How to Account for Capital Assets

Capital Assets, Accounting for Capital AssetsWhen it comes to accounting for capital assets, specifically depreciating capital assets, the Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB) provides guidance to state and local governments for accounting processes. The GASB is responsible for the generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) for the private sector (corporate and business accounting), and it works to promote clear, consistent, transparent, and comparable financial reporting.

One of the three primary GASB pronouncements that impact how these agencies manage their fixed assets includes Statement No. 34, which requires all government entities to use accrual accounting. In addition, such entities must depreciate their capital assets according to its guidelines.

Under the section titled “Basic Financial Statements and Management’s Discussion and Analysis for State and Local Governments,” Statement No. 34 mandates when entities must comply depending on the entity’s annual revenues. Entities with $100 million plus must comply beginning with their first fiscal year after June 15, 2001. Entities with annual revenues of between $10 million and $100 million must comply starting with their first fiscal year post-June 15, 2002. Entities with annual revenues of up to $10 million must comply by their first fiscal year after June 15, 2003.  

Capital Assets Overview

The first step in determining a capital asset is to ensure it has a useful life greater than a single reporting period. Examples of capital assets include vehicles, easements, buildings, land and land improvements, and infrastructure (tunnels, bridges, roads, lighting systems, etc.). When defining infrastructure, it must be something that can be used for the long term; generally is stationary, and when a building is looked at, it’s included only if the building is integral to a network of infrastructure assets.

When it comes to reporting capital assets, they should be reported at their historical costs (inclusive of installation and freight charges). For donated assets, they should be recorded at their fair market value at time received.

Depreciation Expense Reporting Considerations

When an asset is identified with a specific function, it’s recommended to be a direct expense. This includes appropriate assets that are attributable to a unique department or role. If the asset is used by many different departments and there are depreciation expenses, they should be proportionate to how each department uses the respective assets. Additionally, if an asset function across multiple departments or across citywide functions, its depreciation expense is not categorized as a direct expense but rather as a separate line in the Statement of Activities.

Whether it’s straight or declining balance methods (such as double declining balance and 150 percent declining balance), it is done over the asset’s useful life. When it comes to determining an asset’s useful life, government entities can base their calculations on their own past internal experience for similar needs, how other government entities treated similar asset classifications that are publicly available, or industry or professional organization’s published guidelines. Condition and the expected service life are two important factors to be considered.

Another important factor in how depreciation is calculated depends on how assets themselves are classified. For example, it can be done through the following lenses:

  • Individual assets
  • Classes of assets
  • Networks of assets
  • Subsystems of a network of assets

Looking at the last two ways to analyze these assets for depreciation, rural roads, state highways, and Interstate highways can be broken down into three discrete systems, also referred to as a subsystem of the network. However, if all three different transportation systems are grouped together, the bigger system would be a network of infrastructure assets or a network of assets.

With capital assets expected to be a part of governments’ budgets, understanding the intricacies is essential to ensure standards are met.


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