The Daunting Road to Recovery from the Nation’s Longest Ever Municipal Bankruptcy

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eBlog, 12/09/16

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we look back on the long and rocky road from the nation’s longest municipal bankruptcy back to solvency taken by the City of San Bernardino, a city in a Dillon Rule state, which we described in our original study as the former gateway from the East to Midwest of the L.A. basin and former home to Norton Air Force Base, Kaiser Steel, and the Santa Fe Railroad, but which in the 1990’s, with the departure of those industries and employees, fell into hard times. By the advent of the Great Recession, 46% of its residents were on some form of public assistance—and nearly one-third below the poverty line. By FY2012, the city faced a $45 million deficit; its fund balance and reserves were exhausted—leading the city to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy (note California codes §§53760, 53760.1, 53760.3, 53760.5, and 53760.7—and where, effective on the first day of this year, new statutory state language specifically created a first lien priority for general obligation debt issued by cities, counties, schools, and special districts, so long as the debt was secured by a levy of ad valorum taxes pursuant to California’s Constitution.) As we have noted, in the 18 states which authorize chapter 9 filings, states have proscribed strikingly different legal mechanisms relating to the state role—varying from a state takeover, such as we have described in the case of the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy in Detroit, but to a very different regime in Jefferson County and San Bernardino—where the elected municipal officials not only remained in office, but here the respective states—if anything—contributed to the severity of the fiscal challenges. Then we turn to what might be Congress’ last day in town this year—and whether funding to help the City of Flint might be enacted: Will Congress pass and send to the President a bill to provide emergency assistance to Flint?

Back to a City’s Viable Future. San Bernardino leaders this week issued a detailed statement on the arduous road to recovery they have travelled and what they intend for the road ahead, albeit noting the city is already well along its own blueprint for its recovery, as it awaits formal approval from U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury from its chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy early next year. In its statement, San Bernardino reported it had implemented about 70 percent of its recovery plan. That’s turned once-dire projections for the future upside down—a virtual u-turn from when the city’s fiscal analysts three years ago projected that in FY2023, the city would have a deficit of $360 million if dramatic changes were not achieved. But today, the city instead projects an unallocated cash balance for FY2023 of $9.5 million, or, as the statement reads: “Now, the city is on the cusp of emerging from bankruptcy as a changed city with a brighter future.” The municipal statement is primarily focused on the governance and fiscal changes made to create a virtual u-turn in the city’s fiscal ship of state since entering what became the nation’s longest municipal bankruptcy—a change in fiscal course without either state aid or state imposition of an emergency manager or a state takeover. The statement notes: “Given the emergency nature of its filing, it took the city several months to assess its financial condition—until April 2013, at which time the city adopted a final budget for fiscal years 2012-13 and 2013-14…The city’s initial financial assessment, however, only reflected further concern over its financial future. In September 2013, Mayor [Pat] Morris announced that absent fundamental modernization and change the city faced a 10-year deficit of a staggering $360 million. The future of San Bernardino looked bleak.”

The statement itemized what appeared to be the key steps to recovery, including achieving labor agreements—agreements which resulted in savings in excess of $100 million, and involved the termination of virtually all health insurance subsidies coverage for employees and retirees, writing that the city calculated the resulting savings to amount to about $44 million for retirees and $51 million for current employees. The statement notes some $56 million in other OPEB changes. A key—and hard-fought change—was achieved by contracting out for essential public services, with one of the most hard fought such changes coming from the annexation agreement with the San Bernardino County Fire Protection District: an agreement under which the county assumed responsibility for fire and emergency medical response—a change projected to save San Bernardino’s budget nearly $66 million over the next two decades just in public pension savings, but also as much as $5 to $6 million in its annual operating budget—and that is before adding in the parcel tax revenues which were incorporated in that agreement. San Bernardino also switched to contracting out for its trash and recycling—an action with a one-time franchise payment of $5 million, but increased estimated annual revenues of approximately $5 million to $7.6 million. The switch led to significant alterations or contracting out for an increasing number of municipal services. Or, as the paper the city released notes: “Modern cities deliver many services via contracts with third-party providers, using competition to get the best terms and price for services…The city has entered into a number of such contracts under the Recovery Plan.”

Governance. The city paper writes that the voters’ approval of a new city charter will allow San Bernardino to eliminate ambiguous lines of authority which had created a lack of authority, or, as U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury put it earlier this week: “(City officials) successfully amended their charter, which will give them modern-day, real-life flexibility in making decisions that need to be made…There was too much political power and not enough management under their charter, to be frank, compared to most cities in California.”

Rechartering San Bernardino’s Public Security. San Bernardino’s Plan of Debt Adjustment calls for increasing investment into the Police Department through a five-year Police Plan—a key step, as a study commissioned to consider the city’s public safety found the city to be California’s most dangerous municipality based on crime, police presence, and other “community factors.” The study used FBI data and looked at crime rates, police presence, and investment in police departments as well as community factors including poverty, education, unemployment, and climate: The report found a high correlation between crime rates and poverty—with San Bernardino’s poverty rate topping 30.6 percent. Thus, in the city’s Police Plan portion of its plan of adjustment, the report notes:  “The Mayor, Common Council, and San Bernardino’s residents agree that crime is the most important issue the city faces,” the city says in the Police Plan, submitted to the federal bankruptcy court as part of its plan. The plan calls for $56 million over five years to add more police, update technology, and replace many of the Police Department’s aging vehicles.

