Exiting from Municipal Bankruptcy


March 16, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the Motor City’s final steps in its successful exit from chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy; then we worry about lead level threats in Flint, before journeying to the warmer climes of the Caribbean to update the fiscal challenges for Puerto Rico.

Early Departure from Chapter 9. The City of Detroit this week dipped into its budget surplus to devote some $54.4 million to finance paying off the outstanding municipal bonds it had issued as part of its plan of debt adjustment four years ago, with the borrowing then issued by the city to settle debts with municipal bond insurers related to the Motor City’s pension-related debt—here the payments were to finance the remaining principal and interest owed on $88 million in 12-year Financial Recovery, with the city formally moving to pay off $54 million of its 2014 financial recovery bonds. The unexpected payments might make the leprechaun jump to celebrate still another demonstration of improved fiscal health. Here, the payment had the support of the Detroit Financial Review Commission, as well as the Detroit City Council, clearing the way for the city Wednesday to issue a 30-day redemption notice and report it had fully funded an escrow to retire $52.3 million of remaining principal and $2.1 million of accrued interest to fully redeem the 2014C bonds effective April 13th—an action projected to save Detroit’s taxpayers some $11.7 million in interest savings. CFO John Hill noted: “The Mayor and City Council have again shown their commitment to the city’s long-term financial sustainability by taking action to authorize the resolution for the redemption of the entire outstanding principal on the city’s Financial Recovery Bonds, Series 2014C.”  In this case, the C series of unrated, taxable municipal bonds totaled $88.4 million; they carried an interest rate of 5% interest, with the bonds secured by Detroit’s limited tax general obligation pledge and payable from city parking revenues. According to Detroit Deputy Chief Financial Officer John Naglick, approximately $54 million remains outstanding after early maturities amortized and the $15 million sale of a parking garage triggered a mandatory redemption. The C series was part of $1.28 billion of borrowing Detroit closed on in December of  2014 to fund creditor settlements, as well as raise revenues for revitalization efforts, thereby paving the way for its exit from the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in American history—and mayhap bring the luck of the Irish that the city could exit from direct state oversight within the next few months—especially in the wake of Mayor Mike Duggan recently proposed $2 billion balanced budget—the approval of which could facilitate Detroit’s exit from active state oversight, or. As Mr. Naglick put it: “I expect in April or May we’re going to see the Financial Review Commission vote to end oversight and return self-determination to the city of Detroit.”

The Motor City’s $1 billion general fund, according to the Mayor, continues to be healthy, because the city’s most important source of revenues, its income tax, is producing more revenues. Indeed, the city’s budget maintains more than a 5% reserve, which is projected at $62.3 million. At the same time, the city is continuing to set aside fiscal resources to address higher-than-expected pension payments starting in 2024 when annual payments of at least $143 million begin. Payments of $20 million run through 2019 with no payments then due through 2023 under U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes’ approved plan of debt adjustment. Detroit’s bond ratings, albeit still deep in junk territory, were upgraded last year, with, just before Christmas, S&P Global Ratings slipping down the chimney to upgrade Detroit’s credit rating to B-plus.

Not in Like Flint. Recent tests of the Michigan City of Flint’s drinking water at elementary schools have found an increase in samples with lead levels above the federal action limit. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality determined that 28 samples tested last month were above 15 parts per billion of lead. DEQ spokesman George Krisztian reported the increase may be due to changes in testing conditions, such as the decision to collect samples prior to flushing lines. (Samples collected before flushing tend to have higher lead levels because the water has been in contact with the pipes longer.) Thus, according to Mr. Krisztian, the overall results are encouraging, because they meet federal guidelines for lead if treated like samples collected by municipal water systems. Most of the more than 90 Legionnaires’ disease cases during the deadly 2014-15 outbreak in the Flint area were caused by changes in the city’s water supply — and the epidemic may have been more widespread than previously believed, according to two studies published Monday. The risk of acquiring Legionnaires’ disease increased more than six-fold across the Flint water distribution system after the city switched from the Detroit area water system’s Lake Huron source to the Flint River in April 2014, according to a report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Despite the improvement in lead levels over the last 18 months, federal, state, and local officials have advised city residents to continue using bottled water—as the city continues its costly efforts to extract at least 6.000 lead lines from houses this year and next—with Mayor Karen Weaver reporting that state-funded bottled water should be available to residents until the work is completed; the effort to test the drinking water in the city’s schools has yet to be completed. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality this week defended its outreach efforts in the city, after the Flint Journal reported on a new report which found that 51% of bottled water users surveyed here said they either had no faucet filter or are not confident they know how to maintain the equipment they do have. Mayor Weaver urges the State of Michigan to continue to finance the distribution of bottled water until the last of the leaded lines are removed.

Even as fears remain about the health of the city’s schoolchildren, the State of Michigan has selected a former emergency manager for two Michigan school districts to serve as interim Superintendent of Flint’s public schools after the school board removed the superintendent and two other senior officials. Thus, Wednesday, Gregory Weatherspoon was unanimously approved for the post by the Flint Board of Education, one day after the Board that Bilal Tawwab, Assistant Superintendent Shawn Merriweather, and the school district’s attorney had been placed on leave. It appears the school district’s roughly 4,500 students, an enrollment that has been falling steadily since 1968, when there were 1000% more students, are still at risk. The lower numbers and ongoing safe drinking water fears augur badly for assessed property values in a city where the population suffered a serious decline from 1970 to 1980, losing nearly 40,000 residents—a loss from which Flint never recovered—and a population which has declined continuously—so much so that an August 2015 WalletHub study revealed that Flint placed dead last, as one of the least healthy real estate markets out of 300 U.S. cities.

Arriba? In Puerto Rico, where about 60% of the U.S. territory’s children live below the federal poverty level, it appears there might be some rising optimism—even amidst growing frustration at the exorbitant costs of the Congressionally-imposed PROMESA process. The optimism comes in the wake of disclosures that Puerto Rico’s earlier estimates of the fiscal and financial impact of Hurricane Maria appear to have been overly pessimistic. The rising optimism appears to be reflected by the rally in Puerto Rico’s municipal bond prices. At the same time, Christian Sobrino, Governor Ricardo Rosselló’s representative before the PROMESA Oversight Board, Wednesday said that the Board’s letter regarding lawyers and advisers high fees in PROMESA Title III cases did “not reflect the truth,” adding he found it “laughable that there are unnecessary expenses on behalf of the government of Puerto Rico:  To start with, the structure of Cofina (the Puerto Rico Sales Tax Financing Corporation) and central government agents was not an invention of Puerto Rico in Title III,” Mr. Sobrino said, referring to the mechanism suggested by the Board to determine whether the Sales and Use tax collection belongs to the corporation which issued the debt or to the central government. He noted that the attorneys and counselors assisting these agents billed, all together, $17 million of the total $ 77.7 million in fees claimed during the first five months of the federal PROMESA law: “These letters reflect imprudence and a ridiculous use of these expressions and do not reflect the truth of what we have done in the government to avoid this. It is out-of-place.”

That led the PROMSEA Board to write to the Congressional leadership to indicate that high expenses for lawyers and advisers fees, participating in that process, are due to the PROMESA—or, as PROMESA Board President José B. Carrión noted: “Historically, the people of Puerto Rico have suffered a problem of wasteful spending, admitting that there has been duplication of efforts in Title III cases.” Representative Sobrino stressed that the government has tried not to duplicate efforts with the Board, but that drawing the fiscal plan and budget, as well as its implementation, are the government’s responsibility, adding that the government agreed that Citibank would act as the leading banker in the Electric Power Authority (PREPA) case, as suggested by the Board, and that only a firm hired by the Board would conduct the audit of the bank accounts. However, Rep. Sobrino stressed that there have been times when the government had to use its lawyers to ensure success in Court, as was recently the case with a claim by the Highway and Transportation Authority bondholders: “We have been forced to hire our lawyers to preserve self-government,” adding that the government intervention prevented that, after Hurricane Maria, Noel Zamot from being appointed as a PREPA de-facto trustee.


Governance in Recovering from Severe Physical and Fiscal Distress

March 2, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the use of a municipality’s capital assets to get back on its fiscal feet; then we consider the fates, fiscal and physical, for many of Hurricane Maria’s Puerto Rican victims who have emigrated stateside. Are they “invisible Americans”?

Municipal Assets & Fiscal Balancing. In a surprising move, the Petersburg, Virginia City Council has unanimously adopted a motion to opt not to sell the municipality’s public water and wastewater assets, effectively ending a nearly yearlong debate with regard to whether or not to sell their public utility to Aqua Virginia and Virginia American Water, two private providers who had submitted bids in December of 2016—at a time when one of the nation’s oldest cities was on the precipice of insolvency. It would appear the decision was likely affected by several water main breaks and water boil notices in the city last month—forcing legislators and city leaders to act. In the wake of the breaks, Congressman A. Donald McEachin (VA-4) and the Virginia Conservation Network had joined forces to host a roundtable discussion on the dilapidated state of Petersburg’s water infrastructure. Under the successful motion, the Council instructed the City Manager to: 1) reject the offer made by Aqua Virginia; 2) discourage any future offers to purchase Petersburg’s water and wastewater assets; 3) reject the pending unsolicited proposal to purchase Petersburg’s water and wastewater assets. That is, the municipal fiscal and capital policy going forward is to concentrate all available city resources on devising a plan to improve the city’s collection rate—or, as Councilmember Cuthbert put it: “It was a diversion of energy…It diverted the city administration’s energy; it diverted the public’s energy; and it diverted the City Council’s energy.” Councilwoman Annette Smith-Lee noted: “For the citizens, their voice is their voice. We’re on Council because of them, and they did not want us to sell the water.”

