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.

What Lessons Can State & Local Leaders Learn from Unique Fiscal Challenges?

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eBlog, 04/25/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the unique fiscal challenges in Michigan and how the upswing in the state’s economy is—or, in this case, maybe—is not helping the fiscal recovery of the state’s municipalities. Then we remain in Michigan—but straddle to Virginia, to consider state leadership efforts in each state to rethink state roles in dealing with severe fiscal municipal distress. Finally, we zoom to Chicago to glean what wisdom we can from the Godfather of modern municipal bankruptcy, Jim Spiotto: What lessons might be valuable to the nation’s state and local leaders?  

Fiscal & Physical Municipal Balancing I. Nearly a decade after the upswing in Michigan’s economic recovery, the state’s fiscal outlook appears insufficient to help the state’s municipalities weather the next such recession. Notwithstanding continued job growth and record auto sales, Michigan’s per-capita personal income lags the national average; assessed property values are below peak levels in 85% of the state’s municipalities; and state aid is only 80% of what it was 15 years ago.  Thus, interestingly, state business leaders, represented by the Business Leaders for Michigan, a group composed of executives of Michigan’s largest corporations universities, is pressing the Michigan Legislature to assume greater responsibility to address growing public pension liabilities—an issue which municipal leaders in the state fear extend well beyond legacy costs, but also where fiscal stability has been hampered by cuts in state revenue sharing and tax limitations. Michigan’s $10 billion general fund is roughly comparable to what it was nearly two decades ago—notwithstanding the state’s experience in the Great Recession—much less the nation’s largest ever municipal bankruptcy in Detroit, or the ongoing issues in Flint. Moreover, with personal income growth between 2000 and 2013 growing less than half the national average (in the state, the gain was only 31.1%, compared to 66.1% nationally), and now, with public pension obligations outstripping growth in personal income and property values, Michigan’s taxpayers and corporations—and the state’s municipalities—confront hard choices with regard to “legacy costs” for municipal pensions and post-retirement health care obligations—debts which today are consuming nearly 20 percent of some city, township, and school budgets—even as the state’s revenue sharing program has dropped nearly 25 percent for fiscally-stressed municipalities such as Saginaw, Flint, and Detroit just since 2007—rendering the state the only state to realize negative growth rates (8.5%) in municipal revenue in the 2002-2012 decade, according to numbers compiled by the Michigan Municipal League—a decade in which revenue for the state’s cities and towns from state sources realized the sharpest decline of any state in the nation: 56%, a drop so steep that, as the Michigan Municipal League’s COO Tony Minghine put it: “Our system is just broken…We’re not equipped to deal with another recession. If we were to go into another recession right now, we’d see widespread communities failing.” Unsurprisingly, one of the biggest fears is that another wave of chapter 9 filings could trigger the appointment of the state’s ill-fated emergency manager appointments. From the Michigan Municipal League’s perspective, any fiscal resolution would require the state to address what appears to be a faltering revenue base: Michigan’s taxable property is appreciating too slowly to support the cost of government (between 2007 and 2013, the taxable value of property declined by 8 percent in Grand Rapids, 12% in Detroit, 25% in Livonia, 32% in Warren, 22% in Wayne County values, and 24% in Oakland County.) The fiscal threat, as the former U.S. Comptroller General of the General Accounting Office warned: “Most of these numbers will get worse with the mere passage of time.”

Fiscal & Physical Municipal Balancing II. Mayhap Michigan and Virginia state and local leaders need to talk:  Thinking fiscally about a state’s municipal fiscal challenges—and lessons learned—might be underway in Virginia, where, after the state did not move ahead on such an initiative last year, the new state budget has revived the focus on fiscal stress in Virginia cities and counties, with the revived fiscal focus appearing to have been triggered by the ongoing fiscal collapse of one of the state’s oldest cities, Petersburg. Thus, Sen. Emmett Hanger (R-Augusta County), a former Commissioner of the Revenue and member of the state’s House of Delegates, who, today, serves as Senate Finance Co-Chair, and Chair of the Health and Human Services Finance subcommittee, has filed a bill, SJ 278, to study the fiscal stress of local governments: his proposal would create a joint subcommittee to review local and state tax systems, as well as reforms to promote economic assistance and cooperation between regions. Although the legislation was rejected in the Virginia House Finance Committee, where members deferred consideration of tax reform for next year’s longer session, the state’s adopted budget does include two fiscal stress preventive measures originally incorporated in Senator Hanger’s proposed legislation—or, as co-sponsor Sen. Rosalyn Dance (D-Petersburg), noted: “Currently, there is no statutory authority for the Commission on Local Government to intervene in a fiscally stressed locality, and the state does not currently have any authority to assist a locality financially.” To enhance the state’s authority to intervene fiscally, the budget has set guidelines for state officials to identify and help alleviate signs of financial stress to prevent a more severe crisis. Thus, a workgroup, established by the auditor of public accounts, would determine an appropriate fiscal early warning system to identify fiscal stress: the proposed system would consider such criteria as a local government’s expenditure reports and budget information. Local governments which demonstrate fiscal distress would thence be notified and could request a comprehensive review of their finances by the state. After a fiscal review, the commonwealth would then be charged with drafting an “action plan,” which would provide the purpose, duration, and anticipated resources required for such state intervention. The bill would also give the Governor the option to channel up to $500,000 from the general fund toward relief efforts for the fiscally stressed local government.

