State Oversight & Severe Municipal Distress

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eBlog, 04/24/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the unique fiscal challenge confronting Detroit: when and how will it emerge from state oversight? Then we spin the tables to see how Atlantic City is faring to see if it might be on the shores of fiscal recovery; before going back to Detroit to assess the math/fiscal challenges of the state created public school district; then, still in Detroit, we try to assess the status of a lingering issue from the city’s historic municipal bankruptcy: access to drinking water for its lowest income families; before visiting Hartford, to try to gauge how the fiscally stressed central city might fare with the Connecticut legislature. Finally, we revisit the small Virginia municipality of Petersburg to witness a very unique kind of municipal finance for a city so close to insolvency but in need of ensuring the provision of vital, lifesaving municipal services. 

Fiscal & Physical Municipal Balancing. Michigan Deputy Treasurer Eric Scorsone is predicting that by “early next year, Detroit will be out of state oversight,” at a time when the city “will be financially stable by all indications and have a significant surplus.” That track will sync with the city’s scheduled emergence from state oversight, albeit apprehension remains with regard to whether the city has budgeted adequately  to set funds aside to anticipate a balloon pension obligation due in 2024. Nevertheless, Mr. Scorsone has deemed the Motor City’s post-bankruptcy transformation “extraordinary,” describing its achievements in meeting its plan of debt adjustment—as well as complying with the Detroit Financial Review Commission—so well that the “city could basically operate on its own.” He noted that the progress has been sufficient to permit the Commission to be in a dormancy state—subject to any, unanticipated deficits emerging. The Deputy Treasurer credited the Motor City’s strong management team under CFO John Hill both for the city’s fiscal progress, but also for his role in keeping an open line of communication with the state oversight board; he also noted the key role of Mayor Mike Duggan’s leadership for improving basic services such as emergency response times and Detroit’s public infrastructure. Nevertheless, Detroit remains subject to the state board’s approval of any contracts, operating or capital budgets, as well as formal revenue estimates—a process which the Deputy Treasurer noted “allows the city to stay on a strong economic path…[t]hese are all critical tools,” he notes, valuable not just to Detroit, but also to other municipalities an counties to help ensure “long term stability.”

On the Shore of Fiscal Recovery. S&P Global Ratings, which last month upgraded Atlantic City’s general obligation bond rating two notches to CCC in the wake of the city’s settlement with the Borgata Casino, a settlement which yielded the city some $93 million in savings, has led to a Moody’s rating upgrade, with the credit rating agency writing that Atlantic City’s proposed FY2017 budget—one which proposes some $35.3 million in proposed cuts, is a step in the right direction for the state taken-over municipality, noting that the city’s fiscal plan incorporates a 14.6% cut in its operating budget—sufficient to save $8 million, via reductions in salaries and benefits for public safety employees, $6 million in debt service costs, and $3 million in administrative expenses. Nevertheless S&P credit analyst Timothy Little cautioned that pending litigation with regard to whether Atlantic City can make proposed police and firefighter cuts could be a fly in the ointment, writing: “In our view, the proposed budget takes significant measures to improve the city’s structural imbalance and may lead to further improved credit quality; however, risks to fiscal recovery remain from pending lawsuits against state action impeding labor contracts.” The city’s proposed $206.3 million budget, indeed, marks the city’s first since the state takeover placed it under the oversight of the New Jersey’s Local Finance Board, with the state preemption giving the Board the authority to alter outstanding debt, as well as municipal contracts. Mr. Little wrote that this year will mark the first fiscal year of the agreed-to payment-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOT) program for casino gaming properties—a level set at $120 million annually over the next decade—out of which 10.4% will go to Atlantic County. Mr. Little also notes that the budget contains far less state financial support than in previous years, as the $30 million of casino redirected anticipated revenue received in 2015 and 2016 will be cut to $15 million; moreover, the budget includes no state transitional aid—denoting a change or drop of some $26.2 million; some of that, however, will be offset by a $15 million boost from an adjustment to the state Consolidated Municipal Property Tax Relief Act—or, as the analyst wrote: “Long-term fiscal recovery will depend on Atlantic City’s ability to continue to implement fiscal reforms, reduce reliance on nonrecurring revenues, and reduce its long-term liabilities.” Today, New Jersey state aid accounts for 34% of the city’s $206.3 million in budgeted revenue, 31% comes from casino PILOT payments, and 27% from tax revenues. S&P upgraded Atlantic City’s general obligation bond rating two notches to CCC in early March after the Borgata settlement yielded the city $93 million in savings. Moody’s rates Atlantic City debt at Caa3.

Schooled on Bankruptcy. While Detroit, as noted above, has scored high budget marks or grades with the state; the city’s school system remains physically and fiscally below grade. Now, according to the Michigan Department of Education, school officials plan to voluntarily shutter some of the 24 city schools—schools targeted for closure by the state last January, according to State Superintendent Brian Whiston, whose spokesperson, William DiSessa, at a State Board of Education meeting, said:  “Superintendent Whiston doesn’t know which schools, how many schools, or when they may close, but said that they are among the 38 schools threatened for closure by the State Reform Office earlier this year.” Mr. DiSessa added that “the decision to close any schools is the Detroit Public School Community District’s to make.” What that decision will be coming in the wake of the selection of Nikolai Vitti, who last week was selected to lead the Detroit Public Schools Community District. Mr. Vitti, 40, is currently Superintendent of the Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Florida, the 20th largest district in the nation; in the wake of the Detroit board’s decision last week to enter into negotiations with Mr. Vitti for the superintendent’s job, Mr. Vitti described the offer as “humbling and an honor.” The school board also voted, if Mr.Vitti accepts the offer, to ask him to begin next week as a consultant, working with a transition team, before officially commencing on July 1st. The School Board’s decision, after a search began last January, marks the most important decision the board has made during its brief tenure, in the wake of its creation last year and election last November after the Michigan Legislature in June approved $617-million legislation which resolved the debt of Detroit Public Schools via creating the new district, and retaining the old district for the sole purpose if collecting taxes and paying off debt.

The twenty-four schools slated for closure emerged from a list of 38 the State of Michigan had targeted last January—all from schools which have performed in the bottom 5 percent of the state for at least three consecutive years, according to the education department. The Motor City had hoped to avoid any such forced state closures—hoping against hope that by entering last month into partnership negotiations with the Michigan State Superintendent’s office, and working with Eastern Michigan University, the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, and Wayne State University, the four institutions would help set “high but attainable” goals at the 24 Detroit schools to improve academic achievement and decrease chronic absenteeism and teacher vacancies. The idea was that those goals would be evaluated after 18 months and again in 36 months, according to state officials. David Hecker, president of the American Federation of Teachers Michigan, noted that he was not aware which schools might be closing or how many; however, he noted that whatever happens to the teachers of the closing schools would be subject to the collective bargaining agreement with the Detroit Federation of Teachers. “If any schools close, it would absolutely be a labor issue that would be governed by the collective bargaining agreement as to how that will work … (and) where they will go,” Mr. Hecker said. “We very strongly are opposed to any school closing for performance reasons.”

