Nov 14 - Fitch Ratings has assigned the following ratings to Williamson
County, Texas' bonds:
--$32.9 million limited tax refunding bonds, taxable series 2012 'AAA'.
The bonds are scheduled for a competitive sale the week of Nov. 26, 2012.
Proceeds from the refunding bonds will be used to refund portions of the
county's outstanding debt for interest savings.
In addition, Fitch assigns an 'AAA' rating to the following county bonds:
--$364.7 million (pre-refunding) unlimited tax bonds outstanding;
--$425 million (pre-refunding) limited tax and pass-through toll revenue
The Rating Outlook is Stable.
The bonds are limited tax obligations payable from the county's $0.80
constitutional tax rate. The pass-through toll revenue bonds are payable from
payments received by the county pursuant to a pass-through toll agreement
between the county and the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDoT) and are
also secured by a property tax limited to $0.80 per $100 of taxable assessed
valuation (TAV). The outstanding unlimited tax bonds are secured by an unlimited
ad valorem tax levied against all taxable property in the county.
KEY RATING DRIVERS
FISCAL STEWARDSHIP: The county has accumulated a large general fund balance
through conservative budgeting and cost management, a portion of which has been
identified to fund annual capital needs under a recently announced strategy.
Fitch notes that the county's projections continue to reflect a high level of
financial flexibility commensurate with its current rating.
STABLE LOCAL ECONOMY: Williamson County benefits from the Austin metropolitan
area's diverse economy and employment base. The county's unemployment rate
trends below state and national averages on the strength of consistent new job
HEALTHY TAX BASE: The county's TAV is diverse and sizable. Although TAV growth
is diminished from its rapid preressionary pace, the county has registered solid
growth over the past two years, with further gains anticipated based on
development activity currently underway.
HIGH OVERALL DEBT: High overall debt results from the overlapping debt of many
high-growth school districts, cities and special districts within the county.
AUSTIN METRO COMMUNITY
Williamson County is located north of Austin with a population of about 440,000.
The county's employment base grew by a strong 3.7% year-over-year through August
2012, reducing its unemployment rate to 5.9%, below state and national rates of
7.0% and 8.2% respectively for the same period.
Industry in the county includes manufacturing, government, education and
agribusiness. While the county continues to benefit from an abundance of high
technology firms, including the corporate headquarters of Dell Inc. (Fitch
Issuer Default Rating of 'A' with a Stable Outlook), economic development
efforts to diversify are evidenced by solid job growth in higher education,
healthcare, manufacturing, and retail.
Fiscal 2011 median household income exceeds state and national averages by more
than 30%. Based on the county's strong demographic profile, destination
retailers have been attracted to the area and serve as a magnet for continuing
regional development. The local economy additionally benefits from Sun City,
Texas, a 10,500 home, active retirement community residing just outside the
Georgetown City limits.
RESILIENT TAX BASE
Williamson County's TAV grew by almost 50% between fiscal years 2006 and 2009 as
residential and commercial expansion spilled north from Austin. Not immune to
the recession, TAV remained relatively flat in fiscal 2010 and 2011, with a
return to modest growth in fiscal 2012. On the heels of 2.4% and 3% TAV growth
in fiscal years 2012 and 2013, the County Appraiser's office estimates an
additional gain of 3% to 4% for fiscal 2014. The estimate takes into account
known development activity and further appreciation of existing properties,
which Fitch notes is consistent with regional trends.
Fiscal 2013 TAV is sizable at $35.2 million. The top 10 taxpayers comprise a
small 2.8% of total TAV and are represented by technology, energy, healthcare,
real estate and retail sectors.
SYSTEMATIC APPLICATION OF RESERVES
The county's conservative financial profile is exemplified by general fund
reserve levels well in excess of policy targets. A fiscal 2011 unrestricted
general fund balance of $68.6 million (58.4% of expenditures and transfers out)
reflects another year of strong revenue performance and cost savings.
Additionally, the county maintains sound reserve levels in its debt service and
road and bridge funds, with fiscal 2011 year end balances of $17.7 million and
$12.2 million respectively.
A recently announced strategy will apply up to 25% of surplus general funds, in
excess of the policy unrestricted fund balance target (increased from 30% to 35%
of budgeted expenditures)to fund capital projects. Officials anticipate the
strategy will generate up to $8 million annually for capital projects and defray
the cost of debt service, while continuing to provide high reserve levels,
projected to approximate 50% of budgeted expenditures by fiscal 2015. Fitch
takes comfort in the county's historically conservative fiscal management and
views the county's fund balance projections as consistent with its current
The county estimates fiscal 2012 general fund cost savings of $5 million which
will be applied to the annual capital fund transfer. To address long-term county
road maintenance, the fiscal 2013 balanced budget includes a shift of $.01 per
$100 of TAV to the road and bridge fund from the general fund.
HIGH DEBT BURDEN / ONGOING CAPITAL NEEDS
The county's debt service burden is high at 34% of fiscal 2011 general fund
spending and transfers out; principal amortization is about average at 49%
within 10 years. Significant issuance by 16 school districts, 25 special
districts, and 14 cities located within the county contribute to the county's
high overall debt level (8.5% of market value). Fitch anticipates the county's
overall debt to remain elevated based on long-term population growth projections
for the region.
The county's capital plan is focused on transportation improvements originating
from a regional planning process. State monies support a portion of the transit
projects pursuant to pass-through funding agreements between the county and
Texas Department of Transportation, under which the county anticipates further
issuance during fiscal 2013 which is not expected to increase the interest &
sinking fund tax rate.
AFFORDABLE PENSION LIABILITIES
The county provides pension benefits through the Texas County and District
Retirement System (TCDRS). Funding levels are satisfactory at nearly 85% (77%
using a more conservative 7% investment return assumption), and the county
routinely funds 100% of its annual required contribution (ARC) to TCDRS. In
fiscal 2011 the county paid $7.9 million into TCDRS, or a manageable 6.3% of
spending and transfers out.
The county provides other post-employment benefits (OPEB) through a self-funded
single-employer plan. The unfunded actuarial accrued liability is very low at
$47.7 million, representing just 0.1% of the county's market value or 20% of
fiscal 2011 annual governmental spending. Fitch generally views significant
under-funding of the ARC as a credit concern, and funding has been very low over
the past three fiscal years, with contributions well under the ARC (12% in
fiscal 2011). However, the modest liability mitigates Fitch's concerns.