What Distinguishes a Municipality’s Fiscal Path to Success or Failure?

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eBlog, 10/21/16

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the fiscal and children’s health challenges in Flint, Michigan—problems created under the state’s Emergency Manager system; we consider the ongoing challenge to municipal sustainability in Atlantic City as an impending state takeover threatens; we update readers as San Bernardino nears its municipal elections—and nears its emergence early next year from the nation’s longest-ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy; then we consider a new legal challenge to try to provide for an education for Detroit’s children in a system under a state-imposed emergency manager, but also a state-impose dysfunctional system; then we visit Petersburg, Virginia—where the small, historic city is grappling with hard, hard choices if it is to avoid insolvency, before finally trying to shed a bright spotlight on the signal success of Wayne County, Michigan as it celebrates its formal exit from state fiscal oversight.

Not in Like Flint. A new suit was filed this week charging that public officials failed children in Flint, Michigan by allowing the city’s supply of drinking water to remain contaminated with lead, a known neurotoxin, for a year and a half—with the suit alleging the government is again falling short by failing to provide the city’s children with educational services that they legally deserve and that could counter the effects of the Flint lead exposure: the complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Michigan, argues that the public school system in Flint is not meeting its legal obligation to screen lead-exposed children for disabilities or provide services and interventions that could make a difference in their ability to learn and thrive. It also alleges that the Michigan Education Department has failed to provide Flint schools, which have cut teachers and other staff in the face of a $10 million deficit, with the resources and funding they need to provide those services: the suit notes there are 30,000 children and teenagers under the age of 19 in Flint, and 8,000 of them are younger than 5—those particularly vulnerable to the effects of lead exposure—exposure which can result in diminished academic achievement and a greater tendency to be hyperactive, impulsive, and aggressive. Without meaningful action soon, the complaint says, children’s opportunities to reach their full potential will be “permanently foreclosed,” or, as the complaint states: “In the wake of the Flint lead crisis, Flint children face an unprecedented educational and civil rights disaster.” The complaint seeks class certification to represent all Flint children who were exposed to lead and are—or may be—eligible for special-education services: the plaintiffs are 15 children, ages 3 to 17, each of whom was exposed to lead in Flint; it alleges that they have been denied the special-education services they need and deserve under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and Michigan state law. The suit requests the court to order sweeping changes in Flint schools, including high-quality universal preschool for all 3-to 5-year-olds; enhanced screening of all Flint children to determine their physical, social, emotional and behavioral needs; training for teachers in managing students’ behavior without resorting to physical restraint and seclusion; and regular lead testing of drinking water in Flint schools. It also seeks a comprehensive review of all education plans for children currently identified for special education, to make sure their needs have been properly identified, requesting the federal court to convene a group that would lay out a comprehensive plan for addressing children’s physical, emotional and behavioral trauma in the aftermath of lead exposure, and for a special monitor to oversee the implementation of that plan over the next seven years. (Note: nine current or former government workers have been criminally charged since doctors detected elevated levels of lead in some children due to the discolored and smelly water supply in the impoverished city of nearly 100,000, in the wake of the city’s change from the metropolitan Detroit utility system to a temporary water source, the Flint River, in 2014, a decision made not by the city, but rather a gubernatorially appointed state emergency manager. One of the outcomes could be adoption of a recommendation in a report issued by a panel of four Republican and two Democratic state legislators focused on preventing recurrence of such a crisis. Among the recommendations is lifting emergency managers’ general immunity from civil lawsuits and prohibiting them from using cost as the primary factor in any decision that will affect public health and safety. Other recommendations include the adoption of the country’s toughest lead-in-water rules, increased transparency about water rates and shut-off practices, and the creation of a commission to oversee the state Department of Environmental Quality, which has been deemed primarily responsible for Flint’s water problems. The recommendations also propose that a community’s water source should not be changed absent voter approval. A key recommendation related to Michigan’s 2012 emergency manager law—widely criticized as a key factor in Flint’s city’s water crisis: the report recommends that Michigan’s Emergency Manager emergency managers be replaced with financial management teams that include a financial expert, a local government operations expert, and an ombudsman. Emergency managers would also be mandated to post a $5 million bond that would be forfeited for negligence or misconduct on the job and to host a website to solicit and respond to public comments on their key decisions. Or, as Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint) noted: “The more we encourage…oversight and citizen involvement, the better our government’s going to be.”  The report also calls for:

  • testing water for lead in schools and other facilities for children and fragile adults;
  • the mandatory disclosure of lead services lines in home sales and rental contracts;
  • a constitutional amendment making it easier to discipline state employees and the appointment of an ombudsman to hear confidential state employee reports of misconduct;
  • enhanced criminal penalties for public officials whose misconduct causes bodily harm to others;
  • more robust lead screening of school-age children;
  • assessing children’s past lead exposure by testing their baby teeth, because blood tests only reveal recent exposure; and
  • requiring water systems to inventory their service pipes and other infrastructure and, within 10 years, adopt a full lead service pipe replacement program.

The Edge of the Boardwalk. Chris Filiciello, Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian’s chief of staff this week confirmed that the city did not submit a revised budget to the state, as Mayor Guardian warned in a letter that a tax increase would be “devastating” for Atlantic City, which he said increased taxes by 50 percent over 2013 and 2014. With the debt clock from the state ticking, Atlantic City is now nearly two weeks past its deadline in violation of its $73 million state loan; the next deadline is just over two weeks away—by which time the city must submit a five-year fiscal stability plan. It appears the Mayor believes his five-year budget will save roughly $73 million by 2021, in no small part related to the sale of its municipal airport, Bader Field, and its water authority for $110 million. In addition, the City Council is slated to vote on new labor agreements between the city and its seven worker unions, as well as consider privatizing payroll services. Under Mayor Guardian’s proposed five-year fiscal recovery plan, the city projects $72.9 million in savings from 2017 through 2021 (Atlantic City has annual budget deficits of about $100 million before state aid.). In his statement, Mayor Guardian listed 26 items on which Atlantic City has or intends to cut costs and raise revenues, including 400 fewer full-time workers since 2013, a recent shared-services deal with Atlantic County, bidding out city services, and land sales worth $7.1 million. In addition, Atlantic City has offered early retirement buyouts to 165 senior workers. The plan anticipates saving $7.4 million next year; $12.7 million in 2018; $17 million in 2019; $17.3 million in 2020; and $18.5 million in 2021, according to Mayor Guardian’s statement. The city currently has a fortnight in which to submit its plan to the state—the rejection of which would result in a five-year state takeover. The Mayor described the plan as one which “will include increasing revenue, reducing costs, maximizing redirected funds from casinos, receiving state aid, restructuring of debt payments, early retirement incentives, realizing the value of City owned properties and the MUA, and much more, all while maintaining Atlantic City’s sovereign right to local self-governance.” Nevertheless, how the plan will fare in City Council remains uncertain: the Council has pulled or voted down measures to dissolve the authority five times amid pressure from residents to keep the authority independent. (The Council must approve the sale at two meetings. The sale is also subject to state approval.) In addition, the Council will vote on seven memorandums of understanding with its police, fire, white-collar, blue-collar, electrical, and supervisory employees—with, according to Mayor Guardian, the city renegotiating contracts to include multiple years with no wage increases, restructured pay scales, health care cuts, and reduced overtime and paid-leave costs.

Getting Back to Fiscal Recovery. San Bernardino, the California municipality seeking to become the first U.S. municipality to overhaul its political structure while in chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, and asking its voters next month to approve a new charter that strips the Mayor and city council of day-to-day operational control, has completed all of its required audits for the first time in six years, with the City Council having this week filed its FY2015 final audit, marking the first time since 2010 the city has all of its legally required audits. The FY2016 audit is due by March 31, 2017, a deadline the city will meet, according to Finance Director Brent Mason—albeit the audits were “qualified”—denoting the auditors were unable to find enough evidence the financial statements were accurate in four of 10 areas, leading Councilman Henry Nickel to note: “This is a job well done, but now I think the next step is implementing some corrective actions to get back to where we need to be.” Part of the challenge for the city stems from the 2012 state-mandated dissolution of the city’s redevelopment agency, requiring a significant expansion of the audit, or, as Finance Director Mason notes: “They’re not small-ticket issues to get our hands around, but they’re all doable.” One of the qualified opinion concerns was with regard to the liability for compensated absences, such as vacation and sick time, which San Bernardino has proposed adjusting as part of its bankruptcy exit plan—a plan which appears to have the qualified approval of U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury.

Detroit’s Future? Lawyers representing Detroit schoolchildren last month filed a lawsuit against Gov. Rick Snyder and state officials in what has been viewed as the nation’s which pushes for literacy as a right under the U.S. Constitution: the complaint alleges that the state has denied Detroit students access to literacy, the most basic building block of education, through decades of “disinvestment … and deliberate indifference.” The suit seek broad remedies, including implementation of evidence-based literacy programs, universal screening for literacy problems, and a statewide accountability system in which the state “monitors conditions that deny access to literacy” and intervenes. It documents the low reading and math proficiency rates of Detroit students, as well as classes without teachers and outdated or insufficient classroom materials, it also notes poor conditions, including vermin and building problems, at some schools as recently as this month, seeking class action status on behalf of students who attend the schools. In addition to Governor Snyder, the lawsuit names the state Board of Education, state school Superintendent Brian Whiston, David Behen, director of the Michigan Department of Technology, Management and Budget, and Natasha Baker, the state school reform officer.

Petersburg’s Future? Mayhap ironically the person once appointed as emergency manager by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder to address the Detroit Public Schools’ fiscal and educational insolvency, Robert Bobb, under whose tenure DPS’s deficit steadily worsened, rather than improved—and where now a federal class-action lawsuit a class action suit has been filed, contending that under state control, the Detroit Public Schools have deteriorated to such an extent they violate students’ civil rights. (DPS’s current emergency manager, retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, has called the latest corruption allegations “outrageous;” he has placed all the accused principals still with DPS on unpaid leave, and instituted new oversight measures for approving contracts. Nevertheless, the ongoing events have meant that many Michigan legislators appear to be increasingly antithetical to ever allowing the district to revert to local control—with some even suggesting it should be permitted to become insolvent and be dissolved—leaving the state on the hook for at least $500 million of its massive debt.)

Now, after the Petersburg, Virginia City Council this week was on the verge of hiring Mr. Bobb as a turnaround specialist, the Council developed cold feet: late into a meeting in which the Council took a lashing from city residents upset over what they characterized as a lack of transparency surrounding negotiations with its search firm, Councilman Samuel Parham put the contract to a vote: it failed 3-3-1, meaning the Council must wait at least 30 days before reconsidering a potential agreement which for the insolvent municipality is rumored to cost about $350,000 according to the elected leaders. The delay would mean pushing off any decision about the city’s future—if it is to have one—until after the election—one in which two of three council races on the ballot are contested. The unscheduled vote came minutes after a public acknowledgment from Councilmember Darrin Hill that members’ recent closed-session meetings and interference with the administration of city business deserved scrutiny, or as Councilmember Hill noted: “Ethically I think we can do better as a council as a whole,” he said. “I think a lot of us are being thrown under the bus over the actions of a few.” If the old expression is “time is money,” the delay—even as lawsuits and threats of legal action, much of it over unpaid bills, are building for a small city for which Virginia state auditors have determined is approximately $19 million in the hole, comes after the Council began this fiscal year by slashing about $12 million from the current year’s operating budget—eliminating youth summer programs, unfilled positions, millions in public school funding, and money for travel and training—even borrowing a fire truck from the city of Colonial Heights’ reserve fleet for day-to-day operations. Yet, the anatomy of debt and deficits and how the municipality got there remains clouded; ergo Council members have been asking since last February for the administration to hire a forensic auditor to scrutinize the city’s books. Interim City Manager Dironna Moore Belton this week said the city had winnowed a list down to two firms which could do the work—but of course at a cost of as much as $300,000—leading incoming City Attorney Joseph Preston to request that the Council not authorize a forensic audit, noting that a newly expanded grand jury investigation by a Chesterfield County prosecutor might yield the answers council members are seeking—at County rather than municipal taxpayers’ expense. The inability to act and uncertain state willingness to help has provoked residents, who report they are tired of seeing the city make negative headlines: they are pleading with the City Council to stop holding special meetings at the last-minute and to engage in more robust public discussion before taking votes on consequential matters—or, as one constituent put it: “I would like to know what you’re afraid of talking about in public…It’s very strange, and it’s part of why people are looking at Petersburg.”

