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ESG U.S. Public Finance Report Card: Tri-State Region Governments And Not-For-Profit Enterprises

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ESG U.S. Public Finance Report Card: Tri-State Region Governments And Not-For-Profit Enterprises

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In this report, we analyze the environmental, social, and governance (ESG) credit factors for select U.S. public finance (USPF) government and not-for-profit enterprise issuers in the Tri-State region of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. The list of entities highlighted in this report is not exhaustive but rather illustrative more broadly of the region's key ESG risks and opportunities and our view of where issuers across different sectors are positioned relative to those risks and opportunities. Beginning March 30, 2020, S&P Global Ratings incorporated a summary paragraph in all issuer-level credit reports describing their comparative ESG risks and opportunities. Select ESG summary paragraphs from Tri-State area issuers are reproduced in the Appendix to this report.

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ESG In Credit Ratings

ESG risks and opportunities can affect an entity's capacity to meet its financial commitments, including debt service. S&P Global Ratings incorporates ESG considerations into its ratings methodologies and analytics, which enables analysts to integrate the qualitative and quantitative impacts throughout our credit analysis. Chart 1 shows an example of how we incorporate the most prevalent ESG risks and opportunities into our criteria frameworks. Strong ESG credentials do not necessarily indicate strong creditworthiness (see "Through the ESG Lens 2.0: A Deeper Dive into U.S. Public Finance Credit Factors," published April 28, 2020, on RatingsDirect, and "The Role Of Environmental, Social, And Governance Credit Factors In Our Ratings Analysis," Sept. 12, 2019).

Chart 1

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Our ESG report cards qualitatively explore the relative exposures (average, below, elevated) of UPSF issuers to ESG credit factors over the short, medium, and long term. Comparisons of ESG risks and opportunities are not an input to our credit ratings rather they are descriptors reflecting what is already incorporated into our current forward-looking opinion of credit risks. This report card lists ESG insights for select governments and not-for-profit entities, including how and why ESG factors may have had a more positive or negative influence on an entity's credit quality compared to sector peers or the broader sector. These comparative views of ESG factors are qualitative and established by analysts during analytic discussions and described in issuer-level credit reports, with the goal of providing more insight and transparency.

Broadly, environmental risks for the Tri-State region focuses on natural conditions, primarily related to severe weather events and the long-term effects of climate change including sea level rise. Additionally, where appropriate, such as for our power and utilities sectors, we also will focus on GHG emissions, including carbon dioxide, pollution, and waste, water and land usage. Long-term social risks include demographic trends as the region is exposed to population stagnation and outmigration, partially as a result of affordability concerns. Finally, our views on governance include the government framework and reflect an opportunity in this region. New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut each provide some level of oversight and support to distressed entities through statutory frameworks, which we generally incorporate into our Institutional Framework scores for state and local governments.

Environmental Risks - Elevated

USPF governments and not-for-profit enterprises in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut have coastal exposure along the Eastern Seaboard that includes some of the largest communities in the U.S. including a population of over 20 million in the metropolitan statistical areas of New York City and northern New Jersey as well as the cities of Stamford, New Haven, and Bridgeport in Connecticut. Although we view some portions of this region as having environmental risks above those of the sector, the risk could vary depending upon an entity's proximity to the coastline.

Typically the northern Atlantic is less exposed to severe weather events when compared to the southeast region where warmer water temperatures in the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico provide more thermal energy to sustain a storm's strength. However, in 2012, Superstorm Sandy caused significant damage in New York and New Jersey and the storm surge hit lower Manhattan, displacing residents and workers for several months. More recently, Hurricane Isaias led to major power outages in New Jersey and Connecticut causing disruptions for several weeks despite its designation as a category 1 storm, demonstrating the need for utilities to consider hardening assets to ensure greater reliability during severe storms.

Although there is a relatively small portion of the population exposed to a subsequent storm surge equal to the magnitude of Superstorm Sandy's 13-foot surge (see chart 2), property value within these areas is substantial as it includes portions of lower Manhattan and northern New Jersey where the average home price is about $500,000 according to Zillow.

