Solomon’s Choices: Who Will Define Puerto Rico’s Fiscal Future–and How?

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Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the growing physical and fiscal breakdown in the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico as it seeks, along with the oversight PROMESA Board, an alternative to municipal bankruptcy. 

Tropical Fiscal Typhoon. U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts has selected Southern District of New York Judge Laura Taylor Swain, who previously served as a federal bankruptcy Judge for the Eastern District of New York from 1996 until 2000 to preside over Puerto Rico’s PROMESA Title III bankruptcy proceedings—presiding, thus, over a municipal bankruptcy nearly 500% larger than that of Detroit’s–one which will grapple with creating a human and fiscal blueprint for the future of some 3.5 million Americans—and force Judge Swain to grapple with the battle between the citizens of the country and the holders of its debt spread throughout the U.S. (Title III of PROMESA, which is modeled after Chapter 9 of the Municipal Bankruptcy Code and nearly a century of legal precedent, provides a framework for protecting Puerto Rico’s citizens while also respecting the legitimate rights and priorities of creditors.) For example, the recent Chapter 9 restructuring in Detroit sought reasonable accommodations for vulnerable pensioners and respected secured creditors’ rights.

The action came in the wake of Puerto Rico’s announcement last week that it was restructuring a portion of its nearly $73 billion in debt—an action which it was clear almost from the get-go that the requisite two-thirds majority of Puerto Rico’s municipal bondholders would not have supported. (Puerto Rico’s constitution provides that payments to holders of so-called “general obligation” bonds have priority over all other expenditures—even as another group of creditors has first access to revenues from the territory’s sales tax.) More critically, Judge Swain will be presiding over a process affecting the lives and futures of some 3.5 million Americans—nearly 500% greater than the population of Detroit. And while the poverty rate in Detroit was 40%, the surrounding region, especially after the federal bailout of the auto industry, differs signally from Puerto Rico, where the poverty rate is 46.1%–and where there is no surrounding state to address or help finance schools, health care, etc. Indeed, Puerto Rico, in its efforts to address its debt, has cut its health care and public transportation fiscal support; closed schools; and increased sales taxes. With the Bureau of Labor Statistics reporting an unemployment rate of at 12.2%, and, in the wake of last year’s Zika virus, when thousands of workers who were fighting the epidemic were let go from their jobs; the U.S. territory’s fiscal conditions have been exacerbated by the emigration of some of its most able talent—or, as the Pew Research Center has noted:  “More recent Puerto Rican arrivals from the island are also less well off than earlier migrants, with lower household incomes and a greater likelihood of living in poverty.”

For Judge Swain—as was the case in Detroit, Central Falls, San Bernardino, Stockton, etc., a grave challenge in seeking to fashion a plan of debt adjustment will resolve around public pensions. While the state constitutional issues, which complicated—and nearly led to a U.S. Supreme Court federalism challenge—do not appear to be at issue here; nevertheless the human aspect is. Just as former Rhode Island Supreme Court Judge Robert G. Flanders, Jr., who served as Central Falls’ Receiver during that city’s chapter 9 bankruptcy—and told us, with his voice breaking—of the deep pension cuts which he had summarily imposed of as much as 50%—so too Puerto Rico’s public pension funds have been depleted. Thus, it will fall to Judge Swain to seek to balance the desperate human needs on one side versus the demands of municipal bondholders on the other. Finally, the trial over which Judge Swain will preside has an element somewhat distinct from the others we have traced: can she press, as part of this process to fashion a plan of debt adjustment, for measures—likely ones which would have to emanate from Congress—to address the current drain of some of Puerto Rico’s most valuable human resources: taxpayers fleeing to the mainland. Today, Puerto Rico’s population is more than 8% smaller than seven years ago; the territory has been in recession almost continuously for a decade—and Puerto Rico is in the midst of political turmoil: should it change its form of governance: a poll two months’ ago found that 57% support statehood. Indeed, even were Puerto Rico’s voters to vote that way, and even though the 2016 GOP platform backed statehood; it seems most unlikely that in the nation’s increasingly polarized status the majority in the U.S. Congress would agree to any provision which would change the balance of political power in the U.S. Senate.

Is There a PROMESA of Recovery?

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Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the growing physical and fiscal breakdown in the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico as it seeks, along with the oversight PROMESA Board, an alternative to municipal bankruptcy, after which we journey north to review the remarkable fiscal recovery from chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy of one of the nation’s smallest municipalities.

Tropical Fiscal Typhoon. Puerto Rico is trapped in a vicious fiscal whirlpool where the austerity measures it has taken to meet short-term obligations to its creditors all across the U.S., including laying off some 30,000 public sector employees and increasing its sales tax by nearly 75% have seemingly backfired—doing more fiscal harm than good: it has devastated its economy, depleted revenue sources, and put the government on a vicious cycle of increasingly drastic fiscal steps in an effort to make payments—enough so that nearly 33% of the territory’s revenue is currently going to creditors and bondholders, even as its economy has shrunk 10% since 2006, while its poverty rate has grown to 45%. At the same time, a demographic imbalance has continued to accelerate with the exit of some 300,000 Puerto Ricans—mostly the young and better educated—leaving for Miami and New York. Puerto Rico and its public agencies owe $73 billion to its creditors, nearly 500% greater than the nearly $18 billion in debts accumulated by Detroit when it filed for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy four years ago in what was then the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. Thus, with the island’s hedge-fund creditors holding defaulted municipal general obligation bonds on the verge of completing a consensual agreement earlier this week, the PROMESA oversight board intervened to halt negotiations and place Puerto Rico under the Title III quasi municipal bankruptcy protection. That will set up courtroom confrontations between an impoverished population, wealthy municipal bondholders in every state in the domestic U.S., and hedge funds—pitted against some of the poorest U.S. citizens and their future. Nevertheless, as Congress contemplated, the quasi-municipal bankruptcy process enacted as part of the PROMESA statute provides the best hope for Puerto Rico’s future.

Thus the PROMESA Board has invoked these provisions of the PROMESA statute before a federal judge in San Juan, in what promises to be a long process—as we have seen in Detroit, San Bernardino, and other cities, but with one critical distinction: each of the previous municipal bankruptcies has involved a city or county—the quasi municipal bankruptcy here is more akin to a filing by a state. (Because of the dual federalism of our founding fathers, Congress may not enact legislation to permit states to file for bankruptcy protection.) Unsurprisingly, when Puerto Rico was made a U.S. territory under the Jones-Shafroth Act, no one contemplated the possibility of bankruptcy. Moreover, as chapter 9, as authorized by Congress, only provides that a city or county may file for chapter 9 bankruptcy if authorized by its respective state; Puerto Rico inconveniently falls into a Twilight Zone—to write nothing with regard to access to such protections for Puerto Rico’s 87 municipalities or muncipios.

