Contrasting Responses to Fiscal and Physical Storms

July 10, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the superb update on the fiscal impact of Hurricanes Irma and Maria on the U.S. Virgin Islands by Jason Bram and Lauren Thomas of the New York Federal Reserve.

Much more dependent on tourism than Puerto Rico, the authors noted that there has been far less attention to the fiscal ravages of the two storms despite the fact that St. Thomas, St. Croix, St. John, and a number of smaller islands suffered comparable devastation. No doubt, they point out, this is in part due to their much smaller population: the U.S. Virgin Islands is home to about 105,000 Americans—1/30th Puerto Rico’s population. It is home to Claude O. Markoe Elementary School in Christiansted, where, long, long ago, this author taught school as part of training for the Peace Corps to teach in Bush Gbaepo Grebo Konweaken, in Grand Gedah County, Liberia.

The Fed authors reminded us that the Virgin Islands had already been fiscally weakened prior to the hurricanes in the wake of a shutdown of a major refinery on St. Croix in 2012—a shutdown which dramatically increased the dependence on tourism: employment dropped by about 15 percent between 2011 and 2014; it has changed little since. Then, last September 20th, Hurricane Maria smote St. Croix where, as they described it, the “magnitude of the damage and disruption for the territory as a whole was unprecedented in recent history.” Adding to the physical and fiscal misery, the Virgin Islands could not count on any assistance from Puerto Rico—and, as we have noted based upon the devastating lack of help from the federal government, the U.S. Virgin Islands were mostly left to fend for themselves.

The economic, physical, and fiscal damage, according to the latest available data, meant that total employment in the U.S. Virgin Islands dropped by an estimated 12% between August 2017—right before Hurricanes Irma and Maria—and November of that year; but by May of this year, the authors found that only a fraction of those job losses, about 600, had been reversed. Indeed, it appears that the fiscal and economic effects of Irma and Maria were “substantially more severe in the Virgin Islands than in Puerto Rico, where employment fell by about 6 percent right after Maria.”

Such a disparate outcome would, they wrote, seem unexpected, especially when considering not only the widespread power outages and pathetic FEMA responses which affected so much of Puerto Rico for so very long—and began to drain the U.S. territory of those most fiscally and physically able to leave for the mainland, especially when compared to the Virgin Islands, where “literally everyone lives within a few miles of the coastline,” unlike Puerto Rico where the steep mountains vastly complicated the task of restoring power to hospitals and police and emergency response centers, leading the Fed authors to pose the question: “With this greater disruption of everyday life occurring in Puerto Rico, why would the economic effect appear considerably more severe in the Virgin Islands?”

The authors note that a critical distinction relates to the Virgin Islands’ high dependence on tourism—a reliance which can be especially pernicious in the wake of a major natural disaster. Thus, they wrote, because tourism tends to be particularly sensitive to the aftermath of natural disasters, “the Virgin Islands’ dependence on this industry largely explains the relatively severe economic hit,” contrasting that with Puerto Rico’s much more diversified economy, illustrating the difference by noting that Puerto Rico’s hotel/accommodation industry, which represents just over 2% of private-sector jobs in Puerto Rico, accounts for about 13% of jobs in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Thus, one fiscal outcome of the storm was the hotel/tourist industry in the U.S. Virgin Islands experienced an especially steep slump after the storm: as of last December, employment in that industry had fallen by 1,300 jobs, or 35%; employment in the broader leisure and hospitality sector—which also includes restaurants and bars but largely caters to visitors—fell by just under 30%. Nearby in Puerto Rico, in comparison, tourism and hospitality job losses accounted for only about 25% of the total job loss. 

The Fed writers also examined the contrasting capacities of the two U.S. territories to accommodate tourists, writing that the damage wrought to hotels in the Virgin Islands after the two hurricanes significantly impacted the capacity for fiscal recovery: by the middle of last May, nearly 90% of Puerto Rico’s 149 hotels had reopened. In contrast, only 60% of the Virgin Islands’ had—adding that, in the Virgin Islands, relief workers were being housed in many of the available rooms, reducing the capacity for tourists or business travelers—and noting: “Remarkably, there has been virtually no new hotel construction in the Virgin Islands for more than two decades.” With the latter, they note, adding to the fiscal challenges to the U.S. Virgin Islands, because of the related sharp decline in restaurant business—finding that local economies had contracted far more sharply in the Virgin Islands than in Puerto Rico, where the surge of rescue workers, including from FEMA and army personnel, utility crews, and construction workers, helped offset the loss of tourists.

