The Governance Responsibility to Protect a City’s Children

October 10, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we report on the physical and fiscal challenges of the Detroit Public Schools, before zooming south to assess whether the complex municipal financing in Puerto Rico’s recovery has perhaps exacerbated the U.S. territory’s debt challenges.

Protecting a City’s Children. A key challenge in Detroit’s plan of debt adjustment from the nation’s largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy was restoring trust in its public schools—a critical step if families with kids were going to move from the suburbs into the emptied city. That, of course, required making the schools not just trustworthy places for learning, but also safe—and not just safe from a gang perspective, but especially here from water contamination—Flint, not so far away, after all, is on many parents’ minds. Thus, the school district is developing plans to make drinking water safe inside its buildings, especially after a review of testing data shows one school had more than 54 times the allowable amount of lead under federal law, while another exceeded the regulated copper level by nearly 30 times. The Detroit News reviewed hundreds of pages of water reports for 57 buildings which tested for elevated levels of lead and/or copper in the water to provide a detailed look how excessive the metal levels were in the most elevated sources.

The News effort comes as Detroit Public School Superintendent Nikolai Vitti noted: “‎We discontinued the use of drinking water when concerns were identified without any legal requirement to do so, and hydration stations will ensure there is no lead or copper in all water consumed by students and staff, with the Superintendent yesterday reported the system expects to spend nearly $3.8 million enacting a long-term solution to widespread lead and copper contamination in students’ drinking water, with the cost including $741,939 to install 818 hydration stations and filters, $750,000 for water coolers until completed installation of the stations in the summer of 2019, $539,880 for environmental remediation costs, $1.2 million for maintenance services, and $282,000 for facilities maintenance—a tab unanimously approved yesterday by the Detroit Community Schools Board, with long-term plan to get drinking water flowing again inside the 106 Detroit schools after faucets were turned off ahead of the school year. The announcement followed Monday’s by Supt. Vitti, when he reported that he and the school board will reveal corporate funders for some $2 million in hydration stations he wants to install across the district.

The need, as the survey revealed, is urgent: among the elevated levels reported by the Detroit Public School District includes a kitchen faucet inside Mason Elementary-Middle School which had more than 54 times the amount of lead permitted the Safe Drinking Water Act; a drinking fountain inside Mark Twain School for Scholars was tested at more than 53 times the federal threshold; a drinking fountain on the first floor near the kitchen of Bethune Elementary-Middle School that had copper levels at nearly 30 times the permissible level—even as DPS officials still await the test results of 17 more buildings. Nevertheless, from the results so far, there is a failing grade: more than half of the 106 schools inside Michigan’s largest school district have contaminated water. Indeed, with EPA recommending lead limits of 15 micrograms per liter or 15 part per billion, water samples at Mason found extreme elevations of lead at Mason, Twain, Davis Aerospace Technical, and Bagley, and extreme levels of copper at Bethune Academy of the Americas elementary-middle school and Western International. Unsurprisingly, public health and water safety experts report that schools should use a tougher standard for lead levels, and nationally recognized Virginia Tech water expert Marc Edwards said: “Those are not good. There is no doubt there are worrisome lead levels: Whenever you take hundreds of thousands of samples in a school, you are going to get some results that are shockingly high.” At a Board of Education meeting last month, Superintendent Vitti said the most practical, long-term, and safest solution for water quality problems inside the schools would be to provide water hydration stations in every building—systems currently used in public school districts, including in Flint, Royal Oak, and Birmingham, as well as Baltimore: these stations, in addition to cooling water, more importantly remove copper, lead, and other contaminants.

Drinking water screening reports demonstrate that water was collected at some schools in April and others in August, with school district officials reporting sampling began in the district in the spring and continued through last August. In September, Superintendent Vitti said that DPS, through its environmental consulting firm, ATC Group, is following EPA protocol for collecting water samples, adding: “If testing occurred at a school after the regular school year, then it was done during summer school, where nearly 80 of our schools were offering classes,” adding that many of the schools with high levels had already identified for concern two years ago—and that those were the first group of schools to move to water coolers. Supt. Vitti initiated water testing of the 106 school buildings in May and August after initial tests results found that 16 schools showed high levels of copper and/or lead. Another eight tested for elevated levels in the spring after they were identified with concerns in 2016. Last month, the DPS District received more test results, which found an 33 additional schools with elevated contaminant levels, bringing the total number of schools with tainted water to 57 in a District already overwhelmed by some $500 million in building repair needs; moreover, the bad gnus could worsen: the total number of schools with high levels could increase as school officials await more test results on another 17 schools.

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, noted for her expertise in Flint, who is a pediatrician and public health expert, concurred that Detroit’s policymakers need to set a much more aggressive limit on allowable amounts of lead in schools. In addition, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s school sampling guidance recommends that schools address fixtures which measure above 5 micrograms per liter, the same EPA standard as bottled water, according to Dr. Hanna-Attisha; the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends an action level of just 1 microgram per liter for drinking water in child care facilities and schools. Thus, as Dr. Hanna-Attisha warns: “This should be the District’s action level,” in a letter she co-authored with Elin Betanzo, founder of Safe Water Engineering, a consulting firm—a letter with which Superintendent Vitti said he agrees.

Dr. Hanna-Attisha, who witnessed lead levels in some Flint homes reach 22,000 micrograms per liter, said U.S. EPA school sampling guidance encourages schools to sample every drinking water tap a single time unless lead is detected at greater than 20 micrograms per liter, noting: “One low single tap sample is not sufficient to clear a tap as a potential source of lead, because lead release is sporadic.” Her words come with the benefit of her experience and practice as an associate Professor of Pediatrics at the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine, as well as Director of the MSU-Hurley Children’s Hospital Pediatric Public Health Initiative. She adds: “It is not appropriate to use a single low sample that was taken as a follow-up to a high sample to conclude that a drinking tap is ‘safe to drink,’ although this is how many schools have interpreted sampling data.” Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the Director and Health Officer for the Detroit Health Department, said she recommends parents of children 6 and younger be tested for blood lead levels, because of the Motor City’s history of elevated levels for children, which has been primarily due to lead paint in homes, adding that the elevated rates in the tests were concerning: “I think, broadly speaking, I support Dr. Vitti in testing every water source in every school…For any school that comes back with elevated lead levels, the actual reasons for that school is not clear. It can be the infrastructure or the drinking fountain. Providing bottled water and other sources is the right thing to do.”

According to Michigan health officials, children are at higher risk of harm from lead, because their developing brains and nervous systems are more sensitive. Lead can cause health problems for children, including learning problems, behavior problems including hyperactivity, a lower IQ, slowed growth and development and hearing and speech problems. That risk is not just physical, but also fiscal: A key part of Detroit’s chapter 9 plan of debt adjustment approved by the U.S. Judge Steven Rhodes was its focus on the importance of provisions to give incentives for families to move back to the Motor City‒a difficult parental choice in the wake of, four years ago, the Detroit News investigation which reported that nearly 500 Detroit children had died in homicides since 2000.

Notwithstanding the terrible health tragedy in Flint, Michigan has no rules mandating the state’s school districts to test for lead in their water supply, according to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. According to the GAO, at least eight states require schools to test for lead, and many others assist with voluntary testing. Dr. Khaldun said she supports creating a state law to mandate testing of water sources inside schools—a proposal which would entail substantial costs, creating the query: who will pay—and how?

