The Obstacles to Exiting Municipal Bankruptcy

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project
Paving the Way to Exit Bankruptcy. The Detroit City Council yesterday approved a crucial bankruptcy settlement that could pave the way for the demolition of Detroit’s downtown Joe Louis Arena to make way for a new hotel—in effect blessing the agreement worked out under the auspices of U.S. Judge Gerard Rosen behind closed doors between the Motor City and its last major holdout creditor, Financial Guaranty Insurance Co. Detroit Council President Brenda Jones, who testified less than three weeks ago in support of the plan of adjustment, was the only member to oppose the deal. Council President Jones did not describe her reasons for opposing the agreement before casting her vote, telling her colleagues she was “not proud of this settlement.” She has previously questioned the value of the Joe Louis property and who would be responsible for oversight of the hotel development. Under the settlement, downtown Detroit’s west riverfront would be transformed with a new hotel, residential and retail complex on the site of Joe Louis Arena, and its parking garage. The agreement also proposes to provide FGIC with about $74 million in cash from bonds the city will issue. In addition, FGIC and the municipal bond debt holders it insures are to receive another $67 million in bond proceeds—and FGIC, the city’s last remaining major holdout creditor, reversed its opposition to the city’s plan of debt adjustment awaiting U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes approval—or disapproval—the week after next. Nevertheless, Detroit corporation counsel Melvin (Butch) Hollowell yesterday said the FGIC settlement signals a near-end to the largest municipal bankruptcy in the nation’s history: “This really puts a capstone on the remaining creditors in this chapter 9 file.”
Politics, Municipal Bankruptcy, & Governance. For San Bernardino’s elected leaders, November has become juggling season: the city has to juggle its efforts to put together a debt adjustment plan that will gain the approval of U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury if it is to emerge from municipal bankruptcy; it must undergo elections—and not just elections to municipal leadership, but also election measures—especially, in this instance, on Measure Q, a challenge to a provision in the city’s charter to reform Charter Section 186, a guarantee unique among California cities: a legal requirement that police and firefighters’ salaries be exactly the average of what 10 other California cities with a population between 100,000 and 250,000 pay for those positions. Those 10 cities vary by year, but the way they are selected ensures, in practice and previous experience, that base pay is the average pay of midsized cities. That significantly complicates the San Bernardino’s ability to structure a plan of adjustment—it is almost like the obstacle imposed by the uncertainty with regard to whether it can subject its pension obligations to a haircut—with the federal bankruptcy courts saying yes—and the California constitution and the state’s massive public retirement authority, CalPERS, saying no. It is like being between a double rock and hard place. The cost of police salary increases required by the city Charter §186 will surpass $1.3 million for the 2014-15 year, according to City Manager Allen Parker. That includes only base salary, but overtime and some benefits will also increase proportionally, Mr. Parker said in a statement, adding: “The salary increases are mandatory and are not based upon employee performance, the City’s financial condition, or departmental performance measurements,” adding that: “Of the cities chosen under the Police Safety Unit employees, four (4) are served under contract by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and three (3) are Northern California cities.” The delicate timing of the election comes as the city’s negotiations with the fire union, according to assertions it has filed with the federal bankruptcy court, have come to a halt—so, in effect, the significant legal meter is running at great cost to the city—and its fiscal future—but it is hamstrung in the nonce. §186 requires the city and union to alternately strike names from a list of California cities with a population between 100,000 and 250,000 to find the salaries, but there is no clear legal map what the alternative is if the fire union opts not to participate in that process. Moreover, because, in effect, §186 mandates salary increases, the city—in order to comply with the unfunded mandate―is likely to compel the city to slow down hiring — a slowdown which could adversely affect service levels and overtime. Currently, San Bernardino’s charter is the only one in the Golden State that mandates police and firefighter salaries be set with a formula such as §186.
Ruling Ahead. U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Christopher Klein is scheduled to issue his opinion on the City of Stockton’s proposed plan of debt adjustment next Thursday. Judge Klein, who at the beginning of this month ruled that, notwithstanding California’s state constitutional protection of municipal retirees’ pensions, federal bankruptcy law preempted the state bar—in effect offered the city the option of modifying its plan of adjustment to give a haircut to its pension payment obligations to the California Public Retirement System (CalPERS). Nevertheless, the city has remained opposed to any such reductions out of apprehension that any such retirement reductions would adversely affect city’s ability to retain and recruit workers. Stockton’s main remaining holdout creditor, Franklin Templeton Investments, is seeking to recoup more of the $35.1 million in bond debt the city owes than what is proposed under Stockton’s current plan of debt adjustment—in effect asking the city’s bondholders to share a disproportionate risk. Franklin Templeton has urged Judge Klein to reject Stockton’s plan. Unlike Solomon, Judge Klein does not have the option of cutting the baby in half: he can either approve or disapprove the city’s plan of adjustment, albeit Stockton Assistant City Manager Liz Warmerdam said Judge Klein’s earlier ruling could offer other California municipalities cities “more options” than they now have to address fiscal crises. In California, however, there is fear that taking on CalPERS as a means to avoid or get out of municipal bankruptcy risks significant legal costs that cities can ill afford in what is already a horrendously expensive process—pitting Davids against the CalPERS Goliath, and creating a costly delay in cities’ efforts to reorganize their way out of bankruptcy. There is also a competitive apprehension: in the wake of its 2012 bankruptcy filing, Stockton experienced an increase in crime in the wake of laying off police and leaving positions vacated by retirements unfilled.

The Hurdles to Exiting Municipal Bankruptcy

October 23, 2014

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

The Skinny End of Feasibility? The trial portion of Detroit’s municipal bankruptcy concluded yesterday with Martha Kopacz, an independent financial expert hired by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes to review the feasibility of the Motor City’s plan of debt adjustment and investment in the city’s fiscal, sustainable future, endorsing the city’s eighth, and likely final version of its debt adjustment plan, but warning that elected officials need to be on board for the plan to work. Ms. Kopacz testified she believes the $7 billion debt reduction and nearly $1.7 reinvestment plan is feasible, but expressed concern that neither Detroit leaders, nor Kevyn Orr’s bankruptcy team have devoted enough time, until recently, to the Motor City’s restructuring of city operations. In addition, she expressed great concern over the city’s pension system, telling the court: “They (referring to the city) could wake up with a bad nightmare, not unlike what they’ve been through with this pension system to get to this point.” In response to Judge Rhodes’ queries about the fiscal and economic impact and feasibility of the recent settlements the city has reached with its last holdout creditors, M. Kopacz warned the settlements have pushed Detroit to the “skinny end of feasibility.” Even though she was brought in to serve as a special advisor to Judge Rhodes, Ms. Kopacz demonstrated her own independence in criticizing the speed with which the inimitable rhythm guitar leader of the Indubitable Equivalents―Judge Rhodes―has managed and processed the biggest municipal bankruptcy in American history, testifying that speed can be a “two-edged sword…In a little over a year, the city has gone through a massive restructuring process and will have significantly (slashed debt)…Everybody in the city needs to get on the same page relative to what the plan is post-bankruptcy. Right now, the official budget doesn’t include anticipated spending that is really, really critical.” Ms. Kopacz concluded the city’s plan was feasible—testifying the city will likely be able to provide basic services and meet its obligations “without significant probability of default―” according to local reports from the courtroom, a critical element if Judge Rhodes is to approve the city’s pending plan, but she stressed that Detroit needs a larger and better-trained workforce and commitment from its elected leadership to carry out the massive restructuring: the post-bankrupt Detroit, she told the court, could find itself “on the edge” when it comes to servicing debt and managing operations. Closing statements in the trial are set to begin on Monday, and Judge Rhodes said he intends to deliver a decision in open court during the week of November 3rd, whence he will opine whether the plan treats creditors fairly and was crafted in good faith, issues which Ms. Kopacz did not consider in her analysis. On some of the key elements:

