Popping the Cork in Corktown?

August 14, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider some of the fiscal and physical challenges and changes to one of Detroit’s oldest neighborhoods, Corktown, before venturing to the warm Caribbean waters to witness incipient signs of fiscal and physical revival in Puerto Rico.

Motor City Revitalization. The City of Detroit, first settled in 1701 by French colonists, was the first European settlement above tidewater in North America, founded as a New France fur trading post, before becoming, by 1920, a world-class industrial powerhouse and the fourth-largest U.S. city. One might describe it as a unique municipal center of nations, as the first Europeans to settle there were French traders and colonists from the colony of La Loisiane, today’s New Orleans—traders who were forced to vie with the powerful Five Nations of the League of the Iroquois—setting the stage for what became the Beaver Wars in the 17th century. The greater Detroit metropolitan region of those times flourished as a center of the nation’s fur trade, so that the Crown’s administration of New France offered free land to colonists as a means to attract families to the region—a perennial challenge, and one of the city’s greatest fiscal challenges today. It was in late 1760 that Fort Detroit was surrendered to the British, in the wake of the fall of Quebec—so that control not just of the Detroit region, but of all French territory east of the Mississippi River, was formally transferred to England via the 1763 Treaty of Paris. By 1760, a British census counted 2,000 hardy souls in the city in the wake of the Seven Years’ War—a head count which, as would happen in this century, dropped 30% by 1773, a decade after the English had reserved the territory, under the Royal Proclamation Act of 1763 for the Indians—land eleven years later transferred to Quebec. In a census taken during the American Revolution, Detroit’s population had soared to 2,144, making the city the third-largest city in the Province of Quebec.

Today, Corktown is the oldest surviving neighborhood in Detroit, with the neighborhood named for its early Irish immigrants, who by the early 1850s, made up half of the residents of the 8th Ward (which contained Corktown), but it is a part of the city which has been reduced in size over the years by dint of numerous urban renewal projects, the construction of light industrial facilities, and the construction of the Lodge Freeway. What remains of the residential section is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is a neighborhood slated for change in this time of radical changes wrought by the emergence of the self-driving car era—so the Ford Motor Co.’s plans to renovate the historic Michigan Central Depot has raised apprehensions with regard to the potential impact such a large-scale project could have on the area and surrounding neighborhoods with regard to affordability and diversity—enough of a concern that Detroit’s leaders and officials have commenced what is to be a yearlong process to gather feedback from the community regarding the future of the neighborhood. That municipal effort is coming in tandem with a separate effort by Ford to collect input on its proposed plans to revitalize its iconic 100-plus-year-old historic building.

Officials with the city and Ford say they are committed to working with the community as they navigate their plans. The company, on June 20th, had announced its intentions to purchase the abandoned Michigan Central Station, a hulk of a building just blocks from where Kevyn Orr had his office on his first day as the City’s Emergency Manager charged with taking Detroit into the nation’s largest ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy—and fashioning a plan of adjustment to be approved by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court. That 18-story building, which starred as a set piece for the flick Batman v. Superman, has been described as representing a “deep, complex wound…a physical reminder of what the city was, and what it many thought it would never be again.”

Simultaneously, the city is seeking to create a strategic framework for the Greater Corktown neighborhood to address the area’s potential for growth, even as it seeks to preserve its heritage and integrity, officials say—a framework which is to detail both a short-term implementation plans and long-term goals for the neighborhood’s development: Detroit’s Planning and Development Department expects, before the month is out, an RFP for a consultant to conduct a series of community meetings in Greater Corktown, with said selection to be announced by the end of next month: the study itself is projected to lead to a recommendations of a final framework in a year.

Not Self-Driving. The city’s plans for Greater Corktown, just one of the city neighborhoods in various stages of planning, was in the planning stage prior to Ford’s depot announcement, creating some governing challenges, or, as John Sivills, the project manager with Detroit’s Planning and Development Department, put it: “The Ford announcement certainly does add a great sense of urgency to it so we can have a plan in place rather than tail-wagging-dog scenario.” That is, as he added: “That the city can have a plan in place such as bring in Ford and provide for inclusionary growth.” Similarly, his colleague, Steve Lewis, central design director for Planning and Development, noted that Detroit’s plan will craft “a vision for the future of the neighborhood that either by optics or by reality is not seen as being dictated by Ford.” Their study is expected to address challenges and opportunities for a number of issues, including zoning, landscape, historic preservation, and housing development.

Will They Drive in Tandem or Self-Drive? Ford is planning to create a 1.2 million-square-foot campus with its anchor at the Michigan Central Depot, with plans to occupy the depot by 2022: the project will include the Grand Hall, which will be open to the public, along with retail space: the 18-story tower will have office space as well as residential space on the top two floors. In addition, Ford intends to develop other buildings on the campus, including the former Detroit Public Schools Book Depository, where Ford plans to house its autonomous vehicle business on the Corktown campus. Ford is, at the same time, seeking community engagement for its Corktown expansion, with the company asserting: “Detroit and Corktown, North Corktown, there’s opportunity and so much potential, and they’re already doing such amazing work that Ford can really just be a platform to shed a light on the work that they’re doing…Maybe help them scale.”

Indeed, scale, as in any city, is an issue: because of the large-scale of the project, it falls under the city’s Community Benefits Ordinance, one approved by Detroit voters in November of 2016, which targets developments worth at least $75 million, if the development gets $1 million or more in property tax abatements or $1 million or more in value of city property sale or transfer: under said ordinance, a neighborhood advisory council is assembled to provide feedback in meetings during the ensuing two months, with the advisory council subsequently working with Ford to create a community benefits agreement.

To date, Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones has selected Hubbard-Richard resident Aliyah Sabree, a Judge in the 36th District Court; City Councilwoman Janee Ayers chose Sheila Cockrel, a Corktown resident and former Councilwoman. The community elected Jerry Paffendorf, co-owner of Loveland Technologies, and Heather McKeon, an interior designer with Patrick Thompson Design. The Detroit Planning and Development Department will name four appointees, and City Councilwoman Raquel Castañeda-López will name one appointee.

Concurrently, Ford has feedback boards and comment boxes in its Ford Resource and Engagement Center, where questions posed include: “Where do you go to get ___ in your neighborhood (nails, hair, dry cleaning, etc.?); What are the top three things you want to see changed in your neighborhood?”; and “Who is an unsung hero, organization and/or business in your neighborhood?” The company reports that it has already received feedback from excitement to issues of apprehension on issues ranging from housing, to jobs, to traffic, and to culture,” adding: “We really love that the community values the diversity of the neighborhoods from Corktown, North Corktown, and Southwest Detroit. We’re really understanding the importance of that. We’re also understanding the importance of workforce. Recognizing that there’s not only potential construction jobs, but also long-term what are some ways we can build a pipeline or clear pathways for some of the other jobs that may be available in the future. Technology jobs, things of that nature. Jobs around (electric and autonomous vehicles.).”

Some have criticized aspects of the Community Benefits Ordinance and the Neighborhood Advisory Council process. Alina Johnson, a resident of the nearby Hubbard-Richard neighborhood, which will also be impacted by Ford’s project, said she feels residents should be trained in advance on advisory council work in order to be most effective on a tight timeline—or, as she put it: “Right now, the main concern is making sure that the folks who have been selected will be able to be inclusive and able to communicate to the public and serve everyone and not necessarily their community in terms when they’re discussing benefits by those impacted by the train station development.”

Blowing Fiscally Back. Despite a double fiscal and physical whammy of hurricanes, and being in the beginning of this year’s hurricane season, Puerto Rico FY’2017 General Fund revenue came in 1.5% higher than budgeted: total revenue was $9.31. Puerto Rico Secretary of Treasury Teresita Fuentes noted: “The level and behavior of tax collections during the past fiscal year in comparison with other years is considered unusual due to the economic effect of hurricanes passing through the island.” That is a sharp fiscal blowback to FAFAA Executive Director Gerardo Portela Franco’s warning last December 5th that he expected Puerto Rico’s fiscal year General Fund revenues to be 25% less than budgeted.  Secretary Fuentes reported that unexpectedly high revenues from April to June had allowed the government to exceed the budgeted number, while Puerto Rico Secretary of the Interior Raul Maldonado noted: “To a large extent the [revenue] increase is attributed to the temporary economic activity of companies associated with recovery tasks and the flow of insurer and federal government money after the hurricanes.” He noted that the greatest increase was derived from the island’s corporate income tax—some $260 million; however, Puerto Rico’s sales and use tax revenues returned $26 million less than projections from the start of the year. Secretary Fuentes said that many businesses had either been closed or had operated partially in the weeks following Hurricane Maria and that in the period the sales tax on restaurant food was temporarily eliminated; however, the sales and use tax revenue rebounded in the last quarter, with Secretary Fuentes pointing in particular to hardware stores and department store sales.

