Human, Fiscal, & Physical Challenges

April 20, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we return to Flint, Michigan to assess its human and fiscal challenges in the wake of its exit from state receivership; then we return to Puerto Rico, a territory plunged once again into darkness and an exorbitant and costly set of fiscal overseers. 

Out Like Flint. Serious fiscal challenges remain for Flint, Michigan, after its exit from state financial receivership. Those challenges include employee retirement funding and the aging, corroded pipes that caused its drinking water crisis, according to Mary Schulz, associate director for Michigan State University’s Extension Center for Local Government Finance and Policy. In the public pension challenge, Michigan’s statute enacted last year mandates that the state’s municipalities report underfunded retirement benefits. That meant, in the wake of Flint’s reporting that it had only funded its pension at 37%–with nothing set aside for its other OPEB benefits, combined with the estimated $600 million to finance the infrastructure repair of its aging water infrastructure, Director Schulz added the small city is also confronted by a serious problem with its public schools—describing the city’s fiscal ills as “Michigan’s Puerto Rico,” adding it would “remain Michigan’s Puerto Rico until the state decides Flint is part of Michigan.”

Michigan Municipal League Director Dan Gilmartin notes that Flint is making better decisions financially, but still suffers from state funding cuts. He observed that Flint’s leaders are making better decisions fiscally—that they have put together a more realistic budget than before its elected leaders were preempted by state imposed emergency managers, noting: “The biggest problem Flint faces now is what all cities in Michigan face, and that is the state’s system of municipal financing, which simply doesn’t work.”

Perhaps in recognition of that, Michigan State Treasurer Nick Khouri, on April 10th announced the end of state-imposed receivership under Michigan’s Local Financial Stability and Choice Act, and he dissolved the Flint Receivership Transition Advisory Board. Treasurer Khouri also signed a resolution repealing all remaining emergency manager orders, noting: “Removing all emergency manager orders gives the City of Flint a fresh start without any lingering restrictions.” Concurrently, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, in an email, wrote: “Under the state’s emergency manager law, emergency managers were put in place in a number of cities facing financial emergencies to ensure residents were protected and their local governments’ fiscal problems were addressed: This process has worked well for the state’s struggling cities, helping to restore financial stability and put them on a path toward long-term success. Flint’s recent exit from receivership marks the end of emergency management for cities in Michigan and a new chapter in the state’s continued comeback.” Indeed, the state action means that Detroit is the only Michigan municipality city still under a form of state oversight, albeit Benton Harbor Area Schools, Pontiac Public Schools, Highland Park School District, and the Muskegon Heights school district remain under state oversight.

The nation’s preeminent chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy expert Jim Spiotto notes that a financial emergency manager is supposed to get a struggling municipality back to a balanced budget, to find a means to increase revenue, to cut unnecessary expenses, and to keep essential services at an acceptable level:  “To the degree that they achieve that, then you want to continue with best practices: If they don’t accomplish that, then even if you return the city back to Mayor and City Council, then they have to do it: Someone has to come up with viable sustainable recovery plan, not just treading water.”

From his perspective, Director Gilmartin notes: “Flint has more realistic numbers in place, especially when it comes to revenues. I think that is the most important thing the city has accomplished from a nuts and bolts standpoint…The negative side of it is the system in which they are working under just doesn’t work for them or any communities in the state. In some cases making all the right decisions at the local level still doesn’t get to where you need to get to, and it will require a change in the state law.” Referencing last year’s Michigan Municipal League report which estimated the state’s municipalities had been shortchanged to the tune of $8 billion since 2002, Director Gilmartin noted: “A lot of the fiscal pressures that Flint and other cities in Michigan find themselves in are there by state actions.” No doubt, he was referencing the nearly $55 million in reduced state aid to Flint by 2014—as the state moved to pare revenue sharing—the state’s fiscal assistance program to provide assistance based upon population and fiscal need—funds which, had they been provided, would have sufficed to not only balance the city’s budget, but also cut sharply into its capital debts—enhancing its credit quality. Indeed, it was the state’s Emergency Manager program that voters repealed six years ago after devastating decisions had plunged Flint into not just dire fiscal straits, but also the fateful decision to change its public drinking water source—a decision poisoning children, and the city’s fisc by decimating its assessed property values. During those desperate human and fiscal times, local elected leaders were preempted—even as two of the gubernatorially named Emergency Managers were charged with criminal wrongdoing in relation to the city’s lead contamination crisis and ensuing Legionnaire’s disease outbreak which claimed 12 lives in the wake of the fateful decision to  change Flint’s water source to the Flint River in April of 2014. Now, as Director Schulz notes: “Until we come up with other solutions that aren’t really punitive in nature and leave communities like Flint vulnerable as repeat customer for emergency management law, these communities will remain in financial and service delivery purgatory indefinitely.”

Director Schulz notes a more profound threat to municipal fiscal equity: she has identified at least 93 Michigan municipalities with a taxable value per capita under $20,000, describing that as a “good indicator” for which municipalities in the state are prime candidates for finding themselves under a gubernatorially imposed Emergency Manager, in addition to 32 other municipalities in the state which  are either deemed service insolvent or on the verge of service insolvency. Flint’s taxable value per capita of $7575 comes in as the second lowest behind St. Louis, Michigan, which has a taxable value of $6733. Ms. Schulz defines such insolvency as the level below which a municipality is likely unable to fiscally provide “a basic level of services a city need to provide to its residents.” Indeed, a report released by Treasurer Khouri’s office has identified nearly 25% of the state’s local units of government as having an underfunded pension plan, retirement health care plan, or both—an issue which, as we have noted in the eGnus, comes after the State, last December enacted legislation creating thresholds on pensions and OPEB which all municipalities must meet in order to be considered funded at a viable level, meaning OPEB liabilities must be at least 40% funded, and pensions 60% funded. While the Treasurer may grant waivers, such granting is premised on plans approved to remedy the underfunding—failure to do so could trigger oversight by a three-member Michigan Stability Board appointed by the Governor. As Director Schulz notes: “The winds here are blowing such that the municipality stability board is going to be up and running soon, and there will be an effort to give that board emergency manager powers…That means they can break contacts, they can sell assets…whatever it needs to put money in the OPEB.” But in the face of such preemption—preemption which, after all, had caused such human and fiscal damage to Detroit, Detroit’s public schools, and to the City of Flint; Director Gilmartin notes: “Getting the community back to zero is the easy part and is just a function of budgeting, but having it function and provide services is harder: I would say that a lot of the support for emergency management by the state has dwindled based on the experience over the last several years.”

A Storm of Leaders. If the human health and safety, and fiscal challenges created by state oversight in Michigan give one pause; the multiplicity—and cost—of the many overseers of Puerto Rico and its future by the inequitable storm response by Congress and the Trump Administration—and by the costly “who’s on first…” sets of conflicting fiscal overseers could experience at least some level of greater clarity today, as the PROMESA Board releases its proposed fiscal plans it intends to certify, including the maintenance of its mandate to the federal court for an average public pension cut of 10 percent—after having kept under advisement the concerns of Governor Ricardo Rosselló the inclusion in the revised fiscal, quasi chapter 9 plan of debt adjustment immediate reductions in sick and vacation leave.

Thus, it appears U.S. Judge Laura Taylor Swain will consider a proposed adjustment plan to reduce public pensions later this year which would total savings of as much as nearly $1.45 billion over the next five years—a level below the PROMESA Board’s proposed $1.58 million—but massive when put in the context that the current average public pension on the island is roughly $1,100 a month, but more than 38,000 retired government employees receive only $500, because of the type of job they had and the number of years worked.

Thus, there are fiscal and human dilemmas—and governance challenges: even though the PROMESA law authorizes the restructuring of retirement systems, it is unclear whether the Congressionally-created Board has the authority to impose such a significant, unfunded federal mandate on the government of Puerto Rico, including labor reforms, and restrictions of vacation and sick leaves. Last year, Governor Rosselló agreed to a reduction in pensions for government retirees, but then his aim was to propose cuts of 6 percent.

At the moment, he is against it. A few weeks ago, after negotiations with the Board, Governor Rosselló proposed a labor reform similar to the one he negotiated with members of the Board, with differences on how to balance it with an increase in the minimum wage and when to put it in into effect—a proposal he subsequently withdrew after the PROMESA Board mandated that the labor reform be in full force in January 2019, instead of phasing it in over next three years, and conditioning the increase from $7.25 to $8.25 per hour in the minimum wage to the increase in labor participation rates—proposals which, in any event, made clear the “too many leaders” governance challenges—as these were proposals with little chance of approval by the Puerto Rican House. That is, for the Governor, there is not only a federal judge, and a PROMESA Board, but also his own legislature elected by Puerto Ricans—not appointed by non-Puerto Ricans. (Under the PROMESA Law, which also created the territorial judicial system to restructure the public debt of Puerto Rico, the PROMESA Board also has power over the local government until four consecutive balanced budgets and medium and long-term access to the financial markets are achieved. Thus, as the ever insightful Gregory Makoff of the Center for International Governance Innovation—and former U.S. Treasury Advisor put it: “While the lack of cooperation with the Board may be good in political terms in the short-term, it simply delays the return of confidence and extends the time it will take for the Oversight Board to leave the island.” Thus, he has recommended the Board and Gov. Rosselló propose to Judge Swain a cut from $45 billion to $6 billion of the public debt backed by taxes, with a payment of only 13.6 cents per each dollar owed, with the aim of equating it with the average that the states have. All of this has been complicated this week by the blackout Wednesday, before the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, PREPA, yesterday announced it had restored power to some 870,000 customers.

