The Twin Challenges of Terrorism & Municipal Bankruptcy

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December 22, 2015. Share on Twitter

Readying to Recover from Terrorism and Municipal Bankruptcy. The San Bernardino City Council yesterday unanimously chose the current Burbank, California City Manager, Mark Scott, to be the new city manager—with San Bernardino Police Chief Jarrod Burguan to serve in the interim effective January 1st—the date on which current Manager Allen Parker’s resignation (by mutual negotiation) becomes effective. Under the apparent agreement, according to Chief Deputy City Attorney Jolena Grider, Mr. Scott has signed a one-year contract, for $248,000, with a 30-day notice to terminate, about a seven percent increase over the current salary, but a significant reduction from the salary he had been receiving at the time he offered his resignation last month. In accepting the offer, Mr. Scott told the San Bernardino Sun he had expressed interest in the San Bernardino city manager position just a few days prior to the Dec. 2nd terrorism attack and that he had experienced the city’s heart since then: “I’m at the point in my career where I’m looking to join a high-functioning team…and I believe you’ve got many people here — including yourselves (elected officials), including people in the audience — who are capable of fulfilling the promise.” Mr. Scott will continue in Burbank until the first week of February, but he intends to try to devote a significant amount of time in San Bernardino in the interim. Councilman John Valdivia proposed removing housing assistance from Scott’s compensation. But when City Attorney Gary Saenz said it would be helpful to keep it — given that relocation for a year can be expensive, and it’s good to have a city manager who lives in the city — and no other council members supported the idea, Valdivia joined the unanimous vote.

Meanwhile, Chief Burguan, who has been widely praised for his leadership in response to the terrorist attack in the city—but who has led a department with significant challenges, was approved without discussion, notwithstanding concerns several Council Members had earlier expressed when his role as interim city manager was first proposed. There was, however, no public discussion yesterday before he was approved unanimously, for a salary of $19,104.88 per month, not quite $1,000 more than he now makes as police chief.

The attacks in San Bernardino at the Inland Regional Center affected not just the city, but also other responding governments. Yesterday, each ratified emergency proclamations, a key step to ensure their eligibility to seek state and federal funding to recover expenses. The costs for San Bernardino already are nearing $1 million. The unanimous votes yesterday came in the wake of each jurisdiction’s unanimous proclamation last by executives designated as director of emergency services: San Bernardino Mayor Carey Davis, Redlands City Manager N. Enrique Martinez, and San Bernardino County CEO Greg Devereaux. The San Bernardino City Council voted unanimously yesterday to ask the state for financial help. Despite San Bernardino’s municipal bankruptcy, outgoing City Manager Allen Parker reported the city’s budget could accommodate overtime and other costs created by the attack. Mr. Parker referenced unanticipated savings from spending less than expected on salaries, because the municipality had prepared and adopted its budget with the expectation that 5 percent of positions would be vacant. Instead, approximately 15 percent of positions are vacant. What remains unclear, in the wake of the tragedy, is how the mass shootings might impact assessed residential and business property values.

Rocky Start & Juggling Diverse Claims. Mr. Scott will have homework aplenty to prepare for his new position and responsibilities—not just to help San Bernardino try to recover from the terrorist attack and the attack’s potential fiscal impact via fear and intimidation to undercut the city’s economy, but also from parallel attacks from the city’s municipal bondholders and insurers—who, in challenging San Bernardino’s most recent financial disclosures in U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury’s court have written about what they assert constitute a lack of coherent financial disclosure, with Ambac Assurance Corp. attorney Thomas Keller writing: “(San Bernardino’s) revised disclosure statement still falls woefully short of containing the ‘adequate information’ to which creditors are entitled before being asked to vote on the revised plan [of debt adjustment],” in the firm’s filing in preparation for a status hearing Judge Jury has scheduled for tomorrow—a hearing at a time when the city, unsurprisingly, is not just transfixed by the terrible terrorist shootings, but also in a governance flux: it is most difficult to imagine that Chief Burguan, in addition to the awful responsibilities and burdens he carries in the wake of the shootings, but now also with being the interim manager, will be able to devote to these claims.

