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.

A British Chapter 9 Municipal Bankruptcy?

August 29, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider a potential fiscal threat to the U.S. Virgin Islands, before considering the fiscal challenge to a municipality across the pond: Northamptonshire County, England.

A U.S. Virgin Islands taxpayer has brought a proposed class action against the U.S. Virgin Islands government, saying it hasn’t paid nearly 20,000 income tax refunds totaling $37 million for the 2016 tax year and the government owes $97 million in refunds since 2007. The complaint filed by Jennifer Duncan, a U.S. citizen who operated a business in the territory in 2016 and pays taxes there, also alleged that the government of the territory set aside no money in 2017 to pay income tax refunds despite a significant deficit in the refund account. The suit alleges that as of March, the U.S. Virgin Islands government had estimated that 19,653 income tax returns claiming refunds had not been paid and claims the territory’s government is using the money as a “bridge fund” to cover budget shortfalls.

A Fiscally Appealing Chapter 9 case? Councilors in Northamptonshire County, England, a county of over a quarter of a million residents, is in severe fiscal distress; now it appears supportive of plans to replace the county’s eight existing councils with two unitary ones in the wake of a government inspector’s recommendation—an action which will trigger a second vote before such a fiscal plan would come into operation in 2020, with the Council voting 31-14—effectively forwarding the quasi chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy plan to all eight of the county’s authorities for a vote on the plan, which comes after the Council, which faces a funding shortfall of about $82 million, issued two notices banning all new spending this year. Conservative Council leader Matt Golby reported the vote would help to give the county an “opportunity to reset,” noting: “There is lots to celebrate about Northamptonshire: Our residents deserve the best we can offer. We need to instill from day one the best practice in all of our scrutiny and functions.” The new, unitary authority would cover Daventry, Northampton, and South Northamptonshire. Labour Councilor Mick Scrimshaw noted: “This is clearly a proposal put forward by government to abolish the political embarrassment of this Council.” The local governmental action came against a seething backdrop of residents, whistling and booing, and swarming the County Hall, shouting: “Criminals!” and holding up banners that read: “Tory councilors wanted for crimes against people in Northamptonshire.”

The residents of what began as an ancient borough before, in 1835, under the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835, paving the way for an elected Council, are reacting to the quasi-municipal bankruptcy, which has forced the local government to halt all but the minimum services required by law: the Council has already voted to close libraries and stop repairing roads.

Last February, the County became the first, in two decades, to, effectively, run out of money—albeit, it could be that Northamptonshire is a fiscal omen for other cities—many of which are sharply cutting essential services. (The municipality, one of the largest towns in the United Kingdom, with a population over 200,000, was granted its first charter by King Richard I in 1189; its first Mayor was appointed (not elected) by King John in 1215. Northampton was unsuccessful in its application for unitary status in 1996, and recognition as a city in 2000. The city, about 60 miles from London, and one of the largest towns in the United Kingdom, with a current population of over 200,000, dates its founding to its first town charter, granted by King Richard I in 1189; King John appointed its first Mayor.

Councils are Britain’s fundamental unit of local government, dealing with an array of basic needs: trash collection, public transport, libraries, town planning, and care for children and other vulnerable people, among other things. They levy a tax on homes and charge fees for some services. They also collect a nationally set tax on commercial real estate, and keep an increasing share of it. But, for years they received most of their funding from the central government.

The crisis in Northamptonshire is complicated and partly self-inflicted. It has roots in the austerity policies and cost cutting that the Conservative-led national government imposed a decade ago in response to the global financial crisis. The Tories in London argued that austerity was the responsible solution to balance public accounts and encourage future growth. Now some Conservatives, especially at the local level, are openly defying what has been a pillar of the party’s ideology.

Funding from London for local governments has fallen 60 percent since 2010, with reductions expected to total $21 billion by 2020, the Local Government Association has calculated. In response, nearly every council in Britain has cut or outsourced services, sold off assets and tried a host of budget gimmicks, experts in local finance say.

One in 10 of the larger councils that have obligations to care for children and elderly people—about 35 councils in all—are in danger of exhausting their reserves within the next three years, according to the National Audit Office. Rob Whiteman, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, notes: “There’s a slow-moving domino effect.”

Northamptonshire was the first flashing red light. East Sussex County Council, run by Conservatives, recently announced it would reduce services to the “legal minimum.” The Conservative-led county council in Somerset warned it might be facing bankruptcy. This month, two families won a case against Bristol City Council to block plans to reduce funding of special education needs and disability services.

The Northamptonshire Council, having run through its rainy-day funds, now has enough money to pay only for mandatory services for the elderly and children. Unable by law to run a deficit, the council voted in February to shut down 21 of the county’s 36 libraries, remove bus subsidies and suspend road repairs. (A court recently blocked the decision to close the libraries.) At the meeting earlier this month, some councilors seemed resigned to the angry public response.

“I am happy to apologize,” said Richard Auger, a Tory councilor. “I think mistakes were made,” he added. “It’s a situation we’re responsible for.” The crisis is a political embarrassment for Conservatives, who are already divided into warring camps over Brexit. The former leader of the Northamptonshire council, Heather Smith, has resigned from her position, and from the Conservative Party. Investigators sent from London blamed her and other councilors for mishandling local finances, even as she blamed London for impossible mandates and a refusal to consider higher taxes. Sounding increasingly like their Labour opponents, some Conservative councilors in Northamptonshire are now talking about stopping the outsourcing of public services and demanding tax increases—or, as recently elected Conservative Councilor John Elkins put it: “I was a believer that we had to save money, but there had to be other ways than to slash and burn: How did we get to where we are? What the hell has been going on?”

Some describe this as the Graph of Doom, referencing, from 5 years ago, a power point shown to the Northamptonshire Council depicting an unavoidable contradiction: a sharp, rising public demand for local services contrasted against a sharp cutback in revenue from the national government (think post General Revenue Sharing), as part of the austerity program led by Conservatives in London. Ms. Smith described it thusly: “It was showing how we were all heading towards this cliff edge,” referring to a shortfall of $175 million that needed to be addressed by 2020. A committed Tory, Ms. Smith initially embraced the calls for austerity, as did many in reliably Conservative Northamptonshire, noting: “Being a Conservative-run Council, everybody accepted that the country had been overspending and that it was time to scale all of that back…At the time we will be spending millions on transformation we will be cutting frontline services. We should not be making a decision today. We need the detail.”

The fiscal pain, moreover, appears to be contagious: This week, all of the Councils in the county will have similar meetings, prior to submitting a plan for reorganization to James Brokenshire, the Minister responsible for local government. (Legally, only one Council needs to vote to back the plan for it to go to the Secretary of State for approval.)  

Reorganizing Governance. For its part, according to a report requested by the government, the Northamptonshire County Council should simply be abolished: the report, requested by Local Government Secretary Sajid Javid, recommends: Any “a new start” which is “best achieved by the creation of two new unitary councils,” in this case, this being a report which appeared to trigger the resignation of  Council Leader Heather Smith, while Northampton North Parliament Member Michael Ellis called the management of the authority a “national scandal.” He added he had been “appalled” by the report. KPMG , in its audit, warned the Council would have to re-work its FY2019 budget to make £40m worth of cuts. Max Caller, who led the government investigation, said Northamptonshire should have two new unitary authorities by 2020, one covering Daventry, Northampton, and South Northamptonshire; and the other covering Corby, East Northamptonshire, Kettering, and Wellingborough—meaning the County Council would cease to exist. Mr. Caller added that “living within budget constraints is not part of the culture” of the Council, noting it had not responded “well, or in many cases even react, to external and internal criticism,” noting that individual Councilors “appear to have been denied answers” to legitimate questions.

But he was also critical of the Council’s proposed Next Generation Model, under which the County would outsource all services and create four new bodies for: child protection, care of vulnerable adults, providing health and well-being services, and improving the county.

Intergovernmental Challenges. Deputy leader Matthew Golby, who is performing the functions of Council Leader prior to any formal appointment, said the authority accepted the findings the inspector has found with regard to “what he believes to be significant failings at the Council,” adding that while the report says the authority is “in no worse position than any other Council,” Northamptonshire’s leadership “would argue the sector as a whole does face significant financial challenges;” the leaders of Northamptonshire’s district and borough Councils issued a joint statement saying they “acknowledge the enormity of the situation,” but “do not believe a unitary model is the only way forward.”

Northamptonshire County Council’s financial crisis timeline: Funding from the central government for local governments has dropped 60% since 2010, reminiscent of the challenge confronting cities, counties, and states after Congress voted to end the General Revenue Sharing program during the Reagan Administration. According to the Local Government Association, those cuts are projected to total $21 billion by 2020. In response, nearly every Council in Britain has cut or outsourced services, sold off assets, and tried a host of budget gimmicks. Nevertheless, one in 10 of the larger Councils which have obligations to care for children and elderly people—about 35 Councils in all—are in danger of exhausting their reserves within the next three years, according to the National Audit Office—or, as Rob Whiteman, CEO of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, put it: “There’s a slow-moving domino effect,” meaning that Northamptonshire was likely just the first flashing red light. In nearby East Sussex County Council, run by Conservatives, the County recently announced it would reduce services to the “legal minimum,” while the Conservative-led county council in Somerset warned it might be facing bankruptcy.

