Three Different Roads to Fiscal Recovery

November 6, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the next critical step in Detroit’s emergence from the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history; then we consider the ongoing legal and fiscal recovery of Ferguson, Missouri, before, finally, trying to go to school in Puerto Rico.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

The Road Out of State Oversight. The city of Detroit expects to get the keys back to its financial house this spring for the first time since it exited bankruptcy in 2014. The question is whether it can keep the house in order once state oversight ends — and local elected officials regain control over budgets and contracts. With two balanced budgets and an audit of a third expected in May, city officials anticipate they will be released early next year from the strict financial controls required under Chapter 9 restructuring. The shift is especially important as voters cast ballots Tuesday for the Detroit leaders who will chart the city’s direction. Both Mayor Mike Duggan and challenger Coleman Young II have offered plans on how they would guide the city financially. Gov. Rick Snyder said he is optimistic about the city’s ability to manage finances on its own. “They’ve been hitting those milestones, and I hope they continue to hit them — that’s a good thing for all of us,” Snyder told The Detroit News.

There is evidence that the oversight is no longer warranted: Detroit’s credit has been upgraded among rating agencies, its employment rate is up and property values are climbing. The city, in a financial update last month, noted economic development in some neighborhoods and Detroit’s downtown, job creation efforts and growth in multifamily home construction. Experts say bankruptcy allowed Detroit to drop billions in debt, setting it on a solid financial path. But the city faces massive future payments for past borrowing and pension obligations that are difficult to plan for. “It really takes the economic environment to cooperate, as well as some very good and focused financial management. Right now, that seems to be all there,” said Lisa Washburn, managing director of the Concord, Massachusetts-based firm Municipal Market Analytics. “Eventually, I suspect there will be another economic downturn and how that affects that region, that’s something outside of their control. But it can’t be outside of their field of vision.”

Post-oversight protections. The landmark municipal bankruptcy set forth strict conditions to help Detroit avoid falling back into debt. A nine-member commission, which under the law includes Duggan and City Council President Brenda Jones, currently signs off on the city’s four-year budget plan, certain contracts and transactions. It has also empowered to review, modify and approve operational budgets. The commission was established as a condition of a financial aid package approved by the state Legislature to defray cuts to Detroit retiree pensions and shield the Detroit Institute of Arts collection from bankruptcy creditors. There are still protections even if the city is released from oversight, Detroit officials note. The state-mandated commission would continue to meet monthly and could step back in if necessary, the city’s Chief Financial Officer John Hill said. The city would continue to hold revenue estimation conferences in February and September to set budgeting limits for each fiscal year, as well as develop a four-year financial plan. Detroit’s numbers are headed in the right direction when it comes to property values, income tax collection, median income and employment. Among the positives:

■The city’s taxable value is projected to climb by about $100 million, from $6.4 billion based on the taxable values from the end of the 2016 calendar year to $6.5 billion at the end of this year, according to data from the CFO’s office.

■The city projects an increase of about $30 million in its residential real estate — the first boost in the property class in almost two decades. Detroit’s level of owner-occupied homes went from a low of 59 percent in 2010 to a projected 74 percent in 2018, based on findings from the reappraisal, officials say.

■City figures show income tax collection has gone from $263.2 million in the 2016 fiscal year to a forecast of $285 million for 2017, based on unaudited figures.

■The city’s employment has gone up from 206,568 in January 2014 to 233,068 this July, according to labor statistics.

■Detroiters’ median household income was $28,099 in 2016, a 7.5 percent hike from the previous year, according to U.S. Census estimates released in September.

Not as encouraging are poverty and crime rates. The poverty rate has dipped 4 percentage points to 35.7 percent, Detroit’s lowest since 2008. But the rate is still the highest among large U.S. cities, as is the city’s violent crime rate. “You can’t ignore what’s happening in the downtown and Midtown, but Detroit is obviously so much bigger than that,” said Matt Butler, a vice president at Moody’s Investors Service and lead analyst for Detroit. “The real story here going forward is how is Detroit able to re-create that development in other areas of the city.”

The city filed for bankruptcy in the summer of 2013 and officially exited on Dec. 10, 2014, with a plan to shed $7 billion in debt and pump $1.7 billion into restructuring and city service improvements over a decade. Last month, Moody’s Investors Service upgraded Detroit’s credit outlook and praised the city for its gains. Detroit’s economy “remains vulnerable,” the report noted, but adds it “is showing real progress.” Detroit recorded a general fund surplus of just over $63 million in fiscal year 2016 and expects an additional surplus for 2017 of about $38.5 million. For 2015, the surplus was about $71 million. But Moody’s warns of economic unknowns that could pose future problems, namely the massive contributions that loom for its two pension funds.

