What Is the State Role in Municipal Solvency/Recovery?

 

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eBlog, 11/21/16

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the state role in addressing municipal fiscal distress and bankruptcy: what are the different models—and how are they working? Then we consider one especially dysfunctional model: Ohio, where the City of East Cleveland could find its two Mayoral candidates in municipal jail before the voters go to the polls early next month. From thence, we strike east to consider this month’s elections in Massachusetts on charter schools—examining an issue that goes to the heart not only of state local relations and authority, but also to the potential impact on municipal assessed property values. What may be learned? Finally, we wish readers a Happy Thanksgiving!

What Is the State Role in Municipal Solvency/Recovery? Under our country’s system of dual federalism created by the founding fathers, while federal law authorizes municipalities to file for chapter 9 bankruptcy, a city, county, or school district may only do so if authorized by a state. Today, only 18 of the 50 states provide such authority. Ergo, one of the issues we have sought to consider through this eBlog has been the evolving State role in municipal distress in a field of seeming constant flux. This month, for instance, we experienced the uncertain governance situation in New Jersey in the wake of the state takeover of the City of Atlantic City—a state takeover in which the process and how it will play out could be further impacted by the potential selection by President-elect Trump of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who might be a potential Cabinet or other senior advisor to the President-elect.

Actual governance has shifted from local accountability to the state’s Division of Local Government Services—but with the state already having imposed a state emergency manager in the city, what the new state takeover means continues to be uncertain. In Ohio, which authorizes chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, the City of East Cleveland’s request to do so appears to be on the desk of Rod Serling in the Twilight Zone: there has simply been no response of any kind. Similarly, in California, state policies have clearly contributed to some of the fiscal distress that led Stockton and San Bernardino into chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, but the state played absolutely no role in helping either Stockton or San Bernardino to emerge. Michigan, a state which has been deeply enmeshed in municipal fiscal distress—albeit not necessarily in a constructive manner—has acted in different ways—going from its imposition of an emergency manager—a process with deadly consequences in Flint, but seemingly key to Detroit’s turnaround. Alabama, by refusing to allow Jefferson County to raise its own taxes, directly aided and abetted the County’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. Rhode Island, on the day of Central Falls’ chapter 9 filing—the very day Providence, the state’s capitol city, was itself poised on the rim of filing, but opted not to—and the state, thanks to the exceptional ingenuity of its then Treasurer (now Governor), created an ingenious model of creating teams of city managers and retired state legislators to act in teams to offer assistance to cities in danger of insolvency—so that there was a team effort before—instead of after such a precipitous event.

Part of what has made this effort to assess what is happening in the arena of severe municipal fiscal challenges and bankruptcy so much more difficult is the surprise that, in the wake of recovery from the Great Recession, one would have assumed severe municipal fiscal distress and insolvency would have dissipated. It has not. What has changed? Why are States not reacting more uniformly? With only 18 states permitting municipal bankruptcy, what state models exist which offer a clearly defined legal or legislated route to address not just insolvency, but also to avoid the spread of fiscal contagion? What is a state’s role in recovery from a chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy? What is a state’s role in addressing increasing fiscal disparities?

Ungoverning in a Fiscal Twilight Zone. In East Cleveland, Ohio, the mall city which is seeking authority from the State of Ohio to file for chapter 9 bankruptcy—a plea to which it remains unclear whether there will ever be a response, and where there have been on and off discussions with adjacent Cleveland about a consolidation of the two municipalities; the city’s election day activities provide a sense of the increasing dysfunctional nature of the small city: it was, after all, on election day this month at Mayfair Elementary School where both candidate Devin Branch and current Mayor Gary Norton were working the polls trying to convince registered voters to go with their respective causes. Mayor Norton was pressing potential voters not to recall him at the city’s upcoming election on December 8th; Devin Branch was going door-to-door to obtain the 550 requisite signatures to ensure the recall would officially be on the ballot. Their respective efforts, however, came up against each other when they encountered each other going after the same person and their battle became an event where they pressed their respective clip boards in front of registered voters—leading to a confrontation so that Mayor Norton decided to order the Chief of Police and a squad of police to arrest Mr. Branch. Moreover, dissatisfied with the police response, Mayor Norton then ordered his personal lawyer, Willa Hemmons, to issue a warrant for the arrest of Mr. Branch. Thus, in an insolvent municipality, several squads of police and detectives were directed to make the arrest of Devin Branch last Thursday. Mr. Branch was arrested and placed in East Cleveland’s jail; last Friday, Judge William Dawson opened the door for his release after posting bond. This morning, Judge Dawson will hear from both men, albeit, what the voters and city’s taxpayers will hear seems unlikely to be enlightening for the city’s fiscal future.