Now, they note, the key challenge for the U.S. Virgin Islands’ economy is to restart its vital tourism, noting that the critical steps “appear to be twofold: restoring its capacity to accommodate overnight guests, and encouraging visitors to come,” but, critically, also noting that, in the long-term, the Virgin Islands confront a dilemma: “Is it best to focus resources and policy on a key industry like tourism, which brings in money from outside, or should policy place more of an emphasis on diversifying into other industries, which may be less vulnerable to the periodic hurricane?”

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Motor City Rising

June 1, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the remarkable turnaround of Detroit—a city which, when I inquired on its very first day in chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, for walking directions from my hotel to the Governor’s Detroit office—in response to which I was told the one mile route was not doable—not because I would be too physically challenged,  but rather because I would be slain. Yet now, as the  fine editorial writers for the Detroit News, Daniel Howes and Nolan Finley, wrote: “A regional divide that appeared to be healing since Detroit’s historic bankruptcy is busting wide open over a plan for regional transit, exposing anxiety that the city is prospering at the expense of the suburbs,” noting that the trigger is a is a proposed millage to fund expansion of the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan, a $5.4 billion plan that would seem to promise an exceptional reshaping of the metro region—indeed: a reversal a what had been a decades-long shift of the economy from downtown Detroit to is suburbs: an exodus that contributed to a wasteland and the nation’s largest ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy.” Or, as they wrote: “That battle reveals growing suburban resentments over the region’s shifting economic fortunes: decades-long capital flow is reversing directions as more jobs and tax revenue flee the ‘burbs for a rejuvenated downtown.”

Mr. Finley noted that Mayor Mike Duggan, this week, told him: “I can’t explain why Oakland and Macomb (suburban counties) are doing what they’re doing” three weeks ago Microsoft brought 400 employees from Southfield into the city of Detroit. And last week, Tata Technologies said they were moving 200 people from Novi and into Detroit. Google is in the process of moving people from Birmingham into the city of Detroit.” What the Mayor was alluding to was a u-turn from a decade of moderate and upper income families leaving Detroit for its suburban counties in the days when former Mayor Coleman Young had advised criminals to “hit Eight Mile” has the relationship between the Metro Motor City’s regional leaders become so difficult in the wake of the unexpected reverse exodus: this time from Detroit’s suburbs back into the city. Billions in private sector investment, spearheaded by Dan Gilbert’s Quicken Loans Inc., the Ilitch family, and growing enthusiasm among other business leaders to be part of the city’s post-chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy have been changing demographic and economic patterns.

As the city continues under decreasing state oversight to carry out its judicially approved plan of debt adjustment, Mayor Duggan notes: “Expectations are rising.” This, after all, is not a City Hall bound mayor, but rather what the editors described as a “short, stocky, balding white guy who is no stranger to block after block of dilapidated houses—and who was reelected to a second term with an amazing 72% of the vote in a city where slightly more than 82% of the voters are black—and where, when he took office, there were about 40,000 abandoned homes. He is not a stay at City Hall type fellow either—rather an inveterate inspector of this mammoth rebuilding of an iconic city, who listens—and with his cell phone—takes action immediately in response to constituents concerns. After all, as the Mayor notes: “Expectations are rising…People are putting more demands on me and more demands on the administration, and I think that’s a really good thing and that will keep us motivated to work hard.”

Already, the urban wasteland is changing—almost on a daily basis: already, under a city program which supports renovation over demolition to try to preserve the mid-century architectural character of neighborhoods, that number of abandoned homes has been halved—with many of the units set aside for affordable housing. In his State of the City address this year, Mayor Duggan said he wants 8,000 more homes demolished, 2,000 sold, another 1,000 renovated and 11,000 more boarded up by the end of next year.

