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Cook County debt gets dinged
And the culprit cited by S&P is familiar: pension debt.

Friday, January 10, 2020
Crain's Chicago Business
by Lynne Marek

S & P Global Ratings downgraded Cook County debt ratings one notch today, citing the county's underfunded pensions.

The downgrade applied to the county's general obligation and sales tax revenue bond ratings, with the former lowered to A+ and the latter to AA-. The ratings remain investment grade.

"The downgrade reflects the county's large and underfunded pension obligation, and although the county has made steps to address its pension funding levels—specifically with a new sales tax revenue stream beginning in fiscal 2016 that significantly increased its annual contributions—its ability to meets its planned additional payments over the long term will remain an ongoing challenge, in our view,” said S&P Global Ratings credit analyst Blake Yocom in a statement today announcing the downgrade.

Cook County has about $2.8 billion in general obligation bonds outstanding, the ratings agency said. While it gave the county credit for “progress on its operational budget” it said “little to no progress was made on its pension liability.”

“Although the county's poorly funded pension will likely place considerable pressure on its finances, in our view, recent progress toward actuarially based statutory payments through new sales tax revenue has reduced the likelihood of plan insolvency,” the statement said.

While the pension funding remains “very weak,” S&P doesn’t expect the situation to worsen over the next two years, though it didn’t rule it out beyond that two-year period.

The agency concluded: “Pension contributions are known and are not expected to cause significant budgetary pressure. However, given the plans' assumptions and methods and very low funded ratio, costs are certain to rise and will be a continuing challenge for the county, particularly given the reduced flexibility caused by overlapping entities, in our view.”

Ted Nelson, a spokesman for the county said: "We are disappointed with the decision to downgrade the Cook County's Sales Tax and General Obligation Bonds but are pleased to see S&P praise our strong management and financial practices as well as our actions to address legacy debt. We remain committed to building on the progress we have made over the years of passing balanced budgets, addressing our legacy debt, tackling pension obligations and working to secure the County’s financial future."

He also noted that the county wouldn't be looking to sell new bonds until the middle of the year, at the earliest. The county wouldn't face the higher borrowing costs that are triggered by a lower rating until that time, though it can influence the value of bonds already in the market too.



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