Post-Chapter 9 Elections–and Post Physical & Fiscal Storms

November 6, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider yesterday’s election results in municipalities we have followed through their fiscal stress or chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, including: Flint, and Detroit, in its first Mayoral election since emerging from chapter 9, Then we turn to the historic municipality of Petersburg, Virginia—a municipality which avoided chapter 9 thanks to state intervention. Finally, we consider U.S. District Court Judge Laura Swain’s approval yesterday of an urgent motion from the government of Puerto Rico and the Fiscal Oversight Board (JSF) that requires all federal funds to be allocated for the tasks of assistance and recovery in the wake of Hurricane Maria, removing said funds from possible use in restructuring the U.S. territory’s restructuring of its public debt.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

In Like Flint. Flint Mayor Karen Weaver yesterday prevailed over City Council member Scott Kincaid in a recall election involving 18 candidates, retaining the city’s proposed 30-year agreement with the Detroit water system, with Mayor Weaver prevailing by a 53-32 percent margin, according to the unofficial results. The recall had arisen from a controversy related to the Genesee County’s garbage contract: Mayor Weaver had pressed for an emergency trash collection contract with the former Rizzo Environmental Services in Macomb County over City Council opposition. The controversy arose because a former trash provider, Chuck Rizzo, and his father have reached plea deals with federal prosecutors and are expected to plead guilty this month for their roles in a wide-ranging public corruption scandal in Macomb County—a scandal which has, so far, led to criminal charges against 17 persons. The recall also came amid Mayor Weaver’s ongoing struggle with the Flint City Council with regard to the approval of a 30-year agreement with the Detroit area Great Lakes Water Authority—with City Council opposition arising from apprehension about increased water rates—and in response to last month’s decision by U.S. District Court Judge David Lawson taking the small city to task for failing to act on an April agreement supported by Mayor Weaver, the State of Michigan, and EPA which would have Flint remain on the Detroit area water system. Flint had been supposed to switch to the regional Karegnondi Water Authority; however, Mayor Weaver’s administration rejected that option, because updating of the Flint water treatment facility had been projected to cost more than $68 million and to consume more than three years to complete. The Flint Council had disregarded Judge Lawson’s decision, and approved a two-year extension of service with the Great Lakes Water Authority. Thus, while the prior agreement with the Detroit area water authority had lapsed, Mayor Weaver, the State of Michigan, the Great Lakes Authority, and other supporters have revived the agreement. Last week, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality had filed an emergency motion asking Judge Lawson to approve giving Mayor Weaver the authority to sign the renewed contract by Election Day, because of the inability of the City Council to act—a request from the state which the Judge rejected; however, he has scheduled a hearing on the motion later this month.

Motor City Victory Lap. Detroit Mayor Duggan was re-elected yesterday by more than a 2-1 margin over challenger State Sen. Coleman A. Young II, son of a former Detroit Mayor. In remarks after the decision, Mayor Duggan  noted: “I have been treated with nothing but warmth and kindness from Detroiters in every neighborhood in the city…I hope that this is the year where we put us-versus-them politics behind us forever because we believe in a one Detroit for all of us.” His opponent, in conceding, claimed he had commenced a movement to help the politically dispossessed: “The campaign might be over, but the passion and values are eternal…We are the voice for the voiceless. We are the hope for the hopeless.” Mayor Duggan, who won a write-in primary campaign in 2013 and then defeated Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon in the general election, thus became the Motor City’s first mayor to serve two terms since Dennis Archer in the 1990’s.  In his campaign, the former CEO of the Detroit Medical Center gained prominent endorsements from city labor unions, clergy, and business groups—he overwhelmed his opponent in fundraising: he secured about $2.2 million; whereas Mr. Young raised just under $39,000. Mayor Duggan, in his victory remarks, noted his campaign had focused on spending “time talking about the vision of what we are going to do in the next four years,” adding: “I thought one of the most profound things President Obama ever said was ‘If you have to divide people in order to get elected, you’ll never be able to govern.’”

In his campaign, Mayor Duggan touted public service improvements under his administration in the wake of the nation’s largest-ever municipal bankruptcy, including new streetlights, improved public safety response, and more dependable bus lines. He said he intends to continue work on building a more unified Detroit—focusing now on a series of efforts to fix up neighborhood corridors, roads, and sidewalks—and stating: “There are haves and have-nots in every city in America. We’re building a city here that it doesn’t matter where you start, you have the opportunity to be successful,” adding that he believe the greatest challenge now confronting Motor City residents will be over automobile insurance reform legislation—referring to legislation rejected by the Michigan House last week, but making clear he does not intend to give up: “We were a lot closer this time than we were two years ago, and we have a plan to get it through the next time: It’s going to be one relationship at a time, one vote at a time, but we’ve already had several meetings with both the medical and the legal community, and I think they realize we were three votes away.” 

The Road Out of State Oversight. The re-election comes at a critical time, as the City expects to have its full municipal fiscal authority restored next spring for the first time since it exited the nation’s largest ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy three years ago—challenging the city’s appointed and elected leaders with the task of resuming governance after the end of state oversight—and as the Mayor and Council resume authority over budgets and contracts. With two balanced budgets and an audit of a third expected next May, city leaders anticipate Detroit will be released early next year from the strict financial controls required under the city’s approved plan of debt adjustment—a key issue during the just completed campaign, where both the Mayor and his challenger had proposed plans with regard to how they would fiscally guide the recovering city—and as Michigan Governor Rick Snyder expressed optimism about the city’s ability to manage its finances, telling the Detroit News: “They’ve been hitting those milestones, and I hope they continue to hit them—that’s a good thing for all of us.”

