The Stark Challenge of Transferring Governmental Responsibility in the Wake of Devastation

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January 31, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the abrupt decision to cease emergency federal relief efforts vital to Puerto Rico’s physical and fiscal recovery.

Post Storm Fiscal & Physical Misery. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) yesterday announced it will “officially shut off” aid, including supplies of food and water in Puerto Rico this week. To date, the agency has supervised the distribution of more than 30 million gallons of drinking water and 60 million meals to its inhabitants. The Puerto Rico FEMA Director, Alejandro De La Campa, stated: “The reality is that we just need to look around. Supermarkets are open, and things are going back to normal.” In response, Mayor Carmen Maldonado of Morovis, a muncipio in the central mountains which was among Puerto Rico’s most devastated—and where a bridge collapse sequestered thousands of residents from access to FEMA assistance, including food, fuel, water, and medicine. The municipality’s elderly and ailing residents thus lost access to medical treatment. Thus, unsurprisingly, where power is only available to 20 percent of the U.S. citizens, FEMA’s announcement appears premature.

The FEMA announcement appeared to blindside Puerto’s Rico’s leaders and citizens—with the government having stated it was still in talks with FEMA on a timetable for assuming control of food and water distribution. For its part, the federal agency, which deemed its emergency operation the longest sustained distribution of food, fuel, and water in FEMA’s history, including more than $1.6 billion worth of food and more than $361 million worth of water, nevertheless declared all shipments of food and water will officially stop today; FEMA made clear it has stockpiled more than 46 million liters of water, 2 million Meals Ready to Eat, and 2 million snack packs on the ground for distribution if needed, noting: “The commercial supply chain for food and water is re-established, and private suppliers are sufficiently available that FEMA-provided commodities are no longer needed for emergency operations,” while Héctor M. Pesquera, the Secretary of Public Safety for Puerto Rico, who is also the commonwealth’s coordinating officer, said the transition period for local authorities to take over distribution should last at least two weeks: “The Government…is waiting for critical data provided by FEMA in order to determine when the responsibilities should be transferred from FEMA to the Government of Puerto Rico…” a statement seeming to make clear that the abrupt FEMA action was neither coordinated with Puerto Rico: “[W]e were not informed that supplies would stop arriving, nor did the Government of Puerto Rico authorize this action,” albeit noting that conditions “in most areas have improved and many economic indicators are showing that recovery is underway.”

FEMA spokesman William Booher said FEMA would “continue to support any documented needs and will provide supplies to volunteer agencies and other private nonprofit organizations…working with households in rural, outlying areas to address ongoing disaster-related needs as power and water is gradually restored.” The federal disaster relief agency still has about 5,000 personnel in Puerto Rico—and states it is prepared to restart food and water shipments should the need arise. Nevertheless, the abrupt departure, unmentioned in the State of the Union Address last night, came as San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, who was in attendance at the President’s address in Washington last night, reacted to the decision on Twitter, asking in Spanish: “Seriously, are they leaving?…This is the kind of indifference that must be stopped,” adding that some schools outside San Juan still have no water, power, or even supplies of milk; nearly half a million power utility customers remained without electricity as of last week, according to the power authority.

Last month, representatives of Puerto Rico’s Emergency Management Agency and FEMA had met with Mayors across the U.S. territory to assess urgent food and water needs, and yesterday FEMA reported nine regional staging areas which it had established to distribute food and water to Puerto Rico’s 78 muncipios will remain open—an important decision, as many outlying, rural, smaller muncipios still confront serious problems with access to food and water—especially in the more mountainous regions, where many remain without power, potable water, and, in some instances, even main roads. A key concern is for Puerto Rico’s elderly—those increasingly left behind by the exodus of the young and educated to the mainland: these citizens today have to face a drive of 30 to 40 minutes just to get to a store—a pre-Maria drive which used to take 5 to 10 minutes—but which has been much more challenging for seniors who must depend on others for transportation.

Puerto Rico’s Migratory Challenges

January 30, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the migratory challenges to Puerto Rico’s fiscal recovery.

Post Storm Fiscal & Physical Misery. Puerto Rico’s legislature has passed and sent legislation to Gov. Ricardo Rosselló for his signature to authorize the U.S. territory to lend capital to the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) and the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority to handle imminent cash shortfalls (as of February last year, PREPA had $9 billion of debt and PRASA had $4.6 billion of debt). The intent is to avert any potential financing outage next month—an outage of further apprehension because of the efforts on the mainland to lure Puerto Ricans for employment opportunities on the mainland: the South Carolina Department of Corrections, seeking to fill 650 vacant positions, has erected billboard ads in Puerto Rico offering relocation assistance and salaries as much as $35,000 annually—plus overtime and benefits. Another company, Bayada Home Health Care, has been advertising available positions on Facebook: the company reports the response has been so strong that it had to take down its ads. Given an unemployment rate, according to the U.S. Labor Department, rising over 10 percent at the end of last calendar year in Puerto Rico compared to the mainland, where the unemployment rate was falling below 5 percent, the allure of emigrating is understandable.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s latest American Community Survey—even though outdated in the wake of post-Hurricane Maria migration, approximately 320,000 Puerto Ricans live in central Florida, with a significant percentage arriving recently: the post-Maria migration could mean an outflow of an additional 114,000 to 213,000 each year for the next two years, according to the to the Center for Puerto Rican Studies in New York City, whose researchers from the Climate Impact Lab estimated the impact of Hurricane Maria, using an econometric model of the costs of cyclones over the past 60 years and applied it to the pre-storm economic conditions in Puerto Rico: “Maria could lower Puerto Rican incomes by 21 percent over the next 15 years—a cumulative $180 billion in lost economic output,” concluding that “Maria could be as economically costly as the 1997 Asian financial crisis was to Indonesia and Thailand and more than twice as damaging as the 1994 Peso Crisis was to Mexico—but this time on American soil.”

The allure of emigrating is demonstrated by estimates from the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, which has estimated that in the period from 2017 to next year as many as 470,335 Puerto Ricans will leave for the mainland—the equivalent of approximately 14 percent. More critically, however, those that are living appear, disproportionately, to be those who can afford to: the Center estimates “Maria could lower Puerto Rico incomes by 21 percent over the next 15 years,” an amount the equivalent to $180 billion in foregone economic output—leading the Center to write: “Hurricane Maria has accelerated this propensity to a point where we can refer to the depopulation of Puerto Rico as one of the most significant hurdles for future economic recovery.” The Center’s data makes clear, moreover, that it is the young and employable who are emigrating: overwhelmingly, it is the seniors who are being left behind—raising, unsurprisingly, increasing questions with regard to pension and health care implications as revenues will fall.

Unequal and/or Inequitable Fiscal & Physical Responses

January 29, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the seemingly unending physical and fiscal challenges to Puerto Rico’s fiscal and   physical recovery.