  • Debt Obligations: Referring to Detroit’s debt obligations, Ms. Kopacz testified: “I do believe we are on the edge of what the city can reasonably be expected to be able to service in the future.” Reminding the court that in the city’s plan of adjustment, the plan proposes borrowing $275 million from Barclays in an exit financing to pay off creditors and improve services. An inability to do the Barclays deal, however, she warned, “could have caused the plan to tip into infeasibility: The debt is a means to an end, and based on the projections the city can service that.”
  • Pension Obligations: In response to Judge Rhodes’ queries with regard to Detroit’s projected 6.75% return rate for Detroit’s two pension funds, Ms. Kopacz testified the assumption rate was reasonable, but added she would “”make it 5% if I ruled the world,” warning that, without careful monitoring, the city could find itself facing mounting pension debt again: The city’s leaders “could wake up with a bad nightmare, not unlike what they’ve been through with this pension system to get to this point.”
  • Restructuring Initiatives: Ms. Kopacz warned the Motor City officials will need to put more effort into its restructuring initiatives: “There has not been, until recently, as much energy put into restructuring operations…It’s not in the budget, and there’s not a robust implementation plan behind it.”
  • The speed of the bankruptcy: She noted the exceptional celerity with which Detroit’s bankruptcy has proceeded, but warned that this could prove to be a “two-edged sword:” telling the court that while the plan eliminates some $7 billion in municipal debts, much less effort has been devoted to the Motor City’s fiscally sustainable future: “Because the focus has been on the bankruptcy and the speed in getting that done, there has not been until recently as much energy put into restructuring the operations of the city…Functionally, the city operationally was broke…I believe the emergency manager had to pick one of two options. The focus was on delivering, not fixing, the operations. That was one way the speed cut against necessary, long-term things which will now have to be accomplished outside of the bankruptcy, which could be more difficult to achieve than inside the bankruptcy with the power of the emergency manager.” She noted that a longer process might also have allowed creditors to gain a deeper understanding of the city’s finances and allow Detroit’s leaders to develop broader, multi-party agreements: “I think we would have been able to reach settlements where maybe we weren’t as close on that continuum of feasibility as we are today.”
  • Municipal Revenue Projections: She testified that Mr. Orr’s revenue projections for Detroit—that is the revenues that are the foundation for the city’s reinvestment in its future — which some have warned are unrealistic — are largely reasonable, adding that, if anything, the projected annual growth rate of 2% for income taxes may even be conservative. (The plan projects that state revenue aid is expected to stay flat, while casino tax revenues are projected to decrease, at least in the near term.) She testified that the low amount of funding set aside for contingencies is a “continuing concern,” but added that the amount did not make the plan infeasible.
  • State Oversight: Ms. Kopacz testified that the creation of a fiscal review committee to oversee Detroit’s finances for up to 20 years will play a key role in the plan’s feasibility: “The existence of the financial review commission, the oversight commission, I think is a very positive, qualitative factor in ensuring that the city conducts itself in such a way that ensures or helps to ensure the commitments of the plan are going to be met.”
  • New collective Bargaining Agreements: Ms. Kopacz testified she would have preferred a more “robust negotiation” around work rules, as part of her overall apprehension that the city’s focus on speed in getting out of bankruptcy focused on fixing the city’s balance sheet―not its operations, advising: “The plan of adjustment is a giant change management exercise.”

Getting Ready to Close. With the historic trial’s closing arguments scheduled for Monday morning, Judge Rhodes yesterday closed the session by advising the parties: “[Y]you should argue whatever you think you need to argue and we’ll deal.” Detroit’s lead attorney Bruce Bennett said he could trim his three-hour closing. Two individual objectors want 30 to 45 minutes each. Barbara Patek of the biggest police union says her closing will be 10 to 15 minutes if there is one. Ron King of the Retirement Systems says 15 to 20 minutes at most.

Politics, Municipal Bankruptcy, & Governance. As San Bernardino continues its efforts to emerge from municipal bankruptcy, it—as in Detroit and Stockton—has had to go through elections, a complication that does not occur in other kinds of corporate bankruptcies, so that it adds many layers of complications. In San Bernardino, it is not just elections to municipal leadership, mayor and council races, but also measures—so that early next month city voters will go to the polls on Measure Q, a challenge to a decades-old provision in the city’s charter to reform Charter Section 186, a guarantee unique among California cities: a legal requirement that police and firefighters’ salaries be exactly the average of what 10 other California cities with a population between 100,000 and 250,000 pay for those positions. Those 10 cities vary by year, but the way they are selected ensures, in practice and previous experience, that base pay is the average pay of midsized cities. Needless to write, for a city in the midst of trying to structure a plan of adjustment to emerge from municipal bankruptcy before U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury, the city and its fiscal circumstances are anything but average, so that a committee of citizens chosen by the City Council and Mayor decided this year to ask voters to replace that formula with collective bargaining. San Bernardino Mayor Carey Davis, whose signature voters will see on the ballot argument for Measure Q, warns: “Firefighters and police make up a huge part of the budget, even now when we’re down 100 officers: That high pay prevents us from hiring more officers.” The election, coming in the midst of the city’s trial in federal bankruptcy court, comes as the fiscally struggling municipality is exploring realignment of how its emergency services are delivered—but, in effect, transfixed between California law and federal bankruptcy law.

El Futuro? Caught in a legal twilight zone between a rock and a hard place, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico’s planned municipal bond sale from the Puerto Rico Infrastructure Finance Authority (PRIFA) could trigger—or avert—a default, but, because the island is a territory, not a municipality; it has no access to federal bankruptcy protection. The planned sale, under the aegis of its recently enacted Debt Enforcement and Recovery Act, under which public corporations are authorized to restructure their debt, will depend upon legislative ingenuity. Under legislation that could be introduced in the island’s legislature as soon as this week, PRIFA, would be authorized to issue more than $1 billion of bonds―enough to refinance debt owed to the Government Development Bank by the Puerto Rico Highways and Transportation Authority, which is subject to the new law. The legal conundrum would be whether this would suffice to prevent a default by the island’s transportation authority—and at what interest rate. It also raises issues with regard to whether the infrastructure authority would have the same ability to service the debt or maintain the excise taxes serving as source of payment, and whether the bond would need bondholders’ approval.

Justifying One’s Exit from Municipal Bankruptcy

October 22, 2014
Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project

Nearing Home? U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes yesterday outlined several issues he would like to see addressed in the city’s closing arguments, advising the Motor City’s lead attorney, Bruce Bennett, that he would like him to discuss the section of the federal bankruptcy code, chapter 9, which addresses the “reasonableness of fees,” and “how it can work here.” In addition, Judge Rhodes instructed Mr. Bennett that he should specifically note which settlements the federal court is being asked to approve and whether the court needs to approve the city’s exit financing. Judge Rhodes also requested that the city “spend as much time as you think is necessary on the issue of the justification for the discrimination among the classes of unsecured creditors, adding that “At the same time, however, while you do that, I want to indicate to you that I’m less concerned about the numerator and denominator than I am about the business side, the business justification side of that analysis.” That guidance came after Judge Rhodes had previously queried Kevyn Orr on the related issue of the State of Michigan’s role: “What advice would you give to the Financial Review Commission with respect to its responsibilities?” Mr. Orr testified that the new state commission needs to understand how to improve public safety in Detroit; it will need a deep understanding of redevelopment plans; it will need a means to ensure keeping Detroit within its budget; and he told the court the staff of the commission will need a comprehensive understanding of Detroit’s human resources challenges. Earlier, yesterday, Ernst & Young consultant Guauray Malhotra testified that he believes Detroit’s cash position in the future will be “sufficient” to operate and meet its debt obligations, testifying that the Motor City’s planned exit financing issue with Barclays is now likely to be $275 million, down from $325 million: “It is the city’s view to borrow less because of the overall cost of that financing that has to eventually be paid.” Martha Kopacz, an independent financial expert hired by Judge Rhodes to review the feasibility of the plan, is expected to testify today, on what could be the last day of the trial, with closing statements set to begin next Monday.

