The Steep Road to Recovery from Municipal Bankruptcy

October 7, 2015

The Hard, but Critical Road to Recovery & Fiscal Sustainability. Few municipalities, especially compared to other corporations, go into bankruptcy. But for those that do, they do not disappear, as is the outcome in many corporate bankruptcies; rather they do not miss a beat with regard to providing essential services, even as they began the long and expensive process of putting Humpty Dumpty back together again by means of assembling a plan of debt adjustment in negotiations with their thousands upon thousands of creditors. While each of those plans must receive approval from a federal bankruptcy court—and the respected and respective judges do look to see that such proposed plans incorporate long-term fiscal sustainability provisions; nevertheless, those municipalities are not starting on a level playing field. So the question with regard to their ability to fully recover remains a story to be learned—because never before in American history has there been such a spate of major municipal bankruptcies. Ergo, unsurprisingly, Detroit—with its plan approved and the Mayor and Council restored to governance authority—in effect starts at a disadvantage compared to other municipalities: its road to climb is steep.

There is good news, however: a new report, “Estimating Home Equity Impacts from Rapid, Targeted Residential Demolition in Detroit, Michigan: Application of a Spatially-Dynamic Data System for Decision Support,” from the Skillman Foundation, Rock Ventures LLC, and Dynamo Metrics has found that the valuations of homes within 500 feet of a demolition funded by the U.S. Department of Treasury’s $100 million in Hardest Hit Funds have increased by an estimated 2.4 percent between December 2014 and May 2015. Indeed, blight removal has been a core element of any route to Motor City recovery: in May of 2014, the Detroit Blight Removal Task Force — which includes representatives from Detroit Public Schools, U-SNAP-BAC Inc. and Rock Ventures — identified more than 78,000 properties in need of sales, repair, or demolition. That is, federal help seems to have sparked a critical revival of affected assessed property values and, ergo, the Motor City’s revenues: the report found demolitions have increased the value of surrounding homes within 500 feet by 4.2 percent, or an average of $1,106. Citywide, that amounts to an increase in home values of more than $209 million. The bad news is that even as this innovative federal program is beginning to demonstrate its ability to contribute to Detroit’s comeback, the assistance in financing the demolition is drying up.

The report also suggests that combined with other efforts by the city—efforts which include code enforcement and sales of public assets such as side lots—have also begun to make telling fiscal differences: the value of homes nearby increased by 13.8 percent, or an average of $3,634. Citywide, that amounts to an increased assessed property value of about $410 million—or as Mayor Mike Duggan describes it: “The numbers are extraordinary,” noting that eliminating blight has allowed “good homes and good vacant homes” to increase in value: from January of last year until last, 5,812 blighted structures in the city were demolished thanks to funding from the federal “Hardest Hit” fund—a now drying up fund focusing nearly $8 billion in post Great Recession assistance foreclosure prevention in 18 states, including Michigan, with where Michigan’s share was over $498 million, of which Detroit received just over one fifth. Because those funds will be depleted this year, Mayor Duggan is planning to travel to Washington soon to meet with White House officials and others to lobby for the next round of money—especially since the demolitions to date have only addressed some 10 percent of the city’s blight.

Good Gnus. In its review of Chicago’s proposed FY2016 Budget, Kroll Bond Rating Agency (KBRA) reports it believes Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s budget includes “reasonable actions for closing the projected fiscal 2016 operating shortfall, and represents clear progress in confronting the challenges of unfunded pension liabilities.” The Budget closes the city’s FY2016 gap via proposed savings and reforms, efficiencies, and significantly increased property taxes from a four-year phased-in $543 million increase in the property tax levy, earmarked to specifically address rising police and fire pension liabilities. The rating agency wrote it believes the choice of a property tax levy increase demonstrates the Chicago’s political will to craft an effective and sustainable solution. Nevertheless, the agency noted there still remain numerous unresolved issues, which could potentially undermine budgetary goals: first, will the City Council, in an election year, approve the Mayor’s proposed budget? Second, the big shoulder city is relying on State action to increase the size of the home-owners property tax exemption, which would exempt homes valued at less than $250,000 from the increase—this a state legislature which is locked in a stalemate with the Governor. The phased-in property levy increases assume that Senate Bill 777, which reforms police and fire pension funding, will be enacted into law—and not be rejected by the Illinois Supreme Court. If not enacted, Chicago’s police and fire pension funding obligation would immediately rise from approximately $328 million to $550 million, and the city would have to identify and act on additional funding sources.

Not the Odor of Verbena. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has settled its almost six-year-old pay-to-pay case against two ex-JPMorgan bankers involved in hold-your-nose, soured sewer deals that thrust Jefferson County, Ala., into municipal bankruptcy. The SEC, according to a notice filed in federal court this week, reported it had reached agreement with Charles LeCroy and Douglas MacFaddin via mediation which resolves securities fraud charges against the two, albeit the actual terms of the settlement will not be made public until it is presented to the full commission for approval, with the independent federal securities agency advising the federal district court that, if the Commission approves the report, that would end litigation on the case. The long, simmering case dates back just about six years to when the SEC filed a civil suit alleging that Messieurs LeCroy and MacFaddin had improperly arranged payments to local broker-dealers in Alabama to assure that certain Jefferson County commissioners would award $5 billion in county sewer bond and swap deals to JPMorgan. The SEC suit, which charged that the two men “privately agreed with certain county commissioners to pay more than $8.2 million in 2002 and 2003 to close friends of the commissioners who either owned or worked at local broker-dealers,” sought declaratory and permanent injunctions against the two for federal securities law violations, as well as disgorgement of all profits they received as a result of their legal misbehavior, plus interest. The SEC had brought the suit simultaneously with its settlement of municipal securities fraud charges with the investment bank. Without admitting or denying the SEC’s charges, JPMorgan agreed to pay $75 million in penalties eventually turned over to Jefferson County, and to forfeit more than $647 million of claimed swap termination fees. In January, the SEC sought summary judgment in the case, leading U.S. District Court Judge Abdul Kallon to determine the five-year-old case was appropriate for mediation—this all in a case involving some nearly two dozen municipal elected officials, contractors, and county employees involved in Jefferson County’s sewer bond sales or construction of the sewer system who were jailed for bribery and fraud—and which led to what was, at the time, a filing for the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.

Wither Its Future—and Who Decides? Facing decades of structural budget gaps and unsustainable legacy costs, the City of Pittsburgh entered two forms of state oversight in 2004. In the subsequent decade, that engagement appeared to have been key to a turnaround in the city’s structural deficits, leading to annual positive fund balances, as the then-partnership helped restructure its crushing debt load, streamline an outsized government, and earn a triple-notch bond rating upgrade. Nevertheless, the Steel City still carried a $380 million pension liability, leaving questions with regard to whether the city was ready to graduate from state oversight – especially given the extra relief from restrictive state laws that the state’s Act 47 provides to city officials. Now that state-local tension seems to be back, with the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority (ICA), the city’s overseer, an authority state lawmakers formed in 2004 to oversee Pittsburgh’s finances, at a time the city was on the precipice of municipal bankruptcy, claiming it is justified by state law in withholding Pennsylvania gambling revenue from the city (ICA is invoking Act 71 of 2004, a state statute which grants, according to ICA, has “exclusive control” of the gaming revenues dedicated for Pittsburgh, the only second-class city under the commonwealth’s system of categorizing cities.), because, as the Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority’s Henry Sciortino, reports: “They haven’t met certain benchmarks.” Indeed, the former amity is now gone: Pittsburgh is suing the state agency in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, accusing it of illegally withholding $10 million in annual gambling host city revenue funds the past two years related to the Rivers Casino—a costly dispute triggered by state agency claims that Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto is backing off his commitment of $86.4 million to fully fund current payments to retirees – separate from the city’s overall unfunded pension liability estimated in the hundreds of millions. In addition, Mayor Peduto requested that Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale conduct an audit of the ICA—a request putting Mr. DePasquale now in a most awkward position in the wake of the city’s decision to file suit. Moreover, the city-state dispute—itself now becoming a costly court battle—arises even as the city faces daunting pension challenges: returns on the city’s employee pension funds have, according to the State Auditor, deteriorated from 16.3% in fiscal 2013 to 5.5% this year, reflecting the slowdown in financial markets, who estimates the city’s funds’ assets to be $675 million versus liabilities of almost $1.2 billion. Indeed, the Public Employee Retirement Commission considers Pittsburgh’s pension fund “moderately distressed.” In a letter to Gov. Tom Wolf and top legislative leaders a week ago, ICA Chairman Nicholas Varischetti called pension underfunding “one of the most serious barriers to Pittsburgh’s fiscal stability.” That statement comes in the wake of Pittsburgh’s efforts just five years ago to avoid a state takeover of its pension funds by earmarking nearly $750 million in parking revenues over three decades to prop its funding level above a state-mandated 50%. Keeping this growing state-local dispute constructive could matter: over the last decade, Pittsburgh has received 11 upgrades, most recently in early 2014 when S&P elevated its general obligation rating to A-plus, and Moody’s, just a year ago, revised its outlook to positive on the steel city’s general obligation bonds. The city’s suit alleges the ICA has been illegally withholding $10 million in annual gambling host city revenue funds the past two years, whilst, for its part, ICA officials claim Mayor Peduto is backing off his commitment of $86.4 million to fully fund current payments to retirees. Indeed, in an epistle to Gov. Tom Wolf, ICA Chairman Nicholas Varischetti wrote that pension underfunding was “one of the most serious barriers to Pittsburgh’s fiscal stability.” The state-local tension over the city’s pension liabilities is hardly new–five years ago Pittsburgh avoided a state takeover of its pension funds by earmarking nearly $750 million in parking revenues over 30 years to prop its funding level above a state-mandated 50%; however, once again, state apprehension is on the uptick that the city is, as one expert, David Fiorenza, a Villanova School of Business professor and a former chief financial officer of Radnor Township, said: Pa., said “[O]nce again the municipality is only fixing the leak and not curing the flooding problem of pension debt and other unfunded liabilities looming around like an albatross,” adding that he believes the state ICA can be a force to persuade cities to devote gambling revenues to other areas of the budget, such as pensions.

