Fiscal Challenges Key to Municipalities’ Futures

eBlog, 04/26/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the kinds of fiscal challenges key to a municipality’s future—focusing on the windy city of Chicago, before examining the complex federalism issues conflicting the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico’s efforts to return to solvency—and deal with a Congressionally-imposed oversight board.

What Is Key to the Windy City’s Future? Chicago, the third most populous city in the U.S. with 2.7 million residents, is one which, when Mayor Rahm Emanuel was first elected, was what some termed a “time bomb:” He took office to find a $635 million operating deficit. However, he did take office as the city’s demographics were recovering from the previous decade—a decade which witnessed an exodus of 200,000, and the loss of 7.1% of its jobs—creating an exceptional fiscal challenge. At his inception as Mayor, the city confronted a debt level of $63,525 per capita—so deep that one expert noted that if one included the debt per capita with the unfunded liability per capita, the city would be a prime “candidate for fiscal distress.” Chicago then had an unemployment rate of 11.3%. The then newly-elected Mayor was confronted by a Moody’s downgrade of  Chicago’s $8.2 billion of general obligation and sales tax backed bonds with a three-level downgrade—and a bleak warning that the Windy City could face further adverse ratings actions absent progress in confronting growing unfunded pension liabilities, adding that the city’s $36 billion retirement-fund deficit and “unrelenting public safety demands” on the budget would, absent significant growth in the city’s operating revenues, increasingly strain the city’s operating budget, as pension outlays competed with other spending priorities, including “debt service and public safety.” Thus at a session last week moderated by former Crain’s Chicago Business Publisher David Snyder, a key focus was: what makes a city attractive to a corporation looking to relocate? Mr. Snyder provided some background and context for that discussion, noting how the makeup of the corporate community in Chicago has changed since the 1980s, when Chicago’s economy was driven by large public corporations. He said that the era of the large corporation is over: today healthcare and logistics firms lead the way, with private or family-held middle-market businesses driving growth in the Chicago region and an entrepreneurial culture experiencing a renaissance; while John Lothian, the Executive Chairman of John J. Lothian & Co., provided an overview of the extraordinary technology changes which he believes fundamentally altered how the financial sector in Chicago operates. He noted that today, getting hired in the Windy City more often than not requires a degree in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics—a change which has closed off jobs from young people, who used to join the sector as runners, gaining experience and contacts. He also noted that Chicago, a world-class city, is now not just competing with New York City, but also in a global competition with other cities around the globe. The stock yards of old—cattle—have been transformed into shares of corporations. Providing some scope to this urban transformation, Dr. Caralynn Nowinski Collens, Chief Executive Officer of UI Labs, a tech accelerator for digital manufacturing, noted that a decade and a half ago, there was virtually no tech scene, funding, or support: students graduating from Illinois schools with technology degrees had to leave the state to pursue their careers. In contrast, she noted, today there are over 100 incubators and accelerators and 300 corporate R&D centers in Chicago; there are 275 digital startups every year. No sector of the city’s economy is growing more rapidly; indeed, today Chicago has the third fastest growing tech sector in the nation. Dr. Collens said that Chicago’s economic diversity and legacy of industry make it an excellent place for the technology industry to flourish as its legendary older industries have become among the world’s most sophisticated, noting, however, that there are many challenges which could put a snag in the Windy City’s aspirations to become the digital industrial center of the world—specifically noting that the importance of getting young Windy Cityites to focus on the threat of the displacement of jobs by automation, in order to enable the city to become a global leader in technological innovation and, thereby, economic growth.

Another speaker, Jerry Szatan, the founder of site selection consulting firm Szatan & Associates, came at the issue of municipal fiscal stability from a different perspective: he noted that risk and higher municipal taxes no longer are such key factors that can lead a company to flee a municipality. Instead, he said, the critical issue is talent: he noted that all corporate headquarters need highly skilled, educated, and creative professionals, and that there are only so many cities in the U.S. where such a wide talent pool exists. Unsurprisingly, Chicago, he noted, is one—stating that the diversity of the residents of Chicago is very important for corporations, particularly those with an international workforce; second, he noted that connectivity is crucial, citing the city’s international airport at O’Hare with being a critical asset, as well as the city’s dense downtown—which he noted facilitates interactions between coworkers and peers in other industries. Mr. Szatan balanced his enthusiasm with fiscal warnings: noting that corporations are risk averse, he warned against Chicago’s fiscal instability and the possibility of higher taxes. Mr. Szatan’s perspective was shared by Chicago Civic Federation Chairman Kent Swanson, who noted that Chicago has the infrastructure assets, educated workforce, and international appeal of a global city, but not at the steep price of a New York or a San Francisco. Thus, he said, office space costs are much more competitive, thereby more attractive to startups and smaller businesses. Ergo, he noted, he perceives the recent movement of headquarters to Chicago as a microcosm of what is happening across the world as people move from smaller cities to the cores of large cities. A third speaker, Chicago Planning and Development Commissioner David Reifman, noted that despite the fiscal challenges of the State of Illinois, there appears to be a commitment to address the state’s public pension crisis and improve the state’s dysfunctional funding and financial practices—and he extolled the city’s efforts to attract corporations, particularly via amenities in near proximity to downtown, such as an expanded O’Hare, new transit stations, and enhanced service on the Chicago Transit Authority, as well as programs to leverage high-density investments in the downtown area to generate funding for underdeveloped areas.

The Complexity of Federalism & Addressing Insolvency. The Justice Department has confirmed to D.C.-based Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez that it will review and send Puerto Rico’s Governor, Ricardo Rosselló, an assessment/evaluation of amendments to the U.S. territory’s pending amendments to the upcoming plebiscite on alternative status, with the confirmation coming as Puerto Rico’s main opposition party, the Popular Democratic Party, has voted to boycott the plebiscite scheduled for June 11th. The proposed plebiscite, the revised language of which the ruling New Progressive Party rejected last Sunday, appears to have exacerbated tensions between Puerto Rico House Minority Leader Rafael Hernández Montañez and three House Representatives. It comes as Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and the NPP legislators had approved a ballot that just had options for independence and statehood—and as Puerto Rico’s Secretary of Public Affairs, Ramón Rosario Cortés, yesterday warned of the possible elimination of the Christmas bonus and the reduction of the work week for Puerto Rico’s employees as still being a possibility if Puerto Rico is unable to cut spending as contemplated in the plan approved by the PROMESA Oversight Board–with the Board, when it approved the plan last month, warning that by July 1st’s commencement of the new fiscal year, there appeared to be a gap of $190 million to close: to cure said fiscal gap, the Board has proposed to reduce the work week of public employees and eliminate the Christmas bonus—an option the government rejected; nevertheless, it looms in the event Puerto Rico is unable to achieve the projected savings—leading Secretary  Rosario Cortés to say: “If we meet these metrics, there’ll be no reduction of the work week. But, if we fail, the (PROMESA) Board has established it can do it automatically. (That is), if we don’t get the savings, it’ll mean reduction of work week and full elimination of the Christmas bonus.” As part of the legislative package of measures submitted by the Executive, House Bill 938 would seek savings with a cutback on spending and efficiencies totaling $1.623 billion, with the proposal including savings of $434 million for mobility, a hiring freeze, and leveling of benefits; $439 million in “government transformation” via consolidations, public-private alliances and efficiencies; and $750 million in reduced subsidies. The Puerto Rican House of Representatives had been anticipated to consider the bill yesterday; however, the House leadership decided to allow for additional time to hear leaders from unions representing public employees, after the former marched to the Capitol in defense of the rights of their members.