The fiscal situation means the Northamptonshire Council, having run through its rainy-day funds, now has enough funding to finance only for mandatory services for the elderly and children. Barred by national law from running a deficit, the Council, last February, voted to shut down 21 of the county’s 36 libraries, remove bus subsidies and suspend road repairs. (A court recently blocked the decision to close the libraries.)

A Fiscal Cliff Foretold? The virtual chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy was anticipated by some, in what some deem the Graph of Doom, referring to a staff power point shown to the Northamptonshire Council five years ago, which depicted an unavoidable contradiction: a sharp, rising public demand for local services contrasting with a sharp cutback in funding from the national government, as part of the austerity program led by Conservatives in London—or, as Senior Counselor at the time Ms. Smith noted: “It was showing how we were all heading towards this cliff edge,” a fiscal precipice of $175 million that needed to be addressed by 2020. A committed Tory, Ms. Smith initially embraced the calls for austerity, as did many in reliably Conservative Northamptonshire—or, as she put it: “Being a Conservative-run Council, everybody accepted that the country had been overspending and that it was time to scale all of that back.” The problem, however, was how. The Council needed to find huge savings, but it also had limited revenue sources. Raising taxes was ruled out: deemed ideologically unpalatable while the Conservatives were making austerity-related cutbacks. Eric Pickles, the government minister who oversaw local government financing between 2010 and 2015, said it was a “moral duty” for the Tories to keep local taxes low, noting: “Some Conservative Councils had a big fight over it, and said, ‘No, we’re not doing it,’ ” Ms. Smith said. Indeed, before declaring bankruptcy, Northamptonshire took the desperate step of selling and leasing back a $70 million headquarters building it opened in October.

Last February, the Council recognized the depth of its fiscal plight and issued a formal notification of de facto municipal bankruptcy. In response, Conservative leaders in London dispatched government inspectors—inspectors who, last March, issued a damning report: Max Caller, the chief inspector who wrote the report, said that the County Council’s troubles were self-inflicted and that the Next Gen approach did not have any “documented underpinning” that set out how it was expected to deliver savings. In an interview, Inspector Caller noted: “The things that they did were unwise: You could say that they didn’t want to face up to the challenges of austerity, but all the other councils have.” According to his findings, Northamptonshire overspent by $130 million over three years, but took no steps to rein in expenditures—or, as he put it: “Everything has been a waste of money…You can’t go year after year holding down taxation rates at local level and taking the money away and expecting the same level of service. That’s not possible.”

This year, the British government announced some new financial aid for councils, including about $200 million for adult social services. Nevertheless, according to some experts, local Councils are still confronted by a $4 billion funding hole. In response, according to an annual government survey of Council leaders, an overwhelming majority of county councils across England plan to raise council tax, their levy on homes, and 5.99% this year— the maximum the central government will allow. Many have also said they would like to raise business rates, a move the central government is still rejecting.

Prior to declaring municipal bankruptcy, Northamptonshire had taken the desperate step of selling and leasing back a $70 million headquarters building it opened in October—a step which drew withering public ridicule—and instead of helping, appeared to prompt the arrival of national government inspectors. According to officials, Northamptonshire’s fiscal plight was clear from the moment the national government began to pull back on grants to local authorities. What appeared to stun local elected leaders was that a Conservative national government would allow a local government to slide into bankruptcy, or, as former Councilor Smith put it: “I honestly believed that the government would not let us sink because we were a Conservative authority…But I was wrong. They were quite happy to just throw us out and annihilate us, really.”

Last month, the Northamptonshire Council issued a §114 notice which banned any new expenditure of public money, a critical step as the jurisdiction seeks to achieve $90 million in budget savings this year; the Council voted to shut down most of the county’s libraries, after, in recent years, closing local centers for children and sharply reduced educational funding. The fiscal action that appeared to most shake the public was the vote to shut down the libraries. Conservative Councilor Sam Rumens noted: “I couldn’t face the libraries being cut.”

Municipal Bankruptcies Are Complicated Affairs. Really.

August 17, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider a rejection of an appeal challenging Jefferson County’s approved plan of debt adjustment from its chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, and the recurring governance challenge in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico whether the elected Governor and Legislature—or a federal Judge, or a Control Board ought to be making vital governing decisions.

Please note, there will be a temporary respite for eGnus and eBlog readers before publications resume the last week of this month.

A Fiscally Appealing Chapter 9 case? The U.S. Eleventh Court of Appeals has dismissed a challenge to Jefferson County’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy plan of debt adjustment, holding (please see Andrew Bennett et al v. Jefferson County, No. 15-11690, 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, August 16, 2018), holding that the U.S. District Court had erred when  it dismissed Jefferson County’s appeal, holding that the Chapter 9 case brought by a group of ratepayers of Jefferson County’s sewer system could be brought due to the concept of “equitable mootness,” a doctrine the court wrote which, until yesterday, “we have not been asked to apply in a chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy case,” with the court adding: “Municipal bankruptcy proceedings are usually complicated affairs, and the chapter 9 proceeding for Jefferson County, Alabama, involving about $3.2 billion in total sewer-related debt—has proved no different.”

Under the terms of the decision, the County would cut over $100 million in general fund expenditures, and the creditors will write off a significant amount of outstanding debt—over the course of the next four decades, the County is directed to implement a series of single-digit sewer rate increases—totaling about 365%–an amount which the court noted was “not far off of the national increase in inflation in the previous 40 years.” The court, in effect, with its decision, rejected the assertion by County ratepayers that their plan “validated corrupt government activity.”

The court also reviewed, de novo, the lower court’s conclusion that the doctrine of equitable mootness applied to this case—at that lower court, Jefferson County had argued the doctrine of equitable mootness applied and barred the ratepayers’ appeal from the U.S. bankruptcy court. The court here agreed, explaining why said doctrine could apply in a municipal bankruptcy case. (Essentially, the doctrine, the court explained, the courts may, under certain circumstances, reject bankruptcy appeals if the underlying rulings which would have gone into effect would have been “extremely burdensome.” The court went on to decide that some of the principles “will weigh more heavily in chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy cases “precisely because of how many people may be affected,” unlike in a chapter 11 bankruptcy, noting previous chapter 9 municipal bankruptcies we have written about in Stockton and Vallejo, where the district courts’ reasoning involved the implications that “municipalities and their bankruptcies implicate issues of sovereignty; whereas corporations or individuals and their bankruptcies do not—and that, accordingly, it is important for us to tread carefully where self-governance is concerned.” The court further noted: “In addition, it is not at all clear in which direction the ratepayers’ federalism arguments will cut from one chapter 9 bankruptcy to the next. Given the interests of the municipality and those of its residents (among others), there is a countervailing argument that a court ought to be more solicitous to the municipality that has obtained confirmation of its plan….”

Finally, the court recognized that “given the centrality of the constitutional rights to the fabric of the republic, there is a fair argument to be made that we should allow some leniency when a party which has allowed a bankruptcy plan to go into effect asserts,” adding, with regard to federalism concerns, “it will be appropriate to note them when deciding whether the doctrine should bar an appeal in a particular bankruptcy case,” which, is, as the court noted: “precisely what we did.”

 Jefferson County Commissioner David Carrington, a previous State & Local Leader of the Week, who led the county’s negotiations during its municipal bankruptcy case, said County leaders are pleased with the ruling, noting: “We were always confident in our Chapter 9 plan of adjustment,” but wincing that the years of litigation had come at great expense to county taxpayers running into “hundreds of thousands of dollars in frivolous litigation fees that could have been used for capital improvements to the sewer system.” (The County had filed its plan of debt adjustment in November of 2011—a plan subsequently approved by the court five years ago. Nevertheless, as the dean of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, Jim Spiotto, noted, the case had become one of the longest municipal bankruptcy cases in U.S. history.

Another Appeal. Meanwhile, south of Jefferson County, Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló confirmed yesterday that the executive branch will also appeal the decision of Judge Laura Taylor Swain, the judge assigned by the federal court to deal with the quasi chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy of Puerto Rico—a decision in which it was determined that the PROMESA Oversight Board has the authority to impose its certified fiscal plan and budget, with the Governor stating: “It has become very clear what is the unworthy colonial situation in Puerto Rico, where some courts have decided that in some aspects of the budget the hands are tied to the Legislative Assembly and somewhat to the executive to make determinations, so of course we are going to appeal,” with his comments coming in the wake of Judge Swain’s dismissal, earlier this month, of nine of the allegations presented in the suit of the Financial Advisory Authority and Fiscal Agency (Aafaf), as well as all the allegations of the lawsuit filed by the Puerto Rico Legislature—and the legislative leadership, where the respective leaders, Thomas Rivera Schatz and Carlos “Johnny” Méndez, already filed an information motion before the court notifying it they would attend the First Circuit of Appeals of Boston—albeit, Governor Rosselló, noted, he would not provide them with the power to “make executive decisions with the vehicle of the executive order.”

