On the Edge of Municipal Fiscal Cliffs

September 20, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the upcoming challenge for voters in Detroit—with a Mayoral election around the bend—and the city aspiring to be in the competition for selection by Amazon as its second site. Then we look at the physical and fiscal storm threats to Puerto Rico, before finally looking back at post-riot Ferguson, Missouri.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

On the Edge of a Fiscal State/Local Cliff.  The Latin incantation, “Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus,or, translated: “We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes,” is Detroit’s motto: it came from a French Roman Catholic priest, Father Gabriel Richard, who was born in France in 1767 and moved to Baltimore in 1792 to teach math. Reassigned to do missionary work, he moved first to Illinois and later to Detroit, where he was the assistant pastor at St. Anne’s Church—a church founded in 1701 and possibly the oldest continuously operating Roman Catholic parish in the U.S. Two hundred twelve years ago, on June 11th, a fire destroyed nearly all of then-Detroit, just weeks before the Michigan Territory was established. Today, nearly three years after the once-great city, the “arsenal of democracy” during World War II and home of the world’s most innovative manufacturers, emerged from the nation’s largest ever chapter 9 bankruptcy, national interest in Detroit has waned: in some ways, it has become a tale of two cities: One a city still mired in poverty and unemployment; one an emerging vibrant metropolis and global self-driving car center. And all this is occurring as the voters prepare to re-elect Mike Duggan—whose most profound achievement has been to raze much of the city, after first being elected in a write-in campaign. But, last month, voters in the primary gave him 68% of the votes—likely foretelling November’s re-election—in a campaign against the son of Coleman Young, Detroit’s first black mayor. Almost more than any other city in the nation, Detroit is not just a city emerging from the ashes, but also a city of profound racial transition: Over the past forty-year, Detroit has undergone a racial transformation: from 70% white in the 1960s to just 10% today. The Detroit News described the Mayor’s self-referral as a “metrics nut:” describing cabinet meeting room as one blanketed in graphs charting the city’s employment, ambulance delivery and crime rates, among other statistics. “The police are going to show up in under 14 minutes; the ambulance is going to show up in under 8 minutes; the grass is going to be cut in the parks every 10 to 12 days—it just is.” The paper notes that: “City employees who do not meet these targets do not last long.”  But, as the city’s emergency manager charged by Gov. Snyder with taking the Motor City into chapter 9 bankruptcy and then out noted to me on that very first morning, the critical distinction between municipal and corporate bankruptcy is to ensure the streetlights, traffic lights, police and fire are working. That has been an ongoing, post-plan of debt adjustment priority, and, the numbers have continued to improve: today police response times are down from an average of 40 minutes to 13.

Mayhap a far greater governance challenge, however, has been to reverse the flight of residents from the city—flight which bequeathed 40,000 abandoned properties—properties which could become havens for crime, paid no property taxes, and adversely affected the assessed values of neighboring properties in one of the nation’s largest—by land area of 139 square miles—a city once the home to 1.8 million—thrice today’s population. Or, as David Schleicher of Yale Law School described the city: it “is just too big,” to accommodate “the expense of providing services.” The Mayor has sought to “right-size,” as it were, by means of razing abandoned homes, in part via the expansion of the Detroit Land Bank, a quasi-governmental authority which now owns 96,000 properties across the city—most of them acquired through foreclosure because of unpaid taxes. Thus, the land bank has succeeded in centralizing the city’s control over abandoned and vacant properties; Detroit has replaced an antiquated registry scattered across 83 data sets, and erased liens and back taxes as a means to facilitate the clearing and demolition or restoration of properties. Since his election, the city has focused on the highest density districts, where the city has demolished 11,900 residential properties. The results indicate that the demolition of a blighted property increases the value of a nearby home by 4.2%, according to one study. And the pace has been unprecedented—indeed, so fast there have been allegations of improper contract awards; there has been a federal investigation; and Michigan’s state housing agency suspended funds for two months, after a state audit found improper controls in place. Land bank officials, including the director of demolitions, have resigned. Mayor Duggan, who has not been a subject of the investigation, blames the mistakes on a desire to increase the pace of demolitions, but acknowledges that regulators were right to rap his knuckles.

Under the program there has been, consequently, a high pace of tax foreclosures—the main pipeline for properties which end up in the land bank’s possession: under Michigan law, owners who do not pay taxes after three years lose their property—properties last comprehensively reassessed decades before market values plummeted, meaning many are set too high. Between 2006 and 2012, median sale prices for city houses fell from $70,000 to $16,200; thus, the owner of a house worth $15,000 could owe $3,000 in property taxes. The state-mandated interest rate on property-tax debt is 18% per year. Thus, an update completed at the beginning of this calendar year should lead to lower bills, but it will not be retroactive; thus, up to 53,000 properties will receive foreclosure notices this autumn. While not every foreclosed property will necessarily end up lost, tax foreclosures, driven by government policy rather than market forces, could force out longtime residents, ironically exacerbating the very problem the Mayor is focused upon: even as the demolition drive has already cost the city’s taxpayers some $162 million, the average back taxes for homes put up for auction are $7,700—much less than the cost of demolition. Or, as Michele Oberholtzer, Director of the Tax Foreclosure Prevention Project puts it: “It’s like an auto-immune disorder: We penalize people for not paying, and then we end up paying more for the punishment.” Nevertheless, Mayor and candidate Duggan believes that at the current pace of demolitions, he can clear the city’s long-standing blight within five years—mayhap paving the way for a smaller but much more vibrant city.

Fiscal Hurricane. With still another hurricane bearing down on Puerto Rico (damages caused by Hurricane Irma are estimated at more than $600 million), a fiscal storm appears in the offing after, yesterday, an agreement among Senate Finance Committee leaders to push this month the reauthorization of the Children’s Health Insurance Program for five years raised doubts about with regard to whether Medicaid funds to stabilize the finances of the Puerto Rican health system could be included in that legislation: according to the agreement between the Chairman, Republican Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), and Ranking Member Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), that program would be refinanced for another five years; however, the agreement did not include funds to close the so-called “abyss” in Medicaid funds, which would reach $ 369 million this fiscal year and then rise to about $ 1.2 billion that has been asked annually for reimbursement under the Affordable Care Act, or, as former Puerto Rico Governor Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, who was representing Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, noted: “From what I’ve been told, we are not included.” His statement came as Gov. Rosselló arrived last night in Washington, D.C. along with former Governors Acevedo Vilá and Alejandro García Padilla to meet with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Ca.), as the Senate Finance Committee hurries to approve the reauthorization of the CHIP program before the law expires at the end of this month. Chairman Hatch, however, has indicated that his intention is that the reauthorization of the program not increase the federal deficit—an intention which could singularly complicate the mission—even as House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) earlier this year had told resident commissioner, Jennifer Gonzalez, that CHIP’s reauthorization was the ideal vehicle for legislating new Medicaid allocations, due to the depletion of Affordable Care Act funds in April. (For the current fiscal year, Puerto Rico’s allocation is $172 million. Meanwhile, there are already 12 Puerto Rican municipalities within  the  federally declared disaster zone: the first ones were the municipalities of Vieques and Culebra. Yesterday, Adjuntas, Canóvanas, Carolina, Guaynabo, Juncos, Loíza, Luquillo, Orocovis, Patillas and Utuado were added—with Gov. Rosselló making the announcement yesterday accompanied by FEMA Administrator William Long,  albeit the Governor added: “This does not imply that the list of municipalities is finished, it´s not over. This simply implies that as we receive  information (from the affected municipalities) and we send it to the federal government, then, we are able make these declarations.”

Good Gnus. Puerto Rico’s median household income climbed 7.8% from 2015 to 2016 according to the U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey statistics, with the survey showing that mean household income was up 2.3% after inflation—a stark contrast with the generally negative economic data coming out of Puerto Rico. For example, Puerto Rico’s economic activity index declined 2.1% in July from a year earlier, according to a report from the Government Development Bank for Puerto Rico: according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ household survey, total employment in August on the island was down 0.25% from a year earlier. According to its survey of workplaces, total employment was down 1.1%. In addition, the American Community Survey showed that net migration to the rest of the United States increased to 67,000 in 2016 from an average of 44,400 per year from 2006 to 2015—that is nearly 50%. Data from the Puerto Rico Ports Authority show that the average net migration was 65,700 per year from 2006 to 2015. The difference may reflect that some Puerto Ricans migrate to countries beside the U.S., according to Mario Marazzi, executive director for the Puerto Rico Statistics Institute.

Coming Back. Moody’s has revised upwards its credit rating for Ferguson, Missouri in the wake of efforts to recover fiscally from the aftermath of a controversial police shooting, the rating agency has revised the city’s outlook on its junk-level Ba3 general obligation rating to positive from negative. The city lost its investment grade rating as it dealt with the aftermath of the August 2014 fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American, by a white police officer. The shooting led to local protests and a federal probe in the city of about 21,000 just northwest of St. Louis. The city faced rising legal expenses as it dealt with a federal probe into policing and court tactics and then the costs of a settlement, and took a hit on sales and other taxes. The city has also lost a chunk of court-fine related revenue it relied on as the state government cracked down on local government use of fine levies to balance budgets. After spending cuts and other management efforts, the city is expected to begin to shore up its balance sheet as voter approved tax revenues flow into city coffers. “The positive outlook reflects the likelihood the city’s materially improved fiscal condition will continue over the next two years, especially because new taxes implemented during fiscal years 2016 through 2018 will lead to the greater likelihood of operating surpluses and improving reserve levels,” Moody’s noted, as it affirmed the B1 rating on the city’s 2013 certificates of participation and the B2 rating on its 2012 COPs: the upgrade reflects Ferguson’s current fiscal condition in the wake of several years of rapidly declining reserves and uncertainty for further operating declines; it incorporates a moderately sized tax base with a trend of declining assessed valuation, below average resident wealth, and above average yet manageable debt burden. The agency notes that the rating remains challenged by ebbing reserves and the costs of federal consent decree measures which contributed to operating deficits in fiscal 2014 through 2017; the city anticipates a $312,000 deficit for FY 2017, but, with fully phased in, voter approved taxes coming in next year, the FY2018 budget estimates a $48,000 general fund surplus. From a high in fiscal 2013, the general fund balance declined to $3.6 million or 33.5% of revenues from $10.5 million. Reserve levels remain healthy on a relative basis compared to its peer group but the city’s operating flexibility is notably narrower than it has been. The city is working towards meeting milestones and establishing policies as required in its 2016 Department of Justice consent decree. Consent decree annual expenses have declined to $500,000 from projections of $700,000 to $1.5 million. Tax hikes are projected to generate an additional $2.9 million in annual revenue for the general fund in FY2018.

