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.”

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A Physical & Fiscal Storm of the Ages

May 30, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we worry that, based upon a New England Journal of Medicine study, Hurricane Maria caused far greater human and property devastation than official FEMA and other federal reports reported.

The Journal study reported that at least 4,645 people died as a result of Hurricane Maria, a storm which wreaked some $90 billion in damage and its physical and human devastation across Puerto Rico last year—an estimate which far exceeds the federal government’s official death toll of 64—and makes clear that the brief Presidential visit to throw paper towels marked an embarrassing demonstration—one now in even starker contrast to the White House response to Houston. The study found that health-care disruption for the elderly and the loss of basic utility services for the chronically ill had significant impacts across the U.S. territory, leaving disparate and devastating chaos not just to human lives, but also to Puerto Rico’s electrical grid and public infrastructure—meaning some communities or muncipios were completely isolated for weeks amid road closures and communications failures.

Scientists from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center Researchers calculated the number of deaths by surveying nearly 3,300 randomly chosen households across Puerto Rico, comparing the estimated post-hurricane death rate to the mortality rate for previous year: their surveys indicated that the mortality rate was 14.3 deaths per 1,000 residents from Sept. 20 through Dec. 31, 2017, a 62% increase in the mortality rate compared to 2016, or what they termed 4,645 “excess deaths,” writing: “Our results indicate that the official death count of 64 is a substantial underestimate of the true burden of mortality after Hurricane Maria.”

The study criticized Puerto Rico’s methods for counting the dead, as well as the lack of transparency in sharing information, noting it would detract from planning for future natural disasters. The authors called for patients, communities, and doctors to develop contingency plans for natural disasters. Today, more than eight months after the powerful hurricane’s physical and human devastation, Puerto Rico’s slow recovery has been marked by a persistent lack of water, a faltering power grid, and a shortage of essential services. These failures, moreover, on the cusp of the new hurricane season, have exacerbated Puerto Rico’s fiscal challenges.

The study also found that Puerto Rico’s recovery was hindered by numerous systemic failures, as well as what the scientists determined assessed as a complex method for certifying the deaths in San Juan: they noted that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that deaths can be directly attributed to storms like Maria if they are caused by forces related to the event, from flying debris to loss of medical services; however, in Puerto Rico, such deaths continued for months.

The government of Puerto Rico, notwithstanding the inadequate FEMA response compared to Houston, nevertheless was sharply criticized for its response , especially after initially reporting that only 16 Puerto Ricans had died as a result of the storm—a number which more than doubled by the time of the President’s very brief visit to assess the damage last September: a number which continued to escalate until early last December, at which time authorities 64 had died, an official death toll, which counted those who suffered injuries, were swept away in floodwaters, or were unable to reach hospitals while facing severe medical conditions. The Journal study, however, concludes there were likely thousands more Americans who died in the weeks and months that followed, but who were not counted—raising questions with regard to both the role of FEMA, as well as the manner and integrity of the Puerto Rico government’s protocols for certifying hurricane-related deaths: Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s administration did not release mortality data immediately after the storm, nor did his administration’s officials provide much information publicly about the process officials were using to enumerate the dead.

However, in the wake of pressure by Congress, as well as statistical analyses from news organizations assessing a much higher death toll, Gov. Rosselló enlisted the assistance of George Washington University experts to review the government’s death certification process, vowing that “regardless of what the death certificate says,” each death would be inspected closely to ensure a correct tally, stating: “This is about more than numbers. These are lives: real people, leaving behind loved ones and families.”

Dean Lynn Goldman of the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health anticipates the university will release an initial report as early as next month: GW’s findings will include the first government-sponsored attempt by researchers and epidemiologists to quantify Hurricane Maria’s deadliness, as experts are assessing statistical mortality data, intending to examine medical records and to interview family members of those who died—with Dean Goldman making clear that death certificates bearing the phrase “natural causes” will require further investigation.

Simultaneously, the Center for Investigative Journalism in Puerto Rico has gone to court in an effort to seek Puerto Rico’s Department of Health and Demographic Registry’s mortality data for the months since last November, the last month for which such information was available. The Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics has also announced it intends to provide an independent death count and use subpoena powers to retrieve the data.

The Chan School researchers reported there are several reasons the death toll in Puerto Rico has been so drastically underestimated, noting that, for every disaster-related death, such passing must be confirmed by the government’s Forensic Sciences Institute, which requires that bodies be sent to San Juan or that a medical examiner travel to the local municipio; consequently, it can be difficult to track indirect deaths from a worsening of chronic conditions due to the storm; moreover, the researchers reported that the government of Puerto Rico stopped sharing mortality data with the public last December, leading them to write: “As the United States prepares for its next hurricane season, it will be critical to review how disaster-related deaths will be counted, in order to mobilize an appropriate response operation and account for the fate of those affected.”

Many families here are awaiting clarity on what happened to their loved ones when “natural causes” became the only explanation. That is what was written on Leon’s death certificate the morning a local law enforcement official brought the document to the family home. The Puerto Rico Department of Justice’s Yamil Juarbe said in a statement it is customary for local officials in these cases to review bodies for any signs of trauma and talk to relatives to learn about the deceased’s medical history. That information is collected and sent to the central office of the Institute of Forensic Sciences.

Meanwhile, even as FEMA is accelerating community disaster loans to help municipios mitigate the loss of income due to natural disasters, the Government of Puerto Rico reaffirmed that, for the time being, it does not anticipate needing the $4.9 loan: last Friday, FEMA announced that the approval of another $39 million in loans from the CDL program for the municipalities of Aguadilla, Cabo Rojo, Canóvanas, Carolina, Manatí, Mayagüez, Peñuelas, and Orocovis—after, last month, approving $53.7 million in CDL loans for 12 other municipalities, including Bayamón, Caguas, Humacao, Juncos, Ponce, Toa Baja, and Trujillo Alto. Thus, to date, FEMA has allocated at least $ 92.8 million for municipios in the U.S. territory, and $371 million for the U.S. Virgin Islands; the $4.9 billion loan passed by Congress to help local municipios mitigate the loss of income has not been available to Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares—something due in part, as Puerto Rico Treasury Secretary Raúl Maldonado noted, because the “Rosselló administration Government has consistently had more than $ 2 billion available…The administration has been very successful in lowering operational costs and achieving an increase in collections.” Nevertheless, access to the loan will remain open through March of 2020—access which could prove invaluable in the event of another disaster or a drop in the income of public corporations.

