Mecklenburg County keeps coveted AAA bond rating

Mecklenburg County kept its coveted AAA bond rating from one of three major credit ratings firms, a sign that the county’s financial position is stronger than it was before the recession, County Manager Dena Diorio said Tuesday.

The rating was affirmed by Fitch Ratings, which reviews the county’s financial outlook every two years.

Fitch said Mecklenburg enjoys a “robust economy,” smaller debt and strong financial operations. The firm gave the county’s financial picture a stable outlook, largely because of its banking center and growing energy sector.

Since the banking crisis of 2008, when thousands lost their jobs, economic development recruiters have worked to draw a more diverse slate of companies to Mecklenburg, focusing on the energy and healthcare sectors.

“Mecklenburg County’s economy benefits from a substantial financial sector and associated professional services,” Fitch said in a release. “A growing presence in the energy sector complements a diverse employment base that includes high technology and healthcare.

“Prospects for continued economic expansion are excellent.”

Keeping the top rating allows the county to get the best interest rates when it borrows money. It is considered a sign of a community’s financial health.

Diorio said the county is planning a bond sale in early 2015 and that Mecklenburg would visit the other two major ratings firms – Moody’s Investors Services and Standard and Poor’s – at that time.

“This shows we’ve come a very long way (since the recession),” Diorio said in a brief interview. “It was a positive report. It shows the decisions we made through the recession put us in a stronger financial position than we were before the recession.”

Mecklenburg has long held the AAA rating, but was in danger of being downgraded by Fitch in 2009 in the thick of the recession. Two years later, the county was among 162 local governments notified by Moody’s that it was under review for a possible downgrade.

During the recession, former County Manager Harry Jones and Diorio, who was Jones’ finance director, put the county on a “debt diet” by delaying construction projects to preserve the rating.

Diorio said Fitch was impressed by Mecklenburg’s unemployment of about 6.4 percent, which is about even with the state average, whereas it was once significantly higher.

“They liked it that the economy has really rebounded here, and that’s reflected in their report,” she said. “Our reserves are bigger, our debt level is lower. We have more flexibility in the budget to more more things. Those are all indications of a robust economy.”