The Daunting Fiscal Challenges of Smaller, Poorer Municipalities

February 10, 2016. Share on Twitter

In this morning’s  blog post, we consider the growing fiscal and governing challenges of smaller cities with disproportionate lower income populations: here, Flint, Michigan, and Ferguson, Missouri–both smaller cities struggling with disproportionate levels of poverty. But there, as Robert Frost would have noted, their paths diverge. Because the fiscal disaster and human crisis from the lead poisoning for Flint’s children emerged from neglect and other state and federal failures–and because the crisis has put the city’s children at greatest risk–there seem to be signal federal and state efforts to make amends, including the provision of fiscal help. There is no such comparison in Ferguson, where the U.S. Justice Department yesterday filed suit against the city–a city characterized by disproportionately low incomes and race–but which has sought to fill its municipal coffers through the imposition of traffic fines levied disproportionately on those travelling into the city, rather than through more traditional and equitable means. There are two trends: the increasing fiscal disparities between municipalities in the U.S. as the concept of revenue sharing by the federal government and states has dissipated, and the growing apprehension over the cost of operating too many municipalities in metropolitan regions. 

Out Like Flint. Flint Michigan Mayor Karen Weaver has proposed a plan to replace the lead pipes in the city—pipes which have become a major health threat to the city’s future because of drinking water contamination and lead poisoning in the wake of a decision by a former gubernatorially appointed emergency manager, Darnell Earley, to begin pumping water from the Flint River to homes in what used to be one of the state’s largest cities two years ago. Her plan could be assisted by appropriations recommended this week by Gov. Rick Snyder. The hope is that replacing lead service lines would prove to be a key step to reducing the highest risk for lead to leach into the city’s drinking water—notwithstanding that there are other sources of lead in plumbing, including older soldered joints and fixtures containing leaded brass. Mayor Weaver noted: “We’ll let the investigations focus on who is to blame for Flint’s water crisis…I’m focused on solving it.” Mayor Weaver stated the $55 million project could begin by March: the goal is to replace an estimated 15,000 lead service lines within one year at no cost to homeowners: her plan is to target homes, but not schools, businesses, or other nonresidential sites—or, as she put it: “We are going to restore safe drinking water one house at a time, one child at a time until the lead pipes are gone.” The Mayor said the project would be a joint partnership between the National Guard and the city, but would require coordination with state government and funding from the Michigan Legislature.

Flint is the gritty rustbelt metropolis, where General Motors was founded in 1908, but which, since 2011, has been run by a series of state-appointed emergency managers: It has lost half its population since the 1960s, as GM cut its local workforce from 80,000 to around 5,000; fewer than 100,000 people now live there. More than 40% of the city’s mostly black population lives below the poverty line. Crime and unemployment rates are sky-high. Around 15% of Flint’s houses are abandoned. But for Flint, the stakes are higher: its tax base is most likely to erode—beginning with its property tax revenues, where as if the unacceptable levels of lead in the drinking water would not be sufficient to deter new homeowners from bolstering the city’s property tax revenues, some mortgage lenders are now warning home buyers in the city that they must prove there is no contamination at a property, or else they will not make a loan for its purchase. It is difficult to imagine a more immediate source of critical tax revenue erosion: now local real-estate agents and lenders must be apprehensive that the new limitation could be another punch in the gut of the city’s key tax revenues—revenues already on a long, downhill slide in the wake of the departure of major auto industry employers. Or, as Daniel Jacobs, an executive with Michigan Mutual, which recently issued a notice to its employees requiring that homes pass a water test before it will make a loan put it: “The tragedy in an already depressed community is now likely to see housing values plummet not only because of the hazardous water, but because folks cannot obtain financing.” Indeed, the Flint water contamination crisis and Detroit’s public school restructuring took center stage yesterday when Gov. Snyder presented his FY2017 budget—in which he told legislators he was “committed to providing critical investments needed for the Flint water crisis and Detroit Public Schools, while maintaining the long-term focus on the key priorities of education, job creation, health and human services, public safety and fiscal responsibility.” His budget seeks an additional $195 million to help restore safe drinking water to Flint—appropriations which would be in addition to the $37 million already approved from a supplemental budget action, bringing total state funding for Flint to $232 million, telling legislators the level includes the $37 million to help with water infrastructure; $15 million for food and nutrition; $63 million for the health and well-being of Flint children and other vulnerable residents; and $30 million to provide water bill payment relief for Flint. In addition, Gov. Snyder proposed that $50 million be set aside in a reserve fund for legislative oversight of the Flint programs after a six-to nine-month period, noting legislators would have the opportunity to assess where the resources could be deployed most effectively with good accountability, efficiency, and outcomes. Indeed, the proposal appears consistent with the levels Mayor Weaver reported yesterday, noting that her plan to remove and replace all lead water pipes in city homes carries a $55 million price tag. Gov. Snyder’s budget recommendation also seeks funding for statewide water infrastructure improvement. He introduced the creation of a commission to look at 21st century water infrastructure in his state of the state address earlier this year.

