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.

Municipal Fiscal Distress & State Oversight.

June 18, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider a new study assessing the potential role of property tax assessments in Detroit’s historic chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy; then we observe, without gambling on the odds, the slow, but steady progress back to self-governance in Atlantic City, and weaning off of state fiscal oversight; before, finally noting the parallel efforts to exit state oversight in Flint, Michigan—where the proximate cause of the city’s fiscal and physical collapse occurred under a quasi-state takeover.

Foreclosing or Creating a City’s Fiscal Recovery? One in 10 Detroit tax foreclosures between 2011 and 2015 were caused by the city’s admittedly inflated property assessments, a study by two Chicago professors has concluded. Over-assessments causing foreclosure were concentrated in the city’s lowest valued homes, those selling for less than $8,000, and resulted in thousands of Detroit homeowners losing their properties, according to the study: “Taxed Out: Illegal property tax assessments and the epidemic of tax foreclosures in Detroit,” which was written by  Bernadette Atuahene and Christopher Berry. Chicago-Kent Law School Professor Atuahene noted: “The very population that most needs the city to get the assessments right, the poorest of the poor, are being most detrimentally affected by the city getting it wrong: “There is a narrative of blaming the poor that focuses on individual responsibility instead of structural injustice. We are trying to change the focus to this structural injustice.” (Professor Atuahene is also a member of the Coalition to End Unconstitutional Tax Foreclosures.) Their study came as the Wayne County Treasurer has foreclosed on about 100,000 Detroit properties for unpaid property taxes for the period from 2011 through 2015, about a quarter of all parcels, as the Motor City suffered the after-effects of population decline, the housing market crash, and the Great Recession.

Professors Atuahene and Berry acknowledged many factors can trigger tax foreclosure, estimating that the number of foreclosures was triggered by over-assessments, in part by calculating the foreclosure rate if all properties were properly assessed. The study also controlled for properties various purchase prices, neighborhoods and sale dates.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan has, as we have noted, acknowledged such over assessments; yet he has made clear accuracy has improved with double-digit reductions over the last four years—and completed the first comprehensive such assessment two years ago for the first time in more than half a century. The city’s Deputy Chief Financial Officer, Alvin Horhn, last week stated he had not reviewed the study; however, he noted that “most of their assumptions rely on data that does not meet the standards of the State Tax Commission and would not be applicable under Michigan law,” a position challenged by Professor Atuahene, who had previously stated the data does comply with the law, noting: “We believe the citywide reappraisal has been an important part of the major reduction in the number of foreclosures occurring in the city, which continue a steady decline and will provide a solid foundation for future growth: The number of foreclosures of owner occupied homes, specifically, has gone down by nearly 90% over the past few years.”

The city’s authority to foreclose, something which became a vital tool to address both property tax revenues and crime in the wake of the city’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, was enabled under former Gov. John Engler 29 years ago under a statewide rewrite of Michigan’s property tax code: changes made in an effort to render it faster and easier to return delinquent properties to productive use. On a related issue, the Motor City is currently facing a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan—a suit which maintains the city’s poverty tax exemption, which erases property taxes for low-income owners, violated homeowner’s due process rights because of its convoluted application process, arguing that the practice violates the federal Fair Housing Act by disproportionately foreclosing on black homeowners. However, the Michigan Court of Appeals has upheld a ruling by Wayne County Judge Robert Colombo, dismissing Wayne County from the lawsuit, ruling the suit should have been brought in front of the Michigan Tax Tribunal. 

Pole, Pole. In Bush Gbaepo Grebo Konweaken, Liberia, a key Gbaepo expression was “pole, pole” (pronounced poleh, poleh), which roughly translated into ‘slowly, but surely’—or haste makes waste. It might be an apt expression for Atlantic City Mayor Frank Gilliam as the boardwalk city has resumed control back from the state to forge its own fiscal destiny—presumably with less gambling on its fiscal future. In his new $225 million budget, the Mayor has proposed to keep property taxes flat for the second consecutive year, and is continuing, according to the state’s Department of Community Affairs, charged with the municipality’s fiscal oversight and providing transitional assistance, to note that the Mayor and Council President Marty Small’s announcement demonstrated that “an understanding of the issues that Atlantic City faces, and an emerging ability to find ways to solve them without resorting to property tax increases: This is a solid budget, and the city staff who worked diligently to draft it should be proud of their efforts.”

Under Mayor Frank Gilliam’s proposed $225 million budget, property taxes would remain flat for a second straight year, there would be some budget cuts, as well as savings realized from municipal bond sales to finance pension and healthcare obligations from 2015. The Mayor also was seeking support for capital improvements, additional library funding, and one-time $500 stipends for full-time municipal employees with salaries below $40,000. The ongoing fiscal recovery is also benefitting from state aid: the state Department of Community Affairs reported the state is providing $3.9 million in transitional aid, a drop from the $13 million awarded to the City of Trenton in 2017 and $26.2 million from 2016. Last year Atlantic City adopted a $222 million budget, which lowered taxes for the first time in more than a decade. The Department’s spokesperson, Lisa Ryan, noted: “Yesterday’s announcement by Mayor Gilliam and Council President [Marty] Small demonstrates city officials are showing an understanding of the issues that Atlantic City faces and an emerging ability to find ways to solve them without resorting to property tax increases: This is a solid budget, and the city staff who worked diligently to draft it should be proud of their efforts.”

Gov. Phil Murphy scaled back New Jersey’s intervention efforts in April with the removal of Jeffrey Chiesa’s role as state designee for Atlantic City. Mr. Chiesa, a former U.S. Senator and New Jersey Attorney General, was appointed to the role by former Gov. Chris Christie after the state takeover took effect.

Not in Like Flint. The Flint City Council was unable last week to override Mayor Karen Weaver’s veto of its amendments to her proposed budget: the Council’s counter proposal had included eight amendments to the Mayor’s $56 million proposed budget for 2018-2019—all of which Mayor Weaver vetoed in the wake of CFO Hughey Newsome’s concerns. The situation is similar to Atlantic City’s, in that this was Flint’s first budget to be considered and adopted in the wake of exiting state oversight. Mayor Weaver advised her colleagues: “This is a crucial time for the City of Flint: this is the first budget we are responsible for since regaining control…I am proud of the budget that I submitted, and I have full faith in the City’s Chief Financial Officer. Just as I have the right to veto the budget, the City Council has the right to override that veto. It is my hope that they would strongly consider my reasons for vetoing and that the Council and I can work together to create a budget that can sustain the City for years to come.” Her veto means the budget will be before the Council for a final vote in order to have it in place for the new fiscal year beginning on the first of next month.

Among the Council proposals the Mayor rejected was employee benefits, including a proposed pay raise for the City Clerk of $20,000, the creation of a new deputy clerk position, a new parliamentarian position, and full health benefits for part-time employees. Or, as CFO Newsome noted: “The risk these added costs could pose on the city’s budget is not in the best interest of the city nor the citizens of Flint,”  as he expressed disappointment over the time wasted on arguing over what amounted to $55,000 in the Mayor’s budget, especially when the city was currently tackling bigger fiscal challenges, such as its $271 million unfunded pension liability and keeping the city’s water fund out of red ink, noting: “These are things that we are looking at, and during all of these [budget] proceedings so little attention was paid to that.”

That is to note that while sliding into chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, or, as in Atlantic City, state oversight, can be easy; the process of extricating one’s city is great: there is added debt. Indeed, Flint remains in a precarious fiscal position, confronted by serious fiscal challenges in the wake of its exit from state financial receivership the month before last. Key among those challenges are: employee retirement funding and the aging, corroded pipes (with a projected price tag of $600 million) which led to the city’s drinking water crisis and state takeover.