Innovative, but Challenging Paths to Exiting Municipal Bankruptcy

May 25, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we observe Detroit’s physical and fiscal progress from the nation’s largest ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, before exploring the seeming good gnus of lower unemployment data from Puerto Rico.

Motor City Upgrade. Moody’s has upgraded Detroit’s issuer rating to the highest level in seven years, awarding the Motor City an upgrade from to Ba3 from B1, with a stable outlook, noting: “The upgrade reflects further improvement in the city’s financial reserves, which has facilitated implementation of a pension funding strategy that will lessen the budgetary impact of a future spike in required contributions…The upgrade also considers ongoing economic recovery that is starting to show real dividends to tax collections.” The stable outlook, according to Moody’s, incorporates the Motor City’s high leverage, weak socioeconomic profile, and “volatile nature” of local taxes. Albeit not a credit rating, Detroit likely received another economic and fiscal boost in the wake of President Trump’s actions calling for new tariffs on cars and trucks imported to the U.S., with an estimated additional duty of up to 25% under consideration.

The twin positive developments follow just weeks after the 11-member Detroit Financial Review Commission, created to oversee city finances following its 2013 chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, voted unanimously to restore Detroit’s authority to approve budgets and contracts without review commission approval, effectively putting Detroit on fiscal and financial probation, with a prerequisite that the restoration of full, quasi home rule powers be that the city implement three straight years of deficit-free budgets—a condition Detroit has complied since 2014, according Detroit Chief Financial Officer John Hill. Or, as Councilmember Janee L. Ayers told the Commission this week: “Not to say that we don’t recognize everything that you’ve brought to the table, but I do recognize that you’re not really gone yet.” The city recorded an FY2018 surplus of $36 million, in the wake of regaining local control over its budget and contract authority, with a projected FY2018 $36 million surplus via increasing property tax revenues and plans that will earmark $335 million by 2024 to address key pension obligations in the city bankruptcy plan of debt adjustment for its two public pension funds. In addition, Moody’s revised Detroit’s outlook to stable from positive—albeit an upgrade which does not apply to any of its current $1.9 billion in outstanding debt, writing that its upgrade reflects an improvement in Detroit’s financial reserves, which have allowed Detroit to implement a funding strategy for its looming pension obligations “that will lessen the budgetary impact of a future spike in required contributions.”

As part of its approved plan of debt adjustment by former U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, Detroit must pay $20 million annually through FY2019 to its two pension funds, after which, moreover, contributions will increase significantly beginning in 2024. Moody’s noted: “The stable outlook is based on the city’s strong preparation for challenges ahead including the need to make capital investments and absorb pending spikes to fixed costs…Underperformance of pension assets and revenue volatility remain notable budgetary risks, but the city has amassed a large reserve cushion and adopted conservative budgetary assumptions that provide breathing room to respond to adverse developments,” adding that the “ongoing economic recovery that is starting to show real dividends to tax collections: Further growth in the city’s reserves and tax base growth to fund capital projects for either the city or its school district could lead to additional upgrades. In contrast, the agency warned that a downgrade could be spurred by slowed or stalled economic recovery, depletion of financial reserves, or growth in Detroit’s debt or pension burden, fixed costs, or capital needs. CFO Hill noted: “A second rating upgrade in just seven months from Moody’s shows that we have created the financial management infrastructure necessary to continue to meet our obligations and enhance our fiscal position…Working with the Mayor and City Council, our team has made a variety of improvements to financial management practices and our financial planning and budgeting practices are strong, as reaffirmed by Moody’s in their report.”

Nevertheless, while the gnus on the ratings front is exhilarating, governing and fiscal challenges remain. A key challenge is the ongoing population hemorrhaging—a hemorrhaging which has slowed to a tenth of its pace over the previous decade, but, according to the Census Bureau’s most recent release, the Bureau determined last week that the city’s population was 673,104 as of last summer, a decline of 2,376 residents, slightly down from last year’s 2,770, even as the metropolitan region continued to grow, as did cities such as Grand Rapids and Lansing, which posted among the largest gains. Nevertheless, Mayor Mike Duggan, after his reelection last November, said his performance should be measured by the milestone of reversing the outflow. He has blamed the city’s schools for the continued losses: “At this point it’s about the schools: We have got to create a city where families want to raise their children and have them go to the schools…There are a whole number of pieces that have gotten better but at the end of the day, I think the ultimate report card is the population going up or going down and our report card isn’t good enough.”

Mayor Duggan added that Detroit utility records show at least 3,000 more homes are occupied than last year; however, it appears to be one- and two-person households who are moving in; families with children are moving out. Nevertheless, researchers believe the overall trend is a marked improvement for Detroit. As we had noted in or report, and other researchers have, the Motor City lost an average of 23,700 annually in the decade from 2000 to 2010; Detroit’s population declined by nearly 1.2 million since its 1950 peak. If anything, moreover, the challenge remains if the city leaders hope to reverse the decades-long exodus: the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments forecasts Detroit will continue to experience further decline through 2024, after which the Council guesstimates Detroit will bottom out at 631,668. 

Nevertheless, Detroit, the nation’s 23rd largest city, is experiencing less of a population loss than a number of other major cities, including Baltimore, St. Louis, Chicago, and Pittsburgh, according to the most recent estimates, or as Mayor Kurt Metzger of Pleasant Ridge, a demographer and director emeritus of Data Driven Detroit put it: “Our decreasing losses should be put up against similar older urban cities, rather than the sprawling, growing cities of the south and west: “I still believe that the population of Detroit may indeed be growing.” (Last year, Detroit issued 27 permits to build single-family homes in the city, according to the Southeast Michigan Conference of Governments–another 911 building permits were issued for multi-family structures, and 60 permits for condominiums. Meanwhile 3,197 houses were razed, while according to the Detroit regional council of governments.

A key appears to be, as Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel determined in Chicago, the city’s schools. Thus, Mayor Duggan said he hopes the Detroit School Board will approve his bus loop plan as a means to help lure families back into the city proper, noting that many families in the city send their children to schools in the suburbs‒and end up moving there. In his State of the City Address, he said he intended to create a busing system in northwest Detroit to transport children to participating traditional public and charter schools and the Northwest Activities Center. This will be an ongoing governance challenge—as his colleague Mayor Metzger noted: “There’s no lessening of the interest in outlying townships: People are still looking for big houses, big lots with low taxes.” Indeed, even as Detroit continues to witness an ongoing exodus, municipalities in the metropolitan region‒the Townships of Macomb, Canton, Lyon, and Shelby are all growing. 