On that first day of the nation’s largest ever municipal bankruptcy, Kevin Orr, whom the Governor had tapped to become the Emergency Manager for Detroit, had flown out from the Washington, D.C. region, and told me his first actions were to email every employee of Detroit that he would be filing that morning in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, but that he expected every employee to report to work—and that the most critical priorities were that every traffic and street light work—and that there be a professional, courteous, and prompt response to every 911 call.  

That was a challenge—especially for a municipality in bankruptcy, but, by 2016, the city had completed a $185 million streetlight repair project; 911 response times have been reduced from 50 minutes in 2013 to 14.5 minutes last year, and ambulance response times fell from 20 minutes in 2014 to the national average of 8 minutes this year.

As we have previously noted, two months ago, just three and a half years after Detroit emerged from chapter 9, the city has exited from state oversight; its homeless population has, for the third consecutive year, declined—and, its unemployment rate, which had peaked during the fiscal crisis at 28%, is now below 8%. No wonder the suburbs are becoming fiscally jealous. And the downtown, which was unsafe for pedestrians when the National League of Cities hosted its annual meeting there in the 1980’s and on the city’s first day in bankruptcy, has been transformed into a modern, walkable metropolis.

Nevertheless, the seeming bulldog, relentless leader has refused to sugarcoat the fiscal and physical challenge—or, as he puts it: “I don’t spend a lot of time promising. I just say, here’s what we’re doing next and here’s why we’re doing it and then we do what we say…Over time, you don’t restore trust by making more promises; you restore trust by actually doing what you said you were going to do.”

Mr. Finley wrote that the Mayor, deemed a “truth teller” by Detroit Housing Director Arthur Jemison, has been direct in confronting the city’s harsh legacy of racist policies after the Great Depression lured thousands upon thousands of African-Americans north in the early decades of the 20th century to work in auto factories—luring them to a city at a time when Federal Housing Administration guidelines barred blacks in the city from obtaining home mortgages and even led to the construction in 1941 of a wall bordering the heavily African-American 8 Mile neighborhood to segregate it from a new housing development for whites.

Aaron Foley — the 33-year-old author of How to Live in Detroit Without Being a Jackass, noted: “When you deliver that kind of message about this is why black people are on this side of the wall in 8 Mile versus the other side of the wall, that gets people talking: This is a history that we all know in Detroit, and for the city government to acknowledge that in the way that it did on that platform, it did resonate.”

Mayor Duggan’s concern for Detroit’s people—and not forcing low-income families out, is evidenced too by his words: “Every single time that we had a building where the federal [housing] credits were expiring and people were going to get forced out of their affordable units, I had to sit down for hours with the building owner to convince them why those who stayed were entitled to be there, and I thought: I need to do just one speech and explain that this is the right thing to do…Since then there’s been just great support for the direction we’re going in the city. We have very little pushback now from our developers over making sure that what they’re doing is equitable.”

Phoenix Rises in Detroit!

April 30, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we recognize and celebrate Detroit’s emergence from the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.

More than three years since the Motor City emerged from the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, the Michigan Financial Review Commission is widely expected to act early this afternoon to vote on a waiver, after its Executive Director, Kevin Kubacki, had, last December, notified Gov. Rick Snyder of the city’s fiscal successes in holding open vacancies and reporting “revenues trending above the city’s adopted budget.” The city’s exit, if approved as expected, would restore local control and end state oversight of the City of Detroit. The expected outcome arrives in the wake of three consecutive municipal budget surpluses—something unanticipated for the federal government any year in the forseeable future. In the case of the Commission, Detroit’s fiscal accomplishment met a crucial threshold required to exit oversight: the Motor City completed FY2017 with a $53.8 million general fund operating surplus and revenues exceeding expenditures by $108.6 million—after recording an FY2016 $63 million surplus, and $71 million for FY2015. Michigan’s statute still requires the Review Commission to meet each year to grant Detroit a waiver to continue local control until the completion of 10 consecutive years.