Free at Last. The State of Michigan has formally released Wayne County, Michigan from state oversight. The County, whose general obligation bonds Moody’s upgraded at the end of last month, cited several factors, including: improvement in the county’s financial position following substantial reductions in retirement liabilities and associated costs, which will aid the budgetary capacity to address outstanding capital facility needs…,” as well as noting the “county continues to enhance its operating reserves while accommodating increased costs associated with outstanding criminal justice facility needs…” as well as reflect “substantial expense reductions…” thanks to its development and implementation of a “financial recovery plan in May 2015 to correct a structural imbalance that developed during years of rapidly falling property tax revenue. The recovery plan culminated in nearly $50 million of cost reductions achieved with elimination or modification of retirement benefits, contraction of payroll, and other operating efficiencies…” Or, as Wayne County Executive Warren C. Evans noted: the report by the credit rating agency “speaks to the depth of our Recovery Plan and the fiscal responsibility we’re instituting in every facet of County government…This positions us to do more with the resources we have and continue to move in the right direction. While the news is good, there’s a lot of work to do. We’re committed to staying the course and taking on the challenges that remain.” Mr. Evans added, however: “It’s a positive step, but not cause for any long celebrations…The consent agreement allowed us to do what we needed to do, but it was never going to be a cure-all to Wayne County’s finances. It was the necessary means to get our fiscal house in order so we could tackle the remaining challenges.” The strong fiscal discipline brought other good news with it: the State of Michigan formally granted the county’s request to be released from oversight yesterday—just a year and a month after the oversight agreement allowed the county to work with the state to renegotiate contracts, improve its cash position, and reduce underfunding in the pension system, resulting in elimination of a structural deficit. Michigan Treasurer added: “I am pleased to see the significant progress Wayne County has made while operating within the best practices established by the consent agreement.” Under that agreement, Wayne County established a recovery plan and eliminated a nearly $100 million accumulated deficit and a yearly structural deficit of approximately $52 million through various measures that aimed to bring recurring revenues in line with liabilities. The county reduced its unfunded pension liabilities from $817 million to $636 million—reductions, ergo, which also meant some retirees experienced significant reductions in post-retirement healthcare benefits. Wayne County—the county in which the City of Detroit is centered—has now balanced its budget two years in row and recorded surpluses: it ended the last fiscal year with an accumulated unassigned surplus of $35.7 million, of which $5.7 million is available for general fund operations. County Executive Evans said he expects to report a surplus in excess of $35.7 million when the books are closed on 2016. However, he also warned that Wayne County still must address some $635 million in unfunded pension liabilities and over $400 million in other post-employment benefits liabilities, areas where he made clear future budget surpluses are likely key.

How Might Next Month’s Elections Affect Municipalities’ Fiscal Futures?


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eBlog, 10/19/16

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the fiscal challenges Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan is encountering which could interrupt the city’s recovery from the nation’s largest-ever municipal bankruptcy, but note the city’s continuing progress towards becoming a national center of innovation;  then we head east to the exceptional challenge and nearing deadline for Atlantic city if it is to have a future versus being taken over by the State of New Jersey; then we fly to the West Coast where next month’s elections will determine the future municipal status of San Bernardino—the nation’s city on the road to exiting the longest municipal bankruptcy in American history, before jogging north to Stockton—where the post-chapter 9 municipality has a difficult mayoral election, but also where voters will decide what kind of municipal governance they want. Finally, we look south to observe the first steps in Puerto Rico under the new PROMESA law to address the U.S. territory’s quasi municipal bankruptcy.

Demolition Derby? Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan this week disclosed the Motor City’s controversial demolition program had been suspended by the U.S. Treasury Department this summer to address “mistakes” and “errors.” The federally funded program, according to Mayor Duggan, had been at a standstill since the middle of August—as the city and Detroit Land Bank Authority met with officials from the U.S. Treasury and the Michigan State Housing and Development Authority to reach agreement on a new set of procedures—procedures accepted by the Treasury at the end of last week, albeit Mayor Duggan declined to cite specific examples of what went wrong, albeit noting: “No amount of error in the rules is tolerable…We’re going to eliminate those mistakes with these new controls.” The contretemps comes as the city’s demolition program has become the focus of a federal criminal investigation, related to issues involving bidding practices and soaring costs. Based upon its approval of the city’s new rules, the Treasury has officially released $42 million allocated for the city’s fourth round of the program, albeit, as Mayor Duggan noted: “They didn’t do it casually,” adding the city’s “land bank did not have sufficient procedures in place to make sure we had proper documentation for all the bills and didn’t have sufficient controls to assure Treasury would not be charged for ineligible expenses.” Among the changes, Michigan State Housing authority employees will now be embedded at the land bank, along with the Detroit Building Authority to provide compliance support, input, and on-site assurance “that all contracts are bid appropriately.” The housing authority will also conduct quality control audits to assure ongoing compliance. In addition, the land bank has established a $5 million escrow fund for any demolition costs not eligible for Hardest Hit funding. Or, as Mayor Duggan put it, he was “very disappointed” by some of the things he learned during the review, but said federal and state officials will disclose those “when they are ready.”

The Treasury last August instructed housing authority officials to suspend disbursement of federal TARP funds to Detroit for blight elimination, including payment of invoices received from the land bank with the state’s second and third funding allocations under the program. Treasury, in addition, asked the housing authority to halt approval of demolition and other blight elimination activities by Detroit or its affiliates. (Detroit has been awarded more than $258 million under the federal program—with which the city has razed more than 10,000 homes early 2014. The new federal allocation is part of $130 million awarded to the Motor City in recent months. Mayor Duggan noted the new rules are in response to concerns over practices as well as Detroit’s volume of demolitions, stating: “It’s a far more intense review, because we are handing far more demolitions…The speed at which we went outstripped the controls that we had in place.”

Detroit’s auditor general last year had commenced an audit of the city’s demolition activities at the request of Detroit’s City Council in response to growing apprehension with regard to soaring costs and bidding: last April, Detroit Auditor General Mark Lockridge confirmed his office received a federal subpoena after releasing preliminary findings from the months-long audit. Adamo Group, one of the program’s largest contractors, also was served with a subpoena from the Office of the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, as was the land bank and Detroit’s Building Authority. Last May, the FBI’s Detroit office confirmed it was also investigating the program, and Detroit’s Office of Inspector General has been conducting a review of its own into an aspect of the program. The city has said it is cooperating fully with all investigations. Nevertheless, this week, Mayor Duggan stated he had seen “no evidence of criminal activity,” but declined to comment on the federal probe. Nevertheless, the fiscal costs are tolling: Detroit has more than $80,000 in legal fees for the investigation—and now faces more. The city came under scrutiny last fall over a pilot program aimed at attracting larger players to rapidly take down larger bundles of homes. At the time, a WJBK-TV report accused city building officials of improperly meeting with contractors in 2014 to set prices for the bulk demolition work before requests for bids were official. The administration has said there was nothing improper about the set-price contract initiative, which was discontinued shortly after it failed to attract national players. Last October, the Michigan State Housing Development Authority reviewed the land bank’s bid selection process related to Hardest Hit funds and did not uncover any significant issues. The agency, which distributes the federal funding once invoices are reviewed, did. however, require changes to “further strengthen their selection of contractors.” Detroit’s demolition costs have soared from an average of about $13,600 per house in 2014 to about $16,400 last year—more than 25 percent. According to the city, those rising prices were tied in part to new environmental safeguards: today, the average residential demolition is $12,575 per house, according to estimates listed on the city’s website. Detroit only stopped its federally funded demolition over the last two months. It has continued doing 25-30 city funded demolitions per week, Mayor Duggan notes.

Innovating an Old City. Matt Simoncini, President and CEO of Southfield, Michigan-based supplier Lear Corp., officially opened its Detroit Innovation Center yesterday, calling it an idea to boost technological transformation for the company and a return to the city in which it was founded: to Mr. Simoncini, the near $10 million investment represents a pivotal moment in Lear’s trajectory as a seating supplier turned advanced automotive technologies developer; yet he also perceives it as a foundation to Detroit’s resurgence, noting: “This city is on the cusp of changing the world: Urbanization, mass transit, that’s all going to come out of this town. While other places, like Silicon Valley, have players in a big pond…We are the pond. Detroit is going to have an amazing role in our future. We’re going to be part of that.” The workers there will focus on next-generation automotive battery charging, seating designs and technology integration and non-automotive projects. He adds: “We’re at a pivot point: So much of the work we do sucks everyone in. If I can get those workers out of the mainstream at Lear (in Southfield) and leverage what the city has to offer, we can send big things up the food chain.” Noting he is working with Wayne State University and the College for Creative Studies to develop curriculum and provide opportunities for those universities’ students, he added: “We (the auto industry) haven’t fully utilized what the city, and its universities, have to offer: These universities are in our backyard. I’m surprised more (companies) haven’t rushed down here to access that talent and help drive innovation.” He also is focused on opening a manufacturing plant in the city: he has discussed creating jobs in the Motor City instead of Mexico if he could attain a new wage tier with the United Auto Workers that pays in the mid-teens per hour with some benefits. A specified pay rate and benefits would need to be negotiated and are subject to moving up or down, according to the company: Lear currently pays $35 per hour, which includes the cost of benefits, at its just-in-time seating plants and upward of $25 per hour at its component plants.  Mr. Simocini notes: “This is my hometown. Of course I want to be part of its success.”  

The Edge of the Boardwalk. Chris Filiciello, Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian’s chief of staff this week confirmed that the city did not submit a revised budget to the state, as Mayor Guardian warned in a letter that a tax increase would be “devastating” for Atlantic City, which he said increased taxes by 50 percent over 2013 and 2014. With the debt clock from the state ticking, Atlantic City is now nearly two weeks past its deadline in violation of its $73 million state loan; the next deadline is just over two weeks away—by which time the city must submit a five-year fiscal stability plan. It appears the Mayor believes his five-year budget will save roughly $73 million by 2021, in no small part related to the sale of its municipal airport, Bader Field, and its water authority for $110 million. In addition, the City Council is slated to vote on new labor agreements between the city and its seven worker unions, as well as consider privatizing payroll services. Under Mayor Guardian’s proposed five-year fiscal recovery plan, the city projects $72.9 million in savings from 2017 through 2021 (Atlantic City has annual budget deficits of about $100 million before state aid.). In his statement, Mayor Guardian listed 26 items on which Atlantic City has or intends to cut costs and raise revenues, including 400 fewer full-time workers since 2013, a recent shared-services deal with Atlantic County, bidding out city services, and land sales worth $7.1 million. In addition, Atlantic City has offered early retirement buyouts to 165 senior workers. The plan anticipates saving $7.4 million next year; $12.7 million in 2018; $17 million in 2019; $17.3 million in 2020; and $18.5 million in 2021, according to Mayor Guardian’s statement. The city currently has a fortnight in which to submit its plan to the state—the rejection of which would result in a five-year state takeover. The Mayor described the plan as one which “will include increasing revenue, reducing costs, maximizing redirected funds from casinos, receiving state aid, restructuring of debt payments, early retirement incentives, realizing the value of City owned properties and the MUA, and much more, all while maintaining Atlantic City’s sovereign right to local self-governance.” Nevertheless, how the plan will fare in City Council remains uncertain: the Council has pulled or voted down measures to dissolve the authority five times amid pressure from residents to keep the authority independent. (The Council must approve the sale at two meetings. The sale is also subject to state approval.) In addition, the Council will vote on seven memorandums of understanding with its police, fire, white-collar, blue-collar, electrical, and supervisory employees—with, according to Mayor Guardian, the city renegotiating contracts to include multiple years with no wage increases, restructured pay scales, health care cuts, and reduced overtime and paid-leave costs.

