The Hard Challenges of Fiscal Sustainability

eBlog, 11/29/16

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing—and evolving–state role in addressing municipal fiscal distress in Atlantic City: what is the role of a state and the impact on fiscal sustainability? Then we turn to the grim fiscal and governance situation in East Cleveland, Ohio—where state un-governance and next week’s looming Mayoral election appear to bode fiscal ills. Then we head south to the challenge of determining whether and how there might be promise in the implementation and unrolling of Congress’ recently enacted PROMESA legislation—the quasi chapter 9 for the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico.

Not the Moody Blues. Moody’s Investors Service was uncharacteristically unmoody in determining that the state takeover of Atlantic City was a “credit positive” for the city, citing the unlikely threat of immediate default through 2017 as the largest contributing factor in its outlook. The credit positive comes during the first month of Gov. Chris Christie’s appointment of Jeffrey Chiesa to oversee the city: under his appointment, he has wide-ranging fiscal authority—indeed, as Moody’s described it: “While the state has not officially guaranteed Atlantic City’s debt, [the State] intends to prevent any default.” The state takeover comes as the city confronts a $2.3 million payment this week, followed by a $4.8 million debt payment on December 15th—but in the wake of the New Jersey Local Finance Board’s unanimous vote to grant its director, Timothy Cunningham, far-reaching governing powers over the beleaguered city under the authority granted by the state’s Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act, was the worst-case scenario for the city, which has been fighting a takeover for the last year, even as it barely escaped going broke; Moody’s described Mr. Cunningham’s expressed “willingness to go to the state treasury for assistance if necessary to pay debt service” as a credit positive—or, as Moody’s described it: “While the state has not officially guaranteed Atlantic City’s debt, Director Cunningham has said the state intends to prevent any default.”

Trouble in River City. In the wake of last month’s hefty fine ($114,100) by the Ohio Election Commission of East Cleveland, Ohio Mayor Gary Norton over incomplete, late, and missing fundraising reports—fine nearly quintuple last year’s—with this year’s levied in response to complaints from the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections that the Mayor failed to file a 2015 annual report, turned in his 2014 report late, and has yet to resolve issues with his 2013 reports. In a series of letters, the board of elections asked Mayor Norton to fix a number of discrepancies in his 2013 reports—including incorrect fundraising totals and missing addresses; the board has now also requested proof of mileage, bank fees, phone expenses, and other spending for that year. In response to the reports, the Mayor—and December candidate for re-election, responded: “I am aware of the situation regarding delinquent campaign finance reports…All required reports will be completed and filed. The decision of the elections commission will be appealed. Campaign finances and reporting are completely separate from city finances. No city or public funds are involved.”

It’s not as if the fiscally insolvent city is new at this game: Mayor Norton also faced complaints in the wake of several missing finance reports from years prior to 2013, according to elections commission case summary records. Many of those reports have since been submitted and posted on the county board of elections website. Last year, the Ohio elections commission imposed a $20,000 fine on the Mayor in connection with many of those cases. The problems come at an inopportune time: Mayor Norton faces a recall election next Tuesday.

Is There Promise in PROMESA? At a third session of the PROMESA oversight board, Puerto Rico Gov. Alejandro García Padilla warned the Board he will not cooperate with it to administer a fiscal plan which subjects his constituents to greater sacrifice, but offers no federal financial assistance. The response comes in the wake of last Friday’s warning by Board members that the solution to the U.S. territory’s problems will have to include deep government spending cuts and structural changes. None of the Board members emphasized the importance of paying Puerto Rico’s debt. Indeed, several board members emphasized that substantial federal aid was neither likely, but rather impossible. In the wake of last month’s implicit and at times explicit rejection of the fiscal plan presented by Gov. Alejandro García Padilla last month, PROMESA Board Member Ana Matosantos noted that “deep” restructuring was necessary—adding that additional reforms and spending cuts would also be necessary, warning that federal assistance was unlikely and that without it, there would have to be an additional $16 billion in spending cuts “before you pay a dime of debt service.” Indeed, Board member Andrew Biggs noted that the PROMESA Board will have to put together a recovery package which does not assume a federal bailout; but he also noted that in cases of sovereign debt crises, most attempts to turn the situation around fail, because they fail to examine and address the “big questions.” Thus, he warned: the successful turnarounds question the existence of the big social programs. PROMESA Board Chairman José Carrión III warned that he believed it unlikely Puerto Rico would receive all of the fiscal assistance the Governor was seeking—especially vis-à-vis health care, where the U.S. territory is not treated on a par with states—noting that the board must come up with multiple scenarios, and the Board would have to be bold and use the plan to encourage economic growth.

The PROMESA Board December 15th deadline would seem, as our colleagues at Municipal Market Analytics note, “in peril,” but also raise the specter of the legal authority of the PROMESA Board should a new gubernatorial regime prove unwilling to comply with or carry out mandates from the PROMESA Board. MMA notes, also, the near term impossible straddle between addressing its structural debt whilst making projected debt payments, adding that “an acceptable plan’s likely need for sweeping layoffs, service austerity, and, potentially, pension payout reductions increases the potential for social unrest on the island.”

Finding Hope in Flint. Brian Willingham, for the New York Times last week wrote of his services two decades ago with the Flint Police Department “because I believed I could make a difference,” asking: “How can a city fall so far that we lose sight of the possibility of solutions?”  Noting that wages and benefits in the city have been reduced by more than 25% since 2011—a period during which he was laid off and rehired thrice—he noted the police force today is one-third of its former size—adding that while the national average is three officers for every one thousand citizens, in Flint is half an officer for that number of citizens, writing: “In one of America’s most dangerous cities, the people who secure the city are less secure than they’ve ever been. Yet we continue serving, as we did through the loss of General Motors, through the crack cocaine epidemic and, most recently, through the mass lead poisoning of Flint citizens. The crisis around Flint’s poisoned water points to a larger issue of structural racism and poverty in urban society. How can citizens in Flint trust the police to protect them when they can’t even trust their government to provide them with clean water? This is the kind of question that has placed police officers and African-Americans on a collision course. Police officers are seen as outsiders in urban America. White officers are seen as racist, while black officers like me are seen as traitors to our race.”

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