Moody's examines Suffolk debt for possible downgrade

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A Wall Street bond rating firm is examining Suffolk County's debt for a possible downgrade after the firm changed its formula to more heavily factor in debt and pension obligations.

Suffolk is among 124 governments nationwide that Moody's Investors Service on Wednesday placed under review for possible downgrades, along with 132 that could get upgrades. A lower rating would raise the costs of borrowing money.

"The increase in the weight attached to debt and pensions recognizes the potential for large pension liabilities to constrict a local government's financial flexibility," Moody's said in a statement.

Moody's said the new formula decreases the weight a region's overall economic health has on ratings, noting that some "local governments are either unwilling or unable to convert the strength of their local economies into revenues."

Moody's in April downgraded Suffolk's rating by a notch to A2. Moody's said Wednesday that was "not particularly high for a large and relatively affluent county." The agency said a "further downgrade of a notch or two would bring . . . [Suffolk] closer to Moody's lowest investment grade . . . Baa."

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Moody's rates Nassau County's debt A2.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said Moody's review "reminds people that while we've made progress, we're not out of the woods. The county remains under significant financial stress. We still need reform to go forward."

Bellone noted that Fitch Ratings and Standard & Poor's have held the county's rating steady.

County budget director Connie Corso said the county's debt load is relatively low compared with other counties, and that she was "not that concerned" about the Moody's review.

After Suffolk approved the 2014 budget in November, Bellone predicted the county would end 2013 with a $10 million to $13 million deficit after a 2012 shortfall of $155 million.

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