Virginia’s new budget also provides for the creation of a Joint Subcommittee on Local Government Fiscal Stress, with members drawn from the Senate Finance Committee, the House Appropriations, and the House Finance committees—with the newly created subcommittee charged to study local and state financial practices, such as: regional cooperation and service consolidation, taxing authority, local responsibilities in state programs, and root causes of fiscal stress. Committee member Del. Lashrecse Aird (D-Petersburg) notes: “It is important to have someone who can speak to first-hand experience dealing with issues of local government fiscal stress…This insight will be essential in forming effective solutions that will be sustainable long-term…Prior to now, Virginia had no mechanism to track, measure, or address fiscal stress in localities…Petersburg’s situation is not unique, and it is encouraging that proactive measures are now being taken to guard against future issues. This is essential to ensuring that Virginia’s economy remains strong and that all communities can share in our Commonwealth’s success.”

Municipal Bankruptcy—or Opportunity? The Chicago Civic Federation last week co-hosted a conference, “Chicago’s Fiscal Future: Growth or Insolvency?” with the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, where experts, practitioners, and academics from around the nation met to consider best and worst case scenarios for the Windy City’s fiscal future, including lessons learned from recent chapter 9 municipal bankruptcies. Chicago Fed Vice President William Testa opened up by presenting an alternative method of assessing whether a municipality city is currently insolvent or might become so in the future: he proposed that considering real property in a city might offer both an indicator of the resources available to its governments and how property owners view the prospects of the city, adding that, in addition to traditional financial indicators, property values can be used as a powerful—but not perfect—indicators to reflect a municipality’s current situation and the likelihood for insolvency in the future. He noted that there is considerable evidence that fiscal liabilities of a municipality are capitalized into the value of its properties, and that, if a municipality has high liabilities, those are reflected in an adjustment down in the value of its real estate. Based upon examination, he noted using the examples of Chicago, Milwaukee, and Detroit; Detroit’s property market collapse coincided with its political and economic crises: between 2006 and 2009-2010, the selling price of single family homes in Detroit fell by four-fold; during those years and up to the present, the majority of transactions were done with cash, rather than traditional mortgages, indicating, he said, that the property market is severely distressed. In contrast, he noted, property values in Chicago have seen rebounds in both residential and commercial properties; in Milwaukee, he noted there is less property value, but higher municipal bond ratings, due, he noted, to the state’s reputation for fiscal conservatism and very low unfunded public pension liabilities—on a per capita basis, Chicago’s real estate value compares favorably to other big cities: it lags Los Angeles and New York City, but is ahead of Houston (unsurprisingly given that oil city’s severe pension fiscal crisis) and Phoenix. Nevertheless, he concluded, he believes comparisons between Chicago and Detroit are overblown; the property value indicator shows that property owners in Chicago see value despite the city’s fiscal instability. Therefore, adding the property value indicator could provide additional context to otherwise misleading rankings and ratings that underestimate Chicago’s economic strength.

Lessons Learned from Recent Municipal Bankruptcies. The Chicago Fed conference than convened a session featuring our former State & Local Leader of the Week, Jim Spiotto, a veteran of our more than decade-long efforts to gain former President Ronald Reagan’s signature on PL 100-597 to reform the nation’s municipal bankruptcy laws, who discussed finding from his new, prodigious primer on chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. Mr. Spiotto advised that chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy is expensive, uncertain, and exceptionally rare—adding it is restrictive in that only debt can be adjusted in the process, because U.S. bankruptcy courts do not have the jurisdiction to alter services. Noting that only a minority of states even authorize local governments to file for federal bankruptcy protection, he noted there is no involuntary process whereby a municipality can be pushed into bankruptcy by its creditors—making it profoundly distinct from Chapter 11 corporate bankruptcy, adding that municipal bankruptcy is solely voluntary on the part of the government. Moreover, he said that, in his prodigious labor over decades, he has found that the large municipal governments which have filed for chapter 9 bankruptcy, each has its own fiscal tale, but, as a rule, these filings have generally involved service level insolvency, revenue insolvency, or economic insolvency—adding that if a school system, county, or city does not have these extraordinary fiscal challenges, municipal bankruptcy is probably not the right option. In contrast, he noted, however, if a municipality elects to file for bankruptcy, it would be wise to develop a comprehensive, long-term recovery plan as part of its plan of debt adjustment.

