Unretiring Municipal Fiscal Challenges

May 22, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we return to the small municipality of Harvey, Illinois, where an aging population has fiscally sapped the town’s treasury, before exploring the disparate hurricane response treatment for Puerto Rico.

Municipal Pension Insolvency? In the Land of Lincoln, ranked the most financially unstable state in the nation according to a new S.S. News and World Report ranking by McKinsey & Co., some Illinois legislators are considering rolling back enforcement of a 2011 pension delinquency statute to help other Illinois municipalities avoid Harvey’s fiscal and physical dilemma between municipal taxes and public safety (Harvey underpaid its police and fire pensions by $2.9 million in 2016.)—with the efforts in Springfield coming in the wake of state action setting a precedent in retaining tax revenues it had collected to distribute to Harvey, because the small municipality had failed to make its pension payments. Indeed, so far this year, in the wake of the court’s decision withholding tax revenues collected by the state on behalf of Harvey; the Illinois Comptroller, in the wake of a court decision, has withheld more than $1.8 million in tax revenues from Harvey, forcing the city to lay off firefighters and police officers.

In response, State Sen. Napoleon Harris (D-Harvey) has proposed a bill, 40 ILCS 5/4-109, which would defer those tax revenue collections back to 2020; his bill would also create exceptions for distressed communities, such as Harvey, as Sen. Harris reminded his colleagues: “There’s going to be many other municipalities unable to pay these skyrocketing pension costs as well as continue to [provide] the public services that the citizens need and demand,” as he testified before the Illinois Licensed Activities and Pensions Committee, which approved amendments to his bill. The legislative action came as analysts at Wirepoints, an Illinois government watchdog group, have warned that Harvey is not alone—finding there to be more than 200 municipalities at similar risk of state tax withholdings in order to ensure the continuity of pension payments—payments protected under the Illinois Constitution. To date, Danville, the County seat of Vermillion County, a municipality of about 31,600 120 miles south of Chicago; East St. Louis, and Kanakee appear to be in the most desperate fiscal binds. In Danville, the municipality recently adopted a fee, the revenues for which would go directly to finance the municipality’s public pension obligations; Kanakee’s leaders voted to raise taxes.

In response to the fiscal and equity crisis, both Republicans and Democrats in the Illinois Legislature have questioned why there was no state oversight of delinquent municipalities like Harvey; nevertheless, Sen. Harris’ proposed legislation has been reported to the full Illinois Senate—that in a state ranked the most financially unstable in the country by U.S. New and World Report, based upon McKinsey & Company’s 2018 ranking of the nation’s most fiscally unstable states: the report considered credit rating and state public pension liability to rank states on long-term stability; for the near term, the report measured each state’s cash solvency and budget balance. Indeed, Illinois’ public pension debt, currently estimated at $130 billion, but measured as high as $250 billion by Moody’s last summer, was a factor in Moody’s analysis. Even Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner recognizes the epic scope of the fiscal problem, describing Illinois as the most financially unstable state in the nation.

For Illinois legislators, the fiscal dilemma is made more difficult by what Illinois State Sen. Bill Haine (D-Alton) reminded his colleagues: “We’re gonna see in the paper that the state waives the amounts due, and then they’re going to read that the Aldermen there are getting paid $100,000 a year,” even as he, nevertheless, voted for the bill. (In FY2017, the City of Harvey allocated $240,000 in wages for six aldermen—wages which did not account for public pension contributions and other “fringe benefits” that the budget lists—or, as Michael Moirano, who represents the Harvey Police Pension fund put it: “We cannot continue to do that and hope to resolve these pension issues,” adding that even though negotiations are underway to reach an agreement with the City of Harvey, the proposed “bill will make a mutually agreeable resolution impossible.”

Meanwhile in Springfield, where Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza has certified Harvey’s delinquency, a spokesperson noted: “The Comptroller’s Office does not want to see any Harvey employees harmed, or any Harvey residents put at risk…but the law does not give the Comptroller discretion in this case.” Similarly, Sen. Harris told his colleagues: “There’s going to be many other municipalities unable to pay these skyrocketing pension costs as well as continue to [provide] the public services that the citizens need and demand.”

