Not in Like Flint, and Unschooled for Motor City Recovery

June 15, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the seemingly unremitting efforts by the State of Michigan to force the City of Flint to sign a consent agreement; then we dip south to the Motor City, where, notwithstanding its exit from chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, the city’s ital. efforts to encourage families to move back to the city from the suburbs depends upon turning around a school district which appears to be stumbling under its own quasi plan of debt adjustment from a state takeover.

Not in Like Flint. Flint Mayor Karen Weaver this week made clear she believes state officials cannot force her to sign a consent agreement seeking to make fixes to her city’s water system, challenging them to “bring it on” and take her to court. Her battle parallels a trial of Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon, who is anticipating, next month, to find out whether or not he will face a jury trial on involuntary manslaughter and misconduct charges tied to the Flint water crisis. Genesee District Judge David Goggins has signed an order detailing how the remainder of Secretary Lyon’s preliminary examination will play out: he has been charged involuntary manslaughter and misconduct in office, making him the highest-ranking state government official charged with crimes with regard to how he mishandled Flint water problems—making his the first of 15 criminal cases to advance to a preliminary exam. Ironically, the trial of the state leader is occurring even as, in parallel, the State of Michigan is threatening to withhold funds to Flint not just in an effort to try to force responsibility for ensuring the safety of its drinking water, but that state action could have devastating fiscal impacts, undercutting the city’s effort to preserve its assessed property values: between 2008 and 2016, Flint lost more than three-quarters of its taxable assessed property value. There is almost a David versus Goliath feeling: Flint household income has been declining, even as statewide income has been increasing: household income in the city, at just under $42,000 annually last year, is more than 20% below statewide income.

The issue, a federalism issue involving all three levels of government, involves findings from  last August’s state sanitary survey, which found the city’s water system had “significant deficiencies,” including with the water distribution, finances, “security,” and “operations and management.” The state further charges that the city has not fixed the problems within 120 days as mandated state law, according to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

Mayor Weaver, however, told The Detroit News the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is making “false accusations or lies” with regard to the city’s compliance with state and federal drinking water laws, among other allegations; rather she appears to perceive the proposed consent order to repair the problems as retaliation against her vigorous protest when Gov. Rick Snyder ordered, in April, the end of the state’s free bottled water deliveries to the city, noting: “We have been meeting our requirements every step of the way: There are some other things that need to be done by the end of this month, and some things aren’t required to be done until the end of the year. But every step of the way, we’ve done what we’re supposed to do.” The city currently purchases treated water from the Great Lakes Water Authority; however, Flint’s wastewater treatment plant performs additional treatment for acidity levels, corrosion control, and chlorine, according to the state.

In a letter at the beginning of this week, Michigan Assistant Attorney General Richard Kuhl threatened Flint with federal legal action if the municipality does not enter into and comply with a consent agreement addressing the city’s outstanding violations, writing that the state would prefer voluntary cooperation—having previously written that violations of the Michigan Safe Water Drinking Act mean the city needs to sign a consent decree in which state officials outline unfunded state mandates with which the city would have to comply, including the provision of a “permanent or contractual” manager to oversee control program activities.

At the beginning of this month, Michigan Drinking Water and Municipal Division Director Eric Oswald wrote that correcting the violations would help ensure Flint’s public water supply system prevents “contaminants from entering” the drinking water and prevent “imminent and substantial endangerment of public health.”

Flint is still recovering from a lead contamination water crisis first discovered in the late summer of 2015. The city’s water has tested below federal lead standards for nearly two years, but many residents still refuse to drink from the tap. In his June 4 letter, Director Oswald wrote that state officials had summarized in a March letter the “corrective actions that had been completed” and provided “dates to complete other corrective actions.” In his statement this week, the Director claimed: “The matter at hand is working together to address these deficiencies to help ensure that the city continues to have quality drinking water.”

Mayor Weaver is still considering what legal options might be available to protect her citizens—and the assessed property values of residences and business properties in the city—as well as the fiscal and physical implications of the end of free bottled water shipments—noting she is still pondering over the option of returning to federal court to the judge overseeing the replacement of Flint’s lead service lines, because the state has indicated that the funds may be withheld. Mayor Weaver noted, with regard to the seeming state retaliation: “I just believe this is absolutely retaliation, and then they want to blame us for what they did,” she said, referring to the water crisis that Snyder’s task force was caused by state-appointed emergency managers and negligent DEQ officials.

In her June 11 response epistle and proposed unfunded state mandate as “unnecessary and unwarranted,” adding she was “troubled by the timing of this proposed enforcement action, in the wake of the cessation of state funding for bottled water in Flint.” She further noted that “During two years of collaborative remediation efforts, an ACO has not been necessary,” calling it a “deliberate and willful misuse of the DEQ’s authority for political purposes and not as a good faith effort to address the issues faced by the City of Flint.” Mayor Weaver said she hoped to bring more contractors to Flint to begin the next phase of pipe replacement, but state officials, she said, want everything to be hydro-vacuumed to save money that would return to the state: “Now, after the state and MDEQ have been publicly castigated for their abrupt and unilateral termination of bottled water funding, MDEQ proposes an ACO that raises no issues not previously agreed upon…I thus see this ACO as a deliberate and willful misuse of the DEQ’s authority for political purposes and not a good faith effort to address the issues faced by the city of Flint.”

That would undercut her ongoing efforts to invest in new plumbing for Flint’s citizens: “We’re really trying to, and what I’ve been trying to do all along, is work together and put differences aside for getting what’s best for the people.”

What Will it Take to Earn a Passing Grade? Detroit’s public school district has 200 teaching vacancies, and with the new school year not so far off, a campaign is underway to try to draw kids back to its public schools. That effort, however, confronts an awkward challenge: only half the teachers and support staff and fewer than 40% of central office staff would recommend the Detroit Public School District according to survey data Detroit Public Schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti released this week during a Board of Education meeting—a meeting that provided a temperature reading with regard to how the system’s students, their parents, and school staff perceive the school system. For instance, in response to the question, “How likely are you to recommend Detroit Public Schools Community District to a friend or family member or as a place to work. 40% responded they would not recommend the school district: only 38% replied they would be extremely likely to recommend the city’s schools. Even amongst teachers and support staff, the enthusiasm was missing: 50% were detractors—with the percentage near two-thirds by staff at the central office: overall, a majority in the system replied they would not recommend the system—or, as Superintendent Vitti put it: “That so many staff members were detractors is a problem…There’s nothing that hurts our brand…more than our actual employees. If our own employees are not favorable toward the organization, then how can we ever recruit new parents to schools or new employees to the district?”

The survey, conducted earlier this year, asked for feedback from more than 52,000 students, parents and guardians, teachers, support staff, instructional leaders, and central office staff. The results hardly seemed passing—and make clear that efforts to incentivize families with children in Detroit’s suburbs to move into the city face an uphill struggle. Or, as Superintendent Vitti noted: “If we’re truly going to be transformative, our employees are going to have to take ownership.”

The surveys addressed issues such as school climate, engagement, bullying, rigorous expectations and school safety. But Superintendent Vitti said the data surrounding promoting the district is “the most relevant data point we’re going to be looking at tonight.”

Here are other survey result highlights:

  • Just 42% of students in grades 3-5, 46% in grades 6-8 and 50% of students in grades 9-12 had positive feelings about school safety—an indication that a large number of students do not feel safe in district schools.
  • 69% of students in grades 3-5, 63% in grades 6-8, and 55% in grades 9-12 had positive feelings about rigorous expectations.
  • 56% of students in grades 3-5, 45% of students in grades 6-8, and 40% of students in grades 9-12 had positive feelings about school climate.
  • A larger percentage of parents and guardians, 72%, felt positively about school safety; however, just 26% felt positively about the engagement of families in the district.
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Motor City Rising

June 1, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the remarkable turnaround of Detroit—a city which, when I inquired on its very first day in chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, for walking directions from my hotel to the Governor’s Detroit office—in response to which I was told the one mile route was not doable—not because I would be too physically challenged,  but rather because I would be slain. Yet now, as the  fine editorial writers for the Detroit News, Daniel Howes and Nolan Finley, wrote: “A regional divide that appeared to be healing since Detroit’s historic bankruptcy is busting wide open over a plan for regional transit, exposing anxiety that the city is prospering at the expense of the suburbs,” noting that the trigger is a is a proposed millage to fund expansion of the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan, a $5.4 billion plan that would seem to promise an exceptional reshaping of the metro region—indeed: a reversal a what had been a decades-long shift of the economy from downtown Detroit to is suburbs: an exodus that contributed to a wasteland and the nation’s largest ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy.” Or, as they wrote: “That battle reveals growing suburban resentments over the region’s shifting economic fortunes: decades-long capital flow is reversing directions as more jobs and tax revenue flee the ‘burbs for a rejuvenated downtown.”

