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.

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