Is There Shelter from the Storm?

November 20, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the deepening Medicaid crisis and Hurricane Maria recovery in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

Well I’m living in a foreign country, but I’d bound to cross the line
Beauty walks a razor’s edge, someday I’ll make it mine
If I could only turn back the clock to when God and her were born
“Come in” she said
“I’ll give you shelter from the storm”.

Bob Dylan

Shelter from the Storm & Governing Competency? With this session of Congress entering its final two weeks of the calendar year, Puerto Rico’s Medicaid funding crisis is deepening: Hurricane Maria wrought serious physical and fiscal damage to Puerto Rico’s health-care system; yet, not a dime of the federal disaster relief money has, to date, been earmarked for the island’s Medicaid program. The White House, Friday, belatedly submitted a $44 billion supplemental payment request, noting that the administration was “aware” that Puerto Rico needed Medicaid assistance; however, the Trump Administration put the onus on Congress to act—leaving the annual catchall omnibus appropriations bill as the likely last chance: this Congress is scheduled to adjourn on December 14th.  But with a growing list of “must do” legislation, including the pending tax bill and expiring S-CHIP authorizations, time is short—and the administration’s request is short: In a joint statement, House Energy and Commerce Committee ranking members Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J) and Senate Finance Committee ranking member Ron Wyden (D-Or.) called on the Trump Administration to “immediately provide additional funding and extend a one-hundred percent funding match for Medicaid in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, just as we did in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina,” with the request coming amid apprehensions that unless Congress acts, federal funds will be exhausted in a matter of months—potentially threating Puerto Rico’s ability to meet its Medicaid obligations: the Puerto Rican government has requested $1.6 billion from Congress and the Trump administration in the wake of the devastating physical and fiscal storm, with Gov. Ricardo Rosselló having, last month, requested $1.6 billion a year over the next five years, writing to Congressional leaders that the “total devastation brought on by these natural disasters has vastly exacerbated the situation and effectively brought the island’s healthcare system to the brink of collapse.” Puerto Rico in 2016 devoted almost $2.5 billion to meet its Medicaid demands—so even the proposed reimbursement would only cover about 60 percent of the projected cost. The urgency comes as the House, earlier this month, passed legislation reauthorizing the CHIP program, including $1 billion annually for Puerto Rico for the next two years, specifically aimed at shoring up the island’s Medicaid program. Nevertheless, despite the progress in the House on CHIP funding, the Senate has yet to moved forward with its version of the legislation—and the version reported by the Senate Finance Committee does not include any funds for Puerto Rico. Should Congress not act, up to 900,000 Puerto Ricans would likely be cut from Medicaid—more than half of total enrollment, according to federal estimates.

Rep. Bruce Westerman, Chair of the House Subcommittee on Oversight & Investigations of the House Natural Resources Committee, last month, had noted, it was “obvious PREPA did not know how to draft a FEMA-compliant contract, nor did PREPA officials adhere to the advice of their own counsel on how to comply: I believe this is precisely why the Oversight Board should be granted more authority. While we understand the sense of urgency for the people of Puerto Rico, oversight and transparency are vital to this recovery process.” House Committee on Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop added: “A legacy of dysfunction (at PREPA) has created a competence deficit that threatens the island’s ability to improve conditions for its citizens. Confidence in the utility’s ability to manage contracts and time-sensitive disaster related infrastructure work is long gone.” The Oversight Board announced its plan to appoint Noel Zamot to replace current PREPA leader Ricardo Ramos just a day or two after board members met with Chairman Bishop, according to a Bishop spokesperson. At a Committee on Natural Resources hearing last Wednesday, Chairman Bishop continued to call for more outside control over Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s government, stating: “The lack of institutional controls…raises grave concerns about the government of Puerto Rico’s ability to competently negotiate, manage, and implement infrastructure projects without significant independent oversight: One of the things that I think we’re walking into here is a tremendous credibility gap, based on Whitefish and other subsequent decisions that are going on here.” (The “Whitefish” to which Chair Bishop was referring was Whitefish Energy, which had been retained by PREPA to help fix Puerto Rico’s electrical grid: observers have questioned the adequacy of the company’s experience, the fact that it is based in the same Montana town as the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, and the rates it is charging to Puerto Rico.)

Prior to the hearing, Gov. Rosselló had released a request to the federal government for $94 billion in medium- and long-term aid for recovery from hurricanes Irma and Maria—a request unlikely to be met—or, as Chairman Rob Bishop “You’re asking for an unprecedented $94 billion: “That’s a lot of money. That’s not going to happen unless people are going to see some changes in the way cooperation is made, and the way that money’s going to be spent.” The Governor’s responses came as—on the other side of the Hill, PREPA Executive Director Ricardo Ramos explained to the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee the process PREPA used to hire Whitefish Energy to repair Puerto Rico’s energy grid. He testified that in the wake of Hurricane Irma (which struck Puerto Rico on September 6th), six private companies submitted offers to PREPA to aid with restoring the grid. All six companies offered similar hourly rates. While only 25% of the island had electrical service immediately after Irma, this service had since improved to 96%.  Immediately after Hurricane Maria hit, Director Ramos testified he had limited communications ability and did not become fully aware of the extent of Maria’s damage to the electrical system for a week. Use of state mutual aid for restoring the grid, he testified, would have required PREPA to provide accommodations, food, communications, and other logistics to the incoming crews, because this was part of the mutual aid policies. Thus, Mr. Ramos noted that in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, the utility was unable to make such provisions—meaning, ultimately, that he had to choose between using another company that was asking for $25 million up front versus Whitefish, which was willing to be paid when the work was completed. Ergo, Mr. Ramos authorized the use of Whitefish and chose to continue to look for other options. At the start of Wednesday’s Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee meeting on the hurricanes’ impact on Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R.-Alaska), said she thought it made little sense to spend hundreds of millions of dollars of Stafford Act funds to rebuild the electric grid as it had been in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands prior to the hurricanes. She said this would only re-erect it only to be later blown down again.

