Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the route to fiscal solvency taken by the small Virginia municipality of Petersburg, the major legal challenges to the physical and fiscal future of Flint; and the ongoing fiscal, legal, physical, and human challenges to Puerto Rico.
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The Road Back to Fiscal Solvency. Forensic auditors earlier this week presented their findings from the audit they conducted into the city of Peters burg’s financial books during a special City Council meeting in the small, historic Virginia City of Petersburg, and answered questions from Council Members. Their key focus was on the “ethical tone” of the city government: they noted they had 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.” The list of misdeeds included 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. They added that the ethical problems appeared to be more “systemic” rather than individual, testifying, for instance, that they had examined fuel consumption and “[W]e 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.” Because of the city’s limited budget, the scope of the auditor’s (PBMares) work could only go so far. Council Members Darrin Hill and Treska Wilson-Smith both expressed sentiments that the audit did not go far enough; however, 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 money than the nearly insolvent city had. In fact, the city spent approximately $1 million on turnaround services, with the vast bulk of that amount to the Bobb Group to obtain outside help from the firm led by the former Richmond City Manager in its efforts to pull Petersburg back from the brink of insolvency and scrutinize the cash-strapped government’s books. The city devoted nearly $195,000 to a forensic audit by the firm PBMares. Former Mayor and now City Councilman Howard Myers believes Petersburg’s taxpayers have gotten their money’s worth: “They brought us from the depths of indebtedness…I think the resistance then was mainly misinformed about the nature of how things had gotten to the point they were.” But from the abyss of insolvency, city officials now project Petersburg will have $2 million in savings left over from the fiscal year which ended June 30. To get there, the city has deeply reduced pay for emergency workers, cut funding for public schools, and eliminated programs for children in an effort to close a $12 million hole in the city’s budget—even as those efforts still left the Council confronted by some $18.8 million in past-due bills, as well as litigation over the city’s mounting debts—not to mention growing taxpayer pressure to cease to exist, but rather to dissolve its charter and revert to becoming part of one or more counties. Nevertheless, as Mayor Samuel Parham put it: “We had to take a chance: We were at a point where all the banks were laughing at us, saying: ‘We’re not going to pay you a dime; you couldn’t afford to mail an envelope.’”
Today, it seems that gamble has paid off: the contract with Mr. Bobb’s firm ended last month, and, as Mayor Parham stated: “Look, God bless Robert Bobb…We couldn’t get anyone — nobody wanted to come risk their career to save Petersburg. The storm was so massive, it was sinking all of us, but he told us he had dealt with many storms in his 40-year career.” The appointment of Mr. Bobb, however, was a political gambit which drew the opposition of a “good government group,” Clean Sweep Petersburg, which had helped launch an effort to recall Mr. Myers and Mayor Parham. The issue which created the greatest political discord: privatization of the city’s water and sewer authority. In an interview this week, Mr. Bobb noted that the city’s future fiscal success will depend largely on the City Council’s ability to be accountable to taxpayers through their own decisions and those of the fresh administration hired in a municipal reset. Critical to that success will be firm municipal oversight of cash flow, strong leadership in the finance department, and a newly created revenue collection department designed to wrest responsibility away from the Treasurer’s office, which, according to Mr. Bobb, was not under the Council’s purview: he added the city’s elected leaders “have a tremendous fiduciary responsibility to perform at a high level on behalf of the city’s taxpayers: I think they have a chance, absolutely. They really have to control spending, though, and be careful.” He added that of the $10 million the firm calculated it had helped save or bring in through a combination of state money it pursued, savings achieved by restructuring debt, the sale of city assets and other actions: “We’ve given the administration and the City Council a reset and an opportunity to build moving forward: “It really is up to the City Council now.”
