NEW YORK--(BUSINESS WIRE)--Fitch Ratings has assigned a 'AAA' rating to the following Greensboro, NC bonds:
--$61 million general obligation (GO) bonds, series 2016.
The bonds are expected to be sold via negotiated sale on Sept. 21. Proceeds will be used to refund bond anticipation notes, series 2006 GOs and series 2008A GOs.
The Rating Outlook is Stable.
The bonds are payable from the city's unlimited taxing authority.
KEY RATING DRIVERS
The city's strong and diverse economic resource base underpins strong financial management results. Ample expenditure and revenue flexibility, coupled with low long-term liabilities, support the 'AAA' overall rating.
Economic Resource Base
Greensboro is located in Guilford County (GO Bonds rated 'AAA'/Outlook Stable) and is both the largest city and the county seat. The estimated 2014 population was 282,586. Population and employment growth have outpaced regional, state and national rates in recent years.
Revenue Framework: 'aa' factor assessment
Property taxes comprise about 54% of the city's general fund revenues, and the city benefits from strong revenue raising flexibility, given that the current property tax rate is less than half of the statutory limit. Steady assessed value growth, through new construction and appreciation, has yielded natural revenue growth.
Expenditure Framework: 'aa' factor assessment
The city maintains solid expenditure flexibility due to moderate carrying costs, management's ability to implement expenditure controls throughout the year, and the lack of collective bargaining. Fitch expects expenditures to grow roughly in line with revenues on average.
Long-Term Liability Burden: 'aaa' factor assessment
The city's combined burden of overall debt and pension liability is low relative to its resource base. The above average exposure to variable-rate debt remains manageable in the context of the city's financial flexibility.
Operating Performance: 'aaa' factor assessment
The city has very strong gap-closing capacity through revenue and expenditure flexibility as well as reserve levels. Fitch expects reserves to remain ample relative to the city's budget flexibility and low revenue volatility.
Strong Financial Fundamentals: The rating is sensitive to shifts in the city's historically strong financial and managerial practices.
Stable Long-Term Liability Burden: The rating is also sensitive to a significant increase in long-term liabilities relative to personal income, given planned debt issuance following a bond referendum to be held in November 2016 and more than $100 million in currently authorized but unissued debt.
Greensboro serves as a regional employment and entertainment center. The local economy is diverse, with health care, government and education serving as stable anchors, and traditional manufacturing transitioning to more high-tech operations rounding out the economy. Wealth levels are in line with to slightly below regional and national averages, reflecting a large student population.
Property taxes make up over half of general fund revenues with the county-levied sales tax the second largest source. Assessed values remained relatively flat following the recession with recent growth between 1% and 2%, roughly in-line with inflation levels. A recently expanded sales tax base provides additional revenue growth prospects in the near term. Solid historical growth of general fund revenues exceeds CPI and slightly lags national GDP growth.
The city maintains healthy revenue raising capacity as its fiscal 2016 tax rate was $0.6325 relative to the statutory cap of $1.50 per $100 of assessed value.
The city maintains cost control measures, including the ability to institute hiring freezes and control head counts, which provide it with solid expenditure flexibility. Fitch expects expenditures to grow roughly in line with revenue growth.
Public safety constitutes a majority of general fund spending, but the lack of collective bargaining and limited demands for service expansion temper its possibility for unmanageable growth. Carrying costs associated with debt service, actuarially determined pension payments and OPEB actual contributions are moderate at 14.1% of fiscal 2015 general fund spending.
Long-Term Liability Burden
The city's long-term liability burden, including overall debt and the Fitch-adjusted net pension liability, is low at 8.8% of personal income. This issuance of fixed-rate debt for refinancing brings the city's variable-rate position within their policy goal of 20% - 25% of direct debt. The city's strong financial flexibility and credit market access largely offset concerns about its variable rate exposure.
City employees participate in the Local Government Employees Retirement System (LGERS) administered by the state. The city's portion of LGERS is fully funded based on a Fitch-adjusted 7% return assumption. The city also participates in the Law Enforcement Officers' Special Separation Allowance plan. The plan is 27% funded with an unfunded liability of a minimal $16.8 million or less than 1% of personal income. The OPEB unfunded liability is $74.9 million or roughly 1% of personal income.
Given the city's superior budget flexibility and low revenue volatility, the city's available fund balance of $65.2 million, or 25.5% of spending is judged to be consistent with the reserve safety margin for a 'aaa' assessment. Through the most recent downturn the city maintained comfortable reserve levels and Fitch expects that future prudent management practices would yield similar results.
The city has achieved positive operations in three out of the past four years and routinely finishes the fiscal year positive relative to budget. Active budget management during times of economic recovery allowed the city to fully fund its pension ARC and pre-fund portions of its OPEB liability.
Date of Relevant Rating Committee: May 17, 2016
Additional information is available at 'www.fitchratings.com'.
In addition to the sources of information identified in Fitch's applicable criteria specified below, this action was informed by information from Lumesis and InvestorTools.
U.S. Tax-Supported Rating Criteria (pub. 18 Apr 2016)