Disparate Fiscal Solvency Challenges

06/23/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the serious municipal fiscal challenges in Ohio, where the decline in coal-fired power has led Adams County auditor David Gifford to warn that if its existing power plants close, the county could be forced to raise its property tax rates at least 500% in order to make its requisite school district bond interest payments. Then we turn to the steep fiscal trials and tribulations of implementing San Bernardino’s post-chapter 9 exit, before finally considering the governing challenges affecting the City of Flint’s physical and fiscal future, and then to the criminal charges related to Flint’s fiscal and moral insolvency. Finally, we turn to the potential for a new fiscal chapter for the nearly insolvent Virginia municipality of Petersburg.

Fiscal Municipal Distress in Coal Country. While President Trump has stressed his commitment to try to protect the U.S. coal industry, less attention has been focused on the municipal fiscal challenges for local elected leaders. For instance, in Adams County, Ohio, where the median income for a household is about $33,000, and where approximately 20% of families fall below the federal poverty line, the county, with a population near 22,000, has been in fiscal emergency for more than two years—making it one of 23 such jurisdictions in the state.  But now its auditor, David Gifford, warns that if its coal-fired power plants close, the county could be forced to raise the property tax by at least 500% in order to make the bond payments on its public school districts debt. (In Ohio, when so designated, the average time a municipality spends in fiscal emergency averages about five years.) Since 1980, when the state auditor was empowered to place municipalities in fiscal emergency, Ohio has declared and released 54 communities—with time spent in fiscal emergency averaging five years, albeit the Village of Manchester in Adams County (approximately 2,000 residents) holds the record for time spent in fiscal emergency — nearly 20 years and still counting. Over the past five years, some 350 coal-fired generating units have closed across the country, according to the Energy Information Administration: closures, which have cost not just jobs, but key tax revenues vital to municipal solvency. It is uncertain whether any actions by the White House could make coal viable as a source of energy generation; it is clear that neither the Trump Administration, nor the State of Ohio appear to have put together fiscal options to address the resulting fiscal challenges. Ohio Municipal League Director Kent Scarrett, in testimony before the Ohio Legislature last February, on behalf of the League’s 733 municipal members, in which close to 90% of Ohio’s citizens live, reminded legislators that “a lack of opportunity to invest in critical infrastructure projects” and “the myriad of challenges that present themselves as a result of the escalating opioid epidemic,” would require “reigniting the relationship between the state and municipalities.” 

Post Municipal Bankruptcy Challenges. San Bernardino Mayor Carey Davis this Wednesday declared the city’s municipal bankruptcy process officially over, noting San Bernardino had come “to the momentous exit from that process,” a five-year process which resulted in the outsourcing of its fire department to San Bernardino County, contracting out waste removal services, and reductions in healthcare benefits for retirees and current employees to lessen the impact on pensions. Mayor Davis noted: “The proceedings guided us through a process of rebuilding and restructuring, and we will continue to rebuild and create systems for successful municipal operations,” as the City Council confronted by what City Manager Mark Scott warned was “without a doubt among the lowest in per capita revenues per capita and in city employees per capita,” yet still confronted by what he described as:  “Among California’s largest cities, San Bernardino is without a doubt among the lowest in government revenues per capita and in city employees per capita…Furthermore, our average household income is low and our poverty rate is high.” Nevertheless, the Council adopted its first post-chapter 9 budget—a budget which is projected to achieve a surplus of $108,000, sufficient to achieve a 15% reserve. To give a perspective on the fiscal challenge, Mr. Scott warned the Mayor and City Council: “Among California’s largest cities, San Bernardino is without a doubt among the lowest in government revenues per capita and in city employees per capita…Furthermore, our average household income is low and our poverty rate is high.” Adding that San Bernardino’s property values and business spending are lower than other cities, contributing to its low revenue, he added: “At the same time, it costs roughly the same to repair a street in Rancho Cucamonga as in San Bernardino: California’s tax system rewards wealth.”

Nevertheless, even though San Bernardino’s plan of debt adjustment calls for minimal revenue growth over the next two decades, he advised that the plan is focused on making the city more attractive. Ergo, he proposed three criteria: 1) urgent safety concerns, including the relocation of City Hall to address unreinforced masonry concerns; 2) restoration of public safety, 30 new police officers, vehicle and safety equipment replacement, radio maintenance, and a violence intervention initiative; 3) greater efficiencies, via information technology upgrades, and economic development and revenue growth—to be met by hiring a transportation planner, associate planner, grant-writing, and consulting. In addition to the operating budget, the manager also focused on the city’s capital budget, proposing significant investment for the next two to three years. Some of these increased costs would be offset by reducing the city’s full-time city employees by about 4%. Nevertheless, the Manager noted: “The community’s momentum is clearly increasing, and we are building internal capacity to address our management challenges…We look forward to the next year and to our collective role in returning this city to a more prosperous condition.”

Under its plan of debt adjustment, San Bernardino began making distributions to creditors this month: Mayor Carey Davis noted: “From the beginning, we understood the time, hard work, sacrifice and commitment it would take for the city to emerge from the bankruptcy process,” in asking the Council to adopt the proposed $160 million operating budget and a $22.6 million capital budget.

Moody Blues. The fiscal challenge of recovering from municipal bankruptcy for the city was highlighted last April when Moody’s Investors Service analysts had warned that the city’s plan of debt adjustment approved by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury would “lead to a general fund unallocated cash balance of approximately $9.5 million by fiscal 2023, down from a $360 million deficit the city projected in 2013 for the fiscal years 2013-23,” adding, however, that the city still faces hurdles with pensions, public safety, and infrastructure. Noting that San Bernardino’s plan of debt adjustment provided more generous treatment of its pension obligations than its municipal bondholders—some of its unsecured creditors will receive as little as 1% of what they are owed—and the city’s pension obligation bondholders will take the most severe cuts—about 60%–or, as Moody’s moodily noted: “The [court-approved] plan calls for San Bernardino to leave bankruptcy with increased revenues and an improved balance sheet, but the city will retain significant unfunded and rapidly rising pension obligations…Additionally, it will face operational challenges associated with deferred maintenance and potential service shortfalls…which, added to the pension difficulties, increase the probability of continued financial distress and possibly even a return to bankruptcy.”

The glum report added that San Bernardino’s finances put its aging infrastructure at risk, noting the deferral of some $180 million in street repairs and $130 million in deferred facility repairs and improvements, and that the city had failed to inspect 80 percent of its sewer system, adding: “Cities typically rely on financing large capital needs with debt, but this option may no longer exist for San Bernardino…Even if San Bernardino is able to stabilize its finances, the city will still face a material infrastructure challenge.”  Moody’s report added: “Adjusted net pension liability will remain unchanged at $904 million, a figure that dwarfs the projected bankruptcy savings of approximately $350 million.”

Justice for Flint? Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette has charged Michigan Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon with involuntary manslaughter and misconduct in office, making the Director the fifth state official, including a former Flint emergency manager and a member of Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration, to be confronted with involuntary manslaughter charges for their alleged roles in the Flint water contamination crisis and ensuing Legionnaire’s disease outbreak which has, to date, claimed 12 lives, noting: “This is about people’s lives and families and kids, and it’s about demonstrating to people across the state—it doesn’t matter who you are, young, old, rich, poor, black, white, north, south, east, west. There is one system of justice, and the rules apply to everybody, whether you’re a big shot or no shot at all.” To date, 12 people have died in the wake of the switch by a state-appointed Emergency Manager of the city’s drinking water supply to the Flint River—a switch which led to an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease that resulted in those deaths. Flint Mayor Karen Weaver, in response, noted: “We wanted to know who knew what and when they knew it, and we wanted someone to be held accountable. It’s another step toward justice for the people Flint,” adding that: “What happened in Flint was serious: Not only did we have people impacted by lead poisoning, but we had people who died.”

In making his charges, Attorney General Schuette declined to say whether he had subpoenaed Governor Rick Snyder—with the charges coming some 622 days after Gov. Snyder had acknowledged that Flint’s drinking water was tainted with lead—and that the state was liable for the worst water tragedy in Michigan’s history—a tragedy due, in no small part, from the state appointment of an emergency manager to displace the city’s own elected leaders.

The state Attorney General has charged HHS Director Lyon in relation to the individual death of Robert Skidmore, who died Dec. 13, 2015, “as a result of [Mr.] Lyon’s failure to warn the public of the Legionnaires’ outbreak; the court has also received testimony that the Director “participated in obstructing” an independent research team from Wayne State University which was investigating the presence of Legionella bacteria in Flint’s water. In addition, four defendants who have been previously charged, former Flint Emergency Manager Darnell Earley, former Michigan Department of Environmental Quality drinking water Director Liane Shekter-Smith, DEQ drinking water official Stephen Busch, and former City of Flint Water Department manager Howard Croft, each now face additional charges of involuntary manslaughter in Mr. Skidmore’s death—bringing, to date, 15 current or former Michigan or Flint city officials to have been charged.

