Catalysts to Fiscal Recoveries

November 10, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the ongoing challenges to Detroit’s recovery from the nation’s largest ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy; the State of Michigan’s winnowing down of municipalities under state oversight; and the ongoing physical and fiscal challenges to Puerto Rico.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

Reframing the Motor City’s Post Chapter 9 Future. Nolan Finley, a wonderful contributor to the editorial page of the Detroit News, this week noted “elections are a wonderful catalyst for refocusing priorities, as evidenced by the just-completed Detroit mayoral campaign, which moved the city’s comeback conversation away from the downtown development boom and centered it on the uneven progress of the neighborhoods. Never before has such an intense spotlight shown on the places where most Detroit voters actually live.” He attributed some of the credit to the loser in this week’s mayoral election, challenger Coleman Young II, who forced Mayor Mike Duggan to defend his record on improving quality of life in the neighborhoods. He perceptively wrote that while candidate Young’s ugly “Take back the Motherland” rallying cry was dispiriting, it spoke to the governing challenge the newly, re-elected Mayor confronts, writing: “Detroit is not a city united. It must become one. There were too many skirmishes along the racial divide in this mayoral contest. The old city versus suburb story line was replaced by a neighborhood versus downtown narrative, but both are code for black versus white. Four years ago, Duggan’s election as Detroit’s first white mayor in 40 years suggested much of the city was ready to stop looking back at its dark and divisive past and begin focusing on a brighter future.” Now, he wrote, after Mayor Duggan focused his first term on meeting the city’s plan of debt adjustment, and trying to improve the quality of life for residents—and as developers are beginning to add community projects to their downtown portfolios, “too many in the neighborhoods feel as if their lives are not getting better, or at least not fast enough.” Thus, he noted, Mayor Duggan needs to redouble his efforts to restore the city’s residential communities, and push ahead the timetable: “Four years from now, Detroit cannot still be wearing the mantle of America’s most violent city.” He added that while Mayor Duggan has little—too little—authority to address education in Detroit; nevertheless—just as his colleague Rahm Emanuel, the Mayor of Chicago recognized, needs to strongly back Detroit Public School Superintendent Nikolai Vitti’s efforts to rapidly boost the performance of the Detroit Public Schools Community District: it is a key to bringing young families back into the city. And, Mr. Finley wrote, the mayor “must also find a way to connect the neighborhoods to downtown, to instill in all residents a sense of ownership and pride in the rejuvenation of the core city. That means getting way better at inclusion. Downtown’s comeback must be more diverse, and include many more of the people who have grown up and stayed in the city. Encouraging and supporting more African-American entrepreneurs is a great place to begin breaking down the perception that downtown is just for white people: Detroit needs more diversity everywhere in the city, both racial and economic,” referring especially to young millennials who are steeped in social justice and imbued with the obsession to give back that marks their generation. “They are committed Detroiters. And they deserve to be appreciated for their contributions, not made to feel guilty or viewed as a threat to hard-won gains.”

Free, Free at Last. Michigan State officials have released Royal Oak Township, a municipality of about 2,500 just north of Detroit, from its consent agreement: Michigan Treasurer Nick Khouri said the Oakland County municipality has resolved its financial emergency and is ready to emerge from the state oversight imposed since 2014, stating: “I am pleased to see the significant progress Royal Oak Charter Township has made under the consent agreement…Township officials went beyond the agreement and enacted policies that provide the community an opportunity to flourish. I am pleased to say the township is released from its agreement and look forward to working with them as a local partner in the future.” The township’s financial emergency resulted in an assets FY2012 deficit of nearly $541,000. Township Supervisor Donna Squalls noted: “Royal Oak Charter Township is in better shape than ever…The collaboration between state and township has provided an opportunity to enact reforms to ensure our long-term fiscal sustainability.” Treasurer Khouri also said the township was the last Michigan remaining municipality following a consent agreement: Over the last two years, Wayne County, Inkster, and River Rouge were released from consent agreements because of fiscal and financial improvements and operational reforms. The Treasurer noted that today only three communities, Ecorse, Flint, and Hamtramck, remain under state oversight through a Receivership Transition Advisory Board.