Indeed, the Motor City’s credit rating has been upgraded; its employment rate is up; assessed property values are climbing. In its financial update last month, the city noted economic development in some neighborhoods and Detroit’s downtown, job creation efforts, and growth in multifamily home construction. Nonetheless, the road to recovery will remain not just steep, but also pot-holed: it confronts very large future payments for past borrowing and public pension obligations under the plan of debt adjustment—or, as our colleague Lisa Washburn of Municipal Market Analytics noted: “It really takes the economic environment to cooperate, as well as some very good and focused financial management. Right now, that seems to be all there…Eventually, I suspect there will be another economic downturn and how that affects that region, that’s something outside of their control. But it can’t be outside of their field of vision.”

Petersburg. In one of the most closely watched municipal elections in Virginia, last night, Gloria Person-Brown, the wife of the current embattled City Treasurer Kevin Brown of Petersburg, was trounced by former City Council member Kenneth Pritchett, with Mr. Pritchett winning by a large margin: he captured more than 70 percent of the vote. In his campaign, stating he had been frustrated by the city’s low credit rating, and by the city’s struggles with collecting revenue and timely payment of bills, Mr. Pritchett vowed he would implement policies and standardize internal controls to improve the office’s operations. Likely, in the wake of a Virginia state fiscal report last September—a report which scrutinized eight specific aspects of city governance and fiscal responsibilities—and contained allegations of theft involving Ms. Person-Brown’s husband, City Treasurer Kevin Brown. Some Council members then had called for his resignation, and even Ms. Person-Brown had distanced herself from her husband’s actions during the election, albeit she did not say he had done anything wrong. Rather she ran on a platform of improving the Treasurer’s services, including instituting more checks and balances, and calling for more accountability.

Stepping in to Help Puerto Rico. U.S. District Court Judge Laura Taylor Swain has approved, with various changes, an urgent motion from the government of Puerto Rico and the PROMESA Fiscal Oversight Board which mandates that all federal funds to be allocated to the country for the tasks of assistance and recovery due to the passage of Hurricane Maria may not be claimed in the process of restructuring the public debt, accepting to the request of the Authority for Financial Supervision and Tax Agency and the JSF during the general hearing held in New York City‒in which it emerged that, in part, the order would restrict the use of disaster assistance funds as a condition of the federal government, so that Puerto Rico can receive assistance: the order will establish that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funds for Puerto Rico following in the wake of Hurricane Maria, as well as funds granted by other federal agencies, will be maintained. Judge Swain granted the order after listening to the arguments of Suzanne Uhland, legal representative of AAFAF, as well as lawyers from municipal insurers and the organized group of General Obligations bondholders (GOs), who underscored the need to incorporate into the order transparency criteria and mechanisms to ensure that some entity such as the JSF has influence in how federal funds granted by the government will be used. Matthew J. Troy, the federal government’s representative in the case, told Judge Swain that to include specific language which would give the Puerto Rican government priority in claiming funds that had been misused by state agencies or public corporations in the Island was indispensable for Puerto Rico to receive funds from the federal government: as part of the order, it would be established that, in the event federal funds were misused, it will be up to the central government to claim these funds from the agency or public corporation which received them from the federal government. Judge Swain has scheduled a follow-up hearing for next Wednesday.

During the hearing, an attorney, Marcia Goldstein, pointed out that it is urgent to know what role if any the Junta de Supervisión y Administración Financiera for Puerto Rico (the JSF) will have with regard to the approval of the contracts for the recovery tasks. The PROMESA law establishes, among other things, that the federal agency has the power to review the contracts granted by the Puerto Rican government or the dependencies subject to the control of the JSF. To date, however, it is uncertain whether the JSF has examined or had influence in the process of hiring dozens of companies which would be responsible for multiple tasks, from infrastructure repair to the audit of federal funds. In an interview with the Puerto Rican El Nuevo Día a little over a week ago, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), in the wake of his visit to Puerto Rico, pointed out that the JSF will have a key role in defining the scope of the aid package that Puerto Rico would need and how such resources would be allocated.

Three Different Roads to Fiscal Recovery

November 6, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the next critical step in Detroit’s emergence from the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history; then we consider the ongoing legal and fiscal recovery of Ferguson, Missouri, before, finally, trying to go to school in Puerto Rico.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

The Road Out of State Oversight. The city of Detroit expects to get the keys back to its financial house this spring for the first time since it exited bankruptcy in 2014. The question is whether it can keep the house in order once state oversight ends — and local elected officials regain control over budgets and contracts. With two balanced budgets and an audit of a third expected in May, city officials anticipate they will be released early next year from the strict financial controls required under Chapter 9 restructuring. The shift is especially important as voters cast ballots Tuesday for the Detroit leaders who will chart the city’s direction. Both Mayor Mike Duggan and challenger Coleman Young II have offered plans on how they would guide the city financially. Gov. Rick Snyder said he is optimistic about the city’s ability to manage finances on its own. “They’ve been hitting those milestones, and I hope they continue to hit them — that’s a good thing for all of us,” Snyder told The Detroit News.

