Human Needs & Fiscal Imbalances

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing fiscal challenges to the City of Detroit—especially in ensuring equitable tax collections; then we look north to assess the ongoing, serious physical and fiscal challenges to Flint’s long-term recovery, before considering the fiscal plight in Puerto Rico.

Motor City Revenue Uncollections. Unlike most cities, Detroit has a broad tax base in which municipal income taxes constitute the city’s largest single source, and that notwithstanding that the city has the highest rate of concentrated poverty among the top 25 metro areas in the U.S. by population. (Detroit’s revenues, from taxes and state-shared revenues are higher than those of any other large Michigan municipality on a per capita basis: these revenues consist of property taxes, income taxes, utility taxes, casino wagering taxes, and state-shared revenues.) Therefore, it is unsurprising that the city is cracking down on those who owe back income taxes: Detroit has launched an aggressive litigation effort, an effort targeted at thousands of tax evaders living or working at thirty-three properties in the downtown and Midtown areas. The city’s Corporation Counsel, Melvin Butch Hollowell, notes the city has identified at least 7,000 such taxpayers at these properties as potential tax evaders. Collecting those owed taxes is an especially sensitive issue in the wake of the city’s chapter 9 experiences when the decline in revenues of 22 percent over the decade of its most important source of revenues was a key trigger of the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy.

Out Like Flint? Just as in Detroit’s chapter 9 bankruptcy, where now-retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes had to address water cut-offs to families who had not paid their utility bills, so too the issue is confronting Flint—where the current penalty for non-payment under the city’s ordinance is tax foreclosure: something which has put at risk some 8,000 homeowners in the municipality, until, last week, the City Council approved a one-year moratorium on such tax liens: the moratorium covers residents with two years of unpaid water and sewer bills dating back to June of 2014. After the moratorium vote, City Council President Kerry Nelson said: “The people are suffering enough” for being forced to pay for water they cannot drink and are reluctant to use…The calls that I received were numerous. Everywhere I go, people were saying: Do something,” he said: “I did what the charter authorized me to do” with a temporary moratorium “until we look at the ordinance and get it corrected. It needs work. It’s 53 years old. We must start doing something for our community.” The council president insisted the Snyder administration needs to step up “and help us: They created this…the government doesn’t get a free pass.”

Indeed, the question of risk to life and health had been one which now retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Rhodes had to deal with in Detroit’s chapter 9 bankruptcy: how does one balance a city’s fiscal solvency versus human lives; and how does one balance or assess a family’s needs versus the civic duty to pay for vital municipal serves and ensure respect for the law? Now the situation has been further conflicted by the Michigan state-appointed Receivership Transition Advisory Board, which oversees and monitors Flint’s finances in the wake of its emergence from state oversight two years ago. That board has scheduled a vote for next month on the moratorium—as this Friday’s deadline for the thousands of homeowners to pay up under a 1964 ordinance nears—albeit a deadline which has been modified to provide a one-year partial reprieve, in part to give time to amend the ordinance. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the apprehension has had municipal political impacts: a recall effort against Mayor Karen Weaver, who a year ago was in Washington, D.C., for meetings at the White House with President Barack Obama to lobby for more federal aid and to obtain other attention for the city. The Mayor, understandably, notes Flint is now between a rock and a hard place: there is understandable residential anger over access to water critical to everyday life; however, unpaid bills could cause irreparable fiscal harm to the city—leading the Mayor to affirm that she will honor the moratorium and “follow the law: It’s not like something new has been put in place…We’re doing what has always been done. This was something that Council did. This is the legislative body. My role is to execute the law. So I’m carrying out the law that’s put in place.” Nevertheless, after a year in which the city did not enforce its ordinance, due in no small part to credits its was able to offer to its citizens courtesy of state financing, those credits expired at the end of February, a time when lead levels finally recovered to 12 parts per billion, which is under the federal action standard—and after Gov. Rick Snyder last February rejected Mayor Weaver’s request for an extension.  

The fiscal challenge is complicated too as illustrated by the case of former City Councilmember Edward Taylor, who noted that he had received a $1,053 bill from a home he had rented out to a woman whom he recently evicted. The problem? Mr. Taylor said the woman illegally turned on the water, so the city is holding him responsible for paying up. Now he is threatening to sue the City of Flint if he is unable to gain fiscal relief: i.e., he wants the city to erase his debt—but have the city’s grow.  “The calls that I received were numerous. Everywhere I go, people were saying: Do something,” Coincilman Nelson said. “I did what the charter authorized me to do” with a temporary moratorium “until we look at the ordinance and get it corrected. It needs work. It’s 53 years old. We must start doing something for our community.” The council president insisted the Snyder administration needs to step up “and help us: They created this…the government doesn’t get a free pass.”