Colocar el Interruptor. Nearly a year after Hurricane Maria plunged Puerto Rico into physical and fiscal darkness, NPR’s Adrian Florida reports: “Now nearly 11 months after Hurricane Maria plunged Puerto Rico into darkness, officials there say they are done restoring the island’s power: no more lanterns, and no more “candles.” PREPA has announced its work restoring power to the island is done: it took almost a year, tens of thousands of new poles, thousands of miles of wire, and help from two federal agencies. She described it as a “restoration plagued by scandal and delays. It cost some $3 billion. And now that it’s done, experts agree the power grid is just as fragile as before the hurricane. This morning, Jose Ortiz, the fifth CEO to head the power utility since the storm, was offering a reality check on local radio station WKAQ. Some homes still don’t have power because they’re damaged

Rebuilding the Motor City, and Reconsidering Colonialism in Puerto Rico

July 27, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider post-chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy challenges in Detroit, before turning to legislative and legal challenges to Puerto Rico.

A Foreclosed Motor City Future? In Detroit, time is running out for the owners of foreclosed properties under a new program which arose out of a legal settlement two years ago intended to protect the rights of low-income owner-occupants of foreclosed homes to purchase back their properties back for $1,000—a plan which provided that occupied homes on tap for this coming fall’s tax auction will instead be purchased by the City of Detroit and sold to owner-occupants who can prove they qualify for the city’s poverty tax exemption or have in the past—an exemption which would reduce or eliminate property tax liabilities for those who qualify. The plan is an indication of one of the most challenging aspects of fashioning a plan of debt adjustment for recovering from the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history: how does one enhance the property tax base by attracting higher income families to move back into the city without jeopardizing thousands upon thousands of the city’s poorest families?

To date, with a looming deadline in a month, the United Community Housing Coalition has received about 140 applications—the foundation received funds from the City and foundations to purchase the homes—with the assistance available to prospective homeowners who can prove they could have qualified for the tax exemption between 2014 and 2017, but did not receive one—and that they agree to sign a sworn statement they would have qualified in the past. The effort matters: Wayne County Treasurer Eric Sabree estimates as many as 700 owner-occupied homes in Detroit are at risk of being sold at the fall tax foreclosure auction.

Quien Es Encargado? (Who is in charge?) U.S. District Court Judge Laura Taylor Swain Wednesday stated she would issue an opinion soon with regard to the hard federalism question emerging from the by Puerto Rico versus the PROMESA Oversight Board over their authority, noting at the end of the Title II bankruptcy hearing: “I realize the urgency of the situation,” at the end of a Title III bankruptcy hearing in San Juan, referring to two adversary proceedings against the Board–one brought by Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, and the other by the Presidents of the Puerto Rico Senate and House of Representatives—while PROMESA Board attorney Martin Bienenstock described the Governor’s effort to challenge the Board’s efforts to preempt the legislative power and authority of the U.S. Territory’s elected Governor and Legislature as “ineffectual.” Mr. Peter Friedman, representing the Governor and Puerto Rico’s Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority (FAFAA), responded that the Governor was just trying to raise a narrow set of issues: they want the federal court to reject the notion that they have no meaningful role in governing.  But the unelected Mr. Bienenstock said the Governor’s challenge is based on five discrete issues intertwined with the PROMESA Board’s ability to revive the economy, regain capital markets access, and do other things mandated by the PROMESA law, as he focused especially on two issues: what he characterized as the Board’s power over “reprogramming” the use of unused Puerto Rico government funds, arguing before Judge Swain that if the Governor were permitted to appropriate and authorize funding to carry out his responsibilities, then the PROMESA Board would have lost control over the budget, fiscal plan, and debt restructuring.

In response to this extraordinary claim, Judge Swain said that while she recognized the Board has some authority, she questioned whether it applies to funding lines that had been authorized before PROMESA’s passage, describing the issue as a “conundrum,” even as Mr. Bienenstock testified that the Governor wants to make it legal to “knowingly and willingly” spend more than the PROMESA Board budget authorizes. This raised an issue which goes to the heart of governance in a democracy: should those elected by the citizens of a jurisdiction have the final say as opposed to those who neither reside in nor come from such a jurisdiction have the final governing authority?

Crossing Swords. Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló, stated he would not testify before the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee unless Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) said he was sorry for a Tweet tweeted from the Committee’s account last week: “Call your office, @ricardorossello,” accompanied an invitation to the hearing, where invited witnesses were to be grilled on a management crisis at PREPA. Gov. Rosselló noted the tweet falsely suggested that he was hard to reach. Perhaps more importantly, for the Governor, the Chairman’s comments appeared to reflect a disrespect which would not be shown to the Governor of any State, emphasizing the perception that the federal government has a colonialist attitude toward the Commonwealth, where residents are U.S. citizens, but are barred from having a vote in the House and Senate. Chairman Bishop did not apologize for the demeaning tweet, asserting that its removal meant no apology was required—a position hard to imagine he would make to Utah Governor Gary Herbert.

Converting Swords to Plowshares? With Congress adjourning today for six weeks, Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Jenifer Gonzalez hopes her pro-democracy project can be discussed by Chairman Bishop’s Committee in September: her legislation, HR 6246, would enable the admission of the territory of Puerto Rico into the Union as a State. Chair Bishop, according to the Commissioner, “has a plan” to move the prospects for statehood forward in the short 19-day legislative window before this Congress adjourns in November. Rep. Gonzalez affirmed that her legislative goal is to incorporate Puerto Rico as a territory, which would be considered as a promise of statehood, and create a Congress Working Group, so that, within a period of just over a year, there would be a report on changes to laws that would have to be put in place to admit the island as a state in January of 2021.

Lighting up PREPA? Puerto Rico’s Governor Ricardo Rosselló was a no-show at a Congressional hearing Wednesday afternoon on efforts to wrench control of the bankrupt Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority from Puerto Rico’s government—a hearing, “Management Crisis at the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority and Implications for Recovery,” with regard to which Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) had written: “Despite your recognition of the politicization that has plagued PREPA and your commitment towards allowing for independence, the recent departure of PREPA’s CEO after only four months of service and the resignation of the majority of PREPA’s governing board are the most recent signs of the utility’s continued dysfunction and a sign that ‘political forces…continue to control PREPA.’” The Governor, late Tuesday had announced he would not be able to participate in the hearing—a hearing at which there was to be a focus on corruption within the utility and the possibility of privatization—but at which the Committee was scheduled to receive testimony from the invaluable chapter 9 expert Jim Spiotto, as well as DOE Assistant Secretary Bruce Walker.  In its most recent audit, Ernst & Young had noted there substantial  doubt whether PREPA could continue as a going concern, since it does not have sufficient funds to fully repay its obligations as they come due and is restructuring its long-term debt. (PREPA utility filed for bankruptcy one year ago in the face of accruing $9 billion in debt, under PROMESA’s provisions in Title III.

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.

April 3, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the challenges of governance in insolvency. Who is in charge of steering a municipality, county, or U.S. territory out of insolvency? How? How do we understand and assess the status of the ongoing quasi chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy PROMESA deliberations in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. Then we head north to assess the difficult fiscal balancing challenges in Connecticut.

Governance in Insolvency.  Because, in our country, it was the states which created the federal government, making the U.S. unique in the world; chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy is only, in this country, an option in states which have enacted state legislation to authorize municipal bankruptcy. Thus, unsurprisingly, the process is quite different in the minority of states which have authorized municipal bankruptcy. In some states, such as Rhode Island and Michigan, for instance, the Governor has a vital role in which she or he is granted authority to name an emergency manager–a quasi-dictator to assume governmental and fiscal authority, usurping that of the respective city or county’s elected officials. That is what happened in the cases of Detroit and Central Falls, Rhode Island, where, in each instance, all authority was stripped from the respective Mayors and Councils pending a U.S. Bankruptcy Court’s approval of respective plans of debt adjustment, allowing the respective jurisdictions to emerge from municipal bankruptcy. Thus, in the case of those two municipalities, the state law preempted the governing authority of the respective Mayors and Councils.

That was not the case, however, in Jefferson County, Alabama–a municipal bankruptcy precipitated by the state’s refusal to allow the County to raise its own taxes. Nor was it the case in the instances of Stockton or San Bernardino, California: two chapter 9 cases where the State of California played virtually no role. 

Thus, the question with regard to governance in the event of a default or municipal bankruptcy is a product of our country’s unique form of federalism.

