The Fiscal Challenges of Federalism

July 13, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the legal, governing, and judicial challenges to Puerto Rico’s fiscal recovery, before turning to the very different kinds of fiscal recovery challenges confronting Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

Who Is Preempting Whose Power & Authority? Yesterday, the PROMESA Oversight  Board requested dismissal of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló Nevares’ suit in which he is charging that the Oversight Board has usurped his power and authority, with the Board asking the federal court to issue an injunction to prevent such action, noting in its filing: “Although PROMESA relies in the sole discretion of the Board, two major policy instruments that exist, the fiscal plan and the budget, and the law expressly empowers the Board to formulate and certify them…the Governor questions whether PROMESA preserves to the government the political powers and of government to make policy decisions.”  In response, the Board asserted that the Governor’s claim lacks merit, asserting that the law provides that the Board has the final say with regard to budget and tax issues, writing: “The provisions to which the Governor objects are not recommendations in the sense of §205 of PROMESA,” with that response coming just minutes after the U.S. requested—for a second time—its insistence on the “Constitutionality of the PROMESA statute. In a motion filed Wednesday, U.S. Justice Department Assistant Attorney General Thomas Ward advised Judge Laura Taylor Swain that two recent decisions upon which Puerto Rico had relied were not pertinent to the legal issues at hand. Promise law.

In a motion filed Wednesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney General Thomas G. Ward and Jean Lin of the Justice Department asserted before Judge Taylor Swain that two recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions presented by the Aurelius Management Investment Fund were not relevant to the critical issues at hand, after, earlier this week, the Fund had provided the Judge with two U.S. Supreme Court decisions which, it asserted, affirm its perception of the statute, as it continues to argue before the federal court that the actions of the PROMESA Board are null and void, because the members of the Board without the consent of the Senate as required by the U.S. Constitution, referencing two recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, Lucia v. SEC and Ortiz v. United States, where, in the former case, the court, last month, determined that a higher ranking SEC official should have been appointed to his position based on the Appointments Clause of the US Constitution, while, in the Ortiz decision, the Supreme Court held that it has jurisdiction to review decisions of the Armed Forces’ appellate courts—claims which the Justice Department described as incorrect, since such decisions only support his argument that the appointment clause of the U.S. Constitution does not apply to members of the PROMESA Oversight Board—or, as the Justice Department brief put it: “A finding that the clause applies to territorial officials would not only face this historic practice, but would also challenge the current governance structures of the territories and the District of Columbia that have been in place for decades,” adding to that Congress has full authority over its territories—authority which is not subject to the “complex” distribution of the powers of the government provided by the U.S. Constitution.

Last week, Gov. Rosselló had charged that the PROMESA Oversight Board has been trying to make policy decisions that the PROMESA law does not grant it authority to make, as he had petitioned Judge Swain to mandate that the Board to answer the complaint or motion to dismiss by yesterday. His attorneys stated: “The court should expedite resolution of this case to address the injury to the Commonwealth and its people occurring every day due to the Board’s attempt to seize day-to-day control of Puerto Rico’s government.” Even though the PROMESA Board asked for more time, Judge Swain ruled in favor of the Governor’s request—so, the complex federalism sessions are scheduled to resume on the 25th, when the quasi bankruptcy court will entertain oral arguments, possibly including participation by Puerto Rico Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz and House President Carlos Méndez Núñez, who filed a similar suit against the board on July 9th, asserting that the PROMESA Board was preempting the legislature’s rightful powers. Thus, even the Board and the Governor have generally been in agreement this year in their fiscal plans, the Board has insisted its policies must be followed—with its proposed quasi plan of debt adjustment showing a surplus of $6.5 billion from this fiscal year through fiscal year 2023.

In the suit, Gov. Rosselló quotes from Judge Swain’s opinion of last November and order denying the PROMESA Board’s motion to replace the then-chief executive of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority with the board’s own appointee, with the opinion noting: “Congress did not grant the [Oversight Board] the power to supplant, bypass, or replace the Commonwealth’s elected leaders and their appointees in the exercise of their managerial duties whenever the Oversight Board might deem such a change expedient.”

Mayor of Wilkes-Barre Asks State for Financial Assistance. Mayor Tony George, whose city is confronting a $3.5 million deficit in the upcoming fiscal year, is seeking financial assistance under Pennsylvania’s program for distressed communities, the Financially Distressed Municipalities Act, approval of which request would mean the municipality would be eligible for loans and grants through the state Department of Community and Economic Development. The move came as Standard & Poor’s placed the city’s “BBB-” rating on CreditWatch with negative implications, in the wake of Mayor George’s petition to the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, with the Mayor warning the city faces an estimated $3.5 million deficit next year and in the coming years despite efforts to place Wilkes-Barre on sound financial footing with its participation in Pennsylvania’s Early Intervention Program. The credit rating agency added it will gather more information before making a determination that could make it more expensive for the city to borrow money at higher interest rates, noting: “We expect to resolve the CreditWatch status within 30 days. We could lower the rating if we believe that the city’s credit quality is no longer commensurate with the rating. However, if we believe it does remain commensurate with the current rating, we could affirm the rating and remove it from CreditWatch.” Should the credit rating be downgraded, it would be the second time during Mayor George’s administration, after, a year ago last May, S&P lowered the rating to “BBB-” from “A-” because the city’s cash flow was constrained and was relying on borrowing to make ends meet. City officials are tentatively scheduled to hold a conference call with S&P on August 7th—by which time the state is expected to have made its decision on declaring the city distressed.

Under that state statute, municipalities may also restructure debt. If the Mayor’s request is granted, the state will appoint a financial adviser to design a financial recovery plan for the city—one of the nation’s oldest, having been inhabited first by the Shawanese and Delaware Indian and (Lenape) tribes, so that it was in 1769 that John Durkee led the first recorded Europeans to the area, where they established a frontier settlement named Wilkes-Barre after John Wilkes and Isaac Barre, two British members of Parliament who supported colonial America. At the time, these settlers were aligned with colonial Connecticut, which had a claim on the land that rivaled Pennsylvania’s. Indeed, armed Pennsylvanians twice attempted to evict the residents of Wilkes-Barre in what came to be known as the Pennamite-Yankee Wars, so that it was not until after the American Revolution, in the 1780s, that a settlement was reached granting the disputed land to Pennsylvania. A century later, the city’s population exploded in the wake of the discovery of anthracite coal, an explosion so powerful that the city was nicknamed “The Diamond City:” hundreds of thousands of immigrants flocked to the city. By 1806, it was incorporated as a borough; it became a city in 1871—as it gradually became a major U.S. coal center, and an early home to Woolworth’s, Sterling Hotels, Planter’s Peanuts, Miner’s Bank, Bell Telephone, HBO, Luzerne National Bank, and Stegmaier. But the coal which once contributed so much to the city’s growth, subsequently let it down: not only were there terrible mine disasters, but also the country began to switch to other energy sources. So, the city where Babe Ruth knocked one of his longest ever homes runs is, today, at risk of striking out at the plate.  The city, which a dozen years ago celebrated its 200th anniversary, is now seeking assistance via the state’s Act 47, with the Mayor citing—as additional factors, the lack of cooperation with area unions and his own City Council. He appears to be of the view that there was no other alternative to help stabilize the city’s finances other than filing for status under Pennsylvania’s Act 47 for Distressed Municipalities, noting: “My goal is to bring the city forward, and we’re stifled.”

