A Tale of Two Cities

July 3, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider a tale of two cities connected by geography and history, but divided by a fiscal chasm.

A Fiscal Dividing Line. Mayor Kevin Mumpower was reelected in a unanimous Council vote, Tuesday, to serve a second, consecutive term as Mayor of Bristol, Virginia, an independent, border municipality in southern Virginia of just over 17,000, where, on Thursday, the Council has scheduled a work session to complete its review of applicants for boards and commissions. The Council’s first regularly scheduled meeting is scheduled for next Tuesday. The city is twinned with its neighbor, Bristol, Tennessee, which has a larger population of over 27,000. The twin cities’ heritage dates back more than 250 years to when Evan Shelby came to the area in 1766—an area once inhabited by Cherokee Indians. At first, Mr. Shelby had settled his family at Big Camp Meet—the current day site of the twin border cities, but a site then which Shelby had renamed Sapling Grove, where he built a in 1774 on a hill overlooking what is today downtown Bristol, but which was then a key stop on an expanding nation’s road West for early American explorers such as Daniel Boone and George Rogers Clark—a fort known as Shelby’s Station. Nearly a century later, in 1853, Joseph Anderson, when surveyors projected a junction of two railroad lines at the Virginia-Tennessee state line, Reverend James King conveyed much of his acreage to his son-in-law, Joseph R. Anderson, who then laid out the original town of Bristol, Tennessee/Virginia. About that time, Samuel Goodson, who owned land adjoining the original town of Bristol at the Virginia-Tennessee border, with Beaver Creek serving as the dividing line between the two colonies, began a development known as Goodsonville; however, he was unable to incorporate Bristol across the state lines of Tennessee and Virginia. Three years later, in 1856, Goodsonville and the original Bristol, Virginia were merged to form the composite town of Goodson, Virginia—the very year when the Virginia and Tennessee Railroads reached the cities, with, ergo, two depots, one in Bristol, Tennessee, and the other in Goodson, Virginia; albeit the depot located in Goodson continued to be referred to as Bristol, Virginia. Thirty-four years later, Goodson, Virginia once again took the name Bristol. In 1998, Congress declared Bristol the “Birthplace of Country Music,” in recognition of its contributions to early country music recordings and influence.

Contiguous to the Virginia Bristol is Tennessee, Bristol, with a slightly greater population of around 25,000, has a median income for a household in the city just over $30,039. Nevertheless, despite their abutments, the twin municipalities have starkly different fiscal situations—with the southern twin in Tennessee in fiscal health, but its northern Virginia twin in a near fiscal crisis, seemingly overwhelmed with debt—even after assistance from the Commonwealth of Virginia helped avert deep cuts in funding for the municipality’s public schools. At present, it appears that interest payments by the city are on a course to consume as much as a quarter of the city’s operating budget—or, as City Manager Randall Eads put it: “We’re about as low as you can go and not have cuts to services…We are truly rebuilding this city from the foundation up.”

While the Commonwealth of Virginia does not specifically authorize chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, the state’s courts, six years ago, ruled that “local governing bodies have only those powers expressly granted, those necessarily or fairly implied from expressly granted powers, and those that are essential and indispensable” (see Sinclair v. New Cingular Wireless PCS, 283 Va. 567,576 (Va. 2012), the state’s Dillon Rule compounds the fiscal quandary, providing that if “[T]here is a reasonable doubt about whether legislative power exists, the doubt must be resolved against the local governing body.”

Nevertheless, as the Commonwealth’s Auditor of Public Accounts, Martha Mavredes notes: “The state takes great pride in fiscal soundness and when localities start to falter, that reflects poorly on the state.” Indeed, as we have previously noted, the Commonwealth, two years ago, as Petersburg teetered on the verge of insolvency, had tasked Ms. Mavredes to develop a municipal fiscal early-warning system—a system which, in its first report, put Bristol, along with Petersburg, at the head.

Manager Eads noted: “One of the biggest things we have to overcome as a city is our demographics,” referring to the fiscal challenge in a municipality where nearly a quarter of its residents are in poverty, with more than 40% on some of government assistance, and more than 80% of its school population eligible. That is, it has become clear to Mr. Eads that a new fiscal approach will be necessary.

A Tale of Two Cities. In one area where distinguishing one Bristol from another is enabled by small brass plaques embedded down the center line of State Street which have “Tennessee” on one side and “Virginia” on the other, the twin, bi-state municipalities share a library and an emergency dispatch system; they have connected water systems, and they share payments for the electric bills to finance the neon signs over State Street, which read: “A good place to live.” The twin cities’ city halls are just blocks apart.

However, as we know, looks can be deceiving. Here, the issue of waste appears to have precipitated the fiscal parting of ways: the Virginia Bristol’s old landfill reached capacity about two decades ago; so the municipality opted to construct a new one in a 20-acre limestone pit—one in which the walls were porous. In order to prevent seepage of dangerous chemicals, the city had to purchase a new lining for the landfill walls nearly every other year‒at a cost of $1.2 million each time. That meant, with fees insufficient to cover operating and maintenance costs, the municipality was adding to its debt: currently, Bristol is trying to finance more than $30 million in debt from the landfill, forcing the city to write off $22 million siphoned from the general fund to cover expenses.

Even as unanticipated expenses have soared, the city’s tax base has eroded, hard hit by the collapse of the coal industry, especially in the wake of one of the nation’s largest coal companies, Alpha Natural Resources, headquartered in the city, filing for bankruptcy twelve years ago—at almost the same time as Ball Corp. moved its metal lid-making plant to Mexico. A commercial area developed just off I-81 in the 1990s began to sour. The combination appeared to contribute to the consequent closure of Bristol Mall.

Looking for a fiscal and commercial recovery, the city’s leaders opted to try to enter the commercial real estate business, creating The Falls, intended to be a $260 million hub of restaurants and shops—albeit without, mayhap, closely examining how such a commercial development would be affected by an even larger such development in adjacent Tennessee—where the Tennessee General Assembly had enacted legislation intended to assist its border cities compete with rivals in other states. Because the Volunteer State has no personal income tax, but it has sales tax of up to 9.75%, or nearly double Virginia’s, the difference appears to have been an important factor in providing incentives for those who reside near the border between the two states to opt to reside in Tennessee, but shop in Virginia. The new law allowed developers who built retail within 15 miles of a border to recoup some of the sales and use tax, making projects more attractive.

That led one entrepreneur, Steve Johnson to purchase a 200-acre piece of property, valued at close to $250 million, called The Pinnacle, a complex made up of a million square feet of shops and restaurants, anchored by a Bass Pro Shop, CarMax, Marshalls, and a Belk department store. Unsurprisingly, local Bristol, Virginia officials asked Mr. Johnson to consider developing The Falls instead, pressing the Virginia Legislature to enact provisions for sales and use tax revenue rebates for project developers. In the meantime, Mr. Johnson decided developing the site would be too expensive to level and grade, the roads were too small, and the location was just wrong. Undeterred, the city found another developer, so that, today, The Pinnacle counts nearly 70 merchants, while The Falls has fewer than 10. Thus, instead of helping the city deal with its landfill debt burden, The Falls has significantly added to the fiscal quandary, adding nearly $48 million to the city’s debt—and its political dissatisfaction.

Indeed, unsurprisingly, voters tossed all five Councilmembers from office, electing a slate which included two write-in candidates—and a Council which, early last year, hired a new City Attorney, Randall Eads, who had been a criminal defense attorney, perhaps a key factor in a region which has experienced a plague of methamphetamines and prescription drug abuse. Within six months, the Council removed the then city manager and asked Mr. Eads to step in—perhaps a step that opened his eyes to how grave the city’s physical and fiscal challenges were. In a city beset by such serious drug abuse, one of his first challenges was where to host the perpetrators: the city’s jail, after all, had a capacity of 67 inmates, but, in March, 240 prisoners: the escalating drug crisis meant overcrowding in the municipal jail, and unanticipated costs for those who could not be squeezed in at a regional holding facility at a cost of $38 per inmate per day.