In the case of Puerto Rico, the U.S. territory created under the Jones-Shafroth Act, however, the issue falls under Rod Sterling’s Twilight Zone–as Puerto Rico is neither a municipality, nor a state: a legal status which has perplexed Congress, and now appears to plague the author of the PROMESA law, House Natural Resources Committee Chair Rob Bishop (R-Utah) with regard to who, exactly, has governing or governance authority in Puerto Rico during its quasi-chapter 9 bankruptcy process: is it Puerto Rico’s elected Governor and legislature? Is it the PROMESA Board imposed by the U.S. Congress? Is it U.S. Judge Laura Swain, presiding over the quasi-chapter 9 bankruptcy trial in New York City? 

Chairman Bishop has defended the PROMESA’s Board’s authority to preempt the Governor and Legislature’s ruling and governance authority, stressing that the federal statute gave the Board the power to promote “structural reforms” and fiscal authority, writing to Board Chair Jose Carrion: “It has been delegated a statutory duty to order any reforms–fiscal or structural–to the government of Puerto Rico to ensure compliance with the purpose of PROMESA, as he demanded the federally named Board use its power to make a transparent assessment of the economic impact of Hurricanes Irma and Maria on Puerto Rico’s fiscal conditions–and to ensure that the relative legal priorities and liens of Puerto Rico’s public debt are respected–leaving murky whether he intended that to mean municipal bonholders and other lien holders living far away from Puerto Rico ought to have a priority over U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico still trying to recover from violent hurricanes which received far less in federal response aid than the City of Houston–even appearing to link his demands for reforms to the continuity of that more limited federal storm recovery assistance to compliance with his insistence that there be greater “accountability, goodwill, and cooperation from the government of Puerto Rico…” Indeed, it seems ironic that a key Chairman of the U.S. Congress, which has voted to create the greatest national debt in the history of the United States, would insist upon a quite different standard of accountability for Puerto Rico than for his own colleagues.

It seems that the federal appeals court, which may soon consider an appeal of Judge Swain’s opinion with regard to Puerto Rico’s Highway and Transportation Authority not to be mandated to make payments on its special revenue debt during said authority’s own insolvency, could help Puerto Rico: a positive decision would give Puerto Rico access to special revenues during the pendency of its proceedings in the quasi-chapter 9 case before Judge Swain.

Stabilizing the Ship of State. Farther north in Connecticut, progressive Democrats at the end of last week pressed in the General Assembly against Connecticut’s new fiscal stability panel, charging its recommendations shortchange key priorities, such as poorer municipalities, education and social services—even as the leaders of the Commission on Fiscal Stability and Economic Growth conceded they were limited by severe time constraints. Nevertheless, Co-Chairs Robert Patricelli and Jim Smith asserted the best way to invest in all of these priorities would be to end the cycle of state budget deficits and jump-start a lagging state economy. The co-chairs aired their perspectives at a marathon public hearing in the Hall of the House, answering questions from members of four legislative committees: Appropriations; Commerce; Finance, Revenue and Bonding; and Planning and Development—where Rep. Robyn Porter (D-New Haven) charged: “I’m only seeing sacrifice from the same people over and over again,” stating she was increasingly concerned about growing income inequality, asking: “When do we strike a balance?” Indeed, New York and Connecticut, with the wealthiest 1 percent of households in those states earning more than 40 times the average annual income of the bottom 99 percent, demonstrate the governance and fiscal challenge of that trend. In its report, the 14-member Commission made a wide array of recommendations centered on a major redistribution of state taxes—primarily reducing income tax rates across the board, while boosting the sales and corporation levies. Ironically, however, because the wealthy pay the majority of state income taxes, the proposed changes would disproportionately accrue to the benefit of the state’s highest income residents—in effect mirroring the federal tax reform, leading Rep. Porter to question why the Commission made such recommendations, including another to do away immediately with the estate tax on estates valued at more than $2 million, but gradually phase in an increase to the minimum wage over the next four years.  From a municipal perspective, Rep. James Albis (D-East Haven), cited a 2014 state tax incidence report showing that Connecticut’s heavy reliance on property taxes to fund municipal government “is incredibly regressive,” noting it has the effect of shifting a huge burden onto lower-middle- and low-income households—even as the report found that households earning less than $48,000 per year effectively pay nearly one-quarter of their annual income to cover state and local taxes. Rep. Brandon McGee (D-Hartford), the Vice Chair of the legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, said the Committee’s recommendations lack bold ideas on how to revitalize Connecticut’s poor urban centers—with his concerns mirrored by Rep. Toni E. Walker (D-New Haven), Chair of the House Appropriations Committee, who warned she fears a commission proposal to cut $1 billion from the state’s nearly $20 billion annual operating budget would inevitably reduce municipal aid, especially to the state’s cities. Co-Chair Patricelli appeared to concur, noting: “Candidly, I would agree we came up a little short on the cities,” adding that the high property tax rates in Hartford and other urban centers hinder economic growth: “They really are fighting with one or more hands tied behind their backs.”

The ongoing discussion comes amidst the state’s fiscal commitment to assume responsibility to pay for Hartford’s general obligation debt service payments, more than $50 million annually—a fiscal commitment which understandably is creating equity questions for other municipalities in the state confronted by fiscal challenges. Like a teeter-totter, balancing fiscal needs in a state where the state itself has a ways to go to balance its own budget creates a test of fiscal and moral courage.

What Are the Fiscal Conditions & Promises of Recovery?

March 30, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the potential impact of urban school leadership; then we try to assess the equity of federal responses to hurricanes, before trying to understand and assess the status of the ongoing quasi chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy PROMESA deliberations in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico.

Schooled in Municipal Finance? As we wrote, years ago, in our studies on Central Falls, Detroit, San Bernardino, and Chicago; schools matter: they determine whether families with kids will want to live in a central city—raising the issue, who ought to be setting the policies for such schools. In its report, five years ago, the Center for American Progress report cited several school districts like Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore—but not Detroit, were examples of municipalities where mayoral governance of public schools has had some measure of success in improving the achievement gap for students, or, as the Center noted: “Governance constitutes a structural barrier to academic and management improvement in too many large urban districts, where turf battles and political squabbles involving school leaders and an array of stakeholders have for too long taken energy and focus away from the core mission of education.” In the case of Detroit, of course, the issue was further addled by the largest municipal bankruptcy in the nation’s history and the state takeover of the Motor City’s schools.

Thus, interestingly, the report stated “mayoral accountability aims to address the governing challenges in urban districts by making a single office responsible for the performance of the city’s public schools. Citywide priorities such as reducing the achievement gap receive more focused attention.” In fact, many cities and counties have independent school boards—and there was certainly little shining evidence that the state takeover in Detroit was a paradigm; rather it appeared to lead to the creation of a quasi apartheid system under which charter schools competed with public schools to the detriment of the latter.

In its report, the Center finds: “[T]he only problem is this belief about mayoral control of schools has not worked well for Detroit. It has done just the opposite since the 1999 state takeover of the schools under former Gov. John Engler, which allowed for the mayor of Detroit to make some appointments to the school board. Since the state took over governance of the schools, when it was in a surplus, the district has been on a downward spiral with each year returning ballooning deficits under rotating state-appointed emergency managers. The district lost thousands of students to suburban schools as corruption and graft also became a hallmark of a system that took away resources that were meant to educate the city’s kids. Such history is what informs the resistance to outside involvement with the new Detroit Public Schools Community District that is now under an elected board with Superintendent Nikolai Vitti. His leadership is being received as a breath of fresh air as he implements needed reforms. That is what is now fueling skepticism and reservation about Mayor Mike Duggan’s bus loop initiative to help stem the tide of some 30,000 Detroit students he says attend schools in the suburbs.” Because of the critical importance to Detroit of income taxes, Mayor Duggan has always had a high priority of sending a message to families about the quality of the Motor City’s schools.  Superintendent Vitti noted that previous policies had “favored charter schools over traditional public schools.” Superintendent Vitti said he believes this issue is less about mayoral control than the Mayor Duggan’s leadership efforts to entice families with children back to the city, adding that he is not really concerned about mayoral control of the schools, noting: “I have no evidence or belief that the mayor is interested in running schools…I honestly believe the Mayor’s intent is to recruit students back to the city.”