Preempting Authority. House Natural Resources Committee Chair Rob Bishop (R—Utah) this week said the PROMESA Oversight Board should be granted even more power to preempt the authority of the government of Puerto Rico, stating: “Today’s testimony will inform the work of Congress to ensure the Oversight Board and federal partners have the tools to coordinate an effective and sustained recovery,” in a written statement after a hearing of the House Committee on Natural Resources: “It is clear that a stronger mechanism will be necessary to align immediate recovery with long-term revitalization and rebuilding.” Chairman Bishop added: “This committee will work to ensure [the Puerto Rico Oversight Board] has the tools to effectively execute that mission and build a path forward for this island and its residents.” The Board was created last year to oversee fiscal management by the island government, which had said more than $70 billion of debt was unpayable under current economic conditions. Since the hurricane, the Board has clashed with the territorial government over leadership at the power utility. During the hearing the board’s Executive Director, Natalie Jaresko, said the ability of Puerto Rico’s government to repay its debt was “gravely worse” than it was before Hurricane Maria, which arrived Sept. 20. By the end of December, the Board plans to complete a 30 year debt sustainability analysis with Puerto Rico’s government, she said: “After the hurricane, it is even more critical that the Board be able to operate quickly and decisively…to avoid uncertainty and lengthy delays in litigation, Congressional reaffirmation of our exercise of our authority is welcome.” On Oct. 27, the board had filed a motion in the Title III bankruptcy case for the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) seeking the court’s permission to appoint Noel Zamot as the authority’s new leader. The government of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has made it clear that it intends to challenge this motion. The court is scheduled to hold a hearing on the matter on Monday, November 13th.

In calling for more board power, Chairs Bishop and Jaresko probably were at least partly referring to the struggle over PREPA’s leadership. They may also want the Board’s power augmented in other ways: the Board has already announced that it will be creating five-year fiscal plan for Puerto Rico’s government and for its public authorities this winter. Puerto Rico’s government will have substantial needs for federal aid in the coming years, Ms. Jaresko said. Congress plans to tie this aid to the government following the Board’s fiscal plan and this would be appropriate, she said. “Before the hurricanes, the board was determined that Puerto Rico and its instrumentalities could achieve balanced budgets, work its way through its debt problems, and develop a sustainable economy without federal aid,” Ms. Jaresko said in her written testimony. “That is simply no longer possible. Without unprecedented levels of help from the United States government, the recovery we were planning for will fail.” She also said that over the next 1.75 years Puerto Rico’s government will need federal help closing a gap of between $13 billion and $21 billion for basic services. She added the federal government should change tax laws to benefit the island: “The representatives of the Financial Oversight and Management Board (FOMB) who appeared before the House Committee on Natural Resources insist on jeopardizing the necessary resources for the payment of pensions and job stability,” Gov. Rosselló testified in his written statement, adding to that the testimony of Ms. Jaresko and Mr. Zamot “evidenced ignorance about the recovery process in Puerto Rico, presenting incorrect figures relating to the existing conditions on the island,” adding: “I again invite the FOMB to collaborate so that the government of Puerto Rico, together with the support of the federal government, facilitates the fastest possible recovery of our island.” He noted that such assistance should not depend on the Board “assuming the administrative role” which belongs to the elected government of Puerto Rico.

Sanctioned Discrimination. The endorsement that the House Ways and Means Committee effectively incorporated in its “tax reform” legislation reported out of Committee this week appears to discriminate against Puerto Rico, imposing a tariff on the products which Puerto Rico exports to the mainland—threatening to deal a devastating blow to Puerto Rico’s industrial base at the very moment in time the territory is striving to recover from the already disparate hurricane recovery blows. According to economists Joaquín Villamil: “None of these measures, nor the repatriation of profits, the corporate rate and the 20% tax on imports is positive for the island…The companies are not going to pay a 4% royalty to Puerto Rico and a 20% tax to bring their product to the United States. They will leave the island, especially if the tax rate is lowered there.” Mr. Villamil added: “If that happens, 21% of the income received by the Puerto Rican Treasury is eliminated,” he added, referencing P.L. 154, the statute which established a 4% tax on sales of an operation in Puerto Rico to its parent company in the mainland. In its markup, yesterday, the House Ways and Means Committee left almost intact §4303 which establishes a 20% tariff on all imported goods for resale by companies and businesses in the United States. Moreover, the disposition forces multinationals with operations in places such as the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico to repatriate their income to the U.S. What that means is that the production of drugs, medical devices, and many other goods in Puerto Rico is done on U.S. soil; however, for federal tax purposes, Puerto Rico is deemed an international jurisdiction—or, as economist Luis Benítez notes: “This (House Ways and Means bill) generates greater uncertainty about what the economic future of the island should be: with this, the figure of the controlled foreign corporation (CFC) loses the competitive advantage it had (under §936).” He noted that by reducing the corporate rate to multinationals operating in Puerto Rico, the benefit of giving them tax exemptions at the local level is also reduced, as is the case of Law 73 on Industrial Incentives: via the elimination of §936, Puerto Rico, as a place to do business, went from competing with the continental U.S. to competing with countries such as Singapore and Ireland, adding that now a reduction in the corporate rate would cause Puerto Rico not only to compete with the rest of the world, but with jurisdictions on the mainland: “I think that if I were the Secretary of the Treasury, I would tremble with this situation.”