Governance in Puerto Rico. As U.S. Judge Laura Taylor Swain presides over Puerto Rico’s quasi-chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy trial in Puerto Rico, House Natural Resources Committee Chair Rob Bishop (R-Utah) and Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) last week issued a statement that the Puerto Rico PROMESA Oversight Board ought to be granted additional legal authority over the Puerto Rico Power Authority (PREPA), with their statement coming just hours after Judge Swain had ruled that the PROMESA Board lacked authority to replace PREPA’s current director. The power authority issue came as Gov. Ricardo Rosselló sought some $17 billion in recovery assistance from the U.S. Senate for Puerto Rico’s beleaguered electric utility system—with his request coming engineer Ricardo Ramos resigned yesterday as PREPA’s Executive Director resigned—a resignation which PREPA’s governing board promptly accepted, voting unanimously to ratify the appointment of engineer Justo González as interim executive director. Mr. González, who has 28 years of service at PREPA and was the director of Generation, was recommended by Governor Rosselló, who noted: “The truth is that there was a series of distractions and there was a decision to go in another direction. This is going to happen and happens in every government,” referencing, in the wake of the devastating Hurricane María, that such challenges include technical failures, selective blackouts, lack of equipment, and hiring of companies with few employees and experience to carry out support tasks. He noted that Mr. Ramos “is a professional who has worked hard, but understands that this is a context that has greatly distracted from what recovery is.”

Failures and Blackouts. Until early yesterday, PREPA had reached 44.7 % of its pre-Maria generation—a level leaving Governor Rossello still frustrated, but stressing that failures also occur because: “it is an old system, which suffered previous damage….I know that it has been questioned why these failures happened, and if there was intervention…When you are lifting a collapsed power system, there will be ups and downs. There is progress; progress is inevitable; and it is being seen very clearly.”

The Electric Challenge Ahead. In the wake of the appointment of Mr. Gonzalez as interim executive director of PREPA, the Governor has commenced a search for a new head, noting: “With this appointment begins a process of evaluating the best available talent, inside and outside  of Puerto Rico, to proceed with an appointment in property of the position of executive director of PREPA: I hope that this process will be completed as quickly as possible, so that the work leading to the rehabilitation of the electrical system throughout the island is not affected, according to the guidelines we have given.” PREPA governing board President Ernesto Sgroi advised the Talent Search Committee of the governing body will be in charge of identifying the new executive director of the public corporation.

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The Power of Storms & the Storms of Fiscal Power

October 31, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the growing questions with regard to both the federal and Puerto Rican response to the human and fiscal devastation caused by Hurricane Maria–and what the implication’s might be for the U.S. territory’s debt–and governance.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

The Price of Solvency. Almost three weeks after the hiring of Whitefish Energy Holdings created its own storm wave of criticism and investigation claims, both the FBI and the PROMESA oversight board have commenced investigations about PREPA’s decision to award a $300 million contract to a small Montana energy firm, Whitefish Energy Holdings, to rebuild Puerto Rico’s electrical infrastructure—with the PROMESA Oversight Board intending to discuss and approve today a process to review Puerto Rico’s contract—one which Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares canceled on Sunday—at a time when only 30% of the U.S. territory’s power has been restored. The issue is anticipated to light up the agenda at the PROMESA Board’s tenth meeting today at the headquarters of the College of Engineers and Surveyors of Puerto Rico, in Hato Rey, under its authority to review and revoke laws which are incompatible with its Fiscal Plan, as well as any contract that the government of Puerto Rico has granted—marking the first time the Congressionally enacted entity will seek to exercise the authority Congress authorized to revoke contracts or laws of the Puerto Rican government. The House Committee on Natural Resources has scheduled hearings over the next three weeks in Washington on the storm recovery and transparency in the reconstruction process—although it remains unclear whether those hearings will closely examine the adverse fiscal, physical, and human costs imposed by the Jones Act on the recovery and loss of lives.  The Committee has not indicated whether it will compare the responses of FEMA in Puerto Rico to its responses in Houston and Florida.

Just after declaring an emergency due to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria, Gov. Rosselló Nevares had approved executive order 2018-53 to exempt government agencies from complying with the requirements of law when hiring and purchasing to deal with the ensuing physical disaster—effectively clearing the way to for the Electric Power Authority (AEE) to award a $ 300 million contract to Whitefish Energy-company, which, at the time of its hiring, had only two employees-to repair part of the electrical network devastated by the hurricane. That award, however, caused a governance storm of its own, triggering apprehensions by FEMA, Members of Congress, and now an investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

Thus the PROMESA Board holds its first meeting in the wake of the storm’s fiscal and physical devastation, mayhap marking a fiscal storm—albeit, presumably, the Board’s inquiries will examine not just PREPA’s responses, but also compare the responses of FEMA in Puerto Rico compared to its responses in Houston and Florida—that is, the PROMESA Board could question the accountability of FEMA.

As for the fiscal storm, the Oversight Board expects to be briefed on the process underway to reconfigure the Fiscal Plan, as well how the firm Kobre & Kim will investigate Puerto Rico’s debt: according to the report of the firm hired to investigate the reasons for the U.S. territory’s fiscal collapse and the issuance of debt, the first report of the causes of the crisis would take about 200 days: the investigator has already issued an information request to Banco Popular and has identified 79 witnesses who will he instructed to preserve documents.

 

Fiscal & Physical Storm Recoveries

October 30, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider, again, the spread of Connecticut’s fiscal blues to its municipalities; then, we observe the lengthening fiscal and human plight of Puerto Rico.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

The Price of Solvency. Ending months of fiscal frustration, the Connecticut House of Representatives late Thursday provided its strong, bipartisan endorsement (126-23) to two-year, $41 billion state budget which closes a gaping deficit, rejects large-scale tax increases, and seeks to bolster the state’s future fiscal stability. Notwithstanding, S&P Global Ratings, the following day, issued its own fiscal storm warnings that it is a budget which will still leave the state’s municipalities at fiscal risk. Governor Dannell Molloy has not yet said if or when he might sign that budget into state law; however, because it passed both Houses by veto-proof margins, the question is no longer “if,” but rather: what will it mean for the state’s municipalities? Thus, S&P warned:  “We note that virtually all local governments will see some reductions to state aid, while only a few—typically those with the greatest economic challenges—will see flat year-over-year state aid.” Similarly, Conn. House Majority Leader Matt Ritter (D-Hartford) told his colleagues: “We’re at the end of a journey: This budget offers needed reforms, but also some immediate comfort that is so needed by a lot of our residents and our towns…In the darkest of days…we found a way to pull through.”

