How Do State & Local Leaders Confront & Respond to Significant Population Declines?

eBlog, 04/21/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the unique fiscal challenge confronting Detroit: how does it deal with the fiscal challenges—challenges also confronting cities such as Cleveland, Philadelphia, Toledo, Dayton, Baltimore, and Philadelphia—which are experiencing significant population declines? What to do with vacant lots which no longer bring in property tax revenues—but enhance criminal proclivities?  

Fiscal & Physical Municipal Balancing. While Detroit has emerged fiscally from the nation’s largest ever municipal bankruptcy, it continues to be fiscally and governmentally bedeviled by the governance challenge of such a significant population contraction—it is, after all, a city of about 132 square miles, dotting with neighborhoods which have become splotches of vacant lots and abandoned homes: post-bankrupt Detroit, with neighborhoods that have been gradually emptying out, in a physical sense, is a shadow of its former self, with a population nearly 60% smaller than it was in 1950, but with a stock of some 40,000 abandoned homes and vacant lots—space which brings in no property taxes, but can breed crime and safety costs for the city: between 1978 and 2007, Detroit lost 67% of its business establishments and 80% of its manufacturing base. This untoward, as it were, “ungrowth” has come even as the city has spent $100 million more, on average, than its revenues since 2008: Census figures inform us that more than one in three of the city’s citizens fall below the poverty level—ranking the Motor City, along with Cleveland, Dayton, Toledo, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, as cities realizing major depopulation. Thus, while downtown Detroit today is gleaming towers along a vibrant waterfront, one need not drive far from the internationally acclaimed Detroit Institute of Arts to witness neighborhoods which are nearly abandoned as residents continue to move to the suburbs. Thus, with some of the fiscal issues effectively addressed under the city’s approved plan of debt adjustment, Detroit is commencing a number of initiatives to try to address what might be deemed its physical devastation—a challenge, in some ways, more complex than its finances: How does an emptier city restore blighted neighborhoods and link the islands of neighborhoods which have been left? Or, mayhap better put: how does the city re-envision and rebuild?

Here it seems the city is focused on four key initiatives: draw new families into the city (look at Chicago and how Mayor Emanuel succeeded); convert vacant lots from crime havens to community gardens; convert vast empty spaces to urban farms; devise a strategy to fill empty store fronts; and, again as did Mayor Emanuel, create a strategy to bring back young families with children to live in the city.

Already, Detroit’s downtown core is a new world from my first visit when the National League of Cities convened its annual meeting there in the 1980’s—a time when at the front desk of the hotel I was staying, the attendant told me that even though I could see the convention site from the hotel, it would be a grave risk to life and limb to even think about taking the bus or walking—a situation unchanged on a similar day, Detroit’s very first day in chapter 9 bankruptcy, when I had proposed setting out to walk to the Governor Rick Snyder’s Detroit office to meet just-appointed Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr. Today, the revived downtown has attracted young people, often in redeveloped historic buildings; but that emerging vibrancy does not include housing options for people at different stages of life. Thus, the city is making an effort to offer more differentiated housing options, including townhouses, apartments, carriage homes and more—as well as housing for seniors. Or, as Melissa Dittmer, director of architecture and design for Bedrock LLC, the company leading the development, notes with regard to an initiative just outside of downtown: “For so long, Detroit had a low-self-confidence issue and was willing to take just about” any residential development: “Now the city of Detroit has crossed a threshold. We can do better.”

Outside of the downtown area, one sample neighborhood, Fitzgerald, today has 131 vacant houses and 242 vacant lots; but the city’s Director of Housing and Revitalization, Arthur Jemison, notes these lots need not be filled with houses; instead, the city is moving to invest more than $4 million into the neighborhood to renovate 115 homes, landscape 192 vacant lots, and create a park with a bicycle path, or, as Mr. Jemison notes: “We can’t possibly rebuild every vacant lot with new construction…What we can do is rehabilitate a whole lot of houses, and we can have an intentional landscape scene. The landscape is important, because frankly, if it’s done and managed well, it’s inexpensive and people like it.”

But the comprehensive effort also recognizes the city does not need additional housing stock: it needs less; so it has unearthed a program, RecoveryPark Farms, to construct greenhouses on a 60-acre plot, a plot which until recently represented two dozen blighted blocks on Detroit’s east side. This unique project has diverse goals: it eliminates breeding territory for crime, eliminates blight, and creates opportunities for the unemployed, especially ex-offenders and recovering addicts. The program’s CEO Gary Wozniak, who spent more than three years in federal prison, notes farming offers a career with a lower bar for hiring and gives immediate feedback because “plants grow relatively quickly, so people can start to feel really good about building skill sets. Plus, Detroit has a lot of land.” Already, its harvests are purchased by some of Detroit’s top restaurants on a year-round basis, or, as CEO Wozniak put it: “What we’re doing is commercial-scale agriculture in an urban environment.”

On Detroit’s first day of bankruptcy, the walk from my downtown hotel to the Governor’s uptown office almost seem to resemble post-war Berlin: empty, abandoned buildings and storefronts. Thus, another post-bankruptcy challenge has been how to fill the vacant storefronts along Detroit’s half-abandoned commercial corridors—and, here, a partnership between the City of Detroit and other economic-development organizations, Motor City Match, works to create links between selected landlords and new small businesses, with a goal of converting blighted commercial districts to make them both more livable and more effective at providing job opportunities for residents—or, as Michael Forsyth, Director of small-business services at the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., notes: Motor City Match “helps get businesses from ideas to open.” The program awards $500,000 in grants every quarter, assisting businesses in completing a business plan, finding a place to open, and renovating office space: its CEO, Patrick Beal, CEO of the Detroit Training Center, received $100,000 during the first round of the program and matched it with a $100,000 loan. Now, with the help of Motor City Match, the company has trained more than 5,000 Detroiters in construction, heavy-equipment operation and other skills.

