The Many & Daunting Challenges of Municipal Bankruptcy

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eBlog, 12/30/16

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the retirement of an exceptional public leader, retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, who presided over Detroit’s largest in U.S, history chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy and then went on to accept the unforgiving position of emergency manager for the Detroit Public Schools—a key role in the ongoing challenges to recovery from the nation’s largest ever municipal bankruptcy. Then we head into the gale of the Northeaster to New Jersey’s Atlantic City—as the state slowly begins to unroll the mechanics of its takeover of the fiscally insolvent municipality, before finally heading to the warmer West Coast, where San Bernardino leaders are preparing for the restoration of municipal authority and coming back from the nation’s longest-ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy.

Retirement after Extraordinary Work.  Electronic rhythm guitar player and retired U.S. bankruptcy judge Steven Rhodes, to whom Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder presented the challenge of becoming emergency manager, an offer he accepted, came out of retirement, and became the school district’s fifth emergency manager—with the official title “transition manager”—on March 1 for a salary of $18,750 a month. Now, nearly 10 months later, a Detroit district plagued by about $515 million in operating debt has been replaced with a new, debt-free Detroit district, courtesy of a $617 million bailout for which Judge Rhodes had lobbied the Republican-led Legislature. But the legacy of Judge Rhodes, who is set to depart tomorrow, remains to be fully appreciated. Judge Rhodes, who presided over Detroit’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy before leaving to accept the Governor’s appointment to serve as the emergency manager for the Detroit Public Schools system—a position in which he served for about 10 months to be in charge of the state’s largest school district during one of its most tumultuous periods—and during which, last June, the state created, in effect, a dual system of charter and public schools. At the inception of this harrowing task, he inherited a school system collapsing from a string of teacher sick-outs that closed dozens of schools, sparked a lawsuit, and from a system of unsafe public buildings. As we have previously posted, the legislature and Governor had enacted a $617-million financial rescue package which created the new district to replace the old Detroit Public Schools—even as it created a separate system of charter schools—and put Judge Rhodes in charge of overseeing the complex task of overseeing the new, 45,000 student district. He leaves, unsurprisingly, with a system in fiscally and physically significantly improved condition—helping, in his final chapter of public service, to help bring in additional fiscal resources via the sale of more than a dozen small, unused parcels of land for $3 million to Olympia Development, the developer of the new Little Caesars Arena in Detroit, and future home to the Red Wings and Pistons. In addition, the school district agreed to sell its license for the radio station at the Detroit School of Arts to Detroit Public Television in an agreement valued at $9 million, pending regulatory approval. (Detroit Public TV already pays the district for being able to operate the station, WRCJ-FM (90.9). Under the agreement, the station will stay in the district. (Students will have enhanced opportunities to learn about broadcasting as a result of the deal, according to DPS officials.) As part of the transition, Judge Rhodes has transferred authority to a seven-member elected public school board which will take office in January, making it the first school board with any significant decision-making power since 2009, when a series of state-appointed emergency managers began controlling the district.

In an interview with the Detroit Free Press, Judge Rhodes said that at the “very highest level, the most challenging part of the job for me was the politics of it. Because, as a judge, I was never involved in politics. We had a fixed process. We engaged that process, the process concluded with a result, and we moved on. But here, there are political considerations to everything, and I was not prepared for that.” In response to a follow-up question with regard to the greatest challenges of his emergency position, Judge Rhodes responded: “What surprised and disappointed me the most was the level of antagonism between Detroit on one side and the rest of the state and Lansing on the other side. Each side has predisposed views of the other side that are not based on fact, and that are not only unproductive, but counterproductive, and are not in the best interest of the children in the city. Both sides need to find very specific ways and methods to break through that, and they need to do it very soon.”

Now, he notes, the newly elected school board will have to take “very specific actions to reach out to decision- and policy-makers in Lansing to work with them on achieving Detroit’s goals, to educate them on where DPSCD is, the progress it has made, and how it’s going to make progress in the future. And it has to do that outreach in a spirit of collaboration, cooperation, and reaching out for help, and with the assumption that people in Lansing want to help, not with the assumption that they are anti-Detroit.” He added that the school board will also have to do something few other school boards in the U.S. must: it will have to carve out a constructive relationship with the Detroit Financial Review Commission (FRC): “I hope and expect that the board’s relationship will simply continue the relationship that I and the staff here have already established, which is a cooperative, collaborative working relationship that recognizes our autonomy, (and) at the same time recognizes the value that the FRC brings to enhancing the credibility of DPSCD…We have an example, a concrete example, of how the work of the FRC benefited DPSCD financially. It was the adviser that the FRC retained that helped us to identify a health insurance provider that was more comprehensive and less money.

