What Is a State’s Role When a Municipality Can No Longer Provide Essential Public Services?

eBlog, 9/27/16

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the risk of municipal fiscal contagion—and what the critical role of a state might be as the small municipality of Petersburg, Virginia’s fiscal plight appears to be spreading to neighboring municipalities and utilities: Virginia currently lacks a clearly defined legal or legislated route to address not just insolvency, but also to avoid the spread of fiscal contagion. Then we journey to Atlantic City, where a comparable fiscal challenge—but in a state with a much longer history of state-local consideration—appears on the verge of a total state takeover: we ask whether the city’s end is nigh: will the state, in fact, take it over? Then we turn to the school yards in Chicago, where a threatened teacher strike augurs fiscal downgrades and worse fiscal math for Chicago Public Schools—a city beleaguered by this year’s terrible increase in murders and now unsettling math.

When It Rains, It Pours. The small Virginia municipality of Petersburg, near insolvency–or its tipping point, uncertain of what role the Commonwealth of Virginia will take in a state where, were the city to file a chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy petition, its municipal bondholders holding bonds to which statutory liens have attached would continue to receive payments on those bonds, [§15.2-5358], now is confronted by the filing of two similar lawsuits, accusing the city of repeated failures to meet payment due dates. The fiscal crisis is finally forcing the State of Virginia to contemplate what role it might have to take—a role which would set a precedent in a state which does not specifically authorize its municipal entities to file for municipal bankruptcy—and where the only such petition filed—by an economic development authority—was dismissed. The likely mechanism that will leave the state little alternative but to act is likely to be the filing of two lawsuits against the city over past-due payments—suits alleging similar accusations of repeated failures to meet payment due dates even before Petersburg’s fiscal problems evolved into a crisis: the South Central Wastewater Authority last week filed a lawsuit against the city, seeking more than $1 million and the appointment of a receiver to make sure the money the authority says it is owed is not spent by the city on other things, with the suit alleging: “Since 2011, city officials have failed to regularly and timely bill and collect monies for wastewater services and have failed to make payments due and owing to South Central.”

The second suit, filed last month by a road paving company, alleges that Petersburg failed to make payments on time for the company’s work repaving U.S. Route 460 East—a contract which specified that the company would receive payment within 30 days of the work being billed. In its filing, however, the company noted that its bills were paid late and that many times “those checks bore dates that made it appear they had been issued on time pursuant to the contract terms, even though delivery did not occur until weeks or months later.” The company’s corporate credit manager and chief financial officer met in July 2015 with Petersburg’s then Finance Director to discuss the problems—in the wake of which the city proposed a very delayed schedule—late enough that the company halted work on the project. The suit charges it has been left with an unpaid balance of about $214,000, so that it is seeking payment of that balance plus interest of 1 percent per month. For its part, the South Central Wastewater Authority alleges a similar pattern of late payments stretching back to mid-2011: “Since 2011, city officials have failed to regularly and timely bill and collect monies for wastewater services and have failed to make payments due and owing to South Central…This failure by Petersburg became sustained and serious beginning in the middle of 2012 and has become chronic and severe since…Despite continuous communication and extraordinary forbearance by [South Central] regarding Petersburg’s payment practices, which only resulted in repeated assurances of payment followed by more broken commitments, Petersburg has now altogether ceased making payments.” The suit charges the city is delinquent by $1.2 million, excluding penalty fees. Another $410,000 came due on the first of this month, according to the lawsuit. Because the Authority, moreover, provides wastewater treatment for the municipalities of Petersburg and Colonial Heights, and the counties of Chesterfield, Dinwiddie, and Prince George; and because Petersburg uses about half of the wastewater plant’s capacity, South Central’s complaint notes that  if Petersburg continues to fail to make payments, the authority will have to ask the other municipalities to pay higher rates, or it may be forced to shut down the treatment plant—a shutdown which, the utility notes, “would endanger public health and require an alternate means of treatment to prevent the flow of untreated wastewater directly into the Appomattox River…Planning, permitting, financing and construction of new facilities would take years. The scale and seriousness of this crisis cannot be overstated.” Indeed, the scale and complexity of the growing list of creditors of the municipality unearthed by auditors last summer determined Petersburg owed a total of about $3.4 million to six regional organizations: South Central, the Appomattox River Water Authority, the Central Virginia Waste Management Authority and Riverside Regional Jail, Crater Youth Care and the District 19 Community Services Board. It has become increasingly apparent that Petersburg’s fiscal problems have become contagious to adjacent municipalities and essential public services, so that, increasingly, the Commonwealth of Virginia will be forced to act.