Moreover, while from Central Falls, Rhode Island to Detroit, the role of public pension obligations has played a critical role in those chapter 9 resolutions; the challenge could be far greater here: in Puerto Rico, retired teachers and police officers do not participate in Social Security. Adopting deep cuts to their pensions would be a virtual impossibility. So now it is that Puerto Rico will be in a courtroom to confront hedge funds, mutual funds, and bond insurers, after the negotiations between Puerto Rico and its creditors over a PROMESA Board-approved fiscal plan that allocates about $787 million a year to creditors for the next decade, less than a quarter of what they are owed, was deemed by said creditors to be a slap in the face—with the Board having pressed for a combination of debt restructuring spending cuts in its efforts to revive an economy trapped by a 45% poverty rate—and where the Board had proposed upping water rates on consumers, liquidating its decades-old industrial development bank, and seeking concessions from creditors of other government agencies. Moreover, amid all this, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, who has recently renegotiated to mitigate politically unpopular fee increases on residents, now finds himself nearly transfixed between desperate efforts to sort out governance, meet demands of his constituents and taxpayers, and negotiate with a federally imposed oversight board, even as he is in the midst of a campaign for U.S. statehood ahead of a plebiscite on Puerto Rico’s political status—and in the wake of being named a defendant in a lawsuit by hedge funds after the expiration of a stay on such suits expired this week. Hedge funds holding general obligation and sales-tax bonds filed the suit on Tuesday, naming Gov. Rosselló as a defendant—albeit, the suit, and others, are nearly certain to be frozen, as the main judicial arena now will fall into a quasi-chapter 9 courtroom epic battle. And that battle will not necessarily be able to fully look to prior chapter 9 judicial precedents: while Title III incorporates features of chapter 9, the section of the U.S. bankruptcy code covering insolvent municipal entities, courts have never interpreted key provisions of Title III—a title, moreover, which protections for creditors which chapter 9 does not.

The Rich Chocolatey Road to Recovery! Moody’s has awarded one of the nation’s smallest municipalities, Central Falls, aka Chocolate City, Rhode Island, its second general obligation bond upgrade in two months, a sign of the former mill city’s ongoing recovery from municipal bankruptcy—an upgrade which Mayor James Diossa unsurprisingly noted to be “very important.” Moody’s noted that its upgrade “reflects a multi-year trend of stable operating results and continued positive performance relative to the post-bankruptcy plan since the city’s emergence from Chapter 9 bankruptcy in 2012,” adding that it expects the city will enhance its flexibility when its plan of debt adjustment period ends at the end of next month—at which time one of the nation’s smallest cities (one square mile and 19,000 citizens) will implement a policy of requiring maintenance of unassigned general fund reserves of at least 10% of prior year expenditures. In its upgrade, Moody’s reported the upgrade reflected Central Falls’ high fixed costs, referring to its public pension obligations, OPEB, and debt service–costs which add up to nearly 30% of its budget—and what it termed a high sensitivity to adverse economic trends compared with other municipalities, with the rating agency noting that a sustained increase in fund balance and maintenance of structural balance could lead to a further upgrade, as could a reduction in long-term liabilities and fixed costs and material tax-base and growth.

 

The Fiscal Agony of the Absence of Chapter 9

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Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the growing physical and fiscal breakdown in the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico as it seeks, along with the oversight PROMESA Board, an alternative to municipal bankruptcy.

Tropical Fiscal Typhoon. With the expiration of the freeze on litigation against the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico expiring yesterday, municipal bondholders filed suit against the Puerto Rico, likely marking the front end of a number of suits in the wake of Puerto Rico’s under the PROMESA law after its default on $1.3 billion of principal owed since the previous Governor declared the $70 billion public debt load unpayable in June of 2015. Bondholders filed two new lawsuits, even as the stay was lifted from at least 13 others. In the suits, the plaintiffs are seeking 11 declaratory judgments, two writs of mandamus, and three permanent injunctions. The fiscal meltdown came against a wavering political backdrop, as a demonstration in Puerto Rico’s capital, San Juan, against the PROMESA board’s austerity measures Monday turned violent: there was extensive damage to a Banco Popular office building’s windows, fires being lit, and car windows being smashed. The newest suits come after the administration of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló was unable to negotiate any agreement with the territory’s municipal bondholders after the May 1st deadline of the litigation freeze. His Chief of Staff, William Villafane, told the AP just hours before the freeze expired that the government preferred to reach a deal with bondholders, adding, however, that a municipal bankruptcy-like process could be an option if negotiations were to fail. A group representing those who bought a portion of the $16 billion worth of municipal bonds backed by Puerto Rico’s sales tax, charged that the government plan to cut its $70 billion debt was unconstitutional; they accused government leaders of perpetrating “unfair, unjust, and illegally punitive terms.” Ambac Assurance Corp. filed its own suit, accusing the government of illegally retaining $300 million owed to bondholders. The suit alleges it had been forced to pay more than $52 million in insurance claims because of ongoing defaults by Puerto Rico’s government. The tropical storm of litigation, coming on top of nearly a dozen lawsuits prior to the freeze imposed under the PROMESA law, came as Aurelius Capital Management LP, and other hedge funds, sued Puerto Rico in New York state court, seeking to recoup past-due payments on some $1.4 billion in defaulted general obligation bonds.

The precipitous storm of litigation appeared to mark the collapse of restructuring negotiations, as well as to signal the PROMESA board will vote to trigger the PROMESA Title III provisions to trigger a quasi-chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy proceeding. The fiscal disruption, at the same time, appeared to come as a physical disruption of riots and active lawsuits, leading the Dean of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, Jim Spiotto, to note: “Sometimes it is darkest before the dawn.” Counselor Spiotto added that a “litigation meltdown is not a solution” to the Puerto Rico debt problem; rather, he added: “You may have all the rights in the world, but if the [debtor] party doesn’t survive, thrive, your ability to get repaid is severely diminished,” noting that litigation is the least likely means of reaching a long-term solution, since the debtor is going to be hit by substantial attorney’s fees. Further, he explained, even were the PROMESA Oversight Board to initiate Title III to consolidate all Puerto Rico debt cases into a single quasi-bankruptcy process, that would simply open the way to a long and costly trail of appeals; thus, he notes that instead, all parties need a “time out” if there is to be a realistic chance of a fiscal solution, noting that would almost surely lead to a better outcome for all parties. Or, as U.S. Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D.-NY.) put it: “The power to comprehensively restructure 100 per cent of Puerto Rico’s debt is the reason why I voted ‘yes’ on [PROMESA] last year….Inconceivably, today, May 2, 2017, the island is on the same path as it was prior to the enactment of the law. This is unconscionable. It is imperative the board use this powerful tool and vote to file for a Title III proceeding immediately.”

