The Fiscal Challenges of Inequity

May 15, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we return to the small municipality of Harvey, Illinois—a city fiscally transfixed between its pension and operating budget constraints in a state which does not provide authority for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy; then we turn east to assess Connecticut’s fiscal road to adjournment and what it might mean for its capital city of Hartford; before heading south to Puerto Rico where there might be too many fiscal cooks in the kitchen, both exacerbating the costs of restoring fiscal solvency, and exacerbating the outflow of higher income Americans from Puerto Rico to the mainland.

Absence of Fiscal Balance? After, nearly a decade ago, the Land of Lincoln—the State of Illinois—adopted its pension law as a means to ensure smaller municipalities would stop underfunding their public pension contributions—provisions which, as we noted in the case of the small municipality of Harvey, were upheld when a judge affirmed that the Illinois Comptroller was within the state law to withhold revenues due to the city—with the Comptroller’s office noting that whilst it did not “want to see any Harvey employees harmed or any Harvey residents put at risk…the law does not give the Comptroller discretion in this case: The Comptroller’s Office is obligated to follow the law. This dispute is between the retired Harvey police officers’ pension fund and the City of Harvey.” But in one of the nation’s largest metro regions—one derived from the 233 settlements there in 1900, the fiscal interdependency and role of the state may have grave fiscal consequences. As we previously noted, U. of Chicago researcher Amanda Kass found there are 74 police or fire pension funds in Illinois municipalities with unfunded pension liabilities similar to that of Harvey. Unsurprisingly, poverty is not equally distributed: so fiscal disparities within the metro region have consequences not just for municipal operating budgets, but also for meeting state constitutionally mandated public pension obligations.

Now, as fiscal disparities in the region grow, there is increasing pressure for the state to step in—it is, after all, one of the majority of states in the nation which does not authorize a municipality to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy: ergo, the fiscal and human challenge in the wake of the state’s enactment of its new statute which permits public pension funds to intercept local revenues to meet pension obligations; the state faces the governance and fiscal challenge of whether to provide for a state takeover—a governing action taken in the case of neighboring Michigan, where the state takeover had perilous health and fiscal consequences in Flint, but appeared to be the key for the remarkable fiscal turnaround in Detroit from the largest municipal chapter 9 bankruptcy in American history. Absent action by the Governor and state legislature, it would seem Illinois will need to adopt an early fiscal warning system of severe municipal fiscal distress—replete with a fiscal process for some means of state assistance or intervention. In Harvey, where Mayor Eric Kellogg has been banned for life from any role in the issuance of municipal debt because of the misleading of investors, the challenge for a city which has so under-budgeted for its public pension obligations, has defaulted on its municipal bond obligations, and provided virtually no fiscal disclosure; Illinois’ new state law (PL 96-1495), which permits public pension funds to compel Illinois’ Comptroller to withhold state tax revenue which would normally go to the city, which went into effect at the beginning of this calendar year, meant the city reasons did not take effect until January 2018. Now, in the wake of the city’s opting to lay off nearly half its police and fire force, the small municipality with the 7th highest violent crime rate in the state is in a fiscal Twilight Zone—and a zone transfixed in the midst of a hotly contested gubernatorial campaign in which neither candidate has yet to offer a meaningful fiscal option.  

Under Illinois’ Financial Distressed City Law ((65 ILCS 5/) Illinois Municipal Code) there are narrow criteria, including requirements that the municipality rank in the highest 5% of all cities in terms of the aggregate of the property tax levy paid while simultaneously in the lowest percentage of municipalities in terms of the tax collected. Under the provisions, the Illinois General Assembly would then need to pass a resolution declaring the city as fiscally distressed—a law used only once before in the state’s history—thirty-eight years ago for the City of East St. Louis. The statute, as we have previously noted, contains an additional quirk—disqualifying in this case: Illinois’ Local Government Financial Planning and Supervision Act mandates an entity must have a population of less than 25,000—putting Harvey, with its waning population measured at 24,947 as of 2016 somewhere with Rod Serling in the Twilight Zone. Absent state action, Harvey could be the first of a number of smaller Illinois municipalities unable to meet its public pension obligations—in response to which, the state would reduce revenues via intercepting local or municipal revenues—aggravating and accelerating municipal fiscal distress.

Capital for the Capitol. In a rare Saturday session, the Connecticut Senate passed legislation to enable the state to claw back emergency debt assistance for its capital city, Hartford, through aid cuts beginning in mid-2022, with a bipartisan 28-6 vote—forwarding the bill to the House and Gov. Dannel Malloy—as legislators raced to overwhelmingly approve a new state budget shortly before their midnight deadline Wednesday which would:  restore aid for towns; reverse health care cuts for the elderly, poor, and disabled; and defer a transportation crisis. The $20.86 billion package, which now moves to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s desk, does not increase taxes; it does raise the maximum tax rate cities and towns can levy on motor vehicles. In addition, the bill would spend rather than save more than $300 million from this April’s $1 billion surge in state income tax revenues. The final fiscal compromise does not include several major changes sought by Republicans to collective bargaining rules affecting state and municipal employees. And, even as the state’s fiscal finances are projected to face multi-billion-dollar deficits after the next election tied in part to legacy debt costs amassed over the last 80 years, the new budget would leave Connecticut with $1.1 billion in its emergency reserves: it will boost General Fund spending about 1.6 percent over the adopted budget for the current fiscal year, and is 1.1 percent higher than the preliminary 2018-19 budget lawmakers adopted last October. The budget also includes provisions intended to protect Connecticut households and businesses which might be confronted with higher federal tax obligations under the new federal tax law changes. Indeed, in the end, the action was remarkably bipartisan: the Senate passed the budget 36-0 after a mere 17 minutes of debate; the House debated only 20 minutes before voting 142-8 for adoption.

In addition to reacting to the new federal tax laws, the final fiscal actions also dealt with the sharp, negative reaction from voters in the wake of tightening  Medicare eligibility requirements for the Medicare Savings Program, which uses Medicaid funds to help low-income elderly and disabled patients cover premiums and medication costs—acting to postpone cutbacks to July 1st, even though it worsened a deficit in the current fiscal year, after learning an estimated 113,000 seniors and disabled residents would lose some or all assistance. As adopted, the new budget reverses all cutbacks, at a cost of approximately $130 million. Legislators also acted to restore some $12 million to reverse new restrictions on the Medicaid-funded health insurance program for poor adults, with advocates claiming this funding would enable approximately 13,500 adults from households earning between 155 and 138 percent of the federal poverty level to retain state-sponsored coverage.

State Aid to Connecticut Cities & Towns. Legislators also took a different approach with this budget regarding aid to cities and towns. After clashing with Gov. Malloy last November, when Gov. Malloy had been mandated by the legislature to achieve unprecedented savings after the budget was in force, including the reduction of $91 million from statutory grants to cities and towns; the new budget gives communities $70.5 million more in 2018-19 than they received this year—and bars the Governor from cutting town grants to achieve savings targets. As adopted, the fiscal package means that some municipalities in the state, cities and towns with the highest local tax rates, could be adversely impacted: the legislation raises the statewide cap on municipal property taxes from a maximum rate of 39 mills to 45 mills. On the other hand, the final legislation provides additional education and other funding for communities with large numbers of evacuees from Puerto Rico—dipping into a portion of last month’s $1.3 billion surge in state income tax receipts tied chiefly to capital gains and other investment income—and notwithstanding the state’s new revenue “volatility” cap which was established last fall to force Connecticut to save such funds. As adopted, the new state budget “carries forward” $299 million in resources earmarked for payments to hospitals this fiscal year—a fiscal action which means the state has an extra $299 million to spend in the next budget while simultaneously enlarging the outgoing fiscal year’s deficit by the same amount. (The new deficit for the outgoing fiscal year would be $686 million, which would be closed entirely with the dollars in the budget reserve—which is filled primarily with this spring’s income tax receipts.) The budget reserve is now projected to have between $700 million and $800 million on hand when the state completes its current fiscal year. That could be a fiscal issue, as it would leave Connecticut with a fiscal cushion of just under 6 percent of annual operating costs, a cushion which, while the state’s largest reserve since 2009, would still be far below the 15 percent level recommended by Comptroller Kevin P. Lembo—and, mayhap of greater fiscal concern, smaller than the projected deficits in the first two fiscal years after the November elections: according to Connecticut’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis, the newly adopted budget, absent adjustment, would run $2 billion in deficit in FY2019-20—a deficit that office projects would increase by more than 25 percent by FY2020-21, with the bulk of those deficits attributable both to surging retirement benefit costs stemming from decades of inadequate state savings, as well as the Connecticut economy’s sluggish recovery from the last recession.

