A Human Rights Perspective on Puerto Rico’s Fiscal and Physical Future

October 5, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we report on the consideration by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights with regard to perspectives on statehood—and whether the federal government is violating human rights in the U.S. territory created by the Jones-Shafroth Act.

Unequal Treatment? The United States, today, at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), meeting at the University of Colorado in Boulder, will defend itself from the denunciations of statesmen sectors who charge that the lack of voting rights for Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens, represents a violation of human and civil rights. In a way, that seems ironic, as the co-author of the Jones-Shafroth Act, as Governor of Colorado, before serving in the U.S. Senate, kicked the issue off, performing—in a three-piece suit—the opening kickoff in a game at Folsom Field in Boulder in a game between the U. of Colorado and the Colorado School of Mines, prior to being elected to the U.S. Senate, where he co-authored the Jones-Shafroth Act—the issue under heated debate today, where the U.S. mission to the OAS, will seek to defend against a charge filed by statespersons who are seeking censure against the U.S. for denying Puerto Ricans who live in Puerto Rico equal rights to vote and be represented in Congress—and in the electoral college. Former Gov. Pedro Rosselló Rossello and attorney Gregorio Igartúa is representing Puerto Rico. The U.S. alternate representative to the Organization of American States, Kevin Sullivan, has been requesting—in writing—since last June, the dismissal of the complaints—complaints some of which date back to 2006—which were not even admitted for consideration until last Spring, noting that the current status violates the U.S. Declaration of Human Rights. The Trump Administration response is that, under the current territorial status, Puerto Rico “has a distinctive status, in fact exceptional,” with a “broad base of self-government.” The Administration also asserts that Puerto Rico has a limited participation in federal processes, through the Presidential primaries and the election of a non-voting Representative in Congress. Attorney Orlando Vidal, who has represented former Governor Rosselló González in this process, today’s will help educate about the lack of political rights under the current territorial status, or, as he put it: “Sometimes, it is necessary that someone from the outside, as the Commission is here, and with an independent and objective point of view, clarify situations that for many, for so long plunged into this issue, it is perhaps difficult to perceive clearly,” adding, there is an easily available “friendly solution:” to direct the admission of Puerto Rico as a state. Today’s Commission session will be chaired by Margarette May Macaulay of Trinidad and Tobago.

More than a decade ago, under the George W. Bush administration, Kein Marshall, the Administration’s Director of the Justice Department’s Legal Office, appearing before the House Subcommittee on Insular Affairs, had recommended calling a referendum: “territory yes or no,” followed by, if the current status was rejected, a consultation to determine whether a governing path forward would be statehood or independence—with Mr. Marshall defending, in his testimony, the report of the Working Group of the White House which, among other things, affirmed in 2005 that the power of the Congress is so broad that, if it wanted, it has the authority to cede the island to another country.

From an international governance perspective, in the international forum, it was two years ago that, in an explanatory vote, in October of 2016, the Obama administration supported a U.N. resolution in favor of self-determination and independence; shortly before, however, on June 30, 2016, President Obama had signed the PROMESA, a statute roughly modeled after chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, except that, in imposing both a financial control board and a judicial process, the outcome, as we have seen, has been a ‘who’s on first, what’s on second’ process—with prohibitive fiscal costs, even as it creates the appearance of a denial of democracy for the U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico. It was 15 years ago that the IACHR determined, in analyzing a complaint filed by a civic group, that nations “cannot invoke their domestic, constitutional, or other laws to justify the lack of compliance with their international obligations.”

El Otro Lado. The other side, as it were, of the Jones‒Shafroth Act, was the Jones Act—an act sponsored by the co-author at the behest of the U.S. shipping industry which has vastly compromised the ability to provide assistance towards Puerto Rico’s recovery from Hurricane Maria—assistance desperately needed for this territory where an estimated 8,000 small businesses still remain shuttered—representing about 10% of the total according to the island’s Urban Retailers Association—and continues to undercut hopes for fiscal and economic recovery. The Jones Act, strongly lobbied for by the domestic shipping industry, mandates that  transportation of goods between two U.S. ports must be carried out by a vessel which was built in the U.S. and operated primarily by U.S. citizens—meaning the cost of materials to help the island recover cost far more than for other, nearby Caribbean nations—and meaning that millions of Americans, including Puerto Ricans following Hurricane Maria last year, are paying hugely inflated prices for gasoline and other consumer products which are vital to recovery—and to equity. The act mandates that carrying goods shipped in U.S. waters between U.S. ports to be U.S.-built, U.S.-registered, U.S.-owned, and manned by crews, at least 75% of whom are U.S. citizens. Mark J. Perry, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and Professor of Economics at the University of Michigan this week noted: “Because of this absurd, antiquated protectionism, it’s now twice as expensive to ship critical goods – fuel, food and building supplies, among other things – from the U.S. mainland to Puerto Rico, as it is to ship from any other foreign port in the world. Just the major damage done to Puerto Rico from the Jones Act is enough reason to tell us that now is the time – past due time – to repeal the anti-consumer Jones Act.”

As Arian Campo Flores and Andrew Scurria of Dow Jones last week pointed out, in Puerto Rica’s fiscal year which ended last June, the island’s economy had contracted by 7.6%. An estimated 8,000 small businesses remain shuttered; Teva Pharmacuticals has announced it will close a manufacturing plant in the municipio of Manati—and, manufacturing employment has decreased by 35%. More fiscally depressing: the Puerto Rico government is now projecting that its population will decline by 12% over the next five years—as an increasing number of young, educated, and trained citizens move to the mainland, leaving behind an older, poorer population.

The Challenging Transition in the Wake of a State Takeover

September 25, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we report on the likely extension of the Garden State takeover of Atlantic City, because, as one of our most respected and insightful fiscal experts there, Marc Pfeiffer, the Assistant Director of Rutgers University’s Bloustein Local Government Research Center, put it: it is important for New Jersey and Atlantic City to focus on long-term challenges beyond the state takeover period. That is, Mr. Pfeiffer believes continued state oversight will be a positive for Atlantic City municipal bondholders, because it assures more fiscal discipline will be in place—or, in his own words: “You are going to have ongoing stability while the state is involved…The city will have to show that it can stand on its own.”

The Steep Road to Municipal Fiscal Recovery. In the wake of a release of a new state report, “Atlantic City, Building a Foundation for a Shared Prosperity,” [64-page report]  released by New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration, a report recommending continuation of the almost two-year-old state takeover of Atlantic City’s finances, that state governance now appears likely to last a full five years, due to “longstanding challenges” to New Jersey officials, as recommended by the Governor’s office. While the Governor, in his campaign, had, as part of his platform, a commitment to terminate the state takeover of Atlantic City, now, three-quarters of a year after taking office, the Governor appears likely to leave the state takeover in place—indeed, possibly for an additional three years.

The Murphy Administration has released a plan to assist the city to get back on its fiscal feet, a plan which benefited from input from numerous study groups, task forces, and committees, as well as a redirection of some state government funds to youth programs, and a training program for municipal department heads; that plan does not end the takeover; rather the report recommends keeping the takeover in place for the full five years called for under the 2016 law, unless signal fiscal and financial improvement is put in place before then, including the significant reduction or total elimination of Atlantic City’s reliance on state aid—or, as Gov. Murphy put it: “We had a pretty clear-eyed sense of what the challenge was…That doesn’t mean Atlantic City doesn’t need the state, that the state won’t continue to stay the course and be a partner. We’re not going away; we’re going to go out and executive this plan.”

Under New Jersey’s state takeover law gave the state broad powers, including the right to overturn decisions of the city council, override or even abolish city agencies and seize and sell assets, including Atlantic City’s much-coveted water utility. The statue empowers state overseers, in addition, to hire or fire workers, break union contracts, and restructure Atlantic City’s debt, most of which was done to varying degrees, although no major assets have been sold off.

