Who’s in Charge of a Municipality’s Future?

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eBlog, 9/29/16

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider, the always difficult state-local governance challenges for cities in fiscal stress: first, we look at yesterday’s editorial from the Detroit Free Press raising serious concerns with regard to Michigan’s emergency manager law—a state law which authorizes the state to appoint an emergency law with dictatorial type authority and without accountability to citizens, voters, or taxpayers in a city, county, or public school district. The issue relates to the kinds of challenges we have been following in New Jersey, Connecticut, Virginia, and other states where the hard questions relate to what the role of a state might be for a municipality in severe fiscal distress—especially where such distress might risk municipal fiscal contagion. Then, mayhap appropriately, we journey back to Atlantic City, which is nearing its own state-imposed deadline to avert a state takeover. Finally, we examine the ongoing plight of East Cleveland —a small, poor municipality in some state of negotiation with the adjacent City of Cleveland with regard to the possibility of a merger—while awaiting a response from the State of Ohio with regard to its specific request for authority to file for chapter 9 bankruptcy. It remains unclear if the State of Ohio will ever even notify the city it has received said request, much less act. Thus, in a week, we have watched the States of Virginia, Connecticut, Michigan, and New Jersey struggle with what the role of a state might be—and how the fiscal ills of a city might adversely impact the credit ratings of said state.

Who’s in Charge of a Municipality’s Future? The Detroit Free Press in an editorial this a.m. wrote that, “[F]our years on, it’s hard to argue that Gov. Rick Snyder’s retooled emergency manager law, [Gov.] Snyder’s second revision of Michigan’s long-standing law, is working,” referring to Michigan’s Emergency Manager Law (Act 436), a state law unique to the state of Michigan: one which authorizes authority to the governor to appoint emergency managers with near-absolute power in cash-strapped cities, towns, and school districts; it authorizes such emergency managers to supersede local ordinances, sell city assets, and break union contracts; it leaves local elected officials without real authority. It provides that an Emergency Manager may be appointed by the Local Emergency Financial Assistance Loan Board. In the case of Detroit, it served as the mechanism by which Governor Rick Snyder appointed Kevyn Orr as Detroit’s emergency financial manager. The law, the Local Financial Stability and Choice Act reads: “The financial and operating plan shall provide for all of the following: The payment in full of the scheduled debt service requirement on all bonds and notes, and municipal securities of the local government, contract obligations in anticipation of which bonds, notes, and municipal securities are issued, and all other uncontested legal obligations (See §141.155§11(1)(B)). The editorial went on: “The crux of the problem lies in the limited impact accounting can have on the myriad factors that affect quality of life or efficient service delivery within a city:

“Sure, an emergency manager (in theory) can balance a city or school district’s books. But no amount of budget slashing or service cuts can make a city somewhere people want to live, or a school district the kind of place that offers quality education. In fact, it’s often the reverse: When residents leave, the tax base slims, meaning cities or school districts stretch to provide the requisite level of service with significantly less money. Cuts exacerbate the population decline, which depletes revenue more, which means more service cuts. And so on and so on and so on.

Nowhere is this object lesson in sharper contrast than Flint, where the city — under a success {I suspect the editors meant “excess’} of emergency managers — started pumping drinking water from the Flint River in 2014, pending the start-up of a new regional water system, a cost-saving switch prompted by the city’s ongoing budget woes. Almost immediately, botched water treatment caused bacterial contamination that altered the color, taste and odor of the city’s drinking water, and 18 months later, the state would acknowledge that improper treatment of which had caused lead to leach from aging service lines, contaminating the city’s drinking supply, and exposing nearly 9,000 children under age 6 to the neurotoxin, which can cause behavioral and developmental problems.

Why play games with something as important as drinking water? When the mandate is to cut, cut, cut, everything is on the table.

But it shouldn’t be.

A task force appointed by [Gov.] Snyder to review the Flint water crisis recommended a slate of changes to the state’s emergency manager law, like a mechanism for local appeal of emergency manager decisions, outside review, and other controls that Flint residents, alarmed by the smell, taste and color of their drinking water, could have employed to halt Flint’s water disaster before it reached crisis proportions.

Snyder says he’s waiting for the completion of a legislative report into the task force’s recommendation.

Why?

Snyder took office in 2011 knowing the bill was about to come due for a wave of municipal crises that threatened to cascade across the state.

There was the City of Detroit, where systemic budget troubles had been building for decades; Pontiac, Flint, and Benton Harbor, Allen Park, Ecorse, and Highland Park, where emergency managers were already waging uphill battles with incremental results, or whose substantial financial challenges put them firmly in emergency management’s crosshairs. And Detroit Public Schools, under state control for most of the last decade, with no fix in sight.

Inexplicably, in this climate, [Gov.] Snyder chose to cut state revenue sharing, continuing a trend of bolstering the state’s fiscal health at the expense of its cities to the tune of about $6 billion in cuts to cities over a decade.

Snyder and then-Treasurer Andy Dillon believed that the state’s long-standing emergency manager act was insufficient to truly remedy cities’ and school districts’ fiscal woes. An emergency manager, Snyder and Dillon believed, should have clear authority over operations, not just finances, and have greater power to impact labor agreements. Through two revisions (the first emergency manager law passed in Snyder’s tenure was repealed by voters; its replacement carries a budget appropriation and is thus repeal-proof), Snyder crafted a law that granted his emergency managers the authority to make the broad fixes he believed necessary.