Tropical Fiscal Typhoon. The administration of Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares declined yesterday to publish the recommended budget for the next fiscal year despite the fact that two days ago the deadline for completing the version of the document to be assessed by the PROMESA Board expired; initially, the Governor’s administration was supposed to turn over the budget to the Board on May 8th; however, the Board had granted a two-week extension—one which expired at the beginning of this week—time in which the Governor’s office could improve and correct some of the issues contained in its draft document—a document which has yet to have been made public, but one which the Governor is expected to make public as part of his budget message to the Legislative Assembly: according to Press Secretary Yennifer Álvarez Jaimes, the budget is currently in the draft phase, so it cannot be published, including the version which is to be provided to the PROMESA Board—even as, today, the Governor is due in the nation’s capital on an official trip, meaning the formal presentation of his budget before the legislature will almost surely be deferred until next week. The delay comes as PROMESA Chair José B. Carrión has indicated the Board will await the document prior to beginning its assessment and evaluation.

The Governor’s representative to the PROMESA Board, Elías Sánchez Sifonte, said the budget process is well advanced and that it is only necessary to complete the legal analysis and align some aspects with the provisions contained in the Fiscal Plan—even as a spokesperson for the Puerto Rico Peoples Democratic Party (PPD) minority in the Senate, Eduardo Bhatia, insisted on his claim to know the content of the document: he stated: “I think the people should know what was proposed in the budget…Yesterday (Monday) was the date to deliver the budget and we know nothing.” Sen. Bhatia, who sued at the beginning of this month to force publication of the budget, had his suit rejected by the San Juan Court of First Instance, because it was preempted under Title III of PROMESA—meaning the case was then brought before U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor Swain, who issued an order giving Puerto Rico until this Friday to present its position in this controversy. 

State Agency BankruptciesPuerto Rico has filed cases in the U.S. District Court in San Juan, according to Puerto Rico’s Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority, to place its Highways and Transportation Authority and Employees Retirement System into Title III bankruptcy—a move affecting some $9.5 billion in debt, with Governor Rosselló asserting he was seeking to protect pensioners and the transportation system by putting both agencies into municipal bankruptcy; he added he had asked the PROMESA Oversight Board to put the two entities into Title III’s chapter 9-like process, because, according to his statement, the island’s creditors had “categorically rejected” the Puerto Rico fiscal plan as a basis for negotiations and have recently started legal actions to undermine the public corporation’s stability. In the board-approved HTA fiscal plan, there would be no debt service paid through at least fiscal year 2026. Gov. Rosselló added that he had filed for Title III, because Puerto Rico faces insolvency in the coming months, and because his government has been unable to reach a consensual deal with its creditors, adding that pensioners will continue to receive their pensions from the General Fund after the territory’s pension fund, ERS, runs out of money. (As of February the ERS had $3.2 billion in debt, of which $2.7 billion was bond principal and $500 million was capital appreciation bonds.)

As Puerto Rico attempts to sort out its tangled financial web, retirees may face bigger cuts than those in past U.S. municipal insolvencies, due in part to an unconventional debt structure which pits pensioners against the very lenders whose money was supposed to sustain them—but also because this is an unbalancing teeter-totter, where the young and upwardly mobile are moving from Puerto Rico to New York City and Florida—leaving behind the impoverished and elderly, so that contributions into the Puerto Rico’s pension system are ebbing, even as demands upon it are increasing, and as the benefit structures are widely perceived as unsustainable. There is recognition that radical cuts to pensioners could deepen the population’s reliance on government subsidies and compound rampant emigration, for, as Gov. Rosselló has noted, most retirees “are already under the poverty line,” so that any pension cuts “would cast them out and challenge their livelihood.” Indeed, Puerto Rico’s Public pensions, which as of June last year had total pension liabilities of $49.6 billion, and which are projected to be insolvent sometime in the second half of this calendar year, today have almost no cash; rather pension benefits are coming out of the territory’s general fund, on a pay-as-you-go basis—imposing a cost to Puerto Rico of as much as $1.5 billion a year: $1.5 billion the territory does not have.

Puerto Rico & Municipal Bankruptcy: a process of pain where “failure is not an option.”

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Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the opening under U.S. Judge Laura Swain of the unique, quasi chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy process which opened this week in Puerto Rico, where Judge Swain noted the process “will certainly involve pain,” but that “failure is not an option.”