As adopted, Connecticut’s new budget also retains and scales back a controversial plan to reinforce new state caps on spending and borrowing and other mechanisms designed to encourage better savings habits; it includes a new provision to transfer an extra $29 million in sales tax receipts next fiscal year to the Special Transportation Fund—designed in an effort to avert planned rail and transit fare increases—ergo, it does not establish tolls on state highways.

Reacting to Federal Tax Changes. The legislature approved a series of tax changes in response to new federal tax laws capping deductions for state and local taxes at $10,000: one provision would establish a new Pass-Through Entity Tax aimed at certain small businesses, such as limited liability corporations; a second provision allows municipalities to provide a property tax credit to taxpayers who make voluntary donations to a “community-supporting organization” approved by the municipality: under this provision, as an example, a household owing $7,000 in state income taxes and $6,000 in local property taxes could, in lieu of paying the property taxes, make a $6,000 contribution to a municipality’s charitable organization.

Impacts on Connecticut’s Municipalities. The bill would enable the state to reduce non-education aid to its capital city of Hartford by an amount equal to the debt deal. It would authorize the legislature to pare non-education grants to Hartford if the city’s deficit exceeds 2% of annual operating costs in a fiscal year, or a 1% gap for two straight year—albeit the legislature would be free to restore other funds—or, as Mayor Luke Bronin put it: “I fully understand respect legislators’ desire to revisit the agreement after five years.” Under the so-called contract assistance agreement, which Gov. Malloy, Connecticut State Treasurer Denise Nappier, and Mayor Luke Bronin signed in late March, the state would pay off the principal on the City of Hartford’s roughly $540 million of general obligation debt over 20 to 30 years. With Connecticut’s new Municipal Accountability Review Board, not dissimilar to the Michigan fiscal review Board for Detroit, having just approved Mayor Bronin’s five-year plan. In the wake of the legislative action, Mayor Bronin had warned that significant fiscal cuts in the out years could imperil the city at that time, albeit adding: “That said, I fully understand and respect legislators’ desire to revisit the agreement after five years, and my commitment is that we will continue to work hard to earn the confidence our the legislature and the state as a whole as we move our capital city in the right direction.”

Dying to Leave. While we have previously explored the departure of many young, college-educated Puerto Ricans to the mainland, depleting both municipio and the Puerto Rico treasuries of vital tax revenues, the Departamento of Salud (Health Department) reports that even though Puerto Rico’s population has declined by nearly 17% over the decade, the U.S. territory’s suicide rate has increased significantly, especially in the months immediately following Hurricane Maria, particularly among older adults, with social workers reporting that elderly people are especially vulnerable when their daily routines are disrupted for long periods. Part of the upsurge is demographically related: As those going have left for New York City, Florida, and other sites on the East Coast, it is older Americans left behind—many who went as long as six months without electricity, who appear to be at risk. Adrian Gonzalez, the COO (Chief Operating Officer at Castañer General Hospital in Castañer, a small town in the central mountains) noted: “We have elderly people who live alone, with no power, no water and very little food.” Dr. Angel Munoz, a clinical psychologist in Ponce, said people who care for older adults need to be trained to identify the warning signs of suicide: “Many of these elderly people either live alone or are being taken care of by neighbors.”

A Hot Potato of Municipal Debt. Under Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s proposed FY2019 General Fund budget, the Governor included no request to meet Puerto Rico’s debt, adding he intended not to follow the PROMESA Board’s directives in several parts of his budget—those debt obligations for Puerto Rico and its entities are in excess of $2.5 billion: last month’s projections by the Board certified a much higher amount of $3.84 billion. Matt Fabian of Municipal Market Analytics described it this way: “Bondholders have to wait until the Commonwealth makes a secured or otherwise legally protected provision to pay debt service before they can begin to (dis)count their chickens: The alternative, which is where we are today, is an assumption that debt service will be paid out of surplus funds. ‘Surplus funds’ haven’t happened in a decade and the storm has only made things worse: a better base case assumption is the Commonwealth spending every dollar of cash and credit at its disposal, regardless of what the budget says: That doesn’t leave much room for the payment of debt service and is good reason for bondholders to continue to litigate.” Under the PROMESA Board’s approved fiscal plan, Puerto Rico should have $1.13 billion in surplus funds available for debt service in FY2023—with the Board silent with regard to what percent the Gov. would be expected to dedicate to debt service. The Gov.’s budget request does seek nearly a 10% reduction for the general fund, with a statement from his office noting the proposal for operational expenditures of $7 billion is 6% less than that for the current fiscal year and 22% less than the final budget of former Gov. Alejandro García Padilla. The Governor proposed no reductions in pension benefits—indeed, it goes so far as to explicitly include that his budget does not follow the demands of the PROMESA Oversight Board for the proposed pension cuts, to enact new labor reforms, or to eliminate a long-standing Christmas bonus for government workers.

Nevertheless, PROMESA Board Executive Director Natalie Jaresko, appears optimistic that Gov. Ricardo Rosselló Nevares’s government will correct the “deficiencies” in the recommended budget without having to resort to litigation: while explaining the Board’s reasoning for rejecting the Governor’s proposed budget last week, Director Jaresko stressed that correcting the expenses and collections program, as well as implementing all the reforms contained in the fiscal plan, is necessary to channel the island’s economy and to promote transparency and accountability in the use of public funds, adding that approving a budget in accordance with the new certified fiscal plan is critical to achieve the renegotiation of Puerto Rico’s debt—adding that, should the Rosselló administration not do its part, the Board would proceed with what PROMESA establishes: “The fiscal plan is not a menu you can choose from.”

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Upsetting State & Local Fiscal Balances

April 27, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we seek to understand the fiscal imbalances in Connecticut and its capitol city of Hartford, before venturing west to assess the uneasy fiscal dilemmas in Illinois.

Biting the Fiscal Hand that Feeds the City? In a letter to Connecticut Treasurer Denise Nappier, House Minority Leader Themis Klarides (R-Derby) this week warned that the state’s fiscal bailout out the City of Hartford will exhaust the state’s ability to issue debt, — at least temporarily, noting that the legislature’s non nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis projects “the state would exceed the statutory bond cap by $522 million” effective next July 1st, because of the Hartford fiscal agreement. That arrangement, implemented earlier this spring by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration and by Treasurer Nappier’s office, commits the State of Connecticut to finance Hartford’s $534 million in outstanding municipal bond debt, in addition to an undetermined about of interest. While state Legislators had ordered fiscal assistance for Hartford last October as part of a final consensus on adopting the budget, now a number are claiming the agreement went beyond what legislators had authorized. At stake is Connecticut’s expectation of retiring this debt over 20 to 30 years—something which could now depend upon how Hartford city leaders renegotiate their obligations with the city’s municipal bondholders—and, especially, at what interest rates—in one of the nation’s oldest states, and one which has long had in statute a debt limit—one which applies not only to bond debt already issued by the state, but also bonded debt it has committed to undertake in the future. Leader Klarides noted that he had been informed by the state’s Office of Fiscal Analysis that the full amount of Hartford which the state is expected to assume, $534 million, would be counted against the state’s bond cap: he has, indeed, requested clarification from the Treasurer with regard to when Hartford’s debt was included in calculations of the state’s debt burden. Unless legislators abandon the cap, the only alternatives to exceeding the limit this summer would be to delay or cancel planned municipal bonding for various projects, such as municipal school construction or capital programs at public colleges and universities; increase taxes or adopt other revenue raising measures, or vote to modify the Connecticut debt limit statute and grant an exemption for the emergency aid for the City of Hartford.

With Republicans currently holding nearly half the seats in the House (71 of 151) and exactly half the seats in the Senate, any traction for the city will confront, ergo, steep political divides—especially in an election year where Republicans have already indicated they plan to campaign on their efforts to stabilize state finances; thus, any effort to curtail other projects is likely to draw objections from both sides of the aisle. Treasurer Nappier’s office did not comment immediately after Leader Klarides issued her letter. Wednesday, Gov. Dannell Malloy’s office, noted that legislators should have known the assistance would count against the state’s debt limit, with a spokesperson for his office noting: “The contract assistance agreement is perfectly in keeping with the legislation passed last year by the bipartisan coalition,” adding that that was language the Legislature had both drafted and passed with support from Leader Klarides—language which stated that contract assistance agreements would constitute a full faith and credit obligation of the state: “This was not ambiguous then, and it is not now. The only question that continues to arise regarding the contract assistance agreement is did Representative Klarides have any idea what she was voting for?”

