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Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the unique fiscal challenge confronting Detroit: when and how will it emerge from state oversight? Then we spin the tables to see how Atlantic City is faring to see if it might be on the shores of fiscal recovery; before going back to Detroit to assess the math/fiscal challenges of the state created public school district; then, still in Detroit, we try to assess the status of a lingering issue from the city’s historic municipal bankruptcy: access to drinking water for its lowest income families; before visiting Hartford, to try to gauge how the fiscally stressed central city might fare with the Connecticut legislature. Finally, we revisit the small Virginia municipality of Petersburg to witness a very unique kind of municipal finance for a city so close to insolvency but in need of ensuring the provision of vital, lifesaving municipal services.
Fiscal & Physical Municipal Balancing. Michigan Deputy Treasurer Eric Scorsone is predicting that by “early next year, Detroit will be out of state oversight,” at a time when the city “will be financially stable by all indications and have a significant surplus.” That track will sync with the city’s scheduled emergence from state oversight, albeit apprehension remains with regard to whether the city has budgeted adequately to set funds aside to anticipate a balloon pension obligation due in 2024. Nevertheless, Mr. Scorsone has deemed the Motor City’s post-bankruptcy transformation “extraordinary,” describing its achievements in meeting its plan of debt adjustment—as well as complying with the Detroit Financial Review Commission—so well that the “city could basically operate on its own.” He noted that the progress has been sufficient to permit the Commission to be in a dormancy state—subject to any, unanticipated deficits emerging. The Deputy Treasurer credited the Motor City’s strong management team under CFO John Hill both for the city’s fiscal progress, but also for his role in keeping an open line of communication with the state oversight board; he also noted the key role of Mayor Mike Duggan’s leadership for improving basic services such as emergency response times and Detroit’s public infrastructure. Nevertheless, Detroit remains subject to the state board’s approval of any contracts, operating or capital budgets, as well as formal revenue estimates—a process which the Deputy Treasurer noted “allows the city to stay on a strong economic path…[t]hese are all critical tools,” he notes, valuable not just to Detroit, but also to other municipalities an counties to help ensure “long term stability.”
On the Shore of Fiscal Recovery. S&P Global Ratings, which last month upgraded Atlantic City’s general obligation bond rating two notches to CCC in the wake of the city’s settlement with the Borgata Casino, a settlement which yielded the city some $93 million in savings, has led to a Moody’s rating upgrade, with the credit rating agency writing that Atlantic City’s proposed FY2017 budget—one which proposes some $35.3 million in proposed cuts, is a step in the right direction for the state taken-over municipality, noting that the city’s fiscal plan incorporates a 14.6% cut in its operating budget—sufficient to save $8 million, via reductions in salaries and benefits for public safety employees, $6 million in debt service costs, and $3 million in administrative expenses. Nevertheless S&P credit analyst Timothy Little cautioned that pending litigation with regard to whether Atlantic City can make proposed police and firefighter cuts could be a fly in the ointment, writing: “In our view, the proposed budget takes significant measures to improve the city’s structural imbalance and may lead to further improved credit quality; however, risks to fiscal recovery remain from pending lawsuits against state action impeding labor contracts.” The city’s proposed $206.3 million budget, indeed, marks the city’s first since the state takeover placed it under the oversight of the New Jersey’s Local Finance Board, with the state preemption giving the Board the authority to alter outstanding debt, as well as municipal contracts. Mr. Little wrote that this year will mark the first fiscal year of the agreed-to payment-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOT) program for casino gaming properties—a level set at $120 million annually over the next decade—out of which 10.4% will go to Atlantic County. Mr. Little also notes that the budget contains far less state financial support than in previous years, as the $30 million of casino redirected anticipated revenue received in 2015 and 2016 will be cut to $15 million; moreover, the budget includes no state transitional aid—denoting a change or drop of some $26.2 million; some of that, however, will be offset by a $15 million boost from an adjustment to the state Consolidated Municipal Property Tax Relief Act—or, as the analyst wrote: “Long-term fiscal recovery will depend on Atlantic City’s ability to continue to implement fiscal reforms, reduce reliance on nonrecurring revenues, and reduce its long-term liabilities.” Today, New Jersey state aid accounts for 34% of the city’s $206.3 million in budgeted revenue, 31% comes from casino PILOT payments, and 27% from tax revenues. S&P upgraded Atlantic City’s general obligation bond rating two notches to CCC in early March after the Borgata settlement yielded the city $93 million in savings. Moody’s rates Atlantic City debt at Caa3.