The Last Hurdle? As Detroit’s bankruptcy trial winds down, the federal court yesterday devoted most of its time focusing on the details of the city’s recent, federally mediated settlement with its final, major holdout creditor, municipal bond insurer Financial Guaranty Insurance Co., with Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr and an Ernst & Young financial consultant testifying with regard to additional details about the agreement—an agreement which provides for significant real estate and cash, including the current site of the Joe Louis Arena, where the Detroit Red Wings skate, located on prime riverfront Detroit land adjacent to the Motor City’s convention center—sites which will be developed by FGIC into a 300-room hotel with condominiums and retail space. Under the cash part of the deal, FGIC is expected to recover approximately 13% on its $1.1 billion claim against the city, receiving $141 million from proceeds of a note issue and $20 million in settlement credits. Judge Rhodes asked Mr. Orr to estimate the monetary value of the real estate portion of FGIC settlement, noting: “Ultimately I’d like you to testify either what the value of the real estate is FGIC has an option to acquire here, or tell me the city doesn’t think it’s necessary for the court to have that to determine the reasonableness of the settlement.” After taking a break to confer with his attorneys, Mr. Orr came returned to the stand and said the Joe Louis Arena currently had either no value or even “negative” value, and that its worth would only be realized after it was demolished and the new project built—leading Judge Rhodes to follow up: “[T]he city’s position is that the costs associated with attempting to market all of that property either equals or exceeds what the city could sell it for in the market?” In response, Mr. Orr testified “Yes…Because you have to demolish it. You have to remediate it, so that’s true, your Honor,” going on to describe the federally mediated resolution with the city last major holdout creditor as a “peace accord, more or less” which Mr. Orr believed would bring some certainty to the bankruptcy exit process—and save Detroit significant legal fees, because, as part of the agreement, Detroit will drop the suit it filed at the beginning of the year seeking to invalidate the $1.5 billion of certificates of participation insured by FGIC and Syncora Guarantee Inc., adding that if the insurer had succeeded in its countersuit on the COPs or on its objection that the city’s plan unfairly discriminated against it, then the Motor City would have had to in Mr. Orr’s words, “hit the rest button and go back to plan development…It would have been fairly catastrophic from my perspective.” The Detroit City Council is expected to vote today or tomorrow on the FGIC agreement, which, because it was put together under Michigan’s state emergency management law, means that even if the council rejects it, officials can go to the state emergency loan board for its approval.

Let there be light! The old adage is necessity is the mother of invention, so it was yesterday in Judge Rhodes’ courtroom that one of Detroit’s consultants, Gaurav Malhotra, testified the Motor City will be getting into the metal scrapping business to help finance the city’s recovery by salvaging millions of pounds of copper from thousands of its moribund streetlights. As the city replaces lights over the next seven years with brighter lamps which use less power, it expects to collect as much as $25 million through sales of the copper it excavates and recovers from the older lines. Mr. Malhotra told Judge Rhodes he estimated there could be as much as 13.5 million pounds of copper, worth about $40 million, in the old streetlight system—not an inconsiderable sum to incorporate into Detroit’s revised, eighth—and presumably final—plan of debt adjustment, with the guesstimated $40 million pledged to help finance the plan’s proposed decade-long rebuilding plan—whilst at the same time shining light on some of the city’s dimmest lit and most blighted neighborhoods in a critical effort to reduce violent crime.

Copping a Lower Credit Rating. Moody’s on Monday lowered its ratings on the Motor City’s $1.5 billion of certificates of participation or so-calls COPs to C from Ca, writing that the city’s recovery or debt adjustment plan’s proposed settlements with insurers would put recoveries well below 35%. The drop came in the wake of Detroit’s settlement with holdout creditor Financial Guaranty Insurance Co. last week with regard to FGIC’s insurance on some $1.1 billion of COPs—and in the wake of its warnings at the beginning of this month that it might downgrade the debt depending on the terms of any settlements with either FGIC or the city’s then other and similar holdout creditor, Syncora. In the wake of the two resolutions, worked out under the closed door federal ministrations of U.S. Judge Gerard Rosen by means of agreements involving cash and downtown real estate, estimates are that the cash recovery for the two insurers will in the range of about 13 percent of their claims against the city, leading Moody’s analyst to note: “Reported terms of the FGIC settlement, along with the Syncora settlement terms laid out in the city’s Seventh Amended Plan of Adjustment (now updated to the Eighth to incorporate the more recent settlement with FGIC), support our expectation of a recovery rate falling well below the 35% to 65% recovery rate range that would be consistent with a Ca rating.” The Detroit City Council has already voted to approve the agreement with Syncora, and is scheduled to take up the proposed agreement with FGIC later this week. Should the Council reject the newer agreement, the Mayor could seek approval from Michigan’s state emergency loan board.

Harried in Harrisburg. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, which opted out of filing for federal bankruptcy protection and has slowly crawled out of fiscal distress under a debt recovery plan approved by the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania plan last September, nevertheless continues to confront recovery stumbles and remains under the state’s Act 47 program for distressed municipalities. Yesterday, its Treasurer, Timothy East, became the state capitol city’s second treasurer to resign in two months. Mr. East, who had filed for personal bankruptcy in 2011—a filing which is still open, told the city’s Patriot-News he was unsure whether city officials could get him bonded. The City Council had approved Mr. East over five other candidates late last month to serve out the remaining 15 months of his predecessor’s—a predecessor who had resigned after the Dauphin County District Attorney charged him with stealing money from two nonprofits: Lighten Up Harrisburg, a program designed to fix street lights, and the gay-and-lesbian advocacy group Equality Pennsylvania. In addition, the Dauphin County District Attorney had subsequently filed an additional theft charge in connection with $2,750 that went missing from a political action committee for which he was treasurer—with the former treasurer reportedly claiming to authorities he used the money for personal college and medical expenses, according to court records. Mr. East’s personal financial issues were not subject to scrutiny by the city when he applied, because background checks only require notice of any criminal records. In his application, Mr. East had not disclosed the information with regard to his personal finances. Harrisburg officials briefed the City Council last week about his personal finances. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s 49,000-population capital, narrowly avoided municipal bankruptcy last year by crafting a financial recovery plan which erased more than $600 million of debt. A city’s treasurer, because she or he needs to be bonded, may create a risk that insurance companies may be leery of approval in instances where a treasurer has already declared personal bankruptcy—especially in this instance, where the abrupt departure of Harrisburg’s former city treasurer, John Campbell, also meant the city had to get re-bonded—already a costly and precarious undertaking in light of the capitol city’s near bankruptcy and receivership. Harrisburg had secured a bond for the city, but now awaits hearing back from insurance companies in the wake of the trials and tribulations of Mr. East. In his job interview with the city late last month, Mr. East counted among his skills that he understood cash management operations, tax collection, and proper system controls, according to the Patriot-News, and he said he thought his most important leadership quality was the ability to inspire others. His personal bankruptcy filing was dismissed last year after he fell short on his required payments, but his attorney was successful in getting it reinstated last January. In Harrisburg, the city treasurer is a part-time position which pays $20,000 a year.

