NEW YORK--(BUSINESS WIRE)--Fitch Ratings has assigned the following ratings to general obligation (GO) bonds and notes issued by Nassau County, NY (the county):
--$163.3 million general improvement bonds, 2013 series A 'A+';
--$187.8 million bond anticipation notes, 2013 series A 'F1'.
The bonds are expected to be sold via competitive bid Feb. 21. Proceeds of the bonds will be used for various public purposes. The notes are expected to be sold via negotiation Feb. 21. Note proceeds will finance various costs related to the remediation and restoration of county facilities and infrastructure from Super Storm Sandy.
In addition, Fitch affirms the following ratings:
--$1.4 billion in outstanding GO bonds at 'A+';
--$259 million in outstanding Nassau Health Care Corporation (NCHCC) county guaranteed bonds at 'A+';
--$13.1 million in outstanding Nassau Regional Off-Track Betting Corporation (NROTBC) revenue bonds series 2005 at 'A';
--$480 million in outstanding notes at 'F1'.
The Rating Outlook for all long-term debt is Negative.
The notes and bonds are secured by the county's faith and credit and taxing power, subject to a 2011 state statute limiting property tax increases to the lesser of 2% or an inflation factor (tax cap law). This limit can be overridden annually by a 60% vote of the county legislature.
The NCHCC bonds are supported by the unconditional and absolute guarantee of the county.
The NROTBC bonds are supported by the county's agreement not to adopt a budget without including an appropriation for payment of loans that equal debt service on the bonds. Under a support agreement between the county and the NROTBC, the county commits to transfer funds to pay debt service to the trustee not later than 15 days prior to any debt service payment; these loans will be repaid promptly by NROTBC.
KEY RATING DRIVERS
LIMITED FINANCIAL FLEXIBILITY: The county's minimal financial flexibility is evidenced by high dependence on economically sensitive sales tax revenue, consistent use of non-recurring measures to close budget gaps, depletion of reserves, and long-term labor contracts.
RELIANCE ON SHORT-TERM BORROWING: Market access remains critical given the county's high reliance on additional short-term borrowing for repayment of outstanding cash flow notes.
TAX REFUND LIABILITY: The county remains responsible for sizable liabilities through 2014, although the inability to continue its historical practice of using bond proceeds to fund tax refunds places additional pressure on cost cutting.
FINANCIAL OVERSIGHT: Under the control of the Nassau County Interim Finance Authority (NIFA), decision-making is somewhat more cumbersome than in prior periods but does provide some benefits.
STRONG ECONOMIC INDICATORS: The county benefits from a broad and wealthy economic base characterized by high wealth levels.
MODERATE DEBT BURDEN: The sizable and wealthy tax base results in a manageable debt burden with above average amortization. Capital needs are moderate.
CONTINUED COST-CUTTING MEASURES ESSENTIAL: Management's ability to continue to reduce costs, especially labor, is essential to near-term budget balance and rating stability.
INABILITY TO REDUCE DEFICIT: The county's inability to materially offset the 2011 deficit via a combination of cost reductions and positive 2012 results would likely result in a downgrade.
TAX CERT LITIGATION: An inability by the county to produce a viable plan to cover increased operating expenses in the event tax cert litigation is settled unfavorably will likely cause downward rating pressure.
WEAK INTERGOVERNMENTAL RELATIONSHIPS: Absent improvement in the county administration's interactions with either its legislative body or NIFA, Fitch believes the ability to implement programs to improve fiscal stability will continue to be impaired.
With a population of approximately 1.4 million people, the county is located on Long Island, approximately 15 miles east of Manhattan.
SIGNIFICANT IMPACT FROM SUPER STORM SANDY
The county sustained significant damage to facilities and infrastructure as a result of Super Storm Sandy in October 2012, including roads and bridges, traffic control systems, county buildings, parks and reserves, sewage treatment plants and sewage pumping stations. A total of 74,736 structures were flooded, damaged or destroyed. County recovery cost estimates, which include individual assistance, housing, business impact, water, waste and sewer and government response, total $6.6 billion. Mitigation could add an additional $2.6 billion to the total.
