Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the increasing threat to Hartford, Connecticut’s capitol, of insolvency; then we look at the nearing referendum in Puerto Rico to address the U.S. Territory’s legal status.
Can Chapter 9 Be Avoided? As the Connecticut legislature nears ending its session, House Majority Leader Matthew Ritter (D-Hartford) has been taking the lead in efforts to commit tens of millions of state dollars to rescue the city—but, as the Leader noted: “There are going to be strings;” the price to the municipality will be greater state control—however, what that control will be and how implemented remains unclear. One key issue will be the city’s looming pension challenge: the city’s current $33 million in annual obligations is projected to increase to $52.6 million by FY2023—ergo, one option for the state would be to utilize an oversight board to re-negotiate union contracts, a move used before by the state for Waterbury—and a step Mayor Luke Bronin had proposed last year—only to see it rejected. His efforts to seek a commitment for $15 million in givebacks by the unions this year succeeded in getting only one tenth that amount, $1.5 million—and came as the local AFSCME Council recently rejected a contract which could have saved the city $4 million.
The inability to agree upon voluntary steps to address the nearing insolvency has pushed state leaders, increasingly, to discuss the creation of a state financial control board as a linchpin to any state bailout of the city—with leaders discussing a board composed evenly of state, local, and union representatives. Connecticut’s law (§7-566) requires the express prior written consent of the Governor—obligating him to submit a report to the Treasurer and General Assembly—actions taken twice before in the cases of Bridgeport (1991) and the Westport Transit District; however, each case was resolved without going through the legal process and submission of a plan off debt adjustment. Indeed, there is, as yet, little consensus in the state legislature with regard to what oversight governance would include: one option under consideration would impose a spending cap, while another would provide for state preemption of the city’s authority to negotiate with its unions: the Majority Leader notes: “I think that if we could get these concessions agreed to and reach the savings that have been targeted…it would go a long way to limiting the amount of oversight in the city of Hartford.” Whatever route to restoring solvency, tempus fugit as the Romans used to say: time is fleeing: the city’s deficit is just under $50 million, even as the departure of one of its biggest employers, Aetna, looms—and, as we had reported in Providence, the city has a disproportionate hole in its property tax base: state and local government agencies, hospitals, and universities occupy 50% of the city’s property. Add to that, the city’s current authority to levy property tax limits such collections to an assessed value of 70 percent.
Mayor Bronin, recognizing that state help is critical, notes his “goal and hope is that legislators from around the state of Connecticut will recognize that Hartford cannot responsibly solve a crisis of this magnitude at the local level alone.” State aid will be critical for an additional reason: absent such assistance, the city’s credit rating is almost certain to deteriorate, thereby driving up its costs for capital borrowing. Adding to the urgency of fiscal action is the pending departure of Aetna from the city: even though city leaders believe the giant health care corporation will keep many of its 6,000 employees in Connecticut, notwithstanding its negotiations with several states to relocate its corporate headquarters from Hartford, Aetna has stated it remains committed to its Connecticut employees and its Hartford campus. (Aetna and Hartford’s other four biggest taxpayers contribute nearly 20% of the city’s $280 million of property-tax revenues which make up nearly half the city’s general fund revenues.) The companies have imposed a fiscal price, however: Aetna, together with Hartford Financial Services and Travelers have offered to contribute a voluntary payment of $10 million annually over the next five years to help the city avoid chapter 9 municipal avoid bankruptcy, but only on the condition there are comprehensive governing and fiscal changes. But the companies have said they want to see comprehensive changes in how Hartford is run—including vastly reducing reliance on the property tax—a tax rate which the city has raised seven times in the past decade and a half to rates 50% greater than they were in 1998. Thus, with time fleeing, the city confronts coming up with the fiscal resources to finance nearly $180 million in debt service, health care, pensions, and other fixed costs for its upcoming fiscal budget—an amount equal to more than half of the city’s budget, excluding education; that is, the city’s options are increasingly limited—and the Mayor has made clear that he will not reduce essential public safety. As the Majority Leader describes it, it is in the state’s best interest to make sure the city has a sustainable future, noting that a municipal bankruptcy would not “just affect Hartford: It would affect neighboring communities, it would affect the state, it would probably affect our credit ratings.”
Eliminating local power? Hartford City Council President Thomas Clark is apprehensive with regard to state preemption of local authority, noting his “concern has always been if this bill is passed–in whatever form it gets passed–what does that do to the elected leadership at the local level?…And I think until we see what that actually includes, we’re just going to be uncomfortable with this concept.” From the Mayor’s perspective, he notes: “Understandably, Connecticut residents do not want their hard-earned tax dollars being used wastefully, or simply funding an increase in the cost of city government…I don’t mind anybody looking over my shoulder…and I don’t mind having the books open. I’m confident in the decisions that we’ve made.” That contrasts with his colleagues on the City Council—and the city’s unions, who have previously charged: “The Governor and this mayor are clutching at their last chance at unconditional and overreaching power.” The unions have claimed there are measures which could be taken without resorting to negating collective bargaining rights and municipal bankruptcy; yet, as we have seen in Detroit, San Bernardino, etc., those efforts were ineffective compared to the pressure of a U.S. bankruptcy judge.
Chartering a Post Insolvency Future? Voters and taxpayers in the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rice go to the polls this Sunday to vote on a referendum on Puerto Rico’s political status—the fifth such referendum since it became an unincorporated territory of the United States. Although, originally, this referendum would only have the options of statehood versus independence, a letter from the Trump administration had recommended adding “Commonwealth,” the current status, in the plebiscite; however, that recommendation was scotched in response to the results of the plebiscite in 2012 which asked whether to remain in the current status—which the voters rejected. Subsequently, the administration cited changes in demographics during the past 5 years as a reason to add the option once again, leading to amendments incorporating ballot wording changes requested by the Department of Justice, as well as adding a “current territorial status” as provided under the original Jones-Shafroth Act as an option. Notwithstanding what the voters decide, however, it remains uncertain what might happen—much less how a Trump Administration or how Congress would react. The referendum was approved last January by the Puerto Rico Senate—and then by the House, and signed by Gov. Rossello last February.