The Cost of Fiscal Inattention. Unsurprisingly, the fiscal costs of bankruptcy for a city or county are staggering. The city estimates that the services of attorneys and consultants will cost at least $25 million by the time of the city’s projected formal emergence from chapter 9 next March—albeit those daunting costs are a fraction of the $350 million in savings achieved under the city’s pending plan of debt adjustment—savings created by the court’s approval of its plan to pay its creditors far less than they would have otherwise been entitled: as little as 1 cent on the dollar owed, in many instances. Or, as the city’s statement wryly notes: “In addition, the city’s bankruptcy has allowed the city a reprieve during which it was able to shore up its finances, find greater cost and organizational efficiencies and improve its governance functions…Thus, all told, while the city’s exit from bankruptcy will have been a hard-fought victory, it was one that was critical and necessary to the city’s continued viability for the future.”

Out Like Flint. The House of Representatives on what it hopes to be its penultimate day yesterday approved two bills which, together, would authorize and fund $170 million for emergency aid to Flint and other communities endangered by contaminated drinking water. The emergency assistance came by way of a stopgap spending bill to keep the federal government operating next April in a bipartisan 326-96 vote and, separately, a water infrastructure bill which directs how the $170 million package should be spent by a 360-61 vote. Nevertheless, the aid for the city is not certain in the U.S. Senate: some have vowed to stop it, at least in part because the bill includes a controversial drought provision which would boost water deliveries to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California.

Schooled in Public Service & Municipal Bankruptcy

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eBlog, 12/08/16

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we salute the soon to be retiring Emergency Manager of the Detroit Public Schools, the exceptional former U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, who presided over the largest municipal bankruptcy in the nation’s history before accepting the grueling challenge to be the emergency manager of the near bankrupt Detroit public schools system.

Yes We Can. The extraordinary public servant and electric rhythm guitar playing retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, currently the outgoing (yes, a pun) Emergency Manager of the Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD)said an investigation by the school district’s inspector general could produce more criminal charges in the district—and, likely, more fiscal pain for the city. He had hired Inspector General Bernadette Kakooza last April, in the midst of an ongoing federal investigation of a $2.7 million kickback scheme with a contractor involving 13 school administrators who are no longer employed by the school district, although he was careful not to address the specifics in speaking to the Detroit News this week about what potential wrongdoing there might be after testifying before a House committee on the District’s progress since the legislature last June enacted a $617 million financial rescue of the school system; however, Judge Rhodes noted, referring to Ms. Kakooza: “She does have several matters under investigation at the present time that may result in further criminal investigations and charges.” Those charges relate to new cases of fraud the DPSCD inspector general had outlined in a report, including a payroll error resulting in an employee being overpaid by $50,000, fraudulent teaching credentials, and missing equipment and public funds. Judge Rhodes did say that the new debt-free Detroit school has developed “much stricter controls” on purchasing in an effort to try to prevent fraud, adding, however: “Still, we understand that there are no financial controls that are foolproof against clever and smart criminals who are intent upon theft and fraud.” His statement came before the Michigan House School Aid Appropriations Subcommittee in what might prove to be one of his last state public appearances as he nears the end of his service to Detroit’s kids on the last day of this month. At the hearing, Judge Rhodes also disclosed for the first time that the school district has paid Michigan’s public pension fund nearly $30 million—money which had been diverted from federal grants to the public school district’s general fund by his predecessors. DPSCD’s past-due pension debt to the Michigan Public School Employee Retirement System stood at $132.6 million as of last November 11th, significantly paid down from $163 million on June 30th, according to the Michigan Office of Retirement Services; nevertheless, it will likely take nearly a decade to fully pay down past arrears. .

For his part, Judge Rhodes said he would be handing over authority of the school district to a newly elected Detroit school board with a projected fund balance of between $40 million and $50 million for the current fiscal year, telling reporters: “The school board is the new control for public education in the city of Detroit.” Rhodes told reporters; albeit, as part of the state’s bailout of the Detroit Public Schools, Detroit’s Financial Review Commission retains veto power over the school board’s spending plans once Judge Rhodes leaves office at the end of the month; Judge Rhodes said the surplus will help the district with cash-flow next summer when there is a projected gap in School Aid payments from the state. His swan song, as it were, comes as the legislature continues to scrutinize the finances and operations of the state’s largest school system. As a parting, if poignant, message, Judge Rhodes advised: “I think DPS just needs to be left alone for a little while to give this academic plan a chance, to give our fresh start a chance and to prove to our city, our region, and our state that we can succeed.”

While the there is separate and distinct governance between Detroit’s municipal and school governance, the two are inextricably linked, because, as we have noted too often (likely), the perceived quality of a municipality or county’s public schools is critical to the interest of parents to move to such a municipality or county–and, ergo–to assessed property values. 

The Stark Differences in How Cities May Exit Municipal Bankruptcy, & The Hard Challenges of Municipal Governance in Insolvencies.

eBlog, 12/07/16

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the green light flashed by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury yesterday, clearing the way for San Bernardino to exit the longest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history—and in ways profoundly different than Detroit because of the very different state roles and laws with regard to chapter 9 and governance in municipal bankruptcy, and that San Bernardino—like Jefferson County—remained under elected local leadership throughout their respective journeys into and out of municipal bankruptcy. Then we turn to last night’s recall by voters in the small, insolvent municipality of East Cleveland, in the wake of the narrowest of margins—but at an unaffordable cost.