Detroit Chief Financial Officer John Hill notes: “A second rating upgrade in just seven months from Moody’s shows that we have created the financial management infrastructure necessary to continue to meet our obligations and enhance our fiscal position: Working with the Mayor and City Council, our team has made a variety of improvements to financial management practices and our financial planning and budgeting practices are strong, as reaffirmed by Moody’s in their report.” Thus, in the wake of the State of Michigan’s restoration of governing authority and control of the city’s finances on April 30th, more than three years after its Chapter 9 exit in December of 2014, Detroit now has the power to enter into contracts and enact city budgets without seeking state approval first, albeit, as Moody’s notes: “Underperformance of pension assets and revenue volatility remain notable budgetary risks, but the city has amassed a large reserve cushion and adopted conservative budgetary assumptions that provide breathing room to respond to adverse developments.”

Motor City Transformation?  In the wake of real estate development firm Bedrock Detroit gaining final approval from the Michigan Strategic Fund for its so-called “transformational” projects in downtown Detroit, the state has approved $618 million in brownfield incentives for the $2.1 billion project, relying in part on some $250 million secured by new brownfield tax credits, enacted last year by the legislature—a development which Mayor Duggan said represents a “major step forward for Detroit and other Michigan cities that are rebuilding: Thanks to this new tool, we will be able to make sure these projects realize their full potential to create thousands of new jobs in our cities.” In what will be the first Michigan to use the Transformational Brownfield Plan tax incentive program, a program using tax-increment financing to capture growth in property tax revenue in a designated area, as well as a construction period income tax capture and use-tax exemption, employee withholding tax capture, and resident income tax capture; the MIThrive program is projected to total $618 million in foregone tax revenue over approximately 30 years. While Bedrock noted that the tax increment financing “will not capture any city of Detroit taxes, and it will have no impact on the Detroit Public Schools Community District,” the plan is intended to support $250 million in municipal bond financing by authorizing the capture of an estimated average of $18.56 million of principal and interest payments annually, primarily supported by state taxes over the next three decades, to repay the bonds, with all tax capture limited to newly created revenues from the development sites themselves: the TIF financing and sales tax exemption will cover approximately 15% of the project costs; Bedrock is responsible for 85% of the total $2.15 billion investment, per the financing package the Detroit City Council approved last November, under which Bedrock’s proposed projects are to include the redevelopment of former J.L. Hudson’s department store site, new construction on a two-block area east of its headquarters downtown, the Book Tower and Book Building, and a 310,000-square-foot addition to the One Campus Martius building Gilbert co-owns with Detroit-based Meridian. Altogether, the projects are estimated to support an estimated 22,000 new jobs, including 15,000 related to the construction and over 7,000 new permanent, high-wage jobs occupying the office, retail, hotel, event and exhibition spaces—all a part of the ongoing development planned as part of Detroit’s plan of debt adjustment.

In an unrelated, but potentially unintended bit of fiscal assistance, President Trump’s new press for tariffs of as much as 25% on cars and trucks imported to the U.S., Detroit might well be a taking a fiscal checkered flag.

Avoiding Risks to Puerto Rico’s Recovery. Yesterday, in testifying before the PROMESA Board, Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares  told the members his governing challenge was to “solve problems, and not to see how they get worse,” as he defended the agreement with the Oversight Board—and as he urged the Puerto Rico Legislature to comply with his fiscal plan and repeal what he described as the unjust dismissal law (Law 80), a key item in the certified fiscal plan that the PROMESA Board is reevaluating. That law in question, the Labor Transformation and Flexibility Act, which he had signed last year, represented the first significant and comprehensive labor law reform to occur in Puerto Rico in decades. As enacted, the most significant changes to the labor law include:  

  • Effective date (there is still no cap for employees hired before the effective date);
  • Eliminating the presumption that a termination was without just cause and shifting the burden to the employee to prove the termination was without just cause;
  • Revising the definition of just cause to state that it is a “pattern of performance that is deficient, inefficient, unsatisfactory, poor, tardy, or negligent”;
  • Shortening the statute of limitations for Law 80 claims from three years to one year, and requiring all Law 80 claims filed after the Act’s effective date to have a mandatory settlement hearing within 60 days of the filing of the answer; and
  • Clarifying the standard for constructive discharge to require an employee to prove that the employer’s conduct created a hostile work environment such that the only reasonable thing for the employee to do was resign.

The Act mandates that all Puerto Rico employment laws be applied in a similar fashion to federal employment laws, unless explicitly stated otherwise in the local law. It applies Title VII’s cap on punitive and compensatory damages to damages for discrimination and retaliation claims, and eliminates the mandate for written probationary agreements; it imposes a mandatory probationary period of 12 months for all administrative, executive and professional employees, and a nine-month period for all other employees. It provides a statutory definition for “employment contract,” which specifically excludes the relationship between an employer and independent contractor. The Act also includes a non-rebuttable presumption that an individual is an independent contractor if the individual meets the five-part test in the statute. It modifies the definition of overtime to require overtime pay for work over eight hours in any calendar day instead of eight hours in any 24-hour period, and changes the overtime rate for employees hired after the Act’s effective date to time and one-half their regular rate. (The overtime rate for employees hired prior to the Act remains at two times the employee’s regular rate.). The Act provides for alternative workweek agreements in which employees can work four 10-hour days without being entitled to overtime, but must be paid overtime for hours worked in excess of 10 in one day. The provisions provide that, in order to accrue vacation and sick pay, employees must work a minimum of 130 hours per month; sick leave will accrue at the rate of one day per month—and, to earn a Christmas Bonus, employees must work 1,350 hours between October 1 and September 30 of the following year; employees on disability leave have a right to reinstatement for six months if the employer has 15 or fewer employees; employers with more than 15 employees must provide employees on disability leave with the right to reinstatement for one year, as was required prior to the Act. For employees, the law includes certain enumerated employee rights, including a prohibition against discrimination or retaliation; protection from workplace injuries or illnesses; protection of privacy; timely compensation; and the individual or collective right to sue or file claims for actions arising out of the employment contract.

