Investing in Fiscal & Human Futures

June 11, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the issue of keeping Puerto Rico’s schools open in the face of quasi municipal bankruptcy; then we veer north to assess post-state taken over Atlantic City: What Are the City’s Fiscal Odds for Its Future?  

The Governance Challenge for Schools and Demographic Changes. Puerto Rico Superior Court Judge Santiago Cordero Osorio has ordered the suspension of the closure of three of the U.S. territory’s schools in Morovis, pending an explanation from Secretary of Education Julia Keleher of the reasoning behind her orders. His ruling came as part of a lawsuit brought by the Municipality of Morovis challenging the closures of Alverio Pimentel, Manuel Alonso Díaz, and the Second David Colón Vega schools—and in the wake of the Judge’s earlier decisions ordering the closure of six other schools in the Arecibo region—closures also being challenged by the Teachers’ Association. In his order, Judge Osorio noted that all these claims will be evaluated in a court hearing scheduled for this morning—one to which he has invited the Secretary of Education or a representative to attend, noting: “This Court appreciates and recapitulates that the State must come prepared to justify in accordance with its regulations the closure, not only of the schools subject to this interdict, but of all the schools of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico that the Department of Education has under its jurisdiction, and that it pretends according to the regulation to close.”

For his part, Mayor Carmen Maldonado of Morovis explained the suit was filed in the wake of a non-response to her request for a meeting with Secretary Keleher, stating, in a press release: “Today we are taking an important step in the defense of public education for Moroveño children. To all parents, principals, teachers and school staff, I invite you to attend that hearing on Monday at the Arecibo Court, so that together we can continue to fight to keep schools open. As I assured them in the many meetings we had, although the power is in the hands of the central government, the reason is on our side and we are going to defend that reason. The fiscal and governance challenge-as we had experienced in Detroit’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, is a state versus local authority issue. Indeed, as the Department’s legal division stated: “The opening and closing of the schools is under the authority of the Secretary of Education and this is established by Law 85 of 2018 (Law on Educational Reform).”

The Rebirth of an Iconic American City?  Victor Fiorillo, writing in the Philadelphia Magazine, asked in his article, “The Re-Re-Re-Birth of Atlantic City,” what if everyone was wrong about the fiscal implications of the closure of the city’s famed casinos. Writing that Atlantic City had first drawn him in about 15 years ago with the opening of the Borgata Casino—at a time when “most other casinos in Atlantic City were in various stages of decay, and here was this brand-new Vegas-style resort with casino restaurants that were actually good and the best shows in town.” But he also noted that, back then, it was really a family focus: “My wife and I spend as much of the summer as possible on the A.C. beach with our 10-year-old and 12-year-old, opting for the relative solitude of the town’s southern end, far from any casinos or bars.” But in revisiting the municipality today, he noted he is not one of the only “believers in Atlantic City,” noting there are “some surprising signs of life these days, not to mention some serious investment—from small ventures, like Longacre’s projects, to big bets like Stockton University’s new beachfront campus and this month’s opening of the $550 million Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in the old Trump Taj Mahal.

Betting on the City’s Future. Mr. Fiorillo then turned to the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing sports gambling, noting: “There’s more money pouring into A.C. right now than in all of Philadelphia,” according to development mogul Bart Blatstein, but, as with gambling, quoting Temple Professor Bryant Simon, author of 2004’s Boardwalk of Dreams: Atlantic City and the Fate of Urban America: “Atlantic City has risen and fallen innumerable times: “This is the story that has been told for a hundred years.” He added: “The irony, of course, is that this new resurgence is happening just a few short years after nearly half the city’s casinos went under, thousands of jobs disappeared, and Atlantic City itself seemed to be left for dead. Then again, maybe there’s no irony here at all. Maybe this more organic, up-from-the-ground rebirth of Atlantic City is exactly the kind of action that could mean sustained success for the city by the sea.”