Smooth Sailing Out of Municipal Bankruptcy. In what San Bernardino Mayor Carey Davis yesterday described as a “monumental day…[where] the hard work has paid off,” referring to U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury’s statement yesterday: “We have a lot left to do, but this clears the way for us to do much of that work,” as she yesterday confirmed the City of San Bernardino’s plan of debt adjustment, confirming its path early in the new year to exit from the nation’s longest ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy as early as next March. San Bernardino City Attorney Gary Saenz expressed elation at Judge Jury’s green light, noting: “I’m so pleased and excited about where the city is now compared to where we were when we filed bankruptcy and what we were able to accomplish and that we now have a solid foundation upon which to build this city. The confirmation should certainly help the rest of the city and the world recognize that San Bernardino is back.” Even Judge Jury joined in praising the city for its endurance and stamina over the long road, noting that over the four-year span she had observed that had improved not just its finances, but also its governance, pointing to the municipality’s voter-approved new charter and better working relationships among elected officials: “The city came in financial chaos, and it’s leaving in much better shape…I have lived in this region for 40 years…and I’ve always said the city needed help. I’m glad it got it.” Under the city’s now approved plan of adjustment, it will pay the bulk of its creditors far less than they would otherwise be entitled to—in many instances merely one cent for every dollar such a creditor is owed; however, the city’s plan also outlines changes to the structure of the city, some of which, including outsourcing of refuse and fire services, and the passage of a new city charter, have already been implemented. City Attorney Saenz estimated that even though the costs to the city of its filing will be in excess of $20 million, its now approved chapter 9 plan of debt adjustment will save the city’s taxpayers more than $300 million worth of debts that will be officially discharged.

With regard to the record length of time, Judge Jury said the case, which hinged significantly on deals with major creditors, took the right amount of time. Moreover, several of the city’s major creditors in the case concurred in the congratulations, contrasting the city’s process and efforts specifically to Detroit, the nation’s largest-ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, by noting both the significant state role and imposition of an emergency manager in the former—in contrast, the State of California was simply an absent, if not contributor to San Bernardino’s insolvency and consequent chapter 9 filing. Indeed, attorney Vincent J. Marriott, who represented municipal bondholders who held approximately $50 million of the city’s tax-exempt bonds, noted: “Here the city had the challenge of being not only economically viable but politically palatable,” said. “As is appropriate, that took time. I think the result today is really a tribute to all the work and thought that went in from the city.” Further challenging San Bernardino was the inability to gain any concessions on its public pension liabilities—in sharp contrast to the Detroit plan of debt adjustment, which provided for reductions in both Detroit’s public pension and post-retirement benefit obligations after San Bernardino’s attempts to negotiate with the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS), therefore forcing the city to negotiate steeper concessions from all its other creditors. (The San Bernardino police union did reach an agreement with the city last year which includes concessions on leave time from before the bankruptcy filing, legal claims related to the imposition, and retiree health care.)

The last hurdle, as we have recounted previously, came after Judge Jury held for the city against efforts by attorneys representing clients injured by the San Bernardino Police—who had argued that the exceptionally low offer demonstrated the city, in its plan of debt adjustment efforts, had not acted “reasonably,” nor “in good faith,” provisions required for the federal court to confirm a municipality’s plan of debt adjustment. In rejecting those debtors’ claims, Judge Jury told their attorney: “I’m not trying to diminish the injuries to your client…But I’m also saying at a human level what the police and others have given back do affect the livelihoods of their families. It’s not a dispassionate institutional creditor.” Finally, Judge Jury concurred in one of the very few areas in the city’s plan of debt adjustment calling for increased spending: for the city’s police department. Judge Jury noted: “Anybody that lives in this area knows that the crime problem in San Bernardino is substantial…They have to get safe for people to want to live there.”

Pearl Harbor Day on East Cleveland. East Cleveland voters yesterday recalled both Mayor Gary Norton Jr. and City Council President Thomas Wheeler in a special election, with the final, unofficial results finding that Mayor Norton lost by a margin of 20 votes (548 to 528), according to the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections website, while City Council President Wheeler lost by an even narrow margin of 18 votes—with the official tally to be released on December 19th. Yesterday’s recall election marked the third time Councilmember Wheeler had been subject to recall: he prevailed exactly one year ago, and then, again, last June—albeit by a mere 51-49 percent margin, and with a turnout of only 7 percent of the city’s registered voters. For the ousted Mayor, the recall marked the first such election. In a statement last night, Mayor Norton noted: “I love the people of East Cleveland, and it has been an honor to have served them.” In the wake of the recall, Council Vice President Brandon King will be sworn in as the new Mayor in three weeks, and the remaining City Council members will have to appoint two leaders to the Council to fill the empty slots: under the Council’s procedures, should the Council find itself unable to agree upon such appointments, Mayor-to-be King will choose who fills those seats, according to Council President Wheeler.

