Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

June 8, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the issue of unincorporated areas: what are the fiscal implications?

In many U.S. states, it’s not uncommon for homeowners to reside in what are known as “unincorporated” areas, meaning portions of the state or county that are not contained within the boundaries of an incorporated city, town, village or similar local governmental entity. From a municipal perspective, that means a community not governed by its own local municipal corporation, but rather is administered as part of larger governmental administrative division—such as a township, parish, borough, county, or city—governance entities which, depending upon the pertinent state laws, may file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, dissolve, disincorporate, or, as we noted in today’s eGnus, make even separate. Widespread unincorporated communities and areas are a distinguishing feature of both the U.S. and our neighbor Canada—but rare in any other countries around the globe. In fact, unincorporated areas are mostly found in this country in Texas—an enormous state, but which has the nation’s smallest municipality: McAllen, in Jim Hogg County, with a population of 6.

When it comes to unincorporated areas within states, Pennsylvania appears unique: it is, after all, the state with the greatest number of local governments or political subdivisions: the Census Bureau puts the number at 5,000—putting the state only behind Texas and Illinois; but maybe ranks it first in terms of imposing vast and conflicting arrays of taxes—taxes which, however, are imposed on shrinking tax bases. Indeed, the fiscal stress has reached such a point that the state’s House Urban Affairs Committee recently convened a public hearing on legislation intended to assist smaller municipalities mired in cycles of financial distress—threatened with insolvency absent outside assistance. House Bill 2122 would allow these communities, after gaining approval in a voter referendum, to dissolve themselves and have their functions absorbed by the county. The co-sponsors, Representatives Dom Costa and Harold English, offered the bill as a means they described to provide for the voluntary dissolution of municipal corporations (cities, boroughs, towns, & townships) within counties of the second class (Allegheny), and the substitution of an unincorporated districts as a new form of government to be administered by the county. Under the proposed legislation, the process of dissolution would be initiated by the governing body of the municipal corporation through passage of a non-binding resolution to engage in discussion with the county over a period of six months, during which time they would develop a proposed essential services-transition plan as part of an intergovernmental cooperation agreement.: such a plan would be subject to public meetings in the community and would have to be voted on by the governing body of the municipal corporation, as well as the County Council: should both the municipal corporation and county governing bodies approve said plan, a referendum would be scheduled—an election where, if approved by the voters, a six-month winding down of the affairs of the municipal corporation would begin. At the conclusion of such a period, an unincorporated district administered by the county would go into effect, and the essential services-transition plan would become an official ordinance of the county. That would entail significant powers to said county to administer and manage such a district; the county would also retain the tax levying power and authority to assess fees and service charges previously authorized to that particular class of municipal corporation. All taxes and fees levied within the service district would have to be used for the benefit of the district.

Finally, the bill provides for the potential merger and consolidation of the unincorporated district with another municipal corporation or would permit the district to re-incorporate itself as another type of municipal corporation in accordance with the existing municipal codes applicable to such entities.

They reported the legislation was carefully crafted with input from the staff of the bicameral/bipartisan Local Government Commission, confident that it represents a unique voluntary agreement between municipalities – one in which a given city, borough or township would be able to ensure a more efficient and effective delivery of services to their residents while retaining their municipal identity. 

Pennsylvania’s Department of Community and Economic Development administers Act 47, as we have previously noted, a program to help “distressed” communities as designated under the terms of the state’s Act 47, under which the state could ultimately take on the task of providing local services. However, it appears that Deputy Secretary for Community Affairs Rick Vilello, the department’s deputy secretary for community affairs and development, HB2122 might provide a better option, or, as he testified: “We’ve not timed out [on recovery options] on a community who we felt wasn’t ready to try to make it on their own…But we are fast approaching a time when several municipalities will time out. When municipalities time out, there are very few good solutions from that point forward. House Bill 2122 provides a potential solution for local leaders facing hard decisions and is a tool worth trying.” Secretary Vilello testified that to date, only 31 municipalities in the state had ever reached “distressed” status out of 2,560. Of those 31, nine were in Allegheny County.

The Secretary noted: “House Bill 2122 could be a life-preserver for communities that have been treading water for a very long time: Who knows, if it works in [Allegheny County], what would be possible next. House Bill 2122 is a tool for the elected officials and for the citizens of distressed municipalities to make a choice about their future.”