Unsurprisingly, the political dynamics of changing administrations in the nation’s capital have added to the fiscal challenges—mayhap best illustrated by a Trump administration Deputy U.S. Attorney General writing the ballot options are unfair, and that he would not recommend the U.S. Congress release federal money allotted for the plebiscite with the planned ballot choices—triggering a response from Puerto Rico legislators, who voted to revise the language to add a third option: remaining a “territory.” However, unsurprisingly, Puerto Rico’s PDP party has argued that Puerto Rico is more than a territory of the United States, thus it has objected to this ballot language. Members of the party wanted to have part of the current name of Puerto Rico, “Estado Libre Asociado,” be the option rather than “territory.” (The former can be translated as “Free Associated State,” though it is usually translated as “commonwealth.”). Thus, over the weekend, the PDP’s Governing Board, General Council, and General Assembly voted against participating in the plebiscite because of the use of the term “territory” on the ballot. In addition, the Puerto Rico Independence Party has also said it would boycott the plebiscite. Nevertheless, notwithstanding that the review process may take a few weeks, Commissioner Gonzalez believes the federal government will end up confirming a status consultation, noting: “They are waiting to be sent documents related to the plebiscite that have not yet been delivered, according to the Commissioner in the wake of a conference call with interim federal Secretary of Justice, Jesse Panuccio. Governor Rosselló had requested a response by April 22nd, with the hope that that would leave time for the House Appropriations committees to authorize the $2.5 million disbursement allowed by federal law to hold the consultation for June 11; that delivery of the $ 2.5 million is conditional, however, on receipt of a formal opinion from the US Attorney General in order to determines that the electoral ballot, the educational campaign of the State Commission of Elections, and the materials related to the plebiscite comply with the constitutional, legal, and public policy norms of the federal government.

Meanwhile, Puerto Rico’s Treasury announced that March revenues exceeded budgeted projections for the month by 7.1%, noting that through the first nine months of the fiscal year, the territory’s General Fund revenues ran 4.1% ($250 million) above projections, with the key contributor being Puerto Rico’s corporate income tax, which added 86.8% more than budgeted, or $130.4 million. Similarly, a separate tax on non-Puerto Rico based corporations’ income (Act 154) continued to outperform last month, coming in 9.8% higher or $18 million more than projected. Last Friday the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced improved employment statistics for Puerto Rico from its household survey: according to the survey, the total number of Puerto Ricans employed increased in March by 0.7% from February and 0.4% from March 2016, while the island’s unemployment rate dipped 0.5% in March from February, with the March rate tying the statistic’s low point since June of 2008, when it was 11.4%. The BLS employment survey showed continued contractions, with total nonfarm employment down by 0.2% since February and 0.3% since March 2016. The employer survey indicated that Puerto Rico’s private sector employment in March was little changed from February, but has slipped 1% since a year ago March. (The discrepancy in the direction of the household and establishment surveys may be because the former includes agricultural and self-employed workers, while the latter does not.)

Death Comes to the Archbishop? Meanwhile, the Puerto Rico Commission for the Comprehensive Audit of the Public, which is charged with reviewing the legality of Puerto Rico’s debt died Wednesday; however, it appears on the road to recovery in the wake of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s signing a measure terminating the Puerto Rico Commission for the Comprehensive Audit of the Public Credit, after the measure was approved by the Puerto Rico Senate and House of Representatives. Governor Rosselló and legislators from his New Progressive Party said it should be up to the legal system to pass judgment on the validity of various bonds, and that the audit commission’s work was interfering with negotiations seeking to restructure Puerto Rico’s debt. Demonstrations outside Puerto Rico’s capitol building on Monday and Tuesday had apparently failed to sway Senators and Representatives inside as they debated and then voted against keeping it. (The commission was set up by the Puerto Rico legislature in July 2015 to examine the circumstances surrounding the issuance of the debt—especially to identify invalid debt.) Some members believed it was opening doors to municipal bondholder claims against those who prepared official statements or others involved with such bond issues. Since then, the group has released two “pre-audits” which raised questions with regard to the legality of much of Puerto Rico’s municipal debt.

What Lessons Can State & Local Leaders Learn from Unique Fiscal Challenges?

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eBlog, 04/25/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the unique fiscal challenges in Michigan and how the upswing in the state’s economy is—or, in this case, maybe—is not helping the fiscal recovery of the state’s municipalities. Then we remain in Michigan—but straddle to Virginia, to consider state leadership efforts in each state to rethink state roles in dealing with severe fiscal municipal distress. Finally, we zoom to Chicago to glean what wisdom we can from the Godfather of modern municipal bankruptcy, Jim Spiotto: What lessons might be valuable to the nation’s state and local leaders?  