For the small, insolvent municipality of East Cleveland, a city which Ohio Auditor Dave Yost’s office four years ago declared to be in a state of fiscal emergency, and last year stated that municipal bankruptcy or merging with Cleveland were the two most viable options for the suburb, the interim has been like waiting for Godot. Indeed, the small municipality has been awaiting some response from the State of Ohio with regard to its request for authorization to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, and some response from both the state and City of Cleveland with regard to its proposal to be annexed, the disruptive election carries a fiscal cost: yesterday’s election could cost the city between $25,000 and $30,000. (The city explored filing for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in May, but has been stymied by the state, because the Ohio Tax Commissioner’s office said the Council should ask permission from the state, not the Mayor.) Now, in the wake of last night’s results, the outcome could mean what outgoing Council President Wheeler last night described as “dramatic chaos:” “They wanted me out, and it took them three times…Obviously they don’t want the city to move forward; they want to go back to the way things used to be.” In contrast, Devin Branch, who led the effort to recall the city’s elected leaders last night said the people of East Cleveland had spoken, and while voter turnout was low, the majority of the city opposes the current mayor: “Working class people of the City of East Cleveland are soundly against Mayor Norton.” The city explored filing for bankruptcy in May, but hit a roadblock when the Tax Commissioner’s office said council should ask permission from the state, not the mayor. The letter from the commissioner also detailed the plans that the city must have prior to filing for bankruptcy.

Fiscal Challenges Amid Governance Transitions

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eBlog, 12/06/16

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing health and fiscal challenges of Flint, Michigan as we await the outcome of today’s mayoral recall election in the insolvent municipality of East Cleveland, after which we attempt to update readers on the porous state of Atlantic City’s municipal utility. Then we seek to escape winter by heading south to Puerto Rico—where the combination of changing administrations in both the U.S. and Puerto Rico leave unclear what the fiscal path forward will be if the U.S. territory is to avoid not just fiscal, but also health care insolvency.

Out like Flint. University of Michigan researchers have more than tripled their estimate of the number of water service lines in the small city of Flint which will need to be replaced, nearly quadrupling the number of lead or galvanized steel lines the city has from 8,000 to 29,100—or more than half service lines leading to 55,000 homes and businesses in Flint, according Mayor Karen Weaver, who notes the updated report makes it important that the city move beyond the use of filters and instead move toward wholesale replacement of water lines: “These findings make it even more imperative that the state and federal government step up to pay for replacing lead-tainted service lines.” The figures are daunting: of the municipality’s 29,100 parcels, 17,500 would need full replacement of service lines, while 11,600 would require partial replacement, according to the researchers. The estimate was mandated by EPA to comply with the requirements of the federal Lead and Copper Rule: because the lead in the city’s water supply exceeded the federal action level of 15 parts per billion, the city is mandated to replace more than 2,000 service lines by next June—a physical and fiscal challenge given that Flint’s records describing the location of lead service lines in Flint have proven to be unreliable, and records for some parcels appear to not even exist, according to city officials—meaning that visual inspections, more time-consuming and expensive route—has served as the city’s only means to obtain an accurate assessment of where lead and galvanized steel service lines were installed. Thus, under Mayor Weaver’s initiative, municipal crews continue to replace service lines in neighborhoods most likely to have lead service lines, and where a significant number of young children or seniors live: the Mayor’s goal is to have service lines replaced at 1,000 homes by the end of this month, although the actual number may be fewer if bad weather occurs—weather with this morning’s chilled rain at temperatures just above freezing augurs ill. To help, the state of Michigan has set aside $25 million to pay for pipe replacements through September of next year—estimated to be sufficient to pay for replacing pipes to about 5,000 homes. In addition, Congress is considering an aid package that would bring tens of millions of dollars to Flint which could be used to repair the city’s damaged water system. If the 29,100 figure proves accurate, replacing the other 28,100 service lines could cost at least $140 million. A key element on this health and fiscal challenge could be yesterday’s agreement between U.S. House and Senate leaders on a bipartisan bill to authorize $170 million for Flint and other cities beleaguered by lead in drinking water, and to provide relief to drought-stricken California. A vote on the water-projects bill could take place this week as Congress wraps up its legislative work for the year.

The Utility & Atlantic City. Atlantic City’s utility water authority board members last week raised rates in an effort to cover an unexpected budget hole—but then topped it off by paying themselves a $3,000 per board member, even as the Municipal Utilities Authority (MUA) board approved the 10 percent rate hike for next year, a 20 percent increase over what had been set at last week’s special meeting to cover lost revenue from a contract change with New Jersey American Water. Under the new plan, residential rates would increase to $50 per quarter from $45 last year; nevertheless, the utility’s rates would still rank near the bottom for the region, according to Atlantic County Utilities Authority data. The MUA’s $14.7 million 2017 budget, down just under 10 percent from last year, is scheduled to be adopted on December 21st, according to an authority news release. The increase would appear unlikely to garner much favor in the insolvent city—especially in the wake of the board’s decision to award themselves $3,000 gifts this December “for their dedicated service,” according to a resolution, notwithstanding that the money was supposed to be a parting gift, not a Christmas gift, according to one board member. Board Vice Chairman Gary Hill yesterday claimed the “December 2016” was an error in the resolution’s language. It appears it has been a tradition that MUA Board members are to receive a cash bonus or gift once they leave the board: the authority’s seven board members make $6,000 salaries and can receive benefits, according to public records. Now, however, the Board’s challenge could be complicated by a different kind of fiscal disruption: American Water, a private company which had been considered a potential buyer of the MUA, which had a $1.7 million contract with the MUA, and was the MUA’s top customer, has recently notified the MUA it no longer needs it to provide water; it turns out that capital improvements to its Atlantic County system have increased its water capacity and “in essence eliminated NJAW’s need to purchase water from the ACMUA,” according to the company letter to the authority; instead, American Water wanted to buy 500,000 gallons of water per day, down from the 1.2 million gallons per day it has recently purchased; however, the lower volume would convert the company from a “bulk purchaser” to a “commercial customer,” meaning it would have to pay a $7 million connection charge, according to the letter, so that, according to the company’s statement: “We cannot justify the additional costs the ACMUA’s proposal would have on the company and its customers, since these significant capital investments eliminate the need for New Jersey American Water to purchase additional water.” Ergo, the contract change and its effect on the MUA budget led to the special board meeting where rates were raised—and bonuses were raised; now MUA and American Water are discussing a potential agreement under which the company would only buy water from the MUA in emergency situations, according to Chairman Hill: the MUA could get just $200,000 under such an arrangement. The fiscal and physical situation is, of course, further complicated from a governance perspective as the city’s public water utility has been at the center of debate between Atlantic City and the State of New Jersey—which has just taken over the city. American Water lobbyist Philip Norcross attended a 2015 meeting with city and state officials in which the MUA was discussed. Mr. Norcross’ brother is South Jersey powerbroker George Norcross. Authority officials questioned the timing of the contract change, hinting it was a strategic move by American Water to get the valuable water works, according to the meeting transcript. “They’re putting pressure on,” said Deputy Executive Director Garth Moyle.

