Responding to Fiscal, Political & Physical Storms

November 17, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider, again, some of the governance and federalism challenges in the wake of the devastating Hurricane Maria impact on the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

Governor Ricardo Rosselló this week asked Congress to reject the requests of the PROMESA Oversight Board to be granted greater authority over the government of Puerto Rico in the wake of the slow process of recovery and reconstruction after Hurricane Maria. In his written statement to the House Natural Resources Committee, Governor Rosselló specifically requested that the efforts by the Board to control emergency assistance funds, public corporations, and be granted the authority to veto government legislation be dismissed, noting: “The Government and the Fiscal Oversight Board must be able to resolve any differences,” and that “collaboration, not control, is the key to a successful future for Puerto Rico.” The Governor’s views came as U.S. Judge Laura Taylor Swain dismissed the motion of the PROMESA Board to appoint engineer Noel Zamot as trustee of the AEE, under the title of principal Transformation official.

In addition, Puerto Rico is seeking $94 billion from Congress to help in the recovery efforts that devastated the U.S. territory in September, leaving much of the island still without power and worsening a fiscal crisis. The bulk of the funds the Gov. has requested, some $31 billion, would be focused on rebuilding homes, with another $18 billion requested for PREPA: in his epistle to President Trump, Gov. Rossello wrote: “The scale and scope of the catastrophe in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria knows no historic precedent…We are calling upon your administration to request an emergency supplemental appropriation bill that addresses our unique unmet needs with strength and expediency.” Natalie Jaresko, the PROMESA Board’s Executive Director, said that $13 billion to $21 billion was needed over the next two years just for Puerto Rico to keep the government running, given the toll the storm has taken on the economy and anticipated tax collections. (Two months after the storm, much of Puerto Rico remains without power, further eroding the government’s already precarious finances. Prior to the hurricane, the government had put together a fiscal plan to cut back spending severely and finance only a fraction of the debt payments due over the next decade—but, like the island’s physical situation, the storm also devastated its fiscal plight. Puerto Rico’s long-term economic recovery will depend not just on an equitable response by Congress and the White House, comparable to the aid provided to Houston and Florida, but also whether its citizens who fled to the mainland will return—or make their moves permanent. According to the PROMESA Board, about 100,000 residents have fled since the storm. The Board did not break down the data of those who had left; however, it seems likely that those who left were both younger—and better able to afford to depart. The Governor also warned that calls for him to raise taxes could further undermine the precarious state of the territory’s economy: “If Congress does not consider Puerto Rico in tax reform, it would lead to the exodus of companies that currently generate 42 percent of Puerto Rico’s gross domestic product, the loss of jobs on the island and exacerbate the outward migration of island residents moving to the mainland.” statement from the governor’s office accompanying the letter said.

In Congress, however, there appears to be growing skepticism with regard to the Governor’s ability to manage federal emergency assistance funds, as House Natural Resources Committee Chair Rob Bishop (R-Utah) warned: “There are serious concerns of committee members, and Congress in general, about the ability and the capacity of the current local government to adequately handle the massive amounts of dollars in federal assistance that has begun to be sent,” with the Chairman’s comments coming in the wake of the discovery of documents provided by the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) about the contract with Whitefish Energy Holdings, which has become the symbol of Congressional apprehensions with regard to the administration of federal funds: the documents appear to 1) demonstrate that the Puerto Rican authority ignored recommendations of the Greenburg Traurig law firm to protect the public corporation in the contract, 2) raise complaints about the high cost of the fees requested by Whitefish, and 3) disclose a personal offer made by the president of the energy company, Andrew Techmanski to the head of the Supply Division of the public corporation, Ramón Caldas Pagán, to take supplies (generators, water or food), as part of the mobilization to Puerto Rico. Chairman Bishop noted: “Confidence in the ability of the public corporation to administer contracts and infrastructure work in response to the disaster, which is very sensitive in terms of time, disappeared a long time ago.” Adding to the Congressional apprehension, Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ca.), the Chair of the Committee’s Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, pointed out that the contract with Whitefish underscored the need for the Board to have higher responsibilities over the government of Puerto Rico: “It is obvious that PREPA did not know how to draft a contract that complied with FEMA, nor did PREPA officials follow the advice of their own lawyers on how to comply with it. This is precisely the reason why the Board should be given more authority.”

