What Do Today’s Fiscal Storms Augur for Puerto Rico and New Jersey’s Fiscal Futures?

Share on Twitter

eBlog, 03/13/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the frigid challenges awaiting Puerto Rico in New York City’s Alexander Hamilton Building today, where even as a fierce winter storm promises heavy snow, the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico will likely confront its own harsh challenge by the PROMESA Board to its efforts to reassert ownership and control of Puerto Rico’s fiscal future. Then we turn south to New Jersey, where there are fiscal and weather storm warnings, with the former focused on a legacy of public pension debt that Governor Chris Christie will bequeath to his successors.

Is There Promise or UnPromise in PROMESA? In the wake of changes made by Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares to update its economic growth projections to address a concern expressed by the PROMESA Oversight Board, it remains unclear whether that will be certified by today—when the Board will convene in New York City in the Alexander Hamilton building to act on measures intended to guide the fiscal future of the U.S. territory over the next decade. The update was made in an effort to close a new gap between Puerto Rico’s projected revenue and expenditure projections, since the new economic projections altered all the Government’s revenue estimates. Gov. Rosselló, in an interview with El Nuevo Día, explained his administration had ordered four new measures to correct the insufficiency, which had been estimated at $262 million: the first measure would be an increase in the tax on tobacco products, an increase projected to add around $161 million in public funds, nearly doubling the current rate. The Governor proposed eliminating Christmas bonuses from the highest salaries in the government and public corporations, albeit without providing details with regard to the distinction between an executive salary and a non-executive salary, stating the changes would generate savings of between $10 million and $20 million. He also said the revised, updated plan would reflect an additional $78 million by means of the reconfiguration of the property tax through an appraisal process, as well as modifications to achieve $35 million in savings by means of changing the amount of sick and vacation days which public servants accrue, noting: “We were able to evaluate some of the economic development projections, and, even though our economists don’t agree with the Oversight Board’s s economists, we’ve used the Board’s economic projections within our model for the sake of getting the fiscal plan certified…(Due to the changes) we’ve prepared, some initiatives to have additional savings of up to $262 million. We had already assuaged some of the Board’s concerns within the same proposal we had made, and those were clarified.”

The Governor indicated that the decision taken yesterday does not imply that he will support other proposals made by the Board, noting that he especially opposed the suggestions to reduce the working hours of public employees by almost 20% and cutting professional services in the government by 50%, in order to reduce costs immediately in an effort to ensure the government does not run out of cash by the first two quarters of the next fiscal year, admitting that current projections suggest they are short by around $190 million, and warning: “This (the Board’s proposals) has a toxic effect on workers and on the economy.”

In response to the PROMESA Board’s apprehensions about the double counting of revenues in its submitted plan, the Governor noted: “We’ve established that our public policy is to renegotiate the debt. The idea is to keep everything in one place so we can work with it. The debt service will be affected depending on economic development projections, but we haven’t touched that part of the fiscal plan. We’re focusing on preparing the collection areas, because we’re aware that (government revenues) have been overestimated in the past. We’ve answered questions about healthcare, revenue, government size, and we’ve worked on the pension category within our administration’s public policy about protecting the most vulnerable as much as possible.”

As for today’s session in New York, noting that he believes the government has succeeded in answering the Board’s questions and concerns, and, using the Board’s economic growth numbers, the Governor believes the updated plan will address the revenue gap without major cuts, noting: “That’s no small thing. We’ve been able to dilute it and make the impact progressive, in the sense that those who have more have to contribute more, and keep the most vulnerable from losing access. We’ve established a plan of cost reduction. Now, the plan guarantees structural changes in the government so it operates better, as well as changes to the healthcare model and the educational model. It defends the most vulnerable, it doesn’t reduce the payroll by 30% or 20%, and it doesn’t reduce working hours like they’ve asked, and we reduced tax measures.” Nevertheless, Gov. Rosselló noted that the Board’s proposed service delivery cuts of as much as 50% affect health care and education—defining those two vital government services as ones in which such deep proposed cuts could trigger a drop in the economy by 8% or 9%, noting: “I’m very aware that the ones that are in the middle of all this are the people of Puerto Rico.” Indeed, the plan considers cuts to retiree pensions, lapses in the basic coverage of the Mi Salud healthcare program, a freeze in tax incentives, agency mergers, privatizations, and reductions in transfers to the University of Puerto Rico and to municipalities. On the revenue side, the Governor’s proposal seeks to increase the collection of the Puerto Rico Sales and Use Tax, the property tax, and corporate taxes. In addition, it boosts the cost of insurance, penalties, and licenses granted by the Government.

With or without the endorsement of Governor Rosselló’s administration, when the PROMESA Board meets today in the Alexander Hamilton US Custom House, the agenda includes certifying a plan that some argue goes far beyond not only considering the Governor’s proposed fiscal recommendations, but to some marks a transition under which the PROMESA Board members will “will become both the Legislative and Executive powers in Puerto Rico.” That is to note that this and ensuing fiscal budgets, or at least until the government of Puerto Rico is able to balance four consecutive budgets and achieve medium- and long-term access to financial markets—will first be overseen and subject to approval by the Oversight Board, as well every piece of legislation which has a fiscal impact.

Balancing. The undelicate federalism balance of power will be subject to review next week, when the House Committee on Natural Resources’ Subcommittee on Insular Affairs has a scheduled PROMESA oversight hearing.

The Stakes & States of Yieldy—or Kicking the Pension Can Down the Road.  Alan Schankel, Janney Capital Markets’ fine analyst has now warned that the Garden State’s lack of a significant plan to address New Jersey’s deteriorating fiscal conditions will lead to more credit rating downgrades and wider credit spreads, writing that New Jersey is unique among what he deemed the nation’s “yieldy states,” because the bulk of its tax-supported debt is not full faith and credit, lacks a credit pledge, and some 90% of the debt payments are subject to annual appropriation. If that were not enough, Mr. Schankel wrote that the state is burdened by another fiscal whammy: it sports among the lowest pension funding levels of any state combined with a high debt load and other OPEB liabilities. Mr. Schankel warned the fiscal road ahead could aggravate the dire fiscal outlook, noting that the recent sales tax reduction from 7% to 6.625%, combined with phasing out the estate tax under last year’s $16 billion Transportation Trust Fund renewal, will reduce the state’s annual revenue by $1.4 billion by 2021—long after Gov. Christie has left office, noting that the state’s unfunded pension liabilities worsened when in the wake of FY2014—16 revenue shortfalls, New Jersey reduced pension funding to a level below the scheduled-ramp up Gov. Chris Christie had agreed to his as part of New Jersey’s 2011 pension reform legislation, emphasizing that public pension underfunding has been “aggravated by current leadership,” albeit noting that such underfunding is neither new, nor partisan: “This long history of kicking the can down the road seems poised to continue, and although New Jersey appropriation backed debt offers some of the highest yields among all states, we advise caution…Given the persistent lack of political willingness to aggressively address the state’s financial morass, we believe the future holds more likelihood of rating downgrades than upgrades.”