Indeed, Virginia Secretary of Finance Richard D. Brown last week briefed members of the General Assembly’s Finance Committees on his department’s effort to help Petersburg figure out how to close its $12 million budget gap and generate enough cash flow to both keep the city government operating and to begin to pay down a debt that has ballooned to nearly $19 million. But, as it has become apparent the city likely will simply be unable to get out by itself, its fiscal collapse risks spreading—as can be noted from the impact of its non-payment to a regional facility—adjacent municipalities, it would appear the Governor and Virginia legislature will have little choice but to both act on measures to protect the state’s AAA credit rating, but also to prevent the fiscal distress from spreading. The Virginian Commission on Local Government, which has measured local fiscal distress in the state for three decades: notes in its stress index measures cities’ and counties’ revenue capacity, revenue effort, and median household income: it ranks Petersburg as the third-most fiscally stressed locality in Virginia—behind Emporia and Buena Vista.

The increasing apprehension in Richmond has led the Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Del. S. Chris Jones (R-Suffolk) to ask: “How did this get this bad without anyone knowing about it?” It also triggered his appointment last week of Del. R. Steven Landes (R-Augusta) to head a subcommittee to study states dealing with fiscally stressed localities and come up with solutions if a situation similar to that in Petersburg were to occur elsewhere in Virginia—or, as the Chairman put it: “We want to do our due diligence to see if there is legislation we might have to put in place to give authority to the state in certain circumstances to potentially take action…Right now, we don’t have the authority to do this, which is why I thought it is important to have this subcommittee between now and January and then begin the process to come up with some legislation.” In doing so, the Chairman emphasized that the state legislature will look primarily for proposals aimed at protecting the state’s interests—not those of the troubled localities, stating: “We are elected to represent our citizens at the state level, and we have our AAA bond rating to consider.” For his part, Chairman Landes said his committee will also examine the state’s options with regard to steps it could take to shorten its response time when a locality is heading toward the fiscal cliff, noting: “We want to make sure that audit information is getting to the money committees and the administration, because we would much rather be kept abreast sooner rather than later,” even as he vowed that a “bailout” for Petersburg is out of the question, noting: “I’m not aware where the state has ever stepped in to provide a locality a bailout…I don’t see that happening.”

Balancing on the Prick of the NeedleWhile it seems clear that neither the Governor nor the Legislature have much willingness to either grant municipal bankruptcy or provide significant fiscal assistance; nevertheless, there appears to be recognition that should Petersburg default, it would have implications for other municipalities in the state, especially if there were a default—such a default—increasingly possible in Petersburg’s case, because it is unclear how Petersburg, by Saturday, will come up with a $1.4 million principal-and-interest payment owed to the Virginia Resources Authority, a premier funding source for local government infrastructure financing through bond and loan programs. Under Virginia’s intercept provision, the Commonwealth is authorized to seize dollars it directs to localities for services, such as for schools, police and welfare, and use them, instead, to make scheduled payments on bonds to avoid default.

Interim City Manager Dironna Moore Belton acknowledged in an email last week that in order to secure short-term financing and bring long-term stability to the city, it cannot default on its loan payments. But Ms. Belton did not provide any specifics about from where she would take these dollars: “The city regularly collects revenues which go toward paying obligations…(and) has set aside dollars from incoming revenue to make the VRA payment;” however, in light of the $1.2 million lawsuit filed last week by the South Central Wastewater Authority, calls for the city to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy have grown louder at public meetings and on internet message boards. However, as one expert commentator warns: “The state’s position is that Petersburg has dug themselves into a very unusual hole, and that they are going to have to take some very stringent and even draconian steps to get their house in order.” It is no longer certain, however, that the municipality has the capacity to get out by itself—indeed, it seems that, more likely than not, its fiscal tribulations will, increasingly, adversely affect neighboring public utilities and jurisdictions. According to Secretary Brown, the possibility of the city defaulting on bond payments is very real—a default which would leave the municipality with few alternatives—to which the Secretary remarked: “Some say that if it’s gotten to the point where they can’t operate, they should look at their charter and un-incorporate.” Such incorporation, however, would be a version of passing the buck—after all: which government would then be responsible for not only providing essential public services, but also paying off the growing mountain of municipal debts?