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The Political & Fiscal Challenges of Recovery

September 19, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the uncertain fiscal outlook for Hartford – and Connecticut, the ongoing recovery in Detroit from the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy, municipal fiscal erosion in Pennsylvania, and some of the fiscal and physical impacts of Hurricane Irma on Puerto Rico.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

On the Edge of a Fiscal State/Local Cliff. Connecticut lawmakers passed a $40.7 billion two-year state budget early on Saturday; however, Governor Dannel Malloy could veto the legislation and leave the state racing toward severe spending cuts next month. The budget uncertainty came as the state’s capitol city Hartford is approaching debt repayment deadlines this month and next—and now the state budget uncertainty is becoming a major threat to the city; Moody’s noted: “The city owes $3.8 million in September, followed by $26.9 million in October,” with October the “heaviest debt service month this year,” apparently the result of the city’s borrowing $20 million last April to cover its cash flow problems.  Thus, with the Legislature and Gov. Dannel Malloy unable to agree on a balanced state budget, the credit rating agency notes this could be a potentially huge problem for Hartford, writing: “Approximately half of the city’s general fund revenues are derived from state aid, leaving Hartford heavily exposed to the state’s budget delay: If the delay continues, Hartford is in danger of depleting its already weak reserves between now and the end of this calendar year.” And this could become a municipal fiscal cancer—not just for Hartford, but also Bridgeport and New Haven. Mayor Luke Bronin noted: “The absence of a state budget significantly exacerbates Hartford’s fiscal crisis and accelerates our cash flow challenge.” While Gov. Malloy has issued a temporary plan to cover for the lack of a state budget, that plan would sharply cut state aid to cities and towns. Mayor Bronin said that plan, if continued through the rest of FY2018, would mean Hartford “would face a shortfall of about $100 million out of a municipal budget of $329 million.” Thus, he noted: “While we’re focused on managing our liquidity and maintaining basic services, there’s obviously no way to manage a shortfall of that magnitude indefinitely…We are exploring all of our options to restructure Hartford’s obligations and put our Capital City on a sustainable path.” Moody’s, in its assessment, described Hartford’s “path to fiscal sustainability” as one “likely require debt restructuring along with some combination of labor concessions, other expenditure cuts, and new revenues,” albeit not opining on whether debt restructuring to extend the city’s repayment schedule or bankruptcy would be the likelier outcome, but noting that the city’s debt service costs are expected to “ramp up” from $44 million in the current fiscal year to $57 million in 2018-19, and will then continue to grow almost steadily through 2020-21. Thus, Av Harris, a legislative aide to Bridgeport Mayor Joseph P. Ganim, warned Bridgeport, which had filed for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in 1991 (§7-566), worried: “The major impacts haven’t hit yet,” referring to apprehension with regard to the potential fallout if the city does not receive the first big installment in state school aid, noting that state aid represents about 40% of Bridgeport’s current $550 million city budget. Nearby, New Haven Mayor Toni Harp has ordered city agencies to come up with budget cutting contingency plans in case the General Assembly fails to pass a state budget by September. The Mayor said additional spending reductions would be needed to avoid local tax increases, in the event the state budget impasse continues. (New Haven’s Board of Aldermen adopted a $539.9 million city budget on June 6.) Mayor Harp has said New Haven is hoping to receive at least the $30 million in state aid that it got in the fiscal year that ended June 30, and is looking to get an additional $18 million in promised state funding, adding that failure to get that money would put New Haven in a short-term cash crisis.

Observers were surprise that the Republican-backed budget won prevailed in a legislature narrowly controlled by Democrats; yet the fiscal outcome remains uncertain, as Gov. Malloy has said he would veto the bills as they first passed through the Senate before moving to the House of Representatives, noting: “The amended budget that passed in the Senate today is unbalanced, and if it were to reach my desk I would veto it,” last Friday night, stating that the budget “relies on too many unrealistic savings, it contains immense cuts to higher education, and it would violate existing state contracts with our employees, resulting in costly legal battles for years to come.” The passage came with the state budget action two months’ overdue and, currently under emergency control: Under the Governor’s executive order, some schools and cities would see state aid slashed after October 1 unless a budget is enacted before then—burdened by some $73 billion of pension and debt obligations, high taxes, out-migration, and falling revenues—and under a now lame duck governor. Now the legislature has sent him a budget which contains provisions he says he cannot abide, including reductions to the University of Connecticut. Under the proposed budget, general fund appropriations would grow 3.5 percent in FY 2018 to $18.5 billion and 0.6 percent in FY2019 to $18.6 billion; the transportation fund, the next largest, would grow by about 11 percent over the two years, according to the legislature’s Office of Fiscal Analysis (OFA); the bill would also limit general obligation bond allocations to $2 billion a year beginning in fiscal 2018, then apply that same cap to issuances and spending starting in fiscal 2019.  

The budget, if agreed to, It would establish a Municipal Accountability Review Board to allow state oversight of fiscally troubled cities, potentially including its capital city, Hartford, with former U.S. Comptroller General and now gubernatorial candidate David Walker stating: “I think (Malloy) is likely to put the ball back in the court of the state Legislature…I think the last thing we need right now is to increase taxes.” Nevertheless, on Saturday, Gov. Malloy described the GOP budget package as “unbalanced” and “unrealistic: If the responsible solution I negotiated with Democrats isn’t going to pass, then it is incumbent on the legislature to reach a new agreement soon—one that is realistic and, ideally, bipartisan.” Nevertheless, State Rep. Cristin McCarthy Vahey (D-Fairfield) was one of six House Democrats to break ranks, called for a bipartisan fix to the state’s fiscal woes: “We all await the Governor’s next steps and will go forward from there…The challenges confronting us were a long time in the making. We need to figure out a solution working together as leaders. I support every effort that will bring us closer to the kind of compromise we need to successfully adopt a state budget.” However, Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney (D-New Haven) said Gov. Malloy has given his assurances that he would immediately veto what is a “short-sighted” budget that undercuts collective bargaining and public education, noting: “So much for allegedly responsible and realistic budgeting,” adding there was a “substantial danger” that no budget gets passed by Oct. 1, defaulting to the Governor’s cuts: “I think we have to look forward rather than backward and keep our focus on getting a budget.”

It seems an irony that both Republican gubernatorial hopefuls who spoke at yesterday’s rally could become casualties of the proposed elimination of the decade-old Connecticut Citizens’ Election Program, which was adopted after the resignation and imprisonment of former Gov. John Rowland for corruption. Under the program, candidates for governor are eligible for $1.4 million in public funds in the primary and $6.5 million in the general election. (They must raise $250,000 in increments of $100 or less to qualify.) One such candidate, State Rep. Prasad Srinivasan (R-Glastonbury), who has already raised the requisite $250,000—and who voted for the budget, noted: “It’s going to be a different ballgame for all of us…Is this a perfect budget? The answer is, no. Is it a good budget? Yes. We have lived in excess all of these years.” Candidate Walker said if publicly-funded elections, which could cost more than $40 million in 2018, were eliminated, he would be able to more than make up for it, adding, however, that to be fair to those gubernatorial candidates who are far along in qualifying, the subsidy should be kept for the state’s highest office. Mr. Walker is running against House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz (D-Berlin).

The Steep Road to Chapter 9 Recovery. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan likens the gathering regional bid to land Amazon’s second headquarters to delivering Detroit Super Bowl XL more than a decade ago; however, the, as a Detroit News editorial by the ever insightful Daniel Howes noted: “It’s not even close. The hunt for Amazon is far larger, far more competitive and far more likely to tax the ability of just about anyone to corral business, political and civic leaders around a deadline measured in weeks, not years. (The deadline is Oct. 19 to proffer a plan to compete for a $5 billion investment worth 50,000 jobs.) Mayor Mike Duggan noted that with fewer than five weeks to put together its proposal: “We’re up against really tough competition from really good cities.” Or, as the editorial notes: “Yes, we are—as Detroit Regional Chamber CEO Sandy Baruah learned this week when he flew to Toronto for a speech on trade between Canada and the United States. On the minds of the Canadian CEOs: luring Amazon’s massive economic play north of the border, no mean feat in the era of Trump.” Nonetheless, as the editorial added: “That’s not deterring Detroit’s mayor, facing re-election. It’s not deterring Quicken Loans Inc. Chairman Dan Gilbert, who quickly accepted Mayor Duggan’s offer to chair the regional effort to prepare an Amazon bid. And it’s not deterring local and state politicians, or a business community that is far more active in economic development efforts than their predecessors a decade ago…It shouldn’t: In fundamental ways, this region is different than the one industrialist Roger Penske shepherded through the process of bidding for a Super Bowl (at the personal request of Bill Ford Jr., whose family owns the Lions). It’s more competent, more confident and often more regionally cooperative. It has witnessed the deep costs of division and political corruption, of big business that worries more about bragging rights with competitors than being competitive. It’s tasted the ignominy of financial dissolution, and seen how private capital can breed renewal: Weathering the near-collapse of two Detroit automakers, the Great Recession, and the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history can do that. Seeing the crucial importance of individual leaders in a broader mosaic of leadership can, too. So can national embarrassment.”

Southeast Michigan is legendary for parochial infighting pitting city against suburb, for measuring solutions to difficult civic problems in decades, not years, for fixating on why change cannot happen instead of pushing to make it happen. Which raises a critical point that will be answered by the success of Gilbert & Co. to rally disparate leaders quickly around a cohesive bid: Were the speed and decisiveness of the auto restructuring, of the city’s financial workout, of the revitalization of downtown just historical aberrations? 

Or are they harbingers of a can-do future liberated from the confrontational zero-sum game that helped drive Detroit and its hometown auto industry to the edge of complete financial collapse? Look, no one should kid themselves: For a bid that seeks access to regional transit with connections to an international airport, the region that put America on wheels is woefully behind. For a bid that aims to create a second headquarters hub for one of 21st-century America’s iconic corporate brands, southeast Michigan isn’t too far removed from the stain of bankruptcy, municipal and corporate.

How indelible are those stains, if at all?

We’re about to find out.

“This is a no-lose proposition for southeast Michigan,” according to CAO Baruah of the Chamber. “Best case is we prevail under some very heavy competition. Even if we don’t win, but come close. It’s still a win for us. We learn how to do this well.” Whatever happens, business and political leaders arguably are more aligned around the economic way forward than any time in decades. The Democratic mayor of Detroit and the Republican governor coalesce around common problems, and more often than not so do their respective lawmakers.

Business leaders are more predisposed to dig into civic problems, with a dozen or so of their top leaders coming together in a new, still-unnamed group to champion reform. For the first time in a decade or more, Detroit’s automakers are led by longtime Michiganders — Mary Barra at General Motors Co. and Bill Ford and Jim Hackett at Ford.