As in  Central Falls, Rhode Island, and in Detroit, in their respective chapter 9 bankruptcies, the issue and debate on pensions appears to be a matter which will be settled or resolved by the court—not the parties or Board. While the Board has the power to propose a reform in the retirement systems, it appears to lack the administrative or legislative mechanisms to implement a labor reform. The marvelous Puerto Rican daily newspaper, El Nuevo Día asked one of the PROMESA Board sources if it were possible for the Board to go to Court and demand the implementation of a labor reform in case the Governor does not propose such legislation—the response to which was such a probability was “low.” Concurrently, an advisor to House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) with regard to proposing legislation to address the issue receive a doubtful response, albeit an official in the Chairman’s office said recently that if the Rosselló administration does not implement the labor reforms proposed by the PROMESA Board, the option for the Board would be to further reduce the expenses of the government of Puerto Rico. Put another way, Carlos Ramos González, Professor of Constitutional Law at the Interamerican University of Puerto Rico, is of the view that, notwithstanding the impasse, “in one way or another, the Board will end up imposing its criteria. How it will do it remains to be seen.”

Physical, Not Fiscal—But Fiscal Storms.  Amid the governance and fiscal storm, a physical storm in the form of am island-wide blackout hit Puerto Rico Wednesday after an excavator accidentally downed a transmission line, contributing to the ongoing physical and fiscal challenge to repair an increasingly unstable power grid nearly seven months after Hurricane Maria. More than 1.4 million homes and businesses lost power, marking the second major outage in less than a week, with the previous one affecting some 840,000 customers. PREPA estimated it would take 24 to 36 hours to restore power to all customers—it is focusing first on re-establishing service for hospitals, water pumping systems, the main airport in San Juan and other critical facilities. The physical blackout came as the PROMESA Board has placed PREPA, a public monopoly with $9 billion of debt, in the equivalent of its own quasi chapter 9 bankruptcy, in an effort to help advance plans to modernize the utility and transform it into a regulated private utility—after, last January, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló announced plans to put the utility up for sale.

Several large power outages have hit Puerto Rico in recent months, but Wednesday was the first time since Hurricane Maria that the U.S. territory has experienced a full island-wide blackout. Officials said restoring power to hospitals, airports, banking centers and water pumping systems was their priority. Following that would be businesses and then homes. By late that day, power had returned to several hospitals and at least five of the island’s 78 municipalities. Federal officials who testified before Congress last week said they expect to have a plan by June on how to strengthen and stabilize Puerto Rico’s power grid, noting that up to 75% of distribution lines were damaged by high winds and flooding. Meanwhile, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is overseeing the federal power restoration efforts, said it hopes to have the entire island fully restored by next month: some 40,000 power customers still remain without normal electrical service as a result of the hurricane. The new blackout occurred as Puerto Rico legislators debate a bill that would privatize the island’s power company, which is $14 billion in debt and relies on infrastructure nearly three times older than the industry average.

 

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The Undelicate Local-State Fiscal Balance

eBlog

April 18, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we try to assess the odds for Atlantic City’s exit from state preemptive control, and then we look west to observe the lingering fiscal and physical damage created by the State of Michigan’s takeover of the City of Flint.

The Difficult Challenge of Ending State Fiscal Preemption. In the Garden State, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy has removed and replaced former Gov. Chris Christie’s designee, attorney Jeff Chiesa, who had been tapped to preempt local governance authority and run the famed city in an effort to avert its filing for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. The new Governor’s action has the effect of retaining state oversight of the fiscal governance of Atlantic City–effectively leaving the city still under state authority first imposed by former Governor Christie in November of 2016. As we had noted, that state takeover did not remove the Mayor and Council; however, Mr. Chiesa was granted broad powers in the city, such as the ability to break union contracts and sell off city assets. Ironically, it was also a prohibitively costly takeover to state taxpayers: Mr. Chesia’s law firm has filed a claim with the State of New Jersey for at least $4 million in taxpayer dollars for its work. Indeed, unlike the city’s elected leaders, Mr. Chiesa has been compensated at a rate of $400 an hour; his firm colleagues have been paid slightly less. In announcing the replacement, Gov. Murphy left unsaid the status of his earlier vow to end the state takeover of Atlantic City; he did, however, announce that state control of the city would revert to the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, currently overseen by New Jersey Lt. Governor Sheila Oliver, a long-time opponent of the state takeover. Left unclear are the new Governor’s time frame or commitment with regard to restoring local control—as, under the current statute signed by former Gov. Christie, state control and preemption could persist until 2021.

During his campaign, then candidate Murphy had campaigned for ending the state takeover; however, when pressed to clarify his intentions last February, then candidate Murphy responded that the state would be a “partner” with the city—comments similar to those he made this week, when he said: “The economic revitalization of Atlantic City is critical to advancing our overall state economy…The actions we are taking today will ensure we are working in full partnership with the city to ensure economic growth and empowerment for all Atlantic City residents.”  Indeed, New Jersey Lt. Governor Oliver said the Department will “continue to play an active role in Atlantic City to build upon the significant gains the city and state have made over the last 18 months in stabilizing Atlantic City’s finances: This ongoing partnership between DCA’s knowledgeable local government experts and the City’s governing body and its professionals will keep Atlantic City moving in the right direction for its residents and businesses and the surrounding region.” For his part, Atlantic City Mayor Frank Gilliam notes: “Atlantic City’s rebirth is looking very bright.”

For their part, former Gov. Christie and New Jersey State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) had pressed for the state takeover in the wake of the shuttering of five of the famed resort city’s casinos over the last decade, causing a swoon in the seaside city’s tax ratables by $14 million, and its debt to balloon to over $500 million. Unsurprisingly, former Gov. Christie, Sen. Sweeney, and others claim the state takeover has helped restore the city—a saving which, not coincidentally, has meant thousands of jobs in the state, and, mayhap more fiscally valuable, millions of dollars in state tax revenues. Since the takeover commenced, New Jersey has settled tax appeal debt with Borgata casino and worked with the city to adopt a municipal budget providing the first municipal tax decrease in almost a decade. Describing the state preemption and takeover, former Gov. Christie noted: “If you compare the results Sen. Chiesa has gotten from what he billed with what you all have paid to the people who have been running this city into the ground, Sen. Chiesa is the biggest bargain in the world…You all should wish he stays here for the rest of his life.” Unsurprisingly, however, many city leaders, some state lawmakers, and union officials have opposed the takeover, saying it violates civil rights and damages collective bargaining. 

Atlantic City Mayor Frank Gilliam has, unsurprisingly, applauded the new Governor’s action, noting: “Atlantic City’s rebirth is looking very bright.”

Out Like Flint. A visibly irate Mayor Karen Weaver has stated the city is exploring legal options against Gov. Rick Snyder and the state after the Governor told her “to get over” the ending of water distribution in the citya characterization the Governor’s office disputed as inaccurate. In a hastily called news conference in her office, Mayor Weaver said she met with the Governor Monday morning in Lansing in an effort to dissuade him from his announced decision to have the state cease the provision of bottled drinking water to the various “pods” across Flint—in the wake of, more than two years ago, the city’s declaration of a lead contamination state of emergency. However, on April 6th, Gov. Snyder, citing nearly two years of test results showing lead levels in city tap water below federal standards, had ordered the end of such distributions. Thus, in the wake of her meeting with the Governor, Mayor Weaver noted: “We did not get very far in the conversation, because one of the things the Governor basically said was we need to get over it.”

But, from her perspective—and responsibility–Mayor Weaver stated that providing water to the residents of Flint is a “moral issue,” especially since it had been the state’s action—in appointing an Emergency Manager to preempt all local authority—who had been responsible for Flint’s lead-in-water crisis. Noting that, since it was state action which had precipitated the physical and fiscal crisis, she believes the burden is on the state to reestablish trust: “They gave us their word that they would see us through this lead and galvanized service line replacement and that we would have pods stay open until then…And they backed out on what they said.”

However, Anna Heaton, a spokesperson for Gov. Snyder disagreed: she said: “It was a good discussion about the city and state’s continued partnership, and an offer for economic development help, since the Mayor brought the city’s new economic development official with her to the meeting…State taxpayers could ceased funding the pods last September, but, in the wake of the city’s request, the Governor opted to keep them open—and keep them open a full seven months past when the state could have ceased funding them, asserting this action was taken in order to help with the state’s continued partnership with the city, and to “foster trust with residents as the water quality continued to improve.” Her comments came in the wake of an earlier announcement by Gov. Snyder, in which he said the state has “worked diligently to restore the water quality and the scientific data now proves the water system is stable and the need for bottled water has ended.”

Mayor Weaver said the Governor, in the 35-minute meeting, had wanted to discuss economic development, but she told him the bottled water issue was not going away. Flint’s legal counsel, Angela Wheeler, added: “We do have to explore all possibilities” with regard to whether Flint will opt to sue the state—as Mayor Weaver has been clear that the State of Michigan should wait until all of the city’s lead service lines are replaced.

