Lone Star Blues

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eBlog, 2/16/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the dwindling timeline confronting the city of Dallas to take action to avert a potential municipal bankruptcy; then we return to the small municipality of Petersburg, Virginia—an insolvent city with what appears to be an increasingly insolvent governing model, enmeshing the small city in litigation it can ill afford. Finally, we return to the trying governing and fiscal challenges in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico—caught between changing administrations, a federal oversight board, a disparate Medicaid regime than for other states and counties, and trying to adjust to a new Administration and Congress.

Dallas, Humpty-Dumpty, & Chapter 9? In a state where, as one state and local government expert yesterday described it, that state has created a governance structure which allows everyone to avoid accountability, the City of Dallas is confronting a public pension problem that could force the city into municipal bankruptcy [Texas Local Government Code §101.006—seven Texas towns and cities have filed for such protection.]. Should the city lose its current case against its firefighters—a case with some $4 billion at stake—municipal bankruptcy could ensue. Another Texan, noting the challenge of putting “Humpty Dumpty back together again,” said failure of the city to emulate Houston and come to terms with its employees, retirees, and taxpayers would be “cataclysmic.” With about two weeks remaining to file bills in the Longhorn legislature and negotiations over the city’s mismanaged and underfunded police and fire pension at a standstill, state lawmakers note they will likely be forced to step into the crisis, if the city is to avoid chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy—or, as Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas) noted: “I think we’re forced to step in. We’re [17] days away from the deadline, and there is yet to be an agreement between the city and the pension board…I think at this point we have to have a summit or some form of intervention, get everyone to the table and hammer those final issues down. If they don’t do that, it’s going to be a plan that’s drawn by the legislators, and we don’t have a stake interest like the other groups do to understand the nuances.” His statement came in the wake of a stoppage in negotiations over the last couple weeks—negotiations originally set up by the state, and negotiations with a short fuse: the last chance for the Texas Legislature to file bills to address the issue is looming: March 1st.

The severity of the crisis could be partially alleviated by a settlement reached late yesterday by the failing Dallas Police and Fire Pension System in its litigation against its former real estate advisers, whom pension officials had accused of leading the retirement fund astray. CDK Realty Advisors and the Dallas pension system both agreed to drop all claims and counterclaims with prejudice, according to court records filed late yesterday—and came as the city’s pension system and its attorneys have also been battling litigation from four City Council members, Mayor Mike Rawlings, a former contract auditor, and active and retired police and firefighters. The stakes are the city’s fiscal future: its retirement fund is now set to become insolvent within the next decade because of major losses and overvaluations—mostly from real estate—and generous benefits guaranteed by the system. Advising me that the “stigma or consequences for a city with the pride and stature of Dallas to fail would be cataclysmic,” one of the nation’s most insightful state and local pension wizards described the city’s pension challenge as “about as bad as any I have ever seen.”  

Hear Ye—or Hear Ye Not. A hearing for the civil case brought against Petersburg Mayor Samuel Parham and Councilman and former Mayor W. Howard Myers is set for this morning: Both men are defendants in a civil court case brought about by members of registered voters from the fifth and third wards of Petersburg: members of the third and fifth wards signed petitions to have both men removed from their positions. The civil case calls for both Parham and Myers to be removed from office due to “neglect, misuse of office, and incompetence in the performance of their duties.” The purpose of hearing is to determine a trial date, to hear any motions, to determine whether Messieurs Parham and Myers will be tried separately, and if they want to be tried by judge or jury. James E. Cornwell of Sands Anderson Law Firm will be representing Myers and Parham. The City Council voted 5-2 on Tuesday night to have the representation of Mr. Myers and Mayor Parham be paid for by the city. Mayor Parham, Vice Mayor Joe Hart, Councilman Charlie Cuthbert, former Mayor Myers, and Councilman Darrin Hill all voted yes to the proposition, while Councilwoman Treska Wilson-Smith and Councilwoman Annette Smith-Lee voted no. Mayor Parham and Councilmember Hill stated that the Council’s decision to pay for the representation was necessary to “protect the integrity of the Council,” noting: “It may not be a popular decision, but it’s [Myers and Parham] today, and it could be another council tomorrow.” Messieurs Hill and Parham argued that the recall petition could happen to any member of council: “[The petitions] are a total attack on our current leadership…We expect to get the truth told and these accusations against us laid to rest.” The legal confrontation is further muddied by City Attorney Joseph Preston’s inability to represent the current and former Mayors, because he was also named in the recall petition, and could be called as a witness during a trial.

Municipal Governance Bankruptcy? Virginia Commonwealth’s Attorney Cassandra Conover has felt forced to write a complaint, suggesting a conflict of interest in the virtually insolvent municipality of Petersburg, Virginia, in the wake of a city council vote to have the city pay for the legal expenses of Mayor Samuel Parham and Councilman Howard Myers. Ms. Conover, in an advisory opinion, described the vote to approve those expenses as a conflict of interest for the current and former mayors: “It is my advisory opinion that the undeclared conflict of interest disqualified both councilmen from voting on this motion and renders the vote invalid.” (The vote in question, as we have previously noted, was to hire a private attorney to represent Mayor Sam Parham and Councilman Howard Myers after more than 400 neighbors signed a petition to oust two Councilmembers from office.) Ms. Conover cited Virginia Code §2.2-3112, which says an employee of a state or local government entity “shall disqualify himself from participating in the transaction where the transaction involves a property or business or governmental agency in which he has a personal interest,” noting that Code §2.2-3115(F) mandates that in such a situation, there must be oral or written statements that show the transaction involved; the nature of the employee’s personal interest: that he (or she) is a member of a business, profession, occupation or group of members which are affected by the transaction: and that he is able to participate fairly, objectively and in the public interest. In this case, Ms. Conover stated that there was “no evidence that all four of these requirements were met in this case: concluding that the undeclared conflict of interest disqualified both men from voting and renders the vote invalid. 