In acknowledging the historic fiscal recovery, Mayor Mike Duggan noted that the restoration is akin to a suspension, as the oversight commission will not be active—but will remain in a so-called “dormancy period” under which, he said, referring to the Commission: “They do continue to review our finances, and, if we, in the future, run a deficit, they come back to life; and it takes another three years before we can move them out.”

On the morning Detroit went into chapter 9 bankruptcy—a morning I was warned it was too dangerous to walk the less than a mile from my downtown hotel to the Governor’s Detroit offices to meet with Kevyn Orr as he accepted Gov. Snyder’s request that he serve as Emergency Manager; Mr. Orr told me he had ordered every employee to report to work on time—and that the highest priority would be to ensure that all traffic and street lights were operating—and no 9-1-1 call was ignored. We sometimes forget—to our peril—that while the federal government can shut down, that is not an option for a city or county.  From the critical—to the vital everyday services, crews in Detroit have started cleaning 2,000 miles of residential streets, with Mayor Duggan’s office reporting that the first of three city-wide street sweeping operations is underway: each will take 10 weeks to complete.

The state oversight has, unsurprisingly, been prickly, at times: it has added levels of frustration to governance. For example, under the state oversight, all major city and labor contracts are delayed 30 days in order to await approval from the state. Nevertheless, with Detroit a vital component of Michigan’s economy, Detroit Chief Financial Officer John Hill had likened this oversight as a “real constructive process where the city has excelled.” Indeed, under the city’s plan of chapter 9 debt adjustment, Detroit had committed to shed some $7 billion in debt, while at the same time investing some $1.7 billion into restructuring and municipal city service improvements over a decade. In addition, the city had accepted the state fiscal oversight of its municipal finances, including budgets, contracts, and collective bargaining agreements with municipal employees. In return, the carrot, as it were, was that the state would assist by defraying cuts to Detroit retiree pensions and shield the Detroit Institute of Arts collection from bankruptcy creditors. The plan of debt adjustment also provided for relief of most public pension obligations to Detroit’s two pension funds through FY2023—after which Detroit 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.

Follow the Yellow Brick Road? While the Review Commission’s vote of fiscal and governing confidence for Detroit is a recognition of fiscal responsibility and accountability…and pride, the road of bankruptcy is steeper than for other municipalities—and the road is not unencumbered. Detroit is, in many ways, fiscally unique: more than 20 percent of its revenues are derived from a municipal income tax versus 17 percent from property taxes. That means the Motor City cannot fiscally rest: as in Chicago, city leaders need to continue to work with the state and the city’s School Board to improve the city’s public schools in order to attract families to move back into the city—a challenge made more difficult at a time when the current Congress and Administration have demonstrated little interest in addressing fiscal disparities: so Detroit is not competing on a level playing field.

In Michigan, however, the federal disinterest is partially offset by Michigan’s Revenue Sharing program, which, for the current fiscal year, provides that each eligible local unit is eligible to receive 100% of its eligible payment, according to Section 952 of 2016 PA 268. Therefore, if a city’s, village’s, or township’s FY 2010 statutory payment was greater than $4,500, the local unit will be eligible to receive a “Percent Payment” equal to 78.51044% of the local unit’s FY 2010 statutory payment. If a city’s, village’s, or township’s population is greater than 7,500, the local unit will be eligible to receive a “Population Payment” equal to the local unit’s population multiplied by $2.64659. Cities, villages, or townships that had a FY 2010 statutory payment greater than $4,500 and have a population greater than 7,500 will receive the greater of the “Percent Payment” or “Population Payment.

Unfortunately, since the Great Recession, local units of government have been hit with three major blows, all of which involve the state government. The first is the major decline in revenue sharing as the state struggled to balance its budget during the recession of 2007-2009. (Statutory revenue sharing declined from a peak of $684 million in FY 2001 to $210 million in FY 2012 and only recovered to $249 million by FY 2016. Total revenue sharing which fell from a peak of $1.326 billion in FY 2001 had only recovered to $998 million in FY 2016.)

Nevertheless, and, against seemingly all odds, it appears the civic pride created in this extraordinary challenge to recover from the largest chapter 9 in American history has given the Governor, legislature, and Detroit’s leaders—and citizens—a resolute determination to succeed.