The Once & Future Puerto Rico?

April 17, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we try to assess the fiscal and future governance options for Puerto Rico: will it become a second class state? A nation? Or, at long last, an integral part of the nation? And governance: who is in charge of its governance?

Before Hurricane Maria wracked its terrible human, fiscal, and physical toll; more than 50% of Americans knew not that Puerto Ricans were U.S. citizens. Still, today, some six months after the disaster, more than 50,000 have no electricity. The fiscal and physical toll on low-income Americans on the island has been especially harsh: of the nearly 1.2 million applications to FEMA for assistance to help fix damaged homes, nearly 60% have been rejected: FEMA provided no assistance, citing the lack of lack of title deeds or because the edifices in need were constructed on stolen land or in contravention of building codes. That is to write that this exceptionally powerful storm took a grievous toll not just on life and limb, but especially on the local and state economy, destroying an estimated 80% of Puerto Rico’s agricultural crop, including coffee and banana plantations—where regrowing is projected to take years. The super storm devastated 20% of businesses—today an estimated 10,000 firms remain closed. Discouragingly, the government forecasts output will shrink by another 11% in the year to June 2018.

It might be, ojala que si (one hopes) that a burst of growth will ensue, with estimates of as much as 8% next year, in no small part thanks to federal recovery assistance and as much as $20 billion in private-insurance payments—as well as Puerto Ricans dipping into their own savings to make repairs to their own homes and businesses. Yet, even those positive signs can appear to pale against the scope of the physical misery: by one estimate, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands will lose nearly $48 billion in output—and employment equivalent to 332,000 people working for a year. Of perhaps longer term fiscal concern are the estimated thousands of Puerto Ricans who left the island for Florida and other points on the mainland—disproportionately those better educated and with greater fiscal resources—leaving behind older and poorer Americans, and a greater physical and fiscal burden for Puerto Rico’s government.

The massive storm—and disparate treatment by the Trump administration and Congress—have encumbered Puerto Rico with massive debts, both to its central government and municipalities, but also to its businesses. Encumbered with massive debts—including $70 billion to its municipal bondholders and another $50 billion in public pension liabilities; Governor Ricardo Rosselló’s administration is making deep cuts: prior to the massive storm, the government had been committed to slashing funding to its local governments by $175 million, closing 184 schools, and cutting public pensions—pensions which, at just over $1,000 are not especially generous. Now, that task will be eased, provided the PROMESA oversight Board approves, to moderate the proposed cuts in services in order to do less harm the reviving economy.

Assisted by federal tax incentives, Puerto Rico’s economic model was for decades based on manufacturing, especially of pharmaceuticals. However, what Congress can bestow; it can take away. Thus it was that over the last decade, Congress steadily eroded economic incentives—Congressional actions which contributed to the territory’s massive debt crisis, and contributing to the World Bank dropping Puerto Rico 58 places in its ranking compared to the mainland with regard to the ease of doing business.

The havoc wreaked by Maria could be especially creative for the island’s private sector, which represents a chronically missed opportunity. Puerto Rico, for all its problems, is a beautiful tropical island, with white-sanded beaches, rainforest, fascinating history, lovely colonial buildings and a vibrant mix of Latin-American and European culture. Yet, with 3.5 million visitors a year, its tourism industry is less than half the size of Hawaii’s. It has an excellent climate for growing coffee and other highly marketable products, yet its agriculture sector is inefficient and tiny. The island has a well-educated, bilingual middle-class, including a surfeit of engineers, trained at the well-regarded University of Puerto Rico for the manufacturing industry, and cheap to hire. But in the wake of the departing multinationals, they are also leaving. Isabel Rullán, a 20-something former migrant, who has returned to the island from Washington to try to improve linkages to the diaspora, estimates that half her university classmates are on the mainland.

Quien Es Encargado? (Who is in charge?) Unlike a normal chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy proceeding, the process created by Congress under the PROMESA law created a distinct governance model—one which does create a quasi emergency manager, but here in the form of a board, the PROMESA Board, which, today, will submit its proposed fiscal plan, or quasi plan of debt adjustment to U.S. Judge Laura Swain Taylor; it will maintain its requirement to propose the reduction of the public pensions of Puerto Ricans by an average of 10 percent. Until last weekend, the PROMESA Board had kept under review the complaints to Governor Ricardo Rosselló with regard to the inclusion in its revised fiscal plan of the central government the base of a labor reform which, among other proposals, calls for the immediate reduction in vacation and sick leaves from 15 to 7 days for workers of private companies, according to two sources close to the Board. Under the fiscal plan proposed by the Governor Rosselló, the cuts would reach $1.45 billion in five years. The PROMESA Board has requested that they total $1.58 million by June of 2023. The proposal, unsurprisingly, has raised questions with regard to whether the Congress has the authority to impose on the government of Puerto Rico a reform of its labor laws—any more than its inability under our form of federalism to dictate changes in any state’s retirement systems—contracts which are inherent in state constitutions.

Pension reductions in chapter 9 cases, because they involve contracts, are difficult, as contracts are protected under state constitutions—moreover, as we saw in Detroit’s plan of debt adjustment approved by now retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, the court wanted to ensure that any such reductions would not subject the retiree to income below the federal poverty level—a level which, Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello told Reuters, in an interview this past week, “many retirees are already under,” as he warned  that any further pension cuts could “cast them out and challenge their livelihood.” That is, in the U.S. territory struggling with a 45 percent poverty rate and unemployment more than double the U.S. national average, the fiscal challenge of how to restructure nearly $70 billion in debt, where public pensions, which owe $45 billion in benefits, are also virtually insolvent, makes the challenges which had confronted Judge Rhodes pale in comparison.  Moreover, with the current pensions already virtually insolvent, paying pension benefits out of Puerto Rico’s general fund, on a pay-as-you-go basis, could cost the virtually bankrupt Puerto Rico $1.5 billion a year. The PROMESA Board has recommended that Gov. Rossello reduce pensions by 10 percent.  

For their part, the island’s pensioners have formed a negotiating committee, advised by Robert Gordon, an attorney who advised retirees in Detroit’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, as well as Hector Mayol, the former administrator of Puerto Rico’s public pensions. The fiscal challenge in Puerto Rico, however, promises to be more stiff than Detroit—or, as Moody’s put it: Puerto Rico’s “unusual circumstances mean that it will not conform exactly” to recent public bankruptcies, in which “judges reduced creditor claims far more than amounts owed to pensioners.” Moreover, the scope or size of Puerto Rico’s public pension chasm is exacerbated by the ongoing emigration of young professionals from Puerto Rico to the mainland—making it almost like an increasingly unbalanced teeter totter.  The U.S. territory’s largest public pension, the Employee Retirement System (ERS), which covers nearly 100,000 retirees, is projected to run out of cash this year: it is confronted by a double fiscal whammy: in addition to paying retiree benefits, ERS owes some $3.1 billion to repay debts on municipal bonds it issued in 2008—bonds issued to finance Puerto Rico’s public pension obligations. Last year, Governor Rosselló had agreed to a reduction in pensions for government retirees, indicating a willingness to seek as much as a 6% reduction. That appears not, however, to be something he currently supports.

A few weeks ago, in the wake of negotiations with the PROMESA Board, Governor Rosselló proposed a labor reform similar to the one he negotiated with members of the Board, with differences with regard to how to balance it with an increase in the minimum wage and when to implement such changes. The Governor, however, withdrew the proposal when the Board required that the labor reform be in full force by next January, instead of applying it gradually over the next three years, and conditioned the increase from $ 7.25 to $ 8.25 per hour in the minimum wage to the increase in labor participation rates. It seems the PROMESA Board is intent upon labor reform as an essential element for future economic growth.

The Challenge of “Shared” Governance. Unlike in Central Falls, San Bernardino, Detroit, Jefferson County, or other chapter 9 cases where state enacted chapter 9 statutes prescribed governance through the process, the PROMESA statute created a territorial judicial system to restructure Puerto Rico’s public debt, creating a Board empowered to reign until four consecutive balanced budgets and medium and long-term access to the financial markets are achieved—or, as our colleague and expert, Gregory Makoff, of the Center for International Governance Innovation, who worked for a year as an advisor to the Department of Treasury in the Puerto Rican case, put it: “While the lack of cooperation with the Board may be good in political terms in the short-term, it simply delays the return of confidence and extends the time it will take for the Oversight Board to leave the island.” Mr. Makoff has recommended the Board and Gov. Rosselló propose to Judge Swain a cut of from $45 down to $6 billion of the public debt backed by taxes, with a payment of only 13.6 cents per each dollar owed, with the intent of equating it with the average that the states have. His suggestion comes as the Board aims to disclose its plans as early as this evening in advance of its scheduled sessions at the end of the week at the San Juan Convention Center, where, Thursday, the Board wants to certify Puerto Rico’s and PREPA’s proposed plans, and then, Friday, vote on the plans of the other public corporations: the Aqueducts and Sewers Authority (PRASA), the Highways and Transportation Authority (PRHTA), the Government Development Bank, the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) and the Cooperatives Supervision & Insurance Corporation (COSSEC).