In Pennsylvania there are four general methods of oversight used to aid local governments: Intergovernmental Cooperation Authorities, which are used with Philadelphia and Pittsburgh; ƒ School district assistance, which can come in the form of technical assistance, or schools which can be deemed in Financial Watch Status or in Financial Recovery Status; Early intervention program for municipalities before Act 475; and Act 47, or Pennsylvania’s Municipalities Financial Recovery Act of 1987.  What Is Pennsylvania’s Act 47? We will go into more depth about Act 47 because that is the program for which Wilkes-Barre recently applied. We also touch on the special consideration taken for Pittsburgh and Philadelphia as it relates to Act 47 as we close this commentary. The Pennsylvania Municipalities Financial Recovery Act of 1987, or Act 47 as it is commonly called, is an assistance program to help Pennsylvania municipalities after they file and are officially designated as “distressed.” Many states, such as the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, generally believe that the status of one of its municipalities can affect others throughout the state. This is even set forth in writing in PA’s Act 47, which states: “Policy—It is hereby declared to be a public policy of the Commonwealth to foster fiscal integrity of municipalities so that they provide for the health, safety and welfare of their citizens; pay principal and interest on their debt obligations when due; meet financial obligations to their employees, vendors and suppliers; and provide for proper financial accounting procedures, budgeting and taxing practices. The failure of a municipality to do so is hereby determined to affect adversely the health, safety and welfare not only of the citizens of the municipality but also of other citizens in this Commonwealth.”

How Does a Pennsylvania Municipality Become Part of Act 47? The Municipalities Financial Recovery Act authorizes Pennsylvania’s Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED) to validate municipalities as financially distressed. According to Act 47’s criteria, a municipality could be deemed financially distressed if it meets at least one of the following criteria: The municipality has maintained a deficit over a three-year period, with a deficit of 1% or more in each of the previous fiscal years. The municipality’s expenditures have exceeded revenues for a period of three years or more. The municipality has defaulted in payment of principal or interest on any of its bonds or notes or in payment of rentals due any authority. The municipality has missed a payroll for 30 days. The municipality has failed to make required payments to judgment creditors for 30 days beyond the date of the recording of the judgment. The municipality, for a period of at least 30 days beyond the due date, has failed to forward taxes withheld on the income of employees or has failed to transfer employer or employee contributions for Social Security; it has accumulated and has operated for each of two successive years a deficit equal to 5% or more of its revenues; and it has failed to make the budgeted payment of its minimum municipal obligation as required by §§302, 303, or 602 of the act of December 18, 1984 (P.L. 1005, No. 205), per the Municipal Pension Plan Funding Standard and Recovery Act, with respect to a pension fund during the fiscal year for which the payment was budgeted and has failed to take action within that time period to make required payments.

Pennsylvania’s Municipalities Financial Recovery Act authorizes Pennsylvania’s Department of Community and Economic Development to validate municipalities as financially distressed. Key criteria include: A municipality has sought to negotiate resolution or adjustment of a claim in excess of 30% against a fund or budget and has failed to reach an agreement with creditors; a municipality has filed for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy; a municipality has experienced a decrease in a quantified level of municipal service from the preceding fiscal year, which has resulted from the municipality reaching its legal limit in levying real estate taxes for general purposes.  Act 47 offers aid to the commonwealth’s second class cities (defined as those with a population of 250,000 to 999,999) and below which are negatively affected by forces such as short-term swings in the business cycle, or those burdened by more harmful longer-term negative macro-economic shifts: state support or assistance is available in several forms in order to ensure municipalities can provide essential services without interruption.

Over the long-term, Act 47 is focused on balancing ongoing revenues with ongoing expenditures—and investing in the municipality so that growth occurs and, as in a chapter 9 plan of debt adjustment, a municipality can recover. The act provides state-sponsored emergency no-interest loans and grants in order to ensure distressed municipalities can continue meeting debt payments and creditor obligations. The Department appoints a recovery coordinator who creates and then leads in helping to implement a recovery plan. Unlike an emergency manager, the plan provides for a recovery coordinator, who may act as an intermediary between the Mayor and City Council–the recovery plan is similar to a plan of debt adjustment in that it details how the available assistance and other modifications will help the municipality regain its fiscal stability, including via commonwealth economic and community development programs, assistance while negotiating new collective bargaining contracts; and enhanced tax or revenue authority—a key of which is authority to levy a nonresident wage tax.  

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The Fiscal Challenges of Inequity

May 15, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we return to the small municipality of Harvey, Illinois—a city fiscally transfixed between its pension and operating budget constraints in a state which does not provide authority for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy; then we turn east to assess Connecticut’s fiscal road to adjournment and what it might mean for its capital city of Hartford; before heading south to Puerto Rico where there might be too many fiscal cooks in the kitchen, both exacerbating the costs of restoring fiscal solvency, and exacerbating the outflow of higher income Americans from Puerto Rico to the mainland.

Absence of Fiscal Balance? After, nearly a decade ago, the Land of Lincoln—the State of Illinois—adopted its pension law as a means to ensure smaller municipalities would stop underfunding their public pension contributions—provisions which, as we noted in the case of the small municipality of Harvey, were upheld when a judge affirmed that the Illinois Comptroller was within the state law to withhold revenues due to the city—with the Comptroller’s office noting that whilst it did not “want to see any Harvey employees harmed or any Harvey residents put at risk…the law does not give the Comptroller discretion in this case: The Comptroller’s Office is obligated to follow the law. This dispute is between the retired Harvey police officers’ pension fund and the City of Harvey.” But in one of the nation’s largest metro regions—one derived from the 233 settlements there in 1900, the fiscal interdependency and role of the state may have grave fiscal consequences. As we previously noted, U. of Chicago researcher Amanda Kass found there are 74 police or fire pension funds in Illinois municipalities with unfunded pension liabilities similar to that of Harvey. Unsurprisingly, poverty is not equally distributed: so fiscal disparities within the metro region have consequences not just for municipal operating budgets, but also for meeting state constitutionally mandated public pension obligations.