Bankruptcy: To Be Eligible or Not to Be, that is the question.

October 5, 2015

Who’s on First in Atlantic City? There was a bankruptcy filing in Atlantic City yesterday: American Apparel is filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, a filing which came after the Los Angeles corporation reported that its U.S. retail stores will continue to operate and that its international stores are not affected, but a plan which would, pending approval by a federal bankruptcy court, erase more than $200 million in bonds held by the retailer in exchange for equity interests. Lenders will provide about $90 million in debtor-in-possession financing. The company’s board has approved the restructuring plan, which is expected to be completed in about six months—and then will await the court approvals. In contrast, there has been no municipal bankruptcy filing by Atlantic City, notwithstanding the continued silence from Presidential candidate and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie with regard to whether and when he might interrupt his campaign to sign financial relief provisions long since sent to him by the New Jersey legislature to authorize the city’s casinos to make payments in lieu of taxes over the next 15 years and reallocate the casino alternative tax to pay debt service on Atlantic City-issued municipal bonds. In the strange municipal leadership dilemma in which Mayor Don Guardian sits—awaiting action by an absentee Governor and not fully clear about the hydra-headed governance situation where the mostly absentee governor has appointed an emergency manager to act in an ill-defined role as a quasi co-mayor—Mayor Guardian nevertheless is focused on efforts to signally change the city’s fiscal dependence on casinos by diversifying the city’s economic base. Nevertheless, with a $101 million deficit and delayed FY2016 budget (adopted last week), in addition to a withering credit rating; Mayor Guardian has cut the city’s personnel by 400 positions, and worked with his Council to help plug the budget gap—even as he and his fellow elected Councilmembers await Emergency Manager Kevin Lavin’s expected second report, which is to include fiscal sustainability recommendations—recommendations in this strange, two-headed quasi municipal governance situation—and in which the missing Governor’s action will be critical. Notwithstanding his tenuous authority under New Jersey’s unique municipal bankruptcy laws, Mayor Guardian is not just sitting around twiddling his thumbs; rather he is focused on his city’s future, telling the Bond Buyer’s Andrew Coen: “I want to prepare my city for the next recession…Whether that is five or 10 years away, I want to make sure that we’re a lot more than just a resort town so that we become resilient.” That focus, especially since quasi hurricane San Joaquin opted to not vent its physical fury on the city, will be easier in the wake of New Jersey’s Local Finance Board approval of the city’s budget, which opened the way for Atlantic City to proceed with fourth-quarter tax bills and tax-lien sales for some big delinquent properties among current and former casino hotels.

The Anomalies of Municipal Bankruptcy. Hillview, Kentucky, the small (population under 10,000) home rule-class municipality in Bullitt County, Kentucky—a rural farming community just a hop, skip, and jump from Louisville, which filed for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in August—the first filing for a municipality since Detroit’s filing more than two years’ ago—might find its filing unavailing. Having ignored the electronically musically and sound advice of retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, who oversaw the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, Steven Rhodes, the small city could be digging itself into a deeper fiscal trough, even as it preps to argue before U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Alan C. Stout. Judge Stout will have to determine if the municipality’s filing was done in good faith, in addition to assessing the justifications. The municipality’s largest creditor, Truck America LLC, which has been awarded an $11.4 million judgment against Hillview (with the interest bring the growing amount of said award now up to $15 million) has filed an objection with the U.S, bankruptcy court, arguing the municipality is ineligible because its petition to the federal court which the municipality relied on to file for reorganization “suffers from a fatal flaw: it refers only to the now-repealed Bankruptcy Act.” The objection, which in a sense echoes earlier moody warnings from credit rating agency Moody’s that: “Generally, a municipality must prove that it is not paying its debts on time or is unable to pay the obligations as they become due,” a bar which the credit rating agency had noted would be difficult to overcome, as the municipality had the fiscal capacity to increase its property and occupational license taxes—not to mention the authority and ability to issue bonds to pay for losses in legal judgments, according to the credit rating agency. In its objection to the federal court, Truck America’s attorney wrote that Kentucky courts would likely require that the Kentucky Legislature amend state law (in this instance, §66.400), the Bluegrass State’s municipal bankruptcy statute, under which two municipal entities, both utility districts, have previously filed. Truck America, in its brief, also wrote that Hillview had not negotiated in good faith to settle its court-awarded $11.4 million claim over a contract dispute as required by the bankruptcy code, noting: “Hillview did not file Chapter 9 in good faith to adjust its debts, or to ameliorate bona fide financial distress…Rather, it admits to being ‘fiscally sound’ and filed this case for the specific purpose of minimizing the amount it will be required to pay one creditor—Truck America—on account of a judgment affirmed by Kentucky’s appellate courts,” adding that impairing a single creditor is not a legitimate municipal bankruptcy objective. Interestingly, in its filing, Truck America wrote that the municipality had not complied with Kentucky’s constitution—specifically the provision therein which requires that the state’s municipalities raise taxes in order to pay authorized indebtedness, such as a judgment, within 40 years. If that were not enough of a fiscal nightmare, last August, Hillview Mayor Jim Eadens said the city is exploring malpractice claims against its former attorney. He did not provide any details.

October 1, 2015

The Stress of Dysfunctional Governance in Municipal Bankruptcy. Last week, at a Governing panel I moderated in Washington, D.C., one of the questions I posed had to do with governance in municipal bankruptcy—a question I asked first of Kevyn Orr, the former Emergency Manger who steered Detroit through its long and complex process into and out of municipal bankruptcy: the differences and perspectives with regard to municipal bankruptcies in states which provide that the elected municipal leaders remain, such as in California and Alabama, versus the different laws in states such as Michigan and Rhode Island, where the Governor may opt to bring on a receiver (Rhode Island) or Emergency Manager, such as Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan did in appointing Mr. Orr. In Central Falls’ municipal bankruptcy, the Governor named former state Supreme Court Judge Robert G. Flanders as Receiver – where, on day one, he ordered the Mayor and Council out of City Hall – and assumed total authority. Similarly, in Michigan, under the state’s law, Gov. Rick Snyder appointed Mr. Orr as the Motor City’s Emergency Manager—whereupon he took full power and authority for governance of the city—immediately upon his appointment. It was only on the respective federal bankruptcy court approvals of the two plans of debt adjustment that elected leaders (newly elected in the case of Central Falls) that governance reverted to those elected by the people. As we have noted, the model wherein a municipality’s elected officials remain in authority can work (please note, however, continuing challenges below in Jefferson County, Alabama), and in Stockton, California. But democracy in a crisis can sometimes be messy. Witness the imbroglio which is occurring in San Bernardino—now the city with the longest period in municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, where recent events are painting a dismal picture of the city’s ability to operate and govern: there, in a late night and controversial decision, the city’s key consultant—who San Bernardino Sun insightful writer Ryan Hagen describes as “Arguably the only person with direct knowledge of much of the city’s complex redevelopment process,” was removed after serving nine “sometimes-controversial years at City Hall.” The removal of Jim Morris, who had been chief of staff during his father’s, Pat Morris, service as mayor, involved his work as a consultant on the dissolution of the city redevelopment agency: the issue before the Council was whether to extend his contract. Notwithstanding a 4-3 majority supporting a re-up of the contract, and a clear consensus by much of the city’s leadership, City Manager Allen Parker, City Attorney Gary Saenz, and Assemblywoman Cheryl Brown, who believe Mr. Morris was invaluable—Mayor Carey Davis vetoed any extension of his contract—citing concerns with regard to the delay in completing redevelopment tasks, particularly a long-range property management plan which had been projected to be finished last April, but which was not submitted to the Council until five months later. Mayor Davis noted: “If we’re paying for performance, it’s clear that maybe some of the delay was because concentration was taken from the (redevelopment agency) to city items.” According to Mr. Hagen, both messieurs Morris and Parker say the city made a plan which will allow it to meet state-imposed deadlines by moving in other people, with Mr. Parker writing: “Deputy City Manager, Bill Manis, who has been overseeing the team, will move into a more prominent role to continue the RDA dissolution process…Bill comes with extensive RDA experience and will work in tandem with the internal team and consultant, Urban Futures.” Nevertheless, the disruption comes as the city’s municipal bankruptcy creditors are making discovery requests—requests significantly above and beyond the normal obligations of a municipality, and requests which are increasing the workload for an already severely strained staff—a staff, after all, trying to operate and provide essential services, even as it is trying to marshal the resources to complete a plan of debt adjustment to the increasingly impatient U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury. All of this chaos, moreover, comes as voters are set a month from tomorrow to vote in the city’s election.

