September 10, 2015
Fiscal Gales in the Windy City. As the City of Chicago grapples with its growing unfunded pension liabilities, the city’s fiscal sustainability has become increasingly at risk—putting Mayor Rahm Emanuel nearer to a fiscal cliff for the Windy City. Increasingly the unfunded pension liabilities are threatening the city’s fiscal future, and the options on the table—such as a potential huge property tax hike to fund the city’s pension liabilities portray how risky the city’s fiscal future and options are: would a huge property tax increase discourage businesses and families from moving into Chicago? Or, as the ever insightful Laurence Msall, president of the Chicago Civic Federation, puts it: “How is Mayor Emanuel going to convince the City Council and the citizens of Chicago that with this very painful and, we believe, necessary increase?” The question arises as Mayor Emanuel may seek a record half billion property tax increase to address the city’s rising pension costs—and avoid bankruptcy. The city is also considering the imposition of a new levy for garbage collection, as well as other revenue sources to respond to a $328 million to $550 million scheduled annual spike in police and fire pension contributions under a prior state unfunded mandate requiring the city to make such contributions on an actuarial basis. The window for the Mayor is winnowing down: he is scheduled to release his proposed budget a week from Tuesday—a budget in which, in addition to tax and revenue proposals, Mayor Emanuel is also expected to propose a long-term fiscal plan which will also include changes in both spending habits and debt practices in what Mr. Msall denotes as a day of reckoning for Chicago. Chicago’s fiscal dilemma is further complicated by the ongoing stalemate in Springfield, where Gov. Bruce Rauner and the legislature remain deadlocked, so that there is still no FY2016 budge—where the stalemate shows little sign of abatement. For Mayor Emanuel, no matter the stalemate in the state capitol, he has just over 10 days to put together a proposed $754 million budget—one likely to incorporate a $233 million operating deficit, $93 million in increased city contributions owed to the municipal and laborers’ pension funds, and about $100 million in debt repayment the city previously intended to defer in its amortization schedule. The budget is almost certain to propose a $328 million hike in contributions for Chicago’s police and firefighters’ pension funds—but mayhap larger if the legislature and Gov. in Springfield are unable to reach consensus on pending state legislation which would re-amortize payments.
Fiscal Teetering in Pa.’s Capitol City. In his State of the City address this week, Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse warned that the city’s plan it adopted two years ago when the city narrowly averted filing for municipal bankruptcy must be amended—noting that the revenues assumed under that plan are falling short and will be insufficient by next year—and making clear that the deficiencies could not be offset by cost-cutting alone, especially since, he noted: “While the City is starving for capacity, we have already cut discretionary funding to the bone.” Indeed, Mayor Papenfuse noted the city has reduced its work force by nearly half over the last decade and that this fiscal year “will mark the second year in a row that we have significantly underspent our adopted budget.” Nevertheless, he warned, this city is simply not on a “sustainable course.” Therefore, he has proposed three key fiscal changes: 1) Tripling the municipality’s $1-per-week tax on employees working within the city limits to $3 per week; 2) Expanding the city’s sanitation operations, and 3) Transitioning to home rule authority.
Planning Debt Adjustment. The nation’s last large municipality in municipal bankruptcy, San Bernardino, has reached a tentative contract agreement with its largest employee group, its so-called general unit. The announcement, Tuesday, reached after last month’s agreement with the city’s Police Officers Association, means that San Bernardino now has plan of debt adjustment agreements with nearly all its employees—except its firefighters—where multiple legal complaints by the fire union against the city continue. Indeed, in the wake of the city’s rejection of its bargaining agreement with the fire union and implementing changes, including closing fire stations—in an election year—the city hopes to reach agreement on the fire front within a week, even as the city is proceeding in its process of having its fire department annexed into the San Bernardino County fire protection district—a key step anticipated to add more than $12 million to the bankrupt municipality’s treasury: $4.7 million in savings and $7.8 million in revenue from a parcel tax, according to San Bernardino’s bankruptcy attorney, Paul Glassman—or more than the $7 million to $10 million in savings the city incorporated into its proposed plan of debt adjustment it submitted to U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury—proposing that the funds should go toward pension obligation bondholders whom San Bernardino proposes to pay 1 cent for every dollar they are owed, according to the bondholders’ attorney—a proposal certain to be bitterly challenged in the federal courtroom. Complicating the process—and quite unlike any other major municipal bankruptcy—is that it remains unclear what might occur were the proposed annexation process to break down between now and July — especially were a sufficient number of San Bernardino voters to protest the tax and trigger an election. Although missing the deadlines required to complete the annexation process by July 2016 would be costly (because it would trigger a full fiscal year delay), an interim agreement with the San Bernardino County Fire Department would continue to provide services. Next up: Judge Jury has scheduled a hearing in her federal courtroom next month on the adequacy of San Bernardino’s financial statements and its modified plan of debt adjustment for October 8th.
