Returning from Municipal Bankruptcy

February 7, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the remarkable signs of fiscal recovery from the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, before returning to consider the ongoing fiscal recovery of Atlantic City, where the chips had been down, but where the city’s elected leaders are demonstrating resiliency.

Taking the Checkered Flag. John Hill, Detroit’s Chief Financial Officer, this week reported the Motor City had realized its first net increase in residential property values in more than 15 years. Although property taxes, unlike in most cities and counties, in Detroit only account for 17.1% of municipal revenues (income taxes bring in 20.4%), the increase marked the first such increase in 16 years—demonstrating not just the fiscal turnaround, but also indicating the city’s revitalization is spreading to more of its neighborhoods. Mr. Hill described it as a “positive sign of the recovery that’s occurring in the city,” and another key step to its emergence from strict state fiscal oversight under the city’s chapter 9 plan of debt adjustment. As Mr. Hill put it: “We do believe that we’ve hit bottom, and we’re now on the way up.” Nevertheless, Mr. Hill was careful to note he does not anticipate significant gains in property tax revenues in the immediate future, rather, as he put it: “[O]ver time, it will certainly have a very positive impact on the city’s revenue.” According to the city, nearly 60 percent of residents will experience a rise of 10 percent or less in assessments this year: the average assessed home value in Detroit is between $20,000 and $50,000. The owner of a home within that range could see an increase in their taxes this year of $22 to $34, according to Alvin Horhn, the city’s chief assessor. Detroit has the seventh highest rate among Michigan municipalities, with a 70.1 mills rate for owner-occupied home in city of Detroit/Detroit school district. Mr. Hill noted that for Detroit properties which show an increase in value this year, the rate will be capped; therefore he projects residents will not experience significant increases except for certain circumstances, such as a property changing hands.

Nevertheless, in the wake of years in which the city’s assessing office had reduced assessments across Detroit to reflect the loss in property values, the valuation or assessment turnaround comes as, in the past decade, the cumulative assessed value of all residential property was $8.4 billion, officials noted Monday: and now it is on the rise: last year, that number was $2.8 billion; this year, the assessed value of Detroit’s 263,000 residential properties rose slightly to $3 billion—or, as Mr. Horhn noted: “For the last 12 to 17 years, we’ve been making massive cuts in the residential (property) class to bring the values in line with the market…It’s been a long ride, but for the first time in a very long time, we see increases in the residential class of property in the city of Detroit.” This year’s assessments come in the wake of a systemic, citywide reassessment of its properties to bring them in line with market value—a reassessment initiated four years ago as part of a state overhaul to bring Detroit’s assessment role into compliance with the General Property Tax Act to ensure all assessments are at one half of the market value and that like properties are uniform. That overhaul imposed a deadline of this August for Detroit to comply with state oversight directives imposed in 2014 in the wake of mismanagement in Detroit’s Assessment Division, widespread over-assessments, and rampant tax delinquencies in the wake of an investigation finding that Detroit was over assessing homes by an average of 65%, based upon an analysis of more than 4,000 appeal decisions by a state tax board. Mr. Hill asserts now that he is confident Detroit’s assessments are fair; better yet, he reports the fixes have led to more residents paying property taxes. Indeed, city officials note that property tax collections increased from an average rate of 69% in 2012-14 to 79 percent in 2015, and 80 percent in 2016; the collection rate for 2017 is projected to be 82%. Mayor Mike Duggan, in a statement at the beginning of the week, noted: “We still have a long way to go to in rebuilding our property values, but the fact that we have halted such a long, steep decline is a significant milestone…This also corresponds with the significant increase in home sale prices we have seen in neighborhoods across the city.”

At the same time, Mr. Horhn notes that Detroit’s commercial properties have increased in value to nearly $3 billion, while industrial properties recovered from a drop last year, rising from $314 million to $513 million. He added that the demolition of blighted homes, as well as improving city services, had contributed to the rise in assessed property values: “It’s perception to a large extent: If people believe things are improving, they’ll invest, and I think that’s what we’re seeing.”

Raking in the Chips? In the wake of a state takeover, and the loss—since 2014, of 11,000 jobs in the region, Atlantic City marked a new step in its fiscal recovery with interviews commencing for the former bankrupt Trump Taj Mahal casino to reopen this summer as a Hard Rock casino resort. Indeed, 1,400 former Taj Mahal employees applied after an invitational event, marking what Hard Rock president Matt Harkness described as the “first brush stroke of the renaissance.” The casino is projected to create more than 3,000 jobs—and to be followed by the re-opening Ocean Resort Casino, which will add thousands of additional jobs. The rising revenues come after, last year, gambling revenue increased for the second consecutive year, marking a remarkable turnaround in the wake of a decade in which five of the city’s 12 casinos shut down, eliminating 11,000 jobs—and, from the fiscal perspective, sharply hurt assessed property values and property tax revenues. New Jersey Casino Control Commission Chair James Plousis noted: “Every single casino won more, and every internet operation reported increased win last year…Total internet win had its fourth straight year of double-digit increases. It shows an industry that is getting stronger and healthier and well-positioned for the future.” In fact, recent figures by the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement show the seven casinos won $2.66 billion in 2017, an increase of 2.2 percent over 2016. Christopher Glaum, Deputy Chief of Financial Investigations for the gaming enforcement division, noted that 2017 was the first year since 2006 when a year-over-year increase in gambling revenue at brick-and-mortar casinos occurred. Moreover, many are betting on the recovery to gain momentum: two of the five casinos which were shuttered in recent years are due to reopen this summer: the Taj—as reported above—under its new ownership, and the Revel, which closed in 2014, will reopen as the Ocean Resort Casino. The fiscal bookies are, however, uncertain about the odds of the reintroduction of two new casinos, apprehensive that that could over saturate the market; however, the rapid increase in internet gaming, which, last year, increased earnings for the casinos by 25 percent appear to demonstrate momentum.  