Fiscal & Physical Municipal Balancing I. Nearly a decade after the upswing in Michigan’s economic recovery, the state’s fiscal outlook appears insufficient to help the state’s municipalities weather the next such recession. Notwithstanding continued job growth and record auto sales, Michigan’s per-capita personal income lags the national average; assessed property values are below peak levels in 85% of the state’s municipalities; and state aid is only 80% of what it was 15 years ago.  Thus, interestingly, state business leaders, represented by the Business Leaders for Michigan, a group composed of executives of Michigan’s largest corporations universities, is pressing the Michigan Legislature to assume greater responsibility to address growing public pension liabilities—an issue which municipal leaders in the state fear extend well beyond legacy costs, but also where fiscal stability has been hampered by cuts in state revenue sharing and tax limitations. Michigan’s $10 billion general fund is roughly comparable to what it was nearly two decades ago—notwithstanding the state’s experience in the Great Recession—much less the nation’s largest ever municipal bankruptcy in Detroit, or the ongoing issues in Flint. Moreover, with personal income growth between 2000 and 2013 growing less than half the national average (in the state, the gain was only 31.1%, compared to 66.1% nationally), and now, with public pension obligations outstripping growth in personal income and property values, Michigan’s taxpayers and corporations—and the state’s municipalities—confront hard choices with regard to “legacy costs” for municipal pensions and post-retirement health care obligations—debts which today are consuming nearly 20 percent of some city, township, and school budgets—even as the state’s revenue sharing program has dropped nearly 25 percent for fiscally-stressed municipalities such as Saginaw, Flint, and Detroit just since 2007—rendering the state the only state to realize negative growth rates (8.5%) in municipal revenue in the 2002-2012 decade, according to numbers compiled by the Michigan Municipal League—a decade in which revenue for the state’s cities and towns from state sources realized the sharpest decline of any state in the nation: 56%, a drop so steep that, as the Michigan Municipal League’s COO Tony Minghine put it: “Our system is just broken…We’re not equipped to deal with another recession. If we were to go into another recession right now, we’d see widespread communities failing.” Unsurprisingly, one of the biggest fears is that another wave of chapter 9 filings could trigger the appointment of the state’s ill-fated emergency manager appointments. From the Michigan Municipal League’s perspective, any fiscal resolution would require the state to address what appears to be a faltering revenue base: Michigan’s taxable property is appreciating too slowly to support the cost of government (between 2007 and 2013, the taxable value of property declined by 8 percent in Grand Rapids, 12% in Detroit, 25% in Livonia, 32% in Warren, 22% in Wayne County values, and 24% in Oakland County.) The fiscal threat, as the former U.S. Comptroller General of the General Accounting Office warned: “Most of these numbers will get worse with the mere passage of time.”

Fiscal & Physical Municipal Balancing II. Mayhap Michigan and Virginia state and local leaders need to talk:  Thinking fiscally about a state’s municipal fiscal challenges—and lessons learned—might be underway in Virginia, where, after the state did not move ahead on such an initiative last year, the new state budget has revived the focus on fiscal stress in Virginia cities and counties, with the revived fiscal focus appearing to have been triggered by the ongoing fiscal collapse of one of the state’s oldest cities, Petersburg. Thus, Sen. Emmett Hanger (R-Augusta County), a former Commissioner of the Revenue and member of the state’s House of Delegates, who, today, serves as Senate Finance Co-Chair, and Chair of the Health and Human Services Finance subcommittee, has filed a bill, SJ 278, to study the fiscal stress of local governments: his proposal would create a joint subcommittee to review local and state tax systems, as well as reforms to promote economic assistance and cooperation between regions. Although the legislation was rejected in the Virginia House Finance Committee, where members deferred consideration of tax reform for next year’s longer session, the state’s adopted budget does include two fiscal stress preventive measures originally incorporated in Senator Hanger’s proposed legislation—or, as co-sponsor Sen. Rosalyn Dance (D-Petersburg), noted: “Currently, there is no statutory authority for the Commission on Local Government to intervene in a fiscally stressed locality, and the state does not currently have any authority to assist a locality financially.” To enhance the state’s authority to intervene fiscally, the budget has set guidelines for state officials to identify and help alleviate signs of financial stress to prevent a more severe crisis. Thus, a workgroup, established by the auditor of public accounts, would determine an appropriate fiscal early warning system to identify fiscal stress: the proposed system would consider such criteria as a local government’s expenditure reports and budget information. Local governments which demonstrate fiscal distress would thence be notified and could request a comprehensive review of their finances by the state. After a fiscal review, the commonwealth would then be charged with drafting an “action plan,” which would provide the purpose, duration, and anticipated resources required for such state intervention. The bill would also give the Governor the option to channel up to $500,000 from the general fund toward relief efforts for the fiscally stressed local government.

Virginia’s new budget also provides for the creation of a Joint Subcommittee on Local Government Fiscal Stress, with members drawn from the Senate Finance Committee, the House Appropriations, and the House Finance committees—with the newly created subcommittee charged to study local and state financial practices, such as: regional cooperation and service consolidation, taxing authority, local responsibilities in state programs, and root causes of fiscal stress. Committee member Del. Lashrecse Aird (D-Petersburg) notes: “It is important to have someone who can speak to first-hand experience dealing with issues of local government fiscal stress…This insight will be essential in forming effective solutions that will be sustainable long-term…Prior to now, Virginia had no mechanism to track, measure, or address fiscal stress in localities…Petersburg’s situation is not unique, and it is encouraging that proactive measures are now being taken to guard against future issues. This is essential to ensuring that Virginia’s economy remains strong and that all communities can share in our Commonwealth’s success.”

Municipal Bankruptcy—or Opportunity? The Chicago Civic Federation last week co-hosted a conference, “Chicago’s Fiscal Future: Growth or Insolvency?” with the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, where experts, practitioners, and academics from around the nation met to consider best and worst case scenarios for the Windy City’s fiscal future, including lessons learned from recent chapter 9 municipal bankruptcies. Chicago Fed Vice President William Testa opened up by presenting an alternative method of assessing whether a municipality city is currently insolvent or might become so in the future: he proposed that considering real property in a city might offer both an indicator of the resources available to its governments and how property owners view the prospects of the city, adding that, in addition to traditional financial indicators, property values can be used as a powerful—but not perfect—indicators to reflect a municipality’s current situation and the likelihood for insolvency in the future. He noted that there is considerable evidence that fiscal liabilities of a municipality are capitalized into the value of its properties, and that, if a municipality has high liabilities, those are reflected in an adjustment down in the value of its real estate. Based upon examination, he noted using the examples of Chicago, Milwaukee, and Detroit; Detroit’s property market collapse coincided with its political and economic crises: between 2006 and 2009-2010, the selling price of single family homes in Detroit fell by four-fold; during those years and up to the present, the majority of transactions were done with cash, rather than traditional mortgages, indicating, he said, that the property market is severely distressed. In contrast, he noted, property values in Chicago have seen rebounds in both residential and commercial properties; in Milwaukee, he noted there is less property value, but higher municipal bond ratings, due, he noted, to the state’s reputation for fiscal conservatism and very low unfunded public pension liabilities—on a per capita basis, Chicago’s real estate value compares favorably to other big cities: it lags Los Angeles and New York City, but is ahead of Houston (unsurprisingly given that oil city’s severe pension fiscal crisis) and Phoenix. Nevertheless, he concluded, he believes comparisons between Chicago and Detroit are overblown; the property value indicator shows that property owners in Chicago see value despite the city’s fiscal instability. Therefore, adding the property value indicator could provide additional context to otherwise misleading rankings and ratings that underestimate Chicago’s economic strength.

