The Phyical, Fiscal, & Governing Challenges of Rcovery

eBlog

May 3, 2019

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the obstacles to facilitating hurricane recovery assistance to Puerto Rico, before assessing the fiscal and physical status of Flint, Michigan.

Getting Aid to Puerto Rico. Senate Appropriations Chair Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) has offered the Democrats on the Committee proposed language which would accelerate the disbursement of funds to Puerto Rico, albeit with greater supervision and restrictions—but, critically, which would unblock the impasse so far barring Congress from passing legislation to address recent natural disasters. While the Chair has not made public his proposed language, he has shared it with Ranking Member Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). Chair Shelby’s proposed language would not include new allocations for the U.S. territory in addition to the $600 million in food assistance funds which have not been opposed by the President—and $5 million focused on studying the impact of that nutritional aid. Here, Chairman Shelby’s offer came hours after on the pending disaster allocation project was reportedly briefly discussed at Tuesday’s Oval Office meeting with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D.-Ca.)—a meeting called by the President to discuss his newly proposed $2 billion infrastructure plan—a plan for which the proposed $2 billion remains unexplained and unfunded.

The Congressional Democratic Leaders left the session hopeful that there is interest to agree soon with consensus on a path to unblock critical natural disaster relief across the nation—relief to date blocked by the White House due to apparent opposition to any relief to Puerto Rico. There appeared to be some sense that the efforts have achieved progress—or, as one participant noted, in quoting the President: “I’m going to keep out” of this discussion—seemingly meaning he would not object. However, another source from the White House indicated that he understood that President Trump did not say that he would stay out of the discussions, but rather that an agreement must be reached; while Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla) tweeted that some progress was occurring in bipartisan talks. The House version approved at the beginning of the year includes $600 million in food assistance for Puerto Rico, $25 million to restore the Martín Peña Canal, $5 million to finance a study on the elimination of emergency nutritional assistance in the wake of Hurricane Maria—and restoration of the matching of funds that the government of Puerto Rico has to make in order to obtain the reimbursements of FEMA for the emergency measures. (In the wake of the President’s refusal to grant more funds to Puerto Rico, President Trump accepted that the Senate bill included the allocations related to nutritional assistance, but no other initiative for the island.

The negotiations come as the House is scheduled to pass legislation next week that adds another $3 billion in appropriations to address the March floods in the Midwest—legislation which retains the funds originally ratified for Puerto Rico last January. Indeed, at the White House meeting, the House and Senate Democratic leaders, and the President, agreed to work towards a legislative plan that allocates $ 2 billion to finance improvements to the transportation infrastructure of the United States—albeit without any agreement from whence such funds would come.

Wherefore Restoration of Self-Governance Authority? Meanwhile it appears President Trump plans to nominate the current PROMESA Oversight Board members to serve their terms through the end of August—plans which have gained praise from Democrats in Congress, as it may avert an interruption of the Board’s efforts to bolster the U.S. territory’s economy and fiscal management. The announcement came as the PROMESA Board prepared to launch law suits seeking to claw back payments made on and fees paid for more than $6 billion of Puerto Rico bonds. That is, the ongoing governance quandary with regard to whether a federal circuit court, the unelected oversight board, or the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico will actually be permitted to decide on the island’s future—a future further confused when, last February, the U.S. 1st Circuit Court of Appeals held in favor of municipal bondholders that the method of appointment of the board, as found in the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act, was unconstitutional: ergo, for the PROMESA Board to continue to operate beyond May 16th, the court ruled the President must nominate and the Senate confirm the Board members. The President, in a posting to the White House website, noted he intends to nominate the current seven members to serve out their terms. (According to the PROMESA each term is three years, so if the Senate confirms the members, their terms would end on Aug. 31st.)

It is unclear how the U.S. Senate will react—especially in the wake of a White House statement: “Mismanagement, corruption, and neglect continues to hurt the people of Puerto Rico who deserve better from their government…The most important component for future health and growth of Puerto Rico is financial constraint, reduced debt, and structural reforms…The work of the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico is providing the stability and oversight needed to address these chronic issues that will bring hope of a brighter future for Puerto Rico.” Given the exploding debt and deficits under the Trump administration, the statement appears most ironic.

Nevertheless, House Natural Resources Committee Chair Raúl Grijalva (D-Az.) hailed the move: “The President’s decision to nominate the members of the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico for Senate confirmation is welcome. Democrats supported PROMESA largely to enable Puerto Rico to restructure and reduce its debts. If the 1st Circuit’s ruling invalidating the original appointments had not been addressed, the Board would have collapsed and three years of work on debt restructuring would have been wasted….We are close to a final restructuring agreement on the largest remaining block of Puerto Rican debt, and it’s in the interests of the Puerto Rican people to finalize that agreement without interruption,” Chairman Grijalva noted, for his Committee, which oversees Puerto Rico. Similarly, Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y) noted: “To essentially start over with new appointments to the Oversight Board would have injected serious uncertainty and chaos into the debt restructuring process…While I support the reappointment of these members to the Board, I will continue holding them to account to ensure they are always acting in the best interest of the people of Puerto Rico…Austerity measures are not the answer for Puerto Rico, and I’ll continue pushing the Board to put ordinary Puerto Ricans before Wall Street creditors and hedge funds.”

The PROMESA Board also released a statement welcoming the President’s announcement, with its statement coming in the wake of its request to the U.S. 1st Circuit Court of Appeals to extend the May 16 deadline for acting as the Board; the PROMESA Board has also filed a petition for certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court to review the appeals court’s February decision.

