NEW YORK--()--Fitch Ratings has affirmed the ratings on the following Flagler County School Board, Florida (the district) obligations:
--$51.2 million outstanding certificates of participation (COPs), series 2005A, at 'A+';
--$11.3 million outstanding refunding COPs series 2005B, at 'A+';
--Implied unlimited tax general obligation, at 'AA-'.
The Rating Outlook is Stable.
The COPs are payable from lease rental payments made by the district, subject to annual appropriation, pursuant to a master lease purchase agreement. The master lease requires the district to appropriate funds for all outstanding sub-leases on an 'all or none' basis. An event of non-appropriation would result in the termination of the master lease and the surrender to the trustee of all lease-purchased projects under the master lease.
ADEQUATE FINANCIAL FLEXIBILITY: The district's financial results have been strong and reserve levels remain adequate despite pressures due to volatility in state funding and large declines in assessed value (AV).
STRONG MASTER LEASE PROVISIONS: The 'A+' rating on the COPs is based on the district's general creditworthiness and the obligation to make lease payments subject to annual appropriation. The master lease structure is sound requiring an all or none appropriation and the 1.5 mill capital millage outlay typically used for lease payments provides more than sufficient revenues to meet debt service requirements.
LOW CARRYING COSTS: Carrying costs including debt service, pension and other post-employment benefits (OPEB) are very manageable and no material changes are expected.
LIMITED LOCAL ECONOMY: The district's economic base remains somewhat limited and exhibits average levels of income and high unemployment.
STABLE OPERATIONS: The district's ability to achieve and maintain structural balance will be key to maintaining the current rating level.
Flagler County, whose boundaries are coterminous with those of the district, is a largely residential area located on the northeast coast of the Florida. The county encompasses approximately 570 square miles with a year round population of approximately 97,000.
STRONG FINANCIAL OPERATIONS
The district benefits from a strong financial management team that practices multi-year financial forecasting and as a result has experienced consistent operating surpluses and sound reserve levels despite recent AV and state funding declines. Fiscal 2011 ended with an $854,000 general fund operating surplus (1% of expenditures), increasing the unrestricted fund balance to $5.3 million or an adequate 5.6% of total expenditures. Unaudited fiscal 2012 results show a $1.5 million draw down of reserves as federal stimulus revenues are exhausted, which is in line with the district's budgeted forecast. Despite this planned use of reserves, unrestricted fund balance is expected to grow to $7.1 million (7.5% of expenditures) as a result of a reclassification of some reserves from assigned to unassigned.
FISCAL 2013 AND FUTURE CHALLENGES
The district budgeted a $1.8 million drawdown of general fund reserves in fiscal 2013. However, management indicates actual results to date are better than budgeted and the projected drawdown will be in the range of $0.5 million to $1 million. The use of available reserves will reduce the total general fund balance to approximately 6.8% of expenditures, which remains above the informal target of 5% and which Fitch believes provides an adequate amount of financial flexibility.
The district's board is restructuring its schools over the next five years to a K-8 format which will consolidate 10 school administrations to eight. The consolidation is expected to produce significant administrative and operational savings. In addition to the consolidation, the district is seeking approval from voters of a 0.50 mill operational levy to replace the 0.25 mill critical needs levy which expires in fiscal 2013. Management is optimistic that the millage will be approved as voters have not denied a referendum in at least 15 years. Additional flexibility to reduce the budget exists as management has avoided major expenditure reductions to date.
Total general fund balance is expected to remain above the district's policy level of 5% of expenditures given the planned restructuring, revenue raising and expenditure reduction opportunities available to the district. The Stable Outlook is based on Fitch's expectation that management will take the necessary measures to maintain stable operations without relying on general fund reserves or other one-time revenue sources.
MANAGEABLE CARRYING COSTS
Overall debt levels are low at 2% of market value and $1,730 per capita. Amortization of direct debt is above average with 60% of principal retired within 10 years. Debt levels are expected to remain stable as no additional long-term debt is presently contemplated.
Pensions are provided through the state-run Florida Retirement System (FRS) and total annual pension contributions were manageable at 4.5% of general fund expenditures in 2011. FRS is well funded at 80% and as such costs are not expected to increase materially.
OPEB is currently funded on a pay-go basis and the unfunded liability represents a very low 0.01% of AV. Carrying costs including debt service, pension, and OPEB were a very manageable 9% of total fiscal 2011 expenditures.
LIMITED LOCAL ECONOMY
Flagler County's unemployment rate remains elevated at 11.2% as of December 2012; the state and national rates for the same month were 7.9% and 7.6%, respectively. The county's economy is limited with some concentration in government and retail, reflecting the residential nature of the county. County wealth levels were average when compared to the state and nation.
The local housing market has exhibited volatility with large AV declines averaging 15% in each year from fiscals 2010 through 2012. The 5.8% decline in 2013 is a concern. However, data from the county appraiser indicates a flat to 1% increase in the next year supported by increasing values at beachside properties. Case-Shiller data for the second quarter 2012 showed home prices increasing 2.1% in the county over the prior year.
While Fitch notes that Florida school districts are less dependent on the tax base than other local entities, tax base losses do lessen revenues available for capital needs as well as critical discretionary millage revenues.
STRONG MASTER LEASE PROVISIONS
Lease payments are payable from any legally available source, although on a budget basis payments are made from the district's capital millage outlay, which can be levied up to 1.5 mills for lease payments for COPs issued before 2009. In fiscal 2012, the 1.5 mill levy provided ample revenues to meet maximum annual debt service. While the lease payments are subject to appropriation, the all-or-none payment requirement under the master lease would result in the loss of all or parts of over 30% of the district's schools, which are covered under the lease should the district fail to appropriate. The all-or-none appropriation feature provides significant enhancement to the credit.
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