New water tower financing – Who assumes risk?

There is a big risk factor looming in November that could profoundly impact the direction of our economy. Minnetrista will be relying on revenues coming from current and future water users to finance a new $2.3M water tower in the southern sector and while we’ve been enjoying a robust growth period with a booming housing market, what if all that comes to a halt? We’ve seen what happened in 2008 and elections are known to impact the economy in profound ways.

The city council has heard from financial consultants, engineering firms, and staff urging

water tower

the city to act now but none of them are Minnetrista taxpayers. They are stakeholders benefiting, directly or indirectly, from issuing the bond, constructing the tower, or growing the city’s debt and size of the city’s budget. That’s just a fact, but an important fact to consider. They are all competent and good at what they do but their interests are, understandably, their interests.

Don’t get me wrong, we need to build the water tower and we need to do it soon. Our growth numbers show that by 2030, if growth continues at the current rate, we won’t be able to service the southern sector adequately. But it takes about 2 years to get a water tower online and there is no imminent crisis, despite what some stakeholders may assert.

There are two possible ways, with some very important differences, to finance this project. The council, however, was advised Monday night to consider only the first:

  • General Obligation (G.O.) Bonds – Pledge the full faith & credit of the city and require the city to use whatever means possible, including increasing the citywide tax levy, to cover the debt. These are called “General” obligation bonds because they are typically used to finance projects that benefit the general community at large, not just a sector of it. In this case, however, this project only benefits city water users. With a G.O. bond the entire Minnetrista tax base assumes the risk of whether our housing growth and associated water revenue increases at a sufficient rate to cover the bond.
  • Revenue Bonds – Finance income-producing projects and are secured by a specified revenue source, in this case water fees and new connection charges. A revenue bond would rely solely on the revenue coming from water fees to pay for the bond without putting the “full faith & credit” of all Minnetrista taxpayers on the line. That means the city would not be required to increase the tax levy to cover the debt if, for any reason, future water fees weren’t enough. Revenue bonds put the risk on the investor purchasing the bonds rather than all Minnetrista property owners, regardless of whether they’re on city water.

My preference was to hold off on authorizing the bond issuance until after the November elections when the risk associated with our growth projections might be better understood. If it appears the economy will remain on track going forward, a G.O. bond may be a good option then. Considering the economic uncertainly that lies ahead I am not comfortable pledging the full faith and credit of the entire city on a G.O. bond today. A revenue bond wouldn’t do that and is the only responsible choice today, in my opinion, to protect Minnetrista property owners.

Unfortunately the council succumbed to the pressure and voted 4-1 Monday night to pass a resolution (pg 57) amended to provide for the sale of $2.5M in G.O. bonds ($2M for the tower; $500K for CIP) with plans to award the sale of the G.O. bonds on March 9, 2020.

I’ll need to update this debt chart:

debt growth
2016 Includes all debt types, levied and unlevied (revenue pledged)

*The narrative in this post is publicly available by viewing the Monday 2/3/2020 council meeting video and listening to the 2/3/2020 work session recording.

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