Now, the fiscal challenge might rest more at the state level, where the new administration of Gov. Phil Murphy, who promised major spending initiatives during his campaign, had been counting on revenue increases from restoring the income tax surcharge on millionaires and legalizing and taxing marijuana. The latter, however, could go up in a proverbial puff of weed—and, in any event, would arrive too late for this year’s Garden State budget. Similarly, the new federal “tax reform” act’s capping on the deduction for state and local taxes will mean increased federal income taxes most for well-off residents of high-tax states such as New Jersey—raising apprehension that a new state surcharge might encourage higher income residents to leave. That effort, however, has been panned by the New Jersey Policy Perspective, which notes: “Policy changes to avoid the new $10,000 cap on state and local tax deductions would mostly benefit New Jersey’s wealthiest families.” New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Depford) notes: “We don’t have a tax problem in New Jersey. New Jersey collects plenty in taxes. We have a government problem in New Jersey, and it’s called too much of it,” noting he has tasked a panel of fellow state Senators and tax experts to “looking at everything,” including the deduction issue. In addition, he is seriously considering shifting to countywide school districts, where possible, in an effort to reduce costs. Or, as he put it: “There is a lot of money to be saved when you do things differently.” Turning to efforts to restore Atlantic City’s finances, the state Senate President said the city is “doing great;” nevertheless, noting that talk about ending the state takeover is unrealistic: “We can adjust certain things there” and Governor Murphy will select someone new to be in charge. But end the state takeover?  “Absolutely not and it’s legislated for five years.”

It seems ironic that in the city where Donald Trump’s company filed for bankruptcy protection five times for the casinos he owned or operated in the city, he was able to simply walk away from his debts: he argued that he had simply used federal bankruptcy laws to his advantage—demonstrating, starkly, the difference between personal and municipal bankruptcy.

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The Raceway to Recovery

Taking the Checkered Flag. Detroit, on the verge of posting its third consecutive balanced budget, appears on course to exit state oversight as early as next year in the wake of yesterday’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) demonstrating the Motor City has steadied its finances after emerging more than three years ago from the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. The state’s Detroit Financial Review Board could vote to waive its authority over the city as early as next month, according to Detroit Chief Financial Officer John Hill, who noted: “We believe we have met all the criteria for the waiver…I believe this will be the last budget that will be done under the FRC’s authority.” The CAFR, officially released Wednesday, appears to support the city’s hopes to soon regain full authority over its own finances: The report notes that Detroit ended its FY2017 with a $53.8 million general fund operating surplus and revenues exceeding expenditures by $108.6 million—even better than the city had originally projected: it ended its most recent fiscal year with a $63 million surplus—as well as a general fund unassigned fund balance of $169 million, better than 15% increase from the previous fiscal year, leading CFO Hill, as he prepares to present the results to the commission at a meeting later this month, to note: “It allows us to have a really good base of information as we are going into our budget process…It also gives us a chance to address some of the items that are identified as things we need to work on.” Mr. Hill added that Detroit has demonstrated vast improvements in its financial health, citing credit rating agency upgrades from rating agencies, a higher employment rate, and enhanced assessed property values: “I have to say that certainly there has been a positive impact from the financial review commission oversight: It’s been a real constructive process where the city has excelled.”

For his part, Mayor Mike Duggan noted that a third straight balanced budget proves his administration, in partnership with the City Council can “effectively manage the city’s finances: “This is another big step forward and helps set the stage for the end of the active state financial oversight,” as the Mayor preps to present the new budget later this month. Detroit Financial Review Commission member “Ike” McKinnon also credited the leadership role Mayor Duggan deserved for with getting the city’s finances back on track: “I remember when Mike Duggan took over as Mayor, we certainly had some hope and thoughts that things would happen…I did not know that it would happen this quickly. This says a lot about what he’s doing and certainly working with the state.”

The state’s financial review commission could vote to waive its authority over the city as early as next month, according to Mr. Hill. Zin any event, even if it does not, Detroit would no longer require the state board’s approval on budgeting or contracts, as it has since exiting chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. As Mr. Hill put it: “We believe we have met all the criteria for the waiver…I believe this will be the last budget that will be done under the FRC’s authority.”

Key highlights of Detroit’s CAFR include the Motor City ending FY2017 fiscal year with a $53.8 million general fund operating surplus and revenues exceeding expenditures by $108.6 million. (The City had projected a $51 million surplus for FY2017). Detroit’s general fund unassigned fund balance will be $169 million, a $26 million increase from the previous fiscal year, according to the report. 