Double Standards? The Capitol Hill newspaper, Politico, this week published an in-depth analysis of the seeming discriminatory responses to the federal responses to the savage hurricanes which struck Houston and Puerto Rico., reporting that while no two hurricanes are exactly alike, here, nine days after the respective hurricanes struck, “FEMA had approved $141.8 million in individual assistance to Hurricane Harvey victims, versus just $6.2 million for Hurricane Maria victims,” adding that the difference in response personnel mirrored the discriminatory responses, reporting there were 30,000 responders in Houston versus 10,000 in Puerto Rico, adding: “No two hurricanes are alike, and Harvey and Maria were vastly different storms that struck areas with vastly different financial, geographic and political situations. But a comparison of government statistics relating to the two recovery efforts strongly supports the views of disaster-recovery experts that FEMA and the Trump administration exerted a faster, and initially greater, effort in Texas, even though the damage in Puerto Rico exceeded that in Houston: Within six days of Hurricane Harvey, U.S. Northern Command had deployed 73 helicopters over Houston, which are critical for saving victims and delivering emergency supplies. It took at least three weeks after Maria before it had more than 70 helicopters flying above Puerto Rico; nine days after the respective hurricanes, FEMA had approved $141.8 million in individual assistance to Harvey victims, versus just $6.2 million for Maria victims. The periodical reported that it took just 10 days for FEMA to approve permanent disaster work for Texas, but 43 days for the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.  Politico, in an ominous portion of its reporting, notes: “[P]residential leadership plays a larger role. But as the administration moves to rebuild Texas and Puerto Rico, the contrast in the Trump administration’s responses to Harvey and Maria is taking on new dimensions. The federal government has already begun funding projects to help make permanent repairs to Texas infrastructure. But, in Puerto Rico, that funding has yet to start, as local officials continue to negotiate the details of an experimental funding system that the island agreed to adopt after a long, contentious discussion with Trump’s Office of Management and Budget. The report also notes: “Seventy-eight days after the two hurricanes, FEMA had received 18 percent more applications from victims of Maria than from victims of Harvey, but had approved 13 percent more applicants from Harvey than from Maria. At the time, 39 percent of applicants from Harvey had been approved compared with just 28 percent of applicants from Maria.”

Finally, the report notes that, as of last week,  six months after Hurricane Harvey, Texas was already receiving federal dollars from FEMA for more than a dozen permanent projects to repair schools, roads, and other public infrastructure which were damaged by the storm, while in Puerto Rico, FEMA has, so far, “not funded a single dollar for similar permanent work projects.”

Elected versus Unelected Governance. Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló yesterday reported he was rejecting the PROMESA Oversight Board’s “illegal” demands for labor law reforms and a 10% cut in pension outlays, stating: “The Board pretends to dictate the public policy of the government, and that, aside from being illegal, is unacceptable.” Gov. Rosselló was responding to demand letters from the Board for changes to the fiscal plans he had submitted, along with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, and the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority earlier this month. Gov. Rosselló noted that §205 of the PROMESA statute allows the Board to make public policy recommendations, but not to set policy, adding that the PROMESA Board’s proposed mandates would make it “practically impossible” to increase Puerto Rico’s minimum wage, as he contemplated the Board’s demand of a $1.58 billion cut in government expenditures, nearly 10% more than he had proposed, and adding he would be “tenaz” (tenacious) in opposing the proposed 10% cut in public pension outlays demanded by the PROMESA Board—with the political friction reflecting governing apprehension about the potential impact on employment at a time when Puerto Rico’s unemployment rate is more than 300% higher than on the mainland—and, because of perceptions that such decisions ought to be reflective of the will of the island’s voters and taxpayers, rather than an outside board.

Who’s on First? The governance challenge in Puerto Rico involves federalism: yesterday, House Natural Resources Committee Chair Rob Bishop (R-Utah), criticized the Puerto Rico Oversight Board and the Governor over their failure to engage with bondholders in restructuring the Commonwealth’s debt, writing to PROMESA Board Chairman José Carrión: “The Committee has been unsatisfied with the implementation of PROMESA and the lack of respect for Congressional requirements of the fiscal plan…And now, due to intentional misinterpretations of the statute, the promise we made to Puerto Rico may take decades to fulfill,” adding he had become “frustrated” with the Board’s unwillingness to engage in dialogue and reach consensual restructuring agreements with creditors: he noted that both the Rosselló administration and the PROMESA Board must show “much greater degrees of transparency, accountability, goodwill and cooperation,”  amid seemingly growing apprehensions on his part that Puerto Rico government costs will increase, even as its population is projected to decline, and that he was becoming increasingly concerned with the “extreme amount” being spent on Title III bankruptcy litigation. He said that Board should make sure it is the sole legal representative of Puerto Rico in these cases—and asked that the PROMESA Board define what constitutes “essential public services” in Puerto Rico: “I ask that you adhere to the mandates of PROMESA and work closely with creditors and the Puerto Rican government as you finalize and certify the fiscal plans…“My committee will be monitoring your actions closely; and as we near the two-year anniversary of the passage of PROMESA, an oversight hearing on the status of achieving PROMESA’s goals will likely be merited.”

For its part, the PROMESA Oversight Board has rejected fiscal plans presented by Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and the island’s two public authorities and has demanded the territory reduce public pensions by 10% , writing, this week, three letters outlining its demands for changes in fiscal plans submitted this month by the central government, Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, and Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority. Under the PROMESA statute, the federal court overseeing the quasi-chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy is mandated to accept the fiscal plans, including their allotments for debt—plans which the PROMESA Board has demanded, as revised, be submitted by 5 p.m. next Thursday. The Board is directed there should be no benefit reductions for those making less than $1,000 per month from a combination of their Social Security benefits and retirement plans and that employees should be shifted from a defined-benefit plan to a defined-contribution plan by July 1st of next year; it directed that police, teachers, and judges under age 40 should be enrolled in Social Security and their pension contributions be lowered by the amount of their Social Security contribution, directing this for the PREPA, PRASA, Teachers, Employees, and Judiciary retirement systems. In its letter concerning the central government, the PROMESA Board directed Gov. Rosselló to make many changes: some require more information; some are “structural” changes focused on reforming laws to make the economy more vibrant; at least one adds revenues without requiring a greater burden; and many of them require greater tax burdens, or assume lower tax revenues or higher expenditures—noting that any final plan, to be approved, should aim at achieving a total $5.66 billion in agency efficiency savings through FY2023, but that Puerto Rico’s oil taxes should be kept constant rather than adjusted each year.

The Board directed that a single Office of the CFO should be created to oversee the Department of the Treasury, Office of Management and Budget, Office of Administration and Transformation of Human Resources, General Services Administration, and Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority—adding that Puerto Rico will be mandated to convert to legally at-will employment by the end of this year, reduce mandatory vacation and sick leave to a total of 14 days immediately, and add a work requirement for the Nutritional Assistance Program by no later than Jan. 1st, 2021—and that any increase in the minimum wage to $8.25 must be linked to conditions—and, for Puerto Ricans 25 or younger, such an increase would only be permitted if and when Puerto Rico eliminated the current mandatory Christmas bonus for employers.

Governance Amidst Fiscal and Stormy Challenges & Uneven Federalism

December 1, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the fiscal and governing challenges in one of the nation’s oldest municipalities, and its remarkable turnaround from verging on becoming the first municipality in Virginia to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, before veering south to assess what President Trump has described as the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico suffering from “from broken infrastructure and massive debt.” 

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

Revolutionary Municipality. Petersburg, Virginia’s City Council, one of the oldest of the nation’s cities, as part of its fiscal recovery, last week had voted 5-2 to request the Virginia Legislature to change the city’s charter in order to transfer the most critical duties of the Treasurer’s Office to a newly-created role of city collector—a position under the Council’s control, as part of its wish list for the newly elected state legislature. Petersburg, an independent city of just over 32,000, is significant for its role in African-American history: it is the site of one of the oldest free black settlements in the state–and the nation.  The unprecedented City Council effort seeks to strip power from an elected office—an office some believe curried some fault for contributing to Petersburg’s near chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. Ironically, the effort came the same month that voters elected a former Member of the City Council to the office of Treasurer. Councilman Treska Wilson-Smith, who opposed the move, stated: “The citizens just voted in a Treasurer. For us to get rid of that position is a slap in the face to the citizens who put them in there.” Unsurprisingly, State Senator Rosalyn Dance, who for a dozen years has represented the city as part of her district in the Virginia House of Delegates, and who will consider the city’s legislative agenda, said she was concerned. Noting that the newly-elected treasurer has yet to serve a day in office, she added that much of the turmoil had to do with the current Treasurer, so, she said: “I hope [the] Council will take a second look at what they want to do.” Former Councilman and Treasurer-elect Kenneth Pritchett, who declined to comment, ran on a platform of improving the office’s operations by standardizing internal controls and implementing new policies: he urged Petersburg residents to contact lawmakers in a Facebook message posted after the Council took action, calling the decision “a prime example of total disrespect for the citizens’ vote.”

Nevertheless, Council Members who supported the legislative agenda language said it was time for a change, or, as Councilman Darrin Hill noted: “I respect the opinion of the citizens, but still, we believe if we keep on doing the same thing that we have done, then we will keep on getting the same results.” Other Councilmembers felt even better about their votes after the Council received good financial news earlier this week when newly audited reports showed a boost in Petersburg’s reserve funds, increased revenue, and a drop in expenditures—a marked fiscal reversal. In addition, the city’s external auditor provided a clean opinion—a step up from last year’s “modified” opinion—an opinion which had hinted the city had failed to comply with proper accounting principles—and a municipal fiscal year which commenced $19 million in the hole—and $12 million over budget—in response to which the Council raised taxes, cut more than $3 million in funding from the city’s chronically underperforming schools, eliminated a popular youth summer program, and closed cultural sites. Former Richmond City Manager Robert Bobb’s organization—which had been hired to help the city recoup from the verge of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, had supported transferring some of the duties of the Treasurer to a city collector position as a means to enhance the city’s ability to improve its tax collections.

