Exiting from Municipal Bankruptcy


March 16, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the Motor City’s final steps in its successful exit from chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy; then we worry about lead level threats in Flint, before journeying to the warmer climes of the Caribbean to update the fiscal challenges for Puerto Rico.

Early Departure from Chapter 9. The City of Detroit this week dipped into its budget surplus to devote some $54.4 million to finance paying off the outstanding municipal bonds it had issued as part of its plan of debt adjustment four years ago, with the borrowing then issued by the city to settle debts with municipal bond insurers related to the Motor City’s pension-related debt—here the payments were to finance the remaining principal and interest owed on $88 million in 12-year Financial Recovery, with the city formally moving to pay off $54 million of its 2014 financial recovery bonds. The unexpected payments might make the leprechaun jump to celebrate still another demonstration of improved fiscal health. Here, the payment had the support of the Detroit Financial Review Commission, as well as the Detroit City Council, clearing the way for the city Wednesday to issue a 30-day redemption notice and report it had fully funded an escrow to retire $52.3 million of remaining principal and $2.1 million of accrued interest to fully redeem the 2014C bonds effective April 13th—an action projected to save Detroit’s taxpayers some $11.7 million in interest savings. CFO John Hill noted: “The Mayor and City Council have again shown their commitment to the city’s long-term financial sustainability by taking action to authorize the resolution for the redemption of the entire outstanding principal on the city’s Financial Recovery Bonds, Series 2014C.”  In this case, the C series of unrated, taxable municipal bonds totaled $88.4 million; they carried an interest rate of 5% interest, with the bonds secured by Detroit’s limited tax general obligation pledge and payable from city parking revenues. According to Detroit Deputy Chief Financial Officer John Naglick, approximately $54 million remains outstanding after early maturities amortized and the $15 million sale of a parking garage triggered a mandatory redemption. The C series was part of $1.28 billion of borrowing Detroit closed on in December of  2014 to fund creditor settlements, as well as raise revenues for revitalization efforts, thereby paving the way for its exit from the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in American history—and mayhap bring the luck of the Irish that the city could exit from direct state oversight within the next few months—especially in the wake of Mayor Mike Duggan recently proposed $2 billion balanced budget—the approval of which could facilitate Detroit’s exit from active state oversight, or. As Mr. Naglick put it: “I expect in April or May we’re going to see the Financial Review Commission vote to end oversight and return self-determination to the city of Detroit.”

The Motor City’s $1 billion general fund, according to the Mayor, continues to be healthy, because the city’s most important source of revenues, its income tax, is producing more revenues. Indeed, the city’s budget maintains more than a 5% reserve, which is projected at $62.3 million. At the same time, the city is continuing to set aside fiscal resources to address higher-than-expected pension payments starting in 2024 when annual payments of at least $143 million begin. Payments of $20 million run through 2019 with no payments then due through 2023 under U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes’ approved plan of debt adjustment. Detroit’s bond ratings, albeit still deep in junk territory, were upgraded last year, with, just before Christmas, S&P Global Ratings slipping down the chimney to upgrade Detroit’s credit rating to B-plus.

Not in Like Flint. Recent tests of the Michigan City of Flint’s drinking water at elementary schools have found an increase in samples with lead levels above the federal action limit. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality determined that 28 samples tested last month were above 15 parts per billion of lead. DEQ spokesman George Krisztian reported the increase may be due to changes in testing conditions, such as the decision to collect samples prior to flushing lines. (Samples collected before flushing tend to have higher lead levels because the water has been in contact with the pipes longer.) Thus, according to Mr. Krisztian, the overall results are encouraging, because they meet federal guidelines for lead if treated like samples collected by municipal water systems. Most of the more than 90 Legionnaires’ disease cases during the deadly 2014-15 outbreak in the Flint area were caused by changes in the city’s water supply — and the epidemic may have been more widespread than previously believed, according to two studies published Monday. The risk of acquiring Legionnaires’ disease increased more than six-fold across the Flint water distribution system after the city switched from the Detroit area water system’s Lake Huron source to the Flint River in April 2014, according to a report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Despite the improvement in lead levels over the last 18 months, federal, state, and local officials have advised city residents to continue using bottled water—as the city continues its costly efforts to extract at least 6.000 lead lines from houses this year and next—with Mayor Karen Weaver reporting that state-funded bottled water should be available to residents until the work is completed; the effort to test the drinking water in the city’s schools has yet to be completed. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality this week defended its outreach efforts in the city, after the Flint Journal reported on a new report which found that 51% of bottled water users surveyed here said they either had no faucet filter or are not confident they know how to maintain the equipment they do have. Mayor Weaver urges the State of Michigan to continue to finance the distribution of bottled water until the last of the leaded lines are removed.

Even as fears remain about the health of the city’s schoolchildren, the State of Michigan has selected a former emergency manager for two Michigan school districts to serve as interim Superintendent of Flint’s public schools after the school board removed the superintendent and two other senior officials. Thus, Wednesday, Gregory Weatherspoon was unanimously approved for the post by the Flint Board of Education, one day after the Board that Bilal Tawwab, Assistant Superintendent Shawn Merriweather, and the school district’s attorney had been placed on leave. It appears the school district’s roughly 4,500 students, an enrollment that has been falling steadily since 1968, when there were 1000% more students, are still at risk. The lower numbers and ongoing safe drinking water fears augur badly for assessed property values in a city where the population suffered a serious decline from 1970 to 1980, losing nearly 40,000 residents—a loss from which Flint never recovered—and a population which has declined continuously—so much so that an August 2015 WalletHub study revealed that Flint placed dead last, as one of the least healthy real estate markets out of 300 U.S. cities.

Arriba? In Puerto Rico, where about 60% of the U.S. territory’s children live below the federal poverty level, it appears there might be some rising optimism—even amidst growing frustration at the exorbitant costs of the Congressionally-imposed PROMESA process. The optimism comes in the wake of disclosures that Puerto Rico’s earlier estimates of the fiscal and financial impact of Hurricane Maria appear to have been overly pessimistic. The rising optimism appears to be reflected by the rally in Puerto Rico’s municipal bond prices. At the same time, Christian Sobrino, Governor Ricardo Rosselló’s representative before the PROMESA Oversight Board, Wednesday said that the Board’s letter regarding lawyers and advisers high fees in PROMESA Title III cases did “not reflect the truth,” adding he found it “laughable that there are unnecessary expenses on behalf of the government of Puerto Rico:  To start with, the structure of Cofina (the Puerto Rico Sales Tax Financing Corporation) and central government agents was not an invention of Puerto Rico in Title III,” Mr. Sobrino said, referring to the mechanism suggested by the Board to determine whether the Sales and Use tax collection belongs to the corporation which issued the debt or to the central government. He noted that the attorneys and counselors assisting these agents billed, all together, $17 million of the total $ 77.7 million in fees claimed during the first five months of the federal PROMESA law: “These letters reflect imprudence and a ridiculous use of these expressions and do not reflect the truth of what we have done in the government to avoid this. It is out-of-place.”

That led the PROMSEA Board to write to the Congressional leadership to indicate that high expenses for lawyers and advisers fees, participating in that process, are due to the PROMESA—or, as PROMESA Board President José B. Carrión noted: “Historically, the people of Puerto Rico have suffered a problem of wasteful spending, admitting that there has been duplication of efforts in Title III cases.” Representative Sobrino stressed that the government has tried not to duplicate efforts with the Board, but that drawing the fiscal plan and budget, as well as its implementation, are the government’s responsibility, adding that the government agreed that Citibank would act as the leading banker in the Electric Power Authority (PREPA) case, as suggested by the Board, and that only a firm hired by the Board would conduct the audit of the bank accounts. However, Rep. Sobrino stressed that there have been times when the government had to use its lawyers to ensure success in Court, as was recently the case with a claim by the Highway and Transportation Authority bondholders: “We have been forced to hire our lawyers to preserve self-government,” adding that the government intervention prevented that, after Hurricane Maria, Noel Zamot from being appointed as a PREPA de-facto trustee.


States Roles in the Wake of Fiscal and Physical Storms

March 13, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the federalism challenges within Puerto Rico, where aid to local governments or muncipios for hurricane recovery appears nearly as derelict as federal aid to the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico, before trying to untangle the perplexing fiscal challenges of public education in Detroit.

