Is the Federal Government Using a Double Standard in Responding to Puerto Rico, adding to its Fiscal and Physical Distress?

eBlog

January 19, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the ongoing federal and fiscal challenges to fiscal recovery for the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico.

Denial of Assistance. As if there has not been enough evidence of a double standard with regard to the provision of federal aid to the hurricane devastation to Puerto Rico, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the U.S. Treasury have written to the Puerto Rico Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority Executive Director Gerardo Portela that, because the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico’s  central cash balance, as publicly reported, has consistently exceeded $1.5 billion in the months following the hurricanes, and “considering the implications of the $6.875 billion of total cash deposits across the Commonwealth, the federal government will institute, as a matter of policy, a cash balance policy that will determine the timing of Community Disaster Loans (CDLs) to the Commonwealth and its instrumentalities, including the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority and the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority.” Translated into English, that means Puerto Rico may have too much cash to be eligible for a federal loan—notwithstanding the discriminatory treatment compared to Houston or Florida, much less that still, nearly four months after the devastating storm—a storm to respond to which President Trump offered paper towels—some four months after the storm, many residents are still without electricity. Nevertheless, according to FEMA, the island is at risk of not receiving federal community disaster loans, because its cash balances may be too high.

For its part, the government of Puerto Rico has opted to pay up its arrears accounts with both the Electric Power Authority and the Aqueduct and Sewer Authority—as well as focus its efforts on legislation to address FEMA’s concerns—in a critical effort to free up federal assistance—assistance already approved by Congress. At the same time, Puerto Rico’s Financial Advisory Authority and Fiscal Agency Wednesday admitted that if FEMA opts not to grant the disaster loan to the U.S. territory, very hard decisions will confront the citizens of Puerto Rico and their leaders—or, as Sen. Anibal Jose Torres put it: the challenge will be to “ensure basic services to the population, the payment of pensions, and the payroll of public employees,” concerns which appear not to be apprehensions of the Trump Administration, even as Gerardo Portela Franco, the Executive Director and Chairman of the Board of Puerto Rico’s Fiscal Agency & Financial Advisory Authority, noted: “We will continue negotiating with the Treasury until we achieve that CDL,” adding: “We have faithfully complied with all the requirements,” referring to the negotiations his agency has had with the U.S. Treasury since last October. The contretemps emerged after El Nuevo Día Wednesday  revealed that FEMA and the U.S. Treasury had halted the disbursement of funds to Puerto Rico under the CDL program until adopting “a cash balance policy” which will determine when and how much funding FEMA will provide to Puerto Rico to address its operational expenses in trying to recover from the effects of Hurricane Maria, theoretically in “consultation” with the Fiscal Oversight Board created by Congress, even as the two stateside federal agencies made clear Puerto Rico will have to “cover its cash needs and those of the PREPA and the AAA.

Unsurprisingly, Héctor Figueroa, the President of the SEIU noted that it was “inconceivable that FEMA and the Treasury retain the aid funds approved three months ago for Puerto Rico following the scourge of Hurricane Maria…Puerto Rican working families continue to be considered second class citizens by the administration of (Donald) Trump and by Congress.”

The situation is further complicated, despite some four months of negotiations, by the fact that FEMA and the U.S. Treasury have yet to specify the specific conditions to be mandated—now, nearly four months after Congress approved a package of aid for Puerto Rico, as well as for the states of Florida, Texas, California, and the U.S. Virgin Islands: in that aid package which Congress approved, however, it appears there was a stipulation that, before the federal government could be obliged to provide aid, Puerto Rico, as collateral, had to pledge the unencumbered revenues from the Sale and Use Tax (IVU) or those paid by foreign corporations under Law 154—albeit it remains unclear whether the specific terms with regard to collateral are still being negotiated. What is clear, however, is a double standard, as the epistle from FEMA does not seem to reflect the human or fiscal urgency of the situation, especially in the wake of the fiscal warnings at the end of last September that “As a result of hurricanes Irma and María, the government, PREPA and AAA projected at the end of September 2017 that it would deplete its operational funds on or near October 31, 2017.” In their letter, however, FEMA and the Treasury opined that, as of December 29, 2017, the central government’s cash balance was approximately $1,700 million—an amount which, according to Portela Franco, does not detract from the fact that Puerto Rico is in a state of “insolvency.”

The head of the Puerto Rico Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority, the public corporation and governmental instrumentality in Puerto Rico which has assumed the majority of the fiscal agency and financial advisory responsibilities previously held by the Government Development Bank for Puerto Rico, and the Puerto Rican entity in charge of collaboration, communication, and cooperation between the Government of Puerto Rico and the PROMESA Oversight Board, noted that the figure cited in the letter includes the reserves required by La Junta de Supervisión y Administración Financiera (JSF) to finance the process of renegotiation of the debt in court, as well as the payment of pensions and public payroll, two priority items for Governor Rosselló Nevares.

Indeed, a review of Puerto Rico’s most recent liquidity report seems to validate Mr. Portela Franco’s views, noting, for instance, in his January 5th report, that the Department of Hacienda projections include the collections which are regularly sent to Cofina—reports still awaiting the attention of U.S. Judge Laura Taylor Swain—a figure in the range of  $316 million. In addition, the report reveals that, so far this fiscal year, Puerto Rico’s central government has withheld $ 437 million from the Automobile Accident Administration (ACAA) and the Highway and Transportation Authority (ACT), among others—even as government suppliers are owed about $ 331 million and government agencies hold $ 276 million in debt to each other, including water and electricity bills. Thus, as Portela Franco and Andrés Méndez, in charge of liquidity matters in the Aafaf, noted: the government seems to undress a saint to dress others such as the AEE and the AAA: “As we have to inject liquidity to the AAA and the AEE, that balance of the Treasury’s TSA account will fall precipitously,” adding that, without the FEMA loan, it would be necessary to continue adopting what he termed “difficult decisions,” such as stretching payments to suppliers.