Historic Detroit Bankruptcy Trial Nears an End

October 21, 2014

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

 The Last Hurdle? Detroit’s historic municipal bankruptcy case is winding down, with the last remaining testimony in the trial over its proposed plan of debt adjustment scheduled for today and tomorrow, and closing arguments scheduled for next Monday. U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes declared yesterday he will announce his decision whether or not he will approve the Motor City’s proposed plan of debt adjustment in open court the first week of November. Much of yesterday’s proceedings involved a complaint from Detroit’s largest union with regard to more than $8.7 billion owed to members for pension, health care, and bonus check payments. Attorneys for the City of Detroit and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 25 claimed members are owed the money for underfunded pension and retiree benefits — including so-called 13th checks — stemming from limits the city placed on its interest payments to savings funds in 2011, but Judge Rhodes concluded the plan language was not ambiguous, and that AFSCME’s claim was not consistent with the broad definition of what is in either the city’s updated, pending plan of debt adjustment or the federal chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy code, so that AFSCME’s claim will be discharged; rather, Judge Rhodes said the pension and health care claims by AFSCME should be covered by the retiree settlements. AFSCME’s attorney then argued its claims should be considered a Class 14, general unsecured, claim. One of the city’s lead attorneys, Heather Lennox, has argued the claims have been already addressed as part of its 8th submitted plan of debt adjustment—claims for which, she noted, if the city’s updated bankruptcy exit plan is not approved by Judge Rhodes―would mean the city would not  be liable, because certain of the unions’ actions were illegal, including the so-called 13th checks—payments or bonus checks which the city’s attorneys say cost the Motor City’s pension funds some $1.9 billion in investment value over two decades, contributing more than half of its currently estimated $3.5 billion in unfunded liability. AFSCME Attorney Richard Mack argued for a full hearing on the complaint and the issues of standing; however, Judge Rhodes responded Detroit’s plan of adjustment is not ambiguous, and he dismissed the claim. In addition, Ms. Lennox yesterday advised the court that the UAW and AFSCME have withdrawn an objection that had been pending in court, after noting that 300 retired library workers and six Cobo Center retirees will be provided health care benefits through a Voluntary Employee Benefit Association (VEBA) for general retirees; however, she advised Judge Rhodes that Detroit’s Retiree Committee does not agree with the provision. Nevertheless, she testified that the city has no intention of amending the proposal, telling him the benefits are provided by the VEBA trust and “that’s not something that the city decides;” rather, the benefits rather will be decided by a board, which is not yet active. (The VEBA trust is one of two funds financed with $450 million from the city under its proposed plan of debt adjustment to finance health care benefits: one trust is for general retirees, the other is dedicated to retired police officers and firefighters. Judge Rhodes yesterday refused to listen to objections from Sam Alberts, an attorney for the retiree committee. He directed Mr. Alberts to resolve the conflict involving the 336 employees, telling him: “I don’t want an explanation. I want you to resolve it. Now! Go resolve it.”

What’s Next for the Motor City? As the trial is winding down, Detroit still confronts a number of obstacles, including individual retirees fighting the city’s plan to eliminate $7 billion in debt and reinvest nearly $1.6 billion into its future fiscal sustainability. They key question for Judge Rhodes will be whether he finds the city’s eighth version of its proposed plan of debt adjustment to be fair, feasible, and in the best interest of its creditors. Should he so find, the Motor City’s Mayor and City Council could conceivably begin some of that investment upon a positive decision.

The New State Settlement Authority. The Michigan Settlement Authority, the newly state-authorized body overseeing distribution of pension aid to Detroit as part of Detroit’s “grand bargain” as incorporated in its bankruptcy exit plan, held its first meeting last Friday in Lansing, where it appointed Michigan State Treasurer Kevin Clinton as chair and acted on various other organizational steps. The Authority was created by PA 141 of 2014 to oversee the State of Michigan’s contribution to the Detroit pension funds as part of the settlement of the Detroit bankruptcy. As created, the board will be responsible for disbursing $195 million of state aid to Detroit’s two pension systems as part of the so-called “grand bargain” which is the cornerstone of the Motor City’s proposed plan of debt adjustment pending before the U.S. Bankruptcy Court. The grand bargain, largely facilitated by U.S. Judge Gerard Rosen, proposes to package approximately $610 million in foundation contributions, to ensure that no Detroit retiree under the city’s debt adjustment—if approved by Judge Steven Rhodes, would fall below the federal poverty level. Treasurer Clinton noted: “This is a small but significant step in the state’s continued support for the City of Detroit and its retirees…Many people and organizations from across the entire state have pulled together and pooled their resources to significantly lessen the potential impact of bankruptcy on current and past city employees.” Michigan is expected to tap its rainy-day fund to make the payment. The $610 million in private contributions, will boost the city’s pensions in exchange for protecting the city’s, or Detroit Institute of Art’s collection, by transferring it into a private trust. The state will begin to disburse its funds only after the federal judge overseeing the case approves the plan of confirmation, according to officials, or, as Treasurer Clinton put it: “This is a small but significant step in the state’s continued support for the City of Detroit and its retirees…Many people and organizations from across the entire state have pulled together and pooled their resources to significantly lessen the potential impact of bankruptcy on current and past city employees.” Other board members are State Budget Director John Roberts and retired bankruptcy attorney I. William Cohen of Huntington Woods. The state is expected to tap its rainy-day fund to make the payment.

Jail Locked Up. The Wayne County Board has voted 12-3 to pass a resolution to reject moving the jail to the Mound Road Correctional Facility, a state-owned former prison property near the outskirts of Detroit, its county seat, likely meaning the County will restart construction on a bond-financed downtown Detroit jail complex which the county abandoned in June 2013, the month Detroit filed for federal bankruptcy protection. The vote came amid cost overruns that have nearly doubled taxpayer costs to $390 million from $220 million, and legal questions after Wayne County sued the original contractor, and three current and former county officials were indicted last month, accused of lying about the jail project costs. Because the proposed jail would hold about 2,000 inmates and is sited just blocks from some of the Motor City’s best-known attractions—and its emerging business center, the decision comes in the face of adamant opposition of Detroit elected, civic, and business leaders apprehensive at the potential adverse economic impact. Wayne County operates three jails and had hoped to save money by consolidating services and costs at one facility in downtown Detroit. Unsurprisingly, the County’s vote drew criticism from prominent Detroit businessman Dan Gilbert, who has offered $50 million to buy the half-built downtown site and related lots. Like Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, Mr. Gilbert has warned that a downtown jail complex could adversely impact downtown development and economic recovery. The Wayne County vote came just weeks after a grand jury indicted former Wayne County chief financial officer Carla Sledge and two others after an investigation into the project’s financing. Ms. Sledge, who retired in 2013 and left the chilly climes of Michigan for Florida, has been charged with two counts of misconduct in office and two counts of willful neglect of duty: she stands accused of lying to the county board and building authority about the finances of the project.

Getting Ready to Rumble. The Michigan Settlement Authority, a newly created body overseeing distribution of state aid to Detroit as part of the city’s bankruptcy plan of adjustment, has held its first meeting in Lansing, where it named State Treasurer Kevin Clinton as chair and acted on other organizational steps.