Attorney General Scheutte, at a press conference, noted: “Involuntary manslaughter is a very serious crime and a very serious charge and holds significant gravity and weight for all involved.” He was joined by Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton, Flint Water Investigation Special Prosecutor Todd Flood, and Chief Investigator Andrew Arena. (In Michigan, involuntary manslaughter is punishable by up to 15 years in prison and/or a $7,500 fine.) The announcement brings to 51 the number of charges leveled against 15 current and former local and state leaders as a result of the probe during which 180 witnesses have been interviewed—and in the wake of the release this week of an 18-page interim investigation report, which notes: “The Flint Water Crisis caused children to be exposed to lead poisoning, witnessed an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease resulting in multiple deaths, and created a lack of trust and confidence in the effectiveness of government to solve problems.”

A New City Leader to Take on Near Insolvency. Petersburg, Virginia has hired a new City Manager, Aretha Ferrell-Benavides, just days after consultants charged with the fiscal challenge of extricating the city from the brink of municipal bankruptcy advised the Mayor and Council the municipality needed a $20 million cash infusion to make up a deficit and comply with its own reserve policies: increased taxes, they warned, would not do the trick; rather, in the wake of a decade of imbalanced budgets that drained the city’s rainy day funds, triggered pay cuts, disrupted the regional public utility, and forced steep cuts in public school funding, the city needed a new manager. Indeed, on her first day, Ms. Ferrell-Benavides said: “To have the opportunity to come in and make a difference in a community like this, it’s worth its weight in gold.” The gold might be heavy: her predecessor, William E. Johnson III, was fired last year as the city fiscally foundered—leading Mayor Sam Parham to note: “We’re looking forward to a new beginning, better times for the city of Petersburg.”

Manager Ferrell-Benavides won out in a field of four aspirants, with Mayor Parham noting: “She was definitely head and shoulders above the other candidates…She had clear, precise answers and a 90-day plan of action,” albeit that plan has yet to be shared until after she meets with department heads and residents in order to get a better understanding of the city’s needs. Nevertheless, City Councilman Charles Cuthbert noted: “Her energy and her warm personality and her expressions of commitment to help Petersburg solve its problems stood out…My sense is that she truly views these problems as an opportunity.” In what will mark a fiscal clean slate, Manager Ferrell-Benavides will officially begin on July 10th, alongside a new city Finance Director Blake Rane, and Police Chief Kenneth Miller, who is coming to Petersburg from the Virginia Beach Police Department. She brings considerable governmental experience, including more than 25 years of work in government for the State of Maryland, the Chicago Public Housing Authority, the City of Sunnyvale, Calif.; and Los Alamos, New Mexico—in addition to multiple jobs with the District of Columbia.

 

Public Trust, Public Safety, & Municipal Fiscal Sustainability: Has the Nation Experienced the Closing of its Chapter on Municipal Bankruptcies?

 

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eBlog, 04/20/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the unique and ongoing fiscal and physical challenges confronting Flint, Michigan in the wake of the drinking water crisis spawned by a state-appointed Emergency Manager, before heading far west to assess San Bernardino’s nearing formal exit from chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy—marking the last municipality to exit after the surge which came in the wake of the Great Recession.

Public Trust, Public Safety, & Due Diligence. Flint, Michigan Mayor Karen Weaver has recommended Flint continue obtaining its drinking water via the Detroit Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA), reversing the position she had taken a year ago in the wake of the lead-contaminated drinking water crisis. Flint returned to the Detroit-area authority which sends water to Flint from Lake Huron in October of 2015 after the discovery that Flint River water was not treated with corrosion control chemicals for 18 months. Mayor Weaver said she believed residents would stick with a plan to draw from a pipeline to Lake Huron which is under construction; however, she said she had re-evaluated that decision as a condition of receiving $100 million in federal funding to address the manmade disaster, noting that switching the city’s water source again might prove too great a risk, and that remaining with Detroit’s water supply from Lake Huron would cost her citizens and businesses less. Last year, Mayor Weaver had stated that the city’s nearly 100,000 residents would stay with a plan to draw from a Karegnondi Water Authority pipeline to Lake Huron—a pipeline which remains under construction, noting, then, that switching water sources would be too risky and could cause needless disruptions for the city’s residents—still apprehensive about public health and safety in the wake of the health problems stemming from the decision by a state-imposed Emergency Manager nearly three years ago to switch and draw drinking water from the Flint River, as an interim source after deciding to switch to the fledgling Genesee County regional system and sever its ties to the Detroit system, now known as the regional Great Lakes Water Authority. Even today, federal, state, and local officials continue to advise Flint residents not to drink the water without a filter even though it complies with federal standards, as the city awaits completion of the replacement of its existing lead service lines—or, as Mayor Weaver put it: “At the end of the day, I believe this is the best decision, because one of the things we wanted to make sure we did was put public health first,” at a press conference attended by county, state, federal and Great Lakes authority officials, adding: “We have to put that above money and everything else. That was what we did. And what didn’t take place last time was public health. We’ve done our due diligence.” The 30-year contract with the Great Lakes authority keeps Flint as a member of the Karegnondi authority—a decision supported by the State of Michigan, EPA, and Genesee County officials, albeit the long-term contract still requires the approval of the Flint City Council and Flint Receivership Transition Advisory Board, a panel appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder charged with monitoring Flint’s fiscal conditions in the wake of the city’s emergence from a state-inflicted Emergency Manager two years ago.

City Councilman Eric Mays this week said he will be asking tough questions when he and his eight other colleagues will be briefed on the plan. There is also a town hall tonight in Flint to take public comments. Councilman Mays notes he is concerned the city may be “giving up ownership” in the new Genesee regional authority, something he opposes, adding he would be closely scrutinizing what he deems a “valuable asset to the city.” Mayor Weaver has said she personally wanted to review the earlier decision in the wake of last month’s receipt from the Environmental Protection Agency of $100 million to assist the city to address and recover from the drinking water disaster that took such a human and fiscal toll. (EPA is mandating that Flint provide a 30-day public comment period.) Mayor Weaver notes she anticipates some opposition, making clear any final decision will depend upon “public feedback and public opinion.” Currently, the city remains under contract to make $7 million in annual municipal bond payments over 28 years to the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA); however, the Great Lakes authority said it would pay a $7 million “credit” for the KWA debt as long as Flint obligates itself to make its debt service payments. There is, at least so far, no indication with regard to how any such agreement would affect water rates. That matters, because, according to the Census Bureau, the city’s median household income is $7,059, significantly lower than the median Michigan-wide household income, and some $11,750 less than U.S. median household income. The GLWA said Flint customers would save a projected $1.8 million over 30 years compared with non-contractual charges they would have paid otherwise; in return, the Flint area authority would become a back-up system for the Detroit area authority, saving it an estimated $600 million over prior estimates and ensuring Metro Detroit communities would still receive water in the event of an interruption in Great Lakes authority service.

Robert Kaplan, the Chicago-based EPA’s acting regional administrator, said he signed off on the deal because the agency believes it protects the health of residents: “What’s best for public health is to stay on the water that’s currently being provided.” Jeff Wright, the KWA’s chief executive and drain commissioner of Genesee County, said the recommended plan not only would allow Flint to remain with the Genesee regional system, but also to be a back-up water supply, which, he noted, “is critically important to the safety of Flint’s residents who have not had a back-up system since the beginning of the Flint water crisis,” adding: “Whether (or not) Flint ultimately chooses high-quality Lake Huron water delivered through the newly constructed KWA pipeline, the highest quality treated water from Genesee County’s Water Treatment Plant or any other EPA-approved alternative, we will continue to assist Flint residents as they strive to recover from the Flint Water Crisis.” 

Keeping the Detroit system. The Great Lakes Water Authority Has embraced Mayor Weaver’s recommendation, with CEO Sue McCormick noting: “Flint residents can be assured that they will continue to receive water of unquestionable quality, at a significant cost savings.” Michigan Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint) noted: “It provides us a long-term safe water source that we know is reliable. KWA could do the same thing, but this is an answer to help deal with one of the major parts of it,” adding the recommended move to stay on Detroit area water is “another example of the emergency manager sort of making a short-term terrible decision that’s cost us taxpayers half a billion dollars, if not more.” Emergency managers appointed by Snyder decided with the approval of the Flint City Council to switch to the Flint River water in part to save money. Flint officials said they thought Detroit water system price hikes were too high. For more than a year, the EPA has delayed any switch to KWA because of deficiencies including that the Flint treatment plant is not equipped to properly treat water. Staying with the Great Lakes authority may be an initial tough sell because of the city’s history, Mayor Weaver warned, but she is trying to get residents to move on. A town hall is scheduled for this evening at House of Prayer Missionary Baptist Church in Flint for public feedback. “I can’t change what happened,” Mayor Weaver said. “All I can do is move forward.”

