MuniLand

Most expensive sewage system in history

If you say “Jefferson County” to a professional in muniland, you will likely get a shudder of mild revulsion. This Alabama county is the biggest example of Wall Street aggression towards a public entity since Orange County, California declared bankruptcy in 1994 after buying too many interest-rate derivatives. Dodd-Frank, the financial-reform law that’s been in effect for a year, changed the rules for municipal bonds and derivatives.  But did it change them enough to avert a repeat scenario?

First, a little background: Jefferson County was ordered by the federal EPA to build a sewer system at an estimated cost of $1.2 billion. The construction went over budget and was rife with massive corruption that has ensnared 17 people. The funding of the sewer project was equally corrupt. JP Morgan was under investigation for bribery in 2009 and eventually reached a settlement with the SEC. The Washington Post reported this at the time:

J.P. Morgan Chase agreed to a $722 million settlement with federal regulators over accusations that the bank and two former executives made illegal payments to win municipal bond business from Jefferson County, Ala.

The Securities and Exchange Commission said Wednesday that J.P. Morgan and former managing directors Charles E. LeCroy and Douglas W. MacFaddin paid $8 million to friends of Jefferson County commissioners who voted to hire the bank to carry out municipal bond offerings and other transactions to finance a new sewer system. The friends worked for local financial firms, but did not work on the deal.

The financial deals arranged by J.P. Morgan ultimately resulted in millions of dollars in losses and pushed the county to the brink of bankruptcy, causing residents to pay much higher rates for water and sewer services.

It’s hot down in Alabama

It’s hot down in Alabama

It sounds like we have a deal in Jefferson County, Alabama. This has been a long festering problem where the county is unable to afford the debt payments on $3 billion of bonds for a sewer system built several years ago. Excellent local reporting by KDAF-TV and Birmingham News. It sounds as if Jefferson County wants creditors to reduce the debt owed by $1.3 billion.

Meanwhile the SEC has announced a July 29 field hearing in Alabama on the “State of the Municipal Securities Market”. Reuters reports here.

Detroit: Bike City?

Detroit Bike City from Alex Gallegos. Detroit feels like a ghost town with pockets of life centered around bikes and bike-riding.

Has Chris Christie “fixed” the problem?

Has Chris Christie “fixed” the problem?

Joan Gralla of Reuters reports that Governor Chris Christie will be signing the pension and health-benefit reform law today. This is an important step for the health of New Jersey’s pension plans, and Governor Christie should be lauded for his accomplishment.

The state’s 2010 Debt Report (page 15) said that they have $87.5 billion in unfunded liabilities as of June 30, 2009 and that the rate of increase has gone up substantially in recent years:

    $30.7 billion for the seven major state pension funds $56.7 billion in unfunded post retirement health benefits

Unfortunately Governor Christie has skipped payments of $5.5 billion over the last two years and compounded these unfunded liabilities. One of these skipped payments was used to claim a “balanced budget.” Your household budget is not really “balanced” if you skip your car loan payment for a year.

Muni sweeps: Employment slightly better

We are making some headway on unemployment although some states still have substantial problems. For the larger, original version from Calculated Risk Blog click here.

Muni tax exemption “on the table”

Bond Buyer reports:

Two weeks ago, about a dozen issuer advocates met with staff members for Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee to emphasize the important role tax-exempt bonds play in infrastructure development.

The issuer groups were told by staffers that the tax exemption of muni bonds was on the table as part of discussions on spending cuts, and that the committee may soon schedule hearings on this subject, sources involved with the meeting said.

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