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.”

The Key Lessons Learned after a Decade of Municipal Bankruptcies

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eBlog, 04/07/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider Detroit’s first steps to address the blight which crisscrossed the city leading to its municipal bankruptcy. Then we look to New Hampshire to assess whether the state legislature will preempt municipalities’ authority to set election dates. Then we slip south to assess fiscal developments in the efforts to recover from insolvency in Puerto Rico. Finally, we assess and consider some of the broader issues related to municipal bankruptcy.

Post Chapter 9 Recovery. One of Detroit’s first tests with regard to whether it can find new use for the vast stretches of land it cleared of blight went into effect this week when development teams announced by  Mayor Mike Duggan, along with partners: The Platform, a Detroit-based firm, and Century Partners announced they would be investing an estimated $100 million to rehab the architectural jewels in the city’s downtown—the Fisher and Albert Kahn buildings, with the two organizations declaring they will take the lead in overhauling 373 parcels of vacant land and houses in the Fitzgerald neighborhood on the northwest side, where they will coordinate with other firms on a $4 million development plan to rehab 115 vacant homes over two years, create a two-acre park, and landscape 192 vacant lots—with the work occurring in neighborhoods wherein the Detroit Land Bank took control of most of the properties and razed some abandoned homes. Mayor Duggan and other officials described the plan as a kind of reverse gentrification—or, as Mayor Duggan framed it: “We are going to keep the families here while improving the neighborhoods,” making his announcement on an empty lot which is scheduled to become a city park and include a greenway path to nearby Marygrove College: the city leaders hope to transform the neighborhood into a “Blight-Free Quarter Square Mile,” and, if the model works, seek to propagate it other neighborhoods.

Granite State Preemption or Cure? House Speaker Shawn Jasper wants to give New Hampshire towns that postponed their municipal elections due to a snowstorm a way out of facing potential lawsuits from voters who may have been disenfranchised. Speaker Jasper had proposed letting towns ratify the results of their elections by holding another vote, offering a bill to give towns which moved Election Day the option of letting townspeople vote to ratify, or confirm, the results on May 23rd. However, in the wake of about five hours of testimony, the House Election Law Committee voted 10-10 on the Jasper plan, so that a tie vote killed the Speaker’s amendment, leaving 73 towns on their own to address potential legal problems resulting from their decisions to hold their elections on days other than March 14th. The fiscal blizzard in the Granite State now depends upon whether state legislators determine whether or not a special election is needed with regard to those results. New Hampshire Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan noted: “The concept is not entirely new…what is different is that it is applying to an entire class of towns that decided to postpone.”

In the past, the Legislature has voted to “cure” individual election defects. Speaker of the House Shawn Jasper, (R-Hudson, N.H.) noted: “Well, the fact that a bunch of towns moved the day of their town election was unprecedented…And so as a result of doing that, those towns that moved had to start bending other laws to make other issues related to the election work…The Legislature is just granting the authority to allow the towns to correct any defects that may exist,” he added, listing changed time listings, lack of proper notice, and absentee ballot date issues as possible defects in the process. All of those questions, of course, have fiscal consequences—or, as Atkinson Town Administrator Alan Phair put it; “Well, I don’t know the exact cost, what it would be, but I do know that in our case we certainly don’t have the money budgeted to (hold a special election), because we obviously just budgeted for one election…We would certainly go considerably over and have to find the money elsewhere to do it.” Under the proposed amendment, towns and school districts which postponed would hold a hearing, at which the respective governing body would vote on whether to hold a special election with one question: whether or not to ratify results, where a “no” vote would kick out anyone elected in a postponed vote, while nullifying warrant articles, with elected roles to be appointed until the next election. Salem Town Manager (Salem is a town of just under 30,000 in Rockingham County) Leon Goodwin said his elected leaders were of the opinion that its postponement was legal, so that the municipality is moving forward on projects voted on last month, noting: We’re moving on as if the votes were accepted even though there is a cloud hanging over us from Concord,” adding that town counsel advised the town moderator that it was legal to move elections. Yet, even as he remained confident the election issue will be resolved, he cautioned that the town has not budgeted for an additional election; Windham (approximately 14,000) Town Manager David Sullivan said the municipality’s town Counsel would sign off on the town’s fire truck bond, notwithstanding bond counsel elsewhere in the state advising that ratification of the elections would be necessary.

Municipal authority to act has been hampered by different state House and Senate approaches: while the two bodies have been moving on parallel tracks in the wake of state officials’ questioning the authority of town moderators to reschedule the March 14 voting sessions of their town meetings, the Senate this week passed SB 248, a bill introduced to ratify actions taken at the rescheduled meetings; however, the bill passed with a committee amendment which deletes all of the original language and provides instead for the creation of a committee to “study the rescheduling of elections.” Senators acknowledged that the bill was not likely to pass through the House in that form—asserting the intent was simply to get a bill to the House for further work. Subsequently, a floor amendment was introduced to restore the bill’s original language, ratifying all actions taken at the rescheduled meetings; however, that amendment failed on a party-line vote, with all nine Democrats voting in favor and all fourteen Republicans voting against, leaving most unclear how this could have become a partisan issue. The question comes down to what level of control local officials should have over local elections. The Speaker described the outcome thusly: “I think it was a case of 10 people (on the committee) thinking that what happened was legal;” however, he maintained that the postponed votes were not legal, adding: “The sad thing is that for school districts with bond issues that passed in those meetings, I don’t see a path forward for them,” adding: “I think if you’re afraid of snowstorms, you ought to move your meetings, probably to May,” noting that state officials are forbidden by law from moving state primary and general elections, as well as the first-in-the-nation presidential primary. Unsurprisingly, town moderators and attorneys who work with them on municipal bond issues disagreed with the Speaker’s interpretation that the postponed elections were illegal and his belief that the only way to rectify the issue was for them to act to individually ratify them, with many arguing they acted legally under a state law which allows them to postpone and reschedule the “deliberative session or voting day” of a town meeting to another day; however, the Speaker maintains that law applies only to town meetings, while town elections are governed under a different statute, which provides: “All towns shall hold an election annually for the election of town officers on the second Tuesday in March.” He also noted that the state’s official political calendar, which has the force of law, states that town elections must be held on March 14, adding: “Without trying to place blame, laws are sometimes very confusing if you look only at parts of them,” noting: “I don’t believe for one second that moving the election was legal.”

