Exiting from Municipal Bankruptcy


March 16, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the Motor City’s final steps in its successful exit from chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy; then we worry about lead level threats in Flint, before journeying to the warmer climes of the Caribbean to update the fiscal challenges for Puerto Rico.

Early Departure from Chapter 9. The City of Detroit this week dipped into its budget surplus to devote some $54.4 million to finance paying off the outstanding municipal bonds it had issued as part of its plan of debt adjustment four years ago, with the borrowing then issued by the city to settle debts with municipal bond insurers related to the Motor City’s pension-related debt—here the payments were to finance the remaining principal and interest owed on $88 million in 12-year Financial Recovery, with the city formally moving to pay off $54 million of its 2014 financial recovery bonds. The unexpected payments might make the leprechaun jump to celebrate still another demonstration of improved fiscal health. Here, the payment had the support of the Detroit Financial Review Commission, as well as the Detroit City Council, clearing the way for the city Wednesday to issue a 30-day redemption notice and report it had fully funded an escrow to retire $52.3 million of remaining principal and $2.1 million of accrued interest to fully redeem the 2014C bonds effective April 13th—an action projected to save Detroit’s taxpayers some $11.7 million in interest savings. CFO John Hill noted: “The Mayor and City Council have again shown their commitment to the city’s long-term financial sustainability by taking action to authorize the resolution for the redemption of the entire outstanding principal on the city’s Financial Recovery Bonds, Series 2014C.”  In this case, the C series of unrated, taxable municipal bonds totaled $88.4 million; they carried an interest rate of 5% interest, with the bonds secured by Detroit’s limited tax general obligation pledge and payable from city parking revenues. According to Detroit Deputy Chief Financial Officer John Naglick, approximately $54 million remains outstanding after early maturities amortized and the $15 million sale of a parking garage triggered a mandatory redemption. The C series was part of $1.28 billion of borrowing Detroit closed on in December of  2014 to fund creditor settlements, as well as raise revenues for revitalization efforts, thereby paving the way for its exit from the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in American history—and mayhap bring the luck of the Irish that the city could exit from direct state oversight within the next few months—especially in the wake of Mayor Mike Duggan recently proposed $2 billion balanced budget—the approval of which could facilitate Detroit’s exit from active state oversight, or. As Mr. Naglick put it: “I expect in April or May we’re going to see the Financial Review Commission vote to end oversight and return self-determination to the city of Detroit.”

The Motor City’s $1 billion general fund, according to the Mayor, continues to be healthy, because the city’s most important source of revenues, its income tax, is producing more revenues. Indeed, the city’s budget maintains more than a 5% reserve, which is projected at $62.3 million. At the same time, the city is continuing to set aside fiscal resources to address higher-than-expected pension payments starting in 2024 when annual payments of at least $143 million begin. Payments of $20 million run through 2019 with no payments then due through 2023 under U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes’ approved plan of debt adjustment. Detroit’s bond ratings, albeit still deep in junk territory, were upgraded last year, with, just before Christmas, S&P Global Ratings slipping down the chimney to upgrade Detroit’s credit rating to B-plus.

Not in Like Flint. Recent tests of the Michigan City of Flint’s drinking water at elementary schools have found an increase in samples with lead levels above the federal action limit. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality determined that 28 samples tested last month were above 15 parts per billion of lead. DEQ spokesman George Krisztian reported the increase may be due to changes in testing conditions, such as the decision to collect samples prior to flushing lines. (Samples collected before flushing tend to have higher lead levels because the water has been in contact with the pipes longer.) Thus, according to Mr. Krisztian, the overall results are encouraging, because they meet federal guidelines for lead if treated like samples collected by municipal water systems. Most of the more than 90 Legionnaires’ disease cases during the deadly 2014-15 outbreak in the Flint area were caused by changes in the city’s water supply — and the epidemic may have been more widespread than previously believed, according to two studies published Monday. The risk of acquiring Legionnaires’ disease increased more than six-fold across the Flint water distribution system after the city switched from the Detroit area water system’s Lake Huron source to the Flint River in April 2014, according to a report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Despite the improvement in lead levels over the last 18 months, federal, state, and local officials have advised city residents to continue using bottled water—as the city continues its costly efforts to extract at least 6.000 lead lines from houses this year and next—with Mayor Karen Weaver reporting that state-funded bottled water should be available to residents until the work is completed; the effort to test the drinking water in the city’s schools has yet to be completed. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality this week defended its outreach efforts in the city, after the Flint Journal reported on a new report which found that 51% of bottled water users surveyed here said they either had no faucet filter or are not confident they know how to maintain the equipment they do have. Mayor Weaver urges the State of Michigan to continue to finance the distribution of bottled water until the last of the leaded lines are removed.

Even as fears remain about the health of the city’s schoolchildren, the State of Michigan has selected a former emergency manager for two Michigan school districts to serve as interim Superintendent of Flint’s public schools after the school board removed the superintendent and two other senior officials. Thus, Wednesday, Gregory Weatherspoon was unanimously approved for the post by the Flint Board of Education, one day after the Board that Bilal Tawwab, Assistant Superintendent Shawn Merriweather, and the school district’s attorney had been placed on leave. It appears the school district’s roughly 4,500 students, an enrollment that has been falling steadily since 1968, when there were 1000% more students, are still at risk. The lower numbers and ongoing safe drinking water fears augur badly for assessed property values in a city where the population suffered a serious decline from 1970 to 1980, losing nearly 40,000 residents—a loss from which Flint never recovered—and a population which has declined continuously—so much so that an August 2015 WalletHub study revealed that Flint placed dead last, as one of the least healthy real estate markets out of 300 U.S. cities.

