Governing Challenges of Federalism & Severe Fiscal Distress

eBlog, 1/20/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the deteriorating municipal fiscal conditions in Connecticut’s central cities, a new twist in New Jersey’s usurpation of municipal governance in Atlantic City, and the ongoing challenges in Puerto Rico where the PROMESA Board has provided new Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares additional time to submit a new fiscal plan—albeit a plan potentially complicated by a court ruling, as well as uncertainty with regard to potential changes in direction from Washington where, later this morning, a new Trump Administration takes the reins of power in Washington, D.C.  

Can Connecticut Help to Avert Municipal Bankruptcies? Gov. Daniel Malloy, in his State of the State address this month, stated he wanted to “ensure that no Connecticut city or town will need to explore the avoidable path of [municipal] bankruptcy,” indicating he would be working on an initiative involving statewide restructuring of local aid, especially for schools. His remarks seemed to parallel a new report, “Connecticut’s Broken Cities,” by Stephen Eide of the Manhattan Institute, in which he wrote: “State government is almost certainly going to have to get involved in the case of Hartford…Hartford may need a bailout to restore solvency.” However, the new report also examined the fiscal challenge of three other of the state’s central cities: Bridgeport, New Haven, and Waterbury—cities confronted by nearly $5 billion in OPEB and public pension obligations, estimating their combined annual OPEB liabilities at $120 million, and their unfunded pension liability to be $2.7 billion. The report paints a fiscal picture of municipalities which have the highest property taxes in the state—and the highest per capita municipal debt. Indeed, the rating agencies awarded Hartford two four-notch downgrades last year: Moody’s reduced the city’s rating to junk-level, putting it in the lowest one percent credit rating of all municipalities—even as it cited the city as at risk of further downgrades “over the medium term,” with its analysts noting that: “For the time being, Waterbury, and Bridgeport, and most likely also New Haven, can continue to muddle through without the need for extraordinary support from the state…[but] the same cannot be said for Hartford.” Hartford faces a $48 million gap on a $270 million budget, notwithstanding the steep budget cuts and layoffs the city undertook last year. The city appears to be on the wrong fiscal end of a teeter-totter: its reserves sagged 34% from FY2006 to FY2015; while its debt per capita escalated 78% over the same period, according to the report. Or, as Mayor Luke Bronin describes it: “The city used every trick up its sleeve to try to keep the lights on…I think all of those were mistakes, but in a big sense they’re a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself.” Gov. Malloy attributes the city’s property tax as the key fiscal contributor, whilst Mayor Bronin, the Governor’s former Chief Counsel, has pressed, as we have previously noted, for a regional solution—one that might, for instance, mirror some of the innovative fiscal, regional efforts in the St. Paul-Minneapolis and Denver metro areas. Mayor Bronin believes that a municipal fiscal partnership could include shared services or revising state formulas for education and health funding—a proposal that in some ways fits Connecticut Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher’s order last fall directing the state to revise its state aid to education formula to better serve students in low-income municipalities—an order which Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen is currently appealing. For his part, Gov. Malloy said a fairer distribution of Connecticut’s state aid to local governments could provide an important lifeline to avert chapter 9 bankruptcies—but that any such aid would mean the state would “play a more active role in helping less-affluent communities – in helping higher-taxed communities – part of that role will be holding local political leadership and stakeholders to substantially higher standards and greater accountability than they’ve been held to in the past: We should do it so that increased aid doesn’t simply mean more spending on local government.”

