Rising from Municipal Bankruptcies’ Ashes

07/24/17

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Good Morning! You might describe this a.m.’s e or iBlog as The Turnaround Story, as we consider the remarkable fiscal recovery in Atlantic City and observe some of the reflections from Detroit’s riot of half a century ago—a riot which presaged its nation’s largest chapter 9 bankruptcy, before we assess the ongoing fiscal turmoil in the U.S. territory look at Puerto Rico.

New Jersey & You. Governor Chris Christie on Friday announced his administration is delivering an 11.4% decrease in the overall Atlantic City property tax rate for 2017—a tax cut which will provide an annual savings of $621 for the City’s average homeowner, but which, mayhap more importantly, appears to affirm that the city’s fiscal fortunes have gone from the red to the black, after, earlier this month, the City Council accepted its $206 million budget with a proposed 5% reduction in the municipal purpose tax rate, bringing it to about $1.80 per $100 of assessed valuation. Atlantic City’s new budget, after all, marks the first to be accepted since the state took over the city’s finances last November; indeed, as Mayor Don Guardian noted, the fiscal swing was regional: the county and school tax rates also dropped—producing a reduction of more than 11%—and an FY2018 budget $35 million lower than last year—and $56 million below the FY2016 budget: “We had considerably reduced our budget this year and over the last couple of years…I’m just glad that we’re finally able to bring taxes down.” Mayor Guardian added the city would still like to give taxpayers even greater reductions; nevertheless, the tax and budget actions reflect the restoration of the city’s budget authority in the wake of last year’s state takeover: the budget is the first accepted since the state took over the city’s finances in November after the appointment last year of a state fiscal overseer, Jeff Chiesa—whom the Governor thanked, noting:

“Property taxes can be lowered in New Jersey, when localities have the will and leaders step in to make difficult decisions, as the Department of Community Affairs and Senator Jeff Chiesa have done…Our hard work to stop city officials’ irresponsible spending habits is bearing tangible fruit for Atlantic City residents. Annual savings of more than $600 for the average household is substantial money that families can use in their everyday lives. This 11.4% decrease is further proof that what we are doing is working.”

Contributing to the property tax rate decrease is a $35-million reduction in the City’s FY2017 budget, which, at $206.3 million, is about 25% lower than its FY2015 budget, reflecting reduced salaries, benefits, and work schedules of Atlantic City’s firefighters and police officers, as well as the outsourcing of municipal services, such as trash pickup and vehicle towing to private vendors. On the revenue side, the new fiscal budget also reflects a jackpot in the wake of the significant Borgata settlement agreement on property tax appeals—all reflected in the city’s most recent credit upgrade and by Hard Rock’s and Stockton University’s decisions to make capital investments in Atlantic City, as well as developers’ plans to transform other properties, such as the Showboat, into attractions intended to attract a wider variety of age groups to the City for activities beyond gambling—or, as the state-appointed fiscal overseer, Mr. Chiesa noted: “The City is on the road to living within its means…We’re not done yet, but we’ve made tremendous progress that working families can appreciate. We’ll continue to work hard to make even more gains for the City’s residents and businesses.

The Red & the Black. Unsurprisingly, there seems to be little agreement with regard to which level of government merits fiscal congratulations. Atlantic City Mayor Guardian Friday noted: “We had considerably reduced our budget this year and over the last couple of years…“I’m just glad that we’re finally able to bring taxes down.” Unsurprisingly, lame duck Gov. Christie credited the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs and Mr. Chiesa, stating: “Our hard work to stop city officials’ irresponsible spending habits is bearing tangible fruit for Atlantic City residents.” However, Tim Cunningham, the state director of local government services, earlier this month told the Mayor and Council the city and its budget were moving in the “right direction,” adding hopes for the city’s fiscal future, citing Hard Rock and Stockton University’s investment in the city; while Mr. Chiesa, in a statement, added: “The city is on the road to living within its means…We’re not done yet, but we’ve made tremendous progress that working families can appreciate. We’ll continue to work hard to make even more gains for the city’s residents and businesses.”

Do You Recall or Remember at All? Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, the white mayor of the largest African-American city in America, last month spoke at a business conference in Michigan about the racially divisive public policies of the first half of 20th century which helped contribute to Detroit’s long, painful decline in the second half of the last century—a decline which ended in five torrid nights and days of riots which contributed to the burning and looting of some 2,509 businesses—and to the exodus of nearly 1.2 million citizens. The Mayor, campaigning for re-election, noted: “If we fail again, I don’t know if the city can come back.” His remarks appropriately come at the outset of this summer’s 50th anniversary of the summer the City Detroit burned.

Boston University economics Professor Robert Margo, a Detroit native who has studied the economic effects of the 1960’s U.S. riots, noting how a way of life evaporated in 120 hours for the most black residents in the riot’s epicenter, said: “It wasn’t just that people lived in that neighborhood; they shopped and conducted business in that neighborhood. Overnight all your institutions were gone,” noting that calculating the economic devastation from that week in 1967 was more than a numbers exercise: there was an unquantifiable human cost. That economic devastation, he noted, exacerbated civic and problems already well underway: job losses, white flight, middle-income black flight, and the decay and virtual wholesale abandonment of neighborhoods, where, subsequently, once-vibrant neighborhoods were bulldozed, so that, even today, if we were to tour along main artery of the riot, Rosa Parks Boulevard (which was 12th Street at the time of the riots), you would see overgrown vacant lots, lone empty commercial and light industrial buildings, boarded-up old homes—that is, sites which impose extra security costs and fire hazards for the city’s budget, but continue to undercut municipal revenues. Yet, you would also be able to find evidence of the city’s turnaround: townhouses, apartments, and the Virginia Park Community Plaza strip mall built from a grassroots community effort. But the once teeming avenue of stores, pharmacies, bars, lounges, gas stations, pawn shops, laundromats, and myriad of other businesses today have long since disappeared.

In the wake of the terrible violence, former President Lyndon Johnson created the Kerner Commission, formally titled the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, to analyze the causes and effects of the nationwide wave of 1967 riots. That 426-page report concluded that Detroit’s “city assessor’s office placed the loss—excluding building stock, private furnishings, and the buildings of churches and charitable institutions—at approximately $22 million. Insurance payouts, according to the State Insurance Bureau, will come to about $32 million, representing an estimated 65 to 75 percent of the total loss,” while concluding the nation was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” Absent federal action, the Commission warned, the country faced a “system of ’apartheid’” in its major cities: two Americas: delivering an indictment of a “white society” for isolating and neglecting African-Americans and urging federal legislation to promote racial integration and to enrich slums—primarily through the creation of jobs, job training programs, and decent housing. In April of 1968, one month after the release of the Kerner Commission report, rioting broke out in more than 100 cities across the country in the wake of the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.

In excerpts from the Kerner Report summary, the Commission analyzed patterns in the riots and offered explanations for the disturbances. Reports determined that, in Detroit, adjusted for inflation, there were losses in the city in excess of $315 million—with those numbers not even reflecting untabulated losses from businesses which either under-insured or had no insurance at all—and simply not covering at all other economic losses, such as missed wages, lost sales and future business, and personal taxes lost by the city because the stores had simply disappeared. Academic analysis determined that riot areas in Detroit showed a loss of 237,000 residents between 1960 and 1980, while the rest of the entire city lost 252,000 people in that same time span. Data shows that 64 percent of Detroit’s black population in 1967 lived in the riot tracts. U. of Michigan Professor June Thomas, of the Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, wrote: “The loss of the commercial strips in several areas preceded the loss of housing in the nearby residential areas. That means that some of the residential areas were still intact but negatively affected by nearby loss of commercial strips.” The riots devastated assessed property values—creating signal incentives to leave the city for its suburbs—if one could afford to.

On the small business side, the loss of families and households, contributed to the exodus—an exodus from a city of 140 square miles that left it like a post WWII Berlin—but with lasting fiscal impacts, or, as Professor Bill Volz of the WSU Mike Ilitch School of Business notes: the price to reconstitute a business was too high for many, and others simply chose to follow the population migration elsewhere: “Most didn’t get rebuilt. They were gone, those mom-and-pop stores…Those small business, they were a critical part of the glue that made a neighborhood. Those small businesses anchored people there. Not rebuilding those small businesses, it just hurt the neighborhood feel that it critical in a city that is 140 square miles. This is a city of neighborhoods.” Or, maybe, he might have said: “was.” Professor Thomas adds that the Motor City’s rules and the realities of post-war suburbanization also made it nearly impossible to replace neighborhood businesses: “It’s important to point out that, as set in place by zoning and confirmed by the (city’s) 1951 master plan, Detroit’s main corridors had a lot of strip commercial space that was not easily converted or economically viable given the wave of suburban malls that had already been built and continued to draw shoppers and commerce…This, of course, all came on top of loss of many businesses, especially black-owned, because of urban renewal and I-75 construction.”

