Getting Out of Insolvency & Back on Fiscal Track

eBlog, 04/14/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing recovery of Atlantic City, New Jersey—where the Mayor this week proposed, in his first post-state takeover budget, the first tax cuts in a decade. Then we head west to the Motor City, where the city, as part of its fiscal recovery from the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history is seeking to ensure all its taxpayers pay what they owe, before then veering south to assess the first 100 days of the PROMESA oversight of the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico.

Getting Back on the Fiscal Track. Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian this week presented his proposed $206 million budget to the City Council, which unanimously voted 7-0 to introduce it at a special meeting, and the City has scheduled a public budget hearing for May 17th. In a taste of the fiscal turnaround for the city, the proposed budget includes the first municipal tax decrease in a decade. It also marks the first budget for the city since the State of New Jersey usurped control over Atlantic City’s finances last November. As proposed, it is more than $35 million or 21% less than last year’s and would reduce the municipal tax rate by 5 percent, according to both city and state officials. The city has scheduled a public budget hearing for May 17th.

As proposed, the steepest cut is in public safety—some $8 million, but the draft proposal also seeks cuts in administration costs ($5 million), as well as proposing savings via the privatization of trash pickup, payroll, and vehicle towing services. The smaller budget request is projected to reduce the city’s costs of debt service by $6 million. Unsurprisingly, the proposed tax cuts—the first in nearly a decade, drew the strongest applause: Atlantic City’s municipal tax rate has skyrocketed 96 percent since 2010, a period during which the city’s tax base dropped by nearly 66%. The $206.3 million budget Mayor Guardian presented features $6 million of cuts to debt service at $30.8 million and proposes to allocate $8 million less for public safety.

Mayor Guardian, who is running for his second term as Mayor this fall, said in a statement before presenting the budget that state overseers have played an instrumental role in crafting the new spending plan which features the proposed 5% property tax cut. It could mark a key point in the city’s efforts to regain governance control back from the State of New Jersey—a takeover the Republican mayor had bitterly contested, which took effect last November after New Jersey’s Local Finance Board rejected the city’s five-year recovery plan, or, as the Mayor put it: “From the beginning, I have said that we need to work with the State of New Jersey to stabilize Atlantic City and to reduce the outrageous property taxes that we inherited from years of reckless spending…Even though the entire state takeover was both excessive and unnecessary, the state did play an important role in helping us turn things around.”

For his part, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie praised former U.S. Sen. Jeffrey Chiesa for his role as the state’s designee leading the financial recovery and his contributions in helping to achieve the city’s first property tax cut in a decade. Gov. Christie credited Mr. Chiesa with withstanding union challenges to make firefighter and police cuts, as well as reaching a $72 million settlement with the Borgata casino which is projected to save the city $93 million on $165 million of owed property tax refunds from 2009 to 2015, noting: “As promised, we quickly put Atlantic City on the path to financial stability, with taxpayers and employers reaping the benefits of unprecedented property tax relief with no reduction in services by a more accountable government…I commend Senator Chiesa for leading Atlantic City to turn the corner, holding the line on expenses and making responsible choices to revitalize the city.”

Atlantic City is planning to issue $72 million in municipal bonds to finance the Borgata settlement though New Jersey’s Municipal Qualified Bond Act: the savings from the settlement, brokered by the state, were a key factor in S&P Global Ratings’ upgrade of Atlantic City’s junk-level general obligation bond debt: Atlantic City, which is weighed down by some $224 million in bonded debt, is rated Caa3 by Moody’s Investors Service. State overseer Chiesa noted: “Over the past five months, I have met so many smart, talented, tenacious people who want to see the city succeed. This inspires me every day to tackle the challenges facing the city to ensure that the progress we’ve made continues.”

A key contributor to the improved fiscal outlook appears to come from some of the unilateral contract changes to public safety officials, imposed by Mr. Chiesa, which led to reduced salaries and benefits for police and firefighters, albeit the courts will have the final say so: the unions have sued to block the cuts, arguing the takeover law is unconstitutional. In addition, the state also reach agreement on a $72 million tax settlement with Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa which is projected to save Atlantic City $93 million and essentially put Borgata back on its tax rolls. The casino had withheld property tax payments, but is now paying its part of casino payments in lieu of property taxes, or, as Mr. Chiesa put it: “Real progress is being made in the city, which is great news for the people who live, work and visit Atlantic City.”

