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.

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Fiscal & Physical Challenges to the Nation’s State & Local Leaders

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August 17, 2017

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s Blog, we consider the fiscal and physical challenges to municipal and state leaders in the wake of the physical violence this week in Charlottesville, Virginia—and the wavering response from President Donald Trump. Then we return to the City of Flint, where federal court decisions appear to have opened the way for help to assist in access to safe drinking water for the city’s beleaguered residents. Finally, we ask to what degree there might be promise in PROMESA, as the PROMESA Board appears to be seeking independent fiscal analysis in an effort to better address options for fiscal recovery.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

Fiscal & Physical Municipal Mayhem. Municipal leaders across the nation are suddenly on notice that the federal government cannot be counted upon to help respond to threats of violence and mayhem by alt-right groups in the wake the events last Saturday in Charlottesville, Virginia, as alt-right leaders and white nationalist groups have vowed to stage more rallies in coming days: a group claiming it is advocating free speech has planned a rally for Saturday on the historic Boston Common, with a group advocating racial justice planning its own gathering in opposition. Boston officials have responded by setting strict conditions, including no sticks, weapons, or backpacks—or, as Mayor Marty Walsh stated: “Make no mistake: We do not welcome any hate groups to Boston, and we reject their message.” A similar rally scheduled for the end of this month in San Francisco has prompted House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Ca.)) and several California lawmakers to urge the National Park Service to rescind the permit to gather on federal parkland there. Indeed, the events this week in Charlottesville—and the President’s response, has confronted municipal leaders with hard questions with regard to how to deal with their Confederate monuments, an issue that has suddenly become much more urgent.

In the wake of the violent public clashes, mayors, governors, and other civic leaders are taking steps that even a week ago might not have seemed necessary. Now, however, uncertain of any federal support, city and county leaders will be confronted by costly decisions both with regard to granting permits, but also with regard to what resources to make available to avert injuries to citizens and destruction of local businesses—fearing that the white nationalist movement could attract a larger following, a following perhaps abetted by the remarks yesterday of President Trump. Darrel Stephens, the Executive Director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, noted that many of the people who came to Charlottesville wore helmets and carried shields: “These guys, the shields that they showed up with. . . you don’t bring that stuff to a demonstration to just express a view…You bring that there prepared for violence. Why else would you have them?”

From time immemorial in our country, demonstrations in cities have been part of the fabric of the nation, so this challenge is not new: there were certain members of Parliament in the mid-1775’s who very much wanted to ban “hate groups” from Colonials in places such as Chesapeake, Williamsburg, Petersburg, Yorktown, that Virginia municipality where a combined French and American army under Alexandria’s George Washington pinned down and besieged a British force under Lord Cornwallis, forcing his surrender on Oct. 19, 1781. The marches and rallies in Virginia, it seemed, were vital to securing independence from Britain. One may well imagine Lord Cornwallis’ response.

We have, in this country, a long and honored tradition of marches and rallies—the writer even spent unmitigated hours negotiating with authorities in the U.S. Embassy in Vienna, the City of Vienna, and Austria to obtain a permit to demonstrate against the killings at Kent State. It is hard to imagine a more important tradition in our young nation than the right to demonstrate: the challenge of governance, however, is how to ensure such demonstrations do not risk life and limb. That is the hard task upon which Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe is now proposing to embark upon, appropriately recognizing the Commonwealth—and its cities and counties—really need to rethink how to protect citizens and their rights—much as former President Kennedy and Johnson had to do in a different era. That responsibility will also require determining how to define “hate groups”?  Was the Confederate Army a hate group? Was George Washington’s army a hate group?

In Like Flint? The United States 6th Circuit Court of Appeals’ reversal on July 28th of a federal court’s decision in two lawsuits filed by Flint, Michigan residents over the contamination of their drinking water, has emboldened lawyers and their plaintiffs, who said residents of the predominately African-American city still are being billed for dirty water they cannot use, clearing the way for tens of thousands of Flint residents to continue their lawsuit against the State of Michigan and local officials—or, as the prevailing attorney noted: “The court’s decision means that the trial court’s dismissal of the case was legally incorrect and the appeals court has sent it back…A lot of our case deals with the fact that residents in Flint have been charged three-times the national rate for water, because the city is trying to balance their budget and these charges and fees come at the exact time that they couldn’t use the water…Not only did they come during the period in which they were getting contaminated water and having their children poisoned, but the water bills kept coming and they were told not to drink the water by an EPA mandate, and they were also told that if they didn’t pay their bill, they’d have a lien placed on their home and face foreclosure. That’s not America.”