Finally, again as with Mayor Emanuel, the City respects the importance of children—meaning it must focus on public safety, and schools—governance challenges of the first order, especially as we have been long-writing, the parallel financial insolvency of the Detroit public schools. Thus, Ethan Lowenstein, the Director of the Southeast Michigan Stewardship Coalition, is working with educators and local organizations in the region to help young people address environmental challenges in their communities, noting that families with children “leave because they don’t see the strength in their community and they don’t feel recognized as someone who has knowledge.” Mr. Lowenstein is seeking to reverse the city’s depopulation trend by working with the Detroit Public Schools. At two schools he works with in southwest Detroit, he says, students were on a walk around their community and noticed tires were being illegally dumped. The schools helped the students and worked with community members to identify areas with illegally dumped tires, and eventually the tires were recycled into doormats.  

In recovery from chapter 9 bankruptcy, sometimes the fiscal part can seem easy compared to the human dimension.

Governance & Fiscal Recovery

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eBlog, 04/03/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing recovery efforts in Ferguson, Missouri; then we return to the Motor City to assess what and how home ownership might have changed in the wake of the city’s recovery from the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, before returning to the azure waters of Puerto Rico to assess its most recent fiscal developments.

A Recovering City’s Future? Ferguson, Missouri voters tomorrow will pick between Mayor James Knowles III and Councilwoman Ella Jones in the Mayoral election–for a 3-year term: Mayor Knowles was first elected Mayor on April 5, 2011, after serving on the Ferguson City Council for six years: he became the youngest mayor in Ferguson’s history when he took office at the age of 31, while Councilwoman Jones became the first African-American woman to be elected to her position. But tomorrow could mark a check point in the wake of the dramatic leadership changes since the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown put the St. Louis suburb at the center of the debate over the treatment of blacks by the nation’s police forces–and on the brink of insolvency. Mayor Knowles, who is finishing his second term, noted: “These past three years have been very difficult, but I’ve been the one who has shown I can lead through tough times…That I can take the heat, but also make the changes, the reforms necessary to make the community move forward.” Nevertheless, in the wake of the killing of an unarmed black teenager, by a white police officer nearly three years ago, Mayor Knowles has borne the brunt of considerable anger, as Ferguson went from a mostly unheard-of St. Louis suburb to a flash-point of racial unrest. After months of protests following the shooting, people rioted that November when a grand jury declined to charge the officer, who resigned that month. There was further unrest the following March when the U.S. Department of Justice cleared the officer of wrongdoing—and issued a scathing report alleging racial bias and profiling by the small city’s police department and courts—a report which appeared to lead to the resignations of the city’s police chief, city manager, municipal judge, and city attorney. Indeed, of all the city’s top officials, only Mayor Knowles remains—and that notwithstanding threats in phone calls and emails, a stolen identity, and having his home’s windows broken.  In contrast, Councilwoman Jones has lived most of her life in Ferguson: she is serving her first term as a Councilwoman, and, in her campaign, assert she wants the Mayor’s office to be “inclusive for everyone, instead of exclusive,” noting: “We have to listen and stop turning our heads and turning a deaf ear to people, because they’re just like you and I. They want to be heard and they have a right to be heard.”

Whomever the voters elect will confront a daunting fiscal challenge: the city lost millions of dollars of revenue after municipal court reforms were implemented following Mr. Brown’s death: sales and use tax revenues dropped as businesses victimized by looters were burned and closed: many have not returned. Similarly, the city has more than a dozen police vacancies: the city lacks sufficient budget resources to compete with larger, better funded governments in St. Louis County—and still is handicapped by its unfunded costs of compliance with U.S. the Justice Department imposed consent decree to improve the police and municipal court systems and eliminate racial bias: an unfunded federal mandate projected to cost the impoverished city budget and taxpayers more than $2 million. The city of about 20,000, which actually experienced a population decline of nearly 6% since 2000, nevertheless has experienced a gradual increase in median income to $43,998 by 2015—approximately 86% of average statewide household income.

And, irrespective of whom the voters select, this is not a position of responsibility that pays much: the Mayor’s pay is $4,200 annually; rather, as the incumbent notes: it’s the love of their community and the opportunity to be its face to the outside world: “These past three years have been very difficult, but I’ve been the one who has shown I can lead through tough times…That I can take the heat but also make the changes, the reforms necessary to make the community move forward.” In contrast, Councilwoman Jones said she wants the Mayor’s office to be “inclusive for everyone, instead of exclusive…We have to listen and stop turning our heads and turning a deaf ear to people, because they’re just like you and I. They want to be heard and they have a right to be heard,” she said.

A Lost Fiscal Decade? Joel Kurth and Mike Wilkinson, writing in Bridge Magazine, note that still, today, home mortgages remain a rarity in Detroit: “Home sales with mortgages are rare in Detroit, occurring in just a few areas: Miles from downtown Detroit and its debates about gentrification, a more modest question surrounds the real estate in many city neighborhoods. Cash or charge?” The pair found that “sales with mortgages are rare in Detroit, occurring in just a few areas.”  Their piece outlines remarkable oscillations in assessed property values, noting that the average home sale price in the city went from $84,109 in 2001 down to $12, 517 in 2009, and then back up to $50,308 by last year—still far below the unadjusted 2001 level—albeit they found that the average price last year for homes purchased with a mortgage was $155,650. In comparing homeownership rates, they noted that last year’s rate of 47% remained under the year 2000 rate of 55%. Thus, they found that obtaining a mortgage continues to be challenging in outlying neighborhoods across Detroit, with the vast majority of homes sold for cash to landlords and investors, rather than homeowners, according to sales data and numerous interviews—posing hard questions about who will benefit in a revival rooted in downtown and Midtown in what remains the nation’s poorest city—a city where, according to the Census Bureau, 39.3% of people live below the poverty line (defined as $24,250 for a family of four), making it “the poorest in America with more than 300,000 people, followed by Cleveland (39.2%), Fresno, Calif., (30.5%), Memphis (29.8%), and Milwaukee (29%), albeit finding the Motor City’s rate has actually decreased from 2012, when it was 42.3%. The authors quoted a real estate agent: “Detroit is evolving into a new place, but outside of hot areas, neighborhoods just aren’t where they need to be to increase property values enough for banks to lend money.”

