Fiscal & Physical Storms

September 6, 2017

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s Blog, we consider the new state fiscal oversight program in Virginia; then we move west to the Motor City, where November’s election will test voters’ perception of the fiscal state of post-chapter 9 Detroit. Then we veer back East to the Nutmeg state—a state whose state fiscal problems could wreak havoc with its municipalities. Finally, with Hurricane Irma, one of the most fearsome hurricanes ever recorded, bearing down this a.m. on the U.S. Territories of the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, we fear for lives and physical and fiscal safety.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

Not So Fiscally Rich in Richmond? Richmond, Virginia—notwithstanding a 25% poverty level, has been in the midst of a building boom; it has reported balancing its budget, and that it holds a savings reserve of $114 million—in addition to which, the state has logged  budget surpluses in each of its most recent fiscal years; it currently has an AA rating from the three major credit rating, each of which reports that the former capital of the Confederacy has a modestly growing tax base, manageable municipal debt, and a long-term stable outlook—albeit with disproportionate levels of poverty. Nevertheless, State Auditor Martha S. Mavredes, according to a recent state report distributed within government circles, including the Virginia Municipal League and the Virginia Association of Counties, has cited the municipalities of Richmond and Bristol as failing to meet the minimum standard for financial health. In the case of Richmond, according to the report, the city scored less than 16 on the test for the past two fiscal years—a score which Auditor Mavredes described as indicating severe stress in her testimony last month before the General Assembly’s Joint Subcommittee on Local Government Fiscal Stress, noting that the test was applied for fiscal years 2014, 2015, and 2016. The fiscal test is based on information contained in annual audited financial reports provided by each locality—except the municipalities of Hopewell and Manassas Park have stopped providing reports—with the fiscal stress rankings based on the results of ten ratios which primarily rely on revenues, expenses, assets, liabilities, and unused savings: the test weighs the level of reserves and a municipality’s ability to meet liabilities without borrowing, raising taxes, or withdrawing from reserves—as well as the extent to which a locality is able to meet the following fiscal year’s obligations without changes to revenues or expenses: Richmond’s score was near 50 in FY2014, but fell below 16 in FY2015  and to 13.7 in FY2016. Thus, even though Virginia has no authority to intervene in local finances, the new fiscal measuring system has created a mechanism to help focus fiscal attention in advance of any serious fiscal crisis.

Whereto the Motor City? Edward Isaac Dovere, writing for Politico, reported that in a new POLITICO-Morning Consult poll, only 27% of Motor City residents reported they had a very or somewhat favorable view of Detroit, compared with a quarter of respondents who said they had an unfavorable view; only 5% said they considered Detroit very safe: 41% responded they considered it very unsafe. The fear factor—in addition to apprehension about the city’s school options—appear to be discouraging young families: the keys to the city’s hope for a vibrant fiscal future.  Those keys are vital, as Detroit’s population appears to be continuing to decline. About the Mayor, he writes: “There’s no mystique to what he’s doing, or why people seem to want four more years of him, he and his aides say. A big part of whatever success he’s had is just showing up, after decades when his predecessors didn’t: ‘In Detroit,’ said Duggan’s campaign manager Rico Razo, ‘people just want a response.’”

Nutmeg or Constitution State Blues. Connecticut, which was designated the Constitution State by the General Assembly in 1959, albeit according to others the “Nutmeg State,” because its early inhabitants had the reputation of being so ingenious and shrewd that they were able to make and sell wooden nutmegs—is certainly in some need today of fiscal shrewdness. Connecticut Comptroller Kevin Lembo has warned Gov. Dannel Malloy that unless the legislature acts swiftly to enact a budget, the “inability to pass a budget will slow Connecticut’s economic growth and will ultimately lead to the state and its municipalities receiving downgrades in credit ratings that will cost taxpayers even more,” adding that the state, which is currently in fiscal limbo, operating under Gov. Malloy’s executive orders since the beginning of July, otherwise confronts a $93.9 million FY2018 deficit—adding: the state’s economy “continues to post mixed results across an array of key economic indicators: These results do not indicate that the state can grow its way out of the current revenue stagnation.” Making sure there is appreciation that the state inaction would affect far more than just the state, he added: “The inability to pass a budget…will ultimately lead to the state and its municipalities receiving downgrades in credit ratings.” The dire warning comes as the state’s 169 towns, one borough, and nineteen chartered cities are caught in the middle—and fearing an outcome, as Gov. Malloy has proposed in his biennial budget for the legislature to cut local funding by $650 million—and mandate municipalities ante up $400 million annually for public pension contributions for the state’s teachers.

The holdup in state aid to local governments comes as both state and local borrowing costs are suffering: Moody’s has hit the state with three credit downgrades, so that for local governments—even as their state aid is delayed and uncertain, their municipal bond interest rates are climbing. Indeed, Moody has deemed Gov. Malloy’s modified executive order a credit negative for local governments, because it reduces total aid to municipalities by nearly 40% from fy2017 levels: that order, issued last month, reduces the largest source of state municipal aid, the state’s education cost sharing, by $557 million relative to the last fiscal year. Thus, Controller Lembo warns that the inability to set a state budget can only aggravate state and local fiscal conditions, noting: “This problem is exacerbated each month as potential sources of additional revenue are foregone due to the absence of the necessary changes to the revenue structure.”  That is aggravated by higher state expenditures: the Comptroller noted that state expenditures through the first month of the state’s fiscal year were more than 10% higher than last year, a double-digit increase he attributes to rising fixed costs, including debt and public pension obligations. If anything, the woeful fiscal situation could be exacerbated by preliminary data indicating that the state lost 600 jobs in July, a disheartening downturn after the last fiscal year when the state had posted 11,600 new payroll jobs; indeed, during the last period of economic recovery, employment growth averaged over 16,000 annually.

Physical & Fiscal Storm. President Trump yesterday declared a state of emergency in Puerto Rico and ordered that federal assistance be provided to local authorities. Gov. Ricardo Rossello, early this morning warned: “The day has arrived,” as Hurricane Irma neared landfall, registering sustained winds of 185 miles per hour, far greater than levels measured under Hurricane Harvey in Houston. The Governor stated: “We want to make sure that in those areas of high vulnerability people can mobilize to one of our shelters; we are still preparing for what could be a catastrophic event.” The Governor called on anyone living in flood areas to seek refuge in each of a relative or friend or one of the shelters enabled. Already this a.m., the number of refugees in Puerto Rico due to the hurricane rose to 707, distributed in schools operating in the 13 police areas. The San Juan area commander, Colonel Juan Cáceres, said there are six shelters open the San Juan, noting: “In addition to staff working 12-hour shifts, area commanders are divided into two work shifts: 6:00 am to 6:00 pm and vice versa. We will be patrolling and doing surveillance work as long as the weather permits and in the commercial areas that are still selling merchandise to protect consumers.” The city’s security plan will emphasize traffic control and direction: The refugees were not only Puerto Ricans, but also tourists. By the time you read this post, the territory is expected to experience the physical intensity of Irma, a category 5 hurricane with winds of 185 miles per hour. For a territory already in severe fiscal distress, the storm promises dire fiscal and physical challenges.

 

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Confronting the Challenges of Insolvencies

eBlog, 03/17/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the suit filed by the Detroit Public Schools District seeking to prevent the closure of any additional schools in the city; then we snow shovel our way through the high drifts in Cambridge, Massachusetts to explore its creative issuance of mini municipal bonds, before racing to the warmth of Puerto Rico to observe the legal challenge between different kinds of municipal bondholders against Puerto Rico.