In Puerto Rico, he estimates manufacturing employs approximately 75,000 people directly—a number which rises to 250,000 when indirect and induced jobs are calculated, adding that even though the manufacturing sector has shrunk in the past years, the productive and contributory base rests on that activity, adding that: “As much as it is said that they do not pay taxes, this sector contributes 33% of the revenues…As long as jobs are lost there, the treasury will erode,” noting that the industrial sector plays such a large role in Puerto Rico’s economy that no other sector of the service economy can counterbalance it. He worries that if Congress fails to address the apparent discrimination, the chances that the PROMESA Board and the government of Puerto Rico can put together an economic recovery plan is minimal: “These are implications for all of Puerto Rico: It is difficult to think about options, because if this is approved, it would be disastrous, because of everything that has happened after Hurricane Maria.”

Last night, the former president of the Association of Certified Public Accountants, Kenneth Rivera Robles, who has been part of several lobbying delegations to Washington, remained relatively optimistic that the project language will be amended.

President Woodrow Wilson signed the Jones-Shafroth Act into law on March 2, 1917, with the law providing U.S. citizenship to Puerto Rico’s citizens, granting civil rights to its people, and separating the Executive, Judicial, and Legislative branches of its government. The statute created a locally elected bicameral legislature with a House and Senate—but retained authority for the Governor and the President of the United States to have the authority to veto any law passed by the legislature. In addition, the statute granted Congress the authority to override any action taken by the Puerto Rico legislature, as well as maintain control over fiscal and economic matters, including mail services, immigration, defense, and other basic governmental matters. 

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Measuring Municipal Fiscal Distress

August 29, 2017

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s Blog, we consider the new Local Government Fiscal Distress bi-cameral body in Virginia and its early actions; then we veer north to Atlantic City, where both the Governor and the courts are weighing in on the city’s fiscal future; before scrambling west to Scranton, Pennsylvania—as it seeks to respond to a fiscally adverse judicial ruling, then back west to the very small municipality of East Cleveland, Ohio—as it awaits authority to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy—and municipal elections—then to Detroit’s ongoing efforts to recover revenues as part of its recovery from the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy, before finally ending up in the Windy City, where the incomparable Lawrence Msall has proposed a Local Government Protection Authority—a quasi-judicial body—to serve as a resource for the Chicago Public School System.  

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

Measuring Municipal Fiscal Distress. When Virginia Auditor of Public Accounts Martha S. Mavredes last week testified before the Commonwealth’s new Joint House-Senate Subcommittee on Local Government Fiscal Stress, she named Bristol as one of the state’s four financially distressed localities—a naming which Bristol City Manager Randy Eads confirmed Monday. Bristol is an independent city in the Commonwealth of Virginia with a population just under 18,000: it is the twin city of Bristol, Tennessee, just across the state line: a line which bisects middle of its main street, State Street. According to the auditor, the cities of Petersburg and Bristol scored below 5 on a financial assessment model that uses 16 as the minimum threshold for indicating financial stress, with Bristol scoring lower than Petersburg. One other city and two counties scored below 16. For his part, City Manager Eads said he and the municipality’s CFO “will be working with the APA to determine how the scores were reached,” adding: “The city will also be open to working with the APA to address any issues.” (Bristol scored below the threshold the past three years, dropping to 4.25 in 2016. Petersburg had a score of 4.48 in 2016, when its financial woes became public.) Even though the State of Virginia has no authority to directly involve itself in a municipality’s finances (Virginia does not specifically authorize its municipal entities to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, certain provisions of the state’s laws [§15.2-4910] do allow for a trust indenture to contain provisions for protecting and enforcing rights and remedies of municipal bondholders—including the appointment of a receiver.), its new system examines the Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports submitted annually and scores them on 10 financial ratios—including four that measure the health of the locality’s general fund used to finance its budget. Manager Eads testified: “At the moment, the city does not have all of the necessary information from the APA to fully address any questions…We have been informed, by the APA, that we will receive more information from them the first week of September.” He added that the city leaders have taken steps to bolster cash flow and reserves, while reducing their reliance on borrowing short-term tax anticipation notes. In addition, the city has recently began implementing a series of budgetary and financial policies prior to the APA scores being released—steps seemingly recognized earlier this summer when Moody’s upgraded the city’s outlook to stable and its municipal bond rating to Baa2 with an underlying A3 enhanced rating, after a downgrade in 2016. Nevertheless, the road back is steep: the city still maintains more than $100 million in long-term general obligation bond debt with about half of it tied to The Falls commercial center in the Exit 5 area, which has yet to attract significant numbers of tenants.

Fiscal Fire? The State of New Jersey’s plan to slash Atlantic City’s fire department by 50 members was blocked by Superior court Judge Julio Mendez, preempting the state’s efforts to reduce the number of firefighters in the city from 198 to 148. The state, which preempted local authority last November, has sought to sharply reduce the city’s expenditures: state officials had last February proposed to move the Fire Department to a less expensive health plan and reduce staffing in the department from 225 firefighters to 125. In his ruling, however, Judge Mendez wrote: “The court holds that the (fire department’s union) have established by clear and convincing evidence that Defendants’ proposal to reduce the size of the Atlantic City Fire Department to 148 firefighters will cause irreparable harm in that it compromises the public safety of Atlantic City’s residents and visitors.” Judge Mendez had previously granted the union’s request to block the state’s actions, ruling last March that any reduction below 180 firefighters “compromises public safety,” and that any reduction should happen “through attrition and retirements.”

