The Steep & Ethical Challenges in Roads to Fiscal Recovery

October 17, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the ongoing recovery in Detroit from the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history; then we turn to the Constitution State, Connecticut, as the Governor and State Legislature struggle to reach consensus on a budget, before, finally, returning to Petersburg, Virginia to try to reflect on the ethical dimensions of fiscal challenges.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

The Motor City Road to Recovery.  The City of Detroit has issued a request seeking proposals to lead a tender offer and refunding of its financial recovery municipal bonds with the goal of reducing the costs of its debt service, with bids due by the end of next week, all as a continuing part of its chapter 9 plan of debt adjustment. The city has issued $631 million of unsecured B1 and B2 notes and $88 million of unsecured C notes. The bulk of the issuance is intended to secure the requisite capital to pay off various creditors, via so-called term bonds, 30-year municipal debt at a gradually sliding interest rate of 4% for the first two decades, and then 6% over the final decade, as the debt is structured to be interest-only for the first 10 years, before amortizing principal over the remainder of the term, with the city noting: “It is the city’s goal to alleviate the significant escalation of debt service during the period when principal on the B Notes begins to amortize, and that any transaction resulting from this RFP process be executed as early as possible in the first quarter of 2018.” According to Detroit Finance Director John Naglick, “Those bonds are traded very close to par, because people view them as very secure…Those bondholders feel really comfortable because they see the intercept doing what it was designed to do.” The new borrowing is the city’s third since its exit from chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, with the prior two issued via the Michigan Finance Authority. Last week the city announced plans to utilize the private placement of $125 million in municipal bonds, also through the Michigan Finance Authority, provided the issuance is approved by both the Detroit City Council and the Detroit Financial Review commission, with the bonds proposed to be secured by increased revenues the Motor City is receiving from its share of state gas taxes and vehicle registration fees.

Fiscal TurmoilConnecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy yesterday released his fourth fiscal budget proposal—with the issuance coming as he awaits ongoing efforts by leaders in the state legislature attempting to reach consensus on a two-year state budget, declaring: “This is a lean, no-frills, no-nonsense budget…Our goals were simple in putting this plan together: eliminate unpopular tax increases, incorporate ideas from both parties, and shrink the budget and its accompanying legislation down to their essential parts. It is my sincere hope this document will aid the General Assembly in passing a budget that I can sign into law.” The release came as bipartisan leaders from the state legislature were meeting for the 11th day behind closed doors in a so far unrewarding effort to agree on a budget to bring to the Governor—whose most recent budget offer had removed some of the last-minute revenue ideas included in the Democratic budget proposal. Nevertheless, that offer gained no traction with Republican legislators: it had proposed cuts in social services, security, and clean energy—or, as the Governor described it: “This is a stripped down budget.” Specifically, the Governor had proposed an additional $144 million in spending cuts from the most recent Democratic budget proposal, including: nearly $5 million from tax relief for elderly renters; $5.4 million for statewide marketing through the Department of Economic and Community Development; $292,000 in grants for mental health services; $11.8 million from the Connecticut Home Care Program over two years, and; about $1.8 million from other safety net services. His proposed budget would eliminate the state cellphone tax and a statewide property tax on second homes in Connecticut, as proposed by the Democrats; it also proposes the elimination of the 25 cent fee on ridesharing services, such as Uber and Lyft, and it reduces the amount of money Democrats wanted to take from the Green Bank, which helps fund renewable energy projects. His proposal also recommends cutting about $3.3 million each year from the state legislature’s own budget and eliminates the legislative Commissions for women, children, seniors, and minority communities—commissions which had already been reduced from six to two over the past two years. The Governor’s revised budget proposal would cut the number of security staff at the capitol complex to what it was before the metal detectors were implemented—proposed to achieve savings of about $325,000 annually, and the elimination of the Contracting Standards Board, which the state created a decade ago in response to two government scandals—here for a savings of $257,000.

For the state’s municipalities, the Governor’s offer proposes phasing in an unfunded state mandate that municipalities start picking up the normal cost of the teachers’ pension fund: Connecticut municipalities would be mandated to contribute a total of about $91 million in the first year, and $189 million in the second year of the budget—contributions which would be counted as savings for the state—and would be less steep than Gov. Malloy had initially proposed, but still considerably higher than many municipalities may have expected. Indeed, Betsy Gara, the Executive Director of the Council for Small Towns, described the latest gubernatorial budget proposal as a “Swing and a miss: The revised budget proposal continues to shift teachers’ pension costs to towns in a way that will overwhelm property taxpayers,” adding that if the state decides to go in this direction, they will be forced to take legal action, because requiring towns to pick up millions of dollars in teachers’ pension costs without any ability to manage those costs going forward is ‘simply unfair.’” Moreover, she noted, it violates the 2008 bond covenant.

In his revised new budget changes, Gov. Malloy has proposed cutting the Education Cost Sharing grant, reducing magnet school funding by about $15 million a year, and eliminating ECS funding immediately for 36 communities. The proposal to eliminate the ECS funding would likely encounter not just legislative challenges, but also judicial: it was just a year ago that a Connecticut judge’s sweeping ruling had declared vast portions of the state’s educational system as unconstitutional, when Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher ruled that Connecticut’s state funding mechanism for public schools violated the state’s constitution and ordered the state to come up with a new funding formula—and mandated the state to set up a mandatory standard for high school graduation, overhaul evaluations for public-school teachers, and create new standards for special education in the wake of a lawsuit filed against the state in 2005 by a coalition of cities, local school boards, parents and their children, who had claimed Connecticut did not give all students a minimally adequate and equal education. The plaintiffs had sought to address funding disparities between wealthy and poor school districts.

Nevertheless, in the wake of a week where the state’s Democratic and Republican legislative leaders have been holed up in the state Capitol, without Gov. Malloy, combing, line-by-line, through budget documents; they report they have been discussing ways to not only cover a projected $3.5 billion deficit in a roughly $40 billion two-year budget, but also to make lasting fiscal changes in hopes of stopping what has become a cycle of budget crises in one of the nation’s wealthiest states—or, as House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, (D-Berlin) put it: “I think what we’ve done over the last few days has been a really good step forward, and I think we’re moving in the right direction,” even as Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano said what the Governor put forward Monday will not pass the legislature: “It is obvious that the governor’s proposal, including his devastating cuts to certain core services and shifting of state expenses onto towns and cities, would not pass the legislature in its current form. Therefore, legislative leaders will continue our efforts to work on a bipartisan budget that can actually pass.”