In his presentation, the Governor suggested that the repeal of the statute would be a vital component to controlling Puerto Rico’s budget, in no small part by granting additional funds to municipalities, granting budgetary increases in multiple government agencies, including the Governor’s Office and the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration (PRFAA), as well as increasing the salary of teachers and the Police. While the Governor proposed no cuts, a preliminary analysis of the document published by the Office of Management and Budget determined that the consolidated budget for FY 2018-19 would total $ 25.323 billion, or 82% lower than the current consolidated budget, as the Governor sought to assure the Board he has achieved some $2 billion in savings, and reduced Puerto Rico’s operating expenses by 22%.

In his presentation to the 18th Puerto Rico Legislative Assembly, the Governor warned that Puerto Rico has an approximate “18-month window” to define its future, taking advantage of an injection of FEMA funds in the wake of Hurricane Maria, as he appeared to challenge them to be part of that transformation, noting: “We have an understanding with the (Board) that allows the approval of a budget that, under the complex and difficult circumstances, benefits Puerto Rico: Ladies and gentlemen legislators: you know everything that is at risk. I already exercised my responsibility, and I fully trust in the commitment you have with Puerto Rico.”

According to Gov. Rosselló Nevares, repealing Law 80, which last year was amended to grant greater flexibility to companies in the process of dismissing workers, would be the first step for what would be a phase of greater economic activity on the island, and would join different measures which have been put into effect to provide Puerto Rico a “stronger” position to renegotiate the terms of its debt, as he contrasted his proposal versus the cuts and austerity warnings proposed by the PROMESA Board, adding that, beginning in August, the Sales and Use Tax on processed food will be reduced, and that tax rates will be reduced without fear of the “restrictions” previously established and imposed by the Board, adding that participants of Mi Salud (My Health) will be able to “choose where they can obtain health services, beyond a region in Puerto Rico,” and that the budget guarantees teachers and the police will receive an increase of $125 per month.

Shifting & Shafting? In his proposed budget, the Governor proposed that municipalities would be compensated for the supposed reduction in the contributions of the General Fund, stating: “Through the agreement, the disbursement of 78 million dollars that this Legislature approved for the municipalities during the current recovery period is secured; the Municipal Economic Development Fund of $50 million per year is created.” Under the administration’s proposed budget, the contribution to municipalities would be about $175.8 million, which would be consistent with the adjustment required for that item in the certified fiscal plan. As a result of the agreement with the Board, municipalities would, therefore, practically receive another $ 128 million. As proposed, Puerto Rico’s government payroll would be reduced for the third consecutive year: for example, payments for public services and those purchased will increase 23% and 16%, respectively; professional services would increase by 40%. Expenses for the Governor’s office would see an increase of 182%.

Ending the Long Delay? The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) yesterday announced it is accelerating community disaster loans to help Puerto Rico muncipios mitigate the loss of income due to natural disasters, the Government of Puerto Rico reaffirmed that, for the time being, as well as the approval of another $39 million in loans from the CDL program for the municipalities of Aguadilla, Cabo Rojo, Canóvanas, Carolina, Manatí, Mayagüez, Peñuelas, and Orocovis—with the approvals coming in the wake of  last month’s approvals for Bayamón, Caguas, Humacao, Juncos, Ponce, Toa Baja, and Trujillo Alto—meaning that, in total, FEMA has, to date, distributed at least $92.8 million for municipalities on the island and $371 million for the U.S. Virgin Islands, as part of the $4.9 billion loan passed by Congress to help local governments recover. At the same time, the U.S. territory’s Treasury Secretary Raúl Maldonado reported: “The administration (of Puerto Rico) has been very successful in lowering operational costs and achieving an increase in collections.” The new loans will offer access to the Puerto Rican Government through March of 2020, as Secretary Maldonado considers that it may be useful in case of another disaster or a drop in the income of public corporations.

Nevertheless, because Puerto Rico—unlike other U.S. states, is also under the authority of the PROMESA Board, it appears that Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s budget will have to be revised and may be rejected if proposed labor reforms do not satisfy the Board—with Board Executive Director Natalie Jaresko, in the wake of the Governor’s release of his proposed $8.73 billion general fund budget to the Legislature Tuesday night dictating that the future of the budget is linked to the legislature’s approval of at-will employment. Her statement came after the Governor and the board had announced an agreement on a compromise on reforming labor practices as well as agreeing to other changes in the Board-certified fiscal plan. In exchange for the Board waiving its demands for the abolition of the Christmas bonus and reduction of the island’s mandatory 27 days of vacation and sick leave, Gov. Rosselló agreed to bring at-will employment to the territory by repealing Law 80 from 1976—a concession which Director Jaresko described this agreement as an “accommodation.” Earlier this week, Director Jaresko said that the first step for Gov. Rosselló should be to resubmit a fiscal plan consistent with the new agreement with the Board, followed by a resubmitted budget consistent with the new plan, adding she anticipated these actions should all be completed by the end of June: the agreed-to changes to the fiscal plan are expected to reduce the 30 year surplus to $35 billion from $39 billion in the April certified fiscal plan, according to Director Jaresko, who noted that most of the surplus is expected to be used for debt payment. From the Governor’s perspective, he noted: “The approval of the agreed budget makes it easier for Puerto Rico to be in a stronger position to renegotiate the terms of the debt. We have significantly improved the management and controls over the cash flow of the General Fund. Contrary to the past, there is now visibility on how cash flows in government operations. At present Puerto Rico has robust and reliable cash balances.” Finally, she stated she expected it would take 12 to 18 months for the Board to create a plan of adjustment on the debt and pensions for the central government—a plan which would likely take the Title III bankruptcy court several more months to confirm.

Unretiring Municipal Fiscal Challenges

May 22, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we return to the small municipality of Harvey, Illinois, where an aging population has fiscally sapped the town’s treasury, before exploring the disparate hurricane response treatment for Puerto Rico.

Municipal Pension Insolvency? In the Land of Lincoln, ranked the most financially unstable state in the nation according to a new S.S. News and World Report ranking by McKinsey & Co., some Illinois legislators are considering rolling back enforcement of a 2011 pension delinquency statute to help other Illinois municipalities avoid Harvey’s fiscal and physical dilemma between municipal taxes and public safety (Harvey underpaid its police and fire pensions by $2.9 million in 2016.)—with the efforts in Springfield coming in the wake of state action setting a precedent in retaining tax revenues it had collected to distribute to Harvey, because the small municipality had failed to make its pension payments. Indeed, so far this year, in the wake of the court’s decision withholding tax revenues collected by the state on behalf of Harvey; the Illinois Comptroller, in the wake of a court decision, has withheld more than $1.8 million in tax revenues from Harvey, forcing the city to lay off firefighters and police officers.