Left en Atras? (Left Behind?As of last week, two-thirds of Puerto Rico’s muncipios, or municipalities, had reported system breakdowns, according to Ramón Luis Cruz Burgos, the deputy spokesman of the delegation of the Popular Democratic Party (PPD) in the Puerto Rico House Of Representatives: he added that in Puerto Rico, a great blackout occurs every day due to the susceptibility of the electric power system, noting, for instance, that last month, for six consecutive days, nearly 70 percent of Puerto Rico’s municipalities had problems with electricity service, or, as he stated: “In Puerto Rico we have a big blackout every day. We have investigated the complaints that have been filed at the Autoridad de Energía Eléctrica (AEE) for blackouts in different sectors, and we conclude that daily, two-thirds of the island are left without light. This means that sectors of some 51 municipalities are left in the dark and face problems with the daily electricity service.”

It seems an odd juxtaposition/comparison with the events that triggered the nation’s largest ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in Detroit—even as it reminds us that in Puerto Rico, not only is the Commonwealth ineligible for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, but also its municipalities. Mr. Cruz Burgos noted that reliability in the electric power system is one of the most important issues in the economic development of a country, expressing exasperation and apprehension that interruptions in service have become the order of the day: “Over the last two months, we have seen how more than half of the island’s villages are left dark for hours and even for several days, because the utility takes too long to repair breakdowns,” warning this problem will be further aggravated during the month of August, when energy consumption in schools and public facilities increases: “In the last two months, there are not many schools operating and the use of university facilities is also reduced for the summer vacation period. In addition, many employees go on vacation so operations in public facilities reduce their operation and, therefore, energy consumption.”

Jose Aponte Hernandez, Chair of the International and House Relations Committee, blamed the interruptions on the previous administration of Gov. Luis Fortuno, claiming: it had “abandoned the aggressive program of maintenance of the electrical structure implemented by former Gov. Luis Fortuna, claiming: “In the past four years the administration of the PPD did not lift a finger to rehabilitate the ESA structure. On the contrary, they went out of their way to destroy it in order to justify millionaire-consulting contracts. That is why today we are confronting these blackouts.”

The struggle for basic public services—just as there was a generation ago in Detroit, reflect the fiscal and governing challenge for Puerto Rico and its 88 municipalities at a time when non-Puerto Rican municipal bondholders have launched litigation in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims to demand payment of $3.1 billion in principal and interest in Puerto Rico Employment Retirement System bonds (In Altair Global Credit Opportunities Fund (A), LLC et al. v. The United States of America)—the first suit against the U.S. government proper, in contrast to prior litigation already filed against the Puerto Rico Oversight Board, with the suit relying on just compensation claims and that PROMESA is a federal entity. Here, as the Wizard of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, Jim Spiotto, notes, the key is whether the PROMESA board was acting on behalf of the federal government or on behalf of Puerto Rico—adding that he believes it was acting for Puerto Rico and, ergo, should not be considered part of the federal government, and that the U.S. Court of Federal Claims may find that the federal government’s actions were illegal. Nevertheless, the issue remains with regard to whether the bonds should be paid from the pledged collateral—in this case being Puerto Rico employer contributions. (The Altair complaint alleges that the PROMESA Board is a federal entity which has encouraged, directed, and even forced Puerto Rico to default on its ERS bonds—a board created by Congress which has directed the stream of employer contributions away from the bondholders and into the General Fund, according to these bondholders’ allegations.

On the Hard Roads of Fiscal Recovery

eBlog

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the growing, remarkable fiscal recoveries in post-bankruptcy Detroit and formerly insolvent Atlantic City, before turning to the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico as it seeks, along with the oversight PROMESA Board, an alternative to municipal bankruptcy.

Pacing a City’s Economic Recovery. JP Morgan Chairman and Chief Executive Officer yesterday described the city of Detroit’s economic recovery as one which has moved faster than expected—indeed, so much so that the giant financial institution today will announce it is expanding its investment in the city over the next two years, bringing the total effort to $150 million by 2019—some two years ahead of schedule. Mr. Dimon credited the city’s economic progress to strong collaboration between civic, business, and nonprofit leadership, as well as improving economic conditions in the city. If anything, over the last three years, the bank has become an enthusiastic partner in the Motor City’s recovery from the nation’s largest ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy via investing more than $107 million in loans and grants to enhance the city’s remarkable progress in implementing its plan of debt adjustment and achieving the goal of complete restoration of its fiscal autonomy. JP Morgan’s investments have included $50 million in community development financing, $25.8 million to revitalize neighborhoods, $15 million for workforce development, $9.5 million for small business expansion, and $6.9 million in additional investments. In addition, Morgan appears to be ready for more, with the bank’s future investments likely to focus on:

  • further revitalizing Detroit’s neighborhoods,
  • strengthening the city’s workforce system, and
  • helping minority-owned small businesses grow.

Indeed, Mr. Dimon noted: “Detroit’s resurgence is a model for what can be accomplished when leaders work together to create economic growth and opportunity…This collaboration allowed us to speed up our investment and extend our commitment over the next two years. Going forward, I hope business, government and nonprofit leaders will see Detroit’s comeback as a shining example of how to put aside differences and work to find meaningful and innovative solutions to our most pressing economic problems.” For his part, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan called JPMorgan Chase “a true partner” in the city’s work to restore economic growth and opportunity, noting that Morgan’s investments “have enabled thousands of Detroiters to receive training and created new opportunities for entrepreneurs and revitalized neighborhoods. There is more work to do, and I hope our continued partnership will build a thriving economy for all Detroiters.”

Indeed, the giant financial institution has extended its fiscal commitment: it plans to make investments of about $30 million focused on creating livable, inclusive, and sustainable neighborhoods. Officials report that will include preparing residents with the skills needed for high-paying careers and providing small businesses with capital. In addition, JPMorgan Chase officials said they will invest about $13 million re-paid loans paid back into two community development investment funds with which the bank has partnered in the community: Invest Detroit and Capital Impact Partners. This post-municipal bankruptcy investment in Detroit has been key, city officials, report to enabling Detroit to test solutions, adapt programs, and even find models that could be applied to other cities. For instance, the city’s Motor City Mapping project, Detroit’s comprehensive effort to digitize Detroit’s property information and create clear communication channels back and forth between the public, the government, and city service providers, has provided JP Morgan with insights how blight mapping can be applied in other cities to bring community partners together to fight blight—the bank has already shared the mapping technology in Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati.

Is Atlantic City like Dracula? New Jersey State Senator Jim Whelan (D-Northfield), the former Mayor of Atlantic City and previous teacher in the city’s public school system, yesterday noted: “I always say Atlantic City is like Dracula—you can’t kill it, no matter how hard we try.” Indeed, the city’s gleaming casinos are turning profits, and plans have recently been announced to embark upon a $375 million renovation and reopening of the Trump Taj Mahal by Hard Rock casino; Stockton University just broke ground on a satellite campus. A luxury apartment complex, the first to be constructed in Atlantic City in decades, is underway. With upgrades in the city’s credit rating, a city that was on the brink of chapter 9 bankruptcy and taken over by the state is, today, on the road to recovery. The fiscal recovery comes in the wake of a decade which featured a 50 percent drop in the city’s casino revenues, witnessed the closure of nearly half of the casinos, and loss of 10,000 jobs, a loss which triggered a massive spike in home foreclosures—indeed losses which so imperiled the city’s fisc that the state took over the city. But this week, with a new playground ready for when the local elementary school lets out and a reduction in property taxes, there is a note of fiscal optimism. David G. Schwartz, an Atlantic City native, who currently serves as the Director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, described it this way: “I think we are definitely into the next phase of the city’s history…Atlantic City has faced adversity before, and it has always moved forward–even though it sometimes took a few decades.”

My distinguished colleague, Marc Pfeiffer, the Assistant Director of the Bloustein Local Government Research Center in New Jersey, who, after a brief 37-year career in New Jersey local government administration, and a mere 26 years of service in New Jersey’s Division of Local Government Services, described the remarkable fiscal turnaround this way:

“The state is proceeding with its low-key recovery approach, working hand-in-hand with Mayor Guardian’s administration and the City Councilinsofar as politically feasible, and when not, pushing ahead using the authority in the law.  A few fits and starts with some challenges along the way, but it is a generally forward, positive trajectory. The recent Superior and Appellate decisions affirmed (or until appealed to the Supreme Court) the validity of New Jersey’s authority under the law, which eliminated the uncertainty of the last year. That’s good.  Jeff Chiesa’s team can now work with the city’s administration to make the changes which have long been discussed: reducing costs, modifying service levels and workforce size, in order to meet the city’s needs today given its new and evolving economy.”

In answer to the query what still remains to be addressed, he noted that the hard political issue of payments in lieu of taxes is being challenged by the neighboring County Executive and mayors of surrounding jurisdictions.  He reports that finding a “chunk of money to bring down long-term debt” to enable reductions in the city’s property tax is still a challenge—as is the enduring question with regard to how to address the water authority: how can it be monetized and meet the city’s interest in not losing ownership of it.  