Unsurprisingly, Governor Rosselló Nevares, described the epistle from Washington, D.C. as one in which the “government of Puerto Rico and the Treasury have reached an agreement. The agreement is that when the collections go down in Puerto Rico, the loans begin to arrive. What does this mean? That at the moment, we still have resources that are going to be running out,but that they will want to transfer those loans once it happens to that.” The Governor also rejected that the Oversight Board has an additional responsibility in the process of granting the CDL, because PROMESA had already established that the federal entity will have authority to interfere in any loan that Puerto Rico receives. (The epistle from FEMA and the U.S. Treasury notes that the cash policy for the loan from Puerto Rico will be adopted “in consultation with the government and the JSF.”

As of the end of last month, Puerto Rico had $1.7 billion of available cash, notwithstanding earlier predictions by local officials that the government would run out of money in late October because of the economic toll of responding to the hurricanes: by the end of November, it still had funds in other accounts, albeit some of it was earmarked for specific uses and could not be used to keep Puerto Rico’s government operating.

In FEMA’s epistle to Gerardo Portela, the Executive Director of Puerto Rico’s Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority, FEMA noted: “Under this cash balance policy, funds will be provided through the CDL program when the commonwealth’s central cash balance decreases to a certain level.” Executive Director Portela, earlier this week, noted that, because of the delay in federal loans, Puerto Rico’s central government will begin procedures to allow it to lend money to the island’s public electricity and water utilities, even as he urged the federal government to distribute the loans, stating: “AAFAF has complied with all the demands of federal agencies; however, despite our continuous efforts, to date, the Treasury Department and FEMA have not provided the final terms and conditions under which they will disburse the funds granted by the Congress.” With damage from Hurricane Maria estimated to total as much as $100 billion, Governor Ricardo Rossello earlier this month warned that Puerto Rico’s electric utility may be unable to continue recovery work in February due to lack of funds—even though, more than 100 days after the storm slamming into an island which had already filed a record-setting quasi chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in May devastated Puerto Rico’s economy and destroyed its electrical grid: still today, about 45 percent of Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority customers are still without power.

The Epistle:

Mr. Gerardo J. Portela Franco

Executive Director and Chairman of the Board

Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority

Government of Puerto Rico

Robe1io Sanchez Vilella Government Center

De Diego Avenue, Stop 22

San Juan, Puerto Rico, 00907

Dear Mr. Portela Franco:

This letter summarizes the Federal Government’s policy for providing Community Disaster Loan (CDL) Program assistance to the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, its instrumentalities, and municipalities as a result of Hurricanes Irma (DR-4336-PR) and Maria (DR-4339-PR). The purpose of the CDL Program is to provide loans to eligible recipients that have suffered a substantial loss of tax and other revenues as a result of a major disaster and that demonstrate a need for Federal financial assistance to perform essential governmental functions. The Additional Supplemental Appropriations for Disaster Relief Requirements Act of 2017, signed into law by the President on October 26, 2017, included $4.9 billion for CD Ls to assist the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and local governments in Florida and Texas in maintaining essential services as a result of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria.

Implementing the CDL Program in the Commonwealth must be undertaken in a manner that is compatible with the ongoing financial restructuring of the Commonwealth’s financial obligations, including pursuant to the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA). For example, pursuant to PROMESA the Financial Oversight and Management Board (FOMB) must approve any new debt incun-ed by the Conunonwealth or by any of its instrumentalities that the FOMB has designated as covered territorial instrumentalities under PRO MESA, including the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREP A) and the Pue1io Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (PRASA). Title III of PRO MESA also established a bankruptcy-like restructuring process for Puerto Rico and its covered territorial instrumentalities. As you are aware, the Commonwealth and PREPA have filed for Title III restructuring; PRASA has not.

As a result of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, the Commonwealth, PREP A, and PRASA projected in late

September 2017 that they would exhaust their operating funds on or about October 31, 2017. However, as of December 29, 2017, the Commonwealth’s central cash balance was approximately $1.7 billion. It is our understanding that the higher-than-expected central cash balance three months after the hurricanes resulted from greater-than-expected receipts, strategic management of payables, and the structure of relief funds from FEMA and other federal agencies, among other factors, although a review of the underlying detail is still underway. In addition to its central cash balance, on December 18, 2017, the Commonwealth released a report indicating that $6.875 billion in unrestricted and restricted cash was on deposit in over 800 accounts across all Commonwealth governmental entities. Despite these Commonwealth cash balances, the Commonwealth now indicates that PREPA and PRASA have an imminent need for liquidity in January 2018, and, as a result, each entity has applied for a CDL to cover operating expenditures.

Because the Commonwealth’s central cash balance, 1\S publicly reported, has consistently exceeded $1.5 billion in the months following the hurricanes, and considering the implications of the reported $6.875 billion of total cash across the Commonwealth, the Federal Government will institute, as a matter of policy, a Cash Balance Policy that will determine the timing of CD Ls to the Commonwealth and its instrumentalities, including PREP A and PRASA. Under this Cash Balance Policy, funds will be provided through the CDL Program when the Commonwealth’s central cash balance decreases to a certain level. This Cash Balance Policy level will be dete1mined by the Federal Government in consultation with the Commonwealth and the FOMB.

The current posture of the Federal Government is to disburse CDL program financing directly to the Commonwealth, which could then sub-lend to its various entities (including PREP A and PRASA), although this approach may be revised over time. Subsidiary borrowers will be expected to comply with remmitting, repayment, and collateral requirements that apply to the primary borrower. Unless the Cash Balance Policy level is reached, however, the Commonwealth will need to support its own liquidity needs and those of PREPA and PRASA.

Notwithstanding the above policy, local governments (as such term is defined in 42 U.S.C. §5122(8)) in Puerto Rico, including the 78 municipalities, will be eligible to apply directly for CD Ls independent of the Commonwealth under the traditional terms and conditions of Section 417 of the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, 42 U.S.C. §5184 (irrespective of the cash balance of the Commonwealth). Under these terms, a local government demonstrating a substantial loss of revenues may receive a streamlined CDL up to 25 percent of its annual budget, subject to a $5 million cap. FEMA will make arrangements to meet directly with the local governments and their management associations the week of January 15, 2018, in Puerto Rico to facilitate applications to the CDL Program onthe most timely basis possible consistent with program terms and requirements. If it is determined that a local government should require assistance beyond the $5 million cap, the Federal Government will consider providing additional financing under different terms and conditions, as appropriate.

