Leadership–and the Lack thereof: what Might that Mean vis-a-vis Municipal Bankruptcy?

eBlog, 9/19/16

In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the green light the Detroit Financial Review has given to Detroit, before heading east to the capital city of Hartford—a city fighting to avert municipal bankruptcy, and then veering south to Opa-Locka, Florida: a city that seems doomed to go into chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. It seems that severe municipal fiscal distress can arise from human failures—and recovery, as we are experiencing in Detroit—can arise from great leadership. Distress—and municipal insolvency—can arise from great, state-blessed inequity: an issue in Michigan, California, Kansas, Connecticut, etc. Even though the cost of municipal bankruptcy can far outweigh what it would have cost for states to address fiscal disparities—as the recent court decision in Connecticut found: “[T]he state’s current system ‘has left rich school districts to flourish and poor school districts to founder,’ betraying its promise in the State Constitution to give children a ‘fair opportunity for an elementary and secondary school education.’”  

A Major Step Forward. The Detroit Financial Review Commission, created as part of Detroit’s exit from the largest municipal bankruptcy in the nation’s history to oversee the city’s recovery, has declared the city was in substantial compliance with the terms of its plan of debt adjustment—both a measure of the hard work of Mayor Mike Duggan, but also a key step towards the city’s exit from state oversight. The thumbs up came in the wake of certification of an audit of the city’s FY2015 budget; the city faces comparable hurdles over its next two, consecutive fiscal years in order to remove the state yoke under the provisions of the Michigan law adopted two years ago to govern the city’s path out of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. Unsurprisingly, Mayor Duggan described the Good Housekeeping state seal of approval as a “major step forward: The Legislature set up a process that said the city can earn its way out of direct financial oversight, and it has to balance the budgets and pay its bills for three straight years…I couldn’t be more pleased that we have one year down, and we’ve been certified as being fully compliant with the statute.” The Motor City has posted surpluses in recent years on the city’s nearly $1 billion annual budget; the city administration projects a balanced FY2017 budget: the prize: If the city stays within budget, and an audit is certified in 2018, Detroit could end nearly a decade of direct oversight and go into a period when the review commission would be mostly dormant, freeing the city to operate without getting required approval from the review commission on matters including budgets, budget amendments, contracts, and labor agreements.

That does not, however, mean the long road to recovery is easy: Detroit still faces fiscal challenges in the long-term, including a $490-million shortfall in pension funding the city will have to pay in the coming years—a challenge which, if unmet, would retrigger a renewed three-year period of state oversight by the review commission. Nevertheless, State Treasurer Nick Khouri congratulated city officials for getting to this point, calling it a “milestone for the city,” even as Detroit CFO John Hill noted the declaration starts the clock on the city’s path back to local control: “It really does put us on a path to the city having almost full control of its financial operations…”It’s a major milestone and an acknowledgement that we’ve made a lot of progress.”

Staving Off Chapter 9 Municipal Bankruptcy. First-term Hartford, Connecticut Mayor Luke Bonin is scrambling to fix what he terms a “broken system” and keep his city out of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, albeit noting that he is confronted by a broken system that relies 100 percent on property taxes for local revenue—or, as he puts it: “You’ve got a city that just doesn’t have enough property. It’s got less property than the surrounding towns.” His uphill challenge as Mayor of the state’s capital city has garnered the support of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, whose Executive Director, Kevin Maloney, is supporting by seeking a regional approach through his organization: “Work cooperatively with the suburban towns to find where services can be shared and be done regionally, which would not only reduce the cost for the cities, but hopefully would reduce the costs for suburban towns.” The Conference has already created a panel with leaders from larger cities such as the chapter 9-experienced city of Bridgeport, as well as New Haven and Waterbury, as well as suburbs that will meet monthly to discuss this option. For his part, Mayor Bronin notes: “This isn’t about Hartford’s success or failure. This is about Connecticut’s success or failures, the region’s success or failure. You can’t be a suburb of nowhere, you can’t be a region or a growing state if you’ve got a city that’s in crisis.” Nevertheless, the challenge will be great: Hartford confronts nearly a $50 million hole in this year’s budget, which has left city services at a bare minimum, and the city could face another $50 million deficit next year. Or, as the mayor puts it: “You can’t cut your way to growth and you can’t tax your way to growth.” Indeed, it seems that he recognizes the city will be unable to get out of its fiscal debts by itself; consequently, he is pressing for regional tax and revenue measures to help Connecticut’s cities, urging the Connecticut Municipal Finance Advisory Commission: “We do not see a way the city of Hartford can avoid projected deficits on our own without some significant reforms at the state and regional levels.” Absent some fiscal assistance, the Mayor warns the state capital could run out of cash before the end of this year: he projects a nearly $23 million deficit in this fiscal year’s budget, but warns the fiscal chasm could more than double by next year—reaching a level of nearly 20% of total expenses by FY2018. Ergo, he suggests, regionalization could stave off municipal bankruptcy: “We want to do everything to avoid that, because I don’t think it would be good for the state of Connecticut; I don’t think would be good for the region, and I don’t think it would be ideal for the city of Hartford.”

