Is There Second Class U.S. Citizenship?

eBlog

September 18, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we report on the dismissal by the Trump administration for self-government in Puerto Rico, and await today’s PROMESA Board oversight hearing. We also examine pro-active efforts by the government to reduce future hurricane vulnerability on the island.   

Is There A Second Class U.S. Citizenship? The Trump administration has dismissed complaints filed by pro-statehood supporters, emphasizing that nothing prevents anyone from Puerto Rico who wishes to participate in the electoral process from moving to the mainland—with Kevin Sullivan, the Deputy Chief of Mission for the U.S. to the Organization of American States coming in response to complaints filed 12 years ago by former Governor Pedro Rossello and attorney Gregorio Igartua.  The complains are to be considered October 5th at an Inter-American Commission on Human Rights public hearing, as part of the 169th session of the OAS autonomous body, at the University of Colorado. According to Deputy Chief Sullivan’s communication with IACHR Executive Director, Paulo Abrao,  nothing in the American Declaration (of Human Rights) suggests that OAS member states cannot maintain federal systems in which their citizens participation in local and federal elections is determined by their residence or the state of the federal entity where they reside. Mr. Sullivan asserted that Puerto Rico’s current political status is not inconsistent with the American Declaration of Human Rights, and he defended the quasi-colonial position by arguing that it allows a limited participation, because Puerto Ricans can participate in voting in Presidential primaries, and they have the right to elect a non-voting Member to Congress. Mr. Sullivan went on to note that although Puerto Rico does not have state sovereignty, he claimed it has a “distinctive, in fact exceptional, status” with a “broad base of self-government.” Just over a year ago, Puerto Ricans, by referendum, voted for statehood for the first time on June 11, 2017, effectively initiating what Mr. Sullivan deemed a “political process,” the outcome of which, he said, “cannot be predicted by the United States,” even as he admitted that other territories’ petitions have been accepted. He added that Puerto Rican residents, who are U.S. citizens, are also free to move to any state, if they wish.

Proactive Shelter from the Next Storm. Luis Burdiel Agudo, Puerto Rico’s President of the state-owned Economic Development Bank, has recommended making aid to homeowners rebuilding after Hurricane Maria contingent on their relocating out of flood-prone areas, with the President of the state-owned Economic Development Bank, warning: “We need to move families to a safe place.”  Most local governments give homeowners the choice between raising their house or taking a buyout to move somewhere safer; however, elevating one’s home costs around $44,000, according to government estimates—an especially high bar in Puerto Rico, where the median income is $20,078, and the poverty rate is 43.5%‒the median home value is about $100,000. Those who remain in flood-prone areas also require flood insurance, which is difficult to obtain given the low-income rate in the Commonwealth. Nevertheless, Puerto Rico is withholding aid entirely unless residents move. 

Federal Assistance & Hard Choices. The federal government is expected to provide $20 billion in federal funding to rebuild after Hurricanes Irma and Maria, and to better prepare for future storms—creating an almost Scylla versus Charybdis choice: thousands of the more than 100,000 homeowners on the island will have to choose between staying in their current property or rebuilding their homes. 

Could There Be Promise in PROMESA? The PROMESA Oversight Board is soliciting feedback on its report on the causes and development of Puerto Rico’s debt crisis, the Board’s Special Claims Committee set to “pursue claims from the results” of a debt investigation, and a hearing set for today in San Juan—a hearing which will be streamed live on the Board’s website—with audio available in both English and Spanish. Board members Andrew Biggs, Arthur González, Ana Matosantos, and David Skeel are on the Special Claims Committee. The debt report includes a section which lays out numerous ways Puerto Rico’s municipal bonds and the steps that led to their issuance may have run afoul of laws and regulations. One issue which might or might not be addressed will be with regard to federal allocations promised to Puerto Rico to mitigate the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria—some $41 billion, especially because authorities estimate that less than a quarter of those funds have, in fact, been disbursed. Moreover, the promised, but unreceived amount appears to be less than half the projected level of $100 billion needed to complete reconstruction. According to the data offered by the US government and Puerto Rico, Puerto Rico’s El Nuevo Día has only been able to detail disbursements of approximately $7.640 billion to government entities, businesses, and families in Puerto Rico. Omar Marrero, the Director of the Central Recovery and Reconstruction Office (CRRO), noted: “The reimbursement process has been really hard, particularly when FEMA has imposed some requirements on us as if we were a risk jurisdiction, when we were not declared so.” At the same time, the government of Puerto Rico has not managed yet to get funds flowing from the permanent project program under §428 of the Stafford Act, which will guide most repairs and new constructions. Director Marrero argues that the continued “discriminatory treatment” is an example of Puerto Rico’s lack of political power due to its territorial status. If anything, in the wake of the Whitefish scandal, attention on the management of emergency funds has increased, and, as recently as last weekend, President Trump fanned the idea that the government of Puerto Rico is one of the most corrupt in the country.

To date, the bulk of the federal assistance has come via Congressional resolutions, with the distribution mainly through HUD, FEMA, and the Department of Health and Human Services: half of the allocations were made through the CDBG Disaster Recovery program; however, not even the first $1.5 billion has been made available—funds which were to be allocated last month to assist with the reconstruction of houses destroyed or damaged by the hurricane. Director Marrero noted: “It is still necessary to sign the agreement between HUD and the Puerto Rico Department of Housing. Without that contract, the funds cannot be disbursed,” adding that second part of the CDBG-DR package, which would reach $ 8.2 billion, will not arrive until next year, which would delay its impact on the economy and the development of infrastructure projects. He added that the funds are more important, especially because FEMA did not approve granting federal assistance for permanent reconstruction work, “based on having a bad experience with that program.” The wait may be understood as especially stressful, because the potential aid package from Congress includes nearly $2 billion in CDBG funding which must be used to rebuild the power grid. With the hurricane season still vicious, there are obvious fears at the delay. Thus, Puerto Rico is pressing to reactivate exemptions in the payment of part of the cost for debris removal and taking emergency measures in the face of a natural disaster. The disaster has also re-demonstrated a double standard: in the Lone Star State, Texas, where Hurricane Harvey caused $125 billion in damage, according to the National Hurricane Center, FEMA claimed it provided $13.820 billion in “the pockets of survivors” via federal and state grants, and flood insurance programs ($ 8.8 billion). In Puerto Rico, however, the percentage of homes with FEMA insurance is minimal.

Stormy Fiscal Warnings. Moody’s has warned that a “large part of the money (FEMA assistance) will not remain on the island,” a fiscal storm warning which could undercut Puerto Rico’s expectations of 2019 6.5% economic growth. Some of that projection assumes the government will be able to efficiently take advantage of the $4.8 billion in extra Medicaid assistance it received—funds which can be used until next September without a local match. Nevertheless, Puerto Rico must plan on the resumption of its contribution to the Mi Salud plan—a plan which will be complicated by the apprehension that Medicaid emergency funds may run out during in FY2020—an exhaustion which could carry a price tag of as much as $1 billion.

Has There Been a Double Standard? In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which sent a number of us from Arlington County, Virginia hurtling to Mississippi to try to assist in rebuilding, and which leveraged Congress to name a bipartisan committee, a mere seventeen days after the storm struck, to investigate the Bush Administration’s response to the storm, with, in the Senate, twenty-two FEMA oversight hearings in six months—and within eight months, the release of 500-plus-page investigations into the Bush administration’s handling of the crisis—investigations with dozens of recommendations for reform; there has been no comparable reaction from this Congress to a storm which caused a much greater loss of American lives—nearly 70% more. The U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which oversees FEMA, has held just two hearings; neither the House nor the Senate has issued any major reports. Hurricane Maria, according to George Washington University’s report, killed an estimated 2,975 Americans in Puerto Rico—an estimate which, last week, the President claimed was a fake number. Or, as Irwin Redlener, the Director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University put it: “Puerto Rico is getting far less attention, in spite of it being one of the worst disasters in modern American history, than Katrina, and far less attention than we got for Superstorm Sandy…From the beginning, the handling of Maria’s consequences both from the White House and Congress has been abysmally inadequate.” Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of Katrina’s Gulf Coast devastation, House GOP leaders called for an investigation; they created a select committee to investigate the storm. That committee held nine public hearings; it reviewed more than 500,000 pages of documents, according to the 582-page report, titled “A Failure of Initiative,” which was released less than six months after Katrina struck. The Senate conducted its own investigation into the Bush administration’s response to Katrina, with the Senate Committee on Government Affairs holding nearly two dozen hearings with 85 witnesses; the Committee reviewed over 838,000 pages of documents; it heard testimony from 325 persons involved in the response. Many of the hearings focused on narrow issues, such as search-and-rescue efforts after the storm. In this Congress, in contrast, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has held two hearings related to the 2017 hurricane season, and it has reviewed more than 17,000 documents.  Last week, Ranking House Oversight Committee Member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) released a report complaining about a lack of hearings and responsible oversight—a report which might have triggered Chairman Tray Gowdy (R-S.C), Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, to FEMA to request all communications from 13 FEMA officials related to 10 different aspects of FEMA’s response to the storm, including the lack of qualified personnel, wiring issues with the electrical system and problems with existing disaster plans. It was just the second letter requesting information about FEMA sent by the committee and the first since Oct. 11, 2017.

From the Ashes of Municipal Bankruptcy

September 17, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we report, again, on the remarkable fiscal and neighborhood recovery of Detroit—a demonstration of how chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy can lay the foundation for extraordinary fiscal and physical recovery. Then we look south to consider a new strategic plan for Puerto Rico—a U.S. territory surely on notice that it cannot count on FEMA in a major, life-threatening disaster.  