FEMA and the Department of Treasury look forward to continuing to work with the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and its instrumentalities and local governments to ensure funding is available for operating expenses to perform governmental functions while respecting the PROMESA Title III proceedings, the statutory authorities granted to the FOMB under PROMESA, and the overall fiscal condition of the Commonwealth and its instrumentalities and local governments.

Respectfully,

Alex Amparo

Assistant Administrator Recovery Directorate

Federal Emergency Management Agency

Gary Grippo

Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Finance

U.S. Department of Treasury

 

cc: Governor Ricardo Rossello Nevares, Commonwealth of Puerto Rico

Financial Oversight and Management Board, Commonwealth of Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico State Agency for Emergency and Disaster Management

U.S. Office of Management and Budget

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Petitioning for Municipal Solvency

January 18, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the ongoing fiscal challenges to fiscal recovery for Scranton, Pennsylvania—a municipality that has verged on the edge of chapter 9 bankruptcy for many years.

Petitioning for Municipal Solvency. Scranton, Pennsylvania anticipates returning to court next month to obtain permission to continue imposing a tripled, annual local services tax of $156 on most who work in the city: the municipality has filed a petition in Lackawanna County Court to triple the local services tax. The city, Pennsylvania’s sixth-largest, is the county seat for Lackawanna County, with a population of 77,291. It is one of the nation’s oldest cities, incorporated on February 14, 1856, as a borough in Luzerne, and then as a municipality on April 23, 1866. It gained a reputation as the “Electric City” when electric lights were introduced in 1880 at Dickson Locomotive Works. By the end of the Civil War, Scranton rapidly transformed from a small, agrarian-based village to a multicultural, industrial-based city. From 1860 to 1900, the city’s population increased more than tenfold, in the wake of its official incorporation in 1866.

In 1856, the Borough of Scranton was officially incorporated. It was incorporated as a city of 35,000 in 1866 in Luzerne County, when the surrounding boroughs of Hyde Park (now part of the city’s West Side) and Providence (now part of North Scranton) were merged with Scranton. Twelve years later in 1878, the state passed a law enabling creation of new counties where a county’s population surpassed 150,000, as did Luzerne’s. The law appeared to enable the creation of Lackawanna County, and there was considerable political agitation around the authorizing process. Scranton was designated by the state legislature as the county seat of the newly formed county, which was also established as a separate judicial district, with state judges moving over from Luzerne County after courts were organized in October 1878. This was the last county in the state to be organized. Scranton earned the title as “The Electric City” when it completed the country’s first continuously operating electrified trolley in 1886—but it was also both a coal mining and steel center: at the onset of the 19th century, the city was home to the largest steel plant in the U.S.; by 1900, the city had a population of more than 100,000. However, by 1902, the dwindling iron ore supply, labor issues, and an aging plant began a reversal of fiscal fortunes: the city’s steel company left for New York—leaving Scranton, nevertheless, still as the capital of the anthracite coal industry—by which the municipality attracted thousands of workers needed to mine coal, the city developed new neighborhoods dominated by Italian and Eastern European immigrants, who brought their foods, cultures and religions. But the mining brought fortune and misfortune—the sub-surface mining weakened entire neighborhoods, damaging homes, schools, and businesses when the land collapsed, leading to, in 1913, state enactment of the Davis Act to establish the Bureau of Surface Support in Scranton. By the 1920’s, Scranton became a center for the manufacture of shellac buttons and a primary manufacturer of phonograph records. Thus, it continued to prosper and grow: by the mid-1930s, Scranton’s population had swollen beyond 140,000, because of growth in the mining and silk textile industries—and then, to support the war, in the 1940’s, mining became, once again, a major growth industry. However, even as many cities thrived in the wake of the war, the fortunes and population of Scranton began to ebb: coal production and rail traffic declined rapidly throughout the 1950s, leading to a reversal in employment. Indeed, that decade ended with the Know Mine Disaster, which virtually ended the mining industry in Northeastern Pennsylvania—and hammered the DL&W Railroad, which nearly went bankrupt itself because of the drop in coal traffic. Thus the city, which had served as a key hub of railroad operations lost another critical source of jobs and revenues. By 1957, the NYO&W Railroad, which depended heavily on its Scranton branch for freight traffic, was abandoned—leaving behind mine subsidence, which became an infrastructure nightmare for the city, as pillar supports in abandoned mines began to fail: cave-ins sometimes consumed entire blocks of homes, leaving the city scarred by abandoned coal mining structures, strip mines, and massive culm dumps, some of which caught fire and burned for many years. In 1970, the Secretary of Mines for Pennsylvania suggested that so many underground voids had been left by mining underneath Scranton that it would be “more economical” to abandon the city than make them safe. The physical and fiscal erosion meant that by the 1970s and 1980s, many downtown storefronts and theaters became vacant. By the beginning of this decade, Scranton itself was on the verge of municipal bankruptcy—the fiscal threat so dire that the city cut wages for all municipal officials, including the Mayor and fire chief, to $7.25 per hour—a step forced by estimates that the city treasury had just $5,000.

Thus, the city, in its petition to the court, is seeking approval to maintain a local services tax of $156, some $104 higher than the city’s prior level of $52 a year imposed before 2015. The city had raised the levy from $52 to $156 for every person working within the city limits who earns at least $15,600; now city leaders have deemed the proposed tax increases essential for the city’s recovery under the state-sponsored Act 47 for distressed communities, to which Scranton has belonged since 1992. (The city is junk-rated, albeit, as we noted last summer, S&P awarded it an upgrade in August to BB-plus from BB. The effort to obtain court approval to extend its higher local services tax, if approved, would continue to be $3 a week, or $156 a year per worker. (Previously, it was $1 per week, or $52 a year per worker. Under Pennsylvania law, these kinds of municipal taxes provide for exemptions for those earning less than $15,600 a year.) Scranton’s proposed recovery plan anticipates the city levying its local service tax at $156 a year annually through 2020, with the petition noting: “The Local Services Tax being levied at $156 represents a vital aspect of the plan as well as a key role in bringing about meaningful change to Scranton’s economic status.” Nevertheless, and even though the city confronted no opposition when it sought the previous approval, eight residents now contend the city would be in violation of a cap permitted under state law (Act 511) on a certain group of taxes, including the wage tax, business privilege/mercantile taxes, and the Local Services Tax. Nevertheless, Philadelphia Senior Judge John Braxton  dismissed the opposition as misplaced when he approved Scranton’s 2017 LST petition last February: his order noted the objectors could pursue a different legal avenue—an action they have now taken. Anyone wishing to file a response to the city’s petition has until the first week of next month to file.