As adopted, the budget bill provides financial assistance to eastern Connecticut homeowners dealing with crumbling foundations, reduced funding for UConn, offers $40 million to help the City of Hartford avoid filing for Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities Executive Director Joe DeLong, in the League’s initial analysis of the municipal impact of the bipartisan budget agreement, noted: “Municipal leaders acknowledge the difficult choices made by state leaders in forging this bipartisan budget agreement and the impact they have on the lives of Connecticut residents: The actions taken by State leaders to support cities and towns protects the interests of residents and businesses across the state and for that we are grateful.” With the State facing a $5 billion biennial budget deficit, the state budget agreement spares towns and cities from the draconian cuts set to roll out under the Governor’s Executive Order and includes many significant structural reforms that municipalities have been advocating for years. Mr. DeLong added that the final budget agreement provides for numerous municipal reforms sought by the League last January in its groundbreaking public policy initiative, “This Report Is Different.”  

Connecticut House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz noted: “Leaders do things that are maybe not in their best interests, or may be against their own beliefs, in an effort to do what’s right. And I think that was done,’’ as Rep. Toni Walker (D-New Haven), Co-Chairwoman of the appropriations committee, described the bill as a significant step toward closing a $3.5 billion deficit over the next two years and righting the state’s wobbly finances for decades to come: “I want everybody to understand we must recalibrate the financial future of Connecticut, for our families and for our businesses and this budget begins that process.’’

As adopted, the budget does not increase income or sales tax rates, although it raises hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue via an assortment of smaller measures, such as higher taxes on cigarettes, a $10 surcharge on motor vehicle registrations to support parks, and new fees on ride-sharing companies, such as Uber. On the other hand, the final agreement rolled back proposed taxes on cellphone plans, second homes, and restaurant meals. In the end, small tax increases represent just .85 percent of the budget; fee hikes constituted an even smaller contribution .11%. On the revenue side, the new budget proposes the elimination of a property tax credit for many middle-income homeowners, raises the cigarette tax, and sweeps $64 million from a clean energy fund.

In the wake of the passage, S&P Global Ratings indicated it would review the state’s municipal bond rating, but noted the municipal impact, citing the $31.4 million cut to the Education Cost Sharing Grant, the primary state grant which goes to cities and towns to help operate their schools—albeit, the cut is to be nearly fully restored next year, and distributed using an updated formula which more heavily favors the state’s lowest-performing school districts. The adopted budget also rejected Gov. Malloy’s proposal to mandate that the state’s cities and towns assume some fiscal share of the state’s soaring contributions to the teachers’ pension fund. Nevertheless, the budget was less generous to municipalities on the revenue front: the 2015 state plan to share sales tax receipts with cities and towns is all but eliminated in this budget, which officially ends the diversion of these receipts into a special account: the last remnants of a program which was supposed to distribute more than $300 million per year in sales tax receipts are: A “municipal transition grant” worth $13 million in FY 2017 and $15 million for next year. Similarly axed: a $36.5 million payment this year to offset a portion of the funds communities with high property tax rates lose because of a state-imposed cap on motor vehicle taxes: the new budget would cut $19 million in each year from grants that reimburse communities for taxes they cannot collect on exempt property owned by the state and by private colleges, hospitals and other nonprofit entities.

The adopted budget, however, from a municipal perspective, proposes to revise the prevailing wage and binding arbitration systems: municipalities would have greater flexibility to launch more publicly financed capital projects without having to pay union-level construction wages, and arbiters would have more options when ruling on wage and other contract issues involving municipalities and their employees.

Nevertheless, S&P noted: “Since new state revenue measures would have less than a year to be collected, this may leave the state without the available resources to fully appropriate for these (municipal grants),” adding: “The length of the budget impasse underscores the state’s struggling financial health.” The rating agency last month had already placed nine Connecticut municipalities and one school district on a “negative” credit watch, warning it could lead to a rating downgrade within 90 days unless their fiscal outlook improves, citing the uncertainty of Connecticut’s ability to maintain existing levels of municipal aid, reinforcing Moody’s moody outlook earlier this month when it warned that the state actions could lead to lower bond ratings for 51 municipalities and six regional school districts, placing ratings for 26 cities and towns and three regional school districts under review for downgrade, and assigning negative outlooks to an additional 25 municipalities and three more regional school districts. For its part, S&P warned: “In the end, if state fiscal pressures persist, all local governments in Connecticut will continue to be affected…and the degree of credit deterioration will depend on each government’s level [of] budgetary reserves and ability to adapt.”

Underpowered. House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) said he does not want to “come to conclusions” before he has all the information regarding the controversial $300 million contract of the Montana-based company, Whitefish Energy Holdings, with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA); nevertheless, Chairman Bishop has given PREPA Chairman Ricardo Ramos until this Thursday to submit a series of documents related to the contract with the company—a company whose largest project prior to Hurricane Maria was $ 1.3 million in the state of Arizona—especially in the wake of the contract award here made without bidding—ergo triggering a series of questions and requests for investigations by the Office of  Inspector General and from the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Chairman Bishop was part of the Congressional delegation with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Ca.) and Deputy Minority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), as well as Puerto Rico resident Commissioner in Washington, D.C., Jennifer González. House Speaker Paul Ryan ((R-Wis.) who had earlier visited the town of Utuado, known as “El Pueblo del Viví,’ which was founded in 1739 by Sebastían de Morfi, and derives its name from a local Indian Chief Otoao, which means between the mountains, to see first-hand the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria—in the wake of which he noted: “Our committee, like other groups, will investigate and we will know what is behind the Whitefish contract. I do not know enough right now to come to a conclusion against or in favor, but that’s the idea, to know the details and how it happened.”