Arriba? In Puerto Rico, where about 60% of the U.S. territory’s children live below the federal poverty level, it appears there might be some rising optimism—even amidst growing frustration at the exorbitant costs of the Congressionally-imposed PROMESA process. The optimism comes in the wake of disclosures that Puerto Rico’s earlier estimates of the fiscal and financial impact of Hurricane Maria appear to have been overly pessimistic. The rising optimism appears to be reflected by the rally in Puerto Rico’s municipal bond prices. At the same time, Christian Sobrino, Governor Ricardo Rosselló’s representative before the PROMESA Oversight Board, Wednesday said that the Board’s letter regarding lawyers and advisers high fees in PROMESA Title III cases did “not reflect the truth,” adding he found it “laughable that there are unnecessary expenses on behalf of the government of Puerto Rico:  To start with, the structure of Cofina (the Puerto Rico Sales Tax Financing Corporation) and central government agents was not an invention of Puerto Rico in Title III,” Mr. Sobrino said, referring to the mechanism suggested by the Board to determine whether the Sales and Use tax collection belongs to the corporation which issued the debt or to the central government. He noted that the attorneys and counselors assisting these agents billed, all together, $17 million of the total $ 77.7 million in fees claimed during the first five months of the federal PROMESA law: “These letters reflect imprudence and a ridiculous use of these expressions and do not reflect the truth of what we have done in the government to avoid this. It is out-of-place.”

That led the PROMSEA Board to write to the Congressional leadership to indicate that high expenses for lawyers and advisers fees, participating in that process, are due to the PROMESA—or, as PROMESA Board President José B. Carrión noted: “Historically, the people of Puerto Rico have suffered a problem of wasteful spending, admitting that there has been duplication of efforts in Title III cases.” Representative Sobrino stressed that the government has tried not to duplicate efforts with the Board, but that drawing the fiscal plan and budget, as well as its implementation, are the government’s responsibility, adding that the government agreed that Citibank would act as the leading banker in the Electric Power Authority (PREPA) case, as suggested by the Board, and that only a firm hired by the Board would conduct the audit of the bank accounts. However, Rep. Sobrino stressed that there have been times when the government had to use its lawyers to ensure success in Court, as was recently the case with a claim by the Highway and Transportation Authority bondholders: “We have been forced to hire our lawyers to preserve self-government,” adding that the government intervention prevented that, after Hurricane Maria, Noel Zamot from being appointed as a PREPA de-facto trustee.


A Steely Road to the Fiscal Future

March 5, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the Steel City’s long road back to fiscal recovery after 14 years of state fiscal oversight.

Is the Steel City Back? Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto hails: “Pittsburgh is back!” The great American steel city, the subject of our Center’s report years ago, “The Great Challenge Facing America’s Cities,” in which we described the fiscal challenges of Detroit, Chicago, San Bernardino, Calif., Pittsburgh, Providence, R.I. and Baltimore to provide insights for municipalities that may face financial struggles in the future, has emerged from more than a decade of state oversight. The Mayor’s exaltation comes in the wake of Gov. Tom Wolf’s declaration that the Steel City has become the state’s second municipality to emerge from Pennsylvania’s Act 47 program, enabling the Mayor to exult “We are now a city that is financially solvent. We’ve changed our habits and we have safeguards in place to assure we won’t fall into our previous bad habits.” The road back from the precipice of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy involved laying off nearly 500 employees, including 100 police officers, the closure of recreation centers, and the elimination of key municipal services, including mounted police patrols to saltboxes. The Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority (ICA), which has been the supervisory authority for the state, has asked the city for $37,000 to help pay off outstanding bills, and is seeking legislative approval to terminate its operations; the authority is also marking this final chapter by taking steps to dissolve itself, ending fourteen years as the state created fiscal oversight agency, together with the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development to help Pittsburgh avoid chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy—together with the state’s so-called Act 47 coordinators, who, last November, had recommended the city’s release from state oversight since December of 2003). The Authority’s Chair, B.J. Leber, noted: “No. 1, Act 47 is going away: It just doesn’t make sense for us to exist beyond Act 47, either from a logistical standpoint or a community-needs standpoint.”

Exiting state oversight, as we have observed in neighboring New Jersey, is not easily accomplished: the Steel City has been under state oversight ; thus, at least one ICA board member disagrees that Pittsburgh is ready to leave fiscal oversight: Michael Danovitz, the ICA’s longest-serving board member, said the city has not demonstrated a pattern of consistently paying into underfunded employee pension plans, noting: “I don’t believe the work of the ICA is done…This was the first year where they put in enough money to match the outflow of the pensions. One year doesn’t make a pattern.” Last year, Mayor Peduto’s administration had pledged pension payments of $232 million more than state minimums as part of a five-year spending plan approved by the ICA and the state’s Act 47 team. (Under Pennsylvania law, the ICA must remain in place until the later of Act 47 oversight ending or June 30, 2019): Chair Leber said the ICA board has asked the Legislature to amend the law so it can end at the same time as Act 47.