Subsequently, late last September, another shoe fell with a 115-page report which examined eight specific aspects of city governance—and found allegations of theft involving current Treasurer Kevin Brown—claims Mr. Brown repeatedly denied, but appeared to contribute to his decision not to run for reelection—an elected which Mr. Pritchett won by a wide margin, winning just over 70 percent.  Nevertheless, Mayor Samuel Parham told his colleagues: “We are treading too thin now to risk someone who is just getting to know the job. We can’t operate as a city of hoping…Now that we are paying our bills and showing growth, there is no need to go back in time and have a situation that we had.” However, some Councilmembers believe they should await more facts with regard to Mr. Brown’s actions, especially with regard to uncollected municipal tax revenues, or, as Councilmember Wilson-Smith put it: “There are some questions which we still have unanswered when it comes to why the taxes were not collected: It appears to me that a lot of the taxes are not being collected, because they are un-collectable,” or, as she noted: Many listed for unpaid taxes were deceased.

David Foley with Robinson, Farmer, Cox Associates, Petersburg’s external auditor, had presented figures before Petersburg residents and the City Council, noting the clean opinion is a substantial improvement from last year, when auditors issued a modified opinion which suggested Petersburg had failed to maintain accounting principles—testifying that the improvement mainly came from the city being able to provide evidence of the status of some of its major financial accounts, such as public utilities. He did recommend that Petersburg strengthen some of its internal controls over the next fiscal year—noting, especially, the reconciliation of the city’s public utility system, which some officials have suggested should be sold to private companies. Indeed, City Manager Aretha Ferrell-Benavides told City Council members that a plan to correct some of the deficiencies will start in January, with monthly updates on corrective actions that she would like to continue to take. The see-saw, key fiscal change of nearly $2 million more than had been projected arose from a combination of increased real estate tax collections, and a $2.5 million reduction in expenditures, mainly came from health and welfare, and non-departmental categories: in total, there was a $7.5 million increase in the city’s chief operating fund. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Foley, in response to Councilmember Charlie Cuthbert, noted: “It was a significant year. There is still a long way to go,” indirectly referencing the city’s commencement of FY2017 $19 million in the hole and $12 million over budget—and with dire threats of legal action over unpaid bills—triggering a tidal wave of legal bills of nearly $1 million—of which about $830,000 went to Mr. Bobb’s group—while the city spent nearly $200,000 on a forensic audit.  Council members received the presentation on the annual financial report with a scant two days prior to the state imposed deadline to submit the report—after, last year, the city was about seven months late in submitting its annual financial report.

Insufficient Shelter from the Fiscal Storm. In the brutal wake of Hurricane Maria, which destroyed about 57,000 homes in Puerto Rico last September and left another 254,000 severely impacted, 50 percent of the U.S. territory’s remaining 3.5 million inhabitants are still without electricity—a lack that has adversely impacted the ability to reconstruct the toll wrought by Maria, not to mention the economy, or loss of those, more than 150,000, who could afford to leave for New York and Florida. Puerto Rico still confronts a lack of drinking water. Governor Ricardo Rosselló had assured that 95% of the island would have electricity by today, but, like too many other promises, that is not to be. An irony is that the recent visit of former President Bill Clinton, who did not come down to toss paper towels, but rather to bring fiscal and physical assistance, may be, at long last, an omen of recovery. It was just 19 days ago that Gov. Roselló appeared before Congress to request some $94 billion to rebuild the U.S. territory—a request unmet, and a request raising questions about the Puerto Rican government’s ability to manage such a vast project, especially in the wake of the $300 million no-bid contract awarded to a small Montana utility company, Whitefish, to restore the territory’s power—an effort House Natural Resources Committee Chair Rob Bishop (R-Utah) described as raising a “credibility gap.” Indeed, in the wake of that decision, Chairman Bishop and others in the Congress have called for the unelected PROMESA Financial Oversight and Management Board, known on the island as “la junta,” to extend its powers to overseeing the rebuilding effort as well—a call which, unsurprisingly, many Puerto Ricans, including pro-statehood Governor Rosselló, see as a further threat to their democratic rights. 

Nevertheless, despite the quasi-takeover threat from Congress, U.S. District Court Judge Laura Taylor Swain has denied the PROMESA Oversight Board’s request to appoint an emergency manager, similar to those appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder in Detroit, or by the former Governor of Rhode Island for Central Falls under their respective authority under state authorizations of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. Puerto Rico, because it is not a state, does not have such authority; consequently, Judge Swain has determined the Board does not have the authority to appoint public officials—a holding which Gov. Rosselló responded to by noting that the decision upheld his office’s position about the board’s power, writing: “It is clear that the [board] does not have the power to take full control of the Government or its instrumentalities…[T]he administration and public management of Puerto Rico remains with the democratically elected government.

Stormy Governance & Federalism Challenges in the Wake of a Storm

eBlog

November 14, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s eBlog, we consider the governance and federalism challenges in the wake of the devastating Hurricane Maria impact on the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, where questions in a federal courtroom about the balance between Puerto Rico’s government and the federally appointed oversight board for Puerto Rico consider not just the Puerto Rican government’s authority—but also that of the Congress.  

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U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor Swain has denied the PROMESA Oversight Board’s request to deny the request to appoint Noel Zamot as the Transformation Officer (CTO), noting that the powers granted to the special panel by Congress are insufficiently broad to limit the actions of the government of Puerto Rico, holding that the Puerto Rico Oversight Board lacked authority to replace the leader of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA). The Board had requested the Judge to confirm its appointment of Noel Zamot as PREPA’s Chief Transformation Office—a position comparable to CEO. Instead, Judge Swain called on the Board and Gov. Ricardo Rosselló to work collaboratively to address the U.S. territory’s problems—a call, in response to which, Gov. Rosselló responded by noting: “We are very pleased with the decision issued today by Judge Laura Taylor Swain, since it reiterates our position regarding the limit of power of the Financial Oversight and Management Board.…It is clear that the Financial Oversight and Management Board does not have the power to take full control of the government or its instrumentalities…We recognize that the reconstruction and recovery of the island requires a union of wills; therefore, we welcome any collaboration or technical support that the Board wishes to offer to the government elected by Puerto Ricans to ensure the best interests of the people of Puerto Rico.” Judge Swain noted that Congress could have eased the governance role of the oversight board if it had given the Board direct authority over Puerto Rico’s government and public entities; however, as she noted: it had not—instead it deliberately split power between the federally appointed oversight board and the government, adding: “I urge you to work together,” in regard to the PROMESA Board and the Rosselló administration, noting that every moment spent on complicated and expensive litigation was time lost for the Puerto Rico people. Judge Swain noted that the Board has multiple mechanisms to discharge its functions without requiring its direct intervention after the Congressionally created public corporation, its governing board and its executive director, Ricardo Ramos, were unable to articulate and effectively implement a plan to restore the electricity grid after its collapse in the wake of Hurricane Maria. Nevertheless, Judge Swain also called on the government of Puerto Rico to address the situation of the island, noting that millions of American citizens remain in the dark and in a dangerous situation, while every controversy aired in court is “a minute lost” for the future of Puerto Rico.

Unsurprisingly, Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares responded he was pleased with Judge Swain’s decision, noting in written statements that the decision issued today by Judge Swain “reiterates our position on the power limit of the JSF: We have been clear from day one about the powers the [PROMESA] Board has, and those it does not have. It is clear that the (Board) does not have the power to take control of the government as a whole or its instrumentalities,” adding: “Our position is validated and it is recognized that the administration and public management of Puerto Rico remains with the democratically elected government…As Governor of Puerto Rico, I will defend the democratic rights of my people over any challenge and in any forum. We recognize that the reconstruction and recovery of the Island requires a union of wills, therefore, we welcome any collaboration or technical support that the Board wishes to offer to the Government elected by the Puerto Ricans to ensure the best interests of the People of Puerto Rico.”

The U.S. government yesterday filed notice it would defend the court supervised restructuring of Puerto Rico’s debt against a constitutional challenge by an investor—with the filing coming in response to the Title III bankruptcy case related to Puerto Rico’s government debt to an adversary proceeding filed last August by the Aurelius Capital hedge fund. (Aurelius owned $473 million of Puerto Rico municipal bonds as of July.) The government argued that the Title III bankruptcy petition should be dismissed, because its filing had not been authorized by a validly constituted oversight board, whilst the fund asserted that the appointments clause of the U.S. Constitution, Article II, Section 2, Clause 2 of the United States Constitution, which empowers the President to appoint certain public officials with the “advice and consent” of the U.S. Senate was breached in appointing the board’s members: the Board was appointed under the Puerto Rico Oversight Management and Economic Stability Act to oversee fiscal and economic management in the territory and the restructuring of more than $70 billion of debt that the Puerto Rico government said could not be repaid under current economic conditions.