What Could Be the State Role in Municipal Fiscal Distress?

 

Share on Twitter

eBlog, 03/08/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the state role in addressing fiscal stress, in this instance looking at how the Commonwealth of Virginia is reacting to the fiscal events we have been tracking in Petersburg. Then we spin the roulette table to check out what the Borgata Casino settlement in Atlantic City might imply for Atlantic City’s fiscal fortunes, a city where—similar to the emerging fiscal oversight role in Virginia, the state is playing an outsized role, before tracking the promises of PROMESA in Puerto Rico.

The State Role in Municipal Fiscal Stress. One hundred fifty-three years ago, Union General George Meade, marching from Cold Harbor, Virginia, led his Army of the Potomac across the James River on transports and a 2,200-foot long pontoon bridge at Windmill Point, and then his lead elements crossed the Appomattox River and attacked the Petersburg defenses on June 15. The 5,400 defenders of Petersburg under command of Gen. Beauregard were driven from their first line of entrenchments back to Harrison Creek. The following day, the II Corps captured another section of the Confederate line; on the 17th, the IX Corps gained more ground, forcing Confederate General Robert E. Lee to rush reinforcements to Petersburg from the Army of Northern Virginia. Gen. Lee’s efforts succeeded, and the greatest opportunity to capture Petersburg without a siege was lost.

Now, the plight of Petersburg is not from enemy forces, but rather fiscal insolvency—seemingly alerting the Commonwealth of Virginia to rethink its state role with regard to the financial stress confronting the state’s cities, counties, and towns. Thus, last month, Virginia, in the state budget it adopted before adjournment, included a provision to establish a system for the state to detect fiscal distress among localities sooner than it did with Petersburg last year, as well as to create a joint subcommittee to consider the broader causes of growing fiscal stress for the state’s local governments. Under the provisions, the Co-Chairs of the Senate Finance Committee are to appoint five members from their Committee, and the Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee is to name four members from his Committee and two members of the House Finance Committee to a Joint Subcommittee on Local Government Fiscal Stress. The new Joint Subcommittee’s goals and objectives encompass reviewing: (i) savings opportunities from increased regional cooperation and consolidation of services; (ii) local responsibilities for service delivery of state-mandated or high priority programs, (iii) causes of fiscal stress among local governments, (iv) potential financial incentives and other governmental reforms to encourage increased regional cooperation; and (v) the different taxing authorities of cities and counties. The new initiative could prove crucial to impending initiatives to reform state tax policies and refocus economic development at the regional level, as the General Assembly considers the fiscal tools and capacity local governments in the commonwealth have to raise the requisite revenues they need to provide services—especially those mandated by the state. Or, as Gregory H. Wingfield, former head of the Greater Richmond Partnership and now a senior fellow at the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University, puts it: “I hope they recognize we’ve got to have some restructuring, or we’re going to have other situations like Petersburg…This is a very timely commission that’s looking at something that’s really important to local governments.”

The Virginia General Assembly drafted the provisions in the state budget to create what it deems a “prioritized early warning system” through the auditor of public accounts to detect fiscal distress in local governments before it becomes a crisis. Under the provisions, the auditor will collect information from municipalities, as well as state and regional entities, which could indicate fiscal distress, as well as missed debt payments, diminished cash flow, revenue shortfalls, excessive debt, and/or unsupportable expenses. The new Virginia budget also provides a process for the auditor to follow and notify a locality that meets the criteria for fiscal distress, as well as the Governor and Chairs of the General Assembly’s finance committees. The state is authorized to draw up to $500,000 in unspent appropriations for local aid to instead finance assistance to the troubled localities. The Governor and money committee Chairs, once notified that “a specific locality is in need of intervention because of a worsening financial situation,” would be mandated to produce a plan for intervention before appropriating any money from the new reserve; the local governing body and its constitutional officers would be required to assist, rather than resist, such state intervention—or, as House Appropriations Chairman S. Chris Jones (R-Suffolk) describes it: “The approach was to assist and not to bring a sledgehammer to try to kill a gnat,” noting he had been struck last fall by the presentation of Virginia’s Auditor of Public Accounts Martha S. Mavredes with regard to the fiscal stress monitoring systems used by other states, including one in Louisiana which, he said, “would have picked up Petersburg’s problem several years before it came to light…At the end of the day, it appears you had a dysfunctional local government, both on the administrative and elected sides, that was ignoring the elephant that was in the room.”

The ever so insightful Director of Fiscal Policy at the Virginia Municipal League, Neal Menkes, a previous State & Local Leader of the Week, notes that Petersburg is far from alone in its financial stress, which was caused by factors “beyond just sloppy management: It included a series of economic blows,” he noted, citing the loss of the city’s manufacturing base in the 1980s and subsequently its significant retail presence in the region. The Virginia Commission on Local Government identified 22 localities—all but two of them cities—which experienced “high stress” in FY2013-14, of which Petersburg was third, and an additional 49 localities, including Richmond, which had experienced “above average” fiscal stress. Or as one of the wisest of former state municipal league Directors, Mike Amyx, who was the Virginia Municipal League Director for a mere three decades, notes: “It’s a growing list.”

The Commonwealth’s new budget, ergo, creates the Joint Subcommittee on Local Government Fiscal Stress, charged with taking a sweeping look at the reasons for stress, including:

  • Unfunded state mandates for locally delivered services, and
  • Unequal taxing authority among localities.

The subcommittee will look at ways for localities to save money by consolidating services and potential incentives to increase regional cooperation, or as Virginia Senate Finance Co-Chairman Emmett Hanger (R-Augusta) notes: “We need to dig deeply into the relationship of state and local governments,” expressing his concerns with regard to potential threats to local revenues, such as taxes on machinery and tools, and on business, professional and occupational licenses (BPOL), as well as fiscal disparities with regard to local capacity or ability to finance core services such as education and mental health treatment, or, as he puts it: “We do need to address the relative levels of wealth of local governments…We need to look at all of the formulas in place for who gets what from state government…Our tax system is still antiquated, and local governments have to rely too heavily on real estate taxes.”  

The subcommittee will include Sen. Hanger and Chairman Jones, as chairs of the respective Budget Committees, and House Finance Chairman R. Lee Ware Jr. (R-Powhatan), whose panel grapples every year with the push to reduce local tax burdens and the need to give localities the ability to generate revenue for services. Chairman Jones, a former Suffolk Mayor and city councilmember, said he is “keenly aware of the relationship between state and local governments. It is a complex relationship. The solutions aren’t simple…You’ve got to be able to replace that revenue at the local level—you can’t piecemeal this.”