The fiscal collapse also creates a constitutional and governance crisis. Article VI of Puerto Rico’s constitution (§8) provides that: “In case the available revenues including surplus for any fiscal year are insufficient to meet the appropriations made for that year, interest on the public debt and amortization thereof shall first be paid, and other disbursements shall thereafter be made in accordance with the order of priorities established by law;” however, Title III of the federal PROMESA statute would supersede this.

The growing challenge spread also, as Ambac filed suit against the U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, seeking to bar access by the U.S. territory to a federal excise tax imposed on rum manufactured in the territory and sold in the mainland U.S. Moreover, Ambac also filed two other lawsuits over Puerto Rico’s alleged efforts to break the lien securing some $17 billion in sales-tax municipal bonds—one suit in federal court, the other in New York state court. One, in federal court, sought a court order safeguarding the revenue stream that backs those bonds.

Amid the various court challenges, Gerardo Portela, the Executive Director of Puerto Rico’s Financial Advisory and Tax Agency, yesterday claimed: “We are talking to all the different groups of bondholders,” after leaving La Fortaleza after holding a meeting with Governor Rosselló. Moreover, with the increasing threat to critical public services, Puerto Rico Property Secretary Raul Maldonado yesterday provided assurances that the government already has part of the money required by the Fiscal Supervision Board to avoid the reduction of working hours in public employees.

Just to provide some scale of what is unfolding, the quasi chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy here under a federal court-supervised restructuring for a portion of Puerto Rico’s $70 billion debt would be 800% larger than Detroit’s—which to date, has marked the largest chapter 9 bankruptcy in American history. However, with Puerto Rico neither a municipality, nor a state, it falls into a legal and fiscal Twilight Zone. In the wake of bondholder rejection, over the weekend, of an offer to pay 50 cents on the dollar to holders of Puerto Rico general obligation and sales-tax bonds backed by Puerto Rico’s constitution, it increasingly appears a non-federal bankruptcy court will be pressed to try to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

Meanwhile, in Congress, federal legislation, HR 1366, the U.S. Territories Investor Protection Act of 2017, a bill to try to close a legal loophole which some in Congress believe allowed broker-dealers to defraud Puerto Rico investors was passed on a voice vote by the House and will now move to the Senate for consideration. The legislation would extend all the rules under the Investment Company Act of 1940, which apply, to investment companies on the U.S. mainland to those investment companies operating in Puerto Rico and the other U.S. territories. Rep. Velázquez, in introducing the bill, noted: “Today’s bipartisan action in the House is a huge step for the people of Puerto Rico, and I will keep applying pressure for Senate action.” A companion bill in the Senate (S. 484), sponsored by Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., has already cleared the Senate Banking Committee. The Congresswoman said that the legislators had “acted in the best interest of retirees and individual investors in Puerto Rico,” adding that: “For far too long, Puerto Rican retirees and others have been preyed on by unscrupulous investors who have exploited this disparity in the rules…By passing this measure in the House, we are one step closer to putting an end to these abuses.”

Fiscal Challenges Key to Municipalities’ Futures

eBlog, 04/26/17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Challenges of Investing in the Future, or, Can God Work a Miracle?

eBlog, 04/18/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the vestige of a most challenging issue during Detroit’s historic bankruptcy: water and sewer fees: how does a municipality balance between its needs and the ability of its lowest income citizens to pay? Then, we look at the same issue—especially because of its regional implications, in the nearly insolvent municipality of Petersburg, Virginia—where, as in many regions, water and sewer services—and costs—have regional dimensions. Finally, we inquire about lingering colonialism in Puerto Rico, where the government is planning a plebiscite so that its citizens can have a voice with regard to the U.S. territory’s future.

Fiscal & Physical Municipal Balancing. The City of Detroit’s Board of Water Commissioners is set to vote on a proposal to scale back a controversial storm water drainage fee in the wake of a backlash from churches and businesses, which have been most unhappy about the newly set $750-per-acre monthly charge—with the Board set to consider an option to reduce the drainage fee to $125 per acre until July, after which it would phase in increases over the next five fiscal years to $677 by July of 2022, according to Gary Brown, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department [DWSD] Director. The Motor City began imposing the fee in July 2015 on the owners of 22,000 parcels with impervious surfaces such as roofs and parking lots which “were not,” as Director Brown noted, “paying anything at all…This essentially is giving them an opportunity to have five years to build green infrastructure projects and get a credit to permanently reduce their costs.”

The issue comes at a politically critical time, as Mayor Mike Duggan, running this year for re-election, has been confronted by opposition to the fee by Detroit’s politically-influential pastors—or, as Pastor Everett Jennings, of New Providence Baptist Church, put it: “They say it’s not taxation, but to me it’s a way to tax the church.” The Pastor notes the proposed monthly water bill for his northwest side church skyrocketed from $650 per month to $7,500 per month after the city began assessing the storm water drainage fee. Similarly, Phil Cifuentes, owner and CEO of Omaha Automation Inc., a small automotive and military manufacturing supplier near the Detroit-Hamtramck border, reports: “I came into a system that wasn’t charging anyone…And then I came into a system that, two years later, was charging the largest water sewerage rates in the country,” referring to the $15,630 bill he received in 2015—with the assessment dated back several years, leading him to note: “If they come down through this new rate, how does that affect everyone who owes them outstanding charges like the $10,000 I owe?”

Property owners will still owe the water department past-due charges at the higher rate; however, according to Mr. Brown, they will be eligible for relief for the next few years. The new phased-in rate structure going before the city water board will commence at $125 effective April Fool’s Day, double on July 1st, increase to $375 in July of 2018, $500 in July of 2019, and $626 in July of 2020. In July 2021, the per-acre fee will increase to $651, followed by a final hike of $26 in July of 2022. Mr. Brown notes: “By having a longer five-year opportunity to phase in, it gives them an opportunity to better budget for the new cost and also to go out and have a green infrastructure project designed.” He added that DWSD customers who were originally being charged $852 per impervious acre will see their rate gradually reduced to $677 by July of 2022 to match the rate charged to the 22,000 parcels in the new five-year phased-in plan: “This all goes away and everybody goes to one flat rate at the end of five years.”

To address an issue which had been raised before now retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes during Detroit’s chapter 9 bankruptcy, Mr. Brown noted that the water department is going to offer grants of up to $50,000 for half of the cost of water retention projects on the sites of large churches and businesses to reduce the amount of storm water and impervious surfaces, according to Mr. Brown, who noted the city agency has budgeted $5 million for the grants, even as he described the drainage fee as having been “a real deterrent” to his plans to buy an adjoining 2.5-acre parcel and build another 40,000-square-foot manufacturing facility. The drainage fee itself was partly a response to a 2015 class action lawsuit Michigan Warehousing Group LLC brought against both the City of Detroit and DWSD for charging some property owners the $852 per acre monthly fee, while charging others nothing or as little as $20 based on the size of their water meter pipe. Thus, as Mr. Brown this week noted: “We’re trying to settle that lawsuit by getting everyone on to a fairer and equitable rate system by putting them on the same rate.” CEO Cifuentes notes that Omaha Automation is part of the class action lawsuit.