Unpromising? Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló yesterday noted that from the “beginning, we (the government of Puerto Rico) have established that this is a time where you have to see the effectiveness of each penny invested. And we are all subject to that crucible,” with his comments coming in reaction a request from 11 conservative organizations demanding, in a letter to Congress, the dismissal of Natalie Jaresko, the Director of the PROMESA Oversight Board. No doubt, part of the concern relates to the exceptional disparity in pay: His claim is based on Ms. Jaresko’s salary of $625,000 per year compared to the median income in Puerto Rico of $19,429, or approximately 60% less than on the mainland. The organizations have also requested that “the basic precepts established in PROMESA‒‒precision, transparency, and the creation of a credible plan for the return of the people of Puerto Rico to the capital markets,” urging Congress to schedule a hearing to determine whether the Board is in compliance with the intent of the PROMESA provisions. The epistle was signed by the 60 Plus Retirement Association, the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, the Frontiers of Freedom, the Market Institute, the Americans for Limited Government, the Center for Freedom and Prosperity, the Independent Women’s Voice, the Consumer Action for a Strong Economy, and the Independent Women’s Forum. There is apprehension that the letter could jeopardize efforts by the New Progressive Party and the Popular Democratic Party to provide an immediate financial injection to Puerto Rico’s municipios to assist in the ongoing fiscal and physical recovery from Hurricane Maria. Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz, who, last year, was elected to a second term as President of the Senate, thereby becoming the only reelected Senate President during the past 28 years, and the only Senate President ever elected as such to non-consecutive terms, said he would amend the Governor’s proposed legislation to grant immediate and direct financial assistance to the 78 municipal governments, as he was presiding over a public hearing of the Commission on Federal, Political and Economic Relations. The Senate President has identified a $100 million fund to be distributed among all municipios, albeit imposing a cap of $5 million to any recipient, and conditioning the aid, granted as a loan, to be administered by the Financial Advisory Authority and Fiscal Agency of Puerto Rico (Aafaf), the Office of Management and Budget, and the Department of the Treasury to authorize it.

Sen. Schatz asked his colleagues: “Who can deny that all the municipalities had losses? The hurricane devastated the island. Everyone knows that (the damage) exceeds a million dollars. If the governor of Puerto Rico has identified $ 100 million, then we have them. If we have them, I do not think it is appropriate to establish a loan and application mechanism that is a tortuous, long, and uncertain route.” In a public hearing, Rolando Ortiz and Carlos Molina, presidents of the Association and the Federation of Mayors, respectively, insisted that the municipalities should receive an allocation of funds, rather than a loan, arguing the island’s municipios lack the funds to repay the money, with Mayors Lornna Soto of Canovanas, Edwin Garcia of Camuy, and Javier Carrasquillo of Cidra, who reviewed the number of occasions in which they have had to withdraw funds from the municipal coffers to make expenses related to the process of emergency and recovery, even as distributions to the municipios from Puerto Rico’s sales and use tax were reduced.

The La Fortaleza project establishes that the Fiscal Oversight Board will have to approve the disbursement of funds—with the revised proposal coming in the wake of an earlier proposal vetoed by the PROMESA Board, because it was not tied to income and liquidity criteria of the municipios. However, Sen. Schatz argued that in the wake of Hurricane Maria, the Board had authorized the government to redirect $1 billion of the current budget for response and emergency tasks. That is, what is emerging is a consistent issue with regard to governance authority—a difference, moreover, not just between the PROMESA Board and the U.S. territory, but also between the Governor, Puerto Rico House, and Senate—differences potentially jeopardizing the proposed legislation to inject as much as $100 million into the municipal coffers damaged by the Hurricanes Irma and María: Sen. Schatz does not favor the granting of loans to municipalities for up to $5 million to mitigate the effects of hurricanes on their collections, or reductions by patents, taxes or remittances from the Municipal Revenues Collection Center; rather he favors helping municipalities with uniform allocations of $1 million, with his proposal providing that the Department of the Treasury, the Office of Management and Budget, the Fiscal Oversight Board, and the Financial Advisory Authority and Fiscal Agency of Puerto Rico must authorize the loans.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Puerto Rico House Finance Committee Chair Antonio Soto disagrees: he argues that rather than a formula allocation, each municipio should be required to justify the amount it is requesting, noting: “That justification can be part of the project. It is not to give them $100 million, but to say: ‘I have this situation, the collections have fallen, I continued to provide these services,’” even as he acknowledged that PROMESA Board would have to authorize a project such as the one promoted by Sen. Rivera Schatz. 

Presión. The intergovernmental debate is under pressure as the U.S. territory’s cash position has been determined to be 24% below the pre-Hurricane Maria projection, according to cash flow data from EMMA as of the end of last month, showing increased financial pressure after earlier reports had shown limited deterioration. According to a cash flow summary, Puerto Rico’s primary central government account, the Treasury Single Account, contained $1.56 billion as of three weeks ago; whereas, prior to Hurricane Maria’s devastation, the government had projected that on that date there would be $2.061 billion. Puerto Rico Treasury Secretary Raúl Maldonado Gautier reported that January General Fund revenues were 12.2% below pre-Maria projections, no doubt further complicating the PROMESA Board’s efforts to certify a five-year fiscal plan for Puerto Rico: In the draft submitted last month by the Rosselló administration, the government anticipated sufficient cash flow to finance close to 20% of its debt service; however, according to the Puerto Rico Treasury, General Fund net revenues were down 5.2% in the first seven months of the fiscal year compared with projections, with the largest shortfalls compared to expectations coming from foreign corporation profit taxes ($135.4 million) and sales and use taxes ($80 million): in January, net revenues were 12.2% below projection. According to Treasury Secretary Raúl Maldonado Gautier, income taxes were above expectations, because Hurricane Maria had caused employers to postpone payments for the first few months of the fiscal year.

Let There Be Light! Puerto Rico’s Electric Power Authority (AEE) now projects electricity service will be restored to at least 95% by the end of May, with PREPA interim Director Justo González announcing, moreover, that the public utility will locate solar panels in certain high mountain parts of the island, which, he noted, was “part of what FEMA has in its hands and agrees to do so.”

Schooled on Recovery? On June 8, 2016, Michigan Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof (R-West Olive), in urging his colleagues to vote for a significant bailout of Detroit’s public schools, said the plan would be sufficient to pay off the District’s debt, would provide transition costs for when the district splits into two districts and returns the district to a locally elected school board in January, stating: “This represents a realistic compromise for a path to the future: At the end of the day, our responsibility is to solve the problem…Without legislative action, the Detroit Public Schools would head toward [municipal] bankruptcy, which would cost billions of dollars and cost every student in every district in Michigan.” Yesterday, Jonathan Oosting, writing for the Detroit News, wrote that U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said Sunday she “does not know if traditional public schools in Michigan have improved since she and others began pushing to open the state up to choice and charter schools. Recent analyses show Michigan students have continually made the least improvement nationally on standardized test scores since 2003, and it is one of only five states where early reading scores have declined over that span.” His article came in the wake of the Secretary’s interview with “60 Minutes,” where she had been pressed on her assertion that traditional public schools in places like Florida improved when students were given more choice to attend different schools, with CBS’s Lesley Stahl asking: “Now, has that happened in Michigan? “We’re in Michigan. This is your home state: “have the public schools in Michigan gotten better?” In response, the Secretary said: “I don’t know. Overall, I, I can’t say overall that they have all gotten better.” Ms. Stahl followed up, telling Secretary DeVos the “whole state is not doing well,” and that “the public schools here are doing worse than they did.” In response, Secretary DeVos said: “Michigan schools need to do better. There is no doubt about it.” Ms. Stahl then asked the Secretary if she has seen the “really bad schools” and attempted to try to figure out what has been happening in them—to which Secretary DeVos responded said she has “not intentionally visited schools that are underperforming.”