Schools of Hard Fiscal Knocks. In response to a threat by the Michigan School Reform Office (SRO) to target up to 16 Detroit public schools for closure in the newly created Detroit Public School District, created in the wake of the old system’s physical and fiscal insolvencies: to move as many as 7,700 students—permitting them to transfer to DPSCD schools, charter schools, or nearby districts; the Detroit Public Schools Community District is seeking to make a preemptive strike against said state plans to shutter some of its schools: the district board has voted to sue the state’s School Reform Office (SSRO) over the threat of school closures in the newly state-created district, suing to prevent the State of Michigan from closing any of its struggling schools, after the Board of Education, in the wake of a five-hour meeting, voted unanimously to file suit against the state School Reform Office, the State of Michigan, and Michigan School Reform Officer Natasha Baker. Detroit School Board Vice President Sonya Mays noted: “The action preserves the full range of our options.” The vote appeared to be in response to the state office’s identification last January of 38 schools statewide for potential closure, because they have ranked in the bottom 5% academically for three straight years: more than two-thirds of those public schools were in Detroit: 16 in the Detroit district, 8 in the Education Achievement Authority, and one charter school. However, a Moody’s report last month said that the student loss would have been somewhat offset by the school district’s absorption of 3,700 students who are currently educated by the Education Achievement Authority and nearly 500 students from one charter school closure

The suit was filed even though the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) had offered a proposal to school districts with schools on that closure list under which, if said districts reached agreement with the state agency on a plan to turn the schools around, then the school reform office would hold off on closure decisions. Detroit Public Schools Interim Superintendent Alycia Merriweather not only had said the district is interested in entering into such an agreement with the MDE, but also is planning to schedule a meeting soon—even as, notwithstanding, the board remains intent on moving forward with the lawsuit. It is unclear how much of the District’s resources will be siphoned out of the city’s ailing physically and educationally system’s budget to finance the litigation. Board President Iris Taylor stated: “We want to make it clear that filing suit is not a rejection of MDE’s offer to enter into a partnership agreement…It is simply the Board and the district ensuring that all options are available to us as we work through these challenges.” Ms. Taylor told the Detroit News that the board believes the school reform office actions were unlawful, because the board believes legislation approved last June which provided a financial rescue to the Detroit Public Schools—and which created the Detroit Public School District—provided the new district a clean slate: “Our district is entitled to operate schools for at least three years without even the threat of closure.” However, Michigan Attorney General Bill Scheutte last summer issued an opinion noting that if the Michigan Legislature had intended to give the district a three-year reprieve, the legislature would have clearly stated such an intent, noting that it had not.

In a city seeking to be a beacon to young families with children as critical towards re-growing its tax base, the suit seeks to bar the state from taking any additional steps to close any DPSDC schools until the court decides whether or not the SSRO has authority to close schools and whether the action taken to create the SSRO and the legislation itself is constitutional. That is, it is a suit regarding governance power and authority—and one in relation to which DPSCD Interim Superintendent Alycia Merriweather stated: “Closing schools creates a hardship for students in numerous areas including transportation, safety, and the provision of wrap around services…As a new district, we are virtually debt free, with a locally elected board, and we deserve the right to build on this foundation and work with our parents, educators, administrators, and the entire community to improve outcomes for all of our children.”

The lawsuit was filed, however, even as the Michigan Department of Education had offered the district and all others impacted by the threat of school closures a proposal under which duly elected school boards and district leadership would remain in full control of their schools, the curriculum, and their districts—an offer which Board President Taylor said the School Board was not necessarily rejecting, but rather in an effort to ensure “all options are available to us as we work through these challenges,” adding: “We appreciate Governor Snyder for hearing our concerns and taking action; however, we continue to believe that SSRO’s actions were unlawful. Among other things, we believe the legislation that created DPSCD in 2016 gave us a clean slate, which means, under the law, our district is entitled to operate schools for at least three years without even the threat of closure.” (Michigan’s legislation enacted in 2009 provides authority for the state to close schools ranked in the bottom 5% academically for three straight years.) This year, however, was the first time the SSRO has announced potential closures of schools under the state legislation—closures which carry a potential cost of foregone state aid from the $617 million state bailout of the fiscally and physically insolvent Detroit Public Schools district, under a state statute to overhaul the old Detroit Public Schools system. The newly created district operates schools and is scheduled to receive future state aid payments under the restructuring backed by Gov. Rick Snyder and state lawmakers. The SSRO threat has targeted up to 16 schools: the Detroit public school system would be at risk of the loss of not just 7,700 students, but also the state revenues that those students would have brought. Under the state proposal, students in the district could opt to transfer to DPSCD schools, charter schools, or nearby districts. Moody’s, last month, had reported that any such student loss would have been somewhat offset by DPSCD’s absorption of 3,700 students who are currently educated by the Education Achievement Authority and nearly 500 students from one charter school closure. The state-run Education Achievement Authority is scheduled to close in July.

Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood Municipal Bonds? Cambridge, Mass., a municipality of just over 107,000 across the Charles River from Boston, has succeeded in raising some $2 million through a sale of community-sourced general obligation minibonds, which the city’s underwriter, aptly named Neighborly, notes could reshape the municipal marketplace. The firm’s head of finance, James McIntyre, notes: “Our intention is to democratize access to municipal bonds.” Here the city will use the proceeds to fund capital projects such as school building renovations, and street and sidewalk improvements. The municipal bonds themselves were offered only to city residents, even though neither my daughter nor her husband, residents, seemed to be aware: individual orders are limited to $20,000, and lowered to a minimum investment amount to $1,000 from the customary $5,000. The opening for orders began selling at the close of business last month, closing last week: the Series A minibonds bonds pay a tax-exempt interest rate of 1.6% and will mature in five years. The firm notes that more than 240 individuals invested in the minibonds—municipal bonds to which Fitch Ratings, S&P Global Ratings, and Moody’s Investors Service assigned AAA ratings, with Cambridge City Manager Louie DePasquale noting: “This will not only engage residents, but we will make them a financial partner in our infrastructure investments.” Indeed, the city has helped via the distribution of “invest in Cambridge” mass-transit posters, a video, and a huge sign in front of City Hall. According to Neighborly founder Jase Wilson, “The most exciting thing about the Cambridge minibond issue is that it’s not a new idea at all…in fact the way our nation’s communities used to borrow money to build public projects.” Indeed, it was just 27 years ago that Denver issued its first minibonds; three years ago the Mile High City generated $12 million through a crowdfunding in $500 increments, as part of a $550 million transaction to finance city road improvements, leading Elizabeth FU of GFOA to note: “The minibonds definitely met Denver’s goal of helping residents invest in the community, so the project was well worth the additional resources and effort…Of course, this tool isn’t for everyone,” she added, noting some municipalities might experience trouble with the additional workload, the level of resources needed for administration, or the additional cost. Meanwhile, back in Cambridge, the municiplity also sold $56.5 million in general obligation municipal purpose loan of 2017 Series B bonds competitively on March 1. Morgan Stanley submitted the winning bid with a true interest cost of 2.303%. Proceeds from that sale will benefit sewer and stormwater, energy efficiency and street repair citywide, including Cambridge Common and Harvard Square. Neighborly’s director of business development, Pitichoke Chulapamornsri, said the firm structures municipal bond financings to connect a city’s capital plan with its residents—or, as he put it: “We are excited to help redefine the ‘public’ in public finance….Communities that are innovative and engaged are usually college towns: They are the ones with the most participation.”