In response, State Sen. Napoleon Harris (D-Harvey) has proposed a bill, 40 ILCS 5/4-109, which would defer those tax revenue collections back to 2020; his bill would also create exceptions for distressed communities, such as Harvey, as Sen. Harris reminded his colleagues: “There’s going to be many other municipalities unable to pay these skyrocketing pension costs as well as continue to [provide] the public services that the citizens need and demand,” as he testified before the Illinois Licensed Activities and Pensions Committee, which approved amendments to his bill. The legislative action came as analysts at Wirepoints, an Illinois government watchdog group, have warned that Harvey is not alone—finding there to be more than 200 municipalities at similar risk of state tax withholdings in order to ensure the continuity of pension payments—payments protected under the Illinois Constitution. To date, Danville, the County seat of Vermillion County, a municipality of about 31,600 120 miles south of Chicago; East St. Louis, and Kanakee appear to be in the most desperate fiscal binds. In Danville, the municipality recently adopted a fee, the revenues for which would go directly to finance the municipality’s public pension obligations; Kanakee’s leaders voted to raise taxes.

In response to the fiscal and equity crisis, both Republicans and Democrats in the Illinois Legislature have questioned why there was no state oversight of delinquent municipalities like Harvey; nevertheless, Sen. Harris’ proposed legislation has been reported to the full Illinois Senate—that in a state ranked the most financially unstable in the country by U.S. New and World Report, based upon McKinsey & Company’s 2018 ranking of the nation’s most fiscally unstable states: the report considered credit rating and state public pension liability to rank states on long-term stability; for the near term, the report measured each state’s cash solvency and budget balance. Indeed, Illinois’ public pension debt, currently estimated at $130 billion, but measured as high as $250 billion by Moody’s last summer, was a factor in Moody’s analysis. Even Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner recognizes the epic scope of the fiscal problem, describing Illinois as the most financially unstable state in the nation.

For Illinois legislators, the fiscal dilemma is made more difficult by what Illinois State Sen. Bill Haine (D-Alton) reminded his colleagues: “We’re gonna see in the paper that the state waives the amounts due, and then they’re going to read that the Aldermen there are getting paid $100,000 a year,” even as he, nevertheless, voted for the bill. (In FY2017, the City of Harvey allocated $240,000 in wages for six aldermen—wages which did not account for public pension contributions and other “fringe benefits” that the budget lists—or, as Michael Moirano, who represents the Harvey Police Pension fund put it: “We cannot continue to do that and hope to resolve these pension issues,” adding that even though negotiations are underway to reach an agreement with the City of Harvey, the proposed “bill will make a mutually agreeable resolution impossible.”

Meanwhile in Springfield, where Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza has certified Harvey’s delinquency, a spokesperson noted: “The Comptroller’s Office does not want to see any Harvey employees harmed, or any Harvey residents put at risk…but the law does not give the Comptroller discretion in this case.” Similarly, Sen. Harris told his colleagues: “There’s going to be many other municipalities unable to pay these skyrocketing pension costs as well as continue to [provide] the public services that the citizens need and demand.”

Powering Up? For more than a week, Puerto Rico’s non-voting U.S. Representative Jennifer Gonzalez has been urging  FEMA to extend the contract under which mainland power crews have been helping repair the U.S. territory’s power grid—a request that FEMA has denied, meaning that line restoration crews hired by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will work to restore power in Puerto Rico, leaving the rest of the job to crews working for Puerto Rico’s public utility, PREPA, as, eight months after Hurricane Maria’s devastation, as many as 16,000 homes remain without power. With the Corps’ current work force of about 700 line workers scheduled to end their service this Friday, time is running out. Officials for PREPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the agency which hired the mainland contractors at FEMA’s request, have reported they expect everyone on the island to have power restored by the end of this month—the day before the official start of the Atlantic hurricane season. However, in her urgent extension request, Rep. Gonzalez expressed doubts that PREPA had the resources to complete the job quickly, writing: “I must urge that there be an extension of the mission that allows agency and contract crews to remain in place to see that the system is 100 percent restored.”

There appear, however, to be some crossed governance wires: Mike Byrne, who is in charge at FEMA of the federal response, wrote last Thursday that his decision not to extend the line restoration contract came “per the direction provided by the Energy Unified Command Group and confirmed by the PREPA Chief Executive Officer,” Walter Higgins. (The Energy Unified Command Group is the multi-agency group coordinating the power restoration effort, comprising FEMA itself, the Army Corps, which reports to FEMA, and PREPA.) In addition, it appears that some of the most challenging work awaits: sites still waiting for power are among the most difficult to reach because of mountainous and forested terrain. They include areas in the municipalities of Arecibo, Caguas, Humacao, and in Yabucoa, the city where Hurricane Maria made its initial, destructive landfall–a municipio founded in October 3, 1793 when Don Manuel Colón de Bonilla and his wife, Catalina Morales Pacheco, donated the lands to the people.

Human, Fiscal, & Physical Challenges

April 20, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Plans of Debt Adjustment

April 16, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we return to the Motor City, Detroit, a city, which, to some extent, was the touchstone of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, to observe how the process of debt adjustment, as approved by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes fared. Then we journey south to consider an assessment by the Capitol Hill publication, Politico, of the response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

A Motor City Perspective from a Battle Veteran. Former CIA Director and U.S. Army General David Petraeus, speaking at the end of last week in Detroit at Wayne State University, likened Detroit’s rebound from the nation’s largest ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy to be like a “Phoenix rising from the ashes,” suggesting that the United States should emulate the Motor City’s multifaceted template for success. His speech, titled, “National Security: How safe are we at home and around the world?” was part of Wayne State’s Forum on Contemporary Issues in Society’s 10th anniversary lecture series. The issue, or question, Gen. Petraeus told the audience with regard to: “What in the World is Going On?” related to: “Detroit is a city that hit rock bottom that is bringing you back.” Thus, General Petraeus asked: “The question is: how to do that for the entire country?” Telling the audience: “In Detroit, where do you start when you have a city that’s crumbling at its core? Do you start with policing? Urban renewal? Economic revival? Education? It takes all of the above.” Gen. Petraeus said the biggest threats facing the U.S. are “countries that aren’t satisfied with the status quo and want a change…such as Russia, China, Iran and North Korea; Islamic extremists; cyber threats; and increasing domestic populism.”