The Roots of Municipal Bankruptcy. According to the Detroit News, federal officials are investigating state Rep. Alberta Tinsley-Talabi (D-Detroit) who was a member of the Detroit City Council from 1993 to 2009 and served as a Wayne County Commissioner from 1987 to 1990. The investigation involves a bribery and kickback scandal which occurred during her years’ of service both as a Detroit Councilwoman, as well as a Detroit pension fund trustee. The News reports that Rep. Tinsley-Talabi’s nonprofit organization received at least one bribe from a businessman, during the time she was on a Detroit pension fund, and a time when her City Council campaign received thousands of dollars more from businessmen involved in a widespread corruption case, according to federal prosecutors. The allegations involving Rep. Tinsley-Talabi came out yesterday during the sentencing of a businessperson who had paid bribes to several former Detroit officials: no charges have been made yet in the widespread, years’-long federal probe of corruption at the Motor City’s City Hall, albeit there have been 38 convictions related to Detroit’s public pension funds, including former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and former City Council President Monica Conyers. The News also reported that federal court records clarify Rep. Tinsley-Talabi’s alleged involvement in a criminal case—a case which also has ensnared her former chief of staff, George Stanton, who will be sentenced today in federal court after agreeing to a plea bargain with prosecutors under which he agreed to secretly record conversations with Rep. Tinsley-Talabi and others. During her elected service in Detroit, Rep. Tinsley-Talabi, as a city pension trustee, had responsibilities to both oversee and help approve and select investments of said funds. She has founded a nonprofit group, Mack Alive, which serves the east side of Detroit. According to the News, in 2006 and 2007, when a Georgia businessman sought pension fund investments for his firm, Onyx Capital Advisers, and a real estate investment in the Turks and Caicos Islands on behalf of another company, PR Investment Group; the Detroit Police & Fire Pension Board, according to court records. On Dec. 21, 2006, then pension board member Tinsley-Talabi and other pension board members conditionally approved lending $10 million—an approval to which Detroit’s general retirement board approved another $10 million the following month. Now federal prosecutors allege that, within months, then Councilmember Dixon was handing out cash to city officials: “Evidence shows that Dixon gave the following things of value to Detroit and Pontiac pension trustees and staff in order to buy influence,” listing more than $244,000 worth of bribes, including a $1,000 check from Mr. Dixon to Ms. Tinsley-Talabi’s nonprofit on Aug. 22, 2007—perfectly timed just one day after the $1,000 donation. Further, the federal motion notes she introduced a favorable motion just prior to receipt of a $3,400 re-election campaign donation. In 2007, from Mr. Dixon—followed, just six days later by the Police & Fire pension fund’s grant of her request to have $1.15 million wired to Mr. Dixon’s firm, Onyx Capital Advisors. By December, 2007, the charges note Mr. Dixon paid for “City Official B,” referring to former Councilmember Tinsley-Talabi, to travel to the Turks and Caicos Islands—a trip which, the prosecutors note, two months later appeared to have some sway on her fellow pension trustees for a modified investment with PR Investment Group in the Turks and Caicos Islands, according to meeting minutes and court records. Ms. Tinsley-Talabi did not, however, vote on the proposed investment at the February meeting: she had left the pension board in December 2007 — the same month she took the Caribbean trip. The development came as Mr. Dixon yesterday earned a trip not to the Turks and Caicos, but, rather—in return for embezzling some $3.1 million from Detroit and Pontiac public pension funds, free lodging in federal prison for three and a half years for his role in the scandal, with the court finding he had paid $244,500 in bribes to former pension trustees, including the former Detroit City Councilmember and pension Board member—bribes for agreements which ended up losing the three public pension funds their entire investment of $23.8 million, according to the federal prosecutors. In all, Detroit’s pension fund appears to have suffered more than $95 million in a series of corrupt deals awarded to businessmen who bribed city public officials with cash, trips, free drinks, and other valuable items.

Municipal Bankruptcy Ain’t Over Until It’s Over. Jefferson County, Alabama, which—prior to Detroit—emerged from the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history, is finding that approval of its plan of debt adjustment by the U.S. bankruptcy court is not the last full measure: the county and its elected leaders confront a challenge or appeal to its plan of debt adjustment, creating hurdles to the County’s ability to issue municipal bonds. In addition, some restive opponents of the county’s approved plan of debt adjustment are also challenging court validation of a bond refunding—a refunding approved this year by the Alabama legislature—to provide the county with a source of new revenue. Such refunding revenues are needed to replace some 50 percent of the $70 million the County lost when a court struck down its occupational and business tax five years ago—a court decision which triggered the layoff of nearly 1,000 employees and significant cuts in public services. Jefferson County had filed for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in the wake of its inability to restructure $3.2 billion in its accumulated sewer debt. Under its court approved plan of debt adjustment, essential public services have been restored—but the county’s ability to issue bonds for key infrastructure investments and rehabilitation has been beset by ongoing legal challenges—or as the Bond Buyer’s inimitable Shelly Sigo writes: “[T]here isn’t funding for pent-up building, road and bridge repairs or improvements,” or County Commission President Jimmie Stephens noted yesterday: “We are getting the job done, but desperately need this revenue to improve the quality of life for our citizens…Our county buildings have deferred maintenance that needs to be addressed.” Notwithstanding, in a brief filed this week by Jefferson County tax assessor Andrew Bennett, state Reps. John Rogers and Mary Moore, and county resident William Muhammad, four of the 13 persons appealing Jefferson County’s plan of debt adjustment, claim Jefferson County’s claims are “belied by substantial fund balances” of $155 million in its FY2014 audit. In response, Commission President Stephens notes: “For anyone to state that the county does not need the funds, simply has not looked at our decaying infrastructure or simply doesn’t care,” with his statement coming as the County is planning its return to the municipal bond market for the first time since its successful exit from bankruptcy—planning to refund up to $595.5 million of warrants backed by a dedicated one-cent sales tax. Such a sale would provide for a refund a portion of the $1.05 billion of limited obligation warrants Jefferson County issued in 2004 and 2005, backed by the same dedicated sales tax—with the plan set so that the county could dedicate the proposed 40-year refunding plan to provide use sales tax proceeds to pay debt service, with excess tax revenues dedicated to Jefferson County’s general fund and unrelated county expenses such as schools, the Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority, and the Birmingham Zoo—a plan authorized by the state legislature and signed by Alabama Governor Robert Bentley—but a plan for which the has filed a suit in Jefferson County Circuit Court in order to validate the refunding warrants and the state legislation—especially in the face of challenges that the law is unconstitutional.

The County’s fiscal challenges already confront legal hurdles from the two cases challenging its successful emergence from municipal bankruptcy—one by Jefferson County resident Keith Shannon, the other by Mssrs. Bennett, Rogers, Moore and Muhammad. In both cases, who argue the state legislation is unconstitutional. In addition, the attorney, financial advisor, and former broker-dealer, behind the challenge has also questioned Jefferson County’s need for new revenue, claiming if the proposed sales and use tax revenue is needed to fund infrastructure needs now, then the county misrepresented its insolvency before U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Thomas Bennett and its ability to pay the school warrant debt when it filed for bankruptcy, claiming: “The county having…$156 million in excess fund balance to pay school warrants and $155 million in unrestricted cash shows the bankruptcy was filed fraudulently,” he wrote in an email to the Bond Buyer. Ms. Sigo notes:

“Some market experts have suggested that Jefferson County faces a rocky return to the market given political undertones that led to its Chapter 9 bankruptcy, while others have suggested that any future deal might require extra credit support. The school warrants to be refunded later this year were untouched in the county’s bankruptcy. The case appealing the county’s bankruptcy exit involves only the county’s sewer debt. That case is continuing to move through the briefing stage before the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. Jefferson County has asked the appellate panel to overturn a lower court judge’s ruling, which could result in revocation of a key credit factor supporting $1.8 billion in sewer refunding warrants the county issued in 2013 to write down $1.4 billion in related debt. The county’s reorganization plan authorizes the bankruptcy court to retain jurisdiction over the 40 years that the sewer warrants remain outstanding to ensure that the county provides adequate funds to pay debt service.”