The Phoenix of American Cities? Detroit, the once and mayhap future automobile capital of the U.S. and one-time Motown music capital, filed for the nation’s largest ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy five years and two months ago in the wake of a loss of more than a million residents, cuts in state aid, and collapsing real estate values—forcing the city to borrow to meet its operating costs. It came in the wake of the city experiencing periodic episodes of corruption and mismanagement for years—a critical consequence of this former great American industrial city’s dysfunction had been its erosion as a core for jobs: employment had fled the urban core, at a time it was rising in the metropolitan area—even as other cities were seeing something of a city-center revival. The Motor City’s ability to borrow in the municipal markets was exhausted after years of issuing long-term debt to pay its operating bills: the city had listed liabilities in excess of $17 billion—equal to $25,000 for every remaining resident. In his report, the city’s Emergency Manager, Kevyn Orr, described the city as “dysfunctional and wasteful after years of budgetary restrictions, mismanagement, crippling operational practices and, in some cases, indifference or corruption.” For residents, escaping these debts and physical deterioration accompanied by high violent crime rates and unperforming schools meant moving to the suburbs: of the 264,209 households in Detroit, only 9.2% were married couple families with children under 18; another 78,438 households, or nearly 30%, were families headed by women.

Now, as the ever insightful Daniel Howes of the Detroit News has written, the city’s neighborhoods are in play: he wrote: “Three months after Ford Motor Co. confirmed plans to convert Corktown’s dilapidated Michigan Central Depot into its center for mobility and self-driving vehicle development, a consortium backed by $50 million from the Kresge Foundation is planning a cradle-to-career educational complex on the campus of Marygrove College at Wyoming and McNichols.” He was referring to the city’s historic district near downtown, one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods—and one listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is not just an old part of the city, but one which gained its heritage in the middle of the last century when, in the wake of the Great Irish Potato Famine in the 1840’s, the great Irish migration to the U.S. made Detroit the city with the largest new home—with many Irish settling on the west side of the city; they were primarily from County Cork, and thus the neighborhood came to be known as Corktown. Kresge’s CEO, Rip Rapson, at the end of last week answered “unequivocally ‘yes.’ The time for the pivot to the neighborhoods is now,” in what he deemed an “an unprecedented model of neighborhood revitalization.”

A critical element to this revitalization could come from the physically and fiscally depleted Detroit Public Schools—so physically dangerous and unperforming that they served to discourage families with children from wanting to live in the city; yet, now, as Mr. Howes wrote: “The symbolism is striking. The Detroit Public Schools Community District board, burdened with a legacy of underperforming schools and labor troubles, is wagering it can create a new model for traditional public education by partnering with the University of Michigan’s School of Education, Starfish Family Services, and Marygrove to teach local students and teach their teachers…Borrowing from the residency programs used in medical education, the Ann Arbor university founded 201 years ago in Detroit would leverage its reputation and expertise in what University President Mark Schlissel calls “teamwork in service to the public.” That is, the effort is to anchor community redevelopment, as Chicago did, by education: the Detroit Public School District would operate a K-8 school and a high school carved from the former Bates Academy on the east edge of campus, while the University of Michigan would operate an undergraduate “residency” program for aspiring teachers.

Mr. Howes went on to write that, even as Detroit’s downtown and Midtown attract billions in private investment, especially from mortgage mogul Dan Gilbert and the Ilitch family to big corporate relocations and small business investment, neighborhood residents and the civic groups representing them have continued to ask: ‘what about us?’ The answer, it seems, is driving in: the Ford Motor Co. reports it will invest $740 million to build out the Corktown campus. Kresge is spearheading numerous community initiatives. A JPMorgan Chase program continues to invest in small-business creation.

On the elected front, Mayor Mike Duggan, seeking re-election, has made neighborhood revitalization a key issue in his campaign for, as Mr. Howe noted, two reasons: “It’s politically potent in a city that struggled for decades to provide basic services, and, second, it’s the next obvious step in the city’s revitalization: Reinvesting in downtown and Midtown, essentially the spine of Detroit, helps bolster tax base, fuel economic activity, and create tax-paying jobs. Reinvesting in neighborhoods and improving traditional public education strengthens community and gives Detroiters a reason to stay, to reap the benefits of rising property values.”

Kresge CEO Rip Rapson, a critical player in Detroit’s physical and fiscal recovery, notes: “What this town needs to be shown again and again is you can take big ideas and make them real…So many people are waiting to see efforts like this fail.” The heart, as Mr. Howes noted, of the so-called “P-20 Partnership” is Detroit’s reconstituted public school district, a campaign backed by Kresge’s contributions, the University of Michigan’s commitment to train teachers to teach Detroit’s youth— and the courage of its leadership to develop a new model for educating the city’s kids, right in the heart of a neighborhood.”

A new Strategic Plan for Puerto Rico? While FEMA has approved a new document for emergency response for Puerto Rico, it is a plan with a critical MIA: municipios—and this with time uncertain, as Hurricane Isaac is lurking in the Caribbean and FEMA is caught in a quagmire over the President’s assertion that fewer than 50 lives were lost in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria. FEMA’s Deputy Federal Coordinating Officer in Puerto Rico, Justo “Tito” Hernández has asserted that the “The Strategic Plan was revised. And we are already doing exercises based on the plan. That is already finished,”in an interview with El Nuevo Día, claiming the changes are intended to correct errors which were made before, during, and after the hurricane. In addition, the document already required amendments, in line with federal regulations. (As a rule, the Strategic Plan is modified every five years; the current one was created in October of 2014 and revised after Hurricane Maria.) Yet, even though this plan for the Commonwealth is ready, the Emergency Management Plan for each municipio has yet to be certified by the Puerto Rico State Agency for Emergency and Disaster Management or FEMA, according to Commissioner Carlos Acevedo, who noted: “The plans, I am waiting for the company (hired to develop them) to deliver them to me. And they should be handing me the plans tomorrow (today).” However, both Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares and Commissioner Acevedo have pointed out, in separate interviews, that the government is prepared to face the challenges of the new hurricane season. Gov. Rosselló Nevares stated that now the “people” have an emergency plan, noting there have been workshops “throughout Puerto Rico on how to develop those personal emergency plans,” that changes were made at federal, state, and municipal levels regarding the distribution of food and medication, and that another “public health response” will be implemented. Nevertheless, Gov. Rosselló Nevares recognized that the island’s infrastructure, including the homes of thousands of families that still have blue tarps on their roofs and the power grid, remain vulnerable, stating: “It is no less true that, although there are parts that are more robust, it is a somewhat more fragile (power) grid. Therefore, we want to change and transform it,” he added, referring to the process he has begun to privatize PREPA, the Electric Power Authority: “There are significant improvements, particularly in the area of preparation, but without a doubt, Puerto Rico remains vulnerable, particularly in the infrastructure area.” The Governor added that this scenario will require quick action to transform the power grid and “a bit of luck that an event like María or even a lower-category one, does not impact Puerto Rico, again, and further collapse areas that are already vulnerable.” In addition, he noted, that already, unlike last year, when the government contacted the American Public Power Association with a month of delay after the cyclone, agreements with energy companies have been reached, albeit noting that other initiatives “take time, but are being executed,” and that 64 people are being trained to exercise “very particular functions” amid any new emergency.

With regard to addressing the dysfunction of the government during Maria, the Governor said that “people have been trained based on these new protocols.” Even so, emergency management experts have indicated that unsettled issues in critical areas with regard to the Commonwealth’s role in future emergencies remain: the preparation that the government claims has been questioned by the former executive Director of the former State Office for Emergency and Disaster Management, Epifanio Jiménez, who reiterated that the problem after Maria was the lack of implementation of the existing plans—or, as he put it: “They’re using Maria’s category 5 as a pretext—which is true, it’s a precedent—but they use it as an excuse to justify the collapse of agencies and agency leaders because, when Hurricane Georges hit, the leaders knew their work and the island recovered after 32 days.”

A simple look at the 2014 Strategic Hurricane Plan, which experts say was not followed, reveals that the Health, Family, Emergency Management Agency, and General Services Administration (SGA) departments, among other government agencies, failed in their respective functions before, during, and after the hurricane; moreover, if all of these agencies had fulfilled their responsibilities, fatalities estimated today at 2,975 (except by the White House) would have been avoided, according to the study by the Milken Institute of the George Washington University.

The Strategic Plan is governed by the National Incident Management System (NIMS), which establishes and defines the entire procedure for emergency management. It is backed by Presidential orders. FEMA develops the plan, theoretically in partnership with state authorities—clearly part of the challenge, as Puerto Rico is in a quasi-twilight zone between being a state or a municipality. This matters, because such a plan is intended to detail the function of what is called the Emergency Support Function, which is nothing more than the function that each agency will have before, during, and after an emergency.

Some of the Changes. The NMEAD Commissioner (Negotiator for the Management of Emergencies and Administrator for Disasters) Carlos Acevedo, said that now the Department of Family Affairs has a list of vulnerable groups. He added that the emergency management center integrated the private sector, and even had training. However, according to Mr. Jiménez:  “That is nonsense,” recalling that the private sector was already integrated into emergencies, because there must be agreements with agencies. To avoid the collapse of communications, Commissioner Acevedo said they now have a voice and data satellite system. The Telecommunications Regulatory Board and the NMEAD have a list of radio amateurs to use analog communication, if necessary, he added, albeit noting: “That has to be refined, and the JRT has to make sure that the private sector responds.” Moreover, Commissioner Acevedo said the services of cell phone companies, which also collapsed in the wake of the hurricane, is an issue that remains in the hands of the private sector. Finally, he noted he has also held meetings with the directors of hospitals and dialysis centers on the island, stressing that each party has increased its capacity to provide services.