Getting Ready to Rumble. Judge Swain has combined two major PROMESA Title III filings made earlier this month by Puerto Rican authorities—one for its general obligation debt, and one for debt which is backed by the Puerto Rico’s Commonwealth or COFINA sales tax revenues. Reuters helps explain, writing: “The island’s initial bankruptcy filing on [May 3] included only its central government, which owes some $18 billion in general obligation, or GO debt, backed by its constitution…The COFINA filing [on May 5] will pull in another $17 billion or so in debt under the Title III umbrella. Overall the island’s government and various agencies have a debt load of $74 billion that they cannot repay.” Unsurprisingly, as Bloomberg notes, a sizeable separation between general obligation and COFINA bondholders has already emerged. Judge Swain’s early decision to merge the two filings for administrative purposes appears to denote a small victory for the PROMESA Board, as some COFINA stakeholders had objected (COFINA bondholders were the first to sue the government of Puerto Rico after the freeze on creditor litigation under PROMESA expired at Midnight May 1st.) They accuse Puerto Rico, Governor Ricardo Rossello and other officials of angling to repurpose the tax revenue earmarked to pay COFINA debt.: they argued that COFINA is a separate entity whose assets, in the form of sales tax revenue, are earmarked only for creditors.” The debt here dwarfs any we have seen in Detroit, San Bernardino, etc.: Puerto Rico, according to the PROMESA Board, cannot even meet 25% of its $900 million necessary to service its municipal debt. And, in some sense, that debt—owed to investors in the 50 states, pales compared to the human obligations at home: NPR’s Greg Allen describes: “retirees who are owed pensions; 180 closed public schools, $500 million in cuts proposed for the university here…So lots of pain to come here—and the governor is going to be releasing a budget later this month, which will show a lot more pain coming. Among the things that are going to happen is, I think, big cuts in health care benefits.” He estimated the trial could exceed the duration of Detroit’s chapter 9, taking as many as five years to conclude. Judge Swain will—as Judge Rhodes had to in Detroit, and as was the very hard case in Central Falls, Rhode Island’s municipal bankruptcy‒Puerto Rico’s $49 billion in government pension obligations. But Puerto Rico’s debt is not just fiscal: the island has a poverty rate of 45%–a level dwarfing what we have experienced in previous chapter 9 bankruptcies. The current case may not affect all of these because some are for the employees of semi-autonomous Puerto Rico entities like the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority. And, the trial here dwarfs the previous largest U.S. municipal bankruptcy in Detroit, where the stakes involved $18 billion in debt, pension obligations, and other OPEB benefits. The pension obligations have been described as liabilities of as much as $45 billion. On the trial’s first day, Judge Swain heard presentations with regard to whether the case should include mediation—and, if so, which parties should be included: that is, she will have a Solomon-like set of choices, choosing between Puerto’s Rico’s citizens, its municipal bondholders, suppliers owed money, pensioners, and government employees. Judge Swain will also hear presentations with regard to whether—and when‒Puerto Rico should be required to submit lists of its creditors and in what manner and how notice to creditors will be made. The PROMESA Oversight Board attorney Martin Bienenstock said he anticipates other Puerto Rico public entities, including the Highways and Transportation Authority, would soon file for Title III later. The considerations in the court will also have to address how some $800 million set aside in Puerto Rico’s certified 10-year fiscal recovery plan will be apportioned between competing claims–including those of constitutionally backed general obligation debt (GO) and sales-tax backed or COFINA bonds.

The Knife Edges of Municipal Bankruptcy

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Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing fiscal pipeline to the recovery for the City of Flint, the outcome of a Pennsylvania grand jury investigation of the near municipally bankrupt Pennsylvania capital city of Harrisburg, before addressing the .growing physical and fiscal breakdown in the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico.

In Like Flint? The Michigan legislature has finally agreed to appropriate $20 million to make the requisite match in order for some $100 million in federal aid to go to the city, with the funds to be used to replace corroded pipes which leached lead into the city’s drinking water system, creating not just grave health repercussions, but also devastating the city’s assessed property values and public safety budgets. The city’s near insolvency, which had come in the wake of the decisions which lead to the water contamination by a gubernatorially appointed Emergency Manager, may mark one of the final chapters to the city’s physical and fiscal recovery.

A State Capital’s Near Bankruptcy. Pennsylvania’s capital city, Harrisburg, chartered as a city the year the Civil War commenced, which came close to filing for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, will, in its proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year, follow a court-approved bankruptcy plan, with slightly more revenues than expenditures, except that the city does not expect to be able to hire police as fast as called for in its budget. At a workshop this week, the first of several planned before the City Council votes on the budget for FY2017-2018, the proposed plan proposes minimal increases in most departments, as total revenue is expected to climb to $119.86 million, an increase of about $7 million from last year. City Manager Mark Scott, in a memo to the Council prior to its consideration of the budget, wrote: “In developing our budget recommendations, it is obvious we do not have anywhere near the money we would like to have…Nor is that likely to change any time soon. We cannot expect to address our future by replicating our past. We will have different staffing than in the past and different service delivery expectation. Right now, we are budgeting to establish a solid base—meaning staff skill sets and new, efficient systems/processes.”