Aurelius claimed that the PROMESA Board is “unconstitutional,” and, because it is, its actions are “are void,” pressing Judge Swain to dismiss the case. In response, the Justice Department notified the court it would file a memorandum supporting PROMESA’s constitutionality on or before December 6th. Part of the dispute will relate to the process itself: the Board, as we noted initially, was named by the U.S. House and Senate Majority and Minority leaders, the Speaker and House Minority Leader, and former President Obama: neither U.S. Senate committees nor the Senate as a whole voted on the confirmations. Last Friday, the government of Puerto Rico, the COFINA Seniors Bondholders Coalition, the Unsecured Creditors Committee, and the Official Committee of Retired Employees of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico submitted memoranda against the Aurelius position, with the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico pressing the federal court to lift the stay on litigation outside of the bankruptcy process, arguing that Aurelius is seeking actions against the debtor and the Oversight Board outside the Title III process—something it asserts is barred by the PROMESA statute. In contrast, the COFINA Seniors argue that the Oversight Board’s membership is constitutional, because Congress’s power over the territories is plenary and not subject to the structural limitations of the United States Constitution, while the Unsecured Creditors argued that the “U.S. Constitution gives Congress virtually unlimited authority to govern unincorporated territories directly, or to delegate that power to such agencies as it” deems fit. This group said that there is precedent for the Board members’ appointment procedures, asserting the Board members are territorial officials and not U.S. government officials, as Aurelius claims.

Power to Puerto Rico. On a separate front, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico notched a significant win in court yesterday when Judge Swain rejected the appointment of a former military officer to oversee the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), after the PROMESA Board had sought to appoint retired Air Force Col. Noel Zamot to supervise the reconstruction and operations of PREPA in the wake of Hurricane Maria’s devastation of the U.S. territory’s utility and the subsequent territory-wide blackout on September 20th—an inability to restore service since has led to accusations of mismanagement, especially as, PREPA, two months after the hurricane, is generating only 48 percent of its normal output. Thus it was that Judge Swain ruled that the PROMESA Board may not unilaterally seize control of the U.S. territory’s government agencies—a signal legal victory for the administration of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and others who have argued that no independent official should oversee a local government agency—or, as the Governor noted: “Our position has been validated and it has been recognized that the administration and public management of Puerto Rico remains with the democratically elected government.” PREPA is $9 billion in debt and continues to face scrutiny after signing a $300 million contract with Montana-based Whitefish Energy Holdings—a contract cancelled at the end of last month at the Governor’s request, but which is now undergoing federal and local audits. Both Gov. Rosselló and PREPA Director Ricardo Ramos are scheduled to testify this morning in Washington, D.C. before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Measuring Municipal Fiscal Distress

August 29, 2017

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s Blog, we consider the new Local Government Fiscal Distress bi-cameral body in Virginia and its early actions; then we veer north to Atlantic City, where both the Governor and the courts are weighing in on the city’s fiscal future; before scrambling west to Scranton, Pennsylvania—as it seeks to respond to a fiscally adverse judicial ruling, then back west to the very small municipality of East Cleveland, Ohio—as it awaits authority to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy—and municipal elections—then to Detroit’s ongoing efforts to recover revenues as part of its recovery from the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy, before finally ending up in the Windy City, where the incomparable Lawrence Msall has proposed a Local Government Protection Authority—a quasi-judicial body—to serve as a resource for the Chicago Public School System.  

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

Measuring Municipal Fiscal Distress. When Virginia Auditor of Public Accounts Martha S. Mavredes last week testified before the Commonwealth’s new Joint House-Senate Subcommittee on Local Government Fiscal Stress, she named Bristol as one of the state’s four financially distressed localities—a naming which Bristol City Manager Randy Eads confirmed Monday. Bristol is an independent city in the Commonwealth of Virginia with a population just under 18,000: it is the twin city of Bristol, Tennessee, just across the state line: a line which bisects middle of its main street, State Street. According to the auditor, the cities of Petersburg and Bristol scored below 5 on a financial assessment model that uses 16 as the minimum threshold for indicating financial stress, with Bristol scoring lower than Petersburg. One other city and two counties scored below 16. For his part, City Manager Eads said he and the municipality’s CFO “will be working with the APA to determine how the scores were reached,” adding: “The city will also be open to working with the APA to address any issues.” (Bristol scored below the threshold the past three years, dropping to 4.25 in 2016. Petersburg had a score of 4.48 in 2016, when its financial woes became public.) Even though the State of Virginia has no authority to directly involve itself in a municipality’s finances (Virginia does not specifically authorize its municipal entities to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, certain provisions of the state’s laws [§15.2-4910] do allow for a trust indenture to contain provisions for protecting and enforcing rights and remedies of municipal bondholders—including the appointment of a receiver.), its new system examines the Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports submitted annually and scores them on 10 financial ratios—including four that measure the health of the locality’s general fund used to finance its budget. Manager Eads testified: “At the moment, the city does not have all of the necessary information from the APA to fully address any questions…We have been informed, by the APA, that we will receive more information from them the first week of September.” He added that the city leaders have taken steps to bolster cash flow and reserves, while reducing their reliance on borrowing short-term tax anticipation notes. In addition, the city has recently began implementing a series of budgetary and financial policies prior to the APA scores being released—steps seemingly recognized earlier this summer when Moody’s upgraded the city’s outlook to stable and its municipal bond rating to Baa2 with an underlying A3 enhanced rating, after a downgrade in 2016. Nevertheless, the road back is steep: the city still maintains more than $100 million in long-term general obligation bond debt with about half of it tied to The Falls commercial center in the Exit 5 area, which has yet to attract significant numbers of tenants.

Fiscal Fire? The State of New Jersey’s plan to slash Atlantic City’s fire department by 50 members was blocked by Superior court Judge Julio Mendez, preempting the state’s efforts to reduce the number of firefighters in the city from 198 to 148. The state, which preempted local authority last November, has sought to sharply reduce the city’s expenditures: state officials had last February proposed to move the Fire Department to a less expensive health plan and reduce staffing in the department from 225 firefighters to 125. In his ruling, however, Judge Mendez wrote: “The court holds that the (fire department’s union) have established by clear and convincing evidence that Defendants’ proposal to reduce the size of the Atlantic City Fire Department to 148 firefighters will cause irreparable harm in that it compromises the public safety of Atlantic City’s residents and visitors.” Judge Mendez had previously granted the union’s request to block the state’s actions, ruling last March that any reduction below 180 firefighters “compromises public safety,” and that any reduction should happen “through attrition and retirements.”

Gov. Christie Friday signed into law an alternative fiscal measure for the city, S. 3311, which requires the state to offer an early-retirement incentive program to the city’s police officers, firefighters, and first responders facing layoffs, noting at the bill signing what he deemed the Garden State’s success in its stewardship of the city since November under the Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act, citing Atlantic City’s “great strides to secure its finances and its future.” The Governor noted a drop of 11.4 percent in the city’s overall property-tax rate, the resolution of casino property-tax appeals, and recent investments in the city. For their parts, Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, sponsors of the legislation, said the new law would let the city “reduce the size of its police and fire departments without jeopardizing public safety,” adding that the incentive plan, which became effective with the Governor’s signature, would not affect existing contracts or collective bargaining rights—or, as Sen. Sweeney stated: “We don’t want to see any layoffs occur, but if a reduction in workers is required, early retirement should be offered first to the men and women who have served the city.” For his part, Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian said, “I’m glad that the Governor and the State continue to follow the plan that we gave them 10 months ago. As all the pieces that we originally proposed continue to come together, Atlantic City will continue to move further in the right direction.”

For its part, the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, which has been the fiscal overseer of the state takeover of Atlantic City, has touted the fiscal progress achieved this year from state intervention, including the adoption of a $206.3 million budget that is 20 percent lower than the city’s FY2015 budget, due to even $56 million less than 2015 due to savings from staff adjustments and outsourcing certain municipal services. Nevertheless, Atlantic City, has yet to see the dial spin from red to black: the city, with some $224 million in bonded debt, has deep junk-level credit ratings of CC by S&P Global Ratings and Caa3 by Moody’s Investors Service; it confronts looming debt service payments, including $6.1 million owed on Nov. 1, according to S&P.