While there is consensus on both sides of the aisle that the two-year state budget enacted last October appropriated about $80 million in assistance for Hartford over the biennium, legislators had also agreed that Hartford would seek to refinance its debt over the long-term—debt the state would guarantee, committing to make annual debt assistance payments close to $40 million for 20 to 30 years, until the city’s entire $534 million general obligation debt is retired; however, last week, House and Senate Republicans recommended budget adjustments which would reduce traditional state grants to Hartford each year, beginning in the new fiscal year, by an amount equal to the debt assistance—effectively undercutting the fiscal commitment—or, as  effectively neutralizing the deal. Or, as Rep. Klarides put it, legislators were very clear in what they ordered, and that the Governor and Treasurer negotiated last-minute changes with the city and its bondholders that overstepped their authority, noting: “We only agreed to a two-year lifeline: This was a deal that was done in the dark of night.” Leader Klarides declined to speculate what the Legislature will do, but warned that if lawmakers are forced to begin canceling planned borrowing: “Let’s de-authorize Hartford projects.” In response, House Majority Leader Matt Ritter (D-Hartford), unsurprisingly, said exempting the aid for his home community from the statutory debt limit might be the best solution, especially, as he noted, because legislators on both sides of the aisle still want to make adjustments to the state budget for the next fiscal year before the session’s scheduled close on May 9th, noting that the single-largest amount of state borrowing is used to support municipal school construction, and canceling more than $500 million in planned borrowing by July 1 likely would impact many communities across Connecticut. Thus, he added: “If we all agree we want safe schools for our kids, we should come together and talk.”

The difficult negotiations in the Legislature come as Wall Street is warning Connecticut that its municipalities could be in fiscal peril. Last week, Moody’s moodily released an analysis that the recently enacted federal tax law changes may wreak fiscal havoc to the state’s local governments—especially the cap on the deductibility of state and local taxes. There is fiscal apprehension that the federal changes could lead to stagnant assessed property values—changes which would augur bad news for municipal property tax receipts in a state which relies more on property taxes than any other—or., as the exception UConn Law Professor Richard Pomp noted: “Because fewer people are going to be able to deduct the property tax, there is the concern that this will lower the demand for housing: That will lower a municipality’s property tax base at the next reassessment.” The federal tax changes which have led to record federal deficits and debt for the one level of government which does not try to balance its budget means, as Kevin Maloney of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities put it: “There is no way to sugarcoat the fact that the recently passed sweeping federal tax reform will adversely impact a majority of property taxpayers and towns and city governments across Connecticut: Limiting the ability of Connecticut towns and cities to write off property tax paid annually will only place more pressure on the property tax in Connecticut, making Connecticut local economies and tax environment more uncompetitive and depressing the value of homeownership.”

In 2014, more than 41% of returns in Connecticut included a state and local tax deduction (the last year available): the average amount for this deduction was $19,000. Thus, as he put it: “Property taxes represent an absolutely vital source of revenue for cities in Connecticut: According to the Lincoln Institute for Land Policy, property taxes account for 60% of local revenues—twice the national average.” That unbalanced reliance is further complicating fiscal stability in the state, because Connecticut is the state with the nation’s greatest income inequality—creating widely disparate impacts on Connecticut municipalities’ fiscal capacity to provide equitable levels of services.  Those fiscal disparities can cause, as Moody’s reported, “significant headwinds,” especially for cities like Bridgeport, where a shrinking tax base and plummeting assessed property values have generated a vicious fiscal cycle of ever-higher tax increases on remaining residents: higher and higher tax burdens, even as services are reduced. Two years; ago, a Bridgeport family making $75,000 a year faced a tax rate of nearly 16%: as higher income families have fled the municipality, the new federal tax bill could contribute to drive still more away.

On a Golden Parachute in Highland Park? In an Illinois County, Highland Park, where more than a century ago in 1867, ten men purchased Highland Park for the gaudy sum of $39,198.70 to become the original stockholders of the Highland Park Building Company—after which, following construction of the Chicago and Milwaukee Railroad, a depot was established at Highland Park and a plat, extending south to Central Avenue, was laid out in 1856, leading to the establishment of the municipality on March 11, 1869, with a population of 500; today, the Chicago suburb has a different distinction: it is a county with some of the state’s highest property taxes, and one where more than one-third of employees at one park district are making more than six figures: out of 51 employees listed in compensation documents provided by the Park District of Highland Park, 18 earn more than $100,000 in total compensation. (In Illinois, park districts receive the bulk of their funding from local property taxes: the Park District of Highland Park is no exception, with more than 57% of its funding coming from local tax dollars.)

Part of the cost appears to stem from lavish severance payouts. Thus, one proposal in the Illinois General Assembly, Senate Bill 3604, would limit government workers’ ability to collect extravagant severance packages, or “golden parachutes.” The bill, the Government Severance Pay Act, would mandate specific provisions in government employment contracts to limit the capacity for excessive severance pay, imposing a fixed ceiling on severance payouts, capping any severance pay at the equivalent of 20 weeks of compensation, and re-establishing public-worker severance pay as a privilege, rather than an entitlement, mandating that government worker contracts include a provision barring severance packages for employees terminated due to misconduct. Illinois Sen. Bill Cunningham (D-Chicago) would require greater transparency in severance pay negotiations for public university officials, as well as cap their payouts at one year’s compensation. Indeed, it seems leaving municipal employment has been munificent in the state: the Better Government Association illustrated as much in a report released last October, cataloguing a number of big severance payouts. University officials comprised seven of the nine Illinois officials listed in the report. The College of DuPage Board of Trustees issued one of the largest severance packages for a government employee in Illinois history, according to the Chicago Tribune, reporting that during his tenure, President Robert Breuder hid more than $95 million in public expenditures, $243,300 of which was used to purchase liquor—an item listed as “instructional supplies” on ledger lines. Generously, trustees purchased Mr. Breuder’s early retirement for nearly $763,000 in severance pay.

April 3, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the challenges of governance in insolvency. Who is in charge of steering a municipality, county, or U.S. territory out of insolvency? How? How do we understand and assess the status of the ongoing quasi chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy PROMESA deliberations in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. Then we head north to assess the difficult fiscal balancing challenges in Connecticut.

Governance in Insolvency.  Because, in our country, it was the states which created the federal government, making the U.S. unique in the world; chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy is only, in this country, an option in states which have enacted state legislation to authorize municipal bankruptcy. Thus, unsurprisingly, the process is quite different in the minority of states which have authorized municipal bankruptcy. In some states, such as Rhode Island and Michigan, for instance, the Governor has a vital role in which she or he is granted authority to name an emergency manager–a quasi-dictator to assume governmental and fiscal authority, usurping that of the respective city or county’s elected officials. That is what happened in the cases of Detroit and Central Falls, Rhode Island, where, in each instance, all authority was stripped from the respective Mayors and Councils pending a U.S. Bankruptcy Court’s approval of respective plans of debt adjustment, allowing the respective jurisdictions to emerge from municipal bankruptcy. Thus, in the case of those two municipalities, the state law preempted the governing authority of the respective Mayors and Councils.

That was not the case, however, in Jefferson County, Alabama–a municipal bankruptcy precipitated by the state’s refusal to allow the County to raise its own taxes. Nor was it the case in the instances of Stockton or San Bernardino, California: two chapter 9 cases where the State of California played virtually no role. 

Thus, the question with regard to governance in the event of a default or municipal bankruptcy is a product of our country’s unique form of federalism.

In the case of Puerto Rico, the U.S. territory created under the Jones-Shafroth Act, however, the issue falls under Rod Sterling’s Twilight Zone–as Puerto Rico is neither a municipality, nor a state: a legal status which has perplexed Congress, and now appears to plague the author of the PROMESA law, House Natural Resources Committee Chair Rob Bishop (R-Utah) with regard to who, exactly, has governing or governance authority in Puerto Rico during its quasi-chapter 9 bankruptcy process: is it Puerto Rico’s elected Governor and legislature? Is it the PROMESA Board imposed by the U.S. Congress? Is it U.S. Judge Laura Swain, presiding over the quasi-chapter 9 bankruptcy trial in New York City? 

Chairman Bishop has defended the PROMESA’s Board’s authority to preempt the Governor and Legislature’s ruling and governance authority, stressing that the federal statute gave the Board the power to promote “structural reforms” and fiscal authority, writing to Board Chair Jose Carrion: “It has been delegated a statutory duty to order any reforms–fiscal or structural–to the government of Puerto Rico to ensure compliance with the purpose of PROMESA, as he demanded the federally named Board use its power to make a transparent assessment of the economic impact of Hurricanes Irma and Maria on Puerto Rico’s fiscal conditions–and to ensure that the relative legal priorities and liens of Puerto Rico’s public debt are respected–leaving murky whether he intended that to mean municipal bonholders and other lien holders living far away from Puerto Rico ought to have a priority over U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico still trying to recover from violent hurricanes which received far less in federal response aid than the City of Houston–even appearing to link his demands for reforms to the continuity of that more limited federal storm recovery assistance to compliance with his insistence that there be greater “accountability, goodwill, and cooperation from the government of Puerto Rico…” Indeed, it seems ironic that a key Chairman of the U.S. Congress, which has voted to create the greatest national debt in the history of the United States, would insist upon a quite different standard of accountability for Puerto Rico than for his own colleagues.