The Congressional concerns came in the wake of U.S. Judge Laura Swain, at the beginning of the week, rejecting a motion by the PROMESA Board to impose engineer Noel Zamot as a trustee or Chief of Transformation of PREPA. Mr. Zamot has been the Revitalization official of the financial authority imposed on the government of Puerto Rico through the Promesa Law. Chairman Bishop, has defended the claims of the Board in favor of new powers to control emergency funds and to direct the work of PREPA. However, in the wake of Judge Swain’s decision, the Chairman said he wants to see the written opinion prior to deciding on a next course of action. In the hearing before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, the executive director of the PROMESA Board, Natalie Jaresko, said that the judge’s decision had been “a setback,” but also preferred to wait to see the decision in writing before commenting publicly on the steps to follow—adding it was unrealistic to think that the federal government will provide new emergency funds without proper supervision.

Governor Rosselló, in his testimony, told Chairman Bishop that during the past 10 months the U.S. territory has collaborated much more than it has struggled, and alluded to the approval of the fiscal plan that now will have to be revised due to the catastrophe caused by Hurricane Maria. In response, Chairman Bishop noted: “There has to be an increase in collaboration, for the sake of Puerto Rico.” At the session, the Governor affirmed that the Central Recovery and Reconstruction Office of Puerto Rico, which he established by executive order, has been seeking to establish controls on the use of funds, an issue that is also under discussion with the White House and the Office of Management and Budget, regarding Puerto Rico’s request for some $94.4 billion in emergency assistance; moreover, in addition, the Governor told Chairman Bishop that any collaboration cannot be at the expense of “the sovereign powers” of the people of Puerto Rico and “the democratically elected government,” with his comments appearing to raise the specter of a governance challenge between the oversight PROMESA Board created by Congress and the Governor: last week, when she appeared before the Committee on Natural Resources, the oversight Board Chair Jaresko requested that, if necessary, Congress should modify federal legislation in order to “clarify” that the Board has the power to appoint a trustee in  PREPA or, she even suggested, that any new federal assistance to Puerto Rico be conditioned. During the hearing, other Members of the Committee queried why Governor Rossello did not consult with the PROMESA Board with regard to the decision to exempt small and medium-sized companies from the Sales and Use Tax during the period from January 20 to December 31, at a time when the government had a serious liquidity crisis that has forced it to request a credit line of up to $4.7 billion from the federal government. Interestingly, Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) noted that “Puerto Rico would not have the problems it has if it were a state.” Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.) asked the Governor what he should say to one of his voters if questioned, in the wake of the PROMESA enactment, whether the law constituted a financial bailout at a time when its citizens do not pay federal income taxes—in response to which, the Governor replied that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, who have faced a historical catastrophe that keeps the Island in an emergency situation and that it is not an issued related to “the strange territorial arrangement that we have.”

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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.

Looming Municipal Insolvencies?

October 10, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the looming municipal fiscal threat to one of the nation’s oldest municipalities, and the ongoing fiscal, legal, physical, and human challenges to Puerto Rico.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