Getting Back to Fiscal Recovery. San Bernardino, the California municipality seeking to become the first U.S. municipality to overhaul its political structure while in chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, and asking its voters next month to approve a new charter that strips the Mayor and city council of day-to-day operational control, has completed all of its required audits for the first time in six years, with the City Council having this week filed its FY2015 final audit, marking the first time since 2010 the city has all of its legally required audits. The FY2016 audit is due by March 31, 2017, a deadline the city will meet, according to Finance Director Brent Mason—albeit the audits were “qualified”—denoting the auditors were unable to find enough evidence the financial statements were accurate in four of 10 areas, leading Councilman Henry Nickel to note: “This is a job well done, but now I think the next step is implementing some corrective actions to get back to where we need to be.” Part of the challenge for the city stems from the 2012 state-mandated dissolution of the city’s redevelopment agency, requiring a significant expansion of the audit, or, as Mr. Mason notes: “They’re not small-ticket issues to get our hands around, but they’re all doable.” One of the qualified opinion concerns was with regard to the liability for compensated absences, such as vacation and sick time, which San Bernardino has proposed adjusting as part of its bankruptcy exit plan—a plan which appears to have the qualified approval of U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury.

Taking Stock in Stockton. Just four years ago, then Mayoral candidate Anthony Silva rode the city’s misery to an easy upset victory over incumbent Mayor Ann Johnston: the city was insolvent, in chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, and besieged by violent crime. Now, as he ends his four-year term and faces re-election, Mayor Silva is himself confronting not just serious personal charges, but also serious crime. Unsurprisingly, he is being challenged by City Councilman Michael Tubbs, who believes the city’s mayor should be an “ambassador” for the city: he vows, if elected, that he will use the “bully pulpit” to showcase Stockton’s assets, like University of the Pacific, the Delta, the city’s proximity to the Bay Area, and its inexpensive real estate. He says Stockton is well-positioned to attract companies looking to expand in California; he also says he will maintain an open line of communication with the media to ensure awareness of the city’s accomplishments. Councilman Tubbs is seeking to become Stockton’s first black mayor and its youngest mayor. Unsurprisingly, the Mayor who was in charge when the city emerged from municipal bankruptcy, Mayor Silva, wants to be the city’s first two-term mayor since Gary Podesto left office at the end of 2004.

As we have noted, however, Mayor Silva’s tenure has, especially this election year, been marked by controversy, most recently a revelation that a gun stolen from him was used in the unsolved killing of a 13-year-old boy—followed almost immediately by allegations that he secretly made an audio recording of a strip poker game involving naked teenagers and provided alcohol to minors—even as he was serving concurrently as Mayor and CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Stockton. But Councilmember Tubbs is confronting his own high-profile controversy: two years ago he was arrested by the California Highway Patrol for driving under the influence; he publicly apologized within days and pleaded no contest to the charges two months later.

A key issue for this post-bankruptcy city’s future could be governance: Mayor Silva has long claimed that Stockton residents would be better served by a governance system that provides more power to the mayor; he has previously advocated working to put a “strong mayor” ballot initiative before voters; he has never followed through, however. Unsurprisingly, Councilmember Tubbs disagrees, stating: “Stockton is incredibly blessed that we don’t have a strong mayor city…If you had a strong mayor city, your police chief would be gone…a lot of your staff would be gone. And the city would be run not with any thought, but be run based on the whims and feelings and ego of one central figure, which is incredibly dangerous.” These are not their only differences which the voters will have to consider: a key difference is Mayor Silva’s statement of nearly a year ago:  “The government of Stockton does not work…If you’re frustrated by why things haven’t changed, every day of my life is the same. Everything I’ve done, I’ve done without their help.” The election promises to be close: last June, Councilman Tubbs prevailed in the eight-candidate primary with 33.4 percent of the vote; Mayor Silva finished second with 26.4 percent.

Federal Oversight Governance in Puerto Rico. The Puerto Rico Oversight Board directed six of the U.S. Territory’s public entities to develop and present fiscal plans: the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority, Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, Government Development Bank for Puerto Rico, Puerto Rico Highways and Transportation Authority, Public Corporation for Supervision and Insurance of Cooperatives (COSSEC), and the University of Puerto Rico, having voted unanimously to tack on additional oversight responsibilities for itself to include some 24 island public entities—all as part of an emerging effort by the federal oversight board to create a ten-year plan. The Board’s Executive Director, Javier Quintana noted: “PREPA is beginning the process of preparing the fiscal plan as required by the Oversight Board: According to PROMESA, the fiscal plan should span at least 5 years. Because the Oversight Board has not yet set a deadline, PREPA does not know when it will be required to be completed.” In addition, the board barred all governmental covered entities from carrying out what it termed “out of the ordinary” financial transactions without prior board approval, including debt transactions or municipal bond sales. Board Chairman José Carrión, in the wake of Gov. Alejandro García Padilla’s presentation of Puerto Rico’s fiscal plan to the PROMESA board, the board would “confer with him about the central government and instrumentality plans…Then the board will seek public comment and consult with the government about the schedule for bringing their plans to eventual approval and certification,” in the wake of which the board will give the Governor a schedule for the process of submission, approval, and certification of the fiscal plans. The Puerto Rico Oversight Board also directed the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority, Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, Government Development Bank for Puerto Rico, Puerto Rico Highways and Transportation Authority, Public Corporation for Supervision and Insurance of Cooperatives (COSSEC)—six of Puerto Rico’s twenty-four public entities, and the University of Puerto Rico to put together plans—albeit without any explanation of why that specific six. Under the newly signed Congressional PROMESA law, the fiscal plan should span at least 5 years. Finally, the board ordered all of its covered entities to not carry out what it termed “out of the ordinary” financial transactions without prior board approval, including debt transactions or bond sales.

Getting into–and out of Municipal Bankruptcy.


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eBlog, 10/18/16

Good Afternoon! In this p.m.’s eBlog, we consider the nearing end of the longest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history in San Bernardino; we peer south to the great challenge in Puerto Rico; the seeming inability of East Cleveland to pull itself out of insolvency; the threatened fiscal future of Petersburg, Virginia; and, finally, and finally, we ask if time is running out for Atlantic City.

Momentous Day. U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury Friday noted: “This is a momentous day,” as she ruled that San Bernardino had met most of its chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy requirements already and added that she does “not think the city should worry” that she will not confirm the rest at a later hearing. The day marked the end of nearly four years for a confirmation hearing to confirm settlements with thousands of the municipality’s creditors—and moves ever closer next March’s expected final exit from bankruptcy.  Friday’s hearing marked the first in a series that the city’s leaders anticipate will culminate in the completion of the nation’s longest ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. The city’s plan of debt adjustment, which includes paying certain creditors only one cent for every dollar which they are owed, was for the most part tentatively confirmed Friday; Judge Jury reserved judgment on two substantial issues, which are related:

  • a major dispute between the city and the Big Independent Cities Excess Pool, which provides liability coverage for the city, and
  • potential lawsuits involving individual employees such as police accused of excessive force.

Those issues will be addressed beginning Nov. 15. Noting that: “I can now say that today is a promise and hope for a better future for the city,” Judge Jury praised the city for its progress and said she was convinced by the city’s financial models and declarations to show it could not afford to pay more than 1 percent of its debts to unsecured creditors, opening the way for her to swiftly rule the plan of debt adjustment was feasible — a decision made easier by the absence of arguments objecting to it.

San Bernardino City Attorney Paul Glassman took a moment at the beginning of the hearing to mark the milestone of the first confirmation hearing, telling the court: “The very first hearing in this case back in August of 2012, I told the court that the day that the city entered Chapter 9 (bankruptcy) was a solemn day, but since that day the city has come a long way down a difficult path and has made great strides forward, thanks to the efforts of a number of people, many of whom are in the courtroom today…Surprisingly, your honor, the aspect of a bankruptcy case that’s most often disputed is not disputed in this case,” Glassman said, regarding the plan’s feasibility.

Unsurprisingly, however, the 1 percent payout sat less well with attorney Duane Folke, who appeared in court Friday for the first time on behalf of Paul Triplett, for whom a judgment from another court which had found Mr. Triplett was entitled to $7.7 million after San Bernardino police in 2006 broke Triplett’s jaw, arm, ribs, leg, ankle and foot, leaving him comatose for three days, according to Mr. Folke. Under the city’s plan, because Mr. Triplett is an unsecured creditor, he would receive only $77,000—or one percent of what he was owed under the judgment against the city, leading to the sole objection, with the attorney telling Judge Jury:

“My client, unfortunately, given the fact that he’s facing blindness, cannot accept the settlement as it stands.” In response, Judge Jury said she sympathized, but could come upon no legal reason to argue he did not belong in the unsecured class of creditors, which overwhelmingly voted in favor of the plan—leaving only the option of showing that experts the city hired were wrong when they argued, with extensive documentation, that the city could not afford to pay more than 1 percent to its unsecured creditors: “Here’s what stands between you and your ability to be persuasive to the court: You would need to employ a cadre of experts similar to those the city has employed, probably on the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars, to refute the evidence that they have presented.”

Other civil rights creditors, with different attorneys, have reached settlements for more than 1 percent, albeit far less than 100 percent of the amount they would be owed.

San Bernardino filed for bankruptcy protection Aug. 1, 2012, swamped by a deficit of more than $45 million — equivalent to 40 percent of the $112 million in revenues the city expects this year — and fearing it wouldn’t be able to make payroll unless a bankruptcy judge stopped creditors from collecting their debts. The chapter 9 filing, however, has been expensive: From 2012 until May 2016, the city spent $18.8 million on bankruptcy-related expenses—attorneys and consultants—according to one of those consultants, Teri Cable of Management Partners.

Puerto Rico. Gov. Alejandro García Padilla has warned that any efforts to avoid insolvency in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico will come at a steep price: addressing the first session of the PROMESA oversight board, Gov. Padilla said that even if Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million residents continued to reduce spending—and even if the island’s creditors were to agree to less than full restitution of the nearly three quarters of $100 billion they are owed, the island would  still “need the assistance of the federal government to bring this economic and humanitarian crisis to an end,” as he urged the board’s seven members to join him “in one voice before Congress” to seek help. The first session focused on the Governor’s fiscal plans—it expects next to turn to whether that plan will serve—or needs to be changed, with the oversight board trying to first understand the territory’s debt structure. At the session, Puerto Rico Treasury Secretary Juan Zaragoza provided a detailed description of revenues coming into the Puerto Rico Treasury—as well as what steps the government has been taking to more efficiently collect revenues; he testified there were about $1 billion worth of unpaid bills outstanding, and that the government had written about $350 million in checks but had not yet sent them. Board member Carlos M. García, former president of Puerto Rico’s Government Development Bank and founder and chief executive officer of BayBoston Managers LLC, a minority-owned private equity firm, questioned Gov. Padilla’s fundamental premise that Puerto Rico’s government lacked sufficient fiscal resources to govern, noting: “You’re currently at high tax collections, and you’re currently not paying debt service…Why does the government not have enough money to pay vendors or provide essential services?” In response, Gov. Padilla said that his fiscal plan called for Puerto Rico to

  • improve its financial reporting,
  • to merge branches of government to end duplication,
  • to ease certain regulations, and
  • to court investors, especially those interested in financing infrastructure and energy projects.

Gov. Padilla also told the Board that current efforts to collect more tax revenue and reduce government spending would continue; however, he pled with the board not to “double down on austerity: You will soon realize that any reduction in spending implies intolerable effects in aggregate demand, and will further throw Puerto Rico into a death spiral that will directly affect creditors’ recoveries across the board.” Absent federal assistance, the Governor warned, Puerto Rico could end up with a total accumulated debt of $59 billion over the next 10 years. In contrast, enhanced Medicaid and Medicare, as well federal tax changes to address discrimination against the territory compared to other Caribbean countries could help Puerto Rico become more competitive as an offshore manufacturing site for United States companies.

Seemingly unfocused upon, was the mismatch of fiscal capacity versus desperate human need: Puerto Rico, just 762 miles from Cuba, which has a population 3.5 times the population of Puerto Rico, currently has only 14 Zika cases—Puerto Rico has in excess of 25,955 confirmed Zika cases. It has 3.7 times the rate of unemployment; nearly six fold a murder rate, and nearly a 65 percent higher infant mortality rate—compared to Cuba’s 14 percent.  