The governance issue was not just the concept of an insolvent city’s Council voting to use public municipal funds to hire the private attorney, but also that neither Mayor Parham, nor Councilmember Myers recused himself from voting. Nevertheless, Petersburg City Attorney Joseph Preston responded that there was no conflict of interest and that the pair of elected officials had acted legally. Mayor Parham said the city likely will pay the bill for the personal attorney he and Councilmember Myers retained, albeit noting: “We’ve had to make cuts to schools and public safety, and we’re just starting to get back on our feet. It is a shame that we have to pump funds into something like this.” City Attorney Preston noted that Ms. Conover’s advisory opinion “adequately represents what occurred at their council meeting,” but he said he believes the pair of elected officials were legally allowed to take part in the vote, citing Virginia Code §2.2-3112 which provides that persons who have a conflict of interest can submit a disclosure statement on the issue—filings which the two elected officials filed with the Clerk of Court’s office the day after the vote. In addition, City Attorney Preston cited a decision from the Virginia Attorney General’s Office from 2009 which had ruled in favor of the Gloucester County Board of Supervisors, who were seeking compensation for their legal expenses; Ms. Conover, however, responded that the Attorney General’s 2009 decision did not apply to this case, because the charges against the Gloucester Board of Supervisors had been dismissed, and the court ordered the locality to pay for the majority of the legal fees which the board members had accrued, adding that the insolvent city had offered no estimate with regard to how much their legal fees could be. Notwithstanding the Commonwealth Attorney’s opinion, it appears unlikely that the Council will vote on the issue again: Mayor Parham yesterday noted: “I don’t feel like there was any conflict, and we did as we were advised by our attorney…We’ve had to make cuts to schools and public safety, and we’re just starting to get back on our feet. It is a shame that we have to pump funds into something like this.”  

Federalism, Governance, & Hegemony. With the enactment of the PROMESA legislation, Congress created governance and fiscal oversight responsibilities in the hands of seven non-elected officials to make critical fiscal reforms and restructuring of Puerto Rico—either through federal courts or via voluntary negotiations—for a debt that adds up to about $69 billion, but the new law also tasked a Congressional Task Force with analyzing initiatives which could help the island’s economy to grow; however, this bipartisan and bicameral committee ceased to exist upon submitting its report; ergo, unsurprisingly, both Governor Ricardo Rosselló and Jenniffer González, the new Resident Commissioner for Puerto Rico, have demanded that the PROMESA board members support their claims. But now a key area of concern has arisen: if the U.S. territory is unable to comply with the implementation of an information system which methodically integrates the management of important data for Medicaid claims—as mandated for federal eligibility as part of an integrated system to process claims and recover information, which is a Medicaid program requirement for federal fund eligibility which Puerto Rico should have long ago met, the island faces a more stark January 1 deadline by which it must comply with 60% of this system or be confronted with a fine of $147 million—a threat so dire that, according to the Health Secretary, Dr. Rafael Rodríguez Mercado, failing to comply with this requirement would mean the end of the Puerto Rico Government Health Plan. Puerto Rico is the only jurisdiction lacking such a platform, a platform intended to protect against medical fraud and establish eligibility, compliance, and service quality controls.

It was revealed in December, during the new government’s transition hearings for the Department of Health that the development of this platform began in 2011, but that it was not until 2014 that the project was resumed in its planning stage. The necessary funds to begin the implementation phase were finally matched during this fiscal year. The last administration predicted that the basic modules would begin working in a year and a half, and that the entire system would be operating in five years: it was expected that the window for the disbursement of Medicare and Medicaid funds would open in a year and a half. However, under threat of a fine, the government now expects to reach this goal before the date predicted by the last administration. Dr. Rodríguez Mercado stressed that there are currently 470,000 Puerto Ricans without health care insurance, many of whom cannot afford private insurance or are ineligible for the Government Health Plan, thus, many of these people seek out services in Centro Médico, an institution with a multi-million dollar deficit, when they become sick or are injured. Dr. Mercado further noted the disproportionate percentage of Medicare and Medicaid fraud cases, further undermining the territory’s credibility with the federal government—and, adding that local governments have complied  with the implementation of a Medicaid Fraud Control Unit (MFCU), which he says falls under the purview of the Department of Justice. Nevertheless, despite differing points of emphasis, both the leadership of the PROMESA Oversight Board and Resident Commissioner Jenifer González yesterday restated the importance of preventing Puerto Rico’s healthcare system from falling into a fiscal abyss, given the depletion of the $1.2 billion in Medicaid funds which has been provided on an annual basis under the Affordable Care Act.

Yesterday, in the wake of separate meetings with Commissioner González, with one of Speaker Paul Ryan’s advisors, and with Congresswoman Elise Stefanik (R-NY), PROMESA Oversight Board Chair José Carrión claimed that “we always try to include healthcare and economic development issues” in the meetings held in Congress, describing meetings in which he had been joined by Board member Carlos García and interim executive director, Ramón Ruiz Comas, as sessions to provide updates, while trying to deal with the issue which most concerns the Board: health care—emphasizing that especially in the wake of the end of the Congressional Task Force on Economic Growth in Puerto Rico.  

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Are American Cities at a Financial Brink?

eBlog, 1/13/17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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