Rising from Municipal Bankruptcies’ Ashes

07/24/17

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Good Morning! You might describe this a.m.’s e or iBlog as The Turnaround Story, as we consider the remarkable fiscal recovery in Atlantic City and observe some of the reflections from Detroit’s riot of half a century ago—a riot which presaged its nation’s largest chapter 9 bankruptcy, before we assess the ongoing fiscal turmoil in the U.S. territory look at Puerto Rico.

New Jersey & You. Governor Chris Christie on Friday announced his administration is delivering an 11.4% decrease in the overall Atlantic City property tax rate for 2017—a tax cut which will provide an annual savings of $621 for the City’s average homeowner, but which, mayhap more importantly, appears to affirm that the city’s fiscal fortunes have gone from the red to the black, after, earlier this month, the City Council accepted its $206 million budget with a proposed 5% reduction in the municipal purpose tax rate, bringing it to about $1.80 per $100 of assessed valuation. Atlantic City’s new budget, after all, marks the first to be accepted since the state took over the city’s finances last November; indeed, as Mayor Don Guardian noted, the fiscal swing was regional: the county and school tax rates also dropped—producing a reduction of more than 11%—and an FY2018 budget $35 million lower than last year—and $56 million below the FY2016 budget: “We had considerably reduced our budget this year and over the last couple of years…I’m just glad that we’re finally able to bring taxes down.” Mayor Guardian added the city would still like to give taxpayers even greater reductions; nevertheless, the tax and budget actions reflect the restoration of the city’s budget authority in the wake of last year’s state takeover: the budget is the first accepted since the state took over the city’s finances in November after the appointment last year of a state fiscal overseer, Jeff Chiesa—whom the Governor thanked, noting:

“Property taxes can be lowered in New Jersey, when localities have the will and leaders step in to make difficult decisions, as the Department of Community Affairs and Senator Jeff Chiesa have done…Our hard work to stop city officials’ irresponsible spending habits is bearing tangible fruit for Atlantic City residents. Annual savings of more than $600 for the average household is substantial money that families can use in their everyday lives. This 11.4% decrease is further proof that what we are doing is working.”

Contributing to the property tax rate decrease is a $35-million reduction in the City’s FY2017 budget, which, at $206.3 million, is about 25% lower than its FY2015 budget, reflecting reduced salaries, benefits, and work schedules of Atlantic City’s firefighters and police officers, as well as the outsourcing of municipal services, such as trash pickup and vehicle towing to private vendors. On the revenue side, the new fiscal budget also reflects a jackpot in the wake of the significant Borgata settlement agreement on property tax appeals—all reflected in the city’s most recent credit upgrade and by Hard Rock’s and Stockton University’s decisions to make capital investments in Atlantic City, as well as developers’ plans to transform other properties, such as the Showboat, into attractions intended to attract a wider variety of age groups to the City for activities beyond gambling—or, as the state-appointed fiscal overseer, Mr. Chiesa noted: “The City is on the road to living within its means…We’re not done yet, but we’ve made tremendous progress that working families can appreciate. We’ll continue to work hard to make even more gains for the City’s residents and businesses.

The Red & the Black. Unsurprisingly, there seems to be little agreement with regard to which level of government merits fiscal congratulations. Atlantic City Mayor Guardian Friday noted: “We had considerably reduced our budget this year and over the last couple of years…“I’m just glad that we’re finally able to bring taxes down.” Unsurprisingly, lame duck Gov. Christie credited the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs and Mr. Chiesa, stating: “Our hard work to stop city officials’ irresponsible spending habits is bearing tangible fruit for Atlantic City residents.” However, Tim Cunningham, the state director of local government services, earlier this month told the Mayor and Council the city and its budget were moving in the “right direction,” adding hopes for the city’s fiscal future, citing Hard Rock and Stockton University’s investment in the city; while Mr. Chiesa, in a statement, added: “The city is on the road to living within its means…We’re not done yet, but we’ve made tremendous progress that working families can appreciate. We’ll continue to work hard to make even more gains for the city’s residents and businesses.”