Thirsty. A difficult issue—among many—pressed upon now retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes during Detroit’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy came as the Detroit Water and Sewer Department began shutting off water service to some of nearly 18,000 residential customers with delinquent accounts. Slightly less than a year ago, in the wake of numerous battles in Judge Rhodes’ then U.S. bankruptcy courtroom, the issue was again raised: what authority did the city of Detroit have to cut off the delivery of water to the thousands of its customers who were delinquent by more than 90 days? Thus it was that Detroit’s Water and Sewerage Department began shutting off service to customers who had failed to pay their bills—with, at the time, DWSD guesstimating about 20,000 of its customers had defaulted on their payments, and noting that the process of shutting off service to customers with unpaid bills was designed to be equitable and not focused on any particular neighborhood or part of the city—and that the agency was not targeting customers who owed less than a $150 and were only a couple of months behind, noting, instead: “We’re looking for those customers who we’ve repeatedly tried to reach and make contact,” as well as reporting that DWSD was reminding its delinquent customers who were having trouble paying their water bills to contact the department so they may be enrolled in one of its two assistance programs — the WRAP Fund or the “10/30/50” plan. Under the first, the WRAP Fund, customers who were at 150 percent of the poverty level or below could receive up to $1,000 a year in assistance in paying bills, plus up to $1,000 to fix minor plumbing issues leading to high usage. This week, DWSD is reporting it has resumed shutoffs in the wake of sending out notices, adding the department has payment and assistance plans to help those with delinquent accounts avoid losing service. Department Director Gary Brown told the Detroit Free Press that everyone “has a path to not have service interruption.” Indeed, it seems some progress has been achieved: the number of families facing shutoffs is down from 24,000 last April and about 40,000 in April of 2014, according to The Detroit News. In 2014, DWSD disconnected service to more than 30,000 customers due to unpaid bills, prompting protests over its actions. Nonetheless, DWSD began the controversial practice of shutting off water service again this week, this time to some of the nearly 18,000 residential customers with delinquent accounts, in the wake of notices sent out 10 days earlier, according to DWSD Director Gary Brown. Nevertheless, while 17,995 households are subject to having their water turned off, those residents who contact the water department prior to their scheduled shutoffs to make a payment or enter into an assistance plan will avoid being cut off—with experience indicating most do. And, the good gnus is that the number of delinquent accounts is trending down from the 24,302 facing a service interruption last April, according to DWSD. Moreover, this Solomon-like decision of when to shut off water service—since the issue was first so urgently pressed in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court before Judge Rhodes—has gained through experience. DWSD Director Brown reports that once residents are notified, about 90 percent are able to get into a plan and avoid being shut off, and adding that most accounts turned off are restored within 24 hours: “Every residential Detroit customer has a path not to be shut off by asking for assistance or being placed into a payment plan…I’m urging people not to wait until they get a door knocker to come in and ask for assistance to get in a payment plan.” A critical part of the change in how the city deals with shutoffs comes from Detroit’s launch two years ago of its Water Residential Assistance Program, or WRAP, a regional assistance fund created as a component of the Great Lakes Water Authority forged through Detroit’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy: a program designed to help qualifying customers in Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties who are at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level—which equates to $36,450 for a family of four—by covering one-third of the cost of their average monthly bill and freezing overdue amounts. Since a year ago, nearly $5 million has been dedicated to the program—a program in which 5,766 Detroit households are enrolled, according to DWSD, with a retention rate for those enrolled in the program of 90 percent. DWSD spokesperson Bryan Peckinpaugh told the Detroit News the department is committed to helping every customer keep her or his water on and that DWSD provides at least three advance notifications encouraging those facing a service interruption to contact the department to make payment arrangements, adding that the outreach and assistance efforts have been successful, with the number of customers facing potential service interruption at less than half of what it was three years ago.

Fiscally Hard in Hartford. Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin has acknowledged his proposed $612.9 FY2018 budget includes a nearly $50 million gap—with proposed expenditures at $600 million, versus revenues of just over $45 million: a fiscal gap noted moodily by four-notch downgrades to the Connecticut city’s general obligation bonds last year from two credit rating agencies, which cited rising debt-service payments, higher required pension contributions, health-care cost inflation, costly legal judgments from years past, and unrealized concessions from most labor unions. Moody’s Investors Service in 2016 lowered Hartford GOs to a junk-level Ba2. S&P Global Ratings knocked the city to BBB from A-plus, keeping it two notches above speculative grade. Thus, Mayor Bronin, a former chief counsel to Gov. Daniel Malloy, has repeated his request for state fiscal assistance, noting: “The City of Hartford has less taxable property than our suburban neighbor, West Hartford. More than half of our property is non-taxable.” In his proposed “essential services only” budget, Mayor Bronin is asking the Court of Common Council to approve an increase of about $60 million, or 11%, over last year’s approved budget—with a deadline for action the end of next month. An increasing challenge is coming from the stressed city’s accumulating debt: approximately $14 million, or 23%, of that increase is due to debt-service payments, while $12 million is for union concessions which did not materialize, according to the Mayor’s office. Gov. Malloy’s proposed biennial budget, currently in debate by state lawmakers, proposes $35 million of aid to Hartford. Unsurprisingly, that level is proving a tough sell to many suburban and downstate legislators. On the other hand, the Mayor appears to be gaining some traction after, last year, gaining an agreement with the Hartford Fire Fighters Association that might save the city $4 million next year: the agreement included changes to pension contributions and benefits, active and retiree health care, and salary schedules. In addition, last month, Hartford’s largest private-sector employers—insurers Aetna Inc., Travelers Cos. and The Hartford—agreed to donate $10 million per year to the city over five years. Nonetheless, rating agencies Moody’s and S&P have criticized the city for limited operating flexibility, weak reserves, narrowing liquidity, and its rising costs of debt service and pension obligations. Gurtin Municipal Bond Management went so far as to deem the city a “slow-motion train wreck,” adding that while the quadruple-notch downgrades had a headline shock effect, the city’s fundamental credit deterioration had been slow and steady. “The price impact of negative headlines and credit rating downgrades can be swift and severe, which begs the question: How should municipal bond investors and their registered investment advisors react?” Gurtin’s Alex Etzkowitz noted, in a commentary. “The only foolproof solution is to avoid credit distress in the first place by leveraging independent credit research and in-depth, ongoing surveillance of municipal obligors.”