Unlike in the neighboring Garden State, Pittsburgh’s intergovernmental relationship with the state has been much more harmonious: Finance Director Sam Ashbaugh praised the ICA: “We’ve had a very productive and effective working relationship with the new board since they’ve been in place: I think they recognize the financial improvements that the city has enacted.” Yet, even though Pittsburgh is still able to finance its capital budget via its reserve fund, which is in no danger of running out, it still confronts both capital budget and pension challenges, including the priority of finding a long-term solution for dealing with landslides—or, as the Mayor put it: “We came to realize that there were no quick fixes, and we had run out of borrowing room…for us, being in Act 47 for 14 years, meant making difficult decisions to become financially solvent. It definitely had its costs: Our workforce took it on the chin, going without pay raises, and our infrastructure suffered without our ability to borrow,” adding: “We were still in the throes of pension liability.” If anything, the fiscal challenge is made greater by the demographic reality: the city’s population has dropped from 700,000 in 1960 to about 304,000 today.

Measuring State Fiscal Recovery Oversight. Pennsylvania’s fiscal oversight program has shown a mixed picture: the municipality of Aliquippa, just over 21 miles from Pittsburgh, has been under Act 47 for 30 years; it is currently on its sixth recovery program: like Scranton and Chester, which joined in 1992 and 1995, respectively, the success record is mixed, or, as Villanova Professor David Fiorenza put it: “The program was successful for Pittsburgh, especially if I compare it to cities such as Chester.” Approximately 30% of the Act 47 municipalities have been from the Allegheny area.

Pittsburgh’s 2014 fiscal recovery plan had proposed the elimination of operating deficits in the baseline multi-year financial projection, while preserving basic services, in order to avoid the necessity for cash-flow borrowings; the plan also focused on buffering against unanticipated revenue shortfalls or expenditure increases. The fiscal plan sought to gradually reduce the city’s debt in order to: provide greater fiscal capacity to finance daily operations; direct more funding to the city’s capital budget, with priority to roads, bridges, police and fire stations and other core infrastructure; and gradually increase pension fund contributions to actuarially recommended levels. As of the end of 2016, the city’s unassigned fund balance was 17.7% of its operating expenditures, higher than the 16.7% level the Government Finance Officers Association recommends. Pittsburgh two years ago refined its revenue forecasting methods and began subscribing to an external data analytics firm, through which the city receives city and county-level economic indicators including non-farm wages, gross county product, retail sales, and city employment throughout the year. Moody’s rates the city’s general obligation bonds A1. Fitch Ratings and S&P rate them AA-minus and A-plus, respectively. Moody’s unmoodily notes: “Pittsburgh has a favorable credit position, given strong financial results through fiscal 2016.” Or, as the Mayor puts it: “We are now a city that is financially solvent. We’ve changed our habits.”

That does not, however, mean the city’s leaders can rest: the city’s fund balance as a percent of operating revenues (18.4%) falls short of the U.S. median for the rating category (32%), according to Moody’s, although Moody’s reports the fund balance has improved considerably since 2012; nevertheless, the credit rating agency notes that Pittsburgh’s debt and pension liabilities are “somewhat elevated.” The recovery also comes with new fiscal challenges: the Steel City’s police union is demanding the city renegotiate its current agreement, retroactive to 2015, with FOP President Robert Swartzwelder citing a contract provision which authorizes renegotiations in the wake of Act 47 oversight—a factor which the Mayor notes he expects to “happen with all the unions.” That is, recovery brings its own fiscal challenges—including on the capital front—which, for a municipality, like Rome, of hills and rivers, means budgeting for the capital and maintenance costs of some 450 bridges. The Mayor’s proposed FY2018 budget and five-year plan assumes the city would issue $60 million a year in new debt beginning next year to fund capital projects—part of an aggressive fiscal effort to reduce out-year debt service by FY2022 below the 12% target in the debt policy (The Steel City’s debt policy requires contracting with an independent financial advisor when issuing debt; issuing debt only for capital projects included in the capital program; it limits usage of tax revenue anticipation notes; limits its tax-supported debt service to 17% of general fund revenues; and establishes a 10-year goal of reducing this ratio to 12%.)

An Amazonian Fiscal Future? The former steel city has become, today, a center of higher ed: there are ten universities within the city limits, while the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and Highmark anchor a thriving healthcare industry. Amazon, Google, and Uber, among other companies, have added jobs in the region. Pittsburgh remains in the competition to secure Amazon’s second world headquarters, in no small part in the wake of its focus on arts and culture with a 14-block district which encompasses restaurants, retail shops, art galleries, public parks with art installations and many theaters.

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

February 5, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Raceway to Recovery

Taking the Checkered Flag. Detroit, on the verge of posting its third consecutive balanced budget, appears on course to exit state oversight as early as next year in the wake of yesterday’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) demonstrating the Motor City has steadied its finances after emerging more than three years ago from the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. The state’s Detroit Financial Review Board could vote to waive its authority over the city as early as next month, according to Detroit Chief Financial Officer John Hill, who noted: “We believe we have met all the criteria for the waiver…I believe this will be the last budget that will be done under the FRC’s authority.” The CAFR, officially released Wednesday, appears to support the city’s hopes to soon regain full authority over its own finances: The report notes that Detroit ended its FY2017 with a $53.8 million general fund operating surplus and revenues exceeding expenditures by $108.6 million—even better than the city had originally projected: it ended its most recent fiscal year with a $63 million surplus—as well as a general fund unassigned fund balance of $169 million, better than 15% increase from the previous fiscal year, leading CFO Hill, as he prepares to present the results to the commission at a meeting later this month, to note: “It allows us to have a really good base of information as we are going into our budget process…It also gives us a chance to address some of the items that are identified as things we need to work on.” Mr. Hill added that Detroit has demonstrated vast improvements in its financial health, citing credit rating agency upgrades from rating agencies, a higher employment rate, and enhanced assessed property values: “I have to say that certainly there has been a positive impact from the financial review commission oversight: It’s been a real constructive process where the city has excelled.”