Leaving on a Jet Plane. Mr. Fiorillo examined the city’s road to its state takeover from a non-fiscal perspective, writing: “It was right around this time that Atlantic City began to fade. Dissertations and books have been written about the many factors that led to the resort’s demise in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but a big one was the sudden ease of jet travel. You could get on a plane after breakfast and be on a beach in Miami for lunch. Atlantic City? Pfft. The Shore town began to disintegrate. By the mid-’70s, the city found itself at a pivotal crossroads. It could do nothing, ride out the downward trend, and see what happened. Or it could come up with some novel and wholly artificial way to inject new life into itself. It opted for the latter, betting that gambling would be Atlantic City’s salvation. Until that point, Nevada was the only place in the United States where you could open up a full-fledged casino. But in 1976, New Jersey citizens voted to make slots and table games legit in Atlantic City. The first casino, Resorts—which just turned 40 and is still standing — opened less than two years later.”

Noting that, for a time, business was booming, he credited Atlantic City’s casinos for bringing hundreds of millions of tourists to the Boardwalk during Atlantic City’s gambling heyday” “Some years, this city of 40,000 residents topped 34 million tourists. But outside the casino walls, the city struggled. The casino owners—including, for a time, Donald Trump—got fat, politicians got their kickbacks, and the impoverished residents of Atlantic City remained just that: And then everything went wrong. The new Atlantic City created in the late 1970s was premised almost entirely on maintaining a casino duopoly with Nevada; once casinos started popping up all over—including in Pennsylvania in 2006—Atlantic City imploded.”

Noting, as we have traced, the city’s fiscal nadir came to a head in January of 2014, when the Atlantic Club, which had opened as the Golden Nugget in 1980, collapsed, followed by Showboat, followed by the Revel, followed shortly thereafter by the Trump Plaza, noting: “Finally, in October 2016, one month before its namesake was elected to the Oval Office, the lights went out at Trump Taj Mahal. In just two and a half years, five casinos vanished, their cavernous buildings shuttered. Atlantic City had bottomed out economically in the most spectacular fashion possible.”

Tracing a Fiscal Turnaround. Writing that when assessed property values drop low enough, neighborhoods become more and affordable—and, ergo, more attractive to developers who could “pick up buildings for pennies on a dollar,” he noted that “Atlantic City suddenly became a risk worth taking”—adding: “Investing in Atlantic City now makes a lot more sense than it did five years ago, but it’s hardly a no-brainer. The city, with its 37% poverty rate) is overwhelmingly poor. Taxes are overwhelmingly high. And walking around on Atlantic or Pacific Avenue, the city’s two main north-south boulevards, which run parallel to and within blocks of the Boardwalk—can be nerve-racking after hours. In daylight, panhandlers accost and prostitutes solicit. Politically, things are hardly ideal: Then-governor Chris Christie instituted a state takeover in 2016.

John Longacre, who has acquired a reputation for building a business by spotting potential where others see potential disaster, and he works primarily in South Philadelphia, where he specializes in recovery projects that save buildings, convert seedy bars into trendy restaurants and turn vacant eyesores into neighborhood hubs, told Mr. Fiorillo: “Every bank in the region is terrified of Atlantic City.” Indeed, Mr. Longacre added: “If you look at the policy surrounding everything that exists in Atlantic City, it’s the perfect storm to keep investors out: From the state handling the zoning to the tax base to rent control, everything that happens from a policy level makes it seem like New Jersey is trying to make Atlantic City fail.” Nevertheless, he seems convinced the fabled city will not fail. Or, as Mr. Fiorillo described it, there are a new breed interested in the fabled city who likely will play an essential role in the city’s future: “It’s not about Aunt Edna and Uncle Fred and their casino bus trips anymore. It’s about younger people who aren’t into Atlantic City for the gambling. It’s about people who don’t just feel comfortable in but desire urban environments, with all their flaws and character. It’s about people who respect and require diversity. It’s about people like me and my wife, who, to be honest, cringe when we drive into a place like Avalon.”

Describing this fiscal and physical revival, he writes about the relationship of small projects complemented by large ones: “The Hard Rock Hotel is finally going to open on the Boardwalk later this month, where the Taj Mahal was until October 2016. Pottstown native Todd Moyer, senior vice president of marketing for this new outpost of the rock-and-roll-themed company, got his start in the casino business in 1990, when he worked as a tuxedoed greeter at, coincidentally, the Taj. I was working for Hard Rock out West, when I got the chance to come home: I jumped at it. Sometimes I would be at a bar or restaurant and hear people talking about Atlantic City being dead, and I’d jump in. I’m a defender and a giant supporter of A.C. We’re building hotels all around the world, but really, all the focus lately has been on Atlantic City.”