Schooled on Bankruptcy. While Detroit, as noted above, has scored high budget marks or grades with the state; the city’s school system remains physically and fiscally below grade. Now, according to the Michigan Department of Education, school officials plan to voluntarily shutter some of the 24 city schools—schools targeted for closure by the state last January, according to State Superintendent Brian Whiston, whose spokesperson, William DiSessa, at a State Board of Education meeting, said: “Superintendent Whiston doesn’t know which schools, how many schools, or when they may close, but said that they are among the 38 schools threatened for closure by the State Reform Office earlier this year.” Mr. DiSessa added that “the decision to close any schools is the Detroit Public School Community District’s to make.” What that decision will be coming in the wake of the selection of Nikolai Vitti, who last week was selected to lead the Detroit Public Schools Community District. Mr. Vitti, 40, is currently Superintendent of the Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Florida, the 20th largest district in the nation; in the wake of the Detroit board’s decision last week to enter into negotiations with Mr. Vitti for the superintendent’s job, Mr. Vitti described the offer as “humbling and an honor.” The school board also voted, if Mr.Vitti accepts the offer, to ask him to begin next week as a consultant, working with a transition team, before officially commencing on July 1st. The School Board’s decision, after a search began last January, marks the most important decision the board has made during its brief tenure, in the wake of its creation last year and election last November after the Michigan Legislature in June approved $617-million legislation which resolved the debt of Detroit Public Schools via creating the new district, and retaining the old district for the sole purpose if collecting taxes and paying off debt.
The twenty-four schools slated for closure emerged from a list of 38 the State of Michigan had targeted last January—all from schools which have performed in the bottom 5 percent of the state for at least three consecutive years, according to the education department. The Motor City had hoped to avoid any such forced state closures—hoping against hope that by entering last month into partnership negotiations with the Michigan State Superintendent’s office, and working with Eastern Michigan University, the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, and Wayne State University, the four institutions would help set “high but attainable” goals at the 24 Detroit schools to improve academic achievement and decrease chronic absenteeism and teacher vacancies. The idea was that those goals would be evaluated after 18 months and again in 36 months, according to state officials. David Hecker, president of the American Federation of Teachers Michigan, noted that he was not aware which schools might be closing or how many; however, he noted that whatever happens to the teachers of the closing schools would be subject to the collective bargaining agreement with the Detroit Federation of Teachers. “If any schools close, it would absolutely be a labor issue that would be governed by the collective bargaining agreement as to how that will work … (and) where they will go,” Mr. Hecker said. “We very strongly are opposed to any school closing for performance reasons.”
Thirsty. A difficult issue—among many—pressed upon now retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes during Detroit’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy came as the Detroit Water and Sewer Department began shutting off water service to some of nearly 18,000 residential customers with delinquent accounts. Slightly less than a year ago, in the wake of numerous battles in Judge Rhodes’ then U.S. bankruptcy courtroom, the issue was again raised: what authority did the city of Detroit have to cut off the delivery of water to the thousands of its customers who were delinquent by more than 90 days? Thus it was that Detroit’s Water and Sewerage Department began shutting off service to customers who had failed to pay their bills—with, at the time, DWSD guesstimating about 20,000 of its customers had defaulted on their payments, and noting that the process of shutting off service to customers with unpaid bills was designed to be equitable and not focused on any particular neighborhood or part of the city—and that the agency was not targeting customers who owed less than a $150 and were only a couple of months behind, noting, instead: “We’re looking for those customers who we’ve repeatedly tried to reach and make contact,” as well as reporting that DWSD was reminding its delinquent customers who were having trouble paying their water bills to contact the department so they may be enrolled in one of its two assistance programs — the WRAP Fund or the “10/30/50” plan. Under the first, the WRAP Fund, customers who were at 150 percent of the poverty level or below could receive up to $1,000 a year in assistance in paying bills, plus up to $1,000 to fix minor plumbing issues leading to high usage. This week, DWSD is reporting it has resumed shutoffs in the wake of sending out notices, adding the department has payment and assistance plans to help those with delinquent accounts avoid losing service. Department Director Gary Brown told the Detroit Free Press that everyone “has a path to not have service interruption.” Indeed, it seems some progress has been achieved: the number of families facing shutoffs is down from 24,000 last April and about 40,000 in April of 2014, according to The Detroit News. In 2014, DWSD disconnected service to more than 30,000 customers due to unpaid bills, prompting protests over its actions. Nonetheless, DWSD began the