Fitch Rates Annapolis, MD's GOs 'AA+'; Outlook Revised to Stable

  Fitch Rates Annapolis, MD's GOs 'AA+'; Outlook Revised to Stable  Business Wire  NEW YORK -- May 7, 2014  Fitch Ratings affirms the following ratings on Annapolis, Maryland's (the city) general obligation (GO) bonds:  --$104.2 million GO bonds at 'AA+'.  The Rating Outlook is revised to Stable from Negative.  SECURITY  The full faith, credit, and taxing power of the city are pledged for the payment of debt service.  KEY RATING DRIVERS  STABILIZING OPERATING ENVIRONMENT: Revision of the Rating Outlook to Stable from Negative reflects Fitch's expectation of continued management action to improve the city's structural position following several years of undue reliance on nonrecurring resources. The city has enhanced revenues, cut spending and continues to execute its plan to reach full funding of the pension annual required contribution (ARC) over the near term.  ADDITIONAL REVENUE FLEXIBILITY: Consecutive tax rate increases and spending cuts have helped improve the city's financial position and offset fairly sharp assessed value (AV) declines in recent years. The city retains important revenue raising flexibility; the tax rate remains very competitive and the city is not subject to a cap on the tax levy or rate.  SOLIDLY PERFORMING ECONOMY: Recent job growth has been solid and unemployment remains low relative to the state and nation. Per capita income levels are high. Fitch will closely monitor defense spending cuts given the large presence of the U.S. Navy.  MODERATE DEBT BURDEN: Overall debt levels are expected to remain moderately low and carrying costs affordable.  WELL-FUNDED PENSION: Pension funded ratios remain sound despite the city's decision to underfund the police and fire pension ARC since the recession. A combination of increased employer and employee contributions are forecast to increase the funded ratio over the near term if investment gains meet plan assumptions.  RATING SENSITIVITIES  OPERATING STABILITY:  The rating is sensitive to the city's continued progress toward structural balance, which includes avoiding overreliance on one-time resources, achieving scheduled full ARC funding in the police and fire pension plan, and maintaining adequate internal liquidity.  CREDIT PROFILE  Annapolis is located approximately 25 miles from both Baltimore and Washington, D.C. with an estimated 2011 population of 38,585.  POSITIVE OPERATIONS SUPPORTED BY ON-GOING REVENUES  Audited general fund results for fiscal 2013 were strongly positive for the third consecutive fiscal year following three consecutive property tax rate increases. An operating surplus of $8.9 million or 12% of spending followed an $11.9 million or 22% surplus in fiscal 2012. The fiscal 2013 unrestricted general fund balance of $27.5 million equates to a very healthy 35.2% of spending.  Fitch views the city's recent operating performance with some caution, as surplus results were achieved by minimally funding the ARC for the police and fire pension plan.  PENSION FUNDING REMAINS SOUND DESPITE ANNUAL UNDERFUNDING  The city administers a defined benefit pension plan for police and fire employees, and all general employees are part of the state retirement plan (the State Retirement and Pension System of Maryland).  The police and fire pension plan was overfunded before the recession. Investment losses in the downturn lowered the funded ratio, and the city was slow to absorb the resulting larger ARCs, further eroding the pension's funded ratio.  After several years of suspending its pension contributions to the police and fire pension plan, the city contributed $200,000 towards the $7 million ARC in fiscal 2012 and $1.57 million towards the $4 million ARC in fiscal 2013. Fitch considers this practice highly uncommon among the vast majority of investment-grade-quality issuers.  Somewhat offsetting this concern is the still-high funded ratio of the pension plan, which is equal to 85% using Fitch's more conservative 7% discount rate assumption, and the relatively low Fitch-adjusted unfunded actuarial accrued liability of $25.7 million (0.3% of taxable market value). On a reported basis the plan is 90% funded and uses a 7.5% discount rate assumption.  The city has increased its pension contribution to $1.98 million in fiscal 2014 - still below the projected ARC of $2.66 million, although the city forecasts further contribution increases until full ARC funding is achieved in fiscal 2017. Fitch notes positively the city recently negotiated an increase in the employee contribution to pension beginning in fiscal 2014.  The city also contributes to the state pension system, totaling a manageable $1.57 million in fiscal 2013. The funding of the state's pensions has deteriorated in recent years, which could result in higher contributions over time.  The city funds its other post-employment benefit (OPEB) on a pay-as-you-go basis, which was equal to $1.3 million (2% of spending) or 27% of the ARC in fiscal 2013. The OPEB UAAL was $48.4 million or 0.8% of taxable market value.  