Confronting the Challenges of Insolvencies

eBlog, 03/17/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the suit filed by the Detroit Public Schools District seeking to prevent the closure of any additional schools in the city; then we snow shovel our way through the high drifts in Cambridge, Massachusetts to explore its creative issuance of mini municipal bonds, before racing to the warmth of Puerto Rico to observe the legal challenge between different kinds of municipal bondholders against Puerto Rico.

Schools of Hard Fiscal Knocks. In response to a threat by the Michigan School Reform Office (SRO) to target up to 16 Detroit public schools for closure in the newly created Detroit Public School District, created in the wake of the old system’s physical and fiscal insolvencies: to move as many as 7,700 students—permitting them to transfer to DPSCD schools, charter schools, or nearby districts; the Detroit Public Schools Community District is seeking to make a preemptive strike against said state plans to shutter some of its schools: the district board has voted to sue the state’s School Reform Office (SSRO) over the threat of school closures in the newly state-created district, suing to prevent the State of Michigan from closing any of its struggling schools, after the Board of Education, in the wake of a five-hour meeting, voted unanimously to file suit against the state School Reform Office, the State of Michigan, and Michigan School Reform Officer Natasha Baker. Detroit School Board Vice President Sonya Mays noted: “The action preserves the full range of our options.” The vote appeared to be in response to the state office’s identification last January of 38 schools statewide for potential closure, because they have ranked in the bottom 5% academically for three straight years: more than two-thirds of those public schools were in Detroit: 16 in the Detroit district, 8 in the Education Achievement Authority, and one charter school. However, a Moody’s report last month said that the student loss would have been somewhat offset by the school district’s absorption of 3,700 students who are currently educated by the Education Achievement Authority and nearly 500 students from one charter school closure

The suit was filed even though the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) had offered a proposal to school districts with schools on that closure list under which, if said districts reached agreement with the state agency on a plan to turn the schools around, then the school reform office would hold off on closure decisions. Detroit Public Schools Interim Superintendent Alycia Merriweather not only had said the district is interested in entering into such an agreement with the MDE, but also is planning to schedule a meeting soon—even as, notwithstanding, the board remains intent on moving forward with the lawsuit. It is unclear how much of the District’s resources will be siphoned out of the city’s ailing physically and educationally system’s budget to finance the litigation. Board President Iris Taylor stated: “We want to make it clear that filing suit is not a rejection of MDE’s offer to enter into a partnership agreement…It is simply the Board and the district ensuring that all options are available to us as we work through these challenges.” Ms. Taylor told the Detroit News that the board believes the school reform office actions were unlawful, because the board believes legislation approved last June which provided a financial rescue to the Detroit Public Schools—and which created the Detroit Public School District—provided the new district a clean slate: “Our district is entitled to operate schools for at least three years without even the threat of closure.” However, Michigan Attorney General Bill Scheutte last summer issued an opinion noting that if the Michigan Legislature had intended to give the district a three-year reprieve, the legislature would have clearly stated such an intent, noting that it had not.

In a city seeking to be a beacon to young families with children as critical towards re-growing its tax base, the suit seeks to bar the state from taking any additional steps to close any DPSDC schools until the court decides whether or not the SSRO has authority to close schools and whether the action taken to create the SSRO and the legislation itself is constitutional. That is, it is a suit regarding governance power and authority—and one in relation to which DPSCD Interim Superintendent Alycia Merriweather stated: “Closing schools creates a hardship for students in numerous areas including transportation, safety, and the provision of wrap around services…As a new district, we are virtually debt free, with a locally elected board, and we deserve the right to build on this foundation and work with our parents, educators, administrators, and the entire community to improve outcomes for all of our children.”

The lawsuit was filed, however, even as the Michigan Department of Education had offered the district and all others impacted by the threat of school closures a proposal under which duly elected school boards and district leadership would remain in full control of their schools, the curriculum, and their districts—an offer which Board President Taylor said the School Board was not necessarily rejecting, but rather in an effort to ensure “all options are available to us as we work through these challenges,” adding: “We appreciate Governor Snyder for hearing our concerns and taking action; however, we continue to believe that SSRO’s actions were unlawful. Among other things, we believe the legislation that created DPSCD in 2016 gave us a clean slate, which means, under the law, our district is entitled to operate schools for at least three years without even the threat of closure.” (Michigan’s legislation enacted in 2009 provides authority for the state to close schools ranked in the bottom 5% academically for three straight years.) This year, however, was the first time the SSRO has announced potential closures of schools under the state legislation—closures which carry a potential cost of foregone state aid from the $617 million state bailout of the fiscally and physically insolvent Detroit Public Schools district, under a state statute to overhaul the old Detroit Public Schools system. The newly created district operates schools and is scheduled to receive future state aid payments under the restructuring backed by Gov. Rick Snyder and state lawmakers. The SSRO threat has targeted up to 16 schools: the Detroit public school system would be at risk of the loss of not just 7,700 students, but also the state revenues that those students would have brought. Under the state proposal, students in the district could opt to transfer to DPSCD schools, charter schools, or nearby districts. Moody’s, last month, had reported that any such student loss would have been somewhat offset by DPSCD’s absorption of 3,700 students who are currently educated by the Education Achievement Authority and nearly 500 students from one charter school closure. The state-run Education Achievement Authority is scheduled to close in July.

Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood Municipal Bonds? Cambridge, Mass., a municipality of just over 107,000 across the Charles River from Boston, has succeeded in raising some $2 million through a sale of community-sourced general obligation minibonds, which the city’s underwriter, aptly named Neighborly, notes could reshape the municipal marketplace. The firm’s head of finance, James McIntyre, notes: “Our intention is to democratize access to municipal bonds.” Here the city will use the proceeds to fund capital projects such as school building renovations, and street and sidewalk improvements. The municipal bonds themselves were offered only to city residents, even though neither my daughter nor her husband, residents, seemed to be aware: individual orders are limited to $20,000, and lowered to a minimum investment amount to $1,000 from the customary $5,000. The opening for orders began selling at the close of business last month, closing last week: the Series A minibonds bonds pay a tax-exempt interest rate of 1.6% and will mature in five years. The firm notes that more than 240 individuals invested in the minibonds—municipal bonds to which Fitch Ratings, S&P Global Ratings, and Moody’s Investors Service assigned AAA ratings, with Cambridge City Manager Louie DePasquale noting: “This will not only engage residents, but we will make them a financial partner in our infrastructure investments.” Indeed, the city has helped via the distribution of “invest in Cambridge” mass-transit posters, a video, and a huge sign in front of City Hall. According to Neighborly founder Jase Wilson, “The most exciting thing about the Cambridge minibond issue is that it’s not a new idea at all…in fact the way our nation’s communities used to borrow money to build public projects.” Indeed, it was just 27 years ago that Denver issued its first minibonds; three years ago the Mile High City generated $12 million through a crowdfunding in $500 increments, as part of a $550 million transaction to finance city road improvements, leading Elizabeth FU of GFOA to note: “The minibonds definitely met Denver’s goal of helping residents invest in the community, so the project was well worth the additional resources and effort…Of course, this tool isn’t for everyone,” she added, noting some municipalities might experience trouble with the additional workload, the level of resources needed for administration, or the additional cost. Meanwhile, back in Cambridge, the municiplity also sold $56.5 million in general obligation municipal purpose loan of 2017 Series B bonds competitively on March 1. Morgan Stanley submitted the winning bid with a true interest cost of 2.303%. Proceeds from that sale will benefit sewer and stormwater, energy efficiency and street repair citywide, including Cambridge Common and Harvard Square. Neighborly’s director of business development, Pitichoke Chulapamornsri, said the firm structures municipal bond financings to connect a city’s capital plan with its residents—or, as he put it: “We are excited to help redefine the ‘public’ in public finance….Communities that are innovative and engaged are usually college towns: They are the ones with the most participation.”