Nevertheless, a joint report by Bridge and Detroit public radio station WDET did find some grounds for optimism, determining that home sales and prices are increasing citywide after bottoming out after the mortgage meltdown, which left in excess of 65,000 foreclosures; the report noted that in some neighborhoods, prices are rising so swiftly that they are creating bidding wars, albeit the gains are uneven, and mortgage lending is mostly confined to more affluent neighborhoods, according to records from Realcomp Ltd. II: last year, only 19% of 3,800 Detroit homes sold by conventional means were financed with mortgages, demonstrating signal disparities: homes with mortgages sold for an average of $155,000; cash sales averaged $30,000—an imbalance Mayor Mike Duggan fears could “cripple” the Motor City’s recovery, according to Erica Ward Gerson, Chairwoman of the Detroit Land Bank Authority, which assembles and sells properties: she deemed the number of cash sales a “serious, serious problem,” because they can deter home ownership and depress property values, noting that cheap sales are usually rentals or vacant houses, while pricier sales are often out of reach for ordinary buyers. Most home sales in Detroit require cash; only 19 percent of the 3,800 sales in 2016 involved a mortgage, reflecting the difficulty to secure loans in a city where property values are less than half what they were a decade ago. 

In response, Mayor Duggan has sought to team with banks, foundations, and nonprofits to offer a number of programs to increase the availability of home loans; to date, as one non-profit in the city notes, the programs have demonstrated some success; however, most focus on stable neighborhoods, e.g., not where the most serious challenges remain: in more impoverished east side neighborhoods, homes last year sold for $4,000 to $40,000 in cash, according to Realcomp data—even as, a few miles away in downtown and Midtown, homes and lofts sell for $250,000 or more, according to records. Indeed, according to the Urban Institute, in 2014, 97% of Detroit homes sold for cash—nearly thrice the national average of 36%; cities with comparable populations, such as Memphis, Columbus, and El Paso, last year had at least five times as many mortgages as the approximately 710 mortgages sold in Detroit, according to data from RealtyTrac, a California-based company that tracks real estate. Indeed, according to the Urban Institute, Detroit once had one of the highest rates of home ownership among African-Americans nationwide; but, today, the city is majority renters: since 2000, the percentage of renters has increased to 53 percent from 45 percent, according to the U.S. Census.

Don’t Bank on the City’s Future. A key fiscal issue appears to be the reluctance of banks in Detroit to offer home mortgages for less than $50,000, a figure higher than many Detroit homes are worth—a seeming legacy of the sharp withering of assessed property values after the real-estate crash. Moreover, acquiring clear titles necessary for mortgages has become more difficult, because all too many Detroit homes have liens, and way too many are in such disrepair that making them livable can multiply purchase prices. Then, almost as if adding injury to insult, current federal regulations promulgated after the crash have increased the cost of issuing mortgages. Indeed, according to the Urban Institute: only one in five Detroit residents have credit scores high enough to obtain a mortgage. Erica Ward Gerson, Chair of the Detroit Land Bank, notes that Mayor Duggan, even before he took office three years ago, had recognized how critical mortgages would be to the city’s fiscal recovery: he went, in 2015, to Denver to the Clinton Global Initiative America to plead his case to the former President and leaders of foundations and banks: afraid that low appraisals and the refusal to loan small amounts would undercut any long-term recovery chances for the city. That leadership turned out to be key: In the wake of Mayor Duggan personally taking at least one bank leader on tours of stable neighborhoods in Detroit where lending was impossible, Ms. Gerson noted that in “lightning speed,” five banks, community foundations, and nonprofits teamed to form the Detroit Home Mortgage program, which removes barriers to lending and issues mortgages for up to $75,000 more than appraised value. Now, in this new initiative, announced in February, the Mayor hopes to secure financing for 1,000 mortgages over the next 3-5 years.

Governing from Afar. It is now expected to take the PROMESA Oversight Board several more months to set up the administrative structure to pass judgment over the budgetary impact of every law enacted by Puerto Rico; nevertheless, the announcement that this process will be set in motion marks the consolidation of Puerto Rico’s public finances, coming just as Puerto Rico bondholders and bond insurers have repeated a request to the Oversight Board to initiate immediate debt negotiations. The Ad Hoc Group of GO Bondholders, which had requested the negotiations get started last week, had joined with other creditors in asking the PROMESA Board to commence negotiations this morning in New York City, with the creditors having rejected the Board’s request for a mediator to oversee the negotiations. The creditors complained it would take too long to set up the mediation ground rules and that there are only a few weeks to complete the debt negotiations, writing they had “all agreed not to participate in a mediation that lacks basic process,” seeking to trigger the PROMESA provision on a consensual debt negotiation process, which can run until May 1, when a stay on litigation allowed by PROMESA and the board will end. PROMESA Board Chair José Carrión III, for his part, has claimed that his plan is not to create a “super government,” at least in terms of the amount of people in the organism, notwithstanding that the Board’s new executive director and former Ukraine Minister of Finance, Natalie Jaresko, has been tasked with creating an office which, among other things, should have the capacity to pass judgment over the fiscal impact of each law passed in the last few months and those which might be ratified from now onward—or, as the Chairman describes it: “She will start hiring (personnel), of whom the vast majority will be Puerto Rican. We are searching for people who don’t just see this as an employment opportunity, but as a patriotic duty.”

To date, the PROMESA Board’s primary task has been to certify a long-term fiscal plan, but now the hard part of agreeing on the details and putting the legislative process under the magnifying glass commence—much like the long and painful process of reaching resolution of a plan of debt adjustment under chapter 9. To date, via letters addressed to the Governor and the leaders of the legislative chambers, the PROMESA Board first established a work calendar to which the Puerto Rico Legislature is to comply with the budget the Governor must submit before the end of the month—then granting the legislature just two weeks in May to assess and amend said budget—upon which the PROMESA Board will have the final say. Indeed, if, by the end of June, the Governor and the Legislature have not complied with the Board’s mandates, the Board—which has powers greater than Puerto Rico’s elected officials—could impose its own budget for Puerto Rico’s FY2018 year that begins on July 1st.