The Chairman was not alone: the Federal Agency for Emergency Management (FEMA) has released a statement making clear that agency’s concerns about certain aspects of the contract, including an absence of certainty that some prices were even “reasonable,” in apparent reference to the hourly pay of some employees of the company. FEMA also warned that entities that fail to meet FEMA requirements may not see their expenses reimbursed. Nevertheless, Chairman Bishop said he will not “let” any concern of FEMA “get in the way…FEMA will do its job,” he insisted when asked if he was worried that FEMA would not reimburse the Puerto Rico government for payments to Whitefish. (Last night, Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares confirmed that he was about to receive a report he had requested from the Office of Management and Budget about the contract.).

Chairman Bishop noted that, as a result of the destruction caused by Hurricane Maria, he is considering possible changes to the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA), albeit, when asked about specific changes, he limited himself to saying that the Oversight Board “does not need more authority;” rather, he said, the focus now needs to be on the provision of power and drinking water. Asked by Majority Leader McCarthy whether the devastation he had witnessed makes him think that the aid mechanism for Puerto Rico should change, he answered that “a lot of infrastructure is needed, and we have to lift the electrical system…I spoke with (Minority Leader) Steny Hoyer. I do not think it would be the best use of taxpayers’ money to build the same grid that we had. We need a 21st century one that is more efficient and effective and we can do it with more transparency,” albeit he was unclear what he meant by transparency. Rep. Hoyer noted: “We know there is an urgency,”  adding the delegation needed to all go back to Washington, D.C. to work together, but “we need an urgency to fix the electrical system and for power to reach the whole island. Governor Rosselló Nevares, who accompanied them on the tour, has said that if the quality of life in Puerto Rico does not reach what it should be: “People will be disappointed, and they will leave.”

The Steep & Ethical Challenges in Roads to Fiscal Recovery

October 17, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the ongoing recovery in Detroit from the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history; then we turn to the Constitution State, Connecticut, as the Governor and State Legislature struggle to reach consensus on a budget, before, finally, returning to Petersburg, Virginia to try to reflect on the ethical dimensions of fiscal challenges.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

The Motor City Road to Recovery.  The City of Detroit has issued a request seeking proposals to lead a tender offer and refunding of its financial recovery municipal bonds with the goal of reducing the costs of its debt service, with bids due by the end of next week, all as a continuing part of its chapter 9 plan of debt adjustment. The city has issued $631 million of unsecured B1 and B2 notes and $88 million of unsecured C notes. The bulk of the issuance is intended to secure the requisite capital to pay off various creditors, via so-called term bonds, 30-year municipal debt at a gradually sliding interest rate of 4% for the first two decades, and then 6% over the final decade, as the debt is structured to be interest-only for the first 10 years, before amortizing principal over the remainder of the term, with the city noting: “It is the city’s goal to alleviate the significant escalation of debt service during the period when principal on the B Notes begins to amortize, and that any transaction resulting from this RFP process be executed as early as possible in the first quarter of 2018.” According to Detroit Finance Director John Naglick, “Those bonds are traded very close to par, because people view them as very secure…Those bondholders feel really comfortable because they see the intercept doing what it was designed to do.” The new borrowing is the city’s third since its exit from chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, with the prior two issued via the Michigan Finance Authority. Last week the city announced plans to utilize the private placement of $125 million in municipal bonds, also through the Michigan Finance Authority, provided the issuance is approved by both the Detroit City Council and the Detroit Financial Review commission, with the bonds proposed to be secured by increased revenues the Motor City is receiving from its share of state gas taxes and vehicle registration fees.

Fiscal TurmoilConnecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy yesterday released his fourth fiscal budget proposal—with the issuance coming as he awaits ongoing efforts by leaders in the state legislature attempting to reach consensus on a two-year state budget, declaring: “This is a lean, no-frills, no-nonsense budget…Our goals were simple in putting this plan together: eliminate unpopular tax increases, incorporate ideas from both parties, and shrink the budget and its accompanying legislation down to their essential parts. It is my sincere hope this document will aid the General Assembly in passing a budget that I can sign into law.” The release came as bipartisan leaders from the state legislature were meeting for the 11th day behind closed doors in a so far unrewarding effort to agree on a budget to bring to the Governor—whose most recent budget offer had removed some of the last-minute revenue ideas included in the Democratic budget proposal. Nevertheless, that offer gained no traction with Republican legislators: it had proposed cuts in social services, security, and clean energy—or, as the Governor described it: “This is a stripped down budget.” Specifically, the Governor had proposed an additional $144 million in spending cuts from the most recent Democratic budget proposal, including: nearly $5 million from tax relief for elderly renters; $5.4 million for statewide marketing through the Department of Economic and Community Development; $292,000 in grants for mental health services; $11.8 million from the Connecticut Home Care Program over two years, and; about $1.8 million from other safety net services. His proposed budget would eliminate the state cellphone tax and a statewide property tax on second homes in Connecticut, as proposed by the Democrats; it also proposes the elimination of the 25 cent fee on ridesharing services, such as Uber and Lyft, and it reduces the amount of money Democrats wanted to take from the Green Bank, which helps fund renewable energy projects. His proposal also recommends cutting about $3.3 million each year from the state legislature’s own budget and eliminates the legislative Commissions for women, children, seniors, and minority communities—commissions which had already been reduced from six to two over the past two years. The Governor’s revised budget proposal would cut the number of security staff at the capitol complex to what it was before the metal detectors were implemented—proposed to achieve savings of about $325,000 annually, and the elimination of the Contracting Standards Board, which the state created a decade ago in response to two government scandals—here for a savings of $257,000.