Not Florence Nightingale: The Governance Challenge of Life Threatening Storms

September 12, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, as Hurricane Florence bears down on the East Coast, the President, yesterday, patted himself on the back for what he deemed an “incredibly successful” job he had done in leading the federal government’s response to the human, fiscal, and physical devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, boasting: “I think Puerto Rico was “an incredible, unsung success,” referring to the devastating hurricane which caused the death of nearly 3,000 Americans.

Hurricane Relief? President Trump patted himself on the back yesterday for an “incredibly successful” job done in Puerto Rico, where the President, in the wake of the storm, had travelled to Ponce and thrown paper towels, deeming federal response efforts as one of his administration’s “best jobs.” Asked what lessons his administration might have learned as it prepares for this week’s Hurricane Florence, headed towards the nation’s capital later this week, the President responded: “I think probably the hardest one we had by far was Puerto Rico, because of the island nature, and I actually think it was one of the best jobs that’s ever been done with respect to what this is all about…The job that FEMA, and law enforcement and everybody did working along with the governor in Puerto Rico, I think was tremendous: I think that Puerto Rico was an incredible, unsung success.” He added that his administration had received “A pluses” for its work in Texas and Florida following hurricanes last year. Yet, even as the official death toll in Puerto Rico has reached nearly 3,000—far in excess of FEMA’s original report of 64—and with electricity still not totally restored, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz yesterday stated: “If he thinks the death of 3,000 people is a success, God help us all.”

Speaking at the White House yesterday, the President sought to assure the public that the FEMA was ready for Hurricane Florence, noting: “We are as ready as anybody has ever been,” as he boasted that the federal government had earned excellent grades for its disaster response in Texas and Florida, but he complained that the even better job done in Puerto Rico had been ignored, describing his administration’s “incredible, unsung success,” by noting the Pentagon had deployed a “tremendous military hospital in the form of a ship” to the island, omitting mention of his failure to suspend the Jones Act and that the ship to which he referred was largely underused: prepared to support 250 hospital beds, it admitted an average of only six patients per day, or 290 in total, over its 53-day deployment. Yet the President described the White House response effort as “one of the best jobs that’s ever been done with respect to what this is all about,” adding, falsely, that Puerto Rico’s electric grid and generating plant “was dead” before Hurricanes Irma and then Maria struck within weeks of one another—or, as the President asserted: “[W]hen the storm hit, they had no electricity, essentially, before the storm.”

As readers are all too aware, electricity was not restored to every customer in Puerto Rico until a few weeks ago. Worse, according to the director of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, approximately a quarter of the federally financed $3 billion in repairs will likely have to be redone. San Juan Mayor Yulín Cruz was more direct, posting on Twitter, yesterday: “If he thinks the death of 3,000 people is a success, God help us all.”

Jose Andrés, a Spanish chef who organized an emergency feeding program on Puerto Rico in the wake of one of the U.S.’s most devastating storms, deemed the President’s comments “astonishing: The death toll issue has been one of the biggest cover-ups in American history…Everybody needs to understand that the death toll was a massive failure by federal government and the White House. Not recognizing how many people died in the aftermath meant the resources and full power of the government was taken away from the American people of Puerto Rico.”

Chef Andrés stressed that the failures spread to food and water distribution—a failure belatedly acknowledged by FEMA in a report released in July, acknowledging the agency was unprepared, with empty warehouses and few qualified staff to attend to the disaster, that it had brought the wrong type of satellite phones to Puerto Rico, and did not have truck drivers to deliver aid from the port, adding that the federal disaster relief agency had been without “situational awareness” of what was happening outside. FEMA’s Michael Byrne, the coordinator for the agency’s Puerto Rico response, has ironically confessed that, unlike the White House, “I think one of the most courageous things FEMA has done is to be honest and frank in the after action and say, ‘We need to work on these areas…And we’re going to. We’re going to get better,” adding that among the areas which needed to be improved was the process to inspect damaged homes: many of the 300,000 homes damaged in the storm are still covered by canvas. To which, Amarilis González, a former English teacher who founded Toldos Pa’ Mi Gente, or Tarps for My People, a group that collected house coverings: “Anyone who flies in to Puerto Rico may notice the amount of blue tarps as they are landing, and that is only a small representation of the rest of the municipalities…If that is a ‘success,’ I do not understand the concept.”

The White House reference this week to Puerto Rico as a “colony” made it clear, however, as Gov. Ricardo Rosselló put it: “The historical relationship between Puerto Rico and Washington is unfair and un-American…It is certainly not a successful relationship,” as the Governor called on the President to extend federal coverage to continuing work on housing restoration and clean-up which is still ongoing, noting the hurricane had constituted the “worst natural disaster in our modern history: Our basic

The End of State Usurpation of Local Elected Authority? Uneasy shelter from the Fiscal and Physical Storms?

August 31, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the end of the State of Michigan to usurp local authority via the appointment of an Emergency Manager, the safety of school drinking water has become an issue in Detroit—especially after Flint, and we consider the extraordinary revisions in the projected Hurricane Maria death toll in Puerto Rica—and the White House response.

Protecting a City’s Children. Detroit Public School Superintendent Nikolai P. Vitti has directed turning off drinking water across the district’s 106 schools  in the wake of after discovering higher-than-acceptable levels of copper and lead in some facilities, with Superintendent Vitti noting his decision came out of caution “until a deeper and broader analysis can be conducted to determine the long-term solutions for all schools.” he said in a statement. Test results found elevated levels of lead or copper in 16 out of 24 schools which were recently tested. Supt. Vitti stated: “Although we have no evidence that there are elevated levels of copper or lead in our other schools where we are awaiting test results, out of an abundance of caution and concern for the safety of our students and employees.” His actions, no doubt affected by fiscal and water contamination in Flint, came even as Detroit officials and the Great Lakes Water Authority sought to assure residents that water provided by the authority is safe to drink: they pointed to the city’s aging infrastructure as the problem.  Superintendent Vitti said he will be creating a task force to determine the cause of the elevated levels and solutions, noting he had initiated water testing of all 106 school buildings last spring to ensure the safety of students and employees. Water at 18 schools had been previously shut off. He added: “This was not required by federal, state, or city law or mandate: This testing, unlike previous testing, evaluated all water sources from sinks to drinking fountains.” The District does not plan to test students: a spokesperson for the school system noted: “Dr. Vitti said…he has no evidence at all that children have been impacted from a health standpoint.”

Fiscal & Physical Challenges: Earlier this summer, Supt. Vitti released details from a facilities review which had determined the school district would need to spend $500 million now to fix the deteriorating conditions of its schools—an effort for the system projected to cost as much as $1.4 billion if there is a failure to act swiftly, with the Administrator pointing to the failure by former state-appointed emergency managers to make the right investments in facilities while the system was preempted of authority and state-appointed emergency managers from 2009 to 2016 failed to make the right investments, sending what Dr. Vitti described as “the message to students, parents and employees that we really don’t care about public education in Detroit, that we allow for second-class citizenry in Detroit.” The remarks raised anew questions with regard to Michigan’s governance by means of gubernatorially chosen Emergency Managers.  

Superindent Vitti said he had notified Mayor Mike Duggan of his decision to shut off the drinking water, and a spokesperson, John Roach, noted: Mayor is “fully supportive” of the approach Supt. Vitti has taken, adding: “We will be supporting Dr. Vitti in an advisory capacity through the health department and the DWSD (Detroit Water and Sewerage Department) has offered to partner with the district on any follow-up testing that needs to be done.” At the same time, the Great Lakes Water Authority issued a statement in an effort to assure “residents and customers of GLWA’s regional system that they are not affected by the lead and copper issues,” noting: “Aging school infrastructure (i.e. plumbing) is the reason for the precautionary measure of providing bottled water,” adding water treated by the authority meets and surpasses all federal and state regulations, albeit adding: “A task force will be formed consisting of engineering and water quality experts” to will help the district “understand the cause and identify solutions.” (Initial results this past week showed elevated levels of copper, lead or both at one or more water sources in 16 of 24 school buildings, according to the statement. Water bottles will be provided at the schools until water coolers arrive. The district also found water-quality issues in some schools in 2016.)

The incident in Detroit raises a host of fiscal and governance issues—especially in the wake of the tragedy in upstate Flint—with, in both cases, the state’s history of appointing Emergency Managers to preempt the authority of local elected leaders. In the case of DPS, Dr. Vitti has contacted the Mayor, the Governor, and a task force of engineers and water experts to understand the cause and possible solutions; Superintendent Nikolai P. Vitti opted to close the water taps out of caution “until a deeper and broader analysis can be conducted to determine the long-term solutions for all schools,” with the decision coming just days before the school district’s 106 schools are scheduled to open next Tuesday. (Water bottles will be provided at the schools until water coolers arrive.) Water officials have blamed aging infrastructure as the cause of the public safety threat. Now Dr. Vitti has asked Mike Duggan and Gov. Rick Snyder to convene a task force of engineers and water experts to determine the cause of the elevated lead and copper levels, and to propose solutions. 

Importantly, it seems the public safety risk is limited to Detroit’s public schools: water officials released a statement Wednesday assuring residents and customers of the Great Lakes Water Authority and the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department that they are not affected by the lead and copper issues at the school district, noting: “Aging school infrastructure (i.e. plumbing) is the reason for the precautionary measure of providing bottled water…The water at GLWA’s treatment plants is tested hourly, and DWSD has no lead service lines connected to any DPSCD building. The drinking water is of unquestionable quality.”

