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After a Year-Long Struggle, Joplin Keeps Its Finances on the Conservative Side

CHICAGO — As Joplin moved into recovery mode following the devastating tornado that ripped through the southwest Missouri city a year ago, finance director Leslie Jones had the added burden of not just worrying over how best to help the struggling community but also how to manage the financial toll.

“I was very worried, yes, but you still have to take care of your citizens first,” Jones said last week as the city marked the anniversary of the category F-5 tornado that struck on May 22.

It cut a swath through the town, taking 161 lives, injuring more than 900, and destroying more than 8,000 homes and businesses, the city’s high school, and a hospital. More than one-third of the city’s 50,000 residents were forced to relocate. It was the one of the deadliest and costliest tornados on record.

After the removal of three million cubic yards of debris, Joplin now has issued more than 600 new home permits and more than 3,000 for repairs. Retail businesses including the Home Depot and a Wal-Mart have reopened. Schools will be repaired and rebuilt with bonding support approved by voters last month.

The storm exacted $2.8 billion in damages, with about $2 billion expected to be recovered through insurance and federal, state and other taxpayer aid reaching $500 million, according to published reports.

With a mass rebuilding now underway, Joplin’s balance sheet weathered the impact through a combination of factors. The city’s conservative fiscal philosophy, a general fund balance bolstered by the fortuitous collection of sales tax revenues earmarked for new fire stations, state and federal help, and a national outpouring of generosity all helped the city manage.

“If it were not for the donated resources, it would not be the same story,” said Jones, who has managed Joplin’s finances for 17 years.

Donated resources totaled $17.7 million and the city receives a partial federal credit for those volunteer-related costs to help cover its own expenses.

Because of donations, insurance, and state and federal help, officials expect to see little out-of-pocket expenses. While it incurred $94 million in costs for cleanup, demolition and other work, its bill was whittled down to $9 million through outside assistance.

Under federal emergency management guidelines, the federal government covers 75% of such expenses. The state picks up 10% of the remaining funding and the city is responsible for 15%. The city was able to count some of the donated services to help receive additional federal reimbursements.

Two city fire stations, several fire trucks and police cars were also damaged along with some infrastructure. Insurance will cover much of the rebuilding costs in addition to aid.

Officials also expect to see a bump in sales tax collections — which account for 50% of general fund operating revenues — tied to the purchase of building materials and the temporary influx of volunteers and workers in the area.

For many governments ravaged by a natural disaster, liquidity can be a struggle. Joplin’s near-term woes were eased by a healthy and unreserved $24 million fund balance that equated to 92% of general fund revenues.

The city adheres to a reserve policy of 25% of GF revenues. “We have always been conservative and lived by pay-as-you-go. We had the extra revenues in our general fund balance for a reason,” Jones said.

Joplin had previously won voter support for a public safety sales tax to build a $5 million training center and two new fire stations. Those revenues had already begun flowing into the general fund.

Ahead of the city’s recent $4.3 million refunding of certificates of participation, Standard & Poor’s in February affirmed the city’s AA-minus rating and stable outlook on its COPs, and its AA issuer credit rating and stable outlook.

“The rating reflects the city’s role as a regional retail and service center for approximately 400,000 residents, adequate income levels, conservative fiscal policies that have historically resulted in balanced operations and what we consider very strong reserves, and low debt burden and no additional debt plans,” the agency wrote.

Joplin’s assessed value has remained mostly intact, falling by 2.3% in 2011, to $737.8 million. Estimated market value following the tornado totals $2.89 billion, or a still strong $57,229 per capita, the rating agency reported. City unemployment remains below the state and federal average, despite many large employers being affected by the super twister.

“We expect that Joplin’s far-reaching retail base will continue to attract local spending, which, combined with the ongoing boost from the rebuilding efforts, should support steady sales tax revenues, thereby helping the city maintain its very strong reserves,” S&P analysts wrote. They cautioned that the rating could be strained “should reserves see any significant decreases as a result of an inability to maintain close to balanced operations.”

For the school system, which lost its high school and saw nine other schools damaged or destroyed, the immediate focus was on getting facilities open on time. The goal was accomplished by using an empty school, warehouse space and space in a shopping mall. The district reports that 92% of 7,500 students returned.

School district voters in April approved $62 million of borrowing authority to cover the district’s share of a $185 million rebuilding program.

The district may tap the authority in multiple issues “to match our cash-flow schedule,” said Paul Barr, the district’s chief financial officer. He expects to enter the market as soon as mid-to-late July.

The school system, formally known as Jaspar County R-VIII School District, lost four of its 19 buildings, and another six were damaged. Total district damages are estimated at over $150 million.

As the district crafted its rebuilding program, dubbed Operation Rising Eagle, it also decided to undertake other building projects on the drawing board that were unrelated to the damage.

Officials anticipate insurance will cover $85.9 million of the proposed capital program, with preliminary estimates of $35.4 million coming from state and federal sources, and $1.7 million in donations.

Federal funds cover 75% of qualified projects, but not all expenses — such as planned improvements to the rebuilt schools — are covered.

Missouri will kick in 10% to cover the local share. The district will formally begin construciton on several building projects this summer and expects to have several schools ready by December 2013 and the high school ready in August 2014.

President Obama and Gov. Jay Nixon addressed the high school graduating class last week. “The story of Joplin is the story of what happened the next day. And the day after that. And all the days and weeks that followed,” Obama told the class.

Despite the strain, the district has held on to its A-plus underlying issuer rating from S&P on $68 million of debt. The district had healthy ending balance levels at the time of the tornado and was able to tap them to manage cash flow as it awaited aid and insurance reimbursement.

Standard & Poor’s said district reserves were a positive factor in an October report affirming the credit, but analysts raised some concern that ongoing cleanup and rebuilding challenges could strain the system.

After budgeting for the cost of temporary school buildings, and possible reductions in state and local revenues, officials projected tapping about $4.8 million from reserves in fiscal 2012 to cover expenses.

The tornado wrecked the 367-bed St. John’s Regional Mercy Center, operated by the Sisters of Mercy. The hospital is being demolished and the site is being donated to the city to house a new school and for other public uses such as a memorial or park.

A temporary facility is being operated in Joplin and a new hospital is being built three miles away and is expected to open in 2015.

Moody’s Investors Service rates the Mercy system Aa3. St. John’s represents just 4% of the system’s total operating revenues, so the impact was minimal on the overall system that collected $4.3 billion in revenue in fiscal 2011. The new St. John’s will be financed with a combination of insurance proceeds, fundraising and potential federal reimbursement.

Six months after the tornado that destroyed St. John’s, Freeman Health System in Joplin sold $25 million of bonds, primarily to fund additional beds needed to meet a surge in demand for its services. The bonds were rated BBB-plus with a negative outlook by Standard & Poor’s.

Proceeds are financing a series of projects at Freeman Hospital West’s tower to support the buildout of its mostly vacant fifth and sixth floors.

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