Back to Escuela.  Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares has announced the territory will provide more than 2,000 regular slots to temporary teachers—a step by which he hopes to alleviate the recurring challenge of recruiting educators at each school start—as teachers are often attracted to more generous salaries and benefits on the mainland.  His stated goal is for these educators to be recruited under 10-month contracts by September:We are going to make an effort to convert thousands of temporary places in permanent seats in the education system.” The Governor noted that his action is intended to make it possible to clarify the system and end current uncertainties which have left teachers in the dark with regard to whether she or he still has a job—an apprehension not just of teachers, but also parents, who are confronting their own choices with September looming.

Two years ago, in the midst of an election year, the Governor acted to convert some 1,519 temporary teachers to become full-time employees, noting, then: “You have teachers who were not sure, and now they are going to have certainty, and you have a school system that did not have visibility, now we are building that visibility,” adding that, in his view, this governing decision would not have an adverse impact on Puerto Rico’s budget—and, ergo, not trigger PROMESA Oversight Board fiscal preemption: “If there is any philosophical consideration that they may have, that is another thing. For us, it gives certainty to the system, particularly in the area of needs that we are going to have to supply.” The Governor explained that the measure was possible thanks to two fundamental actions: the creation of an electronic platform which has facilitated the ability of Education Secretary Julia Keleher to assess where staff is needed, especially with regard to what levels and subjects: that is, via the human resources platform, the Secretary can assess, as the Governor noted, the educational organization of each campus, including how many teachers are transient and what subjects they teach. This could be a valuable fiscal step, because online registration will facilitate the ability to confirm the number and location of students—a critical step for the completion of the school consolidation process.

Sec. Keleher has explained that the system will take into account, first, the educators who occupy places where recruitment has proved difficult, such as Special Education, English, and Math—noting the human and fiscal challenges: “You have to honor the transient teacher. It does not seem fair or correct in terms of the reality we want to offer. This is not a good deal for a person who is giving 100% for their students: The Secretary noted the determination is aligned with the anticipated tax revenues. Her request, this year, is for over 5,500 transitory positions—or, as she notes: “The idea is to have the teachers ready for the start of classes, the week before they know where they are going.” Puerto Rico’s statute 85-2018, the Law on Educational Reform “establishes that the Department, in areas of difficult recruitment such as teachers of English, Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry, will promote the permanence of the same within the term of one year, if fiscal availability of the square and of being the same vacancy.”

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The Complex Challenges of Implementing a Municipal Bankruptcy Plan of Debt Adjustment

July 31, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider post-chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy challenges for the City of Detroit, before turning to learn about good gnus from Puerto Rico.

The Steep Route of Chapter 9 Debt Adjustment. Direct Construction Services, minority-owned firm, which has participated in Detroit’s federally funded demolition program, is suing Mayor Mike Duggan, the city’s land bank, and Detroit’s building authority as well as high-ranking officials from each division—alleging racial discrimination and retaliation. The suit asks the court to award damages and declare the actions of the city, its land bank and building authority as “discriminatory and illegal.” The suit alleges that some contractors had been asked to change bidding and cost figures “to reflect compliance” under the federal demolition Hardest Hit Fund guidelines. Filed in federal court, it charges that Service’s managing member, Timothy Drakeford, was treated unfairly based on his race and that officials in the program conspired to have him suspended for refusing to falsify documents and for cooperating with federal authorities. Mr. Drakeford, who is barred from bidding on federally funded demolition work, is also suing for breach of contract and discrimination against black contractors. The suit charges that some contractors, including Mr. Drakeford, had been asked to change bidding and cost numbers “to reflect compliance” under the federal Hardest Hit Fund guidelines; indeed, the suit alleges it was subsequently suspended—not because of the quality of its work, but rather “because of the refusal to change numbers in bid packages.” The suit adds: “This case arises because of defendants’ breach of contract, concert of action, due process violations, and discrimination on the grounds of race in its implementation of the Hardest Hit Homeowner demolition program, including failure to timely pay black contractors in comparison to their white counterparts, improper and disparate discipline and retaliation.”

This issues here are not new—and have previously been the focus of FBI, state, and city investigations, especially over bidding practices and rising costs. As we have previously noted, the city’s plan of debt adjustment efforts to raze abandoned homes was a particular focus—a program through which federal assistance was misappropriated while the city worked to demolish homes after its bankruptcy—in that case involving federal funds allocated via the Michigan State Housing Development Authority. The suit contends that Direct Construction was awarded three contracts for demolition work by the land bank, and asserts that payments were delayed and harder to obtain from the land bank than for “larger white companies,” such as Adamo and Homrich, two firms awarded the largest percentage of the work to date. The suit asserts Direct Construction was under contract for several demolition packages, but still has not been paid, and references in excess of $143,000 in unpaid invoices, noting: This “repetitive process has gone on for over a year now, with no success,” contending that it had been performing work on two contracts which it had been awarded for a total of 48 homes—before, on December 19, 2016, being hit with an “immediate stop work order” from the land bank, without explanation. A year ago in February, Direct received a letter regarding an Office of Inspector General report, which suggested that photographs submitted for repayment of sidewalk work had been falsified and that the company would not be compensated—a letter followed up the next month by a notice of suspension. (Direct was among a few businesses suspended last year on claims of manipulating sidewalk repair photographs to obtain payment.)

Detroit Corporation Counsel Lawrence Garcia yesterday noted: “The Office of Inspector General found that not only did Mr. Drakeford personally manipulate a photo of a demolition site to conceal tires that had not been removed from the lot, but also gave information that was not truthful to the OIG’s investigators. For the penalties issued with respect to these matters, the Detroit Land Bank, the DBA and the city followed the recommendations of the independently appointed inspector general…These facts more than justify the city’s actions.” Indeed, that office, at the request of the land bank, had initiated investigations in December of 2016 into allegations that sidewalk repair photographs were being doctored. (The land bank mandates that its contractors to take “before and after” photographs of sidewalks, drive approaches, neighboring residences, and surrounding areas to document conditions.) The Office, the following February, flagged Direct Construction over five of its submitted photographs, concluding the photos had been modified to disguise incomplete work; it recommended the company be barred from doing work in the city’s demolition program until at least 2020. (The Michigan State Housing Development Authority began placing greater emphasis on sidewalk replacement photographs in October of 2016, when a new set of practices went into place—at a point in time when federally funded demolition had been suspended for two months after a review by the Michigan Homeowner Assistance Nonprofit Housing Corp.).

Since Mayor Duggan’s election in 2013, the city has razed nearly 13,000 homes—a task that has fiscal and physical consequences—reducing assessed property values and property taxes, but also leaving medical scars: over that time, the percentage of children 6 and younger with elevated lead levels rose from 6.9% in 2012 to 8.7% in 2016, according to state records. Early last year, the land bank repaid $1.37 million to address improper expenses identified by auditors for the state. The land bank last summer reached a settlement with state housing officials to pay $5 million to resolve a dispute over invoices the state determined to be improperly submitted. Detroit’s administration has claimed the city has been transparent with its demolition program and cooperated fully with all inquiries.

Good Gnus. In Puerto Rico, Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares and the Labor Secretary Carlos Saavedra are celebrating a turnaround in employment in the U.S. territory: between May and June, some 11,000 people joined the island’s labor market, dropping Puerto Rico’s unemployment rate to its lowest level in half a century. Gov. Rosselló Nevares yesterday reported the unemployment rate to be 9.3%, the lowest rate in the last 50 years, noting: “On this occasion, unemployment drops and the participation rate increases are all numbers going in the right direction.” Sec. Saavedra explained the increase between May and June reflects summer employment programs, but at a level considerably better than in previous years, especially in the commercial and self-employment sectors—and, as he noted: “We have seen a substantial increase in self-employment,” apparently reflecting many involved with repairs and reconstruction for damage caused by Hurricane María, especially electricians, and builders. Economist Juan Lara explained that jurisdictions which have suffered deep economic declines as a result of a natural disaster experience a period of rebound that leads to growth, but cautioned: “[T]his can hardly be maintained in the long-term without a change in the economic model.” He estimated that in the next five or six years, federal investments could keep the economy in positive territory, noting: “The important thing is to remember that these funds do not last forever and that the economy needs sustained redevelopment.”

For his part, Gov. Rosselló stressed that the current economic improvement is occurring without the federal government having released a penny of the more than $1.8 billion in promised HUD assistance. Nevertheless, there can be little question but that the more than $3 billion in insurance claims already paid, according to according to Iraelia Pernas, the Executive Director of the Puerto Rico Insurance Companies Association have had a positive, if one-time, impact. Similarly, the island is anticipating, in August, a large CDBG grant.