Gov. Chris Christie, in his final term in office, praised Mr. Chiesa and jabbed at his political opponents in a statement issued before the City Council meeting, noting: “It took us merely a few months to lower property taxes for the first time in the past decade, when local leaders shamelessly spent beyond their means to satisfy their special political interests,” he said, even as Atlantic City officials described the budget as a collaborative effort with the state. Or, as Mayor Guardian put it: “He’s the governor. He makes those comments…What I think is [that] it’s clear the city moves ahead with the state.” Council President Marty Small, who chairs the Revenue and Finance Committee, said he was “intimately involved” in the budget process, describing it as a “win-win-win for everybody, particularly the taxpayers.”

Don’t Tax Me: Get the Feller behind the Tree! Getting citizens to pay their taxes is a problem everywhere, of course, but Detroit had a particularly hard time going after scofflaws because budget cuts decimated its ability to enforce the law. Even the citizens and businesses who paid up created logistical havoc for beleaguered city bureaucrats. Part of the reason, it seems, is that in Detroit, the only way to file taxes has been on paper. While that might be merely an irritation for taxpayers, it has been a nightmare for the city’s revenuers, who must devote endless hours typing data into computer systems. It appears also to have led to some innovation: last year the Motor City opted to send out more than 7,000 mailings to deadbeat tax filers, that is taxpayers who were still delinquent on their 2014 taxes; the city suspected each delinquent owed at least $350; ergo it randomly selected some taxpayers to receive one of six different letters, each with a different message in a black box on the mailing: One such message appealed to residents’ civic pride: “Detroit’s rising is at hand. The collection of taxes is essential to our success.” Another simply made clear that Detroit’s revenue department had detailed information on the deadbeats: “Our records indicate you had a federal income of $X for tax year 2014.” (Detroit is somewhat unique in that it has an income tax under which residents owe 2.4 percent of their incomes to the city, after a $600 exemption. Nonresidents who work in Detroit pay a rate of 1.2 percent.) Another message made a bold declaration: “Failure to file a tax return is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of $500 and 90 days in jail.”

It seems that threats have proven more effective than cajoling: More than 10 percent of taxpayers responded to the letter mentioning a fine and jail time, some 300% greater than the response rate to the city’s basic control letter. This revenue experiment was overseen by Ben Meiselman, a graduate student at the University of Michigan’s economics department, who manned a desk in Detroit’s tax office to run the experiment. He wrote the messages included in the mailings to reflect behavioral economics research, noting: “I find that a single sentence, strategically placed in mailings to attract attention, can have an economically meaningful impact on tax filing behavior,” in his working paper, “Ghostbusting in Detroit: Evidence on Non-filers from a Controlled Field Experiment,” which he intends to eventually become a chapter in his doctoral dissertation. And it turns out that providing details of a taxpayer’s income boosted the response rate by 63 percent, even as a letter from the city which combined a threat with income information was less effective than a threat by itself. Or, as one city official noted: “Keeping it simple seems to be the key,” especially as city officials learned that appeals to civic pride fell flat: the response rate was just 0.8 percentage points higher than that of a basic letter. Nevertheless, the city still confronts a long uphill fiscal cliff, even if it manages to apply the results of the experiment and triple the response rate from tax delinquents: according to the IRS, approximately six percent of U.S. taxpayers break the law by not filing with the Service each year, but, in Detroit, Mr. Meiselman estimated that some 46 percent of taxpayers had not submitted their 2014 returns by the due date in the following year—and that the return rate was getting worse.