The process, in contrast to chapter 9 in local governments, will not include all branches; rather, the PROMESA Board is expected to continue to makes its exchanges with the Governor—not the legislators, which make up a branch of government with two leaders and where, at least on paper, Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz promises to ignore the members of the fiscal authority. Indeed, according to PROMESA, the exchange related to the revision of every law is made directly with the Governor, to whom the Board has granted seven days—after the statute is adopted—to present the fiscal impact estimate, if any, on the Governments revenues and expenditures. Or, as former Senator Fernando Martín, who is the executive president of the Puerto Rican Independence Party, put it: “As long as they take their draconian powers seriously, I believe they will do what they announced: examine passed legislation; repeal any legislation that proves contradictory with the fiscal plan; or, to soften the blow, try to make the Legislature modify it,” adding that the PROMESA Board’s defense against the Government of Puerto Rico’s bondholders is to be rigorous in controlling expenses: “Paraphrasing the current Governor’s father, the worst is yet to come: austerity, by itself, cannot be a recipe,” rather they will have to encourage solving “the structural problem in the relations between Puerto Rico and the U.S., since the solution means ending colonialism”.

Mr. Martin believes that the Governor—as the leader of the Executive branch—, the Senate President, and the House Speaker could have the judicial strength to sue: “If the Governor accepts my call to challenge the Board and the intervention in the Island’s governmental affairs, I am more than willing to help combat the Board. If I was Governor and they rejected a law I signed, I would challenge the Board’s actions in court.” However, because the PROMESA Board was imposed by Congress, in exchange for offering Puerto Rico the possibility of a quasi-chapter 9 territorial bankruptcy procedure, and because the federal law bases the Board’s control over the Island on the power Congress has to legislate through the territorial clause of the United States Constitution; it would seem his advice would be unlikely to pass judicial muster—even as Mr. Martin notes: “The Governor of Puerto Rico is Ricardo Rosselló, elected by the people’s votes. It is not Mr. Carrión. Even though Ricardo Rosselló does not belong to my party, I respect the position he holds and the power he has according to what is established by our Constitution.” Ferrer added.

Donde Estamos? Currently, while the PROMESA Board is still reviewing the workday reduction for public employees and the elimination of the Christmas bonus if its members believe that there will not be enough cash in the coffers by July 1st, the tax reduction for doctors would cost $185 million per year. Thus, the Representative from the New Progressive Party, José Enrique “Quiquito” Meléndez, opines that Governor Rosselló’s government has had “a particular worry,” which is if the Board’s power over Puerto Rico’s laws includes measures passed before the certification of the fiscal plan. Ergo. Rep. Meléndez considers that the one with the greatest cost will be the doctors’; however, among the laws which would be subject to the Board’s review would lie the financing for the plebiscite and the office of the Inspector General—or as he described it: “The plebiscite’s impact is not substantial, even without the $2.5 million that the federal government can grant.” The cost of the plebiscite—whose possible celebration is mentioned in PROMESA, has been estimated at $5 million at least—an amount that Mr. Martín does not foresee that the Board would want to say that holding a consultation on Puerto Rico’s political future, even under a Board that could only exist under the territorial status, to be “a superfluous cost.”

The Uneven Shape of Colonial Governance. Because of the PROMESA Board’s absolute power over Puerto Rico’s elected officials and even the finances of the Puerto Rico Judicial Branch, the governance situation appears to be without precedence since Congress granted Puerto Rico a structure to form a local government.

The Challenge of Recovering from or Averting Municipal Bankrupty

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eBlog, 03/28/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing recovery in Detroit from the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, before spinning the tables in Atlantic City, where the state takeover of the city has been expensive—and where the state’s own credit rating has been found wanting.

Home Team? A Detroit developer, an organization, Dominic Rand, has initiated a project “Home Team,” seeking to purchase up to up 25 square miles of property on the Motor City’s northwest side with a goal of keeping neighborhoods occupied by avoiding foreclosures and offering renters a path to homeownership. Nearly four years after the city’s chapter 9 filing for what former Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr deemed “the Olympics of restructuring,” to ensure continuity of essential services while developing a plan of debt adjustment to restructure the city’s finances—and to try to address the nearly 40 percent population decline and related abandonment of an estimated 40,000 abandoned lots and structures, as well as the loss of 67 percent of its business establishments and 80 percent of its manufacturing base, Mr. Rand reports he is excited about this initiative by an organization for purchases of homes slated for this year’s annual county tax foreclosure auction. His effort is intended to rehabilitate the homes and help tenants become homeowners. The effort seeks to end the cycle of home foreclosures due to unpaid property taxes. 

This is not the first such effort, however, so whether it will succeed or not is open to question. Officials at the United Community Housing Coalition note that previous such initiatives have failed, remembering Paramount Mortgage’s comparable effort, when the company purchased 2,000 properties, in part financed through $10 million from the Detroit police and fire pension fund—an effort which failed and, in its wake, left 90 percent of those in demolition status. Fox 2 reported that the City “does not support this proposal,” questioning its “ability to deliver on such a massive scale with no particular track record to indicate they would be successful,” adding the organization, if it wants to “start out by becoming a community partner through Detroit Land Bank and show what they can do with up to nine properties, they are welcome to do so.”

At first, the Home Team Detroit development group considered purchasing every property in Detroit subject to this year’s annual county tax foreclosure auction; instead, however, the group focused on the northwest quadrant covering 25 square miles and 24 neighborhoods—an area larger than Manhattan—with founder David Prentice noting: our “game plan is pretty simple: You are going to have a quadrant of (Detroit) with properties that are primarily occupied.” Mr. Prentice believes this initiative would address what he believes is one of Detroit’s biggest problems: halting the hemorrhaging of home foreclosures due to unpaid property taxes—an initiative one Detroit City Council member told the Detroit News was “unique and comprehensive.” Thus, city officials are reviewing the entity’s proposal—even as it reminds us of the Motor City’s ongoing home ownership challenge—a city where, still, more than 11,000 homes a year have ended in foreclosure over each of the last four years. Under the city’s process, the city warns property owners in January if their properties are at risk of tax foreclosure: as of last January, the Home Team group reports its targeted area has 11,073 properties headed for foreclosure.