Gov. Rosselló Nevares attributed the jobs upturn, interestingly, to emigration: many who were unemployed left Puerto Rico for the mainland, even as he reported the total number of citizens employed has increased, as well as the labor participation rate (not seasonally adjusted), which rose from 40.5% in May to 41.1% last month. percent in June. In the first months following Hurricane María, nearly 200,000 people left Puerto Rico. Many, however, have returned.

Informacion Mejor? PROMESA Oversight Board Executive Director Natalie Jaresko has reported the Board “welcomes the publication” of fiscal information mandated by the Board, after, on July 10th, the Board had sent a letter to FAFAA Executive Director Gerardo Portela Franco, complaining of a failure to submit documents, including documents comparing the General Fund budget to actual spending; PayGo balances; and public employee payroll, headcount, and attendance. The board said that, according to the approved quasi-plan of debt adjustment, the first two documents had been due on May 31st, and the third on June 30th. FAFAA released the PayGo report on July 17, and the other two reports last Friday.  Ms. Jaresko wrote: “The Oversight Board welcomes the publication of the General Fund to Actual Report, the Human Resources Report and the Payroll Report: Full monthly public reporting is essential to increase transparency of government finances, increase accountability, and monitor compliance and progress as per the fiscal plan and budget objectives in order to eliminate Puerto Rico’s structural deficits…The Oversight Board is committed to continuing this important work of monitoring full compliance by the government with reporting requirements, in order to achieve PROMESA’s mandate of restoring fiscal responsibility and market access to Puerto Rico.”

Motor City Rising

June 1, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the remarkable turnaround of Detroit—a city which, when I inquired on its very first day in chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, for walking directions from my hotel to the Governor’s Detroit office—in response to which I was told the one mile route was not doable—not because I would be too physically challenged,  but rather because I would be slain. Yet now, as the  fine editorial writers for the Detroit News, Daniel Howes and Nolan Finley, wrote: “A regional divide that appeared to be healing since Detroit’s historic bankruptcy is busting wide open over a plan for regional transit, exposing anxiety that the city is prospering at the expense of the suburbs,” noting that the trigger is a is a proposed millage to fund expansion of the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan, a $5.4 billion plan that would seem to promise an exceptional reshaping of the metro region—indeed: a reversal a what had been a decades-long shift of the economy from downtown Detroit to is suburbs: an exodus that contributed to a wasteland and the nation’s largest ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy.” Or, as they wrote: “That battle reveals growing suburban resentments over the region’s shifting economic fortunes: decades-long capital flow is reversing directions as more jobs and tax revenue flee the ‘burbs for a rejuvenated downtown.”

Mr. Finley noted that Mayor Mike Duggan, this week, told him: “I can’t explain why Oakland and Macomb (suburban counties) are doing what they’re doing” three weeks ago Microsoft brought 400 employees from Southfield into the city of Detroit. And last week, Tata Technologies said they were moving 200 people from Novi and into Detroit. Google is in the process of moving people from Birmingham into the city of Detroit.” What the Mayor was alluding to was a u-turn from a decade of moderate and upper income families leaving Detroit for its suburban counties in the days when former Mayor Coleman Young had advised criminals to “hit Eight Mile” has the relationship between the Metro Motor City’s regional leaders become so difficult in the wake of the unexpected reverse exodus: this time from Detroit’s suburbs back into the city. Billions in private sector investment, spearheaded by Dan Gilbert’s Quicken Loans Inc., the Ilitch family, and growing enthusiasm among other business leaders to be part of the city’s post-chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy have been changing demographic and economic patterns.

As the city continues under decreasing state oversight to carry out its judicially approved plan of debt adjustment, Mayor Duggan notes: “Expectations are rising.” This, after all, is not a City Hall bound mayor, but rather what the editors described as a “short, stocky, balding white guy who is no stranger to block after block of dilapidated houses—and who was reelected to a second term with an amazing 72% of the vote in a city where slightly more than 82% of the voters are black—and where, when he took office, there were about 40,000 abandoned homes. He is not a stay at City Hall type fellow either—rather an inveterate inspector of this mammoth rebuilding of an iconic city, who listens—and with his cell phone—takes action immediately in response to constituents concerns. After all, as the Mayor notes: “Expectations are rising…People are putting more demands on me and more demands on the administration, and I think that’s a really good thing and that will keep us motivated to work hard.”

Already, the urban wasteland is changing—almost on a daily basis: already, under a city program which supports renovation over demolition to try to preserve the mid-century architectural character of neighborhoods, that number of abandoned homes has been halved—with many of the units set aside for affordable housing. In his State of the City address this year, Mayor Duggan said he wants 8,000 more homes demolished, 2,000 sold, another 1,000 renovated and 11,000 more boarded up by the end of next year.

On that first day of the nation’s largest ever municipal bankruptcy, Kevin Orr, whom the Governor had tapped to become the Emergency Manager for Detroit, had flown out from the Washington, D.C. region, and told me his first actions were to email every employee of Detroit that he would be filing that morning in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, but that he expected every employee to report to work—and that the most critical priorities were that every traffic and street light work—and that there be a professional, courteous, and prompt response to every 911 call.  

That was a challenge—especially for a municipality in bankruptcy, but, by 2016, the city had completed a $185 million streetlight repair project; 911 response times have been reduced from 50 minutes in 2013 to 14.5 minutes last year, and ambulance response times fell from 20 minutes in 2014 to the national average of 8 minutes this year.

As we have previously noted, two months ago, just three and a half years after Detroit emerged from chapter 9, the city has exited from state oversight; its homeless population has, for the third consecutive year, declined—and, its unemployment rate, which had peaked during the fiscal crisis at 28%, is now below 8%. No wonder the suburbs are becoming fiscally jealous. And the downtown, which was unsafe for pedestrians when the National League of Cities hosted its annual meeting there in the 1980’s and on the city’s first day in bankruptcy, has been transformed into a modern, walkable metropolis.

Nevertheless, the seeming bulldog, relentless leader has refused to sugarcoat the fiscal and physical challenge—or, as he puts it: “I don’t spend a lot of time promising. I just say, here’s what we’re doing next and here’s why we’re doing it and then we do what we say…Over time, you don’t restore trust by making more promises; you restore trust by actually doing what you said you were going to do.”

Mr. Finley wrote that the Mayor, deemed a “truth teller” by Detroit Housing Director Arthur Jemison, has been direct in confronting the city’s harsh legacy of racist policies after the Great Depression lured thousands upon thousands of African-Americans north in the early decades of the 20th century to work in auto factories—luring them to a city at a time when Federal Housing Administration guidelines barred blacks in the city from obtaining home mortgages and even led to the construction in 1941 of a wall bordering the heavily African-American 8 Mile neighborhood to segregate it from a new housing development for whites.

Aaron Foley — the 33-year-old author of How to Live in Detroit Without Being a Jackass, noted: “When you deliver that kind of message about this is why black people are on this side of the wall in 8 Mile versus the other side of the wall, that gets people talking: This is a history that we all know in Detroit, and for the city government to acknowledge that in the way that it did on that platform, it did resonate.”

Mayor Duggan’s concern for Detroit’s people—and not forcing low-income families out, is evidenced too by his words: “Every single time that we had a building where the federal [housing] credits were expiring and people were going to get forced out of their affordable units, I had to sit down for hours with the building owner to convince them why those who stayed were entitled to be there, and I thought: I need to do just one speech and explain that this is the right thing to do…Since then there’s been just great support for the direction we’re going in the city. We have very little pushback now from our developers over making sure that what they’re doing is equitable.”

Planning Municipal Debt Adjustment

May 21, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we take a fiscal perspective on post-chapter 9 Vallejo, before exploring the seeming good gnus of lower unemployment data from Puerto Rico.

Fiscal Reinvention.  After Vallejo, a waterfront city in Solano County of about 115,000 in California’s Bay Area, filed for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, just over a decade ago, on May 17, 2008, claiming it could no longer afford to pay wages and benefits promised to its employees; it appears its chapter 9 plan of debt adjustment has worked. The municipality, which served twice as California’s capital, was the nation’s largest city to file for municipal bankruptcy when it did—a period during which, in the wake of cuts of as much as 40 percent in its police force, and closure of its fire stations, leading to sharp increases in crime—there were, consequently, serious declines in assessed property values.  The municipality’s cash reserves disappeared; it was unable to pay its bills amid falling property tax revenue, soaring costs of employee compensation and pension liabilities, and a consequent surge in foreclosures. Thus, with its official exit, the city will be able to resume its governance—albeit, as Moody’s moodily explained last month, the city’s plan of debt adjustment will bequeath “significant unfunded and rapidly rising pension obligations,” adding that in addition to higher taxes, the city will be confronted by “challenges associated with deferred maintenance and potential service shortfalls.” Further, the credit rating agency noted, the “probability of continued financial distress and possibly even a return to bankruptcy.” Today, median household income in the city is under $40,000, while average municipal employee compensation is over $114,000. The city currently has 17 police sergeants receiving compensation packages which range from $220,000-$469,000—in addition to generous promised retirement pensions.  