What Is the City’s Perspective? Atlantic City Mayor Frank Gilliam has conceded the uncomfortable governance challenge under the takeover, which was initiated in November of 2016 by former Governor Chris Christie, but he notes that Gov. Murphy’s administration has been willing to listen to concerns and work with city officials, even as it has retained the final governing say-so.

How Can a State Transition Governance Back to a City? Unlike under a chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, where a federal bankruptcy court has the final say in approving (or not) a plan of debt adjustment under which governance authority reverts back to a municipality’s elected leaders, a state takeover lacks a Betty Crocker cookbook set of instructions. Gov. Murphy’s quasi-emergency manager, Jim Johnson, whom the Governor named to review Atlantic City’s transition back to local control, said the state administration should remain in place for an additional three years, unless Atlantic City’s reliance on state aid has been “substantially reduced or eliminated” and that its municipal workforce is on “solid footing.”  Under the provisions of the state takeover, enacted shortly after Atlantic City nearly defaulted on its municipal bond debt, the state was empowered to alter outstanding debt and municipal contracts—or, as Mr. Johnson wrote: “Atlantic City has a set of fiscal, operational, economic and social challenges that will only be resolved with significant direction from, and partnership with the State.”

Focus on the Fiscal Future. Mr. Pfeiffer said it is important for New Jersey and Atlantic City to focus on long-term challenges beyond the state takeover period, adding that the continued state oversight will be a positive for Atlantic City municipal bondholders, because it will assure greater fiscal discipline will be in place, or, as he put it: “You are going to have ongoing stability while the state is involved: The city will have to show that it can stand on its own.”

The report outlines a series of recommendations such, as:

  • the importance of diversifying Atlantic City’s economy beyond casinos,
  • providing increased training for senior municipal workers, and
  • purchasing data that can better track city services.

Mr. Johnson also urged Atlantic City to redirect Casino Reinvestment Development Authority funds into new development projects and toward providing increased financial support for youth programming.

Transitioning Back to Local Control. Atlantic City Mayor Frank Gilliam noted: “The citizens of Atlantic City deserve to have their local elected officials control their destiny…I am very optimistic that this is a huge step in the right direction for Atlantic City and its future.” Mr. Johnson, who was a primary challenger to the Gov. two years ago, was named after that election as a special counsel to review the state’s oversight of Atlantic City—and he came somewhat prepared thanks to his previous service as a U.S. Treasury Undersecretary for enforcement under former President Bill Clinton.

Gov. Murphy, who had been critical of the state takeover during his gubernatorial campaign, and who had criticized former Gov. Chris Christie’s administration for implementing it without support from former Mayor Donald Guardian, noted: “This is a community that needs the state’s help as a partner, not as a big-footing jamming down, taking away—you know, taxation without representation,” adding: “That doesn’t mean that Atlantic City doesn’t need the state, that the state isn’t going to stay the course and be a partner.” The Governor, soon after assuming office, had removed former Gov. Christie’s designated takeover manager Jeffrey Chiesa as the state designee to oversee the state role in Atlantic City. It should be noted, as we have previously, that Mr. Chiesa forged a number of settlements on owed casino property tax appeals and effected a $56 million reduction in Atlantic City’s FY2017 budget. All of which brings us back to the wary fiscal trepidation of Mr. Pfeiffer, because Atlantic City’s debt is still in the high risk range so favored by some casino players in the city: a CCC-plus from S&P Global Ratings and Caa3 from Moody’s Investors Service.

Post Municipal Bankruptcy Futures

September 21, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we report on the unsafe conditions of Detroit’s public schools, and dismissal by the Trump administration for self-government in Puerto Rico, and, a year after Hurricane Maria’s devastating strike on Puerto Rico and underwhelming federal response, the U.S. territory’s continued inequitable status.  Unlike in corporate bankruptcies, in municipal bankruptcies, the challenge is not how to walk away from accumulated debts, but rather how to fiscally resolve them.  

Detroit’s Future? In Detroit, where, last week, organizations gathered at the Marygrove College campus to announce a new cradle-to-career educational partnership, including a state-of-the-art early childhood education center, a new K-12 school, and the introduction of an innovative teacher education training modeled after hospital residency programs; Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has announced the closure of thirty-three more schools because of high levels of copper and/or lead, bringing the total number of schools with tainted water to 57 buildings. The Superintendent’s warning noted: “Of the results just received, 33 of 52 schools have one or more water sources with elevated levels of copper and/or lead…This means that 57 of 86 schools where test results have been provided have one or more water sources with elevated levels of copper and/or lead (this does not include the previous 10 Di-Hydro schools where copper and/or lead was detected).” He added the results were incomplete: the district is still awaiting results for 17 schools. He noted: “As you know, drinking water in these schools was discontinued as we await water test results for all schools. Although the kitchen water has only been turned off in schools where levels were determined high, we have been using bottled water to clean food in all schools: As a reminder, we have not used water to cook food in our kitchens for some time and instead have delivered pre-cooked meals to students. We plan to install filters for kitchen sinks to remedy challenges in kitchens.” Last week, the Superintendent, in a state hyper aware of the physical and fiscal threats of contaminated or unsafe water, that a $2 million water station system would address water quality issues, and School Board Member Deborah Hunter-Harvill confirmed, in the wake of the tests: “We completed our community meeting, and we’ve taken down recommendations and suggestions to make certain our kids are safe.” But who will finance the corrections is unclear: School Board member LaMar Lemmons said he supports spending $2 million to fix the water problems, and he continues to blame the state for neglecting school buildings during a decade of state control, which ended in 2017: “Under the $2 billion (spent) for new school construction and renovation, they did a terrible job. There is no excuse for these schools to not have been maintained.” Supt. Vitti said the most practical, long-term, safest solution for water quality problems inside the schools would be water hydration stations in every building, system currently in use in Flint, Royal Oak, Birmingham and in Baltimore, he noted, adding, in an email earlier this week: “Moving forward, we will continue to use water coolers district-wide and are actively working through the bid processes to make a recommendation to the board for the use of hydration stations. This will occur within the next couple of weeks. The hydration stations would be installed in all schools by next school year and replace the need for water coolers.”

The health apprehension came in the wake of, just days before the first day of class at the beginning of this month, the Superintendents’ decision to shut off drinking water inside all 106 school buildings after finding, in an initial check at 6 schools, high levels of copper and/or lead. The checks themselves are costly: they require stations in every school, one per every 100 students, with a resulting tab of $2 million, after taking into account stations in faculty rooms and gymnasiums, according to Supt. Vitti, who stated he intends to provide information to the Detroit School Board to consider next month, noting that, if the funds are approved, the system could be installed in the next school year. The delay comes at a physical and fiscal cost: the school district is spending $200,000 on bottled water and water coolers for the next several months, with Supt. Vitti reporting the cause of the water contamination is likely the result of the aging of the system’s public infrastructure, as well as older plumbing systems, warning that lower usage of water due to smaller enrollment sizes can lead to copper and lead buildup. Because DPS’ schools were built for use by thousands of students, the sharp decline in attendance has adverse effects, and, as the Superintendent noted: “The reality is our schools are vastly different: some are new, some are old. Some have outdated systems, some have outdated sinks and plumbing,” adding he had consulted with the Governor’s office, the Michigan Departments of Environmental Health, as well as Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, whose critical leadership exposed the Flint lead water crisis, noting: “They have provided lessons on Flint. They gave the recommendation for me to think about piping in general and a long-term solution.”

Despite the tragedy and ongoing Flint related litigation, Michigan has no rules mandating that public school districts test for lead in their water supply. That means, according to the Superintendent, that there are even newer schools built within the last decade which have water-quality issues, noting these problems could be blamed on inadequate piping or non-code compliant piping, adding he had i initiated water testing of DPS’ 106 school buildings last spring, with the testing evaluating all water sources, from sinks to drinking fountains—but learning that the actual source of the contamination remains uncertain—albeit the school system’s widespread infrastructure problems are likely causes: last June, a district report said it would cost $500 million to repair its buildings. The district has said it needs $29.86 million to repair or replace plumbing, according to the facilities report, not related to the current water problems.

