Public Trust, Public Safety, & Municipal Fiscal Sustainability: Has the Nation Experienced the Closing of its Chapter on Municipal Bankruptcies?

 

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eBlog, 04/20/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the unique and ongoing fiscal and physical challenges confronting Flint, Michigan in the wake of the drinking water crisis spawned by a state-appointed Emergency Manager, before heading far west to assess San Bernardino’s nearing formal exit from chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy—marking the last municipality to exit after the surge which came in the wake of the Great Recession.

Public Trust, Public Safety, & Due Diligence. Flint, Michigan Mayor Karen Weaver has recommended Flint continue obtaining its drinking water via the Detroit Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA), reversing the position she had taken a year ago in the wake of the lead-contaminated drinking water crisis. Flint returned to the Detroit-area authority which sends water to Flint from Lake Huron in October of 2015 after the discovery that Flint River water was not treated with corrosion control chemicals for 18 months. Mayor Weaver said she believed residents would stick with a plan to draw from a pipeline to Lake Huron which is under construction; however, she said she had re-evaluated that decision as a condition of receiving $100 million in federal funding to address the manmade disaster, noting that switching the city’s water source again might prove too great a risk, and that remaining with Detroit’s water supply from Lake Huron would cost her citizens and businesses less. Last year, Mayor Weaver had stated that the city’s nearly 100,000 residents would stay with a plan to draw from a Karegnondi Water Authority pipeline to Lake Huron—a pipeline which remains under construction, noting, then, that switching water sources would be too risky and could cause needless disruptions for the city’s residents—still apprehensive about public health and safety in the wake of the health problems stemming from the decision by a state-imposed Emergency Manager nearly three years ago to switch and draw drinking water from the Flint River, as an interim source after deciding to switch to the fledgling Genesee County regional system and sever its ties to the Detroit system, now known as the regional Great Lakes Water Authority. Even today, federal, state, and local officials continue to advise Flint residents not to drink the water without a filter even though it complies with federal standards, as the city awaits completion of the replacement of its existing lead service lines—or, as Mayor Weaver put it: “At the end of the day, I believe this is the best decision, because one of the things we wanted to make sure we did was put public health first,” at a press conference attended by county, state, federal and Great Lakes authority officials, adding: “We have to put that above money and everything else. That was what we did. And what didn’t take place last time was public health. We’ve done our due diligence.” The 30-year contract with the Great Lakes authority keeps Flint as a member of the Karegnondi authority—a decision supported by the State of Michigan, EPA, and Genesee County officials, albeit the long-term contract still requires the approval of the Flint City Council and Flint Receivership Transition Advisory Board, a panel appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder charged with monitoring Flint’s fiscal conditions in the wake of the city’s emergence from a state-inflicted Emergency Manager two years ago.

City Councilman Eric Mays this week said he will be asking tough questions when he and his eight other colleagues will be briefed on the plan. There is also a town hall tonight in Flint to take public comments. Councilman Mays notes he is concerned the city may be “giving up ownership” in the new Genesee regional authority, something he opposes, adding he would be closely scrutinizing what he deems a “valuable asset to the city.” Mayor Weaver has said she personally wanted to review the earlier decision in the wake of last month’s receipt from the Environmental Protection Agency of $100 million to assist the city to address and recover from the drinking water disaster that took such a human and fiscal toll. (EPA is mandating that Flint provide a 30-day public comment period.) Mayor Weaver notes she anticipates some opposition, making clear any final decision will depend upon “public feedback and public opinion.” Currently, the city remains under contract to make $7 million in annual municipal bond payments over 28 years to the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA); however, the Great Lakes authority said it would pay a $7 million “credit” for the KWA debt as long as Flint obligates itself to make its debt service payments. There is, at least so far, no indication with regard to how any such agreement would affect water rates. That matters, because, according to the Census Bureau, the city’s median household income is $7,059, significantly lower than the median Michigan-wide household income, and some $11,750 less than U.S. median household income. The GLWA said Flint customers would save a projected $1.8 million over 30 years compared with non-contractual charges they would have paid otherwise; in return, the Flint area authority would become a back-up system for the Detroit area authority, saving it an estimated $600 million over prior estimates and ensuring Metro Detroit communities would still receive water in the event of an interruption in Great Lakes authority service.