Powering Up? For more than a week, Puerto Rico’s non-voting U.S. Representative Jennifer Gonzalez has been urging  FEMA to extend the contract under which mainland power crews have been helping repair the U.S. territory’s power grid—a request that FEMA has denied, meaning that line restoration crews hired by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will work to restore power in Puerto Rico, leaving the rest of the job to crews working for Puerto Rico’s public utility, PREPA, as, eight months after Hurricane Maria’s devastation, as many as 16,000 homes remain without power. With the Corps’ current work force of about 700 line workers scheduled to end their service this Friday, time is running out. Officials for PREPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the agency which hired the mainland contractors at FEMA’s request, have reported they expect everyone on the island to have power restored by the end of this month—the day before the official start of the Atlantic hurricane season. However, in her urgent extension request, Rep. Gonzalez expressed doubts that PREPA had the resources to complete the job quickly, writing: “I must urge that there be an extension of the mission that allows agency and contract crews to remain in place to see that the system is 100 percent restored.”

There appear, however, to be some crossed governance wires: Mike Byrne, who is in charge at FEMA of the federal response, wrote last Thursday that his decision not to extend the line restoration contract came “per the direction provided by the Energy Unified Command Group and confirmed by the PREPA Chief Executive Officer,” Walter Higgins. (The Energy Unified Command Group is the multi-agency group coordinating the power restoration effort, comprising FEMA itself, the Army Corps, which reports to FEMA, and PREPA.) In addition, it appears that some of the most challenging work awaits: sites still waiting for power are among the most difficult to reach because of mountainous and forested terrain. They include areas in the municipalities of Arecibo, Caguas, Humacao, and in Yabucoa, the city where Hurricane Maria made its initial, destructive landfall–a municipio founded in October 3, 1793 when Don Manuel Colón de Bonilla and his wife, Catalina Morales Pacheco, donated the lands to the people.

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Intergovernmental Federalism Fiscal Recovery Challenges

March 26, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing fiscal challenges to Connecticut’s capitol city of Hartford, and the fiscal challenges bequeathed to the Garden State by the previous gubernatorial administration, before wondering about the level of physical and fiscal commitment of the U.S. to its U.S. territory of Puerto Rico.

Capitol & Capital Debts. The Hartford City Council is scheduled to vote today on whether to approve an agreement between the city and the state on a fiscal arrangement under which the state would pay off Hartford’s general obligation debt of approximately $550 million over the next two decades as part of the consensus seemingly settled as part of the Connecticut state budget—an agreement under which the state would assume responsibility to finance Hartford’s annual debt payments, payments projected to be in excess of $56 million by 2021, while the city would continue to make payments on its new minor league ballpark, about $5 million per year—a fiscal pact described by Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin as the :”[K]ind of long-term partnership we’ve been working for, and I’m proud that we got it done.” Mayor Bronin is pressing Council to vote before April Fool’s Day, which happens to be the city’s deadline for its next debt payment: if executed by then, the state would pay the $12 million which Hartford currently owes, under the provisions in the current state fiscal budget which, when adopted, had pledged tens of millions of dollars in additional fiscal assistance to the state capitol, fiscal assistance regarded as vital to avert a looming chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy—and, under which, similar in a sense to New Jersey’s Atlantic City, the aid provided included the imposition of state oversight. The effect of the state fiscal assistance meant that in the  current fiscal year, Connecticut would assume responsibility for Hartford’s remaining debt of $12 million; in addition, the state is to provide Hartford another $24 million to help close the city’s current budget deficit—and, in future years, assume the city’s full debt payment. The agreement provides that the state could go further and potentially finance additional subsidies to the city. Mayor Bronin had sought approximately $40 million in extra aid each year, in addition to the $270 million the city already receives—albeit, the additional state aid comes with some fiscal strings attached: a state oversight board, as in Michigan and New Jersey, is authorized to restrict how the municipality may budget, and finance: contracts and other documents must be run by the panel, and the board will have final say over new labor agreements and any issuance of capital debt. Going further, under the provisions, even if the oversight board were to go out of existence, Hartford’s fiscal authority would still be subject to state oversight: e.g. if the city wished to make its required payment to the pension fund, such payment(s) would be subject to oversight by both the Connecticut Treasurer and the Secretary of Connecticut’s Office of Policy and Management—where a spokesperson noted: “Connecticut cannot allow a city to default on its bond obligations or financially imperil itself for the foreseeable future: This action will ultimately best position Hartford to move into a better financial future.”

Mayor Bronin, in reflecting on the imposition of state fiscal oversight, noted that while the state assistance would help offset Hartford’s escalating deficits, deficits now projected to reach $94 million by 2023, noted: “This debt transaction does not leave us with big surpluses: “We’re looking to achieve sufficient stability over the next five years, and we can use that period to focus on growth.” Hartford Council President Glendowlyn Thames likewise expressed confidence, noting: “This plan is really tight, and it’s just surviving: We have to focus on an economic development strategy that gets us to the point where we’re thriving.”