For the state’s municipalities, the Governor’s offer proposes phasing in an unfunded state mandate that municipalities start picking up the normal cost of the teachers’ pension fund: Connecticut municipalities would be mandated to contribute a total of about $91 million in the first year, and $189 million in the second year of the budget—contributions which would be counted as savings for the state—and would be less steep than Gov. Malloy had initially proposed, but still considerably higher than many municipalities may have expected. Indeed, Betsy Gara, the Executive Director of the Council for Small Towns, described the latest gubernatorial budget proposal as a “Swing and a miss: The revised budget proposal continues to shift teachers’ pension costs to towns in a way that will overwhelm property taxpayers,” adding that if the state decides to go in this direction, they will be forced to take legal action, because requiring towns to pick up millions of dollars in teachers’ pension costs without any ability to manage those costs going forward is ‘simply unfair.’” Moreover, she noted, it violates the 2008 bond covenant.

In his revised new budget changes, Gov. Malloy has proposed cutting the Education Cost Sharing grant, reducing magnet school funding by about $15 million a year, and eliminating ECS funding immediately for 36 communities. The proposal to eliminate the ECS funding would likely encounter not just legislative challenges, but also judicial: it was just a year ago that a Connecticut judge’s sweeping ruling had declared vast portions of the state’s educational system as unconstitutional, when Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher ruled that Connecticut’s state funding mechanism for public schools violated the state’s constitution and ordered the state to come up with a new funding formula—and mandated the state to set up a mandatory standard for high school graduation, overhaul evaluations for public-school teachers, and create new standards for special education in the wake of a lawsuit filed against the state in 2005 by a coalition of cities, local school boards, parents and their children, who had claimed Connecticut did not give all students a minimally adequate and equal education. The plaintiffs had sought to address funding disparities between wealthy and poor school districts.

Nevertheless, in the wake of a week where the state’s Democratic and Republican legislative leaders have been holed up in the state Capitol, without Gov. Malloy, combing, line-by-line, through budget documents; they report they have been discussing ways to not only cover a projected $3.5 billion deficit in a roughly $40 billion two-year budget, but also to make lasting fiscal changes in hopes of stopping what has become a cycle of budget crises in one of the nation’s wealthiest states—or, as House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, (D-Berlin) put it: “I think what we’ve done over the last few days has been a really good step forward, and I think we’re moving in the right direction,” even as Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano said what the Governor put forward Monday will not pass the legislature: “It is obvious that the governor’s proposal, including his devastating cuts to certain core services and shifting of state expenses onto towns and cities, would not pass the legislature in its current form. Therefore, legislative leaders will continue our efforts to work on a bipartisan budget that can actually pass.”

Getting Schooled on Budgeting & Debt. Even as the Governor and legislature appear to be achieving some progress, the Connecticut Education Association (CEA) is suing the state over Gov. Dannel Malloy’s executive order which cuts $557 million in school funding from 139 municipalities: Connecticut’s largest teachers union has filed an injunction request in Hartford Superior Court, alleging the order violates state law. (The order eliminates education funding in 85 cities and towns and severely cuts funding in another 54 communities.) The suit contends that without a state budget, Gov. Malloy lacks the authority to cut education funding. The municipalities of Torrington, Plainfield, and Brooklyn joined the initial filing. Association President Sheila Cohen noted: “We can’t sit by and watch our public schools dismantled and students and teachers stripped of essential resources…This injunction is the first step toward ensuring that our state lives up to its commitment and constitutional obligations to adequately fund public education.”

Governance in Fiscal Straits? Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen has questioned the legality of Governor Malloy’s executive order, and Connecticut Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano (R-North Haven) noted: “I think the Governor’s order is in very serious legal trouble.” Nevertheless, the Governor, speaking to reporters at the state capitol, accused the CEA of acting prematurely: “Under normal circumstances, those checks don’t go out until the end of October…Secondarily, they’ll have to handle the issue of the fact that we have a lot less money to spend without a budget than we do with a budget…Their stronger argument might be that we can’t make any payments to communities in the absence of a budget. That one I would be afraid of.”

Municipal Fiscal Ethics? Forensic auditors from PBMares, LLP publicly went over their findings from the forensic audit they conducted into the City of Petersburg, Virginia’s financial books during a special City Council meeting. Even though the audit and its findings were released last week, John Hanson and Mike Garber, who were in charge of the audit for PBMares, provided their report to Council and answered their questions, focusing especially on what they deemed the “ethical tone” of the city government, saying they found much evidence of abuse of city money and city resources: “The perception that employees had was that the ethical tone had not been good for quite some time…The culture led employees to do things they might not otherwise do.” They noted misappropriations of fuel for city vehicles, falsification of overtime hours, vacation/sick leave abuse, use of city property for personal gain including lawn mowers and vehicles for travel, excessive or lavish gifts from vendors, and questionable hiring practices. In response, several Council Members asked whether if some of the employees who admitted to misconduct could be named. Messieurs Garber and Hanson, however, declined to reveal names in public, but said they could discuss it in private with City Manager Aretha Ferrell-Benavides, albeit advising the City Council that the ethical problems seemed to be more “systemic,” rather than individual, adding: “For instance, we looked at fuel data usage…And we could tell just looking at it that it was misused, though it would’ve cost tens of thousands of more dollars to find out who exactly took what.”

In response to apprehensions that the audit was insufficient, the auditors noted that because of the city’s limited budget, the scope of PBMares’ work could only go so far. Former Finance Director Nelsie Birch noted that the audit was tasked with focusing on several “troubling areas,” and that a full forensic audit could have cost much more for a city which had hovered on the brink of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. However, Mr. Hanson noted that while the transgressions would have normally fallen under a conflict of interest policy, such was the culture in Petersburg that the city’s employees either did not know, or were allowed to ignore those policies: “When I asked employees what their conflict of interest or gifts and gratuity policy is, people couldn’t answer that question because they didn’t know.”

 

The Difficult Interplay of State & Local Physical & Fiscal Challenges, especially those that can threaten lives, health, and public safety.