Stay or Not? Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Jennifer González Colón reports that an extension the stay on litigation of the PROMESA debt litigation stay is unlikely, notwithstanding Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s proposed extension as incorporated in his proposed fiscal plan the Governor said he was seeking, with Del. González Colón (D-P.R.), Puerto Rico’s non-voting representative Congress noting there simply was insufficient time for Congress to act to amend PROMESA before the end of the stay. (PROMESA set the stay on debt-related suits against the Commonwealth on Feb. 15th, but allowed the PROMESA Oversight Board the option of moving it to May 1, which it did at the end of January.) Gov. Rosselló, in his plan, has argued that it was reasonable to ask for an extension, because his predecessor failed to use his time in office after PROMESA’s enactment to seek a negotiated debt restructuring: he said the extension would allow his administration time to release FY2015 and 2016 financial information, noting he would prefer reaching a negotiated agreement with creditors, rather than having a court impose restructuring terms. (Title VI of PROMESA allows the Oversight Board to reach negotiated solutions with municipal bondholders while the stay is in effect.) Indeed, in his plan he submitted at the end of last month, Gov. Rosselló said the Board probably will start PROMESA Title III’s court-supervised bankruptcy process before the stay elapses. Unsurprisingly, groups representing holders of both general obligation and Puerto Rico Sales Tax Financing Corp. (COFINA) senior bonds have said they are opposed to extending the litigation stay: José F. Rodríguez, an individual investor, as well as several investment firms, such as Decagon Holdings, GoldenTree Asset Management, and Whitebox Advisors—who are the main bondholders of the Puerto Rico Sales Tax Financing Corporation (COFINA)—will appeal U.S. District Court Judge Francisco A. Besosa’s ruling in favor of several general obligation bondholders, spearheaded by the Lex Claims and Jacana Holdings funds.  Mr. Rodríguez’s intentions—and those of several investments funds—to appeal the ruling at the First Circuit Court of Appeals was disclosed on Monday, making this the sole lawsuit against the U.S. territory which is currently active, after the approval of PROMESA last year, and in the midst of the automatic stay on litigations decreed by the federal statute. The plaintiffs are holding nearly $2 billion in COFINA senior notes.

According to the court’s notice, Mr. Rodríguez and the funds led by Decagon will go to the federal court to request revocation of Judge Besosa’s ruling: the Judge had agreed to hear Lex’s case, notwithstanding the request made by the main COFINA bondholders, Puerto Rico, and the PROMESA Oversight Board to apply the automatic stay on litigation. Last month, Judge Besosa—who had previously ordered Puerto Rico not to lose any time in commencing negotiations with its creditors—concluded that Lex’s lawsuit should be examined on its merits, with this judicial effort coming, even as the territory’s general obligation bond holders have asked Judge Besosa to declare the Emergency Moratorium Act unconstitutional, arguing that the enactment of the statute prompted Puerto Rico to default on its general obligation bonds other debt obligations. GO bondholders have also asked Judge Besosa to ban the government from paying COFINA bondholders—who are essentially the only ones who continue receiving payments for the amount they are owed, and to declare COFINA a null structure, since it served to divert the funds which it believes belong to the central Government. In his verdict, Judge Besosa denied the Government’s petition to halt the case and authorized the PROMESA Oversight Board to intervene in the lawsuit; however, he rejected the request made by COFINA’s primary bondholders to be part of the lawsuit to determine if the stay on litigations is applicable or not. In the wake of his decision, the Oversight Board filed a motion to appeal the decision—a request to which Puerto Rico has yet to intervene—notwithstanding apprehensions that the Lex Claims litigation could result in certain of the territory’s assets being frozen, something which would be likely were Judge Besosa to determine that the Moratorium Act is unconstitutional. According to the case file at the Court of Appeals, the Oversight Board has until March 24th to act.  

COFINA Under Attack. Likewise, the appeal made by the group of COFINA’s primary bondholders in the Lex Claims case arrives at a time when the GO bondholders have launched a media campaign asking for the elimination of the public corporation that issues debt payable with the Puerto Rico Sales and Use Tax (IVU, by its Spanish acronym). Last week, Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz and House Speaker Carlos “Johnny” Méndez backed COFINA and pointed out that the entity was lawfully created with the endorsement of both main political parties. However, in the fiscal plan prepared by Ricardo Rosselló Nevares’s administration and certified by the OB on Monday, the IVU funds that are sent every year to COFINA appear as part of the revenues the Government would use to pay for public services. In that sense, Rosselló Nevares’s plan is an echo of what former Governor Alejandro García Padilla did, which was to combine all revenues that, according to the bond contracts, should have been reserved for the repayment of the debt. According to Gov. Rosselló Nevares’s plan, one of the revenues would be what is allocated to the General Fund—10.5% of the IVU—, but the plan also adds an allocation identified as “Additional IVU”. In this allocation, which is referred to COFINA, the IVU allotments to foster the film industry and for the Municipality Financing Corporation add up to $850 million this fiscal year. The amount increases to $906 million in FY 2019, and continues to increase until it reaches $9.936 billion in 10 years.

 

A Midwestern Tale of Two Cities

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eBlog, 2/14/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the tale of two cities in Detroit: is a city set to displace Chicago as the capitol of the Midwest—or is a city with its fiscal future in re-jeopardy, because of its inability and conflicts with the state over how to educate its children in a way that will create incentives for families to want to move back into the city?

Post Chapter 9 Reinvention? In opting to relocate its regional headquarters to downtown Detroit, Microsoft has sent a message that the city’s emergence from the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in American history is a success: the city is even threatening to displace Chicago as a regional headquarters of choice for the Midwest. That’s an honor long owned by Chicago. The extraordinary changes in the city—fashioned through the path-breaking efforts not just of former emergency manager Kevyn Orr and now retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, but also the fiscal rebuilding blueprint, the city’s court-approved plan of debt adjustment, a plan aptly described by the Detroit News an “arc of change, the redemptive power of reinvention, and critical facts on the ground say a bid by Detroit and southeast Michigan to be part of that conversation could be real for those with the courage to take a real, hard look.”  The paper, continuing its own comparison of Detroit to the Windy City—two cities which appear to be fiscally headed in opposite directions, aptly notes the respective state roles, contentious as they are, but noting that while the Michigan government is “aggressively attacking its unfunded liabilities,” instead of being (in Illinois) a state legislature “deaf to the fiscal ticking time bomb of its state pensions.” An iconic city’s recovery from bankruptcy is, after all, not just designing and implementing an architectural and fiscal turnaround, but also reversing the fiscal and economic momentum; thus, unsurprisingly, in a reminder of the old aphorism: “Go West, young man;” today it is civic leader, Quicken Loans Inc. Chairman Dan Gilbert who actively recruits young talent to the Motor City, telling potential new Detroiters: anyone can go work in Chicago and most will change nothing, but you could make a difference working and living in Detroit. Or, as the News describes it: “So could companies looking to reduce costs, find a vibrant food, arts and culture scene, and join an enthusiastic business community with global connections. They could find both in Detroit. Or in Ann Arbor, with the University of Michigan.”  

Might There Be a Fly in the State Ointment? Yet for a city one-third its former size, the more pressing challenge to its fiscal future is likely to rest on the perceived quality of its public schools—schools in a city where the Detroit Public School system became physically and fiscally insolvent—and where the state intervened to not just appoint an emergency manager, but also where the legislature created and imposed what some deem the nation’s most economically disparate school system—or, as the New Jersey nonprofit EdBuild, in its report “Fault Lines: America’s Most Segregating School District Borders,” described it: nearly half of the households in Detroit Public Schools—49.2%—live in poverty, compared with 6.5% in Grosse Pointe Public Schools—with the non-profit noting to the Detroit News: “Fault Lines shows how school finance systems have led to school segregation along class lines within communities around the country, and how judicial and legislative actions have actually served to strengthen these borders that divide our children and our communities:” its report traces the economic gap between Detroit and Grosse Pointe schools to a 1974 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Milliken v. Bradley, which blocked busing between districts to achieve racial integration, writing: “Income segregation in the Detroit metropolitan area parallels the racial segregation that inspired the Milliken case and has worsened since the case was first argued.” Today, there are some 97 traditional public schools in Detroit, 98 charter schools, and 14 schools in the Education Achievement Authority, a controversial state-run district created in 2012—that is, there are an estimated 30,000 more seats than students in the city in the wake of the state’s 2015 “rescue” of the Detroit Public Schools—a rescue of a public school district which had been under state control, and a rescue which pledged some $617 million to address the debt, but also invoked a number of unorthodox “reforms” which state legislators argued would promise a brighter future: the reforms included provisions which permit the hiring uncertified teachers, penalization of striking employees, and the outsourcing of academic roles, like the superintendent position, to surrounding districts, and the state closure of all schools that fall in the bottom 5 percent of academic performance for three years in a row: a category into which dozens of Detroit public schools fall. The state also authorized charter schools for Detroit.