For his part, Mayor Mike Duggan noted that a third straight balanced budget proves his administration, in partnership with the City Council can “effectively manage the city’s finances: “This is another big step forward and helps set the stage for the end of the active state financial oversight,” as the Mayor preps to present the new budget later this month. Detroit Financial Review Commission member “Ike” McKinnon also credited the leadership role Mayor Duggan deserved for with getting the city’s finances back on track: “I remember when Mike Duggan took over as Mayor, we certainly had some hope and thoughts that things would happen…I did not know that it would happen this quickly. This says a lot about what he’s doing and certainly working with the state.”

The state’s financial review commission could vote to waive its authority over the city as early as next month, according to Mr. Hill. Zin any event, even if it does not, Detroit would no longer require the state board’s approval on budgeting or contracts, as it has since exiting chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. As Mr. Hill put it: “We believe we have met all the criteria for the waiver…I believe this will be the last budget that will be done under the FRC’s authority.”

Key highlights of Detroit’s CAFR include the Motor City ending FY2017 fiscal year with a $53.8 million general fund operating surplus and revenues exceeding expenditures by $108.6 million. (The City had projected a $51 million surplus for FY2017). Detroit’s general fund unassigned fund balance will be $169 million, a $26 million increase from the previous fiscal year, according to the report. 

Detroit has also reported improvements in its management of $100 million in federal grants with no questioned costs resulting from audits, for the second consecutive year—after, two years ago, the city had federal funding for blight demolition funding suspended for two months due to procedural errors. Thus, hopes are high for the release from state oversight, albeit, concerns remain with regard to the looming 2024 pension payment and subsequent debt restructuring the following year. Mr. Hill notes: “I am sure that the FRC, as well as the city–because we are dealing with those issues, will be looking at those two items to make sure that plans are in place, money has been put aside, and the budget is able to absorb the additional costs that will come in those years.” Detroit is confronted by challenges to amortize debt payments on roughly $630 million of B notes that would see payments jump from $60 million to $120 million by 2025—notes issued as part of the implementation of Detroit’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy plan of debt adjustment—notes which are unsecured. Indeed, pending before the City Council is a proposal pending to dedicate $50 million from the city coffers to pay begin paying off the debt. Going forward, according to Mr. Hill, the strategy would be to dedicate a combination of restructuring some of the debt as well as paying it off, with the effort to address pension obligations a critical component to shoring up Detroit’s long-term fiscal health. The Motor City’s  long-term funding model approved by the City Council to modify its pension provisions which established the Retiree Protection Trust Fund, and deposited $105 million–$90 million from amounts reserved in FY2016 and 2017, plus $15 million appropriated in Fiscal 2018—and, for FY2018-2021 including the addition of an additional $115 million, contemplates another $115 million from FY2022–FY2023.


Petitioning for Municipal Solvency

January 18, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the ongoing fiscal challenges to fiscal recovery for Scranton, Pennsylvania—a municipality that has verged on the edge of chapter 9 bankruptcy for many years.

Petitioning for Municipal Solvency. Scranton, Pennsylvania anticipates returning to court next month to obtain permission to continue imposing a tripled, annual local services tax of $156 on most who work in the city: the municipality has filed a petition in Lackawanna County Court to triple the local services tax. The city, Pennsylvania’s sixth-largest, is the county seat for Lackawanna County, with a population of 77,291. It is one of the nation’s oldest cities, incorporated on February 14, 1856, as a borough in Luzerne, and then as a municipality on April 23, 1866. It gained a reputation as the “Electric City” when electric lights were introduced in 1880 at Dickson Locomotive Works. By the end of the Civil War, Scranton rapidly transformed from a small, agrarian-based village to a multicultural, industrial-based city. From 1860 to 1900, the city’s population increased more than tenfold, in the wake of its official incorporation in 1866.

In 1856, the Borough of Scranton was officially incorporated. It was incorporated as a city of 35,000 in 1866 in Luzerne County, when the surrounding boroughs of Hyde Park (now part of the city’s West Side) and Providence (now part of North Scranton) were merged with Scranton. Twelve years later in 1878, the state passed a law enabling creation of new counties where a county’s population surpassed 150,000, as did Luzerne’s. The law appeared to enable the creation of Lackawanna County, and there was considerable political agitation around the authorizing process. Scranton was designated by the state legislature as the county seat of the newly formed county, which was also established as a separate judicial district, with state judges moving over from Luzerne County after courts were organized in October 1878. This was the last county in the state to be organized. Scranton earned the title as “The Electric City” when it completed the country’s first continuously operating electrified trolley in 1886—but it was also both a coal mining and steel center: at the onset of the 19th century, the city was home to the largest steel plant in the U.S.; by 1900, the city had a population of more than 100,000. However, by 1902, the dwindling iron ore supply, labor issues, and an aging plant began a reversal of fiscal fortunes: the city’s steel company left for New York—leaving Scranton, nevertheless, still as the capital of the anthracite coal industry—by which the municipality attracted thousands of workers needed to mine coal, the city developed new neighborhoods dominated by Italian and Eastern European immigrants, who brought their foods, cultures and religions. But the mining brought fortune and misfortune—the sub-surface mining weakened entire neighborhoods, damaging homes, schools, and businesses when the land collapsed, leading to, in 1913, state enactment of the Davis Act to establish the Bureau of Surface Support in Scranton. By the 1920’s, Scranton became a center for the manufacture of shellac buttons and a primary manufacturer of phonograph records. Thus, it continued to prosper and grow: by the mid-1930s, Scranton’s population had swollen beyond 140,000, because of growth in the mining and silk textile industries—and then, to support the war, in the 1940’s, mining became, once again, a major growth industry. However, even as many cities thrived in the wake of the war, the fortunes and population of Scranton began to ebb: coal production and rail traffic declined rapidly throughout the 1950s, leading to a reversal in employment. Indeed, that decade ended with the Know Mine Disaster, which virtually ended the mining industry in Northeastern Pennsylvania—and hammered the DL&W Railroad, which nearly went bankrupt itself because of the drop in coal traffic. Thus the city, which had served as a key hub of railroad operations lost another critical source of jobs and revenues. By 1957, the NYO&W Railroad, which depended heavily on its Scranton branch for freight traffic, was abandoned—leaving behind mine subsidence, which became an infrastructure nightmare for the city, as pillar supports in abandoned mines began to fail: cave-ins sometimes consumed entire blocks of homes, leaving the city scarred by abandoned coal mining structures, strip mines, and massive culm dumps, some of which caught fire and burned for many years. In 1970, the Secretary of Mines for Pennsylvania suggested that so many underground voids had been left by mining underneath Scranton that it would be “more economical” to abandon the city than make them safe. The physical and fiscal erosion meant that by the 1970s and 1980s, many downtown storefronts and theaters became vacant. By the beginning of this decade, Scranton itself was on the verge of municipal bankruptcy—the fiscal threat so dire that the city cut wages for all municipal officials, including the Mayor and fire chief, to $7.25 per hour—a step forced by estimates that the city treasury had just $5,000.