Municipal Credit Roulette. State intervention and a settlement of tax refunds owed to a casino drove a two-notch S&P Global Ratings upgrade of Atlantic City’s general obligation debt to CCC from CC. The rating remains deep within speculative grade, the outlook is developing. S&P analyst Timothy Little wrote that the upgrade reflected a state takeover of Atlantic City finances that took effect in November which has helped “diminish” the near-term likelihood of a default. A $72 million settlement with the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa over $165 million in owed tax refunds that saves Atlantic City $93 million also contributed to the city’s first S&P upgrade since 1998, according to S&P. Mayor Don Guardian noted that obtaining a CCC rating was “definitely a step in the right direction: As we continue to implement the recommendations from our fiscal plan submitted last year, and working together with the state, we know that our credit rating will continue to improve higher and higher.” Nevertheless, notwithstanding the credit rating lift, Mr. Little warned that Atlantic City’s financial recovery is “tenuous” in the early stages of state intervention, ergo the low credit rating reflects what he terms “weak liquidity” and an “uncertain long-term recovery,” reminding us that Atlantic City has upcoming debt service payments of $675,000 due on none other than April Fool’s Day, followed by another $1.6 million on May Day, $1.5 million on June 1st, and $3.5 million on August 1st. Nevertheless, Atlantic City and the state fully contemplate making the required payments in full and on time. Mr. Little sums up the fiscal states:  “In our opinion, Atlantic City’s obligations remain vulnerable to nonpayment and, in the event of adverse financial or economic conditions, the city is not likely to have the capacity to meet its financial commitment…Due to the uncertainty of the city’s ability to meet its sizable end-of-year debt service payments, we consider there to be at least a one-in-two likelihood of default over the next year.” He adds that, notwithstanding the State of New Jersey’s enhanced governing role with Atlantic City finances, chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy remains an option for the city if adequate gains are not accomplished to improve the city’s structural imbalance, as well as noting that S&P does not consider the city to have a “credible plan” in place to reach long-term fiscal stability. For his part, Evercore Wealth Management Director of Municipal Credit Research Howard Cure said that while the municipal credit upgrade reflects the Borgata Casino tax resolution, the rating, nonetheless, makes clear how steep the road to fiscal recovery will be: “You really need the cooperation of the city, but also the employees of the city for there to be a real meaningful recovery…This could go bad in a hurry.”

Is There Promise in Promesa? Elias Sanchez Sifonte, Puerto Rico’s representative to the PROMESA Fiscal Supervision Board, late Tuesday wrote to PROMESA Board Chairman José B. Carrión to urge that the Board take concrete actions in its final recommendations to address the U.S. territory’s physical health and the renegotiation of public debt—that is, to comply with the provisions of PROMESA and advocate for Puerto Rico with the White House and Congress in order to avoid “the fiscal precipice” which Puerto Rico confronts, especially once the federal funds which are used in My Health expire. Mr. Sifonte also requested additional time for Puerto Rico to renegotiate its debt, reminding the Board that PROMESA “makes it very clear that an extension of the funds under the Affordable Care Act is critical.” With grave health challenges, the board representative appears especially apprehensive with regard to the debate commencing today in the House of Representatives to make massive changes in the existing Affordable Care Act.

Recounting Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares efforts to address Puerto Rico’s severe fiscal situation, he further noted that the Governor’s efforts would little serve if the PROMESA Board bars Puerto Rico from a voluntary process through which to renegotiate what it owes to various types of creditors, arguing that Puerto Rico ought to be able to negotiate with its municipal bondholders, and, ergo, seeking an extension of the current suspension of litigation set to expire at the end of May to the end of this year, noting: “It would be very unfair that after all the progress achieved in the past two months, the government cannot achieve a restructuring under Title VI simply because the past government intentionally or negligently truncated the Title VI process at the expense of the new administration.” His letter came as Gerardo Portela Franco, the Executive Director of the Puerto Rico Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority (FIFAA), reported that administration officials have had initial talks with the PROMESA board about the plan and are in the process of making suggested changes. FIFAA will manage the implementation the measures and lead negotiations with Puerto Rico’s creditors over restructuring the government’s $70 billion of debt.

The Roads out of Municipal Bankruptcy

Share on Twitter

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.

Post Chapter 9 Challenges

eBlog, 2/22/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog as we remember the first President of our country,  we consider the accomplishments and challenges ahead for the city recovering from the largest ever municipal bankruptcy; then we visit the historic Civil War city of Petersburg, Virginia—as it struggles on the edge of fiscal and physical insolvency; from thence, we roll the dice to witness a little fiscal Monopoly in the state-taken over City of Atlantic City, before finally succumbing to the Caribbean waters made turbulent by the governance challenges of a federal fiscal takeover of the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, before considering whether to take a puff of forbidden weed as we assess the governing and fiscal challenges in San Bernardino—a city on the precipice of emerging from the longest municipal bankruptcy in American history.   

State of a Post Chapter 9 City. Pointing to FY2015 and 2016 balanced budgets, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, in his fourth State of the City address, pointed to the Motor City’s balanced budgets for FY2015 and 2016 and said the city’s budget will be balanced again at the close of this fiscal year in June—progress he cited which will help the city emerge from state get oversight and back to “self-determination” by 2018. Mayor Duggan cited as priorities: job training, affordable housing, and rebuilding neighborhoods, orating at the nonprofit human rights organization Focus: HOPE on Oakman Boulevard on the city’s northwest side, where residents and others for decades have received critical job training. Mayor Duggan was not just excited about what he called the transformation of city services and finances in a city that exited municipal bankruptcy three years ago, but rather “what comes next,” telling his audience: “We’ve improved the basic services, but if we’re going to fulfill a vision of building a Detroit that includes everybody, then we’ve got to do a whole lot more…You can’t have a recovery that includes everyone if there aren’t jobs available for everyone willing to work.” Ergo, to boost job opportunities, Mayor Duggan announced a new initiative, “Detroit at Work,” which he said would help connect the Motor City’s job seekers with employers, deeming it a portal which would provide a “clear path to jobs.” He also discussed his administration’s program to help city youth secure jobs and the Detroit Skilled Trades Employment Program, a recent partnership with local unions to increase Detroit membership and boost job opportunities.

With regard to neighborhoods, Mayor Duggan touted his Neighborhood Strategic Fund, his initiative to encourage neighborhood development, especially in wake of the exceptional success of Detroit’s new downtown: this fund allocates $30 million from philanthropic organizations toward development, commencing with the engagement of residents in the areas of Livernois/McNicols, West Village, and in southwest Detroit to create revitalized and walkable communities—under the city’s plan to align with the city’s vision for “20-minute neighborhoods” to provide nearby residents with close, walkable access to grocery stores and other amenities—or, as Mayor Duggan noted: “If we can prove that when you invest in these neighborhoods, the neighborhoods start to come back. The first $30 million will only be the beginning. I want everybody to watch…If we prove this works…then we go back for another $30 million and another $30 million as we move across the neighborhoods all through this city.”

In a related issue, the Mayor touted the return of the Department of Public Works’ Street Sweeping Unit, which is preparing to relaunch residential cleanings for the 2017 season, marking the first time in seven years for the program. On the affordable housing front, Mayor Duggan addressed affordable housing, saying that future projects will ensure such housing exists in all parts of the city, referencing a new ordinance, by Councilwoman Mary Sheffield, which seeks to guarantee that 20 percent of the units in new residential projects which receive financial support from the city will be affordable: “We are going to build a city where there is a mix of incomes in every corner and neighborhood and we’re going to be working hard.”