In the city, where taxpayers and residents, as well as city officials, consistently list public safety as a top priority, Harrisburg’s five-year plan to increase spending on police was a keystone of the city’s plan of debt adjustment, which was officially confirmed in February. Nevertheless, while the Police Department budget, at $72 million, meaning it is more than 60 percent of the total general fund budget, calls for a significant increase in hiring, and recruiting. City Manager Mark Scott, however, warned that the issue involves more than the budget: “We’re getting people into the academy as fast as we can,” as he advised he hopes the city to realize “a net increase of 18 officers by the end of the year.” Following a trend that began before the 2012 bankruptcy filing, the city again plans to have fewer employees than the year before. This year, however, that is primarily due to the new voter-approved city charter, which transfers sewer workers from the city to the independent Water Department: the new budget authorizes 746 positions, compared to 763 one year earlier.

Tropical Fiscal Typhoon. Puerto Rico, the insolvent U.S. territory, is trapped in a vicious fiscal and physical whirlpool where the austerity measures it has taken to meet its fiscal obligations to its creditors all across the U.S. have come at a steep fiscal and physical cost: some 30,000 public sector employees have lost their jobs, even as the nearly 75% increase in its sales and use tax has backfired: it has served to curtail shopping, adding to the vicious cycle of increasingly drastic fiscal steps in an effort to make payments to bondholders on the mainland—enough so that nearly 33% of the territory’s revenue is currently going to creditors and bondholders, even as its economy has shrunk 10% since 2006. Over this period, the poverty rate has grown to 45%, while the demographic imbalance has deteriorated with the exit of some 300,000 Puerto Ricans—mostly the young and better educated—leaving for Miami and New York. Puerto Rico and its public agencies owe $73 billion to its creditors, nearly five times greater than the nearly $18 billion in debts accumulated by Detroit when it filed for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy four years ago in what was then the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. Now, with U.S. District Court Judge Laura Taylor Swain set to preside next Wednesday (Financial Oversight and Management Board of Puerto Rico, 17-cv-01578), we will witness a unique trial, comparable to those in Jefferson County, Detroit, Stockton, San Bernardino, etc.; however, here there will be differences compared to chapter 9, as there will be roles for both Puerto’s Rico, but also the PROMESA oversight board—with, presumably, both seeking a fiscal recovery, but unlikely to have comparable proposals with regard to the most appropriate and effective plan of debt adjustment. Perhaps the greatest challenge will be economic recovery: for Detroit, whose bankruptcy pales in comparison to Puerto Rico’s; Detroit was able to benefit from a constructive state role and an economy vastly boosted by the federal bailout of its gigantic auto industry. That contrasts with current federal laws discriminating against Puerto Rico’s economy vis-à-vis competitor Caribbean nations, and caught in a Twilight Zone between a state and municipality, with a stream of its young talent streaming to Miami and New York, leaving behind a demographic map of poverty, empty classrooms, and aging people—and dependent on sales taxes, but with sharp reductions in pensions almost certain to sharply and adversely affect sales tax revenues. Judge Taylor will require the wisdom and strength of Job.

On the Hard Roads of Fiscal Recovery

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Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the growing, remarkable fiscal recoveries in post-bankruptcy Detroit and formerly insolvent Atlantic City, before turning to the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico as it seeks, along with the oversight PROMESA Board, an alternative to municipal bankruptcy.

Pacing a City’s Economic Recovery. JP Morgan Chairman and Chief Executive Officer yesterday described the city of Detroit’s economic recovery as one which has moved faster than expected—indeed, so much so that the giant financial institution today will announce it is expanding its investment in the city over the next two years, bringing the total effort to $150 million by 2019—some two years ahead of schedule. Mr. Dimon credited the city’s economic progress to strong collaboration between civic, business, and nonprofit leadership, as well as improving economic conditions in the city. If anything, over the last three years, the bank has become an enthusiastic partner in the Motor City’s recovery from the nation’s largest ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy via investing more than $107 million in loans and grants to enhance the city’s remarkable progress in implementing its plan of debt adjustment and achieving the goal of complete restoration of its fiscal autonomy. JP Morgan’s investments have included $50 million in community development financing, $25.8 million to revitalize neighborhoods, $15 million for workforce development, $9.5 million for small business expansion, and $6.9 million in additional investments. In addition, Morgan appears to be ready for more, with the bank’s future investments likely to focus on:

  • further revitalizing Detroit’s neighborhoods,
  • strengthening the city’s workforce system, and
  • helping minority-owned small businesses grow.