He was followed by Professor Eric Scorsone, Senior Deputy State Treasurer in the Michigan Department of Treasury, who spoke of the fall and rise of Detroit, focusing on the Motor City’s recovery—who noted that by the time Gov. Rick Snyder appointed Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, Detroit was arguably insolvent by all of the measures Mr. Spiotto had described, noting that it took the chapter 9 bankruptcy process and mediation to bring all of the city’s communities together to develop the “Grand Bargain” involving a federal judge, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, the Kellogg Foundation, and the Detroit Institute of Arts (a bargain outlined on the napkin of a U.S. District Court Judge, no less) which allowed Detroit to complete and approved plan of debt adjustment and exit municipal bankruptcy. He added that said plan, thus, mandated the philanthropic community, the State of Michigan, and the City of Detroit to put up funding to offset significant proposed public pension cuts. The outcome of this plan of adjustment and its requisite flexibility and comprehensive nature, have proven durable: Prof. Scorsone said the City of Detroit’s finances have significantly improved, and the city is on track to have its oversight board, the Financial Review Commission (FRC) become dormant in 2018—adding that Detroit’s economic recovery since chapter 9 bankruptcy has been extraordinary: much better than could have been imagined five years ago. The city sports a budget surplus, basic services are being provided again, and people and businesses are returning to Detroit.

Harrison J. Goldin, the founder of Goldin Associates, focused his remarks on the near-bankruptcy of New York City in the 1970s, which he said is a unique case, but one with good lessons for other municipal and state leaders (Mr. Goldin was CFO of New York City when it teetered on the edge of bankruptcy). He described Gotham’s disarray in managing and tracking its finances and expenditures prior to his appointment as CFO, noting that the fiscal and financial crisis forced New York City to live within its means and become more transparent in its budgeting. At the same time, he noted, the fiscal crisis also forced difficult cuts to services: the city had to close municipal hospitals, reduce pensions, and close firehouses—even as it increased fees, such as requiring tuition at the previously free City University of New York system and raising bus and subway fares. Nevertheless, he noted: there was an upside: a stable financial environment paved the way for the city to prosper. Thus, he advised, the lesson of all of the municipal bankruptcies and near-bankruptcies he has consulted on is that a coalition of public officials, unions, and civic leaders must come together to implement the four steps necessary for financial recovery: “first, documenting definitively the magnitude of the problem; second, developing a credible multi-year remediation plan; third, formulating credible independent mechanisms for monitoring compliance; and finally, establishing service priorities around which consensus can coalesce.”

State Oversight & Severe Municipal Distress

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eBlog, 04/24/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the unique fiscal challenge confronting Detroit: when and how will it emerge from state oversight? Then we spin the tables to see how Atlantic City is faring to see if it might be on the shores of fiscal recovery; before going back to Detroit to assess the math/fiscal challenges of the state created public school district; then, still in Detroit, we try to assess the status of a lingering issue from the city’s historic municipal bankruptcy: access to drinking water for its lowest income families; before visiting Hartford, to try to gauge how the fiscally stressed central city might fare with the Connecticut legislature. Finally, we revisit the small Virginia municipality of Petersburg to witness a very unique kind of municipal finance for a city so close to insolvency but in need of ensuring the provision of vital, lifesaving municipal services. 

Fiscal & Physical Municipal Balancing. Michigan Deputy Treasurer Eric Scorsone is predicting that by “early next year, Detroit will be out of state oversight,” at a time when the city “will be financially stable by all indications and have a significant surplus.” That track will sync with the city’s scheduled emergence from state oversight, albeit apprehension remains with regard to whether the city has budgeted adequately  to set funds aside to anticipate a balloon pension obligation due in 2024. Nevertheless, Mr. Scorsone has deemed the Motor City’s post-bankruptcy transformation “extraordinary,” describing its achievements in meeting its plan of debt adjustment—as well as complying with the Detroit Financial Review Commission—so well that the “city could basically operate on its own.” He noted that the progress has been sufficient to permit the Commission to be in a dormancy state—subject to any, unanticipated deficits emerging. The Deputy Treasurer credited the Motor City’s strong management team under CFO John Hill both for the city’s fiscal progress, but also for his role in keeping an open line of communication with the state oversight board; he also noted the key role of Mayor Mike Duggan’s leadership for improving basic services such as emergency response times and Detroit’s public infrastructure. Nevertheless, Detroit remains subject to the state board’s approval of any contracts, operating or capital budgets, as well as formal revenue estimates—a process which the Deputy Treasurer noted “allows the city to stay on a strong economic path…[t]hese are all critical tools,” he notes, valuable not just to Detroit, but also to other municipalities an counties to help ensure “long term stability.”