Debt Restructuring Outside of Bankruptcy. The U.S. territory of Puerto Rico yesterday proposed a five-year plan Document: Puerto Rico’s Debt Plan under which the island would broadly restructure its unpayable debts, restructuring more than half its $72 billion in outstanding municipal bond debt, and seeking to implement major economic overhauls—and act under the direction of a financial control board—somewhat akin to the actions taken in New York City and Washington, D.C. to avert municipal bankruptcy. The proposed plan also proposed changes, such as welfare reform, changes to labor laws, and elimination of corporate-tax loopholes. Under the proposal, the governor would select a five-member control board from nominees submitted by creditors, outside stakeholders, and, possibly, the federal government—a panel which would have the power to enforce budgetary cuts. The document explains that Puerto Rico confronts a $13 billion funding shortfall for debt payments over the next five years—even after taking into account proposed spending cuts and revenue enhancement measures outlined in a long-awaited fiscal and economic growth plan. The report from Puerto Rico Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla’s administration notes that Puerto Rico will seek to restructure its debt in negotiations with creditors as an alternative to avoid a legal morass which could further weaken the territory’s economy: it offered no estimates of what kind or level of potential losses would be anticipated from the owners spread across each of the nation’s 50 states of Puerto Rico’s $72 billion in outstanding municipal debt. The plan details the grim situation of Puerto Rico’s fiscal challenges—and of the dire consequences to the island’s 3.5 million residents: Puerto Rico will have less than a third of the fiscal resources to meet its obligations: it has only about $5 billion available to pay $18 billion of principal and interest payments to its municipal bondholders spread all across the U.S. and coming due between 2016 to 2020—and that only if the plan’s proposed savings from the consolidation of 135 public schools, reductions in health-care spending, additional subsidy cuts, and reductions in payroll expenses were realized. Mayhap the greatest obstacle under the proposed plan will be its proposal to restructure Puerto Rico’s general obligation bond debts, municipal bonds which were sold to investors with an explicit territorial constitutional promise that Puerto Rico would commit to timely repayments—repayments which would take priority over all other governmental expenditures. Nevertheless, the plan proposes to renege on the so-called ‘full faith and credit’ pledge attached to municipal bonds issued by state and local governments on so-called general obligation or ‘full faith and credit’ bonds—a proposal which is unconstitutional under the territory’s constitution—but which the island’s leaders contend is critical lest Puerto Rico were to run out of cash by next summer—as its current fiscal projections indicate is certain absent access to municipal bankruptcy protection or triggering a proposal such as has been now proposed. The plan leaves unclear how it squares with Puerto Rico’s constitution; yet island officials made clear that were Puerto Rico to continue to make such required payments, Puerto Rico’s treasury would be depleted by next summer—with such payments, were they not cut back, leaving the government short of cash for vital public services as early as November. Under the proposed fiscal blueprint, Puerto Rico will provide its creditors with more detailed cash flow projections so that negotiations could begin on repayment alternatives and options—negotiations not only pitting the island’s essential services against bondholders in every state in the U.S., but also between classes of municipal bondholders—with general obligation bondholders anticipated to seek the most favorable treatment. One of the exceptional challenges will be that—unlike in Jefferson County, Detroit, Stockton, or San Bernardino—there will be no referee, no federal bankruptcy judge—to oversee the process. In addition to the debt restructuring, the new five-year plan calls for an ambitious series of steps to deliver public services and collect taxes more efficiently, stimulate business investment and job creation and carry out long-overdue maintenance on roads, ports and bridges. Many of the measures will require legislative approval.
Financial Control Board. The plan proposes a five-member board of independent fiscal experts who would be selected from a list of candidates nominated by different parties, including classes of creditors, the federal government, and others. Such a board would be charged with: how to deal with disproportionate and inequitably imbalanced creditors—creditors imbalanced not just fiscally, but also in terms of capacity to represent themselves. How do the island’s poorest U.S. citizens (an estimated 48 percent of Puerto Ricans are Medicaid recipients) fare against some of the wealthiest U.S. citizens who live in Alaska, California, New York, etc., and who own Puerto Rican G.O. bonds? That is, as members of Governor Padilla’s working group have noted, the inability to have access to a neutral federal court and legal process could put the island—and especially its poorest Americans—at the greatest disadvantage.
Fiscal Challenges. Gov. Padilla’s working group plan projected that, if the plan were adopted and implemented, it would be key to bringing Puerto Rico’s five-year total fiscal deficit down to about $13 billion. To close it, however, they made clear, Puerto Rico could not meet its full municipal bond payment obligations. The working plan estimated that over the next five years, Puerto Rico would have to make $18 billion in principal and interest payments to municipal bondholders on some $47 billion in outstanding municipal bond debt—but that they would propose diverting $13 billion to finish paying for essential public services over the coming five years, leaving for a Solomon’s choice about how to apportion deep cuts in Puerto’s Rico’s constitutionally obligated payments to bondholders scattered all across America—and no road map or federal bankruptcy judge to opine what might be the most equitable means in which to opt to make such payments—much less what legal ramifications might trigger. Put in context, the plan proposes a fiscal restructuring significantly larger than Detroit’s record municipal bankruptcy filing—a filing with U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes which involved some $8 billion of municipal bond debt. Puerto Rico entities are unable to access Chapter 9.