Do You Recall or Remember at All? East Cleveland’s Mayor Gary Norton and City Council President Tom Wheeler will be on next month’s ballot, but to be recalled—not re-elected. The Cuyahoga County Board of Elections and East Cleveland City Council Clerk’s office on Friday certified more than 600 petition signatures to force a recall vote—a vote likely to be scheduled for December 6th—but which, for the virtually insolvent city, is projected to cost between $25,000 and $30,000; moreover, the election will come just 10 months before the next mayoral primary election and while the city is locked in merger negotiations with the city of Cleveland. The residents needed about 560 valid signatures to force a special recall election. The clerk sent Mayor Norton a letter late last Thursday informing him of the election: under the East Cleveland charter, if Mayor Norton does not resign by Wednesday, he will face a recall election within 60-90 days. Unsurprisingly, the Mayor does not plan to resign. In a phone interview Saturday he characterized the election as a waste of funds the nearly insolvent municipality can ill afford:  “East Cleveland will select its next mayor 10 months after this needless recall election…This is a horrible expenditure of funds given the city’s current financial provision, and beyond that, switching a single mayor or single councilman will have no impact on the city’s financial situation and the city’s economy.” Mayor Norton said the money the election will cost will have to be cut from other city services, pointing to possible cuts in police and fire: “There’s little to nothing left to cut in the city.” The election—if held—would be the third attempt at a recall. Indeed, an amendment to East Cleveland’s charter meant to limit the ease with which residents can trigger a recall is currently being reviewed by the board of elections: it has yet to be finalized and signed off on for the November ballot. Mayor Norton refused to say whether he was going to run for re-election next year, and declined to answer why voters should vote to keep him as mayor in December.

Not the Odor of Verbena. The appointment of a receiver to take charge of Petersburg’s utility funds could result in the city being declared in default on more than $12 million in bonds and other obligations. Petersburg has hired a law firm (Sands Anderson) to help it fight an order issued last week by Petersburg Circuit Court Judge Joseph M. Teefey Jr. appointing a special receiver to make sure residents’ wastewater payments are not used for other purposes: the Judge’s order was issued in response to a lawsuit filed by the South Central Wastewater Authority in which the regional sewage treatment agency alleged that Petersburg was more than $1 million behind on its payments for wastewater treatment. Last Friday, the city’s law firm requested a stay or vacate of the order, asserting “The ordering of receivership itself, without an immediate vacation, stay or discharge, automatically causes an event of default in a multitude of significant city bonds and other obligations,” including: $7.4 million in Water and Sewer Revenue Bonds issued through the Virginia Resource Authority (VRA); $3 million in Stormwater System Revenue Bonds; and $1.275 million in Recovery Zone Economic Development Bonds issued in a “pool” through the Stafford County Industrial Development Authority and the city of Staunton. (Petersburg’s contracts for all of those bonds include clauses which specify that the appointment of a receiver is automatically an “Event of Default,” according to the motion. The details of the city’s agreement with VRA make the appointment of a receiver especially problematic, according to the motion: “The city pledged all of its revenues from the city’s utility system to VRA as bondholder, providing a preferential lien to VRA on all such revenues…VRA has an existing lien on such revenues (and counsel to SCWWA acted as bond counsel to the city and VRA in such financing).” Under the agreement, according to the motion, “Payments that the city receives for the use of the wastewater and/or sewer utilities are used to make bond payments to VRA.” In addition, the city’s motion claims: “Because SCWWA does not possess a lien on the revenues and, at law, is a general unsecured creditor of the city, there is no legal justification for SCWWA to receive the preferential treatment that the receiver order provides to it.” In addition, the municipality’s motion asserts: “If the receivership is not vacated and the multitude of bond defaults described herein are triggered, it is expected that any short-term or long-term debt restructuring to facilitate…cash-flow relief for the city to meet its past-due and ongoing payment obligations will be extremely difficult to obtain.” In the filing, the city asserts that a receiver is not necessary, because Petersburg is not disputing the fact that it is behind on its payments to the wastewater authority: “The delayed payments are not the result of a dispute between the parties; the issue is simply one of the city needing to obtain the funding necessary to pay its debts, both to SCWWA and to other creditors. The city’s cash-flow problems are well known [to] the court, SCWWA and the public at large.”

For his part, Judge Teefey responded to the motion the day it was filed by declining to stay or vacate his previous order—instead setting a date for a hearing on the city’s motion: in his new order, Judge Teefey noted that his appointment of a receiver was issued as an emergency order, which meant that the appointment would automatically expire after 30 days unless SCWWA requested an extension, writing; “This court has not received plaintiff’s request to extend the special receiver appointment, but the court finds no harm to either party to place the defendant’s motion on the docket for a hearing,” as he set a hearing date for the last day of this month.

In an earlier order, Judge Teefey named a Richmond attorney as the receiver, at the request of the wastewater authority. , which had filed a lawsuit on Sept. 21st seeking such an appointment. South Central is a regional agency of which the cities of Colonial Heights and Petersburg and the counties of Chesterfield, Dinwiddie, and Prince George are members. It provides wastewater treatment for all five localities at its facility on Pocahontas Island in Petersburg: the authority’s lawsuit claimed that Petersburg officials were using residents’ utility payments to cover the city’s other costs instead of using them to reimburse the authority for its services. As the largest user of the authority’s services, the city also provides the largest share of its funds. The authority said Petersburg “has failed to pay for any wastewater services provided after May of 2016.” According to court documents, the authority claims the city was already falling behind on its payments as long ago as 2011. Not mentioned in the city’s court filing: A bond default would almost certainly result in another downgrade in Petersburg’s bond rating. Credit-rating agency Standard & Poor’s already cut its rating on the city’s debt by three notches in August, to BB from BBB, with a “negative outlook.” Petersburg’s previous BBB rating is the lowest rating considered “investment grade” by bond buyers, according to the American Association of Individual Investors. The new BB rating is “low grade” and “somewhat speculative,” according to the association. Anything lower would generally be considered “junk” status.

Tax Attacks? Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian has warned New Jersey that a municipal tax hike would be “devastating,” writing in response to New Jersey Local Government Services Director Tim Cunningham, who had imposed a deadline of today for the city to submit a new budget—critical in his demand that the current proposed budget does not seek tax increases—and asks for too much state aid. In his response, the mayor wrote that city taxpayers had already been faced with a 50 percent tax increase over a two-year period, increases that “taxpayers should have had a decade to absorb…A tax-rate increase would have a devastating effect on the remaining residents and businesses of the city,” adding: “More importantly, it is not necessary.” Atlantic City introduced a $242 million budget in August—a budget down nearly 10 percent from FY2015, but one which assumed $106 million in state aid. The proposed budget counted on a $117 million tax levy, itself below last year’s $132 million—even though the municipal tax rate was constant, the city’s ratable base has continued to decline steeply from $20 billion in 2008 to about $6.6 billion today. (Atlantic City’s FY2016 estimated tax rate is $3.71 per $100 of assessed value, including municipal, county and school taxes.) For his part, Director Cunningham also criticized Atlantic City for requesting $37 million in state Transitional Aid, a figure which he called “far more than the Division has available to provide to the city or ever indicated that the city should expect to receive.” Director Cunningham noted he had responded to the city’s introduced budget in late August “outlining fundamental concerns,” but that, however, he had yet to receive a response. In addition to submitting an FY2016 budget, Atlantic City has until the first week of next month to draft a five-year fiscal-recovery plan if it is to avoid a state takeover.

Threatened Municipal Insolvencies


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eBlog, 10/14/16

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the threatened insolvency of the small municipality of Wayne, Michigan; then we puff our way West to consider the puffy revenue options confronting San Bernardino voters next month with regard to legalizing marijuana—as the city nears exit from the longest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history; then we offer an editorial from the Stockton News with regard to next month’s election in post-municipally bankrupt Stockton, before zooming to the small, virtually insolvent municipality of Petersburg, Virginia as it considers spending its way out of insolvency, before—finally—heading northeast to Atlantic City, where Mayor Don Guardian is seeking to stave off municipal bankruptcy through the sale of some nearly 500 abandoned buildings. Wow.

Where Is Batman? Moody’s has lowered the credit rating of Wayne, Michigan, a city of just under 18,000 just west of Detroit in Wayne County, where the median age in the city is under 40, into junk territory: the small city is on the brink of insolvency with the State of Michigan opting not to help.  Moody’s, in its downgrade, noted: “The downgrade of the city’s issuer rating reflects a very stressed financial position given an ongoing structural imbalance with few options to make timely expenditure cuts or revenue enhancements.” The fiscal challenge comes in the wake of the voters’ rejection last August to approve joining the South Macomb Oakland Regional Services Authority, a scheme hatched by Hazel Park and Eastpointe to allow the two communities to circumvent state constitutional limits on property taxes: indeed, had the measure passed, it would have enabled Wayne to more than double its local property taxes. While Michigan state law strictly caps the amount of taxes a single community may levy, it allows two or more communities to create authorities for providing police and fire services, and levy a separate tax. For instance, neighboring Eastpointe and Hazel Park add an extra 14 mills. The rejected tax levy would have imposed an estimated $354 per household on the winter tax bill alone—but might too have raised sufficient revenue to stave off a chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy filing if it had passed. The municipality has been hard hit by falling property values and rising legacy costs; it has been doing cost-cutting, but will have to deal with how much of its budget goes to support benefits for current workers, and especially, retirees. Some have suggested the municipality should consider consolidation with a neighboring community, especially as the city has limited flexibility to raise revenues elsewhere. In early August, it requested a state financial review, but last week the state said the city retains options to address its structural gap such as making further reductions to retiree healthcare coverage and so direct state oversight is not warranted. For its part, Moody’s wrote that, based on the state review, it concluded that the city has sufficient liquidity to cover operations this year, but will fall short next year without operating adjustments. At the beginning of the week, the city council met to discuss selling the city’s recreation center and retiring approximately $2.8 million of bonds sold through the local building authority which are tied to the center. City leaders are also mulling over a fourth attempt at getting voters to pass a levy increase to fix its structural imbalance as well as additional reductions to retiree healthcare benefits: Wayne began charging retirees 30% of their healthcare premiums last month; however, savings from the change have fallen short of the requisite amount needed to offset the current operating gap. The small city’s request for the state financial review followed voters’ rejection in August of the city’s proposal to join a suburban authority and levy a tax to fund fire and rescue services; voters similarly rejected the proposal to join the South Macomb Oakland Regional Services Authority, which was created by the nearby cities of Eastpointe and Hazel Park last year—as well as a millage proposal that would have raised approximately $5 million to help the city’s strained liquidity. The additional revenue would have enabled the city to stabilize its general fund balance to $2.9 million, according to Moody’s. On the cost side, where expenditures have exceeded revenue by roughly $2 million over the past few years, Wayne balanced its books for the current fiscal year by draining other funds, including its internal service fund and a retiree healthcare trust. City budget officials report closing FY2016 with near depletion of the city’s OPEB trust and a $400,000 draw on general operating reserves. The city expects to draw another $1.6 million of general fund balance in fiscal 2017 and estimates likely depletion of fund balance by December 2017.

Puffing Up Revenues? As San Bernardino nears its exit from the longest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history early next year, the city’s voters are huffing and puffing over a proposed revenue proposal at the ballot next month: Measure N allowing marijuana in the city is projected to raise more than $18 million in net revenue to the city, several times more than either of the competing marijuana measures, according to a study released by the campaign for Measure N: that study, prepared by Whitney Economics on behalf of the committee for Measure O, concluded Measure O would bring between $19.5 and $24.8 million in revenue. In contrast, New ERA calculates Measure N would bring in $18.2 million, Measure O would bring in $2.4 million, and Measure P would bring in $4.8 million, after the costs related to each measure are accounted for. The huffing and puffing and fiscal visions related to possible estimated revenues which might be generated from sales tax, permit fees, and other assessments stipulated in each initiative, as well as job creation potential from retail, manufacturing, and cultivation allowed by each initiative. Indeed, the confusing array of psychedelic revenue options for voters in a city where marijuana is technically prohibited—but where there are currently 22 dispensaries, is certain to toke voters as they enter the polls to opt between three different measures on November’s ballot—each of which would replace the current ban with a different approach to regulation: if more than one of them gets higher (a pun) than 50 percent of the vote, whichever measure has more “yes” votes will become law in the city. The three options for voters:

  • Measure N, submitted by San Bernardino citizen Katharine Redmon, would establish a 5 percent tax on gross receipts and allow at least 20 medical marijuana dispensaries, if at least 20 apply.
  • Measure O, submitted by citizen Vincent Guzman, would establish an application fee of $250 and annual fees of $5 per square foot of canopy for cultivation, $5 per square foot occupied by the business for manufacturing/test, $100 per vehicle used in transportation, $5 per square foot of dispensary and $1 per square foot of canopy for nurseries.
  • Measure P, prepared by the city attorney’s office, was intended by the City Council as a way to maintain more control over marijuana businesses if residents are inclined to allow them. Because of that, state law would allow fees equal to the cost of enforcement.