Getting Schooled on Budgeting & Debt. Even as the Governor and legislature appear to be achieving some progress, the Connecticut Education Association (CEA) is suing the state over Gov. Dannel Malloy’s executive order which cuts $557 million in school funding from 139 municipalities: Connecticut’s largest teachers union has filed an injunction request in Hartford Superior Court, alleging the order violates state law. (The order eliminates education funding in 85 cities and towns and severely cuts funding in another 54 communities.) The suit contends that without a state budget, Gov. Malloy lacks the authority to cut education funding. The municipalities of Torrington, Plainfield, and Brooklyn joined the initial filing. Association President Sheila Cohen noted: “We can’t sit by and watch our public schools dismantled and students and teachers stripped of essential resources…This injunction is the first step toward ensuring that our state lives up to its commitment and constitutional obligations to adequately fund public education.”

Governance in Fiscal Straits? Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen has questioned the legality of Governor Malloy’s executive order, and Connecticut Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano (R-North Haven) noted: “I think the Governor’s order is in very serious legal trouble.” Nevertheless, the Governor, speaking to reporters at the state capitol, accused the CEA of acting prematurely: “Under normal circumstances, those checks don’t go out until the end of October…Secondarily, they’ll have to handle the issue of the fact that we have a lot less money to spend without a budget than we do with a budget…Their stronger argument might be that we can’t make any payments to communities in the absence of a budget. That one I would be afraid of.”

Municipal Fiscal Ethics? Forensic auditors from PBMares, LLP publicly went over their findings from the forensic audit they conducted into the City of Petersburg, Virginia’s financial books during a special City Council meeting. Even though the audit and its findings were released last week, John Hanson and Mike Garber, who were in charge of the audit for PBMares, provided their report to Council and answered their questions, focusing especially on what they deemed the “ethical tone” of the city government, saying they found much evidence of abuse of city money and city resources: “The perception that employees had was that the ethical tone had not been good for quite some time…The culture led employees to do things they might not otherwise do.” They noted misappropriations of fuel for city vehicles, falsification of overtime hours, vacation/sick leave abuse, use of city property for personal gain including lawn mowers and vehicles for travel, excessive or lavish gifts from vendors, and questionable hiring practices. In response, several Council Members asked whether if some of the employees who admitted to misconduct could be named. Messieurs Garber and Hanson, however, declined to reveal names in public, but said they could discuss it in private with City Manager Aretha Ferrell-Benavides, albeit advising the City Council that the ethical problems seemed to be more “systemic,” rather than individual, adding: “For instance, we looked at fuel data usage…And we could tell just looking at it that it was misused, though it would’ve cost tens of thousands of more dollars to find out who exactly took what.”

In response to apprehensions that the audit was insufficient, the auditors noted that because of the city’s limited budget, the scope of PBMares’ work could only go so far. Former Finance Director Nelsie Birch noted that the audit was tasked with focusing on several “troubling areas,” and that a full forensic audit could have cost much more for a city which had hovered on the brink of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. However, Mr. Hanson noted that while the transgressions would have normally fallen under a conflict of interest policy, such was the culture in Petersburg that the city’s employees either did not know, or were allowed to ignore those policies: “When I asked employees what their conflict of interest or gifts and gratuity policy is, people couldn’t answer that question because they didn’t know.”

 

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The Leadership Challenges on the Road to Fiscal and Physical Recovery

September 29, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the fiscal, legal, physical, and human challenges to Puerto Rico; Hartford’s steep fiscal challenges; and Detroit’s ongoing road to fiscal recovery.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

Fiscal Safety Net? The White House yesterday announced President Trump had agreed to waive the Jones Act, which will temporarily lift shipping restrictions on Puerto Rico and enable the hurricane-ravaged island to receive necessary aid; however, the waiver from the shipping law, which mandates that only American-made and-operated vessels may transport cargo between U.S. ports, will only last for 10 days, after which the equivalent of a 20 percent tax will be reimposed. The delayed U.S. response to the save U.S. citizens compared unfavorably to the response to save and protect foreign citizens in Haiti seven years ago, when the U.S. military mobilized as if it were going to war—with the U.S. military, in less than 24 hours, and before first light, already airborne, on its way to seize control of the main airport in Port-au-Prince. Within two days, the Pentagon had 8,000 American troops en route; within two weeks, 33 U.S. military ships and 22,000 troops had arrived. By contrast, eight days after Hurricane Maria ripped across neighboring Puerto Rico, just 4,400 service members were participating in federal operations to assist the devastated U.S. citizens, according to a briefing by an Army general yesterday, in addition to about 1,000 Coast Guard members.

The seemingly inexplicable delay in waiving the Jones Act—temporarily—was due to opposition of the waiver by the Department of Homeland Security, which had argued that a federal agency may not apply for a waiver unless there is a national defense threat (as, apparently, there might have been in Houston and Florida). Sen. John McCain (R-Az.) has, for years, sought to repeal this discriminatory law: The 1920 Jones Act requires that goods shipped between U.S. ports be carried by vessels 1) built in the U.S., 2) majority-owned by American firms, and 3) crewed by U.S. citizens.

Key House and Senate members, since Monday, had been pressing for a one-year waiver from the rules in order to help accelerate deliveries of food, fuel, medical, and other critical supplies to Puerto Rico, especially with current estimates that Puerto Rico could be without power for six months. On Wednesday, 45 U.S. Senate and House Members had signed a letter urging President Trump to appoint a senior general to oversee the military’s aid to Puerto Rico, to deploy the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier, and to increase personnel to assist local law enforcement. U.S. Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D.-N.Y.) warned: “If President Trump doesn’t swiftly deploy every available resource that our country has, then he has failed the people of Puerto Rico – and this will become his Katrina.” The temporary suspension of the onerous and discriminatory Jones law came only in the wake of a fierce backlash against the Trump administration for its inexplicable delay in not immediately lifting the federal law for Puerto Rico, especially after it issued a two-week waiver for Texas and Florida in response to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Nevertheless, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz praised the administration’s decision: she said it could help bring down the cost of emergency medical and other supplies, as well as vital construction materials by nearly 33 percent. Nevertheless, she warned there are still thousands of containers sitting idle at the ports of San Juan, a problem she blamed on “jurisdictional” and bureaucratic issues.

The belated Presidential action came as Puerto Rico continued to suffer the after effects of Hurricane Maria: Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority Executive Director Ricardo Ramos Rodríguez warned it could take PREPA as much as half a year to restore electricity.

Meanwhile, it appears the PROMESA Oversight Board is ready to revise the amount of debt to be paid in the next nine years. The Board is scheduled to meet today in New York City to revise the March-approved fiscal plan: the current Board fiscal plan specifies there should be enough funds to pay approximately 24% of the debt; however, it appears the Board will have little choice today but to revise every fiscal plan. Clearly none of the previous underlying assumptions can hold, and now the Board will have to await the actions and finding of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, while the Treasury Department will have to work with Puerto Rico to settle on a massive restructuring—or, as Puerto Rico House Representative Rafael Hernández Montañez put it: “We can’t have money spent on corporate lawyers and PowerPoint producing technocrats while funding is needed for immediate reconstruction efforts.” While FEMA has committed to paying for 100 percent of the costs of some work, on others, it is mandating a match of 20% to 25% of the costs for other work—a match which appears out of reach for the most savagely damaged municipalities or municipios—now confronted not just by enormous new capital and operating demands, but also by sharply reduced revenues.