A funding plan forged through Detroit’s bankruptcy coined the “grand bargain” relieved the city of much of those payments through 2023. But in 2024, the city will have to start funding a substantial portion of the pension obligations from its general fund for the General Retirement System and Police and Fire Retirement System. The initial payment was first contemplated at $113.9 million, but city officials later said estimates had been off, in part because of outdated mortality tables. If earnings meet the plan of debt adjustment’s assumed return rate of 6.75 percent, the city’s contribution in 2024 would be $167 million. If there are no earnings, it could soar to $344 million or more. Contributions to the pensions would be annual and could continue for 20-30 years. Investment returns have varied greatly. To minimize a shortfall, the city’s administration established a dedicated Retiree Protection Fund that’s expected to pull together $335 million in the coming years to help meet the required contributions. The City Council would contribute a dedicated amount from its general fund each year. So far, $105 million has been set aside. Moody’s has called the fund a “credit positive action,” noting, however, that once it’s depleted in 2033 the city will be required to fund annual pension payments directly from its budget.

Retooling debt structure. CFO Hill notes that today his greatest concern is restructuring the city’s debt, so, last month, the city solicited requests for proposals from investment banks which could help address debt tied to past capital borrowing and millages—or, as Mr. Hill put it: “We think revenues should increase, but if we can also deal with the structure of the debt and lower those payments then the city will be much better off,” said Hill, adding a plan, he said, would “set the city on the course to have dealt with two of its major challenges.” Indeed, the issue of the city’s debt and finance has been, unsurprisingly, an issue in the mayoral campaign, where Mayor Duggan, during a debate, said Detroit’s City Council has been rigorous in making sure that we “watch every dollar that we have,” and he expects the city will be released from state fiscal oversight this spring—adding that, under his administration, “We won’t ever lose self-determination again.” In response, his opponent, Coleman Young, counters that Detroit will not fully regain budget and contract authority back from the state; moreover, he vowed he would, if elected, find efficiencies and reduce costs—and cut what he deemed the “top heavy” staff to manager ratio, adding: “These are some of the things I am willing to do to make sure we have a balanced budget and our finances get back in order.”  “In theory, it would be great to have as much money plowed into redevelopment as possible, but that comes at a cost,” she said. “With less than seven years away from having to start making pension payments again, you don’t want to find yourself in a budgetary hole at a time when you can see it coming.”

Ferguson’s Steep Road to Recovery. Ferguson, Missouri, a small city of about 21,000, which in 2010 was 67.4% black, and 29.3% white, with 8,192 households of which 39.1% had children under the age of 18 living with them, and 31.5% had a female householder with no husband present—and where 32.9% were non-families, is a relatively young municipality: the median age in the city was 33.1 years, while 10.3% were 65 years of age or older. The gender makeup of the city was 44.8% male and 55.2% female. It is a city where the Mayor is directly elected (Mayor James Knowles ran unopposed in 2014 in an election where voter turnout was approximately 12%.) Ferguson is one of 89 municipalities in St. Louis County, where the county police have jurisdiction throughout. It is a city where the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown still weighs.

Last Friday, in Ferguson, as part of a street theater protest, activists set fire to a model depicting the Ferguson Commission report in front of City Hall: it was a demonstration intended to mock political leaders and the city police department’s response to crime and protests in the city. The demonstration came just two weeks after St. Louis police, using a technique called “kettling,” in which exits are blocked in and people are arrested en masse, arrested dozens of protesters, residents, journalists, and legal observers as people protested, for a third day, after former police officer Jason Stockley was found not guilty in the 2011 fatal shooting of Mr. Lamar–and after Mayor Lyda Krewson challenged the city to recommit itself to reforms laid out in the Ferguson Commission report—the nearly 200-page report which had proposed 189 “calls to action,” and marked the culmination of nearly 10 months of work for a commission established by former Gov. Jay Nixon in 2015, in response to the shooting death of Michael Brown, a black teenager, by a white Ferguson police officer—a report in which Commissioners grouped their post-Ferguson calls for action into three categories: Justice for All, involving urgent police and court reforms; Youth at the Center, exploring policies to promote better lives for children; and Opportunity to Thrive, laying out changes to address economic inequalities.

