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.”

 

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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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eBlog

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.

Are American Cities at a Financial Brink?

eBlog, 1/13/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing fiscal and physical challenges to the City of Flint, Michigan in the wake of the disastrous state appointment of an Emergency Manager with the subsequent devastating health and fiscal subsequent crises, before turning to a new report, When Cities Are at the Financial Brink” which would have us understand that the risk of insolvency for large cities is now higher than at any point since the federal government first passed a municipal bankruptcy law in the 1930’s,” before briefly considering the potential impact on every state, local government, and public school system in the country were Congress to adopt the President-elect’s proposed infrastructure plan; then we consider the challenge of aging: what do longer lifespans of city, county, and state employees augur for state and local public pension obligations and credit ratings?

Not In Like Flint. Residents of the City of Flint received less than a vote of confidence Wednesday about the state of and safety of their long-contaminated drinking water, precipitated in significant part by the appointment of an Emergency Manager by Governor Rick Snyder. Nevertheless, at this week’s town hall, citizens heard from state officials that city water reaching homes continues to improve in terms of proper lead, copper, alkaline, and bacteria levels—seeking to describe Flint as very much like other American cities. The statements, however, appeared to fall far short of bridging the trust gap between Flint residents and the ability to trust their water and those in charge of it appears wide—or, as one Flint resident described it: “I’m hoping for a lot…But I’ve been hoping for three years.” Indeed, residents received less than encouraging words. They were informed that they should, more than 30 months into Flint’s water crisis, continue to use filters at home; that it will take roughly three years for Flint to replace lead water service lines throughout the city; that the funds to finance that replacement have not been secured, and that Flint’s municipal treatment plants needs well over $100 million in upgrades: it appears unlikely the city will be ready to handle water from the new Karegnondi Water Authority until late-2019-early 2020. The state-federal presentation led to a searing statement from one citizen: “I’ve got kids that are sick…My teeth are falling out…You have no solution to this problem.”

Nevertheless, progress is happening: in the last six months of water sampling in Flint, lead readings averaged 12 parts per billion, below the federal action level of 15 ppb, and down from 20 ppb in the first six months of last year. Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech researcher who helped identify the city’s contamination problems, said: “Levels of bacteria we’re seeing are at dramatically lower levels than we saw a year ago.” However, the physical, fiscal, public trust, and health damage to the citizens of Flint during the year-and-a-half of using the Flint River as prescribed by the state-appointed Emergency Manager has had a two-fold impact: the recovery has been slow and residents have little faith in the safety of the water. Mayor Karen Weaver has sought to spearhead a program of quick pipeline replacement, but that process has been hindered by a lack of funding.

State Intervention in Municipal Bankruptcy. In a new report yesterday, “When Cities Are at the Financial Brink,” Manhattan Institute authors Daniel DiSalvo and Stephen Eide wrote the “risk of insolvency for large cities in now higher than at any point since the federal government first passed a municipal bankruptcy law in the 1930’s,” adding that “states…should intervene at the outset and appoint a receiver before allowing a city or other local government entity to petition for bankruptcy in federal court—and writing, contrary to recent history: “Recent experiences with municipal bankruptcies indicates that when local officials manage the process, they often fail to propose the changes necessary to stabilize their city’s future finances.” Instead, they opine in writing about connections between chapter 9, and the role of the states, there should be what they term “intervention bankruptcy,” which could be an ‘attractive alternative’ to the current Chapter 9. They noted, however, that Congress is unlikely to amend the current municipal bankruptcy chapter 9, adding, moreover, that further empowering federal judges in municipal affairs “is sure to raise federalism concerns.” It might be that they overlook that chapter 9, reflecting the dual sovereignty created by the founding fathers, incorporates that same federalism, so that a municipality may only file for chapter 9 federal bankruptcy if authorized by state law—something only 18 states do—and that in doing so, each state has the prerogative to determine, as we have often noted, the process—so that, as we have also written, there are states which:

  • Precipitate municipal bankruptcy (Alabama);
  • Contribute to municipal insolvency (California);
  • Opt, through enactment of enabling legislation, significant state roles—including the power and authority to appoint emergency managers (Michigan and Rhode Island, for instance);
  • Have authority to preempt local authority and take over a municipality (New Jersey and Atlantic City.).