In its ruling, the federal appeals court overturned a lower federal court ruling which had dismissed a major class-action lawsuit filed in 2015 on behalf of tens of thousands of Flint residents against Gov. Rick Snyder, the city of Flint, and Flint municipal officials who were involved in deciding to switch to the Flint River as its water source. The decision allows the plaintiffs to seek relief from the State of Michigan in another case in the form of compensation for education, medical monitoring and evaluation services for ongoing harm from Flint’s contaminated water crisis, as well opening the way for cases seeking financial damages against individual state employees, the city of Flint, city employees, and state-appointed emergency managers to proceed. The decision came as Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette and his legal team have pursued criminal and misdemeanor charges against or accepted plea deals with 15 persons, including former Flint employees and former and current state officials, as well as two former Flint emergency managers appointed by Governor Snyder. (The class-action lawsuits involve Flint residents who experienced personal injury and property damage from the Flint River decision, after they were exposed to toxic lead that leached from the city’s pipes into the water supply.) The trial court ruled that the federal Safe Drinking Water Act stopped the plaintiffs from seeking damages, but the appeals panel ruling allows U.S. District Judge Judith Levy to continue weighing the issue.

The appeals court decision came just prior to dismissal, this week, in federal District Court, of a whistleblower lawsuit against Flint Mayor Karen Weaver filed by a former city official who alleged she was fired for raising alarms over possible misuse of water crisis contributions. Former City Administrator Natasha Henderson sued Mayor Weaver and the City of Flint in May of last year, claiming she was wrongfully terminated two days after sending then-city attorney Anthony Chubb an email asking him to look into an “allegation of unethical conduct” by Mayor Weaver; however, U.S. District Court Judge Sean Cox permanently dismissed the three-count complaint, ruling Ms. Henderson failed to prove Mayor Weaver was aware of her complaint prior to firing her, writing: “The Court concludes that Henderson has not produced sufficient circumstantial evidence from which a reasonable jury could infer that Weaver knew of Ms. Henderson’s complaint to Mr. Chubb before she fired Henderson.”

Ms. Henderson had emailed Mr. Chubb one day after a purported conversation with Mayor Weaver’s administrative assistant, Maxine Murray. Ms. Murray “fearfully” told Ms. Henderson that the Mayor had asked her and a volunteer to direct water crisis contributions into the Mayor’s political fund, Karen about Flint, according to the suit. Mr. Chubb was serving as interim chief legal officer during Ms. Henderson’s suit, and said he was seeking the permanent appointment. Ms. Henderson speculated he gave the Mayor a “preview of information about her accused malfeasance” in order to “curry favor,” a speculation with which Mr. Chubb took exception. Judge Cox, in his opinion, noted: “Henderson seeks to prove Weaver’s knowledge by circumstantial evidence,” as he also dismissed a First Amendment claim by Ms. Henderson, ruling that her speech was not constitutionally protected, because she was operating in an official government capacity, not as a private citizen. At the same time, he was entitled to “absolute immunity” against defamation claims by Ms. Henderson, who alleged the Mayor had made false statements about her after her firing, writing: “Weaver is entitled to immunity, because her alleged statements were made in the scope of her executive authority.”

Is There Promise in PROMESA? The PROMESA Board has issued an RFP in an effort to secure an independent research team to conduct an investigation into Puerto Rico’s debt and its connection with the U.S. territory’s fiscal crisis, defining the scope to include:

  • a review of the factors contributing to the fiscal crisis in Puerto Rico, including changes in the economy, expansion of spending commitments and benefit programs, changes in the federal financing it receives and its dependence on debt to finance a structural budget deficit,
  • a review of Puerto Rico’s debt, the general use of the proceeds of borrowing, the relationship between debt and the structural budget deficit of Puerto Rico, the extent of its debt instruments and how Puerto Rico’s debt practices compare with the debt practices of large municipal states and jurisdictions, and
  • a review of debt issuance, disclosure and sale practices of Puerto Rico, including its interpretation of Puerto Rico’s constitutional debt limit.