07/26/17

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Good Morning! In today’s iBlog, we consider the fiscal and physical challenges confronting the City of Flint, Michigan as it seeks to settle on a permanent drinking water source.

Out Like Flint. Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette has provided an update on his criminal investigation of the Flint drinking water crisis—a crisis which evolved from the state’s appointment of an emergency manager in place of the city’s elected leaders, and which has, since, led to steadily higher in the ranks of the state government, with the update coming as the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has sued the City of Flint over claims the City Council has been foot-dragging in approving a switch to the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA) to provide its long-term drinking water. Mr. Schuette was joined by Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton, his special counsel Todd Flood, and his chief criminal investigator Andrew Arena—with, to date, some baker’s dozen current or former Michigan or City of Flint officials charged, including two gubernatorially-appointed emergency managers who were reported to the State Treasurer. The suit alleges “the City Council’s failure to act will cause an imminent and substantial endangerment to public health in Flint.”

Michigan Department of Environmental Quality officials have acknowledged a mistake in failing to require corrosion-control chemicals to be added to the water—a mistake costly to health care, the city’s fisc, and trust in government, in the wake of lead leaching from pipes, joints, and fixtures into Flint homes and drinking water—leaving a situation today where residents are still advised not to drink tap water without a filter: five current or former state employees charged previously are from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and three from the Department of Health and Human Services, in the wake of outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease after the state-ordered water switch—a switch which health investigators have since tied to 12 deaths.

Even though state and federal health officials have yet to definitively link the water switch to the disease, Michigan Attorney General Scheutte and his investigators have come close to doing so in public statements and documents related to the criminal charges. Last September, he warned Michigan Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon he was a focus of the investigation, although, since, there has been no additional notification. But there are difficult fiscal, as well as physical and intergovernmental issues. Richard Baird, a senior advisor to Gov. Rick Snyder, at a meeting with the Flint Water Interagency Coordinating Committee, last Friday noted: “Given that the City of Flint is paying for two water sources and does not have a favorable long-term contract with the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA), the lack of action is costing the city an extra $600,000 each month: The city has projected that it will deplete its water and sewer fund reserves by the 4th quarter of 2018, which will necessitate a significant rate increase for residents and business if the matter is not resolved.”

Such an increase would be hard on the city’s citizens: per capita income for Flint was $23,593 in 2015—nearly 20% below the statewide average. Thus, it is most unsurprising that Mayor Karen Weaver, last April, recommended, with the support of Genesee County, GLWA, and state officials that the city extend its contract with GLWA for 30-years: such a contract would result in about $9 million in savings, because it would lock in a more favorable rate with GLWA and address the $7 million in debt service payments Flint is currently obligated to pay—with Mayor Weaver noting the decision ensured water quality for the city that is still recovering from a water contamination crisis that stemmed from the decision of its previous state-appointed emergency managers to shift water sources and participate in the KWA project. Under her proposed plan, Flint would recoup roughly $7 million in annual debt service by transferring its KWA water rights to the GLWA. (The city was preparing to shift to KWA supplied, untreated water in 2019, with plans to make much-needed upgrades to its treatment plant to comply with federal EPA drinking water standards; however, last April, the Mayor dropped the plan to make the switch to the bond-financed pipeline and recommended the city continue to purchase water from GLWA—claiming the GLWA supplied and treated water is more affordable and would save the city the fiscal and physical risk of still another supply shift: the switch is projected to result in a $2.4 million savings, because GLWA would impose a better rate than is currently available under the current short-term contract with the city.)

The City Council, last Wednesday, voted to postpone the vote on the water plan for another 30 days, after, last month, voting to extend Flint’s contract with GLWA to September in an effort to provide more time to examine and weigh the costs and benefits of the longer term water contract—a delay which Mayor Weaver described as triggering the need to petition the federal court to determine the contours of the legal authority for the city and state to properly execute the requisite agreements to secure a long-term water source “on behalf of the people of Flint.” The state complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court, seeks a declaration that the Flint City Council’s failure to act is a violation of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act and an order that Flint must enter into the long-term agreement with GLWA.

Flint City Councilman Eric Mays believes the federal court should give the City Council 30 days in which to call state officials to testify about the deal and allow the City Council to tweak it, stating he wants to amend the agreement to ensure Flint does not lose its investment in the Karegnondi Water Authority—a new pipeline to Lake Huron which was instrumental in Flint switching away from Detroit water while under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager. However, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Director Heidi Grether had given the City Council a deadline to approve the agreement last month, writing: “The City is currently paying $14.1 million per year to obtain water from the GLWA through a 72-inch line that was previously transferred to Genesee County…Due to its decision to transfer the line, Flint will lose use of the 72-inch line on Oct. 1, 2017, absent approval of the Mayor’s recommendation: No other alternate pipeline currently exists to supply GLWA water to Flint.”

At the end of last week, ergo, Mr. Baird told Flint and Genesee County officials that the City Council’s indecision on a long-term water source was not only costing more than a half million dollars each month, but also risking “significant” water rate increases next year if something were not done soon, adding that the city’s stalling on selecting a long-term water source was imposing an extra $600,000 each month, because the city is currently purchasing water from two water sources—the Great Lakes Water Authority, from which it currently gets its treated water, and the Karegnondi Water Authority, from which it contractually would take water by 2019 to 2020. His remarks were given as part of an update on a federal lawsuit the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality filed late last month against the Flint City Council—a suit in which the state alleges the elected council members have endangered the public health by failing to approve a long-term drinking water source. He added that if the Flint City Council continues to delay its vote on the 30-year contract offer, the city’s water and sewer fund reserves are expected to be tapped out by the end of 2018—an outcome which, he warned, would “necessitate a significant rate increase for residents and businesses if this is not resolved.”