Thus, the city, in its petition to the court, is seeking approval to maintain a local services tax of $156, some $104 higher than the city’s prior level of $52 a year imposed before 2015. The city had raised the levy from $52 to $156 for every person working within the city limits who earns at least $15,600; now city leaders have deemed the proposed tax increases essential for the city’s recovery under the state-sponsored Act 47 for distressed communities, to which Scranton has belonged since 1992. (The city is junk-rated, albeit, as we noted last summer, S&P awarded it an upgrade in August to BB-plus from BB. The effort to obtain court approval to extend its higher local services tax, if approved, would continue to be $3 a week, or $156 a year per worker. (Previously, it was $1 per week, or $52 a year per worker. Under Pennsylvania law, these kinds of municipal taxes provide for exemptions for those earning less than $15,600 a year.) Scranton’s proposed recovery plan anticipates the city levying its local service tax at $156 a year annually through 2020, with the petition noting: “The Local Services Tax being levied at $156 represents a vital aspect of the plan as well as a key role in bringing about meaningful change to Scranton’s economic status.” Nevertheless, and even though the city confronted no opposition when it sought the previous approval, eight residents now contend the city would be in violation of a cap permitted under state law (Act 511) on a certain group of taxes, including the wage tax, business privilege/mercantile taxes, and the Local Services Tax. Nevertheless, Philadelphia Senior Judge John Braxton  dismissed the opposition as misplaced when he approved Scranton’s 2017 LST petition last February: his order noted the objectors could pursue a different legal avenue—an action they have now taken. Anyone wishing to file a response to the city’s petition has until the first week of next month to file.


Disparate Physical & Fiscal Responses to Municipal Physical & Fiscal Distress


January 16, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the ongoing fiscal and physical challenges of restoring power in hurricane devastated Puerto Rico, which the Trump Administration and Congress have opted to treat in a very different manner than other hurricane devastated municipalities and states.

Prospects for Recovery. Notwithstanding the opposition of his own designated coordinator for the restoration of electric power, Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello yesterday gave the go-ahead to sign an agreement which will allow Puerto Rico’s muncipios to hire companies and experts to repair the island’s electric distribution lines, with Puerto Rico Secretary of the Interior, William Villafañe, announcing—in the wake of a demonstration by residents of bigger muncipios which remain without electricity since Hurricanes Irma and María passed last September, that the Electric Power Authority (AEE) will sign an agreement with the muncipios to allow them to hire companies to repair power lines. The breakthrough came in the wake of a meeting with the presidents of the Federation and the Association of Mayors, Carlos Molina (Arecibo) and Rolando Ortiz (Cayey), respectively, as well as the Mayor (Alcalde) of Bayamón, Ramón Luis Rivera, and others officials. The agreement, which until yesterday had not been shown to the Mayors, is supposed to have a series of security restrictions; in addition, the agreement is intended to empower the muncipios to offer injury insurance, as well as be eligible for FEMA reimbursement. Secretary Villafañe noted that Governor disagreed with the result of last Monday’s meeting, in which the coordinator designated for the restoration efforts of electric power, Carlos Torres, and the AEE refused to establish an agreement with the municipios out of security concerns.

Thus, among the security conditions the agreement mandates, is that Mayors will be required to establish contracts exclusively with contractors who have specialized equipment and trucks. In a clarification, Secretary Villafañe assured reporters that PREPA retirees may continue to provide services, as is the case of the Pepino Power Authority, an initiative of the Mayor Javier Jiménez of San Sebastian—a muncipio founded in 1752 by Captain Cristóbal González de la Cruz, who among other neighbors, had an interest in converting some cow farms into an agricultural village. The foundation of the town from the religious aspect, was consummated in December 1762 by Mariano Martin, the then Puerto Rico Catholic Bishop: by the beginning, 1700, San Sebastian was a conglomerate of a few cow farms, owned by some residents of the Partido de Aguada. Las Vegas was the former plain site of one of the first cow farms located by the Guatemala riverside at the north; another of those cow farms was Pepinito (today’s downtown), which was a low green mountain with a white calcium carbonate face. From these geographical accidents come the first names of the then new village, albeit one of the oldest municipalities in the United States: Las Vegas del Pepino (Cucumber Fields). Indeed, the permission to found the muncipio was officially given in 1752.