Trying to Block the Rolling of the Dice. The four major American professional sports leagues and the NCAA yesterday filed a motion yesterday in New Jersey District Court to stop a newly-signed law by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie as part of his renewed attempt to help the financially distressed city and its critical tax base of casinos by allowing sports betting at Atlantic City’s struggling casinos. Gov. Christie signed into law last week a bill removing state prohibitions on sports betting that proponents said would clear the way for such wagers in New Jersey; however, in their filing, the leagues argued the state law violates a federal ban on sports betting outside a handful of states and would cause them irreparable harm: The federal Sports Protection Act of 1992 made it illegal for state governments, except for those in Oregon, Delaware, Montana, and Nevada, to “sponsor, operate, advertise, promote, license or authorize by law or compact” sports betting. The complaint was filed yesterday in federal court in Trenton, just three days after Gov. Christie signed a revised bill to allow betting on sports at the state’s racetracks and casinos, but in their filing, the leagues complained the new bill is an attempt to end run a 2013 court order that had struck down a previous state law legalizing sports betting in Atlantic City casinos and at the tracks. The renewed push for sports betting arose in the wake of Gov. Christie’s closed-door summit in Atlantic City last month with municipal leaders and casino officials trying to assess how to halt and reverse its seeming slide towards insolvency.

The Last Full Measures of Municipal Bankruptcy

eBlog
October 17, 2014
Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project

The Last Hurdle? Detroit reached an agreement early yesterday with FGIC, its largest remaining holdout creditor, which had claimed the Motor City owed it $1.1 billion. The federally facilitated agreement likely will accelerate an end to the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy in history. The agreement was reached at 2:30 a.m. in the wake of closed-door negotiations overseen by Chief U.S. District Judge and bankruptcy mediator Gerald Rosen; but the discussions also involved Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s adviser, Richard Baird. Syncora, another municipal bond insurer which had earlier reached an agreement with Detroit, and FGIC were two creditors who constituted the biggest outstanding holdout creditors to the city’s proposed plan for its adjustment of debts: together they had insured $1.4 billion in troubled pension debt. However, unlike the agreement reached last month with Syncora, the new agreement with FGIC settlement involving real estate must be approved by Mayor Mike Duggan and the Detroit City Council in the wake of the resolution adopted by the city last month which provided for the restoration of local control over city departments, contracts, and other day-to-day matters after 18 months under state emergency management. The settlement provides for a mix of cash and prime downtown Detroit real estate. FGIC will receive about $152 million in city notes, part of which will be backed by public parking revenue, as well as $19.7 million in credits it can apply for purchasing city parking assets or real estate. In return, FGIC, which has a $1.1 billion exposure from insuring the pension certificates of participation (COPs), will drop its objections to the city’s plan to adjust $18 billion of debt. In addition, another, smaller barrier was also removed yesterday when the city announced its settlement with the Macomb Interceptor Drainage District over a $26 million claim. The agreement could effectively end all creditor opposition to Detroit’s plan of debt adjustment—which will be updated so that an 8th, and presumably final, version will be submitted to the U.S. bankruptcy court next week, when the Motor City is scheduled to offer its closing arguments. “There wasn’t any more cash,’’ Mayor Mike Duggan said in an interview yesterday. “They made an assessment that their best chance for a return was to participate in Detroit’s redevelopment.” Nevertheless, it remains on Judge Rhodes plate to independently determine that the revised, eighth version of Detroit’s plan of debt adjustment is feasible, and his finding that the city has a reasonable likelihood of achieving its financial projections and performing its obligations.

The Deal. Yesterday’s federally mediated agreement involved FGIC’s wrapping of $1.1 billion worth of the city’s certificates of participation or COPs, which the city has sued to repudiate, claiming the debt was illegally issued by the former Kilpatrick administration—a lawsuit which will be dropped under yesterday’s agreement, although it remains uncertain whether the holders of the COPs, which include hedge funds, are parties to the agreement, with an attorney representing the COPs holders reportedly advising Judge Rhodes it was still uncertain how many would choose to opt in on the settlement. Under the agreement, Detroit would provide FGIC the opportunity to redevelop the city’s prime riverfront site which now includes the Joe Louis Arena, where the Detroit Red Wings skate, allowing FGIC to replace the arena with a 300-room hotel, condominiums, and retail, primarily to serve the neighboring convention center. The city testified in the courtroom yesterday that the proposed agreement would help redevelop a nearly nine-acre stretch of riverfront land in downtown Detroit. FGIC would get roughly $150 million in cash from two note issues floated by the city, reports said. The insurer would also receive $4 million in so-called revitalization credits and $14 million in tax increment financing district credits. Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr will ask the Detroit City Council to approve the deal next week. If the council rejects the plan, Mr. Orr could instead petition Michigan’ state emergency loan board for its approval. The city plans to turn in an amended confirmation plan – its eighth—reflecting the new agreement by Monday.

Taking Stock of Crime in Stockton. As the City Stockton awaits U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Christopher Klein’s decision at the end of the month with regard to approving the city’s proposed plan of debt adjustment―which would allow the city to exit municipal bankruptcy, the city faces elects just days afterwards—elections which could rechart the city’s future, notwithstanding its plan, and which will have to address public safety. Stockton Mayor Anthony Silva this week, in the aftermath of eight recent homicides, including five over the weekend in a four-hour span (there have been 45 homicides in Stockton in 2014. There were 32 in all of 2013) warned that the city’s recent crime wave is indicative of a “state of emergency,” asking citizens for “input” into the deployment of police officers. In addition, the Mayor renewed his call for voters to oust two incumbent City Council members in the upcoming elections. The crime surge occurred shortly after last week’s city announcement of the hiring of Jessica Glynn as manager of Stockton’s new Office of Violence Prevention. Mayor Silva said he is pleased the new job — which includes overseeing the city’s Operation Ceasefire anti-gang measures — has been filled, but he added that the city needs an immediate prescription in addition to a long-range cure: “As the mayor, I feel it’s my job to help protect the residents.” Stewart Wakeling of the California Partnership for Safe Communities — one of the city’s partners in Operation Ceasefire — said Tuesday he believes Stockton’s long-range approach is the right course for a sustainable improvement: “The way to deal with it is to use all the resources you can that are rooted in the evidence of what works…There are no shortcuts to this. You just have to do it. An overnight reduction is not likely to happen.” Last year’s Stockton homicide total represented a decrease of 39 from the city’s all-time high of 71 killings in 2012, a drop which Mr. Wakeling attributed to the institution of the city’s “Ceasefire” at the start of 2013, but added, “To really enhance and sustain the effort, you have to have dedicated resources…”

Charting Stockton’s Future. In addition to Council elections next month, Stockton residents will vote on Measure C, a list of proposed changes to the city’s charter, among which are:
• Remove a provision requiring the mayor be paid at least as much as the chairman of the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors.
• Clarify and rephrase certain conflict-of-interest provisions and remove outdated language pertaining to employment qualifications.
• Remove mention of the city manager’s spending authority from the charter and provide for adoption of an administrative spending limit by ordinance.
• Render the charter silent on methods for selecting top officers in the Stockton Fire Department.

On vote-by-mail ballots in the coming weeks, and in voting booths on Nov. 4, Stockton residents will be making key decisions on three election campaigns that will determine the makeup of the City Council for the next four years. Perhaps largely unnoticed amid the campaign rhetoric is Measure C, which proposes a variety of changes to Stockton’s charter, the city’s governing document—or as the co-chairs of the citizen’s commission describe it: “Measure C is about modern, efficient government…A YES vote means progress toward modern, efficient government with policies that reflect the new direction of Stockton and drive the City toward a brighter future.” The space on the ballot that was allotted for an argument by opponents to Measure C is blank. No opposing argument was submitted. At issue for the next two years will be the current system, under which candidates in Stockton’s six geographical areas first must compete in a primary in which only their district’s residents can vote, but then must win a November city-wide election. That system has been in place since voters approved it in 1986, but it has been facing challenges for years. Twelve years ago, for instance, a group of south Stockton clergymen sought to change the system, arguing that it funnels political attention and dollars away from their community. But the effort died in the City Council. Former City Councilman Ralph Lee White, who serves on the charter review commission, has been seeking to change the system almost from the moment it was adopted, even though those who support the current system have argue there is little historical evidence that it has disenfranchised voters. Since the 1986 measure took effect, according to election records, 40 of 46 City Council candidates who won their district primaries went on to capture their races in the city-wide vote.

