Options for Averting Municipal Bankruptcy

January 28, 2016. Share on Twitter

Flint’s Future. The U.S. Senate expects to consider bipartisan legislation today to address the unsafe water crisis in Flint as part of a bipartisan bill on energy policy—during which Sens. Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mi.) are expected to offer an amendment aimed at protecting the water supply in Flint. The underlying bill would update building codes to increase efficiency, strengthen electric grid safety standards, and promote development of an array of energy forms, from renewables such as solar and wind power, to natural gas, hydropower and even geothermal energy—and would accelerate federal approval of projects to export liquefied natural gas to Europe and Asia and reauthorize a half-billion dollar conservation fund to protect parks, public lands, historic sites, and battlefields. The Senate action comes as Sen. Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said as many as 7,000 children have been “poisoned because of lack of proper government oversight” in Flint, with Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) adding that Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder had tried to “save a few bucks with the water and, in the process, poisoned lots of people.”

Sen. Reid added, however, that he thought the Senate should focus on other municipal water supplies beyond Flint, noting: “We have a lot of communities around this country who have lead pipes, and a very deteriorating water system.” The federal action comes as, in Lansing, the Michigan Legislature is poised today to approve $28 million in additional funding to address the lead contamination of Flint’s water—appropriations which would include funds for more bottled water and filters and services to monitor for developmental delays in young children, as well as help the city with unpaid water bills and cover testing, monitoring, and other costs—the second round of state funding allocated since the lead contamination was confirmed in the fall in the wake of a decision by state regulators two years ago to allow Flint to not treat water for corrosion after the city switched its supply in 2014—a decision with likely fatal consequences because of the ensuing leaching of lead from old pipes into Flint’s drinking water. The action today comes a day after Gov. Rick Snyder promised he would seek more funding for Flint in his upcoming budget proposal. It also comes a day after the Governor named a group of 17 medical and field experts, including a doctor and Virginia Tech Professor Marc Edwards, who helped expose the Flint water contamination crisis, to a committee charged with identifying long-term solutions.

Spinning the Dial for Municipal Bankruptcy. New Jersey’s top elected officials Tuesday announced an agreement with Atlantic City Mayor Donald Guardian to allow increased state intervention in an effort to keep the municipality out of bankruptcy—an agreement proposed by Gov. Christie and backed by the city’s elected leaders under which the state would provide additional layers of state oversight and new revenue sources. Gov. Christie introduced the plan accompanied by New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney and Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian; the Atlantic City Council passed a resolution late on Tuesday to support the new proposal. The dynamic duo said the new legislation would give the state increased power over Atlantic City finances, including restructuring municipal debt, changing collective bargaining agreements, and selling off city-owned assets: it would provide a five-year state takeover compared to the 15 years Sen. Sweeney had proposed.

With the state already effectively under some state control due to the Governor’s imposition of an emergency manager, Tuesday’s actions imposed a more sweeping state takeover. Gov. Christie said he wants action by the end of next month by the state legislature to allow the state to restructure the city’s debt and terminate municipal contracts, including with labor unions. Under the proposal, the state would control the city for five years, with authority to allow the state to dissolve city departments, consolidate and privatize municipal services, and sell city assets—all proposals which had been included in a recent report by the city’s state-imposed emergency manager, Kevin Lavin.

In addition, under the Governor and Presidential candidate’s new proposal, the state would reconsider a version of legislation that the Governor last month vetoed, legislation intended to boost cash flow and stabilize Atlantic City’s tax base with fixed payments in lieu of property taxes from its famed casinos. Gov. Christie did not say whether the takeover proposal would address $153 million Atlantic City owes the Borgata casino in tax refunds. (Atlantic City last month missed a $62 million tax refund payment owed to the Borgata on Dec. 19.)

The Governor’s action—and muted support by Mayor Guardian and the Council—came just as the Mayor had called for an City Council emergency meeting to consider whether to file for municipal bankruptcy—a decision which would have required a two-thirds’ approval to seek such authority from New Jersey’s Local Finance Board, which oversees the city’s budget. Mayor Guardian told his colleagues he could see “no human] way” Atlantic City could pay the $160 million of casino property tax appeals it owes to the Borgata Casino Hotel & Spa.