But in his address—no doubt with his re-election lurking somewhere behind his words, Mayor Duggan reflected not just on his successes, but also some missteps, including his administration’s massive federally funded demolition program, now the focus of a federal probe and state and city reviews: that initiative has been successful in the razing of nearly 11,000 abandoned homes since the spring of 2014, but has also triggered federal and state investigations over spiraling costs and bidding practices: an ongoing state review of the program’s billing practices turned up $7.3 million in what the State of Michigan deems “inappropriate” or “inaccurate” costs: the vast majority in connection with a controversial set-price bid pilot in 2014 designed to quickly bring down big bundles of houses—an initiative over which Mayor Duggan has so far rejected the state’s assertion that about $6 million tied to costs of the pilot were inappropriate. Thus, yesterday, he conceded that the federal government’s decision to suspend the demolition program for 60 days beginning last August had been warranted, but noted the city has since overhauled procedures and made improvements to get the program back on track, so that, he said, he is confident the city will raze an additional 10,000 homes in the next two years.

For new initiatives, Mayor Duggan said the Detroit Police Department will hire new officers, and invest in equipment and technology, and he announced the launch of Detroit Health Department’s Sister Friends program, a volunteer program to provide support to pregnant women and their families. On the school front, the Mayor noted what he deemed a “complete alliance” between his office and the new Detroit Public Schools Community District school board, saying the city has joined the Board in its attempt to convince the state’s School Reform Office not to close low-performing schools. (As many as 24 of 119 city schools could potentially be shuttered as soon as this summer.) In a hint of the state-local challenge to come, Mayor Duggan said: “The new school board hasn’t had an opportunity to address the problem…We have 110,000 schoolchildren in this city, which means we need 110,000 seats in quality schools. Closing a school doesn’t add a quality seat. All it does is bounce our children around from place to place. Before you close a school, you need to make sure there’s a better alternative.”

Fiscal & Physical Repair. In a surprising turn of events in Virginia, the Petersburg City Council accepted a motion by Councilman Charlie Cuthbert to postpone the vote on moving forward with the bids for Petersburg’s aging water system, after the Council had been scheduled to vote on whether to move forward with the bids the city had received from Aqua Virginia and Virginia American Water Company to purchase the nearly insolvent city’s water and wastewater system. While the vote, by itself, would not have authorized such a sale, it would have paved the way for formal consideration of such proposals. Under his motion, Councilman Cuthbert outlined a plan to delay the vote, so the Council and the City would have more time to consider options, in part through the formation of a seven person committee, which would be separate from the one the Robert Bobb Group, which is currently overseeing the city in place of the Mayor and Council, has been proposing. Mayhap unsurprisingly, citizens’ reactions to a potential sale has been negative; thus there was approbation when Councilmember Cuthbert’s motion passed—even as it appears many citizen/tax/ratepayers appeared to be hoping for the bids to be scrapped entirely: many had spoken in strong opposition, and there were numerous signs held up in chambers for the Mayor and Council to read: “Listen to us for once, do not sell our water,” or, as one citizen told the elected officials: “We have a choice to make: to make the easy, wrong decision, or the hard, right decision,” as he addressed the Council. The city’s residents and taxpayers appear to want other options to be explored, with many citing reports of Aqua Virginia having trouble with the localities with which it holds contracts.

On the fiscal front, many citizens expressed apprehension that any short-term profit the city would realize by selling its system would be paid back by the citizens in the form of rate-hikes by Aqua Virginia or Virginia American, or as one constituent said: “Never have I seen private industry interested in what the citizens want…They’re going to come in here and raise the rates.” Interim City Manager Tom Tyrell had begun the meeting by giving a presentation outlining the problems with the system. Due to past mismanagement and a lack of investment over decades, the Petersburg water system is in urgent need of upgrades. Tyrell outlined certain deficiencies, such as water pumps that need replacing, and pipes nearly blocked by sediment build up. The water quality has never come into question, but Mr. Tyrell said that the system is very close to needing a complete overhaul: the projected cost needed to get the system completely up to standard is about $97 million. Mr. Tyrell stressed that water rates will need to increase whether or not the city sells the system, going over Petersburg’s water rates, which have been relatively low for many years, ranking near the lowest amongst municipalities across the Commonwealth of Virginia. Even if the rates were to double, he told citizens, the rates still would still not be in the top 15 amongst Virginia localities. The Council had received two unsolicited bids for the system in December, one from Aqua Virginia, a second from the Virginia American Water Company. The Robert Bobb Group recommended to the Council that it move forward to examine the detailed proposals in order to “keep all options open.” The cost of moving forward with the proposals will cost approximately $100,000, which includes the cost of examining each proposal. Thus, the Robert Bobb Group recommended that the Council put together a citizens’ advisory group as an outside adviser group. The council gave no timetable on when they will officially vote to see if the bids will go forward. The people who will make up the seven person committee were not established.

Monopoly Sale. Atlantic City has sold two of its Boardwalk properties and several lots along the Inlet for nearly $6 million, closing on three properties at the end of last week, according to city officials—meaning that a Philadelphia-based developer has gained control of five waterfront properties since 2015. His purchases, he said, reflect his belief in Atlantic City’s revival. Mayor Don Guardian reported the city had received wire transfers for the former Boardwalk volleyball court on New Jersey Avenue ($3.8 million), Garden Pier ($1.5 million) and 12 lots bordered by the Absecon Inlet, Oriental Avenue and Dewey Place ($660,000), according to Atlantic City Planning and Development Director Elizabeth Terenik, all part of a way to raise money for the insolvent municipality – and to spur redevelopment, or, as Ms. Terenik noted: “The effort was part of the Guardian administration’s initiative to leverage underutilized or surplus public lands for economic development and jobs, and to increase the ratable base.” How the new owner intends to develop the properties or use them, however, is unclear—as is the confusing governance issue in a city under state control. The Inlet lots were sold in a city land auction last summer, purchased through an entity called A.C. Main Street Renaissance, according to city officials: the Atlantic City Council approved the auction and voted to name the purchaser, conditional redeveloper of Garden Pier and the volleyball court last year. Unsurprisingly, Council President Marty Small deemed the sales as great news for the city, saying they would bring revenue, jobs, and “new partners to the Inlet area…This instills investor confidence…It lets me know that we made the right decision by going out to auction for land and getting much-needed revenue for the city.”

Paying the Piper. Atlantic City has also announced its intention to issue $72 million in municipal bonds to pay for its tax settlement with the Borgata casino, securing the funds to cover its property tax refunds by borrowing though New Jersey’s Municipal Qualified Bond Act (MQBA), according to Lisa Ryan, a spokeswoman for the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, which is overseeing the state takeover which took effect last November, with her announcement coming just a week after the state announced it had struck a deal for Atlantic City to pay less than half of the $165 million it owes the Borgata in tax appeals from 2009 to 2015, or, as Ms. Ryan noted: “Qualified bonds will be issued in one or more tranches to achieve the settlement amount…The parties are confident in the City’s ability to access the capital market and raise the necessary amount needed to cover the financing,” albeit adding that the city’s borrowing costs would not be known until the sale. (The Garden State’s MQBA is a state intercept program which diverts a municipality’s qualified state aid to a trustee for debt service payments.) Prior to the New Jersey’s state takeover of Atlantic City, city officials had proposed paying $103 million for a Borgata settlement through MQBA bonding as part of a five-year rescue plan—a plan which the state’s Department of Community Affairs had rejected.

