What Lessons Can State & Local Leaders Learn from Unique Fiscal Challenges?

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eBlog, 04/25/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the unique fiscal challenges in Michigan and how the upswing in the state’s economy is—or, in this case, maybe—is not helping the fiscal recovery of the state’s municipalities. Then we remain in Michigan—but straddle to Virginia, to consider state leadership efforts in each state to rethink state roles in dealing with severe fiscal municipal distress. Finally, we zoom to Chicago to glean what wisdom we can from the Godfather of modern municipal bankruptcy, Jim Spiotto: What lessons might be valuable to the nation’s state and local leaders?  

Fiscal & Physical Municipal Balancing I. Nearly a decade after the upswing in Michigan’s economic recovery, the state’s fiscal outlook appears insufficient to help the state’s municipalities weather the next such recession. Notwithstanding continued job growth and record auto sales, Michigan’s per-capita personal income lags the national average; assessed property values are below peak levels in 85% of the state’s municipalities; and state aid is only 80% of what it was 15 years ago.  Thus, interestingly, state business leaders, represented by the Business Leaders for Michigan, a group composed of executives of Michigan’s largest corporations universities, is pressing the Michigan Legislature to assume greater responsibility to address growing public pension liabilities—an issue which municipal leaders in the state fear extend well beyond legacy costs, but also where fiscal stability has been hampered by cuts in state revenue sharing and tax limitations. Michigan’s $10 billion general fund is roughly comparable to what it was nearly two decades ago—notwithstanding the state’s experience in the Great Recession—much less the nation’s largest ever municipal bankruptcy in Detroit, or the ongoing issues in Flint. Moreover, with personal income growth between 2000 and 2013 growing less than half the national average (in the state, the gain was only 31.1%, compared to 66.1% nationally), and now, with public pension obligations outstripping growth in personal income and property values, Michigan’s taxpayers and corporations—and the state’s municipalities—confront hard choices with regard to “legacy costs” for municipal pensions and post-retirement health care obligations—debts which today are consuming nearly 20 percent of some city, township, and school budgets—even as the state’s revenue sharing program has dropped nearly 25 percent for fiscally-stressed municipalities such as Saginaw, Flint, and Detroit just since 2007—rendering the state the only state to realize negative growth rates (8.5%) in municipal revenue in the 2002-2012 decade, according to numbers compiled by the Michigan Municipal League—a decade in which revenue for the state’s cities and towns from state sources realized the sharpest decline of any state in the nation: 56%, a drop so steep that, as the Michigan Municipal League’s COO Tony Minghine put it: “Our system is just broken…We’re not equipped to deal with another recession. If we were to go into another recession right now, we’d see widespread communities failing.” Unsurprisingly, one of the biggest fears is that another wave of chapter 9 filings could trigger the appointment of the state’s ill-fated emergency manager appointments. From the Michigan Municipal League’s perspective, any fiscal resolution would require the state to address what appears to be a faltering revenue base: Michigan’s taxable property is appreciating too slowly to support the cost of government (between 2007 and 2013, the taxable value of property declined by 8 percent in Grand Rapids, 12% in Detroit, 25% in Livonia, 32% in Warren, 22% in Wayne County values, and 24% in Oakland County.) The fiscal threat, as the former U.S. Comptroller General of the General Accounting Office warned: “Most of these numbers will get worse with the mere passage of time.”

Fiscal & Physical Municipal Balancing II. Mayhap Michigan and Virginia state and local leaders need to talk:  Thinking fiscally about a state’s municipal fiscal challenges—and lessons learned—might be underway in Virginia, where, after the state did not move ahead on such an initiative last year, the new state budget has revived the focus on fiscal stress in Virginia cities and counties, with the revived fiscal focus appearing to have been triggered by the ongoing fiscal collapse of one of the state’s oldest cities, Petersburg. Thus, Sen. Emmett Hanger (R-Augusta County), a former Commissioner of the Revenue and member of the state’s House of Delegates, who, today, serves as Senate Finance Co-Chair, and Chair of the Health and Human Services Finance subcommittee, has filed a bill, SJ 278, to study the fiscal stress of local governments: his proposal would create a joint subcommittee to review local and state tax systems, as well as reforms to promote economic assistance and cooperation between regions. Although the legislation was rejected in the Virginia House Finance Committee, where members deferred consideration of tax reform for next year’s longer session, the state’s adopted budget does include two fiscal stress preventive measures originally incorporated in Senator Hanger’s proposed legislation—or, as co-sponsor Sen. Rosalyn Dance (D-Petersburg), noted: “Currently, there is no statutory authority for the Commission on Local Government to intervene in a fiscally stressed locality, and the state does not currently have any authority to assist a locality financially.” To enhance the state’s authority to intervene fiscally, the budget has set guidelines for state officials to identify and help alleviate signs of financial stress to prevent a more severe crisis. Thus, a workgroup, established by the auditor of public accounts, would determine an appropriate fiscal early warning system to identify fiscal stress: the proposed system would consider such criteria as a local government’s expenditure reports and budget information. Local governments which demonstrate fiscal distress would thence be notified and could request a comprehensive review of their finances by the state. After a fiscal review, the commonwealth would then be charged with drafting an “action plan,” which would provide the purpose, duration, and anticipated resources required for such state intervention. The bill would also give the Governor the option to channel up to $500,000 from the general fund toward relief efforts for the fiscally stressed local government.

Virginia’s new budget also provides for the creation of a Joint Subcommittee on Local Government Fiscal Stress, with members drawn from the Senate Finance Committee, the House Appropriations, and the House Finance committees—with the newly created subcommittee charged to study local and state financial practices, such as: regional cooperation and service consolidation, taxing authority, local responsibilities in state programs, and root causes of fiscal stress. Committee member Del. Lashrecse Aird (D-Petersburg) notes: “It is important to have someone who can speak to first-hand experience dealing with issues of local government fiscal stress…This insight will be essential in forming effective solutions that will be sustainable long-term…Prior to now, Virginia had no mechanism to track, measure, or address fiscal stress in localities…Petersburg’s situation is not unique, and it is encouraging that proactive measures are now being taken to guard against future issues. This is essential to ensuring that Virginia’s economy remains strong and that all communities can share in our Commonwealth’s success.”

Municipal Bankruptcy—or Opportunity? The Chicago Civic Federation last week co-hosted a conference, “Chicago’s Fiscal Future: Growth or Insolvency?” with the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, where experts, practitioners, and academics from around the nation met to consider best and worst case scenarios for the Windy City’s fiscal future, including lessons learned from recent chapter 9 municipal bankruptcies. Chicago Fed Vice President William Testa opened up by presenting an alternative method of assessing whether a municipality city is currently insolvent or might become so in the future: he proposed that considering real property in a city might offer both an indicator of the resources available to its governments and how property owners view the prospects of the city, adding that, in addition to traditional financial indicators, property values can be used as a powerful—but not perfect—indicators to reflect a municipality’s current situation and the likelihood for insolvency in the future. He noted that there is considerable evidence that fiscal liabilities of a municipality are capitalized into the value of its properties, and that, if a municipality has high liabilities, those are reflected in an adjustment down in the value of its real estate. Based upon examination, he noted using the examples of Chicago, Milwaukee, and Detroit; Detroit’s property market collapse coincided with its political and economic crises: between 2006 and 2009-2010, the selling price of single family homes in Detroit fell by four-fold; during those years and up to the present, the majority of transactions were done with cash, rather than traditional mortgages, indicating, he said, that the property market is severely distressed. In contrast, he noted, property values in Chicago have seen rebounds in both residential and commercial properties; in Milwaukee, he noted there is less property value, but higher municipal bond ratings, due, he noted, to the state’s reputation for fiscal conservatism and very low unfunded public pension liabilities—on a per capita basis, Chicago’s real estate value compares favorably to other big cities: it lags Los Angeles and New York City, but is ahead of Houston (unsurprisingly given that oil city’s severe pension fiscal crisis) and Phoenix. Nevertheless, he concluded, he believes comparisons between Chicago and Detroit are overblown; the property value indicator shows that property owners in Chicago see value despite the city’s fiscal instability. Therefore, adding the property value indicator could provide additional context to otherwise misleading rankings and ratings that underestimate Chicago’s economic strength.