Post Storm Fiscal & Physical Misery. Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s proposed privatization of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority faces opposition from local political leaders; thus, it may prove to be a tough sell to potential investors: the proposal, which the Governor has presented to privatize PREPA, the public utility burdened with some $8.2 billion of municipal bond debt—and the utility which the PROMESA Oversight Board has put into a Title III bankruptcy process, creating potential hurdles for any plan to alter its ownership, notwithstanding that Board members have expressed support for the idea. For his part, Puerto Rico House Minority Leader Rafael Hernández Montañez said he thought Governor Rosselló was seeking to distract people from his problems with his PREPA privatization proposal: “It’s a way of taking off the heat, on the re-energization of the houses and stores.” That is to write that the Gov. understands that neither the Puerto Rico House nor Senate will approve his proposal—so, Minority Leader Montañez asserts he is just posturing for public support, he said. Members of Gov. Rosselló’s own party in the legislature; moreover, appear to be opposed. Nevertheless, as part of the Title III PROMESA quasi-chapter 9 bankruptcy, parts of the utility appear certain candidates for sale–albeit, this would be a decision made by Judge Laura Taylor Swain—not Governor Rosselló.  

Moreover, there is apprehension that the Governor’s governance proposal would be unlikely to generate any support from investors, either: Tom Sanzillo, Director of Finance at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, noted: “We fail to see how any investor would put money into Puerto Rico with a regulatory system like that proposed by Gov. Rosselló: “He appoints and can fire board members at will. Under the current system, board members have staggered, fixed terms, and can only be fired for cause…This means the whim of every new Governor sets rules and contracts. This makes energy investing highly risky, contracts uncertain, and a politicized investment environment.” Indeed, Tomás Torres, Project Director at the Institute for Competitiveness and Sustainable Economy, believes the Puerto Rico Energy Commission’s oversight should be strengthened, and it should implement any transformation of PREPA.

Jose Rossi Coughlin, Chairman of the Institute for Competitiveness and Sustainable Economy has expressed apprehension about any interruption of key regulatory processes, much less permitting each new Governor to select all commission members when she or he assumes elected office—noting that is not only contrary to widely prevailing mainland U.S. practice, but also likely legally incompatible with Title V of PROMESA. For his part, Mr. Torres notes that with the Governor’s submission, last week, of a bill to eliminate the Energy Commission and substitute in its place a Public Service Commission (which would merge Telecom, Transportation & Public Services, and the Energy Commission), the “The three commissions/boards that are to be merged in this new body add to 15 commissioners, but the new boards will only be of three members…“The recently proposed Energy Commission reorganization and consolidation with other public service regulation would be a huge step backward.”

Moody’s Investor Service was not quite as pessimistic, writing: “The [proposed] privatization itself is positive, because it is another source of capital to help solve PREPA’s fiscal problems; however, there are still challenges; including negotiating a price in an environment of declining Puerto Rico population, investing in rebuilding aging infrastructure, and how PREPA’s pension liability will be handled. The 18-month timeline appears quite aggressive.” For its part, the PREPA Bondholders Group said they would support a “private operator” to “immediately” take over operations, subject to the Puerto Rico Energy Commission oversight. Indeed, in statement sent out by Gov. Rosselló’s office, some representatives of Puerto Rico’s business community indicated their support for the proposal, with Nelson Ramírez of the United Center of Retailers, noting: “The announced changes will allow Puerto Rico to become a competitive jurisdiction, ending a monopoly that discourages investment and the creation of jobs,” albeit, as Puerto Rico Senate Minority Leader Eduardo Bhatia Gautier said, the proposal was a step in the right direction but that “the devil is in the details.”  Leader Bhatia-Gautier, a co-founder and former editor of the Stanford Journal of Law and Policy, with previous service as a law clerk at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston, as well as Chief of Staff for the resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico in the U.S. Congress, is the 15th president of the Senate of Puerto Rico, where he has focused on the U.S. Territory’s fiscal system and authored a comprehensive energy reform law. Now, he asserts that Puerto Rico’s electrical system should be decentralized into 20 to 25 micro grids, and believes that, with federal assistance, Puerto Rico should try for widespread installation of solar panels on rooftops. Nevertheless, as he notes: even though the Governor and the Puerto Rico legislature will privatize PREPA, the reality is that Judge Swain will have to be involved.

Power to the Muncipio? Jayuya Mayor Jorge L. González Otero, a muncipio founded in 1911, at a time it featured a population of around 9,000, was certain that power would be restored to close to 10,000 residents of his northwest coast municipality of around 88,000, on Saturday. Some 35% of residents in Arecibo do not currently have electricity, he reported, albeit, he said he had received word from PREPA that one of the region’s substations, Charco Hondo, would receive a generator from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to power a temporary micro grid while repairs on the substation continue. The muncipio, which, at its founding, was separated from the larger cities of the coasts with little to no communication: it was the site of the Jayuya uprising in 1950, in which the Nationalists commenced a revolt against the U.S. Government, when a social worker, Doris Torresola, and her cousins led the group into the town square and gave a speech, declaring Puerto Rico an independent republic. Subsequently, the police station was attacked, telephone lines cut, and the post office burned to the ground. The Nationalists held the town for three days, until it was bombed by U.S. planes, which were supporting a ground attack by the Puerto Rican National Guard. Even though an extensive part of the town was destroyed, however, news of the bombing was not reported outside of Puerto Rico. Today, unsurprisingly, the Mayor notes: “Four months is way too much time for people in Puerto Rico to not have energy. All of us, the representatives, the mayors, the people, the senators, have to raise our voices to get things done.”

In fact, last month, he had reached an agreement with PREPA to temporarily restore power by means of the micro grid: last Saturday, the Mayor planned to tour the substation with PREPA’s interim director, Justo González, as the generator was being installed. However, in another example of the dysfunction which has plagued Puerto Rico’s recovery, there was no sign of the generator, nor even PREPA’s interim director at the Charco Hondo substation—meaning thousands of Arecibo’s residents remained in darkness, just like nearly one-third of all Puerto Ricans: more than one million U.S. citizens—darkness wherein there is no remote contemplation of when power might be restored: a spokesperson for PREPA told BuzzFeed News that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was overseeing the project and providing the generator. A Corps spokesperson indicated that after a second inspection of the site, the Corps had determined there was too much damage to the nearby power lines to allow the generator to be safely switched on as planned; rather, he said contractors will “begin installing” the generator over the weekend, but that it will not become operational, albeit the Corps is unable to provide “definitive time” when it will.