For a legislature already apprehensive about the distribution of annual appropriations, however, the Governor’s new requests might create some balancing issues—especially with the swelling costs for the struggling Detroit Public Schools’ (DPS) restructuring—for which the Governor is asking for $715 million from the legislature, stating yesterday: “The action plan here is to devote resources, not from the school aid fund, but instead use tobacco settlement proceeds at the rate of $72 million a year for 10 years to deal with the $515 million deficit and $200 million for additional investment.” In addition, he sought an additional $50 million to help with DPS current debt situation that, he said, is already reserved in the state’s 2016 budget supplemental. The governor is apprehensive DPS could be insolvent by this summer, urging state legislators to act swiftly, waring: “If we don’t, this is an issue that will be resolved in the court system where the outcomes can be much more devastating to the citizens of Michigan and other school districts in the state. The clock is ticking and action is required.”

Transferred Water Woes. Somehow it almost seems as if Detroit has channeled some of its fiscal woes north to Flint—yesterday Moody’s restored Detroit’s old water and sewer debt to an investment-grade rating for the first time since Detroit exiting municipal bankruptcy the city left bankruptcy a year ago last November. Ergo, yesterday, Moody’s upgraded the newly created Great Lakes Water Authority bonds—some the $5.5 billion of water and sewer revenue municipal bond debt—of the post-bankruptcy created regional authority (The water system treats water from Lake Huron, Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River and distributes treated water to a service area population of about 3.8 million. The sewer system treats and disposes of wastewater produced by a service area population of approximately 2.8 million.) to investment grade, with a stable outlook, with the rating agency recognizing that the new authority has assumed all the debt secured by the net revenues of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. The regional authority manages regional water and wastewater services, assets, and handles rate-setting responsibilities, even as Detroit retains control of water and sewer services within city limits. Under the terms of the lease, the regional authority has sole ownership interest in revenue generated by the combined regional and local system—or, as Moody’s observed: “This significantly limits the risk that a future bankruptcy filing by the city of Detroit or intensified fiscal pressure on the city in general would contribute to bondholder impairment with respect to the water revenue debt,” adding that the upbeat ratings also reflect the massive scale of water operations, as well as a customer base that extends beyond Detroit’ boundaries, very strong operational and fiscal management, healthy liquidity, and the expectation of stable or improved debt service coverage. Nevertheless, the ratings were tempered by what Moody’s characterized as the authority’s credit challenges, such as high leverage of pledged revenue, extensive capital needs, and labor market and demographic weaknesses. Under Detroit’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy plan of debt adjustment, the city had successfully sought to monetize its water and sewer assets: a key provision of the regional system’s 40-year lease with Detroit provides the Motor City will receive $50 million a year to overhaul its aging infrastructure as well as $4.5 million in assistance for low-income customers.

Recall. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder yesterday presented his budget—with the twin emergency focus on Flint and Detroit’s fiscally failing public schools even as the Michigan Board of State Canvassers three days’ ago approved a recall petition to force him out of office—with a statewide vote potentially as early as August 2nd, provided the requisite signatures are gathered by the deadline: The petition seeks the recall for moving the state School Reform Office to a department under the governor’s control; nine other petitions involving the Flint water crisis were rejected because of technical errors such as misspelled or omitted words. Almost as if Pandora’s box has been opened, Gov. Snyder is also likely to confront challenges in court: According to Great Lakes Law, lawsuits have been filed on three fronts: “class action citizen suits filed by environmental groups, class action and torts, coupled with constitutional claims against the governor, government investigations both state and federal, that may result in civil and criminal enforcement actions,” even though special legal protections make it difficult to hold governments liable for damages such as those filed by Flint residents.