The interview resurrected a long-running debate in Michigan, which opened the door to publicly funded charter schools in 1994 and is now a leading state for charter academies; indeed, Detroit today ranks third in the nation for the percentage of students who attend charter schools, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. (Flint ranks second.) Today, according to a recent Education-Trust Midwest analysis of National Assessment of Education Progress standardized test scores, Michigan students ranked 41st in the country for fourth-grade reading performance in 2015, down from 38th in 2013, and 28th in 2003; in an analysis by University of Michigan Professor Brian A. Jacob, he found that Michigan students were at the bottom of the list when it comes to proficiency growth in the four measures of the exam; according to the NAEP results, in 2015, the average math score of eighth-grade students in Michigan was 278 out of 500, compared with the national average score, 281: the average Michigan score has not significantly changed from 280 in 2013 and 277 in 2000. Professor Jacob’s analysis found that 29% of Michigan students performed at or about the “proficient level” on the NAEP exam in 2015—results not significantly different from the 30% found in 2013, or the 28% recorded in 2000. Secretary DeVos, who had taken the lead in launching the Great Lakes Education Project to lobby for school choice in Michigan, and who has consistently said the government should invest in students, not buildings or institutions, in response to Ms. Stahl’s follow up query: “But what about the kids who are back at the school that’s not working? What about those kids?;” said: “[S]tudies show that when there is a large number of students that opt to go to a different school or different schools, the traditional public schools actually, the results get better, as well.”

Last week, the Detroit Public Schools Community District announced the launch of the 5000 Role Models of Excellence Project for minority males in grades 6 through 12: a project designed to develop a leadership pipeline for young men utilizing school-based and community mentors and role models through various methods of support, including themed weekly meetings, a monthly speaker series, community service projects, and college access support. The Detroit Board of Education members voted 7-0 to launch the 5000 Role Models Project in an effort to “create and develop a pipeline of leadership from within the walls of the District’s schools, describing thus as a proven mentoring program that prepares young men for success, generated by role models in our schools who are supported by male mentors in the community.”

Motoring Back from Chapter 9 Bankruptcy

March 9, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the state of the City of Detroit, the state of the post-state takeover Atlantic City, and the hard to explain delay by the U.S. Treasury of a loan to the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico.

An Extraordinary Chapter 9 Exit. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan yesterday described the Motor City as one becoming a “world-class place to put down your roots” and make an impact: “We’re at a time where I think the trajectory is going the right way…We all know what the issues are. We’re no longer talking about streetlights out, getting grass cut in the parks. We’re making progress. We’re not talking all that much about balancing the budget.” His remarks, coming nearly five years after I met with Kevin Orr on the day he had arrived in Detroit at the request of the Governor Rick Snyder to serve as the Emergency Manager and steer the city into and out of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, denote how well his plan of debt adjustment as approved by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes has worked.

Thus, yesterday, the Mayor touted the Detroit Promise, a city scholarship program which covers college tuition fees for graduates of the city’s school district, as well as boosting a bus “loop” connecting local charter schools, city schools and after-school programs. Maybe of greater import, the Mayor reported that his administration intends to have every vacant, abandoned house demolished, boarded up, or remodeled by next year—adding that last year foreclosures had declined to their lowest level since 2008. Over the last six months, the city has boarded up 5,000 houses, sold 3,000 vacant houses for rehab, razed nearly 14,000 abandoned houses, and sold an estimated 9,000 side lots. The overall architecture of the Motor City’s housing future envisions the preservation of 10,000 affordable housing units and creation of 2,000 new ones over the next five years.

The Mayor touted the success of the city’s Project Green Light program, noting that some 300 businesses have joined the effort, which has realized, over the last three years a 40% in carjackings, a 30% decline in homicides since 2012, and 37% fewer fires, adding that the city intends to expand the Operation Ceasefire program, which has decreased shootings and other crimes, to other police precincts. On the economic front, the Mayor stated that Lear, Microsoft, Adient, and other major enterprises are moving or planning to open sites: over the last four years, more than 25 companies of 100-500 jobs relocated to Detroit. On the public infrastructure radar screen, Mayor Duggan noted plans for $90 million in road improvements are scheduled this year, including plans to expand the Strategic Neighborhood Fund to target seven more areas across the city, add stores, and renovate properties. Nearly two years after Michigan Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof (R-West Olive) shepherded through the legislature a plan to pay off the Detroit School District’s debt, describing it to his colleagues as a “realistic compromise for a path to the future…At the end of the day, our responsibility is to solve the problem: Without legislative action, the Detroit Public Schools would head toward bankruptcy, which would cost billions of dollars and cost every student in every district in Michigan,” the Mayor yesterday noted that a bigger city focus on public schools is the next front in Detroit’s post-bankruptcy turnaround as part of the city’s path to exiting state oversight. He also unveiled a plan to partner with the Detroit Public Schools Community District, describing the recovery of the district as vital to encourage young families to move back into the city, proposing the formation of an education commission on which he would serve, as well as other stakeholders to take on coordinating some city-wide educational initiatives, such as putting out a universal report card on school quality (which he noted would require state support) and coordinating bus routes and extracurricular programs to serve the city’s kids regardless of what schools they attend.

The Mayor, who at the end of last month unveiled a $2 billion balanced budget, noted that once the Council acts upon it, the city would have the opportunity to exit active state oversight: “I expect in April or May, we’re going to see the financial review commission vote to end oversight and return self-determination to the City of Detroit,” adding: “As everybody here knows, the financial review commission doesn’t entirely go away: they go into a dormancy period. If we in the future run a deficit, they come back.”

His proposed budget relies on the use of $100 million of an unassigned fund balance to help increase spending on capital projects, including increased focus on blight remediation, stating he hopes to double the rate of commercial demolition and get rid of every vacant, “unsalvageable” commercial property on major streets by the end of next year—a key goal from the plan he unveiled last October to devote $125 million of bond funds towards the revitalization of Detroit neighborhood commercial corridors, part of the city’s planned $317 million improvements to some 300 miles of roads and thousands of damaged sidewalks—adding that these investments have been made possible from the city’s $ billion general fund thanks to increasing income tax revenues—revenues projected to rise 2.7% for the coming fiscal year and add another $6million to $7 million to the city’s coffers. Indeed, CFO John Hill reported that the budget maintains more than a 5% reserve, and that the city continues to put aside fiscal resources to address the  higher-than-expected pension payments commencing in 2024, the fiscal year in which Detroit officials project they will face annual payments of at least $143 million under the city’s plan of debt adjustment, adding that the retiree protection fund has performed well: “What we believe is that we will not have to make major changes to the fund in order for us to have the money that we need in 2024 to begin payments; In 2016 those returns weren’t so good and have since improved in 2017 and 2018, when they will be higher than the 6.75% return that we expected.” He noted that Detroit is also looking at ways to restructure its debt, because, with its limited tax general obligation bonds scheduled to mature in the next decade, Detroit could be in a position to return to the municipal market and finance its capital projects. Finally, on the public safety front, the Mayor’s budget proposes to provide the Detroit Police Department an $8 million boost, allowing the police department to make an additional 141 new hires.

Taking Bets on Atlantic City. The Atlantic City Council Wednesday approved its FY2019 budget, increasing the tax levy by just under 3%, creating sort of a seesaw pattern to the levy, which three years ago had reached an all-time high of $18.00 per one thousand dollars of valuation, before dropping in each of the last two years. Now Atlantic City’s FY2019 budget proposal shows an increase of $439,754 or 3.06%, with Administrator Lund outlining some of the highlights at this week’s Council session. He reported that over the years, the city’s landfill has been user fee-based ($1 per occupant per month) to be self-sufficient; however, some unforeseen expenses had been incurred which imposed a strain on the landfill’s $900,000 budget. Based on a county population of 14,000, the money generated from the assessment amounts to roughly $168,000 per year, allowing the Cass County Landfill to remain open. However, the financing leaves up to each individual city the decision of fee assessments. Thus, he told the Council: “The Per Capita payment to the landfill accounted for about .35 to .40 cents of the increase.”  Meanwhile, two General Department heads requested budget increases this year and five Department Heads including; the Police Department and Library submitted budgets smaller than the previous year. Noting that he “never advocate(s) for a tax increase,” Mr. Lund stated: “But it is what it is. It was supposed to go up to $16.98 last year and now we are at $16.86, so it’s still less,” adding that the city’s continuous debt remains an anchor to Atlantic City’s credit rating—but that his proposed budget includes a complete debt assumption and plan to deleverage the City over the next ten years.

Unshelter from the Storm. New York Federal Reserve Bank President, the very insightful William Dudley, warns that Puerto Rico should not misinterpret the economic boost from reconstruction following hurricanes that hit it hard last year as a sign of underlying strength: “It’s really important not to be seduced by that strong recovery in the immediate aftermath of the disaster,” as he met with Puerto Rican leaders in San Juan: “We would expect there to be a bounce in 2018 as the construction activity gets underway in earnest,” warning, however, he expects economic growth to slow again in 2019 or 2020: “It’s “important not to misinterpret what it means, because a lot still needs to be done on the fiscal side and the long-term economic development side.”