Lessons Learned from Recent Municipal Bankruptcies. The Chicago Fed conference than convened a session featuring our former State & Local Leader of the Week, Jim Spiotto, a veteran of our more than decade-long efforts to gain former President Ronald Reagan’s signature on PL 100-597 to reform the nation’s municipal bankruptcy laws, who discussed finding from his new, prodigious primer on chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. Mr. Spiotto advised that chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy is expensive, uncertain, and exceptionally rare—adding it is restrictive in that only debt can be adjusted in the process, because U.S. bankruptcy courts do not have the jurisdiction to alter services. Noting that only a minority of states even authorize local governments to file for federal bankruptcy protection, he noted there is no involuntary process whereby a municipality can be pushed into bankruptcy by its creditors—making it profoundly distinct from Chapter 11 corporate bankruptcy, adding that municipal bankruptcy is solely voluntary on the part of the government. Moreover, he said that, in his prodigious labor over decades, he has found that the large municipal governments which have filed for chapter 9 bankruptcy, each has its own fiscal tale, but, as a rule, these filings have generally involved service level insolvency, revenue insolvency, or economic insolvency—adding that if a school system, county, or city does not have these extraordinary fiscal challenges, municipal bankruptcy is probably not the right option. In contrast, he noted, however, if a municipality elects to file for bankruptcy, it would be wise to develop a comprehensive, long-term recovery plan as part of its plan of debt adjustment.

He was followed by Professor Eric Scorsone, Senior Deputy State Treasurer in the Michigan Department of Treasury, who spoke of the fall and rise of Detroit, focusing on the Motor City’s recovery—who noted that by the time Gov. Rick Snyder appointed Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, Detroit was arguably insolvent by all of the measures Mr. Spiotto had described, noting that it took the chapter 9 bankruptcy process and mediation to bring all of the city’s communities together to develop the “Grand Bargain” involving a federal judge, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, the Kellogg Foundation, and the Detroit Institute of Arts (a bargain outlined on the napkin of a U.S. District Court Judge, no less) which allowed Detroit to complete and approved plan of debt adjustment and exit municipal bankruptcy. He added that said plan, thus, mandated the philanthropic community, the State of Michigan, and the City of Detroit to put up funding to offset significant proposed public pension cuts. The outcome of this plan of adjustment and its requisite flexibility and comprehensive nature, have proven durable: Prof. Scorsone said the City of Detroit’s finances have significantly improved, and the city is on track to have its oversight board, the Financial Review Commission (FRC) become dormant in 2018—adding that Detroit’s economic recovery since chapter 9 bankruptcy has been extraordinary: much better than could have been imagined five years ago. The city sports a budget surplus, basic services are being provided again, and people and businesses are returning to Detroit.

Harrison J. Goldin, the founder of Goldin Associates, focused his remarks on the near-bankruptcy of New York City in the 1970s, which he said is a unique case, but one with good lessons for other municipal and state leaders (Mr. Goldin was CFO of New York City when it teetered on the edge of bankruptcy). He described Gotham’s disarray in managing and tracking its finances and expenditures prior to his appointment as CFO, noting that the fiscal and financial crisis forced New York City to live within its means and become more transparent in its budgeting. At the same time, he noted, the fiscal crisis also forced difficult cuts to services: the city had to close municipal hospitals, reduce pensions, and close firehouses—even as it increased fees, such as requiring tuition at the previously free City University of New York system and raising bus and subway fares. Nevertheless, he noted: there was an upside: a stable financial environment paved the way for the city to prosper. Thus, he advised, the lesson of all of the municipal bankruptcies and near-bankruptcies he has consulted on is that a coalition of public officials, unions, and civic leaders must come together to implement the four steps necessary for financial recovery: “first, documenting definitively the magnitude of the problem; second, developing a credible multi-year remediation plan; third, formulating credible independent mechanisms for monitoring compliance; and finally, establishing service priorities around which consensus can coalesce.”

How Do State & Local Leaders Confront & Respond to Significant Population Declines?

eBlog, 04/21/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the unique fiscal challenge confronting Detroit: how does it deal with the fiscal challenges—challenges also confronting cities such as Cleveland, Philadelphia, Toledo, Dayton, Baltimore, and Philadelphia—which are experiencing significant population declines? What to do with vacant lots which no longer bring in property tax revenues—but enhance criminal proclivities?  

Fiscal & Physical Municipal Balancing. While Detroit has emerged fiscally from the nation’s largest ever municipal bankruptcy, it continues to be fiscally and governmentally bedeviled by the governance challenge of such a significant population contraction—it is, after all, a city of about 132 square miles, dotting with neighborhoods which have become splotches of vacant lots and abandoned homes: post-bankrupt Detroit, with neighborhoods that have been gradually emptying out, in a physical sense, is a shadow of its former self, with a population nearly 60% smaller than it was in 1950, but with a stock of some 40,000 abandoned homes and vacant lots—space which brings in no property taxes, but can breed crime and safety costs for the city: between 1978 and 2007, Detroit lost 67% of its business establishments and 80% of its manufacturing base. This untoward, as it were, “ungrowth” has come even as the city has spent $100 million more, on average, than its revenues since 2008: Census figures inform us that more than one in three of the city’s citizens fall below the poverty level—ranking the Motor City, along with Cleveland, Dayton, Toledo, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, as cities realizing major depopulation. Thus, while downtown Detroit today is gleaming towers along a vibrant waterfront, one need not drive far from the internationally acclaimed Detroit Institute of Arts to witness neighborhoods which are nearly abandoned as residents continue to move to the suburbs. Thus, with some of the fiscal issues effectively addressed under the city’s approved plan of debt adjustment, Detroit is commencing a number of initiatives to try to address what might be deemed its physical devastation—a challenge, in some ways, more complex than its finances: How does an emptier city restore blighted neighborhoods and link the islands of neighborhoods which have been left? Or, mayhap better put: how does the city re-envision and rebuild?

Here it seems the city is focused on four key initiatives: draw new families into the city (look at Chicago and how Mayor Emanuel succeeded); convert vacant lots from crime havens to community gardens; convert vast empty spaces to urban farms; devise a strategy to fill empty store fronts; and, again as did Mayor Emanuel, create a strategy to bring back young families with children to live in the city.