Detroit has also reported improvements in its management of $100 million in federal grants with no questioned costs resulting from audits, for the second consecutive year—after, two years ago, the city had federal funding for blight demolition funding suspended for two months due to procedural errors. Thus, hopes are high for the release from state oversight, albeit, concerns remain with regard to the looming 2024 pension payment and subsequent debt restructuring the following year. Mr. Hill notes: “I am sure that the FRC, as well as the city–because we are dealing with those issues, will be looking at those two items to make sure that plans are in place, money has been put aside, and the budget is able to absorb the additional costs that will come in those years.” Detroit is confronted by challenges to amortize debt payments on roughly $630 million of B notes that would see payments jump from $60 million to $120 million by 2025—notes issued as part of the implementation of Detroit’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy plan of debt adjustment—notes which are unsecured. Indeed, pending before the City Council is a proposal pending to dedicate $50 million from the city coffers to pay begin paying off the debt. Going forward, according to Mr. Hill, the strategy would be to dedicate a combination of restructuring some of the debt as well as paying it off, with the effort to address pension obligations a critical component to shoring up Detroit’s long-term fiscal health. The Motor City’s  long-term funding model approved by the City Council to modify its pension provisions which established the Retiree Protection Trust Fund, and deposited $105 million–$90 million from amounts reserved in FY2016 and 2017, plus $15 million appropriated in Fiscal 2018—and, for FY2018-2021 including the addition of an additional $115 million, contemplates another $115 million from FY2022–FY2023.

The Motor City’s Road to Recovery

eBlog

January 17, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the ongoing fiscal recovery in Detroit from the nation’s largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy.

The City of Detroit, which filed for municipal bankruptcy protection on July 19, 2013—in what remains the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, in what then-Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr described as “the Olympics of restructuring,” a step he took to ensure continuity of essential services and critical to rebuilding the Motor City, continues on its resurgent comeback, with last years home sales ending on a high note. After decades of population decline (In 1950, there were 1,849,568 people in Detroit; by 2010, there were 713,777), the city reported the median sales price increased from last year to this year by nearly 50%. Realcomp Ltd. Data, moreover, indicates continued increases in assessed values this year: median sales prices increased from $159,000 in 2016 to $170,000 last year, while average days listed declined from 74 a year ago in December to 44 last month. Realcomp Board of Governor David Elya predicts demand and market listing will increase further this year, noting the Motor City is experiencing a higher inventory crunch due to higher demand—demand driven by a solid employment outlook—a remarkable turnaround from the onset of its chapter 9 filing, when the Motor City was home to an estimated 40,000 abandoned lots and structures: between 1978 and 2007, Detroit lost 67 percent of its business establishments and 80 percent of its manufacturing base. Or, as the insightful Billy Hamilton wrote at the time: the city was “either the ghost of a lost time and place in America, or a resource of enormous potential.”

Detroit, which relies on taxes and state-shared revenues higher than those of any other large Michigan municipality on a per capita basis, derives its revenues from a broader base than most municipalities: property taxes, income tax, utility taxes, a casino wagering tax, and state-shared revenues. Notwithstanding, its revenues, prior to its filing, had declined over the previous decade by 22 percent, even as it was accruing more debt based on obligations for post-employment benefits. The city’s decline into chapter 9 predated the housing crisis, or, as the Citizens Research Council reported: the overall loss of 15,648 business establishments from 1972 until 2007 did not capture the effects of the severe 2008 recession, much less the bankruptcies and subsequent recovery of General Motors and Chrysler and the restructuring of the automotive supplier network, on the number of businesses in the city.

Nevertheless, persistence, along with the sharp recovery of the automobile markets, combined with the city’s being home to one of the broadest tax bases of any city in the U.S. [Municipal income taxes constitute the city’s largest single source, contributing about 21 percent of total revenue in 2012, or $323.5 million in 2002, the last year in which the city realized a general fund surplus.] appears to have been instrumental in the remarkable turnaround.

The Precipitous Chapter 9 Road to Recovery

January 3, 2018

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s Blog, we consider the fiscal, scholastic, and governing challenges of the city emerging from the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

The Steep Fiscal Road to Recovery.  After years of failed leadership, financial mismanagement, quasi-chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy which led to a state takeover; the state of Detroit’s Public Schools Community District remains vital to encouraging young families to move back into the city—especially in the wake, last month, of DPS failing to meet critical deadlines necessary to be eligible for vital state aid.  (In 2016, Michigan enacted a $617 million DPS bailout, as we have previously noted.) That action separated the district’s debt from a new district that could start fresh. Now, renewed state intervention would be a critical fiscal step backwards; thus it is fortunate that Superintendent Nikolai Vitti appears to be on top of the situation: he warns that disciplinary action will follow in the wake of DPS’ failure to meet these deadlines, making it critical the Superintendent can trust his staff. It is especially vital now in the wake of a second credit rating upgrade—with the report card having recorded, last month, that DPS that Detroit Public Schools had lost out on $6.5 million in fiscal assistance to whittle down its old debt, because DPS officials had failed to turn in paperwork homework on time, according to Superindent Vitti (Michigan reimburses its public school districts for debt loss under Public Act 86 if they met the Aug. 15 deadline; thus, Superindent Vitte, on Monday, reported: “At this point, Detroit Public Schools is not eligible for the $6.5 million-dollar reimbursement from the state…After speaking with state officials, the available funds have already been disbursed to other qualifying entities. However, we will continue to petition the state to receive the reimbursement.”