The Motor City’s Road to Recovery

eBlog

January 17, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the ongoing fiscal recovery in Detroit from the nation’s largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy.

The City of Detroit, which filed for municipal bankruptcy protection on July 19, 2013—in what remains the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, in what then-Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr described as “the Olympics of restructuring,” a step he took to ensure continuity of essential services and critical to rebuilding the Motor City, continues on its resurgent comeback, with last years home sales ending on a high note. After decades of population decline (In 1950, there were 1,849,568 people in Detroit; by 2010, there were 713,777), the city reported the median sales price increased from last year to this year by nearly 50%. Realcomp Ltd. Data, moreover, indicates continued increases in assessed values this year: median sales prices increased from $159,000 in 2016 to $170,000 last year, while average days listed declined from 74 a year ago in December to 44 last month. Realcomp Board of Governor David Elya predicts demand and market listing will increase further this year, noting the Motor City is experiencing a higher inventory crunch due to higher demand—demand driven by a solid employment outlook—a remarkable turnaround from the onset of its chapter 9 filing, when the Motor City was home to an estimated 40,000 abandoned lots and structures: between 1978 and 2007, Detroit lost 67 percent of its business establishments and 80 percent of its manufacturing base. Or, as the insightful Billy Hamilton wrote at the time: the city was “either the ghost of a lost time and place in America, or a resource of enormous potential.”

Detroit, which relies on taxes and state-shared revenues higher than those of any other large Michigan municipality on a per capita basis, derives its revenues from a broader base than most municipalities: property taxes, income tax, utility taxes, a casino wagering tax, and state-shared revenues. Notwithstanding, its revenues, prior to its filing, had declined over the previous decade by 22 percent, even as it was accruing more debt based on obligations for post-employment benefits. The city’s decline into chapter 9 predated the housing crisis, or, as the Citizens Research Council reported: the overall loss of 15,648 business establishments from 1972 until 2007 did not capture the effects of the severe 2008 recession, much less the bankruptcies and subsequent recovery of General Motors and Chrysler and the restructuring of the automotive supplier network, on the number of businesses in the city.

Nevertheless, persistence, along with the sharp recovery of the automobile markets, combined with the city’s being home to one of the broadest tax bases of any city in the U.S. [Municipal income taxes constitute the city’s largest single source, contributing about 21 percent of total revenue in 2012, or $323.5 million in 2002, the last year in which the city realized a general fund surplus.] appears to have been instrumental in the remarkable turnaround.

Disparate Physical & Fiscal Responses to Municipal Physical & Fiscal Distress

eBlog

January 16, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the ongoing fiscal and physical challenges of restoring power in hurricane devastated Puerto Rico, which the Trump Administration and Congress have opted to treat in a very different manner than other hurricane devastated municipalities and states.

Prospects for Recovery. Notwithstanding the opposition of his own designated coordinator for the restoration of electric power, Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello yesterday gave the go-ahead to sign an agreement which will allow Puerto Rico’s muncipios to hire companies and experts to repair the island’s electric distribution lines, with Puerto Rico Secretary of the Interior, William Villafañe, announcing—in the wake of a demonstration by residents of bigger muncipios which remain without electricity since Hurricanes Irma and María passed last September, that the Electric Power Authority (AEE) will sign an agreement with the muncipios to allow them to hire companies to repair power lines. The breakthrough came in the wake of a meeting with the presidents of the Federation and the Association of Mayors, Carlos Molina (Arecibo) and Rolando Ortiz (Cayey), respectively, as well as the Mayor (Alcalde) of Bayamón, Ramón Luis Rivera, and others officials. The agreement, which until yesterday had not been shown to the Mayors, is supposed to have a series of security restrictions; in addition, the agreement is intended to empower the muncipios to offer injury insurance, as well as be eligible for FEMA reimbursement. Secretary Villafañe noted that Governor disagreed with the result of last Monday’s meeting, in which the coordinator designated for the restoration efforts of electric power, Carlos Torres, and the AEE refused to establish an agreement with the municipios out of security concerns.

Thus, among the security conditions the agreement mandates, is that Mayors will be required to establish contracts exclusively with contractors who have specialized equipment and trucks. In a clarification, Secretary Villafañe assured reporters that PREPA retirees may continue to provide services, as is the case of the Pepino Power Authority, an initiative of the Mayor Javier Jiménez of San Sebastian—a muncipio founded in 1752 by Captain Cristóbal González de la Cruz, who among other neighbors, had an interest in converting some cow farms into an agricultural village. The foundation of the town from the religious aspect, was consummated in December 1762 by Mariano Martin, the then Puerto Rico Catholic Bishop: by the beginning, 1700, San Sebastian was a conglomerate of a few cow farms, owned by some residents of the Partido de Aguada. Las Vegas was the former plain site of one of the first cow farms located by the Guatemala riverside at the north; another of those cow farms was Pepinito (today’s downtown), which was a low green mountain with a white calcium carbonate face. From these geographical accidents come the first names of the then new village, albeit one of the oldest municipalities in the United States: Las Vegas del Pepino (Cucumber Fields). Indeed, the permission to found the muncipio was officially given in 1752.

By the beginning of the 19th century, wealthy Spanish families arrived in Pepino, fleeing the revolutions of Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. Subsequently, families from Catalonia and the Basque country in Spain came to Puerto Rico as well as a significant number of isleños (Canary Islanders)—with the isleños taking over the local political power and developing a coffee industry. Much as they did in Nevada, the Basques brought some material progress to the muncipio; in addition, the new resident Basques, in remembrance of their home region and its religious patron, saw the need of upgrading the old traditional Pepino used by the Canary Islanders to the new and “up-dated” San Sebastián—even though, still today, the citizens of San Sebastián are called “pepinianos.” Permission to found the muncipio was officially given in 1752, under the leadership of the founder, Captain Cristóbal González de la Cruz, who sought to convert cattle fincas (ranches/farms) into an agricultural village—with the governmental transformation consummated in December of 1762 by Mariano Martin, the island Catholic bishop at that time. The muncipio grew by the beginning of the 19th century, with the arrival of wealthy Spanish families, fleeing the revolutions of Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. Nearly a century later, several Catalon families from northern Spain and the Canary Islands joined the large number of isleños (Canary Islanders) who had made El Pepino their home—new arrivals who, in the wake of taking over the local political power, developing a coffee industry, and changing the muncipio’s name, in remembrance of their home region and its religious patron, to the new and “up-dated” San Sebastián, notwithstanding that, still today, the citizens of San Sebastián are called “pepinianos.”