Renogiaciones. The Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority reports that Puerto Rico’s decision to renegotiate its public debt will cost at least $ 800 million over five years, with FAFAA, relying on an expensive cadre of attorneys, consultants, and financial advisors who have been recruited as part of an effort to cobble together a quasi-plan of debt adjustment which would reduce more than $ 70 billion owed to  Puerto Rico’s bondholders—now the cadre has to translate its fiscal algorithms before Judge Swain’s courtroom. The document, however, fails to specify whether the plan incorporates the budget for either FAFAA or the PROMESA Oversight Board, much less the vast array of advisors and lawyers who have participated in voluntary negotiations, as in the case of the Government Development Bank (GDB)—not exactly as propitious beginning as, for the first time, there is to be an assessment of the actual costs of reducing or cancelling bondholders’ debts, albeit, already, some early estimates are that such costs could exceed $1 billion—the portion of which would redound to U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico, where, in comparison to the different mainland states, Puerto Rico falls far below the poorest mainland state, with 45% of its population living below the poverty line, would be most limited. Nevertheless, despite the seemingly endless process, and despite the PROMESA oversight, or quasi-chapter 9 plan of debt adjustment, there has been as yet, no agreement with any key creditor. Rather, in what many in Puerto Rico would deem noticias falsas, President Trump, last November, reported Puerto Rico was “doing well” and “it’s healing, and it’s getting better, and we’re getting them power, and all of the things that they have to have.” That was in sharp contrast with reality—or, as District Representative José “Memo” González Mercado, of Arecibo put it: “The reality is that we are U.S. citizens, but Donald Trump treats us as second-class citizens.”

Human & Fiscal Storms

January 25, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the seemingly unending physical and fiscal challenges to Puerto Rico’s fiscal and   physical recovery.

We all were sea-swallow’d though some cast again,
And by that destiny to perform an act 

Whereof what’s past is prologue, what to come
In yours and my discharge. 

Fiscal & Physical Storms.  In the second Act of The Tempest, William Shakespeare warned of the danger of storms. Now, in the wake of a storm and disparate federal responses, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has submitted a revised fiscal plan which estimates the U.S. territory’s economy will shrink by 11%–and its population will decline by nearly 8% next year. As submitted, the Governor’s revised fiscal proposal does not set aside any funds to reimburse creditors in the next five years as Puerto Rico seeks to restructure a portion of its $73 billion public debt; the original plan had set aside $800 million a year for creditors, a fraction of the roughly $35 billion due in interest and payments over the next decade. The revised five-year plan also assumes Puerto Rico will receive at least $35 billion in emergency federal funds for post-hurricane recovery and another $22 billion from private insurance companies—a generous assumption given that the U.S. Treasury Department and FEMA this month advised Puerto Rico officials they are temporarily withholding billions of dollars approved by Congress last year for post-hurricane recovery, because they believe Puerto Rico has sufficient fiscal resources.

The Governor’s revised plan does not propose either layoffs or new taxes; rather it proposes labor and tax reforms, as well as the privatization of PREPA in an effort to help generate (not a pun) revenue and promote economic development as the U.S. territory endures an 11-year recession. The Governor noted that nearly half of Puerto Rico’s  3.3 million inhabitants were in poverty prior to the hurricane—and Puerto Rico still confronts an 11 percent unemployment rate. The disparate circumstances have been aggravated in the wake of nearly half a million Puerto Ricans fleeing to the mainland U.S. over the past decade in search of jobs and opportunities—leaving behind older and less educated Puerto Ricans—an exodus which the Governor warned: “We must work as a government to prevent this from happening, and that’s what we’re focused on.” Gov. Rossello said he would hold back on his proposed $350 million cut in aid to Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities or muncipios as they continue to struggle to recover from Maria; instead, he said they will receive more money than usual in future years, adding he will also propose tax cuts, including an 11.5 percent sales and use tax to 7 percent for prepared food. His comments came as more than 30 percent of power customers still remain in the dark more than four months after Hurricane Maria.

The Promise of PROMESA? PROMESA Board Executive Director Natalie Jaresko said the “Oversight Board views implementing structural reforms and investing in critical infrastructure as key to restoring economic growth and increasing confidence of residents and businesses: Our focus in certifying the revised plans will be to ensure they reflect Puerto Rico’s post-hurricane realities,” with her statement coming as the PROMESA Board has set a deadline of February 23rd to approve the plan.

Calming the Fiscal Waters

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January 24, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the physical, governance, and fiscal challenges confronted—and overcome, by the City of Flint, Michigan.

Restoring Fiscal Municipal Authority. For the first time in seven years, Flint, Michigan local officials are in control of the city’s daily finances and government decisions after, on Monday, Michigan Treasurer Nick Khouri signed off on a recommendation from Flint’s Receivership Transition Advisory Board (RTAB), the state-appointed board overseeing Flint’s fiscal recovery-to grant Mayor Karen Weaver and the Council greater authority in daily decision-making. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, seven years ago, preempted local governance and fiscal authority after concurring with a state review panel that there was a “local government financial emergency” in Flint, and that an emergency financial manager should be appointed to oversee the city’s affairs. The Governor ultimately appointed four emergency managers to run the city from 2011 until 2015–two of whom were subsequently charged with criminal wrongdoing related to their roles in the Flint water crisis. In declaring the financial emergency in Flint, state officials said city leaders had failed to fix a structural deficit and criticized city officials for not moving with the degree of urgency required considering the seriousness of the city’s financial problems.

Notwithstanding, the State of Michigan retains authority with regard to certain fiscal and budgetary issues, including approval of the municipality’s budget, requests to issue debt, and collective bargaining agreements. Treasurer Khouri noted:  “Today is an important day for our shared goal of moving Flint forward…Thanks to the progress city leaders have made, this is an appropriate time for the Mayor and City Council to assume greater responsibility for day-to-day operations and finances.” Mayor Weaver noted: “This is an exciting development for the city of Flint…We have been waiting for this for years,” adding the state action will bring the city a step closer to its ultimate goal of home rule through rescinding Michigan’s Emergency Order 20, which mandated that resolutions approved by both Mayor Weaver and the City Council receive the state board’s approval before going into effect.

Mayor Weaver, in the wake of the long saga in which a state-imposed emergency manager had led to a massive physical and fiscal crisis, said she has hopes for the city and state to “officially divorce” by the end of this year, noting that with the appointment of CFO Hughey Newsome last  year, the newly elected City Council, and approval of a 30-year contract with the Great Lakes Water Authority; Flint is both more fiscally and physically solvent: the new water contract is projected to save Flint as much as $9 million by providing a more favorable rate—an important consideration  with GLWA and addresses $7 million in debt service payments the city is currently obligated to pay on bonds issued to finance the Karegnondi Water Authority pipeline under construction.

