“Our city would become unlivable.”

A Most Serious Fiscal Challenge. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel yesterday called on the Windy City’s 50 aldermen to summon the courage to pass the largest property tax increase in modern Chicago history: he told them they could justify such a hard vote by ensuring their voters understood the alternative: the dismissal of one out of five police officers, the closure of half the city’s fire stations, the elimination of the city’s rodent (read rats) control program, and the reduction of trash services to only twice a month—or, as he put it: “Our city would become unlivable…That would be totally unacceptable.” His proposed budget will total $9.3 billion when corporate, enterprise, and grant funds are added up, including a $3.6 billion general fund formally known as the corporate fund—up from $9.2 billion and $3.5 billion, respectively, for FY2015. In his budget address, Mayor Emanuel, in his second-term, laid out a grim assessment should the Council fail to act: “Our greatest financial challenge today is the exploding cost of our unpaid pensions. It is a big dark cloud that hangs over the rest of our city’s finances…Now the bill has come due,” referring to a mandate which will take effect next year to stabilize police and fire funds across Illinois: Chicago must pay the two public pension funds $550 million more as it moves to an actuarially required contribution—and, that is assuming positive action on state legislation to trim next year’s increase to $328 million. Even though his proposed budget includes some cuts and reform measures, the Mayor told his colleagues yesterday that the debt burden is so ponderous that the city cannot cut its way out of the crisis—cuts, he warned, which would require the loss of 2,500 police officers, the closure of 48 fire stations, and laying off 2,000 firefighters: “Our city would become unlivable.”

Chicago, after a significant effort to remake itself into a global city today confronts unprecedented challenges. Challenges facing the city’s fiscal future include: schools, which one commentator cited as “almost insoluble;” police—crime—gangs (also “almost insoluble”); infrastructure (on which Mayor Emanuel has earned very high marks); pensions, where Chicagoans’ long-term debt and pension obligations per capita have risen nearly 200% since 2002—and which are inextricably linked to the state; and bringing jobs back to Chicago—fiscal sustainability challenges exacerbated by the state dysfunction, by the Illinois constitution’s and Supreme Court’s rejection of efforts to modify public pension obligations, and as state and federal aid have been reduced. The Windy City, the third most populous city in the U.S. with 2.7 million residents, was a time bomb waiting to happen from the very moment Mayor Emanuel took office—an office in which he immediately confronted not only a $635 million operating deficit, but also a city which had experienced an exodus of 200,000 in the previous decade—and some 7.1% of its jobs. Now, revenues are coming back, but the city faces an exceptional challenge in trying to shape its future. By FY2014, Chicago had a debt level of $63,525 per capita, leading one expert to note that if one included the debt per capita with the unfunded liability per capita, the city would be a prime “candidate for fiscal distress.” Nevertheless, since his election, unemployment has been coming down, and census data demonstrated the city is returning as a destination for the key demographic group, the 25-29 age group, which grew from 227,000 in 2006 to 274,000 by end of 2011. Nevertheless, the city’s unrelenting pension liabilities and what Moody’s has termed it “unrelenting public safety demands” have left the city, increasingly, between a rock and hard place. Now Chicago, which has one of the largest city councils in the U.S., faces a momentous challenge to its future—a fiscal challenge, and, with his announcement, now a political challenge, or, as the Mayor put it yesterday: “I know this budget’s tough, and therefore I know it carries political risk. I get it…But there’s a choice to be made, make no mistake about it. Either we muster the political courage to deal with the mounting challenges we inherited, or we repeat the same practices and allow the financial challenges to grow.”

Now, in a vote unlike in other U.S. city, the mayor is asking the aldermen on the city council to put their own jobs on the line. Mayhap more daunting, should even modest public pension legislation pending in the stalemated Illinois legislature not be enacted, the Mayor’s proposed, record property tax increase would be more than $200 million short of the requisite level to meet Chicago’s public pension obligations. Under the Mayor’s proposed budget, property taxes would be increased $543 million over the next four years, beginning with a jolting $318 million next year; a separate $45 million property tax hike would go toward construction projects at Chicago Public Schools to alleviate overcrowding in some neighborhoods. In his proposal to the Council, Mayor Emanuel makes clear he has asked for an expanded homeowners’ exemption from Gov. Bruce Rauner and the legislature for Chicago homeowners who own and live in a home worth $250,000 or less. But the massive property tax increase alone comes at a time when Gov. Rauner is seeking a statewide property tax freeze. In his proposed budget, Mayor Emanuel also proposed new fees on taxi and ride-sharing services, such as Uber and Lyft, which would generate $48.6 million per year and a tax on electronic cigarettes which would reap another $1 million. Mayor Emanuel told the Council his budget includes $170 million in cuts and efficiencies; however, he has yet to release the fine print on what those reductions are. In asking for the unaskable, Mayor Emanuel, speaking from the City Council dais to his fellow elected leaders, said: “With this budget, we can be remembered for stepping up to the challenge rather than stepping aside. With this budget, we will be counted among the doers rather than among those who dithered…With this budget, when we look back at our public service, our individual names will be in the history book rather than the guest book. We owe it to our city and to the generations who come after us to do what is right — even when it is hard.”

The Civic Federation of Chicago defined the city’s problem concisely: “There’s no question that the mayor will need to ask taxpayers to pay more while they receive fewer services. Decades of ignoring fiscal reality have led us to this crisis: a pension system on the brink of disaster, an enormous debt burden, below-investment-grade credit. Most critically, Chicago Public Schools may not have the money to stay open for the entire school year….the question… will be whether the mayor’s budget provides enough certainty to residents and businesses that their investments will lead us beyond the morale-killing status quo to a more stable and vibrant city. A possible $500 million increase to the city’s property tax levy would be the largest tax increase in Chicago history, yet it would be only a first step. Chicago and its school system will need to make more difficult choices to close structural deficits and pay down nearly $30 billion in unfunded pension liabilities…We have to start to spend within our means — no more “scoop and toss” or borrowing for operating expenses. It would be irresponsible to raise taxes unless the city commits to significant cost reductions and efficiencies. Areas that have been considered untouchable should be reviewed, such as staffing for police and fire, the size of the City Council and the aldermanic menu program. Even with a tax increase, many services will have to be reduced or eliminated.