Administration Transitions & Puerto Rico. The new PROMESA law to create a quasi-chapter 9 mechanism for the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico will face signal challenges as the governance of both the U.S. and Puerto Rico are in transition to new administrations. Unsurprisingly, President-elect Trump devoted little time to addressing what his position would be with regard to the implementation and administration of the new law. Thus, while Congress and the Treasury Department have put together both a framework and a Board to assist in Puerto Rico’s recovery; whether and how those might be modified or addressed now will depend upon both the incoming administration in Washington and new Governor in Puerto Rico—where the new head of the Senate’s Health Commission, Ángel Chayanne Martínez Santiago, yesterday urgently requested a meeting with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) to discuss a possible health emergency declaration because of apprehension that all federal health care funds could expire on the island by this summer, writing that the federal health care assistance affects some 1.6 million U.S. citizens: “We need to declare a health emergency in Puerto Rico immediately. We have no doubt that this is a matter of vital importance—nor can there be any question but that this is a matter of vital importance for Congress and the White House.” The letter warns that, without a doubt, the greatest portion of the territory’s existing Affordable Health Care funds will have been spent before the end of this month, noting: “We are urgently requesting this meeting with Speaker Ryan to set out a strategy to avoid having Puerto Ricans losing all access to health care.”

The situation is further complicated as Puerto Rico is going through its own governance transition. Thus, the U.S. territory’s Governor-elect, Ricardo Rosselló, now must determine not only how to coordinate with the PROMESA board, but also how to address Puerto Rico’s budget, debt, and grave health care situation—and how to seek to work with the new Trump administration after reviewing both the numbers in the Commonwealth’s current 10-year fiscal plan submitted last October by outgoing Gov. García Padilla. A critical issue will be Medicaid—an issue on which the outgoing administration had warned Congress “ultimately will have to address Puerto Rico’s inequitable treatment under Medicaid and its need for economic growth incentives.” The pending proposal by the outgoing Administration of President Obama opined that Congress create Medicaid parity between Puerto Rico and the states, and extend certain tax credits to the Commonwealth: this has now become a more urgent issue as Medicaid funding for Puerto Rico is due to expire near the end of 2017, creating what is called a “Medicaid cliff.” And even that challenge can be expected to be further muddied by potential consideration by the incoming Trump Administration to convert Medicaid’s entitlement status to a block grant program to the states. The risk for Puerto Rico in all this would be if it were to fall between the cracks: should that happen, Puerto Rico’s government, where annual health care expenditures are near $2.4 billion annually, the U.S. territory would either have to raise revenues and find ways to cut expenses while providing consistent levels of care or drastically pare healthcare benefits—benefits already significantly lower than to Americans living in the other 50 states, because Puerto Rico’s Medicaid funding is capped, rather than entitled—meaning that, despite disproportionate health care needs, it receives disproportionately less than any of the 50 states.  

Awkward Transition & Fiscal Death Spiral? Puerto Rico Governor-Elect Ricardo Rosselló this weekend declined outgoing Gov. Alejandro García Padilla’s offer to work on a fiscal plan for the federal PROMESA oversight board. Under the PROMESA law, the U.S. territory’s governor is mandated to submit a five-year plan which itemizes steps to bring about fiscal responsibility, regain access to capital markets, fund essential public services, fund provisions, and achieve a sustainable debt burden. Last October, Gov. Padilla indeed presented a 10 year plan to PROMESA’s Oversight Board which noted that Puerto Rico simply could not afford paying down its debt without federal aid, noting that the government would be still $6 billion short for operating expenses over the next decade absent federal help and without paying any debt service. Last month, the PROMESA Oversight Board members indicated they believed substantial cuts to Puerto Rico government spending beyond those included in the outgoing Governor’s plan were necessary—adding that the Board expected a revised version of the plan from Governor Padilla by next week—a demand with which Governor Padilla said he would not cooperate if it meant revising the plan to include additional austerity, noting the island has had enough austerity, so that further budget cuts would only lead to an “economic death spiral.” Thus, last Friday the Governor Padilla sent a letter to Governor-elect Rosselló to invite him to become part of a joint effort to put together a revised fiscal recovery plan. Gov.-elect Rosselló, however, publicly rejected the outgoing Governor’s offer, responding, at least according to El Vocero’s news website, that Governor Padilla had not released sufficient financial data for the incoming Governor to work with him—leaving the incoming Governor little time or opportunity to offer his own plan—and the PROMESA Board is scheduled to certify (or not) the plan set before it by the end of next month.

