FITCH UPGRADES MENDOCINO COUNTY DEBT
Fitch revises Mendocino County, California rating outlook
Thu Feb 21, 2013 3:51pm EST
Feb 21 - Fitch Ratings takes the following actions on Mendocino County (the
--$79.6 million pension obligation refunding bonds (POBs), series 2002 affirmed
--Implied general obligation (GO) rating affirmed at 'A-'.
The Rating Outlook is revised to Positive from Stable.
The POBs are an absolute and unconditional obligation of the county imposed by
law, the payment of which is not limited to any special source of funds.
KEY RATING DRIVERS
CONTINUED FINANCIAL IMPROVEMENT: The Positive Outlook reflects improvements in
the county's financial position following substantial expenditure reductions and
management reforms over the last several years.
LONG-TERM ECONOMIC DECLINE: The county continues to face challenges from a
long-term economic contraction that preceded the recent downturn. Employment
levels have fallen each year over the past decade while population has
stagnated. In addition, wealth and income levels remain well below state and
MANAGEMENT REFORMS: The county has made notable progress in addressing
weaknesses cited in past reviews. Management has raised fund balance targets
and established policies to help meet these new goals, updated treasury
practices, and begun preparations for its first capital improvement plan in
MODERATE DEBT; ELEVATED PENSIONS: Overall debt levels are moderate but county
long-term obligations are substantial due to pension funding requirements.
IMPROVED FINANCIAL POSITION: A sustained record of surplus operations and
enhanced financial flexibility will likely result in an upgrade in the near
Mendocino County is located in northern California, along the Pacific coast,
approximately 115 miles north of San Francisco. The county's estimated
population of 88,000 is little changed from the 1990s and is dispersed across a
land area larger than several states.
FINANCIAL IMPROVEMENT FOLLOWS CUTS
The county ended fiscal 2012 with strong operating results and appears
well-positioned for fiscal 2013. Net operating surpluses after transfers for
2012 were equal to 5.3% of general fund spending, raising unrestricted fund
balance to 9.4% of spending ($12.4 million). Year-end cash balances also rose
substantially, from $11.5 million in 2011 to $21 million in 2012.
The county's strong performance in 2012 follows substantial expenditure
reductions over the past several years, primarily through workforce and payroll
reductions. Workforce reductions have eliminated approximately one-fourth of
the county's full-time employees over the past five years, while remaining
employees have seen permanent wage cuts of 10% to 12.5%. In addition, the
county has eliminated other post-employment benefits (OPEB) for current and
Management projects further additions to fund balance in 2013, which Fitch
considers reasonable given prior year expenditure reductions and revenue
improvements through mid-year.
ECONOMIC WEAKNESS PERSISTS
The county continues to face a long-term economic contraction that dates from
the late 1990s. Population growth has been very slow over this period and
employment levels have dropped steadily. Tourism and wine production have
provided some opportunities for growth, but overall employment levels fell by
more than 10% over the past decade.
Unemployment rates for the county have generally tracked statewide averages and
at 10.0% for 2012 unemployment was well above the national rate of 8.1%.
Year-over-year employment growth was positive for the first half of 2012
followed by declines during the second half of the year, indicative of
continuing employment challenges. Income and wealth indicators are weak at 70%
to 85% of state and national averages.
Taxable assessed valuation (TAV) was relatively unaffected by the national
housing boom and has been insulated from subsequent declines. TAV dropped by
just 2.2% between 2010 and 2013 after many years of steady increases. The local
housing market continues to struggle despite the county's favorable TAV
performance. December 2012 home values reported by Zillow showed a 5.7%
year-over-year decline as compared to a 9.3% increase for the state as a whole.
The county has made notable progress in addressing management weaknesses cited
in prior rating reviews. The county adopted a revised fund balance policy in
2012 that increases reserve targets from 2% to 6.35% of general fund
expenditures, or a minimum of $10 million. The new policy also provides a
mechanism for incremental additions to reserves until targeted levels are
reached. Fitch expects these actions to further boost unrestricted fund
balances for the county over the next several years.
The county also made substantial revisions to its investment practices in 2012,
diversifying investment categories, increasing credit quality, and reducing
maturities in general. These actions appear likely to improve the county's
abilityto meet its chief investment goal of principal protection, and to better
serve its cash management needs.
The county has been without a capital improvement plan since 2006, but has
recently authorized the development of a new five-year plan as part of its
budget process for fiscal 2014. The county faces a large backlog of capital
projects due to spending deferrals during the recent downturn, but Fitch views
renewed efforts to identify and prioritize capital needs as a positive
MODERATE DEBT; ELEVATED PENSION COSTS
Overall debt levels are moderate at $3,188 per capita or 2.8% of TAV.
Amortization of direct debt is average with 55% of outstanding principle retired
in 10 years. Management has no current plans for debt issuance apart from
short-term cash flow borrowing. Amounts borrowed for such purposes declined by
nearly one-third in fiscal 2013, providing further evidence of strengthened
As of June 30, 2012, the Mendocino County Employees' Retirement Association had
a funded ratio of 74%, or 67% under Fitch's alternate investment assumption of
7% returns. County contributions have increased by 63% over the past five
years, largely due to lower than expected investment results.
Total pension costs, including POB debt service and pension contributions, have
also accounted for a growing share of governmental spending in recent years.
Pension costs represented 9.3% of non-capital governmental expenditures in
fiscal 2010 but rose to 12.1% in 2012. As overall governmental spending has
declined (due largely to workforce and payroll reductions), such fixed costs
have increased as a share of remaining expenditures. Total carrying costs for
pensions, other post-employment benefits (OPEBs) and debt service were a
somewhat high 16% of non-capital governmental expenditures in fiscal 2012, as
compared to 12.3% in fiscal 2011.
The county began a phased elimination of OPEBs in 2010 and will have no related
liabilities after the end of the current calendar year.