According to Tiffany Brown, a spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, the Department supports any schools which wish to test, and the Department can offer technical assistance and general information on sampling, result interpretation, and recommended remedial actions in the event of elevated lead and/or copper results, adding that there are fiscal resources “available through the Michigan Department of Education,” and that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is providing information and guidance on best management practices for drinking water in schools to protect the health of students and staff.” In the meantime, the Detroit Public School District is spending $200,000 on bottled water and water coolers for the next several months, with the cost to have stations in every school, one for every 100 students, projected to be $2 million, with Dr. Vitti noting the goal is to deliver clean water, not replace the pipes, or as he put it: “We are not looking to replace the plumbing. The stations address the issue of older plumbing along with weekly flushing.”  

Unequal Treatment? The Financial Oversight and Management Board in Puerto Rico reports that over reliance on outside consultants with conflicts of interest and the failure to invest in a competent workforce have imposed huge costs on and severely weakened the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) and other Puerto Rico government agencies, with the report including an entire chapter just on interest rate swap agreements, a complicated and high risk investment which, it estimates, has cost Puerto Rican government entities nearly $1.1 billion when they repeatedly bet the wrong way on interest rate movements—meaning that, instead of these investments reducing Puerto Rico’s debt, government entities, including PREPA, had to take on more debt to pay for the losses. It appears that the swaps, a novel means of transactions to Puerto Rico’s Government Development Bank (GDB), where officials made these interest rate bets, or, as the report found, many of the GDB Board members who were required to approve the swap transactions, “were not familiar with the mechanics and risks associated with swaps. Many told us outright they could not describe how a swap worked. Instead, the GDB Board members told us they relied on the advice presented to them by the swap advisor.” That appears to denote that the GDB board members effectively ceded control over their investments in these very risky financial instruments to a third-party swap advisor—an advisor  that earned, and will garner fees for as long as the government of Puerto Rico continued to invest in the swaps, regardless of the outcome—an outcome in this case which entailed enormous losses. Moreover, the report demonstrated that, more generally, as the financial condition of Puerto Rico deteriorated, the deals became more complex and less transparent. An example of the utility PREPA’s overreliance on an outside restructuring advisor, AlixPartners, to lead PREPA’s debt restructuring negotiations with its municipal bondholders, as well as developing PREPA’s business plan and savings initiatives, revealed that PREPA paid Alix Partners $45 million in fees for a debt restructuring deal which was ultimately rejected by the PROMESA Oversight Board, which found the proposed financial agreement called for PREPA to pay more debt than the economy of Puerto Rico could support, and as the Puerto Rico Energy Commission found that the review lacked appropriate due diligence over the ongoing fees for legal counsel, financial advisors, and underwriters that would have accrued had the PREPA restructuring deal moved forward: the Commission specifically noted that the restructuring team charged with ensuring the reasonableness of advisor fees “includes the very advisors whose fees are in question…that is not the arm’s-length relationship necessary to protect consumers from excess fees.”

Investment in Good Governance. For elected state and local leaders, over reliance on consultants can go hand-in-hand with a failure to invest in the technical capacity and expertise of government staff. As noted by a Kobre & Kim report prepared on the evolving fiscal situation in Puerto Rico, PREPA has suffered over the years from a high degree of political interference, including the appointment of hundreds of political appointees to managerial and technical positions without regard for qualifications—appointments which appear to have not only cost considerably from a fiscal perspective, but also weakened the managerial competence of the agency. However, instead of recognizing this reality and implementing labor reforms designed to sharply curtail the influence of political appointees within the agency, the PROMESA Board has instead sought an across-the-board salary freeze and benefit cuts, even as the Board recognizes that PREPA has lost 30% of its workforce since 2012 and has severe shortages of skilled workers in key areas—and that it has developed no plan for workforce training and development, effectively seeming to force PREPA to continue to depend on consultants, rather than build its own expertise.

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A Human Rights Perspective on Puerto Rico’s Fiscal and Physical Future

October 5, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we report on the consideration by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights with regard to perspectives on statehood—and whether the federal government is violating human rights in the U.S. territory created by the Jones-Shafroth Act.

Unequal Treatment? The United States, today, at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), meeting at the University of Colorado in Boulder, will defend itself from the denunciations of statesmen sectors who charge that the lack of voting rights for Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens, represents a violation of human and civil rights. In a way, that seems ironic, as the co-author of the Jones-Shafroth Act, as Governor of Colorado, before serving in the U.S. Senate, kicked the issue off, performing—in a three-piece suit—the opening kickoff in a game at Folsom Field in Boulder in a game between the U. of Colorado and the Colorado School of Mines, prior to being elected to the U.S. Senate, where he co-authored the Jones-Shafroth Act—the issue under heated debate today, where the U.S. mission to the OAS, will seek to defend against a charge filed by statespersons who are seeking censure against the U.S. for denying Puerto Ricans who live in Puerto Rico equal rights to vote and be represented in Congress—and in the electoral college. Former Gov. Pedro Rosselló Rossello and attorney Gregorio Igartúa is representing Puerto Rico. The U.S. alternate representative to the Organization of American States, Kevin Sullivan, has been requesting—in writing—since last June, the dismissal of the complaints—complaints some of which date back to 2006—which were not even admitted for consideration until last Spring, noting that the current status violates the U.S. Declaration of Human Rights. The Trump Administration response is that, under the current territorial status, Puerto Rico “has a distinctive status, in fact exceptional,” with a “broad base of self-government.” The Administration also asserts that Puerto Rico has a limited participation in federal processes, through the Presidential primaries and the election of a non-voting Representative in Congress. Attorney Orlando Vidal, who has represented former Governor Rosselló González in this process, today’s will help educate about the lack of political rights under the current territorial status, or, as he put it: “Sometimes, it is necessary that someone from the outside, as the Commission is here, and with an independent and objective point of view, clarify situations that for many, for so long plunged into this issue, it is perhaps difficult to perceive clearly,” adding, there is an easily available “friendly solution:” to direct the admission of Puerto Rico as a state. Today’s Commission session will be chaired by Margarette May Macaulay of Trinidad and Tobago.

More than a decade ago, under the George W. Bush administration, Kein Marshall, the Administration’s Director of the Justice Department’s Legal Office, appearing before the House Subcommittee on Insular Affairs, had recommended calling a referendum: “territory yes or no,” followed by, if the current status was rejected, a consultation to determine whether a governing path forward would be statehood or independence—with Mr. Marshall defending, in his testimony, the report of the Working Group of the White House which, among other things, affirmed in 2005 that the power of the Congress is so broad that, if it wanted, it has the authority to cede the island to another country.

From an international governance perspective, in the international forum, it was two years ago that, in an explanatory vote, in October of 2016, the Obama administration supported a U.N. resolution in favor of self-determination and independence; shortly before, however, on June 30, 2016, President Obama had signed the PROMESA, a statute roughly modeled after chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, except that, in imposing both a financial control board and a judicial process, the outcome, as we have seen, has been a ‘who’s on first, what’s on second’ process—with prohibitive fiscal costs, even as it creates the appearance of a denial of democracy for the U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico. It was 15 years ago that the IACHR determined, in analyzing a complaint filed by a civic group, that nations “cannot invoke their domestic, constitutional, or other laws to justify the lack of compliance with their international obligations.”

