The Roads Out of and into Insolvency

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider Detroit’s remarkable route to fiscal recovery, before returning to the stark fiscal challenges to Puerto Rico’s economic sustainability.

The Road to Recovery from Municipal Bankruptcy. The Motor City, Detroit, ended its FY2016 fiscal year with a $63 million surplus, etching into the books the city’s second consecutive balanced budget out of  the nation’s largest ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, an achievement officials hope will earn it better standing in the bond markets and a path out of financial oversight. Its new Comprehensive Annual Financial Report also discloses that, for the first time in more than a decade, the city did not have any costs scrutinized for its federal grant use. Nevertheless, despite hopes of a turnaround in a decades-long population decline, the most recent census data finds that Detroit lost population—0.5% or 3,541 persons in the latest U.S. Census estimates, the same number as last year, a year which marked the slowest rate of exodus in decades. While Mayor Mike Duggan has given special emphasis to the importance of population regrowth as a means of measuring the city’s economic recovery, his Chief of Staff, Alexis Wiley, notes: “We are pleased in the direction that we are heading…The data are a year behind.”

Indeed, measures of building permits, home prices, and 3,000 more occupied residences reported by DTE Energy in the city in March versus the same time a year earlier all appear to affirm that recovery is sustained, even though, based on data from July 1, 2016, Detroit has dropped down from 21st to 23rd in terms of size ranking amongst the country’s largest cities. (Last year, for the first time since before the Civil War, Detroit fell out of the top 20.) The City’s CFO, John Hill, reported Detroit’s FY2016 fiscal surplus was about $22 million higher than the city projected—a figure he attributed to improved financial controls, stronger-than-anticipated revenues, and lower costs due to unfilled vacancies—or, as he told the Detroit News: “We are operating in a very fiscally responsible way that we believe will have a lot of positive implications on the future.”

That fiscal upward trajectory matters, because, under the city’s plan of debt adjustment, Detroit must achieve three consecutive years of balanced budgets to exit oversight by the Financial Review Commission. Unsurprisingly, Mayor Mike Duggan noted: “This audit confirms that the administration is making good on its promise to manage Detroit’s finances responsibly…With deficit-free budgets two years in a row, we have put the city on the path to exit Financial Review Commission oversight.” Indeed, Detroit now projects a $51 million surplus in the 2017 fiscal year, which closes on the last day of June, according to CFO Hill—potentially paving the way for a vote by the review commission early next year to lift its direct fiscal oversight—freeing Detroit from the mandate of state approval of its budgets and contracts. The CAFR also notes $143 million in accumulated unassigned fund balances, including this year’s surplus—out of which the city has allocated $50 million to help set up the Retiree Protection Fund to help it deal with pension obligations, which will come due in 2024, as well as a matching $50 million for FY2018 for blight remediation and capital improvements. Even with that, $43 million remains in an unassigned fund balance, which city officials noted would carry over to the next fiscal year—with restrictions that none may be allocated without approvals from Mayor Duggan, the City Council, or the state review commission. Mr. Hill hopes the strong fiscal news will enhance the city’s credit rating and thereby reduce the cost of servicing its debt and capital budget.

What Constitutes Economic Sustainability? University of Puerto Rico interim President Nivia Fernandez, just hours before her arrest for failing to reopen an institution closed in the wake of a two-month student strike, has resigned, along with three members of the University’s Board of Governors in the wake of a judicial threat for her arrest if she failed to present a plan to end the student strike—a strike which commenced last March in protest of the $450 million in budget cuts sought by the PROMESA oversight board. Now there are apprehensions that strike could spread to other sectors—especially with Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló expected to release his proposed budget with deep cuts to programs today—a budget constructed in response to demands by the PROMESA Board for a structurally balanced budget. Those proposed cuts have provoked students to go on strike, leading to the closure at several of the university’s campuses since late March. Likely, the rate of civilian unrest will grow, or, as University of Puerto Rico sociology Professor Emilio Pantojas García has noted, the student strike may foreshadow a wave of demonstrations in coming months as Gov. Rosselló’s budget will almost certainly call for reductions in public pensions and health care—with the PROMESA Board calling for spending cuts and revenue increases in the coming fiscal year equal to nearly 11 percent of projected revenues for all central government activities—a proportion projected to increase to 28.8% by FY2022. Moreover, because the bulk of the revenue increases and spending cuts would impact the General Fund, the human and fiscal impact is expected to be much greater. University of Puerto Rico political science Professor José Garriga Pico notes: “In some, the opposition to the austerity measures will lead them to frustration and fear, as well as real suffering, and an intensification of the militancy against the Financial Oversight Board, its policies, Gov. Rosselló, and his budget proposal. These could engage in protest that may turn confrontation and violence.”

In the face of the Oversight Board’s demands for cuts at the University, Gov. Rosselló, last February, proposed a $300 million cut—leading to the resignations by the President of the University and 10 of its 11 rectors; subsequently, the PROMESA Board upped the ante, ordering the annual cut to be $411 million for the upcoming fiscal year, which starts next month—a cut of 44% compared to FY2015 appropriations—with the Board noting that out-year cuts will have to be deeper.  Yet the Board orders have put governance between a rock and a hard place: this spring a judge ordered then interim university President Nivia Fernández to submit a plan to reopen the main Rio Piedras campus; however, the Puerto Rico police department, claiming it would not act out of respect for the traditional autonomy of the University, provoked a judicial threat for Ms. Fernández’s imprisonment if she failed to comply—a threat obviated by her resignation, along with several members of the university board. Nevertheless, the judge, even after excusing Ms. Fernández from her prison sentence, maintained a $1,000 per day fine on the university until it opened operations—this, as the University, as of last February, had some $496 million in outstanding debt outstanding, according to the PROMESA board certified fiscal plan—and as Moody’s senior credit officer Diane Viacava, earlier this year, wrote that the government’s planned cuts for Puerto Rico were a “credit negative because they will be difficult for the university to absorb,” predicting that the university was likely to default on subsequent payments “absent a resumption of fund transfers to the trustees.”

