Amazonian Recovery

May 18, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we take a fiscal perspective on post-chapter 9 Detroit and its income and property taxes; then we dip south to assess the seemingly interminable governing challenge with regard to whom is in charge of restoring fiscal solvency in Puerto Rico.   

The Challenging Road to Recovery. Last January, Detroit failed to make the Amazon cut to make the finalists: Sandy Baruah, president and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber, who was on the fateful call, nevertheless described feedback from Amazon, describing the “creativity, the regional collaboration, the quality of the bid document, the international partnership with Windsor, all of that got incredibly high marks,” adding that: “We were good, but we weren’t good enough on the talent front.” The noted urban writer Richard Florida tweeted that he believed Amazon missed the mark on Detroit, if talent was the disqualifying factor—he, after all, early on, had identified Detroit as a sleeper candidate for HQ2, with a top three of greater Washington, D.C.; Chicago; and Toronto, noting that Detroit has more tech workers than many on the list, including Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, and Columbus—and that the city has access to major public research universities, not to mention its international partnership with Windsor, Ontario, in Canada gave the bid an international quality that only Toronto’s bid could match. Indeed, Mr. Florida had suggested that Detroit’s elimination was due to outdated perceptions of the Motor City’s economy, talent, and overall livability.

Nevertheless, Detroit’s near miss—when added to the city’s exit at the end of last month from state fiscal oversight, is a remarkable testament to Detroit, that, less than five years after filing for the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history, came so close to making the cut, so successfully has it overcome the adverse repercussions of nearly six decades of economic decline, disinvestment, and chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. State officials praised the city for fiscal gains that came quicker than many anticipated after its Chapter 9 exit in December 2014. The city shed $7 billion of its $18 billion in debts during the 18-month bankruptcy. Last year, the city’s income tax take rose by 8%–and assessed property values rose for the first time in nearly two decades.

No doubt the auto industry has played a driving role: in the emerging age of self-driving cars, a recent report by real estate services giant CBRE which evaluated the top 50 U.S. metro areas in the country in terms of tech talent ranked Detroit 21st, ahead of several cities which made the Amazon cut, including Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Nashville, and Miami. Indeed, remarkably, on a percentage basis, Detroit has as many tech jobs in its metro as Washington, D.C., and Boston. The report also found that Detroit’s millennial population with college degrees grew by just under 10% between 2010 and 2015, more than double the national average of 4.6% and equivalent to rates in the Bay Area (9.5%) and Atlanta (9.3%).

Nevertheless, the Motor City continues to face taxing challenges—including a less than effective record, until recently, of collecting income and property taxes it was owed under existing law—and of improving its school system: a vital step if the city is to draw young families with kids back into the city. Moreover, it still needs to reassess its municipal tax policies: its 2.4% income tax is double that paid by non-residents working in the city. That is not exactly a drawing card to relocate from the suburbs.

The Uncertain Promise of PROMESA. While the PROMESA Oversight Board has requested Puerto Rico to amend its recommended budget, Puerto Rico has responded it would prefer to negotiate, because it understands that resorting to the Court “is not an alternative.” Puerto Rico’s Secretary of Public Affairs, Ramón Rosario Cortés, made clear, moreover, that there would be is no change of position with regard to the Board’s demand for reducing pensions or vacation and sick leave, much less eliminating the Christmas bonus. Nevertheless, the Commonwealth appears to be of the view that its differences with the PROMESA Board are “are minimal,” despite the Board’s rejection, last week, of Governor Ricardo Rosselló’s proposed budget—a rejection upon which the Board suggested that cuts in public pensions and the elimination of the mandatory Christmas bonus had not been incorporated. The Board also noted the omission of funds finance Social Security for police officers. Secretary Rosario Cortés noted: “The Governor called to the Board to sit down and review those points they exposed, as long as they do not interfere with the Governor’s public policy. In the coming days, Gov. Rosselló and his team will be responding to each of the Board’s points and providing information that supports each of the Government’s positions: The Government is open to dialogue in order to reach consensus that does not interfere or contravene those public policy positions that the Governor has already expressed; specifically: no cuts in pensions or eliminating the Christmas bonus and reducing sick leave.”

He acknowledged that the dispute could end up in Court, as PROMESA Board Executive Director, Natalie Jaresko, has warned: “Yes, certainly, they have not only resorted to Court in the past, but they have also said it is a possibility. We understand that it is not an alternative, it would delay the fiscal recovery of Puerto Rico and would require investing resources that are scarce at the moment: They made some observations, and we are willing to look at them,” adding that the work teams of the Governor and the Board are communicating and sharing information: “Dialogue continues and, along the way, we hope to reach a consensus that will avoid setbacks and reaching the courts.”

Who Is Governing? Precisely, Director Jaresko also acknowledged that not amending the budget would delay the renegotiation of Puerto Rico’s debt, warning that if the Rosselló administration does not act, the PROMESA Board will proceed to preempt its governance authority and power as provided by the PROMESA law, which authorizes the Board to amend the U.S. territory’s budget and submit its own version to the Legislature for approval—albeit, it rattles one’s fiscal imagination that Puerto Rican legislators could conceivably want to do so.