State Fiscal Stress. For its part, with less than a week before the state enters its final fiscal quarter, the Connecticut legislature still has its own significant state debt issue to resolve—with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy warning he still expects the state legislature will honor a new budget control it enacted last fall to help rebuild the state’s modest emergency reserves, stating: “I don’t think I have given up any hope, or all hope” that legislators will close the $192 million projected shortfall in the fiscal year which ends June 30th; however, the Governor also said legislative leaders professed commitment to both write and commit to a new, bipartisan budget may be waning, stating: “The grand coalition seems to be fraying, and I think that’s what gives rise to the inability to respond to the budget being out of balance,” he said, referencing last October’s grand bargain under which there was bipartisan agreement on a new, two-year plan to balance state finances—an agreement achieved in a process excluding the Governor, who, nevertheless, signed the budget to end the stalemate, despite what he had described as significant flaws, including a reliance on too many rosy assumptions, hundreds of millions of dollars swept from off-budget and one-time sources, as well as unprecedented savings targets the administration had to achieve after the budget was in force. Indeed, meeting that exacting target is proving elusive: the fiscal gap in January exceeded $240 million in January, before declining to the current $192 million: it has yet to meet the critical 1% of the General Fund threshold—a threshold which, if exceeded, mandates the Comptroller to confirm, and triggers a requirement for the Governor to issue a deficit-mitigation plan to the legislature within one month.

The new state local fiscal oversight arrangement provides that, even if the state oversight board goes away, the city’s fiscal practices would remain subject to state oversight—where any perceived failures would subject the city fiscal scrutiny by the Connecticut Treasurer and the Secretary of Connecticut’s Office of Policy and Management, a spokesperson for which noted: “Connecticut cannot allow a city to default on its bond obligations or financially imperil itself for the foreseeable future: This action will ultimately best position Hartford to move into a better financial future.” Hartford City Council President Glendowlyn Thames asserted her confidence with regard to the contract, but noted more work needed to be done: “This plan is really tight, and it’s just surviving: We have to focus on an economic development strategy that gets us to the point where we’re thriving.”

Post Christie Garden State? New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, in his first post Chris Christie fiscal challenge is targeting state tax incentives as a potential source of revenue for the cash-starved state, noting, in his first fiscal address earlier this month that $8 billion in corporate state tax credits approved by the New Jersey Economic Development Authority under former Gov. Chris Christie had made the state’s fiscal cliff even steeper to scale, noting that one of his first fiscal actions was to sign an executive order directing the state Comptroller’s office to audit the New Jersey Economic Development Authority’s tax incentive programs, dating back to 2010 (the current program is set to expire in 2019), describing the programs as “massive giveaways, in many cases imprecisely directed, [which] will ultimately deprive us of the full revenues we desperately need: “These massive giveaways, in many cases imprecisely directed, will ultimately deprive us of the full revenues we desperately need to build a stronger and fairer economic future,” as the new Governor was presenting his $37.4 billion budget to the Garden State state legislature, noting: “We were told these tax breaks would nurse New Jersey back to health and yet our economy still lags.” Under his Executive Order the Gov., in January, had directed Comptroller Philip James Degnan to examine the Grow New Jersey Assistance Program, the Economic Redevelopment and Growth Grant Program, and other programs which have existed under the NJEDA since 2010 when former Gov. Christie assumed office: the audit is aimed at comparing the economic impact from projects that received the tax breaks with the jobs and salaries they created: it is, as a spokesperson explained: “[A]n important opportunity to evaluate the effectiveness of the State’s existing incentive programs.” New Jersey Policy Perspective, in its perspective, notes that the $8.4 billion of tax breaks NJEDA approved under former Gov. Christie compared to $1.2 billion of subsidies awarded during the previous decade, subsidies which the organization frets have hampered New Jersey’s fiscal flexibility to fund vital investments such as transportation and schools. Indeed, a key fiscal challenge for the new Governor of a state with the second lowest state bond rating—in the wake of 11 downgrades under former Gov. Christie, downgradings caused by rising public pension obligations and increasing fiscal deficits—will be how to fiscally engineer a turnaround—or, as Fitch’s Marcy Block advises: “It’s always a good idea for a new administration to see what the tax incentives program is like and what potential revenue they are missing out on,” after Fitch, last week, noted that the new Governor’s budget proposes $2 billion in revenue growth, including $1.5 billion from tax increases,” adding that the Governor’s proposed plan to readjust the Garden State’s sales and use tax back up to 7% from the 6.625% level it dropped to under former Gov. Christie was a “positive step” which would provide $581 million in additional revenue, even though it would impose strict fiscal restraints: “These increased revenues would go to new spending and leave the state with still slim reserves and reduced flexibility to respond to future economic downturns through revenue raising: The state has significant spending pressures, not only due to the demands of underfunded retiree benefit liabilities, but also because natural revenue increases resulting from modest economic growth in recent years have gone primarily towards the phased-in growth in annual pension contributions.”

