A recent editorial suggested that Columbia County government might have been excessive in the number of people it sent to New York for an important bond-rating presentation. I would like to state my own personal views as a commissioner on why these people were all necessary to the process.
A bond rating is a symbol of a government's financial security and stability and they tend to follow a simple grading pattern (A, A , AA, etc). There are three primary agencies, all based in New York, that give these ratings to the various governing bodies. The better the rating, the easier it is for a government to sell bonds and raise capital.
The most recent trip by the Columbia County delegation resulted in one of the agencies giving our county the highest rating attainable of AAA, which basically means that they have tagged our government as a 0 percent financial risk to investors.
This designation does not just happen overnight, and they do not grant it just from reading financial documents. It is the result of continuing personal relationships between local government leaders and the ratings agencies.
The importance of having all five commissioners there is vital. The bond rating agencies want to meet the people making the decisions that run the county. Each of us had a part to play in the presentation, and I believe we each contributed to its success.
I would also like to stress that it is very good for the county to have the same leadership being re-elected for another four years. It shows stability, and in today's economic climate, bankers tend to not like change, especially when our record for the last few years has been exemplary and has made us the most financially secure county in Georgia.
The primary focus of the trip was to fund improvements to the water system. Therefore, it was crucial that Billy Clayton, our Water Utilities director be present. As the new county engineer, Matt Schlachter (who had never attended a bond-rating presentation) needed to be there to see the process because the next time he might be the one presenting a project.
Leanne Reece is our financial director, and her importance there is obvious, as well as that of County Administrator Steve Szablewski. Deputy Administrator Scott Johnson is the point-man on our new $18 million broadband project, which will be an income-producing asset to the community and will help prevent our property taxes from increasing in the future. County Clerk Erin Hall had also never attended a bond hearing before and it was important that she see the process in case she needed to fill in next time. It can be a little intimidating to sit at a Madison Avenue boardroom table - exposure to the process can help achieve the county's goals in the future.
Our attorney's presence was necessary to give a report on the legal security of the county as well as being there if any questions arose. Public relations coordinator Marilyn Heuer was there to help facilitate the actual presentation.
The point of the presentation was to build relationships with the agencies that rank government financial management and to show them we are well-run and financially responsible. I doubt that, had they thought that we were being extravagant by bringing too many people in an excessive show of expense, they would have been impressed enough to give us an increase to the highest rating possible. They seemed to think that we had exactly the right people in just the right number there.
Regardless of whether you approve of how we accomplished our objective, according to our financial advisors and the underwriters who arranged this trip for us, our approach for bringing the entire commission and key staff is more effective and impressive than other presentations that are not as organized and do not display that personal touch.
Fifteen years ago, Columbia County had a BB rating and had to spend tens of thousands of dollars in insurance for every bond we purchased to get a AAA rate. We would send a couple of commissioners and a few directors, and they would travel from ratings agency to ratings agency. Since switching to the current approach, where we meet with our underwriters and the agencies' representatives are brought to us, we have increased to a AAA rating and are now considered a safer risk than those same vendors who used to sell us insurance.
In addition, we are now only one of three counties in the entire state of Georgia to which Fitch grants a AAA rating, the others being over five times our size. The savings this will grant the county for years to come will number in the millions of dollars. I believe that warrants a small investment every year or so if it will continue to build on what we have already accomplished.
My wife would have loved for me to stay home and help her run our business, and I would have liked to have done so. At the time, we were understaffed and it was a particular hardship for me to leave her. I already attend a business convention every year in Manhattan for my store, and going to New York holds no allure for me. This was not a pleasure trip.
We are dealing with the financial future of our county. Let's not allow short-sightedness to make us penny-wise and pound-foolish. I am a proud conservative and I abhor government waste; it's one of the primary reasons why I ran for office. But there has to be some understanding that can be reached by people of common sense and good will.
Perhaps on the next trip we won't have to take the entire commission. Perhaps we can cut back the staff. But if we send fewer next time, it will be for the same reason we sent more this time: because it is in the best interest of the citizens of Columbia County.
(Trey Allen is Columbia County District 2 commissioner.)
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