September 20, 2017
Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the upcoming challenge for voters in Detroit—with a Mayoral election around the bend—and the city aspiring to be in the competition for selection by Amazon as its second site. Then we look at the physical and fiscal storm threats to Puerto Rico, before finally looking back at post-riot Ferguson, Missouri.
Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project
On the Edge of a Fiscal State/Local Cliff. The Latin incantation, “Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus,” or, translated: “We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes,” is Detroit’s motto: it came from a French Roman Catholic priest, Father Gabriel Richard, who was born in France in 1767 and moved to Baltimore in 1792 to teach math. Reassigned to do missionary work, he moved first to Illinois and later to Detroit, where he was the assistant pastor at St. Anne’s Church—a church founded in 1701 and possibly the oldest continuously operating Roman Catholic parish in the U.S. Two hundred twelve years ago, on June 11th, a fire destroyed nearly all of then-Detroit, just weeks before the Michigan Territory was established. Today, nearly three years after the once-great city, the “arsenal of democracy” during World War II and home of the world’s most innovative manufacturers, emerged from the nation’s largest ever chapter 9 bankruptcy, national interest in Detroit has waned: in some ways, it has become a tale of two cities: One a city still mired in poverty and unemployment; one an emerging vibrant metropolis and global self-driving car center. And all this is occurring as the voters prepare to re-elect Mike Duggan—whose most profound achievement has been to raze much of the city, after first being elected in a write-in campaign. But, last month, voters in the primary gave him 68% of the votes—likely foretelling November’s re-election—in a campaign against the son of Coleman Young, Detroit’s first black mayor. Almost more than any other city in the nation, Detroit is not just a city emerging from the ashes, but also a city of profound racial transition: Over the past forty-year, Detroit has undergone a racial transformation: from 70% white in the 1960s to just 10% today. The Detroit News described the Mayor’s self-referral as a “metrics nut:” describing cabinet meeting room as one blanketed in graphs charting the city’s employment, ambulance delivery and crime rates, among other statistics. “The police are going to show up in under 14 minutes; the ambulance is going to show up in under 8 minutes; the grass is going to be cut in the parks every 10 to 12 days—it just is.” The paper notes that: “City employees who do not meet these targets do not last long.” But, as the city’s emergency manager charged by Gov. Snyder with taking the Motor City into chapter 9 bankruptcy and then out noted to me on that very first morning, the critical distinction between municipal and corporate bankruptcy is to ensure the streetlights, traffic lights, police and fire are working. That has been an ongoing, post-plan of debt adjustment priority, and, the numbers have continued to improve: today police response times are down from an average of 40 minutes to 13.
Mayhap a far greater governance challenge, however, has been to reverse the flight of residents from the city—flight which bequeathed 40,000 abandoned properties—properties which could become havens for crime, paid no property taxes, and adversely affected the assessed values of neighboring properties in one of the nation’s largest—by land area of 139 square miles—a city once the home to 1.8 million—thrice today’s population. Or, as David Schleicher of Yale Law School described the city: it “is just too big,” to accommodate “the expense of providing services.” The Mayor has sought to “right-size,” as it were, by means of razing abandoned homes, in part via the expansion of the Detroit Land Bank, a quasi-governmental authority which now owns 96,000 properties across the city—most of them acquired through foreclosure because of unpaid taxes. Thus, the land bank has succeeded in centralizing the city’s control over abandoned and vacant properties; Detroit has replaced an antiquated registry scattered across 83 data sets, and erased liens and back taxes as a means to facilitate the clearing and demolition or restoration of properties. Since his election, the city has focused on the highest density districts, where the city has demolished 11,900 residential properties. The results indicate that the demolition of a blighted property increases the value of a nearby home by 4.2%, according to one study. And the pace has been unprecedented—indeed, so fast there have been allegations of improper contract awards; there has been a federal investigation; and Michigan’s state housing agency suspended funds for two months, after a state audit found improper controls in place. Land bank officials, including the director of demolitions, have resigned. Mayor Duggan, who has not been a subject of the investigation, blames the mistakes on a desire to increase the pace of demolitions, but acknowledges that regulators were right to rap his knuckles.
Under the program there has been, consequently, a high pace of tax foreclosures—the main pipeline for properties which end up in the land bank’s possession: under Michigan law, owners who do not pay taxes after three years lose their property—properties last comprehensively reassessed decades before market values plummeted, meaning many are set too high. Between 2006 and 2012, median sale prices for city houses fell from $70,000 to $16,200; thus, the owner of a house worth $15,000 could owe $3,000 in property taxes. The state-mandated interest rate on property-tax debt is 18% per year. Thus, an update completed at the beginning of this calendar year should lead to lower bills, but it will not be retroactive; thus, up to 53,000 properties will receive foreclosure notices this autumn. While not every foreclosed property will necessarily end up lost, tax foreclosures, driven by government policy rather than market forces, could force out longtime residents, ironically exacerbating the very problem the Mayor is focused upon: even as the demolition drive has already cost the city’s taxpayers some $162 million, the average back taxes for homes put up for auction are $7,700—much less than the cost of demolition. Or, as Michele Oberholtzer, Director of the Tax Foreclosure Prevention Project puts it: “It’s like an auto-immune disorder: We penalize people for not paying, and then we end up paying more for the punishment.” Nevertheless, Mayor and candidate Duggan believes that at the current pace of demolitions, he can clear the city’s long-standing blight within five years—mayhap paving the way for a smaller but much more vibrant city.