Fighting for a City’s Future. The small city of Petersburg. Virginia, is hardly new to the stress of battle. It was there that General Robert E. Lee’s men fought courageously throughout the Overland Campaign, even as Gen. Lee feared he confronted a campaign he feared could not be won, warning his troops—and politicians: “We must destroy this Army of Grant’s before he gets to the James River. If he gets there, it will become a siege, and then it will be a mere question of time.” Yet, even as he wrote, General Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac was racing toward the James and Petersburg to wage an attack on the city—a highly industrialized city then of 18,000 people, with supplies arriving from all over the South via one of the five railroads or the various plank roads. Indeed, Petersburg was one of the last outposts: without it, Richmond, and possibly the entire Confederacy, was at risk. Today, the city, because of the city’s subpar credit rating, is at fiscal risk: it has been forced to beg its taxpayers to loan it funds for new emergency vehicles—officials are making a fiscal arrangement with private citizens to front the cost for new emergency vehicles, and offering to put up city hall as collateral for said arrangement, as an assurance to the lenders they will be paid back. The challenge: the police department currently needs 16 new vehicles, at a cost of $614,288; the fire department needs three new trucks, at a cost of $2,145,527. Or, as Interim City Manager Tom Tyrrell notes: “Every single day that a firefighter rolls out on a piece of equipment older than he is, or a police officer responds to an emergency call in a car with 160,000 miles on it, are days we want to avoid…We want to get this equipment as soon as possible.” Interim City Finance Director Nelsie Birch has included in the upcoming fiscal year budget the necessary funds to obtain the equipment—equipment Petersburg normally obtains via lease agreements with vendors, but which now, because of its inability to access municipal credit markets due to its “BB” credit rating with a negative outlook, makes it harder than ever to find any vendor—or, as Manager Tyrrell puts it: “We went out four different times…We solicited four different times to the market, and were unsuccessful in getting any parties to propose.” He added that when soliciting these types of agreements, you solicit “thousands of people.” Notwithstanding that the funds for the vehicles is already set aside in the upcoming budget, city officials have been unable to find anyone willing to enter into a lease agreement with the city because of the city’s financial woes.

Last week, the City Council authorized Mr. Tyrrell to “undertake emergency procurement action” in order for the lease of necessary fire and police vehicles, forcing Mr. Tyrrell and other officials to seek private funds to get the equipment—that is, asking individual citizens who have the financial means to put up money for the fire and police vehicles—or, as Mr. Tyrrell puts it: “We’ve reached out to four people, who are interested and capable,” noting they are property owners in Petersburg who will remain anonymous until the deal is closed, describing it thusly: “[This agreement] is outside the rules, because we couldn’t get a partner inside the rules.” Including in this proposed fiscal arrangement: officials must put up additional collateral, in addition to the cars themselves, and in the form of city-owned property—with the cornerstone of the proposal, as it were, being Petersburg City Hall, or, as Mr. Tyrrell notes: “What they’re looking for is some assurance that no matter what happens, we’re going to pay the note…It’s not a securitization in the financial sense, as much as it is in the emotional sense: they know that the city isn’t going to let it go.” He adds, the proposed financial arrangement will be evaluated in two areas: the interest rate and how fast the deal can close, adding: “Although it’s an emergency procurement, we still want to get the best deal we can.”

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How Does a Leader Balance Fiscal Versus Human Health & Safety?

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eBlog, 1/24/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing fiscal and human health and safety challenges—and fiscal implications—in the City of Flint, as city residents have sued the State of Michigan; then we look east to Ohio, where the question with regard to a similar human and fiscal health related to East Cleveland appears to be worsening with regard to health, fiscal health, and governance. Finally, we peer south to the warm Caribbean, but where the warmth in weather is exceeded by the increasing political heat between the PROMESA oversight board and the new Governor—a challenge with parallels to the fiscal struggle Washington, D.C. underwent nearly two decades ago.

Fighting for Flint’s Fiscal Future. U.S. District Judge David Lawson has described an attempt by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette to side with Flint residents in a lawsuit against the state as “superficial posturing,” stating that the AG has created a “troubling ethical issue” that could delay the case that seeks to provide the city with bottled water delivery. In his opinion, Judge Lawson denied Mr. Schuette’s request to file an amicus brief in the case on behalf of “the people of the State of Michigan,” saying the motion is problematic for several reasons, including that assistant attorneys general have already appeared in the case on behalf of state defendants, including Gov. Rick Snyder, writing: “The proposed amicus brief has not introduced any new arguments or offered a perspective that has not been presented by the parties already. Instead, the attorney general has taken a position aligned with the plaintiffs and at odds with other attorneys in his own office…In doing so, he has managed to inject a troubling ethical issue into this lawsuit, potentially complicating adjudication of the serious legal questions before the court, without adding anything of substance.” A spokesperson for the Michigan Attorney General said he would not appeal this ruling, noting that while the attorney general respectfully disagreed with the ruling, “We originally obtained concurrence from all parties prior to filing, and because it failed to include mention of the conflict wall in this case…Attorney General Schuette will continue to fight aggressively for Flint families and remains thankful to the many Flint residents and elected officials who expressed their support of his actions.” The denial came the day before Judge Lawson is to take up an emergency motion in the case: today, Judge Lawson must decide whether and how the State of Michigan and both state and Flint officials should—or must—comply with a largely ignored federal court order requiring door-to-door delivery of bottled water to Flint homes lacking a working water filter.

The legal challenge dates back to last November, when Judge Lawson ordered the state and City of Flint to provide and finance the provision of four cases of bottled water per resident per week if officials cannot prove faucet filters are working to remove harmful lead. That was an order Gov. Snyder’s administration opposed, arguing it is “overbroad,” and one which the city is fiscally unable to meet; indeed, Michigan has filed an emergency motion with the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals to block the order, arguing before the court that while the state was not “reluctant “to comply with the order, rather it was confronted by “financial, logistical, and practical difficulties” in doing so. According to state officials, the order would be a five-fold increase over current efforts and require another 137 trucks, hiring at least 150 additional people and “a warehouse so large it is not clear if one even exists in the Flint area” at a cost of more than $11 million per month. In his order at the beginning of last month, Judge Lawson wrote: “The main thrust of the ordered relief is the proper installation and maintenance of tap water filters. For those homes that have properly installed and maintained water filters in place—which is the vast majority of residences, if the state defendants’ witnesses are to be believed—bottled water delivery is not necessary and was not ordered.” While testing shows lead levels in Flint water are on the decline, Flint residents have been instructed to use only filtered or bottled water for consumption, and researchers have encouraged those practices until further notice from state or federal officials: no amount of lead is considered safe.