Lessons Learned from Recent Municipal Bankruptcies. The Chicago Fed conference than convened a session featuring our former State & Local Leader of the Week, Jim Spiotto, a veteran of our more than decade-long efforts to gain former President Ronald Reagan’s signature on PL 100-597 to reform the nation’s municipal bankruptcy laws, who discussed finding from his new, prodigious primer on chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. Mr. Spiotto advised that chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy is expensive, uncertain, and exceptionally rare—adding it is restrictive in that only debt can be adjusted in the process, because U.S. bankruptcy courts do not have the jurisdiction to alter services. Noting that only a minority of states even authorize local governments to file for federal bankruptcy protection, he noted there is no involuntary process whereby a municipality can be pushed into bankruptcy by its creditors—making it profoundly distinct from Chapter 11 corporate bankruptcy, adding that municipal bankruptcy is solely voluntary on the part of the government. Moreover, he said that, in his prodigious labor over decades, he has found that the large municipal governments which have filed for chapter 9 bankruptcy, each has its own fiscal tale, but, as a rule, these filings have generally involved service level insolvency, revenue insolvency, or economic insolvency—adding that if a school system, county, or city does not have these extraordinary fiscal challenges, municipal bankruptcy is probably not the right option. In contrast, he noted, however, if a municipality elects to file for bankruptcy, it would be wise to develop a comprehensive, long-term recovery plan as part of its plan of debt adjustment.

He was followed by Professor Eric Scorsone, Senior Deputy State Treasurer in the Michigan Department of Treasury, who spoke of the fall and rise of Detroit, focusing on the Motor City’s recovery—who noted that by the time Gov. Rick Snyder appointed Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, Detroit was arguably insolvent by all of the measures Mr. Spiotto had described, noting that it took the chapter 9 bankruptcy process and mediation to bring all of the city’s communities together to develop the “Grand Bargain” involving a federal judge, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, the Kellogg Foundation, and the Detroit Institute of Arts (a bargain outlined on the napkin of a U.S. District Court Judge, no less) which allowed Detroit to complete and approved plan of debt adjustment and exit municipal bankruptcy. He added that said plan, thus, mandated the philanthropic community, the State of Michigan, and the City of Detroit to put up funding to offset significant proposed public pension cuts. The outcome of this plan of adjustment and its requisite flexibility and comprehensive nature, have proven durable: Prof. Scorsone said the City of Detroit’s finances have significantly improved, and the city is on track to have its oversight board, the Financial Review Commission (FRC) become dormant in 2018—adding that Detroit’s economic recovery since chapter 9 bankruptcy has been extraordinary: much better than could have been imagined five years ago. The city sports a budget surplus, basic services are being provided again, and people and businesses are returning to Detroit.

Harrison J. Goldin, the founder of Goldin Associates, focused his remarks on the near-bankruptcy of New York City in the 1970s, which he said is a unique case, but one with good lessons for other municipal and state leaders (Mr. Goldin was CFO of New York City when it teetered on the edge of bankruptcy). He described Gotham’s disarray in managing and tracking its finances and expenditures prior to his appointment as CFO, noting that the fiscal and financial crisis forced New York City to live within its means and become more transparent in its budgeting. At the same time, he noted, the fiscal crisis also forced difficult cuts to services: the city had to close municipal hospitals, reduce pensions, and close firehouses—even as it increased fees, such as requiring tuition at the previously free City University of New York system and raising bus and subway fares. Nevertheless, he noted: there was an upside: a stable financial environment paved the way for the city to prosper. Thus, he advised, the lesson of all of the municipal bankruptcies and near-bankruptcies he has consulted on is that a coalition of public officials, unions, and civic leaders must come together to implement the four steps necessary for financial recovery: “first, documenting definitively the magnitude of the problem; second, developing a credible multi-year remediation plan; third, formulating credible independent mechanisms for monitoring compliance; and finally, establishing service priorities around which consensus can coalesce.”

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Municipal Fiscal Accountability

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eBlog, 03/31/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing recovery efforts in Atlantic City after its “lost decade,” before venturing inland to one of the nation’s oldest cities, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania (founded in 1769) as it confronts the challenges of an early state intervention program, and, finally, to Southern California, where the City of Compton faces singular fiscal distrust from its citizens and taxpayers.  

A Lost Fiscal Decade? Atlantic City’s redevelopment effort appears to be gathering momentum following a “lost decade” which featured the closing of five casinos, a housing crisis and major recession, according to a new report released by the South Jersey Economic Review, with author Oliver Cooke writing: “The fact remains that Atlantic City’s redevelopment will take many years…The impact of the local area’s economy’s lost decade on its residents’ welfare has been stark.” The study finds the city to be in recovery—to be stable, but that it is still in critical condition with some work to do.  Nevertheless, its vital signs from developers and its improving economy are all good: that is, while the patient may not regain all its previous strength and capability,  it can thrive: it is “over(cost),” and needs to lose some of the fat it built up by going on a (budget) diet—a road to recovery which will remain steep and tortuous, because it lacks the fiscal capacity it had 15 or 20 years ago—and has to slim down to reflect it.  That is, the city will have to stress itself more in order to get better.  

The analysis, which was conducted in conjunction with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University, notes that vital signs from developers and its improving economy are in good condition—maybe even allowing the city to thrive, even if it is unable to regain all its previous strength and fiscal capacity—put in fiscal cookbook terms: Atlantic City is over(cost)weight and needs to lose some of the fat it built up by going on a (budget) diet.  The report also noted that Atlantic City is on track with some positive developments, including the decision at the beginning of this month by Hard Rock International to buy and reopen the closed Trump Taj Mahal property, as well as a recent $72 million settlement with the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa related to $165 million in owed tax refunds. Mr. Cooke also highlighted other high-profile projects underway, including the reopening of the Showboat casino by developer Bart Blatstein and a $220 million public-private partnership for a new Stockton University satellite residential campus. Nonetheless, he warned that Atlantic City still faces a deep fiscal challenge in the wake of the loss to the city’s metropolitan area of more than 25,000 jobs in the last decade—and its heavy burden of $224 million in municipal bond debt, tied, in large part, to casino property tax appeals. Ultimately, as the ever insightful Marc Pfeiffer of the Bloustein Local Government Research Center and former Deputy Director with the state Division of Local Government Services, the city’s emergence from state control and fiscal recovery will depend on the nuances of the that relationship and whether—in the end—the state imposed Local Finance Board acts with the city’s most critical interests at heart.  