Not in Like Flint. Five years on, the Flint water crisis is nowhere near over: the state-caused fiscal and physical emergency devastating lives, assessed property values, and public trust continues. The Flint River courses some 142 miles through mid-Michigan, before a noticeable change occurs as it flows southwest into the city of Flint, where, abruptly, it is marked by concrete slopes, capped with wire fences, flank the water—adjacent to decaying bridge piers protruding from the center of the river. It is almost as if it were a cemetery to mark the five years since the city’s water source switch which, in a decision by a state appointed Emergency Manager—it is, rather, as studies have demonstrated, a municipality with drinking water lead levels nearly twice the amount that is supposed to trigger action under U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards: That is, it is a municipality where the state action threatens adverse neurological effects in children, including reduced IQ and aggressive behavior; in a 6-month-old weighing 18 pounds, it takes just 12 millionths of an ounce of lead in the child’s bloodstream, about the same as one grain of salt, to exceed the level that the Centers for Disease Control considers a risk for children. That is, for a mother and father—leaving seems a vital goal—but for the municipality, such departures can have devastating implications for assessed property values and income taxes. Perhaps fortunately for the city, its budget only assumes some $4.6 million in property taxes—less than a third of what it anticipates in income taxes; however, therein lies a fiscal risk: while the city’s water system operators report they have significantly reduced lead since 1991, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency first adopted a rule that mandates monitoring and treatment to reduce contamination caused by corrosion and other factors related to lead pipes, EPA notified the Governor there remained “serious and ongoing concerns with the safety of Flint’s drinking water system,” including “continuing delays and lack of transparency” in the state’s response. Flint switched back to the Detroit water system three and a half years ago, but public health effects from lead exposure prompted emergency declarations from the state and federal governments in early 2016. The city then launched an aggressive rehabilitation campaign, and, in the past three years, crews have explored 21,298 homes and replaced lead service lines at 8,260. The work should finish in July, according to Jameca Patrick-Singleton, Flint’s Chief Recovery Officer.

The most recent testing of Flint’s drinking water, sourced again from Detroit, marked lead at four parts per billion, well clear of the 15 that requires action. Those results account for a 90th-percentile rating: in other words, 90 percent of the homes comply with the federal standard. Nevertheless, Mayor Karen Weaver notes that tests will continue, and according to Patrick-Singleton, Mayor Weaver will not lift the city’s emergency declaration until the scientific and medical communities clear the drinking water.

Governance: Creating & Responding (or failing to respond) to a Human, Physical, & Fiscal Crisis.  Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office has fired special prosecutor Todd Flood from the Flint water criminal prosecution team because of documents discovered in a government building, which Michigan Solicitor Fadwa Hammoud confirmed Monday. Here, the special prosecutor’s contract expired on April 16, and he had been advised last week that the state would not be renewing his contract. The Solicitor Mr. Flood’s termination to the recent realization that legal “discovery was not fully and properly pursued from the onset of this investigation.” Last Friday, prosecutors asked a Genesee County judge for a six-month delay in the involuntary manslaughter case against former Michigan Health and Human Services director Nick Lyon after finding a “trove of documents” related to the Flint water crisis in the basement of a state building. (Mr. Flood had been named a special assistant attorney general in the Flint criminal cases after serving as a special prosecutor, serving more than three years: an appointee of former Attorney General Bill Schuette, Mr. Flood’s authority was curbed significantly when Mr. Hammoud was put in charge of the Flint prosecution, and then brought in Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy to help the prosecution team.) Mr. Hammoud noted that Mr. Flood’s departure reflected the department’s commitment “to execute the highest standards” in the Flint prosecutions.

For his part, Mr. Flood noted: “In the time we have spent in Flint, we interviewed over 400 people, reviewed millions of
pages of discovery, and took pleas to advance the investigation: We conducted multiple court hearings and preliminary exams, placed hundreds of exhibits into evidence and successfully bound defendants over for trial. This complex case of official wrong-doing and betrayal of public trust has been prosecuted with the utmost attention to the professional standards that justice demands. I walk away knowing that I gave everything I had to give to this case. The people of Flint deserved nothing less.”

Mr. Flood originally charged 15 people in the Flint prosecutions; he struck plea deals with seven defendants who have pleaded no contest to misdemeanors; he successfully convinced 67th District Court judges to bind over for trial Mr. Lyon and former Chief Medical Executive Eden Wells on criminal charges related to the 2014-15 Legionnaires’ disease outbreak which led to the death of 12 individuals and sickened at least 79 others.

Preliminary exams against former gubernatorially-appointed Flint Emergency Manager Darnell Earley, and Howard Croft, Flint’s former Public Works Director, were recently suspended as the Attorney General’s office continues its review of all of the criminal cases; it remains unclear what connection the recently rediscovered boxes have to Mr. Lyon, who has been charged with involuntary manslaughter in the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak: he is accused of failing to warn the public in a timely manner about the respiratory disease before former Gov. Rick Snyder informed the public about it in mid-January 2016.

Will Justice Be Done? Mayor Weaver, in a statement Monday, noted: “I respect the decision that the Solicitor General has made regarding the changes to the prosecution team. I will continue to voice my desires to have truth, transparency, and justice for Flint residents…I ask that we not get caught up on the changes, but that we continue to keep the focus where it should be, and that is on making the residents whole after such a traumatic experience.”

The Governance Responsibility to Protect a City’s Children

October 10, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we report on the physical and fiscal challenges of the Detroit Public Schools, before zooming south to assess whether the complex municipal financing in Puerto Rico’s recovery has perhaps exacerbated the U.S. territory’s debt challenges.

Protecting a City’s Children. A key challenge in Detroit’s plan of debt adjustment from the nation’s largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy was restoring trust in its public schools—a critical step if families with kids were going to move from the suburbs into the emptied city. That, of course, required making the schools not just trustworthy places for learning, but also safe—and not just safe from a gang perspective, but especially here from water contamination—Flint, not so far away, after all, is on many parents’ minds. Thus, the school district is developing plans to make drinking water safe inside its buildings, especially after a review of testing data shows one school had more than 54 times the allowable amount of lead under federal law, while another exceeded the regulated copper level by nearly 30 times. The Detroit News reviewed hundreds of pages of water reports for 57 buildings which tested for elevated levels of lead and/or copper in the water to provide a detailed look how excessive the metal levels were in the most elevated sources.

The News effort comes as Detroit Public School Superintendent Nikolai Vitti noted: “‎We discontinued the use of drinking water when concerns were identified without any legal requirement to do so, and hydration stations will ensure there is no lead or copper in all water consumed by students and staff, with the Superintendent yesterday reported the system expects to spend nearly $3.8 million enacting a long-term solution to widespread lead and copper contamination in students’ drinking water, with the cost including $741,939 to install 818 hydration stations and filters, $750,000 for water coolers until completed installation of the stations in the summer of 2019, $539,880 for environmental remediation costs, $1.2 million for maintenance services, and $282,000 for facilities maintenance—a tab unanimously approved yesterday by the Detroit Community Schools Board, with long-term plan to get drinking water flowing again inside the 106 Detroit schools after faucets were turned off ahead of the school year. The announcement followed Monday’s by Supt. Vitti, when he reported that he and the school board will reveal corporate funders for some $2 million in hydration stations he wants to install across the district.