For his part, Gov. Murphy has emphasized that while he opposes many of the state tax expenditures doled out by the former Christie administration, a $5 billion incentives program that the NJEDA’s Grow New Jersey Program is offering Amazon to build its planned second headquarters in Newark would be a positive for the state. (Newark is on Amazon’s short list of 20 municipalities it is considering for a new facility that could house up to 50,000 employees: the city is offering $2 billion in tax breaks of its own to create $7 billion in total subsidies.) The Governor noted a win here would be “a transformative moment for our state: It could literally spur billions of dollars in new investments, in infrastructure, in communities and in people,” as he noted that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has grown jobs at a rate seven times greater than New Jersey in recent years, despite only spending $22,000 in economic incentives per job compared to $160,000 for each job in New Jersey, noting that other priorities beyond taxes are important to lure businesses, such as investments in education, workforce housing, and infrastructure: “Even with these heralded gifts, our economic growth has trailed almost every other competitor state in the nation in literally almost every category: “Massachusetts and our other competitor states are providing businesses a greater value for money and with that value in hand they are cleaning our clocks.”

Free, Free at Last? Announcing that “We’ve reached an agreement that is beneficial both for the taxpayer and for the people of Puerto Rico,” referring to a pact that is to lead to the release of some held up $4.7 billion in federal disaster recovery assistance reached between Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello and U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, the pair has announced at the end of last week agreement on the release of some $4.7 billion in disaster recovery loans which Congress had signed off on six months ago—but funds which Sec. Mnuchin had delayed releasing on account of disagreement over the terms of repayment, describing it as a “super-lien” Community Disaster Loan. After a meeting between the two, the new, tentative agreement would allow Puerto Rico access to the fiscal assistance once the cash balance in its treasury falls below $1.1 billion—a level more than the Secretary’s initial request of $800 million. (As of March 9th, U.S. territory had about $1.45 billion in cash.) The agreement ended half a year of tense negotiations over what were perceived as discriminatory loan conditions compared to the terms under which federal assistance had been provided to Houston and Florida in the wake of the hurricanes. Indeed, Gov. Rossello had written to Congress that the Treasury was demanding that repayment of those loans be given the highest priority, even over the provision of essential emergency services in Puerto Rico—even as the Treasury was proposing to bar Puerto Rico’s eligibility for future loan forgiveness. Under the new agreement, the odd couple have announced that the revised agreement would grant high priority to repayment of the federal loans—not above the funding of essential services, but presumably above the more than $70 billion Puerto Rico owes to its municipal bondholders. From his perspective, Sec. Mnuchin noted: “We want to make sure that the taxpayers are protected: It’s not something we’re going to do for the benefit of the bondholders, but it is something we would consider down the road for the benefit of the people if it’s needed,” opening the previously slammed door for access by Puerto Rico to the full amount approved by Congress, more than double the amount the Trump Administration had sought to impose. Nevertheless, notwithstanding the agreement, the terms must still be agreed to by Puerto Rico’s legislature, the PROMESA oversight board, and the federal court overseeing the quasi-chapter 9 bankruptcy proceedings. Under the terms of the agreement, Puerto Rico may borrow up to $4.7 billion if its cash balances fall below $1.1 billion. (Puerto Rico’s central bank account had $1.45 billion as of March 9th.) Governor Rosselló described the federal loan as one which will have a “super lien: There will be a lien within the Commonwealth, but it won’t be a lien over the essential services…I think both of our visions are aligned. We both want the taxpayer to be protected, but we also want the U.S. citizen who lives in Puerto Rico to have guaranteed essential services. And both of those objectives were agreed upon,”  noting that the U.S. government frequently forgives these types of loans. For his part, Secretary Mnuchin said the topic of loan forgiveness would be dealt with later “based on the facts and circumstances at the time,” and that, if and when the topic came up, the Treasury would consult with FEMA, the Congressional leadership and the administration, noting: “It’s not something we’re going to do for the benefit of bondholders, but it is something we would consider down the road for the benefit of the people of Puerto Rico.” The discussions come as the Commonwealth continues in the midst of its Title III municipal-like bankruptcy process affecting more than $50 billion of Puerto Rico’s $72 billion of public sector debt—with a multiplicity of actors, including: Puerto Rico’s legislature, the PROMESA Oversight Board, and Title III Judge Laura Taylor Swain. Under the terms, Puerto Rico would be allowed to draw upon the money repeatedly, as needed, according to Gov. Rossello, who noted that the U.S. Virgin Islands has already taken four draws totaling $200 million. The access here would be to fiscal resources available until March 2020.