Home Team is seeking approval from Detroit to purchase the properties via a “right of first refusal,” under which Mayor Mike Duggan and the Detroit City Council would have to approve the sale—and Wayne County and the State of Michigan would at least have to agree to not buy them as well, since both also have the option to buy the properties prior to such public auctions. Home Team claims it has the resources and expertise to buy the properties, rehab the homes, find new residents, and allow it to work with people traditional lenders would not consider due to poor credit ratings or because of the locations of the properties. The group claims its land contract system, or contracts for deeds, under which tenants make payments directly to the property owner and often have no ownership stake until the entire debt is paid, would work as an alternative to traditional mortgages—even as housing advocate groups such as the United Community Housing Coalition warn that land contracts are financial traps, and the nonprofit Michigan Legal Services told the Detroit News that many land contract deals are “gaming the system,” referencing a recent Detroit News story about many residents with land contracts losing out on actually getting a home—and others warning that those families sign contracts may end up owing significantly more than they would by renting, yet, at the end of such transactions, “have nothing to show for it.” (In recent years, the News reports, land contracts have outnumbered traditional mortgages in Detroit.) Mr. Prentice, while agreeing that “most land contracts are designed for the tenants to fail,” suggested his company’s land contracts would come without the high penalties, high monthly payments—payments which increase in time, and rising interest rates which have trapped unwary families in the past—and, he has vowed the company would fix up every property before putting it back on the market.

Detroit City Councilman George Cushingberry, who represents a major portion of the targeted area, told the News: “I like that it’s comprehensive and takes into account that one of the issues that prevents home ownership is financial literacy.” Yet, the ambitious proposal has also encountered neighborhood opposition: the Northwest Detroit Neighborhood Coalition has launched a petition drive to block the plan—and drawn support from eight neighborhood groups, with the Coalition issuing a statement: “We the people of northwest Detroit hereby declare our strong opposition to high-volume purchases of tax-foreclosed properties (10+ parcels) and other high-volume transfers of properties to real estate investors…Proposals like the one currently being circulated by (Home Team Detroit) do not serve the needs or interests of Detroit neighborhood residents. These bulk purchases only accelerate vacancy, blight, and further erosion of our community.” However, Melvin “Butch” Hollowell, Detroit’s Corporation Counsel, said the city opposes the effort, which would require the city to authorize a purchase agreement for the properties, noting: “The city does not support this proposal: We have a number of serious concerns, especially Home Team Detroit’s ability to deliver on such a massive scale with no particular track record to suggest they would be successful. If they want to start out by becoming a community partner through the Detroit Land Bank (Authority) and show what they can do with up to nine properties, they are welcome to do so and go from there.”

Robbery or the Cost of Municipal Fiscal Distress? The law firm of Jeffrey Chiesa, whom New Jersey Governor Chris Christie named to oversee the state takeover of Atlantic City, has billed the State of New Jersey about $287,000 for its work so far, according to multiple reports, including some $80,000 alone for Mr. Chiesa. The fiscal information came in the wake of the release by the state of invoices that showed the law firm submitted more than $207,000 in bills for the first three months of work, November through January—with some twenty-two members of the firm billing the state. In addition, Mr. Chiesa, who bills the State $400-an-hour for his time, reports he himself has billed $80,000 over that same period, noting to the Press those invoices were not included in the state’s data released last Friday, because they have yet to be fully reviewed. He added that the state has imposed “no cap” on the fees his firm may charge—leading State Assemblyman Chris A. Brown (R-Atlantic), who has been critical of the takeover, to note: “The governor handing over the city to a political insider without a transparent plan is like leaving your home without locking the door, and it looks like we just got robbed.”  The release of the data could not have come with more awkward timing, with the figures aired approximately a week after Mr. Chiesa wrote to Atlantic City police officers announcing the state was seeking to cut salaries, change benefits, and introduce longer shifts to save the city money—and as the state is calling for similar cuts and 100 layoffs in the city’s fire department—efforts in response to which Atlantic City’s police and fire unions have filed suit to prevent, with a judge last week ruling the state cannot yet move forward with the fire layoffs until he determines whether the state proposal is constitutional—even as Mr. Chiesa has defended the cuts, calling negotiations with the unions “money grabs.” For his part, at the end of last week, Mr. Chiesa defended his bills, claiming his firm helped negotiate a $72 million settlement with the Borgata casino in a long-running tax dispute with the city, gaining more than a 50 percent savings to the city from the refund it owed in the wake of tax appeals, deeming that an “important success on behalf of the city.”

Nevertheless, as S&P Global Ratings noted last week in upgrading Atlantic City’s credit rating from “CC” to “CCC,” despite assistance from the state, there is still the distinct possibility the city could still default on its debt over the next year and that filing for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy remains an option down the line.  Nevertheless, S&P analyst Timothy Little wrote that the upgrade reflected S&P’s opinion that “the near-term likelihood” of Atlantic City defaulting on its debt has “diminished” because of the state takeover and the state’s role in brokering the Borgata Casino agreement—an upgrade which a spokesperson for the Governor described as “early signs our efforts are working, that we will successfully revitalize the Atlantic City and restore the luster of this jewel in the crown.”  However, despite the upgrade, Atlantic City still remains junk-rate, and S&P reported the city’s recovery remains “tenuous:” It has a debt payment of $675,000 due on April Fool’s Day, $1.6 million on May Day, $1.5 million on June 1st, and another $3.5 million on August 1st—all payments which S&P believes will be made on time and in full, albeit warning that more substantial debts will come due later in the year, meaning, according to S&P, that the city’s recovery remains “tenuous,” and that Atlantic City is unlikely “to have the capacity to meet its financial commitment…and that there is at least a one-in-two likelihood” of a default in the next year.” Or, as Mr. Little wrote: “Despite the state’s increased intervention, [municipal] bankruptcy remains an option for the city and, in our opinion, a consideration if timely and adequate gains are not made to improve the city’s structural imbalance.”