Gross receipts for dispensaries are based on the maximum dispensaries allowed under the restrictions of each measure—20 under Measure N, 5 under Measure O, and 10 under Measure P, with the demand at each dispensary estimated based on Palm Springs. That would then be combined with the gross receipts tax, with some $2.3 million expected for Measure N, zero for Measures O and P, and sales tax revenue of $930,027, $744,022 and $837,025, respectively. There are similar calculations for cultivation, manufacturing, and distribution. For instance, proposed Measure P allows the most cultivation, with expected output totaling more than 500,000 pounds of product and employing 840 people, according to one study: Measure N compares at 155,000 pounds and 380 employees, while Measure O would be close to 116,000 pounds and 285 employees in cultivation, according to the study. In contrast, Beau Whitney of Whitney Economics in Portland provided the City with a four-page study which criticizes Measure N for exempting cooperatives and nonprofits, which is how existing illegal dispensaries in the city are organized; ergo, he notes, Measure P offers limited revenue potential: “Other proposals put forth by comparison, either have limited amounts of revenue generation or provide protectionist policies and carve outs for special groups.” Both authors also anticipate significant positive indirect economic impact, dismissing critics’ concerns that dispensaries would hurt property values and other aspects of the economy. Marijuana opponent Darren Espiritu, of the San Bernardino Chair of Citizens Against Legalizing Marijuana, said revenue forecasts in Colorado fell short of industry promises—advising that Colorado state officials now expect about $150 million per year in marijuana tax revenue, out of the state’s $10 billion general fund. He adds: “No amount of revenue can replace a child’s life…Marijuana is ending up in the hands of children at an increasingly younger age. Marijuana use has dramatic negative impacts on the growing brain up to the age of 25.”

Hard Choices for a City’s Fiscal Future. Michael Fitzgerald, a columnist for the Stockton Record, yesterday wrote:  “Stockton voters have one major piece of unfinished business left over from the (chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy), one last gotta-do so the city can move forward: ousting Mayor Anthony Silva…Silva is a loose end of the bankruptcy in the sense that he came in through the side door of that extreme and unprecedented event. Were it not for the electorate’s outraged determination to punish incumbents, he never would have been elected. Which is not to say disadvantaged voters who felt ignored by City Hall were not justified in voting for someone who listened. But it has long been clear Silva is an epic mistake…The only two substantial policies Silva championed, the fiscally suicidal Safe Streets crime-fighting plan and a reduction in building fees, were handed to him by developers…Politically, he botched his first six months so badly, denouncing fellow council members, exhorting his supporters to harangue them, he ensured he’d never command a council majority. He marginalized himself:

But then it appears Silva did not understand the office for which he ran. He has been publicly shocked and perturbed by the statutory limitations placed on the mayor’s power.

Ethical lapses followed. Silva promised if elected not to work two jobs. But he did. He promised not to take a mayor’s salary until crime tumbled. But he did. There were more.

What did not follow was policy. It became clear that “The People’s Mayor” had no real ideas for governing and no real interest in the hard work that goes into civic improvements.

When I asked him what his position on growth was — on sprawl vs. infill — he looked at me as if I had spoken to him in Mandarin.

His treatment of the homeless issue is typical. First he did publicity stunts, sleeping in a box overnight as TV cameras rolled. Next, he used a homeless man as a prop at his State of the City address, then left the poor man to become homeless again.

Finally he proposed the city purchase a hotel. His proposal included no realistic idea of cost, funding or affordability. He ignored entirely how the hotel should link to county/private services to transition homeless people into permanent housing

To top it off, he proposed “any person who refuses our services and simply just wishes to live where they want … will (be) escorted to the city line.” Which is illegal. The proposal was DOA.

Then there was Silva’s farfetched “Stockton Proud” agenda. This plan calls for terraforming beaches onto the waterfront, building a space needle “100% funded by private money,” attracting cruise ships, and other ideas so unrealistic it could have been dreamed up by Michael Jackson for Neverland Ranch.

Administratively, Silva is no better. He leaked the name of a city manager hire, sabotaging the process, leading to the hire of next-in-line Kurt Wilson; yet he complains about Wilson, oblivious that his bungling put Wilson in the job.

But it is as a distraction from the serious business of governance where Silva has been a Hall-of-Famer. I doubt anyone will ever surpass him.

It’s not only the things he intended to do, such as his Chicken Little act over adding chloramines to the water (after he voted to do it!); he brought in Erin Brockovich and her alarmist sidekick who frightened the public with wildly irresponsible warnings of brain-eating amoeba.

It’s also his inadvertent, soap-opera string of goofs, scandals, brushes with the law and strange, almost creepy-clown behavior.

I am not going to rehash those. It is tragic, though, that while Sacramento made bold progress under (badly flawed) Mayor Kevin Johnson, and Fresno gained national recognition for its progress under Mayor Ashley Swearingen, Stockton stuck itself with Silva.

Worse, Silva is refusing to cooperate with investigators trying to understand how his stolen gun came to be used to kill a 13-year-old. And he has been indicted on felony and misdemeanor charges related to his alleged participation in an alcohol-fueled strip poker game with teens.

He deserves his day in court.

Hating City Hall is part of Stockton’s civic culture. But if it must be done, it must be done wisely. Hate incompetence. Hate failure to adequately serve the city’s disadvantaged. Above all, hate the charlatans, because they hold the city back.

Spending When a City Has No Money to Spend. The Petersburg City Council has voted 5-1 to spend more than a quarter-million dollars, as the municipality teeters on insolvency, to enter into emergency negotiations with the Robert C. Bobb Group, claiming the purpose was intended “to preserve the interests of the City to maintain the proper functioning of the government,” with the vote coming in the wake of two closed-door sessions. Mr. Bobb is a former Richmond city manager who also served briefly as an emergency financial manager for the Detroit Public Schools—where, under his watch, DPS’s deficit tripled—in no small part because of a series of arrangements with armies of “consultants,” as he sought, under Michigan’s emergency manager law,  to address DPS’s $327 million budget shortfall by closing nearly half of Detroit’s schools and increasing class sizes in the remaining ones to as high as sixty—even as he submitted an AMEX bill with more than $1 million in travel charges, but proposed closing half the district’s schools and increasing class sizes up to 60 children in a classroom and cutting all general bus service—and proposed putting DPS into chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. Nevertheless, Petersburg Mayor W. Howard Myers noted: “We felt that this is an emergency situation, because of the situation the city is in,” even as he declined to state how much the contract would cost the insolvent municipality—already confronted with the effects of a $12 million shortfall in the current fiscal year’s budget even as it is desperately trying to pay down nearly $19 million in debts identified at the close of the previous fiscal year. For his part, Mr. Bobb said: “Our goal is not to be the permanent solution, but to help stabilize them and help recruit permanent leadership.” It remains unclear what the decision might mean with regard to the municipality’s request for state assistance. Virginia Sen. Rosalyn R. Dance (D-Petersburg) voiced concern about the cost and timing of the proposal, noting: “We just committed to spend some money, and I don’t know how much money we’ve committed to spend…If we have extra money to spend, it should be going to the schools.” There was no public comment period; the Council first took 90 minutes to discuss personnel measures related to the performance of the interim city manager. Afterward, the members broke for discussion of procurement and pending litigation.

Mayor Myers said the city faces several possible lawsuits but declined to elaborate. He said money to fund the Bobb Group’s work will come from savings the city has incurred from not filling open positions. For his part, Mr. Bobb declined to comment on his firm’s fees, citing ongoing negotiations; however, he noted he planned to take an active role in assisting the city, although the day-to-day work will be conducted mostly by other staff members of the Washington, D.C.-based business. Indeed, at the request of Petersburg Commonwealth’s Attorney Cassandra S. Conover, Petersburg Circuit Court Judge Joseph M. Teefey has signed an order directing Chesterfield County Commonwealth’s Attorney William W. Davenport to expand his ongoing probe of the Petersburg Bureau of Police—and, widening the scope, to include “any and all” issues involving the City of Petersburg’s finances: the investigation now will include “allegations regarding financial improprieties of the City of Petersburg which warrant investigating and/or any prosecutions resulting from any charges placed pursuant to said investigation.” Counselor Davenport was appointed last December after the Commonwealth Attorney requested a special prosecutor to look into a case of money alleged to have disappeared from the police evidence room. (The Virginia State Police and the FBI have been assisting with that probe.) Ms. Conover reports she met with representatives of several state and federal agencies last week, including the Virginia State Police, to discuss the status of that investigation as well as questions related to Petersburg’s finances, noting that, as a result of that meeting, she had submitted an order calling for an expansion of the investigation “to include all financial matters/improprieties of the City of Petersburg.” Meanwhile, a team of auditors and other financial experts led by state Secretary of Finance Ric Brown subsequently reported that Petersburg’s system of accounting for revenue and spending had numerous shortcomings, including more than 30 “exit points” for city funds – individuals or departments who or which were allowed to write checks without specific authorization: as a result of the system’s flaws, the state team said, city officials literally did not know exactly how much annual revenue the city had received or how much it had spent until after the end of the fiscal year, when an outside consultant “reconciled” the various departments’ income and spending ledgers.

Tempus Fugit. Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian yesterday the city would use tax liens, emergency condemnation, or eminent domain proceedings to take control of nearly 500 abandoned buildings and sell them to developers who would either repair or raze them, demarking the city’s latest effort to raise revenues to avert a state takeover. According to Mayor Guardian, in addition to being a fiscal boost, the move could address a longstanding gripe among visitors about the seaside gambling resort: “It has frustrated the community for decades that it seemed almost impossible to do anything about these abandoned properties.” The proposal appears to stem from the Mayor’s efforts this year to successfully enlist six neighborhood associations to walk their communities and come up with a list of properties which appeared to be abandoned—an outreach that has resulted in identifying some 598 properties—albeit, since then, the owners of more than 100 of them have begun repair work on their structures after the city threatened to take possession of them, according to Mayor Guardian. (Atlantic City differentiates between buildings in good shape which are simply currently vacant versus properties in unsafe or uninhabitable condition, many of which have not generated taxes in months or years.) Mayor Guardian said he does not have a target figure in mind in terms of how much revenue the city might bring in by selling abandoned properties, yet notes that every little bit helps as it tries to cobble together a financial plan to stave off a threatened state takeover of its assets and major decision-making powers by next month.

Balancing Fiscal & Physical Futures in Municipal Bankruptcy


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eBlog, 10/04/16

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider yesterday’s decision by the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in favor of the City of Detroit in a challenge to the reductions the city made as part of its plan of debt adjustment affecting retirees’ benefits; then we look east where time is fast running out on some resolution to Atlantic City’s fiscal disharmony, before journeying just north of Atlantic City to New York City, where the first PROMESA oversight board meeting occurred to begin to seek to unravel Puerto Rico’s insolvency has commenced. Finally, we head back west to observe how the fiscal insolvency of East Cleveland is now putting human lives at increasing risk.