On the public pension front, in the wake of state enactment of public pension reforms at the end of 2017 which mandate that municipalities report underfunded retirement benefits, Flint reported a pension system funded at only 37% and zero percent funding of other post-employment retirement benefits, which, according to the state Treasury report, Flint does not prefund.

The proposed budget assumes FY2019 general fund revenues of approximately $55.8 million, of which $4.7 million is expected to come from property taxes. This would be an increase of about $120,000; Flint’s critical water fund will have a $4 million surplus at the end of FY2018; however, CFO Newsome warned the fund will fall into the red within the next five years if it fails to bring in more money.

Investing in Fiscal & Human Futures

June 11, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the issue of keeping Puerto Rico’s schools open in the face of quasi municipal bankruptcy; then we veer north to assess post-state taken over Atlantic City: What Are the City’s Fiscal Odds for Its Future?  

The Governance Challenge for Schools and Demographic Changes. Puerto Rico Superior Court Judge Santiago Cordero Osorio has ordered the suspension of the closure of three of the U.S. territory’s schools in Morovis, pending an explanation from Secretary of Education Julia Keleher of the reasoning behind her orders. His ruling came as part of a lawsuit brought by the Municipality of Morovis challenging the closures of Alverio Pimentel, Manuel Alonso Díaz, and the Second David Colón Vega schools—and in the wake of the Judge’s earlier decisions ordering the closure of six other schools in the Arecibo region—closures also being challenged by the Teachers’ Association. In his order, Judge Osorio noted that all these claims will be evaluated in a court hearing scheduled for this morning—one to which he has invited the Secretary of Education or a representative to attend, noting: “This Court appreciates and recapitulates that the State must come prepared to justify in accordance with its regulations the closure, not only of the schools subject to this interdict, but of all the schools of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico that the Department of Education has under its jurisdiction, and that it pretends according to the regulation to close.”

For his part, Mayor Carmen Maldonado of Morovis explained the suit was filed in the wake of a non-response to her request for a meeting with Secretary Keleher, stating, in a press release: “Today we are taking an important step in the defense of public education for Moroveño children. To all parents, principals, teachers and school staff, I invite you to attend that hearing on Monday at the Arecibo Court, so that together we can continue to fight to keep schools open. As I assured them in the many meetings we had, although the power is in the hands of the central government, the reason is on our side and we are going to defend that reason. The fiscal and governance challenge-as we had experienced in Detroit’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, is a state versus local authority issue. Indeed, as the Department’s legal division stated: “The opening and closing of the schools is under the authority of the Secretary of Education and this is established by Law 85 of 2018 (Law on Educational Reform).”

The Rebirth of an Iconic American City?  Victor Fiorillo, writing in the Philadelphia Magazine, asked in his article, “The Re-Re-Re-Birth of Atlantic City,” what if everyone was wrong about the fiscal implications of the closure of the city’s famed casinos. Writing that Atlantic City had first drawn him in about 15 years ago with the opening of the Borgata Casino—at a time when “most other casinos in Atlantic City were in various stages of decay, and here was this brand-new Vegas-style resort with casino restaurants that were actually good and the best shows in town.” But he also noted that, back then, it was really a family focus: “My wife and I spend as much of the summer as possible on the A.C. beach with our 10-year-old and 12-year-old, opting for the relative solitude of the town’s southern end, far from any casinos or bars.” But in revisiting the municipality today, he noted he is not one of the only “believers in Atlantic City,” noting there are “some surprising signs of life these days, not to mention some serious investment—from small ventures, like Longacre’s projects, to big bets like Stockton University’s new beachfront campus and this month’s opening of the $550 million Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in the old Trump Taj Mahal.

Betting on the City’s Future. Mr. Fiorillo then turned to the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing sports gambling, noting: “There’s more money pouring into A.C. right now than in all of Philadelphia,” according to development mogul Bart Blatstein, but, as with gambling, quoting Temple Professor Bryant Simon, author of 2004’s Boardwalk of Dreams: Atlantic City and the Fate of Urban America: “Atlantic City has risen and fallen innumerable times: “This is the story that has been told for a hundred years.” He added: “The irony, of course, is that this new resurgence is happening just a few short years after nearly half the city’s casinos went under, thousands of jobs disappeared, and Atlantic City itself seemed to be left for dead. Then again, maybe there’s no irony here at all. Maybe this more organic, up-from-the-ground rebirth of Atlantic City is exactly the kind of action that could mean sustained success for the city by the sea.”

Leaving on a Jet Plane. Mr. Fiorillo examined the city’s road to its state takeover from a non-fiscal perspective, writing: “It was right around this time that Atlantic City began to fade. Dissertations and books have been written about the many factors that led to the resort’s demise in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but a big one was the sudden ease of jet travel. You could get on a plane after breakfast and be on a beach in Miami for lunch. Atlantic City? Pfft. The Shore town began to disintegrate. By the mid-’70s, the city found itself at a pivotal crossroads. It could do nothing, ride out the downward trend, and see what happened. Or it could come up with some novel and wholly artificial way to inject new life into itself. It opted for the latter, betting that gambling would be Atlantic City’s salvation. Until that point, Nevada was the only place in the United States where you could open up a full-fledged casino. But in 1976, New Jersey citizens voted to make slots and table games legit in Atlantic City. The first casino, Resorts—which just turned 40 and is still standing — opened less than two years later.”

Noting that, for a time, business was booming, he credited Atlantic City’s casinos for bringing hundreds of millions of tourists to the Boardwalk during Atlantic City’s gambling heyday” “Some years, this city of 40,000 residents topped 34 million tourists. But outside the casino walls, the city struggled. The casino owners—including, for a time, Donald Trump—got fat, politicians got their kickbacks, and the impoverished residents of Atlantic City remained just that: And then everything went wrong. The new Atlantic City created in the late 1970s was premised almost entirely on maintaining a casino duopoly with Nevada; once casinos started popping up all over—including in Pennsylvania in 2006—Atlantic City imploded.”

Noting, as we have traced, the city’s fiscal nadir came to a head in January of 2014, when the Atlantic Club, which had opened as the Golden Nugget in 1980, collapsed, followed by Showboat, followed by the Revel, followed shortly thereafter by the Trump Plaza, noting: “Finally, in October 2016, one month before its namesake was elected to the Oval Office, the lights went out at Trump Taj Mahal. In just two and a half years, five casinos vanished, their cavernous buildings shuttered. Atlantic City had bottomed out economically in the most spectacular fashion possible.”

Tracing a Fiscal Turnaround. Writing that when assessed property values drop low enough, neighborhoods become more and affordable—and, ergo, more attractive to developers who could “pick up buildings for pennies on a dollar,” he noted that “Atlantic City suddenly became a risk worth taking”—adding: “Investing in Atlantic City now makes a lot more sense than it did five years ago, but it’s hardly a no-brainer. The city, with its 37% poverty rate) is overwhelmingly poor. Taxes are overwhelmingly high. And walking around on Atlantic or Pacific Avenue, the city’s two main north-south boulevards, which run parallel to and within blocks of the Boardwalk—can be nerve-racking after hours. In daylight, panhandlers accost and prostitutes solicit. Politically, things are hardly ideal: Then-governor Chris Christie instituted a state takeover in 2016.

John Longacre, who has acquired a reputation for building a business by spotting potential where others see potential disaster, and he works primarily in South Philadelphia, where he specializes in recovery projects that save buildings, convert seedy bars into trendy restaurants and turn vacant eyesores into neighborhood hubs, told Mr. Fiorillo: “Every bank in the region is terrified of Atlantic City.” Indeed, Mr. Longacre added: “If you look at the policy surrounding everything that exists in Atlantic City, it’s the perfect storm to keep investors out: From the state handling the zoning to the tax base to rent control, everything that happens from a policy level makes it seem like New Jersey is trying to make Atlantic City fail.” Nevertheless, he seems convinced the fabled city will not fail. Or, as Mr. Fiorillo described it, there are a new breed interested in the fabled city who likely will play an essential role in the city’s future: “It’s not about Aunt Edna and Uncle Fred and their casino bus trips anymore. It’s about younger people who aren’t into Atlantic City for the gambling. It’s about people who don’t just feel comfortable in but desire urban environments, with all their flaws and character. It’s about people who respect and require diversity. It’s about people like me and my wife, who, to be honest, cringe when we drive into a place like Avalon.”