The city of just over 100,000, with a majority minority population where just under 30 percent of the families have a female head of household, and where 33.9 percent of all households were made up of individuals and just under 10 percent had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older, finances its budget via a 1 percent income tax on residents and 0.5 percent on non-residents: it has a strong Mayor-council form of government. It has operated under at least four charters, beginning in 1855: its current charter provides for a strong Mayor form of government—albeit one which has instituted the appointment of an Ombudsperson; the City Council is composed of members elected from Flint’s nine wards.

In the wake of ending its water contract with Detroit via a state-appointed emergency manager, its travails—physical and fiscal were triggered: the state appointed  emergency manager shifted to Flint River water as the city awaited completion of a new KWA pipeline—but that emergency manager failed to ensure safe drinking water as part of the switch—a failure which, as we have noted, led to the contamination crisis which poisoned not just the city’s drinking water, but also its fiscal stability—leading to nearly eight years of a state takeover in the wake of Gov. Rick Snyder’s 2011 declaration of a financial emergency within the city.

Even though Gov. Snyder declared an end to Flint’s financial emergency on April 29, 2015, the RTAB, which is appointed by the Governor, had continued to review financial decisions in the city. Discussions with regard to planning the RTAB’s departure from Flint began last August as part of an annual report from the Michigan Treasury Department mandated for Michigan municipalities operating under financial receivership. Thus, Treasurer Khouri’s signature was the final stamp of approval needed to thrust the RTAB unanimous suggestion of January 11th into immediate action, repealing an order mandating that the State of Michigan review all decisions made by the Mayor and Council—and ending a long and traumatic state takeover which caused immense human physical and municipal devastation. It marked the final step from the city’s emergence two years ago in April from the control of a state-imposed emergency manager to home rule order under the guidance of a the state-imposed Board—a board devised with the aim of ensuring a smooth transition by maintaining the measures prescribed upon the emergency manager’s exit. Here, as we have previously noted, the Emergency Manager was appointed by the Governor under Public Act 436 to preempt local elected leadership and to bring long-term financial stability back to the city by addressing any and all issues which had threatened the Flint’s fiscal solvency—but which, instead, first led to greater fiscal stress, and, more critically, to physical harm and danger to Flint’s citizens, thereby jeopardizing the very fiscal help which the state purported to want. Four different individuals served as emergency manager from December 2011 to April 2015: in order, they were Michael K. Brown, Edward J. Kurtz, Darnell Earley, and Gerald Ambrose.

The action repealed Emergency Manager Order No. 20, an order imposed by former Flint Emergency Manager Jerry Ambrose in his final days with the city—an order which mandated resolutions approved by both the Mayor and City Council in order to receive the Advisory Board’s approval, prior to going into effect. as Mayor Weaver put it, the step was a “welcome end to an arranged marriage,” adding: “We are so thankful‒and I’m speaking on behalf of the proud, great city of Flint: the RTAB has been in place for several years now, and one of the things it did represent is that the city was in turmoil and financial distress. And I know over the past two years we have been fiscally responsible… I think it’s absolutely time, and time for the locally elected officials to run the city, and we’ve been anxiously ready to do so….this feels like a welcome way to end an arranged marriage.”

Mayor Weaver noted that the appointment of Hughey Newsome as Flint’s interim chief financial officer, combined with the city’s new Council members and approval of a 30-year contract with the Great Lakes Water Authority, has helped to move Flint in a fiscally and financially solvent direction.

Restructuring, Refinancing, & Repowering in the Wake of a Quasi Municipal Bankruptcy

January 23, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the fiscal challenges to the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico in restructuring and rebuilding its public infrastructure.

Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló yesterday announced he will privatize the state Electric Power Authority (AEE), stating: “ESA will cease to exist as it currently operates, and during the next few days the process will start where ESA assets will be sold to companies that will transform the generation system into a modern, efficient and less expensive one for the people.” The Governor’s announcement came at a time when almost half a million users of the system are still without service some 124 days after Hurricane Maria’s stormy passage. 

The privatization of the PREPA has been a priority objective of the Government and the PROMESA Fiscal Supervision Board—indeed, last August, before hurricanes Irma and Maria struck Puerto Rico, Chairman José Carrión, had assured that the privatization would be carried out as soon as possible. Indeed,the Board would have to approve any privatization—and, it seems likely that U.S. District Court Judge Laura Taylor Swain might well have some oversight as the Governor develops the first phase—drafting legislation, and then defining the public procurement process. The Governor, in what appears to be an effort to “kill two birds with one stone,” has also described the sale as one where proceeds would be used to help meet public pension obligations.

In his announcement, Gov. Rosselló explained that the process will take 18 months and will be carried out in three phases: “In the first one, the legal framework will be defined through legislation, the market will be assessed, and the call will be opened for companies interested in participating.” He said that in the second step, bids be received and evaluated; and in the third, the terms of the awarding and hiring of the selected company will be negotiated. In making his announcement, the Governor assured that Puerto Rico’s electrical system is 28 years older than the average for the industry in the U.S., noting: “PREPA has become a heavy burden for our people, who today are hostage to their poor service and high cost, what we know today as PREPA does not work and cannot continue to operate like this.” 

Unsurprisingly, his pronouncement was criticized by different authorities: Independence Party Senator Juan Dalmau described his announcement as a “manipulation” to justify the lack of energy on the island since the hurricane. Mayor Carmen Maldonado of Morovis, a city of some 27,000 founded in 1817, and the island’s only municipality which was not devastated by the 1853 cholera epidemic—a devastation remembered both by your scribe who had cholera in Colombia, but also an event which led to what, today, has become a common expression: “La isla menos Morovis,” [all the island but Morovis]—a phrase believed by most Puerto Ricans to have a negative connotation against moroveños. Morovis Mayor Carmen Maldonado responded that the Governor’s announcement does not offer solutions for those who still do not have service in their homes and businesses, stating: “People are still waiting for a service restoration plan.” 

For her part, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, known for her criticisms of the Trump administration’s response to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, spoke out against the proposal, noting: on her official Twitter account, that PREPA’s privatization would put the Commonwealth’s economic development into “private hands,” and that the power authority will begin to “serve other interests,” describing it as a “clear” strategy to “create chaos at a time when citizens are in need in order to sell something as positive that will be negative in the long run.” The malingering situation, however, is, according to the most recent report from the U.S. Department of Energy, that some 36% of PREPA customers are still without power four months after Maria caused widespread devastation on the island.

Fiscal Economic Dislocation?

January 22, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the ongoing federal and fiscal challenges to fiscal recovery for the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico.

‘Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood
When blackness was a virtue the road was full of mud
I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form
Come in, she said
I’ll give ya shelter from the storm ∞ Bob Dylan

Modern Day Okies. Since Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, nearly 300,000 Puerto Ricans have left their homes and fled to Florida. These Americans have fled to other states too, with New York a key new home. The departures raise a host of fiscal challenges, including: for how much longer will FEMA assistance be available to these U.S. citizens? Are these Americans permanent departees from Puerto Rico? In addition, if so, are they predominantly younger, and higher income?