Scrambling in Scranton. Moody’s is also characteristically moody about the fiscal ills of Scranton, Pennsylvania, especially in the wake of a court decision barring the city from  collecting certain taxes under a state law—a decision Moody’s noted  “may reduce tax revenue, which is a vital funding source for the city’s operations.” Lackawanna County Court of Common Pleas Judge James Gibbons, at the beginning of the month, in a preliminary ruling against the city, in response to a challenge by a group of eight taxpayers, led by Mayoral candidate Gary St. Fleur, had challenged Scranton’s ability to levy and collect certain taxes under Pennsylvania’s Act 511, a state local tax enabling act. His preliminary ruling against the city affects whether the Home Rule Charter law supersedes the statutory cap contained in Act 511. Unsurprisingly, the City of Scranton has filed a motion for reconsideration and requested the court to enable it to appeal to the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania. The city, the state’s sixth-largest city (77,000), and the County seat for Lackawanna County is the geographic and cultural center of the Lackawanna River valley, was incorporated on St. Valentine’s Day 161 years ago—going on to become a major industrial city, a center of mining and railroads, and attracted thousands of new immigrants. It was a city, which acted to earn the moniker of the “Electric City” when electric lights were first introduced in 1880 at Dickson Locomotive Works. Today, the city is striving to exit state oversight under the state’s Act 47—oversight the municipality has been under for a quarter century.

Currently, Moody’s does not provide a credit rating for the city; however, Standard and Poor’s last month upgraded the city’s general obligation bonds to a still-junk BB-plus, citing revenue from a sewer-system sale, whilst Standard and Poor’s cited the city’s improved budget flexibility and liquidity, stemming largely from a sewer-system sale which enabled the municipality to retire more than $40 million of high-coupon debt. Moreover, Scranton suspended its cost-of-living-adjustments, and manifested its intent to apply a portion of sewer system sale proceeds to meet its public pension liabilities. Ergo, Moody’s writes: “These positive steps have been important for paying off high interest debt and funding the city’s distressed pension plans…While these one-off revenue infusions have been positive, Scranton faces an elevated fixed cost burden of over 40% of general fund revenues…Act 511 tax revenues are an important revenue source for achieving ongoing, balanced operations, particularly as double-digit property tax increases have been met with significant discontent from city residents. The potential loss of Act 511 tax revenues comes at a time when revenues for the city are projected to be stagnant through 2020.”

The road to municipal fiscal insolvency is easier, mayhap, because it is downhill: Scranton fiscal challenges commenced five years ago, when its City Council skipped a $1 million municipal bond payment in the wake if a political spat; Scranton has since repaid the debt. Nevertheless, as Moody’s notes: “If the city cannot balance its budget without illegally taxing the Scranton people, it is absolute proof that the budget is not sustainable…Scranton has sold off all its public assets and raised taxes excessively with the result being a declining tax base and unfriendly business environment…The city needs to come to terms with present economic realities by cutting spending and lowering taxes. This is the only option for the city.”

Scranton Mayoral candidate Gary St. Fleur has said the city should file for Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy and has pushed for a related ballot measure. Combined taxes collected under Act 511, including a local services tax that Scranton recently tripled, cannot exceed 1.2% of Scranton’s total market value.  Based on 2015 market values, according to Moody’s, Scranton’s “511 cap” totals $27.3 million. In fiscal 2015 and 2016, the city collected $34.5 million and $36.8 million, respectively, and for 2018, the city has budgeted to receive $38 million.  The city, said Moody’s, relied on those revenues for 37.7% of fiscal 2015 and 35.9% of fiscal 2016 total governmental revenues. “A significant reduction in these tax revenues would leave the city a significant revenue gap if total Act 511 tax revenues were decline by nearly 25%,” Moody’s said.

Heavy Municipal Fiscal Lifting. Being mayor of battered East Cleveland is one of those difficult jobs that many people (and readers) would decline. If you were to motor along Euclid Avenue, the city’s main street, you would witness why: it is riddled with potholes and flanked by abandoned, decayed buildings. Unsurprisingly, in a city still awaiting authorization from the State of Ohio to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, blight, rising crime, and poor schools, have created the pretext for East Clevelanders to leave: The city boasted 33,000 people in 1990; today it has just 17,843, according to the latest U.S. Census figures. Nevertheless, hope can spring eternal: four candidates, including current Mayor Brandon L. King, are seeking the Democratic nomination in next month’s Mayoral primary (Mayor King replaced former Mayor Gary Norton last year after Norton was recalled by voters.)

Motor City Taxing. Detroit hopes to file some 700 lawsuits by Thursday against landlords and housing investors in a renewed effort to collect unpaid property taxes on abandoned homes that have already been forfeited; indeed, by the end of November, the city hopes to double the filings, going after as many as 1,500 corporations and investors whose abandonment of Detroit homes has been blamed for contributing to the Motor City’s blight epidemic: Motor City Law PLC, working on behalf of the city, has filed more than 60 lawsuits since last week in Wayne County Circuit Court; the remainder are expected to be filed before a Thursday statute of limitations deadline: the suits target banks, land speculators, limited liability corporations, and individuals with three or more rental properties in Detroit: investors who typically purchase homes at bargain prices at a Wayne County auction and then eventually stop paying property tax bills and lose the home in foreclosure: the concern is that unscrupulous landlords have been abusing the auction system. The city expects to file an additional 800 lawsuits over the next quarter—with the recovery effort coming in the wake of last year’s suits by the city against more than 500 banks and LLCs which had an ownership stake in houses that sold at auction for less than what was owed to the city in property taxes. Eli Savit, senior adviser and counsel to Mayor Mike Duggan, noted that those suits netted Detroit more than $5 million in judgments, even as, he reports: “Many cases are still being litigated.” To date, the 69 lawsuits filed since Aug. 18 in circuit court were for tax bills exceeding $25,000 each; unpaid tax bills for less than $25,000 will be filed in district court. (The unpaid taxes date back years as the properties were auctioned off by the Wayne County Treasurer’s Office between 2013 and 2016 or sent to the Detroit Land Bank Authority, which oversees demolitions if homes cannot be rehabilitated or sold.) The suits here indicate that former property owners have no recourse for lowering their unpaid tax debt, because they are now “time barred from filing an appeal” with Detroit’s Board of Review or the Michigan Tax Tribunal; Detroit officials have noted that individual homeowners would not be targeted by the lawsuits for unpaid taxes; rather the suits seek to establish a legal means for going after investors who purchase cheap homes at auction, and then either rent them out and opt not to not pay the taxes, or walk away from the house, because it is damaged beyond repair—behavior which is now something the city is seeking to turn around.

Local Government Fiscal Protection? Just as the Commonwealth of Virginia has created a fiscal or financial assessment model to serve as an early warning system so that the State could act before a chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy occurred, the fiscal wizard of Illinois, the incomparable Chicago Civic Federation’s Laurence Msall has proposed a Local Government Protection Authority—a quasi-judicial body—to serve as a resource for the Chicago Public School System (CPS): it would be responsible to assist the CPS board and administration in finding solutions to stabilize the school district’s finances. The $5.75 billion CPS proposed budget for this school year comes with two significant asterisks: 1) There is an expectation of $269 million from the City of Chicago, and 2) There is an expectation of $300 million from the State of Illinois, especially if the state’s school funding crisis is resolved in the Democrats’ favor.

Nevertheless, in the end, CPS’s fiscal fate will depend upon Windy City Mayor Rahm Emanuel: he, after all, not only names the school board, but also is accountable to voters if the city’s schools falter: he has had six years in office to get CPS on a stable financial course, even as CPS is viewed by many in the city as seeking to file for bankruptcy (for which there is no specific authority under Illinois law). Worse, it appears that just the discussion of a chapter 9 option is contributing to the emigration of parents and students to flee to suburban or private schools.

Thus, Mr. Msall is suggesting once again putting CPS finances under state oversight, as it was in the 1980s and early 1990s, recommending consideration of a Local Government Protection Authority, which would “be a quasi-judicial body…to assist the CPS board and administration in finding solutions to stabilize the district’s finances.” Fiscal options could include spending cuts, tax hikes, employee benefit changes, labor contract negotiations, and debt adjustment. Alternatively, as Mr. Msall writes: “If the stakeholders could not find a solution, the LGPA would be empowered to enforce a binding resolution of outstanding issues.” As we noted, a signal fiscal challenge Mayor Emanuel described was to attack crime in order to bring young families back into the city—and to upgrade its schools—schools where today some 380,000 students appear caught in a school system cracking under a massive and rising debt load.  

Far East of Eden. East Cleveland Mayor Gary Norton Jr. and City Council President Thomas Wheeler have both been narrowly recalled from their positions in a special election, setting the stage for the small Ohio municipality waiting for the state to—in some year—respond to its request to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy to elect a new leader. Interestingly, one challenger for the job who is passionate about the city, is Una H. R. Keenon, 83, who now heads the city school board, and campaigning on a platform of seeking a blue-ribbon panel to examine the city’s finances. Mansell Baker, 33, a former East Cleveland Councilmember, wants to focus on eliminating the city’s debt, while Dana Hawkins Jr., 34, leader of a foundation, vows to get residents to come together and save the city. The key decisions are likely to emerge next month in the September 12 Democratic primary—where the winner will face Devin Branch of the Green Party in November. Early voting has begun.