Chart 2

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However, in response to Superstorm Sandy, various entities stepped up resilience and adaptation plans to help mitigate the elevated risk. We believe through regional planning, infrastructure initiatives and other adaptation efforts, the region can help buffer residents, preserve economic bases, and protect municipal facilities from the effects of climate change. Nonetheless, some issuers in the region are more exposed to environmental risks than others, as noted in our credit reports.

Social Risks- Elevated

We view the region's exposure to social risks as elevated when compared to other regions in the U.S. In the short-term, there is the impact from health and safety risks resulting from the pandemic; in the longer-term, there are the demographic trends including those stemming from population stagnation or decline and affordability concerns.

The Tri-State was once the epicenter of the pandemic in the U.S. with New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut together accounting for nearly 10% of cases in the U.S. Unlike other regions where restrictions were lifted more quickly, we believe the region's aggressive approach to curtailing the COVID-19 virus transmission rate, although important from a public health perspective, has negatively affected credit quality and could lead to a prolonged economic disruption. The virus transmission rate has largely slowed in the Tri-State, but the consensus among health experts is that it will remain a threat until a vaccine or effective treatment is widely available, which may not occur until the second half of 2021. Until then, elevated health and safety social risks may continue to pressure credit quality in the region.

The health and safety social risks stemming from the pandemic have cut across USPF asset classes in the Tri-State through reduced economic activity from stay-at-home orders, restrictions on domestic and international travelers, work-from-home requirements, financial liabilities associated with closing college campuses in the spring, and cancelation of elective surgeries at hospitals to preserve capacity to serve a surge in patient demand from the virus.

Our recent credit research has flagged the long-term social risks to the region from demographic changes (see "Increasing Generational Dependency Poses Long-Term Social Risks To U.S. States' Fiscal And Economic Stability," Feb. 24, 2020). In fact, the Tri-State area is disproportionately exposed to global aging, population shifts, affordability concerns, and an aging workforce.

In chart 2, we illustrate "old-age dependency ratio" or the number of persons age 65 and over divided by the labor force (age 15 to 64) as defined by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The map shows the projected trend in old-age dependency ratios over the next two decades based on IHS Markit Data. States are categorized based on how much their generational dependency is expected to increase: high--faster than 75% of all other states; moderate—the middle 50% of all states; and low--slower than 75% of all other states.

Chart 3

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Both New Jersey and Connecticut are expected to grow older and at a faster rate than 75% of all other states. Furthermore, according to the Census Bureau, the region's population has increased about 1% since 2010 with New York and New Jersey showing slight upticks while Connecticut declined by 0.2%. By comparison, the population of Texas has grown 15.3% since 2010. A fairly stagnant population, coupled with one that is aging more quickly will lead to budget pressure and challenges to attract and retain economic development as working-age adults migrate to other parts of the U.S. Furthermore, an aging population correlates with increasing medical costs as they usually peak late in life. Although this could bolster demand for not-for-profit health care providers, advanced medical technologies are getting more expensive and the federal government generally provides the most funding for retiree health care through Medicare, creating a payor mix that may be less favorable.

Affordability and revenue generating capability for governments and not-for-profit enterprises can also be challenged by a slow growing and aging population. Costs are spread across a smaller demand base, potentially making it more difficult to raise property taxes or utility rates to support services, fund deferred maintenance and capital projects, or pension and other postemployment benefit contributions.

Governance - Opportunity

In the Tri-State region, we view governance as an opportunity, particularly for local government entities. Generally the state's extraordinary support for its local governments under extreme fiscal or unusual distress is captured in the system support aspect of our Institutional Framework. We review these scores annually and each is considered 'strong' for Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey municipalities. More information on Institutional Framework scores is available in our "2019 Update of Institutional Framework for U.S. Local Governments," published Oct. 22, 2019.

Connecticut:  In response to a near bankruptcy by Hartford, the state implemented the Municipal Accountability Review Board (MARB), which was established under statute to provide technical, financial, and other assistance and related accountability for municipalities experiencing various levels of fiscal distress. Furthermore, MARB maintains municipal fiscal indicators, which provide key financial and demographic information on Connecticut's 169 municipalities that is annually compiled and made available for public consumption. MARB has approved three municipalities to participate that receive municipal restructuring funds appropriated in the state's budget: Hartford, West Haven, and Sprague. However, funds are contingent upon a participant's adherence to certain submission requirements to MARB including: monthly financial reports, annual budget documents, and planning documents detailing achievement of structural budgetary balance.