Does East Cleveland Have a Future? Ohio’s Environmental Protection agency has shut down a waste site in East Cleveland which currently holds an estimated 2 million yards of waste and construction debris, piled up over the past few years by Arco Recycling, declaring it an unpermitted landfill. In the nonce, former East Cleveland Mayor Eric Brewer worked with Auburn Environmental to understand the harm which might already have occurred at a site which features a combination of toxic gas and toxic particles both on the outside and inside of the property—and which appears to have been operating without any legal authority granted by the municipality. The EPA has given Arco Recycling two weeks to clean up or face further actions. Given the small city’s fiscal depletion and insolvency—and the lack of any state response, it would almost appear to be another Flint-like situation, with grave implications for public health and safety, and a fiscal inability by the small city to address on its own—either fiscally or governmentally.

Is there Unpromise in PROMESA? According to Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares, it is time for the PROMESA Oversight Board created by the U.S. Congress and former Obama Administration to turn into Puerto Rico’s representative in Washington, D.C., because, otherwise, the various efforts coordinated to strike a fiscal balance and attain socioeconomic development in the U.S. territory will be in vain. The Governor was responding to a lengthy letter from the Board demanding austerity—a demand which appeared to reflect little flexibility with regard to demanding $4.5 billion in spending cuts and/or tax increases per year. While the PROMESA board said it was open with regard to how the Governor achieves that bottom line, the epistle noted: “To be clear, presenting a plan that can achieve at least this level of savings is a pre-requisite to certifying a fiscal plan.”

According to Governor Rosselló Nevares, the delicate state of the island’s public finances, as well as the grave risk of disruption to Puerto Rico’s healthcare services creates what he described as an “unambiguous need” to obtain the federal government’s support in overcoming the crisis, a message that pertains to his administration, but also the Oversight Board—or, as the Governor put it: “The Board has, I believe, that role to fulfill. They need to be the voice for Puerto Rico’s credibility, as did other fiscal boards, like the board in Washington, D.C…For two and a half years, the members of the board in Washington, D.C., using all available financial tools, but were unable to, failed, or attained only marginal improvements. Which is why they had to return to the Capitol to explain two huge faults they had found.” According to Governor Rosselló Nevares, the PROMESA legislation that ordained the oversight board lacked economic development tools critical to the island’s economy and future revenues, and, he added, as with the District of Columbia, where a comparable oversight body was created—that body went back to Congress to ask for fiscal support. But, in addition, the Governor noted, the second element the legislation for D.C. lacked was “equal treatment as a state.”

The Governor was referring to the period nearly three decades ago when the nation’s capitol, Washington, D.C., succumbed to a comparable fiscal crisis which resulted in credit downgrades and the city’s inability to pay its required pension contributions, all while experiencing disruption in public services. In response, Congress intervened by creating an entity similar to the Oversight Board, in 1997, via the National Capital Revitalization Act, a statute which allowed for the transfer of hundreds of programs funded by DC’s administration to the federal government. The act, among other things, had the federal government take over the criminal justice programs and the actuarial deficiencies in the pensions for teachers, police officers, firemen, and judges. In addition, the federal government also increased its contribution to the District’s Medicaid program, from 50% to 70%—changes which, Governor Rosselló Nevares noted, when made, provided for a nation’s capital city that “was able to thrive.” According to the Governor, under PROMESA, “We have a report from that group, which could presumably help our economic development, but it’s not binding and we don’t know what we’re going to do…The Board, like us, should be a spokesperson to our credibility, and they should tell those who put them there (Congress) that Puerto Rico is taking action, and we’re making good progress.” Although the Governor urged the board members to take up a position in favor of the U.S. territory, while PROMESA regulates the pension and public debt payments, the federal entity’s mandate is explicit: restoring fiscal discipline and achieving Puerto Rico’s return to the capital markets under reasonable conditions.

Consequently, Gov. Rosselló Nevares has focused on providing tools for the private sector, enabling the development of infrastructure projects, and ensuring the continuity of certain collections by approving the extension of Act 154 (which created the 4% tax on foreign companies); but he still counsels “there needs to be action from the federal government,” noting: “You may take fiscal measures to check them off the list, but without economic development, it would have a noxious effect, possibly on emigration, on the quality of life for citizens, and the social environment,” as he rejected the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico’s demands for quick and deep austerity measures, deriding the letter from the oversight board as one demanding an “average 79% haircut,” insisting, instead, “We will reflect a fundamental willingness to pay based upon available resources, while satisfying the need for essential services, adequate funding for public pensions and providing a platform for economic growth, all as required by [the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act].”

Fiscal & Physical Health & Safety: What Are the Options?

eBlog, 1/18/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the deteriorating fiscal situation in East Cleveland, as epitomized by a seeming breakdown in essential municipal services—combined with an absence of any effective state response to its fiscal insolvency. Then we turn to a seemingly forgotten aspect of the change of administrations in Washington, D.C.: what might that mean to Puerto Rico, where a new study delineates the physical and fiscal impacts on mental health from the disparate treatment the U.S. territory receives—and raises the issue—largely unexplored in the campaign: what will the change in Administrations this Friday mean with regard to the fiscal—and health—situation in Puerto Rico?

Hold Your Nose. As if insolvent East Cleveland did not have enough problems affecting its fiscal dilemmas, Ohio—which in the Urban Institute’s new, incredible, handy-dandy fiscal guide to the states, ranks 45th out of the 50 states with regard to expenditures per capita on corrections and has a high share of its population in state prisons, local jails, or under probation or parole supervision (take-up); EPA Director Craig Butler yesterday ordered mountains of construction and demolition debris removed from an open dump located in a residential neighborhood in East Cleveland, issuing a notice of violation and orders to Arco Recycling to stop accepting construction and demolition debris, and to remove the acres of waste from the site, action taking place in the wake of inspection of the site last week in response to citizen complaints, as well as a determination that the site was an open dump, not a recycling facility as claimed by the company’s owner. The dump was supposed to contain only construction and demolition debris, with the bulk coming from hundreds of abandoned nuisance homes demolished by the Cuyahoga Land Bank. Ohio EPA last June had, in response to citizen complaints, ordered Arco officials to draw down the piles of rubble; however, when the EPA inspectors revisited the site last week, they found four-story piles of rubble and debris which had grown over the past year, not shrunk, triggering the notice of violation and the unilateral EPA order. The mountain of garbage no doubt is part of what appears to have contributed to the 36% population decline in the municipality since 2000. The estimated median income in the city is $20,435—lower than it was in the year 2000, and less than half the statewide median household income.

