March 5, 2018
Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the Steel City’s long road back to fiscal recovery after 14 years of state fiscal oversight.
Is the Steel City Back? Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto hails: “Pittsburgh is back!” The great American steel city, the subject of our Center’s report years ago, “The Great Challenge Facing America’s Cities,” in which we described the fiscal challenges of Detroit, Chicago, San Bernardino, Calif., Pittsburgh, Providence, R.I. and Baltimore to provide insights for municipalities that may face financial struggles in the future, has emerged from more than a decade of state oversight. The Mayor’s exaltation comes in the wake of Gov. Tom Wolf’s declaration that the Steel City has become the state’s second municipality to emerge from Pennsylvania’s Act 47 program, enabling the Mayor to exult “We are now a city that is financially solvent. We’ve changed our habits and we have safeguards in place to assure we won’t fall into our previous bad habits.” The road back from the precipice of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy involved laying off nearly 500 employees, including 100 police officers, the closure of recreation centers, and the elimination of key municipal services, including mounted police patrols to saltboxes. The Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority (ICA), which has been the supervisory authority for the state, has asked the city for $37,000 to help pay off outstanding bills, and is seeking legislative approval to terminate its operations; the authority is also marking this final chapter by taking steps to dissolve itself, ending fourteen years as the state created fiscal oversight agency, together with the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development to help Pittsburgh avoid chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy—together with the state’s so-called Act 47 coordinators, who, last November, had recommended the city’s release from state oversight since December of 2003). The Authority’s Chair, B.J. Leber, noted: “No. 1, Act 47 is going away: It just doesn’t make sense for us to exist beyond Act 47, either from a logistical standpoint or a community-needs standpoint.”
Exiting state oversight, as we have observed in neighboring New Jersey, is not easily accomplished: the Steel City has been under state oversight ; thus, at least one ICA board member disagrees that Pittsburgh is ready to leave fiscal oversight: Michael Danovitz, the ICA’s longest-serving board member, said the city has not demonstrated a pattern of consistently paying into underfunded employee pension plans, noting: “I don’t believe the work of the ICA is done…This was the first year where they put in enough money to match the outflow of the pensions. One year doesn’t make a pattern.” Last year, Mayor Peduto’s administration had pledged pension payments of $232 million more than state minimums as part of a five-year spending plan approved by the ICA and the state’s Act 47 team. (Under Pennsylvania law, the ICA must remain in place until the later of Act 47 oversight ending or June 30, 2019): Chair Leber said the ICA board has asked the Legislature to amend the law so it can end at the same time as Act 47.
Unlike in the neighboring Garden State, Pittsburgh’s intergovernmental relationship with the state has been much more harmonious: Finance Director Sam Ashbaugh praised the ICA: “We’ve had a very productive and effective working relationship with the new board since they’ve been in place: I think they recognize the financial improvements that the city has enacted.” Yet, even though Pittsburgh is still able to finance its capital budget via its reserve fund, which is in no danger of running out, it still confronts both capital budget and pension challenges, including the priority of finding a long-term solution for dealing with landslides—or, as the Mayor put it: “We came to realize that there were no quick fixes, and we had run out of borrowing room…for us, being in Act 47 for 14 years, meant making difficult decisions to become financially solvent. It definitely had its costs: Our workforce took it on the chin, going without pay raises, and our infrastructure suffered without our ability to borrow,” adding: “We were still in the throes of pension liability.” If anything, the fiscal challenge is made greater by the demographic reality: the city’s population has dropped from 700,000 in 1960 to about 304,000 today.
Measuring State Fiscal Recovery Oversight. Pennsylvania’s fiscal oversight program has shown a mixed picture: the municipality of Aliquippa, just over 21 miles from Pittsburgh, has been under Act 47 for 30 years; it is currently on its sixth recovery program: like Scranton and Chester, which joined in 1992 and 1995, respectively, the success record is mixed, or, as Villanova Professor David Fiorenza put it: “The program was successful for Pittsburgh, especially if I compare it to cities such as Chester.” Approximately 30% of the Act 47 municipalities have been from the Allegheny area.
Pittsburgh’s 2014 fiscal recovery plan had proposed the elimination of operating deficits in the baseline multi-year financial projection, while preserving basic services, in order to avoid the necessity for cash-flow borrowings; the plan also focused on buffering against unanticipated revenue shortfalls or expenditure increases. The fiscal plan sought to gradually reduce the city’s debt in order to: provide greater fiscal capacity to finance daily operations; direct more funding to the city’s capital budget, with priority to roads, bridges, police and fire stations and other core infrastructure; and gradually increase pension fund contributions to actuarially recommended levels. As of the end of 2016, the city’s unassigned fund balance was 17.7% of its operating expenditures, higher than the 16.7% level the Government Finance Officers Association recommends. Pittsburgh two years ago refined its revenue forecasting methods and began subscribing to an external data analytics firm, through which the city receives city and county-level economic indicators including non-farm wages, gross county product, retail sales, and city employment throughout the year. Moody’s rates the city’s general obligation bonds A1. Fitch Ratings and S&P rate them AA-minus and A-plus, respectively. Moody’s unmoodily notes: “Pittsburgh has a favorable credit position, given strong financial results through fiscal 2016.” Or, as the Mayor puts it: “We are now a city that is financially solvent. We’ve changed our habits.”
That does not, however, mean the city’s leaders can rest: the city’s fund balance as a percent of operating revenues (18.4%) falls short of the U.S. median for the rating category (32%), according to Moody’s, although Moody’s reports the fund balance has improved considerably since 2012; nevertheless, the credit rating agency notes that Pittsburgh’s debt and pension liabilities are “somewhat elevated.” The recovery also comes with new fiscal challenges: the Steel City’s police union is demanding the city renegotiate its current agreement, retroactive to 2015, with FOP President Robert Swartzwelder citing a contract provision which authorizes renegotiations in the wake of Act 47 oversight—a factor which the Mayor notes he expects to “happen with all the unions.” That is, recovery brings its own fiscal challenges—including on the capital front—which, for a municipality, like Rome, of hills and rivers, means budgeting for the capital and maintenance costs of some 450 bridges. The Mayor’s proposed FY2018 budget and five-year plan assumes the city would issue $60 million a year in new debt beginning next year to fund capital projects—part of an aggressive fiscal effort to reduce out-year debt service by FY2022 below the 12% target in the debt policy (The Steel City’s debt policy requires contracting with an independent financial advisor when issuing debt; issuing debt only for capital projects included in the capital program; it limits usage of tax revenue anticipation notes; limits its tax-supported debt service to 17% of general fund revenues; and establishes a 10-year goal of reducing this ratio to 12%.)
An Amazonian Fiscal Future? The former steel city has become, today, a center of higher ed: there are ten universities within the city limits, while the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and Highmark anchor a thriving healthcare industry. Amazon, Google, and Uber, among other companies, have added jobs in the region. Pittsburgh remains in the competition to secure Amazon’s second world headquarters, in no small part in the wake of its focus on arts and culture with a 14-block district which encompasses restaurants, retail shops, art galleries, public parks with art installations and many theaters.