City aims to ease investor fears ahead of $1.16B borrowing

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Chicago’s Chief Financial Officer Carole Brown (pictured in September 2015) tried on Wednesday, Jan. 11, to ease lingering investor concerns about city and school finances, hoping taxpayers won’t pay the price when Chicago tries next week to sell $1.16 billion in general obligation bonds. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

A top mayoral aide tried Wednesday to ease lingering investor concerns about city and school finances, hoping taxpayers won’t pay the price when Chicago tries next week to sell $1.16 billion in general obligation bonds.

Chief Financial Officer Carole Brown’s pitch to investors in Chicago — and similar meetings over the next few days with investors in Boston and New York — comes two days after Gov. Bruce Rauner threw Chicago another curve ball.

The Illinois House unanimously approved Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to save two of four city employee pension funds, only to have the governor declare his intention to veto the bill that locked in employee concessions and authorized a five-year ramp to actuarially required funding.

Last month, the governor’s veto of a bill giving the Chicago Public Schools $215 million in state pension help already built into the school budget created a potential crisis that could force devastating classroom cuts if that veto is not overturned.

Both of those roadblocks have heightened concerns among investors that the city is now trying to attract to the upcoming $1.16 billion general obligation bond issue.

How the city eases those concerns and insulates itself from the CPS financial crisis will go a long way toward determining the interest rate that must be paid.

“It’s important enough legislation that, if he did choose to veto it that we would ask the General Assembly to introduce something again because we’ve gotten positive response from the rating agencies and from the investment community with the fact that we now have all four pension funds with a plan,” Brown said.

When Chicago investors asked about CPS and its “impact on the city’s financial recovery,” Brown said she “pointed to the facts: That, just like every other school district in the state, the primary responsibility for funding public schools in Chicago lies with the state.”

“Our hope is that the General Assembly will take up a serious discussion about education funding this session. If they don’t, we’ll have to continue to do our best to make sure that the financial problems of CPS don’t bleed into the academic gains of CPS,” Brown said.

The governor didn’t help matters when he noted that Chicago’s largest pension fund would still be left with a gaping hole — after a 29.5 percent tax on water and sewer bills is fully phased in — that will require more revenue to honor the city’s ironclad commitment to reach 90 percent funding over a 40-year period.

On Wednesday, investors asked Brown how she planned to handle that “funding cliff” five years out.

“We acknowledge that there will be a need for future revenue increases. . . . We’ll start with the budget. We’ll figure out what the requirements are. And it will be a combination of revenue increases and expenditure reductions to meet our obligations,” Brown said.

The governor’s vetoes and the continuing budget stalemate in Springfield were not the only investor concerns.

So is the $1.16 billion borrowing itself. It includes $440 million in “scoop-and-toss” borrowing — $105 million more than previously planned — that extends for another generation debt that should be retired today.

It also includes $225 million to bankroll settlements and judgments against the city.

Emanuel has promised to eliminate both dubious financial practices by 2019. That’s also the deadline he’s set for eliminating a structural deficit that’s already 80 percent smaller than the one he inherited.

“They were comfortable. We’ve been telling them for a bit now that this deal was going to include scoop-and-toss. . . . But I have to tell you. I couldn’t bring another transaction included scoop-and-toss and have any amount of credibility with investors. So this has to be it for us with that — and it will be,” Brown said Wednesday.

In the run-up to the bond sale, Emanuel also wrote a scathing letter to the president of Moody’s Investors, accusing the Wall Street rating agency that has saddled Chicago with a junk bond rating of unfairly ignoring the progress he has made to right the financial ship. The mayor formally requested that Moody’s “withdraw all of its ratings on city of Chicago debt.”

“It has become increasingly clear that Moody’s rating methodology and agenda are far from objective and independent. . . . Your current rating does not accurately reflect the city’s credit or our ability to pay debt service when due,” the mayor wrote in the Dec. 8 letter.

“With each rating action or market comment, Moody’s instead introduces new and sometimes unrelated factors to justify its negative view of the city’s credit. All the while, measurable progress by the city to confront the fiscal challenges do nothing to impact our rating.”

Before catching a flight to Boston for the next round of investor meetings, Brown was asked whether she was happy with the reception.

“We have been in the market a lot in the last two years. I’m concerned to make sure that we get enough investor interest to support the transaction. I think we will. But I’ll have a better sense after our meetings in Boston and New York,” she said.

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