It was also stated that proposers will be evaluated and selected based on their professional qualifications, the competitiveness of their economic proposal, the integrity and quality of their response to the RFP, their relevant experience in conducting research, their knowledge and experience in federal securities law, knowledge and experience in the municipal bond market, government budget and fiscal management, and the ability to commence work immediately—albeit failure to meet all the above areas will not necessarily disqualify a proposal.

The independent investigative team will report to the Special Investigation Committee of the Supervisory Board, composed of members Ana Matosantos, David Skeel, and Arthur González.

The Fiscal Straits of Federalism: constitutional, fiscal, and human challenges for state and local leaders.

08/11/17

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Good Morning! In this a.m.’s blog, we consider the dire state of Hartford, Connecticut and the ongoing constitutional and fiscal challenges to the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico.

Fiscal Heart for Hartford? With no state budget in sight, the first day of school looming, Moody’s this week gloomily wondered whether the capitol city can avoid chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy via a path of debt restructuring and labor concessions as it contemplates looming debt payments of $3.8 million next month, and then $26.9 million in tax anticipation note payments in October. Moreover, given the grim state of Connecticut’s own fisc—upon which Hartford relies for half its municipal budget, Halloween could bring more than fiscal ghouls. Its options, moreover, as we have previously noted, are slim: with one fifth of its municipal budget composed of fixed costs, the option of increasing taxes—in a city with the highest tax rates in the state—would risk the loss of key businesses, potentially reducing, rather than increasing vital revenues. Thus, the challenge of meeting increased debt service costs and rising OPEB and pension obligations seem to more and more point to municipal debt restructuring.

If anything, the fiscal challenge is further complicated by the uncertainty on the state front: Connecticut has yet to adopt the budget for the fiscal year that began on July 1st: legislators have been unable to achieve consensus on a new two-year plan the governor will sign to address the state’s own projected $3.5 billion deficit. Indeed, Gov. Daniel P. Malloy’s budget, which proposes shifts of state education aid from wealthier communities to poorer communities, promises difficult negotiations with an uncertain outcome. Patrice McCarthy, the deputy director and general counsel at the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, warned that while there were previous state budget impasses in 1991 and 2009, this year could be much worse for public school officials: “In those years, while we didn’t have a finalized budget, people had a better idea in each community about how much they’d be receiving: This year, everything is up in the air.”

Fundido. In Latin America, the word fundido can be translated to “dead beat;” while in English, the old expression that one cannot beat a dead horse might seem apt for the challenge confronting U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor Swain, who is presiding over the PROMESA version of a chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy process—a process created under the statute adopted by Congress which Theodore Olson, the former Solicitor General of the United States, this week described in an op-ed to the Wall Street Journal as a law which blatantly violates the Appointments Clause of the U.S Constitution.

Judge Swain this week approved an agreement intended to address creditors’ competing claims with regard to Puerto Rico’s sales tax revenue by the end of this year as part of an effort to resolve an agreement between the island’s two biggest creditor classes, General Obligation bondholders and COFINA bondholders, in part through appointing an agent for each side—agents charged with pursuing the best resolution for their debtor’s estate as a whole, as opposed to advocating for particular creditors of that debtor. (COFINA’s bonds are backed by Puerto Rico’s sales and use tax revenue, unlike Puerto Rico’s General Obligation debt, which carries a constitutional guarantee providing a claim on all of Puerto Rico’s revenues.) Thus, unsurprisingly, Judge Swain had been placed in the position of Solomon: she could threaten to cut the baby in half if the two sides do not reach an agreement by December 15th.  Here, the judicial combatants, who, together, claim to hold approximately half the U.S. territory’s $72 billion in debt, are fighting over which side has the primary claim on sales and use tax revenues.