President Dudley and his team toured densely populated, lower-income, hard hit  San Juan neighborhoods, noting the prevalence of “blue roofs”—temporary roofs overlaid with blue tarps which had been used as temporary cover for the more permanent structures devastated by the hurricanes, leading him to recognize that lots of “construction needs to take place before the next storm season,” a season which starts in just two more months—and a season certain to be complicated by ongoing, persistent, and discriminatory delays in federal aid—delays which U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin blamed on Puerto Rico, stating: “We are not holding this up…We have documents in front of them that [spell out the terms under which] we are prepared to lend,” adding that the Trump Administration has yet to determine whether any of the Treasury loans would ultimately be forgiven in testimony in Washington, D.C. before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government.

Here, the loan in question, a $4.7 billion Community Disaster Loan Congress and the President approved last November to benefit the U.S. territory’s government, public corporations, and municipalities—but where the principal still has not been made available, appears to stem from disagreements with regard to how Puerto Rico would use these funds—questions which the Treasury had not raised with the City of Houston or the State of Florida.  It appears that some of the Treasury’s apprehensions, ironically, relate to Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s proposed tax cuts in his State of the Commonwealth Speech, in which the Governor announced tax cuts to stimulate growth, pay increases for the police and public school teachers, and where he added his administration would reduce the size of government through consolidation and attrition, with no layoffs, e.g. a stimulus policy not unlike the massive federal tax cuts enacted by President Trump and the U.S. Congress. It seems, for the Treasury, that what is good for the goose is not for the gander.

At the end of last month, Gov. Rosselló sent a letter to Congress concerned that the Treasury was now offering only $2.065 billion, writing that the proposal “imposed restrictions seemingly designed to make it extremely difficult for Puerto Rico to access these funds when it needs federal assistance the most.” This week, Secretary Mnuchin stated: “We are monitoring their cash flows to make sure that they have the necessary funds.” Puerto Rico reports it is asking for changes to the Treasury loan documents; however, Sec. Mnuchin, addressing the possibility of potential loans, noted: “We’re not making any decision today whether they will be forgiven or…won’t be forgiven.” Eric LeCompte, executive director of Jubilee USA, a non-profit devoted to the forgiveness of debt on humanitarian grounds, believes the priority should be to provide assistance for rebuilding as rapidly as possible, noting: “Almost six months after Hurricane Maria, we are still dealing with real human and economic suffering…It seems everyone is trying to work together to get the first installment of financing sent and it needs to be urgently sent.”

Part of the problem—and certainly part of the hope—is that President Dudley might be able to lend his acumen and experience to help. While the Treasury appears to be most concerned about greater Puerto Rico public budget transparency, Mr. Dudley, on the ground there, is more concerned that Puerto Rican leaders not misinterpret the economic boost from reconstruction following the devastating hurricanes as a sign of underlying strength, noting: “It’s really important not to be seduced by that strong recovery in the immediate aftermath of the disaster: We would expect there to be a bounce in 2018 as the construction activity gets underway in earnest,” before the economic growth slows again in 2019 or 2020, adding, ergo, that it was “important not to misinterpret what it means, because a lot still needs to be done on the fiscal side and the long-term economic development side.”

Fiscal Sand Traps & Disparate, Inequitable Responses

March 7, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the fiscal sand trap into which the small Virginia municipality of Buena Vista has fallen, before examining the ongoing, disparate physical and fiscal recovery issues in Puerto Rico.

Is the Municipal Fiscal Vista Good? Virginia is somewhat unique in that it does not specifically authorize municipalities to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy; it does, in certain situations, allow for a receiver allow for the appointment of a receiver with respect to revenue bonds (§15.2-4910). Now, the aptly named Buena Vista, Virginia, a small, independent city located in the Blue Ridge Mountains with a population of about 6,650, where, as we have previously written, the issue of non-payments of municipal bond interest on debt issued for its public golf course became an election issue, has, in effect, cone back as a mulligan. This time, the issue involves, again, the municipal golf course, and the issue has re-arisen because of the municipality’s decision not to make the bond payments on a municipally-owned golf course that the new majority on Council oppose as inconsistent with an essential government activity—rejecting a moral obligation pledge on what has become a failed economic development project, as the city’s elected leaders have opted instead to focus—in the wake of the Great Recession—on essential public services, putting the city in a subpar fiscal situation with Vista Links, which was securing the bonds, according to Virginia state records. The company, unsurprisingly, has sued to get the bond payments it had been promised—potentially putting at risk the city’s city hall and other municipal properties which had been put up as collateral. Buena Vista City Attorney Brian Kearney discerns this to be an issue of a moral obligation bond, rather than a general obligation municipal bond, so that “[W]e could not continue to do this and continue to do our core functions.” In the wake of the fiscal imbroglio, the Virginia Commission on Local Government (COLG)—which provides an annual fiscal stress study‒ended up playing a key role in the Petersburg effort in the General Assembly—finding that very poor management had led to an $18 million hole.

Nevertheless, the municipality’s selective payment default on its $9.2 million in lease revenue bonds has driven Municipal Markets Associates to describe the city’s decisions as “perhaps a worst-in-class example of erosion in issuer willingness to pay bondholders. Buena Vista’s default can no longer be blamed on weak local budget or economic conditions; rather, the city is currently choosing neither to pay nor negotiate with bondholders, because the pledged appropriation security permits this to occur. Further, while the commonwealth has applied some pressure to the city by denying it access to state loan funds via the VRA program, Virginia has chosen not to more proactively interfere in city affairs and has made multiple grants to Buena Vista in recent years.” Nevertheless, Buena Vista won the first round in court regarding the bond default, after the court concurred that the city had a moral obligation, but not a full faith and credit obligation. (It is unclear whether there will be an appeal.) While the Commonwealth of Virginia has applied some pressure to the city by denying it access to state loan funds via the VRA program, Virginia has chosen not to more proactively interfere in city affairs and has made multiple grants to Buena Vista in recent years. Two years ago, Buena Vista had made payments toward all other out-standing debt obligations, including $5.5 million in general fund bonds and loans and $7.9 million in revenue bonds; the municipality added $500,000 to its net General Fund net revenues—leaving it in a fiscal sand trap caught between $94 million in obligations towards debt service on its ACA-insured bonds while continuing to growth fund balance.

Here, the municipality’s default triggered negotiations with bond insurer, ACA Financial Guaranty Corp., which led to a forbearance agreement—one on which the city subsequently defaulted—triggering the Commonwealth of Virginia to bar financing backup to the city from the state’s low-cost municipal borrowing pool, lest such borrowing would adversely impact the pool’s credit rating—and thereby drive up capital borrowing costs for cities and counties all across the state. In this instance, the Virginia Resources Authority refused to allow Buena Vista to participate in the Virginia Pooled Financing Program to refinance $9.25 million of water and sewer obligations to lower debt service costs—lest inclusion of such a borrower from the state’s municipal pool would negatively impact the pool’s offering documents—where some pooled infrastructure bonds, backed by the Commonwealth’s moral obligation pledge, are rated double-A by S&P Global Ratings and Moody’s Investors Service.

Seven years ago, the municipality had entered into a five-year forbearance agreement with bond insurer ACA Financial Guaranty Corp.—an agreement which permitted Buena Vista to make 50% of its annual municipal bond payments for five years—an agreement on which Buena Vista defaulted when, two years ago, the City Council voted against inclusion of its FY 2015 budgeted commitment to resume full bond payments. That errant shot triggered UMB Bank NA to file a lawsuit in state court in 2016 in an effort to enforce Buena Vista’s fiscal obligation. In response, the municipality contended the golf course deal was void, because only four of the city’s seven council members had voted on the bond resolution and related agreements—which included selling the city’s interest in its “public places,” arguing that Virginia’s constitution mandates that all seven council members be present to vote on the golf course deal, because the agreement granted a deed of trust lien on city hall, police, and court facilities which were to serve as collateral for the bonds.