Had the city opted to go forward with the proposed privatization and sale, the municipality would have lost control over setting the water rates—an important governance and fiscal issue, as neither the Council, nor many citizens support having a for-profit company to be in charge of the water rates. Previously, several Councilmembers had expressed skepticism about the sale of some of the city’s vital public infrastructure—even as former Richmond City Manager Robert Bobb’s Group, hired to take over the city in lieu of a chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy filing—had repeatedly made pleas to the Council to “open the envelope” and see what Aqua Virginia and Virginia American Water were offering for the system. Councilman Cuthbert noted: “Council realized that for us to sell our water and wastewater assets, it would have taken six affirmative votes, and the votes were not there.”

In the wake of that successful motion, Councilman Cuthbert told his colleagues he saw “no reason to go through another eight months of agony that was going to lead to nowhere.” The decision thus ended a year-long battle—or, as Mayor Sam Parham told his colleagues, Council Members had listened to citizens who were concerned about the sale, control over its water and sewer rates, and it never materialized. Barb Rudolph, one of those citizen leaders, where the citizen group Clean Sweep Petersburg, had questioned the idea from the Robert Bobb Group to privatize, especially after the consultants had departed Petersburg with what they had described as stabilized finances. Yet, even after offers by private companies were rejected, bids still continued to come in: obviously, private, for-profit corporations recognized intrinsic value in the system—and, of course, an opportunity for profit. Indeed, at a roundtable discussion about the city’s water and sewer infrastructure, City Manager Aretha Ferrell-Benavides acknowledged that Petersburg was still being pressured by a private vendor to sell its water and wastewater systems. The fact that Aqua Virginia leaders attended city meetings had not been lost on some residents—one even likened the private vendors to predators. Residents with Clean Sweep Petersburg took photos of empty chairs in the City Council chambers that they say Aqua Virginia executives vacated just after the Council’s vote. Now, city leaders say, energy should be devoted to improving the existing systems. In the past, necessary rate increases that the council approved were never implemented, in part because of turnover within city departments. In addition, billing issues that cost the utility system millions of dollars in recent years ended up slapping some residents with $4,000 bills, and the faulty rollout of a new utility billing system cost taxpayers upward of $1 million more. As recently as last week, some residents at the roundtable said their bills are still volatile. Ferrell-Benavides said a long-term plan to update the city’s infrastructure and improvements to the billing system are necessary and in the works.

For one of the nation’s oldest municipalities—a key city during both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, a small, majority African-American municipality of just over 32,420, with a median household income of $33,927, where per capita income is about $18,535, and nearly 28% are below the poverty level—the politics of vital access to water matters.

The Physical & Fiscal Costs of Federalism. Physical catastrophes and federal insouciance can wreak terrible fiscal and human costs. In the case of Hurricane Maria, we can see those costs as not just fiscal, but especially in the welfare of our most vulnerable: young children and the elderly. More than 1,800 children have migrated from Puerto Rico and enrolled in Connecticut schools since Hurricane Maria decimated their homeland last September—a human and fiscal consequence of both the devastating physical and fiscal consequences, but also to the difficult fiscal challenges Connecticut is already confronting. Yet, unlike the federal government, Connecticut schools have scrambled to accommodate the new arrivals—most of them non-English speakers, and they have made such human, physical, and fiscal efforts notwithstanding the cash-strapped State of Connecticut. While Congress finally approved a compromise budget bill to provide millions of dollars to help schools care for displaced students (providing the equivalent of $8,500 for each displaced student, $9,000 for each one that is not English-speaking, and $10,000 for disabled students requiring special education); that still left a significant fiscal and physical burden for Connecticut, where State House Majority Leader Matt Ritter (D-Hartford) has set up a working group in the General Assembly to try to provide “one-stop shopping” for displaced Puerto Ricans who need assistance: he notes there “is no question that schools are looking for additional money” to accommodate the influx of unexpected students, many with special needs, and he is “very pleased” Congress finally offered some help. He believes the displaced student funding, part of the budget agreement’s $44 billion hurricane response package, will help. According to the Connecticut Department of Education, there were 1,745 displaced students in Connecticut schools as of mid-February—a slight reduction from the beginning of the year, as some families having opted to return to Puerto Rico or move to other states. Hartford, a city itself in difficult fiscal shape, finds its public schools have taken the bulk of the new arrivals, 376 at last count and 429 at the peak of the migration, followed by Waterbury, New Haven, and New Britain. Yet, while Congress finally provided some aid for displaced students, that aid appears unlikely to help school districts with the children who enroll next year.

Demographically Failing. While, as we noted above, there has been some federal and state aid to displaced children from Puerto Rico, the picture is more grim for Puerto Rico’s elderly: thousands of whom reside in vulnerable conditions outside the radar of government authorities, and too many of whom went hungry and thirsty due to mobility difficulties, or were unable to save their medicines due to the lack of light, without anyone knowing. Indeed, Department of the Family Secretary Glorimar Andújar described the challenge, because, in the wake of the physical destruction, the government lacked vital information with regard to where the most vulnerable were. Secretary Andújar noted the government neither knew where the most vulnerable lived, nor what their particular needs were. Thus, the devastating storm led her to acknowledge: “We have many elderly people in homes that we did not think were going to be in such high concentrations…Urbanizations complete with elderly people who depend on and are nourished by the help given by their neighbors…They are not necessarily under the jurisdiction of the Federal District, because we enter into protection. They are people who live alone and have particular needs, who are supplied by their neighbors: It is important, for future services that develop, to know where each of these populations are located.” That is, unlike children, who could be located via the school system—and could be lifted to accommodating state such as Connecticut, or depart with their families to Florida, Puerto Rico’s most vulnerable Americans were not only left behind, but also largely unaccounted for: as indicated, due to the nature of the services offered, the agency knows about elderly Americans only to the extent that they participate in their programs, such as Nutrition Assistance (PAN), protection services in cases of abuse or the homes of prolonged care—that is less than 3% of Puerto Rico’s nearly 860,000 senior citizens—where 36% live alone. This cohort, described by some as “that population that is most worrisome,” because they are older Americans who reside in the community, but have little support—or, as the Secretary put it: “They are invisible.”

During the most critical phase of the hurricane emergency many institutions did help many who live alone in their homes, offering food or extending electricity via long extension cords, those private efforts were far from sufficient for what is nearly a quarter of the population: In 2016, more than 23.5% of Puerto Ricans were 60 or older—compared to just 19.4% in 2011. It is almost like a teeter-totter, only where it is becoming increasingly fiscally and demographically imbalanced. Now, in the wake of the hurricane, and especially after the wave of immigration to the mainland by children and college-educated Puerto Ricans, estimates are that, by the next census, citizens over 65 will reach 30% of the population.  

To tend to these older Americans after Maria, Puerto Rico actually developed alternate methods of operation, especially because reliance on telephone communication was often impossible—the government sought to provide more personal contact and identify areas of what it deemed “high concentration,” utilizing contributions from organizations such as AARP to provide services. José Acarón, Puerto Rico’s AARP chapter president, stressed that there is “this older adult population, isolated, without a support network, living alone and mostly female, and they do not know where they are…We have to make a municipal census of needs and create community support mechanisms. Then we have to talk about different models of people supporting people, that work strategically and that is part of a plan.”

With estimates that 46.1% of Puerto Ricans live below the federal poverty level, Secretary Andújar said the Department had commissioned a study to verify socioeconomic changes, especially after Hurricane Maria, to the University of Puerto Rico, noting: “We hope to have a more up-to-date visibility of what the percentages are, what is going to throw us, what are the populations that are in those levels of poverty, and, obviously, how aligned our programs are towards services towards each one of those populations that results from the study.” She noted she was unable at present to be certain when that information would be ready. However, in the wake of Hurricane Maria, and by the end of last year, there were 35,000 new applicants for nutritional assistance. Demographer Judith Rodríguez reports that, taking into account only the difficulties brought by the emergency, she can say that the number of poor people on the island has increased: the most recent figures, from 2016, indicated that, in 30 municipios, 50% of the population lived in poverty, and that in six other towns, the figure reached 60%, adding: “Today, more than ever, families need the services offered by the government of Puerto Rico to respond to the changing needs of the people.”