Gen. Petraeus added: “We really need to come to grips with the legal pathway of unskilled workers who are hugely important, particularly to the agriculture and hospitality industries; we need to come to grips with those who are already here but not legally, particularly the DACA children.”

But, as the fine editorial writer for the Detroit News, Bankhole Thompson, writing about a forum over the weekend at the Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics, billed as a forum to focus on the Motor City’s recovery, featuring Mayor Mike Duggan, JP Morgan Chase Chair Jamie Dimon, and Peter Scher, the bank’s global head of corporate social responsibility,  the event “appeared more like a carefully orchestrated public relations and ‘job well done’ session for JPMorgan Chase, or at best the case of a bank issuing its own report card about its involvement in the city’s recovery,” adding that, “poverty, the greatest challenge to the city’s revival, was not given the deserving spotlight: They referenced the Mayor’s race speech last year without in-depth analysis about it. Listening to the entire exchange about Detroit, one would think the speakers were talking about a completely different city, not the one which is today the headquarters of poverty in America, as the 2016 Census shows Detroit leads the nation among the largest cities with poverty at 35.7%.” Mr. Thompson added that if one were unfamiliar with the crime index of Detroit, one would have been “hard-pressed to believe that the three-person panel led by Mayor Duggan was talking about a city that is now No. 1 in violent crime in the nation,” asking: “How can a discussion about rebuilding a city like Detroit not first acknowledge the problem of poverty, which is central to achieving even-handed recovery?” Wondering how if the city’s leaders continued to shy away “from the proper diagnosis, how can the problem be solved?” While expressing appreciation for the role that JPMorgan Chase and other entities are playing by investing in certain targeted neighborhoods, he wrote: “But the fact remains that while some neighborhoods are poised to revive and soar, the vast majority of them are nowhere close to experiencing economic salvation…As a result, Detroit has remained a city of different and especially unequal neighborhoods where the future of the city’s kids is determined by ZIP codes…Men and women of all races are born with the same range of abilities. Referencing former President Lyndon Johnson’s Howard University commencement address from 1965, he wrote: “ ‘But ability is not just the product of birth. Ability is stretched or stunted by the family that you live with and the neighborhood you live in, by the school you go to and the poverty or the richness of your surroundings,’” noting that the former President’s comments capture the “current realities of life for many in Detroit, where children wake up frightful and go to sleep hungry in high poverty neighborhoods,” Adding that the panel “failed to delve into the spectacles of destitution and misery that have created the ‘two Detroit’ phenomenon.” He wrote: “Detroit’s leaders must first acknowledge that poverty is real, not a myth, and then work assiduously to address it. An omission like this often leaves some people with this question: who is the city coming back for?”

Beating the Odds: A grim Assessment of FEMA. The Capitol Hill periodical, Politico, in an investigation by writer Danny Vinik “How Trump Favored Texas over Puerto Rico,” noted that the federal government had significantly underestimated the potential damage to Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria and relied too heavily on local officials and private-sector entities to handle the cleanup, noting that its cleanup plan, which had been developed four years ago by a FEMA contractor in anticipation of a catastrophic storm and utilized by FEMA when Maria hit last September, prepared for a Category 4 hurricane and “projected that the island would shift from response to recovery mode after roughly 30 days. In fact, Hurricane Maria was a ‘high-end’ Category 4 storm with different locations on the island experiencing Category 5 winds. More than six months after Maria made landfall, the island is just beginning to shift to recovery mode,” adding that, according to a half-dozen disaster-recovery experts who reviewed the document at Politico’s request, FEMA did not anticipate having to take on a lead role in the aftermath of the disaster, despite clear signs that Puerto Rico’s government and critical infrastructure would be overwhelmed by the force of such a storm; rather, the document largely relied on local Puerto Rico entities to restore the island’s power and telecommunications systems. Moreover, the FEMA analysis omitted discussion of the U.S. territory’s fiscal instability, as well as the capacity of PREPA—or, as Mr. Vinik wrote: “The plan truly didn’t contemplate the event the size of Maria…They made assumptions that people would be able to do things that they wouldn’t be able to do.” Nevertheless, he added that disaster-recovery experts determined that the 140-page plan, published last month on the open-information site MuckRock through a Freedom of Information Act request, correctly predicted many challenges that FEMA faced with Hurricane Maria, including widespread road closures and difficulties transporting emergency supplies to the island territories, but failed to anticipate the extent of the damage. Mr. Vinik noted that Michael Coen, an appointee of President Barack Obama, who was serving as chief of staff at FEMA when the report was written, said the drafters should have expected that the federal government would need to play a larger role than they envisioned: “They probably should have made the assumption that it was going to require federal support: That should have been flagged,” with experts describing that omission as significant, because such planning documents are most useful in advance of the disaster, in significant part to assist federal, state, and local entities to better understand and coordinate their responsibilities. He found, mayhap ironically, that FEMA’s plan “did accurately predict that the island’s geographic position and aging infrastructure would make the response challenging. It correctly identified that moving assets to nearby locations in advance would be ‘limited’ as a result of the storm’s uncertain path and that ‘hotel space commonly used to house responders may be necessary to house survivors.’” Moreover, he found, FEMA’s plan also found that Puerto Rico’s power is generated in the island’s south, while most of the population lives in the north, requiring transmission lines which transverse Puerto Rico’s steep terrain would render “repair and restoration difficult and lengthy: It is anticipated that infrastructure of essential utilities will be out of service for extended periods of time.” Indeed, he noted that Jeremy Konyndyk, the former key USAID disaster response official during the Obama administration, had described FEMA’s plan as “reasonably good,” that it “presciently anticipate[d] many of the issues that emerged in the Maria response.” However, Mr. Konyndyk and other disaster response experts suggested that the plan contained some critical omissions, especially its heavy reliance on state and local officials to respond to the storm. The FEMA plan had determined that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could help with temporary power restoration, but “cannot fix transmission lines,” since such a job “is the responsibility of the owners.” However, after Maria struck, the Corps was tasked with repairing the entire power grid in Puerto Rico, a result of financial and management difficulties at PREPA. Thus, the plan’s over optimistic assumptions that temporary repairs to critical infrastructure, such as the power system, would be complete soon after the storm proved to be gravely off.