Under the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) program, FEMA has provided hotel or lodging assistance to evacuees; however, the duration of that assistance, which has just been extended until March under the FEMA Transitional Shelter Assistance program (not as form of temporary shelter while rebuilding her damaged home in Puerto Rico, remains uncertain: is it a way to relocate and start a new life on the mainland? In the beginning, most of those leaving were elderly, disabled, or in need of critical medical care. But that appears to have changed: today young Puerto Ricans appear to be the primary departees, threatening to compound what we have previously noted to be an historic, migratory wave in the wake of the U.S. territory’s physical and fiscal crisis: mayhap as many as 25 percent of the population will have departed by the end of the decade.

Ironically, especially given President Trump’s attitude towards Puerto Rico, including the disparate response to Puerto Rico compared to Houston and Florida, the disproportionately younger Puerto Ricans coming to the mainland have been sought after—often recruited. Last November, the agency offered to airlift victims of Hurricane Maria to the U.S. mainland to reach temporary housing–a first of its kind for the agency: under the program, the Transitional Shelter Assistance (TSA) program, displaced residents and families who are still living in shelters on Puerto Rico can opt to relocate to housing in Florida and New York. Mike Byrne, a federal coordinating officer for FEMA, said the program is the first time the agency has attempted what it calls an “air bridge,” or a relief operation requiring the transportation of individuals from a disaster area. In most disasters, FEMA pays displaced residents to stay in hotels under the TSA program. In Puerto Rico, the hotels are filled to capacity, so FEMA is turning to the mainland and working with states to find accommodations.

At the same time, because of anticipated labor shortages because of the White House anti-immigration policies, many domestic employers are eager to hire bilingual workers for whom the minimum wage of a U.S. state represents a significant boost in income compared to grim options on Puerto Rico. Likewise, both the federal and Puerto Rican governments have facilitated departures: that is, in the ongoing absence of an equitable or comprehensive recovery plan for Puerto Rico, migration has become a substitute for federal disaster relief and recovery: for the first time ever, FEMA created an “air bridge” and chartered cruise ships to evacuate residents. In the beginning, new arrivals were forced to seek shelter with family members or in homeless shelters; subsequently, such families are being offered hotel stays for up to three months. (Traditionally, FEMA offers temporary shelter to homeowners who have been adversely affected by a disaster while they carry out the arduous task of rebuilding; however, in the case of Hurricane Maria, the process of recovery has been severely undercut by the lack of electricity and running water, and the inability of the federal government to supply even the most basic materials.

The increasing challenge is that, as we have noted before, those Puerto Ricans fleeing destroyed homes, devastated public infrastructure, and a shattered economy, are, disproportionately, those who can afford to leave—and those whose jobs and livelihoods have been washed away. After all, some nearly four months after the hurricanes, many restaurants, stores and offices remain closed: how can one be competitive with operating on generators, operating with reduced personnel serving only FEMA workers, and with massive layoffs? Just last week, Walmart, Puerto Rico’s largest private employer, announced it was closing three of its Sam’s Club stores; pharmaceutical companies, which, today, account for nearly 50% of Puerto Rico’s manufacturing jobs, are rethinking their location in the wake of the implementation of the new federal tax reform law—a law which treats Puerto Rico as a foreign jurisdiction. The new tax law imposes a 12.5% tax on profits derived from intellectual property held in foreign jurisdictions. (The U.S. territory of Puerto Rico is a domestic jurisdiction in U.S. law—except for federal tax purposes.) The pre-existing tax law exempted Puerto Rico residents from paying federal income taxes, a provision which sought to attract investment in manufacturing, something which, prior to the hurricane, accounted for 47% of Puerto Rico’s gross domestic product—more than $48 billion, with the bulk of the incentives encouraging pharmaceuticals and medical devices that generate revenue from patented drugs and technologies.

However, the new federal tax changes were enacted to render offshore operations less profitable, thereby rewarding corporations which opt to relocate back to the U.S. mainland—because, the IRS considers Puerto Rico to be foreign, and because many of the most significant manufacturers on the island are foreign-owned.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the economic dislocation in Puerto Rico has led to mainland employers recognizing a diamond in the rough—meaning that they have been recruiting Puerto Rican workers to places such as Florida, North Carolina, Georgia, and Kansas: in Texas and Florida, developers hope that Puerto Rican labor will alleviate an expected shortage of construction workers as their own hurricane recovery gets underway. The efforts, piggy-backing on a trend that has accelerated over the last decade, has been focused on teachers, doctors, police officers, nurses, and engineers—exactly the positions most critical for Puerto Rico’s physical and fiscal recovery. But how to compete against Houston—a city where approximately one-third of schoolchildren are native Spanish speakers—and a city which received disproportionately greater federal hurricane assistance? The city’s school districts have already conducting multiple recruitment trips to Puerto Rico. Similarly, the police departments of Dallas, Charlotte, Baltimore, and even the nation’s capitol, Washington, D.C., have all turned to Puerto Rico as they have sought to diversify their departments with more Latino officers. In these instances, the recruiters lure workers with what appear to be high salaries when compared with the depressed incomes of a U.S. territory in physical and fiscal crisis.

Some have noted, moreover, that with the U.S. federal government closed, in no small part due to opposition to extending the DACA or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, it may be coincidental that the influx of Puerto Ricans to the mainland who were displaced by the storm coincides with the expiration of and, most recently, the end of temporary protected status for Central American and Caribbean migrants who had also fled natural disasters. That is, the combination furloughs, wage cuts, and higher prices for Puerto Rico’s working poor, combined with the massive damage to the island’s public infrastructure and disparate federal response, appears to have contributed to fueling a mass exodus—an exodus, however, of the young and qualified.

Is the Federal Government Using a Double Standard in Responding to Puerto Rico, adding to its Fiscal and Physical Distress?

eBlog

January 19, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the ongoing federal and fiscal challenges to fiscal recovery for the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico.

Denial of Assistance. As if there has not been enough evidence of a double standard with regard to the provision of federal aid to the hurricane devastation to Puerto Rico, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the U.S. Treasury have written to the Puerto Rico Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority Executive Director Gerardo Portela that, because the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico’s  central cash balance, as publicly reported, has consistently exceeded $1.5 billion in the months following the hurricanes, and “considering the implications of the $6.875 billion of total cash deposits across the Commonwealth, the federal government will institute, as a matter of policy, a cash balance policy that will determine the timing of Community Disaster Loans (CDLs) to the Commonwealth and its instrumentalities, including the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority and the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority.” Translated into English, that means Puerto Rico may have too much cash to be eligible for a federal loan—notwithstanding the discriminatory treatment compared to Houston or Florida, much less that still, nearly four months after the devastating storm—a storm to respond to which President Trump offered paper towels—some four months after the storm, many residents are still without electricity. Nevertheless, according to FEMA, the island is at risk of not receiving federal community disaster loans, because its cash balances may be too high.