The need, as the survey revealed, is urgent: among the elevated levels reported by the Detroit Public School District includes a kitchen faucet inside Mason Elementary-Middle School which had more than 54 times the amount of lead permitted the Safe Drinking Water Act; a drinking fountain inside Mark Twain School for Scholars was tested at more than 53 times the federal threshold; a drinking fountain on the first floor near the kitchen of Bethune Elementary-Middle School that had copper levels at nearly 30 times the permissible level—even as DPS officials still await the test results of 17 more buildings. Nevertheless, from the results so far, there is a failing grade: more than half of the 106 schools inside Michigan’s largest school district have contaminated water. Indeed, with EPA recommending lead limits of 15 micrograms per liter or 15 part per billion, water samples at Mason found extreme elevations of lead at Mason, Twain, Davis Aerospace Technical, and Bagley, and extreme levels of copper at Bethune Academy of the Americas elementary-middle school and Western International. Unsurprisingly, public health and water safety experts report that schools should use a tougher standard for lead levels, and nationally recognized Virginia Tech water expert Marc Edwards said: “Those are not good. There is no doubt there are worrisome lead levels: Whenever you take hundreds of thousands of samples in a school, you are going to get some results that are shockingly high.” At a Board of Education meeting last month, Superintendent Vitti said the most practical, long-term, and safest solution for water quality problems inside the schools would be to provide water hydration stations in every building—systems currently used in public school districts, including in Flint, Royal Oak, and Birmingham, as well as Baltimore: these stations, in addition to cooling water, more importantly remove copper, lead, and other contaminants.

Drinking water screening reports demonstrate that water was collected at some schools in April and others in August, with school district officials reporting sampling began in the district in the spring and continued through last August. In September, Superintendent Vitti said that DPS, through its environmental consulting firm, ATC Group, is following EPA protocol for collecting water samples, adding: “If testing occurred at a school after the regular school year, then it was done during summer school, where nearly 80 of our schools were offering classes,” adding that many of the schools with high levels had already identified for concern two years ago—and that those were the first group of schools to move to water coolers. Supt. Vitti initiated water testing of the 106 school buildings in May and August after initial tests results found that 16 schools showed high levels of copper and/or lead. Another eight tested for elevated levels in the spring after they were identified with concerns in 2016. Last month, the DPS District received more test results, which found an 33 additional schools with elevated contaminant levels, bringing the total number of schools with tainted water to 57 in a District already overwhelmed by some $500 million in building repair needs; moreover, the bad gnus could worsen: the total number of schools with high levels could increase as school officials await more test results on another 17 schools.

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, noted for her expertise in Flint, who is a pediatrician and public health expert, concurred that Detroit’s policymakers need to set a much more aggressive limit on allowable amounts of lead in schools. In addition, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s school sampling guidance recommends that schools address fixtures which measure above 5 micrograms per liter, the same EPA standard as bottled water, according to Dr. Hanna-Attisha; the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends an action level of just 1 microgram per liter for drinking water in child care facilities and schools. Thus, as Dr. Hanna-Attisha warns: “This should be the District’s action level,” in a letter she co-authored with Elin Betanzo, founder of Safe Water Engineering, a consulting firm—a letter with which Superintendent Vitti said he agrees.

Dr. Hanna-Attisha, who witnessed lead levels in some Flint homes reach 22,000 micrograms per liter, said U.S. EPA school sampling guidance encourages schools to sample every drinking water tap a single time unless lead is detected at greater than 20 micrograms per liter, noting: “One low single tap sample is not sufficient to clear a tap as a potential source of lead, because lead release is sporadic.” Her words come with the benefit of her experience and practice as an associate Professor of Pediatrics at the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine, as well as Director of the MSU-Hurley Children’s Hospital Pediatric Public Health Initiative. She adds: “It is not appropriate to use a single low sample that was taken as a follow-up to a high sample to conclude that a drinking tap is ‘safe to drink,’ although this is how many schools have interpreted sampling data.” Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the Director and Health Officer for the Detroit Health Department, said she recommends parents of children 6 and younger be tested for blood lead levels, because of the Motor City’s history of elevated levels for children, which has been primarily due to lead paint in homes, adding that the elevated rates in the tests were concerning: “I think, broadly speaking, I support Dr. Vitti in testing every water source in every school…For any school that comes back with elevated lead levels, the actual reasons for that school is not clear. It can be the infrastructure or the drinking fountain. Providing bottled water and other sources is the right thing to do.”

According to Michigan health officials, children are at higher risk of harm from lead, because their developing brains and nervous systems are more sensitive. Lead can cause health problems for children, including learning problems, behavior problems including hyperactivity, a lower IQ, slowed growth and development and hearing and speech problems. That risk is not just physical, but also fiscal: A key part of Detroit’s chapter 9 plan of debt adjustment approved by the U.S. Judge Steven Rhodes was its focus on the importance of provisions to give incentives for families to move back to the Motor City‒a difficult parental choice in the wake of, four years ago, the Detroit News investigation which reported that nearly 500 Detroit children had died in homicides since 2000.

Notwithstanding the terrible health tragedy in Flint, Michigan has no rules mandating the state’s school districts to test for lead in their water supply, according to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. According to the GAO, at least eight states require schools to test for lead, and many others assist with voluntary testing. Dr. Khaldun said she supports creating a state law to mandate testing of water sources inside schools—a proposal which would entail substantial costs, creating the query: who will pay—and how?

According to Tiffany Brown, a spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, the Department supports any schools which wish to test, and the Department can offer technical assistance and general information on sampling, result interpretation, and recommended remedial actions in the event of elevated lead and/or copper results, adding that there are fiscal resources “available through the Michigan Department of Education,” and that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is providing information and guidance on best management practices for drinking water in schools to protect the health of students and staff.” In the meantime, the Detroit Public School District is spending $200,000 on bottled water and water coolers for the next several months, with the cost to have stations in every school, one for every 100 students, projected to be $2 million, with Dr. Vitti noting the goal is to deliver clean water, not replace the pipes, or as he put it: “We are not looking to replace the plumbing. The stations address the issue of older plumbing along with weekly flushing.”  