 

Post Chapter 9 Challenges

eBlog, 2/22/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog as we remember the first President of our country,  we consider the accomplishments and challenges ahead for the city recovering from the largest ever municipal bankruptcy; then we visit the historic Civil War city of Petersburg, Virginia—as it struggles on the edge of fiscal and physical insolvency; from thence, we roll the dice to witness a little fiscal Monopoly in the state-taken over City of Atlantic City, before finally succumbing to the Caribbean waters made turbulent by the governance challenges of a federal fiscal takeover of the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, before considering whether to take a puff of forbidden weed as we assess the governing and fiscal challenges in San Bernardino—a city on the precipice of emerging from the longest municipal bankruptcy in American history.   

State of a Post Chapter 9 City. Pointing to FY2015 and 2016 balanced budgets, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, in his fourth State of the City address, pointed to the Motor City’s balanced budgets for FY2015 and 2016 and said the city’s budget will be balanced again at the close of this fiscal year in June—progress he cited which will help the city emerge from state get oversight and back to “self-determination” by 2018. Mayor Duggan cited as priorities: job training, affordable housing, and rebuilding neighborhoods, orating at the nonprofit human rights organization Focus: HOPE on Oakman Boulevard on the city’s northwest side, where residents and others for decades have received critical job training. Mayor Duggan was not just excited about what he called the transformation of city services and finances in a city that exited municipal bankruptcy three years ago, but rather “what comes next,” telling his audience: “We’ve improved the basic services, but if we’re going to fulfill a vision of building a Detroit that includes everybody, then we’ve got to do a whole lot more…You can’t have a recovery that includes everyone if there aren’t jobs available for everyone willing to work.” Ergo, to boost job opportunities, Mayor Duggan announced a new initiative, “Detroit at Work,” which he said would help connect the Motor City’s job seekers with employers, deeming it a portal which would provide a “clear path to jobs.” He also discussed his administration’s program to help city youth secure jobs and the Detroit Skilled Trades Employment Program, a recent partnership with local unions to increase Detroit membership and boost job opportunities.

With regard to neighborhoods, Mayor Duggan touted his Neighborhood Strategic Fund, his initiative to encourage neighborhood development, especially in wake of the exceptional success of Detroit’s new downtown: this fund allocates $30 million from philanthropic organizations toward development, commencing with the engagement of residents in the areas of Livernois/McNicols, West Village, and in southwest Detroit to create revitalized and walkable communities—under the city’s plan to align with the city’s vision for “20-minute neighborhoods” to provide nearby residents with close, walkable access to grocery stores and other amenities—or, as Mayor Duggan noted: “If we can prove that when you invest in these neighborhoods, the neighborhoods start to come back. The first $30 million will only be the beginning. I want everybody to watch…If we prove this works…then we go back for another $30 million and another $30 million as we move across the neighborhoods all through this city.”

In a related issue, the Mayor touted the return of the Department of Public Works’ Street Sweeping Unit, which is preparing to relaunch residential cleanings for the 2017 season, marking the first time in seven years for the program. On the affordable housing front, Mayor Duggan addressed affordable housing, saying that future projects will ensure such housing exists in all parts of the city, referencing a new ordinance, by Councilwoman Mary Sheffield, which seeks to guarantee that 20 percent of the units in new residential projects which receive financial support from the city will be affordable: “We are going to build a city where there is a mix of incomes in every corner and neighborhood and we’re going to be working hard.”

But in his address—no doubt with his re-election lurking somewhere behind his words, Mayor Duggan reflected not just on his successes, but also some missteps, including his administration’s massive federally funded demolition program, now the focus of a federal probe and state and city reviews: that initiative has been successful in the razing of nearly 11,000 abandoned homes since the spring of 2014, but has also triggered federal and state investigations over spiraling costs and bidding practices: an ongoing state review of the program’s billing practices turned up $7.3 million in what the State of Michigan deems “inappropriate” or “inaccurate” costs: the vast majority in connection with a controversial set-price bid pilot in 2014 designed to quickly bring down big bundles of houses—an initiative over which Mayor Duggan has so far rejected the state’s assertion that about $6 million tied to costs of the pilot were inappropriate. Thus, yesterday, he conceded that the federal government’s decision to suspend the demolition program for 60 days beginning last August had been warranted, but noted the city has since overhauled procedures and made improvements to get the program back on track, so that, he said, he is confident the city will raze an additional 10,000 homes in the next two years.

For new initiatives, Mayor Duggan said the Detroit Police Department will hire new officers, and invest in equipment and technology, and he announced the launch of Detroit Health Department’s Sister Friends program, a volunteer program to provide support to pregnant women and their families. On the school front, the Mayor noted what he deemed a “complete alliance” between his office and the new Detroit Public Schools Community District school board, saying the city has joined the Board in its attempt to convince the state’s School Reform Office not to close low-performing schools. (As many as 24 of 119 city schools could potentially be shuttered as soon as this summer.) In a hint of the state-local challenge to come, Mayor Duggan said: “The new school board hasn’t had an opportunity to address the problem…We have 110,000 schoolchildren in this city, which means we need 110,000 seats in quality schools. Closing a school doesn’t add a quality seat. All it does is bounce our children around from place to place. Before you close a school, you need to make sure there’s a better alternative.”

Fiscal & Physical Repair. In a surprising turn of events in Virginia, the Petersburg City Council accepted a motion by Councilman Charlie Cuthbert to postpone the vote on moving forward with the bids for Petersburg’s aging water system, after the Council had been scheduled to vote on whether to move forward with the bids the city had received from Aqua Virginia and Virginia American Water Company to purchase the nearly insolvent city’s water and wastewater system. While the vote, by itself, would not have authorized such a sale, it would have paved the way for formal consideration of such proposals. Under his motion, Councilman Cuthbert outlined a plan to delay the vote, so the Council and the City would have more time to consider options, in part through the formation of a seven person committee, which would be separate from the one the Robert Bobb Group, which is currently overseeing the city in place of the Mayor and Council, has been proposing. Mayhap unsurprisingly, citizens’ reactions to a potential sale has been negative; thus there was approbation when Councilmember Cuthbert’s motion passed—even as it appears many citizen/tax/ratepayers appeared to be hoping for the bids to be scrapped entirely: many had spoken in strong opposition, and there were numerous signs held up in chambers for the Mayor and Council to read: “Listen to us for once, do not sell our water,” or, as one citizen told the elected officials: “We have a choice to make: to make the easy, wrong decision, or the hard, right decision,” as he addressed the Council. The city’s residents and taxpayers appear to want other options to be explored, with many citing reports of Aqua Virginia having trouble with the localities with which it holds contracts.