Trouble in River City. San Bernardino Mayor Cary Davis this week warned of new obstacles to the city’s hopes for exiting municipal bankruptcy, stating that police union claims that the city’s management “misinterpreted” a tentative agreement are untrue. Rather Mayor Davis said, it was the union seeking to change the contract under the “guise of ‘clarification,’ with the union now seeking to change the terms of the agreement and add additional burdensome costs over the life of the contract. This action took place after the agreement was approved by both sides. A deal is a deal and the fact that union leadership, through their announcement, would attempt to set aside a judicially mediated agreement and renegotiate is disturbing.” The disagreement, moreover, is not small: as City Manager Allen Parker noted: “It’s a significant difference — there’s a significant dollar sign difference over the length of the contract.” The breakdown between the city and its police union over the tentative agreement – in the wake of a filing with U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury that the two sides are no longer actively negotiating—is indicative of the obstacles in the path to any long-term consensus on a plan of debt adjustment that would clear the way for the city to exit from municipal bankruptcy and move forward with a sustainable fiscal future—as well as with the signal differences compared to Detroit, where the active, contributory role of Governor Rick Snyder and bipartisan leaders of the state legislature—not to mention the attuned musical ear of Judge Rhodes and unrelenting efforts of Chief U.S. Judge Gerald Rosen have put Detroit on the brink of exiting municipal bankruptcy at a far faster pace than San Bernardino. Since union president Steve Turner two weeks ago announced that the city “chose to turn its back” on a tentative agreement, city officials have mostly kept to statements that they intend to continue negotiating but cannot provide their side in detail because a federal judicial gag order covers the agreement. Moreover, as with its northern counterpart, Stockton, the issues are further exacerbated by the looming elections—here, specifically, as the campaign for and against Measure Q — which would change the city charter to set police and firefighter salaries by collective bargaining rather than as the average of 10 like-sized cities — heats up―a measure on which the union recently ended its neutral stance and began actively opposing. Or, as Mayor Davis notes: “It’s curious that the change happened at the cusp of the election.”

Is Detroit Nearing a Successful Exit from Municipal Bankruptcy?

eBlog
October 16, 2014
Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project

Hearing from the People. U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes yesterday offered some 30 creditors of bankrupt Detroit who are not represented by attorneys to not only testify, but also to question witnesses as his trial to determine whether to approve Detroit’s proposed plan of debt adjustment. Nearly 40 people had filed objections with the federal court asking for permission either to testify or question witnesses, including Detroit officials. Most objections related to the proposed cuts to pensions. The testimony came ahead of closing arguments in the biggest municipal bankruptcy trial in U.S. history and offered people a final chance to convince Judge Rhodes he should dismiss, rather than approve the city’s debt-cutting and reinvestment plan. The opportunity made for some awkward, and racially charged, moments as Judge Rhodes relaxed rules and procedures normally in place for attorneys. Yesterday’s unconventional hearing permitting the individual objectors to argue against the Motor City’s restructuring plan precipitated some unexpected scenes, including one Detroit resident suddenly getting the chance to question emergency manager Kevyn Orr under oath. Wanda Jan Hill, an activist who ran for city council last year, originally asked to question Jones Day lawyer Heather Lennox about Detroit’s clawback of retirees’ annuity savings accounts; however, city attorneys sought to block the request, saying Ms. Lennox likely would be precluded from answering any questions because of her duty to keep private information shielded by attorney-client privileges and a gag order on the case’s mediation talks. Nevertheless, under questioning by Ms. Hill, Ms. Lennox acknowledged that Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr did not warn retirees in key documents that, under the city’s plan, they would be mandated to pay interest on monies clawed back from a savings plan that overpaid some workers. Ms. Hill told Judge Rhodes that had retirees known, they might have voted against, rather than for Mr. Orr’s proposed plan of debt adjustment. That led Judge Rhodes to ask Kevyn Orr, who was present in the courtroom, to respond—prodding him to be specific by telling him: “I think what Ms. Hill is trying to get here is whether or not any of the city’s filed documents disclose the 6.75% interest rate associated with the clawback.” Nevertheless, even with the Judge’s efforts to obtain a specific answer, no such response was forthcoming. Under the plan, general city employees will see their monthly retirement pay reduced by 4.5 percent and will lose their COLAs. Police and firefighters will get their full pensions, but have their COLAs cut in half. The cuts would affect about 30,000 active employees and retirees. Retirees who contributed money to an optional annuity savings fund will have to return overpayments they received from the program, plus 6.75 percent in interest. The annuity program paid employees a guaranteed interest rate regardless of how the fund’s assets performed. The city argued that workers were overpaid in many years. Those cuts, plus changes to retiree health benefits, mean retirees are projected to receive only about 60 percent of what they were promised, according to the city. Walter Gary Knoll, a retired city chemist, testified he will have to repay $42,000 because of the clawback, even though, as he told Judge Rhodes, “I engaged in no fraud or deceit in the annuity.” Others who testified yesterday included former Detroit Councilwoman JoAnn Watson, and Motor City resident Fredia Butler, whom Judge Rhodes allowed to wear a big black floppy hat while testifying. Ms. Butler told Judge Rhodes the city’s bankruptcy case was a “power grab,” and Michigan Governor Rick Snyder the city’s “master,” while decrying the loss of local control since the Governor’s appointment last year of Kevyn Orr as Emergency Manager. She told Judge Rhodes she was “praying for justice.”

A Final Bankruptcy Agreement? Attorneys for Detroit and Financial Guaranty Insurance Co. yesterday advised Judge Rhodes they plan to present a proposed settlement which could resolve FGIC’s objection to Detroit’s plan of debt adjustment in court today—in effect removing the last major stumbling block to Detroit’s exit from municipal bankruptcy. The city and FGIC have participated in closed-door, federally overseen mediation talks for weeks in an attempt to reach such an agreement. Thomas Cullen, a Jones Day attorney representing Detroit, advised Judge Rhodes that the city has a “firm and active faith” that a settlement with FGIC would be finalized by today, perhaps clearing the way for Judge Rhodes to find that Detroit’s modified plan of debt adjustment meets the federal test of being fair, feasible, and in the best interests of its thousands and thousands of creditors. Should such an agreement be offered to the federal court today, it would leave only a small number of financial creditors and individuals objecting to the Motor City’s modified plan of debt adjustment. FGIC has been working behind closed doors under the prodding of U.S. Judge Gerard Rosen to settle FGIC’s $1.1 billion claim stemming from a disastrous pension deal backed by ex- and now imprisoned former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. A settlement would let FGIC recover more money than under the current, seventh version of Detroit’s proposed plan of adjustment, but less than what rival bond insurer Syncora Guarantee Inc. received in its agreement with the city last month. Syncora and FGIC were two of the biggest objectors in the bankruptcy trial: together, the two had insured $1.4 billion in troubled pension debt that helped former Mayor Kilpatrick prop up the city’s pension funds in 2005. Under the current, pending plan of debt adjustment before the federal bankruptcy court, Detroit proposes paying FGIC as little as 6 cents on the dollar. Under Syncora’s agreement—incorporated in the pending plan, the bond insurer would receive nearly 14 percent recovery on claims totaling $400 million. If the two parties are able to present their potential agreement to the federal court today, Judge Rhodes could schedule closing arguments in the historic trial for next week.