Indeed, Mr. Dimon noted: “Detroit’s resurgence is a model for what can be accomplished when leaders work together to create economic growth and opportunity…This collaboration allowed us to speed up our investment and extend our commitment over the next two years. Going forward, I hope business, government and nonprofit leaders will see Detroit’s comeback as a shining example of how to put aside differences and work to find meaningful and innovative solutions to our most pressing economic problems.” For his part, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan called JPMorgan Chase “a true partner” in the city’s work to restore economic growth and opportunity, noting that Morgan’s investments “have enabled thousands of Detroiters to receive training and created new opportunities for entrepreneurs and revitalized neighborhoods. There is more work to do, and I hope our continued partnership will build a thriving economy for all Detroiters.”

Indeed, the giant financial institution has extended its fiscal commitment: it plans to make investments of about $30 million focused on creating livable, inclusive, and sustainable neighborhoods. Officials report that will include preparing residents with the skills needed for high-paying careers and providing small businesses with capital. In addition, JPMorgan Chase officials said they will invest about $13 million re-paid loans paid back into two community development investment funds with which the bank has partnered in the community: Invest Detroit and Capital Impact Partners. This post-municipal bankruptcy investment in Detroit has been key, city officials, report to enabling Detroit to test solutions, adapt programs, and even find models that could be applied to other cities. For instance, the city’s Motor City Mapping project, Detroit’s comprehensive effort to digitize Detroit’s property information and create clear communication channels back and forth between the public, the government, and city service providers, has provided JP Morgan with insights how blight mapping can be applied in other cities to bring community partners together to fight blight—the bank has already shared the mapping technology in Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati.

Is Atlantic City like Dracula? New Jersey State Senator Jim Whelan (D-Northfield), the former Mayor of Atlantic City and previous teacher in the city’s public school system, yesterday noted: “I always say Atlantic City is like Dracula—you can’t kill it, no matter how hard we try.” Indeed, the city’s gleaming casinos are turning profits, and plans have recently been announced to embark upon a $375 million renovation and reopening of the Trump Taj Mahal by Hard Rock casino; Stockton University just broke ground on a satellite campus. A luxury apartment complex, the first to be constructed in Atlantic City in decades, is underway. With upgrades in the city’s credit rating, a city that was on the brink of chapter 9 bankruptcy and taken over by the state is, today, on the road to recovery. The fiscal recovery comes in the wake of a decade which featured a 50 percent drop in the city’s casino revenues, witnessed the closure of nearly half of the casinos, and loss of 10,000 jobs, a loss which triggered a massive spike in home foreclosures—indeed losses which so imperiled the city’s fisc that the state took over the city. But this week, with a new playground ready for when the local elementary school lets out and a reduction in property taxes, there is a note of fiscal optimism. David G. Schwartz, an Atlantic City native, who currently serves as the Director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, described it this way: “I think we are definitely into the next phase of the city’s history…Atlantic City has faced adversity before, and it has always moved forward–even though it sometimes took a few decades.”

My distinguished colleague, Marc Pfeiffer, the Assistant Director of the Bloustein Local Government Research Center in New Jersey, who, after a brief 37-year career in New Jersey local government administration, and a mere 26 years of service in New Jersey’s Division of Local Government Services, described the remarkable fiscal turnaround this way:

“The state is proceeding with its low-key recovery approach, working hand-in-hand with Mayor Guardian’s administration and the City Councilinsofar as politically feasible, and when not, pushing ahead using the authority in the law.  A few fits and starts with some challenges along the way, but it is a generally forward, positive trajectory. The recent Superior and Appellate decisions affirmed (or until appealed to the Supreme Court) the validity of New Jersey’s authority under the law, which eliminated the uncertainty of the last year. That’s good.  Jeff Chiesa’s team can now work with the city’s administration to make the changes which have long been discussed: reducing costs, modifying service levels and workforce size, in order to meet the city’s needs today given its new and evolving economy.”

In answer to the query what still remains to be addressed, he noted that the hard political issue of payments in lieu of taxes is being challenged by the neighboring County Executive and mayors of surrounding jurisdictions.  He reports that finding a “chunk of money to bring down long-term debt” to enable reductions in the city’s property tax is still a challenge—as is the enduring question with regard to how to address the water authority: how can it be monetized and meet the city’s interest in not losing ownership of it.  

From a governance perspective, he notes that the State of New Jersey had managed to keep all these issues relatively low-key: negotiations have been undertaken far from the public spotlight—mayhap depriving the public of critical information, but, at the same time, facilitating fiscal progress in avoiding the once, seemingly certain municipal bankruptcy.