Nevertheless, the Board has advised Gov. Rosselló that his recommended budget does not reflect what is established in the fiscal plan: regarding the General Fund, the recommended budget represents about $200 million in expenses on the certified income projection; in addition, the budget information does not include public corporations or similar dependencies—meaning that Director Jaresko is of the view that the draft budget omits some 60% of the public spending. Thus, she has threatened that the Governor has until high noon on Tuesday to correct the ‘deficiencies,’ or risk the Board preempting its governing authority.  

Nevertheless, Puerto Rico’s fiscal position appears to be on the upswing: as of last week, revenues were 7% ahead of its July 2017 forecasts; last month’s revenues came in 18% stronger than projected. Notwithstanding the physical and fiscal impact of Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico’s economy, Puerto Rico’s central bank account, the Treasury Singular Account, held $2.65 billion as of last Friday—some $211 million more than the government had anticipated last July according to information posted on the MSRB’s EMMA.

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Fiscal & Physical Challenges to the Nation’s State & Local Leaders

eBlog

August 17, 2017

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s Blog, we consider the fiscal and physical challenges to municipal and state leaders in the wake of the physical violence this week in Charlottesville, Virginia—and the wavering response from President Donald Trump. Then we return to the City of Flint, where federal court decisions appear to have opened the way for help to assist in access to safe drinking water for the city’s beleaguered residents. Finally, we ask to what degree there might be promise in PROMESA, as the PROMESA Board appears to be seeking independent fiscal analysis in an effort to better address options for fiscal recovery.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

Fiscal & Physical Municipal Mayhem. Municipal leaders across the nation are suddenly on notice that the federal government cannot be counted upon to help respond to threats of violence and mayhem by alt-right groups in the wake the events last Saturday in Charlottesville, Virginia, as alt-right leaders and white nationalist groups have vowed to stage more rallies in coming days: a group claiming it is advocating free speech has planned a rally for Saturday on the historic Boston Common, with a group advocating racial justice planning its own gathering in opposition. Boston officials have responded by setting strict conditions, including no sticks, weapons, or backpacks—or, as Mayor Marty Walsh stated: “Make no mistake: We do not welcome any hate groups to Boston, and we reject their message.” A similar rally scheduled for the end of this month in San Francisco has prompted House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Ca.)) and several California lawmakers to urge the National Park Service to rescind the permit to gather on federal parkland there. Indeed, the events this week in Charlottesville—and the President’s response, has confronted municipal leaders with hard questions with regard to how to deal with their Confederate monuments, an issue that has suddenly become much more urgent.

In the wake of the violent public clashes, mayors, governors, and other civic leaders are taking steps that even a week ago might not have seemed necessary. Now, however, uncertain of any federal support, city and county leaders will be confronted by costly decisions both with regard to granting permits, but also with regard to what resources to make available to avert injuries to citizens and destruction of local businesses—fearing that the white nationalist movement could attract a larger following, a following perhaps abetted by the remarks yesterday of President Trump. Darrel Stephens, the Executive Director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, noted that many of the people who came to Charlottesville wore helmets and carried shields: “These guys, the shields that they showed up with. . . you don’t bring that stuff to a demonstration to just express a view…You bring that there prepared for violence. Why else would you have them?”

From time immemorial in our country, demonstrations in cities have been part of the fabric of the nation, so this challenge is not new: there were certain members of Parliament in the mid-1775’s who very much wanted to ban “hate groups” from Colonials in places such as Chesapeake, Williamsburg, Petersburg, Yorktown, that Virginia municipality where a combined French and American army under Alexandria’s George Washington pinned down and besieged a British force under Lord Cornwallis, forcing his surrender on Oct. 19, 1781. The marches and rallies in Virginia, it seemed, were vital to securing independence from Britain. One may well imagine Lord Cornwallis’ response.

We have, in this country, a long and honored tradition of marches and rallies—the writer even spent unmitigated hours negotiating with authorities in the U.S. Embassy in Vienna, the City of Vienna, and Austria to obtain a permit to demonstrate against the killings at Kent State. It is hard to imagine a more important tradition in our young nation than the right to demonstrate: the challenge of governance, however, is how to ensure such demonstrations do not risk life and limb. That is the hard task upon which Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe is now proposing to embark upon, appropriately recognizing the Commonwealth—and its cities and counties—really need to rethink how to protect citizens and their rights—much as former President Kennedy and Johnson had to do in a different era. That responsibility will also require determining how to define “hate groups”?  Was the Confederate Army a hate group? Was George Washington’s army a hate group?