The plan also projected that private sector companies would move swiftly to restore telecommunications, or, as the report described it: “There are minimal expectations that federal assistance would be required to restore the infrastructure during the response and recovery of a storm,” adding that, if communication systems were not swiftly fixed, first responders could use satellite phones instead or rely on mobile communication trucks delivered to the island. The reality, as we have previously noted, however, is that Puerto Rico’s communication system was wiped out, leaving telecommunications companies in the midst of such serious infrastructure disruption to slowly repair the infrastructure, unaided by rolls of paper towels tossed by President Trump as Puerto Rico’s leaders and mayors desperately sought to communicate with FEMA and other first responders. Indeed, as Mr. Vinik wrote: “Local officials described limited communications as one of the biggest challenges in the first week after the storm.”

Noting the importance of having a FEMA plan on a Caribbean island subject to violent hurricanes, Mr. Vinik, wrote that in a March interview at FEMA’s joint field office in Puerto Rico, Michael Byrne, FEMA’s top official overseeing the response to Hurricane Maria, had, instead downplayed the importance of the plan—telling him: “A plan is good when you don’t have all the ground truth about what your requirements are going to be. You use that someone thought about this, someone took the time to think it through and said it’s likely that this is what’s going to happen. And then you execute the plan.” In the aftermath of Maria, FEMA is revising its hurricane plan for Puerto Rico, and, a day late and many dollars short, FEMA is creating teams to help Puerto Rico municipios to update their own plans, using new assumptions about the risks and damage from a catastrophic storm. 

Who Is on First? In its revised, quasi plan of debt adjustment, Puerto Rico has increased its projected five-year cash surplus to $7.36 billion; the plan, however, does not include layoffs or pension cuts that have been urged by the federally-appointed PROMESA oversight board—raising, once again, the difficult governance issue with regard to how the elected leaders of Puerto Rico and the federally appointed oversight board will reach any consensus after months of seeking to negotiate a consensual plan, with Governor Rossello vowing to oppose the PROMESA Board’s proposed 10% cut in public pension payments and a number of proposed labor reforms. In addition, the Governor has insisted he can achieve the Board’s requested level of spending cuts without layoffs in the public sector workforce—something with regard to which the Board has remained doubtful. Now, with the Board’s April 20th deadline looming this Friday, the question will be whether there might be still another deferral to continue talks with the Governor, albeit, there appears to be growing speculation that the Board will act to approve or disapprove this week.  

The Fiscal & Physical Challenge. In the real world, for any meaningful fiscal recovery, any plan agreed to—or imposed by the Board, will have to address the trials and tribulations of one of the nation’s oldest municipalities, Cidra, a municipio of about 44,000, which is one of the oldest cities in the U.S. Founded in 1795, the city has, in the wake of Maria, lost hundreds of jobs: chains of adverse events which are outside of local control demonstrate the complexity of assessing what kind of fiscal recovery plan could actually work. In February, PepsiCo announced the closure of its plant in the city—and the dismissal of 200 employees, after operating there for 30 years. Pepsi reported its decision was not related to Hurricane Maria or its location in that town, but with its strategy of optimizing global network and long-term growth. Whatever the reasoning, for Cidra, the bottom line will be the loss of jobs and the reduction of tax revenues for the municipality and for Puerto Rico: it will mark another knock on Puerto Rico’s fiscal base—of which manufacturing constitutes 20% of the island’s fiscal base. The closure will translate into losses of jobs, both private and public, reduced license taxes, corporate taxes, and individual taxes—meaning the loss of 70% of license revenues and 40% of the municipal budget. That, in turn, is forcing municipal layoffs: Cidra intends to dismiss 200 employees from a payroll of 526 representing a potential savings of $10.5 million a year—and a reduction in the city’s municipal budget, from $18 million to $11 million for FY2018-2019.

Beating the Fiscal Odds?

April 10, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we return to the fiscal gaming tables of Atlantic City, where the State oversight body for the city appears to appreciate the way the fiscal dice are rolling; then we turn south to assess the depressing future for Puerto Rico’s next generation.

Beating the Odds. The New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, the Department which assumed the key role in steering Atlantic City through its quasi plan of debt adjustment, perceives the city is in the midst of a “major breakthrough” in the wake of the sale of $49.2 million in taxable municipal bonds to help finance deferred pension and health care contributions—contributions which had been deferred when the city teetered on the edge of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy and the state stepped in to fiscally take over the municipality. In the wake of the successful sale, the Department reported the success had demonstrated that “investors are confident in Atlantic City’s ability to pay its debt and in the State of New Jersey’s oversight of the city’s finances…[and] is proud of the team of city and state professionals who worked very hard to develop a unique solution to pay the city’s deferred contributions without having to resort to tax increases on city residents,” according to New Jersey Lieutenant Gov. and Department of Community Affairs Commissioner Sheila Oliver, who noted: “These deferred contributions from 2015 were the last major debt hurdle facing Atlantic City. With yesterday’s successful bond sale, the city is now positioned to responsibly finance this debt within its budget and have confidence in its future.” The municipal bonds were sold pursuant to New Jersey’s Municipal Qualified Bond Act, which stipulates that the state Treasurer withhold a portion of the city’s state aid in amounts sufficient to pay the principal and interest on the bonds, with the Treasurer directing a portion of the Investment Alternative Taxes paid by licensed casinos to go to the city for funding the debt service on the municipal bonds. Absent such a plan, Atlantic City would have been forced to raise property taxes by more than $700 on the average assessed home of $140,000—a most unwanted option in the wake of last year’s first-in-a-decade property tax reduction, with the Commission’s Director of Local Government Services, Timothy Cunningham, stating the option had been selected to “spare city taxpayers from picking up this expense” and “immediately ends the accrual of interest.” He added that the state fiscal strategy had demonstrated the state’s willingness and ability to find creative solutions to Atlantic City’s difficult financial problems,” noting that: “Conventional thinking would have been to take the deferred contributions the city owes and incorporate them as part of the city’s budget over the next five years. But that would have resulted in significant tax increases for residents and it wouldn’t have stopped interest from accruing on the deferred contributions.”