What about the Youngest? Secretary Andújar reported her staff is aware of the possibility of an increase in the incidence of child abuse: “It is a reality for which we have been preparing. We are active with prevention mechanisms. After a phenomenon like the one suffered by the country, after months, it is expected that these indicators tend to increase.” Her agency noted that in the referrals from the last calendar quarter of 2017 of possible cases of abuse, the totals increased month after month, albeit they were below the records of the same period of the previous year. Due to the U.S. territory’s fiscal distress or quasi chapter 9 bankruptcy, her agency has taken a $605 million cut, with Gov. Ricardo Rosselló advising her: “You do not need more,” even as Larry Emil Alicea, president of the College of Social Work Professionals, notes: “Those who stay and cannot leave (from Puerto Rico), increase social stressors and may be associated with suicide rates: In the case of parents, protective capacities diminish and cases of child and adolescent abuse increase.”

Calming the Fiscal Waters


January 24, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the physical, governance, and fiscal challenges confronted—and overcome, by the City of Flint, Michigan.

Restoring Fiscal Municipal Authority. For the first time in seven years, Flint, Michigan local officials are in control of the city’s daily finances and government decisions after, on Monday, Michigan Treasurer Nick Khouri signed off on a recommendation from Flint’s Receivership Transition Advisory Board (RTAB), the state-appointed board overseeing Flint’s fiscal recovery-to grant Mayor Karen Weaver and the Council greater authority in daily decision-making. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, seven years ago, preempted local governance and fiscal authority after concurring with a state review panel that there was a “local government financial emergency” in Flint, and that an emergency financial manager should be appointed to oversee the city’s affairs. The Governor ultimately appointed four emergency managers to run the city from 2011 until 2015–two of whom were subsequently charged with criminal wrongdoing related to their roles in the Flint water crisis. In declaring the financial emergency in Flint, state officials said city leaders had failed to fix a structural deficit and criticized city officials for not moving with the degree of urgency required considering the seriousness of the city’s financial problems.

Notwithstanding, the State of Michigan retains authority with regard to certain fiscal and budgetary issues, including approval of the municipality’s budget, requests to issue debt, and collective bargaining agreements. Treasurer Khouri noted:  “Today is an important day for our shared goal of moving Flint forward…Thanks to the progress city leaders have made, this is an appropriate time for the Mayor and City Council to assume greater responsibility for day-to-day operations and finances.” Mayor Weaver noted: “This is an exciting development for the city of Flint…We have been waiting for this for years,” adding the state action will bring the city a step closer to its ultimate goal of home rule through rescinding Michigan’s Emergency Order 20, which mandated that resolutions approved by both Mayor Weaver and the City Council receive the state board’s approval before going into effect.

Mayor Weaver, in the wake of the long saga in which a state-imposed emergency manager had led to a massive physical and fiscal crisis, said she has hopes for the city and state to “officially divorce” by the end of this year, noting that with the appointment of CFO Hughey Newsome last  year, the newly elected City Council, and approval of a 30-year contract with the Great Lakes Water Authority; Flint is both more fiscally and physically solvent: the new water contract is projected to save Flint as much as $9 million by providing a more favorable rate—an important consideration  with GLWA and addresses $7 million in debt service payments the city is currently obligated to pay on bonds issued to finance the Karegnondi Water Authority pipeline under construction.

The city of just over 100,000, with a majority minority population where just under 30 percent of the families have a female head of household, and where 33.9 percent of all households were made up of individuals and just under 10 percent had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older, finances its budget via a 1 percent income tax on residents and 0.5 percent on non-residents: it has a strong Mayor-council form of government. It has operated under at least four charters, beginning in 1855: its current charter provides for a strong Mayor form of government—albeit one which has instituted the appointment of an Ombudsperson; the City Council is composed of members elected from Flint’s nine wards.

In the wake of ending its water contract with Detroit via a state-appointed emergency manager, its travails—physical and fiscal were triggered: the state appointed  emergency manager shifted to Flint River water as the city awaited completion of a new KWA pipeline—but that emergency manager failed to ensure safe drinking water as part of the switch—a failure which, as we have noted, led to the contamination crisis which poisoned not just the city’s drinking water, but also its fiscal stability—leading to nearly eight years of a state takeover in the wake of Gov. Rick Snyder’s 2011 declaration of a financial emergency within the city.

Even though Gov. Snyder declared an end to Flint’s financial emergency on April 29, 2015, the RTAB, which is appointed by the Governor, had continued to review financial decisions in the city. Discussions with regard to planning the RTAB’s departure from Flint began last August as part of an annual report from the Michigan Treasury Department mandated for Michigan municipalities operating under financial receivership. Thus, Treasurer Khouri’s signature was the final stamp of approval needed to thrust the RTAB unanimous suggestion of January 11th into immediate action, repealing an order mandating that the State of Michigan review all decisions made by the Mayor and Council—and ending a long and traumatic state takeover which caused immense human physical and municipal devastation. It marked the final step from the city’s emergence two years ago in April from the control of a state-imposed emergency manager to home rule order under the guidance of a the state-imposed Board—a board devised with the aim of ensuring a smooth transition by maintaining the measures prescribed upon the emergency manager’s exit. Here, as we have previously noted, the Emergency Manager was appointed by the Governor under Public Act 436 to preempt local elected leadership and to bring long-term financial stability back to the city by addressing any and all issues which had threatened the Flint’s fiscal solvency—but which, instead, first led to greater fiscal stress, and, more critically, to physical harm and danger to Flint’s citizens, thereby jeopardizing the very fiscal help which the state purported to want. Four different individuals served as emergency manager from December 2011 to April 2015: in order, they were Michael K. Brown, Edward J. Kurtz, Darnell Earley, and Gerald Ambrose.

The action repealed Emergency Manager Order No. 20, an order imposed by former Flint Emergency Manager Jerry Ambrose in his final days with the city—an order which mandated resolutions approved by both the Mayor and City Council in order to receive the Advisory Board’s approval, prior to going into effect. as Mayor Weaver put it, the step was a “welcome end to an arranged marriage,” adding: “We are so thankful‒and I’m speaking on behalf of the proud, great city of Flint: the RTAB has been in place for several years now, and one of the things it did represent is that the city was in turmoil and financial distress. And I know over the past two years we have been fiscally responsible… I think it’s absolutely time, and time for the locally elected officials to run the city, and we’ve been anxiously ready to do so….this feels like a welcome way to end an arranged marriage.”

Mayor Weaver noted that the appointment of Hughey Newsome as Flint’s interim chief financial officer, combined with the city’s new Council members and approval of a 30-year contract with the Great Lakes Water Authority, has helped to move Flint in a fiscally and financially solvent direction.


The Human & Fiscal Challenges of Recovery

November 3, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the ongoing fiscal recovery of Michigan municipalities; the City of Detroit’s efforts to upgrade the quality of rental housing, and the ongoing fiscal and human plight of the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

Royal R-O-L-A-I-D-S. Michigan State officials Wednesday released Royal Oak Township, a suburb of Detroit and a charter township of Oakland County with a population as of the 2010 census of 2,419, from its consent agreement, with Michigan Treasurer Nick Khouri stating the Oakland County township is now free of the fiscal agreement under which the state placed it three years ago to resolve a financial emergency: “I am pleased to see the significant progress Royal Oak Charter Township has made under the consent agreement…Township officials went beyond the agreement and enacted policies that provide the community an opportunity to flourish. I am pleased to say the township is released from its agreement and look forward to working with them as a local partner in the future.” He added that progress has been made since 2014 to resolve issues that led to a financial emergency for the Oakland County community, for example, noting that today the township has a general fund balance of $920,000 instead of a deficit—and that police and fire services are improved. Township Supervisor Donna Squalls says the community has been able to work with the state and “enact reforms to ensure our long-term fiscal sustainability. Royal Oak Township’s financial emergency resulted in an assets deficit of nearly $541,000 for its 2012 budget year. Township Supervisor Donna Squalls noted: “Royal Oak Charter Township is in better shape than ever: The collaboration between state and township has provided an opportunity to enact reforms to ensure our long-term fiscal sustainability.” For his part, State Treasurer Khouri noted the township was the last remaining Michigan municipality operating under a fiscal consent agreement: over the last two years, Wayne County, Inkster, and River Rouge were released from consent agreements in response to fiscal and financial improvements and operational reforms. The Treasurer stated only three communities: Ecorse, Flint, and Hamtramck remain under state oversight through a Receivership Transition Advisory Board.

Protecting the Motor City’s Renters. The Detroit City Council this week voted unanimously to update its rental regulations, am update which included the enactment of rules to bar landlords from collecting rent on units which have not passed city inspections. Under the current ordinance, housing units are supposed to be registered and have passed city inspections by obtaining a certificate of compliance prior to being available for rental purposes; however, before they can be rented out. However, city officials admit they have permitted most landlords to ignore those rules for more than a decade—rules adopted to ensure compliance with safety regulations, especially lead poisoning prevention efforts, for which inspections are a part of obtaining a certificate of compliance. Or, as Councilman Andre Spivey put it: “We hope it will improve the quality of life in our neighborhoods and entire city.” However, some landlords have claimed that enforcing inspections with the threat of rent being withheld would discourage the incentive to provide rental housing opportunities in the city—already a challenge because of apprehensions about crime and the quality of public schools—with some even vowing to sue the city. Last year, just 4,174 addresses were registered and inspected—less than 3 percent of the Motor City’s estimated 140,000 rental units—and more than 20 percent below the number registered a decade ago. Indeed, last year, the Detroit News reported that only one of every 13 eviction cases was filed on an address legally registered with the city—with the paper reporting that families facing eviction in homes that were never inspected by the city and had numerous problems, including: lack of heat, hazardous electric systems, missing windows, and rodent infestation.

