Public Service Delivery Insolvency

July 30, 2015

Securing a Safe & Sustainable Fiscal Future. With a violent crime rate more than 500% of the U.S. national average, but empty city coffers, San Bernardino’s municipal bankruptcy filing was critical to stanching not just its credit, but also its ability to protect its citizens. A critical purpose of the federal municipal bankruptcy law, after all, is to preserve the ability of a city or county to continue to provide essential public services. Ergo, notwithstanding its bankruptcy, it appears that the City of San Bernardino could be a step nearer a more secure future, with all the ramifications that would have for assessed property values, in the wake of its announcement yesterday that after more than two years’ of watching its police officers leave the force and the city, city negotiators and the police union said they had agreed on a new contract, albeit one subject to ratification by the City Council. The San Bernardino Police Officers Association yesterday reported an overwhelming vote in support of the new pact, with their spokesperson noting: “We also anticipate that the deal…will hopefully keep men and women on the force from exiting the city of San Bernardino.” U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury, at a hearing on the city’s municipal bankruptcy yesterday, praised the two sides for reaching the pact and a mediation judge for helping broker it, noting: “It is an incredibly important step… It is a very big step, and I hope the city votes in favor next week.” Judge Jury added she hoped it would end adversarial court filings by the police union, which has been one of the city’s main creditor challengers in her courtroom, albeit Judge Jury added that she did not expect the adversarial nature of the fire union to change at all: “Obviously that’s not going to happen….” After the hearing, Mayor Carey Davis said the deal was “very favorable” to the city, while City Attorney Gary Saenz said it was a milestone in efforts to turn around the city: “This is a very good deal for the city and a very good deal for the police, but most of all, it’s a very good deal for the citizens of San Bernardino…The Police Department and the city are once more on the same side, and police will have the stability to improve the crime rate that many people, in the survey we did as part of the strategic planning process, identified as one of the main issues in the city.” The agreement, if ratified by the Council, would replace the current terms imposed by the city two years ago in January—terms which police officers believe have contributed to the high rate of turnover. Nevertheless, the agreement, even though praised by Judge Jury in her courtroom, will not go unchallenged: even though it means the city’s plan of debt adjustment before the federal bankruptcy court will—if the agreement is ratified by Council—be modified to incorporate the agreement; it is a change that would likely come at further expense to the bankrupt city’s municipal bondholders—creditors already slated under the city’s plan to only receive one penny on each dollar they are owed. Bondholders’ attorney Vincent Mariott yesterday testified before Judge Jury he was concerned by the slow pace with which he claimed San Bernardino has provided documents, especially with regard to those which purport to defend the city’s plan proposal to, in a manner similar to Stockton, make disproportionately deep cuts to creditor bondholders—or, as attorney Mariott put it: “We’re of course entitled to a full understanding of why the city believes that wiping us out is necessary…We do need the city to be more responsive than it has been to date.”

Resecuring Fiscal Sustainability. Motown is fixing for its amazing comeback, planning to issue its first sale of municipal debt on August 19th—with an estimated issuance of $245 million in municipal bonds, with the proceeds of the sale dedicated to repayment to Barclays for the $275 million loan which marked the final key step which secured Detroit’s exit from the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. Mayor Mike Duggan yesterday said the new bonds are essential to improving Detroit city services—and have earned an upgrade to A from Standard & Poor’s, adding: “If you had said six months ago there was any chance the city of Detroit could be borrowing with an investment-grade credit rating, people would have thought that was very unlikely…But it gives you an indication of how far we’ve come in a short period of time.” S&P awarded the grade, with a stable outlook, to the Michigan Finance Authority’s Local Government Loan Program revenue bonds, e.g., bonds issued on behalf of Detroit and based on a first-lien pledge of the city’s income tax. In addition, the bonds are secured by a limited-tax general obligation pledge. The upgrade, according to the city, could mean savings of as much as $2.5 million annually and $20 million in interest costs over the life of the Motor City debt. The financial recovery bonds were originally privately placed with Barclay’s Capital Inc., in December as the city made its exit from Chapter 9. The savings highlight the exceptional role the State of Michigan has taken—in stark contrast to the states of California and Alabama, for instance—especially in view of Detroit’s own S&P B rating— five grades below the lowest invest-grade rating. The improvement also reflects the remarkable revenue turnaround: Detroit’s tax revenue has been rising for the past four years, The improved rating also reflects an intriguing wrinkle: the bonds are secured by Detroit’s municipal income tax—tax revenues in this instance which will bypass the city treasury and go directly to a trustee so that the tax proceeds must first be dedicated only to pay bondholders, even going so far as to provide, under the terms of the bond documents, for daily deposits as tax revenue is collected—or, as S&P’s credit analyst Jane Ridley describes it: “The ‘A’ rating isn’t based on the credit of the city itself…It’s based on the strength of the revenue pledge and the income stream. It doesn’t really stay in the city’s hands at all. It’s designed to be immediately taken by the trustee for the benefit of bondholders.” Gov. Rick Snyder, in April, signed into law legislation giving bondholders a statutory lien on the city’s income-tax revenue as way to ease Detroit’s first post-Chapter 9 return to the capital markets. The law also gives the bonds an intercept feature, sending income tax revenue first to a bond trustee who will extract enough to cover debt service and send the rest to the city. Put another way by the ever insightful Lisa Washburn, a managing director for Municipal Market Analytics, Detroit’s overall creditworthiness is unlikely to change until it posts 1) several years of growth and stability in tax revenues, 2) increasing investment in the city, and 3) a stable city government which can improve city services, adding: that will be a multi-year process.” The proceeds of the municipal bonds here will be dedicated to financing key priorities, including the overhaul of its financial management system and the Detroit Fire and Police department fleets.