Municipio Assistencia. In addition to the federal terms worked out for the territory, the new terms also provide that the U.S. Treasury will be making loans available for up to $5 million to every Puerto Rico municipality. FEMA is planning to make more than $30 billion available for rebuilding, while HUD is considering grants of more than $10 billion—leading Sec. Mnuchin to add: “There’s a lot of money to be allocated here, and I think it is going to have an enormous impact on the economy here: I think we are well on the path to a recovery of the economy here.” The Secretary added he would be returning to Puerto Rico on a quarterly basis to meet with the Governor, assess progress, and examine the island’s economy. His announcement came as the federal government is scaling back the number of contractors working on Puerto Rico’s electrical grid—critical work on an island where, still today, an estimated 100,000 island residents still lack power, with, last week, the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing testimony from U.S. officials about bureaucratic challenges to power-restoration efforts, leading to bipartisan questioning about the drawdown of personnel there by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps, which brought in Fluor and PowerSecure as contractors to spearhead reconstruction of damaged transmission and distribution lines, has already reduced the number of contract workers by nearly 75%, according to tweets from the official Army Corps Twitter account, even as nearly 100,000 customers still lack service. Worse, of the restoration challenge remaining, the bulk is projected to fall mostly on Puerto Rico’s bankrupt public power utility, PREPA, especially after, last week, Fluor halted its subcontract efforts. Despite the Corps pledge to “do all possible work with the funds available” before the contractors leave Puerto Rico, access to vital construction materials, such as concrete poles, transformers and conductors were in short supply, and the Army Corps struggled to purchase and transport materials quickly enough, hindered, no doubt, in part by the discriminatory shipping rules (the Jones Act), increasingly forcing linemen to scrounge for replacement parts. The Corps has acknowledged the supply shortages, noting that natural disasters last year in Texas, Florida, and California strained supplies of construction materials across the U.S. Twelve Democratic Senators have written to Army Corps officials to inquire whether keeping its contractors in place would accelerate the timetable for power restoration—PREPA, last week, reported last week that 32% of the 755 towers and poles that were downed by Hurricane Maria still have not been repaired, and that, of 1,238 damaged conductors and insulators, 28% have not. Rep. Jenniffer González-Colón, Puerto Rico’s Republican delegate to Congress, in a letter to Army Corps officials last week, wrote: “The average citizen on the street in those communities cannot tolerate even the perception that at this point we will begin to wind down the urgent relief mission and that the process of finishing the job will slow down.”

Federalism obstacles to Puerto Rico’s Fiscal and Physical recovery.

February 28, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the federalism obstacles to Puerto Rico’s fiscal and physical recovery.