Don’t Run Out of Cash! Wilkes-Barre, first incorporated as a Borough in 1806, is the home of one of Babe Ruth’s longest-ever home runs. It became a city in 1871: today it is a city of over 40,000, but one which has been confronted by constant population decline since the 1930s: today it is less than half the size it was in 1940 and around two-thirds the size it was in 1970. It is a most remarkable city, made up of an extraordinary heritage of ethnic groups, the largest of which are: Italian (just over 25%), Polish (just under 25%), Irish (21%), German (17.9%) English (17.1%) Welsh (16.2%) Slovak (13.8%); Russian (13.4%); Ukranian (12.8%); Mexican (7%); and Puerto Rican (6.4%). (Please note: my math is not at fault, but rather cross-breeding.) Demographically, the city’s citizens and families are diverse: with 19.9% under the age of 18, 12.6% from 18 to 24, 26.1% from 25 to 44, 20.8% from 45 to 64, and 20.6% who are 65 years of age or older. The city has the 4th-largest downtown workforce in the state of Pennsylvania; its family median income is $44,430, about 66% of the national average, and an unemployment rate of just under 7%. The municipality in 2015 had a poverty rate of 32.5%, nearly double the statewide average. Last year, the City of Wilkes-Barre was awarded a $60,000 grant through the Pennsylvania Department of Economic Development (DCED) Early Intervention Program (EIP) to develop a fiscal, operational and mission management 5 year plan for the city—from which the city selected Public Financial Management (PFM) as its consultant to assist in working with the city on its 5 year plan—and from which the city has since received PFM’s Draft Financial Condition Assessment and Draft Financial Trend Forecasting related to the city’s 5 year plan. As part of the intervention, two internal committees were created to develop new sources of revenue for the city. The Revenue Improvement Task Force is comprised of employees from Finance, Tax, Health, Code, and Administration and was directed to analyze and improve upon existing revenue streams; the Small Business Task Force was designed to develop guidance for those interested in opening small businesses in Wilkes-Barre and is comprised of employees from Zoning, Health, Code, Licensing, and Administration. Overall, Mayor Anthony “Tony” George and his administration are confident that they have made significant progress is restoring law and order via the city’s goals of strengthening intergovernmental relationships, improving public safety, fixing infrastructure, fighting blight, restoring and improving city services and achieving long-term economic development.

Nevertheless, the quest for fiscal improvement and reliance on consultants has proven challenging: some of PFM’s proposed options to address city finances have caused a stir. City council Chairwoman Beth Gilbert and City Administrator Ted Wampole, for instance, agreed privatizing the ambulance and public works services as a cost-saving measure was one of the most drastic steps proposed by The PFM Group of Philadelphia, with Chair Gilbert noting: “I stand vehemently against any privatization of any of our city services, especially as an attempt to save money;” she warned the city could end up paying more for services in the long run, and residents could receive less than they get now—adding: “If privatization is on the table, then so is quality.” The financial consultant hired last year for $75,000 to assist the city with developing a game plan to fix its finances under the state’s Early Intervention Program was scheduled to present the options at a public meeting last night at City Hall. PFM representatives, paid from the combination of a $60,000 state grant and $15,000 from the city, have appeared before council several times since December.

Gordon Mann, director of The PFM Group, last night warned: “If the gunshot wound to the city’s financial health doesn’t kill it, the cancer will: both need to be treated, but not at the same time…You need to address the bullet wound, and you need to put yourself in the position to address the cancer.” Mr. Mann, at the meeting, provided an update on where the city stands and where it’s going if nothing is done to address the municipality’s structural problems of flat revenues and escalating expenses for pensions, payroll and long-term debt; then he identified a number of steps to stabilize the city and balance its books, beginning with: “Don’t run out of cash,” and “[D]on’t bother playing the blame game and pointing the finger at prior administrations either,…It may not be your fault, but it is your problem.”

Wilkes Barre is not unlike many of Pennsylvania’s 3rd class cities (York, Erie, Easton, etc.), all in varying degrees of fiscal distress, albeit with some doing better than others. The municipal revenues derived from the property tax and earned income tax will simply not sustain a city like Wilkes Barre—that it, unless and until the state’s municipalities have access to collective bargaining/binding arbitration and pension reform: the current, antiquated revenue options leave the state’s municipalities caught between a rock and a hard place. Worse, mayhap, is the increasing rate of privatization—where an alarming trend across the Commonwealth of communities selling off assets (water, sewer, parking, etc.), more often than not to plug capital into pensions, is, increasingly, leaving communities with no assets and with no pension reform facing the same issue in the future. 

Not Comping Compton: Corruption & Fiscal Distress. In Compton, California, known as the Hub City, because of its location in nearly the exact geographical center of Los Angeles County, the City of Compton is one of the oldest cities in the county and the eighth to incorporate.  The city traces its roots to territory settled in 1867 by a band of 30 pioneering families, who were led to the area by Griffith Dickenson Compton—families who had wagon-trained south from Stockton, California in search of ways to earn a living other than in the rapidly depleting gold fields, but where, the day before yesterday, the city’s former deputy treasurer was arrested for allegedly stealing nearly $4 million from the city. FBI agents arrested Salvador Galvan of La Mirada on Wednesday morning, as part of a federal criminal complaint filed Tuesday, alleging that, for six years, Mr. Galvan skimmed about $3.7 million from cash collected from parking fines, business licenses, and city fees: an audit found discrepancies ranging from $200 to $8,000 per day. Mr. Galvan, who has been an employee of the city for twenty-three years, has been charged with theft concerning programs receiving federal funds. If convicted, he could face up to five years in prison. As Joseph Serna and Angel Jennings of the La Times yesterday wrote: “The money adds up to an important chunk of the budget in a city once beset with financial problems and the possibility of [municipal] bankruptcy.” Prosecutors claim that one former city employee saw all these payments as an opportunity, alleging that the former municipal treasurer, over the last six years, skimmed more than $3.7 million from City Hall, taking as much as $200 to $8,000 a day—small enough, according to federal prosecutors, to avoid detection, even as Mr. Galvan’s purchase of a new Audi and other upscale expenses on a $60,000 salary, raised questions.

The arrest marks a setback for the Southern California city which has prided itself in recent years for its recovery from some of the crime, blight, and corruption which had threatened the city with municipal insolvency—or, as Compton Mayor Aja Brown noted: the allegations “challenge the public’s trust.”  Mayor Brown noted the wake-up call comes as the city has been working in recent months to improve financial controls and create new processes for detecting fraud—even as some of the city’s taxpayers question how the city could have missed such criminal activity for so many years. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department had arrested Mr. Galvan last December in the wake of City Treasurer Doug Sanders’ confirmation with regard to “suspicious activity” in a ledger discovered by one of his employees: his position in the city involved responsibility for handling cash: as part of his duties, he collected funds from residents paying their water bills, business licenses, building permits, and trash bills. According to reports, Mr. Galvan maintained accurate receipts of the cash he received for city fees, but he would submit a lower amount to the city’s deposit records and, ultimately, on the deposit slips verified by his supervisors and the banks, according to federal prosecutors. Indeed, an audit which compared a computer-generated spreadsheet tracking money coming in to the city with documents Mr. Galvan prepared made clear that he had commenced skimming cash in 2010—starting slowly, at first, but escalating from less than $10,000 to $879,536 by 2015, a loss unaccounted for in the city’s accounting system. While Mr. Galvan faces a maximum of 10 years in federal prison, if convicted, the city faces a trial of public trust—or, as Mayor Brown, in a statement, notes: “Unfortunately, the actions of one employee can challenge the public’s trust that we strive daily as a City to rebuild…The alleged embezzlement and theft of public funds is an egregious affront to the hard-working residents of Compton as well as to our dedicated employees. The actions of one person does not represent our committed City employees who — like you — are just as disappointed.”

What Could Be the State Role in Municipal Fiscal Distress?

 

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eBlog, 03/08/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the state role in addressing fiscal stress, in this instance looking at how the Commonwealth of Virginia is reacting to the fiscal events we have been tracking in Petersburg. Then we spin the roulette table to check out what the Borgata Casino settlement in Atlantic City might imply for Atlantic City’s fiscal fortunes, a city where—similar to the emerging fiscal oversight role in Virginia, the state is playing an outsized role, before tracking the promises of PROMESA in Puerto Rico.