The non-paying customers included industrial parcels, commercial buildings, churches, and residential parcels where Detroiters have purchased vacant side lots and built additional parking spaces, according to Mr. Brown: “Parking lots were a big part of it—and they weren’t getting a bill, because they didn’t have an account.” Churches in Detroit received large bills because of their large parking lots: for instance, Shield of Faith Church has racked up a $65,000 bill with the city water department, because the storm water drainage fee costs the 300-member congregation nearly $5,000 per month, according to Pastor James Jennings, or as Pastor Jennings had warned prior to the rollback: “It’s actually causing us not to be able to meet our expenses, and we’re about to go under unless God works a miracle.”

The drainage fee also was imposed to pay for needed sewer infrastructure upgrades and try to reduce the city’s overall storm water runoff that causes combined sewage water outflows to discharge into the Detroit River and River Rouge in violation of state and federal environmental laws. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has mandated Detroit to eliminate all sewage discharges by 2022, according to Mr. Brown. The sewage releases vary depending on heavy rainstorms. Last year, the city released 800 million gallons of combined sewage and storm water, according to DWSD. In 2014, a torrential August rain storm contributed to 6.8 billion gallons of untreated sewage and storm water being released—and widespread basement flooding in the city and northern suburbs.

The Fiscal & Physical Costs of Delay. Unlike the federal government, states, cities, and counties have capital budgets. As we have noted previously, however, failure to properly administer one’s capital budgets can have, as we have noted in the case of Flint, Michigan, signal human physical and fiscal costs—or, as Prince George, Virginia Chairman William A. Robertson Jr. put it, with a case study just across the county line in Petersburg of what can happen if a locality goes too long without upgrading its water systems: “Sorry, but this is something we had to do…We don’t want to end up as a Petersburg or a Flint, Michigan.” Thus, with the vote, the county’s rate for drinking water will increase by 10% and the rate for wastewater will rise by 20% effective July 1st. Prince William Utilities Director Chip England noted that the county had performed a water rate study several years ago which “did call for annual rate increases;” however, he said, this rate increase will be the first in three years and just the second in the past 13 years, noting that, as is the case for most localities, Prince George’s utility system is an “enterprise fund” which is intended to be self-funded through customers’ payments for service. Ergo, he advised: “No general fund tax revenues are used to cover the expenses of the department.” But, as in Detroit, the fee increase did not come without opposition: Joe Galloni, president of the 55-plus neighborhood’s homeowner association, noted that many of the residents there are retired and living on fixed incomes: “A lot of folks over there can’t absorb any more increases.” In response, however, board members cited Petersburg’s financial woes and near insolvency as an object lesson in the need to keep current on infrastructure investments. Indeed, Petersburg officials have acknowledged that the city’s aging water and wastewater system is “on the brink of collapse” and estimate that it will take $97 million to repair the system. Like Prince George, Petersburg had gone many years without a rate increase, causing issues not only for the city, but also the region. Now, the Petersburg City Council has recently approved a 13.4% increase—and slated another increase of 14.3% in the city’s budget for next year—and even set plans providing for additional 15 percent increases in each of the following four years. Thus, Supervisor T.J. Webb noted that Petersburg’s financial crisis last year led the city to fall behind on its payments to the South Central Wastewater Authority, a regional entity which provides wastewater treatment to Prince George, Chesterfield County, Colonial Heights, and Dinwiddie County in addition to Petersburg. Had Petersburg not resumed making its $327,000-a-month payments to the authority, the other member jurisdictions would have been required to make up the shortfall, which would have meant an additional $38,000 that Prince George wastewater customers would have had to pay each month. Indeed, Chairman Robertson noted that Petersburg is considering two offers by for-profit companies, Aqua Virginia and Virginia American Water, to purchase the city’s water system.

Vestiges of American Colonialism. Before dawn this morning, the Puerto Rican House of Representatives passed Senate Bill 427, which amends the U.S. territory’s proposed plebiscite and responds to the demands made by the U.S. Justice Department. The actions came in the wake of the threat by U.S. Acting Deputy Attorney General Dana Boente, who had written to Gov. Ricardo Rosselló that the Justice Department would not notify Congress that it approved the ballot or suggest that Congress release funds to hold the plebiscite and educate voters on it. According to Mr. Boente, the current ballot “is not drafted in a way that ensures that its result will accurately reflect the current popular will of the people of Puerto Rico.” Moreover, the Justice Department has objected to the ballot only offering statehood and “free association/independence” as options; the Justice Department apparently believes that the ballot fails to offer Puerto Ricans the option of continuing in the current territorial status, and has alleged that the ballot statement that only statehood status “guarantees” U.S. citizenship by birth for Puerto Ricans is false, as the current territorial status already does this; the Department is also alleging that the ballot language fails to make clear that a vote for Puerto Rico to have a “free association” with the United States would make Puerto Rico an independent nation and strip Puerto Ricans of their U.S. citizenship.

The Justice Department intervention could also jeopardize the Congressional authorization of some $2.5 million to hold a plebiscite on its status in the United States and to educate its voters. While the authorization imposed no limit on when the funds could be used, it did require that prior to the release of the funds, the Justice Department was to notify Congress that the plebiscite ballot and educational materials were consistent with the laws, Constitution, and policies of the United States. Thus, the amended version (Senate 427) was modified in coordination with the Governor’s office and passed by the Puerto Rico Senate, notwithstanding aggravation with federal interference—a kind of interference virtually unimaginable with any U.S. state. Or, as New Progressive Party Senator Luis Daniel Muñiz Cortés put it: “It’s disgusting what the United States is doing with Puerto Rico. I, totally dissatisfied with the measure, will vote in favor if my Party votes in favor of Party discipline, but totally dissatisfied because it is unworthy for the people.” Nonetheless, Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz said that this status consultation was a necessary step toward a definitive definition of Puerto Rico’s status, although he made it clear that his preference would be not to include “the colony” in the plebiscite: “We cannot fall into the game of those who do not want to do anything in Puerto Rico and do not want to do anything there, in the United States,” noting it was not an option to maintain the current status that “overwhelms the Puerto Rican people.” Thus, the approved version includes the territorial situation of Puerto Rico, but does not make specific mention of the Commonwealth; nor does the document refer to U.S. citizenship. 

Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and legislators from his pro-statehood New Progressive Party, had agreed to a measure authorizing a status plebiscite with the first vote to take place on June 11th—with that scheduled vote apparently triggering the demands from the Trump administration—demands, in response to which, Gov. Rosselló promised that his government would add remaining as a U.S. territory as an option to the ballot—and adding that the Congressional authorization of the $2.5 million requires that the Department of Justice notify the U.S. Congress at least 45 days prior to the plebiscite—that is, with sufficient time to provide Puerto Rico until this Saturday to authorize funds for the June 11th plebiscite. The Governor said Puerto Rico’s legislature would act swiftly—as, indeed, it has done. Now, the question will be how the changes might impact the tax-status of Puerto Rico’s future bonds, its economy, and whether it might mean Congress would treat Puerto Rico more like a state, which would have significant implications for programs such as Medicaid.  

