Expensive Sewer Drives County to Bankruptcy

In 1993, Jefferson County, Alabama issued $3 billion in bonds to pay for a sewer system that would serve 150,000 people. Today, their financial situation is so bad they've stopped paying creditors and are close to declaring bankruptcy.
August 13, 2009, 2pm PDT | Tim Halbur
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Governing reports on a series of poor decisions that lead to the county's woes.

"As sewer rates rose to meet those costs and Jefferson County struggled under its debt, county officials looked for a way to lessen its loan payments. In 2002 and 2003, they refinanced their bonds with variable-rate and auction-rate securities. Auction-rate securities are bonds where the interest rate is reset by auctions conducted by brokerage firms every few weeks. 'It's a little like someone buying a house and getting a pretty good 30-year fixed-rate mortgage,' says Christopher 'Kit' Taylor, former executive director of the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board. 'Then somebody says, 'Why don't you get an adjustable-rate mortgage?''"

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Published on Thursday, August 13, 2009 in Governing Magazine
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