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.

What Could Be the State Role in Averting Municipal Fiscal Distress & Bamkruptcy?

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eBlog, 1/27/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing challenge in Petersburg, Virginia—and the role of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Because, in our federal system, each state has a different blueprint with regard to whether a municipality is even allowed to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy (only 18), and because there is not necessarily rhyme nor reason with regard to fiscal oversight and response mechanisms—as we have observed so wrenchingly in the forlorn case of East Cleveland—the role of states appears to be constantly evolving. So it is this a.m. that we look to Virginia, where the now insolvent municipality of Petersburg had routinely filed financial information with the Virginia auditor of public accounts—but somehow the accumulating fiscal descent into insolvency never triggered alarm bells.   

Virginia Auditor Martha Mavredes this week, testifying before the House Appropriations Committee, told Chairman S. Chris Jones (R-Suffolk) it was “just hard for us to really get our minds around how that was missed,” telling the committee the state currently has no requirement for municipalities to furnish the kind of comprehensive information that would trigger awareness of insolvency; there appears to be no mechanism for the Commonwealth to step in and help. Indeed, that was the very purpose of Chairman Jones to call for the hearing: he wants to better understand options Virginia might consider to not just create some kind of trip wire, but, mayhap more importantly, to act on provisions which could avert future such municipal insolvencies. Auditor Mavredes indicated to the Committee she is scrambling to scrabble together some kind of tripwire or early warning system that would flag financial problems in Virginia’s municipalities at an earlier stage, telling the committee she is using a system devised by the state of Louisiana to help Virginia identify cities and counties in dire fiscal straits. Thus she plans to create a database of all localities in the commonwealth to rate or score their relative fiscal health. Under what she is proposing, her office will approach cities that show warning signs in order to assess more information. Her real issue, she told the committee, is what fiscal assistance tools might be available—or as she put it: the “piece I can’t solve right now is what kind of assistance might be there” once such problems come to light.” Virginia, like a majority of states, has no provision for the state to step in if a locality goes into default. Indeed, it was the thoughtful step of Virginia’s Finance Secretary Ric Brown, who took the unusual step last year to investigate Petersburg’s finances, which led him to discover the city had some $18 million in unpaid bills, an unbalanced budget, and a fiscal practice of papering over deficits with short-term borrowing—a practice that not only jeopardized the city’s bond rating, but also affected the cost of borrowing for the regional public utility. Secretary Brown stressed the need for training local elected officials about budgeting and best practices, and he suggested a program to allow outside management firms to help get cities on a better fiscal foundation. Interestingly, the Committee might want to avail itself of the pioneering work underway by the irrepressibly insightful Don Boyd of the Rockefeller Institute of Government to assess state responses to municipal fiscal distress, seeking to answer the kinds of thoughtful queries Secretary Brown is asking. In a chart for Rockefeller, we tried our own answer:

Understanding Municipal Fiscal Stress

Assessing State Responses to Growing Municipal Fiscal Distress and Insolvency:

  • The Ostriches (head in the sand): Do Nothings/modified harm: e.g. Illinois
  • Denigrators (Alabama is a prime example: when Jefferson County requested authority to raise its own taxes, the Legislature refused, forcing the county into chapter 9 bankruptcy);
  • Learners (Rhode Island is a very good candidate here—in the wake of Central Falls, the state evolved into a much more constructive partnership;
  • Thinkers (I put Colo. & Minn. here—especially because both seem to recognize potential benefits of tax sharing & innovation in intergovernmental fiscal policy);
  • Preemptors (Michigan, because it provides for the usurpation of any local authority through the appointment of an Emergency Manager); New Jersey seems to be fitting in with that category re: Atlantic City;
  • Substitutors: Pa.: Act 47
  • Maybe Do-Nothings: Ohio, even though it authorizes municipal bankruptcy, appears to have been totally non-responsive the petition by East Cleveland to file—and has appeared to play no role in the so-far dysfunctional discussions between Cleveland and East Cleveland).

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.

 

What Is the State Role in Municipal Solvency/Recovery?

