Jefferson County, Alabama, said it may offer sewer-system creditors new bonds at “much lower” principal amounts if they fail to revise a bankruptcy exit plan that’s threatened by rising interest rates.
Without concessions, creditors, including JPMorgan Chase & Co., hedge funds and bond insurers, won’t get cash for the $3 billion in debt they hold, Ken Klee, the county’s bankruptcy attorney, said in an interview in New York. Instead, they would have to accept a debt exchange and have bankruptcy expenses paid out of sewer revenue, reducing the amount available for repayment, he said.
“The county has gone as far as we can go,” Klee said. “Either there will be concessions or we’ll have to go to a different kind of plan.”
On June 5, Jefferson County reached an agreement to pay its largest creditors $1.84 billion, or 60 percent of what they’re owed. Since then, interest rates on top-rated 30-year municipal bonds have jumped by 1.3 percentage points to 4.67 percent, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. At current rates, the county could refinance only $1.5 billion to $1.6 billion of sewer debt, Klee said.
The deal called for the county to raise sewer rates 7.4 percent annually for four years and then 3.49 percent a year thereafter. That plan provided a cushion for an interest-rate increase of 0.5 percentage point.
Under the deal, hedge funds, which are owed about $872 million, would receive more than 80 cents on the dollar while bond insurers including Assured Guaranty Ltd. would collect $165 million out of $315 million in claims. JPMorgan, the biggest bondholder, would get $375 million of the $1.22 billion it is owed, or 31 cents on the dollar.
As interest rates were driven up by Detroit’s bankruptcy and concern about the Federal Reserve curbing bond purchases, county officials voted to increase sewer rates 7.9 percent annually in years two through four. They are also planning to increase the base user fee by $5 on Oct. 3, which would raise another $8 million annually.
Justin Perras, a JPMorgan spokesman, declined to comment. Ashweeta Durani, a spokeswoman for Assured Guaranty, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Jefferson County commissioners were in New York for preliminary meetings with rating companies that will grade a refinancing managed by Citigroup Inc. The new sewer debt, which will have gross revenue of 1.25 times available to make interest and principal payments, should garner a AA rating, said Commissioner Jimmie Stephens. Future rate increases will be enforced by court order.
“This commission took a broken debt instrument and repaired, it,” said Stephens.
Proceeds of the refinancing would also be used to pay for 10 years of water and sewer capital expenditures, including about $170 million that the county needs to spend to reduce phosphorous discharges into the Cahaba River under a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency consent decree, Klee said.
Under the terms of the “base plan” approved by the commission last month, the county planned to issue a mix of three different securities.
The county projected issuing about $1.3 billion of new debt, paying interest on a periodic basis at a yield of 5.75 percent, according to documents filed with the bankruptcy court. Another $327 million of zero-coupon bonds will be issued at 6.75 percent along with $286 million of zero-coupon bonds that convert to a security that pays interest on a periodic basis, according to documents filed with the court.
Some critics, including University of Alabama finance professor Robert Brooks, said the use of zero-coupon bonds only pushes the biggest debt-service payments into the future, much like a balloon mortgage.
The county has since reduced the amount of zero-coupon bonds to $180 million and the convertible securities to about $460 million, Klee said.
A $2 billion refinancing using only bonds that pay interest on a periodic basis would require sewer rate increases of 25 percent in each of the first four years, which would be unfair to ratepayers, county officials said.
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