Moody Blues in San Bernardino? As San Bernardino awaits its final judicial blessing from U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury of its plan of debt adjustment to formally exit chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, Moody’s has issued a short report, noting the city will exit bankruptcy with higher revenues and an improved balance sheet; however, the rating agency notes the city will confront significant operational challenges associated with deferred maintenance and potential service shortfalls—even being so glum as to indicate there is a possibility that, together with the pressure of its public pension liabilities, the city faces continued fiscal pressures and that continued financial distress could increase, so that a return to municipal bankruptcy is possible. Moody’s moody report notes the debt adjustment plan is forcing creditors to bear most of the restructuring challenge, especially as Moody’s analyzes the city’s plan to favor its pension obligations over bonded municipal debt and post-retirement OPEB liabilities. Of course, as we noted early on, the city’s pension liabilities are quite distinct from those of other chapter 9 municipalities, such as Detroit, Central Falls, Rhode Island, and Jefferson County. Under the city’s plan, San Bernardino municipal bondholders are scheduled to receive a major buzz cut—some 45%, even as some other creditors whom we have previously described, are scheduled (and still objecting) to receive as little as a 1% recovery on unsecured claims. Thus, Moody’s concludes that the Southern California city will continue to have to confront rising pension costs and public safety needs. Moody’s adjusted net pension liability will remain unchanged at $904 million, a figure which dwarfs the projected bankruptcy savings of approximately $350 million. The California Public Employees’ Retirement System also recently reduced its discount rate, meaning the city’s already increasing pension contributions will rise even faster. Additionally, Moody’s warns, a failure to invest more in public safety or police could exacerbate already-elevated crime levels. That means the city will likely be confronted by higher capital and operating borrowing costs, noting that, even after municipal debt reductions, the city might find itself unable to fund even 50 percent of its deferred maintenance. 

However, as San Bernardino’s Mayor Davis has noted, the city, in wake of the longest municipal bankruptcy in American history, is poised for growth in the wake of outsourcing fire services to the county and waste removal services to a private contractor, and reaching agreements with city employees, including police officers and retirees, to substantially reduce healthcare OPEB benefits to lessen pension reductions. Indeed, the city’s plan of adjustment agreement on its $56 million in pension obligation bonds—and in significant part with CalPERS—meant its retirees fared better, as Moody’s has noted, than the city’s municipal bondholders to whom San Bernardino committed to pay 40 percent of what they are owed—far more than its early offer of one percent. San Bernardino’s pension bondholders succeeded in wrangling a richer recovery than the city’s opening offer of one percent, but far less than CalPERS, which received a nearly 100 percent recovery. (San Bernardino did not make some $13 million in payments to CalPERS early in the chapter 9 process, but subsequently set up payments to make the public employee pension fund whole.) The city was aided in those efforts in the wake of U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury’s ruling against the argument made by pension bond attorneys: in the wake of the city’s pension bondholders entering into mediation again prior to exit confirmation, substantial agreement was achieved for those bondholders—bondholders whose confidence in the city remains important, especially in the wake of the city’s subsequent issuance of $68 million in water and sewer bonds at competitive interest rates—with the payments to come from the city’s water and sewer revenues, which were not included in the chapter 9 bankruptcy. The proceeds from these municipal bonds were, in fact, issued to provide capital to meet critical needs to facilitate seismic upgrades to San Bernardino’s water reservoirs and funding for the first phase of the Clean Water Factor–Recycled Water Program.

Fiscal & Service Solvency

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eBlog, 03/10/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the long-term recovery of Chocolateville, or Central Falls, Rhode Island—one of the smallest municipalities in the nation; then we head West, even as no longer young, to consider the eroding fiscal situation confronting California’s CalPERS’ pension system, before, finally considering how Congress and the President, in trying to replace the Affordable Care Act, might impact Puerto Rico’s fiscal and service-related insolvency.

The Long & Exceptional Fiscal Road to Recovery. It was nearly five years ago that I sat with my class in a nearly empty City Hall in Central Falls, or Chocolateville, Rhode Island, the small (one square mile former mill town of indescribably delicious chocolate bars) with the newly appointed Judge Robert Flanders on his first day of the municipality’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy after his appointment by the Governor: a chapter 9 bankruptcy which that very same evening so sobered the City of Providence and its unions that their contemplation of filing for chapter 9 was squelched—and the State initiated its own unique sharing commitment to create teams of city managers, state legislators and others to act as intervention advisory teams so that no other municipality in the state would fall into insolvency. Our visit also led to our publication of a Financial Crisis Toolkit, which we promptly shared with municipal leaders across the State of Michigan at the Michigan Municipal League’s annual meeting in Detroit.
Today, it is Mayor James Diossa who has earned such deserved credit for what he describes as the “efforts and dedication to following fiscally sound budgeting practices,” efforts which, he said, “are clearly paying off, leaving the city in a strong position.” In the school of municipal finance, those efforts were rewarded with the credit rating elevation in its long-term general obligation rating three notches to BBB from BB, with credit analyst Victor Medeiros describing the fiscal recovery as one where, today, the city is “operating under a much stronger economic and management environment since emerging from bankruptcy in 2012…The city has had several years of strong budgetary performance, and has fully adhered to the established post-bankruptcy plan….The positive outlook reflects the possibility that strong budgetary performance could lead to improved reserves in line with the city’s new formal reserve policy.” The credit rating agency added that the city’s fiscal leadership had succeeded in ensuring strong liquidity, assessing total available cash at 28.7% of total governmental fund expenditures and nearly twice governmental debt service, leading S&P to award it a “strong institutional framework score.” That score should augur well as the city seeks to exit state oversight a year from next month: a path which S&P noted could continue to improve if it can build and sustain its gains in reserves and adhere to its successful financial practices, particularly after the city exits state oversight, or, as S&P put it: “Improving reserves over time would suggest that the city can position itself to better respond to the revenue effects of the next recession,” noting, however, the exceptional fiscal challenge in the state’s poorest municipality.

 

How Does a Public Pension System Protect against Insolvency? In California, the Solomon’s Choice awaits: what does CalPERS do when retiree of one of its members is from a municipality which has not paid in? In this case, one example is a retiree of a human services consortium which had closed with nearly half a million dollars in arrears to CalPERS. The conundrum: what is fair to the employee/retiree who fully paid in, but whose government or governmental agency had not? Or, as Michael Coleman, fiscal policy adviser for the League of California Cities, puts it: “Unless something is done to stem the mounting costs or to find ways to fund those mounting costs for employees, then the only recourse, beyond reducing service levels to unsustainable levels, is going to be to cut benefits for retirees,” an action which occurred for the first time last year, when CalPERS took such action against the tiny City of Loyalton, a municipality originally known as Smith’s Neck, but a name which the city fathers changed during Civil War—incorporated in 1901 as a dry town, its size was set at 50.6 square miles: it was California’s second largest city after Los Angeles. Today, Loyalton, the only incorporated city in Sierra County, helps us to grasp what can happen to public pension promises when there are insufficient resources: what will give? The answer, as Richard Costigan, Chair of CalPERS’ finance and administration committee puts it: “We end up being the bad person, because if the payments aren’t coming in, we’re left with the obligation to reduce the benefit, as we did in Loyalton…Otherwise the rest of the people in the system who have paid their bills would be paying for that responsibility.”
As all, except readers of this blog, are getting older (and, hopefully, wiser), cities, counties, states, and other municipal entities confront longer lifespans, so that, similar to the fiscal chasm looming in California, the day could be looming that what was promised thirty years ago is not fiscally available. In the Golden State, CalPERS has been paying benefits out faster that it has been gathering them, leading, at the end of last year, the state agency to reduce the assumed return on its investments to 7 percent from 7.5 percent—an action which, in turn, will requisition higher annual contributions from municipal and county governments, actions mandated by its fiduciary responsibility. While the state agency does not negotiate or set benefits, it does manage them on behalf of local governments, most of which are fulfilling their obligations.