As for Mr. Longacre, his view is that he would “love for every casino to go out of business and see Atlantic City re-create itself without them, as an urban beach town.” Nevertheless, he believes there is one massive Atlantic City development which will be a game-changer: Stockton, the nearly 50-year-old public university, which has its main campus in Galloway Township, about 20 minutes from the Boardwalk: it is set to debut a brand-new beachfront Atlantic City campus this September, when one thousand students will use the campus, and many of them plan to live in town. Thus, he notes: “Stockton is huge. It’s the first real institutional investment in years that’s not a casino.”

Rolling the Fiscal Dice? As significant as these fiscal changes appear to be, they almost seem to pale against the city’s real world challenges: Atlantic City has a poverty level three times higher than the statewide rate: more than three times the number below the poverty level—and a disability rate among non-poor residents of just under 25%. In its rental housing, the percentage of residents below the federal poverty level is over 90%. A consequent governing challenge for the post-taken over city and the Garden State remains. Mr. Fiorillo notes that whether the gambles being made by Mr. Blatstein, Mr. Longacre, and others are successful remains to be seen—as does the question with regard to whether all the investment will put much of a dent in Atlantic City’s poverty rate or help the town’s current residents. He adds: “And it’s not going to be this summer or next summer when we find out who, if anyone, wins. Nevertheless, he wrote: “When I consider Point Breeze circa 2008 and that same area today, I have hope for this complicated Shore town. There will always be casinos here, for better or worse, and there will always be crime and poverty and grime. This is, after all, a city. But, 10 years from now, when my own kids are (I hope) in very good colleges, it’s not too hard to imagine us spending a summer weekend at some boutique hotel on New York Avenue. We’ll stop into the Boardwalk La Colombe for a draft latte, served up by a very hip-looking third-year Stockton student on break. For lunch, HipCityVeg down in the inlet. Happy hour will be at some John Longacre-owned brewpub overlooking the Atlantic.”

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Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

June 8, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the issue of unincorporated areas: what are the fiscal implications?

In many U.S. states, it’s not uncommon for homeowners to reside in what are known as “unincorporated” areas, meaning portions of the state or county that are not contained within the boundaries of an incorporated city, town, village or similar local governmental entity. From a municipal perspective, that means a community not governed by its own local municipal corporation, but rather is administered as part of larger governmental administrative division—such as a township, parish, borough, county, or city—governance entities which, depending upon the pertinent state laws, may file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, dissolve, disincorporate, or, as we noted in today’s eGnus, make even separate. Widespread unincorporated communities and areas are a distinguishing feature of both the U.S. and our neighbor Canada—but rare in any other countries around the globe. In fact, unincorporated areas are mostly found in this country in Texas—an enormous state, but which has the nation’s smallest municipality: McAllen, in Jim Hogg County, with a population of 6.

When it comes to unincorporated areas within states, Pennsylvania appears unique: it is, after all, the state with the greatest number of local governments or political subdivisions: the Census Bureau puts the number at 5,000—putting the state only behind Texas and Illinois; but maybe ranks it first in terms of imposing vast and conflicting arrays of taxes—taxes which, however, are imposed on shrinking tax bases. Indeed, the fiscal stress has reached such a point that the state’s House Urban Affairs Committee recently convened a public hearing on legislation intended to assist smaller municipalities mired in cycles of financial distress—threatened with insolvency absent outside assistance. House Bill 2122 would allow these communities, after gaining approval in a voter referendum, to dissolve themselves and have their functions absorbed by the county. The co-sponsors, Representatives Dom Costa and Harold English, offered the bill as a means they described to provide for the voluntary dissolution of municipal corporations (cities, boroughs, towns, & townships) within counties of the second class (Allegheny), and the substitution of an unincorporated districts as a new form of government to be administered by the county. Under the proposed legislation, the process of dissolution would be initiated by the governing body of the municipal corporation through passage of a non-binding resolution to engage in discussion with the county over a period of six months, during which time they would develop a proposed essential services-transition plan as part of an intergovernmental cooperation agreement.: such a plan would be subject to public meetings in the community and would have to be voted on by the governing body of the municipal corporation, as well as the County Council: should both the municipal corporation and county governing bodies approve said plan, a referendum would be scheduled—an election where, if approved by the voters, a six-month winding down of the affairs of the municipal corporation would begin. At the conclusion of such a period, an unincorporated district administered by the county would go into effect, and the essential services-transition plan would become an official ordinance of the county. That would entail significant powers to said county to administer and manage such a district; the county would also retain the tax levying power and authority to assess fees and service charges previously authorized to that particular class of municipal corporation. All taxes and fees levied within the service district would have to be used for the benefit of the district.