Getting Out of Insolvency & Back on Fiscal Track

eBlog, 04/14/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing recovery of Atlantic City, New Jersey—where the Mayor this week proposed, in his first post-state takeover budget, the first tax cuts in a decade. Then we head west to the Motor City, where the city, as part of its fiscal recovery from the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history is seeking to ensure all its taxpayers pay what they owe, before then veering south to assess the first 100 days of the PROMESA oversight of the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico.

Getting Back on the Fiscal Track. Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian this week presented his proposed $206 million budget to the City Council, which unanimously voted 7-0 to introduce it at a special meeting, and the City has scheduled a public budget hearing for May 17th. In a taste of the fiscal turnaround for the city, the proposed budget includes the first municipal tax decrease in a decade. It also marks the first budget for the city since the State of New Jersey usurped control over Atlantic City’s finances last November. As proposed, it is more than $35 million or 21% less than last year’s and would reduce the municipal tax rate by 5 percent, according to both city and state officials. The city has scheduled a public budget hearing for May 17th.

As proposed, the steepest cut is in public safety—some $8 million, but the draft proposal also seeks cuts in administration costs ($5 million), as well as proposing savings via the privatization of trash pickup, payroll, and vehicle towing services. The smaller budget request is projected to reduce the city’s costs of debt service by $6 million. Unsurprisingly, the proposed tax cuts—the first in nearly a decade, drew the strongest applause: Atlantic City’s municipal tax rate has skyrocketed 96 percent since 2010, a period during which the city’s tax base dropped by nearly 66%. The $206.3 million budget Mayor Guardian presented features $6 million of cuts to debt service at $30.8 million and proposes to allocate $8 million less for public safety.

Mayor Guardian, who is running for his second term as Mayor this fall, said in a statement before presenting the budget that state overseers have played an instrumental role in crafting the new spending plan which features the proposed 5% property tax cut. It could mark a key point in the city’s efforts to regain governance control back from the State of New Jersey—a takeover the Republican mayor had bitterly contested, which took effect last November after New Jersey’s Local Finance Board rejected the city’s five-year recovery plan, or, as the Mayor put it: “From the beginning, I have said that we need to work with the State of New Jersey to stabilize Atlantic City and to reduce the outrageous property taxes that we inherited from years of reckless spending…Even though the entire state takeover was both excessive and unnecessary, the state did play an important role in helping us turn things around.”

For his part, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie praised former U.S. Sen. Jeffrey Chiesa for his role as the state’s designee leading the financial recovery and his contributions in helping to achieve the city’s first property tax cut in a decade. Gov. Christie credited Mr. Chiesa with withstanding union challenges to make firefighter and police cuts, as well as reaching a $72 million settlement with the Borgata casino which is projected to save the city $93 million on $165 million of owed property tax refunds from 2009 to 2015, noting: “As promised, we quickly put Atlantic City on the path to financial stability, with taxpayers and employers reaping the benefits of unprecedented property tax relief with no reduction in services by a more accountable government…I commend Senator Chiesa for leading Atlantic City to turn the corner, holding the line on expenses and making responsible choices to revitalize the city.”

Atlantic City is planning to issue $72 million in municipal bonds to finance the Borgata settlement though New Jersey’s Municipal Qualified Bond Act: the savings from the settlement, brokered by the state, were a key factor in S&P Global Ratings’ upgrade of Atlantic City’s junk-level general obligation bond debt: Atlantic City, which is weighed down by some $224 million in bonded debt, is rated Caa3 by Moody’s Investors Service. State overseer Chiesa noted: “Over the past five months, I have met so many smart, talented, tenacious people who want to see the city succeed. This inspires me every day to tackle the challenges facing the city to ensure that the progress we’ve made continues.”

A key contributor to the improved fiscal outlook appears to come from some of the unilateral contract changes to public safety officials, imposed by Mr. Chiesa, which led to reduced salaries and benefits for police and firefighters, albeit the courts will have the final say so: the unions have sued to block the cuts, arguing the takeover law is unconstitutional. In addition, the state also reach agreement on a $72 million tax settlement with Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa which is projected to save Atlantic City $93 million and essentially put Borgata back on its tax rolls. The casino had withheld property tax payments, but is now paying its part of casino payments in lieu of property taxes, or, as Mr. Chiesa put it: “Real progress is being made in the city, which is great news for the people who live, work and visit Atlantic City.”

Gov. Chris Christie, in his final term in office, praised Mr. Chiesa and jabbed at his political opponents in a statement issued before the City Council meeting, noting: “It took us merely a few months to lower property taxes for the first time in the past decade, when local leaders shamelessly spent beyond their means to satisfy their special political interests,” he said, even as Atlantic City officials described the budget as a collaborative effort with the state. Or, as Mayor Guardian put it: “He’s the governor. He makes those comments…What I think is [that] it’s clear the city moves ahead with the state.” Council President Marty Small, who chairs the Revenue and Finance Committee, said he was “intimately involved” in the budget process, describing it as a “win-win-win for everybody, particularly the taxpayers.”

Don’t Tax Me: Get the Feller behind the Tree! Getting citizens to pay their taxes is a problem everywhere, of course, but Detroit had a particularly hard time going after scofflaws because budget cuts decimated its ability to enforce the law. Even the citizens and businesses who paid up created logistical havoc for beleaguered city bureaucrats. Part of the reason, it seems, is that in Detroit, the only way to file taxes has been on paper. While that might be merely an irritation for taxpayers, it has been a nightmare for the city’s revenuers, who must devote endless hours typing data into computer systems. It appears also to have led to some innovation: last year the Motor City opted to send out more than 7,000 mailings to deadbeat tax filers, that is taxpayers who were still delinquent on their 2014 taxes; the city suspected each delinquent owed at least $350; ergo it randomly selected some taxpayers to receive one of six different letters, each with a different message in a black box on the mailing: One such message appealed to residents’ civic pride: “Detroit’s rising is at hand. The collection of taxes is essential to our success.” Another simply made clear that Detroit’s revenue department had detailed information on the deadbeats: “Our records indicate you had a federal income of $X for tax year 2014.” (Detroit is somewhat unique in that it has an income tax under which residents owe 2.4 percent of their incomes to the city, after a $600 exemption. Nonresidents who work in Detroit pay a rate of 1.2 percent.) Another message made a bold declaration: “Failure to file a tax return is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of $500 and 90 days in jail.”