The authors added: “The recent experience of some bankrupt cities, as well as much legal scholarship casts doubt on the effectiveness of municipal bankruptcy.” It is doubtful the citizens in Stockton, Central Falls, Detroit, Jefferson County, or San Bernardino would agree—albeit, of course, all would have preferred the federal bailouts received in the wake of the Great Recession by Detroit’s automobile manufacturers, and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Similarly, it sees increasingly clear that the State of Michigan was a significant contributor to the near insolvency of Flint—by the very same appointment of an Emergency Manager by the Governor to preempt any local control.

Despite the current chapter 9 waning of cases as San Bernardino awaits U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury’s approval of its exit from the nation’s longest municipal bankruptcy, the two authors noted: “Cities’ debt-levels are near all-time highs. And the risk of municipal insolvency is greater than at any time since the Great Depression.” While municipal debt levels are far better off than the federal government’s, and the post-Great Recession collapse of the housing market has improved significantly, they also wrote that pension debt is increasingly a problem. The two authors cited a 2014 report by Moody’s Investors Service which wrote that rising public pension obligations would challenge post-bankruptcy recoveries in Vallejo and Stockton—perhaps not fully understanding the fine distinctions between state constitutions and laws and how they vary from state to state, thereby—as we noted in the near challenges in the Detroit case between Michigan’s constitution with regard to contracts versus chapter 9. Thus, they claim that “A more promising approach would be for state-appointed receivers to manage municipal bankruptcy plans – subject, of course, to federal court approval.” Congress, of course, as would seem appropriate under our Constitutional system of dual sovereignty, specifically left it to each of the states to determine whether such a state wanted to allow a municipality to even file for municipal bankruptcy (18 do), and, if so, to specifically set out the legal process and authority to do so. The authors, however, wrote that anything was preferable to leaving local officials in charge—mayhap conveniently overlooking the role of the State of Alabama in precipitating Jefferson County’s insolvency.  

American Infrastructure FirstIn his campaign, the President-elect vowed he would transform “America’s crumbling infrastructure into a golden opportunity for accelerated economic growth and more rapid productivity gains with a deficit-neutral plan targeting substantial new infrastructure investments,” a plan the campaign said which would provide maximum flexibility to the states—a plan, “American Infrastructure First” plan composed of $137 billion in federal tax credits which would, however, only be available investors in revenue-producing projects—such as toll roads and airports—meaning the proposed infrastructure plan would not address capital investment in the nation’s public schools, libraries, etc. Left unclear is how such a plan would impact the nation’s public infrastructure, the financing of which is, currently, primarily financed by state and local governments through the use of tax-exempt municipal bonds—where the financing is accomplished by means of local or state property, sales, and/or income taxes—and some user fees. According to the Boston Federal Reserve, annual capital spending by state and local governments over the last decade represented about 2.3% of GDP and about 12% of state and local spending: in FY2012 alone, these governments provided more than $331 billion in capital spending. Of that, local governments accounted for nearly two-thirds of those capital investments—accounting for 14.4 percent of all outstanding state and local tax-exempt debt. Indeed, the average real per capita capital expenditure by local governments, over the 2000-2012 time period, according to the Boston Federal Reserve was $724—nearly double state capital spending. Similarly, according to Census data, state governments are responsible for about one-third of state and local capital financing. Under the President-elect’s proposed “American Infrastructure First” plan composed of $137 billion in federal tax credits—such credit would only be available to investors in revenue-producing projects—such as toll roads and airports—meaning the proposed infrastructure plan would not address capital investment in the nation’s public schools, libraries, etc. Similarly, because less than 2 percent of the nation’s 70,000 bridges in need of rebuilding or repairs are tolled, the proposed plan would be of no value to those respective states, local governments, or users. Perhaps, to state and local leaders, more worrisome is that according to a Congressional Budget Office 2015 report, of public infrastructure projects which have relied upon some form of private financing, more than half of the eight which have been open for more than five years have either filed for bankruptcy or been taken over by state or local governments.