 

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eBlog, 11/21/16

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the state role in addressing municipal fiscal distress and bankruptcy: what are the different models—and how are they working? Then we consider one especially dysfunctional model: Ohio, where the City of East Cleveland could find its two Mayoral candidates in municipal jail before the voters go to the polls early next month. From thence, we strike east to consider this month’s elections in Massachusetts on charter schools—examining an issue that goes to the heart not only of state local relations and authority, but also to the potential impact on municipal assessed property values. What may be learned? Finally, we wish readers a Happy Thanksgiving!

What Is the State Role in Municipal Solvency/Recovery? Under our country’s system of dual federalism created by the founding fathers, while federal law authorizes municipalities to file for chapter 9 bankruptcy, a city, county, or school district may only do so if authorized by a state. Today, only 18 of the 50 states provide such authority. Ergo, one of the issues we have sought to consider through this eBlog has been the evolving State role in municipal distress in a field of seeming constant flux. This month, for instance, we experienced the uncertain governance situation in New Jersey in the wake of the state takeover of the City of Atlantic City—a state takeover in which the process and how it will play out could be further impacted by the potential selection by President-elect Trump of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who might be a potential Cabinet or other senior advisor to the President-elect.

Actual governance has shifted from local accountability to the state’s Division of Local Government Services—but with the state already having imposed a state emergency manager in the city, what the new state takeover means continues to be uncertain. In Ohio, which authorizes chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, the City of East Cleveland’s request to do so appears to be on the desk of Rod Serling in the Twilight Zone: there has simply been no response of any kind. Similarly, in California, state policies have clearly contributed to some of the fiscal distress that led Stockton and San Bernardino into chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, but the state played absolutely no role in helping either Stockton or San Bernardino to emerge. Michigan, a state which has been deeply enmeshed in municipal fiscal distress—albeit not necessarily in a constructive manner—has acted in different ways—going from its imposition of an emergency manager—a process with deadly consequences in Flint, but seemingly key to Detroit’s turnaround. Alabama, by refusing to allow Jefferson County to raise its own taxes, directly aided and abetted the County’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. Rhode Island, on the day of Central Falls’ chapter 9 filing—the very day Providence, the state’s capitol city, was itself poised on the rim of filing, but opted not to—and the state, thanks to the exceptional ingenuity of its then Treasurer (now Governor), created an ingenious model of creating teams of city managers and retired state legislators to act in teams to offer assistance to cities in danger of insolvency—so that there was a team effort before—instead of after such a precipitous event.

Part of what has made this effort to assess what is happening in the arena of severe municipal fiscal challenges and bankruptcy so much more difficult is the surprise that, in the wake of recovery from the Great Recession, one would have assumed severe municipal fiscal distress and insolvency would have dissipated. It has not. What has changed? Why are States not reacting more uniformly? With only 18 states permitting municipal bankruptcy, what state models exist which offer a clearly defined legal or legislated route to address not just insolvency, but also to avoid the spread of fiscal contagion? What is a state’s role in recovery from a chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy? What is a state’s role in addressing increasing fiscal disparities?

Ungoverning in a Fiscal Twilight Zone. In East Cleveland, Ohio, the mall city which is seeking authority from the State of Ohio to file for chapter 9 bankruptcy—a plea to which it remains unclear whether there will ever be a response, and where there have been on and off discussions with adjacent Cleveland about a consolidation of the two municipalities; the city’s election day activities provide a sense of the increasing dysfunctional nature of the small city: it was, after all, on election day this month at Mayfair Elementary School where both candidate Devin Branch and current Mayor Gary Norton were working the polls trying to convince registered voters to go with their respective causes. Mayor Norton was pressing potential voters not to recall him at the city’s upcoming election on December 8th; Devin Branch was going door-to-door to obtain the 550 requisite signatures to ensure the recall would officially be on the ballot. Their respective efforts, however, came up against each other when they encountered each other going after the same person and their battle became an event where they pressed their respective clip boards in front of registered voters—leading to a confrontation so that Mayor Norton decided to order the Chief of Police and a squad of police to arrest Mr. Branch. Moreover, dissatisfied with the police response, Mayor Norton then ordered his personal lawyer, Willa Hemmons, to issue a warrant for the arrest of Mr. Branch. Thus, in an insolvent municipality, several squads of police and detectives were directed to make the arrest of Devin Branch last Thursday. Mr. Branch was arrested and placed in East Cleveland’s jail; last Friday, Judge William Dawson opened the door for his release after posting bond. This morning, Judge Dawson will hear from both men, albeit, what the voters and city’s taxpayers will hear seems unlikely to be enlightening for the city’s fiscal future.