 

Unpromising Turn. The PROMESA oversight board, deeming Puerto Rico’s liquidity to be critically low, has demanded the U.S. territory immediately adopt emergency spending cuts, writing to Gov. Ricardo Rosselló in an epistle that unless the government immediately adopted emergency measures, it could be insolvent in a “matter of months,” suggesting the government consider the immediate implementation of furloughs of most executive branch employees for four days each month, and teachers and other emergency personnel positions, such as law enforcement, two days a month; the Board urged Puerto Rico to put in place comparable furlough measures in other government entities, such as public corporations, authorities, and the legislative and judicial branches, in addition to recommending cutting spending for professional service contract expenditures by half. In addition, threatening public service solvency, the PROMESA Board directed the reduction of healthcare costs by negotiating drug pricing and rate reductions for health plans and providers. Mayhap most, at least from a governing perspective, critically, the PROMESA the board called for the Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Administration to implement a new liquidity plan by immediately controlling all Puerto Rico government accounts and spending, writing: “Given Puerto Rico’s lack of normal capital market access and our need to focus on a sustainable restructuring of debt is neither practical nor prudent to address this cash shortfall with new short-term borrowing,” warning Puerto Rico could face a cash deficit of about $190 million by the start of the new fiscal year, and that the Employment Retirement System and the Teachers Retirement System funds will be insolvent by the end of the calendar year. Adding to the threatening fiscal situation, Puerto Rico anticipates the loss of some $800 million in Affordable Care Act funding in the coming fiscal year.

 

Doctor Needed. As the U.S. House of Representatives reported out of two committees, yesterday, legislation to partially replace the Affordable Care Act, bills which, as introduced by the House Republicans—with the blessing of the Trump White House, omitted Puerto Rico, raising the specter that Congress could also fail to fund the U.S. territory’s Children’s Health Insurance Program, omissions Gov. Rosselló’s representative in Washington, D.C. warned might have implications threatening the reauthorization of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which could happen this summer, attributing  Puerto Rico’s exclusion from the two initial bills seeking to repeal and replace Obamacare—the first aimed at granting tax credits instead of direct subsidies, and the other which seeks to convert Medicaid in the states into a plan of block grants, like in the Island—to its colonial status: “As a territory, Puerto Rico isn’t automatically included in health reform legislation. It already happened with Obamacare. The Republican plan is a reform bill for the 50 states.” Indeed, Governor Rosselló’s fiscal plan complied with the PROMESA Oversight Board’s mandate to exclude any extensions of the nearly $1.2 billion in Medicaid funds currently granted under the Affordable Care Act, funds which could be depleted by the end of this year—and without any explanation for such clear discrimination against U.S. citizens.

The Roads out of Municipal Bankruptcy

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eBlog, 2/24/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the post-chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy trajectories of the nation’s longest (San Bernardino) and largest (Detroit) municipal bankruptcies.

Exit I. So Long, Farewell…San Bernardino City Manager Mark Scott was given a two-week extension to his expired contract this week—on the very same day the Reno, Nevada City Council selected him as one of two finalists to be Reno’s City Manager—with the extension granted just a little over the turbulent year Mr. Scott had devoted to working with the Mayor, Council, and attorneys to complete and submit to U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury San Bernardino’s proposed plan of debt adjustment—with the city, at the end of January, in the wake of San Bernardino’s “final, final” confirmation hearing, where the city gained authority to issue water and sewer revenue bonds prior to this month’s final bankruptcy confirmation hearing—or, as Urban Futures Chief Executive Officer Michael Busch, whose firm provided the city with financial guidance throughout the four-plus years of bankruptcy, put it: “It has been a lot of work, and the city has made a lot of tough decisions, but I think some of the things the city has done will become best practices for cities in distress.” Judge Jury is expected to make few changes from the redline suggestions made to her preliminary ruling by San Bernardino in its filing at the end of January—marking, as Mayor Carey Davis noted: a “milestone…After today, we have approval of the bankruptcy exit confirmation order.” Indeed, San Bernardino has already acted on much of its plan—and now, Mayor Davis notes the city exiting from the longest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history is poised for growth in the wake of outsourcing fire services to the county and waste removal services to a private contractor, and reaching agreements with city employees, including police officers and retirees, to substantially reduce healthcare OPEB benefits to lessen pension reductions. Indeed, the city’s plan agreement on its $56 million in pension obligation bonds—and in significant part with CalPERS—meant its retirees fared better than the city’s municipal bondholders to whom San Bernardino committed to pay 40 percent of what they are owed—far more than its early offer of one percent. San Bernardino’s pension bondholders succeeded in wrangling a richer recovery than the city’s opening offer of one percent, but far less than CalPERS, which received a nearly 100 percent recovery. (San Bernardino did not make some $13 million in payments to CalPERS early in the chapter 9 process, but did set up payments to make the public employee pension fund whole; the city was aided in those efforts as we have previously noted after Judge Jury ruled against the argument made by pension bond attorneys two years ago. After the city’s pension bondholders entered into mediation again prior to exit confirmation, substantial agreement was achieved for th0se bondholders, no doubt beneficial at the end of last year to the city’s water department’s issuance of $68 million in water and sewer bonds at competitive interest rates in November and December—with the payments to come from the city’s water and sewer revenues, which were not included in the bankruptcy. The proceeds from these municipal bonds will meet critical needs to facilitate seismic upgrades to San Bernardino’s water reservoirs and funding for the first phase of the Clean Water Factor–Recycled Water Program.

Now, with some eager anticipation of Judge Jury’s final verdict, Assistant San Bernardino City Attorney Jolena Grider advised the Mayor and Council with regard to the requested contract extension: “If you don’t approve this, we have no city manager…We’re in the midst of getting out of bankruptcy. That just sends the wrong message to the bankruptcy court, to our creditors.” Ergo, the City Council voted 8-0, marking the first vote taken under the new city charter, which requires the Mayor to vote, to extend the departing Manager’s contract until March 7th, the day after the Council’s next meeting—and, likely the very same day Mr. Scott will return to Reno for a second interview, after beating out two others to reach the final round of interviews. Reno city officials assert they will make their selection on March 8th—and Mr. Scott will be one of four candidates.

For their part, San Bernardino Councilmembers Henry Nickel, Virginia Marquez, and John Valdivia reported they would not vote to extend Mr. Scott’s contract on a month-to-month basis, although they joined other Councilmembers in praising the city manager who commenced his service almost immediately after the December 2nd terrorist attack, and, of course, played a key role in steering the city through the maze to exit the nation’s longest ever municipal bankruptcy. Nevertheless, Councilmember Nickel noted: “Month-to-month may be more destabilizing than the alternative…Uncertainty is not a friend of investment and the business community, which is what our city needs now.” From his perspective, as hard and stressful as his time in San Bernardino had to be, Mr. Scott, in a radio interview while he was across the border in Reno, noted: “I’ve worked for 74 council members—I counted them one time on a plane…And I’ve liked 72 of them.”

Exit II. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan says the Motor City is on track to exit Michigan state fiscal oversight by next year , in the wake of a third straight year of balancing its books, during his State of the City address: noting, “When Kevyn Orr (Gov. Rick Snyder’s appointed Emergency Manager who shepherded Detroit through the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history) departed, and we left bankruptcy in December 2014, a lot of people predicted Detroit would be right back in the same financial problems, that we couldn’t manage our own affairs, but instead we finished 2015 with the first balanced budget in 12 years, and we finished 2016 with the second, and this year we are going to finish with the third….I fully expect that by early 2018 we will be out from financial review commission oversight, because we would have made budget and paid our bills three years in a row.”

Nonetheless, the fiscal challenge remains steep: Detroit confronts stiff fiscal challenges, including an unexpected gap in public pensions, and the absence of a long-term economic plan. It faces disproportionate long-term borrowing costs because of its lingering low credit ratings—ratings of B2 and B from Moody’s Investors Service and S&P Global Ratings, respectively, albeit each assigns the city stable outlooks. Nevertheless, the Mayor is eyes forward: “If we want to fulfill the vision of a building a Detroit that includes everybody, we have to do a whole lot more.” By more, he went on, the city has work to do to bring back jobs, referencing his focus on a new job training program which will match citizens to training programs and then to jobs. (Detroit’s unemployment rate has dropped by nearly 50 percent from three years ago, but still is the highest of any Michigan city at just under 10 percent.) The Mayor expressed hope that the potential move of the NBA’s Detroit Pistons to the new Little Caesars Arena in downtown Detroit would create job opportunities for the city: “After the action of the Detroit city council in support of the first step of our next project very shortly, the Pistons will be hiring people from the city of Detroit.” The new arena, to be financed with municipal bonds, is set to open in September as home to the Detroit Red Wings hockey team, which will abandon the Joe Louis Arena on the Detroit riverfront, after the Detroit City Council this week voted to support plans for the Pistons’ move, albeit claiming the vote was not an endorsement of the complex deal involving millions in tax subsidies. Indeed, moving the NBA team will carry a price tag of $34 million to adapt the design of the nearly finished arena: the city has agreed to contribute toward the cost for the redesign which Mayor Duggan said will be funded through savings generated by the refinancing of $250 million of 2014 bonds issued by the Detroit Development Authority.