For his part, the Mayor Rivera, who had notified the government last September of his interest in collaborating in the restoration of electricity, only learned yesterday that the agreement had been approved; however, the municipal executive of Cayey and President of the Association of Mayors said that as long as they do not see the document, they will not believe it, because, to date, they have neither been allowed to see or sign the document in question: Mayor Ortiz said that during the meeting yesterday, Coordinator Torres again expressed his disagreement with allowing municipalities to collaborate in the restoration of light: “He (Torres) will have control of the materials, will have control of the brigades, control of resources–and that this resource, which is so important in the process of re-energizing the country, says that he does not agree with the Mayors intervening in this process or giving us the agreement to sign…They said that they were going to give us the power to energize the system and work with brigades that we can hire, and that they will give us brigades to work with the municipalities, and they will give us materials, (but) we leave here with nothing in the hand, with a promise of agreement.” Mayor Ortiz explained that in Cayey the muncipio has retirees from PREPA willing to start working, however, absent an agreement, they are not only barred by law from doing so, but also prevented from obtaining protection from the State Insurance Fund Corporation in case of injury to these workers. The Mayor added: “What he (Coordinator Torres) does not know is that in all of our communities and in all of our cities there are people trained with extraordinary resources to work on that system, because they have done it in all the previous events.”  Nevertheless, Mayor Rivera assured that as soon as the document is sent and signed, he has two companies with three brigades ready to work in the Bayamón distribution lines. He estimated that these works can begin today, if the legal division of La Fortaleza advances in the drafting of the agreement with the municipalities.

Unbalanced Politics? The restoration efforts have also been hampered by allegations of partisan discrimination: the number of brigades distributed among the municipalities of the northern region supposedly differed by 480 in the municipalities of the New Progressive Party (PNP) versus 174 in those led by the PPD, according to the President of the Municipal Legislature of Dorado, Carlos Alberto López. However, Secretary Villafañe refuted those data with others: he indicated that among the six municipalities with less than 20% of electric power service restored, five are NPOPs, while among the 35 that already have more than 60% service, 20 are from PPD.

What Would Rod Serling Say? The former host of the Twilight Zone, Rod Serling, who opened each week’s show by saying a “Dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, and dimension of mind: you just crossed over into The Twilight Zone,” seems consistent with Moody’s characteristically moody new report on Puerto Rico’s fiscal plan, writing: “These repeated delays in revising Puerto Rico’s fiscal plan…underscore the economic uncertainties that Puerto Rico faces as a result of post-Maria factors, including surging migration to the U.S. mainland, potentially unsustainable operating conditions for the territory’s manufacturers, and the federal recovery and rebuilding assistance that may fall short of what Puerto Rico needs to prevent lasting and severe damage to its economic base…Together, the growing challenges from these factors may further reduce already low recovery prospects for holders of Puerto Rico’s 17 rated debt types.” The insights, provided by Moody’s senior at least 200,000 Puerto Ricans have left Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria struck, or about 6% of the pre-Maria population—adding that manufacturing, an important part of Puerto Rico’s economy, has been steadily dropping over the last two decades—and warning that, in the bitter wake of Maria, some manufactures may decide to move to other areas less likely to be hit by future hurricanes. The analysts further warned that the federal government’s new 12.5% excise tax on profits derived from patents and other intangible assets is another negative. Finally, they noted that the amount of federal aid to Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria will affect Puerto Rico’s trajectory of recovery amid growing doubt and uncertainty whether Gov. Rosselló’s request for $94.4 billion in aid will be honored—especially, with the federal government on the verge of shutting down this week—and its failure, to date—in disbursing any portion of a Congressionally-approved $4.9 billion Community Disaster Loan to Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and some other jurisdictions hit by recent natural disasters. Last week, Reorg Research reported that Puerto Rico’s debt restructuring and arguments between the U.S. Treasury and Puerto Rico over the latter’s control of the funds has delayed the funds’ release.

If anything, the federal inability to act has been further clouded by unclear governance: last week, Puerto Rico Sen. Minority Leader Eduardo Bhatia, who, during his tenure as Senate President, had been selected as Chair of the Council of State Governments of the Eastern Regional Conference (CSG-ERC) and later elected as President of the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators, thereby becoming the first Senate President and the first Puerto Rican to preside over the organization, as well as serve on the Board of the Council of State Government (CSG), National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO) and the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda (NHLA); brought up a different concern about the fiscal plan’s delay: in the new style of Trumpian governance, he tweeted to Gov. Ricardo Rosselló: “This is your great opportunity to regain lost confidence…Make your fiscal plan public today, so that there is no doubt, the people know your proposal and participate in the reconstruction of Puerto Rico,” adding that the people of Puerto Rico deserved a chance to comment prior to the draft’s submission to the PROMESA Oversight Board, tweeting: “In all countries of the world, ideas are discussed before decisions are made, not later…Otherwise, the process is a mockery of the serious people of Puerto Rico who want to contribute to the common good.”

Prospects for Puerto Rico’s Recovery

January 12, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the ongoing challenges to Puerto Rico’s quasi-chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy.

Prospects for Recovery. Puerto Rico, slammed by one of the ten strongest Atlantic hurricanes on record last September—causing not only massive physical destruction and a tragic loss of life, but also widespread and persistent power outages,  shortages of safe drinking water, and a tragic exodus of some of the U.S. territory’s young and best educated. Now, as the New York Federal Reserve notes, an even greater concern is that the adverse short-term effects of the storm, overlaid on an already shrinking economy, may evolve into long-term adverse effects. Estimates of the physical (capital) damage wrought by Hurricane Maria—to public infrastructure, businesses, homes, schools, and personal property have been estimated by Moody’s at a capital loss at up to $55 billion, part of an overall cost estimate ranging from $45-95 billion.