Protecting the Motor City’s Future. To choke the flow of police officers leaving Detroit for other cities, City Council President Brenda Jones yesterday said she was considering the potential adoption of an ordinance that would force departing police officers to reimburse the city for their training costs—a reimbursement which could amount to thousands of dollars per officer. Councilmember Jones told her colleagues that it was “ridiculous to lose officers we’ve trained — and spent money on training — to another city.” Councilmember Jones announced her proposal in the wake of Detroit Police Chief James Craig’s description during yesterday’s council meeting of his department’s struggle to keep officers working in Detroit. Chief Craig said uncertainty created by Detroit’s municipal bankruptcy and concerns over the competitiveness of the city’s compensation appeared to be at the root of many of the departures, telling the Council Detroit was losing 20-25 police officers per month when the drain was at its worst. He warned that big cities, such as Houston and Atlanta, have sent recruitment teams to Detroit, while other officers had decamped to local suburbs or joined Wayne State University’s police force. Council President Jones did not define the duration over which a Detroit officer would have to remain in Detroit to avoid the potential financial penalty, nor did she say how much it costs the city to train a police officer, but a police department representative told Council the training fee had been about $5,500 in the past, telling the Councilmembers: “What’s driving many officers to leave, candidly, is uncertainty about the future, pay.” The Detroit Police Department has about 1,800 police officers and about 1,000 civilian workers—and is focused on getting as many of its members as possible on the street fighting crime. Chief Craig said that despite losing officers, his department had succeeded in reducing overall crime in Detroit, telling them that overall crime in Detroit is down 17% and homicides are down 14%.

Russian Roulette? Even as the Garden State is focusing on ensuring the fiscal viability of Newark, there are growing concerns about the potential solvency of Atlantic City. Thus it appears efforts are underway to seek state intervention—and fiscal aid—to saving Atlantic City’s Trump Taj Mahal casino and its almost 3,000 jobs. Trump Entertainment Resorts Inc., the bankrupt casino operator which owns the Taj Mahal, has turned to state officials after Atlantic City elected leaders rejected the gambling center’s efforts to be given $175 million in property tax abatements. At a corporate federal bankruptcy hearing yesterday, a Trump Entertainment advisor testified Trump Entertainment has said it may close its remaining casino next month without tax relief and labor concessions. (Mr. Trump’s estimated wealth as of last March was $3.9 billion.) Having failed to secure a bailout by the city, the city, the casino is now asking Jon Hanson, Chairman of the New Jersey Gaming, Sports, and Entertainment Advisory Commission, to put together a bailout package of state funds to keep the casino open.

What Constitutes Fair & Equitable in Municipal Bankruptcy?

October 15, 2014

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

Is Detroit Contagious? Despite some apprehensions that Detroit’s bankruptcy might be contagious to other municipalities in Michigan, the Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy at the University of Michigan reports that an increasing percentage of municipalities (36%) report they are better able to meet their fiscal needs this year—and that improving fiscal health of municipalities is reported by jurisdictions of all sizes across the state. According to the report, this marks the first time in the Michigan Public Policy Survey’ studies that Michigan’s local governments have reported they are better able to meet their fiscal needs this year than the previous year. The report found the improvement to be broad—with improvement reported by jurisdictions of all sizes, with the exception, however, of municipalities with populations between 10,000 to 30,000, where less fiscal gains (42%) were reported than last year (48%). Overall, nearly 25% or 440 local governments reported declining fiscal health. The majority of municipalities reported two key areas of improvement: property tax revenues and state aid. Tom Ivacko, the Center’s Director and a co-author of the report, notes that the improvements constitute “a slow trend, [which] still leaves more than 400 jurisdictions here in fiscal decline.” This year’s survey does mark a continuing, overall improvement: from the surveys’ earlier years as Michigan’s 1,856 cities, townships and counties struggled with the effect of the national recession and the state’s grim recession. The study reported steep declines in local finances in 2009 and 2010, followed by a general trend of improvement through 2012—a trend which has continued, according to the report, but at a decelerating pace; nevertheless, the report found that for the first time since the report was initiated, more local governments have passed a “tipping point” of fiscal health, with 36% of jurisdictions saying they are better able to meet their fiscal needs this year compared to 24% who said they are less able to do so. According to the report, the municipalities reporting distress are:

  • more likely to have experienced cuts in property taxes and state and federal aid,
  • more likely to have taken on debt,
  • more likely to report growing employee health care costs and increased infrastructure needs,
  • a majority — 56% — are still facing falling property tax revenues.

According to the report, 36% are seeing an increase in property tax revenue, up from 8% in 2010. Another 38% of local governments said they continue to see a decrease, compared to 78% that saw decreasing property taxes in 2010. Part of the story of improving finances, according to the report, is the result of local governments reducing wages and services—leaving them less fiscally able to withstand another serious recession, but better equipped if the economy continues to improve.

 

A Final Bankruptcy Agreement? Detroit attorneys hope to present an agreement between the Motor City and its last remaining holdout creditor, FGIC, or the Financial Guaranty Insurance Co., tomorrow in court before U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes. Thomas Cullen, a Jones Day attorney representing Detroit in its historic bankruptcy case, testified yesterday in court that the Motor City had a “firm and active faith” that such an agreement would be completed by then. Counselor Cullen’s testimony came in the wake of closed door sessions in New York City under the aegis of U.S. Judge Gerald Rosen, as FGIC attorney, Alfredo Perez, told the court that the NYC overseen negotiations had permitted the parties to “make a lot of progress.” Judge Rhodes then granted FGIC’s request to hold off on bringing in its witnesses until tomorrow. The status update before Judge Rhodes came as the parties prepare to call witnesses prior to the trial’s closing arguments, which are expected as early as next week. The NYC discussions have been with regard to addressing FGIC’s claim on some $1.1 billion, stemming from a disastrous pension deal backed by former—and now convicted and imprisoned―ex-Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. The closed door, federally overseen private negotiations are intended to accelerate an end to the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy. In response to the potential agreement, Judge Rhodes yesterday inquired if an agreement with FGIC would require “yet another round of projections,” to which Mr. Cullen responded no. The Detroit News reported last week that the city was considering leasing most of Detroit’s public parking facilities to bond insurers — including the Joe Louis Arena garage and one underneath the old Hudson’s site along Woodward — as part of these key settlement negotiations, under which FGIC could end up leasing three parking garages, receive riverfront land, and cash. FGIC could also sign an agreement to develop city-owned land. Under the emerging outlines of the potential settlement, FGIC would recover more than under the Motor City’s pending plan of debt adjustment before the federal court, but less than what rival bond insurer Syncora Guarantee Inc. received under its court-approved settlement last month. Syncora and FGIC were two of the largest holdout creditors that have been obstacles to Detroit’s emergence from municipal bankruptcy. The firms insured $1.4 billion in troubled pension debt which were key to the sordid deals under now-convicted former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s reign that were used to prop up Detroit’s pension funds in 2005. Under Detroit’s pending plan of debt adjustment before the federal bankruptcy court, the Motor City has proposed paying FGIC as little as 6 cents on the dollar. Under the emerging settlement offer, FGIC could receive nearly 14 cents on the dollar, or a total of $400 million. In comparison, the plan proposes 46 cents on the dollar for Detroit’s retirees on their $3.1 billion claim. FGIC has argued before Judge Rhodes that the city’s proposed debt adjustment plan violates the U.S. Bankruptcy Code, because it proposes paying some creditors more than others (please note immediately below). If FGIC settles, Detroit’s last potential hurdle could come from a regional water district which is suing over a botched project and a handful of former city employees and residents who are not represented by lawyers.

