Jan 9 - Fitch Ratings has assigned an 'AA+' rating to the following
Milwaukee County, Wisconsin (the county) bonds:
--Approximately $142.7 million taxable general obligation pension promissory
notes, series 2013.
Note proceeds will retire the taxable pension note anticipation notes, series
2009B. The notes are expected to sell via negotiation the week of Jan. 21st.
Fitch has also affirmed the following Milwaukee County ratings:
--Approximately $610.9 million unlimited tax general obligation bonds at 'AA+'.
The Rating Outlook is Stable.
The GO bonds are secured by the county's full faith and credit and its ad
valorem tax, without limitation as to rate or amount.
KEY RATING DRIVERS
FLEXIBILITY DESPITE NARROW MARGINS: Conservative budgeting and careful
expenditure control have allowed for consistently balanced operations most
years, despite adverse economic conditions and statutory requirements to
appropriate surplus. The county retains considerable margins of flexibility
despite stricter revenue raising constraints imposed by the state.
REGIONAL ECONOMIC ENGINE: Milwaukee County serves as the economic engine for the
surrounding region although post-recession recovery has been slow.
BELOW AVERAGE SOCIOECONOMIC INDICATORS: Per capita income levels are below
average, as is market value per capita. The unemployment rate remains elevated,
typical of areas historically dependent upon manufacturing.
MANAGEABLE LONG-TERM LIABILITIES: The overall debt burden is above average but
manageable, future capital needs are limited, and principal amortization is
rapid. Pensions are adequately funded, in large part through the issuance of
pension obligation bonds.
Milwaukee County serves as the regional economic and cultural center for south
eastern Wisconsin. The city of Milwaukee (rated 'AA' with a Stable Outlook by
Fitch), which is the county seat of Milwaukee County, accounts for roughly 48%
of the county's total assessed valuation and 63% of its population.
FLEXIBILITY DESPITE NARROW MARGINS
The county's financial operations are characterized by stable operating results
and modest general fund balances, in the range of 4-5% of spending. Tax rate
limits have been in effect since 1993. The county operates under limitations to
revenue raising and to maintenance of fund balances; however, considerable
fiscal flexibility is provided by the county's ability to reduce spending or
redirect expiring levies for maturing debt, among other sources.
The Stable Outlook assumes management continues to achieve consistently balanced
results within existing constraints. However, future economic or revenue
underperformance or a narrowing of operating flexibility could negatively affect
The fiscal 2013 budget raises the property tax levy by a modest $3.9 million.
Under current restrictions, the county could raise the property tax by another
projected $8 million in fiscal 2014. Additionally, if the county chose to levy
for unlimited tax bond debt service currently supported by sales tax revenues,
it could seek approval from the state to free up a corresponding portion of
sales tax revenues for operations, which would allow it to increase the property
tax levy by up to $60 million. Liquidity is adequate across funds and no cash
flow borrowing is required.
POSITIVE FISCAL TREND DESPITE RESTRICTIONS
The county has recorded nominal general fund operating surpluses after transfers
in four of the past five years despite adverse economic conditions and
revenue-raising constraints, underscoring the county's solid management profile.
Fiscal 2011 general fund results generated a higher than usual net surplus of
$14.8 million, or 1.4% of spending, despite the budgeted appropriation of $4.1
million of general fund balance.
The positive variance was largely the result of cost containment measures, as
revenues underperformed budget for the year. Expenditure side savings included
the introduction of employee contributions for pension and health care, slow
filling of vacant positions, limitation of overtime and lower road maintenance
costs due to a mild winter.
The county's revenue streams are diverse with charges for service accounting for
37% of total general fund revenues, followed by intergovernmental revenue at
26%, property tax at 26%, and sales tax revenue at 6%. The county ended 2011
with an improved but still slim 5.7% total general fund balance, somewhat higher
than the 4.0 to 4.5% range recorded in recent years. Given the small financial
cushion, the county's ability to successfully achieve balanced operations will
continue to be crucial to ratings stability.
The adopted 2012 budget included a $5.8 million (2.2%) property tax increase, a
$1.55 million budgeted contingency reserve, and a de minimus amount of
appropriated general fund balance. Officials are projecting to end the year with
a general fund net operating surplus of between $7.3 million and $8.7 million.
This projection is mainly based upon $4.1 million of transit-related savings,
health care savings and better-than-budget sales tax receipts; however,
over-budget spending in the sheriff's department may present a challenge to full
realization of the projected surplus.
The adopted fiscal 2013 budget includes a $3.9 million increase in the property
tax levy, appropriates $5.5 million of general fund balance, and includes a $4
million budgeted contingency reserve.
BELOW AVERAGE SOCIO-ECONOMIC INDICATORS
Wealth levels are below average, largely reflective of the county's urban core.
Per capita income is 89% of the state, and 86.7% of the national levels. Housing
values remain under pressure, contributing to the decline in assessed value;
2012-13 assessed value represented a 15.3% drop since the peak in 2009-10. The
October 2012 unemployment rate of 7.4% represented an improvement over the 8.4%
recorded one year prior. The October rate is now slightly below the national
rate of 7.5%, but remained significantly above the state rate of 5.7%.
MANAGEABLE LONG TERM OBLIGATIONS
The aggregate debt burden is elevated at 6.0% of full market value but more
moderate at $3,638 per capita. A significant portion of the debt burden is
attributable to the pension obligation debt, and represents the exchange of one
type of long-term obligation (unfunded pension liability) for another (bonded
debt); without pension borrowing, the debt burden would be 5.3%. Principal
amortization is rapid with 68.6% repaid in 10 years.
Debt service accounted for a manageable 9.5% of fiscal 2011 general fund
expenditures, and should remain affordable as the county retires principal in
greater amounts than it issues. The county's five-year capital improvement plan
to be debt financed totals roughly $108 million, which is less than half the
principal retired over same period.
Milwaukee County's long-term liabilities related to employment benefits are
mixed. The county provides pension benefits to its employees through single
employer defined benefit plans. As of January 2012, the unfunded actuarial
accrued liability (UAAL) totaled $314 million or a modest 0.5% of full market
Based on Fitch's more conservative 7% investment return assumption, the pension
plans were 79% funded. The 79% funded ratio is considered adequately
capitalized; however the ratio was bolstered by $400 million in pension bonds in
2009 to augment pension assets.
Other post-employment benefits (OPEB) are also offered to retirees and their
dependents. The county contributed $58.2 million, which equaled the
pay-as-you-go amount, in 2011. As of January 2011, the UAAL totaled $1.5 billion
or a meaningful 2.4% of full market value. Recently implemented healthcare plan
design changes for non-represented employees and retirees are expected to reduce
the OPEB liability by $230 million or approximately 15%.
The combined pension and OPEB and debt service payments equaled a reasonable
21.2% of general fund expenditures and transfers out, including amounts
contributed in excess of the ARC.
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, National Association of Realtors and Financial Advisor
(Public Financial Management).
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