The Art & Commitment of Municipal Fiscal Recovery

eBlog, 04/11/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing recovery of the city of Flint, Michigan, before heading east to one of the smallest municipalities in America, Central Falls, Rhode Island, as it maintains its epic recovery from chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, before finally turning south to assess recent developments in Puerto Rico. We note the terrible shooting yesterday at North Park Elementary School in San Bernardino; however, as former San Bernardino School Board Member Judi Penman noted, referring to the police department: “It is one of the most organized and well-prepared police departments around, and they are well prepared for this type of situation.” Indeed, even if sadly, the experience the city’s school police department gained from coordinating with the city’s police department in the wake of the December 2, 2015 terrorist attack appeared to enhance the swift and coordinated response—even as calls came in yesterday from the White House and California Gov. Jerry Brown to offer condolences and aid, according to San Bernardino Mayor Carey Davis.

Could this be a Jewel in the Crown on Flint’s Road to Fiscal Recovery? In most instances of severe municipal fiscal distress or bankruptcy, the situation has been endemic to the municipality; however, as we have noted in Jefferson County, the state can be a proximate cause. Certainly that appears to have been the case in Flint, where the Governor’s appointment of an emergency manager proved to be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back at an exceptional cost and risk to human health and safety. The fiscal challenge is, as always, what does it take to recover? In the case of Flint, the city’s hopes appear to depend upon the restoration of one of the small city’s iconic jewels: the historic, downtown Capitol Theatre—where the goal is to restore it to its original glory, dating back to 1928, when it opened as a vaudeville house: it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985, but has been empty now for more than a decade—indeed, not just empty, but rather scheduled to become still another parking lot. Instead, however, the property will undergo a $37 million renovation to become a 1,600-seat movie palace and performance venue, which will provide 28,000 square feet of ground-floor retail and second-floor office space; an additional performance space will be created in the basement for small-scale workshops, experimental theater, and other performances. Jeremy Piper, chairman of the Cultural Center Corp., a Flint lawyer, will manage the new performing arts venue in the cultural center; he will also serve as co-chair of a committee that is raising the last $4 million of the $37 million needed to bring the theater back to life. The goal and hope is that the renovated theater will, as has been the experience in other cities, such as New York City’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, help serve as a foundation for Flint’s fiscal and physical recovery. The new theater is intended to become the focal point of 12,000, 13,000, or 14,000 people coming into downtown Flint for a performance and then going out for dinner—that is, to benefit and revive a downtown economy. Indeed, already, the venture firm SkyPoint is planning to open a large fine-dining restaurant on the ground floor and mezzanine timed to the rejuvenated theater’s reopening—SkyPoint Ventures being the company co-founded by Phil Hagerman, the CEO of Flint-based Diplomat Pharmacy Inc., and his wife, Jocelyn, whose Hagerman Foundation (the author, here, notes his middle name, derived from his great grandfather, is Hagerman) donated $4 million toward the Capitol’s renovation. In 2016, the Flint-based C.S. Mott Foundation announced a grant of $15 million for the Capitol Theatre project as part of $100 million it pledged to the city in the wake of the water crisis. The project also received $5.5 million from the Michigan Strategic Fund.

The ambitious effort comes as Michigan has paid $12 million to outside attorneys for work related to the Flint drinking water crisis, but out of which nearly 30% has gone to pay criminal and civil defense attorneys hired by Gov. Rick Snyder—an amount expected to climb as the lead poisoning of Flint’s drinking water has proven to be devastating for Flint and its children, but enriching for the state’s legal industry: Jeffrey Swartz, an associate professor at Western Michigan University-Cooley Law School, notes: “It’s a lot of money…I can see $10 million to $15 million being eaten up very quickly.” He added, moreover, that the state is still “on your way up the slope” in terms of mounting legal costs. The approved value of outside legal contracts, not all of which has been spent, is at least $16.6 million, adding that the Michigan Legislature may want to appoint a commission to review the appropriateness of all outside legal bills before they are approved for payment: already, Gov. Rick Snyder’s office has spent a combined $3.35 million for outside criminal and civil defense lawyers; the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has spent $3.65 million; the Department of Health and Human Services has spent $956,000; and the Treasury Department has spent $35,555, according to figures released to the Free Press. In addition, the state has paid $340,000 to reimburse the City of Flint for some of its civil and criminal legal defense costs related to the drinking water crisis, which a task force appointed by Gov. Snyder has said was mainly brought on by mistakes made at the state level. Yet to be equitably addressed are some $1.3 million in Flint legal costs. Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, whose investigation is still ongoing, has charged 13 current or former state and municipal officials, including five from the Dept. of Environmental Quality, the Dept. of Health and Human Safety, the City of Flint, and two former state-appointed emergency managers who ran the city and reported to the state’s Treasury Department; no one, however, from Gov. Snyder’s office has been charged.

