The Fiscal & Legal Challenges of Smaller Municipalities

eBlog

March 28, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing fiscal, physical, intergovernmental, and legal challenges to Flint, Michigan—as too many parties seek to plead innocent to state actions, which have wreaked such devastating fiscal and physical costs. Then we head east to one of the nation’s oldest municipalities, Bristol, Virginia, which appears to be on the precipice of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy.

Fiscal Fraud & Unfiscal Federalism? Andy Arena, the FBI Detroit office’s former director, and lead investigator into the City of Flint’s water crisis, this week testified before the Michigan Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on General Government that he has launched a new probe amid allegations of “financial fraud” and “greed” as critical factor behind the fateful decision years ago to switch the city’s water source, stating: “Without getting too far into depth, we believe there was a significant financial fraud that drove this,” adding that the alleged scheme benefited “individuals.” Or, as he testified: “I believe greed drove this.”

His testimony came as Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette continued the investigation he started in the wake of Gov. Rick Snyder’s declaration, two years ago, of a state of emergency in the wake of the severe and life threatening lead water contamination, as the criminal probe, which has already led to charges against 15 local and state officials—charges resulting in four plea deals and preliminary exams involving six defendants, including state Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon and Chief Medical Executive Eden Wells continue. Now, the investigation is focusing on the potential motivation behind the decision to switch the City of Flint from the Detroit area water system to the new Karegnondi Water Authority—a decision which, when Flint opted to join the regional authority, had terminated its arrangement with the Detroit water system and opened the fateful portals to drawing water from the Flint River as an interim source, e.g. the dreadful step which resulted in contaminated drinking water and calamitous drops in assessed property values—not to mention grave governing questions with regard to the culpability of state appointed emergency managers preempting local elected leaders. (Within 17 months, the decision, made while the city was run by state-appointed emergency managers, was reversed after outbreaks of Legionnaires’ and increased levels of bacteria, total trihalomethanes and lead were found in water. Five years ago, in March, Flint’s City Council members voted 7-1 to join a new regional provider, rather than remain a customer with the Detroit system—as it had for decades. Three days earlier, Flint Emergency Manager Ed Kurtz had approved the agreement, notwithstanding then-State Treasurer Andy Dillon’s skepticism with regard to whether the new regional authority made financial sense.).

Last week, when Sen. Mike Nofs (R-Battle Creek) asked whether the probe involved local, state, and federal entities, Mr. Arena responded: “It kind of cuts across all lines right now…I don’t know that they were working so much in concert, but the end game was people were trying to make money in different ways.” He reiterated that his FBI team has been heading the Flint criminal investigation for more than two years; however, he testified he was uncertain when it might end, adding: “We’re moving at lightning speed…I can assure everyone here that we are working as quickly as we possibly can: Our bottom line is we want justice for the people of Flint, and we have to do that methodically.” Unsurprisingly, he did not detail what “justice” might mean: would it mean reparations for the fiscally and physically devastated city and its taxpayers?

The case, as we have previously written, commenced after the Governor, five years’ ago, preempted all municipal authority via the appointment of Ed Kurtz as the city’s Emergency Manager, effectively preempting any municipal authority for the brewing fiscal, physical, and health catastrophe; Mr. Kurtz, in this preemptive capacity then signed off on the fateful order in June of 2013 to allow the “upgrading of the Flint Water Plant to ready it to treat water from the Flint River to serve as the primary drinking water source for approximately two years and then converting to KWA delivered lake water,” a source which the city used from April of 2014 until October 2015, when the city was reverted to the Detroit system in the wake of an outbreak of Legionnaires’ cases and evidence of elevated levels of lead in the city’s children—a most ill omen, as it signaled to parents the prohibitive cost of health and safety to continue to reside in the city—and the unlikelihood of any ability to sell their homes at any kind of a reasonable price. Mayhap worse, last October, a federal judge dismissed objections by Flint’s City Council and paved the way for Flint officials to move forward with a long-term contract with the Detroit area Great Lakes Water Authority—a position supported by Mayor Karen Weaver as vital to avert chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. Thus, Mayor Weaver, Gov. Snyder, and the EPA supported a proposed 30-year agreement with the Great Lakes Water Authority—a position on which the Flint City Council did not agree—leading to a successful suit by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to compel approval of the agreement.

