Last month Moody’s Investor Service – the nation’s premier credit rating organization – assigned Cranberry Township a rating of Aaa, their highest level. It came because we were about to go into the bond market for money to finish upgrading our wastewater treatment plant and do a few smaller capital projects. Whenever you go into the bond market, your credit rating gets reviewed.
We hadn’t actually expected to get a credit increase. We already had Moody’s next highest rating, Aa1, which allowed us to borrow at very favorable rates, and we were happy with that. But now, with our new top-level ranking, we can borrow at even better rates, which is a great advantage to both the Township and our sewer system ratepayers. So it’s very good news, and it puts us right up there with a handful of the most creditworthy municipalities in Pennsylvania – all the others being wealthy Philadelphia suburbs.
But the reasons Moody’s gave for Cranberry’s upgrade – a growing, diverse tax base, a well-managed and robust financial position with healthy reserves and a modest debt burden – are not the norm for Pennsylvania, whose own bonds were given an Aa3 rating at the end of last year – three steps below Cranberry’s rating, making it significantly more expensive for the state to borrow money. That’s because what’s normal for Pennsylvania is political, not practical. Basing financial decisions on the long-term health of the Commonwealth and its taxpayers means having the courage to balance the state’s on-going expenditures with real, legitimate, recurring revenue sources. Regrettably, that’s not the way Pennsylvania does business. Here’s how Moody’s put it in evaluating the state’s credit:
This report “recognizes the Commonwealth’s chronic late budgets, which reflect a political gridlock that has made it difficult for the Commonwealth to chart a sustainable long-term fiscal path. The Commonwealth is likely to struggle to balance its budget annually as its pension contributions ramp up and expenditures grow more quickly than revenues.” Ouch! And it isn’t much better at the federal level, either.
But that’s not how it works in Cranberry. We have studied the life-cycles of other municipalities to understand which factors which lead a community into financial difficulties. What we found is that avoiding crises in another 10 or 20 years requires two things: continuous investment in local infrastructure and staying away from any legacy employee costs that aren’t required by state law. But whenever you make investments, you need to pay for them. So we raise our tax rates as well as our sewer, water and solid waste fees whenever there’s a compelling case for making such investments. Of course, nobody likes tax or rate increases. But the alternative would be to kick the can until a major crisis hits and then slam taxpayers and ratepayers with huge increases. However, management by crisis is a lousy way to run a government.
Our goal is to create a community that is vibrant both today and into the future. So, in addition to roadways, sewer, water and other basic infrastructure, we invest in our parks, library, and recreational assets as well as advocating for quality public education.
Even with all those investments, our tax and utility rates remain below the average of comparable communities. That’s because we place a great deal of emphasis on doing what we do as cost effectively as possible. We build partnerships to deliver services to our residents. They include our sports associations, our volunteer fire company, and Community Chest, CTCC. We require developers to create a sustainable sense of place. We constantly work to bring back a fair share of the county, state and federal tax dollars our residents pay. And yet Cranberry’s own property taxes average less than two months of cable service.
Our Board of Supervisors governs for the long haul, avoiding short-term gains at the cost of long-term benefits. Doing that involves investing where we must and then paying the associated bills. That’s how Cranberry earned an Aaa rating – a score we like to believe validates our pragmatic approach to local government.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about local government financing. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org