New York:  Similarly, the state has established several mechanisms in statute that provide oversight for distressed municipalities. The Office of the State Comptroller administers the Fiscal Stress Monitoring System, which is a point-in-time analysis of local governments and school districts annual financial statements providing a score that potentially serves as an early warning sign of fiscal stress. In addition, the creation of public benefit corporations under statute allow for certain entities to provide independent oversight as well as retain the responsibility to approve debt issuances and provide assistance for certain negotiations. Finally, in some cases the state has approved school districts and local governments to issue deficit bonds to eliminate shortfalls in return for enhanced reporting requirements including the state's annual review of the budget to ensure operations remain fiscally sound.

New Jersey:  The Department of Community Affairs, through the division of local government services, administers the transitional aid to localities program for distressed municipalities. Aid is subject to appropriation by the state and municipalities must apply through an annual competitive process. Recipient municipalities are required to submit to additional state oversight as well as implement cost controls and reforms that will reduce their reliance on this aid in the future. In fiscal 2020, the state budget recommended about $105 million in transitional aid and in fiscal 2018, four municipalities applied and received aid under the program.

Appendix

Select Paragraphs From The Most Recently Published Issuer-Level Reports That Represent Tri-State ESG Risks And Opportunities
Obligor Sector Rating Action Factor ESG paragraph
Environmental
Atlantic Beach, NY Local Government AA/Negative Downgraded from AA+/Stable Natural Conditions The downgrade reflects the environmental risks for Atlantic Beach that we view as being above those of peers given its geographic location on a barrier island on the Atlantic Ocean. Hurricane Sandy caused widespread damage, requiring the village to incur pay-as-you-go capital costs that have not yet been reimbursed. We view its governance risks and social risks as being in line with our view of the sector on the whole.
New York State Government AA+/Stable Our rating action incorporates our view regarding the health and safety risks posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Absent the implications of COVID-19, we consider the state's social risks in line with that of the sector as demographic trends in the state's Upstate region have been offset by strong growth in the New York City metropolitan area. Environmental risks are somewhat elevated for the state due to its exposure to rising sea levels on Long Island, New York City, and communities along the Great Lakes. The state proactively manages these risks and approved a $3 billion GO bond referendum (Restore Mother Nature Bond Act) for November 2020 that, if authorized, would fund resiliency projects around the state. We view the state's governance risks as being in line with the sector and it has historically maintained a strong management and policy framework to respond to developing risks.
New York City Local Government AA/Stable We believe the city benefits from a governance opportunity under the Financial Emergency Act that requires maintenance of a balanced budget and strong planning practices that mitigate risk and ensure that out-year budget gaps are addressed in the financial plan. In addition, we believe voter approval and passage of state legislation providing authority for the city to establish a formal "rainy day" reserve could bolster our view of the city's governance. But in some cases, political discord between the governor and mayor as well as with labor groups have led to challenges in prioritizing service demands and expenditures. We believe that these overall strengths and challenges are aligned with those of large city peers. We view the city's social risks as above the sector standard, including unrest stemming from recent protests, which have led to property damage and higher public safety costs that have pressured the city's budget and economy already suffering under the weight of the health and safety response to contain the spread of the virus. Furthermore, we believe the city's high cost of living and the effect of the pandemic have highlighted the city's disparity in housing affordability as well as access to and quality of health care and education that could lead to a longer-term fundamental shift in population trends. Finally, we believe the city's exposure to the coastline and the long-term effects of sea level rise and severe weather events leads to environmental risks above the sector standard but consistent with those of other coastal municipalities. The city has mitigated this risk by implementing various infrastructure projects to raise sea walls to protect vulnerable areas of the city and buffer residents from the effects of climate change. In addition, the city's initiatives to reduce its carbon footprint at its facilities as well as for new development are key aspects of its multipronged approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Atlantic County, NJ Local Government AA/Stable Incorporated into our rating are the environmental risks that we view as being above those of peers given the county's long coastline on the Atlantic Ocean. However, climate resilience efforts to ensure property values are protected from long-term sea-level rise and severe weather events are well-embedded in its long-term planning, and management continues to form helpful partnerships for beach replenishment, shoreline stabilization, and floodgate construction. Additionally, we view the county's alternative energy initiatives as an environmentally focused opportunity. New Jersey's first offshore wind farm will be 15 miles off Atlantic City's coast, the county is in discussions to host its second offshore wind farm, and multiple corporations are exploring opening alternative energy labs and offices in the county that could lead to economic development over the long term. We are aware of recent protests in the county centered in Atlantic City, which contribute to our view of an elevated social risk currently. We believe the protests and community unrest do not represent an immediate budget pressure for the county, but we will continue to monitor the longer term implications. We view governance risks as in line with our view of the sector standard.