Mr. Finley noted that Mayor Mike Duggan, this week, told him: “I can’t explain why Oakland and Macomb (suburban counties) are doing what they’re doing” three weeks ago Microsoft brought 400 employees from Southfield into the city of Detroit. And last week, Tata Technologies said they were moving 200 people from Novi and into Detroit. Google is in the process of moving people from Birmingham into the city of Detroit.” What the Mayor was alluding to was a u-turn from a decade of moderate and upper income families leaving Detroit for its suburban counties in the days when former Mayor Coleman Young had advised criminals to “hit Eight Mile” has the relationship between the Metro Motor City’s regional leaders become so difficult in the wake of the unexpected reverse exodus: this time from Detroit’s suburbs back into the city. Billions in private sector investment, spearheaded by Dan Gilbert’s Quicken Loans Inc., the Ilitch family, and growing enthusiasm among other business leaders to be part of the city’s post-chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy have been changing demographic and economic patterns.

As the city continues under decreasing state oversight to carry out its judicially approved plan of debt adjustment, Mayor Duggan notes: “Expectations are rising.” This, after all, is not a City Hall bound mayor, but rather what the editors described as a “short, stocky, balding white guy who is no stranger to block after block of dilapidated houses—and who was reelected to a second term with an amazing 72% of the vote in a city where slightly more than 82% of the voters are black—and where, when he took office, there were about 40,000 abandoned homes. He is not a stay at City Hall type fellow either—rather an inveterate inspector of this mammoth rebuilding of an iconic city, who listens—and with his cell phone—takes action immediately in response to constituents concerns. After all, as the Mayor notes: “Expectations are rising…People are putting more demands on me and more demands on the administration, and I think that’s a really good thing and that will keep us motivated to work hard.”

Already, the urban wasteland is changing—almost on a daily basis: already, under a city program which supports renovation over demolition to try to preserve the mid-century architectural character of neighborhoods, that number of abandoned homes has been halved—with many of the units set aside for affordable housing. In his State of the City address this year, Mayor Duggan said he wants 8,000 more homes demolished, 2,000 sold, another 1,000 renovated and 11,000 more boarded up by the end of next year.

On that first day of the nation’s largest ever municipal bankruptcy, Kevin Orr, whom the Governor had tapped to become the Emergency Manager for Detroit, had flown out from the Washington, D.C. region, and told me his first actions were to email every employee of Detroit that he would be filing that morning in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, but that he expected every employee to report to work—and that the most critical priorities were that every traffic and street light work—and that there be a professional, courteous, and prompt response to every 911 call.  

That was a challenge—especially for a municipality in bankruptcy, but, by 2016, the city had completed a $185 million streetlight repair project; 911 response times have been reduced from 50 minutes in 2013 to 14.5 minutes last year, and ambulance response times fell from 20 minutes in 2014 to the national average of 8 minutes this year.

As we have previously noted, two months ago, just three and a half years after Detroit emerged from chapter 9, the city has exited from state oversight; its homeless population has, for the third consecutive year, declined—and, its unemployment rate, which had peaked during the fiscal crisis at 28%, is now below 8%. No wonder the suburbs are becoming fiscally jealous. And the downtown, which was unsafe for pedestrians when the National League of Cities hosted its annual meeting there in the 1980’s and on the city’s first day in bankruptcy, has been transformed into a modern, walkable metropolis.

Nevertheless, the seeming bulldog, relentless leader has refused to sugarcoat the fiscal and physical challenge—or, as he puts it: “I don’t spend a lot of time promising. I just say, here’s what we’re doing next and here’s why we’re doing it and then we do what we say…Over time, you don’t restore trust by making more promises; you restore trust by actually doing what you said you were going to do.”

Mr. Finley wrote that the Mayor, deemed a “truth teller” by Detroit Housing Director Arthur Jemison, has been direct in confronting the city’s harsh legacy of racist policies after the Great Depression lured thousands upon thousands of African-Americans north in the early decades of the 20th century to work in auto factories—luring them to a city at a time when Federal Housing Administration guidelines barred blacks in the city from obtaining home mortgages and even led to the construction in 1941 of a wall bordering the heavily African-American 8 Mile neighborhood to segregate it from a new housing development for whites.

Aaron Foley — the 33-year-old author of How to Live in Detroit Without Being a Jackass, noted: “When you deliver that kind of message about this is why black people are on this side of the wall in 8 Mile versus the other side of the wall, that gets people talking: This is a history that we all know in Detroit, and for the city government to acknowledge that in the way that it did on that platform, it did resonate.”

Mayor Duggan’s concern for Detroit’s people—and not forcing low-income families out, is evidenced too by his words: “Every single time that we had a building where the federal [housing] credits were expiring and people were going to get forced out of their affordable units, I had to sit down for hours with the building owner to convince them why those who stayed were entitled to be there, and I thought: I need to do just one speech and explain that this is the right thing to do…Since then there’s been just great support for the direction we’re going in the city. We have very little pushback now from our developers over making sure that what they’re doing is equitable.”

The Absences of Fiscal Balances

May 4, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we note the deepening road towards insolvency of the Harvey, Illinois; then we turn south to consider the potential adverse municipal fiscal impacts were the State of Georgia to enable the de-annexation of the small city of Stockbridge. Finally, we journey back to Puerto Rico, where House Natural Resources Committee Chair Rob Bishop is headed for a first-hand assessment of the ongoing fiscal and physical challenges and federal emergency assistance still needed. 

An Absence of Fiscal Balance? In the Land of Lincoln, Illinois, where the state’s courts have heard requests for municipal bankruptcy relief; but where chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy is not authorized; relief appears only to have been granted when not challenged. Under 65 Illinois Comp. Statute 5/8-5-1, smaller municipalities may, if not home rule jurisdictions, seek judicial relief. Under the state’s Local Government Financial Planning and Supervision Act (50 Ill. Comp. Stat. 3200) a municipality with a population under 25,000 suffering a “fiscal emergency” may, after securing a two-thirds vote of the governing body, petition the state to establish a financial planning and supervision commission to address such “fiscal emergency.” Ironically, Harvey, with a population of 25,282, just exceeds that level—some 1,052 Illinois municipalities have less than 25,000 residents. Now, with the municipality unable to meet its police and fire pensions, Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza is holding up more than $1 million in state funds the town is owed—under Illinois statutes which authorize the state to withhold tax revenues a municipality is slated to receive if it does not make the required payments into its police and firefighter pensions: the funds withheld go right into the pension fund instead of town services—which, in the case of Harvey, amount to about $1.4 million, leading to, as we have previously noted, the town’s announcement that it will lay off nearly half of its police and fire department. Making the fiscal situation more dire, the city’s Mayor, Eric Kellogg, has been banned for life from the municipal bond market for misleading investors; the municipality appears to be in a chronic pattern of underfunding its public safety pension funds, even as its operating budget chronically spends more than the revenues it brings in. Ergo, as we have written, under Illinois’ Public Act 96-1495, the Comptroller may be compelled to withhold state tax revenues, which would traditionally be in order to ensure pension payments are made to a municipality which has failed to make full pension payments for years.

In a situation which risks compromising public health and safety, Harvey has laid off nearly half its police and fire force—even as it has warned it might not be able to make payroll—especially with inadequate municipal fiscal resources now being rerouted to oppose the state actions in court.

It being Illinois—and an election year—Gov. Bruce Rauner has been uncharacteristically silent about the brewing fiscal catastrophe. The godfather of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, Jim Spiotto, has joined with the exceptional Chicago Civic Federation in drafting legislation, the Local Government Protection Authority, which includes a provision to:

  • establish an oversight board,
  • set up a clear procedure for dealing with a stressed city, and
  • allow filing for Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. (Legislation which has, to date, gained no traction in the legislature.)

Harvey Town Attorney Bob Fioretti reports: “We are going to find some solution, if possible,” signaling that the municipality was still negotiating with its police and fire pension funds, but warning that, if those discussions falter:  “Layoffs will occur. But the safety of the population is key, and that will continue.”

Mayhap ironically, Illinois adopted its pension law eight years ago as a way to ensure smaller municipalities would stop shorting their pension fund contributions—provisions upheld the week when a judge affirmed that the Illinois comptroller was within the state law to withhold the revenue. Thus, while the Comptroller’s Office issued a statement that it “does not want to see any Harvey employees harmed or any Harvey residents put at risk…the law does not give the Comptroller discretion in this case: The Comptroller’s Office is obligated to follow the law. This dispute is between the retired Harvey police officers’ pension fund and the city of Harvey.”

Nor does Harvey appear to be an isolated case: According to an analysis by Amanda Kass, a researcher at the University of Chicago, there are 74 police or fire pension funds in Illinois municipalities with similar unfunded pension liabilities—leading Chicago Civic Federation President Laurence Msall to note: “If they ignore the law and don’t make the contribution as Harvey has, then yes, those municipalities all around the state have ability to seek an intercept of state revenues that would otherwise come to the municipality.”

The complicating factor for Harvey is, however, not just that it has had years of decline and corruption in government, but also with declining assessed property values and very high property taxes, the municipality has a shrinking set of fiscal options—or, as Mr. Fioretti puts it: “We have an aging population, a declining population, a fixed-income population, and our revenues aren’t even being collected from the real estate taxes. We’re below 50 percent for the year on those collections,” noting that the delinquent real estate tax money is costing the town $12 million this year.”