There is evidence that the oversight is no longer warranted: Detroit’s credit has been upgraded among rating agencies, its employment rate is up and property values are climbing. The city, in a financial update last month, noted economic development in some neighborhoods and Detroit’s downtown, job creation efforts and growth in multifamily home construction. Experts say bankruptcy allowed Detroit to drop billions in debt, setting it on a solid financial path. But the city faces massive future payments for past borrowing and pension obligations that are difficult to plan for. “It really takes the economic environment to cooperate, as well as some very good and focused financial management. Right now, that seems to be all there,” said Lisa Washburn, managing director of the Concord, Massachusetts-based firm Municipal Market Analytics. “Eventually, I suspect there will be another economic downturn and how that affects that region, that’s something outside of their control. But it can’t be outside of their field of vision.”

Post-oversight protections. The landmark municipal bankruptcy set forth strict conditions to help Detroit avoid falling back into debt. A nine-member commission, which under the law includes Duggan and City Council President Brenda Jones, currently signs off on the city’s four-year budget plan, certain contracts and transactions. It has also empowered to review, modify and approve operational budgets. The commission was established as a condition of a financial aid package approved by the state Legislature to defray cuts to Detroit retiree pensions and shield the Detroit Institute of Arts collection from bankruptcy creditors. There are still protections even if the city is released from oversight, Detroit officials note. The state-mandated commission would continue to meet monthly and could step back in if necessary, the city’s Chief Financial Officer John Hill said. The city would continue to hold revenue estimation conferences in February and September to set budgeting limits for each fiscal year, as well as develop a four-year financial plan. Detroit’s numbers are headed in the right direction when it comes to property values, income tax collection, median income and employment. Among the positives:

■The city’s taxable value is projected to climb by about $100 million, from $6.4 billion based on the taxable values from the end of the 2016 calendar year to $6.5 billion at the end of this year, according to data from the CFO’s office.

■The city projects an increase of about $30 million in its residential real estate — the first boost in the property class in almost two decades. Detroit’s level of owner-occupied homes went from a low of 59 percent in 2010 to a projected 74 percent in 2018, based on findings from the reappraisal, officials say.

■City figures show income tax collection has gone from $263.2 million in the 2016 fiscal year to a forecast of $285 million for 2017, based on unaudited figures.

■The city’s employment has gone up from 206,568 in January 2014 to 233,068 this July, according to labor statistics.

■Detroiters’ median household income was $28,099 in 2016, a 7.5 percent hike from the previous year, according to U.S. Census estimates released in September.

Not as encouraging are poverty and crime rates. The poverty rate has dipped 4 percentage points to 35.7 percent, Detroit’s lowest since 2008. But the rate is still the highest among large U.S. cities, as is the city’s violent crime rate. “You can’t ignore what’s happening in the downtown and Midtown, but Detroit is obviously so much bigger than that,” said Matt Butler, a vice president at Moody’s Investors Service and lead analyst for Detroit. “The real story here going forward is how is Detroit able to re-create that development in other areas of the city.”

The city filed for bankruptcy in the summer of 2013 and officially exited on Dec. 10, 2014, with a plan to shed $7 billion in debt and pump $1.7 billion into restructuring and city service improvements over a decade. Last month, Moody’s Investors Service upgraded Detroit’s credit outlook and praised the city for its gains. Detroit’s economy “remains vulnerable,” the report noted, but adds it “is showing real progress.” Detroit recorded a general fund surplus of just over $63 million in fiscal year 2016 and expects an additional surplus for 2017 of about $38.5 million. For 2015, the surplus was about $71 million. But Moody’s warns of economic unknowns that could pose future problems, namely the massive contributions that loom for its two pension funds.

A funding plan forged through Detroit’s bankruptcy coined the “grand bargain” relieved the city of much of those payments through 2023. But in 2024, the city will have to start funding a substantial portion of the pension obligations from its general fund for the General Retirement System and Police and Fire Retirement System. The initial payment was first contemplated at $113.9 million, but city officials later said estimates had been off, in part because of outdated mortality tables. If earnings meet the plan of debt adjustment’s assumed return rate of 6.75 percent, the city’s contribution in 2024 would be $167 million. If there are no earnings, it could soar to $344 million or more. Contributions to the pensions would be annual and could continue for 20-30 years. Investment returns have varied greatly. To minimize a shortfall, the city’s administration established a dedicated Retiree Protection Fund that’s expected to pull together $335 million in the coming years to help meet the required contributions. The City Council would contribute a dedicated amount from its general fund each year. So far, $105 million has been set aside. Moody’s has called the fund a “credit positive action,” noting, however, that once it’s depleted in 2033 the city will be required to fund annual pension payments directly from its budget.

Retooling debt structure. CFO Hill notes that today his greatest concern is restructuring the city’s debt, so, last month, the city solicited requests for proposals from investment banks which could help address debt tied to past capital borrowing and millages—or, as Mr. Hill put it: “We think revenues should increase, but if we can also deal with the structure of the debt and lower those payments then the city will be much better off,” said Hill, adding a plan, he said, would “set the city on the course to have dealt with two of its major challenges.” Indeed, the issue of the city’s debt and finance has been, unsurprisingly, an issue in the mayoral campaign, where Mayor Duggan, during a debate, said Detroit’s City Council has been rigorous in making sure that we “watch every dollar that we have,” and he expects the city will be released from state fiscal oversight this spring—adding that, under his administration, “We won’t ever lose self-determination again.” In response, his opponent, Coleman Young, counters that Detroit will not fully regain budget and contract authority back from the state; moreover, he vowed he would, if elected, find efficiencies and reduce costs—and cut what he deemed the “top heavy” staff to manager ratio, adding: “These are some of the things I am willing to do to make sure we have a balanced budget and our finances get back in order.”  “In theory, it would be great to have as much money plowed into redevelopment as possible, but that comes at a cost,” she said. “With less than seven years away from having to start making pension payments again, you don’t want to find yourself in a budgetary hole at a time when you can see it coming.”