The golf course in question, which opened in 2004, never generated sufficient revenue to keep up with loan payments, leading the municipality to default on its $9.2 million bond, which, in turn, led Buena Vista’s municipal bonds insurer, ACA Financial Guaranty Corp., to file suit against the municipality, seeking to have Buena Vista ordered to resume payments—a suit which a federal court last month dismissed, concluding the city was only under a moral obligation, not a legal one, to pay back the loans. Unsurprisingly, ACA has pulled out another club and now ACA plans to appeal the judge’s decision, thereby creating uncertainty with regard to the city’s fiscal solvency—creating uncertainty for the business community. Now, however, it seems that with greater confidence in their judicial outcome, and a key business investment in a number of downtown properties, it appears of developers are starting to pick up on the momentum. Buena Vista Mayor William “Billy” Fitzgerald believes these new potential developments fit perfectly with his goals as the municipality’s newly elected leader: he wants to bring five to seven new businesses and one manufacturer to the area this year. In addition, he said he wants to cut some of the red tape and fees associated with opening businesses, adding that there has been more movement recently than the city’s had in a long time, adding: “In two years, I think Buena Vista will be a different place.”

A year ago, the city filed a motion to dismiss the federal suit for failure to state a claim—a claim on which U.S. District Judge Norman K. Moon held a hearing last Friday—with the municipality arguing that the golf course’s lease-revenue debt is not a general obligation. Therefore, the city appears to be driving at a legal claim it has the right to stop payment on its obligation, asserting: “The city seeks to enforce the express terms of the bonds, under which the city’s obligation to pay rent is subject to annual appropriations by the City Council, and ceases upon a failure of appropriations.” Moreover, pulling another fiscal club from its bag, the city claimed the municipal bonds here are not a debt of the city; rather, the city has told the court that the deed of trust lien for the collateral backing the bonds is void. That is an assertion which ACA, in its motion to dismiss, deemed an improper attempt to litigate the merits of the suit at the pleading stage, noting: “Worse, the city wants this court to rule that the city only has a ‘moral obligation’ to pay its debts, and that [ACA’s] only remedy upon default is to foreclose on a fraction of the collateral pledged by the city and the Public Recreational Facilities Authority of the city of Buena Vista….If adopted, this court will be sending a message to the market that no lender should ever finance public projects in Virginia because municipalities: (a) have unbridled discretion to not repay loans; and (b) can limit the collateral that can be foreclosed upon.” In a statement subsequently, ACA added: “It’s unfortunate that Buena Vista’s elected officials have forced ACA into court after recklessly choosing to have the city default on $9.2 million in debt even though the city has ample funds to make the payments that are owed…This is particularly troubling, because ACA spent years negotiating in good faith after the city claimed financial hardship, and even provided a generous forbearance agreement that reduced payments by 50% starting in 2011. After the city defaulted on that deal in 2014, it offered ACA only pennies on the dollar, while seeking to be absolved of all future burdens of this financing. Left with no reasonable alternative, we must look to the court for an equitable and fair outcome.”

Fiscal Darkness & Despair. More than five months after Hurricane Maria plowed through Puerto Rico, some parts of the island remain in the dark; it remains a long, long way from getting back for businesses: the U.S. territory’s patchwork power grid remains fragile, and hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans remain without power. While many have been living in hotels with their expenses covered by FEMA, those reimbursements are nearing expiration—not just in Puerto Rico, but also on the mainland. Today, there are nearly 10,000 Puerto Ricans scattered throughout 37 states and Puerto Rico who have been living in hotels paid by FEMA—aid now on the brink of ending a week from Tuesday. Many of them are poor families, who on the island survived with low wages. Many do not have savings or relatives who can help them or own their homes on the island. Others confront health problems and distrust the medical system on the island or have children with disabilities who need continuous care. Government relief workers have installed 57,000 blue tarps as makeshift roofs on damaged homes across the island. There is no plan for installing permanent roofs. Major intersections in San Juan still lack working traffic lights. More than 10,000 small businesses — nearly 20 percent of the island is total — remain closed. At the upscale Mall of San Juan, two anchor stores — Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom — are shut because of storm damage, although Nordstrom may reopen in a few months. Some hotel workers, cabdrivers and bartenders in San Juan have been living without power since September.

The most optimistic estimate is that Puerto Rico faces a two-year economic recovery. That assumes it can rebuild its power grid, restructure its finances in a court-supervised process and not be struck by another devastating storm. For its part, FEMA reports it has delivered more than $113 million in rental assistance to more than 129,000 Puerto Ricans affected by Maria. Governor Ricardo Roselló has said he has formally requested the federal government to allow families in hotels to stay there until May 14th. That recovery, moreover, is made more difficult by the fiscal circumstances before the storm even struck—when some 45% of the territory’s 3.4 million Americans lived in poverty and more than 16,000 homeowners were facing foreclosure. The size of the human devastation remains stark: more than one million Puerto Ricans applied to FEMA for emergency assistance: less than half have been served. The situation is, as Javier E. Zapata-Rodríguez, the Deputy Director of Economic Development for PathStone Enterprise Center, put it: “This is like the perfect storm of an economic disaster…There is not enough capital flowing, and a lot of small businesses are closing up shop, because they were ailing before the hurricane.” Adding to the dismal situation, even those claims that are being paid have been slow—and 60% have, so far, been denied. Meanwhile, tourism, which accounts for about 6 percent of Puerto Rico’s economy and supports more than 60,000 jobs, is all but gone for this season: nearly a dozen big resorts in and around San Juan are closed, while, many of those which are open and operating are filled not with tourists, but rather with relief workers and government contractors who are permitted discounted rates.

As we have noted, the economy is also suffering from emigration: it is not just the 200,000 residents who have departed to live on the mainland, but also how that has altered the demographics of those who remain—generally older and poorer. As the New York Federal Reserve reported last year, four months before Maria, 36% of Puerto Rico’s small businesses planned to hire more workers and 50% planned to invest in new equipment and technologies—all plans devastated by the storm.

Today, in the wake of such an inadequate federal response, the power situation in the U.S. territory remains dispiriting: at the end of last week, many in San Juan and along the island’s northern coast lost power in the middle of the workday. Indeed, generators are no longer an option for a business: they are a necessity—as they are for homes and hospitals with patients reliant upon vital medical devices. For potential overseas investors, new investments appear to be on hold pending some certainty on Puerto Rico’s electric grid restoration and reliability—and how FHA will act on the current moratorium on home foreclosures—a decision with implications for assessed property values affecting municipios bottom lines. The recovery too awaits the progress of what has been, so far, a slow trickle in response to filed insurance claims: to date, while 299,999 claims have been filed by homeowners and businesses, only $1.7 billion in payouts have been approved, according to the insurance department: much of the federal assistance is being dispensed as grants and loans for which businesses and individuals apply for from FEMA and the Small Business Administration, even as attorneys and community groups report that FEMA has rejected approximately 60% of the 1.1 million household applications it has received—a figure, it should be noted, which FEMA deems misleading, because some rejected applicants had received loans from the Small Business Administration or aid from other agencies. One key reason for the disproportionate rejection rate appears to be the stark difficulty many Puerto Ricans have encountered in proving that they own a home: only 65% of properties in Puerto Rico are officially registered, making this an especially harsh and acute problem affecting families and local governments in small cities and rural areas where there’s a custom of property owners not recording titles to homes.

A Steely Road to the Fiscal Future

March 5, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the Steel City’s long road back to fiscal recovery after 14 years of state fiscal oversight.

Is the Steel City Back? Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto hails: “Pittsburgh is back!” The great American steel city, the subject of our Center’s report years ago, “The Great Challenge Facing America’s Cities,” in which we described the fiscal challenges of Detroit, Chicago, San Bernardino, Calif., Pittsburgh, Providence, R.I. and Baltimore to provide insights for municipalities that may face financial struggles in the future, has emerged from more than a decade of state oversight. The Mayor’s exaltation comes in the wake of Gov. Tom Wolf’s declaration that the Steel City has become the state’s second municipality to emerge from Pennsylvania’s Act 47 program, enabling the Mayor to exult “We are now a city that is financially solvent. We’ve changed our habits and we have safeguards in place to assure we won’t fall into our previous bad habits.” The road back from the precipice of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy involved laying off nearly 500 employees, including 100 police officers, the closure of recreation centers, and the elimination of key municipal services, including mounted police patrols to saltboxes. The Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority (ICA), which has been the supervisory authority for the state, has asked the city for $37,000 to help pay off outstanding bills, and is seeking legislative approval to terminate its operations; the authority is also marking this final chapter by taking steps to dissolve itself, ending fourteen years as the state created fiscal oversight agency, together with the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development to help Pittsburgh avoid chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy—together with the state’s so-called Act 47 coordinators, who, last November, had recommended the city’s release from state oversight since December of 2003). The Authority’s Chair, B.J. Leber, noted: “No. 1, Act 47 is going away: It just doesn’t make sense for us to exist beyond Act 47, either from a logistical standpoint or a community-needs standpoint.”