Moody Southern Pension Blues. S&P Global Ratings Wednesday lowered Dallas’s credit rating one notch to AA-minus while keeping its outlook negative, with the action following in the wake of Moody’s downgrade last month—with, in each case, the agencies citing increased fiscal risk related to Dallas’ struggling Police and Fire Pension Fund, currently seeking to stem and address from a recent run on the bank from retirees amid efforts to keep the fund from failing, or, as S&P put it: “The downgrade reflects our view that despite the city’s broad and diverse economy, which continues to grow, stable financial performance, and very strong management practices, expected continued deterioration in the funded status of the city’s police and fire pension system coupled with growing carrying costs for debt, pension, and other post-employment benefit obligations is significant and negatively affects Dallas’ creditworthiness.” S&P lowered its rating on Dallas’ moral obligation bonds to A-minus from A, retaining a negative outlook, with its analysis noting: “Deterioration over the next two years in the city’s budget flexibility, performance, or liquidity could result in a downgrade…Similarly, uncertainty regarding future fixed cost expenditures could make budgeting and forecasting more difficult…If the city’s debt service, pension, and OPEB carrying charge elevate to a level we view as very high and the city is not successful in implementing an affordable plan to address the large pension liabilities, we could lower the rating multiple notches.” For its part, Fitch Ratings this week reported that a downgrade is likely if the Texas Legislature fails to provide a structural solution to the city’s pension fund problem. The twin ratings calls come in the wake of Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings report to the Texas Pension Review Board last November that the combined impact of the pension fund and a court case involving back pay for Dallas Police officers could come to $8 billion—mayhap such an obligation that it could force the municipality into chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, albeit stating that Dallas is not legally responsible for the $4 billion pension liability, even though he said that the city wants to help. The fund has an estimated $6 billion in future liabilities under its current structure. In testimony to the Texas State Pension Review Board, Mayor Rawlings said the pension crisis has made recruitment of police officers more difficult just as the city faces a flood of retirements.

 

Preempting Local Governance?

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eBlog, 11/07/16

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we observe the ongoing efforts by Atlantic City to respond to and avert a state takeover of the city—with a key hearing now scheduled one day after the Presidential election; then we look south to the small city of Petersburg, Virginia, where a wholly distinct takeover of a municipal government is underway in the virtually insolvent city, even as, tomorrow, its citizens will have a chance to vote for candidates who will at some indeterminate point in the future be able to resume responsibility and authority to reshape the beleaguered city’s fiscal future.   

State Preemption of a Municipality? In response to Atlantic City’s information and efforts to avert a state takeover, as well as Mayor Don Guardian’s epistle late last week to the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, the Department, created to provide administrative guidance, financial support, and technical assistance to local governments, community development organizations, businesses and individuals, has scheduled the following agenda items for its meeting Wednesday:

11:15 AM City of Atlantic City
Atlantic – NJSA 52:27BB-87 0 Proposed Adoption of Municipal Budget

11:20 AM City of Atlantic City
Atlantic – NJSA 52:27BBBB-1 et seq. – Confirmation of Powers under Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act. 

Under said Act, the Commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs has 150 days in which to approve or reject the city’s five-year plan. Should the Department find that the proposed plan failed to achieve fiscal stability, a state takeover would take effect. Moreover, the statute also provides authority for a state takeover if Atlantic City, at any point, fails to follow the five-year plan—although it permits Atlantic City the right to appeal the Commissioner’s decisions to a Superior Court judge.

In its 25-page document, as we previously noted, the city sought to respond to the criticisms of the state to its report and urge that the city’s proposed plan is the best way to address its fiscal future. The timing, one day after the Presidential election, is mayhap ironic, coming after last week’s closure of candidate Donald Trump’s Taj Mahal casino—one he once called “the eighth wonder of the world,” despite, ironically, taking his Atlantic City casinos through bankruptcy four times. Nevertheless, he last week said: “There’s no reason for this,” in a recent interview as his friend and fellow billionaire Carl Icahn prepared to close the casino. Thus, in another blow to the city’s tax base and employment and other sales and hotel tax revenues, the Taj Mahal closed its doors amid a strike by union members that had lasted more than 100 days, making it the fifth Atlantic City casino to close since 2014. Mr. Trump claimed both sides should have been able to work out an agreement to keep the casino open. Local 54 of the Unite-HERE union had gone on strike July 1st, after the Local was unable to agree with Mr. Icahn on a new contract to restore health insurance and pension benefits—benefits which were terminated two years ago in a federal bankruptcy court. So last August, Mr. Icahn decided to close the casino, stating it lacked a “path to profitability.” That path, according to candidate Trump, is now forever closed: “Once it closes, it’s too expensive to ever reopen it.” The casino’s closure of course impacted Atlantic City’s fiscal challenges: its impact in lost jobs (nearly 3,000 workers—bringing the total jobs lost by Atlantic City casino closings to 11,000 since 2014), reduced assessed property values.