Under the updated regulations, to be phased in over the next six months, tenants who live in rentals which have not passed city inspections would be given the option to could put their rent in an escrow account for 90 days. If the landlord, by the end of such period, had failed to obtain a city certificate, the renter will be able to keep the money. Subsequently, a tenant would be permitted to continue to put rent in escrow if the landlord does not comply, while the city would hire a third-party company to manage the escrow fund. The new escrow provision will be phased in, and each neighborhood will have different deadlines. Renters who are escrowing their payments will also have the right to “retain possession of the rental property,” according to the updated regulations.

A Motor City of Dreams? Meanwhile, yesterday, Renu Zaretsky, writing for the Tax Policy Center, “Transformational Brownfield of Dreams in a Motor City,” about the role of fiscal tax policy in revitalizing two Michigan cities, noted that the city’s famed Renaissance Center had been constructed to revitalize Detroit in the wake of the 1967 riots—with Henry Ford II, in 1971, convincing dozens of businesses to invest in the $350 million project; however, she noted: the hoped-for transformation never took place, leading to the collapse of the Center’s assessed property value—and crushing hopes for the city’s fiscal revival. Yet, today, Detroit and the state of Michigan seem poised to invest half a trillion dollars to try once again to revitalize the recovering downtown—a downtown in which developer Dan Gilbert, the founder of Quicken Loans, is investing to transform via 3.2 million square feet of office, residential, and retail space, including a skyscraper and 900 apartments—albeit, Mr. Gilbert is seeking tax incentives to support the effort, claiming taxpayer subsidies are “essential,” for not only this project, but also other investment in the city. Under his proposal, he would to put up a total of $1.9 billion, with about $500 million up-front: in return, he is seeking the leverage of additional funding from a newly amended state tax incentive program—under which he anticipated some $557 million over the next three and a half decades, based on new state legislation Gov. Rick Snyder signed last summer to amend the state’s Brownfield Redevelopment Financing Act of 1996: under the state’s current statute, brownfield developers could recoup limited construction costs (such as demolition, site preparation, and infrastructure improvements) via tax increment financing; however, under his new proposal, the state would directly subsidize construction costs that directly benefit an eligible property—with the municipal bonds backed by Michigan state sales and income taxes generated during on-site construction, as well as 50 percent of state income and withholding taxes from those who will live and work on the sites in the future, as well as the added property tax revenue. The Detroit Brownfield Redevelopment Authority would issue municipal bonds to finance the project, with the bond payments secured by some $229.6 million in property tax revenues, $18.2 million from construction site state income taxes, $1.6 million from city income taxes, and $307.9 million from state income taxes paid by future workers and residents. She notes that Mr. Gilbert promises this project would attract 2,122 residents who would pay monthly rents ranging from $2,287 to $3,321 and create 8,500 direct permanent jobs, including 5,400 office jobs paying an annual average of $85,000 and 1,700 retail and service positions paying $25,000—with Michigan reimbursed via captured state and municipal income taxes over the next two decades.  

As we have noted—and she writes: this is a fiscal dare: notwithstanding its fiscal recovery, the Motor City still has the highest rate of concentrated poverty among the 25 most populous metro areas in the U.S.; its median household income is about $26,000; and its unemployment rate was 9.6% in July. That is: this is a gamble in an area in the downtown where—on the day Detroit filed for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, the hotel clerk told me it was unsafe for me to walk to the Governor’s Detroit offices—about a half mile away—to meet with Kevin Orr on his very first morning as the Governor’s appointed Emergency Manager. Now, nearly a decade later, the fiscal challenge—and risk—is whether new state tax expenditures which benefit developers could succeed in boosting Detroit’s recovering revenues.

Physical & Fiscal Destruction. Hurricane Maria left no equina or corner of Puerto Rico untouched: the cataclysmic storm meted out systemic physical and fiscal devastation to the U.S. territory and to the lives and livlihoods of its 3.4 million American citizens. This morning, more than five weeks later, too many residents still lack safe and clean drinking water, access to food, and communications. Power, and transportation links are only partially restored. While tens of thousands of public servants and volunteers are now hard at work restoring those essential needs and unblocking constraints from logistics to information flow, the contrast with the federal responses in Houston and Florida have become even more stark. It means Puerto Rico’s leaders face two simultaneous challenges: addressing people’s most urgent physical needs, and laying the foundations for the direction of the medium- and long-term recovery and reconstruction efforts ahead.

In a way similar to Detroit, Puerto Rico confronts a legacy of debt and economic uncertainty, but, as we have noted above; the physical and fiscal devastation might offer a historic opportunity to reimagine Puerto Rico’s future. Yet, how the island’s fiscal and physical reconstruction is conceived and implemented will determine the future of the island: it will be the architecture of Puerto Rico’s physical and civic infrastructure for the next half century, or, as Puerto Rico’s Economic Secretary Manuel Laboy said recently: “We have this historic opportunity: Instead of going with incremental changes, we can go and push the envelope to really transform the infrastructure. That is the silver lining opportunity that we have.” After all, Hurricane Maria exacerbated the considerable challenges already confronting Puerto Rico: a massive public finance debt crisis and migration flows which have witnessed a dramatic outflow of the island’s population: an outflow of more than 10%–but an unbalanced 10%, as the outflow has been characterized disproportionately by being both younger and more educated, meaning Puerto Rico has disproportionately greater low-income and elderly citizens in need of greater fiscal assistance, even as those most valuable to a vibrant economy has become smaller.

The fiscal and human challenge, this, will be for its leaders not to employ the paper towels thrown at them by President Trump, but rather to leverage its considerable natural assets: its central location in the Caribbean region, its hard-working and resourceful residents, its mostly mild climate, and its development-friendly topography. Indeed, many agencies involved in the reconstruction are rightly conducting a “needs assessment” to align their aid efforts. Equally important to medium- and long-term reconstruction is an “asset map” to ensure that Puerto Rico’s strengths, resources, and opportunities are taken into account when imagining the future potential of the island. At the same time, as part of rebuilding, its leaders will need to anticipate that global warming means that more category 4 and 5 storms are certain in the future—so that rebuilding what was is not a constructive option: there will have to be innovation to creating a resilient infrastructure for power, water and sanitation, communications and transportation.

But, again as in Detroit, the physical, governance, and fiscal reform process which Puerto Rico’s new administration has promised must remain front and center: how can Puerto Rico restore its own fiscal and political solvency—a challenge hardly enhanced in the wake of criticism of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority’s (PREPA) now-canceled contract with Whitefish Energy Holdings: the territory must create transparent budgets and plans with regard to how recovery funding is allocated—as well as complete its exploration how citizen panels and consultations to review different design options and careful procurement, oversight, and reporting mechanisms can earn respect and support—not only from its citizens and taxpayers, but also from the PROMESA Oversight Board: a transparent procurement system which can assess the myriad offers that will come in to ensure that the legacies created are cost-effective and the best options for the people and the island. 

Puerto Rico’s Municipalities or Muncipios. Unsurprisingly, the fiscal crisis which has enveloped most of Puerto Rico’s municipalities has multiplied after the passage of Hurricane Maria. The economic burden to respond to the emergency situation has undermined efforts to refills depleted coffers, meaning that the municipal executives of the Popular Democratic Party (PDP), grouped under the Association of Mayors, have not ruled out imposing austerity measures in addition to those applied last year—or, as Association President Rolando Ortiz, the Mayor of Cayey, put it:I am sure that all municipalities are exposed to having to reduce working hours or eliminate places permanently, because we are all exposed to lack of income.” According to reports from El Nuevo Día from last August, some 15 municipalities had to cut working hours of their employees—in some municipalities up to 50%, including in the towns of Vieques, Toa Baja, Las Piedras, and Cabo Rojo. The physical and fiscal devastation comes in the wake of fiscal declines of the municipalities in the past decades after assuming burdens imposed by the Commonwealth, such as mandated increases in contributions to the Retirement Systems, the subsidy to the Government Health Plan, and the reduction in the government contribution. Even though the municipalities have been unable to generate specific data on the economic impact that the municipalities have suffered in the wake of Maria’s impact, Mr. Ortiz emphasized that the blow has been severe: the mayors have had to assume recovery and first response tasks which were not budgeted, such as the collection and disposition of debris and the purchase and supply of diesel and gasoline. Notwithstanding that some of the funds will be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), such funding will not represent an automatic improvement in the coffers. As Mr. Ortiz notes: “Before the hurricanes Irma and María, 40 municipalities were about to close their operations. With this impact we have had, we have almost two months of zero commercial economic activity…it makes the fiscal situation precarious.” One of the most serious fiscal claims of the mayors has been for the return of $ 350 million in revenue from contributions that the central government has proposed to cut to municipal assistance in the next fiscal year—with the Mayors meeting yesterday in San Juan to discuss the economic and social situation of each of the associated municipalities in the wake of the storms, where they agreed that the urgency of water and food supplies and the restoration of basic services persists—and that they could not “validate” the claim of Puerto Rico’s Aqueduct and Sewer Authority that 82 percent of subscribers have service. Mayor Marcelo Trujillo of Humacao noted: “If electricity does not arrive, the municipality will go bankrupt, given the case that we depend on 13 industries, trade, and hospitals that we have that are working halfway,” adding that some of the businesses in his city which are open, are only partly operating—while the municipality’s largest shopping center remains shuttered—depriving the community of tax revenues, earned income, and hop—and meaning, as he reported, that the municipality has been unable to restore operations, because the Casa Alcaldía (town hall) suffered damages that prevent work from there. 