Finally, the bill provides for the potential merger and consolidation of the unincorporated district with another municipal corporation or would permit the district to re-incorporate itself as another type of municipal corporation in accordance with the existing municipal codes applicable to such entities.

They reported the legislation was carefully crafted with input from the staff of the bicameral/bipartisan Local Government Commission, confident that it represents a unique voluntary agreement between municipalities – one in which a given city, borough or township would be able to ensure a more efficient and effective delivery of services to their residents while retaining their municipal identity. 

Pennsylvania’s Department of Community and Economic Development administers Act 47, as we have previously noted, a program to help “distressed” communities as designated under the terms of the state’s Act 47, under which the state could ultimately take on the task of providing local services. However, it appears that Deputy Secretary for Community Affairs Rick Vilello, the department’s deputy secretary for community affairs and development, HB2122 might provide a better option, or, as he testified: “We’ve not timed out [on recovery options] on a community who we felt wasn’t ready to try to make it on their own…But we are fast approaching a time when several municipalities will time out. When municipalities time out, there are very few good solutions from that point forward. House Bill 2122 provides a potential solution for local leaders facing hard decisions and is a tool worth trying.” Secretary Vilello testified that to date, only 31 municipalities in the state had ever reached “distressed” status out of 2,560. Of those 31, nine were in Allegheny County.

The Secretary noted: “House Bill 2122 could be a life-preserver for communities that have been treading water for a very long time: Who knows, if it works in [Allegheny County], what would be possible next. House Bill 2122 is a tool for the elected officials and for the citizens of distressed municipalities to make a choice about their future.”

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald testified that the proposed legislation could be useful, not only to those communities whose finances have spiraled out of control, but also to those that have managed to avoid financial disaster by cutting essential services to minimal levels:  “Some of them, quite frankly, have not gone into Act 47…They just quit providing the services. They haven’t gone into the debt problem, but they haven’t provided the services their citizens have wanted. And what [residents have] basically been doing is voting with their feet. They’ve been leaving, [and] those municipalities have been shrinking in population.” The County Executive emphasized that the legislation could not lead to any municipality being dissolved against its will; similarly, he testified that no county could be forced to absorb a municipality against its will: both governments would have to agree to the terms of the disincorporation before it even went to the voters for approval.

Under the proposed legislation, the unincorporated community would retain some level of local governance through the establishment of a district advisory committee appointed by the county council. The advisory committee would hold open meetings in the former municipality and issue reports to the county on matters pertaining to local residents.

Nevertheless, Melissa Morgan, legislative and policy analyst for the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors, warned the proposed legislation would go too far in wresting local power and vesting it in a higher level of government, telling legislators her organization, which she said represents 1,454 townships in the state, opposes the passage of HB2122 or any other legislation that would allow for the dissolution of municipalities: “County government should not be given additional powers to administer unincorporated territory…Instead, the Legislature should consider relieving unfunded mandates for municipalities, such as those requiring benefits to uniform employees to help alleviate financial challenges.” County Executive Fitzgerald said he was in favor of the Legislature taking other steps such as those suggested by Ms. Morgan to ease the plight of struggling communities; however, he noted that HB2122 was also a good option to have on the books in case those other steps fail to provide relief: “It’s a voluntary program: It’s just giving people an option. And to me, that’s what democracy is about, giving people the choice. Right now, they don’t have that choice.”