Describing this fiscal and physical revival, he writes about the relationship of small projects complemented by large ones: “The Hard Rock Hotel is finally going to open on the Boardwalk later this month, where the Taj Mahal was until October 2016. Pottstown native Todd Moyer, senior vice president of marketing for this new outpost of the rock-and-roll-themed company, got his start in the casino business in 1990, when he worked as a tuxedoed greeter at, coincidentally, the Taj. I was working for Hard Rock out West, when I got the chance to come home: I jumped at it. Sometimes I would be at a bar or restaurant and hear people talking about Atlantic City being dead, and I’d jump in. I’m a defender and a giant supporter of A.C. We’re building hotels all around the world, but really, all the focus lately has been on Atlantic City.”

As for Mr. Longacre, his view is that he would “love for every casino to go out of business and see Atlantic City re-create itself without them, as an urban beach town.” Nevertheless, he believes there is one massive Atlantic City development which will be a game-changer: Stockton, the nearly 50-year-old public university, which has its main campus in Galloway Township, about 20 minutes from the Boardwalk: it is set to debut a brand-new beachfront Atlantic City campus this September, when one thousand students will use the campus, and many of them plan to live in town. Thus, he notes: “Stockton is huge. It’s the first real institutional investment in years that’s not a casino.”

Rolling the Fiscal Dice? As significant as these fiscal changes appear to be, they almost seem to pale against the city’s real world challenges: Atlantic City has a poverty level three times higher than the statewide rate: more than three times the number below the poverty level—and a disability rate among non-poor residents of just under 25%. In its rental housing, the percentage of residents below the federal poverty level is over 90%. A consequent governing challenge for the post-taken over city and the Garden State remains. Mr. Fiorillo notes that whether the gambles being made by Mr. Blatstein, Mr. Longacre, and others are successful remains to be seen—as does the question with regard to whether all the investment will put much of a dent in Atlantic City’s poverty rate or help the town’s current residents. He adds: “And it’s not going to be this summer or next summer when we find out who, if anyone, wins. Nevertheless, he wrote: “When I consider Point Breeze circa 2008 and that same area today, I have hope for this complicated Shore town. There will always be casinos here, for better or worse, and there will always be crime and poverty and grime. This is, after all, a city. But, 10 years from now, when my own kids are (I hope) in very good colleges, it’s not too hard to imagine us spending a summer weekend at some boutique hotel on New York Avenue. We’ll stop into the Boardwalk La Colombe for a draft latte, served up by a very hip-looking third-year Stockton student on break. For lunch, HipCityVeg down in the inlet. Happy hour will be at some John Longacre-owned brewpub overlooking the Atlantic.”

Betting on the Garden City’s Fiscal Future

May 16, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we take a fiscal gamble that Monday’s U.S. Supreme Court decision to strike down the federal anti-gambling law could reap significant fiscal gains for Atlantic City, fueling its fiscal recovery from near insolvency.  

Betting on Atlantic City’s Fiscal Future?  In the wake of the U.S Supreme Court’s PASPA decision to legalize professional sports gambling [Murphy, Governor of New Jersey, et al. v. National Collegiate Athletic Assn. et al, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 16-476] —a decision which could bring in as much as $10 billion in annual new revenues to the State of New Jersey, Atlantic City Mayor Frank Gilliam, expressed excitement, noting: “Sports betting could generate millions in revenue for Atlantic City and diversify our gaming market: I hope that New Jersey is an early adapter of legalized sports betting so we can capitalize on another revenue stream.” Indeed, it would appear that the state’s commitment over the last seven years of $9 million in taxpayer funds on the court battle to legalize sports betting at its casinos and racetracks will be great fiscal news for Atlantic City, which has spent the last few years recovering from the closure of multiple casinos, going into a state fiscal takeover, and skirting the threat of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. Or, as New Jersey State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) put it: “If legalized sports gambling was in place when the Eagles won the Super Bowl, just think what Atlantic City would have looked like.”

Atlantic City is, after all, celebrating its 40th year of casino gambling—albeit, in recent years, it has witnessed the closure of four casinos. Already, though, two of those, including the Hard Rock (which had replaced the former Trump Taj Mahal casino) are set to reopen this summer.  Even before the decision, gaming revenues were increasing: Rummy Pandit, the Executive Director of the Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality, and Tourism at Stockton University noted sports betting will add “another new segment” to provide fiscal sustenance to the boardwalk city. Daniel Wallach, a gaming and sports attorney, in response the query whether the decision would save Atlantic City, noted: “I don’t know that Atlantic City needs saving…but it will provide a dramatic, positive economic impact.”  Emily Raimes, a Vice President at Moody’s, noted that local and state governments which legalize sports betting will “see minor benefits from the incremental tax revenues, although it will take time to implement—adding: “States like New Jersey and Pennsylvania which planned ahead will see the benefits first…Cities like Atlantic City which have long desired sports gambling will see a positive impact depending on how states regulate it.”  

The landmark ruling striking down the federal law which barred states from drafting their own regulations for local sports betting, will allow legal sports books to begin operations throughout the country—something heretofore only allowed in grandfathered-in states Nevada, Oregon, Delaware, and Montana. The case here pitted the State of New Jersey versus the nation’s major sports leagues:  New Jersey had argued legalization of sports gambling would allow the state to capture a new and significant stream of revenue. In its 6-3 decision, the 6-3 majority sided with state authority to legalize sports betting on a case-by-case basis, citing PASPA’s provision prohibiting state authorization of sports gambling schemes as violating the anti-commandeering rule—and holding that PASPA’s provision prohibiting state “licens[ing]” of sports gambling schemes also violates the anti-commandeering rule. In Justice Samuel Alito’s opinion, the Court ruled that, “Congress can be allowed to regulate sports gambling directly, but if it elects not to do so, each State is free to act on its own.”

The decision is expected to bring immediate fiscal benefits not just to the State of New Jersey, which has been fighting for legalized sports gambling since amending its state constitution in November of 2011—a reform which drew legal challenges from the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, and the NCAA, whose lawyers were able to use PASPA as precedent to prevent the referendums New Jersey residents twice approved—with the Garden State pressing its case all the way to the Supreme Court, but also key to the fiscal recovery of Atlantic City: estimated revenue from now legalized sportsbooks is projected to bring up to $9 billion in new revenues to the city—with New Jersey one of 14 states which has active sports betting reforms chambered for debate in their local legislative bodies. Elected and appointed leaders in Atlantic City and Trenton are preparing to roll the dice by capitalizing on a soon-to-be regulated industry—with three members of the New Jersey Legislature already having proposed such legislation in the state Assembly.  State Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Salem, Gloucester, and Cumberland) noted: “We want to act quickly to capitalize on the court’s decision so that we can get sports gaming in place and operating in New Jersey.”