Democracy & Municipal Insolvency

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eBlog, 12/05/16

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider tomorrow’s mayoral recall election in the insolvent municipality of East Cleveland, after which we consider a stern editorial from the Richmond-Times Dispatch about the ongoing challenges to recovering from insolvency in the historic city of Petersburg, Virginia. Finally, with the Obama Administration preparing to vacate the White House by the end of the month, we look at a new report detailing its role in Detroit’s recovery from the nation’s largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in American history.

Democracy & Insolvency. Tomorrow is Election Day in East Cleveland, a small municipality which has been seeking authority from the State of Ohio to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy for nearly a year. This special election is to decide whether Mayor Gary Norton and Council President Thomas Wheeler will keep their jobs or be recalled. The Mayor is campaigning by claiming he has done a good job keeping the struggling suburb afloat, pointing to a big pay-down of debt and money saved by cutting overtime and converting to self-funded health care; he also claims a new Salvation Army Center, with programs for young people and seniors, will be a needed addition. Third, he boasts of the first new shopping space built-in the city in decades. In contrast, those supporting the recall argue he is undermining residents’ confidence in their city by pushing an annexation plan (with Cleveland)—even as the Mayor states the city’s long-range financial picture is unsustainable. Critics claim his lack of oversight of the department has led to misconduct by officers and costly settlements of lawsuits. Mayor Norton says the special election is a waste of money for the cash-strapped city, especially with a scheduled election coming next year. Tomorrow’s special election comes as the status of annexation with the neighboring city of Cleveland is on hold while Cleveland seeks an expert opinion with regard to what the impact would be on the city’s finances and operations.

Inflammatory Municipal Governance? The Richmond-Times Dispatch last Friday, in an editorial, (“Petersburg needs sunshine to restore”) wrote that  Previous Next Petersburg’s financial collapse has inflamed the citizenry: “The city’s response to its budget crisis has not restored trust. The editorial notes that the Virginia American Civil Liberties Union faults Petersburg officials for secrecy, a lack of openness. It cites special meetings called at the last-minute and held not only at inconvenient times but in cramped quarters: “The circumstances discourage public participation. Residents want to know. They have a right to know.” The editorial notes that Petersburg citizens have shown up at meetings with tape over their mouths, wryly noting: “This is not the image the city ought to project.” The Times-Dispatch thus applauded the hiring of the Robert Bobb Group to help Petersburg climb out of its deep fiscal abyss; however, writing: “The manner of the organization’s ascension troubles us, nevertheless. The process was not as open as it ought to have been. Jurisdictions should pursue a degree of openness greater than the law stipulates: Petersburg’s despair has implications for every citizen. Almost every function of government will be affected. Essential services have fallen under siege. Citizen cooperation remains key. Listen to the civic-minded people eager for engagement. Follow the ACLU’s advice. Let the sun shine.”

The White House Role in Detroit’s Recovery from the Nation’s Largest Municipal Bankruptcy. The Obama Administration has detailed in a nearly 60-page report, “Building and Restoring Civic Capacity: The Obama Administration’s Federal-Local Partnership with Detroit.” The report, released over the weekend, writes that a federal and local partnership commenced five years ago which used financial, technical and other support to help the city which emerged two years ago from the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy. Federal staff was assigned to City Hall to work with community, business, and philanthropic leaders to identify resources to assist in Detroit’s recovery: financial assistance included more than $260 million in federal funds to demolish 6,000 vacant houses and a $25 million grant to improve Detroit’s bus system. HUD also guaranteed construction or rehabilitation of more than 1,400 houses across the city; while technical assistance from the Department of Energy helped install nearly 65,000 street lights.

TheExceptional Governing Challenges on Roads to Fiscal Recovery

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eBlog, 12/02/16

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the hard role to recovery not just from San Bernardino’s longest-ever municipal bankruptcy, but also the savage terrorist attack a year ago. Then we venture East to observe the evolving state role in New Jersey’s takeover of Atlantic City, where the new designee named by Gov. Chris Christie, Jeffrey Chiesa, yesterday introduced himself to residents and taxpayers, but offered little guidance about exactly how he will usurp the roles of the Mayor and City Council in governing and trying to get the famed boardwalk city out of insolvency and back to fiscal stability. Finally, we look north to the metropolitan Hartford, Connecticut region, where the municipalities in the region are seeking to work out fiscal mechanisms to address Hartford’s potential municipal bankruptcy in order to ensure no disruption of metropolitan water and sewer services—a different, but in this case critical element of a “sharing economy.”  