Vallejo Assistant City Manager Craig Whittom last week noted that the city had been left to determine its Chapter 9 bankruptcy end date in the wake of U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Michael McManus’ approval of the city’s plan of debt adjustment last August—a key component of that plan being the codification of municipal bond repayment obligations to the city’s largest creditor, Union Bank, a plan approved by the Vallejo City Council three weeks ago, with Mr. Whittom noting that Vallejo’s formal chapter 9 exit is important in tangible ways for the city. For instance, he noted the elimination of real estate agents’ requirement to disclose that the city is in bankruptcy when selling properties, albeit conceding that municipal bankruptcy-deferred lawsuits against the city will now be free to go forward.

Nevertheless, leaving municipal bankruptcy is a fiscal challenge of its own—especially in instances where a municipality’s plan of debt adjustment does not take into account public pension obligations. As Ed Mendel of Calpensions explained: “Vallejo received court approval to exit from bankruptcy last week with a plan that includes a sharp increase in pension payments to CalPERS—the opposite of what many expected when the city declared bankruptcy in May 2008,” a resolution which, left the municipality with a proverbial ball and chain around its ankle because, by 2014, the city was confronted by ballooning public pension liabilities, with CNN reporting that Vallejo’s recent public-safety retirees have annual pension benefits which top $100,000 a year, leading Wallet-Hub to describe Vallejo as the “second least recovered city.”  That is, absent the ability to trim benefits for current employees, there are few options to keep pensions from consuming ever-increasing parts of a municipality’s budget.

Nevertheless, the city’s leaders have demonstrated innovative fiscal grit and determination: it has begun reinventing itself, using technology to fill personnel gaps, rallying residents to volunteer to provide public services, and even offering its voters the chance to decide how their taxes will be used—in return for an increase in the sales tax. Now, for the first time in five years, the city expects to have enough money to address potholes, weeds in public rights of way, etc.  

Lessons Learned. Prior to its chapter 9 filing, Vallejo’s salaries for city employees had ballooned: a number of top officials were making $200,000 or $300,000—enough so that some 80 percent of the city’s budget went toward compensation, even as the city’s credit rating was downgraded to junk status—meaning that, as part of the city’s plan of debt adjustment, the municipality paid only five cents for every dollar it owed to its bondholders, while the city also reduced employees’ pay, health care and other benefits—making it harder to attract key employees.  

That meant, as former Councilmember Marti Brown noted, that for Vallejo to fiscally survive, the city needed to study best practices from around the world and bring some of them to California—an effort which, in retrospect, she said turned “out to be a really positive experience for the city.” Together with former Councilmember Stephanie Gomes, the two elected leaders focused on public safety: they went the neighborhood to neighborhood setting up e-mail groups and social media accounts so residents could, for instance, share pictures of suspicious vehicles and other information: the number of neighborhood watch groups jumped nearly 300% from 15 to 350. Moreover, the City Council worked out an unusual compact with residents: in return for agreeing to a one-penny sales tax increase, projected to generate an additional $9.5 million in revenue, the resident gained the right to vote on how the funds would be used: citizen participatory budgeting—the first in a North American city.

This fiscal and governing innovation—or “ground-up restructuring,” as Karol Denniston, a partner with Squire Patton Boggs LLP notes, has meant that, today, Vallejo is “now routinely one of the top 10 cities where people want to live, which is a huge turn-around from when they entered bankruptcy.” The median listing price in Vallejo had soared to $420,000 by last month from $290,000 in May of 2015, according to realtor.com, crediting city leaders for turning around the relationships with its police and fire employees: “It looks like someone was able to improve those relationships: You have to bring the employees and the taxpayers along at the same time to reach a good consensus on financial goals.” Thus, unsurprisingly, last week, Finance Director Ron Millard presented a structurally balanced $105 million budget to the City Council for the fifth consecutive year—proposing reserves of 17.3%, after a strict fiscal diet of austerity measures in the intervening years composed of cutting police and fire services to the bone, tax increases, and economic development measures.

The Challenging Road to Recovery. Puerto Rico’s unemployment rate slipped below 10% last month for the first time in nearly two decades—albeit the change is more a reflection of emigration than economic improvement. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nonetheless, Puerto Rico’s unemployment rate was 9.9%, its lowest level since it was 9.8% in November of 2000—a rate nearly 50% lower than the Spring of 2009. The BLS reported that the number of residents with jobs declined 1% last month from April of 2017 according to the Bureau’s Current Employment Statistics, and this showed total non-farm employment declining last month by 3.6% from a year earlier, with private sector non-farm employment down 3.3% from a year earlier—denoting a further sign of the fiscal challenges ahead as the U.S. territory restructures its debt. Of concern is who is leaving, as Advantage Business Consulting President Vicente Feliciano noted that the “unemployment rate is down mainly due to emigration: Thus, there are fewer people employed, but as a result of emigration, fewer people are looking for a job; meanwhile, the Puerto Rico economy is being impacted by the start of [hurricane-related] insurance and federal transfers.” Nevertheless, he reported that the Economic Activity Index in March 2018 was up with respect to February 2018: “Cement sales are up over 20% in March 2018 compared to March 2017. While these transfers are only beginning, they are non-recurrent and therefore should not be the basis for debt renegotiation.” However, Inteligencia Económica Chairman Gustavo Vélez noted: “The [labor force] participation rate remains very low…The information that I have is that the labor market is not normalized yet. Nevertheless, key industries like construction and retail are doing well because of the federal recovery funds already deployed into the local economy ($10 billion since October 2017).” According to the most recent economic activity index release (March), the index was down 2.6% from a year earlier; however, this was a rebound from the 19.7% decline in November 2017 from November 2016.

Who’s on First? Confidential conversations between the PROMESA Board and Gov. Ricardo Rosselló Nevares’s administration continued over the past few days without the certainty to reach a balance between the revenues and expenses the Government will have during the upcoming fiscal year—a year commencing in little over a month, on July 1st. Yet, even with the adjustments made by Governor Rosselló, following some of the Board’s mandates, government expenses are proposed for some $8.73 billion, a level some $200 million higher than the revenue certified by the Board. Nevertheless, neither the Board, nor the Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority (FAFAA) have been willing to discuss the preparation of the new budget or the differences, which have been publicly outlined between the parties. For his part, the Governor has refused to accept the revenue scheme certified by the Board to prepare the budget, instead opting to use the numbers contained in the new Fiscal Plan—while the PROMESA Board has objected that pensions adjustments contained in the Fiscal Plan have not been implemented, nor have their proposed labor reforms been listed.

Some parties have indicated that, as part of the process between the parties, Puerto Rico has promised, as required by the PROMESA Board, to eliminate Law 80, a Puerto Rican law which protects workers from unjust dismissals, in exchange for the allocation of some $100 million to municipalities, as well as an increase in funds for the Legislature, the Governor’s Office, and the Federal Affairs Administration. The see-saw issue at a time of steep cuts in Puerto Rican government services and school closures, including limitations in the Government’s Health Plan, has led Gov. Rosselló Nevares’ administration to criticize the seemingly contradictory fiscal situation in which the PROMESA Board has requested nearly a 33% increase from $60 million to $80 million in the amount it receives to finance its operation and bankruptcy lawsuits of the central government and several public agencies, at the same time, as Rafael Hernández Montañez, spokesman of the Popular Democratic Party minority in the House, expressed the Board does not appear to “think the same about the elimination of workers’ rights,” and at the same time the Governor is looking to increase government investment in Puerto Rico’s future.

Motoring Back from Chapter 9 Bankruptcy

March 9, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the state of the City of Detroit, the state of the post-state takeover Atlantic City, and the hard to explain delay by the U.S. Treasury of a loan to the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico.

An Extraordinary Chapter 9 Exit. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan yesterday described the Motor City as one becoming a “world-class place to put down your roots” and make an impact: “We’re at a time where I think the trajectory is going the right way…We all know what the issues are. We’re no longer talking about streetlights out, getting grass cut in the parks. We’re making progress. We’re not talking all that much about balancing the budget.” His remarks, coming nearly five years after I met with Kevin Orr on the day he had arrived in Detroit at the request of the Governor Rick Snyder to serve as the Emergency Manager and steer the city into and out of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, denote how well his plan of debt adjustment as approved by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes has worked.