For its part, the government of Puerto Rico has opted to pay up its arrears accounts with both the Electric Power Authority and the Aqueduct and Sewer Authority—as well as focus its efforts on legislation to address FEMA’s concerns—in a critical effort to free up federal assistance—assistance already approved by Congress. At the same time, Puerto Rico’s Financial Advisory Authority and Fiscal Agency Wednesday admitted that if FEMA opts not to grant the disaster loan to the U.S. territory, very hard decisions will confront the citizens of Puerto Rico and their leaders—or, as Sen. Anibal Jose Torres put it: the challenge will be to “ensure basic services to the population, the payment of pensions, and the payroll of public employees,” concerns which appear not to be apprehensions of the Trump Administration, even as Gerardo Portela Franco, the Executive Director and Chairman of the Board of Puerto Rico’s Fiscal Agency & Financial Advisory Authority, noted: “We will continue negotiating with the Treasury until we achieve that CDL,” adding: “We have faithfully complied with all the requirements,” referring to the negotiations his agency has had with the U.S. Treasury since last October. The contretemps emerged after El Nuevo Día Wednesday  revealed that FEMA and the U.S. Treasury had halted the disbursement of funds to Puerto Rico under the CDL program until adopting “a cash balance policy” which will determine when and how much funding FEMA will provide to Puerto Rico to address its operational expenses in trying to recover from the effects of Hurricane Maria, theoretically in “consultation” with the Fiscal Oversight Board created by Congress, even as the two stateside federal agencies made clear Puerto Rico will have to “cover its cash needs and those of the PREPA and the AAA.

Unsurprisingly, Héctor Figueroa, the President of the SEIU noted that it was “inconceivable that FEMA and the Treasury retain the aid funds approved three months ago for Puerto Rico following the scourge of Hurricane Maria…Puerto Rican working families continue to be considered second class citizens by the administration of (Donald) Trump and by Congress.”

The situation is further complicated, despite some four months of negotiations, by the fact that FEMA and the U.S. Treasury have yet to specify the specific conditions to be mandated—now, nearly four months after Congress approved a package of aid for Puerto Rico, as well as for the states of Florida, Texas, California, and the U.S. Virgin Islands: in that aid package which Congress approved, however, it appears there was a stipulation that, before the federal government could be obliged to provide aid, Puerto Rico, as collateral, had to pledge the unencumbered revenues from the Sale and Use Tax (IVU) or those paid by foreign corporations under Law 154—albeit it remains unclear whether the specific terms with regard to collateral are still being negotiated. What is clear, however, is a double standard, as the epistle from FEMA does not seem to reflect the human or fiscal urgency of the situation, especially in the wake of the fiscal warnings at the end of last September that “As a result of hurricanes Irma and María, the government, PREPA and AAA projected at the end of September 2017 that it would deplete its operational funds on or near October 31, 2017.” In their letter, however, FEMA and the Treasury opined that, as of December 29, 2017, the central government’s cash balance was approximately $1,700 million—an amount which, according to Portela Franco, does not detract from the fact that Puerto Rico is in a state of “insolvency.”

The head of the Puerto Rico Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority, the public corporation and governmental instrumentality in Puerto Rico which has assumed the majority of the fiscal agency and financial advisory responsibilities previously held by the Government Development Bank for Puerto Rico, and the Puerto Rican entity in charge of collaboration, communication, and cooperation between the Government of Puerto Rico and the PROMESA Oversight Board, noted that the figure cited in the letter includes the reserves required by La Junta de Supervisión y Administración Financiera (JSF) to finance the process of renegotiation of the debt in court, as well as the payment of pensions and public payroll, two priority items for Governor Rosselló Nevares.

Indeed, a review of Puerto Rico’s most recent liquidity report seems to validate Mr. Portela Franco’s views, noting, for instance, in his January 5th report, that the Department of Hacienda projections include the collections which are regularly sent to Cofina—reports still awaiting the attention of U.S. Judge Laura Taylor Swain—a figure in the range of  $316 million. In addition, the report reveals that, so far this fiscal year, Puerto Rico’s central government has withheld $ 437 million from the Automobile Accident Administration (ACAA) and the Highway and Transportation Authority (ACT), among others—even as government suppliers are owed about $ 331 million and government agencies hold $ 276 million in debt to each other, including water and electricity bills. Thus, as Portela Franco and Andrés Méndez, in charge of liquidity matters in the Aafaf, noted: the government seems to undress a saint to dress others such as the AEE and the AAA: “As we have to inject liquidity to the AAA and the AEE, that balance of the Treasury’s TSA account will fall precipitously,” adding that, without the FEMA loan, it would be necessary to continue adopting what he termed “difficult decisions,” such as stretching payments to suppliers.

Unsurprisingly, Governor Rosselló Nevares, described the epistle from Washington, D.C. as one in which the “government of Puerto Rico and the Treasury have reached an agreement. The agreement is that when the collections go down in Puerto Rico, the loans begin to arrive. What does this mean? That at the moment, we still have resources that are going to be running out,but that they will want to transfer those loans once it happens to that.” The Governor also rejected that the Oversight Board has an additional responsibility in the process of granting the CDL, because PROMESA had already established that the federal entity will have authority to interfere in any loan that Puerto Rico receives. (The epistle from FEMA and the U.S. Treasury notes that the cash policy for the loan from Puerto Rico will be adopted “in consultation with the government and the JSF.”

As of the end of last month, Puerto Rico had $1.7 billion of available cash, notwithstanding earlier predictions by local officials that the government would run out of money in late October because of the economic toll of responding to the hurricanes: by the end of November, it still had funds in other accounts, albeit some of it was earmarked for specific uses and could not be used to keep Puerto Rico’s government operating.

In FEMA’s epistle to Gerardo Portela, the Executive Director of Puerto Rico’s Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority, FEMA noted: “Under this cash balance policy, funds will be provided through the CDL program when the commonwealth’s central cash balance decreases to a certain level.” Executive Director Portela, earlier this week, noted that, because of the delay in federal loans, Puerto Rico’s central government will begin procedures to allow it to lend money to the island’s public electricity and water utilities, even as he urged the federal government to distribute the loans, stating: “AAFAF has complied with all the demands of federal agencies; however, despite our continuous efforts, to date, the Treasury Department and FEMA have not provided the final terms and conditions under which they will disburse the funds granted by the Congress.” With damage from Hurricane Maria estimated to total as much as $100 billion, Governor Ricardo Rossello earlier this month warned that Puerto Rico’s electric utility may be unable to continue recovery work in February due to lack of funds—even though, more than 100 days after the storm slamming into an island which had already filed a record-setting quasi chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in May devastated Puerto Rico’s economy and destroyed its electrical grid: still today, about 45 percent of Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority customers are still without power.