“Taxpayers will need answers to longer-range questions. How will the choices in this year’s budget impact future debt and taxation levels? How long before the city’s debt burden is reduced to a more manageable level? How does this budget take into account what will be asked of taxpayers to stabilize Chicago Public Schools, Cook County and the state of Illinois?

“Many of Chicago’s fiscal problems are embedded in state law. Any comprehensive solutions will require action from Springfield. State lawmakers should extend the sales tax to certain services, increase revenue sharing with local governments, merge the Chicago Teachers’ Pension Fund with the Illinois Teachers’ Retirement System and consolidate police and fire pension funds throughout the state.

“We cannot change the poor financial decisions that brought us to this crisis. With all that Chicago has to offer, however, we should make the sacrifices necessary to set the city on a more stable fiscal path. Leaders in Chicago and Springfield just need to give taxpayers the confidence that their sacrifice will pay off.”

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The Importance of Being Earnest for a Municipality in federal Bankruptcy Court

eBlog

September 21, 2015

Don’t Count Your Marbles Before They’s Hatched. In a decision U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury acknowledged “puts a bunch of marbles on the road to reorganization” for San Bernardino, Judge Jury last Thursday ruled San Bernardino had not met its legal obligation to bargain with the fire union before outsourcing the Fire Department. The costly setback now means the city has an expensive pothole to repair—something which will consume both time and the city’s inadequate fiscal resources—and as the municipal election and the consequently related issues draw ever closer. San Bernardino, to comply with Judge Jury’s decision, will now have to re-open negotiations if it is to implement its proposed fire services outsourcing—a key fulcrum in its proposed plan of debt adjustment: a plan through which the city had anticipated operating and capital savings, as well as new parcel tax revenues, which would have increased annual general fund revenues by $12 million. The rocky road to exiting municipal bankruptcy also demonstrated the dysfunction created by the city’s fiscal year, throwing off the finely honed timeline under which the proposed outsourcing would have become by July 1. Missing that deadline means waiting 12 months for the beginning of the next fiscal year. If there is one fiscal ray of hope, it is that Judge Jury determined San Bernardino could continue negotiating an interim contract with the San Bernardino County fire district and working through the annexation process required by the Local Agency Formation Commission for San Bernardino County.

The legal setback for the city could make its road to exiting bankruptcy steeper, as San Bernardino’s integrity also appeared to be at risk. While Judge Jury claimed she was uninterested in assigning blame with regard to the negotiation breakdown between San Bernardino and its fire union, telling the courtroom the future should instead be the focus, she was critical of San Bernardino’s claim that it had met about fire outsourcing—a claim Judge Jury found to be contradicted by the city’s own evidence: According to a transcript of a meeting last October at which the city said it had negotiated over outsourcing, for instance, labor attorney Linda Daube and City Manager Allen Parker both say multiple times that contracting out is not part of the proposal they were discussing, with Mr. Parker, according to the transcript, stating: “I am in no position to even recommend that.” That meeting preceded last October’s imposition of new terms of employment on the city’s firefighters, terms which Judge Jury had ruled the city could implement, albeit, as she put it, she had not ruled on the specifics with regard to what the city imposed—adding that, once that happened, San Bernardino, essentially, had used up what she referred to as its “free pass” that municipal bankruptcy gave it to change contracts without going through the normally required process: “Once they have changed the terms and conditions of employment…my reading is they have created then a new status quo, and if they want to modify it further, then they have to modify it under state law, which would require bargaining with the union.”

Judge Jury further noted it was “suspect” that San Bernardino reported in September that it had authorized the city manager in an April closed session meeting to request proposals to provide fire services. But, Judge Jury, who has prior experience representing cities before becoming a judge, said that under California’s open meeting law, the Brown Act, that decision would normally be made in open session —and actions taken during closed session are usually reported publicly immediately afterward — not months later, after a litigant says authorization was never given, adding: “The timing of this is disturbing…It would appear that that (purported closed session vote) was not done, but I can’t make a finding on that today.” In the courtroom, fire union attorney Corey Glave said he might argue that San Bernardino had violated the Brown Act provision which mandates city council approval of contracts over $25,000—adding that because of that the Request for Proposals was improperly issued and would have to be discarded, he would testify at a hearing next week whether the union would pursue that argument. That created still another uh-oh moment, with Judge Jury telling the courtroom that if she agrees with that claim, it could set the city’s municipal bankruptcy case back months—meaning the prohibitively expensive municipal bankruptcy will almost certainly become the longest in American history, and leading Judge Jury to note: “I take this ruling very seriously…“I understand it has a significant impact on this case, and it’s probably the first time I’ve ruled in such a way against the city.”

Steepening Hurdles to Bankruptcy Completion. The timeline setback—and diminution of assets that might be available to be divvied up under a revised San Bernardino plan of debt adjustment can only make more miserable some of San Bernardino’s other creditors, for now the wait will not just be longer, but the assets available under any revised plan of debt adjustment are certain to be smaller. So it can hardly come as a surprise that municipal bond insurers—who now stand to be on the hook for ever increasing amounts—are objecting to San Bernardino’s just sent back to the cleaners proposed plan of debt adjustment. Paul Aronzon, of municipal bond insurer Ambac, filing for his client, wrote, referring to the pre-rejected plan of debt adjustment: “The long-awaited plan is a hodgepodge of unimpaired classes and settlements in various stages – some finalized, some announced but not yet documented, and some that are hinted at, but appear to be more aspirational than real, at this point.” Ambac could be on the hook for its insurance for some $50 million in pension obligation bonds. Fellow worrier and insurer, Erste Europäische Pfandbrief-und Kommunalkreditbank AG (EEPK) attorneys fretted too, claiming San Bernardino proposed “an incomplete set of solutions” based upon “internally inconsistent, and stale, data.” Ambac’s attorneys, referring to the now tossed out plan of debt adjustment’s proposed/anticipated savings from outsourcing fire services and other revenue sources, which the municipal bond insurers claim were not considered in calculating the impairment to the city’s pension bondholders, adding that San Bernardino had not justified the need for $185 million in capital investments to the city’s infrastructure and that the municipality had failed to include $3.9 million in income from the sale of assets to be transferred to the city from its redevelopment successor agency. But they saved their greatest vitriol to claim that the most remarkable feature of San Bernardino’s now partially rejected plan of debt adjustment came from the city’s proposed “draconian” impairment of both the pension obligation bond claims and general unsecured claims, on which the city has proposed to pay roughly 1 penny on the dollar, according to Ambac’s attorneys. EEPK’s attorneys told the federal court that if San Bernardino had utilized its ability to raise sales and use taxes or even parking taxes, it would be able to repay the city’s pension obligation debt in full, or at least substantially more than the 1 percent offered, noting that the severity of the discount warranted explanation. Nevertheless, EEPK’s attorneys added, “[N]owhere does the disclosure statement even attempt to articulate how or why the city formulated the oppressive treatment it proposes for these classes,” in urging Judge Jury to reject the plan—adding that : “In short, the city must be held to its twin burdens of both disclosure and proof that its plan endeavors to pay creditors as much as the city can reasonably afford, not as little as the city thinks it can get away with…The city can and should do better for its creditors — and indeed must do so if its plan is to be confirmed.”