Ferguson’s Steep Road to Recovery. Ferguson, Missouri, a small city of about 21,000, which in 2010 was 67.4% black, and 29.3% white, with 8,192 households of which 39.1% had children under the age of 18 living with them, and 31.5% had a female householder with no husband present—and where 32.9% were non-families, is a relatively young municipality: the median age in the city was 33.1 years, while 10.3% were 65 years of age or older. The gender makeup of the city was 44.8% male and 55.2% female. It is a city where the Mayor is directly elected (Mayor James Knowles ran unopposed in 2014 in an election where voter turnout was approximately 12%.) Ferguson is one of 89 municipalities in St. Louis County, where the county police have jurisdiction throughout. It is a city where the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown still weighs.

Last Friday, in Ferguson, as part of a street theater protest, activists set fire to a model depicting the Ferguson Commission report in front of City Hall: it was a demonstration intended to mock political leaders and the city police department’s response to crime and protests in the city. The demonstration came just two weeks after St. Louis police, using a technique called “kettling,” in which exits are blocked in and people are arrested en masse, arrested dozens of protesters, residents, journalists, and legal observers as people protested, for a third day, after former police officer Jason Stockley was found not guilty in the 2011 fatal shooting of Mr. Lamar–and after Mayor Lyda Krewson challenged the city to recommit itself to reforms laid out in the Ferguson Commission report—the nearly 200-page report which had proposed 189 “calls to action,” and marked the culmination of nearly 10 months of work for a commission established by former Gov. Jay Nixon in 2015, in response to the shooting death of Michael Brown, a black teenager, by a white Ferguson police officer—a report in which Commissioners grouped their post-Ferguson calls for action into three categories: Justice for All, involving urgent police and court reforms; Youth at the Center, exploring policies to promote better lives for children; and Opportunity to Thrive, laying out changes to address economic inequalities.

Regional leaders have largely focused on the “Justice for All” component of the report, overhauling municipal court practices such as jailing defendants who could not pay their fines, even as discussion has commenced on strengthening the Civilian Oversight Board, equipping police with body cameras, and developing police policies for using force and for handling public demonstrations. The report also called for improving the public’s relationship with law enforcement through community policing, by encouraging police departments to facilitate better interactions between officers and those they serve, and allowing the public to weigh in on programs and policies through forums. Starsky Wilson, the former co-chair of the Ferguson Commission, in a recent interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, noted that while police accountability and reform has clearly been the starting point for those revisiting the Commission’s findings, he hoped elected leaders would not forget the aspects of the report devoted to building a better St. Louis for the city’s children: “It can’t just be about police. That’s just one piece of the puzzle.”

Nevertheless, the Ferguson protests appear to have produced changes, particularly in Ferguson itself, where new city and police leaders came into power. The state Legislature also passed a municipal reform statute, the most significant element of which lowered the cap on revenue from traffic tickets: It can now only make up 12.5 percent of a city’s general operating revenue in St. Louis County, and 20 percent elsewhere, down from 30 percent. Moreover, municipalities which fail to submit a timely and accurate report on their finances to the state auditor will immediately lose jurisdiction over their courts. (The previous law did little to punish the many courts that ignored the limits.) The impact was swift: Ferguson’s Municipal Court revenue plummeted from $2.7 million in 2014 to roughly $500,000 in 2016.

In St. Louis, Mr. Wilson cites several achievements, including the creation of a Civilian Oversight Board and the decision to raise the city’s minimum wage, both in 2015, though state lawmakers negated the wage effort this year. Meanwhile, other bills have been introduced to address some of the Ferguson Commission’s findings, including a measure being considered by the St. Louis Board of Aldermen limiting when St. Louis police could use pepper spray and tear gas. Sponsoring Alderman Megan Green, 15th Ward, reports she hopes it will serve as a starting point for officials to discuss revising the city’s vague ordinance against unlawful assembly. Asked what changes were made in the city police department in response to the Ferguson report, spokeswoman Schron Jackson said the St. Louis Police Department has begun training officers in de-escalation tactics and how implicit bias may affect their work, as well as how to work with victims of violence who are gay, transgender, and bisexual. These kinds of higher training standards were among recommendations laid out by the Ferguson Commission. Additionally, Ms. Jackson said, the department has launched its Community Engagement and Organizational Development Division, which carries out community outreach programs.

But Mr. Wilson questions these early efforts: “When we see police arrest more than 300 people over 18 days, then we have to ask how seriously the increased training requirements were implemented…and how much culture change is actually happening, around use of force: What were the lessons that were learned surrounding de-escalation?” Allegations that police have improperly used force in recent weeks have already prompted the ACLU to challenge St. Louis police tactics in federal court. They have also sparked conversations at the St. Louis Board of Aldermen about when force should be used—and who should investigate afterward. The aldermanic public safety committee has already interviewed Maj. Mary Warnecke, deputy Commander of the department’s Bureau of Professional Standards, and Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner. Attorney Gardner has pitched the formation of a new unit in her office to investigate use-of-force incidents and officer-involved shootings, arguing that it is no longer acceptable for police to be investigating themselves.