The county was expected to spend at least $213 million on storm related expenses as of early January. The county expects FEMA to reimburse at least 75% of the county's cost for storm expenses. Funding details are not yet available but Fitch is concerned about the prospect of the county having to match a portion of the costs given its tight operations.
CONSTRAINED FINANCIAL OPERATIONS
Financial margins have been slim for many years but have narrowed recently, even with consistent moderate use of non-recurring measures. The drops in reserves are due in part to aggressive budgeting. Positively, sales tax revenue, which makes up 40% of major tax-supported fund revenue, have been accurately budgeted for the past three years with the county projecting a positive surplus in sales tax of approximately $25 million in 2012.
The county ended 2011 with a budgetary deficit of $50.4 million in its primary operating funds. The deficit is comprised of a $53.6 million deficit in the general fund, offset slightly by a $3.2 million surplus in the police district fund. The deficit resulted primarily from an unbudgeted $43.1 million expense incurred for tax cert refunds.
The 2011 shortfalls were primarily from the state's inaction on red light camera expansion and lower than budgeted fees on existing red light cameras ($33.8 million) and reduced state aid ($38.5 million). The higher expenses and lower revenues were partially offset by $70.3 million of budgeted contingencies. Positively, the structural deficit related to the primary operating funds was reduced for the second consecutive year from $137.6 million in 2010 to $127.6 million in 2011, a 7.3% improvement.
For 2011 on an audited GAAP-basis the county recorded an operating deficit after transfers of $85.3 million. The operating funds had a combined balance of $83.9 million or 3.5% of spending. The unrestricted fund balance (sum of committed, assigned and unassigned under GASB 54) totaled a negative $46.7 million or a negative 1.7% of combined spending.
Weaker financial position in 2011 was not unexpected given the expectation of an ability to issue tax certiorari bonds. This forced the county to make additional spending cuts which should result in reduced budget deficits and improved financial margins in the near term.
COUNTY PROJECTS CLOSE OF 2012 BUDGET GAP
The county's adopted 2012 budget for its major tax supported funds totaled $2.8 billion. The 2012 budget closed an identified $310 million gap and assumed $150 million in labor savings through a combination of layoffs, restructuring of operations, and labor concessions. Headcount of 7,359 at the end of 2012 was down another 0.5% compared to budget; reduced by 19.4% since 2009.
Among the restructurings in the budget was the closing of four of the county's eight police precincts, projected to result in recurring annual savings of $20 million. The original timeline for the consolidations was to be completed in 2012; however, one closing was delayed to the first quarter of 2013 as a repercussion of Super Storm Sandy. The county also entered into a public-private partnership for bus transportation that management reports will save $33 million annually.
The county reports monthly on its financial position and actual results relative to the budget. As of the most recent report, covering the period January-December 2012, spending on salaries, wages, and fees is 6.2% over budget. However, other items are ahead of budget, most notably benefits (due to health insurance costs below budget), sales tax revenue, and debt service (given low interest rates and the non-issuance in borrowing for tax certs). As of December, the county projects a $25.5 million surplus on a budgetary basis for 2012. This result would do little to reduce the accumulated unrestricted deficit from 2011 and may result in downgrade rating action.
2013 BUDGET AND MULTI-YEAR FINANCIAL PLAN
The 2013 budget was adopted by the county legislature on Nov. 20, 2012. The budget is balanced and includes $2.8 billion of appropriations (excluding transfers) to support the major operating funds. The budget includes sales tax growth of 3.7%, which Fitch considers reasonable given current 2012 projected receipts and potential pickup from Sandy rebuilding. NIFA approved the budget and the county's 2013 - 2016 multi-year financial plan on Nov. 29.
The county's 2013 - 2016 multi-year financial plan projects budget gaps of $61.9 million in 2014, $99.4 million in 2015 and $114.9 million in 2016. The county plans to implement gap-closing measures to produce savings and/or generate offsetting revenues. Fitch is concerned that some of the measures are of a non-recurring nature and may not be realistic given that one or more may require state legislation, action by the county legislature, or approval from NIFA.
RELIANCE ON SHORT-TERM BORROWING
Fitch remains concerned about the county's dependence on short-term borrowing (RANs and TANs), particularly as the borrowings overlap each other and cross fiscal years. In 2012, this borrowing equaled an elevated 20% of projected disbursements (net of note repayments). In 2013, the county expects to borrow $460 million, slightly less than the $480 million issued in 2012.