Gov. Christie Friday signed into law an alternative fiscal measure for the city, S. 3311, which requires the state to offer an early-retirement incentive program to the city’s police officers, firefighters, and first responders facing layoffs, noting at the bill signing what he deemed the Garden State’s success in its stewardship of the city since November under the Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act, citing Atlantic City’s “great strides to secure its finances and its future.” The Governor noted a drop of 11.4 percent in the city’s overall property-tax rate, the resolution of casino property-tax appeals, and recent investments in the city. For their parts, Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, sponsors of the legislation, said the new law would let the city “reduce the size of its police and fire departments without jeopardizing public safety,” adding that the incentive plan, which became effective with the Governor’s signature, would not affect existing contracts or collective bargaining rights—or, as Sen. Sweeney stated: “We don’t want to see any layoffs occur, but if a reduction in workers is required, early retirement should be offered first to the men and women who have served the city.” For his part, Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian said, “I’m glad that the Governor and the State continue to follow the plan that we gave them 10 months ago. As all the pieces that we originally proposed continue to come together, Atlantic City will continue to move further in the right direction.”

For its part, the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, which has been the fiscal overseer of the state takeover of Atlantic City, has touted the fiscal progress achieved this year from state intervention, including the adoption of a $206.3 million budget that is 20 percent lower than the city’s FY2015 budget, due to even $56 million less than 2015 due to savings from staff adjustments and outsourcing certain municipal services. Nevertheless, Atlantic City, has yet to see the dial spin from red to black: the city, with some $224 million in bonded debt, has deep junk-level credit ratings of CC by S&P Global Ratings and Caa3 by Moody’s Investors Service; it confronts looming debt service payments, including $6.1 million owed on Nov. 1, according to S&P.

Scrambling in Scranton. Moody’s is also characteristically moody about the fiscal ills of Scranton, Pennsylvania, especially in the wake of a court decision barring the city from  collecting certain taxes under a state law—a decision Moody’s noted  “may reduce tax revenue, which is a vital funding source for the city’s operations.” Lackawanna County Court of Common Pleas Judge James Gibbons, at the beginning of the month, in a preliminary ruling against the city, in response to a challenge by a group of eight taxpayers, led by Mayoral candidate Gary St. Fleur, had challenged Scranton’s ability to levy and collect certain taxes under Pennsylvania’s Act 511, a state local tax enabling act. His preliminary ruling against the city affects whether the Home Rule Charter law supersedes the statutory cap contained in Act 511. Unsurprisingly, the City of Scranton has filed a motion for reconsideration and requested the court to enable it to appeal to the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania. The city, the state’s sixth-largest city (77,000), and the County seat for Lackawanna County is the geographic and cultural center of the Lackawanna River valley, was incorporated on St. Valentine’s Day 161 years ago—going on to become a major industrial city, a center of mining and railroads, and attracted thousands of new immigrants. It was a city, which acted to earn the moniker of the “Electric City” when electric lights were first introduced in 1880 at Dickson Locomotive Works. Today, the city is striving to exit state oversight under the state’s Act 47—oversight the municipality has been under for a quarter century.

Currently, Moody’s does not provide a credit rating for the city; however, Standard and Poor’s last month upgraded the city’s general obligation bonds to a still-junk BB-plus, citing revenue from a sewer-system sale, whilst Standard and Poor’s cited the city’s improved budget flexibility and liquidity, stemming largely from a sewer-system sale which enabled the municipality to retire more than $40 million of high-coupon debt. Moreover, Scranton suspended its cost-of-living-adjustments, and manifested its intent to apply a portion of sewer system sale proceeds to meet its public pension liabilities. Ergo, Moody’s writes: “These positive steps have been important for paying off high interest debt and funding the city’s distressed pension plans…While these one-off revenue infusions have been positive, Scranton faces an elevated fixed cost burden of over 40% of general fund revenues…Act 511 tax revenues are an important revenue source for achieving ongoing, balanced operations, particularly as double-digit property tax increases have been met with significant discontent from city residents. The potential loss of Act 511 tax revenues comes at a time when revenues for the city are projected to be stagnant through 2020.”

The road to municipal fiscal insolvency is easier, mayhap, because it is downhill: Scranton fiscal challenges commenced five years ago, when its City Council skipped a $1 million municipal bond payment in the wake if a political spat; Scranton has since repaid the debt. Nevertheless, as Moody’s notes: “If the city cannot balance its budget without illegally taxing the Scranton people, it is absolute proof that the budget is not sustainable…Scranton has sold off all its public assets and raised taxes excessively with the result being a declining tax base and unfriendly business environment…The city needs to come to terms with present economic realities by cutting spending and lowering taxes. This is the only option for the city.”