Exiting state oversight, as we have observed in neighboring New Jersey, is not easily accomplished: the Steel City has been under state oversight ; thus, at least one ICA board member disagrees that Pittsburgh is ready to leave fiscal oversight: Michael Danovitz, the ICA’s longest-serving board member, said the city has not demonstrated a pattern of consistently paying into underfunded employee pension plans, noting: “I don’t believe the work of the ICA is done…This was the first year where they put in enough money to match the outflow of the pensions. One year doesn’t make a pattern.” Last year, Mayor Peduto’s administration had pledged pension payments of $232 million more than state minimums as part of a five-year spending plan approved by the ICA and the state’s Act 47 team. (Under Pennsylvania law, the ICA must remain in place until the later of Act 47 oversight ending or June 30, 2019): Chair Leber said the ICA board has asked the Legislature to amend the law so it can end at the same time as Act 47.

Unlike in the neighboring Garden State, Pittsburgh’s intergovernmental relationship with the state has been much more harmonious: Finance Director Sam Ashbaugh praised the ICA: “We’ve had a very productive and effective working relationship with the new board since they’ve been in place: I think they recognize the financial improvements that the city has enacted.” Yet, even though Pittsburgh is still able to finance its capital budget via its reserve fund, which is in no danger of running out, it still confronts both capital budget and pension challenges, including the priority of finding a long-term solution for dealing with landslides—or, as the Mayor put it: “We came to realize that there were no quick fixes, and we had run out of borrowing room…for us, being in Act 47 for 14 years, meant making difficult decisions to become financially solvent. It definitely had its costs: Our workforce took it on the chin, going without pay raises, and our infrastructure suffered without our ability to borrow,” adding: “We were still in the throes of pension liability.” If anything, the fiscal challenge is made greater by the demographic reality: the city’s population has dropped from 700,000 in 1960 to about 304,000 today.

Measuring State Fiscal Recovery Oversight. Pennsylvania’s fiscal oversight program has shown a mixed picture: the municipality of Aliquippa, just over 21 miles from Pittsburgh, has been under Act 47 for 30 years; it is currently on its sixth recovery program: like Scranton and Chester, which joined in 1992 and 1995, respectively, the success record is mixed, or, as Villanova Professor David Fiorenza put it: “The program was successful for Pittsburgh, especially if I compare it to cities such as Chester.” Approximately 30% of the Act 47 municipalities have been from the Allegheny area.

Pittsburgh’s 2014 fiscal recovery plan had proposed the elimination of operating deficits in the baseline multi-year financial projection, while preserving basic services, in order to avoid the necessity for cash-flow borrowings; the plan also focused on buffering against unanticipated revenue shortfalls or expenditure increases. The fiscal plan sought to gradually reduce the city’s debt in order to: provide greater fiscal capacity to finance daily operations; direct more funding to the city’s capital budget, with priority to roads, bridges, police and fire stations and other core infrastructure; and gradually increase pension fund contributions to actuarially recommended levels. As of the end of 2016, the city’s unassigned fund balance was 17.7% of its operating expenditures, higher than the 16.7% level the Government Finance Officers Association recommends. Pittsburgh two years ago refined its revenue forecasting methods and began subscribing to an external data analytics firm, through which the city receives city and county-level economic indicators including non-farm wages, gross county product, retail sales, and city employment throughout the year. Moody’s rates the city’s general obligation bonds A1. Fitch Ratings and S&P rate them AA-minus and A-plus, respectively. Moody’s unmoodily notes: “Pittsburgh has a favorable credit position, given strong financial results through fiscal 2016.” Or, as the Mayor puts it: “We are now a city that is financially solvent. We’ve changed our habits.”

That does not, however, mean the city’s leaders can rest: the city’s fund balance as a percent of operating revenues (18.4%) falls short of the U.S. median for the rating category (32%), according to Moody’s, although Moody’s reports the fund balance has improved considerably since 2012; nevertheless, the credit rating agency notes that Pittsburgh’s debt and pension liabilities are “somewhat elevated.” The recovery also comes with new fiscal challenges: the Steel City’s police union is demanding the city renegotiate its current agreement, retroactive to 2015, with FOP President Robert Swartzwelder citing a contract provision which authorizes renegotiations in the wake of Act 47 oversight—a factor which the Mayor notes he expects to “happen with all the unions.” That is, recovery brings its own fiscal challenges—including on the capital front—which, for a municipality, like Rome, of hills and rivers, means budgeting for the capital and maintenance costs of some 450 bridges. The Mayor’s proposed FY2018 budget and five-year plan assumes the city would issue $60 million a year in new debt beginning next year to fund capital projects—part of an aggressive fiscal effort to reduce out-year debt service by FY2022 below the 12% target in the debt policy (The Steel City’s debt policy requires contracting with an independent financial advisor when issuing debt; issuing debt only for capital projects included in the capital program; it limits usage of tax revenue anticipation notes; limits its tax-supported debt service to 17% of general fund revenues; and establishes a 10-year goal of reducing this ratio to 12%.)

An Amazonian Fiscal Future? The former steel city has become, today, a center of higher ed: there are ten universities within the city limits, while the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and Highmark anchor a thriving healthcare industry. Amazon, Google, and Uber, among other companies, have added jobs in the region. Pittsburgh remains in the competition to secure Amazon’s second world headquarters, in no small part in the wake of its focus on arts and culture with a 14-block district which encompasses restaurants, retail shops, art galleries, public parks with art installations and many theaters.

Governance in Recovering from Severe Physical and Fiscal Distress

March 2, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the use of a municipality’s capital assets to get back on its fiscal feet; then we consider the fates, fiscal and physical, for many of Hurricane Maria’s Puerto Rican victims who have emigrated stateside. Are they “invisible Americans”?

Municipal Assets & Fiscal Balancing. In a surprising move, the Petersburg, Virginia City Council has unanimously adopted a motion to opt not to sell the municipality’s public water and wastewater assets, effectively ending a nearly yearlong debate with regard to whether or not to sell their public utility to Aqua Virginia and Virginia American Water, two private providers who had submitted bids in December of 2016—at a time when one of the nation’s oldest cities was on the precipice of insolvency. It would appear the decision was likely affected by several water main breaks and water boil notices in the city last month—forcing legislators and city leaders to act. In the wake of the breaks, Congressman A. Donald McEachin (VA-4) and the Virginia Conservation Network had joined forces to host a roundtable discussion on the dilapidated state of Petersburg’s water infrastructure. Under the successful motion, the Council instructed the City Manager to: 1) reject the offer made by Aqua Virginia; 2) discourage any future offers to purchase Petersburg’s water and wastewater assets; 3) reject the pending unsolicited proposal to purchase Petersburg’s water and wastewater assets. That is, the municipal fiscal and capital policy going forward is to concentrate all available city resources on devising a plan to improve the city’s collection rate—or, as Councilmember Cuthbert put it: “It was a diversion of energy…It diverted the city administration’s energy; it diverted the public’s energy; and it diverted the City Council’s energy.” Councilwoman Annette Smith-Lee noted: “For the citizens, their voice is their voice. We’re on Council because of them, and they did not want us to sell the water.”

Had the city opted to go forward with the proposed privatization and sale, the municipality would have lost control over setting the water rates—an important governance and fiscal issue, as neither the Council, nor many citizens support having a for-profit company to be in charge of the water rates. Previously, several Councilmembers had expressed skepticism about the sale of some of the city’s vital public infrastructure—even as former Richmond City Manager Robert Bobb’s Group, hired to take over the city in lieu of a chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy filing—had repeatedly made pleas to the Council to “open the envelope” and see what Aqua Virginia and Virginia American Water were offering for the system. Councilman Cuthbert noted: “Council realized that for us to sell our water and wastewater assets, it would have taken six affirmative votes, and the votes were not there.”