Mayor Duggan reiterated his commitment to stand with Detroit Public Schools Community District and its new school board President Iris Taylor against the threat of school closures. His statements came in the face of threats by the Michigan School Reform Office, which has identified 38 underperforming schools, the vast bulk of which (25) are in the city, stating: “We aren’t saying schools are where they need to be now…They need to be turned around, but we need 110,000 seats in quality schools and closing schools doesn’t add a single quality seat, all it does is bounce children around.” Mayor Duggan noted that Detroit also remains committed to its demolition program—a program which has, to date, razed some 11,000 abandoned homes, more than half the goal the city has set, in some part assisted by some $42 million in funds from the U.S Department of Treasury’s Hardest Hit Funds program for its blight removal program last October, the first installment of a new $130 million blight allocation for the city which was part of an appropriations bill Congress passed in December of 2015—but where a portion of that amount had been suspended by the Treasury for two months after a review found that internal controls needed improvement. Now, Major Duggan reports: “We have a team of state employees and land bank employees and a new process in place to get the program up and running and this time our goal isn’t only to be fast but to be in federal compliance too.” Of course, with a new Administration in office in Washington, D.C., James Thurber—were he still alive—might be warning the Mayor not to count any chickens before they’re hatched.

Are American Cities at a Financial Brink?

eBlog, 1/13/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing fiscal and physical challenges to the City of Flint, Michigan in the wake of the disastrous state appointment of an Emergency Manager with the subsequent devastating health and fiscal subsequent crises, before turning to a new report, When Cities Are at the Financial Brink” which would have us understand that the risk of insolvency for large cities is now higher than at any point since the federal government first passed a municipal bankruptcy law in the 1930’s,” before briefly considering the potential impact on every state, local government, and public school system in the country were Congress to adopt the President-elect’s proposed infrastructure plan; then we consider the challenge of aging: what do longer lifespans of city, county, and state employees augur for state and local public pension obligations and credit ratings?

Not In Like Flint. Residents of the City of Flint received less than a vote of confidence Wednesday about the state of and safety of their long-contaminated drinking water, precipitated in significant part by the appointment of an Emergency Manager by Governor Rick Snyder. Nevertheless, at this week’s town hall, citizens heard from state officials that city water reaching homes continues to improve in terms of proper lead, copper, alkaline, and bacteria levels—seeking to describe Flint as very much like other American cities. The statements, however, appeared to fall far short of bridging the trust gap between Flint residents and the ability to trust their water and those in charge of it appears wide—or, as one Flint resident described it: “I’m hoping for a lot…But I’ve been hoping for three years.” Indeed, residents received less than encouraging words. They were informed that they should, more than 30 months into Flint’s water crisis, continue to use filters at home; that it will take roughly three years for Flint to replace lead water service lines throughout the city; that the funds to finance that replacement have not been secured, and that Flint’s municipal treatment plants needs well over $100 million in upgrades: it appears unlikely the city will be ready to handle water from the new Karegnondi Water Authority until late-2019-early 2020. The state-federal presentation led to a searing statement from one citizen: “I’ve got kids that are sick…My teeth are falling out…You have no solution to this problem.”

Nevertheless, progress is happening: in the last six months of water sampling in Flint, lead readings averaged 12 parts per billion, below the federal action level of 15 ppb, and down from 20 ppb in the first six months of last year. Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech researcher who helped identify the city’s contamination problems, said: “Levels of bacteria we’re seeing are at dramatically lower levels than we saw a year ago.” However, the physical, fiscal, public trust, and health damage to the citizens of Flint during the year-and-a-half of using the Flint River as prescribed by the state-appointed Emergency Manager has had a two-fold impact: the recovery has been slow and residents have little faith in the safety of the water. Mayor Karen Weaver has sought to spearhead a program of quick pipeline replacement, but that process has been hindered by a lack of funding.

State Intervention in Municipal Bankruptcy. In a new report yesterday, “When Cities Are at the Financial Brink,” Manhattan Institute authors Daniel DiSalvo and Stephen Eide wrote the “risk of insolvency for large cities in now higher than at any point since the federal government first passed a municipal bankruptcy law in the 1930’s,” adding that “states…should intervene at the outset and appoint a receiver before allowing a city or other local government entity to petition for bankruptcy in federal court—and writing, contrary to recent history: “Recent experiences with municipal bankruptcies indicates that when local officials manage the process, they often fail to propose the changes necessary to stabilize their city’s future finances.” Instead, they opine in writing about connections between chapter 9, and the role of the states, there should be what they term “intervention bankruptcy,” which could be an ‘attractive alternative’ to the current Chapter 9. They noted, however, that Congress is unlikely to amend the current municipal bankruptcy chapter 9, adding, moreover, that further empowering federal judges in municipal affairs “is sure to raise federalism concerns.” It might be that they overlook that chapter 9, reflecting the dual sovereignty created by the founding fathers, incorporates that same federalism, so that a municipality may only file for chapter 9 federal bankruptcy if authorized by state law—something only 18 states do—and that in doing so, each state has the prerogative to determine, as we have often noted, the process—so that, as we have also written, there are states which:

  • Precipitate municipal bankruptcy (Alabama);
  • Contribute to municipal insolvency (California);
  • Opt, through enactment of enabling legislation, significant state roles—including the power and authority to appoint emergency managers (Michigan and Rhode Island, for instance);
  • Have authority to preempt local authority and take over a municipality (New Jersey and Atlantic City.).

The authors added: “The recent experience of some bankrupt cities, as well as much legal scholarship casts doubt on the effectiveness of municipal bankruptcy.” It is doubtful the citizens in Stockton, Central Falls, Detroit, Jefferson County, or San Bernardino would agree—albeit, of course, all would have preferred the federal bailouts received in the wake of the Great Recession by Detroit’s automobile manufacturers, and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Similarly, it sees increasingly clear that the State of Michigan was a significant contributor to the near insolvency of Flint—by the very same appointment of an Emergency Manager by the Governor to preempt any local control.

Despite the current chapter 9 waning of cases as San Bernardino awaits U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury’s approval of its exit from the nation’s longest municipal bankruptcy, the two authors noted: “Cities’ debt-levels are near all-time highs. And the risk of municipal insolvency is greater than at any time since the Great Depression.” While municipal debt levels are far better off than the federal government’s, and the post-Great Recession collapse of the housing market has improved significantly, they also wrote that pension debt is increasingly a problem. The two authors cited a 2014 report by Moody’s Investors Service which wrote that rising public pension obligations would challenge post-bankruptcy recoveries in Vallejo and Stockton—perhaps not fully understanding the fine distinctions between state constitutions and laws and how they vary from state to state, thereby—as we noted in the near challenges in the Detroit case between Michigan’s constitution with regard to contracts versus chapter 9. Thus, they claim that “A more promising approach would be for state-appointed receivers to manage municipal bankruptcy plans – subject, of course, to federal court approval.” Congress, of course, as would seem appropriate under our Constitutional system of dual sovereignty, specifically left it to each of the states to determine whether such a state wanted to allow a municipality to even file for municipal bankruptcy (18 do), and, if so, to specifically set out the legal process and authority to do so. The authors, however, wrote that anything was preferable to leaving local officials in charge—mayhap conveniently overlooking the role of the State of Alabama in precipitating Jefferson County’s insolvency.  

