One element of Dane County's $500 million budget just signed by County Executive Kathleen Falk that got little attention was a $1 million hike in the county's reserve fund, to $3.25 million.
In recent years, the county has been criticized for having too small a reserve. The city of Madison, in contrast, expects to have about $27.5 million in its reserve fund by the end of next year, says Madison Comptroller Dean Brasser. And even that amount, about 12% of the city's operating budget, is still a little less than the 15% he would like it to have.
Reserve funds represent the difference between assets and liabilities, not money sitting in a city or county bank account. Some of the money isn't readily available. Brasser gives an example: The city has loaned money to the water utility; this appears on the books as an asset, but "we can't guarantee they could pay it back today."
Reserve funds, however, do affect a municipality's bond rating, and thus how cheaply it can borrow money. And Dane County's rating recently fell from triple A to double A plus.