The U.S. Sues Ferguson over Municipal Taxes and Charges. The U.S. Justice Department, in a lawsuit filed on Wednesday against the small city of Ferguson, Missouri, charged the municipality with regard to an effort to end an allegedly longstanding pattern of unconstitutional policing. The suit, coming in the wake of inability to reach a settlement with the city’s Mayor and Council, charges that the city’s police and court systems routinely violate the civil rights of the city’s black residents, in part to generate revenue from tickets, claiming in its suit that the city’s “routine violation of constitutional and statutory rights, based in part on prioritizing the misuse of law enforcement authority as a means to generate municipal revenue over legitimate law enforcement purposes, is ongoing and pervasive,” adding: Ferguson’s municipal code confers broad authority on the Court Clerk, including authority to collect all fines and fees, accept guilty pleas, sign and issue subpoenas, and approve bond determinations. The Court Clerk and assistant clerks routinely issue arrest warrants and perform other judicial functions without judicial supervision. As the number of charges initiated by Ferguson Police Department has increased in recent years, the size of the court’s docket has also increased. According to data the City reported to the Missouri State Courts Administrator, at the end of fiscal year 2009, the court had roughly 24,000 traffic cases and 28,000 non-traffic cases pending….In January 2013 the City Manager requested and secured City Council approval to fund additional assistant court clerk positions because “each month we are setting new all-time records in fines and forfeitures,” and the funding for the additional positions “will be more than covered by the increase in revenues.” The federal suit includes a count noting: “The City’s desire to generate revenue influences fine amounts. City officials have extolled that Ferguson’s preset fines are “at or near the top of the list” compared with other municipalities across a large number of offenses, and have cited these fine amounts—which were lowered during the pendency of the United States’ investigation—as one of several measures taken to increase court revenues. For violations that do not have preset fines, the siut noted: “Defendant has also taken measures to ensure fines are set sufficiently high for revenue purposes.”

Puerto Rico in the Twilight Zone. U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) yesterday demanded Puerto Rico Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla provide detailed financial information by March 1st and stated he intends to come up with a plan to help the commonwealth by the end of March—relatively consistent with House Speaker Paul Ryan’s time frame, discussing his goals for a solution to Puerto Rico’s fiscal and debt crisis during a Finance Committee hearing on the President’s FY2017 budget with Treasury Secretary Jack Lew—with the Secretary making clear that any restructuring solution has to pass before Puerto Rico faces major bond payments in May and June—even as Mr. Hatch called the administration’s position an “unprecedented debt-restructuring authority” for Puerto Rico that would give “an explicit preference for public pension liabilities over debt issued by the Puerto Rican government, even though the territory’s constitution gives preference to some of [the] debt.” Chairman Hatch seems focused on requesting up-to-date details about the Territory’s three largest pension systems, stating he understands that the systems are only 4% funded and that the commonwealth-wide bankruptcy regime Treasury has floated would give preference to those unfunded liabilities.

The U.S. House Natural Resources Committee has scheduled a February 25th hearing at which Treasury Counselor Antonio Weiss has been asked to discuss an analysis of Puerto Rico, as the House presses to meet House Speaker Paul Ryan’s deadline of April 1st for the House to complete and send legislation to the Senate, with a focus on legislation authored by Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wisc.) which would give the U.S. territory some sort of access to bankruptcy—as well as impose a financial stability council. Treasury Counselor Weiss last Friday, at a panel sponsored by the Bipartisan Policy Center, reported there have been “very positive discussions taking place on both sides of the aisle” in Congress, adding that there now seems to be greater agreement that any Congressional plan to help Puerto Rico avoid default and insolvency should include both restructuring and oversight. In his presentation last week, Mr. Weiss said the administration believes that restructuring of Puerto Rico’s debt could come through the Constitution’s Territorial Clause instead of through an addition to the U.S. bankruptcy code. (The clause in question reads: “Congress shall have power to dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory or other property belonging to the United States.”) Mr. Weiss added that not all the territory’s debt would have to “be treated with a broad brush equally,” and that restructuring could take into account the many differences between Puerto Rico’s various debts, noting: “A special legislative act is required, tailored to the territories, consistent with Article 4 of the Constitution and that is neither for cities nor for states…It is on Congress recognizing the severity of this problem to agree in a bipartisan fashion on what those tools should be. It’s emergency legislation to deal with an emergency situation.”

Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi, Puerto Rico’s sole representative in Congress, noted, in response to the emerging resolution, that he and other elected Puerto Rican leaders are concerned that any Congressional action not create a federal oversight authority that would impose too much control over the island’s municipalities: he said he would support an oversight authority as long as it respected Puerto Rico’s local governance, something both Republicans and Democrats have agreed is important to a final bill.

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