Unequal Treatment? The Financial Oversight and Management Board in Puerto Rico reports that over reliance on outside consultants with conflicts of interest and the failure to invest in a competent workforce have imposed huge costs on and severely weakened the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) and other Puerto Rico government agencies, with the report including an entire chapter just on interest rate swap agreements, a complicated and high risk investment which, it estimates, has cost Puerto Rican government entities nearly $1.1 billion when they repeatedly bet the wrong way on interest rate movements—meaning that, instead of these investments reducing Puerto Rico’s debt, government entities, including PREPA, had to take on more debt to pay for the losses. It appears that the swaps, a novel means of transactions to Puerto Rico’s Government Development Bank (GDB), where officials made these interest rate bets, or, as the report found, many of the GDB Board members who were required to approve the swap transactions, “were not familiar with the mechanics and risks associated with swaps. Many told us outright they could not describe how a swap worked. Instead, the GDB Board members told us they relied on the advice presented to them by the swap advisor.” That appears to denote that the GDB board members effectively ceded control over their investments in these very risky financial instruments to a third-party swap advisor—an advisor  that earned, and will garner fees for as long as the government of Puerto Rico continued to invest in the swaps, regardless of the outcome—an outcome in this case which entailed enormous losses. Moreover, the report demonstrated that, more generally, as the financial condition of Puerto Rico deteriorated, the deals became more complex and less transparent. An example of the utility PREPA’s overreliance on an outside restructuring advisor, AlixPartners, to lead PREPA’s debt restructuring negotiations with its municipal bondholders, as well as developing PREPA’s business plan and savings initiatives, revealed that PREPA paid Alix Partners $45 million in fees for a debt restructuring deal which was ultimately rejected by the PROMESA Oversight Board, which found the proposed financial agreement called for PREPA to pay more debt than the economy of Puerto Rico could support, and as the Puerto Rico Energy Commission found that the review lacked appropriate due diligence over the ongoing fees for legal counsel, financial advisors, and underwriters that would have accrued had the PREPA restructuring deal moved forward: the Commission specifically noted that the restructuring team charged with ensuring the reasonableness of advisor fees “includes the very advisors whose fees are in question…that is not the arm’s-length relationship necessary to protect consumers from excess fees.”

Investment in Good Governance. For elected state and local leaders, over reliance on consultants can go hand-in-hand with a failure to invest in the technical capacity and expertise of government staff. As noted by a Kobre & Kim report prepared on the evolving fiscal situation in Puerto Rico, PREPA has suffered over the years from a high degree of political interference, including the appointment of hundreds of political appointees to managerial and technical positions without regard for qualifications—appointments which appear to have not only cost considerably from a fiscal perspective, but also weakened the managerial competence of the agency. However, instead of recognizing this reality and implementing labor reforms designed to sharply curtail the influence of political appointees within the agency, the PROMESA Board has instead sought an across-the-board salary freeze and benefit cuts, even as the Board recognizes that PREPA has lost 30% of its workforce since 2012 and has severe shortages of skilled workers in key areas—and that it has developed no plan for workforce training and development, effectively seeming to force PREPA to continue to depend on consultants, rather than build its own expertise.

Post Municipal Bankruptcy Futures

September 21, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we report on the unsafe conditions of Detroit’s public schools, and dismissal by the Trump administration for self-government in Puerto Rico, and, a year after Hurricane Maria’s devastating strike on Puerto Rico and underwhelming federal response, the U.S. territory’s continued inequitable status.  Unlike in corporate bankruptcies, in municipal bankruptcies, the challenge is not how to walk away from accumulated debts, but rather how to fiscally resolve them.  

Detroit’s Future? In Detroit, where, last week, organizations gathered at the Marygrove College campus to announce a new cradle-to-career educational partnership, including a state-of-the-art early childhood education center, a new K-12 school, and the introduction of an innovative teacher education training modeled after hospital residency programs; Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has announced the closure of thirty-three more schools because of high levels of copper and/or lead, bringing the total number of schools with tainted water to 57 buildings. The Superintendent’s warning noted: “Of the results just received, 33 of 52 schools have one or more water sources with elevated levels of copper and/or lead…This means that 57 of 86 schools where test results have been provided have one or more water sources with elevated levels of copper and/or lead (this does not include the previous 10 Di-Hydro schools where copper and/or lead was detected).” He added the results were incomplete: the district is still awaiting results for 17 schools. He noted: “As you know, drinking water in these schools was discontinued as we await water test results for all schools. Although the kitchen water has only been turned off in schools where levels were determined high, we have been using bottled water to clean food in all schools: As a reminder, we have not used water to cook food in our kitchens for some time and instead have delivered pre-cooked meals to students. We plan to install filters for kitchen sinks to remedy challenges in kitchens.” Last week, the Superintendent, in a state hyper aware of the physical and fiscal threats of contaminated or unsafe water, that a $2 million water station system would address water quality issues, and School Board Member Deborah Hunter-Harvill confirmed, in the wake of the tests: “We completed our community meeting, and we’ve taken down recommendations and suggestions to make certain our kids are safe.” But who will finance the corrections is unclear: School Board member LaMar Lemmons said he supports spending $2 million to fix the water problems, and he continues to blame the state for neglecting school buildings during a decade of state control, which ended in 2017: “Under the $2 billion (spent) for new school construction and renovation, they did a terrible job. There is no excuse for these schools to not have been maintained.” Supt. Vitti said the most practical, long-term, safest solution for water quality problems inside the schools would be water hydration stations in every building, system currently in use in Flint, Royal Oak, Birmingham and in Baltimore, he noted, adding, in an email earlier this week: “Moving forward, we will continue to use water coolers district-wide and are actively working through the bid processes to make a recommendation to the board for the use of hydration stations. This will occur within the next couple of weeks. The hydration stations would be installed in all schools by next school year and replace the need for water coolers.”