Physical & Fiscal Recoveries. Maria was the worst storm to hit Puerto Rico in nearly a century: nearly 3,000 Americans lost their lives, according to a study commissioned by the Puerto Rican government. The storm devastated the economy: thousands of small businesses have been shuttered; some big businesses are leaving, and, in a demographic omen, the exodus of the young, productive population has accelerated. Over the last year, the island’s economy has contracted by 7.6%, according to the latest fiscal plan prepared for PROMESA Board. 

American Inequality. Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló this week asked President Trump to recognize that “Puerto Rico’s territorial status is discriminatory and allows for the unequal treatment of natural-born U.S. citizens.” In his letter to the President, coming one year in the wake of the devastating fiscal and physical impact of Hurricane Maria, the Governor wrote that Puerto Rico’s territorial status had negatively affected post-Maria recovery efforts, noting: “As we revisit all that we have been through in the last year, one thing has not changed and remains the biggest impediment for Puerto Rico’s full and prosperous recovery: the inequalities Puerto Rico faces as the oldest, most populous colony in the world.”

Gov. Rosselló, who campaigned on the promise of promoting statehood for Puerto Rico, added in his letter that FEMA’s bureaucratic processes—processes in which Puerto Rico has no say—had worked to delay disaster recovery, writing: “The ongoing and historic inequalities resulting from Puerto Rico’s territorial status have been exacerbated by a series of decisions by the federal government that have slowed our post-disaster recovery, compared to what has happened in other jurisdictions stateside.” He requested that the President reconsider a State Department request to dismiss a case in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights with regard to the U.S.’ international responsibility regarding Puerto Rico’s status—a case in which the Commission is investigating complaints that the United States is violating the human rights of its citizens in Puerto Rico, because they lack the same political rights as other U.S. citizens, including the right to vote for President unless they relocate to one of the states or the District of Columbia, and, because they have no voting representation in the Congress. The Governor added he felt “compelled to respectfully address the most egregious errors in a [State Department] missive,” which sought to dismiss Puerto Rico’s concerns, noting, especially, the Department’s reference to Puerto Rico as a “self-governing territory,” rather than what the Governor believes is really a “territorial colony,” noting that defining Puerto Rico as self-governing “ignores that Congress often uses its plenary powers over the territory to impose a multitude of federal laws without the Commonwealth’s residents having any voting representation in the U.S. Senate and only a single Resident Commissioner in the U.S. House of Representatives, who cannot vote on the floor of that chamber.” He also disputed the State Department’s assertion that Puerto Ricans are not “banned” from voting for President, writing: “[T]he only way for U.S. citizens from Puerto Rico to vote in such an election and be counted is to leave Puerto Rico. If that is not a ban, then what is?” He further wrote that the current governance upholds an “inherently racist logic that deem the people of Puerto Rico as inferior and unable to fully participate in the institutions of democratic governance.”

The letter also touches on two referenda which statehood supporters have won in Puerto Rico, but that have not been deemed official results by the Department of Justice. The most recent, in 2017, was boycotted by local opposition parties, and the ballot never received final DOJ approval.  While that referendum only had a 23% participation rate, the pro statehood vote was an overwhelming 97%.

Gov. Rosselló added his apprehension in the wake of the U.S. Justice Department’s non-approval of Puerto Rico’s 2017 referendum, noting that “after the legislature even amended the format of the vote to meet the recommendations of the U.S. Justice Department,” the Trump administration had nevertheless “failed” to certify the ballot. Thus, he noted that asking an international body to dismiss its complaint was tantamount to asking it to “turn a blind eye to an inconvenient truth, that Puerto Rico remains the unfinished business of American democracy.” Finally, Gov. Rosselló ended his letter with an appeal to President Trump’s leadership, asking him to “work together to abolish this century old territorial-colonialism once and for all: Statehood for Puerto Rico is not only about realizing Puerto Rico’s full potential. It is about America living up to its most noble values by creating a more perfect Union.” (The Trump Administration has advised the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) that if Puerto Ricans want to vote for President, nothing prevents the government of Puerto Rico from calling for a referendum to determine the position of its residents regarding candidates for the U.S. Presidency—a referendum which, however, would be symbolic.)

The apparent position of the Trump Administration reflects its views that Puerto Ricans, in addition to being able to participate in Presidential primary elections, they may also, according to Kevin Sullivan, the U.S. Deputy Representative to the Organization of American States (OAS), organize and vote in presidential elections. Thus the U.S. representative asked the inter-American tribunal to dismiss the independent complaints filed by lawyer Gregorio Igartua and former governor Pedro Rossello alleging that the lack of participation of Puerto Rico’s residents in Presidential and Congressional elections represents a violation of their human and civil rights. Secretary Sullivan, who asserted that the government of Puerto Rico maintains a “broad” self-government, in a recently disclosed communication from the end of last June, maintained that within the colonial relationship with the U.S. territory, there are some electoral processes related to the federal government. Within this group of electoral processes, he thus sought to highlight as significant the ability for Puerto Ricans to vote in those for presidential primaries, as well as for its non-voting delegate in the U.S. House of Representatives.  Nevertheless, Secretary Sullivan recognized Puerto Ricans’ first vote in favor of statehood via the June 2017 plebiscite, describing that vote as having launched a process of requesting statehood before Congress, which outcome the “United States cannot predict.”

Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez, Puerto Rico’s non-voting Member of Congress, said she would have preferred the recognition of the undemocratic nature of the territorial status, and that statehood remains as “the only viable political status with a relationship with the United States, not territorial and not colonial.”

Puerto Rico Progressive Party representative Jose Aponte noted that it seemed unfortunate “at this point” that the federal government intends to develop some theory with regard to Puerto Rico’s self-government, especially in the wake of enacting the PROMESA law, thereby imposing the PROMESA Board, likening it to colonialism, and emphasizing what he views as Secretary Sullivan’s specious claim in which he advises Puerto Rican leaders that Puerto Ricans, “if they wish…are also free to move to any state,” noting: “It is hypocritical to hide the fact that they have a regime in which we cannot govern with the faculties and minimum rights that any human being deserves.”

Promising Good Gnus? Even if perceived by many Puerto Ricans as colonial overseers, the PROMESA Board, acting in a quasi-Emergency Manager role, such as Kevyn Orr did in putting together and managing the plan of debt adjustment for Detroit, is offering some hope for fiscal promise, as the Board is poised to lift its fiscal forecast and predicting a budget surplus in the wake of the recovery from the devastating Hurricane Maria, predicting a cumulative surplus, prior to debt payments, of in excess of $20 billion through 2058, or 500% greater than its quasi plan of debt adjustment certified by the PROMESA Board last June. PROMESA Board Executive Director has indicated that plan will be certified “in the coming weeks,” adding: “The changes in the fiscal plan will come from new data in actual FY18 revenue and expense figures, budget to actuals, and disaster spending.” Earlier last summer, the PROMESA Board, in certifying the most recent fiscal plan, had estimated that Puerto Rico would have a cumulative surplus of about $4 billion over the next four decades; the new projection, incorporating higher than expected disaster aid and tax receipts, would lift that projection to more than $20 billion.

Is There Second Class U.S. Citizenship?

eBlog

September 18, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we report on the dismissal by the Trump administration for self-government in Puerto Rico, and await today’s PROMESA Board oversight hearing. We also examine pro-active efforts by the government to reduce future hurricane vulnerability on the island.   