New Jersey voters overwhelmingly approved creating a constitutional amendment to allow sports betting in 2011. The following year, the state Legislature passed the Sports Wagering Act, which was sponsored by former state Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union). Former Gov. Chris Christie signed off on legislation in 2012 and 2014 to enact the amendment. Five sports leagues challenged that statute: the NBA, NCAA, NFL, NHL and MLB — and the case was contested all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments in December. Former Gov. Chris Christie noted: “The favorable Supreme Court ruling on sports gaming will significantly boost the economy of Atlantic City, Atlantic County, and New Jersey as a whole. It will create jobs, encourage tourism, and increase participation at our casinos and sports venues. With today’s ruling, New Jersey’s economy has taken great strides in the right direction;” while state Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo (D-Atlantic) noted: “The timing could not be better. Atlantic City has seen major growth over the last year, with two new casinos opening next month and online gaming revenues rising. Thanks to today’s Supreme Court decision, we can add regulated sports betting to the list of Atlantic City attractions fueling a comeback. This is something the majority of New Jerseyans said they wanted, and now thanks to this decision, will benefit from, as additional funding will be available for social programs that are critical for our residents. This is a good day for Atlantic City and the State of New Jersey. “

The Undelicate Local-State Fiscal Balance

eBlog

April 18, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we try to assess the odds for Atlantic City’s exit from state preemptive control, and then we look west to observe the lingering fiscal and physical damage created by the State of Michigan’s takeover of the City of Flint.

The Difficult Challenge of Ending State Fiscal Preemption. In the Garden State, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy has removed and replaced former Gov. Chris Christie’s designee, attorney Jeff Chiesa, who had been tapped to preempt local governance authority and run the famed city in an effort to avert its filing for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. The new Governor’s action has the effect of retaining state oversight of the fiscal governance of Atlantic City–effectively leaving the city still under state authority first imposed by former Governor Christie in November of 2016. As we had noted, that state takeover did not remove the Mayor and Council; however, Mr. Chiesa was granted broad powers in the city, such as the ability to break union contracts and sell off city assets. Ironically, it was also a prohibitively costly takeover to state taxpayers: Mr. Chesia’s law firm has filed a claim with the State of New Jersey for at least $4 million in taxpayer dollars for its work. Indeed, unlike the city’s elected leaders, Mr. Chiesa has been compensated at a rate of $400 an hour; his firm colleagues have been paid slightly less. In announcing the replacement, Gov. Murphy left unsaid the status of his earlier vow to end the state takeover of Atlantic City; he did, however, announce that state control of the city would revert to the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, currently overseen by New Jersey Lt. Governor Sheila Oliver, a long-time opponent of the state takeover. Left unclear are the new Governor’s time frame or commitment with regard to restoring local control—as, under the current statute signed by former Gov. Christie, state control and preemption could persist until 2021.

During his campaign, then candidate Murphy had campaigned for ending the state takeover; however, when pressed to clarify his intentions last February, then candidate Murphy responded that the state would be a “partner” with the city—comments similar to those he made this week, when he said: “The economic revitalization of Atlantic City is critical to advancing our overall state economy…The actions we are taking today will ensure we are working in full partnership with the city to ensure economic growth and empowerment for all Atlantic City residents.”  Indeed, New Jersey Lt. Governor Oliver said the Department will “continue to play an active role in Atlantic City to build upon the significant gains the city and state have made over the last 18 months in stabilizing Atlantic City’s finances: This ongoing partnership between DCA’s knowledgeable local government experts and the City’s governing body and its professionals will keep Atlantic City moving in the right direction for its residents and businesses and the surrounding region.” For his part, Atlantic City Mayor Frank Gilliam notes: “Atlantic City’s rebirth is looking very bright.”

For their part, former Gov. Christie and New Jersey State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) had pressed for the state takeover in the wake of the shuttering of five of the famed resort city’s casinos over the last decade, causing a swoon in the seaside city’s tax ratables by $14 million, and its debt to balloon to over $500 million. Unsurprisingly, former Gov. Christie, Sen. Sweeney, and others claim the state takeover has helped restore the city—a saving which, not coincidentally, has meant thousands of jobs in the state, and, mayhap more fiscally valuable, millions of dollars in state tax revenues. Since the takeover commenced, New Jersey has settled tax appeal debt with Borgata casino and worked with the city to adopt a municipal budget providing the first municipal tax decrease in almost a decade. Describing the state preemption and takeover, former Gov. Christie noted: “If you compare the results Sen. Chiesa has gotten from what he billed with what you all have paid to the people who have been running this city into the ground, Sen. Chiesa is the biggest bargain in the world…You all should wish he stays here for the rest of his life.” Unsurprisingly, however, many city leaders, some state lawmakers, and union officials have opposed the takeover, saying it violates civil rights and damages collective bargaining. 

Atlantic City Mayor Frank Gilliam has, unsurprisingly, applauded the new Governor’s action, noting: “Atlantic City’s rebirth is looking very bright.”

Out Like Flint. A visibly irate Mayor Karen Weaver has stated the city is exploring legal options against Gov. Rick Snyder and the state after the Governor told her “to get over” the ending of water distribution in the citya characterization the Governor’s office disputed as inaccurate. In a hastily called news conference in her office, Mayor Weaver said she met with the Governor Monday morning in Lansing in an effort to dissuade him from his announced decision to have the state cease the provision of bottled drinking water to the various “pods” across Flint—in the wake of, more than two years ago, the city’s declaration of a lead contamination state of emergency. However, on April 6th, Gov. Snyder, citing nearly two years of test results showing lead levels in city tap water below federal standards, had ordered the end of such distributions. Thus, in the wake of her meeting with the Governor, Mayor Weaver noted: “We did not get very far in the conversation, because one of the things the Governor basically said was we need to get over it.”

But, from her perspective—and responsibility–Mayor Weaver stated that providing water to the residents of Flint is a “moral issue,” especially since it had been the state’s action—in appointing an Emergency Manager to preempt all local authority—who had been responsible for Flint’s lead-in-water crisis. Noting that, since it was state action which had precipitated the physical and fiscal crisis, she believes the burden is on the state to reestablish trust: “They gave us their word that they would see us through this lead and galvanized service line replacement and that we would have pods stay open until then…And they backed out on what they said.”

However, Anna Heaton, a spokesperson for Gov. Snyder disagreed: she said: “It was a good discussion about the city and state’s continued partnership, and an offer for economic development help, since the Mayor brought the city’s new economic development official with her to the meeting…State taxpayers could ceased funding the pods last September, but, in the wake of the city’s request, the Governor opted to keep them open—and keep them open a full seven months past when the state could have ceased funding them, asserting this action was taken in order to help with the state’s continued partnership with the city, and to “foster trust with residents as the water quality continued to improve.” Her comments came in the wake of an earlier announcement by Gov. Snyder, in which he said the state has “worked diligently to restore the water quality and the scientific data now proves the water system is stable and the need for bottled water has ended.”

Mayor Weaver said the Governor, in the 35-minute meeting, had wanted to discuss economic development, but she told him the bottled water issue was not going away. Flint’s legal counsel, Angela Wheeler, added: “We do have to explore all possibilities” with regard to whether Flint will opt to sue the state—as Mayor Weaver has been clear that the State of Michigan should wait until all of the city’s lead service lines are replaced.

Beating the Fiscal Odds?

April 10, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we return to the fiscal gaming tables of Atlantic City, where the State oversight body for the city appears to appreciate the way the fiscal dice are rolling; then we turn south to assess the depressing future for Puerto Rico’s next generation.