Is there a Trump Promise for PROMESA? In an epistle to Congressional leaders yesterday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell urged Congress to pass legislation to help Puerto Rico before the commonwealth is forced to confront more serious health care and economic challenges—where a new set of findings from the first epidemiological study on the state of mental health in Puerto Ricans since 1985 by the Behavioral Sciences Research Institute for the Puerto Rico Administration of Mental Health and Anti-Addiction Services (PRHIA) found that—as part of an effort to justify the allocation of federal funds—7.3% of Puerto Ricans have serious mental conditions—albeit the level is likely considerably greater, but the study does not include homeless persons, which is a vast population thought to also have a large amount of people with mental illnesses or substance dependence. Of these 165,497 people with serious mental health conditions, 36.1% had not received specialized services in the past year, which would sappear to indicate that there are thousands of undiagnosed or untreated mentally ill people in the streets of the country. The study warns of the danger that the critical fiscal situation Puerto Rico faces could end up affecting the services of mental health patients. The Health Insurance Administration (PRHIA)—which administers the Puerto Rico Government Health Plan, upon which almost two million Puerto Ricans rely—faces a fiscal and physical insufficiency crisis that has forced it to incur millions of dollars of debt with their providers—and which, according to PRHIA, has set off a chain reaction, with longer wait times for clinical and therapeutic procedures, overcrowded emergency rooms, attempts to directly charge patients for services, and an increasing exodus of physicians from Puerto Rico. According to the Puerto Rico College of Physicians and Surgeons, “364 physicians left Puerto Rico in 2014, and 500 in 2015,” so that the “PRHIA debt represents a significant threat to maintaining an operational healthcare system.” The study further cautions that the uncertainty and deterioration of the quality of life in Puerto Rico, due to the fiscal crisis, have the potential of increasing the prevalence of mental health conditions in the years to come: “Since 2008, the Island has been affected by an economic recession. As a consequence, Puerto Rico has been facing greater chronic stressors that might have a negative impact on mental health: high levels of unemployment or underemployment, poverty, a drastic reduction of population, and higher levels of crime.”

Puerto Rico has an unemployment rate of over 10%, and a poverty level of 46%. So it was unsurprising that Secretaries Lew and Burwell had sought to “underscore the need for additional legislation early in this [Congressional] session to address the economic and fiscal crisis in Puerto Rico.” The authors noted that the PROMESA legislation enacted last summer was an example of “important progress achieved to date with bipartisan support.” They wrote, however, that the “the work is not done,” focusing on the critical need to pass legislation to avert what they deemed a “Medicaid Cliff” for Puerto Rico and implement an Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to incentivize employment—actions made even more critical because the President-elect’s vows to work with Congress to eliminate the Affordable Care Act will put at early risk significant amounts of Puerto Rico’s Medicaid—putting, according to the two outgoing Cabinet Secretaries, up to 900,000 Americans on the island currently receiving health care under the Affordable Care Act at risk. The two added that while the Congressional Task Force on Economic Growth in Puerto Rico, created under PROMESA to analyze challenges in Puerto Rico and propose federal solutions, had only recommended studying the possibility of an EITC for the territory, they wrote that an EITC would be a “powerful driver to bolster Puerto Rico’s future,” describing it as a “most effective and powerful tool” to address structural challenges like the high unemployment and lesser participation in the formal economy, adding that it will be important for Congress to consider solutions such as an expanded Child Tax Credit, continued authorization for Treasury to provide the Commonwealth with technical assistance, reliance on data in benchmarking economic growth, and initiatives to incentivize small business development.

The Challenges of Fiscal Disparities

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eBlog, 12/29/16

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider Detroit’s ongoing challenges to recovery from the nation’s largest ever municipal bankruptcy—a city unbailed out by the federal government, but which, as we noted earlier this week, Detroit News editorial writer Daniel Howes described as “perceptively changing,” especially as we write this rainy morning with regard to its thousands of abandoned homes and buildings. Then we turn to Virginia’s Petersburg, the historic city which danced on the edge of municipal bankruptcy—threatening the solvency of regional public utilities—as it faces challenges to its future. Finally, we look at the newly released census figures to better grasp the scope of fiscal disparities in the State of Ohio—especially with regard to the fiscally depleted municipality of East Cleveland.

Unbuilding & Rebuilding a City’s Future. In the final week of the year, Detroit neared the razing of an industrial building which once covered an entire city block—marking the razing of some 3,130 structures razed this year, bringing the total razed since the city emerged from chapter 9 bankruptcy to around 10,700 over the last three years—with the vast bulk of those owned by Detroit’s Land Bank Authority. Nevertheless, giving some idea of the vast scope of the city’s challenge, its blight task force in 2014 had projected that the city would need to tear down 40,000—and that some 38,000 others were at risk of collapse. Indeed, still today, many blocks in the city have more abandoned houses and empty lots than lived-in homes, a scar reminding us of the exodus of whites and much of the black middle class from the city: an exodus of more than half the city’s population since the 1950’s. In 1950, there were 1,849,568 people in Detroit, but, by 2010, there were 713,777. The city today is home to an estimated 40,000 abandoned lots and structures. Between 1978 and 2007, Detroit lost 67 percent of its business establishments and 80 percent of its manufacturing base. Thus, as Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan has stated, he believes the mass demolitions are necessary for Detroit if it is to attract families to city neighborhoods and staunch the decades of population loss.

Detroit Fire Investigations Division Capt. Winston Farrow adds that the removal of dangerous buildings and empty houses is vital to public safety and the quality of life in Detroit: “It eliminates the opportunities for criminals to set fires in vacant houses…The problem was more just the sheer numbers of dwellings that we had.” In another sign that the strategy is working, the average sale prices of over 100 houses sold in Detroit has increased over the past three years, according to the Land Bank.

Nevertheless, the challenge to the city’s future remains: the Detroit News quoted the owner of 3D Wrecking, Sheila Davenport: “You can tear down a house on one block and go back several months later and where houses were occupied (they) are now abandoned and need to be demolished…It just seems like it never ends.” And, of course, it is a costly process; on average, the city expends $12,616 to knock down a house—a process made fiscally easier through the receipt of more than $128 million in federal funds over the past three years—with another $130 million in the pipeline—along with $40 million from the city’s general fund set aside for further demolitions. (Federal funding had been temporarily halted earlier this year, but resumed after an audit determined demolition costs above a federal cap of $25,000 per house were redistributed to 350 other properties to have those houses appear to meet the cap.)