Schooled in Fiscal Solvency? Massachusetts voters this month overwhelmingly rejected a major expansion of charter schools, rejecting Question 2 by nearly a 2-1 margin, in what was perceived as a significant setback for Governor Charlie Baker, who had aggressively campaigned for the referendum, saying it would provide a vital alternative for families trapped in failing urban schools. As proposed, the measure would have allowed for 12 new or expanded charters per year, adding significantly to the existing stock of 78 charters statewide. Had the measure been approved, it would have—as state-imposed charter schools in Detroit are, shifted thousands of dollars in state aid from public to charter schools—shifting as much as an estimated $451 million statewide this year. During the campaign, opponents such as Juan Cofield, president of the New England Area Council of the NAACP, warned that charters were creating a two-tiered system, draining money from the traditional schools that serve the bulk of black and Latino students, telling voters “a dual school system is inherently unequal.” Worcester Mayor Joseph Petty, an opponent, noted: “Here in Worcester we will spend $24.5 million dollars on charter schools in our city…that is money that could be used to hire more teachers, improve our facilities, and invest in our students,” in effect underscoring the reason municipal leaders in the Bay State opposed the measure: their apprehension with regard to the fiscal impact on cities, towns, and school districts when more children attend charter schools. Had the measure been adopted, district schools would have received less money: the money to educate a child would have followed the child: over time, expanding access to charter schools could cost local property taxpayers more, since district schools will need more funding, forcing local elected leaders to either raise property taxes more, or cut public services. Indeed, opponents of charter school expansion claimed, based on state data, that school districts would have lost some $450 million this year to charter school tuition, even after accounting for state reimbursements.

Unsurprisingly, ergo, municipal officials generally opposed expanding charter schools, with the mayors of Springfield, Boston, Chicopee, Holyoke, Northampton, Pittsfield, Westfield, and West Springfield all coming out publicly opposed. Geoff Beckwith, the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said the current funding system is already difficult for cities and towns to deal with, noting that, for one, the formula transferring money from district to charter schools does not take into account the fact that many of a school’s costs are fixed and do not vary by child, noting that with regard to the fiscal impact on cities, towns and school districts: “You have to a have a classroom, you have to heat the building, you still have principals…It’s extremely hard for communities to actually cut costs…The only thing they can do is cut back on the overall quality of the programming they’re offering the vast majority of kids who stay behind in the regular public school system.” Ergo, he noted: “Until the financing system is fixed, the ballot question providing for the expansion of charter schools would exacerbate and deepen the financial trouble that these local school systems are dealing with…And the communities that are most impacted by charter school expansion are in most cases the most financially challenged communities.” (Unsurprisingly, the Massachusetts Municipal Association board voted unanimously to oppose the ballot question.) Indeed, Moody’s reported the rejection to be a credit positive for the Commonwealth’s urban local governments: “It will allow those cities and towns to maintain current financial operations without having to adjust to increased financial pressure from charter school funding.” According to Moody’s, since the last charter school expansion in 2010, cities such as Boston, Fall River, Lawrence, and Springfield have experienced significant growth in charter school assessments, averaging 83% due to increasing charter school enrollment. To which, Moody’s notes: “So far, the growing cost of charter schools on municipalities has not been a direct credit challenge; rather the effect is more indirect because Massachusetts school districts are integrated within cities and towns with relatively healthy credit profiles.” The agency went on to write: “Education in the commonwealth is a primary budget item within a municipality’s overall budget, which allows city budgets to absorb some of the education financial stress with other municipal sources….This integration is a key distinction from school districts in other states that operate separately from the communities they serve.”

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