Bankruptcy Protection? The Obama administration late last week urged Congress to move precipitously to address Puerto Rico’s debt crisis, with U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew stating: “Congress must act now to provide Puerto Rico with access to a restructuring regime…Without federal legislation, a resolution across Puerto Rico’s financial liabilities would likely be difficult, protracted, and costly.” The warning came in the wake of Puerto Rican elected leaders warning the U.S. territory might be insolvent by the end of the year—and with Congress only scheduled to meet for portions of eight weeks before the end of the year. In the Treasury letter to Congressional leaders, Sec. Lew appeared to hint the Administration is proposing to go beyond the municipal bankruptcy legislation proposed to date: rather, any Congressional action should, effectively, treat the Commonwealth in a manner to the way municipalities are under current federal law, so that Puerto Rico, as well as its municipalities, would be eligible to restructure through a federal, judicially overseen process—or, as Secretary Lew wrote to U.S. Sen. Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) in July, “a central element of any federal response should include a tested legal bankruptcy regime that enables Puerto Rico to manage its financial challenges in an orderly way.”

The Rocky Fiscal Road to Recovery. Wayne County’s road to emergency fiscal recovery was helped by a Wayne County Circuit Court decision denying a request from a union representing more than 2,500 Wayne County workers to block any wage and benefit changes made under the county’s consent agreement with the state, but fiscally threatened by the County’s recent disclosure that the IRS is conducting a targeted audit of $200 million of bonds—a problem, because, as Moody’s moodily notes: the fiscally stressed largest county in Michigan could face a hard time covering the full costs of the bond payments were the bonds deemed taxable. The denial came in the wake of a Wayne Circuit Court restraining order last week to block wage and benefits changes for Wayne County Sheriff Supervisory Local 3317 union’s affiliates, last week. The decision, according to county officials, “[P]ermit Wayne County to continue its restructuring efforts and move closer to ending the financial emergency.” In its suit, the union had alleged the defendants “have illegally bound themselves by a ‘consent agreement’ with the state’s Executive Branch,” and that “protected and accrued benefits will be dramatically slashed or terminated, contrary to the U.S. Constitution.” The successful appeal comes in the wake of the county’s budget action last week to eliminate what it estimates is left of Wayne County’s $52 million structural deficit; the budget decreases Wayne’s unfunded health care liabilities by 76 percent, reduces the need to divert funds from departments to cover general fund expenditures and, mayhap most critically, creates a pathway to solvency. On the investigation front, however, the county’s recent disclosure that the IRS is conducting a targeted audit of $200 million of bonds is, according to Moody’s, not such good news; rather it is a credit blow for Wayne—to which Moody’s currently assigns the junk-rating of Ba3. The audit involves some $200 million of recovery zone economic development bonds Wayne County issued in 2010 to finance construction of a jail in downtown Detroit—a jail which has subsequently been halted amid cost overruns—and municipal bonds for which the county currently receives a federal subsidy equal to 45% of annual interest payments on the bonds. As Moody’s moodily notes: “The [IRS] examination is credit negative, because it raises the possibility that the county will have to repay $37 million of previously received subsidies and lose $41 million of subsidies over the next five years,” or, as Moody’s analyst Matthew Butler succinctly put it: “Such a loss would further strain the county’s weak but improving fiscal condition,” adding that “Due to statutory limitations on revenue raising, the county would not be able to raise revenue for the increased interest cost.” Mr. Butler gloomily added: “[M]anagement would be challenged in offsetting the loss by implementing further cuts beyond the significant operating cuts already made.” Unsurprisingly, the jail in question has its own financially sordid history: undertaken by former Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano, the fiscal undertaking had led to the indictment of Wayne County’s former CFO and two others connected to the project for misconduct and willful neglect of duty tied to the jail financing. Unsurprisingly, current Wayne County Executive Warren Evans has said that addressing the failed project is his top priority after eliminating the structural deficit. That is a fiscal blight for which successful action is important not just to Wayne County, but also for Detroit.

A Big Hill of Debt to Climb. Hillview, the Kentucky home rule-class city of just over 8,000 in Bullitt County—which filed for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy last month—has been anticipating that Truck America LLC—the municipality’s largest creditor–would “aggressively” challenge the city’s petition—where objections must be filed by a week from Thursday—reports, according to City Attorney Tammy Baker in her discussions with the Bond Buyer, that Hillview plans no restructuring of any of its municipal bonds in its proposed plan of debt adjustment. The small municipality is on the losing side of a court judgment to Truck America for $11.4 million plus interest—a debt significantly larger than the $1.78 million it owes as part of a 2010 pool bond issued by the Kentucky Bond Corp. and $1.39 million in outstanding general obligation bonds Hillview issued in 2010. Nevertheless, City Attorney Tammy Baker advised The Bond Buyer Hillview “does not intend to restructure any of its outstanding municipal bonds through the filing.” The U.S. bankruptcy court’s acceptance of the municipality’s filing triggered the automatic stay on any city obligations, thereby protecting Hillview’s ability to retain some $3,759 in interest payments to the company which have been accruing each and every day on its outstanding trucking debt. According to the city’s filing, the judgment, plus interest totaled $15 million that is due in full—an amount equivalent to more than five times the municipality’s annual revenues. Nonetheless, Moody’s opines that Hillview could face an uphill battle in the federal bankruptcy court in convincing the court that it is insolvent and, thereby, eligible for chapter 9, because, as the credit rating agency notes: “Generally, a municipality must prove that it is not paying its debts on time or is unable to pay the obligations as they become due.” But Moody’s notes the small city could raise its property and/or business license taxes—or it could even issue more debt to finance its obligations to TruckAmerica.