Poverty declined and incomes rose last year in the Motor City, marking the first significant income increase recorded by the U.S. Census Bureau since the 2000 census, with Detroiters’ median household income up last year by 7.5% to $28,099 in 2016, according to U.S. Census’ American Community Survey estimates; ergo poverty dropped 4 percentage points to 35.7%‒the lowest level in nearly a decade—perhaps offering

Keystone Municipal Fiscal Erosion. Hazleton a small city of just over 25,000 in Luzerne County, is the county’s second largest city and the seventeenth largest city in the Keystone State—it was incorporated as a  borough 160 years ago, and then as a city on December 4, 1891. Now, Department of Community and Economic Development Secretary Dennis Davin has signed documents declaring Hazleton a “financially distressed” municipality under the state’s Act 47, effectively providing the Department the ability to solicit proposals on behalf of the city for professional management services. Mayor Jeff Cusat and City Council President Jack Mundie have been notified: the development puts the city in a position to apply for a $850,000 no-interest emergency loan that the state would make available via a revolving fund; Pennsylvania officials anticipate receiving a loan request from the city, since a consultative report that the Department prepared last month projects that Hazleton will face a $895,267 cash-flow shortage by the end of the year: a cash flow analysis projects $9,782,659 in expenses outpacing $8,887,392 in revenue for the year, according to the report—a report which unsurprisingly concludes: “This clearly is not fiscally sustainable, and it is projected that an extraordinary cash flow deficit will continue to exist.” Secretary Davin will have the final say whether to grant a loan to Hazleton; prior to that, she noted the City Council must adopt a resolution in support of the funding.

Council President Jack Mundie said that although he believes the city would have avoided Act 47 if the Mayor had followed the Council’s budget, the declaration leaves the city with little choice but to participate in the program. The city would have realized about $500,000 had the Mayor followed through with a plan to sell delinquent taxes to a collection agency and accepted another $220,000 payment from Hazleton City Authority in advance of land it expects to sell as the state looks to extend Route 424 into Humboldt Industrial Park. Mayor Cusat, however, has opposed paying fees related to the tax sale and has said he has seen no evidence that the land sale would take place this year to justify accepting the upfront payment—and, he has warned on several occasions that cash-flow issues put the city at risk of missing payroll; ergo, he believes it vital for the city to secure an emergency loan so that it may continue meeting payroll. He believes the city can make payroll on October 6th, provided the municipality takes advantage of a 30-day grace period for paying health insurance, explaining that is the date “when our quarterly health insurance payment is due, which is approximately $300,000. The only chance we have of making the Oct. 6 payroll is if I do not pay health insurance and I take advance of the 30-day grace period.” Council President Mundie added that he also does not want to see city workers go unpaid.

The $850,000 loan resolution was, thus, placed on yesterday’s meeting agenda: an offer Council President Mundie believed to be hard to refuse: “It’s payable over 10 years; there’s no interest; and payments are once a year: How can you refuse that money?” And, as Mayor Cusat noted: The city would confront severe repercussions if Council did not approve the loan resolution: “If they don’t pass it, the state has notified me that it’s almost guaranteed the city will be sent into immediate receivership—which has only happened once in the history of Pennsylvania: “I’m hoping that Council finally realizes how serious this problem is and agrees to the resolution,” adding there is a time element: the process for securing emergency funds could take up to 30 days, leaving no room for delays.  He also cited a recently released Communities in Crisis report prepared by Pennsylvania Economy League, “Communities in Crisis: The Truth and Consequences of Municipal Fiscal Distress in Pennsylvania, 1970-2014,” which he views as “critical” of Act 47: the report found that tax burdens have grown for all types of municipalities since 1990, even as municipal tax bases have been steadily shrinking since 1970: the report states that:

  • only one of the 14 municipalities which have participated in Act 47 had a tax base in 2014 that was at least on par with the tax base for communities that never participated;
  • that the tax burden for most Act 47 municipalities increased at a rate higher than non-Act 47 municipal averages; and
  • that six boroughs that exited Act 47 between 1990 and 2007 had tax bases that were significantly below the non-Act 47 borough average for 2014.

Or, as the report concludes: “This indicates that Act 47 was not successful in restoring tax base value to the boroughs that exited the program.” Thus, unsurprisingly, Council President Mundie fears the program would result in tax increases and the sale or lease of municipal authority assets—which the Council does not support, or, as he put it: “The state is going to force us into doing things we don’t want to do…I think [it] wants to sell the water and sewer (authorities).”  For his part, Mayor Cusat said the declaration of distress should not come as a surprise: when, previously, he tried to get the city to participate in the Early Intervention Program, he said that he learned the city had met two criteria to meet distressed status, ergo: “I’ve been warning council of this for the past year and a half, that we were headed in this direction: It shouldn’t come as a shock that Secretary Davin signed the documents.”

Shutting the Spigot? But tempus fugit: Pennsylvania state officials who confirmed Hazleton’s participation in Act 47 are expressing apprehensions with regard to how the House Republican’s fund transfers could impact the business community, specifically pointing to the removal of money from the Act 47 Revolving Aid Fund, a step which, if enacted, could pull the fiscal safety net out from under the state’s distressed communities: “Without this funding, cities would have a much more difficult time exiting Act 47,” according to Secretary Davin.

The Pennsylvania Economy League reports that fiscal decay has accelerated in all sizes of municipalities throughout the in its new report: “Communities in Crisis: The Truth and Consequences of Municipal Fiscal Distress in Pennsylvania, 1970-2014,” a report which examines 2,388 of the state’s 2,561 municipalities where consistent data existed from 1970, 1990, and 2014, considering, as variables, the available tax base per household, as well as the tax burden, a percentage of the tax base taken in the form of taxes to support local government services‒after which the municipalities were then divided into five quintiles, from  the wealthiest and most fiscally healthy to the most distressed—with Philadelphia and Pittsburgh excluded due to their size and tax structure. The League found that the tax burden has grown on average for all municipalities since 1990, but that the tax base has fallen, on average, in the state’s municipalities since 1970. In addition, the study determined that municipalities in Pennsylvania’s Act 47 distressed municipality program generally performed worse than average despite state assistance.

The study also found that communities which finance their own local police force, as opposed to those which rely solely on Pennsylvania State Police coverage, had double the municipal tax burden and ranked lower. (Readers can find the report in its entirety on the Pennsylvania Economy League’s website.) The League’s President, Chairman Greg Nowak, noted: “The first part of understanding and doing something about a crisis is understanding what it is,” adding that clearly the League believes the state’s local governments are in a fiscal crisis, comparing the new report to one the League released in 2006, which had warned of oncoming fiscal distress—a report, he noted, which had not galvanized either the state or its municipalities to take action. Gerald Cross, the Executive Director for Pennsylvania Economy League Central, said the study also found that tax bases in cities largely remained stagnant even as the local tax burden increased from 1990 to 2014, noting that all the state’s cities were in bottom-quintile rankings in 2014—and that while tax base generally grew in boroughs and first-class townships, the tax burden there also grew from 1990 to 2014; he added that the trend for second-class townships was mixed: while the tax base increased and more second-class townships moved into healthier quintiles, the tax burden also climbed from 1990 to 2014. Or, as Kevin Murphy, the President of the Berks County Community Foundation put it: “Pennsylvania’s system of local governments is broken and is harming the people living in our communities: It’s a system that was created here in Harrisburg [the state capitol], and it is Harrisburg which needs to fix it.” Pennsylvania has 4,897 local governments, including 1,756 special districts, cities, towns, and first, second, and third class townships.

Physical & Fiscal Destruction. Municipal fiscal analysts are apprehensive that Hurricane Irma’s physical and fiscal impact on Puerto Rico’s economy may be worse, because of the U.S. territory’s physical, fiscal, and capital debt—or, as Howard Cure of Evercore Wealth Management described it: “Entities that suffer a natural disaster need a strong balance sheet to take care of immediate clean-up and assessment needs until funding from the federal government and insurance companies becomes available.” The island lacks the requisite resources to recover on its own in the wake of a decade of fiscal deterioration—and now it is seemingly transfixed in the middle of a decade of fiscal decline, even as it is attempting to restructure its roughly $69 billion of public sector debt—and restore electricity to some 70% of the Puerto Ricans in the wake of Irma. Mr. Cure described Puerto Rico’s need to repair its power and water systems to be made more vital in the wake of many years of neglect, warning: Irma’s damage “could expedite the downward spiral of the economy and could cause even more of the workforce to leave.” Moody’s Investors Service senior credit officer Rick Donner added in his own fiscal apprehensions, writing: “Reports of widespread power outages that may persist for weeks in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Irma highlight longstanding liquidity pressures and an aging infrastructure that have beleaguered [the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority] for many years: Long-term power outages will have negative impacts on PREPA’s revenues and will pose added challenges in Puerto Rico’s overall recovery from this natural disaster; Any damage from the storm will also add to the stress related to PREPA’s recent default and could impact ultimate recovery for bondholders.” Some fiscal and physical help could come from the PROMESA Oversight Board, where Executive Director Natalie Jaresko said, “We are working closely with Gov. Rosselló to coordinate support for Puerto Rico in the aftermath of the storm. We have also reached out to the federal government to activate Title V, which allows the board to work with agencies to accelerate the deployment of grants and loans following a disaster.”

The Sinking Ships of States?

September 15, 2017

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s Blog, we consider the ongoing recovery in Detroit from the nation’s largest ever municipal bankruptcy, the unrelenting fiscal challenges for Flint; who voters in the fiscally insolvent municipality of East Cleveland will elect, the steep fiscal erosion for Pennsylvania’s local governments, and the uncertain fiscal outlook for Hartford.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

The Steep Road to Chapter 9 Recovery. Poverty declined and incomes rose last year in the Motor City, marking the first significant income increase recorded by the U.S. Census Bureau since the 2000 census, with Detroiters’ median household income up last year by 7.5% to $28,099 in 2016, according to U.S. Census’ American Community Survey estimates; ergo poverty dropped 4 percentage points to 35.7%‒the lowest level in nearly a decade—perhaps offering a boost to Mayor Mike Duggan’s reelection hopes in November.  Despite the gains, however, Detroit is still the city with the greatest level of poverty in the country—and a city where racial income disparities continue to fester: income data indicates that the incomes of Hispanic and white Detroit residents grew significantly compared to blacks, who make up 79 percent of the city, according to Kurt Metzger, a demographer and director emeritus of Data Driven Detroit, or, as Mr. Metzger writes: “Overall it’s a great story for Detroit…But when you look beneath the surface, we still have a lot of issues. There is a constant narrative out there: Are all boats rising together?” Mayor and candidate for re-election Mike Duggan has made clear he understands there is more work to do: noting that forty-four people graduated last month from the Detroit At Work job training program, which launched last February and from which half have already received job offers, the Mayor told the Detroit News: “Income goes up when one, there is a job opportunity and two, when you have the skills to take advantage of it: As we raise the skills of our residents we will raise the standard of living.” Nevertheless, he added: “Nobody is celebrating a (35.7) percent poverty rate, but the progress is important and it took us years to get here.”