That forced Mr. Eads to see if he could find a way to reduce the inmate population, leading him to propose an alternative punishment program for nonviolent offenders, one which would help them find work and subject them to regular drug testing. Simultaneously, Mr. Eads has been replacing city department heads and working to build morale; he has even been paying for staff picnics out of his pocket. However, it seems as if he has been trying to climb out of a sand hole: absent fiscal changes, the municipality anticipates it will soon face a $2.4 million annual shortfall in debt service payments.

But just on the other side of the state line, in another Bristol City Hall (Tennessee), Bristol City Manager Bill Sorah, who has previous experience in the Virginia Bristol, notes the legal distinctions, especially the differences in the constitutional status of each city: The Commonwealth of Virginia is the only state in which municipalities are independent entities: they are not incorporated as art of the surrounding county. In contrast, Tennessee’s Bristol is a unit of the surrounding Sullivan County: ergo, it faces no problem with inmate overcrowding, no criminal courts to finance, no jail, and no public school system. It has the legal authority denied its counterpart to annex land—authority unavailable on the other side of the border, where Virginia has had a moratorium on annexation for nearly four decades—one the General Assembly recently extended to 2024.

Searching for fiscal solutions. Earlier this year, Virginia Auditor Mavredes granted Bristol $100,000 to hire a consultant to help determine potential fiscal solutions—help which Manager Eads is sure to appreciate—or, as he put it: “We’re in it…so now we’ve got to fix it.” Thus, the city has jacked up fees at the landfill and is pressing ahead with The Falls, and is focusing on putting together a fiscal blueprint to pay down debt and build cash reserves. Indeed, rather than let his city go to pot, he is even entertaining the potential lease from local investors to purchase the shuttered Bristol Mall: the investors are interested in financing a local start-up, Dharma Pharmaceuticals, which wants to convert the vast facility into an operation producing cannabidiol, the marijuana derivative which the Commonwealth Virginia recently approved for treating certain illnesses—meaning the abandoned Penney and Belk buildings could go to pot.

With city’s fiscal year beginning at the end of this week, city leaders have been looking ahead: Mayor Kevin Mumpower outlined his short-term priorities at the beginning of this week’s City Council meeting, and City Manager Randy Eads reported he had an agenda, but would defer presenting it until after the meeting. Mayor Mumpower said many of his goals focus on the city’s long-term fiscal fortunes: “We don’t want the city to ever get to the place it got two years ago. We want it stable and moving forward, so we’re going to look at the charter, see what we can do to refine it and maybe present a few things to the state legislature to draft for us to solidify the city’s financial footing…We know future Councils can undo what we do, but, the way I look at it, that’s on them. Our responsibility is to try to do the right thing.”

The Mayor noted that this could turn out to be a lengthy, detailed process to determine reasonable thresholds so that, in the future, there would be fiscal strictures on borrowing. He reported that his second priority would be promoting economic development and hiring an economic development coordinator—someone with a focus on attracting new businesses to the city. He described a third priority to develop a program to provide inmates job opportunities in order to reduce recidivism and the city’s expensive jail population, noting: “We want to establish that inmate work release program. That is going to be a home run if Randy [Eads], the Sheriff and the Commonwealth’s Attorney can figure this out: We’ve already had several meetings about how we would train these inmates, get them certified, give them a skill set so they’re employable. That would save the city $500,000 to $750,000 a year—that one goal. If that’s successful, it would be a really big deal for the city.”

A second is completion of a state-funded study of the city’s solid waste landfill operations, with that coming as the Council had just voted to increase residential trash collection by $4 per month in order to help offset operating costs, or, as the Mayor put it: “We need to figure out what we’re going to do with our last big albatross: We’re subsidizing the landfill $500,000 this year—it was $1 million—but we’ve done that at the expense of the community.” Finally, Mayor Mumpower reported his last priority would be to establish restricted funds where funds would be set aside for specific needs, including key capital needs such as a fire truck, a school building fund, and another exclusively to pay down debt service: “We need to have money set aside only for those purchases so we don’t have to worry about where those funds are coming from.”

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Ending a State’s Fiscal Emergency Manager Preemption, & Who’s on First in Puerto Rico’s Governance?

July 2, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider what might be the end of the State of Michigan’s much maligned emergency manager program, before returning to assess the question with regard to whether a governor and legislature or a quasi U.S. bankruptcy court are in charge in Puerto Rico.

Exiting from Municipal Bankruptcy. For the first time in nearly two decades, a state-appointed Emergency Manager governs no municipality or school district in Michigan, after the state released Wayne County’s Highland Park School District in Wayne County from receivership under Michigan’s Local Financial Stability and Choice Act of 2012. Indeed, Michigan Treasurer Nick Khouri reports that Michigan municipalities have worked hard to become financially sound, noting: “Today’s achievement is really about the hard work our communities have accomplished to become financially sound…I commend the efforts of our local units to identify problems and bring together the resources needed to help problem-solve challenging financial conditions.” Under the terms of the release, Highland Park School District’s locally elected school board will oversee the contract for Highland Park Public School Academy and the cooperative agreement with the Detroit Public Schools Community District for the continuing education of students. In addition, the board will manage the repayment of long-term debt obligations. The Highland School District has a quasi-chapter 9 plan of debt adjustment in place to address its $7.5 million general fund deficit, with revenues from property taxes imposed on non-homestead property dedicated to finance outstanding debt, as well as an approved two-year budget. According to financial statements, as of the end of last year’s fiscal year, the District had $2.4 million in general obligation bonds outstanding.

The agreement means the school district, which had been under emergency management since January of 2012, and for which the state-appointed emergency manager had established Highland Park Public School Academy to provide educational services to district students while the school district paid off long-term debt obligations—for which, since 2015, said public school academy has been educating students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grades, and for the scholastic years through high school via a cooperative agreement with the Detroit Public Schools Community District, which has been providing educational services to students from ninth through 12th grades.

Nevertheless, the State of Michigan continues to maintain an oversight role in a limited number of Michigan communities: public school districts in Benton Harbor and Pontiac are operating under a consent agreement with the state, and the Muskegon Heights school district is overseen by a receivership-transition advisory board. The critical fiscal recoveries were marked by April’s exit from state oversight by the City of Flint, after seven years, and then, the following month: Detroit.

Conflicted Fiscal Governance. With the beginning of the new fiscal year, Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares still assessing fiscal options, as well as his authority to address the $8.7 billion operating budget imposed yesterday by the PROMESA Oversight Board on the U.S. territory–or, as he put it: “We are evaluating the budget certified by the Fiscal Oversight Board on the U.S. territory. Certainly, the impact on the budget of the three branches of government and municipalities will require additional adjustments that will limit our ability to provide services.” Ramon Rosario, Puerto Rico’s Secretary of Public Affairs, noted:  “The Governor and his cabinet continue to analyze all possible alternatives to the scenario.”

There was no public reaction to the imposed fiscal preemption of elected authority by House President Carlos Johnny Mendez, nor Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz, respectively, to the budget imposed by the JSF. The Governor indicated, however, that some of the biggest concerns of the Executive are public employees and the payment of the Christmas bonus, as well as the elimination of funds for economic development.

The Board’s proposed budget, interestingly, is greater than that approved by the Legislature; however, it imposes additional cuts of up to $345 million. It does not repeal Law 80-1976, the Law Against Unjustified Dismissal. It does preserve the Christmas bonus for public employees and establish two funds, one of $ 25 million for the University of Puerto Rico, and another of $ 50 million for municipio recovery. PROMESA Board Chair José Carrión, in a written statement, noted: “The course has been drawn, and although it will be a challenge, we cannot afford to deviate. We must all work together.”