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How Does A City Turn Around Its Fiscal Future?

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider a state’s response to a municipal fiscal insolvency, before turning to the challenge the Windy City is facing in the virtually politically insolvent State of Illinois, before finally turning to the uncertain political, governing, and fiscal future of East Cleveland, Ohio.  

Addressing Disparate Municipal Fiscal Distress. More than a century ago, Petersburg, Virginia, was a highly industrialized city of 18,000 people—and the hub and supply center for the Confederacy: supplies arrived from all over the South via one of the five railroads or the various plank roads; it was also the last outpost. Today, it is one of the last fiscal outposts, but, mayhap, because of its fiscal distress, set to be a model for the nation and federalism with regard to how the Commonwealth of Virginia—unlike, for instance, Ohio, is responding. More than 53 percent of Virginia’s counties and cities have reported above-average or high fiscal stress, according to a report by the Commission on Local Government. Petersburg, a city grappling with a severe financial crisis, placed third on the state fiscal stress index behind the cities of Emporia and Buena Vista. Del. Lashrecse Aird (D-Petersburg) noted: “Petersburg does have some financial challenges, but they’re actually not unique. There are a lot of counties and localities within the commonwealth right now that are facing similar fiscal distressers.”  

The Virginia Legislature has dropped a proposed study of local government finances in its just completed legislative session, a legislative initiative which co-sponsor Rosalyn Dance (D-Petersburg) had described to her colleagues as necessary, because:  “Currently, there is no statutory authority for the Commission on Local Government to intervene in a fiscally stressed locality, and the state does not currently have any authority to assist a locality financially;” nevertheless, Virginia’s new fiscal year state budget did revive a focus on fiscal stress in Virginia cities and counties. Motivated by the City of Petersburg’s financial crisis, Sen. Emmett Hanger (R-Augusta County), who co-Chairs the Virginia Senate Finance Committee, had filed a bill (SJ 278) to study the fiscal stress of local governments: his bill proposed the creation of a joint subcommittee to review local and state tax systems, as well as reforms to promote economic assistance and cooperation between regions. Under SJ 278, a 15-member joint subcommittee would have reviewed local government and state tax systems, local responsibilities for delivery of state programs, and causes of fiscal stress among local governments. In addition, the study would have been focused on creating financial incentives and reforms to promote increased cooperation among Virginia’s regions. We will have to, however, await developments, as his proposal was rejected in the House Finance Committee, as members deferred consideration of tax reform for next year’s longer session; however, the adopted state budget did incorporate two fiscal stress preventive measures originally introduced in Sen. Hanger’s bill.

Del. Aird had identified the study as a top priority for this session, identifying: “what we as a Commonwealth need to do to put protections into place and allow localities to have tools and resources to prevent this type of challenge from occurring into the future,” noting: “I believe that this legislation will help address fiscal issues that localities are experiencing: ‘Currently, there is no statutory authority for the Commission on Local Government to intervene in a fiscally stressed locality, and the state does not currently have any authority to assist a locality financially.’” In the case of Petersburg, the city received technical assistance from state officials, including cataloging liabilities and obligations, researching problems, and reviewing city funds; however, state intervention could only be triggered by a request from the municipality: the state’s statutes forbid the Commonwealth from imposing reactive measures to an insolvent municipality.

To modify the conditions to enhance the ability of the state to intervene, the proposal set guidelines for state officials to identify and help alleviate signs of financial stress to prevent a more severe fiscal crisis, proposing the creation of a workgroup established by the Auditor of Public Accounts, who would have been responsible to create an early warning system for identifying fiscal stress, taking into consideration such criteria as a local government’s expenditure reports and budget information. In the event such distress was determined, such a local government would be notified and entitled to request a comprehensive review of its finances by the state. After such a review, the state would be responsible to draft an ‘action plan’ detailing: purpose, duration, and the requisite state resources for such intervention; in addition, the governor would be offered the option to channel up to $500,000 from the general fund toward relief efforts for the local government in need. As Del. Aird noted: “It is important to have someone who can speak to first-hand experience dealing with issues of local government fiscal stress: This insight will be essential in forming effective solutions that will be sustainable long-term, adding: “Prior to now, Virginia had no mechanism to track, measure, or address fiscal stress in localities…Petersburg’s situation is not unique, and it is encouraging that proactive measures are now being taken to guard against future issues. This is essential to ensuring that Virginia’s economy remains strong and that all communities can share in our commonwealth’s success.”

What Might Be a City’s Weakest Link? The state initiative comes as the city intends to write off $9 million in uncollected internal debt Petersburg has accumulated over the past 17 years: debt representing loans from Petersburg’s general fund to other city enterprises since 2000 which its leaders now concede they will never collect—or, as former Richmond City Manager—and now consultant for the city Robert Bobb notes: “This is something that the leadership should have addressed between 2000 and last year, but the issue was not being addressed.” As a result, when Petersburg officials receive the city’s financial audit for FY2017, it will show a negative fund balance that will make it even harder to secure financing for capital projects, albeit, it is expected to clear the uncollected debt from the books for the current fiscal year and the upcoming fiscal year—or, as Virginia Finance Director Ric Brown notes: “They’re taking it on the chin in FY2016 by clearing it all out of the books: To me, the most important thing is not how bad ‘16 is—it’s going forward whether FY2017 and FY2018 improve.” With its bond rating downgraded last year to BB with a negative outlook, Petersburg already faces a stiff fiscal challenge in raising capital—the municipality recently experienced an inability to raise capital to purchase police cars and fire equipment—making manifest the connection between public safety and assessed property values.