On the Shore of Fiscal Recovery. S&P Global Ratings, which last month upgraded Atlantic City’s general obligation bond rating two notches to CCC in the wake of the city’s settlement with the Borgata Casino, a settlement which yielded the city some $93 million in savings, has led to a Moody’s rating upgrade, with the credit rating agency writing that Atlantic City’s proposed FY2017 budget—one which proposes some $35.3 million in proposed cuts, is a step in the right direction for the state taken-over municipality, noting that the city’s fiscal plan incorporates a 14.6% cut in its operating budget—sufficient to save $8 million, via reductions in salaries and benefits for public safety employees, $6 million in debt service costs, and $3 million in administrative expenses. Nevertheless S&P credit analyst Timothy Little cautioned that pending litigation with regard to whether Atlantic City can make proposed police and firefighter cuts could be a fly in the ointment, writing: “In our view, the proposed budget takes significant measures to improve the city’s structural imbalance and may lead to further improved credit quality; however, risks to fiscal recovery remain from pending lawsuits against state action impeding labor contracts.” The city’s proposed $206.3 million budget, indeed, marks the city’s first since the state takeover placed it under the oversight of the New Jersey’s Local Finance Board, with the state preemption giving the Board the authority to alter outstanding debt, as well as municipal contracts. Mr. Little wrote that this year will mark the first fiscal year of the agreed-to payment-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOT) program for casino gaming properties—a level set at $120 million annually over the next decade—out of which 10.4% will go to Atlantic County. Mr. Little also notes that the budget contains far less state financial support than in previous years, as the $30 million of casino redirected anticipated revenue received in 2015 and 2016 will be cut to $15 million; moreover, the budget includes no state transitional aid—denoting a change or drop of some $26.2 million; some of that, however, will be offset by a $15 million boost from an adjustment to the state Consolidated Municipal Property Tax Relief Act—or, as the analyst wrote: “Long-term fiscal recovery will depend on Atlantic City’s ability to continue to implement fiscal reforms, reduce reliance on nonrecurring revenues, and reduce its long-term liabilities.” Today, New Jersey state aid accounts for 34% of the city’s $206.3 million in budgeted revenue, 31% comes from casino PILOT payments, and 27% from tax revenues. S&P upgraded Atlantic City’s general obligation bond rating two notches to CCC in early March after the Borgata settlement yielded the city $93 million in savings. Moody’s rates Atlantic City debt at Caa3.

Schooled on Bankruptcy. While Detroit, as noted above, has scored high budget marks or grades with the state; the city’s school system remains physically and fiscally below grade. Now, according to the Michigan Department of Education, school officials plan to voluntarily shutter some of the 24 city schools—schools targeted for closure by the state last January, according to State Superintendent Brian Whiston, whose spokesperson, William DiSessa, at a State Board of Education meeting, said:  “Superintendent Whiston doesn’t know which schools, how many schools, or when they may close, but said that they are among the 38 schools threatened for closure by the State Reform Office earlier this year.” Mr. DiSessa added that “the decision to close any schools is the Detroit Public School Community District’s to make.” What that decision will be coming in the wake of the selection of Nikolai Vitti, who last week was selected to lead the Detroit Public Schools Community District. Mr. Vitti, 40, is currently Superintendent of the Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Florida, the 20th largest district in the nation; in the wake of the Detroit board’s decision last week to enter into negotiations with Mr. Vitti for the superintendent’s job, Mr. Vitti described the offer as “humbling and an honor.” The school board also voted, if Mr.Vitti accepts the offer, to ask him to begin next week as a consultant, working with a transition team, before officially commencing on July 1st. The School Board’s decision, after a search began last January, marks the most important decision the board has made during its brief tenure, in the wake of its creation last year and election last November after the Michigan Legislature in June approved $617-million legislation which resolved the debt of Detroit Public Schools via creating the new district, and retaining the old district for the sole purpose if collecting taxes and paying off debt.

The twenty-four schools slated for closure emerged from a list of 38 the State of Michigan had targeted last January—all from schools which have performed in the bottom 5 percent of the state for at least three consecutive years, according to the education department. The Motor City had hoped to avoid any such forced state closures—hoping against hope that by entering last month into partnership negotiations with the Michigan State Superintendent’s office, and working with Eastern Michigan University, the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, and Wayne State University, the four institutions would help set “high but attainable” goals at the 24 Detroit schools to improve academic achievement and decrease chronic absenteeism and teacher vacancies. The idea was that those goals would be evaluated after 18 months and again in 36 months, according to state officials. David Hecker, president of the American Federation of Teachers Michigan, noted that he was not aware which schools might be closing or how many; however, he noted that whatever happens to the teachers of the closing schools would be subject to the collective bargaining agreement with the Detroit Federation of Teachers. “If any schools close, it would absolutely be a labor issue that would be governed by the collective bargaining agreement as to how that will work … (and) where they will go,” Mr. Hecker said. “We very strongly are opposed to any school closing for performance reasons.”