It seems that threats have proven more effective than cajoling: More than 10 percent of taxpayers responded to the letter mentioning a fine and jail time, some 300% greater than the response rate to the city’s basic control letter. This revenue experiment was overseen by Ben Meiselman, a graduate student at the University of Michigan’s economics department, who manned a desk in Detroit’s tax office to run the experiment. He wrote the messages included in the mailings to reflect behavioral economics research, noting: “I find that a single sentence, strategically placed in mailings to attract attention, can have an economically meaningful impact on tax filing behavior,” in his working paper, “Ghostbusting in Detroit: Evidence on Non-filers from a Controlled Field Experiment,” which he intends to eventually become a chapter in his doctoral dissertation. And it turns out that providing details of a taxpayer’s income boosted the response rate by 63 percent, even as a letter from the city which combined a threat with income information was less effective than a threat by itself. Or, as one city official noted: “Keeping it simple seems to be the key,” especially as city officials learned that appeals to civic pride fell flat: the response rate was just 0.8 percentage points higher than that of a basic letter. Nevertheless, the city still confronts a long uphill fiscal cliff, even if it manages to apply the results of the experiment and triple the response rate from tax delinquents: according to the IRS, approximately six percent of U.S. taxpayers break the law by not filing with the Service each year, but, in Detroit, Mr. Meiselman estimated that some 46 percent of taxpayers had not submitted their 2014 returns by the due date in the following year—and that the return rate was getting worse.

Thus, Detroit’s next step was to back up threats with action—mayhap especially because there appears to have been little enforcement for the past decade: Detroit had not undertaken an audit or tax investigation in more than a decade. One outcome of insolvency and municipal bankruptcy, it appears, can hit hard: Detroit’s tax office, which once had a staff of about 70, is today about half that: it is a department which was recently reorganized, in the wake of last year’s takeover by the state of Michigan, a takeover intended to free up city employees to collect unpaid income taxes. The city also eased such filings by permitting them to be submitted electronically for the first time. And, wow!: 77 percent of filers took advantage. Detroit has sent out 15,000 letters since July 2016 and has collected $5.3 million through letters, audits, and investigations. And some of the amounts collected are significant, particularly for those who have juked, dodged, and evaded paying taxes for years: in one instance, a taxpayer agreed to pay $400,000. Detroit also began filing misdemeanor charges and lawsuits in small claims court to get its tax revenues, especially after learning that only one in five residents in several high-end apartments buildings had filed income taxes, helping to persuade a judge to issue an order requiring landlords to turn over tenant information.

These various steps appears to be helping: The number of residents filing tax returns more than doubled last year from the previous year; filings by non-residents increased by more than a third. City returns from 2016 are due, along with state and federal returns, by next Tuesday—the same deadline as applies to all readers of this eBlog, and, this year, Detroit officials are optimistic—or, as one wag put it: In the past, “people knew we weren’t coming after them…Now we are following up on those threats.”

The Promise or PROMESA of the First 100 Days. The PROMESA oversight board, provided by the Congress with authority over the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, has now surpassed its first one hundred days, created a juxtaposed governance challenge, especially for Governor Rosselló: how can he make sure that the framework set up during this period of quasi dual governance provides for the change Puerto Rico needs? How can he gain the approval of the Board for a long-term fiscal plan as the main achievement of his incipient administration? To prevail, it appears, he will have to convince the Oversight Board that his proposed budgets are based on real possibilities of revenues and that such estimates are free of dependence on loans and that he will conduct the restructuring of Puerto Rico’s public debt on favorable terms, and that he will take the key role in the reconstruction of the government apparatus to higher levels of service, efficiency, participation, and transparency. And, now, there appears to be some evidence that he is achieving progress. Puerto Rico’s statute on permits is intended address a serial inefficiency with regard to the “absurd and abusive terms” to obtain permits, delays which have hindered and discouraged the generation of new economic activity. The effort to provide for the progressive elimination of the costly redundancy in programs and services via the consolidation of agencies, with security first, appear to be key steps in achieving changes to restore financial health. Moreover, the creation of a spending budget 10 per cent below the current one appears to mark an important step in the goal of reasserting self-governance.

Nevertheless, the fiscal and governance challenges of recovering from fiscal insolvency can be beset from any angle: note, for instance, Judge Lauracelis Roques Arroyo has revived an “audit” of Puerto Rico’s debt and reversed Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s attempt to dismantle the debt audit commission. (Judge Roques Arroyo is a member of the Carolina Region of the Puerto Rico Superior Court.) And, thus, he has ruled that Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s attempt to dismantle a commission auditing Puerto Rico’s debt was illegal. The statute in question, law 97 of 2015, created the Puerto Rico Commission for the Comprehensive Audit of the Public Credit. The commission aimed to find Puerto Rico debt which was legally invalid. The commission’s first report in June of last year had reviewed documents connected with the Commonwealth’s $3.5 billion general obligation bond and $1.2 billion tax and revenue anticipation note, both sold in 2014. In this report, the Commission had raised doubts with regard to the legality of much of Puerto Rico’s bond debt. Late last September, the commission questioned the legality of the series 2013A power revenue bonds from the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), raising concerns with regard to the behavior of Morgan Stanley, Ernst &Young, and URS Corp. in the municipal bond sale and the period leading up to it. In early October, possibly in response to the commission’s work, the SEC commenced an investigation of PREPA’s 2012 and 2013 bonds. Ergo, Judge Arroyo’s order late last week returned three public interest members to the board, according to attorney Manuel Rodriguez Banchs; the order provided that the Governor has no authority to intervene with the commission: it said that the dismissal of the public interest members was illegal. The board has $650,000 in its account right now, according to board member Roberto Pagán, e.g. adequate to do a substantial amount of additional work. Gov. Rosselló, thus, is considering how to react to the judge’s order, according to the El Vocero news website.

Governance & Fiscal Recovery

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eBlog, 04/03/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing recovery efforts in Ferguson, Missouri; then we return to the Motor City to assess what and how home ownership might have changed in the wake of the city’s recovery from the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, before returning to the azure waters of Puerto Rico to assess its most recent fiscal developments.