Syncopating Time. Notwithstanding the cold rain falling in Petersburg this morning, work has finally commenced to restore one of the city’s highest-profile landmarks after months of delay caused by the city’s budget crisis—with the construction to repair a nearly 180-year-old clock tower and roof, a $1.2 million project financed by the Virginia Resource Authority—financed, according to a city spokesperson who stated the VRA municipal bond was “approved prior to the financial crisis.” The work—to properly coordinate the clocks on the clock tower, had been deferred last year when the city discovered its fiscal cupboards were bare—even as city officials had been ordered to close the building two years because of structural problems with the historic edifice—during which time Circuit Court jury trials were temporarily moved to the Dinwiddie County Circuit Courthouse. But it is now in a different courthouse where the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals is weighing a lawsuit over a Petersburg Bureau of Police policy concerning social media which could result in a finding that would cost the fiscally challenged municipality millions of dollars after a federal court ruled that a lower court must decide whether the city government can be held liable for damages in the case. In its ruling, the court determined that the police department’s social media policy, put in place in 2013, violated employees’ First Amendment free speech rights. Moreover, the federal judges ordered the case be sent back to U.S. District Court in Richmond to determine whether “the city may also be held liable for the injuries that were caused by the applications of that policy.” The case arose two years ago last March, when two former Petersburg police officers claimed they were unjustly punished for posting comments on Facebook which criticized the department for promoting officers they considered too inexperienced. Their comments were reported to former Police Chief John I. Dixon III. The two officers were found to have violated a policy that Chief Dixon had instituted in April of 2013—a policy which prohibited department employees from giving out information “that would tend to discredit or reflect unfavorably upon the [department] or any other City of Petersburg department or its employees,” according to the appeals court opinion. The two officers were reprimanded and placed on probation—ergo, because they were on probation, they were barred from taking a test to qualify for promotion to sergeant. In addition, the officers had also been investigated over allegations of misconduct, which they claimed were filed in retaliation after the police department learned of their intent to file suit. The appeals court, however, has upheld the district court’s ruling that those investigations were not retaliatory, because “each arose from discrete allegations of misconduct” not related to the Facebook postings or the social media policy. For a municipality on the edge of chapter 9, the stakes on this appeal are high: the two officers are seeking compensatory damages of $2 million, plus punitive damages amounting to $350,000, plus attorney fees.

Ohio Fiscal Disparities. It was a generation ago that Congress eliminated the General Revenue Sharing program signed into law by former President Richard Nixon to address signal fiscal disparities. Today, it is possible to see how significant those disparities are becoming. According to the latest estimates available from the U.S. Census Bureau, median family incomes in Ohio cities range from $221,148 in the Columbus suburb of New Albany to $30,411 in East Cleveland, the city unbalanced between its waiting for Godot efforts to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy or a response to its efforts to become part of the City of Cleveland. The new Census figures make clear the extraordinary fiscal disparities in the state: after New Albany, the rest of the top five in Ohio are: Indian Hill near Cincinnati ($208,158), the Cleveland suburb of Pepper Pike ($162,292), and two Columbus suburbs: Powell at ($147,344) and Dublin ($139,860). The statistics are from surveys conducted from 2011 through 2015 and released this month—the latest estimates available from the U.S. Census Bureau for smaller areas.

Who’s at Risk of Defaulting?

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eBlog, 12/16/16

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

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

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

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

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

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

Driving Out of Municipal Bankruptcy

eBlog, 12/11/16

Good Morning! In this p.m.’s eBlog, we consider the economic resurgence of post-bankrupt Detroit, using human and, increasingly, artificial intelligence to focus on the city’s future. Then we head to East Cleveland, where, in the wake of the narrowest of recalls of both the Mayor and Council President in an insolvent municipality—the question is what (and whether) its fiscal future might be. Then we head to the snowy north, where Michigan House Speaker Kevin Cotter has issued a dire warning of many municipal bankruptcies unless there is a state-local plan to address its seemingly unpayable public pension obligations. Then, we zoom East as the State of New Jersey begins to fill in the blanks with regard to how it is and will be implementing its state takeover of Atlantic City. Finally, we head south to the fiscally beleaguered city of Petersburg to observe both the near-term fiscal actions to address its insolvency and ask what will ensue.

Detroit: a Resurgent Home of Innovation. Detroit, an early home of the automobile (I have a photo of my two grandfathers in the first automobile ever on the Ann Arbor campus of the University of Michigan), and now recovering from the largest chapter 9 bankruptcy in history, is one of the nation’s foremost cities in investing strategically in the future. Using its history with the automobile industry and its web of universities, the city appears to be at the forefront now of connecting artificial intelligence (AI) to the industry—a strategic investment in its future. Spatial Labs Inc., an artificial intelligence (AI) company which was founded in Cincinnati, but which has opted to keep its headquarters in Detroit, is one of 12 startups which was part of the Techstars Mobility accelerator program last summer in Detroit—a startup round of $2 million led by Serra Ventures of Champaign, Ill., and joined by Connectic Ventures of Covington, Ky.; the M25 Group of Chicago; Fulcrum Equity Partners of Atlanta; and Caerus Investment Partners of Chicago. Spatial, last September, had announced a development agreement with Ford Motor Co. at the Techstars Demo Day. As part of its participation in the program, Spatial received $20,000 in equity funding from Techstars and $100,000 from Detroit-based Fontinalis Partners LLC. Spatial CEO Lyden Faust told Crains: “We didn’t expect to move to Detroit, but personally, I’ve loved being here, and there are so many more opportunities here compared to Cincinnati.” The company was offered space at Ford Field by Ted Serbinski, managing director of the Techstars program in Detroit, and received a grant, which Mr. Faust said the company will use to hire several data scientists and ramp up marketing. Spatial’s co-founder and chief technology officer is Will Kiessling, who had been lead engineer and technologist at GE Aviation in Evandale, Ohio, from 2007 to last January—there he was used to managing huge amounts of data during engine development and testing, which he likened as bringing “the same logic to remote test jet engines as it is to remote test cities: Billions of people interact with maps across multiple devices every day. Bringing social context to maps using Spatial’s patent-pending technology will improve map usability in many industries, including travel, real estate and automotive.” With the rise of AI and machine learning and the shift to mobility and location, Spatial is at the intersection of a massive shift in the industry. And Detroit seems to be working hard to be first in the right lane.

Michigan Municipalities on the Brink. Michigan House Speaker Kevin Cotter (R-Mt. Pleasant), in an Op Ed for the Detroit News, wrote:

Many local communities in Michigan are drowning in debt and on the brink of bankruptcy, and yet almost no one is talking about it. Even fewer people are working on a plan to try to fix it…This is unacceptable and could have dire consequences for every Michigan resident. Something needs to be done now, before disaster strikes.

Reforming retirement systems is a controversial topic, but inaction is simply not an option. We recently made some waves by starting the discussion in the Michigan House, and it is my hope that we all continue that conversation into the new year. Debating the problem openly and honestly is an important first step, but we need to go further and find a permanent solution. It is well past time to put people over politics and do the right thing.