Let the Hearings Continue.  With the closed door negotiations between Detroit and FGIC behind closed doors, Detroit’s historic bankruptcy case continued yesterday with Judge Rhodes taking testimony from others opposed to Detroit’s current proposed plan of debt adjustment. William Fornia, a pension consultant, challenged the claim under the city’s pending plan of adjustment that Detroit retirees would recover 60 percent or less of what they are owed, telling the court the city’s calculation flawed. Mr. Fornia testified pensioners are more likely to recover about 75 percent. According to FGIC and many of the city’s municipal bondholders, such a recovery for retirees should be rejected by the federal court, because of its significant inequity—with thee gross disproportionate recovery proposed of only about 11% for the city’s municipal bondholders versus  75% for its pensioners. Today the case, In re City of Detroit, 13-bk-53846, U.S. Bankruptcy Court, Eastern District of Michigan, is scheduled to resume with witnesses who oppose the Motor City’s pending plan of debt adjustment, but who are not represented by attorneys.

 

Conditional Approval. The New Jersey Local Finance Board officials has approved Newark Mayor Ras Baraka’s budget for this calendar year, although the director of the state’s local government-services division warned that the FY2015 fiscal gap may be as yawning as $60 million. The Board has ordered $1.3 million of cuts to benefits, salaries, and other expenses from the $815 million budget that the Newark City Council approved last week. The Local Finance Board’s unanimous vote was the last step needed for adoption of Newark’s budget—a key step in the wake of the $93 million deficit Mayor Baraka inherited when he took office last July―a gap which Finance Board Chairman Thomas Neff noted was the “largest structural imbalance—probably in the state,” adding that if there were no appreciation of the problem, the city would not take the necessary steps to act. The Local Finance Board, which oversees municipal finances in the state, voted last week to supervise Newark’s finances as a requirement of Mayor Baraka’s plan to spread out a $30 million deficit from 2013 over the next decade—a budget which now includes $10 million of state transitional aid. Most of the board’s cuts, $1 million, are for health care. The city has failed to collect higher benefit contributions since Governor

Chris Christie signed a 2011 law requiring public workers to pay as much as 35% of the cost of their premiums, up from a flat 1.5 percent of salary, according to Chairman Neff.

Not a Georgia Peach. A Georgia businessman accused of bribing former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and several Motor City pension fund officials accepted a plea agreement minutes before standing trial yesterday in federal court. Under the agreement, the businessman, Roy Dixon, will enter a guilty plea at 2 p.m. to conspiracy to commit honest services mail and wire fraud―the same federal statute under which former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell and his wife were convicted earlier this year―a 20-year felony that also carries a $250,000 fine. Mr. Dixon was one of four people charged with looting Detroit’s pension funds along with former Mayor Kilpatrick’s fraternity brother Jeffrey Beasley and three others. Mr. Dixon was charged with embezzling more than $3 million with the help of former Detroit Lions wide receiver Mike Farr and spending some of the cash on an $8.5 million mansion in Atlanta, making him the third person to plead guilty to a federal crime in the corruption case and the latest during a years-long corruption probe that has, to date, netted 35 convictions. It was not immediately clear whether Mr. Dixon agreed as part of his deal with federal prosecutors to cooperate or if he will testify against his former co-defendants during a trial that will resume tomorrow. The other two guilty pleas in the pension fund case came from former City Council aide George Stanton and businessman Chauncey Mayfield, who are awaiting sentencing and expected to testify during the Mr. Beasley’s trial. The underlying accusation against Mr. Dixon had alleged that he paid bribes and kickbacks to former Mayor Kilpatrick, Mr. Beasley, three pension fund trustees, and a municipal official—with the charge that he paid the bribes to secure investment money from the pension funds, according to prosecutors—with the money for those investments made available in the wake of the former Mayor’s backing for a controversial Wall Street deal that started injecting $1.4 billion into the city’s pension funds in 2005. In 2006, months after the Detroit City Council approved that deal, Mr. Dixon formed the private-equity firm Onyx Capital Advisers, which was based in Detroit—with the new firm seeking to act as a private equity firm which would invest Motor City pension fund money in a real estate deal in the Turks and Caicos Islands and a Georgia company that sold automobiles to people with bad credit. That company, mayhap appropriately named Georgia-based Second Chance Motors, was owned by Mike Farr, a former NFL Detroit Lions player, whose father was ex-Lion Mel Farr Sr., the “superstar,” Detroit-area auto dealer who pitched cars in commercials while wearing a red cape and pretending to fly. By June 2007, the Detroit pension funds and one in the city of Pontiac had agreed to invest $25 million in Onyx. That was exactly one year after Detroit received the final infusion from Mr. Kilpatrick’s Wall Street deal. To secure the investment, prosecutors allege Mr. Dixon paid bribes and kickbacks to Messieurs Kilpatrick, Beasley, three other pension trustees, as well as others. In addition, Mr. Dixon and an unnamed business partner allegedly contributed $45,000 to Mr. Kilpatrick’s nonprofit, the Kilpatrick Civic Fund. In court documents, Mr. Dixon testified that Mr. Beasley and other pension officials extorted money and gifts from him — a claim likely to be repeated if he testifies during the trial. The indictment and a probe by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) allege Mr. Dixon fueled a lavish lifestyle with money loaned on behalf of Detroit’s retirees. By 2008, Mr. Dixon was financing the construction of a stone mansion in Atlanta. The FBI and SEC analyzed bank and financial records and alleged that he arranged for Mr. Farr to pay three construction companies $521,000 in pension fund cash, according to prosecutors. The investment in the 2.5 acre plot was for a seven bedroom mansion with a mere ten bathrooms, a pool, and an exercise room, library, and four fireplaces—a former home, I should write, as it was headed for foreclosure last year. By the time of his indictment last year, federal prosecutors said the Detroit pension funds had lost the entire $20 million investment in Onyx; Pontiac’s public pension fund had lost $3.8 million. The current pension fund corruption trial is the first major public corruption case since former Mayor Kilpatrick was convicted and sentenced last year to 28 years in federal prison. This one which involves the Motor City’s former Treasurer and Mr. Kilpatrick’s former fraternity brother , as well three others who either worked for Detroit’s pension funds or received millions in pension loans. Meanwhile, Mr. Kilpatrick is an unindicted co-conspirator in a complex criminal case that will attempt to explain what happened to money from a $1.4 billion Wall Street deal blamed for helping plunge Detroit into bankruptcy, with federal prosecutors alleging the funds lined the former Mayor’s pockets in a federal trial that spans 2006 through April 2009 and alleges pension fund corruption cheated retirees out of more than $84 million. That amount must be considered in addition to the money-losing Wall Street deal Kilpatrick backed. Federal prosecutors allege city pension officials started approving a series of corrupt investments with businessmen in January 2006, six months after the Wall Street deal. Flush with cash, pension fund trustees loaned more than $200 million to businessmen accused of paying bribes and kickbacks, according to federal prosecutors. Kilpatrick is an unindicted co-conspirator because Beasley, 45, of Chicago, allegedly pressured people to contribute money to the ex-mayor’s nonprofit group in order to get pension fund loans. The defendants deny being influenced by perks that allegedly flowed during business dealings and trips to Las Vegas, England and the Caribbean. The four defendants are Beasley, Dixon and two former pension officials: trustee and former vice president of the Detroit Police Officers Association Paul Stewart and Ronald Zajac, 70, of Northville, former top lawyer for two municipal pension funds.