The Fiscal Challenges of Inequity

May 15, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we return to the small municipality of Harvey, Illinois—a city fiscally transfixed between its pension and operating budget constraints in a state which does not provide authority for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy; then we turn east to assess Connecticut’s fiscal road to adjournment and what it might mean for its capital city of Hartford; before heading south to Puerto Rico where there might be too many fiscal cooks in the kitchen, both exacerbating the costs of restoring fiscal solvency, and exacerbating the outflow of higher income Americans from Puerto Rico to the mainland.

Absence of Fiscal Balance? After, nearly a decade ago, the Land of Lincoln—the State of Illinois—adopted its pension law as a means to ensure smaller municipalities would stop underfunding their public pension contributions—provisions which, as we noted in the case of the small municipality of Harvey, were upheld when a judge affirmed that the Illinois Comptroller was within the state law to withhold revenues due to the city—with the Comptroller’s office noting that whilst it did not “want to see any Harvey employees harmed or any Harvey residents put at risk…the law does not give the Comptroller discretion in this case: The Comptroller’s Office is obligated to follow the law. This dispute is between the retired Harvey police officers’ pension fund and the City of Harvey.” But in one of the nation’s largest metro regions—one derived from the 233 settlements there in 1900, the fiscal interdependency and role of the state may have grave fiscal consequences. As we previously noted, U. of Chicago researcher Amanda Kass found there are 74 police or fire pension funds in Illinois municipalities with unfunded pension liabilities similar to that of Harvey. Unsurprisingly, poverty is not equally distributed: so fiscal disparities within the metro region have consequences not just for municipal operating budgets, but also for meeting state constitutionally mandated public pension obligations.

Now, as fiscal disparities in the region grow, there is increasing pressure for the state to step in—it is, after all, one of the majority of states in the nation which does not authorize a municipality to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy: ergo, the fiscal and human challenge in the wake of the state’s enactment of its new statute which permits public pension funds to intercept local revenues to meet pension obligations; the state faces the governance and fiscal challenge of whether to provide for a state takeover—a governing action taken in the case of neighboring Michigan, where the state takeover had perilous health and fiscal consequences in Flint, but appeared to be the key for the remarkable fiscal turnaround in Detroit from the largest municipal chapter 9 bankruptcy in American history. Absent action by the Governor and state legislature, it would seem Illinois will need to adopt an early fiscal warning system of severe municipal fiscal distress—replete with a fiscal process for some means of state assistance or intervention. In Harvey, where Mayor Eric Kellogg has been banned for life from any role in the issuance of municipal debt because of the misleading of investors, the challenge for a city which has so under-budgeted for its public pension obligations, has defaulted on its municipal bond obligations, and provided virtually no fiscal disclosure; Illinois’ new state law (PL 96-1495), which permits public pension funds to compel Illinois’ Comptroller to withhold state tax revenue which would normally go to the city, which went into effect at the beginning of this calendar year, meant the city reasons did not take effect until January 2018. Now, in the wake of the city’s opting to lay off nearly half its police and fire force, the small municipality with the 7th highest violent crime rate in the state is in a fiscal Twilight Zone—and a zone transfixed in the midst of a hotly contested gubernatorial campaign in which neither candidate has yet to offer a meaningful fiscal option.  

Under Illinois’ Financial Distressed City Law ((65 ILCS 5/) Illinois Municipal Code) there are narrow criteria, including requirements that the municipality rank in the highest 5% of all cities in terms of the aggregate of the property tax levy paid while simultaneously in the lowest percentage of municipalities in terms of the tax collected. Under the provisions, the Illinois General Assembly would then need to pass a resolution declaring the city as fiscally distressed—a law used only once before in the state’s history—thirty-eight years ago for the City of East St. Louis. The statute, as we have previously noted, contains an additional quirk—disqualifying in this case: Illinois’ Local Government Financial Planning and Supervision Act mandates an entity must have a population of less than 25,000—putting Harvey, with its waning population measured at 24,947 as of 2016 somewhere with Rod Serling in the Twilight Zone. Absent state action, Harvey could be the first of a number of smaller Illinois municipalities unable to meet its public pension obligations—in response to which, the state would reduce revenues via intercepting local or municipal revenues—aggravating and accelerating municipal fiscal distress.