Fiscal Balancing. The PROMESA law authorizes the Board the power to impose a fiscal plan and propose to Judge Swain a quasi plan of debt adjustment, as under chapter 9, on behalf of the government, much as in a chapter 9 plan of debt adjustment‒albeit the PROMESA statute does not grant the Board the power to enact laws or appoint or replace government officials. The Congressional act retained for the government of Puerto Rico the capacity and responsibility to enact laws consistent with the fiscal plan and the fiscal adjustment plan, as well as, obviously, to operate the government.

The Promise & Unpromise of PROMESA: Who Is Encargado II? Unlike in a, dare one write “traditional” chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, where state enacted legislation defines governing authority in the interim before a municipality receives approval of its plan of debt adjustment to exit municipal bankruptcy, the Congressional PROMESA statute has left blurred the balance—or really imbalance—of authority between the power of the Board to approve a budget and fiscal plans, with its possible lack of authority to implement reforms, such as changes to federal regulations it promotes. An adviser to House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop ((R-Utah) recently noted that if the Rosselló administration does not implement the labor reform proposed by the PROMESA Board, the option for the Board would be to further reduce the expenses of the government of Puerto Rico—or, as Constitutional Law Professor Carlos Ramos González, at the Interamerican University of Puerto Rico, describes it, notwithstanding the impasse, “in one way or another, the Board will end up imposing its criteria. How it will do it remains to be seen.” An adviser to Chair Bishop said recently that if Gov. Rosselló’s administration does not implement the labor reform proposed by the Board, the option for the PROMESA Board would be to further reduce the expenses of the government of Puerto Rico—or, as Professor González put it: “In one way or another, the Board will end up imposing its criteria. How it will do it remains to be seen.”

The Uncertain State of the State. An ongoing challenge to full recovery for Puerto Rico is its uncertain status—a challenge that has marked it from its beginning: in February of 1917, during debate on the Senate floor of HR 9533 to provide for a civil government for Puerto Rico, when Sen. James Wadsworth (R-N.Y) inquired of Senate sponsor John F. Shafroth of Colorado whether it would “provide woman suffrage in Puerto Rico?” Sen. Shafroth made clear his intent that the eligibility of voters in Puerto Rico—as in other states—“may be prescribed by the Legislature of Puerto Rico.” That debate, more than a century ago, lingers as what some have described as “the albatross hanging around the island’s neck: the uncertainty over its status.” Is it a state? A country? Or some lesser form of government?  Even though thousands of Puerto Ricans have fought and died serving their country in World Wars I and II, in Vietnam and Afghanistan, Puerto Rico has never been treated as a state—and its own citizens have been unable to decide themselves whether they wish to support statehood.

Some believe Puerto Rico will become a state eventually. But to get there, especially without risking a violent nationalist repulse, Puerto Rico needs to understand what the federal requirements and barriers will be—and what the promise of PROMESA really will mean. And, as they used to say in Rome: tempus fugit. Time is running out: for, absent economic and fiscal recovery soon, the flood of emigration of young Americans from Puerto Rico will become a brain-drain boding a demographic death-spiral, leaving the island with too few taxpayers to cover its more rapidly growing health care costs for an aged population.

Plans of Debt Adjustment

April 16, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we return to the Motor City, Detroit, a city, which, to some extent, was the touchstone of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, to observe how the process of debt adjustment, as approved by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes fared. Then we journey south to consider an assessment by the Capitol Hill publication, Politico, of the response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

A Motor City Perspective from a Battle Veteran. Former CIA Director and U.S. Army General David Petraeus, speaking at the end of last week in Detroit at Wayne State University, likened Detroit’s rebound from the nation’s largest ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy to be like a “Phoenix rising from the ashes,” suggesting that the United States should emulate the Motor City’s multifaceted template for success. His speech, titled, “National Security: How safe are we at home and around the world?” was part of Wayne State’s Forum on Contemporary Issues in Society’s 10th anniversary lecture series. The issue, or question, Gen. Petraeus told the audience with regard to: “What in the World is Going On?” related to: “Detroit is a city that hit rock bottom that is bringing you back.” Thus, General Petraeus asked: “The question is: how to do that for the entire country?” Telling the audience: “In Detroit, where do you start when you have a city that’s crumbling at its core? Do you start with policing? Urban renewal? Economic revival? Education? It takes all of the above.” Gen. Petraeus said the biggest threats facing the U.S. are “countries that aren’t satisfied with the status quo and want a change…such as Russia, China, Iran and North Korea; Islamic extremists; cyber threats; and increasing domestic populism.”

Gen. Petraeus added: “We really need to come to grips with the legal pathway of unskilled workers who are hugely important, particularly to the agriculture and hospitality industries; we need to come to grips with those who are already here but not legally, particularly the DACA children.”

But, as the fine editorial writer for the Detroit News, Bankhole Thompson, writing about a forum over the weekend at the Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics, billed as a forum to focus on the Motor City’s recovery, featuring Mayor Mike Duggan, JP Morgan Chase Chair Jamie Dimon, and Peter Scher, the bank’s global head of corporate social responsibility,  the event “appeared more like a carefully orchestrated public relations and ‘job well done’ session for JPMorgan Chase, or at best the case of a bank issuing its own report card about its involvement in the city’s recovery,” adding that, “poverty, the greatest challenge to the city’s revival, was not given the deserving spotlight: They referenced the Mayor’s race speech last year without in-depth analysis about it. Listening to the entire exchange about Detroit, one would think the speakers were talking about a completely different city, not the one which is today the headquarters of poverty in America, as the 2016 Census shows Detroit leads the nation among the largest cities with poverty at 35.7%.” Mr. Thompson added that if one were unfamiliar with the crime index of Detroit, one would have been “hard-pressed to believe that the three-person panel led by Mayor Duggan was talking about a city that is now No. 1 in violent crime in the nation,” asking: “How can a discussion about rebuilding a city like Detroit not first acknowledge the problem of poverty, which is central to achieving even-handed recovery?” Wondering how if the city’s leaders continued to shy away “from the proper diagnosis, how can the problem be solved?” While expressing appreciation for the role that JPMorgan Chase and other entities are playing by investing in certain targeted neighborhoods, he wrote: “But the fact remains that while some neighborhoods are poised to revive and soar, the vast majority of them are nowhere close to experiencing economic salvation…As a result, Detroit has remained a city of different and especially unequal neighborhoods where the future of the city’s kids is determined by ZIP codes…Men and women of all races are born with the same range of abilities. Referencing former President Lyndon Johnson’s Howard University commencement address from 1965, he wrote: “ ‘But ability is not just the product of birth. Ability is stretched or stunted by the family that you live with and the neighborhood you live in, by the school you go to and the poverty or the richness of your surroundings,’” noting that the former President’s comments capture the “current realities of life for many in Detroit, where children wake up frightful and go to sleep hungry in high poverty neighborhoods,” Adding that the panel “failed to delve into the spectacles of destitution and misery that have created the ‘two Detroit’ phenomenon.” He wrote: “Detroit’s leaders must first acknowledge that poverty is real, not a myth, and then work assiduously to address it. An omission like this often leaves some people with this question: who is the city coming back for?”

Beating the Odds: A grim Assessment of FEMA. The Capitol Hill periodical, Politico, in an investigation by writer Danny Vinik “How Trump Favored Texas over Puerto Rico,” noted that the federal government had significantly underestimated the potential damage to Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria and relied too heavily on local officials and private-sector entities to handle the cleanup, noting that its cleanup plan, which had been developed four years ago by a FEMA contractor in anticipation of a catastrophic storm and utilized by FEMA when Maria hit last September, prepared for a Category 4 hurricane and “projected that the island would shift from response to recovery mode after roughly 30 days. In fact, Hurricane Maria was a ‘high-end’ Category 4 storm with different locations on the island experiencing Category 5 winds. More than six months after Maria made landfall, the island is just beginning to shift to recovery mode,” adding that, according to a half-dozen disaster-recovery experts who reviewed the document at Politico’s request, FEMA did not anticipate having to take on a lead role in the aftermath of the disaster, despite clear signs that Puerto Rico’s government and critical infrastructure would be overwhelmed by the force of such a storm; rather, the document largely relied on local Puerto Rico entities to restore the island’s power and telecommunications systems. Moreover, the FEMA analysis omitted discussion of the U.S. territory’s fiscal instability, as well as the capacity of PREPA—or, as Mr. Vinik wrote: “The plan truly didn’t contemplate the event the size of Maria…They made assumptions that people would be able to do things that they wouldn’t be able to do.” Nevertheless, he added that disaster-recovery experts determined that the 140-page plan, published last month on the open-information site MuckRock through a Freedom of Information Act request, correctly predicted many challenges that FEMA faced with Hurricane Maria, including widespread road closures and difficulties transporting emergency supplies to the island territories, but failed to anticipate the extent of the damage. Mr. Vinik noted that Michael Coen, an appointee of President Barack Obama, who was serving as chief of staff at FEMA when the report was written, said the drafters should have expected that the federal government would need to play a larger role than they envisioned: “They probably should have made the assumption that it was going to require federal support: That should have been flagged,” with experts describing that omission as significant, because such planning documents are most useful in advance of the disaster, in significant part to assist federal, state, and local entities to better understand and coordinate their responsibilities. He found, mayhap ironically, that FEMA’s plan “did accurately predict that the island’s geographic position and aging infrastructure would make the response challenging. It correctly identified that moving assets to nearby locations in advance would be ‘limited’ as a result of the storm’s uncertain path and that ‘hotel space commonly used to house responders may be necessary to house survivors.’” Moreover, he found, FEMA’s plan also found that Puerto Rico’s power is generated in the island’s south, while most of the population lives in the north, requiring transmission lines which transverse Puerto Rico’s steep terrain would render “repair and restoration difficult and lengthy: It is anticipated that infrastructure of essential utilities will be out of service for extended periods of time.” Indeed, he noted that Jeremy Konyndyk, the former key USAID disaster response official during the Obama administration, had described FEMA’s plan as “reasonably good,” that it “presciently anticipate[d] many of the issues that emerged in the Maria response.” However, Mr. Konyndyk and other disaster response experts suggested that the plan contained some critical omissions, especially its heavy reliance on state and local officials to respond to the storm. The FEMA plan had determined that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could help with temporary power restoration, but “cannot fix transmission lines,” since such a job “is the responsibility of the owners.” However, after Maria struck, the Corps was tasked with repairing the entire power grid in Puerto Rico, a result of financial and management difficulties at PREPA. Thus, the plan’s over optimistic assumptions that temporary repairs to critical infrastructure, such as the power system, would be complete soon after the storm proved to be gravely off.