Preserving a Future. The U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled in favor of Detroit in a lawsuit brought by city retirees whose pensions were reduced as part of Detroit’s plan of debt adjustment to emerge from the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history two years ago (In its approved plan of debt adjustment, Detroit had proposed reducing payments to its retirees by $7.8 billion, as well as $4.3 billion in retirement health care benefits.) The 4.5 percent reduction led some retirees to sue, claiming three years ago they deserved the pension they had been promised before the city filed for bankruptcy in 2013. In Judge Alice Batchelder’s 2-1 decision yesterday, however, she noted it was “not a close call,” with the majority finding that altering the pension cuts would be a “drastic action” which “would unavoidably unravel the entire plan, likely force the city back into emergency oversight and require a wholesale recreation of the vast and complex web of negotiated settlements and agreements.” In her dissent, Judge Karen Nelson Moore wrote that the city’s retirees deserved their day in court, writing that they have been left “with the impression that their rights do not matter,” adding that Judge Batchelder and Judge David McKeague were citing a “questionable” legal standard to dismiss the case—and noting: “It has real-world consequences for the litigants before us — retirees who spent their lives serving the people of Detroit through boom and bust, and who feel that the city’s bankruptcy was resolved through a game of musical chairs in which they were left without a seat.” The court’s decision to reject the pensioners’ claims came after the state-mandated Financial Review Commission last month reported the city was in compliance with the Commission’s annual requirements to meet financial milestones. Indeed, if a January audit confirms it, then the Motor City would have just one more fiscal year to demonstrate good budget practices, and the state would consider lifting the demands that an outside board approve Detroit’s fiscal spending. Indeed, it seems the court’s decision could mark one of final remaining legal fights from the landmark case, which had multiple appeals pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals over the last year and a half.

Tempus Fugit. Time is running out for Atlantic City, with Moody’s reporting the city is in danger of missing its November debt service payment after it violated a term of a state bridge loan. Indeed, New Jersey’s Local Finance Board informed the city on September 22nd that it has until the end of Monday to cure the breach of a $73 million bridge loan agreement term that required dissolving the Atlantic City Municipal Utilities Authority by September 15th Moody’s had noted, writing that the technical default is a credit negative because it “indicates a disconnect between the city council, mayor, and state.” Instead, city officials had, as we reported, last week announced their own plan that would have the utility buy its closed Bader airfield from the city for about $100 million and asked state officials to wave the terms of the loan—a proposal which led Moody’s last week to term the city’s “impending technical default” as a credit negative, indicating “a disconnection between the city, mayor, and state.” The dysfunctional political gridlock now puts Atlantic City’s next municipal bond payment at risk, some $9.4 million due Nov. 4th, or, as Moody’s Doug Goldmacher put it: “Even if the city were to have market access, borrowing $100 million would increase debt by a factor of seven, raising the question of how the authority would pay for this debt — assuming the plan went through, which is far from certain.” Having already missed its state deadline to adopt a resolution to dissolve the Municipal Utilities Authority, the city could now be confronted by a state demand for immediate repayment of the $62 million already advanced. All of these accelerating demands come one month before Atlantic City is scheduled to submit a satisfactory five-year fiscal stability plan to the state, or risk state takeover. New Jersey could sell its assets and void or change labor contracts through expansive powers awarded by the legislation and signed by Governor Chris Christie when the state provided the loan.

For Mayor Don Guardian, who faces reelection in December, the runway ahead is perilous: first, the effort to capitalize the city’s airfield, the municipal utility authority (MUA), in order to borrow money, must appear before the Local Finance Board for “findings”—that is, the board can make “positive” or “negative” findings. (It seems there may have been maybe five cases of negative findings over the last two decades.) While negative findings would not bar Atlantic City from borrowing, such findings would likely impose higher borrowing costs. Of greater challenge, however, are a series of hurdles, including: 1) The city would need to file an application with the Local Finance Board, which would then need to schedule a hearing within 31 days of an application being filed, after which the LFB has 10 days to issue findings. (NJSA 40A:5A-6 and 7)—that is a schedule inconsistent with the timing to repay debts and submit a plan. It seems the city would have to prove that the proposed purchase of Bader Field meets complies with the statutory authority that an MUA has—a legal challenge which experts believe would be difficult to scale—and which would, in any case, likely trigger litigation—as well as consume the increasingly decreasing time frame for some resolution, e.g.: how to conclude these items in time to fulfill the municipality’s cash flow loan obligations to avoid another violation of the state loan agreement.

All of these pressures come, moreover, amidst the profound silence from the state: that is, while the state has set deadlines, it appears it has opted not to take a constructive role: it has, as one expert advised, been silent on the “state on all things Atlantic City.” That is, the state appears to have offered no opinion with regard to the failure to move forward on dissolving the MUA—an increasingly critical issue, especially were Atlantic City to end up in court defending the state’s action to move on the collateral the city “pledged” through the loan agreement. Under either path, moreover, there would be costly litigation and delay instead of a constructive path towards resolution.

To Takeover or Not to Takeover. In some sense, it would seem the state intent from the beginning has been aimed at a takeover of Atlantic City; however, such a takeover would not only be costly for the state, but also would raise substantial grounds for challenging its constitutionality: Article 4, Section 7 of the New Jersey Constitution provides:

  1. The Legislature shall not pass any private, special or local laws:

             (12) Appointing local officers or commissions to regulate municipal affairs.

            (13) Regulating the internal affairs of municipalities formed for local government and counties, except as otherwise in this Constitution provided.

Moreover, the New Jersey Constitution only allows special laws upon petition of the municipality.

La Vaina. The Puerto Rico Oversight Board created under the PROMESA legislation convened its first session—not in Puerto Rico—but in New York City, amid further fiscal deterioration in the U.S. territory, yet without any seeming intent to act swiftly: the Board’s first action was to look for a head hunter who would be hired to scout for an executive director for the Board—a remarkable contrast to Detroit, for instance, where Kevyn Orr, almost immediately upon his selection by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, acted within 24 hours to ensure the operation of vital or essential public services—and the halt of non-essential services. In New York, the Board named José Carrión III chairman and ordered Puerto Rico’s government to provide a fiscal plan in October—and adjourned. For his part, Mr. Carrión, an official in the administration of former Puerto Rico Governor Luis Fortuño, stated: “We will strive to work in a collegial matter for the benefit of the people of Puerto Rico.” Board member David Skeel introduced the bylaws, which Mr. Skeel said were intended to be consistent with the Puerto Rico Oversight Management and Economic Stability Act. The board also worked to clarify the rules on voting. Ordinarily, measures will have to be passed with four votes even if not all the seven board members are present. The board voted to direct Puerto Rico’s government to provide about eight types of fiscal and financial information to the board on a regular basis—and for the Governor or his representative to provide a fiscal plan to the board by a week from Friday—a five-year plan which, under the new federal law is to address fiscal responsibility, access to capital markets, fund essential public services, funding for pensions, and a sustainable debt burden. Even though the initial meeting was in New York City, Chairman Carrión said a main office for the board will be in San Juan, where the Board is scheduled to meet in mid-November. For his part, Puerto Rico Gov. Alejandro García Padilla said that notwithstanding his opposition to the “excessive powers [Congress provided] to the board,” he had to agree to it, because the alternative would have been catastrophic for the government’s provision of human services. He added that the board was a product of years of unwise government borrowing and the economic contraction that Puerto Rico has experienced in the aftermath of federal tax law changes—adding that he had appointed municipal finance expert Richard Ravitch, who had played a key role in a similar oversight situation involving Washington, D.C., to argue for the interests of Puerto Ricans.

Emergency Abandonment? The small, virtually insolvent Ohio municipality of East Cleveland was left without an ambulance after a loaned vehicle from neighboring Mayfield Heights broke down last weekend—meaning that while the city’s firefighters can drive to a scene in their fire engine and give medical care, they were forced to become reliant on mutual aid from neighboring departments to transport anyone to the hospital. The city’s own three EMS vehicles are dysfunctional. The small, distressed municipality, in which all firefighters are paramedics, began using the Mayfield Heights ambulance last Friday, courtesy of Mayfield Heights’ recent approval of its donation to the city, pending acceptance from East Cleveland City Council.

Who’s in Charge of a Municipality’s Future?


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eBlog, 9/29/16

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider, the always difficult state-local governance challenges for cities in fiscal stress: first, we look at yesterday’s editorial from the Detroit Free Press raising serious concerns with regard to Michigan’s emergency manager law—a state law which authorizes the state to appoint an emergency law with dictatorial type authority and without accountability to citizens, voters, or taxpayers in a city, county, or public school district. The issue relates to the kinds of challenges we have been following in New Jersey, Connecticut, Virginia, and other states where the hard questions relate to what the role of a state might be for a municipality in severe fiscal distress—especially where such distress might risk municipal fiscal contagion. Then, mayhap appropriately, we journey back to Atlantic City, which is nearing its own state-imposed deadline to avert a state takeover. Finally, we examine the ongoing plight of East Cleveland —a small, poor municipality in some state of negotiation with the adjacent City of Cleveland with regard to the possibility of a merger—while awaiting a response from the State of Ohio with regard to its specific request for authority to file for chapter 9 bankruptcy. It remains unclear if the State of Ohio will ever even notify the city it has received said request, much less act. Thus, in a week, we have watched the States of Virginia, Connecticut, Michigan, and New Jersey struggle with what the role of a state might be—and how the fiscal ills of a city might adversely impact the credit ratings of said state.

Who’s in Charge of a Municipality’s Future? The Detroit Free Press in an editorial this a.m. wrote that, “[F]our years on, it’s hard to argue that Gov. Rick Snyder’s retooled emergency manager law, [Gov.] Snyder’s second revision of Michigan’s long-standing law, is working,” referring to Michigan’s Emergency Manager Law (Act 436), a state law unique to the state of Michigan: one which authorizes authority to the governor to appoint emergency managers with near-absolute power in cash-strapped cities, towns, and school districts; it authorizes such emergency managers to supersede local ordinances, sell city assets, and break union contracts; it leaves local elected officials without real authority. It provides that an Emergency Manager may be appointed by the Local Emergency Financial Assistance Loan Board. In the case of Detroit, it served as the mechanism by which Governor Rick Snyder appointed Kevyn Orr as Detroit’s emergency financial manager. The law, the Local Financial Stability and Choice Act reads: “The financial and operating plan shall provide for all of the following: The payment in full of the scheduled debt service requirement on all bonds and notes, and municipal securities of the local government, contract obligations in anticipation of which bonds, notes, and municipal securities are issued, and all other uncontested legal obligations (See §141.155§11(1)(B)). The editorial went on: “The crux of the problem lies in the limited impact accounting can have on the myriad factors that affect quality of life or efficient service delivery within a city:

“Sure, an emergency manager (in theory) can balance a city or school district’s books. But no amount of budget slashing or service cuts can make a city somewhere people want to live, or a school district the kind of place that offers quality education. In fact, it’s often the reverse: When residents leave, the tax base slims, meaning cities or school districts stretch to provide the requisite level of service with significantly less money. Cuts exacerbate the population decline, which depletes revenue more, which means more service cuts. And so on and so on and so on.

Nowhere is this object lesson in sharper contrast than Flint, where the city — under a success {I suspect the editors meant “excess’} of emergency managers — started pumping drinking water from the Flint River in 2014, pending the start-up of a new regional water system, a cost-saving switch prompted by the city’s ongoing budget woes. Almost immediately, botched water treatment caused bacterial contamination that altered the color, taste and odor of the city’s drinking water, and 18 months later, the state would acknowledge that improper treatment of which had caused lead to leach from aging service lines, contaminating the city’s drinking supply, and exposing nearly 9,000 children under age 6 to the neurotoxin, which can cause behavioral and developmental problems.

Why play games with something as important as drinking water? When the mandate is to cut, cut, cut, everything is on the table.

But it shouldn’t be.

A task force appointed by [Gov.] Snyder to review the Flint water crisis recommended a slate of changes to the state’s emergency manager law, like a mechanism for local appeal of emergency manager decisions, outside review, and other controls that Flint residents, alarmed by the smell, taste and color of their drinking water, could have employed to halt Flint’s water disaster before it reached crisis proportions.

Snyder says he’s waiting for the completion of a legislative report into the task force’s recommendation.


Snyder took office in 2011 knowing the bill was about to come due for a wave of municipal crises that threatened to cascade across the state.

There was the City of Detroit, where systemic budget troubles had been building for decades; Pontiac, Flint, and Benton Harbor, Allen Park, Ecorse, and Highland Park, where emergency managers were already waging uphill battles with incremental results, or whose substantial financial challenges put them firmly in emergency management’s crosshairs. And Detroit Public Schools, under state control for most of the last decade, with no fix in sight.