Uneasy Fiscal Options. While Mr. Msall notes that the State of Illinois helped create the fiscal mess by setting up the pension funds and setting all of the pension levels; now, he notes, Illinois must either dissolve Harvey’s pension into the state fund, or put together an emergency financial team to sort through the wreckage of this and other distressed towns—adding: “Let’s create a board that could be independent with real financial expertise to guide these local governments, not to push them into [municipal] bankruptcy: The best path forward for Harvey is independent oversight that could sort out why they’re not making their financial reports on a regular basis.”

The Cost of Municipal Annexation. Municipalities across Georgia could face higher borrowing costs if the state government enables the “de-annexation” of about half of one small city, that city being Stockbridge, one settled in 1829 when the Concord Methodist Church was organized near present-day Old Stagecoach Road—and, especially, when Stockbridge was granted a post office on April 5, 1847, named for a traveling professor, Levi Stockbridge, who had passed through the area many times before the post office was built. Albeit that heritage remains a matter of some dispute: others contend that the city was named after Thomas Stock, who was State Surveyor and the Georgia State President in the 1820s. The small municipality was incorporated as a town in 1895 and, subsequently, as a city on August 6, 1920. Now, however, more change might be on the way, especially if Georgia Governor Nathan Deal signs into law Senate bills 262 and 263—bills which, if enacted, would de-annex just over half of Stockbridge’s assessable residential and commercial property. Why? Because proposed SB 263, an Act to incorporate the City of Eagles Landing, provide a charter for the City of Eagles Landing; provide for a referendum; provide for transition of powers and duties; provide for community improvement districts; and repeal conflicting laws would effectively have disconcerting fiscal impacts on City Hall in Stockbridge, which was financed with municipal revenue bonds. Neither of the two bills apportions the revenues involved between the to-be two entities—a requirement which, according to some legal experts, is based upon precedent-setting court cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and Georgia when the boundaries of a governmental entity are changed.

Thus, unsurprisingly, during the Georgia Municipal Association’s Georgia Cities Week last week, Stockbridge officials and representatives of the Eagle’s Landing effort held separate meetings with Gov. Deal.  Stockbridge City Attorney Michael Williams described their session as “very productive: The Governor said he would consider the series of points we made…I’m certainly taking him at his word that he will.” Nevertheless, the municipality is hedging its fiscal bets: it has hired three outside law firms to challenge the laws if Gov. Deal approves them.

Should that happen, however, the much reduced City if Stockbridge would still would be obligated to pay off about $13.02 million of privately placed Urban Redevelopment Agency lease-revenue bonds, and $1.5 million of water and sewer notes issued through the Georgia Environmental Facilities Authority—municipal bonds owned by Capitol One Public Funding LLC. Unsurprisingly, the Romulus and Remus of Eagles Landing have expressed no eagerness to help make those payments: sharing only goes so far. The lease-revenue bonds, issued in 2005 and 2006 for projects including funding to purchase land and build city hall, backed by general fund revenues and the city’s taxing power, if needed, even though the city does not currently impose a property tax.

Also unsurprisingly, Jim Spiotto’s firm, Chapman and Cutler LLP, which represents Capital One, wrote to the city a day after the General Assembly ended its session last month, warning it could face potential litigation: “SB 262 and SB 263 infringe Capital One’s constitutional rights under the contracts clause of the U.S. Constitution and the Georgia Constitution by taking away a significant source of the security and source of repayment for the bonds that was contractually bargained for by the bondholders,” Chapman and Cutler partner Laura Appleby wrote to the City Attorney. Unless the bonds are properly apportioned between Stockbridge and Eagle’s Landing, and the [municipal] bondholders have the benefit of the full security that they were originally promised, Ms. Appleby wrote, “We have serious concerns regarding the ability of [Stockbridge] to continue to pay debt service on the bonds because it will have lost a large portion of its ad valorem tax base.”

Jonathan Lewis, Capital One Public Funding’s president, has written to Gov. Deal also requesting a meeting, writing: “The failure of SB 262 and SB 263 to provide for the apportionment of the [municipal] bonds between the City of Stockbridge and, if formed, the City of Eagle’s Landing, is not only an inequitable result for the City of Stockbridge, it is an infringement on Capital One’s constitutional rights under the contracts clause of the U.S. Constitution and the Georgia Constitution, as it removes a significant portion of the security and source of repayment for the bonds…Capital One has come to trust that the State of Georgia will take those actions required to maintain, preserve, and protect the pledges made by its municipalities to their bondholders…Permitting SB 262 and SB 263 to become law would no longer allow us to rely in the State of Georgia [based] on the bedrock public finance principle of non-impairment,” adding that such a “de-annexation” would impair Capital One’s municipal bonds and “create new, unprecedented risks for existing holders and prospective purchasers of State of Georgia local debt.” Mr. Lewis last week also communicated to Georgia Municipal Association Executive Director Larry Hanson, whose organization is made up of 521 municipalities, that if enacted, the de-annexation would require all lenders to Georgia municipalities to “consider, and price in, the potential loss of security from future de-annexations,” because the legislation does not apportion Stockbridge’s outstanding debt: “GMA’s members would bear the burden of this new, Georgia-specific risk in the form of higher interest costs: “The uncertainty created by such a shift sets a dangerous precedent and could produce additional negative unintended consequences as lenders consider municipal financing opportunities within the state.”

Who’s on First? Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) of the House Natural Resources Committee, the committee of jurisdiction for U.S. territories, yesterday confirmed he would got to Puerto Rico to meet with island leaders to assess the recovery in the wake of Hurricane Maria’s devastation, noting: “This trip will allow me to better understand the ongoing challenges and the emergency assistance that is still needed.” He is scheduled to meet with Puerto Rico’s non-voting Member of Congress, Jenniffer Gonzalez, as well as Chairman Jose Carrion of the PROMESA Board as part of an effort the Chairman described as a “first hand look at recovery efforts,” pointing out that, in his view, it would be irresponsible for Governor Rosselló, who apparently the Chairman had not advised of his visit, not to implement the government reforms ordered by the PROMESA oversight board—making clear the fiscal gulf between the two leaders, with the Governor observing that Chairman Bishop, with his demands in favor of a dialogue with creditors, seems to be supporting the causes of the territory’s municipal bondholders over the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico.

Unlike chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, wherein state laws create a process—where permitted—for a municipality; there are many fiscal chefs in the kitchen in Puerto Rico, with growing questions with regard to the limits of their respective legal authority under the PROMESA law. A key issue, the final decision with regard to the implementation of cuts to the pension system and the labor reform may yet take a few months. The fiscal stakes, however, especially on an island where there has been a steady stream of college graduates and young professionals moving to the mainland—leaving behind  disproportionate number of older, retired Puerto Ricans, increasingly creates a greater and greater fiscal imbalance. That is now front and center in the wake of the Board’s proposed 10 percent average reduction in pensions—a proposal Gov. Rosselló has rejected, but, as one commentator noted, it is the Board which holds all the cards. The challenge is in interpreting the PROMESA Board’s authority to use its fiscal plans to provide “adequate funding” to Puerto Rico’s public pension systems: under the proposed fiscal plan, the Board cut in pensions would not begin until FY2020—giving time for the PROMESA Board to submit to U.S. Judge Laura Taylor Swain a quasi-plan of chapter 9 debt plan of debt adjustment by the end of this year.

It is not that the Governor believes pension should be off the table—after all, he had recommended a 6% reduction last year; thus, there remains some chance that the government and the Board could reach an agreement and avoid the heavy costs of fighting the fiscal issues out before Judge Swain. Indeed, as we saw in San Bernardino, those back door negotiations between the government and creditors can save an awful lot in lawyers’ fees—or, as former U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Gerardo Carlo-Altier put it: “The ideal thing would be for the Board, the government, and the groups of creditors to reach an agreement in advance and go together to court.”

A key sticking point appears to be the Board’s insistence of labor reforms: under its proposed plan, the Puerto Rico Legislature should approve the labor reform by the end of this month, so that the seven-day reduction for vacation and sick leave would take effect immediately. The elimination of the protections against unjustified dismissal, the mandatory Christmas bonus, and work requirements for the Nutrition Assistance Program (NAP) are proposed for next January—with the PROMESA Board estimating that, absent the enactment of such labor reforms, including: such as employment at will, reductions in sick and vacation leaves, and non-mandatory Christmas bonus; the government of Puerto Rico would stop receiving $330 million within the next five years. They estimate another $ 185 million to cuts in pensions—all of which has led the PROMESA Board to project that, absent the adoption of the reforms proposed in the five-year fiscal plan, Puerto Rico’s economic growth and capacity to finance its public debt service would fail.