Robert Kaplan, the Chicago-based EPA’s acting regional administrator, said he signed off on the deal because the agency believes it protects the health of residents: “What’s best for public health is to stay on the water that’s currently being provided.” Jeff Wright, the KWA’s chief executive and drain commissioner of Genesee County, said the recommended plan not only would allow Flint to remain with the Genesee regional system, but also to be a back-up water supply, which, he noted, “is critically important to the safety of Flint’s residents who have not had a back-up system since the beginning of the Flint water crisis,” adding: “Whether (or not) Flint ultimately chooses high-quality Lake Huron water delivered through the newly constructed KWA pipeline, the highest quality treated water from Genesee County’s Water Treatment Plant or any other EPA-approved alternative, we will continue to assist Flint residents as they strive to recover from the Flint Water Crisis.” 

Keeping the Detroit system. The Great Lakes Water Authority Has embraced Mayor Weaver’s recommendation, with CEO Sue McCormick noting: “Flint residents can be assured that they will continue to receive water of unquestionable quality, at a significant cost savings.” Michigan Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint) noted: “It provides us a long-term safe water source that we know is reliable. KWA could do the same thing, but this is an answer to help deal with one of the major parts of it,” adding the recommended move to stay on Detroit area water is “another example of the emergency manager sort of making a short-term terrible decision that’s cost us taxpayers half a billion dollars, if not more.” Emergency managers appointed by Snyder decided with the approval of the Flint City Council to switch to the Flint River water in part to save money. Flint officials said they thought Detroit water system price hikes were too high. For more than a year, the EPA has delayed any switch to KWA because of deficiencies including that the Flint treatment plant is not equipped to properly treat water. Staying with the Great Lakes authority may be an initial tough sell because of the city’s history, Mayor Weaver warned, but she is trying to get residents to move on. A town hall is scheduled for this evening at House of Prayer Missionary Baptist Church in Flint for public feedback. “I can’t change what happened,” Mayor Weaver said. “All I can do is move forward.”

Moody Blues in San Bernardino? As San Bernardino awaits its final judicial blessing from U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury of its plan of debt adjustment to formally exit chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, Moody’s has issued a short report, noting the city will exit bankruptcy with higher revenues and an improved balance sheet; however, the rating agency notes the city will confront significant operational challenges associated with deferred maintenance and potential service shortfalls—even being so glum as to indicate there is a possibility that, together with the pressure of its public pension liabilities, the city faces continued fiscal pressures and that continued financial distress could increase, so that a return to municipal bankruptcy is possible. Moody’s moody report notes the debt adjustment plan is forcing creditors to bear most of the restructuring challenge, especially as Moody’s analyzes the city’s plan to favor its pension obligations over bonded municipal debt and post-retirement OPEB liabilities. Of course, as we noted early on, the city’s pension liabilities are quite distinct from those of other chapter 9 municipalities, such as Detroit, Central Falls, Rhode Island, and Jefferson County. Under the city’s plan, San Bernardino municipal bondholders are scheduled to receive a major buzz cut—some 45%, even as some other creditors whom we have previously described, are scheduled (and still objecting) to receive as little as a 1% recovery on unsecured claims. Thus, Moody’s concludes that the Southern California city will continue to have to confront rising pension costs and public safety needs. Moody’s adjusted net pension liability will remain unchanged at $904 million, a figure which dwarfs the projected bankruptcy savings of approximately $350 million. The California Public Employees’ Retirement System also recently reduced its discount rate, meaning the city’s already increasing pension contributions will rise even faster. Additionally, Moody’s warns, a failure to invest more in public safety or police could exacerbate already-elevated crime levels. That means the city will likely be confronted by higher capital and operating borrowing costs, noting that, even after municipal debt reductions, the city might find itself unable to fund even 50 percent of its deferred maintenance. 