The issue, as in the wake of filing for a chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, is Puerto Rico’s long-term prospects. Last October, Puerto Rico’s payroll employment was estimated to have dropped by about 4 percent (seasonally adjusted)—a huge drop, according to the New York Fed, but not unusual in the wake of a hurricane. Employment rebounded about 1 percent last November. As the Fed noted, the sharpest job losses have occurred at restaurants, bars, hotels, and retailers. In normal economic rebounds from disasters, employment in those same industries tends to recover gradually over the course of the next nine to twelve months, while other industries bounce back more quickly. Of greater concern, there were also steep job losses in wholesale trade and health and education services, whereas sectors like professional and business services, manufacturing, construction, and finance did not experience significant declines; rather agriculture suffered severely: extensive crop damage has reportedly taken a huge toll on the island’s farmers and Puerto Rico’s $1 billion ag industry. 

In its report, the New York Fed found that mayhap the most problematic lingering issue has been widespread power outages across the territory: using satellite, nighttime maps to monitor the recovery across the island, the Fed determined the relative dimness throughout the island in October underscored “the severity and breadth of the power outage. The moderate improvement in November—more notable in the south and west than in the north and east—illustrates that the power situation has improved somewhat, though it remains fairly dire over much of the island.” The satellite mapping found that among the islands 78 muncipios, with populations ranging from 400,000 (San Juan) to just under 2,000 (Culebra), the change in brightness between August and November ranged from a 10 percent drop in Hormigueros, in the west, to a 74 percent decline in Humacao, on the southeastern coast. The areas with the quickest recoveries were found in the south and west of Puerto Rico, including Ponce and Mayaguez, whereas the eastern coast experienced the greatest fall in lighting. Thus, the Fed noted: “Puerto Rico’s local variation in night lights recovery closely parallels both the losses in employment found across the island and the trajectory of the storm—as Maria passed from east to west, the north received the stronger headwinds while the south and west experienced less severe tailwinds. A notable exception can be found in and around San Juan—despite being hit hard by the storm, these municipios fell near the middle in terms of light loss; as the capital and largest city in Puerto Rico, electricity may have been restored more quickly there than in more rural areas. 

In assessing the outlook for fiscal and economic recovery, the Fed noted that the steeper the initial loss of jobs (and population), the “longer it tends to take a local economy to recover.” Noting that Puerto Rico’s population had already been trending down at about 2 percent per year before Maria—a trend which, as we have noted, appears to be disproportionately reflecting younger and better educated Puerto Ricans moving to the mainland, the Fed noted “There has been much concern that the rate of population loss could accelerate sharply and create a vicious spiral: people emigrating, businesses closing, tax base shrinking, cuts in services and tax hikes leading to still more out-migration, and so on.” Nevertheless, the Fed wrote that “In spite of the storm’s devastating initial impact, that worst-case scenario for the island’s economy appears to have been averted—at least thus far.”

The insightful New York Federal Reserve insights come as the PROMESA Oversight Board on Wednesday deferred its deadline for Puerto Rico to submit its fiscal plans for the government and PREPA—a deadline already deferred last month—albeit PROMESA Chair Jose Carrion III, in his epistle to Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, wrote that some fiscal plans could be delayed, while others could not.  The 10-year plan approved last March by the Oversight Board had projected sufficient fiscal resources to pay off 24% of the debt due; now, however, some observers are projecting that the Board will approve fiscal plans making no fiscal resources available for debt service for Puerto Rico’s $51.5 billion of municipal bond debt. In addition, the Chairman noted that the Board believes the “submission of the Commonwealth and Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (‘PRASA’) fiscal plans should be similarly delayed to January 24, 2018 to ensure alignment of the assumptions and plans.” Wednesday morning, Gov. Rosselló had tweeted that his government was prepared to submit the fiscal plan that day.

Meanwhile, the deadlines for submission of the fiscal plans of the central government and the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) and Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (PRASA) were extended by two weeks after the Governor’s request to delay the date for submitting the new Fiscal Plan for PREPA. Upon this request, the Board also determined to postpone the other two fiscal documents in order for the evaluation and certification remain aligned in the agenda. In his tweet, Governor Rosselló Nevares wrote: “Our administration was ready to submit the Central Government Fiscal Plan today. The Oversight Board requested that we postpone submission for two weeks. If this is not the case, we are ready to submit the plan immediately.”

Balancing Fiscal & Public Safety

January 9, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the potential fiscal impact of the expiration of the State of New Jersey’s public safety arbitration cap—with the expiration coming as Governor-elect Phil Murphy has been reviewing a report examining the implications for property taxes, state spending, collective bargaining agreements, and public safety. Then we journey south to witness the denouement of the fiscal siege of the historic municipality of Petersburg, Virginia.

Uncapping & Fiscal Impacts. The State of New Jersey’s statute capping public safety arbitration awards at 2% has been in effect for seven years—it was last extended in 2014. Now, with a new Governor taking office, Moody’s has warned that its expiration on the last day of 2017 is a credit negative for the Garden State—and for its municipalities and counties. Indeed, the New Jersey League of Municipalities has been joined by the New Jersey Association of Counties, the New Jersey Conference of Mayors, the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, New Jersey Business and Industry Association, and the New Jersey Realtors Association to urge the new Governor and Legislature to support permanently extending the 2% cap Interest Arbitration Cap, noting that an expired cap would have a negative impact on property taxes and jeopardize the continued delivery of critical services, as well as adversely impact residential and commercial property taxpayers, working class families, and those on fixed incomes. The League’s President, Mayor James Cassella of East Rutherford, noted that the 2% Interest Arbitration Cap has controlled costs: without the cap, municipalities could see costly arbitration awards that would force local officials to reduce services or lay off employees to satisfy the arbitrator’s award and stay within the 2% levy cap. Similarly, New Jersey Association of Counties President Heather Simmons, a Gloucester County Freeholder, noted that failure to permanently extend the 2% cap on binding interest arbitration awards would inequitably alter the collective bargaining process in favor of labor at the expense of taxpayers, and lead to awards by arbitrators with no fiduciary duty to deliver essential services in a cost-effective manner.