American Infrastructure FirstIn his campaign, the President-elect vowed he would transform “America’s crumbling infrastructure into a golden opportunity for accelerated economic growth and more rapid productivity gains with a deficit-neutral plan targeting substantial new infrastructure investments,” a plan the campaign said which would provide maximum flexibility to the states—a plan, “American Infrastructure First” plan composed of $137 billion in federal tax credits which would, however, only be available investors in revenue-producing projects—such as toll roads and airports—meaning the proposed infrastructure plan would not address capital investment in the nation’s public schools, libraries, etc. Left unclear is how such a plan would impact the nation’s public infrastructure, the financing of which is, currently, primarily financed by state and local governments through the use of tax-exempt municipal bonds—where the financing is accomplished by means of local or state property, sales, and/or income taxes—and some user fees. According to the Boston Federal Reserve, annual capital spending by state and local governments over the last decade represented about 2.3% of GDP and about 12% of state and local spending: in FY2012 alone, these governments provided more than $331 billion in capital spending. Of that, local governments accounted for nearly two-thirds of those capital investments—accounting for 14.4 percent of all outstanding state and local tax-exempt debt. Indeed, the average real per capita capital expenditure by local governments, over the 2000-2012 time period, according to the Boston Federal Reserve was $724—nearly double state capital spending. Similarly, according to Census data, state governments are responsible for about one-third of state and local capital financing. Under the President-elect’s proposed “American Infrastructure First” plan composed of $137 billion in federal tax credits—such credit would only be available to investors in revenue-producing projects—such as toll roads and airports—meaning the proposed infrastructure plan would not address capital investment in the nation’s public schools, libraries, etc. Similarly, because less than 2 percent of the nation’s 70,000 bridges in need of rebuilding or repairs are tolled, the proposed plan would be of no value to those respective states, local governments, or users. Perhaps, to state and local leaders, more worrisome is that according to a Congressional Budget Office 2015 report, of public infrastructure projects which have relied upon some form of private financing, more than half of the eight which have been open for more than five years have either filed for bankruptcy or been taken over by state or local governments.

Moody Southern Pension Blues. S&P Global Ratings Wednesday lowered Dallas’s credit rating one notch to AA-minus while keeping its outlook negative, with the action following in the wake of Moody’s downgrade last month—with, in each case, the agencies citing increased fiscal risk related to Dallas’ struggling Police and Fire Pension Fund, currently seeking to stem and address from a recent run on the bank from retirees amid efforts to keep the fund from failing, or, as S&P put it: “The downgrade reflects our view that despite the city’s broad and diverse economy, which continues to grow, stable financial performance, and very strong management practices, expected continued deterioration in the funded status of the city’s police and fire pension system coupled with growing carrying costs for debt, pension, and other post-employment benefit obligations is significant and negatively affects Dallas’ creditworthiness.” S&P lowered its rating on Dallas’ moral obligation bonds to A-minus from A, retaining a negative outlook, with its analysis noting: “Deterioration over the next two years in the city’s budget flexibility, performance, or liquidity could result in a downgrade…Similarly, uncertainty regarding future fixed cost expenditures could make budgeting and forecasting more difficult…If the city’s debt service, pension, and OPEB carrying charge elevate to a level we view as very high and the city is not successful in implementing an affordable plan to address the large pension liabilities, we could lower the rating multiple notches.” For its part, Fitch Ratings this week reported that a downgrade is likely if the Texas Legislature fails to provide a structural solution to the city’s pension fund problem. The twin ratings calls come in the wake of Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings report to the Texas Pension Review Board last November that the combined impact of the pension fund and a court case involving back pay for Dallas Police officers could come to $8 billion—mayhap such an obligation that it could force the municipality into chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, albeit stating that Dallas is not legally responsible for the $4 billion pension liability, even though he said that the city wants to help. The fund has an estimated $6 billion in future liabilities under its current structure. In testimony to the Texas State Pension Review Board, Mayor Rawlings said the pension crisis has made recruitment of police officers more difficult just as the city faces a flood of retirements.

 

The Stark Differences in How Cities May Exit Municipal Bankruptcy, & The Hard Challenges of Municipal Governance in Insolvencies.

eBlog, 12/07/16

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the green light flashed by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury yesterday, clearing the way for San Bernardino to exit the longest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history—and in ways profoundly different than Detroit because of the very different state roles and laws with regard to chapter 9 and governance in municipal bankruptcy, and that San Bernardino—like Jefferson County—remained under elected local leadership throughout their respective journeys into and out of municipal bankruptcy. Then we turn to last night’s recall by voters in the small, insolvent municipality of East Cleveland, in the wake of the narrowest of margins—but at an unaffordable cost.

Smooth Sailing Out of Municipal Bankruptcy. In what San Bernardino Mayor Carey Davis yesterday described as a “monumental day…[where] the hard work has paid off,” referring to U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury’s statement yesterday: “We have a lot left to do, but this clears the way for us to do much of that work,” as she yesterday confirmed the City of San Bernardino’s plan of debt adjustment, confirming its path early in the new year to exit from the nation’s longest ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy as early as next March. San Bernardino City Attorney Gary Saenz expressed elation at Judge Jury’s green light, noting: “I’m so pleased and excited about where the city is now compared to where we were when we filed bankruptcy and what we were able to accomplish and that we now have a solid foundation upon which to build this city. The confirmation should certainly help the rest of the city and the world recognize that San Bernardino is back.” Even Judge Jury joined in praising the city for its endurance and stamina over the long road, noting that over the four-year span she had observed that had improved not just its finances, but also its governance, pointing to the municipality’s voter-approved new charter and better working relationships among elected officials: “The city came in financial chaos, and it’s leaving in much better shape…I have lived in this region for 40 years…and I’ve always said the city needed help. I’m glad it got it.” Under the city’s now approved plan of adjustment, it will pay the bulk of its creditors far less than they would otherwise be entitled to—in many instances merely one cent for every dollar such a creditor is owed; however, the city’s plan also outlines changes to the structure of the city, some of which, including outsourcing of refuse and fire services, and the passage of a new city charter, have already been implemented. City Attorney Saenz estimated that even though the costs to the city of its filing will be in excess of $20 million, its now approved chapter 9 plan of debt adjustment will save the city’s taxpayers more than $300 million worth of debts that will be officially discharged.

With regard to the record length of time, Judge Jury said the case, which hinged significantly on deals with major creditors, took the right amount of time. Moreover, several of the city’s major creditors in the case concurred in the congratulations, contrasting the city’s process and efforts specifically to Detroit, the nation’s largest-ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, by noting both the significant state role and imposition of an emergency manager in the former—in contrast, the State of California was simply an absent, if not contributor to San Bernardino’s insolvency and consequent chapter 9 filing. Indeed, attorney Vincent J. Marriott, who represented municipal bondholders who held approximately $50 million of the city’s tax-exempt bonds, noted: “Here the city had the challenge of being not only economically viable but politically palatable,” said. “As is appropriate, that took time. I think the result today is really a tribute to all the work and thought that went in from the city.” Further challenging San Bernardino was the inability to gain any concessions on its public pension liabilities—in sharp contrast to the Detroit plan of debt adjustment, which provided for reductions in both Detroit’s public pension and post-retirement benefit obligations after San Bernardino’s attempts to negotiate with the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS), therefore forcing the city to negotiate steeper concessions from all its other creditors. (The San Bernardino police union did reach an agreement with the city last year which includes concessions on leave time from before the bankruptcy filing, legal claims related to the imposition, and retiree health care.)

The last hurdle, as we have recounted previously, came after Judge Jury held for the city against efforts by attorneys representing clients injured by the San Bernardino Police—who had argued that the exceptionally low offer demonstrated the city, in its plan of debt adjustment efforts, had not acted “reasonably,” nor “in good faith,” provisions required for the federal court to confirm a municipality’s plan of debt adjustment. In rejecting those debtors’ claims, Judge Jury told their attorney: “I’m not trying to diminish the injuries to your client…But I’m also saying at a human level what the police and others have given back do affect the livelihoods of their families. It’s not a dispassionate institutional creditor.” Finally, Judge Jury concurred in one of the very few areas in the city’s plan of debt adjustment calling for increased spending: for the city’s police department. Judge Jury noted: “Anybody that lives in this area knows that the crime problem in San Bernardino is substantial…They have to get safe for people to want to live there.”

Pearl Harbor Day on East Cleveland. East Cleveland voters yesterday recalled both Mayor Gary Norton Jr. and City Council President Thomas Wheeler in a special election, with the final, unofficial results finding that Mayor Norton lost by a margin of 20 votes (548 to 528), according to the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections website, while City Council President Wheeler lost by an even narrow margin of 18 votes—with the official tally to be released on December 19th. Yesterday’s recall election marked the third time Councilmember Wheeler had been subject to recall: he prevailed exactly one year ago, and then, again, last June—albeit by a mere 51-49 percent margin, and with a turnout of only 7 percent of the city’s registered voters. For the ousted Mayor, the recall marked the first such election. In a statement last night, Mayor Norton noted: “I love the people of East Cleveland, and it has been an honor to have served them.” In the wake of the recall, Council Vice President Brandon King will be sworn in as the new Mayor in three weeks, and the remaining City Council members will have to appoint two leaders to the Council to fill the empty slots: under the Council’s procedures, should the Council find itself unable to agree upon such appointments, Mayor-to-be King will choose who fills those seats, according to Council President Wheeler.