The Rocky Road to Insolvency

September 18, 2015

The Road to Insolvency. Moody’s yesterday cut Ferguson, Missouri’s credit rating by four notches, a downgrade the credit rating agency said reflected the “severe and rapid deterioration of the city’s financial position, possible deletion of fund balances in the near term, and limited options for restoring fiscal stability…” adding the municipality could be headed for insolvency as early as 2017. [In Missouri, any municipality or political subdivision may file for municipal bankruptcy protection (six cities have previously]. The downgrade for the municipality of 21,000—one of 116 municipalities in the St. Louis metro area—came in the wake of the release of the Ferguson Commission report, which was released this week–more than a year after we began in this blog looking at the fiscal complexity of hundreds of municipalities operating in metropolitan areas (there are, for instance, over 280 in the Chicago metropolitan region). The downgrade was a sign of the fiscal fallout from the fatal 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown. The Ferguson report concludes:
• the State of Missouri should establish a publicly accessible database tracking incidents when police use force;
• Missouri’s Attorney General should step in as a special prosecutor in those cases which lead to a death;
• Municipal and county police should be trained with regard to the “implicit bias” which shapes decisions by people who had never consider themselves racist;
• The court system should stop jailing residents for non-violent offenses, locking them away from the jobs they would need to pay off their fines and speeding tickets in the first place, noting, pointedly: “When someone is jailed for failure to pay tickets, the justice system has not removed a dangerous criminal from the streets. In many cases, it has simply removed a poor person from the streets.”

The report, commissioned last fall by Missouri Governor Jay Nixon to dissect to roots of Ferguson’s unrest, also calls for the state of Missouri to expand Medicaid coverage (Missouri is one of 19 states which has refused to do so; it also urges adoption of a $15 minimum wage (the current floor in Missouri is $7.65 an hour). It calls for a cap on the interest predatory payday lenders demand of the poor, and an end to childhood hunger. It recommends smarter transportation investments, a commitment to early childhood education, and disciplinary reform in elementary schools. It even demands “inclusionary zoning” policies to ensure more low-income housing gets built-in neighborhoods with good schools and opportunity. The report, nearly 200 pages long, seeks to weave and connect every interlocking policy problem — in education, housing, transportation, the courts, employment, law enforcement, public health — implicated in the racial inequality at the heart of Ferguson’s unrest. A March report from the U.S. Justice’s Civil Rights Division found the Ferguson police department engaged in unlawful and discriminatory practices partially driven by the city’s reliance on court fine revenue to support its budget. Advocacy groups have filed a series of lawsuits challenging municipal ticketing operations. Between draws in fiscal 2015 which ended June 30, and fiscal 2016 projections, city reserves are expected to fall by 70% compared to audited fiscal 2014 levels.

Moody’s downgrade impacts $6.7 million of outstanding Ferguson general obligation municipal bonds, $8.4 million of certificates of participation from a 2013 issue, and $1.5 million of 2012 certificates or COPs, with the agency noting its downgrade “reflects severe and rapid deterioration of the city’s financial position, possible depletion of fund balances in the near term, and limited options for restoring fiscal stability: “Key drivers of this precipitous drop are declining key revenues, unbudgeted expenditures, and escalating expenses related to ongoing litigation and the Department of Justice consent decree currently under negotiation…”We believe fiscal ramifications from these items could be significant and could result in insolvency…We expect additional detail within the next few months as to the city’s final audited fiscal 2015 results as well as options and financial strategies for addressing these looming costs.”

Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III yesterday responded to the Justice Department report, saying he appreciated the hard work and dedication of the Commission by interviewing hundreds of community stakeholders throughout the metropolitan area, which included Ferguson residents and many of its business owners.

One outcome of the fiscal deterioration and the killing of Michael Brown in the wake of the subsequent rioting focused attention on aggressive policing tactics and the heavy reliance on court fines to prop up local government budgets. Critics note that stiff court fines imposed by local governments like Ferguson’s result in aggressive policing tactics which disproportionally target low-income and minority residents. Along with taxes and other revenue streams in 2010, the city collected over $1.3 million in fines and fees collected by its court. For FY2015, Ferguson’s budget anticipates fine revenues to exceed $3 million – more than double the total from just five years earlier, according to the report. The increase was not tied to crime figures. Ferguson responds that the city has taken action to with new ordinances to limit the use of revenue generated by court fines and fees to 15% of its budget. The city has also revised various policies on collections. The Missouri State Auditor’s office launched probes into 10 local governments’ use of court fines to ensure they comply with the law and plans more. Most Missouri local governments face new restrictions on the use of municipal court fines under legislation signed in July by Gov. Jay Nixon—especially in the wake of the new state commission’s recommendation of a sweeping overhaul of police tactics and court fine practices.

Bankruptcy Protection? Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) reports his Committee will “have to have a hearing” on whether Puerto Rico’s agencies should be able to use bankruptcy to reorganize their finances. Interestingly, Chairman Hatch is in a very unique position to act—as it is the Senate Judiciary Committee which has jurisdiction over municipal bankruptcy legislation—and where Mr. Hatch is not only a member, but also a former Chairman. A staff member on the Finance Committee indicated it likely such a hearing would occur the week after next. For his part, Chairman Hatch, who spoke with Puerto Rico Governor Padilla this week, said “I always intended to have a hearing, because it’s a serious problem and we need to resolve it,” adding that the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico are in “real trouble.” Chairman Hatch reports that legislation extending chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy protection to Puerto Rico, co-sponsored by Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) will be discussed when panel meets.