If one looks farther ahead, there might be even more hope: the new data found that fewer of Detroit’s children are living in poverty: the under 18 poverty rate has declined about 14 percent to its lowest level since 2009—albeit still over 50 percent, with the decline attributed to higher numbers of jobs, and, ergo, greater incomes, with Xuan Liu, the manager of research and data analysis for the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments noting that with more residents of the city working (the unemployment rate dropped nearly 25% from 20.6% to its lowest level (16.5%) since 2009), or, as Mr. Liu noted: “Eight years after Great Recession, (census) data is finally show some significant economic benefits for more Detroiters.”

Notwithstanding that good news, it has not been city-wide, but rather concentrated: the city’s 2016 median income remains 14.6% lower today than what residents were earning a decade ago: just $32,886 adjusted for inflation, and while the new census figures show some economic improvements in Detroit, a recent Urban Institute report finds the recovery is not even through the city, noting that tax subsidies and investments are disproportionately favoring downtown and Midtown, with the bulk of the recovery along Detroit River, the Central Businesses District and Lower Woodward Corridor—or, as Mr. Metzger noted, the Motor City still faces a challenge if all of its citizens and families are to participate in the recovery: he notes the 2016 income data shows the gains were realized by Hispanic and white residents, but not for blacks, or as he described it: “The people who are ready and able to take advantage of the turnaround are doing it but those who aren’t, haven’t.” Detroit’s Workforce Development Board has set an employment goal of an additional 40,000 residents to find jobs in the next five years.

Not in like Flint. Unlike Detroit, Flint realized no change in poverty or income: the city so fiscally and physically mismanaged by the State of Michigan via its appointment of a gubernatorial Emergency Manager remains the poorest city in the nation amongst all cities with populations over 65,000: the city’s poverty rate last year was 44.5%; median household income was $25,896—less than half Macomb County’s median household income of $60,143.

Vote! Brandon King is a step closer to remaining Mayor of East Cleveland. Mr. King won the Democratic primary in East Cleveland, with 44.3% of the 1,760 citizens who voted, so that he has narrowed the field: he will continue to defend his seat in November against activist Devin Branch, who is running as a Green Party candidate, after beating out three other candidates for the nomination: former Councilman Mansell Baker, school board President Una Keenon, and community leader Dana Hawkins Jr. Ms. Keenon was the runner-up with 30.3 percent of the vote: she previously served as East Cleveland’s judge. The incumbent, who became Mayor last December after a contentious recall election ousted former Mayor Gary Norton Jr. and Council President Thomas Wheeler, leading to two vacancies on City Council, which council members Barbara Thomas and Nathaniel Martin filled with Mr. Branch and Kelvin Earby—appointees Mr. King decided to be “unlawful,” claiming there were insufficient elected leaders to choose the members, so that he usurped that authority and then appointed his own: Christopher Pitts and Ernest Smith. Unsurprisingly, a lawsuit regarding the appointments is now before the Ohio Supreme Court, even as the city’s petition for chapter 9 remains before the State of Ohio. November will bring elector contests in Ward 3 and for two at-large seats. Notwithstanding that the small municipality of 18,000 is in a state of fiscal emergency, Mayor King has pivoted away from former Mayor Norton’s strategy of trying to merge the city with Cleveland or declare the city in chapter 9 bankruptcy: instead he and the rest of the Democratic candidates want to focus on economic development.

Keystone Municipal Fiscal Erosion. The Pennsylvania Economy League reports that fiscal decay has accelerated in all sizes of municipalities throughout the in its new report: “Communities in Crisis: The Truth and Consequences of Municipal Fiscal Distress in Pennsylvania, 1970-2014,” a report which examines 2,388 of the state’s 2,561 municipalities where consistent data existed from 1970, 1990, and 2014, considering, as variables, the available tax base per household, as well as the tax burden, a percentage of the tax base taken in the form of taxes to support local government services‒after which the municipalities were then divided into five quintiles, from  the wealthiest and most fiscally healthy to the most distressed—with Philadelphia and Pittsburgh excluded due to their size and tax structure. The League found that the tax burden has grown on average for all municipalities since 1990, but that the tax base has fallen, on average, in the state’s municipalities since 1970. In addition, the study determined that municipalities in Pennsylvania’s Act 47 distressed municipality program generally performed worse than average despite state assistance.

The study also found that communities which finance their own local police force, as opposed to those which rely solely on Pennsylvania State Police coverage, had double the municipal tax burden and ranked lower. (Readers can find the report in its entirety on the Pennsylvania Economy League’s website.) The League’s President, Chairman Greg Nowak, noted: “The first part of understanding and doing something about a crisis is understanding what it is,” adding that clearly the League believes the state’s local governments are in a fiscal crisis, comparing the new report to one the League released in 2006, which had warned of oncoming fiscal distress—a report, he noted, which had not galvanized either the state or its municipalities to take action. Gerald Cross, the Executive Director for Pennsylvania Economy League Central, said the study also found that tax bases in cities largely remained stagnant even as the local tax burden increased from 1990 to 2014, noting that all the state’s cities were in bottom-quintile rankings in 2014—and that while tax base generally grew in boroughs and first-class townships, the tax burden there also grew from 1990 to 2014; he added that the trend for second-class townships was mixed: while the tax base increased and more second-class townships moved into healthier quintiles, the tax burden also climbed from 1990 to 2014. Or, as Kevin Murphy, the President of the Berks County Community Foundation, put it: “Pennsylvania’s system of local governments is broken and is harming the people living in our communities: It’s a system that was created here in Harrisburg [the state capitol], and it is Harrisburg which needs to fix it.” Pennsylvania has 4,897 local governments, including 1,756 special districts, cities, towns, and first, second, and third class townships.

The Sinking Ship of State? Notwithstanding Gov. Dannel Malloy’s warning before dawn this morning that “The urgency of the present moment cannot be overstated,” the state’s legislators went home in the wake of failing to approve a two-year, $41 billion budget which would have created an array of new taxes and fees, but avoided any increase in the sales or income tax. Thus, in the wake of all-day fiscal marathon, Republicans sent their members home in a chaotic ending, blaming the inability of the other side had failed to marshal the requisite votes: House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, after the Connecticut Senate had earlier given final legislative approval to a package of concessions expected to cover $1.5 billion of the estimated $5 billion state budget deficit through June of 2019, noted that still to be completed, however, is work on the rest of the budget, with the focus on financial aid to cities and towns (the biggest chunk of spending): he add ed that the detailed legal language in the budget, which had been delayed all day long, would not be ready until at least 6 a.m. this morning—with the Senate scheduled to convene at high noon. Notwithstanding the fiscal chaos, Senate Pro Tem leader Martin Looney (New Haven) said the Senate would convene at high noon today to vote on the budget, noting: “The problem is it’s not fully drafted… and what we agreed upon with the governor had not been fully reduced to language that everyone had signed off on: We didn’t have a hold-up in the Senate. We were ready to go forward,’’ raising the possibility that the House could vote later today.

Unsurprisingly, the sticking point appears to be taxes: A big problem appears to have stemmed from a proposal to tax vacation homes—a proposal which encountered opposition among Democrats, because non-residents cannot be taxed differently than residents of Connecticut. Negotiators had been relying on the tax to generate $32 million per year, fiscal resources which would not be available without support from moderate Democrats. The Democratic plan would add new taxes on cellphone bills and vacation homes, along with higher tax rates on hospitals, cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, and hotel rooms—and in an overnight development, a $12 surcharge on all homeowners’ insurance policies statewide for the next five years was proposed in order to help residents with crumbling concrete foundations. (Connecticut homeowners have been grappling for years with problems, and government officials have been unable to reach a comprehensive solution—mayhap Harvey and Irma have sent a physical fiscal message: more than 500 homeowners in 23 towns have filed complaints with the state; however Gov. Malloy fears that more than 30,000 homes could be at risk. The emerging fiscal compromise would also add new taxes on: ride-sharing services, non-prescription drugs, and companies that run fantasy sports gambling. In addition, the package includes more than $40 million as a set aside as part of a multi-pronged effort to help Hartford avert chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy—as well as increased funding for municipalities, even as it avoids deep cuts in public education which had been promised by Gov. Malloy via an executive order to trigger effective October 1st, warning: “The urgency of the present moment cannot be overstated: Local governments, community providers, parents, teachers and students—all of them are best served by passing a budget, and passing it now.”

The fiscal roilings came in the wake of Moody’s statement earlier in the week that Hartford’s “precarious liquidity position could result in insufficient cash flow to meet upcoming debt obligations…Additionally, the city has debt service payments in every month of the fiscal year, compounding the possibility of default at any time.” Interestingly, Gov. Malloy, earlier this week, noted that municipal bondholders and unions hold the key to whether Hartford would file for chapter 9 bankruptcy: “Hartford looks to be going bankrupt, and that ultimately may be the only way for them to resolve their issues…on the other hand, if all of the stakeholders in Hartford, including the unions and the bondholders and others come to the table, maybe that can be avoided.”

On the Steep Edge of Chapter 9

September 12, 2017

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s Blog, we consider the increasing risk of Hartford going into municipal bankruptcy, the Nutmeg State’s fiscal challenge—and whether the state’s leaders can agree to a bipartisan budget; then we consider the ongoing fiscal challenges to Detroit’s comeback from the nation’s largest ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy: the road is steep.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

On the Edge of Chapter 9. Connecticut legislators plan to move forward with a state budget vote this week—one which is not expected to include a sales and use take hike and which may not get much support from their Republican colleagues. In his declaration, last week, Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin, in warning the city may be filing for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy within sixty days pending state budget action, noted Hartford “believes that a restructuring of its outstanding bond indebtedness will be necessary to assure the fiscal stability of the city in the future regardless of any funding received from the State.” Nevertheless, as Municipal Market Analytics noted: “It’s unclear that the city will be able to satisfy the standard conditions for entry into bankruptcy protection such as proving itself insolvent,” albeit MMA noted that in the absence of a state bailout cash, the city will unable to make payments to its bondholders, nevertheless, noting that Connecticut fiscal changes enacted last summer “would reasonably allow the city to refinance its outstanding debt under provisions that not only purport to provide a statutory lien to bondholders, but also allow principal to be back-loaded and extended for 30 years. Under Connecticut law, municipalities may secure refunding bonds with a statutory lien if they provide for such in the resolution. MMA adds that even without a lien, Hartford “could also refinance, at a minimum, approximately 80% of its outstanding general obligation debt covered by bond insurance policies,” noting that “While this would not eliminate principal currently owed, it would avoid the expense of a chapter 9 bankruptcy.” However, as William Faulkner used to write of the “odor of verbena,” the reputation of chapter 9 can create contagion: MMA notes that “some municipal investors will still not loan capital to Bridgeport for its attempted bankruptcy filing twenty-six years ago.” Thus there is apprehension in the state house that Connecticut’s own interest rates could be adversely affected were Hartford to default or file for chapter 9—adding that such a filing would thus have fiscal adverse reverberations for the state, but also undermine business complacency about remaining in the city: “It is hard to expect that declaring bankruptcy would help the city retain its current employers or attract new ones. Amazon is unlikely to locate its headquarters in a bankrupt city.” Unsurprisingly, Connecticut legislators may be considering some sort of fiscal evaluation model like Virginia’s as a quasi- oversight and/or restructuring regime for local governments.

