully I have not lost you already.  Tax incidence is just the fancy way of saying “who pays the tax” or “who bears the burden of the tax.”  As you may have already guessed who pays and who bears the burden may not be the same person (or party).  These are actually the two types of tax incidence: statutory incidence and economic incidence.

Statutory incidence is determined by who actually remits the tax to the government or who pays the tax.

Economic incidence is who bears the burden of the tax or in econ-speak whose resources (money mostly) are affected by the tax.

So let’s use a quick example to make this a bit clearer.  Let’s look at property taxes.  Imagine you have a small home in your community that is owned by the Smiths and occupied by renters, the Baldwins.

 

The Smiths are the ones who write a check to the county every year for property taxes—so they bear the statutory incidence of the property tax.  Does that mean that they bear the burden of the tax though?  Not necessarily.  Under the right conditions the Smiths may be able to charge a high enough rent that they are pushing the burden of the tax onto the Baldwins. In that case the Baldwins may be bearing (or a portion of) the economic incidence.

 

 

Hopefully that makes intuitive sense to you.  For those of you who like visual aids (or graphs!) let’s go back to the microeconomics you took in school.

  This is the standard graph used to teach economic incidence (which I will just be referring to as incidence from now on).  What you can see is that the consumer is now paying more (the difference between P and P1) for the good and the producer is now receiving less money for the good (the difference between P and the lower line).  AND there is less of the good being consumed.

The pink and green rectangles are the tax revenue.  The pink rectangle is the portion of the tax paid by consumers (or in the example of property taxes the renter) and the green rectangle is the portion of the tax paid by producers (or in the example of property taxes the owner).  You can see that the incidence is shared by both groups.  This is the expected outcome for most goods.

***Note: the white triangle to the left of the tax burden (between the Q1 and Q lines) is what is called in econ-speak dead weight loss.  This means that the tax has created a loss for both consumer and producers that the government does not get in revenue.  This is bad and we want to minimize this loss as much as possible.***

However, it should not be assumed that most taxes are split evenly.  This goes to the idea of elasticity.  I am not talking about the importance of elasticity in your sweats after the holiday season is over, but instead the elasticity of the supply and demand of goods.  In normal (non-econ) speak this just means how sensitive you are to changes in price of a good.  ***Inelastic means less sensitive to changes in price and elastic means more sensitive to changes in price.***  So if consumers are very sensitive to the change in the price of the good then more of the burden will be shifted to the producer.  If the consumer is less sensitive to the price (i.e., they will buy it at similar rates even when it costs more) then more of the incidence will be passed to them.

Here you can see that the demand line (D) is more up and down.  This means that no matter the price most consumers that were going to buy it before the tax was imposed are still going to buy it.  Under this inelastic demand (not sensitive to price) consumers will end up paying more of the tax burden, thus the pink box is bigger.  In the property tax example, this may mean that there are a lot of people looking to rent a home and not buy.  So the Smiths can charge a higher amount because of the insensitive or inelastic demand for rental properties, leaving the Baldwins with higher rent.  The opposite would be true if there were a lot of rental properties and not many prospective renters.  Then renters/consumers would be sensitive to changes in price and property owners would be less sensitive and bear the larger portion of the tax incidence.

This issue of elasticity is the heart of tax incidence.  The question of who is most sensitive to price is what determines the incidence.  It is natural to ask “what if both groups are sensitive to price” is a fair question.  The answer is that the amount consumed of that good will drop a lot, not much tax revenue will be generated, and there will be a lot of dead weight loss.  The burden will still be greater on the more sensitive one though.  The flip side is what if neither party is sensitive to price?  Well then there will not be much dead weight loss (yay!) and as always the less sensitive party will bear greater burden.

So what if we want to tax one group (let’s call them Team A) more than another group (Team B)?  Well, then you have to find a good that Team A is less sensitive to changes in price than Team B.  This may be different in different jurisdictions.  It is not as simple as shifting the statutory incidence because it does not matter which side of the market you tax, the burden will end up on the same party either way.

 

There are almost no universal rules about who bears the burden for normal (typical) goods.  There are exceptions of course.  The classic being cigarettes.  Cigarettes are addictive and therefore the demand for them by the consumer is not very sensitive to changes in price.  Therefore the cigarette tax falls largely, if not completely, on consumers.

 

 

Are you thinking, well my community is going to depend on property taxes and it does not really matter if the burden is being passed on to renters or staying with property owners (or businesses/their employees).  Fair enough, but if you are living in a community and you believe that the burden is being passed on to one group, you may be able to change other fees and taxes to not disproportionately affect the same group.  It is also always valuable to understand how your taxes affect your citizens and if they affect different populations unequally.

In brief: What do you need to know about tax incidence?

  • That the person who remits the tax may not be the person who bears the burden of the tax.
  • The person who is least sensitive to changes in price is going to bear a greater portion of the tax burden.
  • The side of the market that the tax is imposed on (e.g., producer versus consumer) does not affect who bears the burden.

 

 

 

Planning for success (Part 2)

Last month, I started the discussion with Part 1 of this topic. Near the conclusion of Part 1, I hoped for some questions and what-ifs. I got ‘em, and I hope this month’s post will provide some insight.

Continue reading

It is Going to Cost HOW Much to Retire It??

Everyone is well aware, or should be, that the cost of retiring is escalating almost by the minute.  There are financial advisors and estate planners who solely focus on enabling us to have a shot at a decent retirement, relatively free of financial concern.  Employers in both the public and private sectors are recognizing mammoth liabilities for the pension resources they are holding in trust for their employees.  But, are employees all that are going to retire from a state or local government?  Is that the only long-term cost that a governmental entity is going to be liable for (above and beyond normal indebtedness)?  The answer is obviously no or I would not be writing this post.

Continue reading

« Older posts

© 2017 Death and Taxes

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