Wednesday morning, the PREPA Bondholders Group offered up to $1.85 billion in debtor in possession loans to the authority. According to the group, part of the package would be a new money loan of up to $1 billion. Another part would be their possible acceptance of an $850 million in DIP notes in exchange for $1 billion in outstanding bonds owed to them—or, as the Group noted: “The new funding would allow PREPA to provide the required matching funds under various grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.” In response, PREPA’s Natalie Jaresko said: “We welcome and appreciate the expression of support from creditors…The Board will carefully consider all proposals in coordination with the government, but it is still very early as we begin to navigate a way forward following the catastrophic impact Hurricane Maria had on the island.”

The existing fiscal PREPA plan specifies there should be enough funding to pay about 24% of the debt due over the next decade; that, however, has raised questions with regard to the underlying assumptions of the Board, especially with regard to when FEMA will complete its work on the island.

Rafael Hernández Montañez, a member of Puerto Rico’s House, noted that Hurricane Maria put Puerto Rico’s territory-wide and municipal governments in very difficult financial situations. While FEMA has committed to paying for 100% of the costs of some work, he notes that the federal relief agency is still mandating a government match of 20% to 25% of the costs for other work: “It’s going to be a huge effort to cover that 20% with the government’s unbalanced budget,” adding that the hurricane will also lead to reduced revenues for the local governments.

On Wednesday, 145 U.S. Representatives and Senators signed a letter urging President Trump to appoint a senior general to oversee the military’s aid to Puerto Rico, to deploy the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier, and to increase personnel to assist local law enforcement–the same day as the PREPA Bondholders Group offer. 

The Category 4 Maria destroyed Puerto Rico’s electrical grid; it left the island desperately short of food, clean water, and fuel—and sufficient shipping options, notwithstanding the claim from the Department of Homeland Security that: “Based on consultation with other federal agencies, DHS’s current assessment is that there is sufficient numbers of U.S.-flagged vessels to move commodities to Puerto Rico.” Thus DHS opposed a waiver of the Jones Act (Under the Jones Act federal cabotage rules, the entry of merchandise into Puerto Rico can only be made on US flag and crew ships – the most expensive fleet in the world.), which has been suspended in past natural disasters, to allow less expensive, foreign-flagged ships bring in aid. Former President George W. Bush suspended the Act after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and President Barack Obama suspended it after superstorm Sandy in 2012. In a letter to the Department of Homeland Security, Sen. McCain criticized the department for waiving the Jones Act in the wake of hurricanes Harvey and Irma, but not for Puerto Rico. The Senator, who has long sought a repeal of the Jones Act, noted: “It is unacceptable to force the people of Puerto Rico to pay at least twice as much for food, clean drinking water, supplies, and infrastructure due to Jones Act requirements as they work to recover from this disaster: Now, more than ever, it is time to realize the devastating effect of this policy and implement a full repeal of this archaic and burdensome Act.”  Only the Department of Defense may obtain a Jones Act waiver automatically, which it did to move petroleum products from Texas after Hurricane Harvey. The White House is expected to send Congress a request for a funding package for Puerto Rico in the next few weeks, a senior congressional aide said.

The Road to Hartford’s Default. Citing deep cuts to higher education, sharp reductions in aid to distressed communities, and unsound deferrals of public pension payments, Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy yesterday made good on his pledge to veto the budget that legislature, earlier this month, had adopted, deeming it: “unbalanced, unsustainable, and unwise,” adding his apprehension that were it to be implemented, it would undermine the state’s long-term fiscal stability and essentially guarantee the City of Hartford’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. His veto came as the Governor and top legislators continued bipartisan talks in an attempt to reach a compromise; however, despite legislative attempts to pass a bill to increase the hospital provider tax to 8 percent, a 25 percent increase over the current level, the legislature will not meet today. In his executive order, the Governor allowed key stated services to remain operating; however, he ordered steep cuts to municipalities and certain social service programs: under his orders, approximately 85 communities would see their education cost sharing grants, the biggest source of state funding for public education in Connecticut, cut to zero next month—no doubt a critical element provoking the Connecticut Council of Small Towns, which represents more than 100 of the state’s smallest communities, to seek an override in a special session the week after next in order to avoid local property tax increases. Nevertheless, Gov. Malloy stood strongly against the Republican plan and a potential override, stating: “This budget adopts changes to the state’s pension plan that are both financially and legally unsound…This budget grabs ‘savings’ today on the false promise of change a decade from now, a promise that cannot be made because no legislature can unilaterally bind a future legislature.” He added his apprehensions that the changes proposed to the state’s pension system could expose Connecticut taxpayers to potentially costly litigation down the road: “Prior administrations and legislatures have, over decades, consistently and dangerously underfunded the state’s pension obligations,’’ a strategy, he noted, which he said has led to crippling debt and limited the state’s ability to invest in transportation, education, and other important initiatives. Nonetheless, Republican leaders urged the Governor to sign the two-year, $40.7 billion budget, saying it makes significant structural changes, such as capping the state’s bonding authority and limiting spending. Fiscally conservative Democrats who bolted to the Republican side had criticized a Democratic budget proposal which had proposed new taxes on vacation homes, monthly cellphone bills, and fantasy sports betting, as well as increased taxes on cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, and hotel room rates.

House Republican leader Themis Klarides (R-Derby) warned she and her colleagues will try to override the veto—a steep challenge, as in Connecticut, that requires a two-thirds vote in each chambers, meaning 101 votes in the House and 24 in the Senate. The crucial Republican amendment passed with 78 votes in the House and 21 in the Senate—well short of the override margin in both chambers. The action came as S&P Global Ratings this week lowered Hartford’s credit rating, writing that its opinion “reflects our opinion that a default, a distressed exchange, or redemption appears to be a virtual certainty,” albeit noting that the city could still avoid chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy by restructuring its debts. The agency wrote: “In our view, the potential for a bond restructuring or distressed exchange offering has solidified with the news that both bond insurers are open to supporting such a measure in an effort to head off a bankruptcy filing. Under our criteria, we would consider any distressed offer where the investor receives less value than the promise of the original securities to be tantamount to a default. The mayor’s public statement citing the need to restructure even if the state budget provides necessary short-term funds further supports our view that a restructuring is a virtual certainty.” Hartford’s fiscal plight is, if anything, made more dire by the fiscal crisis of Connecticut, which is still without a budget—and where the Legislature has under consideration a budget proposal from the Governor to slash state aid to the state’s capitol city of Hartford—where the Mayor notes that even were the state to make the payments it owes, Hartford would still be unable to pay its debts—so that S&P dropped the city’s credit rating from B- to C—a four-notch downgrade, writing: “The downgrade to ‘CC’ reflects our opinion that a default, a distressed exchange, or redemption appears to be a virtual certainty.”

