Public Trust, Public Safety, & Municipal Fiscal Sustainability: Has the Nation Experienced the Closing of its Chapter on Municipal Bankruptcies?

 

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eBlog, 04/20/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the unique and ongoing fiscal and physical challenges confronting Flint, Michigan in the wake of the drinking water crisis spawned by a state-appointed Emergency Manager, before heading far west to assess San Bernardino’s nearing formal exit from chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy—marking the last municipality to exit after the surge which came in the wake of the Great Recession.

Public Trust, Public Safety, & Due Diligence. Flint, Michigan Mayor Karen Weaver has recommended Flint continue obtaining its drinking water via the Detroit Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA), reversing the position she had taken a year ago in the wake of the lead-contaminated drinking water crisis. Flint returned to the Detroit-area authority which sends water to Flint from Lake Huron in October of 2015 after the discovery that Flint River water was not treated with corrosion control chemicals for 18 months. Mayor Weaver said she believed residents would stick with a plan to draw from a pipeline to Lake Huron which is under construction; however, she said she had re-evaluated that decision as a condition of receiving $100 million in federal funding to address the manmade disaster, noting that switching the city’s water source again might prove too great a risk, and that remaining with Detroit’s water supply from Lake Huron would cost her citizens and businesses less. Last year, Mayor Weaver had stated that the city’s nearly 100,000 residents would stay with a plan to draw from a Karegnondi Water Authority pipeline to Lake Huron—a pipeline which remains under construction, noting, then, that switching water sources would be too risky and could cause needless disruptions for the city’s residents—still apprehensive about public health and safety in the wake of the health problems stemming from the decision by a state-imposed Emergency Manager nearly three years ago to switch and draw drinking water from the Flint River, as an interim source after deciding to switch to the fledgling Genesee County regional system and sever its ties to the Detroit system, now known as the regional Great Lakes Water Authority. Even today, federal, state, and local officials continue to advise Flint residents not to drink the water without a filter even though it complies with federal standards, as the city awaits completion of the replacement of its existing lead service lines—or, as Mayor Weaver put it: “At the end of the day, I believe this is the best decision, because one of the things we wanted to make sure we did was put public health first,” at a press conference attended by county, state, federal and Great Lakes authority officials, adding: “We have to put that above money and everything else. That was what we did. And what didn’t take place last time was public health. We’ve done our due diligence.” The 30-year contract with the Great Lakes authority keeps Flint as a member of the Karegnondi authority—a decision supported by the State of Michigan, EPA, and Genesee County officials, albeit the long-term contract still requires the approval of the Flint City Council and Flint Receivership Transition Advisory Board, a panel appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder charged with monitoring Flint’s fiscal conditions in the wake of the city’s emergence from a state-inflicted Emergency Manager two years ago.

City Councilman Eric Mays this week said he will be asking tough questions when he and his eight other colleagues will be briefed on the plan. There is also a town hall tonight in Flint to take public comments. Councilman Mays notes he is concerned the city may be “giving up ownership” in the new Genesee regional authority, something he opposes, adding he would be closely scrutinizing what he deems a “valuable asset to the city.” Mayor Weaver has said she personally wanted to review the earlier decision in the wake of last month’s receipt from the Environmental Protection Agency of $100 million to assist the city to address and recover from the drinking water disaster that took such a human and fiscal toll. (EPA is mandating that Flint provide a 30-day public comment period.) Mayor Weaver notes she anticipates some opposition, making clear any final decision will depend upon “public feedback and public opinion.” Currently, the city remains under contract to make $7 million in annual municipal bond payments over 28 years to the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA); however, the Great Lakes authority said it would pay a $7 million “credit” for the KWA debt as long as Flint obligates itself to make its debt service payments. There is, at least so far, no indication with regard to how any such agreement would affect water rates. That matters, because, according to the Census Bureau, the city’s median household income is $7,059, significantly lower than the median Michigan-wide household income, and some $11,750 less than U.S. median household income. The GLWA said Flint customers would save a projected $1.8 million over 30 years compared with non-contractual charges they would have paid otherwise; in return, the Flint area authority would become a back-up system for the Detroit area authority, saving it an estimated $600 million over prior estimates and ensuring Metro Detroit communities would still receive water in the event of an interruption in Great Lakes authority service.

Robert Kaplan, the Chicago-based EPA’s acting regional administrator, said he signed off on the deal because the agency believes it protects the health of residents: “What’s best for public health is to stay on the water that’s currently being provided.” Jeff Wright, the KWA’s chief executive and drain commissioner of Genesee County, said the recommended plan not only would allow Flint to remain with the Genesee regional system, but also to be a back-up water supply, which, he noted, “is critically important to the safety of Flint’s residents who have not had a back-up system since the beginning of the Flint water crisis,” adding: “Whether (or not) Flint ultimately chooses high-quality Lake Huron water delivered through the newly constructed KWA pipeline, the highest quality treated water from Genesee County’s Water Treatment Plant or any other EPA-approved alternative, we will continue to assist Flint residents as they strive to recover from the Flint Water Crisis.” 