Who Will Govern? Are there too many fiscal cooks in the kitchen? In Central Falls, Rhode Island: there was one individual in charge of steering the small city, aka Chocolateville, out of bankruptcy. Similarly, in Detroit, Governor Snyder named Kevyn Orr as Emergency Manager—effectively suspending the governance authority of the Mayor and Council during the pendency of the city’s chapter 9 proceedings until U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes approved Detroit’s plan of debt adjustment. Yet, in Puerto Rico—a territory which is neither a state, nor a municipality; there are a multiplicity of actors—including, now, Chairman Bishop, the Governor, the Legislature, and the PROMESA Board—a Board which Constitutionalist Professor Carlos Ramos González of the Inter-American University Law School believes, even given the power conferred upon it by Congress over Puerto Rico’s elected government, is uncertain with regard to its own authority to implement the structural reforms it favors—or, as he has noted: “Nobody wants to be blamed for cutting pensions: in all the chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy cases, there were pension reductions,” adding that, as we saw especially in the case of Detroit, the issue of equity is challenging: how to make those cuts without plunging many retirees into poverty—a problem of even greater resonance on an island experiencing an outflow of its young professionals, so that the demography already risks insufficient revenues to meet a clearly growing demand.  

Then there is a second challenge: while PROMESA appears clear in its grant of authority to the Board to certify the fiscal plan, it appears to lack any authority to implement it on its own. Unlike Central Falls, Detroit, San Bernardino, or other chapter 9 plans of debt adjustment approved by U.S. Bankruptcy Courts; the current PROMESA statute does not authorize a federal court to control Puerto Rico’s legislative process: there is a separation of powers issue.  Nevertheless, in the wake of the approval of the fiscal plan, the PROMESA Board is trying: it has submitted a preliminary labor reform draft to the Puerto Rico Legislature, where Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz has invited PROMESA President José Carrión III to defend the proposed changes and cuts—an invitation, however, which has not been accepted.  

Former Governor Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, who lectures for a Separation of Powers class at the Law School of the University of Puerto Rico, finds it self-evident that the Legislature will not give way to the Boards proposed labor reforms, noting: “I think the Board has a very weak case in terms of imposing the labor reform. It has a better case in other measures, because they are directly tied to Puerto Rico’s fiscal crisis.” Similarly, Governor Rosselló usually quotes §205 of the PROMESA Act, which refers to the fact that the Board can make “recommendations to the Governor or the Legislature on actions the territorial government may take to ensure compliance with the Fiscal Plan, or to otherwise promote the financial stability, economic growth, management responsibility, and service delivery efficiency of the territorial government.” While Carlo Altieri adds to the debate §108, which, regarding the general powers of the Board, warns that: “Neither the Governor nor the Legislature may— (1) exercise any control, supervision, oversight, or review over the Oversight Board or its activities; or (2) enact, implement, or enforce any statute, resolution, policy, or rule that would impair or defeat the purposes of this Act, as determined by the Oversight Board.”

Indeed, an attorney for the Governor, Richard Cooper of Cleary Gottlieb, noted: “Congress did not grant the Board the power to pass laws or appoint or replace government officials…it left the government of Puerto Rico the capacity and responsibility to make the law (as long as it is consistent with the adopted fiscal plan and adjustment fiscal plan) and manage the government, with all that it entails.” Indeed, in an earlier ‘who’s in charge dispute,’ when the PROMESA Board tried to appoint a trustee to monitor the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), alleging that PROMESA recognizes it as representative of the “debtor,” Judge Swain stated that no section of the PROMESA law granted the Board power with regard to the “the implementation of those (fiscal) plans and budgets,” instead comparing the statute Congress adopted in the 1990’s creating a fiscal control board over Washington, D.C. with PROMESA. She concluded that the Board has the task of establishing the “rails” for the “territorial government” to move “towards credibility and fiscal responsibility.” Indeed, the Congressional Record appears to make no reference to the power of the Board to impose structural governmental reforms—just as Congress lacks any authority to impose such on a state—especially in a nation where it was the states which created the nation, rather than vice versa. Rather, the Congressional debate on Puerto Rico reflected an emphasis on the power of the PROMESA Board to restructure the debt, which is the main burden of Puerto Rico—and, in Congress, Republicans and Democrats have expressed no interest in amending the act, either to strengthen or soften the powers of the Board.

For his part, Chairman Bishop believes that the act allows the Board to implement structural reforms and that it would be an irresponsible attitude of the Puerto Rican government to block them. That indicates there could well be intriguing fiscal and governmental discussions this weekend—albeit it seems most certain that, as Gov. Rosselló has made clear: “We are not going to allow an imposed Board to dictate the public policy of Puerto Rico.”

Notwithstanding their differences over the extent of the powers of the PROMESA Board, Gov. Rosselló and the Board are not at complete odds: they appear to have made common cause before regarding the case of Aurelius investment group and the Electrical Industry and Irrigation Workers Union, the main union of PREPA, to defend the constitutionality of the appointment of the Board members, because six of the seven were proposed by the Congressional leadership; rather, Gov. Rosselló’s administration has limited itself to challenging actions of the Board, not its existence—even as one of his predecessors, former Governor Acevedo Vilá, noting that, even under the colonial situation and the doctrine of Insular Cases decided a century ago by the U.S. Supreme Court, which has repeatedly validated the so-called “plenary powers” of Congress in Puerto Rico, the government of Puerto Rico must challenge the existence of the Board as a violation of the U.S. Constitution under the theory that “to the extent that Board has executive and legislative powers, even under the Insular Cases, it is unconstitutional,” adding that: “Even when organizing the territories, Congress has to guarantee a minimum system of separation of powers.”

The Puerto Rico Debt Tango. While the PROMESA Oversight Board and Gov. Rosselló are engaged in a complicated dance over future debt payments and policy, their complicated dance steps are not dissimilar: In successive versions of a fiscal plan that the Governor submitted to the Board in January, February, March, and last month; the Governor said the amount of debt Puerto Rico should carry should be determined through a comparison with debt medians in the 50 mainland states—quite similar to the Board’s certified plan.  Like the Governor’s proposed fiscal plans, the board certified plan has a comparison to the medians for the 50 states and to the 10 states with the highest levels of four measures of debt. The Board certified plan stated: “The implied debt capacity and expected growth in debt capacity in debt capacity must be sufficient to cover both the payments due on the restructured debt, and all payments due on future new money borrowings.” Accordingly, the aggregate debt service due on all fixed payment debt issued in the restructuring of the government’s existing tax-supported debt should be capped at a maximum annual debt service level: “The cap would be derived from the U.S. state rating metrics, and specifically what Moody’s [Investors Service] calls the ‘Debt Service Ratio.’” (The debt service ratio is defined as ratio of total debt payments due in a year divided by a state-government’s own source revenues.)

Under such a construct, it would appear that Puerto Rico could pay about $19 billion of the roughly $45 billion that the central government and its closely related lending entities owe, according to the plan’s exhibit 26. In the same exhibit, the PROMESA Board alternately suggests that one should use an average of a set of four measures of debt capacity and not just own-source revenues. Using this composite measure would mean that Puerto Rico should pay back about $10.7 billion in outstanding debt. But the Board plan notes this would be optimistic for a promised level of payments, rather, it reports, the fixed amount committed to should be cut by 10% to 30% to allow for “implementation risk.” It suggest that 20% should be used and the coupon be adjusted to 5%. These would lead to Puerto Rico committing to pay 19% of its debt—adding: “Any additional cash flow above the maximum annual debt service cap applied to the restructured fixed payment debt that is generated over the long-term from successful implementation of the new fiscal plan could be dedicated to a combination of contingent ‘growth bond’ payments to legacy bond creditors, debt service due on future new money borrowings needed to fund Puerto Rico’s infrastructure investments, and additional ‘PayGo’ capital investment to reduce the government’s historically out-size reliance on borrowing to fund its needs, among other purposes.”

Human, Fiscal, & Physical Challenges

April 20, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we return to Flint, Michigan to assess its human and fiscal challenges in the wake of its exit from state receivership; then we return to Puerto Rico, a territory plunged once again into darkness and an exorbitant and costly set of fiscal overseers. 

Out Like Flint. Serious fiscal challenges remain for Flint, Michigan, after its exit from state financial receivership. Those challenges include employee retirement funding and the aging, corroded pipes that caused its drinking water crisis, according to Mary Schulz, associate director for Michigan State University’s Extension Center for Local Government Finance and Policy. In the public pension challenge, Michigan’s statute enacted last year mandates that the state’s municipalities report underfunded retirement benefits. That meant, in the wake of Flint’s reporting that it had only funded its pension at 37%–with nothing set aside for its other OPEB benefits, combined with the estimated $600 million to finance the infrastructure repair of its aging water infrastructure, Director Schulz added the small city is also confronted by a serious problem with its public schools—describing the city’s fiscal ills as “Michigan’s Puerto Rico,” adding it would “remain Michigan’s Puerto Rico until the state decides Flint is part of Michigan.”

Michigan Municipal League Director Dan Gilmartin notes that Flint is making better decisions financially, but still suffers from state funding cuts. He observed that Flint’s leaders are making better decisions fiscally—that they have put together a more realistic budget than before its elected leaders were preempted by state imposed emergency managers, noting: “The biggest problem Flint faces now is what all cities in Michigan face, and that is the state’s system of municipal financing, which simply doesn’t work.”