The State Role in Municipal Fiscal Stress. One hundred fifty-three years ago, Union General George Meade, marching from Cold Harbor, Virginia, led his Army of the Potomac across the James River on transports and a 2,200-foot long pontoon bridge at Windmill Point, and then his lead elements crossed the Appomattox River and attacked the Petersburg defenses on June 15. The 5,400 defenders of Petersburg under command of Gen. Beauregard were driven from their first line of entrenchments back to Harrison Creek. The following day, the II Corps captured another section of the Confederate line; on the 17th, the IX Corps gained more ground, forcing Confederate General Robert E. Lee to rush reinforcements to Petersburg from the Army of Northern Virginia. Gen. Lee’s efforts succeeded, and the greatest opportunity to capture Petersburg without a siege was lost.

Now, the plight of Petersburg is not from enemy forces, but rather fiscal insolvency—seemingly alerting the Commonwealth of Virginia to rethink its state role with regard to the financial stress confronting the state’s cities, counties, and towns. Thus, last month, Virginia, in the state budget it adopted before adjournment, included a provision to establish a system for the state to detect fiscal distress among localities sooner than it did with Petersburg last year, as well as to create a joint subcommittee to consider the broader causes of growing fiscal stress for the state’s local governments. Under the provisions, the Co-Chairs of the Senate Finance Committee are to appoint five members from their Committee, and the Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee is to name four members from his Committee and two members of the House Finance Committee to a Joint Subcommittee on Local Government Fiscal Stress. The new Joint Subcommittee’s goals and objectives encompass reviewing: (i) savings opportunities from increased regional cooperation and consolidation of services; (ii) local responsibilities for service delivery of state-mandated or high priority programs, (iii) causes of fiscal stress among local governments, (iv) potential financial incentives and other governmental reforms to encourage increased regional cooperation; and (v) the different taxing authorities of cities and counties. The new initiative could prove crucial to impending initiatives to reform state tax policies and refocus economic development at the regional level, as the General Assembly considers the fiscal tools and capacity local governments in the commonwealth have to raise the requisite revenues they need to provide services—especially those mandated by the state. Or, as Gregory H. Wingfield, former head of the Greater Richmond Partnership and now a senior fellow at the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University, puts it: “I hope they recognize we’ve got to have some restructuring, or we’re going to have other situations like Petersburg…This is a very timely commission that’s looking at something that’s really important to local governments.”

The Virginia General Assembly drafted the provisions in the state budget to create what it deems a “prioritized early warning system” through the auditor of public accounts to detect fiscal distress in local governments before it becomes a crisis. Under the provisions, the auditor will collect information from municipalities, as well as state and regional entities, which could indicate fiscal distress, as well as missed debt payments, diminished cash flow, revenue shortfalls, excessive debt, and/or unsupportable expenses. The new Virginia budget also provides a process for the auditor to follow and notify a locality that meets the criteria for fiscal distress, as well as the Governor and Chairs of the General Assembly’s finance committees. The state is authorized to draw up to $500,000 in unspent appropriations for local aid to instead finance assistance to the troubled localities. The Governor and money committee Chairs, once notified that “a specific locality is in need of intervention because of a worsening financial situation,” would be mandated to produce a plan for intervention before appropriating any money from the new reserve; the local governing body and its constitutional officers would be required to assist, rather than resist, such state intervention—or, as House Appropriations Chairman S. Chris Jones (R-Suffolk) describes it: “The approach was to assist and not to bring a sledgehammer to try to kill a gnat,” noting he had been struck last fall by the presentation of Virginia’s Auditor of Public Accounts Martha S. Mavredes with regard to the fiscal stress monitoring systems used by other states, including one in Louisiana which, he said, “would have picked up Petersburg’s problem several years before it came to light…At the end of the day, it appears you had a dysfunctional local government, both on the administrative and elected sides, that was ignoring the elephant that was in the room.”

The ever so insightful Director of Fiscal Policy at the Virginia Municipal League, Neal Menkes, a previous State & Local Leader of the Week, notes that Petersburg is far from alone in its financial stress, which was caused by factors “beyond just sloppy management: It included a series of economic blows,” he noted, citing the loss of the city’s manufacturing base in the 1980s and subsequently its significant retail presence in the region. The Virginia Commission on Local Government identified 22 localities—all but two of them cities—which experienced “high stress” in FY2013-14, of which Petersburg was third, and an additional 49 localities, including Richmond, which had experienced “above average” fiscal stress. Or as one of the wisest of former state municipal league Directors, Mike Amyx, who was the Virginia Municipal League Director for a mere three decades, notes: “It’s a growing list.”

The Commonwealth’s new budget, ergo, creates the Joint Subcommittee on Local Government Fiscal Stress, charged with taking a sweeping look at the reasons for stress, including:

  • Unfunded state mandates for locally delivered services, and
  • Unequal taxing authority among localities.

The subcommittee will look at ways for localities to save money by consolidating services and potential incentives to increase regional cooperation, or as Virginia Senate Finance Co-Chairman Emmett Hanger (R-Augusta) notes: “We need to dig deeply into the relationship of state and local governments,” expressing his concerns with regard to potential threats to local revenues, such as taxes on machinery and tools, and on business, professional and occupational licenses (BPOL), as well as fiscal disparities with regard to local capacity or ability to finance core services such as education and mental health treatment, or, as he puts it: “We do need to address the relative levels of wealth of local governments…We need to look at all of the formulas in place for who gets what from state government…Our tax system is still antiquated, and local governments have to rely too heavily on real estate taxes.”  

The subcommittee will include Sen. Hanger and Chairman Jones, as chairs of the respective Budget Committees, and House Finance Chairman R. Lee Ware Jr. (R-Powhatan), whose panel grapples every year with the push to reduce local tax burdens and the need to give localities the ability to generate revenue for services. Chairman Jones, a former Suffolk Mayor and city councilmember, said he is “keenly aware of the relationship between state and local governments. It is a complex relationship. The solutions aren’t simple…You’ve got to be able to replace that revenue at the local level—you can’t piecemeal this.”

Municipal Credit Roulette. State intervention and a settlement of tax refunds owed to a casino drove a two-notch S&P Global Ratings upgrade of Atlantic City’s general obligation debt to CCC from CC. The rating remains deep within speculative grade, the outlook is developing. S&P analyst Timothy Little wrote that the upgrade reflected a state takeover of Atlantic City finances that took effect in November which has helped “diminish” the near-term likelihood of a default. A $72 million settlement with the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa over $165 million in owed tax refunds that saves Atlantic City $93 million also contributed to the city’s first S&P upgrade since 1998, according to S&P. Mayor Don Guardian noted that obtaining a CCC rating was “definitely a step in the right direction: As we continue to implement the recommendations from our fiscal plan submitted last year, and working together with the state, we know that our credit rating will continue to improve higher and higher.” Nevertheless, notwithstanding the credit rating lift, Mr. Little warned that Atlantic City’s financial recovery is “tenuous” in the early stages of state intervention, ergo the low credit rating reflects what he terms “weak liquidity” and an “uncertain long-term recovery,” reminding us that Atlantic City has upcoming debt service payments of $675,000 due on none other than April Fool’s Day, followed by another $1.6 million on May Day, $1.5 million on June 1st, and $3.5 million on August 1st. Nevertheless, Atlantic City and the state fully contemplate making the required payments in full and on time. Mr. Little sums up the fiscal states:  “In our opinion, Atlantic City’s obligations remain vulnerable to nonpayment and, in the event of adverse financial or economic conditions, the city is not likely to have the capacity to meet its financial commitment…Due to the uncertainty of the city’s ability to meet its sizable end-of-year debt service payments, we consider there to be at least a one-in-two likelihood of default over the next year.” He adds that, notwithstanding the State of New Jersey’s enhanced governing role with Atlantic City finances, chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy remains an option for the city if adequate gains are not accomplished to improve the city’s structural imbalance, as well as noting that S&P does not consider the city to have a “credible plan” in place to reach long-term fiscal stability. For his part, Evercore Wealth Management Director of Municipal Credit Research Howard Cure said that while the municipal credit upgrade reflects the Borgata Casino tax resolution, the rating, nonetheless, makes clear how steep the road to fiscal recovery will be: “You really need the cooperation of the city, but also the employees of the city for there to be a real meaningful recovery…This could go bad in a hurry.”