Is There A Second Class U.S. Citizenship? The Trump administration has dismissed complaints filed by pro-statehood supporters, emphasizing that nothing prevents anyone from Puerto Rico who wishes to participate in the electoral process from moving to the mainland—with Kevin Sullivan, the Deputy Chief of Mission for the U.S. to the Organization of American States coming in response to complaints filed 12 years ago by former Governor Pedro Rossello and attorney Gregorio Igartua.  The complains are to be considered October 5th at an Inter-American Commission on Human Rights public hearing, as part of the 169th session of the OAS autonomous body, at the University of Colorado. According to Deputy Chief Sullivan’s communication with IACHR Executive Director, Paulo Abrao,  nothing in the American Declaration (of Human Rights) suggests that OAS member states cannot maintain federal systems in which their citizens participation in local and federal elections is determined by their residence or the state of the federal entity where they reside. Mr. Sullivan asserted that Puerto Rico’s current political status is not inconsistent with the American Declaration of Human Rights, and he defended the quasi-colonial position by arguing that it allows a limited participation, because Puerto Ricans can participate in voting in Presidential primaries, and they have the right to elect a non-voting Member to Congress. Mr. Sullivan went on to note that although Puerto Rico does not have state sovereignty, he claimed it has a “distinctive, in fact exceptional, status” with a “broad base of self-government.” Just over a year ago, Puerto Ricans, by referendum, voted for statehood for the first time on June 11, 2017, effectively initiating what Mr. Sullivan deemed a “political process,” the outcome of which, he said, “cannot be predicted by the United States,” even as he admitted that other territories’ petitions have been accepted. He added that Puerto Rican residents, who are U.S. citizens, are also free to move to any state, if they wish.

Proactive Shelter from the Next Storm. Luis Burdiel Agudo, Puerto Rico’s President of the state-owned Economic Development Bank, has recommended making aid to homeowners rebuilding after Hurricane Maria contingent on their relocating out of flood-prone areas, with the President of the state-owned Economic Development Bank, warning: “We need to move families to a safe place.”  Most local governments give homeowners the choice between raising their house or taking a buyout to move somewhere safer; however, elevating one’s home costs around $44,000, according to government estimates—an especially high bar in Puerto Rico, where the median income is $20,078, and the poverty rate is 43.5%‒the median home value is about $100,000. Those who remain in flood-prone areas also require flood insurance, which is difficult to obtain given the low-income rate in the Commonwealth. Nevertheless, Puerto Rico is withholding aid entirely unless residents move. 

Federal Assistance & Hard Choices. The federal government is expected to provide $20 billion in federal funding to rebuild after Hurricanes Irma and Maria, and to better prepare for future storms—creating an almost Scylla versus Charybdis choice: thousands of the more than 100,000 homeowners on the island will have to choose between staying in their current property or rebuilding their homes. 

Could There Be Promise in PROMESA? The PROMESA Oversight Board is soliciting feedback on its report on the causes and development of Puerto Rico’s debt crisis, the Board’s Special Claims Committee set to “pursue claims from the results” of a debt investigation, and a hearing set for today in San Juan—a hearing which will be streamed live on the Board’s website—with audio available in both English and Spanish. Board members Andrew Biggs, Arthur González, Ana Matosantos, and David Skeel are on the Special Claims Committee. The debt report includes a section which lays out numerous ways Puerto Rico’s municipal bonds and the steps that led to their issuance may have run afoul of laws and regulations. One issue which might or might not be addressed will be with regard to federal allocations promised to Puerto Rico to mitigate the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria—some $41 billion, especially because authorities estimate that less than a quarter of those funds have, in fact, been disbursed. Moreover, the promised, but unreceived amount appears to be less than half the projected level of $100 billion needed to complete reconstruction. According to the data offered by the US government and Puerto Rico, Puerto Rico’s El Nuevo Día has only been able to detail disbursements of approximately $7.640 billion to government entities, businesses, and families in Puerto Rico. Omar Marrero, the Director of the Central Recovery and Reconstruction Office (CRRO), noted: “The reimbursement process has been really hard, particularly when FEMA has imposed some requirements on us as if we were a risk jurisdiction, when we were not declared so.” At the same time, the government of Puerto Rico has not managed yet to get funds flowing from the permanent project program under §428 of the Stafford Act, which will guide most repairs and new constructions. Director Marrero argues that the continued “discriminatory treatment” is an example of Puerto Rico’s lack of political power due to its territorial status. If anything, in the wake of the Whitefish scandal, attention on the management of emergency funds has increased, and, as recently as last weekend, President Trump fanned the idea that the government of Puerto Rico is one of the most corrupt in the country.

To date, the bulk of the federal assistance has come via Congressional resolutions, with the distribution mainly through HUD, FEMA, and the Department of Health and Human Services: half of the allocations were made through the CDBG Disaster Recovery program; however, not even the first $1.5 billion has been made available—funds which were to be allocated last month to assist with the reconstruction of houses destroyed or damaged by the hurricane. Director Marrero noted: “It is still necessary to sign the agreement between HUD and the Puerto Rico Department of Housing. Without that contract, the funds cannot be disbursed,” adding that second part of the CDBG-DR package, which would reach $ 8.2 billion, will not arrive until next year, which would delay its impact on the economy and the development of infrastructure projects. He added that the funds are more important, especially because FEMA did not approve granting federal assistance for permanent reconstruction work, “based on having a bad experience with that program.” The wait may be understood as especially stressful, because the potential aid package from Congress includes nearly $2 billion in CDBG funding which must be used to rebuild the power grid. With the hurricane season still vicious, there are obvious fears at the delay. Thus, Puerto Rico is pressing to reactivate exemptions in the payment of part of the cost for debris removal and taking emergency measures in the face of a natural disaster. The disaster has also re-demonstrated a double standard: in the Lone Star State, Texas, where Hurricane Harvey caused $125 billion in damage, according to the National Hurricane Center, FEMA claimed it provided $13.820 billion in “the pockets of survivors” via federal and state grants, and flood insurance programs ($ 8.8 billion). In Puerto Rico, however, the percentage of homes with FEMA insurance is minimal.

Stormy Fiscal Warnings. Moody’s has warned that a “large part of the money (FEMA assistance) will not remain on the island,” a fiscal storm warning which could undercut Puerto Rico’s expectations of 2019 6.5% economic growth. Some of that projection assumes the government will be able to efficiently take advantage of the $4.8 billion in extra Medicaid assistance it received—funds which can be used until next September without a local match. Nevertheless, Puerto Rico must plan on the resumption of its contribution to the Mi Salud plan—a plan which will be complicated by the apprehension that Medicaid emergency funds may run out during in FY2020—an exhaustion which could carry a price tag of as much as $1 billion.

Has There Been a Double Standard? In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which sent a number of us from Arlington County, Virginia hurtling to Mississippi to try to assist in rebuilding, and which leveraged Congress to name a bipartisan committee, a mere seventeen days after the storm struck, to investigate the Bush Administration’s response to the storm, with, in the Senate, twenty-two FEMA oversight hearings in six months—and within eight months, the release of 500-plus-page investigations into the Bush administration’s handling of the crisis—investigations with dozens of recommendations for reform; there has been no comparable reaction from this Congress to a storm which caused a much greater loss of American lives—nearly 70% more. The U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which oversees FEMA, has held just two hearings; neither the House nor the Senate has issued any major reports. Hurricane Maria, according to George Washington University’s report, killed an estimated 2,975 Americans in Puerto Rico—an estimate which, last week, the President claimed was a fake number. Or, as Irwin Redlener, the Director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University put it: “Puerto Rico is getting far less attention, in spite of it being one of the worst disasters in modern American history, than Katrina, and far less attention than we got for Superstorm Sandy…From the beginning, the handling of Maria’s consequences both from the White House and Congress has been abysmally inadequate.” Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of Katrina’s Gulf Coast devastation, House GOP leaders called for an investigation; they created a select committee to investigate the storm. That committee held nine public hearings; it reviewed more than 500,000 pages of documents, according to the 582-page report, titled “A Failure of Initiative,” which was released less than six months after Katrina struck. The Senate conducted its own investigation into the Bush administration’s response to Katrina, with the Senate Committee on Government Affairs holding nearly two dozen hearings with 85 witnesses; the Committee reviewed over 838,000 pages of documents; it heard testimony from 325 persons involved in the response. Many of the hearings focused on narrow issues, such as search-and-rescue efforts after the storm. In this Congress, in contrast, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has held two hearings related to the 2017 hurricane season, and it has reviewed more than 17,000 documents.  Last week, Ranking House Oversight Committee Member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) released a report complaining about a lack of hearings and responsible oversight—a report which might have triggered Chairman Tray Gowdy (R-S.C), Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, to FEMA to request all communications from 13 FEMA officials related to 10 different aspects of FEMA’s response to the storm, including the lack of qualified personnel, wiring issues with the electrical system and problems with existing disaster plans. It was just the second letter requesting information about FEMA sent by the committee and the first since Oct. 11, 2017.

