Smith: County's high rating a real bragging point

Smith: County's high rating a real bragging point

August 26th, 2013 By Robin Smith in Opinion Columns

Robin Smith

Photo by Contributed Photo/Times Free Press.

Since 2010, there have been 36 municipal bankruptcy filings in our nation -- a sign of the failing economy. Massive financial deficits due to excessive spending, declining revenue, and an ineffectiveness of many local government leaders to implement policies that reform and rescue are much too common.

Drum roll, please. There's great news for us here in Southeast Tennessee.

Hamilton County's government is the only county in the entire state of Tennessee recognized by all three major credit ratings agencies -- Moody's, Standard & Poor's and Fitch -- as having achieved a AAA rating based on several stringent criteria.

Out of 95 Tennessee counties, one stands above the rest in meeting the high bar of distinction as having the "Extremely Strong" capacity to meet its financial commitments -- with the emphasis added by the overseeing agencies.

The second county to hold a triple A rating, only by the single agency, Moody's, is Williamson County, home to Franklin, Brentwood, and many of the state's business leaders and country music stars.

So how did our county achieve such high marks in economic times that include high unemployment, high underemployment and unprecedented uncertainties in the regulatory and policy arenas?

As explained on the www.HamiltonTN.gov website, the "Key Drivers" are:

• A strong fiscal profile -- Consistently high reserves arise from the "county's sound fiscal management practices."

• Encouraging economic prospects -- The increasing presence of health care, insurance, higher education, manufacturing and transportation increases the "employment base" and reflects "the county's regionally important economy."

• Superior debt management -- Possessing "manageable borrowing plans," a projection for population growth, underpinned by "traditionally strong financial operations" with a "below average debt burden."

As my young adult children say, "Boom!" For all of you over 40 years of age, that's a verbal exclamation point.

In speaking with Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger and his staff about this stellar accomplishment, despite the dreadful headlines shouting the financial demise of the cities of Detroit and Stockton, Calif., along with Jefferson County, Ala., home to Birmingham, it's abundantly clear that this was a deliberate process that included a tremendous amount of discipline, commitment and long-range planning.

In the late 1980s, our county restructured its debt payoff from 20 to 15 years, a short-term sacrifice yielding long-term payoff and even a mention in Fitch's October 2011 report declaring a stable outlook, decades later.

Around 1998, then-Mayor Claude Ramsey and his team pursued specific answers on the missing ingredients to obtain this desired rating followed by a detailed strategy to achieve the goal.

The obstacle that prevailed for many years was the "local economy" and its "dependence upon one industry" or a limited portfolio of business options.

Finally, in February of 2010, one agency, Standard & Poor's, awarded the difficult-to-achieve triple A rating, with the other two, Moody's and Fitch, following closely behind.

Years of focus, hard work, budgetary restraint, and leadership with vision have made Hamilton County the most stable and credible environment for businesses and investment in the state of Tennessee.

The expectations of excellence of our county's residents are heard in Mayor Coppinger's response to Hamilton County's accolades as "an affirmation of the fiscally conservative way we run Hamilton County government."

Margaret Thatcher's "fundamental truth" regarding government funds should boost our trust in our local leadership: "The state has no source of money other than the money people themselves earn."

At least our county mayor, his staff and our County Commission understand accountability and basic principles of the stewardship of our hard-earned tax dollars.

For that, we say, "ThAAAnk you!"

Robin Smith served as chairwoman of the Tennessee Republican Party from 2007 to 2009. She is a partner at the SmithWaterhouse Strategies business development and strategic planning firm.