Indeed, the city two weeks ago, declared a state of emergency: it is seeking reimbursement from the federal government for costs associated with the attack. It is difficult to imagine the fiscal and time and attention juggling sought by some of the city’s creditors—in this instance Ambac and Erste Europäische Pfandbrief-und Kommunalkreditbank AG (EEPK), the former being the municipal bond insurer of some $50 million in pension obligation bonds held by EEPK—whose attorneys each filed further objections to San Bernardino’s financial disclosures in response to the amended disclosure statement San Bernardino November 25th—just one week before the terrorist attack in San Bernardino. In their claim, the creditors asked challenged the city’s proposed “draconian” plan to pay only paying 1 percent of its owed promises on its pension obligation bonds and general unsecured claims—especially when the city’s financial disclosures are so “murky,” adding that, in its filing, San Bernardino had failed to explain an additional $200 million in expenses and reserves mentioned in supplemental filings—new provisions, including a $24 million bankruptcy reserve fund, an additional $14 million for police fleet replacement, and $159 million for the “police services master plan.” Notwithstanding what one of the challengers claimed to be the “enormous size” of these new spending and reserve items, he said the amended disclosure statement only provides partial or cursory explanations: “The enormous size of these changes calls into question the validity of the city’s financial projection methodology, and certainly warrant clear disclosure in the body of the amended disclosure statement and significant analysis and explanation by the city.” Under San Bernardino’s proposed plan, holders of $50 million of unsecured pension obligation bonds would receive payments of $655,000 plus interest over time; holders of general unsecured claims between $130 million and $150 million would receive a pro rata share of about one percent—or $1.3 million after the plan became effective, according to the city’s filing—with the plan before Judge Jury noting: “The city believes that the plan provides the greatest and earliest possible recoveries to holders of claims while preserving necessary city services and operations.” One struggles to imagine the task confronting Judge Jury: already charged with the responsibility to weigh whether San Bernardino has put together a plan of debt adjustment which, if approved, would provide for fiscal sustainability, she too has to be keenly aware that the terrorist attack has imposed a whole different and unique set of creditors for whom the city will have to bear responsibility.

Waiting for Godot. Standard & Poor’s retained Atlantic City on credit watch negative, pending, the credit rating agency reported, a long-awaited resolution of Gov. and still-Presidential contender Chris Christie’s conditional vetoes of a rescue package for Atlantic City approved by the legislature last June. Gov. Christie announced nearly six weeks ago that he wanted changes to bills that would have established a payments-in-lieu of taxes program for casinos over a 15-year period and reallocated New Jersey’s casino alternative tax to pay debt service on Atlantic City-issued municipal bonds; yet he has not acted. Thus, even in the wake of the rating agency’s knocking Atlantic City’s credit rating more than three months’ ago because of uncertainty over whether it could meet its near-term fiscal obligations, the Governor has yet to provide any clarity to his intentions, thereby risking exacerbating the city’s fiscal plight. In their report, S&P analysts Timothy Little and Lisa R. Schroeer wrote that, in their view, Gov. Christie and the legislature have until the end of the current legislative session to resolve Gov. Christie’s conditional vetoes and to release a long-term plan for the South Jersey city—a city still in the awkward situation of having an elected Mayor, but also a state-appointed emergency manager (Gov. Christie appointed corporate restructuring attorney Kevin Lavin as Atlantic City’s emergency manager last January. Mr. Lavin, however, has not released any new updates since a March 23rd report in which he urged “shared sacrifice” among stakeholders, including the possibility of extending maturities for bondholders.) In its newest report, the S&P dynamic duo wrote: “Atlantic City’s ability to address its structural imbalance and long-term liabilities has been a significant concern that weighs on its fiscal future…The decision to conditionally veto several bills intended to stabilize the city’s revenues continues to leave the city’s finances in a vulnerable and tenuous position.” Atlantic City faced a $101 million budget gap before adopting a 2015 fiscal plan in late September which relied partly on anticipated revenues of $33.5 million in redirected casino taxes included in the rescue package.