Schooled in Fiscal Solvency? Massachusetts voters this month overwhelmingly rejected a major expansion of charter schools, rejecting Question 2 by nearly a 2-1 margin, in what was perceived as a significant setback for Governor Charlie Baker, who had aggressively campaigned for the referendum, saying it would provide a vital alternative for families trapped in failing urban schools. As proposed, the measure would have allowed for 12 new or expanded charters per year, adding significantly to the existing stock of 78 charters statewide. Had the measure been approved, it would have—as state-imposed charter schools in Detroit are, shifted thousands of dollars in state aid from public to charter schools—shifting as much as an estimated $451 million statewide this year. During the campaign, opponents such as Juan Cofield, president of the New England Area Council of the NAACP, warned that charters were creating a two-tiered system, draining money from the traditional schools that serve the bulk of black and Latino students, telling voters “a dual school system is inherently unequal.” Worcester Mayor Joseph Petty, an opponent, noted: “Here in Worcester we will spend $24.5 million dollars on charter schools in our city…that is money that could be used to hire more teachers, improve our facilities, and invest in our students,” in effect underscoring the reason municipal leaders in the Bay State opposed the measure: their apprehension with regard to the fiscal impact on cities, towns, and school districts when more children attend charter schools. Had the measure been adopted, district schools would have received less money: the money to educate a child would have followed the child: over time, expanding access to charter schools could cost local property taxpayers more, since district schools will need more funding, forcing local elected leaders to either raise property taxes more, or cut public services. Indeed, opponents of charter school expansion claimed, based on state data, that school districts would have lost some $450 million this year to charter school tuition, even after accounting for state reimbursements.

Unsurprisingly, ergo, municipal officials generally opposed expanding charter schools, with the mayors of Springfield, Boston, Chicopee, Holyoke, Northampton, Pittsfield, Westfield, and West Springfield all coming out publicly opposed. Geoff Beckwith, the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said the current funding system is already difficult for cities and towns to deal with, noting that, for one, the formula transferring money from district to charter schools does not take into account the fact that many of a school’s costs are fixed and do not vary by child, noting that with regard to the fiscal impact on cities, towns and school districts: “You have to a have a classroom, you have to heat the building, you still have principals…It’s extremely hard for communities to actually cut costs…The only thing they can do is cut back on the overall quality of the programming they’re offering the vast majority of kids who stay behind in the regular public school system.” Ergo, he noted: “Until the financing system is fixed, the ballot question providing for the expansion of charter schools would exacerbate and deepen the financial trouble that these local school systems are dealing with…And the communities that are most impacted by charter school expansion are in most cases the most financially challenged communities.” (Unsurprisingly, the Massachusetts Municipal Association board voted unanimously to oppose the ballot question.) Indeed, Moody’s reported the rejection to be a credit positive for the Commonwealth’s urban local governments: “It will allow those cities and towns to maintain current financial operations without having to adjust to increased financial pressure from charter school funding.” According to Moody’s, since the last charter school expansion in 2010, cities such as Boston, Fall River, Lawrence, and Springfield have experienced significant growth in charter school assessments, averaging 83% due to increasing charter school enrollment. To which, Moody’s notes: “So far, the growing cost of charter schools on municipalities has not been a direct credit challenge; rather the effect is more indirect because Massachusetts school districts are integrated within cities and towns with relatively healthy credit profiles.” The agency went on to write: “Education in the commonwealth is a primary budget item within a municipality’s overall budget, which allows city budgets to absorb some of the education financial stress with other municipal sources….This integration is a key distinction from school districts in other states that operate separately from the communities they serve.”