The bonds were priced via the Garden State’s Qualified Bond Act program to fund $37.7 million in pension and healthcare payments, after, three years ago, Atlantic City had been granted state approval to defer interest payments in the face of $101 million budget shortfall, creating ever-increasing odds to the city’s bookmakers the city might file for municipal bankruptcy. Under the new fiscal arrangements, Atlantic City, by the end of this year, will owe about $47 million for these obligations—or, as New Jersey Lt. Governor Sheila Y. Oliver put it: “These deferred contributions from 2015 were the last major debt hurdle facing Atlantic City…With yesterday’s successful bond sale, the city is now positioned to responsibly finance this debt within its budget and have confidence in its future.” That fiscal confidence is bolstered, no doubt, by being wrapped with the Garden State’s credit enhancement program and backed by Investment Alternative Tax revenue from casinos, which are directed to pay down debt or debt service payments under the authority the state assumed two years ago in November to take over Atlantic City—a fiscal system under which the State Treasurer withholds a portion of the city’s state aid in amounts sufficient to pay the principal and interest on the municipal bonds, or, as Director Cunningham described it: “This strategy, which culminated in yesterday’s bond sale, demonstrates the state’s willingness and ability to find creative solutions to Atlantic City’s difficult financial problems…Conventional thinking would have been to take the deferred contributions the city owes and incorporate them as part of the city’s budget over the next five years. But that would have resulted in significant tax increases for residents, and it wouldn’t have stopped interest from accruing on the deferred contributions.” New Jersey officials said that without the bond sale, Atlantic City would have been forced to raise property taxes on residents by more than $700 on the average assessed home of $140,000.In the wake of this week’s bond sale, Atlantic City has approximately $400 million in outstanding bond debt, according to Moody’s.

But beating the odds is not just a matter of fiscal soundness, but also physical safety. Thus, Atlantic City, in finding a new way to combat crime, has beaten the odds in developing ways to stay ahead of crimes before they are committed—meaning that the number of shootings, homicides, and robberies in the city decreased by more than 33% last year, after Atlantic City began using a risk-based policing model which analyzes data to map out crime risk factors around the city and places where crimes are likely to take place: a new tool which has helped police prevent crimes by tackling factors in the environment identified as risks where crimes take place, and not the people. Indeed, the new strategy not only contributed to the reduction by more than a third in shootings, homicides, and robberies last year, but also that greater security appears likely to enhance assessed property values.

Tempus Fugit. U.S. Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency Brock Long has warned it will take up to an estimated $50 billion to help rebuild Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria—even as he warned the U.S. territory is not ready for another disaster. He told NPR that the agency is focused on making Puerto Rico’s roads, homes, bridges, and electrical grid as strong as possible—but that the time to complete the effort is running out: the new hurricane season is projected to hit as early as June 1st. projected to blow in June 1. A critical issue for Puerto Rico’s fiscal future, then, is a double public infrastructure risk: its physical and human capital. On the latter front, Puerto Rico Education officials have announced the closure of some 283 schools through this summer, nearly seven months after Hurricane Maria struck, reporting that Hurricane Maria exacerbated the demographic teeter totter as increasing numbers of families with children who can afford to have left for the continental U.S., leaving, increasingly, a poorer and older population behind with a depleting tax base, but significantly greater fiscal pressures. Thus, during his visit to Puerto Rico, he warned: “We’re running out of time.” And, observing that much of the territory’s infrastructure had collapsed, he added: “We have a long way to go.” He said FEMA is coordinating a Flag Day planning and training exercise with Puerto Rico’s government in which life-saving supplies will be delivered to the island’s 78 municipalities to ensure better response times for any upcoming storms, adding the muncipios and towns will be allowed to store those supplies for future disasters, but stressing that Puerto Rico’s public and private sectors have to build a strong emergency response network and establish unified plans: “FEMA cannot be directly responsible for all of the response and recovery.” Director Long added that the private sector should ensure that communication systems become more resistant—reflecting that Maria had left nearly all of Puerto Rico without phone service after the Category 4 storm struck last September. At the same time, he defended his agency from ongoing criticism that it did not respond quickly enough to the hurricane or dedicate the same amount of resources compared with other natural disasters in the U.S. mainland, asserting: “(That’s) completely false,” adding that in the first six months since Maria hit, FEMA had invested $10 billion in Puerto Rico, in contrast to the $6 billion invested in the six months after Hurricane Katrina: “Recovery never moves as fast as people want it to be…And in this case, moving faster can be detrimental from the standpoint of putting this money to work in a manner that truly makes Puerto Rico stronger and more resilient.” His staffer, Mike Byrne, who serves as FEMA’s federal coordinating officer in Puerto Rico, said he is working with Puerto Rico’s government to determine how federal funds will be used to identify priorities and rebuild damaged infrastructure: he stated that some of the funds will go toward strengthening Puerto Rico’s power grid—some two-thirds of which Maria destroyed: even hoy dia (today), some two-thirds of its distribution system remains to be fixed; more than 50,000 power customers remain in the dark. Nevertheless, he said 96 percent of all customers now have electricity, noting: “We’ve done the Band-Aid,” adding that the recovery process has been slow in part because supplies ranging from construction equipment to power poles have been scarce in light of the natural disasters that hit the U.S. mainland, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands last year

La Escuela or School of Debt. In an in-depth session with NPR’s Hari Sreenivasan, who was joined by San Juan by Danica Coto of the Associated Press, Ms. Cotto noted that, over the last three decades, Puerto Rico has experienced school enrollment drop by 42%; since May of last year, that enrollment has dropped by 38,700—in part reflecting the roughly 135,000 Puerto Ricans who, in the wake of Maria, left for the mainland—that ism, those who could afford to. Ms. Cotto added that for the island’s 4,700 affected teachers, the Secretary of Education has promised that no one will lose her or his job—albeit for a quasi-state in quasi chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, such a commitment seems hard to imagine—the related query is what will happen to the schools themselves—150 of which had been closed in the half decade prior to Maria—and an additional 179 last year. Currently, Ms.Cotto noted, there are about 283 schools in the process of closing.

Mr. Sreenivasan inquired about the demographics of those students, some 319,000 in public schools, staying behind—in response to which Ms. Cotto responded that 30% have special needs, or about twice the average of the U.S. mainland. One can appreciate immediately the disparate fiscal and human implications—for Puerto Rico’s hopes for recovery—and for its fiscal future. And she asked about the equity in the process for determining which schools would close, reminding us of Detroit Emergency Manager Kevin Orr’s recognition that any final plan of debt adjustment for Detroit to exit the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in the nation’s history would require a perception that the public schools were competitive with surrounding jurisdictions.

Ms. Cotto noted that the bulk of public school closures in Puerto Rico will be in rural areas, noting that along the north coast of the island, some muncipios will experience closures of nearly half their public schools—creating a risk of an increasing number of young Americans losing access to public education—and a risk to local tax bases. Several other municipalities will see 44 to 46% of its schools close.