Working together would be a challenge—and a question now for Puerto Rico is whether to comply or go to court to preserve, ironically, an approved fiscal budget smaller than that to be imposed by the PROMESA Board: that is, what if the Governor and Legislature were to opt not to implement the unelected PROMESA Board’s proposed budget? One attorney noted: “There would be a confrontation that would generate a controversy in the court, because, then, the Board would have to go to the court and ask it to force the officials to comply with the budget.” Under such a scenario, the unelected fiscal oversight Board would issue a certification of non-compliance, which, were it not to compel the elected government of Puerto Rico to comply, could entail the Board availing itself of the mechanisms in the PROMESA statute preempting Puerto Rico’s governing authority. Independence Party’s Denis Márquez remarked that his “exhortation is not to obey the Fiscal Control Board, but they always tell you that you have to be against the Board, but at the end of the day you look for a reasonable accommodation that always ends up hurting the country.” However, unlike a chapter 9 governance situation, where a federal bankruptcy court assesses a municipality’s plan of debt adjustment, PROMESA allows the Board to establish the budget at its sole discretion. It appears to be virtually a form of colonialism.

As the oversight board had advanced during its approval of the fiscal plan last Friday, the public expenditure scheme contemplates reductions greater than those set in the first version of the document approved by the Legislature: the budgets of some agencies seem to have an increase compared to the current fiscal year, but this is due to the fact that, for the first time, each one was assigned an authorization corresponding to the payment of their employees’ pensions (pay as you go). A spokesperson for the Popular Democratic Party in the House noted: “The vision of the Board is the republican vision, a small government with less participation.” Indeed, the version to be imposed by the Oversight Board contemplates major cuts for the Department of Education, which ended with an allocation for this fiscal year of $2.479 billion, about a 5% cut for what the Legislature had approved, with the deepest cuts coming in payroll and operating expenses, even as the Board added nearly $30 million to “cover services related to the provision of therapies and other services for special education children, and $ 23.8 million for the payment of salary increases to teachers—leading Puerto Rico Senate Education Chair Abel Nazario to note that the PROMESA Board “itself recognizes that these measures must be maintained in the coming years is an achievement that we recognize and appreciate.”

The Board imposed a number of deep cuts, such as the Bureau of the Fire Department, where the Board cut operating expenses of $576,000, as proposed by the Legislature, to $148,000; it slashed just over $1 million for firefighter protection equipment, and cut the police department payroll by $587.1 million, as stipulated in the Legislature’s version, to $ 570.2 million, but the Board retained the proposed $18.8 million for increased police salaries.

Imbalanced Governance? The Board cut funding for the Governor’s office in excess of 10 percent, and funds for the Puerto Rico Legislature by nearly 20 percent; it cut funding for the Puerto Rico Health Department by just under 10 percent.

Can there be Shelter from the Storm? Meanwhile, in a different courtroom, U.S. District Judge Leo T. Sorokin of Massachusetts has ordered that FEMA cannot end its Transitional Sheltering Assistance program until at least midnight tomorrow, granting Puerto Ricans who fled Hurricane Maria’s devastation and have been living in temporary housing on the mainland a very brief reprieve. Christiaan Perez, manager of advocacy and digital strategy for the civil-rights group, LatinoJustice, the national civil-rights group which filed a lawsuit Saturday seeking the restraining order told the court the end of the FEMA assistance would lead to Puerto Rican evacuees being evicted. The temporary restraining order is projected to offer some protection for about 1,744 Puerto Ricans for whom the FEMA transitional assistance was to end Saturday. Judge Sorokin has scheduled a telephone hearing for today.

The outcome will impact many of the families who left Puerto Rico in the wake of the storm for the mainland who have been living in hotels in New York and Florida and those who have been unable to secure affordable housing and are now worried about what happens as FEMA assistance expires—or, as Cynthia Beard, one of the 600 Puerto Rican hurricane survivors living in New York, told NBC News this week: “I don’t know what’s going to happen. The city called me and said there’s a shelter, but there’s no guarantee; they didn’t say everything is going to be OK.” According to Mayor De Blasio’s office, New York City has a program in place to direct transportation from the hotels to the shelters. Once there, families have to find out if they are deemed eligible to register into the city’s shelter system: if accepted, families are assigned to case management and housing assistance services to help them find permanent homes. 

But FEMA has also offered displaced Puerto Ricans the option to return to Puerto Rico, asserting the agency has called more than 1,500 displaced Puerto Ricans to offer to pay for their plane tickets to return to Puerto Rico by yesterday or recommend them ways to look into their respective state’s shelter system. As of June 27, only 145 families had either booked their plane tickets or already returned to Puerto Rico. It appears the majority of displaced Puerto Rican families have opted to remain stateside, even though many do not have a permanent home. The offer came in the wake of four different deadline extensions, during which, under FEMA’s TSA program has housed Puerto Rican hurricane survivors for nearly 9 months. During other disasters, survivors participating in that program were given up to a year and a half—even though officials have said that the program normally lasts 30 days. Nevertheless, FEMA warned it was ending Transitional Sheltering Assistance for survivors of hurricanes Maria, Irma, and Harvey on Saturday, asserting it has spent more than $432 million on survivor lodging as part of the program, and that it has provided rental assistance to more than 25,000 TSA participant families to help them find permanent housing.

“Who’s on First? Who’s in Charge–elected or imposed leaders?

June 22, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the physical, fiscal, and mixed governance challenges which must be overcome in Puerto Rico.

Will There Be Luz? Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has signed into law a bill to partially privatize the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, potentially affecting the authority’s $8.9 billion in outstanding debt. The new law is intended to provide for the sale of the public utility’s power generation units and make a concession of its transmission and distribution system, according to a statement by the Governor—a concession which could involve a lease arrangement, as was done for Puerto Rico’s main airport. Under the proposed privatization, revenues realized could be utilized to address PREPA’s debt. purchasers would not assume PREPA’s debt; instead the public utility would use proceeds from any sale of a power plant to pay off a portion of the debt, or, as the Governor put it on Wednesday, the money raised could be used, at least in part, to contribute to PREPA’s underfunded public pension system. The new legislation comes in the wake of, last April, the PROMESA Oversight Board’s certification of a fiscal plan which assumed PREPA privatization—but which did not impose assumptions with regard to how the proceeds would be used. Puerto Rico Senate Minority Leader Eduardo Bhatia, an attorney-at-law and the former 15th President of the Puerto Rico Senate—as well as a former Fulbright scholar, noted: “The bill that Governor Rosselló signed today essentially authorizes the Governor to proceed with a ‘market sound[ing]’ and identify any and all potential private sector interest in the development of a new energy system in Puerto Rico,” adding: “Notable is that the bill does not authorize any sale before the Puerto Rico Legislature prepares, within 180 days, a statement of public policy specifically mandating what the new system will look like in 30 years.” Gov. Rosselló noted that Puerto Rico’s Public-Private Partnerships Authority would oversee the potential leasing of the transmission and distribution grid—a process expected to occur over the next year and a half. From a governance perspective, the Governor, PROMESA Oversight Board, and advisory teams plan to form a working group to steer the process.

Quein Es Encargado II? Meanwhile, the seemingly unending governance question with regard to who is in charge appears to be escalating. In putting an end, yesterday, to Puerto Rico’s debate on Law 80-1976, the Law on Unjustified Dismissal, the Puerto Rico Senate not only opened the door to annul the agreement reached by the Executive and the Oversight Board around the budget, but also appeared to intensify the power struggle between Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz; Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares, and the PROMESA Oversight Board. Upon learning the Puerto Rico Senate did not support the repeal of the statute—as demanded by the PROMESA Board, the Governor accused Senate President Schatz of acting to the detriment of Puerto Rico, for political reasons, even as PROMESA Board Chair José Carrión, who, like the Senate President, was in Washington, D.C. yesterday, warned that keeping the labor statute in force would imply reversing the certified tax plan, which includes cuts in vacation leave, days of sickness, and the Christmas bonus, stating: “There is a certified plan. If not (repeal it), we revert to the fiscal plan,” in the wake of his participation at forum sponsored by the Heritage Foundation.