From a governance perspective, he notes that the State of New Jersey had managed to keep all these issues relatively low-key: negotiations have been undertaken far from the public spotlight—mayhap depriving the public of critical information, but, at the same time, facilitating fiscal progress in avoiding the once, seemingly certain municipal bankruptcy.

Importantly, he adds that Atlantic City’s evolving economy cannot be ignored: “We’ve seen new investment and construction; new market rate rentals, South Jersey Gas moving its headquarters to Atlantic City; there is a new Stockton State University campus, and the pending revitalization and reopening of the shuttered Taj Mahal as a Hard Rock casino: “casino gaming revenues are up as we slide into the prime season.” Finally, he writes: “We seem to be getting to the point of ‘right-sizing’ the city, both economically and governmentally…which may be complicated by the pending elections—where the issue will be the upcoming primary battle to determine who will run against Mayor Guardian this fall.

Could There Be Promise in PROMESA? PROMESA Puerto Rico Oversight Board Chair José Carrión has advised the Governor Rosselló that the board has deferred until a week from Monday for either the board approving the Governor’s budget or notifying the Governor of violations and providing a description of corrective actions, writing: “We have received a working draft of the proposed budget, and are reviewing the submission and its completeness…The board will provide the Governor an additional 14 days to amend and improve the submission before it approves it or identifies violations.” The Governor’s working draft has yet to be made public; and constructing it will be perilous: according to the PROMESA board-certified fiscal plan, as of mid-March the Board expects the Governor to add nearly $924 million in revenues and cut $951 million in expenses from Puerto Rico’s All Government Activities budget—changes in a deteriorating economy the equivalent of nearly 10% of the Commonwealth’s budget.

Dr. José G. Caraballo, a professor in the Department of Business Administration at the University of Puerto Rico at Cayey, who also serves as the Director of the Census Information Center at the University, this week provided some perspective—or what he called “conjectures” with regard to the cause of what he called Puerto Rico’s “unsustainable indebtedness,” noting one hypothesis is that a “bloating” government inflated the government payroll, increasing the need to borrow. That perspective is valuable: for instance, he writes: “Even when there is no academic study showing that the payroll is payable or not, the proportion of government employees to the overall population aged 16 and older was lower in 2001 than in 1988, when there were no debt problems. In fact, the ratio of government workers to the population, ages 16-64, in 2013 was 10.3 percent in the U.S. and 11.2 percent in Puerto Rico, reducing the validity of this claim.”

Addressing the hypothesis that reckless and corrupt administrations had caused Puerto Rico’s fiscal and debt crisis, he noted: “I acknowledge that fiscal mismanagement has exacerbated this crisis, but there are studies showing that the (low) quality of administrators was similar from 1975-2000, and there is no evidence that the corruption of the 2000s was worse than the corruption in the 1970s or 1980s, when there was no debt crisis,” adding that “debt (measured in the correct way, either adjusted for inflation or as a share of gross domestic product) actually decreased from over the decade from 1977-1987.”  

Finally, he turned to an underlying issue: the disparate treatment of Puerto Rico created by §936 of the Internal Revenue Code—under which the industrial incentives provided to Puerto Rico were stripped, undercutting the island’s economy and disadvantaging it compared to other Caribbean nations: he noted that the proportion of manufacturing left the U.S. territory without any substitutable economic strategy, reduced government revenues, and increased Puerto Rico’s dependency on external funding—noting that in 1995, manufacturing represented 42% of Puerto Rico’s GDP, creating more than 30% of the local bank deposits and generating 17% of the total direct employment. Thus, he added; “It is far from a coincidence that when the transition period of the §936 ended in 2006, Puerto Rico entered the largest economic depression in more than 100 years. I verified the relationship between this deindustrialization and indebtedness with advanced statistical methods in a recent paper.”

Dr. José G. Caraballo offered that Congress could include Puerto Rico in the Guam-Northern Mariana Islands Visa Waiver Program—a change which he suggested would draw more tourists from Asia; remove the federal navigation acts which force Puerto Ricans to exclusively contract expensive U.S. vessels; implement new industrial policies; or provide parity in the distribution of Medicare and Medicaid assistance.

State Oversight & Severe Municipal Distress

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eBlog, 04/24/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the unique fiscal challenge confronting Detroit: when and how will it emerge from state oversight? Then we spin the tables to see how Atlantic City is faring to see if it might be on the shores of fiscal recovery; before going back to Detroit to assess the math/fiscal challenges of the state created public school district; then, still in Detroit, we try to assess the status of a lingering issue from the city’s historic municipal bankruptcy: access to drinking water for its lowest income families; before visiting Hartford, to try to gauge how the fiscally stressed central city might fare with the Connecticut legislature. Finally, we revisit the small Virginia municipality of Petersburg to witness a very unique kind of municipal finance for a city so close to insolvency but in need of ensuring the provision of vital, lifesaving municipal services. 

Fiscal & Physical Municipal Balancing. Michigan Deputy Treasurer Eric Scorsone is predicting that by “early next year, Detroit will be out of state oversight,” at a time when the city “will be financially stable by all indications and have a significant surplus.” That track will sync with the city’s scheduled emergence from state oversight, albeit apprehension remains with regard to whether the city has budgeted adequately  to set funds aside to anticipate a balloon pension obligation due in 2024. Nevertheless, Mr. Scorsone has deemed the Motor City’s post-bankruptcy transformation “extraordinary,” describing its achievements in meeting its plan of debt adjustment—as well as complying with the Detroit Financial Review Commission—so well that the “city could basically operate on its own.” He noted that the progress has been sufficient to permit the Commission to be in a dormancy state—subject to any, unanticipated deficits emerging. The Deputy Treasurer credited the Motor City’s strong management team under CFO John Hill both for the city’s fiscal progress, but also for his role in keeping an open line of communication with the state oversight board; he also noted the key role of Mayor Mike Duggan’s leadership for improving basic services such as emergency response times and Detroit’s public infrastructure. Nevertheless, Detroit remains subject to the state board’s approval of any contracts, operating or capital budgets, as well as formal revenue estimates—a process which the Deputy Treasurer noted “allows the city to stay on a strong economic path…[t]hese are all critical tools,” he notes, valuable not just to Detroit, but also to other municipalities an counties to help ensure “long term stability.”

On the Shore of Fiscal Recovery. S&P Global Ratings, which last month upgraded Atlantic City’s general obligation bond rating two notches to CCC in the wake of the city’s settlement with the Borgata Casino, a settlement which yielded the city some $93 million in savings, has led to a Moody’s rating upgrade, with the credit rating agency writing that Atlantic City’s proposed FY2017 budget—one which proposes some $35.3 million in proposed cuts, is a step in the right direction for the state taken-over municipality, noting that the city’s fiscal plan incorporates a 14.6% cut in its operating budget—sufficient to save $8 million, via reductions in salaries and benefits for public safety employees, $6 million in debt service costs, and $3 million in administrative expenses. Nevertheless S&P credit analyst Timothy Little cautioned that pending litigation with regard to whether Atlantic City can make proposed police and firefighter cuts could be a fly in the ointment, writing: “In our view, the proposed budget takes significant measures to improve the city’s structural imbalance and may lead to further improved credit quality; however, risks to fiscal recovery remain from pending lawsuits against state action impeding labor contracts.” The city’s proposed $206.3 million budget, indeed, marks the city’s first since the state takeover placed it under the oversight of the New Jersey’s Local Finance Board, with the state preemption giving the Board the authority to alter outstanding debt, as well as municipal contracts. Mr. Little wrote that this year will mark the first fiscal year of the agreed-to payment-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOT) program for casino gaming properties—a level set at $120 million annually over the next decade—out of which 10.4% will go to Atlantic County. Mr. Little also notes that the budget contains far less state financial support than in previous years, as the $30 million of casino redirected anticipated revenue received in 2015 and 2016 will be cut to $15 million; moreover, the budget includes no state transitional aid—denoting a change or drop of some $26.2 million; some of that, however, will be offset by a $15 million boost from an adjustment to the state Consolidated Municipal Property Tax Relief Act—or, as the analyst wrote: “Long-term fiscal recovery will depend on Atlantic City’s ability to continue to implement fiscal reforms, reduce reliance on nonrecurring revenues, and reduce its long-term liabilities.” Today, New Jersey state aid accounts for 34% of the city’s $206.3 million in budgeted revenue, 31% comes from casino PILOT payments, and 27% from tax revenues. S&P upgraded Atlantic City’s general obligation bond rating two notches to CCC in early March after the Borgata settlement yielded the city $93 million in savings. Moody’s rates Atlantic City debt at Caa3.