The plan also projected that private sector companies would move swiftly to restore telecommunications, or, as the report described it: “There are minimal expectations that federal assistance would be required to restore the infrastructure during the response and recovery of a storm,” adding that, if communication systems were not swiftly fixed, first responders could use satellite phones instead or rely on mobile communication trucks delivered to the island. The reality, as we have previously noted, however, is that Puerto Rico’s communication system was wiped out, leaving telecommunications companies in the midst of such serious infrastructure disruption to slowly repair the infrastructure, unaided by rolls of paper towels tossed by President Trump as Puerto Rico’s leaders and mayors desperately sought to communicate with FEMA and other first responders. Indeed, as Mr. Vinik wrote: “Local officials described limited communications as one of the biggest challenges in the first week after the storm.”

Noting the importance of having a FEMA plan on a Caribbean island subject to violent hurricanes, Mr. Vinik, wrote that in a March interview at FEMA’s joint field office in Puerto Rico, Michael Byrne, FEMA’s top official overseeing the response to Hurricane Maria, had, instead downplayed the importance of the plan—telling him: “A plan is good when you don’t have all the ground truth about what your requirements are going to be. You use that someone thought about this, someone took the time to think it through and said it’s likely that this is what’s going to happen. And then you execute the plan.” In the aftermath of Maria, FEMA is revising its hurricane plan for Puerto Rico, and, a day late and many dollars short, FEMA is creating teams to help Puerto Rico municipios to update their own plans, using new assumptions about the risks and damage from a catastrophic storm. 

Who Is on First? In its revised, quasi plan of debt adjustment, Puerto Rico has increased its projected five-year cash surplus to $7.36 billion; the plan, however, does not include layoffs or pension cuts that have been urged by the federally-appointed PROMESA oversight board—raising, once again, the difficult governance issue with regard to how the elected leaders of Puerto Rico and the federally appointed oversight board will reach any consensus after months of seeking to negotiate a consensual plan, with Governor Rossello vowing to oppose the PROMESA Board’s proposed 10% cut in public pension payments and a number of proposed labor reforms. In addition, the Governor has insisted he can achieve the Board’s requested level of spending cuts without layoffs in the public sector workforce—something with regard to which the Board has remained doubtful. Now, with the Board’s April 20th deadline looming this Friday, the question will be whether there might be still another deferral to continue talks with the Governor, albeit, there appears to be growing speculation that the Board will act to approve or disapprove this week.  

The Fiscal & Physical Challenge. In the real world, for any meaningful fiscal recovery, any plan agreed to—or imposed by the Board, will have to address the trials and tribulations of one of the nation’s oldest municipalities, Cidra, a municipio of about 44,000, which is one of the oldest cities in the U.S. Founded in 1795, the city has, in the wake of Maria, lost hundreds of jobs: chains of adverse events which are outside of local control demonstrate the complexity of assessing what kind of fiscal recovery plan could actually work. In February, PepsiCo announced the closure of its plant in the city—and the dismissal of 200 employees, after operating there for 30 years. Pepsi reported its decision was not related to Hurricane Maria or its location in that town, but with its strategy of optimizing global network and long-term growth. Whatever the reasoning, for Cidra, the bottom line will be the loss of jobs and the reduction of tax revenues for the municipality and for Puerto Rico: it will mark another knock on Puerto Rico’s fiscal base—of which manufacturing constitutes 20% of the island’s fiscal base. The closure will translate into losses of jobs, both private and public, reduced license taxes, corporate taxes, and individual taxes—meaning the loss of 70% of license revenues and 40% of the municipal budget. That, in turn, is forcing municipal layoffs: Cidra intends to dismiss 200 employees from a payroll of 526 representing a potential savings of $10.5 million a year—and a reduction in the city’s municipal budget, from $18 million to $11 million for FY2018-2019.

Beating the Fiscal Odds?

April 10, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we return to the fiscal gaming tables of Atlantic City, where the State oversight body for the city appears to appreciate the way the fiscal dice are rolling; then we turn south to assess the depressing future for Puerto Rico’s next generation.

Beating the Odds. The New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, the Department which assumed the key role in steering Atlantic City through its quasi plan of debt adjustment, perceives the city is in the midst of a “major breakthrough” in the wake of the sale of $49.2 million in taxable municipal bonds to help finance deferred pension and health care contributions—contributions which had been deferred when the city teetered on the edge of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy and the state stepped in to fiscally take over the municipality. In the wake of the successful sale, the Department reported the success had demonstrated that “investors are confident in Atlantic City’s ability to pay its debt and in the State of New Jersey’s oversight of the city’s finances…[and] is proud of the team of city and state professionals who worked very hard to develop a unique solution to pay the city’s deferred contributions without having to resort to tax increases on city residents,” according to New Jersey Lieutenant Gov. and Department of Community Affairs Commissioner Sheila Oliver, who noted: “These deferred contributions from 2015 were the last major debt hurdle facing Atlantic City. With yesterday’s successful bond sale, the city is now positioned to responsibly finance this debt within its budget and have confidence in its future.” The municipal bonds were sold pursuant to New Jersey’s Municipal Qualified Bond Act, which stipulates that the state Treasurer withhold a portion of the city’s state aid in amounts sufficient to pay the principal and interest on the bonds, with the Treasurer directing a portion of the Investment Alternative Taxes paid by licensed casinos to go to the city for funding the debt service on the municipal bonds. Absent such a plan, Atlantic City would have been forced to raise property taxes by more than $700 on the average assessed home of $140,000—a most unwanted option in the wake of last year’s first-in-a-decade property tax reduction, with the Commission’s Director of Local Government Services, Timothy Cunningham, stating the option had been selected to “spare city taxpayers from picking up this expense” and “immediately ends the accrual of interest.” He added that the state fiscal strategy had demonstrated the state’s willingness and ability to find creative solutions to Atlantic City’s difficult financial problems,” noting that: “Conventional thinking would have been to take the deferred contributions the city owes and incorporate them as part of the city’s budget over the next five years. But that would have resulted in significant tax increases for residents and it wouldn’t have stopped interest from accruing on the deferred contributions.”

The bonds were priced via the Garden State’s Qualified Bond Act program to fund $37.7 million in pension and healthcare payments, after, three years ago, Atlantic City had been granted state approval to defer interest payments in the face of $101 million budget shortfall, creating ever-increasing odds to the city’s bookmakers the city might file for municipal bankruptcy. Under the new fiscal arrangements, Atlantic City, by the end of this year, will owe about $47 million for these obligations—or, as New Jersey Lt. Governor Sheila Y. Oliver put it: “These deferred contributions from 2015 were the last major debt hurdle facing Atlantic City…With yesterday’s successful bond sale, the city is now positioned to responsibly finance this debt within its budget and have confidence in its future.” That fiscal confidence is bolstered, no doubt, by being wrapped with the Garden State’s credit enhancement program and backed by Investment Alternative Tax revenue from casinos, which are directed to pay down debt or debt service payments under the authority the state assumed two years ago in November to take over Atlantic City—a fiscal system under which the State Treasurer withholds a portion of the city’s state aid in amounts sufficient to pay the principal and interest on the municipal bonds, or, as Director Cunningham described it: “This strategy, which culminated in yesterday’s bond sale, demonstrates the state’s willingness and ability to find creative solutions to Atlantic City’s difficult financial problems…Conventional thinking would have been to take the deferred contributions the city owes and incorporate them as part of the city’s budget over the next five years. But that would have resulted in significant tax increases for residents, and it wouldn’t have stopped interest from accruing on the deferred contributions.” New Jersey officials said that without the bond sale, Atlantic City would have been forced to raise property taxes on residents by more than $700 on the average assessed home of $140,000.In the wake of this week’s bond sale, Atlantic City has approximately $400 million in outstanding bond debt, according to Moody’s.