controversial practice of shutting off water service again this week, this time to some of the nearly 18,000 residential customers with delinquent accounts, in the wake of notices sent out 10 days earlier, according to DWSD Director Gary Brown. Nevertheless, while 17,995 households are subject to having their water turned off, those residents who contact the water department prior to their scheduled shutoffs to make a payment or enter into an assistance plan will avoid being cut off—with experience indicating most do. And, the good gnus is that the number of delinquent accounts is trending down from the 24,302 facing a service interruption last April, according to DWSD. Moreover, this Solomon-like decision of when to shut off water service—since the issue was first so urgently pressed in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court before Judge Rhodes—has gained through experience. DWSD Director Brown reports that once residents are notified, about 90 percent are able to get into a plan and avoid being shut off, and adding that most accounts turned off are restored within 24 hours: “Every residential Detroit customer has a path not to be shut off by asking for assistance or being placed into a payment plan…I’m urging people not to wait until they get a door knocker to come in and ask for assistance to get in a payment plan.” A critical part of the change in how the city deals with shutoffs comes from Detroit’s launch two years ago of its Water Residential Assistance Program, or WRAP, a regional assistance fund created as a component of the Great Lakes Water Authority forged through Detroit’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy: a program designed to help qualifying customers in Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties who are at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level—which equates to $36,450 for a family of four—by covering one-third of the cost of their average monthly bill and freezing overdue amounts. Since a year ago, nearly $5 million has been dedicated to the program—a program in which 5,766 Detroit households are enrolled, according to DWSD, with a retention rate for those enrolled in the program of 90 percent. DWSD spokesperson Bryan Peckinpaugh told the Detroit News the department is committed to helping every customer keep her or his water on and that DWSD provides at least three advance notifications encouraging those facing a service interruption to contact the department to make payment arrangements, adding that the outreach and assistance efforts have been successful, with the number of customers facing potential service interruption at less than half of what it was three years ago.
Fiscally Hard in Hartford. Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin has acknowledged his proposed $612.9 FY2018 budget includes a nearly $50 million gap—with proposed expenditures at $600 million, versus revenues of just over $45 million: a fiscal gap noted moodily by four-notch downgrades to the Connecticut city’s general obligation bonds last year from two credit rating agencies, which cited rising debt-service payments, higher required pension contributions, health-care cost inflation, costly legal judgments from years past, and unrealized concessions from most labor unions. Moody’s Investors Service in 2016 lowered Hartford GOs to a junk-level Ba2. S&P Global Ratings knocked the city to BBB from A-plus, keeping it two notches above speculative grade. Thus, Mayor Bronin, a former chief counsel to Gov. Daniel Malloy, has repeated his request for state fiscal assistance, noting: “The City of Hartford has less taxable property than our suburban neighbor, West Hartford. More than half of our property is non-taxable.” In his proposed “essential services only” budget, Mayor Bronin is asking the Court of Common Council to approve an increase of about $60 million, or 11%, over last year’s approved budget—with a deadline for action the end of next month. An increasing challenge is coming from the stressed city’s accumulating debt: approximately $14 million, or 23%, of that increase is due to debt-service payments, while $12 million is for union concessions which did not materialize, according to the Mayor’s office. Gov. Malloy’s proposed biennial budget, currently in debate by state lawmakers, proposes $35 million of aid to Hartford. Unsurprisingly, that level is proving a tough sell to many suburban and downstate legislators. On the other hand, the Mayor appears to be gaining some traction after, last year, gaining an agreement with the Hartford Fire Fighters Association that might save the city $4 million next year: the agreement included changes to pension contributions and benefits, active and retiree health care, and salary schedules. In addition, last month, Hartford’s largest private-sector employers—insurers Aetna Inc., Travelers Cos. and The Hartford—agreed to donate $10 million per year to the city over five years. Nonetheless, rating agencies Moody’s and S&P have criticized the city for limited operating flexibility, weak reserves, narrowing liquidity, and its rising costs of debt service and pension obligations. Gurtin Municipal Bond Management went so far as to deem the city a “slow-motion train wreck,” adding that while the quadruple-notch downgrades had a headline shock effect, the city’s fundamental credit deterioration had been slow and steady. “The price impact of negative headlines and credit rating downgrades can be swift and severe, which begs the question: How should municipal bond investors and their registered investment advisors react?” Gurtin’s Alex Etzkowitz noted, in a commentary. “The only foolproof solution is to avoid credit distress in the first place by leveraging independent credit research and in-depth, ongoing surveillance of municipal obligors.”