Puerto Rico’s Obstacles to Recovery. 78 mayors are set to meet today with Governor Ricardo Rossello Nevarez and representatives of the Army Corps of Engineers to discuss the delay in the restoration of the island’s energy system—a meeting at which they intend to present the Governor with other problems they confront in their municipios or municipalities in the wake of the hurricane. Since last November, and only weeks after the goal to restore 95% of power by last Christmas has fallen way short, the government yesterday reported restoration had reached over 84%; however, the figures did not make clear whether that percentage reflected generation or subscribers with electricity. Today’s session is focused on providing the Governor the opportunity to make clear his concern that the Corps has so far not addressed the island’s issues and to receive a full explanation why not and “how to correct the situation that is still serious,” according to Rolando Cruz, the president of the Association of Mayors and first executive of Cayey. Also participating are the Mayor Francisco López López of Barranquitas and William Alicea of Aibonito, said that although their primary claim is the restoration of light, their concerns are broader. The key concern relates to the perceived inability, to date, of help from FEMA—especially with regard to bridges and highways, mental health of affected citizens, and the dire challenges of so many who have lost their homes or suffered unaffordable damages—and who have been unable to prove ownership of their property—or, as Mayors López López put it: “Here in the mountains, we are still going through very difficult situations: sectors without electricity, without drinking water, roads destroyed.” The apprehension is, if anything, worsening: yesterday, Governor Rosselló Nevares denounced the decision by the U.S. Treasury to reduce, without explanation, the amount of initial financing of $4,700 million by more than half to $2,030 million from the line of Congressionally approved credit for Puerto Rico. In his letter to Congressional leaders, the Governor wrote that the U.S. had “effectively blocked access to some $4.7 billion from the CDL (Commercial Driver’s License) program,” urging intervention to avoid “further damage and suffering to the residents of Puerto Rico,” noting that any material interruption of public services would only exacerbate the emigration of its population to the continental United States. He added that the Treasury has imposed conditions incompatible with the purpose of the program, while criticizing that the federal agency has canceled the ability to cancel any CDL issued to Puerto Rico “in clear contravention of the applicable law,” writing that the U.S. territory is approaching spring in the same precarious fiscal situation, with the possibility that the Treasury will cancel federal aid approved by law,” notwithstanding the Financial Advisory Authority and Fiscal Agency’s compliance with each request from Treasury. His epistle noted that despite the immediate cooperation of the agency, the Treasury did not provide the agency with economic terms or other material terms for the CDL program (In an effort to help Puerto Rican citizens relocating to the mainland in the wake of hurricanes Irma and Maria, the Federal Motor Carrier Administration had waived certain requirements in an effort to help them obtain commercial learner’s permits or commercial driver’s licenses: according to the Governor, last January 9th, the Treasury and FEMA had sent a letter to the local government regarding the implementation of a cash balance policy in order to facilitate access the CDL financing—but a letter requesting Puerto Rico to exhaust its own resources before the Treasury and FEMA would provide access to CDL program funds.

Chapter Nueve? Even as Puerto Rico is struggling to address its severe physical challenges, notices with regard to the deadline for filing proofs of claim in Puerto Rico’s five Title III bankruptcy cases are going out this week, as U.S. Judge Laura Taylor Swain had set a Monday deadline for the notices to be delivered. Notwithstanding, and not to be blamed on the mailman, FAFA Executive Director Gerardo Portela Franco reported the notices would start to be sent out this week—with five of the Title III entities having at least $52.5 billion in debt outstanding, in what has now become  the largest quasi municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history: the notices in question will inform creditors that they will have until May 29th to file a proof of claim in the cases. The debt issuers here include: the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the Puerto Rico Sales Tax Financing Corp. (COFINA), the Employees Retirement System of the Government of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the Puerto Rico Highways and Transportation Authority, and the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority. Responding will matter: those who fail to file a timely-filed proof of claim or trustee proof of claim will lose any claim for compensation for their municipal bonds, as well as their rights to vote on any plan of debt adjustment. Indeed, yesterday, PREPA bond trustee U.S. Bank National Association posted a notice to EMMA stating it planned to file a proof of claim on behalf of the bondholders, specifying: “[I]f you believe that you may have separate or additional claims against the Authority other than the claims with respect to principal, interest and other amounts owing on your bonds or have claims against other Title III debtors or other persons or entities concerning your bonds or otherwise, you should consult with your legal professionals regarding those claims and take appropriate action within the applicable time period.”

On the physical, as opposed to the fiscal storm front, in the wake of the U.S.’s worst blackout in American history, the complicated and costly effort for a quasi-chapter 9 entity, major chunks of infrastructure and power restoration appears to have reached a plateau: while most, today, have electricity, it is unclear how much longer those in the dark will have to wait. Jay Field, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, notes: “The bulk of the work that is left is the hardest, requiring helicopter support and long commutes to remote, hard-to-access job sites…Weather is also an issue due to rain and heavy winds.” Last week, Puerto Rico’s unified grid-restoration command reported it expects to have 90 to 95% of the territory’s power restored by March 31st: it estimates that the hard-hit municipality of Arecibo will have its electricity restored by mid-April, and the municipality of Caguas by late May. He offered no timeline for other darkened municipios. A critical part of the physical recovery challenge has been the complicated overlapping lines of authority, as well as Puerto Rico’s insolvency: even though the U.S. Army Corps is in charge of overall recovery, PREPA has been in charge of much of the repair work—a Puerto Rican authority which is $9 billion in debt—and which, last week, suffered a fiscal blow when Judge Laura Taylor Swain  rejected its plea for a $550 million loan—leading the utility to respond it would start reducing output at some of its power plants, because it could not afford fuel. In its court filing, the utility stated that the scenario “exacerbated the risk to an already fragile system and leaves it vulnerable to outages and resulting in brownouts on the island.” That work involves nearly 6,000 repair workers now on the island, but where, seemingly on a daily basis, the workers keep finding new problems.