Why Is the Road Still Full of Mud?

eBlog

September 4, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider, as Tropical Storm Florence heads west across the Caribbean, efforts in the Congress with regard to addressing Puerto Rico.

‘Twas in another lifetime one of toil and blood
When blackness was a virtue, the road was full of mud
I came in from the wilderness a creature void of form
“Come in,” she said,
“I’ll give you shelter from the storm.”

With Congress returning this morning, Puerto Rico’s quasi Member of Congress, Jenniffer Gonzalez, who is permitted to vote in Committee, but not in the House, is seeking to make sure that Puerto Rico’s fiscal and physical future will gain constructive input in the House Natural Resources Committee as part of Chairman Rob Bishop’s (R-Ut.) hearing on the status of Puerto Rico and its pro-security project. With fewer than 30 days left in this Congress, she is anxious that the territory be a priority. Thus, she is attempting to find a way to depoliticize the island’s electric power tussles, especially with regard to the AEE, or Governing Board of the Authority Electrica, noting: “I’m going to make a report with the recommendations to discuss it with him and the Commission’s technicians,” adding, moreover, she intends to press on the longstanding issue with regard to Puerto Rico’s political status, related to her proposed pro-identity project 6246, which proposes the creation of a Congressional working group to adopt a transition process for the territory to statehood by January of 2021. She noted she was hopeful Chairman Bishop would not only call a public hearing, but also set a vote on the legislation. For his part, the Chairman noted: “We’re going to have the public view. From there, we start.” She added that she is deferring to the Equality Commission created by Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló Nevares. Nevertheless, with so few days remaining in this Congress, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fl.) has continued to warn there are insufficient votes to push forward the statehood proposal in the Senate.

The Puerto Rico governance challenge was further conflicted and muddied by the unelected PROMESA oversight Board, which has demanded Gov. Rossello Nevares to eliminate any reference to statehood from the fiscal plan, notwithstanding, as Commissioner Gonzalez tweeted, that the PROMESA statute “establishes that the Board cannot interfere with the future political status of the island.”

A Delicate, if stormy, balancing act. Part of the political challenge for Commissioner Gonzalez is to balance efforts to obtain equitable federal storm relief funds for Puerto Rico, even as she is seeking more equitable political respect and balance for Puerto Rico. Part of that includes her efforts to gain passage in the House this month of legislation to authorize the Department of Homeland Security to conduct a study on drug trafficking and the potential for terrorism, especially in the maritime zone which surrounds Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Inequitable Arithmetic? Hurricane Maria caused at least 2,975 deaths—more than any U.S. storm in a century. Now authorities have raised the death toll to 2,975, surpassing Hurricane Katrina (1,833) and the Okeechobee hurricane in Florida, which killed 2,500 people. Hurricane Maria, which made landfall in Puerto Rico nearly one year ago, with deadly winds gusting up to 120mph, wrought destruction across the island, cutting power, communications and drinking water to nearly every home. Yet, unlike U.S. responses to the hurricane in Houston, the FEMA response and death tolls were radically different. The government, two weeks after the devastating storm, reported the official death toll to be just 16 people. Indeed, President Donald Trump made much of the low death count when he visited San Juan on October 3rd to throw rolls of paper towels; he said: “We’ve saved a lot of lives…If you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina and the hundreds that died…16 versus literally thousands of people…you can be very proud.” Although the death toll rose slowly over the weeks that followed, from 16 to 64 deaths, it remained surprisingly low given the severity of the storm. But that number hardly appeared credible. Last December, the New York Times analyzed mortality reports, and estimated Maria had killed as many as 1,052 Americans in the period to October 31st. A paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine last May surveyed hurricane survivors and calculated that anywhere between 793 and 8,498 people had perished.

Unsurprisingly, Puerto Rico Governor, Ricardo Rosselló Nevarez doubted that figure—a figure which mostly relied on direct deaths from flying debris and the like, overlooking deaths from power cuts and lack of water that led to medical complications. Thus, last February the Governor commissioned an independent report by epidemiologists at George Washington University to arrive at a more accurate count—a report which GW on August 28th. The new report calculated a final death toll based on the observed excess mortality over and above what might be expected in normal weather, arriving at an estimated final death toll of between 2,658 and 3,290—a number which would make Maria the worst hurricane to affect the U.S. in more than a century.

Absurd Counting. It seems impossible to comprehend how the official death toll has remained at 64 for so long. Notwithstanding the difficulty—I can hardly forget when our volunteer team from Arlington County, Virginia raced down to Biloxi, Mississippi—only to find street signs had been blown away, causeways smashed, and electricity out, so that it was a severe challenge to even found our way—and that to respond to a fierce storm where the official death count is still disputed—and where the Mayor of New Orleans had simply said the death toll would a “shock the nation.” In contrast, the drastically inaccurate number in Puerto Rico may well have lessened the urgency of relief efforts: just one third of Americans reported they made contributions in the immediate aftermath, which is low by the America’s generous standards. That miserly response, with Puerto Rico in quasi-chapter 9 bankruptcy—and an economy projected to shrink 8% this year, and the Commonwealth’s young and talented leaving for the mainland in droves—not to mention the sharp, 50% reduction in tourists has, has increased the perception of disparate treatment as Puerto Rico is still waiting for as much as $80 billion of federal funds to help its recovery. Delegate Gonzalez notes the federal government “will continue to be supportive” of Gov. Ricardo Rossello’s accountability efforts, adding: “The American people, including those grieving the loss of a loved one, deserve no less.”

The End of State Usurpation of Local Elected Authority? Uneasy shelter from the Fiscal and Physical Storms?

August 31, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the end of the State of Michigan to usurp local authority via the appointment of an Emergency Manager, the safety of school drinking water has become an issue in Detroit—especially after Flint, and we consider the extraordinary revisions in the projected Hurricane Maria death toll in Puerto Rica—and the White House response.

Protecting a City’s Children. Detroit Public School Superintendent Nikolai P. Vitti has directed turning off drinking water across the district’s 106 schools  in the wake of after discovering higher-than-acceptable levels of copper and lead in some facilities, with Superintendent Vitti noting his decision came out of caution “until a deeper and broader analysis can be conducted to determine the long-term solutions for all schools.” he said in a statement. Test results found elevated levels of lead or copper in 16 out of 24 schools which were recently tested. Supt. Vitti stated: “Although we have no evidence that there are elevated levels of copper or lead in our other schools where we are awaiting test results, out of an abundance of caution and concern for the safety of our students and employees.” His actions, no doubt affected by fiscal and water contamination in Flint, came even as Detroit officials and the Great Lakes Water Authority sought to assure residents that water provided by the authority is safe to drink: they pointed to the city’s aging infrastructure as the problem.  Superintendent Vitti said he will be creating a task force to determine the cause of the elevated levels and solutions, noting he had initiated water testing of all 106 school buildings last spring to ensure the safety of students and employees. Water at 18 schools had been previously shut off. He added: “This was not required by federal, state, or city law or mandate: This testing, unlike previous testing, evaluated all water sources from sinks to drinking fountains.” The District does not plan to test students: a spokesperson for the school system noted: “Dr. Vitti said…he has no evidence at all that children have been impacted from a health standpoint.”