Concurrently, in a related trial on these physical and fiscal event, before a Genesee District Court Judge in a trial where the state’s Chief Medical Officer has been charged with crimes related to the Flint water crisis, a researcher, Virginia Tech Professor Marc Edwards, testified before Genesee District Court Judge William Crawford yesterday that Dr. Eden Wells had sought to “get to the truth of the matter,” and that had seen no evidence of Dr. Wells having committed crimes during her preliminary examination on potential charges including involuntary manslaughter.(Prosecutors charge that Dr. Wells, a member of Gov. Snyder’s cabinet, failed to protect the health and welfare of Flint area residents, including victims of Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks in the Flint area while the city used the Flint River as its water source in parts of 2014 and 2015: Dr, Wells is charged with attempting to withhold funding for programs designed to help the victims of the water crisis and with lying to an investigator about material facts related to a Flint investigation by the Michigan Attorney General’s Office.) 

Professor Edwards is among those who believe that Flint’s switch to river water without proper treatment to make it less corrosive triggered both elevated lead and increased Legionella bacteria in large buildings in Flint at the time, adding that he disagreed with the approach taken by the Flint Area Community Health and Environment Partnership, which contracted with the state to find the root cause of the Legionella outbreaks, which officials have reported lead to the deaths of at least a dozen people in Genesee County while the river was in use. Thus, Professor Edwards notes, instead of focusing on the potential for the bacteria in water filters, state fiscal resources would have been put to better use if directed to investigate cases tied to large buildings, particularly hospitals, where his own testing showed very high levels were present. Moreover, in response to the query whether Dr. Wells did anything to discourage his research, Prof. Edwards responded: “To the contrary. She seemed interested, and she encouraged it.”

The Fiscally Desperate State of a Small Municipality. Far to the east of Flint, in one of the nation’s oldest municipalities, Bristol, Virginia, a municipality which, in 1880, had a population of 1,562—a population which gradually grew to 19,042 in 1980, before waning to 16,060 by 2016. The area of what is, today, Bristol, was once inhabited by early Americans, Cherokee Indians, with the name, according to legend, because numerous deer and buffalo met there to feast in the canebrakes; it was subsequently renamed the site Sapling Grove, and then, in 1890, finally settled upon as Bristol. It used to have a fort on a hill overlooking what is now downtown Bristol: it marked an important stopping-off place for notables, including Daniel Boone and George Rogers Clark, as well as hundreds of pioneers, who found Bristol, a former trading post, way station, and stockade, to be a cornerstone to opening up a young nation to the West.  Now, a Virginia Auditor of Public Accounts (APA) new report has found the municipality may require state fiscal assistance to address its significant debt tied to The Falls development and landfill operations—having, at the end of last week, in its fiscal distress monitoring report of local governments, assessed the small city as scoring poorly on a set of financial metrics, including debt overload, cash flow issues, revenue shortfalls, deficit spending, billing issues, and a lack of qualified staff. The small municipality today has a median household income of $27,389. Approximately 13.2% of families and 16.2% of the population fall below federal poverty levels–including 25.8% of those under age 18. The Auditor’s report notes: “During follow-up with the City of Bristol, we observed two primary issues that we concluded are contributing to a situation of fiscal distress at the city: issues specific to the operational sustainability of its solid waste disposal fund and the debt and future revenues related to The Falls commercial development project,” positions which Bristol City Manager Randy Eads noted “exactly” portrayed the city’s financial problems, as opposed to preliminary findings released last year which included some incorrect information. Specific findings found that the city does not have unrestricted reserves to use for a revenue shortfall or unforeseen situations, and that the city is not in the “most desirable” position to meet its fiscal obligations without obtaining additional revenues.

As part of the report, the APA issued written notification to Gov. Ralph Northam, the General Assembly’s money committees, the Secretary of Finance, and city officials detailing these specific issues and recommending that Bristol may warrant further assistance from the state to help assess and stabilize areas of concern—with such potential state assistance including an independent consultant reviewing the viability of landfill operations and developing long-range financial forecasts for revenue—each items sought by the city. Or, as Manager Eads noted: “That’s something we requested from the APA. It’s our understanding there’s $500,000 the state has set aside to help low-scoring localities with some of their financial issues…We requested funds for a detailed financial analysis of the landfill and requested funds for a financial planning firm to help us with a three-, five- and 10-year financial forecast.” Manager Eads reports he plans to meet with Virginia legislators to seek support. Bristol’s solid waste fund has $33.5 million in long-term bond debt; the municipality’s general fund continues to transfer funds to pay bills, according to the report. The report notes that city officials completed a significant refinancing of all short-term debt earlier this year; however, debt remains a challenge: “However, the city’s increasing debt service costs continue to be a concerning factor, as Bristol’s ability to pay the debt service will be contingent upon sufficient future revenues received from The Falls project,” according to the report. The auditor’s office notes the city is entitled to additional sales tax revenues under provision of a state law, but notes “Bristol continues to experience some uncertainty with its long-term revenue stream and future growth after all phases of The Falls project are implemented.”

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