A Recovering City’s Future? Ferguson, Missouri voters tomorrow will pick between Mayor James Knowles III and Councilwoman Ella Jones in the Mayoral election–for a 3-year term: Mayor Knowles was first elected Mayor on April 5, 2011, after serving on the Ferguson City Council for six years: he became the youngest mayor in Ferguson’s history when he took office at the age of 31, while Councilwoman Jones became the first African-American woman to be elected to her position. But tomorrow could mark a check point in the wake of the dramatic leadership changes since the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown put the St. Louis suburb at the center of the debate over the treatment of blacks by the nation’s police forces–and on the brink of insolvency. Mayor Knowles, who is finishing his second term, noted: “These past three years have been very difficult, but I’ve been the one who has shown I can lead through tough times…That I can take the heat, but also make the changes, the reforms necessary to make the community move forward.” Nevertheless, in the wake of the killing of an unarmed black teenager, by a white police officer nearly three years ago, Mayor Knowles has borne the brunt of considerable anger, as Ferguson went from a mostly unheard-of St. Louis suburb to a flash-point of racial unrest. After months of protests following the shooting, people rioted that November when a grand jury declined to charge the officer, who resigned that month. There was further unrest the following March when the U.S. Department of Justice cleared the officer of wrongdoing—and issued a scathing report alleging racial bias and profiling by the small city’s police department and courts—a report which appeared to lead to the resignations of the city’s police chief, city manager, municipal judge, and city attorney. Indeed, of all the city’s top officials, only Mayor Knowles remains—and that notwithstanding threats in phone calls and emails, a stolen identity, and having his home’s windows broken.  In contrast, Councilwoman Jones has lived most of her life in Ferguson: she is serving her first term as a Councilwoman, and, in her campaign, assert she wants the Mayor’s office to be “inclusive for everyone, instead of exclusive,” noting: “We have to listen and stop turning our heads and turning a deaf ear to people, because they’re just like you and I. They want to be heard and they have a right to be heard.”

Whomever the voters elect will confront a daunting fiscal challenge: the city lost millions of dollars of revenue after municipal court reforms were implemented following Mr. Brown’s death: sales and use tax revenues dropped as businesses victimized by looters were burned and closed: many have not returned. Similarly, the city has more than a dozen police vacancies: the city lacks sufficient budget resources to compete with larger, better funded governments in St. Louis County—and still is handicapped by its unfunded costs of compliance with U.S. the Justice Department imposed consent decree to improve the police and municipal court systems and eliminate racial bias: an unfunded federal mandate projected to cost the impoverished city budget and taxpayers more than $2 million. The city of about 20,000, which actually experienced a population decline of nearly 6% since 2000, nevertheless has experienced a gradual increase in median income to $43,998 by 2015—approximately 86% of average statewide household income.

And, irrespective of whom the voters select, this is not a position of responsibility that pays much: the Mayor’s pay is $4,200 annually; rather, as the incumbent notes: it’s the love of their community and the opportunity to be its face to the outside world: “These past three years have been very difficult, but I’ve been the one who has shown I can lead through tough times…That I can take the heat but also make the changes, the reforms necessary to make the community move forward.” In contrast, Councilwoman Jones said she wants the Mayor’s office to be “inclusive for everyone, instead of exclusive…We have to listen and stop turning our heads and turning a deaf ear to people, because they’re just like you and I. They want to be heard and they have a right to be heard,” she said.

A Lost Fiscal Decade? Joel Kurth and Mike Wilkinson, writing in Bridge Magazine, note that still, today, home mortgages remain a rarity in Detroit: “Home sales with mortgages are rare in Detroit, occurring in just a few areas: Miles from downtown Detroit and its debates about gentrification, a more modest question surrounds the real estate in many city neighborhoods. Cash or charge?” The pair found that “sales with mortgages are rare in Detroit, occurring in just a few areas.”  Their piece outlines remarkable oscillations in assessed property values, noting that the average home sale price in the city went from $84,109 in 2001 down to $12, 517 in 2009, and then back up to $50,308 by last year—still far below the unadjusted 2001 level—albeit they found that the average price last year for homes purchased with a mortgage was $155,650. In comparing homeownership rates, they noted that last year’s rate of 47% remained under the year 2000 rate of 55%. Thus, they found that obtaining a mortgage continues to be challenging in outlying neighborhoods across Detroit, with the vast majority of homes sold for cash to landlords and investors, rather than homeowners, according to sales data and numerous interviews—posing hard questions about who will benefit in a revival rooted in downtown and Midtown in what remains the nation’s poorest city—a city where, according to the Census Bureau, 39.3% of people live below the poverty line (defined as $24,250 for a family of four), making it “the poorest in America with more than 300,000 people, followed by Cleveland (39.2%), Fresno, Calif., (30.5%), Memphis (29.8%), and Milwaukee (29%), albeit finding the Motor City’s rate has actually decreased from 2012, when it was 42.3%. The authors quoted a real estate agent: “Detroit is evolving into a new place, but outside of hot areas, neighborhoods just aren’t where they need to be to increase property values enough for banks to lend money.”

Nevertheless, a joint report by Bridge and Detroit public radio station WDET did find some grounds for optimism, determining that home sales and prices are increasing citywide after bottoming out after the mortgage meltdown, which left in excess of 65,000 foreclosures; the report noted that in some neighborhoods, prices are rising so swiftly that they are creating bidding wars, albeit the gains are uneven, and mortgage lending is mostly confined to more affluent neighborhoods, according to records from Realcomp Ltd. II: last year, only 19% of 3,800 Detroit homes sold by conventional means were financed with mortgages, demonstrating signal disparities: homes with mortgages sold for an average of $155,000; cash sales averaged $30,000—an imbalance Mayor Mike Duggan fears could “cripple” the Motor City’s recovery, according to Erica Ward Gerson, Chairwoman of the Detroit Land Bank Authority, which assembles and sells properties: she deemed the number of cash sales a “serious, serious problem,” because they can deter home ownership and depress property values, noting that cheap sales are usually rentals or vacant houses, while pricier sales are often out of reach for ordinary buyers. Most home sales in Detroit require cash; only 19 percent of the 3,800 sales in 2016 involved a mortgage, reflecting the difficulty to secure loans in a city where property values are less than half what they were a decade ago. 

In response, Mayor Duggan has sought to team with banks, foundations, and nonprofits to offer a number of programs to increase the availability of home loans; to date, as one non-profit in the city notes, the programs have demonstrated some success; however, most focus on stable neighborhoods, e.g., not where the most serious challenges remain: in more impoverished east side neighborhoods, homes last year sold for $4,000 to $40,000 in cash, according to Realcomp data—even as, a few miles away in downtown and Midtown, homes and lofts sell for $250,000 or more, according to records. Indeed, according to the Urban Institute, in 2014, 97% of Detroit homes sold for cash—nearly thrice the national average of 36%; cities with comparable populations, such as Memphis, Columbus, and El Paso, last year had at least five times as many mortgages as the approximately 710 mortgages sold in Detroit, according to data from RealtyTrac, a California-based company that tracks real estate. Indeed, according to the Urban Institute, Detroit once had one of the highest rates of home ownership among African-Americans nationwide; but, today, the city is majority renters: since 2000, the percentage of renters has increased to 53 percent from 45 percent, according to the U.S. Census.