However, as San Bernardino’s Mayor Davis has noted, the city, in wake of the longest municipal bankruptcy in American history, is poised for growth in the wake of outsourcing fire services to the county and waste removal services to a private contractor, and reaching agreements with city employees, including police officers and retirees, to substantially reduce healthcare OPEB benefits to lessen pension reductions. Indeed, the city’s plan of adjustment agreement on its $56 million in pension obligation bonds—and in significant part with CalPERS—meant its retirees fared better, as Moody’s has noted, than the city’s municipal bondholders to whom San Bernardino committed to pay 40 percent of what they are owed—far more than its early offer of one percent. San Bernardino’s pension bondholders succeeded in wrangling a richer recovery than the city’s opening offer of one percent, but far less than CalPERS, which received a nearly 100 percent recovery. (San Bernardino did not make some $13 million in payments to CalPERS early in the chapter 9 process, but subsequently set up payments to make the public employee pension fund whole.) The city was aided in those efforts in the wake of U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury’s ruling against the argument made by pension bond attorneys: in the wake of the city’s pension bondholders entering into mediation again prior to exit confirmation, substantial agreement was achieved for those bondholders—bondholders whose confidence in the city remains important, especially in the wake of the city’s subsequent issuance of $68 million in water and sewer bonds at competitive interest rates—with the payments to come from the city’s water and sewer revenues, which were not included in the chapter 9 bankruptcy. The proceeds from these municipal bonds were, in fact, issued to provide capital to meet critical needs to facilitate seismic upgrades to San Bernardino’s water reservoirs and funding for the first phase of the Clean Water Factor–Recycled Water Program.

The Challenges of Investing in the Future, or, Can God Work a Miracle?

eBlog, 04/18/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the vestige of a most challenging issue during Detroit’s historic bankruptcy: water and sewer fees: how does a municipality balance between its needs and the ability of its lowest income citizens to pay? Then, we look at the same issue—especially because of its regional implications, in the nearly insolvent municipality of Petersburg, Virginia—where, as in many regions, water and sewer services—and costs—have regional dimensions. Finally, we inquire about lingering colonialism in Puerto Rico, where the government is planning a plebiscite so that its citizens can have a voice with regard to the U.S. territory’s future.

Fiscal & Physical Municipal Balancing. The City of Detroit’s Board of Water Commissioners is set to vote on a proposal to scale back a controversial storm water drainage fee in the wake of a backlash from churches and businesses, which have been most unhappy about the newly set $750-per-acre monthly charge—with the Board set to consider an option to reduce the drainage fee to $125 per acre until July, after which it would phase in increases over the next five fiscal years to $677 by July of 2022, according to Gary Brown, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department [DWSD] Director. The Motor City began imposing the fee in July 2015 on the owners of 22,000 parcels with impervious surfaces such as roofs and parking lots which “were not,” as Director Brown noted, “paying anything at all…This essentially is giving them an opportunity to have five years to build green infrastructure projects and get a credit to permanently reduce their costs.”

The issue comes at a politically critical time, as Mayor Mike Duggan, running this year for re-election, has been confronted by opposition to the fee by Detroit’s politically-influential pastors—or, as Pastor Everett Jennings, of New Providence Baptist Church, put it: “They say it’s not taxation, but to me it’s a way to tax the church.” The Pastor notes the proposed monthly water bill for his northwest side church skyrocketed from $650 per month to $7,500 per month after the city began assessing the storm water drainage fee. Similarly, Phil Cifuentes, owner and CEO of Omaha Automation Inc., a small automotive and military manufacturing supplier near the Detroit-Hamtramck border, reports: “I came into a system that wasn’t charging anyone…And then I came into a system that, two years later, was charging the largest water sewerage rates in the country,” referring to the $15,630 bill he received in 2015—with the assessment dated back several years, leading him to note: “If they come down through this new rate, how does that affect everyone who owes them outstanding charges like the $10,000 I owe?”

Property owners will still owe the water department past-due charges at the higher rate; however, according to Mr. Brown, they will be eligible for relief for the next few years. The new phased-in rate structure going before the city water board will commence at $125 effective April Fool’s Day, double on July 1st, increase to $375 in July of 2018, $500 in July of 2019, and $626 in July of 2020. In July 2021, the per-acre fee will increase to $651, followed by a final hike of $26 in July of 2022. Mr. Brown notes: “By having a longer five-year opportunity to phase in, it gives them an opportunity to better budget for the new cost and also to go out and have a green infrastructure project designed.” He added that DWSD customers who were originally being charged $852 per impervious acre will see their rate gradually reduced to $677 by July of 2022 to match the rate charged to the 22,000 parcels in the new five-year phased-in plan: “This all goes away and everybody goes to one flat rate at the end of five years.”