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald testified that the proposed legislation could be useful, not only to those communities whose finances have spiraled out of control, but also to those that have managed to avoid financial disaster by cutting essential services to minimal levels:  “Some of them, quite frankly, have not gone into Act 47…They just quit providing the services. They haven’t gone into the debt problem, but they haven’t provided the services their citizens have wanted. And what [residents have] basically been doing is voting with their feet. They’ve been leaving, [and] those municipalities have been shrinking in population.” The County Executive emphasized that the legislation could not lead to any municipality being dissolved against its will; similarly, he testified that no county could be forced to absorb a municipality against its will: both governments would have to agree to the terms of the disincorporation before it even went to the voters for approval.

Under the proposed legislation, the unincorporated community would retain some level of local governance through the establishment of a district advisory committee appointed by the county council. The advisory committee would hold open meetings in the former municipality and issue reports to the county on matters pertaining to local residents.

Nevertheless, Melissa Morgan, legislative and policy analyst for the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors, warned the proposed legislation would go too far in wresting local power and vesting it in a higher level of government, telling legislators her organization, which she said represents 1,454 townships in the state, opposes the passage of HB2122 or any other legislation that would allow for the dissolution of municipalities: “County government should not be given additional powers to administer unincorporated territory…Instead, the Legislature should consider relieving unfunded mandates for municipalities, such as those requiring benefits to uniform employees to help alleviate financial challenges.” County Executive Fitzgerald said he was in favor of the Legislature taking other steps such as those suggested by Ms. Morgan to ease the plight of struggling communities; however, he noted that HB2122 was also a good option to have on the books in case those other steps fail to provide relief: “It’s a voluntary program: It’s just giving people an option. And to me, that’s what democracy is about, giving people the choice. Right now, they don’t have that choice.”

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Breaking Up Is Hard to Do.

eBlog, 03/06/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the trials and tribulations of really emerging from the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in American history; then we turn to an alternative to municipal bankruptcy: dissolution.

The Hard Road of Exiting Municipal Bankruptcy: A Time of Fragility. Christopher Ilitch, the Chief Executive Officer of Ilitch Holdings Inc., companies in Detroit which represent leading brands in the food, sports, and entertainment industries (including Little Caesars, the Detroit Red Wings, the Detroit Tigers, Olympia Entertainment, Uptown Entertainment, Blue Line Foodservice Distribution, Champion Foods, Little Caesars Pizza Kit Fundraising Program, and Olympia Development), notes that “We are at a critical time in Detroit’s history,” speaking at the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Detroit Policy Conference: “There’s been no community that’s been through what Detroit has been through. Through the depths, there’s been a lot of choices.” Indeed, as the very fine editor of the Detroit News, Daniel Howeswrote: “There still is, and how they’re made could meaningfully impact Detroit’s arc of reinvention: despite a booming development scene spearheaded now by the Ilitch family’s $1.2 billion District Detroit, Quicken Loans Inc. Chairman Dan Gilbert’s empire-building, more effective policing and a burgeoning downtown scene, four words loom: “We’re not there yet.” Mr. Howes notes that the cost of new construction projects still cannot be fully recouped through commercial and residential rents, adding: “The business climate, including taxes and regulation, still is not as attractive as it could be. And longstanding residents in the city’s neighborhoods worry that the reinvention of downtown and Midtown risks leaving them behind.” Or, as Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones puts it: “We have been talking about downtown and Midtown so much, and we know downtown and Midtown are important…If we are going to subsidize development, we would like to see something in it for us as well.” That is, exiting chapter 9 bankruptcy is not a panacea: one’s city still confronts a steep hill to execute its plan of debt adjustment—and a hill the scaling of which comes at higher borrowing costs than other cities of the same size. That is to say, long-term recovery has to involve the entire community—not just the municipal government. Or, as Mr. Howes notes: “Business leaders stepped in to acquire new police cruisers and EMT trucks, even as some of them finance ‘secondary patrols’ of downtown districts. The moves by General Motors Co. and Gilbert’s Rock Ventures LLC, to name two, to employ off-duty Detroit police officers are supported by Detroit Police Chief James Craig…The partnership has been bipartisan and regional. It’s been public and private, city and suburb. It’s required Republicans to act less Republican and Democrats to act less Democratic. That’s not because either side is suddenly non-partisan, but because the long history of confrontation and suspicion chronically under-delivers.” But he adds the critical point: “[A]s the city moves into an election year, as the memories of recessionary hardship dim, as the construction and investment boom continues. None of it is guaranteed, including collaboration forged by leaders under difficult circumstances…If there’s any town in America that can make its virtuous circle become a vicious cycle, Detroit is it. Remembering what’s worked, what hasn’t, and how inclusion can improve the chances for success remains critical…It’s a tricky balance that depends most on leadership and transparency so long as the macro-economic environment remains positive. If there are two themes connecting the reinvention of Detroit with its present, they are that a) experts expect the building and redevelopment boom to continue and b) neighborhood concerns are real and should not be dismissed.” In Detroit, it turned out going into chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy—a slide enabled by criminal behavior of its Mayor, and the profound failure to make it a city on a hill—a city which would draw families and businesses—was easy. That means getting out—and staying out—is the opposite in this fragile time of recovery, or, as Moddie Turay, executive vice president of real estate and financial services at the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., notes: “There’s a ton that’s happening here. We’re just not there yet…We have another five or so years to go. We are at a fragile time — a great time in the city, but still a fragile time.”