His colleague, the Mayor of Comerío, José A. Josian Santiago, noted: “As of July 1 of next year, my budget goes down from 60 percent from $10 million to $4 million, which would mean that, at this time of crisis, I have to leave 200 employees out of a total of 300. How am I going to operate? How will I respond to the emergency?” He noted that the current situation of Comerío is complicated, because, in addition to the lack of basic services, citizens have no way to obtain money for the purchase of food and basic necessities, because banks and ATM’s are closed: “It is a fatigue for my team, as for the people, to be every day trying to survive. A country cannot establish that as a condition of life. There is no way to sentence the communities of our municipalities to survive every day.”

The Price of Solvency. Even as Puerto Rico is struggling to recover without anything comparable to the federal assistance rendered to Houston and Florida, the PROMESA federal oversight board has given the U.S. territory about seven weeks to revise its financial recovery plan to account for the devastating damage suffered in Hurricane Maria, raising the possibility the territory will need to impose deeper losses on owners of its $74 billion debt. The panel earlier this week mandated that Puerto Rico will need to seek approval for any contract over $10 million, significantly expanding its supervision—a step taken in the wake of PREPA’s decision to grant a critical $300 million rebuilding contact to a small Montana company which had just two full-time employees before beginning its work in Puerto Rico. With Maria wreaking an estimated $95 billion in physical devastation, Puerto Rico’s municipal bonds have tumbled on speculation that investors will be forced to accept even steeper concessions than previously anticipated: the territory’s main operational account, which receives most of its public funds and covers most of its expenses, is now projected to report a deficit of $2.4 billion by the end of this year—a deficit exploded not just by the storm devastation, but also by Maria’s toll on the government’s tax collections—or, as PROMESA Board Executive Director Natalie Jaresko put it: “The devastation has affected millions of lives, decimated critical infrastructure, made revenue collections almost impossible…In light of this new reality, we must work urgently towards revising the certified fiscal plans.” The commonwealth and PREPA have been ordered to submit to the federal board their updated fiscal plans by Dec. 22nd. It is unclear, however, whether the PROMESA Board has fully taken into account the demographic changes caused by the physical storm: The revisions need to take into account the anticipated population loss because of Maria, with Hunter College’s Center for Puerto Rican Studies estimates Puerto Rico will lose 14 percent of its population by 2019 because of the storm.

Director Jaresko told the PROMESA Board the hurricane left several variables that will affect the amount of revenues available and spending that will be necessary in the next few years, meaning that the territory’s fiscal recovery plan should show that structural balance should be achieved by FY2022, so that, according to the schedule discussed by the Board, it will seek draft fiscal plans from the commonwealth government, PREPA, and the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority by Dec. 22nd, aiming to have approved fiscal plans for these entities by Ground Hog Day. The Board plans to adopt certified plans by March 16th, after holding two public meetings in Puerto Rico and one in New York City to receive public comment on the revision to the fiscal plans: these are tentatively scheduled for Nov. 16, 28, and Dec. 4.


The Human & Fiscal Prices of Insolvency

October 20, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the spread of Connecticut’s fiscal blues to its municipalities; then we consider the health and fiscal health challenge to Flint; before, finally, observing the seemingly worsening fiscal and human plight of Puerto Rico.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

The Price of Solvency. It appears that the City of Hartford would have to restructure its debt to receive the requisite state assistance to keep it out of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy under the emerging state budget compromise between the Governor and Legislature. Under the terms of the discussions, the State of Connecticut would also guarantee a major refunding of the city’s debt, as well as cover a major share of the city’s debt payments, at least for this fiscal year and next, with House Majority Leader Matt Ritter (D-Hartford) indicating this was part of a bipartisan compromise the legislature recognizes is needed to avert municipal bankruptcy: “This budget gives the city all of the tools it needs to be on a structural path to sustainability…This solution truly is a bipartisan one.” According to the city’s Mayor Luke Bronin, Hartford needs about $40 million annually in new state assistance to avert bankruptcy. The emerging agreement also includes $28 million per year for a new Municipal Accountability Review Board, likely similar to what the Commonwealth of Virginia has used so effectively, to focus on municipalities at risk of fiscal insolvency and to intervene beforehand: approximately $20 million of that $28 million would be earmarked for Hartford. The new state budget would require Hartford to restructure a significant portion of its capital debt, but the state would guarantee this refinancing, an action which—as was the case in Detroit—will help Hartford have access to lower borrowing costs: the agreement also calls for the state to pay $20 million of the city’s annual debt service—at least for this fiscal year and next.

The state actions came as Moody’s Investor Service this week placed ratings of 26 of the state’s municipalities, as well as three of the state’s regional school districts under review for downgrade, citing state aid cuts in the absence of a budget, warning those municipalities and districts face cuts in state funding equal to 100% or more of available fund balance or cash—with those cities most at risk: Hartford (which currently receives 50 percent of its revenues from the state), New Haven, New Britain, West Haven, and Bridgeport. Moody’s was even fiscally moodier, dropping the credit ratings of an additional 25 Connecticut cities and towns, and three other regional school districts, while maintaining the existing negative outlook on the rating of one town. Moody’s list did not, however, include Hartford. The down-gradings come as the state has continued to operate under Executive order in the absence of an approved fiscal budget, now more than a fiscal quarter overdue. Gov. Dannel Malloy, at the beginning of the week, had submitted his fourth FY2018-19 budget to lawmakers, a $41.3 billion spending plan in the wake of his veto last month of the version approved by the legislature, reporting that his most recent fiscal plan would eliminate some revenue proposals, including new taxes on second homes, cell phone surcharges, ridesharing fees, and daily fantasy sports fees—instead, he has proposed an additional $150 million in spending over the biennium, while simplifying the implementor language. According to Moody’s, under the Governor’s new executive order, state aid to local governments will be nearly $1 billion below last year’s level—or, as Moody’s put it: “The current budget impasse highlights the ongoing vulnerability of funding that Connecticut provides to its local governments.” Connecticut traditionally has provided significant funding to its local governments, largely through education cost sharing grants, but also through payments in lieu of taxes and other smaller governmental grants. Connecticut’s GO bond prices have deteriorated with 10-year credit spreads around 80 basis points, well above historical levels, according to Janney Capital Markets Managing Director Alan Schankel: “A state’s fiscal stress tends to flow downstream to local governments, and Connecticut is no exception.” The fiscal irony is that despite the state’s high per capita wealth, the state’s debt, at 9.2% of gross state product, is highest among the states, lagging only behind Illinois.

Not in Like Flint. U.S. District Court Judge David Lawson has ordered Flint’s City Council to choose a long-term water source for the city by Monday after it spent more than three months refusing to make a decision. In his 29-page opinion, he took Flint’s City Council to task for sitting on an April agreement backed by Mayor Karen Weaver, the state and the federal Environmental Protection Agencies that would see the city stay on the Detroit area water system through a new 30-year contract with the Great Lakes Water Authority, writing:. “The failure of leadership, in light of the past crises and manifold warnings related to the Flint water system, is breathtaking.” Judge Lawson’s decision came in response to a suit filed by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality last June in the wake of the Flint City Council ignoring the state’s deadline for a water supply decision, arguing the delay would “cause an imminent and substantial endangerment to public health in Flint.” The Council, in hearing and filings, had requested more time from the court; however, Judge Lawson wrote that the state had demonstrated potential for “irreparable injury” in Flint and that there was an urgency to act, because the city’s short-term water agreements have expired and the long-term agreement is time sensitive, concluding: “The City Council has not voted on the negotiated agreement, it has not proposed an alternative, and the future of Flint’s fragile water system—its safety, reliability, and financial stability— is in peril…Because of the city’s indecision, the court must issue its ruling.” Judge Lawson’s order likely ensures the City Council will approve the proposed contract with the Great Lakes Authority that it had been resisting though it was negotiated with Mayor Karen Weaver’s approval. The city could choose to risk defying the court order; however, the State of Michigan has warned that tens of millions of dollars in extensive repairs and updates need to be made to the inactive Flint water plant—repairs which would take three and a half years to complete.