It seems that the federal appeals court, which may soon consider an appeal of Judge Swain’s opinion with regard to Puerto Rico’s Highway and Transportation Authority not to be mandated to make payments on its special revenue debt during said authority’s own insolvency, could help Puerto Rico: a positive decision would give Puerto Rico access to special revenues during the pendency of its proceedings in the quasi-chapter 9 case before Judge Swain.

Stabilizing the Ship of State. Farther north in Connecticut, progressive Democrats at the end of last week pressed in the General Assembly against Connecticut’s new fiscal stability panel, charging its recommendations shortchange key priorities, such as poorer municipalities, education and social services—even as the leaders of the Commission on Fiscal Stability and Economic Growth conceded they were limited by severe time constraints. Nevertheless, Co-Chairs Robert Patricelli and Jim Smith asserted the best way to invest in all of these priorities would be to end the cycle of state budget deficits and jump-start a lagging state economy. The co-chairs aired their perspectives at a marathon public hearing in the Hall of the House, answering questions from members of four legislative committees: Appropriations; Commerce; Finance, Revenue and Bonding; and Planning and Development—where Rep. Robyn Porter (D-New Haven) charged: “I’m only seeing sacrifice from the same people over and over again,” stating she was increasingly concerned about growing income inequality, asking: “When do we strike a balance?” Indeed, New York and Connecticut, with the wealthiest 1 percent of households in those states earning more than 40 times the average annual income of the bottom 99 percent, demonstrate the governance and fiscal challenge of that trend. In its report, the 14-member Commission made a wide array of recommendations centered on a major redistribution of state taxes—primarily reducing income tax rates across the board, while boosting the sales and corporation levies. Ironically, however, because the wealthy pay the majority of state income taxes, the proposed changes would disproportionately accrue to the benefit of the state’s highest income residents—in effect mirroring the federal tax reform, leading Rep. Porter to question why the Commission made such recommendations, including another to do away immediately with the estate tax on estates valued at more than $2 million, but gradually phase in an increase to the minimum wage over the next four years.  From a municipal perspective, Rep. James Albis (D-East Haven), cited a 2014 state tax incidence report showing that Connecticut’s heavy reliance on property taxes to fund municipal government “is incredibly regressive,” noting it has the effect of shifting a huge burden onto lower-middle- and low-income households—even as the report found that households earning less than $48,000 per year effectively pay nearly one-quarter of their annual income to cover state and local taxes. Rep. Brandon McGee (D-Hartford), the Vice Chair of the legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, said the Committee’s recommendations lack bold ideas on how to revitalize Connecticut’s poor urban centers—with his concerns mirrored by Rep. Toni E. Walker (D-New Haven), Chair of the House Appropriations Committee, who warned she fears a commission proposal to cut $1 billion from the state’s nearly $20 billion annual operating budget would inevitably reduce municipal aid, especially to the state’s cities. Co-Chair Patricelli appeared to concur, noting: “Candidly, I would agree we came up a little short on the cities,” adding that the high property tax rates in Hartford and other urban centers hinder economic growth: “They really are fighting with one or more hands tied behind their backs.”

The ongoing discussion comes amidst the state’s fiscal commitment to assume responsibility to pay for Hartford’s general obligation debt service payments, more than $50 million annually—a fiscal commitment which understandably is creating equity questions for other municipalities in the state confronted by fiscal challenges. Like a teeter-totter, balancing fiscal needs in a state where the state itself has a ways to go to balance its own budget creates a test of fiscal and moral courage.

Intergovernmental Federalism Fiscal Recovery Challenges

March 26, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing fiscal challenges to Connecticut’s capitol city of Hartford, and the fiscal challenges bequeathed to the Garden State by the previous gubernatorial administration, before wondering about the level of physical and fiscal commitment of the U.S. to its U.S. territory of Puerto Rico.

Capitol & Capital Debts. The Hartford City Council is scheduled to vote today on whether to approve an agreement between the city and the state on a fiscal arrangement under which the state would pay off Hartford’s general obligation debt of approximately $550 million over the next two decades as part of the consensus seemingly settled as part of the Connecticut state budget—an agreement under which the state would assume responsibility to finance Hartford’s annual debt payments, payments projected to be in excess of $56 million by 2021, while the city would continue to make payments on its new minor league ballpark, about $5 million per year—a fiscal pact described by Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin as the :”[K]ind of long-term partnership we’ve been working for, and I’m proud that we got it done.” Mayor Bronin is pressing Council to vote before April Fool’s Day, which happens to be the city’s deadline for its next debt payment: if executed by then, the state would pay the $12 million which Hartford currently owes, under the provisions in the current state fiscal budget which, when adopted, had pledged tens of millions of dollars in additional fiscal assistance to the state capitol, fiscal assistance regarded as vital to avert a looming chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy—and, under which, similar in a sense to New Jersey’s Atlantic City, the aid provided included the imposition of state oversight. The effect of the state fiscal assistance meant that in the  current fiscal year, Connecticut would assume responsibility for Hartford’s remaining debt of $12 million; in addition, the state is to provide Hartford another $24 million to help close the city’s current budget deficit—and, in future years, assume the city’s full debt payment. The agreement provides that the state could go further and potentially finance additional subsidies to the city. Mayor Bronin had sought approximately $40 million in extra aid each year, in addition to the $270 million the city already receives—albeit, the additional state aid comes with some fiscal strings attached: a state oversight board, as in Michigan and New Jersey, is authorized to restrict how the municipality may budget, and finance: contracts and other documents must be run by the panel, and the board will have final say over new labor agreements and any issuance of capital debt. Going further, under the provisions, even if the oversight board were to go out of existence, Hartford’s fiscal authority would still be subject to state oversight: e.g. if the city wished to make its required payment to the pension fund, such payment(s) would be subject to oversight by both the Connecticut Treasurer and the Secretary of Connecticut’s Office of Policy and Management—where a spokesperson noted: “Connecticut cannot allow a city to default on its bond obligations or financially imperil itself for the foreseeable future: This action will ultimately best position Hartford to move into a better financial future.”

Mayor Bronin, in reflecting on the imposition of state fiscal oversight, noted that while the state assistance would help offset Hartford’s escalating deficits, deficits now projected to reach $94 million by 2023, noted: “This debt transaction does not leave us with big surpluses: “We’re looking to achieve sufficient stability over the next five years, and we can use that period to focus on growth.” Hartford Council President Glendowlyn Thames likewise expressed confidence, noting: “This plan is really tight, and it’s just surviving: We have to focus on an economic development strategy that gets us to the point where we’re thriving.”

State Fiscal Stress. For its part, with less than a week before the state enters its final fiscal quarter, the Connecticut legislature still has its own significant state debt issue to resolve—with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy warning he still expects the state legislature will honor a new budget control it enacted last fall to help rebuild the state’s modest emergency reserves, stating: “I don’t think I have given up any hope, or all hope” that legislators will close the $192 million projected shortfall in the fiscal year which ends June 30th; however, the Governor also said legislative leaders professed commitment to both write and commit to a new, bipartisan budget may be waning, stating: “The grand coalition seems to be fraying, and I think that’s what gives rise to the inability to respond to the budget being out of balance,” he said, referencing last October’s grand bargain under which there was bipartisan agreement on a new, two-year plan to balance state finances—an agreement achieved in a process excluding the Governor, who, nevertheless, signed the budget to end the stalemate, despite what he had described as significant flaws, including a reliance on too many rosy assumptions, hundreds of millions of dollars swept from off-budget and one-time sources, as well as unprecedented savings targets the administration had to achieve after the budget was in force. Indeed, meeting that exacting target is proving elusive: the fiscal gap in January exceeded $240 million in January, before declining to the current $192 million: it has yet to meet the critical 1% of the General Fund threshold—a threshold which, if exceeded, mandates the Comptroller to confirm, and triggers a requirement for the Governor to issue a deficit-mitigation plan to the legislature within one month.

The new state local fiscal oversight arrangement provides that, even if the state oversight board goes away, the city’s fiscal practices would remain subject to state oversight—where any perceived failures would subject the city fiscal scrutiny by the Connecticut Treasurer and the Secretary of Connecticut’s Office of Policy and Management, a spokesperson for which noted: “Connecticut cannot allow a city to default on its bond obligations or financially imperil itself for the foreseeable future: This action will ultimately best position Hartford to move into a better financial future.” Hartford City Council President Glendowlyn Thames asserted her confidence with regard to the contract, but noted more work needed to be done: “This plan is really tight, and it’s just surviving: We have to focus on an economic development strategy that gets us to the point where we’re thriving.”