Beating the Odds. The New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, the Department which assumed the key role in steering Atlantic City through its quasi plan of debt adjustment, perceives the city is in the midst of a “major breakthrough” in the wake of the sale of $49.2 million in taxable municipal bonds to help finance deferred pension and health care contributions—contributions which had been deferred when the city teetered on the edge of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy and the state stepped in to fiscally take over the municipality. In the wake of the successful sale, the Department reported the success had demonstrated that “investors are confident in Atlantic City’s ability to pay its debt and in the State of New Jersey’s oversight of the city’s finances…[and] is proud of the team of city and state professionals who worked very hard to develop a unique solution to pay the city’s deferred contributions without having to resort to tax increases on city residents,” according to New Jersey Lieutenant Gov. and Department of Community Affairs Commissioner Sheila Oliver, who noted: “These deferred contributions from 2015 were the last major debt hurdle facing Atlantic City. With yesterday’s successful bond sale, the city is now positioned to responsibly finance this debt within its budget and have confidence in its future.” The municipal bonds were sold pursuant to New Jersey’s Municipal Qualified Bond Act, which stipulates that the state Treasurer withhold a portion of the city’s state aid in amounts sufficient to pay the principal and interest on the bonds, with the Treasurer directing a portion of the Investment Alternative Taxes paid by licensed casinos to go to the city for funding the debt service on the municipal bonds. Absent such a plan, Atlantic City would have been forced to raise property taxes by more than $700 on the average assessed home of $140,000—a most unwanted option in the wake of last year’s first-in-a-decade property tax reduction, with the Commission’s Director of Local Government Services, Timothy Cunningham, stating the option had been selected to “spare city taxpayers from picking up this expense” and “immediately ends the accrual of interest.” He added that the state fiscal strategy had demonstrated the state’s willingness and ability to find creative solutions to Atlantic City’s difficult financial problems,” noting that: “Conventional thinking would have been to take the deferred contributions the city owes and incorporate them as part of the city’s budget over the next five years. But that would have resulted in significant tax increases for residents and it wouldn’t have stopped interest from accruing on the deferred contributions.”

The bonds were priced via the Garden State’s Qualified Bond Act program to fund $37.7 million in pension and healthcare payments, after, three years ago, Atlantic City had been granted state approval to defer interest payments in the face of $101 million budget shortfall, creating ever-increasing odds to the city’s bookmakers the city might file for municipal bankruptcy. Under the new fiscal arrangements, Atlantic City, by the end of this year, will owe about $47 million for these obligations—or, as New Jersey Lt. Governor Sheila Y. Oliver put it: “These deferred contributions from 2015 were the last major debt hurdle facing Atlantic City…With yesterday’s successful bond sale, the city is now positioned to responsibly finance this debt within its budget and have confidence in its future.” That fiscal confidence is bolstered, no doubt, by being wrapped with the Garden State’s credit enhancement program and backed by Investment Alternative Tax revenue from casinos, which are directed to pay down debt or debt service payments under the authority the state assumed two years ago in November to take over Atlantic City—a fiscal system under which the State Treasurer withholds a portion of the city’s state aid in amounts sufficient to pay the principal and interest on the municipal bonds, or, as Director Cunningham described it: “This strategy, which culminated in yesterday’s bond sale, demonstrates the state’s willingness and ability to find creative solutions to Atlantic City’s difficult financial problems…Conventional thinking would have been to take the deferred contributions the city owes and incorporate them as part of the city’s budget over the next five years. But that would have resulted in significant tax increases for residents, and it wouldn’t have stopped interest from accruing on the deferred contributions.” New Jersey officials said that without the bond sale, Atlantic City would have been forced to raise property taxes on residents by more than $700 on the average assessed home of $140,000.In the wake of this week’s bond sale, Atlantic City has approximately $400 million in outstanding bond debt, according to Moody’s.

But beating the odds is not just a matter of fiscal soundness, but also physical safety. Thus, Atlantic City, in finding a new way to combat crime, has beaten the odds in developing ways to stay ahead of crimes before they are committed—meaning that the number of shootings, homicides, and robberies in the city decreased by more than 33% last year, after Atlantic City began using a risk-based policing model which analyzes data to map out crime risk factors around the city and places where crimes are likely to take place: a new tool which has helped police prevent crimes by tackling factors in the environment identified as risks where crimes take place, and not the people. Indeed, the new strategy not only contributed to the reduction by more than a third in shootings, homicides, and robberies last year, but also that greater security appears likely to enhance assessed property values.

Tempus Fugit. U.S. Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency Brock Long has warned it will take up to an estimated $50 billion to help rebuild Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria—even as he warned the U.S. territory is not ready for another disaster. He told NPR that the agency is focused on making Puerto Rico’s roads, homes, bridges, and electrical grid as strong as possible—but that the time to complete the effort is running out: the new hurricane season is projected to hit as early as June 1st. projected to blow in June 1. A critical issue for Puerto Rico’s fiscal future, then, is a double public infrastructure risk: its physical and human capital. On the latter front, Puerto Rico Education officials have announced the closure of some 283 schools through this summer, nearly seven months after Hurricane Maria struck, reporting that Hurricane Maria exacerbated the demographic teeter totter as increasing numbers of families with children who can afford to have left for the continental U.S., leaving, increasingly, a poorer and older population behind with a depleting tax base, but significantly greater fiscal pressures. Thus, during his visit to Puerto Rico, he warned: “We’re running out of time.” And, observing that much of the territory’s infrastructure had collapsed, he added: “We have a long way to go.” He said FEMA is coordinating a Flag Day planning and training exercise with Puerto Rico’s government in which life-saving supplies will be delivered to the island’s 78 municipalities to ensure better response times for any upcoming storms, adding the muncipios and towns will be allowed to store those supplies for future disasters, but stressing that Puerto Rico’s public and private sectors have to build a strong emergency response network and establish unified plans: “FEMA cannot be directly responsible for all of the response and recovery.” Director Long added that the private sector should ensure that communication systems become more resistant—reflecting that Maria had left nearly all of Puerto Rico without phone service after the Category 4 storm struck last September. At the same time, he defended his agency from ongoing criticism that it did not respond quickly enough to the hurricane or dedicate the same amount of resources compared with other natural disasters in the U.S. mainland, asserting: “(That’s) completely false,” adding that in the first six months since Maria hit, FEMA had invested $10 billion in Puerto Rico, in contrast to the $6 billion invested in the six months after Hurricane Katrina: “Recovery never moves as fast as people want it to be…And in this case, moving faster can be detrimental from the standpoint of putting this money to work in a manner that truly makes Puerto Rico stronger and more resilient.” His staffer, Mike Byrne, who serves as FEMA’s federal coordinating officer in Puerto Rico, said he is working with Puerto Rico’s government to determine how federal funds will be used to identify priorities and rebuild damaged infrastructure: he stated that some of the funds will go toward strengthening Puerto Rico’s power grid—some two-thirds of which Maria destroyed: even hoy dia (today), some two-thirds of its distribution system remains to be fixed; more than 50,000 power customers remain in the dark. Nevertheless, he said 96 percent of all customers now have electricity, noting: “We’ve done the Band-Aid,” adding that the recovery process has been slow in part because supplies ranging from construction equipment to power poles have been scarce in light of the natural disasters that hit the U.S. mainland, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands last year

La Escuela or School of Debt. In an in-depth session with NPR’s Hari Sreenivasan, who was joined by San Juan by Danica Coto of the Associated Press, Ms. Cotto noted that, over the last three decades, Puerto Rico has experienced school enrollment drop by 42%; since May of last year, that enrollment has dropped by 38,700—in part reflecting the roughly 135,000 Puerto Ricans who, in the wake of Maria, left for the mainland—that ism, those who could afford to. Ms. Cotto added that for the island’s 4,700 affected teachers, the Secretary of Education has promised that no one will lose her or his job—albeit for a quasi-state in quasi chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, such a commitment seems hard to imagine—the related query is what will happen to the schools themselves—150 of which had been closed in the half decade prior to Maria—and an additional 179 last year. Currently, Ms.Cotto noted, there are about 283 schools in the process of closing.

Mr. Sreenivasan inquired about the demographics of those students, some 319,000 in public schools, staying behind—in response to which Ms. Cotto responded that 30% have special needs, or about twice the average of the U.S. mainland. One can appreciate immediately the disparate fiscal and human implications—for Puerto Rico’s hopes for recovery—and for its fiscal future. And she asked about the equity in the process for determining which schools would close, reminding us of Detroit Emergency Manager Kevin Orr’s recognition that any final plan of debt adjustment for Detroit to exit the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in the nation’s history would require a perception that the public schools were competitive with surrounding jurisdictions.