In Like Flint? The United States 6th Circuit Court of Appeals’ reversal on July 28th of a federal court’s decision in two lawsuits filed by Flint, Michigan residents over the contamination of their drinking water, has emboldened lawyers and their plaintiffs, who said residents of the predominately African-American city still are being billed for dirty water they cannot use, clearing the way for tens of thousands of Flint residents to continue their lawsuit against the State of Michigan and local officials—or, as the prevailing attorney noted: “The court’s decision means that the trial court’s dismissal of the case was legally incorrect and the appeals court has sent it back…A lot of our case deals with the fact that residents in Flint have been charged three-times the national rate for water, because the city is trying to balance their budget and these charges and fees come at the exact time that they couldn’t use the water…Not only did they come during the period in which they were getting contaminated water and having their children poisoned, but the water bills kept coming and they were told not to drink the water by an EPA mandate, and they were also told that if they didn’t pay their bill, they’d have a lien placed on their home and face foreclosure. That’s not America.”

In its ruling, the federal appeals court overturned a lower federal court ruling which had dismissed a major class-action lawsuit filed in 2015 on behalf of tens of thousands of Flint residents against Gov. Rick Snyder, the city of Flint, and Flint municipal officials who were involved in deciding to switch to the Flint River as its water source. The decision allows the plaintiffs to seek relief from the State of Michigan in another case in the form of compensation for education, medical monitoring and evaluation services for ongoing harm from Flint’s contaminated water crisis, as well opening the way for cases seeking financial damages against individual state employees, the city of Flint, city employees, and state-appointed emergency managers to proceed. The decision came as Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette and his legal team have pursued criminal and misdemeanor charges against or accepted plea deals with 15 persons, including former Flint employees and former and current state officials, as well as two former Flint emergency managers appointed by Governor Snyder. (The class-action lawsuits involve Flint residents who experienced personal injury and property damage from the Flint River decision, after they were exposed to toxic lead that leached from the city’s pipes into the water supply.) The trial court ruled that the federal Safe Drinking Water Act stopped the plaintiffs from seeking damages, but the appeals panel ruling allows U.S. District Judge Judith Levy to continue weighing the issue.

The appeals court decision came just prior to dismissal, this week, in federal District Court, of a whistleblower lawsuit against Flint Mayor Karen Weaver filed by a former city official who alleged she was fired for raising alarms over possible misuse of water crisis contributions. Former City Administrator Natasha Henderson sued Mayor Weaver and the City of Flint in May of last year, claiming she was wrongfully terminated two days after sending then-city attorney Anthony Chubb an email asking him to look into an “allegation of unethical conduct” by Mayor Weaver; however, U.S. District Court Judge Sean Cox permanently dismissed the three-count complaint, ruling Ms. Henderson failed to prove Mayor Weaver was aware of her complaint prior to firing her, writing: “The Court concludes that Henderson has not produced sufficient circumstantial evidence from which a reasonable jury could infer that Weaver knew of Ms. Henderson’s complaint to Mr. Chubb before she fired Henderson.”

Ms. Henderson had emailed Mr. Chubb one day after a purported conversation with Mayor Weaver’s administrative assistant, Maxine Murray. Ms. Murray “fearfully” told Ms. Henderson that the Mayor had asked her and a volunteer to direct water crisis contributions into the Mayor’s political fund, Karen about Flint, according to the suit. Mr. Chubb was serving as interim chief legal officer during Ms. Henderson’s suit, and said he was seeking the permanent appointment. Ms. Henderson speculated he gave the Mayor a “preview of information about her accused malfeasance” in order to “curry favor,” a speculation with which Mr. Chubb took exception. Judge Cox, in his opinion, noted: “Henderson seeks to prove Weaver’s knowledge by circumstantial evidence,” as he also dismissed a First Amendment claim by Ms. Henderson, ruling that her speech was not constitutionally protected, because she was operating in an official government capacity, not as a private citizen. At the same time, he was entitled to “absolute immunity” against defamation claims by Ms. Henderson, who alleged the Mayor had made false statements about her after her firing, writing: “Weaver is entitled to immunity, because her alleged statements were made in the scope of her executive authority.”

Is There Promise in PROMESA? The PROMESA Board has issued an RFP in an effort to secure an independent research team to conduct an investigation into Puerto Rico’s debt and its connection with the U.S. territory’s fiscal crisis, defining the scope to include:

  • a review of the factors contributing to the fiscal crisis in Puerto Rico, including changes in the economy, expansion of spending commitments and benefit programs, changes in the federal financing it receives and its dependence on debt to finance a structural budget deficit,
  • a review of Puerto Rico’s debt, the general use of the proceeds of borrowing, the relationship between debt and the structural budget deficit of Puerto Rico, the extent of its debt instruments and how Puerto Rico’s debt practices compare with the debt practices of large municipal states and jurisdictions, and
  • a review of debt issuance, disclosure and sale practices of Puerto Rico, including its interpretation of Puerto Rico’s constitutional debt limit.

It was also stated that proposers will be evaluated and selected based on their professional qualifications, the competitiveness of their economic proposal, the integrity and quality of their response to the RFP, their relevant experience in conducting research, their knowledge and experience in federal securities law, knowledge and experience in the municipal bond market, government budget and fiscal management, and the ability to commence work immediately—albeit failure to meet all the above areas will not necessarily disqualify a proposal.

The independent investigative team will report to the Special Investigation Committee of the Supervisory Board, composed of members Ana Matosantos, David Skeel, and Arthur González.