Meanwhile Connecticut House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz (D-Berlin) said a proposal to raise the sales and use tax as high as 6.85% has been removed from the Democratic budget proposal after facing strong opposition from moderates in his party, as the Speaker’s draft budget proposal sought to close a two-year $3.5 billion deficit, advising his colleagues: “The Senate was not comfortable with that, so it was our opinion as House Democrats that we would drop that off of our proposal in an effort to come to an agreement that would pass in both chambers.’’ Nevertheless, a proposal to raise the sales tax on restaurant meals to 7% remains under consideration—drawing strong opposition from the Farmington-based Connecticut Restaurant Association, and raising apprehensions from the industry, because it was unclear exactly which meals would be covered by the increased tax—even as restaurants now confront stiffer competition from ready-made meals at supermarkets, raising questions with regard to the definition of food and beverage—something to be resolved, according to officials, by the Connecticut Department of Revenue Services.

The fiscal dilemma has, moreover, not just been between the parties, but also between Gov. Malloy and Democrats, with the Governor opposed to many of the tax hikes they have proposed, albeit late last week he said he would agree to a small sales tax increase. Nevertheless, even as state Democratic leaders were still working on a budget agreement with the Governor, separate, simultaneous talks with Republicans broke down yesterday. While Republicans indicated they would not rule out further negotiations, the breakdown appears to be taxing: Gov. Malloy is still seeking tax increases on hospitals, cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, e-cigarettes, and real estate transactions—leading Republicans to charge that Democrats are unwilling to address major, long-term structural changes which would include spending and bonding caps, along with changing the prevailing wage for labor on municipal projects that unions and many Democrats have strongly opposed for years, or, as House Republican Leader Themis Klarides (R.-Seymour) noted: “It is very clear they have no interest in changing the way the State of Connecticut works…They want to fix it for this week, for next month, for next year. They do not want to fix this problem that has been a spiraling problem…“This might as well be Irma: I have more confidence on where Irma is going than where the state is going, based on the destruction they have left in their wake.’’

Republicans plan to release a revised budget proposal today, among which some of Gov. Malloy’s proposals could be included as part of a budget proposal House Democrats plan to consider Thursday, including an expansion of the state’s bottle bill to include juices, teas, and sports drinks. When consumers fail to return their bottles, the nickel deposit is kept by the state. As a result, the state expects to collect an additional $2.8 million starting on Jan. 1, and then another $7.4 million in the second year of the two-year budget from unclaimed deposits. The legislature appears fiscally anxious as Gov. Malloy’s October 1 deadline approaches—the date on which he is set to invoke large cuts: under his revised executive order, 85 communities would receive no educational cost-sharing funds; 54 towns would receive less money.

Nevertheless, the Governor and legislature are working in fiscal quicksand: Gov. Malloy, a Democrat, has been running the state by executive order since July 1st: he and the legislature remain at odds over a biennial spending plan while the Governor is proposing to raise the conveyance tax on real estate transactions, which he projects would bring in an expected $127 million more to the state over two years. However, the proposal comes as sources late yesterday reported that Alexion Pharmaceuticals Inc. will today announce that its corporate headquarters is moving from New Haven to Boston as part of a major “restructuring.” The state has provided Alexion with more than $26 million in state assistance to remain in Connecticut, so the announcement is likely to be a double fiscal whammy: not only will the company move, but also it plans to announce significant layoffs, renewing debate with regard to how the state can remain economically competitive. (Alexion had moved to New Haven early last year from Cheshire with a $6 million grant from the state, and a subsidized $20 million loan which will be fully forgiven if Alexion has 650 workers in Connecticut by 2017.) On average, Alexion had 827 employees in the state this year through June 30. Alexion also was offered tax credits, which could be worth as much as $25 million as part of the Malloy administration’s so-called “First Five” program. Alexion had located in a newly constructed 14-story building in downtown New Haven as part of an urban revitalization project intended to tie two sections of the city together—thus Alexion’s move was key to the completion of the first phase of the project. Gov.  Malloy noted: “Hartford looks to be going bankrupt, and that ultimately may be the only way for them to resolve their issues.” In releasing his proposed a $41 billion state budget, the Governor said that if all of the stakeholders in Hartford, including the unions and the bondholders and others come to the table, maybe that can be avoided: “Hartford looks to be going bankrupt, and that ultimately may be the only way for them to resolve their issues.” The Governor added: “There is an issue that Hartford has done some pretty stupid things over the years, and that bondholders and bond rating agencies tolerated that stupidity: And if there’s going to be relief, it has to be comprehensive in nature.” With Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin having, as we previously noted, warned that Hartford would file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy absent critical support from the state, labor unions, and its bondholders, the Mayor has been pressing for an additional $40 million from the state to avoid bankruptcy—even as the Governor and state legislative leaders claim the state budget provides enough to Hartford—or, in the Governor’s words: “presents the opportunity to help Hartford.” The budget proposal also calls for a four-tiered municipal board to oversee Hartford and other distressed cities. Gov. Malloy, a lame duck, ergo with waning political power, confronts an evenly divided state Senate, and a narrowly divided state House (79-72), so balancing the deck of the fiscal Titanic between revenues and expenditures—and addressing long-term capital and public pension obligations is an exceptional fiscal challenge. The Governor’s budget proposals would also repeal the back-to-school sales tax holiday and increase the cigarette tax by 45 cents to $4.35 per pack, effective the end of next month, as well as increase the conveyance tax on real estate sales.

Leaving Chapter 9 Is Uneasy. Detroit is finding that returning to access traditional capital markets is a challenge: notwithstanding significant downtown economic progress, that progress has been mostly in the increasingly vibrant downtown and Midtown areas. Significant parts of the 139-square mile city continue to struggle with pre-chapter 9 challenges, even as the narrow relief window for the city’s public pension obligations is winnowing, effectively imposing increasing fiscal pressure—especially in the wake of the city’s general fund revenues coming up short for FY2016: Detroit’s four-year fiscal forecast predicts an annual growth rate of approximately 1%. Thus, with its plan of debt adjustment requiring annual set-asides from surpluses of an additional $335 million (between FY16 and FY23) to address those obligations, that has cut into fiscal resources vital to reinvestment and improvement in public services—especially in outlying neighborhoods. Nevertheless, Detroit Future City reports that the annual decline in the city’s population of 672,000 has been slowing. Indeed, job growth has been above the nationwide average since 2010, and that growth appears to be in higher paying jobs of over $40 thousand per year, implying that the job growth is targeted at educated or skilled workers—a key development to encouraging migration to the city—where the 25-34 year-old population has grown by 10 thousand since 2011. Notwithstanding, however, more than 40% of Detroit’s population lives in poverty, nearly triple the statewide rate—and a rate which appears to have some correlation with violent crime. Thus, even though the city has made some progress in reducing overall violent crime, murders have still been rising—albeit at a 2.4% rate. Nevertheless, perceptions matter: a recent Politico-Morning Consult poll reported that 41% of Detroit residents said they consider the city very unsafe. Moreover, in a city where only 78.3% of students graduate high school and just 13.5% of those that reside in Detroit have a bachelor’s degree—half the national rate, the number of families with children has declined by more than 40%. Thus, unsurprisingly, with housing and blight still a problem, the city’s vacancy rate is close to 30%, and some 80,000 met or were expected to soon meet the definition of blight. Worse: some 8,000 properties are scheduled to enter the foreclosure auction process this year.

Fiscal & Physical Storms

September 6, 2017

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s Blog, we consider the new state fiscal oversight program in Virginia; then we move west to the Motor City, where November’s election will test voters’ perception of the fiscal state of post-chapter 9 Detroit. Then we veer back East to the Nutmeg state—a state whose state fiscal problems could wreak havoc with its municipalities. Finally, with Hurricane Irma, one of the most fearsome hurricanes ever recorded, bearing down this a.m. on the U.S. Territories of the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, we fear for lives and physical and fiscal safety.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

Not So Fiscally Rich in Richmond? Richmond, Virginia—notwithstanding a 25% poverty level, has been in the midst of a building boom; it has reported balancing its budget, and that it holds a savings reserve of $114 million—in addition to which, the state has logged  budget surpluses in each of its most recent fiscal years; it currently has an AA rating from the three major credit rating, each of which reports that the former capital of the Confederacy has a modestly growing tax base, manageable municipal debt, and a long-term stable outlook—albeit with disproportionate levels of poverty. Nevertheless, State Auditor Martha S. Mavredes, according to a recent state report distributed within government circles, including the Virginia Municipal League and the Virginia Association of Counties, has cited the municipalities of Richmond and Bristol as failing to meet the minimum standard for financial health. In the case of Richmond, according to the report, the city scored less than 16 on the test for the past two fiscal years—a score which Auditor Mavredes described as indicating severe stress in her testimony last month before the General Assembly’s Joint Subcommittee on Local Government Fiscal Stress, noting that the test was applied for fiscal years 2014, 2015, and 2016. The fiscal test is based on information contained in annual audited financial reports provided by each locality—except the municipalities of Hopewell and Manassas Park have stopped providing reports—with the fiscal stress rankings based on the results of ten ratios which primarily rely on revenues, expenses, assets, liabilities, and unused savings: the test weighs the level of reserves and a municipality’s ability to meet liabilities without borrowing, raising taxes, or withdrawing from reserves—as well as the extent to which a locality is able to meet the following fiscal year’s obligations without changes to revenues or expenses: Richmond’s score was near 50 in FY2014, but fell below 16 in FY2015  and to 13.7 in FY2016. Thus, even though Virginia has no authority to intervene in local finances, the new fiscal measuring system has created a mechanism to help focus fiscal attention in advance of any serious fiscal crisis.

Whereto the Motor City? Edward Isaac Dovere, writing for Politico, reported that in a new POLITICO-Morning Consult poll, only 27% of Motor City residents reported they had a very or somewhat favorable view of Detroit, compared with a quarter of respondents who said they had an unfavorable view; only 5% said they considered Detroit very safe: 41% responded they considered it very unsafe. The fear factor—in addition to apprehension about the city’s school options—appear to be discouraging young families: the keys to the city’s hope for a vibrant fiscal future.  Those keys are vital, as Detroit’s population appears to be continuing to decline. About the Mayor, he writes: “There’s no mystique to what he’s doing, or why people seem to want four more years of him, he and his aides say. A big part of whatever success he’s had is just showing up, after decades when his predecessors didn’t: ‘In Detroit,’ said Duggan’s campaign manager Rico Razo, ‘people just want a response.’”

