NEW YORK--(BUSINESS WIRE)--Fitch Ratings affirms the following Tampa Bay Water, A Regional Water Supply Authority, FL (TBW, or the authority) revenue bonds:
--$960 million utility system revenue bonds, at 'AA+'.
The Rating Outlook is Stable.
The bonds are secured by a pledge of TBW's net revenues, which include the moneys received from rates, fees, rentals, and other income collected for use of the water system. Members irrevocably agree to make monthly payments for service, and such payments are made without set-off, counterclaim, or abatement. A debt service reserve, fully funded with cash, provides additional security.
KEY RATING DRIVERS
ESSENTIAL SERVICE; STRONG UNDERLYING CREDITS: TBW is the region's exclusive wholesale water provider serving 2.3 million residents through six member utilities. Fitch maintains ratings on five of the six entities, ranging from 'AAA' to 'AA'. TBW's operating profile is strong, and its role in regional service delivery and resource development, sound financial management, and autonomy over rates are important rating factors.
INHERENT FLEXIBILITY: Financial margins and debt service coverage are low but typical for a wholesale system. Strong liquidity and autonomous rate setting provide management with significant financial flexibility in light of the narrow debt service coverage.
MANAGEABLE DEBT AND CAPITAL NEEDS: The debt profile is expected to remain manageable with the recent completion of a large long-term capital program and intermediate term needs focused on routine replacement and renewal.
DIVERSE, RECOVERING ECONOMY: The Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater economy serves as the economic anchor for Florida's Gulf Coast. Employment growth has been solid as the area continues its recovery from the recession (especially in housing).
RATING STABILITY EXPECTED: The rating is sensitive to shifts in various credit fundamentals including financial performance and debt. The Stable Rating Outlook reflects Fitch's expectation that such shifts are unlikely in the near term.
TBW's six member agencies include Pinellas, Pasco, and Hillsborough counties, and the cities of Tampa, St. Petersburg, and New Port Richey.
LARGE REGIONAL WHOLESALE PROVIDER; STRONG UNDERLYING CREDITS
TBW is a large wholesale water provider serving the three-county area of the Tampa-St Petersburg metropolitan statistical area (MSA). TBW enjoys exclusive rights to provide treated water to its six member utilities. Hillsborough's water and sewer system revenue bonds are rated 'AAA' with a Stable Outlook by Fitch. Tampa's utility system is rated 'AAA' and St. Petersburg and Pasco County's systems are rated 'AA', all with Stable Outlooks. Pinellas County has no water utility debt outstanding, and New Port Richey is not rated by Fitch.
TBW plays a key role in developing and delivering high-quality water from various sources. TBW has successfully expanded and diversified its water supply and production capabilities, providing solid intermediate-term water supply while meeting the regional challenges and mandates to reduce groundwater use.
The nine-member board of directors is appointed by the six member governments, somewhat insulating policy decisions from potential political intrusion. A tenured and capable management team, led by a fairly new general manager with a long tenure in utility management, is responsible for daily operations. Long-range capital and resource planning is updated frequently, and rates are considered annually during the budget process. The board has autonomy over rate setting, and has increased rates as needed to maintain stable financial performance.
The members unconditionally agree to pay for the costs of service at the rates specified by the authority pursuant to the master water supply contract. TBW applies a uniform rate in determining member payments, which for the past several years have equaled $2.56 per 1,000 gallons. Rates are determined by TBW based on annual estimates of the prorated costs associated with delivery of service to the member governments.
Member payments, which are designed to cover both the fixed and variable costs of the authority, include provision for operating, administrative and maintenance costs, annual debt service, amounts for capital improvement and operating reserves, are joint, not several in nature. However, the payments are an absolute and unconditional obligation of each member and are paid as an operations and maintenance (O&M) expense of each member's utility system, ahead of their respective debt service. In addition, solid cash reserves and autonomy over rates helps mitigate the lack of an explicit step-up.
DIVERSE WATER RESOURCES PROVIDE OPERATING FLEXIBILITY
TBW maintains strong operating fundamentals, including long-term capital and resource planning and significant and ongoing infrastructure investment. Water resources are diverse and comprised of groundwater, treated surface water from the Hillsborough and Alafia rivers and the Tampa Bypass Canal, and desalinated seawater. TBW has been successful in cultivating other sources of water, while lowering its reliance on groundwater.