By the beginning of the 19th century, wealthy Spanish families arrived in Pepino, fleeing the revolutions of Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. Subsequently, families from Catalonia and the Basque country in Spain came to Puerto Rico as well as a significant number of isleños (Canary Islanders)—with the isleños taking over the local political power and developing a coffee industry. Much as they did in Nevada, the Basques brought some material progress to the muncipio; in addition, the new resident Basques, in remembrance of their home region and its religious patron, saw the need of upgrading the old traditional Pepino used by the Canary Islanders to the new and “up-dated” San Sebastián—even though, still today, the citizens of San Sebastián are called “pepinianos.” Permission to found the muncipio was officially given in 1752, under the leadership of the founder, Captain Cristóbal González de la Cruz, who sought to convert cattle fincas (ranches/farms) into an agricultural village—with the governmental transformation consummated in December of 1762 by Mariano Martin, the island Catholic bishop at that time. The muncipio grew by the beginning of the 19th century, with the arrival of wealthy Spanish families, fleeing the revolutions of Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. Nearly a century later, several Catalon families from northern Spain and the Canary Islands joined the large number of isleños (Canary Islanders) who had made El Pepino their home—new arrivals who, in the wake of taking over the local political power, developing a coffee industry, and changing the muncipio’s name, in remembrance of their home region and its religious patron, to the new and “up-dated” San Sebastián, notwithstanding that, still today, the citizens of San Sebastián are called “pepinianos.”

For his part, the Mayor Rivera, who had notified the government last September of his interest in collaborating in the restoration of electricity, only learned yesterday that the agreement had been approved; however, the municipal executive of Cayey and President of the Association of Mayors said that as long as they do not see the document, they will not believe it, because, to date, they have neither been allowed to see or sign the document in question: Mayor Ortiz said that during the meeting yesterday, Coordinator Torres again expressed his disagreement with allowing municipalities to collaborate in the restoration of light: “He (Torres) will have control of the materials, will have control of the brigades, control of resources–and that this resource, which is so important in the process of re-energizing the country, says that he does not agree with the Mayors intervening in this process or giving us the agreement to sign…They said that they were going to give us the power to energize the system and work with brigades that we can hire, and that they will give us brigades to work with the municipalities, and they will give us materials, (but) we leave here with nothing in the hand, with a promise of agreement.” Mayor Ortiz explained that in Cayey the muncipio has retirees from PREPA willing to start working, however, absent an agreement, they are not only barred by law from doing so, but also prevented from obtaining protection from the State Insurance Fund Corporation in case of injury to these workers. The Mayor added: “What he (Coordinator Torres) does not know is that in all of our communities and in all of our cities there are people trained with extraordinary resources to work on that system, because they have done it in all the previous events.”  Nevertheless, Mayor Rivera assured that as soon as the document is sent and signed, he has two companies with three brigades ready to work in the Bayamón distribution lines. He estimated that these works can begin today, if the legal division of La Fortaleza advances in the drafting of the agreement with the municipalities.

Unbalanced Politics? The restoration efforts have also been hampered by allegations of partisan discrimination: the number of brigades distributed among the municipalities of the northern region supposedly differed by 480 in the municipalities of the New Progressive Party (PNP) versus 174 in those led by the PPD, according to the President of the Municipal Legislature of Dorado, Carlos Alberto López. However, Secretary Villafañe refuted those data with others: he indicated that among the six municipalities with less than 20% of electric power service restored, five are NPOPs, while among the 35 that already have more than 60% service, 20 are from PPD.

What Would Rod Serling Say? The former host of the Twilight Zone, Rod Serling, who opened each week’s show by saying a “Dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, and dimension of mind: you just crossed over into The Twilight Zone,” seems consistent with Moody’s characteristically moody new report on Puerto Rico’s fiscal plan, writing: “These repeated delays in revising Puerto Rico’s fiscal plan…underscore the economic uncertainties that Puerto Rico faces as a result of post-Maria factors, including surging migration to the U.S. mainland, potentially unsustainable operating conditions for the territory’s manufacturers, and the federal recovery and rebuilding assistance that may fall short of what Puerto Rico needs to prevent lasting and severe damage to its economic base…Together, the growing challenges from these factors may further reduce already low recovery prospects for holders of Puerto Rico’s 17 rated debt types.” The insights, provided by Moody’s senior at least 200,000 Puerto Ricans have left Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria struck, or about 6% of the pre-Maria population—adding that manufacturing, an important part of Puerto Rico’s economy, has been steadily dropping over the last two decades—and warning that, in the bitter wake of Maria, some manufactures may decide to move to other areas less likely to be hit by future hurricanes. The analysts further warned that the federal government’s new 12.5% excise tax on profits derived from patents and other intangible assets is another negative. Finally, they noted that the amount of federal aid to Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria will affect Puerto Rico’s trajectory of recovery amid growing doubt and uncertainty whether Gov. Rosselló’s request for $94.4 billion in aid will be honored—especially, with the federal government on the verge of shutting down this week—and its failure, to date—in disbursing any portion of a Congressionally-approved $4.9 billion Community Disaster Loan to Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and some other jurisdictions hit by recent natural disasters. Last week, Reorg Research reported that Puerto Rico’s debt restructuring and arguments between the U.S. Treasury and Puerto Rico over the latter’s control of the funds has delayed the funds’ release.

