Municipal Fiscal Accountability

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eBlog, 03/31/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing recovery efforts in Atlantic City after its “lost decade,” before venturing inland to one of the nation’s oldest cities, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania (founded in 1769) as it confronts the challenges of an early state intervention program, and, finally, to Southern California, where the City of Compton faces singular fiscal distrust from its citizens and taxpayers.  

A Lost Fiscal Decade? Atlantic City’s redevelopment effort appears to be gathering momentum following a “lost decade” which featured the closing of five casinos, a housing crisis and major recession, according to a new report released by the South Jersey Economic Review, with author Oliver Cooke writing: “The fact remains that Atlantic City’s redevelopment will take many years…The impact of the local area’s economy’s lost decade on its residents’ welfare has been stark.” The study finds the city to be in recovery—to be stable, but that it is still in critical condition with some work to do.  Nevertheless, its vital signs from developers and its improving economy are all good: that is, while the patient may not regain all its previous strength and capability,  it can thrive: it is “over(cost),” and needs to lose some of the fat it built up by going on a (budget) diet—a road to recovery which will remain steep and tortuous, because it lacks the fiscal capacity it had 15 or 20 years ago—and has to slim down to reflect it.  That is, the city will have to stress itself more in order to get better.  

The analysis, which was conducted in conjunction with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University, notes that vital signs from developers and its improving economy are in good condition—maybe even allowing the city to thrive, even if it is unable to regain all its previous strength and fiscal capacity—put in fiscal cookbook terms: Atlantic City is over(cost)weight and needs to lose some of the fat it built up by going on a (budget) diet.  The report also noted that Atlantic City is on track with some positive developments, including the decision at the beginning of this month by Hard Rock International to buy and reopen the closed Trump Taj Mahal property, as well as a recent $72 million settlement with the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa related to $165 million in owed tax refunds. Mr. Cooke also highlighted other high-profile projects underway, including the reopening of the Showboat casino by developer Bart Blatstein and a $220 million public-private partnership for a new Stockton University satellite residential campus. Nonetheless, he warned that Atlantic City still faces a deep fiscal challenge in the wake of the loss to the city’s metropolitan area of more than 25,000 jobs in the last decade—and its heavy burden of $224 million in municipal bond debt, tied, in large part, to casino property tax appeals. Ultimately, as the ever insightful Marc Pfeiffer of the Bloustein Local Government Research Center and former Deputy Director with the state Division of Local Government Services, the city’s emergence from state control and fiscal recovery will depend on the nuances of the that relationship and whether—in the end—the state imposed Local Finance Board acts with the city’s most critical interests at heart.  

Don’t Run Out of Cash! Wilkes-Barre, first incorporated as a Borough in 1806, is the home of one of Babe Ruth’s longest-ever home runs. It became a city in 1871: today it is a city of over 40,000, but one which has been confronted by constant population decline since the 1930s: today it is less than half the size it was in 1940 and around two-thirds the size it was in 1970. It is a most remarkable city, made up of an extraordinary heritage of ethnic groups, the largest of which are: Italian (just over 25%), Polish (just under 25%), Irish (21%), German (17.9%) English (17.1%) Welsh (16.2%) Slovak (13.8%); Russian (13.4%); Ukranian (12.8%); Mexican (7%); and Puerto Rican (6.4%). (Please note: my math is not at fault, but rather cross-breeding.) Demographically, the city’s citizens and families are diverse: with 19.9% under the age of 18, 12.6% from 18 to 24, 26.1% from 25 to 44, 20.8% from 45 to 64, and 20.6% who are 65 years of age or older. The city has the 4th-largest downtown workforce in the state of Pennsylvania; its family median income is $44,430, about 66% of the national average, and an unemployment rate of just under 7%. The municipality in 2015 had a poverty rate of 32.5%, nearly double the statewide average. Last year, the City of Wilkes-Barre was awarded a $60,000 grant through the Pennsylvania Department of Economic Development (DCED) Early Intervention Program (EIP) to develop a fiscal, operational and mission management 5 year plan for the city—from which the city selected Public Financial Management (PFM) as its consultant to assist in working with the city on its 5 year plan—and from which the city has since received PFM’s Draft Financial Condition Assessment and Draft Financial Trend Forecasting related to the city’s 5 year plan. As part of the intervention, two internal committees were created to develop new sources of revenue for the city. The Revenue Improvement Task Force is comprised of employees from Finance, Tax, Health, Code, and Administration and was directed to analyze and improve upon existing revenue streams; the Small Business Task Force was designed to develop guidance for those interested in opening small businesses in Wilkes-Barre and is comprised of employees from Zoning, Health, Code, Licensing, and Administration. Overall, Mayor Anthony “Tony” George and his administration are confident that they have made significant progress is restoring law and order via the city’s goals of strengthening intergovernmental relationships, improving public safety, fixing infrastructure, fighting blight, restoring and improving city services and achieving long-term economic development.