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

eBlog, 9/19/16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The Exceptional Challenges of Post-Bankruptcy Municipal Governance

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eBlog, 8/26/16

In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the exceptionally swift rejection by the City of Cleveland of nearly insolvent East Cleveland’s proposal to be annexed by Cleveland. Then we attempt to get schooled in the complex governance triangle between public schools, states, and local authority in Detroit—where the newly enacted Michigan statute to provide fiscal assistance to the virtually insolvent Detroit Public Schools has—now—created significant governance questions: who will be in charge of critical education policy questions? Finally, we return to the grim November election outlook for the City of Stockton—where not just the incumbent Mayor and his chief challenger—but now another member of the City Council face serious charges—and an election in just 72 days. The post chapter 9 path of reconciling a future to comply with a city’s court-approved plan of debt adjustment can, as we have seen in Central Falls—or Chocolateville—Rhode Island, succeed with flying colors under strong and gifted political leadership. The outlook in Stockton, however, is one which might give voters and taxpayers great apprehension.  

An Alternative to Municipal Bankruptcy? Or an Offer that Could Be Refused? It appears East Cleveland’s efforts to have its cake and eat it too have been swiftly dashed—indeed, almost no sooner than the City of East Cleveland—as we reported yesterday (please see list below), delivered what appeared almost more an ultimatum than a plea for help, Cleveland officials rejected the proposal outright. Those demands, which even East Cleveland Mayor Gary Norton described as “a kidnapper list,” were rejected outright by Cleveland City Council President Kevin Kelley, who noted: “It’s not a starting point for negotiations; I’m concerned about the city of Cleveland and we need — the conditions that we need to talk about, the real conditions are some relief from East Cleveland’s liabilities, the extreme, the expensive capital needs that they have and some transition of operating expenses.” So now, East Cleveland, which is awaiting authorization from the State of Ohio to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, must go back to the drawing board.

East Cleveland’s proposed the list of demands:

  • The City of East Cleveland wishes to be a “semi-autonomous” ward of the city of Cleveland.
  • The City of East Cleveland plus portions of the University Circle area would become a new ward to be named “East Cleveland.”
  • The initial councilperson representing the new East Cleveland ward would be elected from the current elected government officials, and then would stand for election with current Cleveland City Council members. (It is unclear whether the councilperson would be elected by the public or by other government officials.)
  • Current East Cleveland Council Members would become members of an East Cleveland Advisory Council and would continue to be elected and compensated at the same level as current East Cleveland Council Members. The East Cleveland Advisory Council members would be voting members of the East Cleveland Community Development Corporation (CDC), and the five members of the advisory council would be the majority of the CDC’s voting members.
  • The CDC would be funded by Community Development Block Grant Funds or grant donations from foundations.
  • The State of Ohio would grant the Cuyahoga County Land Bank $20 million for a revolving loan fund for rehabilitation of housing in East Cleveland. The loans would be subject to approval by the East Cleveland Community Development Corporation, which would jointly administer the fund with the Land Bank.
  • All city owned property and all property currently owned by the Cuyahoga County Land Bank would be transferred to the East Cleveland CDC.
  • East Cleveland residents working in the East Cleveland ward would receive a 1 percent income tax credit, and the State of Ohio would be required to reimburse the city of Cleveland for the difference between the city of Cleveland’s 2 percent rate and the 1 percent East Cleveland rate in the form of an annual local government fund payment.
  • Ohio would issue an annual $10 million “merger incentive payment” to cover East Cleveland’s debts, street improvements and capital costs, including police and fire equipment.
  • East Cleveland would constitute a separate police and fire district within the city.
  • East Cleveland would maintain its own municipal court.
  • East Cleveland would continue its red light camera program—and, presumably, the related revenue therefrom.
  • Maintenance of East Cleveland parks would be transferred to the Cleveland Metro Park System; however, local management and control would remain with the East Cleveland Park Association.
  • East Cleveland would maintain its current voting boundaries for 10 years.

Unschooled in Governance? In what could become a major flash point for future leaders of Detroit’s new school district, Ron Rose, the executive director of the Detroit Financial Review Commission—indeed, someone who recently assisted the City of Highland Park through a neutral evaluation process, pursuant to Michigan’s Public Act 436, the Local Financial Stability and Choice Act, wrote in a memo last month that the state oversight commission can exercise oversight of administrative matters and even academics, not just finances—a memorandum which led retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, the Detroit Public School System’s emergency manager, to request that the memo be retracted. Judge Rhodes, who has been a strong supporter of DPS’ return to local control after seven years of state oversight, is apprehensive that the memorandum would frustrate that return—especially with voters scheduled to elect a new Detroit school board in November. Nevertheless, Mr. Rose has not retracted his memorandum; instead he offered to consider any changes recommended by DPS attorneys, adding he believes his commission has no intention of making policy decisions for the new Detroit Public Schools Community District—rather, he asserts, he was simply outlining the commission’s powers under state law.