Separately, Judge Swain this week has held off on responding to a request by creditors of Puerto Rico’s bankrupt power utility, PREPA, to appoint a receiver at the agency, denying a motion by a group of cities and towns to form an official committee in the case, whose attorneys’ fees would be paid by the island’s bankruptcy estate. Judge Swain informed the parties it was unclear whether the municipalities had valid claims against Puerto Rico’s government, a claim which, as we have previously noted, is critical, as Michael Rochelle, an attorney for the muncipios, told the judge his clients are confronted with budget cuts of as much as 50 percent; he plead: “This place will become Greece…We will have municipalities needing to be bankrupted.” Increasingly, too, there are fears that exorbitant legal fees, fees which some experts believe could run to in excess of $1 billion, are coming at the expense of Puerto Rico’s future. In so informing the muncipios, Judge Swain rejected a motion by several municipalities to have a committee representing their interests in Puerto Rico’s Title III case: she said that §1102 of the bankruptcy code allowed committees for creditors or equity security holders, but the municipalities are not the latter, and the municipalities’ principal concerns are not those of being creditors, adding that the municipalities are adequately represented without having their own committee.

The president of the Association of Puerto Rico Mayors, Rolando Ortiz, yesterday made clear the gravity of the fiscal situation, warning that 45 municipalities will be inoperative as early as the close of the fiscal year, under the fiscal plan submitted by Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and certified by the Federal Fiscal Control Board. He noted that the proposal would eliminate a loan of some $350 million, which was granted to municipalities in exchange for exempting public corporations from paying the tax on real property—or, as he stated: “From the fiscal point of view, it leaves us without protection of the judicial apparatus of the country and limits our capacity to serve to the citizens to the extent that they take away resources that we have always used to help the people that we attend in the different cities.”

Indeed, it appears the fiscal impact has already begun to have an effect on the pockets of municipal employees, who have experienced reductions in working hours in 22 municipalities: Arroyo, Toa Alta, Cabo Rojo, Yauco, Las Piedras, Juana Diaz, Comerío, Vieques, Aguadilla, Mayagüez, Toa Baja, Salinas, Adjuntas, Vega Baja, Sabana Grande, Villalba, and Trujillo Alt; five other municipalities had applied the reduction of working hours in previous years. (Ponce, Ciales, Luquillo, Maunabo, and Camuy.) The likely next step, he warned, would be that more municipalities will join the lawsuits filed by the municipalities of San Juan and Caguas—litigation in response to which they said: “The decision of (Judge Swain) what she is going to bring is more cases on the part of the municipalities.” The Mayor of Caguas, a municipality  founded in 1775 of about 150,000 located in the Central Mountain Range, William Miranda Torres, regretted the closure of the judicial door to the municipalities, describing it as a “scenario where they have made decisions, by blow and blow, to make use of our monies without allowing us fair participation,” describing it as “clear discrimination against the municipalities,” noting that the municipalities offer direct services to the citizenry, including  maintenance to infrastructure, health, safety, emergency management, programs to the elderly, garbage collection, cultural programs, fine arts programs and sports programs—adding: “The central government has been stripping municipalities of important resources to provide essential services that will now be very difficult to cover. The humanitarian crisis has come and closing doors give us very few possibilities to fight it from where we can best do it.”

For her part, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz recalled that her municipality continues along the route to sue under PROMESA’s Title VI, even as she praised the management of mayors who filed their appeal by way of Title III: “If the judge (Judge Swain) said it was not for Title III, at least those comrades dared to challenge PROMESA.”

Addressing Municipal Fiscal Distress at the White House and State House

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07/31/17

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Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider whether President Trump’s appointment of new White House Communications Director of Communications might have fiscal implications for Puerto Rico’s fiscal future; then we turn to leadership efforts in the Virginia General Assembly to refine what a state’s role in oversight of municipal fiscal distress might be. 