Perhaps in recognition of that, Michigan State Treasurer Nick Khouri, on April 10th announced the end of state-imposed receivership under Michigan’s Local Financial Stability and Choice Act, and he dissolved the Flint Receivership Transition Advisory Board. Treasurer Khouri also signed a resolution repealing all remaining emergency manager orders, noting: “Removing all emergency manager orders gives the City of Flint a fresh start without any lingering restrictions.” Concurrently, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, in an email, wrote: “Under the state’s emergency manager law, emergency managers were put in place in a number of cities facing financial emergencies to ensure residents were protected and their local governments’ fiscal problems were addressed: This process has worked well for the state’s struggling cities, helping to restore financial stability and put them on a path toward long-term success. Flint’s recent exit from receivership marks the end of emergency management for cities in Michigan and a new chapter in the state’s continued comeback.” Indeed, the state action means that Detroit is the only Michigan municipality city still under a form of state oversight, albeit Benton Harbor Area Schools, Pontiac Public Schools, Highland Park School District, and the Muskegon Heights school district remain under state oversight.

The nation’s preeminent chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy expert Jim Spiotto notes that a financial emergency manager is supposed to get a struggling municipality back to a balanced budget, to find a means to increase revenue, to cut unnecessary expenses, and to keep essential services at an acceptable level:  “To the degree that they achieve that, then you want to continue with best practices: If they don’t accomplish that, then even if you return the city back to Mayor and City Council, then they have to do it: Someone has to come up with viable sustainable recovery plan, not just treading water.”

From his perspective, Director Gilmartin notes: “Flint has more realistic numbers in place, especially when it comes to revenues. I think that is the most important thing the city has accomplished from a nuts and bolts standpoint…The negative side of it is the system in which they are working under just doesn’t work for them or any communities in the state. In some cases making all the right decisions at the local level still doesn’t get to where you need to get to, and it will require a change in the state law.” Referencing last year’s Michigan Municipal League report which estimated the state’s municipalities had been shortchanged to the tune of $8 billion since 2002, Director Gilmartin noted: “A lot of the fiscal pressures that Flint and other cities in Michigan find themselves in are there by state actions.” No doubt, he was referencing the nearly $55 million in reduced state aid to Flint by 2014—as the state moved to pare revenue sharing—the state’s fiscal assistance program to provide assistance based upon population and fiscal need—funds which, had they been provided, would have sufficed to not only balance the city’s budget, but also cut sharply into its capital debts—enhancing its credit quality. Indeed, it was the state’s Emergency Manager program that voters repealed six years ago after devastating decisions had plunged Flint into not just dire fiscal straits, but also the fateful decision to change its public drinking water source—a decision poisoning children, and the city’s fisc by decimating its assessed property values. During those desperate human and fiscal times, local elected leaders were preempted—even as two of the gubernatorially named Emergency Managers were charged with criminal wrongdoing in relation to the city’s lead contamination crisis and ensuing Legionnaire’s disease outbreak which claimed 12 lives in the wake of the fateful decision to  change Flint’s water source to the Flint River in April of 2014. Now, as Director Schulz notes: “Until we come up with other solutions that aren’t really punitive in nature and leave communities like Flint vulnerable as repeat customer for emergency management law, these communities will remain in financial and service delivery purgatory indefinitely.”

Director Schulz notes a more profound threat to municipal fiscal equity: she has identified at least 93 Michigan municipalities with a taxable value per capita under $20,000, describing that as a “good indicator” for which municipalities in the state are prime candidates for finding themselves under a gubernatorially imposed Emergency Manager, in addition to 32 other municipalities in the state which  are either deemed service insolvent or on the verge of service insolvency. Flint’s taxable value per capita of $7575 comes in as the second lowest behind St. Louis, Michigan, which has a taxable value of $6733. Ms. Schulz defines such insolvency as the level below which a municipality is likely unable to fiscally provide “a basic level of services a city need to provide to its residents.” Indeed, a report released by Treasurer Khouri’s office has identified nearly 25% of the state’s local units of government as having an underfunded pension plan, retirement health care plan, or both—an issue which, as we have noted in the eGnus, comes after the State, last December enacted legislation creating thresholds on pensions and OPEB which all municipalities must meet in order to be considered funded at a viable level, meaning OPEB liabilities must be at least 40% funded, and pensions 60% funded. While the Treasurer may grant waivers, such granting is premised on plans approved to remedy the underfunding—failure to do so could trigger oversight by a three-member Michigan Stability Board appointed by the Governor. As Director Schulz notes: “The winds here are blowing such that the municipality stability board is going to be up and running soon, and there will be an effort to give that board emergency manager powers…That means they can break contacts, they can sell assets…whatever it needs to put money in the OPEB.” But in the face of such preemption—preemption which, after all, had caused such human and fiscal damage to Detroit, Detroit’s public schools, and to the City of Flint; Director Gilmartin notes: “Getting the community back to zero is the easy part and is just a function of budgeting, but having it function and provide services is harder: I would say that a lot of the support for emergency management by the state has dwindled based on the experience over the last several years.”

A Storm of Leaders. If the human health and safety, and fiscal challenges created by state oversight in Michigan give one pause; the multiplicity—and cost—of the many overseers of Puerto Rico and its future by the inequitable storm response by Congress and the Trump Administration—and by the costly “who’s on first…” sets of conflicting fiscal overseers could experience at least some level of greater clarity today, as the PROMESA Board releases its proposed fiscal plans it intends to certify, including the maintenance of its mandate to the federal court for an average public pension cut of 10 percent—after having kept under advisement the concerns of Governor Ricardo Rosselló the inclusion in the revised fiscal, quasi chapter 9 plan of debt adjustment immediate reductions in sick and vacation leave.

Thus, it appears U.S. Judge Laura Taylor Swain will consider a proposed adjustment plan to reduce public pensions later this year which would total savings of as much as nearly $1.45 billion over the next five years—a level below the PROMESA Board’s proposed $1.58 million—but massive when put in the context that the current average public pension on the island is roughly $1,100 a month, but more than 38,000 retired government employees receive only $500, because of the type of job they had and the number of years worked.

Thus, there are fiscal and human dilemmas—and governance challenges: even though the PROMESA law authorizes the restructuring of retirement systems, it is unclear whether the Congressionally-created Board has the authority to impose such a significant, unfunded federal mandate on the government of Puerto Rico, including labor reforms, and restrictions of vacation and sick leaves. Last year, Governor Rosselló agreed to a reduction in pensions for government retirees, but then his aim was to propose cuts of 6 percent.

At the moment, he is against it. A few weeks ago, after negotiations with the Board, Governor Rosselló proposed a labor reform similar to the one he negotiated with members of the Board, with differences on how to balance it with an increase in the minimum wage and when to put it in into effect—a proposal he subsequently withdrew after the PROMESA Board mandated that the labor reform be in full force in January 2019, instead of phasing it in over next three years, and conditioning the increase from $7.25 to $8.25 per hour in the minimum wage to the increase in labor participation rates—proposals which, in any event, made clear the “too many leaders” governance challenges—as these were proposals with little chance of approval by the Puerto Rican House. That is, for the Governor, there is not only a federal judge, and a PROMESA Board, but also his own legislature elected by Puerto Ricans—not appointed by non-Puerto Ricans. (Under the PROMESA Law, which also created the territorial judicial system to restructure the public debt of Puerto Rico, the PROMESA Board also has power over the local government until four consecutive balanced budgets and medium and long-term access to the financial markets are achieved. Thus, as the ever insightful Gregory Makoff of the Center for International Governance Innovation—and former U.S. Treasury Advisor put it: “While the lack of cooperation with the Board may be good in political terms in the short-term, it simply delays the return of confidence and extends the time it will take for the Oversight Board to leave the island.” Thus, he has recommended the Board and Gov. Rosselló propose to Judge Swain a cut from $45 billion to $6 billion of the public debt backed by taxes, with a payment of only 13.6 cents per each dollar owed, with the aim of equating it with the average that the states have. All of this has been complicated this week by the blackout Wednesday, before the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, PREPA, yesterday announced it had restored power to some 870,000 customers.

As in  Central Falls, Rhode Island, and in Detroit, in their respective chapter 9 bankruptcies, the issue and debate on pensions appears to be a matter which will be settled or resolved by the court—not the parties or Board. While the Board has the power to propose a reform in the retirement systems, it appears to lack the administrative or legislative mechanisms to implement a labor reform. The marvelous Puerto Rican daily newspaper, El Nuevo Día asked one of the PROMESA Board sources if it were possible for the Board to go to Court and demand the implementation of a labor reform in case the Governor does not propose such legislation—the response to which was such a probability was “low.” Concurrently, an advisor to House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) with regard to proposing legislation to address the issue receive a doubtful response, albeit an official in the Chairman’s office said recently that if the Rosselló administration does not implement the labor reforms proposed by the PROMESA Board, the option for the Board would be to further reduce the expenses of the government of Puerto Rico. Put another way, Carlos Ramos González, Professor of Constitutional Law at the Interamerican University of Puerto Rico, is of the view that, notwithstanding the impasse, “in one way or another, the Board will end up imposing its criteria. How it will do it remains to be seen.”