Nevertheless, the threat to public safety—combined with the heartbreaking, long-term threats to Flint’s children from that city’s public water contamination—could add further challenges to Detroit’s recovery from the nation’s largest-ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy: a critical part of the city’s plan of debt adjustment was to address its vast amassment of abandoned houses by enticing young families with children to move from the suburbs back into the city—an effort which had to rely on a perception of the quality and safety of its public schools. Now, for a system itself recovering from bankruptcy, DPS faces a bill of at least $500 million to repair its buildings: approximately 25% of the system’s school buildings are in unsatisfactory condition and another 20%are in poor condition, according to the report. The district noted nearly $223 million of high-priority repairs involving elevators and lifts, energy supply, heating and cooling systems, sprinklers, standpipes, electrical service and distribution, lighting, wiring, communications, security system, local area networking, public address and intercoms, emergency lights and plumbing fixtures.

Mayor Duggan’s office and the Detroit Health Department Wednesday issued a joint statement supporting “the approach Dr. Vitti has taken to test all water sources within DPS schools and to provide bottled water until the district can implement a plan to ensure that all water is safe for use,” noting: “We will be supporting Dr. Vitti in an advisory capacity through the health department and the DWSD has offered to partner with the district on any follow-up testing that needs to be done. We also will be reaching out to our charter operators in the coming days to work with them on a possible similar testing strategy to the voluntary one Dr. Vitti has implemented.”

Restoring Municipal Authority. Mayhap it is ironic that Michigan’s relatively rare authority for the Governor to appoint an emergency manager to preempt local elected authority reflects the uneven results of the program—a program I well remember from meeting with Kevyn Orr, whom Gov. Rick Snyder had appointed as Emergency Manager  (EM) to preempt all governing authority of Detroit’s Mayor and Council, at the Governor’s office in Detroit on the first day the city entered the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history—and after the grievous failure of a previous gubernatorially-appointed Emergency Manager to help the Motor City. The very concept of state authority to appoint a quasi dictator and to preempt any authority of local leaders elected by the citizens, after all, feels un-American.

Yet, from that very first moment, Mr. Orr had acted to ensure there was no disruption in 9-1-1 responses—and that every traffic and street light worked. Unlike the experience under an Emergency Manager in Flint, Mr. Orr was intently focused on getting Detroit back on its fiscal and physical feet—and restoring elected leadership to today’s grieving city.

Now, as of this week, Michigan no longer has any local government under a state appointed emergency manager—and observers are under the impression the state program to preempt local authority may be quietly laid to rest. It has, after all, been a program of preemption of local democracy with untoward results: while it proved invaluable in Detroit, it has proven fiscally and physically grievous in Flint, where it has been blamed for contributing to Flint’s water contamination crisis. Indeed, two of Flint’s former EMs have been criminally charged in connection with the crisis. Their failures—at a cost of human lives, appears to have put the future of state pre-emption of local governing authority—may well make state officials leery of stepping in to usurp control a local government, even as some municipal market participants and others see state oversight programs as a positive credit feature. The last municipality in Michigan to be put under a state-imposed emergency manager was Lincoln Park—an imposition which ended three years ago. Michigan Treasury spokesperson Ron Leix noted: “Each situation that led to the financial emergency is unique, so I can’t give a broad-brush assessment about how the law will be used in the future…For the first time in 18 years, no Michigan municipality or school district is under state financial oversight through an emergency manager. This is really about the hard work our local units of government have achieved to identify problems and bring together the resources needed to problem-solve challenging financial conditions.”

In Michigan, the emergency manager program was authorized twenty-eight years ago, granting the governor authority to appoint a manager with extensive powers over a troubled municipality or school district. By 2012, Michigan voters repealed the emergency manager program in a referendum; notwithstanding, one month later Gov. Snyder and legislators re-adopted a similar intervention program—under which local governments could opt among three new options in addition to the appointment of an emergency manager who reports directly to the Governor: chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, mediation, or a consent agreement between the state and the city to permit local elected officials to balance their budget on their own. (In Michigan, municipalities which exit emergency management remain under the oversight of a receivership transition advisory board while executive powers are slowly restored to elected mayors and city councils.)

The state intervention/takeover program had mixed success, according to Michigan State University economist Eric Scorsone, who noted: “In some cases it’s worked well, like Allen Park where the situation was pretty clear-cut and the solution was pretty clear as to what needed to be done.” (Allen Park regained full local control of its operations and finances in February of 2017 after nearly four years of state oversight. Last June, S&P Global Ratings upgraded the city to investment-grade BBB-plus from junk-level BB, crediting strong budgetary performance and financial flexibility more than 12 months after exiting state oversight. But the appointment, in Flint, of emergency managers demonstrated the obverse: the small city had four emergency managers: Ed Kurtz, Mike Brown, Darnell Earley, and Gerald Ambrose—where the latter two today are confronted by charges of criminal wrongdoing stemming from the lead contamination crisis and ensuing Legionnaire’s disease outbreak that claimed 12 lives. It was the gubernatorially appointed Mr. Earley who oversaw the decision to change Flint’s water source to the Flint River in April 2014 as the city awaited completion of a new pipeline—a decision with fatal human and fiscal consequences. Indeed, two years ago, Gov. Snyder named a task force to investigate the Flint crisis and review the Emergency Manager law—a review which recommended the Governor consider alternatives to the current approach that would engage local elected officials. (No action has been taken to change the law.)

Because only a minority of states have authorized chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, there is no uniform state role with regard to city or county severe fiscal distress and bankruptcy. Jane Ridley, senior director in the U.S. public finance government group at S&P Global Ratings and sector lead for local governments, has noted that state oversight is considered as part of the rating agency’s local GO criteria: “We do think that having a state that has oversight, especially if it’s a proven mechanism, can be very helpful for struggling entities…If they ended oversight entirely it would likely have an impact on the institutional framework scores and their sub scores.” A Moody’s analyst, Andrew Van Dyck Dobos, noted: “While an EM is in most cases is a last option, the ability for it to implement some policies and procedures is going to be typically viewed, at least at the onset, as a credit positive.”

Ending Shelter from the Storm. U.S. District Judge Timothy Hillman yesterday ruled that temporary housing given to hundreds of Puerto Ricans displaced by Hurricane Maria will end next month, meaning Puerto Ricans will be forced to check out of temporary housing provided by Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as part of the agency’s Transitional Sheltering Assistance (TSA) program. Judge Hillman, in his decision, wrote: I strongly recommend the parties get together to find temporary housing, or other assistance to the Plaintiffs and other members of the class prior to that date,” with his decision coming the same week Puerto Rico updated its official death toll from Maria to 2,975, a vast increase from the original count of 64. Judge Hillman’s decision also comes about two months after a national civil-rights group filed a lawsuit which had sought a restraining order to block FEMA from ending the program. The group, LatinoJustice, argued in the suit that it would lead to families’ evictions. It also came as, two days ago, President Trump met with reporters to respond to questions with regard to the mounting death toll—a session in which the President told the reporters: “I think we did a fantastic job in Puerto Rico.” Some 1,744 Puerto Rican adults and children were in the FEMA program when the lawsuit was filed. U.S. District Judge Leo T. Sorokin temporarily extended the program to the end of last July, and subsequently extended it until today—and then, once more, to September 14th.

Now, the White House is responding to a new estimate which increases the number by about 33% more to 2,975 after an independent study. White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders claimed in a statement that the back-to-back hurricanes which hit last year prompted “the largest domestic disaster response mission in history.” She added that President Donald Trump “remains proud of all of the work the Federal family undertook to help our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico.” She also says the federal government “will continue to be supportive” of Gov. Ricardo Rossello’s accountability efforts and says “the American people, including those grieving the loss of a loved one, deserve no less.” The new estimate of 2,975 dead in the six months after Maria devastated the island in September 2017 was made by researchers with the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University. It was released Tuesday.

Planning for a Quasi Plan of Debt Adjustment

eBlog

August 3, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s ambitious plans for Puerto Rico.  

Governor Ricardo Rossello Nevares believes now is the time to accelerate the pace the pace and demand both programmatic and fiscal results from the U.S. territory’s agency directors to better prepare for a post-recovery quasi plan of debt adjustment. The closing of so many of the island’s schools and the emigration to the mainland of so many health care professionals, and the unhappy state of relations with not just the legislature, but also Puerto Rico municipalities appears to make this a critical point for readjustment. Or, as the Governor put it: “In general, I have always seen the government, particularly in these times, as one which has been in almost continuous transformation—or, to make an analogy with the business sector, as a time to focus on a start-up phase: “Sometimes, you run a lot as if your government was like a Fortune 500 corporation, where things are more or less the same and you keep moving forward. But the reason I aspired was to make some changes…and that requires, in addition to having very specific objectives, to understand, one, that there are changes of roles in that process, as in the start-ups, and two, to know what is the time to execute those changes.”

One area of focus appears to be making his government more open—especially after a year and a half which has seen scandal that touched several of his closest collaborators, the operational and administrative collapse of the Electric Power Authority, the closing of schools, and the flight of health professionals to the mainland. Add to that the ongoing governance challenge imposed by the President and Congress—where the issue of who is steering governance going forward is imbalanced between the Governor, legislature, PROMESA Oversight Board, and. Now, a federal judge—all as Puerto Rico is still not fully recovered from the massive Hurricane Maria—and yet finds itself in the new hurricane season, recognizing it will not receive the same level of FEMA federal assistance in the event of a severe storm as other states or municipalities on the mainland.

Nevertheless, the Governor is focusing on the future—a future beginning to emerge under his “ideas map” which he keeps on his desk: “Puerto Rico: Vision 20/20,” under which he hopes to align his team via setting objectives and what he terms “intangible characteristics” as part of his governing blueprint for the new school year and post-Maria rebuilding.