But beating the odds is not just a matter of fiscal soundness, but also physical safety. Thus, Atlantic City, in finding a new way to combat crime, has beaten the odds in developing ways to stay ahead of crimes before they are committed—meaning that the number of shootings, homicides, and robberies in the city decreased by more than 33% last year, after Atlantic City began using a risk-based policing model which analyzes data to map out crime risk factors around the city and places where crimes are likely to take place: a new tool which has helped police prevent crimes by tackling factors in the environment identified as risks where crimes take place, and not the people. Indeed, the new strategy not only contributed to the reduction by more than a third in shootings, homicides, and robberies last year, but also that greater security appears likely to enhance assessed property values.

Tempus Fugit. U.S. Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency Brock Long has warned it will take up to an estimated $50 billion to help rebuild Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria—even as he warned the U.S. territory is not ready for another disaster. He told NPR that the agency is focused on making Puerto Rico’s roads, homes, bridges, and electrical grid as strong as possible—but that the time to complete the effort is running out: the new hurricane season is projected to hit as early as June 1st. projected to blow in June 1. A critical issue for Puerto Rico’s fiscal future, then, is a double public infrastructure risk: its physical and human capital. On the latter front, Puerto Rico Education officials have announced the closure of some 283 schools through this summer, nearly seven months after Hurricane Maria struck, reporting that Hurricane Maria exacerbated the demographic teeter totter as increasing numbers of families with children who can afford to have left for the continental U.S., leaving, increasingly, a poorer and older population behind with a depleting tax base, but significantly greater fiscal pressures. Thus, during his visit to Puerto Rico, he warned: “We’re running out of time.” And, observing that much of the territory’s infrastructure had collapsed, he added: “We have a long way to go.” He said FEMA is coordinating a Flag Day planning and training exercise with Puerto Rico’s government in which life-saving supplies will be delivered to the island’s 78 municipalities to ensure better response times for any upcoming storms, adding the muncipios and towns will be allowed to store those supplies for future disasters, but stressing that Puerto Rico’s public and private sectors have to build a strong emergency response network and establish unified plans: “FEMA cannot be directly responsible for all of the response and recovery.” Director Long added that the private sector should ensure that communication systems become more resistant—reflecting that Maria had left nearly all of Puerto Rico without phone service after the Category 4 storm struck last September. At the same time, he defended his agency from ongoing criticism that it did not respond quickly enough to the hurricane or dedicate the same amount of resources compared with other natural disasters in the U.S. mainland, asserting: “(That’s) completely false,” adding that in the first six months since Maria hit, FEMA had invested $10 billion in Puerto Rico, in contrast to the $6 billion invested in the six months after Hurricane Katrina: “Recovery never moves as fast as people want it to be…And in this case, moving faster can be detrimental from the standpoint of putting this money to work in a manner that truly makes Puerto Rico stronger and more resilient.” His staffer, Mike Byrne, who serves as FEMA’s federal coordinating officer in Puerto Rico, said he is working with Puerto Rico’s government to determine how federal funds will be used to identify priorities and rebuild damaged infrastructure: he stated that some of the funds will go toward strengthening Puerto Rico’s power grid—some two-thirds of which Maria destroyed: even hoy dia (today), some two-thirds of its distribution system remains to be fixed; more than 50,000 power customers remain in the dark. Nevertheless, he said 96 percent of all customers now have electricity, noting: “We’ve done the Band-Aid,” adding that the recovery process has been slow in part because supplies ranging from construction equipment to power poles have been scarce in light of the natural disasters that hit the U.S. mainland, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands last year

La Escuela or School of Debt. In an in-depth session with NPR’s Hari Sreenivasan, who was joined by San Juan by Danica Coto of the Associated Press, Ms. Cotto noted that, over the last three decades, Puerto Rico has experienced school enrollment drop by 42%; since May of last year, that enrollment has dropped by 38,700—in part reflecting the roughly 135,000 Puerto Ricans who, in the wake of Maria, left for the mainland—that ism, those who could afford to. Ms. Cotto added that for the island’s 4,700 affected teachers, the Secretary of Education has promised that no one will lose her or his job—albeit for a quasi-state in quasi chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, such a commitment seems hard to imagine—the related query is what will happen to the schools themselves—150 of which had been closed in the half decade prior to Maria—and an additional 179 last year. Currently, Ms.Cotto noted, there are about 283 schools in the process of closing.

Mr. Sreenivasan inquired about the demographics of those students, some 319,000 in public schools, staying behind—in response to which Ms. Cotto responded that 30% have special needs, or about twice the average of the U.S. mainland. One can appreciate immediately the disparate fiscal and human implications—for Puerto Rico’s hopes for recovery—and for its fiscal future. And she asked about the equity in the process for determining which schools would close, reminding us of Detroit Emergency Manager Kevin Orr’s recognition that any final plan of debt adjustment for Detroit to exit the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in the nation’s history would require a perception that the public schools were competitive with surrounding jurisdictions.

Ms. Cotto noted that the bulk of public school closures in Puerto Rico will be in rural areas, noting that along the north coast of the island, some muncipios will experience closures of nearly half their public schools—creating a risk of an increasing number of young Americans losing access to public education—and a risk to local tax bases. Several other municipalities will see 44 to 46% of its schools close.

Exiting from State Receivership

April 9, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we return to Flint, Michigan, where, in the wake of last week’s release by Gov. Rick Snyder of the city from receivership and state oversight—the city will have to make its own way to full fiscal and physical recovery from the many years’ of state-imposed choices—but recovery too after the former Michigan Revenue Sharing program has ceased, making the physical and fiscal challenge ever so steep.  

Setting the Path for a Strategic Recovery & a Return to Home Rule. After Gov. Rick Snyder, at the end of last week, announced he was releasing the City of Flint from receivership and state oversight, he has now announced that the State of Michigan will stop providing Flint residents with free bottled water when current supplies run out, citing nearly two years of test results showing falling lead levels in city tap water. Indeed, preliminary data from early this calendar year showed 90 percent of high-risk Flint water sites at or below 4 part per billion of lead, according to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. Thus, if these results hold through end of June, it would be the fourth consecutive six-month period levels have tested below the federal action level of 15 parts per billion. In the wake of the Governor’s announcement, the state plans to close four remaining water bottle distribution centers when supplies are exhausted—something that could happen within the next week, albeit water filters and cartridges will remain available at Flint City Hall.

In his announcement, the Governor said: “I have said all along that ensuring the quality of the water in Flint and helping the people and the city move forward were a top priority for me and my team…We have worked diligently to restore the water quality and the scientific data now proves the water system is stable and the need for bottled water has ended.”  The Governor did not discuss the state’s role in unbalancing and aggravating Flint’s fiscal misery—one to which the State contributed both through its former imposition of Emergency managers to preempt the city’s elected leaders—and through its elimination of state revenue sharing. By 2014, Flint had lost $54.9 million dollars in state aid—funds which would have been sufficient then to have fully paid off its annual deficit, as well as all $30 million of its municipal bond indebtedness, and still have had over $5 million in surplus

One of the hard questions now will be with regard to the potential impact of assessed property values and tax revenues in a city where those values were so harshly impacted by the fear of poisoned water: property tax assessments are mailed out every March: In 2016, those revenues, $19.7 million, made up about 23% of the city’s $81 million in general revenue. Unsurprisingly, that led to appeals to the Michigan Tax Tribunal for a poverty exemption to property taxes, with residents citing the costs associated with the water problems as one reason. Those lower assessed values added to the challenge to Genesee County to sell tax-foreclosed properties.

Mayor Karen Weaver, who has played a key role in the efforts to replace underground lead service lines at homes across the city, wrote to the Gov. last Friday to advise him that residents had “great anxiety” over the prospect of closing water distribution sites., noting: “As I have stated before and will continue to say, this is not what I want for our city, and I stand by my position that free bottled water should be provided to the people of Flint until the last known lead-tainted pipe has been replaced…We know that the water in Flint is much better than when I made the Emergency Declaration in December 2015, and that is a good thing. However, we also know that trust has to be restored before residents are ready to rely only on filtered residents.”

In response, Gov. Snyder replied that Michigan taxpayers were not legally obligated to fund bottled water or Flint distribution sites after last September; however, “in the spirit of good faith and our continued partnership, the state has continued to provide funding for hundreds of thousands of cases of bottled water for the daily use of residents.” Noting that he had provided the Mayor with Weaver recent water testing data and methodology, he added: “Since Flint’s water system has been and continues to be well within the standards set by the federal government, we will now focus even more of our efforts on continuing with the health, education and economic development assistance needed to help move Flint forward,” adding: “I remain steadfast in that commitment.

Nevertheless, with lead service line replacement set to resume this spring, there remain not just physical and fiscal fears, but also lingering apprehensions that underground work could dislodge lead flakes from existing pipes and again contaminate home tap water. That is, parents are scared—hardly a message which would enhance assessed property values.