Capital Bankruptcy? Hartford, were it to seek chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, would only be the second state capital in U.S. history to file for municipal bankruptcy—but that earlier effort turned out to be a botched one: the filing, by Pennsylvania’s capital city, Harrisburg, a filing done over the objections of the Mayor, was rejected by the courts as being non-compliant with Pennsylvania’s municipal bankruptcy authority—indeed, five years ago on August 1, 2011, Pennsylvania’s Governor signed into law new legislation that would bar any “City of the Third Class” from filing a chapter 9 petition, specifically referencing Harrisburg. It would also be only the second time a municipality in the state had sought chapter 9 protection: Bridgeport, filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy in 1991, but a federal judge rejected the filing, because the city did not meet the U.S. Bankruptcy court’s definition of insolvency. Nevertheless, unlike almost every other chapter 9 filing in U.S. history, the effort in Connecticut is unique, because Mayor Bronin and other Connecticut mayors are seeking to craft a legislative package in the state legislature which would lessen reliance on the property tax, and move towards a Denver or St. Paul-Minneapolis type of regional tax—in no small part because Hartford, not unlike other New England capital cities, has less taxable property than several its surrounding suburban cities. According to Moody’s Investors Service, general fund reserves for the three cities range from 0.3% to 3.7% of fiscal 2015 revenues, well below the 12.9% state median for Moody’s-rated cities. Our respected colleagues at Municipal Market Analytics suggest that Hartford could model its regional recovery approach after what Pittsburgh has accomplished, as we noted in our report on the city—but, as MMA put it: “If its problems are left unaddressed, its fiscal position and attractiveness as a regional business center will reasonably continue to decline.” Nevertheless, the Mayor’s road ahead will be steep: His request earlier this year to Connecticut General Assembly oversight panel failed to gain a response—forcing the City Council to approve what the Mayor had deemed a $553 million “doomsday” budget calling for across-the-board service cuts. Municipal debt service, according to Mayor Bronin, spiked more than 50 percent to $31 million this year: it is projected to soar to $61 million by FY2020-21.

It is not that Mayor Bronin is new to this municipal challenge: even though he is a first-year mayor, he has previous experience as former chief counsel to Gov. Daniel Malloy. Mayor Bronin is seeking increased payments in lieu of taxes, regional revenue sharing, ala the Twin Cities or Denver regional area, as well as widening options for local revenue generation—albeit knowing that in a state where Connecticut Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher this month ordered the state to make changes in everything from how its schools are financed to which students are eligible to graduate from high school to how teachers are paid and evaluated, holding that “Connecticut is defaulting on its constitutional duty” to give all children an adequate education, Connecticut is a state here inequality appears to be the norm. Judge Moukawsher’s decision, in response to a lawsuit filed more than a decade ago claiming the state had undercut the allocation of school funding to its poorest district, is certain to require to reconsider nearly every aspect of public school financing—or as long-time Bridgeport Mayor Joseph Ganim put it: “This is a game changer…It’s an indictment of the application of the system, and of the system itself.” Inequity seems to be the rule of thumb in the state—a state where state-local collaboration is a tall order. Nonetheless, Connecticut Comptroller Kevin Lembo notes: “The mayor is on the absolute right track in trying to tie their fates together, but it’s not going to happen just because someone asks for it to happen, and the state is never likely to mandate that…You can look at ways to build partnerships. For example, not driving office parks out to the suburbs by giving the suburban communities a piece of the property tax action when they build downtown.” He added that such partnerships could include communities which are losing population, but have “very sophisticated and high-performing school districts” to attract more children from stressed city school districts. Nevertheless, he also noted the state should examine cities’ books and propose sustainable remedies: “Historically the state has always just thrown money at a perceived problem, less so in the suburbs, more so in the cities…We’ve always solved the short-term problem, and then walked on and dealt with something else.” Finally, he noted, the state has “a couple of more cards to play” to benefit Hartford, including the sale of vacant space—an interesting observation—and one that was of key concern to the nearby capital of Providence as it danced on the edge of municipal bankruptcy, even as nearby Central Falls went into chapter 9. As Comptroller Lembo notes: Connecticut has a “ton of property in Hartford and all over the state. Some producing, some of it is sitting there, just empty office buildings,” leading him to ask: “When was the last time somebody calculated the value of that asset? It may be putting more property back on the tax rolls in Hartford.” Moody’s last week deemed Judge Moukawsher’s ruling a credit positive for Hartford, Bridgeport, and New Haven: “If the court’s ruling holds, we believe funding levels for schools in low-income communities will increase and could occur in two ways: 1) Increased funding could be distributed through a reallocation, where funding is shifted from more affluent municipalities. Or, 2) the state could expand the total pie, increasing spending for some cities while allowing more affluent communities to maintain existing funding levels or receive some increases.”