Mayor Weaver has recommended the Council approve the 30-year contract with the Detroit area Great Lakes authority, in part to ensure the cleanest water at the most inexpensive price. (The city already pays some of the nation’s highest water rates: approximately $53.84 per month on the water portion of residents’ monthly bill, according to a report from Raftelis Financial Consultants of Missouri). A 2016 report from Food and Water Watch, which surveyed the nation’s 500 biggest water systems, found that Flint residents paid almost double the national average for water and the highest rates in the country despite the city’s water being undrinkable without a filter.

State and Local Insolvency & Governance Challenges

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eBlog, 03/29/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the efforts to recover from the brink of insolvency in the small municipality of Petersburg, Virginia, before considering the legal settlement between the State of Michigan and City of Flint to resolve the city’s state-contaminated water which nearly forced it into municipal insolvency.

On the Precipice of Governing & Municipal Insolvency. Consultants hired to pull the historic Virginia municipality of Petersburg from the brink of municipal bankruptcy this week unveiled an FY2018 fiscal plan they claim would put the city on the path to fiscal stability—addressing what interim City Manager Tom Tyrrell described as: “It’s bad, it’s bad, it’s bad.” With the city’s credit ratings at risk, and uncertainty with regard to whether to sell the city’s utility infrastructure for a cash infusion, former Richmond city manager Robert Bobb’s organization presented the Petersburg City Council with the city’s first structurally balanced spending plan in nearly a decade: the proposed $77 million operating budget would increase spending on public safety and restore 10 percent cuts to municipal employees’ pay, even as it proposes cutting the city’s workforce, deeming it to be bloated and structurally inefficient. The recommendations also propose: restructuring municipal departments, the outsourcing of services that could eliminate up to 12 positions, and the reduction through attrition of more than 70 vacancies.

As offered, the plan also recommends about a 13 percent increase in the city’s current operating budget of $68.4 million, which was amended twice this fiscal year: the $77 million total assumes a $6 million cash infusion labeled on a public presentation as a “revenue event,” referring to a controversial issue dividing the elected leaders versus the consultants: Council members and the Washington, D.C. based firm have been at loggerheads over unsolicited proposals from private companies offering to purchase Petersburg’s public city’s utility system—a challenge, especially because of citizen/taxpayer apprehension about private companies increasing rates for consumers at a time when double-digit rate increases already are on the horizon. That, in turn, has raised governance challenges: Mr. Bobb, for instance, has expressed frustration with the city’s elected leaders’ decision to stall negotiations and study the prospect by committee, noting: “The city is out of time…They’re out of time with what’s needed with respect to the long-term financial health of the city. Time’s up.” Mr. Bobb believes the city cannot cut its way to financial health, or raise tax rates for city residents who themselves are struggling to get by, noting that at $1.35 per $100 of assessed value, the city’s real estate tax rate is currently the highest in the region—and at a potential tipping point, as, according to Census data, nearly half the city’s children live below the poverty line, which is set at $24,600 for a family of four. Moreover, Petersburg’s assessed property values have stagnated for the past five years, according to the credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s, which rated the city with a negative outlook at the end of last year: the lowest of any municipality in the state. (The city ended FY2016 with $18.8 million in unpaid bills and began the new fiscal year $12.5 million over budget. The budget since has been balanced, but debts remain.)

Under Mr. Bobb’s proposed plan, in a city where public safety is already the largest expense in the operating budget, he has proposed increasing police pay, addressing salary compression in the department, and providing for a force of 111 full-time and seven part-time employees. He suggests that should Petersburg not reap a $6 million “revenue event” in FY2018, the operating budget would be about 5 percent above this year’s, and a few million below revenues for fiscal years 2016 and 2015. Mr. Bobb’s consultant, Nelsie Birch, who is serving as Petersburg’s CFO, reports the city’s budget process and the development of the upcoming year’s budget have been thwarted by a lack of administrative infrastructure, noting that in the wake of starting work last October, he walked into a city finance department that had two part-time workers out of seven allocated positions—and a municipality with only $75,000 in its checking account. (Last week, there was approximately $700,000.) Today, Mr. Birch holds one of more than a half-dozen high-profile positions now filled by interim workers and consultants; Petersburg is paying about $80,000 for a Florida-based head hunter to help fill some of the city’s key vacancies, including those for city manager, deputy city manager, police chief, and finance director—with the City Council having voted last week to extend the Bobb Group’s contract through the end of September—at a cost to Petersburg’s city taxpayers of about $520,000.

Nevertheless, the eventual governance decisions remain with the Petersburg City Council, which secured its first opportunity to study the plan this week—a plan which will be explored during more than a half-dozen public meetings planned for the coming weeks: explorations which will define the city’s fiscal future—or address the challenge with regard to whether the city continues on its road to chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy.

The fiscal and governance challenges in this pivotal Civil War city, however, extend beyond its borders—or, as the ever so insightful Neal Menkes, the Director of Fiscal Policy for the Virginia Municipal League notes:  

“Perhaps the unstated theme is that the push for ‘regionalism’ is related not just to changing economic realities but to the state’s outmoded governance and taxation models. Local finances are driven primarily by growth in real estate and local sales, revenues that are not sensitive to a service economy. Sharing service costs with the Commonwealth is another downer. K-12 funding formulae are more focused on limiting the state’s liability than meeting the true costs of education.  That’s why locals overmatch by over $3.0 billion a year the amounts required by the state to access state basic aid funding.”

State Preemption of Municipal Authority & Ensuing Physical, Governing, and Fiscal Distress. U.S. District Judge David Lawson yesterday approved a settlement under which Michigan and the City of Flint have agreed to replace water lines at 18,000 homes under a sweeping agreement to settle a lawsuit over lead-contaminated water in the troubled city—where the lead contamination ensued under the aegis of a state-appointed emergency manager. The agreement sets a 2020 deadline to replace lead or galvanized-steel lines serving Flint homes, and provides that the state and the federal government are mandated to finance the resolution, which could cost nearly $100 million; in addition, it provides for the state to spend another $47 million to replace lead pipes and provide free bottled water—with those funds in addition to $40 million budgeted to address the lead-contamination crisis; Michigan will also set aside $10 million to cover unexpected costs, bringing the total to $97 million.