Physical, Not Fiscal—But Fiscal Storms.  Amid the governance and fiscal storm, a physical storm in the form of am island-wide blackout hit Puerto Rico Wednesday after an excavator accidentally downed a transmission line, contributing to the ongoing physical and fiscal challenge to repair an increasingly unstable power grid nearly seven months after Hurricane Maria. More than 1.4 million homes and businesses lost power, marking the second major outage in less than a week, with the previous one affecting some 840,000 customers. PREPA estimated it would take 24 to 36 hours to restore power to all customers—it is focusing first on re-establishing service for hospitals, water pumping systems, the main airport in San Juan and other critical facilities. The physical blackout came as the PROMESA Board has placed PREPA, a public monopoly with $9 billion of debt, in the equivalent of its own quasi chapter 9 bankruptcy, in an effort to help advance plans to modernize the utility and transform it into a regulated private utility—after, last January, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló announced plans to put the utility up for sale.

Several large power outages have hit Puerto Rico in recent months, but Wednesday was the first time since Hurricane Maria that the U.S. territory has experienced a full island-wide blackout. Officials said restoring power to hospitals, airports, banking centers and water pumping systems was their priority. Following that would be businesses and then homes. By late that day, power had returned to several hospitals and at least five of the island’s 78 municipalities. Federal officials who testified before Congress last week said they expect to have a plan by June on how to strengthen and stabilize Puerto Rico’s power grid, noting that up to 75% of distribution lines were damaged by high winds and flooding. Meanwhile, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is overseeing the federal power restoration efforts, said it hopes to have the entire island fully restored by next month: some 40,000 power customers still remain without normal electrical service as a result of the hurricane. The new blackout occurred as Puerto Rico legislators debate a bill that would privatize the island’s power company, which is $14 billion in debt and relies on infrastructure nearly three times older than the industry average.

 

The Undelicate Local-State Fiscal Balance

eBlog

April 18, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we try to assess the odds for Atlantic City’s exit from state preemptive control, and then we look west to observe the lingering fiscal and physical damage created by the State of Michigan’s takeover of the City of Flint.

The Difficult Challenge of Ending State Fiscal Preemption. In the Garden State, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy has removed and replaced former Gov. Chris Christie’s designee, attorney Jeff Chiesa, who had been tapped to preempt local governance authority and run the famed city in an effort to avert its filing for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. The new Governor’s action has the effect of retaining state oversight of the fiscal governance of Atlantic City–effectively leaving the city still under state authority first imposed by former Governor Christie in November of 2016. As we had noted, that state takeover did not remove the Mayor and Council; however, Mr. Chiesa was granted broad powers in the city, such as the ability to break union contracts and sell off city assets. Ironically, it was also a prohibitively costly takeover to state taxpayers: Mr. Chesia’s law firm has filed a claim with the State of New Jersey for at least $4 million in taxpayer dollars for its work. Indeed, unlike the city’s elected leaders, Mr. Chiesa has been compensated at a rate of $400 an hour; his firm colleagues have been paid slightly less. In announcing the replacement, Gov. Murphy left unsaid the status of his earlier vow to end the state takeover of Atlantic City; he did, however, announce that state control of the city would revert to the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, currently overseen by New Jersey Lt. Governor Sheila Oliver, a long-time opponent of the state takeover. Left unclear are the new Governor’s time frame or commitment with regard to restoring local control—as, under the current statute signed by former Gov. Christie, state control and preemption could persist until 2021.

During his campaign, then candidate Murphy had campaigned for ending the state takeover; however, when pressed to clarify his intentions last February, then candidate Murphy responded that the state would be a “partner” with the city—comments similar to those he made this week, when he said: “The economic revitalization of Atlantic City is critical to advancing our overall state economy…The actions we are taking today will ensure we are working in full partnership with the city to ensure economic growth and empowerment for all Atlantic City residents.”  Indeed, New Jersey Lt. Governor Oliver said the Department will “continue to play an active role in Atlantic City to build upon the significant gains the city and state have made over the last 18 months in stabilizing Atlantic City’s finances: This ongoing partnership between DCA’s knowledgeable local government experts and the City’s governing body and its professionals will keep Atlantic City moving in the right direction for its residents and businesses and the surrounding region.” For his part, Atlantic City Mayor Frank Gilliam notes: “Atlantic City’s rebirth is looking very bright.”

For their part, former Gov. Christie and New Jersey State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) had pressed for the state takeover in the wake of the shuttering of five of the famed resort city’s casinos over the last decade, causing a swoon in the seaside city’s tax ratables by $14 million, and its debt to balloon to over $500 million. Unsurprisingly, former Gov. Christie, Sen. Sweeney, and others claim the state takeover has helped restore the city—a saving which, not coincidentally, has meant thousands of jobs in the state, and, mayhap more fiscally valuable, millions of dollars in state tax revenues. Since the takeover commenced, New Jersey has settled tax appeal debt with Borgata casino and worked with the city to adopt a municipal budget providing the first municipal tax decrease in almost a decade. Describing the state preemption and takeover, former Gov. Christie noted: “If you compare the results Sen. Chiesa has gotten from what he billed with what you all have paid to the people who have been running this city into the ground, Sen. Chiesa is the biggest bargain in the world…You all should wish he stays here for the rest of his life.” Unsurprisingly, however, many city leaders, some state lawmakers, and union officials have opposed the takeover, saying it violates civil rights and damages collective bargaining. 

Atlantic City Mayor Frank Gilliam has, unsurprisingly, applauded the new Governor’s action, noting: “Atlantic City’s rebirth is looking very bright.”

Out Like Flint. A visibly irate Mayor Karen Weaver has stated the city is exploring legal options against Gov. Rick Snyder and the state after the Governor told her “to get over” the ending of water distribution in the citya characterization the Governor’s office disputed as inaccurate. In a hastily called news conference in her office, Mayor Weaver said she met with the Governor Monday morning in Lansing in an effort to dissuade him from his announced decision to have the state cease the provision of bottled drinking water to the various “pods” across Flint—in the wake of, more than two years ago, the city’s declaration of a lead contamination state of emergency. However, on April 6th, Gov. Snyder, citing nearly two years of test results showing lead levels in city tap water below federal standards, had ordered the end of such distributions. Thus, in the wake of her meeting with the Governor, Mayor Weaver noted: “We did not get very far in the conversation, because one of the things the Governor basically said was we need to get over it.”

But, from her perspective—and responsibility–Mayor Weaver stated that providing water to the residents of Flint is a “moral issue,” especially since it had been the state’s action—in appointing an Emergency Manager to preempt all local authority—who had been responsible for Flint’s lead-in-water crisis. Noting that, since it was state action which had precipitated the physical and fiscal crisis, she believes the burden is on the state to reestablish trust: “They gave us their word that they would see us through this lead and galvanized service line replacement and that we would have pods stay open until then…And they backed out on what they said.”

However, Anna Heaton, a spokesperson for Gov. Snyder disagreed: she said: “It was a good discussion about the city and state’s continued partnership, and an offer for economic development help, since the Mayor brought the city’s new economic development official with her to the meeting…State taxpayers could ceased funding the pods last September, but, in the wake of the city’s request, the Governor opted to keep them open—and keep them open a full seven months past when the state could have ceased funding them, asserting this action was taken in order to help with the state’s continued partnership with the city, and to “foster trust with residents as the water quality continued to improve.” Her comments came in the wake of an earlier announcement by Gov. Snyder, in which he said the state has “worked diligently to restore the water quality and the scientific data now proves the water system is stable and the need for bottled water has ended.”

Mayor Weaver said the Governor, in the 35-minute meeting, had wanted to discuss economic development, but she told him the bottled water issue was not going away. Flint’s legal counsel, Angela Wheeler, added: “We do have to explore all possibilities” with regard to whether Flint will opt to sue the state—as Mayor Weaver has been clear that the State of Michigan should wait until all of the city’s lead service lines are replaced.

The Once & Future Puerto Rico?

April 17, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we try to assess the fiscal and future governance options for Puerto Rico: will it become a second class state? A nation? Or, at long last, an integral part of the nation? And governance: who is in charge of its governance?

Before Hurricane Maria wracked its terrible human, fiscal, and physical toll; more than 50% of Americans knew not that Puerto Ricans were U.S. citizens. Still, today, some six months after the disaster, more than 50,000 have no electricity. The fiscal and physical toll on low-income Americans on the island has been especially harsh: of the nearly 1.2 million applications to FEMA for assistance to help fix damaged homes, nearly 60% have been rejected: FEMA provided no assistance, citing the lack of lack of title deeds or because the edifices in need were constructed on stolen land or in contravention of building codes. That is to write that this exceptionally powerful storm took a grievous toll not just on life and limb, but especially on the local and state economy, destroying an estimated 80% of Puerto Rico’s agricultural crop, including coffee and banana plantations—where regrowing is projected to take years. The super storm devastated 20% of businesses—today an estimated 10,000 firms remain closed. Discouragingly, the government forecasts output will shrink by another 11% in the year to June 2018.