Nevertheless, Mr. Bobb has promised that this fiscal year will end without an operating deficit and the next one will begin with the first structurally balanced budget in nearly a decade—to which Secretary Brown notes: “It’s going to take some time, but I believe the sense of everyone is he’s making progress.” The Secretary noted that when the Commonwealth acted to come to Petersburg’s assistance last summer, he discovered the municipality had ended the fiscal year with $18.8 million in unpaid bills and $12 million over its operating budget; ergo, he testified the bottom line was “not going to be good” in the city’s FY2016 CAFR; however, Petersburg has worked in phases to pay its bills, reduce its costs, and rebuild its underpersonned, overwhelmed bureaucracy: The city has reduced its unpaid bills to $5.5 million, with the largest remaining obligation a $1.49 million payment to the Virginia Retirement System—a payment the city has agreed to pay by the end of December. The city’s school system has some $1.3 million in debt to its public retirement system due next month for teacher pensions. Nevertheless, in the school of lost and found, Mr. Bobb reports that city employees have scoured “every desk drawer” and discovered an additional $300,000 in unpaid bills, some of them dating back to 2015—unsurprisingly describing it as “[A] mess to clean up things from the past to where we are today.” Petersburg also has a gaping $1.9 million hole in the school system budget, in no small part by making payments this year to last year’s budget, a practice Mr. Bobb notes to be a [mal]practice the city has followed for 10 years—putting the city’s school budget near the minimum required by the Virginia Standards of Quality.

Nevertheless, Petersburg completed the first phase of recovery, focusing on short-term financing concerns, at the end of March. That has allowed it to focus on long-term financing and a fiscal plan, including developing policies for capital improvements, debt, and reserves to ensure financial stability. In the final stage, from July 1 until Mr. Bobb’s contract ends on September 30th, the city will develop five-year financial and capital improvement plans, as well as a budget transition plan, for ongoing financial performance and monitoring—as well as refilling the fiscal architecture via filling critical positions, including a finance director, which Mr. Brown notes, will be critical to filling middle management positions, such as accountants, which are vital to maintain the city’s financial stability: “If they don’t get that in place, there’s a real risk they’ll slide back.”

Petersburg wasn’t even at the top of the list of the most fiscally stressed localities ranked by the Virginia Commission on Local Government in 2014. It was third, behind Emporia and Buena Vista, and just ahead of Martinsville and Covington. “We’re only as strong as our weakest link,” said Sen. Rosalyn R. Dance, D-Petersburg, who served as the city’s mayor from 1992 to 2004. “We’re not the only ones there.”

Whither Chicago? The Windy City, nearly 350 years old, named “Chicago,” based upon a French rendering of the Native American word “shikaakwa,” from the Miami-Illinois language, is today defined by the Census Bureau as the city and suburbs extending into Wisconsin and Indiana; however, it is, today, a city experiencing population decline: last year it lost just under 20,000 residents—and its surrounding state, Illinois, saw its population decline more than any other state: 37,508 people, according to census data released last December. During the Great Recession, families chose to stay in or move to core urban areas, and migration to the suburbs decelerated; however, in the recovery, there is a reverse trend: families are deciding it is time to move back to the suburbs.

Thus, by most estimates, Chicago’s population will continue to decline, with the Chicago Tribune, from a survey of dozens of former residents, reporting the depopulation stems from reactions to: high taxes, the state budget stalemate, crime, the unemployment rate, and weather—with black residents among those leaving in search of safe neighborhoods and prosperity: it seems many are heading to the suburbs and warm-weather states: Chicago lost 181,000 black residents between 2000 and 2010, according to census data. Just under 90,000 Chicagoans left the city and its immediately surrounding suburbs for other states last year, according to an analysis of census data released in March, marking the greatest outflow since at least 1990. It appears that, more than any other city, Chicago has relied upon the increase in Mexican immigrants to offset the decline of its native-born population: during the 1990s, that immigration accounted for most of Chicago’s growth. After 2007, when Mexican-born populations began to fall across the nation’s major metropolitan areas, most cities managed to make up for the loss with the growth of their native populations, but that has not been the case for Chicago (nor Detroit, which, according to census data, realized a decline of 3,541 residents from 2015 to 2016). While Chicago’s changes may be small in context, they could be a harbinger of more losses to come.

As we had noted in our fiscal report on Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel focused on drawing in new businesses, concerned that any perception that assessed property taxes might have to increase—or that schools and crime rates would not improve—would adversely affect companies’ willingness to come to Chicago—meaning an intense focus on confronting fiscal challenges: such as credit quality threats: e.g. avoiding having a disproportionate percent of the city’s budget devoted to long-term pension borrowing obligations instead of critical future investments: the more of its budget the city had to divert to meeting unsustainable pension obligations, the less it would have to address its goal of investments in the city’s infrastructure, schools, and public safety—investments the Mayor believed fundamental to the city’s economic and fiscal future.  We noted a critical change: Investing in the Future: Mayor Emanuel created enterprise funds so that a greater portion of municipal services were not financed through property taxes and the operating budget: some 83 percent of its budget was focused on schools and public safety, in an effort to draw back young families. Nevertheless, amid growing perceptions that Chicago’s cost of living has become too high, rising property taxes, and perceived growth in crime; some are apprehensive Chicago could be at a tipping point: the period in a city’s time when an increasing number of residents believe it is time to leave—or, as one leaver noted: “It’s just sad to see that people have to leave the city to protect their own future cost of living.”

Does East Cleveland Have a Fiscal Future? In the small Ohio municipality of East Cleveland, a city waiting on the State of Ohio for nearly a year to obtain permission to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, there is an upcoming Mayoral election—an election which could decide whether the city has a fiscal future—and where voters will have to decide among an array of candidates: who might they elect as most likely to turn the fortunes of the City around, and avert its continuing slide towards insolvency? One candidate, who previously served as Chairman of the East Cleveland Audit Committee, noted a report to the Council detailing twenty-four budget appropriations totaling approximately $2,440,076 in unauthorized and questionable expenditures—and that his committee had provided documentation to the Auditor of State’s Office of Local Government Services regarding the hiring of 10 individuals in violation of a Council-mandated hiring freeze, costing the City approximately $408,475 in unauthorized payroll costs, adding: “All told, the Audit Committee uncovered approximately $3,055,351 in illegal and suspicious spending by the Norton Administration…The truth is, as I stated in the beginning, the municipal government of East Cleveland is afflicted with the cancer of corruption that has been allowed to grow because of two main reasons: The first being, the indifference displayed by Ohio and Cuyahoga County government officials who failed in their respective responsibility when confronted with documented facts.  They collectively have turned a blind eye to what was, and is, happening in East Cleveland.  No one wants to get their hands dirty with so-called ‘black politics,’ even if the legal and financial evidence is given to them on a ‘silver platter.’  Personally, I smell the stench of secret political deals which produced a ‘hands off policy.’”