As of last Wednesday, 343,000 electricity customers were without grid power, the lowest number yet: in the wake of the storm, there were nearly 1.6 million customers experiencing a blackout. So, on the one hand, there has been significant progress; however, much of the progress has been followed by drops, as PREPA’s old and fragile grid has occasionally failed and plunged swaths of newly restored customers back into darkness. Most recently, a fire at a substation two weeks ago, for instance, plunged more than 343,000 and much of the capital of San Juan into darkness. Thus it means, still today, that thousands of homes and businesses are running either full or part-time on backup diesel generators—meaning those families or businesses are running generators, forcing them to pay for fuel. For PREPA, the challenge is aggravated by the uncertainty with regard to certainty about how many customers are without grid power: from the onset of Maria until early November, PREPA gave a rough estimate; then it simply stopped trying: the damage to the grid was so extensive that the utility could simply no longer determine  how many of its customers were drawing electricity. It was only near the end of last month that PREPA started reporting its percentage of “normal peak load” which had been restored. Nevertheless, that reporting indicates the percentage of power restored has risen from 19% in early October to almost 84% last week. Yet, even that restoration has been unreliable: even though parts of PREPA’s grid have crashed on numerous occasions during the recovery, only a few of those outages are shown by the data—a deficiency, because power was often restored within hours or days and, ergo, was not captured in the weekly reports.

Another serious challenge has been substations: Puerto Rico has 342 distribution substations, which convert power from transmission to distribution use: improvement has occurred slowly since November, but has been basically flat in 2018: the grid’s 56 transmission substations have seen no improvement since December: these stations step up voltage for long-distance delivery or prepare it for transport along transmission lines of different voltages. Progress is a challenge: Fernando Padilla, a senior PREPA adviser, reported that damage to the substations still offline was so devastating that they need to be rebuilt from the ground up: “A portion of the substations, specifically those that are close to where the eye of the hurricane passed, remain totally destroyed. Those require complete reconstruction (engineering, design, mitigation, etc.)…The PREPA system has points of interconnection that permit energy to be carried through various zones without having to pass by these particular substations: This isn’t the norm, and it augments the risk to the reliability of the system. But in general, it can be done.”

Fiscal & Physical Imbalances

Lincoln’s Birthday, February 12, 2018

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the outcome of last week’s actions to avoid another federal government shutdown, we consider the ongoing fiscal and physical plights of Puerto Rico.

Fiscal & Physical Imbalances.  Puerto Rico’s non-voting Member of Congress, Jenniffer Gonzalez, and Gov. Ricardo Rosselló have met with a group of New Progressive Mayors to describe the terms of the new federal assistance under the just passed $16 billion recovery assistance approved by Congress—funds ranging from what Secretary of Public Affairs Ramón Rosario Cortés noted would “range from construction to agriculture programs that will allow each municipality to develop its economy and create jobs.” The Secretary anticipates there will be a second meeting with associate mayors. Naguabo Mayor Noé Marcano said that the allocation of these funds represents “a unique opportunity” to repair and/or build infrastructure projects (including roads and bridges) and housing: “Part of the projects that we-at a given moment-had planned as improvements to the municipalities, we understand that this is the best opportunity.”

That could mean a new fiscal chance for this small muncipio of just over 23,000, one founded on July 15, 1821 near the mouth of the Daguao River—founded with the intent of providing a defense for the region from the Caribe Indians, based upon, 27 years earlier, the request of several influential neighbors of the Spanish Crown: on January 9, 1798, the erection of the Naguabo parish was authorized—but construction did not commence on its church until 1841. The muncipio’s name originated from the cacique and chieftainship named Daguao—as the territory was originally populated by Taíno Indians. Naguabo is also known as Cuna de Grandes Artistas (the birthplace of Great Artists) and Los Enchumbaos, “the Soaked Ones.”