As the state taken over city struggles to adjust, Mayor Don Guardian, in a statement, noted: “I’m glad the state is seeing the wisdom in what we proposed in our fiscal plan back in November…I applaud them for getting the actual amount due upfront lower, even though they have had over two years to do it. It remains to be seen how the other $30 million will be taken care of, but the quicker we can get this issue off the table, the quicker we can move forward tackling the remaining legacy debt.” Atlantic City last utilized New Jersey’s state credit enhancement program in May of 2015 to pay off an emergency $40 million loan and retire $12 million of maturing bond anticipation notes, paying a substantial fiscal penalty for a $41 million taxable full faith and credit general obligation municipal bond sale to address its loan payment with Bank of America Merrill Lynch pricing the bonds to yield at 7.25% in 2028 and 7.75% in 2045. Today, the city, under state control, is seeking to recover from five casino closures since 2014, closures which have bequeathed it with $224 million in outstanding municipal bond debt—debt sufficient according to Moody’s to have saddled the city with some $36.8 million in debt service last year.

Grass Fire? Two separate groups have now filed lawsuits challenging San Bernardino’s Measure O, the initiative citizens approved last November to allow marijuana dispensaries in the city—a measure yet to be implemented by the city—and one which now, according to City Attorney Gary Saenz, will almost surely be further delayed because of the suit. Should Measure O be struck down, the related, quasi-backup Measure N, a second marijuana initiative San Bernardino voters approved last November, but which received fewer votes, would pop up, as it were. The twin suits, one filed by a group of marijuana-related entities, the second by interested property owners in San Bernardino, challenge Measure O on multiple grounds, including the measure’s language determining where dispensaries may operate in the city. One suit charges: “The overlay zones together with the parcel numbers and the location criteria limit the locations within the City of San Bernardino where marijuana businesses may be permitted to only approximately 3 to 5 parcels of land within the entire city, and all of these parcels of land are either owned or controlled by the proponents of Measure O…The locations of these 3 to 5 parcels of land, furthermore, are incompatible for a medical marijuana business by virtue of the locations and surrounding land uses and for this reason are in conflict with the City of San Bernardino General Plan.” Unsurprisingly, Roger Jon Diamond, the attorney for the proponents of Measure O, disputes that number and predicts the challenge will fail, noting that thirteen marijuana dispensaries and related groups that describe themselves as non-profits are operating in San Bernardino or which have invested substantial sums of money in plans to operate in San Bernardino. The soon to be out of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy city, prior to citizen adoption of Measure O, means, according to Counselor Diamond, that the dispensaries have been operating illegally, or as he put it: “There’s a concept in the law called clean hands: If you don’t have clean hands, you can’t maintain a lawsuit…Here we have people who don’t qualify (to operate a dispensary in their current location), complaining that they would not become legal under the new law. It sounds like sour grapes.”

The second, related suit, filed earlier this month, calculates a somewhat higher (not a pun) number of eligible locations—between three to twelve, but makes the same observation regarding physical location: “We think there is a financial interest in the people who wrote it up,” said Stephen Levine of Milligan, Beswick Levine & Knox: “We don’t think that is fair, because it was so narrowly constricted. Zoning by parcel numbers is a highly unusual practice in California. Let’s include Colorado and Washington State in there, too; they don’t use parcel numbers for this.” (Measure O restricts marijuana businesses to marijuana business overlay districts, which are identified by parcel number, and further prohibits the businesses from being within 600 feet of schools or residentially zoned property.) In this case, Mr. Levine is representing a consortium of property owners calling themselves AMF as well as Wendy McCammack, a business owner and former San Bernardino Councilmember. According to Mr. Levine, the plaintiffs’ interest is in possible changes in assessed property values due to the location of the dispensaries.

Getting High on the City Agenda. The City Council last week, in a closed session, discussed the lawsuit in closed session; however, City Attorney Saenz reported he was unaware aware of the lawsuit and had yet to decide upon a response to either, noting: “We haven’t totally assessed the merits of the lawsuit, nor how we’ll respond.” Nevertheless, the lawsuits’ arguments appear likely to interfere with the city’s process of incorporating Measure O into the development code and beginning to issue permits, or, as Mr. Saenz notes: “It (the AMF lawsuit) very much calls into question the validity of Measure O…Being a city of very limited resources, we don’t want to expend resources on an implementation that’s never going to occur. That would be a waste of resources.” The suits will also complicate governance: last month the city, on its website, and in a letter to interested parties, said it would provide an update in March on when the marijuana measure would be implemented: “City departments are in the process of integrating the provisions of Measure O into the City’s existing Development Code, developing procedures for receiving applications, and identifying provisions that may require interpretation and clarification prior to implementation…The San Bernardino Development Code and Measure O are both complex legal regulatory frameworks and it will require time to properly implement this new law.”

Governance & Challenges. Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has arrived in Washington, D.C., where he will meet with his colleagues at the National Governors Association and join them at the White House tomorrow; he will also dine with Vice President Mike Pence this week. Last week, in Puerto Rico, he had hosted Chairman Sean Duffy (R-Wisc.), of the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Housing & Insurance, and an author of the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act – in San Juan.  Chairman Duffy told the Governor he is available to amend PROMESA to ensure that the PROMESA oversight board treats Puerto Rico fairly, according to an office press statement. The lunch this week might occasion an interesting discussion in the wake of the Governor’s claim that the PROMESA Oversight Board’s plans for austerity may violate federal law: the Governor’s Chief of Staff, William Villafañe, this week stated: “The Fiscal Supervision Board officials cannot act outside of the law that created the body. If the board were to force the implementation of a fiscal plan that affects people’s essential services, it would be acting contrary to the PROMESA law.” His complaints appear to signify an escalation of tensions between the U.S. territory and the PROMESA Board: Mr. Villafañe added: “The [PROMESA] board is warned that it must act in conformance with the law…The commitment of Governor Ricardo Rosselló is to achieve economies that allow government efficiency, doing more with fewer expenses, without affecting essential services to the people and without laying off public employees.” If anything, Mr. Villafañe added fuel to his fire by criticizing the Board’s new interim executive director, Ramón Ruiz Comas, in the wake of Mr. Ruiz’ radio statement this week that if Gov. Rosselló did not present an acceptable fiscal plan by the end of February, the PROMESA Board would provide its own—and the plan would be deemed the legally, binding plan—in reaction to which, Mr. Villafañe had responded: “To make expressions prejudging a fiscal plan proposal that the board has not yet seen demonstrates on the part of the board improvisation and lack of a collaborative attitude for the benefit of the Puerto Rican people,” adding that “The board must be aware that the federal Congress will supervise the board.” He went on to say that when the Governor presents a fiscal plan, Congress will be aware of the way the board evaluates it.