Chair Carrión warned that reversion to the certified fiscal plan would mean at least $300 million in additional budget cuts over the next five years. He noted that the proposed structural reforms seek to “generate economic growth: We have limited powers (to make decisions that boost economic growth), but one of them is the labor area.”

The Board is scheduled to meet a week from today to discuss the upcoming fiscal year budget—scheduled to take effect at the end of next week.

In criticizing the actions of Senate President Rivera Schatz, Gov. Rosselló Nevares said that the upper House leader had opted to “hinder” his administration, and held him responsible for the millions of dollars in cuts that may wreak fiscal harm to the island’s municipios, as well as other governmental entities, noting, in a written statement: “Puerto Rico has just seen how politics is made and not how a future government should be made in times of challenges and difficulties, with this regrettable decision by the President of the Senate. We will follow the path of change and transformation that we have forged; however, this was the time to unite and together to get out of the shameful past we inherited. He chose to hinder, chose to follow the tricks of the past that have put us in this situation: the risk of the loss of billions of dollars for Puerto Rico as a result of restructuring the debt falls on this action. Likewise, the loss of millions of dollars in appropriations for the municipal governments that we had achieved also falls on the President of the Senate. Sen. Rivera Schatz added that he anticipated he would appear before a judicial forum to challenge the powers of the unelected PROMESA Oversight Board to alter Puerto Rico’s budget, noting: “The Senate ends the matter of Law 80. It is not going to repeal Law 80. If it were up to us to go to court to litigate against the Board, I advance that I already talked with lawyers to do so.” (The repeal of Law 80 was a specific condition presented by the Board in exchange for disbursing additional financial aid to municipios, the University of Puerto Rico, and guaranteeing holiday leave and sick days for private sector employees.)

At the same time, during the meeting of the majority caucus of the New Progressive Party, a proposal by Sen. Miguel Romero to ascribe to the Law against discrimination in employment (Law 100-1959) by adding some amendments to Law 80 was defeated  15 -5, with the prevailing majority choosing to defer consideration of the issue during the current session—which ends Monday. Sen. Romero proposed creating a system of fixed payments for dismissals that violate only the Anti-Discrimination Law 100, but insisted on repealing Law 80, which deals with another area of ​​labor law by providing remedies for severance without just cause.

Not unlike in the U.S. Congress, the Puerto Rico House and Senate do not always see ojo to ojo (eye to eye). The House intends to address Puerto Rico’s relationship with the Oversight Board differently, with House President Carlos “Johnny” Méndez stating, yesterday, that he has to study what is the probability of prevailing in a lawsuit with the Oversight Board defense of budget items, adding that he considers the controversy over Law 80 to be over. In response to a question whether the House would join a lawsuit initiated by the Senate to combat the cuts applied by the Board, Senate President Méndez replied: “We have to sit down to see what the arguments are and make a decision: the Promise law has supremacy over everything. It does not even allow us to sue the Oversight Board. We have to see what the arguments are, the legal basis for making a decision. It is not going to be a futile exercise. If we have more than a 50% chance of prevailing, of course we will be there.” He added that, if he opts for litigation, he would challenge the authority and ability of the unelected Oversight Board to establish public policy.

What about Manana? Even as the question of governance proceeded, two PROMESA Board members yesterday concurred with a panel of other experts that an overhaul Puerto Rico’s local labor laws is a key for the territory’s future growth. At a session in Washington, D.C. at the Heritage Foundation, PROMESA Chair Jose Carrion joined Anne Krueger, economics Professor at Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies, and fellow Board Member Andrew Biggs—with their discussion coming on some of the same issues. With Puerto Rico’s elected leaders considering instituting the same at-will employment statutes used in many states, as well as adding more restrictive rules for receiving food stamps and instituting an earned income tax credit to encourage work, the panelists described Puerto Rico’s labor laws as more restrictive than any state—a factor, perhaps, that could help explain the exodus from Puerto Rico of so many better economic opportunities on the mainland. The panelists noted the challenge will be to convince the people of Puerto Rico that a more competitive labor market will produce more jobs, with PROMESA Board member Andrew Biggs, noting that economists predict there would be an additional one percentage point of annual economic growth if the reforms were adopted. PROMESA Board Chair Jose Carrión noted he, as an employer in Puerto Rico, is only too well aware of how “onerous” the labor laws are, adding: “[I]t does not make Puerto Rico competitive with places to where we are losing our population such as Florida.” Employers in Puerto Rico, for instance, are required to give workers 24 hours off after they work 8 hours, said Professor Anne Krueger of Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies, noting that the labor force participation rate is only 38% on Puerto Rico compared to 63% on the mainland, she said. In the end, the PROMESA Board appeared to reach an agreement with the Governor on proposed labor law changes. Now, warns Chair Carrión, if the legislature does not agree, the PROMESA Board will govern in place of Puerto Rico’s elected leaders.

Municipal Fiscal Distress & State Oversight.

June 18, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider a new study assessing the potential role of property tax assessments in Detroit’s historic chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy; then we observe, without gambling on the odds, the slow, but steady progress back to self-governance in Atlantic City, and weaning off of state fiscal oversight; before, finally noting the parallel efforts to exit state oversight in Flint, Michigan—where the proximate cause of the city’s fiscal and physical collapse occurred under a quasi-state takeover.

Foreclosing or Creating a City’s Fiscal Recovery? One in 10 Detroit tax foreclosures between 2011 and 2015 were caused by the city’s admittedly inflated property assessments, a study by two Chicago professors has concluded. Over-assessments causing foreclosure were concentrated in the city’s lowest valued homes, those selling for less than $8,000, and resulted in thousands of Detroit homeowners losing their properties, according to the study: “Taxed Out: Illegal property tax assessments and the epidemic of tax foreclosures in Detroit,” which was written by  Bernadette Atuahene and Christopher Berry. Chicago-Kent Law School Professor Atuahene noted: “The very population that most needs the city to get the assessments right, the poorest of the poor, are being most detrimentally affected by the city getting it wrong: “There is a narrative of blaming the poor that focuses on individual responsibility instead of structural injustice. We are trying to change the focus to this structural injustice.” (Professor Atuahene is also a member of the Coalition to End Unconstitutional Tax Foreclosures.) Their study came as the Wayne County Treasurer has foreclosed on about 100,000 Detroit properties for unpaid property taxes for the period from 2011 through 2015, about a quarter of all parcels, as the Motor City suffered the after-effects of population decline, the housing market crash, and the Great Recession.

Professors Atuahene and Berry acknowledged many factors can trigger tax foreclosure, estimating that the number of foreclosures was triggered by over-assessments, in part by calculating the foreclosure rate if all properties were properly assessed. The study also controlled for properties various purchase prices, neighborhoods and sale dates.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan has, as we have noted, acknowledged such over assessments; yet he has made clear accuracy has improved with double-digit reductions over the last four years—and completed the first comprehensive such assessment two years ago for the first time in more than half a century. The city’s Deputy Chief Financial Officer, Alvin Horhn, last week stated he had not reviewed the study; however, he noted that “most of their assumptions rely on data that does not meet the standards of the State Tax Commission and would not be applicable under Michigan law,” a position challenged by Professor Atuahene, who had previously stated the data does comply with the law, noting: “We believe the citywide reappraisal has been an important part of the major reduction in the number of foreclosures occurring in the city, which continue a steady decline and will provide a solid foundation for future growth: The number of foreclosures of owner occupied homes, specifically, has gone down by nearly 90% over the past few years.”

The city’s authority to foreclose, something which became a vital tool to address both property tax revenues and crime in the wake of the city’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, was enabled under former Gov. John Engler 29 years ago under a statewide rewrite of Michigan’s property tax code: changes made in an effort to render it faster and easier to return delinquent properties to productive use. On a related issue, the Motor City is currently facing a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan—a suit which maintains the city’s poverty tax exemption, which erases property taxes for low-income owners, violated homeowner’s due process rights because of its convoluted application process, arguing that the practice violates the federal Fair Housing Act by disproportionately foreclosing on black homeowners. However, the Michigan Court of Appeals has upheld a ruling by Wayne County Judge Robert Colombo, dismissing Wayne County from the lawsuit, ruling the suit should have been brought in front of the Michigan Tax Tribunal. 