Inexplicably, in this climate, [Gov.] Snyder chose to cut state revenue sharing, continuing a trend of bolstering the state’s fiscal health at the expense of its cities to the tune of about $6 billion in cuts to cities over a decade.

Snyder and then-Treasurer Andy Dillon believed that the state’s long-standing emergency manager act was insufficient to truly remedy cities’ and school districts’ fiscal woes. An emergency manager, Snyder and Dillon believed, should have clear authority over operations, not just finances, and have greater power to impact labor agreements. Through two revisions (the first emergency manager law passed in Snyder’s tenure was repealed by voters; its replacement carries a budget appropriation and is thus repeal-proof), Snyder crafted a law that granted his emergency managers the authority to make the broad fixes he believed necessary.

There’s no question that a temporary usurpation of local elected control, as happens during an emergency manager’s appointment, is a serious matter. But Snyder seemed to understand that ensuring the health and well-being of Michigan residents — by ensuring that Michigan cities and school districts could provide the services necessary to create those conditions — was properly a governor’s job. It still is.

In the meantime, there’s promising news out of Lansing: Michigan State University professor Eric Scorsone, long a champion of funding cities properly and sustainably, has been appointed state deputy treasurer for finance. Scorsone has been a strong advocate for municipal governments and school districts, and we hope, deeply, that his appointment indicates that Snyder has come around to a point of view we’ve advanced for years: Fund cities properly, and whether or not to appoint an emergency manager may become a question that never needs answering.

Tempus Fugit? In ancient Rome, the query was ‘Is time running out,’ now an increasingly anxious question for Atlantic City’s leaders, where, having already missed one state-imposed deadline to initiate dissolution of its authority, the state has given the city until Monday to cure the violation. New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Salem) said Atlantic City must make a “realistic plan” to dig out of its fiscal hole; however, he declined to weigh in on the city’s most recent proposal. Noting that “Atlantic City has roughly 30-something days” left, Sen. Sweeney noted: “It’s incumbent upon them to put a realistic plan forward. You know, we’ve been at this for a while, and they really need to put a plan forward that’s going to make sense and work.” With the state-imposed deadline just six days before election day, Sen. Sweeney said he would “reserve judgment” on the city’s proposal to avail itself of its public water utility to purchase its airport, Bader Field, for at least $100 million. His comments came in the wake of the city’s unveiling earlier this week the first of seven parts to its plan in which city officials announced the Municipal Utilities Authority has agreed to purchase as part of an effort to raise revenues for the city, yet retain the water system in public hands, with the proceeds to go toward paying down the city’s roughly $500 million debt. The deadline comes as Moody’s has warned that the city not only risks defaulting on terms of a $73 million state loan agreement, but could also miss a $9.4 million municipal bond interest payment due on November 1. Analyst Douglas Goldmacher noted Atlantic City “does not have sufficient funds to immediately repay the $62 million already received from the state…Furthermore, unless the state continues to disburse additional funds from the bridge loan, or releases the Atlantic City Alliance and investment alternative tax funds owed to the city, it is highly improbable that the city will be able to make its (Nov. 1) $9.4 million balloon payment.” Mr. Goldmacher wrote, however, that the city’s repayment challenges would be addressed if the proposed Bader Field sale goes through—even as he again said the plan raises questions, such as whether the authority can afford to borrow $100 million and whether the state would even approve the plan—a plan to which the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs has yet to comment—perhaps confirming Mr. Goldmacher’s apprehension that: “Atlantic City’s impending technical default is credit negative for it, and indicates a disconnect between the city council, mayor, and state: “The impending default was caused by political gridlock.”

What Kind of City Do the Voters Want? The Cuyahoga County, Ohio Board of Elections and the East Cleveland City Council Clerk’s office this week certified more than 600 petition signatures to force a recall vote of East Cleveland Mayor Gary Norton and City Council President Tom Wheeler, so that the two highest ranking elected officials in this virtually insolvent municipality will face a recall election this fall, albeit not on the November ballot: the election likely will occur on December 6th—appropriately one day before Pearl Harbor Day. The election, however, will not be without cost to the virtually insolvent city: it could cost the city between $25,000 and $30,000—and will be a run-up just 10 months before the next mayoral primary election, even as the city is locked in so far seemingly non-existent merger negotiations with the City of Cleveland and awaiting a non-existent response from the Ohio State Treasurer with regard to its request for authorization to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. Nevertheless, the citizens of East Cleveland gathered more than twice the requisite number of signatures necessary to force a special recall election, triggering the City Clerk to send a letter to Mayor Norton informing him of the election. Under the East Cleveland charter, if he does not resign, he will face a recall election within 60-90 days. Unsurprisingly, Mayor Norton does not plan to resign. In a phone interview last Saturday, he characterized the election a waste of money in a city that cannot afford it: “East Cleveland will select it’s next mayor 10 months after this needless recall election…This is a horrible expenditure of funds given the city’s current financial provision, and beyond that, switching a single mayor or single councilman will have no impact on the city’s financial situation and the city’s economy.” Mayor Norton said the money the election will cost will have to be cut from other city services, noting that would include possible cuts in police and fire, because, he added: “There’s little to nothing left to cut in the city.” In East Cleveland, violent crime, on a scale from 1 (low crime) to 100, is 91. Violent crime is composed of four offenses: murder and non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault. The US average is 41.4. In the city, property crime, on a scale from 1 (low) to 100, is 75. The U.S. average is 43.5. A recall election, if it happens, would be the third for the Mayor.

Mayor Norton’s success rate in overcoming recall votes could change, however, as voters in November—before the next scheduled recall election, will consider an amendment to the city’s charter intended to curtail the ease with which residents can trigger a recall, although it is currently being reviewed by the Board of Elections and has not been finalized for the November ballot. For his part, the beleaguered Mayor Norton has so far refused to say whether he was going to run for re-election next year, and declined to answer why voters should vote to keep him as mayor in December.

What Is a State’s Role in Averting Municipal Fiscal Contagion?


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eBlog, 9/28/16

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider, again, the risk of municipal fiscal contagion—and what the critical role of a state might be as the small municipality of Petersburg, Virginia’s fiscal plight appears to threaten neighboring municipalities and utilities: Virginia currently lacks a clearly defined legal or legislated route to address not just insolvency, but also to avoid the spread of fiscal contagion. Nor does the state appear to have any policy to enhance the ability of its cities to fiscally strengthen themselves. Then we try to go to school in Detroit—where the state almost seems intent on micromanaging the city’s public and charter schools so critical to the city’s long-term fiscal future. Then we jet to O’Hare to consider an exceptionally insightful report raising our age-old question with regard to: are there too many municipalities in a region? Since we’re there, we then look at the eroding fiscal plight of Cook County’s largest municipality: Chicago, a city increasingly caught between the fiscal plights of its public schools and public pension liabilities.  From thence we go up the river to Flint, where Congressional action last night might promise some fiscal hope—before, finally, ending this morn’s long journey in East Cleveland—where a weary Mayor continues to await a response from the State of Ohio—making the wait for Godot seem impossibly short—and the non-response from the State increasingly irresponsible.

Where Was Virginia While Petersburg Was Fiscally Collapsing? President Obama yesterday helicoptered into Fort Lee, just 4.3 miles from the fiscally at risk municipality of Petersburg, in a region where Petersburg’s regional partners are wondering whether they will ever be reimbursed for delinquent bills: current regional partners to which the city owes money include the South Central Wastewater Authority, Appomattox River Water Authority, Central Virginia Waste Management, Riverside Regional Jail, Crater Criminal Justice Academy, and Crater Youth Care Commission. Acting City Manager Dironna Moore Belton has apparently advised these authorities to expect a partial payment in October—or as a spokesperson of a law firm yesterday stated: “The City appears committed to meeting its financial obligations for these important and necessary services going forward and to starting to pay down past due amounts dating back to the 2016 fiscal year…We appreciate the plan the city presented; however we have to reserve judgment until we see whether the City follows through on these commitments.” One option, it appears, alluded to by the Acting City Manager would be via a tax anticipation note. Given the municipality’s virtual insolvency, however, such additional borrowing would likely come at a frightful cost.

The municipality is caught in a fiscal void. It appears to have totally botched the rollout of new water meters intended to reduce leakage and facilitate more efficient billing. It appears to be insolvent—and imperiling the fiscal welfare of other municipalities and public utilities in its region. It appears the city has been guilty of charges that when it did collect water bills, it diverted funds toward other activities and failed to remit to the water authority. While it seems the city has paid the Virginia Resources Authority to stave off default, questions have arisen with regard to the role of the Commonwealth of Virginia—one of the majority of states which does not permit municipalities to file for chapter 9 bankruptcy. But questions have also arisen with regard to what role—or lack of a role—the state has played over the last two fiscal years, years in which the city’s auditor has given it a clean signoff on its CAFRs; and GFOA awarded the city its award for financial reporting. There is, of course, also the bedeviling query: if Virginia law does not permit localities to go into municipal bankruptcy, and if Petersburg’s insolvency threatens the fiscal solvency of a public regional utility and, potentially, other regional municipalities, what is the state role and responsibility—a state, after all, which rightly is apprehensive that is its coveted AAA credit rating could be at risk were Petersburg to become insolvent.

In this case, it seems that Petersburg passed the Virginia State Auditor’s scrutiny because (1) it submitted the required documents according to the state’s schedule, regardless of whether or not the numbers were correct; (2) the firm used by the city was probably out of its league. (It appears Petersburg used a firm that specialized in small town audits); (3) the City Council apparently did not focus on material weaknesses identified by the private CPA (nor did the State Auditor). The previous city manager, by design, accident, or level of competence, simply did not put up much of a struggle when the Council would amend the budget in mid-year to increase spending—a task no doubt politically challenging in the wake of the Great Recession—a fiscal slam which, according to the State Auditor’s presentation, devastated the city’s finances, forcing the city in a posture of surviving off cash reserves. (http://sfc.virginia.gov/pdf/committee_meeting_presentations/2016%20Interim/092216_No2b_Mavredes_SFC%20Locality%20Fiscal%20Indicators%20Overview.pdf). Now, in the wake of fiscal failures at both levels of government, the Virginia Senate Finance Committee last week devoted a great deal of time discussing “early warning systems,” or fiscal distress trip wires which would alert a state early on of impending municipal fiscal distress. Currently, in Virginia, no state agency has the responsibility for such an activity. That augurs ill: it means the real question is: is Petersburg an anomaly or the beginning of a trend?

The challenge for the state—because its credit rating could be adversely affected if it fails to act, and Petersburg’s fiscal contagion spreads to its regional neighbors and public utilities, a larger question for the Governor and legislators might be with regard to the state’s strictures in Virginia which bar municipal bankruptcy, bar annexation, prohibit local income taxes, cap local sales tax, and have been increasing state-driven costs for K-12, line-of-duty, water and wastewater, etc.

Who’s Governing a City’ Future? Michigan Attorney General Bill Scheutte yesterday stated the state would close poorly performing Detroit schools by the end of the current academic year if they ranked among the state’s worst in the past three years in an official legal opinion—an opinion contradictory to a third-party legal analysis that Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration had said would prevent the state from forcing closure any Detroit public schools until at least 2019, because they had been transferred to a new debt-free district as part of a financial rescue package legislators approved this year—a state law which empowers the School Reform Office authority to close public schools which perform in the lowest five percent for three consecutive years. Indeed, in his opinion, Attorney General Scheutte wrote that enabling the state’s $617 million district bailout specified Detroit closures should be mandatory unless such closures would result in an unreasonable hardship for students, writing: “The law is clear: Michigan parents and their children do not have to be stuck indefinitely in a failing school…Detroit students and parents deserve accountability and high performing schools. If a child can’t spell opportunity, they won’t have opportunity.” The Attorney General’s opinion came in response to a request by Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof (R-West Olive) and House Speaker Kevin Cotter (R-Mount Pleasant) as part of the issue with regard to whether the majority in the state legislature, the City of Detroit, or the Detroit Public Schools ought to be guiding DPS, currently under Emergency Manager retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes would best serve the interest of the city’s children. It appears, at least from the perspective of the state capitol, this will be a decision preempted by the state, with the Governor’s School Reform Office seemingly likely to ultimately decide whether to close any number of struggling schools around the state—a decision his administration has said would likely be made—even as the school year is already underway—“a couple of months” away. The state office last month released a list of 124 schools that performed in the bottom 5 percent last year, on which list more than a third, 47, were Detroit schools.