Already, Detroit’s downtown core is a new world from my first visit when the National League of Cities convened its annual meeting there in the 1980’s—a time when at the front desk of the hotel I was staying, the attendant told me that even though I could see the convention site from the hotel, it would be a grave risk to life and limb to even think about taking the bus or walking—a situation unchanged on a similar day, Detroit’s very first day in chapter 9 bankruptcy, when I had proposed setting out to walk to the Governor Rick Snyder’s Detroit office to meet just-appointed Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr. Today, the revived downtown has attracted young people, often in redeveloped historic buildings; but that emerging vibrancy does not include housing options for people at different stages of life. Thus, the city is making an effort to offer more differentiated housing options, including townhouses, apartments, carriage homes and more—as well as housing for seniors. Or, as Melissa Dittmer, director of architecture and design for Bedrock LLC, the company leading the development, notes with regard to an initiative just outside of downtown: “For so long, Detroit had a low-self-confidence issue and was willing to take just about” any residential development: “Now the city of Detroit has crossed a threshold. We can do better.”

Outside of the downtown area, one sample neighborhood, Fitzgerald, today has 131 vacant houses and 242 vacant lots; but the city’s Director of Housing and Revitalization, Arthur Jemison, notes these lots need not be filled with houses; instead, the city is moving to invest more than $4 million into the neighborhood to renovate 115 homes, landscape 192 vacant lots, and create a park with a bicycle path, or, as Mr. Jemison notes: “We can’t possibly rebuild every vacant lot with new construction…What we can do is rehabilitate a whole lot of houses, and we can have an intentional landscape scene. The landscape is important, because frankly, if it’s done and managed well, it’s inexpensive and people like it.”

But the comprehensive effort also recognizes the city does not need additional housing stock: it needs less; so it has unearthed a program, RecoveryPark Farms, to construct greenhouses on a 60-acre plot, a plot which until recently represented two dozen blighted blocks on Detroit’s east side. This unique project has diverse goals: it eliminates breeding territory for crime, eliminates blight, and creates opportunities for the unemployed, especially ex-offenders and recovering addicts. The program’s CEO Gary Wozniak, who spent more than three years in federal prison, notes farming offers a career with a lower bar for hiring and gives immediate feedback because “plants grow relatively quickly, so people can start to feel really good about building skill sets. Plus, Detroit has a lot of land.” Already, its harvests are purchased by some of Detroit’s top restaurants on a year-round basis, or, as CEO Wozniak put it: “What we’re doing is commercial-scale agriculture in an urban environment.”

On Detroit’s first day of bankruptcy, the walk from my downtown hotel to the Governor’s uptown office almost seem to resemble post-war Berlin: empty, abandoned buildings and storefronts. Thus, another post-bankruptcy challenge has been how to fill the vacant storefronts along Detroit’s half-abandoned commercial corridors—and, here, a partnership between the City of Detroit and other economic-development organizations, Motor City Match, works to create links between selected landlords and new small businesses, with a goal of converting blighted commercial districts to make them both more livable and more effective at providing job opportunities for residents—or, as Michael Forsyth, Director of small-business services at the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., notes: Motor City Match “helps get businesses from ideas to open.” The program awards $500,000 in grants every quarter, assisting businesses in completing a business plan, finding a place to open, and renovating office space: its CEO, Patrick Beal, CEO of the Detroit Training Center, received $100,000 during the first round of the program and matched it with a $100,000 loan. Now, with the help of Motor City Match, the company has trained more than 5,000 Detroiters in construction, heavy-equipment operation and other skills.

Finally, again as with Mayor Emanuel, the City respects the importance of children—meaning it must focus on public safety, and schools—governance challenges of the first order, especially as we have been long-writing, the parallel financial insolvency of the Detroit public schools. Thus, Ethan Lowenstein, the Director of the Southeast Michigan Stewardship Coalition, is working with educators and local organizations in the region to help young people address environmental challenges in their communities, noting that families with children “leave because they don’t see the strength in their community and they don’t feel recognized as someone who has knowledge.” Mr. Lowenstein is seeking to reverse the city’s depopulation trend by working with the Detroit Public Schools. At two schools he works with in southwest Detroit, he says, students were on a walk around their community and noticed tires were being illegally dumped. The schools helped the students and worked with community members to identify areas with illegally dumped tires, and eventually the tires were recycled into doormats.  

In recovery from chapter 9 bankruptcy, sometimes the fiscal part can seem easy compared to the human dimension.

Addressing Municipal Fiscal Distress

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eBlog, 04/05/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider some unique efforts to address municipal fiscal distress by the Illinois Legislature, based upon tag team efforts by the irrepressible fiscal tag team of Jim Spiotto and Laurence Msall of the Chicago Civic Federation. The effort matters, especially as the Volker Alliance’s William Glasgall, its Director of State and Local Programs, has raised issues and questions vis-à-vis state roles relating to addressing severe municipal fiscal distress. As we have noted—with only a minority of states even authorizing municipal bankruptcy, there are significant differences in state roles relating to severe municipal fiscal distress and insolvency. Thus, this Illinois initiative could offer a new way to think about state constructive roles. Then we turn to Ferguson, Missouri to assess its municipal election results—and its remarkable, gritty fiscal recovery from the brink of insolvency.

Addressing Municipal Fiscal Distress. The Illinois Legislature is considering House Bill 2575, the Illinois Local Government Protection Authority Act, offered by Rep. David Harris (R-Arlington Heights), which would establish an Authority for the purpose of achieving solutions to financial difficulties faced by units of local government, creating a board of trustees, and defining the Authority’s duties and powers, including the ability to obtain the unit of local government’s records—and to recommend revenue increases. The legislation provides for a petition process, whereby certain entities may petition the Authority to review a unit of local government; it also sets forth participation requirements. The effort comes in the wake of distressed local governments struggling under the weight of pension, healthcare, and other debts: it would propose this new, special authority for fiscal guidance to fiscally strapped local units of government, but without mandating severe budget cuts—or, as Rep. Harris described it: a “cooperative effort between the state and financially unit of local government…(one which) involves local elected officials and local governmental bodies and taxpayers, workers, and business entities developing a plan of financial recovery — is the best way to find a permanent solution to current financial challenges.” According to the Chicago Civic Federation, which asserts the intent is to help the state’s municipalities recover without being forced into chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, such an authority could be valuable—especially in a state which, like the majority of states, does not generally permit a city, county, or other municipal entity to file for bankruptcy. Under the proposal, nine trustees would oversee the new authority, including four appointed by the Illinois Municipal League; the Governor, Speaker of the House, and Minority Leader, and their state Senate counterparts would each appoint one member: the new authority would rely on the Illinois Comptroller’s office to provide reports and some operational support; the legislation would also set a fee schedule to enable coverage of its administrative costs.