Now, a new Michigan School Reform Office school closing plan has reignited debate in Detroit over how to fix the Motor City’s fractured system of public schools, less than seven months after the Michigan Legislature spent $617 million relieving Detroit Public Schools of crushing debt which had hovered on the brink of its own chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. Indeed, the perceived fiscal threat to the city’s future has led Mayor Mike Duggan to deem the state school closing plan “irrational,” because many of the other nearby public schools in Detroit are on the brink of being deemed failing schools—or, as Mayor Duggan noted: “You don’t throw people out of the boat without looking out to see if there’s a life raft.” Moreover, the Mayor and the newly elected Board of Education for the Detroit Public Schools Community District have threatened to sue Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration to stop the proposed closures—closures which the state is evaluating to determine whether such closures would create unreasonable hardships for students, such as distance to other schools with capacity, if the buildings are closed. Ergo, unsurprisingly, Governor Snyder is confronting pressure from school leaders, parents, businesses and civic groups to consider the impact that another round of school closings might have on Detroit’s ongoing recovery—and on its neighborhoods and commercial corridors hard hit by decades of abandonment and disinvestment—or, as Veronica Conforme, Chancellor of the Education Achievement Authority, notes: such closures would “cause disruption in the neighborhoods.”

The state-municipal tussle relates to the tug-of-rope state-local challenge about how to address Detroit’s worst-performing schools under a 7-year-old state statute which has never been fully enforced—and comes as the Michigan School Reform Office has announced that twenty-five Detroit schools may be closed in June due to persistently low student test scores—creating apprehension that these closures, coming at a time when then city’s focus on fuller implementation of its approved plan of debt adjustment envisions revitalization shifting from downtown and Midtown to Detroit’s vast neighborhoods and commercial corridors. Unsurprisingly, some business and community leaders are concerned that the impact mass school closings could undercut the city’s efforts to turn around pockets of the city which have been showing signs of rebirth, or, as Sandy Baruah, President and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber, who worries that abruptly closing two dozen schools could “create other crises” in city neighborhoods, puts it: “I don’t want to see neighborhoods that are on the early path to recovery be dealt a setback.” That is, in the post chapter 9 city, rebuilding neighborhoods must go hand in hand with schools: the presence of a school, after all, affects the assessed values of properties, residential and commercial, in a neighborhood.

Fighting for Cities’ Futures

eBlog, 1/23/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing fiscal and governing challenge to Detroit’s future—especially with regard to the quality of education for the city’s future leaders; then we learn from one of the unsung heroes, retired U.S. Judge Gerald Rosen, about his reflections and role in Detroit’s exit from the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history. Then we return to the historic Virginia municipality of Petersburg, where, in its struggle to exit insolvency, a citizen effort is underway to recall its elected leaders. Finally, in the category of ‘when it rains it pours,’ we consider the city hall relocation underway in San Bernardino—one month before it hopes to gain U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury’s approval of the city’s plan of debt adjustment, permitting the city to egress from the longest municipal bankruptcy in American history.

Fighting for Detroit’s Fiscal Future. The City of Detroit is siding with seven Detroit public schoolchildren suing Gov. Rick Snyder and Michigan state education officials over their right to access literacy. (See Jessie v. Snyder, #16-CV-13292, U.S. District Court), having filed an amicus brief in a proposed class action lawsuit against Gov. Snyder and Michigan education officials in a legal challenge seeking to establish that literacy is a U.S. constitutional right. The suit, which was filed last September by a California public interest law firm, claims the state has functionally excluded Detroit children from the state’s educational system; the suit seeks class-action status and several guarantees of equal access to literacy, screening, intervention, a statewide accountability system, as well as other measures. Detroit’s amicus brief urged the court to hold access to literacy as being fundamental, arguing the plaintiffs have alleged sufficient facts to show they are being denied that right: “Denying children access to literacy today inevitably impedes tomorrow’s job seekers and taxpayers; fathers and mothers; citizens and voters…That is why the Supreme Court has stressed the ‘significant social costs borne by our nation’ when children suffer the ‘stigma of illiteracy’—and are thereby denied ‘the basic tools by which (to) lead economically productive lives to the benefit of us all…The City of Detroit (though it does not control Detroit’s schools) is all too familiar with illiteracy’s far-reaching effects.”

A critical fiscal issue for every city and county is the perceived quality of its public schools—a perception critical to encouraging families with children to move into the city—thereby positively affecting assessed property values. The challenge has been greater in Detroit, where the schools’ fiscal and educational insolvencies led to the appointment of former U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes to serve as DPS’s Emergency Manager. In Detroit, politics at the state level imposing a disproportionate number of charter schools has meant that today Detroit has a greater share of students in charters than any U.S. city except New Orleans; however, half the charters perform only as well, or worse than, Detroit’s traditional public schools—mayhap a challenge of having a state attempt to substitute itself over local control. Perhaps former state representative Thomas F. Stallworth III, who helped navigate the passage of the 2014 legislation that paved Detroit’s way out of bankruptcy, put it more succinctly: “We’ll either invest in our own children and prepare them to fill these jobs, or I suppose maybe people will migrate from other places in the country to fill them…If that’s the case, we are still left with this underbelly of generational poverty with no clear path out.”

But, in Michigan, it appears that it has been for-profit companies that expressed the greatest interest: they now operate about 80 percent of charters in Michigan, far more than in any other state. In the wake of the state action, and even as Michigan and Detroit continued to preside over an exodus of families, the number of charter schools grew: Michigan today has nearly 220,000 fewer students than it did in 2003, but more than 100 new charter schools. The number not only grew, but the legislature made sure accountability did not: the legislature in 2012 repealed in the Revised School Code Act 451 the state’s longstanding requirement that the Michigan Department of Education issue annual reports monitoring charter school performance; and the state even created a state-run school district, with new charters, in an effort to try to turn around Detroit’s lowest performing schools. Indeed, 24 charter schools have opened in Detroit since the legislature removed the cap 2011: eighteen charters whose existing schools were at or below Detroit’s dismal performance expanded or opened new schools—that despite increasing evidence students in one company’s schools grew less academically than students in the neighboring traditional public schools. By 2015, the Education Trust-Midwest Michigan noted that charter school authorizers’ performance overall had improved marginally over the previous year, but remained terribly low compared to leading states’ charter sectors, in its report, Accountability for All: 2016, The Broken Promise of Michigan’s Charter Sector. The report celebrates high-performing authorizers and sheds light on the devastatingly low performance of other authorizers, adding that roughly one-quarter of one group’s eligible schools ranked among the worst performing 10 percent of schools statewide. Similarly, according to the Trust, a federal review of a grant application for Michigan charter schools found an “unreasonably high” number of charters among the worst-performing 5 percent of public schools statewide, even as the number of charters on the list had doubled from 2010 to 2014.