The health apprehension came in the wake of, just days before the first day of class at the beginning of this month, the Superintendents’ decision to shut off drinking water inside all 106 school buildings after finding, in an initial check at 6 schools, high levels of copper and/or lead. The checks themselves are costly: they require stations in every school, one per every 100 students, with a resulting tab of $2 million, after taking into account stations in faculty rooms and gymnasiums, according to Supt. Vitti, who stated he intends to provide information to the Detroit School Board to consider next month, noting that, if the funds are approved, the system could be installed in the next school year. The delay comes at a physical and fiscal cost: the school district is spending $200,000 on bottled water and water coolers for the next several months, with Supt. Vitti reporting the cause of the water contamination is likely the result of the aging of the system’s public infrastructure, as well as older plumbing systems, warning that lower usage of water due to smaller enrollment sizes can lead to copper and lead buildup. Because DPS’ schools were built for use by thousands of students, the sharp decline in attendance has adverse effects, and, as the Superintendent noted: “The reality is our schools are vastly different: some are new, some are old. Some have outdated systems, some have outdated sinks and plumbing,” adding he had consulted with the Governor’s office, the Michigan Departments of Environmental Health, as well as Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, whose critical leadership exposed the Flint lead water crisis, noting: “They have provided lessons on Flint. They gave the recommendation for me to think about piping in general and a long-term solution.”

Despite the tragedy and ongoing Flint related litigation, Michigan has no rules mandating that public school districts test for lead in their water supply. That means, according to the Superintendent, that there are even newer schools built within the last decade which have water-quality issues, noting these problems could be blamed on inadequate piping or non-code compliant piping, adding he had i initiated water testing of DPS’ 106 school buildings last spring, with the testing evaluating all water sources, from sinks to drinking fountains—but learning that the actual source of the contamination remains uncertain—albeit the school system’s widespread infrastructure problems are likely causes: last June, a district report said it would cost $500 million to repair its buildings. The district has said it needs $29.86 million to repair or replace plumbing, according to the facilities report, not related to the current water problems.

Physical & Fiscal Recoveries. Maria was the worst storm to hit Puerto Rico in nearly a century: nearly 3,000 Americans lost their lives, according to a study commissioned by the Puerto Rican government. The storm devastated the economy: thousands of small businesses have been shuttered; some big businesses are leaving, and, in a demographic omen, the exodus of the young, productive population has accelerated. Over the last year, the island’s economy has contracted by 7.6%, according to the latest fiscal plan prepared for PROMESA Board. 

American Inequality. Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló this week asked President Trump to recognize that “Puerto Rico’s territorial status is discriminatory and allows for the unequal treatment of natural-born U.S. citizens.” In his letter to the President, coming one year in the wake of the devastating fiscal and physical impact of Hurricane Maria, the Governor wrote that Puerto Rico’s territorial status had negatively affected post-Maria recovery efforts, noting: “As we revisit all that we have been through in the last year, one thing has not changed and remains the biggest impediment for Puerto Rico’s full and prosperous recovery: the inequalities Puerto Rico faces as the oldest, most populous colony in the world.”

Gov. Rosselló, who campaigned on the promise of promoting statehood for Puerto Rico, added in his letter that FEMA’s bureaucratic processes—processes in which Puerto Rico has no say—had worked to delay disaster recovery, writing: “The ongoing and historic inequalities resulting from Puerto Rico’s territorial status have been exacerbated by a series of decisions by the federal government that have slowed our post-disaster recovery, compared to what has happened in other jurisdictions stateside.” He requested that the President reconsider a State Department request to dismiss a case in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights with regard to the U.S.’ international responsibility regarding Puerto Rico’s status—a case in which the Commission is investigating complaints that the United States is violating the human rights of its citizens in Puerto Rico, because they lack the same political rights as other U.S. citizens, including the right to vote for President unless they relocate to one of the states or the District of Columbia, and, because they have no voting representation in the Congress. The Governor added he felt “compelled to respectfully address the most egregious errors in a [State Department] missive,” which sought to dismiss Puerto Rico’s concerns, noting, especially, the Department’s reference to Puerto Rico as a “self-governing territory,” rather than what the Governor believes is really a “territorial colony,” noting that defining Puerto Rico as self-governing “ignores that Congress often uses its plenary powers over the territory to impose a multitude of federal laws without the Commonwealth’s residents having any voting representation in the U.S. Senate and only a single Resident Commissioner in the U.S. House of Representatives, who cannot vote on the floor of that chamber.” He also disputed the State Department’s assertion that Puerto Ricans are not “banned” from voting for President, writing: “[T]he only way for U.S. citizens from Puerto Rico to vote in such an election and be counted is to leave Puerto Rico. If that is not a ban, then what is?” He further wrote that the current governance upholds an “inherently racist logic that deem the people of Puerto Rico as inferior and unable to fully participate in the institutions of democratic governance.”

The letter also touches on two referenda which statehood supporters have won in Puerto Rico, but that have not been deemed official results by the Department of Justice. The most recent, in 2017, was boycotted by local opposition parties, and the ballot never received final DOJ approval.  While that referendum only had a 23% participation rate, the pro statehood vote was an overwhelming 97%.

Gov. Rosselló added his apprehension in the wake of the U.S. Justice Department’s non-approval of Puerto Rico’s 2017 referendum, noting that “after the legislature even amended the format of the vote to meet the recommendations of the U.S. Justice Department,” the Trump administration had nevertheless “failed” to certify the ballot. Thus, he noted that asking an international body to dismiss its complaint was tantamount to asking it to “turn a blind eye to an inconvenient truth, that Puerto Rico remains the unfinished business of American democracy.” Finally, Gov. Rosselló ended his letter with an appeal to President Trump’s leadership, asking him to “work together to abolish this century old territorial-colonialism once and for all: Statehood for Puerto Rico is not only about realizing Puerto Rico’s full potential. It is about America living up to its most noble values by creating a more perfect Union.” (The Trump Administration has advised the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) that if Puerto Ricans want to vote for President, nothing prevents the government of Puerto Rico from calling for a referendum to determine the position of its residents regarding candidates for the U.S. Presidency—a referendum which, however, would be symbolic.)

The apparent position of the Trump Administration reflects its views that Puerto Ricans, in addition to being able to participate in Presidential primary elections, they may also, according to Kevin Sullivan, the U.S. Deputy Representative to the Organization of American States (OAS), organize and vote in presidential elections. Thus the U.S. representative asked the inter-American tribunal to dismiss the independent complaints filed by lawyer Gregorio Igartua and former governor Pedro Rossello alleging that the lack of participation of Puerto Rico’s residents in Presidential and Congressional elections represents a violation of their human and civil rights. Secretary Sullivan, who asserted that the government of Puerto Rico maintains a “broad” self-government, in a recently disclosed communication from the end of last June, maintained that within the colonial relationship with the U.S. territory, there are some electoral processes related to the federal government. Within this group of electoral processes, he thus sought to highlight as significant the ability for Puerto Ricans to vote in those for presidential primaries, as well as for its non-voting delegate in the U.S. House of Representatives.  Nevertheless, Secretary Sullivan recognized Puerto Ricans’ first vote in favor of statehood via the June 2017 plebiscite, describing that vote as having launched a process of requesting statehood before Congress, which outcome the “United States cannot predict.”

Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez, Puerto Rico’s non-voting Member of Congress, said she would have preferred the recognition of the undemocratic nature of the territorial status, and that statehood remains as “the only viable political status with a relationship with the United States, not territorial and not colonial.”

Puerto Rico Progressive Party representative Jose Aponte noted that it seemed unfortunate “at this point” that the federal government intends to develop some theory with regard to Puerto Rico’s self-government, especially in the wake of enacting the PROMESA law, thereby imposing the PROMESA Board, likening it to colonialism, and emphasizing what he views as Secretary Sullivan’s specious claim in which he advises Puerto Rican leaders that Puerto Ricans, “if they wish…are also free to move to any state,” noting: “It is hypocritical to hide the fact that they have a regime in which we cannot govern with the faculties and minimum rights that any human being deserves.”

Promising Good Gnus? Even if perceived by many Puerto Ricans as colonial overseers, the PROMESA Board, acting in a quasi-Emergency Manager role, such as Kevyn Orr did in putting together and managing the plan of debt adjustment for Detroit, is offering some hope for fiscal promise, as the Board is poised to lift its fiscal forecast and predicting a budget surplus in the wake of the recovery from the devastating Hurricane Maria, predicting a cumulative surplus, prior to debt payments, of in excess of $20 billion through 2058, or 500% greater than its quasi plan of debt adjustment certified by the PROMESA Board last June. PROMESA Board Executive Director has indicated that plan will be certified “in the coming weeks,” adding: “The changes in the fiscal plan will come from new data in actual FY18 revenue and expense figures, budget to actuals, and disaster spending.” Earlier last summer, the PROMESA Board, in certifying the most recent fiscal plan, had estimated that Puerto Rico would have a cumulative surplus of about $4 billion over the next four decades; the new projection, incorporating higher than expected disaster aid and tax receipts, would lift that projection to more than $20 billion.

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

August 31, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Potholes in the Motor City Road to Recovery & un Federalism in Puerto Rico

eBlog

July 20, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider some of the post chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy challenges Detroit confronts, before returning to some of the legal, governing, and judicial challenges to Puerto Rico’s fiscal recovery.

The Potholes in Recovering from Municipal Bankruptcy. Five years out from the nation’s largest ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy incurred in the wake of accruing some $14 billion in long-term debt, the city’s plan of debt adjustment has unrolled in a sparkling fashion, especially downtown and around Michigan Central Station. Just under 40% of jobs in Detroit are deemed high skill—higher than the surrounding neighborhoods—and especially valuable in a city which, unlike most, boast an income tax. Nevertheless, median income, at about $56,000 is the lowest in the nation among major metropolitan regions. And the sorry state of the Detroit Public School system continues to discourage families with kids to move from the city’s suburbs into the city: in excess of 90% of eighth graders lack proficiency in math and reading.

A key to the recovery has been the auto industry—and major foundations, including the Kresge, Ford, and the Community Foundation of Southeast Michigan—all of which contributed to the so-called “grand bargain” in the city’s chapter 9 plan of debt adjustment approved by Judge Steven Rhodes—an adjustment which brought in hundreds of millions of dollars to safeguard pensions and preserve the city’s jewel in its crown: the Detroit Institute of Art. Moreover, since then, foundations have contributed great sums to workforce training in Detroit, retail revival, human welfare services and more—as well as for-profit corporations, such as JP Morgan Chase, which has been pumping $150 million into the city to support a variety of efforts from retail to job training. Moreover, millennials and empty-nesters have moved downtown: in the past few years, a trickle of newcomers has swelled to a flood, meaning what, on the city’s first day in chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy when it was unsafe to walk downtown, is, today, an area of dozens of new residential developments, which have been built or are underway in the greater downtown, from the revival of classic skyscrapers like the David Whitney Building and Broderick Tower to new construction like the Auburn and DuCharme Place. If anything, an urban challenge confronting city leaders today is the escalation of rents—forcing questions with regard to displacement.

Changing the Premise of PROMESA? In the wake of Judge Laura Swain Taylor’s rulings, there appears to be increasing pressure in Congress to revise or repeal the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act [PROMESA], after a the Judge suggested the U.S. government could be liable for cuts to bond values mandated by the PROMESA Oversight Board. U.S. Court of Federal Claims Chief Judge Susan Braden issued her opinion [Altair Global Credit Opportunity Fund et al. v. The U.S. Court of Federal Claims, No. 17-970C, July 17, 2018, in the case filed by investment funds against the U.S. government concerning defaulted employment retirement system bonds. Judge Braden’s signal that she was inclined to rule in favor on the claims drew reactions from members of the Puerto Rico Task Force of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus—or as U.S. Rep. Darren Soto )D-Fl.) put it: “This ruling exposes additional problems with the PROMESA act…It may also be a catalyst to support a reform or repeal to provide Puerto Rico full bankruptcy rights.”

Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.), who was born in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico, agreed that the opinion may have an impact on Puerto Rico; however, he was uncertain it would be for the better—rather, he seemed apprehensive Judge Braden’s opinion placed the interests of creditors in front of those of the citizens of Puerto Rico—American citizens, noting: “By making the U.S. government liable for Puerto Rico’s debt, the court has essentially determined that bondholders can have priority over the needs of the Puerto Rican people: This would force the federal government to make the hedge funds whole, rather than focusing on the true intent of PROMESA: helping Puerto Rico get on a sustainable economic and fiscal path. We have to make sure the people of Puerto Rico come first.” In stark contrast, Manal Mehta, founder of Sunesis Capital, agreed the ruling would help bondholders, but he saw this as a positive. “The plaintiffs had to get over the hurdle to show this is actually a claim against the federal government to get to federal claims court. This is a solid win for creditors,” noting: “It looks like the court made the correct decision, as the Lebron [legal case] test emphasizes ‘federal control’ to determine whether something is ‘federal’ for takings purposes, and it’s clear Congress controls the [PROMESA] Oversight Board, as it appoints it: So there’s now a takings route for creditors, at least in situations where the PROMESA Oversight Board/government has wiped out prepetition collateral, and it’s unlikely to be overturned.” Put more starkly, he added: “Until final adjudication, this ruling strikes a dagger at the heart of the legitimacy of the Oversight Board: I suspect that this will lead Congress to remove and reappoint members of the Oversight Board in a manner that is consistent with the appointments clause of the U.S. Constitution as well as modify Title III of PROMESA to ensure that the federal government does not become liable for creditor claims.”