Steep Roads to Municipal Solvency

eBlog

September 17, 2015

The Steep Road to Fiscal Recovery. Notwithstanding Detroit’s successful recovery from the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy and the signs of an apparent turnaround in surrounding Wayne County, the fiscal challenge and importance of Michigan’s Governor Rick Snyder and the legislature reaching an agreement as part of pending state transportation financing legislation to enable the Motor City to collect its income tax from commuters becomes more readily apparent in the wake of the release yesterday by the U.S. Census Bureau of its report finding Detroit to be the most impoverished major city in the U.S. with 39.3 percent of its population living below a poverty line of $24,008 for a family of four—even as the report found Michigan to be among 12 states which realized a decline in the percentage of people living in poverty in 2014—albeit Michigan’s poverty rate remained higher than the national average. Census found Flint, just an hour from Detroit, to be the nation’s poorest city, with 40.1 percent of its residents living in poverty. If there was a bright spot in the new Census data, it was a decline in the percentage of Michiganders without health insurance coverage: Census reported a decrease from 1,072,000 in 2013 to 837,000 in 2014–due in part to Michigan’s Medicaid expansion, which began enrolling residents in April 2014. Nevertheless, the numbers led Laura Lein, Dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Michigan, to comment: “The economic recovery is not yet affecting poverty or wage levels…It’s simply not affecting the part of the population that is economically challenged.” According to the new Census report, poverty rates remained flat across most of the Metro Detroit, and median income remained stagnant, or, as Richard Lichtenstein, associate professor of health management and policy at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, put it: “Most of the growth in income has been happening among the affluent and very little of it has been floating down to people at the lower income level.”

Poverty in big cities: Below, according to the new Census data, are the U.S. cities with the highest 2014 poverty levels:

  • Detroit, Michigan 39.3
  • Cleveland, Ohio 39.2
  • Fresno, California 30.5
  • Memphis, Tennessee 29.8
  • Milwaukee, Wisconsin 29
  • St. Louis, Missouri 28.5
  • Stockton, California 28.1
  • New Orleans, Louisiana 27.8
  • Miami, Florida 26.2
  • Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 26
    *Cities with population of more than 300,000
    Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Learning to Escape Poverty. The depressing Census numbers with regard to poverty in Detroit emphasize the importance of learning opportunities for the city’s children—but there the fiscal challenge remains daunting: Detroit Public Schools’ (DPS) deficit is increasing by millions of dollars. The system is issuing millions in new debt—at seemingly usurious rates: according to a quarterly report issued yesterday by the Michigan Department of Education, DPS, Michigan’s largest school district, has projected its deficit at $238.2 million as of June 30, or nearly 50 percent greater than a year earlier—that is: a trajectory towards bankruptcy—and making DPS among 14 Michigan school districts whose deficits climbed in 2014-15—a depressing trajectory which Michelle Zdrodowski, a DPS spokesperson, described as due to lower revenue from property taxes and asset sales, higher maintenance and utility costs, and a charge for legal contingencies. DPS, at the end of last week, borrowed $121.2 million through the Michigan Finance Authority—benefitting from being able to borrow through the lower interest rates than it would have been forced to pay on its own (the Michigan state aid revenue notes carry a 5.75 percent interest rate and are due Aug. 22, 2016); nevertheless, according to a state document detailing the financing, DPS has $337.8 million in outstanding loans. Thus the new borrowing to keep the system above water – so-called cash flow borrowing — to “assist with immediate cash flow needs” — coming at the commencement of the academic year (an option in Michigan made available to all public school districts on an annual basis to provide funding during those months when school districts do not receive state aid payment) nevertheless is unlikely to be the kind of math that would lead to good grades—or, as Gary Naeyaert, who leads a school-choice advocacy group, the Great Lakes Education Project, described the fiscal apprehension yesterday: “Michigan’s taxpayers should be outraged by DPS’ continuing efforts to increase their operational debt by borrowing money they simply won’t pay back…When you’re in a hole this deep, the first priority should be to stop digging.” He added that the seemingly usurious interest rate on the loan is a sign of the Detroit Public School District’s increasing fiscal peril: “The standard interest rate on these School Aid Notes is 1 percent for creditworthy districts…The fact that DPS is being charged 5.75 percent indicates what a terrible financial deal this is.” DPS, which has been experiencing declining enrollment for decades, has run a deficit in nine of the past 11 fiscal years—a period during which four state-appointed emergency managers have been named.

Pathway to Solvency. Meanwhile, in surrounding Wayne County, Michigan, County Executive Warren Evans yesterday advised his fellow elected commissioners that the County had reached tentative labor agreements with its employee unions, with his spokesperson stating: “We anticipate announcing major labor agreements with all of our unions in the very near future.” Even without providing details, the spokesperson for the County reported the new contracts would enable Wayne County to achieve the savings it needs without a 5 percent wage cut that the Evans’ administration had proposed earlier this year—a sign which, he indicated—was likely to augur that the unions will vote on the tentative agreements in the next few days. The seemingly upbeat news came as the Commission, meeting yesterday as a committee of the whole, voted preliminary approval to Mr. Evans’ proposed $1.56 billion county budget for FY 2015-16. That vote came as Mr. Evans submitted a projected, reduced $1.45 billion budget for the 2016-2017 fiscal year—with final votes expected today. In proposing the new budget, Mr. Evans told his elected colleagues that his budget would eliminate what remains of Wayne County’s $52 million structural deficit, that it would decrease unfunded health care liabilities by 76 percent, and reduce the need to divert funds from departments to cover general fund expenditures. In short, for a county in state-designated fiscal emergency, the budget would create a pathway to solvency. The county, Michigan’s largest—and the home to Detroit—had successfully sought a state declaration of a financial emergency last June, leading to the consent agreement with the state approved last month. Notwithstanding its potentially disappearing structural deficit, Wayne County still confronts one other daunting hurdle: a $910.5 million underfunded public pension system.

The Sharing Economy. The San Bernardino County Fire Protection District—the body key to the city of San Bernardino’s proposal, as part of its municipal bankruptcy plan of debt adjustment before the U.S. bankruptcy court, to annex or incorporate the city’s fire department—yesterday voted (with the vote taking place in San Bernardino City Council chambers) unanimously to make that and two related applications its top priority, an action intended to ensure the annexation process can be completed by next July 1st. If approved, the savings to bankrupt San Bernardino could be close to $12 million annually, coming from both the operating and capital savings, as well as the related parcel tax (a $143-per-year tax on each of the city’s 56,000 parcels) which requires annexation to implement. The vote could pave the way for public hearings next February, reconsideration in May, and actual commencement of the process by April—albeit an annexation process which could be terminated if more than 50 percent of registered voters protest, or lead to an election if written protests are received from either 25 to 50 percent of registered voters or at least 25 percent of landowners who own at least 25 percent of the total annexation land value. It turns out that in the emerging, sharing economy; sharing can be a most difficult, hurdled process—even where critical to emerging successfully from municipal bankruptcy.

