Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the serious municipal fiscal challenges in Ohio, where the decline in coal-fired power has led Adams County auditor David Gifford to warn that if its existing power plants close, the county could be forced to raise its property tax rates at least 500% in order to make its requisite school district bond interest payments. Then we turn to the steep fiscal trials and tribulations of implementing San Bernardino’s post-chapter 9 exit, before finally considering the governing challenges affecting the City of Flint’s physical and fiscal future, and then to the criminal charges related to Flint’s fiscal and moral insolvency. Finally, we turn to the potential for a new fiscal chapter for the nearly insolvent Virginia municipality of Petersburg.
Fiscal Municipal Distress in Coal Country. While President Trump has stressed his commitment to try to protect the U.S. coal industry, less attention has been focused on the municipal fiscal challenges for local elected leaders. For instance, in Adams County, Ohio, where the median income for a household is about $33,000, and where approximately 20% of families fall below the federal poverty line, the county, with a population near 22,000, has been in fiscal emergency for more than two years—making it one of 23 such jurisdictions in the state. But now its auditor, David Gifford, warns that if its coal-fired power plants close, the county could be forced to raise the property tax by at least 500% in order to make the bond payments on its public school districts debt. (In Ohio, when so designated, the average time a municipality spends in fiscal emergency averages about five years.) Since 1980, when the state auditor was empowered to place municipalities in fiscal emergency, Ohio has declared and released 54 communities—with time spent in fiscal emergency averaging five years, albeit the Village of Manchester in Adams County (approximately 2,000 residents) holds the record for time spent in fiscal emergency — nearly 20 years and still counting. Over the past five years, some 350 coal-fired generating units have closed across the country, according to the Energy Information Administration: closures, which have cost not just jobs, but key tax revenues vital to municipal solvency. It is uncertain whether any actions by the White House could make coal viable as a source of energy generation; it is clear that neither the Trump Administration, nor the State of Ohio appear to have put together fiscal options to address the resulting fiscal challenges. Ohio Municipal League Director Kent Scarrett, in testimony before the Ohio Legislature last February, on behalf of the League’s 733 municipal members, in which close to 90% of Ohio’s citizens live, reminded legislators that “a lack of opportunity to invest in critical infrastructure projects” and “the myriad of challenges that present themselves as a result of the escalating opioid epidemic,” would require “reigniting the relationship between the state and municipalities.”
Post Municipal Bankruptcy Challenges. San Bernardino Mayor Carey Davis this Wednesday declared the city’s municipal bankruptcy process officially over, noting San Bernardino had come “to the momentous exit from that process,” a five-year process which resulted in the outsourcing of its fire department to San Bernardino County, contracting out waste removal services, and reductions in healthcare benefits for retirees and current employees to lessen the impact on pensions. Mayor Davis noted: “The proceedings guided us through a process of rebuilding and restructuring, and we will continue to rebuild and create systems for successful municipal operations,” as the City Council confronted by what City Manager Mark Scott warned was “without a doubt among the lowest in per capita revenues per capita and in city employees per capita,” yet still confronted by what he described as: “Among California’s largest cities, San Bernardino is without a doubt among the lowest in government revenues per capita and in city employees per capita…Furthermore, our average household income is low and our poverty rate is high.” Nevertheless, the Council adopted its first post-chapter 9 budget—a budget which is projected to achieve a surplus of $108,000, sufficient to achieve a 15% reserve. To give a perspective on the fiscal challenge, Mr. Scott warned the Mayor and City Council: “Among California’s largest cities, San Bernardino is without a doubt among the lowest in government revenues per capita and in city employees per capita…Furthermore, our average household income is low and our poverty rate is high.” Adding that San Bernardino’s property values and business spending are lower than other cities, contributing to its low revenue, he added: “At the same time, it costs roughly the same to repair a street in Rancho Cucamonga as in San Bernardino: California’s tax system rewards wealth.”