September 30, 2015

The Stress of Democracy & Governance—and the Recurring Sins of the Past. Municipal bankruptcy and oncoming municipal elections make for governance challenges and hard votes. So it is that the San Bernardino City Council—by a one vote majority—passed a sewer rate increase (residents’ monthly sewer bills will rise $7.15 a month, starting in October–and increase more in future years). The narrow margin—a vote despite strong citizen opposition, swill trigger water and sewer collection fee increases, the first since 2010, which the department reported are necessary to avoid a sewer disaster in a system where holes have already been found and remain unfixed — and that is with only 20 percent to 40 percent of the 500 miles of pipes inspected. As the municipality’s water and sewer officials testified, the increase is critical, because the city’s “tires” could blow at any time, and replacing them after a blowout would only be more expensive. Moreover, as City Attorney Gary Saenz warned the elected leaders, not protecting and maintaining the system as required could lead to their prosecution and potential incarceration. Unsurprisingly, with elections looming now in less than five weeks, a stream of city residents (voters) urged the Council to reject the increase, claiming the rate increase was too much—and based on too little evidence. The ensuing 4-3 vote, nevertheless, means that the city’s sewer collection fee will rise about from $4 to $9 a month beginning tomorrow, then in July of every year until 2020, when sewer collection fees will total $11.47 for a single-family residence. The sewage-treatment fee, meanwhile, will rise 11.6 percent, to $20.65, effective tomorrow. By 2020, the total fee for single-family residences’ sewer collection and sewer treatment combined is projected to increase more than 50 percent from $22.50 to $35.32 a month. In adjusting the rates, the bankrupt city is restricted by California law, Proposition 218, which bars a municipality for setting or imposing fees higher than the cost of providing the service and restricts the revenues to a segregated account so that they may only be expended for related services. Notwithstanding the California law, prior to the city’s filing for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy three years’ ago; in the lead-up to its 2012 municipal bankruptcy filing — San Bernardino officials who are now out of office did provided explicit details on the falsification of municipal budget documents—an admission which, at the time, led the then City Council members to delay a vote on whether to declare a state of fiscal emergency. (In California, a city must declare a state of fiscal emergency – the inability to pay its bills within 60 days without bankruptcy protection – to avoid mediation and other steps which would otherwise be required under state law.) That 11th hour admission—an admission which appeared to indicate criminal misconduct, and clearly triggered a need to consult with constituents, ended up forcing a delay in the city’s decisions with regard to the declaration of fiscal emergency and a resolution formally directing staff to file for Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy—an admission and action coming in the wake of the City Attorney’s warning that 13 of 16 years of budget documents were falsified—falsifications which officials believed was related to the borrowing from restricted funds – funds specifically legally restricted only for certain purposes – in order to meet payroll and other expenses during months when cash was short. Such undercover borrowings were then repaid as the revenues flowed in later in the year. The city finance skullduggery, combined with a failure to produce city audits for fiscal years 2012-13 or 2013-14, audits which are way overdue but expected, perhaps as early as October, understandably raised hackles—or, as Councilmember Henry Nickel put it, in opposing the rate increase: “If you have money meant for tires and spend it on something else, that’s malfeasance…Until we have the audits in place, you do not have my support. We need to make sure we don’t re-enact sins of the past.” Unsurprisingly, with Councilmembers increasingly focused on next month’s election, supporters of the rate increase accused opponents of demagoguery, or, as Councilmember James Mulvihill, one of the two current Councilmembers on the ballot in November, put it: “Watch out for the politician that wants to manipulate your emotion and not solve the problem you’ll have, anyway,” said. Fellow Councilmember Nickel, the only other incumbent on November’s ballot, opposed the request.

Water and sewer issues—as we have observed in the nation’s two largest municipal bankruptcies—Detroit and Jefferson County—are critical pieces of the puzzle—or, in this instance, as former San Bernardino Councilmember Susan Longville warned prior to the vote: “You have an infrastructure nightmare waiting to happen,” albeit she said, any increase should come after a presentation that more effectively demonstrated the need for an increase.

Mixing Governance & Business. Serving as a municipal elected leader is a thankless task and never-ending challenge. It is a grave responsibility. The scrutiny of television and other media can only increase that pressure—especially if your city or county is confronting a crisis. That is a time when total focus would seem to be a prerequisite. Nonetheless, even as a citizen committee explained its recommended changes Monday to San Bernardino’s city charter during a City Council meeting, Councilman Benito Barrios was elsewhere: he was on the dais, but also on Facebook: he was trying to sell his friend’s gun—an effort which, unsurprisingly, within an hour, meant his efforts screenshots were being tweeted and shared in Facebook groups across the city—or as one constituent put it: “I guess his ward isn’t as important as that firearm and said friend.” While questions arose with regard to the legality of the gun sale (unclear), perhaps the more stressing issue related to focus—or, as the Councilmember stated: “This was during the presentations being given. So it took me 30, 40 seconds in between presentations…The perception is very bad for the people, and I’m aware of that. It’ll probably never happen again.” The occurrence, as former San Bernardino County Supervisor, and San Bernardino Councilmember Neil Derry told the San Bernardino Sun is about “multitasking: Intelligent people do it all the time. It’s a requirement for Marines.”

Rising Tide? Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder this week unveiled a new program, Rising Tide, intended to offer state-based mentoring for local officials of 10 struggling municipalities. The pilot, which the state calls Rising Tide, proposes no fiscal assistance; rather, it is designed so that Michigan economic development officials will work with 10 towns to help local leaders understand and create fiscal and economic development tools and strategies to attract and create new jobs—or, as Gov. Snyder stated: “We can collaborate with communities to help develop the tools to advance a strong economic vision and create new career opportunities for residents…This program will help economically challenged communities be better positioned for redevelopment opportunities.” The Governor announced the new initiative at a visit to River Rouge, a fiscally challenged Detroit suburb of less than 3,000 families—where the median age in the 2000 census was 33 years—and where, according to the most recent Census data, the median income for a household in the city was $29,214, and the median income for a family was $33,875. About 19.1% of families and 22.0% of the population were below the federal poverty level, including 30.6% of those under age 18 and 10.5% of those age 65 or over. The program will be led by the Michigan Department of Talent and Economic Development. State officials will offer mentoring help to local officials in struggling communities, and also outline common economic development tools to create jobs. The Governor’s office selected the municipalities based on unemployment rates, poverty levels and labor participation rate.

The Hard Road Down. In the wake of rating agency Moody’s downgrade of Ferguson, Missouri’s general obligation bonds or debt seven notches to Ba1—a steep drop which Moody’s attributed to not only Ferguson’s deteriorating fiscal situation, but also to apprehensions over the small municipality’s pending lawsuits and oncoming consent decree—a consent decree which will be based upon the federal investigation of police tactics and the city’s municipal budget reliance on traffic court fines—the municipality reacted with its own fire, moodily accusing Moody’s of being unwilling to give it more time to provide information that would offer a fuller picture. When a municipality is confronted by serious fiscal stress, a downgrading renders its ability to borrow both more difficult—and more expensive: precisely the opposite of what might be seen as a prerequisite for meaningful opportunity to recover. Moody’s, in its downgrading, however, noting that Ferguson’s fiscal reserves are shrinking—wrote that the municipality could be insolvent as early as 2017, citing city documents, noting, ergo, that its downgrade reflected “severe and rapid deterioration of the city’s financial position, possible depletion of fund balances in the near term, and limited options for restoring fiscal stability.” Missouri law provides that any municipality or subdivision may file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy (six cities have so filed—as well as one school district and one special district). Moody’s wrote. In its response, the small city—already besieged by extraordinary challenges—noted that in the midst of all the urgent demands, it had been unable to meet the severe timeline mandate imposed by Moody’s in which to respond with all the information requested, noting: “As a result, the city believes that Moody’s report is incomplete and fails to provide true transparency associated with Ferguson’s finances.” The municipality further noted it is still in the process of tabulating FY2015 revenues and preparing plans to address revenues and expenses—even as it confronts staffing constraints due to ongoing negotiations with federal Justice Department officials. Nevertheless, Moody’s downgrade will have adverse consequences: the downgrade will affect Ferguson’s $6.7 million of outstanding GO bonds, $8.4 million of certificates of participation from a 2013 issue, and $1.5 million of 2012 certificates.