Thus, yesterday, the Mayor touted the Detroit Promise, a city scholarship program which covers college tuition fees for graduates of the city’s school district, as well as boosting a bus “loop” connecting local charter schools, city schools and after-school programs. Maybe of greater import, the Mayor reported that his administration intends to have every vacant, abandoned house demolished, boarded up, or remodeled by next year—adding that last year foreclosures had declined to their lowest level since 2008. Over the last six months, the city has boarded up 5,000 houses, sold 3,000 vacant houses for rehab, razed nearly 14,000 abandoned houses, and sold an estimated 9,000 side lots. The overall architecture of the Motor City’s housing future envisions the preservation of 10,000 affordable housing units and creation of 2,000 new ones over the next five years.

The Mayor touted the success of the city’s Project Green Light program, noting that some 300 businesses have joined the effort, which has realized, over the last three years a 40% in carjackings, a 30% decline in homicides since 2012, and 37% fewer fires, adding that the city intends to expand the Operation Ceasefire program, which has decreased shootings and other crimes, to other police precincts. On the economic front, the Mayor stated that Lear, Microsoft, Adient, and other major enterprises are moving or planning to open sites: over the last four years, more than 25 companies of 100-500 jobs relocated to Detroit. On the public infrastructure radar screen, Mayor Duggan noted plans for $90 million in road improvements are scheduled this year, including plans to expand the Strategic Neighborhood Fund to target seven more areas across the city, add stores, and renovate properties. Nearly two years after Michigan Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof (R-West Olive) shepherded through the legislature a plan to pay off the Detroit School District’s debt, describing it to his colleagues as a “realistic compromise for a path to the future…At the end of the day, our responsibility is to solve the problem: Without legislative action, the Detroit Public Schools would head toward bankruptcy, which would cost billions of dollars and cost every student in every district in Michigan,” the Mayor yesterday noted that a bigger city focus on public schools is the next front in Detroit’s post-bankruptcy turnaround as part of the city’s path to exiting state oversight. He also unveiled a plan to partner with the Detroit Public Schools Community District, describing the recovery of the district as vital to encourage young families to move back into the city, proposing the formation of an education commission on which he would serve, as well as other stakeholders to take on coordinating some city-wide educational initiatives, such as putting out a universal report card on school quality (which he noted would require state support) and coordinating bus routes and extracurricular programs to serve the city’s kids regardless of what schools they attend.

The Mayor, who at the end of last month unveiled a $2 billion balanced budget, noted that once the Council acts upon it, the city would have the opportunity to exit active state oversight: “I expect in April or May, we’re going to see the financial review commission vote to end oversight and return self-determination to the City of Detroit,” adding: “As everybody here knows, the financial review commission doesn’t entirely go away: they go into a dormancy period. If we in the future run a deficit, they come back.”

His proposed budget relies on the use of $100 million of an unassigned fund balance to help increase spending on capital projects, including increased focus on blight remediation, stating he hopes to double the rate of commercial demolition and get rid of every vacant, “unsalvageable” commercial property on major streets by the end of next year—a key goal from the plan he unveiled last October to devote $125 million of bond funds towards the revitalization of Detroit neighborhood commercial corridors, part of the city’s planned $317 million improvements to some 300 miles of roads and thousands of damaged sidewalks—adding that these investments have been made possible from the city’s $ billion general fund thanks to increasing income tax revenues—revenues projected to rise 2.7% for the coming fiscal year and add another $6million to $7 million to the city’s coffers. Indeed, CFO John Hill reported that the budget maintains more than a 5% reserve, and that the city continues to put aside fiscal resources to address the  higher-than-expected pension payments commencing in 2024, the fiscal year in which Detroit officials project they will face annual payments of at least $143 million under the city’s plan of debt adjustment, adding that the retiree protection fund has performed well: “What we believe is that we will not have to make major changes to the fund in order for us to have the money that we need in 2024 to begin payments; In 2016 those returns weren’t so good and have since improved in 2017 and 2018, when they will be higher than the 6.75% return that we expected.” He noted that Detroit is also looking at ways to restructure its debt, because, with its limited tax general obligation bonds scheduled to mature in the next decade, Detroit could be in a position to return to the municipal market and finance its capital projects. Finally, on the public safety front, the Mayor’s budget proposes to provide the Detroit Police Department an $8 million boost, allowing the police department to make an additional 141 new hires.

Taking Bets on Atlantic City. The Atlantic City Council Wednesday approved its FY2019 budget, increasing the tax levy by just under 3%, creating sort of a seesaw pattern to the levy, which three years ago had reached an all-time high of $18.00 per one thousand dollars of valuation, before dropping in each of the last two years. Now Atlantic City’s FY2019 budget proposal shows an increase of $439,754 or 3.06%, with Administrator Lund outlining some of the highlights at this week’s Council session. He reported that over the years, the city’s landfill has been user fee-based ($1 per occupant per month) to be self-sufficient; however, some unforeseen expenses had been incurred which imposed a strain on the landfill’s $900,000 budget. Based on a county population of 14,000, the money generated from the assessment amounts to roughly $168,000 per year, allowing the Cass County Landfill to remain open. However, the financing leaves up to each individual city the decision of fee assessments. Thus, he told the Council: “The Per Capita payment to the landfill accounted for about .35 to .40 cents of the increase.”  Meanwhile, two General Department heads requested budget increases this year and five Department Heads including; the Police Department and Library submitted budgets smaller than the previous year. Noting that he “never advocate(s) for a tax increase,” Mr. Lund stated: “But it is what it is. It was supposed to go up to $16.98 last year and now we are at $16.86, so it’s still less,” adding that the city’s continuous debt remains an anchor to Atlantic City’s credit rating—but that his proposed budget includes a complete debt assumption and plan to deleverage the City over the next ten years.

Unshelter from the Storm. New York Federal Reserve Bank President, the very insightful William Dudley, warns that Puerto Rico should not misinterpret the economic boost from reconstruction following hurricanes that hit it hard last year as a sign of underlying strength: “It’s really important not to be seduced by that strong recovery in the immediate aftermath of the disaster,” as he met with Puerto Rican leaders in San Juan: “We would expect there to be a bounce in 2018 as the construction activity gets underway in earnest,” warning, however, he expects economic growth to slow again in 2019 or 2020: “It’s “important not to misinterpret what it means, because a lot still needs to be done on the fiscal side and the long-term economic development side.”

President Dudley and his team toured densely populated, lower-income, hard hit  San Juan neighborhoods, noting the prevalence of “blue roofs”—temporary roofs overlaid with blue tarps which had been used as temporary cover for the more permanent structures devastated by the hurricanes, leading him to recognize that lots of “construction needs to take place before the next storm season,” a season which starts in just two more months—and a season certain to be complicated by ongoing, persistent, and discriminatory delays in federal aid—delays which U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin blamed on Puerto Rico, stating: “We are not holding this up…We have documents in front of them that [spell out the terms under which] we are prepared to lend,” adding that the Trump Administration has yet to determine whether any of the Treasury loans would ultimately be forgiven in testimony in Washington, D.C. before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government.

Here, the loan in question, a $4.7 billion Community Disaster Loan Congress and the President approved last November to benefit the U.S. territory’s government, public corporations, and municipalities—but where the principal still has not been made available, appears to stem from disagreements with regard to how Puerto Rico would use these funds—questions which the Treasury had not raised with the City of Houston or the State of Florida.  It appears that some of the Treasury’s apprehensions, ironically, relate to Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s proposed tax cuts in his State of the Commonwealth Speech, in which the Governor announced tax cuts to stimulate growth, pay increases for the police and public school teachers, and where he added his administration would reduce the size of government through consolidation and attrition, with no layoffs, e.g. a stimulus policy not unlike the massive federal tax cuts enacted by President Trump and the U.S. Congress. It seems, for the Treasury, that what is good for the goose is not for the gander.

At the end of last month, Gov. Rosselló sent a letter to Congress concerned that the Treasury was now offering only $2.065 billion, writing that the proposal “imposed restrictions seemingly designed to make it extremely difficult for Puerto Rico to access these funds when it needs federal assistance the most.” This week, Secretary Mnuchin stated: “We are monitoring their cash flows to make sure that they have the necessary funds.” Puerto Rico reports it is asking for changes to the Treasury loan documents; however, Sec. Mnuchin, addressing the possibility of potential loans, noted: “We’re not making any decision today whether they will be forgiven or…won’t be forgiven.” Eric LeCompte, executive director of Jubilee USA, a non-profit devoted to the forgiveness of debt on humanitarian grounds, believes the priority should be to provide assistance for rebuilding as rapidly as possible, noting: “Almost six months after Hurricane Maria, we are still dealing with real human and economic suffering…It seems everyone is trying to work together to get the first installment of financing sent and it needs to be urgently sent.”