Scranton Mayoral candidate Gary St. Fleur has said the city should file for Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy and has pushed for a related ballot measure. Combined taxes collected under Act 511, including a local services tax that Scranton recently tripled, cannot exceed 1.2% of Scranton’s total market value.  Based on 2015 market values, according to Moody’s, Scranton’s “511 cap” totals $27.3 million. In fiscal 2015 and 2016, the city collected $34.5 million and $36.8 million, respectively, and for 2018, the city has budgeted to receive $38 million.  The city, said Moody’s, relied on those revenues for 37.7% of fiscal 2015 and 35.9% of fiscal 2016 total governmental revenues. “A significant reduction in these tax revenues would leave the city a significant revenue gap if total Act 511 tax revenues were decline by nearly 25%,” Moody’s said.

Heavy Municipal Fiscal Lifting. Being mayor of battered East Cleveland is one of those difficult jobs that many people (and readers) would decline. If you were to motor along Euclid Avenue, the city’s main street, you would witness why: it is riddled with potholes and flanked by abandoned, decayed buildings. Unsurprisingly, in a city still awaiting authorization from the State of Ohio to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, blight, rising crime, and poor schools, have created the pretext for East Clevelanders to leave: The city boasted 33,000 people in 1990; today it has just 17,843, according to the latest U.S. Census figures. Nevertheless, hope can spring eternal: four candidates, including current Mayor Brandon L. King, are seeking the Democratic nomination in next month’s Mayoral primary (Mayor King replaced former Mayor Gary Norton last year after Norton was recalled by voters.)

Motor City Taxing. Detroit hopes to file some 700 lawsuits by Thursday against landlords and housing investors in a renewed effort to collect unpaid property taxes on abandoned homes that have already been forfeited; indeed, by the end of November, the city hopes to double the filings, going after as many as 1,500 corporations and investors whose abandonment of Detroit homes has been blamed for contributing to the Motor City’s blight epidemic: Motor City Law PLC, working on behalf of the city, has filed more than 60 lawsuits since last week in Wayne County Circuit Court; the remainder are expected to be filed before a Thursday statute of limitations deadline: the suits target banks, land speculators, limited liability corporations, and individuals with three or more rental properties in Detroit: investors who typically purchase homes at bargain prices at a Wayne County auction and then eventually stop paying property tax bills and lose the home in foreclosure: the concern is that unscrupulous landlords have been abusing the auction system. The city expects to file an additional 800 lawsuits over the next quarter—with the recovery effort coming in the wake of last year’s suits by the city against more than 500 banks and LLCs which had an ownership stake in houses that sold at auction for less than what was owed to the city in property taxes. Eli Savit, senior adviser and counsel to Mayor Mike Duggan, noted that those suits netted Detroit more than $5 million in judgments, even as, he reports: “Many cases are still being litigated.” To date, the 69 lawsuits filed since Aug. 18 in circuit court were for tax bills exceeding $25,000 each; unpaid tax bills for less than $25,000 will be filed in district court. (The unpaid taxes date back years as the properties were auctioned off by the Wayne County Treasurer’s Office between 2013 and 2016 or sent to the Detroit Land Bank Authority, which oversees demolitions if homes cannot be rehabilitated or sold.) The suits here indicate that former property owners have no recourse for lowering their unpaid tax debt, because they are now “time barred from filing an appeal” with Detroit’s Board of Review or the Michigan Tax Tribunal; Detroit officials have noted that individual homeowners would not be targeted by the lawsuits for unpaid taxes; rather the suits seek to establish a legal means for going after investors who purchase cheap homes at auction, and then either rent them out and opt not to not pay the taxes, or walk away from the house, because it is damaged beyond repair—behavior which is now something the city is seeking to turn around.

Local Government Fiscal Protection? Just as the Commonwealth of Virginia has created a fiscal or financial assessment model to serve as an early warning system so that the State could act before a chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy occurred, the fiscal wizard of Illinois, the incomparable Chicago Civic Federation’s Laurence Msall has proposed a Local Government Protection Authority—a quasi-judicial body—to serve as a resource for the Chicago Public School System (CPS): it would be responsible to assist the CPS board and administration in finding solutions to stabilize the school district’s finances. The $5.75 billion CPS proposed budget for this school year comes with two significant asterisks: 1) There is an expectation of $269 million from the City of Chicago, and 2) There is an expectation of $300 million from the State of Illinois, especially if the state’s school funding crisis is resolved in the Democrats’ favor.

Nevertheless, in the end, CPS’s fiscal fate will depend upon Windy City Mayor Rahm Emanuel: he, after all, not only names the school board, but also is accountable to voters if the city’s schools falter: he has had six years in office to get CPS on a stable financial course, even as CPS is viewed by many in the city as seeking to file for bankruptcy (for which there is no specific authority under Illinois law). Worse, it appears that just the discussion of a chapter 9 option is contributing to the emigration of parents and students to flee to suburban or private schools.

