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. 

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