Fitch Ratings has upgraded the Cook County Forest Preserve District’s general obligation debt to AA-minus from A-plus in recognition of improved finances.

The district’s upgrade provides a rare piece of good financial news for Cook County, which has suffered a round of downgrades in the last several months amid economic and fiscal problems. The forest preserve feature 68,000 acres of parks.

The district’s strong financial operations are supported by a 15% unreserved fund balance policy and low direct debt burden, according to Fitch. The district has roughly $115 million in outstanding GO debt.

The forest preserve’s strengths are somewhat challenged by the weak economy of county and its governance by the Cook County Board of Commissioners, said Fitch analyst Melanie Shaker.

“A separation of the board is currently under consideration by the Illinois Senate; Fitch believes this would allow great autonomy for the district, a positive credit factor,” she wrote. “The district’s ability to maintain its healthy financial resources is key to maintaining the rating.”

The forest district has enjoyed operating surpluses since 2003 when its management implemented strong cost controls and privatized its golf courses. The district expects to end 2009 with another small surplus, Fitch noted.

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