Thirsty. A difficult issue—among many—pressed upon now retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes during Detroit’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy came as the Detroit Water and Sewer Department began shutting off water service to some of nearly 18,000 residential customers with delinquent accounts. Slightly less than a year ago, in the wake of numerous battles in Judge Rhodes’ then U.S. bankruptcy courtroom, the issue was again raised: what authority did the city of Detroit have to cut off the delivery of water to the thousands of its customers who were delinquent by more than 90 days? Thus it was that Detroit’s Water and Sewerage Department began shutting off service to customers who had failed to pay their bills—with, at the time, DWSD guesstimating about 20,000 of its customers had defaulted on their payments, and noting that the process of shutting off service to customers with unpaid bills was designed to be equitable and not focused on any particular neighborhood or part of the city—and that the agency was not targeting customers who owed less than a $150 and were only a couple of months behind, noting, instead: “We’re looking for those customers who we’ve repeatedly tried to reach and make contact,” as well as reporting that DWSD was reminding its delinquent customers who were having trouble paying their water bills to contact the department so they may be enrolled in one of its two assistance programs — the WRAP Fund or the “10/30/50” plan. Under the first, the WRAP Fund, customers who were at 150 percent of the poverty level or below could receive up to $1,000 a year in assistance in paying bills, plus up to $1,000 to fix minor plumbing issues leading to high usage. This week, DWSD is reporting it has resumed shutoffs in the wake of sending out notices, adding the department has payment and assistance plans to help those with delinquent accounts avoid losing service. Department Director Gary Brown told the Detroit Free Press that everyone “has a path to not have service interruption.” Indeed, it seems some progress has been achieved: the number of families facing shutoffs is down from 24,000 last April and about 40,000 in April of 2014, according to The Detroit News. In 2014, DWSD disconnected service to more than 30,000 customers due to unpaid bills, prompting protests over its actions. Nonetheless, DWSD began the controversial practice of shutting off water service again this week, this time to some of the nearly 18,000 residential customers with delinquent accounts, in the wake of notices sent out 10 days earlier, according to DWSD Director Gary Brown. Nevertheless, while 17,995 households are subject to having their water turned off, those residents who contact the water department prior to their scheduled shutoffs to make a payment or enter into an assistance plan will avoid being cut off—with experience indicating most do. And, the good gnus is that the number of delinquent accounts is trending down from the 24,302 facing a service interruption last April, according to DWSD. Moreover, this Solomon-like decision of when to shut off water service—since the issue was first so urgently pressed in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court before Judge Rhodes—has gained through experience. DWSD Director Brown reports that once residents are notified, about 90 percent are able to get into a plan and avoid being shut off, and adding that most accounts turned off are restored within 24 hours: “Every residential Detroit customer has a path not to be shut off by asking for assistance or being placed into a payment plan…I’m urging people not to wait until they get a door knocker to come in and ask for assistance to get in a payment plan.” A critical part of the change in how the city deals with shutoffs comes from Detroit’s launch two years ago of its Water Residential Assistance Program, or WRAP, a regional assistance fund created as a component of the Great Lakes Water Authority forged through Detroit’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy: a program designed to help qualifying customers in Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties who are at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level—which equates to $36,450 for a family of four—by covering one-third of the cost of their average monthly bill and freezing overdue amounts. Since a year ago, nearly $5 million has been dedicated to the program—a program in which 5,766 Detroit households are enrolled, according to DWSD, with a retention rate for those enrolled in the program of 90 percent. DWSD spokesperson Bryan Peckinpaugh told the Detroit News the department is committed to helping every customer keep her or his water on and that DWSD provides at least three advance notifications encouraging those facing a service interruption to contact the department to make payment arrangements, adding that the outreach and assistance efforts have been successful, with the number of customers facing potential service interruption at less than half of what it was three years ago.