Mr. Villafañe’s complaints and warnings extend tensions between the board and the U.S. territory: even before the Governor took office in January, a Rosselló official complained that the board was seeking a $2 billion cut in spending. On Feb. 13 the governor rejected the board’s claimed right to review bills before they are submitted to the Puerto Rico legislature. On Jan. 18 the board sent a letter to Gov. Rosselló stating that spending cuts and/or tax raises equaling 44% of the general fund would have to be made in the next 18 months. At its Jan. 28 meeting, board chairman José Carrion, for emphasis, said twice that some governor-proposed changes to the board’s Jan. 18 proposals may be OK, “as long as the ultimate fiscal plan is based on solid savings and revenue projections, a once and done approach, and not simply on hope or predictions that various changes will generate more revenues in the future.”

The Challenge of Post-Insolvency Governance

Share on Twitter

eBlog, 2/21/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the role of citizens when a municipality emerges from municipal bankruptcy—and at how little effort seems to have been taken for such cities to share with each other. Then we take a gamble at the roulette wheels in Atlantic City, where the third branch of government, the judiciary, is weighing in even as candidates for next year’s Mayoral election from the City Council are announcing.  

The Challenge of Emerging from Chapter 9 Municipal Bankruptcy. San Bernardino Neighborhood Association Council President Amelia Lopez recently asked if the city’s emergence from municipal bankruptcy might mark the moment to change the city from the ground up, or, as Ms. Lopez put it: “Coming out of bankruptcy is an opportunity…The city is looking for direction. We’re here to have a say in that direction.” No U.S. city has ever been in bankruptcy for as long as San Bernardino, so the question she is raising might singularly impact the city’s future. Yet it comes at a time when citizen activism has altered: of San Bernardino’s 60 neighborhoods, 19 or 20 are active, compared to 30 a decade ago. But the Neighborhood Association Council plans to send representatives to a national convention of neighborhood associations in March and to try to work more closely with elected San Bernardino leaders. It would be interesting were the Council to try to contact comparable neighborhood organizations in Stockton, Jefferson County, and Detroit to both learn what efforts had worked—and which had failed.

Thinking about Tomorrow: A City’s Post Insolvency & State Takeover Future? Notwithstanding Atlantic City’s current status as a ward of the State of New Jersey, there appears to be strong interest in the city’s future elected leadership—albeit, at least to date, an absence of substantive proposals from aspiring candidates. Atlantic City Councilman Frank Gilliam yesterday officially jumped into the mayor’s race, joining previously announced candidate Edward Lea.  Mr. Gilliam, a Democrat, kicked off his campaign with his slate of council running mates—where he spoke about addressing high taxes, unemployment, foreclosures, and other issues, vowing brighter days would come under new leadership: “The Atlantic City that we see right now will not be the Atlantic City we will see in the future…There will be prosperity. There will be equality. There will be fairness from the bottom to the top.” Councilmember Gilliam has served on the City Council since 2010; now he joins a crowded primary: he will face Council President Marty Small and Fareed Abdullah in the June Democratic primary, with the winner set to take on Republican Mayor Don Guardian next November. Councilman Gilliam’s running mates are incumbent Councilmen Moisse “Mo” Delgado, George Tibbitt, and candidate Jeffree Fauntleroy II, who are all seeking at-large seats. Last Friday, candidate Abdullah, a substitute teacher and former City Council candidate, said would also be running for Mayor—meaning a three-way Democratic primary, with the winner to challenge incumbent Republican Mayor Don Guardian.

Councilman Gilliam last year voted against a number of proposals to address the city’s finances, including measures to seek bids for services, dissolve the city’s water authority and approve the administration’s fiscal recovery plan to avoid a state takeover. In some cases, he cited a lack of information about the proposals, or in the case of the fiscal plan, not enough time to review the information. In announcing his bid, he noted: “People elected me to vote on what I think is best for them, not what my other colleagues think is best for them…When you give an individual a document five hours before a vote, that doesn’t give me the proper opportunity to have my fellow folks aware that I’m making the best-informed decision…For too long Atlantic City’s politics and the leaders of this city have sucked the blood out of our town…The time for new leadership is right now.”

Fire in the Hole. Aspiring to be an elected leader in a municipality where the state has preempted such authority comes as the challenge of governing an insolvent city has become more complex and challenging in the wake of Atlantic City Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez restraining order early this month barring the State of New Jersey from cutting Atlantic City’s firefighter workforce or unilaterally altering any of their contracts as part of its state takeover—a judicial decision which caused Moody’s Investors Services to be decidedly moody, deeming Judge Mendez’s decision a credit negative for the cash-strapped city. Or, as the crack credit rating analyst for Moody’s Douglas Goldmacher last week noted: “These developments signal that any actions the state takes to reduce the city’s work force or abrogate labor contracts will prompt a legal challenge, leading to considerable delays in the Atlantic City recovery process, a credit negative for the city…The success or failure of the state to implement broad expenditure cuts for Atlantic City is of tremendous import to the city’s credit quality.” Mr. Goldmacher noted that negotiations with the firefighters and other unions would typically be handled by city officials; however, the Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act legislation approved by New Jersey lawmakers last year enables the state to alter outstanding municipal contracts, an authority which has now been rendered uncertain. Mr. Goldmacher noted that the firefighters’ court challenge could pave the way for other unions to challenge staffing cuts—effectively handcuffing both municipal and state efforts. He wrote that current city revenues are “insufficient” for debt service and routine expenditures making budget cuts the most likely avenue for permanent financial improvement: “Leaving aside the question of constitutionality, extensive litigation will delay negotiations…Even if other unions refrain from filing suit, the state’s negotiations will be materially impacted by the ongoing lawsuit, delaying or even preventing cost-cutting efforts.”

Federalism & Fiscal Challenges

Share on Twitter

eBlog, 2/07/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider some of the implications of New Jersey’s constitution with regard to the state’s takeover of Atlantic City: does the state takeover violate parts of the Garden State’s constitution? Then we head south to the Caribbean to try to understand the extraordinary fiscal challenges to the neighboring U.S. territories of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

New Jersey Federalism? New Jersey Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez has issued an order temporarily blocking the state’s effort to eliminate one hundred Atlantic City firefighter positions—all part of an order which momentarily halts the state from imposing any layoffs or unilateral contract changes to Atlantic City’s 225-member fire department. The issue and legal challenge here arose in the wake of the International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 198, and the AFL-CIO filing a lawsuit arguing that the State of New Jersey’s action under the Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act—which empowered the state takeover of the City, and authorized New Jersey’s Local Finance Board to take over the city, violates New Jersey’s constitution. The suit comes even as the state’s Department of Community Affairs claims the state had already decided before the ruling to push back implementing the firefighter cuts until next September—with the changes to pay structure, hours, and overtime postponed until the end of next week; however, the state made clear the “temporary restraining order signed by Judge Mendez does not change the State’s timetable for advancing reforms of Atlantic City firefighters’ contracts…We decided to delay implementing the proposed contract reforms until February 19th as a good faith gesture to give the fire department more time to prepare.”