Stay or Not? Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Jennifer González Colón reports that an extension the stay on litigation of the PROMESA debt litigation stay is unlikely, notwithstanding Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s proposed extension as incorporated in his proposed fiscal plan the Governor said he was seeking, with Del. González Colón (D-P.R.), Puerto Rico’s non-voting representative Congress noting there simply was insufficient time for Congress to act to amend PROMESA before the end of the stay. (PROMESA set the stay on debt-related suits against the Commonwealth on Feb. 15th, but allowed the PROMESA Oversight Board the option of moving it to May 1, which it did at the end of January.) Gov. Rosselló, in his plan, has argued that it was reasonable to ask for an extension, because his predecessor failed to use his time in office after PROMESA’s enactment to seek a negotiated debt restructuring: he said the extension would allow his administration time to release FY2015 and 2016 financial information, noting he would prefer reaching a negotiated agreement with creditors, rather than having a court impose restructuring terms. (Title VI of PROMESA allows the Oversight Board to reach negotiated solutions with municipal bondholders while the stay is in effect.) Indeed, in his plan he submitted at the end of last month, Gov. Rosselló said the Board probably will start PROMESA Title III’s court-supervised bankruptcy process before the stay elapses. Unsurprisingly, groups representing holders of both general obligation and Puerto Rico Sales Tax Financing Corp. (COFINA) senior bonds have said they are opposed to extending the litigation stay: José F. Rodríguez, an individual investor, as well as several investment firms, such as Decagon Holdings, GoldenTree Asset Management, and Whitebox Advisors—who are the main bondholders of the Puerto Rico Sales Tax Financing Corporation (COFINA)—will appeal U.S. District Court Judge Francisco A. Besosa’s ruling in favor of several general obligation bondholders, spearheaded by the Lex Claims and Jacana Holdings funds.  Mr. Rodríguez’s intentions—and those of several investments funds—to appeal the ruling at the First Circuit Court of Appeals was disclosed on Monday, making this the sole lawsuit against the U.S. territory which is currently active, after the approval of PROMESA last year, and in the midst of the automatic stay on litigations decreed by the federal statute. The plaintiffs are holding nearly $2 billion in COFINA senior notes.

According to the court’s notice, Mr. Rodríguez and the funds led by Decagon will go to the federal court to request revocation of Judge Besosa’s ruling: the Judge had agreed to hear Lex’s case, notwithstanding the request made by the main COFINA bondholders, Puerto Rico, and the PROMESA Oversight Board to apply the automatic stay on litigation. Last month, Judge Besosa—who had previously ordered Puerto Rico not to lose any time in commencing negotiations with its creditors—concluded that Lex’s lawsuit should be examined on its merits, with this judicial effort coming, even as the territory’s general obligation bond holders have asked Judge Besosa to declare the Emergency Moratorium Act unconstitutional, arguing that the enactment of the statute prompted Puerto Rico to default on its general obligation bonds other debt obligations. GO bondholders have also asked Judge Besosa to ban the government from paying COFINA bondholders—who are essentially the only ones who continue receiving payments for the amount they are owed, and to declare COFINA a null structure, since it served to divert the funds which it believes belong to the central Government. In his verdict, Judge Besosa denied the Government’s petition to halt the case and authorized the PROMESA Oversight Board to intervene in the lawsuit; however, he rejected the request made by COFINA’s primary bondholders to be part of the lawsuit to determine if the stay on litigations is applicable or not. In the wake of his decision, the Oversight Board filed a motion to appeal the decision—a request to which Puerto Rico has yet to intervene—notwithstanding apprehensions that the Lex Claims litigation could result in certain of the territory’s assets being frozen, something which would be likely were Judge Besosa to determine that the Moratorium Act is unconstitutional. According to the case file at the Court of Appeals, the Oversight Board has until March 24th to act.  

COFINA Under Attack. Likewise, the appeal made by the group of COFINA’s primary bondholders in the Lex Claims case arrives at a time when the GO bondholders have launched a media campaign asking for the elimination of the public corporation that issues debt payable with the Puerto Rico Sales and Use Tax (IVU, by its Spanish acronym). Last week, Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz and House Speaker Carlos “Johnny” Méndez backed COFINA and pointed out that the entity was lawfully created with the endorsement of both main political parties. However, in the fiscal plan prepared by Ricardo Rosselló Nevares’s administration and certified by the OB on Monday, the IVU funds that are sent every year to COFINA appear as part of the revenues the Government would use to pay for public services. In that sense, Rosselló Nevares’s plan is an echo of what former Governor Alejandro García Padilla did, which was to combine all revenues that, according to the bond contracts, should have been reserved for the repayment of the debt. According to Gov. Rosselló Nevares’s plan, one of the revenues would be what is allocated to the General Fund—10.5% of the IVU—, but the plan also adds an allocation identified as “Additional IVU”. In this allocation, which is referred to COFINA, the IVU allotments to foster the film industry and for the Municipality Financing Corporation add up to $850 million this fiscal year. The amount increases to $906 million in FY 2019, and continues to increase until it reaches $9.936 billion in 10 years.

 

Balancing the Odds for Puerto Rico’s Fiscal Future

eBlog, 03/15/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the tea leaves from the outcome of yesterday’s snowy session on Puerto Rico in New York City’s Alexander Hamilton Building, where the PROMESA Board considered Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló’s most recent efforts to reassert ownership and control of Puerto Rico’s fiscal future.