Now, as fiscal disparities in the region grow, there is increasing pressure for the state to step in—it is, after all, one of the majority of states in the nation which does not authorize a municipality to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy: ergo, the fiscal and human challenge in the wake of the state’s enactment of its new statute which permits public pension funds to intercept local revenues to meet pension obligations; the state faces the governance and fiscal challenge of whether to provide for a state takeover—a governing action taken in the case of neighboring Michigan, where the state takeover had perilous health and fiscal consequences in Flint, but appeared to be the key for the remarkable fiscal turnaround in Detroit from the largest municipal chapter 9 bankruptcy in American history. Absent action by the Governor and state legislature, it would seem Illinois will need to adopt an early fiscal warning system of severe municipal fiscal distress—replete with a fiscal process for some means of state assistance or intervention. In Harvey, where Mayor Eric Kellogg has been banned for life from any role in the issuance of municipal debt because of the misleading of investors, the challenge for a city which has so under-budgeted for its public pension obligations, has defaulted on its municipal bond obligations, and provided virtually no fiscal disclosure; Illinois’ new state law (PL 96-1495), which permits public pension funds to compel Illinois’ Comptroller to withhold state tax revenue which would normally go to the city, which went into effect at the beginning of this calendar year, meant the city reasons did not take effect until January 2018. Now, in the wake of the city’s opting to lay off nearly half its police and fire force, the small municipality with the 7th highest violent crime rate in the state is in a fiscal Twilight Zone—and a zone transfixed in the midst of a hotly contested gubernatorial campaign in which neither candidate has yet to offer a meaningful fiscal option.  

Under Illinois’ Financial Distressed City Law ((65 ILCS 5/) Illinois Municipal Code) there are narrow criteria, including requirements that the municipality rank in the highest 5% of all cities in terms of the aggregate of the property tax levy paid while simultaneously in the lowest percentage of municipalities in terms of the tax collected. Under the provisions, the Illinois General Assembly would then need to pass a resolution declaring the city as fiscally distressed—a law used only once before in the state’s history—thirty-eight years ago for the City of East St. Louis. The statute, as we have previously noted, contains an additional quirk—disqualifying in this case: Illinois’ Local Government Financial Planning and Supervision Act mandates an entity must have a population of less than 25,000—putting Harvey, with its waning population measured at 24,947 as of 2016 somewhere with Rod Serling in the Twilight Zone. Absent state action, Harvey could be the first of a number of smaller Illinois municipalities unable to meet its public pension obligations—in response to which, the state would reduce revenues via intercepting local or municipal revenues—aggravating and accelerating municipal fiscal distress.

Capital for the Capitol. In a rare Saturday session, the Connecticut Senate passed legislation to enable the state to claw back emergency debt assistance for its capital city, Hartford, through aid cuts beginning in mid-2022, with a bipartisan 28-6 vote—forwarding the bill to the House and Gov. Dannel Malloy—as legislators raced to overwhelmingly approve a new state budget shortly before their midnight deadline Wednesday which would:  restore aid for towns; reverse health care cuts for the elderly, poor, and disabled; and defer a transportation crisis. The $20.86 billion package, which now moves to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s desk, does not increase taxes; it does raise the maximum tax rate cities and towns can levy on motor vehicles. In addition, the bill would spend rather than save more than $300 million from this April’s $1 billion surge in state income tax revenues. The final fiscal compromise does not include several major changes sought by Republicans to collective bargaining rules affecting state and municipal employees. And, even as the state’s fiscal finances are projected to face multi-billion-dollar deficits after the next election tied in part to legacy debt costs amassed over the last 80 years, the new budget would leave Connecticut with $1.1 billion in its emergency reserves: it will boost General Fund spending about 1.6 percent over the adopted budget for the current fiscal year, and is 1.1 percent higher than the preliminary 2018-19 budget lawmakers adopted last October. The budget also includes provisions intended to protect Connecticut households and businesses which might be confronted with higher federal tax obligations under the new federal tax law changes. Indeed, in the end, the action was remarkably bipartisan: the Senate passed the budget 36-0 after a mere 17 minutes of debate; the House debated only 20 minutes before voting 142-8 for adoption.

In addition to reacting to the new federal tax laws, the final fiscal actions also dealt with the sharp, negative reaction from voters in the wake of tightening  Medicare eligibility requirements for the Medicare Savings Program, which uses Medicaid funds to help low-income elderly and disabled patients cover premiums and medication costs—acting to postpone cutbacks to July 1st, even though it worsened a deficit in the current fiscal year, after learning an estimated 113,000 seniors and disabled residents would lose some or all assistance. As adopted, the new budget reverses all cutbacks, at a cost of approximately $130 million. Legislators also acted to restore some $12 million to reverse new restrictions on the Medicaid-funded health insurance program for poor adults, with advocates claiming this funding would enable approximately 13,500 adults from households earning between 155 and 138 percent of the federal poverty level to retain state-sponsored coverage.

State Aid to Connecticut Cities & Towns. Legislators also took a different approach with this budget regarding aid to cities and towns. After clashing with Gov. Malloy last November, when Gov. Malloy had been mandated by the legislature to achieve unprecedented savings after the budget was in force, including the reduction of $91 million from statutory grants to cities and towns; the new budget gives communities $70.5 million more in 2018-19 than they received this year—and bars the Governor from cutting town grants to achieve savings targets. As adopted, the fiscal package means that some municipalities in the state, cities and towns with the highest local tax rates, could be adversely impacted: the legislation raises the statewide cap on municipal property taxes from a maximum rate of 39 mills to 45 mills. On the other hand, the final legislation provides additional education and other funding for communities with large numbers of evacuees from Puerto Rico—dipping into a portion of last month’s $1.3 billion surge in state income tax receipts tied chiefly to capital gains and other investment income—and notwithstanding the state’s new revenue “volatility” cap which was established last fall to force Connecticut to save such funds. As adopted, the new state budget “carries forward” $299 million in resources earmarked for payments to hospitals this fiscal year—a fiscal action which means the state has an extra $299 million to spend in the next budget while simultaneously enlarging the outgoing fiscal year’s deficit by the same amount. (The new deficit for the outgoing fiscal year would be $686 million, which would be closed entirely with the dollars in the budget reserve—which is filled primarily with this spring’s income tax receipts.) The budget reserve is now projected to have between $700 million and $800 million on hand when the state completes its current fiscal year. That could be a fiscal issue, as it would leave Connecticut with a fiscal cushion of just under 6 percent of annual operating costs, a cushion which, while the state’s largest reserve since 2009, would still be far below the 15 percent level recommended by Comptroller Kevin P. Lembo—and, mayhap of greater fiscal concern, smaller than the projected deficits in the first two fiscal years after the November elections: according to Connecticut’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis, the newly adopted budget, absent adjustment, would run $2 billion in deficit in FY2019-20—a deficit that office projects would increase by more than 25 percent by FY2020-21, with the bulk of those deficits attributable both to surging retirement benefit costs stemming from decades of inadequate state savings, as well as the Connecticut economy’s sluggish recovery from the last recession.

As adopted, Connecticut’s new budget also retains and scales back a controversial plan to reinforce new state caps on spending and borrowing and other mechanisms designed to encourage better savings habits; it includes a new provision to transfer an extra $29 million in sales tax receipts next fiscal year to the Special Transportation Fund—designed in an effort to avert planned rail and transit fare increases—ergo, it does not establish tolls on state highways.

Reacting to Federal Tax Changes. The legislature approved a series of tax changes in response to new federal tax laws capping deductions for state and local taxes at $10,000: one provision would establish a new Pass-Through Entity Tax aimed at certain small businesses, such as limited liability corporations; a second provision allows municipalities to provide a property tax credit to taxpayers who make voluntary donations to a “community-supporting organization” approved by the municipality: under this provision, as an example, a household owing $7,000 in state income taxes and $6,000 in local property taxes could, in lieu of paying the property taxes, make a $6,000 contribution to a municipality’s charitable organization.