The Steep Recovery Road. Almost three years after exiting chapter 9 bankruptcy, Detroit is meeting its plan of debt adjustment, but still confronts fiscal challenges to a full return to the municipal market, even as it nears its exit from Michigan state oversight next year. Detroit’s Deputy Chief Financial Officer and City Finance Director, John Hill, this week noted that while the Motor City recognizes that any debt the city plans to issue will still need a security boost from a quality revenue stream and some enhancement, such as a state intercept, Detroit’s plan of debt adjustment did not assume the need for market access in a traditional and predictable way, without added security layers, for at least a decade. That assessment remains true today, as Detroit nears its third anniversary from its exit from the nation’s largest ever municipal bankruptcy. With chapter 9, Mr. Hill adds: “Everything that we have been able to do since exiting bankruptcy has an attached revenue stream to it: You secure it, and bond lawyers agonize over how that will be protected in the unlikely event of another bankruptcy, because everyone has to ask the question now. Then there is a strong intercept mechanism that goes to a trustee like U.S. Bank where the bondholders now know this is absolutely secure.”

Municipal Market Analytics partner Matt Fabian notes that Detroit continues to struggle with challenges which predate its chapter 9 bankruptcy, adding the city is unlikely to regain an ability to access the traditional municipal markets on its own in the near-to-medium term: “They don’t have traditional reliable access where if they need to go to the market, you can predict with certainty that they will and they will be within a generally predictable spread,” adding that reestablishing its presence in the traditional market is important, because it indicates whether bondholders have confidence in the city as a going concern. In fact, Detroit has adopted balanced budgets for two consecutive years; it is on a fiscal path to exiting Michigan Financial Review Commission oversight, and the city ended FY2016 with a $63 million surplus in its general fund; however, Detroit’s four-year fiscal forecast shows an annual growth rate of only about 1%.

The city’s public pension obligations, mayhap the thorniest issue in cobbling together its plan of debt adjustment, are to be met per its economic plan, via a balloon payment.  Mr. Fabian notes that the Motor City’s recovery plan and future revenue growth is complicated by the need to set aside from surpluses an additional $335 million between Fy2016 and Fy2023 to address that significant, unfunded pension liability, worrying that while the plan is “fiscally responsible;” nevertheless, it comes “at the expense of using these funds for reinvestment and service improvement.”

The plan to address pension obligations is aimed at shoring up the city’s long-term fiscal health and Naglick says it shows the city has recognized the need to tackle it. Detroit developed a long-term funding model with the help of actuarial consultant Cheiron, obtained City Council approval for changes to the pension funding ordinance that established the Retiree Protection Trust Fund, and deposited $105 million into this IRS Section 115 Trust. This fund, said Detriot CFO John Naglick, will grow to over $335 million by 2024 and will provide a buffer to increased contributions beginning then. “More importantly, the growing contributions each year from the general fund to the trust will build budget capacity to make the increased contributions in future years,” he said.

Mayor Mike Duggan claimed during his 2016 State of the City speech that consultants who advised the city through bankruptcy had miscalculated the pension deficit by $490 million. Pension woes aren’t the only challenge the city faces. Fabian said that economic development has been limited to the city’s downtown and midtown areas. The rest of Detroit’s neighborhoods haven’t fared so well.

Dan Loepp, the president and CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, and Gerry Anderson, the Chairman and CEO of DTE Energy, are regarded to be among the important business leaders in Detroit, two key sectors of the Motor City’s economy, who see Detroit’s fiscal and economic trajectory as intertwined with the future of their companies; they  have headquarters in downtown and employ thousands of people including Detroiters—companies which had been making conscious and deliberate investments in the city. Asked recently to offer their perspectives about where Detroit is headed and how to include the many who are left out of the recovery, Mr. Loepp responded: “I’m a native Detroiter, and I lead a company that’s been a business resident of Detroit for nearly 80 years. I remember how uneasy it felt to be in Detroit when the national economy collapsed 10 years ago. It was hard and scary…From then to now, I strongly believe Detroit’s comeback is one of the best stories in America. The downtown is pulsing with growth and action. You’ve got business and residential development that has connected the river to Midtown and is now expanding into neighborhoods.” He added Detroit today is clear of debt and venture capital flowing backed by a city leadership which is “working well together, noting Detroit today is “now positioned to compete and win investment and jobs against any city in the country. All of this is great for Detroit.”

Notwithstanding, he warned that challenges remain: “The bankruptcy, while hard, gave the city’s leadership a clean slate to solve challenges faced by residents. The Mayor and council are working together on issues like lighting, infrastructure, zoning, and demolition…the Mayor, especially, has spent considerable energy advocating for the people of Detroit—doing things like making sure new housing developments hold space for working people of all incomes. This will promote a stronger, more diverse Detroit…Institutional issues, like improving the city’s schools and making neighborhoods safer for city residents, will take time to solve. They will take a constant, steady focus. And they need people within state and local government to work hand-in-hand with people from the neighborhoods to do the tough labor of finding sustainable solutions.” Nevertheless, he cautioned that the Motor City’s recovery is incomplete without participation of the majority: “Detroit can’t truly ‘come back’ if people living in the city are left behind. We need to always make sure there is a focus on people and that we make people a priority. Schools need to be improved. Transit needs to be addressed in a comprehensive way. Employment opportunities and housing need to be part of the master plan.”

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.

Trying to Recover on all Pistons

07/19/17

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Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we look back at the steep road out of the nation’s largest ever municipal bankruptcy—in Detroit, where the Chicago Federal Reserve and former U.S. Chief Bankruptcy Judge Thomas Bennett, who presided over Jefferson County’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy case, has noted: “[S]tates can have precipitating roles as well as preventative roles” in work he did for the Chicago Federal Reserve. Indeed, it seems the Great Recession demarcated the nation’s states into distinct fiscal categories: those with state oversight programs which either protected against or offered fiscal support to assist troubled municipalities, versus those, such as Alabama or California—with the former appearing to aid and abet Jefferson County’s descent into chapter 9 bankruptcy, and California, home to the largest number of chapter 9 bankruptcies over the last two decades, contributing to fiscal distress, but avoiding any acceptance of risk. Therefore, we try to provide our own fiscal autopsy of Detroit’s journey into and out of the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy.