Do You Recall or Remember at All? Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, the white mayor of the largest African-American city in America, last month spoke at a business conference in Michigan about the racially divisive public policies of the first half of 20th century which helped contribute to Detroit’s long, painful decline in the second half of the last century—a decline which ended in five torrid nights and days of riots which contributed to the burning and looting of some 2,509 businesses—and to the exodus of nearly 1.2 million citizens. The Mayor, campaigning for re-election, noted: “If we fail again, I don’t know if the city can come back.” His remarks appropriately come at the outset of this summer’s 50th anniversary of the summer the City Detroit burned.

Boston University economics Professor Robert Margo, a Detroit native who has studied the economic effects of the 1960’s U.S. riots, noting how a way of life evaporated in 120 hours for the most black residents in the riot’s epicenter, said: “It wasn’t just that people lived in that neighborhood; they shopped and conducted business in that neighborhood. Overnight all your institutions were gone,” noting that calculating the economic devastation from that week in 1967 was more than a numbers exercise: there was an unquantifiable human cost. That economic devastation, he noted, exacerbated civic and problems already well underway: job losses, white flight, middle-income black flight, and the decay and virtual wholesale abandonment of neighborhoods, where, subsequently, once-vibrant neighborhoods were bulldozed, so that, even today, if we were to tour along main artery of the riot, Rosa Parks Boulevard (which was 12th Street at the time of the riots), you would see overgrown vacant lots, lone empty commercial and light industrial buildings, boarded-up old homes—that is, sites which impose extra security costs and fire hazards for the city’s budget, but continue to undercut municipal revenues. Yet, you would also be able to find evidence of the city’s turnaround: townhouses, apartments, and the Virginia Park Community Plaza strip mall built from a grassroots community effort. But the once teeming avenue of stores, pharmacies, bars, lounges, gas stations, pawn shops, laundromats, and myriad of other businesses today have long since disappeared.

In the wake of the terrible violence, former President Lyndon Johnson created the Kerner Commission, formally titled the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, to analyze the causes and effects of the nationwide wave of 1967 riots. That 426-page report concluded that Detroit’s “city assessor’s office placed the loss—excluding building stock, private furnishings, and the buildings of churches and charitable institutions—at approximately $22 million. Insurance payouts, according to the State Insurance Bureau, will come to about $32 million, representing an estimated 65 to 75 percent of the total loss,” while concluding the nation was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” Absent federal action, the Commission warned, the country faced a “system of ’apartheid’” in its major cities: two Americas: delivering an indictment of a “white society” for isolating and neglecting African-Americans and urging federal legislation to promote racial integration and to enrich slums—primarily through the creation of jobs, job training programs, and decent housing. In April of 1968, one month after the release of the Kerner Commission report, rioting broke out in more than 100 cities across the country in the wake of the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.

In excerpts from the Kerner Report summary, the Commission analyzed patterns in the riots and offered explanations for the disturbances. Reports determined that, in Detroit, adjusted for inflation, there were losses in the city in excess of $315 million—with those numbers not even reflecting untabulated losses from businesses which either under-insured or had no insurance at all—and simply not covering at all other economic losses, such as missed wages, lost sales and future business, and personal taxes lost by the city because the stores had simply disappeared. Academic analysis determined that riot areas in Detroit showed a loss of 237,000 residents between 1960 and 1980, while the rest of the entire city lost 252,000 people in that same time span. Data shows that 64 percent of Detroit’s black population in 1967 lived in the riot tracts. U. of Michigan Professor June Thomas, of the Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, wrote: “The loss of the commercial strips in several areas preceded the loss of housing in the nearby residential areas. That means that some of the residential areas were still intact but negatively affected by nearby loss of commercial strips.” The riots devastated assessed property values—creating signal incentives to leave the city for its suburbs—if one could afford to.