Post Christie Garden State? New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, in his first post Chris Christie fiscal challenge is targeting state tax incentives as a potential source of revenue for the cash-starved state, noting, in his first fiscal address earlier this month that $8 billion in corporate state tax credits approved by the New Jersey Economic Development Authority under former Gov. Chris Christie had made the state’s fiscal cliff even steeper to scale, noting that one of his first fiscal actions was to sign an executive order directing the state Comptroller’s office to audit the New Jersey Economic Development Authority’s tax incentive programs, dating back to 2010 (the current program is set to expire in 2019), describing the programs as “massive giveaways, in many cases imprecisely directed, [which] will ultimately deprive us of the full revenues we desperately need: “These massive giveaways, in many cases imprecisely directed, will ultimately deprive us of the full revenues we desperately need to build a stronger and fairer economic future,” as the new Governor was presenting his $37.4 billion budget to the Garden State state legislature, noting: “We were told these tax breaks would nurse New Jersey back to health and yet our economy still lags.” Under his Executive Order the Gov., in January, had directed Comptroller Philip James Degnan to examine the Grow New Jersey Assistance Program, the Economic Redevelopment and Growth Grant Program, and other programs which have existed under the NJEDA since 2010 when former Gov. Christie assumed office: the audit is aimed at comparing the economic impact from projects that received the tax breaks with the jobs and salaries they created: it is, as a spokesperson explained: “[A]n important opportunity to evaluate the effectiveness of the State’s existing incentive programs.” New Jersey Policy Perspective, in its perspective, notes that the $8.4 billion of tax breaks NJEDA approved under former Gov. Christie compared to $1.2 billion of subsidies awarded during the previous decade, subsidies which the organization frets have hampered New Jersey’s fiscal flexibility to fund vital investments such as transportation and schools. Indeed, a key fiscal challenge for the new Governor of a state with the second lowest state bond rating—in the wake of 11 downgrades under former Gov. Christie, downgradings caused by rising public pension obligations and increasing fiscal deficits—will be how to fiscally engineer a turnaround—or, as Fitch’s Marcy Block advises: “It’s always a good idea for a new administration to see what the tax incentives program is like and what potential revenue they are missing out on,” after Fitch, last week, noted that the new Governor’s budget proposes $2 billion in revenue growth, including $1.5 billion from tax increases,” adding that the Governor’s proposed plan to readjust the Garden State’s sales and use tax back up to 7% from the 6.625% level it dropped to under former Gov. Christie was a “positive step” which would provide $581 million in additional revenue, even though it would impose strict fiscal restraints: “These increased revenues would go to new spending and leave the state with still slim reserves and reduced flexibility to respond to future economic downturns through revenue raising: The state has significant spending pressures, not only due to the demands of underfunded retiree benefit liabilities, but also because natural revenue increases resulting from modest economic growth in recent years have gone primarily towards the phased-in growth in annual pension contributions.”

For his part, Gov. Murphy has emphasized that while he opposes many of the state tax expenditures doled out by the former Christie administration, a $5 billion incentives program that the NJEDA’s Grow New Jersey Program is offering Amazon to build its planned second headquarters in Newark would be a positive for the state. (Newark is on Amazon’s short list of 20 municipalities it is considering for a new facility that could house up to 50,000 employees: the city is offering $2 billion in tax breaks of its own to create $7 billion in total subsidies.) The Governor noted a win here would be “a transformative moment for our state: It could literally spur billions of dollars in new investments, in infrastructure, in communities and in people,” as he noted that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has grown jobs at a rate seven times greater than New Jersey in recent years, despite only spending $22,000 in economic incentives per job compared to $160,000 for each job in New Jersey, noting that other priorities beyond taxes are important to lure businesses, such as investments in education, workforce housing, and infrastructure: “Even with these heralded gifts, our economic growth has trailed almost every other competitor state in the nation in literally almost every category: “Massachusetts and our other competitor states are providing businesses a greater value for money and with that value in hand they are cleaning our clocks.”

Free, Free at Last? Announcing that “We’ve reached an agreement that is beneficial both for the taxpayer and for the people of Puerto Rico,” referring to a pact that is to lead to the release of some held up $4.7 billion in federal disaster recovery assistance reached between Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello and U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, the pair has announced at the end of last week agreement on the release of some $4.7 billion in disaster recovery loans which Congress had signed off on six months ago—but funds which Sec. Mnuchin had delayed releasing on account of disagreement over the terms of repayment, describing it as a “super-lien” Community Disaster Loan. After a meeting between the two, the new, tentative agreement would allow Puerto Rico access to the fiscal assistance once the cash balance in its treasury falls below $1.1 billion—a level more than the Secretary’s initial request of $800 million. (As of March 9th, U.S. territory had about $1.45 billion in cash.) The agreement ended half a year of tense negotiations over what were perceived as discriminatory loan conditions compared to the terms under which federal assistance had been provided to Houston and Florida in the wake of the hurricanes. Indeed, Gov. Rossello had written to Congress that the Treasury was demanding that repayment of those loans be given the highest priority, even over the provision of essential emergency services in Puerto Rico—even as the Treasury was proposing to bar Puerto Rico’s eligibility for future loan forgiveness. Under the new agreement, the odd couple have announced that the revised agreement would grant high priority to repayment of the federal loans—not above the funding of essential services, but presumably above the more than $70 billion Puerto Rico owes to its municipal bondholders. From his perspective, Sec. Mnuchin noted: “We want to make sure that the taxpayers are protected: It’s not something we’re going to do for the benefit of the bondholders, but it is something we would consider down the road for the benefit of the people if it’s needed,” opening the previously slammed door for access by Puerto Rico to the full amount approved by Congress, more than double the amount the Trump Administration had sought to impose. Nevertheless, notwithstanding the agreement, the terms must still be agreed to by Puerto Rico’s legislature, the PROMESA oversight board, and the federal court overseeing the quasi-chapter 9 bankruptcy proceedings. Under the terms of the agreement, Puerto Rico may borrow up to $4.7 billion if its cash balances fall below $1.1 billion. (Puerto Rico’s central bank account had $1.45 billion as of March 9th.) Governor Rosselló described the federal loan as one which will have a “super lien: There will be a lien within the Commonwealth, but it won’t be a lien over the essential services…I think both of our visions are aligned. We both want the taxpayer to be protected, but we also want the U.S. citizen who lives in Puerto Rico to have guaranteed essential services. And both of those objectives were agreed upon,”  noting that the U.S. government frequently forgives these types of loans. For his part, Secretary Mnuchin said the topic of loan forgiveness would be dealt with later “based on the facts and circumstances at the time,” and that, if and when the topic came up, the Treasury would consult with FEMA, the Congressional leadership and the administration, noting: “It’s not something we’re going to do for the benefit of bondholders, but it is something we would consider down the road for the benefit of the people of Puerto Rico.” The discussions come as the Commonwealth continues in the midst of its Title III municipal-like bankruptcy process affecting more than $50 billion of Puerto Rico’s $72 billion of public sector debt—with a multiplicity of actors, including: Puerto Rico’s legislature, the PROMESA Oversight Board, and Title III Judge Laura Taylor Swain. Under the terms, Puerto Rico would be allowed to draw upon the money repeatedly, as needed, according to Gov. Rossello, who noted that the U.S. Virgin Islands has already taken four draws totaling $200 million. The access here would be to fiscal resources available until March 2020.

Municipio Assistencia. In addition to the federal terms worked out for the territory, the new terms also provide that the U.S. Treasury will be making loans available for up to $5 million to every Puerto Rico municipality. FEMA is planning to make more than $30 billion available for rebuilding, while HUD is considering grants of more than $10 billion—leading Sec. Mnuchin to add: “There’s a lot of money to be allocated here, and I think it is going to have an enormous impact on the economy here: I think we are well on the path to a recovery of the economy here.” The Secretary added he would be returning to Puerto Rico on a quarterly basis to meet with the Governor, assess progress, and examine the island’s economy. His announcement came as the federal government is scaling back the number of contractors working on Puerto Rico’s electrical grid—critical work on an island where, still today, an estimated 100,000 island residents still lack power, with, last week, the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing testimony from U.S. officials about bureaucratic challenges to power-restoration efforts, leading to bipartisan questioning about the drawdown of personnel there by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps, which brought in Fluor and PowerSecure as contractors to spearhead reconstruction of damaged transmission and distribution lines, has already reduced the number of contract workers by nearly 75%, according to tweets from the official Army Corps Twitter account, even as nearly 100,000 customers still lack service. Worse, of the restoration challenge remaining, the bulk is projected to fall mostly on Puerto Rico’s bankrupt public power utility, PREPA, especially after, last week, Fluor halted its subcontract efforts. Despite the Corps pledge to “do all possible work with the funds available” before the contractors leave Puerto Rico, access to vital construction materials, such as concrete poles, transformers and conductors were in short supply, and the Army Corps struggled to purchase and transport materials quickly enough, hindered, no doubt, in part by the discriminatory shipping rules (the Jones Act), increasingly forcing linemen to scrounge for replacement parts. The Corps has acknowledged the supply shortages, noting that natural disasters last year in Texas, Florida, and California strained supplies of construction materials across the U.S. Twelve Democratic Senators have written to Army Corps officials to inquire whether keeping its contractors in place would accelerate the timetable for power restoration—PREPA, last week, reported last week that 32% of the 755 towers and poles that were downed by Hurricane Maria still have not been repaired, and that, of 1,238 damaged conductors and insulators, 28% have not. Rep. Jenniffer González-Colón, Puerto Rico’s Republican delegate to Congress, in a letter to Army Corps officials last week, wrote: “The average citizen on the street in those communities cannot tolerate even the perception that at this point we will begin to wind down the urgent relief mission and that the process of finishing the job will slow down.”