Is There Promise in Promesa? Elias Sanchez Sifonte, Puerto Rico’s representative to the PROMESA Fiscal Supervision Board, late Tuesday wrote to PROMESA Board Chairman José B. Carrión to urge that the Board take concrete actions in its final recommendations to address the U.S. territory’s physical health and the renegotiation of public debt—that is, to comply with the provisions of PROMESA and advocate for Puerto Rico with the White House and Congress in order to avoid “the fiscal precipice” which Puerto Rico confronts, especially once the federal funds which are used in My Health expire. Mr. Sifonte also requested additional time for Puerto Rico to renegotiate its debt, reminding the Board that PROMESA “makes it very clear that an extension of the funds under the Affordable Care Act is critical.” With grave health challenges, the board representative appears especially apprehensive with regard to the debate commencing today in the House of Representatives to make massive changes in the existing Affordable Care Act.

Recounting Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares efforts to address Puerto Rico’s severe fiscal situation, he further noted that the Governor’s efforts would little serve if the PROMESA Board bars Puerto Rico from a voluntary process through which to renegotiate what it owes to various types of creditors, arguing that Puerto Rico ought to be able to negotiate with its municipal bondholders, and, ergo, seeking an extension of the current suspension of litigation set to expire at the end of May to the end of this year, noting: “It would be very unfair that after all the progress achieved in the past two months, the government cannot achieve a restructuring under Title VI simply because the past government intentionally or negligently truncated the Title VI process at the expense of the new administration.” His letter came as Gerardo Portela Franco, the Executive Director of the Puerto Rico Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority (FIFAA), reported that administration officials have had initial talks with the PROMESA board about the plan and are in the process of making suggested changes. FIFAA will manage the implementation the measures and lead negotiations with Puerto Rico’s creditors over restructuring the government’s $70 billion of debt.

The See-Saw of Municipal Fiscal Solvency

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eBlog, 12/27/16

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the remarkable turnaround in fiscal fortunes in Detroit—a city unbailed out by the federal government, but now, as Detroit News editorial writer Daniel Howes writes, is “perceptively changing,” albeit, interestingly in light of the President-elect’s choice to be the new Secretary of Education, the state of Detroit’s public schools “burdens an already difficult financial picture.” Then we turn to the challenge of trying (in the frigid Winter no less!) to describe fiscal contagion from the insolvent East Cleveland, before finally trying to escape the cold by journeying south to Puerto Rico to explore the worsening demographic trends and their implications for the changing administrations both in Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico.

Winnerville? Daniel Howes, an editor for the Detroit News, in his editorial “Loserville,” wrote that two years “after Detroit emerged from the largest municipal bankruptcy in the nation’s history, the city America gave up for dead is showing that it is anything but,” writing that vacant space downtown is “is growing increasingly hard to find,” a stark contrast from the city’s first day of municipal bankruptcy when I was specifically warned not to walk from my downtown hotel to the Governor’s Detroit offices to meet Kevyn Orr, the then newly named Emergency Manager. Thus, Mr. Howes writes:

He tempered his column by noting that violent crime continues to be an issue in parts of the city—and that neighborhood revitalization “lags the pace set by downtown,” adding that the “exodus from Detroit Public Schools burdens an already difficult financial picture,” albeit writing that Detroit’s makeover is “a process, not a destination with guaranteed arrival,” indeed, comparing it the comparable (and related) comeback of the auto industry—albeit with the profound difference that the latter was bailed out—something Detroit was not, noting: “Detroit’s automakers, effectively a ward of the federal government at the outset of the Obama administration, are closing an eight-year span their leaders used to re-engineer companies that tottered on the edge of collapse on Election Day 2008…Eight years later, at least two of Detroit’s three automakers — as well as many of its suppliers—are emerging as players to be reckoned with in both the traditional car and truck business as well as the emerging mobility space. Loserville? Hardly…The creation of the American Center for Mobility at Willow Run and the Michigan Legislature’s move to enact the most far-reaching autonomous-vehicle laws in the country underscore the state’s bid to become the nation’s epicenter of mobility development and testing.”

Loserville? Fiscal Contagion? Just as the flu can be contagious, so too municipal fiscal distress does not necessarily stop at municipal borders. So it is that a growing number of residents of Forest Hill, a twenty-five acre historic neighborhood spanning parts of Cleveland Heights and East Cleveland, Ohio, founded by John D. Rockefeller and a seeming stark contrast from the virtually bankrupt East Cleveland, are upset by the increasing number of long-abandoned homes in both municipalities: assessed property values are tanking, and there is increasing apprehension at the seeming inability of the municipality to provide even basic services. There is also a sense that East Cleveland’s possible merger with Cleveland will not happen soon enough (if ever) to help Forest Hill’s issues: incorporating as a village would take cooperation from both cities, several voter elections, and the approval of Cuyahoga County. Similarly, there are no answers to the questions of where tax dollars would come from to hire police, firefighters, and provide basic, essential public services. Ironically, the neighborhood hosts municipally influential citizens—or at least formerly so, including East Cleveland’s recalled Mayor Gary Norton, the city’s new mayor Cheryl Stephens, and former Mayor Ed Kelley. The silence of the State of Ohio must weigh heavily on their hopes for the New Year.

Unfeliz Navidad? Puerto Rican demographer Raul Figueroa released information this morning that if the current demographic trends in the U.S. territory continue, by 2020, citizens older than 60 will—for the first time ever—surpass the number of those under 18, writing that between July of 2015 and July of this year, some 60,000 island residents had departed—and that this year marked the first in which the number of deaths exceeded the number of births. He noted increasing apprehensions of an increasing schism for the young generation—whose most productive members have “established themselves outside of the U.S. territory” and are forming families there, while their counterparts who have stayed behind are, increasingly, becoming caught up in criminal activities. Thus, he wrote, “Only a significant reduction in emigration or increase in immigration could reverse this demographic trend…it will be necessary to search for a strategy to permit and facilitate strategies to create employment opportunities.” Indeed, island economists like Elías Gutiérrez and José Alameda have expressed apprehension that the island is converting into a “gueto” of the poor and aged, likening it to a “Greek tragedy.” Mr. Gutiérrez added that the middle class has receded on “every front.” He noted, too, that the increasing demographic imbalance will increase the public pension imbalance: as the young flee, fewer will be paying in, while the number of retirees will continue to grow.