Out Like Flint. Thousands of Flint, Michigan’s citizens are still grappling with the effects of the city’s state-caused lead-poisoning drinking water crisis, one occasioned by a gubernatorially appointed Emergency Manager, which has, today, confronted the city with many citizens facing possible tax liens and even foreclosure on their homes due to unpaid water bills: more than 8,000 residents have received notices that past-due water bills—categorized as those left unpaid for six months or more—must be resolved to avoid a lien being placed on their property. The bills in question cover two years: they total more than $5 million in delinquent water and sewer charges, according to the city. The ongoing fiscal and physical stress comes amid an involuntary manslaughter trial after Federal Judge Judith Levy last June ruled that the conduct of government officials was “so egregious as to shock the conscience,” approving a $97 million settlement from the State of Michigan to replace water lines in at least 18,000 households.
Nevertheless, today, the water in Flint remains unsafe to drink without a filter. Unsurprisingly, in the city, where the estimated median household income in 2015 ($25,342) was more than 10 percent lower than in 2000, and where assessed housing (home/condo) values have dropped by nearly 50 percent to a level 75 percent lower than the statewide average, the city is ensnared in a vicious fiscal quandary: the liens threatened by the city, if implemented, represent the first step in making a claim on an individual’s property, setting off a legal process which could ultimately result in families losing their homes—further depressing assessed property values. And that is in a municipality where the city’s residents face some of the highest water bills in the country. (To bring some relief, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder last year approved a $30 million plan to reimburse residents for a portion of payments made since April 2014 on water used for drinking, bathing, and cooking.) That state assistance ended early this year, however, so now the city’s leaders are faced with the grim task of condemnation: once water payments are missed on water or sewer accounts for more than six months, the city’s ordinance requires the Treasurer to transfer the lien to a homeowner’s property tax bill—or, as Mayor Karen Weaver puts it: “We must follow the law…I understand the concerns that have been raised, and I am working to see if any changes or something can be done to help those affected by this, especially given the extraordinary circumstances we have endured due to the water crisis.”
But Flint’s fiscal and physical crisis has become a legal entanglement for the State of Michigan, where, in another courtroom, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, whose original appointment of a series of state-appointed emergency managers who ran Flint city government from 2011 until mid-2015, making key decisions related to city’s water system (under former Emergency Manager Darnell Earley, the city changed its water source in what was explained as a cost-saving move, switching from pre-treated water from Lake Huron to raw water from the Flint River—and after which the DEQ did not require the city to treat the water to make it less corrosive to lead pipes and plumbing, causing lead to leach into the water supply).
That decision to preempt the city’s local elected officials had led to the fateful decision to switch the city’s water supply to a contaminated system; while state responsibility appears to be a hot potato—with state leaders not saying who initially opposed issuing a state emergency over the Flint water crisis. During a preliminary examination this Wednesday, in the criminal case against Nick Lyon, Director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, special prosecutor Todd Flood read from a November 2015 email from Richard Baird, a senior advisor to Gov. Snyder, in which Mr. Baird had written “the ‘boss’ wanted to avoid triggering the emergency, which authorizes the Michigan State Police to coordinate relief efforts and requests for assistance from the federal government.” (Former President Obama signed an emergency declaration for Flint days after Gov. Snyder ultimately requested it, clearing the way for federal assistance to replace damaged lead and galvanized water service lines in the city.) Thus, the ongoing criminal trials in which the State of Michigan and City of Flint employees have been charged with criminal wrongdoing related to the water crisis (of which there are a total of 13 pending in Genesee District Court). In the trial, Corinne Miller, the former head of Disease Control for the State of Michigan, testified in a key court hearing Wednesday that the court must determine if Nick Lyon, the then Director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, must face an involuntary manslaughter charge. (Note, Mr. Lyon, has remained on the job while facing charges of involuntary manslaughter and misconduct in office.)