Pole, Pole. In Bush Gbaepo Grebo Konweaken, Liberia, a key Gbaepo expression was “pole, pole” (pronounced poleh, poleh), which roughly translated into ‘slowly, but surely’—or haste makes waste. It might be an apt expression for Atlantic City Mayor Frank Gilliam as the boardwalk city has resumed control back from the state to forge its own fiscal destiny—presumably with less gambling on its fiscal future. In his new $225 million budget, the Mayor has proposed to keep property taxes flat for the second consecutive year, and is continuing, according to the state’s Department of Community Affairs, charged with the municipality’s fiscal oversight and providing transitional assistance, to note that the Mayor and Council President Marty Small’s announcement demonstrated that “an understanding of the issues that Atlantic City faces, and an emerging ability to find ways to solve them without resorting to property tax increases: This is a solid budget, and the city staff who worked diligently to draft it should be proud of their efforts.”

Under Mayor Frank Gilliam’s proposed $225 million budget, property taxes would remain flat for a second straight year, there would be some budget cuts, as well as savings realized from municipal bond sales to finance pension and healthcare obligations from 2015. The Mayor also was seeking support for capital improvements, additional library funding, and one-time $500 stipends for full-time municipal employees with salaries below $40,000. The ongoing fiscal recovery is also benefitting from state aid: the state Department of Community Affairs reported the state is providing $3.9 million in transitional aid, a drop from the $13 million awarded to the City of Trenton in 2017 and $26.2 million from 2016. Last year Atlantic City adopted a $222 million budget, which lowered taxes for the first time in more than a decade. The Department’s spokesperson, Lisa Ryan, noted: “Yesterday’s announcement by Mayor Gilliam and Council President [Marty] Small demonstrates city officials are showing an understanding of the issues that Atlantic City faces and an emerging ability to find ways to solve them without resorting to property tax increases: This is a solid budget, and the city staff who worked diligently to draft it should be proud of their efforts.”

Gov. Phil Murphy scaled back New Jersey’s intervention efforts in April with the removal of Jeffrey Chiesa’s role as state designee for Atlantic City. Mr. Chiesa, a former U.S. Senator and New Jersey Attorney General, was appointed to the role by former Gov. Chris Christie after the state takeover took effect.

Not in Like Flint. The Flint City Council was unable last week to override Mayor Karen Weaver’s veto of its amendments to her proposed budget: the Council’s counter proposal had included eight amendments to the Mayor’s $56 million proposed budget for 2018-2019—all of which Mayor Weaver vetoed in the wake of CFO Hughey Newsome’s concerns. The situation is similar to Atlantic City’s, in that this was Flint’s first budget to be considered and adopted in the wake of exiting state oversight. Mayor Weaver advised her colleagues: “This is a crucial time for the City of Flint: this is the first budget we are responsible for since regaining control…I am proud of the budget that I submitted, and I have full faith in the City’s Chief Financial Officer. Just as I have the right to veto the budget, the City Council has the right to override that veto. It is my hope that they would strongly consider my reasons for vetoing and that the Council and I can work together to create a budget that can sustain the City for years to come.” Her veto means the budget will be before the Council for a final vote in order to have it in place for the new fiscal year beginning on the first of next month.

Among the Council proposals the Mayor rejected was employee benefits, including a proposed pay raise for the City Clerk of $20,000, the creation of a new deputy clerk position, a new parliamentarian position, and full health benefits for part-time employees. Or, as CFO Newsome noted: “The risk these added costs could pose on the city’s budget is not in the best interest of the city nor the citizens of Flint,”  as he expressed disappointment over the time wasted on arguing over what amounted to $55,000 in the Mayor’s budget, especially when the city was currently tackling bigger fiscal challenges, such as its $271 million unfunded pension liability and keeping the city’s water fund out of red ink, noting: “These are things that we are looking at, and during all of these [budget] proceedings so little attention was paid to that.”

That is to note that while sliding into chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, or, as in Atlantic City, state oversight, can be easy; the process of extricating one’s city is great: there is added debt. Indeed, Flint remains in a precarious fiscal position, confronted by serious fiscal challenges in the wake of its exit from state financial receivership the month before last. Key among those challenges are: employee retirement funding and the aging, corroded pipes (with a projected price tag of $600 million) which led to the city’s drinking water crisis and state takeover.

On the public pension front, in the wake of state enactment of public pension reforms at the end of 2017 which mandate that municipalities report underfunded retirement benefits, Flint reported a pension system funded at only 37% and zero percent funding of other post-employment retirement benefits, which, according to the state Treasury report, Flint does not prefund.

The proposed budget assumes FY2019 general fund revenues of approximately $55.8 million, of which $4.7 million is expected to come from property taxes. This would be an increase of about $120,000; Flint’s critical water fund will have a $4 million surplus at the end of FY2018; however, CFO Newsome warned the fund will fall into the red within the next five years if it fails to bring in more money.

Municipal Finance Transparency

June 13, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider efforts in a  Puerto Rican municipality to focus on municipal finance transparency.

Toa Baja, a municipio of just under 90,000 in Puerto Rico, was first settled around 1511—long, long before Lexington and Concord. It was officially organized as a town in 1745, when it was dedicated to Nuestra Señora de la Concepción. By the dawn of U.S. independence in 1776, it was a town of some six cattle ranches and 12 sugar cane estates, but a town at risk of flooding because of the confluence of surrounding rivers. In 1902, in the wake of the U.S. invasion, the town became part of a consolidated region when the Legislative Assembly of Puerto Rico approved the consolidation of a number of municipalities—before a 1905 statute annulled the statute and Toa Baja regained its status as an independent town. This municipio of around 90,000 divided into seven barrios or neighborhoods has not been a stranger to floods: nine years ago, former Governor Luis G. Fortuño ordered a shut off essential services, such as water and electricity, to Villas del Sol, a village within the municipality of Toa Baja, and FEMA actually purchased homes in the municipality from the Puerto Rican Government in order to ensure public safety.  What had been a farming-based economy, mostly sugar, turned increasingly to fishing, cattle, and then, by the 1950’s, manufacturing began to replace replacing agriculture, so that, today, it is a center for the manufacture of metal, plastic, concrete, textile, electrical, electronic machinery, and rum. The city’s leader, Mayor Anibel Vega Borges, was first elected in 2004; he has since been re-elected twice (2008 and 2012)—and by wide margins.

Now the city or ciudad is set to be a leader in fiscal transparency: it will be the first Puerto Rico municipality to publish its accounts, in the wake of signing an agreement with the Statistics Institute after Institute President Mario Marazzi urged all public agencies, including municipalities and public corporations, to make use of the Institute’s transparencyfinanciera.pr platform. Ergo, Alcalde or Mayor Bernardo “Betito” Márquez García will disclose, beginning with the fiscal year next month, all its transactions, evaluations of income, costs and benefits in order to ensure the public has access to inspect all its fiscal and financial actions—or, as Mayor Garcia put it:I understand that it is the right step. I think that the responsibility to administer the municipalities is shared with the people, and the people have to have the information to be an oversight of what is done with their resources.”

President Marazzi noted that his offer, made available in 2015, had, so far, only attracted two previous takers: the Institute of Statistics, and the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, noting: “(Toa Baja) is the first municipality to take the step forward to provide extremely detailed information on their finances…Toa Baja is truly opening its books, here it is going to be done because the platform demands it: The platform requires a level of disclosure that definitely has to be someone with courage, who has nothing to hide,” as he urged all Puerto Rican agencies, public corporations, and municipalities to make use of the platform, stressing that, in times of fiscal crisis, the tool becomes even more useful to record how public funds are being used at the central and municipal levels, and also to recover the credibility of Puerto Rico before the financial markets, and—as he described it: “Give it a good goodbye to the [PROMESA] Board of Fiscal Supervision: All we need is that in our country, we have the political will to implement what already exists technologically.”

