Add Xenia Rural Water District’s to the short but growing list of over-leveraged municipal borrowers. With $143 million in debt and about 9,000 customers, the unfolding socio-gram includes bondholders, bond insurers CIFG and Assured Guaranty, the US Department of Agriculture, Bank of America, and last, but not least, the ratepayers. A $5.2 million note to Bank of America comes due June 1 and the district is already in arrears to the USDA. The BofA notes were sold on the assumption they would be taken out with permanent financing from the USDA. Will that happen? USDA has called in its auditors and expects to complete a financial review during May. Having the federal lender as a creditor on this workout should make things interesting. The State of Iowa is also auditing, with results for 2009 to come out in a month. As of the district’s 2008 audit there was 64% coverage of debt service from available revenues.
The district had great dreams of expansion, aggressive you might say. One of the problem projects was a 16 mile pipeline designed to reach about 20-30 homes, according to the Ames Tribune. The former Executive Director Dan Miller (separated at birth from Harrisburg, PA’s comptroller, Dan Miller?) had a penchant for expansions, even when they no longer made sense. The district expected to double the number of connections and revenues by 2011 when maximum debt payments kick in according to a read of the official statement. For a rural, agricultural region, even in the best of times, this is ambitious.
Then there were the line extensions to several ethanol projects within the district. According to the Guthrie Center Times, at least one of these projects
may have contributed to Xenia’s dire situation.. The company extended a pipeline from Clive to the western edge of Waukee and from DeSoto to Menlo at a cost of $15 million to provide water to the Hawkeye Renewables ethanol plant at Menlo. The work was done by Xenia’s construction crew and the cost overrun of $3.5 million had to be born by the company. Xenia charged Hawkeye Renewables $1 million for the connection fee to the pipeline.
The district has been in discussions to have Des Moines Water Works acquire Xenia. They’ve raised rates by 22% and are asking forgiveness of $45 million of debt.
The plot thickens. CIFG, the now defunct bond insurer, guaranteed the $83.6 million 2006 bonds when they were issued (and when they were rated “AAA”). The underlying rating on the bonds was then “BBB” by Standard and Poor’s, lowered to “BB” in August, 2009 following disclosure of the district’s difficulties. CIFG is now in runoff and as part of the bond insurer’s workout, Assured Guaranty entered into a reinsurance agreement for the troubled company’s $13 billion municipal portfolio. Assured Guaranty, as agent for CIFG said “no” to the district’s workout plan. They would like to see rates go up enough to cover their obligations, without debt forgiveness.
BTW, Iowa is one of those states that do not permit municipalities to file bankruptcy. So what happens now?
For bondholders to claim an Assured Guaranty payment on default, the reinsured CIFG bonds have to be “novated” which is an insurance term for extinguishing the original CIFG policy and issuing a new Assured Guaranty policy.
The process began on an optimistic note. Assured Ltd’s president and CEO, Dominic Federico said in October 2008, announcing the deal:
Public finance investors will benefit from an upgrade of the rating on their investment if they agree to the novation of their current policy with CIFG NA, and we look forward to helping them make the novation process as quick and efficient as possible.
Three months later, Assured sounded a far less confident and far more measured:
The novation process for each covered policy will be determined in conjunction with representatives for each underlying insured credit based on the applicable legal requirements and the particular facts and circumstances of each such insured credit. There can be no assurance as to the timing of the novation process or whether an insured credit will be successfully novated.
Then New York State Insurance Commissioner Eric Dinallo was more upbeat. He stated in January 2009:
We expect that the municipal bonds currently insured by CIFG will go from junk to the highest investment grade. This will result because the bonds will be reinsured by and are intended to be novated to Assured Guaranty Corp, meaning that Assured will replace CIFG as the insurer…
But the novation process is taking far longer than expected. According to last week’s Bond Buyer the “vast majority” of bonds have yet to be novated. One has to assume the bondholders have every reason to be cooperative in this process. As of this morning the Xenia bonds were still rated “BB” by Standard and Poor’s. S&P rates Assured “AAA” so these bonds have not been re-branded. Maybe Assured has an out on the novation, given Xenia’s now non-investment grade rating.
If the bonds are just reinsured and not novated, any payment that CIFG recoups from Assured via the reinsurance agreement could just go into the big, black CIFG pot and not to bondholders.
Meanwhile, back on the farm, customers are none too happy with the prospect of 63% higher water rates. Ratepayers, who include rural residents as well as numerous franchise communities, are busily looking into ways to get off the system. Heavy attrition would make achieving revenue targets only that much more difficult.