El Otro Lado. The other side, as it were, of the Jones‒Shafroth Act, was the Jones Act—an act sponsored by the co-author at the behest of the U.S. shipping industry which has vastly compromised the ability to provide assistance towards Puerto Rico’s recovery from Hurricane Maria—assistance desperately needed for this territory where an estimated 8,000 small businesses still remain shuttered—representing about 10% of the total according to the island’s Urban Retailers Association—and continues to undercut hopes for fiscal and economic recovery. The Jones Act, strongly lobbied for by the domestic shipping industry, mandates that  transportation of goods between two U.S. ports must be carried out by a vessel which was built in the U.S. and operated primarily by U.S. citizens—meaning the cost of materials to help the island recover cost far more than for other, nearby Caribbean nations—and meaning that millions of Americans, including Puerto Ricans following Hurricane Maria last year, are paying hugely inflated prices for gasoline and other consumer products which are vital to recovery—and to equity. The act mandates that carrying goods shipped in U.S. waters between U.S. ports to be U.S.-built, U.S.-registered, U.S.-owned, and manned by crews, at least 75% of whom are U.S. citizens. Mark J. Perry, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and Professor of Economics at the University of Michigan this week noted: “Because of this absurd, antiquated protectionism, it’s now twice as expensive to ship critical goods – fuel, food and building supplies, among other things – from the U.S. mainland to Puerto Rico, as it is to ship from any other foreign port in the world. Just the major damage done to Puerto Rico from the Jones Act is enough reason to tell us that now is the time – past due time – to repeal the anti-consumer Jones Act.”

As Arian Campo Flores and Andrew Scurria of Dow Jones last week pointed out, in Puerto Rica’s fiscal year which ended last June, the island’s economy had contracted by 7.6%. An estimated 8,000 small businesses remain shuttered; Teva Pharmacuticals has announced it will close a manufacturing plant in the municipio of Manati—and, manufacturing employment has decreased by 35%. More fiscally depressing: the Puerto Rico government is now projecting that its population will decline by 12% over the next five years—as an increasing number of young, educated, and trained citizens move to the mainland, leaving behind an older, poorer population.

In the Wake of the Storm

October 2, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we report on the recent one-year anniversary of Hurricane Maria’s fiscal and human destruction in Puerto Rico, trying to learn from the incredible New York Fed experts about the fiscal and physical recoveries, before journeying north to assess the state of Atlantic City’s fiscal recovery in the wake of its state takeover. Then we swing south (again) to assess the serious and fiscally challenging costs of ongoing racial segregation in the St. Louis metropolitan region.

Un Ano Duro. Jason Bram and Joelle Scally of the exceptional Liberty Street Economics team at the New York Federal Reserve, writing about the U.S. Territory’s year of hardship in the wake of Hurricane Maria nearly one year ago, described the most destructive storm to slam Puerto Rico in 90 years. They wrote that: “Maria, combined with Hurricane Irma, which had glanced the island about two weeks prior, is estimated to have caused nearly 3,000 deaths and tens of billions of dollars of physical damage. Millions went without power for weeks, in most cases months. Basic services—water, sewage, telecommunications, medical care, schools—suffered massive disruptions. While it is difficult to assign a cost to all the suffering endured by Puerto Rico’s population, we can now at least get a better read on the economic effect of the storms.” In their marvelous post, the dynamic duo examined a few key economic indicators in an effort to gauge the adverse effects of the storms and the extent of the subsequent rebound—not just for Puerto Rico, but also for its various geographic areas and industry sectors. In addition, they examined data from the New York Fed Consumer Credit Panel to assess how well households held up financially and what effects the home mortgage foreclosure and payment moratoria had, noting that, overall, even when the hurricanes struck, the island’s economy had already been “struggling with a decade-long slump and a fiscal crisis.” Thus, they noted that from the outset, the hurricanes “exacerbated a complex pre-existing problem: a population, economy, and tax base that were all in decline.” They estimated that in last year’s fourth quarter, nearly 200,000 Puerto Ricans left Puerto Rico for the mainland—noting that, according to the Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics, about 72,000 had returned by last April—leading them to guesstimate that, as of last June, about 100,000 had returned. They guesstimate a net decline at 100,000—still a 3 percent drop in the population, which had already fallen by about 12 percent (500,000) since peaking in 2005, writing: “Over the years, Puerto Rico’s population loss has contributed to a feedback loop: a lack of economic opportunity and jobs spurs out-migration, which further undermines the island’s economic prospects. Even before the storm, private-sector employment had contracted by about 12 percent since 2005. In the month after Maria, it tumbled another 7 percent…but it has since recovered significantly: as of August 2018, private-sector employment had rebounded by 5 percent from the post-storm trough and was down 2 percent from its pre-storm levels—still a “sizable drop,” but considerably less than the decline seen after some similar disasters.

With regard to overall wage and salary income, which they describe as an even more telling measure of economic vitality than employment, they wrote that those two factors took a much bigger hit than employment during and right after the storm, albeit, they found, income has since rebounded more substantially, reaching new highs early this year: average wage and salary income for these job-holders was up about 7 percent—more than 5 percentage points above the 1.6 percent rise in the CPI. However, while they found that overall employment has reversed much of its steep initial post-hurricane drop, they wrote that some regions and industry sectors have fared much worse than others, noting that, in terms of industries, the post-Maria trends have largely, but not entirely, followed typical patterns after major natural disasters. Thus they determined that the leisure and hospitality industry was one of the hardest hit‒and has been one of the slowest to recover—especially the accommodation segment, where employment plunged more than 20%—unsurprising, in that there has been such a marked decline in tourism; but they found that retail trade employment has also been hit very hard, as have education and health care services. Given the awesome storm destruction, they did find that construction employment has surged nearly 25 percent since Hurricane Maria struck—and, mayhap more surprising, professional and business services, where there has been sturdy job creation since the hurricanes—particularly in waste management and remediation.

In examining income and salary climbs, the dynamic duo determined that the main contributing factor to be the construction industry, where average pay per worker soared more than 50 percent in the first quarter from a year earlier—writing that even though construction represents only about 4 percent of private-sector employment, that surge was sufficient to raise the average substantially—especially compared to other jobs. Large, average pay outside the construction sector was still up moderately in early 2018.

Nevertheless, in assessing whether Puerto Rican workers are really better off this year than before Maria, outside of construction workers, they found that construction jobs may be going to non-Puerto Ricans: relief and rescue workers from the mainland; they also determined that there are fewer jobs in lower-wage sectors, such as restaurants and retailers, and more jobs in higher-paying industries like professional and business services—meaning there “would appear to be fewer job opportunities for many of the more vulnerable low- to moderate-income Puerto Ricans.”

They noted that local employment data, as of the end of last March, finds a “very mixed picture of the recovery:” whereas San Juan had recovered from almost all of its post-hurricane job losses by last March, nearby municipios were not far behind; however, results for other cities were mixed: they noted that Ponce, Caguas, and Mayaguez had all sustained steep job losses right after Hurricane Maria, but that Ponce’s job count had rebounded almost fully by March, whereas Mayaguez experienced partial recovery. In nearby Vieques, they reported that, as of last March, employment was still down about 40%, and that in the interior, about 20%. They wrote that it was too early to be able to assess what the resulting population changes are for the more isolated municipios.

The authors also examined mortgage payment and foreclosure moratoria impacts from the super storm in the territory, where all real property is subject to taxation, except for property which serves as a primary residence and is valued at less than $150,000, because, in the wake of the storm, a key concern had been that many homeowners would fall behind on their mortgages and possibly face foreclosure. The authors discovered some good gnus: because a number of temporary policies were implemented to provide ill-fated homeowners time to recover, including forbearance on mortgage payments, as well as a suspension of late fees and credit reporting, and a potential loan modification to avoid a big jump in payments when the forbearance ends, in addition to a moratorium on new foreclosures; those governmental actions appeared to achieve their intended aims.