Nevertheless, the governance authority to so disrupt a city’s public school system is hardly clear: John Walsh, Gov. Snyder’s director of strategic policy, had told The Detroit News that the state could not immediately close any Detroit schools, citing an August 2nd legal memorandum Miller Canfield attorneys sent Detroit school district emergency manager Judge Rhodes, a memorandum which made clear that the transferral of Detroit schools to a new-debt free district under the provisions of the state-enacted legislation had essentially reset the three-year countdown clock allowing the state to close them—a legal position the state attorney general yesterday rejected, writing: a school “need not be operated by the community district for the immediately preceding three school years before it is subject to closure.” Michigan State Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo (D-Detroit) reacted to the state opinion by noting it would not give Detroit’s schools a chance to make serious improvements as part of so-called “fresh start” promised by the legislature as part of the $617 million school reform package enacted last June, noting that she believes the timing of its release—just one week before student count day—is part of an intentional effort to destabilize the district: “We could possibly lose students, because parents are afraid and confused, that’s what this is all about…They want the district to implode…They want to completely remake public education, and implode the district to charter the district. There’s big money in charter schools…This is about business over children.”

Are There Too Many Municipalities? Can We Afford Them All? The Chicago Civic Federation recently released a report, “Unincorporated Cook County: A Profile of Unincorporated Areas in Cook County and Recommendations to Facilitate Incorporation,” which examines unincorporated areas in Cook County—a county with a population larger than that of 29 individual states—and the combined populations of the seven smallest states—a county in which there are some 135 incorporated municipalities partially or wholly within the county, the largest of which is the City of Chicago, home to approximately 54% of the population of the county. Approximately 2.4%, or 126,034, of Cook County’s 5.2 million residents live in unincorporated areas of the County and therefore do not pay taxes to a municipality. According to Civic Federation calculations, Cook County spends approximately $42.9 million annually in expenses related to the delivery of municipal-type services to unincorporated areas, including law enforcement, building and zoning and liquor control. Because the areas only generate $24.0 million toward defraying the cost of these special services, County taxpayers effectively pay an $18.9 million subsidy, even as they pay taxes for their own municipal services. The portion of Cook County which lies outside Chicago’s city limits is divided into 30 townships, which often divide or share governmental services with local municipalities. Thus, this new report builds on the long-term effort by the Federation in the wake of its 2014 comprehensive analysis of all unincorporated areas in Cook County as well as recommendations to assist the County in eliminating unincorporated areas. .In this new report, the Federation looks at the $18.9 million cost to the County of providing municipal-type services in unincorporated areas compared to revenue generated from the unincorporated areas, finding it spent approximately $18.9 million more on unincorporated area services than the total revenue it collected in those areas in FY2014, including nearly $24.0 million in revenues generated from the unincorporated areas of the county compared to $42.9 million in expenses related to the delivery of municipal-type services to the unincorporated areas of the county—or, as the report notes: “In sum, all Cook County taxpayers provide an $18.9 million subsidy to residents in the unincorporated areas. On a per capita basis, the variance between revenues and expenditures is $150, or the difference between $340 per capita in expenditures versus $190 per capita in revenues collected. The report found that in that fiscal year, Cook County’s cost to provide law enforcement, building and zoning, animal control and liquor control services was approximately $42.9 million or $340.49 per resident of the unincorporated areas. The following chart identifies the Cook County agencies that provide services to the unincorporated areas and the costs associated with providing those services. The county’s services to these unincorporated areas are funded through a variety of taxes and fees, including revenues generated from both incorporated and unincorporated taxpayers to fund operations countywide: some revenues are generated or are distributed solely within the unincorporated areas, such as income taxes, building and zoning fees, state sales taxes, wheel taxes (the wheel tax is an annual license fee authorizing the use of any motor vehicle within the unincorporated area of Cook County). The annual rate varies depending on the type of vehicle as well as a vehicle’s class, weight, and number of axles. Receipts from this tax are deposited in the Public Safety Fund. In FY2014 the tax generated an estimated $3.8 million., and business and liquor license fees, but the report found these areas also generated revenues from the Cook County sales and property taxes, which totaled nearly $15.5 million in revenue, noting, however, those taxes are imposed at the same rate in both incorporated and unincorporated areas and are used to fund all county functions. With regard to revenues generated solely within the unincorporated areas of the county, the Federation wrote that the State of Illinois allocates income tax funds to Cook County based on the number of residents in unincorporated areas: if unincorporated areas are annexed to municipalities, then the distribution of funds is correspondingly reduced by the number of inhabitants annexed into municipalities. Thus, in FY2014, Cook County collected approximately $12.0 million in income tax distribution based on the population of residents residing in the unincorporated areas of Cook County. The report determined the Wheel Tax garnered an estimated $3.8 million in FY2014 from the unincorporated areas; $3.7 million from permit and zoning fees (including a contractor’s business registration fee, annual inspection fees, and local public entity and non-profit organization fees (As of December 1, 2014, all organizations are required to pay 100% of standard building, zoning and inspection fees.). The County receives a cut of the Illinois Retailer’s Occupation Tax (a tax on the sale of certain merchandise at the rate of 6.25%. Of the 6.25%, 1.0% of the 6.25% is distributed to Cook County for sales made in the unincorporated areas of the County. In FY2014 this amounted to approximately $2.8 million in revenue. However, if the unincorporated areas of Cook County are annexed by a municipality this revenue would be redirected to the municipalities that annexed the unincorporated areas.) Cook County also receives a fee from cable television providers for the right and franchise to construct and operate cable television systems in unincorporated Cook County (which garnered nearly $1.3 million in revenue in FY2104). Businesses located in unincorporated Cook County pay an annual fee in order to obtain a liquor license that allows for the sale of alcoholic liquor. The minimum required license fee is $3,000 plus additional background check fees and other related liquor license application fees. In FY2014 these fees generated $365,904. Finally, businesses in unincorporated Cook County engaged in general sales, involved in office operations, or not exempt are required to obtain a Cook County general business license—for which a fee of $40 for a two-year license is imposed—enough in FY2014 for the county to count approximately $32,160 in revenue.

Who’s Financing a City’s Future? It almost seems as if the largest municipality within Cook County is caught between its past and its future—here it is accrued public pension liabilities versus its public schools. The city has raised taxes and moved to shore up its debt-ridden pension system—obligated by the Illinois constitution to pay, but under further pressure and facing a potential strike by its teachers, who are seeking greater benefits. The Chicago arithmetic for the public schools, the nation’s third-largest public school district is an equation which counts on the missing variables of state aid and union concessions—neither of which appears to be forthcoming. Indeed, this week, Moody’s, doing its own moody math, cut the Big Shoulder city’s credit rating deeper into junk, citing its “precarious liquidity” and reliance on borrowed money, even as preliminary data demonstrated a continuing enrollment decline drop of almost 14,000 students—a decline that will add fiscal insult to injury and, likely, provoke potential investors to insist upon higher interest rates. According to the Chicago Board of Education, enrollment has eroded from some 414,000 students in 2007 to 396,000 last year: a double whammy, because it not only reduces its funding, but likely also means the Mayor’s goal of drawing younger families to move into the city might not be working. In our report on Chicago, we had noted: “The demographics are recovering from the previous decade which saw an exodus of 200,000. In the decade, the city lost 7.1% of its jobs. Now, revenues are coming back, but the city faces an exceptional challenge in trying to shape its future. With a current debt level of $63,525 per capita, one expert noted 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, unemployment is coming down (11.3% unemployment, seasonally adjusted) 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.) Ergo, the steady drop in enrollment could signal a reversal of those once “recovering” demographics. Or, as Moody’s notes, the chronic financial strains may lead investors to demand higher interest rates—rates already unaffordably high with yields of as much as 9 percent, according to Moody’s. Like an olden times Pac-Man, principal and interest rate costs are chewing into CPS’s budget consuming more than 10 percent of this year’s $5.4 billion budget, or as the ever perspicacious Richard Ciccarone of Merritt Research Services in the Windy City put it: “To say that they’re challenged is an understatement…The problems that they’re having poses risks to continued operations and the timely repayment of liabilities.” Moody’s VP in Chicago Rachel Cortez notes: “Because the reserves and the liquidity have weakened steadily over the past few years, there’s less room for uncertainty in the budget: They don’t have any cash left to buffer against revenue or expenditure assumptions that don’t pan out.” And the math threatens to worsen: CPS’ budget for FY2016-17 anticipate the school district will gain concessions from the union, including phasing out CPS’ practice of covering most of teachers’ pension contributions—a phase-out the teachers’ union has already rejected; CPS is also counting on $215 million in aid contingent on Illinois adopting a pension overhaul—the kind of math made virtually impossible under the state’s constitution, r, as Moody’s would put it: an “unrealistic expectations.” Even though lawmakers approved a $250 million property-tax levy for teachers’ pensions, those funds will not be forthcoming until after the end of the fiscal year—and they will barely make a dent in CPS’s $10 billion in unfunded retirement liabilities.

Out Like Flint. The City of Flint will continue to receive its water from the Great Lakes Water Authority for another year, time presumed to be sufficient to construct a newly required stretch of pipeline and allow for testing of water Flint will treat from its new source, the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA). The decision came as the Senate, in its race to leave Washington, D.C. yesterday, passed legislation to appropriate some $170 million—but funds which would only actually be available and finally acted upon in December when Congress is scheduled to come back from two months’ of recess—after the House of Representatives adopted an amendment to a water projects bill, the Water Resources Development Act, which would authorize—but not appropriate—the funds for communities such as Flint where the president has declared a state of emergency because of contaminants like lead. Meanwhile, the Michigan Strategic Fund, an arm of the Michigan Economic Development Corp., Tuesday approved a loan of up to $3.5 million to help Flint finance the $7.5-million pipeline the EPA is requiring to allow treated KWA water to be tested for six months before it is piped to Flint residents to drink. While the pipeline connecting Flint and Lake Huron is almost completed, the EPA wants an additional 3.5-mile pipeline constructed so that Flint residents can continue to be supplied with drinking water from the GLWA in Detroit while raw KWA water, treated at the Flint Water Treatment Plant, is tested for six months. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is expected to pay $4.2 million of the pipeline cost through a grant, with the loan covering the balance of the cost. Even though the funds the Strategic Fund has approved is in the form of a loan, with 2% interest and 15 years of payments beginning in October of 2018, state officials said they were considering various funding sources to repay the loan so cash-strapped Flint will not be on the hook for the money. Time is of the essence; Flint’s emergency contract for Detroit water, which has already been extended, is currently scheduled to end next June 30th.  

Waiting for Godot. Last April 27th, East Cleveland Mayor Gary Norton wrote to Ohio State Tax Commissioner Joseph W. Testa for approval for his city to file chapter 9 bankruptcy: “Given East Cleveland’s decades-long economic decline and precipitous decrease in revenue, the City is hereby requesting your approval of its Petition for Municipal Bankruptcy. Despite the City’s best Efforts, East Cleveland is insolvent pursuant…Based upon Financial Appropriations projections for the years 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019, the City will be unable to sustain basic Fire, Police, EMS or rubbish collection services. The City has tried to negotiate with its creditors in good faith as required by 11 U.S.C. 109. It has been a somewhat impracticable effort. The City’s Financial Recovery Plan, approved by the City Council, the Financial Commission and the Fiscal Supervisors, while intended to restore the City to fiscal solvency, will have the effect of decimating our safety forces. Hence, our goal to effect a plan that will adjust our debts pursuant to 11 U.S.C. 109 puts us in a catch-22 that is unrealistic. This is particularly true now that petitions for Merger/Annexation with the City of Cleveland have been delayed by court action in the decision of Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Michael Russo, Court Case No. 850236.” Mayor Norton closed his letter: “Thank you for your prompt consideration of this urgent matter.” He is still waiting.