Thus, Detroit’s next step was to back up threats with action—mayhap especially because there appears to have been little enforcement for the past decade: Detroit had not undertaken an audit or tax investigation in more than a decade. One outcome of insolvency and municipal bankruptcy, it appears, can hit hard: Detroit’s tax office, which once had a staff of about 70, is today about half that: it is a department which was recently reorganized, in the wake of last year’s takeover by the state of Michigan, a takeover intended to free up city employees to collect unpaid income taxes. The city also eased such filings by permitting them to be submitted electronically for the first time. And, wow!: 77 percent of filers took advantage. Detroit has sent out 15,000 letters since July 2016 and has collected $5.3 million through letters, audits, and investigations. And some of the amounts collected are significant, particularly for those who have juked, dodged, and evaded paying taxes for years: in one instance, a taxpayer agreed to pay $400,000. Detroit also began filing misdemeanor charges and lawsuits in small claims court to get its tax revenues, especially after learning that only one in five residents in several high-end apartments buildings had filed income taxes, helping to persuade a judge to issue an order requiring landlords to turn over tenant information.

These various steps appears to be helping: The number of residents filing tax returns more than doubled last year from the previous year; filings by non-residents increased by more than a third. City returns from 2016 are due, along with state and federal returns, by next Tuesday—the same deadline as applies to all readers of this eBlog, and, this year, Detroit officials are optimistic—or, as one wag put it: In the past, “people knew we weren’t coming after them…Now we are following up on those threats.”

The Promise or PROMESA of the First 100 Days. The PROMESA oversight board, provided by the Congress with authority over the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, has now surpassed its first one hundred days, created a juxtaposed governance challenge, especially for Governor Rosselló: how can he make sure that the framework set up during this period of quasi dual governance provides for the change Puerto Rico needs? How can he gain the approval of the Board for a long-term fiscal plan as the main achievement of his incipient administration? To prevail, it appears, he will have to convince the Oversight Board that his proposed budgets are based on real possibilities of revenues and that such estimates are free of dependence on loans and that he will conduct the restructuring of Puerto Rico’s public debt on favorable terms, and that he will take the key role in the reconstruction of the government apparatus to higher levels of service, efficiency, participation, and transparency. And, now, there appears to be some evidence that he is achieving progress. Puerto Rico’s statute on permits is intended address a serial inefficiency with regard to the “absurd and abusive terms” to obtain permits, delays which have hindered and discouraged the generation of new economic activity. The effort to provide for the progressive elimination of the costly redundancy in programs and services via the consolidation of agencies, with security first, appear to be key steps in achieving changes to restore financial health. Moreover, the creation of a spending budget 10 per cent below the current one appears to mark an important step in the goal of reasserting self-governance.

Nevertheless, the fiscal and governance challenges of recovering from fiscal insolvency can be beset from any angle: note, for instance, Judge Lauracelis Roques Arroyo has revived an “audit” of Puerto Rico’s debt and reversed Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s attempt to dismantle the debt audit commission. (Judge Roques Arroyo is a member of the Carolina Region of the Puerto Rico Superior Court.) And, thus, he has ruled that Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s attempt to dismantle a commission auditing Puerto Rico’s debt was illegal. The statute in question, law 97 of 2015, created the Puerto Rico Commission for the Comprehensive Audit of the Public Credit. The commission aimed to find Puerto Rico debt which was legally invalid. The commission’s first report in June of last year had reviewed documents connected with the Commonwealth’s $3.5 billion general obligation bond and $1.2 billion tax and revenue anticipation note, both sold in 2014. In this report, the Commission had raised doubts with regard to the legality of much of Puerto Rico’s bond debt. Late last September, the commission questioned the legality of the series 2013A power revenue bonds from the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), raising concerns with regard to the behavior of Morgan Stanley, Ernst &Young, and URS Corp. in the municipal bond sale and the period leading up to it. In early October, possibly in response to the commission’s work, the SEC commenced an investigation of PREPA’s 2012 and 2013 bonds. Ergo, Judge Arroyo’s order late last week returned three public interest members to the board, according to attorney Manuel Rodriguez Banchs; the order provided that the Governor has no authority to intervene with the commission: it said that the dismissal of the public interest members was illegal. The board has $650,000 in its account right now, according to board member Roberto Pagán, e.g. adequate to do a substantial amount of additional work. Gov. Rosselló, thus, is considering how to react to the judge’s order, according to the El Vocero news website.

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