The Art of State Fiscal Intervention

08/08/17

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Good Morning! In this a.m.’s blog, we consider the political and fiscal challenges to recovery for a municipality with disproportionate levels of crime and low income—but aided by state intervention.

Ending the Fiscal Siege of Petersburg. More than a century ago, from June 9, 1864, to March 25, 1865, during the American Civil War, the Richmond–Petersburg Campaign was torn by a series of battles around Petersburg, Virginia. In the past few years, the battle waged has been fiscal rather than physical for the independent city of about 32,420, where, last year, Virginia Finance Secretary Ric Brown, in providing a fiscal update, based on a state audit of the city’s books dating to 2012, had reported the municipality was facing a $12 million budget gap—and nearly $19 million in unpaid bills. But now, Sec. Brown has just announced that the small municipality’s bond rating outlook has been upgraded from “negative” to “stable,” confirming the value of the Commonwealth’s fiscal intervention. S&P’s announcement, coming nearly one year of weathering one of the lowest possible municipal bond ratings, led Mayor Samuel Parham to note: “We are proud of everyone’s efforts who made this positive reassessment possible.” But it is one small, fiscal step: At last week’s session, the City Council agreed to develop a deficit-reduction plan at its next meeting, scheduled for a week from Thursday: more fiscal work portends in the wake of last month’s action by the Council to approve a salary cut for the city’s 600 full-time employees: layoffs of staff and other austerity measures are now a real possibility.

That fiscal endeavor will proceed under a newly appointed City Manager, Aretha R. Ferrell-Benavides, who was appointed last month to be responsible for the day-to-day operations of the city and report directly to the City Council. She does not come unprepared for the task, having served as the interim city manager, where she was put in the awkward role of informing the City Council and a packed hall of residents about the requisite critical cuts to city services and reduced funding for the city’s schools—already among the lowest-performing in the Commonwealth—as well as cuts to fire and police services in a city which has an unusually high rate of crime: some 87% higher than in comparison to the Virginia mean and are 35% higher than the national mean. With regard to violent offenses, Petersburg, has a rate that is 313% higher than the Virginia average; its property crime is 63% higher than the statewide mean. Nearly 30% of the city’s residents live in poverty, more double the statewide rate, and the city has a disproportionate percentage of its population older than 65.  As the population has declined from its peak in 1980, it has also aged — more than 15 percent of residents are 65 or older, vs. 13 percent statewide., and 22% higher than the country’s average—all steps necessary she warned, because, otherwise, Petersburg had about a month before it would confront the unthinkable: total collapse—it was a fiscal state which Virginia Finance Secretary Ric Brown noted to be unlike anything he had ever observed in his 46 years minding state ledgers in various roles.

In describing its upgrade to a “stable” outlook, Standard and Poor’s states that a “stable” outlook means the rating is unlikely to change. This is a slight improvement from a “negative” outlook. Standard and Poor’s Primary Credit Analyst, Timothy Barrett, said that the city had “taken several key steps toward financial recovery, including repaying a portion of past due obligations in addition to creating a viable plan to strengthening budgetary flexibility and liquidity, supported by some recently adopted financial policies.”

Petersburg Finance Director Blake Rane notes that the improved fiscal outlook will enhance the city’s fiscal “flexibility: It’s clear [the city] has changed trajectory in the past year, to a point where there is no risk beyond what the “BB” already says,” adding: “It’s really hard to move Standard and Poor’s [rating], and get the kind of movement we did.” In its report, Standard and Poor’s noted Petersburg has “taken several key steps toward financial recovery, including repaying a portion of past due obligations in addition to creating a viable plan to strengthening budgetary flexibility and liquidity, supported by some recently adopted financial policies.”

Notwithstanding the good gnus, Petersburg’s leaders recognize this is no time to let up: Despite the good news,  interim Finance Director Nelsie Birch and the other city officials recognize much fiscal effort remains: “It should help the investment community have confidence that the city is moving in the right direction, though we are still non-investment grade credit.” Until the city restores its fund balance, which would require at least $7.7 million dollars, the city’s credit rating will have to await a boost to investment grade—some two notches higher than its current grade—meaning it must pay higher interest rates for capital investment and borrowing than most Virginia municipalities.

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