Schooled on Bankruptcy. While Detroit, as noted above, has scored high budget marks or grades with the state; the city’s school system remains physically and fiscally below grade. Now, according to the Michigan Department of Education, school officials plan to voluntarily shutter some of the 24 city schools—schools targeted for closure by the state last January, according to State Superintendent Brian Whiston, whose spokesperson, William DiSessa, at a State Board of Education meeting, said:  “Superintendent Whiston doesn’t know which schools, how many schools, or when they may close, but said that they are among the 38 schools threatened for closure by the State Reform Office earlier this year.” Mr. DiSessa added that “the decision to close any schools is the Detroit Public School Community District’s to make.” What that decision will be coming in the wake of the selection of Nikolai Vitti, who last week was selected to lead the Detroit Public Schools Community District. Mr. Vitti, 40, is currently Superintendent of the Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Florida, the 20th largest district in the nation; in the wake of the Detroit board’s decision last week to enter into negotiations with Mr. Vitti for the superintendent’s job, Mr. Vitti described the offer as “humbling and an honor.” The school board also voted, if Mr.Vitti accepts the offer, to ask him to begin next week as a consultant, working with a transition team, before officially commencing on July 1st. The School Board’s decision, after a search began last January, marks the most important decision the board has made during its brief tenure, in the wake of its creation last year and election last November after the Michigan Legislature in June approved $617-million legislation which resolved the debt of Detroit Public Schools via creating the new district, and retaining the old district for the sole purpose if collecting taxes and paying off debt.

The twenty-four schools slated for closure emerged from a list of 38 the State of Michigan had targeted last January—all from schools which have performed in the bottom 5 percent of the state for at least three consecutive years, according to the education department. The Motor City had hoped to avoid any such forced state closures—hoping against hope that by entering last month into partnership negotiations with the Michigan State Superintendent’s office, and working with Eastern Michigan University, the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, and Wayne State University, the four institutions would help set “high but attainable” goals at the 24 Detroit schools to improve academic achievement and decrease chronic absenteeism and teacher vacancies. The idea was that those goals would be evaluated after 18 months and again in 36 months, according to state officials. David Hecker, president of the American Federation of Teachers Michigan, noted that he was not aware which schools might be closing or how many; however, he noted that whatever happens to the teachers of the closing schools would be subject to the collective bargaining agreement with the Detroit Federation of Teachers. “If any schools close, it would absolutely be a labor issue that would be governed by the collective bargaining agreement as to how that will work … (and) where they will go,” Mr. Hecker said. “We very strongly are opposed to any school closing for performance reasons.”

Thirsty. A difficult issue—among many—pressed upon now retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes during Detroit’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy came as the Detroit Water and Sewer Department began shutting off water service to some of nearly 18,000 residential customers with delinquent accounts. Slightly less than a year ago, in the wake of numerous battles in Judge Rhodes’ then U.S. bankruptcy courtroom, the issue was again raised: what authority did the city of Detroit have to cut off the delivery of water to the thousands of its customers who were delinquent by more than 90 days? Thus it was that Detroit’s Water and Sewerage Department began shutting off service to customers who had failed to pay their bills—with, at the time, DWSD guesstimating about 20,000 of its customers had defaulted on their payments, and noting that the process of shutting off service to customers with unpaid bills was designed to be equitable and not focused on any particular neighborhood or part of the city—and that the agency was not targeting customers who owed less than a $150 and were only a couple of months behind, noting, instead: “We’re looking for those customers who we’ve repeatedly tried to reach and make contact,” as well as reporting that DWSD was reminding its delinquent customers who were having trouble paying their water bills to contact the department so they may be enrolled in one of its two assistance programs — the WRAP Fund or the “10/30/50” plan. Under the first, the WRAP Fund, customers who were at 150 percent of the poverty level or below could receive up to $1,000 a year in assistance in paying bills, plus up to $1,000 to fix minor plumbing issues leading to high usage. This week, DWSD is reporting it has resumed shutoffs in the wake of sending out notices, adding the department has payment and assistance plans to help those with delinquent accounts avoid losing service. Department Director Gary Brown told the Detroit Free Press that everyone “has a path to not have service interruption.” Indeed, it seems some progress has been achieved: the number of families facing shutoffs is down from 24,000 last April and about 40,000 in April of 2014, according to The Detroit News. In 2014, DWSD disconnected service to more than 30,000 customers due to unpaid bills, prompting protests over its actions. Nonetheless, DWSD began the controversial practice of shutting off water service again this week, this time to some of the nearly 18,000 residential customers with delinquent accounts, in the wake of notices sent out 10 days earlier, according to DWSD Director Gary Brown. Nevertheless, while 17,995 households are subject to having their water turned off, those residents who contact the water department prior to their scheduled shutoffs to make a payment or enter into an assistance plan will avoid being cut off—with experience indicating most do. And, the good gnus is that the number of delinquent accounts is trending down from the 24,302 facing a service interruption last April, according to DWSD. Moreover, this Solomon-like decision of when to shut off water service—since the issue was first so urgently pressed in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court before Judge Rhodes—has gained through experience. DWSD Director Brown reports that once residents are notified, about 90 percent are able to get into a plan and avoid being shut off, and adding that most accounts turned off are restored within 24 hours: “Every residential Detroit customer has a path not to be shut off by asking for assistance or being placed into a payment plan…I’m urging people not to wait until they get a door knocker to come in and ask for assistance to get in a payment plan.” A critical part of the change in how the city deals with shutoffs comes from Detroit’s launch two years ago of its Water Residential Assistance Program, or WRAP, a regional assistance fund created as a component of the Great Lakes Water Authority forged through Detroit’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy: a program designed to help qualifying customers in Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties who are at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level—which equates to $36,450 for a family of four—by covering one-third of the cost of their average monthly bill and freezing overdue amounts. Since a year ago, nearly $5 million has been dedicated to the program—a program in which 5,766 Detroit households are enrolled, according to DWSD, with a retention rate for those enrolled in the program of 90 percent. DWSD spokesperson Bryan Peckinpaugh told the Detroit News the department is committed to helping every customer keep her or his water on and that DWSD provides at least three advance notifications encouraging those facing a service interruption to contact the department to make payment arrangements, adding that the outreach and assistance efforts have been successful, with the number of customers facing potential service interruption at less than half of what it was three years ago.

Fiscally Hard in Hartford. Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin has acknowledged his proposed $612.9 FY2018 budget includes a nearly $50 million gap—with proposed expenditures at $600 million, versus revenues of just over $45 million: a fiscal gap noted moodily by four-notch downgrades to the Connecticut city’s general obligation bonds last year from two credit rating agencies, which cited rising debt-service payments, higher required pension contributions, health-care cost inflation, costly legal judgments from years past, and unrealized concessions from most labor unions. Moody’s Investors Service in 2016 lowered Hartford GOs to a junk-level Ba2. S&P Global Ratings knocked the city to BBB from A-plus, keeping it two notches above speculative grade. Thus, Mayor Bronin, a former chief counsel to Gov. Daniel Malloy, has repeated his request for state fiscal assistance, noting: “The City of Hartford has less taxable property than our suburban neighbor, West Hartford. More than half of our property is non-taxable.” In his proposed “essential services only” budget, Mayor Bronin is asking the Court of Common Council to approve an increase of about $60 million, or 11%, over last year’s approved budget—with a deadline for action the end of next month. An increasing challenge is coming from the stressed city’s accumulating debt: approximately $14 million, or 23%, of that increase is due to debt-service payments, while $12 million is for union concessions which did not materialize, according to the Mayor’s office. Gov. Malloy’s proposed biennial budget, currently in debate by state lawmakers, proposes $35 million of aid to Hartford. Unsurprisingly, that level is proving a tough sell to many suburban and downstate legislators. On the other hand, the Mayor appears to be gaining some traction after, last year, gaining an agreement with the Hartford Fire Fighters Association that might save the city $4 million next year: the agreement included changes to pension contributions and benefits, active and retiree health care, and salary schedules. In addition, last month, Hartford’s largest private-sector employers—insurers Aetna Inc., Travelers Cos. and The Hartford—agreed to donate $10 million per year to the city over five years. Nonetheless, rating agencies Moody’s and S&P have criticized the city for limited operating flexibility, weak reserves, narrowing liquidity, and its rising costs of debt service and pension obligations. Gurtin Municipal Bond Management went so far as to deem the city a “slow-motion train wreck,” adding that while the quadruple-notch downgrades had a headline shock effect, the city’s fundamental credit deterioration had been slow and steady. “The price impact of negative headlines and credit rating downgrades can be swift and severe, which begs the question: How should municipal bond investors and their registered investment advisors react?” Gurtin’s Alex Etzkowitz noted, in a commentary. “The only foolproof solution is to avoid credit distress in the first place by leveraging independent credit research and in-depth, ongoing surveillance of municipal obligors.”