Is There Promise or UnPromise in PROMESA? The Puerto Rico Oversight Board, meeting yesterday in the Alexander Hamilton Building in New York, unanimously certified the latest turnaround plan by Governor Ricardo Rosselló to alleviate the U.S. territory’s fiscal insolvency, albeit with some critical amendments, including the implementation of a 10% progressive reduction in public pension benefits by FY2020, albeit, as was the case in Detroit’s plan of debt adjustment, adjusted so that no retiree would fall below the federal poverty level: the decade-long plan thus permits the payment of 26.2% of debt due, while imposing austerity measures including partial government employee furloughs and elimination of their Christmas bonus, unless the government meets targets for liquidity and budgeting. The plan would cut pension spending by 10%, in what the Board determined would ensure sufficient fiscal resources to fund 26% of debt due in the next nine years as a “first salvo.” Emphasizing the critical need to address a $50-billion debt load among Puerto Rico’s three main public retirement systems and a depletion of available funds by 2022, the PROMESA Board added it would also formulate efforts to fund existing pension obligations on a pay-as-you-go basis, liquidating assets and using revenues of the government’s General Fund to that end.  Board Executive Director Ramón Ruiz Comas said the Oversight Board wanted to implement additional “safeguards to ensure sufficient liquidity and budgetary savings,” designed to generate $35 to $40 million in monthly savings, including the elimination of Christmas bonus payments to public employees, and a furlough program to begin July 1st—the furlough would eliminate four work days per month for most personnel working in the executive branch, and two work days per month for teachers and other front-line personnel—the furlough would exempt law enforcement personnel. In addition, the Board conditioned the Christmas bonus elimination and work reduction program on the budget proposal for FY2018 which the government is scheduled to submit by April 30: if the government’s liquidity plan and right-sizing measures are able to generate an additional $200 million in cash reserves by June 30th, the furlough program would be deferred to September 1st or eliminated outright; likewise, the removal of Christmas bonuses could be reduced or eliminated if the Oversight Board finds that the government’s plan is producing enough cash-flow. Subsequent to that part of the session, Gerardo Portela, Director of the commonwealth’s Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority made a presentation on behalf of Puerto Rico’s muncipios of the fiscal plan—a plan which had undergone various changes over last weekend in a contentious set of negotiations between local officials and the PROMESA Board. Puerto Rico Governor Gov. Rosselló Nevares is slated to give a live televised address to provide his public response to the board’s recommendations. 

The Dean of municipal insolvency debt, Jim Spiotto, noted the import of having creditors involved in these efforts, as their support could be vital to spurring reinvestment in Puerto Rico’s economy. Mr. Spiotto’s comments came in the context of a possible agreement by some creditors to reinvest in some part of Puerto Rico, enhancing the possibility that the PROMESA Board may be willing to consider Puerto Rico’s willingness to increase its payback of debt, according to Mr. Spiotto, something which could occur under PROMESA’ Title VI.

At the session, the Oversight Board was asked about the status of debt negotiations with Puerto Rico’s bondholders and about the possibility, already requested by Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, of pushing back a stay on litigation beyond its current end on May 1st—to which Oversight Board member Arthur González responded that negotiations had yet to proceed to an outline with regard to what fiscal resources would be available for debt service: he did say that the fiscal plan would provide such an outline, and that he thought there was real hope to reaching agreements with creditors, adding that the PROMESA Board had yet to determine whether the current stay on litigation should be extended.

Balance or Imbalance. Brad Setser, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told the Bond Buyer that the proposed plan’s near term fiscal austerity may be too severe, warning that the “drag on Puerto Rico’s economy–and ultimately on its ability to collect tax revenues–may still be underestimated.” As in Detroit’s plan of debt adjustment, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes’s recognition that preserving the Detroit Institute of Arts was vital to the Motor City’s long-term recovery, so too, Mr. Setser recognizes that any final agreement which would handicap Puerto Rico’s economic growth prospects could backfire.  

 

 

What Do Today’s Fiscal Storms Augur for Puerto Rico and New Jersey’s Fiscal Futures?

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eBlog, 03/13/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the frigid challenges awaiting Puerto Rico in New York City’s Alexander Hamilton Building today, where even as a fierce winter storm promises heavy snow, the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico will likely confront its own harsh challenge by the PROMESA Board to its efforts to reassert ownership and control of Puerto Rico’s fiscal future. Then we turn south to New Jersey, where there are fiscal and weather storm warnings, with the former focused on a legacy of public pension debt that Governor Chris Christie will bequeath to his successors.

Is There Promise or UnPromise in PROMESA? In the wake of changes made by Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares to update its economic growth projections to address a concern expressed by the PROMESA Oversight Board, it remains unclear whether that will be certified by today—when the Board will convene in New York City in the Alexander Hamilton building to act on measures intended to guide the fiscal future of the U.S. territory over the next decade. The update was made in an effort to close a new gap between Puerto Rico’s projected revenue and expenditure projections, since the new economic projections altered all the Government’s revenue estimates. Gov. Rosselló, in an interview with El Nuevo Día, explained his administration had ordered four new measures to correct the insufficiency, which had been estimated at $262 million: the first measure would be an increase in the tax on tobacco products, an increase projected to add around $161 million in public funds, nearly doubling the current rate. The Governor proposed eliminating Christmas bonuses from the highest salaries in the government and public corporations, albeit without providing details with regard to the distinction between an executive salary and a non-executive salary, stating the changes would generate savings of between $10 million and $20 million. He also said the revised, updated plan would reflect an additional $78 million by means of the reconfiguration of the property tax through an appraisal process, as well as modifications to achieve $35 million in savings by means of changing the amount of sick and vacation days which public servants accrue, noting: “We were able to evaluate some of the economic development projections, and, even though our economists don’t agree with the Oversight Board’s s economists, we’ve used the Board’s economic projections within our model for the sake of getting the fiscal plan certified…(Due to the changes) we’ve prepared, some initiatives to have additional savings of up to $262 million. We had already assuaged some of the Board’s concerns within the same proposal we had made, and those were clarified.”

The Governor indicated that the decision taken yesterday does not imply that he will support other proposals made by the Board, noting that he especially opposed the suggestions to reduce the working hours of public employees by almost 20% and cutting professional services in the government by 50%, in order to reduce costs immediately in an effort to ensure the government does not run out of cash by the first two quarters of the next fiscal year, admitting that current projections suggest they are short by around $190 million, and warning: “This (the Board’s proposals) has a toxic effect on workers and on the economy.”

In response to the PROMESA Board’s apprehensions about the double counting of revenues in its submitted plan, the Governor noted: “We’ve established that our public policy is to renegotiate the debt. The idea is to keep everything in one place so we can work with it. The debt service will be affected depending on economic development projections, but we haven’t touched that part of the fiscal plan. We’re focusing on preparing the collection areas, because we’re aware that (government revenues) have been overestimated in the past. We’ve answered questions about healthcare, revenue, government size, and we’ve worked on the pension category within our administration’s public policy about protecting the most vulnerable as much as possible.”

As for today’s session in New York, noting that he believes the government has succeeded in answering the Board’s questions and concerns, and, using the Board’s economic growth numbers, the Governor believes the updated plan will address the revenue gap without major cuts, noting: “That’s no small thing. We’ve been able to dilute it and make the impact progressive, in the sense that those who have more have to contribute more, and keep the most vulnerable from losing access. We’ve established a plan of cost reduction. Now, the plan guarantees structural changes in the government so it operates better, as well as changes to the healthcare model and the educational model. It defends the most vulnerable, it doesn’t reduce the payroll by 30% or 20%, and it doesn’t reduce working hours like they’ve asked, and we reduced tax measures.” Nevertheless, Gov. Rosselló noted that the Board’s proposed service delivery cuts of as much as 50% affect health care and education—defining those two vital government services as ones in which such deep proposed cuts could trigger a drop in the economy by 8% or 9%, noting: “I’m very aware that the ones that are in the middle of all this are the people of Puerto Rico.” Indeed, the plan considers cuts to retiree pensions, lapses in the basic coverage of the Mi Salud healthcare program, a freeze in tax incentives, agency mergers, privatizations, and reductions in transfers to the University of Puerto Rico and to municipalities. On the revenue side, the Governor’s proposal seeks to increase the collection of the Puerto Rico Sales and Use Tax, the property tax, and corporate taxes. In addition, it boosts the cost of insurance, penalties, and licenses granted by the Government.