I met in the Governor’s Detroit offices with Kevyn Orr, whom Governor Rick Snyder had asked to come out from Washington, D.C. to serve as the city’s Emergency Manager to take the city into—and out of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy: the largest in American history. Having been told by the hotel staff that it was unsafe to walk the few blocks from my hotel to the Governor’s Detroit offices on the city’s very first day in insolvency—a day in which the city was spending 38 cents on every dollar of taxes collected from residents and businesses on legacy costs and operating debt payments totaling $18 billion; it was clear from the get go, as he told me that early morning, there was no choice other than chapter 9: it was an essential, urgent step in order to ensure the provision of essential services, including street and traffic lights, emergency first responders, and basic maintenance of the Motor City’s crumbling infrastructure—especially given the grim statistics, with police response times averaging 58 minutes across the city, fewer than a third of the city’s ambulances in service, 40% of the city’s 88,000 traffic lights not working, “primarily due to disrepair and neglect.” It was, as my walk made clear, a city aptly described as: “[I]nfested with urban blight, which depresses property values, provides a fertile breeding ground for crime and tinder for fires…and compels the city to devote precious resources to demolition.” Of course, not just physical blight and distress, but also fiscal distress: the Motor City’s unbalanced fiscal condition was foundering under its failure to make some $108 million in pension payments—payments which, under the Michigan constitution, because they are contracts, were constitutionally binding. Nevertheless, in one of his early steps to staunch the fiscal bleeding, Mr. Orr halted a $39.7 million payment on $1.4 billion in pension debt issued by former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s administration to make the city pension funds appear better funded than they really were; thus, Mr. Orr’s stop payment was essential to avoid immediate cash insolvency at a moment in time when Detroit’s cash position was in deepening debt. Thus, in his filing, Mr. Orr aptly described the city’s dire position and the urgency of swift action thusly: “Without this, the city’s death spiral I describe herein will continue.”

Today, the equivalent of a Presidential term later, the city has installed 65,000 new streetlights; it has cut police and emergency responder response times to 25% of what they were; it has razed 11,847 blighted buildings. Indeed, ambulance response times in Detroit today are half of what they were—and close to the national average—even as the city’s unrestricted general fund finished FY2016 fiscal year with a $143 million surplus, 200% of the prior fiscal year: as of March 31st, Detroit sported a general fund surplus of $51 million, with $52.8 million more cash on hand than March of last year, according to the Detroit Financial Review Commission—with the surplus now dedicated to setting aside an additional $20 million into a trust fund for a pension “funding cliff” the city has anticipated in its plan of debt adjustment by 2024.  

Trying to Run on all Pistons. The Detroit City Council has voted 7-1 to approve a resolution to allow the Motor City to realize millions of dollars in income tax revenues from its National Basketball Association Pistons players, employees, and visiting NBA players—with such revenues dedicated to finance neighborhood improvements across the Motor City, under a Neighborhood Improvement Fund—a fund proposed in June by Councilwoman (and ordained Minister) Mary Sheffield, with the proposal coming a week after the City Council agreed to issue some $34.5 million in municipal bonds to finance modifications to the Little Caesars Arena—where the Pistons are scheduled to play next season. Councilwoman Sheffield advised her colleagues the fund would also enable the city to focus on blight removal, home repairs for seniors, educational opportunities for young people, and affordable housing development in neighborhoods outside of downtown and Midtown—or, as she put it: “This sets the framework; it expresses what the fund should be used for; and it ultimately gives Council the ability to propose projects.” She further noted the Council could, subsequently, impose additional limitations with regard to the use of the funds—noting she had come up with the proposal in response to complaints from Detroit constituents who had complained the city’s recovery efforts had left them out—stating: “It’s not going to solve all of the problems, and it’s not going to please everyone, but I do believe it’s a step in the right direction to make sure these catalyst projects have some type of tangible benefits for residents.”

Detroit officials estimate the new ordinance will help generate a projected $1.3 million annually. In addition, city leaders hope to find other sources to add to the fund—sources the Councilmember reports, which will be both public and private: “We as a council are going to look at other development projects and sources that could go into the fund too.” As adopted, the resolution provides: “[I]t is imperative that the neighborhoods, and all other areas of the City, benefit from the Detroit Pistons’ return downtown …In turn, the City will receive income tax revenue, from the multimillion dollar salaries of the NBA players as well as other Pistons employees and Palace Sports & Entertainment employees.” The Council has forwarded the adopted proposals to Mayor Duggan’s office for final consideration and action. The proposed new revenues—unless the tax is modified or rejected by the Mayor—would be dedicated for use in the city’s Neighborhood Improvement Fund in FY2018—with decisions with regard to how to allocate the funds—by Council District or citywide—to be determined at a later date. The funds, however, could also be used to address one of the lingering challenges from the city’s adopted plan of debt adjustment from its chapter 9 bankruptcy: meeting its public pension obligations when general fund revenues are insufficient, “should there be any unforeseen shortfall,” as the resolution provides.

This fiscal recovery, however, remains an ongoing challenge: Detroit CFO John Hill laid up the proverbial hook shot up by advising the Council that the reason the city reserved the right to use the Pistons tax revenue to cover pension or debt obligation shortfalls was because of the large pension obligation payment the city will confront in 2024: “We knew that in meeting our pensions and debt obligation in 2024 and 2025 that those funds get very tight: If this kind of valve wasn’t there, I would have a lot of concerns that in those years its tighter and we don’t get revenues we expect we don’t get any of those funds to meet those obligations.”

But, as in basketball, there is another side: at the beginning of the week, the NBA, Palace Sports & Entertainment, and Olympia Entertainment were added to a federal lawsuit—a suit filed in late June by community activist Robert Davis and Detroit city clerk candidate D. Etta Wilcox against the Detroit Public Schools Community District. The suit seeks to force a vote on the $34.5 million public funding portion of the Pistons’ deal, under which Detroit, as noted above, is seeking to capture the school operating tax, the proceeds of which are currently used to service $250 million of bonds DDA bonds previously issued for the arena project in addition to the $34.5 million of additional bonds the city planned to issue for the Pistons relocation.

The Hard Road to Fiscal Sustainability

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Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider, Detroit’s remarkable route to fiscal recovery, before returning to the stark fiscal challenges to Puerto Rico’s economic sustainability.

The Road to Recovery from Municipal Bankruptcy.  Detroit, which has roared back from the largest municipal bankruptcy ever, but, in doing so paid an average 81% of what it owed to its municipal bondholders as part of its plan of debt adjustment, nearly 25% more than either San Bernardino or Stockton, now, in the wake of its decades of its more than 50% population decline  (In 1950, there were 1,849,568 people in Detroit; in 2010, there were 713,777.), is ready to tackle its housing dilemma. Post-chapter 9 Detroit inherited an estimated 40,000 abandoned lots and structures and an 80% erosion of its manufacturing base—that in a municipality where 36 percent of its citizens were below the federal poverty level, and, the year it filed for chapter 9, had reported the highest violent crime rate for any U.S. city with a population over 200,000.