In the long-term, the Ferguson Commission recommended shifting deadly force investigations to the Missouri Highway Patrol and the state attorney general—a recommendation in response to which Gov. Eric Greitens said he was open to considering. City lawmakers, too, are exploring Attorney Gardner’s idea, crafting legislation expanding the circuit attorney’s prosecutorial powers and giving the office the ability to open investigations into police officers’ use of force, according to Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed, who notes that events such as the Stockley verdict can be catalysts for change, if legislators work quickly enough: noting that the creation of a Civilian Oversight Board is proof of that. The Aldermen had attempted to institute an oversight board in 2006, but the bill, which included subpoena power, was vetoed by former Mayor Francis Slay. Ferguson finally opened the door for its creation, President Reed said, but subpoena power did not have the requisite support to make it into the final product. With the continued unrest, a new mayor and a more open-minded board, Mr. Reed sees a window of opportunity to revisit subpoena power: “I see a readiness for people now to step outside of what I would call their normal comfort zone and support efforts that probably in a normal state they would be a little more hesitant to support.” Mayor Krewson supports providing subpoena power to the city’s Civilian Oversight Board, which investigates complaints against police, and has said she agrees with community leaders who have demanded local police change how they handle use-of-force investigations and prosecutions. She also has committed to establishing a Racial Equity Fund, a proposed 25-year city fund dedicated to promoting racial equity in the region. “I know I don’t have the decision-making power across all of these things, but I am committed to adding my political will to the push to find the right way to get those things done,” Mayor Krewson said after the first week of protests over Stockley. One thing the Mayor says she has the power to do immediately is oust interim Police Chief Lawrence O’Toole, who declared police “owned the night” after law enforcement used a technique called “kettling” to surround and arrest more than 100 people on a single evening. She has shown no indication that she will act before the chief hiring process plays out.  “We have all the answers we need in the report. The road map exists. The longer (Krewson) chooses not to act, the longer our city hurts,” said Charli Cooksey, a catalyst with the Forward Through Ferguson advocacy group. ‘Not a short-term endeavor.’ There may be a long road ahead in making changes laid out in the report a reality, but leaders have pointed to some encouraging signs. Wilson says he has noticed a more diverse group of people engaging in disruption this time, suggesting that people understand the problems don’t amount to “black people’s issues” alone. “These are justice issues. Racial inequity harms the entire region and all people,” he said.

Forward Through Ferguson, the advocacy group that grew out of the Ferguson Commission, plans to knock on as many as 4,000 doors to get feedback before kicking off a series of policy campaigns next spring. “It’s not a short-term endeavor,” Ms. Cooksey said: “Diverse stakeholders in the region have to be committed to this for years to come.” But those inspired to run for office after the events of Ferguson, such as Rasheen Aldridge, a former Ferguson commissioner and now 5th Ward Democratic Committeeman, contend that new leaders have emerged at the state and local levels who have a better understanding of why young people have been protesting in recent weeks. “We have new people at the table, folks who are for the people, who haven’t been bought out and who haven’t been around for a while,” Aldridge said: “They’re willing to do the work.”

Learning about Fiscal & Physical Recovery. The Department of Education of Puerto Rico expects to open 80 percent of the 1,113 public schools on the island next Monday after having relaxed the criteria to enable the schools by the pressure of parents, mothers and students who demand a return to normalcy. Through twitter, the Department of Education published the list of schools that will open. The slowness in the process of resumption of classes on the island has been criticized by parents, educators, and even legislators who complain that six weeks after the passage of hurricane Maria on the island, only 152 schools have been opened (13 percent of the total) in the educational regions of San Juan, Ponce, Mayagüez and Bayamón. Groups of parents and teachers have held protests; the Federation of Teachers of Puerto Rico (FMPR) has called for a massive demonstration for November 9th to press for the opening of closed schools.  Members of the school community claim that many of the schools are able to operate, with water, no debris, or damage that poses a danger to students, but have not been opened. Even a mother of a special education student started a hunger strike against the DE in Hato Rey to demand that classes be resumed at the Urban Elementary School in Guaynabo, because the prolonged closure is having adverse effects on her child’s health: “Children of special education, when you take away their world, when you take away their school, you take away their therapies, you are leaving them unarmed. It is another hurricane that is reaching them: “I am seeing my daughter break down day by day, I am seeing my daughter who has started to attack herself, something that five years ago she did not do.”

The criticism focuses on the slowness of the work of the US Army Corps of Engineers and a company that contracted to inspect the schools and certify that they do not represent a danger to students and that they have water service, they are free of debris and fumigated. Most the the re-opened schools are without electricity: even the education unions FMPR and National Union of Educators and Education Workers (Unete) maintain that the limited opening of schools could be part of a supposed plan to close schools and eliminate teacher positions, something which had been happening before the impacts of hurricanes Irma and Maria, when Puerto Rico’s public education system had, after severe budget cuts, closed 167 schools—and suffered a decline of some 44,000 students. To date, some 800 schools which have been inspected, but there are still another 300—leaving Education Secretary Keleher to describe her frustration with the “slowness of the inspection process,” and that the Department will not use the Corps of Engineers or the CSA private firm for these works. The Secretary added that there are about 44 schools which will not open because of structural damage; she noted that for schools that will not open, “We are going to relocate that population or to bring them a temporary school, which is like a wagon.”

