From the Ashes of Municipal Bankruptcy

September 17, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we report, again, on the remarkable fiscal and neighborhood recovery of Detroit—a demonstration of how chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy can lay the foundation for extraordinary fiscal and physical recovery. Then we look south to consider a new strategic plan for Puerto Rico—a U.S. territory surely on notice that it cannot count on FEMA in a major, life-threatening disaster.  

The Phoenix of American Cities? Detroit, the once and mayhap future automobile capital of the U.S. and one-time Motown music capital, filed for the nation’s largest ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy five years and two months ago in the wake of a loss of more than a million residents, cuts in state aid, and collapsing real estate values—forcing the city to borrow to meet its operating costs. It came in the wake of the city experiencing periodic episodes of corruption and mismanagement for years—a critical consequence of this former great American industrial city’s dysfunction had been its erosion as a core for jobs: employment had fled the urban core, at a time it was rising in the metropolitan area—even as other cities were seeing something of a city-center revival. The Motor City’s ability to borrow in the municipal markets was exhausted after years of issuing long-term debt to pay its operating bills: the city had listed liabilities in excess of $17 billion—equal to $25,000 for every remaining resident. In his report, the city’s Emergency Manager, Kevyn Orr, described the city as “dysfunctional and wasteful after years of budgetary restrictions, mismanagement, crippling operational practices and, in some cases, indifference or corruption.” For residents, escaping these debts and physical deterioration accompanied by high violent crime rates and unperforming schools meant moving to the suburbs: of the 264,209 households in Detroit, only 9.2% were married couple families with children under 18; another 78,438 households, or nearly 30%, were families headed by women.

Now, as the ever insightful Daniel Howes of the Detroit News has written, the city’s neighborhoods are in play: he wrote: “Three months after Ford Motor Co. confirmed plans to convert Corktown’s dilapidated Michigan Central Depot into its center for mobility and self-driving vehicle development, a consortium backed by $50 million from the Kresge Foundation is planning a cradle-to-career educational complex on the campus of Marygrove College at Wyoming and McNichols.” He was referring to the city’s historic district near downtown, one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods—and one listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is not just an old part of the city, but one which gained its heritage in the middle of the last century when, in the wake of the Great Irish Potato Famine in the 1840’s, the great Irish migration to the U.S. made Detroit the city with the largest new home—with many Irish settling on the west side of the city; they were primarily from County Cork, and thus the neighborhood came to be known as Corktown. Kresge’s CEO, Rip Rapson, at the end of last week answered “unequivocally ‘yes.’ The time for the pivot to the neighborhoods is now,” in what he deemed an “an unprecedented model of neighborhood revitalization.”

A critical element to this revitalization could come from the physically and fiscally depleted Detroit Public Schools—so physically dangerous and unperforming that they served to discourage families with children from wanting to live in the city; yet, now, as Mr. Howes wrote: “The symbolism is striking. The Detroit Public Schools Community District board, burdened with a legacy of underperforming schools and labor troubles, is wagering it can create a new model for traditional public education by partnering with the University of Michigan’s School of Education, Starfish Family Services, and Marygrove to teach local students and teach their teachers…Borrowing from the residency programs used in medical education, the Ann Arbor university founded 201 years ago in Detroit would leverage its reputation and expertise in what University President Mark Schlissel calls “teamwork in service to the public.” That is, the effort is to anchor community redevelopment, as Chicago did, by education: the Detroit Public School District would operate a K-8 school and a high school carved from the former Bates Academy on the east edge of campus, while the University of Michigan would operate an undergraduate “residency” program for aspiring teachers.

Mr. Howes went on to write that, even as Detroit’s downtown and Midtown attract billions in private investment, especially from mortgage mogul Dan Gilbert and the Ilitch family to big corporate relocations and small business investment, neighborhood residents and the civic groups representing them have continued to ask: ‘what about us?’ The answer, it seems, is driving in: the Ford Motor Co. reports it will invest $740 million to build out the Corktown campus. Kresge is spearheading numerous community initiatives. A JPMorgan Chase program continues to invest in small-business creation.

On the elected front, Mayor Mike Duggan, seeking re-election, has made neighborhood revitalization a key issue in his campaign for, as Mr. Howe noted, two reasons: “It’s politically potent in a city that struggled for decades to provide basic services, and, second, it’s the next obvious step in the city’s revitalization: Reinvesting in downtown and Midtown, essentially the spine of Detroit, helps bolster tax base, fuel economic activity, and create tax-paying jobs. Reinvesting in neighborhoods and improving traditional public education strengthens community and gives Detroiters a reason to stay, to reap the benefits of rising property values.”

Kresge CEO Rip Rapson, a critical player in Detroit’s physical and fiscal recovery, notes: “What this town needs to be shown again and again is you can take big ideas and make them real…So many people are waiting to see efforts like this fail.” The heart, as Mr. Howes noted, of the so-called “P-20 Partnership” is Detroit’s reconstituted public school district, a campaign backed by Kresge’s contributions, the University of Michigan’s commitment to train teachers to teach Detroit’s youth— and the courage of its leadership to develop a new model for educating the city’s kids, right in the heart of a neighborhood.”

