How Does One Define “Essential Public Services” for a Municipality in Distress?

July 31, 2015

Securing a Safe & Sustainable Fiscal Future. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder yesterday affirmed his declaration that Wayne County is in a financial emergency—an affirmation almost certain to trigger a partial state takeover of the county—a county which encompasses not just Detroit, but also 33 other cities and 9 townships. In his statement yesterday, Gov. Snyder said: “Officials have taken steps to begin addressing the county’s crisis, but there can be no disputing that a financial emergency exists and must be addressed swiftly and surely to ensure residents continue to receive the services they need and deserve and the county can continue its economic recovery.” The decision immediately started a stopwatch which will give the Wayne County Board until next Thursday to choose among four options offered under Michigan law to municipalities in financial emergencies:

• municipal bankruptcy;
• a consent agreement with the state;
• authority to request a neutral evaluator; or
• an emergency manager.

Wayne County Executive Warren Evans has said he has been hoping for a consent agreement to fix the county’s finances: such an agreement would spell out specific budgetary steps and reforms the county would have to undertake and complete to address the county’s $52 million structural deficit. Wayne County has been caught between a rock (significant declines in property tax revenues, estimated to be as much as $100 million annually since 2008) and a hard place: its underfunded public pension system. The county is confronted with an accumulated deficit of $150 million. Should the county opt for entering into a consent agreement, such an option would give Wayne Count broader authority to impose reforms on expired labor contracts and would leave the bulk of the restructuring under local, rather than state control. But, as some of the county’s commissioners warn, a consent agreement could instead lead to a preemption of local authority and a state takeover—as happened to Wayne County’s largest city: Detroit. Perhaps Wayne County Commission Chairman Gary Woronchak described it best: “We have a difficult decision ahead of us, because we have to choose from one of these four options…They may seem simple on their face, but there are little trap doors along the way that we should well be aware of while we’re making this decision.”

Stopping the Fiscal Bleeding & Financing Essential Public Services. Wayne County’s Treasurer is getting ready this fall to auction off as many as 30,000 properties: a record number of tax delinquent properties, nearly half of which were eligible for foreclosure years ago. About $193 million is owed in taxes and fees on the 30,000 Wayne County foreclosures, including $95 million in debt on properties that had more than five years in unpaid bills. Of that record number, nearly half are delinquent on their property taxes for five or more years: Michigan law provides for foreclosure after three years of nonpayment. As in Detroit’s experience, failure to foreclose creates a double whammy: first, an ever-growing erosion of assessed property values and collected property taxes in neighborhoods, and an ever-increasing cost and burden to the county to foreclose: this year, the Treasurer’s office is trying to foreclose on Wayne County’s vast majority of tax delinquent properties. To get some idea of the scope, over the last seven years, Wayne County has taken 108,500 properties to auction. A key issue, of course, is tax delinquencies: when the patient is bleeding, it is critical to stanch the flow, because, as Wayne County Chief Deputy Treasurer David Szymanski wrote in an email to The Detroit News: “Payment of these delinquent taxes is essential to support essential government services.” Wayne County is scheduling a first round of tax auctions in September, which is when foreclosed properties will be sold for the full debt owed—with whatever is not sold re-offered the following month.

Shared or Different Fiscal Destinies? Robert Frost, in his wonderful poem “Mending Walls,” wrote “good fences make good neighbors,” and so it is that Detroit and Wayne County are more than neighbors—as Detroit is in Wayne County. But even as Wayne County is in a financial emergency, Moody’s yesterday upgraded the City of Detroit one notch to B2 from B3, with a positive outlook, reporting that its upgrade reflects Detroit’s improved financial position following its exit from municipal bankruptcy. Moody’s added that the upgrade incorporates management’s continued improvement of city financial operations and signs of economic development in the city—even as it pointed out the city’s ongoing population loss, persistent tax base weakness, and taxable valuation declines—declines which it projects will continue over the near-term.