Part of the problem—and certainly part of the hope—is that President Dudley might be able to lend his acumen and experience to help. While the Treasury appears to be most concerned about greater Puerto Rico public budget transparency, Mr. Dudley, on the ground there, is more concerned that Puerto Rican leaders not misinterpret the economic boost from reconstruction following the devastating hurricanes as a sign of underlying strength, noting: “It’s really important not to be seduced by that strong recovery in the immediate aftermath of the disaster: We would expect there to be a bounce in 2018 as the construction activity gets underway in earnest,” before the economic growth slows again in 2019 or 2020, adding, ergo, that it was “important not to misinterpret what it means, because a lot still needs to be done on the fiscal side and the long-term economic development side.”

The Steep & Winding Road Out of Municipal Bankruptcy and State Oversight

February 26, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the hard road out of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy and state oversight.

Motor City Races to Earn the Checkered Flag. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan last Friday presented his proposed annual budget to the City Council, informing Councilmembers that, if approved, his $2 billion budget would be the keystone for formal exit from Michigan state oversight: that is, he advised he believed it would lay the ground work for ending the Financial Review Commission created in the wake of the city’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy: “Once we get this budget passed, we have the opportunity to get out from active state oversight…I don’t have enough good things to say about how the administration and Council has worked together.” As we had noted last month, Michigan Treasurer Nick Khouri, the Chair of the state oversight commission, made clear that the trigger to such an exit would be for the city to post its third straight budget surplus—with the Treasurer noting: “I think everyone, including me, has just been impressed with the progress that’s been made in the city of Detroit, both financially and operationally.”

For Detroit to fully emerge from the nation’s largest ever municipal bankruptcy, it must both comply with the provisions of the federal chapter 9 bankruptcy code, which provides that the debtor must file a plan (11 U.S.C. §941); neither creditors nor the U.S. Bankruptcy Court may control the affairs of a municipality indirectly through the mechanism of proposing a plan of adjustment of a municipality’s debts that would in effect determine the municipality’s future tax and/or spending decisions: the standards for plan confirmation in municipal bankruptcy cases are a combination of the statutory requirements of 11 U.S.C. §943(b) and portions of 11 U.S.C. §129. Key confirmation standards provide that the federal bankruptcy court must confirm a plan if the following conditions are met: the plan complies with the provisions of title 11 made applicable by sections 103(e) and 901;the plan complies with the provisions of chapter 9; all amounts to be paid by the debtor or by any person for services or expenses in the case or incident to the plan have been fully disclosed and are reasonable; the debtor is not prohibited by law from taking any action necessary to carry out the plan; except to the extent that the holder of a particular claim has agreed to a different treatment of such claim, the plan provides that on the effective date of the plan, each holder of a claim of a kind specified in section 507(a)(1) will receive on account of such claim cash equal to the allowed amount of such claim; any regulatory or electoral approval necessary under applicable non-bankruptcy law in order to carry out any provision of the plan has been obtained, or such provision is expressly conditioned on such approval; and the plan is in the best interests of creditors and is feasible.

Unlike in a non-municipal corporate bankruptcy (chapter 11), where the requirement that the plan be in the “best interests of creditors,” means in the “best interest of creditors” if creditors would receive as much under the plan as they would if the debtor were liquidated; under chapter 9, because, as one can appreciate, the option of Detroit to sell its streets, ambulances, and other publicly owned municipal assets is simply not an option, in municipal bankruptcy, the “best interests of creditors” test has generally been interpreted to mean that the plan must be better than other alternatives available to the creditors. It is not, in a sense, different from a Solomon’s Choice (Kings 3:16-28): that is, in lieu of the alternative to municipal chapter 9 bankruptcy of permitting each and every creditor to fend for itself, the federal bankruptcy court instead seeks to interpret what is in the “best interests of creditors” as a means to balance a reasonable effort by the municipality against the obligations it has to its retirees, municipal duties, service obligations, and its creditors—albeit, of course, leaving the door open for unhappy parties to object to confirmation, (see, viz. 11 U.S.C. §§ 901(a), 943, 1109, 1128(b)). The statute provides that a city or municipality may exit after a municipal debtor receives a discharge in a chapter 9 case after: (1) confirmation of the plan; (2) deposit by the debtor of any consideration to be distributed under the plan with the disbursing agent appointed by the court; and (3) a determination by the court that securities deposited with the disbursing agent will constitute valid legal obligations of the debtor and that any provision made to pay or secure payment of such obligations is valid. (11 U.S.C. §944(b)). Thus, the discharge is conditioned not only upon confirmation, but also upon deposit of the consideration to be distributed under the plan and a court determination of the validity of securities to be issued. (The Financial Review Commission is responsible for oversight of the City of Detroit and the Detroit Public Schools Community District, pursuant to the Michigan Financial Review Commission Act (Public Act 181 of 2014); it ensures both are meeting statutory requirements, reviews and approves their budgets, and establishes programs and requirements for prudent fiscal management, among other roles and responsibilities.)

As part of Detroit’s approved plan of debt adjustment, the State of Michigan mandated the appointment of a financial review commission to oversee the Motor City’s finances, including budgets, contracts, and collective bargaining agreements with municipal employees—a commission, ergo, which Mayor Duggan, last Friday, made clear would not simply disappear in a puff of smoke, but rather go into a “dormancy period: They do continue to review our finances, and if we in the future run a deficit, they come back to life, and it takes another three years before we can move them out.”

Mayor Duggan’s proposed budget includes an $8 million boost to Detroit’s Police Department budget—enough to hire 141 new full-time positions. With the increase, the Mayor noted, the city will be able to expand its Project Greenlight and Ceasefire programs—adding that the Motor City had struggled to fill police department vacancies until about two years ago when the City Council passed a new contract. Detroit had improved from its last place ranking in violent crime in 2014, moving up to second worst in 2015, vis-à-vis rates per resident in cities with 50,000 or more people: in 2014, Detroit had recorded 13,616 violent crimes, for a rate of about 994 incidents per 50,000 people, declining to 11,846 violent crimes in 2015, and to a violent crime rate of about 880. Since then, the city has been able to hire 500 new officers, albeit, as the Mayor noted: “This city is not nearly where it needs to be for safety.”  Additionally, Mayor Duggan said his budget allows Detroit to double the rate of commercial demolitions with a goal of having all “unsalvageable” buildings on major streets razed by 2019. That would put the city on track for cleaning up its commercial corridors, he added. The budget allocates $100 million of the unassigned fund balance to blight remediation and capital projects, which is double the resources allocated last fiscal year. Other budget plans include more funding for summer jobs programs and Detroit At Work; neighborhood redevelopment plans for areas such as Delray, Osborn, Cody Rouge, and East English Village; and boosting animal control so it can operate seven days a week.

The $2 billion budget dedicates $1 billion to the city’s general fund. Chief Financial Officer John Hill said it is able to maintain its $62.3 million budget reserve, which exceeds the $53.6 million requirementCouncilman Scott Benson said the Mayor presented a “conservative fiscal budget” which allows Detroit to live within its means. The Councilmember said prior to the meeting that he had hoped the budget would address funding for poverty and neighborhood revitalization. However, council members received the budget 20 minutes before the meeting and Councilmember Benson said he needed more time to review it. “We’re seeing some good things,” he said of Mayor Duggan’s proposals, “But I want to dig into the numbers and actually go through it with a fine-tooth comb.” Officials say city council has until March 9 to approve the budget.

That early checkered flag for the Motor City ought to help salve the city’s reputational wounds in the wake of the KO administered to the city’s bid to host Amazon. Indeed, as Quicken Loans Chairman Dan Gilbert wrote, it was Detroit’s negative reputation, not a lack of talent which knocked it out of the running for an Amazon headquarters, as he tweeted to the 60-plus member bid committee who crafted Detroit’s bid: “We are all disappointed,” referring to the city’s failed bid to make the cut for the top 20 finalists. Nevertheless, Mr. Gilbert urged members not to accept the “conventional belief” that Detroit had fallen short because of its challenges with regional transportation and attracting talent; rather, he wrote, the “elephant in the room” was the nasty reputation associated with the post-bankruptcy city’s 50-plus years of decline: “Old, negative reputations do not die easily. I believe this is the single largest obstacle that we face…Outstanding state-of-the-art videos, well-packaged and eye-catching proposals, complex and generous tax incentives, and highly compelling and improving metrics cannot, nor will not overcome the strong negative connotations that the Detroit brand still needs to conquer.” Regional leaders had been informed that Detroit’s bid had failed to move on because of inadequate mass transit and questionable ability to attract talent.