Might There Be a Change in White House Direction vis-à-vis Puerto Rico? Prior to his new appointment as White House Director of Communications, Anthony Scaramucci, more than a year ago, questioned whether the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico should be granted authority more akin to a sovereign nation than a state—power which would, were it granted, authorize Puerto Rico to authorize its muncipios the authority to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, writing in an op-ed, “The shame of leaving Puerto Rico in limbo,” in Medium a year ago last May, just as the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee was seeking to report the PROMESA legislation. Mr. Scaramucci then indicated that creditors wanted to file with regard to the actions taken by the Puerto Rican government as if they were “equal to the intransigence of the Kirchner government in Argentina, but in reality the situations (of both countries) are completely different.” He explained: Not only does Puerto Rico not have the same public policy options as Argentina, but its economy and ability to pay its debts are worse off: Not only does Puerto Rico not have the same public policy options as Argentina, but its economy and ability to pay its debts are worse off.” He further noted that House Speaker Paul Ryan (R.-Wis.) was in a difficult situation to deal with the situation in Puerto Rico, amid what he described as a “civil war” within the Republican Party—a war he described as “induced by Donald Trump.”

Now, of course, Mr. Scaramucci is in a starkly different position—one where he might be able to influence White House policy. Having written, previously, that the “tax code of the Commonwealth must be revised to be more friendly to economic development…Social assistance programs should be drastically reduced and labor laws softened,” Mr. Scaramucci has also called for public-private partnerships to make “essential” government services more efficient, such as the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority—noting: “Ultimately…we must also allow Puerto Rico to operate as a sovereign country or grant them legal protections more similar to those of the states (which is the preference of the Puerto Rican people).” He argued that the case of Puerto Rico represents a “failure on multiple levels: the insatiable desire of US investment funds for Puerto Rico triple exemption bonds; U.S. Congressmen of the status of the Congressionally-created territory, and misappropriation of funds by the Puerto Rican government: “We must now face our failures and take pragmatic measures to create a better future:  The tax code of the Commonwealth must be revised to be more friendly to economic development; social assistance programs should be drastically reduced, and labor laws softened.” He noted that public-private partnerships could be vital in rendering “essential” government services more efficient, such as the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, noting: “Ultimately, we must also allow Puerto Rico to operate as a sovereign country or grant them legal protections more similar to those of the states (which is the preference of the Puerto Rican people).” Referencing that, as in the Great Recession of 2008, he noted the case of Puerto Rico represents a “failure on multiple levels: the insatiable desire of US investment funds for Puerto Rico triple exemption bonds; U.S. Congressmen of the status of ELA (Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico), and misappropriation of funds by the Puerto Rican government…But as we did after 2008, we must now face our failures and take pragmatic measures to create a better future.”

Mr. Scaramucci’s comments came as the City or Pueblo of San Juan has filed a legal challenge to the PROMESA Oversight Board’s approval of the Government Development Bank (GDB) for Puerto Rico debt restructuring agreement: San Juan is seeking a declaratory judgement and injunctive relief against the PROMESA Oversight Board, the GDB, and the Puerto Rico Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority before U.S. Judge Laura Swain Taylor in the U.S. District Court for Puerto Rico—a judge by now immersed in multiple bankruptcy filings, after the Bastille Day PROMESA Board’s approval of a restructuring agreement for the GDB’s $4.8 billion in debt—an approval for which the Board asserted it had authority under PROMESA’s Title VI.

San Juan’s filing claims the GDB holds more than $152 million in San Juan deposits—deposits which the city asserts are the property of San Juan, and thereby ineligible for Title VI restructuring, which explicitly addresses only municipal bonds, loans, and other similar securities. San Juan then claims the GDB deposits are “secured,” unlike the funds which the GDB owes to municipal bondholders—even as the PROMESA Board’s approved Restructuring Support Agreement provides for the municipalities to vote in the same class as all the other GDB creditors, asserting that such a voting practice would be contrary to PROMESA. The suit also notes that, under Puerto Rico statutes, municipal depositors are allowed to set-off their deposits against their GDB loan balances; however, the Restructuring Support Agreement (RSA) is grossly inaccurate in accounting for these deposits against the loans and, thus, the agreement is breaching the law—asserting:

“The ultimate effect of the RSA would be to provide a windfall to the GDB’s bondholders by using the resources of San Juan and other municipalities for the payment of bondholder claims while imposing enormous losses on those same municipal depositors through the confiscation of their excess [special tax deposit] and their statutorily guaranteed right to setoff deposits at the GDB against their loans from the GDB.” The suit further charged that the PROMESA Board convened illegal executive private sessions concerning the creation of the RSA—sessions which included representatives of the GDB and FAFAA. (The federal statute only allows executive sessions with board members and its staff present, according to the suit.)  Thus, in its complaint , the city is requesting that Judge Swain find the board’s approval of the agreement invalid, and that Judge Swain further find that PROMESA and Article VI, Clause 2 of the U.S. Constitution preempt Puerto Rican laws and executive order that have stopped the municipalities from withdrawing their funds from the GDB for over a year.