The exceptional leader of the Federation, Laurence Msall, noted: “The LGPA would serve as a resource to assist distressed municipalities in making determinations as to what essential governmental services are sustainable and affordable and what combination of revenue increases and service cuts, and other actions would be necessary to ensure fiscal sustainability and access to critical services.” Under the proposed legislation, a municipality could petition the authority to intervene; but also, the Illinois Comptroller, a public pension fund, or even a large creditor owed a substantial debt could. The proposal would authorize a municipality to petition too—provided it committed to participate—and provided it met specific criteria, including inadequate liquidity, overdue debt, weak pension funding ratios, or signal budget imbalances. If triggered, the suggested new authority would be authorized to recommend budget cuts, tax increases, and/or pension funding actions: as proposed, the authority would be charged with reviewing whether the city, county, or other unit of government should:

  • try to negotiate a debt restructuring,
  • explore public-private partnerships, or
  • asset sales and consolidation.

The authority would be authorized to consider potential pension reforms, such as whether the municipality should offer more corporate-style retirement plans, as well as whether it should establish a trust to fund its OPEB post-retirement healthcare obligations.

The proposed legislation authorizes authority to set fiscal targets; it offers the option for the proposed new authority to serve as a mediator in negotiations between a municipality and debtors, to endorse tax increases—increases which might trigger a public referendum, and issue recommendations to the Illinois state government with regard to the diversion of funds to address specific municipal funding mandates—granting authority too to seek declaratory and injunctive relief with regard to the exercise of its powers and implementation of its findings and recommendations. Finally, as a last resort, the authority could recommend pursuit of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. The nation’s architect of the federal municipal chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy law, Jim Spiotto, notes: “This municipal protection authority concept could be the means of providing state and local government cooperation and oversight while allowing the municipality, its elected officials, workers and unions, creditors and bondholders to have a means of participation with a definitive end result.” For his part, Mr. Msall described the rationale as vital to establishing “a systematic means of evaluating and assisting these governments,” instead of taking on municipal fiscal distress on a case-by-case effort, noting that “The Civic Federation is very concerned about the financial condition of many local governments in the state of Illinois, and many of them which will not be able to seek assistance unless there is the creation of this authority.”

& The Winner is: Ferguson, Missouri voters have reelected incumbent Mayor James Knowles III to a third term in the municipality’s first mayoral election since protests erupted there three years ago in the wake of one of the city’s white police officer’s shooting of an unarmed black 18-year-old—a shooting which ignited a national protest and led to a federal Justice Department intervention and harsh fiscal penalties for the nearly insolvent municipality. Mayor Knowles won by a 56%–44% margin against Councilwoman Ella Jones, who is black, in a small municipality which was once an overwhelmingly white “sundown town” where, until the 1960s, African-Americans were banned after dark. Perhaps ironically, the Mayor’s reelection followed just one day in the wake of U.S. Attorney General Gen. Jeff Sessions’ order that the U.S. Justice Department review its existing consent decrees with municipal police departments—the agreement in Ferguson, imposed under the Obama administration, imposed unfunded federal mandates, including demands to levy new taxes. In its report, the Obama Justice Department had alleged that the Ferguson Police Department and the City of Ferguson relied on unconstitutional practices in order to balance the city’s budget through racially motivated excessive fines and punishments, so that former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder stated the federal government would use its authority to dismantle the Ferguson Police Department—a threat, which at the time, Ferguson’s then-Mayor had warned could mark the first time in the nation’s history that the federal government might force a municipality into municipal bankruptcy, and led credit rating agency Moody’s to place the municipality’s municipal bond rating on review for downgrade because of threats to the city’s solvency—with the downgrade of the city’s general obligation rating reflecting what the credit rating agency described as “the continued pressure on the city’s finances from a persistent structural imbalance and incorporating the recently approved U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) consent decree, projected to increase annual General Fund expenses over the next several years,” in the wake of Moody’s assessment after the U.S. Justice Department lawsuit against the small city, noting its downgrade then had reflected concerns related to the uncertainty of the potential financial impact of litigation costs from the federal lawsuit and the price tag for implementing the proposed DOJ consent decree, writing: “We believe fiscal ramifications from these items will be significant and could result in insolvency.”

Indeed, the Justice Department’s unfunded federal mandates included federally imposed financial penalties, and the mandate to levy new, municipal taxes: leading to voter approval of a utility tax hike projected to generate $700,000 annually—an increase which Mayor Knowles, at the time, described as a critical vote, because, had the measure failed, the city’s police force’s authorized number would have been cut to 44, and firefighter jobs would also have been cut; he had warned, in addition, that the vote was intended to make clear the city was fiscally viable. So, today, in the wake of resignations and elections, Ferguson features three black council members, a black police chief, and a black city manager—and, in the interim, Mayor Knowles has survived a recall attempt (in 2015), noting in a Facebook post during the campaign that he wanted to follow the example set by former President Abraham Lincoln: “For those familiar with history, during the Civil War, Lincoln was often criticized by people on both sides of the issues of slavery and the war because of his even-handedness and his resistance to the pressures of radicals on both sides. He knew radicalism, even after the war, would further divide us, which it has for generations.”

Mayor Knowles’ challenger, Councilmember Jones, ran, because, she said, it was “time for Ferguson to unite and become one Ferguson, and we cannot move forward under the leadership that we are under at this point,” harshly criticizing the U.S. Attorney General’s move to review the city’s consent decree—one which Mr. Sessions had previously claimed was based on a report that was “anecdotal” and “not so scientifically based,” with Councilmember Jones warning that the Attorney General’s action was “not going to help Ferguson at all,” adding: “We need that consent decree in order to keep Ferguson moving forward.” Nevertheless, the gritty, can-do leadership of the city’s elected officials appears to have defied the odds: City Manager De’Carlon Seewood recently wrote that in the wake of a “drastic decline” in revenue, “the city’s operating budget is beyond lean. It’s emaciated.”

 

Addressing Municipal Fiscal Disparities

eBlog, 03/01/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the dire stakes for Chicago’s kids if the State of Illinois continues to be unable to get its fiscal act together; then we admire the recent wisdom on fiscal disparities among municipalities in Massachusetts and Connecticut by the ever remarkable Bo Zhao of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.