Mike Cerra, assistant executive director of the New Jersey League of Municipalities, called the agreement “a positive development” since neither a municipal bankruptcy nor long-term state takeover would be beneficial to the local governments in the state; he said a municipal bankruptcy would have sent negative message to the municipal bond markets that New Jersey would allow a distressed municipality to reach that stage of insolvency, noting: “Nothing good comes out of a bankruptcy for a local government: Neither a bankruptcy or a full state takeover were desirable options.” New Jersey, where a municipality may only file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy with state permission, has only had one city, Camden, previously file (in 1999, but the case was subsequently dismissed). The state’s Division of Local Government Services has that authority, as well as the authority to approve budgets for distressed localities to ensure they can pay their debts.

My Old Kentucky Home. With municipal bankruptcy an increasingly hot topic amongst state and local leaders across the country—and in the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico, Kentucky State Rep. Brad Montell (R-Shelbyville) might want to be among those considering what is happening in New Jersey, as he is asking whether Kentucky should reconsider its municipal fiscal assistance and municipal bankruptcy laws and programs. Until last August, no Bluegrass city had ever filed for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in the state; counties are not permitted to file; two municipal entities—utility districts—have previously filed. As part of the look-back, Rep. Montell is wondering whether Kentucky should develop a program—perhaps similar to New Jersey’s—to assist fiscally distressed municipalities, noting: “It seems to me we need to have sort of a blueprint of what authority the state government has in these instances.” U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Alan C. Stout is currently considering whether to allow Hillview, the Louisville suburb of 9,000 to proceed with its case—a case triggered by the municipality’s loss and consequent $11.4 million legal judgment after losing a lawsuit to Truck America Training. House Concurrent Resolution 13, filed by Rep. Montell, said defaults and municipal bankruptcies in Alabama, California, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island have increased awareness of municipal bankruptcy: his proposal would direct the Kentucky Legislative Research Commission to conduct a study of municipal bankruptcy, including laws, and prevention practices employed by other states.

Today, more than half of the states and the District of Columbia have implemented municipal debt supervision or restructuring mechanisms to assist municipalities: creating programs to offer assistance, refinancing, oversight, and other mechanisms to avoid default. Such state programs, moreover, appear to have been exceptionally successful in avoiding defaults or bankruptcies: municipal bankruptcy ace James Spiotto, with whom the National League of Cities worked for over a decade to secure Congressional approval and former President Reagan’s signing of municipal bankruptcy legislation, testified last month before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee that such state “second looks” appear to have been effective by a six-one margin in avoiding Chapter 9 bankruptcy in the 24 states which authorize a city, county, or other municipal entity to file.

Rep. Montell’s proposed study would include a review of other state laws, and the practices that they have employed in order to intervene in a city or county financial crisis, or, as he put it: “We just want to get some answers, and see how other states have handled this in case we need to take action next session.” His resolution also cites the possibility of credit rating downgrades for the entire state due to the unhealthy financial health of its governments, as another reason to study Chapter 9 further, adding that Kentucky should look at its bankruptcy law, because the budgets of cities, counties, and school districts could realize growing fiscal challenges due to their mandated costs to participate in state-run pension plans, along with other stressors such as labor costs, noting: “We want to get our financial house in order and I’m confident we will…That’s one reason we want to be on top of [the bankruptcy law] as well.”

In his testimony last month, Mr. Spiotto testified that effective programs aimed at avoiding municipal financial distress and bankruptcy have been “well demonstrated” by the Municipal Assistance Corporation for New York City in 1975, the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority for Philadelphia in 1991, and the District of Columbia Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority for Washington, D.C. in 1995—adding that the states of Florida, Indiana, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island include a variation on a provision allowing for the appointment of a financial control board or commission, emergency managers, receivers, coordinators, or overseers for troubled local governments. Thus, unsurprisingly, the Kentucky League of Cities has said it supports Rep. Montell’s resolution, which could lead the state to institute an emergency assistance program.

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