February 23, 2018
Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the municipal fiscal threats to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, before taking a fiscal spin on the roulette tables of Atlantic City.
Fiscal Hurricane Fallout. Jaison R. Abel, Jason Bram, Richard Deitz, and Jonathan Hastings of the New York Federal Reserve this week, in their examination of the fallout in the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria on the economies of the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands noted that both were suffering from significant economic downturns and fiscal stress well before the storms hit nearly six months ago—noting that in their wake, the initial job losses in Puerto Rico totaled about 4 percent; in the U.S. Virgin Islands, job losses were double that—and there has been no rebound thus far. The authors wrote that these losses are considerably steeper than what has typically been experienced in the wake of most significant U.S. natural disasters, albeit not nearly as devastating as Hurricane Katrina’s unprecedented impact on the New Orleans economy more than a decade ago. The Fed three noted that domestic air passenger data indicate that from last September through November, more than 150,000 people left Puerto Rico, net of arrivals, and that the number who left the U.S. Virgin Islands was proportionally even larger. Thus, they opined, looking ahead, recovery will be affected by a variety of factors: especially: the level degree of out-migration, the level of external aid these economies receive, and the effectiveness of fiscal and other reforms—especially in Puerto Rico. They noted that Hurricane Maria was the most devastating hurricane to slam Puerto Rico in nearly a century—leaving an enormous toll of lives, homes, and businesses lost or suffering enormous damage, devastation of most crops and other agricultural assets, and severe havoc to its public infrastructure, adding that both for responding to the human and economic misery, the island’s experiencing of the most severe power outage in U.S. history means “it may still take months to fully restore electricity and other critical infrastructure,” describing the devastation to the U.S. Virgin Islands as similar, especially St. Croix, where I taught school long before most readers were born.
Nevertheless, the Fed Gang of Three wrote that recovery is underway in both Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, reporting that, as of last month, satellite images of nighttime lights suggest roughly 75 percent power restoration for Puerto Rico overall, with the southern and western parts of the island seeing nearly full restoration, and San Juan close to that level. In contrast, however, they determined that the eastern end of Puerto Rico and many interior areas have lagged substantially. As of the end of last year, they reported that the labor market has begun to recover in Puerto Rico: employment in leisure and hospitality (largely restaurants), the sector usually most affected by natural disasters, have started to bounce back in Puerto Rico, albeit not yet in the U.S. Virgin Islands. And, as often happens following natural disasters, jobs are being added in both Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in industries involved in clean-up, restoration, and rebuilding efforts—most notably, construction. Thus, they believe Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are confronted with a long and difficult recovery process ahead—a fiscal and physical process made all the more difficult because of poor economic and fiscal conditions prior to the storms.
Financing a Recovering City’s Emergence from a State Takeover. The Atlantic City Council has voted approval the issuance of debt to pay off millions the municipality owes to pay off deferred pension and health care contributions from 2015—after, in 2015, state officials had urged the delay of some $37.2 million in pension and health care contributions—a delay which, today, officials note has added up to about $47 million with the added interest. In the ordinance the Council voted Wednesday 6-3 to authorize, Atlantic City can now issue as much as $55 million worth of municipal bonds to help finance those accrued debts, with the vote coming in the wake of a lengthy discussion between the Council and 13 residents, each of whom spoke in opposition: some urged the elected leaders to table the matter for further review, while others questioned who had authorized the deferment, whether the city was obligated to pay the interest rate, and whether there were other options to finance the debt—debt which, as of the end of the calendar year, had reached more than $344 million in outstanding debt. Timothy Cunningham, New Jersey’s local government services director and now the state appointed takeover appointee, has explained to residents the option to bond for the deferred payments would prevent it from having to go into the general fund—that is in lieu of the city being forced to raise tax rates: the municipal bond interest payments would instead be financed via the Investment Alternative Tax from casinos, which, under state takeover regulations, are redirected to be used in Atlantic City for debt service, he noted. The City Council had originally slated the issue for a vote last month, but withdrew the scheduled vote in order to host two public hearings on the matter.
At the session, Councilman Jesse Kurtz said he would have preferred a different resolution to making the payments, questioning whether Atlantic City would be obligated to pay back the payments’ interest if the deferment was at the suggestion of the State, noting it did not “sit right” with him to vote for the ordinance without a formal statement from Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration authorizing it: “When we’re short on money, the answer is to borrow money…I don’t like that.” Atlantic City Council President Marty Small responded that after the ordinance was pulled last month, city and state officials asked the Governor’s administration for forgiveness on the payment; however, the response was negative, adding that the city knew the day was coming to pay the deferred payments—and that such payment was the city’s obligation: to act otherwise, he noted, would be “putting the taxpayers in harm’s way” if they did not act to borrow to make the payments: “It’s not us versus you: What affects you, affects us.” Councilmember Kurtz, along with Councilmen Moisse Delgado and Jeffree Fauntleroy II, voted against the measure, while Councilmembers Small, George Tibbitt, Chuen “Jimmy” Cheng, William Marsh, Kaleem Shabazz, and Aaron Randolph voted aye. For his part, Mayor Frank Gilliam, told his colleagues in opposing the matter, the city needs to come up with “better ways to deal with our finances,” regardless of whether council passed the bond ordinance: “We’re still $400 million in debt.”