How Does on Define “Essential Public Services”? Perhaps the single most critical value of municipal bankruptcy is the immediate protection of a city or county’s ability to ensure the provision of essential public services while its sorts out its debts under the ever watchful scrutiny of a federal bankruptcy judge—certainly a part of the great apprehension in Puerto Rico is that, absent such a judicial protection, those in most dire need and who have the least legal or fiscal resources will be ill-equipped to compete with the hedge funds. But that raises a hard question: just what are essential public services? In San Bernardino, that question is front and center as the city, with an 18.9% unemployment rate, has determined, by a 4-2 Council vote, to appropriate $250,000 to keep a job center open for at least another two months as it appeals the state’s decision to reject the Mayor and Council’s request for funding—that is, $250,000 that the bankrupt city does not have. Nevertheless, the vote affirms the city’s decision to keep the doors of opportunity open for some 138 individuals currently enrolled in training programs or on-the-job-programs, to close out grants, and to otherwise wind down the agency. One can appreciate how hard it would be to draw the fine line between what is essential and what is not. San Bernardino Councilmember Rikke Van Johnson, in the majority of those voting to keep the city’s 40-year-old program on temporary life support said: “It’s integral, if we’re going to move out of this bankruptcy, that we keep our assets that will aid us in getting out of bankruptcy…and that’s what the San Bernardino Employment and Training Agency will do.” While the city’s workforce development attorney, in a seven-page opinion for the Council, wrote that she believes the city will be reimbursed most or all of the money, there was little certainty whether that would, in fact, happen as well as the growing expense—even as the city faces ever-growing bills over the next twelve to eighteen months from the prohibitive costs of municipal bankruptcy. Already San Bernardino has had to cut public safety, outsource jobs, and agree to a settlement under which its retirees will lose some $40 million in health benefits. Councilmembers Fred Shorett and Jim Mulvihill, who voted against the funding, wondered whether and how the decision might affect the city’s case in the U.S. bankruptcy court before Judge Meredith Jury—including with regard to the city’s fiscal discipline, noting: “We’re in bankruptcy because previous councils refused to say no.”

As we have written before, the exceptional complications of democracy and municipal bankruptcy—as provided under certain state authorizations of municipal bankruptcy, such as Alabama and California—create singular civic challenges—challenges that are about governing—and in sharp contrast to municipal bankruptcies in states such as Michigan and Rhode Island, where the Governor appoints an emergency manager or receiver and the mayor and council are barred from any role or governance responsibility—as are the voters and taxpayers. So it was perhaps unsurprising this week to note that the San Bernardino community came out in force for the meeting to determine the fate of the agency, an agency which, over the last four years has served about 48,000 people through job training, placement, and other services.

Cadena de Eventos. With the Congress off in the hinterlands and having spurned any action to provide Puerto Rico or its municipalities any access to municipal bankruptcy, the U.S. territory is on the brink of setting in motion a chain of events (cadena de eventos) which will take us into a state and local bankruptcy twilight zone—as tens of thousands of creditors will be caught up in unrefereed negotiations about how to restructure Puerto Rico’s $72 billion debt—with the triggering event the almost certain default of the Puerto Rico Public Finance Corporation, for which the legislature has not appropriated the requisite $58 million necessary for the utility to make payment to its bondholders tomorrow. That the default will happen should hardly come as a surprise: Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla made clear last month that Puerto Rico cannot repay its obligations and sought a delay in debt payments—even as he hopes to propose a debt-restructuring plan by September 1st. The non-payment at issue, defined as a moral obligation bond—as opposed to full faith and credit—because it is dependent on a legislative appropriation—is more like the first granules in an avalanche that offer the briefest of warnings of what could follow. Nevertheless, with the Public Finance Corp. having (technically) until the end of business on Monday to make the payment, Puerto Rico tomorrow will enter into an uncharted and unprotected fiscal future—a future lacking the protections of a U.S. bankruptcy court to ensure the provision of essential public services—and a future in which those most at risk—such as Puerto Rico’s retirees and poorest U.S. citizens—will be least equipped to achieve a fair outcome or a sustainable fiscal future. Puerto Rico’s largest pension fund, according to Moody’s, could deplete its assets by 2020: it has 0.7 percent of assets to cover $30.2 billion of projected costs, according to financial documents. The PFC default will not be the only one tomorrow: other Puerto Rican debt payments due tomorrow include $91.5 million of principal and interest on Municipal Finance Agency bonds repaid with payments from San Juan and other towns—in addition to $252 million of principal and interest on debt backed by the island’s sales-tax levy. There are also Government Development Bank bonds due tomorrow (The bank, which lends to the commonwealth and its municipalities, has $140 million of municipal bonds maturing $29 million in interest payments due, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.) Perhaps forgotten in this telescoping of fiscal events is that Puerto Rico and its instrumentalities are not just facing default, but also a perilous slope of capital borrowing costs: costs which have increased by close to one-third.

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