The great press to create charter schools has led to another challenge: today Detroit has roughly 30,000 more seats, charter and traditional public, than students. For a system desperate for investment in quality education, instead it has badly failed in elementary math; and there is great risk of a discriminatory system: Detroit Public Schools today bears the human and fiscal burden of trying to educate most of Detroit’s special education students. In contrast, charter schools are concentrated downtown, with its boom in renovation and wealthier residents. With only 1,894 high school age students, there are 11 high schools. Meanwhile, northwest Detroit — where it seems every other house is boarded up, burned or abandoned — has nearly twice the number of high school age students, 3,742, and just three high schools. The northeastern part of the city is even more of an education desert: 6,018 high school age students and two high schools.

Like others elsewhere, charter schools receive roughly the same per-pupil state dollars as public schools; however, in Detroit, it is about $7,300 a year — roughly half what New York or Boston schools get, and about $3,500 less than charters in Denver or Milwaukee.

With the significant fiscal challenges to the Detroit Public Schools, Mayor Mike Duggan had proposed an appointed Detroit Education Commission to determine which neighborhoods most needed new schools and to set standards to close failing schools and ensure that only high performing or promising ones could replicate. Backed by a coalition of philanthropies and civic leaders, the teachers’ union and some charter school operators, Mayor Duggan has succeeded in restoring local control of majority-black Detroit Public Schools, and supported the proposal. In the waning days of the legislative session, House Republicans offered a deal: $617 million to pay off the debt of the Detroit Public Schools, but no commission. Lawmakers were forced to take it to prevent the city school system from going bankrupt.

An Interview with Gerald Rosen. U.S. District Court Judge Gerald Rosen, who, as we have written, played an invaluable role in the so-called “Grand Bargain,” which paved the way for Detroit to exit the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history—and who will now join retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, who presided over Detroit’s municipal bankruptcy, in an interview with the Detroit Free Press, said, in response to the query how well Detroit was doing in adhering to its court approved plan of debt adjustment:  “We are hitting the marks, exceeding them in most areas — certainly revenue, I think the last report I saw was about 2 percent above the projected revenue. On budget. Expenditures are below — not much — but slightly below what was projected. Those are two important things…Certainly, investment and growth in the downtown area, certainly Midtown, and with the Ilitch development coming to fruition, the Red Wings, Pistons, some of the entertainment venues becoming a reality now, I expect the area between Midtown and downtown will become very vibrant over the next two-three years.”

Asked what the most difficult part of that case was, aside from the Grand Bargain, Judge Rosen responded: “You have to go back and see what the case was when we found it, which was an assetless bankruptcy. That was the most difficult part, for me. Certainly, there were a lot of first-impression legal issues. Certainly there were issues that could have gone all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, whether it was the collision between the federal bankruptcy code and the federal constitutional supremacy clause and the Michigan Constitution’s provisions to protect pensions. But there were also a lot of other really important issues: The tenor of the security instruments, of the finance instruments, the level and tenor of their security, were all major issues in the bankruptcy, whether they could be crammed down all across the rope line on the financial creditors’ side were really first-impression issues.” He added: “Overwhelmingly, the most challenging issue for me was an assetless bankruptcy—other than the art. I’ll never forget when I was reading Kevyn Orr’s proposal for creditors, coming to the asset section and realizing that there really weren’t any assets other than the art…It was devastating. Kevyn, he had just hired Christie’s to appraise the art, so he was clearly serious about it. I remember thinking, ‘What the hell have I gotten myself into?’ My job is to get deals. To get deals, you have to have revenue or assets that can be monetized into revenue, and the cupboard was pretty much bare. There didn’t seem to be much to work with for deals, other than the art.

There were other aspects to the DIA that I was concerned about. This was a time when Detroit was cannibalizing its heritage to mortgage its future, consistently over the decades. In terms of Detroit’s future, it didn’t make sense to me to do that again, but I was realistic.

Time was Detroit’s enemy. The only way to get through the bankruptcy in any sort of expeditious way was through consensual agreements, and the only asset that could be monetized was the art. So that’s basically what led to the idea of the Grand Bargain—trying to figure out a way to monetize the art without liquidating it, and giving the proceeds to the retirees. Neat trick.

I’ll never forget sitting in this little condo (in Florida) thinking, “What the hell have I gotten myself into? Is my legacy going to be that we liquidated one of the great art collections in the world for sheikhs in Dubai and oligarchs in Russia?” I wasn’t very excited about that.

There was another aspect too. One of the few nascently growing areas in Detroit was Midtown. I went on the DIA website and I saw that the DIA attracted over 600,000 people a year to Midtown. I thought, “Gee whiz, liquidating the DIA would be like dropping a hydrogen bomb in Midtown.” It would suck the life out of it. So there was that part of it.”

What would be the theme song for Detroit’s bankruptcy case?

“Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow.”

We might be having some new City Council members a year from now. What would you suggest to the new ones potentially coming on board?

“I’m not in politics. I’m not a political person in the sense of being involved in the political maw, but my observation is that Mayor (Mike) Duggan is working very positively with President (Brenda) Jones and other members of the council in a way that has not been done by any mayor in years and years.

“At the same time, my word of caution is that we have to be careful to continue to provide the fertile ground that Detroit is for investment for people coming in. Part of that is not placing onerous regulation on people coming in, with artificial employment requirements. I understand the social need for that and I applaud it. I think if Detroit is going to continue the comeback that we are on, the neighborhoods have to be part of it and the African-American population has to be part of it. But you can’t disincentivize people coming in.”

You think that’s been done recently?

“I’m a little bit concerned about the community benefits ordinance. The one that was passed was certainly better than the alternative, but I’m still leery of it because it’s creating entry barriers.”

What was the most surprising individual (Kwame Kilpatrick text) message you saw?

“A lot of that is sealed. I would just refer to it generically by saying there was very little public business conducted by the Mayor and his associates. I’m sure they conducted business by communication means other than texts, but these were city-provided pagers. I assume that the city provided the pagers for people to be able to conduct city business on them, and I saw very little. I learned a lot of new text language that I hadn’t known before, and I appreciate urbandictionary.com.”

Twenty-four hours left in the Obama administration. It’s pardon and commutation time. Does the former mayor deserve one?

No. Absolutely not. I have to be a little cautious, but I presided over that grand jury for 2 ½ years.

Political Leadership & Municipal Insolvency. In Virginia, Petersburg residents who blame their elected municipal leaders for their city’s collapse into insolvency have filed dual petitions to oust both the incumbent and former mayor from their City Council seats—after, over months, gathering the legally required number of signatures from registered voters of Wards 3 and 5 to ask for the removal of Mayor Samuel Parham and W. Howard Myers, whose term as mayor ended this month; both are up for re-election next year. According to the petition, Mayor Parham “has conducted himself in the office of City Councilman, Vice Mayor and Mayor in such a way to govern the City of Petersburg chaotically, unpredictably, secretly and wastefully.” The two-page cover sheet to the petition has garnered 276 certified signatures. (Virginia law requires the petitioners to gather signatures equal to 10 percent of the voter turnout in the contest that resulted in an official’s initial election. For Parham, the number is 160.) The petitions were filed on January 20th in Petersburg Circuit Court under a provision in Virginia law which allows the court to remove officials for specific reasons, which includes certain criminal convictions. Here, in this instance, petitioners cited “neglect of duty, misuse of office, or incompetence in the performance of duties,” faulting the current and former mayor with failing to heed warnings of Petersburg’s impending insolvency, but also alleging ethical breaches and violations of open government law. “Nothing has happened in the new year, with the installation of new council officers, to demonstrate that Myers or Parham are any more capable of providing effective oversight of city government than they have over the past two years,” according to Ms. Barb Rudolph, a local activist and organizer of the good government group Clean Sweep Petersburg. The effort came as Petersburg’s mounting legal claims have now exceeded nearly $19 million in past-due invoices and the city’s budget which was $12 million over budget: the municipality has experienced a stretch of structurally imbalanced budgets dating back to 2009. The City Council fired former City Manager William E. Johnson II last March. For his part, Mayor Parham defended his decisions since taking office, reporting he has done the best he could with the guidance he has received, and noting: “I serve at the pleasure of the people of Petersburg and, with God as my witness, I have tried my best.”

