Muhnicipal Bankruptcy in the Home Stretch

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eBlog, 11/18/16

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider San Bernardino’s home stretch to emerging from the nation’s longest-ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy—and guidance by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury to steps the city might consider to avoid its emergence early next year from being appealed—a la Jefferson County, Alabama. Indeed, we then visit Jefferson County, where it appears the County’s elected leaders appear on the verge of finally getting their day in court with regard to the appeal related to the county’s plan of debt adjustment. From thence, we observe the political waves rolling ashore where Donald Trump’s bankrupt casinos grace Atlantic City’s beaches—and where the New Jersey League of Municipalities featured Gov. Chris Christie in town and some more discussion of the evolving state takeover of Atlantic City by what Mayor Don Guardian deemed the “occupation force.” We consider the role of the state and mechanisms for a state takeover—as well as the options for the municipality. Finally, we journey back to Detroit where a federal investigation is underway with regard to the city’s unique and innovative demolition program: The challenge for a city in which in 1950, there were 1,849,568 people, but, by 2010, only 713,777, ergo, at the time of its chapter 9 filing, a city home to an estimated 40,000 abandoned lots and structures: Between 1978 and 2007, Detroit lost 67 percent of its business establishments and 80 percent of its manufacturing base. In its efforts to address the issue, Detroit undertook extraordinary measures to address vast tracts of abandoned homes—nests of crime—but maybe triggering a federal investigation.

The Last Hurdle? U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury this week has ordered San Bernardino officials into mediation with one of the municipality’s few creditors still challenging the city’s chapter 9 plan of debt adjustment, writing that she is weeks away from the “final confirmation hearing” of what has been the longest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in history. Judge Jury added she had been prepared to make a ruling on some of the issues still blocking her ability to confirm San Bernardino’s plan, more than fifty-one months after the city filed with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court. Judge Jury made clear she now intends to rule on December 6th on both issues raised by one creditor, the Big Independent Cities Excess Pool (BICEP), as well as on other remaining issues, noting, efficiently, that that ought to prevent the mediations from prolonging what is already the record holder for the longest municipal bankruptcy in the nation’s history. Moreover, Judge Jury noted, the mediation could save time, in no small part by preventing an appeal—an outcome with which Jefferson County, Alabama leaders would surely agree. As Judge Jury noted: “This really doesn’t slow down the process, and it might, over the years, if you reach a mediated solution, speed things up.” Judge Jury added that the confirmation hearing would be labeled on the calendar as final, which, while not a 100 percent guarantee it would be the final, does offer hope it shall, writing: “I’m not requesting anything from the city, except to come prepared to potentially put a bow on this case on the 6th – but potentially not.” The mediation in question commences today in Reno, Nevada with retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Gregg Zive. (San Bernardino and creditors have noted with respect Judge Zive’s previous mediation sessions as having been key to brokering major settlements as part of the city’s chapter 9 case, including the resolution with the city’s largest creditor, CalPERS. Nonetheless, the proposed mediation has both sides publicly discounting its chances of success: San Bernardino’s attorney, Paul Glassman, noted: “BICEP could have sought mediation six months ago, but instead placed the legal dispute before the court and pressed to block confirmation of the plan unless it got its way…Caving in to BICEP’s intransigence and efforts at delay is not in the best interests of the City’s creditors. It’s too late for mediation.” (BICEP is a risk-sharing pool of large Southern California cities for claims against any of the member cities, and its disputes with San Bernardino involve whether the city or BICEP is responsible for claims of more than $1 million.) Providing an idea of how complex the challenge of extricating one’s municipality from chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy can be, the BICEP issue is related to another outstanding issue in this record-length, complicated chapter 9 case: objections from the group referred to in court as the civil rights creditors. Juries previously awarded those creditors compensation for their claims, such as the $7.7 million awarded to Paul Triplett after a jury found San Bernardino police in 2006 broke Mr. Triplett’s jaw, arm, ribs, leg, ankle, and foot, leaving him comatose for three days. Under the city’s proposed plan of debt adjustment, because these creditors are in the unsecured class, the pending plan of debt adjustment would pay 1 percent or $77,000, in Mr. Triplett’s case. Nevertheless, Judge Jury, in a previous hearing, noted that while she sympathized with Mr. Triplett, she saw no legal reason to argue he did not belong in the unsecured class of creditors, 95 percent of whom voted in favor of the city’s plan of debt adjustment. That would mean any avenue of relief would be for the challenge to demonstrate that experts the city hired were wrong when they argued, with extensive documentation, that San Bernardino could not afford to pay more than 1 percent to its unsecured creditors. However, Judge Jury this week noted that those creditors’ interest now aligned with the city in its battle with BICEP, and that they could attend the mediation in Reno. On a high note, from the city’s perspective, Judge Jury also rejected the proposal by another of the challenging civil rights attorneys, Richard Herman, that the plan be modified in light of the possible “financial bonanza” recently legalized marijuana would bring: Judge Jury said the amount of those revenues would not be known for years, and she was unwilling to delay the case that long, especially when city services were underfunded in many other ways.

