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Credit wars: S&P, Moody's see NJ town very differently

How solvent is Collingswood?

Collingswood Mayor Jim Maley has been bragging that the Standard & Poor's credit agency last week gave Collingswood borough an AA rating, just two notches below its highest level and about what you might expect from a solid suburban town where investors have lately been rehabbing and upgrading the aging downtown and adding market-priced apartments..

By contrast, Moody's Investors Service just rated $29 million in Collingswood debt several notches lower, at Baa2 (corrected). And that's progress, by Moody's standards: Moody's cut Collingswood's rating six notches, to junk bond status, two years ago as it struggled to refinance a failing apartment complex. This is the second measured improvement in Collingswood's Moody's rating since the big cut temporarily put the borough off limits to conservative investors. Moody's says borough debt is now a mainstream bet again, but not quite back to very-low-risk status.

In her report yesterday, Moody's analyst Josellyn Yousef cited "reduced undertainty" about the apartment debt, given the low interest rates Collingswood has been able to command from investors, the borough's tighter new financial management practices and its "demonstrated committment to reducing its debt burden" under Mayor Maley by putting some property sale revenue in escrow instead of spending it all. But she also warned that Collingswood's bond payments still eat up a "very high" 18.7% of the borough's budget, leaving the town's debt vulnerable to another credit-market slowdown. Though isn't everyone who's still leveraged, after years of near-record low rates?