High rating for county sought at bond houses Officials go to N.Y. to discuss finances


Three New York bond houses are studying Carroll County's financial health today as county officials visit the city in an effort to maintain favorable ratings and interest rates.

"I think they'll be very positive because Carroll County has been pretty darned frugal," Commissioner Donald I. Dell said.

The county needs positive rating from the bond houses to obtain the lowest interest rates possible on money it borrows. The county sells bonds to finance school and road construction and other capital projects.

Budget Director Steven D. Powell said he is hopeful one bond house -- Standard & Poor's -- will raise its rating as a result of several financial initiatives the county has taken. A rating upgrade could lower the county's interest rate, but Mr. Powell said he did not know by how much.

"Over time, that adds up to a lot of money," he said.

This year, Carroll wants to borrow $24.2 million, which is about $300,000 less than what it borrowed last year, Comptroller Eugene C. Curfman said. Of the total, $6.2 million will go toward renovations and an addition at Carroll County General Hospital.

Five county officials and a financial adviser, A. Samuel Ketterman of H. C. Wainwright & Co. of Baltimore, are meeting with Standard & Poor's and Moody's Investor Service Inc. today. Yesterday, they met with Fitch Investors Service Inc.

Mr. Curfman said the trip to New York involved a lot of planning and study.

"It's two days of, believe it or not, hard work. Some people may think it's a joy trip -- far from it," he said.

Mr. Dell said he and the other county officials will tell the bond houses about Carroll's growth, educational system, economic development efforts and plans for solid waste disposal.

Carroll holds the second-highest rating from each bond house, but Standard & Poor's qualified its rating with a minus sign. The ratings mean that the bonds are of high quality and that the county's ability to pay interest and principal is strong.

Last year, the county received an AA bond rating from Fitch, an Aa from Moody's and an AA- from Standard & Poor's.

Mr. Powell said it is possible that Standard & Poor's will remove the minus sign from its rating because it changed Carroll's "outlook grade" this summer. The grade, given in addition to the bond rating, was changed from stable to positive, he said.

"We're hopeful," he said.

The grade change happened for several reasons, Mr. Powell said. One was that the previous board of commissioners committed to making the county's landfills, septic, water and sewer operations self-sufficient, meaning the fees charged for the services cover the costs incurred.

The other reasons are that Carroll weathered the recession that began several years ago and is in the process of examining its programs and services to establish priorities for the future, he said.

A tax increase instituted earlier this year helped protect the county's bond rating. In May, the commissioners voted to increase the piggyback income tax because the county needed about $4 million to build schools and would have jeopardized its rating if it had borrowed that amount.

The commissioners voted 2-1 to raise the tax to 58 percent from 50 percent for six years. Commissioner Richard T. Yates was opposed.

Meeting with the bond houses today are Mr. Powell, Mr. Curfman, Mr. Dell, Commissioner W. Benjamin Brown and Economic Development Director John T. Lyburn.

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