On the Road to Chapter 9? It seems that municipal bankruptcy can be a product of criminal behavior—certainly a key factor in Detroit’s road to the nation’s largest-ever municipal bankruptcy—or incompetence. It might be that for the small city of Opa-locka, Florida: it is a combination. Now a business owner who worked with the FBI to uncover shakedowns by city officials has, this week, filed suit in federal court claiming he suffered years of what he described as “extortion, coercion, threats and intimidation” which violated his civil rights and right to due process. The owner, Mr. Francisco Zambrana, has laid out details of his efforts to obtain a business license—one which he was never able to gain. In his suit, he describes his version of his encounters with key city officials, including City Commissioner Luis Santiago, and a then-assistant city manager, David Chiverton, claiming each had demanded payoffs for a business license he never received—or, as his complaint cites: “From the onset, Zambrana simply sought to obtain an occupational license…Zambrana would repeatedly tell the city officials and employees who would care to listen that all he wanted to do was work and provide for his family, including teenage son who was battling cancer.” The suit could hardly have arisen at a more awkward moment: the small municipality, under investigation by the state and under the control of a state-appointed financial oversight board, is in the midst of public hearings to develop its FY2017 budget—but unable to pay its current bills. The suit, ergo, can hardly be settled—likely numbering the luckless Mr. Zambrana in a crowd of debtors for some future plan of debt adjustment. In his complaint, Mr. Zambrana described the municipality’s “practice and custom of threatening, intimidating, and extorting individuals” based on national origin to operate a business in the city. The suit adds: “The practice and custom was authorized by policymakers within the city, and it was a widespread practice so permanent and well-settled as to constitute a custom or usage with the force of law.” In this instance, Mr. Zambrana, finding an unresponsive municipality, leapt two levels to the federal government: he went to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and agreed to work with the FBI to uncover the shakedown scheme, an investigation whose findings led to by then City Manager Chiverton to plead guilty to pocketing payoffs. His suit cites the municipality as the sole defendant—likely recognizing the lack of any remote possibility from Mr. Chiverton—and he has requested a jury trial. In the category of fiscal misery loves company, the litigation costs to Opa-Locka’s taxpayers is accruing: the suit follows in the wake of one former City Manager Roy Stephen Shiver filed at the end of last month in U.S. District Court in the wake of receiving permission to so file from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to file a complaint alleging racial discrimination: the suit claims he was defamed by a trumped-up allegation that he accepted a bribe—and that, last November, he was fired without proper cause by city commissioners and the mayor, all of whom are black. Indeed, it was the former city manager who first reported Opa-Locka’s serious financial problems to Gov. Rick Scott just about a year ago—a report which contributed to the state appointment of a state financial oversight board to handle all city expenses, including legal fees. Even as the state ponders action, it will not be alone: the Securities and Exchange Commission has opened an inquiry into some of the city’s bonds, which were issued as its financial condition was severely deteriorating, and the FBI’s investigation is ongoing.