The Avoidance of Fiscal Contagion

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eBlog, 12/15/16

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the role of leaders appointed or named by municipalities with regard to the integrity of coming back from chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy or insolvency; then we turn to some of the critical factors which have played key roles in San Bernardino’s emergence from the nation’s longest municipal bankruptcy, before, finally, heading into the frigid physical gale and fiscal maelstrom of Atlantic City to consider not only the challenge for a state in taking over a municipality—but also the challenge of avoiding fiscal distress contagion.

Doubting Governance. The Detroit News, in its analysis of state and federal court records, tax filings, and interviews; reported that said analysis raised questions about the ability of some Detroit Development Authority (DDA) members to oversee one of the largest publicly subsidized downtown construction projects since Detroit emerged from chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. The paper’s analysis also revealed a shortcoming of the city’s appointment process—noting it omitted any requirement for DDA members to undergo criminal or financial background checks, despite the fact that the Motor City’s DDA has approved some $250 million in taxes on Little Caesars Arena, even as the DDA is “dominated by tax delinquents with financial problems and in some cases criminal records,” according to public records.

As in most cities, the arena is being financed via the issuance of municipal bonds, under an agreement approved three years ago, where municipal taxes are to be dedicated to paying off $250 million worth of bonds issued by a branch of state government financed by the Michigan Treasury department—a department which has charged a number of DDA members of being tax delinquents. The paper adds that a majority of those appointed have a “history of financial issues,” including more than $500,000 in state and federal tax debt, according to public records. The News noted that details about the DDA members’ financial history offered some insight into a municipal public authority which all too often operates in secret—in this instance an authority whose members are appointed by the Mayor, approved by the City Council, and who then work with professional staff from the nonprofit Detroit Economic Growth Corp.; however, unlike almost every municipal or county public authority, the DDA board does not post agendas, minutes, or accurate meeting schedules; its members are not required to submit to a criminal or financial background check. (Members on the board are not compensated.) Indeed, Mayor Mike Duggan’s chief of staff Alexis Wiley, responding to inquiries by the News, said: “Really, every single person on the board has served the city of Detroit well…They’ve had personal financial challenges, but they have displayed good judgment as board members.” Malinda Jensen, the Detroit Economic Growth Corp.’s senior vice president of board administration and governmental affairs, in a statement to the News, noted: “The public funds contributing to the repayment of construction bonds to build the downtown arena come from a dedicated stream of revenue authorized by state law, approved by the DDA board as a whole, ratified by several votes of the full City Council…audited by independent accountants, and safeguarded in the terms of the sale of the bonds to financial institutions…Those funds are very well protected.” She added: “No individual on the board has any direct ability to access any public funds, and all decisions of the DDA are by majority votes in a public meeting,” adding that the DDA has a quarter-century of clean audits by an independent certified public accounting firm, she said. And DDA members are barred from voting on issues in which they have a direct financial interest, Ms. Jensen added, noting: “We all were impacted in some way through this financial crisis…I’d be curious about what some of that had to do with some of the reports you are hearing on some of these individuals.”

Would that governance and personal integrity were so simple, but, in this case, it turns out that two DDA members with a history of financial problems are also high-ranking members of the Mayor’s administration, with one running Detroit’s neighborhoods department—in this case a long-time municipal employee who has worked for every Mayoral administration since former Mayor Coleman Young, but who has also filed for bankruptcy, lost a home to foreclosure, and failed to pay $250,691 in state and federal taxes, according to public records—and served two years in federal prison in the wake of being found guilty in 1984 of receiving more than $16,000 in illegal payoffs from a sludge-hauling company—at the very time he was serving as Detroit’s Director of the city’s ill-fated Water and Sewerage Department. The paper notes that his colleague at City Hall, Corporation Counsel Melvin “Butch” Hollowell, has faced his own series of state and federal tax liens over the most recent five years: he has been accused of failing to pay more than $60,000 in federal and state taxes, although he has, according to public records, this year managed to pay off all of the debt. The News quoted University of Virginia Law School tax expert George Yin about its findings with regard to the troubled financial records of DDA members, and their fiscal integrity as it relates to their public responsibilities to oversee publicly funded sports arenas—to which Mr. Yin responded: “Given the kind of doubtful or questionable nature of public subsidies for these facilities, you want the people making decisions to be people whose judgment has been proven to be right over and over again.”