With or without the endorsement of Governor Rosselló’s administration, when the PROMESA Board meets today in the Alexander Hamilton US Custom House, the agenda includes certifying a plan that some argue goes far beyond not only considering the Governor’s proposed fiscal recommendations, but to some marks a transition under which the PROMESA Board members will “will become both the Legislative and Executive powers in Puerto Rico.” That is to note that this and ensuing fiscal budgets, or at least until the government of Puerto Rico is able to balance four consecutive budgets and achieve medium- and long-term access to financial markets—will first be overseen and subject to approval by the Oversight Board, as well every piece of legislation which has a fiscal impact.

Balancing. The undelicate federalism balance of power will be subject to review next week, when the House Committee on Natural Resources’ Subcommittee on Insular Affairs has a scheduled PROMESA oversight hearing.

The Stakes & States of Yieldy—or Kicking the Pension Can Down the Road.  Alan Schankel, Janney Capital Markets’ fine analyst has now warned that the Garden State’s lack of a significant plan to address New Jersey’s deteriorating fiscal conditions will lead to more credit rating downgrades and wider credit spreads, writing that New Jersey is unique among what he deemed the nation’s “yieldy states,” because the bulk of its tax-supported debt is not full faith and credit, lacks a credit pledge, and some 90% of the debt payments are subject to annual appropriation. If that were not enough, Mr. Schankel wrote that the state is burdened by another fiscal whammy: it sports among the lowest pension funding levels of any state combined with a high debt load and other OPEB liabilities. Mr. Schankel warned the fiscal road ahead could aggravate the dire fiscal outlook, noting that the recent sales tax reduction from 7% to 6.625%, combined with phasing out the estate tax under last year’s $16 billion Transportation Trust Fund renewal, will reduce the state’s annual revenue by $1.4 billion by 2021—long after Gov. Christie has left office, noting that the state’s unfunded pension liabilities worsened when in the wake of FY2014—16 revenue shortfalls, New Jersey reduced pension funding to a level below the scheduled-ramp up Gov. Chris Christie had agreed to his as part of New Jersey’s 2011 pension reform legislation, emphasizing that public pension underfunding has been “aggravated by current leadership,” albeit noting that such underfunding is neither new, nor partisan: “This long history of kicking the can down the road seems poised to continue, and although New Jersey appropriation backed debt offers some of the highest yields among all states, we advise caution…Given the persistent lack of political willingness to aggressively address the state’s financial morass, we believe the future holds more likelihood of rating downgrades than upgrades.”

Fiscal & Service Solvency

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eBlog, 03/10/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the long-term recovery of Chocolateville, or Central Falls, Rhode Island—one of the smallest municipalities in the nation; then we head West, even as no longer young, to consider the eroding fiscal situation confronting California’s CalPERS’ pension system, before, finally considering how Congress and the President, in trying to replace the Affordable Care Act, might impact Puerto Rico’s fiscal and service-related insolvency.

The Long & Exceptional Fiscal Road to Recovery. It was nearly five years ago that I sat with my class in a nearly empty City Hall in Central Falls, or Chocolateville, Rhode Island, the small (one square mile former mill town of indescribably delicious chocolate bars) with the newly appointed Judge Robert Flanders on his first day of the municipality’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy after his appointment by the Governor: a chapter 9 bankruptcy which that very same evening so sobered the City of Providence and its unions that their contemplation of filing for chapter 9 was squelched—and the State initiated its own unique sharing commitment to create teams of city managers, state legislators and others to act as intervention advisory teams so that no other municipality in the state would fall into insolvency. Our visit also led to our publication of a Financial Crisis Toolkit, which we promptly shared with municipal leaders across the State of Michigan at the Michigan Municipal League’s annual meeting in Detroit.
Today, it is Mayor James Diossa who has earned such deserved credit for what he describes as the “efforts and dedication to following fiscally sound budgeting practices,” efforts which, he said, “are clearly paying off, leaving the city in a strong position.” In the school of municipal finance, those efforts were rewarded with the credit rating elevation in its long-term general obligation rating three notches to BBB from BB, with credit analyst Victor Medeiros describing the fiscal recovery as one where, today, the city is “operating under a much stronger economic and management environment since emerging from bankruptcy in 2012…The city has had several years of strong budgetary performance, and has fully adhered to the established post-bankruptcy plan….The positive outlook reflects the possibility that strong budgetary performance could lead to improved reserves in line with the city’s new formal reserve policy.” The credit rating agency added that the city’s fiscal leadership had succeeded in ensuring strong liquidity, assessing total available cash at 28.7% of total governmental fund expenditures and nearly twice governmental debt service, leading S&P to award it a “strong institutional framework score.” That score should augur well as the city seeks to exit state oversight a year from next month: a path which S&P noted could continue to improve if it can build and sustain its gains in reserves and adhere to its successful financial practices, particularly after the city exits state oversight, or, as S&P put it: “Improving reserves over time would suggest that the city can position itself to better respond to the revenue effects of the next recession,” noting, however, the exceptional fiscal challenge in the state’s poorest municipality.

 

How Does a Public Pension System Protect against Insolvency? In California, the Solomon’s Choice awaits: what does CalPERS do when retiree of one of its members is from a municipality which has not paid in? In this case, one example is a retiree of a human services consortium which had closed with nearly half a million dollars in arrears to CalPERS. The conundrum: what is fair to the employee/retiree who fully paid in, but whose government or governmental agency had not? Or, as Michael Coleman, fiscal policy adviser for the League of California Cities, puts it: “Unless something is done to stem the mounting costs or to find ways to fund those mounting costs for employees, then the only recourse, beyond reducing service levels to unsustainable levels, is going to be to cut benefits for retirees,” an action which occurred for the first time last year, when CalPERS took such action against the tiny City of Loyalton, a municipality originally known as Smith’s Neck, but a name which the city fathers changed during Civil War—incorporated in 1901 as a dry town, its size was set at 50.6 square miles: it was California’s second largest city after Los Angeles. Today, Loyalton, the only incorporated city in Sierra County, helps us to grasp what can happen to public pension promises when there are insufficient resources: what will give? The answer, as Richard Costigan, Chair of CalPERS’ finance and administration committee puts it: “We end up being the bad person, because if the payments aren’t coming in, we’re left with the obligation to reduce the benefit, as we did in Loyalton…Otherwise the rest of the people in the system who have paid their bills would be paying for that responsibility.”
As all, except readers of this blog, are getting older (and, hopefully, wiser), cities, counties, states, and other municipal entities confront longer lifespans, so that, similar to the fiscal chasm looming in California, the day could be looming that what was promised thirty years ago is not fiscally available. In the Golden State, CalPERS has been paying benefits out faster that it has been gathering them, leading, at the end of last year, the state agency to reduce the assumed return on its investments to 7 percent from 7.5 percent—an action which, in turn, will requisition higher annual contributions from municipal and county governments, actions mandated by its fiduciary responsibility. While the state agency does not negotiate or set benefits, it does manage them on behalf of local governments, most of which are fulfilling their obligations.