TAX CERT BONDS NOT APPROVED BY COUNTY LEGISLATURE
The county has passed legislation that eliminates its responsibility for making property tax refund payments (tax certs) to towns, special districts, and school districts. This legislation, effective in 2014, would significantly reduce the county's liability but was challenged by a number of the underlying jurisdictions. The county's position was upheld in the Nassau Supreme Court but the case is now at the appellate level.
The county planned - and NIFA agreed - to let the county issue approximately $305 million in tax cert bonds through 2014. However, the county legislature rejected the county's request for 2011 and 2012 and instead approved $41 million in cuts to fund the tax certs. The county administration continues to negotiate with its legislature, but it is unclear whether bonding for the $305 million of tax certs will be accomplished. Additionally, the county did not receive approval from the state legislature to use authorized GO capacity for tax certs.
After 2014 the county has committed to NIFA that it will end the financing of tax certs expenses. If the above-mentioned litigation is upheld costs should decline significantly over time, as county taxes represent only about 17% of the average total tax bill. Fitch would view this change positively, as it would reduce both current expenditures and bonding needs.
NIFA OVERSIGHT PROVIDES ADVANTAGES AS WELL AS HURDLES
In January 2011, NIFA, which has maintained an oversight role over the county since 2000, imposed a control period under NIFA's enabling legislation.
The ability to break existing contracts is beyond NIFA's control period powers. However, upon declaration of a fiscal crisis NIFA has the ability to impose a wage freeze if it determines that such freeze is necessary to maintain a balanced budget. Earlier in 2012, NIFA approved a wage freeze for the second year. The county estimates annual savings to be about $30 million, although three labor unions have filed suit to reverse the wage freeze.
Fitch believes NIFA's oversight has had some positive effects on the county's financial operations, such as instilling increased budgeting discipline and imposing the wage freeze. But NIFA's oversight also has added a layer of complexity to decision-making.
STRONG SOCIOECONOMIC CHARACTERISTICS
The county has a broad, diverse economy and well above-average economic indicators, including high income levels (per capita income in 2011 was 152% of the nation's), well below-average unemployment (7.2% for 2012), and high per capita market value ($162,000) despite recent tax base declines.
As a fully built-out county, new development has been limited, although some redevelopment is in the planning stages. The effects of the economic downturn were milder here than in some areas; employment and home price declines to date have been relatively moderate. In addition, sales tax revenue, the county's largest source of general government funding, has been relatively stable.
MODERATE DEBT LEVEL
Debt ratios are moderate despite the county's practice of bonding out tax refund payments. Such bonding constitutes about one-third of outstanding net tax-supported debt. Debt ratios are moderate with overall debt per capita at $3,811 and debt to market value at 2.4%. However, these statistics are likely somewhat understated as they exclude debt issued by school districts. The county's direct debt (including debt issued by the NIFA) amortizes rapidly at 69% in 10 years.
WELL-FUNDED STATE PENSION PLANS
The county participates in New York State pension funds which are well-funded. Payments now make up a relatively small share of the operating budget (4.2% of budgeted 2012 major fund spending) but are expected to increase, even with the ability granted by the state to amortize most of the increase in annual pension payments over 10 years. This amortization option, which the county has taken, provides some near-term budget relief but will make future year budgeting for these payments more challenging.
Additional information is available at 'www.fitchratings.com'. The ratings above were solicited by, or on behalf of, the issuer, and therefore, Fitch has been compensated for the provision of the ratings.
In addition to the sources of information identified in Fitch's Tax-Supported Rating Criteria, this action was additionally informed by information from Creditscope, University Financial Associates, S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Index, IHS Global Insight, and National Association of Realtors.
Applicable Criteria and Related Research:
--'Tax-Supported Rating Criteria' (Aug. 14, 2012);
--'U.S. Local Government Tax-Supported Rating Criteria' (Aug. 14, 2012).
Applicable Criteria and Related Research:
Tax-Supported Rating Criteria
U.S. Local Government Tax-Supported Rating Criteria