Judge Mendez had initially scheduled a hearing for next Monday; however, the state successfully fought to get the case removed to federal court at an undetermined date. Judge Mendez issued the restraining order despite the state, in a court filing, advising the court it would hold off implementing the proposed 100 layoffs until September, and would delay changes to pay structure, hours, overtime, and benefits until February 19th. However, Judge Mendez’s order bars the state from taking any action under the Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act that is “in violation of the Due Process and Equal Protection, Contracts, Takings, Collective Negotiation, and Civil Service clauses of the New Jersey Constitution.” The case marks the first legal challenge to the broad state preemption and takeover of Atlantic City imposed by the state last November: the subsequent court case could shape up to be a significant test of the takeover’s constitutionality against criticisms that it violates residents’ civil rights and the collective bargaining rights of the city’s unions.

The state’s strategy in responding by seeking removal to the federal court seems exceptional—and in stark contrast to the unique concept of dual federalism in this country, especially so in this case, because the New Jersey constitution includes a comparable provision with regard to voiding contracts—or, as a colleague late last night noted: “It’s odd for a state law to be appealed to the federal court when there are state constitutional issues at stake.” Nevertheless, the filing raises two issues: 1) would a federal court even consent? It is, after all, a matter of New Jersey law, and 2) it would seem, especially in a New Jersey court, that the state constitution issue should supersede a federal action.  

At the same time, in a separate fiscal arena, Moody’s Investor Service’s affirmed  Atlantic City’s deep-junk level Caa3 bond rating and retained the city’s negative outlook, citing an ongoing “liquidity crisis” and likely default in the next year notwithstanding the state’s takeover—the city, after all, is confronting a structural deficit of more than $100 million and has suffered five casino closures since 2014; it has $240 million in municipal bond debt and more than $500 million in total debt when factoring in casino tax refunds and other obligations. It would seem Moody’s is seeking to ensure investors are aware of what is transpiring—and needed to remind the city’s municipal bondholders that there will be a new Governor who will have to reassess what actions—and relationship with Atlantic City—they ought to consider.

Statehood I? Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has signed into law a bill for a June referendum on Puerto Rico’s political status. The law provides for a non-binding referendum that would allow the U.S. territory to vote on statehood. The referendum, to be held this June, will allow the voters to choose between statehood and independence/free association. Those in support of Puerto Rican statehood believe approving statehood could help the country restructure its $70 billion in public debt and stave off further federal austerity measures. Functionally, if approved, Puerto Rican statehood would allow the state to receive $10 billion in federal funds per year, as well as allowing government agencies and municipalities to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. In signing the legislation, Gov. Rosselló called the vote “a civil rights issue;” he said the U.S. will have to “respond to the demands of 3.5 million citizens seeking an absolute democracy.” Importantly, if granted statehood, the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico would, at long last, no longer be denied many of the benefits provided to citizens in U.S. mainland and Hawaii, including equal access to Social Security and Medicare, despite paying taxes for these services. In addition, Puerto Rico’s representatives in Congress would be granted the same voting rights as all other Members of Congress—except for the Delegate from the District of Colombia. Under the referendum, voters would, in effect, determine whether to alter Puerto Rico’s status as a territory granted under the Jones-Shafroth Act: they will be asked if they support Puerto Rico becoming a state or a country independent of the United States of America. Should voters opt for independence, a subsequent referendum next October would be held to determine whether citizens wish to maintain some sort of association with the U.S., or become independent. In a written statement from Gov. Rosselló, Puerto Rico House of Representatives President Carlos Méndez said, “The colonial situation that currently defines Puerto Rico has deprived Puerto Ricans of participating fully in the federal government, of voting for the president of the United States, of electing representatives with a say and vote in the federal congress, and of receiving equal treatment in opportunities that strengthen socio-economic development and quality of life.”

Statehood or Independence? Even as Gov. Rosselló has signed into law a provision to allow Puerto Rico’s citizens to vote on their own governing destiny, Congressman Luis Gutiérrez (D-Puerto Rico) today plans to offer legislation in Congress to promote a federal plebiscite in which Puerto Ricans can select between independence and a free association pact between Puerto Rico and the United States, with a draft of his proposal, as reported by El Nuevo Día, stating: “The annexation of Puerto Rico as a state of the Union would be detrimental both to the United States and to Puerto Rico. It is time to return sovereignty to Puerto Rico…Statehood and full assimilation—in which Puerto Rico delivers its nationality, culture, Olympic team, language, and ability to determine its future—is not the only option and is not the best option for Puerto Ricans.” Under the proposed legislation, all Puerto Ricans or a father or mother born in Puerto Rico, would be granted the right to vote; rights granted via federal programs, such as veterans, pensions, and benefits from military service would be recognized. The proposal suggests a process to restructure public debt as well as an agreement to keep the current total of federal transfers, as a bloc, during a transitional period. The bill provides that citizenship of Puerto Rico would be recognized; however, Puerto Ricans would be eligible to retain U.S. citizenship.

Caribbean Fiscal Contagion? Fitch Ratings has lowered its credit ratings for the U.S. Virgin Islands, just seventeen miles from Puerto Rico, downgrading its ratings on about $216 million of the U.S. territory’s water and power authority municipal bonds—acting in the wake of the island government’s rescission of a utility rate increase which had been approved last month. Fitch’s action put the island’s ratings eight levels below investment grade—and near default, and came in the wake, last month, of its downgrade of the Virgin Islands’ public finance authority, which borrows on behalf of the government, writing: “The rating downgrade reflects the heightened credit risk as a consequence of the island’s Water & Power Authority’s continued inability to gain regulatory approval of rate relief needed to address its exceptionally weak cash flow and liquidity.” The downgrade came in the wake of the U.S. territory’s increasing inability to issue municipal debt: the government has been unable to issue municipal debt since December, twice delaying a planned $219 million municipal bond sale. The U.S. territory, confronted by budget shortfalls, had intended to use the bond proceeds to help cover the government’s bills. Virgin Islands Governor Kenneth Mapp has proposed a series of tax increases intended to bolster the territory’s finances and restoring its access to the financial markets. However, as the Romans used to say: tempus fugit: Last week, Gov. Mapp warned the government may not be able to make payroll by the middle of this month if nothing is done.

Emerging from Municipal Bankruptcy: a Rough Ride

eBlog

Share on Twitter

eBlog, 1/04/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing challenges for the U.S. city emerging from the nation’s largest ever municipal bankruptcy, Detroit; then we veer into the warm Caribbean waters to observe the first days of the new administration of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló in Puerto Rico—where his new administration must adjust to coming to terms with its own PROMESA oversight board.