Capital for the Capitol. In a rare Saturday session, the Connecticut Senate passed legislation to enable the state to claw back emergency debt assistance for its capital city, Hartford, through aid cuts beginning in mid-2022, with a bipartisan 28-6 vote—forwarding the bill to the House and Gov. Dannel Malloy—as legislators raced to overwhelmingly approve a new state budget shortly before their midnight deadline Wednesday which would:  restore aid for towns; reverse health care cuts for the elderly, poor, and disabled; and defer a transportation crisis. The $20.86 billion package, which now moves to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s desk, does not increase taxes; it does raise the maximum tax rate cities and towns can levy on motor vehicles. In addition, the bill would spend rather than save more than $300 million from this April’s $1 billion surge in state income tax revenues. The final fiscal compromise does not include several major changes sought by Republicans to collective bargaining rules affecting state and municipal employees. And, even as the state’s fiscal finances are projected to face multi-billion-dollar deficits after the next election tied in part to legacy debt costs amassed over the last 80 years, the new budget would leave Connecticut with $1.1 billion in its emergency reserves: it will boost General Fund spending about 1.6 percent over the adopted budget for the current fiscal year, and is 1.1 percent higher than the preliminary 2018-19 budget lawmakers adopted last October. The budget also includes provisions intended to protect Connecticut households and businesses which might be confronted with higher federal tax obligations under the new federal tax law changes. Indeed, in the end, the action was remarkably bipartisan: the Senate passed the budget 36-0 after a mere 17 minutes of debate; the House debated only 20 minutes before voting 142-8 for adoption.

In addition to reacting to the new federal tax laws, the final fiscal actions also dealt with the sharp, negative reaction from voters in the wake of tightening  Medicare eligibility requirements for the Medicare Savings Program, which uses Medicaid funds to help low-income elderly and disabled patients cover premiums and medication costs—acting to postpone cutbacks to July 1st, even though it worsened a deficit in the current fiscal year, after learning an estimated 113,000 seniors and disabled residents would lose some or all assistance. As adopted, the new budget reverses all cutbacks, at a cost of approximately $130 million. Legislators also acted to restore some $12 million to reverse new restrictions on the Medicaid-funded health insurance program for poor adults, with advocates claiming this funding would enable approximately 13,500 adults from households earning between 155 and 138 percent of the federal poverty level to retain state-sponsored coverage.

State Aid to Connecticut Cities & Towns. Legislators also took a different approach with this budget regarding aid to cities and towns. After clashing with Gov. Malloy last November, when Gov. Malloy had been mandated by the legislature to achieve unprecedented savings after the budget was in force, including the reduction of $91 million from statutory grants to cities and towns; the new budget gives communities $70.5 million more in 2018-19 than they received this year—and bars the Governor from cutting town grants to achieve savings targets. As adopted, the fiscal package means that some municipalities in the state, cities and towns with the highest local tax rates, could be adversely impacted: the legislation raises the statewide cap on municipal property taxes from a maximum rate of 39 mills to 45 mills. On the other hand, the final legislation provides additional education and other funding for communities with large numbers of evacuees from Puerto Rico—dipping into a portion of last month’s $1.3 billion surge in state income tax receipts tied chiefly to capital gains and other investment income—and notwithstanding the state’s new revenue “volatility” cap which was established last fall to force Connecticut to save such funds. As adopted, the new state budget “carries forward” $299 million in resources earmarked for payments to hospitals this fiscal year—a fiscal action which means the state has an extra $299 million to spend in the next budget while simultaneously enlarging the outgoing fiscal year’s deficit by the same amount. (The new deficit for the outgoing fiscal year would be $686 million, which would be closed entirely with the dollars in the budget reserve—which is filled primarily with this spring’s income tax receipts.) The budget reserve is now projected to have between $700 million and $800 million on hand when the state completes its current fiscal year. That could be a fiscal issue, as it would leave Connecticut with a fiscal cushion of just under 6 percent of annual operating costs, a cushion which, while the state’s largest reserve since 2009, would still be far below the 15 percent level recommended by Comptroller Kevin P. Lembo—and, mayhap of greater fiscal concern, smaller than the projected deficits in the first two fiscal years after the November elections: according to Connecticut’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis, the newly adopted budget, absent adjustment, would run $2 billion in deficit in FY2019-20—a deficit that office projects would increase by more than 25 percent by FY2020-21, with the bulk of those deficits attributable both to surging retirement benefit costs stemming from decades of inadequate state savings, as well as the Connecticut economy’s sluggish recovery from the last recession.

