What Comes After Municipal Bankruptcy?

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eBlog, 8/12/16

In this morning’s eBlog, we consider post municipal bankruptcy elections: how does a city choose a course for the future? Here, the choices seem bleak in Stockton—the city nearly one full year out of bankruptcy. Then we consider the ongoing state-local challenges between the State of New Jersey and Atlantic City—a city not far from the knife edge of insolvency, followed by the rhythmic efforts of retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes to get the new Detroit Public Schools the best possible leaders in his current position as the state-appointed emergency manager. Then we observe the process underway in Florida with a state oversight effort to assess the options for the future of Opa-locka. Finally, we consider the dire water situation in East Cleveland—the small city awaiting a determination of its fate: whether it will be chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy or incorporation into the City of Cleveland.

Post Municipal Bankruptcy Blues.  For a city emerging from municipal bankruptcy, the road from insolvency to recovery can be steep. In Stockton, California, where the frieze above the steps of City Hall reads: “To inspire a nobler civic life: to fulfill justice; to serve the people,” the question for the city’s voters appears to be a dispiriting choice in November’s mayoral election—the city’s first post municipal bankruptcy election—one pitting incumbent and just arrested Mayor Anthony Silva against a young City Councilmember with a pending DUI charge, Michael Tubbs. The election will mark the city’s first post-bankruptcy election in the wake of last year’s decision by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Christopher Klein a year ago in February to approve the city’s plan of debt adjustment—a plan approved in the wake of the municipality’s success in securing voter support for more than a 10 percent increase in the local sales tax—with the bulk of the new revenues dedicated to address apprehensions about crime. The approved debt-adjustment plan provided for reductions in public employee benefits, funding cuts for police and fire, and reduced payments to the city’s creditors. (City Council members had already unanimously approved personnel cuts two years prior to the filing, but further cuts were made to parks, library, and senior programs.) The plan of debt adjustment approved by Judge Klein also eliminated post-retirement health care benefits valued at a minimum of $300 million, but continued payments for retirement benefits via the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS). Now, in the first post-municipal bankruptcy municipal election, it seems key issues confronting voters are the city’s crime rate (albeit, now the two candidates’ crime rates)—and the question with regard to how the court-approved plan of debt adjustment will shape elections for mayor and three of six city council seats on November 8th. Mayoral candidates Mayor Anthony Silva and challenger Michael Tubbs have and are sparring over the best post-bankruptcy direction for the city.

Mayor Silva won election to his current office in November 2012 by tying his opponent to the consequences of the city’s bankruptcy, criticizing his predecessor for a year of high crime rates and failure to properly oversee the city’s finances. After securing election, he pressed for an increase in sales taxes to pay for law enforcement costs, which ultimately reached the ballot in November 2013 after adjustments by the city council. In the wake of the city’s emergence from chapter 9, Mayor Silva has promoted plans for new business development in Stockton to generate more revenue: he proposed a $170 million development plan in December of last year, a plan which included expanding the airport for international flights and spending $72 million to add arcades and rides on the river walk. The Mayor also proposed opening abandoned warehouses as shelters for the homeless. But his road to re-election took a significant detour earlier this month in the wake of his arrest at his Mayor’s Youth Camp in Silver Lake, California, where he was charged with playing strip poker with naked teenagers, providing alcohol to minors, and illegally recording the activities that are said to have occurred at last year’s camp in the wee hours of Aug. 7, 2015. That morning five unmarked law enforcement vehicles rolled onto the rustic grounds of the Stockton Municipal Camp at about 9:30 a.m.: two of them parked so they would block the one-lane road to enter and exit the site: Thirty minutes later, without incident, Mayor Silva was driven away by officers in one of the unmarked vehicles and taken to the Amador County Jail, where he was booked by Amador County sheriff’s officers. His first court date is scheduled for next week at Amador County Superior Court: the Amador County District Attorney’s Office and the FBI are the investigating agencies. The arrest does not bode well for his re-election campaign.

In the Clear? Moody’s credit ratings agency has reported that the state loan to Atlantic City should offer the requisite time for the Mayor and Council to draft a five-year budget plan which would avert not only municipal bankruptcy, but also a threatened state takeover. Moody’s yesterday wrote that the $73 million state loan is a positive for the city’s junk credit rating—and that, absent the loan, there would have been a high probability the city would default on its debt in the next few months. Moody’s, being more characteristically moody, however, added that the planned Trump Taj Mahal closure could further cut the amount of tax revenues to the municipality, writing that the city’s fiscal condition remains dire because of its dependence on the shrinking casino industry.