In the wake of that successful motion, Councilman Cuthbert told his colleagues he saw “no reason to go through another eight months of agony that was going to lead to nowhere.” The decision thus ended a year-long battle—or, as Mayor Sam Parham told his colleagues, Council Members had listened to citizens who were concerned about the sale, control over its water and sewer rates, and it never materialized. Barb Rudolph, one of those citizen leaders, where the citizen group Clean Sweep Petersburg, had questioned the idea from the Robert Bobb Group to privatize, especially after the consultants had departed Petersburg with what they had described as stabilized finances. Yet, even after offers by private companies were rejected, bids still continued to come in: obviously, private, for-profit corporations recognized intrinsic value in the system—and, of course, an opportunity for profit. Indeed, at a roundtable discussion about the city’s water and sewer infrastructure, City Manager Aretha Ferrell-Benavides acknowledged that Petersburg was still being pressured by a private vendor to sell its water and wastewater systems. The fact that Aqua Virginia leaders attended city meetings had not been lost on some residents—one even likened the private vendors to predators. Residents with Clean Sweep Petersburg took photos of empty chairs in the City Council chambers that they say Aqua Virginia executives vacated just after the Council’s vote. Now, city leaders say, energy should be devoted to improving the existing systems. In the past, necessary rate increases that the council approved were never implemented, in part because of turnover within city departments. In addition, billing issues that cost the utility system millions of dollars in recent years ended up slapping some residents with $4,000 bills, and the faulty rollout of a new utility billing system cost taxpayers upward of $1 million more. As recently as last week, some residents at the roundtable said their bills are still volatile. Ferrell-Benavides said a long-term plan to update the city’s infrastructure and improvements to the billing system are necessary and in the works.

For one of the nation’s oldest municipalities—a key city during both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, a small, majority African-American municipality of just over 32,420, with a median household income of $33,927, where per capita income is about $18,535, and nearly 28% are below the poverty level—the politics of vital access to water matters.

The Physical & Fiscal Costs of Federalism. Physical catastrophes and federal insouciance can wreak terrible fiscal and human costs. In the case of Hurricane Maria, we can see those costs as not just fiscal, but especially in the welfare of our most vulnerable: young children and the elderly. More than 1,800 children have migrated from Puerto Rico and enrolled in Connecticut schools since Hurricane Maria decimated their homeland last September—a human and fiscal consequence of both the devastating physical and fiscal consequences, but also to the difficult fiscal challenges Connecticut is already confronting. Yet, unlike the federal government, Connecticut schools have scrambled to accommodate the new arrivals—most of them non-English speakers, and they have made such human, physical, and fiscal efforts notwithstanding the cash-strapped State of Connecticut. While Congress finally approved a compromise budget bill to provide millions of dollars to help schools care for displaced students (providing the equivalent of $8,500 for each displaced student, $9,000 for each one that is not English-speaking, and $10,000 for disabled students requiring special education); that still left a significant fiscal and physical burden for Connecticut, where State House Majority Leader Matt Ritter (D-Hartford) has set up a working group in the General Assembly to try to provide “one-stop shopping” for displaced Puerto Ricans who need assistance: he notes there “is no question that schools are looking for additional money” to accommodate the influx of unexpected students, many with special needs, and he is “very pleased” Congress finally offered some help. He believes the displaced student funding, part of the budget agreement’s $44 billion hurricane response package, will help. According to the Connecticut Department of Education, there were 1,745 displaced students in Connecticut schools as of mid-February—a slight reduction from the beginning of the year, as some families having opted to return to Puerto Rico or move to other states. Hartford, a city itself in difficult fiscal shape, finds its public schools have taken the bulk of the new arrivals, 376 at last count and 429 at the peak of the migration, followed by Waterbury, New Haven, and New Britain. Yet, while Congress finally provided some aid for displaced students, that aid appears unlikely to help school districts with the children who enroll next year.

Demographically Failing. While, as we noted above, there has been some federal and state aid to displaced children from Puerto Rico, the picture is more grim for Puerto Rico’s elderly: thousands of whom reside in vulnerable conditions outside the radar of government authorities, and too many of whom went hungry and thirsty due to mobility difficulties, or were unable to save their medicines due to the lack of light, without anyone knowing. Indeed, Department of the Family Secretary Glorimar Andújar described the challenge, because, in the wake of the physical destruction, the government lacked vital information with regard to where the most vulnerable were. Secretary Andújar noted the government neither knew where the most vulnerable lived, nor what their particular needs were. Thus, the devastating storm led her to acknowledge: “We have many elderly people in homes that we did not think were going to be in such high concentrations…Urbanizations complete with elderly people who depend on and are nourished by the help given by their neighbors…They are not necessarily under the jurisdiction of the Federal District, because we enter into protection. They are people who live alone and have particular needs, who are supplied by their neighbors: It is important, for future services that develop, to know where each of these populations are located.” That is, unlike children, who could be located via the school system—and could be lifted to accommodating state such as Connecticut, or depart with their families to Florida, Puerto Rico’s most vulnerable Americans were not only left behind, but also largely unaccounted for: as indicated, due to the nature of the services offered, the agency knows about elderly Americans only to the extent that they participate in their programs, such as Nutrition Assistance (PAN), protection services in cases of abuse or the homes of prolonged care—that is less than 3% of Puerto Rico’s nearly 860,000 senior citizens—where 36% live alone. This cohort, described by some as “that population that is most worrisome,” because they are older Americans who reside in the community, but have little support—or, as the Secretary put it: “They are invisible.”

During the most critical phase of the hurricane emergency many institutions did help many who live alone in their homes, offering food or extending electricity via long extension cords, those private efforts were far from sufficient for what is nearly a quarter of the population: In 2016, more than 23.5% of Puerto Ricans were 60 or older—compared to just 19.4% in 2011. It is almost like a teeter-totter, only where it is becoming increasingly fiscally and demographically imbalanced. Now, in the wake of the hurricane, and especially after the wave of immigration to the mainland by children and college-educated Puerto Ricans, estimates are that, by the next census, citizens over 65 will reach 30% of the population.  

To tend to these older Americans after Maria, Puerto Rico actually developed alternate methods of operation, especially because reliance on telephone communication was often impossible—the government sought to provide more personal contact and identify areas of what it deemed “high concentration,” utilizing contributions from organizations such as AARP to provide services. José Acarón, Puerto Rico’s AARP chapter president, stressed that there is “this older adult population, isolated, without a support network, living alone and mostly female, and they do not know where they are…We have to make a municipal census of needs and create community support mechanisms. Then we have to talk about different models of people supporting people, that work strategically and that is part of a plan.”

With estimates that 46.1% of Puerto Ricans live below the federal poverty level, Secretary Andújar said the Department had commissioned a study to verify socioeconomic changes, especially after Hurricane Maria, to the University of Puerto Rico, noting: “We hope to have a more up-to-date visibility of what the percentages are, what is going to throw us, what are the populations that are in those levels of poverty, and, obviously, how aligned our programs are towards services towards each one of those populations that results from the study.” She noted she was unable at present to be certain when that information would be ready. However, in the wake of Hurricane Maria, and by the end of last year, there were 35,000 new applicants for nutritional assistance. Demographer Judith Rodríguez reports that, taking into account only the difficulties brought by the emergency, she can say that the number of poor people on the island has increased: the most recent figures, from 2016, indicated that, in 30 municipios, 50% of the population lived in poverty, and that in six other towns, the figure reached 60%, adding: “Today, more than ever, families need the services offered by the government of Puerto Rico to respond to the changing needs of the people.”

What about the Youngest? Secretary Andújar reported her staff is aware of the possibility of an increase in the incidence of child abuse: “It is a reality for which we have been preparing. We are active with prevention mechanisms. After a phenomenon like the one suffered by the country, after months, it is expected that these indicators tend to increase.” Her agency noted that in the referrals from the last calendar quarter of 2017 of possible cases of abuse, the totals increased month after month, albeit they were below the records of the same period of the previous year. Due to the U.S. territory’s fiscal distress or quasi chapter 9 bankruptcy, her agency has taken a $605 million cut, with Gov. Ricardo Rosselló advising her: “You do not need more,” even as Larry Emil Alicea, president of the College of Social Work Professionals, notes: “Those who stay and cannot leave (from Puerto Rico), increase social stressors and may be associated with suicide rates: In the case of parents, protective capacities diminish and cases of child and adolescent abuse increase.”