For his part, Mayor William Aliceo of Aibonito, the City of Flowers, with the city’s appellation derived from the Taíno word “Jatibonicu,” the name of a Cacique leader of the region; a name also used to refer to a river in the area—and, in addition, a name used by the tribe of Orocobix. At the same time, there is a legend that tells of a Spanish soldier, Diego Alvarez, who, on May 17, 1615, reached one of the highest peaks in the area: upon taking in the view, he exclaimed: “Ay, que bonito!” The exclamation eventually led to the name of the region. Nearly two centuries later, Pedro Zorascoechea, in 1630, was one of the early Spaniards to settle on the island—apparently establishing one of the first fincas or ranches in the region; however, it was not until 1822, when Don Manuel Veléz presented himself before the government, representing the inhabitants of the area, to request that Aibonito be officially declared a town—a request which then Governor Miguel de la Torre granted on March 13, 1824.

Hurricane Maria’s eye tore through the region’s hills on September 20th: it was especially fierce along the exposed ridgelines, whipping in at a hundred and fifty-five miles an hour: it tore apart wooden houses; along the road leading up to Aibonito from San Juan, normally a two-hour drive, Maria tore a panorama of ruined houses and businesses, toppled and twisted trees, and downed utility poles. Mayor Aliceo said he would like to use part of the recovery funds for agriculture, roads, and electrical infrastructure: “In Aibonito, we have a project submitted to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the canalization of the Aibonito River. And with poultry farming, which was well affected by Hurricane Maria, I’m interested (the funds) will find a way to help Aibonito’s poultry farmers, given the million-dollar losses they’ve had.”

The federal allocation came just prior to Puerto Rico’s resubmission of its revised fiscal plans to the PROMESA oversight Board—plans due today, with Puerto Rico’s representative, Christian Sobrino, simply advising the board that the plans comply with the public policy of the government, noting: “[W]e will comply with the stipulated date for the delivery of the fiscal plans. It has been an intense job, but the government will comply with the appointed time. The plans will continue in accordance with the Governor’s public policy of protecting the most vulnerable and that this document serves as a tool of fiscal responsibility and at the same time a path of long-term socio-economic development for the island.”

Nevertheless, uncertainty reigns, especially in the wake of the federal government shutdown. With last week’s Congressional approval of a package to keeps federal agencies running through March 23rd, the date of certainty has now been pushed off while House and Senate appropriators in Washington, D.C. work on final 2018 spending bills. The package suspends the debt ceiling through March 1, 2019, provides $89.3 billion in disaster aid, and extends a number of expired tax provisions, including a Jan. 1, 2022 extension of the rum cover-over for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, which is projected to generate an estimated $900 million for the two U.S. territories. In addition, a related tax provision calls for all low-income communities in Puerto Rico to be treated as qualified opportunity zones. The disaster aid includes $4.9 billion to provide 100% federal funding for Medicaid health services for low-income residents of Puerto Rico and  the U.S. Virgin Islands for two years, $11 billion in CDBG block grants for the two territories, including $2 billion of CDBG money to rebuild Puerto Rico’s electrical grid—with Resident Commissioner Gonzalez reporting that, in total, $16.55 billion of the disaster aid is earmarked for Puerto Rico.

With the new allocations to mitigate last year’s natural disasters, the federal government has already authorized just over $140.7 billion within the past six months to be distributed mainly between Texas, Florida, California, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands—with Puerto Rico’s government projecting its share will be approximately $18 billion, plus access to a credit line of $4 billion—albeit, to access that line, the U.S. territory would be mandated to prove lack of liquidity. Of the total, almost $16 billion will surely go to the island from the funds allocated in the budget bill and to mitigate disasters—provided the territory complies with the conditions of both the federal government and the PROMESA Oversight Board. The projected package includes $4.8 billion for Medicaid and $11 billion for CDBG: last week, HUD Deputy Secretary Pamela Hughes Patenaude announced, during a visit to San Juan, that HUD will award $1.5 billion to help repair damaged houses and businesses. In addition, another $ 300 million, half of which would be allocated as a loan, has been allocated to match the FEMA project’s cost. The package includes $6 billion, funds under the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, provided to U.S. electric companies to repair the power grid. FEMA has stated, moreover, its intent to grant an additional $13 billion to the island.

Puerto Rico’s Federal Affairs Executive Director, Carlos Mercador, notes that an official damage estimate from federal agencies is still pending; Commissioner González notes that Congress’ next disasters relief resolution may be discussed in Congress between April and May, noting: “Speaker Paul Ryan told me that there is going to be a fourth bill on supplementary allocations for Puerto Rico, with specific projects for transportation and electric power.”