The Speaker added that still another state law provides that at special town meetings, no money may be raised or appropriated unless the number of ballots cast at the meeting is at least half the number of those on the checklist who were eligible to vote in the most recent town meeting, albeit adding that such meetings do not apply to the current situation, because they are not elections. The state’s Secretary of State said that after three weeks of research, he was able to report on voter turnout at town elections for the past 11 years, advising that 210 towns held elections in March, and 137 of them “followed the law” by holding their elections on March 14th, while 73 towns had postponed their elections by several days. Now Speaker Jasper asks: “Why would we give over 300 individual moderators the ability to do that when our Secretary of State doesn’t have the ability to do that for a snowstorm in our general election or our presidential primary?” The Speaker notes: “I think we need to provide a way to ensure that we don’t clog up the courts, and we don’t have people spend a lot of their own money to fight this, and the towns don’t have to spend a lot of money fighting it.”

Un-positive Credit Rating for Puerto Rico. Moody’s Investors Service has lowered the credit ratings on debt of the Government Development Bank and five other Puerto Rico issuers, with a total of approximately $13 billion outstanding, and revised down the Commonwealth’s fiscal outlook, and the outlooks for seven affiliated obligors linked to the central government to negative from developing, with the downgrades reflecting what the agency described as “persistent pressures on Puerto Rico’s economic base that indicate a diminishing perceived capacity to repay,” noting that while it continues to “believe that essentially all of Puerto Rico’s debt will be subject to default and loss in a broad restructuring, the securities being downgraded face more severe losses than we had previously expected, in the light of Puerto Rico’s projected economic pressures. For this reason, we downgraded to C from Ca not only the senior notes issued by the now defunct Government Development Bank, but also bonds issued by the Puerto Rico Infrastructure Financing Authority and backed by federal rum tax transfer payments, the Convention Center District Authority’s hotel occupancy tax-backed bonds, the Employees Retirement System’s bonds backed by government pension contributions, and the 1998 Resolution bonds of the Puerto Rico Highways and Transportation Authority.”

Puerto Rico Governor Rossello late Wednesday said that the U.S. territory’s fiscal plan, approved by the PROMESA Board, does not contemplate any double taxation, adding that, between the increase in the property tax and the reduction of expenses in the municipalities, he favored the latter as a measure to compensate for the absence of the state subsidy of $350 million. He reiterated that, as a substitute for these funds, the properties which are not currently paying taxes to the Centro de Recaution de Ingresos Municipales (CRIM: the Municipal Revenue Collection Center) should be identified, because they are not included in their registry. The Governor also stressed that the economic outcome of these two fiscal initiatives is still being evaluated, albeit he estimated that they could generate about $100 million, noting: “Whatever the differential after that for the municipalities, there are two mechanisms that can be worked: One, a mechanism to seek an additional source of income, or, two, to avail cuts…The central government has taken the cutting position. We are already establishing a protocol to cut in the agencies, to consolidate, to eliminate the expenses that are not necessary, to go from 131 to between 35 to 40 agencies. That has been our action. The municipalities—now we will have a conversation with our technical team—will have several options: ‘either cut as did the central government or seek mechanisms to raise more funds or impose taxes.’” Currently, mayors evaluate to increase the arbitrage of the real property to 11.83% or to 12.83% in all the municipalities; the concept is for members of the Executive to offer assistance to do the modeling. Thus, the president of the board of CRIM, Cidra Mayor Javier Carrasquillo, said CRIM will be “sensitive to the reality of the pockets of Puerto Ricans: We have to be cautious and responsible in the recommendation that we are going to make…There is nothing definitive yet. There are recommendations.” The Governor noted that the PROMESA Board approved fiscal plan approved last month does not contemplate an increase in property taxation, asserting it was “false to imply that our fiscal plan entails an increase in the rate or a double rate on properties,” albeit recalling that the disappearance of $350 million in transfers to municipalities begins on July 1, when the fiscal year begins, promising it will be done progressively, so that in the next budget (2017-2018) $175 million disappear, and the remaining $175 million, the next fiscal year, describing it as a “two-year fade out.” Unsurprisingly, he did not specify when or how the plan would fiscally benefit this island’s municipalities, stating: “We have already been able to have pilot efforts to identify different municipalities where 60% of their properties are not being assessed…We are going to commit ourselves so that all these properties are in the system.”

