February 26, 2016. Share on Twitter
Out Like Flint. The profound threats to human health and safety in Flint created in signal part by a state appointed emergency manager—especially for the city’s children—appear to have been issues brought to the state’s attention long before there was any action: key advisers to Gov. Rick Snyder urged switching Flint back to Detroit’s water system nearly a year and a half ago in October of 2014 in the wake of a General Motors Co. warning that Flint’s heavily chlorinated river water was rusting engine parts, according to governor’s office emails examined by The Detroit News: Valerie Brader, then Gov. Snyder’s environmental policy adviser, requested that the governor’s office ask Flint’s state-appointed emergency manager to return to Detroit’s system on October 14, 2014, three weeks before Gov. Snyder’s re-election. Moreover, Mike Gadola, then Gov. Snyder’s chief legal counsel—today a Judge on the Michigan Court of Appeals, appointed by Gov. Snyder– agreed Flint should be switched back to Detroit water nearly a year before state officials relented to public pressure and independent research demonstrated elevated levels of lead in the water and bloodstreams of Flint residents. Mr. Gadola’s memo reported: “To anyone who grew up in Flint as I did, the notion that I would be getting my drinking water from the Flint River is downright scary…Too bad the (emergency manager) didn’t ask me what I thought, though I’m sure he heard it from plenty of others.” Mr. Gadola added that his mother remains a resident of Flint, making his personal alarm part of his communication to Gov. Snyder’s Chief of Staff Dennis Muchmore, Deputy Chief of Staff Beth Clement, as well as then-Communications Director Jarrod Agen, writing: “Nice to know she’s drinking water with elevated chlorine levels and fecal coliform…I agree with Valerie (Brader). They should try to get back on the Detroit system as a stopgap ASAP before this thing gets too far out of control.”
The telltale emails make clear that that some of the Governor’s closest advisers were privately, but clearly put on notice of the human health threat to Flint—especially its children—long, long before the state began to act. The information comes in the wake of the Governor’s office this week releasing nearly 1,6oo pages of emails to The Detroit News related to Flint’s 2014 switch to river water—a switch which experts believe caused the deadly leaching of lead into Flint’s drinking water. If anything, the News notes, the emails make clear that the Governor’s aides discussed poor water quality in Flint as early as the fall of 2014 after the city issued limited boil-water advisories because of an outbreak of E. coli and total coliform bacteria in the water supply. Moreover, Ms. Brader’s email alluded to festering apprehensions with regard to how the chlorine used to kill the bacteria outbreak was causing the formation of a harmful disinfection byproduct known as trihalomethane, a carcinogen which can increase the risk of cancer, liver, kidney, and central nervous system problems—or, as she tellingly wrote: “Specifically, there has been a boil water order due to bacterial contamination…What is not yet broadly known is that attempts to fix that have led to some levels of chlorine-related chemicals that can cause long-term damage if not remedied (though we believe they will remedy them before any damage would occur in the population).” Two months later, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality issued a Safe Drinking Water Act violation to Flint for the high levels of trihalomethanes in the water. According to state records, Flint violated the law twice more until coming into compliance on Sept. 2, 2015. Nevertheless, despite her concerns and other staff concerns about the city’s brownish water quality, the Governor’s staff never took a recommendation to him that Flint be switched back to Detroit water until the following October.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the apprehensions by key members of the Governor’s staff were held in abeyance pending completion of the new Karegnondi Water Authority pipeline could be completed; however, Michigan Treasury Department officials seemed to feel that the cost to reconnect Flint to Detroit water — an extra $1 million per month — was more than the fiscally stressed city of Flint could afford, with, as one aide to the Gov. put it: “The assessment was you couldn’t do it, because it was a cost that should have borne by the system.” Nevertheless, Mr. Muchmore, in a subsequent email, advocated using a $2 million grant the state had given Flint to upgrade its troubled water plant toward reconnecting to the Detroit water system, tellingly writing: “Since we’re in charge, we can hardly ignore the people of Flint,” in an email he sent to communications officials in the Governor’s office, the state Department of Environment Quality, and the Treasury Department, adding: “After all, if GM refuses to use the water in their plant and our own agencies are warning people not to drink it…we look pretty stupid hiding behind some financial statement.” But when asked why the Governor’s office had not sought funding from the Michigan Senate and House appropriations Chairmen last winter for a supplemental appropriations bill to reconnect Flint to Detroit’s system, the former chief of staff told the Detroit News it would have been dead on arrival.