Fighting for a City’s Future. The small city of Petersburg. Virginia, is hardly new to the stress of battle. It was there that General Robert E. Lee’s men fought courageously throughout the Overland Campaign, even as Gen. Lee feared he confronted a campaign he feared could not be won, warning his troops—and politicians: “We must destroy this Army of Grant’s before he gets to the James River. If he gets there, it will become a siege, and then it will be a mere question of time.” Yet, even as he wrote, General Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac was racing toward the James and Petersburg to wage an attack on the city—a highly industrialized city then of 18,000 people, with supplies arriving from all over the South via one of the five railroads or the various plank roads. Indeed, Petersburg was one of the last outposts: without it, Richmond, and possibly the entire Confederacy, was at risk. Today, the city, because of the city’s subpar credit rating, is at fiscal risk: it has been forced to beg its taxpayers to loan it funds for new emergency vehicles—officials are making a fiscal arrangement with private citizens to front the cost for new emergency vehicles, and offering to put up city hall as collateral for said arrangement, as an assurance to the lenders they will be paid back. The challenge: the police department currently needs 16 new vehicles, at a cost of $614,288; the fire department needs three new trucks, at a cost of $2,145,527. Or, as Interim City Manager Tom Tyrrell notes: “Every single day that a firefighter rolls out on a piece of equipment older than he is, or a police officer responds to an emergency call in a car with 160,000 miles on it, are days we want to avoid…We want to get this equipment as soon as possible.” Interim City Finance Director Nelsie Birch has included in the upcoming fiscal year budget the necessary funds to obtain the equipment—equipment Petersburg normally obtains via lease agreements with vendors, but which now, because of its inability to access municipal credit markets due to its “BB” credit rating with a negative outlook, makes it harder than ever to find any vendor—or, as Manager Tyrrell puts it: “We went out four different times…We solicited four different times to the market, and were unsuccessful in getting any parties to propose.” He added that when soliciting these types of agreements, you solicit “thousands of people.” Notwithstanding that the funds for the vehicles is already set aside in the upcoming budget, city officials have been unable to find anyone willing to enter into a lease agreement with the city because of the city’s financial woes.

Last week, the City Council authorized Mr. Tyrrell to “undertake emergency procurement action” in order for the lease of necessary fire and police vehicles, forcing Mr. Tyrrell and other officials to seek private funds to get the equipment—that is, asking individual citizens who have the financial means to put up money for the fire and police vehicles—or, as Mr. Tyrrell puts it: “We’ve reached out to four people, who are interested and capable,” noting they are property owners in Petersburg who will remain anonymous until the deal is closed, describing it thusly: “[This agreement] is outside the rules, because we couldn’t get a partner inside the rules.” Including in this proposed fiscal arrangement: officials must put up additional collateral, in addition to the cars themselves, and in the form of city-owned property—with the cornerstone of the proposal, as it were, being Petersburg City Hall, or, as Mr. Tyrrell notes: “What they’re looking for is some assurance that no matter what happens, we’re going to pay the note…It’s not a securitization in the financial sense, as much as it is in the emotional sense: they know that the city isn’t going to let it go.” He adds, the proposed financial arrangement will be evaluated in two areas: the interest rate and how fast the deal can close, adding: “Although it’s an emergency procurement, we still want to get the best deal we can.”

Getting Out of Insolvency & Back on Fiscal Track

eBlog, 04/14/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing recovery of Atlantic City, New Jersey—where the Mayor this week proposed, in his first post-state takeover budget, the first tax cuts in a decade. Then we head west to the Motor City, where the city, as part of its fiscal recovery from the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history is seeking to ensure all its taxpayers pay what they owe, before then veering south to assess the first 100 days of the PROMESA oversight of the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico.

Getting Back on the Fiscal Track. Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian this week presented his proposed $206 million budget to the City Council, which unanimously voted 7-0 to introduce it at a special meeting, and the City has scheduled a public budget hearing for May 17th. In a taste of the fiscal turnaround for the city, the proposed budget includes the first municipal tax decrease in a decade. It also marks the first budget for the city since the State of New Jersey usurped control over Atlantic City’s finances last November. As proposed, it is more than $35 million or 21% less than last year’s and would reduce the municipal tax rate by 5 percent, according to both city and state officials. The city has scheduled a public budget hearing for May 17th.

As proposed, the steepest cut is in public safety—some $8 million, but the draft proposal also seeks cuts in administration costs ($5 million), as well as proposing savings via the privatization of trash pickup, payroll, and vehicle towing services. The smaller budget request is projected to reduce the city’s costs of debt service by $6 million. Unsurprisingly, the proposed tax cuts—the first in nearly a decade, drew the strongest applause: Atlantic City’s municipal tax rate has skyrocketed 96 percent since 2010, a period during which the city’s tax base dropped by nearly 66%. The $206.3 million budget Mayor Guardian presented features $6 million of cuts to debt service at $30.8 million and proposes to allocate $8 million less for public safety.

Mayor Guardian, who is running for his second term as Mayor this fall, said in a statement before presenting the budget that state overseers have played an instrumental role in crafting the new spending plan which features the proposed 5% property tax cut. It could mark a key point in the city’s efforts to regain governance control back from the State of New Jersey—a takeover the Republican mayor had bitterly contested, which took effect last November after New Jersey’s Local Finance Board rejected the city’s five-year recovery plan, or, as the Mayor put it: “From the beginning, I have said that we need to work with the State of New Jersey to stabilize Atlantic City and to reduce the outrageous property taxes that we inherited from years of reckless spending…Even though the entire state takeover was both excessive and unnecessary, the state did play an important role in helping us turn things around.”

For his part, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie praised former U.S. Sen. Jeffrey Chiesa for his role as the state’s designee leading the financial recovery and his contributions in helping to achieve the city’s first property tax cut in a decade. Gov. Christie credited Mr. Chiesa with withstanding union challenges to make firefighter and police cuts, as well as reaching a $72 million settlement with the Borgata casino which is projected to save the city $93 million on $165 million of owed property tax refunds from 2009 to 2015, noting: “As promised, we quickly put Atlantic City on the path to financial stability, with taxpayers and employers reaping the benefits of unprecedented property tax relief with no reduction in services by a more accountable government…I commend Senator Chiesa for leading Atlantic City to turn the corner, holding the line on expenses and making responsible choices to revitalize the city.”

Atlantic City is planning to issue $72 million in municipal bonds to finance the Borgata settlement though New Jersey’s Municipal Qualified Bond Act: the savings from the settlement, brokered by the state, were a key factor in S&P Global Ratings’ upgrade of Atlantic City’s junk-level general obligation bond debt: Atlantic City, which is weighed down by some $224 million in bonded debt, is rated Caa3 by Moody’s Investors Service. State overseer Chiesa noted: “Over the past five months, I have met so many smart, talented, tenacious people who want to see the city succeed. This inspires me every day to tackle the challenges facing the city to ensure that the progress we’ve made continues.”

A key contributor to the improved fiscal outlook appears to come from some of the unilateral contract changes to public safety officials, imposed by Mr. Chiesa, which led to reduced salaries and benefits for police and firefighters, albeit the courts will have the final say so: the unions have sued to block the cuts, arguing the takeover law is unconstitutional. In addition, the state also reach agreement on a $72 million tax settlement with Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa which is projected to save Atlantic City $93 million and essentially put Borgata back on its tax rolls. The casino had withheld property tax payments, but is now paying its part of casino payments in lieu of property taxes, or, as Mr. Chiesa put it: “Real progress is being made in the city, which is great news for the people who live, work and visit Atlantic City.”

Gov. Chris Christie, in his final term in office, praised Mr. Chiesa and jabbed at his political opponents in a statement issued before the City Council meeting, noting: “It took us merely a few months to lower property taxes for the first time in the past decade, when local leaders shamelessly spent beyond their means to satisfy their special political interests,” he said, even as Atlantic City officials described the budget as a collaborative effort with the state. Or, as Mayor Guardian put it: “He’s the governor. He makes those comments…What I think is [that] it’s clear the city moves ahead with the state.” Council President Marty Small, who chairs the Revenue and Finance Committee, said he was “intimately involved” in the budget process, describing it as a “win-win-win for everybody, particularly the taxpayers.”

Don’t Tax Me: Get the Feller behind the Tree! Getting citizens to pay their taxes is a problem everywhere, of course, but Detroit had a particularly hard time going after scofflaws because budget cuts decimated its ability to enforce the law. Even the citizens and businesses who paid up created logistical havoc for beleaguered city bureaucrats. Part of the reason, it seems, is that in Detroit, the only way to file taxes has been on paper. While that might be merely an irritation for taxpayers, it has been a nightmare for the city’s revenuers, who must devote endless hours typing data into computer systems. It appears also to have led to some innovation: last year the Motor City opted to send out more than 7,000 mailings to deadbeat tax filers, that is taxpayers who were still delinquent on their 2014 taxes; the city suspected each delinquent owed at least $350; ergo it randomly selected some taxpayers to receive one of six different letters, each with a different message in a black box on the mailing: One such message appealed to residents’ civic pride: “Detroit’s rising is at hand. The collection of taxes is essential to our success.” Another simply made clear that Detroit’s revenue department had detailed information on the deadbeats: “Our records indicate you had a federal income of $X for tax year 2014.” (Detroit is somewhat unique in that it has an income tax under which residents owe 2.4 percent of their incomes to the city, after a $600 exemption. Nonresidents who work in Detroit pay a rate of 1.2 percent.) Another message made a bold declaration: “Failure to file a tax return is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of $500 and 90 days in jail.”