Fiscal & Physical Challenges: Earlier this summer, Supt. Vitti released details from a facilities review which had determined the school district would need to spend $500 million now to fix the deteriorating conditions of its schools—an effort for the system projected to cost as much as $1.4 billion if there is a failure to act swiftly, with the Administrator pointing to the failure by former state-appointed emergency managers to make the right investments in facilities while the system was preempted of authority and state-appointed emergency managers from 2009 to 2016 failed to make the right investments, sending what Dr. Vitti described as “the message to students, parents and employees that we really don’t care about public education in Detroit, that we allow for second-class citizenry in Detroit.” The remarks raised anew questions with regard to Michigan’s governance by means of gubernatorially chosen Emergency Managers.  

Superindent Vitti said he had notified Mayor Mike Duggan of his decision to shut off the drinking water, and a spokesperson, John Roach, noted: Mayor is “fully supportive” of the approach Supt. Vitti has taken, adding: “We will be supporting Dr. Vitti in an advisory capacity through the health department and the DWSD (Detroit Water and Sewerage Department) has offered to partner with the district on any follow-up testing that needs to be done.” At the same time, the Great Lakes Water Authority issued a statement in an effort to assure “residents and customers of GLWA’s regional system that they are not affected by the lead and copper issues,” noting: “Aging school infrastructure (i.e. plumbing) is the reason for the precautionary measure of providing bottled water,” adding water treated by the authority meets and surpasses all federal and state regulations, albeit adding: “A task force will be formed consisting of engineering and water quality experts” to will help the district “understand the cause and identify solutions.” (Initial results this past week showed elevated levels of copper, lead or both at one or more water sources in 16 of 24 school buildings, according to the statement. Water bottles will be provided at the schools until water coolers arrive. The district also found water-quality issues in some schools in 2016.)

The incident in Detroit raises a host of fiscal and governance issues—especially in the wake of the tragedy in upstate Flint—with, in both cases, the state’s history of appointing Emergency Managers to preempt the authority of local elected leaders. In the case of DPS, Dr. Vitti has contacted the Mayor, the Governor, and a task force of engineers and water experts to understand the cause and possible solutions; Superintendent Nikolai P. Vitti opted to close the water taps out of caution “until a deeper and broader analysis can be conducted to determine the long-term solutions for all schools,” with the decision coming just days before the school district’s 106 schools are scheduled to open next Tuesday. (Water bottles will be provided at the schools until water coolers arrive.) Water officials have blamed aging infrastructure as the cause of the public safety threat. Now Dr. Vitti has asked Mike Duggan and Gov. Rick Snyder to convene a task force of engineers and water experts to determine the cause of the elevated lead and copper levels, and to propose solutions. 

Importantly, it seems the public safety risk is limited to Detroit’s public schools: water officials released a statement Wednesday assuring residents and customers of the Great Lakes Water Authority and the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department that they are not affected by the lead and copper issues at the school district, noting: “Aging school infrastructure (i.e. plumbing) is the reason for the precautionary measure of providing bottled water…The water at GLWA’s treatment plants is tested hourly, and DWSD has no lead service lines connected to any DPSCD building. The drinking water is of unquestionable quality.”

Nevertheless, the threat to public safety—combined with the heartbreaking, long-term threats to Flint’s children from that city’s public water contamination—could add further challenges to Detroit’s recovery from the nation’s largest-ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy: a critical part of the city’s plan of debt adjustment was to address its vast amassment of abandoned houses by enticing young families with children to move from the suburbs back into the city—an effort which had to rely on a perception of the quality and safety of its public schools. Now, for a system itself recovering from bankruptcy, DPS faces a bill of at least $500 million to repair its buildings: approximately 25% of the system’s school buildings are in unsatisfactory condition and another 20%are in poor condition, according to the report. The district noted nearly $223 million of high-priority repairs involving elevators and lifts, energy supply, heating and cooling systems, sprinklers, standpipes, electrical service and distribution, lighting, wiring, communications, security system, local area networking, public address and intercoms, emergency lights and plumbing fixtures.

Mayor Duggan’s office and the Detroit Health Department Wednesday issued a joint statement supporting “the approach Dr. Vitti has taken to test all water sources within DPS schools and to provide bottled water until the district can implement a plan to ensure that all water is safe for use,” noting: “We will be supporting Dr. Vitti in an advisory capacity through the health department and the DWSD has offered to partner with the district on any follow-up testing that needs to be done. We also will be reaching out to our charter operators in the coming days to work with them on a possible similar testing strategy to the voluntary one Dr. Vitti has implemented.”

Restoring Municipal Authority. Mayhap it is ironic that Michigan’s relatively rare authority for the Governor to appoint an emergency manager to preempt local elected authority reflects the uneven results of the program—a program I well remember from meeting with Kevyn Orr, whom Gov. Rick Snyder had appointed as Emergency Manager  (EM) to preempt all governing authority of Detroit’s Mayor and Council, at the Governor’s office in Detroit on the first day the city entered the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history—and after the grievous failure of a previous gubernatorially-appointed Emergency Manager to help the Motor City. The very concept of state authority to appoint a quasi dictator and to preempt any authority of local leaders elected by the citizens, after all, feels un-American.

Yet, from that very first moment, Mr. Orr had acted to ensure there was no disruption in 9-1-1 responses—and that every traffic and street light worked. Unlike the experience under an Emergency Manager in Flint, Mr. Orr was intently focused on getting Detroit back on its fiscal and physical feet—and restoring elected leadership to today’s grieving city.

Now, as of this week, Michigan no longer has any local government under a state appointed emergency manager—and observers are under the impression the state program to preempt local authority may be quietly laid to rest. It has, after all, been a program of preemption of local democracy with untoward results: while it proved invaluable in Detroit, it has proven fiscally and physically grievous in Flint, where it has been blamed for contributing to Flint’s water contamination crisis. Indeed, two of Flint’s former EMs have been criminally charged in connection with the crisis. Their failures—at a cost of human lives, appears to have put the future of state pre-emption of local governing authority—may well make state officials leery of stepping in to usurp control a local government, even as some municipal market participants and others see state oversight programs as a positive credit feature. The last municipality in Michigan to be put under a state-imposed emergency manager was Lincoln Park—an imposition which ended three years ago. Michigan Treasury spokesperson Ron Leix noted: “Each situation that led to the financial emergency is unique, so I can’t give a broad-brush assessment about how the law will be used in the future…For the first time in 18 years, no Michigan municipality or school district is under state financial oversight through an emergency manager. This is really about the hard work our local units of government have achieved to identify problems and bring together the resources needed to problem-solve challenging financial conditions.”

In Michigan, the emergency manager program was authorized twenty-eight years ago, granting the governor authority to appoint a manager with extensive powers over a troubled municipality or school district. By 2012, Michigan voters repealed the emergency manager program in a referendum; notwithstanding, one month later Gov. Snyder and legislators re-adopted a similar intervention program—under which local governments could opt among three new options in addition to the appointment of an emergency manager who reports directly to the Governor: chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, mediation, or a consent agreement between the state and the city to permit local elected officials to balance their budget on their own. (In Michigan, municipalities which exit emergency management remain under the oversight of a receivership transition advisory board while executive powers are slowly restored to elected mayors and city councils.)

The state intervention/takeover program had mixed success, according to Michigan State University economist Eric Scorsone, who noted: “In some cases it’s worked well, like Allen Park where the situation was pretty clear-cut and the solution was pretty clear as to what needed to be done.” (Allen Park regained full local control of its operations and finances in February of 2017 after nearly four years of state oversight. Last June, S&P Global Ratings upgraded the city to investment-grade BBB-plus from junk-level BB, crediting strong budgetary performance and financial flexibility more than 12 months after exiting state oversight. But the appointment, in Flint, of emergency managers demonstrated the obverse: the small city had four emergency managers: Ed Kurtz, Mike Brown, Darnell Earley, and Gerald Ambrose—where the latter two today are confronted by charges of criminal wrongdoing stemming from the lead contamination crisis and ensuing Legionnaire’s disease outbreak that claimed 12 lives. It was the gubernatorially appointed Mr. Earley who oversaw the decision to change Flint’s water source to the Flint River in April 2014 as the city awaited completion of a new pipeline—a decision with fatal human and fiscal consequences. Indeed, two years ago, Gov. Snyder named a task force to investigate the Flint crisis and review the Emergency Manager law—a review which recommended the Governor consider alternatives to the current approach that would engage local elected officials. (No action has been taken to change the law.)