Thus, in the second half of this year, the Governor intends to focus on reducing some of the bureaucracy of governance, beginning with making the permitting process more practical and less bureaucratically cumbersome—cutting the process in half, and awarding at least three public-private partnerships before the end of the year—or, as he put it: “Accompanying some results with the restructuring of the debt, that would be a great achievement in my assessment,” adding that by November, he hopes his new model of My Health will be implemented, and, by December, new health care legislation will be enacted, followed by a new energy policy for Puerto Rico. Or, as the Governor put it: “My administration has a diversity of people who come from different administrations. My goal is not to select someone because they have gray hair or are very young or certain demographic. The main objective is the commitment to comply with the priorities of this administration and the ability to work as a team.”

A key player on the new team will be Christian Sobrino, who will take the place currently held by Gerardo Portelo, to serve as Puerto Rico’s representative before the PROMESA Oversight Board, while Mr. Portelo will become the main investment officer.

Gov. Rosselló Nevares not only has reconfigured his team of close advisers, but also has transferred to La Fortaleza the tasks to implement the fiscal plan which, until now, has been in the hands of Aafaf—indeed, the Governor has already signed an executive order on the roles of the CFO, but said he could submit legislation on the subject. (The CFO office is one of the reforms in the fiscal plan certified by the Oversight Board which the Governor does not question.)

To address the governing challenges with regard to education, health, and safety, Gov. Rosselló Nevares noted: “We are making sure that students can have a full faculty, that there are challenges and obstacles, of course. If it is a large system, and the transformation, rare as it is soft, is typically a rocky process,” noting his plan to implement educational vouchers and charter schools is still in place. With regard to the vital issue of health care, the Governor noted it is urgent to improve the processes for the response to a disaster, a criterion under which he intends, henceforward, to evaluate all the heads of the respective agencies, adding that he is committed to converting Mi Salud into a model single region with free selection of doctors by indigents. In addition, he has set a goal of reducing crime by 20%, noting that, the havoc created by Hurricane Maria undoubtedly contributed to the significant crime rate increase: “I understand, what happens is that it is not consistent then with what was happening at the beginning of the year. At the beginning of the year, in January, we had a rise particularly in the murders, and it is not after that where one, truth, the capacities to measure all these things improve; they do not get worse, because that’s where the descent happens. Everything is subject to evaluation here, but we have used the same mechanism, the same metrics.”

Restoration of Governing Authority? Asked whether he had given much thought to a post PROMESA Oversight Board governing future, the Governor said: “I have not had that conversation, honestly I have not had it…If there is space to look for something that is optimal for the people of Puerto Rico, I will consider it. But, at this moment, I believe that the Judge must decide…and I cannot predict what her decision will be…after which, we will evaluate that decision, what it entails, and we will take the appropriate actions,” adding that his objective is to present a plan to the President and Congress with regard to Puerto Rico’s reconstruction.

With regard to his relationship with the legislature, he noted: “Our objective, both mine and that of the legislative leaders, I am sure is the welfare of the people of Puerto Rico. I did not start to differences that one can and should calculate that they are going to have on the road; we have a finite time to make some great changes for Puerto Rico. I trust that now, when you see the tax reform, you will act in the best interests of the people of Puerto Rico. I trust that when we see public policy, for example, to mitigate environmental impact, we act in the best interests of the people of Puerto Rico, among other initiatives that we will be presenting. Differences will always be there. I have already established my position: we will be able to work together for the welfare of the people of Puerto Rico.

Getting Schooled in Demography. With Puerto Rico’s new school year set to start Monday, it remains uncertain how many students and teachers will be present. Secretary of Education Julia Keleher yesterday reported that 20,000 regular teachers have already been relocated, out of which only 550 have reported “difficulties” with the changes—only 18,000 students out of the island’s 305,000 have yet to confirm which school they will attend. A declining school population has created jitters with regard to which schools to close—and how to involve parents—or not to—in this Solomon-like process. Nevertheless, as one mother bitterly complained: “Parents were not involved in anything, ever.” Indeed, many parents and teachers believe that the closure was improvised. For instance, a newspaper delivery vehicle (El Nuevo Día) which had stopped opposite a school was hailed by a driver of a truck with the Education logo: its driver asked if the school was open. When they told him it was not, the man said he was to deliver food for the school cafeteria. It seems the decision to keep Jacinto López Martínez School open was taken after the Secretary of Education, along with Mayor Carlos López of Dorado, visited the school at the end of the semester—or, as Principal Lois Santiago described it: “There has been a crazy (student) relocation. The majority appears (enrolled) in the Jacinto López Martínez School, but there are first former students who‒we do not know how‒appear in the Escuela Libre de Música…There is a student listed in the Luisa Valderrama School, which is an hour away.”

Dorado Physical Education Teacher Miguel Rubildo said that, last week, he went to the Arecibo educational region to request some of the available positions, but the options he was given were in the municipalities of Quebradillas and Florida, while the principals of the schools Jacinto López Martínez and Esperanza González confirmed that, a little more than a week before the beginning of the semester, they did not know the number of teachers who would be relocated in their schools, much less whether there would even be classrooms available for them.

Contrasting Responses to Fiscal and Physical Storms

July 10, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the superb update on the fiscal impact of Hurricanes Irma and Maria on the U.S. Virgin Islands by Jason Bram and Lauren Thomas of the New York Federal Reserve.

Much more dependent on tourism than Puerto Rico, the authors noted that there has been far less attention to the fiscal ravages of the two storms despite the fact that St. Thomas, St. Croix, St. John, and a number of smaller islands suffered comparable devastation. No doubt, they point out, this is in part due to their much smaller population: the U.S. Virgin Islands is home to about 105,000 Americans—1/30th Puerto Rico’s population. It is home to Claude O. Markoe Elementary School in Christiansted, where, long, long ago, this author taught school as part of training for the Peace Corps to teach in Bush Gbaepo Grebo Konweaken, in Grand Gedah County, Liberia.

The Fed authors reminded us that the Virgin Islands had already been fiscally weakened prior to the hurricanes in the wake of a shutdown of a major refinery on St. Croix in 2012—a shutdown which dramatically increased the dependence on tourism: employment dropped by about 15 percent between 2011 and 2014; it has changed little since. Then, last September 20th, Hurricane Maria smote St. Croix where, as they described it, the “magnitude of the damage and disruption for the territory as a whole was unprecedented in recent history.” Adding to the physical and fiscal misery, the Virgin Islands could not count on any assistance from Puerto Rico—and, as we have noted based upon the devastating lack of help from the federal government, the U.S. Virgin Islands were mostly left to fend for themselves.

The economic, physical, and fiscal damage, according to the latest available data, meant that total employment in the U.S. Virgin Islands dropped by an estimated 12% between August 2017—right before Hurricanes Irma and Maria—and November of that year; but by May of this year, the authors found that only a fraction of those job losses, about 600, had been reversed. Indeed, it appears that the fiscal and economic effects of Irma and Maria were “substantially more severe in the Virgin Islands than in Puerto Rico, where employment fell by about 6 percent right after Maria.”

Such a disparate outcome would, they wrote, seem unexpected, especially when considering not only the widespread power outages and pathetic FEMA responses which affected so much of Puerto Rico for so very long—and began to drain the U.S. territory of those most fiscally and physically able to leave for the mainland, especially when compared to the Virgin Islands, where “literally everyone lives within a few miles of the coastline,” unlike Puerto Rico where the steep mountains vastly complicated the task of restoring power to hospitals and police and emergency response centers, leading the Fed authors to pose the question: “With this greater disruption of everyday life occurring in Puerto Rico, why would the economic effect appear considerably more severe in the Virgin Islands?”

The authors note that a critical distinction relates to the Virgin Islands’ high dependence on tourism—a reliance which can be especially pernicious in the wake of a major natural disaster. Thus, they wrote, because tourism tends to be particularly sensitive to the aftermath of natural disasters, “the Virgin Islands’ dependence on this industry largely explains the relatively severe economic hit,” contrasting that with Puerto Rico’s much more diversified economy, illustrating the difference by noting that Puerto Rico’s hotel/accommodation industry, which represents just over 2% of private-sector jobs in Puerto Rico, accounts for about 13% of jobs in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Thus, one fiscal outcome of the storm was the hotel/tourist industry in the U.S. Virgin Islands experienced an especially steep slump after the storm: as of last December, employment in that industry had fallen by 1,300 jobs, or 35%; employment in the broader leisure and hospitality sector—which also includes restaurants and bars but largely caters to visitors—fell by just under 30%. Nearby in Puerto Rico, in comparison, tourism and hospitality job losses accounted for only about 25% of the total job loss. 

The Fed writers also examined the contrasting capacities of the two U.S. territories to accommodate tourists, writing that the damage wrought to hotels in the Virgin Islands after the two hurricanes significantly impacted the capacity for fiscal recovery: by the middle of last May, nearly 90% of Puerto Rico’s 149 hotels had reopened. In contrast, only 60% of the Virgin Islands’ had—adding that, in the Virgin Islands, relief workers were being housed in many of the available rooms, reducing the capacity for tourists or business travelers—and noting: “Remarkably, there has been virtually no new hotel construction in the Virgin Islands for more than two decades.” With the latter, they note, adding to the fiscal challenges to the U.S. Virgin Islands, because of the related sharp decline in restaurant business—finding that local economies had contracted far more sharply in the Virgin Islands than in Puerto Rico, where the surge of rescue workers, including from FEMA and army personnel, utility crews, and construction workers, helped offset the loss of tourists.

Now, they note, the key challenge for the U.S. Virgin Islands’ economy is to restart its vital tourism, noting that the critical steps “appear to be twofold: restoring its capacity to accommodate overnight guests, and encouraging visitors to come,” but, critically, also noting that, in the long-term, the Virgin Islands confront a dilemma: “Is it best to focus resources and policy on a key industry like tourism, which brings in money from outside, or should policy place more of an emphasis on diversifying into other industries, which may be less vulnerable to the periodic hurricane?”