His initiative comes even as the Legislature is set to debate Senate Bill 236, the “Open Data Law of the Government of Puerto Rico.”

Mr. Marazzi described his effort by noting that “Lack of transparency is the best breeding ground for corruption, and sunlight–or transparency–is the best disinfectant,” adding that his Institute will also train municipal personnel in the use of the electronic platform, and in the handling and sending of the necessary information, at the same time that it will offer assistance, advice, and collaboration in the preparation of a work plan for the implementation of the project, Open Government, in Toa Baja, noting: “Governments do not have the resources to audit all the information. This will allow external auditors to help us find flaws in our data, (to identify) corruption.” Audit reports (from the Office of the Comptroller), he noted, take so much time that by the time they are made available, the proverbial cow is often already outside the barn.  

In turn, the Fundación Agenda Ciudadana will join the effort to educate the Tobajeña citizenship with the necessary skills to control the available information and use it in the democratic exercise. Mayor Márquez García emphasized this educational process, and indicated that a second phase of the project would be the search for participatory budgeting: “In my personal character, I think we had to work on this type of initiative for a long time … This will allow Mayors to be forced to render collective accounts … Here there must be active citizen participation. The responsibility is shared.”

Assessing the Promise of PROMESA

D-Day, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the status—and promise—of the quasi chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy process in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico.

Nearly two years after the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) was enacted to establish a federally appointed oversight board to oversee a quasi-chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy process for restructuring or adopting a plan of debt adjustment of the U.S. territory’s debt—a statute which enabled the territory to suspend debt payments effective July 1st in 2016 on its debt in excess of $123 billion, the end might be looming. The statute also cleared the way for deep cuts in Puerto Rico’s public service budget—including cuts to health care, pensions, and education. Just over a year ago, Judge Laura Taylor Swain began the process of overseeing the quasi chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy process in search of some consensus on a quasi-plan of debt adjustment. Now that plan is beginning to take shape, with, this week, the Puerto Rico Financial Advisory Authority and Fiscal Agency (Fafaf) ) informing Judge Swain that, as early as next month, there will be a plan to adjust the debt of the Government Development Bank. Attorneys for the Agency have indicated to Judge Swain that as early as June 22nd they intend to provide drafts of the legal documents which are prerequisites to renegotiate the debt of the Government Development Bank (GDB) and the deposits of third parties which the Bank has retained in its custody since its decapitalization about two years ago. The adjustment with the creditors, whether bondholders or depositors, would occur in light of Title VI of the PROMESA statute—the title which provides for a voluntary negotiation between the parties and on which the judicial branch does not issue direct judgment regarding its reasonableness. The goal is to complete such submission by August, according to Christian Sobrino, the Governor’s chief advisor for economic development, who noted: “It is anticipated that at some point in August, the transaction must be closed,” as he discussed details of the quasi plan of debt adjustment process that would mark a milestone in the restructuring of Puerto Rico’s quasi municipal bankruptcy, noting: “This is the only agreement that has both the government and the Oversight Board, and this will demonstrate the ability of Puerto Rico to reach consensual agreements,” as he stressed the importance of the agreement reached with many of the government’s creditors, adding: “Given that they will be negotiable instruments, it will be the first issue of restructured debt issued by Puerto Rico since 2014.”

According to the agency’s motion, the government would open the application process to seek the consent of the creditors on July 5th. According to Mr. Sobrino, the process of compliance with Title VI of PROMESA would begin one day later, when it is expected that Aafaf, after receiving the approval of the Oversight Board, will file a request for a qualified modification of the GDB debt in court. He notes that PROMESA’s Title VI process requires presenting a breakdown of claims by creditors according to their guarantee or priority, but that process would have already been substantially completed upon the approval of the Debt Restructuring Agreement with various funds. (At present, some six credit unions have sued the government for the renegotiation of GDB debt.)

According to the RSA, the agreement between the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) and its creditors to extend several deadlines under their restructuring support agreement, will be modified again to reflect the changes in the transaction calendar: the GDB bondholders would receive 55 cents of each dollar they lent to the former fiscal agent. Meanwhile, the depositors, including muncipios, would recover a similar amount for the deposits they have put in custody with the GDB—with, in their case, Mr. Sobrino stressing they would receive 55% of the deposits held in the bank. However, if the muncipios have loans in the GDB, their deposits would be used to settle dollar-to-dollar financing, without reflecting the 45 cents which will apply to the rest of the credits: “The approval request will seek to establish clear procedures related to the approval of the qualified amendment, including the timetable for the parties to object the vote portfolio, the request and the tabulation processes, thus ensuring that all parties with an interest in the restructuring of the GDB have an opportunity to be heard in relation to Title VI.”

To date, according to the RSA (the restructuring support agreement), through last December, the GDB owed approximately $3,765 million; it also owed $376 million in deposits to private and similar companies; and another $507 million in deposits from agencies and government entities. The proposed transaction contemplates repaying the bondholders of the municipal loans and government agencies that the GDB still hopes to recover, as well as the sale of properties of the institution, which closed its doors last March.

The Puerto Rican agency’s motion came less than 48 hours before Judge Swain is due back to preside over the general hearing of the Title III cases today—a hearing where Judge Swain must decide whether to authorize a second payment to the professionals involved in PROMESA cases.

Innovative, but Challenging Paths to Exiting Municipal Bankruptcy

May 25, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we observe Detroit’s physical and fiscal progress from the nation’s largest ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, before exploring the seeming good gnus of lower unemployment data from Puerto Rico.

Motor City Upgrade. Moody’s has upgraded Detroit’s issuer rating to the highest level in seven years, awarding the Motor City an upgrade from to Ba3 from B1, with a stable outlook, noting: “The upgrade reflects further improvement in the city’s financial reserves, which has facilitated implementation of a pension funding strategy that will lessen the budgetary impact of a future spike in required contributions…The upgrade also considers ongoing economic recovery that is starting to show real dividends to tax collections.” The stable outlook, according to Moody’s, incorporates the Motor City’s high leverage, weak socioeconomic profile, and “volatile nature” of local taxes. Albeit not a credit rating, Detroit likely received another economic and fiscal boost in the wake of President Trump’s actions calling for new tariffs on cars and trucks imported to the U.S., with an estimated additional duty of up to 25% under consideration.

The twin positive developments follow just weeks after the 11-member Detroit Financial Review Commission, created to oversee city finances following its 2013 chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, voted unanimously to restore Detroit’s authority to approve budgets and contracts without review commission approval, effectively putting Detroit on fiscal and financial probation, with a prerequisite that the restoration of full, quasi home rule powers be that the city implement three straight years of deficit-free budgets—a condition Detroit has complied since 2014, according Detroit Chief Financial Officer John Hill. Or, as Councilmember Janee L. Ayers told the Commission this week: “Not to say that we don’t recognize everything that you’ve brought to the table, but I do recognize that you’re not really gone yet.” The city recorded an FY2018 surplus of $36 million, in the wake of regaining local control over its budget and contract authority, with a projected FY2018 $36 million surplus via increasing property tax revenues and plans that will earmark $335 million by 2024 to address key pension obligations in the city bankruptcy plan of debt adjustment for its two public pension funds. In addition, Moody’s revised Detroit’s outlook to stable from positive—albeit an upgrade which does not apply to any of its current $1.9 billion in outstanding debt, writing that its upgrade reflects an improvement in Detroit’s financial reserves, which have allowed Detroit to implement a funding strategy for its looming pension obligations “that will lessen the budgetary impact of a future spike in required contributions.”