Because only a minority of states have authorized chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, there is no uniform state role with regard to city or county severe fiscal distress and bankruptcy. Jane Ridley, senior director in the U.S. public finance government group at S&P Global Ratings and sector lead for local governments, has noted that state oversight is considered as part of the rating agency’s local GO criteria: “We do think that having a state that has oversight, especially if it’s a proven mechanism, can be very helpful for struggling entities…If they ended oversight entirely it would likely have an impact on the institutional framework scores and their sub scores.” A Moody’s analyst, Andrew Van Dyck Dobos, noted: “While an EM is in most cases is a last option, the ability for it to implement some policies and procedures is going to be typically viewed, at least at the onset, as a credit positive.”

Ending Shelter from the Storm. U.S. District Judge Timothy Hillman yesterday ruled that temporary housing given to hundreds of Puerto Ricans displaced by Hurricane Maria will end next month, meaning Puerto Ricans will be forced to check out of temporary housing provided by Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as part of the agency’s Transitional Sheltering Assistance (TSA) program. Judge Hillman, in his decision, wrote: I strongly recommend the parties get together to find temporary housing, or other assistance to the Plaintiffs and other members of the class prior to that date,” with his decision coming the same week Puerto Rico updated its official death toll from Maria to 2,975, a vast increase from the original count of 64. Judge Hillman’s decision also comes about two months after a national civil-rights group filed a lawsuit which had sought a restraining order to block FEMA from ending the program. The group, LatinoJustice, argued in the suit that it would lead to families’ evictions. It also came as, two days ago, President Trump met with reporters to respond to questions with regard to the mounting death toll—a session in which the President told the reporters: “I think we did a fantastic job in Puerto Rico.” Some 1,744 Puerto Rican adults and children were in the FEMA program when the lawsuit was filed. U.S. District Judge Leo T. Sorokin temporarily extended the program to the end of last July, and subsequently extended it until today—and then, once more, to September 14th.

Now, the White House is responding to a new estimate which increases the number by about 33% more to 2,975 after an independent study. White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders claimed in a statement that the back-to-back hurricanes which hit last year prompted “the largest domestic disaster response mission in history.” She added that President Donald Trump “remains proud of all of the work the Federal family undertook to help our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico.” She also says the federal government “will continue to be supportive” of Gov. Ricardo Rossello’s accountability efforts and says “the American people, including those grieving the loss of a loved one, deserve no less.” The new estimate of 2,975 dead in the six months after Maria devastated the island in September 2017 was made by researchers with the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University. It was released Tuesday.

A British Chapter 9 Municipal Bankruptcy?

August 29, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider a potential fiscal threat to the U.S. Virgin Islands, before considering the fiscal challenge to a municipality across the pond: Northamptonshire County, England.

A U.S. Virgin Islands taxpayer has brought a proposed class action against the U.S. Virgin Islands government, saying it hasn’t paid nearly 20,000 income tax refunds totaling $37 million for the 2016 tax year and the government owes $97 million in refunds since 2007. The complaint filed by Jennifer Duncan, a U.S. citizen who operated a business in the territory in 2016 and pays taxes there, also alleged that the government of the territory set aside no money in 2017 to pay income tax refunds despite a significant deficit in the refund account. The suit alleges that as of March, the U.S. Virgin Islands government had estimated that 19,653 income tax returns claiming refunds had not been paid and claims the territory’s government is using the money as a “bridge fund” to cover budget shortfalls.

A Fiscally Appealing Chapter 9 case? Councilors in Northamptonshire County, England, a county of over a quarter of a million residents, is in severe fiscal distress; now it appears supportive of plans to replace the county’s eight existing councils with two unitary ones in the wake of a government inspector’s recommendation—an action which will trigger a second vote before such a fiscal plan would come into operation in 2020, with the Council voting 31-14—effectively forwarding the quasi chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy plan to all eight of the county’s authorities for a vote on the plan, which comes after the Council, which faces a funding shortfall of about $82 million, issued two notices banning all new spending this year. Conservative Council leader Matt Golby reported the vote would help to give the county an “opportunity to reset,” noting: “There is lots to celebrate about Northamptonshire: Our residents deserve the best we can offer. We need to instill from day one the best practice in all of our scrutiny and functions.” The new, unitary authority would cover Daventry, Northampton, and South Northamptonshire. Labour Councilor Mick Scrimshaw noted: “This is clearly a proposal put forward by government to abolish the political embarrassment of this Council.” The local governmental action came against a seething backdrop of residents, whistling and booing, and swarming the County Hall, shouting: “Criminals!” and holding up banners that read: “Tory councilors wanted for crimes against people in Northamptonshire.”

The residents of what began as an ancient borough before, in 1835, under the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835, paving the way for an elected Council, are reacting to the quasi-municipal bankruptcy, which has forced the local government to halt all but the minimum services required by law: the Council has already voted to close libraries and stop repairing roads.

Last February, the County became the first, in two decades, to, effectively, run out of money—albeit, it could be that Northamptonshire is a fiscal omen for other cities—many of which are sharply cutting essential services. (The municipality, one of the largest towns in the United Kingdom, with a population over 200,000, was granted its first charter by King Richard I in 1189; its first Mayor was appointed (not elected) by King John in 1215. Northampton was unsuccessful in its application for unitary status in 1996, and recognition as a city in 2000. The city, about 60 miles from London, and one of the largest towns in the United Kingdom, with a current population of over 200,000, dates its founding to its first town charter, granted by King Richard I in 1189; King John appointed its first Mayor.

Councils are Britain’s fundamental unit of local government, dealing with an array of basic needs: trash collection, public transport, libraries, town planning, and care for children and other vulnerable people, among other things. They levy a tax on homes and charge fees for some services. They also collect a nationally set tax on commercial real estate, and keep an increasing share of it. But, for years they received most of their funding from the central government.

The crisis in Northamptonshire is complicated and partly self-inflicted. It has roots in the austerity policies and cost cutting that the Conservative-led national government imposed a decade ago in response to the global financial crisis. The Tories in London argued that austerity was the responsible solution to balance public accounts and encourage future growth. Now some Conservatives, especially at the local level, are openly defying what has been a pillar of the party’s ideology.

Funding from London for local governments has fallen 60 percent since 2010, with reductions expected to total $21 billion by 2020, the Local Government Association has calculated. In response, nearly every council in Britain has cut or outsourced services, sold off assets and tried a host of budget gimmicks, experts in local finance say.

One in 10 of the larger councils that have obligations to care for children and elderly people—about 35 councils in all—are in danger of exhausting their reserves within the next three years, according to the National Audit Office. Rob Whiteman, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, notes: “There’s a slow-moving domino effect.”

Northamptonshire was the first flashing red light. East Sussex County Council, run by Conservatives, recently announced it would reduce services to the “legal minimum.” The Conservative-led county council in Somerset warned it might be facing bankruptcy. This month, two families won a case against Bristol City Council to block plans to reduce funding of special education needs and disability services.

The Northamptonshire Council, having run through its rainy-day funds, now has enough money to pay only for mandatory services for the elderly and children. Unable by law to run a deficit, the council voted in February to shut down 21 of the county’s 36 libraries, remove bus subsidies and suspend road repairs. (A court recently blocked the decision to close the libraries.) At the meeting earlier this month, some councilors seemed resigned to the angry public response.

“I am happy to apologize,” said Richard Auger, a Tory councilor. “I think mistakes were made,” he added. “It’s a situation we’re responsible for.” The crisis is a political embarrassment for Conservatives, who are already divided into warring camps over Brexit. The former leader of the Northamptonshire council, Heather Smith, has resigned from her position, and from the Conservative Party. Investigators sent from London blamed her and other councilors for mishandling local finances, even as she blamed London for impossible mandates and a refusal to consider higher taxes. Sounding increasingly like their Labour opponents, some Conservative councilors in Northamptonshire are now talking about stopping the outsourcing of public services and demanding tax increases—or, as recently elected Conservative Councilor John Elkins put it: “I was a believer that we had to save money, but there had to be other ways than to slash and burn: How did we get to where we are? What the hell has been going on?”