Arithmetic. As to the new system’s fiscal viability, Judge Rhodes noted: “It’s better than where I hoped it would be. My goal was to have a balanced budget for this year, meaning revenues equaling expenditures. It turned out, through the hard work of the staff, and selling certain assets that we were not using and would never use, we actually will have a surplus this year, which we will use to create a much-needed fund balance…It’s not as much of a fund balance as we need, but it’s a really good start, and not one that I would have predicted or foreseen when we were putting our budget together last spring. (The school district has a $48.2-million projected fund balance, or reserve fund. It’s roughly $650-million, the FY2017 budget is balanced.) With regard to the system’s fiscal stability going forward, Judge Rhodes noted: “I’m confident that we are in a position to maintain a balanced budget going forward. I think there are also opportunities to increase the fund balance, which is something we should be doing. There are aspects of school finance, however, that do concern me. In order to achieve academic success, which is our goal, as it is every school district’s, funding provided by the Legislature has to recognize two fundamental distinctions between Detroit and other school districts. No. 1 is that 60 percent of our students live in poverty, which means it’s more challenging to educate them, and therefore more expensive to educate them. And you can attribute those expenses to enhanced reading services, enhanced wraparound services, and enhanced truancy and attendance services.

He noted a second, distinguishing factor and challenge: “A second factor (is) our special needs and special education children. We have a higher percentage than other districts. They are of course more expensive to educate, and in some cases, significantly more expensive to educate. And I don’t want to give the impression that we don’t want those students. We do, we absolutely do. They are as entitled to an education as any other child. But the reality is they are more expensive to educate. While some of that difference is made up by federal grants, it’s not all of it. And so, that puts an extra strain on the budget….School funding is based now, generally speaking, on the concept that equality is equity. We give the same amount for every child in the state. The problem is equality is not equity, or I should say is not always equity. In this case, it’s not.”

The State of the City. As the State of New Jersey takeover of Atlantic City continues to unroll, it appears one of the final actions of 2016 will be a state imposed mandate to the city for an across-the-board pay cut, a 15-step salary guide with pay capped at $90,000, increased health-care contributions from employees, and the imposition of 12-hour work shifts for police officers.  The orders by Mr. Chiesa, the quasi-ruler of the city, appear to be the beginning of what will be a more comprehensive effort on how part to address the city’s $500 million of debt–with Mr. Chiesa indicating he now intends to meet with all of the groups involved. In an email to members obtained by the Press of Atlantic City, union President Matt Rogers recapped a meeting the union delegation had the day before yesterday with representatives from the state who are in command of Atlantic City as part of the state takeover. Among the state’s emerging demands are an across-the-board pay cut, a 15-step salary guide with pay capped at $90,000, increased health-care contributions from union members, and tasking officers to work 12-hour shifts. It seems that some of the state’s demands were similar to a new contract the city and union had already agreed upon; however, the state had refused to approve. It appears the state will insist upon the layoff of an additional to 250 members. The actions mark some of the first under the reign of former New Jersey Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa as he has insisted upon meeting with all of the groups involved in the city’s budget and vital operations prior to focusing on addressing the city’s $500 million of debt.

Prepping to Exit Chapter 9. As San Bernardino prepares to exit municipal bankruptcy—the nation’s longest ever—next month, City Manager Mark Scott reports he will be meeting with Mayor Carey Davis and the City Council, as well as his key managers to put together an action-focused work plan, noting: U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury will put out a “written ruling on January 27, and then there will be several months of paperwork before we officially exit bankruptcy.” Ergo, his goal is to be ready by that date in the wake of approval of its plan of debt adjustment under which the beleaguered city eliminated some $350 million in one-time and ongoing expenditures—a goal immeasurably helped by city voter approval last November of a new charter—albeit a charter which still awaits approval by California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, paving the way for the city to transition from a strong mayor council-manager form of governance—and one without an elected city attorney—which the manager described as one which led to multiple agendas and infighting which had contributed to pushing “the city into bankruptcy. No one was working together.” Under the newly adopted charter, the mayor will have a tiebreaker vote except when it comes to appointing or removing the city attorney, city manager, or city clerk positions, at which point, the mayor would have one vote. Indeed, as part of his agreement to work for the city, Mr. Scott informed the city’s elected officials he was unwilling to stay at San Bernardino long-term absent adoption of a new charter, noting: “I was not interested in working in such a confusing form of government for long…I wanted to help, but it was contingent on the charter being able to pass. The pre-existing form of governance was unrecognizable to anyone who studied government.”

If it can be deemed easy to slide into municipal bankruptcy, getting out and long-term recovery is a challenge—one which will require innovative policies to attract new economic growth via zoning and land use policies that attract investment in key locations—a challenge made more difficult in the city’s case not only because of its bankruptcy, but also because of last year’s terrorism incident—one which could hardly be expected to serve as an incentive for new families or businesses. Another critical hurdle is the city’s 34% poverty rate–the highest of any large city in the state, along with the worst homicide rate per capita in the state. Thus, unsurprisingly, Mr. Scott notes that San Bernardino will be fiscally solvent before it is service level solvent: he has predicted the city’s police service levels will be where they should be in a few years; however, it will probably take a decade for parks and recreation to reach pre-bankruptcy levels; moreover, the city is in no position to issue new capital debt, because it lacks the requisite fiscal resources to pay bondholders.  

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