There’s no question that a temporary usurpation of local elected control, as happens during an emergency manager’s appointment, is a serious matter. But Snyder seemed to understand that ensuring the health and well-being of Michigan residents — by ensuring that Michigan cities and school districts could provide the services necessary to create those conditions — was properly a governor’s job. It still is.

In the meantime, there’s promising news out of Lansing: Michigan State University professor Eric Scorsone, long a champion of funding cities properly and sustainably, has been appointed state deputy treasurer for finance. Scorsone has been a strong advocate for municipal governments and school districts, and we hope, deeply, that his appointment indicates that Snyder has come around to a point of view we’ve advanced for years: Fund cities properly, and whether or not to appoint an emergency manager may become a question that never needs answering.

Tempus Fugit? In ancient Rome, the query was ‘Is time running out,’ now an increasingly anxious question for Atlantic City’s leaders, where, having already missed one state-imposed deadline to initiate dissolution of its authority, the state has given the city until Monday to cure the violation. New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Salem) said Atlantic City must make a “realistic plan” to dig out of its fiscal hole; however, he declined to weigh in on the city’s most recent proposal. Noting that “Atlantic City has roughly 30-something days” left, Sen. Sweeney noted: “It’s incumbent upon them to put a realistic plan forward. You know, we’ve been at this for a while, and they really need to put a plan forward that’s going to make sense and work.” With the state-imposed deadline just six days before election day, Sen. Sweeney said he would “reserve judgment” on the city’s proposal to avail itself of its public water utility to purchase its airport, Bader Field, for at least $100 million. His comments came in the wake of the city’s unveiling earlier this week the first of seven parts to its plan in which city officials announced the Municipal Utilities Authority has agreed to purchase as part of an effort to raise revenues for the city, yet retain the water system in public hands, with the proceeds to go toward paying down the city’s roughly $500 million debt. The deadline comes as Moody’s has warned that the city not only risks defaulting on terms of a $73 million state loan agreement, but could also miss a $9.4 million municipal bond interest payment due on November 1. Analyst Douglas Goldmacher noted Atlantic City “does not have sufficient funds to immediately repay the $62 million already received from the state…Furthermore, unless the state continues to disburse additional funds from the bridge loan, or releases the Atlantic City Alliance and investment alternative tax funds owed to the city, it is highly improbable that the city will be able to make its (Nov. 1) $9.4 million balloon payment.” Mr. Goldmacher wrote, however, that the city’s repayment challenges would be addressed if the proposed Bader Field sale goes through—even as he again said the plan raises questions, such as whether the authority can afford to borrow $100 million and whether the state would even approve the plan—a plan to which the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs has yet to comment—perhaps confirming Mr. Goldmacher’s apprehension that: “Atlantic City’s impending technical default is credit negative for it, and indicates a disconnect between the city council, mayor, and state: “The impending default was caused by political gridlock.”

What Kind of City Do the Voters Want? The Cuyahoga County, Ohio Board of Elections and the East Cleveland City Council Clerk’s office this week certified more than 600 petition signatures to force a recall vote of East Cleveland Mayor Gary Norton and City Council President Tom Wheeler, so that the two highest ranking elected officials in this virtually insolvent municipality will face a recall election this fall, albeit not on the November ballot: the election likely will occur on December 6th—appropriately one day before Pearl Harbor Day. The election, however, will not be without cost to the virtually insolvent city: it could cost the city between $25,000 and $30,000—and will be a run-up just 10 months before the next mayoral primary election, even as the city is locked in so far seemingly non-existent merger negotiations with the City of Cleveland and awaiting a non-existent response from the Ohio State Treasurer with regard to its request for authorization to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. Nevertheless, the citizens of East Cleveland gathered more than twice the requisite number of signatures necessary to force a special recall election, triggering the City Clerk to send a letter to Mayor Norton informing him of the election. Under the East Cleveland charter, if he does not resign, he will face a recall election within 60-90 days. Unsurprisingly, Mayor Norton does not plan to resign. In a phone interview last Saturday, he characterized the election a waste of money in a city that cannot afford it: “East Cleveland will select it’s next mayor 10 months after this needless recall election…This is a horrible expenditure of funds given the city’s current financial provision, and beyond that, switching a single mayor or single councilman will have no impact on the city’s financial situation and the city’s economy.” Mayor Norton said the money the election will cost will have to be cut from other city services, noting that would include possible cuts in police and fire, because, he added: “There’s little to nothing left to cut in the city.” In East Cleveland, violent crime, on a scale from 1 (low crime) to 100, is 91. Violent crime is composed of four offenses: murder and non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault. The US average is 41.4. In the city, property crime, on a scale from 1 (low) to 100, is 75. The U.S. average is 43.5. A recall election, if it happens, would be the third for the Mayor.

Mayor Norton’s success rate in overcoming recall votes could change, however, as voters in November—before the next scheduled recall election, will consider an amendment to the city’s charter intended to curtail the ease with which residents can trigger a recall, although it is currently being reviewed by the Board of Elections and has not been finalized for the November ballot. For his part, the beleaguered Mayor Norton has so far refused to say whether he was going to run for re-election next year, and declined to answer why voters should vote to keep him as mayor in December.

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