The demographic pressures on the island’s fiscal challenges come as soon-to-depart Puerto Rico Gov. Alejandro García Padilla released more pessimistic figures for the next decade—as he cast increasing doubt with regard to the viability of a negotiated debt solution—explaining that his updated projection of Puerto Rico’s financial shortfall over the next decade would be $8.8 billion worse than its forecast of just two months ago, when he had submitted a 10-year fiscal plan to the PROMESA Puerto Rico Oversight Board—a plan in which the government had projected that if the government stayed on its then current fiscal course—its so-called “Baseline”—it would be short some $58.7 billion, that is, in an ever accelerating state of debt. Moreover, in a revision released yesterday, that figure had increased by nearly $10 billion to $67.5 billion—the deficit reduction target the outgoing administration estimated it would have to achieve in reductions to achieve a balanced budget by 2026. That is, the debt situation has reached such an extreme that even were all its $35 billion in debt service to be magically eliminated, the island would still be overburdened with debt.

The newly released baseline also uncovers a related fiscal challenge which the new one does: what are the fiscal implications on Puerto Rico’s economy? The government’s new baseline projects government spending cuts would lead to a more negative nominal gross national product trajectory over the next decade, with the nominal, annual GNP shrinking by 1.03 percent instead of the previously projected growth from the October plan—even as the revised assumptions about economic growth and inflation added some $3.4 billion to the new baseline compared to the October baseline. The tab? The revised projections over the next decade project $232 billion in government spending, but only $165 billion in revenue—with the difference to be bridged by unspecified budget cuts.

The revised projections come as the PROMESA Oversight Board has commenced its discussions with creditors as part of its mission, similar to a chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, to achieve a negotiated and consensual debt cut under Title VI of the new PROMESA law. But, to Gov. Padilla, the increasingly deteriorating fiscal and economic projections over the next decade mean that “that a comprehensive restructuring under Title III (the debt restructuring title) of PROMESA is inevitable.” Yet this all comes in the midst of changing administrations in Washington, D.C. and against an encroaching deadline: under the new federal law, creditors’ rights to sue have only been suspended until the middle of February. Ergo, Gov. Padilla’s office notes: “If Puerto Rico does not seek Title III protection before the termination of the claims on February 15, 2017, the government will run out of money and essential services will be severely affected.”

The Avoidance of Fiscal Contagion

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eBlog, 12/15/16

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the role of leaders appointed or named by municipalities with regard to the integrity of coming back from chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy or insolvency; then we turn to some of the critical factors which have played key roles in San Bernardino’s emergence from the nation’s longest municipal bankruptcy, before, finally, heading into the frigid physical gale and fiscal maelstrom of Atlantic City to consider not only the challenge for a state in taking over a municipality—but also the challenge of avoiding fiscal distress contagion.

Doubting Governance. The Detroit News, in its analysis of state and federal court records, tax filings, and interviews; reported that said analysis raised questions about the ability of some Detroit Development Authority (DDA) members to oversee one of the largest publicly subsidized downtown construction projects since Detroit emerged from chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. The paper’s analysis also revealed a shortcoming of the city’s appointment process—noting it omitted any requirement for DDA members to undergo criminal or financial background checks, despite the fact that the Motor City’s DDA has approved some $250 million in taxes on Little Caesars Arena, even as the DDA is “dominated by tax delinquents with financial problems and in some cases criminal records,” according to public records.

As in most cities, the arena is being financed via the issuance of municipal bonds, under an agreement approved three years ago, where municipal taxes are to be dedicated to paying off $250 million worth of bonds issued by a branch of state government financed by the Michigan Treasury department—a department which has charged a number of DDA members of being tax delinquents. The paper adds that a majority of those appointed have a “history of financial issues,” including more than $500,000 in state and federal tax debt, according to public records. The News noted that details about the DDA members’ financial history offered some insight into a municipal public authority which all too often operates in secret—in this instance an authority whose members are appointed by the Mayor, approved by the City Council, and who then work with professional staff from the nonprofit Detroit Economic Growth Corp.; however, unlike almost every municipal or county public authority, the DDA board does not post agendas, minutes, or accurate meeting schedules; its members are not required to submit to a criminal or financial background check. (Members on the board are not compensated.) Indeed, Mayor Mike Duggan’s chief of staff Alexis Wiley, responding to inquiries by the News, said: “Really, every single person on the board has served the city of Detroit well…They’ve had personal financial challenges, but they have displayed good judgment as board members.” Malinda Jensen, the Detroit Economic Growth Corp.’s senior vice president of board administration and governmental affairs, in a statement to the News, noted: “The public funds contributing to the repayment of construction bonds to build the downtown arena come from a dedicated stream of revenue authorized by state law, approved by the DDA board as a whole, ratified by several votes of the full City Council…audited by independent accountants, and safeguarded in the terms of the sale of the bonds to financial institutions…Those funds are very well protected.” She added: “No individual on the board has any direct ability to access any public funds, and all decisions of the DDA are by majority votes in a public meeting,” adding that the DDA has a quarter-century of clean audits by an independent certified public accounting firm, she said. And DDA members are barred from voting on issues in which they have a direct financial interest, Ms. Jensen added, noting: “We all were impacted in some way through this financial crisis…I’d be curious about what some of that had to do with some of the reports you are hearing on some of these individuals.”

Would that governance and personal integrity were so simple, but, in this case, it turns out that two DDA members with a history of financial problems are also high-ranking members of the Mayor’s administration, with one running Detroit’s neighborhoods department—in this case a long-time municipal employee who has worked for every Mayoral administration since former Mayor Coleman Young, but who has also filed for bankruptcy, lost a home to foreclosure, and failed to pay $250,691 in state and federal taxes, according to public records—and served two years in federal prison in the wake of being found guilty in 1984 of receiving more than $16,000 in illegal payoffs from a sludge-hauling company—at the very time he was serving as Detroit’s Director of the city’s ill-fated Water and Sewerage Department. The paper notes that his colleague at City Hall, Corporation Counsel Melvin “Butch” Hollowell, has faced his own series of state and federal tax liens over the most recent five years: he has been accused of failing to pay more than $60,000 in federal and state taxes, although he has, according to public records, this year managed to pay off all of the debt. The News quoted University of Virginia Law School tax expert George Yin about its findings with regard to the troubled financial records of DDA members, and their fiscal integrity as it relates to their public responsibilities to oversee publicly funded sports arenas—to which Mr. Yin responded: “Given the kind of doubtful or questionable nature of public subsidies for these facilities, you want the people making decisions to be people whose judgment has been proven to be right over and over again.”

The Precipitous Road to Bankruptcy’s Exit Ramp. The City of San Bernardino, once the home to Norton Air Force Base, Kaiser Steel, and the Santa Fe Railroad—yesterday, some twenty-two years later, received a report from the Inland Valley Development Agency’s annual review that, for the first time, it has more than restored all of the jobs and economic impact lost when the base closed: indeed, the review found that the 14,000-acre area of the former base now employs 10,780 people and is responsible for an economic output of $1.89 billion, surpassing the totals lost when the base closed in 1994. What has changed is the nature of the jobs: today these are predominantly logistics, with Amazon’s 4,200 employees and Stater Bros. Markets’ 2,000 employees accounting for more than half of the total. Economist John Husing, whose doctoral thesis studied the economic impact of Norton Air Force Base, yesterday told the San Bernardino Sun: “The jobs that have come in are comparable or better than the jobs that were lost…Because of the spending pattern difference between civilians and military personnel, you only needed 75 percent of the number of people working there to replace the economic impact,” adding that that was because much of the spending by Norton’s employees was at the on-base store, so the money did not recirculate into the local economy—adding that that job total does not include an additional 5,000 part-time jobs created by Amazon and Kohl’s during the Christmas shopping season; nor does it include an additional 5,000 indirect jobs that help build nearly $1.9 billion of total economic benefit. Moreover, with the exception of the San Bernardino International Airport itself (the fourth-largest source of jobs in the project area, with 1,401), the major employers are not directly tied to the former role of the base. Nevertheless, as Mr. Burrows noted: it took planning and preparation to get those companies to come to San Bernardino: “Without a lot of inducement from us—infrastructure, roadway improvements, Mountain View Bridge, for example, we wouldn’t have those jobs…“It’s been a longtime strategic effort, and we’re very pleased that we’re seeing some results.” Mr. Burrows added, moreover, that the Inland Valley Development Agency has more projects (and more jobs) in the works for 2017, including continued infrastructure work and a focus on workforce development: “We’re particularly going to focus on our K-12 schools, San Bernardino Valley College, and the (San Bernardino) Community College District in making sure we’re doing more on the workforce development side.” To do so will be a regional effort, via the agency—which is composed of representatives from San Bernardino County and the cities of Colton, Loma Linda, and San Bernardino—who are responsible for the development and reuse of the non-aviation portions of the former Norton Air Force Base. San Bernardino Mayor Carey Davis noted the Development Authority’s “development of the Norton Air Force Base has proven to be a great asset to the San Bernardino community. We have positively impacted the economy with the creation of jobs and new business,” adding it was “a fine example of the progress we have made in rebuilding San Bernardino.”