He added that a symptom of what he described as “this cancer” included some “$41, 857, 430 in unwarranted expenses and debt that was generated during the first 3 years of Mayor Norton’s first term as Mayor. I anticipate that whenever an audit is conducted for 2013 thru 2016, the $41 million figure will grow by an additional $25 million to $35 million.” Addressing the unresponsiveness of the State of Ohio, he described the Governor’s Financial Planning and Supervision Commission as a “joke:  It has been wholly unimpressive and has not provided the necessary oversight and forced accountability one would have expected from the Commission at the beginning.  Furthermore, The Commission became tainted when Governor Kasich appointed Helen Forbes Fields to the Commission.  She has a number of personal conflicts of interests that prevent her from being an impartial member of the Commission.  I can recall a conversation I had with the former Commission Chair, Sharon Hanrahan when she admitted to me that the State Government did not have the ‘political will’ to clean up the mess we were trying to get them to address.” He added, that, if elected, in order to bring accountability for the mismanagement of public funds, he would seek assistance from Ohio and federal law enforcement agencies to ensure those responsible for the mismanagement of East Cleveland’s financial resources would be held accountable, estimating that between $5 million and $15 million dollars could be recovered. 

A Hole in Puerto Rico’s Fiscal Safety Net: Should Congress Amend Chapter 9 Municipal Bankruptcy?

eBlog

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the growing physical and fiscal breakdown in the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico as it seeks, along with the oversight PROMESA Board, an alternative to municipal bankruptcy—but we especially focus on the fiscal plight of the territory’s many, many municipalities—or muncipios, which, because Puerto Rico is not a state, do not have access to chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy .   

Tropical Fiscal Typhoon. When former President Ronald Reagan signed Public Law 100-597, legislation authorizing municipal into law 29 years ago, no one was contemplating a U.S. territory, such as Puerto Rico—so that the federal statute, in coherence and compliance with the concepts of dual sovereignty, which served as the unique foundation of the nation, provided that a city, county, or other municipality could only file for chapter 9 if authorized by state law—something a majority of states have not authorized. Unsurprisingly, none of us contemplated or thought about U.S. territories, such as Puerto Rico, Guam, etc.: Puerto Rico is to be considered a state for purposes of the bankruptcy code, except that, unlike a state, it may not authorize its municipalities (and by extension, its utilities) to resolve debts under Chapter 9 of the code. Ergo, no municipio in Puerto Rico has access to a U.S. bankruptcy court, even as 36 of the island’s 78 muncipios have negative budget balances; 46% are experiencing fiscal distress. Their combined total debt is $3.8 billion. In total, the combined debt borne by Puerto Rico’s municipalities is about 5.5% of Puerto Rico’s outstanding debt.  

The fiscal plight of Puerto Rico’s municipalities has also been affected by the territory’s dismal fiscal condition: From 2000 to 2010, the population of Puerto Rico decreased, the first such decrease in census history for Puerto Rico, declining by 2.2%; but that seemingly small percentage obscures a harsher reality: it is the young and talented who are emigrating to Miami, New York City, and other parts on the mainland, leaving behind a declining and aging population—e.g. a population less able to pay taxes, but far more dependent on governmental assistance. At the same time, Puerto Rico’s investment in its human infrastructure has contributed to the economy’s decline: especially the disinvestment in its human infrastructure: a public teacher’s base salary starts at $24,000—even as the salary for a legislative advisor for Puerto Rico starts at $74,000. That is, if Puerto Rico’s youngest generation is to be its foundation for its future—and if its leaders are critical to local fiscal and governing leadership in a quasi-state where 36 of the island’s 78 municipalities, or just under half, are in fiscal distress—but, combined, have outstanding debt of about $3.8 billion; something will have to give. These municipalities, moreover, unlike Detroit, or San Bernardino, or Central Falls, have no recourse to municipal bankruptcy: they are in a fiscal Twilight Zone. (Puerto Rico has a negative real growth rate; per capita income in 2010 was estimated at $16,300; 46.1% of the territory’s population is in poverty, according to the most recent 2106 estimate; but that poverty is harsher outside of San Juan.) A declining and aging population adversely affects economic output—indeed, as former Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr who steered the city out of the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history recognized, the key to its plan of debt adjustment was restoring its economic viability.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who is of Puerto Rican descent, has indicated there should be a more favorable interpretation of the law to make the system fairer to Puerto Rico: to allow the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico to create its own emergency municipal bankruptcy measures—something, however, which only Congress and the Trump administration could facilitate. It seems clear that Justice Sotomayor does believe Puerto Rico ought to be considered the equivalent of a state, i.e. empowered to create its own bankruptcy laws. However, as the First Circuit Court of Appeals has interpreted, Puerto Rico is barred from enacting its own bankruptcy laws: it is treated as a state—in a country of dual federalism wherein the federal government, consequently, has no authority to authorize state access to bankruptcy protection.

Human Needs & Fiscal Imbalances

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing fiscal challenges to the City of Detroit—especially in ensuring equitable tax collections; then we look north to assess the ongoing, serious physical and fiscal challenges to Flint’s long-term recovery, before considering the fiscal plight in Puerto Rico.