The Human & Fiscal Challenges of Recovery

November 3, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the ongoing fiscal recovery of Michigan municipalities; the City of Detroit’s efforts to upgrade the quality of rental housing, and the ongoing fiscal and human plight of the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

Royal R-O-L-A-I-D-S. Michigan State officials Wednesday released Royal Oak Township, a suburb of Detroit and a charter township of Oakland County with a population as of the 2010 census of 2,419, from its consent agreement, with Michigan Treasurer Nick Khouri stating the Oakland County township is now free of the fiscal agreement under which the state placed it three years ago to resolve a financial emergency: “I am pleased to see the significant progress Royal Oak Charter Township has made under the consent agreement…Township officials went beyond the agreement and enacted policies that provide the community an opportunity to flourish. I am pleased to say the township is released from its agreement and look forward to working with them as a local partner in the future.” He added that progress has been made since 2014 to resolve issues that led to a financial emergency for the Oakland County community, for example, noting that today the township has a general fund balance of $920,000 instead of a deficit—and that police and fire services are improved. Township Supervisor Donna Squalls says the community has been able to work with the state and “enact reforms to ensure our long-term fiscal sustainability. Royal Oak Township’s financial emergency resulted in an assets deficit of nearly $541,000 for its 2012 budget year. Township Supervisor Donna Squalls noted: “Royal Oak Charter Township is in better shape than ever: The collaboration between state and township has provided an opportunity to enact reforms to ensure our long-term fiscal sustainability.” For his part, State Treasurer Khouri noted the township was the last remaining Michigan municipality operating under a fiscal consent agreement: over the last two years, Wayne County, Inkster, and River Rouge were released from consent agreements in response to fiscal and financial improvements and operational reforms. The Treasurer stated only three communities: Ecorse, Flint, and Hamtramck remain under state oversight through a Receivership Transition Advisory Board.

Protecting the Motor City’s Renters. The Detroit City Council this week voted unanimously to update its rental regulations, am update which included the enactment of rules to bar landlords from collecting rent on units which have not passed city inspections. Under the current ordinance, housing units are supposed to be registered and have passed city inspections by obtaining a certificate of compliance prior to being available for rental purposes; however, before they can be rented out. However, city officials admit they have permitted most landlords to ignore those rules for more than a decade—rules adopted to ensure compliance with safety regulations, especially lead poisoning prevention efforts, for which inspections are a part of obtaining a certificate of compliance. Or, as Councilman Andre Spivey put it: “We hope it will improve the quality of life in our neighborhoods and entire city.” However, some landlords have claimed that enforcing inspections with the threat of rent being withheld would discourage the incentive to provide rental housing opportunities in the city—already a challenge because of apprehensions about crime and the quality of public schools—with some even vowing to sue the city. Last year, just 4,174 addresses were registered and inspected—less than 3 percent of the Motor City’s estimated 140,000 rental units—and more than 20 percent below the number registered a decade ago. Indeed, last year, the Detroit News reported that only one of every 13 eviction cases was filed on an address legally registered with the city—with the paper reporting that families facing eviction in homes that were never inspected by the city and had numerous problems, including: lack of heat, hazardous electric systems, missing windows, and rodent infestation.

Under the updated regulations, to be phased in over the next six months, tenants who live in rentals which have not passed city inspections would be given the option to could put their rent in an escrow account for 90 days. If the landlord, by the end of such period, had failed to obtain a city certificate, the renter will be able to keep the money. Subsequently, a tenant would be permitted to continue to put rent in escrow if the landlord does not comply, while the city would hire a third-party company to manage the escrow fund. The new escrow provision will be phased in, and each neighborhood will have different deadlines. Renters who are escrowing their payments will also have the right to “retain possession of the rental property,” according to the updated regulations.

A Motor City of Dreams? Meanwhile, yesterday, Renu Zaretsky, writing for the Tax Policy Center, “Transformational Brownfield of Dreams in a Motor City,” about the role of fiscal tax policy in revitalizing two Michigan cities, noted that the city’s famed Renaissance Center had been constructed to revitalize Detroit in the wake of the 1967 riots—with Henry Ford II, in 1971, convincing dozens of businesses to invest in the $350 million project; however, she noted: the hoped-for transformation never took place, leading to the collapse of the Center’s assessed property value—and crushing hopes for the city’s fiscal revival. Yet, today, Detroit and the state of Michigan seem poised to invest half a trillion dollars to try once again to revitalize the recovering downtown—a downtown in which developer Dan Gilbert, the founder of Quicken Loans, is investing to transform via 3.2 million square feet of office, residential, and retail space, including a skyscraper and 900 apartments—albeit, Mr. Gilbert is seeking tax incentives to support the effort, claiming taxpayer subsidies are “essential,” for not only this project, but also other investment in the city. Under his proposal, he would to put up a total of $1.9 billion, with about $500 million up-front: in return, he is seeking the leverage of additional funding from a newly amended state tax incentive program—under which he anticipated some $557 million over the next three and a half decades, based on new state legislation Gov. Rick Snyder signed last summer to amend the state’s Brownfield Redevelopment Financing Act of 1996: under the state’s current statute, brownfield developers could recoup limited construction costs (such as demolition, site preparation, and infrastructure improvements) via tax increment financing; however, under his new proposal, the state would directly subsidize construction costs that directly benefit an eligible property—with the municipal bonds backed by Michigan state sales and income taxes generated during on-site construction, as well as 50 percent of state income and withholding taxes from those who will live and work on the sites in the future, as well as the added property tax revenue. The Detroit Brownfield Redevelopment Authority would issue municipal bonds to finance the project, with the bond payments secured by some $229.6 million in property tax revenues, $18.2 million from construction site state income taxes, $1.6 million from city income taxes, and $307.9 million from state income taxes paid by future workers and residents. She notes that Mr. Gilbert promises this project would attract 2,122 residents who would pay monthly rents ranging from $2,287 to $3,321 and create 8,500 direct permanent jobs, including 5,400 office jobs paying an annual average of $85,000 and 1,700 retail and service positions paying $25,000—with Michigan reimbursed via captured state and municipal income taxes over the next two decades.  