Impacts on Connecticut’s Municipalities. The bill would enable the state to reduce non-education aid to its capital city of Hartford by an amount equal to the debt deal. It would authorize the legislature to pare non-education grants to Hartford if the city’s deficit exceeds 2% of annual operating costs in a fiscal year, or a 1% gap for two straight year—albeit the legislature would be free to restore other funds—or, as Mayor Luke Bronin put it: “I fully understand respect legislators’ desire to revisit the agreement after five years.” Under the so-called contract assistance agreement, which Gov. Malloy, Connecticut State Treasurer Denise Nappier, and Mayor Luke Bronin signed in late March, the state would pay off the principal on the City of Hartford’s roughly $540 million of general obligation debt over 20 to 30 years. With Connecticut’s new Municipal Accountability Review Board, not dissimilar to the Michigan fiscal review Board for Detroit, having just approved Mayor Bronin’s five-year plan. In the wake of the legislative action, Mayor Bronin had warned that significant fiscal cuts in the out years could imperil the city at that time, albeit adding: “That said, I fully understand and respect legislators’ desire to revisit the agreement after five years, and my commitment is that we will continue to work hard to earn the confidence our the legislature and the state as a whole as we move our capital city in the right direction.”

Dying to Leave. While we have previously explored the departure of many young, college-educated Puerto Ricans to the mainland, depleting both municipio and the Puerto Rico treasuries of vital tax revenues, the Departamento of Salud (Health Department) reports that even though Puerto Rico’s population has declined by nearly 17% over the decade, the U.S. territory’s suicide rate has increased significantly, especially in the months immediately following Hurricane Maria, particularly among older adults, with social workers reporting that elderly people are especially vulnerable when their daily routines are disrupted for long periods. Part of the upsurge is demographically related: As those going have left for New York City, Florida, and other sites on the East Coast, it is older Americans left behind—many who went as long as six months without electricity, who appear to be at risk. Adrian Gonzalez, the COO (Chief Operating Officer at Castañer General Hospital in Castañer, a small town in the central mountains) noted: “We have elderly people who live alone, with no power, no water and very little food.” Dr. Angel Munoz, a clinical psychologist in Ponce, said people who care for older adults need to be trained to identify the warning signs of suicide: “Many of these elderly people either live alone or are being taken care of by neighbors.”

A Hot Potato of Municipal Debt. Under Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s proposed FY2019 General Fund budget, the Governor included no request to meet Puerto Rico’s debt, adding he intended not to follow the PROMESA Board’s directives in several parts of his budget—those debt obligations for Puerto Rico and its entities are in excess of $2.5 billion: last month’s projections by the Board certified a much higher amount of $3.84 billion. Matt Fabian of Municipal Market Analytics described it this way: “Bondholders have to wait until the Commonwealth makes a secured or otherwise legally protected provision to pay debt service before they can begin to (dis)count their chickens: The alternative, which is where we are today, is an assumption that debt service will be paid out of surplus funds. ‘Surplus funds’ haven’t happened in a decade and the storm has only made things worse: a better base case assumption is the Commonwealth spending every dollar of cash and credit at its disposal, regardless of what the budget says: That doesn’t leave much room for the payment of debt service and is good reason for bondholders to continue to litigate.” Under the PROMESA Board’s approved fiscal plan, Puerto Rico should have $1.13 billion in surplus funds available for debt service in FY2023—with the Board silent with regard to what percent the Gov. would be expected to dedicate to debt service. The Gov.’s budget request does seek nearly a 10% reduction for the general fund, with a statement from his office noting the proposal for operational expenditures of $7 billion is 6% less than that for the current fiscal year and 22% less than the final budget of former Gov. Alejandro García Padilla. The Governor proposed no reductions in pension benefits—indeed, it goes so far as to explicitly include that his budget does not follow the demands of the PROMESA Oversight Board for the proposed pension cuts, to enact new labor reforms, or to eliminate a long-standing Christmas bonus for government workers.

Nevertheless, PROMESA Board Executive Director Natalie Jaresko, appears optimistic that Gov. Ricardo Rosselló Nevares’s government will correct the “deficiencies” in the recommended budget without having to resort to litigation: while explaining the Board’s reasoning for rejecting the Governor’s proposed budget last week, Director Jaresko stressed that correcting the expenses and collections program, as well as implementing all the reforms contained in the fiscal plan, is necessary to channel the island’s economy and to promote transparency and accountability in the use of public funds, adding that approving a budget in accordance with the new certified fiscal plan is critical to achieve the renegotiation of Puerto Rico’s debt—adding that, should the Rosselló administration not do its part, the Board would proceed with what PROMESA establishes: “The fiscal plan is not a menu you can choose from.”

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.

Human, Fiscal, & Physical Challenges

April 20, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we return to Flint, Michigan to assess its human and fiscal challenges in the wake of its exit from state receivership; then we return to Puerto Rico, a territory plunged once again into darkness and an exorbitant and costly set of fiscal overseers. 

Out Like Flint. Serious fiscal challenges remain for Flint, Michigan, after its exit from state financial receivership. Those challenges include employee retirement funding and the aging, corroded pipes that caused its drinking water crisis, according to Mary Schulz, associate director for Michigan State University’s Extension Center for Local Government Finance and Policy. In the public pension challenge, Michigan’s statute enacted last year mandates that the state’s municipalities report underfunded retirement benefits. That meant, in the wake of Flint’s reporting that it had only funded its pension at 37%–with nothing set aside for its other OPEB benefits, combined with the estimated $600 million to finance the infrastructure repair of its aging water infrastructure, Director Schulz added the small city is also confronted by a serious problem with its public schools—describing the city’s fiscal ills as “Michigan’s Puerto Rico,” adding it would “remain Michigan’s Puerto Rico until the state decides Flint is part of Michigan.”

Michigan Municipal League Director Dan Gilmartin notes that Flint is making better decisions financially, but still suffers from state funding cuts. He observed that Flint’s leaders are making better decisions fiscally—that they have put together a more realistic budget than before its elected leaders were preempted by state imposed emergency managers, noting: “The biggest problem Flint faces now is what all cities in Michigan face, and that is the state’s system of municipal financing, which simply doesn’t work.”

Perhaps in recognition of that, Michigan State Treasurer Nick Khouri, on April 10th announced the end of state-imposed receivership under Michigan’s Local Financial Stability and Choice Act, and he dissolved the Flint Receivership Transition Advisory Board. Treasurer Khouri also signed a resolution repealing all remaining emergency manager orders, noting: “Removing all emergency manager orders gives the City of Flint a fresh start without any lingering restrictions.” Concurrently, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, in an email, wrote: “Under the state’s emergency manager law, emergency managers were put in place in a number of cities facing financial emergencies to ensure residents were protected and their local governments’ fiscal problems were addressed: This process has worked well for the state’s struggling cities, helping to restore financial stability and put them on a path toward long-term success. Flint’s recent exit from receivership marks the end of emergency management for cities in Michigan and a new chapter in the state’s continued comeback.” Indeed, the state action means that Detroit is the only Michigan municipality city still under a form of state oversight, albeit Benton Harbor Area Schools, Pontiac Public Schools, Highland Park School District, and the Muskegon Heights school district remain under state oversight.