Not Petering Out. In the Virginia Legislature, Del. Lashrecse Aird (D-Petersburg), the youngest woman ever elected to the House of Delegates, recently noted: “In this session, I’m carrying a very light load, just four or five bills, that are locality bill requests: As a lawmaker overall, you will always see me supporting those initiatives and those policy issues that reference those three priorities: jobs, education, and healthcare. I think that if I can execute on those priorities, that will definitely improve the quality of life for the citizens, the families and kids, not just for Petersburg but the entire district.” Del. Air noted that last year, the City of  Petersburg’s financial situation made headlines throughout the Commonwealth, and led to serious conversations about the financial health of Virginia’s cities and counties: “What we saw in Petersburg, in addition to a declining economy nationwide, was longstanding financial mismanagement, negligence, and declining cash balances dating back to 2009. And, what we saw in localities like Emporia, Martinsville, Lynchburg, Buena Vista—all classified as having significant fiscal stress—is that these historic cities were displaying similar indicators, and they were largely going unaddressed.” Thus, she played a key role in creating a work group which has examined local fiscal distress—and which has produced an action plan, a plan from which components have been incorporated into the state’s new budget: including:

  • improving how the Commonwealth of Virginia monitors fiscal activity and increases the level of oversight by the auditor of public accounts;
  • establishing a mechanism which is responsive to situations of local fiscal distress; and
  • providing readily available resources should intervention become necessary.

As a start, she noted that Virginia House has adopted a budget which allocates up to $500,000 to conduct intervention and remediation efforts in situations of local fiscal distress that have been previously documented by the Office of the State Secretary of Finance prior to January 1st, 2017. As part of a longer-term approach, the effort incorporates additional language establishing a Joint Subcommittee on Local Government Fiscal Stress, with the new subcommittee charged to review:

  • savings opportunities for increased regional cooperation and consolidation of services;
  • local responsibilities for service delivery of state-mandated or high-priority programs;
  • causes of fiscal stress; potential financial incentives and other governmental reforms for regional cooperation; and
  • the different taxing authorities of cities and counties.

Or, she she put it:

“An integral part of the approach we take towards addressing fiscal distress must also include conversations about electing capable local leadership and providing training in areas most critical to effective governance and financial management. Where there are gaps in knowledge and understanding, elected officials must be willing to educate themselves in every area necessary for good governance.”

The Indelicate Challenge of Restoring Political Authority in the Wake of Municipal Insolvency

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the historic Civil War municipality of Petersburg’s, Virginia’s steps back to solvency and restoration of municipal control, and then to the indelicate imbalance of fiscal power in Puerto Rico—and whether the federal preemption might be causing more fiscal damage to its fiscal future.

Returning to Solvency. The Petersburg, Virginia City Council last night approved its FY2018 budget, a budget which includes outsourcing jobs—with more than a dozen city employees slated to lose their jobs as a result. The new municipal budget includes an increase in water rates—an increase of nearly 15%–an increase the city’s elected officials deemed necessary in order to finance needed repairs, as well as to update its systems for billing and collections—and to cover its past due arrears of $1.9 million. The session came as the Council began discussions with regard to hiring a new city manager and police chief—and whether to beef up is personal property tax enforcement: the city estimates it could be losing as much as $7 million annually from inadequate collection efforts. The actions by the Mayor and Council reflect a restoration of municipal authority in the wake of state intervention.