Thus, it might seem ironic that Gov. Snyder’s decision to end bottled water service came two days after his administration had, last Wednesday, announced it was releasing Flint from receivership—a receivership under which the fateful, devastating decision to begin drawing drinking water from the Flint River until construction of the new regional Karegnondi Water Authority pipeline to Lake Huron was completed. (The City of Flint has been getting its treated water from the Great Lakes Water Authority since October of 2015. Last November, Flint inked a 30-year agreement to stay on the Detroit area system in November 2017 in the wake of a federal court order mandating the City Council to quit delaying a decision about its permanent water source.)

A Silver Lining? Flint lead levels have dropped below 4 parts per billion so far this year, according to the Michigan environmental department; for the second half of 2017, 90 percent of high-risk sites had tested below 6 ppb. Officials also said the state has conducted “extensive flushing and testing” of unfiltered water at schools, day cares and senior homes in Flint—meaning the updated test results are finding lower levels than the statewide 10 parts per billion which Gov. Snyder would like to enforce statewide. Keith Creagh, Director of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, noted: “Flint’s water is undoubtedly one of the most monitored systems in the country, and for the last 22 months several types of extensive testing data points have consistently supported that Flint’s water system has stabilized.”

Nevertheless, the action to stop providing bottled water to the beleaguered city led Michigan Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint) to state: “It’s beyond belief that the Governor expects the folks in Flint to trust the government now, when they lied to our faces about lead in our water just a few years ago…That trust was broken, and families in Flint still don’t feel that the water in their homes is safe to drink.” Similarly, Rep. Sheldon Neeley (D-Flint) stated he was requesting the Governor to continue providing bottled water until the state has successfully addressed the “crisis of confidence” among Flint residents, noting: “From the perspective of Flint residents, it was the same data, personnel and science that failed them. They don’t trust them still.” Rep Neeley added that if the State fails to continue providing services to Flint residents, he would support any legal action the city may take “to compel the state to do its job and continue water service to its citizens.” (The State of Michigan has sent more than $350 million in state funds to Flint since late 2015, in addition to $100 million from the federal government, that has paid for bottled water, water system upgrades, and local health initiatives—with a portion of the funding mandated under a four-year, $97 million settlement reached last year between the state and a coalition which had sued in an attempt to secure safe drinking water. Under the agreement, the state agreed to spend an additional $47 million on top of already budgeted funds to replace lead pipes and provide free bottled water.) Now, an Environmental Department spokeswoman reports she expects the state’s current supply of bottled water will run out within four to seven days.

Mayor Karen Weaver, whose administration is working to replace underground lead service lines at homes across the city, published a letter to Gov. Snyder earlier Friday telling him residents had “great anxiety” over the prospect of closing water distribution sites: “As I have stated before and will continue to say, this is not what I want for our city and I stand by my position that free bottled water should be provided to the people of Flint until the last known lead-tainted pipe has been replaced…We know that the water in Flint is much better than when I made the Emergency Declaration in December 2015, and that is a good thing. However, we also know that trust has to be restored before residents are ready to rely only on filtered residents.”

Fiscal Recovery & Home Rule

April 6, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we can safely write: free, free at last, as Michigan Governor Rick Snyder has signed an order releasing Flint from receivership and state oversight—making it the final  municipality to be under such state fiscal control. Then we turn East to the Empire State to assess whether New York will grant the same fiscal liberty to Nassau County, before dipping into the warm Caribbean to assess the ongoing fiscal and political tug of fiscal war so critical to the fiscal future of Puerto Rico. Finally, before your second cup of java, we jet back to King George, Virginia, as the rural county struggles to reduce its more than $100 million in indebtedness.

Setting the Path for a Strategic Recovery & a Return to Home Rule. Gov. Rick Snyder announced he has signed an order to release the City of Flint from receivership and state oversight—making Flint the final city in the state to exit such oversight and preemption of local authority. His decision came as the lame duck Governor, who has been under fire for his selection of emergency managers to the Genesee County city and handling of the Flint water crisis, came at the behest of the Flint Receivership Transition Advisory Board. The decision marks the end of an era of state usurpation of municipal authority—especially in the wake of the role of state imposed emergency managers in the state’s lead contamination crisis for their decisions to switch to the Flint River—decisions which led to the drinking water health crisis, as well as to the devastation of the city’s assessed property values, as well as contributed to the poisoning of thousands of citizens and the deaths of 12. The Governor stated: “City management and elected leadership have worked hard to put Flint on a stronger path…With continuing cooperation between the city and state, Flint has an opportunity to take advantage of the momentum being felt around the city in terms of economic development, which can lead to stronger budgets and improved services for residents.”

The announcement cleared the path for Michigan state Treasurer Nick Khouri’s expected signature on a “Flint RTAB resolution that repeals all remaining emergency manager orders,” with the repeal effectively securing the municipality from seven years of state emergency management, restoring full authority to the city’s Mayor and Council—or, as Mayor Karen Weaver put it: “We’ve just got our divorce…I feel real good about it…I remember when I was campaigning (in 2015) — it was one of the things I talked about, was I wanted to work on getting home rule back to the City of Flint. I know it’s how we got into this mess (the water crisis), was having an emergency manager and our voice being taken from the city and taking the power away from the local elected officials. We’ve shown that we’ve been responsible, and we’re moving this city forward.” That state preemption had come in the wake of a state financial review team opining that a “financial emergency existed” in Flint, and that the city had no “satisfactory plan in place to address the city’s fiscal problems,” leading to the preemption of local control and state imposition of an emergency manager from that time until shortly after Mayor Weaver was elected in November 2015.

Will Nassau County Be Free at Last? In a comparable governing and federalism issue in New York State, Nassau County Executive Laura Curran, who took office at the beginning of this year, has submitted a revised spending plan which relies upon new revenue initiatives, after, at the end of last year, the Nassau Interim Finance Authority had rejected a $2.99 billion budget and ordered $18 million in cuts due to revenue uncertainty. The new, proposed budget, which was submitted to the Authority on March 15th, contains $54.7 million in projected savings and revenues; however, the Authority’s Executive Director, Evan Cohen, Wednesday expressed apprehensions with regard to required legislative approvals needed for some of the revenue initiatives, even as he praised the new County Executive, who attended the Authority’s session Wednesday evening in an effort to secure support for proposed new revenues and avoiding a reliance on borrowing sought by previous administrations. Director Cohen, in a letter, wrote: “Our analysis indicates that the projected risks confronting the County will impede its chances for ending FY 2018 in [generally accepted accounting principles] balance…Strong management and legislative cooperation will be essential to any chance of success on that fiscal front,” stressing in her epistle that the County is confronted by political challenges to get the Republican-controlled Nassau County Legislature to agree to and implement some of her revenue plans: the County is seeking approval of some $9.7 million of $29 million in additional projected revenues, even as it is already confronting resistance on a proposal to change fees for Little Leagues and other non-profit groups to use county-operated athletic fields. A County spokesperson noted: “It is a viable operating budget except for the risks associated with the overwhelming cost of commercial and residential claims for tax overpayment…Once again, it is clear that the county’s poor fiscal health is intertwined with the broken assessment system and the failed the tax policies of the previous administration.” Nevertheless, the Authority identified $104.7 million of projected risks in the modified budget. County Executive Curran noted that this figure, which is up from $101.4 million of projected risks cited in the December review of the budget, reflects her administration’s decision to fund $43.8 million for to honor a court judgment mandating the payment to two men who were exonerated in the wake of a 1985 murder conviction. The Authority praised the County Executive her fiscal plan to pay off the judgment through operating revenue rather than through the issuance of municipal debt. The gold star from the Authority could begin to clear the path for exit from state oversight.

Modern Day Colonialism? The Puerto Rico Senate Wednesday voted unanimously to terminate its appropriations to fund the PROMESA Oversight Board, which, under the law, is defined as an integral part of the U.S. territory’s government; the federal act specifies that Puerto Rico’s government revenues are to be used for its funding. Puerto Rico Sen. President Thomas Rivera Schatz, an attorney and former prosecutor, who was born in New York City, as well as Gov. Ricardo Rosselló both conveyed messages of defiance to the Oversight Board, with the messages coming in the wake of Gov. Rosselló’s epistle to Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) of the House Natural Resources Committee defending his independent power relative to that of the Oversight Board and denouncing the quasi-imperialist effort to preempt the authority as the elected leader of the territory—an effort unimaginable for a Member of the U.S. Congress to take against any Governor of any of the 50 mainland states. Senate President Schatz noted: “The key message we want to send here is that we do not bend, we respond to the people who chose us, and we defend the Puerto Rico citizens and the American citizens who live on the island.” He added: “If there is anyone who defends the board, I urge you to tell us if the American dream and the principles of freedom and democracy that inspired the creation of the American nation accept as good that the Board’s executive director [Natalie Jaresko] earns $650,000 with all possible luxury benefits…” adding that Ms. Jaresko “lives at the expense of the people of Puerto Rico while trying to eliminate the Christmas bonus to workers of private companies and the government…and is also trying to reduce your working hours or eliminate your vacation. And who is attacking the medical services, education, and housing of the Puerto Rican people.”