Using the New York Fed Credit Panel data set, constructed from Equifax credit report data which offers insight into mortgage balances and payment behavior, both in Puerto Rico and on the mainland, they determined that, because the moratoria prevented the reporting of delinquencies for participating mortgages on credit reports, mortgage delinquency has been “muted in Puerto Rico, dropping substantially before returning roughly to the pre-storm trend. The foreclosure moratorium had the intended effect of stopping foreclosure starts: new foreclosures on credit reports went to nearly zero in the quarters after the storm, before a small uptick in the second quarter of 2018,” estimating that the total value of payments skipped during the three quarters following the storm was “at least $335 million, which we interpret as a short-term loan to mortgage-holders. Guidance on how these skipped payments will be handled has varied by lender and loan type, but a mortgage modification or a smaller second loan to be paid over the term of the mortgage are likely treatments.” Thus, the Fed noted it believed these moratoria appear to have achieved their intended effects. Nevertheless, and notwithstanding that achievement, they did not feel confident that the territory’s economy is out of the woods, writing: “First, the fiscal, economic, and infrastructure problems that were so prevalent before the hurricanes still loom. Second, much of the recent rebound in economic activity is being driven by federal aid, insurance payouts, and massive reconstruction activity—stimulus that is likely to continue for a while, but not indefinitely. Still, some credit for the economic rebound must go to the people of Puerto Rico, who have shown tremendous fortitude during this incredibly difficult year. We will continue to monitor developments across the various sectors on the island in the coming months; stay tuned to this blog for a more detailed picture of Puerto Rico’s household debt situation.”

No Longer Rolling the Die for Atlantic City’s Fiscal Future. In the wake of a release by New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy’s administration of a 64-page report recommending continued state oversight and control of Atlantic City’s fiscal future through the fall of 2021 of the state Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act, a report which Moody’s deemed a  credit positive,  with Moody analyst Douglas Goldmacher writing that State control has had a strong, positive impact on Atlantic City’s financial position, “which remains weak,” adding: “Without continued state oversight, the city’s ability to continue making substantial fiscal improvements is dubious.” Mr. Goldmacher noted that under state intervention, Atlantic City resolved long-standing tax appeals by casinos and reduced the city’s number of employees—affecting both its payroll and long-term public pension liabilities. At the same time, the state also reduced the city’s transitional aid and increased its Consolidated Municipal Property Tax Relief Act revenue, which Mr. Goldmacher said would create greater reliability with state funding and a more predictable revenue stream.

The Garden State’s five-year quasi-takeover under its Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act began in November 2016 under former Gov. Chris Christie, just after Atlantic City nearly defaulted on its debt and appeared on the verge of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, and is scheduled to endure through . Now, this thorough and comprehensive report focuses on a framework for moving forward—a framework providing a direction for the city, where success will be measured by focusing on the details and establishing processes to move forward—and to effectively implement.  Among key recommendations:

  • Frameworks need to be reinforced for the structure to be operational. The multi-party nature of the proposed coordinating structures requires strong, consistent leadership and attention to project management to make sure the different groups move forward, have meetings, and communicate regularly. They will also need to efficiently resolve the inevitable differences and turf disputes.
  • Because the plan involves so many parties, time and attention must first be paid to get them to the right tables and gain consensus on the plan; or agree on modifications consistent with the themes. Participants must be “on the island” or otherwise engaged in some manner.
  • The proposed ExecCouncil must regularly meet and its members spend the time and attention necessary to execute the plans. It must establish clear, efficient and timely decision-making and dispute resolution processes. Staff must be assigned to manage coordination and reporting on all the different efforts.
  • Breaking down silos and coordinating across multiple parties requires time and attention. The parties must make the necessary resource commitments for the effort to succeed. Slacking should not be tolerated and be promptly addressed by appropriate leaders. Maintaining momentum is critical, especially after the first rosy blush of initial meetings. The report could not address the historic and underlying challenge of the City: the need for the City’s political infrastructure; the parties, ward leaders, factions, civic associations, and political influencers to come together and align themselves to ensure that the plans are executed. Turf, power, and personality differences must be put aside or compromised if the efforts are to succeed. That will take commitment and expenditure of political and social capital to align these disparate groups.

Moody analyst Douglas Goldmacher wrote: “State control has had a strong, positive impact on the city’s financial position, which remains weak: without continued state oversight, the city’s ability to continue making substantial fiscal improvements is dubious.” Mr. Goldmacher noted that under state intervention, Atlantic City resolved long-standing tax appeals by casinos and reduced its total number of employees—even as New Jersey reduced the city’s transitional aid and increased its Consolidated Municipal Property Tax Relief Act revenue, actions which Mr. Goldmacher wrote would create greater reliability of state funding, as well as a more predictable revenue stream. He noted that, notwithstanding a surge in net cash and an improving reserves under state control, the city’s adjusted fund balance is still near zero. Atlantic City did receive a $108 million lift in 2017 thanks to tax appeal settlements with its casinos. The city’s quasi emergency manager appointed by the Governor, Jim Johnson, laid out a long-term fiscal future in the state’s report—a report which included recommended changes to municipal governance and developing a master plan for redevelopment—one recommending the city diversify its local economy beyond casino gambling.

With regard to revenues and taxation, Mr. Goldmacher urged a focus on the city’s “decimated tax base” and the fact that New Jersey’s Casino Reinvestment Development Authority has partial jurisdiction over many properties which could be developed, adding that he believed ongoing state involvement would make it “far more likely” that Atlantic City and the Authority could coordinate redevelopment efforts. The city, which currently has some $223.6 million of outstanding municipal bond debt, is rated Caa3 by Moody’s with a positive outlook, and CCC-plus with a stable outlook by S&P Global Ratings. Mr. Goldmacher noted: “While the continued oversight is a credit positive, the city is far from being financially secure…The report, which has received preliminary approval from the Governor and is being reviewed in detail, lays out a strong vision for the future. But the devil is in the details, and it remains for the city, state, and CRDA to demonstrate that they can turn this vision into a sound plan.”

The Fiscal Arch. The City of St. Louis has issued FY2018 construction permits for projects valued at $1.14 billion, levels setting a new high; indeed, In FY 2018, St. Louis issued 5,396 building permits for projects totaling $1,142,040,378 in value, a $528 million increase over the previous fiscal year, or, as Mayor Lyda Krewson noted: “These numbers are very encouraging. It shows that developers, investors, and business leaders are bullish on St. Louis…It’s exciting to see that attitude reflected in not just in words, but in actions.  I love seeing all the construction dumpsters around town.” The building permits issued include new construction and rehabs of both residential and commercial property, in addition to smaller permits for alterations or additions. The FY2018 permits also reflect some major projects underway, including the new St. Louis University hospital campus, Ballpark Village Phase II, and St. Louis Community College’s new Center for Nursing and Health Sciences. In addition, large-scale construction projects, and small- and medium-scale rehabs have also been a significant source of development over the past year: of the 7,322 housing units issued permits, 86% are located in rehabilitated buildings. Moreover, development has not been limited to the central corridor: 17 wards across the city exceeded the total building permit value compared to the previous fiscal year.

