City’s next goal: AAA trifecta

Published 8:54 pm Saturday, September 27, 2014

City Council members during their retreat on Thursday made it plain they don’t intend to veer from the path that brought them to a AAA credit rating from one of three national ratings agencies.

Instead, they’re going for the trifecta.

In July, the city learned Standard and Poor’s had upgraded the city’s credit rating to its best possible rank, the vaunted AAA. The other two credit rating agencies, Moody’s and Fitch, assigned ratings only one notch below the highest possible rank on their scales.

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“I’m looking forward to the trifecta of triple-A,” Councilman Charles Parr said during the retreat.

Similar to an individual’s credit score, credit ratings for municipalities allow it to save money on debt repayment by obtaining favorable interest rates.

The city’s financial adviser, David Rose of Davenport and Company, told council members during their retreat that the savings on interest payments for new and refinanced debt this year could total $28 million over the life of the loans — about $1.3 million annually.

The savings is versus the prior debt for refinanced bonds and versus planning estimates for new debt, Rose added.

“All told, we basically chopped out about $28 million of unnecessary interest by being, in effect, so highly rated,” Rose said. “That translates to other things you can do, or taxes you don’t have to raise as high.”

The ratings and savings represent a significant improvement over early 2007, Rose said, when all three ratings agencies gave downgrades because the city was not in compliance with its own financial policies, had deficits in several operating funds, had a weakened liquidity position and was using operating cash to pay for capital projects.

“Cash was being spent, but there was no plan,” Mayor Linda T. Johnson said Thursday. “There was no structure to what we were doing. We just kept moving dollars, but it was the same dollars. It didn’t add up.”

With the lower interest rates, council members said, more projects can be completed with less money.

“When we have cost savings on finance charges, that money can be redirected into neighborhoods, into public safety projects, into a multitude of projects,” Parr said.

Johnson agreed.

“It’s the only reason that we’re building fire stations,” she said. “It’s the only reason that we’re building schools.”

In Hampton Roads, only two other cities — Virginia Beach and Chesapeake — have the highest rating from at least one agency, the city’s financial adviser, David Rose of Davenport and Company, said during the retreat. Chesapeake has it from two, and Virginia Beach has it from all three.

Only 10 independent cities of the 38 in Virginia have the highest rating, Rose added. Of those, only Alexandria in addition to Chesapeake and Virginia Beach has a higher population.

“To find out that there’s only 10 in our state with a triple-A rating, it lends more credence to what we’ve been able to accomplish,” Councilman Mike Duman said Thursday.