Nutmeg or Constitution State Blues. Connecticut, which was designated the Constitution State by the General Assembly in 1959, albeit according to others the “Nutmeg State,” because its early inhabitants had the reputation of being so ingenious and shrewd that they were able to make and sell wooden nutmegs—is certainly in some need today of fiscal shrewdness. Connecticut Comptroller Kevin Lembo has warned Gov. Dannel Malloy that unless the legislature acts swiftly to enact a budget, the “inability to pass a budget will slow Connecticut’s economic growth and will ultimately lead to the state and its municipalities receiving downgrades in credit ratings that will cost taxpayers even more,” adding that the state, which is currently in fiscal limbo, operating under Gov. Malloy’s executive orders since the beginning of July, otherwise confronts a $93.9 million FY2018 deficit—adding: the state’s economy “continues to post mixed results across an array of key economic indicators: These results do not indicate that the state can grow its way out of the current revenue stagnation.” Making sure there is appreciation that the state inaction would affect far more than just the state, he added: “The inability to pass a budget…will ultimately lead to the state and its municipalities receiving downgrades in credit ratings.” The dire warning comes as the state’s 169 towns, one borough, and nineteen chartered cities are caught in the middle—and fearing an outcome, as Gov. Malloy has proposed in his biennial budget for the legislature to cut local funding by $650 million—and mandate municipalities ante up $400 million annually for public pension contributions for the state’s teachers.

The holdup in state aid to local governments comes as both state and local borrowing costs are suffering: Moody’s has hit the state with three credit downgrades, so that for local governments—even as their state aid is delayed and uncertain, their municipal bond interest rates are climbing. Indeed, Moody has deemed Gov. Malloy’s modified executive order a credit negative for local governments, because it reduces total aid to municipalities by nearly 40% from fy2017 levels: that order, issued last month, reduces the largest source of state municipal aid, the state’s education cost sharing, by $557 million relative to the last fiscal year. Thus, Controller Lembo warns that the inability to set a state budget can only aggravate state and local fiscal conditions, noting: “This problem is exacerbated each month as potential sources of additional revenue are foregone due to the absence of the necessary changes to the revenue structure.”  That is aggravated by higher state expenditures: the Comptroller noted that state expenditures through the first month of the state’s fiscal year were more than 10% higher than last year, a double-digit increase he attributes to rising fixed costs, including debt and public pension obligations. If anything, the woeful fiscal situation could be exacerbated by preliminary data indicating that the state lost 600 jobs in July, a disheartening downturn after the last fiscal year when the state had posted 11,600 new payroll jobs; indeed, during the last period of economic recovery, employment growth averaged over 16,000 annually.

Physical & Fiscal Storm. President Trump yesterday declared a state of emergency in Puerto Rico and ordered that federal assistance be provided to local authorities. Gov. Ricardo Rossello, early this morning warned: “The day has arrived,” as Hurricane Irma neared landfall, registering sustained winds of 185 miles per hour, far greater than levels measured under Hurricane Harvey in Houston. The Governor stated: “We want to make sure that in those areas of high vulnerability people can mobilize to one of our shelters; we are still preparing for what could be a catastrophic event.” The Governor called on anyone living in flood areas to seek refuge in each of a relative or friend or one of the shelters enabled. Already this a.m., the number of refugees in Puerto Rico due to the hurricane rose to 707, distributed in schools operating in the 13 police areas. The San Juan area commander, Colonel Juan Cáceres, said there are six shelters open the San Juan, noting: “In addition to staff working 12-hour shifts, area commanders are divided into two work shifts: 6:00 am to 6:00 pm and vice versa. We will be patrolling and doing surveillance work as long as the weather permits and in the commercial areas that are still selling merchandise to protect consumers.” The city’s security plan will emphasize traffic control and direction: The refugees were not only Puerto Ricans, but also tourists. By the time you read this post, the territory is expected to experience the physical intensity of Irma, a category 5 hurricane with winds of 185 miles per hour. For a territory already in severe fiscal distress, the storm promises dire fiscal and physical challenges.

 

September 1, 2017

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s Blog, we consider the ongoing turn-back of fiscal authority from the State of Michigan to the City of Detroit, the fast-approaching Mayoral election in the Motor City, the searing fiscal challenge in Connecticut not to be Illinois, and the fiscal and physical challenges in Puerto Rico where Hurricane Irma and the PROMESA Oversight Board are bearing down.  

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

Post-Kilpatrick Motor City. The Michigan Tax Commission has relinquished its control over property reappraisals in Detroit, having voted unanimously to relinquish the state oversight Detroit has been under since 2014 in the wake of mismanagement in Detroit’s Assessment Division, widespread over-assessments, and signal property tax delinquencies—delinquencies in response to which the state commission had imposed a corrective action plan aimed at revamping how the city set its property taxes, or, as Alvin Horhn, Detroit’s assessor and deputy CFO noted: “This is one more symbol that city government has gotten this right: Detroit basically had been an island to ourselves for a long time. That type of intervention was hard to swallow.” The Commission’s actions came as a federal judge yesterday ordered the city’s former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick to pay more than $1.5 million to the city’s water department as restitution from the City Hall corruption scandal—money which the city is most unlikely to collect, as Mr. Kilpatrick recently claimed he has less than one dollar in his prison bank account, where his longer than Mayoral term will run to 2037. Nevertheless, the judicial order would seem to bring to a close one of the remaining issues stemming from the landmark trial which ended with the former Mayor who bears such responsibility for plunging the city into the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history: he was convicted of running a criminal enterprise out of City Hall that included steering rigged water and sewer contracts to buddy Bobby Ferguson. The reduction in the fee came in the wake of a rule by the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals after it tossed the $4.5 million figure and directed U.S. District Judge Edmunds to recalculate the restitution amount. (Judge Edmunds had noted that the corruption indictment, which alleged that the cty’s former Mayor former Detroit Water & Sewerage Department Director Victor Mercado rigged bids and steered work to Lakeshore, which had hired Mr. Ferguson’s company as a subcontractor.) The order came in response to the former Mayor’s request that his conviction for racketeering and 28-year sentence be set aside—claiming there had been no corruption during his scandal-plagued tenure, a request he made some 13 months after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected his appeal.

The state Tax Commission’s action came in the wake of allegations that Detroit had been over assessing homes by an average of 65 percent, e.g. assessments imposing significant property tax hikes, based on an analysis of more than 4,000 appeal decisions by a Michigan tax board which has been overseeing a key part of the agreement from the citywide reappraisal initiated in 2014 to bring the Motor City’s assessment role into compliance with the Michigan General Property Tax Act to ensure all assessments are at one half of the market value and like properties are uniformly assessed—a reassessment the Deputy CFO noted had not been made in more than half a century. Michigan Tax Commission Executive Director Heather S. Frick noted: “The city has continued to move forward in their work to improve the residential reappraisal and to complete work on the commercial and industrial reappraisals to maintain and improve the residential reassessments.” The state commission granted Detroit an additional year to complete reassessment of commercial and industrial reappraisals. The good news for the city is that Michigan Tax Commission Chairman Doug Roberts noted that the work Detroit has done in its reappraisals has been “very positive.” He said he had been “concerned about it for a while, but I was very pleased with the report that we got yesterday: The fact of the matter is I think they have been working very hard on it. I was pleased to vote for it.” The city anticipates spending nearly $9 million on the reappraisal project, which has included use of aerial photography, mapping programs, and exterior inspections by staffers to gauge neighborhood conditions and better reflect property values—an effort Mayor Duggan had initiated at the beginning of this election year in the city when he presented his proposed 2017 property assessments in the wake of the completion of the parcel-by-parcel reappraisal for nearly 255,000 residential properties—a comprehensive reassessment which estimated 140,000 homeowners would realize reductions averaging several hundred dollars.

Getting Ready to Rumble. Post-chapter 9 Detroit is heating up with a key pre-election Mayoral debate scheduled for October 25th, when Mayor Mike Duggan will take on his challenger, Michigan state Sen. Coleman Young II. The candidates are to present their respective visions and strategies for the future of post-municipal bankruptcy Detroit, with this marking the second debate of the campaign, after Mayor Duggan prevailed in last month’s primary by a 67%‒26% margin, far higher than any of the remaining six contenders. A key emerging issue in the campaign appears to be what the city will do to address neighborhood recovery, with apprehensions that a newly gleaming and lively downtown has come at the expense of outlying neighborhoods, leaving out citizens who live within the city limits but outside of downtown and Midtown.

UnIllinois. Connecticut Gov. Patrick Malloy, the state’s 88th Governor, in a meeting with the editorial board of the Hartford Courant said that the state’s cities and towns need to tighten their belts, because the state can no longer afford to keep sending them millions of dollars every year, as he expressed pessimism about the state budget. The Governor noted he opposes any increase in the state income tax, even as he reported he sees no light at the end of the tunnel after the months’ long stalemate with the legislature:  “I don’t see that the House is anywhere near passing a budget that I could sign: Certainly everything I know about the budget that they’ve deliberated on over the past couple of weeks—means I would not sign that budget.” Gov. Malloy added: “Whatever the House passes, in line with what they’re talking about, wouldn’t get through the Senate. So, we really have made almost no progress…It’s clear to me that they’re not dealing with the budgetary reality. I think, quite frankly, they’re grasping for straws in an attempt to cobble together a budget.” He added that, unlike his predecessor, former Gov. Jodi Rell, he would not allow the state budget to become law without his signature.  Indeed, in response to the query whether the stalemate could last into December, his budget director, Ben Barnes, responded: “We can operate with all of the schools open and everything moving along until March.”

The budget stalemate comes as millions of state dollars are being withheld under an executive order, thus Gov. Malloy and his Budget Director Benjamin Barnes note that municipalities such as Hartford, Waterbury, Scotland, Sprague, and West Haven could be facing financial problems later in the fiscal year. Director Barnes noted: “We don’t want to have towns become insolvent or bounce paychecks or miss vendor payments…On the other hand, if they’re going to ask us for extraordinary help, we’re going to get in their business a little bit and make sure that they’re doing the things that they should be doing to get through a very austere and uncertain time.” At the same time, in this intergovernmental unbalancing act, Gov. Malloy has spoken strongly against any increase in the state income tax, saying it would be damaging to the economy and prompt some rich residents to flee the state.