Indeed, the newly released trove of emails demonstrates that Ms. Brader learned of GM’s switch to Detroit water on October 14, 2014 from an aide in the office of Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint): Ms. Brader sent a note that afternoon to other top gubernatorial aides writing that Flint’s water was “an urgent matter to fix.” By August and September 2014, the city of Flint had issued boil water advisories to residents after water tests revealed an outbreak of E. coli and total coliform in some parts of the city. To treat the outbreak, the city increased the amount of chloride added to the drinking water at the Flint water treatment plant—chlorine levels General Motors had cited when it disconnected from Flint’s water system and turned to nearby Flint Township’s water, which came from Detroit’s Lake Huron pipeline. The message, however, did not seem to impact Flint’s state-appointed emergency manager: On Oct. 16, 2014, the City of Flint reported that General Motors’ exit from Flint’s water system “ensures that Flint residents will continue to have safe quality drinking water but minimizes the impact on GM’s machining work.”
Puerto Rico. In the wake of two Congressional hearings this week, Congress appears to be leaning in support of creating a federal oversight control board for the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico—an oversight board not dissimilar to previous New York City and Washington, D.C. boards—authorized to restructure and oversee Puerto Rico’s debt, pension, and economic crises. The hearings come as House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wi.) has set a March 31 deadline for action by the full House—a critical timeline, as Puerto Rico risks insolvency as early as April. Legislators said the two hearings, one on the Treasury Department’s proposal for the commonwealth and the other on possible ramifications of a restructuring on the municipal bond market, were the last scheduled before they prepare to draft a legislative package before a March 31 deadline imposed by House Speaker Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.).
At one of yesterday’s two hearings, Antonio Weiss, a counselor to U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, testified the administration believes the best solution is for Congress to allow for territorial restructuring authority using the powers Congress has under the U.S. Constitution’s Territorial Clause: “This would give Puerto Rico the tools it needs to reach a resolution with creditors and adjust its debts to a sustainable level…Importantly, this authority would expressly not apply to states, which have an entirely different relationship with the federal government under the 10th Amendment.” Mr. Weiss’s testimony appeared to signal a shift in the Administration’s position to ask Congress to authorize Puerto Rico authority to restructure all of its debts under Chapter 9 bankruptcy protections—a proposal dubbed “Super Chapter 9,” which never gained support in Congress because of misplaced apprehensions and misunderstandings in Congress about the nation’s dual sovereignty. Mr. Weiss also dispensed with a second misapprehension with regard to Puerto Rico’s public pension liabilities, testifying that while the Treasury is “deeply concerned about the pensions in Puerto Rico,” he said there was no truth to some press reports that the administration is proposing to put the territory’s pension obligations above its debt obligations in a restructuring hierarchy. Instead he said everyone should come to the table in a restructuring. With regard to restructuring, the Administration believes it should be in three parts in addition to a balanced approach to any federal board’s authority: a temporary stay on litigation to allow for voluntary negotiations between creditors and the commonwealth; a voting mechanism to prevent a few hold-out creditors from blocking a reasonable compromise; and a court-supervised structure to assure an orderly resolution if negotiations fail. Mr. Weiss testified there would be room for further Puerto Rico proposals to address economic growth, territorial tax reform, and improving Puerto Rico’s access to federal healthcare programs, noting: “We believe it is for Puerto Rican legislators and the governor to identify the reforms that are needed structurally, but we think it is equally important that the oversight board makes sure that those reforms that are identified are implemented.” He also sought to address apprehensions about potential concerns which have been raised with regard to broader adverse impacts on the state and local municipal bond front, noting that a key focus was to ensure an orderly restructure of the islands debts precisely to avoid the kinds of “cascading defaults and litigation” over the next decade that could risk muni market destabilization, telling lawmakers: “The best thing for municipal bond markets is for this to be brought to an orderly solution.”
Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Ut.) of the Natural Resources Committee, in the wake of the hearing, seemed to concur that any entity given oversight authority in Puerto Rico would also need to have the power to restructure, stating: “Some organization that is going to do a restructuring in this situation has to be the logical solution and there’s no other way around it…But it’s not necessarily going to be a remake of other control boards that have happened in the past. It has to be dictated by the specific situation.”