Robbing a Capitol City’s Fiscal Future. Senior Pennsylvania District Judge Richard P. Cashman, voicing concern and apprehension about former Pennsylvania capitol city Harrisburg Mayor Stephen Reed’s style of governance, has upheld some 485 theft and corruption charges filed by the state attorney general’s office and sent the case to trial. Judge Cashman, ruling in Dauphin County court on Tuesday, ruled probable cause exists in the case against the former Mayor, whom the state attorney general’s office alleges used millions of dollars of municipal bond proceeds to purchase Wild West artifacts for a planned museum: the municipal bond proceeds, according to the prosecutors, were to be dedicated for retrofitting of the city’s municipal incinerator, the city’s school system, the Harrisburg Parking Authority, and the Harrisburg Senators minor-league baseball team, which the city owned at the time. The museum never got off the ground, but the municipal bond financing for the incinerator involved cost overruns which led the city to the brink of insolvency (the city successfully exited receivership in March, 2014); indeed, it was during former Mayor Reed’s long tenure as Mayor (from 1982 to 2009) that Pennsylvania’s capital city plummeted to the brink of bankruptcy. Bond financing overruns from the incinerator project largely accounted for the city’s $600 million-plus liability. At a Sept. 14 preliminary hearing, special agent Craig LeCadre, the lead investigator for Attorney General Kathleen Kane’s office, likened Reed to “a hoarder on steroids,” reporting that his investigators found roughly 10,000 artifacts in the basement of Mr. Reed’s apartment near the state capitol, and prosecutors presented a slide show which featured included a vampire hunting kit, a bronze statue of a cowboy on a bucking bronco, and a Spanish armor suit. They valued the latter two at $19,000 and $14,000, respectively.

Protecting Public Health & Safety in Fiscal Distress. The Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (PRASA) has reached a tentative settlement with the U.S. Justice Department and EPA under which it will spend $1.5 billion to upgrade and improve its system-wide sewer systems serving the municipalities of San Juan, Trujillo Alto, and portions of Bayamon, Guaynabo and Carolina, according to the U.S. Justice Department—as well as to invest sufficient funds to construct sanitary sewers to serve communities surrounding the Martin Peña Canal—improvements affecting the health and safety of some 20,000 U.S. citizens. Under the terms of the agreement with the Justice Dept., and in recognition of PRASA’s fiscal stress, the Justice Dept. waived civil penalties for violations alleged in a complaint, noting that many of the “provisions of the agreement have been tailored to focus on the most critical problems first, giving more time to address the less critical problems over time.” John Cruden, Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s environment and natural resources division, noted that certain projects required under the 2006 and 2010 agreements had been found to be no longer necessary, because the island’s population has declined, so that the stipulated upgrades were no longer critical to protect public health and safety from the “public’s exposure to serious health risks posed by untreated sewage,” adding that—in reaching the settlement, “The United States has taken Puerto Rico’s financial hardship into account by prioritizing the most critical projects first, and allowing a phased in approach in other areas.” The settlement, which is pending before the U.S. District Court for Puerto Rico, is subject to a 30-day public comment period and must be approved by the federal court.

Advice & Consent

September 15, 2015

Motor City-County Bonds? Wayne County Executive Warren Evans has issued his first order under the County’s consent agreement with the State of Michigan—an order which requires all county employees to comply with the consent agreement and report any potential breaches to his office, and which requires all county departments to obtain permission from the Wayne County CFO prior to entering into any contracts which could be considered debt under the terms of the county’s consent agreement. (The decree requires Wayne to continue to make timely debt payments—and bars the county from filing for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy while operating under the decree.) Mr. Evans’ order directs county workers to comply with the consent agreement and outlines protocols for breach: “The purpose of issuing this order is to ensure that county employees, elected officials, along with our contractors understand what is required while the consent agreement is in place.” The extraordinary fiscal authority comes as the County—of which Detroit is the seat—is grappling with a $52 million structural deficit, stemming from a $100 million drop in annual property tax revenues since 2008 and an underfunded pension system. The county’s primary pension plan is 45 percent funded and has a liability of $910.5 million, based on its latest actuarial valuation. That is, Wayne County and Detroit’s respective fiscal foundations are inextricably connected. Mr. Evans is seeking to fix the county’s finances under the consent agreement by reducing future pension obligations and retiree benefits and taking other actions to eliminate the structural deficit. Under the agreement, Mr. Evans and the county commission retain their powers and responsibilities: the unique agreement also grants Mr. Evans the power to impose contract terms with the county’s unions if they are unable to hammer out labor agreements after a month of good-faith negotiations—an avenue Mr. Evans has said repeatedly he prefers to reach agreements with the county’s unions at the bargaining table. Among the agreement’s provisions he has emphasized to Wayne County employees:
■All county contracts or agreements must include the requirements of Public Act 436 and the consent agreement.
■All county employees, elected officials or entities that have contracts with the county must inform the executive of any potential breach of the consent agreement.
■Before any contract is entered into that is considered debt under the consent agreement, a copy must be given to the county’s chief financial officer for approval.
In addition, the county has also put up a new web page so that citizens and taxpayers can follow and understand the issues. Mr. Evans noted: “The purpose of issuing this order is to ensure that county employees, elected officials, along with our contractors understand what is required while the consent agreement is in place…It is important for everyone to understand what to expect as we move together through this process to restore our financial health.”

The order which was approved by the County Board last month, comes as Mr. Evans is in the middle of a 30-day period of negotiations with county unions on new labor contracts. Should the negotiations produce no agreements, Wayne County—under the consent agreement with the state, is authorized to impose its own labor contracts. While the 12-page agreement with the State allows Wayne County to try to restructure some of its debt or reach settlements with creditors, it bars Wayne County from issuing any more municipal bonds without state permission. The consent agreement gives Wayne County until Jan. 31st to present the state with a plan for its abandoned jail project in downtown Detroit—an unfinished facility, which was financed with $200 million of municipal bonds. The forlorn project has been abandoned since 2013 due to cost overruns, but, under Wayne’s agreement with the state, Michigan will assume financial oversight over the project. It will be up to Michigan Treasurer Nick Khouri when to release Wayne County from the agreement—and, in any case, under its terms, Michigan will continue to monitor Wayne’s finances for two additional years following any release from the agreement by the state.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, however, the new consent agreement is already being tested: Wayne County is appealing a restraining order won by Wayne County Sheriff Supervisory Local 3317, which is seeking to block changes to sheriff deputies’ wages and benefits made under the county’s consent agreement. The County reports it will seek an emergency appeal of the ruling by Wayne Circuit Judge John Murphy after Wayne County Sheriff Supervisory Local 3317 petitioned the court for relief from changes to compensation the county imposed for command officers at the sheriff’s office—in effect, a challenge not just to Wayne County, but also to the State of Michigan.