The End of a Chapter 9 Era? Municipal bankruptcy is a rarity: even notwithstanding the Great Recession which produced a significant number of corporate bankruptcies—and federal bailouts to large for-profit corporations and quasi-federal corporations, such as Fannie Mae; the federal government offered no bailouts to cities or counties. Yet from one of the nation’s smallest cities, Central Falls, to major, iconic cities such as Detroit and Jefferson County, the nation experienced a just-ended spate, before—with San Bernardino’s exit last month, the likely closure of an era—even as we await some resolution of the request by East Cleveland to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. The lessons learned, compiled by the nation’s leading light of municipal bankruptcy, therefore bear consideration. Jim Spiotto, with whom I had the honor and good fortune over nearly a decade of effort leading to former President Reagan’s signing into law of the municipal bankruptcy amendments of 1988, offers us a critical guide of ten lessons learned:

  1. Do not defer funding of essential services and infrastructure: Detroit is a wake- up call for others that there is never a good reason to defer funding of essential services and infrastructure at an acceptable level. If you do, Detroit’s fate will be yours.
  2. Labor and pension contracts under state constitutional and statutory provisions should not be interpreted as a mutual suicide pact: It appears one of the reasons why resolution of pension and labor costs was not achieved in Detroit prior to filing Chapter 9 was the belief of the workers and retirees that, under the Michigan constitution, those contractual rights could not be impaired or diminished to any degree. This position failed to take into consideration that the municipality can only pay that which it has revenues to pay and, in an eroding declining financial situation, there will never be sufficient funds to pay all obligations, especially those that may be unaffordable and unsustainable.
  3. Don’t question that which should be beyond questioning and is needed for the long-term financial survival of the municipality: A dedicated source of payment, statutory lien or special revenues established under state law must be honored and should not be contested. Capital markets work effectively when credibility and predictability of outcome are clear and unquestioned. Current effort to pass new legislation (California SB222 and Michigan HB5650) to grant statutory first lien on dedicated revenues. Further, as noted in the Senate Report for the 1988 Amendments to the Bankruptcy Code and Chapter 9 “Section 904 [of Chapter 9 limiting the jurisdiction and power of the Bankruptcy Court] and the tenth amendment prohibits the interpretation that pledges of revenues granted pursuant to state statutory or constitutional provisions to bondholders can be terminated by filing a Chapter 9 proceeding”. This follows the precedent from the 1975 financial distress of New York City and the State of New York’s highest court ruling the state imposed moratorium was unconstitutional given the constitutional mandate to pay available revenues to the general obligation bondholders. See Flushing Nat. Bank et. al. v. Mun. Assistance Corp. of New York, 40 N.Y.S.2nd 731, 737-738 (N.Y. 1976). Just as statutory liens and special revenues, there is a strong argument that state statutory and constitutional mandated payments (mandated set asides, priorities, appropriations and dedicated tax revenue payments) should not and cannot be impaired, limited, modified or delayed by a Chapter 9 proceeding given the rulings of the Supreme Court in the Ashton and Bekins cases and the prohibitions of Sections 903 and 904 of Chapter 9 of the Bankruptcy Code.
  4. Debt adjustment is a process, but a recovery plan is a solution: As noted above, while Detroit has proceeded with debt adjustment which provides some additional runway so it can take takeoff in a recovery, such plan is not the cure for the systemic problem. Rather, the plan provides additional breathing room so that the municipality, through its Mayor and its elected officials, may proceed with a recovery plan, reinvest in Detroit, stimulate the economy, create new jobs, clear and develop blighted areas and raise the level of services and infrastructure to that which is acceptable and attract new business and new citizens.
  5. Successful plans of debt adjustment have one common feature: virtually all significant issues have been settled and resolved with major creditors: While the Detroit Plan started with sound and fury between the emergency manager and creditors and what they would receive, in the end, similar to what occurred in Vallejo, Jefferson County and even in Stockton (with one exception), major creditors ultimately reached agreement and supported the Plan of Debt Adjustment that allowed the municipality to move forward, confirm the Plan and begin its journey to recovery.
  6. One size does not fit all: There are many ways to draft a plan of debt adjustment and sometimes the more creative, the better. As noted above, traditionally major cities of size with significant debt did not file Chapter 9. They refinanced their debt with the backing of the state which reduced their future borrowing costs and allowed them to recover by having the liquidity and the reduced costs necessary to deal with their financial difficulties. Detroit chose a different path.
  7. A recovery plan must provide for essential services and infrastructure: “Best interest of creditors” and “feasibility” can only mean an appropriate reinvestment in the municipality through a recovery plan where there is funding of essential services and infrastructure at an acceptable level to stimulate the municipality’s economy to attract new employers and taxpayers thereby increasing tax revenues and addressing the systemic problem. While no plan of debt adjustment is perfect or assured, there should be, as the Bankruptcy Court in Detroit throughout the case pointed out, a plan to show the survivability and future success of the City.
  8. Confirmation of a plan of debt adjustment is only the beginning of the journey to financial recovery, not the end: It is important to recognize, as noted above, that Chapter 9 is a process, not a solution. The recovery plan, which will take dedication and effort by the elected officials of the City along with residents, public workers and other creditors is the only way to achieve success. It is measured not by months, but by years, and by the constant vigilance to ensure that the systemic problem is addressed effectively in a permanent fix.

The Roads out of Municipal Bankruptcy

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eBlog, 2/24/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the post-chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy trajectories of the nation’s longest (San Bernardino) and largest (Detroit) municipal bankruptcies.