 

Unpromising Turn. The PROMESA oversight board, deeming Puerto Rico’s liquidity to be critically low, has demanded the U.S. territory immediately adopt emergency spending cuts, writing to Gov. Ricardo Rosselló in an epistle that unless the government immediately adopted emergency measures, it could be insolvent in a “matter of months,” suggesting the government consider the immediate implementation of furloughs of most executive branch employees for four days each month, and teachers and other emergency personnel positions, such as law enforcement, two days a month; the Board urged Puerto Rico to put in place comparable furlough measures in other government entities, such as public corporations, authorities, and the legislative and judicial branches, in addition to recommending cutting spending for professional service contract expenditures by half. In addition, threatening public service solvency, the PROMESA Board directed the reduction of healthcare costs by negotiating drug pricing and rate reductions for health plans and providers. Mayhap most, at least from a governing perspective, critically, the PROMESA the board called for the Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Administration to implement a new liquidity plan by immediately controlling all Puerto Rico government accounts and spending, writing: “Given Puerto Rico’s lack of normal capital market access and our need to focus on a sustainable restructuring of debt is neither practical nor prudent to address this cash shortfall with new short-term borrowing,” warning Puerto Rico could face a cash deficit of about $190 million by the start of the new fiscal year, and that the Employment Retirement System and the Teachers Retirement System funds will be insolvent by the end of the calendar year. Adding to the threatening fiscal situation, Puerto Rico anticipates the loss of some $800 million in Affordable Care Act funding in the coming fiscal year.

 

Doctor Needed. As the U.S. House of Representatives reported out of two committees, yesterday, legislation to partially replace the Affordable Care Act, bills which, as introduced by the House Republicans—with the blessing of the Trump White House, omitted Puerto Rico, raising the specter that Congress could also fail to fund the U.S. territory’s Children’s Health Insurance Program, omissions Gov. Rosselló’s representative in Washington, D.C. warned might have implications threatening the reauthorization of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which could happen this summer, attributing  Puerto Rico’s exclusion from the two initial bills seeking to repeal and replace Obamacare—the first aimed at granting tax credits instead of direct subsidies, and the other which seeks to convert Medicaid in the states into a plan of block grants, like in the Island—to its colonial status: “As a territory, Puerto Rico isn’t automatically included in health reform legislation. It already happened with Obamacare. The Republican plan is a reform bill for the 50 states.” Indeed, Governor Rosselló’s fiscal plan complied with the PROMESA Oversight Board’s mandate to exclude any extensions of the nearly $1.2 billion in Medicaid funds currently granted under the Affordable Care Act, funds which could be depleted by the end of this year—and without any explanation for such clear discrimination against U.S. citizens.

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.

Addressing Municipal Fiscal Disparities

eBlog, 03/01/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the dire stakes for Chicago’s kids if the State of Illinois continues to be unable to get its fiscal act together; then we admire the recent wisdom on fiscal disparities among municipalities in Massachusetts and Connecticut by the ever remarkable Bo Zhao of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.

Bad Fiscal Math.  Chicago Public School CEO Forrest Claypool Monday warned the public schools in the city could be forced to close nearly three weeks early and that summer school programs could be cut if the district does not receive a fast-tracked, favorable preliminary ruling from a Cook County judge in the near future, stating: “These possibilities are deeply painful to every school community.” Mr. Claypool, a former Chief of Staff to Mayor Daley, in an epistle to families with children in the city’s school system, warned the school year could end June 1st instead of June 20th without action; moreover, he noted that CPS’s summer school could be eliminated for all elementary and middle-school students, except those in special education programs, as he sought to increase pressure on Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Illinois legislature to help, warning success would depend on the courts or what has been billed as a “grand bargain” in the state capitol of Springfield to resolve Illinois’ record budget impasse. The CEO’s actions were not coordinated with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who campaigned hard in his first term to extend the year for CPS students—a campaign in which the Mayor sought to reverse what we had termed as a “time bomb,” how to reverse the tide of an exodus of 200,000 citizens and make the city a key demographic destination for the 25-29 age group—i.e., meaning a critical commitment to public schools and safety. Now the state’s inability to act on a budget threatens both: the city’s School Board earlier this month accused the state of employing “separate and unequal systems of funding for public education in Illinois” in its lawsuit filed against both Gov. Rauner and the Illinois State Board of Education, describing its suit as the “last stand” for a cash-strapped district which is “on the brink,” seeking to have Judge Franklin Ulyses Valderrama of the Cook County Chancery Division issue a preliminary injunction which would prevent the state from “continuing to fund two separate but massively unequal systems of education,” noting it intends to present its case for an injunction to the court on Friday. In addition to seeking judicial relief, the System, in its judicial filing, noted that reductions in summer school programs and the academic year could save about $96 million; however, a shortened school year could violate Illinois state requirements with regard to the length of the public school year.

Without any doubt, the threatened disruption is undermining the trust of teachers, students, taxpayers, and parents with regard to the system’s future—brought on here by the awkward math of Gov. Rauner’s veto last December of a measure which would have provided CPS with $215 million in state aid—a measure the Governor argued was contingent on Democratic leaders agreeing to broader state public pension reforms. The ante was upped further at the beginning of the week, when Illinois Secretary of Education Beth Purvis said that instead of threatening cuts to the school year, CPS should focus on pushing legislation to overhaul the state’s education funding formula, stating: “I hope that they would really look seriously at not cutting days from the school year…I think people need to understand that the CPS board adopted a budget with a $215 million hole in it. Why is the governor being held responsible for that instead of the CPS board?” Even as the city sought to pressure the state, however, the Chicago Teachers Union this week issued a statement accusing Mayor Emanuel and the school board of playing politics instead of turning to solutions to help schools such as raising taxes, with union President Karen Lewis stating: “The Mayor is behaving as if he has zero solutions is incredibly irresponsible…Rahm wants us to let him off the hook for under-funding our schools and instead wait for the Bad Bargain to pass the Senate or [Gov.] Rauner’s cold, cold heart to melt and provide fair funds.” For those kids imagining an earlier summer break, CEO Claypool would not say when the district would make a final decision to shorten the school year, noting: “We think it would be wrong to prematurely set a final date for a decision when we still have the opportunity to prevent a shorter school year.”

Revenue Sharing. Bo Zhao, the extraordinary writer for the Boston Federal Reserve who authored the very fine piece: “Walking a Tightrope: Are U.S. State and Local Governments on A Fiscally Sustainable Path?” has now completed another piercing study regarding municipal fiscal disparities: “From Urban Core to Wealthy Towns,” looking at fiscal disparities amongst municipalities in Connecticut, and comparing state policies and practices there with Massachusetts, noting: “Fiscal disparities occur when economic resources and public service needs are not evenly distributed across localities. There are equity concerns associated with fiscal disparities. Using a cost-capacity gap framework and a newly assembled data set, this article is the first study to quantify non-school fiscal disparities across Connecticut municipalities. It finds significant non-school fiscal disparities, driven primarily by the uneven distribution of the property tax base while cost differentials also play an important role. State non-school grants are found to have a relatively small effect in offsetting municipal fiscal disparities.