On the fiscal front, many citizens expressed apprehension that any short-term profit the city would realize by selling its system would be paid back by the citizens in the form of rate-hikes by Aqua Virginia or Virginia American, or as one constituent said: “Never have I seen private industry interested in what the citizens want…They’re going to come in here and raise the rates.” Interim City Manager Tom Tyrell had begun the meeting by giving a presentation outlining the problems with the system. Due to past mismanagement and a lack of investment over decades, the Petersburg water system is in urgent need of upgrades. Tyrell outlined certain deficiencies, such as water pumps that need replacing, and pipes nearly blocked by sediment build up. The water quality has never come into question, but Mr. Tyrell said that the system is very close to needing a complete overhaul: the projected cost needed to get the system completely up to standard is about $97 million. Mr. Tyrell stressed that water rates will need to increase whether or not the city sells the system, going over Petersburg’s water rates, which have been relatively low for many years, ranking near the lowest amongst municipalities across the Commonwealth of Virginia. Even if the rates were to double, he told citizens, the rates still would still not be in the top 15 amongst Virginia localities. The Council had received two unsolicited bids for the system in December, one from Aqua Virginia, a second from the Virginia American Water Company. The Robert Bobb Group recommended to the Council that it move forward to examine the detailed proposals in order to “keep all options open.” The cost of moving forward with the proposals will cost approximately $100,000, which includes the cost of examining each proposal. Thus, the Robert Bobb Group recommended that the Council put together a citizens’ advisory group as an outside adviser group. The council gave no timetable on when they will officially vote to see if the bids will go forward. The people who will make up the seven person committee were not established.

Monopoly Sale. Atlantic City has sold two of its Boardwalk properties and several lots along the Inlet for nearly $6 million, closing on three properties at the end of last week, according to city officials—meaning that a Philadelphia-based developer has gained control of five waterfront properties since 2015. His purchases, he said, reflect his belief in Atlantic City’s revival. Mayor Don Guardian reported the city had received wire transfers for the former Boardwalk volleyball court on New Jersey Avenue ($3.8 million), Garden Pier ($1.5 million) and 12 lots bordered by the Absecon Inlet, Oriental Avenue and Dewey Place ($660,000), according to Atlantic City Planning and Development Director Elizabeth Terenik, all part of a way to raise money for the insolvent municipality – and to spur redevelopment, or, as Ms. Terenik noted: “The effort was part of the Guardian administration’s initiative to leverage underutilized or surplus public lands for economic development and jobs, and to increase the ratable base.” How the new owner intends to develop the properties or use them, however, is unclear—as is the confusing governance issue in a city under state control. The Inlet lots were sold in a city land auction last summer, purchased through an entity called A.C. Main Street Renaissance, according to city officials: the Atlantic City Council approved the auction and voted to name the purchaser, conditional redeveloper of Garden Pier and the volleyball court last year. Unsurprisingly, Council President Marty Small deemed the sales as great news for the city, saying they would bring revenue, jobs, and “new partners to the Inlet area…This instills investor confidence…It lets me know that we made the right decision by going out to auction for land and getting much-needed revenue for the city.”

Paying the Piper. Atlantic City has also announced its intention to issue $72 million in municipal bonds to pay for its tax settlement with the Borgata casino, securing the funds to cover its property tax refunds by borrowing though New Jersey’s Municipal Qualified Bond Act (MQBA), according to Lisa Ryan, a spokeswoman for the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, which is overseeing the state takeover which took effect last November, with her announcement coming just a week after the state announced it had struck a deal for Atlantic City to pay less than half of the $165 million it owes the Borgata in tax appeals from 2009 to 2015, or, as Ms. Ryan noted: “Qualified bonds will be issued in one or more tranches to achieve the settlement amount…The parties are confident in the City’s ability to access the capital market and raise the necessary amount needed to cover the financing,” albeit adding that the city’s borrowing costs would not be known until the sale. (The Garden State’s MQBA is a state intercept program which diverts a municipality’s qualified state aid to a trustee for debt service payments.) Prior to the New Jersey’s state takeover of Atlantic City, city officials had proposed paying $103 million for a Borgata settlement through MQBA bonding as part of a five-year rescue plan—a plan which the state’s Department of Community Affairs had rejected.

As the state taken over city struggles to adjust, Mayor Don Guardian, in a statement, noted: “I’m glad the state is seeing the wisdom in what we proposed in our fiscal plan back in November…I applaud them for getting the actual amount due upfront lower, even though they have had over two years to do it. It remains to be seen how the other $30 million will be taken care of, but the quicker we can get this issue off the table, the quicker we can move forward tackling the remaining legacy debt.” Atlantic City last utilized New Jersey’s state credit enhancement program in May of 2015 to pay off an emergency $40 million loan and retire $12 million of maturing bond anticipation notes, paying a substantial fiscal penalty for a $41 million taxable full faith and credit general obligation municipal bond sale to address its loan payment with Bank of America Merrill Lynch pricing the bonds to yield at 7.25% in 2028 and 7.75% in 2045. Today, the city, under state control, is seeking to recover from five casino closures since 2014, closures which have bequeathed it with $224 million in outstanding municipal bond debt—debt sufficient according to Moody’s to have saddled the city with some $36.8 million in debt service last year.