It seems that threats have proven more effective than cajoling: More than 10 percent of taxpayers responded to the letter mentioning a fine and jail time, some 300% greater than the response rate to the city’s basic control letter. This revenue experiment was overseen by Ben Meiselman, a graduate student at the University of Michigan’s economics department, who manned a desk in Detroit’s tax office to run the experiment. He wrote the messages included in the mailings to reflect behavioral economics research, noting: “I find that a single sentence, strategically placed in mailings to attract attention, can have an economically meaningful impact on tax filing behavior,” in his working paper, “Ghostbusting in Detroit: Evidence on Non-filers from a Controlled Field Experiment,” which he intends to eventually become a chapter in his doctoral dissertation. And it turns out that providing details of a taxpayer’s income boosted the response rate by 63 percent, even as a letter from the city which combined a threat with income information was less effective than a threat by itself. Or, as one city official noted: “Keeping it simple seems to be the key,” especially as city officials learned that appeals to civic pride fell flat: the response rate was just 0.8 percentage points higher than that of a basic letter. Nevertheless, the city still confronts a long uphill fiscal cliff, even if it manages to apply the results of the experiment and triple the response rate from tax delinquents: according to the IRS, approximately six percent of U.S. taxpayers break the law by not filing with the Service each year, but, in Detroit, Mr. Meiselman estimated that some 46 percent of taxpayers had not submitted their 2014 returns by the due date in the following year—and that the return rate was getting worse.

Thus, Detroit’s next step was to back up threats with action—mayhap especially because there appears to have been little enforcement for the past decade: Detroit had not undertaken an audit or tax investigation in more than a decade. One outcome of insolvency and municipal bankruptcy, it appears, can hit hard: Detroit’s tax office, which once had a staff of about 70, is today about half that: it is a department which was recently reorganized, in the wake of last year’s takeover by the state of Michigan, a takeover intended to free up city employees to collect unpaid income taxes. The city also eased such filings by permitting them to be submitted electronically for the first time. And, wow!: 77 percent of filers took advantage. Detroit has sent out 15,000 letters since July 2016 and has collected $5.3 million through letters, audits, and investigations. And some of the amounts collected are significant, particularly for those who have juked, dodged, and evaded paying taxes for years: in one instance, a taxpayer agreed to pay $400,000. Detroit also began filing misdemeanor charges and lawsuits in small claims court to get its tax revenues, especially after learning that only one in five residents in several high-end apartments buildings had filed income taxes, helping to persuade a judge to issue an order requiring landlords to turn over tenant information.

These various steps appears to be helping: The number of residents filing tax returns more than doubled last year from the previous year; filings by non-residents increased by more than a third. City returns from 2016 are due, along with state and federal returns, by next Tuesday—the same deadline as applies to all readers of this eBlog, and, this year, Detroit officials are optimistic—or, as one wag put it: In the past, “people knew we weren’t coming after them…Now we are following up on those threats.”

The Promise or PROMESA of the First 100 Days. The PROMESA oversight board, provided by the Congress with authority over the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, has now surpassed its first one hundred days, created a juxtaposed governance challenge, especially for Governor Rosselló: how can he make sure that the framework set up during this period of quasi dual governance provides for the change Puerto Rico needs? How can he gain the approval of the Board for a long-term fiscal plan as the main achievement of his incipient administration? To prevail, it appears, he will have to convince the Oversight Board that his proposed budgets are based on real possibilities of revenues and that such estimates are free of dependence on loans and that he will conduct the restructuring of Puerto Rico’s public debt on favorable terms, and that he will take the key role in the reconstruction of the government apparatus to higher levels of service, efficiency, participation, and transparency. And, now, there appears to be some evidence that he is achieving progress. Puerto Rico’s statute on permits is intended address a serial inefficiency with regard to the “absurd and abusive terms” to obtain permits, delays which have hindered and discouraged the generation of new economic activity. The effort to provide for the progressive elimination of the costly redundancy in programs and services via the consolidation of agencies, with security first, appear to be key steps in achieving changes to restore financial health. Moreover, the creation of a spending budget 10 per cent below the current one appears to mark an important step in the goal of reasserting self-governance.

Nevertheless, the fiscal and governance challenges of recovering from fiscal insolvency can be beset from any angle: note, for instance, Judge Lauracelis Roques Arroyo has revived an “audit” of Puerto Rico’s debt and reversed Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s attempt to dismantle the debt audit commission. (Judge Roques Arroyo is a member of the Carolina Region of the Puerto Rico Superior Court.) And, thus, he has ruled that Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s attempt to dismantle a commission auditing Puerto Rico’s debt was illegal. The statute in question, law 97 of 2015, created the Puerto Rico Commission for the Comprehensive Audit of the Public Credit. The commission aimed to find Puerto Rico debt which was legally invalid. The commission’s first report in June of last year had reviewed documents connected with the Commonwealth’s $3.5 billion general obligation bond and $1.2 billion tax and revenue anticipation note, both sold in 2014. In this report, the Commission had raised doubts with regard to the legality of much of Puerto Rico’s bond debt. Late last September, the commission questioned the legality of the series 2013A power revenue bonds from the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), raising concerns with regard to the behavior of Morgan Stanley, Ernst &Young, and URS Corp. in the municipal bond sale and the period leading up to it. In early October, possibly in response to the commission’s work, the SEC commenced an investigation of PREPA’s 2012 and 2013 bonds. Ergo, Judge Arroyo’s order late last week returned three public interest members to the board, according to attorney Manuel Rodriguez Banchs; the order provided that the Governor has no authority to intervene with the commission: it said that the dismissal of the public interest members was illegal. The board has $650,000 in its account right now, according to board member Roberto Pagán, e.g. adequate to do a substantial amount of additional work. Gov. Rosselló, thus, is considering how to react to the judge’s order, according to the El Vocero news website.

Municipal Fiscal Accountability

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eBlog, 03/31/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing recovery efforts in Atlantic City after its “lost decade,” before venturing inland to one of the nation’s oldest cities, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania (founded in 1769) as it confronts the challenges of an early state intervention program, and, finally, to Southern California, where the City of Compton faces singular fiscal distrust from its citizens and taxpayers.  

A Lost Fiscal Decade? Atlantic City’s redevelopment effort appears to be gathering momentum following a “lost decade” which featured the closing of five casinos, a housing crisis and major recession, according to a new report released by the South Jersey Economic Review, with author Oliver Cooke writing: “The fact remains that Atlantic City’s redevelopment will take many years…The impact of the local area’s economy’s lost decade on its residents’ welfare has been stark.” The study finds the city to be in recovery—to be stable, but that it is still in critical condition with some work to do.  Nevertheless, its vital signs from developers and its improving economy are all good: that is, while the patient may not regain all its previous strength and capability,  it can thrive: it is “over(cost),” and needs to lose some of the fat it built up by going on a (budget) diet—a road to recovery which will remain steep and tortuous, because it lacks the fiscal capacity it had 15 or 20 years ago—and has to slim down to reflect it.  That is, the city will have to stress itself more in order to get better.  

The analysis, which was conducted in conjunction with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University, notes that vital signs from developers and its improving economy are in good condition—maybe even allowing the city to thrive, even if it is unable to regain all its previous strength and fiscal capacity—put in fiscal cookbook terms: Atlantic City is over(cost)weight and needs to lose some of the fat it built up by going on a (budget) diet.  The report also noted that Atlantic City is on track with some positive developments, including the decision at the beginning of this month by Hard Rock International to buy and reopen the closed Trump Taj Mahal property, as well as a recent $72 million settlement with the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa related to $165 million in owed tax refunds. Mr. Cooke also highlighted other high-profile projects underway, including the reopening of the Showboat casino by developer Bart Blatstein and a $220 million public-private partnership for a new Stockton University satellite residential campus. Nonetheless, he warned that Atlantic City still faces a deep fiscal challenge in the wake of the loss to the city’s metropolitan area of more than 25,000 jobs in the last decade—and its heavy burden of $224 million in municipal bond debt, tied, in large part, to casino property tax appeals. Ultimately, as the ever insightful Marc Pfeiffer of the Bloustein Local Government Research Center and former Deputy Director with the state Division of Local Government Services, the city’s emergence from state control and fiscal recovery will depend on the nuances of the that relationship and whether—in the end—the state imposed Local Finance Board acts with the city’s most critical interests at heart.  