The nation’s preeminent chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy expert Jim Spiotto notes that a financial emergency manager is supposed to get a struggling municipality back to a balanced budget, to find a means to increase revenue, to cut unnecessary expenses, and to keep essential services at an acceptable level:  “To the degree that they achieve that, then you want to continue with best practices: If they don’t accomplish that, then even if you return the city back to Mayor and City Council, then they have to do it: Someone has to come up with viable sustainable recovery plan, not just treading water.”

From his perspective, Director Gilmartin notes: “Flint has more realistic numbers in place, especially when it comes to revenues. I think that is the most important thing the city has accomplished from a nuts and bolts standpoint…The negative side of it is the system in which they are working under just doesn’t work for them or any communities in the state. In some cases making all the right decisions at the local level still doesn’t get to where you need to get to, and it will require a change in the state law.” Referencing last year’s Michigan Municipal League report which estimated the state’s municipalities had been shortchanged to the tune of $8 billion since 2002, Director Gilmartin noted: “A lot of the fiscal pressures that Flint and other cities in Michigan find themselves in are there by state actions.” No doubt, he was referencing the nearly $55 million in reduced state aid to Flint by 2014—as the state moved to pare revenue sharing—the state’s fiscal assistance program to provide assistance based upon population and fiscal need—funds which, had they been provided, would have sufficed to not only balance the city’s budget, but also cut sharply into its capital debts—enhancing its credit quality. Indeed, it was the state’s Emergency Manager program that voters repealed six years ago after devastating decisions had plunged Flint into not just dire fiscal straits, but also the fateful decision to change its public drinking water source—a decision poisoning children, and the city’s fisc by decimating its assessed property values. During those desperate human and fiscal times, local elected leaders were preempted—even as two of the gubernatorially named Emergency Managers were charged with criminal wrongdoing in relation to the city’s lead contamination crisis and ensuing Legionnaire’s disease outbreak which claimed 12 lives in the wake of the fateful decision to  change Flint’s water source to the Flint River in April of 2014. Now, as Director Schulz notes: “Until we come up with other solutions that aren’t really punitive in nature and leave communities like Flint vulnerable as repeat customer for emergency management law, these communities will remain in financial and service delivery purgatory indefinitely.”

Director Schulz notes a more profound threat to municipal fiscal equity: she has identified at least 93 Michigan municipalities with a taxable value per capita under $20,000, describing that as a “good indicator” for which municipalities in the state are prime candidates for finding themselves under a gubernatorially imposed Emergency Manager, in addition to 32 other municipalities in the state which  are either deemed service insolvent or on the verge of service insolvency. Flint’s taxable value per capita of $7575 comes in as the second lowest behind St. Louis, Michigan, which has a taxable value of $6733. Ms. Schulz defines such insolvency as the level below which a municipality is likely unable to fiscally provide “a basic level of services a city need to provide to its residents.” Indeed, a report released by Treasurer Khouri’s office has identified nearly 25% of the state’s local units of government as having an underfunded pension plan, retirement health care plan, or both—an issue which, as we have noted in the eGnus, comes after the State, last December enacted legislation creating thresholds on pensions and OPEB which all municipalities must meet in order to be considered funded at a viable level, meaning OPEB liabilities must be at least 40% funded, and pensions 60% funded. While the Treasurer may grant waivers, such granting is premised on plans approved to remedy the underfunding—failure to do so could trigger oversight by a three-member Michigan Stability Board appointed by the Governor. As Director Schulz notes: “The winds here are blowing such that the municipality stability board is going to be up and running soon, and there will be an effort to give that board emergency manager powers…That means they can break contacts, they can sell assets…whatever it needs to put money in the OPEB.” But in the face of such preemption—preemption which, after all, had caused such human and fiscal damage to Detroit, Detroit’s public schools, and to the City of Flint; Director Gilmartin notes: “Getting the community back to zero is the easy part and is just a function of budgeting, but having it function and provide services is harder: I would say that a lot of the support for emergency management by the state has dwindled based on the experience over the last several years.”

A Storm of Leaders. If the human health and safety, and fiscal challenges created by state oversight in Michigan give one pause; the multiplicity—and cost—of the many overseers of Puerto Rico and its future by the inequitable storm response by Congress and the Trump Administration—and by the costly “who’s on first…” sets of conflicting fiscal overseers could experience at least some level of greater clarity today, as the PROMESA Board releases its proposed fiscal plans it intends to certify, including the maintenance of its mandate to the federal court for an average public pension cut of 10 percent—after having kept under advisement the concerns of Governor Ricardo Rosselló the inclusion in the revised fiscal, quasi chapter 9 plan of debt adjustment immediate reductions in sick and vacation leave.

Thus, it appears U.S. Judge Laura Taylor Swain will consider a proposed adjustment plan to reduce public pensions later this year which would total savings of as much as nearly $1.45 billion over the next five years—a level below the PROMESA Board’s proposed $1.58 million—but massive when put in the context that the current average public pension on the island is roughly $1,100 a month, but more than 38,000 retired government employees receive only $500, because of the type of job they had and the number of years worked.

Thus, there are fiscal and human dilemmas—and governance challenges: even though the PROMESA law authorizes the restructuring of retirement systems, it is unclear whether the Congressionally-created Board has the authority to impose such a significant, unfunded federal mandate on the government of Puerto Rico, including labor reforms, and restrictions of vacation and sick leaves. Last year, Governor Rosselló agreed to a reduction in pensions for government retirees, but then his aim was to propose cuts of 6 percent.

At the moment, he is against it. A few weeks ago, after negotiations with the Board, Governor Rosselló proposed a labor reform similar to the one he negotiated with members of the Board, with differences on how to balance it with an increase in the minimum wage and when to put it in into effect—a proposal he subsequently withdrew after the PROMESA Board mandated that the labor reform be in full force in January 2019, instead of phasing it in over next three years, and conditioning the increase from $7.25 to $8.25 per hour in the minimum wage to the increase in labor participation rates—proposals which, in any event, made clear the “too many leaders” governance challenges—as these were proposals with little chance of approval by the Puerto Rican House. That is, for the Governor, there is not only a federal judge, and a PROMESA Board, but also his own legislature elected by Puerto Ricans—not appointed by non-Puerto Ricans. (Under the PROMESA Law, which also created the territorial judicial system to restructure the public debt of Puerto Rico, the PROMESA Board also has power over the local government until four consecutive balanced budgets and medium and long-term access to the financial markets are achieved. Thus, as the ever insightful Gregory Makoff of the Center for International Governance Innovation—and former U.S. Treasury Advisor put it: “While the lack of cooperation with the Board may be good in political terms in the short-term, it simply delays the return of confidence and extends the time it will take for the Oversight Board to leave the island.” Thus, he has recommended the Board and Gov. Rosselló propose to Judge Swain a cut from $45 billion to $6 billion of the public debt backed by taxes, with a payment of only 13.6 cents per each dollar owed, with the aim of equating it with the average that the states have. All of this has been complicated this week by the blackout Wednesday, before the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, PREPA, yesterday announced it had restored power to some 870,000 customers.