The system has a total permitted water supply capacity of 240 mgd from the various sources, which is well in excess of demand (158 mgd). Re-construction of TBW's 15.5 billion gallon regional reservoir has been successful with the project taking approximately two years to complete, and according to management became fully operational in November 2014.
TBW is one of the few systems in the country that can process seawater. The desalination plant was completed in 2008 and can provide up to 28.75 mgd of supply to the system (with expansion capabilities to 35 mgd). Treated seawater is combined with treated surface and groundwater before it is distributed. Two interconnections with the city of Tampa provide some redundancy. A total of nine treatment facilities including the Surface Water Treatment Plant, which has a 120 mgd capacity, and the desalination plant, provide ample capacity to meet the system's long-term needs.
STRONG FINANCIAL MANAGEMENT & LIQUIDITY OFFSETS LOW COVERAGE
Like many wholesale systems, TBW displays only modest annual debt service coverage (DSC) - roughly 1.1x annually from net revenues historically, and about 1.3x including available reserves. However, the strength of the member payments, historically stable financial results, well-managed operations and the ability to raise rates provides strong support for the high rating. The rates are established during the annual budget process and members are billed monthly for service.
Fitch expects liquidity to remain strong. The authority ended fiscal 2013 with $27 million in unrestricted cash and investments which, including renewal and replacement reserves, is equivalent to 253 days cash on hand. Cash declined from previously higher levels in fiscals 2011 and 2012 due to a combination of pay-go capital funding and a $20 million final judgment related to TBW's lawsuit against the design firm for the original construction of the reservoir.
The authority's approved fiscal 2015 budget shows a slight decline in total revenues compared to fiscal 2013 and a sizable increase in operating expenses leading to DSC of approximately 1.0x, which Fitch believes is conservative given historical results.
Financial projections in the authority's approved budget show DSC similar to budgeted results for fiscal 2015. The forecast assumptions appear reasonable and include the refinancing of sizable bullet maturities related to the 2011A (in fiscals 2017 and 2018) and 2011B bonds (in fiscals 2018-2020). TBW plans to enter the market later this month with series 2015 refunding revenue bonds that will provide interest savings and allow for the restructuring of these payments.
DEEP AND DIVERSE ECONOMIC BASE
Located midway down the western coast of Florida, the Tampa Bay region serves as the economic center for Florida's Gulf Coast, with major sectors in business services, government, healthcare, education, and tourism. The economy continues to recover with solid employment gains over the past several years. BLS employment data for October 2014 indicates an 8% increase in Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater MSA jobs over the same month in 2011, leading to a much lower unemployment rate of 6%.
MANAGEABLE CAPITAL NEEDS AND DEBT BURDEN
TBW's debt burden remains manageable despite having about $1.1 billion of total debt outstanding as of fiscal 2013. For fiscal 2013, debt was about 88% of net capital assets, which is somewhat high, but just $472 on a per capita basis. Fitch notes TBW debt is on top of the outstanding debt of most of the members, which would raise the debt per capita figure.
However, Fitch believes long-term capital needs are limited, as water supply and treatment capacity are both ample for the intermediate term, which should allow debt ratios to decline over time. Management believes current water supplies will comfortably meet demand for at least another 15 years. The current five-year capital plan through fiscal 2019 totals just $54 million.
Annual debt service is level through 2016. A spike in debt service beginning in fiscal 2017 is anticipated to be handled with a refinancing of those bonds in a few weeks to smooth-out the debt service over time.
Additional information is available at 'www.fitchratings.com'.
In addition to the sources of information identified in Fitch's Revenue-Supported Rating Criteria, this action was additionally informed by information from Creditscope.
Applicable Criteria and Related Research:
--'Revenue-Supported Rating Criteria' (June 2014);
--'U.S. Water and Sewer Revenue Bond Rating Criteria' (July 2013);
--'2015 Water and Sewer Medians' (December 2014);
--'2015 Outlook: Water and Sewer Sector' (December 2014).
Applicable Criteria and Related Research:
2015 Outlook: Water and Sewer Sector
2015 Water and Sewer Medians
U.S. Water and Sewer Revenue Bond Rating Criteria
Revenue-Supported Rating Criteria