In her decision, Judge Swain wrote that the PROMESA Oversight Board was part of Puerto Rico’s government, not the federal government. Reminiscent of the old question ‘Who’s on first and what’s on second, Judge Braden’s ruling reached the opposite conclusion, likely, as New York Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez put it: “There’s a good chance this ruling will be appealed.”

Federalism?  Just when the House Popular Democratic Party (PDP) minority joined the suits against the PROMESA Board, Rafael Cox Alomar, a former Popular Resident Commissioner candidate, said that there appears to be consensus in federal court regarding the fact that the territorial clause grants the U.S. Congress absolute powers over the island: “The environment is completely different, and it is an environment where the theory that Congress has plenary powers, powers that are basically unlimited seems to be growing. In other words, the colonial character of the relationship has been reaffirmed,” he added, asserting that he believe the U.S. Supreme Court has established that the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico does not have its own sovereignty with regard to double jeopardy cases, noting: “I do not think that, in the current environment, arguing that PROMESA is unconstitutional or that the Board does not have the power to do this, or that…or that Congress cannot get involved in legislating in internal affairs without the consent of Puerto Ricans, will be very successful,” suggesting “a new model based on the sovereignty of Puerto Rico is what is needed.”

Adding to the matter, the Popular Democratic Party caucus yesterday filed suit in federal court questioning the constitutionality of the creation of the PROMESA Board, as well as the alleged usurpation of powers, making it the third case filed in the wake of the PROMESA Board’s failure to certify the budget approved by the Legislative Assembly facing the breach of the agreement reached with Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares, which included repealing the Law of Unjust Dismissal (Law 80-1976) as a requirement to, among other things, retain the Christmas bonus of public employees.

Indeed, the courtroom is in a traffic jam: last week, Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares sued the Board for usurpation of his authority, while, in a separate lawsuit, the Legislative Assembly argued an excess of authority on the part of the PROMESA Board—or, as House Member Rafael “Tatito” Hernández put it: “The Board wants to rule, wants to legislate, and wants to establish public policy in Puerto Rico without being democratically elected. It does not have that power, and it does not result from any clause in PROMESA Law. We are not challenging PROMESA; we are specifically challenging the Board.”

Restoring Power–and Recovering Governing Authority

July 10, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the challenges of restoration of electric power (as opposed to political power) in Puerto Rico, and then try to explore the risks of powers of appointments of emergency managers by a state—here as the City of Flint, Michigan is still seeking to fiscally and physically recover from the human and fiscal devastation caused by the State of Michigan.

Adios. Walter Higgins, the CEO Puerto Rico’s bankrupt PREPA Electric power authority resigned yesterday, just months after he was chosen to oversee its privatization, an appointment made in an effort to fully restore power some ten months after the human, fiscal, and physical devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria. Now his resignation adds to PREPA’s uphill climb to not only fully restore power, but also to address its $9 billion in debt. Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said in a statement that Mr. Higgins had resigned for personal reasons, while Mr. Higgins, in his resignation letter, wrote that the compensation details outlined in his contract could not be fulfilled—with his written statement coming just one month after the Commonwealth’s Justice Secretary said it would be illegal for him to receive bonuses. According to a PREPA spokesperson, Mr. Higgins will remain as a member of the PREPA Board. Nevertheless, his appointment was stormy itself, after, last month, Puerto Rican officials had questioned how and why he had been awarded a $315,000 contract without authorization from certain government agencies—in response to which PREPA’s Board advised the government as a consultant, rather than filling the vacancy for an executive sub-director of administration and finance. Unsurprisingly, his departure will not be mourned by many Puerto Ricans in view of his generous compensation package of $450,000 annual salary compared to the average income for Puerto Ricans of $19,518.  

Nevertheless, PREPA officials, announced that current Board member Rafael Diaz Granados will become the new CEO—with nearly double the compensation: he will assume the position on Sunday and receive $750,000 a year—a level which Puerto Rico Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz described as the “kind of insult that to Puerto Ricans is unacceptable,” as the government and PROMESA Oversight Board continue to struggle to address and restructure Puerto Rico’s $70 billion in public debt. Nevertheless, as PREPA crews continue restoring power to the last 1,000 or so customers who have been without power since Maria hit nearly a year ago and destroyed up to 75% of transmission lines across the territory, the federal government is still operating 175 generators across the island.

Indeed, U.S. House Natural Resources Committee Chair Rob Bishop (R-Utah) has scheduled a hearing for July 25th to assess and inquire about the status of the Electric Power Authority and to examine the functioning and plans for the privatization of PREPA assets, an issue which the territory’s non-voting Congressional Representative Jenniffer Gonzalez noted “has been under the Committee’s jurisdiction for the past two years.” Rep. Gonzalez added: “I’m surprised with the salary: I did not expect that amount. I do not know the elements which affected Mr. Higgin’s resignation, and I believe that these changes affect the process of recovery on the island.”

Meanwhile, Chairman Bishop had announced a second potential hearing—this one to assess the operation of the PROMESA statute and how the PROMESA Oversight Board is working, after, last week, postponing an official trip with a dozen Members of Congress to assess the physical and fiscal recovery on the island, after meeting, early last month in San Juan with the now former PREPA Director Higgins, and after, in the spring, Chair Bishop, Chair Doug LaMalfa (R-Ca.), of the Subcommittee on Island Affairs, and Chairman Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) had announced a probe into “multiple allegations of corruption and serious allegations of maladministration” during the restoration of the electric service after the storm.

Out Like Flint? Meanwhile, in a criminal and fiscal case arising out of Michigan’s Flint water crisis in the wake of fatal decisions by a gubernatorially appointed Emergency Manager, closing arguments in the involuntary manslaughter case against state Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon began yesterday before Genesee District Court Judge David Goggins, who will determine whether Director Lyon will go on trial in the Flint water crisis prosecution on charges of involuntary manslaughter and misconduct in office connected to the 2014-2015 Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in the Flint region which killed at least 12 people and sickened another 79 people. A misdemeanor charge of “willful neglect” to protect the health of Genesee County residents was added last week. Director Lyon is receiving assistance in his defense from John Bursch, a former Michigan Solicitor General, who was hired for that position by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette—who has brought criminal charges related to the Flint water crisis against Director Lyon and 14 other current and former city and state government employees. Flint still faces financial questions after years of emergency management.