A Bridge to Local Experience. The New Jersey Department of Community Affairs has hired Atlantic City business administrator Jason Holt to assist in its state takeover of the distressed city, in this case adding a key individual who has worked under Mayor Donald Guardian for the last two years: Mr. Holt is charged with assisting the Department’s Division of Local Government Services in taking on the virtually insolvent city’s fiscal. He seems very well equipped, having served previously as Mayor Guardian’s solicitor, before serving as the city’s business administrator. Indeed, Mayor Guardian yesterday noted: “Over the past three years, Jason Holt has been an integral part of my team…When I originally selected him as my solicitor and then as my business administrator, I did so because of his extreme intellect and professionalism. Obviously, the State sees the same thing in Mr. Holt.” The transition is likely enhanced, because Mr. Holt has worked closely over the last two months with Local Government Services Director Tim Cunningham and Jeffrey Chiesa, the state’s designee in charge of Atlantic City financial matters. Department of Community Affairs spokesperson Lisa Ryan noted: “Mr. Holt’s hire by DLGS formalizes the work he has been doing in practice for the last two months…Mr. Holt will leave the City’s business administrator position, although the work he will do for DLGS will largely be the same as what he is doing now.” She added that Mr. Holt will continue working out of City Hall with his official first day with the DLGS set for next Monday. The state decision, however, has not been met with uniform approval: Assemblyman Chris Brown (R-Atlantic), who has been critical of the state for not producing its own fiscal recovery plan after rejecting the city’s, noted the lack of state transparency: “Without a transparent plan, even if they laid all the state’s experts end to end, they’d still never reach a solution.” In contrast, Mayor Don Guardian, who, in a statement said Mr. Holt has been an integral part of his team, added: “When I originally selected him as my solicitor, and then again as my business administrator, I did so because of his extreme intellect and professionalism. Obviously, the state sees the same thing in Mr. Holt…I look forward to working with him in his new capacity.” Indeed, Mr. Holt brings considerable experience, having previously served as corporation counsel for East Orange, Essex County, where, he provided legal counsel to both the Mayor and City Council, oversaw the complete spectrum of that city’s legal affairs, and played a key role in revamping its public-safety initiatives.

Is There Promise in PROMESA? Just as Puerto Rico enters its 12th year of economic depression, the PROMESA Oversight Board has informed new Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares that the Board is willing to grant additional time for the submission of a new fiscal plan—provided the Governor is willing to lay off public employees, reduce the pensions of thousands of retirees, make budget cuts for the University of Puerto Rico and Mi Salud, and extract an additional $1.5 billion from the pockets of corporations and individuals. In addition, the Board indicated it would be willing to extend the stay on litigation provided by PROMESA until May 1st, if Gov. Rosselló Nevares’s administration presents a plan to renegotiate Puerto Rico’ public debt. According to the calculations provided by the Board, this could mean an adjustment of $3 billion to the debt service, with the proposals gleaned from a 14-page letter, which appeared to be a warning to the new Governor that he must balance the budget in the next two fiscal years, and that the proposals for adjustments in public expenditures are “prerequisites” for the Board to certify any plan submitted. In response, Puerto Rico’s representative to the Board, Elías Sánchez Sifonte, immediately stated that Gov. Rosselló Nevares’s administration will seek to meet the Board’s conditions. He also assured that there are other mechanisms to balance the budget and close the fiscal gap—a gap the Oversight Board estimates at nearly $7.6 billion. In its letter, the Board advised the new Governor that his team could submit a new fiscal plan by the end of February, and that the document should be approved by March 15th—all subject to the Governor agreeing to balance the budget with a “one and done” approach, with “no discussion or consideration of short-term liquidity loans or near-term financings,” despite the contention by Gov. Rosselló Nevares and his team that such financing are a prerequisite in order to avoid a government shutdown. The stiff challenges, which the new Governor’s administration agreed were not so different from its own preliminary forecasts, were, nevertheless, perceived as “dramatic,” albeit key to avoid “the total collapse” of the government, blaming the previous Gov. Alejandro García Padilla’s administration’s “unwillingness to cooperate, [and] wasting time in presenting a fiscal plan that did not meet the requirements.”