Don’t Run Out of Cash! Wilkes-Barre, first incorporated as a Borough in 1806, is the home of one of Babe Ruth’s longest-ever home runs. It became a city in 1871: today it is a city of over 40,000, but one which has been confronted by constant population decline since the 1930s: today it is less than half the size it was in 1940 and around two-thirds the size it was in 1970. It is a most remarkable city, made up of an extraordinary heritage of ethnic groups, the largest of which are: Italian (just over 25%), Polish (just under 25%), Irish (21%), German (17.9%) English (17.1%) Welsh (16.2%) Slovak (13.8%); Russian (13.4%); Ukranian (12.8%); Mexican (7%); and Puerto Rican (6.4%). (Please note: my math is not at fault, but rather cross-breeding.) Demographically, the city’s citizens and families are diverse: with 19.9% under the age of 18, 12.6% from 18 to 24, 26.1% from 25 to 44, 20.8% from 45 to 64, and 20.6% who are 65 years of age or older. The city has the 4th-largest downtown workforce in the state of Pennsylvania; its family median income is $44,430, about 66% of the national average, and an unemployment rate of just under 7%. The municipality in 2015 had a poverty rate of 32.5%, nearly double the statewide average. Last year, the City of Wilkes-Barre was awarded a $60,000 grant through the Pennsylvania Department of Economic Development (DCED) Early Intervention Program (EIP) to develop a fiscal, operational and mission management 5 year plan for the city—from which the city selected Public Financial Management (PFM) as its consultant to assist in working with the city on its 5 year plan—and from which the city has since received PFM’s Draft Financial Condition Assessment and Draft Financial Trend Forecasting related to the city’s 5 year plan. As part of the intervention, two internal committees were created to develop new sources of revenue for the city. The Revenue Improvement Task Force is comprised of employees from Finance, Tax, Health, Code, and Administration and was directed to analyze and improve upon existing revenue streams; the Small Business Task Force was designed to develop guidance for those interested in opening small businesses in Wilkes-Barre and is comprised of employees from Zoning, Health, Code, Licensing, and Administration. Overall, Mayor Anthony “Tony” George and his administration are confident that they have made significant progress is restoring law and order via the city’s goals of strengthening intergovernmental relationships, improving public safety, fixing infrastructure, fighting blight, restoring and improving city services and achieving long-term economic development.

Nevertheless, the quest for fiscal improvement and reliance on consultants has proven challenging: some of PFM’s proposed options to address city finances have caused a stir. City council Chairwoman Beth Gilbert and City Administrator Ted Wampole, for instance, agreed privatizing the ambulance and public works services as a cost-saving measure was one of the most drastic steps proposed by The PFM Group of Philadelphia, with Chair Gilbert noting: “I stand vehemently against any privatization of any of our city services, especially as an attempt to save money;” she warned the city could end up paying more for services in the long run, and residents could receive less than they get now—adding: “If privatization is on the table, then so is quality.” The financial consultant hired last year for $75,000 to assist the city with developing a game plan to fix its finances under the state’s Early Intervention Program was scheduled to present the options at a public meeting last night at City Hall. PFM representatives, paid from the combination of a $60,000 state grant and $15,000 from the city, have appeared before council several times since December.

Gordon Mann, director of The PFM Group, last night warned: “If the gunshot wound to the city’s financial health doesn’t kill it, the cancer will: both need to be treated, but not at the same time…You need to address the bullet wound, and you need to put yourself in the position to address the cancer.” Mr. Mann, at the meeting, provided an update on where the city stands and where it’s going if nothing is done to address the municipality’s structural problems of flat revenues and escalating expenses for pensions, payroll and long-term debt; then he identified a number of steps to stabilize the city and balance its books, beginning with: “Don’t run out of cash,” and “[D]on’t bother playing the blame game and pointing the finger at prior administrations either,…It may not be your fault, but it is your problem.”

Wilkes Barre is not unlike many of Pennsylvania’s 3rd class cities (York, Erie, Easton, etc.), all in varying degrees of fiscal distress, albeit with some doing better than others. The municipal revenues derived from the property tax and earned income tax will simply not sustain a city like Wilkes Barre—that it, unless and until the state’s municipalities have access to collective bargaining/binding arbitration and pension reform: the current, antiquated revenue options leave the state’s municipalities caught between a rock and a hard place. Worse, mayhap, is the increasing rate of privatization—where an alarming trend across the Commonwealth of communities selling off assets (water, sewer, parking, etc.), more often than not to plug capital into pensions, is, increasingly, leaving communities with no assets and with no pension reform facing the same issue in the future. 

Not Comping Compton: Corruption & Fiscal Distress. In Compton, California, known as the Hub City, because of its location in nearly the exact geographical center of Los Angeles County, the City of Compton is one of the oldest cities in the county and the eighth to incorporate.  The city traces its roots to territory settled in 1867 by a band of 30 pioneering families, who were led to the area by Griffith Dickenson Compton—families who had wagon-trained south from Stockton, California in search of ways to earn a living other than in the rapidly depleting gold fields, but where, the day before yesterday, the city’s former deputy treasurer was arrested for allegedly stealing nearly $4 million from the city. FBI agents arrested Salvador Galvan of La Mirada on Wednesday morning, as part of a federal criminal complaint filed Tuesday, alleging that, for six years, Mr. Galvan skimmed about $3.7 million from cash collected from parking fines, business licenses, and city fees: an audit found discrepancies ranging from $200 to $8,000 per day. Mr. Galvan, who has been an employee of the city for twenty-three years, has been charged with theft concerning programs receiving federal funds. If convicted, he could face up to five years in prison. As Joseph Serna and Angel Jennings of the La Times yesterday wrote: “The money adds up to an important chunk of the budget in a city once beset with financial problems and the possibility of [municipal] bankruptcy.” Prosecutors claim that one former city employee saw all these payments as an opportunity, alleging that the former municipal treasurer, over the last six years, skimmed more than $3.7 million from City Hall, taking as much as $200 to $8,000 a day—small enough, according to federal prosecutors, to avoid detection, even as Mr. Galvan’s purchase of a new Audi and other upscale expenses on a $60,000 salary, raised questions.

The arrest marks a setback for the Southern California city which has prided itself in recent years for its recovery from some of the crime, blight, and corruption which had threatened the city with municipal insolvency—or, as Compton Mayor Aja Brown noted: the allegations “challenge the public’s trust.”  Mayor Brown noted the wake-up call comes as the city has been working in recent months to improve financial controls and create new processes for detecting fraud—even as some of the city’s taxpayers question how the city could have missed such criminal activity for so many years. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department had arrested Mr. Galvan last December in the wake of City Treasurer Doug Sanders’ confirmation with regard to “suspicious activity” in a ledger discovered by one of his employees: his position in the city involved responsibility for handling cash: as part of his duties, he collected funds from residents paying their water bills, business licenses, building permits, and trash bills. According to reports, Mr. Galvan maintained accurate receipts of the cash he received for city fees, but he would submit a lower amount to the city’s deposit records and, ultimately, on the deposit slips verified by his supervisors and the banks, according to federal prosecutors. Indeed, an audit which compared a computer-generated spreadsheet tracking money coming in to the city with documents Mr. Galvan prepared made clear that he had commenced skimming cash in 2010—starting slowly, at first, but escalating from less than $10,000 to $879,536 by 2015, a loss unaccounted for in the city’s accounting system. While Mr. Galvan faces a maximum of 10 years in federal prison, if convicted, the city faces a trial of public trust—or, as Mayor Brown, in a statement, notes: “Unfortunately, the actions of one employee can challenge the public’s trust that we strive daily as a City to rebuild…The alleged embezzlement and theft of public funds is an egregious affront to the hard-working residents of Compton as well as to our dedicated employees. The actions of one person does not represent our committed City employees who — like you — are just as disappointed.”

The Challenge of Recovering from or Averting Municipal Bankrupty

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eBlog, 03/28/17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

What Could Be the State Role in Municipal Fiscal Distress?

 

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eBlog, 03/08/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the state role in addressing fiscal stress, in this instance looking at how the Commonwealth of Virginia is reacting to the fiscal events we have been tracking in Petersburg. Then we spin the roulette table to check out what the Borgata Casino settlement in Atlantic City might imply for Atlantic City’s fiscal fortunes, a city where—similar to the emerging fiscal oversight role in Virginia, the state is playing an outsized role, before tracking the promises of PROMESA in Puerto Rico.

The State Role in Municipal Fiscal Stress. One hundred fifty-three years ago, Union General George Meade, marching from Cold Harbor, Virginia, led his Army of the Potomac across the James River on transports and a 2,200-foot long pontoon bridge at Windmill Point, and then his lead elements crossed the Appomattox River and attacked the Petersburg defenses on June 15. The 5,400 defenders of Petersburg under command of Gen. Beauregard were driven from their first line of entrenchments back to Harrison Creek. The following day, the II Corps captured another section of the Confederate line; on the 17th, the IX Corps gained more ground, forcing Confederate General Robert E. Lee to rush reinforcements to Petersburg from the Army of Northern Virginia. Gen. Lee’s efforts succeeded, and the greatest opportunity to capture Petersburg without a siege was lost.