Referring to the sale at an MSRB seminar Tuesday, Kevyn Orr, Detroit’s former emergency manager who guided the city into and out of municipal bankruptcy, kidded the Board: “I hope you buy early and I hope you buy often.” Under the original agreement, Barclays was to hold the taxable debt for up to 150 days in a variable-rate mode, and the city was to refund the bonds publicly in a fixed-rate mode. The loan was extended by 90 days in May. Of the $275 million, $38 million of the taxable proceeds paid off the banks that acted as counterparties on the city’s interest-rate swaps. Another chunk of proceeds financed new information technology as well as other capital and operating upgrades. The city floated $1.2 billion of bonds in December to pay off creditors, but none of the debt was floated on the public markets. It was directly placed with creditors and participants, though they are securities that can be traded on the markets.

Remembering Motown & Public Service Delivery Insolvency. Reminiscing yesterday about his service in Detroit and its truly remarkable turnaround, Mr. Orr—at the MSRB—said that as the city plummeted into municipal bankruptcy,
• 9-1-1 response time to the highest priority police and emergency medical calls averaged 45 minutes to an hour;
• tax collection was at 65%; 75% of parks were closed; and
• 72 water main breaks occurred in one day last August.
Or (not a pun), as he noted, the noted rhythm guitar playing and now retired (but volunteering his musical and peerless services in Puerto Rico) U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Stephen Rhodes called the U.S.’s largest municipal bankruptcy a “service-delivery insolvency.” But, as he reported yesterday: “Detroit’s a much better credit than it was two years ago,” and he has few qualms about its fiscal future and sustainability: “We built enough of a surplus…They should be fine.”

Too Little, Demasiado Tarde? U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew Tuesday warned that a failure by Congress to help Puerto Rico resolve its debts may hit the retirement portfolios of average Americans. Secretary Lew’s statements came as Congress was fleeing Washington for its long summer vacation—a departure just days before Saturday’s potential default. Sec. Lew endorsed federal legislation to grant the commonwealth the same access to an orderly municipal bankruptcy regime as every state, noting it was critical to prevent a chaotic and protracted resolution of Puerto Rico’s fiscal challenges—warning that a default would be costly, not just for Puerto Rico, but also the U.S. In an epistle to Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hatch (R-Utah) (and not to Chairman Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), Chairman of the Senate committee of jurisdiction, the Senate Judiciary Committee), he wrote: “The continued deterioration of Puerto Rico’s economic and financial conditions has the potential to further harm retiree investment portfolios across the country…A significant portion of Puerto Rico’s debt is still held directly by individual retail investors or indirectly through the municipal bond funds they own.” On Saturday, long after Congress will have left Washington, D.C. until after Labor Day, $36.3 million of bonds sold by Puerto Rico’s Public Finance Corp. become due. Puerto Rico’s legislature has not appropriated the requisite funds to settle that payment. Because Puerto Rico has not transferred cash to its Public Finance Corporation (PFC) trustee ahead of Saturday’s August 1 debt service payment, the likelihood increases there will be a technical default, or, in Spanish, an incumplimiento technico, a step ahead of what could become the U.S. territory’s first payment default on Tuesday if sufficient funds have not been advanced by the end of this week—a default, which as our ever astute market observers at MMA have already observed: “[E]nhances the political viability of additional defaults everywhere else.”

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