Don’t Bank on the City’s Future. A key fiscal issue appears to be the reluctance of banks in Detroit to offer home mortgages for less than $50,000, a figure higher than many Detroit homes are worth—a seeming legacy of the sharp withering of assessed property values after the real-estate crash. Moreover, acquiring clear titles necessary for mortgages has become more difficult, because all too many Detroit homes have liens, and way too many are in such disrepair that making them livable can multiply purchase prices. Then, almost as if adding injury to insult, current federal regulations promulgated after the crash have increased the cost of issuing mortgages. Indeed, according to the Urban Institute: only one in five Detroit residents have credit scores high enough to obtain a mortgage. Erica Ward Gerson, Chair of the Detroit Land Bank, notes that Mayor Duggan, even before he took office three years ago, had recognized how critical mortgages would be to the city’s fiscal recovery: he went, in 2015, to Denver to the Clinton Global Initiative America to plead his case to the former President and leaders of foundations and banks: afraid that low appraisals and the refusal to loan small amounts would undercut any long-term recovery chances for the city. That leadership turned out to be key: In the wake of Mayor Duggan personally taking at least one bank leader on tours of stable neighborhoods in Detroit where lending was impossible, Ms. Gerson noted that in “lightning speed,” five banks, community foundations, and nonprofits teamed to form the Detroit Home Mortgage program, which removes barriers to lending and issues mortgages for up to $75,000 more than appraised value. Now, in this new initiative, announced in February, the Mayor hopes to secure financing for 1,000 mortgages over the next 3-5 years.

Governing from Afar. It is now expected to take the PROMESA Oversight Board several more months to set up the administrative structure to pass judgment over the budgetary impact of every law enacted by Puerto Rico; nevertheless, the announcement that this process will be set in motion marks the consolidation of Puerto Rico’s public finances, coming just as Puerto Rico bondholders and bond insurers have repeated a request to the Oversight Board to initiate immediate debt negotiations. The Ad Hoc Group of GO Bondholders, which had requested the negotiations get started last week, had joined with other creditors in asking the PROMESA Board to commence negotiations this morning in New York City, with the creditors having rejected the Board’s request for a mediator to oversee the negotiations. The creditors complained it would take too long to set up the mediation ground rules and that there are only a few weeks to complete the debt negotiations, writing they had “all agreed not to participate in a mediation that lacks basic process,” seeking to trigger the PROMESA provision on a consensual debt negotiation process, which can run until May 1, when a stay on litigation allowed by PROMESA and the board will end. PROMESA Board Chair José Carrión III, for his part, has claimed that his plan is not to create a “super government,” at least in terms of the amount of people in the organism, notwithstanding that the Board’s new executive director and former Ukraine Minister of Finance, Natalie Jaresko, has been tasked with creating an office which, among other things, should have the capacity to pass judgment over the fiscal impact of each law passed in the last few months and those which might be ratified from now onward—or, as the Chairman describes it: “She will start hiring (personnel), of whom the vast majority will be Puerto Rican. We are searching for people who don’t just see this as an employment opportunity, but as a patriotic duty.”

To date, the PROMESA Board’s primary task has been to certify a long-term fiscal plan, but now the hard part of agreeing on the details and putting the legislative process under the magnifying glass commence—much like the long and painful process of reaching resolution of a plan of debt adjustment under chapter 9. To date, via letters addressed to the Governor and the leaders of the legislative chambers, the PROMESA Board first established a work calendar to which the Puerto Rico Legislature is to comply with the budget the Governor must submit before the end of the month—then granting the legislature just two weeks in May to assess and amend said budget—upon which the PROMESA Board will have the final say. Indeed, if, by the end of June, the Governor and the Legislature have not complied with the Board’s mandates, the Board—which has powers greater than Puerto Rico’s elected officials—could impose its own budget for Puerto Rico’s FY2018 year that begins on July 1st.

The process, in contrast to chapter 9 in local governments, will not include all branches; rather, the PROMESA Board is expected to continue to makes its exchanges with the Governor—not the legislators, which make up a branch of government with two leaders and where, at least on paper, Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz promises to ignore the members of the fiscal authority. Indeed, according to PROMESA, the exchange related to the revision of every law is made directly with the Governor, to whom the Board has granted seven days—after the statute is adopted—to present the fiscal impact estimate, if any, on the Governments revenues and expenditures. Or, as former Senator Fernando Martín, who is the executive president of the Puerto Rican Independence Party, put it: “As long as they take their draconian powers seriously, I believe they will do what they announced: examine passed legislation; repeal any legislation that proves contradictory with the fiscal plan; or, to soften the blow, try to make the Legislature modify it,” adding that the PROMESA Board’s defense against the Government of Puerto Rico’s bondholders is to be rigorous in controlling expenses: “Paraphrasing the current Governor’s father, the worst is yet to come: austerity, by itself, cannot be a recipe,” rather they will have to encourage solving “the structural problem in the relations between Puerto Rico and the U.S., since the solution means ending colonialism”.

Mr. Martin believes that the Governor—as the leader of the Executive branch—, the Senate President, and the House Speaker could have the judicial strength to sue: “If the Governor accepts my call to challenge the Board and the intervention in the Island’s governmental affairs, I am more than willing to help combat the Board. If I was Governor and they rejected a law I signed, I would challenge the Board’s actions in court.” However, because the PROMESA Board was imposed by Congress, in exchange for offering Puerto Rico the possibility of a quasi-chapter 9 territorial bankruptcy procedure, and because the federal law bases the Board’s control over the Island on the power Congress has to legislate through the territorial clause of the United States Constitution; it would seem his advice would be unlikely to pass judicial muster—even as Mr. Martin notes: “The Governor of Puerto Rico is Ricardo Rosselló, elected by the people’s votes. It is not Mr. Carrión. Even though Ricardo Rosselló does not belong to my party, I respect the position he holds and the power he has according to what is established by our Constitution.” Ferrer added.

Donde Estamos? Currently, while the PROMESA Board is still reviewing the workday reduction for public employees and the elimination of the Christmas bonus if its members believe that there will not be enough cash in the coffers by July 1st, the tax reduction for doctors would cost $185 million per year. Thus, the Representative from the New Progressive Party, José Enrique “Quiquito” Meléndez, opines that Governor Rosselló’s government has had “a particular worry,” which is if the Board’s power over Puerto Rico’s laws includes measures passed before the certification of the fiscal plan. Ergo. Rep. Meléndez considers that the one with the greatest cost will be the doctors’; however, among the laws which would be subject to the Board’s review would lie the financing for the plebiscite and the office of the Inspector General—or as he described it: “The plebiscite’s impact is not substantial, even without the $2.5 million that the federal government can grant.” The cost of the plebiscite—whose possible celebration is mentioned in PROMESA, has been estimated at $5 million at least—an amount that Mr. Martín does not foresee that the Board would want to say that holding a consultation on Puerto Rico’s political future, even under a Board that could only exist under the territorial status, to be “a superfluous cost.”

The Uneven Shape of Colonial Governance. Because of the PROMESA Board’s absolute power over Puerto Rico’s elected officials and even the finances of the Puerto Rico Judicial Branch, the governance situation appears to be without precedence since Congress granted Puerto Rico a structure to form a local government.