Mr. Rose’s memo asserted that the state statute that created the state oversight commission—and subsequently amended that law to also include DPS, “recognizes that fiscal stability consists not only (of) a broad combination of accounting and financial practices, but also policies, procedures, operating decisions, administrative and academic matters that impact financial outcomes.” So now, Judge Rhodes, who told the Detroit Free Press, “I took this job because I believe in local control over public education in Detroit,” intends to recommend modifications of the state oversight board’s memo in an effort to clarify the oversight commission’s authority over the school district—albeit warning that “If the FRC agrees to the substance of Mr. Rose’s memo here, that goal is severely, if not completely, undermined.” Similarly, Alycia Meriweather, DPS’ interim superintendent, said achieving clarity about the oversight commission’s role would be important: “When looking at an academic organization, people with academic expertise should be in charge and able to make decisions that are best for kids, based on what we know are best practices.”

While the new and partisan, $617-million school restructuring state law provided a critical mechanism for DPS debt relief and restored control to the school board—and created a quasi-dual school system of charter and public schools, the state legislation also extended the power of the Financial Review Commission to include oversight of district finances: the FRC must approve the school board’s decision to fire a superintendent or hire or fire a chief financial officer. But it is less clear—especially on matters relating to education public policy—to what extent the state commission may preempt local authority. In his memorandum, Mr. Rose wrote that the FRC is legally bound to ensure the district complies with the Revised School Code, “which primarily addresses administrative, academic, and educational matters, not financial or fiscal matters.” In speaking to the Free Press, Mr. Rose added that he envisions the FRC working with DPS in the same way it works with the city, noting the FRC has never overruled a policy decision made by the City Council or the mayor: “I don’t believe that it’s the FRC’s intention to make policy decisions that the school district should be making.”

For his part, Judge Rhodes yesterday noted: “I’m not opposed to providing really any information that the FRC wants about the operations of DPSCD…I’m not opposed to hearing their advice on operations…They are smart people, they have dealt with the issues we face before. I look forward to soliciting their input, but there’s a difference between input and control.” He noted that his apprehensions about the latter surfaced almost from the get-go in the wake of the Governor’s signing of the new law last June when FRC members began asking district officials for information unrelated to the DPS’ finances—a concern which prompted him to raise those concerns with Commission members last month.

The Complex Mix of Post Municipal Bankruptcy Democracy. In Georgia, California, New Jersey, and some others of the 18 states which authorize municipalities to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, the elected officials remain in office and responsible for both putting together such a city or county’s plan of debt adjustment—and then, implementing it—unlike, say Detroit—where Michigan’s law, like Rhode Island’s, provides authority for the Governor to name an emergency manager—and blocks the elected municipal leaders of any authority. Thus, in Stockton, as in San Bernardino, it is municipal elected leaders charged with both drafting and approving plans of debt adjustment—and then implementing them. Now, in Stockton, where the incumbent Mayor is facing criminal charges—and an upcoming re-election, there appear to be growing apprehensions with regard to who will be steering the fiscal ship after November’s elections. In addition, Stockton City Council candidate Sam Fant, who was charged last April with conspiracy and election fraud (He is accused of providing two Manteca Unified School District board candidates, Ashley Drain and Alexander Bronson, with false addresses to help them get on the ballot in 2014.), yesterday warned he might request the San Joaquin County District Attorney’s Office be removed as the agency prosecuting his case—a process which could delay his hearing—mayhap beyond the looming municipal election just 72 days from now. Mr. Fant yesterday, after a brief court appearance, claimed he has “profound respect” for District Attorney Tori Verber Salazar; however, he cited a number of reasons it would be best if the case were transferred from her stewardship. Among those reasons: Mr. Salazar’s 2014 campaign manager is currently managing his city council opponent’s campaign. He also questioned the timing of his prosecution, saying the charges were filed a matter of hours after he launched his bid for the council.

Governance requires trust—especially for the steep road out of municipal bankruptcy.