As adopted, Connecticut’s new budget also retains and scales back a controversial plan to reinforce new state caps on spending and borrowing and other mechanisms designed to encourage better savings habits; it includes a new provision to transfer an extra $29 million in sales tax receipts next fiscal year to the Special Transportation Fund—designed in an effort to avert planned rail and transit fare increases—ergo, it does not establish tolls on state highways.

Reacting to Federal Tax Changes. The legislature approved a series of tax changes in response to new federal tax laws capping deductions for state and local taxes at $10,000: one provision would establish a new Pass-Through Entity Tax aimed at certain small businesses, such as limited liability corporations; a second provision allows municipalities to provide a property tax credit to taxpayers who make voluntary donations to a “community-supporting organization” approved by the municipality: under this provision, as an example, a household owing $7,000 in state income taxes and $6,000 in local property taxes could, in lieu of paying the property taxes, make a $6,000 contribution to a municipality’s charitable organization.

Impacts on Connecticut’s Municipalities. The bill would enable the state to reduce non-education aid to its capital city of Hartford by an amount equal to the debt deal. It would authorize the legislature to pare non-education grants to Hartford if the city’s deficit exceeds 2% of annual operating costs in a fiscal year, or a 1% gap for two straight year—albeit the legislature would be free to restore other funds—or, as Mayor Luke Bronin put it: “I fully understand respect legislators’ desire to revisit the agreement after five years.” Under the so-called contract assistance agreement, which Gov. Malloy, Connecticut State Treasurer Denise Nappier, and Mayor Luke Bronin signed in late March, the state would pay off the principal on the City of Hartford’s roughly $540 million of general obligation debt over 20 to 30 years. With Connecticut’s new Municipal Accountability Review Board, not dissimilar to the Michigan fiscal review Board for Detroit, having just approved Mayor Bronin’s five-year plan. In the wake of the legislative action, Mayor Bronin had warned that significant fiscal cuts in the out years could imperil the city at that time, albeit adding: “That said, I fully understand and respect legislators’ desire to revisit the agreement after five years, and my commitment is that we will continue to work hard to earn the confidence our the legislature and the state as a whole as we move our capital city in the right direction.”

Dying to Leave. While we have previously explored the departure of many young, college-educated Puerto Ricans to the mainland, depleting both municipio and the Puerto Rico treasuries of vital tax revenues, the Departamento of Salud (Health Department) reports that even though Puerto Rico’s population has declined by nearly 17% over the decade, the U.S. territory’s suicide rate has increased significantly, especially in the months immediately following Hurricane Maria, particularly among older adults, with social workers reporting that elderly people are especially vulnerable when their daily routines are disrupted for long periods. Part of the upsurge is demographically related: As those going have left for New York City, Florida, and other sites on the East Coast, it is older Americans left behind—many who went as long as six months without electricity, who appear to be at risk. Adrian Gonzalez, the COO (Chief Operating Officer at Castañer General Hospital in Castañer, a small town in the central mountains) noted: “We have elderly people who live alone, with no power, no water and very little food.” Dr. Angel Munoz, a clinical psychologist in Ponce, said people who care for older adults need to be trained to identify the warning signs of suicide: “Many of these elderly people either live alone or are being taken care of by neighbors.”