Disappearville? Breaking Up Is Hard to Do. Mayor Margaret J. Nelms and her Council Members in Centerville, North Carolina have voted to dissolve the town’s charter and become unincorporated in the wake of voters’ rejection, in January, of an effort to raise property taxes. The municipality (town), founded in 1882, in the rural northeastern corner of Franklin County had a population of 89 as of the 2010 census, a ten percent decline from the previous census: this is a municipality without a post office or a zip code—or, now, a future. It was incorporated during the same time period as the dissolution of the nearby town of Wood in 1961, roughly 80 years after first settlement. Unlike elected officials of other Franklin County municipalities (as well as the county itself) which have four-year terms, in Centerville, the Mayor and its three-member Town Council are elected every two years. The city’s downtown consists of two small old-fashioned country stores—Arnold’s and The Country Store, with one also the local gas station. The City has its own volunteer fire department: there is no police department, so Centerville—like the surrounding unincorporated area—is patrolled by the Franklin County sheriff.

Sen. Chad Barefoot (R), whose district includes Centerville, the sponsor of the state legislation [Senate Bill DRS45094-LM-35 (02/16)] to dissolve the municipality, noted: “There are a lot of towns like Centerville in North Carolina…What they’re doing is pretty courageous. They’re acting like adults. It’s something very hard to do, but it’s very responsible.” His proposed bill, the Repeal Centerville Charter, will allow the dissolution of the town, except that the governing board of the Town of Centerville would be continued in office for days thereafter for the sole purpose of liquidating the assets and liabilities of the Town and filing any financial reports which may be required by law, with any remaining net assets to be paid over to the Centerville Fire Department, which would be directed to use those funds for some public purpose. (In Centerville, the main municipal services provided to residents are: streetlights in the town center; Centerville also pays for an annual audit and holds municipal elections, although only a dozen citizens voted in the most recent municipal election, in 2015.) Centerville will continue to exist as a community, but any local-government services will be provided by the county: any remaining municipal funds left over after the town is unincorporated will be donated to the local volunteer fire department, according to the legislation. Dissolution is a painful choice: Frank Albano, the owner of an antique store in Centerville, rued the city did not consider other fiscal options, such as charging businesses like his an $100 annual operating fee, or asked $5 per float in the New Year’s Day parade. He notes: “The more local the government is, the better.”

The decision to dissolve is, however, not new: it was nearly a century ago that Farrington Carpenter, a Harvard-educated rancher in Colorado, noted that—at the time—there were 20 counties in the Mile High state with populations under 5,000. Municipalities—and their voters—rarely agree to give up their identities, leading him to query: “How can such small counties afford the cost of a complete county government?”  On the other end of the country, in Pennsylvania, home to more municipalities than any state in the union, running the gamut from metropolitan cities to first, second, and third class townships, it has long been a vexing governance conundrum how such a governing model is sustainable. Indeed, James Brooks, my former colleague from when I workd at the National League of Cities, where he serves as Director of City Solutions, reports that according to NLC’s 2015 report examining the economic vitality of cities, the smallest cities have generally been slower to recover—or, as one commentator describes it: “They can’t solve their problems themselves…Wealth has left these little cities to such a degree that they’re basically bankrupt.”