If anything, the federal inability to act has been further clouded by unclear governance: last week, Puerto Rico Sen. Minority Leader Eduardo Bhatia, who, during his tenure as Senate President, had been selected as Chair of the Council of State Governments of the Eastern Regional Conference (CSG-ERC) and later elected as President of the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators, thereby becoming the first Senate President and the first Puerto Rican to preside over the organization, as well as serve on the Board of the Council of State Government (CSG), National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO) and the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda (NHLA); brought up a different concern about the fiscal plan’s delay: in the new style of Trumpian governance, he tweeted to Gov. Ricardo Rosselló: “This is your great opportunity to regain lost confidence…Make your fiscal plan public today, so that there is no doubt, the people know your proposal and participate in the reconstruction of Puerto Rico,” adding that the people of Puerto Rico deserved a chance to comment prior to the draft’s submission to the PROMESA Oversight Board, tweeting: “In all countries of the world, ideas are discussed before decisions are made, not later…Otherwise, the process is a mockery of the serious people of Puerto Rico who want to contribute to the common good.”


Balancing Fiscal & Public Safety

January 9, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the potential fiscal impact of the expiration of the State of New Jersey’s public safety arbitration cap—with the expiration coming as Governor-elect Phil Murphy has been reviewing a report examining the implications for property taxes, state spending, collective bargaining agreements, and public safety. Then we journey south to witness the denouement of the fiscal siege of the historic municipality of Petersburg, Virginia.

Uncapping & Fiscal Impacts. The State of New Jersey’s statute capping public safety arbitration awards at 2% has been in effect for seven years—it was last extended in 2014. Now, with a new Governor taking office, Moody’s has warned that its expiration on the last day of 2017 is a credit negative for the Garden State—and for its municipalities and counties. Indeed, the New Jersey League of Municipalities has been joined by the New Jersey Association of Counties, the New Jersey Conference of Mayors, the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, New Jersey Business and Industry Association, and the New Jersey Realtors Association to urge the new Governor and Legislature to support permanently extending the 2% cap Interest Arbitration Cap, noting that an expired cap would have a negative impact on property taxes and jeopardize the continued delivery of critical services, as well as adversely impact residential and commercial property taxpayers, working class families, and those on fixed incomes. The League’s President, Mayor James Cassella of East Rutherford, noted that the 2% Interest Arbitration Cap has controlled costs: without the cap, municipalities could see costly arbitration awards that would force local officials to reduce services or lay off employees to satisfy the arbitrator’s award and stay within the 2% levy cap. Similarly, New Jersey Association of Counties President Heather Simmons, a Gloucester County Freeholder, noted that failure to permanently extend the 2% cap on binding interest arbitration awards would inequitably alter the collective bargaining process in favor of labor at the expense of taxpayers, and lead to awards by arbitrators with no fiduciary duty to deliver essential services in a cost-effective manner.

Now Moody’s has moodily weighed in, deeming the expiration a credit negative for the state’s cities and  counties, as has Fitch Ratings.

In New Jersey, interest arbitration is a process open only to police and fire employee unions: it is a mechanism to resolve collective bargaining disputes between local governments and unions: when a public employer is unable to reach a contract agreement with a police or fire union, an arbitrator is called in to decide the terms of the contract. When the state adopted the 2 percent property tax levy cap, a separate 2 percent cap on interest arbitration awards was also imposed: that mandates arbitrators to take property taxes into account when issuing awards and providing local officials with a now proven and effective tool to contain property tax increases. The arbitration cap expired on Dec. 31; however, the property tax levy cap is permanent. The New Jersey League noted: “For nearly a decade, the 2 percent cap on binding interest arbitration awards has kept public safety employee salaries and wages under control simply because parties have been closer to reaching an agreement from the onset of negotiations. Moreover, the 2 percent cap on binding interest arbitration awards has established clear parameters for negotiating reasonable successor contracts that preserve the collective bargaining process and take into consideration the separate 2 percent tax levy cap on overall local government spending. And, importantly, the 2 percent cap on binding interest arbitration awards has not negatively impacted public safety services or recruitment.

In the wake of the expiration of the arbitration cap, it appears likely that arbitrator contract awards would exceed 2 percent. That would likely force cities and counties in the Garden State to reduce or eliminate municipal services—or go to the voters to seek approval to exceed the 2 percent property tax cap in order to fund an arbitration award.