Exit I. So Long, Farewell…San Bernardino City Manager Mark Scott was given a two-week extension to his expired contract this week—on the very same day the Reno, Nevada City Council selected him as one of two finalists to be Reno’s City Manager—with the extension granted just a little over the turbulent year Mr. Scott had devoted to working with the Mayor, Council, and attorneys to complete and submit to U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury San Bernardino’s proposed plan of debt adjustment—with the city, at the end of January, in the wake of San Bernardino’s “final, final” confirmation hearing, where the city gained authority to issue water and sewer revenue bonds prior to this month’s final bankruptcy confirmation hearing—or, as Urban Futures Chief Executive Officer Michael Busch, whose firm provided the city with financial guidance throughout the four-plus years of bankruptcy, put it: “It has been a lot of work, and the city has made a lot of tough decisions, but I think some of the things the city has done will become best practices for cities in distress.” Judge Jury is expected to make few changes from the redline suggestions made to her preliminary ruling by San Bernardino in its filing at the end of January—marking, as Mayor Carey Davis noted: a “milestone…After today, we have approval of the bankruptcy exit confirmation order.” Indeed, San Bernardino has already acted on much of its plan—and now, Mayor Davis notes the city exiting from the longest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history is poised for growth in the wake of outsourcing fire services to the county and waste removal services to a private contractor, and reaching agreements with city employees, including police officers and retirees, to substantially reduce healthcare OPEB benefits to lessen pension reductions. Indeed, the city’s plan agreement on its $56 million in pension obligation bonds—and in significant part with CalPERS—meant its retirees fared better than the city’s municipal bondholders to whom San Bernardino committed to pay 40 percent of what they are owed—far more than its early offer of one percent. San Bernardino’s pension bondholders succeeded in wrangling a richer recovery than the city’s opening offer of one percent, but far less than CalPERS, which received a nearly 100 percent recovery. (San Bernardino did not make some $13 million in payments to CalPERS early in the chapter 9 process, but did set up payments to make the public employee pension fund whole; the city was aided in those efforts as we have previously noted after Judge Jury ruled against the argument made by pension bond attorneys two years ago. After the city’s pension bondholders entered into mediation again prior to exit confirmation, substantial agreement was achieved for th0se bondholders, no doubt beneficial at the end of last year to the city’s water department’s issuance of $68 million in water and sewer bonds at competitive interest rates in November and December—with the payments to come from the city’s water and sewer revenues, which were not included in the bankruptcy. The proceeds from these municipal bonds will meet critical needs to facilitate seismic upgrades to San Bernardino’s water reservoirs and funding for the first phase of the Clean Water Factor–Recycled Water Program.

Now, with some eager anticipation of Judge Jury’s final verdict, Assistant San Bernardino City Attorney Jolena Grider advised the Mayor and Council with regard to the requested contract extension: “If you don’t approve this, we have no city manager…We’re in the midst of getting out of bankruptcy. That just sends the wrong message to the bankruptcy court, to our creditors.” Ergo, the City Council voted 8-0, marking the first vote taken under the new city charter, which requires the Mayor to vote, to extend the departing Manager’s contract until March 7th, the day after the Council’s next meeting—and, likely the very same day Mr. Scott will return to Reno for a second interview, after beating out two others to reach the final round of interviews. Reno city officials assert they will make their selection on March 8th—and Mr. Scott will be one of four candidates.

For their part, San Bernardino Councilmembers Henry Nickel, Virginia Marquez, and John Valdivia reported they would not vote to extend Mr. Scott’s contract on a month-to-month basis, although they joined other Councilmembers in praising the city manager who commenced his service almost immediately after the December 2nd terrorist attack, and, of course, played a key role in steering the city through the maze to exit the nation’s longest ever municipal bankruptcy. Nevertheless, Councilmember Nickel noted: “Month-to-month may be more destabilizing than the alternative…Uncertainty is not a friend of investment and the business community, which is what our city needs now.” From his perspective, as hard and stressful as his time in San Bernardino had to be, Mr. Scott, in a radio interview while he was across the border in Reno, noted: “I’ve worked for 74 council members—I counted them one time on a plane…And I’ve liked 72 of them.”

Exit II. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan says the Motor City is on track to exit Michigan state fiscal oversight by next year , in the wake of a third straight year of balancing its books, during his State of the City address: noting, “When Kevyn Orr (Gov. Rick Snyder’s appointed Emergency Manager who shepherded Detroit through the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history) departed, and we left bankruptcy in December 2014, a lot of people predicted Detroit would be right back in the same financial problems, that we couldn’t manage our own affairs, but instead we finished 2015 with the first balanced budget in 12 years, and we finished 2016 with the second, and this year we are going to finish with the third….I fully expect that by early 2018 we will be out from financial review commission oversight, because we would have made budget and paid our bills three years in a row.”

Nonetheless, the fiscal challenge remains steep: Detroit confronts stiff fiscal challenges, including an unexpected gap in public pensions, and the absence of a long-term economic plan. It faces disproportionate long-term borrowing costs because of its lingering low credit ratings—ratings of B2 and B from Moody’s Investors Service and S&P Global Ratings, respectively, albeit each assigns the city stable outlooks. Nevertheless, the Mayor is eyes forward: “If we want to fulfill the vision of a building a Detroit that includes everybody, we have to do a whole lot more.” By more, he went on, the city has work to do to bring back jobs, referencing his focus on a new job training program which will match citizens to training programs and then to jobs. (Detroit’s unemployment rate has dropped by nearly 50 percent from three years ago, but still is the highest of any Michigan city at just under 10 percent.) The Mayor expressed hope that the potential move of the NBA’s Detroit Pistons to the new Little Caesars Arena in downtown Detroit would create job opportunities for the city: “After the action of the Detroit city council in support of the first step of our next project very shortly, the Pistons will be hiring people from the city of Detroit.” The new arena, to be financed with municipal bonds, is set to open in September as home to the Detroit Red Wings hockey team, which will abandon the Joe Louis Arena on the Detroit riverfront, after the Detroit City Council this week voted to support plans for the Pistons’ move, albeit claiming the vote was not an endorsement of the complex deal involving millions in tax subsidies. Indeed, moving the NBA team will carry a price tag of $34 million to adapt the design of the nearly finished arena: the city has agreed to contribute toward the cost for the redesign which Mayor Duggan said will be funded through savings generated by the refinancing of $250 million of 2014 bonds issued by the Detroit Development Authority.