No Consideration of Bankruptcy. The seeming outcome of a hearing convened by U.S. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) yesterday is that the Senate is unwilling to even consider legislation to permit the U.S. territory to be eligible for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. Even while expressing disinterest, they claimed they want more information on Puerto’s Rico’s increasingly severe fiscal crisis—and that of its municipalities—and how to fix them. Instead, Chairman Grassley, whose committee has no jurisdiction over municipal bankruptcy legislation, offered that Congress should consider amending the Jones Act to exempt Puerto Rico from its onerous provisions which have the effect of imposing a tax on the costs of shipping goods from Puerto Rico to the U.S.—a federal law which has discriminated against Puerto Rico’s competiveness in the Caribbean, harming its economy. The Chairman also suggested Congress could reconsider the application of the minimum wage—which is currently 77% of the Puerto Rican median income compared to 28% on the mainland. Finally, mayhap thinking of the important value provided by the creation of financial control boards for both New York City and Washington, D.C., Chairman Grassley told the witnesses that a federal financial control board could be a good alternative. For his part, Chairman Hatch, whose Judiciary Committee has jurisdiction over federal bankruptcy laws, including chapter 9, seemed to defer to perspective of Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the American Action Forum, and the former Director of the Congressional Budget Office. Mr. Holtz-Eakin testified: “The primary focus (with regard to Puerto Rico) should be on policies that restore economic growth,” telling the committee that enacting legislation to offer Puerto Rico access to Chapter 9 bankruptcy (he did not address enacting such legislation so that—as under current federal law—Puerto Rico could authorize its municipalities access to municipal bankruptcy). But he also testified that the Puerto Rican government needs to provide Congress with better financial documents, noting that the commonwealth’s lack of “high quality” documents is “one of the very troubling aspects of this situation:” “debt sustainability analysis” needs to be done for Puerto Rico. Thus, he opined, that to authorize Puerto Rico access to municipal bankruptcy could do more harm than good, because, he testified, it would lead to one-sided “haircuts” on the residents who currently own about 30% of Puerto Rico’s municipal bonds; he added, however, that giving the U.S. territory access to municipal bankruptcy protection be warranted “somewhere down the road,” but not now. For his part, Ranking Member Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) advised that he intends to urge that Chairman Grassley hold hearings on the municipal bankruptcy bill which would alter Puerto Rico’s status. In their testimony, Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi (D-P.R.) and Government Development Bank of Puerto Rico president Melba Acosta each told the two committees Puerto Rico needs access to municipal bankruptcy protection to put a halt on the increasingly rapid depletion of revenues—so that the leaders have more time to negotiate on its debts—a chapter 9 filing, once accepted by a U.S. bankruptcy court, immediately freezes obligations to debtors, and initiates a process overseen by a federal bankruptcy court to work out a plan of debt adjustment with all its creditors—even as it guarantees there is no interruption of the provision of essential public services. The pair warned that, absent such protection, projections point to Puerto Rico running out of money near the end of the year, and adding: “The unavailability of any feasible legislative option to adjust debts has created an overall environment of uncertainty that makes it more difficult to address Puerto Rico’s fiscal challenges and further threatens Puerto Rico’s economic future.”

“Our city would become unlivable.”

A Most Serious Fiscal Challenge. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel yesterday called on the Windy City’s 50 aldermen to summon the courage to pass the largest property tax increase in modern Chicago history: he told them they could justify such a hard vote by ensuring their voters understood the alternative: the dismissal of one out of five police officers, the closure of half the city’s fire stations, the elimination of the city’s rodent (read rats) control program, and the reduction of trash services to only twice a month—or, as he put it: “Our city would become unlivable…That would be totally unacceptable.” His proposed budget will total $9.3 billion when corporate, enterprise, and grant funds are added up, including a $3.6 billion general fund formally known as the corporate fund—up from $9.2 billion and $3.5 billion, respectively, for FY2015. In his budget address, Mayor Emanuel, in his second-term, laid out a grim assessment should the Council fail to act: “Our greatest financial challenge today is the exploding cost of our unpaid pensions. It is a big dark cloud that hangs over the rest of our city’s finances…Now the bill has come due,” referring to a mandate which will take effect next year to stabilize police and fire funds across Illinois: Chicago must pay the two public pension funds $550 million more as it moves to an actuarially required contribution—and, that is assuming positive action on state legislation to trim next year’s increase to $328 million. Even though his proposed budget includes some cuts and reform measures, the Mayor told his colleagues yesterday that the debt burden is so ponderous that the city cannot cut its way out of the crisis—cuts, he warned, which would require the loss of 2,500 police officers, the closure of 48 fire stations, and laying off 2,000 firefighters: “Our city would become unlivable.”

Chicago, after a significant effort to remake itself into a global city today confronts unprecedented challenges. Challenges facing the city’s fiscal future include: schools, which one commentator cited as “almost insoluble;” police—crime—gangs (also “almost insoluble”); infrastructure (on which Mayor Emanuel has earned very high marks); pensions, where Chicagoans’ long-term debt and pension obligations per capita have risen nearly 200% since 2002—and which are inextricably linked to the state; and bringing jobs back to Chicago—fiscal sustainability challenges exacerbated by the state dysfunction, by the Illinois constitution’s and Supreme Court’s rejection of efforts to modify public pension obligations, and as state and federal aid have been reduced. The Windy City, the third most populous city in the U.S. with 2.7 million residents, was a time bomb waiting to happen from the very moment Mayor Emanuel took office—an office in which he immediately confronted not only a $635 million operating deficit, but also a city which had experienced an exodus of 200,000 in the previous decade—and some 7.1% of its jobs. Now, revenues are coming back, but the city faces an exceptional challenge in trying to shape its future. By FY2014, Chicago had a debt level of $63,525 per capita, leading one expert to note that if one included the debt per capita with the unfunded liability per capita, the city would be a prime “candidate for fiscal distress.” Nevertheless, since his election, unemployment has been coming down, and census data demonstrated the city is returning as a destination for the key demographic group, the 25-29 age group, which grew from 227,000 in 2006 to 274,000 by end of 2011. Nevertheless, the city’s unrelenting pension liabilities and what Moody’s has termed it “unrelenting public safety demands” have left the city, increasingly, between a rock and hard place. Now Chicago, which has one of the largest city councils in the U.S., faces a momentous challenge to its future—a fiscal challenge, and, with his announcement, now a political challenge, or, as the Mayor put it yesterday: “I know this budget’s tough, and therefore I know it carries political risk. I get it…But there’s a choice to be made, make no mistake about it. Either we muster the political courage to deal with the mounting challenges we inherited, or we repeat the same practices and allow the financial challenges to grow.”

Now, in a vote unlike in other U.S. city, the mayor is asking the aldermen on the city council to put their own jobs on the line. Mayhap more daunting, should even modest public pension legislation pending in the stalemated Illinois legislature not be enacted, the Mayor’s proposed, record property tax increase would be more than $200 million short of the requisite level to meet Chicago’s public pension obligations. Under the Mayor’s proposed budget, property taxes would be increased $543 million over the next four years, beginning with a jolting $318 million next year; a separate $45 million property tax hike would go toward construction projects at Chicago Public Schools to alleviate overcrowding in some neighborhoods. In his proposal to the Council, Mayor Emanuel makes clear he has asked for an expanded homeowners’ exemption from Gov. Bruce Rauner and the legislature for Chicago homeowners who own and live in a home worth $250,000 or less. But the massive property tax increase alone comes at a time when Gov. Rauner is seeking a statewide property tax freeze. In his proposed budget, Mayor Emanuel also proposed new fees on taxi and ride-sharing services, such as Uber and Lyft, which would generate $48.6 million per year and a tax on electronic cigarettes which would reap another $1 million. Mayor Emanuel told the Council his budget includes $170 million in cuts and efficiencies; however, he has yet to release the fine print on what those reductions are. In asking for the unaskable, Mayor Emanuel, speaking from the City Council dais to his fellow elected leaders, said: “With this budget, we can be remembered for stepping up to the challenge rather than stepping aside. With this budget, we will be counted among the doers rather than among those who dithered…With this budget, when we look back at our public service, our individual names will be in the history book rather than the guest book. We owe it to our city and to the generations who come after us to do what is right — even when it is hard.”

The Civic Federation of Chicago defined the city’s problem concisely: “There’s no question that the mayor will need to ask taxpayers to pay more while they receive fewer services. Decades of ignoring fiscal reality have led us to this crisis: a pension system on the brink of disaster, an enormous debt burden, below-investment-grade credit. Most critically, Chicago Public Schools may not have the money to stay open for the entire school year….the question… will be whether the mayor’s budget provides enough certainty to residents and businesses that their investments will lead us beyond the morale-killing status quo to a more stable and vibrant city. A possible $500 million increase to the city’s property tax levy would be the largest tax increase in Chicago history, yet it would be only a first step. Chicago and its school system will need to make more difficult choices to close structural deficits and pay down nearly $30 billion in unfunded pension liabilities…We have to start to spend within our means — no more “scoop and toss” or borrowing for operating expenses. It would be irresponsible to raise taxes unless the city commits to significant cost reductions and efficiencies. Areas that have been considered untouchable should be reviewed, such as staffing for police and fire, the size of the City Council and the aldermanic menu program. Even with a tax increase, many services will have to be reduced or eliminated.

“Taxpayers will need answers to longer-range questions. How will the choices in this year’s budget impact future debt and taxation levels? How long before the city’s debt burden is reduced to a more manageable level? How does this budget take into account what will be asked of taxpayers to stabilize Chicago Public Schools, Cook County and the state of Illinois?

“Many of Chicago’s fiscal problems are embedded in state law. Any comprehensive solutions will require action from Springfield. State lawmakers should extend the sales tax to certain services, increase revenue sharing with local governments, merge the Chicago Teachers’ Pension Fund with the Illinois Teachers’ Retirement System and consolidate police and fire pension funds throughout the state.

“We cannot change the poor financial decisions that brought us to this crisis. With all that Chicago has to offer, however, we should make the sacrifices necessary to set the city on a more stable fiscal path. Leaders in Chicago and Springfield just need to give taxpayers the confidence that their sacrifice will pay off.”