Under the agreement, Detroit’s old district is still obligated to pay down its past operating debt; thus, the system’s failure to meet two deadlines last year cost not $6.5 million in aid from the state to help pay down its debt, but also a loss of public trust and confidence. As Superintendent Vitte noted last month: “At this point, Detroit Public Schools is not eligible for the $6.5 million-dollar reimbursement from the state: After speaking with state officials, the available funds have already been disbursed to other qualifying entities.” According to Superintendent Vitti, former CFO Marios Demetriou received the documents, but never completed them or sent them to the state. Even though the missed payout from the state is not expected to harm the day-to-day operations of the new district, it appears to curry a D grade; more importantly, it delays repayment of DPS’ legacy debt—or, as Superintendent Vitti notes: it is “unacceptable….The inability to submit the reimbursement form on time is a vestige of the past that continues to haunt the district…This is directly associated with the need for stronger leaders, systems, and processes. The individuals who were closest to the responsibility to submit the form will no longer be with the district.”

The unscholarly missteps appear to have contributed to ongoing doubts about the city’s fiscal acumen: The Motor City’s credit ratings remain deep in junk-bond territory, even after S&P Global Ratings last month upgraded Detroit’s credit rating from B to B+, while Moody’s last October had lifted its to B1 in the wake of the city’s launch of a new web portal to improve investor access to its financial data and bond offerings, Stephen Winterstein, a Managing Director and chief municipal fixed income strategist at Wilmington Trust Investment Advisors, Inc. to note he was “really optimistic about what they have been doing in terms of disclosure and the investor website is definitely a move in the right direction: The road to recovery is a long one, and I think that Detroit is doing the right things.”

Since exiting from the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in American history just three years ago last month, Detroit has issued debt twice: in August 2015 with $245 million of local government loan program revenue bonds, and in August 2016 with a $615 million general obligation/distributable state aid backed bond sale—albeit both issuances were via the Michigan Finance Authority, with the first enhanced with a statutory lien and intercept feature on the city’s income taxes. CFO John Naglick said that Detroit is also close to deciding on the underwriting team for a request for proposals it launched in October to find banks to lead a tender offer and refunding of its unsecured financial recovery municipal bonds with the aim of lowering its costs and easing a future escalation of debt service. For its part, S&P, in its upgrade, cited positive momentum the city is building with regard to stabilizing its operations and being better prepared to address future significant increases in pension contributions—or, as the agency noted: “We believe the city’s financial position is now more transparent compared with recent years, as is Detroit’s long-term financial strategy, which relies on fairly conservative growth assumptions…We also believe that the city has a stronger capacity to service its debt obligations than in years past.” Indeed, Detroit’s credit ratings are the highest since March of 2012, just over a year before Kevin Orr filed for chapter 9 bankruptcy in July of 2013. Nevertheless, Detroit’s credit rating remains deep in junk territory and vulnerable to another recession, say market participants. Or, as Michigan Attorney General and gubernatorial Bill Scheutte notes: “We still believe Detroit faces a long path that will require years of prudent decision-making from management and the avoidance of major economic shocks before its debt makes sense for investors looking for high-quality municipal exposure…The city still has an abundance of extremely high-risk characteristics and speculative-grade qualities that investors should be very cognizant of and understand what they are taking on.” Notwithstanding, Detroit appears to be on course to exit state oversight this year: it has presented deficit-free budgets for two consecutive years, enabling it to exit from oversight by the Financial Review Commission oversight; it ended FY2016 with a $63 million surplus; Detroit’s four-year forecast predicts an anemic annual growth rate of only about 1%; thus, any adverse public school news could have repercussions.

 

Getting Schooled on Disaster

December 15, 2017

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s Blog, we consider the fiscal and governing challenges of a city emerging from a quasi-state takeover—and report on continuing, discouraging blocks to Puerto Rico’s fiscal recovery.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

The Steep Fiscal Road to Recovery. Detroit’s Cerveny – Grandmont neighborhood, where median household income has declined by 5 percent since 2000 and average household incomes are under $38,000—and median home sale prices are just over $51,000, this week was one of 10 areas in the Motor City yesterday was cited in a report, “Reset, Rethink, Rebuild: A Shared Vision of Performing Schools in Quality Buildings for Every Child in Detroit”  a study about neighborhoods, educational opportunity, and the conditions of public school buildings, as one of ten neighborhoods wherein it is nearly impossible to find a quality school. Indeed, the report determined that the problem is deeper than just those 10 neighborhoods: Only 20 percent of the children enrolled in a public school in the city, whether charter or traditional public, are attending a quality school: a discouraging, failing grade with implications for both assessed property values and Detroit’s budget. Chris Uhl, the Executive Director of the eastern region for IFF, which published the study, noted: “The fact that four out of five kids in this city” are not attending a quality school “is pretty horrifying to me…that…should catalyze action.” The report notes that nearly half of the space in school buildings in the city is underutilized. A key recommendation of the report was that greater coordination is needed between leaders of the Detroit Public School System and the authorizers of charter schools—presumably including the current U.S. Secretary of Education. (Currently, only Grand Valley State University and Central Michigan University are authorized to open new charters in the city, but there are a number of other authorizers with schools in the city.)  IFF’s recommendations are similar last week’s report by the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren.

In its report, the IFF identified quality schools using Michigan’s less than clear, but outdated quality schools color-coded accountability system–a system due to be replaced next year: a part of that old system provided for the assignment of five colors, based on how well students achieved academic goals. Of the city’s 178 general education public schools, just 2.4% received the equivalent of an A.  The report makes clear that the steep road back from the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy requires a greater focus on the next generation’s future: schools good enough to attract families back into the city—attracted by a good school to enroll their children. Today, too few of them exist—or, as the report notes: Detroit needs nearly 70,000 more seats available in quality schools to ensure that every child has access to such a school. Tonya Allen, President and CEO of the Skillman Foundation, which funded the research, noted: “We’re not meeting the demand, which leaves us vulnerable to leakages: for students to leave the city to go to school in the suburbs.”

