AUSTIN, Texas--(BUSINESS WIRE)--Fitch Ratings has assigned an 'AAA' rating to the following Sugar Land, TX (the city) limited tax obligations:
--$12.7 million general obligation (GO) refunding bonds, series 2015.
The bonds will be used to refund certain outstanding obligations for debt service savings and pay the costs of issuance.
The bonds will be sold via negotiation Nov. 5.
In addition, Fitch affirms its 'AAA' rating on $291.6 million (pre-refunding) of outstanding GOs and certificates of obligation (COs).
The Rating Outlook is Stable.
The GOs are secured by a pledge of ad valorem taxes limited to $2.50 per $100 taxable assessed valuation (TAV).
KEY RATING DRIVERS
STRONG SOCIOECONOMIC BASE: Steady population gains, above-average wealth characteristics, and the high educational attainment of city residents underpin the city's strong demographic profile.
REGIONAL ECONOMY PARTICIPANT: The city is part of the expansive Houston metropolitan statistical area (MSA) economy, which has outpaced the nation in job and income growth due to a strong energy sector and diversification in other sectors. The local and regional economy remains vulnerable to energy price variability.
ELEVATED DEBT BURDEN: Key debt ratios are down slightly, but remain very high for the 'AAA' rating category. This risk is tempered by low retiree liabilities.
STRONG FINANCIAL PERFORMANCE & POSITION: The city retains ample reserves and liquidity due to historically positive operating margins and conservative budgeting practices. These reserves provide a good fiscal cushion against unforeseen budget challenges and flexibility to fund capital outlays and one-time initiatives with general fund resources. The city maintains extensive financial policies and procedures, and also practices multi-year forecasting for budgeting and capital purposes.
SALES TAX EXPOSURE MITIGATED: The general fund's heavy reliance on economically sensitive sales tax revenues is mitigated by the strong fund balances and low property tax rate.
The superior 'AAA' rating is predicated upon the city's financial, demographic and economic strengths, which mitigate to a degree concerns over the high debt burden. A change in these factors and/or material increases in overall debt levels beyond the increases currently anticipated by Fitch could place downward pressure on the rating.
Sugar Land is a suburban community located about 20 miles southwest of Houston (LTGOs rated 'AA', Stable Outlook by Fitch) in Fort Bend County. The city's 2015 population is estimated at 87,000.
AFFLUENT SUBURB OF HOUSTON WITH STABLE RESOURCE BASE
Sugar Land is located in the broad Houston MSA and residents have direct access to Houston's central business district via a major highway. Energy and petrochemical manufacturing remain the principal industries of the Houston economy. However, the area economy has also diversified into biomedical research, healthcare, aerospace, and international trade via the Port of Houston. The MSA is home to 26 Fortune 500 corporate headquarters.
The roster of top Sugar Land employers also reflects an energy industry presence, as five of the top 10 are energy firms: Fluor Corporation, Schlumberger, Nalco/Champion, Baker Petrolite Corp., and Fairfield Nodal. The city also has a notable healthcare sector, and the University of Houston operates a branch campus in the city. Management reports additional investment is underway with planned expansion by some of its top employers, including Methodist Hospital, Memorial Hermann Healthcare Systems, the relocation of Nalco/Champion and Schlumberger headquarters, and a new Texas Instruments research & development facility. Fitch expects these developments will further strengthen the city's employment and tax base over time.
The city's workforce is highly educated, which has continued to attract business investment. The percentage of residents possessing a bachelor's degree is nearly double the national standard. The local unemployment rate exhibited a narrow band of movement during the recession, peaking at a relatively low 6.5% in 2010 and declining steadily since then. The city's jobless rate of 3.5% in August 2015 is low and below the MSA (4.5%), state (4.4%), and U.S. averages (5.2%). Wealth and income levels are high, with median household income equal to 2x that of the nation. The poverty rate is exceptionally low and market value per capita is a strong $166,000.
The Houston MSA economy made a robust post-recessionary recovery given many of the aforementioned major drivers that contributed to recent population and employment gains. However, Fitch believes the extended period of currently lower oil prices is likely to dampen the pace of growth over the near term. It is also Fitch's opinion that the state's various petrochemical centers should benefit from lower energy prices, which may serve as a partial offset to any economic softening. (See Fitch press release 'Oil Price Decline Likely to Have Targeted Effect on Local Texas Economies & Revenues' dated Jan. 13, 2015).
TAV GAINS STRENGTHEN
TAV growth slowed but notably remained on a positive trajectory throughout the national recession, steadily strengthening since fiscal 2011. The city realized a strong 12% % TAV gain in fiscal 2016 to $12.1 billion, attributable in part to healthy appreciation of existing properties. The expansion of key roadways has enhanced access and also spurred robust development in recent years. Ongoing mixed-use developments such as Lake Pointe Town Center, Imperial Redevelopment, and Telfair--in addition to the aforementioned corporate expansions--support the city and Fitch's forecasts for continuing TAV growth over the near and intermediate term.
Fitch believes TAV has some sensitivity to oil prices, although a level of modestly positive TAV growth also appears feasible to Fitch over the near term given an active housing market, ongoing retail and commercial investment, and historical tax base performance.
SALES TAX RECEIPTS CONTINUE TO STRENGTHEN
Sales taxes provide the largest share of operating support at roughly one-half of general fund revenues. As a reminder of the economic vulnerability of this revenue source, sales tax revenues dropped by 5% in fiscal 2010 before expanding by a cumulative 14% over fiscals 2011-2012 and then stalled with a modest 2% decline in fiscal 2013. Sales tax rebounded with a strong 9.3% gain in fiscal 2014 and grew by an additional 5% in fiscal 2015. Fitch believes the city's extensive financial planning efforts and conservative budgeting practices, as well as the allocation of 10% of base sales tax revenue to non-recurring expenses, mitigate much of the risk associated with sales tax concentration and volatility.