To address an issue which had been raised before now retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes during Detroit’s chapter 9 bankruptcy, Mr. Brown noted that the water department is going to offer grants of up to $50,000 for half of the cost of water retention projects on the sites of large churches and businesses to reduce the amount of storm water and impervious surfaces, according to Mr. Brown, who noted the city agency has budgeted $5 million for the grants, even as he described the drainage fee as having been “a real deterrent” to his plans to buy an adjoining 2.5-acre parcel and build another 40,000-square-foot manufacturing facility. The drainage fee itself was partly a response to a 2015 class action lawsuit Michigan Warehousing Group LLC brought against both the City of Detroit and DWSD for charging some property owners the $852 per acre monthly fee, while charging others nothing or as little as $20 based on the size of their water meter pipe. Thus, as Mr. Brown this week noted: “We’re trying to settle that lawsuit by getting everyone on to a fairer and equitable rate system by putting them on the same rate.” CEO Cifuentes notes that Omaha Automation is part of the class action lawsuit.

The non-paying customers included industrial parcels, commercial buildings, churches, and residential parcels where Detroiters have purchased vacant side lots and built additional parking spaces, according to Mr. Brown: “Parking lots were a big part of it—and they weren’t getting a bill, because they didn’t have an account.” Churches in Detroit received large bills because of their large parking lots: for instance, Shield of Faith Church has racked up a $65,000 bill with the city water department, because the storm water drainage fee costs the 300-member congregation nearly $5,000 per month, according to Pastor James Jennings, or as Pastor Jennings had warned prior to the rollback: “It’s actually causing us not to be able to meet our expenses, and we’re about to go under unless God works a miracle.”

The drainage fee also was imposed to pay for needed sewer infrastructure upgrades and try to reduce the city’s overall storm water runoff that causes combined sewage water outflows to discharge into the Detroit River and River Rouge in violation of state and federal environmental laws. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has mandated Detroit to eliminate all sewage discharges by 2022, according to Mr. Brown. The sewage releases vary depending on heavy rainstorms. Last year, the city released 800 million gallons of combined sewage and storm water, according to DWSD. In 2014, a torrential August rain storm contributed to 6.8 billion gallons of untreated sewage and storm water being released—and widespread basement flooding in the city and northern suburbs.

The Fiscal & Physical Costs of Delay. Unlike the federal government, states, cities, and counties have capital budgets. As we have noted previously, however, failure to properly administer one’s capital budgets can have, as we have noted in the case of Flint, Michigan, signal human physical and fiscal costs—or, as Prince George, Virginia Chairman William A. Robertson Jr. put it, with a case study just across the county line in Petersburg of what can happen if a locality goes too long without upgrading its water systems: “Sorry, but this is something we had to do…We don’t want to end up as a Petersburg or a Flint, Michigan.” Thus, with the vote, the county’s rate for drinking water will increase by 10% and the rate for wastewater will rise by 20% effective July 1st. Prince William Utilities Director Chip England noted that the county had performed a water rate study several years ago which “did call for annual rate increases;” however, he said, this rate increase will be the first in three years and just the second in the past 13 years, noting that, as is the case for most localities, Prince George’s utility system is an “enterprise fund” which is intended to be self-funded through customers’ payments for service. Ergo, he advised: “No general fund tax revenues are used to cover the expenses of the department.” But, as in Detroit, the fee increase did not come without opposition: Joe Galloni, president of the 55-plus neighborhood’s homeowner association, noted that many of the residents there are retired and living on fixed incomes: “A lot of folks over there can’t absorb any more increases.” In response, however, board members cited Petersburg’s financial woes and near insolvency as an object lesson in the need to keep current on infrastructure investments. Indeed, Petersburg officials have acknowledged that the city’s aging water and wastewater system is “on the brink of collapse” and estimate that it will take $97 million to repair the system. Like Prince George, Petersburg had gone many years without a rate increase, causing issues not only for the city, but also the region. Now, the Petersburg City Council has recently approved a 13.4% increase—and slated another increase of 14.3% in the city’s budget for next year—and even set plans providing for additional 15 percent increases in each of the following four years. Thus, Supervisor T.J. Webb noted that Petersburg’s financial crisis last year led the city to fall behind on its payments to the South Central Wastewater Authority, a regional entity which provides wastewater treatment to Prince George, Chesterfield County, Colonial Heights, and Dinwiddie County in addition to Petersburg. Had Petersburg not resumed making its $327,000-a-month payments to the authority, the other member jurisdictions would have been required to make up the shortfall, which would have meant an additional $38,000 that Prince George wastewater customers would have had to pay each month. Indeed, Chairman Robertson noted that Petersburg is considering two offers by for-profit companies, Aqua Virginia and Virginia American Water, to purchase the city’s water system.