Thus, Mayor Mike Duggan now vows that his administration plans to launch a street-by-street initiative effective August 1st to board up abandoned homes in the city while demolition crews continue razing blighted houses. That will be a painstaking challenge: in a city of 142 square miles, the city reports some 25,000 unsecured houses, the bulk of which have been scheduled to be razed—but, up to now, the pace of demolitions has been limited to 4,000-5,000 annually, according to the Mayor. Thus, he posits: “We’re going to go through and board up every house we can’t get to so we’re not just saying to people, ‘It’s going to be five years before we get to everything. Wait!’”

Mayor Duggan, speaking at the Mackinac Policy Conference, vowed the city will begin deploying six crews beginning at the end of next month, with the teams slated to go through each neighborhood and close off vacant and abandoned homes—homes that are susceptible to crime, to being scrapped for metal and finishings, and becoming uninhabitable safety hazards. Mayor Duggan made the announcement, as the city’s plan of adjustment and the city’s actions in implementing it appear certain to be fodder for the upcoming mayoral primary election set for August 8th—with whichever candidate is chosen slated to confront Michigan state Sen. Coleman Young II (D) in the November 7th general election. Indeed, unsurprisingly, Sen. Young (1st District), who previously served two terms in the Michigan House prior to being elected to the State Senate, is the son of former Detroit Mayor Coleman Young—who served as the Motor City’s Mayor from 1973-1994, this week blasted Mayor Duggan for waiting until his fourth year in office to address the safety hazard of unsecured houses: he accused his upcoming opponent of “playing games with the people and the public, because it’s election time,” adding he was “just amazed now all of sudden that he cares about the neighborhoods and he wants to do this…Where was he for the last 3.5 years in office? They just should have addressed that first.”

Currently the Duggan administration estimates city crews can board up 100-200 homes each week and that the effort will take two years to complete, so that, as Mayor Duggan notes: “By the end of two years, we’ll have every house in the city either demolished, reoccupied, or boarded…So at least it will be secure. Kids won’t be wandering in and out.” In making the statement, Mayor Duggan acknowledged the city has fallen well short of its avowed initial goal of razing 10,000 blighted homes annually, describing that as “not a practical goal.” Since Mayor Duggan took office in 2014, Detroit has razed some 11,593 blighted structures; there are 331 more contracted for demolitions, and then another 2,141 in the pipeline.

In making his responses, Mayor Duggan acknowledged that his initial commitment to raze more than 5,000 homes per year had gotten him into “trouble,” noting: “I feel bad for the people who took the grief for it, because I pushed them;” he said the city will post notices on unsecured privately owned homes for which city crews will be covering the windows and doors with plywood, noting: “We’ll go down and board up every house that’s not scheduled to come down in the next six to 12 months,” adding that the city’s budget is bearing the burden more often than not, because the cost of going after the home owners of such abandoned homes has proved impractical and costly: “You’ve got a lot of people in this town (who say), ‘My uncle died, left me the house, the house is in a bad neighborhood,’ they don’t even live here…To send them bills is not practical.” To date, for the most part, Mayor Duggan said the city has been delivering plywood to some neighborhood groups and relying on volunteers to board up houses on their streets; however, he added that there are a lot of neighborhoods with mostly senior citizens who “just physically can’t put these huge sheets of wood onto these houses…We finally said, ‘You know the most efficient way to do it just roll through the city.’”

On the Road to Fiscal Recovery. As we reported earlier this week, Detroit completed its most recent fiscal year with a $63 million surplus according to its Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, which the city filed with the Michigan Treasury Department on Tuesday, with Detroit CFO John Hill noting the FY2016 surplus was some $22 million higher than the city had projected, an outcome  to which he attributed the city’s improved financial controls, stronger-than-anticipated revenues, and lower costs due to unfilled vacancies—something, he told the Detroit News, the city believes “will have a lot of positive implications on the future.” In the near future, it offers the potential for Detroit to exit from state oversight by the Financial Review Commission under terms of Detroit’s plan of debt adjustment. Or, as Mayor Mike Duggan noted: “This audit confirms that the administration is making good on its promise to manage Detroit’s finances responsibly…With deficit-free budgets two years in a row, we have put the city on the path to exit Financial Review Commission oversight.” In fact, the city now projects an FY2017 $51 million surplus.

All this is increasing optimism that the 2017 audit of the Motor City’s finances could trigger a vote by the Commission to suspend its direct financial oversight, obviating the current required state oversight and requisite approvals on all the city’s budgets and contracts. Of the city’s reported $143 million in accumulated unassigned fund balances, including this year’s surplus, the city has allocated $50 million from its FY2016 balance as a down payment to help set up the city’s Retiree Protection Fund to help it address pension obligations scheduled to come due in 2024 under the terms of the city’s plan of debt adjustment. In addition, the city has set aside $50 million in its FY2018 budget for blight remediation and capital improvements—an amount which would leave a cushion of about $43 million in an unassigned fund balance—but which account could only be drawn from with the approval of Mayor Duggan, the City Council, or the state review commission. The city primarily draws from this account for one-time costs, such as to address blight and for its capital budget. CFO Hill has expressed hope the ongoing, positive cash flow and budget balances will enhance the city’s credit rating—and, thereby reduce its borrowing or capital costs.

What Constitutes Economic Sustainability? Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has proposed an austere Fy2018 General Fund budget which, he reports, would reduce the territory’s operating expenses by 9.1%, describing his plan as comparable to “those we had established in the fiscal plan.” As proposed, the Governor would allocate at least $2.04 billion for pensions—an amount that would leave naught to meet Puerto Rico’s debt obligations: he noted that funding pensions was vital to protect Puerto Rico’s most vulnerable citizens—and that the “measures implemented in this budget are those that we had established in the fiscal plan.” Nevertheless, Gov. Rosselló said his budget was different from past budgets, because it was balanced: it projects that the central government would have sufficient balance to remit $404 million of $3.283 billion in scheduled debt service, or 12.3%, in FY2018. The budget does not include the debt from semi-autonomous and autonomous public sector entities, but shows near balance: $9.1 billion in revenue and $8.987 billion in spending, according to the Puerto Rico Office of Management and Budget, with an increase of nearly 6% in spending. In the Governor’s proposed budget, all General Fund payments for debt would be eliminated—guaranteeing a battle with the PROMESA Board, which, in its plan, had projected there would be $404 million available cash flow “post-measures” for FY2018, with the Board seemingly pressing to ensure funds were included in the budget to address Puerto Rico’s debt services to municipal bond holders—even as the Governor appears focused on protecting the territory’s most vulnerable citizens. In contrast, the PROMESA board certified decade-long quasi plan of debt adjustment incorporated the amount of municipal bond debt service to be paid each year—providing that amount be $3.28 billion.