Regional leaders have largely focused on the “Justice for All” component of the report, overhauling municipal court practices such as jailing defendants who could not pay their fines, even as discussion has commenced on strengthening the Civilian Oversight Board, equipping police with body cameras, and developing police policies for using force and for handling public demonstrations. The report also called for improving the public’s relationship with law enforcement through community policing, by encouraging police departments to facilitate better interactions between officers and those they serve, and allowing the public to weigh in on programs and policies through forums. Starsky Wilson, the former co-chair of the Ferguson Commission, in a recent interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, noted that while police accountability and reform has clearly been the starting point for those revisiting the Commission’s findings, he hoped elected leaders would not forget the aspects of the report devoted to building a better St. Louis for the city’s children: “It can’t just be about police. That’s just one piece of the puzzle.”

Nevertheless, the Ferguson protests appear to have produced changes, particularly in Ferguson itself, where new city and police leaders came into power. The state Legislature also passed a municipal reform statute, the most significant element of which lowered the cap on revenue from traffic tickets: It can now only make up 12.5 percent of a city’s general operating revenue in St. Louis County, and 20 percent elsewhere, down from 30 percent. Moreover, municipalities which fail to submit a timely and accurate report on their finances to the state auditor will immediately lose jurisdiction over their courts. (The previous law did little to punish the many courts that ignored the limits.) The impact was swift: Ferguson’s Municipal Court revenue plummeted from $2.7 million in 2014 to roughly $500,000 in 2016.

In St. Louis, Mr. Wilson cites several achievements, including the creation of a Civilian Oversight Board and the decision to raise the city’s minimum wage, both in 2015, though state lawmakers negated the wage effort this year. Meanwhile, other bills have been introduced to address some of the Ferguson Commission’s findings, including a measure being considered by the St. Louis Board of Aldermen limiting when St. Louis police could use pepper spray and tear gas. Sponsoring Alderman Megan Green, 15th Ward, reports she hopes it will serve as a starting point for officials to discuss revising the city’s vague ordinance against unlawful assembly. Asked what changes were made in the city police department in response to the Ferguson report, spokeswoman Schron Jackson said the St. Louis Police Department has begun training officers in de-escalation tactics and how implicit bias may affect their work, as well as how to work with victims of violence who are gay, transgender, and bisexual. These kinds of higher training standards were among recommendations laid out by the Ferguson Commission. Additionally, Ms. Jackson said, the department has launched its Community Engagement and Organizational Development Division, which carries out community outreach programs.

But Mr. Wilson questions these early efforts: “When we see police arrest more than 300 people over 18 days, then we have to ask how seriously the increased training requirements were implemented…and how much culture change is actually happening, around use of force: What were the lessons that were learned surrounding de-escalation?” Allegations that police have improperly used force in recent weeks have already prompted the ACLU to challenge St. Louis police tactics in federal court. They have also sparked conversations at the St. Louis Board of Aldermen about when force should be used—and who should investigate afterward. The aldermanic public safety committee has already interviewed Maj. Mary Warnecke, deputy Commander of the department’s Bureau of Professional Standards, and Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner. Attorney Gardner has pitched the formation of a new unit in her office to investigate use-of-force incidents and officer-involved shootings, arguing that it is no longer acceptable for police to be investigating themselves.