Thus, Mr. Msall is suggesting once again putting CPS finances under state oversight, as it was in the 1980s and early 1990s, recommending consideration of a Local Government Protection Authority, which would “be a quasi-judicial body…to assist the CPS board and administration in finding solutions to stabilize the district’s finances.” Fiscal options could include spending cuts, tax hikes, employee benefit changes, labor contract negotiations, and debt adjustment. Alternatively, as Mr. Msall writes: “If the stakeholders could not find a solution, the LGPA would be empowered to enforce a binding resolution of outstanding issues.” As we noted, a signal fiscal challenge Mayor Emanuel described was to attack crime in order to bring young families back into the city—and to upgrade its schools—schools where today some 380,000 students appear caught in a school system cracking under a massive and rising debt load.  

Far East of Eden. East Cleveland Mayor Gary Norton Jr. and City Council President Thomas Wheeler have both been narrowly recalled from their positions in a special election, setting the stage for the small Ohio municipality waiting for the state to—in some year—respond to its request to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy to elect a new leader. Interestingly, one challenger for the job who is passionate about the city, is Una H. R. Keenon, 83, who now heads the city school board, and campaigning on a platform of seeking a blue-ribbon panel to examine the city’s finances. Mansell Baker, 33, a former East Cleveland Councilmember, wants to focus on eliminating the city’s debt, while Dana Hawkins Jr., 34, leader of a foundation, vows to get residents to come together and save the city. The key decisions are likely to emerge next month in the September 12 Democratic primary—where the winner will face Devin Branch of the Green Party in November. Early voting has begun.

How Does A City Turn Around Its Fiscal Future?

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider a state’s response to a municipal fiscal insolvency, before turning to the challenge the Windy City is facing in the virtually politically insolvent State of Illinois, before finally turning to the uncertain political, governing, and fiscal future of East Cleveland, Ohio.  

Addressing Disparate Municipal Fiscal Distress. More than a century ago, Petersburg, Virginia, was a highly industrialized city of 18,000 people—and the hub and supply center for the Confederacy: supplies arrived from all over the South via one of the five railroads or the various plank roads; it was also the last outpost. Today, it is one of the last fiscal outposts, but, mayhap, because of its fiscal distress, set to be a model for the nation and federalism with regard to how the Commonwealth of Virginia—unlike, for instance, Ohio, is responding. More than 53 percent of Virginia’s counties and cities have reported above-average or high fiscal stress, according to a report by the Commission on Local Government. Petersburg, a city grappling with a severe financial crisis, placed third on the state fiscal stress index behind the cities of Emporia and Buena Vista. Del. Lashrecse Aird (D-Petersburg) noted: “Petersburg does have some financial challenges, but they’re actually not unique. There are a lot of counties and localities within the commonwealth right now that are facing similar fiscal distressers.”  

The Virginia Legislature has dropped a proposed study of local government finances in its just completed legislative session, a legislative initiative which co-sponsor Rosalyn Dance (D-Petersburg) had described to her colleagues as necessary, because:  “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;” nevertheless, Virginia’s new fiscal year state budget did revive a focus on fiscal stress in Virginia cities and counties. Motivated by the City of Petersburg’s financial crisis, Sen. Emmett Hanger (R-Augusta County), who co-Chairs the Virginia Senate Finance Committee, had filed a bill (SJ 278) to study the fiscal stress of local governments: his bill proposed the creation of a joint subcommittee to review local and state tax systems, as well as reforms to promote economic assistance and cooperation between regions. Under SJ 278, a 15-member joint subcommittee would have reviewed local government and state tax systems, local responsibilities for delivery of state programs, and causes of fiscal stress among local governments. In addition, the study would have been focused on creating financial incentives and reforms to promote increased cooperation among Virginia’s regions. We will have to, however, await developments, as his proposal was rejected in the House Finance Committee, as members deferred consideration of tax reform for next year’s longer session; however, the adopted state budget did incorporate two fiscal stress preventive measures originally introduced in Sen. Hanger’s bill.

Del. Aird had identified the study as a top priority for this session, identifying: “what we as a Commonwealth need to do to put protections into place and allow localities to have tools and resources to prevent this type of challenge from occurring into the future,” noting: “I believe that this legislation will help address fiscal issues that localities are experiencing: ‘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.’” In the case of Petersburg, the city received technical assistance from state officials, including cataloging liabilities and obligations, researching problems, and reviewing city funds; however, state intervention could only be triggered by a request from the municipality: the state’s statutes forbid the Commonwealth from imposing reactive measures to an insolvent municipality.