The lawsuit, filed last year by a coalition of religious, environmental, and civil rights activists, alleged state and city officials were violating the Safe Drinking Water Act—with Flint’s water tainted with lead for at least 18 months, as the city, at the time under a state-imposed emergency manager, tapped the Flint River, but did not treat the water to reduce corrosion. Consequently, lead leached from old pipes and fixtures. Judge Lawson, in approving the settlement, called it “fair and reasonable” and “in the best interests of the citizens of Flint and the state,” adding the federal court would maintain jurisdiction over the case and enforce any disputes with residents. Under the agreement, Michigan will spend an additional $47 million to help ensure safe drinking water in Flint by replacing lead pipes and providing free bottled water, with the state aid in addition to $40 million previously budgeted to address Flint’s widespread lead-contamination crisis and another $10 million to cover unexpected costs, bringing the total to $97 million. The suit, brought last year by a coalition of religious, environmental, and civil rights activists, alleged Flint water was unsafe to drink because state and city officials were violating the Safe Drinking Water Act; the settlement covers a litany of work in Flint, including replacing 18,000 lead and other pipes as well as providing continued bottled water distribution and funding of health care programs for affected residents in the city of nearly 100,000 residents. It targets spending $87 million, with the remaining $10 million saved in reserve. Ergo, if more pipes need to be replaced, the state will make “reasonable efforts” to “secure more money in the legislature,” Judge Lawson wrote, adding that the final resolution would not have been possible but for the involvement of Michigan Governor Rick Snyder. Judge Lawson also wrote that the agreement addresses short and long-term concerns over water issues in Flint.

The settlement comes in the wake of last December’s announcement by Michigan Attorney General Bill Scheutte of charges against two former state-appointed emergency managers of Flint, Mich., and two other former city officials, with the charges linked to the disastrous decision by a former state-appointed emergency manager to switch water sources, ultimately resulting in widespread and dangerous lead contamination. Indeed, the events in Flint played a key role in the revocation of state authority to preempt local control—or Public Act 72, known as the Local Government Fiscal Responsibility Act, which was enacted in 1990, but revised to become the Emergency Manager law under current Gov. Rick Snyder. Michigan State University economist Eric Scorsone described the origin of this state preemption law as one based on the legal precedent that local government is a branch of Michigan’s state government; he noted that Public Act 72 was rarely used in the approximately two decades it was in effect through the administrations of Gov. John Engler and Gov. Jennifer Granholm; however, when current Gov. Rick Snyder took office, one of the first bills that he signed in 2011 was Public Act 4, which Mr. Scorsone described as a “beefed-up” emergency manager law—one which Michigan voters rejected by referendum in 2012, only to see a new bill enacted one month later (PA 436), with the revised version providing that the state, rather than the affected local government paying the salary of the emergency manager. The new law also authorized the local government the authority to vote out the state appointed emergency manager after 18 months; albeit the most controversial change made to PA 436 was that it stipulated that the public could not repeal it. The new version also provided that local Michigan governments be provided four choices with regard to how to proceed once the Governor has declared an “emergency” situation: a municipality can choose between a consent agreement, which keeps local officials in charge–but with constraints, neutral evaluation (somewhat akin to a pre-bankruptcy process), filing for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, or suffering the state appointment of an emergency manager. As Mr. Scorsone noted, however, the replacement version did not provide Michigan municipalities with a “true” choice; rather “what you actually find is that a local government can choose a consent agreement, for example, but actually the state Treasurer has to agree that that is the right approach. If they don’t agree, they can force them to go back to one of the other options. So it is a choice, but perhaps a bit of a constrained choice.”

Thus, the liability of the emergency managers and the decisions they made became a major issue in the Flint water crisis—and it undercut the claim that the state could do better than elected local leaders—or, as Mr. Scorsone put it: “The state can take over the local government and run it better and provide the expertise, and that clearly didn’t work in the Flint case. The situation is epically wrong, perhaps, but this is clearly a case of where we have to ask the question: why did it go wrong, and I think it’s a complex answer, but one of the things that needs to be done…we need a better relationship between state and local government.” That has proven to be especially the case in the wake felony charges levied against former state appointed Emergency Managers in Flint of Darnell Earley and Gerald Ambrose, who were each charged with two felonies that carry penalties of up to 20 years—false pretenses and conspiracy to commit false pretenses, in addition to misconduct in office (also a felony) and willful neglect of duty in office, a misdemeanor.

Today, Michigan local governments have four choices in the wake of a gubernatorial declaration of an “emergency” situation: a municipality or county  can choose between a consent agreement, which keeps local officials in charge but with constraints; neutral evaluation, which is like a pre-municipal bankruptcy process;  filing for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy directly; or suffering the appointment of an emergency manager—albeit, as Mr. Scorsone writes: “The choice is a little constrained, to be truthful about it…If you really carefully read PA 436, what you actually find is that a local government can choose consent agreement, for example, but actually the state Treasurer has to agree that that is the right approach. If they don’t agree, they can force them to go back to one of the other options. So it is a choice, but perhaps a bit of a constrained choice…The law is pretty clear that the emergency manager is acting in a way that does provide some governmental immunity…The emergency manager, if there’s a claim against her or him, has to be defended by the Attorney General. That was fairly new to these new emergency manager laws. The city actually has to pay the legal bills of what the Attorney General incurs, and it’s certainly true that there is a degree of immunity provided to that emergency manager, and I suppose the rationale would be that they want some kind of protection because they are making these difficult decisions. But I think this issue is going to be tested in the Flint case to see how that really plays out.” Then, he noted: “The theory is that the state can do it better…The state can take over the local government and run it better and provide the expertise, and that clearly didn’t work in the Flint case. The situation is especially wrong, perhaps, but this is clearly a case of where we have to ask the question why did it go wrong, and I think it’s a complex answer, but one of the things that needs to be done…we need a better relationship between state and local government.”

The Roads out of Municipal Bankruptcy

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eBlog, 2/24/17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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