Importantly, he adds that Atlantic City’s evolving economy cannot be ignored: “We’ve seen new investment and construction; new market rate rentals, South Jersey Gas moving its headquarters to Atlantic City; there is a new Stockton State University campus, and the pending revitalization and reopening of the shuttered Taj Mahal as a Hard Rock casino: “casino gaming revenues are up as we slide into the prime season.” Finally, he writes: “We seem to be getting to the point of ‘right-sizing’ the city, both economically and governmentally…which may be complicated by the pending elections—where the issue will be the upcoming primary battle to determine who will run against Mayor Guardian this fall.

Could There Be Promise in PROMESA? PROMESA Puerto Rico Oversight Board Chair José Carrión has advised the Governor Rosselló that the board has deferred until a week from Monday for either the board approving the Governor’s budget or notifying the Governor of violations and providing a description of corrective actions, writing: “We have received a working draft of the proposed budget, and are reviewing the submission and its completeness…The board will provide the Governor an additional 14 days to amend and improve the submission before it approves it or identifies violations.” The Governor’s working draft has yet to be made public; and constructing it will be perilous: according to the PROMESA board-certified fiscal plan, as of mid-March the Board expects the Governor to add nearly $924 million in revenues and cut $951 million in expenses from Puerto Rico’s All Government Activities budget—changes in a deteriorating economy the equivalent of nearly 10% of the Commonwealth’s budget.

Dr. José G. Caraballo, a professor in the Department of Business Administration at the University of Puerto Rico at Cayey, who also serves as the Director of the Census Information Center at the University, this week provided some perspective—or what he called “conjectures” with regard to the cause of what he called Puerto Rico’s “unsustainable indebtedness,” noting one hypothesis is that a “bloating” government inflated the government payroll, increasing the need to borrow. That perspective is valuable: for instance, he writes: “Even when there is no academic study showing that the payroll is payable or not, the proportion of government employees to the overall population aged 16 and older was lower in 2001 than in 1988, when there were no debt problems. In fact, the ratio of government workers to the population, ages 16-64, in 2013 was 10.3 percent in the U.S. and 11.2 percent in Puerto Rico, reducing the validity of this claim.”

Addressing the hypothesis that reckless and corrupt administrations had caused Puerto Rico’s fiscal and debt crisis, he noted: “I acknowledge that fiscal mismanagement has exacerbated this crisis, but there are studies showing that the (low) quality of administrators was similar from 1975-2000, and there is no evidence that the corruption of the 2000s was worse than the corruption in the 1970s or 1980s, when there was no debt crisis,” adding that “debt (measured in the correct way, either adjusted for inflation or as a share of gross domestic product) actually decreased from over the decade from 1977-1987.”  

Finally, he turned to an underlying issue: the disparate treatment of Puerto Rico created by §936 of the Internal Revenue Code—under which the industrial incentives provided to Puerto Rico were stripped, undercutting the island’s economy and disadvantaging it compared to other Caribbean nations: he noted that the proportion of manufacturing left the U.S. territory without any substitutable economic strategy, reduced government revenues, and increased Puerto Rico’s dependency on external funding—noting that in 1995, manufacturing represented 42% of Puerto Rico’s GDP, creating more than 30% of the local bank deposits and generating 17% of the total direct employment. Thus, he added; “It is far from a coincidence that when the transition period of the §936 ended in 2006, Puerto Rico entered the largest economic depression in more than 100 years. I verified the relationship between this deindustrialization and indebtedness with advanced statistical methods in a recent paper.”

Dr. José G. Caraballo offered that Congress could include Puerto Rico in the Guam-Northern Mariana Islands Visa Waiver Program—a change which he suggested would draw more tourists from Asia; remove the federal navigation acts which force Puerto Ricans to exclusively contract expensive U.S. vessels; implement new industrial policies; or provide parity in the distribution of Medicare and Medicaid assistance.

Solomon’s Choices: Who Will Define Puerto Rico’s Fiscal Future–and How?

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Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the growing physical and fiscal breakdown in the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico as it seeks, along with the oversight PROMESA Board, an alternative to municipal bankruptcy. 