In the companion, simultaneous hearing chaired by Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wis.), Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Oversight & Government Reform, Mark Zandi, Moody Analytics’ Chief economist testified that the Chairman’s proposed legislation was “a very positive step in the right direction;” however, he said he believed it failed to be broad enough, noting that Puerto Rico needs a much broader restructuring of all of its debts—as well as its unfunded pension liabilities. (Chairman Duffy’s proposed legislation (HR 4199) would provide public authorities in Puerto Rico with Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy authority in return for Puerto Rico’s acceptance of a newly created five-member Financial Stability Council to review and approve its financial plans, budget and borrowing plans.) Mr. Zandi testified that authorizing the territory to file for municipal bankruptcy might only help restructure 30% of Puerto Rico’s debt—and perhaps up to 75% if COFINA bonds were included, but the proposal could trigger expensive and lengthy litigation—consuming time that is running out; ergo, Mr. Zandi recommended a Financial Stability Council be authorized to implement a temporary stay of perhaps 12 to 18 months on all debt payments so that there would be sufficient time to “fashion a sustainable restructuring.”
Anne Krueger, a senior research professor of international economics at Johns Hopkins University who led a study on Puerto Rico’s economic situation and prospects, told lawmakers the Commonwealth needs to reform its financial policies to become sustainable, stressing that Puerto Rico must deal with its unfunded pension liabilities, reform its tax and business policies, and receive Medicaid equal to all other states. William Isaac, senior managing director and global head of financial institutions for FTI Consulting, testified that authorizing municipal bankruptcy authority to the territory, “would be unprecedented and would have far-reaching implications, including raising the costs of borrowers for the fifty states.” Subcommittee members responded that Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad had raised the same apprehensions in a recent letter to House leaders. But Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-NY) noted: “There’s no evidence of this,” and asked Mr. Zandi for his perspective—in response to which, he replied: “Investors have said quite clearly that Puerto Rico’s situation is Puerto Rico’s situation and it’s no one else’s problem.”
Our respected and admired friends at Municipal Market Analytics this week provided their own key perspective on this tension we have observed in Detroit, Central Falls, Stockton, and San Bernardino, noting that by elevating Puerto Rico’s pension systems to a higher priority that its constitutional debt, the territory would be “abrogating its duty to creditors,” adding that such an elevation would also be picking one set of retirees over another—e.g., in this instance, Puerto Ricans, who own a significant amount of the U.S. territory’s debt: 30 percent of all outstanding Puerto Rico municipal bonds are owned on-island through retirement funds, leading MMA to write: “By choosing to support pensioners from the public employee system instead of debt, the Commonwealth would effectively be choosing public employees over private employees, biasing the system against retirees who saved in private markets in favor of retirees in the government-run program. Pension systems in PR are collectively underfunded by about $44 billion at present, according to the most recent actuarial estimates, and the contributions made by public employees into defined contribution plans have been liquidated alongside the contributions made for defined benefit plans in the past. Meanwhile, about 30 Puerto Rican credit unions (cooperativas) are on the brink of default due to losses incurred on PR bonds.” Thus, MMA worries: “If the stated purpose of a PR restructuring is to protect regular Puerto Ricans through shared sacrifice, proposals of the type advanced by the US Treasury (per Reuters) are not the route forward, as severe damage to the local financial system would ensue under such a plan.”
Seizing Atlantic City. If anything, the time line for insolvency could be direr in Atlantic City than Puerto Rico, potentially triggering a state takeover of the city even if the state fails to enact pending takeover legislation. The issue comes with regard to costs: according to a memo from the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services (OLS), preventing a “catastrophe” would require significant, long-term state financial support. Such a situation could occur if the city defaulted on its bonds or were unable to transfer property tax payments to the state, local school district, or Atlantic County government. Atlantic City, which is on the edge of insolvency, has little to no ability to borrow: its credit rating is below junk-bond status. Under the Local Government Supervision Act of 1947 — the same law that allowed the state to imposed oversight of some parts of city government in 2010 — New Jersey has significant powers to intervene in the city’s finances, according to OLS. It also has additional authority because the local government receives transitional aid that is subject to a memorandum of understanding with the Division of Local Government Services. The memo notes: “At the point when Atlantic City cannot borrow, short-term, to pay its essential operating expenses and payments due to the county and other taxing districts, it is hard to envision the State refusing to exercise its powers under the Local Government Supervision Act (1947) to take control of the finances of the city.”
The new development comes as local leaders, led by Mayor Don Guardian, are pushing back against the takeover proposal sponsored by Senate President Stephen Sweeney and supported by Gov. Chris Christie, with Mayor Guardian and City Council members holding a press conference at the beginning of the week to oppose the legislation, with the mayor going so far as to describe it as a “fascist dictatorship.” Nevertheless, the Governor and Sen. Sweeney have stood their ground, albeit Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald, the sponsor in the lower chamber, on Monday said he may not move forward with the proposal unless local leaders are on board. Nevertheless, Atlantic City’s leaders are rapidly losing leverage: Gov. Christie last month vetoed a bill that would have protected the city from the impact of court-ordered reassessments on the struggling casinos and injected millions of dollars in revenue in the near term. Now the new takeover proposal comes with similar legislation, which would create payments in lieu of taxes the casinos could pay to the city, the school district and county government.