An Affordable Cost for an Insolvent City? The Petersburg City Council and the small municipality’s residents have finally been able to get a sense at what services or responsibilities they will receive in return for the insolvent municipality’s very expensive payments to a consulting firm over the next five months after Robert C. Bobb, the founder and president of the Robert Bobb Group, provided a detailed presentation at last week’s City Council meeting with regard to how his firm plans to help Petersburg solve its financial problems and what the company had completed in its first week on the job. In the wake of meeting with Councilmembers and city officials, and reviewing scores of reports and other documents, the Bobb Group’s experts concluded that “by not addressing growing structural deficits since 2009, the city faces great risk in funding essential and critical public services. The fiscal crisis deepens.” (Among the reviewed documents was the August 3rd report by auditors from the Virginia Department of Finance alerting the small city’s officials to a backlog of nearly $19 million in unpaid bills from FY2016, as well as a looming $12 million deficit in the current fiscal year.) In addition, the group noted additional problems with regard to how the city government manages its money, adding that it had determined that some of the steps taken to deal with the fiscal crisis may not have done enough—indeed, may have done more harm than good: “The fiscal year 17 budget is unrealistic, lacks transparency, and has not been appropriated or made available to the public…Even with the $12.5 million reduction from the original budget to the amended budget, there is a lack of accountability and information…to ensure that the city can meet what is planned.”

Indeed, the report noted that some of the fiscal steps taken by the city may well have been counter-productive, noting that the early action imposing an across-the-board 10 percent pay cut for city employees—an imposition which, according to the Bobb Group, triggered a “mass exodus” of city workers, “was taken over-dramatically, eliminating services:” The pay cut, the group reported, led to the resignations of 146 city employees.

The city had already issued a solicitation for a $6.5 million loan against its expected tax revenue before the Bobb Group arrived on scene. Nelsie L. Birch, the Bobb Group staffer currently acting as Petersburg’s interim budget and finance director, reported that negotiations with potential lenders are about to get underway. Already, however, it appears the proceedings might be delayed: Petersburg officials had expected the loan proceeds to be available this month; however, according to the Bobb Group, “the proceeds may not be available until December (at the earliest). This leaves November vulnerable to ensuring payroll obligations are able to be met.”

Governance by Contract? The terms of the firm’s effective preemption of municipal governance which the Bobb Group provided to the city—a plan which included a so-called “plan of entry” featuring an “immediate ‘All Hands’ discussion with the Mayor and City Council on the city’s goals, service levels, and future direction; immediate one-on-one meetings with the individual members of the City Council…[and] a documents review, including but not limited to budgets, audits, special studies on the city’s current financial operations, organizational structure [and] city charter.” Among the key services the contract calls for the consulting firm to provide:

  • “Perform a financial review of the city, including but not limited to a review and assessment of financial information that has been, and that will be, provided by the city to its creditors, including without limitation its short- and long-term projected cash flows and operating performance.”
  • “Assist in the identification and implementation of cost-reduction and operations-improvement opportunities.”
  • “Assist the mayor and City Council and other city-authorized professionals in developing for the City Council’s review possible restructuring plans or strategic alternatives for maximizing the enterprise value of the city’s various economic development opportunities.”

For these and other services, the Bobb Company is to be paid $350,000 plus expenses up to $25,000 to cover the company’s employees’ travel, lodging and meals. The contract requires that “All hotel and apartment rental for the period of the engagement will be within the City of Petersburg.”