Now Moody’s has moodily weighed in, deeming the expiration a credit negative for the state’s cities and  counties, as has Fitch Ratings.

In New Jersey, interest arbitration is a process open only to police and fire employee unions: it is a mechanism to resolve collective bargaining disputes between local governments and unions: when a public employer is unable to reach a contract agreement with a police or fire union, an arbitrator is called in to decide the terms of the contract. When the state adopted the 2 percent property tax levy cap, a separate 2 percent cap on interest arbitration awards was also imposed: that mandates arbitrators to take property taxes into account when issuing awards and providing local officials with a now proven and effective tool to contain property tax increases. The arbitration cap expired on Dec. 31; however, the property tax levy cap is permanent. The New Jersey League noted: “For nearly a decade, the 2 percent cap on binding interest arbitration awards has kept public safety employee salaries and wages under control simply because parties have been closer to reaching an agreement from the onset of negotiations. Moreover, the 2 percent cap on binding interest arbitration awards has established clear parameters for negotiating reasonable successor contracts that preserve the collective bargaining process and take into consideration the separate 2 percent tax levy cap on overall local government spending. And, importantly, the 2 percent cap on binding interest arbitration awards has not negatively impacted public safety services or recruitment.

In the wake of the expiration of the arbitration cap, it appears likely that arbitrator contract awards would exceed 2 percent. That would likely force cities and counties in the Garden State to reduce or eliminate municipal services—or go to the voters to seek approval to exceed the 2 percent property tax cap in order to fund an arbitration award.

Moody’s analyst Douglas Goldmacher moodily noted: “Given that salary costs are among the largest of municipal expenditures, the cost implications are obvious and considerable. The effect of this is, in most cases, unlikely to be rapid, but ultimately, the loss of the arbitration cap is likely to cause the sector’s credit quality to deteriorate…Although the cap has expired, and it may not be finished. Numerous local governments and local government advocacy groups support the arbitration cap. It is possible that the new governor and New Jersey state Legislature will revisit the matter. Until and unless that occurs, there will be a potentially dangerous mismatch between revenue and expenditures.” The statute, which caps public safety arbitration awards at 2%, came into force on January 1, 2011; it was extended for a three-year period in 2014 when it was last up for renewal. Mr. Goldmacher noted: “The cap played a major role in helping local governments manage public safety costs by instituting a limit on increases in police and fire salaries in arbitration and effectively tying the salary increases to the municipality’s or county’s revenue-raising capabilities…The cap’s expiration, should it prove permanent, is a credit negative for all local governments.” Mr. Goldmacher noted the cap’s existence has been a “valuable tool” in contract negotiations when police and firefighter unions with negotiators often forced to consider small salary increases. A September report by former Gov. Chris Christie’s appointees to the Police and Fire Public Interest Arbitration Impact Task Force stated that municipal property taxes jumped at an annual average of 7.19% for the five years prior to the cap compared to 2.41% since 2011. The report also estimated that the cap has saved taxpayers a collective $429 million. Thus, Mr. Goldmacher notes: “Given that salary costs are among the largest of municipal expenditures, the cost implications are obvious and considerable: Police and fire contracts often serve as a benchmark contract for other negotiations, which had the effect of making a 2% annual increase something of a standard target for most contracts, even for non-public safety collective bargaining units.” While it is possible the cap may be reinstated, Mr. Goldmacher added that as long as no action is taken to address the lapse, New Jersey’s cities and counties confront “a potentially dangerous mismatch” aligning revenue and expenditures, because of how much a 2% property tax cap law would limit their budgetary flexibility, writing: “The effect of this is, in most cases, unlikely to be rapid, but ultimately, the loss of the arbitration cap is likely to cause the sector’s credit quality to deteriorate,” he said. “The degree of deterioration will depend on the idiosyncratic qualities of the given community.”

For its part, Fitch wrote: “…the arbitration cap is beneficial to local government credit quality as it helps to align revenue and spending measures and supports structural balance in the context of statutory caps on property tax growth…bargaining groups may become more emboldened to pursue arbitration as opposed to voluntary settlement if the arbitration cap expires. Arbitration awards were significantly higher prior to the cap, ranging from 2.50% to 5.65% from 1993-2010, according to a report of the New Jersey Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC.)” Fitch also noted that the elimination of the arbitration cap “could force local governments to reduce governmental services and/or rely on one-time resources to accommodate higher wage expenses.”

The Fiscal Siege of Petersburg. Jack Berry, Robert Bobb, and Nelsie Birch, writing in a piece, “Overcoming the latest siege of Petersburg, referenced the city’s then vital role in the Civil War, where, as they wrote: “The series of battles known as the Siege of Petersburg lasted nine months and consisted of devastating trench warfare. It featured the largest concentration of African-American troops in the war, who suffered enormous casualties at the Battle of the Crater.” They went on to write: “Some would say that Petersburg has been under siege ever since the Civil War, that there is a siege mentality in the city. Petersburg even has a Siege Museum…But Petersburg has not always been under siege; it is not today, and it will not be tomorrow. Noting that Petersburg was once the second largest city in Virginia—and home to the largest number of free blacks in Virginia, they noted that it was once “a wealthy city, a major industrial center, and one of the largest rail hubs in the nation,” where, in the wake of the Civil War, a “coalition of Africa-American and white, populist Republicans, controlled the state legislature, which led to the creation of two large public institutions in the region: Virginia State University and Central State Hospital. Later, Fort Lee became another major economic engine for the area.” The authors noted, however, that “Jim Crow laws and Massive Resistance devastated the hopes and dreams of black citizens and fueled racial tensions. In 1985, one of the city’s largest employers, Brown & Williamson Tobacco, shut down its Petersburg factory. Later, Southpark Mall was located north of the city, sucking retail sales out of Petersburg.” These events adversely affected assessed property values—in turn reducing investment in public schools. The historic city seemed on a route to chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy—or being, as they wrote: “relinquishing city status—and being subsumed by neighboring jurisdictions,” all because of what they described as a “self-inflicted, mismanaged city government” which “ran itself into a ditch: In July of 2016, the city faced $18 million in unpaid bills. The budget was $12 million out of balance. Petersburg had nearly run out of cash and was dipping into every available pot of money, regardless of restrictions, to pay bills. A botched water meter conversion project impacted utility billings, which made the cash situation even worse.”