Even though an income tax increase is not currently in any of the fiscal plans circulating at the state Capitol, some lawmakers have not backed off the idea. In an interview with an editorial board, the Governor noted: “A further raise in the income tax would be extremely detrimental to the long-term health of the state…Extremely detrimental…We should put up a one-way toll for everyone who moves to Westchester County.” The state raised the income tax rate on the state’s millionaires in 2009, 2011, and 2015; today the top rate is 6.99%; income-tax proponents have said they have at least 45 votes in the House Democratic caucus for an increase in taxes on the wealthy; however, House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz (Berlin) said earlier this year that 45 votes is far short of the requisite 76 votes to pass in the 151-member chamber. Similarly, Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney (D-New Haven) notes: “There’s no serious proposal at this point out there on income-tax change.” He expects a vote on the two-year, $40 billion budget the week after next, noting: “There’s a growing sense that we need to vote that week to forestall the Governor’s executive order from taking effect…the Democrats will need to have an agreement with the Governor in order for the lieutenant governor to cast the tie-breaking vote.” House Majority Leader Matt Ritter (D-Hartford) agreed that the legislature must avoid large cuts to cities and towns that would take effect on the first of next month if Gov. Malloy’s executive order continues. Unsurprisingly, in his discussion with the Courant editorial board, the Governor was pessimistic about the long-running soap opera at the Capitol, noting that if the income tax were to become a major part of the discussion, the battle could last even longer: “I don’t think that there is any likelihood” of a budget passing with an income tax increase.” The Connecticut House is scheduled to vote a week fvrom next Thursday; however, the specifics have yet to be settled. In the state Senate, three moderate Democrats have all raised concerns about possible tax increases: there positions are critical as that chamber is evenly divided with 18 Democrats and 18 Republicans.

The legislative stalemate led some 25 mayors and first selectmen to travel to the Capitol this week to plead their case for increased assistance and a quick budget resolution: the municipal leaders are seeking to avoid a revised plan by the Governor which would eliminate all education cost-sharing funds for 85 towns and reduce the total for about 54 others: under the pending proposal, the towns would collectively lose hundreds of millions of dollars if the legislature is unable to pass a budget and the Governor’s revised executive order takes effect.

The proposed sales and use tax increase to 6.85 percent in the House appears to be the key impediment: Rep. Danny Rovero, a key swing voter in the House Democratic caucus, who represents the municipalities of Killingly, Putnam, Thompson, said he will vote against the pending budget due to the proposed hike in the sales tax to 6.85 percent, up from the current 6.35 percent: “I’m not in favor of the sales tax; I’m not in favor of any tax. I’m not saying it won’t pass, but it won’t be with my vote.”

Because the Democrats hold a 79-72 edge in the House, they can only afford the loss of three of their members; ergo, Rep. Rovero’s vote matters. Being one of the most fiscally conservative Democrats, Rep. Rovero’s position is that the legislature needs to cut state spending and shift more work to nonprofit organizations which hold contracts to provide state services, such as group homes. He believes that nonprofits provide the services at a lower cost than the state, where employees receive more generous benefits and larger pensions. Nevertheless, he appears willing to listen to the plan by Gov. Malloy and the House Democrats to raise the cigarette tax to $4.35 per pack, up from the current $3.90 per pack.

The looming vote comes as the Malloy administration has warned the towns repeatedly that they would be receiving fewer state funds than in the past. His budget spokesperson, Chris McClure, notes: “While we can disagree on our opinions, we should not disagree on the facts…And the fact is, over the last five years, municipal aid increased 21 percent as billions of dollars have been slashed elsewhere in the state budget.” For Gov. Malloy, he made clear, succinctly: “I’m trying to stop us from being Illinois.”

Physical & Fiscal Threats. As Hurricane Irma bears down on the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico, a parallel fiscal storm is arising, as Governor Ricardo Rosselló has reiterated his refusal to give way to that guideline of the PROMESA Oversight Board: stating there will be public employment as usual, refusing to kowtow to the Board’s demand and clarifying that his actions are not a matter of imprudence, but rather of being “firm,” since, in his view, the Board’s order was not justified and was not contained in the fiscal plan, approved last March: “The implementation of the reduction of working hours was never an agreement within the fiscal plan. It was a recommendation that was implemented unilaterally,” noting his apprehensions that “such action is not necessary” since it exceeded the Board’s claims regarding a reservation, and noting that reducing the day would have “a negative impact on the economy,” as well as not be transformative of the government—stating: “There is a big difference between being firm and reckless. Our government is being firm in its position. There is no need for a reduction in working time now. There is not…But we want to be cautious and talk about how we got to that point. We must be cautious and give space to what would be the first reporting period that would be in October where our government has not yet had the opportunity to prove those findings under the PROMESA law. We are being cautious in this assertion. We are being rational in this assertion, but we are also being firm, because we understand that it is a measure that will not yield beneficial results for Puerto Rico and, therefore, tomorrow as we have established, that measure will not be implemented.”

The Governor’s comments came in reaction to the Board’s action early in the week to go to court Monday to force the government to comply with fiscal measures it deems necessary needed to revive Puerto Rico’s economy, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief against Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and his government, and a court order to mandate Puerto Rico’s government to introduce a 10 percent furlough program for most of its employees to save money. It is also asking the court for an order forcing the territory to comply with planned cuts to government pension benefits.  Natalie Jaresko, the executive director of the Oversight Board, said the measures are necessary to reduce spending: “Fiscal reform is a difficult but necessary process for Puerto Rico and the credibility of the plan lies in its enforcement.”

Nevertheless, the Governor stressed the importance of the ongoing dialogue with the PROMESA Board federal entity in charge of the island’s finances continues: “That goal and that commitment continues and I can tell you the day, still, although it does not appear at times, our government practically every day is in communication with the Board, with the Board advisers to continue measuring and looking for what are these targets for compliance with the tax plan: Let there be no doubt that our government has a commitment to comply with the fiscal plan.”

PROMESA Board Chair José Carrión said that the Governor is a citizen of “law and order” and expected him to comply with a possible reduction decision, adding that that the measure would be more severe if it was not done now.

What about the Municipios? The Puerto Rico Senate met yesterday in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico’s eighth-largest municipality, a muncipio founded as Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria, which is also known as La Sultana del Oeste (The Sultaness of the West), Ciudad de las Aguas Puras (City of Pure Waters), or Ciudad del Mangó (City of the Mango). On April 6, 1894, the Spanish crown gave it the formal title of Excelente Ciudad de Mayagüez (Excellent City of Mayaquez) to address the concerns of that area of ​​the country, especially the role of two regional airports in the economic development of the area and the precarious fiscal situation of the 12 municipalities of the area: the public hearing included members of the Senate, constituting what is known as a Special Special Commission. At the hearing, the mayors of the western area reviewed the main challenges facing municipalities in the midst of the economic crisis: among them, the recurrent theme of cuts in so-called subsidies for municipalities, some $ 350 million in two years. West Chamber of Commerce President Kenneth Leonor told El Nuevo Dia that the region’s economic problems could be tackled by public-private alliances in areas such as technology and tourism and municipal enterprises, noting: “We need more foreign and foreign investment that can reach Puerto Rico.” For Felipe Morales Nieves, president of the Economic Movement of Development of the West, it is crucial that improvements be made to the airport Rafael Hernandez, in Aguadilla, to turn it into an international one that serves the Caribbean clientele.

Measuring Municipal Fiscal Distress

August 29, 2017

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s Blog, we consider the new Local Government Fiscal Distress bi-cameral body in Virginia and its early actions; then we veer north to Atlantic City, where both the Governor and the courts are weighing in on the city’s fiscal future; before scrambling west to Scranton, Pennsylvania—as it seeks to respond to a fiscally adverse judicial ruling, then back west to the very small municipality of East Cleveland, Ohio—as it awaits authority to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy—and municipal elections—then to Detroit’s ongoing efforts to recover revenues as part of its recovery from the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy, before finally ending up in the Windy City, where the incomparable Lawrence Msall has proposed a Local Government Protection Authority—a quasi-judicial body—to serve as a resource for the Chicago Public School System.  

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

Measuring Municipal Fiscal Distress. When Virginia Auditor of Public Accounts Martha S. Mavredes last week testified before the Commonwealth’s new Joint House-Senate Subcommittee on Local Government Fiscal Stress, she named Bristol as one of the state’s four financially distressed localities—a naming which Bristol City Manager Randy Eads confirmed Monday. Bristol is an independent city in the Commonwealth of Virginia with a population just under 18,000: it is the twin city of Bristol, Tennessee, just across the state line: a line which bisects middle of its main street, State Street. According to the auditor, the cities of Petersburg and Bristol scored below 5 on a financial assessment model that uses 16 as the minimum threshold for indicating financial stress, with Bristol scoring lower than Petersburg. One other city and two counties scored below 16. For his part, City Manager Eads said he and the municipality’s CFO “will be working with the APA to determine how the scores were reached,” adding: “The city will also be open to working with the APA to address any issues.” (Bristol scored below the threshold the past three years, dropping to 4.25 in 2016. Petersburg had a score of 4.48 in 2016, when its financial woes became public.) Even though the State of Virginia has no authority to directly involve itself in a municipality’s finances (Virginia does not specifically authorize its municipal entities to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, certain provisions of the state’s laws [§15.2-4910] do allow for a trust indenture to contain provisions for protecting and enforcing rights and remedies of municipal bondholders—including the appointment of a receiver.), its new system examines the Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports submitted annually and scores them on 10 financial ratios—including four that measure the health of the locality’s general fund used to finance its budget. Manager Eads testified: “At the moment, the city does not have all of the necessary information from the APA to fully address any questions…We have been informed, by the APA, that we will receive more information from them the first week of September.” He added that the city leaders have taken steps to bolster cash flow and reserves, while reducing their reliance on borrowing short-term tax anticipation notes. In addition, the city has recently began implementing a series of budgetary and financial policies prior to the APA scores being released—steps seemingly recognized earlier this summer when Moody’s upgraded the city’s outlook to stable and its municipal bond rating to Baa2 with an underlying A3 enhanced rating, after a downgrade in 2016. Nevertheless, the road back is steep: the city still maintains more than $100 million in long-term general obligation bond debt with about half of it tied to The Falls commercial center in the Exit 5 area, which has yet to attract significant numbers of tenants.

Fiscal Fire? The State of New Jersey’s plan to slash Atlantic City’s fire department by 50 members was blocked by Superior court Judge Julio Mendez, preempting the state’s efforts to reduce the number of firefighters in the city from 198 to 148. The state, which preempted local authority last November, has sought to sharply reduce the city’s expenditures: state officials had last February proposed to move the Fire Department to a less expensive health plan and reduce staffing in the department from 225 firefighters to 125. In his ruling, however, Judge Mendez wrote: “The court holds that the (fire department’s union) have established by clear and convincing evidence that Defendants’ proposal to reduce the size of the Atlantic City Fire Department to 148 firefighters will cause irreparable harm in that it compromises the public safety of Atlantic City’s residents and visitors.” Judge Mendez had previously granted the union’s request to block the state’s actions, ruling last March that any reduction below 180 firefighters “compromises public safety,” and that any reduction should happen “through attrition and retirements.”