As we have noted—and she writes: this is a fiscal dare: notwithstanding its fiscal recovery, the Motor City still has the highest rate of concentrated poverty among the 25 most populous metro areas in the U.S.; its median household income is about $26,000; and its unemployment rate was 9.6% in July. That is: this is a gamble in an area in the downtown where—on the day Detroit filed for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, the hotel clerk told me it was unsafe for me to walk to the Governor’s Detroit offices—about a half mile away—to meet with Kevin Orr on his very first morning as the Governor’s appointed Emergency Manager. Now, nearly a decade later, the fiscal challenge—and risk—is whether new state tax expenditures which benefit developers could succeed in boosting Detroit’s recovering revenues.

Physical & Fiscal Destruction. Hurricane Maria left no equina or corner of Puerto Rico untouched: the cataclysmic storm meted out systemic physical and fiscal devastation to the U.S. territory and to the lives and livlihoods of its 3.4 million American citizens. This morning, more than five weeks later, too many residents still lack safe and clean drinking water, access to food, and communications. Power, and transportation links are only partially restored. While tens of thousands of public servants and volunteers are now hard at work restoring those essential needs and unblocking constraints from logistics to information flow, the contrast with the federal responses in Houston and Florida have become even more stark. It means Puerto Rico’s leaders face two simultaneous challenges: addressing people’s most urgent physical needs, and laying the foundations for the direction of the medium- and long-term recovery and reconstruction efforts ahead.

In a way similar to Detroit, Puerto Rico confronts a legacy of debt and economic uncertainty, but, as we have noted above; the physical and fiscal devastation might offer a historic opportunity to reimagine Puerto Rico’s future. Yet, how the island’s fiscal and physical reconstruction is conceived and implemented will determine the future of the island: it will be the architecture of Puerto Rico’s physical and civic infrastructure for the next half century, or, as Puerto Rico’s Economic Secretary Manuel Laboy said recently: “We have this historic opportunity: Instead of going with incremental changes, we can go and push the envelope to really transform the infrastructure. That is the silver lining opportunity that we have.” After all, Hurricane Maria exacerbated the considerable challenges already confronting Puerto Rico: a massive public finance debt crisis and migration flows which have witnessed a dramatic outflow of the island’s population: an outflow of more than 10%–but an unbalanced 10%, as the outflow has been characterized disproportionately by being both younger and more educated, meaning Puerto Rico has disproportionately greater low-income and elderly citizens in need of greater fiscal assistance, even as those most valuable to a vibrant economy has become smaller.

The fiscal and human challenge, this, will be for its leaders not to employ the paper towels thrown at them by President Trump, but rather to leverage its considerable natural assets: its central location in the Caribbean region, its hard-working and resourceful residents, its mostly mild climate, and its development-friendly topography. Indeed, many agencies involved in the reconstruction are rightly conducting a “needs assessment” to align their aid efforts. Equally important to medium- and long-term reconstruction is an “asset map” to ensure that Puerto Rico’s strengths, resources, and opportunities are taken into account when imagining the future potential of the island. At the same time, as part of rebuilding, its leaders will need to anticipate that global warming means that more category 4 and 5 storms are certain in the future—so that rebuilding what was is not a constructive option: there will have to be innovation to creating a resilient infrastructure for power, water and sanitation, communications and transportation.

But, again as in Detroit, the physical, governance, and fiscal reform process which Puerto Rico’s new administration has promised must remain front and center: how can Puerto Rico restore its own fiscal and political solvency—a challenge hardly enhanced in the wake of criticism of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority’s (PREPA) now-canceled contract with Whitefish Energy Holdings: the territory must create transparent budgets and plans with regard to how recovery funding is allocated—as well as complete its exploration how citizen panels and consultations to review different design options and careful procurement, oversight, and reporting mechanisms can earn respect and support—not only from its citizens and taxpayers, but also from the PROMESA Oversight Board: a transparent procurement system which can assess the myriad offers that will come in to ensure that the legacies created are cost-effective and the best options for the people and the island. 