The Jagged Road to Chapter 9 Recovery. It was one year ago today that terrorists struck in San Bernardino—the city in chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy longer than any other city in U.S. history, marking, then, a day of 14 deaths—with victims caught in the crossfire of gun shots and carnage in the wake of the wanton attack by Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik—and a horror still not over, as it will be another nine months before the trial against Enrique Marquez Jr., who has been charged with buying some of the weapons which were used in the attack, commences in September—months after the beleaguered city anticipates exiting from bankruptcy. Because the shootings took place at a San Bernardino County facility in San Bernardino, the long-term recovery has been further complicated from a governance perspective: many of the shooting survivors are accusing San Bernardino County of cutting off much-needed support for the survivors of the attack, including refusing to approve counseling or antidepressant medication. Others, who were physically wounded are seeking, so far unsuccessfully, to get surgeries and physical therapy covered. The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors earlier this week convened a closed-door session at which survivors said they felt betrayed and abandoned, left to deal with California’s complicated workers’ compensation program without guidance or help. Their health insurers will not cover their injuries because they occurred in a workplace attack. Congressman Pete Aguilar (D-Ca.), whose district includes San Bernardino, reports that his hometown had been added to a list of cities with which people are familiar for a terrible reason, such as Littleton, Colo., or Newtown, Conn. Nevertheless, he is defiant, insisting “We will not be defined by this tragedy.”

However, murder rates in the city have been climbing: the city of just over 200,000 is grappling with a spike in violent crime, homicides especially: to date, this year, the city has reported 49 killings, already more than last year’s total, which included the terrorist victims—its homicide rate tops that of Chicago, which has become the poster child for big-city violent crime and is on pace for more than 600 killings this year. San Bernardino Police Chief Jarrod Burguan, however, said the crime wave is not unique to the chapter 9 municipality—a currently bankrupt city where empty storefronts and pawn shops have long lined downtown streets. Nevertheless, Brian Levin, a criminal justice professor at California State University, San Bernardino, who studies hate crimes, yesterday noted: “we’re a better community now, even though we’re hurt.” Professor Levin is one who, in the days and weeks which ensued after the mass tragedy, met with faith leaders, law enforcement, and families of the victims—where he discovered a unity of shock and shared pain. Today, he notes: “The attack will always be a part of our history…But here’s the thing: so will the heroics of those police officers and first responders and medical staff, and so will the grace of the families. We’re writing the rest of the history. The bastards lost.” Now the city awaits early next year for emerging not just from the physical tragedy, but also the longest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy ever.  

Atlantic City Blues.  Jeffrey Chiesa, a former New Jersey Attorney General, U.S. Senator, and, now, Governor Chris Christie’s designee to run the state takeover of Atlantic City, yesterday introduced himself at a City Council meeting and took questions from city taxpayers and residents. He provided, however, in this first public meeting no details on plans to address either the city’s fiscal plight—or its interim governance. He reported the State of New Jersey does not yet have a plan to address the city’s $100 million budget hole, much less to pay down the Atlantic City’s $500 million debt, noting: “It has been two weeks…My plan is to do what I think is necessary to create a structural financial situation that works not for six months, not for a year, but indefinitely so that this place can flourish in a way that it deserves to flourish.” He noted he and his law firm will be paid hourly for their work, albeit he did not report what that hourly rate will be—especially as the state retention agreement remains incomplete, albeit promising: “We’ll make sure that’s available once it’s been finalized.” Related to governance, he noted that—related to his state-granted authority to sell city assets, hire or fire workers or break union contracts, among other powers—he would listen to residents and stakeholders before making major decisions: “What this designation has done is consolidate authority, per the legislation, in the designee to make those decisions…That does not mean that I’m not listening. That does not mean I’m pretending I have all the answers without consulting with other people.” Describing the seaside city as a “jewel” and “truly unique,” he added that he understood concerns about an outsider overseeing the city: “I know that most of you don’t know who I am…All I can do is be judged by my actions and the decision that I make, and I hope you give me time to do that.” He did say that he would have to move swiftly to address immediate issues, likely referring to reaching agreements with casinos to make payments in lieu of property taxes, and then focusing on the city’s expenses—noting: “That timeframe is pretty compressed…So we will take the steps we need to take.”

Fiscally Hard for Hartford. As we have recounted in the fiscally strapped municipality of Petersburg, Virginia, municipal fiscal insolvency cannot occur in a geographic vacuum: whether in Detroit—or as we note above today, in San Bernardino, fiscal insolvency has repercussions for adjacent municipalities. So too in Hartford, the Metropolitan District Commission (MDC) completed its planned $173 million municipal bond sale late last week, temporarily ending the controversy over a $5.5 million reserve fund. Under the provisions, that fund would be paid by seven of the eight MDC municipalities to cover the sewage fee for the second half of 2017 if the City of Hartford is unable to contribute its share, as it has indicated it will be unable to do. Ergo, it means that adjacent Windsor, the first English settlement in the state which abuts Hartford on its northern border, with a population of under 30,000 would contribute over $700,000, with East Hartford contributing about $900,000. The other group members in the metro region, Bloomfield, Newington, Rocky Hill, West Hartford, and Wethersfield, would pay the remaining $900,000, proportionately. One outcome of this watery alliance and experience is that the MDC will, when the state legislature convenes next February, propose two laws to avoid the necessity for a reserve fund in the future, with MDC Chairman William DiBella suggesting that the eight member municipalities be required to set aside as untouchable the percentage of their property taxes the cities and towns already know they will owe to the MDC for sewage services. (Currently, property taxes go into the municipalities’ general funds, and the cities extract the sewage fee when it is due, provided the funds are, in fact, available; however, like water at the tap, that has not always been the experience.) In effect, the consortium is recommending a selves-imposed budgeting municipal mandate, with Chairman DiBella noting: “Every town would have to do it. That way, one town can’t stiff us. You wouldn’t have to go out and borrow money or take charity and hope you get it back.” As the Chairman noted: “We never had a problem like this…Who thought a town would go bankrupt? With the proposed law, if a town were to go bankrupt, the sewage fund would be in a dedicated account and can’t be reached,” or touched in a bankruptcy proceeding. Another potential resolution would be to allow the MDC to borrow money over a long-term for operating expenses. The MDC would then be able to pay Hartford’s $5.5 million bill and look for a city reimbursement in other ways.

