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Bond market woes cramp many institutions' construction plans
Local governments, colleges squeezed by higher interest rates

Wednesday, February 04, 2009
Chicago Tribune
by James Kimberly

The Northern Illinois Proton Treatment and Research Center tried to sell bonds recently to fund construction of a cancer treatment center in West Chicago but learned a painful lesson from the economy that has hampered many other projects: Fewer investors drive up interest costs.

"By and large, there didn't seem to be any takers for the bonds," said John Lewis, center director.

Some work continues on the $159 million project in the DuPage National Technology Park, thanks to $13.3 million in federal grants and a $15 million bridge loan from JPMorgan Chase. But the delay in financing because of November's poor bond sale contributed to a temporary work stoppage at the center, affiliated with Northern Illinois University.

The center's financial problems are shared by other local taxing bodies and non-profits, from the Lake County Forest Preserve District to Joliet Junior College. The economic collapse has taken the bond market with it, inhibiting the raising of money for big construction projects.

With skittish investors unwilling to put their money in even seemingly safe bonds, markets have fewer buyers, so sellers must offer higher interest rates to make the sale. As a result, those with projects are finding they must spend more money on interest and have less for construction.

For NIU, the ramifications could go beyond higher interest payments. Under the terms of its approval from the Illinois Health Facilities Planning Board, the center must open by March 1, 2010. Board officials declined to speculate on what would happen if the deadline was not met.

"We would have to develop some type of strategy to work with the Health Facilities Planning Board," Lewis said. "We haven't thought that through carefully yet because we are hoping it doesn't happen."

The center is committed to completing construction and intends to go back to the bond market in the next few months, Lewis said.

DuPage County also is seeing plans delayed, in part, due to the bond market. Leaders wanted to issue $190 million in bonds to pay for a five-year capital works program that would widen busy intersections and repair aged buildings at the government center in Wheaton. The bonds were to be repaid with some of the revenue from a quarter-cent sales tax increase enacted last year.

The bond issue was put on the back burner because of the market and objections raised by some County Board members who did not want the county to take on long-term debt payments at a time of economic uncertainty.

"At this point I think we are going to wait and see what happens," said Fred Backfield, the county's chief financial officer.

Kevin McCanna, president and owner of Speer Financial Inc., which frequently assists taxing bodies with bond issues, said the market is good for certain segments, such as communities with strong credit ratings that are issuing less than $10 million worth of bonds. But that represents just 4 percent of the market, he said.

Taxing bodies that want to borrow larger sums of money are finding interest rates significantly higher than they were a year ago. They also are having a difficult time finding suitable investments while waiting to spend the money, McCanna said.

"If you've got projects that have been modeled on 41/2 percent, and the broker comes in and says the market is at 4.9, maybe you wait or shelve some things," he said.

Voters gave the Lake County Forest Preserve District approval in November to issue $185 million worth of bonds for land acquisition. Originally, the district planned to sell $90 million of the bonds now and invest the money in secure Treasury bills until it was needed, then sell the remainder in two or three years.

But with the interest rates at 5 percent and Treasury bills offering around 1 percent interest, the county would lose $1.5 million on the difference in interest, said Bonnie McLeod, director of finance.

So the district decided to issue only $35 million in bonds to buy land now and re-evaluate the market later.

"Our financial adviser had indicated he hasn't seen this type of market before," McLeod said. "We'll just monitor the market and watch for a good opportunity."

Joliet Junior College had the unfortunate timing of taking $30 million of a $70 million bond issue to the market the day Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. filed for bankruptcy on Sept. 15.

"Even though we had a AA rating, we were unable to get anybody to buy our bonds," said David Agazzi, vice president of administrative services. "I was told that didn't even happen in the Great Depression."

The school had to wait until October to sell all $70 million worth of bonds, and it paid a blended interest rate of 5.76 percent, a percentage point higher than the school had anticipated.

In November, voters approved a referendum proposal authorizing the school to issue another $89 million in bonds for expansion and renovation of the school's allied health building, science building and culinary and automotive programs.

Agazzi said the school intends to monitor the market, and when it sees favorable conditions it will sell all the bonds at once.

"In the old days you could sell just what you needed and then go back out to market when you needed," Agazzi said. "Our experience scared us sufficiently that our board decided there's no way we were going to start a building and then not have the cash to finish it when we needed."


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