The challenge is complex: with apprehension that the territory’s young professionals are increasingly leaving to New York and Miami, leaving behind an increasingly elderly and impoverished population—less able to remit taxes, but in greater and greater need for public services, and for promised pension payments, the critical planned increase by the Governor in public pension funding is imperiled: each of Puerto Rico’s three government pension systems is projected to run out of liquid assets in FY2018, unsurprisingly leading the Governor to propose allocating at least $2.04 billion in his budget to cover pension funding—marking a stark change from his previous budget, when the line item to cover “pay-as-you-go” pension funding was absent. (Puerto Rico has three public pension systems: the Employee Retirement System, the Teacher’s Retirement System, and the Judiciary Retirement System.) In contrast, the PROMESA Board, last March, in its decade-long oversight fiscal plan, ordered a cut in public pension obligations effective in FY2020, projecting fiscal savings for the subsequent six years in the range of $83 million. It is unclear whether those projections incorporated the potential fiscal impacts on either sales tax revenues, or the increased costs of aid to those falling below the poverty level.

In his proposed budget, Gov. Rosselló has recommended to the legislature a $9.56 billion FY2018 General Fund budget, seeking a 6.4% increase—but, after compensating for public pension obligations, actually providing 21.8% less for spending. Within his proposed budget, the Governor is asking for $583 million more for “other operating expenses,” but $555 million less for salaries and related costs, and retaining $195 million as a reserve. (In the wake of the final action by the Puerto Rico legislature, the PROMESA Board is authorized to reject any final budget and substitute its own.)

However, there is now a third party to this increasingly complex fiscal process, in the form of U.S. Judge Laura Swain, who, under PROMESA’s Title III municipal bankruptcy process, has some discretion of her own to consider changes in the amounts of debt paid in the next fiscal year—albeit, as we have learned from the chapter 9 proceedings in Detroit, San Bernardino, etc., the judicial system in these exceptionally complex chapter 9 cases acts with  considerable deliberation—not haste; moreover, unlike a normal chapter 9 process, PROMESA section 106(e) prohibits Judge Swain from deviating from the PROMESA Board’s certified fiscal plan and budgets.

Gov. Rosselló’s budget, unlike previous proposals, includes a $2 billion payment for Puerto Rico’s three public pension systems, noting: “One of the most important differences, he said, as mandated by the PROMESA Board, in this budget is that, contrary to the previous ones, it really is balanced,” adding that, as proposed, Puerto Rico had created a $200 million reserve. In addition, the Governor reported he would soon propose measures to simplify Puerto Rico’s tax system. Overall, his proposed plan contains some $924 million in revenue increases versus $851 million expense cuts for FY2018: among the key fiscal plan measures to increase FY2018 revenues is $519 million by extending the Act 154 foreign corporation tax and $150 million through improving tax compliance.

What Might it Mean to Puerto’s Rico’s Fiscal Future? The PROMESA Oversight Board, which had requested a structurally balanced budget, seeking a “once and done” approach to the Puerto Rico government’s fiscal crisis, had focused on immediate large spending cuts and revenue increases in the budget. Indeed, as proposed by the Governor, there are significant changes, including reductions in support for the University of Puerto Rico ($411 million) and $250 million to the island’s municipalities or muncipios. The plan encompasses freezing payroll increases and eliminating vacation and sick day liquidations—all with the aim to reduce Puerto Rico’s debt service costs by 76% through FY2026. San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz said, “The governor’s public policy has been to act as the messenger of the junta [i.e. the Oversight Board] and, in this way, has hidden behind it to become the executioner of Puerto Rico,” according to the El Vocero news web site. “The budget message will be another sign that the governor turns his back on the people.”

The Roads Out of and into Insolvency

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider Detroit’s remarkable route to fiscal recovery, before returning to the stark fiscal challenges to Puerto Rico’s economic sustainability.

The Road to Recovery from Municipal Bankruptcy. The Motor City, Detroit, ended its FY2016 fiscal year with a $63 million surplus, etching into the books the city’s second consecutive balanced budget out of  the nation’s largest ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, an achievement officials hope will earn it better standing in the bond markets and a path out of financial oversight. Its new Comprehensive Annual Financial Report also discloses that, for the first time in more than a decade, the city did not have any costs scrutinized for its federal grant use. Nevertheless, despite hopes of a turnaround in a decades-long population decline, the most recent census data finds that Detroit lost population—0.5% or 3,541 persons in the latest U.S. Census estimates, the same number as last year, a year which marked the slowest rate of exodus in decades. While Mayor Mike Duggan has given special emphasis to the importance of population regrowth as a means of measuring the city’s economic recovery, his Chief of Staff, Alexis Wiley, notes: “We are pleased in the direction that we are heading…The data are a year behind.”

Indeed, measures of building permits, home prices, and 3,000 more occupied residences reported by DTE Energy in the city in March versus the same time a year earlier all appear to affirm that recovery is sustained, even though, based on data from July 1, 2016, Detroit has dropped down from 21st to 23rd in terms of size ranking amongst the country’s largest cities. (Last year, for the first time since before the Civil War, Detroit fell out of the top 20.) The City’s CFO, John Hill, reported Detroit’s FY2016 fiscal surplus was about $22 million higher than the city projected—a figure he attributed to improved financial controls, stronger-than-anticipated revenues, and lower costs due to unfilled vacancies—or, as he told the Detroit News: “We are operating in a very fiscally responsible way that we believe will have a lot of positive implications on the future.”

That fiscal upward trajectory matters, because, under the city’s plan of debt adjustment, Detroit must achieve three consecutive years of balanced budgets to exit oversight by the Financial Review Commission. Unsurprisingly, Mayor Mike Duggan noted: “This audit confirms that the administration is making good on its promise to manage Detroit’s finances responsibly…With deficit-free budgets two years in a row, we have put the city on the path to exit Financial Review Commission oversight.” Indeed, Detroit now projects a $51 million surplus in the 2017 fiscal year, which closes on the last day of June, according to CFO Hill—potentially paving the way for a vote by the review commission early next year to lift its direct fiscal oversight—freeing Detroit from the mandate of state approval of its budgets and contracts. The CAFR also notes $143 million in accumulated unassigned fund balances, including this year’s surplus—out of which the city has allocated $50 million to help set up the Retiree Protection Fund to help it deal with pension obligations, which will come due in 2024, as well as a matching $50 million for FY2018 for blight remediation and capital improvements. Even with that, $43 million remains in an unassigned fund balance, which city officials noted would carry over to the next fiscal year—with restrictions that none may be allocated without approvals from Mayor Duggan, the City Council, or the state review commission. Mr. Hill hopes the strong fiscal news will enhance the city’s credit rating and thereby reduce the cost of servicing its debt and capital budget.