The ouster filings came as former Richmond City Manager, now consultant Robert Bobb, has been hired by the City Council to try to put the city back into solvency. Mr. Bobb has issued a request for a forensic audit of spending over the past three fiscal years—notwithstanding reservations expressed by City Attorney Joseph Preston, who noted that the city’s finances are included in a special grand jury investigation which began as a probe of the Petersburg Police Department. Petersburg obtained short-term financing last month to help meet payroll and other ongoing expenses, with Mr. Bobb reporting the cost of Petersburg’s outstanding invoices has been cut from nearly $19 million to about $6 million. Next comes a session to meet with about 400 of the city’s vendors to try to begin to sort out what they are owed, with a city spokesperson Thursday stating the Petersburg has entered into a payment plan to make good on Petersburg’s share of employee and school worker pensions overdue to the Virginia Retirement System: Petersburg and the city school division collectively owed just over $4.2 million to the system as of last week; however, current payments have resumed, and plans are in place to pay down the balance by $100,000 each month, officials said.

The citizen petitions focus largely on events from last year, but reference years of mounting trouble. The issue for the courts is sufficiency, as a judge in Bath County last week demonstrated when the judge dismissed a similar petition to remove three members of the county’s Board of Supervisors, finding the complaints raised by residents there were insufficient to require a judicial reversal of election results. However, Ms. Rudolph said the Petersburg petitions contain more serious charges, noting: “We believe that, on its merits, it’s far more substantive than the Bath County removal action that was recently rejected by the circuit court there.” Included among the two-page list of grievances documenting reasons for Mayor Myers’ removal were allegations he had “flagrantly and repeatedly acted in contravention of the City of Petersburg’s Code of Ethics” by attempting to “intimidate and silence a critic,” who remains unnamed, by “attempting to harm the citizen’s good standing with her employer.” Petitioners also criticized the Myers-led council for possibly violating the Council’s own rules and the city charter in holding a re-do of a vote to bring in the Bobb Group two days after an initial measure to hire the firm failed. City Attorney Preston has said that the Council did nothing wrong.

Quake & Shake. San Bernardino, on track to end the longest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history next month, now faces a physical and fiscal challenge not listed in its plan of debt adjustment: a substantial earthquake risk. San Bernardino has two independent engineering evaluations — from 2007 and 2016 — saying City Hall would be unsafe in an earthquake. Specifically, the February 2016 study concludes a magnitude 6.0 earthquake would lead to “a likelihood of building failure” for City Hall, which was designed before code updates following the 1971 Sylmar and 1994 Northridge earthquakes. The building sits along two fault lines. That means the City has plans for vacating City Hall by April, as all employees move out of a building determined to be a substantial earthquake risk, with the approximately 200 municipal employees set to relocate to several leased sites set by a unanimous Council vote. A public information counter will direct members of the public to whatever service they’re seeking, as will signs.

Governance Insolvency?

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eBlog, 1/0617

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the political and legal turmoil in the insolvent municipality of East Cleveland, before turning to the continued uncertainty with regard to Atlantic City’s future. Then we try to get schooled in the new governance set to commence for Detroit’s public schools, before returning to what appears to be a state of emergency declared this week by the new Governor of Puerto Rico.

Bankrupt Municipal Governance? The insolvent city of East Cleveland is confronted not just with fiscal insolvency, but, increasingly, governance chaos in the wake of the recall of its former Mayor and the city’s Law Director, Willa Hemmons, yesterday issuing a legal opinion that appointments made to the City Council last week were illegal. That opinion was countered late yesterday by East Cleveland Councilwoman Barbara Thomas, who issued a statement contradicting Ms. Hemmons’ opinion that appointments to council made in a December 29th meeting were illegal, writing that not only was there an absence of a quorum, but also the actions were in violation of the city’s charter. The Councilwoman, who represents Ward 2, and Nathaniel Martin, at-large council member, had selected Devin Branch and Kelvin Earby to fill the Ward 3 and at-large seats left open when voters recalled former Council President Thomas Wheeler and Mayor Gary Norton. Ward 4 councilwoman Joie Graham had left the meeting last week during executive session, because she did not agree with the interview process for new members. In response, Councilwoman Thomas, in a statement, claimed she had met with an unnamed attorney and believes that Law Director Hemmons has confused “charter positions which apply to organizational meetings of City Council following a regular election with the procedures Council is required to follow to fill a vacancy on Council.” In addition, the Councilwoman charged the document was improperly served. Thus, she stated: “I am disappointed, because I had hoped that having a new mayor would give us an opportunity for a fresh start and that the administration and Council would work together for the benefit of the citizens of East Cleveland.”

Confused Governance. Meanwhile, in Atlantic City—which has a Mayor and Council and a state appointed Emergency Manager, but which is under a state takeover, Mayor Don Guardian yesterday offered his now unofficial State of the City speech. Unsurprisingly, he listed the numerous challenges facing his city, including a state takeover and hundreds of millions of dollars in debt. Mayor Guardian also requested billionaire investor Carl Icahn to sell the abandoned Trump Taj Mahal Casino, stating the city cannot afford to allow such a critical component of its historic boardwalk to continue vacant indefinitely, deeming such inactions the “the worst of the worst” in terms of outcomes for the property—and the city’s tax rolls. The Tropicana, which was boarded up last October, not only hammered the city’s anticipated property tax revenues, but meant 3,000 people lost their jobs, and, of course, the city lost a key attraction for visitors. Mr. Icahn had shuttered it last fall in the wake of a strike by the casino’s workers’ union. Mr. Icahn, however, responded by saying he would be happy to sell the casino to the insolvent city, but only if the city made Mr. Icahn whole by paying him the $300 million he claims he had lost on his real estate gamble, adding Mayor Guardian was wrong to attack an investor who had previously rescued the city’s Tropicana casino and attempted to do the same with the Tropicana. Prior to last summer’s strike to restore health insurance and pension benefits—which had been terminated in federal bankruptcy court—and the subsequent closure, Mr. Icahn had promised to invest some $100 million into the casino—a promise never kept.

Learning to Govern in the Big D. With the retirement of former U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, who had so generously accepted the Governor’s challenge to serve as the Detroit Public School Emergency Manager, Detroit’s newly elected school board is planning a major celebration this month as it will assume control of city schools which have been under gubernatorial-appointed emergency managers for years. Moreover, with the state having creating a dual system of public and charter schools, the governing challenge for these new school board members promises to be daunting. Whom will the newly elected board select to be superintendent? Will a majority vote to file suit to prevent further school closures? How will the new board address the challenge of balancing state-created charter schools versus public schools? How can the new Board create balance so that there can be a smooth transition with long-struggling schools which will rejoin the district this summer?  The seven board members who were elected by Detroit voters in November have been doing some prep learning themselves: they have devoted the last two months in an intensive orientation on Detroit schools, trying to comprehend a complicated district which now serves about 45,000 children in 97 schools—children who will be future civic leaders, but, mayhap more importantly, a school system whose reputation will be critical in determining whether young families with children will opt to move into Detroit—or leave the city.