4th Down Congressional Punt. Who could possibly forget the great strip by cartoonist Charles M. Schulz of Lucy’s repeated promises she would not swipe the ball before Charlie tried to kick it? So too Congress appeared to be poised to not bail out Puerto Rico, but rather to provide the territory with options, such as those available to General Motors, Chrysler, Detroit—or any other U.S. corporation, to file for federal bankruptcy—options which would have imposed no costs on the federal budget, but would have, potentially, affected large campaign contributions. Instead Congress bailed out of Washington without taking any action to ensure or provide Puerto Rico with any fiscal tools or authority to address its onrushing insolvency, rejecting various proposals offered by Democrats which would have granted some form of municipal bankruptcy authority to the U.S. territory. The $1.1 trillion omnibus appropriations bill Congress passed and the president signed only included two smaller provisions related to Medicare funding in Puerto Rico, as well as a provision allowing the Treasury Department to use some of its budget to give technical assistance to the Puerto Rico government. Puerto Rico Gov. Alejandro García Padilla said: “Once again Wall Street has demonstrated its control over Congress; Wall Street rules Congress…That power is clearly factored into the fundamental analysis of hedge funds and vulture funds that control our democracy.” In fact, chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy negotiations between Democrats and Republicans to include provisions, such as extending Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy to the commonwealth’s public authorities, continued until the final votes—with Republicans, in both houses, Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) leading uniform opposition to authorizing the U.S. territory access to municipal bankruptcy—especially in the face of a torrent of opposition from wealthy, donor hedge funds. Chair Grassley claimed the U.S. territory’s problems were too complex to be fixed solely through restructuring; yet, he offered no alternative.

Promises, Promises. While Congress scurried out of town without offering any avenues for either the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico or its fiscally struggling municipalities, new House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), prior to departing, said he was instructing all House committees which have jurisdiction over Puerto Rico to work with Commonwealth leaders to come up with what he termed a “responsible solution” to the fiscal and debt crises by the end of March. In addition, Speaker Ryan promised to hold a hearing on Puerto Rico on Jan. 5, according to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Ca.), noting: “While we could not agree to include precedent-setting changes to bankruptcy law in this omnibus spending bill, I understand that many members on both sides of the aisle remain committed to addressing the challenges facing the territory.”

You made me promises, promise
Knowing I’d believe
Promises, promises
You knew you’d never keep

During the last minute negotiations in the House, Minority Leader Pelosi introduced legislation to provide a short-term stay of legal actions by certain creditors while Congress considered debt restructuring legislation: Leader Pelosi sought a moratorium on legal action which would last until March 31st—in order to ensure sufficient time to comply with Speaker Ryan’s proposed and promised timeline. Rep. Pelosi, however, was unable to gain the requisite unanimous consent.

When the second session reconvenes next month, it, thus, remains unclear what steps Congress might take—or how any steps might come prior to either a default by Puerto Rico, or legal actions taken by some of the island’s creditors. In the Senate, Chairman Grassley, Finance Committee Chair Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), and Natural Resources Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) have proposed legislation to create a financial oversight authority for the Commonwealth, similar to means used to prevent defaults in New York City and Washington, D.C., and which would authorize authority to borrow, as well as make $3 billion of unallocated Affordable Care Act funding available to help Puerto Rico stabilize its budget and debt in the short-term. In the House, fellow Badger of Speaker Ryan Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wis.) has proposed legislation to provide public authorities in Puerto Rico with Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy protection in exchange for the Commonwealth’s acceptance of oversight from a Presidentially-appointed five-member Financial Stability Council. The disappearance of Congress and repudiation of any fiscal responsibility in the meantime appears likely to force Puerto Rico Governor García Padilla to call for a special session of the Puerto Rico legislature to meet before its currently scheduled next meeting on Jan. 11th.

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