The Leadership Challenges on the Road to Fiscal and Physical Recovery

September 29, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the fiscal, legal, physical, and human challenges to Puerto Rico; Hartford’s steep fiscal challenges; and Detroit’s ongoing road to fiscal recovery.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

Fiscal Safety Net? The White House yesterday announced President Trump had agreed to waive the Jones Act, which will temporarily lift shipping restrictions on Puerto Rico and enable the hurricane-ravaged island to receive necessary aid; however, the waiver from the shipping law, which mandates that only American-made and-operated vessels may transport cargo between U.S. ports, will only last for 10 days, after which the equivalent of a 20 percent tax will be reimposed. The delayed U.S. response to the save U.S. citizens compared unfavorably to the response to save and protect foreign citizens in Haiti seven years ago, when the U.S. military mobilized as if it were going to war—with the U.S. military, in less than 24 hours, and before first light, already airborne, on its way to seize control of the main airport in Port-au-Prince. Within two days, the Pentagon had 8,000 American troops en route; within two weeks, 33 U.S. military ships and 22,000 troops had arrived. By contrast, eight days after Hurricane Maria ripped across neighboring Puerto Rico, just 4,400 service members were participating in federal operations to assist the devastated U.S. citizens, according to a briefing by an Army general yesterday, in addition to about 1,000 Coast Guard members.

The seemingly inexplicable delay in waiving the Jones Act—temporarily—was due to opposition of the waiver by the Department of Homeland Security, which had argued that a federal agency may not apply for a waiver unless there is a national defense threat (as, apparently, there might have been in Houston and Florida). Sen. John McCain (R-Az.) has, for years, sought to repeal this discriminatory law: The 1920 Jones Act requires that goods shipped between U.S. ports be carried by vessels 1) built in the U.S., 2) majority-owned by American firms, and 3) crewed by U.S. citizens.

Key House and Senate members, since Monday, had been pressing for a one-year waiver from the rules in order to help accelerate deliveries of food, fuel, medical, and other critical supplies to Puerto Rico, especially with current estimates that Puerto Rico could be without power for six months. On Wednesday, 45 U.S. Senate and House Members had signed a letter urging President Trump to appoint a senior general to oversee the military’s aid to Puerto Rico, to deploy the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier, and to increase personnel to assist local law enforcement. U.S. Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D.-N.Y.) warned: “If President Trump doesn’t swiftly deploy every available resource that our country has, then he has failed the people of Puerto Rico – and this will become his Katrina.” The temporary suspension of the onerous and discriminatory Jones law came only in the wake of a fierce backlash against the Trump administration for its inexplicable delay in not immediately lifting the federal law for Puerto Rico, especially after it issued a two-week waiver for Texas and Florida in response to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Nevertheless, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz praised the administration’s decision: she said it could help bring down the cost of emergency medical and other supplies, as well as vital construction materials by nearly 33 percent. Nevertheless, she warned there are still thousands of containers sitting idle at the ports of San Juan, a problem she blamed on “jurisdictional” and bureaucratic issues.

The belated Presidential action came as Puerto Rico continued to suffer the after effects of Hurricane Maria: Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority Executive Director Ricardo Ramos Rodríguez warned it could take PREPA as much as half a year to restore electricity.

Meanwhile, it appears the PROMESA Oversight Board is ready to revise the amount of debt to be paid in the next nine years. The Board is scheduled to meet today in New York City to revise the March-approved fiscal plan: the current Board fiscal plan specifies there should be enough funds to pay approximately 24% of the debt; however, it appears the Board will have little choice today but to revise every fiscal plan. Clearly none of the previous underlying assumptions can hold, and now the Board will have to await the actions and finding of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, while the Treasury Department will have to work with Puerto Rico to settle on a massive restructuring—or, as Puerto Rico House Representative Rafael Hernández Montañez put it: “We can’t have money spent on corporate lawyers and PowerPoint producing technocrats while funding is needed for immediate reconstruction efforts.” While FEMA has committed to paying for 100 percent of the costs of some work, on others, it is mandating a match of 20% to 25% of the costs for other work—a match which appears out of reach for the most savagely damaged municipalities or municipios—now confronted not just by enormous new capital and operating demands, but also by sharply reduced revenues.