Thirsty City. Just as the provision of drinking water was a difficult issue in Detroit’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, and has become so in Petersburg, so too the issue has arisen in San Bernardino, where the city’s municipal water department has announced water bills will increase by an average of $3.50 starting in October—with some of the increased  costs triggered by a state mandated water reduction goal of 28% this past summer—even as the utility notes the importance of conserving water during winter months: the Board of Water Commissioners, which is responsible for water rates in the city, voted unanimously to impose the higher rates, the first increase in four years; the city has approved further increases to go into effect next July 1st and in the subsequent July 1st of 2018. Again, just as in Detroit, virtually all who attended the session and vote came away angry—as the city water department’s General Manager put it: “For all of us, the last thing we want to do is cause economic distress to people…But we need to take care of what we’ve got, or we’re going to end up spending more in the future.” Since the city’s last rate increase, the water department has had to deal with California’s historic drought; the rising cost of imported water; new water quality regulations; and other expenses. Cost-cutting efforts include operating with fewer employees than in 2007, requiring employees to pay for a larger portion of their benefits, and securing as much as $350,000 in rebates from Southern California Edison, according to the water department. According to the water department website, the average water bill in San Bernardino, will be just under $50 per month, higher than average in adjacent Riverside and Redlands, but less than in Colton, Rialto, the East Valley Water District, the Cucamonga Valley Water District, the West Valley Water District and Fontana. Unlike Detroit, where one of the most difficult issues for then U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes was how to balance the critical public health and safety issues related to water versus affordability; that question appears not to have arisen in San Bernardino.

Can a City Maintain its Sovereignty? Just as the question of sovereignty for a municipality in Virginia has become an issue, so too the question of whether the State of New Jersey will take over Atlantic  City and dissolve its sovereignty, after the New Jersey Division of Local Government Services notified Atlantic City that it has until Monday to comply with the terms of a $73 million state loan or face the possibility of default, warning that, because the city is in violation of its loan terms, it must act swiftly to “cure the breach.” As part of its effortsd to cure that “breach,” Atlantic City has reached an agreement with its water utility to purchase its old municipal airport property in a deal that officials of the city hope will help it avoid a state takeover. The Municipal Utilities Authority, which provides Atlantic City’s drinking water and is financially independent from the city, plans to purchase the 143-acres of the former Bader Field airport for at least $100 million through bonding, officials announced at a press conference yesterday, with Mayor Donald Guardian touting the partnership as a way of maintaining both the city and utility’s “sovereignty” while also helping the city dig its way out of more than $500 million of total debt. Mayor Guardian said he hopes the agreement, one which still needs city council and state approval, prevents New Jersey’s Local Finance Board from taking action after it violated the terms of a $73 million bridge loan that called for dissolving the MUA. Nevertheless, the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs declined to comment on whether the Local Finance Board would accept the Atlantic City MUA plan—a key apprehension after that Board last Thursday had imposed a deadline of next Monday to fix a breach of a condition on its $73 million bridge loan or face a possible default where the state could seek full repayment and withhold state aid—indeed, under the terms of last July’s loan agreement mandating the city needed to dissolve the MUA by September 15th, the state could demand full repayment of the $73 million loan and withhold state aid if the city were unable to avert a default by the October 3 deadline. For his part, MUA Executive Director Bruce Ward said the authority will get an agreement with the city before deciding how to proceed with the property. Mr. Ward added that floating a bond for the Bader Field purchase is attainable and that the MUA has advisors who will help strategize the borrowing. The MUA has $15.7 million in annual revenues with $16.6 million of net water revenue debt outstanding, according to Moody’s Investors Service.

Learning about Debt—or Failing Grades? Moody’s yesterday awarded a failing credit grade to Chicago Public Schools, downgrading CPS’ bond rating further into junk status, lowering its view of the school system’s debt one notch to a B3 rating, citing a variety of factors, including CPS’ reliance on short-term borrowing, a “deepening structural deficit,” and a budget “built on unrealistic expectations” of help from a state government with money woes of its own. If there could be fiscal insult to financial injury, it arrived yesterday when CPS announced budgets at about 300 schools would lose a total of $45 million because of enrollment declines, and the Chicago Teachers Union said its members authorized a strike if contract talks break down. Unsurprisingly, that led the ever so moody Moody’s to warn that its debt rating could decline even further—a downgrade that would make the school district’s borrowing more expensive, even as CPS’ Board is set to vote Wednesday on the system’s $338 million capital budget—a budget projected to swell amid plans to borrow up to $945 million in long-term debt for a variety of other school infrastructure projects. For its part, the union yesterday announced that more than 95% of members who submitted a ballot last week voted in favor of authorizing a strike, easily crossing the requisite 75% threshold: CTU’s House of Delegates will meet Wednesday to discuss a possible strike date which could come as soon as October 11th—a strike, were it to occur, which added to Moody’s fiscal moodiness, as it noted CPS’ “increasingly precarious liquidity position and acute need for cash flow borrowing to support ongoing operations…The downgrade is also based on CPS’s deepening structural deficit, with budgets that are built on unrealistic expectations of assistance from the State of Illinois, which faces its own financial challenges. The rating also incorporates escalating pension contribution requirements, strong employee bargaining groups that impede cost cutting efforts, and elevated debt service expenses.” (CPS is offering raises in a new multi-year contract offer but it wants to phase out the $130 million annual tab for covering 7% of teachers’ 9% pension contribution. The union argues that the contract offer results in a pay cut and is strike-worthy.)

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