On the small business side, the loss of families and households, contributed to the exodus—an exodus from a city of 140 square miles that left it like a post WWII Berlin—but with lasting fiscal impacts, or, as Professor Bill Volz of the WSU Mike Ilitch School of Business notes: the price to reconstitute a business was too high for many, and others simply chose to follow the population migration elsewhere: “Most didn’t get rebuilt. They were gone, those mom-and-pop stores…Those small business, they were a critical part of the glue that made a neighborhood. Those small businesses anchored people there. Not rebuilding those small businesses, it just hurt the neighborhood feel that it critical in a city that is 140 square miles. This is a city of neighborhoods.” Or, maybe, he might have said: “was.” Professor Thomas adds that the Motor City’s rules and the realities of post-war suburbanization also made it nearly impossible to replace neighborhood businesses: “It’s important to point out that, as set in place by zoning and confirmed by the (city’s) 1951 master plan, Detroit’s main corridors had a lot of strip commercial space that was not easily converted or economically viable given the wave of suburban malls that had already been built and continued to draw shoppers and commerce…This, of course, all came on top of loss of many businesses, especially black-owned, because of urban renewal and I-75 construction.”

Left en Atras? (Left Behind?As of last week, two-thirds of Puerto Rico’s muncipios, or municipalities, had reported system breakdowns, according to Ramón Luis Cruz Burgos, the deputy spokesman of the delegation of the Popular Democratic Party (PPD) in the Puerto Rico House Of Representatives: he added that in Puerto Rico, a great blackout occurs every day due to the susceptibility of the electric power system, noting, for instance, that last month, for six consecutive days, nearly 70 percent of Puerto Rico’s municipalities had problems with electricity service, or, as he stated: “In Puerto Rico we have a big blackout every day. We have investigated the complaints that have been filed at the Autoridad de Energía Eléctrica (AEE) for blackouts in different sectors, and we conclude that daily, two-thirds of the island are left without light. This means that sectors of some 51 municipalities are left in the dark and face problems with the daily electricity service.”

It seems an odd juxtaposition/comparison with the events that triggered the nation’s largest ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in Detroit—even as it reminds us that in Puerto Rico, not only is the Commonwealth ineligible for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, but also its municipalities. Mr. Cruz Burgos noted that reliability in the electric power system is one of the most important issues in the economic development of a country, expressing exasperation and apprehension that interruptions in service have become the order of the day: “Over the last two months, we have seen how more than half of the island’s villages are left dark for hours and even for several days, because the utility takes too long to repair breakdowns,” warning this problem will be further aggravated during the month of August, when energy consumption in schools and public facilities increases: “In the last two months, there are not many schools operating and the use of university facilities is also reduced for the summer vacation period. In addition, many employees go on vacation so operations in public facilities reduce their operation and, therefore, energy consumption.”

Jose Aponte Hernandez, Chair of the International and House Relations Committee, blamed the interruptions on the previous administration of Gov. Luis Fortuno, claiming: it had “abandoned the aggressive program of maintenance of the electrical structure implemented by former Gov. Luis Fortuna, claiming: “In the past four years the administration of the PPD did not lift a finger to rehabilitate the ESA structure. On the contrary, they went out of their way to destroy it in order to justify millionaire-consulting contracts. That is why today we are confronting these blackouts.”

The struggle for basic public services—just as there was a generation ago in Detroit, reflect the fiscal and governing challenge for Puerto Rico and its 88 municipalities at a time when non-Puerto Rican municipal bondholders have launched litigation in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims to demand payment of $3.1 billion in principal and interest in Puerto Rico Employment Retirement System bonds (In Altair Global Credit Opportunities Fund (A), LLC et al. v. The United States of America)—the first suit against the U.S. government proper, in contrast to prior litigation already filed against the Puerto Rico Oversight Board, with the suit relying on just compensation claims and that PROMESA is a federal entity. Here, as the Wizard of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, Jim Spiotto, notes, the key is whether the PROMESA board was acting on behalf of the federal government or on behalf of Puerto Rico—adding that he believes it was acting for Puerto Rico and, ergo, should not be considered part of the federal government, and that the U.S. Court of Federal Claims may find that the federal government’s actions were illegal. Nevertheless, the issue remains with regard to whether the bonds should be paid from the pledged collateral—in this case being Puerto Rico employer contributions. (The Altair complaint alleges that the PROMESA Board is a federal entity which has encouraged, directed, and even forced Puerto Rico to default on its ERS bonds—a board created by Congress which has directed the stream of employer contributions away from the bondholders and into the General Fund, according to these bondholders’ allegations.

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