More Schooling on Insolvency. Retired U.S. bankruptcy Judge and current Detroit Public Schools state-appointed emergency manager Steven Rhodes yesterday reported he had met with Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder this week and had agreed to extend his contract as transition manager of the DPS until January—the date the new school board is to be sworn in. Judge Rhodes defined the election of the new board as “the single most critical issue” DPS confronts this fall, noting whomever is elected must come to the position committed to transforming DPS into a system that will not only adapt to the future needs of its 45,000 students and earn the support of the region’s businesses, but also its religious and civic communities—important enough indeed that the Judge spent two hours in a special session with 53 of the 68 candidates vying for office to fill them in on DPS’ condition and answer questions about the job. Judge Rhodes plans more such sessions. In addition, he has encouraged all of the candidates to get training on how to be an effective school board member. Judge Rhodes has been direct and clear about what those elected should bring to the table: “It may feel simplistic, but it’s the kind of stuff that can’t be emphasized enough…The No. 1 thing is commitment to serve as a trustee for the benefit of the district’s students. What that means is there’s no other agenda, no vision on higher office, no self-aggrandizement. It’s got to be all about the district’s students.” He added that new board members must recognize that DPS is not just for college-bound children, but for those whose future vocations can be taught outside of universities, and he said the board must find ways “to compensate teachers whose dedication and sacrifice.” They must commit themselves to excellence in academics and commit to hiring a permanent superintendent with that same commitment, while at the same time recognizing the diverse needs and interests of each of DPS’s 45,000-plus students: “They’re not all going to college. Many have special needs. Some want to do career technical education. Our academic offerings need to be as diverse as our student interests.” Judge Rhodes also warned that education “does not begin when the child walks into the school door and end when the child leaves the school door: “there has to be a continuing commitment to parental engagement in the educational process.”

Interestingly the electric rhythm guitar player of the famous Indubitable Equivalents also noted that he expects new DPS board members to respect the Financial Review Commission, a state entity created as part of the city’s plan of debt adjustment, but which has created some resentment in the city—stating: “This will be challenging, but the FRC is a fact of life, and they really do want to help…The nature of the FRC’s role and responsibilities in relation to DPSCD (Detroit Public Schools Community District) is going to be a matter of continuing discussion and negotiation. The school board…will continue that conversation. There will not be an emergency manager per se, but the enabling legislation for the Financial Review Commission is subject to interpretation, and that will take time to work out. There is a view which says it isn’t just to balance budgets and books of record, but no one over there wants to be involved in day-to-day academic issues.” Finally, Judge Rhodes urged that the new board would need to work with Mayor Mike Duggan—urging an end to what he called the “us versus them” mentality, both in and outside the city of Detroit: “[The school board has to figure out a way to break through that on both sides of the city boundaries.” Finally, and appropriately, he noted new school board members must be willing to learn: “Being an effective school board member is an art. It has to be learned so there has to be a commitment to learn how to do that.”

Oompapa. A south Florida public administrator, Merrett Stierheim, will determine if Opa-locka is solvent for a Florida state-appointed panel Gov. Rick Scott appointed last June 1st in the wake of the city’s entering into an agreement seeking the state’s assistance, which does not include funding. The panel is charged with overseeing the small municipality’s finances and to report upon the “gravity of the situation faced by Opa-locka,” as well as to oversee the hiring of a Finance Director for the city, according to Melinda Miguel, Chair of the Financial Emergency Board. Ms. Miguel made the announcement yesterday after noting the state appointed emergency board had received incomplete financial reports and requests for payments without details or invoices. Ms. Stierheim comes to the challenge with a background of experience with other fiscally challenged municipalities, including Miami in the late 1990’s, when it was in the midst of a corruption scandal and a financial crisis that led then-Gov. Lawton Chiles to appoint a Financial Emergency Board. Chair Miguel, who is Gov. Scott’s chief inspector general, yesterday said Opa-locka Mayor Myra Taylor had approached her for a second time requesting that the state provide the city a bridge loan, such as an advance on revenue-sharing funds—the city is apprehensive it could run out of cash before the end of next month. In addition to those fiscal and legal challenges, the SEC has opened an inquiry into whether proper disclosures were made about the city’s fiscal state, and there are federal corruption investigations ongoing: last week, the former city manager, David Chiverton, and former public works supervisor, Gregory Harris, were arrested and charged with taking kickbacks from business owners and individuals. Ms. Miguel mentioned the arrests in her opening statement, noting the city’s residents and taxpayers have “paid a steep price” by placing trust in their government officials, adding: “The citizens of Opa-locka have a right to know that their money is well spent…Instead, we see corruption. We must continue on our search for the truth.”

A Different Kind of Water Problem than Flint. East Cleveland, Ohio, a small municipality awaiting a decision whether it may file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy or become a part of the City of Cleveland is running out of time. Now hard decisions—such as whether to cut off water service or pay a $30,000 delinquent water bill owed to Cleveland Municipal Water Department demonstrate the fiscal chaos in the city—and bring back recollections of one of the most difficult issues in Detroit’s municipal bankruptcy: how does a city balance insolvency against the public health and safety issues of water? In this instance, East Cleveland opted to pay most of the massive balanced owed, a bill for which prior nonpayment had caused Cleveland’s water department to shut down water service to some East Cleveland properties. Now East Cleveland Council President Thomas Wheeler reports the city is facing an additional one million dollar shortfall in 2017.

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