Fighting for a City’s Future. The small city of Petersburg. Virginia, is hardly new to the stress of battle. It was there that General Robert E. Lee’s men fought courageously throughout the Overland Campaign, even as Gen. Lee feared he confronted a campaign he feared could not be won, warning his troops—and politicians: “We must destroy this Army of Grant’s before he gets to the James River. If he gets there, it will become a siege, and then it will be a mere question of time.” Yet, even as he wrote, General Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac was racing toward the James and Petersburg to wage an attack on the city—a highly industrialized city then of 18,000 people, with supplies arriving from all over the South via one of the five railroads or the various plank roads. Indeed, Petersburg was one of the last outposts: without it, Richmond, and possibly the entire Confederacy, was at risk. Today, the city, because of the city’s subpar credit rating, is at fiscal risk: it has been forced to beg its taxpayers to loan it funds for new emergency vehicles—officials are making a fiscal arrangement with private citizens to front the cost for new emergency vehicles, and offering to put up city hall as collateral for said arrangement, as an assurance to the lenders they will be paid back. The challenge: the police department currently needs 16 new vehicles, at a cost of $614,288; the fire department needs three new trucks, at a cost of $2,145,527. Or, as Interim City Manager Tom Tyrrell notes: “Every single day that a firefighter rolls out on a piece of equipment older than he is, or a police officer responds to an emergency call in a car with 160,000 miles on it, are days we want to avoid…We want to get this equipment as soon as possible.” Interim City Finance Director Nelsie Birch has included in the upcoming fiscal year budget the necessary funds to obtain the equipment—equipment Petersburg normally obtains via lease agreements with vendors, but which now, because of its inability to access municipal credit markets due to its “BB” credit rating with a negative outlook, makes it harder than ever to find any vendor—or, as Manager Tyrrell puts it: “We went out four different times…We solicited four different times to the market, and were unsuccessful in getting any parties to propose.” He added that when soliciting these types of agreements, you solicit “thousands of people.” Notwithstanding that the funds for the vehicles is already set aside in the upcoming budget, city officials have been unable to find anyone willing to enter into a lease agreement with the city because of the city’s financial woes.
Last week, the City Council authorized Mr. Tyrrell to “undertake emergency procurement action” in order for the lease of necessary fire and police vehicles, forcing Mr. Tyrrell and other officials to seek private funds to get the equipment—that is, asking individual citizens who have the financial means to put up money for the fire and police vehicles—or, as Mr. Tyrrell puts it: “We’ve reached out to four people, who are interested and capable,” noting they are property owners in Petersburg who will remain anonymous until the deal is closed, describing it thusly: “[This agreement] is outside the rules, because we couldn’t get a partner inside the rules.” Including in this proposed fiscal arrangement: officials must put up additional collateral, in addition to the cars themselves, and in the form of city-owned property—with the cornerstone of the proposal, as it were, being Petersburg City Hall, or, as Mr. Tyrrell notes: “What they’re looking for is some assurance that no matter what happens, we’re going to pay the note…It’s not a securitization in the financial sense, as much as it is in the emotional sense: they know that the city isn’t going to let it go.” He adds, the proposed financial arrangement will be evaluated in two areas: the interest rate and how fast the deal can close, adding: “Although it’s an emergency procurement, we still want to get the best deal we can.”