Balancing Fiscal & Public Safety

January 9, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the potential fiscal impact of the expiration of the State of New Jersey’s public safety arbitration cap—with the expiration coming as Governor-elect Phil Murphy has been reviewing a report examining the implications for property taxes, state spending, collective bargaining agreements, and public safety. Then we journey south to witness the denouement of the fiscal siege of the historic municipality of Petersburg, Virginia.

Uncapping & Fiscal Impacts. The State of New Jersey’s statute capping public safety arbitration awards at 2% has been in effect for seven years—it was last extended in 2014. Now, with a new Governor taking office, Moody’s has warned that its expiration on the last day of 2017 is a credit negative for the Garden State—and for its municipalities and counties. Indeed, the New Jersey League of Municipalities has been joined by the New Jersey Association of Counties, the New Jersey Conference of Mayors, the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, New Jersey Business and Industry Association, and the New Jersey Realtors Association to urge the new Governor and Legislature to support permanently extending the 2% cap Interest Arbitration Cap, noting that an expired cap would have a negative impact on property taxes and jeopardize the continued delivery of critical services, as well as adversely impact residential and commercial property taxpayers, working class families, and those on fixed incomes. The League’s President, Mayor James Cassella of East Rutherford, noted that the 2% Interest Arbitration Cap has controlled costs: without the cap, municipalities could see costly arbitration awards that would force local officials to reduce services or lay off employees to satisfy the arbitrator’s award and stay within the 2% levy cap. Similarly, New Jersey Association of Counties President Heather Simmons, a Gloucester County Freeholder, noted that failure to permanently extend the 2% cap on binding interest arbitration awards would inequitably alter the collective bargaining process in favor of labor at the expense of taxpayers, and lead to awards by arbitrators with no fiduciary duty to deliver essential services in a cost-effective manner.

Now Moody’s has moodily weighed in, deeming the expiration a credit negative for the state’s cities and  counties, as has Fitch Ratings.

In New Jersey, interest arbitration is a process open only to police and fire employee unions: it is a mechanism to resolve collective bargaining disputes between local governments and unions: when a public employer is unable to reach a contract agreement with a police or fire union, an arbitrator is called in to decide the terms of the contract. When the state adopted the 2 percent property tax levy cap, a separate 2 percent cap on interest arbitration awards was also imposed: that mandates arbitrators to take property taxes into account when issuing awards and providing local officials with a now proven and effective tool to contain property tax increases. The arbitration cap expired on Dec. 31; however, the property tax levy cap is permanent. The New Jersey League noted: “For nearly a decade, the 2 percent cap on binding interest arbitration awards has kept public safety employee salaries and wages under control simply because parties have been closer to reaching an agreement from the onset of negotiations. Moreover, the 2 percent cap on binding interest arbitration awards has established clear parameters for negotiating reasonable successor contracts that preserve the collective bargaining process and take into consideration the separate 2 percent tax levy cap on overall local government spending. And, importantly, the 2 percent cap on binding interest arbitration awards has not negatively impacted public safety services or recruitment.

In the wake of the expiration of the arbitration cap, it appears likely that arbitrator contract awards would exceed 2 percent. That would likely force cities and counties in the Garden State to reduce or eliminate municipal services—or go to the voters to seek approval to exceed the 2 percent property tax cap in order to fund an arbitration award.

Moody’s analyst Douglas Goldmacher moodily noted: “Given that salary costs are among the largest of municipal expenditures, the cost implications are obvious and considerable. The effect of this is, in most cases, unlikely to be rapid, but ultimately, the loss of the arbitration cap is likely to cause the sector’s credit quality to deteriorate…Although the cap has expired, and it may not be finished. Numerous local governments and local government advocacy groups support the arbitration cap. It is possible that the new governor and New Jersey state Legislature will revisit the matter. Until and unless that occurs, there will be a potentially dangerous mismatch between revenue and expenditures.” The statute, which caps public safety arbitration awards at 2%, came into force on January 1, 2011; it was extended for a three-year period in 2014 when it was last up for renewal. Mr. Goldmacher noted: “The cap played a major role in helping local governments manage public safety costs by instituting a limit on increases in police and fire salaries in arbitration and effectively tying the salary increases to the municipality’s or county’s revenue-raising capabilities…The cap’s expiration, should it prove permanent, is a credit negative for all local governments.” Mr. Goldmacher noted the cap’s existence has been a “valuable tool” in contract negotiations when police and firefighter unions with negotiators often forced to consider small salary increases. A September report by former Gov. Chris Christie’s appointees to the Police and Fire Public Interest Arbitration Impact Task Force stated that municipal property taxes jumped at an annual average of 7.19% for the five years prior to the cap compared to 2.41% since 2011. The report also estimated that the cap has saved taxpayers a collective $429 million. Thus, Mr. Goldmacher notes: “Given that salary costs are among the largest of municipal expenditures, the cost implications are obvious and considerable: Police and fire contracts often serve as a benchmark contract for other negotiations, which had the effect of making a 2% annual increase something of a standard target for most contracts, even for non-public safety collective bargaining units.” While it is possible the cap may be reinstated, Mr. Goldmacher added that as long as no action is taken to address the lapse, New Jersey’s cities and counties confront “a potentially dangerous mismatch” aligning revenue and expenditures, because of how much a 2% property tax cap law would limit their budgetary flexibility, writing: “The effect of this is, in most cases, unlikely to be rapid, but ultimately, the loss of the arbitration cap is likely to cause the sector’s credit quality to deteriorate,” he said. “The degree of deterioration will depend on the idiosyncratic qualities of the given community.”

