Nov 14 - Fitch Ratings assigns an 'AA' to the following Matanuska-Susitna Borough, Alaska (the borough) bonds: --$12.9 million general obligation (GO) transportation system bonds, 2012 series D. The bonds are scheduled to be sold via negotiation on Nov. 28-29, 2012. In addition, Fitch affirms the following ratings: --$268.9 million outstanding GO bonds at 'AA'. The Rating Outlook is Stable. SECURITY General obligations of the borough under a full faith and credit pledge. The borough is obligated to levy ad valorem taxes upon all taxable property for the payment of bond principal and interest, without limitation as to rate or amount. Eligible for state reimbursement, subject to annual appropriation. KEY RATING DRIVERS STRONG FINANCIAL MANAGEMENT: The borough's financial performance is strong, benefitting from sound fiscal policies and ample reserves that grew throughout the national economic downturn. PLANNED GENERAL FUND BALANCE DRAWDOWN: While the borough's unrestricted general fund balance was a robust 61% of spending at the end of fiscal 2011, it is estimated to have declined to a still strong 41% in fiscal 2012 to fund pay-as-you-go capital projects and to avoid mill rate increases. A further decline to 34% is budgeted in fiscal 2013 with the expectation that actual results will outperform budget and that the borough would continue to adhere to its 25% reserves policy. LIMITED POPULATION AND ECONOMY: The borough's economy is inherently constrained by a relatively small population base and the seasonality of some local economic activity. The economy has gradually expanded and diversified, slowly reducing this concern, but it remains the key factor limiting the rating. MILD RECESSION: Job creation, population growth, and assessed value (AV) gains continued throughout the recession, in marked contrast to most of the nation, and the unemployment rate is now lower than the nation's. STRONG DEBT PROFILE: The debt burden is low after netting out debt supported by the state of Alaska and amortizes rapidly. WHAT COULD TRIGGER A RATING ACTION EROSION OF GENERAL FUND BALANCE: Given the inherently constrained nature of the borough's population and economy, drawing down the borough's unrestricted general fund balance too close to the 'AA' median could trigger negative rating action, as surplus financial cushion is integral to the assigned rating. CREDIT PROFILE ONGOING ECONOMIC DIVERSIFICATION The borough is located in south-central Alaska, approximately 40 miles northeast of the business district of Anchorage. The borough covers 25,265 square miles and has the fastest growing population in the state. It is now the third most populous Alaska municipality. While the borough is the largest agricultural producer in Alaska, the local economy began expanding in the early 1990s, diversifying into other types of commercial enterprises, including tourism, health care, and retail. Major economic and employment developments are underway related to the large Goose Creek Correctional Center, Port MacKenzie, and expansion of tourism infrastructure. As with other Alaska communities, the borough experienced a relatively muted version of the national economic downturn. The preliminary September 2012 unemployment rate was down to 7.1%, continuing to trend higher than the state (6.4%) but now lower than the nation (7.6%). A significant number of local workers commute to part-time jobs in Alaska's northern oil fields, boosting the ongoing level of joblessness. The borough's socio-economic characteristics are relatively robust with median household income at 130% of the national level and per capita money income at 102% of the national average. The individual poverty rate of 9.9% is in line with the state rate (9.5%) and noticeably lower than the national rate (13.8%). The tax base has grown consistently over many years, although growth slowed due to the recession. Taxable AV increased 2.1% and 1.8% in fiscal years 2012 and 2013 respectively to $8.5 billion, an improvement from growth of less than 2% in 2010 and 2011. The tax base's performance compares favorably with many other U.S. municipalities that experienced tax base erosion in recent years, but AV growth remains well below the double-digit percentage gains enjoyed in the middle of the last decade. Ongoing new residential and commercial construction continues to gradually boost AV. Taxpayer concentration is not a concern with the top 10 payers representing only 4.4% of taxable AV and including a healthy variety of retail, health care, tourism, utility, and energy related concerns. FUNDAMENTALLY STRONG FINANCIAL RESULTS BUT DECLINING GENERAL FUND BALANCES The borough's general fund balance grew annually between fiscal years 2006 and 2011. Fiscal 2011 ended with an unrestricted general fund balance of $64.4 million, up 13.8% from an unreserved fund balance of $56.6 million the year prior. While still very strong, the projected fiscal 2012 unrestricted general fund balance of $54 million (41.1% of spending per the amended budget) represents a significant decline. This drawdown is largely due to pay-as-you-go capital expenditures (for which reserves were specifically set aside) and maintenance of mill rates at their current levels. While there is further budgeted unrestricted general fund balance erosion in fiscal 2013 to $43.6 million (33.6% of spending), the borough expects actual performance to be higher than budgeted. Even at this lower unrestricted general fund balance level, the district outperforms Fitch's median for 'AA' rated counties (27%). Fiscal 2013 general fund revenues are coming in stronger than expected particularly due to state funding over and above amounts already budgeted. Despite the above-noted drawdowns, Fitch expects reserves to remain robust due to conservative budgeting and strong financial management policies. By borough assembly policy, the borough must maintain a general fund reserve of at least 25% of all budgeted operating expenditures (excluding the school district). Failure to maintain a strong financial cushion and adhere to reserve policies would place pressure on the borough's GO bond rating. Fitch considers labor agreement constraints could affect the borough's future expenditure flexibility. The borough's labor agreements do not contain salary reopeners and do not allow the borough to unilaterally suspend or eliminate contracted salary and wage increases. These labor agreements also require future year wage increases, no lay-offs, and binding arbitration. More positively, they do not prohibit furloughs and do not require consideration of regional compensation in salary and wage adjustments. MANAGEABLE DEBT BURDEN The borough's debt burden is low after taking into account state support, largely for school district debt. Total net debt including overlapping jurisdictions is moderate at $3,189 per capita or 3.2% of market valuation without adjustments for state support. The borough is financially accountable for a legally separate school district which is reported separately within the borough's financial statements. The overall net debt burden drops to a low $1,226 per capita or 1.2% of market valuation after taking state debt reimbursement for eligible bonds into account. Debt amortization is above average with approximately 62% of bonds repaid in 10 years and all bonds repaid in 20 years. Even after a planned $141.9 million in additional bond issuances in 2013 and 2014, Fitch projects that the per capita debt burden would remain low after state reimbursement. Pension obligations and other post-employment benefits (OPEBs) are a significant but manageable expense. The borough routinely makes its full annually required contributions to the Alaska Public Employees Retirement System, the Supplemental Benefits System, and the Alaska Teachers Retirement System. The state is responsible for any shortfall if the annually required contribution rate needs to be in excess of 22% of payroll.