The warnings of Wayne State University Professor Nicholas Schroeck with regard to the risk to public health and the financial stability of the water supply system appeared key to persuading Judge Lawson to side with the state and issue a pre-emptive order. The Judge, in early August, had appointed a mediator in an effort to try gain an agreement between the city and the state Dept. of Environmental Quality; however, when the sides were unable to settle, he warned that  extending Flint’s contract with the Detroit area water system beyond 30 days could result in funding problems: “It seems to me that inaction is inviting intervention.” The Weaver administration analyzed various long-term water options for Flint, and the Mayor said Tuesday the Great Lakes agreement “proved to be in the best interest of public health by avoiding another water source switch, which could result in unforeseen issues.” The Michigan DEQ praised Judge Lawson for “recognizing there is no need to wait…and remains committed to working with the City of Flint to implement a plan once a source water determination has been finalized to ensure compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act.” In its arguments before Judge Lawson, the State of Michigan had warned: “The City Council’s failure to act will result in at least a 55-63% increase in the water rate being charged to Flint residents, create an immediate risk of bankrupting the Flint water fund, will preclude required investment in Flint’s water distribution system, and create another imminent and substantial endangerment to public health in Flint.” That was similar to a statement from a key aide to Gov. Rick Snyder who had warned that stalling the water contract decision was costing the City of Flint an extra $600,000 a month, because it was paying for two sources—Great Lakes, from which it currently gets its treated water, and Karegnondi, from which it contractually would receive water by 2019 to 2020. Under the 30-year agreement with Great Lakes, Flint would no longer have to make payments to Karegnondi.

Unresponsiveness. President Trump last week awarded himself a perfect rating for his response to the hurricane that devastated Puerto Rico: “I would give myself a 10,” he responded when asked by reporters how he would score his efforts, on a one to 10 scale. He told Fox News correspondent Geraldo Rivera that Puerto Rican governments “owe a lot of money to your friends on Wall Street, and we’re going to have to wipe that out. You can say goodbye to that.” A comment to which OMB Director Mick Mulvaney noted: “I wouldn’t take it word for word.” Indeed, a week later, Congressional Republicans unveiled a relief plan that would only add to Puerto Rico’s unsustainable debt load. In his meeting this week with Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló, who was in Washington to press for federal disaster relief, the President claimed: “We have provided so much, so fast.” Yet, today nearly 80 percent of the island remains without electricity, and almost 30 of the island still does not have access to clean water, according to Puerto Rican government figures.

In contrast with Texas after Hurricane Harvey and Florida after Irma, where thousands of repair workers rushed in to restring power lines, only a few hundred electrical workers from outside Puerto Rico have arrived to help: it was not until last Saturday that the Puerto Rican government said it had the federal funding needed to bring in more workers. That compares to some 5,300 workers from outside the region who converged on coastal Texas in the days after Hurricane Harvey to restore a power loss about a tenth of the size that struck Puerto Rico. Similarly, in Florida, 18,000 outside workers went in after Hurricane Irma knocked out electricity to most of the state last month, according to Florida Power and Light; whereas, in Puerto Rico, the challenge of restoration has fallen on the shoulders of about 900 members of local crews—an outcome industry experts report to be a result of poor planning, a slow response by power officials, and Puerto Rico’s dire fiscal situation—a sharp contrast to the President’s claim that his administration deserved a 10 for its response to the hurricanes which struck Puerto Rico and other parts of the United States.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, charged by FEMA with restoring Puerto Rico’s power, estimated that it needed at least 2,000 additional workers. So far, the Corps has brought only about 200 workers, and most of them were dedicated not to restoring power, but to installing generators at crucial locations. In the wake of major storms, such as Katrina, power companies typically rely on mutual aid agreements to get electricity restored: such outside companies send thousands of workers, and electric companies pay for the service with funds from FEMA. However, providing such assistance to Puerto Rico is not just logistically a greater challenge—but also a discriminatorily greater challenge: the Jones Act—which the President only suspended for ten days—means that the time and cost of shipping comes at a 20% premium.  

The Human Storm. Maria risks accelerating the trend of the last decade of economic decline and depopulation, described as “a slower-moving catastrophe,” which is wreaking a devastating toll: The number of residents had plunged by 11 percent, the economy had shrunk by 15 percent, and the government has become fiscally insolvent. Already ranked among the worst cycles of economic decline and depopulation in postwar American history, the aftermath of Maria threatens an acceleration of residents fleeing en masse: accelerating economic decline and potentially accelerating a vicious cycle. Lyman Stone, an independent migration researcher and economist at the Agriculture Department notes: “We are watching a real live demographic and population collapse on a monumental scale.” At a news conference last week, Gov. Rosselló warned that without significant help, “millions” could leave for the U.S. mainland: You’re not going to get hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans moving to the States—you’re going to get millions…You’re going to get millions, creating a devastating demographic shift for us here in Puerto Rico.” Puerto Rico Treasury Secretary Raúl Maldonado has warned, meanwhile, that without more aid, the government could suffer a shutdown by the end of the month.

Today, only about 40 percent of Puerto Ricans in the territory are employed or seeking work—more than 33% below levels on the mainland. The danger, now, is of increased flight—but flight by the young and those with college degrees. After all, with the PROMESA Board charged with fashioning a fiscal plan to pay off more than $70 billion in Puerto Rico’s municipal debt calling for efforts to raise taxes and significant cuts to the government, the Board has predicted continuing shrinkage of the Puerto Rican economy. Thus, there is a real apprehension

As a result, for Washington and Puerto Rican officials planning a recovery, the ongoing exodus poses a multifaceted dilemma. “They’ve got to start from the ground up,” a former U.S. Treasury official said of any new plan for the island. In the short-term, at least, the island is likely to see an economic boost; rebuilding after a hurricane often injects a jolt of spending into local economies. But, according to recent research of 90 years of natural disasters in the United States, published as a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, major natural disasters also have unfavorable effects: They increase out-migration, lower home prices, and raise poverty rates. Like many on the island, Sergio M. Marxuach, policy director for the Center for a New Economy, a San Juan-based think tank, said a massive federal investment is necessary. “We’re going to need some significant government intervention — essentially a big rescue package, not only to rebuild the economy but get it growing…People are saying, ‘I don’t want my children to grow up in a place where the economy is going to be devastated for the next 10 years.’ If enough people think that way, it’s going to be a self-reinforcing downward spiral.”

In addressing complaints about ongoing struggles on the island, President Trump noted this week that the disaster in Puerto Rico in many ways had begun years ago. Puerto Rico “was in very poor shape before the hurricanes ever hit. Their electrical grid was destroyed before the hurricanes got there. It was in very bad shape, was not working, was in bankruptcy.”

At the Level of a Muncipio. While many have considered the fiscal and physical impact on the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, fewer have considered the fiscal challenge to Puerto Rico’s municipalities. Consider, for instance, Juncos, one of Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities: it is located in the eastern central region of the island; it is spread over 9 wards and Juncos Pueblo (the downtown area and the administrative center of the city). The city, one of the oldest in the United States,was founded on the request of Tomas Pizarro on August 2, 1797, having previously been a village which evolved from a small ranch, the Hatillo de los Juncos. Hurricane Maria has changed this municipality forever: more than 1,000 families in Juncos lost it all that unforgettable September 20th, when Hurricane Maria struck. Yet, in a remarkable effort, residents of the La Hormiga sector of Las Piñas neighborhood, in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, organized to help recover the humble community that is often highlighted by criminal incidents in the area: one of the community leaders of the sector, Wanda Bonilla, highlighted the deed of the trash rescuers: “Thanks to them, they have also relieved the pick up of the rubble.” The city’s community board worked immediately to install a shelter in the neighborhood community center given the circumstances that some 17 families, with between five and seven members each, where the storm tore the roofs off their homes—and most of those homes have single mothers. She noted: “Our president, Ivelisse Esquilín, who also lost everything, is helping us through the Municipality and with other donations.” Juncos Mayor Alfredo Alejandro noted that, in the wake of the storm, crossing arms was not an option for anyone “in the neighborhood” even though many of the 60 families living in the sector experienced the grief of having lost their home: “You have to do it because imagine …right now, look here, I have these pieces of a car to see if I invent a type of small generator to, even be, to turn on a fan.” The Mayor described Maria’s devastation to be of “great proportions:” Out of population of 42,000 people, more than 1,000 lost their homes and a comparable number suffered major damage to their structures; 85% of the city’s residents are still without potable water, while there are few expectations that electricity will soon be restored.


