PhillyDeals: Local governments are still under financial pressure

Teachers picket outside Neshaminy High School in lower Bucks County. The Neshaminy district's teachers went on strike Monday after working without a contract for 31/2 years. Story, A1.
Teachers picket outside Neshaminy High School in lower Bucks County. The Neshaminy district's teachers went on strike Monday after working without a contract for 31/2 years. Story, A1. (TOM GRALISH)
Posted: January 10, 2012

U.S. companies have been slowly hiring more workers. But home prices are still slipping and tax-assessment values are down, so local governments and school districts that rely on property taxes are still under pressure.

"We may still be in the early innings of the deterioration in municipal finances," Ryan Connors, utilities analyst at Janney Capital Markets in Philadelphia, warned in a report to clients last week.

"Political resistance" is keeping towns from raising tax rates as valuations and tax collections fall, Connors wrote. Communities "will tighten their belts" this year after "four consecutive quarters of year-over-year declines in local tax receipts."

He was referring especially to deferred capital projects at government-owned utilities. But the same spirit applies to school districts and other local governments.

See, for example, the Neshaminy School District in lower Bucks County, where the teachers' union went on strike and schools were closed Monday after the school board repeated its refusal to grant what in past years would have been business-as-usual raises and benefits adjustments.

The Neshaminy board says recession-battered taxpayers are on its side, especially with property taxes already heading higher to cover a shortfall from the Pennsylvania School Employees' Retirement System, which is spending more than its high-paid investment contractors are bringing in to finance newly retired administrators and veteran teachers at large fractions of their former salaries.

Or look to the City of Harrisburg, which has found another target besides public employees to blame for the apparent imbalance between what politicians promise to spend and what they dare to raise in taxes.

Last week, the city council published a report asking state and federal authorities to review up to $49 million in fees paid to lawyers, accountants, financial advisers, and other experts who suggested, approved, or signed off on $300 million in taxpayer financing for money-losing trash-incinerator projects from 1998 to 2007.

"It was the obvious profit motive of the participants which drove these public finance transactions," wrote the council's lawyer, Mark Schwartz. His report calls for "a comprehensive audit" by the Internal Revenue Service and the Securities and Exchange Commission "to determine the propriety of these financings."

The SEC's municipal-finance unit, based in Philadelphia, has had years to review these costly, and lucrative, deals. It has busted smaller operators for questionable transactions in central Pennsylvania. What will it do about the Harrisburg burn-up?

Will Gov. Corbett's administration, which seized control of the city's finances last year, do anything to serve notice that experts paid by the people to give professional advice need to earn that money by opposing stupid bond deals?

In questioning how Pennsylvania lawyers and financial advisers, New York insurers, and foreign-owned banks got rich from the same financings that drove Pennsylvania's capital broke, Schwartz is mounting a radical challenge to the way local government works in our part of the country.

In reserve

Chester County's two old steelmaking towns are headed in opposite financial directions, according to Moody's Investor Service.

Moody's put Phoenixville's credit rating up a notch last week, and cut its rating for Coatesville public schools.

Moody's dropped the rating on $158 million in Coatesville Area School District general-obligation debt to A2 from A1, blaming "the structural imbalance in the district's operating budget resulting in five years of operating deficits that have decreased the district financial position," and the "above average" debt burden on local taxpayers to pay back years of borrowing by the city and nearby townships.

At the same time, Moody's boosted its rating on $12 million of Phoenixville's general-obligation bonds to Aa3, citing the borough's "ample financial reserves" and downtown redevelopment, which has put more property back on the tax rolls.

Contact Joseph N. DiStefano at 215-854-5194,, or @PhillyJoeD on Twitter.

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