Lee receives AA- S&P credit rating

LEESBURG, Ga. -- As a group of Lee County officials prepared to meet with Standard & Poor's credit analysts in New York recently, County Commission Chairman Ed Duffy asked County Administrator Alan Ours, "What am I supposed to say to these folks?"

Ours' reply: "You need to tell them the story of Lee County."

Duffy did. And Ours, Utilities Authority Director Chris Boswell and Merchant Capital Investment Bankers Vice President Trey Monroe, working as the county's financial agent, filled in the details. At stake was the county's S&P credit rating.

"Stories are powerful, and I told Mr. Duffy he should tell the remarkable story of Lee County and where it was four years ago compared to where it is today," Ours said. "And Mr. Duffy told the story."

The benefits of the Lee officials' trip will be felt by the county over the next two decades. And while Monroe is still doing the math on the county's AA- S&P rating announced Wednesday, the end results will be hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings for Lee taxpayers.

"I'm still crunching the numbers, and I don't like to speculate," Monroe said from his Atlanta office Wednesday. "But the AA- rating that Lee County received is in the upper echelon of the state. I'd guess probably 25 public entities in Georgia have that rating or better.

"For a county that size and in its location, that rating is phenomenal. I feel comfortable saying it will be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars over the next 21 years. And that number could be a lot more significant."

Duffy said the decision to make a personal presentation to the Standard & Poor's analysts in New York City ended up being vital to the county's excellent credit rating.

"When we were putting together a presentation for Standard & Poor's, Trey told us that we could send them the information and talk with them on the phone, but he said a real picture's worth a thousand words," Duffy said Wednesday. "So we made the decision to go up there and make the presentation face-to-face.

"I gave them a little information about the county, and I think that broke the ice. Then Alan presented the excellent 42-page brochure about the county that he and his staff had put together, and I think that really got their attention. Then Chris and Trey each did a fantastic job of describing the details about the water and sewer systems and the finances. (Wednesday's news) means we succeeded in our mission."

Ours -- who was in West Virginia Wednesday for his mother's funeral -- said in a phone interview the chairman deserves a lot of the credit.

"One of the things the credit analysts asked me was to what extent the Board of Commissioners was engaged in the finances of the Utilities Authority," Ours said. "I told them that not only did each commissioner get a monthly financial report from the Authority, but they all read it.

"Then Chairman Duffy started citing specific numbers from the Utilities Authority's financing. That he had such a clear understanding of the specifics really impressed them."

The county will use its newly won financial rating to restructure the roughly $22 million in debt incurred by the Utilities Authority as it has upgraded county infrastructure. Authority General Manager Chris Boswell said Wednesday the news from S&P was a relief for his agency.

"There was certainly a great deal of concern about the debt service going up, especially coupled with the anxiety over the economy," Boswell said. "It's a relief to get to this point in the process. It seems now that things are starting to fall into place."

Boswell said the Standard & Poor's analysts asked him specifically about the Utilities Authority's water and sewer systems and the county's future needs.

"They asked me point-blank if we had the capacity to handle more customers," Boswell said. "I explained to them that the only way we would have problems is if there was another housing explosion in the county. We've definitely got the infrastructure in place to handle the next five or six years."

As news filtered out in the community about the S&P credit rating, other officials lauded the work of the contingent that sold the county in New York.

"This is just phenomenal news; I'm thrilled," County Commissioner Rick Muggridge said. "I'm so proud of the job Mr. Duffy and Mr. Ours did in presenting our case to Standard & Poor's. This is confirmation that we're dotting our I's and crossing our T's. The AA- credit rating means we're worth the risk, and it's going to save us hundreds of thousands of dollars over the next several years."