Extraordinary Governmental Authority & Promising Insurance? In Puerto Rico, Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares this week signed a decree which provides him extraordinary authority, similar to those granted a governor in the wake of a natural disaster. The new executive order declares a state of emergency, with the emergency creating a “risk of accelerating capital flight from the territory, putting at risk natural resources, and risking public health and safety.” The new Governor’s actions came as the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico and some of its instrumentalities failed to make municipal bond interest payments this week, Puerto Rico’s largest municipal bond insurer, Assured Guaranty Ltd. subsidiaries, made $43 million of interest payments to holders of insured general obligation and other municipal bonds. The payments came as Puerto Rico’s infrastructure financing authority PRIFA was unable to transfer funds to its bond trustee to pay debt due New Year’s Day on certain tax-exempt bonds, according to a regulatory filing on Tuesday, further confirmation of a default by the U.S. territory. The trustee for PRIFA’s series 2005B and 2006 bonds claimed it had not received sufficient funds from PRIFA for the payment of debt, although it held a small residual amount from prior payments that it allocated to pay interest. In addition, the trustee for its series 2005 C bonds reported it did not receive funds from PRIFA to pay debt service. The territory had said last week that PRIFA would have insufficient funds to make the full payment on its special tax revenue bonds, Series 2005A-C and Series 2006; ergo, $36 million was expected not to be paid. As of midweek, the island’s largest bond insurer, Assured Guaranty Municipal Corp. and Assured Guaranty Corp. had received and processed $43 million of claim notices for missed January 1 payments, out of $44 million of total expected claims, with the expected claims including $39 million of Puerto Rico general obligation payments and $5 million for Puerto Rico Public Buildings Authority payments. In addition, on Tuesday, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority made the full interest payment due on its bonds insured by Assured Guaranty; thus, no insurance claims were filed. In a statement, Assured President and CEO Dominic Frederico said: “While the outgoing Puerto Rico administration has once again chosen to violate Puerto Rico’s constitution by ignoring the senior payment priority securing the Commonwealth’s general obligation bonds, we look forward to working with the new administration, PROMESA Oversight Board and other creditors to achieve consensual restructuring agreements that respect the constitutional, statutory, contractual and property rights of creditors while also supporting the island’s economic recovery…We were pleased that PREPA made its bond interest payment, and we continue to join PREPA and the other participating creditors in seeking implementation of the consensual restructuring contemplated by the PREPA restructuring support agreement.” In its release, the company wrote that any obligor where amounts were due but no claims are expected, the payments were made by the obligor from its available funds or reserves, adding that municipal bond investors owning Puerto Rico-related bonds insured by Assured Guaranty will continue to receive uninterrupted full and timely payment of scheduled principal and interest in accordance with the terms of the insurance policies.

The Many & Daunting Challenges of Municipal Bankruptcy

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eBlog, 12/30/16

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the retirement of an exceptional public leader, retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, who presided over Detroit’s largest in U.S, history chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy and then went on to accept the unforgiving position of emergency manager for the Detroit Public Schools—a key role in the ongoing challenges to recovery from the nation’s largest ever municipal bankruptcy. Then we head into the gale of the Northeaster to New Jersey’s Atlantic City—as the state slowly begins to unroll the mechanics of its takeover of the fiscally insolvent municipality, before finally heading to the warmer West Coast, where San Bernardino leaders are preparing for the restoration of municipal authority and coming back from the nation’s longest-ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy.

Retirement after Extraordinary Work.  Electronic rhythm guitar player and retired U.S. bankruptcy judge Steven Rhodes, to whom Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder presented the challenge of becoming emergency manager, an offer he accepted, came out of retirement, and became the school district’s fifth emergency manager—with the official title “transition manager”—on March 1 for a salary of $18,750 a month. Now, nearly 10 months later, a Detroit district plagued by about $515 million in operating debt has been replaced with a new, debt-free Detroit district, courtesy of a $617 million bailout for which Judge Rhodes had lobbied the Republican-led Legislature. But the legacy of Judge Rhodes, who is set to depart tomorrow, remains to be fully appreciated. Judge Rhodes, who presided over Detroit’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy before leaving to accept the Governor’s appointment to serve as the emergency manager for the Detroit Public Schools system—a position in which he served for about 10 months to be in charge of the state’s largest school district during one of its most tumultuous periods—and during which, last June, the state created, in effect, a dual system of charter and public schools. At the inception of this harrowing task, he inherited a school system collapsing from a string of teacher sick-outs that closed dozens of schools, sparked a lawsuit, and from a system of unsafe public buildings. As we have previously posted, the legislature and Governor had enacted a $617-million financial rescue package which created the new district to replace the old Detroit Public Schools—even as it created a separate system of charter schools—and put Judge Rhodes in charge of overseeing the complex task of overseeing the new, 45,000 student district. He leaves, unsurprisingly, with a system in fiscally and physically significantly improved condition—helping, in his final chapter of public service, to help bring in additional fiscal resources via the sale of more than a dozen small, unused parcels of land for $3 million to Olympia Development, the developer of the new Little Caesars Arena in Detroit, and future home to the Red Wings and Pistons. In addition, the school district agreed to sell its license for the radio station at the Detroit School of Arts to Detroit Public Television in an agreement valued at $9 million, pending regulatory approval. (Detroit Public TV already pays the district for being able to operate the station, WRCJ-FM (90.9). Under the agreement, the station will stay in the district. (Students will have enhanced opportunities to learn about broadcasting as a result of the deal, according to DPS officials.) As part of the transition, Judge Rhodes has transferred authority to a seven-member elected public school board which will take office in January, making it the first school board with any significant decision-making power since 2009, when a series of state-appointed emergency managers began controlling the district.

In an interview with the Detroit Free Press, Judge Rhodes said that at the “very highest level, the most challenging part of the job for me was the politics of it. Because, as a judge, I was never involved in politics. We had a fixed process. We engaged that process, the process concluded with a result, and we moved on. But here, there are political considerations to everything, and I was not prepared for that.” In response to a follow-up question with regard to the greatest challenges of his emergency position, Judge Rhodes responded: “What surprised and disappointed me the most was the level of antagonism between Detroit on one side and the rest of the state and Lansing on the other side. Each side has predisposed views of the other side that are not based on fact, and that are not only unproductive, but counterproductive, and are not in the best interest of the children in the city. Both sides need to find very specific ways and methods to break through that, and they need to do it very soon.”

Now, he notes, the newly elected school board will have to take “very specific actions to reach out to decision- and policy-makers in Lansing to work with them on achieving Detroit’s goals, to educate them on where DPSCD is, the progress it has made, and how it’s going to make progress in the future. And it has to do that outreach in a spirit of collaboration, cooperation, and reaching out for help, and with the assumption that people in Lansing want to help, not with the assumption that they are anti-Detroit.” He added that the school board will also have to do something few other school boards in the U.S. must: it will have to carve out a constructive relationship with the Detroit Financial Review Commission (FRC): “I hope and expect that the board’s relationship will simply continue the relationship that I and the staff here have already established, which is a cooperative, collaborative working relationship that recognizes our autonomy, (and) at the same time recognizes the value that the FRC brings to enhancing the credibility of DPSCD…We have an example, a concrete example, of how the work of the FRC benefited DPSCD financially. It was the adviser that the FRC retained that helped us to identify a health insurance provider that was more comprehensive and less money.

Arithmetic. As to the new system’s fiscal viability, Judge Rhodes noted: “It’s better than where I hoped it would be. My goal was to have a balanced budget for this year, meaning revenues equaling expenditures. It turned out, through the hard work of the staff, and selling certain assets that we were not using and would never use, we actually will have a surplus this year, which we will use to create a much-needed fund balance…It’s not as much of a fund balance as we need, but it’s a really good start, and not one that I would have predicted or foreseen when we were putting our budget together last spring. (The school district has a $48.2-million projected fund balance, or reserve fund. It’s roughly $650-million, the FY2017 budget is balanced.) With regard to the system’s fiscal stability going forward, Judge Rhodes noted: “I’m confident that we are in a position to maintain a balanced budget going forward. I think there are also opportunities to increase the fund balance, which is something we should be doing. There are aspects of school finance, however, that do concern me. In order to achieve academic success, which is our goal, as it is every school district’s, funding provided by the Legislature has to recognize two fundamental distinctions between Detroit and other school districts. No. 1 is that 60 percent of our students live in poverty, which means it’s more challenging to educate them, and therefore more expensive to educate them. And you can attribute those expenses to enhanced reading services, enhanced wraparound services, and enhanced truancy and attendance services.