Nevertheless, even though San Bernardino’s plan of debt adjustment calls for minimal revenue growth over the next two decades, he advised that the plan is focused on making the city more attractive. Ergo, he proposed three criteria: 1) urgent safety concerns, including the relocation of City Hall to address unreinforced masonry concerns; 2) restoration of public safety, 30 new police officers, vehicle and safety equipment replacement, radio maintenance, and a violence intervention initiative; 3) greater efficiencies, via information technology upgrades, and economic development and revenue growth—to be met by hiring a transportation planner, associate planner, grant-writing, and consulting. In addition to the operating budget, the manager also focused on the city’s capital budget, proposing significant investment for the next two to three years. Some of these increased costs would be offset by reducing the city’s full-time city employees by about 4%. Nevertheless, the Manager noted: “The community’s momentum is clearly increasing, and we are building internal capacity to address our management challenges…We look forward to the next year and to our collective role in returning this city to a more prosperous condition.”
Under its plan of debt adjustment, San Bernardino began making distributions to creditors this month: Mayor Carey Davis noted: “From the beginning, we understood the time, hard work, sacrifice and commitment it would take for the city to emerge from the bankruptcy process,” in asking the Council to adopt the proposed $160 million operating budget and a $22.6 million capital budget.
Moody Blues. The fiscal challenge of recovering from municipal bankruptcy for the city was highlighted last April when Moody’s Investors Service analysts had warned that the city’s plan of debt adjustment approved by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury would “lead to a general fund unallocated cash balance of approximately $9.5 million by fiscal 2023, down from a $360 million deficit the city projected in 2013 for the fiscal years 2013-23,” adding, however, that the city still faces hurdles with pensions, public safety, and infrastructure. Noting that San Bernardino’s plan of debt adjustment provided more generous treatment of its pension obligations than its municipal bondholders—some of its unsecured creditors will receive as little as 1% of what they are owed—and the city’s pension obligation bondholders will take the most severe cuts—about 60%–or, as Moody’s moodily noted: “The [court-approved] plan calls for San Bernardino to leave bankruptcy with increased revenues and an improved balance sheet, but the city will retain significant unfunded and rapidly rising pension obligations…Additionally, it will face operational challenges associated with deferred maintenance and potential service shortfalls…which, added to the pension difficulties, increase the probability of continued financial distress and possibly even a return to bankruptcy.”
The glum report added that San Bernardino’s finances put its aging infrastructure at risk, noting the deferral of some $180 million in street repairs and $130 million in deferred facility repairs and improvements, and that the city had failed to inspect 80 percent of its sewer system, adding: “Cities typically rely on financing large capital needs with debt, but this option may no longer exist for San Bernardino…Even if San Bernardino is able to stabilize its finances, the city will still face a material infrastructure challenge.” Moody’s report added: “Adjusted net pension liability will remain unchanged at $904 million, a figure that dwarfs the projected bankruptcy savings of approximately $350 million.”
Justice for Flint? Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette has charged Michigan Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon with involuntary manslaughter and misconduct in office, making the Director the fifth state official, including a former Flint emergency manager and a member of Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration, to be confronted with involuntary manslaughter charges for their alleged roles in the Flint water contamination crisis and ensuing Legionnaire’s disease outbreak which has, to date, claimed 12 lives, noting: “This is about people’s lives and families and kids, and it’s about demonstrating to people across the state—it doesn’t matter who you are, young, old, rich, poor, black, white, north, south, east, west. There is one system of justice, and the rules apply to everybody, whether you’re a big shot or no shot at all.” To date, 12 people have died in the wake of the switch by a state-appointed Emergency Manager of the city’s drinking water supply to the Flint River—a switch which led to an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease that resulted in those deaths. Flint Mayor Karen Weaver, in response, noted: “We wanted to know who knew what and when they knew it, and we wanted someone to be held accountable. It’s another step toward justice for the people Flint,” adding that: “What happened in Flint was serious: Not only did we have people impacted by lead poisoning, but we had people who died.”