Bad Fiscal Math.  Chicago Public School CEO Forrest Claypool Monday warned the public schools in the city could be forced to close nearly three weeks early and that summer school programs could be cut if the district does not receive a fast-tracked, favorable preliminary ruling from a Cook County judge in the near future, stating: “These possibilities are deeply painful to every school community.” Mr. Claypool, a former Chief of Staff to Mayor Daley, in an epistle to families with children in the city’s school system, warned the school year could end June 1st instead of June 20th without action; moreover, he noted that CPS’s summer school could be eliminated for all elementary and middle-school students, except those in special education programs, as he sought to increase pressure on Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Illinois legislature to help, warning success would depend on the courts or what has been billed as a “grand bargain” in the state capitol of Springfield to resolve Illinois’ record budget impasse. The CEO’s actions were not coordinated with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who campaigned hard in his first term to extend the year for CPS students—a campaign in which the Mayor sought to reverse what we had termed as a “time bomb,” how to reverse the tide of an exodus of 200,000 citizens and make the city a key demographic destination for the 25-29 age group—i.e., meaning a critical commitment to public schools and safety. Now the state’s inability to act on a budget threatens both: the city’s School Board earlier this month accused the state of employing “separate and unequal systems of funding for public education in Illinois” in its lawsuit filed against both Gov. Rauner and the Illinois State Board of Education, describing its suit as the “last stand” for a cash-strapped district which is “on the brink,” seeking to have Judge Franklin Ulyses Valderrama of the Cook County Chancery Division issue a preliminary injunction which would prevent the state from “continuing to fund two separate but massively unequal systems of education,” noting it intends to present its case for an injunction to the court on Friday. In addition to seeking judicial relief, the System, in its judicial filing, noted that reductions in summer school programs and the academic year could save about $96 million; however, a shortened school year could violate Illinois state requirements with regard to the length of the public school year.

Without any doubt, the threatened disruption is undermining the trust of teachers, students, taxpayers, and parents with regard to the system’s future—brought on here by the awkward math of Gov. Rauner’s veto last December of a measure which would have provided CPS with $215 million in state aid—a measure the Governor argued was contingent on Democratic leaders agreeing to broader state public pension reforms. The ante was upped further at the beginning of the week, when Illinois Secretary of Education Beth Purvis said that instead of threatening cuts to the school year, CPS should focus on pushing legislation to overhaul the state’s education funding formula, stating: “I hope that they would really look seriously at not cutting days from the school year…I think people need to understand that the CPS board adopted a budget with a $215 million hole in it. Why is the governor being held responsible for that instead of the CPS board?” Even as the city sought to pressure the state, however, the Chicago Teachers Union this week issued a statement accusing Mayor Emanuel and the school board of playing politics instead of turning to solutions to help schools such as raising taxes, with union President Karen Lewis stating: “The Mayor is behaving as if he has zero solutions is incredibly irresponsible…Rahm wants us to let him off the hook for under-funding our schools and instead wait for the Bad Bargain to pass the Senate or [Gov.] Rauner’s cold, cold heart to melt and provide fair funds.” For those kids imagining an earlier summer break, CEO Claypool would not say when the district would make a final decision to shorten the school year, noting: “We think it would be wrong to prematurely set a final date for a decision when we still have the opportunity to prevent a shorter school year.”

Revenue Sharing. Bo Zhao, the extraordinary writer for the Boston Federal Reserve who authored the very fine piece: “Walking a Tightrope: Are U.S. State and Local Governments on A Fiscally Sustainable Path?” has now completed another piercing study regarding municipal fiscal disparities: “From Urban Core to Wealthy Towns,” looking at fiscal disparities amongst municipalities in Connecticut, and comparing state policies and practices there with Massachusetts, noting: “Fiscal disparities occur when economic resources and public service needs are not evenly distributed across localities. There are equity concerns associated with fiscal disparities. Using a cost-capacity gap framework and a newly assembled data set, this article is the first study to quantify non-school fiscal disparities across Connecticut municipalities. It finds significant non-school fiscal disparities, driven primarily by the uneven distribution of the property tax base while cost differentials also play an important role. State non-school grants are found to have a relatively small effect in offsetting municipal fiscal disparities.

Unlike previous research focused on a single state, this article also conducts a cross-state comparison. It finds that non-school fiscal disparities in Connecticut are more severe than those in Massachusetts, and non-school grants in Connecticut are less equalizing than those in Massachusetts. This article’s conceptual framework and empirical approach are generalizable to other states and other countries.” Writing that his is the first article to quantify non-school fiscal disparities across the Nutmeg State, he notes they are “driven primarily by the uneven distribution of the property tax base, while cost differentials also play an important role,” as he assesses fiscal disparities amongst the state’s 169 municipalities, writing: “There is recent evidence that this longtime state neglect may have exacerbated non-school fiscal disparities…If state aid formulae are based only on local revenue raising-capacity and ignore cost disparities, they would not fully offset fiscal disparities.” This leads him to note: “Urban core municipalities exhibit the highest average per capita cost, mainly because they have the highest unemployment rate and population density, and the most jobs per capita…This means that nearly one-fifth of Connecticut residents live in the highest cost environments.” In contrast, he notes that “wealthier-property rural towns have the lowest average per capita municipal cost—more than 25 percent lower than the urban core municipal cost.” A key part of the fiscal challenge, he writes, is that in the state, the property tax is the only “tax vehicle authorized for municipal governments and virtually the only own-source revenue available to support the local general fund,” adding that the property tax makes up some 94 percent of own source general fund revenue. All of which led Mr. Zhao to assess or measure what he defines as the “Municipal Gap,” or the difference between municipal cost versus municipal capacity: a measure which he finds demonstrates that “a significant share of Connecticut municipalities and populations face municipal gaps”…with urban core municipalities confronting a gap of as much as $1,000 per capita.

Turning to the state role in addressing fiscal disparities, he notes that non-school grants in the state “do not have an explicit equalization goal.” Such grants are broadly spread, and not “well targeted to fiscally disadvantaged municipalities,” indeed, describing the gap as “very wide,” and noting that a comparison with neighboring Massachusetts would better enable Connecticut law and policy makers to better understand the “relative severity of Connecticut municipal fiscal disparities.” While noting that unlike many other states, neither of these two New England states have active county governments, so that municipalities bear much greater responsibilities for a wide range of public services—and property taxes are almost their sole source of municipal revenues, he distinguishes Connecticut’s greater municipal fiscal disparities in that it has a larger share of its population living in what he terms “smallest-gap” municipalities. Finally, he distinguishes the respective state roles by noting that Massachusetts has a “more explicit equalization goal and its main distribution formula directly considers the differences across municipalities in revenue-raising capacity.”

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.

Who’s at Risk of Defaulting?

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eBlog, 12/16/16

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the challenge to state and local leaders arising from both the Federal Reserve’s decision to increase interest rates, apprehensions about growing state budget gaps—and the respective implications for city and county credit ratings—as well, of course, to the incoming Trump administration and next Congress’ proposals on federal tax reform where—as under former President Ronald Reagan, the authority of state and local governments to issue tax exempt municipal bonds is expected to come under challenge—as is the deductibility of state and local taxes. Moreover, with the Federal Reserve’s decision to raise interest rates, those increases could boost mortgage rates—adversely impacting assessed property values—putting cities, counties, and school districts into distinctly uncomfortable territory. Then we turn to the frigid weather in East Cleveland, where the city’s insolvency has let to increasing service insolvency and an inability to clear the city’s roads—threatening the capacity and ability to provide emergency public services. Then we follow the nation’s frigid weather east to Shenandoah, where the fiscally beset municipality of Petersburg, Virginia was hit yesterday by a 4th U.S. Circuit decision, even as S&P Credit granted it a small Yuletide respite. Finally, we venture back west to Chicago, where Municipal Market Analytics helps us to try to untangle the fiscal arithmetic so burdening the Chicago Public Schools.