Wednesday morning, the PREPA Bondholders Group offered up to $1.85 billion in debtor in possession loans to the authority. According to the group, part of the package would be a new money loan of up to $1 billion. Another part would be their possible acceptance of an $850 million in DIP notes in exchange for $1 billion in outstanding bonds owed to them—or, as the Group noted: “The new funding would allow PREPA to provide the required matching funds under various grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.” In response, PREPA’s Natalie Jaresko said: “We welcome and appreciate the expression of support from creditors…The Board will carefully consider all proposals in coordination with the government, but it is still very early as we begin to navigate a way forward following the catastrophic impact Hurricane Maria had on the island.”

The existing fiscal PREPA plan specifies there should be enough funding to pay about 24% of the debt due over the next decade; that, however, has raised questions with regard to the underlying assumptions of the Board, especially with regard to when FEMA will complete its work on the island.

Rafael Hernández Montañez, a member of Puerto Rico’s House, noted that Hurricane Maria put Puerto Rico’s territory-wide and municipal governments in very difficult financial situations. While FEMA has committed to paying for 100% of the costs of some work, he notes that the federal relief agency is still mandating a government match of 20% to 25% of the costs for other work: “It’s going to be a huge effort to cover that 20% with the government’s unbalanced budget,” adding that the hurricane will also lead to reduced revenues for the local governments.

On Wednesday, 145 U.S. Representatives and Senators signed a letter urging President Trump to appoint a senior general to oversee the military’s aid to Puerto Rico, to deploy the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier, and to increase personnel to assist local law enforcement–the same day as the PREPA Bondholders Group offer. 

The Category 4 Maria destroyed Puerto Rico’s electrical grid; it left the island desperately short of food, clean water, and fuel—and sufficient shipping options, notwithstanding the claim from the Department of Homeland Security that: “Based on consultation with other federal agencies, DHS’s current assessment is that there is sufficient numbers of U.S.-flagged vessels to move commodities to Puerto Rico.” Thus DHS opposed a waiver of the Jones Act (Under the Jones Act federal cabotage rules, the entry of merchandise into Puerto Rico can only be made on US flag and crew ships – the most expensive fleet in the world.), which has been suspended in past natural disasters, to allow less expensive, foreign-flagged ships bring in aid. Former President George W. Bush suspended the Act after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and President Barack Obama suspended it after superstorm Sandy in 2012. In a letter to the Department of Homeland Security, Sen. McCain criticized the department for waiving the Jones Act in the wake of hurricanes Harvey and Irma, but not for Puerto Rico. The Senator, who has long sought a repeal of the Jones Act, noted: “It is unacceptable to force the people of Puerto Rico to pay at least twice as much for food, clean drinking water, supplies, and infrastructure due to Jones Act requirements as they work to recover from this disaster: Now, more than ever, it is time to realize the devastating effect of this policy and implement a full repeal of this archaic and burdensome Act.”  Only the Department of Defense may obtain a Jones Act waiver automatically, which it did to move petroleum products from Texas after Hurricane Harvey. The White House is expected to send Congress a request for a funding package for Puerto Rico in the next few weeks, a senior congressional aide said.