The criminal trial comes as questions still remain with regard to Flint’s long-term financial health, despite six years of state oversight that overhauled the city’s finances, after a 2011 state-ordered preliminary review showed problems with Flint’s finances and ultimately recommended an emergency manager for the city. Last April, State Treasurer Nick Khouri repealed all remaining Emergency Manager orders, with state officials claiming the city’s financial emergency has been addressed to a point where receivership was no longer needed, and, as the Treasurer wrote to Mayor Karen Weaver: “Moreover, it appears that financial conditions have been corrected in a sustainable fashion,” and Flint CFO Hughey Newsome said that while emergency managers had helped Flint get its financial house in order; nevertheless, Flint’s fiscal and physical future remains uncertain: “The after-effects of the water crisis, including the dark cloud of the financials, will be here for some time to come: We’re not out of the woods yet, but I don’t think emergency management can help us moving forward.” In the city’s case, the fateful water crisis with its devastating human and fiscal impacts, hit the city as it was still working to recover from massive job and population losses following years of disinvestment by General Motors. CFO Newsome said the crisis affected the city’s economic development efforts and may have left potential businesses wanting to come to Flint wary because of the water.

Flint’s spending became more in line with its revenues, changes were made to its budgeting procedures, and retiree healthcare costs and pension liabilities were reduced while under emergency management. Nevertheless, past financial overseers have warned the city about what would happen if Flint allows its fiscal responsibilities to slip. Three years ago, former Emergency Manager Jerry Ambrose, in a letter to Gov. Snyder, wrote: “If, however, the new policies, practices and organizational changes are ignored in favor of returning to the historic ways of doing business, it is not likely the city will succeed over the long term: The focus of city leaders will then likely once again return to confronting financial insolvency.”

Today, there are still signs of potential fiscal distress, notwithstanding  the city’s recovery; indeed, Mayor Weaver’s FY2019 budget plans for a more than $276,000 general fund surplus—even as the municipal budget is projected to grow to more than $8 million by FY2023, with that growth attributed by CFO Newsome to ongoing legacy costs and a lack of revenue—or, as he put it: “My last two predecessors have really delivered realistic budgets: I definitely don’t see this administration being irresponsible in that regard, and I don’t see this Council rubberstamping such a budget either.”

And, today, questions about criminal and fiscal accountability are issues for the state’s third branch of government: the judiciary, in District Court Judge William Crawford’s courtroom, where the issues with regard to criminal charges relating to the governmental actions of defendants charged for their actions during the Flint Water Crisis include former Emergency Manager Darnell Early and former City of Flint Public Works Director Howard Croft, and former state-appointed Flint Emergency Manager Jerry Ambrose, who, prosecutors  allege, knew the Flint water treatment plant was not ready to produce clean and safe water, but did nothing to stop it. The trial involves multiple charges, including willful neglect of duty and misconduct in office. (Mr.  Ambrose was the state appointed Emergency Manager from January until April of 2015; he also held the title of Finance Director under former state appointed emergency managers Mike Brown and Darnell Early. To date, four others have entered into a plea agreement in their cases.)

Bequeathing a Legacy of healthcare and retirees benefit costs: When Mr. Ambrose left in 2015 and turned things over the to the Receivership Transition Advisory Board, he stated that Flint’s other OPEB costs had been reduced from $850 million to $240 million, adding that a new hybrid pension plan put in place by state appointed emergency managers had reduced Flint’s long-term liability; however, he warned, on-going legacy costs are still one of the most pressing issues for Flint’s fiscal future: “Remember, the reality we’re facing: we have a $561 million liability to (Municipal Employees’ Retirement System), and the fund is only at $220 million; we also have an obligation to our 1,800 retirees to make sure that we’re paying our MERS obligation.” (A three percent raise for Flint police officers approved earlier this year added to those liabilities, with those increases attributable to two different contracts, which were imposed on officers by former state-appointed Emergency Managers Michael Brown and Darnell Earley in 2012 and 2014, respectively.)

The RTAB asked CFO Huey Newsome in January how the city would pay the additional $264,000 annually in wages and benefits along with a projected $3.4 million in additional retirement costs over the life of the contract—a question he was unable to specify an answer to at the time: “To tell you exactly where those‒where those dollars will come from right at this point in time, I can’t say…I think the ‘so what’ of this is that, you know, the incremental impact from this pay raise is not going to be that large when you think about the three and a half million. The city still needs to figure out where that three and a half million is coming from.” Moreover, he added, because police negotiated the raise, it also could be an issue with other unions wanting a similar increase during their future negotiations, adding that the city is making increased payments to MERS to avoid balloon payments in the future. For example, Mr. Newsome said, Flint will pay an additional $21.5 million this year, adding that all the city’s funds currently have a positive balance. However, Flint’s budget projections show the water fund will have a $2.1 million deficit in FY2018-19, a deficit projected to increase to $3.3 million by FY2022-23; Flint’s fiscal projections eventually put the water fund balance in the red by 2022-23; however, CFO Newsome warned: “The water fund is probably the most tepid one, because it is expected to be below the reserve balance by the end of the year,” noting the city can only account for 60% of the water that goes through its system, adding that the city has an 80% collection rate on its water bills, which is about $28 million this fiscal year, telling the Mayor and Council: “One of our top priorities is better metering.”

The city’s most-recent budget for 2018-19 calls for a combined revenue increase of $1.09 million more than previous budget projections because of increased assessed property values, more income taxes coming in, and additional state revenue sharing. Nevertheless, one Board member, notwithstanding projections for increased revenue, is apprehensive that Flint’s “tax base is likely going to continue to shrink, and the city currently has limited resources to reverse this trend,” or, as CFO Newsome put it: “Right now, revenue is not there: The income tax is relatively flat. The property tax is flat. That’s reality.” The city’s current proposed FY2019 budget calls for an increase of $120,000 from property taxes, $339,000 increase in income tax revenue, and an additional $631,000 in revenue from the state of Michigan. 

 

Who Is in Fiscal Command?

June 29, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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