Fiscally Hard in Hartford. Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin has acknowledged his proposed $612.9 FY2018 budget includes a nearly $50 million gap—with proposed expenditures at $600 million, versus revenues of just over $45 million: a fiscal gap noted moodily by four-notch downgrades to the Connecticut city’s general obligation bonds last year from two credit rating agencies, which cited rising debt-service payments, higher required pension contributions, health-care cost inflation, costly legal judgments from years past, and unrealized concessions from most labor unions. Moody’s Investors Service in 2016 lowered Hartford GOs to a junk-level Ba2. S&P Global Ratings knocked the city to BBB from A-plus, keeping it two notches above speculative grade. Thus, Mayor Bronin, a former chief counsel to Gov. Daniel Malloy, has repeated his request for state fiscal assistance, noting: “The City of Hartford has less taxable property than our suburban neighbor, West Hartford. More than half of our property is non-taxable.” In his proposed “essential services only” budget, Mayor Bronin is asking the Court of Common Council to approve an increase of about $60 million, or 11%, over last year’s approved budget—with a deadline for action the end of next month. An increasing challenge is coming from the stressed city’s accumulating debt: approximately $14 million, or 23%, of that increase is due to debt-service payments, while $12 million is for union concessions which did not materialize, according to the Mayor’s office. Gov. Malloy’s proposed biennial budget, currently in debate by state lawmakers, proposes $35 million of aid to Hartford. Unsurprisingly, that level is proving a tough sell to many suburban and downstate legislators. On the other hand, the Mayor appears to be gaining some traction after, last year, gaining an agreement with the Hartford Fire Fighters Association that might save the city $4 million next year: the agreement included changes to pension contributions and benefits, active and retiree health care, and salary schedules. In addition, last month, Hartford’s largest private-sector employers—insurers Aetna Inc., Travelers Cos. and The Hartford—agreed to donate $10 million per year to the city over five years. Nonetheless, rating agencies Moody’s and S&P have criticized the city for limited operating flexibility, weak reserves, narrowing liquidity, and its rising costs of debt service and pension obligations. Gurtin Municipal Bond Management went so far as to deem the city a “slow-motion train wreck,” adding that while the quadruple-notch downgrades had a headline shock effect, the city’s fundamental credit deterioration had been slow and steady. “The price impact of negative headlines and credit rating downgrades can be swift and severe, which begs the question: How should municipal bond investors and their registered investment advisors react?” Gurtin’s Alex Etzkowitz noted, in a commentary. “The only foolproof solution is to avoid credit distress in the first place by leveraging independent credit research and in-depth, ongoing surveillance of municipal obligors.”

Fighting for a City’s Future. The small city of Petersburg. Virginia, is hardly new to the stress of battle. It was there that General Robert E. Lee’s men fought courageously throughout the Overland Campaign, even as Gen. Lee feared he confronted a campaign he feared could not be won, warning his troops—and politicians: “We must destroy this Army of Grant’s before he gets to the James River. If he gets there, it will become a siege, and then it will be a mere question of time.” Yet, even as he wrote, General Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac was racing toward the James and Petersburg to wage an attack on the city—a highly industrialized city then of 18,000 people, with supplies arriving from all over the South via one of the five railroads or the various plank roads. Indeed, Petersburg was one of the last outposts: without it, Richmond, and possibly the entire Confederacy, was at risk. Today, the city, because of the city’s subpar credit rating, is at fiscal risk: it has been forced to beg its taxpayers to loan it funds for new emergency vehicles—officials are making a fiscal arrangement with private citizens to front the cost for new emergency vehicles, and offering to put up city hall as collateral for said arrangement, as an assurance to the lenders they will be paid back. The challenge: the police department currently needs 16 new vehicles, at a cost of $614,288; the fire department needs three new trucks, at a cost of $2,145,527. Or, as Interim City Manager Tom Tyrrell notes: “Every single day that a firefighter rolls out on a piece of equipment older than he is, or a police officer responds to an emergency call in a car with 160,000 miles on it, are days we want to avoid…We want to get this equipment as soon as possible.” Interim City Finance Director Nelsie Birch has included in the upcoming fiscal year budget the necessary funds to obtain the equipment—equipment Petersburg normally obtains via lease agreements with vendors, but which now, because of its inability to access municipal credit markets due to its “BB” credit rating with a negative outlook, makes it harder than ever to find any vendor—or, as Manager Tyrrell puts it: “We went out four different times…We solicited four different times to the market, and were unsuccessful in getting any parties to propose.” He added that when soliciting these types of agreements, you solicit “thousands of people.” Notwithstanding that the funds for the vehicles is already set aside in the upcoming budget, city officials have been unable to find anyone willing to enter into a lease agreement with the city because of the city’s financial woes.

Last week, the City Council authorized Mr. Tyrrell to “undertake emergency procurement action” in order for the lease of necessary fire and police vehicles, forcing Mr. Tyrrell and other officials to seek private funds to get the equipment—that is, asking individual citizens who have the financial means to put up money for the fire and police vehicles—or, as Mr. Tyrrell puts it: “We’ve reached out to four people, who are interested and capable,” noting they are property owners in Petersburg who will remain anonymous until the deal is closed, describing it thusly: “[This agreement] is outside the rules, because we couldn’t get a partner inside the rules.” Including in this proposed fiscal arrangement: officials must put up additional collateral, in addition to the cars themselves, and in the form of city-owned property—with the cornerstone of the proposal, as it were, being Petersburg City Hall, or, as Mr. Tyrrell notes: “What they’re looking for is some assurance that no matter what happens, we’re going to pay the note…It’s not a securitization in the financial sense, as much as it is in the emotional sense: they know that the city isn’t going to let it go.” He adds, the proposed financial arrangement will be evaluated in two areas: the interest rate and how fast the deal can close, adding: “Although it’s an emergency procurement, we still want to get the best deal we can.”