What Constitutes Economic Sustainability? University of Puerto Rico interim President Nivia Fernandez, just hours before her arrest for failing to reopen an institution closed in the wake of a two-month student strike, has resigned, along with three members of the University’s Board of Governors in the wake of a judicial threat for her arrest if she failed to present a plan to end the student strike—a strike which commenced last March in protest of the $450 million in budget cuts sought by the PROMESA oversight board. Now there are apprehensions that strike could spread to other sectors—especially with Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló expected to release his proposed budget with deep cuts to programs today—a budget constructed in response to demands by the PROMESA Board for a structurally balanced budget. Those proposed cuts have provoked students to go on strike, leading to the closure at several of the university’s campuses since late March. Likely, the rate of civilian unrest will grow, or, as University of Puerto Rico sociology Professor Emilio Pantojas García has noted, the student strike may foreshadow a wave of demonstrations in coming months as Gov. Rosselló’s budget will almost certainly call for reductions in public pensions and health care—with the PROMESA Board calling for spending cuts and revenue increases in the coming fiscal year equal to nearly 11 percent of projected revenues for all central government activities—a proportion projected to increase to 28.8% by FY2022. Moreover, because the bulk of the revenue increases and spending cuts would impact the General Fund, the human and fiscal impact is expected to be much greater. University of Puerto Rico political science Professor José Garriga Pico notes: “In some, the opposition to the austerity measures will lead them to frustration and fear, as well as real suffering, and an intensification of the militancy against the Financial Oversight Board, its policies, Gov. Rosselló, and his budget proposal. These could engage in protest that may turn confrontation and violence.”

In the face of the Oversight Board’s demands for cuts at the University, Gov. Rosselló, last February, proposed a $300 million cut—leading to the resignations by the President of the University and 10 of its 11 rectors; subsequently, the PROMESA Board upped the ante, ordering the annual cut to be $411 million for the upcoming fiscal year, which starts next month—a cut of 44% compared to FY2015 appropriations—with the Board noting that out-year cuts will have to be deeper.  Yet the Board orders have put governance between a rock and a hard place: this spring a judge ordered then interim university President Nivia Fernández to submit a plan to reopen the main Rio Piedras campus; however, the Puerto Rico police department, claiming it would not act out of respect for the traditional autonomy of the University, provoked a judicial threat for Ms. Fernández’s imprisonment if she failed to comply—a threat obviated by her resignation, along with several members of the university board. Nevertheless, the judge, even after excusing Ms. Fernández from her prison sentence, maintained a $1,000 per day fine on the university until it opened operations—this, as the University, as of last February, had some $496 million in outstanding debt outstanding, according to the PROMESA board certified fiscal plan—and as Moody’s senior credit officer Diane Viacava, earlier this year, wrote that the government’s planned cuts for Puerto Rico were a “credit negative because they will be difficult for the university to absorb,” predicting that the university was likely to default on subsequent payments “absent a resumption of fund transfers to the trustees.”

Exiting State Fiscal Oversight–After Emerging from Municipal Bankruptcy

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eBlog, 04/28/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the consider the unique fiscal challenge confronting Detroit: how does it exit from Michigan state oversight?  

What Is Key to the Windy City’s Future? Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan testifying: “It’s gonna happen!” before a Michigan state House panel, advised legislators that the Motor City could meet requirements to end the state’s financial oversight next year; at the same time, he urged the lawmakers to do something about the city’s high auto insurance costs. He noted that Detroit has paid $7 billion of its $18 billion in debt and obligations after emerging from chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in 2014, in an effort to demonstrate why such oversight ought no longer to fiscally oversee the city. The state-appointed Financial Review Commission—which oversees all major Detroit operations and labor contracts—was created amid the nation’s largest ever municipal bankruptcy to ensure the city’s recovery was well handled. But now, the Mayor testified, state oversight is interfering, instead of helping, because all major city and labor contracts are delayed 30 days awaiting for approval from the state oversight commission. He and John Walsh, Gov. Rick Snyder’s Director of Strategy, told lawmakers on the House committee that the city’s “grand bargain” agreement to devote hundreds of millions of dollars in state and private philanthropy aid, in part to alleviate some pension cuts to city retirees, has helped with trimming unemployment, slowed population losses, and encouraged development projects. Mr. Walsh, a former state representative from Livonia who played a key role in securing the $195 million in state aid for Detroit, said the city is “well managed,” noting: “It wasn’t just broke. It was broken.” Now, Mr. Walsh said the city is on its way to better times. As evidence of the city’s recovery, Mayor Duggan stressed to lawmakers that thousands of street lights have been installed, blighted houses have been demolished, emergency response times have improved, and buildings revitalized. Nevertheless, the Mayor continued his lobbying of lawmakers to address high auto insurance costs, warning: “If you can’t afford the car insurance, you either drive to work illegally or you lose your job…People are being ripped off,” he said, because of rising health care costs associated with auto insurance—which, he warned, hikes overall rates. Mr. Walsh testified that the economic health of Metro Detroit affects the entire state, because it accounts for 44 percent of Michigan’s total sales and income tax revenue. “All in all, I think it was a very successful effort. There are plenty of challenges ahead to be sure.” Mayor Duggan made the comments just a day after the filing deadline for the mayoral election—an election for which an even dozen challengers have already submitted petitions, while the only other certified candidate on the ballot than the incumbent is Michigan State Senator Coleman Young II, the son of the city’s first black mayor.

As evidence of the city’s recovery, Mayor Duggan noted that Detroit’s ambulance response time dipped below the national average last week for the first time in at least a decade, as he was speaking before a House committee in Lansing with regard to the critical “Grand Bargain” which marked the keystone to the city’s gaining former U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes’ approval of the city’s plan of debt adjustment to exit chapter 9 bankruptcy. Testifying that the average response time for the city’s emergency medical services was 7 minutes and 58 seconds last week, a response time besting the national EMS average, Mayor Duggan noted: “We did it in a boring way,” telling the panel his administration hired more emergency medical technicians and improved maintenance to make sure ambulances work properly. He did not remind them that at no point during the city’s largest in American history chapter 9 bankruptcy had there been any disruption in 9-1-1 service, but did testify that average EMS response times in Detroit were close to 20 minutes for life-threatening calls subsequently, when he first took office in 2014—a time when the city had six EMS rigs, compared to the 37 which are in service during peak times today. The Mayor added the city is on track to deliver its third balanced budget this June, setting the stage for an exit in early 2018 from state oversight under the Detroit Financial Review Commission—which was adopted to monitor the city’s post-bankruptcy finances. The commission would not dissolve, however, and it could resume oversight in the event the city’s finances worsen.