The Precipitous Road to Bankruptcy’s Exit Ramp. The City of San Bernardino, once the home to Norton Air Force Base, Kaiser Steel, and the Santa Fe Railroad—yesterday, some twenty-two years later, received a report from the Inland Valley Development Agency’s annual review that, for the first time, it has more than restored all of the jobs and economic impact lost when the base closed: indeed, the review found that the 14,000-acre area of the former base now employs 10,780 people and is responsible for an economic output of $1.89 billion, surpassing the totals lost when the base closed in 1994. What has changed is the nature of the jobs: today these are predominantly logistics, with Amazon’s 4,200 employees and Stater Bros. Markets’ 2,000 employees accounting for more than half of the total. Economist John Husing, whose doctoral thesis studied the economic impact of Norton Air Force Base, yesterday told the San Bernardino Sun: “The jobs that have come in are comparable or better than the jobs that were lost…Because of the spending pattern difference between civilians and military personnel, you only needed 75 percent of the number of people working there to replace the economic impact,” adding that that was because much of the spending by Norton’s employees was at the on-base store, so the money did not recirculate into the local economy—adding that that job total does not include an additional 5,000 part-time jobs created by Amazon and Kohl’s during the Christmas shopping season; nor does it include an additional 5,000 indirect jobs that help build nearly $1.9 billion of total economic benefit. Moreover, with the exception of the San Bernardino International Airport itself (the fourth-largest source of jobs in the project area, with 1,401), the major employers are not directly tied to the former role of the base. Nevertheless, as Mr. Burrows noted: it took planning and preparation to get those companies to come to San Bernardino: “Without a lot of inducement from us—infrastructure, roadway improvements, Mountain View Bridge, for example, we wouldn’t have those jobs…“It’s been a longtime strategic effort, and we’re very pleased that we’re seeing some results.” Mr. Burrows added, moreover, that the Inland Valley Development Agency has more projects (and more jobs) in the works for 2017, including continued infrastructure work and a focus on workforce development: “We’re particularly going to focus on our K-12 schools, San Bernardino Valley College, and the (San Bernardino) Community College District in making sure we’re doing more on the workforce development side.” To do so will be a regional effort, via the agency—which is composed of representatives from San Bernardino County and the cities of Colton, Loma Linda, and San Bernardino—who are responsible for the development and reuse of the non-aviation portions of the former Norton Air Force Base. San Bernardino Mayor Carey Davis noted the Development Authority’s “development of the Norton Air Force Base has proven to be a great asset to the San Bernardino community. We have positively impacted the economy with the creation of jobs and new business,” adding it was “a fine example of the progress we have made in rebuilding San Bernardino.”

Fiscal Distress Contagion & State Preemption. The Atlantic City Council had a quick meeting yesterday in the wake of the state pulling two ordinances for further review—measures which would have raised rates and revised regulations for Boardwalk trams and adopted a redevelopment plan for Atlantic City’s midtown area, with the state asking the Council to pull the ordinances “indefinitely,” according to Council President Marty Small. Subsequently, Timothy Cunningham, the Director of the New Jersey Division of Local Government Services Director and the quasi-takeover manager of the city government, said his agency has had insufficient time to review the ordinances, stating:  “We’ll just revisit them in the new year…I don’t think there’s any objection to them. Just not enough time to fully vet them.” The statement reflects the post-state takeover governance and preemption of local authority. In this case, the issue in question relates to proposed tram rules, including increasing fares to $4 one way and $8 all day in the summer, and $3 one way and $6 all day in the off season—compared to $2.25 one way and $5.50 for an all-day pass. The ordinance would also have allowed the trams to carry advertisements—from which, according to sponsor Councilman Jesse Kurtz, the city would receive half the revenue from the ads.

Nevertheless, the discordant governance situation and unresolved insolvency of the city do not, at least according to Moody’s analyst Douglas Goldmacher, appear to be contagious, with the analyst writing there is only a “relatively mild” chance that the massive fiscal and governance problems of Atlantic City will contaminate Atlantic County: “While Atlantic City remains the largest municipality in the county and its casinos are currently the largest taxpayers, the county’s dependence on Atlantic City’s tax revenues continues to decline.” Moreover, he wrote: “State law offers considerable protection from the city’s financial trauma, and the county has demonstrated a history of strong governance.” Mr. Goldmacher added that the neighboring county has managed to partially offset Atlantic City’s declining tax base and gambling activity with growth in other municipalities—with Atlantic City’s share of the county tax base less than half what it was at its peak of 39% in 2007. The report notes that the county also benefits from a New Jersey statute which insulates the county from the city’s fiscal ills, because cities are required to make payments to counties and schools prior to wresting their share—noting that Atlantic City has never missed a county tax payment and was only late once—and, in that situation, only after special permission was granted in advance. Thus, Mr. Goldmacher wrote: “While Atlantic City has endured political gridlock, the county has achieved structural balance and demonstrated stability through budgeting accuracy, strong reserves and contingency plans…The county also has substantial fund balance and other trust funds and routinely prepares multiple budgets and tax schedules to account for Atlantic City’s uncertain fate.”

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