February 14, 2010 / 7:44 PM / 9 years ago

Harrisburg excludes debt payments from 2010 budget

PHILADELPHIA, Feb 14 (Reuters) - Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, moved a step closer to defaulting on a bond payment when its city council passed a 2010 budget that does not include $68 million in debt repayments on an incinerator.

Without the debt provision in the $65 million budget, the state capital may miss a March 1 payment of $2.072 million, a rarity for a municipal bond issuer.

Joyce Davis, a spokeswoman for Mayor Linda Thompson, confirmed the council’s decision — taken at a special session on Saturday — and said the mayor is not commenting for now on the implications of exclusion of the debt payments from the budget.

The council also defeated a plan to sell city assets to help pay down the debt which is guaranteed by the city on behalf of the Harrisburg Authority, a separate municipal entity that owns the incinerator. Council members also rejected Thompson’s plan to raise property taxes and water rates.

The $2.072 million payment is the latest installment on a $300 million bond owed on the construction of the incinerator. An additional $637,000 is due on April 1.

City Controller Dan Miller said last year’s payments on the incinerator were made from a debt service reserve fund that is now depleted.

Debt payments on the incinerator total $68 million in 2010, or more than the city’s general fund budget of about $60 million, Miller said.

Miller said on Feb. 9 he would “not be surprised” if Harrisburg fails to meet the March 1 payment.

Asked whether the city may file Chapter 9 bankruptcy as a way to get its debts under control, Miller said that was a “possibility.”

The tax-exempt municipal bond market, which states, cities and municipalities use to raise the funds to build roads, schools and hospitals, is viewed as very safe with a far lower default rate than the corporate bond market.

Just 54 municipal bond issuers rated by Moody’s Investors Service defaulted on their debt between 1970 and 2009, the agency said on Thursday. The average five-year historical cumulative default rate for investment-grade municipal debt was 0.03 percent in the period, compared with 0.97 percent for corporate issuers.

The recession has raised concerns of an increase in defaults as states, cities and towns struggle to balance budgets as required by law in all states except Vermont.

So far, however, those fears have not been realized and ratings agencies have played down the likelihood of a spike in defaults.

Fitch Ratings in January cautioned cities against using the threat of bankruptcy as a weapon to win concessions from labor unions. Even talk of bankruptcy can become self-fulfilling and undermines investor confidence in the market, it said.

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