Fiscal Surgery to Restore Stability & Accountability

March 20, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider options for addressing serious fiscal challenges in Connecticut, before journeying to the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, where we try to assess whether there might be too many fiscal cooks in the kitchen.

The State of the Constitution State. In the wake of the unveiling of a series of diverse and likely fiscally painful recommendations, the Connecticut Commission on Fiscal Stability and Economic Growth has challenged the state’s legislature to adopt the proposal. Moreover, the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, notwithstanding that full adoption could jeopardize state aid to local governments in the state, endorsed the full report, finding it would offer more long-term benefits for the state and its municipalities. The Commission report recommendations focused on new long-term benefits for the state and its communities, with its recommendations focused on new revenue-raising options for cities and towns and collective bargaining changes which could prove to be vital reforms which could more than offset the steep reduction in the state budget. The Conference’s Executive Director Joe DeLong noted: “Connecticut has long been the land of steady habits, but the precarious fiscal condition that still plagues the state budget demands that Connecticut change key core public policies—now,” adding the Commission report echoes many of the recommendations the Conference proposed to state legislators just one year ago: “We can wait no longer for substantive change that will set the state on a sustainable economic path that will benefit hard-pressed residents and businesses.”

The 14-member Commission, which was created last October as part of the new state budget, was charged with the task of helping to navigate Connecticut through one of its worst fiscal crises in modern history: the state not only lagged the majority of states in recovering from the great Recession, but also is confronted by surging public retirement benefit costs tied to more than 70 years of inadequate contributions—creating a fiscal challenge projected to place unprecedented pressure on state finances for at least the next 15 years.

Unsurprisingly, the growing costs of financing retirement pensions of post-retirement health care benefits has acted like a python in squeezing aid to the state’s cities and towns. Thus, the Conference found some solace from the commission recommendations, which might grant greater fiscal flexibility to the state’s communities to manage their own budgets and programs. Among the key recommendations: 

  • Authorizing municipal coalitions to add one-half of 1 percentage point to the sales tax rate to fund regional services and diversify local budgets that rely excessively on property taxes.
  • Allowing regional coalitions of municipalities to raise supplemental taxes for capital projects by special referendum.
  • Allowing communities, through regional councils of government, to charge fees on nonprofit colleges and hospitals, which currently are exempt from local property taxation.
  • Permitting towns to increase fees for use of the public rights of way, storm water fees, hotels, car rentals, restaurants, and other services.
  • Urging the state to increase the grants it already provides to restore some of the funds communities lose because state property is exempt from local taxation.

The fiscal stability panel also proposed several changes to collective bargaining, which could help the state’s local governments, including:

  • Allowing communities to use non-union labor on rehabilitation projects costing less than $1 million;
  • Providing communities with a single, neutral arbitrator for labor negotiations;
  • And exempting a city or town’s emergency budget reserve from being used to pay for labor contract settlements.

The Commission’s recommendation that the Legislature reduce the state annual operating budget approximately 5%, or about $1 billion per year left unclear what areas would be targeted, albeit the co-Chairs said that recommendation is not intended to target the nearly $3 billion Connecticut spends annually on major statutory grants to cities and towns; rather, their intent appears to be that the Legislature could achieve these savings via privatizing more services, seeking other efficiencies, and trimming labor costs wherever possible. The Connecticut Business and Industry Association and other business leaders have been urging lawmakers to revisit six reports prepared in 2010 and 2011 by a business coalition known as The CT Institute for the 21st Century. The coalition outlined strategies to cut state spending by hundreds of millions of dollars in total spread across several areas, including reductions in public-sector benefits. These strategies, many of which would take several years, also involved prisons, long-term health care, public-sector benefits, and use of technology to deliver public services. Nevertheless, a number of state legislators questioned the reality of a $1 billion reduction, given that nearly two-thirds of the state budget involves retirement obligations, payments on bonded debt, Medicaid, and other largely fixed costs, without constraining aid to cities and towns.

A Consulting Estado de Emergencia? (State of Emergency) Puerto Rico’s Executive and Legislative branches, during the Hurricane Maria state of emergency, agreed to 1,408 consulting and professional contracts totaling $ 70.1 million, according to an analysis of El Nuevo Día. That effectively translates into approximately 16 contractual agreements for each of the 88 days in which 3.5 million Puerto Ricans were almost in survival mode in the wake of last September’s hurricane—all contracts which were subject to the scrutiny of the Chamber and the Senate of Puerto Rico, as well as the PROMESA Oversight Board with regard to any contract which exceeded $10 million. It appears that nearly half of the consulting and professional services agreements agreed upon during the emergency period registered with the Office of the Comptroller were given mainly to individuals and several dozen firms which provide services to the government under an “administrative consulting” agreement and services: agreements totaling $24 million, with the largest contracts provided via three amendments to agreements of the Department of Health and the Special Program of Supplementary Nutrition for Pregnant, Lactating, Postpartum, Infants and Children from 1 to 5 years old (WIC) with the company to ManPower for temporary employment services. In addition, there is a $ 3.1 million contract from the Office of Management and Budget (OGP) with Deloitte & Touche for financial consulting—which has subsequently signed another contract with the office which will be in charge of administering the federal funds Puerto Rico receives for recovery from Hurricane Maria. Meanwhile, the firm KPMG received an amendment to a contract with the Public-Private Partnerships Authority (AAPP) of $ 947,189. Based on data from the Comptroller, during the emergency, when it was known that the agencies and schools were not operating properly and the courts recessed their work substantially, the agencies also granted 123 contracts for “legal consulting” and “legal services” for $ 4.6 million—with another 31 contracts valued at $2.6 million to accounting firms.  The list of administrative consultants also includes several contracts with amounts close to $1 million, with some of the largest granted by the Bureau for Emergency Management and Disaster Management to the firms Consul-Tech Caribe and DCMC LLC for $ 900,000 each.

Governance in Recovering from Severe Physical and Fiscal Distress

March 2, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the use of a municipality’s capital assets to get back on its fiscal feet; then we consider the fates, fiscal and physical, for many of Hurricane Maria’s Puerto Rican victims who have emigrated stateside. Are they “invisible Americans”?

Municipal Assets & Fiscal Balancing. In a surprising move, the Petersburg, Virginia City Council has unanimously adopted a motion to opt not to sell the municipality’s public water and wastewater assets, effectively ending a nearly yearlong debate with regard to whether or not to sell their public utility to Aqua Virginia and Virginia American Water, two private providers who had submitted bids in December of 2016—at a time when one of the nation’s oldest cities was on the precipice of insolvency. It would appear the decision was likely affected by several water main breaks and water boil notices in the city last month—forcing legislators and city leaders to act. In the wake of the breaks, Congressman A. Donald McEachin (VA-4) and the Virginia Conservation Network had joined forces to host a roundtable discussion on the dilapidated state of Petersburg’s water infrastructure. Under the successful motion, the Council instructed the City Manager to: 1) reject the offer made by Aqua Virginia; 2) discourage any future offers to purchase Petersburg’s water and wastewater assets; 3) reject the pending unsolicited proposal to purchase Petersburg’s water and wastewater assets. That is, the municipal fiscal and capital policy going forward is to concentrate all available city resources on devising a plan to improve the city’s collection rate—or, as Councilmember Cuthbert put it: “It was a diversion of energy…It diverted the city administration’s energy; it diverted the public’s energy; and it diverted the City Council’s energy.” Councilwoman Annette Smith-Lee noted: “For the citizens, their voice is their voice. We’re on Council because of them, and they did not want us to sell the water.”