For the small, insolvent municipality of East Cleveland, a city which Ohio Auditor Dave Yost’s office four years ago declared to be in a state of fiscal emergency, and last year stated that municipal bankruptcy or merging with Cleveland were the two most viable options for the suburb, the interim has been like waiting for Godot. Indeed, the small municipality has been awaiting some response from the State of Ohio with regard to its request for authorization to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, and some response from both the state and City of Cleveland with regard to its proposal to be annexed, the disruptive election carries a fiscal cost: yesterday’s election could cost the city between $25,000 and $30,000. (The city explored filing for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in May, but has been stymied by the state, because the Ohio Tax Commissioner’s office said the Council should ask permission from the state, not the Mayor.) Now, in the wake of last night’s results, the outcome could mean what outgoing Council President Wheeler last night described as “dramatic chaos:” “They wanted me out, and it took them three times…Obviously they don’t want the city to move forward; they want to go back to the way things used to be.” In contrast, Devin Branch, who led the effort to recall the city’s elected leaders last night said the people of East Cleveland had spoken, and while voter turnout was low, the majority of the city opposes the current mayor: “Working class people of the City of East Cleveland are soundly against Mayor Norton.” The city explored filing for bankruptcy in May, but hit a roadblock when the Tax Commissioner’s office said council should ask permission from the state, not the mayor. The letter from the commissioner also detailed the plans that the city must have prior to filing for bankruptcy.

Voting on a Municipality’s Future

 

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eBlog, 9/16/16

In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the upcoming election in San Bernardino on what form of municipal governance the city’s voters want for their post-municipal bankrupt municipality; then we head East to Michigan to listen to Mayor Duggan and ponder on how very perilous and challenging the path out of municipal bankruptcy can be; before heading still farther East to inquire whether Atlantic City even has a future as a city—or will, instead, be taken over by the state. After which, we turn right back around to Ohio—where the fate of East Cleveland is very, very much in question: no one seems to have an answer—and the silence from the State of Ohio has been deafening. Finally, we fly south to the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico—albeit, really to the nation’s Capitol, as U.S. House and Senate members struggle to consider how federal policies and actions could play a vital role in the island’s long-term economic future.

Voting on a Bankrupt City’s Future. Unlike November’s election farther north in Stockton, where the vote will be over which elected leader the voters will elect to keep that city on the road to recovery, voters in what could be post-chapter 9 San Bernardino will be deciding whether to adopt a new city charter [If approved by a majority of voters Nov. 8, Measure L will replace the existing charter with the 14-page new charter.] under which to operate in the wake of U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury’s upcoming confirmation hearing on October 14th with regard to the decision to approve the city’s plan of debt adjustment—albeit, as San Bernardino City Attorney Gary Saenz yesterday said, the city anticipates receiving a confirmation order from Judge Jury by the end of the year with an effective exit date around March. The municipality’s creditors had been projected to vote on the city’s plan of debt adjustment earlier this month; however, CalPERS and U.S. Bank each filed extensions seeking more time to vote, even as attorneys representing Ambac Assurance Corp., the insurer on $52 million in pension obligation bonds, have voted in favor of the exit plan contingent on finalizing what it called in a court filing “the definitive documents.” Or, as City Attorney Saenz notes: “It is all contingent on how things go…Voting has come in overwhelmingly in support of the plan, which helps with regard to confirmation.” Mr. Saenz added: “We are working on resolving the smaller cases, such as personal injury claimants, trip and falls, and a case involving one of our police officers…The more of those we settle, at this time, helps with respect to confirmation.” With regard to the city’s bigger creditors, he notes that when CalPERS files today, that could be a significant milestone, albeit the huge state retirement agency reached an agreement in substance with San Bernardino more than a year ago; and an agreement with pension bondholders in May. U.S. Bank, which holds several million dollars of commercial paper issued against city buildings, also had previously reached an agreement with the city. With regard to reaching an agreement with the city’s municipal bondholders, Mr. Saenz has previously noted the city was able to offer them 40 percent of what they are owed, rather than the measly one percent it had originally offered—in large part because the agreement also stretches out payments 20 years—an important score, as the city plan of debt adjustment is keenly focused on a long-term plan to make sure it does not make a round trip down the road back into chapter 9—an agreement, too, very much intended to gaining Judge Jury’s affirmation that the city’s pan is both feasible and dependable. Or, as Mr. Saenz notes: “One thing Judge Jury will look at is the feasibility of the confirmation plan…We believe we found a model that is dependable.” The proposed debt adjustment plan pension obligation bond agreement appears to—similar to the outcomes in Central Falls, Detroit, etc.—continue a trend of municipal bondholders faring worse than public pension obligations—albeit the powerful role of CalPERS is profoundly different than in Alabama, Rhode Island, or Michigan. Under the proposed, current proposed plan, Commerzbank Finance & Covered Bond S.A., formerly Erste Europäische Pfandbrief-Und Kommunalkreditbank AG, and municipal bond insurer Ambac Assurance Corporation, agreed to drop their opposition to San Bernardino’s plan of debt adjustment—under the pending resolution, the holders of $50 million in pension obligation bonds will receive payments equal to 40 percent of their debt on a present value basis, discounted using the existing coupon rate, according to city officials.

Thus, in San Bernardino, the future will not be about whether there will be a future, but rather how—and what structure or form of municipal government it will be—or, rather the form of municipal governance. Indeed, last night, John Longville, one leader of the campaign in favor of Measure L, which would repeal San Bernardino’s existing charter and replace it with a new one created by a citizen committee, said such a new charter would promise the way to end decades of destructive political infighting rather than a surrendering of self-government. Mr. Longville, who comes with no small record—he is a former Mayor of Rialto, California Assemblyman, and the current President of the San Bernardino Community College District Board of Trustees that, like other jurisdictions in the region, San Bernardino has had a variety of leaders over the years, and the city has been affected by the same economic blows, including the loss of a major steel plant and a major Air Force Base—but, he pointedly noted, those cities did not file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy; in fact, he said they have been thriving, he said: “We see neighboring cities able to function better than we are…It’s just the reality. Some of them quite well. Why is San Bernardino functioning so poorly?” His answer? He told his audience the reason was the city’s 46-page charter first passed in 1905 and amended no less than 135 times since then. It was that history, he noted, which makes it unclear who is responsible for fixing problems and, therefore, breeds arguments.

In contrast, his debate opponent, James Penman, San Bernardino’s City Attorney from 1987 until 2013, countered that if San Bernardino’s charter were responsible for the city’s longest ever municipal bankruptcy, then the city would have gone bankrupt, as other cities did, during the Great Depression. “The city charter is not the reason for the bankruptcy. Poor leadership on the part of certain elected officials and certain appointed officials is the reason we went bankrupt,” pointedly reminding voters of the $4 million general fund reserve San Bernardino maintained when former Mayor Judith Valles left office in 2006,, as he added: “You can’t spend more money than you take in and not go bankrupt.” He told the audience the arguments at City Hall were not with regard to lines of power, but rather over issues officials were elected to address. The culprit, Mr. Penman maintained, has been the new charter’s elimination of elections for city attorney, city clerk, and city treasurer, and to its shifting of some responsibilities from an elected mayor to an unelected city manager: “The new charter takes away your rights and your leadership in electing City Hall,” he said, arguing that it is important those positions be directly responsible to voters, rather than to City Council members who would appoint them under the new charter.

But his opponent countered that in the century since the charter was passed, city government had become too complex to expect elected officials to understand it fully the day they are sworn in: “When I was mayor of Rialto, I was proud of what I did and I think I did a pretty darn good job…But when I first came in there was sure a lot that I didn’t know, and I was glad there was a professional city manager, as there is in almost every city in California.” Interestingly, Mr. Penman countered that following that argument to its logical conclusion would mean the state Legislature should choose the Governor and Congress should choose the President, since running the state and federal government also requires great expertise. He added, moreover, that an elected city attorney helps prevents scandals like those in Bell, Moreno Valley, and Beaumont.

347 miles north of San Bernardino, however, where there will also be elections in November—those elections will not affect Stockton’s city attorney, police chief, city clerk, or auditor: Stockton’s City Council charter review committee last year voted unanimously to reject a proposal by a citizen’s commission that could have given voters the chance to decide if the police chief, clerk, and auditor should have to run for office. Current candidate for re-election, Mayor Anthony Silva, had opposed the recommendations, warning: “Can you imagine getting ready for these upcoming elections (as a mayoral or council candidate) and in the middle of it our own clerk has to go out and start putting up signs for herself and then worry about her own election?…It would be chaos.”