A Taxing Recovery? Just as Puerto Ricans were treated unequally by the federal response to hurricane devastation compared to Houston and Florida, so too there is apprehension that the tax “reform” legislation nearing completion in Congress—especially as there is growing apprehension that Congress could move towards adopting a territorial tax system for businesses—that is a new tax system which would treat Puerto Rico as a foreign country with respect to the numerous foreign subsidiaries of U.S. corporations which operate there. Puerto Rico Secretary of Economic Development and Commerce Manuel Laboy Rivera is apprehensive that subsidiaries of U.S. corporations which receive favorable treatment under current federal law could find the emerging federal tax reform would impose a new 20 percent federal excise tax on all pharmaceuticals, medical devices, and other products shipped to the mainland—that is a new, discriminatory tax—which would be in addition to the Jones Act provisions which render Puerto Rico unable to compete fairly vis-à-vis other Caribbean competitor nations—even as Puerto Rico is subject to the federal minimum wage and other federal regulations involving workplace safety and environmental protection. Indeed, last December, a bipartisan congressional task force had recommended changes in the tax treatment of the U.S. territory with the Congressional Task Force on Economic Growth writing: “Puerto Rico is too often relegated to an afterthought in Congressional deliberations over federal business tax reform legislation. The task force recommends that Congress make Puerto Rico integral to any future deliberations over tax reform.” Among the recommendations: a modification of the federal child tax credit to include the first and second children of families living in Puerto Rico, not just the third as specified under current law; the report also recommended making permanent the so-called rum cover-over payments to the governments of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The task force, however, was divided with regard to whether to fully expand the eligibility of Puerto Rican families for the Earned Income Tax Credit. The report recommended that a domestic business production credit known as Section 199 that has covered Puerto Rico since 2006 should be maintained as long as Section 199 continues. Now, however, that credit has been targeted for elimination in the pending tax reform negotiations as they enter their final hours. Under the discriminatory treatment, for federal tax purposes, Puerto Rico is considered outside the U.S. tax code, even though for virtually all other issues the island is treated as a domestic part of the U.S. For the purposes of federal tax reform, however, Senate Finance Committee Chair Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said during the Finance Committee’s deliberations that Puerto Rico’s tax issues would be handled in separate legislation. So, it seems that for Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, where 20% to 40% of all businesses are at risk of being shuttered in the wake of the hurricane and its ensuing devastation for the economy because of challenges ranging from the lack of electricity to loss of inventory, physical damage to their facilities, business interruption, and lack of capital; the message from Congress is to wait for next year.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Tx.) has informed reporters that he and other lawmakers are considering several options for Puerto Rico—especially in the wake of meeting with Resident Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez, Puerto Rico’s non-voting Representative in Congress, to discuss her request to consider making Puerto Rico an economic opportunity zone or empowerment zone—provisions adopted by Congress to abet economic recovery in hard-hit cities and counties. Thus, a change would be to treat Puerto Rico similarly—as if it were, gasp, a part of the United States for federal tax purposes and eligible for the same treatment. Likewise, tax reform could have been a vehicle for Congress to eliminate or reduce the discriminatory 20% excise tax on goods from Puerto Rico—a tax which undercuts Puerto Rico’s ability to compete with Cuba, and other countries in the region.

Even as the tax reform-deficit/debt increase legislation has swiftly moved towards the President’s desk, in New York, U.S. Judge Laura Taylor Swain, presiding over Puerto Rico’s quasi-chapter 9 case, heard from attorneys for the Employees Retirement System and the Puerto Rico Oversight Board—with the critical issue what claims of Puerto Rico’s bondholders are valid. PROMESA Oversight Board attorney Steven Weise said the 2008 Financing Statements governing Puerto Rico’s municipal bonds did not provide bondholders any collateral, arguing that the bondholders’ written arguments quoted from legal rulings about “security agreements,” but that what is allowed in these agreements are not allowed in Financing Statements—adding that the system’s legal name changed in the last several years, but that bondholders had failed to properly follow-up on this development—a failure which meant, at least as he argued, that the system should not be legally obligated to pay interest on the municipal bonds—even as Bruce Bennett, representing bondholders, told Judge Swain the bondholders had a lien on employer contributions, based on multiple commitments, arguing that the 2008 Financing Statements gave the bondholders the lien. He said errors in the document were not of such gravity to merit undercutting to undercut the bondholders’ claims—and adding that the Spanish name of the system had not changed, and that the change in the English name was just a translation change—a change without legal significance. Moreover, he noted, that along with the Financing Statements, a parallel “security agreement” had been created in 2008 and this perfected the lien; further, he argued, the 2015 and 2016 Financing Statements also assured the bondholders’ lien on the employer contributions.

Where Are the Lights? U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Lieutenant General Todd Semonite, the commanding General and Chief Engineer for the Corps reports that Puerto Rico’s electrical grid is unlikely to be fully restored until the end of May, a far more pessimistic timeline that suggested by Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello, who Wednesday stated he expects Puerto Rico’s electric grid to reach 75 percent of customers by the end of January—and 95 percent by the end of February—and 100 percent by the end of May. Adding to the dissonance, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority last month pledged service would reach 95 percent of customers by the end of this month—even though, as of Wednesday, just 61 percent of electricity had been restored.  