Gov. Christie Friday signed into law an alternative fiscal measure for the city, S. 3311, which requires the state to offer an early-retirement incentive program to the city’s police officers, firefighters, and first responders facing layoffs, noting at the bill signing what he deemed the Garden State’s success in its stewardship of the city since November under the Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act, citing Atlantic City’s “great strides to secure its finances and its future.” The Governor noted a drop of 11.4 percent in the city’s overall property-tax rate, the resolution of casino property-tax appeals, and recent investments in the city. For their parts, Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, sponsors of the legislation, said the new law would let the city “reduce the size of its police and fire departments without jeopardizing public safety,” adding that the incentive plan, which became effective with the Governor’s signature, would not affect existing contracts or collective bargaining rights—or, as Sen. Sweeney stated: “We don’t want to see any layoffs occur, but if a reduction in workers is required, early retirement should be offered first to the men and women who have served the city.” For his part, Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian said, “I’m glad that the Governor and the State continue to follow the plan that we gave them 10 months ago. As all the pieces that we originally proposed continue to come together, Atlantic City will continue to move further in the right direction.”

For its part, the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, which has been the fiscal overseer of the state takeover of Atlantic City, has touted the fiscal progress achieved this year from state intervention, including the adoption of a $206.3 million budget that is 20 percent lower than the city’s FY2015 budget, due to even $56 million less than 2015 due to savings from staff adjustments and outsourcing certain municipal services. Nevertheless, Atlantic City, has yet to see the dial spin from red to black: the city, with some $224 million in bonded debt, has deep junk-level credit ratings of CC by S&P Global Ratings and Caa3 by Moody’s Investors Service; it confronts looming debt service payments, including $6.1 million owed on Nov. 1, according to S&P.

Scrambling in Scranton. Moody’s is also characteristically moody about the fiscal ills of Scranton, Pennsylvania, especially in the wake of a court decision barring the city from  collecting certain taxes under a state law—a decision Moody’s noted  “may reduce tax revenue, which is a vital funding source for the city’s operations.” Lackawanna County Court of Common Pleas Judge James Gibbons, at the beginning of the month, in a preliminary ruling against the city, in response to a challenge by a group of eight taxpayers, led by Mayoral candidate Gary St. Fleur, had challenged Scranton’s ability to levy and collect certain taxes under Pennsylvania’s Act 511, a state local tax enabling act. His preliminary ruling against the city affects whether the Home Rule Charter law supersedes the statutory cap contained in Act 511. Unsurprisingly, the City of Scranton has filed a motion for reconsideration and requested the court to enable it to appeal to the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania. The city, the state’s sixth-largest city (77,000), and the County seat for Lackawanna County is the geographic and cultural center of the Lackawanna River valley, was incorporated on St. Valentine’s Day 161 years ago—going on to become a major industrial city, a center of mining and railroads, and attracted thousands of new immigrants. It was a city, which acted to earn the moniker of the “Electric City” when electric lights were first introduced in 1880 at Dickson Locomotive Works. Today, the city is striving to exit state oversight under the state’s Act 47—oversight the municipality has been under for a quarter century.

Currently, Moody’s does not provide a credit rating for the city; however, Standard and Poor’s last month upgraded the city’s general obligation bonds to a still-junk BB-plus, citing revenue from a sewer-system sale, whilst Standard and Poor’s cited the city’s improved budget flexibility and liquidity, stemming largely from a sewer-system sale which enabled the municipality to retire more than $40 million of high-coupon debt. Moreover, Scranton suspended its cost-of-living-adjustments, and manifested its intent to apply a portion of sewer system sale proceeds to meet its public pension liabilities. Ergo, Moody’s writes: “These positive steps have been important for paying off high interest debt and funding the city’s distressed pension plans…While these one-off revenue infusions have been positive, Scranton faces an elevated fixed cost burden of over 40% of general fund revenues…Act 511 tax revenues are an important revenue source for achieving ongoing, balanced operations, particularly as double-digit property tax increases have been met with significant discontent from city residents. The potential loss of Act 511 tax revenues comes at a time when revenues for the city are projected to be stagnant through 2020.”

The road to municipal fiscal insolvency is easier, mayhap, because it is downhill: Scranton fiscal challenges commenced five years ago, when its City Council skipped a $1 million municipal bond payment in the wake if a political spat; Scranton has since repaid the debt. Nevertheless, as Moody’s notes: “If the city cannot balance its budget without illegally taxing the Scranton people, it is absolute proof that the budget is not sustainable…Scranton has sold off all its public assets and raised taxes excessively with the result being a declining tax base and unfriendly business environment…The city needs to come to terms with present economic realities by cutting spending and lowering taxes. This is the only option for the city.”

Scranton Mayoral candidate Gary St. Fleur has said the city should file for Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy and has pushed for a related ballot measure. Combined taxes collected under Act 511, including a local services tax that Scranton recently tripled, cannot exceed 1.2% of Scranton’s total market value.  Based on 2015 market values, according to Moody’s, Scranton’s “511 cap” totals $27.3 million. In fiscal 2015 and 2016, the city collected $34.5 million and $36.8 million, respectively, and for 2018, the city has budgeted to receive $38 million.  The city, said Moody’s, relied on those revenues for 37.7% of fiscal 2015 and 35.9% of fiscal 2016 total governmental revenues. “A significant reduction in these tax revenues would leave the city a significant revenue gap if total Act 511 tax revenues were decline by nearly 25%,” Moody’s said.

Heavy Municipal Fiscal Lifting. Being mayor of battered East Cleveland is one of those difficult jobs that many people (and readers) would decline. If you were to motor along Euclid Avenue, the city’s main street, you would witness why: it is riddled with potholes and flanked by abandoned, decayed buildings. Unsurprisingly, in a city still awaiting authorization from the State of Ohio to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, blight, rising crime, and poor schools, have created the pretext for East Clevelanders to leave: The city boasted 33,000 people in 1990; today it has just 17,843, according to the latest U.S. Census figures. Nevertheless, hope can spring eternal: four candidates, including current Mayor Brandon L. King, are seeking the Democratic nomination in next month’s Mayoral primary (Mayor King replaced former Mayor Gary Norton last year after Norton was recalled by voters.)

Motor City Taxing. Detroit hopes to file some 700 lawsuits by Thursday against landlords and housing investors in a renewed effort to collect unpaid property taxes on abandoned homes that have already been forfeited; indeed, by the end of November, the city hopes to double the filings, going after as many as 1,500 corporations and investors whose abandonment of Detroit homes has been blamed for contributing to the Motor City’s blight epidemic: Motor City Law PLC, working on behalf of the city, has filed more than 60 lawsuits since last week in Wayne County Circuit Court; the remainder are expected to be filed before a Thursday statute of limitations deadline: the suits target banks, land speculators, limited liability corporations, and individuals with three or more rental properties in Detroit: investors who typically purchase homes at bargain prices at a Wayne County auction and then eventually stop paying property tax bills and lose the home in foreclosure: the concern is that unscrupulous landlords have been abusing the auction system. The city expects to file an additional 800 lawsuits over the next quarter—with the recovery effort coming in the wake of last year’s suits by the city against more than 500 banks and LLCs which had an ownership stake in houses that sold at auction for less than what was owed to the city in property taxes. Eli Savit, senior adviser and counsel to Mayor Mike Duggan, noted that those suits netted Detroit more than $5 million in judgments, even as, he reports: “Many cases are still being litigated.” To date, the 69 lawsuits filed since Aug. 18 in circuit court were for tax bills exceeding $25,000 each; unpaid tax bills for less than $25,000 will be filed in district court. (The unpaid taxes date back years as the properties were auctioned off by the Wayne County Treasurer’s Office between 2013 and 2016 or sent to the Detroit Land Bank Authority, which oversees demolitions if homes cannot be rehabilitated or sold.) The suits here indicate that former property owners have no recourse for lowering their unpaid tax debt, because they are now “time barred from filing an appeal” with Detroit’s Board of Review or the Michigan Tax Tribunal; Detroit officials have noted that individual homeowners would not be targeted by the lawsuits for unpaid taxes; rather the suits seek to establish a legal means for going after investors who purchase cheap homes at auction, and then either rent them out and opt not to not pay the taxes, or walk away from the house, because it is damaged beyond repair—behavior which is now something the city is seeking to turn around.

Local Government Fiscal Protection? Just as the Commonwealth of Virginia has created a fiscal or financial assessment model to serve as an early warning system so that the State could act before a chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy occurred, the fiscal wizard of Illinois, the incomparable Chicago Civic Federation’s Laurence Msall has proposed a Local Government Protection Authority—a quasi-judicial body—to serve as a resource for the Chicago Public School System (CPS): it would be responsible to assist the CPS board and administration in finding solutions to stabilize the school district’s finances. The $5.75 billion CPS proposed budget for this school year comes with two significant asterisks: 1) There is an expectation of $269 million from the City of Chicago, and 2) There is an expectation of $300 million from the State of Illinois, especially if the state’s school funding crisis is resolved in the Democrats’ favor.

Nevertheless, in the end, CPS’s fiscal fate will depend upon Windy City Mayor Rahm Emanuel: he, after all, not only names the school board, but also is accountable to voters if the city’s schools falter: he has had six years in office to get CPS on a stable financial course, even as CPS is viewed by many in the city as seeking to file for bankruptcy (for which there is no specific authority under Illinois law). Worse, it appears that just the discussion of a chapter 9 option is contributing to the emigration of parents and students to flee to suburban or private schools.

Thus, Mr. Msall is suggesting once again putting CPS finances under state oversight, as it was in the 1980s and early 1990s, recommending consideration of a Local Government Protection Authority, which would “be a quasi-judicial body…to assist the CPS board and administration in finding solutions to stabilize the district’s finances.” Fiscal options could include spending cuts, tax hikes, employee benefit changes, labor contract negotiations, and debt adjustment. Alternatively, as Mr. Msall writes: “If the stakeholders could not find a solution, the LGPA would be empowered to enforce a binding resolution of outstanding issues.” As we noted, a signal fiscal challenge Mayor Emanuel described was to attack crime in order to bring young families back into the city—and to upgrade its schools—schools where today some 380,000 students appear caught in a school system cracking under a massive and rising debt load.  

Far East of Eden. East Cleveland Mayor Gary Norton Jr. and City Council President Thomas Wheeler have both been narrowly recalled from their positions in a special election, setting the stage for the small Ohio municipality waiting for the state to—in some year—respond to its request to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy to elect a new leader. Interestingly, one challenger for the job who is passionate about the city, is Una H. R. Keenon, 83, who now heads the city school board, and campaigning on a platform of seeking a blue-ribbon panel to examine the city’s finances. Mansell Baker, 33, a former East Cleveland Councilmember, wants to focus on eliminating the city’s debt, while Dana Hawkins Jr., 34, leader of a foundation, vows to get residents to come together and save the city. The key decisions are likely to emerge next month in the September 12 Democratic primary—where the winner will face Devin Branch of the Green Party in November. Early voting has begun.