It might be, ojala que si (one hopes) that a burst of growth will ensue, with estimates of as much as 8% next year, in no small part thanks to federal recovery assistance and as much as $20 billion in private-insurance payments—as well as Puerto Ricans dipping into their own savings to make repairs to their own homes and businesses. Yet, even those positive signs can appear to pale against the scope of the physical misery: by one estimate, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands will lose nearly $48 billion in output—and employment equivalent to 332,000 people working for a year. Of perhaps longer term fiscal concern are the estimated thousands of Puerto Ricans who left the island for Florida and other points on the mainland—disproportionately those better educated and with greater fiscal resources—leaving behind older and poorer Americans, and a greater physical and fiscal burden for Puerto Rico’s government.

The massive storm—and disparate treatment by the Trump administration and Congress—have encumbered Puerto Rico with massive debts, both to its central government and municipalities, but also to its businesses. Encumbered with massive debts—including $70 billion to its municipal bondholders and another $50 billion in public pension liabilities; Governor Ricardo Rosselló’s administration is making deep cuts: prior to the massive storm, the government had been committed to slashing funding to its local governments by $175 million, closing 184 schools, and cutting public pensions—pensions which, at just over $1,000 are not especially generous. Now, that task will be eased, provided the PROMESA oversight Board approves, to moderate the proposed cuts in services in order to do less harm the reviving economy.

Assisted by federal tax incentives, Puerto Rico’s economic model was for decades based on manufacturing, especially of pharmaceuticals. However, what Congress can bestow; it can take away. Thus it was that over the last decade, Congress steadily eroded economic incentives—Congressional actions which contributed to the territory’s massive debt crisis, and contributing to the World Bank dropping Puerto Rico 58 places in its ranking compared to the mainland with regard to the ease of doing business.

The havoc wreaked by Maria could be especially creative for the island’s private sector, which represents a chronically missed opportunity. Puerto Rico, for all its problems, is a beautiful tropical island, with white-sanded beaches, rainforest, fascinating history, lovely colonial buildings and a vibrant mix of Latin-American and European culture. Yet, with 3.5 million visitors a year, its tourism industry is less than half the size of Hawaii’s. It has an excellent climate for growing coffee and other highly marketable products, yet its agriculture sector is inefficient and tiny. The island has a well-educated, bilingual middle-class, including a surfeit of engineers, trained at the well-regarded University of Puerto Rico for the manufacturing industry, and cheap to hire. But in the wake of the departing multinationals, they are also leaving. Isabel Rullán, a 20-something former migrant, who has returned to the island from Washington to try to improve linkages to the diaspora, estimates that half her university classmates are on the mainland.

Quien Es Encargado? (Who is in charge?) Unlike a normal chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy proceeding, the process created by Congress under the PROMESA law created a distinct governance model—one which does create a quasi emergency manager, but here in the form of a board, the PROMESA Board, which, today, will submit its proposed fiscal plan, or quasi plan of debt adjustment to U.S. Judge Laura Swain Taylor; it will maintain its requirement to propose the reduction of the public pensions of Puerto Ricans by an average of 10 percent. Until last weekend, the PROMESA Board had kept under review the complaints to Governor Ricardo Rosselló with regard to the inclusion in its revised fiscal plan of the central government the base of a labor reform which, among other proposals, calls for the immediate reduction in vacation and sick leaves from 15 to 7 days for workers of private companies, according to two sources close to the Board. Under the fiscal plan proposed by the Governor Rosselló, the cuts would reach $1.45 billion in five years. The PROMESA Board has requested that they total $1.58 million by June of 2023. The proposal, unsurprisingly, has raised questions with regard to whether the Congress has the authority to impose on the government of Puerto Rico a reform of its labor laws—any more than its inability under our form of federalism to dictate changes in any state’s retirement systems—contracts which are inherent in state constitutions.

Pension reductions in chapter 9 cases, because they involve contracts, are difficult, as contracts are protected under state constitutions—moreover, as we saw in Detroit’s plan of debt adjustment approved by now retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, the court wanted to ensure that any such reductions would not subject the retiree to income below the federal poverty level—a level which, Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello told Reuters, in an interview this past week, “many retirees are already under,” as he warned  that any further pension cuts could “cast them out and challenge their livelihood.” That is, in the U.S. territory struggling with a 45 percent poverty rate and unemployment more than double the U.S. national average, the fiscal challenge of how to restructure nearly $70 billion in debt, where public pensions, which owe $45 billion in benefits, are also virtually insolvent, makes the challenges which had confronted Judge Rhodes pale in comparison.  Moreover, with the current pensions already virtually insolvent, paying pension benefits out of Puerto Rico’s general fund, on a pay-as-you-go basis, could cost the virtually bankrupt Puerto Rico $1.5 billion a year. The PROMESA Board has recommended that Gov. Rossello reduce pensions by 10 percent.  

For their part, the island’s pensioners have formed a negotiating committee, advised by Robert Gordon, an attorney who advised retirees in Detroit’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, as well as Hector Mayol, the former administrator of Puerto Rico’s public pensions. The fiscal challenge in Puerto Rico, however, promises to be more stiff than Detroit—or, as Moody’s put it: Puerto Rico’s “unusual circumstances mean that it will not conform exactly” to recent public bankruptcies, in which “judges reduced creditor claims far more than amounts owed to pensioners.” Moreover, the scope or size of Puerto Rico’s public pension chasm is exacerbated by the ongoing emigration of young professionals from Puerto Rico to the mainland—making it almost like an increasingly unbalanced teeter totter.  The U.S. territory’s largest public pension, the Employee Retirement System (ERS), which covers nearly 100,000 retirees, is projected to run out of cash this year: it is confronted by a double fiscal whammy: in addition to paying retiree benefits, ERS owes some $3.1 billion to repay debts on municipal bonds it issued in 2008—bonds issued to finance Puerto Rico’s public pension obligations. Last year, Governor Rosselló had agreed to a reduction in pensions for government retirees, indicating a willingness to seek as much as a 6% reduction. That appears not, however, to be something he currently supports.

A few weeks ago, in the wake of negotiations with the PROMESA Board, Governor Rosselló proposed a labor reform similar to the one he negotiated with members of the Board, with differences with regard to how to balance it with an increase in the minimum wage and when to implement such changes. The Governor, however, withdrew the proposal when the Board required that the labor reform be in full force by next January, instead of applying it gradually over the next three years, and conditioned the increase from $ 7.25 to $ 8.25 per hour in the minimum wage to the increase in labor participation rates. It seems the PROMESA Board is intent upon labor reform as an essential element for future economic growth.

The Challenge of “Shared” Governance. Unlike in Central Falls, San Bernardino, Detroit, Jefferson County, or other chapter 9 cases where state enacted chapter 9 statutes prescribed governance through the process, the PROMESA statute created a territorial judicial system to restructure Puerto Rico’s public debt, creating a Board empowered to reign until four consecutive balanced budgets and medium and long-term access to the financial markets are achieved—or, as our colleague and expert, Gregory Makoff, of the Center for International Governance Innovation, who worked for a year as an advisor to the Department of Treasury in the Puerto Rican case, put it: “While the lack of cooperation with the Board may be good in political terms in the short-term, it simply delays the return of confidence and extends the time it will take for the Oversight Board to leave the island.” Mr. Makoff has recommended the Board and Gov. Rosselló propose to Judge Swain a cut of from $45 down to $6 billion of the public debt backed by taxes, with a payment of only 13.6 cents per each dollar owed, with the intent of equating it with the average that the states have. His suggestion comes as the Board aims to disclose its plans as early as this evening in advance of its scheduled sessions at the end of the week at the San Juan Convention Center, where, Thursday, the Board wants to certify Puerto Rico’s and PREPA’s proposed plans, and then, Friday, vote on the plans of the other public corporations: the Aqueducts and Sewers Authority (PRASA), the Highways and Transportation Authority (PRHTA), the Government Development Bank, the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) and the Cooperatives Supervision & Insurance Corporation (COSSEC).

Fiscal Balancing. The PROMESA law authorizes the Board the power to impose a fiscal plan and propose to Judge Swain a quasi plan of debt adjustment, as under chapter 9, on behalf of the government, much as in a chapter 9 plan of debt adjustment‒albeit the PROMESA statute does not grant the Board the power to enact laws or appoint or replace government officials. The Congressional act retained for the government of Puerto Rico the capacity and responsibility to enact laws consistent with the fiscal plan and the fiscal adjustment plan, as well as, obviously, to operate the government.