He noted a second, distinguishing factor and challenge: “A second factor (is) our special needs and special education children. We have a higher percentage than other districts. They are of course more expensive to educate, and in some cases, significantly more expensive to educate. And I don’t want to give the impression that we don’t want those students. We do, we absolutely do. They are as entitled to an education as any other child. But the reality is they are more expensive to educate. While some of that difference is made up by federal grants, it’s not all of it. And so, that puts an extra strain on the budget….School funding is based now, generally speaking, on the concept that equality is equity. We give the same amount for every child in the state. The problem is equality is not equity, or I should say is not always equity. In this case, it’s not.”

The State of the City. As the State of New Jersey takeover of Atlantic City continues to unroll, it appears one of the final actions of 2016 will be a state imposed mandate to the city for an across-the-board pay cut, a 15-step salary guide with pay capped at $90,000, increased health-care contributions from employees, and the imposition of 12-hour work shifts for police officers.  The orders by Mr. Chiesa, the quasi-ruler of the city, appear to be the beginning of what will be a more comprehensive effort on how part to address the city’s $500 million of debt–with Mr. Chiesa indicating he now intends to meet with all of the groups involved. In an email to members obtained by the Press of Atlantic City, union President Matt Rogers recapped a meeting the union delegation had the day before yesterday with representatives from the state who are in command of Atlantic City as part of the state takeover. Among the state’s emerging demands are an across-the-board pay cut, a 15-step salary guide with pay capped at $90,000, increased health-care contributions from union members, and tasking officers to work 12-hour shifts. It seems that some of the state’s demands were similar to a new contract the city and union had already agreed upon; however, the state had refused to approve. It appears the state will insist upon the layoff of an additional to 250 members. The actions mark some of the first under the reign of former New Jersey Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa as he has insisted upon meeting with all of the groups involved in the city’s budget and vital operations prior to focusing on addressing the city’s $500 million of debt.

Prepping to Exit Chapter 9. As San Bernardino prepares to exit municipal bankruptcy—the nation’s longest ever—next month, City Manager Mark Scott reports he will be meeting with Mayor Carey Davis and the City Council, as well as his key managers to put together an action-focused work plan, noting: U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury will put out a “written ruling on January 27, and then there will be several months of paperwork before we officially exit bankruptcy.” Ergo, his goal is to be ready by that date in the wake of approval of its plan of debt adjustment under which the beleaguered city eliminated some $350 million in one-time and ongoing expenditures—a goal immeasurably helped by city voter approval last November of a new charter—albeit a charter which still awaits approval by California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, paving the way for the city to transition from a strong mayor council-manager form of governance—and one without an elected city attorney—which the manager described as one which led to multiple agendas and infighting which had contributed to pushing “the city into bankruptcy. No one was working together.” Under the newly adopted charter, the mayor will have a tiebreaker vote except when it comes to appointing or removing the city attorney, city manager, or city clerk positions, at which point, the mayor would have one vote. Indeed, as part of his agreement to work for the city, Mr. Scott informed the city’s elected officials he was unwilling to stay at San Bernardino long-term absent adoption of a new charter, noting: “I was not interested in working in such a confusing form of government for long…I wanted to help, but it was contingent on the charter being able to pass. The pre-existing form of governance was unrecognizable to anyone who studied government.”

If it can be deemed easy to slide into municipal bankruptcy, getting out and long-term recovery is a challenge—one which will require innovative policies to attract new economic growth via zoning and land use policies that attract investment in key locations—a challenge made more difficult in the city’s case not only because of its bankruptcy, but also because of last year’s terrorism incident—one which could hardly be expected to serve as an incentive for new families or businesses. Another critical hurdle is the city’s 34% poverty rate–the highest of any large city in the state, along with the worst homicide rate per capita in the state. Thus, unsurprisingly, Mr. Scott notes that San Bernardino will be fiscally solvent before it is service level solvent: he has predicted the city’s police service levels will be where they should be in a few years; however, it will probably take a decade for parks and recreation to reach pre-bankruptcy levels; moreover, the city is in no position to issue new capital debt, because it lacks the requisite fiscal resources to pay bondholders.  

Schooled in Public Service & Municipal Bankruptcy

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eBlog, 12/08/16

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we salute the soon to be retiring Emergency Manager of the Detroit Public Schools, the exceptional former U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, who presided over the largest municipal bankruptcy in the nation’s history before accepting the grueling challenge to be the emergency manager of the near bankrupt Detroit public schools system.

Yes We Can. The extraordinary public servant and electric rhythm guitar playing retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, currently the outgoing (yes, a pun) Emergency Manager of the Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD)said an investigation by the school district’s inspector general could produce more criminal charges in the district—and, likely, more fiscal pain for the city. He had hired Inspector General Bernadette Kakooza last April, in the midst of an ongoing federal investigation of a $2.7 million kickback scheme with a contractor involving 13 school administrators who are no longer employed by the school district, although he was careful not to address the specifics in speaking to the Detroit News this week about what potential wrongdoing there might be after testifying before a House committee on the District’s progress since the legislature last June enacted a $617 million financial rescue of the school system; however, Judge Rhodes noted, referring to Ms. Kakooza: “She does have several matters under investigation at the present time that may result in further criminal investigations and charges.” Those charges relate to new cases of fraud the DPSCD inspector general had outlined in a report, including a payroll error resulting in an employee being overpaid by $50,000, fraudulent teaching credentials, and missing equipment and public funds. Judge Rhodes did say that the new debt-free Detroit school has developed “much stricter controls” on purchasing in an effort to try to prevent fraud, adding, however: “Still, we understand that there are no financial controls that are foolproof against clever and smart criminals who are intent upon theft and fraud.” His statement came before the Michigan House School Aid Appropriations Subcommittee in what might prove to be one of his last state public appearances as he nears the end of his service to Detroit’s kids on the last day of this month. At the hearing, Judge Rhodes also disclosed for the first time that the school district has paid Michigan’s public pension fund nearly $30 million—money which had been diverted from federal grants to the public school district’s general fund by his predecessors. DPSCD’s past-due pension debt to the Michigan Public School Employee Retirement System stood at $132.6 million as of last November 11th, significantly paid down from $163 million on June 30th, according to the Michigan Office of Retirement Services; nevertheless, it will likely take nearly a decade to fully pay down past arrears. .

For his part, Judge Rhodes said he would be handing over authority of the school district to a newly elected Detroit school board with a projected fund balance of between $40 million and $50 million for the current fiscal year, telling reporters: “The school board is the new control for public education in the city of Detroit.” Rhodes told reporters; albeit, as part of the state’s bailout of the Detroit Public Schools, Detroit’s Financial Review Commission retains veto power over the school board’s spending plans once Judge Rhodes leaves office at the end of the month; Judge Rhodes said the surplus will help the district with cash-flow next summer when there is a projected gap in School Aid payments from the state. His swan song, as it were, comes as the legislature continues to scrutinize the finances and operations of the state’s largest school system. As a parting, if poignant, message, Judge Rhodes advised: “I think DPS just needs to be left alone for a little while to give this academic plan a chance, to give our fresh start a chance and to prove to our city, our region, and our state that we can succeed.”

While the there is separate and distinct governance between Detroit’s municipal and school governance, the two are inextricably linked, because, as we have noted too often (likely), the perceived quality of a municipality or county’s public schools is critical to the interest of parents to move to such a municipality or county–and, ergo–to assessed property values.