For decades, bad deals were made all over the state, handing out generous and unrealistic health care benefits left and right. Those debts are now weighing down our local governments, which is why we don’t have as many police officers on the streets as we could have and why our fire protection is spread thinner than it could be. This isn’t just a problem on a spreadsheet; you and I are still paying for those deals today in very real ways.

Local governments are struggling to make their payments on this debt, and they are falling further behind every year. A few are on the brink of bankruptcy, and many more will be there soon. Municipal bankruptcies mean fewer police, holes in fire coverage, and a busy signal when you dial 911. Imagine what happened in Detroit a few years ago happening in Kalamazoo, Jackson or Midland. Think of it happening in your city.

Bankruptcy also means former employees with retirement benefits could lose them all. Bankruptcy courts end deals like that with no recourse, and retirees are an easy target for them. Local governments, police and firefighter unions and politicians from both parties publicly agreed we need to solve this crisis now to prevent deep and destructive cuts in our cities and to save the retirements our first responders are planning on.

Our plan asked local public employees to contribute just 20 percent toward their own retirement healthcare plan, the same percentage state employees have been contributing for years. That is still far better than what private sector employees receive. We went further and completely eliminated our own coverage in the state Legislature when I took office six years ago, because it was the right thing to do.

That plan didn’t have the support to pass before our current term ends, but having everyone acknowledge the problem together is a great first step. We’ve heard their constructive criticism, but now we need to hear their ideas. Our committees won’t have the chance to hear from the thousands of police recruits and trainee firefighters who were never hired over the years because of busted budgets. Our representatives will never hear from the people who have died because of slow emergency response times due to budget cuts.

Denial is no longer an alternative, but bankruptcy unfortunately is. Our plan was the only plan out there to save our cities, protect critical services and guarantee first responder benefits for life. Now we need a new plan, and a better plan.

State Governance in Municipal Insolvency. In the wake of the Atlantic City’s Municipal Utilities Authority’s Nov. 28 special meeting; in particular, its vote to give outgoing members a $3,000 ‘gift’ in addition to their regular compensation and benefits package, as we have previously noted, Jeff Chiesa, who is heading up the state’s takeover of the boardwalk city has announced New Jersey will use its new power over the municipality to veto the water authority’s decision to give its board members $3,000 gifts, with his spokesperson noting: “The Division of Local Government Services rejects the action taken at the Atlantic City.” The statement from Mr. Chiesa’s office noted: “This action is further evidence of the MUA’s disregard for the ratepayers they serve, and clearly demonstrates the authority does not understand the severity of the city’s financial condition.” Local Government Services Director—along with Mr. Chiesa—made clear they will also review the remainder of the MUA board meeting minutes, making clear the breadth of authority granted to the state under its takeover powers—including the ability to hire or fire employees, sell city assets, or break union contracts. The state power, moreover, reaches farther to the authority to veto the minutes of municipal governmental meetings. 

What’s Next for Governance in an Insolvent Municipality? Recalled East Cleveland Mayor Gary Norton has now provided details of the city’s handover of power in the wake of his narrow loss in last week’s recall election by twenty votes—along with City Council President Thomas Wheeler. The Mayor stated: “Because that election is so close, we will hold off until December 27th and wait the 21 days to ensure East Cleveland that the election results are final, the election results are certified, and the appropriate individuals enter the mayor’s office and leave council or stay on council.” Should a recount find that Council President Wheeler was not, in fact, recalled, he would become Mayor; if he does not and the current results stand, Council Vice President Brandon King will be mayor until next year’s regular mayoral election. Outgoing Mayor Norton said the government’s business will continue without interruption while the mayor’s office and any openings on council are filled. At the press conference, Council Vice President Brandon King was asked about the status of the city proposed merger with Cleveland—a proposal both Mayor Norton and Council President Wheeler had supported. In response, he noted: “I think when you look at that issue, that’s something that is not over and it will continue to be discussed. And I think that’s probably going to be my only comment on that.” To continue, however, the Mayor and Council will have to act: The ordinance appointing commissioners to study annexation expired before the City of Cleveland chose its representatives. Indeed, according to a Cleveland city council spokesperson, the city has not received a new list of merger commissioners, so East Cleveland’s newly constituted Council would have to pass a new ordinance to restart the merger process. East Cleveland has been in fiscal emergency since 2012. 

Back to a City’s Viable & Fiscally Stable Future. Just as once stagecoaches carry Wells Fargo safe boxes were once guarded by tough characters, like Wyatt Earp, armed with sawed-off shotguns loaded with deadly buckshot to fend off attacks from dastardly outlaws; now it appears that Wells Fargo might pay a favor back: it has agreed to provide a loan of some $6.5 million to the small, insolvent municipality of Petersburg, Virginia—a decision arrived at in the wake of steep municipal budget cuts, tax increases, and greater financial vigilance.  Interim City Manager Tom Tyrrell announced that the city was approved for the loan by Wells Fargo—a loan carrying an interest rate of 4.5 percent, but where the repayment of all principal and interest is due by next October. City Manager Tyrell, in a press release, noted: “This is part of the plan to provide short-term financing to allow city functions to continue. It is not an infusion of cash to pay off past obligations…We will pay our past obligations and will announce our program to accomplish those payments as Phase Two of our Fiscal Stability Plan.” The loan comes in the wake of efforts to secure one that commenced last summer after the lender who previously had provided short-term revenue anticipation notes declined to lend the municipality funds. Thus, last September, as we have previously noted, the City Council had adopted a package of budget cuts and tax increases recommended by consulting firm PFM Group as a way to reassure potential lenders that Petersburg was working seriously to remedy its fiscal plight—and, subsequently, hired another consulting firm, the Robert Bobb Group—headed by former Richmond City Manager Robert Bobb, to take over operation of the city government. The Wells Fargo loan will not address the roughly $19 million the city owes in past-due payments left over from its FY2016 fiscal year; however, according to the city: “It does give us enough breathing room to continue to meet our current expenditures…[It is a] short-term loan [that] allows us to pay our current fiscal 2017 expenses while meeting city payroll, current debt financing and emergency first responder services.” Indeed, Mr. Bobb noted: “We are still in a crisis mode, and this is not the time to interpret short-term financing as a long-term accomplishment.” His company noted that its focus for the next few months will remain on maintaining normal municipal operations and delivering essential public services while reinforcing city finances. Next year, the plan is to commence on “Phase Two,” in which the goal will be to begin paying down longer-term debt and past-due bills.