There has been increased pressure for a resolution—especially in the wake of municipal bond holders of the MDC, holders who, last week, made clear to the authority they would not buy its municipal bonds if a reserve fund was not put into place. That appeared to be a key incentive for the board’s action earlier this week for the MDC board, including representatives of all eight municipal members, to vote unanimously to adopt the water and sewer service provider’s 2017 budget, which contains the unwelcome “bail-out” fund for Hartford—albeit Chair DiBella said there would be no guarantee the agency could cover a Hartford default or continue operating or pay the bondholders. A key part of the incentive to try to work together relates to potential fiscal contagion: because of concerns over Hartford’s finances and fiscal condition, credit rating agencies have recently downgraded MDC’s bond rating from AA+ to AA, a downgrade expected to cost the agency and its member towns an estimated $500,000 in a higher interest rate for the bonds. The towns, unsurprisingly, are apprehensive the credit rating agencies will now consider changing their credit ratings. In contrast, creating the reserve fund would keep MDC’s credit rating where it is: thus, MDC officials hope that passing the two proposed laws would prompt the credit rating agencies to return its rating to AA+.

 

Atlantic City Blues

 

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eBlog, 12/01/16

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the evolving state role in New Jersey’s takeover of Atlantic City. It might be the state has learned from its only previous history of a municipal takeover (Camden); it is clear that the takeover will prove critical today and this month in ensuring the city avoids critical non-payments and likely ensuing chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy.

Atlantic City Blues. The State of New Jersey, as part of its takeover of Atlantic City, has imposed a nearly 9 percent increase in the property tax rate as part of the boardwalk city’s $241 million budget: the new rate, $1.898 per $100 of assessed value, is up 15 cents from a year ago—overall, the city’s property tax rate has nearly doubled in the last six years even as the revenue derived from taxing its once formidable array of casinos has sharply declined. All told, the combination of county, school, and library taxes, Atlantic City’s total tax rate of $3.86 per $100 of assessed value is up nearly 13 percent from last year—but up some 113 percent since 2010. Yet, even as the rates have soared, the collection total has declined: Atlantic City collected nearly $20 billion in tax revenues in 2010; the total has since dropped sharply to about $6 billion today. The tax levy for the 2016 operating budget is $123 million, down from $128 million last year. While that is no doubt comforting to some of the city’s taxpayers who have seen their average residential tax bill decline sharply due to plummeting assessed property values (a resident residing in a home assessed at $154,778 will pay $5,974 in property taxes this year: last year, the average resident paid $5,988 in taxes on a home assessed at $174,993), the effort by the city’s elected leaders against the State of New Jersey to keep the tax rate flat appears to have fallen on deaf ears: city leaders have argued that its taxpayers had already swallowed a 50 percent tax hike in 2013 through 2014. Unsurprisingly, ergo, Atlantic City’s proposed FY2016 budget and five-year fiscal recovery plan sought no municipal tax increase. It was this lack of proposed local tax increases that drew criticism from the State—which charged the city needed more revenue if it was to be serious with regard to closing its nearly $100 million budget hole—a criticism reflected in its rejection of both the Council’s budget and recovery plan; instead, the New Jersey Local Finance Board last month imposed a revised municipal budget with the tax-rate hike last month on the precise day it assumed control of the city. In his opposition, Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian noted: “I fought tooth and nail against this state-imposed tax increase…I told the state over and over again that our residents couldn’t handle any more tax increases because they’ve been taxed to death over the past 10 years. That’s why last year, when we had complete sovereignty over the city, we didn’t have a tax increase.” It might be that the city’s adopted budget was the final straw from the state perspective, for it drew sharp criticism from New Jersey Local Government Services Director Tim Cunningham, who, in October, had warned Mayor Guardian: “While no elected official desires to increase taxes, it is irresponsible not to maintain the current levy let alone not increase the rate in a way that brings in additional revenue;” thus, under the now state-imposed takeover, it was the state which imposed a revised $241 million budget which reduced state aid by $10 million, but increased local tax levies by $9 million.

Nevertheless, Moody’s Investors Service this week described the state takeover as a “credit positive” for Atlantic City, describing the unlikely threat of immediate default through 2017 as the single most important factor in its outlook—and reflecting the first fiscal assessment since Governor Chris Christie’s appointment of Jeffrey Chiesa to oversee the state takeover (Mr. Chiesa was the designee of Timothy Cunningham, the New Jersey Director of the Division of Local Government Services in New Jersey’s Community Affairs Department, who, under state law, was given reins of the city once the state took over). Thus the state endowed Mr. Chiesa with broad, preemptive authority to take on and bolster Atlantic City’s fiscal condition—authority which Moody’s, in its outlook, described thusly: “While the state has not officially guaranteed Atlantic City’s debt, Director Cunningham has said the state intends to prevent any default.”  The timing matters: Atlantic City has some $2.3 million in debt payments due today—and then $4.8 million more at mid-month. Ergo, as Moody’s noted: Mr. Cunningham’s “willingness to go to the state treasury for assistance if necessary to pay debt service” is a credit positive.