Mayor Duggan reiterated his commitment to stand with Detroit Public Schools Community District and its new school board President Iris Taylor against the threat of school closures. His statements came in the face of threats by the Michigan School Reform Office, which has identified 38 underperforming schools, the vast bulk of which (25) are in the city, stating: “We aren’t saying schools are where they need to be now…They need to be turned around, but we need 110,000 seats in quality schools and closing schools doesn’t add a single quality seat, all it does is bounce children around.” Mayor Duggan noted that Detroit also remains committed to its demolition program—a program which has, to date, razed some 11,000 abandoned homes, more than half the goal the city has set, in some part assisted by some $42 million in funds from the U.S Department of Treasury’s Hardest Hit Funds program for its blight removal program last October, the first installment of a new $130 million blight allocation for the city which was part of an appropriations bill Congress passed in December of 2015—but where a portion of that amount had been suspended by the Treasury for two months after a review found that internal controls needed improvement. Now, Major Duggan reports: “We have a team of state employees and land bank employees and a new process in place to get the program up and running and this time our goal isn’t only to be fast but to be in federal compliance too.” Of course, with a new Administration in office in Washington, D.C., James Thurber—were he still alive—might be warning the Mayor not to count any chickens before they’re hatched.

The Challenge of Post-Insolvency Governance

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eBlog, 2/21/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the role of citizens when a municipality emerges from municipal bankruptcy—and at how little effort seems to have been taken for such cities to share with each other. Then we take a gamble at the roulette wheels in Atlantic City, where the third branch of government, the judiciary, is weighing in even as candidates for next year’s Mayoral election from the City Council are announcing.  

The Challenge of Emerging from Chapter 9 Municipal Bankruptcy. San Bernardino Neighborhood Association Council President Amelia Lopez recently asked if the city’s emergence from municipal bankruptcy might mark the moment to change the city from the ground up, or, as Ms. Lopez put it: “Coming out of bankruptcy is an opportunity…The city is looking for direction. We’re here to have a say in that direction.” No U.S. city has ever been in bankruptcy for as long as San Bernardino, so the question she is raising might singularly impact the city’s future. Yet it comes at a time when citizen activism has altered: of San Bernardino’s 60 neighborhoods, 19 or 20 are active, compared to 30 a decade ago. But the Neighborhood Association Council plans to send representatives to a national convention of neighborhood associations in March and to try to work more closely with elected San Bernardino leaders. It would be interesting were the Council to try to contact comparable neighborhood organizations in Stockton, Jefferson County, and Detroit to both learn what efforts had worked—and which had failed.

Thinking about Tomorrow: A City’s Post Insolvency & State Takeover Future? Notwithstanding Atlantic City’s current status as a ward of the State of New Jersey, there appears to be strong interest in the city’s future elected leadership—albeit, at least to date, an absence of substantive proposals from aspiring candidates. Atlantic City Councilman Frank Gilliam yesterday officially jumped into the mayor’s race, joining previously announced candidate Edward Lea.  Mr. Gilliam, a Democrat, kicked off his campaign with his slate of council running mates—where he spoke about addressing high taxes, unemployment, foreclosures, and other issues, vowing brighter days would come under new leadership: “The Atlantic City that we see right now will not be the Atlantic City we will see in the future…There will be prosperity. There will be equality. There will be fairness from the bottom to the top.” Councilmember Gilliam has served on the City Council since 2010; now he joins a crowded primary: he will face Council President Marty Small and Fareed Abdullah in the June Democratic primary, with the winner set to take on Republican Mayor Don Guardian next November. Councilman Gilliam’s running mates are incumbent Councilmen Moisse “Mo” Delgado, George Tibbitt, and candidate Jeffree Fauntleroy II, who are all seeking at-large seats. Last Friday, candidate Abdullah, a substitute teacher and former City Council candidate, said would also be running for Mayor—meaning a three-way Democratic primary, with the winner to challenge incumbent Republican Mayor Don Guardian.

Councilman Gilliam last year voted against a number of proposals to address the city’s finances, including measures to seek bids for services, dissolve the city’s water authority and approve the administration’s fiscal recovery plan to avoid a state takeover. In some cases, he cited a lack of information about the proposals, or in the case of the fiscal plan, not enough time to review the information. In announcing his bid, he noted: “People elected me to vote on what I think is best for them, not what my other colleagues think is best for them…When you give an individual a document five hours before a vote, that doesn’t give me the proper opportunity to have my fellow folks aware that I’m making the best-informed decision…For too long Atlantic City’s politics and the leaders of this city have sucked the blood out of our town…The time for new leadership is right now.”