A new Strategic Plan for Puerto Rico? While FEMA has approved a new document for emergency response for Puerto Rico, it is a plan with a critical MIA: municipios—and this with time uncertain, as Hurricane Isaac is lurking in the Caribbean and FEMA is caught in a quagmire over the President’s assertion that fewer than 50 lives were lost in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria. FEMA’s Deputy Federal Coordinating Officer in Puerto Rico, Justo “Tito” Hernández has asserted that the “The Strategic Plan was revised. And we are already doing exercises based on the plan. That is already finished,”in an interview with El Nuevo Día, claiming the changes are intended to correct errors which were made before, during, and after the hurricane. In addition, the document already required amendments, in line with federal regulations. (As a rule, the Strategic Plan is modified every five years; the current one was created in October of 2014 and revised after Hurricane Maria.) Yet, even though this plan for the Commonwealth is ready, the Emergency Management Plan for each municipio has yet to be certified by the Puerto Rico State Agency for Emergency and Disaster Management or FEMA, according to Commissioner Carlos Acevedo, who noted: “The plans, I am waiting for the company (hired to develop them) to deliver them to me. And they should be handing me the plans tomorrow (today).” However, both Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares and Commissioner Acevedo have pointed out, in separate interviews, that the government is prepared to face the challenges of the new hurricane season. Gov. Rosselló Nevares stated that now the “people” have an emergency plan, noting there have been workshops “throughout Puerto Rico on how to develop those personal emergency plans,” that changes were made at federal, state, and municipal levels regarding the distribution of food and medication, and that another “public health response” will be implemented. Nevertheless, Gov. Rosselló Nevares recognized that the island’s infrastructure, including the homes of thousands of families that still have blue tarps on their roofs and the power grid, remain vulnerable, stating: “It is no less true that, although there are parts that are more robust, it is a somewhat more fragile (power) grid. Therefore, we want to change and transform it,” he added, referring to the process he has begun to privatize PREPA, the Electric Power Authority: “There are significant improvements, particularly in the area of preparation, but without a doubt, Puerto Rico remains vulnerable, particularly in the infrastructure area.” The Governor added that this scenario will require quick action to transform the power grid and “a bit of luck that an event like María or even a lower-category one, does not impact Puerto Rico, again, and further collapse areas that are already vulnerable.” In addition, he noted, that already, unlike last year, when the government contacted the American Public Power Association with a month of delay after the cyclone, agreements with energy companies have been reached, albeit noting that other initiatives “take time, but are being executed,” and that 64 people are being trained to exercise “very particular functions” amid any new emergency.

With regard to addressing the dysfunction of the government during Maria, the Governor said that “people have been trained based on these new protocols.” Even so, emergency management experts have indicated that unsettled issues in critical areas with regard to the Commonwealth’s role in future emergencies remain: the preparation that the government claims has been questioned by the former executive Director of the former State Office for Emergency and Disaster Management, Epifanio Jiménez, who reiterated that the problem after Maria was the lack of implementation of the existing plans—or, as he put it: “They’re using Maria’s category 5 as a pretext—which is true, it’s a precedent—but they use it as an excuse to justify the collapse of agencies and agency leaders because, when Hurricane Georges hit, the leaders knew their work and the island recovered after 32 days.”

A simple look at the 2014 Strategic Hurricane Plan, which experts say was not followed, reveals that the Health, Family, Emergency Management Agency, and General Services Administration (SGA) departments, among other government agencies, failed in their respective functions before, during, and after the hurricane; moreover, if all of these agencies had fulfilled their responsibilities, fatalities estimated today at 2,975 (except by the White House) would have been avoided, according to the study by the Milken Institute of the George Washington University.

The Strategic Plan is governed by the National Incident Management System (NIMS), which establishes and defines the entire procedure for emergency management. It is backed by Presidential orders. FEMA develops the plan, theoretically in partnership with state authorities—clearly part of the challenge, as Puerto Rico is in a quasi-twilight zone between being a state or a municipality. This matters, because such a plan is intended to detail the function of what is called the Emergency Support Function, which is nothing more than the function that each agency will have before, during, and after an emergency.

Some of the Changes. The NMEAD Commissioner (Negotiator for the Management of Emergencies and Administrator for Disasters) Carlos Acevedo, said that now the Department of Family Affairs has a list of vulnerable groups. He added that the emergency management center integrated the private sector, and even had training. However, according to Mr. Jiménez:  “That is nonsense,” recalling that the private sector was already integrated into emergencies, because there must be agreements with agencies. To avoid the collapse of communications, Commissioner Acevedo said they now have a voice and data satellite system. The Telecommunications Regulatory Board and the NMEAD have a list of radio amateurs to use analog communication, if necessary, he added, albeit noting: “That has to be refined, and the JRT has to make sure that the private sector responds.” Moreover, Commissioner Acevedo said the services of cell phone companies, which also collapsed in the wake of the hurricane, is an issue that remains in the hands of the private sector. Finally, he noted he has also held meetings with the directors of hospitals and dialysis centers on the island, stressing that each party has increased its capacity to provide services.

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