Fiscal Distress Contagion & State Preemption. The Atlantic City Council had a quick meeting yesterday in the wake of the state pulling two ordinances for further review—measures which would have raised rates and revised regulations for Boardwalk trams and adopted a redevelopment plan for Atlantic City’s midtown area, with the state asking the Council to pull the ordinances “indefinitely,” according to Council President Marty Small. Subsequently, Timothy Cunningham, the Director of the New Jersey Division of Local Government Services Director and the quasi-takeover manager of the city government, said his agency has had insufficient time to review the ordinances, stating:  “We’ll just revisit them in the new year…I don’t think there’s any objection to them. Just not enough time to fully vet them.” The statement reflects the post-state takeover governance and preemption of local authority. In this case, the issue in question relates to proposed tram rules, including increasing fares to $4 one way and $8 all day in the summer, and $3 one way and $6 all day in the off season—compared to $2.25 one way and $5.50 for an all-day pass. The ordinance would also have allowed the trams to carry advertisements—from which, according to sponsor Councilman Jesse Kurtz, the city would receive half the revenue from the ads.

Nevertheless, the discordant governance situation and unresolved insolvency of the city do not, at least according to Moody’s analyst Douglas Goldmacher, appear to be contagious, with the analyst writing there is only a “relatively mild” chance that the massive fiscal and governance problems of Atlantic City will contaminate Atlantic County: “While Atlantic City remains the largest municipality in the county and its casinos are currently the largest taxpayers, the county’s dependence on Atlantic City’s tax revenues continues to decline.” Moreover, he wrote: “State law offers considerable protection from the city’s financial trauma, and the county has demonstrated a history of strong governance.” Mr. Goldmacher added that the neighboring county has managed to partially offset Atlantic City’s declining tax base and gambling activity with growth in other municipalities—with Atlantic City’s share of the county tax base less than half what it was at its peak of 39% in 2007. The report notes that the county also benefits from a New Jersey statute which insulates the county from the city’s fiscal ills, because cities are required to make payments to counties and schools prior to wresting their share—noting that Atlantic City has never missed a county tax payment and was only late once—and, in that situation, only after special permission was granted in advance. Thus, Mr. Goldmacher wrote: “While Atlantic City has endured political gridlock, the county has achieved structural balance and demonstrated stability through budgeting accuracy, strong reserves and contingency plans…The county also has substantial fund balance and other trust funds and routinely prepares multiple budgets and tax schedules to account for Atlantic City’s uncertain fate.”

Schooled in Public Service & Municipal Bankruptcy

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eBlog, 12/08/16

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we salute the soon to be retiring Emergency Manager of the Detroit Public Schools, the exceptional former U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, who presided over the largest municipal bankruptcy in the nation’s history before accepting the grueling challenge to be the emergency manager of the near bankrupt Detroit public schools system.

Yes We Can. The extraordinary public servant and electric rhythm guitar playing retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, currently the outgoing (yes, a pun) Emergency Manager of the Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD)said an investigation by the school district’s inspector general could produce more criminal charges in the district—and, likely, more fiscal pain for the city. He had hired Inspector General Bernadette Kakooza last April, in the midst of an ongoing federal investigation of a $2.7 million kickback scheme with a contractor involving 13 school administrators who are no longer employed by the school district, although he was careful not to address the specifics in speaking to the Detroit News this week about what potential wrongdoing there might be after testifying before a House committee on the District’s progress since the legislature last June enacted a $617 million financial rescue of the school system; however, Judge Rhodes noted, referring to Ms. Kakooza: “She does have several matters under investigation at the present time that may result in further criminal investigations and charges.” Those charges relate to new cases of fraud the DPSCD inspector general had outlined in a report, including a payroll error resulting in an employee being overpaid by $50,000, fraudulent teaching credentials, and missing equipment and public funds. Judge Rhodes did say that the new debt-free Detroit school has developed “much stricter controls” on purchasing in an effort to try to prevent fraud, adding, however: “Still, we understand that there are no financial controls that are foolproof against clever and smart criminals who are intent upon theft and fraud.” His statement came before the Michigan House School Aid Appropriations Subcommittee in what might prove to be one of his last state public appearances as he nears the end of his service to Detroit’s kids on the last day of this month. At the hearing, Judge Rhodes also disclosed for the first time that the school district has paid Michigan’s public pension fund nearly $30 million—money which had been diverted from federal grants to the public school district’s general fund by his predecessors. DPSCD’s past-due pension debt to the Michigan Public School Employee Retirement System stood at $132.6 million as of last November 11th, significantly paid down from $163 million on June 30th, according to the Michigan Office of Retirement Services; nevertheless, it will likely take nearly a decade to fully pay down past arrears. .

For his part, Judge Rhodes said he would be handing over authority of the school district to a newly elected Detroit school board with a projected fund balance of between $40 million and $50 million for the current fiscal year, telling reporters: “The school board is the new control for public education in the city of Detroit.” Rhodes told reporters; albeit, as part of the state’s bailout of the Detroit Public Schools, Detroit’s Financial Review Commission retains veto power over the school board’s spending plans once Judge Rhodes leaves office at the end of the month; Judge Rhodes said the surplus will help the district with cash-flow next summer when there is a projected gap in School Aid payments from the state. His swan song, as it were, comes as the legislature continues to scrutinize the finances and operations of the state’s largest school system. As a parting, if poignant, message, Judge Rhodes advised: “I think DPS just needs to be left alone for a little while to give this academic plan a chance, to give our fresh start a chance and to prove to our city, our region, and our state that we can succeed.”

While the there is separate and distinct governance between Detroit’s municipal and school governance, the two are inextricably linked, because, as we have noted too often (likely), the perceived quality of a municipality or county’s public schools is critical to the interest of parents to move to such a municipality or county–and, ergo–to assessed property values. 

TheExceptional Governing Challenges on Roads to Fiscal Recovery

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eBlog, 12/02/16

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the hard role to recovery not just from San Bernardino’s longest-ever municipal bankruptcy, but also the savage terrorist attack a year ago. Then we venture East to observe the evolving state role in New Jersey’s takeover of Atlantic City, where the new designee named by Gov. Chris Christie, Jeffrey Chiesa, yesterday introduced himself to residents and taxpayers, but offered little guidance about exactly how he will usurp the roles of the Mayor and City Council in governing and trying to get the famed boardwalk city out of insolvency and back to fiscal stability. Finally, we look north to the metropolitan Hartford, Connecticut region, where the municipalities in the region are seeking to work out fiscal mechanisms to address Hartford’s potential municipal bankruptcy in order to ensure no disruption of metropolitan water and sewer services—a different, but in this case critical element of a “sharing economy.”  