As part of Detroit’s approved plan of debt adjustment, the State of Michigan mandated the appointment of a financial review commission to oversee the Motor City’s finances, including budgets, contracts, and collective bargaining agreements with municipal employees—a commission, ergo, which Mayor Duggan, last Friday, made clear would not simply disappear in a puff of smoke, but rather go into a “dormancy period: They do continue to review our finances, and if we in the future run a deficit, they come back to life, and it takes another three years before we can move them out.”

Mayor Duggan’s proposed budget includes an $8 million boost to Detroit’s Police Department budget—enough to hire 141 new full-time positions. With the increase, the Mayor noted, the city will be able to expand its Project Greenlight and Ceasefire programs—adding that the Motor City had struggled to fill police department vacancies until about two years ago when the City Council passed a new contract. Detroit had improved for its last place raking in violent crime in 2014, moving up to second worst in 2015, vis-à-vis rates per resident in cities with 50,000 or more people: in 2014, Detroit had recorded 13,616 violent crimes, for a rate of about 994 incidents per 50,000 people, declining 11,846 violent crimes in 2015, and to a violent crime rate of about 880. Since then, the city has been able to hire 500 new officers, albeit, as the Mayor noted: “This city is not nearly where it needs to be for safety.”  Additionally, Mayor Duggan said his budget allows Detroit to double the rate of commercial demolitions with a goal of having all “unsalvageable” buildings on major streets razed by 2019. That would put the city on track for cleaning up its commercial corridors, he said. The budget allocates $100 million of the unassigned fund balance to blight remediation and capital projects, which is double the money allocated last fiscal year. Other budget plans include more funding for summer jobs programs and Detroit At Work; neighborhood redevelopment plans for areas such as Delray, Osborn, Cody Rouge and East English Village, and boosting animal control so it can operate seven days a week. 

The $2 billion budget dedicates $1 billion to the city’s general fund. Chief Financial Officer John Hill said Detroit is able to maintain its $62.3 million budget reserve, which exceeds the $53.6 million requirementCouncilman Scott Benson said the mayor presented a “conservative fiscal budget” that allows Detroit to live within its means, having said, prior to the meeting, that he hoped the budget would address funding for poverty and neighborhood revitalization. However, council members received the budget 20 minutes before the meeting and Councilmember Benson said he needed more time to review it. “We’re seeing some good things,” he said of Mayor Duggan’s proposals. “But I want to dig into the numbers and actually go through it with a fine-tooth comb.” Officials say city council has until March 9 to approve the budget.

Measuring Municipal Fiscal Distress

August 29, 2017

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s Blog, we consider the new Local Government Fiscal Distress bi-cameral body in Virginia and its early actions; then we veer north to Atlantic City, where both the Governor and the courts are weighing in on the city’s fiscal future; before scrambling west to Scranton, Pennsylvania—as it seeks to respond to a fiscally adverse judicial ruling, then back west to the very small municipality of East Cleveland, Ohio—as it awaits authority to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy—and municipal elections—then to Detroit’s ongoing efforts to recover revenues as part of its recovery from the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy, before finally ending up in the Windy City, where the incomparable Lawrence Msall has proposed a Local Government Protection Authority—a quasi-judicial body—to serve as a resource for the Chicago Public School System.  

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

Measuring Municipal Fiscal Distress. When Virginia Auditor of Public Accounts Martha S. Mavredes last week testified before the Commonwealth’s new Joint House-Senate Subcommittee on Local Government Fiscal Stress, she named Bristol as one of the state’s four financially distressed localities—a naming which Bristol City Manager Randy Eads confirmed Monday. Bristol is an independent city in the Commonwealth of Virginia with a population just under 18,000: it is the twin city of Bristol, Tennessee, just across the state line: a line which bisects middle of its main street, State Street. According to the auditor, the cities of Petersburg and Bristol scored below 5 on a financial assessment model that uses 16 as the minimum threshold for indicating financial stress, with Bristol scoring lower than Petersburg. One other city and two counties scored below 16. For his part, City Manager Eads said he and the municipality’s CFO “will be working with the APA to determine how the scores were reached,” adding: “The city will also be open to working with the APA to address any issues.” (Bristol scored below the threshold the past three years, dropping to 4.25 in 2016. Petersburg had a score of 4.48 in 2016, when its financial woes became public.) Even though the State of Virginia has no authority to directly involve itself in a municipality’s finances (Virginia does not specifically authorize its municipal entities to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, certain provisions of the state’s laws [§15.2-4910] do allow for a trust indenture to contain provisions for protecting and enforcing rights and remedies of municipal bondholders—including the appointment of a receiver.), its new system examines the Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports submitted annually and scores them on 10 financial ratios—including four that measure the health of the locality’s general fund used to finance its budget. Manager Eads testified: “At the moment, the city does not have all of the necessary information from the APA to fully address any questions…We have been informed, by the APA, that we will receive more information from them the first week of September.” He added that the city leaders have taken steps to bolster cash flow and reserves, while reducing their reliance on borrowing short-term tax anticipation notes. In addition, the city has recently began implementing a series of budgetary and financial policies prior to the APA scores being released—steps seemingly recognized earlier this summer when Moody’s upgraded the city’s outlook to stable and its municipal bond rating to Baa2 with an underlying A3 enhanced rating, after a downgrade in 2016. Nevertheless, the road back is steep: the city still maintains more than $100 million in long-term general obligation bond debt with about half of it tied to The Falls commercial center in the Exit 5 area, which has yet to attract significant numbers of tenants.

Fiscal Fire? The State of New Jersey’s plan to slash Atlantic City’s fire department by 50 members was blocked by Superior court Judge Julio Mendez, preempting the state’s efforts to reduce the number of firefighters in the city from 198 to 148. The state, which preempted local authority last November, has sought to sharply reduce the city’s expenditures: state officials had last February proposed to move the Fire Department to a less expensive health plan and reduce staffing in the department from 225 firefighters to 125. In his ruling, however, Judge Mendez wrote: “The court holds that the (fire department’s union) have established by clear and convincing evidence that Defendants’ proposal to reduce the size of the Atlantic City Fire Department to 148 firefighters will cause irreparable harm in that it compromises the public safety of Atlantic City’s residents and visitors.” Judge Mendez had previously granted the union’s request to block the state’s actions, ruling last March that any reduction below 180 firefighters “compromises public safety,” and that any reduction should happen “through attrition and retirements.”

Gov. Christie Friday signed into law an alternative fiscal measure for the city, S. 3311, which requires the state to offer an early-retirement incentive program to the city’s police officers, firefighters, and first responders facing layoffs, noting at the bill signing what he deemed the Garden State’s success in its stewardship of the city since November under the Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act, citing Atlantic City’s “great strides to secure its finances and its future.” The Governor noted a drop of 11.4 percent in the city’s overall property-tax rate, the resolution of casino property-tax appeals, and recent investments in the city. For their parts, Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, sponsors of the legislation, said the new law would let the city “reduce the size of its police and fire departments without jeopardizing public safety,” adding that the incentive plan, which became effective with the Governor’s signature, would not affect existing contracts or collective bargaining rights—or, as Sen. Sweeney stated: “We don’t want to see any layoffs occur, but if a reduction in workers is required, early retirement should be offered first to the men and women who have served the city.” For his part, Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian said, “I’m glad that the Governor and the State continue to follow the plan that we gave them 10 months ago. As all the pieces that we originally proposed continue to come together, Atlantic City will continue to move further in the right direction.”

For its part, the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, which has been the fiscal overseer of the state takeover of Atlantic City, has touted the fiscal progress achieved this year from state intervention, including the adoption of a $206.3 million budget that is 20 percent lower than the city’s FY2015 budget, due to even $56 million less than 2015 due to savings from staff adjustments and outsourcing certain municipal services. Nevertheless, Atlantic City, has yet to see the dial spin from red to black: the city, with some $224 million in bonded debt, has deep junk-level credit ratings of CC by S&P Global Ratings and Caa3 by Moody’s Investors Service; it confronts looming debt service payments, including $6.1 million owed on Nov. 1, according to S&P.