The Remarkable Recovery of Chocolateville. Central Falls, Rhode Island Mayor James A. Diossa, the remarkable elected leader who has piloted the fiscal recovery of one of the nation’s smallest cities from chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, this week noted: “Our efforts and dedication to following fiscally sound budgeting practices are clearly paying off, leaving the City in a strong position. I would like to personally thank the Council and Administrative Financial Officer Len Morganis for their efforts in helping to lead the comeback of this great City.” The Mayor’s ebullient comments came in the wake of credit rating agency Standard and Poor’s rating upgrade for one of the nation’s smallest cities from “BB” to “BBB,” with S&P noting: “Central Falls is operating under a much stronger economic and management environment since emerging from bankruptcy in 2012. The City of Central Falls now has an investment grade credit rating from S&P due to diligently following the post-bankruptcy plan in conjunction with surpassing budgetary projections.”

One of the nation’s smallest municipalities (population of 19,000, city land size of one-square-mile), Central Falls is Rhode Island’s smallest and poorest city—and the site of a George Mason University class project on municipal fiscal distress—and guidebook for municipal leaders. Its post-bankruptcy recovery under Mayor Diossa has demonstrated several years of strong budgetary performance, and has “fully adhered to the established post-bankruptcy plan,” or, as Mayor Diossa put it: “S&P’s latest ratings report is yet another sign of Central Falls’ turnaround from bankruptcy.” Mr. Morganis noted: “The City of Central Falls now has an investment grade credit rating from S&P due to diligently following the post-bankruptcy plan in conjunction with surpassing budgetary projections,” adding that the credit rating agency’s statement expressed confidence that strong budgetary performance will continue post Rhode Island State oversight. S&P, in its upgrade, credited Mayor Diossa’s commitment to sound and transparent fiscal practices, noting the small city has an adequate management environment with improved financial policies and practices under their Financial Management Assessment (FMA) methodology—and that Central Falls exhibited a strong budgetary performance, with an operating surplus in the general fund and break-even operating results at the total governmental fund level in FY2016. Moreover, S&P reported, the former mill town and manufacturer of scrumptious chocolate bars has strong liquidity, with total government available cash at 28.7% of total governmental fund expenditures and 1.9 times governmental debt service, along with a strong institutional framework score. Similarly, Maureen Gurghigian, Managing Director of Hilltop Securities, noted: “A multi-step upgrade of this magnitude is uncommon: this is a tribute to the hard work of the City’s and the Administrative Finance Officer’s adherence to their plan and excellent relationship with State Government.” The remarkable recovery comes as one of the nation’s smallest cities heads towards a formal exit from chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy at the end of FY2017. S&P, in its upgrade, noted the city is operating under a “much stronger economic and management environment,” in the wake of its 2012 exit from municipal bankruptcy, or, as Mayor Diossa, put it: “Obviously we’ve had a lot of conversations with the rating agencies, and I was hoping we’d get an upgrade of at least one notch…When we got the triple upgrade, first, I was surprised and second, it reaffirmed the work that we’re doing. Our bonds are no longer junk. We’re investment level. It’s like getting good news at a health checkup.”  S&P, in its report, noted several years of sound budgeting and full adherence to a six-year post-bankruptcy plan which state-appointed receiver and former Rhode Island Supreme Court Justice Robert Flanders crafted. The hardest part of that recovery, as Judge Flanders noted to us so many years ago in City Hall,was his swift decision to curtail the city’s pension payments—cuts of as much as 55 percent—a statement he made with obvious emotion, recognizing the human costs. (Central Falls is among the approximately one-quarter of Rhode Island municipalities with locally administered pension plans.) Unsurprisingly, Mayor Diossa, maintains he is “fully committed” to the fiscal discipline first imposed by Judge Flanders, noting the municipality had a general fund surplus of 11% of expenditures in FY2016, and adding: “That reserve fund is very important.” He noted Central Falls also expects a surplus for this fiscal year, adding that the city’s expenses are 3% below budget, and that even as the city has reduced the residential property tax rate for the first time in a decade, even as it has earmarked 107% of its annual required contribution to the pension plan and contributed $100,000 toward its future OPEB liability.