Grass Fire? Two separate groups have now filed lawsuits challenging San Bernardino’s Measure O, the initiative citizens approved last November to allow marijuana dispensaries in the city—a measure yet to be implemented by the city—and one which now, according to City Attorney Gary Saenz, will almost surely be further delayed because of the suit. Should Measure O be struck down, the related, quasi-backup Measure N, a second marijuana initiative San Bernardino voters approved last November, but which received fewer votes, would pop up, as it were. The twin suits, one filed by a group of marijuana-related entities, the second by interested property owners in San Bernardino, challenge Measure O on multiple grounds, including the measure’s language determining where dispensaries may operate in the city. One suit charges: “The overlay zones together with the parcel numbers and the location criteria limit the locations within the City of San Bernardino where marijuana businesses may be permitted to only approximately 3 to 5 parcels of land within the entire city, and all of these parcels of land are either owned or controlled by the proponents of Measure O…The locations of these 3 to 5 parcels of land, furthermore, are incompatible for a medical marijuana business by virtue of the locations and surrounding land uses and for this reason are in conflict with the City of San Bernardino General Plan.” Unsurprisingly, Roger Jon Diamond, the attorney for the proponents of Measure O, disputes that number and predicts the challenge will fail, noting that thirteen marijuana dispensaries and related groups that describe themselves as non-profits are operating in San Bernardino or which have invested substantial sums of money in plans to operate in San Bernardino. The soon to be out of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy city, prior to citizen adoption of Measure O, means, according to Counselor Diamond, that the dispensaries have been operating illegally, or as he put it: “There’s a concept in the law called clean hands: If you don’t have clean hands, you can’t maintain a lawsuit…Here we have people who don’t qualify (to operate a dispensary in their current location), complaining that they would not become legal under the new law. It sounds like sour grapes.”

The second, related suit, filed earlier this month, calculates a somewhat higher (not a pun) number of eligible locations—between three to twelve, but makes the same observation regarding physical location: “We think there is a financial interest in the people who wrote it up,” said Stephen Levine of Milligan, Beswick Levine & Knox: “We don’t think that is fair, because it was so narrowly constricted. Zoning by parcel numbers is a highly unusual practice in California. Let’s include Colorado and Washington State in there, too; they don’t use parcel numbers for this.” (Measure O restricts marijuana businesses to marijuana business overlay districts, which are identified by parcel number, and further prohibits the businesses from being within 600 feet of schools or residentially zoned property.) In this case, Mr. Levine is representing a consortium of property owners calling themselves AMF as well as Wendy McCammack, a business owner and former San Bernardino Councilmember. According to Mr. Levine, the plaintiffs’ interest is in possible changes in assessed property values due to the location of the dispensaries.

Getting High on the City Agenda. The City Council last week, in a closed session, discussed the lawsuit in closed session; however, City Attorney Saenz reported he was unaware aware of the lawsuit and had yet to decide upon a response to either, noting: “We haven’t totally assessed the merits of the lawsuit, nor how we’ll respond.” Nevertheless, the lawsuits’ arguments appear likely to interfere with the city’s process of incorporating Measure O into the development code and beginning to issue permits, or, as Mr. Saenz notes: “It (the AMF lawsuit) very much calls into question the validity of Measure O…Being a city of very limited resources, we don’t want to expend resources on an implementation that’s never going to occur. That would be a waste of resources.” The suits will also complicate governance: last month the city, on its website, and in a letter to interested parties, said it would provide an update in March on when the marijuana measure would be implemented: “City departments are in the process of integrating the provisions of Measure O into the City’s existing Development Code, developing procedures for receiving applications, and identifying provisions that may require interpretation and clarification prior to implementation…The San Bernardino Development Code and Measure O are both complex legal regulatory frameworks and it will require time to properly implement this new law.”

Governance & Challenges. Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has arrived in Washington, D.C., where he will meet with his colleagues at the National Governors Association and join them at the White House tomorrow; he will also dine with Vice President Mike Pence this week. Last week, in Puerto Rico, he had hosted Chairman Sean Duffy (R-Wisc.), of the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Housing & Insurance, and an author of the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act – in San Juan.  Chairman Duffy told the Governor he is available to amend PROMESA to ensure that the PROMESA oversight board treats Puerto Rico fairly, according to an office press statement. The lunch this week might occasion an interesting discussion in the wake of the Governor’s claim that the PROMESA Oversight Board’s plans for austerity may violate federal law: the Governor’s Chief of Staff, William Villafañe, this week stated: “The Fiscal Supervision Board officials cannot act outside of the law that created the body. If the board were to force the implementation of a fiscal plan that affects people’s essential services, it would be acting contrary to the PROMESA law.” His complaints appear to signify an escalation of tensions between the U.S. territory and the PROMESA Board: Mr. Villafañe added: “The [PROMESA] board is warned that it must act in conformance with the law…The commitment of Governor Ricardo Rosselló is to achieve economies that allow government efficiency, doing more with fewer expenses, without affecting essential services to the people and without laying off public employees.” If anything, Mr. Villafañe added fuel to his fire by criticizing the Board’s new interim executive director, Ramón Ruiz Comas, in the wake of Mr. Ruiz’ radio statement this week that if Gov. Rosselló did not present an acceptable fiscal plan by the end of February, the PROMESA Board would provide its own—and the plan would be deemed the legally, binding plan—in reaction to which, Mr. Villafañe had responded: “To make expressions prejudging a fiscal plan proposal that the board has not yet seen demonstrates on the part of the board improvisation and lack of a collaborative attitude for the benefit of the Puerto Rican people,” adding that “The board must be aware that the federal Congress will supervise the board.” He went on to say that when the Governor presents a fiscal plan, Congress will be aware of the way the board evaluates it.

Mr. Villafañe’s complaints and warnings extend tensions between the board and the U.S. territory: even before the Governor took office in January, a Rosselló official complained that the board was seeking a $2 billion cut in spending. On Feb. 13 the governor rejected the board’s claimed right to review bills before they are submitted to the Puerto Rico legislature. On Jan. 18 the board sent a letter to Gov. Rosselló stating that spending cuts and/or tax raises equaling 44% of the general fund would have to be made in the next 18 months. At its Jan. 28 meeting, board chairman José Carrion, for emphasis, said twice that some governor-proposed changes to the board’s Jan. 18 proposals may be OK, “as long as the ultimate fiscal plan is based on solid savings and revenue projections, a once and done approach, and not simply on hope or predictions that various changes will generate more revenues in the future.”