Federal Tax Reform in a Post-Chapter 9 Era

December 4, 2017

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s Blog, we consider the fiscal and governing challenges that the pending federal tax “reform” legislation might have for the nation’s city emerging from the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history, before returning to the governance challenges in Puerto Rico.  

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

Harming Post Chapter 9 Recovery? As the House and Senate race, this week, to conference on federal tax legislation, the potential fiscal impact on post chapter 9 Detroit provides grim tidings. The proposed changes would eliminate federal tax credits vital to Detroit’s emergency from chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy; the elimination of low-income housing tax credits would reduce financing options for the city: the combination, because it would adversely affect business investment and development, could undercut the pace of the city’s recovery. Most at risk are historic rehabilitation and low income housing tax credits: the House version of the tax “reform” legislation proposes to eliminate historic tax credits—the Senate version would reduce them by 50%; both versions propose the elimination of new market tax credits. The greatest threat is the potential elimination of the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LITC), proposed by the House, potentially undercutting as much as 40% of the current financing for low income housing in the Motor City. While both the House and Senate versions retain a 9% low income housing tax credit, the credit, as proposed, would limit how much the Michigan State Housing Development Agency may award on an annual basis—putting as much as $280 million at risk. According to the National Housing Conference, the production of low income housing could decline by as much as 50%. The combined impact could leave owners and developers of low income housing with fewer options for rehabilitation—an impact potentially with disproportionate omens for post-chapter 9 municipalities such as Detroit.   

Is There Promise or Democracy in PROMESA? Since the imposition by Congress of the PROMESA, quasi-chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy legislation, under which a board named by former President Obama appointed seven voting members, with Gov. Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló serving as an ex officio member, but with no voting rights—there have been singular disparities, including between the harsh fiscal measures imposed on the U.S. territory, measures imposing austerity for Puerto Rico, even as the PROMESA Executive Director receives an annual salary of $625,000—an amount 500% greater than the executive director of Detroit’s chapter 9 bankruptcy oversight board, and some $225,000 more than the President of the United States—with Puerto Rico’s taxpayers footing the tab for what is perceived as an unelected board acting as an autocratic body which threatens to undermine the autonomy of Puerto Rico’s government. Unsurprisingly, the Congressional statute includes few incentives for transparency, much less accountability to the citizens and taxpayers of Puerto Rico. Indeed, when the Center for Investigative Journalism and the Legal Clinic of the Interamerican University Law School, attorneys Judith Berkan, Steven Lausell, Luis José Torres, and Annette Martínez—both in one case before the San Juan Superior Court and in another before federal Judge Jay A. García-Gregory, as well as the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press submitted an amicus brief seeking clarification with regard to the legal standards of transparency and accountability which should be applied to the board, the PROMESA Board asserted that the right of access to information does not apply to it. 

Governance in Insolvency. As we have followed the different and unique models of chapter 9 and insolvencies from Central Falls, Rhode Island, through San Bernardino, Stockton, Detroit, Jefferson County, etc., it has been respective state laws—or the absence thereof—which have determined the critical role of governance—whether it be guided via a federal bankruptcy court, a state oversight board, in large part determined by the original authority under the U.S. system of governance whereby the states—because they created the federal government—individually determine the eligibility of municipalities to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. In Puerto Rico, sort of a hybrid, being neither a state, nor a municipality, the issue of governing oversight is paving new ground. Thus, in Puerto Rico, it has opened the question with regard to whether the Governor or Congress ought to have the authority to name an oversight board—a body—whether overseeing the District of Colombia, New York City, Detroit, Central Falls, Atlantic City, etc.—to exercise oversight in the wake of insolvency. Such boards, after all, can protect a jurisdiction from pressures by partisan and outside actors. Moreover, the appointment of experts with both experience and expertise not subject to voters’ understandable angst can empower such appointed—and presumably expert officials, to take on complex fiscal and financial questions, including debt restructuring, access to the municipal markets, and credit.  Moreover, because appointed board members are not affected by elections, they are in a sometimes better position to impose austerity measures—measures which would likely rarely be supported by a majority of voters—or, as former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry said the District of Columbia oversight Board, it “was able to do some things that needed to be done that, politically, I would not do, would not do, would not do,” such as firing 2,000 human-service workers. 

In Puerto Rico—which, after all, is neither a municipality nor a state, the bad gnus is that these governance disparities are certain to continue: indeed, despite the PROMESA Board’s November 27th recommendations, Gov. Rosselló announced he would spend close to $113 million on government employees’ Christmas bonuses-an announcement the PROMESA Board responded to by stating that its members expect “to be consulted during the formulation and prior to the announcement of policies such as this to ensure the Government is upholding the principles of fiscal responsibility.” (Note: it would have to be a challenge for PROMESA Board members to observe the current federal tax bills in the U.S. House and Senate as measured by Congress’ Joint Committee on Taxation and the Congressional Budget Office and believe that Congress is actually exercising “fiscal responsibility.”)