Had the city opted to go forward with the proposed privatization and sale, the municipality would have lost control over setting the water rates—an important governance and fiscal issue, as neither the Council, nor many citizens support having a for-profit company to be in charge of the water rates. Previously, several Councilmembers had expressed skepticism about the sale of some of the city’s vital public infrastructure—even as former Richmond City Manager Robert Bobb’s Group, hired to take over the city in lieu of a chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy filing—had repeatedly made pleas to the Council to “open the envelope” and see what Aqua Virginia and Virginia American Water were offering for the system. Councilman Cuthbert noted: “Council realized that for us to sell our water and wastewater assets, it would have taken six affirmative votes, and the votes were not there.”

In the wake of that successful motion, Councilman Cuthbert told his colleagues he saw “no reason to go through another eight months of agony that was going to lead to nowhere.” The decision thus ended a year-long battle—or, as Mayor Sam Parham told his colleagues, Council Members had listened to citizens who were concerned about the sale, control over its water and sewer rates, and it never materialized. Barb Rudolph, one of those citizen leaders, where the citizen group Clean Sweep Petersburg, had questioned the idea from the Robert Bobb Group to privatize, especially after the consultants had departed Petersburg with what they had described as stabilized finances. Yet, even after offers by private companies were rejected, bids still continued to come in: obviously, private, for-profit corporations recognized intrinsic value in the system—and, of course, an opportunity for profit. Indeed, at a roundtable discussion about the city’s water and sewer infrastructure, City Manager Aretha Ferrell-Benavides acknowledged that Petersburg was still being pressured by a private vendor to sell its water and wastewater systems. The fact that Aqua Virginia leaders attended city meetings had not been lost on some residents—one even likened the private vendors to predators. Residents with Clean Sweep Petersburg took photos of empty chairs in the City Council chambers that they say Aqua Virginia executives vacated just after the Council’s vote. Now, city leaders say, energy should be devoted to improving the existing systems. In the past, necessary rate increases that the council approved were never implemented, in part because of turnover within city departments. In addition, billing issues that cost the utility system millions of dollars in recent years ended up slapping some residents with $4,000 bills, and the faulty rollout of a new utility billing system cost taxpayers upward of $1 million more. As recently as last week, some residents at the roundtable said their bills are still volatile. Ferrell-Benavides said a long-term plan to update the city’s infrastructure and improvements to the billing system are necessary and in the works.

For one of the nation’s oldest municipalities—a key city during both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, a small, majority African-American municipality of just over 32,420, with a median household income of $33,927, where per capita income is about $18,535, and nearly 28% are below the poverty level—the politics of vital access to water matters.

The Physical & Fiscal Costs of Federalism. Physical catastrophes and federal insouciance can wreak terrible fiscal and human costs. In the case of Hurricane Maria, we can see those costs as not just fiscal, but especially in the welfare of our most vulnerable: young children and the elderly. More than 1,800 children have migrated from Puerto Rico and enrolled in Connecticut schools since Hurricane Maria decimated their homeland last September—a human and fiscal consequence of both the devastating physical and fiscal consequences, but also to the difficult fiscal challenges Connecticut is already confronting. Yet, unlike the federal government, Connecticut schools have scrambled to accommodate the new arrivals—most of them non-English speakers, and they have made such human, physical, and fiscal efforts notwithstanding the cash-strapped State of Connecticut. While Congress finally approved a compromise budget bill to provide millions of dollars to help schools care for displaced students (providing the equivalent of $8,500 for each displaced student, $9,000 for each one that is not English-speaking, and $10,000 for disabled students requiring special education); that still left a significant fiscal and physical burden for Connecticut, where State House Majority Leader Matt Ritter (D-Hartford) has set up a working group in the General Assembly to try to provide “one-stop shopping” for displaced Puerto Ricans who need assistance: he notes there “is no question that schools are looking for additional money” to accommodate the influx of unexpected students, many with special needs, and he is “very pleased” Congress finally offered some help. He believes the displaced student funding, part of the budget agreement’s $44 billion hurricane response package, will help. According to the Connecticut Department of Education, there were 1,745 displaced students in Connecticut schools as of mid-February—a slight reduction from the beginning of the year, as some families having opted to return to Puerto Rico or move to other states. Hartford, a city itself in difficult fiscal shape, finds its public schools have taken the bulk of the new arrivals, 376 at last count and 429 at the peak of the migration, followed by Waterbury, New Haven, and New Britain. Yet, while Congress finally provided some aid for displaced students, that aid appears unlikely to help school districts with the children who enroll next year.

Demographically Failing. While, as we noted above, there has been some federal and state aid to displaced children from Puerto Rico, the picture is more grim for Puerto Rico’s elderly: thousands of whom reside in vulnerable conditions outside the radar of government authorities, and too many of whom went hungry and thirsty due to mobility difficulties, or were unable to save their medicines due to the lack of light, without anyone knowing. Indeed, Department of the Family Secretary Glorimar Andújar described the challenge, because, in the wake of the physical destruction, the government lacked vital information with regard to where the most vulnerable were. Secretary Andújar noted the government neither knew where the most vulnerable lived, nor what their particular needs were. Thus, the devastating storm led her to acknowledge: “We have many elderly people in homes that we did not think were going to be in such high concentrations…Urbanizations complete with elderly people who depend on and are nourished by the help given by their neighbors…They are not necessarily under the jurisdiction of the Federal District, because we enter into protection. They are people who live alone and have particular needs, who are supplied by their neighbors: It is important, for future services that develop, to know where each of these populations are located.” That is, unlike children, who could be located via the school system—and could be lifted to accommodating state such as Connecticut, or depart with their families to Florida, Puerto Rico’s most vulnerable Americans were not only left behind, but also largely unaccounted for: as indicated, due to the nature of the services offered, the agency knows about elderly Americans only to the extent that they participate in their programs, such as Nutrition Assistance (PAN), protection services in cases of abuse or the homes of prolonged care—that is less than 3% of Puerto Rico’s nearly 860,000 senior citizens—where 36% live alone. This cohort, described by some as “that population that is most worrisome,” because they are older Americans who reside in the community, but have little support—or, as the Secretary put it: “They are invisible.”

During the most critical phase of the hurricane emergency many institutions did help many who live alone in their homes, offering food or extending electricity via long extension cords, those private efforts were far from sufficient for what is nearly a quarter of the population: In 2016, more than 23.5% of Puerto Ricans were 60 or older—compared to just 19.4% in 2011. It is almost like a teeter-totter, only where it is becoming increasingly fiscally and demographically imbalanced. Now, in the wake of the hurricane, and especially after the wave of immigration to the mainland by children and college-educated Puerto Ricans, estimates are that, by the next census, citizens over 65 will reach 30% of the population.  

To tend to these older Americans after Maria, Puerto Rico actually developed alternate methods of operation, especially because reliance on telephone communication was often impossible—the government sought to provide more personal contact and identify areas of what it deemed “high concentration,” utilizing contributions from organizations such as AARP to provide services. José Acarón, Puerto Rico’s AARP chapter president, stressed that there is “this older adult population, isolated, without a support network, living alone and mostly female, and they do not know where they are…We have to make a municipal census of needs and create community support mechanisms. Then we have to talk about different models of people supporting people, that work strategically and that is part of a plan.”

With estimates that 46.1% of Puerto Ricans live below the federal poverty level, Secretary Andújar said the Department had commissioned a study to verify socioeconomic changes, especially after Hurricane Maria, to the University of Puerto Rico, noting: “We hope to have a more up-to-date visibility of what the percentages are, what is going to throw us, what are the populations that are in those levels of poverty, and, obviously, how aligned our programs are towards services towards each one of those populations that results from the study.” She noted she was unable at present to be certain when that information would be ready. However, in the wake of Hurricane Maria, and by the end of last year, there were 35,000 new applicants for nutritional assistance. Demographer Judith Rodríguez reports that, taking into account only the difficulties brought by the emergency, she can say that the number of poor people on the island has increased: the most recent figures, from 2016, indicated that, in 30 municipios, 50% of the population lived in poverty, and that in six other towns, the figure reached 60%, adding: “Today, more than ever, families need the services offered by the government of Puerto Rico to respond to the changing needs of the people.”

What about the Youngest? Secretary Andújar reported her staff is aware of the possibility of an increase in the incidence of child abuse: “It is a reality for which we have been preparing. We are active with prevention mechanisms. After a phenomenon like the one suffered by the country, after months, it is expected that these indicators tend to increase.” Her agency noted that in the referrals from the last calendar quarter of 2017 of possible cases of abuse, the totals increased month after month, albeit they were below the records of the same period of the previous year. Due to the U.S. territory’s fiscal distress or quasi chapter 9 bankruptcy, her agency has taken a $605 million cut, with Gov. Ricardo Rosselló advising her: “You do not need more,” even as Larry Emil Alicea, president of the College of Social Work Professionals, notes: “Those who stay and cannot leave (from Puerto Rico), increase social stressors and may be associated with suicide rates: In the case of parents, protective capacities diminish and cases of child and adolescent abuse increase.”