Motor City Revenue Uncollections. Unlike most cities, Detroit has a broad tax base in which municipal income taxes constitute the city’s largest single source, and that notwithstanding that the city has the highest rate of concentrated poverty among the top 25 metro areas in the U.S. by population. (Detroit’s revenues, from taxes and state-shared revenues are higher than those of any other large Michigan municipality on a per capita basis: these revenues consist of property taxes, income taxes, utility taxes, casino wagering taxes, and state-shared revenues.) Therefore, it is unsurprising that the city is cracking down on those who owe back income taxes: Detroit has launched an aggressive litigation effort, an effort targeted at thousands of tax evaders living or working at thirty-three properties in the downtown and Midtown areas. The city’s Corporation Counsel, Melvin Butch Hollowell, notes the city has identified at least 7,000 such taxpayers at these properties as potential tax evaders. Collecting those owed taxes is an especially sensitive issue in the wake of the city’s chapter 9 experiences when the decline in revenues of 22 percent over the decade of its most important source of revenues was a key trigger of the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy.

Out Like Flint? Just as in Detroit’s chapter 9 bankruptcy, where now-retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes had to address water cut-offs to families who had not paid their utility bills, so too the issue is confronting Flint—where the current penalty for non-payment under the city’s ordinance is tax foreclosure: something which has put at risk some 8,000 homeowners in the municipality, until, last week, the City Council approved a one-year moratorium on such tax liens: the moratorium covers residents with two years of unpaid water and sewer bills dating back to June of 2014. After the moratorium vote, City Council President Kerry Nelson said: “The people are suffering enough” for being forced to pay for water they cannot drink and are reluctant to use…The calls that I received were numerous. Everywhere I go, people were saying: Do something,” he said: “I did what the charter authorized me to do” with a temporary moratorium “until we look at the ordinance and get it corrected. It needs work. It’s 53 years old. We must start doing something for our community.” The council president insisted the Snyder administration needs to step up “and help us: They created this…the government doesn’t get a free pass.”

Indeed, the question of risk to life and health had been one which now retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Rhodes had to deal with in Detroit’s chapter 9 bankruptcy: how does one balance a city’s fiscal solvency versus human lives; and how does one balance or assess a family’s needs versus the civic duty to pay for vital municipal serves and ensure respect for the law? Now the situation has been further conflicted by the Michigan state-appointed Receivership Transition Advisory Board, which oversees and monitors Flint’s finances in the wake of its emergence from state oversight two years ago. That board has scheduled a vote for next month on the moratorium—as this Friday’s deadline for the thousands of homeowners to pay up under a 1964 ordinance nears—albeit a deadline which has been modified to provide a one-year partial reprieve, in part to give time to amend the ordinance. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the apprehension has had municipal political impacts: a recall effort against Mayor Karen Weaver, who a year ago was in Washington, D.C., for meetings at the White House with President Barack Obama to lobby for more federal aid and to obtain other attention for the city. The Mayor, understandably, notes Flint is now between a rock and a hard place: there is understandable residential anger over access to water critical to everyday life; however, unpaid bills could cause irreparable fiscal harm to the city—leading the Mayor to affirm that she will honor the moratorium and “follow the law: It’s not like something new has been put in place…We’re doing what has always been done. This was something that Council did. This is the legislative body. My role is to execute the law. So I’m carrying out the law that’s put in place.” Nevertheless, after a year in which the city did not enforce its ordinance, due in no small part to credits its was able to offer to its citizens courtesy of state financing, those credits expired at the end of February, a time when lead levels finally recovered to 12 parts per billion, which is under the federal action standard—and after Gov. Rick Snyder last February rejected Mayor Weaver’s request for an extension.  

The fiscal challenge is complicated too as illustrated by the case of former City Councilmember Edward Taylor, who noted that he had received a $1,053 bill from a home he had rented out to a woman whom he recently evicted. The problem? Mr. Taylor said the woman illegally turned on the water, so the city is holding him responsible for paying up. Now he is threatening to sue the City of Flint if he is unable to gain fiscal relief: i.e., he wants the city to erase his debt—but have the city’s grow.  “The calls that I received were numerous. Everywhere I go, people were saying: Do something,” Coincilman Nelson said. “I did what the charter authorized me to do” with a temporary moratorium “until we look at the ordinance and get it corrected. It needs work. It’s 53 years old. We must start doing something for our community.” The council president insisted the Snyder administration needs to step up “and help us: They created this…the government doesn’t get a free pass.”

Tropical Fiscal Typhoon. The administration of Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares declined yesterday to publish the recommended budget for the next fiscal year despite the fact that two days ago the deadline for completing the version of the document to be assessed by the PROMESA Board expired; initially, the Governor’s administration was supposed to turn over the budget to the Board on May 8th; however, the Board had granted a two-week extension—one which expired at the beginning of this week—time in which the Governor’s office could improve and correct some of the issues contained in its draft document—a document which has yet to have been made public, but one which the Governor is expected to make public as part of his budget message to the Legislative Assembly: according to Press Secretary Yennifer Álvarez Jaimes, the budget is currently in the draft phase, so it cannot be published, including the version which is to be provided to the PROMESA Board—even as, today, the Governor is due in the nation’s capital on an official trip, meaning the formal presentation of his budget before the legislature will almost surely be deferred until next week. The delay comes as PROMESA Chair José B. Carrión has indicated the Board will await the document prior to beginning its assessment and evaluation.

The Governor’s representative to the PROMESA Board, Elías Sánchez Sifonte, said the budget process is well advanced and that it is only necessary to complete the legal analysis and align some aspects with the provisions contained in the Fiscal Plan—even as a spokesperson for the Puerto Rico Peoples Democratic Party (PPD) minority in the Senate, Eduardo Bhatia, insisted on his claim to know the content of the document: he stated: “I think the people should know what was proposed in the budget…Yesterday (Monday) was the date to deliver the budget and we know nothing.” Sen. Bhatia, who sued at the beginning of this month to force publication of the budget, had his suit rejected by the San Juan Court of First Instance, because it was preempted under Title III of PROMESA—meaning the case was then brought before U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor Swain, who issued an order giving Puerto Rico until this Friday to present its position in this controversy. 