In making his charges, Attorney General Schuette declined to say whether he had subpoenaed Governor Rick Snyder—with the charges coming some 622 days after Gov. Snyder had acknowledged that Flint’s drinking water was tainted with lead—and that the state was liable for the worst water tragedy in Michigan’s history—a tragedy due, in no small part, from the state appointment of an emergency manager to displace the city’s own elected leaders.
The state Attorney General has charged HHS Director Lyon in relation to the individual death of Robert Skidmore, who died Dec. 13, 2015, “as a result of [Mr.] Lyon’s failure to warn the public of the Legionnaires’ outbreak; the court has also received testimony that the Director “participated in obstructing” an independent research team from Wayne State University which was investigating the presence of Legionella bacteria in Flint’s water. In addition, four defendants who have been previously charged, former Flint Emergency Manager Darnell Earley, former Michigan Department of Environmental Quality drinking water Director Liane Shekter-Smith, DEQ drinking water official Stephen Busch, and former City of Flint Water Department manager Howard Croft, each now face additional charges of involuntary manslaughter in Mr. Skidmore’s death—bringing, to date, 15 current or former Michigan or Flint city officials to have been charged.
Attorney General Scheutte, at a press conference, noted: “Involuntary manslaughter is a very serious crime and a very serious charge and holds significant gravity and weight for all involved.” He was joined by Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton, Flint Water Investigation Special Prosecutor Todd Flood, and Chief Investigator Andrew Arena. (In Michigan, involuntary manslaughter is punishable by up to 15 years in prison and/or a $7,500 fine.) The announcement brings to 51 the number of charges leveled against 15 current and former local and state leaders as a result of the probe during which 180 witnesses have been interviewed—and in the wake of the release this week of an 18-page interim investigation report, which notes: “The Flint Water Crisis caused children to be exposed to lead poisoning, witnessed an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease resulting in multiple deaths, and created a lack of trust and confidence in the effectiveness of government to solve problems.”
A New City Leader to Take on Near Insolvency. Petersburg, Virginia has hired a new City Manager, Aretha Ferrell-Benavides, just days after consultants charged with the fiscal challenge of extricating the city from the brink of municipal bankruptcy advised the Mayor and Council the municipality needed a $20 million cash infusion to make up a deficit and comply with its own reserve policies: increased taxes, they warned, would not do the trick; rather, in the wake of a decade of imbalanced budgets that drained the city’s rainy day funds, triggered pay cuts, disrupted the regional public utility, and forced steep cuts in public school funding, the city needed a new manager. Indeed, on her first day, Ms. Ferrell-Benavides said: “To have the opportunity to come in and make a difference in a community like this, it’s worth its weight in gold.” The gold might be heavy: her predecessor, William E. Johnson III, was fired last year as the city fiscally foundered—leading Mayor Sam Parham to note: “We’re looking forward to a new beginning, better times for the city of Petersburg.”
Manager Ferrell-Benavides won out in a field of four aspirants, with Mayor Parham noting: “She was definitely head and shoulders above the other candidates…She had clear, precise answers and a 90-day plan of action,” albeit that plan has yet to be shared until after she meets with department heads and residents in order to get a better understanding of the city’s needs. Nevertheless, City Councilman Charles Cuthbert noted: “Her energy and her warm personality and her expressions of commitment to help Petersburg solve its problems stood out…My sense is that she truly views these problems as an opportunity.” In what will mark a fiscal clean slate, Manager Ferrell-Benavides will officially begin on July 10th, alongside a new city Finance Director Blake Rane, and Police Chief Kenneth Miller, who is coming to Petersburg from the Virginia Beach Police Department. She brings considerable governmental experience, including more than 25 years of work in government for the State of Maryland, the Chicago Public Housing Authority, the City of Sunnyvale, Calif.; and Los Alamos, New Mexico—in addition to multiple jobs with the District of Columbia.