Because the Commonwealth of Virginia was apprehensive that a default by Petersburg would have had severe fiscal repercussions for municipalities across the state, the Commonwealth, as we have previously written, provided a consulting team to diagnose the fiscal issues and recommend fiscal measures—including, in its recommendations, pay cuts of 10 percent pay cuts for the entire city workforce. Even as the state-imposed overseer was acting, an aroused citizenry, via a grassroots group called “Clean Sweep,” attended every City Council session, demanding greater fiscal accountability. A year ago last October, former Mayor Howard Meyers and the City Council brought in a fiscal posse in an effort to restructure, hiring former Richmond City Manager Robert Bobb and his team, who set up a temporary war room in the City Hall building where General Robert E. Lee had met with his senior Confederate officers during the Siege of Petersburg. Mr. Bobb wrote of the fiscal war room: “We dug in for the long haul, with Nelsie Birch leading efforts to peel back layers of the financial onion. We got a handle on cash flow, figured out the extent of the unpaid bills, found checks stashed in drawers, arranged short-term financing, crafted a new budget, dramatically cut spending, put pressure on the city treasurer to collect taxes, and revamped the decrepit utility system…New financial policies were put in place; debt was restructured; water and sewer rates were increased to comply with debt covenants; the organization was right-sized; new managers were hired.”

Mr. Bobb described this war room process as one in which—at the same time—his team teamed with Mayor Sam Parham and the members of the Petersburg City Council “every step of the way,” to make the tough decisions, adding that, during this process, “Our strongest ally was the Governor’s Office, in particular, Virginia Secretary of Finance Ric Brown.” Indeed, by last November, external auditors reported a signal fiscal turnaround: Petersburg reported a year-end surplus of $7.2 million—and the report was on time; the auditor’s opinion was clean.

Water & Ancient Municipal Taxation & Finance

January 5, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the ongoing physical and fiscal challenges in Puerto Rico, and we reflect on an ancient form of taxation from Luxor.

Restoring Power? More than one hundred after Hurricane Maria savaged the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, Governor Ricardo Rossello yesterday announced he will be convening the territory’s Mayors to assess how they can collaborate with the Electric Power Authority (AEE) to restore the electrical system, with the Governor stating: “They are going to be quoting the Mayors to see what will be the mechanism of collaboration they can provide and how it can be carried out, but remember it has to be done in a coordinated manner.” Those sessions are scheduled to begin Monday. The task—delayed with such devastating health and fiscal consequences, especially compared to the responses in Houston and Floridacame after several mayors pressed for clearer information and questioned how the coordination with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would work—leading the Governor to stress that hos designated Single Point of Contact (SPOC), Carlos Torres, would be the individual as the person in charge of “this recovery process.” (Mr. Torres is the coordinator of restoration of the electrical system.)

The Governor’s announcement came in the wake of Bayamón Mayor Ramón Luis Rivera Cruz’s demand yesterday for the head of Puerto Rico’s Electric Power Authority provide “clear and precise” information with regard to when the electric service will be restored in his municipality.  Mayor or Alcalde Cruz indicated that, at the moment, only 44% of the structures in Bayamón have electricity, according to the census carried out by the municipality itself. The entire southern half of the town is in darkness, with the exception of a small sector in the Buena Vista neighborhood. The failure to restore power, he noted, have already generated losses to the municipality of about $5 million—with that figure only reflecting what the municipal administration has failed to receive in licenses, permits, and the municipal sales and use tax (IVU), Mayor Cruz said, warning that the figure will probably increase when municipal patents payments come in in April and when there is an expected reduction in remittances received by municipalities from the Municipal Tax Collection Center (CRIM). He added that he shared the “frustration” with respect to the thousands of PREPA subscribers who still do not have electricity, but then turned his anger to the Corps for its alleged lack of “Visibility” regarding the materials that have been delivered to Puerto Rico to repair the electricity network.

Ancient Municipal Taxation. In one of the world’s most ancient regions, Egypt, one of the earliest forms of municipal taxation was, mayhap unsurprisingly, based upon the most vital resource: the Nile River. Prior to the modern construction of the Aswan Dam, high water and low water years, after all, defined wealth—or poverty—for residents in a country which is largely a desert. Thus, last week, near Aswan, we visited what is called a nilometer—a construct nearly 2500 years old—and a fiscal tool to calculate the water level of the river during the annual flooding of the Nile. Fewer than two dozen of the devices are known to exist. Prior to the completion of the Aswan Dam, financed by the U.S.S. R., in 1970, the Nile flooded the surrounding plains each year in late July or August. As the waters receded in September and October, they left behind a blanket of fertile silt that was essential for growing crops such as barley and wheat. But, there were dry years and wet years—meaning the amount of water was critical to the local economy: the hope was always for enough—but not so much that flooding would devastate homes and crops. It has been estimated that the flooding was either inadequate or excessive roughly once every five years during the Pharaonic period.

Thus, the Egyptians were looking for a means to determine how to levy taxes. Thus, fashioned out of large limestone blocks, they created a Nilometer, which, as we observed last week in a temple, was a circular well roughly eight feet (2.4 meters) in diameter with a staircase leading down into its interior. Either a channel would have connected the well to the river, or it would have simply measured the water table as a proxy for the strength of the river. Seven cubits—roughly 10 feet (3.04 meters)—was the optimum height for prosperity. Thus, during the time of the Pharaohs, the nilometer was used to compute the levy of taxes: if the water level indicated there would be a strong harvest, municipal taxes would be higher.

Interestingly, a list of names carved in Greek was inscribed on a limestone block in the Nilometer: each name is followed by a number, which suggests the individuals recorded were beneficiaries who contributed funds to build the structure. (In the third century B.C., Egypt was ruled by the Ptolemies, a line of Greek royalty who assumed power there after the death of Alexander the Great.) The sites, as observed, were parts of sacred temple complexes where priests used the structure to predict the seasonal floods, and farmers left offerings in hopes of winning the river god’s favor.