Unlike previous research focused on a single state, this article also conducts a cross-state comparison. It finds that non-school fiscal disparities in Connecticut are more severe than those in Massachusetts, and non-school grants in Connecticut are less equalizing than those in Massachusetts. This article’s conceptual framework and empirical approach are generalizable to other states and other countries.” Writing that his is the first article to quantify non-school fiscal disparities across the Nutmeg State, he notes they are “driven primarily by the uneven distribution of the property tax base, while cost differentials also play an important role,” as he assesses fiscal disparities amongst the state’s 169 municipalities, writing: “There is recent evidence that this longtime state neglect may have exacerbated non-school fiscal disparities…If state aid formulae are based only on local revenue raising-capacity and ignore cost disparities, they would not fully offset fiscal disparities.” This leads him to note: “Urban core municipalities exhibit the highest average per capita cost, mainly because they have the highest unemployment rate and population density, and the most jobs per capita…This means that nearly one-fifth of Connecticut residents live in the highest cost environments.” In contrast, he notes that “wealthier-property rural towns have the lowest average per capita municipal cost—more than 25 percent lower than the urban core municipal cost.” A key part of the fiscal challenge, he writes, is that in the state, the property tax is the only “tax vehicle authorized for municipal governments and virtually the only own-source revenue available to support the local general fund,” adding that the property tax makes up some 94 percent of own source general fund revenue. All of which led Mr. Zhao to assess or measure what he defines as the “Municipal Gap,” or the difference between municipal cost versus municipal capacity: a measure which he finds demonstrates that “a significant share of Connecticut municipalities and populations face municipal gaps”…with urban core municipalities confronting a gap of as much as $1,000 per capita.

Turning to the state role in addressing fiscal disparities, he notes that non-school grants in the state “do not have an explicit equalization goal.” Such grants are broadly spread, and not “well targeted to fiscally disadvantaged municipalities,” indeed, describing the gap as “very wide,” and noting that a comparison with neighboring Massachusetts would better enable Connecticut law and policy makers to better understand the “relative severity of Connecticut municipal fiscal disparities.” While noting that unlike many other states, neither of these two New England states have active county governments, so that municipalities bear much greater responsibilities for a wide range of public services—and property taxes are almost their sole source of municipal revenues, he distinguishes Connecticut’s greater municipal fiscal disparities in that it has a larger share of its population living in what he terms “smallest-gap” municipalities. Finally, he distinguishes the respective state roles by noting that Massachusetts has a “more explicit equalization goal and its main distribution formula directly considers the differences across municipalities in revenue-raising capacity.”

Post Chapter 9 Challenges

eBlog, 2/22/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog as we remember the first President of our country,  we consider the accomplishments and challenges ahead for the city recovering from the largest ever municipal bankruptcy; then we visit the historic Civil War city of Petersburg, Virginia—as it struggles on the edge of fiscal and physical insolvency; from thence, we roll the dice to witness a little fiscal Monopoly in the state-taken over City of Atlantic City, before finally succumbing to the Caribbean waters made turbulent by the governance challenges of a federal fiscal takeover of the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, before considering whether to take a puff of forbidden weed as we assess the governing and fiscal challenges in San Bernardino—a city on the precipice of emerging from the longest municipal bankruptcy in American history.   

State of a Post Chapter 9 City. Pointing to FY2015 and 2016 balanced budgets, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, in his fourth State of the City address, pointed to the Motor City’s balanced budgets for FY2015 and 2016 and said the city’s budget will be balanced again at the close of this fiscal year in June—progress he cited which will help the city emerge from state get oversight and back to “self-determination” by 2018. Mayor Duggan cited as priorities: job training, affordable housing, and rebuilding neighborhoods, orating at the nonprofit human rights organization Focus: HOPE on Oakman Boulevard on the city’s northwest side, where residents and others for decades have received critical job training. Mayor Duggan was not just excited about what he called the transformation of city services and finances in a city that exited municipal bankruptcy three years ago, but rather “what comes next,” telling his audience: “We’ve improved the basic services, but if we’re going to fulfill a vision of building a Detroit that includes everybody, then we’ve got to do a whole lot more…You can’t have a recovery that includes everyone if there aren’t jobs available for everyone willing to work.” Ergo, to boost job opportunities, Mayor Duggan announced a new initiative, “Detroit at Work,” which he said would help connect the Motor City’s job seekers with employers, deeming it a portal which would provide a “clear path to jobs.” He also discussed his administration’s program to help city youth secure jobs and the Detroit Skilled Trades Employment Program, a recent partnership with local unions to increase Detroit membership and boost job opportunities.

With regard to neighborhoods, Mayor Duggan touted his Neighborhood Strategic Fund, his initiative to encourage neighborhood development, especially in wake of the exceptional success of Detroit’s new downtown: this fund allocates $30 million from philanthropic organizations toward development, commencing with the engagement of residents in the areas of Livernois/McNicols, West Village, and in southwest Detroit to create revitalized and walkable communities—under the city’s plan to align with the city’s vision for “20-minute neighborhoods” to provide nearby residents with close, walkable access to grocery stores and other amenities—or, as Mayor Duggan noted: “If we can prove that when you invest in these neighborhoods, the neighborhoods start to come back. The first $30 million will only be the beginning. I want everybody to watch…If we prove this works…then we go back for another $30 million and another $30 million as we move across the neighborhoods all through this city.”

In a related issue, the Mayor touted the return of the Department of Public Works’ Street Sweeping Unit, which is preparing to relaunch residential cleanings for the 2017 season, marking the first time in seven years for the program. On the affordable housing front, Mayor Duggan addressed affordable housing, saying that future projects will ensure such housing exists in all parts of the city, referencing a new ordinance, by Councilwoman Mary Sheffield, which seeks to guarantee that 20 percent of the units in new residential projects which receive financial support from the city will be affordable: “We are going to build a city where there is a mix of incomes in every corner and neighborhood and we’re going to be working hard.”

But in his address—no doubt with his re-election lurking somewhere behind his words, Mayor Duggan reflected not just on his successes, but also some missteps, including his administration’s massive federally funded demolition program, now the focus of a federal probe and state and city reviews: that initiative has been successful in the razing of nearly 11,000 abandoned homes since the spring of 2014, but has also triggered federal and state investigations over spiraling costs and bidding practices: an ongoing state review of the program’s billing practices turned up $7.3 million in what the State of Michigan deems “inappropriate” or “inaccurate” costs: the vast majority in connection with a controversial set-price bid pilot in 2014 designed to quickly bring down big bundles of houses—an initiative over which Mayor Duggan has so far rejected the state’s assertion that about $6 million tied to costs of the pilot were inappropriate. Thus, yesterday, he conceded that the federal government’s decision to suspend the demolition program for 60 days beginning last August had been warranted, but noted the city has since overhauled procedures and made improvements to get the program back on track, so that, he said, he is confident the city will raze an additional 10,000 homes in the next two years.