State Agency BankruptciesPuerto Rico has filed cases in the U.S. District Court in San Juan, according to Puerto Rico’s Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority, to place its Highways and Transportation Authority and Employees Retirement System into Title III bankruptcy—a move affecting some $9.5 billion in debt, with Governor Rosselló asserting he was seeking to protect pensioners and the transportation system by putting both agencies into municipal bankruptcy; he added he had asked the PROMESA Oversight Board to put the two entities into Title III’s chapter 9-like process, because, according to his statement, the island’s creditors had “categorically rejected” the Puerto Rico fiscal plan as a basis for negotiations and have recently started legal actions to undermine the public corporation’s stability. In the board-approved HTA fiscal plan, there would be no debt service paid through at least fiscal year 2026. Gov. Rosselló added that he had filed for Title III, because Puerto Rico faces insolvency in the coming months, and because his government has been unable to reach a consensual deal with its creditors, adding that pensioners will continue to receive their pensions from the General Fund after the territory’s pension fund, ERS, runs out of money. (As of February the ERS had $3.2 billion in debt, of which $2.7 billion was bond principal and $500 million was capital appreciation bonds.)

As Puerto Rico attempts to sort out its tangled financial web, retirees may face bigger cuts than those in past U.S. municipal insolvencies, due in part to an unconventional debt structure which pits pensioners against the very lenders whose money was supposed to sustain them—but also because this is an unbalancing teeter-totter, where the young and upwardly mobile are moving from Puerto Rico to New York City and Florida—leaving behind the impoverished and elderly, so that contributions into the Puerto Rico’s pension system are ebbing, even as demands upon it are increasing, and as the benefit structures are widely perceived as unsustainable. There is recognition that radical cuts to pensioners could deepen the population’s reliance on government subsidies and compound rampant emigration, for, as Gov. Rosselló has noted, most retirees “are already under the poverty line,” so that any pension cuts “would cast them out and challenge their livelihood.” Indeed, Puerto Rico’s Public pensions, which as of June last year had total pension liabilities of $49.6 billion, and which are projected to be insolvent sometime in the second half of this calendar year, today have almost no cash; rather pension benefits are coming out of the territory’s general fund, on a pay-as-you-go basis—imposing a cost to Puerto Rico of as much as $1.5 billion a year: $1.5 billion the territory does not have.

Puerto Rico & Municipal Bankruptcy: a process of pain where “failure is not an option.”

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Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the opening under U.S. Judge Laura Swain of the unique, quasi chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy process which opened this week in Puerto Rico, where Judge Swain noted the process “will certainly involve pain,” but that “failure is not an option.”

Getting Ready to Rumble. Judge Swain has combined two major PROMESA Title III filings made earlier this month by Puerto Rican authorities—one for its general obligation debt, and one for debt which is backed by the Puerto Rico’s Commonwealth or COFINA sales tax revenues. Reuters helps explain, writing: “The island’s initial bankruptcy filing on [May 3] included only its central government, which owes some $18 billion in general obligation, or GO debt, backed by its constitution…The COFINA filing [on May 5] will pull in another $17 billion or so in debt under the Title III umbrella. Overall the island’s government and various agencies have a debt load of $74 billion that they cannot repay.” Unsurprisingly, as Bloomberg notes, a sizeable separation between general obligation and COFINA bondholders has already emerged. Judge Swain’s early decision to merge the two filings for administrative purposes appears to denote a small victory for the PROMESA Board, as some COFINA stakeholders had objected (COFINA bondholders were the first to sue the government of Puerto Rico after the freeze on creditor litigation under PROMESA expired at Midnight May 1st.) They accuse Puerto Rico, Governor Ricardo Rossello and other officials of angling to repurpose the tax revenue earmarked to pay COFINA debt.: they argued that COFINA is a separate entity whose assets, in the form of sales tax revenue, are earmarked only for creditors.” The debt here dwarfs any we have seen in Detroit, San Bernardino, etc.: Puerto Rico, according to the PROMESA Board, cannot even meet 25% of its $900 million necessary to service its municipal debt. And, in some sense, that debt—owed to investors in the 50 states, pales compared to the human obligations at home: NPR’s Greg Allen describes: “retirees who are owed pensions; 180 closed public schools, $500 million in cuts proposed for the university here…So lots of pain to come here—and the governor is going to be releasing a budget later this month, which will show a lot more pain coming. Among the things that are going to happen is, I think, big cuts in health care benefits.” He estimated the trial could exceed the duration of Detroit’s chapter 9, taking as many as five years to conclude. Judge Swain will—as Judge Rhodes had to in Detroit, and as was the very hard case in Central Falls, Rhode Island’s municipal bankruptcy‒Puerto Rico’s $49 billion in government pension obligations. But Puerto Rico’s debt is not just fiscal: the island has a poverty rate of 45%–a level dwarfing what we have experienced in previous chapter 9 bankruptcies. The current case may not affect all of these because some are for the employees of semi-autonomous Puerto Rico entities like the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority. And, the trial here dwarfs the previous largest U.S. municipal bankruptcy in Detroit, where the stakes involved $18 billion in debt, pension obligations, and other OPEB benefits. The pension obligations have been described as liabilities of as much as $45 billion. On the trial’s first day, Judge Swain heard presentations with regard to whether the case should include mediation—and, if so, which parties should be included: that is, she will have a Solomon-like set of choices, choosing between Puerto’s Rico’s citizens, its municipal bondholders, suppliers owed money, pensioners, and government employees. Judge Swain will also hear presentations with regard to whether—and when‒Puerto Rico should be required to submit lists of its creditors and in what manner and how notice to creditors will be made. The PROMESA Oversight Board attorney Martin Bienenstock said he anticipates other Puerto Rico public entities, including the Highways and Transportation Authority, would soon file for Title III later. The considerations in the court will also have to address how some $800 million set aside in Puerto Rico’s certified 10-year fiscal recovery plan will be apportioned between competing claims–including those of constitutionally backed general obligation debt (GO) and sales-tax backed or COFINA bonds.