Scrambling in Scranton. Moody’s is also characteristically moody about the fiscal ills of Scranton, Pennsylvania, especially in the wake of a court decision barring the city from  collecting certain taxes under a state law—a decision Moody’s noted  “may reduce tax revenue, which is a vital funding source for the city’s operations.” Lackawanna County Court of Common Pleas Judge James Gibbons, at the beginning of the month, in a preliminary ruling against the city, in response to a challenge by a group of eight taxpayers, led by Mayoral candidate Gary St. Fleur, had challenged Scranton’s ability to levy and collect certain taxes under Pennsylvania’s Act 511, a state local tax enabling act. His preliminary ruling against the city affects whether the Home Rule Charter law supersedes the statutory cap contained in Act 511. Unsurprisingly, the City of Scranton has filed a motion for reconsideration and requested the court to enable it to appeal to the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania. The city, the state’s sixth-largest city (77,000), and the County seat for Lackawanna County is the geographic and cultural center of the Lackawanna River valley, was incorporated on St. Valentine’s Day 161 years ago—going on to become a major industrial city, a center of mining and railroads, and attracted thousands of new immigrants. It was a city, which acted to earn the moniker of the “Electric City” when electric lights were first introduced in 1880 at Dickson Locomotive Works. Today, the city is striving to exit state oversight under the state’s Act 47—oversight the municipality has been under for a quarter century.

Currently, Moody’s does not provide a credit rating for the city; however, Standard and Poor’s last month upgraded the city’s general obligation bonds to a still-junk BB-plus, citing revenue from a sewer-system sale, whilst Standard and Poor’s cited the city’s improved budget flexibility and liquidity, stemming largely from a sewer-system sale which enabled the municipality to retire more than $40 million of high-coupon debt. Moreover, Scranton suspended its cost-of-living-adjustments, and manifested its intent to apply a portion of sewer system sale proceeds to meet its public pension liabilities. Ergo, Moody’s writes: “These positive steps have been important for paying off high interest debt and funding the city’s distressed pension plans…While these one-off revenue infusions have been positive, Scranton faces an elevated fixed cost burden of over 40% of general fund revenues…Act 511 tax revenues are an important revenue source for achieving ongoing, balanced operations, particularly as double-digit property tax increases have been met with significant discontent from city residents. The potential loss of Act 511 tax revenues comes at a time when revenues for the city are projected to be stagnant through 2020.”

The road to municipal fiscal insolvency is easier, mayhap, because it is downhill: Scranton fiscal challenges commenced five years ago, when its City Council skipped a $1 million municipal bond payment in the wake if a political spat; Scranton has since repaid the debt. Nevertheless, as Moody’s notes: “If the city cannot balance its budget without illegally taxing the Scranton people, it is absolute proof that the budget is not sustainable…Scranton has sold off all its public assets and raised taxes excessively with the result being a declining tax base and unfriendly business environment…The city needs to come to terms with present economic realities by cutting spending and lowering taxes. This is the only option for the city.”

Scranton Mayoral candidate Gary St. Fleur has said the city should file for Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy and has pushed for a related ballot measure. Combined taxes collected under Act 511, including a local services tax that Scranton recently tripled, cannot exceed 1.2% of Scranton’s total market value.  Based on 2015 market values, according to Moody’s, Scranton’s “511 cap” totals $27.3 million. In fiscal 2015 and 2016, the city collected $34.5 million and $36.8 million, respectively, and for 2018, the city has budgeted to receive $38 million.  The city, said Moody’s, relied on those revenues for 37.7% of fiscal 2015 and 35.9% of fiscal 2016 total governmental revenues. “A significant reduction in these tax revenues would leave the city a significant revenue gap if total Act 511 tax revenues were decline by nearly 25%,” Moody’s said.

Heavy Municipal Fiscal Lifting. Being mayor of battered East Cleveland is one of those difficult jobs that many people (and readers) would decline. If you were to motor along Euclid Avenue, the city’s main street, you would witness why: it is riddled with potholes and flanked by abandoned, decayed buildings. Unsurprisingly, in a city still awaiting authorization from the State of Ohio to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, blight, rising crime, and poor schools, have created the pretext for East Clevelanders to leave: The city boasted 33,000 people in 1990; today it has just 17,843, according to the latest U.S. Census figures. Nevertheless, hope can spring eternal: four candidates, including current Mayor Brandon L. King, are seeking the Democratic nomination in next month’s Mayoral primary (Mayor King replaced former Mayor Gary Norton last year after Norton was recalled by voters.)

Motor City Taxing. Detroit hopes to file some 700 lawsuits by Thursday against landlords and housing investors in a renewed effort to collect unpaid property taxes on abandoned homes that have already been forfeited; indeed, by the end of November, the city hopes to double the filings, going after as many as 1,500 corporations and investors whose abandonment of Detroit homes has been blamed for contributing to the Motor City’s blight epidemic: Motor City Law PLC, working on behalf of the city, has filed more than 60 lawsuits since last week in Wayne County Circuit Court; the remainder are expected to be filed before a Thursday statute of limitations deadline: the suits target banks, land speculators, limited liability corporations, and individuals with three or more rental properties in Detroit: investors who typically purchase homes at bargain prices at a Wayne County auction and then eventually stop paying property tax bills and lose the home in foreclosure: the concern is that unscrupulous landlords have been abusing the auction system. The city expects to file an additional 800 lawsuits over the next quarter—with the recovery effort coming in the wake of last year’s suits by the city against more than 500 banks and LLCs which had an ownership stake in houses that sold at auction for less than what was owed to the city in property taxes. Eli Savit, senior adviser and counsel to Mayor Mike Duggan, noted that those suits netted Detroit more than $5 million in judgments, even as, he reports: “Many cases are still being litigated.” To date, the 69 lawsuits filed since Aug. 18 in circuit court were for tax bills exceeding $25,000 each; unpaid tax bills for less than $25,000 will be filed in district court. (The unpaid taxes date back years as the properties were auctioned off by the Wayne County Treasurer’s Office between 2013 and 2016 or sent to the Detroit Land Bank Authority, which oversees demolitions if homes cannot be rehabilitated or sold.) The suits here indicate that former property owners have no recourse for lowering their unpaid tax debt, because they are now “time barred from filing an appeal” with Detroit’s Board of Review or the Michigan Tax Tribunal; Detroit officials have noted that individual homeowners would not be targeted by the lawsuits for unpaid taxes; rather the suits seek to establish a legal means for going after investors who purchase cheap homes at auction, and then either rent them out and opt not to not pay the taxes, or walk away from the house, because it is damaged beyond repair—behavior which is now something the city is seeking to turn around.

Local Government Fiscal Protection? Just as the Commonwealth of Virginia has created a fiscal or financial assessment model to serve as an early warning system so that the State could act before a chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy occurred, the fiscal wizard of Illinois, the incomparable Chicago Civic Federation’s Laurence Msall has proposed a Local Government Protection Authority—a quasi-judicial body—to serve as a resource for the Chicago Public School System (CPS): it would be responsible to assist the CPS board and administration in finding solutions to stabilize the school district’s finances. The $5.75 billion CPS proposed budget for this school year comes with two significant asterisks: 1) There is an expectation of $269 million from the City of Chicago, and 2) There is an expectation of $300 million from the State of Illinois, especially if the state’s school funding crisis is resolved in the Democrats’ favor.

Nevertheless, in the end, CPS’s fiscal fate will depend upon Windy City Mayor Rahm Emanuel: he, after all, not only names the school board, but also is accountable to voters if the city’s schools falter: he has had six years in office to get CPS on a stable financial course, even as CPS is viewed by many in the city as seeking to file for bankruptcy (for which there is no specific authority under Illinois law). Worse, it appears that just the discussion of a chapter 9 option is contributing to the emigration of parents and students to flee to suburban or private schools.

Thus, Mr. Msall is suggesting once again putting CPS finances under state oversight, as it was in the 1980s and early 1990s, recommending consideration of a Local Government Protection Authority, which would “be a quasi-judicial body…to assist the CPS board and administration in finding solutions to stabilize the district’s finances.” Fiscal options could include spending cuts, tax hikes, employee benefit changes, labor contract negotiations, and debt adjustment. Alternatively, as Mr. Msall writes: “If the stakeholders could not find a solution, the LGPA would be empowered to enforce a binding resolution of outstanding issues.” As we noted, a signal fiscal challenge Mayor Emanuel described was to attack crime in order to bring young families back into the city—and to upgrade its schools—schools where today some 380,000 students appear caught in a school system cracking under a massive and rising debt load.  

Far East of Eden. East Cleveland Mayor Gary Norton Jr. and City Council President Thomas Wheeler have both been narrowly recalled from their positions in a special election, setting the stage for the small Ohio municipality waiting for the state to—in some year—respond to its request to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy to elect a new leader. Interestingly, one challenger for the job who is passionate about the city, is Una H. R. Keenon, 83, who now heads the city school board, and campaigning on a platform of seeking a blue-ribbon panel to examine the city’s finances. Mansell Baker, 33, a former East Cleveland Councilmember, wants to focus on eliminating the city’s debt, while Dana Hawkins Jr., 34, leader of a foundation, vows to get residents to come together and save the city. The key decisions are likely to emerge next month in the September 12 Democratic primary—where the winner will face Devin Branch of the Green Party in November. Early voting has begun.