Scrambling in Scranton. Even as agent from the Pennsylvania state Attorney General’s office yesterday showed Senior District Judge Richard Cashman slides of many of the artifacts that former Harrisburg Mayor Stephen Reed, who served for 28 years, is charged with illegally using public funds to purchase for museums which never materialized in a preliminary hearing on hundreds of criminal counts including theft, misapplication of government property, criminal solicitation, bribery and tampering with evidence; the losses created continue to wreak fiscal havoc. Elsewhere, yesterday, Scranton Mayor Bill Courtright announced the city likely will lease, rather than sell, its five parking garages and on-street parking meters to a nonprofit organization which will operate them. In addition, the city and financial consultant Henry Amoroso launched a new website, scrantonforward.org, to inform the public about the progress of Scranton’s recovery plan initiatives. Mayor Courtright, in announcing his plan to try to monetize the municipal garages, said the result likely would be a concession lease agreement with the nonprofit National Development Council: “We have taken a disciplined and focused approach to finding solutions to our financial challenges. Step-by-step we are restoring confidence and moving Scranton forward…I am confident that the steps we have taken will provide us with the best possible fit for our city, which will allow us to retain ownership of our parking assets while reducing the financial burden on the City.” The fiscal scrambling comes in the wake of a series of decisions by the City Council three years ago which led to the default by the Scranton Parking Authority (SPA) on payments owed under two loans, one issued in 2009 by Pennstar Bank and another in 2011 by Landmark Community Bank, as well as a June 2012 payment owed by the authority municipal parking bonds. The decision to default on the bank loans resulted in over two-years of litigation; the decision to miss the bond payment resulted in the court appointment of a receiver to oversee the operations of the authority. As Mayor Courtright puts it: “Since coming into office, our focus has been on getting Scranton’s finances back on track…We’ve been able to clear up the Pennstar and Landmark defaults, and now we’re progressing into responsibly monetizing the City’s parking assets so we can eliminate or significantly reduce the bad Parking Authority debt for which the City is now responsible.” Currently, the City must budget about $2.9 million a year to cover SPA-related costs. He said a responsible monetization will take the form of a lease concession, where the City will maintain ownership of valuable parking assets and control over key decisions while shifting burden of excessive debt payments off of Scranton taxpayers, or, as the city’s consultant put it: “Whenever the SPA (the parking authority) cannot make its debt service payments out of its own revenues, the City must make up the difference.” Scranton’s financial consultant, Henry Amoroso added: “The numbers speak for themselves…The City can’t continue to shoulder the burden of SPA-related costs. It’s unsustainable.”

The road back to fiscal sustainability has been steep: On August 23rd, 2012, the City of Scranton took its first step in restoring long term fiscal stability and repairing the City’s creditworthiness by adopting a new Recovery Plan that replaced the 2002 Recovery Plan with a new Recovery Plan to provide the fiscal framework for the City’s governing bodies to follow through 2015: the 2014 Budget called for a tax increase of 49.99%. Additionally, the City of Scranton has increased current refuse fees, which will allow the City to receive an additional $2.2 million dollars. Further revenue enhancements such as increasing the Rental Registration Fee will allow the City to receive an additional $300,000.

Under the new parking arrangement, the plan calls for the city to lease its parking system, to eliminate Scranton Parking Authority debt that the city guarantees, retain ownership of the parking assets, and eliminate a court-appointed receivership which has controlled the parking garages since a 2012 default of SPA debt by that authority and the city. Under the agreement, along with retaining ownership of garages and meters, Scranton will retain veto power over key public policy considerations during the term of the concession lease, such as rate setting and certain capital improvement projects. Upon closing of the transaction, Scranton will be able to retire most SPA debt and refinance leftover debt, called stranded debt, at more favorable rates and terms; the city also will have the opportunity to share in revenue generated from the concessionaire’s operation of Scranton’s parking system. Or, as Mayor Courtright noted, his administration previously cleared up two other related defaults of bank loans which stemmed from the SPA default and harmed Scranton’s creditworthiness: “We have taken a disciplined and focused approach to finding solutions to our financial challenges. Step-by-step we are restoring confidence and moving Scranton forward…I am confident that the steps we have taken will provide us with the best possible fit for our city, which will allow us to retain ownership of our parking assets while reducing the financial burden on the city.”

The Seemingly Irreconcilable Challenge between Addressing Debt & Investing in the Future

September 11, 2015

Investing in Kids? S&P has lowered its ratings on the Michigan Finance Authority’s series 2011 revenue bonds to A from A-plus and series 2012 revenues bonds to A-minus from A-plus with a negative outlook—bonds issued by the MFA for the Detroit Public Schools, with S&P analyst John Sauter writing: “The district’s continued overall financial and liquidity deterioration is another contributing factor.” The bonds, which are payable from the repayment of loans made by the MFA to the Motor City’s school district—loans secured by all appropriated annual state aid to be received by the school district—which has irrevocably assigned 100% of its pledged state aid to the loans (and thereby to the authority’s bonds). The district’s 2011 obligation holds a first-lien pledge of state aid, and the 2012 obligation a second lien. The district’s limited-tax general obligation (GO) pledge also secures both obligations. The ratings reflect the strength and structural features of the district’s state aid pledge to its obligations. Mr. Sauter noted: “The downgrade is based on severe declines in the district’s enrollment, and subsequently, pledged state aid available to pay debt service.” DPS’ credit downward trajectory appears to reflect continued fiscal stress as indicated by significant growth in DPS’ accumulated operating fund balance deficit from FY2014 and ongoing declines in enrollment—declines which pressure operating revenue, as well as the perception that DPS lacks the capacity to reverse the negative operating trend. But the rating also takes into consideration the weak economic profile of the City of Detroit (B3 stable), DPS’ substantial debt burden, and an operating budget constrained by high fixed costs. Absent enrollment and revenue growth, fixed costs will comprise a growing share of DPS’s annual financial resources and potentially stress the sufficiency of year-round cash flow. The unholy combination of falling revenue, rising costs, and credit downgrades can raise the cost of borrowing money—creating a vicious cycle that erodes the fiscal capacity to invest in Detroit’s future taxpayers. Michigan law prohibits its school districts from raising property taxes for operating funds over 18 mills on non-homestead properties; thus, many districts have cut spending, laid off teachers and other staff and eliminated some school programs. DPS has been under the auspices of a state emergency manager for several years and has about $483 million in debt. The district’s enrollment was once well above 100,000 students, but now is about 47,000. Former state superintendent of Public Instruction Mike Flanagan wrote earlier this year in a report to education appropriation subcommittees as he was leaving his post that cash needs could force Detroit Schools to refinance even more debt. The downgrade affects both costs and reputation: for Detroit, its ability to leverage families to move into the city is inherently dependent upon the reputation of its public school system.