Nevertheless, there might be some help at hand for the U.S. territory: House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Tx.), in trying to mold in conference with the Senate the pending tax reform legislation, is considering options to avert what top Puerto Rican officials fear could be still another devastating blow to its already tottering economy: both versions would end Puerto Rico’s status as an offshore tax haven for U.S. companies—a devastating potential blow, especially given the current federal Jones Act which imposes such disproportionate shipping costs on Puerto Rico compared to other, competitive Caribbean nations. Now, the Governor, as well as Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez, Puerto Rico’s sole nonvoting member of Congress, are warning that Puerto Rico’s slow recovery from Hurricane Maria could suffer an irreparable setback if manufacturers decide to close their factories. Commissioner Gonzalez said 40% of Puerto Rico’s economy relies on manufacturing, with much of that related to pharmaceuticals; ergo, she is worried that any drop in the $2 billion of annual revenue these businesses provide would undercut the economic recovery plan instituted by the PROMESA Board. The Commissioner notes: “Forty percent of the island is living in poverty,” even though the federal child tax credit only applies to a third child for residents of Puerto Rico.

Thus, many eyes in Puerto Rico—and, presumably in the PROMESA Board—are laser focused on the House-Senate tax conference this week, where the House version would extend, for five years, the so-called rum cover which provides an excise tax rebate to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands on locally produced rum—a provision which Republican leaders appear unlikely to retain, albeit, they appear to be amenable to changes which could help reboot the island’s economy. (Puerto Rico produces 77% of the rum consumed in the U.S., according to the Puerto Rico Industrial Development Agency.) In a sense, part of the challenge is that for Puerto Rico, the issue has become whether to focus its lobbying on retaining its quasi-tax haven status. Gov. Rosselló worries that if that status were altered, “companies with a strong presence on the island would be forced to shutter those operations and decamp for the mainland or, worse, a lower-tax country…This would put tens of thousands of U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico out of work and demolish our tax base right as we are trying to rebound from historic storms.” Chairman Brady, after meeting with Commissioner Gonzalez at the end of last week, told reporters the meeting was with regard to “ideas on how best to help Puerto Rico…I know the Senate too has some ideas as well…“Yeah, we’re going to keep working on that.” In conference, the House bill imposes a 20% excise tax on payments by a U.S. company to a foreign subsidiary; the Senate bill proposes a tax ranging from 12.5% to 15.625% on the income of foreign corporations with intangible assets in the U.S. Unsurprisingly, Puerto Rico officials and U.S. businesses operating there describe both the House and Senate versions as putting Puerto Rico at a disadvantage—or, as one official noted: “The companies are asking from exemptions from all of this if Puerto Rico is involved…They want to be exempted from the taxes going forward that would prevent companies from accumulating untaxed profits abroad.” Foreign earnings, which includes revenues earned by corporations operating in Puerto Rico, could be repatriated at a 14% rate if the funds were held in cash and 7% if its illiquid assets under the House bill; the Senate version would tax cash at 10% and illiquid assets at 5%. Companies operating in Puerto Rico would be taxed at the same rate on the mainland of the U.S. and in foreign countries. In addition, the average manufacturing wage is three times lower in Puerto Rico than on the mainland and companies operating there can claim an 80% tax credit for taxes paid to the territorial government, according to officials. Senate Finance Committee Chair Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) noted he wishes to “help Puerto Rico, but not in this tax bill.”

Governance Amidst Fiscal and Stormy Challenges & Uneven Federalism

December 1, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the fiscal and governing challenges in one of the nation’s oldest municipalities, and its remarkable turnaround from verging on becoming the first municipality in Virginia to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, before veering south to assess what President Trump has described as the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico suffering from “from broken infrastructure and massive debt.” 

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

Revolutionary Municipality. Petersburg, Virginia’s City Council, one of the oldest of the nation’s cities, as part of its fiscal recovery, last week had voted 5-2 to request the Virginia Legislature to change the city’s charter in order to transfer the most critical duties of the Treasurer’s Office to a newly-created role of city collector—a position under the Council’s control, as part of its wish list for the newly elected state legislature. Petersburg, an independent city of just over 32,000, is significant for its role in African-American history: it is the site of one of the oldest free black settlements in the state–and the nation.  The unprecedented City Council effort seeks to strip power from an elected office—an office some believe curried some fault for contributing to Petersburg’s near chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. Ironically, the effort came the same month that voters elected a former Member of the City Council to the office of Treasurer. Councilman Treska Wilson-Smith, who opposed the move, stated: “The citizens just voted in a Treasurer. For us to get rid of that position is a slap in the face to the citizens who put them in there.” Unsurprisingly, State Senator Rosalyn Dance, who for a dozen years has represented the city as part of her district in the Virginia House of Delegates, and who will consider the city’s legislative agenda, said she was concerned. Noting that the newly-elected treasurer has yet to serve a day in office, she added that much of the turmoil had to do with the current Treasurer, so, she said: “I hope [the] Council will take a second look at what they want to do.” Former Councilman and Treasurer-elect Kenneth Pritchett, who declined to comment, ran on a platform of improving the office’s operations by standardizing internal controls and implementing new policies: he urged Petersburg residents to contact lawmakers in a Facebook message posted after the Council took action, calling the decision “a prime example of total disrespect for the citizens’ vote.”