For new initiatives, Mayor Duggan said the Detroit Police Department will hire new officers, and invest in equipment and technology, and he announced the launch of Detroit Health Department’s Sister Friends program, a volunteer program to provide support to pregnant women and their families. On the school front, the Mayor noted what he deemed a “complete alliance” between his office and the new Detroit Public Schools Community District school board, saying the city has joined the Board in its attempt to convince the state’s School Reform Office not to close low-performing schools. (As many as 24 of 119 city schools could potentially be shuttered as soon as this summer.) In a hint of the state-local challenge to come, Mayor Duggan said: “The new school board hasn’t had an opportunity to address the problem…We have 110,000 schoolchildren in this city, which means we need 110,000 seats in quality schools. Closing a school doesn’t add a quality seat. All it does is bounce our children around from place to place. Before you close a school, you need to make sure there’s a better alternative.”

Fiscal & Physical Repair. In a surprising turn of events in Virginia, the Petersburg City Council accepted a motion by Councilman Charlie Cuthbert to postpone the vote on moving forward with the bids for Petersburg’s aging water system, after the Council had been scheduled to vote on whether to move forward with the bids the city had received from Aqua Virginia and Virginia American Water Company to purchase the nearly insolvent city’s water and wastewater system. While the vote, by itself, would not have authorized such a sale, it would have paved the way for formal consideration of such proposals. Under his motion, Councilman Cuthbert outlined a plan to delay the vote, so the Council and the City would have more time to consider options, in part through the formation of a seven person committee, which would be separate from the one the Robert Bobb Group, which is currently overseeing the city in place of the Mayor and Council, has been proposing. Mayhap unsurprisingly, citizens’ reactions to a potential sale has been negative; thus there was approbation when Councilmember Cuthbert’s motion passed—even as it appears many citizen/tax/ratepayers appeared to be hoping for the bids to be scrapped entirely: many had spoken in strong opposition, and there were numerous signs held up in chambers for the Mayor and Council to read: “Listen to us for once, do not sell our water,” or, as one citizen told the elected officials: “We have a choice to make: to make the easy, wrong decision, or the hard, right decision,” as he addressed the Council. The city’s residents and taxpayers appear to want other options to be explored, with many citing reports of Aqua Virginia having trouble with the localities with which it holds contracts.

On the fiscal front, many citizens expressed apprehension that any short-term profit the city would realize by selling its system would be paid back by the citizens in the form of rate-hikes by Aqua Virginia or Virginia American, or as one constituent said: “Never have I seen private industry interested in what the citizens want…They’re going to come in here and raise the rates.” Interim City Manager Tom Tyrell had begun the meeting by giving a presentation outlining the problems with the system. Due to past mismanagement and a lack of investment over decades, the Petersburg water system is in urgent need of upgrades. Tyrell outlined certain deficiencies, such as water pumps that need replacing, and pipes nearly blocked by sediment build up. The water quality has never come into question, but Mr. Tyrell said that the system is very close to needing a complete overhaul: the projected cost needed to get the system completely up to standard is about $97 million. Mr. Tyrell stressed that water rates will need to increase whether or not the city sells the system, going over Petersburg’s water rates, which have been relatively low for many years, ranking near the lowest amongst municipalities across the Commonwealth of Virginia. Even if the rates were to double, he told citizens, the rates still would still not be in the top 15 amongst Virginia localities. The Council had received two unsolicited bids for the system in December, one from Aqua Virginia, a second from the Virginia American Water Company. The Robert Bobb Group recommended to the Council that it move forward to examine the detailed proposals in order to “keep all options open.” The cost of moving forward with the proposals will cost approximately $100,000, which includes the cost of examining each proposal. Thus, the Robert Bobb Group recommended that the Council put together a citizens’ advisory group as an outside adviser group. The council gave no timetable on when they will officially vote to see if the bids will go forward. The people who will make up the seven person committee were not established.

Monopoly Sale. Atlantic City has sold two of its Boardwalk properties and several lots along the Inlet for nearly $6 million, closing on three properties at the end of last week, according to city officials—meaning that a Philadelphia-based developer has gained control of five waterfront properties since 2015. His purchases, he said, reflect his belief in Atlantic City’s revival. Mayor Don Guardian reported the city had received wire transfers for the former Boardwalk volleyball court on New Jersey Avenue ($3.8 million), Garden Pier ($1.5 million) and 12 lots bordered by the Absecon Inlet, Oriental Avenue and Dewey Place ($660,000), according to Atlantic City Planning and Development Director Elizabeth Terenik, all part of a way to raise money for the insolvent municipality – and to spur redevelopment, or, as Ms. Terenik noted: “The effort was part of the Guardian administration’s initiative to leverage underutilized or surplus public lands for economic development and jobs, and to increase the ratable base.” How the new owner intends to develop the properties or use them, however, is unclear—as is the confusing governance issue in a city under state control. The Inlet lots were sold in a city land auction last summer, purchased through an entity called A.C. Main Street Renaissance, according to city officials: the Atlantic City Council approved the auction and voted to name the purchaser, conditional redeveloper of Garden Pier and the volleyball court last year. Unsurprisingly, Council President Marty Small deemed the sales as great news for the city, saying they would bring revenue, jobs, and “new partners to the Inlet area…This instills investor confidence…It lets me know that we made the right decision by going out to auction for land and getting much-needed revenue for the city.”

Paying the Piper. Atlantic City has also announced its intention to issue $72 million in municipal bonds to pay for its tax settlement with the Borgata casino, securing the funds to cover its property tax refunds by borrowing though New Jersey’s Municipal Qualified Bond Act (MQBA), according to Lisa Ryan, a spokeswoman for the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, which is overseeing the state takeover which took effect last November, with her announcement coming just a week after the state announced it had struck a deal for Atlantic City to pay less than half of the $165 million it owes the Borgata in tax appeals from 2009 to 2015, or, as Ms. Ryan noted: “Qualified bonds will be issued in one or more tranches to achieve the settlement amount…The parties are confident in the City’s ability to access the capital market and raise the necessary amount needed to cover the financing,” albeit adding that the city’s borrowing costs would not be known until the sale. (The Garden State’s MQBA is a state intercept program which diverts a municipality’s qualified state aid to a trustee for debt service payments.) Prior to the New Jersey’s state takeover of Atlantic City, city officials had proposed paying $103 million for a Borgata settlement through MQBA bonding as part of a five-year rescue plan—a plan which the state’s Department of Community Affairs had rejected.