Perspectives on Municipal Bankruptcy

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Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the potential descent into municipal bankruptcy by Hartford—and whether, if, and if so, how, the state might help. Then, as U.S. Judge Laura Swain preps for deliberations to begin tomorrow in Puerto Rico, we consider preliminary agreements yesterday with the U.S. territory’s Government Development Bank. 

A State Capital’s Near Bankruptcy. The Hartford City Council is letting Mayor Tony George get his way in dealing with the Connecticut city’s crushing debt, having voted 3-2 to borrow up to $52 million to restructure the city’s long-term debt (the city has $550 million total debt outstanding), a plan Mayor George has been seeking for months—indeed, the Mayor had given an ultimatum to the Council to approve the plan, or he would seek to have the city declared financially distressed under the state’s Act 47. Councilman Tony Brooks, who had previously opposed the plan, broke the tie, stating: “If I have to choose between debt or a tax increase, I will choose debt.” The votes came in the wake of Mayor Bronin and Hartford Corporation Counsel Howard Rifkin acknowledging that Hartford had been soliciting proposals for law firms in the event of a Chapter 9 bankruptcy filing, even as Gov. Malloy was proposing to draw on the state’s reserves in an effort to the Nutmeg State’s current fiscal-year budget balance in the wake of his Budget Secretary’s reduction in projected state revenues by $409.5 million, a reduction plunging the general fund deficit to minus $389.8 million—making it seem as if the pleading was to Mother Hubbard just when her cupboard was bare.

The cratering fiscal situation was underlined by the additional credit rating downgrade yesterday from S&P Global Ratings, with analyst Victor Medeiros noting: “The downgrade and the credit watch placement reflect the heightened uncertainty on whether the state will increase intergovernmental aid or otherwise lend the necessary state support to enable Hartford to achieve structural balance and prevent it from further fiscal deterioration.” Last year, S&P and Moody’s each hit the city with four-notch downgrades, citing 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. Now the Mayor and Council face deficits of $14 million this year and nearly 400% higher next year. Yet even with such projected deficits, Mayor George he has been unable to gain meaningful union concessions—and the outlook for his requested $40 million in additional state aid seems bleak. Mayor Bronin describes the fiscal crisis this way: “Acting alone, Hartford has no road to a sustainable budget path.” Hartford City Administrator Ted Wampole advised the elected officials that the proposed borrowing and debt restructuring plan would put the city in a better cash flow position headed into the new year, albeit warning it would just be the first in a series of difficult decisions the city faces when it comes to finances; he added that all expenses will be evaluated, as will possible ways to increase revenues, noting: “This is the very beginning of what will be a long process…This is something we needed to do. The alternative is we run out of money.”

Could the State Really Help? If there is grim news for Hartford, it is that the state is itself fiscally strapped: Connecticut Governor Danel Malloy has called for virtually wiping out the state’s rainy-day fund.  In Connecticut, a municipality may only file with the express prior written permission or consent from the Governor (see Conn. §7-566)—with Bridgeport, in 1991, the only previous city to ever file for chapter 9 [a filing dismissed in August of the same year]). Now legislative gridlock persists as thousands of state employees face layoffs. Bond rating agencies have hammered both the state and capital city Hartford over the past year. Fitch Ratings at the end of last week dropped Connecticut’s issuer default rating to A-plus from AA-minus, the first to move the state out of the double-A category. Nevertheless, according to Mr. Medeiros, uncertainty over state aid prompted Hartford to seek solicitations for a bankruptcy lawyer: “While a bankruptcy filing remains distant, in our opinion, by raising the possibility, we believe that elected officials are seeking to better understand the legal qualifications, process, and consequences associated with this action if there is no budgetary support at the state level.” Governor Malloy has also announced deficit-mitigation actions in an effort to close the current-year shortfall, writing to Nutmeg state legislators: “I find it necessary to take aggressive steps.” Such steps include draining all but $1.3 million of the budget reserve fund, nearly $100 million in revenue transfers, $33.5 million in rescissions, and $22.6 million in other actions—including cuts in state aid to local governments—cuts which will require legislative approval. Gov. Malloy has also begun a contingency plan for laying off state workers—especially in anticipation, as the state faces a possible FY2018-19 $5 billion shortfall—and political as well as fiscal challenges in a state where the Senate is split evenly between Democrats and Republicans 18-18, and the Democrats hold a slim 79-72 advantage in the House of Representatives.

Gov. Malloy last February proposed a $40.6 billion biennial budget, proposing a shift of teacher pension costs to municipalities—hardly a proposal which would help Hartford—and one which has, so far, encountered little support in the legislature. In a seeming understatement, S&P Ratings noted: “This could help stabilize the share of the state’s budget devoted to its substantial fixed costs, a potentially positive credit development, although it may pressure local government finances.” According to Moody’s, Connecticut continues to have the highest debt-service costs as a percent of own-source governmental revenues among the 50 states, even though it declined from 14.3% to 13.3%. 

Tropical Fiscal Typhoon. Preparations in the Federal Court, in Hato Rey, the U.S. territoriy’s banking district and the closest thing to a downtown that Puerto Rico has, for tomorrow’s first hearing related to the process of restructuring the public debt of Puerto Rico, under Title III of PROMESA before federal Judge Laura Swain are underway: the preparations alone will necessitate rejiggering court rooms, including ensuring one is available for closed circuit TV coverage and another for the general public.  Title III of the federal law PROMESA permits a process of public debt restructuring, which is supervised by a Tribunal, as long as the creditors and the government do not reach agreements that benefit them both.