The Epistle:

Mr. Gerardo J. Portela Franco

Executive Director and Chairman of the Board

Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority

Government of Puerto Rico

Robe1io Sanchez Vilella Government Center

De Diego Avenue, Stop 22

San Juan, Puerto Rico, 00907

Dear Mr. Portela Franco:

This letter summarizes the Federal Government’s policy for providing Community Disaster Loan (CDL) Program assistance to the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, its instrumentalities, and municipalities as a result of Hurricanes Irma (DR-4336-PR) and Maria (DR-4339-PR). The purpose of the CDL Program is to provide loans to eligible recipients that have suffered a substantial loss of tax and other revenues as a result of a major disaster and that demonstrate a need for Federal financial assistance to perform essential governmental functions. The Additional Supplemental Appropriations for Disaster Relief Requirements Act of 2017, signed into law by the President on October 26, 2017, included $4.9 billion for CD Ls to assist the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and local governments in Florida and Texas in maintaining essential services as a result of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria.

Implementing the CDL Program in the Commonwealth must be undertaken in a manner that is compatible with the ongoing financial restructuring of the Commonwealth’s financial obligations, including pursuant to the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA). For example, pursuant to PROMESA the Financial Oversight and Management Board (FOMB) must approve any new debt incun-ed by the Conunonwealth or by any of its instrumentalities that the FOMB has designated as covered territorial instrumentalities under PRO MESA, including the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREP A) and the Pue1io Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (PRASA). Title III of PRO MESA also established a bankruptcy-like restructuring process for Puerto Rico and its covered territorial instrumentalities. As you are aware, the Commonwealth and PREPA have filed for Title III restructuring; PRASA has not.

As a result of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, the Commonwealth, PREP A, and PRASA projected in late

September 2017 that they would exhaust their operating funds on or about October 31, 2017. However, as of December 29, 2017, the Commonwealth’s central cash balance was approximately $1.7 billion. It is our understanding that the higher-than-expected central cash balance three months after the hurricanes resulted from greater-than-expected receipts, strategic management of payables, and the structure of relief funds from FEMA and other federal agencies, among other factors, although a review of the underlying detail is still underway. In addition to its central cash balance, on December 18, 2017, the Commonwealth released a report indicating that $6.875 billion in unrestricted and restricted cash was on deposit in over 800 accounts across all Commonwealth governmental entities. Despite these Commonwealth cash balances, the Commonwealth now indicates that PREPA and PRASA have an imminent need for liquidity in January 2018, and, as a result, each entity has applied for a CDL to cover operating expenditures.

Because the Commonwealth’s central cash balance, 1\S publicly reported, has consistently exceeded $1.5 billion in the months following the hurricanes, and considering the implications of the reported $6.875 billion of total cash across the Commonwealth, the Federal Government will institute, as a matter of policy, a Cash Balance Policy that will determine the timing of CD Ls to the Commonwealth and its instrumentalities, including PREP A and PRASA. Under this Cash Balance Policy, funds will be provided through the CDL Program when the Commonwealth’s central cash balance decreases to a certain level. This Cash Balance Policy level will be dete1mined by the Federal Government in consultation with the Commonwealth and the FOMB.

The current posture of the Federal Government is to disburse CDL program financing directly to the Commonwealth, which could then sub-lend to its various entities (including PREP A and PRASA), although this approach may be revised over time. Subsidiary borrowers will be expected to comply with remmitting, repayment, and collateral requirements that apply to the primary borrower. Unless the Cash Balance Policy level is reached, however, the Commonwealth will need to support its own liquidity needs and those of PREPA and PRASA.

Notwithstanding the above policy, local governments (as such term is defined in 42 U.S.C. §5122(8)) in Puerto Rico, including the 78 municipalities, will be eligible to apply directly for CD Ls independent of the Commonwealth under the traditional terms and conditions of Section 417 of the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, 42 U.S.C. §5184 (irrespective of the cash balance of the Commonwealth). Under these terms, a local government demonstrating a substantial loss of revenues may receive a streamlined CDL up to 25 percent of its annual budget, subject to a $5 million cap. FEMA will make arrangements to meet directly with the local governments and their management associations the week of January 15, 2018, in Puerto Rico to facilitate applications to the CDL Program onthe most timely basis possible consistent with program terms and requirements. If it is determined that a local government should require assistance beyond the $5 million cap, the Federal Government will consider providing additional financing under different terms and conditions, as appropriate.

FEMA and the Department of Treasury look forward to continuing to work with the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and its instrumentalities and local governments to ensure funding is available for operating expenses to perform governmental functions while respecting the PROMESA Title III proceedings, the statutory authorities granted to the FOMB under PROMESA, and the overall fiscal condition of the Commonwealth and its instrumentalities and local governments.

Respectfully,

Alex Amparo

Assistant Administrator Recovery Directorate

Federal Emergency Management Agency

Gary Grippo

Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Finance

U.S. Department of Treasury

 

cc: Governor Ricardo Rossello Nevares, Commonwealth of Puerto Rico

Financial Oversight and Management Board, Commonwealth of Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico State Agency for Emergency and Disaster Management

U.S. Office of Management and Budget

Petitioning for Municipal Solvency

January 18, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the ongoing fiscal challenges to fiscal recovery for Scranton, Pennsylvania—a municipality that has verged on the edge of chapter 9 bankruptcy for many years.

Petitioning for Municipal Solvency. Scranton, Pennsylvania anticipates returning to court next month to obtain permission to continue imposing a tripled, annual local services tax of $156 on most who work in the city: the municipality has filed a petition in Lackawanna County Court to triple the local services tax. The city, Pennsylvania’s sixth-largest, is the county seat for Lackawanna County, with a population of 77,291. It is one of the nation’s oldest cities, incorporated on February 14, 1856, as a borough in Luzerne, and then as a municipality on April 23, 1866. It gained a reputation as the “Electric City” when electric lights were introduced in 1880 at Dickson Locomotive Works. By the end of the Civil War, Scranton rapidly transformed from a small, agrarian-based village to a multicultural, industrial-based city. From 1860 to 1900, the city’s population increased more than tenfold, in the wake of its official incorporation in 1866.