Can Municipal Insolvency Be Contagious?

eBlog, 10/24/16

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the risks of fiscal contagion emanating from the historic city of Petersburg, Virginia, where the city’s virtual insolvency risks the solvency of the regional wastewater authority—and, therefore, the other participating municipalities. Next, with Election Day approaching, we travel to post-chapter 9 Stockton where the ballot issue of a sales tax increase on next month’s municipal ballot has divided the city’s candidates for Mayor and Council. Finally, we consider the exceptional challenges for the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico in the wake of the first PROMESA board meeting.

Can Municipal Insolvency Be Contagious? The South Central Wastewater Authority (SCWA), which provides wastewater treatment services to protect and enhance the environment for the City of Petersburg, the City of Colonial Heights, Chesterfield County, Dinwiddie County, and Prince George County, Virginia, may have to dip into its cash reserves and raise rates for its four other member municipalities if Petersburg fails to resume making its monthly payments very soon: to make up for the gap, each of the other four member jurisdictions would have to increase its monthly payments by approximately 61 percent. At a special meeting at the end of last week, the boards of the SCWA and the Appomattox River Water Authority were briefed on the outlook for SCWA’s finances due to Petersburg’s looming insolvency—with SCWA accounting manager Melissa B. Wilkins warning that unless the authority can tap some of its cash reserves, without Petersburg’s monthly payments, the Authority will be insolvent by the middle of next month—or, as she put it: “Right now, mid-October, we’re broke.” Indeed, forecasts provided to the directors, all municipal government officials from Petersburg, Chesterfield County, Colonial Heights, Dinwiddie County, and Prince George County, make clear that if SCWA does not begin to receive payments consistently by Petersburg and does not tap into its reserves, its operating cash will go into the red as early as next month: by the end of the fiscal year next June, the figures show the authority’s cash balance will be nearly $3 million in arrears. Ms. Wilkens advised that if Petersburg were to start making regular monthly payments beginning with the amount due for this month, and if SCWA were to shift about $996,000 in unused construction funds from a reserve account to the authority’s operating account, the authority would end the fiscal year with a positive cash balance of $35. Ms. Wilkin’s forecast assumes that SCWA will continue to operate under a “bare bones” budget—one which would not include any deposits into the authority’s reserves and puts a hold on any non-mandated construction projects. The key issue is that Petersburg imposes a disproportionate burden on the joint authority: the city accounts for approximately 55 percent of SCWA’s treatment load; ergo its share is of SCWA’s operating and maintenance costs. Its failure to do so means that to make up for the non-payment, each of the other four member municipalities would have to increase its monthly payments by about 61 percent.

The urgency and briefing come in the wake of the suit the authority filed against Petersburg last month, seeking the appointment of a receiver to oversee the city’s utility revenue and make sure the money collected from residents is used to pay SCWA and not for other purposes: the authority claims Petersburg owed it more than $1.5 million in overdue payments. Two weeks ago, Petersburg Circuit Court Judge Joseph M. Teefey Jr. opined that the suit contained “sufficient information that an emergency exists, and it is necessary that this court appoint a special receiver” to make sure residents’ wastewater payments are not used for other purposes, naming attorney Bruce Matson of the Richmond-based law firm LeClairRyan as the receiver. In addition, Judge Teefey, on his own initiative, ordered the city and the wastewater authority to meet with a mediator, McCammon Group of Richmond, because of “the special relationship of the parties to this action and the potential conflicts that are a consequence of these relationships.” In response, the City of Petersburg’s attorneys have filed a motion asking Judge Teefey to issue a stay of his order or to vacate it, because the appointment of a receiver automatically puts the city in technical default on more than $12 million in debt. The court has scheduled a hearing in the case for next Monday.)

For her part, Petersburg Interim City Manager Dironna Moore Belton, who represents the city on the SCWWA’s board, indicated she was hopeful the city would be able to resume making its monthly payments in the very near future, stating that the city is currently seeking a short-term loan to help that effort, advising the board Petersburg has identified a list of “key obligations” to be paid each month, which includes payments to regional authorities such as SCWWA, the Appomattox River Water Authority, and Riverside Regional Jail—albeit acknowledging that to keep current on those payments, that would “still not address some past-due payments.” Ms. Belton stated that city officials and their financial advisers “have a long-term package we are working on to address fiscal year 2016 past-due payments.”

