March 3, 2021

A County in Alabama Puts Off Bankruptcy

In a public meeting, the county’s five commissioners read a list of proposed terms for refinancing about $3.2 billion of defaulted debt and found fault with almost all of them.

“It looks like a burden on the people,” said Sandra Little Brown. “The only tool that we have, as a commission, to protect the people is Chapter 9.”

The thing keeping her from using that tool, she said, was a call Friday morning from Gov. Robert Bentley, who urged her and the other commissioners to avoid bankruptcy because it could ripple out and hurt the credit of the whole state. The governor said that if the county kept working toward a settlement, he would push for help from the State Legislature. Until now, the statehouse has shown virtually no interest in helping the county as it sinks under the huge debt, incurred during an attempt to rebuild its failing sewer system.

“The governor’s call makes me want to think it over a little bit more,” Ms. Brown said.

The commissioners voted unanimously to delay a decision until Sept. 16, saying they would use the next few weeks to try to negotiate directly with the county’s creditors. The county’s relations with the debtholders are so frosty that a court-appointed receiver, John Young, has been serving as a go-between. But public opinion turned against Mr. Young this summer when he recommended a 25 percent increase in sewer rates and laid claim to a $75 million payment to the county from JPMorgan, its lead creditor. The payment was part of a settlement with the Securities and Exchange Commission, which had accused the bank of wrongdoing in its dealings with the county.

Mr. Young had said the sewer system needed the money and was legally entitled to it, provoking an outcry.

“It’s time that this commission took ownership of these negotiations,” James Stephens, a commissioner, said during the meeting on Friday.

Working in consultation with the receiver and the governor’s chief of staff, the creditors had proposed a refinancing package that would take the sewer system away from the county and put it under the control of an independent authority. The authority would issue new debt and use $2.07 billion of the proceeds to redeem all the defaulted securities, dealing creditors a loss but lightening the county’s debt burden considerably.

Governor Bentley offered to sweeten the deal by backing the new debt with the state’s “moral authority,” something the State Legislature would have to approve. A moral authority pledge is not as secure as the state’s “full faith and credit,” but it would still strengthen the authority’s standing enough to lower its borrowing costs by as much as 1.8 percentage points, officials said.

Terms of the creditors’ proposal also called for $233 million in issuance proceeds to go into a debt service reserve, and for $23.3 million to pay issuance costs. Some proceeds would also be set aside to provide relief to low-income sewer ratepayers. The total cost of the refinancing would be about $2.3 billion.

The creditors also called for the many lawsuits relating to the sewer project to be dismissed.

George Bowman, a commissioner, said during the meeting that he did not see how the board could agree to the proposal when so much depended on factors beyond the county’s control. No one knows yet whether the legislature will, in fact, create the proposed authority, for instance, or what the interest rate on the new debt would be. He also cited continuing investigations by the Justice Department and Internal Revenue Service, and was unwilling to drop legal claims until the findings were known.

“We have absolutely no control over anything they do,” he said.

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