In 1856, the Borough of Scranton was officially incorporated. It was incorporated as a city of 35,000 in 1866 in Luzerne County, when the surrounding boroughs of Hyde Park (now part of the city’s West Side) and Providence (now part of North Scranton) were merged with Scranton. Twelve years later in 1878, the state passed a law enabling creation of new counties where a county’s population surpassed 150,000, as did Luzerne’s. The law appeared to enable the creation of Lackawanna County, and there was considerable political agitation around the authorizing process. Scranton was designated by the state legislature as the county seat of the newly formed county, which was also established as a separate judicial district, with state judges moving over from Luzerne County after courts were organized in October 1878. This was the last county in the state to be organized. Scranton earned the title as “The Electric City” when it completed the country’s first continuously operating electrified trolley in 1886—but it was also both a coal mining and steel center: at the onset of the 19th century, the city was home to the largest steel plant in the U.S.; by 1900, the city had a population of more than 100,000. However, by 1902, the dwindling iron ore supply, labor issues, and an aging plant began a reversal of fiscal fortunes: the city’s steel company left for New York—leaving Scranton, nevertheless, still as the capital of the anthracite coal industry—by which the municipality attracted thousands of workers needed to mine coal, the city developed new neighborhoods dominated by Italian and Eastern European immigrants, who brought their foods, cultures and religions. But the mining brought fortune and misfortune—the sub-surface mining weakened entire neighborhoods, damaging homes, schools, and businesses when the land collapsed, leading to, in 1913, state enactment of the Davis Act to establish the Bureau of Surface Support in Scranton. By the 1920’s, Scranton became a center for the manufacture of shellac buttons and a primary manufacturer of phonograph records. Thus, it continued to prosper and grow: by the mid-1930s, Scranton’s population had swollen beyond 140,000, because of growth in the mining and silk textile industries—and then, to support the war, in the 1940’s, mining became, once again, a major growth industry. However, even as many cities thrived in the wake of the war, the fortunes and population of Scranton began to ebb: coal production and rail traffic declined rapidly throughout the 1950s, leading to a reversal in employment. Indeed, that decade ended with the Know Mine Disaster, which virtually ended the mining industry in Northeastern Pennsylvania—and hammered the DL&W Railroad, which nearly went bankrupt itself because of the drop in coal traffic. Thus the city, which had served as a key hub of railroad operations lost another critical source of jobs and revenues. By 1957, the NYO&W Railroad, which depended heavily on its Scranton branch for freight traffic, was abandoned—leaving behind mine subsidence, which became an infrastructure nightmare for the city, as pillar supports in abandoned mines began to fail: cave-ins sometimes consumed entire blocks of homes, leaving the city scarred by abandoned coal mining structures, strip mines, and massive culm dumps, some of which caught fire and burned for many years. In 1970, the Secretary of Mines for Pennsylvania suggested that so many underground voids had been left by mining underneath Scranton that it would be “more economical” to abandon the city than make them safe. The physical and fiscal erosion meant that by the 1970s and 1980s, many downtown storefronts and theaters became vacant. By the beginning of this decade, Scranton itself was on the verge of municipal bankruptcy—the fiscal threat so dire that the city cut wages for all municipal officials, including the Mayor and fire chief, to $7.25 per hour—a step forced by estimates that the city treasury had just $5,000.

Thus, the city, in its petition to the court, is seeking approval to maintain a local services tax of $156, some $104 higher than the city’s prior level of $52 a year imposed before 2015. The city had raised the levy from $52 to $156 for every person working within the city limits who earns at least $15,600; now city leaders have deemed the proposed tax increases essential for the city’s recovery under the state-sponsored Act 47 for distressed communities, to which Scranton has belonged since 1992. (The city is junk-rated, albeit, as we noted last summer, S&P awarded it an upgrade in August to BB-plus from BB. The effort to obtain court approval to extend its higher local services tax, if approved, would continue to be $3 a week, or $156 a year per worker. (Previously, it was $1 per week, or $52 a year per worker. Under Pennsylvania law, these kinds of municipal taxes provide for exemptions for those earning less than $15,600 a year.) Scranton’s proposed recovery plan anticipates the city levying its local service tax at $156 a year annually through 2020, with the petition noting: “The Local Services Tax being levied at $156 represents a vital aspect of the plan as well as a key role in bringing about meaningful change to Scranton’s economic status.” Nevertheless, and even though the city confronted no opposition when it sought the previous approval, eight residents now contend the city would be in violation of a cap permitted under state law (Act 511) on a certain group of taxes, including the wage tax, business privilege/mercantile taxes, and the Local Services Tax. Nevertheless, Philadelphia Senior Judge John Braxton  dismissed the opposition as misplaced when he approved Scranton’s 2017 LST petition last February: his order noted the objectors could pursue a different legal avenue—an action they have now taken. Anyone wishing to file a response to the city’s petition has until the first week of next month to file.

The Motor City’s Road to Recovery

eBlog

January 17, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the ongoing fiscal recovery in Detroit from the nation’s largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy.

The City of Detroit, which filed for municipal bankruptcy protection on July 19, 2013—in what remains the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, in what then-Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr described as “the Olympics of restructuring,” a step he took to ensure continuity of essential services and critical to rebuilding the Motor City, continues on its resurgent comeback, with last years home sales ending on a high note. After decades of population decline (In 1950, there were 1,849,568 people in Detroit; by 2010, there were 713,777), the city reported the median sales price increased from last year to this year by nearly 50%. Realcomp Ltd. Data, moreover, indicates continued increases in assessed values this year: median sales prices increased from $159,000 in 2016 to $170,000 last year, while average days listed declined from 74 a year ago in December to 44 last month. Realcomp Board of Governor David Elya predicts demand and market listing will increase further this year, noting the Motor City is experiencing a higher inventory crunch due to higher demand—demand driven by a solid employment outlook—a remarkable turnaround from the onset of its chapter 9 filing, when the Motor City was home to an estimated 40,000 abandoned lots and structures: between 1978 and 2007, Detroit lost 67 percent of its business establishments and 80 percent of its manufacturing base. Or, as the insightful Billy Hamilton wrote at the time: the city was “either the ghost of a lost time and place in America, or a resource of enormous potential.”

Detroit, which relies on taxes and state-shared revenues higher than those of any other large Michigan municipality on a per capita basis, derives its revenues from a broader base than most municipalities: property taxes, income tax, utility taxes, a casino wagering tax, and state-shared revenues. Notwithstanding, its revenues, prior to its filing, had declined over the previous decade by 22 percent, even as it was accruing more debt based on obligations for post-employment benefits. The city’s decline into chapter 9 predated the housing crisis, or, as the Citizens Research Council reported: the overall loss of 15,648 business establishments from 1972 until 2007 did not capture the effects of the severe 2008 recession, much less the bankruptcies and subsequent recovery of General Motors and Chrysler and the restructuring of the automotive supplier network, on the number of businesses in the city.

Nevertheless, persistence, along with the sharp recovery of the automobile markets, combined with the city’s being home to one of the broadest tax bases of any city in the U.S. [Municipal income taxes constitute the city’s largest single source, contributing about 21 percent of total revenue in 2012, or $323.5 million in 2002, the last year in which the city realized a general fund surplus.] appears to have been instrumental in the remarkable turnaround.