As the state taken over city struggles to adjust, Mayor Don Guardian, in a statement, noted: “I’m glad the state is seeing the wisdom in what we proposed in our fiscal plan back in November…I applaud them for getting the actual amount due upfront lower, even though they have had over two years to do it. It remains to be seen how the other $30 million will be taken care of, but the quicker we can get this issue off the table, the quicker we can move forward tackling the remaining legacy debt.” Atlantic City last utilized New Jersey’s state credit enhancement program in May of 2015 to pay off an emergency $40 million loan and retire $12 million of maturing bond anticipation notes, paying a substantial fiscal penalty for a $41 million taxable full faith and credit general obligation municipal bond sale to address its loan payment with Bank of America Merrill Lynch pricing the bonds to yield at 7.25% in 2028 and 7.75% in 2045. Today, the city, under state control, is seeking to recover from five casino closures since 2014, closures which have bequeathed it with $224 million in outstanding municipal bond debt—debt sufficient according to Moody’s to have saddled the city with some $36.8 million in debt service last year.

Grass Fire? Two separate groups have now filed lawsuits challenging San Bernardino’s Measure O, the initiative citizens approved last November to allow marijuana dispensaries in the city—a measure yet to be implemented by the city—and one which now, according to City Attorney Gary Saenz, will almost surely be further delayed because of the suit. Should Measure O be struck down, the related, quasi-backup Measure N, a second marijuana initiative San Bernardino voters approved last November, but which received fewer votes, would pop up, as it were. The twin suits, one filed by a group of marijuana-related entities, the second by interested property owners in San Bernardino, challenge Measure O on multiple grounds, including the measure’s language determining where dispensaries may operate in the city. One suit charges: “The overlay zones together with the parcel numbers and the location criteria limit the locations within the City of San Bernardino where marijuana businesses may be permitted to only approximately 3 to 5 parcels of land within the entire city, and all of these parcels of land are either owned or controlled by the proponents of Measure O…The locations of these 3 to 5 parcels of land, furthermore, are incompatible for a medical marijuana business by virtue of the locations and surrounding land uses and for this reason are in conflict with the City of San Bernardino General Plan.” Unsurprisingly, Roger Jon Diamond, the attorney for the proponents of Measure O, disputes that number and predicts the challenge will fail, noting that thirteen marijuana dispensaries and related groups that describe themselves as non-profits are operating in San Bernardino or which have invested substantial sums of money in plans to operate in San Bernardino. The soon to be out of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy city, prior to citizen adoption of Measure O, means, according to Counselor Diamond, that the dispensaries have been operating illegally, or as he put it: “There’s a concept in the law called clean hands: If you don’t have clean hands, you can’t maintain a lawsuit…Here we have people who don’t qualify (to operate a dispensary in their current location), complaining that they would not become legal under the new law. It sounds like sour grapes.”

The second, related suit, filed earlier this month, calculates a somewhat higher (not a pun) number of eligible locations—between three to twelve, but makes the same observation regarding physical location: “We think there is a financial interest in the people who wrote it up,” said Stephen Levine of Milligan, Beswick Levine & Knox: “We don’t think that is fair, because it was so narrowly constricted. Zoning by parcel numbers is a highly unusual practice in California. Let’s include Colorado and Washington State in there, too; they don’t use parcel numbers for this.” (Measure O restricts marijuana businesses to marijuana business overlay districts, which are identified by parcel number, and further prohibits the businesses from being within 600 feet of schools or residentially zoned property.) In this case, Mr. Levine is representing a consortium of property owners calling themselves AMF as well as Wendy McCammack, a business owner and former San Bernardino Councilmember. According to Mr. Levine, the plaintiffs’ interest is in possible changes in assessed property values due to the location of the dispensaries.

Getting High on the City Agenda. The City Council last week, in a closed session, discussed the lawsuit in closed session; however, City Attorney Saenz reported he was unaware aware of the lawsuit and had yet to decide upon a response to either, noting: “We haven’t totally assessed the merits of the lawsuit, nor how we’ll respond.” Nevertheless, the lawsuits’ arguments appear likely to interfere with the city’s process of incorporating Measure O into the development code and beginning to issue permits, or, as Mr. Saenz notes: “It (the AMF lawsuit) very much calls into question the validity of Measure O…Being a city of very limited resources, we don’t want to expend resources on an implementation that’s never going to occur. That would be a waste of resources.” The suits will also complicate governance: last month the city, on its website, and in a letter to interested parties, said it would provide an update in March on when the marijuana measure would be implemented: “City departments are in the process of integrating the provisions of Measure O into the City’s existing Development Code, developing procedures for receiving applications, and identifying provisions that may require interpretation and clarification prior to implementation…The San Bernardino Development Code and Measure O are both complex legal regulatory frameworks and it will require time to properly implement this new law.”

Governance & Challenges. Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has arrived in Washington, D.C., where he will meet with his colleagues at the National Governors Association and join them at the White House tomorrow; he will also dine with Vice President Mike Pence this week. Last week, in Puerto Rico, he had hosted Chairman Sean Duffy (R-Wisc.), of the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Housing & Insurance, and an author of the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act – in San Juan.  Chairman Duffy told the Governor he is available to amend PROMESA to ensure that the PROMESA oversight board treats Puerto Rico fairly, according to an office press statement. The lunch this week might occasion an interesting discussion in the wake of the Governor’s claim that the PROMESA Oversight Board’s plans for austerity may violate federal law: the Governor’s Chief of Staff, William Villafañe, this week stated: “The Fiscal Supervision Board officials cannot act outside of the law that created the body. If the board were to force the implementation of a fiscal plan that affects people’s essential services, it would be acting contrary to the PROMESA law.” His complaints appear to signify an escalation of tensions between the U.S. territory and the PROMESA Board: Mr. Villafañe added: “The [PROMESA] board is warned that it must act in conformance with the law…The commitment of Governor Ricardo Rosselló is to achieve economies that allow government efficiency, doing more with fewer expenses, without affecting essential services to the people and without laying off public employees.” If anything, Mr. Villafañe added fuel to his fire by criticizing the Board’s new interim executive director, Ramón Ruiz Comas, in the wake of Mr. Ruiz’ radio statement this week that if Gov. Rosselló did not present an acceptable fiscal plan by the end of February, the PROMESA Board would provide its own—and the plan would be deemed the legally, binding plan—in reaction to which, Mr. Villafañe had responded: “To make expressions prejudging a fiscal plan proposal that the board has not yet seen demonstrates on the part of the board improvisation and lack of a collaborative attitude for the benefit of the Puerto Rican people,” adding that “The board must be aware that the federal Congress will supervise the board.” He went on to say that when the Governor presents a fiscal plan, Congress will be aware of the way the board evaluates it.

Mr. Villafañe’s complaints and warnings extend tensions between the board and the U.S. territory: even before the Governor took office in January, a Rosselló official complained that the board was seeking a $2 billion cut in spending. On Feb. 13 the governor rejected the board’s claimed right to review bills before they are submitted to the Puerto Rico legislature. On Jan. 18 the board sent a letter to Gov. Rosselló stating that spending cuts and/or tax raises equaling 44% of the general fund would have to be made in the next 18 months. At its Jan. 28 meeting, board chairman José Carrion, for emphasis, said twice that some governor-proposed changes to the board’s Jan. 18 proposals may be OK, “as long as the ultimate fiscal plan is based on solid savings and revenue projections, a once and done approach, and not simply on hope or predictions that various changes will generate more revenues in the future.”