Is There a Checkered Flag to Mark an Exit from Municipal Insolvency?

February 5, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider: the ongoing challenge for Hartford to keep its fiscal head out of debt waters; efforts to create a municipal recovery fund in Puerto Rico for its beleaguered muncipios; and the uncertain promises of PROMESA.

Taking the Checkered Flag. Hartford city officials are concerned that they cannot find a 30-year-old insurance policy—a policy which could play a key role in any damages or settlement the capitol city would have to pay in a lawsuit filed by a man wrongly imprisoned for murder for two decades—and could weigh in the city’s efforts to regain its fiscal momentum from the brink of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. Indeed, the inability to locate the policy has prompted federal Magistrate Judge Joan Margolis to order the city to subpoena insurance companies in an effort to find it. The suit in question, filed seven years ago, against the city and police officials, alleged malicious prosecution, suppression of evidence, and violation of his civil rights. City officials deny the allegations; however, in the seven years since the suit was filed, they have been unable to come up with the policy. His lawyers have been seeking information on the city’s insurance policies since the lawsuit was filed nearly seven years ago—a lawsuit over a murder conviction—which was itself overturned based on new DNA testing that resulted in another man being convicted—so that state officials subsequently awarded the accused $6 million for his wrongful conviction. Now the missing so-called “excess” policy could turn out to be key in the lawsuit, because it would cover any damages or settlement the city would be required or directed by the court to pay above $2 million—the current Hartford liability limit. The City’s insurance carrier, Travelers, has recommended to the city that it notify the carrier of its excess policy about the lawsuit, because of the chance that any award could exceed $2 million—albeit, it remains unclear whether Hartford’s insurance policies in effect in 2011, when the lawsuit in question was filed, would cover any award to him. The litigation and potential fiscal exposure comes at a fiscally unpropitious time in the wake of Moody’s, last week, had just revised upwards the city’s credit rating, lifting its general obligation bond rating from negative to developing, citing last year’s appointment of the Municipal Accountability Review Board (MARB), which had been established by §367 of Public Act 17-2  as well as the statutory provisions contained in §§Section 349 to 376 of the Act for the purpose of providing technical, financial, and other assistance and related accountability for municipalities experiencing various levels of fiscal distress: the Board is made up of 11 members, appointed as follows: Secretary of OPM, or designee, Chairperson; State Treasurer, or designee, Co-chairperson; Five members appointed by the Governor: a municipal finance director; a municipal bond or bankruptcy attorney; a town manager; a member having significant experience representing organized labor from a list of three recommendations by AFSCME; a member having significant experience as a teacher or representing a teacher’s organization selected from a list of three joint recommendations by CEA and AFT-CT. In addition, one member is appointed by the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, one by the Speaker of the House, one by the Minority Leader of the Senate, and one by the Minority Leader of the House of Representatives, each of whom shall have experience in business, finance or municipal management.

The events unfolding in the courtroom occurred as Moody’s had brightened the fiscal outlook for the beleaguered city with its upward revision of the city’s rating from negative, specifically citing the creation of the review board—with its upwards revision reflecting the reduced chances of the city being forced into default or chapter 9, albeit Moody’s hedged its outlook by writing: “[T]here remains a possibility of significant bondholder impairment over the long-term, given the city’s distressed financial condition.” Moody’s has unmoodily noted it might upgrade the city’s fiscal outlook, if

  • the state oversight board designates Hartford as a Tier III municipality and executes a state debt assistance contract;
  • the city develops a long-term financial sustainability plan;
  • completes negotiations with bond insurers and bondholders which generate recovery of at least 80% of principal; and
  • makes timely payments on all debt with expressed commitments to fully honor future obligations.

In the alternative, the rating agency warns that a default on the city’s debt or an indication that bondholder recoveries would fall below 65% of principal in a potential debt restructuring would lead to a further downgrade.

Puerto Rico Municipal Recovery Fund? Governor Ricardo Rosselló is going to try again to get a legislation that creates a $ 100 million Municipal Recovery Fund to help mayors keep their governments afloat after Hurricane Maria shrunk their income. The Governor had planned to send to the Legislature a new version of the bill to establish such fund, in the wake of the PROMESA Board’s veto: in order to comply with the objections made by the Board, the Governor announced that the fund will have “transparent” eligibility requirements to evaluate the fall in municipal revenue collections. His proposal also proposes to create a structure that resembles the federal Community Disaster Loans program–and specify the accounts from which the Treasury Department would finance the aid, with amendments, including that the Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority (FAFAA) certify the need for the loans, which would be limited to $5 million per muncipio. In the statement issued from his office: “The Governor had submitted a bill for these purposes, which established by law the objective criteria to certify the municipal need. However, during the legislative process modifications were made to the way of allocating the resources of the Municipal Recovery Fund.” Those modifications were discussed by FAFAA with the Oversight Board, in order to ensure its final approval, if the measure is ratified again by the Legislature. (Because it is a bill related to the budget, it requires the approval of the PROMESA Board.) Nevertheless, the Governor appeared confident, stating: “I am confident that this project will be approved quickly and this way it will provide the aid our mayors need for their recovery works as soon as possible,” as he acknowledged the crisis faced by the municipalities, many of which fear being left without liquidity this spring. Thus, he told the PROMESA Board that his revised fiscal plan seeks to postpone “the reduction of the municipal subsidy that the Board originally approved.” For the island’s municipal leaders, that means they will also seek to have access to the line of credit of the FEMA CDL program approved by Congress last October.  According to Mayor Josian Santiago, the former president of the Puerto Rico Association of Mayors,   of Comerio, a municipio of just under 21,000 with an unemployment rate of 13%, located in the center-eastern region of island, more than 40 municipalities may currently lack sufficient fiscal liquidity to operate normally, unless they receive an injection of funds from the federal line of credit or from the local fund which Governor Rosselló is once again trying to create. The Mayor noted that the Municipal Revenue Collection Center has advanced the municipalities’ months of income projections, which it distributes, but which could now be forced to sell old debts in order to meet its obligations for the remainder of the fiscal year. (The island’s mayors have already been provided guidance with regard to how to access a federal line of credit, which must not exceed 25 percent of their budget.) In the case of Comerío, with a budget of around $9 million and, according to the evidence on the loss of income that it can provide, it could be eligible to receive up to about $ 2.25 million.

The Promise of PROMESA? During the meeting of the PROMESA Board in New York City at the end of last week, several experts agreed that hurricane Maria demonstrated the lack of a clear leadership in the Puerto Rican government, creating an inability to make decisions about its energy system, a problem that is still present in the face of the transformation required by the Electric Power Authority (PREPA). Indeed, FEMA Deputy Regional Administrator Asha Trible said that, during the emergency, the high level of bureaucracy in PREPA was a major obstacle, testifying: “It does not work…when you have eight layers to be able to approve something,” adding that in the times of greatest crisis, the bureaucracy added to liquidity problems of the public company, that “could not pay for the materials they ordered.” Administrator Trible, subsequent to the session, that early in the process, FEMA had suggested ideas, such as creating a central command for the emergency, with a single coordinator for PREPA, adding: “We avoided that they thought we were there to take control…We would have established a command structure, we tried to suggest that kind of thing, but we support the process that is there.” The session came as Governor Ricardo Rosselló has proposed to privatize PREPA assets, including the generation of electricity, and as a preamble to the certification of new fiscal plans of the central government and the public corporation—and came hard on the heels of the PROMESA Board’s request to Judge Laura Taylor Swain to allow the central government to lend $ 1.3 billion to PREPA to avoid its financial collapse this month—a request which the majority of the panel’s seventeen experts, noting the challenges the public corporation faces, instead advocated for a strong and independent regulator of the energy system, even as they stressed the need to obtain financing to modernize PREPA.

Too Many Cooks in the Cocina? John Paul Rossi, a historian at Penn State University-Erie, who is an expert on the history of American business, technology, communications, and transportation, argued that  the Governor, the Governing Board of the public corporation, the Oversight Board and the Energy Commission are now in the development of public policy for PREPA—without even mentioning different voices from the nearly insolvent U.S. Congress—that “There are too many people. We are scaring consumers and investors.” His comments came as Nisha Desai, a member of PREPA’s Governing Board, noted that PREPA is close to replacing former Executive Director Ricardo Ramos, with the utility’s governing board vetting several potential hires referred by a consultant tapped to help the utility find its new leader: deeming such a decision critical to PREPA’s recovery from September’s Hurricane Maria. Ms. Desai, an executive of the Texas Renewable Energy Industries Alliance, said that, along with two other “independent” members of the Governing Board, they are poised to select the next PREPA Executive Director, noting that, in order to rejuvenate PREPA, they intend to appoint “the first chief executive officer” disconnected from Puerto Rico’s ‘partisan politics.’