Total carrying costs for debt service, pensions and OPEB, assuming full funding of the city's pension ARC, are currently manageable at 17% of total governmental fund expenditures.  CONTINUED DEPENDENCE ON NON-RECURRING SOURCES A CONCERN  The adopted fiscal 2014 general fund budget projects an increase in reserves of $2 million; however, management has stated it plans to end the year with a higher $2.5 million operating surplus. The fiscal 2014 budget includes approximately $10.5 million in transfers (equal to 15% of spending) from several enterprise funds representing repayment of prior year advances and indirect charges for services provided by the general fund.  The fiscal 2015 mayor's budget shows a $1 million operating surplus for the general fund. The budget includes a reduced $8.4 million of transfers-in, no short-term borrowing and $7.3 million in cuts.  ECONOMIC STABILITY  The city is the state capital of Maryland and the county seat of Anne Arundel County (GO bonds rated 'AA+'; Stable Outlook by Fitch). Annapolis' population is highly educated with 43.9% of its residents having completed a bachelor's degree or higher, compared to 36.1% in the state and 28.2% nationwide. Annapolis' December 2013 unemployment rate remains low at 4.4%, while per capita money income is 20%-50% above the state and U.S. Recent employment growth has been modest, with job gains of 0.8% on a year-over-year basis as of December 2013.  The local economy is anchored by federal and state government employment, with added depth from tourism and maritime industries due to the city's location on the Chesapeake Bay. While government centers and the United States Naval Academy (USNA) generate significant year-round visitation, the marinas and the historic district attract leisure travelers from around the region. The city's largest private employers include TeleCommunication Systems, Inc. (650) and Constellation Energy Group (500).  TAX-BASE PRESSURES PERSIST  Properties subject to triennial assessment have declined by 15% between fiscal 2012 and 2014 to $5.68 billion. The city's fiscal 2015 AV is estimated to increase by 2.8% supported by several residential and commercial projects in the pipeline.  MODERATELY LOW DEBT BURDEN  The city's key debt metrics are moderate with net overall debt equivalent to 2.3% of market value or $3,674 per capita. The overall debt burden is heavily influenced by obligations of overlapping Anne Arundel County.  The city's proposed fiscal 2015-2020 capital improvement program (CIP) totals approximately $113 million or 1.47% of market value, and is higher than prior plans. Maintenance of city facilities and infrastructure projects are the largest components of the CIP. Projects are financed through debt, operating pay-as-you-go financing, and grant funds.  Additional information is available at 'www.fitchratings.com'.  In addition to the sources of information identified in Fitch's Tax-Supported Rating Criteria, this action was additionally informed by information from Creditscope, University Financial Associates, S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Index, IHS Global Insight, National Association of Realtors, Real Estate Business Intelligence.  Applicable Criteria and Related Research:  --'Tax-Supported Rating Criteria' (Aug. 14, 2012);  --'U.S. Local Government Tax-Supported Rating Criteria' (Aug. 14, 2012).  Applicable Criteria and Related Research:  Tax-Supported Rating Criteria http://www.fitchratings.com/creditdesk/reports/report_frame.cfm?rpt_id=686015  U.S. Local Government Tax-Supported Rating Criteria http://www.fitchratings.com/creditdesk/reports/report_frame.cfm?rpt_id=685314  Additional Disclosure  Solicitation Status http://www.fitchratings.com/gws/en/disclosure/solicitation?pr_id=829058  ALL FITCH CREDIT RATINGS ARE SUBJECT TO CERTAIN LIMITATIONS AND DISCLAIMERS. PLEASE READ THESE LIMITATIONS AND DISCLAIMERS BY FOLLOWING THIS LINK: HTTP://FITCHRATINGS.COM/UNDERSTANDINGCREDITRATINGS. IN ADDITION, RATING DEFINITIONS AND THE TERMS OF USE OF SUCH RATINGS ARE AVAILABLE ON THE AGENCY'S PUBLIC WEBSITE 'WWW.FITCHRATINGS.COM'. PUBLISHED RATINGS, CRITERIA AND METHODOLOGIES ARE AVAILABLE FROM THIS SITE AT ALL TIMES. FITCH'S CODE OF CONDUCT, CONFIDENTIALITY, CONFLICTS OF INTEREST, AFFILIATE FIREWALL, COMPLIANCE AND OTHER RELEVANT POLICIES AND PROCEDURES ARE ALSO AVAILABLE FROM THE 'CODE OF CONDUCT' SECTION OF THIS SITE. FITCH MAY HAVE PROVIDED ANOTHER PERMISSIBLE SERVICE TO THE RATED ENTITY OR ITS RELATED THIRD PARTIES. DETAILS OF THIS SERVICE FOR RATINGS FOR WHICH THE LEAD ANALYST IS BASED IN AN EU-REGISTERED ENTITY CAN BE FOUND ON THE ENTITY SUMMARY PAGE FOR THIS ISSUER ON THE FITCH WEBSITE.  Contact:  Fitch Ratings Primary Analyst Evette Caze, +1-212-908-0376 Director Fitch Ratings, Inc. 33 Whitehall Street New York, NY 10004 or Secondary Analyst Jessalynn Moro, +1-212-908-0608 Managing Director or Committee Chairperson Douglas Offerman, +1-212-908-0889 Senior Director or Media Relations, New York Elizabeth Fogerty, +1-212-908-0526 elizabeth.fogerty@fitchratings.com  
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