In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the difficult challenge for a state when one of its municipalities is on the brink of insolvency—and where its authority to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy is uncertain—and the kinds of hard questions about its future. As we are noting, part of fiscal federalism involves signal differences in laws and authorities—on a state-by-state basis, with regard to options for municipalities on the brim of insolvency. Because only 18 states specifically provide authority to municipalities, that leaves a signal void in the remaining states and leaves those states in more awkward positions when a municipality within its borders likely will not be able, on its own, to avoid insolvency. Mayhap appropriately, we then delve further south to Jefferson County, Alabama, where the state’s actions were the critical lever to pushing the county into municipal bankruptcy—and where the County’s appeal efforts have been stymied for years.
What Is a State to Do? The Richmond Free Press this morning ran an editorial about the foundering and near insolvency of the City of Petersburg, the small, independent city in Virginia, where the median income for a household in the city is under $29,000, and where the City Council this month adopted most of a package of tax increases and budget cuts, but rejected a proposal to close one of the city’s four fire stations—and where, it seems clear, the Commonwealth of Virginia is most unlikely to offer any fiscal relief. At heart, we noted, the Council was really holding a hearing about whether the small municipality has a future. Thus, this a.m., the editorial noted: “We remember the chilling headline in a New York newspaper when the Big Apple was facing bankruptcy…It was 1975, and President Gerald Ford declared he would veto any legislation calling for a federal bailout of New York City. The headline in the New York Daily News — ‘FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD.’” Then the editorial noted that when Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe was asked by a reporter earlier this month if there were plans to propose legislation to help financially stricken Petersburg, “the governor’s reply was a tad bit better than President Ford’s to New York City, but it may have had the same result: ‘I’m sure we’re not going to see legislation proposed to deal with this situation…We have no authority to give any money. But we do have the authority to send our team in to help get the books together, get the finances together…Our team has been here, they’ve been staying here, and we want to give all the assistance we can.’” However, as the editorial notes: “Clearly, the city needs technical experts in a lot of fields, including the state’s audit team. But it needs a lot more than that.”
The editorial adds that the state audit team learned, and disclosed in a public meeting, that Petersburg’s fiscal abyss was deeper hole than originally thought: it had about $14 million in unpaid bills as of June 30th: the auditors determined the municipality had been spending far more than it was bringing in nearly every year since 2012; the state team determined the city was planning to sink even deeper into red ink in its FY’2017 budget: that approved budget calls for the city to spend $12.5 million more than it expects to receive in revenue. The state team provided recommendations, such as pursue short-term financing to help meet immediate needs, but, as the editorial notes, “But so far, that has not worked, because the city is in such bad fiscal condition.” The editorial notes that state lawmakers, including House Majority Leader Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights), said a bailout for Petersburg was highly unlikely, in part, because it would set a bad precedent.
Caught between a Rock & a Hard Place: Virginia does not specifically authorize its municipal entities to file a petition for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy—and only one entity, has ever attempted to file—an economic development authority, but its case was dismissed in 2001. The Virginia Constitution bars a city or town from incurring debt exceeding 10 percent of the assessed value of properties within its boundaries (see Virginia Constitution, article VII, §10); ergo, the editorial asks: “So what’s Petersburg to do?” Noting that the small municipality has slashed spending, including a $3.4 million cut to the city’s public schools budget, cut pay for its employees, frozen hiring, and raised taxes on everything from cigarettes, meals and lodging taxes to personal property taxes to bring the current budget into balance—but left untouched most of the $14 million in debt from previous years.”
It seems like a hot potato for Virginia lawmakers who appear to be apprehensive that the small municipality’s fiscal crisis could create a precedent for other cities, towns, or counties to seek bailouts from the state, or, as Del. R. Steven Landes (R-Augusta), Chairman of a newly formed task force studying the impact of fiscally stressed localities on the state and how to deal with such situations, put it: “I just hope we are not heading down this road where we are digging the state into a hole.” The Delegate’s question came in the wake of this week’s report to the legislature by Virginia’s Secretary of Finance Richard D. Brown on the city’s struggle to regain its financial footing, before members of the House of Delegates Appropriations Committee—even as Delegate Landes said that as far as he understood, Petersburg has not asked the state for financial help during its crisis. The audit findings presented by Sec. Brown had identified a projected $12 million budget deficit for the current fiscal year and found that by last June 30th, Petersburg had incurred $18.8 million in bills, of which $14.7 million were mostly unpaid obligations to “external entities” such as contractors, vendors, and a state agency. Secretary Brown alerted the committee to a looming October 1st payment deadline for $1.4 million owed to the Virginia Resources Authority, a premier funding source for local government infrastructure financing through bond and loan programs, reporting this was “a principal-and-interest payment,” adding that he would have to “take certain steps to intercept aid” from the state to Petersburg to make sure those payments are made, adding: “The state has never had to do that with our localities, so I think that this is a precedent that nobody really wants. That is why it is important for us to not even have to go there,” he testified, assuring the Committee members his department has provided “only technical assistance” to the city.
Unsurprisingly, some of the state lawmakers disbelieve the state’s aid has stopped there. Delegate Landes followed up: “You mentioned that we are not providing any direct financial assistance, but indirectly we are: Your time, your staff’s time and all these state agencies that are helping them move forward, it cost the Commonwealth money. Other localities have gotten into difficulties, and I don’t recall that we provided this kind of involvement…We are trying to help Petersburg on the school end, providing additional resources for their school system, and if they can’t pay their bills, how are they going to pay their superintendent?” Committee Chairman S. Chris Jones (R-Suffolk), said that although he agreed with Secretary Brown’s decision to intervene, he was concerned about Petersburg’s outstanding obligations to the Virginia Resources Authority: “We got to figure out what change we need to make from a state’s perspective; we need to protect ourselves…VRA debt can be an issue that can affect our bottom line. We cannot allow that to occur. It’s very distressing when you see what has occurred, and hopefully (the city) will continue to try to — in a very straightforward way — to deal with the issues.” To which, Secretary Brown responded that “[W]e wrestle with it, too,” but ultimately the state is tied to the city in terms of some of the debt obligations: “We can run, but we can’t hide from that. From my standpoint, it is better to be involved and help them over that hump…I have no intention to stay there long-term, but the consequences for the Commonwealth by not being involved, at this stage in the game with this critical Oct. 1 time frame on debt, is probably much worse than being involved.”
What is a County to do? The federal appeals court overseeing Jefferson County’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy appeal has, once again, delayed the case, with the previously scheduled December 12th arguments deferred by the 11th U.S. Court of Appeals to an uncertain future date—still another in a long, and increasingly costly, series of delays—of which there have been six so far this year. Jefferson County Commission President Jimmie Stephens noted: “It is very unusual to have this many delays, and I have expressed my frustration to counsel…Our team is ready and eager to have our day in court. We stand at their mercy.” Commission President Stephens has not addressed questions with regard to what these judicial delays are costing the county. Jefferson County exited Chapter 9 bankruptcy in December 2013, after selling $1.8 billion in sewer warrants to write down $1.4 billion of the sewer system’s debt. The plan of adjustment gives bondholders the right to go back to the bankruptcy court if the county fails to enact sewer system rate increases that service the debt. After the plan was implemented, a group of local ratepayers filed an appeal before U.S. District Judge Sharon Blackburn in the Northern District of Alabama. County attorneys argued that the appeal should be struck down, saying that it became moot when the plan of adjustment was implemented with the sale of new debt. In October 2014, Judge Blackburn rejected the county’s mootness contention, and ruled that she could consider the constitutionality of the plan—a decision Jefferson County appealed, and on which it now seems waiting for Godot.