Tropical Fiscal Typhoon. U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts has selected Southern District of New York Judge Laura Taylor Swain, who previously served as a federal bankruptcy Judge for the Eastern District of New York from 1996 until 2000 to preside over Puerto Rico’s PROMESA Title III bankruptcy proceedings—presiding, thus, over a municipal bankruptcy nearly 500% larger than that of Detroit’s–one which will grapple with creating a human and fiscal blueprint for the future of some 3.5 million Americans—and force Judge Swain to grapple with the battle between the citizens of the country and the holders of its debt spread throughout the U.S. (Title III of PROMESA, which is modeled after Chapter 9 of the Municipal Bankruptcy Code and nearly a century of legal precedent, provides a framework for protecting Puerto Rico’s citizens while also respecting the legitimate rights and priorities of creditors.) For example, the recent Chapter 9 restructuring in Detroit sought reasonable accommodations for vulnerable pensioners and respected secured creditors’ rights.

The action came in the wake of Puerto Rico’s announcement last week that it was restructuring a portion of its nearly $73 billion in debt—an action which it was clear almost from the get-go that the requisite two-thirds majority of Puerto Rico’s municipal bondholders would not have supported. (Puerto Rico’s constitution provides that payments to holders of so-called “general obligation” bonds have priority over all other expenditures—even as another group of creditors has first access to revenues from the territory’s sales tax.) More critically, Judge Swain will be presiding over a process affecting the lives and futures of some 3.5 million Americans—nearly 500% greater than the population of Detroit. And while the poverty rate in Detroit was 40%, the surrounding region, especially after the federal bailout of the auto industry, differs signally from Puerto Rico, where the poverty rate is 46.1%–and where there is no surrounding state to address or help finance schools, health care, etc. Indeed, Puerto Rico, in its efforts to address its debt, has cut its health care and public transportation fiscal support; closed schools; and increased sales taxes. With the Bureau of Labor Statistics reporting an unemployment rate of at 12.2%, and, in the wake of last year’s Zika virus, when thousands of workers who were fighting the epidemic were let go from their jobs; the U.S. territory’s fiscal conditions have been exacerbated by the emigration of some of its most able talent—or, as the Pew Research Center has noted:  “More recent Puerto Rican arrivals from the island are also less well off than earlier migrants, with lower household incomes and a greater likelihood of living in poverty.”

For Judge Swain—as was the case in Detroit, Central Falls, San Bernardino, Stockton, etc., a grave challenge in seeking to fashion a plan of debt adjustment will resolve around public pensions. While the state constitutional issues, which complicated—and nearly led to a U.S. Supreme Court federalism challenge—do not appear to be at issue here; nevertheless the human aspect is. Just as former Rhode Island Supreme Court Judge Robert G. Flanders, Jr., who served as Central Falls’ Receiver during that city’s chapter 9 bankruptcy—and told us, with his voice breaking—of the deep pension cuts which he had summarily imposed of as much as 50%—so too Puerto Rico’s public pension funds have been depleted. Thus, it will fall to Judge Swain to seek to balance the desperate human needs on one side versus the demands of municipal bondholders on the other. Finally, the trial over which Judge Swain will preside has an element somewhat distinct from the others we have traced: can she press, as part of this process to fashion a plan of debt adjustment, for measures—likely ones which would have to emanate from Congress—to address the current drain of some of Puerto Rico’s most valuable human resources: taxpayers fleeing to the mainland. Today, Puerto Rico’s population is more than 8% smaller than seven years ago; the territory has been in recession almost continuously for a decade—and Puerto Rico is in the midst of political turmoil: should it change its form of governance: a poll two months’ ago found that 57% support statehood. Indeed, even were Puerto Rico’s voters to vote that way, and even though the 2016 GOP platform backed statehood; it seems most unlikely that in the nation’s increasingly polarized status the majority in the U.S. Congress would agree to any provision which would change the balance of political power in the U.S. Senate.

Is There a PROMESA of Recovery?

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Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the growing physical and fiscal breakdown in the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico as it seeks, along with the oversight PROMESA Board, an alternative to municipal bankruptcy, after which we journey north to review the remarkable fiscal recovery from chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy of one of the nation’s smallest municipalities.

Tropical Fiscal Typhoon. Puerto Rico is trapped in a vicious fiscal whirlpool where the austerity measures it has taken to meet short-term obligations to its creditors all across the U.S., including laying off some 30,000 public sector employees and increasing its sales tax by nearly 75% have seemingly backfired—doing more fiscal harm than good: it has devastated its economy, depleted revenue sources, and put the government on a vicious cycle of increasingly drastic fiscal steps in an effort to make payments—enough so that nearly 33% of the territory’s revenue is currently going to creditors and bondholders, even as its economy has shrunk 10% since 2006, while its poverty rate has grown to 45%. At the same time, a demographic imbalance has continued to accelerate with the exit of some 300,000 Puerto Ricans—mostly the young and better educated—leaving for Miami and New York. Puerto Rico and its public agencies owe $73 billion to its creditors, nearly 500% greater than the nearly $18 billion in debts accumulated by Detroit when it filed for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy four years ago in what was then the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. Thus, with the island’s hedge-fund creditors holding defaulted municipal general obligation bonds on the verge of completing a consensual agreement earlier this week, the PROMESA oversight board intervened to halt negotiations and place Puerto Rico under the Title III quasi municipal bankruptcy protection. That will set up courtroom confrontations between an impoverished population, wealthy municipal bondholders in every state in the domestic U.S., and hedge funds—pitted against some of the poorest U.S. citizens and their future. Nevertheless, as Congress contemplated, the quasi-municipal bankruptcy process enacted as part of the PROMESA statute provides the best hope for Puerto Rico’s future.