FINANCIAL FLEXIBILITY MAINTAINED
Consecutive years of operating surpluses after transfers from fiscal years 2005-2010 yielded healthy general fund reserves. Officials more recently have used reserves to fund pay-as-you-go capital improvements, pursuant to a city policy that allows the use of reserves exceeding the city's prudent fund balance policy minimum of 25% of recurring operating expenditures.
The general fund concluded fiscal 2014 with a modest $1.6 million operating surplus after transfers (2.2% of spending) that reflects $5.6 million of transfers to fund larger capital projects as well as fleet and equipment replacement. Year-end results improved upon budget given strong sales tax performance. Unrestricted general fund balance totaled a high 39% of spending ($28 million). Liquidity also improved slightly. Year-end cash and investment balances in the general fund provided slightly more than four months of cash-on-hand, which was in the five-year historical range of between four-five months.
Unaudited fiscal 2015 results point to the city maintaining its strong financial position. Management anticipates some expenditure savings and higher than budgeted sales tax revenues of about $2 million should allow for a modest addition to reserves at year-end.
The adopted $83.7 million fiscal 2016 budget is up roughly $5.3 million or nearly 7% from the adopted fiscal 2015 budget and forecasts a modest $1.2 million use of fund balance for capital and non-recurring items. The budget incorporates a sizeable $5.1 million for pay-as-you-go capital spending, particularly directed toward the city's drainage needs. On the revenue side, sales taxes are forecast to increase a reasonable 2% from fiscal 2015 year-end projections and the year's strong tax base growth is anticipated to generate an additional $1.7 million in property tax revenue against a flat total tax rate.
The property tax rate remains one of the lowest in the state for cities in this population range at just under $0.32 per $100 TAV. Fitch views positively the city's track record of conservative budgeting and year-end results that outperform original forecasts. Additionally, Fitch views as reasonable the city's out-year budget projections through fiscal 2019 which demonstrate adherence to the 25% minimum reserve target.
RETIREE LIABILITIES WELL-FUNDED
All city employees participate in the Texas Municipal Retirement System (TMRS), a state-wide, joint contributory, hybrid defined benefit pension plan. The city's pension funded position has improved in recent years as a result of full-ARC funding and TMRS' recent methodology changes to its fund accounting and actuarial assumptions. The unfunded pension liability totals $26.7 million or less than 1% of full market value with an assumed investment return rate of 7%. The city's other post-employment benefits (OPEB) are modest and funded on a pay-as-you-go basis.
DEBT BURDEN TO REMAIN ELEVATED OVER THE MEDIUM TERM
Debt ratios are down slightly given the year's strong TAV gain, but remain very high for the rating category at 6.2% of full market value and $10,360 per capita, largely reflective of the overlapping debt of Fort Bend ISD (ULT bonds rated 'AA+'; Stable Outlook by Fitch) and municipal utility districts. The city's high debt load warrants attention and will remain a key credit focus in Fitch's future review cycles. Affordability concerns over the high per capita debt levels are somewhat mitigated by residents' above-average income levels and the plan to repay a portion of the outstanding debt with dedicated facility rental payments that are not expected to be part of general operations.
The fixed-cost burden for debt service, pension ARC and OPEB pay-go remained manageable at 20% of governmental expenditures in fiscal 2014. This calculation excludes the debt service costs of outstanding COs that are repaid with dedicated enterprise revenues, which Fitch considers to be self-supporting. The rate of principal amortization for property tax-supported debt has slowed somewhat with recent issuances for the performing arts center, but it remains above-average at 55% in 10 years.
The city's adopted, comprehensive fiscal 2016 capital budget totals roughly $60 million, which is part of the formal five-year capital improvement plan (CIP). The five-year CIP totals $233 million and calls for adding up to $114 million of tax-supported debt issuance through 2020. This is down somewhat from last year's CIP and management indicates capital plans retain a level of flexibility in the out years. The city's above-average pace of debt retirement, coupled with the positive prospects for continuing TAV and population gains, would substantially but not completely absorb the additional debt. In support of the planned tax-supported debt issuances, it is presently estimated that a tax rate increase of $0.01 per $100 TAV would be required in fiscal 2019, which is somewhat less than and later than previously projected given strong TAV performance.
Additional information is available at 'www.fitchratings.com'.
In addition to the sources of information identified in Fitch's Tax-Supported Rating Criteria, this action was additionally informed by information from Creditscope, Texas Municipal Advisory Council, IHS Global Insight.
Fitch recently published an exposure draft of state and local government tax-supported criteria (Exposure Draft: U.S. Tax-Supported Rating Criteria, dated Sept. 10, 2015). The draft includes a number of proposed revisions to existing criteria. If applied in the proposed form, Fitch estimates the revised criteria would result in changes to fewer than 10% of existing tax-supported ratings. Fitch expects that final criteria will be approved and published by Jan. 20, 2016. Once approved, the criteria will be applied immediately to any new issue and surveillance rating review. Fitch anticipates the criteria to be applied to all ratings that fall under the criteria within a 12-month period from the final approval date.
Exposure Draft: U.S. Tax-Supported Rating Criteria (pub. 10 Sep 2015)
Tax-Supported Rating Criteria (pub. 14 Aug 2012)
U.S. Local Government Tax-Supported Rating Criteria (pub. 14 Aug 2012)
Dodd-Frank Rating Information Disclosure Form