To modify the conditions to enhance the ability of the state to intervene, the proposal set guidelines for state officials to identify and help alleviate signs of financial stress to prevent a more severe fiscal crisis, proposing the creation of a workgroup established by the Auditor of Public Accounts, who would have been responsible to create an early warning system for identifying fiscal stress, taking into consideration such criteria as a local government’s expenditure reports and budget information. In the event such distress was determined, such a local government would be notified and entitled to request a comprehensive review of its finances by the state. After such a review, the state would be responsible to draft an ‘action plan’ detailing: purpose, duration, and the requisite state resources for such intervention; in addition, the governor would be offered the option to channel up to $500,000 from the general fund toward relief efforts for the local government in need. As Del. Aird noted: “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, adding: “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.”

What Might Be a City’s Weakest Link? The state initiative comes as the city intends to write off $9 million in uncollected internal debt Petersburg has accumulated over the past 17 years: debt representing loans from Petersburg’s general fund to other city enterprises since 2000 which its leaders now concede they will never collect—or, as former Richmond City Manager—and now consultant for the city Robert Bobb notes: “This is something that the leadership should have addressed between 2000 and last year, but the issue was not being addressed.” As a result, when Petersburg officials receive the city’s financial audit for FY2017, it will show a negative fund balance that will make it even harder to secure financing for capital projects, albeit, it is expected to clear the uncollected debt from the books for the current fiscal year and the upcoming fiscal year—or, as Virginia Finance Director Ric Brown notes: “They’re taking it on the chin in FY2016 by clearing it all out of the books: To me, the most important thing is not how bad ‘16 is—it’s going forward whether FY2017 and FY2018 improve.” With its bond rating downgraded last year to BB with a negative outlook, Petersburg already faces a stiff fiscal challenge in raising capital—the municipality recently experienced an inability to raise capital to purchase police cars and fire equipment—making manifest the connection between public safety and assessed property values.

Nevertheless, Mr. Bobb has promised that this fiscal year will end without an operating deficit and the next one will begin with the first structurally balanced budget in nearly a decade—to which Secretary Brown notes: “It’s going to take some time, but I believe the sense of everyone is he’s making progress.” The Secretary noted that when the Commonwealth acted to come to Petersburg’s assistance last summer, he discovered the municipality had ended the fiscal year with $18.8 million in unpaid bills and $12 million over its operating budget; ergo, he testified the bottom line was “not going to be good” in the city’s FY2016 CAFR; however, Petersburg has worked in phases to pay its bills, reduce its costs, and rebuild its underpersonned, overwhelmed bureaucracy: The city has reduced its unpaid bills to $5.5 million, with the largest remaining obligation a $1.49 million payment to the Virginia Retirement System—a payment the city has agreed to pay by the end of December. The city’s school system has some $1.3 million in debt to its public retirement system due next month for teacher pensions. Nevertheless, in the school of lost and found, Mr. Bobb reports that city employees have scoured “every desk drawer” and discovered an additional $300,000 in unpaid bills, some of them dating back to 2015—unsurprisingly describing it as “[A] mess to clean up things from the past to where we are today.” Petersburg also has a gaping $1.9 million hole in the school system budget, in no small part by making payments this year to last year’s budget, a practice Mr. Bobb notes to be a [mal]practice the city has followed for 10 years—putting the city’s school budget near the minimum required by the Virginia Standards of Quality.

Nevertheless, Petersburg completed the first phase of recovery, focusing on short-term financing concerns, at the end of March. That has allowed it to focus on long-term financing and a fiscal plan, including developing policies for capital improvements, debt, and reserves to ensure financial stability. In the final stage, from July 1 until Mr. Bobb’s contract ends on September 30th, the city will develop five-year financial and capital improvement plans, as well as a budget transition plan, for ongoing financial performance and monitoring—as well as refilling the fiscal architecture via filling critical positions, including a finance director, which Mr. Brown notes, will be critical to filling middle management positions, such as accountants, which are vital to maintain the city’s financial stability: “If they don’t get that in place, there’s a real risk they’ll slide back.”

Petersburg wasn’t even at the top of the list of the most fiscally stressed localities ranked by the Virginia Commission on Local Government in 2014. It was third, behind Emporia and Buena Vista, and just ahead of Martinsville and Covington. “We’re only as strong as our weakest link,” said Sen. Rosalyn R. Dance, D-Petersburg, who served as the city’s mayor from 1992 to 2004. “We’re not the only ones there.”

Whither Chicago? The Windy City, nearly 350 years old, named “Chicago,” based upon a French rendering of the Native American word “shikaakwa,” from the Miami-Illinois language, is today defined by the Census Bureau as the city and suburbs extending into Wisconsin and Indiana; however, it is, today, a city experiencing population decline: last year it lost just under 20,000 residents—and its surrounding state, Illinois, saw its population decline more than any other state: 37,508 people, according to census data released last December. During the Great Recession, families chose to stay in or move to core urban areas, and migration to the suburbs decelerated; however, in the recovery, there is a reverse trend: families are deciding it is time to move back to the suburbs.