The Board’s orders will affect not only Puerto Rico’s public employees, government pensioners, and foreign corporations and their tax liabilities, but also holders of Puerto Rican municipal bonds: those bondholders, in every state, could realize a reduction of as much as 80% of the annual payments that Puerto Rico must make—through different issuers—over the next two years. Sacrifices, it appears, will be widespread: the Board also proposed that Gov. Rosselló cut 23% in payroll expenses (about $900 million), which would imply a reduction in the number of public sector employees, an indicator that is already at a historical low; reduced public pensions by 10 percent—in a “progressive manner,” eliminated 100 percent of the subsidies to municipalities (about $400 million), which would be offset by a revision to property taxes, and higher payments by beneficiaries of Puerto Rico’s healthcare plan, all as part of Board recommendations that could, if implemented, save the U.S. territory as much as $1 billion. The Board added it believed the University of Puerto Rico could cut $300 million (27%) from its budget if it hiked tuitions. if it increased the amount of services among students and faculty members, raised the tuition to those who could afford it, and promoted the arrival of international and continental students to take courses in the institution.

The Board noted that to close Puerto Rico’s budget gap, Gov. Rosselló Nevares’s administration would have to meet with Puerto Rico’s municipal bondholders to make voluntary debt renegotiations through Title VI of PROMESA; albeit negotiations with the creditors would not necessarily take place in good terms: according to the numbers the Board released yesterday, the series of cutbacks and changes in the government would, on their own, be insufficient; ergo bondholders—including thousands of Puerto Rican individuals—will have to accept a cut in the debt service, which could amount to $3 billion.

But Here Come da Judge. Yet even as the PROMESA Board and the new Governor were seeking to come to terms with steps critical to fiscal recovery, the third branch of government stepped into the fiscal fray when U.S. District Judge Francisco Besosa handed a victory to holders of Puerto Rico Employment Retirement System (ERS) bonds, marking one of municipal bondholders’ first legal victories since Puerto Rico began defaulting on municipal bond interest payments about a year ago. Judge Besosa has ordered ERS to shift incoming employers’ contributions from its operating account to a segregated account at Banco Popular de Puerto Rico, directing that such funds remain in the segregated account until all parties agree on a different approach or the court orders the money to be moved out of the account. ERS had $3.1 billion in municipal bond debt outstanding as of July 2, 2016, according to the Puerto Rico government—none of it insured; all of it taxable. Normally, Puerto Rico government employers make employer contributions to support the payment of senior pension funding bonds; last year, as part of Puerto Rico’s emergency order 2016-31 in which it declared the ERS was in an emergency, the obligation of the ERS to transfer employer contributions to the bond trustee was suspended. Last November, Judge Besosa ruled against the plaintiffs in the case concerning the ERS bonds. Simultaneously, he had ruled against several other bondholder plaintiffs in other cases—leading some of the municipal bondholders to appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit—which, last week, generally concurred with Judge Besosa’s opinion (see Peaje Investments, LLC v. Alejandro Garcia-Padilla et al, 4th U.S. Court of Appeals, #16-2431, January 11, 2017), affirming the continued stay on bondholder litigation stemming from the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act in several cases, albeit ordering Judge Besosa to hold a hearing for the arguments of the lead plaintiff, Altair Global Credit Opportunities Fund, and its co-plaintiffs, with the court writing: “We note that the Altair movants’ request for adequate protection here appears to be quite modest. They ask only that the employer contributions collected during the PROMESA stay be placed ‘in an account established for the benefit of movants.’ In light of ERS’s representation that it is not currently spending the funds, but instead simply holding them in an operating account, this solution seems to be a sensible one.” Thus, this week, Judge Besosa ordered such a segregated account to be set up and that all funds not transferred since the start of the PROMESA litigation stay be deposited in the account within five business days; Judge Besosa also ordered that in the future the ERS should transfer the employer contributions to the segregated account no later than the end of each month, noting that the segregated account will be “for the benefit of the holders of the ERS bonds,” adding, moreover, that said funds will simply sit in the account until a court orders otherwise, although he noted it would not preclude the ERS from transferring the employer contributions to the bond trustee for payment of the bonds, as would normally be the case.

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