Ms. Cotto noted that the bulk of public school closures in Puerto Rico will be in rural areas, noting that along the north coast of the island, some muncipios will experience closures of nearly half their public schools—creating a risk of an increasing number of young Americans losing access to public education—and a risk to local tax bases. Several other municipalities will see 44 to 46% of its schools close.

Motoring Back from Chapter 9 Bankruptcy

March 9, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the state of the City of Detroit, the state of the post-state takeover Atlantic City, and the hard to explain delay by the U.S. Treasury of a loan to the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico.

An Extraordinary Chapter 9 Exit. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan yesterday described the Motor City as one becoming a “world-class place to put down your roots” and make an impact: “We’re at a time where I think the trajectory is going the right way…We all know what the issues are. We’re no longer talking about streetlights out, getting grass cut in the parks. We’re making progress. We’re not talking all that much about balancing the budget.” His remarks, coming nearly five years after I met with Kevin Orr on the day he had arrived in Detroit at the request of the Governor Rick Snyder to serve as the Emergency Manager and steer the city into and out of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, denote how well his plan of debt adjustment as approved by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes has worked.

Thus, yesterday, the Mayor touted the Detroit Promise, a city scholarship program which covers college tuition fees for graduates of the city’s school district, as well as boosting a bus “loop” connecting local charter schools, city schools and after-school programs. Maybe of greater import, the Mayor reported that his administration intends to have every vacant, abandoned house demolished, boarded up, or remodeled by next year—adding that last year foreclosures had declined to their lowest level since 2008. Over the last six months, the city has boarded up 5,000 houses, sold 3,000 vacant houses for rehab, razed nearly 14,000 abandoned houses, and sold an estimated 9,000 side lots. The overall architecture of the Motor City’s housing future envisions the preservation of 10,000 affordable housing units and creation of 2,000 new ones over the next five years.

The Mayor touted the success of the city’s Project Green Light program, noting that some 300 businesses have joined the effort, which has realized, over the last three years a 40% in carjackings, a 30% decline in homicides since 2012, and 37% fewer fires, adding that the city intends to expand the Operation Ceasefire program, which has decreased shootings and other crimes, to other police precincts. On the economic front, the Mayor stated that Lear, Microsoft, Adient, and other major enterprises are moving or planning to open sites: over the last four years, more than 25 companies of 100-500 jobs relocated to Detroit. On the public infrastructure radar screen, Mayor Duggan noted plans for $90 million in road improvements are scheduled this year, including plans to expand the Strategic Neighborhood Fund to target seven more areas across the city, add stores, and renovate properties. Nearly two years after Michigan Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof (R-West Olive) shepherded through the legislature a plan to pay off the Detroit School District’s debt, describing it to his colleagues as a “realistic compromise for a path to the future…At the end of the day, our responsibility is to solve the problem: Without legislative action, the Detroit Public Schools would head toward bankruptcy, which would cost billions of dollars and cost every student in every district in Michigan,” the Mayor yesterday noted that a bigger city focus on public schools is the next front in Detroit’s post-bankruptcy turnaround as part of the city’s path to exiting state oversight. He also unveiled a plan to partner with the Detroit Public Schools Community District, describing the recovery of the district as vital to encourage young families to move back into the city, proposing the formation of an education commission on which he would serve, as well as other stakeholders to take on coordinating some city-wide educational initiatives, such as putting out a universal report card on school quality (which he noted would require state support) and coordinating bus routes and extracurricular programs to serve the city’s kids regardless of what schools they attend.

The Mayor, who at the end of last month unveiled a $2 billion balanced budget, noted that once the Council acts upon it, the city would have the opportunity to exit active state oversight: “I expect in April or May, we’re going to see the financial review commission vote to end oversight and return self-determination to the City of Detroit,” adding: “As everybody here knows, the financial review commission doesn’t entirely go away: they go into a dormancy period. If we in the future run a deficit, they come back.”

His proposed budget relies on the use of $100 million of an unassigned fund balance to help increase spending on capital projects, including increased focus on blight remediation, stating he hopes to double the rate of commercial demolition and get rid of every vacant, “unsalvageable” commercial property on major streets by the end of next year—a key goal from the plan he unveiled last October to devote $125 million of bond funds towards the revitalization of Detroit neighborhood commercial corridors, part of the city’s planned $317 million improvements to some 300 miles of roads and thousands of damaged sidewalks—adding that these investments have been made possible from the city’s $ billion general fund thanks to increasing income tax revenues—revenues projected to rise 2.7% for the coming fiscal year and add another $6million to $7 million to the city’s coffers. Indeed, CFO John Hill reported that the budget maintains more than a 5% reserve, and that the city continues to put aside fiscal resources to address the  higher-than-expected pension payments commencing in 2024, the fiscal year in which Detroit officials project they will face annual payments of at least $143 million under the city’s plan of debt adjustment, adding that the retiree protection fund has performed well: “What we believe is that we will not have to make major changes to the fund in order for us to have the money that we need in 2024 to begin payments; In 2016 those returns weren’t so good and have since improved in 2017 and 2018, when they will be higher than the 6.75% return that we expected.” He noted that Detroit is also looking at ways to restructure its debt, because, with its limited tax general obligation bonds scheduled to mature in the next decade, Detroit could be in a position to return to the municipal market and finance its capital projects. Finally, on the public safety front, the Mayor’s budget proposes to provide the Detroit Police Department an $8 million boost, allowing the police department to make an additional 141 new hires.

Taking Bets on Atlantic City. The Atlantic City Council Wednesday approved its FY2019 budget, increasing the tax levy by just under 3%, creating sort of a seesaw pattern to the levy, which three years ago had reached an all-time high of $18.00 per one thousand dollars of valuation, before dropping in each of the last two years. Now Atlantic City’s FY2019 budget proposal shows an increase of $439,754 or 3.06%, with Administrator Lund outlining some of the highlights at this week’s Council session. He reported that over the years, the city’s landfill has been user fee-based ($1 per occupant per month) to be self-sufficient; however, some unforeseen expenses had been incurred which imposed a strain on the landfill’s $900,000 budget. Based on a county population of 14,000, the money generated from the assessment amounts to roughly $168,000 per year, allowing the Cass County Landfill to remain open. However, the financing leaves up to each individual city the decision of fee assessments. Thus, he told the Council: “The Per Capita payment to the landfill accounted for about .35 to .40 cents of the increase.”  Meanwhile, two General Department heads requested budget increases this year and five Department Heads including; the Police Department and Library submitted budgets smaller than the previous year. Noting that he “never advocate(s) for a tax increase,” Mr. Lund stated: “But it is what it is. It was supposed to go up to $16.98 last year and now we are at $16.86, so it’s still less,” adding that the city’s continuous debt remains an anchor to Atlantic City’s credit rating—but that his proposed budget includes a complete debt assumption and plan to deleverage the City over the next ten years.

Unshelter from the Storm. New York Federal Reserve Bank President, the very insightful William Dudley, warns that Puerto Rico should not misinterpret the economic boost from reconstruction following hurricanes that hit it hard last year as a sign of underlying strength: “It’s really important not to be seduced by that strong recovery in the immediate aftermath of the disaster,” as he met with Puerto Rican leaders in San Juan: “We would expect there to be a bounce in 2018 as the construction activity gets underway in earnest,” warning, however, he expects economic growth to slow again in 2019 or 2020: “It’s “important not to misinterpret what it means, because a lot still needs to be done on the fiscal side and the long-term economic development side.”

President Dudley and his team toured densely populated, lower-income, hard hit  San Juan neighborhoods, noting the prevalence of “blue roofs”—temporary roofs overlaid with blue tarps which had been used as temporary cover for the more permanent structures devastated by the hurricanes, leading him to recognize that lots of “construction needs to take place before the next storm season,” a season which starts in just two more months—and a season certain to be complicated by ongoing, persistent, and discriminatory delays in federal aid—delays which U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin blamed on Puerto Rico, stating: “We are not holding this up…We have documents in front of them that [spell out the terms under which] we are prepared to lend,” adding that the Trump Administration has yet to determine whether any of the Treasury loans would ultimately be forgiven in testimony in Washington, D.C. before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government.