As in  Central Falls, Rhode Island, and in Detroit, in their respective chapter 9 bankruptcies, the issue and debate on pensions appears to be a matter which will be settled or resolved by the court—not the parties or Board. While the Board has the power to propose a reform in the retirement systems, it appears to lack the administrative or legislative mechanisms to implement a labor reform. The marvelous Puerto Rican daily newspaper, El Nuevo Día asked one of the PROMESA Board sources if it were possible for the Board to go to Court and demand the implementation of a labor reform in case the Governor does not propose such legislation—the response to which was such a probability was “low.” Concurrently, an advisor to House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) with regard to proposing legislation to address the issue receive a doubtful response, albeit an official in the Chairman’s office said recently that if the Rosselló administration does not implement the labor reforms proposed by the PROMESA Board, the option for the Board would be to further reduce the expenses of the government of Puerto Rico. Put another way, Carlos Ramos González, Professor of Constitutional Law at the Interamerican University of Puerto Rico, is of the view that, notwithstanding the impasse, “in one way or another, the Board will end up imposing its criteria. How it will do it remains to be seen.”

Physical, Not Fiscal—But Fiscal Storms.  Amid the governance and fiscal storm, a physical storm in the form of am island-wide blackout hit Puerto Rico Wednesday after an excavator accidentally downed a transmission line, contributing to the ongoing physical and fiscal challenge to repair an increasingly unstable power grid nearly seven months after Hurricane Maria. More than 1.4 million homes and businesses lost power, marking the second major outage in less than a week, with the previous one affecting some 840,000 customers. PREPA estimated it would take 24 to 36 hours to restore power to all customers—it is focusing first on re-establishing service for hospitals, water pumping systems, the main airport in San Juan and other critical facilities. The physical blackout came as the PROMESA Board has placed PREPA, a public monopoly with $9 billion of debt, in the equivalent of its own quasi chapter 9 bankruptcy, in an effort to help advance plans to modernize the utility and transform it into a regulated private utility—after, last January, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló announced plans to put the utility up for sale.

Several large power outages have hit Puerto Rico in recent months, but Wednesday was the first time since Hurricane Maria that the U.S. territory has experienced a full island-wide blackout. Officials said restoring power to hospitals, airports, banking centers and water pumping systems was their priority. Following that would be businesses and then homes. By late that day, power had returned to several hospitals and at least five of the island’s 78 municipalities. Federal officials who testified before Congress last week said they expect to have a plan by June on how to strengthen and stabilize Puerto Rico’s power grid, noting that up to 75% of distribution lines were damaged by high winds and flooding. Meanwhile, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is overseeing the federal power restoration efforts, said it hopes to have the entire island fully restored by next month: some 40,000 power customers still remain without normal electrical service as a result of the hurricane. The new blackout occurred as Puerto Rico legislators debate a bill that would privatize the island’s power company, which is $14 billion in debt and relies on infrastructure nearly three times older than the industry average.

 

Plans of Debt Adjustment

April 16, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we return to the Motor City, Detroit, a city, which, to some extent, was the touchstone of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, to observe how the process of debt adjustment, as approved by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes fared. Then we journey south to consider an assessment by the Capitol Hill publication, Politico, of the response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

A Motor City Perspective from a Battle Veteran. Former CIA Director and U.S. Army General David Petraeus, speaking at the end of last week in Detroit at Wayne State University, likened Detroit’s rebound from the nation’s largest ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy to be like a “Phoenix rising from the ashes,” suggesting that the United States should emulate the Motor City’s multifaceted template for success. His speech, titled, “National Security: How safe are we at home and around the world?” was part of Wayne State’s Forum on Contemporary Issues in Society’s 10th anniversary lecture series. The issue, or question, Gen. Petraeus told the audience with regard to: “What in the World is Going On?” related to: “Detroit is a city that hit rock bottom that is bringing you back.” Thus, General Petraeus asked: “The question is: how to do that for the entire country?” Telling the audience: “In Detroit, where do you start when you have a city that’s crumbling at its core? Do you start with policing? Urban renewal? Economic revival? Education? It takes all of the above.” Gen. Petraeus said the biggest threats facing the U.S. are “countries that aren’t satisfied with the status quo and want a change…such as Russia, China, Iran and North Korea; Islamic extremists; cyber threats; and increasing domestic populism.”

Gen. Petraeus added: “We really need to come to grips with the legal pathway of unskilled workers who are hugely important, particularly to the agriculture and hospitality industries; we need to come to grips with those who are already here but not legally, particularly the DACA children.”

But, as the fine editorial writer for the Detroit News, Bankhole Thompson, writing about a forum over the weekend at the Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics, billed as a forum to focus on the Motor City’s recovery, featuring Mayor Mike Duggan, JP Morgan Chase Chair Jamie Dimon, and Peter Scher, the bank’s global head of corporate social responsibility,  the event “appeared more like a carefully orchestrated public relations and ‘job well done’ session for JPMorgan Chase, or at best the case of a bank issuing its own report card about its involvement in the city’s recovery,” adding that, “poverty, the greatest challenge to the city’s revival, was not given the deserving spotlight: They referenced the Mayor’s race speech last year without in-depth analysis about it. Listening to the entire exchange about Detroit, one would think the speakers were talking about a completely different city, not the one which is today the headquarters of poverty in America, as the 2016 Census shows Detroit leads the nation among the largest cities with poverty at 35.7%.” Mr. Thompson added that if one were unfamiliar with the crime index of Detroit, one would have been “hard-pressed to believe that the three-person panel led by Mayor Duggan was talking about a city that is now No. 1 in violent crime in the nation,” asking: “How can a discussion about rebuilding a city like Detroit not first acknowledge the problem of poverty, which is central to achieving even-handed recovery?” Wondering how if the city’s leaders continued to shy away “from the proper diagnosis, how can the problem be solved?” While expressing appreciation for the role that JPMorgan Chase and other entities are playing by investing in certain targeted neighborhoods, he wrote: “But the fact remains that while some neighborhoods are poised to revive and soar, the vast majority of them are nowhere close to experiencing economic salvation…As a result, Detroit has remained a city of different and especially unequal neighborhoods where the future of the city’s kids is determined by ZIP codes…Men and women of all races are born with the same range of abilities. Referencing former President Lyndon Johnson’s Howard University commencement address from 1965, he wrote: “ ‘But ability is not just the product of birth. Ability is stretched or stunted by the family that you live with and the neighborhood you live in, by the school you go to and the poverty or the richness of your surroundings,’” noting that the former President’s comments capture the “current realities of life for many in Detroit, where children wake up frightful and go to sleep hungry in high poverty neighborhoods,” Adding that the panel “failed to delve into the spectacles of destitution and misery that have created the ‘two Detroit’ phenomenon.” He wrote: “Detroit’s leaders must first acknowledge that poverty is real, not a myth, and then work assiduously to address it. An omission like this often leaves some people with this question: who is the city coming back for?”