A New Detroit? The city emerging from the largest ever municipal bankruptcy is witnessing a string of major construction projects, from a massive hockey arena and street car line downtown to the resurrection of the Wayne County jail project: changes which will reshape the Motor City’s downtown in 2017—a level of activity and investment which seemed most improbable as the city shrunk and then dissolved into chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. Today, the construction detours and closed sidewalks seem to offer a welcome sign of a new era for many who live and work near downtown. According to recent statistics, office vacancies in the downtown area are at their lowest point in a decade, and now the addition of the city’s new rail line could open demand in the New Center area, as well as increase demand for office space in neighborhoods near downtown such as Corktown and Eastern Market. Notwithstanding, the Detroit Financial Review Board, created as part of Detroit’s plan of debt adjustment to secure the U.S. bankruptcy court’s approval to exit bankruptcy, in its most recent oversight report, noted that the city continues to confront an unexpected gap in its public pension obligations and the absence of a long-term economic plan, reporting in its fourth annual report that could leave the city vulnerable to further fiscal challenges.(The next certification is due by October 1, 2017: under the plan of debt adjustment stipulations, the review board is charged with reviewing and approving annual four-year financial plans.) Both previous such plans have been approved. The most recent plan, submitted at the end of November, projects a general fund surplus of at least $41 million for FY2016, based on budget projections; Detroit expects to finish the current fiscal year with a general fund surplus of about $30 million. Nevertheless, the city faces a double-barreled fiscal challenge: its public pension liabilities and high costs of borrowing. Because its junk territory credit ratings from Moody’s and S&P, Detroit is forced it to pay disproportionately higher interest rates on its bonds.

With regard to its pension liabilities, where Detroit’s plan of debt adjustment approved by now retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes left intact public safety monthly checks, but imposed a 4.5% cut on general employees—and reduced or eliminated post-retirement (OPEB) benefits, as part of a mechanism to address some $1.8 billion in post-retirement obligations, the approved plan nevertheless suspended the COLa’s only until 2024—so a longer term liability of what was originally projected to be $111 million pends. (Indeed, the city’s pension agreement withstood a challenge last Fall when a federal appeals court ruled in favor of Detroit in a lawsuit by city retirees whose pensions were cut as part of the city’s approved plan of debt adjustment, after some retirees had sued, claiming they deserved the pension which was promised before the city filed for bankruptcy in 2013, with U.S. Judge Alice Batchelder of the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals noting it was “not a close call.”)

But, as Shakespeare would put it: ‘There’s the rub.” Detroit’s actuaries, in their 2015 actuarial valuation reports, projected the liability in FY2024 and beyond to be nearly $200 million, based upon a thirty year amortization, with level principal payments and declining interest payments; however, as we have previously noted, those estimates were based upon optimistic estimates of assumed rates of return of 6.75 percent. In response, Detroit set aside $20 million from this year’s FY2016 fund balance, $10 million from its FY2016 budgeted contingency fund, and added an additional $10 million for each of the next three fiscal years—or, as Detroit Finance Director John Naglick told the Bond Buyer: “The city has six fiscal years to make an impact and close the gap on the [pension] underfunding. We don’t want to create such a cliff in 2024 where there is a big budget shock…The reality is to find those kind of monies over the next six fiscal years will cause some tradeoff in services.” Director Naglick added that last month Detroit completed an updated decade-long plan to update its approved plan of debt adjustment, adding: “The 10-year model will show the FRC that this incremental funding can be folded into the budget, but we aren’t naïve, it will also create some disruption in services to accommodate that…Think of it as a master plan on how we are going to make this stable.” Nevertheless, Mr. Naglick’s challenge will be hard: Moody’s last summer warned that the city’s “very weak economic profile” makes it susceptible to future downturns and population loss—threatening its ability “to meet its requirement to resume pension funding obligations in fiscal 2024.” Detroit’s next deadline looms: The City must submit its FY18-FY21 Four-Year Financial Plan to the Financial Review Commission by the statutory deadline of March 23rd.

Puerto Rico: A New Chapter? The new Governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rosselló, yesterday, in the wake of his swearing in, acted straightaway on his first day in office to cut government spending and revenues, amid greater urgency to take steps to avoid a massive out-migration and end ten years of economic recession, and increase efforts to stem vital population losses which in 2013 alone witnessed some 74,000 Puerto Ricans leave the island. The new governor has already signed five executive orders, cutting annual agency spending by 20 percent, encouraging asset privatization, and proposing a zero based budgeting standard. Efforts like these, if actually implemented (a crippling risk in the context of historical Puerto Rico governance), could represent strides towards achieving fiscal solvency and help lay the groundwork for economic recovery. Governor Rosselló directed his agency heads to implement zero-based budgeting, under which agency heads start with a $0 and only adds to it when they can provide a justification for particular programs. Gov. Rosselló also created a Federal Opportunity Center attached to the governor’s office. The center will provide technical and compliance assistance to the office to make programs eligible for federal funds. For the new Governor, the three keys to recovery appear to be: how to revive the economy, fix the territory’s fiscal situation, and address the public debt.

The key, many believe, would be to opt for Title VI of the new PROMESA law, the voluntary restructuring portion. A growing concern is to create job opportunities—with one leader noting: “Many will leave if they cannot find jobs to search off the island for a better quality of life: our cities have to be habitable and safe…it has to be a place where the world wants to come to live…” Governor Rosselló also signed six executive orders, directing his department heads to cut 10 percent in spending from the current budget and to reduce the allocations for professional services by a similar amount—with even deeper cuts in other hiring; he imposed a freeze on new hires, noting: “We do not come to merely administer an archaic and ineffective scaffolding: Ours will be a transformational government.” Nevertheless, his task could be frustrated by the Puerto Rico House, where, yesterday, El Vocero reported that Puerto Rico House of Representatives President Carlos Méndez Núñez had told the newspaper last weekend that the legislature would cut Puerto Rico’s sales and use tax rate and the oil tax rate, reversing steps by the prior governor and legislature over the last four years. Governor Rosselló also pledged to work with the PROMESA Oversight Board in a collaborative way, as he departed the island to meet with members of the new Congress in Washington, D.C., where he planned to lobby for statehood for the U.S. territory.

With new administrations in San Juan and Washington, Gov. Rosselló will also have to work out a relationship with the PROMESA board, as the absence of cash to pay debt service, combined with the current payment moratoriums and federal stay on bondholder litigation appear destined to be extended deep into the year, albeit some anticipate that under the incoming Trump administration, one which will have much closer ties to creditor groups than the outgoing Obama administration, could lead to efforts to restart formal bondholder negotiations—negotiations which could become a vehicle by means of which creditors would increase their investment in Puerto Rico risks, by means of new loans and/or partial restructuring of liabilities in ex-change for a settlement which would be intended to improve long term municipal bond-holder recoveries and, most critically, work to enhance the price evaluations of Puerto Rico’s general obligation municipal bonds. Nevertheless, the territory’s structural, long-term budget deficit of nearly $70 billion over the next decade risks crowding out any medium-term payment of debt service absent serious spending reform as well as public pension reform—especially because of the ongoing outflow of young persons seeking better economic opportunities on the mainland.