Nevertheless, not all has changed since the National Governors Association, long ago, convened for its annual meeting there: both in and beyond its city limits, there remain signs of economic decline and ongoing racial segregation: opportunities for the city’s predominantly African-American residents appear grim: while gangs appear not to be especially a problem, drugs and gun violence are. Last weekend, six citizens were slain; nevertheless, while FBI statistics show the national rate of violent crime fell by 0.9% last year, and the murder rate declined by 1.4%, St. Louis last year experienced 205 homicides—the highest murder rate of any big city in the U.S.—more challenging for its leaders: almost all of the city’s homicides take place in just a few neighborhoods: a police plot via a heat map of crimes in St Louis finds clusters of glowing red dots which demonstrate that murders typically occur close to each other, in the same distressed streets in the north. While that would seem to suggest an ability to provide a more focused and efficient response, the city’s Commander of Investigative Services, Major Mary Warnecke, notes: “We do have a homicide rate we’d love to see smaller,” but she describes a host of fiscal and physical obstacles, including: lack of staff, long-running social and economic hardships, use of drugs, and overly lax gun laws, as well as criminals who skip over the Mississippi River to nearby Illinois—which make improvements intensely difficult. She reports that her detectives clear only a dismal 52% of their murder cases, a slight gain on the past few years—in part because they rely heavily on the co-operation of witnesses, who may, unsurprisingly, not be forthcoming. Major Warnecke said her overworked 33 homicide detectives officially have 4.8 cases each, but low clearances mean cases, like bodies, pile up.

Three years ago, the headquarters created a “real time crime center”, a collection of screens to relay images from cameras all over the city, letting police monitor for trouble. Pictures are matched with reports from Shotspotter—lots of microphones in public places which record sounds of gunshots. These are instantly analyzed, letting police know precisely where and what type of weapons are in use. Police would like access to drones for better aerial footage; however, local regulations do not permit them.

Not Fiscally Petering Out. Standard & Poor’s has raised Petersburg, Virginia’s credit rating from a BB to BB+–with a positive outlook, marking the second consecutive year in the historic municipality’s fiscal recovery from near chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. S&P’s Timothy Barrett and Nora Wittstruck, after, last year, receiving a special tour, outlining the various economic opportunities and challenges within the city, this year followed up with a conference call, where, as Mr. Barrett put it: “We go through an economic update, a capital plan update, a debt update, a managerial update, and a policy practice update. I think in particular with [Petersburg], we concentrated on detailed updates on the financial progress.” Thus the S&P dynamic duo noted that a large part of S&P’s decision to raise Petersburg’s credit rating came from the city’s improved fund balance, with Mr. Barrett noting: “From our standpoint, usually the higher the reserves, the better the budgetary flexibility.” Petersburg, which came closer to filing for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy than any other municipality in the Commonwealth, has budgeted fiscal resources to continue rebuilding the fund balance; it has set a goal of building the balance back up to equal 10% of the city’s general fund—demonstrating, as Mr. Barrett put it: “One of the reasons why we continue to have a positive outlook on the city is in part because they have set those goals and outlines for themselves,” adding that the city’s actions to clear out its backlog of unpaid bills was a contributing factor to the rating upgrade—or, as Ms. Wittstruck noted: “They have essentially caught up in all those past due obligations…We regarded that as a big step in the right direction.”

Nevertheless, Petersburg still has a fiscal ways to go—its credit rating is still below investment grade, and Ms. Wittstruck and Mr. Barrett said that the city would have to remain diligent when managing finances in order for the rating to keep getting raised, with S&P noting there is a one-in-three chance the city’s rating could be raised again in the next two years: Mr. Barrett said S&P will review the rating again next year, noting there will likely be a focus on the city’s fiscal weaknesses, including weak budgetary flexibility, weak debt and contingent liability profile, and historically weak management. Nevertheless, the report found the city to sport a “strong institutional framework score” and that it had demonstrated “adequate budgetary performance,” adding that the city’s proximity to Fort Lee and Richmond was “generating significant economic activity.” Going forward, Mr. Barrett cited the city’s “economic metrics,” such as its high tax rate and relatively low-income level, as challenges city administrations will face as they not only try to achieve financial stability, but improve the overall health of the locality.

The Challenging Transition in the Wake of a State Takeover

September 25, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we report on the likely extension of the Garden State takeover of Atlantic City, because, as one of our most respected and insightful fiscal experts there, Marc Pfeiffer, the Assistant Director of Rutgers University’s Bloustein Local Government Research Center, put it: it is important for New Jersey and Atlantic City to focus on long-term challenges beyond the state takeover period. That is, Mr. Pfeiffer believes continued state oversight will be a positive for Atlantic City municipal bondholders, because it assures more fiscal discipline will be in place—or, in his own words: “You are going to have ongoing stability while the state is involved…The city will have to show that it can stand on its own.”

The Steep Road to Municipal Fiscal Recovery. In the wake of a release of a new state report, “Atlantic City, Building a Foundation for a Shared Prosperity,” [64-page report]  released by New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration, a report recommending continuation of the almost two-year-old state takeover of Atlantic City’s finances, that state governance now appears likely to last a full five years, due to “longstanding challenges” to New Jersey officials, as recommended by the Governor’s office. While the Governor, in his campaign, had, as part of his platform, a commitment to terminate the state takeover of Atlantic City, now, three-quarters of a year after taking office, the Governor appears likely to leave the state takeover in place—indeed, possibly for an additional three years.

The Murphy Administration has released a plan to assist the city to get back on its fiscal feet, a plan which benefited from input from numerous study groups, task forces, and committees, as well as a redirection of some state government funds to youth programs, and a training program for municipal department heads; that plan does not end the takeover; rather the report recommends keeping the takeover in place for the full five years called for under the 2016 law, unless signal fiscal and financial improvement is put in place before then, including the significant reduction or total elimination of Atlantic City’s reliance on state aid—or, as Gov. Murphy put it: “We had a pretty clear-eyed sense of what the challenge was…That doesn’t mean Atlantic City doesn’t need the state, that the state won’t continue to stay the course and be a partner. We’re not going away; we’re going to go out and executive this plan.”

Under New Jersey’s state takeover law gave the state broad powers, including the right to overturn decisions of the city council, override or even abolish city agencies and seize and sell assets, including Atlantic City’s much-coveted water utility. The statue empowers state overseers, in addition, to hire or fire workers, break union contracts, and restructure Atlantic City’s debt, most of which was done to varying degrees, although no major assets have been sold off.

What Is the City’s Perspective? Atlantic City Mayor Frank Gilliam has conceded the uncomfortable governance challenge under the takeover, which was initiated in November of 2016 by former Governor Chris Christie, but he notes that Gov. Murphy’s administration has been willing to listen to concerns and work with city officials, even as it has retained the final governing say-so.

How Can a State Transition Governance Back to a City? Unlike under a chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, where a federal bankruptcy court has the final say in approving (or not) a plan of debt adjustment under which governance authority reverts back to a municipality’s elected leaders, a state takeover lacks a Betty Crocker cookbook set of instructions. Gov. Murphy’s quasi-emergency manager, Jim Johnson, whom the Governor named to review Atlantic City’s transition back to local control, said the state administration should remain in place for an additional three years, unless Atlantic City’s reliance on state aid has been “substantially reduced or eliminated” and that its municipal workforce is on “solid footing.”  Under the provisions of the state takeover, enacted shortly after Atlantic City nearly defaulted on its municipal bond debt, the state was empowered to alter outstanding debt and municipal contracts—or, as Mr. Johnson wrote: “Atlantic City has a set of fiscal, operational, economic and social challenges that will only be resolved with significant direction from, and partnership with the State.”

Focus on the Fiscal Future. Mr. Pfeiffer said it is important for New Jersey and Atlantic City to focus on long-term challenges beyond the state takeover period, adding that the continued state oversight will be a positive for Atlantic City municipal bondholders, because it will assure greater fiscal discipline will be in place, or, as he put it: “You are going to have ongoing stability while the state is involved: The city will have to show that it can stand on its own.”

The report outlines a series of recommendations such, as:

  • the importance of diversifying Atlantic City’s economy beyond casinos,
  • providing increased training for senior municipal workers, and
  • purchasing data that can better track city services.

