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Moody's: Massachusetts Municipalities' Credit Quality Strong

Local governments in Massachusetts still face significant fiscal strain, but most have managed their challenges well, Moody’s Investors Service said Monday in a special report.

“The state is among the wealthiest in the country, with income levels that exceed those of most other states, and an unemployment rate that has consistently been below the nation through the recession and recovery,” said Moody’s. “In addition, most Massachusetts local governments are not highly leveraged, resulting in modest direct debt burden.”

Given the slow pace of recovery both nationally and in Massachusetts, the maintenance of long-term financial health and credit strength in the Bay State hinges on how communities manage such problems as spikes in long-term pension liabilities, potential federal cuts in defense, research and health care, modest to no growth in state aid and narrower reserve levels, the rating agency said.

“Over the medium term, we believe many local governments will continue to draw on their residents’ high wealth and historical support of government services to provide property tax growth and in some cases overrides of Proposition 2-1/2 to sustain credit strength,” Moody’s added.

Proposition 2-1/2 refers to two property tax limits voters adopted in a 1981 statewide referendum. The law allows overrides through local voter referendums.

Moody’s, which maintains ratings on 228 cities and towns, one county, 37 school districts and 16 utility districts in the state, also reported that Massachusetts ratings are more stable than the U.S. as a whole. Its median rating is Aa3 for both U.S. and Massachusetts general obligation issuers.

“When compared to national medians, local governments in Massachusetts are wealthier, have lower debt burdens, and benefit from strong management practices at the state and local levels, although reserve positions for Massachusetts local governments are generally weaker than the national average,” Moody’s said.

Moody’s rates the state’s general obligation bonds Aa1, while Fitch Ratings and Standard & Poor’s each assign AA-plus.

At the state Treasury’s annual investor conference last month in Boston, Northeastern University’s Alan Clayton-Matthews said Massachusetts has outperformed the nation and the recovery to date.

“The basis of the state’s economic performance is its highly educated workforce, especially at the high end, which gives Massachusetts a powerful comparative advantage in the global economy,” said Clayton-Matthews, an associate professor at Northeastern’s school of public policy and urban affairs.

The conference drew investors from New England, New York, Chicago and California.

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