The Jagged Road to Chapter 9 Recovery. It was one year ago today that terrorists struck in San Bernardino—the city in chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy longer than any other city in U.S. history, marking, then, a day of 14 deaths—with victims caught in the crossfire of gun shots and carnage in the wake of the wanton attack by Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik—and a horror still not over, as it will be another nine months before the trial against Enrique Marquez Jr., who has been charged with buying some of the weapons which were used in the attack, commences in September—months after the beleaguered city anticipates exiting from bankruptcy. Because the shootings took place at a San Bernardino County facility in San Bernardino, the long-term recovery has been further complicated from a governance perspective: many of the shooting survivors are accusing San Bernardino County of cutting off much-needed support for the survivors of the attack, including refusing to approve counseling or antidepressant medication. Others, who were physically wounded are seeking, so far unsuccessfully, to get surgeries and physical therapy covered. The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors earlier this week convened a closed-door session at which survivors said they felt betrayed and abandoned, left to deal with California’s complicated workers’ compensation program without guidance or help. Their health insurers will not cover their injuries because they occurred in a workplace attack. Congressman Pete Aguilar (D-Ca.), whose district includes San Bernardino, reports that his hometown had been added to a list of cities with which people are familiar for a terrible reason, such as Littleton, Colo., or Newtown, Conn. Nevertheless, he is defiant, insisting “We will not be defined by this tragedy.”

However, murder rates in the city have been climbing: the city of just over 200,000 is grappling with a spike in violent crime, homicides especially: to date, this year, the city has reported 49 killings, already more than last year’s total, which included the terrorist victims—its homicide rate tops that of Chicago, which has become the poster child for big-city violent crime and is on pace for more than 600 killings this year. San Bernardino Police Chief Jarrod Burguan, however, said the crime wave is not unique to the chapter 9 municipality—a currently bankrupt city where empty storefronts and pawn shops have long lined downtown streets. Nevertheless, Brian Levin, a criminal justice professor at California State University, San Bernardino, who studies hate crimes, yesterday noted: “we’re a better community now, even though we’re hurt.” Professor Levin is one who, in the days and weeks which ensued after the mass tragedy, met with faith leaders, law enforcement, and families of the victims—where he discovered a unity of shock and shared pain. Today, he notes: “The attack will always be a part of our history…But here’s the thing: so will the heroics of those police officers and first responders and medical staff, and so will the grace of the families. We’re writing the rest of the history. The bastards lost.” Now the city awaits early next year for emerging not just from the physical tragedy, but also the longest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy ever.  

Atlantic City Blues.  Jeffrey Chiesa, a former New Jersey Attorney General, U.S. Senator, and, now, Governor Chris Christie’s designee to run the state takeover of Atlantic City, yesterday introduced himself at a City Council meeting and took questions from city taxpayers and residents. He provided, however, in this first public meeting no details on plans to address either the city’s fiscal plight—or its interim governance. He reported the State of New Jersey does not yet have a plan to address the city’s $100 million budget hole, much less to pay down the Atlantic City’s $500 million debt, noting: “It has been two weeks…My plan is to do what I think is necessary to create a structural financial situation that works not for six months, not for a year, but indefinitely so that this place can flourish in a way that it deserves to flourish.” He noted he and his law firm will be paid hourly for their work, albeit he did not report what that hourly rate will be—especially as the state retention agreement remains incomplete, albeit promising: “We’ll make sure that’s available once it’s been finalized.” Related to governance, he noted that—related to his state-granted authority to sell city assets, hire or fire workers or break union contracts, among other powers—he would listen to residents and stakeholders before making major decisions: “What this designation has done is consolidate authority, per the legislation, in the designee to make those decisions…That does not mean that I’m not listening. That does not mean I’m pretending I have all the answers without consulting with other people.” Describing the seaside city as a “jewel” and “truly unique,” he added that he understood concerns about an outsider overseeing the city: “I know that most of you don’t know who I am…All I can do is be judged by my actions and the decision that I make, and I hope you give me time to do that.” He did say that he would have to move swiftly to address immediate issues, likely referring to reaching agreements with casinos to make payments in lieu of property taxes, and then focusing on the city’s expenses—noting: “That timeframe is pretty compressed…So we will take the steps we need to take.”

Fiscally Hard for Hartford. As we have recounted in the fiscally strapped municipality of Petersburg, Virginia, municipal fiscal insolvency cannot occur in a geographic vacuum: whether in Detroit—or as we note above today, in San Bernardino, fiscal insolvency has repercussions for adjacent municipalities. So too in Hartford, the Metropolitan District Commission (MDC) completed its planned $173 million municipal bond sale late last week, temporarily ending the controversy over a $5.5 million reserve fund. Under the provisions, that fund would be paid by seven of the eight MDC municipalities to cover the sewage fee for the second half of 2017 if the City of Hartford is unable to contribute its share, as it has indicated it will be unable to do. Ergo, it means that adjacent Windsor, the first English settlement in the state which abuts Hartford on its northern border, with a population of under 30,000 would contribute over $700,000, with East Hartford contributing about $900,000. The other group members in the metro region, Bloomfield, Newington, Rocky Hill, West Hartford, and Wethersfield, would pay the remaining $900,000, proportionately. One outcome of this watery alliance and experience is that the MDC will, when the state legislature convenes next February, propose two laws to avoid the necessity for a reserve fund in the future, with MDC Chairman William DiBella suggesting that the eight member municipalities be required to set aside as untouchable the percentage of their property taxes the cities and towns already know they will owe to the MDC for sewage services. (Currently, property taxes go into the municipalities’ general funds, and the cities extract the sewage fee when it is due, provided the funds are, in fact, available; however, like water at the tap, that has not always been the experience.) In effect, the consortium is recommending a selves-imposed budgeting municipal mandate, with Chairman DiBella noting: “Every town would have to do it. That way, one town can’t stiff us. You wouldn’t have to go out and borrow money or take charity and hope you get it back.” As the Chairman noted: “We never had a problem like this…Who thought a town would go bankrupt? With the proposed law, if a town were to go bankrupt, the sewage fund would be in a dedicated account and can’t be reached,” or touched in a bankruptcy proceeding. Another potential resolution would be to allow the MDC to borrow money over a long-term for operating expenses. The MDC would then be able to pay Hartford’s $5.5 million bill and look for a city reimbursement in other ways.

There has been increased pressure for a resolution—especially in the wake of municipal bond holders of the MDC, holders who, last week, made clear to the authority they would not buy its municipal bonds if a reserve fund was not put into place. That appeared to be a key incentive for the board’s action earlier this week for the MDC board, including representatives of all eight municipal members, to vote unanimously to adopt the water and sewer service provider’s 2017 budget, which contains the unwelcome “bail-out” fund for Hartford—albeit Chair DiBella said there would be no guarantee the agency could cover a Hartford default or continue operating or pay the bondholders. A key part of the incentive to try to work together relates to potential fiscal contagion: because of concerns over Hartford’s finances and fiscal condition, credit rating agencies have recently downgraded MDC’s bond rating from AA+ to AA, a downgrade expected to cost the agency and its member towns an estimated $500,000 in a higher interest rate for the bonds. The towns, unsurprisingly, are apprehensive the credit rating agencies will now consider changing their credit ratings. In contrast, creating the reserve fund would keep MDC’s credit rating where it is: thus, MDC officials hope that passing the two proposed laws would prompt the credit rating agencies to return its rating to AA+.