With about 18 different options on the table, including another half dozen discussed this week, Franklin County officials are still evaluating the best way to refinance about $25 million in bonds.
Members of the county commission and other elected and appointed officeholders met Thursday for a working session devoted to exploring how they could lower the borrowing costs and shorten the repayment terms for the bonds.
The county issued the bonds in three separate series in 2005, 2007 and 2008 to finance the county’s new government and judicial centers, paving roads and improving the county’s jail and historic courthouse.
Officials didn’t discuss the 2008 series this week focusing instead on the 2005 and 2007 issues.
Julie Portman, an Edward Jones principal, explained at a March 27 meeting that the first-call dates, the earliest date in which a bond issue can be refinanced, had not yet passed for the 2007 and 2008 bonds.
The county would have to put money in escrow until those dates passed in order to refinance them.
The 2007 series first-call date is in 2013. The 2008 series first-call date is not until 2014.
The county borrowed $6.9 million in 2005, $18.5 million in 2007 and $13.9 million in 2008 utilizing a form of leasehold bonds called certificates of participation (COPs).
Presiding Commissioner John Griesheimer said Portman and her team prepared 18 different proposals involving different repayment schedules for the two series.
Auditor Tammy Vemmer asked the commission to request a few more refinancing options after discussing proposals that would utilize some $5 million from the county’s building fund to pay down the debt. The building fund currently totals $8 million, but Vemmer and Mark Vincent, County Counselor, want to put $3 million of that into an emergency fund.
By law the county needs to have an emergency reserve fund of 3 percent of expected annual revenues, but officials said they support having a significantly larger reserve.
The county reviewed refinancing proposals that called for payments of $2 million toward the 2005 series and $1.5 million toward the 2007 series.
Based on savings projections, Vemmer, Griesheimer and others said putting $2 million toward the principal on the 2005 series and repaying them over a 10-year period appeared to be the best move.
Another proposal would reduce the repayment schedule on the 2007 series to 15 years without the requirement of an additional principal payment.
Under the current repayment schedule, the 2005 series will be retired in 2030, with the 2007 series set to be paid off two years later.
Griesheimer said the difficult part for him is “stomaching” using the reserve funds.
Commissioner Terry Wilson said it will take more time for him, Griesheimer and Commissioner Ann Schroeder to reach a decision on refinancing.
“There are still just a lot of unknowns,” Wilson said. “Sales tax (revenue) is increasing and we know interest rates will go up over time.”
“The question is how much (reserve money) we use. What option is going to give us the biggest bang and help us out?” she asked.
This year the county’s debt service on the 2005 series, paid March 1, was $410,802.32, according to information from Vemmer’s office.
The debt service on the 2007 series was $885,286.25.
Next year those payments increase to $415,303.04 and $1,264,117.50 respectively, a combined $383,331.97 increase,
The county would pay even more than that in the first several years under the refinancing proposals, but payments would eventually decline and the debt would be retired in fewer years at a lower interest rate.
Vemmer said she didn’t want to stress the general revenue fund but would consider using more of the fund if it would result in a greater net savings.
“I just hate paying out all this interest over the life of these loans while our money is sitting there (in the reserve fund) making 0.55 percent interest,” Vemmer said.
She said during the session that there are “people here who feel we should put down as much (money) as possible.”
Griesheimer said he’d ask Portman to prepare more figures with principal pay downs ranging all the way up to $5 million, in $500,000 increments.
Vemmer said she wanted to know what the potential savings would be if the county used all of its building fund, sans the $3 million that will be put into the emergency fund.
Schroeder agreed, saying it would do no harm to get estimates for both extremes — using no reserve funds, or using them all.
Vincent predicted that interest rates, including those on the county’s reserve fund of $8 million, will go up in the coming years.
He said he bet they’d be higher than the rate which the county would pay if it refinanced.
Interest rates for the COPs range from 2.15 to 4.85 percent currently.
“I don’t have a problem with putting some money down, but we are damn lucky that we’ve got that much money sitting there,” Griesheimer said. “I don’t want to spend it all and not have it anymore in case the economy tanks again.”
Currently the county repays the COPs through appropriations, including general revenue funds. Because the COPs are paid through existing tax revenues and don’t have to be paid back through property taxes, like regular general obligation bonds, the COPs don’t require voter approval.
Vincent noted that the county isn’t permitted to voluntarily pay more principal on its existing repayment schedule like a homeowner can pay down their mortgage.
Griesheimer and other commissioners allowed comments from members of the public after the working session.
Eric Reichert, Villa Ridge, said the county needs to be prepared for every possibility.
“If we raid the cookie jar and things aren’t as rosy as they’re expected to be, the county would have nothing left in reserve” if it uses all of its reserve funds, he said.
Ron Keeven, New Haven, said the county needs to do something though, considering the sizable increases in the existing repayment schedule.
Keeven noted that across the three separate COP issues, the county’s payments will jump by over $700,000 a year from this year to 2014.
Keeven’s estimates were confirmed by the repayment schedule provided by Vemmer’s office.
This year the county’s total payment for all three COP issues totaled $2,012,661.07. In 2014, the cost will jump to $2,729,141.05.
If the county is unable to repay the COPs, banks could seize county buildings, Vincent said.
He said the county has reserves, bond insurance and a tax anticipation loan available all to help assure that doesn’t happen.