Avoiding Municipal Insolvency, Except as a Last Resort

October 20, 2015. Share on Twitter

Avoiding Municipal Insolvency, Except as a Last Resort. Gov. Rick Snyder yesterday outlined a $715 million plan to split the Detroit Public School System (DPS) into two separate districts: a plan to both help improve academic performance, but also pay down more than a half billion dollars in DPS’s operating debt, marking the second time in six months that the governor has detailed plans to overhaul education in Detroit. Detroit Public Schools has lost close to 100,000 students over the past 10 years, according to Gov. Snyder’s office. The district has not yet released enrollment numbers for this school year, which were taken during a recent student count day, but it had about 47,000 students last year. Gov. Snyder would not say outright whether the alternative is taking DPS into bankruptcy, given the amount of state liability vested in the existing district. Rather, he said, this plan would avert the need for bankruptcy. Should the district default on its debt, Gov. Snyder said the cost to the state could soar beyond the $715 million expected over 10 years as the current school system pays back its debt: “I don’t use the bankruptcy word except as a very, very last resort…It is very reasonable and fair to say that compared to this solution, that solution could be much more expensive.”

Pensionary Complications. Gov. Snyder is seeking legislative action by the end of this year to create a $715 million, debt-free school district in the Motor City over the next decade, meaning the current district would exist only to pay off the debt, noting in his presentation: “This package provides an answer that’s rational, that’s comprehensive, that is lower cost and much less chaotic than the other alternatives.” A key issue confronting the school system is its nearly $100 million liability to Michigan’s school employee pension system—a debt of such proportions that a judge could be petitioned to order DPS or the state to pay up—an order, were it to be issued, which could trigger higher property taxes for the city of Detroit or an emergency bailout by the Legislature. Gov. Snyder warned the state could be on the hook for DPS’ $1.5 billion unfunded pension liability if lawmakers are unable to stabilize the district’s finances by assuming a projected $515 million in operating debt payments that were mostly racked up by state-appointed emergency managers, noting: “That’s an unfunded liability that would get spread to the other districts if DPS wasn’t making payments…There’s a lot of extra money that would have to go out if this doesn’t get done.” Gov. Snyder’s dire warning came in anticipation of the long-expected introduction of legislation to create new layers of oversight of DPS in exchange for the state assuming the seemingly relentless growth in the system’s operating debt amassed by emergency managers in recent years—a debt the cost of which to pay off has now reached the equivalent of an annual cost of $50 for every child in Michigan. The accumulated operating debt of DPS is expected to top $515 million by June 2016. In his remarks, Gov. Snyder noted Michigan’s School Aid Fund can handle the roughly $70 million annual payment for the next decade without taking money away from other schools districts—that is, under his proposal, helping DPS would not have to come at the expense of other Michigan public school districts—a claim that might be semantical—as the ever insightful Citizens Research Council notes: “Clearly you’re taking money that would be available to other school districts to help a single school district.”