New London, CT Local Government A+/Stable We evaluated the city's environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors relative to its economy, financial measures, management, and debt and long-term liability profile. Absent the implications of COVID-19 that could weaken the city's economy should the unemployment rate remain elevated for a protracted period, we consider its social risks in line with those of the sector. We view environmental risks and their potential effect on taxable properties as somewhat higher relative to peers, given the city's location on the Atlantic Ocean and Thames River. However, we understand the majority of the property exposed to sea-level rise in the next few years is largely park land, and management is working to mitigate potential future stormwater and rising sea-level pressures. We view its governance risks as in line with the sector.
Social
Metropolitan Transportation Authority Transit BBB+/Negative Downgraded from A-/Negative Health and Safety We analyzed the MTA's risks related to environmental, social, and governance factors and determined that, with the exception of social risks, all are in line with our view of the standard for mass transit. However, the MTA is exposed to social risks related to COVID-19-related social distancing requirements to promote health and safety that are already causing significant operating and financial pressures. We will continue to evaluate these risks as the situation evolves.
Downgraded from A/Negative Health and Safety
Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Airport A+/Negative Downgraded from AA-/Negative Health and Safety Our rating action incorporates our opinion regarding the health and safety risks posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, which we view as a social factor that is resulting in significant operating and financial pressures for the authority. We analyzed the PANYNJ's risks related to environmental and governance factors, and consider them to be in line with our view of the standard for the transportation infrastructure sector. We will continue to evaluate these risks as the situation evolves.
University of Rochester Higher Education AA-/Negative Outlook Revision from Stable Health and Safety The negative outlook reflects that, although we view the university's response to the COVID-19 pandemic as prudent, we believe risks posed by COVID-19 to public health and safety as a social risk under our ESG factors. Clinical volumes across the URMC system dropped as a result of the pandemic, resulting in lost net patient service revenue, which substantially weakened total operating results for fiscal 2020 and continue to pressure fiscal 2021 operations. In addition, the university faces elevated social risk due to the uncertainty about the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the unknown impact on fall 2020 enrollment levels. Despite the elevated social risk, we believe UR's environmental and governance risk are in line with our view of the sector as a whole.
New Jersey Economic Development Authority, Provident Group–Rowan Properties LLC Privatized Student Housing Project B/Negative Downgraded from BB+/CW Negative Health and Safety The rating action reflects our opinion of the operating pressure that faces Rowan Properties due to our view of the sudden loss of rental revenue as students vacated the residence facility following the onset of COVID-19. We view the risks posed by COVID-19 to public health and safety as a direct social risk under our ESG factors that support the downgrade because of the pandemic's uncertain duration. Due to COVID-19, Rowan University transitioned to remote learning to protect the health and safety of students and limit community spread. Despite elevated social risk, we think the project's environmental and governance risks are in-line with our view of the sector as a whole.
Downgraded from BBB-/Stable Health and Safety
Metropolitan Opera Not-for-Profit Organization BBB-/Negative Downgraded from A/Negative Health and Safety The rating action reflects our opinion of the liquidity pressures that the Met Opera faces due to the cancellation of the rest of the 2019/2020 season in response to New York's order on March 16, 2020, to postpone or cancel all events with 50 or more participants to protect the health and safety of residents and limit the social risks associated with the community spread of COVID-19 (the disease caused by the novel coronavirus).
Connecticut State Government A/Stable Our rating incorporates our view regarding the health and safety risks posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. S&P Global Ratings considers health and safety a social risk under our view of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors. Absent the social risks of COVID-19, we consider Connecticut to have elevated social risks compared to the sector given its older population and higher cost of living. These demographic trends could present long-term credit risks to the state's economic and budgetary performance. However, we believe Connecticut's historically strong management and policy framework will help manage this risk. Environmental risks are considered above those of other states due to its 618 miles of coastline along Long Island Sound. Connecticut's shoreline roads and communities are at risk from rising sea levels. However, we view the state's governance risks as being in line with the sector and it has historically maintained a strong management and policy framework to respond to developing risks.