Nevertheless, Council Members who supported the legislative agenda language said it was time for a change, or, as Councilman Darrin Hill noted: “I respect the opinion of the citizens, but still, we believe if we keep on doing the same thing that we have done, then we will keep on getting the same results.” Other Councilmembers felt even better about their votes after the Council received good financial news earlier this week when newly audited reports showed a boost in Petersburg’s reserve funds, increased revenue, and a drop in expenditures—a marked fiscal reversal. In addition, the city’s external auditor provided a clean opinion—a step up from last year’s “modified” opinion—an opinion which had hinted the city had failed to comply with proper accounting principles—and a municipal fiscal year which commenced $19 million in the hole—and $12 million over budget—in response to which the Council raised taxes, cut more than $3 million in funding from the city’s chronically underperforming schools, eliminated a popular youth summer program, and closed cultural sites. Former Richmond City Manager Robert Bobb’s organization—which had been hired to help the city recoup from the verge of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, had supported transferring some of the duties of the Treasurer to a city collector position as a means to enhance the city’s ability to improve its tax collections.

Subsequently, late last September, another shoe fell with a 115-page report which examined eight specific aspects of city governance—and found allegations of theft involving current Treasurer Kevin Brown—claims Mr. Brown repeatedly denied, but appeared to contribute to his decision not to run for reelection—an elected which Mr. Pritchett won by a wide margin, winning just over 70 percent.  Nevertheless, Mayor Samuel Parham told his colleagues: “We are treading too thin now to risk someone who is just getting to know the job. We can’t operate as a city of hoping…Now that we are paying our bills and showing growth, there is no need to go back in time and have a situation that we had.” However, some Councilmembers believe they should await more facts with regard to Mr. Brown’s actions, especially with regard to uncollected municipal tax revenues, or, as Councilmember Wilson-Smith put it: “There are some questions which we still have unanswered when it comes to why the taxes were not collected: It appears to me that a lot of the taxes are not being collected, because they are un-collectable,” or, as she noted: Many listed for unpaid taxes were deceased.

David Foley with Robinson, Farmer, Cox Associates, Petersburg’s external auditor, had presented figures before Petersburg residents and the City Council, noting the clean opinion is a substantial improvement from last year, when auditors issued a modified opinion which suggested Petersburg had failed to maintain accounting principles—testifying that the improvement mainly came from the city being able to provide evidence of the status of some of its major financial accounts, such as public utilities. He did recommend that Petersburg strengthen some of its internal controls over the next fiscal year—noting, especially, the reconciliation of the city’s public utility system, which some officials have suggested should be sold to private companies. Indeed, City Manager Aretha Ferrell-Benavides told City Council members that a plan to correct some of the deficiencies will start in January, with monthly updates on corrective actions that she would like to continue to take. The see-saw, key fiscal change of nearly $2 million more than had been projected arose from a combination of increased real estate tax collections, and a $2.5 million reduction in expenditures, mainly came from health and welfare, and non-departmental categories: in total, there was a $7.5 million increase in the city’s chief operating fund. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Foley, in response to Councilmember Charlie Cuthbert, noted: “It was a significant year. There is still a long way to go,” indirectly referencing the city’s commencement of FY2017 $19 million in the hole and $12 million over budget—and with dire threats of legal action over unpaid bills—triggering a tidal wave of legal bills of nearly $1 million—of which about $830,000 went to Mr. Bobb’s group—while the city spent nearly $200,000 on a forensic audit.  Council members received the presentation on the annual financial report with a scant two days prior to the state imposed deadline to submit the report—after, last year, the city was about seven months late in submitting its annual financial report.

Insufficient Shelter from the Fiscal Storm. In the brutal wake of Hurricane Maria, which destroyed about 57,000 homes in Puerto Rico last September and left another 254,000 severely impacted, 50 percent of the U.S. territory’s remaining 3.5 million inhabitants are still without electricity—a lack that has adversely impacted the ability to reconstruct the toll wrought by Maria, not to mention the economy, or loss of those, more than 150,000, who could afford to leave for New York and Florida. Puerto Rico still confronts a lack of drinking water. Governor Ricardo Rosselló had assured that 95% of the island would have electricity by today, but, like too many other promises, that is not to be. An irony is that the recent visit of former President Bill Clinton, who did not come down to toss paper towels, but rather to bring fiscal and physical assistance, may be, at long last, an omen of recovery. It was just 19 days ago that Gov. Roselló appeared before Congress to request some $94 billion to rebuild the U.S. territory—a request unmet, and a request raising questions about the Puerto Rican government’s ability to manage such a vast project, especially in the wake of the $300 million no-bid contract awarded to a small Montana utility company, Whitefish, to restore the territory’s power—an effort House Natural Resources Committee Chair Rob Bishop (R-Utah) described as raising a “credibility gap.” Indeed, in the wake of that decision, Chairman Bishop and others in the Congress have called for the unelected PROMESA Financial Oversight and Management Board, known on the island as “la junta,” to extend its powers to overseeing the rebuilding effort as well—a call which, unsurprisingly, many Puerto Ricans, including pro-statehood Governor Rosselló, see as a further threat to their democratic rights. 

Nevertheless, despite the quasi-takeover threat from Congress, U.S. District Court Judge Laura Taylor Swain has denied the PROMESA Oversight Board’s request to appoint an emergency manager, similar to those appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder in Detroit, or by the former Governor of Rhode Island for Central Falls under their respective authority under state authorizations of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. Puerto Rico, because it is not a state, does not have such authority; consequently, Judge Swain has determined the Board does not have the authority to appoint public officials—a holding which Gov. Rosselló responded to by noting that the decision upheld his office’s position about the board’s power, writing: “It is clear that the [board] does not have the power to take full control of the Government or its instrumentalities…[T]he administration and public management of Puerto Rico remains with the democratically elected government.