Thus the PROMESA Board has invoked these provisions of the PROMESA statute before a federal judge in San Juan, in what promises to be a long process—as we have seen in Detroit, San Bernardino, and other cities, but with one critical distinction: each of the previous municipal bankruptcies has involved a city or county—the quasi municipal bankruptcy here is more akin to a filing by a state. (Because of the dual federalism of our founding fathers, Congress may not enact legislation to permit states to file for bankruptcy protection.) Unsurprisingly, when Puerto Rico was made a U.S. territory under the Jones-Shafroth Act, no one contemplated the possibility of bankruptcy. Moreover, as chapter 9, as authorized by Congress, only provides that a city or county may file for chapter 9 bankruptcy if authorized by its respective state; Puerto Rico inconveniently falls into a Twilight Zone—to write nothing with regard to access to such protections for Puerto Rico’s 87 municipalities or muncipios.

Moreover, while from Central Falls, Rhode Island to Detroit, the role of public pension obligations has played a critical role in those chapter 9 resolutions; the challenge could be far greater here: in Puerto Rico, retired teachers and police officers do not participate in Social Security. Adopting deep cuts to their pensions would be a virtual impossibility. So now it is that Puerto Rico will be in a courtroom to confront hedge funds, mutual funds, and bond insurers, after the negotiations between Puerto Rico and its creditors over a PROMESA Board-approved fiscal plan that allocates about $787 million a year to creditors for the next decade, less than a quarter of what they are owed, was deemed by said creditors to be a slap in the face—with the Board having pressed for a combination of debt restructuring spending cuts in its efforts to revive an economy trapped by a 45% poverty rate—and where the Board had proposed upping water rates on consumers, liquidating its decades-old industrial development bank, and seeking concessions from creditors of other government agencies. Moreover, amid all this, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, who has recently renegotiated to mitigate politically unpopular fee increases on residents, now finds himself nearly transfixed between desperate efforts to sort out governance, meet demands of his constituents and taxpayers, and negotiate with a federally imposed oversight board, even as he is in the midst of a campaign for U.S. statehood ahead of a plebiscite on Puerto Rico’s political status—and in the wake of being named a defendant in a lawsuit by hedge funds after the expiration of a stay on such suits expired this week. Hedge funds holding general obligation and sales-tax bonds filed the suit on Tuesday, naming Gov. Rosselló as a defendant—albeit, the suit, and others, are nearly certain to be frozen, as the main judicial arena now will fall into a quasi-chapter 9 courtroom epic battle. And that battle will not necessarily be able to fully look to prior chapter 9 judicial precedents: while Title III incorporates features of chapter 9, the section of the U.S. bankruptcy code covering insolvent municipal entities, courts have never interpreted key provisions of Title III—a title, moreover, which protections for creditors which chapter 9 does not.

The Rich Chocolatey Road to Recovery! Moody’s has awarded one of the nation’s smallest municipalities, Central Falls, aka Chocolate City, Rhode Island, its second general obligation bond upgrade in two months, a sign of the former mill city’s ongoing recovery from municipal bankruptcy—an upgrade which Mayor James Diossa unsurprisingly noted to be “very important.” Moody’s noted that its upgrade “reflects a multi-year trend of stable operating results and continued positive performance relative to the post-bankruptcy plan since the city’s emergence from Chapter 9 bankruptcy in 2012,” adding that it expects the city will enhance its flexibility when its plan of debt adjustment period ends at the end of next month—at which time one of the nation’s smallest cities (one square mile and 19,000 citizens) will implement a policy of requiring maintenance of unassigned general fund reserves of at least 10% of prior year expenditures. In its upgrade, Moody’s reported the upgrade reflected Central Falls’ high fixed costs, referring to its public pension obligations, OPEB, and debt service–costs which add up to nearly 30% of its budget—and what it termed a high sensitivity to adverse economic trends compared with other municipalities, with the rating agency noting that a sustained increase in fund balance and maintenance of structural balance could lead to a further upgrade, as could a reduction in long-term liabilities and fixed costs and material tax-base and growth.

 

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.