Cascading Insolvency. One of the nation’s oldest municipalities, Scotland, a small Connecticut city founded in 1700, but not incorporated until 1857, still maintains the town meeting as its form of government with a board of selectmen. It is a town with a declining population of fewer than 1,700, where the most recent median income for a household in the town was $56,848, and the median income for a family was $60,147. It is a town today on the edge of insolvency—in a state itself of the verge of insolvency. The town not only has a small population, but also a tiny business community: there is one farm left in the town, a general store, and several home businesses. Contributing to its fiscal challenges: the state owns almost 2,000 acres—a vast space from which the town may not extract property taxes. In the last six years, according to First Selectman Daniel Syme, only one new home has been built, but the property tax base has actually eroded because of a recent revaluation—meaning that today the municipality has one of the 10 highest mill rates in the state. To add to its fiscal challenges, Gov. Malloy’s executive-order budget has eliminated Connecticut’s payment in lieu of taxes program—even as education consumes 81 percent of Scotland’s $5.9 million taxpayer-approved  budget: under Gov. Malloy’s executive order, Scotland’s Education Cost Sharing grant will be cut by 70 percent—from $1.42 million to $426,900. Scotland has $463,000 in its reserve accounts, or about 9 percent of its annual operating budget—meaning that if the Gov. and legislature are unable to resolve the state budget crisis, the town will have to dip into its reserves—or even consider dissolution or chapter 9 bankruptcy. Should the municipality opt for dissolution, however, there is an unclear governmental future. While in some parts of the country, municipalities can disappear and become unincorporated parts of their counties, that is not an option in Connecticut, nor in any New England state, except Maine, where more than 400 settlements, defined as unorganized territories, have no municipal government—ergo, governmental services are provided by the state and the county. Thus it appears that the fiscal fate of this small municipality is very much dependent on resolution of the state budget stalemate—but where part of the state solution is reducing state aid to municipalities.

Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen has offered a legal opinion which questioned the legality of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s plan to administer municipal aid in the absence of a state budget,  he offered the Governor and the legislature one alternative—draft a new state budget. Similarly, Senate Republican leader Len Fasano (R-North Haven), who requested the opinion and has argued the Governor’s plan would overstep his authority, also conceded there may be no plan the Governor could craft—absent a new budget—which would pass legal muster, writing: “We acknowledge the formidable task the Governor faces, in the exercise of his constitutional obligation to take care that the laws are faithfully executed, to maintain the effective operations of state government in the absence of a legislatively enacted budget.” The fiscal challenge: analysts opine state finances, unless adjusted, would run $1.6 billion deficit this fiscal year, with a key reason attributed to surging public retirement benefits and other debt costs, coupled with declining state income tax receipts:  Connecticut is now about 14 weeks into its new fiscal year without an enacted budget—and the fiscal dysfunction has been aggravated by a dispute between Sen. Fasano and Gov. Malloy over the Governor’s plans to handle a program adopted two years ago designed to share sales and use tax receipts with cities and towns: a portion of those funds would go only to communities with high property tax rates to offset revenues they would lose under a related plan to cap taxes on motor vehicles.

Aggravating Fiscal & Human Disparities. The White House has let a 10-day Jones Act shipping waiver expire for Puerto Rico, meaning a significant increase in the cost of providing emergency supplies to the hurricane-ravaged island from U.S. ports, in the wake of a spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security confirming yesterday that the Jones Act waiver, which expired on Sunday, will not be extended—so that only U.S‒built and‒operated vessels are make cargo shipments between U.S. ports. The repercussions will be fiscal and physical: gasoline and other critical supplies to save American lives will be far more expensive on an island which could be without power for months. The administration had agreed to temporarily lift the Jones Act shipping restrictions for Puerto Rico on September 28th; today, officials have warned that the biggest challenge for relief efforts is getting supplies distributed around Puerto Rico.

Even as President Trump has acted to put more lives and Puerto Rico’s recovery at greater risk, lawmakers in Congress are still pressing to roll back the Jones Act, with efforts led by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), the Chairman of the House Water and Power Subcommittee of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, recently introducing legislation to permanently exempt Puerto Rico from the Jones Act; indeed, at Sen. McCain’s request, the bill has been placed on the Senate calendar under a fast-track procedure that allows it to bypass the normal committee process; it has not, however, been scheduled for any floor time. Sen. McCain stated: “Now that the temporary Jones Act waiver for Puerto Rico has expired, it is more important than ever for Congress to pass my bill to permanently exempt Puerto Rico from this archaic and burdensome law: Until we provide Puerto Rico with long-term relief, the Jones Act will continue to hinder much-needed efforts to help the people of Puerto Rico recover and rebuild from Hurricane Maria.”