Keeping the Detroit system. The Great Lakes Water Authority Has embraced Mayor Weaver’s recommendation, with CEO Sue McCormick noting: “Flint residents can be assured that they will continue to receive water of unquestionable quality, at a significant cost savings.” Michigan Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint) noted: “It provides us a long-term safe water source that we know is reliable. KWA could do the same thing, but this is an answer to help deal with one of the major parts of it,” adding the recommended move to stay on Detroit area water is “another example of the emergency manager sort of making a short-term terrible decision that’s cost us taxpayers half a billion dollars, if not more.” Emergency managers appointed by Snyder decided with the approval of the Flint City Council to switch to the Flint River water in part to save money. Flint officials said they thought Detroit water system price hikes were too high. For more than a year, the EPA has delayed any switch to KWA because of deficiencies including that the Flint treatment plant is not equipped to properly treat water. Staying with the Great Lakes authority may be an initial tough sell because of the city’s history, Mayor Weaver warned, but she is trying to get residents to move on. A town hall is scheduled for this evening at House of Prayer Missionary Baptist Church in Flint for public feedback. “I can’t change what happened,” Mayor Weaver said. “All I can do is move forward.”

Moody Blues in San Bernardino? As San Bernardino awaits its final judicial blessing from U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury of its plan of debt adjustment to formally exit chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, Moody’s has issued a short report, noting the city will exit bankruptcy with higher revenues and an improved balance sheet; however, the rating agency notes the city will confront significant operational challenges associated with deferred maintenance and potential service shortfalls—even being so glum as to indicate there is a possibility that, together with the pressure of its public pension liabilities, the city faces continued fiscal pressures and that continued financial distress could increase, so that a return to municipal bankruptcy is possible. Moody’s moody report notes the debt adjustment plan is forcing creditors to bear most of the restructuring challenge, especially as Moody’s analyzes the city’s plan to favor its pension obligations over bonded municipal debt and post-retirement OPEB liabilities. Of course, as we noted early on, the city’s pension liabilities are quite distinct from those of other chapter 9 municipalities, such as Detroit, Central Falls, Rhode Island, and Jefferson County. Under the city’s plan, San Bernardino municipal bondholders are scheduled to receive a major buzz cut—some 45%, even as some other creditors whom we have previously described, are scheduled (and still objecting) to receive as little as a 1% recovery on unsecured claims. Thus, Moody’s concludes that the Southern California city will continue to have to confront rising pension costs and public safety needs. Moody’s adjusted net pension liability will remain unchanged at $904 million, a figure which dwarfs the projected bankruptcy savings of approximately $350 million. The California Public Employees’ Retirement System also recently reduced its discount rate, meaning the city’s already increasing pension contributions will rise even faster. Additionally, Moody’s warns, a failure to invest more in public safety or police could exacerbate already-elevated crime levels. That means the city will likely be confronted by higher capital and operating borrowing costs, noting that, even after municipal debt reductions, the city might find itself unable to fund even 50 percent of its deferred maintenance. 

However, as San Bernardino’s Mayor Davis has noted, the city, in wake of the longest municipal bankruptcy in American history, is poised for growth in the wake of outsourcing fire services to the county and waste removal services to a private contractor, and reaching agreements with city employees, including police officers and retirees, to substantially reduce healthcare OPEB benefits to lessen pension reductions. Indeed, the city’s plan of adjustment agreement on its $56 million in pension obligation bonds—and in significant part with CalPERS—meant its retirees fared better, as Moody’s has noted, than the city’s municipal bondholders to whom San Bernardino committed to pay 40 percent of what they are owed—far more than its early offer of one percent. San Bernardino’s pension bondholders succeeded in wrangling a richer recovery than the city’s opening offer of one percent, but far less than CalPERS, which received a nearly 100 percent recovery. (San Bernardino did not make some $13 million in payments to CalPERS early in the chapter 9 process, but subsequently set up payments to make the public employee pension fund whole.) The city was aided in those efforts in the wake of U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury’s ruling against the argument made by pension bond attorneys: in the wake of the city’s pension bondholders entering into mediation again prior to exit confirmation, substantial agreement was achieved for those bondholders—bondholders whose confidence in the city remains important, especially in the wake of the city’s subsequent issuance of $68 million in water and sewer bonds at competitive interest rates—with the payments to come from the city’s water and sewer revenues, which were not included in the chapter 9 bankruptcy. The proceeds from these municipal bonds were, in fact, issued to provide capital to meet critical needs to facilitate seismic upgrades to San Bernardino’s water reservoirs and funding for the first phase of the Clean Water Factor–Recycled Water Program.

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