Puerto Rico’s Municipalities or Muncipios. Unsurprisingly, the fiscal crisis which has enveloped most of Puerto Rico’s municipalities has multiplied after the passage of Hurricane Maria. The economic burden to respond to the emergency situation has undermined efforts to refills depleted coffers, meaning that the municipal executives of the Popular Democratic Party (PDP), grouped under the Association of Mayors, have not ruled out imposing austerity measures in addition to those applied last year—or, as Association President Rolando Ortiz, the Mayor of Cayey, put it:I am sure that all municipalities are exposed to having to reduce working hours or eliminate places permanently, because we are all exposed to lack of income.” According to reports from El Nuevo Día from last August, some 15 municipalities had to cut working hours of their employees—in some municipalities up to 50%, including in the towns of Vieques, Toa Baja, Las Piedras, and Cabo Rojo. The physical and fiscal devastation comes in the wake of fiscal declines of the municipalities in the past decades after assuming burdens imposed by the Commonwealth, such as mandated increases in contributions to the Retirement Systems, the subsidy to the Government Health Plan, and the reduction in the government contribution. Even though the municipalities have been unable to generate specific data on the economic impact that the municipalities have suffered in the wake of Maria’s impact, Mr. Ortiz emphasized that the blow has been severe: the mayors have had to assume recovery and first response tasks which were not budgeted, such as the collection and disposition of debris and the purchase and supply of diesel and gasoline. Notwithstanding that some of the funds will be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), such funding will not represent an automatic improvement in the coffers. As Mr. Ortiz notes: “Before the hurricanes Irma and María, 40 municipalities were about to close their operations. With this impact we have had, we have almost two months of zero commercial economic activity…it makes the fiscal situation precarious.” One of the most serious fiscal claims of the mayors has been for the return of $ 350 million in revenue from contributions that the central government has proposed to cut to municipal assistance in the next fiscal year—with the Mayors meeting yesterday in San Juan to discuss the economic and social situation of each of the associated municipalities in the wake of the storms, where they agreed that the urgency of water and food supplies and the restoration of basic services persists—and that they could not “validate” the claim of Puerto Rico’s Aqueduct and Sewer Authority that 82 percent of subscribers have service. Mayor Marcelo Trujillo of Humacao noted: “If electricity does not arrive, the municipality will go bankrupt, given the case that we depend on 13 industries, trade, and hospitals that we have that are working halfway,” adding that some of the businesses in his city which are open, are only partly operating—while the municipality’s largest shopping center remains shuttered—depriving the community of tax revenues, earned income, and hop—and meaning, as he reported, that the municipality has been unable to restore operations, because the Casa Alcaldía (town hall) suffered damages that prevent work from there. 

His colleague, the Mayor of Comerío, José A. Josian Santiago, noted: “As of July 1 of next year, my budget goes down from 60 percent from $10 million to $4 million, which would mean that, at this time of crisis, I have to leave 200 employees out of a total of 300. How am I going to operate? How will I respond to the emergency?” He noted that the current situation of Comerío is complicated, because, in addition to the lack of basic services, citizens have no way to obtain money for the purchase of food and basic necessities, because banks and ATM’s are closed: “It is a fatigue for my team, as for the people, to be every day trying to survive. A country cannot establish that as a condition of life. There is no way to sentence the communities of our municipalities to survive every day.”

The Price of Solvency. Even as Puerto Rico is struggling to recover without anything comparable to the federal assistance rendered to Houston and Florida, the PROMESA federal oversight board has given the U.S. territory about seven weeks to revise its financial recovery plan to account for the devastating damage suffered in Hurricane Maria, raising the possibility the territory will need to impose deeper losses on owners of its $74 billion debt. The panel earlier this week mandated that Puerto Rico will need to seek approval for any contract over $10 million, significantly expanding its supervision—a step taken in the wake of PREPA’s decision to grant a critical $300 million rebuilding contact to a small Montana company which had just two full-time employees before beginning its work in Puerto Rico. With Maria wreaking an estimated $95 billion in physical devastation, Puerto Rico’s municipal bonds have tumbled on speculation that investors will be forced to accept even steeper concessions than previously anticipated: the territory’s main operational account, which receives most of its public funds and covers most of its expenses, is now projected to report a deficit of $2.4 billion by the end of this year—a deficit exploded not just by the storm devastation, but also by Maria’s toll on the government’s tax collections—or, as PROMESA Board Executive Director Natalie Jaresko put it: “The devastation has affected millions of lives, decimated critical infrastructure, made revenue collections almost impossible…In light of this new reality, we must work urgently towards revising the certified fiscal plans.” The commonwealth and PREPA have been ordered to submit to the federal board their updated fiscal plans by Dec. 22nd. It is unclear, however, whether the PROMESA Board has fully taken into account the demographic changes caused by the physical storm: The revisions need to take into account the anticipated population loss because of Maria, with Hunter College’s Center for Puerto Rican Studies estimates Puerto Rico will lose 14 percent of its population by 2019 because of the storm.

Director Jaresko told the PROMESA Board the hurricane left several variables that will affect the amount of revenues available and spending that will be necessary in the next few years, meaning that the territory’s fiscal recovery plan should show that structural balance should be achieved by FY2022, so that, according to the schedule discussed by the Board, it will seek draft fiscal plans from the commonwealth government, PREPA, and the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority by Dec. 22nd, aiming to have approved fiscal plans for these entities by Ground Hog Day. The Board plans to adopt certified plans by March 16th, after holding two public meetings in Puerto Rico and one in New York City to receive public comment on the revision to the fiscal plans: these are tentatively scheduled for Nov. 16, 28, and Dec. 4.