County gets A+ credit rating

It’s been nearly 30 years since Madera County received a general credit rating, but earlier this month, its financial status changed with an A+ rating from Standard & Poor’s.

That grade - heralded by officials as an indicator of improved fiscal health - is estimated to save taxpayers $500,000, with the potential for increased savings at a later date.

Also, the county can apply for additional grants, some valued for millions of dollars and delayed at least 15 years due to financial instability.

Madera County Chief Administrative Officer Eric Fleming said the rating’s primary benefit is to refinance payments on the four-story Madera County Government Center - about $1.7 million a year - at a lower rate.

“By restructuring those payments right now we get a better interest rate,” Fleming said. “We’ll be able to save around half a million dollars as we pay off the remaining 10 years.”

He said the county’s only other major source of debt, per S&P standards, is the new sheriff’s office.

“We’re already working on possibly getting those reduced as well,” Fleming said of the building’s $720,000 annual payments for the next 25 years. “If the rating can help bring the interest rate down we’ll certainly be able to get that principal balance paid quicker.”

The sheriff’s department is scheduled to open its new office at 8 a.m. Friday, on 2725 Falcon Drive near the City of Madera.

S&P focused on seven factors before it issued the rating, and praised the county on most of them, including: strong fiscal management; a low amount of debt; and a solid budgetary performance, with a surplus of more than $4 million in the county’s approved budget of 2015-2016.

“We believe the rating could be raised during the next two years if the county’s local economy score improves,” the report added.

Some problematic areas in the report, however, included a double-digit unemployment rate, which has declined to 9.5% in June per federal data.

Fleming said despite that, the report demonstrated the stalwart efforts of government staff to improve the county’s financial health, after the county went into crisis in 2009 and was forced to implement employee furlough days, among other cutbacks, per a national economic recession.

“I truly believe and know this was a team effort,” Fleming said. “It started with the (board of supervisors), which is a fiscally conservative board and that’s critical in direction to staff ... this benefits everyone. We get to have solid positions, furloughs can go away, we’ve been working hard a long time, and we’re bouncing back.”

One area a likely problem in previous years was the county’s insitutional framework, or its ability to file federal audits on time, which has been corrected.

For 15 years, that process was delayed as the county’s elected auditor-controller position consistently rotated between appointed accountants unable to fulfill their auditing duties.

But after the election of Oakhurst’s Todd Miller in November, all those problems have since been squashed, and the county’s audit, filed in April, was on time.

“We did our job,” Miller said. “We did what we were supposed to do ... I have an excellent staff, and given direction, they did the work. They deserve the credit.”

Miller said beyond the county’s lowered debt payments, because the credit rating allows for added grant applications, some county officials were “ecstatic” at the potential to access new funds.

One in particular, the Community Development Block Grant can, if approved, award the county $3 million for affordable housing, improved infrastructure, and anti-poverty programs.