Fiscal Hurricane. With still another hurricane bearing down on Puerto Rico (damages caused by Hurricane Irma are estimated at more than $600 million), a fiscal storm appears in the offing after, yesterday, an agreement among Senate Finance Committee leaders to push this month the reauthorization of the Children’s Health Insurance Program for five years raised doubts about with regard to whether Medicaid funds to stabilize the finances of the Puerto Rican health system could be included in that legislation: according to the agreement between the Chairman, Republican Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), and Ranking Member Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), that program would be refinanced for another five years; however, the agreement did not include funds to close the so-called “abyss” in Medicaid funds, which would reach $ 369 million this fiscal year and then rise to about $ 1.2 billion that has been asked annually for reimbursement under the Affordable Care Act, or, as former Puerto Rico Governor Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, who was representing Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, noted: “From what I’ve been told, we are not included.” His statement came as Gov. Rosselló arrived last night in Washington, D.C. along with former Governors Acevedo Vilá and Alejandro García Padilla to meet with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Ca.), as the Senate Finance Committee hurries to approve the reauthorization of the CHIP program before the law expires at the end of this month. Chairman Hatch, however, has indicated that his intention is that the reauthorization of the program not increase the federal deficit—an intention which could singularly complicate the mission—even as House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) earlier this year had told resident commissioner, Jennifer Gonzalez, that CHIP’s reauthorization was the ideal vehicle for legislating new Medicaid allocations, due to the depletion of Affordable Care Act funds in April. (For the current fiscal year, Puerto Rico’s allocation is $172 million. Meanwhile, there are already 12 Puerto Rican municipalities within the federally declared disaster zone: the first ones were the municipalities of Vieques and Culebra. Yesterday, Adjuntas, Canóvanas, Carolina, Guaynabo, Juncos, Loíza, Luquillo, Orocovis, Patillas and Utuado were added—with Gov. Rosselló making the announcement yesterday accompanied by FEMA Administrator William Long, albeit the Governor added: “This does not imply that the list of municipalities is finished, it´s not over. This simply implies that as we receive information (from the affected municipalities) and we send it to the federal government, then, we are able make these declarations.”
Good Gnus. Puerto Rico’s median household income climbed 7.8% from 2015 to 2016 according to the U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey statistics, with the survey showing that mean household income was up 2.3% after inflation—a stark contrast with the generally negative economic data coming out of Puerto Rico. For example, Puerto Rico’s economic activity index declined 2.1% in July from a year earlier, according to a report from the Government Development Bank for Puerto Rico: according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ household survey, total employment in August on the island was down 0.25% from a year earlier. According to its survey of workplaces, total employment was down 1.1%. In addition, the American Community Survey showed that net migration to the rest of the United States increased to 67,000 in 2016 from an average of 44,400 per year from 2006 to 2015—that is nearly 50%. Data from the Puerto Rico Ports Authority show that the average net migration was 65,700 per year from 2006 to 2015. The difference may reflect that some Puerto Ricans migrate to countries beside the U.S., according to Mario Marazzi, executive director for the Puerto Rico Statistics Institute.
Coming Back. Moody’s has revised upwards its credit rating for Ferguson, Missouri in the wake of efforts to recover fiscally from the aftermath of a controversial police shooting, the rating agency has revised the city’s outlook on its junk-level Ba3 general obligation rating to positive from negative. The city lost its investment grade rating as it dealt with the aftermath of the August 2014 fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American, by a white police officer. The shooting led to local protests and a federal probe in the city of about 21,000 just northwest of St. Louis. The city faced rising legal expenses as it dealt with a federal probe into policing and court tactics and then the costs of a settlement, and took a hit on sales and other taxes. The city has also lost a chunk of court-fine related revenue it relied on as the state government cracked down on local government use of fine levies to balance budgets. After spending cuts and other management efforts, the city is expected to begin to shore up its balance sheet as voter approved tax revenues flow into city coffers. “The positive outlook reflects the likelihood the city’s materially improved fiscal condition will continue over the next two years, especially because new taxes implemented during fiscal years 2016 through 2018 will lead to the greater likelihood of operating surpluses and improving reserve levels,” Moody’s noted, as it affirmed the B1 rating on the city’s 2013 certificates of participation and the B2 rating on its 2012 COPs: the upgrade reflects Ferguson’s current fiscal condition in the wake of several years of rapidly declining reserves and uncertainty for further operating declines; it incorporates a moderately sized tax base with a trend of declining assessed valuation, below average resident wealth, and above average yet manageable debt burden. The agency notes that the rating remains challenged by ebbing reserves and the costs of federal consent decree measures which contributed to operating deficits in fiscal 2014 through 2017; the city anticipates a $312,000 deficit for FY 2017, but, with fully phased in, voter approved taxes coming in next year, the FY2018 budget estimates a $48,000 general fund surplus. From a high in fiscal 2013, the general fund balance declined to $3.6 million or 33.5% of revenues from $10.5 million. Reserve levels remain healthy on a relative basis compared to its peer group but the city’s operating flexibility is notably narrower than it has been. The city is working towards meeting milestones and establishing policies as required in its 2016 Department of Justice consent decree. Consent decree annual expenses have declined to $500,000 from projections of $700,000 to $1.5 million. Tax hikes are projected to generate an additional $2.9 million in annual revenue for the general fund in FY2018.