The Importance of Being Earnest for a Municipality in federal Bankruptcy Court


September 21, 2015

Don’t Count Your Marbles Before They’s Hatched. In a decision U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury acknowledged “puts a bunch of marbles on the road to reorganization” for San Bernardino, Judge Jury last Thursday ruled San Bernardino had not met its legal obligation to bargain with the fire union before outsourcing the Fire Department. The costly setback now means the city has an expensive pothole to repair—something which will consume both time and the city’s inadequate fiscal resources—and as the municipal election and the consequently related issues draw ever closer. San Bernardino, to comply with Judge Jury’s decision, will now have to re-open negotiations if it is to implement its proposed fire services outsourcing—a key fulcrum in its proposed plan of debt adjustment: a plan through which the city had anticipated operating and capital savings, as well as new parcel tax revenues, which would have increased annual general fund revenues by $12 million. The rocky road to exiting municipal bankruptcy also demonstrated the dysfunction created by the city’s fiscal year, throwing off the finely honed timeline under which the proposed outsourcing would have become by July 1. Missing that deadline means waiting 12 months for the beginning of the next fiscal year. If there is one fiscal ray of hope, it is that Judge Jury determined San Bernardino could continue negotiating an interim contract with the San Bernardino County fire district and working through the annexation process required by the Local Agency Formation Commission for San Bernardino County.

The legal setback for the city could make its road to exiting bankruptcy steeper, as San Bernardino’s integrity also appeared to be at risk. While Judge Jury claimed she was uninterested in assigning blame with regard to the negotiation breakdown between San Bernardino and its fire union, telling the courtroom the future should instead be the focus, she was critical of San Bernardino’s claim that it had met about fire outsourcing—a claim Judge Jury found to be contradicted by the city’s own evidence: According to a transcript of a meeting last October at which the city said it had negotiated over outsourcing, for instance, labor attorney Linda Daube and City Manager Allen Parker both say multiple times that contracting out is not part of the proposal they were discussing, with Mr. Parker, according to the transcript, stating: “I am in no position to even recommend that.” That meeting preceded last October’s imposition of new terms of employment on the city’s firefighters, terms which Judge Jury had ruled the city could implement, albeit, as she put it, she had not ruled on the specifics with regard to what the city imposed—adding that, once that happened, San Bernardino, essentially, had used up what she referred to as its “free pass” that municipal bankruptcy gave it to change contracts without going through the normally required process: “Once they have changed the terms and conditions of employment…my reading is they have created then a new status quo, and if they want to modify it further, then they have to modify it under state law, which would require bargaining with the union.”

Judge Jury further noted it was “suspect” that San Bernardino reported in September that it had authorized the city manager in an April closed session meeting to request proposals to provide fire services. But, Judge Jury, who has prior experience representing cities before becoming a judge, said that under California’s open meeting law, the Brown Act, that decision would normally be made in open session —and actions taken during closed session are usually reported publicly immediately afterward — not months later, after a litigant says authorization was never given, adding: “The timing of this is disturbing…It would appear that that (purported closed session vote) was not done, but I can’t make a finding on that today.” In the courtroom, fire union attorney Corey Glave said he might argue that San Bernardino had violated the Brown Act provision which mandates city council approval of contracts over $25,000—adding that because of that the Request for Proposals was improperly issued and would have to be discarded, he would testify at a hearing next week whether the union would pursue that argument. That created still another uh-oh moment, with Judge Jury telling the courtroom that if she agrees with that claim, it could set the city’s municipal bankruptcy case back months—meaning the prohibitively expensive municipal bankruptcy will almost certainly become the longest in American history, and leading Judge Jury to note: “I take this ruling very seriously…“I understand it has a significant impact on this case, and it’s probably the first time I’ve ruled in such a way against the city.”

Steepening Hurdles to Bankruptcy Completion. The timeline setback—and diminution of assets that might be available to be divvied up under a revised San Bernardino plan of debt adjustment can only make more miserable some of San Bernardino’s other creditors, for now the wait will not just be longer, but the assets available under any revised plan of debt adjustment are certain to be smaller. So it can hardly come as a surprise that municipal bond insurers—who now stand to be on the hook for ever increasing amounts—are objecting to San Bernardino’s just sent back to the cleaners proposed plan of debt adjustment. Paul Aronzon, of municipal bond insurer Ambac, filing for his client, wrote, referring to the pre-rejected plan of debt adjustment: “The long-awaited plan is a hodgepodge of unimpaired classes and settlements in various stages – some finalized, some announced but not yet documented, and some that are hinted at, but appear to be more aspirational than real, at this point.” Ambac could be on the hook for its insurance for some $50 million in pension obligation bonds. Fellow worrier and insurer, Erste Europäische Pfandbrief-und Kommunalkreditbank AG (EEPK) attorneys fretted too, claiming San Bernardino proposed “an incomplete set of solutions” based upon “internally inconsistent, and stale, data.” Ambac’s attorneys, referring to the now tossed out plan of debt adjustment’s proposed/anticipated savings from outsourcing fire services and other revenue sources, which the municipal bond insurers claim were not considered in calculating the impairment to the city’s pension bondholders, adding that San Bernardino had not justified the need for $185 million in capital investments to the city’s infrastructure and that the municipality had failed to include $3.9 million in income from the sale of assets to be transferred to the city from its redevelopment successor agency. But they saved their greatest vitriol to claim that the most remarkable feature of San Bernardino’s now partially rejected plan of debt adjustment came from the city’s proposed “draconian” impairment of both the pension obligation bond claims and general unsecured claims, on which the city has proposed to pay roughly 1 penny on the dollar, according to Ambac’s attorneys. EEPK’s attorneys told the federal court that if San Bernardino had utilized its ability to raise sales and use taxes or even parking taxes, it would be able to repay the city’s pension obligation debt in full, or at least substantially more than the 1 percent offered, noting that the severity of the discount warranted explanation. Nevertheless, EEPK’s attorneys added, “[N]owhere does the disclosure statement even attempt to articulate how or why the city formulated the oppressive treatment it proposes for these classes,” in urging Judge Jury to reject the plan—adding that : “In short, the city must be held to its twin burdens of both disclosure and proof that its plan endeavors to pay creditors as much as the city can reasonably afford, not as little as the city thinks it can get away with…The city can and should do better for its creditors — and indeed must do so if its plan is to be confirmed.”

Bankruptcy Protection? The Obama administration late last week urged Congress to move precipitously to address Puerto Rico’s debt crisis, with U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew stating: “Congress must act now to provide Puerto Rico with access to a restructuring regime…Without federal legislation, a resolution across Puerto Rico’s financial liabilities would likely be difficult, protracted, and costly.” The warning came in the wake of Puerto Rican elected leaders warning the U.S. territory might be insolvent by the end of the year—and with Congress only scheduled to meet for portions of eight weeks before the end of the year. In the Treasury letter to Congressional leaders, Sec. Lew appeared to hint the Administration is proposing to go beyond the municipal bankruptcy legislation proposed to date: rather, any Congressional action should, effectively, treat the Commonwealth in a manner to the way municipalities are under current federal law, so that Puerto Rico, as well as its municipalities, would be eligible to restructure through a federal, judicially overseen process—or, as Secretary Lew wrote to U.S. Sen. Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) in July, “a central element of any federal response should include a tested legal bankruptcy regime that enables Puerto Rico to manage its financial challenges in an orderly way.”

The Rocky Fiscal Road to Recovery. Wayne County’s road to emergency fiscal recovery was helped by a Wayne County Circuit Court decision denying a request from a union representing more than 2,500 Wayne County workers to block any wage and benefit changes made under the county’s consent agreement with the state, but fiscally threatened by the County’s recent disclosure that the IRS is conducting a targeted audit of $200 million of bonds—a problem, because, as Moody’s moodily notes: the fiscally stressed largest county in Michigan could face a hard time covering the full costs of the bond payments were the bonds deemed taxable. The denial came in the wake of a Wayne Circuit Court restraining order last week to block wage and benefits changes for Wayne County Sheriff Supervisory Local 3317 union’s affiliates, last week. The decision, according to county officials, “[P]ermit Wayne County to continue its restructuring efforts and move closer to ending the financial emergency.” In its suit, the union had alleged the defendants “have illegally bound themselves by a ‘consent agreement’ with the state’s Executive Branch,” and that “protected and accrued benefits will be dramatically slashed or terminated, contrary to the U.S. Constitution.” The successful appeal comes in the wake of the county’s budget action last week to eliminate what it estimates is left of Wayne County’s $52 million structural deficit; the budget decreases Wayne’s unfunded health care liabilities by 76 percent, reduces the need to divert funds from departments to cover general fund expenditures and, mayhap most critically, creates a pathway to solvency. On the investigation front, however, the county’s recent disclosure that the IRS is conducting a targeted audit of $200 million of bonds is, according to Moody’s, not such good news; rather it is a credit blow for Wayne—to which Moody’s currently assigns the junk-rating of Ba3. The audit involves some $200 million of recovery zone economic development bonds Wayne County issued in 2010 to finance construction of a jail in downtown Detroit—a jail which has subsequently been halted amid cost overruns—and municipal bonds for which the county currently receives a federal subsidy equal to 45% of annual interest payments on the bonds. As Moody’s moodily notes: “The [IRS] examination is credit negative, because it raises the possibility that the county will have to repay $37 million of previously received subsidies and lose $41 million of subsidies over the next five years,” or, as Moody’s analyst Matthew Butler succinctly put it: “Such a loss would further strain the county’s weak but improving fiscal condition,” adding that “Due to statutory limitations on revenue raising, the county would not be able to raise revenue for the increased interest cost.” Mr. Butler gloomily added: “[M]anagement would be challenged in offsetting the loss by implementing further cuts beyond the significant operating cuts already made.” Unsurprisingly, the jail in question has its own financially sordid history: undertaken by former Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano, the fiscal undertaking had led to the indictment of Wayne County’s former CFO and two others connected to the project for misconduct and willful neglect of duty tied to the jail financing. Unsurprisingly, current Wayne County Executive Warren Evans has said that addressing the failed project is his top priority after eliminating the structural deficit. That is a fiscal blight for which successful action is important not just to Wayne County, but also for Detroit.