The Road to Hartford’s Default. Citing deep cuts to higher education, sharp reductions in aid to distressed communities, and unsound deferrals of public pension payments, Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy yesterday made good on his pledge to veto the budget that legislature, earlier this month, had adopted, deeming it: “unbalanced, unsustainable, and unwise,” adding his apprehension that were it to be implemented, it would undermine the state’s long-term fiscal stability and essentially guarantee the City of Hartford’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. His veto came as the Governor and top legislators continued bipartisan talks in an attempt to reach a compromise; however, despite legislative attempts to pass a bill to increase the hospital provider tax to 8 percent, a 25 percent increase over the current level, the legislature will not meet today. In his executive order, the Governor allowed key stated services to remain operating; however, he ordered steep cuts to municipalities and certain social service programs: under his orders, approximately 85 communities would see their education cost sharing grants, the biggest source of state funding for public education in Connecticut, cut to zero next month—no doubt a critical element provoking the Connecticut Council of Small Towns, which represents more than 100 of the state’s smallest communities, to seek an override in a special session the week after next in order to avoid local property tax increases. Nevertheless, Gov. Malloy stood strongly against the Republican plan and a potential override, stating: “This budget adopts changes to the state’s pension plan that are both financially and legally unsound…This budget grabs ‘savings’ today on the false promise of change a decade from now, a promise that cannot be made because no legislature can unilaterally bind a future legislature.” He added his apprehensions that the changes proposed to the state’s pension system could expose Connecticut taxpayers to potentially costly litigation down the road: “Prior administrations and legislatures have, over decades, consistently and dangerously underfunded the state’s pension obligations,’’ a strategy, he noted, which he said has led to crippling debt and limited the state’s ability to invest in transportation, education, and other important initiatives. Nonetheless, Republican leaders urged the Governor to sign the two-year, $40.7 billion budget, saying it makes significant structural changes, such as capping the state’s bonding authority and limiting spending. Fiscally conservative Democrats who bolted to the Republican side had criticized a Democratic budget proposal which had proposed new taxes on vacation homes, monthly cellphone bills, and fantasy sports betting, as well as increased taxes on cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, and hotel room rates.

House Republican leader Themis Klarides (R-Derby) warned she and her colleagues will try to override the veto—a steep challenge, as in Connecticut, that requires a two-thirds vote in each chambers, meaning 101 votes in the House and 24 in the Senate. The crucial Republican amendment passed with 78 votes in the House and 21 in the Senate—well short of the override margin in both chambers. The action came as S&P Global Ratings this week lowered Hartford’s credit rating, writing that its opinion “reflects our opinion that a default, a distressed exchange, or redemption appears to be a virtual certainty,” albeit noting that the city could still avoid chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy by restructuring its debts. The agency wrote: “In our view, the potential for a bond restructuring or distressed exchange offering has solidified with the news that both bond insurers are open to supporting such a measure in an effort to head off a bankruptcy filing. Under our criteria, we would consider any distressed offer where the investor receives less value than the promise of the original securities to be tantamount to a default. The mayor’s public statement citing the need to restructure even if the state budget provides necessary short-term funds further supports our view that a restructuring is a virtual certainty.” Hartford’s fiscal plight is, if anything, made more dire by the fiscal crisis of Connecticut, which is still without a budget—and where the Legislature has under consideration a budget proposal from the Governor to slash state aid to the state’s capitol city of Hartford—where the Mayor notes that even were the state to make the payments it owes, Hartford would still be unable to pay its debts—so that S&P dropped the city’s credit rating from B- to C—a four-notch downgrade, writing: “The downgrade to ‘CC’ reflects our opinion that a default, a distressed exchange, or redemption appears to be a virtual certainty.”

The Steep Recovery Road. Almost three years after exiting chapter 9 bankruptcy, Detroit is meeting its plan of debt adjustment, but still confronts fiscal challenges to a full return to the municipal market, even as it nears its exit from Michigan state oversight next year. Detroit’s Deputy Chief Financial Officer and City Finance Director, John Hill, this week noted that while the Motor City recognizes that any debt the city plans to issue will still need a security boost from a quality revenue stream and some enhancement, such as a state intercept, Detroit’s plan of debt adjustment did not assume the need for market access in a traditional and predictable way, without added security layers, for at least a decade. That assessment remains true today, as Detroit nears its third anniversary from its exit from the nation’s largest ever municipal bankruptcy. With chapter 9, Mr. Hill adds: “Everything that we have been able to do since exiting bankruptcy has an attached revenue stream to it: You secure it, and bond lawyers agonize over how that will be protected in the unlikely event of another bankruptcy, because everyone has to ask the question now. Then there is a strong intercept mechanism that goes to a trustee like U.S. Bank where the bondholders now know this is absolutely secure.”