The trial begins after, yesterday, Puerto Rico announced that the Government Development Bank, which had served as the primary fiscal agent for the U.S. territory, had reached a liquidation agreement with its creditors, avoiding a protracted bankruptcy, with the agreement executed under the terms of Title VI of the PROMESA statute, according to Gov. Ricardo Rossello’s office—an agreement which would avoid a Title III bankruptcy, and, under which the bank’s assets will be split between two separate entities, according to a term sheet made public yesterday. Under the agreement, the first entity, holding $5.3 billion in GDB assets, would issue three tranches of debt with different protections in exchange for varying principal reductions: beneficiaries would include municipal depositors and bondholders, such as Avenue Capital Management, Brigade Capital Management, and Fir Tree Partners. The second entity, funded with public entity loans and $50 million in cash, would benefit all other depositors. While the details remain to be confirmed, the agreement would appear to mean a haircut of approximately 45% for a group of small municipal bondholders in Puerto Rico, with potential losses of up to 45 percent for some bondholders. A spokesperson for the Governor issued a statement on his behalf noting: “[B]efore we are bondholders, we are Puerto Ricans, and we recognize the circumstances that Puerto Rico faces.”

The government bank’s plan represents an end to what was once the equivalent of a central bank in charge of holding deposits from government agencies and Puerto Rico’s nearly 100 municipalities—and marks the steps to comply with the PROMESA Board’s approval last month of steps to wind down the bank.

The Knife Edges of Municipal Bankruptcy

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Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing fiscal pipeline to the recovery for the City of Flint, the outcome of a Pennsylvania grand jury investigation of the near municipally bankrupt Pennsylvania capital city of Harrisburg, before addressing the .growing physical and fiscal breakdown in the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico.

In Like Flint? The Michigan legislature has finally agreed to appropriate $20 million to make the requisite match in order for some $100 million in federal aid to go to the city, with the funds to be used to replace corroded pipes which leached lead into the city’s drinking water system, creating not just grave health repercussions, but also devastating the city’s assessed property values and public safety budgets. The city’s near insolvency, which had come in the wake of the decisions which lead to the water contamination by a gubernatorially appointed Emergency Manager, may mark one of the final chapters to the city’s physical and fiscal recovery.

A State Capital’s Near Bankruptcy. Pennsylvania’s capital city, Harrisburg, chartered as a city the year the Civil War commenced, which came close to filing for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, will, in its proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year, follow a court-approved bankruptcy plan, with slightly more revenues than expenditures, except that the city does not expect to be able to hire police as fast as called for in its budget. At a workshop this week, the first of several planned before the City Council votes on the budget for FY2017-2018, the proposed plan proposes minimal increases in most departments, as total revenue is expected to climb to $119.86 million, an increase of about $7 million from last year. City Manager Mark Scott, in a memo to the Council prior to its consideration of the budget, wrote: “In developing our budget recommendations, it is obvious we do not have anywhere near the money we would like to have…Nor is that likely to change any time soon. We cannot expect to address our future by replicating our past. We will have different staffing than in the past and different service delivery expectation. Right now, we are budgeting to establish a solid base—meaning staff skill sets and new, efficient systems/processes.”

In the city, where taxpayers and residents, as well as city officials, consistently list public safety as a top priority, Harrisburg’s five-year plan to increase spending on police was a keystone of the city’s plan of debt adjustment, which was officially confirmed in February. Nevertheless, while the Police Department budget, at $72 million, meaning it is more than 60 percent of the total general fund budget, calls for a significant increase in hiring, and recruiting. City Manager Mark Scott, however, warned that the issue involves more than the budget: “We’re getting people into the academy as fast as we can,” as he advised he hopes the city to realize “a net increase of 18 officers by the end of the year.” Following a trend that began before the 2012 bankruptcy filing, the city again plans to have fewer employees than the year before. This year, however, that is primarily due to the new voter-approved city charter, which transfers sewer workers from the city to the independent Water Department: the new budget authorizes 746 positions, compared to 763 one year earlier.

Tropical Fiscal Typhoon. Puerto Rico, the insolvent U.S. territory, is trapped in a vicious fiscal and physical whirlpool where the austerity measures it has taken to meet its fiscal obligations to its creditors all across the U.S. have come at a steep fiscal and physical cost: some 30,000 public sector employees have lost their jobs, even as the nearly 75% increase in its sales and use tax has backfired: it has served to curtail shopping, adding to the vicious cycle of increasingly drastic fiscal steps in an effort to make payments to bondholders on the mainland—enough so that nearly 33% of the territory’s revenue is currently going to creditors and bondholders, even as its economy has shrunk 10% since 2006. Over this period, the poverty rate has grown to 45%, while the demographic imbalance has deteriorated with the exit of some 300,000 Puerto Ricans—mostly the young and better educated—leaving for Miami and New York. Puerto Rico and its public agencies owe $73 billion to its creditors, nearly five times greater than the nearly $18 billion in debts accumulated by Detroit when it filed for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy four years ago in what was then the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. Now, with U.S. District Court Judge Laura Taylor Swain set to preside next Wednesday (Financial Oversight and Management Board of Puerto Rico, 17-cv-01578), we will witness a unique trial, comparable to those in Jefferson County, Detroit, Stockton, San Bernardino, etc.; however, here there will be differences compared to chapter 9, as there will be roles for both Puerto’s Rico, but also the PROMESA oversight board—with, presumably, both seeking a fiscal recovery, but unlikely to have comparable proposals with regard to the most appropriate and effective plan of debt adjustment. Perhaps the greatest challenge will be economic recovery: for Detroit, whose bankruptcy pales in comparison to Puerto Rico’s; Detroit was able to benefit from a constructive state role and an economy vastly boosted by the federal bailout of its gigantic auto industry. That contrasts with current federal laws discriminating against Puerto Rico’s economy vis-à-vis competitor Caribbean nations, and caught in a Twilight Zone between a state and municipality, with a stream of its young talent streaming to Miami and New York, leaving behind a demographic map of poverty, empty classrooms, and aging people—and dependent on sales taxes, but with sharp reductions in pensions almost certain to sharply and adversely affect sales tax revenues. Judge Taylor will require the wisdom and strength of Job.