Nota bene: We wish all readers a well-deserved holiday to you and your loved ones; we will resume the week after next.

Who’s at Risk of Default? Municipal Market Analytics this week, drawing from compiled data, noted that the trend of annually declining defaults is over—breaking a six-year trend—and warning that it “expects that issuer-credit quality has begun to erode,” describing the ominous trend as not only a factor of more “aggressive/permissive” underwriting standards, but also the risk created by growing state budget gaps—gaps which are likely to result in a double fiscal whammy for municipalities, counties, and school districts of reduced local aid—as well as less state public infrastructure investment. MMA suggests “municipal default activity will increase in 2017.”

Brrr! Municipal insolvency, as we have previously noted, often involves service insolvency. Thus it is that many side streets in the insolvent municipality of East Cleveland are complete sheets of ice—and have been so for an entire week, because the city does not have any working snow plows, leading one constituent to liken living in the city to being in the “Ice Age.” With bitter cold from the lake snow, which has been falling in heavy bands, neither of the municipality’s two salt trucks are working, leading some city officials to opine that the money spent on the recent special recall election could have been better used to fix the salt trucks. With one resident noting that “It is very precarious until you get into Cleveland or until you get into Cleveland Heights,” residents can easily make out the boundary where East Cleveland ends and Cleveland Heights begins: on the latter side, the streets are totally cleared. Ice free and this is all “full of ice.” One beleaguered resident noted: “I really hope that we can one day join with Cleveland…That is the only answer.”

Teeter Tottering in Petersburg. The fiscally struggling, historic Virginia municipality of Petersburg was on a teeter totter yesterday, after the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday ruled that the city’s police department’s policy barring its employees from criticizing the department on social media was unconstitutional (for further details, please see this morning’s Little Legalities in the eGnus), because its social media policy constituted a “virtual blanket prohibition” on all speech critical of the department and was “unconstitutionally overbroad,” but as the city was removed by S&P Global Ratings from Credit Watch.  In its decision, the court acknowledged a city’s need for discipline, but found that the policy and the disciplinary actions taken pursuant to it would, if upheld, lead to an utter lack of transparency in law enforcement operations that the First Amendment cannot countenance. (The suit had been filed after two of the city’s officers were placed on probation for discussing on Facebook their concerns about inexperienced officers being promoted and leading the department’s training programs: the department’s policy prohibited employees from posting anything that would “tend to discredit or reflect unfavorably” upon the agency—something the court held the police cannot be allowed to do.) In its ratings change, S&P, nevertheless, maintained its junk BB ratings on Petersburg’s general obligation bonds: the city has just over $55 million general obligation, full faith and credit bonds and Qualified Zone Academy bonds outstanding. S&P analyst Timothy Little wrote: “We removed the rating from CreditWatch due to the city securing $6.5 million in cash-flow notes…The negative outlook reflects the extreme uncertainty regarding the city’s ability to return to structural balance and what will likely be persistently very weak liquidity in a difficult budgetary environment,” adding that: “In our opinion, the interest rate is high compared to other non-distressed entities that annually place TANs, further underscoring the fiscal distress of the city.” The continued fiscal distress hinged on the city’s ongoing inability to balance its budget, in the main part because municipal property and other taxes have been less than projected, while expenditures for public safety and health and welfare have exceeded the city’s budget by $2.5 million, according to S&P. (A Virginia technical assistance team reported that general fund expenditures exceeded revenue by at least $5.3 million in FY 2016, and identified a structural imbalance with Petersburg’s FY2017 budget—leading to a state estimate that the city has $18.8 million in unpaid obligations to external entities and internal loans, including repayment of the TANs. S&P further noted that even though the city’s economy is diverse, its 27.5% poverty rate is more than double the statewide level—meaning it bears disproportionate fiscal challenges.

Pixie Dust? Municipal Market Analytics this week inquired into the harsh realities of determining interest rates with regard to municipalities in fiscal straits seeking to go to market (not to buy a fat pig!), focusing on the Chicago Public Schools—suggesting that investors in the school district’s new capital improvement tax bonds should seriously consider the bond-holder settlements in Detroit—and the ongoing legal battles in Puerto Rico—in trying to determine what interest rate would constitute sufficient compensation for the legal and credit uncertainties present in a muni transaction, suggesting: “Basically, rather than use its traditional alternative revenue bond security (which entails a pledge of state aid backstopped by an unlimited property tax), CPS is directly pledging its new limited property tax levy solely for the benefit of bondholders.” Theoretically, MMA notes, the new municipal security (rated A by Fitch and BBB by Kroll) insulates municipal bondholders from CPS’s not very investor friendly credit rating and profile—especially its very high unfunded public pension liability, but then wrote: “However, the real perceived strength here is the durability of the structure, or persistence of regular debt service payments, in a hypothetical (and currently not-permitted) municipal bankruptcy. This durability relies upon legal opinions that conclude that the new bond obligations would be considered backed by special revenues and therefore bond-holders would not see their lien impaired.” However, MMA noted, such reliance might not be something upon which to hang one’s Santa stocking, writing: “The aspiration of the structure is to insulate the bondholders from the fiscal troubles of the district, although the repayment schedule suggests that the district may have taken a more short-term view of the soundness of the transaction given the back-loaded principal. The main trouble with the transaction lies not with the documents but with the assumption—generally implicit, yet quite explicit in the opinions—that the fiscally distressed district will unconditionally continue to abide by, and not challenge the provisions of the indentures or ‘use or claim the right to use’ the capital improvement tax revenues. In other words, to rely on the willingness of CPS not to act exactly like every recent distressed city (and territory) in invading, capturing, and re-purposing every bondholder asset within and beyond easy reach. Even constitutional bond protections have fallen victim to debtor challenges during government disruption. So for this security to function fully as described, CPS would need to experience a Goldilocks bankruptcy the likes of which the municipal market has not seen in decades.” Thus, MMA, in a Yule gifted insight, strongly encourages potential muni investors to carefully unwrap the seasonal gift to determine whether it is really of better credit quality than CPS’ alternative revenue bonds, and “to be avoided by accounts who consider a CPS municipal bankruptcy to be likely or even unavoidable.”