Physical & Fiscal Solvency & the Unremitting Challenges of Water

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the route to fiscal solvency taken by the small Virginia municipality of Petersburg, the major legal challenges to the physical and fiscal future of Flint; and the ongoing fiscal, legal, physical, and human challenges to Puerto Rico.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

The Road Back to Fiscal Solvency. Forensic auditors earlier this week presented their findings from the audit they conducted into the city of Peters burg’s financial books during a special City Council meeting in the small, historic Virginia City of Petersburg, and answered questions from Council Members. Their key focus was on the “ethical tone” of the city government: they noted they had found much evidence of abuse of city money and city resources: “The perception that employees had was that the ethical tone had not been good for quite some time: The culture led employees to do things they might not otherwise do.” The list of misdeeds included misappropriations of fuel for city vehicles, falsification of overtime hours, vacation/sick leave abuse, use of city property for personal gain including lawn mowers and vehicles for travel, excessive or lavish gifts from vendors, and questionable hiring practices. They added that the ethical problems appeared to be more “systemic” rather than individual, testifying, for instance, that they had examined fuel consumption and “[W]e could tell just looking at it that it was misused, though it would’ve cost tens of thousands of more dollars to find out who exactly took what.” Because of the city’s limited budget, the scope of the auditor’s (PBMares) work could only go so far. Council Members Darrin Hill and Treska Wilson-Smith both expressed sentiments that the audit did not go far enough; however, former Finance Director Nelsie Birch noted that the audit was tasked with focusing on several “troubling areas,” and that a full forensic audit could have cost much more money than the nearly insolvent city had. In fact, the city spent approximately $1 million on turnaround services, with the vast bulk of that amount to the Bobb Group to obtain outside help from the firm led by the former Richmond City Manager in its efforts to pull Petersburg back from the brink of insolvency and scrutinize the cash-strapped government’s books. The city devoted nearly $195,000 to a forensic audit by the firm PBMares. Former Mayor and now City Councilman Howard Myers believes Petersburg’s taxpayers have gotten their money’s worth: “They brought us from the depths of indebtedness…I think the resistance then was mainly misinformed about the nature of how things had gotten to the point they were.” But from the abyss of insolvency, city officials now project Petersburg will have $2 million in savings left over from the fiscal year which ended June 30. To get there, the city has deeply reduced pay for emergency workers, cut funding for public schools, and eliminated programs for children in an effort to close a $12 million hole in the city’s budget—even as those efforts still left the Council confronted by some $18.8 million in past-due bills, as well as litigation over the city’s mounting debts—not to mention growing taxpayer pressure to cease to exist, but rather to dissolve its charter and revert to becoming part of one or more counties. Nevertheless, as Mayor Samuel Parham put it: “We had to take a chance: We were at a point where all the banks were laughing at us, saying: ‘We’re not going to pay you a dime; you couldn’t afford to mail an envelope.’”

Today, it seems that gamble has paid off: the contract with Mr. Bobb’s firm ended last month, and, as Mayor Parham stated: “Look, God bless Robert Bobb…We couldn’t get anyone — nobody wanted to come risk their career to save Petersburg. The storm was so massive, it was sinking all of us, but he told us he had dealt with many storms in his 40-year career.” The appointment of Mr. Bobb, however, was a political gambit which drew the opposition of a “good government group,” Clean Sweep Petersburg, which had helped launch an effort to recall Mr. Myers and Mayor Parham. The issue which created the greatest political discord: privatization of the city’s water and sewer authority.  In an interview this week, Mr. Bobb noted that the city’s future fiscal success will depend largely on the City Council’s ability to be accountable to taxpayers through their own decisions and those of the fresh administration hired in a municipal reset. Critical to that success will be firm municipal oversight of cash flow, strong leadership in the finance department, and a newly created revenue collection department designed to wrest responsibility away from the Treasurer’s office, which, according to Mr. Bobb, was not under the Council’s purview: he added the city’s elected leaders “have a tremendous fiduciary responsibility to perform at a high level on behalf of the city’s taxpayers: I think they have a chance, absolutely. They really have to control spending, though, and be careful.” He added that  of the $10 million the firm calculated it had helped save or bring in through a combination of state money it pursued, savings achieved by restructuring debt, the sale of city assets and other actions: “We’ve given the administration and the City Council a reset and an opportunity to build moving forward: “It really is up to the City Council now.”

Out Like Flint. Thousands of Flint, Michigan’s citizens are still grappling with the effects of the city’s state-caused lead-poisoning drinking water crisis, one occasioned by a gubernatorially appointed Emergency Manager, which has, today, confronted the city with many citizens facing possible tax liens and even foreclosure on their homes due to unpaid water bills: more than 8,000 residents have received notices that past-due water bills—categorized as those left unpaid for six months or more—must be resolved to avoid a lien being placed on their property. The bills in question cover two years: they total more than $5 million in delinquent water and sewer charges, according to the city. The ongoing fiscal and physical stress comes amid an involuntary manslaughter trial after  Federal Judge Judith Levy last June ruled that the conduct of government officials was “so egregious as to shock the conscience,” approving a $97 million settlement from the State of Michigan to replace water lines in at least 18,000 households.

Nevertheless, today, the water in Flint remains unsafe to drink without a filter. Unsurprisingly, in the city, where the estimated median household income in 2015 ($25,342) was more than 10 percent lower than in 2000, and where assessed housing (home/condo) values have dropped by nearly 50 percent to a level 75 percent lower than the statewide average, the city is ensnared in a vicious fiscal quandary: the liens threatened by the city, if implemented, represent the first step in making a claim on an individual’s property, setting off a legal process which could ultimately result in families losing their homes—further depressing assessed property values. And that is in a municipality where the city’s residents face some of the highest water bills in the country.  (To bring some relief, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder last year approved a $30 million plan to reimburse residents for a portion of payments made since April 2014 on water used for drinking, bathing, and cooking.) That state assistance ended early this year, however, so now the city’s leaders are faced with the grim task of condemnation: once water payments are missed on water or sewer accounts for more than six months, the city’s ordinance requires the Treasurer to transfer the lien to a homeowner’s property tax bill—or, as Mayor Karen Weaver puts it: “We must follow the law…I understand the concerns that have been raised, and I am working to see if any changes or something can be done to help those affected by this, especially given the extraordinary circumstances we have endured due to the water crisis.”

But Flint’s fiscal and physical crisis has become a legal entanglement for the State of Michigan, where, in another courtroom, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, whose original appointment of a series of state-appointed emergency managers who ran Flint city government from 2011 until mid-2015, making key decisions related to city’s water system (under former Emergency Manager Darnell Earley, the city changed its water source in what was explained as a cost-saving move, switching from pre-treated water from Lake Huron to raw water from the Flint River—and after which the DEQ did not require the city to treat the water to make it less corrosive to lead pipes and plumbing, causing lead to leach into the water supply).

That decision to preempt the city’s local elected officials had led to the fateful decision to switch the city’s water supply to a contaminated system; while state responsibility appears to be a hot potato—with state leaders not saying who initially opposed issuing a  state emergency over the Flint water crisis. During a preliminary examination this Wednesday, in the criminal case against Nick Lyon, Director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, special prosecutor Todd Flood read from a November 2015 email from Richard Baird, a senior advisor to Gov. Snyder, in which Mr. Baird had written “the ‘boss’ wanted to avoid triggering the emergency, which authorizes the Michigan State Police to coordinate relief efforts and requests for assistance from the federal government.” (Former President Obama signed an emergency declaration for Flint days after Gov. Snyder ultimately requested it, clearing the way for federal assistance to replace damaged lead and galvanized water service lines in the city.) Thus, the ongoing criminal trials in which the State of Michigan and City of Flint employees have been charged with criminal wrongdoing related to the water crisis (of which there are a total of 13 pending in Genesee District Court). In the trial, Corinne Miller, the former head of Disease Control for the State of Michigan, testified in a key court hearing Wednesday that the court must determine if Nick Lyon, the then Director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, must face an involuntary manslaughter charge. (Note, Mr. Lyon, has remained on the job while facing charges of involuntary manslaughter and misconduct in office.)

Indeed, the Michigan courtrooms have become filled: attorneys for 21 law firms have filed a consolidated class-action lawsuit against two engineering firms, Flint officials, and Michigan officials, including Gov. Rick Snyder and former state Treasurer Andy Dillon over Flint’s lead-contaminated water—so egregious that last June, Judith Levy ruled that Flint residents have sufficiently argued that the conduct of government officials “was so egregious as to shock the conscience.” The complaint before her had noted that approximately 100,000 Flint residents “have experienced and will continue to experience serious personal injury and property damage caused by defendents’ deliberate, reckless and negligent misconduct…Defendents caused a public health crisis by exposing (Flint residents) to contaminated water” and “exacerbated the crisis by concealing and misrepresenting its scope, failing to take effective remedial action to eliminate it, and then lying about it to cover up their misconduct.”

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Flint’s 100,000 residents and other users of its water system, says the defendants acted recklessly and did not respect residents’ due process rights argues that the engineering firms and government officials unconstitutionally did not treat the predominantly black residents of Flint the same as the predominantly white residents of great Genesee County. In late July, a three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals allowed plaintiffs in one case before Judge Levy to try to seek relief from Gov. Snyder in the form of compensation for education, medical monitoring and evaluation services for ongoing harm from Flint’s lead-contaminated water. In the other case, the appeals judges dismissed the possibility of seeking penalties for Gov. Snyder, the State of Michigan, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. All three of the judges, however, wrote that the 11th Amendment gives the state and Snyder immunity against damages sought by private citizens.