The Promise & Unpromise of PROMESA: Who Is Encargado II? Unlike in a, dare one write “traditional” chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, where state enacted legislation defines governing authority in the interim before a municipality receives approval of its plan of debt adjustment to exit municipal bankruptcy, the Congressional PROMESA statute has left blurred the balance—or really imbalance—of authority between the power of the Board to approve a budget and fiscal plans, with its possible lack of authority to implement reforms, such as changes to federal regulations it promotes. An adviser to House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop ((R-Utah) recently noted that if the Rosselló administration does not implement the labor reform proposed by the PROMESA Board, the option for the Board would be to further reduce the expenses of the government of Puerto Rico—or, as Constitutional Law Professor Carlos Ramos González, at the Interamerican University of Puerto Rico, describes it, notwithstanding the impasse, “in one way or another, the Board will end up imposing its criteria. How it will do it remains to be seen.” An adviser to Chair Bishop said recently that if Gov. Rosselló’s administration does not implement the labor reform proposed by the Board, the option for the PROMESA Board would be to further reduce the expenses of the government of Puerto Rico—or, as Professor González put it: “In one way or another, the Board will end up imposing its criteria. How it will do it remains to be seen.”

The Uncertain State of the State. An ongoing challenge to full recovery for Puerto Rico is its uncertain status—a challenge that has marked it from its beginning: in February of 1917, during debate on the Senate floor of HR 9533 to provide for a civil government for Puerto Rico, when Sen. James Wadsworth (R-N.Y) inquired of Senate sponsor John F. Shafroth of Colorado whether it would “provide woman suffrage in Puerto Rico?” Sen. Shafroth made clear his intent that the eligibility of voters in Puerto Rico—as in other states—“may be prescribed by the Legislature of Puerto Rico.” That debate, more than a century ago, lingers as what some have described as “the albatross hanging around the island’s neck: the uncertainty over its status.” Is it a state? A country? Or some lesser form of government?  Even though thousands of Puerto Ricans have fought and died serving their country in World Wars I and II, in Vietnam and Afghanistan, Puerto Rico has never been treated as a state—and its own citizens have been unable to decide themselves whether they wish to support statehood.

Some believe Puerto Rico will become a state eventually. But to get there, especially without risking a violent nationalist repulse, Puerto Rico needs to understand what the federal requirements and barriers will be—and what the promise of PROMESA really will mean. And, as they used to say in Rome: tempus fugit. Time is running out: for, absent economic and fiscal recovery soon, the flood of emigration of young Americans from Puerto Rico will become a brain-drain boding a demographic death-spiral, leaving the island with too few taxpayers to cover its more rapidly growing health care costs for an aged population.

Exiting from State Receivership

April 9, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we return to Flint, Michigan, where, in the wake of last week’s release by Gov. Rick Snyder of the city from receivership and state oversight—the city will have to make its own way to full fiscal and physical recovery from the many years’ of state-imposed choices—but recovery too after the former Michigan Revenue Sharing program has ceased, making the physical and fiscal challenge ever so steep.  

Setting the Path for a Strategic Recovery & a Return to Home Rule. After Gov. Rick Snyder, at the end of last week, announced he was releasing the City of Flint from receivership and state oversight, he has now announced that the State of Michigan will stop providing Flint residents with free bottled water when current supplies run out, citing nearly two years of test results showing falling lead levels in city tap water. Indeed, preliminary data from early this calendar year showed 90 percent of high-risk Flint water sites at or below 4 part per billion of lead, according to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. Thus, if these results hold through end of June, it would be the fourth consecutive six-month period levels have tested below the federal action level of 15 parts per billion. In the wake of the Governor’s announcement, the state plans to close four remaining water bottle distribution centers when supplies are exhausted—something that could happen within the next week, albeit water filters and cartridges will remain available at Flint City Hall.

In his announcement, the Governor said: “I have said all along that ensuring the quality of the water in Flint and helping the people and the city move forward were a top priority for me and my team…We have worked diligently to restore the water quality and the scientific data now proves the water system is stable and the need for bottled water has ended.”  The Governor did not discuss the state’s role in unbalancing and aggravating Flint’s fiscal misery—one to which the State contributed both through its former imposition of Emergency managers to preempt the city’s elected leaders—and through its elimination of state revenue sharing. By 2014, Flint had lost $54.9 million dollars in state aid—funds which would have been sufficient then to have fully paid off its annual deficit, as well as all $30 million of its municipal bond indebtedness, and still have had over $5 million in surplus

One of the hard questions now will be with regard to the potential impact of assessed property values and tax revenues in a city where those values were so harshly impacted by the fear of poisoned water: property tax assessments are mailed out every March: In 2016, those revenues, $19.7 million, made up about 23% of the city’s $81 million in general revenue. Unsurprisingly, that led to appeals to the Michigan Tax Tribunal for a poverty exemption to property taxes, with residents citing the costs associated with the water problems as one reason. Those lower assessed values added to the challenge to Genesee County to sell tax-foreclosed properties.

Mayor Karen Weaver, who has played a key role in the efforts to replace underground lead service lines at homes across the city, wrote to the Gov. last Friday to advise him that residents had “great anxiety” over the prospect of closing water distribution sites., noting: “As I have stated before and will continue to say, this is not what I want for our city, and I stand by my position that free bottled water should be provided to the people of Flint until the last known lead-tainted pipe has been replaced…We know that the water in Flint is much better than when I made the Emergency Declaration in December 2015, and that is a good thing. However, we also know that trust has to be restored before residents are ready to rely only on filtered residents.”

In response, Gov. Snyder replied that Michigan taxpayers were not legally obligated to fund bottled water or Flint distribution sites after last September; however, “in the spirit of good faith and our continued partnership, the state has continued to provide funding for hundreds of thousands of cases of bottled water for the daily use of residents.” Noting that he had provided the Mayor with Weaver recent water testing data and methodology, he added: “Since Flint’s water system has been and continues to be well within the standards set by the federal government, we will now focus even more of our efforts on continuing with the health, education and economic development assistance needed to help move Flint forward,” adding: “I remain steadfast in that commitment.

Nevertheless, with lead service line replacement set to resume this spring, there remain not just physical and fiscal fears, but also lingering apprehensions that underground work could dislodge lead flakes from existing pipes and again contaminate home tap water. That is, parents are scared—hardly a message which would enhance assessed property values.

Thus, it might seem ironic that Gov. Snyder’s decision to end bottled water service came two days after his administration had, last Wednesday, announced it was releasing Flint from receivership—a receivership under which the fateful, devastating decision to begin drawing drinking water from the Flint River until construction of the new regional Karegnondi Water Authority pipeline to Lake Huron was completed. (The City of Flint has been getting its treated water from the Great Lakes Water Authority since October of 2015. Last November, Flint inked a 30-year agreement to stay on the Detroit area system in November 2017 in the wake of a federal court order mandating the City Council to quit delaying a decision about its permanent water source.)

A Silver Lining? Flint lead levels have dropped below 4 parts per billion so far this year, according to the Michigan environmental department; for the second half of 2017, 90 percent of high-risk sites had tested below 6 ppb. Officials also said the state has conducted “extensive flushing and testing” of unfiltered water at schools, day cares and senior homes in Flint—meaning the updated test results are finding lower levels than the statewide 10 parts per billion which Gov. Snyder would like to enforce statewide. Keith Creagh, Director of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, noted: “Flint’s water is undoubtedly one of the most monitored systems in the country, and for the last 22 months several types of extensive testing data points have consistently supported that Flint’s water system has stabilized.”

Nevertheless, the action to stop providing bottled water to the beleaguered city led Michigan Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint) to state: “It’s beyond belief that the Governor expects the folks in Flint to trust the government now, when they lied to our faces about lead in our water just a few years ago…That trust was broken, and families in Flint still don’t feel that the water in their homes is safe to drink.” Similarly, Rep. Sheldon Neeley (D-Flint) stated he was requesting the Governor to continue providing bottled water until the state has successfully addressed the “crisis of confidence” among Flint residents, noting: “From the perspective of Flint residents, it was the same data, personnel and science that failed them. They don’t trust them still.” Rep Neeley added that if the State fails to continue providing services to Flint residents, he would support any legal action the city may take “to compel the state to do its job and continue water service to its citizens.” (The State of Michigan has sent more than $350 million in state funds to Flint since late 2015, in addition to $100 million from the federal government, that has paid for bottled water, water system upgrades, and local health initiatives—with a portion of the funding mandated under a four-year, $97 million settlement reached last year between the state and a coalition which had sued in an attempt to secure safe drinking water. Under the agreement, the state agreed to spend an additional $47 million on top of already budgeted funds to replace lead pipes and provide free bottled water.) Now, an Environmental Department spokeswoman reports she expects the state’s current supply of bottled water will run out within four to seven days.

Mayor Karen Weaver, whose administration is working to replace underground lead service lines at homes across the city, published a letter to Gov. Snyder earlier Friday telling him residents had “great anxiety” over the prospect of closing water distribution sites: “As I have stated before and will continue to say, this is not what I want for our city and I stand by my position that free bottled water should be provided to the people of Flint until the last known lead-tainted pipe has been replaced…We know that the water in Flint is much better than when I made the Emergency Declaration in December 2015, and that is a good thing. However, we also know that trust has to be restored before residents are ready to rely only on filtered residents.”