Ending a State’s Fiscal Emergency Manager Preemption, & Who’s on First in Puerto Rico’s Governance?

July 2, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider what might be the end of the State of Michigan’s much maligned emergency manager program, before returning to assess the question with regard to whether a governor and legislature or a quasi U.S. bankruptcy court are in charge in Puerto Rico.

Exiting from Municipal Bankruptcy. For the first time in nearly two decades, a state-appointed Emergency Manager governs no municipality or school district in Michigan, after the state released Wayne County’s Highland Park School District in Wayne County from receivership under Michigan’s Local Financial Stability and Choice Act of 2012. Indeed, Michigan Treasurer Nick Khouri reports that Michigan municipalities have worked hard to become financially sound, noting: “Today’s achievement is really about the hard work our communities have accomplished to become financially sound…I commend the efforts of our local units to identify problems and bring together the resources needed to help problem-solve challenging financial conditions.” Under the terms of the release, Highland Park School District’s locally elected school board will oversee the contract for Highland Park Public School Academy and the cooperative agreement with the Detroit Public Schools Community District for the continuing education of students. In addition, the board will manage the repayment of long-term debt obligations. The Highland School District has a quasi-chapter 9 plan of debt adjustment in place to address its $7.5 million general fund deficit, with revenues from property taxes imposed on non-homestead property dedicated to finance outstanding debt, as well as an approved two-year budget. According to financial statements, as of the end of last year’s fiscal year, the District had $2.4 million in general obligation bonds outstanding.

The agreement means the school district, which had been under emergency management since January of 2012, and for which the state-appointed emergency manager had established Highland Park Public School Academy to provide educational services to district students while the school district paid off long-term debt obligations—for which, since 2015, said public school academy has been educating students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grades, and for the scholastic years through high school via a cooperative agreement with the Detroit Public Schools Community District, which has been providing educational services to students from ninth through 12th grades.

Nevertheless, the State of Michigan continues to maintain an oversight role in a limited number of Michigan communities: public school districts in Benton Harbor and Pontiac are operating under a consent agreement with the state, and the Muskegon Heights school district is overseen by a receivership-transition advisory board. The critical fiscal recoveries were marked by April’s exit from state oversight by the City of Flint, after seven years, and then, the following month: Detroit.

Conflicted Fiscal Governance. With the beginning of the new fiscal year, Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares still assessing fiscal options, as well as his authority to address the $8.7 billion operating budget imposed yesterday by the PROMESA Oversight Board on the U.S. territory–or, as he put it: “We are evaluating the budget certified by the Fiscal Oversight Board on the U.S. territory. Certainly, the impact on the budget of the three branches of government and municipalities will require additional adjustments that will limit our ability to provide services.” Ramon Rosario, Puerto Rico’s Secretary of Public Affairs, noted:  “The Governor and his cabinet continue to analyze all possible alternatives to the scenario.”

There was no public reaction to the imposed fiscal preemption of elected authority by House President Carlos Johnny Mendez, nor Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz, respectively, to the budget imposed by the JSF. The Governor indicated, however, that some of the biggest concerns of the Executive are public employees and the payment of the Christmas bonus, as well as the elimination of funds for economic development.

The Board’s proposed budget, interestingly, is greater than that approved by the Legislature; however, it imposes additional cuts of up to $345 million. It does not repeal Law 80-1976, the Law Against Unjustified Dismissal. It does preserve the Christmas bonus for public employees and establish two funds, one of $ 25 million for the University of Puerto Rico, and another of $ 50 million for municipio recovery. PROMESA Board Chair José Carrión, in a written statement, noted: “The course has been drawn, and although it will be a challenge, we cannot afford to deviate. We must all work together.”

Working together would be a challenge—and a question now for Puerto Rico is whether to comply or go to court to preserve, ironically, an approved fiscal budget smaller than that to be imposed by the PROMESA Board: that is, what if the Governor and Legislature were to opt not to implement the unelected PROMESA Board’s proposed budget? One attorney noted: “There would be a confrontation that would generate a controversy in the court, because, then, the Board would have to go to the court and ask it to force the officials to comply with the budget.” Under such a scenario, the unelected fiscal oversight Board would issue a certification of non-compliance, which, were it not to compel the elected government of Puerto Rico to comply, could entail the Board availing itself of the mechanisms in the PROMESA statute preempting Puerto Rico’s governing authority. Independence Party’s Denis Márquez remarked that his “exhortation is not to obey the Fiscal Control Board, but they always tell you that you have to be against the Board, but at the end of the day you look for a reasonable accommodation that always ends up hurting the country.” However, unlike a chapter 9 governance situation, where a federal bankruptcy court assesses a municipality’s plan of debt adjustment, PROMESA allows the Board to establish the budget at its sole discretion. It appears to be virtually a form of colonialism.

As the oversight board had advanced during its approval of the fiscal plan last Friday, the public expenditure scheme contemplates reductions greater than those set in the first version of the document approved by the Legislature: the budgets of some agencies seem to have an increase compared to the current fiscal year, but this is due to the fact that, for the first time, each one was assigned an authorization corresponding to the payment of their employees’ pensions (pay as you go). A spokesperson for the Popular Democratic Party in the House noted: “The vision of the Board is the republican vision, a small government with less participation.” Indeed, the version to be imposed by the Oversight Board contemplates major cuts for the Department of Education, which ended with an allocation for this fiscal year of $2.479 billion, about a 5% cut for what the Legislature had approved, with the deepest cuts coming in payroll and operating expenses, even as the Board added nearly $30 million to “cover services related to the provision of therapies and other services for special education children, and $ 23.8 million for the payment of salary increases to teachers—leading Puerto Rico Senate Education Chair Abel Nazario to note that the PROMESA Board “itself recognizes that these measures must be maintained in the coming years is an achievement that we recognize and appreciate.”

The Board imposed a number of deep cuts, such as the Bureau of the Fire Department, where the Board cut operating expenses of $576,000, as proposed by the Legislature, to $148,000; it slashed just over $1 million for firefighter protection equipment, and cut the police department payroll by $587.1 million, as stipulated in the Legislature’s version, to $ 570.2 million, but the Board retained the proposed $18.8 million for increased police salaries.

Imbalanced Governance? The Board cut funding for the Governor’s office in excess of 10 percent, and funds for the Puerto Rico Legislature by nearly 20 percent; it cut funding for the Puerto Rico Health Department by just under 10 percent.

Can there be Shelter from the Storm? Meanwhile, in a different courtroom, U.S. District Judge Leo T. Sorokin of Massachusetts has ordered that FEMA cannot end its Transitional Sheltering Assistance program until at least midnight tomorrow, granting Puerto Ricans who fled Hurricane Maria’s devastation and have been living in temporary housing on the mainland a very brief reprieve. Christiaan Perez, manager of advocacy and digital strategy for the civil-rights group, LatinoJustice, the national civil-rights group which filed a lawsuit Saturday seeking the restraining order told the court the end of the FEMA assistance would lead to Puerto Rican evacuees being evicted. The temporary restraining order is projected to offer some protection for about 1,744 Puerto Ricans for whom the FEMA transitional assistance was to end Saturday. Judge Sorokin has scheduled a telephone hearing for today.

The outcome will impact many of the families who left Puerto Rico in the wake of the storm for the mainland who have been living in hotels in New York and Florida and those who have been unable to secure affordable housing and are now worried about what happens as FEMA assistance expires—or, as Cynthia Beard, one of the 600 Puerto Rican hurricane survivors living in New York, told NBC News this week: “I don’t know what’s going to happen. The city called me and said there’s a shelter, but there’s no guarantee; they didn’t say everything is going to be OK.” According to Mayor De Blasio’s office, New York City has a program in place to direct transportation from the hotels to the shelters. Once there, families have to find out if they are deemed eligible to register into the city’s shelter system: if accepted, families are assigned to case management and housing assistance services to help them find permanent homes. 

But FEMA has also offered displaced Puerto Ricans the option to return to Puerto Rico, asserting the agency has called more than 1,500 displaced Puerto Ricans to offer to pay for their plane tickets to return to Puerto Rico by yesterday or recommend them ways to look into their respective state’s shelter system. As of June 27, only 145 families had either booked their plane tickets or already returned to Puerto Rico. It appears the majority of displaced Puerto Rican families have opted to remain stateside, even though many do not have a permanent home. The offer came in the wake of four different deadline extensions, during which, under FEMA’s TSA program has housed Puerto Rican hurricane survivors for nearly 9 months. During other disasters, survivors participating in that program were given up to a year and a half—even though officials have said that the program normally lasts 30 days. Nevertheless, FEMA warned it was ending Transitional Sheltering Assistance for survivors of hurricanes Maria, Irma, and Harvey on Saturday, asserting it has spent more than $432 million on survivor lodging as part of the program, and that it has provided rental assistance to more than 25,000 TSA participant families to help them find permanent housing.

Who Is in Fiscal Command?

June 29, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing challenge of governance in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico: is it a federal judge, a duly elected Governor and legislature, or a board imposed by Congress and the Administration?