Fire in the Hole. Aspiring to be an elected leader in a municipality where the state has preempted such authority comes as the challenge of governing an insolvent city has become more complex and challenging in the wake of Atlantic City Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez restraining order early this month barring the State of New Jersey from cutting Atlantic City’s firefighter workforce or unilaterally altering any of their contracts as part of its state takeover—a judicial decision which caused Moody’s Investors Services to be decidedly moody, deeming Judge Mendez’s decision a credit negative for the cash-strapped city. Or, as the crack credit rating analyst for Moody’s Douglas Goldmacher last week noted: “These developments signal that any actions the state takes to reduce the city’s work force or abrogate labor contracts will prompt a legal challenge, leading to considerable delays in the Atlantic City recovery process, a credit negative for the city…The success or failure of the state to implement broad expenditure cuts for Atlantic City is of tremendous import to the city’s credit quality.” Mr. Goldmacher noted that negotiations with the firefighters and other unions would typically be handled by city officials; however, the Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act legislation approved by New Jersey lawmakers last year enables the state to alter outstanding municipal contracts, an authority which has now been rendered uncertain. Mr. Goldmacher noted that the firefighters’ court challenge could pave the way for other unions to challenge staffing cuts—effectively handcuffing both municipal and state efforts. He wrote that current city revenues are “insufficient” for debt service and routine expenditures making budget cuts the most likely avenue for permanent financial improvement: “Leaving aside the question of constitutionality, extensive litigation will delay negotiations…Even if other unions refrain from filing suit, the state’s negotiations will be materially impacted by the ongoing lawsuit, delaying or even preventing cost-cutting efforts.”

The Daunting Road to Recovery from the Nation’s Longest Ever Municipal Bankruptcy

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eBlog, 12/09/16

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we look back on the long and rocky road from the nation’s longest municipal bankruptcy back to solvency taken by the City of San Bernardino, a city in a Dillon Rule state, which we described in our original study as the former gateway from the East to Midwest of the L.A. basin and former home to Norton Air Force Base, Kaiser Steel, and the Santa Fe Railroad, but which in the 1990’s, with the departure of those industries and employees, fell into hard times. By the advent of the Great Recession, 46% of its residents were on some form of public assistance—and nearly one-third below the poverty line. By FY2012, the city faced a $45 million deficit; its fund balance and reserves were exhausted—leading the city to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy (note California codes §§53760, 53760.1, 53760.3, 53760.5, and 53760.7—and where, effective on the first day of this year, new statutory state language specifically created a first lien priority for general obligation debt issued by cities, counties, schools, and special districts, so long as the debt was secured by a levy of ad valorum taxes pursuant to California’s Constitution.) As we have noted, in the 18 states which authorize chapter 9 filings, states have proscribed strikingly different legal mechanisms relating to the state role—varying from a state takeover, such as we have described in the case of the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy in Detroit, but to a very different regime in Jefferson County and San Bernardino—where the elected municipal officials not only remained in office, but here the respective states—if anything—contributed to the severity of the fiscal challenges. Then we turn to what might be Congress’ last day in town this year—and whether funding to help the City of Flint might be enacted: Will Congress pass and send to the President a bill to provide emergency assistance to Flint?

Back to a City’s Viable Future. San Bernardino leaders this week issued a detailed statement on the arduous road to recovery they have travelled and what they intend for the road ahead, albeit noting the city is already well along its own blueprint for its recovery, as it awaits formal approval from U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury from its chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy early next year. In its statement, San Bernardino reported it had implemented about 70 percent of its recovery plan. That’s turned once-dire projections for the future upside down—a virtual u-turn from when the city’s fiscal analysts three years ago projected that in FY2023, the city would have a deficit of $360 million if dramatic changes were not achieved. But today, the city instead projects an unallocated cash balance for FY2023 of $9.5 million, or, as the statement reads: “Now, the city is on the cusp of emerging from bankruptcy as a changed city with a brighter future.” The municipal statement is primarily focused on the governance and fiscal changes made to create a virtual u-turn in the city’s fiscal ship of state since entering what became the nation’s longest municipal bankruptcy—a change in fiscal course without either state aid or state imposition of an emergency manager or a state takeover. The statement notes: “Given the emergency nature of its filing, it took the city several months to assess its financial condition—until April 2013, at which time the city adopted a final budget for fiscal years 2012-13 and 2013-14…The city’s initial financial assessment, however, only reflected further concern over its financial future. In September 2013, Mayor [Pat] Morris announced that absent fundamental modernization and change the city faced a 10-year deficit of a staggering $360 million. The future of San Bernardino looked bleak.”

The statement itemized what appeared to be the key steps to recovery, including achieving labor agreements—agreements which resulted in savings in excess of $100 million, and involved the termination of virtually all health insurance subsidies coverage for employees and retirees, writing that the city calculated the resulting savings to amount to about $44 million for retirees and $51 million for current employees. The statement notes some $56 million in other OPEB changes. A key—and hard-fought change—was achieved by contracting out for essential public services, with one of the most hard fought such changes coming from the annexation agreement with the San Bernardino County Fire Protection District: an agreement under which the county assumed responsibility for fire and emergency medical response—a change projected to save San Bernardino’s budget nearly $66 million over the next two decades just in public pension savings, but also as much as $5 to $6 million in its annual operating budget—and that is before adding in the parcel tax revenues which were incorporated in that agreement. San Bernardino also switched to contracting out for its trash and recycling—an action with a one-time franchise payment of $5 million, but increased estimated annual revenues of approximately $5 million to $7.6 million. The switch led to significant alterations or contracting out for an increasing number of municipal services. Or, as the paper the city released notes: “Modern cities deliver many services via contracts with third-party providers, using competition to get the best terms and price for services…The city has entered into a number of such contracts under the Recovery Plan.”

Governance. The city paper writes that the voters’ approval of a new city charter will allow San Bernardino to eliminate ambiguous lines of authority which had created a lack of authority, or, as U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury put it earlier this week: “(City officials) successfully amended their charter, which will give them modern-day, real-life flexibility in making decisions that need to be made…There was too much political power and not enough management under their charter, to be frank, compared to most cities in California.”