For its part, Fitch wrote: “…the arbitration cap is beneficial to local government credit quality as it helps to align revenue and spending measures and supports structural balance in the context of statutory caps on property tax growth…bargaining groups may become more emboldened to pursue arbitration as opposed to voluntary settlement if the arbitration cap expires. Arbitration awards were significantly higher prior to the cap, ranging from 2.50% to 5.65% from 1993-2010, according to a report of the New Jersey Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC.)” Fitch also noted that the elimination of the arbitration cap “could force local governments to reduce governmental services and/or rely on one-time resources to accommodate higher wage expenses.”

The Fiscal Siege of Petersburg. Jack Berry, Robert Bobb, and Nelsie Birch, writing in a piece, “Overcoming the latest siege of Petersburg, referenced the city’s then vital role in the Civil War, where, as they wrote: “The series of battles known as the Siege of Petersburg lasted nine months and consisted of devastating trench warfare. It featured the largest concentration of African-American troops in the war, who suffered enormous casualties at the Battle of the Crater.” They went on to write: “Some would say that Petersburg has been under siege ever since the Civil War, that there is a siege mentality in the city. Petersburg even has a Siege Museum…But Petersburg has not always been under siege; it is not today, and it will not be tomorrow. Noting that Petersburg was once the second largest city in Virginia—and home to the largest number of free blacks in Virginia, they noted that it was once “a wealthy city, a major industrial center, and one of the largest rail hubs in the nation,” where, in the wake of the Civil War, a “coalition of Africa-American and white, populist Republicans, controlled the state legislature, which led to the creation of two large public institutions in the region: Virginia State University and Central State Hospital. Later, Fort Lee became another major economic engine for the area.” The authors noted, however, that “Jim Crow laws and Massive Resistance devastated the hopes and dreams of black citizens and fueled racial tensions. In 1985, one of the city’s largest employers, Brown & Williamson Tobacco, shut down its Petersburg factory. Later, Southpark Mall was located north of the city, sucking retail sales out of Petersburg.” These events adversely affected assessed property values—in turn reducing investment in public schools. The historic city seemed on a route to chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy—or being, as they wrote: “relinquishing city status—and being subsumed by neighboring jurisdictions,” all because of what they described as a “self-inflicted, mismanaged city government” which “ran itself into a ditch: In July of 2016, the city faced $18 million in unpaid bills. The budget was $12 million out of balance. Petersburg had nearly run out of cash and was dipping into every available pot of money, regardless of restrictions, to pay bills. A botched water meter conversion project impacted utility billings, which made the cash situation even worse.”

Because the Commonwealth of Virginia was apprehensive that a default by Petersburg would have had severe fiscal repercussions for municipalities across the state, the Commonwealth, as we have previously written, provided a consulting team to diagnose the fiscal issues and recommend fiscal measures—including, in its recommendations, pay cuts of 10 percent pay cuts for the entire city workforce. Even as the state-imposed overseer was acting, an aroused citizenry, via a grassroots group called “Clean Sweep,” attended every City Council session, demanding greater fiscal accountability. A year ago last October, former Mayor Howard Meyers and the City Council brought in a fiscal posse in an effort to restructure, hiring former Richmond City Manager Robert Bobb and his team, who set up a temporary war room in the City Hall building where General Robert E. Lee had met with his senior Confederate officers during the Siege of Petersburg. Mr. Bobb wrote of the fiscal war room: “We dug in for the long haul, with Nelsie Birch leading efforts to peel back layers of the financial onion. We got a handle on cash flow, figured out the extent of the unpaid bills, found checks stashed in drawers, arranged short-term financing, crafted a new budget, dramatically cut spending, put pressure on the city treasurer to collect taxes, and revamped the decrepit utility system…New financial policies were put in place; debt was restructured; water and sewer rates were increased to comply with debt covenants; the organization was right-sized; new managers were hired.”

Mr. Bobb described this war room process as one in which—at the same time—his team teamed with Mayor Sam Parham and the members of the Petersburg City Council “every step of the way,” to make the tough decisions, adding that, during this process, “Our strongest ally was the Governor’s Office, in particular, Virginia Secretary of Finance Ric Brown.” Indeed, by last November, external auditors reported a signal fiscal turnaround: Petersburg reported a year-end surplus of $7.2 million—and the report was on time; the auditor’s opinion was clean.

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