Mr. Johnson also urged Atlantic City to redirect Casino Reinvestment Development Authority funds into new development projects and toward providing increased financial support for youth programming.

Transitioning Back to Local Control. Atlantic City Mayor Frank Gilliam noted: “The citizens of Atlantic City deserve to have their local elected officials control their destiny…I am very optimistic that this is a huge step in the right direction for Atlantic City and its future.” Mr. Johnson, who was a primary challenger to the Gov. two years ago, was named after that election as a special counsel to review the state’s oversight of Atlantic City—and he came somewhat prepared thanks to his previous service as a U.S. Treasury Undersecretary for enforcement under former President Bill Clinton.

Gov. Murphy, who had been critical of the state takeover during his gubernatorial campaign, and who had criticized former Gov. Chris Christie’s administration for implementing it without support from former Mayor Donald Guardian, noted: “This is a community that needs the state’s help as a partner, not as a big-footing jamming down, taking away—you know, taxation without representation,” adding: “That doesn’t mean that Atlantic City doesn’t need the state, that the state isn’t going to stay the course and be a partner.” The Governor, soon after assuming office, had removed former Gov. Christie’s designated takeover manager Jeffrey Chiesa as the state designee to oversee the state role in Atlantic City. It should be noted, as we have previously, that Mr. Chiesa forged a number of settlements on owed casino property tax appeals and effected a $56 million reduction in Atlantic City’s FY2017 budget. All of which brings us back to the wary fiscal trepidation of Mr. Pfeiffer, because Atlantic City’s debt is still in the high risk range so favored by some casino players in the city: a CCC-plus from S&P Global Ratings and Caa3 from Moody’s Investors Service.

Post Municipal Bankruptcy Futures

September 21, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we report on the unsafe conditions of Detroit’s public schools, and dismissal by the Trump administration for self-government in Puerto Rico, and, a year after Hurricane Maria’s devastating strike on Puerto Rico and underwhelming federal response, the U.S. territory’s continued inequitable status.  Unlike in corporate bankruptcies, in municipal bankruptcies, the challenge is not how to walk away from accumulated debts, but rather how to fiscally resolve them.  

Detroit’s Future? In Detroit, where, last week, organizations gathered at the Marygrove College campus to announce a new cradle-to-career educational partnership, including a state-of-the-art early childhood education center, a new K-12 school, and the introduction of an innovative teacher education training modeled after hospital residency programs; Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has announced the closure of thirty-three more schools because of high levels of copper and/or lead, bringing the total number of schools with tainted water to 57 buildings. The Superintendent’s warning noted: “Of the results just received, 33 of 52 schools have one or more water sources with elevated levels of copper and/or lead…This means that 57 of 86 schools where test results have been provided have one or more water sources with elevated levels of copper and/or lead (this does not include the previous 10 Di-Hydro schools where copper and/or lead was detected).” He added the results were incomplete: the district is still awaiting results for 17 schools. He noted: “As you know, drinking water in these schools was discontinued as we await water test results for all schools. Although the kitchen water has only been turned off in schools where levels were determined high, we have been using bottled water to clean food in all schools: As a reminder, we have not used water to cook food in our kitchens for some time and instead have delivered pre-cooked meals to students. We plan to install filters for kitchen sinks to remedy challenges in kitchens.” Last week, the Superintendent, in a state hyper aware of the physical and fiscal threats of contaminated or unsafe water, that a $2 million water station system would address water quality issues, and School Board Member Deborah Hunter-Harvill confirmed, in the wake of the tests: “We completed our community meeting, and we’ve taken down recommendations and suggestions to make certain our kids are safe.” But who will finance the corrections is unclear: School Board member LaMar Lemmons said he supports spending $2 million to fix the water problems, and he continues to blame the state for neglecting school buildings during a decade of state control, which ended in 2017: “Under the $2 billion (spent) for new school construction and renovation, they did a terrible job. There is no excuse for these schools to not have been maintained.” Supt. Vitti said the most practical, long-term, safest solution for water quality problems inside the schools would be water hydration stations in every building, system currently in use in Flint, Royal Oak, Birmingham and in Baltimore, he noted, adding, in an email earlier this week: “Moving forward, we will continue to use water coolers district-wide and are actively working through the bid processes to make a recommendation to the board for the use of hydration stations. This will occur within the next couple of weeks. The hydration stations would be installed in all schools by next school year and replace the need for water coolers.”

The health apprehension came in the wake of, just days before the first day of class at the beginning of this month, the Superintendents’ decision to shut off drinking water inside all 106 school buildings after finding, in an initial check at 6 schools, high levels of copper and/or lead. The checks themselves are costly: they require stations in every school, one per every 100 students, with a resulting tab of $2 million, after taking into account stations in faculty rooms and gymnasiums, according to Supt. Vitti, who stated he intends to provide information to the Detroit School Board to consider next month, noting that, if the funds are approved, the system could be installed in the next school year. The delay comes at a physical and fiscal cost: the school district is spending $200,000 on bottled water and water coolers for the next several months, with Supt. Vitti reporting the cause of the water contamination is likely the result of the aging of the system’s public infrastructure, as well as older plumbing systems, warning that lower usage of water due to smaller enrollment sizes can lead to copper and lead buildup. Because DPS’ schools were built for use by thousands of students, the sharp decline in attendance has adverse effects, and, as the Superintendent noted: “The reality is our schools are vastly different: some are new, some are old. Some have outdated systems, some have outdated sinks and plumbing,” adding he had consulted with the Governor’s office, the Michigan Departments of Environmental Health, as well as Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, whose critical leadership exposed the Flint lead water crisis, noting: “They have provided lessons on Flint. They gave the recommendation for me to think about piping in general and a long-term solution.”

Despite the tragedy and ongoing Flint related litigation, Michigan has no rules mandating that public school districts test for lead in their water supply. That means, according to the Superintendent, that there are even newer schools built within the last decade which have water-quality issues, noting these problems could be blamed on inadequate piping or non-code compliant piping, adding he had i initiated water testing of DPS’ 106 school buildings last spring, with the testing evaluating all water sources, from sinks to drinking fountains—but learning that the actual source of the contamination remains uncertain—albeit the school system’s widespread infrastructure problems are likely causes: last June, a district report said it would cost $500 million to repair its buildings. The district has said it needs $29.86 million to repair or replace plumbing, according to the facilities report, not related to the current water problems.

Physical & Fiscal Recoveries. Maria was the worst storm to hit Puerto Rico in nearly a century: nearly 3,000 Americans lost their lives, according to a study commissioned by the Puerto Rican government. The storm devastated the economy: thousands of small businesses have been shuttered; some big businesses are leaving, and, in a demographic omen, the exodus of the young, productive population has accelerated. Over the last year, the island’s economy has contracted by 7.6%, according to the latest fiscal plan prepared for PROMESA Board. 

American Inequality. Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló this week asked President Trump to recognize that “Puerto Rico’s territorial status is discriminatory and allows for the unequal treatment of natural-born U.S. citizens.” In his letter to the President, coming one year in the wake of the devastating fiscal and physical impact of Hurricane Maria, the Governor wrote that Puerto Rico’s territorial status had negatively affected post-Maria recovery efforts, noting: “As we revisit all that we have been through in the last year, one thing has not changed and remains the biggest impediment for Puerto Rico’s full and prosperous recovery: the inequalities Puerto Rico faces as the oldest, most populous colony in the world.”