A Big Hill of Debt to Climb. Hillview, the Kentucky home rule-class city of just over 8,000 in Bullitt County—which filed for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy last month—has been anticipating that Truck America LLC—the municipality’s largest creditor–would “aggressively” challenge the city’s petition—where objections must be filed by a week from Thursday—reports, according to City Attorney Tammy Baker in her discussions with the Bond Buyer, that Hillview plans no restructuring of any of its municipal bonds in its proposed plan of debt adjustment. The small municipality is on the losing side of a court judgment to Truck America for $11.4 million plus interest—a debt significantly larger than the $1.78 million it owes as part of a 2010 pool bond issued by the Kentucky Bond Corp. and $1.39 million in outstanding general obligation bonds Hillview issued in 2010. Nevertheless, City Attorney Tammy Baker advised The Bond Buyer Hillview “does not intend to restructure any of its outstanding municipal bonds through the filing.” The U.S. bankruptcy court’s acceptance of the municipality’s filing triggered the automatic stay on any city obligations, thereby protecting Hillview’s ability to retain some $3,759 in interest payments to the company which have been accruing each and every day on its outstanding trucking debt. According to the city’s filing, the judgment, plus interest totaled $15 million that is due in full—an amount equivalent to more than five times the municipality’s annual revenues. Nonetheless, Moody’s opines that Hillview could face an uphill battle in the federal bankruptcy court in convincing the court that it is insolvent and, thereby, eligible for chapter 9, because, as the credit rating agency notes: “Generally, a municipality must prove that it is not paying its debts on time or is unable to pay the obligations as they become due.” But Moody’s notes the small city could raise its property and/or business license taxes—or it could even issue more debt to finance its obligations to TruckAmerica.

The Rocky Road to Insolvency

September 18, 2015

The Road to Insolvency. Moody’s yesterday cut Ferguson, Missouri’s credit rating by four notches, a downgrade the credit rating agency said reflected the “severe and rapid deterioration of the city’s financial position, possible deletion of fund balances in the near term, and limited options for restoring fiscal stability…” adding the municipality could be headed for insolvency as early as 2017. [In Missouri, any municipality or political subdivision may file for municipal bankruptcy protection (six cities have previously]. The downgrade for the municipality of 21,000—one of 116 municipalities in the St. Louis metro area—came in the wake of the release of the Ferguson Commission report, which was released this week–more than a year after we began in this blog looking at the fiscal complexity of hundreds of municipalities operating in metropolitan areas (there are, for instance, over 280 in the Chicago metropolitan region). The downgrade was a sign of the fiscal fallout from the fatal 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown. The Ferguson report concludes:
• the State of Missouri should establish a publicly accessible database tracking incidents when police use force;
• Missouri’s Attorney General should step in as a special prosecutor in those cases which lead to a death;
• Municipal and county police should be trained with regard to the “implicit bias” which shapes decisions by people who had never consider themselves racist;
• The court system should stop jailing residents for non-violent offenses, locking them away from the jobs they would need to pay off their fines and speeding tickets in the first place, noting, pointedly: “When someone is jailed for failure to pay tickets, the justice system has not removed a dangerous criminal from the streets. In many cases, it has simply removed a poor person from the streets.”

The report, commissioned last fall by Missouri Governor Jay Nixon to dissect to roots of Ferguson’s unrest, also calls for the state of Missouri to expand Medicaid coverage (Missouri is one of 19 states which has refused to do so; it also urges adoption of a $15 minimum wage (the current floor in Missouri is $7.65 an hour). It calls for a cap on the interest predatory payday lenders demand of the poor, and an end to childhood hunger. It recommends smarter transportation investments, a commitment to early childhood education, and disciplinary reform in elementary schools. It even demands “inclusionary zoning” policies to ensure more low-income housing gets built-in neighborhoods with good schools and opportunity. The report, nearly 200 pages long, seeks to weave and connect every interlocking policy problem — in education, housing, transportation, the courts, employment, law enforcement, public health — implicated in the racial inequality at the heart of Ferguson’s unrest. A March report from the U.S. Justice’s Civil Rights Division found the Ferguson police department engaged in unlawful and discriminatory practices partially driven by the city’s reliance on court fine revenue to support its budget. Advocacy groups have filed a series of lawsuits challenging municipal ticketing operations. Between draws in fiscal 2015 which ended June 30, and fiscal 2016 projections, city reserves are expected to fall by 70% compared to audited fiscal 2014 levels.

Moody’s downgrade impacts $6.7 million of outstanding Ferguson general obligation municipal bonds, $8.4 million of certificates of participation from a 2013 issue, and $1.5 million of 2012 certificates or COPs, with the agency noting its downgrade “reflects severe and rapid deterioration of the city’s financial position, possible depletion of fund balances in the near term, and limited options for restoring fiscal stability: “Key drivers of this precipitous drop are declining key revenues, unbudgeted expenditures, and escalating expenses related to ongoing litigation and the Department of Justice consent decree currently under negotiation…”We believe fiscal ramifications from these items could be significant and could result in insolvency…We expect additional detail within the next few months as to the city’s final audited fiscal 2015 results as well as options and financial strategies for addressing these looming costs.”

Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III yesterday responded to the Justice Department report, saying he appreciated the hard work and dedication of the Commission by interviewing hundreds of community stakeholders throughout the metropolitan area, which included Ferguson residents and many of its business owners.

One outcome of the fiscal deterioration and the killing of Michael Brown in the wake of the subsequent rioting focused attention on aggressive policing tactics and the heavy reliance on court fines to prop up local government budgets. Critics note that stiff court fines imposed by local governments like Ferguson’s result in aggressive policing tactics which disproportionally target low-income and minority residents. Along with taxes and other revenue streams in 2010, the city collected over $1.3 million in fines and fees collected by its court. For FY2015, Ferguson’s budget anticipates fine revenues to exceed $3 million – more than double the total from just five years earlier, according to the report. The increase was not tied to crime figures. Ferguson responds that the city has taken action to with new ordinances to limit the use of revenue generated by court fines and fees to 15% of its budget. The city has also revised various policies on collections. The Missouri State Auditor’s office launched probes into 10 local governments’ use of court fines to ensure they comply with the law and plans more. Most Missouri local governments face new restrictions on the use of municipal court fines under legislation signed in July by Gov. Jay Nixon—especially in the wake of the new state commission’s recommendation of a sweeping overhaul of police tactics and court fine practices.

Bankruptcy Protection? Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) reports his Committee will “have to have a hearing” on whether Puerto Rico’s agencies should be able to use bankruptcy to reorganize their finances. Interestingly, Chairman Hatch is in a very unique position to act—as it is the Senate Judiciary Committee which has jurisdiction over municipal bankruptcy legislation—and where Mr. Hatch is not only a member, but also a former Chairman. A staff member on the Finance Committee indicated it likely such a hearing would occur the week after next. For his part, Chairman Hatch, who spoke with Puerto Rico Governor Padilla this week, said “I always intended to have a hearing, because it’s a serious problem and we need to resolve it,” adding that the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico are in “real trouble.” Chairman Hatch reports that legislation extending chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy protection to Puerto Rico, co-sponsored by Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) will be discussed when panel meets.

Steep Roads to Municipal Solvency


September 17, 2015

The Steep Road to Fiscal Recovery. Notwithstanding Detroit’s successful recovery from the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy and the signs of an apparent turnaround in surrounding Wayne County, the fiscal challenge and importance of Michigan’s Governor Rick Snyder and the legislature reaching an agreement as part of pending state transportation financing legislation to enable the Motor City to collect its income tax from commuters becomes more readily apparent in the wake of the release yesterday by the U.S. Census Bureau of its report finding Detroit to be the most impoverished major city in the U.S. with 39.3 percent of its population living below a poverty line of $24,008 for a family of four—even as the report found Michigan to be among 12 states which realized a decline in the percentage of people living in poverty in 2014—albeit Michigan’s poverty rate remained higher than the national average. Census found Flint, just an hour from Detroit, to be the nation’s poorest city, with 40.1 percent of its residents living in poverty. If there was a bright spot in the new Census data, it was a decline in the percentage of Michiganders without health insurance coverage: Census reported a decrease from 1,072,000 in 2013 to 837,000 in 2014–due in part to Michigan’s Medicaid expansion, which began enrolling residents in April 2014. Nevertheless, the numbers led Laura Lein, Dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Michigan, to comment: “The economic recovery is not yet affecting poverty or wage levels…It’s simply not affecting the part of the population that is economically challenged.” According to the new Census report, poverty rates remained flat across most of the Metro Detroit, and median income remained stagnant, or, as Richard Lichtenstein, associate professor of health management and policy at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, put it: “Most of the growth in income has been happening among the affluent and very little of it has been floating down to people at the lower income level.”

