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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