Federalism obstacles to Puerto Rico’s Fiscal and Physical recovery.

February 28, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the federalism obstacles to Puerto Rico’s fiscal and physical recovery.

Puerto Rico’s Obstacles to Recovery. 78 mayors are set to meet today with Governor Ricardo Rossello Nevarez and representatives of the Army Corps of Engineers to discuss the delay in the restoration of the island’s energy system—a meeting at which they intend to present the Governor with other problems they confront in their municipios or municipalities in the wake of the hurricane. Since last November, and only weeks after the goal to restore 95% of power by last Christmas has fallen way short, the government yesterday reported restoration had reached over 84%; however, the figures did not make clear whether that percentage reflected generation or subscribers with electricity. Today’s session is focused on providing the Governor the opportunity to make clear his concern that the Corps has so far not addressed the island’s issues and to receive a full explanation why not and “how to correct the situation that is still serious,” according to Rolando Cruz, the president of the Association of Mayors and first executive of Cayey. Also participating are the Mayor Francisco López López of Barranquitas and William Alicea of Aibonito, said that although their primary claim is the restoration of light, their concerns are broader. The key concern relates to the perceived inability, to date, of help from FEMA—especially with regard to bridges and highways, mental health of affected citizens, and the dire challenges of so many who have lost their homes or suffered unaffordable damages—and who have been unable to prove ownership of their property—or, as Mayors López López put it: “Here in the mountains, we are still going through very difficult situations: sectors without electricity, without drinking water, roads destroyed.” The apprehension is, if anything, worsening: yesterday, Governor Rosselló Nevares denounced the decision by the U.S. Treasury to reduce, without explanation, the amount of initial financing of $4,700 million by more than half to $2,030 million from the line of Congressionally approved credit for Puerto Rico. In his letter to Congressional leaders, the Governor wrote that the U.S. had “effectively blocked access to some $4.7 billion from the CDL (Commercial Driver’s License) program,” urging intervention to avoid “further damage and suffering to the residents of Puerto Rico,” noting that any material interruption of public services would only exacerbate the emigration of its population to the continental United States. He added that the Treasury has imposed conditions incompatible with the purpose of the program, while criticizing that the federal agency has canceled the ability to cancel any CDL issued to Puerto Rico “in clear contravention of the applicable law,” writing that the U.S. territory is approaching spring in the same precarious fiscal situation, with the possibility that the Treasury will cancel federal aid approved by law,” notwithstanding the Financial Advisory Authority and Fiscal Agency’s compliance with each request from Treasury. His epistle noted that despite the immediate cooperation of the agency, the Treasury did not provide the agency with economic terms or other material terms for the CDL program (In an effort to help Puerto Rican citizens relocating to the mainland in the wake of hurricanes Irma and Maria, the Federal Motor Carrier Administration had waived certain requirements in an effort to help them obtain commercial learner’s permits or commercial driver’s licenses: according to the Governor, last January 9th, the Treasury and FEMA had sent a letter to the local government regarding the implementation of a cash balance policy in order to facilitate access the CDL financing—but a letter requesting Puerto Rico to exhaust its own resources before the Treasury and FEMA would provide access to CDL program funds.

Chapter Nueve? Even as Puerto Rico is struggling to address its severe physical challenges, notices with regard to the deadline for filing proofs of claim in Puerto Rico’s five Title III bankruptcy cases are going out this week, as U.S. Judge Laura Taylor Swain had set a Monday deadline for the notices to be delivered. Notwithstanding, and not to be blamed on the mailman, FAFA Executive Director Gerardo Portela Franco reported the notices would start to be sent out this week—with five of the Title III entities having at least $52.5 billion in debt outstanding, in what has now become  the largest quasi municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history: the notices in question will inform creditors that they will have until May 29th to file a proof of claim in the cases. The debt issuers here include: the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the Puerto Rico Sales Tax Financing Corp. (COFINA), the Employees Retirement System of the Government of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the Puerto Rico Highways and Transportation Authority, and the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority. Responding will matter: those who fail to file a timely-filed proof of claim or trustee proof of claim will lose any claim for compensation for their municipal bonds, as well as their rights to vote on any plan of debt adjustment. Indeed, yesterday, PREPA bond trustee U.S. Bank National Association posted a notice to EMMA stating it planned to file a proof of claim on behalf of the bondholders, specifying: “[I]f you believe that you may have separate or additional claims against the Authority other than the claims with respect to principal, interest and other amounts owing on your bonds or have claims against other Title III debtors or other persons or entities concerning your bonds or otherwise, you should consult with your legal professionals regarding those claims and take appropriate action within the applicable time period.”

On the physical, as opposed to the fiscal storm front, in the wake of the U.S.’s worst blackout in American history, the complicated and costly effort for a quasi-chapter 9 entity, major chunks of infrastructure and power restoration appears to have reached a plateau: while most, today, have electricity, it is unclear how much longer those in the dark will have to wait. Jay Field, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, notes: “The bulk of the work that is left is the hardest, requiring helicopter support and long commutes to remote, hard-to-access job sites…Weather is also an issue due to rain and heavy winds.” Last week, Puerto Rico’s unified grid-restoration command reported it expects to have 90 to 95% of the territory’s power restored by March 31st: it estimates that the hard-hit municipality of Arecibo will have its electricity restored by mid-April, and the municipality of Caguas by late May. He offered no timeline for other darkened municipios. A critical part of the physical recovery challenge has been the complicated overlapping lines of authority, as well as Puerto Rico’s insolvency: even though the U.S. Army Corps is in charge of overall recovery, PREPA has been in charge of much of the repair work—a Puerto Rican authority which is $9 billion in debt—and which, last week, suffered a fiscal blow when Judge Laura Taylor Swain  rejected its plea for a $550 million loan—leading the utility to respond it would start reducing output at some of its power plants, because it could not afford fuel. In its court filing, the utility stated that the scenario “exacerbated the risk to an already fragile system and leaves it vulnerable to outages and resulting in brownouts on the island.” That work involves nearly 6,000 repair workers now on the island, but where, seemingly on a daily basis, the workers keep finding new problems.

As of last Wednesday, 343,000 electricity customers were without grid power, the lowest number yet: in the wake of the storm, there were nearly 1.6 million customers experiencing a blackout. So, on the one hand, there has been significant progress; however, much of the progress has been followed by drops, as PREPA’s old and fragile grid has occasionally failed and plunged swaths of newly restored customers back into darkness. Most recently, a fire at a substation two weeks ago, for instance, plunged more than 343,000 and much of the capital of San Juan into darkness. Thus it means, still today, that thousands of homes and businesses are running either full or part-time on backup diesel generators—meaning those families or businesses are running generators, forcing them to pay for fuel. For PREPA, the challenge is aggravated by the uncertainty with regard to certainty about how many customers are without grid power: from the onset of Maria until early November, PREPA gave a rough estimate; then it simply stopped trying: the damage to the grid was so extensive that the utility could simply no longer determine  how many of its customers were drawing electricity. It was only near the end of last month that PREPA started reporting its percentage of “normal peak load” which had been restored. Nevertheless, that reporting indicates the percentage of power restored has risen from 19% in early October to almost 84% last week. Yet, even that restoration has been unreliable: even though parts of PREPA’s grid have crashed on numerous occasions during the recovery, only a few of those outages are shown by the data—a deficiency, because power was often restored within hours or days and, ergo, was not captured in the weekly reports.

Another serious challenge has been substations: Puerto Rico has 342 distribution substations, which convert power from transmission to distribution use: improvement has occurred slowly since November, but has been basically flat in 2018: the grid’s 56 transmission substations have seen no improvement since December: these stations step up voltage for long-distance delivery or prepare it for transport along transmission lines of different voltages. Progress is a challenge: Fernando Padilla, a senior PREPA adviser, reported that damage to the substations still offline was so devastating that they need to be rebuilt from the ground up: “A portion of the substations, specifically those that are close to where the eye of the hurricane passed, remain totally destroyed. Those require complete reconstruction (engineering, design, mitigation, etc.)…The PREPA system has points of interconnection that permit energy to be carried through various zones without having to pass by these particular substations: This isn’t the norm, and it augments the risk to the reliability of the system. But in general, it can be done.”