The Hard Road out of Municipal Bankruptcy. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan yesterday in an address during the third Detroit Homecoming, a special program created to attract ex-Detroiters and investors to come back home praised a recovering municipality from the nation’s largest chapter 9 bankruptcy with a call to entrepreneurs who have left to “come on back home.” Mayor Duggan spoke about improved service delivery, home values, and demolition efforts that are boosting many city communities—even as the Census Bureau reports that the city’s unemployment rate remains the highest in Michigan and newly released U.S. Census estimates rank Detroit the nation’s poorest major city. Mayor Duggan, in a city where the city’s schools are under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager and a state-created dual system of charter versus public schools, added: “The solution to poverty is jobs and making sure that our residents have the education and skills to take those jobs.” The Mayor’s remarks came as part of this long-term effort which began two years ago to help bring more than 300 ex-patriots with ties to Detroit “home” to re-experience the city—an effort which, to date, has resulted in committed investments of more than $260 million in city projects and businesses. Nevertheless, the new Census estimates underline how steep this road to recovery is: the U.S. Census American Community Survey reports that Detroit realized no change in poverty or incomes; an estimated 39.8 percent of its residents are below the poverty line. Nevertheless, as Mayor Duggan noted, a key measure, unemployment, has improved measurably: Detroit’s unemployment rate was 17.8 percent when he took office in two years ago in January; it was 12.5 percent by last July—or, as he put it: “We have 15,000 more jobs today than we did three years ago…Nobody is declaring victory, but we are making progress in a whole lot of neighborhoods in the city, and we have a lot more neighborhoods to go.” Mayor Duggan added, in another key issue to the city’s recovery, that since spring 2014, the city has razed more than 10,500 vacant houses, and is averaging the razing of 150 commercial buildings each year—and the results are encouraging: in some neighborhoods, he said, home sale prices are up more than 50 percent from two years ago.

Mayor Duggan expressed less confidence on the school front, noting he continues to be concerned over the so-called state rescue package for Detroit’s public school district that pays off $467 million in operating debt and provides startup funding for its new debt-free district—a package, however, which created a divided school system of charter and public schools, so that the city lacks uniform standards for all schools—and for all its children: “We’ve got to come back at it. We’ve got to get it fixed.” It is, as the Detroit News has opined: “a major American city where public education, namely the teaching of its young, is corrupted by grasping adults and mismanaged by state bureaucrats who seize control of a system they fail to fix…And not the fact that public education in Detroit, a necessary building block for any functioning democracy, is a disgrace and an indictment. Its recurring incompetence is a disincentive to families with school-aged children, households that form the bedrock of stable communities occupied by taxpayers and law-abiding citizens…The wonder is that it’s taken this long for prosecutors to root out corruption, or for someone to file a civil rights lawsuit against the state and whoever else for the generally deplorable state of Detroit’s public schools…This is a fundamental hurdle. Jobs in Detroit go wanting for Detroiters if their DPS secondary education fails to give them the skills to compete, and if folks refuse to recognize that education also needs the active participation of parents, students, even the business community.” Characteristically moody Moody’s credit rating service clearly shares Mayor Duggan’s apprehensions: the service worries that uncertainty over the future security of Detroit Public Schools state-aid backed bonds, its governance, as well as the poor arithmetic of tax collection issues in the wake of the state restructuring of DPS following the district’s restructuring merit a downgrade from “developing” to “negative,” deep in proverbial in junk territory, albeit advising the rating, like any student’s grade, could move in either direction once various issues tied to the state preemptive restructuring of DPS is resolved, adding that the further uncertainty over the outcome of a restructuring of limited tax state aid revenue bonds is a key concern—and noting that it moodily awaits the toting up of property tax collection trends and the success or failure of the eventual transfer of DPS’ governance from emergency management to a voter-approved Board of Education.

The Future or Un-future of a Great American City. Atlantic City, having now missed its deadline and violated the terms of a $73 million state loan, has asked the state for a “reprieve” on the matter—the deadline was one which required the city to initiate dissolution of its Municipal Utilities Authority—meaning that, as of today, the city is at the mercy of the state, which could ultimately demand immediate repayment of the loan or seize the city’s collateral. One of the terms in the July 29 bridge loan agreement called for the city to dissolve Atlantic Municipal Utilities Authority (ACMUA) by yesterday or use the water authority as collateral in the case of a default—a state demand the City Council has been unwilling to support: ergo, having defaulted under the loan terms, the state could demand immediate repayment of the monies. In a statement Wednesday, Mayor Donald Guardian noted: “Although the September 15 deadline will pass tomorrow without a city council resolution dissolving the MUA or designating it as collateral in case of default, we have asked the state for a reprieve on this because we believe that the MUA will actually be a better part of the overall financial solution if it is kept whole.” For its part, a New Jersey Local Finance Board spokeswoman had responded: “A decision has not been made and the Division is awaiting legal guidance as to its options.” The city had already been moodily downgraded last April, as we have reported, because of the difficult governance situation—a situation in which the city is under a state emergency manager who has been invisible, as well as a governance situation where the MUA is financially independent from the city—a utility estimated by New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) at around $100 million—part of the reason Mayor Guardian has made clear, especially given its vital public safety role, that he would like to bring the MUA under city control and opposes privatization or a public-private partnership. The city, to some great extent caught between the rock and hard place of the Governor and the legislature, had averted a default in late May when the legislature approved a rescue package giving the city 150 days in which to deliver an acceptable five-year financial turnaround plan; however, if the plan is not approved by the early November deadline, state intervention kicks in with New Jersey’s Local Finance Board then empowered to alter debt and municipal contracts—that is, a different plan than insisted upon by Gov. Chris Christie. Indeed, on the 150 day calendar, Mayor Guardian notes: “Our 150-day plan is moving forward quickly, as we have some of the best in brightest minds in the country working on our behalf to solve this problem…We just need the time to finish the plan and to present it publicly. In the end, we think this will be the best plan to move Atlantic City forward while at the same time maintaining our sovereignty and decision-making rights now held by locally elected leaders.”

Governance & A City’s Future. East Cleveland, Ohio Mayor Gary Norton will face a recall vote in December, one that comes at a time of perilously depleted city coffers and a thick layer of political tension; so too will City Council President Tom Wheeler—or, as Mayor Norton notes: “This is a horrible expenditure of funds given the city’s current financial provision, and beyond that, switching a single mayor or single councilman will have no impact on the city’s financial situation and the city’s economy.” The small municipality, still, like Godot, awaiting a response from the State of Ohio with regard to whether it may file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, and awaiting potential negotiations from the neighboring City of Cleveland whether there would be a willingness to negotiate its incorporation into Cleveland, now also awaits the decisions of its citizens in November’s election—an election with a $25,000 price tag the city can ill afford.

A U.S. Territory’s Fiscal Future. The Congressional Task Force on Economic Growth in Puerto Rico has been meeting with federal agencies and gathering input from some 335 organizations and individuals as it works to develop recommendations with regard to how to address the U.S. territory’s struggling economy—that is a wholly different group than the PROMESA oversight board (Chair Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Bob Nelson (D-Fla.), and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), and Reps. Pedro Pierluisi (Puerto Rico), Tom MacArthur (R-N.J.), Sean Duffy (R-Wis.), and Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.) —one charged here by Congress to release a report by the end of the year on the impediments in current federal law and programs to economic growth in Puerto Rico along with recommended changes which could spur sustainable long-term economic growth, increase job creation, reduce child poverty, and attract investment to the U.S. territory. In its first joint release, the task force noted: “Residents of Puerto Rico and their families face numerous challenges to economic growth along with many dimensions affected by federal law and programs, including health care, government finances, economic stagnation, population loss, and sectoral inefficiencies…[We] are actively working to arrive at a consensus in order to provide Congress with findings and recommendations as called for under PROMESA.” The task force will continue accepting submissions from individuals until the middle of next month, having extended its previous deadline of September 2nd; the task force also said in its report that its members have been working with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, which oversees Puerto Rico in the Federal Reserve System, and which recently provided a superb update at the City University of New York session convened to identify useful economic and financial developments in Puerto Rico and to analyze the Commonwealth’s economy and finances. The New York Fed has been providing not only useful reports and insights, but also blogs—and is now aiming to explore ways that federal statistical products used to measure economic and financial activity in the states could be applied to Puerto Rico. The task force is expecting help from the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT), the Congressional Budget Office, and the Library of Congress’s Congressional Research Service. JCT will provide a briefing in the near future to discuss federal tax policy as it applies to Puerto Rico. The eight-member body will also consult with Puerto Rico’s legislative assembly, its Department of Economic Development and Commerce, as well as representatives of the private sector on the island.