Rechartering San Bernardino’s Public Security. San Bernardino’s Plan of Debt Adjustment calls for increasing investment into the Police Department through a five-year Police Plan—a key step, as a study commissioned to consider the city’s public safety found the city to be California’s most dangerous municipality based on crime, police presence, and other “community factors.” The study used FBI data and looked at crime rates, police presence, and investment in police departments as well as community factors including poverty, education, unemployment, and climate: The report found a high correlation between crime rates and poverty—with San Bernardino’s poverty rate topping 30.6 percent. Thus, in the city’s Police Plan portion of its plan of adjustment, the report notes:  “The Mayor, Common Council, and San Bernardino’s residents agree that crime is the most important issue the city faces,” the city says in the Police Plan, submitted to the federal bankruptcy court as part of its plan. The plan calls for $56 million over five years to add more police, update technology, and replace many of the Police Department’s aging vehicles.

The Cost of Fiscal Inattention. Unsurprisingly, the fiscal costs of bankruptcy for a city or county are staggering. The city estimates that the services of attorneys and consultants will cost at least $25 million by the time of the city’s projected formal emergence from chapter 9 next March—albeit those daunting costs are a fraction of the $350 million in savings achieved under the city’s pending plan of debt adjustment—savings created by the court’s approval of its plan to pay its creditors far less than they would have otherwise been entitled: as little as 1 cent on the dollar owed, in many instances. Or, as the city’s statement wryly notes: “In addition, the city’s bankruptcy has allowed the city a reprieve during which it was able to shore up its finances, find greater cost and organizational efficiencies and improve its governance functions…Thus, all told, while the city’s exit from bankruptcy will have been a hard-fought victory, it was one that was critical and necessary to the city’s continued viability for the future.”

Out Like Flint. The House of Representatives on what it hopes to be its penultimate day yesterday approved two bills which, together, would authorize and fund $170 million for emergency aid to Flint and other communities endangered by contaminated drinking water. The emergency assistance came by way of a stopgap spending bill to keep the federal government operating next April in a bipartisan 326-96 vote and, separately, a water infrastructure bill which directs how the $170 million package should be spent by a 360-61 vote. Nevertheless, the aid for the city is not certain in the U.S. Senate: some have vowed to stop it, at least in part because the bill includes a controversial drought provision which would boost water deliveries to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California.

What Is the State Role in Municipal Solvency/Recovery?

 

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eBlog, 11/21/16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Teeter-Totter of Municipal Bankruptcy

eBlog, 8/02/16

In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the 4th anniversary of the nation’s longest ever municipal bankruptcy in San Bernardino: what lessons are there to be learned? How does its municipal bankruptcy compare to Detroit? Then we look to south Florida, where the small city of Opa-locka appears to be on the slippery slope into municipal bankruptcy.

Happy Anniversary? The City of San Bernardino yesterday completed its 4th full year in chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy—the longest in U.S. history. It is almost certain it will earn U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury’s gavel to emerge from bankruptcy this October: ballots for creditors to vote on the city’s proposed plan of debt adjustment were set to be mailed Friday, giving creditors until Sept. 2nd to object and the city until Sept. 30th to respond to those objections. U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury has scheduled a confirmation hearing — the final stage of bankruptcy — for Oct. 14, noting: “This case has gone at the speed it has to go…Now we have confirmation in view, and we’ll get there when we are supposed to get there. We are not Detroit, we are not Stockton; we came into this case in a very different posture, and therefore the fact that it took much longer to get to confirmation was to be expected.”

Confronted by a deficit exceeding nearly $50 million, or about forty percent of the $112 million in revenues the city expects this year, the city had filed for municipal bankruptcy when it reached the point of inability to provide for essential public services and recognized that without filing, the city’s creditors would overwhelm its future. In comparison, Vallejo, California emerged from chapter 9 in three and a half years, while Stockton emerged from chapter 9 in two and a quarter years. Detroit, which went through the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy, was out of chapter 9 in less than 16 months; Central Falls, Rhode Island, in a much briefer time.

But the cost to the city of filing has been significant—estimates run to nearly $19 million alone in fees to the city’s attorneys and consultants, $6.2 million just over the last twelve months. But the price has not just been in dollars: the city’s voters have elected a new mayor, city attorney, and four of the seven City Council members—as well as the top unelected positions. Councilmember Fred Shorett, one of the few who has remained in elected office, notes: “I see us in much better shape: We balanced our budget, albeit with some deferrals. We have good new projects coming in, like the Carousel Mall…We’re still stretched very thin with our staff, and (City Manager) Mark Scott continues to remind us of that, but we’re going to continue to build that back up. I’m optimistic about the future of San Bernardino.”