The efforts by Sen. McCain and Chairman Lee came as Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, citing an “unprecedented catastrophe,” urged Congress to provide a significant new influx of money in the near term as Puerto Rico is confronted by what he described as “a massive liquidity crisis:” facing an imminent Medicaid funding crisis, putting nearly one million people at risk of losing their health-care coverage: “[a]bsent extraordinary measures to address the halt in economic activity in Puerto Rico, the humanitarian crisis will deepen, and the unmet basic needs of the American citizens of Puerto Rico will become even greater…Financial damages of this magnitude will subject Puerto Rico’s central government, its instrumentalities, and municipal governments to unsustainable cash shortfalls: As a result, in addition to the immediate humanitarian crisis, Puerto Rico is on the brink of a massive liquidity crisis that will intensify in the immediate future.” Even before Hurricane Maria caused major damage to Puerto Rico’s struggling health-care system, the U.S. territory’s Medicaid program barely had enough funds left to last through the next year; now, however, nearly 900,000 U.S. citizens face the loss of access to Medicaid—more than half of total Puerto Rican enrollment, according to federal estimates: experts predict that unless Congress acts, the federal funding will be exhausted in a matter of months, and, if that happens, Puerto Rico will be responsible for covering all its costs going forward, or, as Edwin Park, Vice President for health policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes: “Unless there’s an assurance of stable and sufficient funding…[the health system] is headed toward a collapse.” Nearly half of Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million residents participate in Medicaid; however, because Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, not a state, Puerto Rico receives only 57 percent of a state’s Medicaid benefits. Under the Affordable Care Act, Puerto Rico received a significant infusion, of about $6.5 billion, to last through FY2019, and, last May, Congress appropriated an additional $300 million. However, those funds were already running low prior to Hurricane Maria, a storm which not only physically and fiscally devastated Puerto Rico and its economy, but also, with the ensuing loss of jobs, meant a critical increase in Medicaid eligibility.

The White House submitted a $29 billion request for disaster assistance; however, none of it was earmarked for Puerto Rico’s Medicaid program. House Energy and Commerce Committee Republicans have proposed giving Puerto Rico an additional $1 billion over the next two years as part of a must-pass bill to fund the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), with one GOP aide stating the $1 billion is specifically meant to address the Medicaid cliff. Adding more uncertainty: the Senate has not given any indication if it will take up legislation to address Puerto Rico’s Medicaid cliff: The Senate Finance Committee passed its CHIP bill this past week, without any funding for Puerto Rico attached. 

In a three-page letter sent to Congressional leaders, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló is requesting more than $4 billion from various agencies and loan program to “meet the immediate emergency needs of Puerto Rico,” writing that while “We are grateful for the federal emergency assistance that has been provided so far; however, [should aid not be available in a timely manner], “This could lead to an acceleration of the high pace of out-migration of Puerto Rico residents to the U.S. mainland impacting a large number of states as diverse as Florida, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Indiana, Wisconsin, Ohio, Texas, and beyond.”

On Puerto Rico’s debt front, with the PROMESA Board at least temporarily relocated to New York City, President Trump has roiled the island’s debt crisis with his suggestion that Puerto Rico’s $73 billion in municipal bond debt load may get erased—or, as he put it: “You can say goodbye to that,” in an interview on Fox News, an interview which appeared to cause a nose dive in the value of Puerto Rico’s municipal bonds, notwithstanding his lack of any authority to unilaterally forgive Puerto Rico’s debt. Indeed, within 24 hours, OMB Budget Director Mick Mulvaney discounted the President’s comments: he said the White House does not intend to become involved in Puerto Rico’s debt restructuring. Indeed, the Trump administration last week sent Congress a request for $29 billion in disaster aid for Puerto Rico, including $16 billion for the government’s flood-insurance program and nearly $13 billion for hurricane relief efforts, according to a White House official. No matter what, however, that debt front looms worse: Gov. Rosselló has warned Puerto Rico could lose up to two months of tax collections as its economic activity is on hold and residents wait for power and basic necessities. Bringing some rational perspective to the issue, House Natural Resource Committee Chair, Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), said the current debt restructuring would proceed under the PROMESA Oversight Board: “Part of the reason to have a board was to have a logical approach [to the debt restructuring]. We need to have this process played out…There’s not going to be one quick panacea to a situation that has developed over a long time…I don’t think it’s time to jump around…when we already have a structure to work with.” Chairman Bishop noted that Hurricane Maria’s devastation would require the board to revise its 10-year fiscal plan, with the goal to achieve a balanced budget pushed back from the current target of FY2019; at the same time, however, Chairman Bishop repeated that the Board must retain its independence from Congress. He also said Congress would consider extending something like the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act to the U.S. Virgin Islands—an action which would open the door to a debt restructuring for the more than $2 billion in public sector Virgin Islands municipal debt.