Challenges in Rebounding from Insolvency or Municipal Bankruptcy

eBlog, 02/27/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider new development plans for the insolvent, state-taken over Atlantic City, before turning to the post-chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy electoral challenges in Detroit—where the son of a former Mayor is challenging the current Mayor—and where the post-bankrupt city is seeking to confront its exceptional public pension obligations in a city with an upside down population imbalance of retirees to taxpayers.

Spinning the Fiscal Turnstile in Atlantic City? Since New Jersey’s Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA) developed its Tourism District master plan for Atlantic City five years ago, five casino have closed—casinos with assessed values of $11 billion. Those closures appeared to be the key fiscal destabilizers which plunged the city into near municipal bankruptcy and a state takeover. Now the Authority, which handles redevelopment projects and zoning in the Tourism District (The rest of Atlantic City is under the city’s zoning jurisdiction—albeit a city today taken over by the state, and where the Development Authority was given authority by the state over the Tourism District in 2011) has approved spending $2 million for refurbishing. Robert Mulcahy, the Chairman of the authority’s board of directors, states: “The master plan is done to streamline zoning, help eliminate red tape, encourage proper development in the appropriate district, and stimulate investment in commercial, entertainment, housing, and mixed-use properties…This provides a vision to what we want to do.” The proposed land-use regulations’ twenty-five objectives include providing a zoning scheme to stimulate development and maintain public confidence in the casino gaming industry as a unique tool of the city’s urban redevelopment. The new zones would allow for mixed use near the waterfront, and retail development around the Atlantic City Expressway and its waterfront under the state agency blueprint intended to make it easier for companies to turn old industrial buildings into commercial and waterfront areas, to build amusement rides off the Boardwalk, maybe even incentivize craft brewers and distillers to open businesses.  

CRDA Director Lance Landgraf noted: “The city last changed the zoning along the Boardwalk when casinos came in.” Similarly, Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian, who is a CRDA board member, noted: “If we talked 10 years ago about the Southeast Inlet, I think most people saw it as a Miami Beach with a bunch of high-rises that would go from Revel to Brigantine Inlet…Times have changed. People are now looking for mixed-use type of things, which is certainly what is important.” According to the proposed plan, the new tourism district would be intended to maximize recreational and entertainment opportunities, including the growing craft beer trend. Smaller breweries and distilleries have expressed interest in operating in the city, according to the draft plan, which notes it “seeks to reinvigorate the Atlantic City experience by enhancing the Boardwalk, beach and nearby streets through extensive entertainment and event programming; creating an improved street-level experience on major thoroughfares; offering new and dynamic retail offerings and increasing cleanliness and safety.”

Post Chapter 9 Leadership.  Coleman Young II, a state Senator in Michigan representing Detroit, sitting beneath a photograph of his late father and former Detroit Mayor Coleman Young, has officially launched his challenge against current Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, claiming the Motor City needs a leader who focuses on helping residents who are struggling with unemployment and other hardships, and criticizing Mayor Duggan for what he called a lack of attention to Detroit’s neighborhoods, noting: “We need change, and that is why I am running for mayor: I will do whatever it takes—blood, sweat, tears, and toil—and I will fight to the very end to make sure that justice is done for the City of Detroit…In announcing his challenge, Sen. Young recalled his father’s focus on jobs when he served as Detroit’s first black mayor: “I want to put people back to work just like my father, the honorable Coleman Alexander Young did…He is turning over in his grave right now!”

Interestingly, Sen. Young’s challenge came just days after last week’s formal State of the City address by Mayor Duggan—an address in which he focused on putting Detroiters to work and investing in neighborhoods—announcing a new city program, Detroit at Work, which is focused on training Detroit residents for available jobs—a speech which candidate Young, in his speech, deemed a “joke,” stating: “I think it’s kind of funny he waits for four years and now starts talking about the neighborhoods…As far as I’m concerned, he’s just somebody that’s in the way and needs to go. It’s time for change. It’s time for reform.” (Detroit’s primary will be in August; the election is Nov. 7th.)

Rebound? Whomever is elected next November in Detroit will confront lingering challenges from Detroit’s largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. That July 19th filing in 2013, which then Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr described  as “the Olympics of restructuring,” had been critical to ensuring continuity of essential services and critical to rebuilding an economy for the city—an economy besieged after decades of population decline (dropping from 1,849,568 in 1951 to 713,777 by 2010), leaving the city to confront an estimated 40,000 abandoned lots and structures and the loss of 67 percent of its business establishments and 80 percent of its manufacturing base. The city had spent $100 million more, on average, than its revenues since 2008. According to the census, 36 percent of its citizens were below the poverty level, and, the year prior to the city’s bankruptcy filing, Detroit reported the highest violent crime rate for any U.S. city with a population over 200,000. Thus, as the city’s first post-bankruptcy Mayor, Mayor Duggan has faced a city with vast abandoned properties.