Some describe this as the Graph of Doom, referencing, from 5 years ago, a power point shown to the Northamptonshire Council depicting an unavoidable contradiction: a sharp, rising public demand for local services contrasted against a sharp cutback in revenue from the national government (think post General Revenue Sharing), as part of the austerity program led by Conservatives in London. Ms. Smith described it thusly: “It was showing how we were all heading towards this cliff edge,” referring to a shortfall of $175 million that needed to be addressed by 2020. A committed Tory, Ms. Smith initially embraced the calls for austerity, as did many in reliably Conservative Northamptonshire, noting: “Being a Conservative-run Council, everybody accepted that the country had been overspending and that it was time to scale all of that back…At the time we will be spending millions on transformation we will be cutting frontline services. We should not be making a decision today. We need the detail.”

The fiscal pain, moreover, appears to be contagious: This week, all of the Councils in the county will have similar meetings, prior to submitting a plan for reorganization to James Brokenshire, the Minister responsible for local government. (Legally, only one Council needs to vote to back the plan for it to go to the Secretary of State for approval.)  

Reorganizing Governance. For its part, according to a report requested by the government, the Northamptonshire County Council should simply be abolished: the report, requested by Local Government Secretary Sajid Javid, recommends: Any “a new start” which is “best achieved by the creation of two new unitary councils,” in this case, this being a report which appeared to trigger the resignation of  Council Leader Heather Smith, while Northampton North Parliament Member Michael Ellis called the management of the authority a “national scandal.” He added he had been “appalled” by the report. KPMG , in its audit, warned the Council would have to re-work its FY2019 budget to make £40m worth of cuts. Max Caller, who led the government investigation, said Northamptonshire should have two new unitary authorities by 2020, one covering Daventry, Northampton, and South Northamptonshire; and the other covering Corby, East Northamptonshire, Kettering, and Wellingborough—meaning the County Council would cease to exist. Mr. Caller added that “living within budget constraints is not part of the culture” of the Council, noting it had not responded “well, or in many cases even react, to external and internal criticism,” noting that individual Councilors “appear to have been denied answers” to legitimate questions.

But he was also critical of the Council’s proposed Next Generation Model, under which the County would outsource all services and create four new bodies for: child protection, care of vulnerable adults, providing health and well-being services, and improving the county.

Intergovernmental Challenges. Deputy leader Matthew Golby, who is performing the functions of Council Leader prior to any formal appointment, said the authority accepted the findings the inspector has found with regard to “what he believes to be significant failings at the Council,” adding that while the report says the authority is “in no worse position than any other Council,” Northamptonshire’s leadership “would argue the sector as a whole does face significant financial challenges;” the leaders of Northamptonshire’s district and borough Councils issued a joint statement saying they “acknowledge the enormity of the situation,” but “do not believe a unitary model is the only way forward.”

Northamptonshire County Council’s financial crisis timeline: Funding from the central government for local governments has dropped 60% since 2010, reminiscent of the challenge confronting cities, counties, and states after Congress voted to end the General Revenue Sharing program during the Reagan Administration. According to the Local Government Association, those cuts are projected to total $21 billion by 2020. In response, nearly every Council in Britain has cut or outsourced services, sold off assets, and tried a host of budget gimmicks. Nevertheless, one in 10 of the larger Councils which have obligations to care for children and elderly people—about 35 Councils in all—are in danger of exhausting their reserves within the next three years, according to the National Audit Office—or, as Rob Whiteman, CEO of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, put it: “There’s a slow-moving domino effect,” meaning that Northamptonshire was likely just the first flashing red light. In nearby East Sussex County Council, run by Conservatives, the County recently announced it would reduce services to the “legal minimum,” while the Conservative-led county council in Somerset warned it might be facing bankruptcy.

The fiscal situation means the Northamptonshire Council, having run through its rainy-day funds, now has enough funding to finance only for mandatory services for the elderly and children. Barred by national law from running a deficit, the Council, last February, voted to shut down 21 of the county’s 36 libraries, remove bus subsidies and suspend road repairs. (A court recently blocked the decision to close the libraries.)

A Fiscal Cliff Foretold? The virtual chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy was anticipated by some, in what some deem the Graph of Doom, referring to a staff power point shown to the Northamptonshire Council five years ago, which depicted an unavoidable contradiction: a sharp, rising public demand for local services contrasting with a sharp cutback in funding from the national government, as part of the austerity program led by Conservatives in London—or, as Senior Counselor at the time Ms. Smith noted: “It was showing how we were all heading towards this cliff edge,” a fiscal precipice of $175 million that needed to be addressed by 2020. A committed Tory, Ms. Smith initially embraced the calls for austerity, as did many in reliably Conservative Northamptonshire—or, as she put it: “Being a Conservative-run Council, everybody accepted that the country had been overspending and that it was time to scale all of that back.” The problem, however, was how. The Council needed to find huge savings, but it also had limited revenue sources. Raising taxes was ruled out: deemed ideologically unpalatable while the Conservatives were making austerity-related cutbacks. Eric Pickles, the government minister who oversaw local government financing between 2010 and 2015, said it was a “moral duty” for the Tories to keep local taxes low, noting: “Some Conservative Councils had a big fight over it, and said, ‘No, we’re not doing it,’ ” Ms. Smith said. Indeed, before declaring bankruptcy, Northamptonshire took the desperate step of selling and leasing back a $70 million headquarters building it opened in October.

Last February, the Council recognized the depth of its fiscal plight and issued a formal notification of de facto municipal bankruptcy. In response, Conservative leaders in London dispatched government inspectors—inspectors who, last March, issued a damning report: Max Caller, the chief inspector who wrote the report, said that the County Council’s troubles were self-inflicted and that the Next Gen approach did not have any “documented underpinning” that set out how it was expected to deliver savings. In an interview, Inspector Caller noted: “The things that they did were unwise: You could say that they didn’t want to face up to the challenges of austerity, but all the other councils have.” According to his findings, Northamptonshire overspent by $130 million over three years, but took no steps to rein in expenditures—or, as he put it: “Everything has been a waste of money…You can’t go year after year holding down taxation rates at local level and taking the money away and expecting the same level of service. That’s not possible.”

This year, the British government announced some new financial aid for councils, including about $200 million for adult social services. Nevertheless, according to some experts, local Councils are still confronted by a $4 billion funding hole. In response, according to an annual government survey of Council leaders, an overwhelming majority of county councils across England plan to raise council tax, their levy on homes, and 5.99% this year— the maximum the central government will allow. Many have also said they would like to raise business rates, a move the central government is still rejecting.

Prior to declaring municipal bankruptcy, Northamptonshire had taken the desperate step of selling and leasing back a $70 million headquarters building it opened in October—a step which drew withering public ridicule—and instead of helping, appeared to prompt the arrival of national government inspectors. According to officials, Northamptonshire’s fiscal plight was clear from the moment the national government began to pull back on grants to local authorities. What appeared to stun local elected leaders was that a Conservative national government would allow a local government to slide into bankruptcy, or, as former Councilor Smith put it: “I honestly believed that the government would not let us sink because we were a Conservative authority…But I was wrong. They were quite happy to just throw us out and annihilate us, really.”

Last month, the Northamptonshire Council issued a §114 notice which banned any new expenditure of public money, a critical step as the jurisdiction seeks to achieve $90 million in budget savings this year; the Council voted to shut down most of the county’s libraries, after, in recent years, closing local centers for children and sharply reduced educational funding. The fiscal action that appeared to most shake the public was the vote to shut down the libraries. Conservative Councilor Sam Rumens noted: “I couldn’t face the libraries being cut.”