New York City Municipal Water Authority Water Utility AAA/Stable NY Water is faced with a number of ongoing environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors that affect our analysis of the bond rating, all of which have been notably affected by the current recessionary environment exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, we believe that from a financial standpoint, NY Water is relatively well insulated, at least in the short term, from significant financial strain. In addition, other related risks that we will be assessing are any effects of deferrals or reprioritization of the city's capital improvement plan (CIP) on meeting environmental mandates. Despite the sheer size of the CIP, the New York Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has been extremely successful, in our view, in managing the myriad of projects to timeline and to budget, while still meeting or beating all deadline-certain requirements. One elevated social factor that directly affects NY Water's revenues is rate-raising flexibility. Management has the capacity and demonstrated willingness to adjust rates when necessary, evidenced by the water board having a long history of adjusting rates annually as needed. Due to the conservatism in budgeting, actual rate increases are typically less than originally forecast. We will continue to monitor the water board's appetite for additional rate increases, but we would note that the current rating is contingent on NYCMWFA continuing to support financial metrics largely consistent with historical trends, whether that support is generated from future rate increases, expense management, or both. The potential for near-term stress exacerbated by COVID-19 is factored into this contingency.
Governance
West Haven, CT Local Government BBB/Stable Our rating incorporates our view regarding the health and safety risks posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Absent the implications of COVID-19, we consider the city's social risks in line with those of the sector. Although rising sea levels pose a long-term risk for the city, we believe management continues to plan and implement resiliency efforts to help reduce the potential impact. Thus, we have analyzed the city's environmental factors and determined they are in line with our view of the sector standard for coastal communities. Governance factors have introduced risk in the past, but due to the oversight provided by MARB, we believe continued improvements to internal and financial controls will align governance factors with the sector as a whole over time.
Nassau County, NY Local Government A+/Stable We have analyzed the county's environmental, social, and governance risks relative to its economy, budgetary outcomes, management, and debt and long-term liability profile, and consider them to be in line with those of the sector despite the elevated health and safety social risk stemming from the pandemic that will affect sales tax, the county's largest source of operating revenue, and thus could lead to fiscal pressure over the next year or two, resulting in the county's use of its recently restored reserve position. Furthermore, we view the statutory framework providing for NIFA's oversight, including the requirement to approve debt issuances and provide assistance for certain negotiations, as a governance opportunity.
Rockland County, NY Local Government A+/Stable We have analyzed the county's environmental, social, and governance risks relative to its economy, budgetary outcomes and reserves, management, and debt and long term liabilities and consider them to be in line with those of the sector despite the elevated health and safety social risk stemming from the pandemic that will affect sales tax and other revenue in fiscal 2020 requiring the county to potentially utilize reserves to maintain budgetary balance. Furthermore, we view New York's statutory framework that requires oversight of the county's budget while the deficit bonds are outstanding as a governance opportunity for local governments experiencing fiscal stress that helps ensure that operations remain balanced. Finally, although the county is exposed to the Hudson River, we do not believe environmental risks are higher than compared to those counties also located in the Mid-Hudson region.
Wyandanch Union Free School District, NY School District A-/Negative We have analyzed the district's environmental and governance risks relative to its economy, management, financial measures, and debt and liability profile, and determined that all are in line with our view of the sector standard. However, we view the statutory framework in New York State that provides oversight and appointment of a monitor to assist the district with modifying its financial operations as a governance opportunity and integral to our rating affirmation.

This report does not constitute a rating action.

Primary Credit Analyst:Nora G Wittstruck, New York (1) 212-438-8589;
nora.wittstruck@spglobal.com
Secondary Contacts:Lisa R Schroeer, Charlottesville (434) 529-2862;
lisa.schroeer@spglobal.com
Kurt E Forsgren, Boston (1) 617-530-8308;
kurt.forsgren@spglobal.com
Theodore A Chapman, Farmers Branch (1) 214-871-1401;
theodore.chapman@spglobal.com

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