Nevertheless, by submitting a revised fiscal plan—a plan which includes only 20 of the 48 recommendations made by the PROMESA Board, regarding financial and technical matters, Governor Ricardo Rosselló yesterday ruled out any alternative, as he, during a round table at La Fortaleza, insisted that the PROMESA Board may not establish a plan in which it enters into public policy issues, a prerogative that only holds for the Puerto Rico government—as would be the case with any of the nation’s other 50 states. Nevertheless, he added that it is not about having to go to court to assert Puerto Rico’s democratic rights against the PROMESA Board. Simultaneously, the Governor ruled out giving way to a measure such as that approved by the Puerto Rico Senate to stop the disbursement of public funds for the operation of the body of Congressional creation. The projected allocation of funds for the six-year PROMESA Board term is projected to cost the taxpayers of Puerto Rico up to $1.4 billion—a figure which includes operational budget, expenses of advisors, and everything related to the representation for the process of Title III of PROMESA. Thus, the Governor added: “We do not have to go to court. That is what I would like everyone to understand. We are doing what is in law that we must do. Our preference would be that all matters that we can agree, that can be executed. That we can work in that direction, but our action if they (the PROMESA Board) certify something that is the work and the right of the elected government of Puerto Rico, which does not match the public policy of our government, that part is simply not going to take. Our warning is for what to do if what they are going to do is weaken a fiscal plan before measures that obviously are not going to be executed.”

In response to the measure approved by the Puerto Rico Senate, the Governor noted: “[H]here we must show that we are a jurisdiction of law and order, and I am following the steps of our strategy…What I have said is that in the face of the future, I will always seek to defend the people of Puerto Rico. Although I understand the feeling of the Legislative Assembly, the frustration, which is a prevalent feeling, the fact is that everyone’s approach, and we discussed it yesterday in the legislative conference…must be within the subject in law, demonstrate that the fiscal oversight board cannot implement public policy issues.” He stressed that responsible, prudent actions “are aimed at achieving a fiscal plan that is enforceable.”

Referring to the 202-page document, provided to the PROMESA Board before 5:00 pm yesterday, Gov. Rossello said that once the numbers are analyzed “We are basically about [at a] $100 million difference from where they wanted to be and where we are,” highlighting that the document, through structural reforms and adjusted fiscal measures, proposes the government will achieve a surplus of $1,400 million by FY2023—that is, a document which places Puerto Rico on the path “of structural balance and restoration of growth,” insisting it is important to approve the plan Puerto Rico submitted, because it will allow for a better position toward the judicial process for debt readjustment or Title III, comparable to a chapter 9 plan of debt adjustment. Stressing that “after implementing all government transformation initiatives and structural reforms, and incorporating the federal support received for health assistance and disasters, Puerto Rico will accumulate a surplus of $6,300 million by FY2023.”

With regard to other PROMESA proposed changes, the Governor stated that Puerto Rico had agreed to a number of the PROMESA recommendations, mentioning that more than a dozen corresponded to economic aspects, noting, for example, that Puerto Rico had requested $94.4 million in federal disaster assistance because of Hurricane Maria, but on the recommendation of the Board had reduced that by nearly half to $49.7 million. With regard to differences on estimated GNP for FY2018, he noted that it had been readjusted from a fall of negative 3.9% to negative 12%, because of the resulting economic slowdown of Puerto Rico—adding, that by next year, he anticipates a rebound of 6.9%, in part because of the flow of federal aid for post-hurricane reconstruction and disbursements from insurers, which will decrease considerably in subsequent years to 0.6% positive growth in GNP by FY2023. He noted that the revision for the population decline due to migration varied significantly from a fall to negative 0.2% in the previous plan to a decrease of negative 6.4% this year.

For his part, House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Bishop has written to the PROMESA Board to criticize it for its lack of dialogue with the creditor community, lack of sufficiently aggressive action to make structural and fiscal changes in Puerto Rico, and suggesting the Board take steps to end the local government’s separate legal representation in the Title III bankruptcy cases—an epistle which, unsurprisingly, Gov. Rosselló described as anti-democratic and colonialist. Earlier, the Governor made public his own letter to Chairman Bishop in which he had written: “Your letter is truly disturbing in its reckless disregard for collaboration and cooperation in favor of an anti-democratic process akin to a dictatorial regime imposing its will by imperial fiat and decree…I cannot and will not permit you to elevate concerns of bondholders on the mainland above concern for the well-being of my constituents.” In his epistle, the Governor made clear his view that, contrary to its claims, the PROMESA Board does not have the legal authority to “take over the role of the elected government of Puerto Rico.” He added that while the Puerto Rico government “recognizes that structural reforms are key to Puerto Rico’s future success; it does not need the Board to substitute its judgment for our own in that regard.” With regard to reducing the Title III litigation costs to Puerto Rico’s government, the Governor expressed apprehension at any effort to preempt or take away the “government’s own voice and own representation in its own restructuring process,” adding that he believes Chairman Bishop’s committee “faces a fork in the road:” It can support the process found in the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act, or the “other path lies obstructionist behavior that would undermine the duly elected government’s authority and legitimacy…If the committee, led by you, Mr. Chairman, persists on this ruinous path, the people of Puerto Rico and their brothers and sisters on the mainland will know who to hold accountable,” adding: “Your letter embodies everything that is wrong with this process and only serves to reinforce the dismissive and second-class colonial treatment Puerto Rico has suffered throughout its history as a territory of the United States, which undermines our efforts to address the island’s fiscal, economic, and humanitarian crises.”

Colonial Eras? Meanwhile, in the former British colonies, the aptly named King George County, Virginia, where indigenous peoples of varying cultures lived along the waterways for thousands of years before Europeans came to America, Algonquian Indians some three hundred fourteen years ago first came into conflict, when early colonists retaliated for the tribe’s attacking the farm of John Rowley, capturing and shipping 40 people, including children older than 12, to Antigua, where they were sold into slavery—paving the way for the county to be formally established in 1720, when land was split off from Richmond County, Virginia—before it was substantially reorganized in the critical year of 1776, with land swapped with both Stafford and Westmoreland Counties to form today’s political boundaries—some twenty-five years after its native son, James Madison, the nation’s fourth President, was born there. Today, the county of about 26,000, with a median family income of $49,882, is looking to pay down its debt; however, one of its primary sources of revenue is no longer available: therefore, the Board of Supervisors is working on an ambitious fiscal plan to try to reduce about 30 percent of the county’s debt over the next five years, meaning it will seek to shift some of its reserve funds in order to allocate more new funds each year to pay down its debt—an effort which one consulting firm in the state described as unique: Kyle Laux, a senior vice president of Davenport & Co., a financial counseling firm for King George, Caroline, and Spotsylvania counties, noted: “What the county administrator and board are doing is unique…and it’s unique in a really good way: It’s thinking long-term about the county.”

The effort comes after the most recent campaign, when several Board of Supervisors members campaigned on the need for King George to reduce its $113 million in accumulated debt—debt which, when current County Administrator Neiman Young came on board a little over a year ago, he described as shocking—especially that no actions had been taken to address the accumulating debt. Indeed, at a work session two months ago, Mr. Young laid out numbers that caused those listening to gasp aloud. While the county has a proverbial golden goose with the King George Landfill, it turns out that the bulk of the non-odoriferous revenues generated from the landfill is already accounted for‒for the next two decades. Indeed, even the its expansion, the landfill is expected to reach capacity in 29 years—which, in turn, means that, for the next two decades, $6.2 million of the $7.5 million the county currently receives annually from the landfill is already consumed to finance capital debt. Thus, County officials wanted to change those numbers; ergo, they asked Davenport to rustle up a fiscal plan—and, subsequently, at a recent work session, County Supervisors supported the application of some $3 million from general and capital improvement reserves to pay down capital debt, with the fiscal plan adjusted to mesh with the County’s which provide that King George must have a certain amount set aside. Thus the County is proposing to add about $1 million each year for four years from revenues. Some of that would come from additional revenues King George would receive in the wake of upcoming reassessments, with the remainder from an annual surplus. The idea is to pay down the debt in three different payments between 2019 and 2023—recognizing that because every dollar paid on the debt principal saves about 41 cents in interest, the plan would free up about $11.1 million in cash flow and pay off $6.57 million in principal, according to Mr. Laux.

However, in the world of municipal finance, little is easy. Indeed, as the Supervisors learned during the work session, the amount pulled annually from revenue sources would likely fluctuate in order to address operational needs. Thus, the Board opted to place school resource officers in two of the county’s three elementary schools; it already has officers at its middle and high schools, and is applying for a grant to place a deputy for the third elementary school. Along with other operational expenses, ergo, the county is considering the set aside of some $200,000 from FY2019 revenues, far below the $750,000 proposed—or, as Board of Supervisors Chair Richard Granger put it: “It doesn’t necessarily blow up our plan, but it’s doing something rather than nothing.” He added government debt is like a home mortgage, not a credit card.

The County’s existing debt is based on a fixed rate, and the principal is repaid annually. If supervisors opt not to go forward with plans to pay down the debt sooner, the County is scheduled to repay about half of its debt within 10 years, according to a Davenport report. However, because paying down the principal faster would free up fiscal resources, the County’s new debt reduction and mitigation plan should reduce about 30% of the county’s debt over the next five years, which equates to roughly $22 million, an amount which Administrator Young understandably described as “huge.” But Supervisor Ruby Brabo had the last word: “The landfill is going to go away, folks. We either raise your taxes 30 cents or we make sure the debt is paid off before it does.”