Indeed, the Michigan courtrooms have become filled: attorneys for 21 law firms have filed a consolidated class-action lawsuit against two engineering firms, Flint officials, and Michigan officials, including Gov. Rick Snyder and former state Treasurer Andy Dillon over Flint’s lead-contaminated water—so egregious that last June, Judith Levy ruled that Flint residents have sufficiently argued that the conduct of government officials “was so egregious as to shock the conscience.” The complaint before her had noted that approximately 100,000 Flint residents “have experienced and will continue to experience serious personal injury and property damage caused by defendents’ deliberate, reckless and negligent misconduct…Defendents caused a public health crisis by exposing (Flint residents) to contaminated water” and “exacerbated the crisis by concealing and misrepresenting its scope, failing to take effective remedial action to eliminate it, and then lying about it to cover up their misconduct.”
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Flint’s 100,000 residents and other users of its water system, says the defendants acted recklessly and did not respect residents’ due process rights argues that the engineering firms and government officials unconstitutionally did not treat the predominantly black residents of Flint the same as the predominantly white residents of great Genesee County. In late July, a three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals allowed plaintiffs in one case before Judge Levy to try to seek relief from Gov. Snyder in the form of compensation for education, medical monitoring and evaluation services for ongoing harm from Flint’s lead-contaminated water. In the other case, the appeals judges dismissed the possibility of seeking penalties for Gov. Snyder, the State of Michigan, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. All three of the judges, however, wrote that the 11th Amendment gives the state and Snyder immunity against damages sought by private citizens.
Undercutting Sovereignty. President Trump set off a broad sale of Puerto Rico’s municipal bonds this week when he said: “You can say goodbye to that,” referring to the U.S. territory’s $73 billion debt as one option to help Puerto Rico recover from Hurricane Maria in an interview on Fox News during his visit to Puerto Rico—a suggestion which OMB Director Mick Mulvaney discounted just hours later, stating the White House does not intend to become involved in Puerto Rico debt restructuring—debt which, in any case, the President has no unilateral authority to forgive. The President had stated: “We’re going to work something out. We have to look at their whole debt structure. They owe a lot of money to your friends on Wall Street, and we’re going to have to wipe that out…you can wave goodbye to that,” unsurprisingly leading some to understand that the Trump administration would force municipal bondholders to forgive Puerto Rico’s debt. (The price of Puerto Rico’s municipal bonds, already down in the wake of Hurricane Maria, fell another 31 percent—only recovering in the wake of comments by Office of Management and Budget Director Mulvaney, attempting to backtrack, stating: “I wouldn’t take it word for word with that. I talked to the President about this at some length yesterday as we flew home on Air Force One: The primary focus of the federal effort is to make sure the island is safe and that we’re rebuilding the island,” adding that the federal government would not pay off debts or bail out municipal bondholders: “I think what you heard the President say is that Puerto Rico is going to have to figure out a way to solve its debt problem.”
The White House Wednesday asked Congress to approve $29 billion in additional hurricane relief and municipal debt forgiveness, seeking to help Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, as well as shore up the debt-ridden federal flood insurance program which provides flood insurance to homes and small businesses. The latest request seeks $12.8 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to stay current with the nearly $200 million a day the agency is spending on recovery work; the request also seeks action by Congress to erase some $16 billion in debt that the National Flood Insurance Program owes to the Treasury: under the White House proposal, premiums for flood insurance would rise, at least for homeowners who could afford to pay more, while private insurers would be encouraged to start writing their own flood insurance.
For the devastated U.S. territory, however, the physical and fiscal destruction has only worsened Puerto Rico’s short and long-term fiscal plight—or, as Gov. Rossello noted: “As far as the comment made about wiping the debt clean, that is the opinion of the President,” noting, carefully, he could not comment further because of the ongoing legal proceedings. Fortunately, in Congress, House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) is putting together a funding package to aid Puerto Rico, and he said members of his committee and other Representatives were meeting to discuss temporary measures to reduce government rules slowing Puerto Rico’s recovery: his group will examine options for ways to make Puerto Rico’s and the U.S. Virgin Island’s electrical systems more resistant to storms, as well as consider how to improve things in both territories in the short-, medium-, and long-term.