Beating the Odds: A grim Assessment of FEMA. The Capitol Hill periodical, Politico, in an investigation by writer Danny Vinik “How Trump Favored Texas over Puerto Rico,” noted that the federal government had significantly underestimated the potential damage to Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria and relied too heavily on local officials and private-sector entities to handle the cleanup, noting that its cleanup plan, which had been developed four years ago by a FEMA contractor in anticipation of a catastrophic storm and utilized by FEMA when Maria hit last September, prepared for a Category 4 hurricane and “projected that the island would shift from response to recovery mode after roughly 30 days. In fact, Hurricane Maria was a ‘high-end’ Category 4 storm with different locations on the island experiencing Category 5 winds. More than six months after Maria made landfall, the island is just beginning to shift to recovery mode,” adding that, according to a half-dozen disaster-recovery experts who reviewed the document at Politico’s request, FEMA did not anticipate having to take on a lead role in the aftermath of the disaster, despite clear signs that Puerto Rico’s government and critical infrastructure would be overwhelmed by the force of such a storm; rather, the document largely relied on local Puerto Rico entities to restore the island’s power and telecommunications systems. Moreover, the FEMA analysis omitted discussion of the U.S. territory’s fiscal instability, as well as the capacity of PREPA—or, as Mr. Vinik wrote: “The plan truly didn’t contemplate the event the size of Maria…They made assumptions that people would be able to do things that they wouldn’t be able to do.” Nevertheless, he added that disaster-recovery experts determined that the 140-page plan, published last month on the open-information site MuckRock through a Freedom of Information Act request, correctly predicted many challenges that FEMA faced with Hurricane Maria, including widespread road closures and difficulties transporting emergency supplies to the island territories, but failed to anticipate the extent of the damage. Mr. Vinik noted that Michael Coen, an appointee of President Barack Obama, who was serving as chief of staff at FEMA when the report was written, said the drafters should have expected that the federal government would need to play a larger role than they envisioned: “They probably should have made the assumption that it was going to require federal support: That should have been flagged,” with experts describing that omission as significant, because such planning documents are most useful in advance of the disaster, in significant part to assist federal, state, and local entities to better understand and coordinate their responsibilities. He found, mayhap ironically, that FEMA’s plan “did accurately predict that the island’s geographic position and aging infrastructure would make the response challenging. It correctly identified that moving assets to nearby locations in advance would be ‘limited’ as a result of the storm’s uncertain path and that ‘hotel space commonly used to house responders may be necessary to house survivors.’” Moreover, he found, FEMA’s plan also found that Puerto Rico’s power is generated in the island’s south, while most of the population lives in the north, requiring transmission lines which transverse Puerto Rico’s steep terrain would render “repair and restoration difficult and lengthy: It is anticipated that infrastructure of essential utilities will be out of service for extended periods of time.” Indeed, he noted that Jeremy Konyndyk, the former key USAID disaster response official during the Obama administration, had described FEMA’s plan as “reasonably good,” that it “presciently anticipate[d] many of the issues that emerged in the Maria response.” However, Mr. Konyndyk and other disaster response experts suggested that the plan contained some critical omissions, especially its heavy reliance on state and local officials to respond to the storm. The FEMA plan had determined that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could help with temporary power restoration, but “cannot fix transmission lines,” since such a job “is the responsibility of the owners.” However, after Maria struck, the Corps was tasked with repairing the entire power grid in Puerto Rico, a result of financial and management difficulties at PREPA. Thus, the plan’s over optimistic assumptions that temporary repairs to critical infrastructure, such as the power system, would be complete soon after the storm proved to be gravely off.

The plan also projected that private sector companies would move swiftly to restore telecommunications, or, as the report described it: “There are minimal expectations that federal assistance would be required to restore the infrastructure during the response and recovery of a storm,” adding that, if communication systems were not swiftly fixed, first responders could use satellite phones instead or rely on mobile communication trucks delivered to the island. The reality, as we have previously noted, however, is that Puerto Rico’s communication system was wiped out, leaving telecommunications companies in the midst of such serious infrastructure disruption to slowly repair the infrastructure, unaided by rolls of paper towels tossed by President Trump as Puerto Rico’s leaders and mayors desperately sought to communicate with FEMA and other first responders. Indeed, as Mr. Vinik wrote: “Local officials described limited communications as one of the biggest challenges in the first week after the storm.”

Noting the importance of having a FEMA plan on a Caribbean island subject to violent hurricanes, Mr. Vinik, wrote that in a March interview at FEMA’s joint field office in Puerto Rico, Michael Byrne, FEMA’s top official overseeing the response to Hurricane Maria, had, instead downplayed the importance of the plan—telling him: “A plan is good when you don’t have all the ground truth about what your requirements are going to be. You use that someone thought about this, someone took the time to think it through and said it’s likely that this is what’s going to happen. And then you execute the plan.” In the aftermath of Maria, FEMA is revising its hurricane plan for Puerto Rico, and, a day late and many dollars short, FEMA is creating teams to help Puerto Rico municipios to update their own plans, using new assumptions about the risks and damage from a catastrophic storm. 

Who Is on First? In its revised, quasi plan of debt adjustment, Puerto Rico has increased its projected five-year cash surplus to $7.36 billion; the plan, however, does not include layoffs or pension cuts that have been urged by the federally-appointed PROMESA oversight board—raising, once again, the difficult governance issue with regard to how the elected leaders of Puerto Rico and the federally appointed oversight board will reach any consensus after months of seeking to negotiate a consensual plan, with Governor Rossello vowing to oppose the PROMESA Board’s proposed 10% cut in public pension payments and a number of proposed labor reforms. In addition, the Governor has insisted he can achieve the Board’s requested level of spending cuts without layoffs in the public sector workforce—something with regard to which the Board has remained doubtful. Now, with the Board’s April 20th deadline looming this Friday, the question will be whether there might be still another deferral to continue talks with the Governor, albeit, there appears to be growing speculation that the Board will act to approve or disapprove this week.  

The Fiscal & Physical Challenge. In the real world, for any meaningful fiscal recovery, any plan agreed to—or imposed by the Board, will have to address the trials and tribulations of one of the nation’s oldest municipalities, Cidra, a municipio of about 44,000, which is one of the oldest cities in the U.S. Founded in 1795, the city has, in the wake of Maria, lost hundreds of jobs: chains of adverse events which are outside of local control demonstrate the complexity of assessing what kind of fiscal recovery plan could actually work. In February, PepsiCo announced the closure of its plant in the city—and the dismissal of 200 employees, after operating there for 30 years. Pepsi reported its decision was not related to Hurricane Maria or its location in that town, but with its strategy of optimizing global network and long-term growth. Whatever the reasoning, for Cidra, the bottom line will be the loss of jobs and the reduction of tax revenues for the municipality and for Puerto Rico: it will mark another knock on Puerto Rico’s fiscal base—of which manufacturing constitutes 20% of the island’s fiscal base. The closure will translate into losses of jobs, both private and public, reduced license taxes, corporate taxes, and individual taxes—meaning the loss of 70% of license revenues and 40% of the municipal budget. That, in turn, is forcing municipal layoffs: Cidra intends to dismiss 200 employees from a payroll of 526 representing a potential savings of $10.5 million a year—and a reduction in the city’s municipal budget, from $18 million to $11 million for FY2018-2019.