The Stark Differences in How Cities May Exit Municipal Bankruptcy, & The Hard Challenges of Municipal Governance in Insolvencies.

eBlog, 12/07/16

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the green light flashed by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury yesterday, clearing the way for San Bernardino to exit the longest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history—and in ways profoundly different than Detroit because of the very different state roles and laws with regard to chapter 9 and governance in municipal bankruptcy, and that San Bernardino—like Jefferson County—remained under elected local leadership throughout their respective journeys into and out of municipal bankruptcy. Then we turn to last night’s recall by voters in the small, insolvent municipality of East Cleveland, in the wake of the narrowest of margins—but at an unaffordable cost.

Smooth Sailing Out of Municipal Bankruptcy. In what San Bernardino Mayor Carey Davis yesterday described as a “monumental day…[where] the hard work has paid off,” referring to U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury’s statement yesterday: “We have a lot left to do, but this clears the way for us to do much of that work,” as she yesterday confirmed the City of San Bernardino’s plan of debt adjustment, confirming its path early in the new year to exit from the nation’s longest ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy as early as next March. San Bernardino City Attorney Gary Saenz expressed elation at Judge Jury’s green light, noting: “I’m so pleased and excited about where the city is now compared to where we were when we filed bankruptcy and what we were able to accomplish and that we now have a solid foundation upon which to build this city. The confirmation should certainly help the rest of the city and the world recognize that San Bernardino is back.” Even Judge Jury joined in praising the city for its endurance and stamina over the long road, noting that over the four-year span she had observed that had improved not just its finances, but also its governance, pointing to the municipality’s voter-approved new charter and better working relationships among elected officials: “The city came in financial chaos, and it’s leaving in much better shape…I have lived in this region for 40 years…and I’ve always said the city needed help. I’m glad it got it.” Under the city’s now approved plan of adjustment, it will pay the bulk of its creditors far less than they would otherwise be entitled to—in many instances merely one cent for every dollar such a creditor is owed; however, the city’s plan also outlines changes to the structure of the city, some of which, including outsourcing of refuse and fire services, and the passage of a new city charter, have already been implemented. City Attorney Saenz estimated that even though the costs to the city of its filing will be in excess of $20 million, its now approved chapter 9 plan of debt adjustment will save the city’s taxpayers more than $300 million worth of debts that will be officially discharged.

With regard to the record length of time, Judge Jury said the case, which hinged significantly on deals with major creditors, took the right amount of time. Moreover, several of the city’s major creditors in the case concurred in the congratulations, contrasting the city’s process and efforts specifically to Detroit, the nation’s largest-ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, by noting both the significant state role and imposition of an emergency manager in the former—in contrast, the State of California was simply an absent, if not contributor to San Bernardino’s insolvency and consequent chapter 9 filing. Indeed, attorney Vincent J. Marriott, who represented municipal bondholders who held approximately $50 million of the city’s tax-exempt bonds, noted: “Here the city had the challenge of being not only economically viable but politically palatable,” said. “As is appropriate, that took time. I think the result today is really a tribute to all the work and thought that went in from the city.” Further challenging San Bernardino was the inability to gain any concessions on its public pension liabilities—in sharp contrast to the Detroit plan of debt adjustment, which provided for reductions in both Detroit’s public pension and post-retirement benefit obligations after San Bernardino’s attempts to negotiate with the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS), therefore forcing the city to negotiate steeper concessions from all its other creditors. (The San Bernardino police union did reach an agreement with the city last year which includes concessions on leave time from before the bankruptcy filing, legal claims related to the imposition, and retiree health care.)

The last hurdle, as we have recounted previously, came after Judge Jury held for the city against efforts by attorneys representing clients injured by the San Bernardino Police—who had argued that the exceptionally low offer demonstrated the city, in its plan of debt adjustment efforts, had not acted “reasonably,” nor “in good faith,” provisions required for the federal court to confirm a municipality’s plan of debt adjustment. In rejecting those debtors’ claims, Judge Jury told their attorney: “I’m not trying to diminish the injuries to your client…But I’m also saying at a human level what the police and others have given back do affect the livelihoods of their families. It’s not a dispassionate institutional creditor.” Finally, Judge Jury concurred in one of the very few areas in the city’s plan of debt adjustment calling for increased spending: for the city’s police department. Judge Jury noted: “Anybody that lives in this area knows that the crime problem in San Bernardino is substantial…They have to get safe for people to want to live there.”

Pearl Harbor Day on East Cleveland. East Cleveland voters yesterday recalled both Mayor Gary Norton Jr. and City Council President Thomas Wheeler in a special election, with the final, unofficial results finding that Mayor Norton lost by a margin of 20 votes (548 to 528), according to the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections website, while City Council President Wheeler lost by an even narrow margin of 18 votes—with the official tally to be released on December 19th. Yesterday’s recall election marked the third time Councilmember Wheeler had been subject to recall: he prevailed exactly one year ago, and then, again, last June—albeit by a mere 51-49 percent margin, and with a turnout of only 7 percent of the city’s registered voters. For the ousted Mayor, the recall marked the first such election. In a statement last night, Mayor Norton noted: “I love the people of East Cleveland, and it has been an honor to have served them.” In the wake of the recall, Council Vice President Brandon King will be sworn in as the new Mayor in three weeks, and the remaining City Council members will have to appoint two leaders to the Council to fill the empty slots: under the Council’s procedures, should the Council find itself unable to agree upon such appointments, Mayor-to-be King will choose who fills those seats, according to Council President Wheeler.

For the small, insolvent municipality of East Cleveland, a city which Ohio Auditor Dave Yost’s office four years ago declared to be in a state of fiscal emergency, and last year stated that municipal bankruptcy or merging with Cleveland were the two most viable options for the suburb, the interim has been like waiting for Godot. Indeed, the small municipality has been awaiting some response from the State of Ohio with regard to its request for authorization to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, and some response from both the state and City of Cleveland with regard to its proposal to be annexed, the disruptive election carries a fiscal cost: yesterday’s election could cost the city between $25,000 and $30,000. (The city explored filing for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in May, but has been stymied by the state, because the Ohio Tax Commissioner’s office said the Council should ask permission from the state, not the Mayor.) Now, in the wake of last night’s results, the outcome could mean what outgoing Council President Wheeler last night described as “dramatic chaos:” “They wanted me out, and it took them three times…Obviously they don’t want the city to move forward; they want to go back to the way things used to be.” In contrast, Devin Branch, who led the effort to recall the city’s elected leaders last night said the people of East Cleveland had spoken, and while voter turnout was low, the majority of the city opposes the current mayor: “Working class people of the City of East Cleveland are soundly against Mayor Norton.” The city explored filing for bankruptcy in May, but hit a roadblock when the Tax Commissioner’s office said council should ask permission from the state, not the mayor. The letter from the commissioner also detailed the plans that the city must have prior to filing for bankruptcy.