Poverty in big cities: Below, according to the new Census data, are the U.S. cities with the highest 2014 poverty levels:

  • Detroit, Michigan 39.3
  • Cleveland, Ohio 39.2
  • Fresno, California 30.5
  • Memphis, Tennessee 29.8
  • Milwaukee, Wisconsin 29
  • St. Louis, Missouri 28.5
  • Stockton, California 28.1
  • New Orleans, Louisiana 27.8
  • Miami, Florida 26.2
  • Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 26
    *Cities with population of more than 300,000
    Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Learning to Escape Poverty. The depressing Census numbers with regard to poverty in Detroit emphasize the importance of learning opportunities for the city’s children—but there the fiscal challenge remains daunting: Detroit Public Schools’ (DPS) deficit is increasing by millions of dollars. The system is issuing millions in new debt—at seemingly usurious rates: according to a quarterly report issued yesterday by the Michigan Department of Education, DPS, Michigan’s largest school district, has projected its deficit at $238.2 million as of June 30, or nearly 50 percent greater than a year earlier—that is: a trajectory towards bankruptcy—and making DPS among 14 Michigan school districts whose deficits climbed in 2014-15—a depressing trajectory which Michelle Zdrodowski, a DPS spokesperson, described as due to lower revenue from property taxes and asset sales, higher maintenance and utility costs, and a charge for legal contingencies. DPS, at the end of last week, borrowed $121.2 million through the Michigan Finance Authority—benefitting from being able to borrow through the lower interest rates than it would have been forced to pay on its own (the Michigan state aid revenue notes carry a 5.75 percent interest rate and are due Aug. 22, 2016); nevertheless, according to a state document detailing the financing, DPS has $337.8 million in outstanding loans. Thus the new borrowing to keep the system above water – so-called cash flow borrowing — to “assist with immediate cash flow needs” — coming at the commencement of the academic year (an option in Michigan made available to all public school districts on an annual basis to provide funding during those months when school districts do not receive state aid payment) nevertheless is unlikely to be the kind of math that would lead to good grades—or, as Gary Naeyaert, who leads a school-choice advocacy group, the Great Lakes Education Project, described the fiscal apprehension yesterday: “Michigan’s taxpayers should be outraged by DPS’ continuing efforts to increase their operational debt by borrowing money they simply won’t pay back…When you’re in a hole this deep, the first priority should be to stop digging.” He added that the seemingly usurious interest rate on the loan is a sign of the Detroit Public School District’s increasing fiscal peril: “The standard interest rate on these School Aid Notes is 1 percent for creditworthy districts…The fact that DPS is being charged 5.75 percent indicates what a terrible financial deal this is.” DPS, which has been experiencing declining enrollment for decades, has run a deficit in nine of the past 11 fiscal years—a period during which four state-appointed emergency managers have been named.

Pathway to Solvency. Meanwhile, in surrounding Wayne County, Michigan, County Executive Warren Evans yesterday advised his fellow elected commissioners that the County had reached tentative labor agreements with its employee unions, with his spokesperson stating: “We anticipate announcing major labor agreements with all of our unions in the very near future.” Even without providing details, the spokesperson for the County reported the new contracts would enable Wayne County to achieve the savings it needs without a 5 percent wage cut that the Evans’ administration had proposed earlier this year—a sign which, he indicated—was likely to augur that the unions will vote on the tentative agreements in the next few days. The seemingly upbeat news came as the Commission, meeting yesterday as a committee of the whole, voted preliminary approval to Mr. Evans’ proposed $1.56 billion county budget for FY 2015-16. That vote came as Mr. Evans submitted a projected, reduced $1.45 billion budget for the 2016-2017 fiscal year—with final votes expected today. In proposing the new budget, Mr. Evans told his elected colleagues that his budget would eliminate what remains of Wayne County’s $52 million structural deficit, that it would decrease unfunded health care liabilities by 76 percent, and reduce the need to divert funds from departments to cover general fund expenditures. In short, for a county in state-designated fiscal emergency, the budget would create a pathway to solvency. The county, Michigan’s largest—and the home to Detroit—had successfully sought a state declaration of a financial emergency last June, leading to the consent agreement with the state approved last month. Notwithstanding its potentially disappearing structural deficit, Wayne County still confronts one other daunting hurdle: a $910.5 million underfunded public pension system.

The Sharing Economy. The San Bernardino County Fire Protection District—the body key to the city of San Bernardino’s proposal, as part of its municipal bankruptcy plan of debt adjustment before the U.S. bankruptcy court, to annex or incorporate the city’s fire department—yesterday voted (with the vote taking place in San Bernardino City Council chambers) unanimously to make that and two related applications its top priority, an action intended to ensure the annexation process can be completed by next July 1st. If approved, the savings to bankrupt San Bernardino could be close to $12 million annually, coming from both the operating and capital savings, as well as the related parcel tax (a $143-per-year tax on each of the city’s 56,000 parcels) which requires annexation to implement. The vote could pave the way for public hearings next February, reconsideration in May, and actual commencement of the process by April—albeit an annexation process which could be terminated if more than 50 percent of registered voters protest, or lead to an election if written protests are received from either 25 to 50 percent of registered voters or at least 25 percent of landowners who own at least 25 percent of the total annexation land value. It turns out that in the emerging, sharing economy; sharing can be a most difficult, hurdled process—even where critical to emerging successfully from municipal bankruptcy.

Robbing a Capitol City’s Fiscal Future. Senior Pennsylvania District Judge Richard P. Cashman, voicing concern and apprehension about former Pennsylvania capitol city Harrisburg Mayor Stephen Reed’s style of governance, has upheld some 485 theft and corruption charges filed by the state attorney general’s office and sent the case to trial. Judge Cashman, ruling in Dauphin County court on Tuesday, ruled probable cause exists in the case against the former Mayor, whom the state attorney general’s office alleges used millions of dollars of municipal bond proceeds to purchase Wild West artifacts for a planned museum: the municipal bond proceeds, according to the prosecutors, were to be dedicated for retrofitting of the city’s municipal incinerator, the city’s school system, the Harrisburg Parking Authority, and the Harrisburg Senators minor-league baseball team, which the city owned at the time. The museum never got off the ground, but the municipal bond financing for the incinerator involved cost overruns which led the city to the brink of insolvency (the city successfully exited receivership in March, 2014); indeed, it was during former Mayor Reed’s long tenure as Mayor (from 1982 to 2009) that Pennsylvania’s capital city plummeted to the brink of bankruptcy. Bond financing overruns from the incinerator project largely accounted for the city’s $600 million-plus liability. At a Sept. 14 preliminary hearing, special agent Craig LeCadre, the lead investigator for Attorney General Kathleen Kane’s office, likened Reed to “a hoarder on steroids,” reporting that his investigators found roughly 10,000 artifacts in the basement of Mr. Reed’s apartment near the state capitol, and prosecutors presented a slide show which featured included a vampire hunting kit, a bronze statue of a cowboy on a bucking bronco, and a Spanish armor suit. They valued the latter two at $19,000 and $14,000, respectively.

Protecting Public Health & Safety in Fiscal Distress. The Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (PRASA) has reached a tentative settlement with the U.S. Justice Department and EPA under which it will spend $1.5 billion to upgrade and improve its system-wide sewer systems serving the municipalities of San Juan, Trujillo Alto, and portions of Bayamon, Guaynabo and Carolina, according to the U.S. Justice Department—as well as to invest sufficient funds to construct sanitary sewers to serve communities surrounding the Martin Peña Canal—improvements affecting the health and safety of some 20,000 U.S. citizens. Under the terms of the agreement with the Justice Dept., and in recognition of PRASA’s fiscal stress, the Justice Dept. waived civil penalties for violations alleged in a complaint, noting that many of the “provisions of the agreement have been tailored to focus on the most critical problems first, giving more time to address the less critical problems over time.” John Cruden, Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s environment and natural resources division, noted that certain projects required under the 2006 and 2010 agreements had been found to be no longer necessary, because the island’s population has declined, so that the stipulated upgrades were no longer critical to protect public health and safety from the “public’s exposure to serious health risks posed by untreated sewage,” adding that—in reaching the settlement, “The United States has taken Puerto Rico’s financial hardship into account by prioritizing the most critical projects first, and allowing a phased in approach in other areas.” The settlement, which is pending before the U.S. District Court for Puerto Rico, is subject to a 30-day public comment period and must be approved by the federal court.