Financing Post Municipal Bankruptcy City Services. Stockton residents in two weeks will have a say on whether to approve a quarter-cent restricted sales tax increase where the new revenues would be dedicated toward funding libraries, a recreation program, and other services in the city. The vote on Measure M is projected to generate $9 million a year and $144 million overall for library and recreation services, including after-school programs, homework centers, and children’s story times. It will be a heavy lift: Measure M requires approval of two-thirds of voters to pass. Since 1980, proponents argue, the city has underfunded its library and recreation services; they add that the city’s municipal bankruptcy and the recession “only compounded previously existing problems;” moreover, they argue that since 1980, the city’s population has doubled, but not a single new library has been built. The main goal for proponents of the tax is to get Stockton to go from an average spending per resident of $15 on public libraries and recreation to California’s median of $35 per capita. Last June, the City Council voted 5-2, with councilmen Michael Tubbs and Dan Wright opposing, to reopen the Fair Oaks Library; however, the facility is not expected to open for several months. The City’s Community Service Director John Alita, speaking as a private citizen, told the Stockton Record the city has had to close pools, has under maintained playing fields, and has reduced the average time libraries are open to less than 30 hours per week, noting: “The more that those things continue, then the less and less there is opportunity for our community members to actually benefit from these amenities that we made and created to provide for them…(The) combined benefit of restoring what would be a normal schedule to residents and then being able to enhance that in areas where there’s nothing right now, I think we see that as Measure M’s greatest benefit.” (Last year, the Stockton Unified School District had the lowest third-grade literacy rate in San Joaquin County at 16 percent, according to University of the Pacific’s annual San Joaquin Literacy Report Card.) All six of the city’s Council Members have endorsed Measure M, as have civil rights leader Dolores Huerta, San Joaquin County Superintendent of Schools James Mousalimas, the League of Women Voters, and the Greater Stockton Chamber of Commerce. As proposed, Measure M would essentially leave the sales tax unchanged, as a state sales tax increase approved by the passage of Proposition 30 in 2012 will expire this year.

Nonetheless, incumbent Mayor and candidate for re-election Anthony Silva, City Council candidate Steve Colangelo, and former Councilman Ralph Lee White have expressed apprehensions, testifying before the City Council last May they opposed approving a new tax when Measure A funds are not being used to fund library services. (Measure A, a three-quarter cent tax, was a tax increase approved by voters in 2014 with no restrictions, but with the city’s promise funds would be used to hire more police officers—a promise as yet unmet.) Mayor Silva, at a candidate’s forum last week, said: “I’m kind of caught in the middle on this one: All that money that we promised has not been spent exactly on what it was promised to you. So here comes another tax,” adding that Measure A had also promised to fund essential services, including opening libraries and pools; however, but none of those things were done…I love libraries…I love books, but the schools already have libraries.” Another opponent. Ned Leiba, a CPA, who closely monitors the Stockton’s finances, noting what he termed was poor management of Measure A funds and the city’s overall “problem with accounting and auditing,” stated: “You don’t want to give money to an entity that can’t be responsible.” Mr. Leiba, a member of the Measure A oversight committee, said that instead, Measure M proponents should pressure the city into using budgeted but unspent funds and not a new tax to open libraries. Stockton wants to “hold on to every shekel,” but there’s no basis for management’s claim that there’s no money, he added: “You want to exhaust all other remedies before you turn to taxes.” Were voters to adopt Measure M, a seven-member oversight committee would be appointed to do an annual review of how much money is generated and how funds are used. It appears that were the measure to pass, all dollars collected by the restricted sales tax would be placed in a separate city fund to be used for libraries and recreation services in Stockton.  