The End of an Era? Mayor Diossa, recounting the era of chapter 9 bankruptcies, noted Pennsylvania’s capital, Harrisburg, in 2011; Jefferson County, Alabama; Stockton, Mammoth Lakes and San Bernardino, California; and Detroit: “I think Central Falls is a microcosm of all of them…I followed Detroit and heard all the discussions. They had the same issues that we had…sky-high costs, not budgeting appropriately,” adding his credit and appreciation—most distinctly from California—of the State of Rhode Island’s longstanding involvement: “The state’s been very involved,” commending Governors Lincoln Chafee and Gina Raimondo. Nevertheless, he warns: fiscal challenges remain; indeed, S&P adds: “The city’s debt and contingent liability profile is very weak…We view the pension and other post-employment benefit [OPEB] liabilities as a credit concern given the very low funded ratio and high fixed costs…They are still a concern with wealth metrics and resources that are probably below average for Rhode Island, so that’s a bit of a disadvantage…That adds more importance to the fact that they achieved an investment-grade rating through what I think is pretty good financial management and getting their house in order.” The city’s location, said Diossa, is another means to trumpet the city.

The Uncertainties of Fiscal Challenges. Natalie Jaresko is the newly named Executive Director of the PROMESA federal control board overseeing Puerto Rico’s finances, who previously served during a critical time in Ukraine’s history from 2014 to 2016 as it faced a deep recession, and about whom PROMESA Board Chair Jose Carrion noted: “Ukraine’s situation three years ago, like Puerto Rico’s today, was near catastrophic, but she worked with stakeholders to bring needed reforms that restored confidence, economic vitality and reinvestment in the country and its citizens. That’s exactly what Puerto Rico needs today;” came as Ms. Jaresko yesterday told the Board that with the tools at its disposal, Puerto Rico urgently needs to reduce the fiscal deficit and restructure the public debt, “all at once,” while acknowledging that the austerity measures may cause “things to get worse before they get better.” Her dire warnings came as the U.S. territory’s recovery prospects for the commonwealth’s general obligation and COFINA bonds continued to weaken, and, in the wake of last week’s moody Moody’s dropping of the Commonwealth’s debt ratings to its lowest rating, C, which equates with a less than 35% recovery on defaulted debt. Or, as our respected colleagues at Municipal Market Analytics put it: “[T]he ranges of potential bondholder outcomes are much wider than those, with a materially deeper low-end. For some (or many) of the commonwealth’s most lightly secured bonds (e.g., GDB, PFC, etc.) recoveries could hypothetically dip into the single digits. Further, any low end becomes more likely the longer Puerto Rico’s restructuring takes to achieve as time:

1) Allows progressively more negative economic data to materialize, forcing all parties to adopt more conservative and sustainable projections for future commonwealth revenues;

2) Allows local stakeholder groups—in particular students and workers—to organize and expand nascent protest efforts, further affecting the political center of gravity on the island;

3) Worsens potential entropy in commonwealth legislative outcomes;

4) Frustrates even pro-bondholder policymakers in the US Congress, which has little interest in, or ability to, re-think PROMESA and/or Federal aid compacts with the commonwealth.”

On the other hand, the longer the restructuring process ultimately takes, the more investable will be the security that the island borrows against in the future (whatever that is). So while the industry in general would likely benefit from a faster resolution that removes Puerto Rico from the headlines, the traditional investors who will consider lending to a “fixed” commonwealth should prefer that all parties take their time. Finally, if bleakly, MMA notes: “In our view, reliable projections of bondholder recovery impossible, and we fail to understand how any rating agency with an expected loss methodology can rate Puerto Rico’s bonds at all…Remember that the Governor’s Fiscal Plan, accepted by the Oversight Board, makes available about a quarter of the debt service to be paid on tax-backed debt through 2027, down from about 35% that was in the prior plan that the Board rejected. As we’ve noted before, the severity of the proposal greatly reduces the likelihood that an agreement will be reached with creditors by May 1 (when the stay on litigation ends), not only increasing the prospect of a Title III restructuring (cram down) un-der PROMESA, but also a host of related creditor litigation against the plan itself and board decisions both large and small. The outcomes of even normal litigation risks are inherently unpredictable, but the prospects here for multi-layered, multi-dimensional lawsuits create a problem several orders of magnitude worse than normal.

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