The Unpromise of PROMESA? Neither the government of Puerto Rico, nor the PROMESA Oversight Board has been able to state how much in municipal bond interest payments will be made for the next fiscal year—even as the gates of the University of Puerto Rico have been locked, depriving the U.S. territory of the jewel in its crown. The University, which has relied upon 30% of its financing from the government—financing critical to Puerto Rico’s hopes to keep its most promising future generation on the island, rather than incentivized to leave for New York City or Miami—increasingly threatening to leave behind an older and less educated population, more dependent on governmental services, but less able to pay taxes. However, as the PROMESA Board struggles over its preemptive decision with regard to what percent of Puerto Rico’s debt obligations to its municipal bondholders should be mandated, (according to the Board’s March approved fiscal plan, the bonds most closely associated with Puerto Rico’s government would pay $404 million in debt service in the coming fiscal year—approximately one-eighth of the $3.28 billion debt service due), the question with regard to investing in Puerto Rico’s fiscal and physical future remains murky—indeed, murky enough that the balance between Puerto Rico’s $404 million in debt service costs versus investments in its future has been left hanging.

Part of the challenge of preemptive governance is, as we perceived in the first instance of the Michigan takeover of Flint, that there can be signal human and fiscal damage to life, property, and fiscal solvency. Thus, the imbalance where the federal takeover under PROMESA, the Act intended to serve as the fiscal guide through FY2026, is to what extent disinvestment in Puerto Rico’s physical infrastructure and its municipalities might aggravate, rather than restore the territory’s solvency and create a fiscal foundation for its future. And that future is at stake—a future where the gates of its premier university are locked, and where demographers report the loss of population of 61,874 in one year—and where last Sunday’s plebiscite witnessed a drop of more than 50% in voter participation, with markedly reduced percentages in Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities—where participation was 23%, less than a third the level of 1998. Demographer Raúl Figueroa noted: “The population is declining…To give people an idea, from 2015 to 2016, the loss of population was 61, 874,” adding that every year between 1% and 2% of the population is lost. The Mayors of Yauco (a municipality which lost nearly 10% of its population over the last decade) and Ponce, Puerto Rico’s second largest city, known as the City of Lions (population of 194,636), founded in 1692, an important trading and distribution center, as well as a key port of entry—indeed, one of the busiest ports in the Caribbean, which has seen a 9.36% decline in its population—a decline which Mayor Maria Mayita Meléndez, attribute to emigration: Mayor Meléndez notes that since 2006, more than 25,000 Puerto Ricans have left Ponce.

Elections, Federalism, & Inequitable Fiscal Outcomes

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider yesterday’s overwhelming vote in Puerto Rico for statehood—and why that will likely be ignored with less equitable fiscal implications.

Federally Sanctioned Fiscal Inequity? In the fifth such vote on a non-binding referendum, Puerto Ricans, yesterday, overwhelmingly, voted for statehood—sending the issue back again to Congress—which, last time, in 2012, opted not to act.  In order for Puerto Rico to become the nation’s 51st state, Congress would have to act. 502,616 voted for statehood, against 7,779, who voted in favor of independence, and 6,821 to retain the current territorial status 6,821. Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, in the wake of the vote, noted: “Today Puerto Ricans are sending a strong and clear message to the world, claiming equal rights as American citizens…It is now up to us to bring those results to Washington with the strength of democratic exercise, supervised by a Mission of National and International observers: this mission will be reporting to Congress and the federal government on this historic election.”  

Since Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory after the Senate, on February 20, 1917, voted in support of H.R. 9533, to “provide a civil government for Puerto Rico.” The Act, falling between statehood and colonial status, has meant that Puerto Rico has remained in quasi-colonial status, with less favorable shipping laws than neighboring nations and less equitable treatment under Medicaid for its citizens—notwithstanding their U.S. citizenship. Moreover, it has meant Puerto Rico is entitled to no representation in the U.S. Senate—and has only a non-voting delegate in the U.S. House of Representatives. Similarly, because it is not defined as a state, Puerto Rico does not receive entitlement funding for Medicare—as do the fifty states.

The outcome is almost certain to be ignored by the White House and Congress. It leaves Puerto Rico’s efforts to restructure its nearly $120 billion in debt—some six times what Detroit faced in the largest municipal bankruptcy in. U.S. history—in a quasi-colonial status, where current federal laws provide competing Caribbean nations with more favorable trade status, but less favorable costs for shipping, as well far less in Medicaid assistance compared to states.