Nevertheless, the quest for fiscal improvement and reliance on consultants has proven challenging: some of PFM’s proposed options to address city finances have caused a stir. City council Chairwoman Beth Gilbert and City Administrator Ted Wampole, for instance, agreed privatizing the ambulance and public works services as a cost-saving measure was one of the most drastic steps proposed by The PFM Group of Philadelphia, with Chair Gilbert noting: “I stand vehemently against any privatization of any of our city services, especially as an attempt to save money;” she warned the city could end up paying more for services in the long run, and residents could receive less than they get now—adding: “If privatization is on the table, then so is quality.” The financial consultant hired last year for $75,000 to assist the city with developing a game plan to fix its finances under the state’s Early Intervention Program was scheduled to present the options at a public meeting last night at City Hall. PFM representatives, paid from the combination of a $60,000 state grant and $15,000 from the city, have appeared before council several times since December.

Gordon Mann, director of The PFM Group, last night warned: “If the gunshot wound to the city’s financial health doesn’t kill it, the cancer will: both need to be treated, but not at the same time…You need to address the bullet wound, and you need to put yourself in the position to address the cancer.” Mr. Mann, at the meeting, provided an update on where the city stands and where it’s going if nothing is done to address the municipality’s structural problems of flat revenues and escalating expenses for pensions, payroll and long-term debt; then he identified a number of steps to stabilize the city and balance its books, beginning with: “Don’t run out of cash,” and “[D]on’t bother playing the blame game and pointing the finger at prior administrations either,…It may not be your fault, but it is your problem.”

Wilkes Barre is not unlike many of Pennsylvania’s 3rd class cities (York, Erie, Easton, etc.), all in varying degrees of fiscal distress, albeit with some doing better than others. The municipal revenues derived from the property tax and earned income tax will simply not sustain a city like Wilkes Barre—that it, unless and until the state’s municipalities have access to collective bargaining/binding arbitration and pension reform: the current, antiquated revenue options leave the state’s municipalities caught between a rock and a hard place. Worse, mayhap, is the increasing rate of privatization—where an alarming trend across the Commonwealth of communities selling off assets (water, sewer, parking, etc.), more often than not to plug capital into pensions, is, increasingly, leaving communities with no assets and with no pension reform facing the same issue in the future. 

Not Comping Compton: Corruption & Fiscal Distress. In Compton, California, known as the Hub City, because of its location in nearly the exact geographical center of Los Angeles County, the City of Compton is one of the oldest cities in the county and the eighth to incorporate.  The city traces its roots to territory settled in 1867 by a band of 30 pioneering families, who were led to the area by Griffith Dickenson Compton—families who had wagon-trained south from Stockton, California in search of ways to earn a living other than in the rapidly depleting gold fields, but where, the day before yesterday, the city’s former deputy treasurer was arrested for allegedly stealing nearly $4 million from the city. FBI agents arrested Salvador Galvan of La Mirada on Wednesday morning, as part of a federal criminal complaint filed Tuesday, alleging that, for six years, Mr. Galvan skimmed about $3.7 million from cash collected from parking fines, business licenses, and city fees: an audit found discrepancies ranging from $200 to $8,000 per day. Mr. Galvan, who has been an employee of the city for twenty-three years, has been charged with theft concerning programs receiving federal funds. If convicted, he could face up to five years in prison. As Joseph Serna and Angel Jennings of the La Times yesterday wrote: “The money adds up to an important chunk of the budget in a city once beset with financial problems and the possibility of [municipal] bankruptcy.” Prosecutors claim that one former city employee saw all these payments as an opportunity, alleging that the former municipal treasurer, over the last six years, skimmed more than $3.7 million from City Hall, taking as much as $200 to $8,000 a day—small enough, according to federal prosecutors, to avoid detection, even as Mr. Galvan’s purchase of a new Audi and other upscale expenses on a $60,000 salary, raised questions.

The arrest marks a setback for the Southern California city which has prided itself in recent years for its recovery from some of the crime, blight, and corruption which had threatened the city with municipal insolvency—or, as Compton Mayor Aja Brown noted: the allegations “challenge the public’s trust.”  Mayor Brown noted the wake-up call comes as the city has been working in recent months to improve financial controls and create new processes for detecting fraud—even as some of the city’s taxpayers question how the city could have missed such criminal activity for so many years. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department had arrested Mr. Galvan last December in the wake of City Treasurer Doug Sanders’ confirmation with regard to “suspicious activity” in a ledger discovered by one of his employees: his position in the city involved responsibility for handling cash: as part of his duties, he collected funds from residents paying their water bills, business licenses, building permits, and trash bills. According to reports, Mr. Galvan maintained accurate receipts of the cash he received for city fees, but he would submit a lower amount to the city’s deposit records and, ultimately, on the deposit slips verified by his supervisors and the banks, according to federal prosecutors. Indeed, an audit which compared a computer-generated spreadsheet tracking money coming in to the city with documents Mr. Galvan prepared made clear that he had commenced skimming cash in 2010—starting slowly, at first, but escalating from less than $10,000 to $879,536 by 2015, a loss unaccounted for in the city’s accounting system. While Mr. Galvan faces a maximum of 10 years in federal prison, if convicted, the city faces a trial of public trust—or, as Mayor Brown, in a statement, notes: “Unfortunately, the actions of one employee can challenge the public’s trust that we strive daily as a City to rebuild…The alleged embezzlement and theft of public funds is an egregious affront to the hard-working residents of Compton as well as to our dedicated employees. The actions of one person does not represent our committed City employees who — like you — are just as disappointed.”

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