If state lawmakers were to drop their takeover effort, some form of intervention increasingly seems inevitable, according to the legislative services memo, which asserts the state has “sufficient authority over the city’s finances to prevent a financial catastrophe.” In the short-term, the state could offer a low or no-interest loan. It could also force the city to liquidate debt and require the city’s financial officer to issue special reports and hold hearings, OLS says. While the state would not be able to unilaterally end existing collective bargaining agreements — a power included in the proposed takeover bill — it could negotiate new agreements with unions. But all that would not necessarily fix the city’s deep-rooted problems, according to OLS. The city owes hundreds of millions of dollars to bond holders and casinos that won tax appeals, and it also receives less money than it used to from the casinos. Referring to the pachyderms in the house, the memo notes: “Of course, the ‘elephants in the room,’ being the tax refunds owed by Atlantic City to the casinos and the corresponding loss of casino ratables to the city’s property tax base, will likely render the State’s financial supervision efforts insufficient to fully address Atlantic City’s financial situation without the provision of increased long-term financial aid to the city and school district.”
To make matters worse, federal bankruptcy protection — something that city had been mulling but would need state approval to seek — may not be able to solve the issue either. A judge may not have the authority to erase or “cram-down” the $170 million in debt the city owes the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, which had won tax appeals and is owed a refund. Because the casino is exercising its right to skip property tax payments until the city issues the refund, a judge might consider the debt a credit against future taxes, or, as OLS noted: “If the Borgata property tax refund can be characterized as a property tax prepayment for future tax quarters, then it is unlikely that the bankruptcy code’s automatic stay of action would apply.”
Marc Pfeiffer, the superb Assistant Director of the Bloustein Local Government Research Center, Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy in New Brunswick, New Jersey, notes that generally, while New Jersey clearly has significant authority now, given the magnitude of Atlantic City’s immediate and long term problems, the traditional solutions may not work, pointing to immediate issues such as cash flow, the need for stability of calculating casino property values and the tax revenue they represent, and monetizing their accumulated debt and deficits. He wrote that the long term requires the city to restructure and rationalize the cost of running the city: the current cost structure (with a few exceptions) was effectively established when Atlantic City had 12 casinos of higher value (i.e., market value of $22B in 2007 and $7.4B today), adding that labor costs, staffing levels, and position allocations all need to be rationalized—and there is no adequate legal authority for that to happen. Further, he notes, city officials need to understand that the current and prior generations of elected officials could have done a better job of managing their resources. The city has traditionally been overstaffed with pay scales in excess. Historically the city has been rife with patronage appointments and expectation of privilege (he notes, for instance, that only in the last month did city council members give up their personal vehicles). That means they cannot do business as usual and blame the state; that does not win any arguments, adding that even though Atlantic City officials were aware of the drop in value, they did little to address it.
Similarly, he adds, New Jersey’s plans for the City over the last 6 years have not met expectations: political decisions along the way resulted in the today’s crisis: Instead of waiting until 2015 to engage via an emergency manager who only recommended actions, if stronger state action had been taken several years ago, the immediate crisis could have been avoided—adding that, nevertheless, the situation being as grave as it is, the parties need to quickly align and understand that dramatic action is needed now to avoid a municipal bankruptcy filing which would only prolong the problem and add more costs. He notes that while the state clearly has significant authority now, given the magnitude of Atlantic City’s immediate and long term problems, the traditional solutions may not work. The immediate issues: cash flow, the need for stability of calculating casino property values and the tax revenue they represent, and monetizing accumulated debt and deficits. Further, he wrote, city officials need to understand that the current and prior generations of elected officials could have done a better job of managing their resources. The city has traditionally been overstaffed with pay scales in excess.
He added that New Jersey’s plans for the City over the last 6 years have not met expectations: “political decisions along the way resulted in the today’s crisis. Instead of waiting until 2015 to engage via an emergency manager who only recommended actions, if stronger state action had been taken several years ago, we could have avoided the immediate crisis…But we are where we are, and the parties need to quickly align and understand that dramatic action is needed now to avoid a bankruptcy filing which will only prolong the problem and add more costs.”