Undercutting Sovereignty. President Trump set off a broad sale of Puerto Rico’s municipal bonds this week when he said: “You can say goodbye to that,” referring to the U.S. territory’s $73 billion debt as one option to help Puerto Rico recover from Hurricane Maria in an interview on Fox News during his visit to Puerto Rico—a suggestion which OMB Director Mick Mulvaney discounted just hours later, stating the White House does not intend to become involved in Puerto Rico debt restructuring—debt which, in any case, the President has no unilateral authority to forgive. The President had stated: “We’re going to work something out. We have to look at their whole debt structure. They owe a lot of money to your friends on Wall Street, and we’re going to have to wipe that out…you can wave goodbye to that,” unsurprisingly leading some to understand that the Trump administration would force municipal bondholders to forgive Puerto Rico’s debt. (The price of Puerto Rico’s municipal bonds, already down in the wake of Hurricane Maria, fell another 31 percent—only recovering in the wake of comments by Office of Management and Budget Director Mulvaney, attempting to backtrack, stating: “I wouldn’t take it word for word with that. I talked to the President about this at some length yesterday as we flew home on Air Force One: The primary focus of the federal effort is to make sure the island is safe and that we’re rebuilding the island,” adding that the federal government would not pay off debts or bail out municipal bondholders: “I think what you heard the President say is that Puerto Rico is going to have to figure out a way to solve its debt problem.”

The White House Wednesday asked Congress to approve $29 billion in additional hurricane relief and municipal debt forgiveness, seeking to help Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, as well as shore up the debt-ridden federal flood insurance program which provides flood insurance to homes and small businesses. The latest request seeks $12.8 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to stay current with the nearly $200 million a day the agency is spending on recovery work; the request also seeks action by Congress to erase some $16 billion in debt that the National Flood Insurance Program owes to the Treasury: under the White House proposal, premiums for flood insurance would rise, at least for homeowners who could afford to pay more, while private insurers would be encouraged to start writing their own flood insurance.

For the devastated U.S. territory, however, the physical and fiscal destruction has only worsened Puerto Rico’s short and long-term fiscal plight—or, as Gov. Rossello noted: “As far as the comment made about wiping the debt clean, that is the opinion of the President,” noting, carefully, he could not comment further because of the ongoing legal proceedings. Fortunately, in Congress, House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) is putting together a funding package to aid Puerto Rico, and he said members of his committee and other Representatives were meeting to discuss temporary measures to reduce government rules slowing Puerto Rico’s recovery: his group will examine options for ways to make Puerto Rico’s and the U.S. Virgin Island’s electrical systems more resistant to storms, as well as consider how to improve things in both territories in the short-, medium-, and long-term.


Fiscal, Legal, Physical & Human Challenges

October 4, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the President’s visit to address the fiscal, legal, physical, and human challenges to Puerto Rico.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

Physical & Fiscal Mayhem. President Trump, visited Puerto Rico yesterday (nearly two weeks after Hurricane Maria, only 6.89% of the island has electricity, 22.54% of the telecommunications towers operate, 24% of the commercial flights operate, while the water and gas distribution problems persist in means of enormous damage to infrastructure. More than 9,000 people still live in shelters, according to official figures.). The President suggested the removal of Puerto Rico’s large debt so that Puerto Rico can to respond, short and long-term, to the emergency: “We have to work on something,” albeit adding Puerto Rico should be proud that only 16 died, unlike what he deemed “the real catastrophe” of Katrina. The devastating hurricane left some $90 billion in damage—on top of the $74 billion in debt Puerto Rico and the PROMESA Board (relocated to New York City) are confronting. The President added: “You have to look at the whole structure of the debt‒you owe a lot of money to your friends on Wall Street, and we’ll have to eliminate that. We’ll have to say good-by to that. I do not know if it’s Goldman-Sachs, but whoever it is, you can say goodbye to that. We will have to do something, because the island’s debt is huge.” The President’s remarks, however, coming as the PROMESA Board was meeting in New York City, created a question with regard to his intentions: did he mean the Administration is contemplating forgiving its debts? If so, what would that mean to the territory’s bondholders? Moreover, it is unclear whether the President even has such authority.

President Trump has called for Puerto Rico to have its crippling debt forgiven, describing the potential precedent as tough luck for the Wall Street holders of the debt, telling Fox New’s Geraldo Rivera: “They owe a lot of money to your friends on Wall Street, and we’re going to have to wipe that out,” with his comments coming in the wake of considerable political heat for one of his earliest tweets on Hurricane Maria, in which he had written that Puerto Rico was already suffering because of its huge debt burden, which liberals interpreted as blaming the victim.

The President told Puerto Rico officials they should feel “very proud” they haven’t lost thousands of lives like in “a real catastrophe like Katrina,” while adding that the devastated island territory has thrown the nation’s budget “a little out of whack,” with his comments coming as he touched down in San Juan amid harsh criticism of the slow federal response to the natural disaster, and after he had praised himself earlier in the day for his administration’s “great job” and “A-plus” response to Hurricane Maria, marking his brief, only visit to Puerto Rico since the storm ravaged the U.S. territory nearly two weeks ago. The President commented: “Every death is a horror, but if you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina, and you look at the tremendous—hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people who died, and you look at what happened here, with really a storm that was just totally overpowering, nobody’s ever seen anything like this.”  The President said this, then turned to a local official to ask how many people had died in storm. “What is your death count as of this moment? 17? 16 people certified, 16 people versus in the thousands.”

The hurricane, which killed at least 36, left millions without power and tens of thousands without access to drinkable water; it compounded a volatile economic situation in the territory, which is roughly $70 billion in debt. The President, at one point, stated that Puerto Rico had “thrown our budget a little out of whack.” President Trump, who in the past week has boasted about the federal government’s response to the disaster, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, told Govs. Ricardo Rosselló of Puerto Rico and Kenneth Mapp of the U.S. Virgin Islands:  “You can be very proud of all of your people, all of our people working together,” adding, however, “I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack.”

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, who has been deeply critical of the government’s relief efforts and whom the President Trump has criticized on Twitter, also joined the President for his first briefing. The President said: “I think it’s now acknowledged what a great job we’ve done, and people are looking at that…And in Texas and in Florida, we get an A-plus. And I’ll tell you what, I think we’ve done just as good in Puerto Rico, and it’s actually a much tougher situation. But now the roads are cleared, communication is starting to come back. We need their truck drivers to start driving trucks,” adding his thanks to Governor Rosselló for positive comments he had made about the Trump administration’s work in Puerto Rico, saying, “He has said we have done an incredible job, and that’s the truth.”

Unsurprisingly, the President’s statements were also marked by the controversy he has had with the San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, who had earlier stated publicly that citizens were dying on the island for lack of federal assistance—in response to which the President had tweeted “poor leadership” demonstrated by the Mayor. Her comments came shortly after the President said she should be proud that only 16 Americans died, unlike the “real catastrophe” of Katrina. Actually, so far, the storm has taken the lives of 34 Americans, leading the Mayor to state, in the wake of the President’s visit: “This is not a joke.”

In a subsequent interview, the President yesterday declared he would eliminate Puerto Rico’s debts, stating he has many friends on Wall Street, noting: they will have to say good-by to their investments, “I don’t know whether it is Goldman Sachs, but whoever it is, they will have to say good-by.” The President added, however, that what he had seen was not a “real catastrophe.”

While the cost of replacing and restoring critical public infrastructure destroyed by Hurricane Maria will largely fall to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, funding for other essential services, such as police and emergency rescue appears likely to remain Puerto Rico’s responsibility, according to FEMA experts—albeit something fiscally virtually out of reach: Puerto Rico’s fiscal capacity, beset by a shrinking population, spiking pension costs, and a looming health-care-funding cliff, now is confronted by hundreds of thousands of its citizens still without power and other basic necessities; its economic activity will take some time to restart, and it can expect severe interruptions in its tax collections for a time, according to Jim Millstein, a financial restructuring adviser to Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s administration. Mr. Millstein adds: “On the revenue assumption side, you can assume they’re going to fall short: While they have a huge influx of FEMA funds over the next 6 months, those are for designated purposes, and not necessarily for running the government.”

He predicted that Puerto Rico could lose up to two months’ of tax collections, even as the government lacks resources to finance essential services and other government operations—likely leading to seeking critical assistance from the Federal Reserve and the U.S. Treasury—requests, however, already, unsurprisingly, opposed by the territory’s existing creditors, who are battling the PROMESA Board for payments on $73 billion in municipal-bond debt—or, as ACG Analytics has noted: a U.S. loan package “would, presumably, be structured to have priority” over payments to current bondholders.

The White House did, this week, act to ease the potential liquidity squeeze, waiving certain cost-sharing requirements for six months. Meanwhile, PREPA creditors offered $1 billion in new loans this week to jump-start rebuilding efforts, an offer which Gov. Rosselló’s fiscal advisers rejected as “not viable.” In Congress, meanwhile, no immediate action appears likely: Congressional leaders anticipate passing a second disaster aid package later this year with more specific directives with regard to how federal dollars sent to Puerto Rico should be spent, even as the Trump administration, facing criticism for its response to Hurricane Maria, has installed a U.S. Army commander to oversee federal relief efforts, and the PROMESA oversight Board has said Puerto Rico can afford to pay bondholders roughly a quarter of what they are owed over the next decade. While the Treasury Department had considered the option of authorizing so-called “super municipal bonds,” the concept found little support in Congress, where there is antipathy about setting any precedents for federal bailouts of financially struggling municipalities.