The British Broadcasting Service, the Beeb, posits that a GOP-led Congress is wary of acting on the vote, because it would likely mean adding two Democratic votes in the closely-divided U.S. Senate—as well as opening the fiscal gates for equitable treatment on a par with the other 50 states.  

A Hole in Puerto Rico’s Fiscal Safety Net: Should Congress Amend Chapter 9 Municipal Bankruptcy?

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Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the growing physical and fiscal breakdown in the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico as it seeks, along with the oversight PROMESA Board, an alternative to municipal bankruptcy—but we especially focus on the fiscal plight of the territory’s many, many municipalities—or muncipios, which, because Puerto Rico is not a state, do not have access to chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy .   

Tropical Fiscal Typhoon. When former President Ronald Reagan signed Public Law 100-597, legislation authorizing municipal into law 29 years ago, no one was contemplating a U.S. territory, such as Puerto Rico—so that the federal statute, in coherence and compliance with the concepts of dual sovereignty, which served as the unique foundation of the nation, provided that a city, county, or other municipality could only file for chapter 9 if authorized by state law—something a majority of states have not authorized. Unsurprisingly, none of us contemplated or thought about U.S. territories, such as Puerto Rico, Guam, etc.: Puerto Rico is to be considered a state for purposes of the bankruptcy code, except that, unlike a state, it may not authorize its municipalities (and by extension, its utilities) to resolve debts under Chapter 9 of the code. Ergo, no municipio in Puerto Rico has access to a U.S. bankruptcy court, even as 36 of the island’s 78 muncipios have negative budget balances; 46% are experiencing fiscal distress. Their combined total debt is $3.8 billion. In total, the combined debt borne by Puerto Rico’s municipalities is about 5.5% of Puerto Rico’s outstanding debt.  

The fiscal plight of Puerto Rico’s municipalities has also been affected by the territory’s dismal fiscal condition: From 2000 to 2010, the population of Puerto Rico decreased, the first such decrease in census history for Puerto Rico, declining by 2.2%; but that seemingly small percentage obscures a harsher reality: it is the young and talented who are emigrating to Miami, New York City, and other parts on the mainland, leaving behind a declining and aging population—e.g. a population less able to pay taxes, but far more dependent on governmental assistance. At the same time, Puerto Rico’s investment in its human infrastructure has contributed to the economy’s decline: especially the disinvestment in its human infrastructure: a public teacher’s base salary starts at $24,000—even as the salary for a legislative advisor for Puerto Rico starts at $74,000. That is, if Puerto Rico’s youngest generation is to be its foundation for its future—and if its leaders are critical to local fiscal and governing leadership in a quasi-state where 36 of the island’s 78 municipalities, or just under half, are in fiscal distress—but, combined, have outstanding debt of about $3.8 billion; something will have to give. These municipalities, moreover, unlike Detroit, or San Bernardino, or Central Falls, have no recourse to municipal bankruptcy: they are in a fiscal Twilight Zone. (Puerto Rico has a negative real growth rate; per capita income in 2010 was estimated at $16,300; 46.1% of the territory’s population is in poverty, according to the most recent 2106 estimate; but that poverty is harsher outside of San Juan.) A declining and aging population adversely affects economic output—indeed, as former Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr who steered the city out of the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history recognized, the key to its plan of debt adjustment was restoring its economic viability.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who is of Puerto Rican descent, has indicated there should be a more favorable interpretation of the law to make the system fairer to Puerto Rico: to allow the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico to create its own emergency municipal bankruptcy measures—something, however, which only Congress and the Trump administration could facilitate. It seems clear that Justice Sotomayor does believe Puerto Rico ought to be considered the equivalent of a state, i.e. empowered to create its own bankruptcy laws. However, as the First Circuit Court of Appeals has interpreted, Puerto Rico is barred from enacting its own bankruptcy laws: it is treated as a state—in a country of dual federalism wherein the federal government, consequently, has no authority to authorize state access to bankruptcy protection.