Municipal Market Analytics partner Matt Fabian notes that Detroit continues to struggle with challenges which predate its chapter 9 bankruptcy, adding the city is unlikely to regain an ability to access the traditional municipal markets on its own in the near-to-medium term: “They don’t have traditional reliable access where if they need to go to the market, you can predict with certainty that they will and they will be within a generally predictable spread,” adding that reestablishing its presence in the traditional market is important, because it indicates whether bondholders have confidence in the city as a going concern. In fact, Detroit has adopted balanced budgets for two consecutive years; it is on a fiscal path to exiting Michigan Financial Review Commission oversight, and the city ended FY2016 with a $63 million surplus in its general fund; however, Detroit’s four-year fiscal forecast shows an annual growth rate of only about 1%.

The city’s public pension obligations, mayhap the thorniest issue in cobbling together its plan of debt adjustment, are to be met per its economic plan, via a balloon payment.  Mr. Fabian notes that the Motor City’s recovery plan and future revenue growth is complicated by the need to set aside from surpluses an additional $335 million between Fy2016 and Fy2023 to address that significant, unfunded pension liability, worrying that while the plan is “fiscally responsible;” nevertheless, it comes “at the expense of using these funds for reinvestment and service improvement.”

The plan to address pension obligations is aimed at shoring up the city’s long-term fiscal health and Naglick says it shows the city has recognized the need to tackle it. Detroit developed a long-term funding model with the help of actuarial consultant Cheiron, obtained City Council approval for changes to the pension funding ordinance that established the Retiree Protection Trust Fund, and deposited $105 million into this IRS Section 115 Trust. This fund, said Detriot CFO John Naglick, will grow to over $335 million by 2024 and will provide a buffer to increased contributions beginning then. “More importantly, the growing contributions each year from the general fund to the trust will build budget capacity to make the increased contributions in future years,” he said.

Mayor Mike Duggan claimed during his 2016 State of the City speech that consultants who advised the city through bankruptcy had miscalculated the pension deficit by $490 million. Pension woes aren’t the only challenge the city faces. Fabian said that economic development has been limited to the city’s downtown and midtown areas. The rest of Detroit’s neighborhoods haven’t fared so well.

Dan Loepp, the president and CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, and Gerry Anderson, the Chairman and CEO of DTE Energy, are regarded to be among the important business leaders in Detroit, two key sectors of the Motor City’s economy, who see Detroit’s fiscal and economic trajectory as intertwined with the future of their companies; they  have headquarters in downtown and employ thousands of people including Detroiters—companies which had been making conscious and deliberate investments in the city. Asked recently to offer their perspectives about where Detroit is headed and how to include the many who are left out of the recovery, Mr. Loepp responded: “I’m a native Detroiter, and I lead a company that’s been a business resident of Detroit for nearly 80 years. I remember how uneasy it felt to be in Detroit when the national economy collapsed 10 years ago. It was hard and scary…From then to now, I strongly believe Detroit’s comeback is one of the best stories in America. The downtown is pulsing with growth and action. You’ve got business and residential development that has connected the river to Midtown and is now expanding into neighborhoods.” He added Detroit today is clear of debt and venture capital flowing backed by a city leadership which is “working well together, noting Detroit today is “now positioned to compete and win investment and jobs against any city in the country. All of this is great for Detroit.”

Notwithstanding, he warned that challenges remain: “The bankruptcy, while hard, gave the city’s leadership a clean slate to solve challenges faced by residents. The Mayor and council are working together on issues like lighting, infrastructure, zoning, and demolition…the Mayor, especially, has spent considerable energy advocating for the people of Detroit—doing things like making sure new housing developments hold space for working people of all incomes. This will promote a stronger, more diverse Detroit…Institutional issues, like improving the city’s schools and making neighborhoods safer for city residents, will take time to solve. They will take a constant, steady focus. And they need people within state and local government to work hand-in-hand with people from the neighborhoods to do the tough labor of finding sustainable solutions.” Nevertheless, he cautioned that the Motor City’s recovery is incomplete without participation of the majority: “Detroit can’t truly ‘come back’ if people living in the city are left behind. We need to always make sure there is a focus on people and that we make people a priority. Schools need to be improved. Transit needs to be addressed in a comprehensive way. Employment opportunities and housing need to be part of the master plan.”

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