Muni Bankruptcy Is Large, Complicated, & Seemingly Unending. Jefferson County, which emerged from what was—at the time—the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history nearly two years ago now can better appreciate that it “ain’t over until it’s over,” finding itself before the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals this week where a group of the County’s residents claimed they were denied constitutional protections under the decision of the U.S. bankruptcy court’s approval of Jefferson County’s plan of debt adjustment, with their attorney testifying: “The essence of our client’s position to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals is that our clients are entitled to their day in court on the merits of the legal issues presented by the Jefferson County plan of adjustment,” adding that while it was “understandable that the U.S. bankruptcy court wanted to bring the case to closure…fundamental constitutional issues simply cannot be trumped by such concerns.” The issue is whether the court should accept or reject Jefferson County’s appeal of a September 2014 ruling by U.S. District Judge Sharon Blackburn, in which Judge Blackburn rejected the county’s arguments that the ratepayers’ municipal bankruptcy appeal was moot, in part because the plan had been significantly consummated, but also because Judge Blackburn claimed she could consider the constitutionality of Jefferson County’s plan of debt adjustment, which ceded Jefferson County’s future authority to oversee sewer rates to the federal bankruptcy court. The odoriferous legal issue relates to Jefferson County’s issuance—as part of its approved plan of debt adjustment—to issue $1.8 billion in sewer refunding warrants—an issuance which not only paved the way for Jefferson County to write down some $1.4 billion in related sewer debt, but also to exit municipal bankruptcy and the overwhelming costs of the litigation. Thus, with the sale of the new warrants consummated, Jefferson County exited (or at least believed it had…) municipal bankruptcy. The county’s sewer ratepayers, however, are claiming Jefferson County’s plan contains an “offensive” provision which would enable the federal bankruptcy court to retain jurisdiction over the plan for the 40 years that the sewer refunding warrants remain outstanding—a federal oversight which Jefferson County has argued has provided a critical security feature that has been key to attracting investors to purchase the warrants it issued in 2013—a transaction which the County alleges cannot be unwound—and added that the appeal by the residents is constitutionally, equitably, and statutorily moot, because the plan has already been implemented. The ratepayers have countered that even if the federal oversight provision were to be deleted from the County’s approved plan of adjustment, the indenture for the 2013 sewer warrants provides greater latitude to resolve a default: noting that were a subsequent fiscal default to occur, “the trustee shall be entitled to petition the bankruptcy court or any other court of competent jurisdiction for an order enforcing the requirements of the confirmed plan of adjustment.” (Such requirements include increasing rates charged for services, so that the sewer system generates sufficient revenue to cure any default.) But it is the provision allowing the federal bankruptcy court to maintain oversight which is central to Jefferson County’s position—in no small part because it offers an extra layer of security for bondholders and prospective bondholders of a municipality which opts to avail itself of a provision in the U.S. bankruptcy code which allows the judicial branch of the U.S. to retain oversight of a city or county’s plan of fiscal adjustment—or, as the perennial godfather of municipal bankruptcy Jim Spiotto puts it, the question in Jefferson County’s case involves an interpretation over what the U.S. bankruptcy code permits and whether the federal court’s supervision is actually the act of setting rates or insuring that the county complies with the covenants that it promised.
In Jefferson County, as in most cities and counties, sewer system rates have been set by resolutions approved by the Jefferson County Commission to fix rates and charges sufficient to cover the cost of providing sewer service, including funds for operations and maintenance, capital expenditures, and debt service on the 2013 warrants. Jefferson County’s attorneys have added that neither the plan of adjustment or U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Thomas Bennett’s confirmation order “changes the substantive law of the state of Alabama with regard to the enforcement of rates established pursuant to contract or legislation….Rather, the plan merely retains the bankruptcy court as an available forum in which such substantive law may be enforced, using the same remedies available in Alabama state court…In no event will the bankruptcy court ever set sewer rates; it is simply a forum to enforce the plan and related contracts – just as an Alabama state court could.” Ergo, part of the federalism issue and challenge relates to the Johnson Act, which essentially prohibits federal courts from taking actions that directly and indirectly affect the rates of utilities organized under state laws. In this instance, the ratepayers have claimed that the removal of the “retention of jurisdiction provision” from Jefferson County’s bankruptcy confirmation order would not unlawfully impose a new, involuntary plan on the county and its residents because “the indenture explicitly contemplates that the purchasers of the new sewer warrants may seek relief from courts other than the bankruptcy court.” Moreover, they claim the transaction would not have to be unwound were the U.S. district court to strike the jurisdictional retention provision from the plan, because the sewer bondholders could seek relief from other courts were Jefferson County to fail to increase sewer rates. The court directed Jefferson County to respond to its challenging sewer ratepayers by Monday, September 28th. Stay tuned.