Planning Debt Adjustment. When a municipality is in bankruptcy, it is forced to juggle thousands upon thousands of issues relating to constructing a plan of debt adjustment with its creditors that will secure the federal court’s approval—a process made ever more difficult with the approach of elections. This adds stress—and confusion—as could be observed in San Bernardino in the wake of a brief welter of confusion yesterday when a tentative contract agreement already reported to U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury was abruptly pulled off the City Council agenda—a contract with the city’s general unit, which represents some 357 employees who are not in another union, such as police or management. Nevertheless, the contract is now set for the Council to review in closed session at the city council’s meeting scheduled for a week from Monday—in this instance, a contract with regard to leave policy for the city’s employees, who have been working under a contract which expired June 30th as they negotiated with the city for a new contract. The need for a revision arose in the wake of the city’s implementation of one part of its 2012 bankruptcy plan — freezing leave which had accrued before August 2012, when the city filed for bankruptcy protection. That meant that by this year, many employees wound up with negative leave balances—a situation which a city official described to the Council as “very detrimental to the employees.”

Debt Restructuring Outside of Bankruptcy. If you can imagine an NFL football game without any referees or under-inflated footballs, you can begin to imagine the chaos triggered by the release in Puerto Rico this week of its quasi plan of debt adjustment—a plan which, unsurprisingly, calls for its municipal bondholders in each of the nation’s 50 states to accept less than they are owed. The U.S. territory has $13 billion less than it needs to cover its debt payments over the next five years—and that is even after taking into account the proposed spending cuts and measures to raise revenue in the newly proposed plan. Puerto Rico officials estimate that the island will have only $5 billion of available funds to repay $18 billion of debt service on $47 billion of debt, excluding obligations of its electric and water utilities. The projected debt-funding shortfall is after anticipated savings from the consolidation of 135 public schools, reductions in health-care spending, additional subsidy cuts and reductions in payroll expenses. So now, in an unrefereed, unprecedented fiscal process, Puerto Rico’s fiscal team plans to present its investors with a debt-exchange offer in the next few weeks. It also intends to seek a moratorium on principal payments. And it will not have long: the whistle will blow by the end of the year, leaving the unenviable challenge and task of seeking to get all the creditors on the field quickly: Puerto Rico is on course to run out of cash by the end of this calendar year unless it can refinance its debt—or as non-football BlackRock analyst Peter Hayes yesterday put it: “They have a real solvency issue…They have a liquidity crisis on their hands that grows very dire by the end of the year.” And the fiscal threat and challenge was exacerbated by S&P’s dropping of Puerto Rico’s tax-backed debt to CC from CCC-, and removal of the U.S. territory’s ratings from CreditWatch, where they had been placed with negative implications July 20. The outlook is negative. With the near certainty of a default or restructuring—or fiscal event, there is an increased likelihood of either a missed debt service payment or a distressed exchange which would resemble a default. Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla stated that if Puerto Rico’s creditors are unwilling to partake in restructuring negotiations, Puerto Rico would have no alternative but to proceed without them even if it involved “years of litigation and defaults.”

Herding Angry Sheep. In a television address, Gov. Padilla yesterday announced the appointment of a team of debt restructuring experts to negotiate with Puerto Rico’s creditors—a process which would be unprecedented as those creditors run from some of the world’s most sophisticated to tens of thousands of individual municipal bondholders in each of the nation’s 50 states—and a process which, absent action by Congress, might more resemble gladiators in a coliseum than the kinds of overseen negotiations which took place under the aegis of U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes in Detroit. Adding to the uncertainty, the report on which such negotiations is premised is technically only a recommendation. Try and imagine a football game not only without referees or under inflated balls, but also without agreed upon rules. That report projects Puerto Rico’s treasury will exhaust its liquidity by November—and only until then if Puerto Rico takes extraordinary measures to preserve cash. Unlike a non-governmental corporation—Puerto Rico has no ability to act unilaterally: actions require legislative and gubernatorial action and concurrence. Moreover, it is not just Puerto Rico, but also the Puerto Rico Government Development Bank (GDB)–which is projected to exhaust its liquidity before the end of calendar 2015. And there are dozens and dozens of municipalities at growing fiscal risk (Puerto Rico’s municipalities cannot file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection, and a local debt-restructuring law enacted in June 2014 was thrown out by a federal judge in San Juan.). But, like in football game, there is a clock: and it is already running: we know that Puerto Rico will not have fully sufficient fiscal resources in FY2016 to make payment on its scheduled tax-supported debt, including its General Obligation (GO) debt, so that for creditors, it is almost as if the music for a game of musical chairs has already started. The report released this week forecasts a total central government deficit as a whole, including the general fund, GDB net revenue, COFINA, federal programs, and Puerto Rico Highways & Transportation Authority (HTA) net revenue, in fiscal 2016 of $3.2 billion, or about 16 percent of expenditures, including payment of debt service; it projects only a $924 million surplus available before payment of debt service. That is, it appears, as in musical chairs, that there simply will be insufficient fiscal capacity to meet the obligations to pay $1.8 billion of GO and GO-guaranteed debt service (GO debt service alone is $1.2 billion), much less total central government debt service, including GO debt, of $4.1 billion. Or, as Mr. Hayes wrote: “We rate all Puerto Rico tax-backed debt at the same ‘CC’ level, except for Puerto Rico Public Finance Corp. (PFC) debt, which is currently in default and rated ‘D,’ reflecting the report’s projection of limited liquidity to meet all debt service before the end of calendar 2015, including GO debt service, and the report’s recommendation to enter restructuring discussions with all tax-backed debt holders.”

Municipal Bankruptcy Is Large, Complicated, & Seemingly Unending

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.