Who Is In Fiscal Charge? With the new fiscal year beginning Sunday, the Puerto Rico Legislature is set to approve a budget less than that which was presented to the PROMESA Board. The initial version, approved by the House of Representatives of $8.782 billion provided for an increase of $33.2 million over the amount approved by the PROMESA Board. The Legislative Assembly is, today, expected to approve an FY2019 budget of $8.7 billion. Senator Migdalia Padilla Alvelo of Maraquitas, a small town founded in 1803, who has served in the Senate for nearly two decades, and is the current Finance Commission Chair, yesterday announced that, as part of the legislative discussion, they have managed to identify several items which will adjust the budget without touching the allocations included by the House of Representatives to meet the reductions imposed by the PROMESA Board to the umbrella of the Department of Public Security and tax agencies, such as the Office of Government Ethics and the Office of the Comptroller. Those modifications cleared the path to revert some $50 million for the operation of the Government Central Accounting System (Prifas). Concurrently, the budget was modified to adjust reserves down from $75 to $35 million, with the Senator explaining: “was reduced from $ 75 million to $ 35 million: We reduced the $8,749 billion which the Board had set for expenses to $8.709 billion: “we are below what the PROMESA Board originally set.” House Finance Committee Chair Antonio Soto also confirmed there would be approval of the budget today, explaining that the negotiations with the Senate team had been aimed at reducing the budget to the level proposed by the Board without touching the expense items that had been added, noting: “We understand that we are going to be able to maintain it…in the same level that they established, but including the expense items that are necessary.”

Meanwhile, in a press release, Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz reported that a Conference Committee had been formed to address the amendments introduced on his side, adding: “We had planned to approve the budget today. In the House, the discussion of the measure has been delayed a little, but the House President Carlos Méndez Núñez yesterday told me that that body will approve it today.”

With the action, the PROMESA Oversight Board cancelled its scheduled public meeting set for today—where it had intended to act on the Puerto Rico budget, to await today’s actions by the legislature, and then act tomorrow to approve the U.S. territory’s budget, as well as those of several authorities, with the Board noting the delay would provide more time to “complete required technical and macroeconomic changes to the Commonwealth Fiscal Plan with updated information.” The board still expects to approve a budget by the end of the fiscal year—with the PROMESA Board apparently primed to preempt Puerto Rico’s authority and impose its own fiscal dictates, including a repeal of Law 80 and the establishment of at-will employment, per its preemption demand to Gov. Ricardo Rosselló last month—a demand the Puerto Rico Senate declined to act upon.

The Board preemption yesterday came in the wake of, earlier this week, of its issuance of notices of violation with regard to government-proposed budgets for the Puerto Rico Highways and Transportation Authority and University of Puerto Rico—with, in each instance, the unelected Board notifying the Puerto Rico Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority that the Board required “substantial revisions and additional information” before it could approve the budgets. Some believe the PROMESA Board’s actions could signal a likely rejection of Puerto Rico’s budget tomorrow. PROMESA Board Director Natalie Jaresko said that if Puerto Rico’s elected leaders did not repeal Law 80, the Board would eliminate several accommodations it made to the Governor, including the retention of Christmas bonuses for government employees and a multiyear $345 million economic development and reform implementation initiatives fund.

It appears that, irrespective of the final actions taken by the Legislature, Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares recognizes the authority under the PROMESA statute granted to the Board. Thus, with the clear expectation that Law 80 (the Law Against Unjustified Dismissal) will be repealed,  the Governor appears to seeking to ensure he will play a key role in the process of restructuring the debt in federal court, and that he will be a player in constructing the quasi chapter 9 plan of debt adjustment which is anticipated to be settled by next week.

Another key issue pending relates to Chamber 1662, on Puerto Rico public pensions, which the Gov. yesterday endorsed—likely to arm himself to oppose the Oversight Board’s proposed average 10% cut in Puerto Rico pension benefits—cuts the Board wishes to trigger in the new fiscal year.

In response to a press question yesterday with regard to whether the Governor would go to court if, as expected, the PROMESA Board preempts Puerto Rico’s law and eliminates the Christmas bonus and current provisions for sick leave and vacations of public employees, the Governor was clear he would, noting:Yes, I’ve always said it. The unfortunate thing is that we will be spending $20 to $25 million a month in litigation processes that we are not sure of how we are going to finish. Second,  the process of restructuring the debt is not started and, instead of having a visibility to finish this in a year and a half, two years, we are talking about years. Possibly eight years, a decade in which this can be resolved, because the Oversight Board is the only entity authorized to submit a plan of debt adjustment. We have been working with them, with certain differences on that adjustment plan. But this is very clear, if you have an agreement, the only difference is pensions where we can sit or go to court for a single component…The content of this adjustment plan will depend not only on the restructuring of the debt, but also on whether the island will continue to be protected against appropriations of its government funds.”

Hurricane Recovery. On the critical issue of recovery from Hurricane Maria, where Puerto Rico received thrown paper towels compared to Houston, estimates are that recovery costs could be as high as $94 billion—Puerto Rico has, to date, received about $6 billion. Nevertheless, Gov. Rosselló appears optimistic, noting the island is in its recovery phase: “I think we’re on the way. Certainly FEMA’s disbursement has been slow, but now a new phase is entering that is important for people to know, which is includes HUD housing and CDBG funds—funds from which Puerto Rico has already begun drawing down: he added: “We hope that by the beginning of January or the end of December we can already have access to the bank of the $18.5 billion.”  

The Tides of Immgration: Are there Fiscal Consequences?

June 25, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the tides of emigration as they fiscally challenge the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico.

Today, more than one million Puerto Ricans live in New York City, just under one-third of Puerto Ricans who reside in Puerto Rico, with the likelihood of emigrating from Puerto Rico to Gotham increasing for single Puerto Ricans between the ages of 25 and 29 who have never married, do not own property, and whose income is limited, albeit not to the point of being below the federal poverty level. The majority are men, and the destinations of preference seem to be cities in Florida, New York, or Texas. In theory, about a fifth of those who left will return, judging by the rate of return reported on the immigration side to Puerto Rico. According to the most recent census data, in 2016, some 89,000 left Puerto Rico, a number which appears to indicate a rising trend, albeit, there is some evidence that the pattern might be changing—with that pattern affected by not only destination, but also by the level of academic achievement of those leaving Puerto Rico.

While we await, in December, 2017 emigration data, early indications based upon passenger counts at airports, appear to represent very high migration trends, finding, for instance, that last year, more than 281,000 Puerto Ricans left Puerto Rico than arrived there—an indication of the demographic impact of Hurricane Maria. Demographer Judith Rodríguez wrote in the 2016 Migrant Profile (published last week) that “The recent wave of migration in the last decade exceeds the Great Exodus of 1950-60, which has great impact on the social and economic level.” More recent data, however, indicates this demographic tide may finally be ebbing: during this year’s first month, January, 58,202 more arrived on the island than left, with the patter continuing the next month when there was a net positive inflow of 10, 698—a number which ebbed by March to 1,510—a change estimated to be temporary.

After New York, Florida appears to be the emigration state of choice: currently, around 30% of Puerto Rican emigrants choose a city in Florida, mainly in the central zone. At the same time, Texas is rising as a demographic state of choice. It appears more likely than not that New York City will continue to be a focal point of Puerto Rican emigration, due to cultural and family ties with Puerto Ricans since the migrations of the early twentieth century in the wake of the enactment of the Jones-Shafroth Act. According to the most recently updated Census figures, New York City is in the top three exodus destinations for emigrating Puerto Ricans.

But this is not all one-way traffic: many Puerto Ricans appear to be going home, with the largest such numbers coming from the states of Florida and New York; however, the number returning from the states of Massachusetts, Louisiana, and Washington make up more than half the total.

While it is more difficult to assess who is leaving and who is staying, Census data indicates that 48% of Puerto Ricans living in the D.C. metropolitan area have at least a bachelor’s degree, and, overall, 78% of Puerto Ricans living on the mainland have at least some level of university education, nearly three times the percentage of Puerto Ricans who have moved to Miami. Income wise, Washington, D.C. is the location, which appears to have drawn Puerto Ricans with both the greatest levels of scholastic achievement and the most income: the median household income for Puerto Ricans in the nation’s capital is $87,713. Next, after Washington DC, mainland cities with the highest median income for the Puerto Ricans are Miami ($50,945), Chicago ($47,232) and New Haven ($43,165). The disparity in annual income perhaps demonstrates the lure of emigrating from Puerto Rico, where the median income of a household is around $ 19,977, according to the Census data.

However, for Puerto Ricans leaving for the mainland, nirvana is not guaranteed: in the cities of Springfield and Boston, as well as in Hartford, there are high poverty levels are high for Puerto Ricans: in Springfield, more than one-third of the more than 100,000 Puerto Ricans live below the federal poverty level—a level comparable to the 31% below that level in the Boston metro region, and 26.5% in the Springfield metropolitan area have incomes that place them below the poverty level.  In addition, age is a discriminating factor: in Springfield, almost 50% of Puerto Ricans under the age of 18 live below the poverty line—a figure that compares unfavorably to the 46% of Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico who fall below the federal poverty line of $12,060 for an individual.

The Prospects and Draws for Emigration. Demographic data with regard to those leaving Puerto Rico finds that the bulk of emigrants worked in 2016 as administrative office staff (6,822), followed by operators of production lines (5,445), vendors (4,870), and food preparers (3,264). According to the date, some 382 desperately needed doctors left—while some 1,376 nursing professionals left the island. Stateside, 82% of the 2.2 million Puerto Ricans who are working on the mainland are employed in the private sector; 4% have their own business. 14% of the jobs occupied by Puerto Ricans are in the government. In Puerto Rico, that figure rises to 22%, according to data from the Census Bureau. On the other hand, most of those who immigrated or returned to Puerto Rico were vendors (1,383) or educators (1,101).