An Appealing Route to Full Recovery? Jefferson County Commission President Jimmie Stephens yesterday noted: “I am delighted that our case is now set and that we will have our day in court,” referring to yesterday’s announcement that the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has scheduled oral arguments on the appeal of Jefferson County’s chapter municipal bankruptcy plan. The court set December 16th as the date—albeit, this marks the eighth time the court has set a date, so that whether this will finally prove to be the date which could offer the final exit from the county’s municipal bankruptcy remains incompletely certain. It has now been nearly three years since Jefferson County filed with the court an adjustment to its post-chapter 9 filing to adjust debt primarily related to it sewer system obligations (the county had exited its chapter 9 bankruptcy in the wake of issuing some $1.8 billion in sewer refunding warrants to write down $1.4 billion of the sewer system’s debt.) As structured, the agreement incorporates a security provision for the county’s municipal bondholders to allow investors to return to federal bankruptcy court should County Commissioners fail to comply with their promise to enact sewer system rates that will support the 40-year warrants. It was that commitment which provoked a group of sewer ratepayers—a group which includes local elected officials and residents—to challenge the constitutionality of the provision. Ergo, they filed their appeal to Jefferson County’s plan of debt adjustment in January of 2014 with the U.S. District Court in the Northern District of Alabama. Jefferson County has argued that the U.S. Bankruptcy court oversight has been a key security feature to give investors in its bonds reason to purchase its 2013 warrants, and that the ratepayers’ appeal became moot when the chapter 9 plan of adjustment was implemented with the sale of new debt; however, U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Blackburn two years ago opined in the opposite, writing that she could consider whether portions of the County’s plan are constitutional, including the element allowing the federal bankruptcy court to retain oversight. It is Judge Blackburn’s decision that the County has appealed; and it is Jefferson County President Stephens who notes: “I am very confident that the facts and prevailing law support Jefferson County’s position.”

What Does a State Takeover of a City Mean? Atlantic City convened its first City Council meeting since the state officially took the municipality over earlier this week—and since it appeared to be clear that Gov. Chris Christie will not become a member of President-elect Donald Trump’s cabinet—so that the state’s unpopular Governor was himself in Atlantic City for the annual meeting of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities—indeed, where six mayors representing urban areas gathered at the conference to discuss what they would like to see in a new governor and how he or she can help people who are living and struggling in cities across the state—but where, as one writer noted, the elephant in the room, and throughout the entire conference, has been the state’s decision to take over Atlantic City’s government. Indeed, Mayor Don Guardian addressed that and other issues during a speech at The Governor’s Race and the Urban Agenda seminar, noting: “We need a governor that won’t take over Atlantic City, but rather one that will lend us a helping hand,” adding: “I talk to 10 business leaders and developers every single week, and all they tell me is they can’t afford to do business in New Jersey.” Mayor Albert Kelly, of Bridgeton, said he’s frustrated because he feels towns like his get forgotten with the current administration. He said Bridgeton has lost state funding for various programs: “Because we’re a smaller town in New Jersey, we often get overlooked.”

As for the city itself, Mayor Guardian, speaking to his colleagues from around the state, noted, referring to the state takeover: “They can use all of the power, they can use some of the power, and in a very shocking instance, they can use none of the power…This is uncharted territory in our city.” He noted this unrestricted power means any of the items named in the so-called state takeover act enacted earlier this year, including breaking union contracts, vetoing any public-body agenda, and selling city assets. Atlantic City’s state takeover leader, former New Jersey Attorney General and U.S. Senator Jeffrey Chiesa, was in Atlantic City, where he noted he had impressed upon himself the importance of making himself known to the city and the City Council. Earlier in the week, during a radio interview, Governor Christie had lauded Mr. Chiesa as “someone who has provided extraordinary service to the state” and is now determined to revive one of New Jersey’s most iconic cities, adding: “More importantly than that, he’s an outstanding person who cares about getting Atlantic City back on track and working with the people of Atlantic City and the leaders of Atlantic City to get the hard things done. Because if we make the difficult decisions now and do the difficult things, there is no limit to Atlantic City’s future.”

