Post Municipal Bankruptcy Election, and How Does a City, County, State, or Territory Balance Schools versus Debt?

June 4, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider tomorrow’s primary in post-chapter 9 municipally bankrupt Stockton, and the harsh challenges of getting schooled in Puerto Rico.

Taking New Stock in Stockton? It was Trick or Treat Day in Stockton, in 2014, when Chris McKenzie, the former Executive Director of the California League of Cities described to us, from the U.S. Bankruptcy Court courtroom, Judge Christopher Klein’s rejection of the claims of the remaining holdout creditor, Franklin Templeton Investments, and approved the City of Stockton’s proposed Chapter 9 Bankruptcy Plan of Adjustment. Judge Klein had, earlier, ruled that the federal chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy law preempted California state law and made the city’s contract with the state’s public retirement system, CalPERS, subject to impairment by the city in the Chapter 9 proceeding. Judge Klein determined that that contract was inextricably tied to Stockton’s collective bargaining agreements with various employee groups. The Judge also had stressed that, because the city’s employees were third party beneficiaries of Stockton’s contract with CalPERS, that, contrary to Franklin’s assertion that CalPERS was the city’s largest creditor; rather it was the city’s employees—employees who had experienced substantial reductions in both salaries and pension benefits—effectively rejecting Franklin’s assertion that the employees’ pensions were given favorable treatment in the Plan of Adjustment. Judge Klein, in his opinion, had detailed all the reductions since 2008 (not just since the filing of the case in 2012) which had collectively ended the prior tradition of paying above market salaries and benefits to Stockton employees. Moreover, his decision included the loss of retiree health care,  reductions in positions, salaries and employer pension contributions, and approval of a new pension plan for new hires—a combination which Judge Klein noted meant that any further reductions, as called for by Franklin, would have made city employees “the real victims” of the proceeding. We had also noted that Judge Klein, citing an earlier disclosure by the city of over $13 million in professional services and other costs, had also commented that the high cost of Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy proceedings should be an object lesson for everyone about why Chapter 9 bankruptcy should not be entered into lightly.

One key to the city’s approved plan of debt adjustment was the provision for a $5.1 million contribution for canceling retiree health benefits; however a second was the plan’s focus on the city’s fiscal future: voter approval to increase the city’s sales and use tax to 9 percent, a level expected to generate about $28 million annually, with the proceeds to be devoted to restoring city services and paying for law enforcement.

Moody’s, in its reading of the potential implications of that decision opined that Judge Klein’s ruling could set up future challenges from California cities burdened by their retiree obligations to CalPERS, with Gregory Lipitz, a vice president and senior credit officer at Moody’s, noting: “Local governments will now have more negotiating leverage with labor unions, who cannot count on pensions as ironclad obligations, even in bankruptcy.” A larger question, however, for city and county leaders across the nation was with regard to the potential implications of Judge Klein’s affirmation of Stockton’s plan to pay its municipal bond investors pennies on the dollar while shielding public pensions.

Currently, the city derives its revenues for its general fund from a business tax, fees for services, its property tax, sales tax, and utility user tax. Stockton’s General Fund reserve policy calls for the City to maintain a 17% operating reserve (approximately two months of expenditures) and establishes additional reserves for known contingencies, unforeseen revenue changes, infrastructure failures, and catastrophic events.  The known contingencies include amounts to address staff recruitment and retention, future CalPERS costs and City facilities. The policy establishes an automatic process to deposit one-time revenue increases and expenditure savings into the reserves.  

So now, four years in the wake of its exit from chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, Republican businessman  and gubernatorial candidate John Cox has delivered one-liners and a vow to take back California in a campaign stop in Stockton before tomorrow’s primary election, asking prospective voters: “Are you ready for a Republican governor in 2018?”

According to the polls, this could be an unexpectedly tight race for the No. 2 spot against former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a Democrat. (In the primary, the two top vote recipients will determine which two candidates will face off in the November election.) Currently, Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom is ahead. Republicans have the opportunity to “take back the state of California,” however, candidate Cox said to a group of more than 130 men and women at Brookside Country Club—telling his audience that California deserves and needs an honest and efficient government, which has been missing, focusing most of his speech on what he said is California’s issue with corruption and cronyism worse than his former home state of Illinois. He vowed that, if elected, he would end “the sanctuary protections in the state’s cities.”

Seemingly absent from the debate leading up to this election are vital issues to the city’s fiscal future, especially Forbes’s 2012 ranking Stockton as the nation’s “eighth most miserable city,” and because of its steep drop in home values and high unemployment, and the National Insurance Crime Bureau’s ranking of the city as seventh in auto theft—and its ranking in that same year as the tenth most dangerous city in the U.S., and second only to Oakland as the most dangerous city in the state.

President Trump, a week ago last Friday, endorsed candidate Cox, tweeting: “California finally deserves a great Governor, one who understands borders, crime, and lowering taxes. John Cox is the man‒he’ll be the best Governor you’ve ever had. I fully endorse John Cox for Governor and look forward to working with him to Make California Great Again.” He followed that up with a message that California is in trouble and needs a manager, which is why Trump endorsed him, tweeting: “We will truly make California great again.”

Puerto Rico’s Future? Judge Santiago Cordero Osorio of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico Superior Court last Friday issued a provisional injunction order for the Department of Education to halt the closure of six schools located in the Arecibo educational region—with his decision coming in response to a May 24th complaint by Xiomara Meléndez León, mother of two students from one of the affected schools, and with support in her efforts by the legal team of the Association of Teachers of Puerto Rico. The cease and desist order applies to all administrative proceedings intended to close schools in the muncipios of Laurentino Estrella Colon, Camuy; Hatillo; Molinari, Quebradillas; Vega Baja; Arecibo; and Lares—with Judge Cordero Osorio writing: “What this court has to determine is that according to the administrative regulations and circular letters of the Department of Education, there is and has been applied a formula that establishes a just line for the closure without passion and without prejudice to those schools that thus understand merit close.”  

With so many leaving Puerto Rico for the mainland, the issue with regard to education becomes both increasingly vital, while at the same time, increasingly hard to finance—but also difficult to ascertain fiscal equity—or as one of the litigants put it to the court: “The plaintiff in this case has clearly established on this day that there is much more than doubt as to whether the Department of Education is in effect applying this line in a fair and impartial manner.” Judge Osorio responded that “this court appreciates the evidence presented so far that the action of the Department of Education regarding the closure of schools borders on arbitrary, capricious, and disrespectful;” he also ruled that the uncertainty he saw in the testimonies of the case had created “irreparable emotional damage worse than the closing of schools,” as he ordered Puerto Rico Education Secretary Julia Keleher to appear before him a week from today at a hearing wherein Secretary Keleher must present evidence of the procedures and arguments that the Department took into consideration for the closures.  

Meléndez León, the mother who appears as a plaintiff in the case, stated she had resorted to this legal path because the Department of Education had never provided her with concrete explanations with regard to why Laurentino Estrella School in Camuy, which her children attend, had been closed—or, as she put it: “The process that the Department of Education used to select closure schools has never been clarified to the parents: we were never notified.” At the time of the closure, the school had 186 students—of which 62 belonged to Puerto Rico’s Special Education program—and another six were enrolled in the Autism Program. Now, she faces what might be an unequal challenge: one mother versus a huge bureaucracy—where the outcome could have far-reaching impacts. The Education Department, after all, last April proposed the consolidation of some 265 schools throughout the island.