In the long-term, the Ferguson Commission recommended shifting deadly force investigations to the Missouri Highway Patrol and the state attorney general—a recommendation in response to which Gov. Eric Greitens said he was open to considering. City lawmakers, too, are exploring Attorney Gardner’s idea, crafting legislation expanding the circuit attorney’s prosecutorial powers and giving the office the ability to open investigations into police officers’ use of force, according to Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed, who notes that events such as the Stockley verdict can be catalysts for change, if legislators work quickly enough: noting that the creation of a Civilian Oversight Board is proof of that. The Aldermen had attempted to institute an oversight board in 2006, but the bill, which included subpoena power, was vetoed by former Mayor Francis Slay. Ferguson finally opened the door for its creation, President Reed said, but subpoena power did not have the requisite support to make it into the final product. With the continued unrest, a new mayor and a more open-minded board, Mr. Reed sees a window of opportunity to revisit subpoena power: “I see a readiness for people now to step outside of what I would call their normal comfort zone and support efforts that probably in a normal state they would be a little more hesitant to support.” Mayor Krewson supports providing subpoena power to the city’s Civilian Oversight Board, which investigates complaints against police, and has said she agrees with community leaders who have demanded local police change how they handle use-of-force investigations and prosecutions. She also has committed to establishing a Racial Equity Fund, a proposed 25-year city fund dedicated to promoting racial equity in the region. “I know I don’t have the decision-making power across all of these things, but I am committed to adding my political will to the push to find the right way to get those things done,” Mayor Krewson said after the first week of protests over Stockley. One thing the Mayor says she has the power to do immediately is oust interim Police Chief Lawrence O’Toole, who declared police “owned the night” after law enforcement used a technique called “kettling” to surround and arrest more than 100 people on a single evening. She has shown no indication that she will act before the chief hiring process plays out.  “We have all the answers we need in the report. The road map exists. The longer (Krewson) chooses not to act, the longer our city hurts,” said Charli Cooksey, a catalyst with the Forward Through Ferguson advocacy group. ‘Not a short-term endeavor.’ There may be a long road ahead in making changes laid out in the report a reality, but leaders have pointed to some encouraging signs. Wilson says he has noticed a more diverse group of people engaging in disruption this time, suggesting that people understand the problems don’t amount to “black people’s issues” alone. “These are justice issues. Racial inequity harms the entire region and all people,” he said.

Forward Through Ferguson, the advocacy group that grew out of the Ferguson Commission, plans to knock on as many as 4,000 doors to get feedback before kicking off a series of policy campaigns next spring. “It’s not a short-term endeavor,” Ms. Cooksey said: “Diverse stakeholders in the region have to be committed to this for years to come.” But those inspired to run for office after the events of Ferguson, such as Rasheen Aldridge, a former Ferguson commissioner and now 5th Ward Democratic Committeeman, contend that new leaders have emerged at the state and local levels who have a better understanding of why young people have been protesting in recent weeks. “We have new people at the table, folks who are for the people, who haven’t been bought out and who haven’t been around for a while,” Aldridge said: “They’re willing to do the work.”

Learning about Fiscal & Physical Recovery. The Department of Education of Puerto Rico expects to open 80 percent of the 1,113 public schools on the island next Monday after having relaxed the criteria to enable the schools by the pressure of parents, mothers and students who demand a return to normalcy. Through twitter, the Department of Education published the list of schools that will open. The slowness in the process of resumption of classes on the island has been criticized by parents, educators, and even legislators who complain that six weeks after the passage of hurricane Maria on the island, only 152 schools have been opened (13 percent of the total) in the educational regions of San Juan, Ponce, Mayagüez and Bayamón. Groups of parents and teachers have held protests; the Federation of Teachers of Puerto Rico (FMPR) has called for a massive demonstration for November 9th to press for the opening of closed schools.  Members of the school community claim that many of the schools are able to operate, with water, no debris, or damage that poses a danger to students, but have not been opened. Even a mother of a special education student started a hunger strike against the DE in Hato Rey to demand that classes be resumed at the Urban Elementary School in Guaynabo, because the prolonged closure is having adverse effects on her child’s health: “Children of special education, when you take away their world, when you take away their school, you take away their therapies, you are leaving them unarmed. It is another hurricane that is reaching them: “I am seeing my daughter break down day by day, I am seeing my daughter who has started to attack herself, something that five years ago she did not do.”

The criticism focuses on the slowness of the work of the US Army Corps of Engineers and a company that contracted to inspect the schools and certify that they do not represent a danger to students and that they have water service, they are free of debris and fumigated. Most the the re-opened schools are without electricity: even the education unions FMPR and National Union of Educators and Education Workers (Unete) maintain that the limited opening of schools could be part of a supposed plan to close schools and eliminate teacher positions, something which had been happening before the impacts of hurricanes Irma and Maria, when Puerto Rico’s public education system had, after severe budget cuts, closed 167 schools—and suffered a decline of some 44,000 students. To date, some 800 schools which have been inspected, but there are still another 300—leaving Education Secretary Keleher to describe her frustration with the “slowness of the inspection process,” and that the Department will not use the Corps of Engineers or the CSA private firm for these works. The Secretary added that there are about 44 schools which will not open because of structural damage; she noted that for schools that will not open, “We are going to relocate that population or to bring them a temporary school, which is like a wagon.”