Under the terms of the state takeover, Mr. Chiesa is granted vast power in the city for up to five years, including the ability to break union contracts, hire and fire workers, and sell city assets and more. In his first session with Mayor Don Guardian and members of the city council, Mr. Chiesa noted he had “a chance to listen to (the mayor’s) concerns” and looks forward to gathering more information “so we can make decisions in the city’s best interest,” adding he did not know what his first decisions would be. Atlantic City Councilman Kaleem Shabazz said after the meeting he remains optimistic the city and state can still work together to pull the resort back on its feet: “I’m taking (Chiesa) at his word, what he said he wanted to do, which is work in cooperation with the city.”

With Gov. Christie in Atlantic City yesterday for the League meeting, the Mayor preceded Gov. Christie in speaking to the session, and later sat to the Governor’s right; however, the two avoided any takeover talk at the annual conference luncheon at Sheraton Atlantic City Convention Hotel: that is, the elephant in the room of greatest interest to every elected municipal leader in the room went unaddressed. Or, as Mayor Guardian put it: “Obviously, I was surprised he did not.” Instead of Atlantic City, Gov. Christie discussed his possible future in a Donald Trump White House and defended raising the gas tax to fund road and bridge projects. For his part, the Mayor, in what was described as a fiery speech at an urban mayors’ roundtable discussion, said he needed a new governor with heart, brains and courage—and one who “won’t take over Atlantic City, but rather one that will lend us a helping hand.” New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney, who introduced the so-called takeover law, was also a guest at the conference: he noted that, in retrospect, Atlantic City officials would have been better advised to have provided a draft recovery plan to the state much sooner, rather than wait until just before the deadline, adding: “You hope that we can move forward and find a way to put this city back together in a place where the taxpayers can afford it.”

Fiscal Demolition Threat? The U.S. Attorney’s Office yesterday ordered FBI agents to acquire documents yesterday from the Detroit Land Bank Authority, an authority which is under federal criminal investigation relating to Detroit’s demolition program, albeit the office clarified it was a “scheduled visit to provide records, not a raid.” Ironically, the raid occurred in a building owned by Wayne County, which had received a courtesy call from building security that the FBI was present inside the building. The FBI actions relate to a federal investigation related to the city’s federally funded demolition program, which has been under review since last year when questions were raised about its costs and bidding practices. The raid comes just a month after Mayor Mike Duggan revealed that U.S. Treasury had prohibited the use of federal Hardest Hit Funds for demolitions for two months beginning last August in the wake of an investigation conducted by the Michigan Homeowner Assistance Nonprofit Housing Corp., in conjunction with Michigan State Housing Development Authority, which turned up questions with regard to “certain prior transactions” and indicated specific controls needed to be strengthened. In addition, a separate independent audit commissioned last summer by the land bank revealed excessive demolition costs were hidden by spreading them over hundreds of properties so it appeared no demolition exceeded cost limits set by the state—turning up mistakes over a nine month period between June 2015 and February, including inadequate record keeping, bid mistakes, and about $1 million improperly billed to the state. Mayor Duggan has admitted the program has had “mistakes” and “errors.” That admission came after the Office of the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or SIGTARP, sent the city a federal subpoena for records.

Auditor General Mark Lockridge acknowledged his office received the federal subpoena after it released preliminary findings from a months-long audit into the city’s demolition activities. The federal subpoena was seeking documents supporting the preliminary audit; now a Wayne County Circuit judge next month is expected to revisit a battle over the release of the subpoena the land bank received from SIGTARP, after Judge David Allen had, last August, ruled the subpoena could stay secret for the time, albeit he believed it ultimately was “the public’s business.” Judge Allen has scheduled an update on the stage of the investigation during a hearing slated for Pearl Harbor Day. In addition, Detroit’s Office of Inspector General is also conducting a review of an aspect of the program.

The city has taken down more than 10,600 blighted homes since 2014.

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