Gov. Rosselló, who campaigned on the promise of promoting statehood for Puerto Rico, added in his letter that FEMA’s bureaucratic processes—processes in which Puerto Rico has no say—had worked to delay disaster recovery, writing: “The ongoing and historic inequalities resulting from Puerto Rico’s territorial status have been exacerbated by a series of decisions by the federal government that have slowed our post-disaster recovery, compared to what has happened in other jurisdictions stateside.” He requested that the President reconsider a State Department request to dismiss a case in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights with regard to the U.S.’ international responsibility regarding Puerto Rico’s status—a case in which the Commission is investigating complaints that the United States is violating the human rights of its citizens in Puerto Rico, because they lack the same political rights as other U.S. citizens, including the right to vote for President unless they relocate to one of the states or the District of Columbia, and, because they have no voting representation in the Congress. The Governor added he felt “compelled to respectfully address the most egregious errors in a [State Department] missive,” which sought to dismiss Puerto Rico’s concerns, noting, especially, the Department’s reference to Puerto Rico as a “self-governing territory,” rather than what the Governor believes is really a “territorial colony,” noting that defining Puerto Rico as self-governing “ignores that Congress often uses its plenary powers over the territory to impose a multitude of federal laws without the Commonwealth’s residents having any voting representation in the U.S. Senate and only a single Resident Commissioner in the U.S. House of Representatives, who cannot vote on the floor of that chamber.” He also disputed the State Department’s assertion that Puerto Ricans are not “banned” from voting for President, writing: “[T]he only way for U.S. citizens from Puerto Rico to vote in such an election and be counted is to leave Puerto Rico. If that is not a ban, then what is?” He further wrote that the current governance upholds an “inherently racist logic that deem the people of Puerto Rico as inferior and unable to fully participate in the institutions of democratic governance.”

The letter also touches on two referenda which statehood supporters have won in Puerto Rico, but that have not been deemed official results by the Department of Justice. The most recent, in 2017, was boycotted by local opposition parties, and the ballot never received final DOJ approval.  While that referendum only had a 23% participation rate, the pro statehood vote was an overwhelming 97%.

Gov. Rosselló added his apprehension in the wake of the U.S. Justice Department’s non-approval of Puerto Rico’s 2017 referendum, noting that “after the legislature even amended the format of the vote to meet the recommendations of the U.S. Justice Department,” the Trump administration had nevertheless “failed” to certify the ballot. Thus, he noted that asking an international body to dismiss its complaint was tantamount to asking it to “turn a blind eye to an inconvenient truth, that Puerto Rico remains the unfinished business of American democracy.” Finally, Gov. Rosselló ended his letter with an appeal to President Trump’s leadership, asking him to “work together to abolish this century old territorial-colonialism once and for all: Statehood for Puerto Rico is not only about realizing Puerto Rico’s full potential. It is about America living up to its most noble values by creating a more perfect Union.” (The Trump Administration has advised the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) that if Puerto Ricans want to vote for President, nothing prevents the government of Puerto Rico from calling for a referendum to determine the position of its residents regarding candidates for the U.S. Presidency—a referendum which, however, would be symbolic.)

The apparent position of the Trump Administration reflects its views that Puerto Ricans, in addition to being able to participate in Presidential primary elections, they may also, according to Kevin Sullivan, the U.S. Deputy Representative to the Organization of American States (OAS), organize and vote in presidential elections. Thus the U.S. representative asked the inter-American tribunal to dismiss the independent complaints filed by lawyer Gregorio Igartua and former governor Pedro Rossello alleging that the lack of participation of Puerto Rico’s residents in Presidential and Congressional elections represents a violation of their human and civil rights. Secretary Sullivan, who asserted that the government of Puerto Rico maintains a “broad” self-government, in a recently disclosed communication from the end of last June, maintained that within the colonial relationship with the U.S. territory, there are some electoral processes related to the federal government. Within this group of electoral processes, he thus sought to highlight as significant the ability for Puerto Ricans to vote in those for presidential primaries, as well as for its non-voting delegate in the U.S. House of Representatives.  Nevertheless, Secretary Sullivan recognized Puerto Ricans’ first vote in favor of statehood via the June 2017 plebiscite, describing that vote as having launched a process of requesting statehood before Congress, which outcome the “United States cannot predict.”

Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez, Puerto Rico’s non-voting Member of Congress, said she would have preferred the recognition of the undemocratic nature of the territorial status, and that statehood remains as “the only viable political status with a relationship with the United States, not territorial and not colonial.”

Puerto Rico Progressive Party representative Jose Aponte noted that it seemed unfortunate “at this point” that the federal government intends to develop some theory with regard to Puerto Rico’s self-government, especially in the wake of enacting the PROMESA law, thereby imposing the PROMESA Board, likening it to colonialism, and emphasizing what he views as Secretary Sullivan’s specious claim in which he advises Puerto Rican leaders that Puerto Ricans, “if they wish…are also free to move to any state,” noting: “It is hypocritical to hide the fact that they have a regime in which we cannot govern with the faculties and minimum rights that any human being deserves.”

Promising Good Gnus? Even if perceived by many Puerto Ricans as colonial overseers, the PROMESA Board, acting in a quasi-Emergency Manager role, such as Kevyn Orr did in putting together and managing the plan of debt adjustment for Detroit, is offering some hope for fiscal promise, as the Board is poised to lift its fiscal forecast and predicting a budget surplus in the wake of the recovery from the devastating Hurricane Maria, predicting a cumulative surplus, prior to debt payments, of in excess of $20 billion through 2058, or 500% greater than its quasi plan of debt adjustment certified by the PROMESA Board last June. PROMESA Board Executive Director has indicated that plan will be certified “in the coming weeks,” adding: “The changes in the fiscal plan will come from new data in actual FY18 revenue and expense figures, budget to actuals, and disaster spending.” Earlier last summer, the PROMESA Board, in certifying the most recent fiscal plan, had estimated that Puerto Rico would have a cumulative surplus of about $4 billion over the next four decades; the new projection, incorporating higher than expected disaster aid and tax receipts, would lift that projection to more than $20 billion.

Is There Second Class U.S. Citizenship?

eBlog

September 18, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we report on the dismissal by the Trump administration for self-government in Puerto Rico, and await today’s PROMESA Board oversight hearing. We also examine pro-active efforts by the government to reduce future hurricane vulnerability on the island.   

Is There A Second Class U.S. Citizenship? The Trump administration has dismissed complaints filed by pro-statehood supporters, emphasizing that nothing prevents anyone from Puerto Rico who wishes to participate in the electoral process from moving to the mainland—with Kevin Sullivan, the Deputy Chief of Mission for the U.S. to the Organization of American States coming in response to complaints filed 12 years ago by former Governor Pedro Rossello and attorney Gregorio Igartua.  The complains are to be considered October 5th at an Inter-American Commission on Human Rights public hearing, as part of the 169th session of the OAS autonomous body, at the University of Colorado. According to Deputy Chief Sullivan’s communication with IACHR Executive Director, Paulo Abrao,  nothing in the American Declaration (of Human Rights) suggests that OAS member states cannot maintain federal systems in which their citizens participation in local and federal elections is determined by their residence or the state of the federal entity where they reside. Mr. Sullivan asserted that Puerto Rico’s current political status is not inconsistent with the American Declaration of Human Rights, and he defended the quasi-colonial position by arguing that it allows a limited participation, because Puerto Ricans can participate in voting in Presidential primaries, and they have the right to elect a non-voting Member to Congress. Mr. Sullivan went on to note that although Puerto Rico does not have state sovereignty, he claimed it has a “distinctive, in fact exceptional, status” with a “broad base of self-government.” Just over a year ago, Puerto Ricans, by referendum, voted for statehood for the first time on June 11, 2017, effectively initiating what Mr. Sullivan deemed a “political process,” the outcome of which, he said, “cannot be predicted by the United States,” even as he admitted that other territories’ petitions have been accepted. He added that Puerto Rican residents, who are U.S. citizens, are also free to move to any state, if they wish.