Ground Zero. Opa-locka, Florida, the small city of the just 0ver 15,000 inside Miami-Dade County, is running out of funds—and leadership: City Manager David Chiverton stunned elected leaders by resigning his office in the course of a federal criminal investigation, and Opa-locka officials have announced the city is virtually insolvent and will be unable to pay its employees, including police officers next month. Mr. Chiverton had been a target of an ongoing FBI probe into corruption in Opa-locka; he had taken a leave of absence last spring after the Miami Herald revealed he paid himself tens of thousands in unused sick and vacation pay to which he was not entitled. (Other targets of the probe: Mayor Taylor and Commissioner Luis Santiago.) The city violent crime rate for Opa-locka in 2012 was higher than the national violent crime rate average by 618.54% and the city property crime rate in Opa-locka was higher than the national property crime rate average by 181.05%. Florida Inspector General Melinda Miguel last Thursday warned city leaders during an emergency oversight board meeting that with just $350,000 left in the city’s general fund, Opa-locka may have to consider bankruptcy. The warning came in a stunning sequence for the small city—one which has been under the oversight of a state financial emergency board since June, but has been unable to halt a mushrooming municipal deficit. The Florida Inspector General said she was upset by the city’s failure to meet yesterday’s deadlines to file a budget and recovery plan; the IG blasted the city’s elected leaders, stating they were not doing enough to keep costs down or tackling the critical problems that threaten the entire operation of the city: “I believe that we found that we are at ground zero of fiscal irresponsibility: While the city teeters on the verge of bankruptcy, we’ve had people ask what’s in it for me…From creditors, to commissioners, to employees, to crooks: what’s in it for me has to change. And we must all do our part…One of the biggest tests to resolving a problem is realizing you have one,” she said by phone from Tallahassee, as Opa-locka Mayor Myra Taylor and city commissioners sat in the front row staring at the local members of the state board. The new revelations about the city’s fiscal distress were significantly worse than Opa-locka’s own projections of last month.

In the meeting centered on the municipality’s impending insolvency—a municipality which just weeks ago had pledged that it was going to balance its budget, I.G. Miguel criticized the city for failing to stem spending at a time it is losing hundreds of thousands every month in revenue; she said the city had been raiding restricted funds to fill budget gaps and was in danger of defaulting on major payments: “Our message has been and continues to be: Not business as usual. And it still appears to be a leadership deficit in the city…While the city teeters on the brink of bankruptcy, we’ve had people ask: ‘What’s in it for me?’ From predators to commissioners to employees to crooks.”

Because Mr. Chiverton resigned yesterday, he qualifies for healthcare benefits through the end of the month; however, the oversight board chair put an end to any other perks, mainly because IG Miguel said she was troubled by his decision to cash in his unused vacation and sick time — totaling nearly $40,000 — before he went on temporary leave in May. Ms. Miguel said she did not want Mr. Chiverton to receive any final salary-related payment from the city until the board reviews it; she also demanded that Mr. Chiverton turn in his city-leased Ford Expedition along with his cellphone and laptop. In addition, she insisted that city officials cut off his access to all Opa-locka government computers and to City Hall immediately. IG Miguel urged city commissioners and administrators to continue to make “drastic cuts,” warning the city needed to be far more judicious about how much it was spending on items such as cellphones for employees.

The most serious issue now confronting the city: the city’s cash flow: Acting City Manager Yvette Harrell, who had replaced Mr. Chiverton in May, told the board Opa-locka currently has just $354,121 in its general fund — far below the millions it once maintained; the municipality also has $1.7 million in its water and sewer fund, and $1.2 million in a restricted reserve account. Nevertheless, with all of the city’s obligations, including payroll for Opa-locka’s 160-plus employees, Ms. Harrell warned the city will run out of money by next month: “Optimistically, by the end of September…Realistically, it will be closer to the beginning of September.” Indeed, so grave is the fiscal crisis that board members even debated whether the city could dip into the water and sewer fund — money set aside to fund Opa-locka’s badly deteriorating water system, with Ms. Harrell warning that if the city did not tap into the fund, Opa-locka would be broke within a couple of weeks: “Then, it’s lights out.” As it stands, Opa-locka will not be able to pay scores of its vendors — including contractors and health insurers —if it is to meet its next payroll early this month.

Uh oh. In addition to the city’s looming fiscal insolvency, it also confronts an ethics insolvency: the FBI’s corruption probe, which was launched three years ago. City Attorney Vincent Brown said several Opa-locka employees have been interviewed by FBI agents and have testified before the grand jury in Miami, adding the investigation was “ongoing,” and urging members of the community to contact the FBI in case they witness suspicious activities among elected leaders or city administrators. The city may also be in default of privately placed notes held by a local bank that could be accelerated – a fiscal challenge to be addressed in consultation with Florida Division of Bond Finance Director Ben Watkins.

Last June, the Governor had named a nine-member oversight board after Miami-Dade County determined the municipality was in a financial emergency and entered an agreement to get professional assistance from the state. Gov. Scott named IG Miguel as chair. At a recent session, board member Frank Rollason, City Manager for nearby North Bay Village, queried: “Can a municipality go bankrupt?” (In Florida, [see §§218.01 and 218.503], a municipality is authorized to file for chapter 9, but only after first obtaining prior approval from the governor.) Already the city has been barred from issuing any new municipal debt without IG Scott’s approval. That approval, itself, is almost certain to also depend upon the outcome of pending investigations by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the FBI, with the SEC examining whether Opa-locka properly disclosed its financial condition in its municipal bond documents for as many as two issuances that were privately placed with local banks; the FBI has raided city offices and removed documents which are believed to be related to spending irregularities. Meanwhile, the State of Florida has, to date, offered no state assistance to assist in Opa-locka’s recovery: the state oversight board has discussed the possibility of an advance from revenue-sharing funds to help the city through the lean months ahead before property tax collections come in; however IG Miguel has noted: “There’s got to be some other demonstration of fiscal responsibility: I’m not inclined to make that recommendation,” noting: “I must just point out that absent a budget, absent a financial recovery plan, absent an audit, and further demonstration of a cooperation issue or lack of cooperation issue constitutes malfeasance and misfeasance under the agreement,” she was most reluctant to recommend such assistance.