Interestingly, Steve Tobocman, the Director of Global Detroit, an economic-development nonprofit which focuses on maximizing the potential of immigrants and the international community, said that enacting municipal policies which welcome foreign-born residents could be a critical strategy to reverse the population loss: “No American city has been able to rebound from population loss without getting serious about immigration growth…In 1980, 29 of the 50 largest cities lost population. Most of the cities that lost population have since reversed course due to an influx of immigrants. No American city has been able to rebound from population loss without getting serious about immigration growth.” Now that avenue could be closing with President Trump’s efforts to curtail immigration, especially from Mexico and the Middle East, leading Mr. Tobocman to note he had no reason to anticipate any help from Washington, D.C. in helping rebuild Detroit’s population, or energizing its economy, with immigrants. Rather, he warns, he is apprehensive that other policy promises, particularly the proposed border wall with Mexico, actively threaten Michigan’s economy: “Mexico is our second-largest trading partner after Canada…Metro Detroit is the largest metro area trading with Mexico. One hundred thousand jobs are supported by our trade with Mexico.”

Upside Down Fiscal Challenge. A key challenge to Detroit, because of the inverted fiscal pyramid creating by its population decline, is there are far fewer paying into to Detroit’s public pension system, against far more receiving post-retirement pensions, sort of an upside down fiscal dilemma—and one which, increasingly, confronts the city’s fiscal future. Now Mayor (and Candidate) Duggan has announced a plan he believes will help Detroit to city meet its 2024 balloon payment on its public pension obligation, or, as Detroit Chief Financial Officer John Hill puts it, a plan designed to be more than adequate to address the looming future payment of more than $100 million owed beginning in 2024: “What the mayor is proposing is that we take money now and put into a pension protection fund and then use that money in 2024 and beyond to help make some of those payments: So part of the money would come from the budget, and the other would come from the fund,” describing the provisions in Detroit’s plan of debt adjustment for down payments to the city’s pension obligation in Mayor Duggan’s $1 billion general fund budget for the 2017-18 fiscal year the Mayor presented to the Detroit City Council at the end of last week. Mr. Hill said that the payment plan would give the city budget longer to catch up to the $132 million it would have to pay going forward, describing it as “really a way for us to proactively address the future pension obligation payment and not wait to deal with it down the road.”

However, there appears to be a fiscal fly in the ointment: last year, in his 2016 State of the City speech, Mayor Duggan said that consultants who advised the city through its chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy had miscalculated the city’s pension deficit by $490 million—actuarial estimates at the time which projected a payment of $111 million in 2024—a figure subsequently increased by the actuary to $194.4 million—leading Mayor Duggan to assert that the payment had been “concealed” from him by former Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr during the city’s bankruptcy, with, according to the Mayor, Mr. Orr’s team using overly optimistic assumptions which made Detroit’s future pension payout obligations appear artificially low. The revised estimates have since forced the city to address the large future payment, beginning in FY2016, when the city set aside $20 million and another $10 million to start its pension trust fund, with the payment coming in addition to the $20 million contribution to the legacy plans the city is mandated to make under Detroit’s plan of debt adjustment. Now Mayor Duggan is proposing Detroit set aside an additional $50 million from a general fund surplus and another $10 million into the trust fund this year: the city projects it will have $90 million in the trust at the end of FY2017. In the following fiscal years, the city is proposing to add another $15 million to the fund, $20 million in FY2019, $45 million in FY2020, $50 million in FY2021, $55 million in FY2022, and $60 million for FY2023. Or, as Detroit Finance Director John Naglick describes it: “All total, we propose that the City would deposit $335 million into the trust fund through the end of FY23, with interest, the fund is projected to grow to $377 million.” Mr. Naglick adds that Detroit expects that the general fund would be required to contribute a total of $143.2 million beginning in FY2024: “We propose to make that payment by pulling $78.5 million out of the trust and appropriating $64.7 million from the general fund that year.” CFO Hill noted that by addressing the 2024 obligation payment with the plan, Detroit would remain on track to exit state oversight as projected, stating: “We believe that after we have executed three balanced budgets and met a number of other requirements that the Detroit Review Commission could vote to waive their oversight…We believe that one of the factors that they are going to want to see to support that waiver is that we have proactively dealt with the pension obligations in 2024.” There could, however, be a flaw in the ointment: Mayor Duggan warned last week that Detroit may decide to sue Mr. Orr’s law firm, Jones Day, if the city finds that Mr. Orr had an obligation to keep the city informed on the pension payments.