The godfather of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, Jim Spiotto, noted that it would be Congress, rather than the President, which would pass any municipal bankruptcy legislation, patiently reminding us: “You can’t just use an edict to wipe out debt: If Congress were to wipe out debt, there would be constitutional challenges…Past efforts to repudiate debt debts have had very serious consequences in terms of future access to capital markets and cost of borrowing.” In contrast, if the federal government were to provide something like the Marshall Plan to Puerto Rico, Mr. Spiotto added: the economy could strengthen, and Puerto Rico would be in a position to pay off some its debts.

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.

A Human & Fiscal Disaster

September 27, 2017

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

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

President Trump has amended the Puerto Rico Disaster Declaration to provide that the federal government will cover 100%, rather than the usual 75%, of costs for debris removal and emergency protective measures in the wake of the extraordinary human, physical, and fiscal damage wrought—damage surely certain to set back the U.S. territory’s fiscal recovery and efforts under Judge Laura Taylor Swain to work out a quasi-plan of debt adjustment. Puerto Rico faces weeks, if not months, without electric service as utility workers repair power plants and lines that were already falling apart. It faces a potential permanent outflow of residents who can afford to leave—potentially leaving behind a quasi-state with disproportionate numbers of retired, poor, and less educated Americans. Judge Swain yesterday issued an order to indefinitely postpone the Title III PROMESA hearing, which had been scheduled for next Monday: she requested that stakeholders to submit comments by tomorrow with regard to when the hearing should be rescheduled—adding that all subsequent hearings will take place in New York City. Nonetheless, the attorneys representing the Puerto Rico Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority made clear their desire to move forward with the case as swiftly as possible: “Despite Puerto Rico’s current circumstances, FAFAA desires to move forward with these Title III cases with as little disruption as possible: FAFAA believes that any significant delay in advancing these Title III cases would place a cloud of uncertainty over these proceedings and potentially undermine the progress achieved to date.”

At the same time, elected leaders of the Puerto Rico House and Senate have requested that the PROMESA Oversight Board stop enforcing the fiscal plan’s austerity measures for at least this year and possibly over the next five years; Puerto Rico House President Carlos Méndez Núñez reportedly asked the Oversight Board to suspend all legal proceedings against the Puerto Rico government.

President Trump yesterday announced he will visit Puerto Rico early next week, stating: “The infrastructure was in bad shape, as you know, in Puerto Rico, before the storm…And now, in many cases, it has no infrastructure. So you’re really starting from almost scratch.” The announcement and tweets, far later than announcements, federal assistance, and Presidential visits to Houston and Florida in the wake of their respective hurricane, came in the wake a  series of tweets about Puerto Rico  Monday evening, including a reference to the “billions of dollars … owed to Wall Street and the banks which, sadly, must be dealt with,’’ a tweet which drew criticism from U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who stated on the Senate floor that raising the debt issue paled “in comparison to the immediate humanitarian crisis that the island faces,” adding: “Puerto Rico needs help from aid workers, not debt collectors from Wall Street: Yes, Puerto Rico needs debt relief, but first they need humanitarian relief. Water. Food. Medicine. Fuel.” He asked that the administration prepare an immediate federal aid request to Congress for a vote by the end of this week, pointedly noting: “The administration submitted a request for aid for Hurricane Harvey less than a week after the storm made landfall: We are rapidly closing in on that same marker for Maria hitting Puerto Rico.” His remarks came as a group of 10 Democratic U.S. Senators yesterday sent a letter Tuesday to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., asking for both chambers to begin “immediate consideration of a supplemental appropriations bill to provide relief for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in the wake Hurricane Irma and now Hurricane Maria…Specifically, we are asking that additional funds be provided to ensure an adequate balance in FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund, and Community Development Block Grants for disaster recovery along with other disaster relief accounts be authorized and funded to respond to this catastrophe.’’