Thus, by most estimates, Chicago’s population will continue to decline, with the Chicago Tribune, from a survey of dozens of former residents, reporting the depopulation stems from reactions to: high taxes, the state budget stalemate, crime, the unemployment rate, and weather—with black residents among those leaving in search of safe neighborhoods and prosperity: it seems many are heading to the suburbs and warm-weather states: Chicago lost 181,000 black residents between 2000 and 2010, according to census data. Just under 90,000 Chicagoans left the city and its immediately surrounding suburbs for other states last year, according to an analysis of census data released in March, marking the greatest outflow since at least 1990. It appears that, more than any other city, Chicago has relied upon the increase in Mexican immigrants to offset the decline of its native-born population: during the 1990s, that immigration accounted for most of Chicago’s growth. After 2007, when Mexican-born populations began to fall across the nation’s major metropolitan areas, most cities managed to make up for the loss with the growth of their native populations, but that has not been the case for Chicago (nor Detroit, which, according to census data, realized a decline of 3,541 residents from 2015 to 2016). While Chicago’s changes may be small in context, they could be a harbinger of more losses to come.

As we had noted in our fiscal report on Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel focused on drawing in new businesses, concerned that any perception that assessed property taxes might have to increase—or that schools and crime rates would not improve—would adversely affect companies’ willingness to come to Chicago—meaning an intense focus on confronting fiscal challenges: such as credit quality threats: e.g. avoiding having a disproportionate percent of the city’s budget devoted to long-term pension borrowing obligations instead of critical future investments: the more of its budget the city had to divert to meeting unsustainable pension obligations, the less it would have to address its goal of investments in the city’s infrastructure, schools, and public safety—investments the Mayor believed fundamental to the city’s economic and fiscal future.  We noted a critical change: Investing in the Future: Mayor Emanuel created enterprise funds so that a greater portion of municipal services were not financed through property taxes and the operating budget: some 83 percent of its budget was focused on schools and public safety, in an effort to draw back young families. Nevertheless, amid growing perceptions that Chicago’s cost of living has become too high, rising property taxes, and perceived growth in crime; some are apprehensive Chicago could be at a tipping point: the period in a city’s time when an increasing number of residents believe it is time to leave—or, as one leaver noted: “It’s just sad to see that people have to leave the city to protect their own future cost of living.”

Does East Cleveland Have a Fiscal Future? In the small Ohio municipality of East Cleveland, a city waiting on the State of Ohio for nearly a year to obtain permission to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, there is an upcoming Mayoral election—an election which could decide whether the city has a fiscal future—and where voters will have to decide among an array of candidates: who might they elect as most likely to turn the fortunes of the City around, and avert its continuing slide towards insolvency? One candidate, who previously served as Chairman of the East Cleveland Audit Committee, noted a report to the Council detailing twenty-four budget appropriations totaling approximately $2,440,076 in unauthorized and questionable expenditures—and that his committee had provided documentation to the Auditor of State’s Office of Local Government Services regarding the hiring of 10 individuals in violation of a Council-mandated hiring freeze, costing the City approximately $408,475 in unauthorized payroll costs, adding: “All told, the Audit Committee uncovered approximately $3,055,351 in illegal and suspicious spending by the Norton Administration…The truth is, as I stated in the beginning, the municipal government of East Cleveland is afflicted with the cancer of corruption that has been allowed to grow because of two main reasons: The first being, the indifference displayed by Ohio and Cuyahoga County government officials who failed in their respective responsibility when confronted with documented facts.  They collectively have turned a blind eye to what was, and is, happening in East Cleveland.  No one wants to get their hands dirty with so-called ‘black politics,’ even if the legal and financial evidence is given to them on a ‘silver platter.’  Personally, I smell the stench of secret political deals which produced a ‘hands off policy.’”

He added that a symptom of what he described as “this cancer” included some “$41, 857, 430 in unwarranted expenses and debt that was generated during the first 3 years of Mayor Norton’s first term as Mayor. I anticipate that whenever an audit is conducted for 2013 thru 2016, the $41 million figure will grow by an additional $25 million to $35 million.” Addressing the unresponsiveness of the State of Ohio, he described the Governor’s Financial Planning and Supervision Commission as a “joke:  It has been wholly unimpressive and has not provided the necessary oversight and forced accountability one would have expected from the Commission at the beginning.  Furthermore, The Commission became tainted when Governor Kasich appointed Helen Forbes Fields to the Commission.  She has a number of personal conflicts of interests that prevent her from being an impartial member of the Commission.  I can recall a conversation I had with the former Commission Chair, Sharon Hanrahan when she admitted to me that the State Government did not have the ‘political will’ to clean up the mess we were trying to get them to address.” He added, that, if elected, in order to bring accountability for the mismanagement of public funds, he would seek assistance from Ohio and federal law enforcement agencies to ensure those responsible for the mismanagement of East Cleveland’s financial resources would be held accountable, estimating that between $5 million and $15 million dollars could be recovered. 

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.”