Quien Es Encargado? (Who is in charge?) The Puerto Rico Senate has killed a an agreement between Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and the PROMESA Oversight Board, potentially escalating the governance conflict with regard to Puerto Rico’s operating budget and the restructuring of the central government’s $51 billion of debt. Last Friday, Puerto Rico Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz threatened a lawsuit against the Board if it continues to attempt to preempt Puerto Rico’s government in order to impose budget cuts or the repeal of worker protection measures. In a compromise with the Governor, the Board had agreed to maintain Puerto Rico’s mandatory Christmas bonus, vacation and sick day policies in exchange for Gov. Rosselló’s agreement to introduce at-will employment for all employers by repealing a 1976 law, Law 80. The House, at the end of last month, had approved the measure, before the Senate amended it to introduce at-will employment only for employees entering the workforce. Indeed, as we had previously noted, last Thursday, the Senate President had declared the Law 80 repeal to be dead, after speaking with other members of the majority New Progressive Party caucus in the Senate. Moreover, according to a video posted on the El Nuevo Día website, the Senate leader said he had consulted lawyers and was ready to fight in court, if the PROMESA Board seeks to preempt the island’s elected leaders. The power struggle came as the Puerto Rico House has added funding to a budget bill—spending which Puerto Rico House President Carlos Méndez and Treasury Committee President Antonio Soto said they expected the PROMESA Board would reject—relying on the Congressional PROMESA Act granting the Board the right to create and approve its own version of Puerto Rico’s budget—as is, for instance, the current budget. Puerto Rico’s new fiscal budget year begins this Sunday—a date by which, on normal years, like most states, but unlike the federal government, its fiscal year operating budget would normally have been adopted—but, where, last Thursday, PROMESA Board Chair José Carrión, in New York City, stated that if the government opted not to repeal Law 80, the currently certified fiscal plan would operate—a plan which would mandate at-will employment to be introduced by January 1, 2019—a plan which, unsurprisingly, Senate President Rivera Schatz is set to challenge, especially after, on May 9th, Sergio Marxuach, the New Economy Policy Director, testified before the Puerto Rico Senate Committee on Federal, Political, and Economic Relations that repealing Law 80 would be a bad idea, noting that a 2016 International Monetary Fund study showed that in times of economic weakness, eliminating job protections would have had a negative economic impact in the short and medium term, noting: “By triggering a wave of layoffs, reforming employment protections further weakens aggregate demand and delays economic recovery.” Similarly, a 2017 report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development said that in Portugal from 2006 to 2014 “reforms increasing the flexibility of the labor market negatively affect firms’ productivity both in the short- and long-run. A possible explanation is that higher job turnover reduces firms’ incentives to invest in job-specific training and reduce the scope for workers’ specialization.”

In response, Governor Rosselló released a statement: “Puerto Rico has just seen how politics is done and not how a future government should be made in challenging and difficult times, with this regrettable decision by the President of the Senate, Thomas Rivera Schatz.”

Now Senate Finance Committee President Migdalia Padilla is scheduled to meet with the Governor’s fiscal team to discuss the changes which have been included in the joint resolutions that make up the budget for the next fiscal year; he will also  meet with Financial Advisory Authority and Fiscal Agency (Aafaf) Executive Director Raul Maldonado and the Secretary of Finance, Gerardo Portelo—with the Chairman noting: “They are going to have meetings with me so that we can all harmonize what we have observed, what the Board says, and what the Executive establishes.” Chairman Padilla added that he trusts that today will be constituted the conference committee to discuss the House amendments, especially after, at the end of last week, House approval of an FY2019 budget $33.2 million higher than the one presented by PROMESA Board—followed, the next day, by Senate approval, albeit with amendments intended to force a conference committee to settle the differences.

In addition to the perception of preemption, one of the legislature’s greatest reservations with regard to the PROMESA Board’s version of the budget their perception that that version underestimates the revenue estimate is $7,000 million, according to the President of the Finance Commission of the Chamber, Antonio Soto, who noted that the government will close the year with revenues of more than $9,172 million, but the fiscal entity estimates $8,400 million for the next fiscal year, despite the fact that it proposes a growth in the economy of 6.3%.

Senate President Padilla explained that one of the changes that will be introduced to the House version is aimed at addressing the $164,000 reduction for the Independent Special Prosecutor’s Panel Office (OPFEI), advising that he would be subtracting that $164,000 from the additional $2 million that the Chamber allocated in the budget to the Alliance for Alternative Education program. In its version, the Chamber dealt with the cuts contemplated in the PROMESA Board’s proposal for the oversight agencies, such as the Office of Government Ethics, the Office of the Comptroller and the Office of the Citizen Procurator, but left out the Special Prosecutor, noting: “I am not increasing the spending budget; I am simply moving part of an allocation of $2 million,” adding that it is inconsistent with the amendments submitted by the Chamber aimed at ensuring the functioning of the agencies under the Department of Public Safety, such as the Bureau of Emergency Management and Disaster Management, the Emergency Medical Bureau, the Bureau of the Corps of Firemen, and the Bureau of Forensic Sciences—all agencies with regard to which there is heightened concern in the wake of Puerto Rico’s devastating hurricanes and inequitable FEMA responses.  Indeed, Miguel Romero the vice president of the Senate Finance Committee, agreed on the need to assign the necessary funds to the Department of Public Security to ensure its operation: “There is a deficiency of over $40 million that we have to address.” In addition, Senator Padilla indicated the Senate would take a close look at the Board’s proposed $7 million cut to Court Administration, noting: “There is a need for appointment of judges and to maintain diversion programs with the correctional population.” Moreover, Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz also indicated that the controversy centers on inconsistencies between the budget and the fiscal plan, both presented by the PROMESA Board, explaining, in the wake of discussions, that it had been “established that there is a gap between the approved budget and the fiscal plan: basically, regarding the collections we will have available to cover the budget.” With the session scheduled to end on Saturday, that date falls three days after the limit established by the PROMESA Board to approve the budget, with the Board anticipating that, if Puerto Rico does not comply with the agreement reached with the Governor to repeal the Law Against Unjustified Dismissal (Law 80-1976), it will revert the fiscal plan to the approved one.

Municipal Finance Transparency

June 13, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider efforts in a  Puerto Rican municipality to focus on municipal finance transparency.

Toa Baja, a municipio of just under 90,000 in Puerto Rico, was first settled around 1511—long, long before Lexington and Concord. It was officially organized as a town in 1745, when it was dedicated to Nuestra Señora de la Concepción. By the dawn of U.S. independence in 1776, it was a town of some six cattle ranches and 12 sugar cane estates, but a town at risk of flooding because of the confluence of surrounding rivers. In 1902, in the wake of the U.S. invasion, the town became part of a consolidated region when the Legislative Assembly of Puerto Rico approved the consolidation of a number of municipalities—before a 1905 statute annulled the statute and Toa Baja regained its status as an independent town. This municipio of around 90,000 divided into seven barrios or neighborhoods has not been a stranger to floods: nine years ago, former Governor Luis G. Fortuño ordered a shut off essential services, such as water and electricity, to Villas del Sol, a village within the municipality of Toa Baja, and FEMA actually purchased homes in the municipality from the Puerto Rican Government in order to ensure public safety.  What had been a farming-based economy, mostly sugar, turned increasingly to fishing, cattle, and then, by the 1950’s, manufacturing began to replace replacing agriculture, so that, today, it is a center for the manufacture of metal, plastic, concrete, textile, electrical, electronic machinery, and rum. The city’s leader, Mayor Anibel Vega Borges, was first elected in 2004; he has since been re-elected twice (2008 and 2012)—and by wide margins.

Now the city or ciudad is set to be a leader in fiscal transparency: it will be the first Puerto Rico municipality to publish its accounts, in the wake of signing an agreement with the Statistics Institute after Institute President Mario Marazzi urged all public agencies, including municipalities and public corporations, to make use of the Institute’s transparencyfinanciera.pr platform. Ergo, Alcalde or Mayor Bernardo “Betito” Márquez García will disclose, beginning with the fiscal year next month, all its transactions, evaluations of income, costs and benefits in order to ensure the public has access to inspect all its fiscal and financial actions—or, as Mayor Garcia put it:I understand that it is the right step. I think that the responsibility to administer the municipalities is shared with the people, and the people have to have the information to be an oversight of what is done with their resources.”

President Marazzi noted that his offer, made available in 2015, had, so far, only attracted two previous takers: the Institute of Statistics, and the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, noting: “(Toa Baja) is the first municipality to take the step forward to provide extremely detailed information on their finances…Toa Baja is truly opening its books, here it is going to be done because the platform demands it: The platform requires a level of disclosure that definitely has to be someone with courage, who has nothing to hide,” as he urged all Puerto Rican agencies, public corporations, and municipalities to make use of the platform, stressing that, in times of fiscal crisis, the tool becomes even more useful to record how public funds are being used at the central and municipal levels, and also to recover the credibility of Puerto Rico before the financial markets, and—as he described it: “Give it a good goodbye to the [PROMESA] Board of Fiscal Supervision: All we need is that in our country, we have the political will to implement what already exists technologically.”

His initiative comes even as the Legislature is set to debate Senate Bill 236, the “Open Data Law of the Government of Puerto Rico.”

Mr. Marazzi described his effort by noting that “Lack of transparency is the best breeding ground for corruption, and sunlight–or transparency–is the best disinfectant,” adding that his Institute will also train municipal personnel in the use of the electronic platform, and in the handling and sending of the necessary information, at the same time that it will offer assistance, advice, and collaboration in the preparation of a work plan for the implementation of the project, Open Government, in Toa Baja, noting: “Governments do not have the resources to audit all the information. This will allow external auditors to help us find flaws in our data, (to identify) corruption.” Audit reports (from the Office of the Comptroller), he noted, take so much time that by the time they are made available, the proverbial cow is often already outside the barn.  

In turn, the Fundación Agenda Ciudadana will join the effort to educate the Tobajeña citizenship with the necessary skills to control the available information and use it in the democratic exercise. Mayor Márquez García emphasized this educational process, and indicated that a second phase of the project would be the search for participatory budgeting: “In my personal character, I think we had to work on this type of initiative for a long time … This will allow Mayors to be forced to render collective accounts … Here there must be active citizen participation. The responsibility is shared.”