Vestiges of American Colonialism. Before dawn this morning, the Puerto Rican House of Representatives passed Senate Bill 427, which amends the U.S. territory’s proposed plebiscite and responds to the demands made by the U.S. Justice Department. The actions came in the wake of the threat by U.S. Acting Deputy Attorney General Dana Boente, who had written to Gov. Ricardo Rosselló that the Justice Department would not notify Congress that it approved the ballot or suggest that Congress release funds to hold the plebiscite and educate voters on it. According to Mr. Boente, the current ballot “is not drafted in a way that ensures that its result will accurately reflect the current popular will of the people of Puerto Rico.” Moreover, the Justice Department has objected to the ballot only offering statehood and “free association/independence” as options; the Justice Department apparently believes that the ballot fails to offer Puerto Ricans the option of continuing in the current territorial status, and has alleged that the ballot statement that only statehood status “guarantees” U.S. citizenship by birth for Puerto Ricans is false, as the current territorial status already does this; the Department is also alleging that the ballot language fails to make clear that a vote for Puerto Rico to have a “free association” with the United States would make Puerto Rico an independent nation and strip Puerto Ricans of their U.S. citizenship.

The Justice Department intervention could also jeopardize the Congressional authorization of some $2.5 million to hold a plebiscite on its status in the United States and to educate its voters. While the authorization imposed no limit on when the funds could be used, it did require that prior to the release of the funds, the Justice Department was to notify Congress that the plebiscite ballot and educational materials were consistent with the laws, Constitution, and policies of the United States. Thus, the amended version (Senate 427) was modified in coordination with the Governor’s office and passed by the Puerto Rico Senate, notwithstanding aggravation with federal interference—a kind of interference virtually unimaginable with any U.S. state. Or, as New Progressive Party Senator Luis Daniel Muñiz Cortés put it: “It’s disgusting what the United States is doing with Puerto Rico. I, totally dissatisfied with the measure, will vote in favor if my Party votes in favor of Party discipline, but totally dissatisfied because it is unworthy for the people.” Nonetheless, Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz said that this status consultation was a necessary step toward a definitive definition of Puerto Rico’s status, although he made it clear that his preference would be not to include “the colony” in the plebiscite: “We cannot fall into the game of those who do not want to do anything in Puerto Rico and do not want to do anything there, in the United States,” noting it was not an option to maintain the current status that “overwhelms the Puerto Rican people.” Thus, the approved version includes the territorial situation of Puerto Rico, but does not make specific mention of the Commonwealth; nor does the document refer to U.S. citizenship. 

Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and legislators from his pro-statehood New Progressive Party, had agreed to a measure authorizing a status plebiscite with the first vote to take place on June 11th—with that scheduled vote apparently triggering the demands from the Trump administration—demands, in response to which, Gov. Rosselló promised that his government would add remaining as a U.S. territory as an option to the ballot—and adding that the Congressional authorization of the $2.5 million requires that the Department of Justice notify the U.S. Congress at least 45 days prior to the plebiscite—that is, with sufficient time to provide Puerto Rico until this Saturday to authorize funds for the June 11th plebiscite. The Governor said Puerto Rico’s legislature would act swiftly—as, indeed, it has done. Now, the question will be how the changes might impact the tax-status of Puerto Rico’s future bonds, its economy, and whether it might mean Congress would treat Puerto Rico more like a state, which would have significant implications for programs such as Medicaid.