As part of its approved plan of debt adjustment by former U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, Detroit must pay $20 million annually through FY2019 to its two pension funds, after which, moreover, contributions will increase significantly beginning in 2024. Moody’s noted: “The stable outlook is based on the city’s strong preparation for challenges ahead including the need to make capital investments and absorb pending spikes to fixed costs…Underperformance of pension assets and revenue volatility remain notable budgetary risks, but the city has amassed a large reserve cushion and adopted conservative budgetary assumptions that provide breathing room to respond to adverse developments,” adding that the “ongoing economic recovery that is starting to show real dividends to tax collections: Further growth in the city’s reserves and tax base growth to fund capital projects for either the city or its school district could lead to additional upgrades. In contrast, the agency warned that a downgrade could be spurred by slowed or stalled economic recovery, depletion of financial reserves, or growth in Detroit’s debt or pension burden, fixed costs, or capital needs. CFO Hill noted: “A second rating upgrade in just seven months from Moody’s shows that we have created the financial management infrastructure necessary to continue to meet our obligations and enhance our fiscal position…Working with the Mayor and City Council, our team has made a variety of improvements to financial management practices and our financial planning and budgeting practices are strong, as reaffirmed by Moody’s in their report.”

Nevertheless, while the gnus on the ratings front is exhilarating, governing and fiscal challenges remain. A key challenge is the ongoing population hemorrhaging—a hemorrhaging which has slowed to a tenth of its pace over the previous decade, but, according to the Census Bureau’s most recent release, the Bureau determined last week that the city’s population was 673,104 as of last summer, a decline of 2,376 residents, slightly down from last year’s 2,770, even as the metropolitan region continued to grow, as did cities such as Grand Rapids and Lansing, which posted among the largest gains. Nevertheless, Mayor Mike Duggan, after his reelection last November, said his performance should be measured by the milestone of reversing the outflow. He has blamed the city’s schools for the continued losses: “At this point it’s about the schools: We have got to create a city where families want to raise their children and have them go to the schools…There are a whole number of pieces that have gotten better but at the end of the day, I think the ultimate report card is the population going up or going down and our report card isn’t good enough.”

Mayor Duggan added that Detroit utility records show at least 3,000 more homes are occupied than last year; however, it appears to be one- and two-person households who are moving in; families with children are moving out. Nevertheless, researchers believe the overall trend is a marked improvement for Detroit. As we had noted in or report, and other researchers have, the Motor City lost an average of 23,700 annually in the decade from 2000 to 2010; Detroit’s population declined by nearly 1.2 million since its 1950 peak. If anything, moreover, the challenge remains if the city leaders hope to reverse the decades-long exodus: the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments forecasts Detroit will continue to experience further decline through 2024, after which the Council guesstimates Detroit will bottom out at 631,668. 

Nevertheless, Detroit, the nation’s 23rd largest city, is experiencing less of a population loss than a number of other major cities, including Baltimore, St. Louis, Chicago, and Pittsburgh, according to the most recent estimates, or as Mayor Kurt Metzger of Pleasant Ridge, a demographer and director emeritus of Data Driven Detroit put it: “Our decreasing losses should be put up against similar older urban cities, rather than the sprawling, growing cities of the south and west: “I still believe that the population of Detroit may indeed be growing.” (Last year, Detroit issued 27 permits to build single-family homes in the city, according to the Southeast Michigan Conference of Governments–another 911 building permits were issued for multi-family structures, and 60 permits for condominiums. Meanwhile 3,197 houses were razed, while according to the Detroit regional council of governments.

A key appears to be, as Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel determined in Chicago, the city’s schools. Thus, Mayor Duggan said he hopes the Detroit School Board will approve his bus loop plan as a means to help lure families back into the city proper, noting that many families in the city send their children to schools in the suburbs‒and end up moving there. In his State of the City Address, he said he intended to create a busing system in northwest Detroit to transport children to participating traditional public and charter schools and the Northwest Activities Center. This will be an ongoing governance challenge—as his colleague Mayor Metzger noted: “There’s no lessening of the interest in outlying townships: People are still looking for big houses, big lots with low taxes.” Indeed, even as Detroit continues to witness an ongoing exodus, municipalities in the metropolitan region‒the Townships of Macomb, Canton, Lyon, and Shelby are all growing. 

Detroit Chief Financial Officer John Hill notes: “A second rating upgrade in just seven months from Moody’s shows that we have created the financial management infrastructure necessary to continue to meet our obligations and enhance our fiscal position: Working with the Mayor and City Council, our team has made a variety of improvements to financial management practices and our financial planning and budgeting practices are strong, as reaffirmed by Moody’s in their report.” Thus, in the wake of the State of Michigan’s restoration of governing authority and control of the city’s finances on April 30th, more than three years after its Chapter 9 exit in December of 2014, Detroit now has the power to enter into contracts and enact city budgets without seeking state approval first, albeit, as Moody’s notes: “Underperformance of pension assets and revenue volatility remain notable budgetary risks, but the city has amassed a large reserve cushion and adopted conservative budgetary assumptions that provide breathing room to respond to adverse developments.”

Motor City Transformation?  In the wake of real estate development firm Bedrock Detroit gaining final approval from the Michigan Strategic Fund for its so-called “transformational” projects in downtown Detroit, the state has approved $618 million in brownfield incentives for the $2.1 billion project, relying in part on some $250 million secured by new brownfield tax credits, enacted last year by the legislature—a development which Mayor Duggan said represents a “major step forward for Detroit and other Michigan cities that are rebuilding: Thanks to this new tool, we will be able to make sure these projects realize their full potential to create thousands of new jobs in our cities.” In what will be the first Michigan to use the Transformational Brownfield Plan tax incentive program, a program using tax-increment financing to capture growth in property tax revenue in a designated area, as well as a construction period income tax capture and use-tax exemption, employee withholding tax capture, and resident income tax capture; the MIThrive program is projected to total $618 million in foregone tax revenue over approximately 30 years. While Bedrock noted that the tax increment financing “will not capture any city of Detroit taxes, and it will have no impact on the Detroit Public Schools Community District,” the plan is intended to support $250 million in municipal bond financing by authorizing the capture of an estimated average of $18.56 million of principal and interest payments annually, primarily supported by state taxes over the next three decades, to repay the bonds, with all tax capture limited to newly created revenues from the development sites themselves: the TIF financing and sales tax exemption will cover approximately 15% of the project costs; Bedrock is responsible for 85% of the total $2.15 billion investment, per the financing package the Detroit City Council approved last November, under which Bedrock’s proposed projects are to include the redevelopment of former J.L. Hudson’s department store site, new construction on a two-block area east of its headquarters downtown, the Book Tower and Book Building, and a 310,000-square-foot addition to the One Campus Martius building Gilbert co-owns with Detroit-based Meridian. Altogether, the projects are estimated to support an estimated 22,000 new jobs, including 15,000 related to the construction and over 7,000 new permanent, high-wage jobs occupying the office, retail, hotel, event and exhibition spaces—all a part of the ongoing development planned as part of Detroit’s plan of debt adjustment.

In an unrelated, but potentially unintended bit of fiscal assistance, President Trump’s new press for tariffs of as much as 25% on cars and trucks imported to the U.S., Detroit might well be a taking a fiscal checkered flag.

Avoiding Risks to Puerto Rico’s Recovery. Yesterday, in testifying before the PROMESA Board, Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares  told the members his governing challenge was to “solve problems, and not to see how they get worse,” as he defended the agreement with the Oversight Board—and as he urged the Puerto Rico Legislature to comply with his fiscal plan and repeal what he described as the unjust dismissal law (Law 80), a key item in the certified fiscal plan that the PROMESA Board is reevaluating. That law in question, the Labor Transformation and Flexibility Act, which he had signed last year, represented the first significant and comprehensive labor law reform to occur in Puerto Rico in decades. As enacted, the most significant changes to the labor law include:  

  • Effective date (there is still no cap for employees hired before the effective date);
  • Eliminating the presumption that a termination was without just cause and shifting the burden to the employee to prove the termination was without just cause;
  • Revising the definition of just cause to state that it is a “pattern of performance that is deficient, inefficient, unsatisfactory, poor, tardy, or negligent”;
  • Shortening the statute of limitations for Law 80 claims from three years to one year, and requiring all Law 80 claims filed after the Act’s effective date to have a mandatory settlement hearing within 60 days of the filing of the answer; and
  • Clarifying the standard for constructive discharge to require an employee to prove that the employer’s conduct created a hostile work environment such that the only reasonable thing for the employee to do was resign.