Here, the loan in question, a $4.7 billion Community Disaster Loan Congress and the President approved last November to benefit the U.S. territory’s government, public corporations, and municipalities—but where the principal still has not been made available, appears to stem from disagreements with regard to how Puerto Rico would use these funds—questions which the Treasury had not raised with the City of Houston or the State of Florida.  It appears that some of the Treasury’s apprehensions, ironically, relate to Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s proposed tax cuts in his State of the Commonwealth Speech, in which the Governor announced tax cuts to stimulate growth, pay increases for the police and public school teachers, and where he added his administration would reduce the size of government through consolidation and attrition, with no layoffs, e.g. a stimulus policy not unlike the massive federal tax cuts enacted by President Trump and the U.S. Congress. It seems, for the Treasury, that what is good for the goose is not for the gander.

At the end of last month, Gov. Rosselló sent a letter to Congress concerned that the Treasury was now offering only $2.065 billion, writing that the proposal “imposed restrictions seemingly designed to make it extremely difficult for Puerto Rico to access these funds when it needs federal assistance the most.” This week, Secretary Mnuchin stated: “We are monitoring their cash flows to make sure that they have the necessary funds.” Puerto Rico reports it is asking for changes to the Treasury loan documents; however, Sec. Mnuchin, addressing the possibility of potential loans, noted: “We’re not making any decision today whether they will be forgiven or…won’t be forgiven.” Eric LeCompte, executive director of Jubilee USA, a non-profit devoted to the forgiveness of debt on humanitarian grounds, believes the priority should be to provide assistance for rebuilding as rapidly as possible, noting: “Almost six months after Hurricane Maria, we are still dealing with real human and economic suffering…It seems everyone is trying to work together to get the first installment of financing sent and it needs to be urgently sent.”

Part of the problem—and certainly part of the hope—is that President Dudley might be able to lend his acumen and experience to help. While the Treasury appears to be most concerned about greater Puerto Rico public budget transparency, Mr. Dudley, on the ground there, is more concerned that Puerto Rican leaders not misinterpret the economic boost from reconstruction following the devastating hurricanes as a sign of underlying strength, noting: “It’s really important not to be seduced by that strong recovery in the immediate aftermath of the disaster: We would expect there to be a bounce in 2018 as the construction activity gets underway in earnest,” before the economic growth slows again in 2019 or 2020, adding, ergo, that it was “important not to misinterpret what it means, because a lot still needs to be done on the fiscal side and the long-term economic development side.”

Fiscal Recoveries from Fiscal & Physical Storms

eBlog

February 23, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the municipal fiscal threats to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, before taking a fiscal spin on the roulette tables of Atlantic City.

Fiscal Hurricane Fallout. Jaison R. Abel, Jason Bram, Richard Deitz, and Jonathan Hastings of the New York Federal Reserve this week, in their examination of the fallout in the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria on the economies of the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands noted that both were suffering from significant economic downturns and fiscal stress well before the storms hit nearly six months ago—noting that in their wake, the initial job losses in Puerto Rico totaled about 4 percent; in the U.S. Virgin Islands, job losses were double that—and there has been no rebound thus far. The authors wrote that these losses are considerably steeper than what has typically been experienced in the wake of most significant U.S. natural disasters, albeit not nearly as devastating as Hurricane Katrina’s unprecedented impact on the New Orleans economy more than a decade ago. The Fed three noted that domestic air passenger data indicate that from last September through November, more than 150,000 people left Puerto Rico, net of arrivals, and that the number who left the U.S. Virgin Islands was proportionally even larger. Thus, they opined, looking ahead, recovery will be affected by a variety of factors: especially: the level degree of out-migration, the level of external aid these economies receive, and the effectiveness of fiscal and other reforms—especially in Puerto Rico. They noted that Hurricane Maria was the most devastating hurricane to slam Puerto Rico in nearly a century—leaving an enormous toll of lives, homes, and businesses lost or suffering enormous damage, devastation of most crops and other agricultural assets, and severe havoc to its public infrastructure, adding that both for responding to the human and economic misery, the island’s experiencing of the most severe power outage in U.S. history means “it may still take months to fully restore electricity and other critical infrastructure,” describing the devastation to the U.S. Virgin Islands as similar, especially St. Croix, where I taught school long before most readers were born.

Nevertheless, the Fed Gang of Three wrote that recovery is underway in both Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, reporting that, as of last month, satellite images of nighttime lights suggest roughly 75 percent power restoration for Puerto Rico overall, with the southern and western parts of the island seeing nearly full restoration, and San Juan close to that level. In contrast, however, they determined that the eastern end of Puerto Rico and many interior areas have lagged substantially. As of the end of last year, they reported that the labor market has begun to recover in Puerto Rico: employment in leisure and hospitality (largely restaurants), the sector usually most affected by natural disasters, have started to bounce back in Puerto Rico, albeit not yet in the U.S. Virgin Islands. And, as often happens following natural disasters, jobs are being added in both Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in industries involved in clean-up, restoration, and rebuilding efforts—most notably, construction. Thus, they believe Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are confronted with a long and difficult recovery process ahead—a fiscal and physical process made all the more difficult because of poor economic and fiscal conditions prior to the storms.  

Financing a Recovering City’s Emergence from a State Takeover. The Atlantic City Council has voted approval the issuance of debt to pay off millions the municipality owes to pay off deferred pension and health care contributions from 2015—after, in 2015, state officials had urged the delay of some $37.2 million in pension and health care contributions—a delay which, today, officials note has added up to about $47 million with the added interest. In the ordinance the Council voted Wednesday 6-3 to authorize, Atlantic City can now issue as much as $55 million worth of municipal bonds to help finance those accrued debts, with the vote coming in the wake of a lengthy discussion between the Council and 13 residents, each of whom spoke in opposition: some urged the elected leaders to table the matter for further review, while others questioned who had authorized the deferment, whether the city was obligated to pay the interest rate, and whether there were other options to finance the debt—debt which, as of the end of the calendar year, had reached more than $344 million in outstanding debt. Timothy Cunningham, New Jersey’s local government services director and now the state appointed takeover appointee, has explained to residents the option to bond for the deferred payments would prevent it from having to go into the general fund—that is in lieu of the city being forced to raise tax rates: the municipal bond interest payments would instead be financed via the Investment Alternative Tax from casinos, which, under state takeover regulations, are redirected to be used in Atlantic City for debt service, he noted. The City Council had originally slated the issue for a vote last month, but withdrew the scheduled vote in order to host two public hearings on the matter.

At the session, Councilman Jesse Kurtz said he would have preferred a different resolution to making the payments, questioning whether Atlantic City would be obligated to pay back the payments’ interest if the deferment was at the suggestion of the State, noting it did not “sit right” with him to vote for the ordinance without a formal statement from Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration authorizing it: “When we’re short on money, the answer is to borrow money…I don’t like that.” Atlantic City Council President Marty Small responded that after the ordinance was pulled last month, city and state officials asked the Governor’s administration for forgiveness on the payment; however, the response was negative, adding that the city knew the day was coming to pay the deferred payments—and that such payment was the city’s obligation: to act otherwise, he noted, would be “putting the taxpayers in harm’s way” if they did not act to borrow to make the payments: “It’s not us versus you: What affects you, affects us.” Councilmember Kurtz, along with Councilmen Moisse Delgado and Jeffree Fauntleroy II, voted against the measure, while Councilmembers Small, George Tibbitt, Chuen “Jimmy” Cheng, William Marsh, Kaleem Shabazz, and Aaron Randolph voted aye. For his part, Mayor Frank Gilliam, told his colleagues in opposing the matter, the city needs to come up with “better ways to deal with our finances,” regardless of whether council passed the bond ordinance: “We’re still $400 million in debt.”