According to House Speaker Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) office, Congress is likely to act on several pieces of legislation: First up will be a supplemental “to ensure the FEMA disaster relief fund (DRF) has sufficient funds for immediate relief and recovery,” likely early in October, noting that the DRF also funds rebuilding and post-disaster mitigation—albeit that can take years to do. The Speaker’s office also expects the House will be “likely to provide more,” with the Speaker committing that the emerging package will address not just Puerto Rico, but also the U.S. Virgin Islands, as well as remaining needs from the havoc wrought by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. The Speaker made clear Puerto Rico will get the same kind of help and aid as Texas and Florida, adding: “The bill we passed out of here a couple of weeks again for FEMA equally applies to Puerto Rico.”

All of Puerto Rico, yesterday, remained without power, except for generators being run by hospitals. Officials of the Federal Emergency Management Agency have not yet offered an estimate when power or communication will be restored, but FEMA has identified the supplies needed for power restoration that will be delivered by barge once Puerto Rico’s ports are reopened. That will be a Herculean challenge: catastrophe risk modeling firm AIR Worldwide estimated that more than 85% of the $40 billion to $85 billion in estimated insured industry losses caused by Maria are in Puerto Rico. AIR added that its estimate does not include infrastructure repair and replacement, the cost of hazardous waste cleanup, damage to pleasure boats and other marine craft, damage to levees or uninsured property. Rep. Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon (R-P.R.), Puerto Rico’s non-voting Representative in Congress has estimated that Hurricane Maria caused at least $25 billion in damage.

Long Term. Former U.S. Treasury official Kent Hiteshew, the Director of the Treasury Department’s Office of State and Local Finance in the Obama administration, said, “In the short-term, Hurricane Maria is likely to produce a severe economic and fiscal shock in Puerto Rico and may further accelerate out-migration off the Island – at least temporarily…Longer term, Maria’s silver lining will likely be significant amounts federal recovery aid that could stimulate Puerto Rico’s economy and rebuild its infrastructure in a way that would not have otherwise been possible absent the hurricane.” Nevertheless, he pointed out that apart from the President’s announcement that FEMA will pick up 100% of certain initial cleanup costs, any rebuilding aid provided by FEMA will likely be accompanied by limitations: “FEMA’s programs are administratively complex, funded on a reimbursement basis and generally project, rather than general fund-based: FEMA only funds repair and rebuilding of damaged facilities–not necessarily the broader capital plan envisioned in PROMESA’s Fiscal Plan. We will have to await more detailed assessments of Maria’s damage before we can fully understand the FEMA rebuilding opportunities.” He made an even more critical point: “Lastly, PROMESA’s Fiscal Plan will likely need to be revisited in light of all of these factors with potentially even fewer available revenues for debt service–at least in the near term: Any adjustments in the Fiscal Plan will impact the current litigation and debt restructuring mediation because, under PROMESA, any Plan of Adjustment must comply with the Fiscal Plan.”

Fiscal & Human Consequences. Florida government officials are taking measures to help Puerto Ricans migrating to that state–estimated in hundred thousand–as a result of Hurricane Maria. Florida State Representative Bob Cortés, the former Deputy Mayor of the Longwood City Commission, estimated a potential influx of 100,000 Puerto Ricans to Florida, noting: “Everyone here in Florida has family in Puerto Rico, and every Puerto Rican has lost something on the Island, those Puerto Ricans are going to come and take refuge with their relatives. Personally, I have seven relatives who are coming to my house.” That is, there is a potential double fiscal whammy: an outflow of those most fiscally and physically able to leave Puerto Rico—leaving behind a more aged, poorer U.S. territory, but a territory now confronting far steeper costs, short-term and long-term with a gravely deteriorated tax base.