Proactive Shelter from the Next Storm. Luis Burdiel Agudo, Puerto Rico’s President of the state-owned Economic Development Bank, has recommended making aid to homeowners rebuilding after Hurricane Maria contingent on their relocating out of flood-prone areas, with the President of the state-owned Economic Development Bank, warning: “We need to move families to a safe place.”  Most local governments give homeowners the choice between raising their house or taking a buyout to move somewhere safer; however, elevating one’s home costs around $44,000, according to government estimates—an especially high bar in Puerto Rico, where the median income is $20,078, and the poverty rate is 43.5%‒the median home value is about $100,000. Those who remain in flood-prone areas also require flood insurance, which is difficult to obtain given the low-income rate in the Commonwealth. Nevertheless, Puerto Rico is withholding aid entirely unless residents move. 

Federal Assistance & Hard Choices. The federal government is expected to provide $20 billion in federal funding to rebuild after Hurricanes Irma and Maria, and to better prepare for future storms—creating an almost Scylla versus Charybdis choice: thousands of the more than 100,000 homeowners on the island will have to choose between staying in their current property or rebuilding their homes. 

Could There Be Promise in PROMESA? The PROMESA Oversight Board is soliciting feedback on its report on the causes and development of Puerto Rico’s debt crisis, the Board’s Special Claims Committee set to “pursue claims from the results” of a debt investigation, and a hearing set for today in San Juan—a hearing which will be streamed live on the Board’s website—with audio available in both English and Spanish. Board members Andrew Biggs, Arthur González, Ana Matosantos, and David Skeel are on the Special Claims Committee. The debt report includes a section which lays out numerous ways Puerto Rico’s municipal bonds and the steps that led to their issuance may have run afoul of laws and regulations. One issue which might or might not be addressed will be with regard to federal allocations promised to Puerto Rico to mitigate the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria—some $41 billion, especially because authorities estimate that less than a quarter of those funds have, in fact, been disbursed. Moreover, the promised, but unreceived amount appears to be less than half the projected level of $100 billion needed to complete reconstruction. According to the data offered by the US government and Puerto Rico, Puerto Rico’s El Nuevo Día has only been able to detail disbursements of approximately $7.640 billion to government entities, businesses, and families in Puerto Rico. Omar Marrero, the Director of the Central Recovery and Reconstruction Office (CRRO), noted: “The reimbursement process has been really hard, particularly when FEMA has imposed some requirements on us as if we were a risk jurisdiction, when we were not declared so.” At the same time, the government of Puerto Rico has not managed yet to get funds flowing from the permanent project program under §428 of the Stafford Act, which will guide most repairs and new constructions. Director Marrero argues that the continued “discriminatory treatment” is an example of Puerto Rico’s lack of political power due to its territorial status. If anything, in the wake of the Whitefish scandal, attention on the management of emergency funds has increased, and, as recently as last weekend, President Trump fanned the idea that the government of Puerto Rico is one of the most corrupt in the country.

To date, the bulk of the federal assistance has come via Congressional resolutions, with the distribution mainly through HUD, FEMA, and the Department of Health and Human Services: half of the allocations were made through the CDBG Disaster Recovery program; however, not even the first $1.5 billion has been made available—funds which were to be allocated last month to assist with the reconstruction of houses destroyed or damaged by the hurricane. Director Marrero noted: “It is still necessary to sign the agreement between HUD and the Puerto Rico Department of Housing. Without that contract, the funds cannot be disbursed,” adding that second part of the CDBG-DR package, which would reach $ 8.2 billion, will not arrive until next year, which would delay its impact on the economy and the development of infrastructure projects. He added that the funds are more important, especially because FEMA did not approve granting federal assistance for permanent reconstruction work, “based on having a bad experience with that program.” The wait may be understood as especially stressful, because the potential aid package from Congress includes nearly $2 billion in CDBG funding which must be used to rebuild the power grid. With the hurricane season still vicious, there are obvious fears at the delay. Thus, Puerto Rico is pressing to reactivate exemptions in the payment of part of the cost for debris removal and taking emergency measures in the face of a natural disaster. The disaster has also re-demonstrated a double standard: in the Lone Star State, Texas, where Hurricane Harvey caused $125 billion in damage, according to the National Hurricane Center, FEMA claimed it provided $13.820 billion in “the pockets of survivors” via federal and state grants, and flood insurance programs ($ 8.8 billion). In Puerto Rico, however, the percentage of homes with FEMA insurance is minimal.

Stormy Fiscal Warnings. Moody’s has warned that a “large part of the money (FEMA assistance) will not remain on the island,” a fiscal storm warning which could undercut Puerto Rico’s expectations of 2019 6.5% economic growth. Some of that projection assumes the government will be able to efficiently take advantage of the $4.8 billion in extra Medicaid assistance it received—funds which can be used until next September without a local match. Nevertheless, Puerto Rico must plan on the resumption of its contribution to the Mi Salud plan—a plan which will be complicated by the apprehension that Medicaid emergency funds may run out during in FY2020—an exhaustion which could carry a price tag of as much as $1 billion.

Has There Been a Double Standard? In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which sent a number of us from Arlington County, Virginia hurtling to Mississippi to try to assist in rebuilding, and which leveraged Congress to name a bipartisan committee, a mere seventeen days after the storm struck, to investigate the Bush Administration’s response to the storm, with, in the Senate, twenty-two FEMA oversight hearings in six months—and within eight months, the release of 500-plus-page investigations into the Bush administration’s handling of the crisis—investigations with dozens of recommendations for reform; there has been no comparable reaction from this Congress to a storm which caused a much greater loss of American lives—nearly 70% more. The U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which oversees FEMA, has held just two hearings; neither the House nor the Senate has issued any major reports. Hurricane Maria, according to George Washington University’s report, killed an estimated 2,975 Americans in Puerto Rico—an estimate which, last week, the President claimed was a fake number. Or, as Irwin Redlener, the Director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University put it: “Puerto Rico is getting far less attention, in spite of it being one of the worst disasters in modern American history, than Katrina, and far less attention than we got for Superstorm Sandy…From the beginning, the handling of Maria’s consequences both from the White House and Congress has been abysmally inadequate.” Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of Katrina’s Gulf Coast devastation, House GOP leaders called for an investigation; they created a select committee to investigate the storm. That committee held nine public hearings; it reviewed more than 500,000 pages of documents, according to the 582-page report, titled “A Failure of Initiative,” which was released less than six months after Katrina struck. The Senate conducted its own investigation into the Bush administration’s response to Katrina, with the Senate Committee on Government Affairs holding nearly two dozen hearings with 85 witnesses; the Committee reviewed over 838,000 pages of documents; it heard testimony from 325 persons involved in the response. Many of the hearings focused on narrow issues, such as search-and-rescue efforts after the storm. In this Congress, in contrast, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has held two hearings related to the 2017 hurricane season, and it has reviewed more than 17,000 documents.  Last week, Ranking House Oversight Committee Member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) released a report complaining about a lack of hearings and responsible oversight—a report which might have triggered Chairman Tray Gowdy (R-S.C), Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, to FEMA to request all communications from 13 FEMA officials related to 10 different aspects of FEMA’s response to the storm, including the lack of qualified personnel, wiring issues with the electrical system and problems with existing disaster plans. It was just the second letter requesting information about FEMA sent by the committee and the first since Oct. 11, 2017.

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.