Returning from Municipal Bankruptcy

February 7, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the remarkable signs of fiscal recovery from the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, before returning to consider the ongoing fiscal recovery of Atlantic City, where the chips had been down, but where the city’s elected leaders are demonstrating resiliency.

Taking the Checkered Flag. John Hill, Detroit’s Chief Financial Officer, this week reported the Motor City had realized its first net increase in residential property values in more than 15 years. Although property taxes, unlike in most cities and counties, in Detroit only account for 17.1% of municipal revenues (income taxes bring in 20.4%), the increase marked the first such increase in 16 years—demonstrating not just the fiscal turnaround, but also indicating the city’s revitalization is spreading to more of its neighborhoods. Mr. Hill described it as a “positive sign of the recovery that’s occurring in the city,” and another key step to its emergence from strict state fiscal oversight under the city’s chapter 9 plan of debt adjustment. As Mr. Hill put it: “We do believe that we’ve hit bottom, and we’re now on the way up.” Nevertheless, Mr. Hill was careful to note he does not anticipate significant gains in property tax revenues in the immediate future, rather, as he put it: “[O]ver time, it will certainly have a very positive impact on the city’s revenue.” According to the city, nearly 60 percent of residents will experience a rise of 10 percent or less in assessments this year: the average assessed home value in Detroit is between $20,000 and $50,000. The owner of a home within that range could see an increase in their taxes this year of $22 to $34, according to Alvin Horhn, the city’s chief assessor. Detroit has the seventh highest rate among Michigan municipalities, with a 70.1 mills rate for owner-occupied home in city of Detroit/Detroit school district. Mr. Hill noted that for Detroit properties which show an increase in value this year, the rate will be capped; therefore he projects residents will not experience significant increases except for certain circumstances, such as a property changing hands.

Nevertheless, in the wake of years in which the city’s assessing office had reduced assessments across Detroit to reflect the loss in property values, the valuation or assessment turnaround comes as, in the past decade, the cumulative assessed value of all residential property was $8.4 billion, officials noted Monday: and now it is on the rise: last year, that number was $2.8 billion; this year, the assessed value of Detroit’s 263,000 residential properties rose slightly to $3 billion—or, as Mr. Horhn noted: “For the last 12 to 17 years, we’ve been making massive cuts in the residential (property) class to bring the values in line with the market…It’s been a long ride, but for the first time in a very long time, we see increases in the residential class of property in the city of Detroit.” This year’s assessments come in the wake of a systemic, citywide reassessment of its properties to bring them in line with market value—a reassessment initiated four years ago as part of a state overhaul to bring Detroit’s assessment role into compliance with the General Property Tax Act to ensure all assessments are at one half of the market value and that like properties are uniform. That overhaul imposed a deadline of this August for Detroit to comply with state oversight directives imposed in 2014 in the wake of mismanagement in Detroit’s Assessment Division, widespread over-assessments, and rampant tax delinquencies in the wake of an investigation finding that Detroit was over assessing homes by an average of 65%, based upon an analysis of more than 4,000 appeal decisions by a state tax board. Mr. Hill asserts now that he is confident Detroit’s assessments are fair; better yet, he reports the fixes have led to more residents paying property taxes. Indeed, city officials note that property tax collections increased from an average rate of 69% in 2012-14 to 79 percent in 2015, and 80 percent in 2016; the collection rate for 2017 is projected to be 82%. Mayor Mike Duggan, in a statement at the beginning of the week, noted: “We still have a long way to go to in rebuilding our property values, but the fact that we have halted such a long, steep decline is a significant milestone…This also corresponds with the significant increase in home sale prices we have seen in neighborhoods across the city.”

At the same time, Mr. Horhn notes that Detroit’s commercial properties have increased in value to nearly $3 billion, while industrial properties recovered from a drop last year, rising from $314 million to $513 million. He added that the demolition of blighted homes, as well as improving city services, had contributed to the rise in assessed property values: “It’s perception to a large extent: If people believe things are improving, they’ll invest, and I think that’s what we’re seeing.”

Raking in the Chips? In the wake of a state takeover, and the loss—since 2014, of 11,000 jobs in the region, Atlantic City marked a new step in its fiscal recovery with interviews commencing for the former bankrupt Trump Taj Mahal casino to reopen this summer as a Hard Rock casino resort. Indeed, 1,400 former Taj Mahal employees applied after an invitational event, marking what Hard Rock president Matt Harkness described as the “first brush stroke of the renaissance.” The casino is projected to create more than 3,000 jobs—and to be followed by the re-opening Ocean Resort Casino, which will add thousands of additional jobs. The rising revenues come after, last year, gambling revenue increased for the second consecutive year, marking a remarkable turnaround in the wake of a decade in which five of the city’s 12 casinos shut down, eliminating 11,000 jobs—and, from the fiscal perspective, sharply hurt assessed property values and property tax revenues. New Jersey Casino Control Commission Chair James Plousis noted: “Every single casino won more, and every internet operation reported increased win last year…Total internet win had its fourth straight year of double-digit increases. It shows an industry that is getting stronger and healthier and well-positioned for the future.” In fact, recent figures by the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement show the seven casinos won $2.66 billion in 2017, an increase of 2.2 percent over 2016. Christopher Glaum, Deputy Chief of Financial Investigations for the gaming enforcement division, noted that 2017 was the first year since 2006 when a year-over-year increase in gambling revenue at brick-and-mortar casinos occurred. Moreover, many are betting on the recovery to gain momentum: two of the five casinos which were shuttered in recent years are due to reopen this summer: the Taj—as reported above—under its new ownership, and the Revel, which closed in 2014, will reopen as the Ocean Resort Casino. The fiscal bookies are, however, uncertain about the odds of the reintroduction of two new casinos, apprehensive that that could over saturate the market; however, the rapid increase in internet gaming, which, last year, increased earnings for the casinos by 25 percent appear to demonstrate momentum.  

Now, the fiscal challenge might rest more at the state level, where the new administration of Gov. Phil Murphy, who promised major spending initiatives during his campaign, had been counting on revenue increases from restoring the income tax surcharge on millionaires and legalizing and taxing marijuana. The latter, however, could go up in a proverbial puff of weed—and, in any event, would arrive too late for this year’s Garden State budget. Similarly, the new federal “tax reform” act’s capping on the deduction for state and local taxes will mean increased federal income taxes most for well-off residents of high-tax states such as New Jersey—raising apprehension that a new state surcharge might encourage higher income residents to leave. That effort, however, has been panned by the New Jersey Policy Perspective, which notes: “Policy changes to avoid the new $10,000 cap on state and local tax deductions would mostly benefit New Jersey’s wealthiest families.” New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Depford) notes: “We don’t have a tax problem in New Jersey. New Jersey collects plenty in taxes. We have a government problem in New Jersey, and it’s called too much of it,” noting he has tasked a panel of fellow state Senators and tax experts to “looking at everything,” including the deduction issue. In addition, he is seriously considering shifting to countywide school districts, where possible, in an effort to reduce costs. Or, as he put it: “There is a lot of money to be saved when you do things differently.” Turning to efforts to restore Atlantic City’s finances, the state Senate President said the city is “doing great;” nevertheless, noting that talk about ending the state takeover is unrealistic: “We can adjust certain things there” and Governor Murphy will select someone new to be in charge. But end the state takeover?  “Absolutely not and it’s legislated for five years.”

It seems ironic that in the city where Donald Trump’s company filed for bankruptcy protection five times for the casinos he owned or operated in the city, he was able to simply walk away from his debts: he argued that he had simply used federal bankruptcy laws to his advantage—demonstrating, starkly, the difference between personal and municipal bankruptcy.