  • Costs. Under the Governor’s proposal, the new Detroit Community School District would need $200 million to cover $100 million in startup costs and initial capital improvements of facilities and $100 million to account for continued declining enrollment in the city. The new District would not be barred from seeking voter-approved millages for capital improvements unless and until the old district’s operating debt was paid off, and, according to John Walsh, Gov. Snyder’s strategy director, it is possible the $715 million figure could be reduced if Detroit’s economy continues to rebound, businesses relocate to the city, and property tax collections continue to increase, adding; “With property values going up, it could take less time to pay off.” Michigan’s contribution to Detroit’s federally approved plan of debt adjustment amounted to $350 million spread over 20 years—a state contribution which Mr. Walsh led, at the time, as a key leader in the Michigan House—leadership which will be critical for what is anticipated to be a “tough sell in the Legislature.” Moreover, such a new Detroit school district would still be liable for paying down the $1.5 billion in the system’s unfunded pension liabilities—with Gov. Snyder resisting the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren’s call for DPS to be exempted from continuing to pay its share of pension costs for current and former employees. As of last week, DPS was $99.5 million behind in public pension payments to the Michigan Public School Employee Retirement System—a debt exacerbated by $100,000 in monthly late fees and $12,000 in daily in interest penalties, according to state’s Office of Retirement Services.
  • Governance. Originally, the governor had proposed the creation of a new financial review commission to have oversight and veto power over spending decisions of the new school district in Detroit. In his revised plan, he is proposing to utilize the existing Financial Review Commission, which was created as part of the Detroit plan of debt adjustment, so that there would be long-term state oversight of Detroit’s finances. The Governor’s plan also retains another layer of oversight of all city schools in a Detroit Education Commission: it would entail hiring a chief education officer with the power to open and close academically failing schools run by DPS, charter schools, and the Education Achievement Authority. The commission’s membership would include three gubernatorial appointees and two mayoral appointees: it would be charged with streamlining some services for all schools, such as enrollment. But in the governor’s revised plan, he makes a common enrollment system voluntary. Gov. Snyder said he and Mayor Duggan are still discussing the mayor’s role in school reform in Detroit: Mayor Duggan has expressed a desire for more local control of Detroit schools, or, as Gov. Snyder put it: “The mayor sees the value in this, but there is a difference in governance: The mayor’s office still has issues they want to talk about, and I feel it’s important to get this dialogue going. We’ve taken a lot of input from the mayor. We have a supportive, positive relationship. No, we don’t agree on every issue.” Earlier this month, Mayor Duggan reiterated that he is advocating for local control, including an elected school board for Detroit to run its 100 public schools. He further proposed that an election be held next spring. Mayor Duggan has said the city needs an education commission with membership that he appoints, as recommended by the education coalition. The commission, he said, would level the playing field between public schools and charters and help to set standards for where they are needed and can locate.
  • Oversight. Gov. Snyder’s announcement follows news of an FBI corruption investigation involving DPS and the Governor’s K-12 reform district, the Education Achievement Authority, leading the Gov. to note: “I think it’s fair to say it complicates it.” Under his revised proposal, a new seven-member school board would be created to govern the new Detroit school district. The governor would appoint four board members, and Mayor Mike Duggan would appoint three board members. Mayor Duggan has resisted appointing school board members and has called for the return of an elected board. Detroit’s elected school board has been without policy decision-making powers for six years, during which time the district has been under the control of four state-appointed emergency managers. Gov. Snyder indicated he was open to changes in the legislative process. “Let’s get the legislative process going and let’s work through that…Not everyone is going to like every piece of this.” Members of the House Detroit Democratic caucus said they were ready to work with Gov. Snyder on a reform plan — as long as it includes local control of schools. “The state has controlled DPS for many years, and it has been a failure,” said Rep. Brian Banks, caucus chairman. “We have to find a better way, and we believe that way lies through local control. We look forward to working with all stakeholders to address all of the issues surrounding DPS.”
  • Partners. Gov. Snyder took care not to alienate the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, which offered a reform plan in late March. One of the major differences between the coalition’s plan and the Governor’s is his recommendation for a voluntary enrollment system, as opposed to the mandatory system the coalition recommended. “We looked at the best practices around the country and they were all voluntary, and we felt that was the best way to go for parents, to give them more choice…We encourage charters to join the voluntary system in terms of making their school decisions.” Gov. Snyder also said the coalition presented far more recommendations than he used. “It’s not that we don’t agree,” he said. “It’s just that they (many of the recommendations from the coalition) didn’t appear to be prudent for state legislation.”
  • The forthcoming bills are expected to include:

• The Detroit Public Schools would be phased out completely once DPS pays down roughly $515 million in outstanding operating debt. It also collects a $70 million millage from city taxpayers. The city’s Financial Review Commission would oversee the old district while the debt is repaid.
• An additional $200 million would go to the new Detroit Community School District in startup funding and to cover anticipated operating losses due to potential declining enrollment. The new district also would be responsible for about $1.5 billion in pension obligations.
• A new seven-member board would be created to govern the Detroit Community School District. Its members initially would be appointed by Snyder and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, with elections phased in beginning in 2017. The board makeup would be majority-elected by 2019 and fully elected by 2021.
• A new Detroit Education Commission would be created, with oversight of the new Detroit school district, the Education Achievement Authority and charter public schools. Its members would be appointed by Snyder and Duggan and would be charged with hiring a chief education officer. The chief education officer would be in charge of academics, including having authority to close low-performing schools.
• A standard enrollment system would be introduced, with common forms and enrollment periods for all participating schools to help parents review options for their children. The common enrollment would be voluntary for schools, although all schools would be required to report academic and other performance standards for transparency.

Are There Alternates to Municipal Bankruptcy? In the absence of access to municipal bankruptcy because of Congressional reluctance, the U.S. Treasury, in discussions with Puerto Rico, has proposed consideration of the creation of a new municipal bond security—one which would be senior to Puerto Rico’s general obligation or GO bonds—and which could act as an exchange vehicle in a sweeping debt restructuring. Reportedly, the proposal would shift collection of all or some of Puerto Rico’s income, sales and use, and other tax revenues to the Internal Revenue Service or the Bureau of Fiscal Service in the U.S. Treasury: such tax receipts would pass through a quasi-lockbox before such revenues would then be effectively returned to the U.S. commonwealth—effectively creating a new governmental entity to securitize these new lockbox revenues. Because the potential governing and taxing structure would, effectively, bypass the existing constitutional revenue structure for the island and its constitution, the proposal appears to be a means under which Puerto Rico’s many, many municipal bondholders would be incentivized to exchange their newly-subordinated Puerto Rico municipal bonds at a discount for certificates of the new U.S. quasi-municipal security. The plan—in part based on a recognition that Congress appears almost certain not to act—nevertheless confronts signal hurdles and skepticism—or as our admired friends at Municipal Market Analytics put it: “[O]n its own, this debt strategy has little chance of success: without a meaningful, definitive, and well-supported program to restructure Puerto Rico’s revenue mix and operational spending, bondholders cannot judge the long-term effectiveness of any proposed debt haircut or the value in any exchange security, regardless of how structurally-insulated from PR’s economy and finances it appears to be….” Adding: “[T]here are massive execution risks in this plan, not the least of which is a (likely) need for Congressional approval. The US Treasury has been convincing that, beyond operational assistance, this plan intends no injection of Federal cash to PR and no other characteristics of a bailout. Yet, seeing as how Republicans oppose the extension of chapter 9 to Puerto Rico on the grounds that it would somehow be a bailout implies an extremely low hurdle for debt holders to successfully lobby their opposition to this plan.” In addition, of course, is the tricky issue of federalism: can you imagine any governor or state legislature which would willingly relinquish control of its income, sales and use, or other taxes to the federal government? MMA slyly adds that even were the Puerto Rican legislature to buy into such a proposal, there would be comparable doubt as to whether current Puerto Rico municipal bondholders scattered across the continental U.S. would be standing in long lines to exchange their current general obligation bonds for an untested new model. Moreover, as MMA masterfully writes:

“Finally, the island’s liquidity issues are on a much tighter schedule than a plan of this magnitude could hope to be. With the real possibility of a PR government shutdown and additional bond defaults before year end, this plan, if it happens at all, would most likely be a means for PR to cure, and not avoid, payment defaults. This is an important distinction, because ‘cure’ strategies have, by definition, a higher standard for long-term benefit, further complicating the plan’s implementation prospects. While this plan will help PR collect the taxes it is supposed to collect, any increase in taxes—even on “underground” economic activity—effectively relocates capital from PR citizens to the government, worsening the local economy and out-migration trends. So while the exchange security may get a first crack at all revenues—just as PR’s GO security is purported to do—it is unreasonable to expect that those revenues will move anywhere but downward over time, creating incremental pressure on now less-flexible PR finances. Any post-default implementation of this plan would need to consider these secondary effects and ensure that the new financing will not cripple PR in the future.”

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