Exiting from State Receivership

April 9, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we return to Flint, Michigan, where, in the wake of last week’s release by Gov. Rick Snyder of the city from receivership and state oversight—the city will have to make its own way to full fiscal and physical recovery from the many years’ of state-imposed choices—but recovery too after the former Michigan Revenue Sharing program has ceased, making the physical and fiscal challenge ever so steep.  

Setting the Path for a Strategic Recovery & a Return to Home Rule. After Gov. Rick Snyder, at the end of last week, announced he was releasing the City of Flint from receivership and state oversight, he has now announced that the State of Michigan will stop providing Flint residents with free bottled water when current supplies run out, citing nearly two years of test results showing falling lead levels in city tap water. Indeed, preliminary data from early this calendar year showed 90 percent of high-risk Flint water sites at or below 4 part per billion of lead, according to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. Thus, if these results hold through end of June, it would be the fourth consecutive six-month period levels have tested below the federal action level of 15 parts per billion. In the wake of the Governor’s announcement, the state plans to close four remaining water bottle distribution centers when supplies are exhausted—something that could happen within the next week, albeit water filters and cartridges will remain available at Flint City Hall.

In his announcement, the Governor said: “I have said all along that ensuring the quality of the water in Flint and helping the people and the city move forward were a top priority for me and my team…We have worked diligently to restore the water quality and the scientific data now proves the water system is stable and the need for bottled water has ended.”  The Governor did not discuss the state’s role in unbalancing and aggravating Flint’s fiscal misery—one to which the State contributed both through its former imposition of Emergency managers to preempt the city’s elected leaders—and through its elimination of state revenue sharing. By 2014, Flint had lost $54.9 million dollars in state aid—funds which would have been sufficient then to have fully paid off its annual deficit, as well as all $30 million of its municipal bond indebtedness, and still have had over $5 million in surplus

One of the hard questions now will be with regard to the potential impact of assessed property values and tax revenues in a city where those values were so harshly impacted by the fear of poisoned water: property tax assessments are mailed out every March: In 2016, those revenues, $19.7 million, made up about 23% of the city’s $81 million in general revenue. Unsurprisingly, that led to appeals to the Michigan Tax Tribunal for a poverty exemption to property taxes, with residents citing the costs associated with the water problems as one reason. Those lower assessed values added to the challenge to Genesee County to sell tax-foreclosed properties.

Mayor Karen Weaver, who has played a key role in the efforts to replace underground lead service lines at homes across the city, wrote to the Gov. last Friday to advise him that residents had “great anxiety” over the prospect of closing water distribution sites., noting: “As I have stated before and will continue to say, this is not what I want for our city, and I stand by my position that free bottled water should be provided to the people of Flint until the last known lead-tainted pipe has been replaced…We know that the water in Flint is much better than when I made the Emergency Declaration in December 2015, and that is a good thing. However, we also know that trust has to be restored before residents are ready to rely only on filtered residents.”

In response, Gov. Snyder replied that Michigan taxpayers were not legally obligated to fund bottled water or Flint distribution sites after last September; however, “in the spirit of good faith and our continued partnership, the state has continued to provide funding for hundreds of thousands of cases of bottled water for the daily use of residents.” Noting that he had provided the Mayor with Weaver recent water testing data and methodology, he added: “Since Flint’s water system has been and continues to be well within the standards set by the federal government, we will now focus even more of our efforts on continuing with the health, education and economic development assistance needed to help move Flint forward,” adding: “I remain steadfast in that commitment.

Nevertheless, with lead service line replacement set to resume this spring, there remain not just physical and fiscal fears, but also lingering apprehensions that underground work could dislodge lead flakes from existing pipes and again contaminate home tap water. That is, parents are scared—hardly a message which would enhance assessed property values.

Thus, it might seem ironic that Gov. Snyder’s decision to end bottled water service came two days after his administration had, last Wednesday, announced it was releasing Flint from receivership—a receivership under which the fateful, devastating decision to begin drawing drinking water from the Flint River until construction of the new regional Karegnondi Water Authority pipeline to Lake Huron was completed. (The City of Flint has been getting its treated water from the Great Lakes Water Authority since October of 2015. Last November, Flint inked a 30-year agreement to stay on the Detroit area system in November 2017 in the wake of a federal court order mandating the City Council to quit delaying a decision about its permanent water source.)

A Silver Lining? Flint lead levels have dropped below 4 parts per billion so far this year, according to the Michigan environmental department; for the second half of 2017, 90 percent of high-risk sites had tested below 6 ppb. Officials also said the state has conducted “extensive flushing and testing” of unfiltered water at schools, day cares and senior homes in Flint—meaning the updated test results are finding lower levels than the statewide 10 parts per billion which Gov. Snyder would like to enforce statewide. Keith Creagh, Director of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, noted: “Flint’s water is undoubtedly one of the most monitored systems in the country, and for the last 22 months several types of extensive testing data points have consistently supported that Flint’s water system has stabilized.”

Nevertheless, the action to stop providing bottled water to the beleaguered city led Michigan Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint) to state: “It’s beyond belief that the Governor expects the folks in Flint to trust the government now, when they lied to our faces about lead in our water just a few years ago…That trust was broken, and families in Flint still don’t feel that the water in their homes is safe to drink.” Similarly, Rep. Sheldon Neeley (D-Flint) stated he was requesting the Governor to continue providing bottled water until the state has successfully addressed the “crisis of confidence” among Flint residents, noting: “From the perspective of Flint residents, it was the same data, personnel and science that failed them. They don’t trust them still.” Rep Neeley added that if the State fails to continue providing services to Flint residents, he would support any legal action the city may take “to compel the state to do its job and continue water service to its citizens.” (The State of Michigan has sent more than $350 million in state funds to Flint since late 2015, in addition to $100 million from the federal government, that has paid for bottled water, water system upgrades, and local health initiatives—with a portion of the funding mandated under a four-year, $97 million settlement reached last year between the state and a coalition which had sued in an attempt to secure safe drinking water. Under the agreement, the state agreed to spend an additional $47 million on top of already budgeted funds to replace lead pipes and provide free bottled water.) Now, an Environmental Department spokeswoman reports she expects the state’s current supply of bottled water will run out within four to seven days.

Mayor Karen Weaver, whose administration is working to replace underground lead service lines at homes across the city, published a letter to Gov. Snyder earlier Friday telling him residents had “great anxiety” over the prospect of closing water distribution sites: “As I have stated before and will continue to say, this is not what I want for our city and I stand by my position that free bottled water should be provided to the people of Flint until the last known lead-tainted pipe has been replaced…We know that the water in Flint is much better than when I made the Emergency Declaration in December 2015, and that is a good thing. However, we also know that trust has to be restored before residents are ready to rely only on filtered residents.”

April 3, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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