Wherefore the Promise of PROMESA? The process of unravelling insolvency is slow and frustrating: it can be even more trying where it involves a quasi-state and there are issues of sovereignty. Ergo, despite two meetings, the federal control board has, to date, evidenced scant progress—likely awaiting the outcome of both U.S. and Puerto Rico elections. Moreover, despite the ongoing recovery from the Great Recession, our respected colleagues at Municipal Market Analytics note that the fifty-two year-to-date first time payment defaulters so far this year has broken above last year’s trend (forty-eight between January and October), noting that in order for this year to finish with fewer defaults than last year (a trend that has held every year since MMA began collecting this data in 2009), “there can be no more than six additional defaults in November and December. Those two months have together averaged 14 defaults since 2013, strongly suggesting that 2016 will see a break in the downtrend.” For its part, the representatives of the U.S. territory advised the PROMESA Board it lacked any fiscal ability to finance any of its debt service over the next decade absent changes in federal laws to address both the island’s economy—and those provisions which harm its ability to compete against other Caribbean nations, noting that Puerto Rico’s GDP has contracted for nine of the last ten years in real terms, driven by the expiration of incentives provided under §936 of the U.S. tax code and the U.S. financial crisis, both of which were exacerbated by out-migration and extraordinary austerity measures taken by the Commonwealth, measures including reducing government consumption by 12% in real terms from 2006 through 2015, cutting the public administration headcount by approximately a quarter; reducing or deferring critical capital expenditures; delaying tax refunds and vendor payments; implementing significant new revenue measures, including recent sales and petroleum products tax increases generating approximately $1.4 billion annually; depleting liquidity and undertaking extraordinary short-term borrowings from pension and insurance systems; reforming pensions, converting defined benefit plans to defined contribution plans—austerity measures which they said had been insufficient to eliminate deficits, thereby incurring significant deficit financing, a ballooning debt load, and persistent economic decline, as evidenced by driving emigration to the U.S. mainland: a loss of not just some 9% of the island’s population—but disproportionately a loss for the best-educated.

The statistics, part of a 100-page fiscal plan submitted to the PROMESA Board, sought to identify the resources available to support basic governmental services and promote growth; it promised to put together a specific debt restructuring proposal in the wake of receipt of input from the Oversight Board. The plan warns that if the U.S. territory were to take various steps to improve revenues, reduce spending, and improve economic growth, it would still face a $6 billion gap over the decade—leaving no resources to meet commonwealth-supported debt. The plan addressed neither the financial outlook for Puerto Rico’s public corporations or municipalities (which also owe roughly $17 billion of debt). The plan treats $50.2 billion of debt as being addressed by the fiscal plan and the remainder of Puerto Rico’s debt as independent of it, because it is supported by the public corporations, municipalities, and other public entities. For priorities, Puerto Rico’s first is for Congress to continue Affordable Care Act funding to the Commonwealth beyond its planned end in FY2018—a continuation which the territory projects this could mean an additional $16.1 billion in direct Puerto Rico government revenues and an additional $8.4 billion in indirect revenues due to improved economic performance. Gov. Padilla also asked for an indefinite extension of the Affordable Care Act and that Congress treat Puerto Rico similarly to the 50 states with regard to Medicaid spending—and the extension of the earned income tax credit program to Puerto Rico, noting that such changes would lead to an $18.9 billion surplus, which could be used for the payments. This would be out of a total scheduled debt service of $34.2 billion. In its plan, the Governor recommended seven principals critical to reducing the government financing gap and restoring economic growth: any austerity must be minimal; the government must introduce improved budgetary controls and financial transparency; Puerto Rico needs to improve tax enforcement, consolidate agencies, reduce workforce, and reform its tax policy to eliminate the revenue impact of the planned end of the Act 154 tax in fiscal 2018; change local labor regulations, simplify permitting in order to promote economic growth, and invest in strategic growth-promoting projects. Fifth, Puerto Rico’s government must continue to protect vulnerable members of the population, such as the elderly, young, disabled, and poor through government services. The territory must reduce its debt to a “sustainable” level. And, seventh, the federal government must be involved to help generate economic growth.

He identified other concerns, as well, including caution in balancing amongst the island’s creditors, noting a “contingent value right or growth bond that pays creditors in the event growth targets set in the plan are exceeded should therefore be considered as part of any debt restructuring,” and that, because local municipal bondholders are believed to hold $8 billion to $12 billion of Puerto Rico’s debt, according to an official with the Puerto Rico Fiscal Agency and Financial Authority, the plan says there must be consideration of the impact of debt restructuring on the local economy. Finally, Puerto Rico Secretary of the Treasury Juan Zaragoza advised the board that Puerto Rico currently owes $1.3 billion to $1.35 billion to suppliers.