The Act mandates that all Puerto Rico employment laws be applied in a similar fashion to federal employment laws, unless explicitly stated otherwise in the local law. It applies Title VII’s cap on punitive and compensatory damages to damages for discrimination and retaliation claims, and eliminates the mandate for written probationary agreements; it imposes a mandatory probationary period of 12 months for all administrative, executive and professional employees, and a nine-month period for all other employees. It provides a statutory definition for “employment contract,” which specifically excludes the relationship between an employer and independent contractor. The Act also includes a non-rebuttable presumption that an individual is an independent contractor if the individual meets the five-part test in the statute. It modifies the definition of overtime to require overtime pay for work over eight hours in any calendar day instead of eight hours in any 24-hour period, and changes the overtime rate for employees hired after the Act’s effective date to time and one-half their regular rate. (The overtime rate for employees hired prior to the Act remains at two times the employee’s regular rate.). The Act provides for alternative workweek agreements in which employees can work four 10-hour days without being entitled to overtime, but must be paid overtime for hours worked in excess of 10 in one day. The provisions provide that, in order to accrue vacation and sick pay, employees must work a minimum of 130 hours per month; sick leave will accrue at the rate of one day per month—and, to earn a Christmas Bonus, employees must work 1,350 hours between October 1 and September 30 of the following year; employees on disability leave have a right to reinstatement for six months if the employer has 15 or fewer employees; employers with more than 15 employees must provide employees on disability leave with the right to reinstatement for one year, as was required prior to the Act. For employees, the law includes certain enumerated employee rights, including a prohibition against discrimination or retaliation; protection from workplace injuries or illnesses; protection of privacy; timely compensation; and the individual or collective right to sue or file claims for actions arising out of the employment contract.

In his presentation, the Governor suggested that the repeal of the statute would be a vital component to controlling Puerto Rico’s budget, in no small part by granting additional funds to municipalities, granting budgetary increases in multiple government agencies, including the Governor’s Office and the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration (PRFAA), as well as increasing the salary of teachers and the Police. While the Governor proposed no cuts, a preliminary analysis of the document published by the Office of Management and Budget determined that the consolidated budget for FY 2018-19 would total $ 25.323 billion, or 82% lower than the current consolidated budget, as the Governor sought to assure the Board he has achieved some $2 billion in savings, and reduced Puerto Rico’s operating expenses by 22%.

In his presentation to the 18th Puerto Rico Legislative Assembly, the Governor warned that Puerto Rico has an approximate “18-month window” to define its future, taking advantage of an injection of FEMA funds in the wake of Hurricane Maria, as he appeared to challenge them to be part of that transformation, noting: “We have an understanding with the (Board) that allows the approval of a budget that, under the complex and difficult circumstances, benefits Puerto Rico: Ladies and gentlemen legislators: you know everything that is at risk. I already exercised my responsibility, and I fully trust in the commitment you have with Puerto Rico.”

According to Gov. Rosselló Nevares, repealing Law 80, which last year was amended to grant greater flexibility to companies in the process of dismissing workers, would be the first step for what would be a phase of greater economic activity on the island, and would join different measures which have been put into effect to provide Puerto Rico a “stronger” position to renegotiate the terms of its debt, as he contrasted his proposal versus the cuts and austerity warnings proposed by the PROMESA Board, adding that, beginning in August, the Sales and Use Tax on processed food will be reduced, and that tax rates will be reduced without fear of the “restrictions” previously established and imposed by the Board, adding that participants of Mi Salud (My Health) will be able to “choose where they can obtain health services, beyond a region in Puerto Rico,” and that the budget guarantees teachers and the police will receive an increase of $125 per month.

Shifting & Shafting? In his proposed budget, the Governor proposed that municipalities would be compensated for the supposed reduction in the contributions of the General Fund, stating: “Through the agreement, the disbursement of 78 million dollars that this Legislature approved for the municipalities during the current recovery period is secured; the Municipal Economic Development Fund of $50 million per year is created.” Under the administration’s proposed budget, the contribution to municipalities would be about $175.8 million, which would be consistent with the adjustment required for that item in the certified fiscal plan. As a result of the agreement with the Board, municipalities would, therefore, practically receive another $ 128 million. As proposed, Puerto Rico’s government payroll would be reduced for the third consecutive year: for example, payments for public services and those purchased will increase 23% and 16%, respectively; professional services would increase by 40%. Expenses for the Governor’s office would see an increase of 182%.

Ending the Long Delay? The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) yesterday announced it is accelerating community disaster loans to help Puerto Rico muncipios mitigate the loss of income due to natural disasters, the Government of Puerto Rico reaffirmed that, for the time being, as well as the approval of another $39 million in loans from the CDL program for the municipalities of Aguadilla, Cabo Rojo, Canóvanas, Carolina, Manatí, Mayagüez, Peñuelas, and Orocovis—with the approvals coming in the wake of  last month’s approvals for Bayamón, Caguas, Humacao, Juncos, Ponce, Toa Baja, and Trujillo Alto—meaning that, in total, FEMA has, to date, distributed at least $92.8 million for municipalities on the island and $371 million for the U.S. Virgin Islands, as part of the $4.9 billion loan passed by Congress to help local governments recover. At the same time, the U.S. territory’s Treasury Secretary Raúl Maldonado reported: “The administration (of Puerto Rico) has been very successful in lowering operational costs and achieving an increase in collections.” The new loans will offer access to the Puerto Rican Government through March of 2020, as Secretary Maldonado considers that it may be useful in case of another disaster or a drop in the income of public corporations.

Nevertheless, because Puerto Rico—unlike other U.S. states, is also under the authority of the PROMESA Board, it appears that Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s budget will have to be revised and may be rejected if proposed labor reforms do not satisfy the Board—with Board Executive Director Natalie Jaresko, in the wake of the Governor’s release of his proposed $8.73 billion general fund budget to the Legislature Tuesday night dictating that the future of the budget is linked to the legislature’s approval of at-will employment. Her statement came after the Governor and the board had announced an agreement on a compromise on reforming labor practices as well as agreeing to other changes in the Board-certified fiscal plan. In exchange for the Board waiving its demands for the abolition of the Christmas bonus and reduction of the island’s mandatory 27 days of vacation and sick leave, Gov. Rosselló agreed to bring at-will employment to the territory by repealing Law 80 from 1976—a concession which Director Jaresko described this agreement as an “accommodation.” Earlier this week, Director Jaresko said that the first step for Gov. Rosselló should be to resubmit a fiscal plan consistent with the new agreement with the Board, followed by a resubmitted budget consistent with the new plan, adding she anticipated these actions should all be completed by the end of June: the agreed-to changes to the fiscal plan are expected to reduce the 30 year surplus to $35 billion from $39 billion in the April certified fiscal plan, according to Director Jaresko, who noted that most of the surplus is expected to be used for debt payment. From the Governor’s perspective, he noted: “The approval of the agreed budget makes it easier for Puerto Rico to be in a stronger position to renegotiate the terms of the debt. We have significantly improved the management and controls over the cash flow of the General Fund. Contrary to the past, there is now visibility on how cash flows in government operations. At present Puerto Rico has robust and reliable cash balances.” Finally, she stated she expected it would take 12 to 18 months for the Board to create a plan of adjustment on the debt and pensions for the central government—a plan which would likely take the Title III bankruptcy court several more months to confirm.