Now, the plight of Petersburg is not from enemy forces, but rather fiscal insolvency—seemingly alerting the Commonwealth of Virginia to rethink its state role with regard to the financial stress confronting the state’s cities, counties, and towns. Thus, last month, Virginia, in the state budget it adopted before adjournment, included a provision to establish a system for the state to detect fiscal distress among localities sooner than it did with Petersburg last year, as well as to create a joint subcommittee to consider the broader causes of growing fiscal stress for the state’s local governments. Under the provisions, the Co-Chairs of the Senate Finance Committee are to appoint five members from their Committee, and the Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee is to name four members from his Committee and two members of the House Finance Committee to a Joint Subcommittee on Local Government Fiscal Stress. The new Joint Subcommittee’s goals and objectives encompass reviewing: (i) savings opportunities from increased regional cooperation and consolidation of services; (ii) local responsibilities for service delivery of state-mandated or high priority programs, (iii) causes of fiscal stress among local governments, (iv) potential financial incentives and other governmental reforms to encourage increased regional cooperation; and (v) the different taxing authorities of cities and counties. The new initiative could prove crucial to impending initiatives to reform state tax policies and refocus economic development at the regional level, as the General Assembly considers the fiscal tools and capacity local governments in the commonwealth have to raise the requisite revenues they need to provide services—especially those mandated by the state. Or, as Gregory H. Wingfield, former head of the Greater Richmond Partnership and now a senior fellow at the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University, puts it: “I hope they recognize we’ve got to have some restructuring, or we’re going to have other situations like Petersburg…This is a very timely commission that’s looking at something that’s really important to local governments.”

The Virginia General Assembly drafted the provisions in the state budget to create what it deems a “prioritized early warning system” through the auditor of public accounts to detect fiscal distress in local governments before it becomes a crisis. Under the provisions, the auditor will collect information from municipalities, as well as state and regional entities, which could indicate fiscal distress, as well as missed debt payments, diminished cash flow, revenue shortfalls, excessive debt, and/or unsupportable expenses. The new Virginia budget also provides a process for the auditor to follow and notify a locality that meets the criteria for fiscal distress, as well as the Governor and Chairs of the General Assembly’s finance committees. The state is authorized to draw up to $500,000 in unspent appropriations for local aid to instead finance assistance to the troubled localities. The Governor and money committee Chairs, once notified that “a specific locality is in need of intervention because of a worsening financial situation,” would be mandated to produce a plan for intervention before appropriating any money from the new reserve; the local governing body and its constitutional officers would be required to assist, rather than resist, such state intervention—or, as House Appropriations Chairman S. Chris Jones (R-Suffolk) describes it: “The approach was to assist and not to bring a sledgehammer to try to kill a gnat,” noting he had been struck last fall by the presentation of Virginia’s Auditor of Public Accounts Martha S. Mavredes with regard to the fiscal stress monitoring systems used by other states, including one in Louisiana which, he said, “would have picked up Petersburg’s problem several years before it came to light…At the end of the day, it appears you had a dysfunctional local government, both on the administrative and elected sides, that was ignoring the elephant that was in the room.”

The ever so insightful Director of Fiscal Policy at the Virginia Municipal League, Neal Menkes, a previous State & Local Leader of the Week, notes that Petersburg is far from alone in its financial stress, which was caused by factors “beyond just sloppy management: It included a series of economic blows,” he noted, citing the loss of the city’s manufacturing base in the 1980s and subsequently its significant retail presence in the region. The Virginia Commission on Local Government identified 22 localities—all but two of them cities—which experienced “high stress” in FY2013-14, of which Petersburg was third, and an additional 49 localities, including Richmond, which had experienced “above average” fiscal stress. Or as one of the wisest of former state municipal league Directors, Mike Amyx, who was the Virginia Municipal League Director for a mere three decades, notes: “It’s a growing list.”

The Commonwealth’s new budget, ergo, creates the Joint Subcommittee on Local Government Fiscal Stress, charged with taking a sweeping look at the reasons for stress, including:

  • Unfunded state mandates for locally delivered services, and
  • Unequal taxing authority among localities.

The subcommittee will look at ways for localities to save money by consolidating services and potential incentives to increase regional cooperation, or as Virginia Senate Finance Co-Chairman Emmett Hanger (R-Augusta) notes: “We need to dig deeply into the relationship of state and local governments,” expressing his concerns with regard to potential threats to local revenues, such as taxes on machinery and tools, and on business, professional and occupational licenses (BPOL), as well as fiscal disparities with regard to local capacity or ability to finance core services such as education and mental health treatment, or, as he puts it: “We do need to address the relative levels of wealth of local governments…We need to look at all of the formulas in place for who gets what from state government…Our tax system is still antiquated, and local governments have to rely too heavily on real estate taxes.”  

The subcommittee will include Sen. Hanger and Chairman Jones, as chairs of the respective Budget Committees, and House Finance Chairman R. Lee Ware Jr. (R-Powhatan), whose panel grapples every year with the push to reduce local tax burdens and the need to give localities the ability to generate revenue for services. Chairman Jones, a former Suffolk Mayor and city councilmember, said he is “keenly aware of the relationship between state and local governments. It is a complex relationship. The solutions aren’t simple…You’ve got to be able to replace that revenue at the local level—you can’t piecemeal this.”

Municipal Credit Roulette. State intervention and a settlement of tax refunds owed to a casino drove a two-notch S&P Global Ratings upgrade of Atlantic City’s general obligation debt to CCC from CC. The rating remains deep within speculative grade, the outlook is developing. S&P analyst Timothy Little wrote that the upgrade reflected a state takeover of Atlantic City finances that took effect in November which has helped “diminish” the near-term likelihood of a default. A $72 million settlement with the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa over $165 million in owed tax refunds that saves Atlantic City $93 million also contributed to the city’s first S&P upgrade since 1998, according to S&P. Mayor Don Guardian noted that obtaining a CCC rating was “definitely a step in the right direction: As we continue to implement the recommendations from our fiscal plan submitted last year, and working together with the state, we know that our credit rating will continue to improve higher and higher.” Nevertheless, notwithstanding the credit rating lift, Mr. Little warned that Atlantic City’s financial recovery is “tenuous” in the early stages of state intervention, ergo the low credit rating reflects what he terms “weak liquidity” and an “uncertain long-term recovery,” reminding us that Atlantic City has upcoming debt service payments of $675,000 due on none other than April Fool’s Day, followed by another $1.6 million on May Day, $1.5 million on June 1st, and $3.5 million on August 1st. Nevertheless, Atlantic City and the state fully contemplate making the required payments in full and on time. Mr. Little sums up the fiscal states:  “In our opinion, Atlantic City’s obligations remain vulnerable to nonpayment and, in the event of adverse financial or economic conditions, the city is not likely to have the capacity to meet its financial commitment…Due to the uncertainty of the city’s ability to meet its sizable end-of-year debt service payments, we consider there to be at least a one-in-two likelihood of default over the next year.” He adds that, notwithstanding the State of New Jersey’s enhanced governing role with Atlantic City finances, chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy remains an option for the city if adequate gains are not accomplished to improve the city’s structural imbalance, as well as noting that S&P does not consider the city to have a “credible plan” in place to reach long-term fiscal stability. For his part, Evercore Wealth Management Director of Municipal Credit Research Howard Cure said that while the municipal credit upgrade reflects the Borgata Casino tax resolution, the rating, nonetheless, makes clear how steep the road to fiscal recovery will be: “You really need the cooperation of the city, but also the employees of the city for there to be a real meaningful recovery…This could go bad in a hurry.”

Is There Promise in Promesa? Elias Sanchez Sifonte, Puerto Rico’s representative to the PROMESA Fiscal Supervision Board, late Tuesday wrote to PROMESA Board Chairman José B. Carrión to urge that the Board take concrete actions in its final recommendations to address the U.S. territory’s physical health and the renegotiation of public debt—that is, to comply with the provisions of PROMESA and advocate for Puerto Rico with the White House and Congress in order to avoid “the fiscal precipice” which Puerto Rico confronts, especially once the federal funds which are used in My Health expire. Mr. Sifonte also requested additional time for Puerto Rico to renegotiate its debt, reminding the Board that PROMESA “makes it very clear that an extension of the funds under the Affordable Care Act is critical.” With grave health challenges, the board representative appears especially apprehensive with regard to the debate commencing today in the House of Representatives to make massive changes in the existing Affordable Care Act.

Recounting Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares efforts to address Puerto Rico’s severe fiscal situation, he further noted that the Governor’s efforts would little serve if the PROMESA Board bars Puerto Rico from a voluntary process through which to renegotiate what it owes to various types of creditors, arguing that Puerto Rico ought to be able to negotiate with its municipal bondholders, and, ergo, seeking an extension of the current suspension of litigation set to expire at the end of May to the end of this year, noting: “It would be very unfair that after all the progress achieved in the past two months, the government cannot achieve a restructuring under Title VI simply because the past government intentionally or negligently truncated the Title VI process at the expense of the new administration.” His letter came as Gerardo Portela Franco, the Executive Director of the Puerto Rico Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority (FIFAA), reported that administration officials have had initial talks with the PROMESA board about the plan and are in the process of making suggested changes. FIFAA will manage the implementation the measures and lead negotiations with Puerto Rico’s creditors over restructuring the government’s $70 billion of debt.