Moody’s analyst Douglas Goldmacher moodily noted: “Given that salary costs are among the largest of municipal expenditures, the cost implications are obvious and considerable. The effect of this is, in most cases, unlikely to be rapid, but ultimately, the loss of the arbitration cap is likely to cause the sector’s credit quality to deteriorate…Although the cap has expired, and it may not be finished. Numerous local governments and local government advocacy groups support the arbitration cap. It is possible that the new governor and New Jersey state Legislature will revisit the matter. Until and unless that occurs, there will be a potentially dangerous mismatch between revenue and expenditures.” The statute, which caps public safety arbitration awards at 2%, came into force on January 1, 2011; it was extended for a three-year period in 2014 when it was last up for renewal. Mr. Goldmacher noted: “The cap played a major role in helping local governments manage public safety costs by instituting a limit on increases in police and fire salaries in arbitration and effectively tying the salary increases to the municipality’s or county’s revenue-raising capabilities…The cap’s expiration, should it prove permanent, is a credit negative for all local governments.” Mr. Goldmacher noted the cap’s existence has been a “valuable tool” in contract negotiations when police and firefighter unions with negotiators often forced to consider small salary increases. A September report by former Gov. Chris Christie’s appointees to the Police and Fire Public Interest Arbitration Impact Task Force stated that municipal property taxes jumped at an annual average of 7.19% for the five years prior to the cap compared to 2.41% since 2011. The report also estimated that the cap has saved taxpayers a collective $429 million. Thus, Mr. Goldmacher notes: “Given that salary costs are among the largest of municipal expenditures, the cost implications are obvious and considerable: Police and fire contracts often serve as a benchmark contract for other negotiations, which had the effect of making a 2% annual increase something of a standard target for most contracts, even for non-public safety collective bargaining units.” While it is possible the cap may be reinstated, Mr. Goldmacher added that as long as no action is taken to address the lapse, New Jersey’s cities and counties confront “a potentially dangerous mismatch” aligning revenue and expenditures, because of how much a 2% property tax cap law would limit their budgetary flexibility, writing: “The effect of this is, in most cases, unlikely to be rapid, but ultimately, the loss of the arbitration cap is likely to cause the sector’s credit quality to deteriorate,” he said. “The degree of deterioration will depend on the idiosyncratic qualities of the given community.”

For its part, Fitch wrote: “…the arbitration cap is beneficial to local government credit quality as it helps to align revenue and spending measures and supports structural balance in the context of statutory caps on property tax growth…bargaining groups may become more emboldened to pursue arbitration as opposed to voluntary settlement if the arbitration cap expires. Arbitration awards were significantly higher prior to the cap, ranging from 2.50% to 5.65% from 1993-2010, according to a report of the New Jersey Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC.)” Fitch also noted that the elimination of the arbitration cap “could force local governments to reduce governmental services and/or rely on one-time resources to accommodate higher wage expenses.”

The Fiscal Siege of Petersburg. Jack Berry, Robert Bobb, and Nelsie Birch, writing in a piece, “Overcoming the latest siege of Petersburg, referenced the city’s then vital role in the Civil War, where, as they wrote: “The series of battles known as the Siege of Petersburg lasted nine months and consisted of devastating trench warfare. It featured the largest concentration of African-American troops in the war, who suffered enormous casualties at the Battle of the Crater.” They went on to write: “Some would say that Petersburg has been under siege ever since the Civil War, that there is a siege mentality in the city. Petersburg even has a Siege Museum…But Petersburg has not always been under siege; it is not today, and it will not be tomorrow. Noting that Petersburg was once the second largest city in Virginia—and home to the largest number of free blacks in Virginia, they noted that it was once “a wealthy city, a major industrial center, and one of the largest rail hubs in the nation,” where, in the wake of the Civil War, a “coalition of Africa-American and white, populist Republicans, controlled the state legislature, which led to the creation of two large public institutions in the region: Virginia State University and Central State Hospital. Later, Fort Lee became another major economic engine for the area.” The authors noted, however, that “Jim Crow laws and Massive Resistance devastated the hopes and dreams of black citizens and fueled racial tensions. In 1985, one of the city’s largest employers, Brown & Williamson Tobacco, shut down its Petersburg factory. Later, Southpark Mall was located north of the city, sucking retail sales out of Petersburg.” These events adversely affected assessed property values—in turn reducing investment in public schools. The historic city seemed on a route to chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy—or being, as they wrote: “relinquishing city status—and being subsumed by neighboring jurisdictions,” all because of what they described as a “self-inflicted, mismanaged city government” which “ran itself into a ditch: In July of 2016, the city faced $18 million in unpaid bills. The budget was $12 million out of balance. Petersburg had nearly run out of cash and was dipping into every available pot of money, regardless of restrictions, to pay bills. A botched water meter conversion project impacted utility billings, which made the cash situation even worse.”

Because the Commonwealth of Virginia was apprehensive that a default by Petersburg would have had severe fiscal repercussions for municipalities across the state, the Commonwealth, as we have previously written, provided a consulting team to diagnose the fiscal issues and recommend fiscal measures—including, in its recommendations, pay cuts of 10 percent pay cuts for the entire city workforce. Even as the state-imposed overseer was acting, an aroused citizenry, via a grassroots group called “Clean Sweep,” attended every City Council session, demanding greater fiscal accountability. A year ago last October, former Mayor Howard Meyers and the City Council brought in a fiscal posse in an effort to restructure, hiring former Richmond City Manager Robert Bobb and his team, who set up a temporary war room in the City Hall building where General Robert E. Lee had met with his senior Confederate officers during the Siege of Petersburg. Mr. Bobb wrote of the fiscal war room: “We dug in for the long haul, with Nelsie Birch leading efforts to peel back layers of the financial onion. We got a handle on cash flow, figured out the extent of the unpaid bills, found checks stashed in drawers, arranged short-term financing, crafted a new budget, dramatically cut spending, put pressure on the city treasurer to collect taxes, and revamped the decrepit utility system…New financial policies were put in place; debt was restructured; water and sewer rates were increased to comply with debt covenants; the organization was right-sized; new managers were hired.”

Mr. Bobb described this war room process as one in which—at the same time—his team teamed with Mayor Sam Parham and the members of the Petersburg City Council “every step of the way,” to make the tough decisions, adding that, during this process, “Our strongest ally was the Governor’s Office, in particular, Virginia Secretary of Finance Ric Brown.” Indeed, by last November, external auditors reported a signal fiscal turnaround: Petersburg reported a year-end surplus of $7.2 million—and the report was on time; the auditor’s opinion was clean.