A Hot Potato of Municipal Debt. Under Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s proposed FY2019 General Fund budget, the Governor included no request to meet Puerto Rico’s debt, adding he intended not to follow the PROMESA Board’s directives in several parts of his budget—those debt obligations for Puerto Rico and its entities are in excess of $2.5 billion: last month’s projections by the Board certified a much higher amount of $3.84 billion. Matt Fabian of Municipal Market Analytics described it this way: “Bondholders have to wait until the Commonwealth makes a secured or otherwise legally protected provision to pay debt service before they can begin to (dis)count their chickens: The alternative, which is where we are today, is an assumption that debt service will be paid out of surplus funds. ‘Surplus funds’ haven’t happened in a decade and the storm has only made things worse: a better base case assumption is the Commonwealth spending every dollar of cash and credit at its disposal, regardless of what the budget says: That doesn’t leave much room for the payment of debt service and is good reason for bondholders to continue to litigate.” Under the PROMESA Board’s approved fiscal plan, Puerto Rico should have $1.13 billion in surplus funds available for debt service in FY2023—with the Board silent with regard to what percent the Gov. would be expected to dedicate to debt service. The Gov.’s budget request does seek nearly a 10% reduction for the general fund, with a statement from his office noting the proposal for operational expenditures of $7 billion is 6% less than that for the current fiscal year and 22% less than the final budget of former Gov. Alejandro García Padilla. The Governor proposed no reductions in pension benefits—indeed, it goes so far as to explicitly include that his budget does not follow the demands of the PROMESA Oversight Board for the proposed pension cuts, to enact new labor reforms, or to eliminate a long-standing Christmas bonus for government workers.

Nevertheless, PROMESA Board Executive Director Natalie Jaresko, appears optimistic that Gov. Ricardo Rosselló Nevares’s government will correct the “deficiencies” in the recommended budget without having to resort to litigation: while explaining the Board’s reasoning for rejecting the Governor’s proposed budget last week, Director Jaresko stressed that correcting the expenses and collections program, as well as implementing all the reforms contained in the fiscal plan, is necessary to channel the island’s economy and to promote transparency and accountability in the use of public funds, adding that approving a budget in accordance with the new certified fiscal plan is critical to achieve the renegotiation of Puerto Rico’s debt—adding that, should the Rosselló administration not do its part, the Board would proceed with what PROMESA establishes: “The fiscal plan is not a menu you can choose from.”

The Fiscal Challenges of Exiting from Fiscal Oversight

April 23, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we return to Michigan to assess the unbalanced state of its municipal public pension and post-retirement health care obligations, before turning to the state’s largest city, Detroit, which appears to be on the brink of earning freedom from state oversight—marking the remarkable fiscal exodus from the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in American history. Then we return to Puerto Rico, a territory plunged once again into darkness and an exorbitant and costly set of fiscal overseers. 

Imbalanced Fiscal Stress. In the Michigan Treasury Department’s first round of assessments under a new state law, the Treasury reported that 110 of 490 local units of government across the state are underfunded for retiree health care benefits, pension obligations‒or both. That number is expected to increase. Nineteen municipalities in Wayne County, including Allen Park, Dearborn and two of the five Grosse Pointes (Farms and Woods), are behind on their retiree health care funding, the state says, as well as six Wayne County jurisdictions, including Redford Township, Trenton, Wayne and Westland are underfunded on both, as are Hazel Park, Oak Park, and Madison Heights in Oakland County. The state fiscal oversight effort to highlight the expanding obligations competing for scarce taxpayer dollars in the state which is home to the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in American history, the result of the state’s “Protecting Local Government Retirement and Benefits Act,” Act 202, which was enacted last December, marks a pioneering effort to put tighter local data to detect and assess the likelihood of severe fiscal distress—kind of a municipal fiscal radar—or, as Michigan Deputy Treasurer Eric Scorsone, who is the designated head of the State and Local Finance Group,  describes it: “By working together, we can help ensure the benefits promised by communities are delivered to their retirees and help ensure that the fiscal health of communities allows them to be vibrant now and into the future,” Eric Scorsone, deputy state treasurer and head of Treasury’s State and Local Finance Group, put it: “This is just a start. One of the common denominators of the financial crisis has been legacy costs. We know this is a big liability out there”—and it continues to grow for current and retired public employees, as well as their counterparts in public schools, whose districts are not covered by the new state law. In an era featuring longer lifespans, the unfunded liability of the Michigan Public School Employees Retirement System totaled $29.1 billion, or 40.3 percent, at the end of FY2015-16—an aggregate number, the likes of which have not been previously available at the municipal level. Now, under the new statute, a municipality’s post-retirement health care plan is deemed underfunded if its assets are “less than 40 percent” of its obligations, or require annual contributions “greater than 12 percent” of a jurisdiction’s annual operating revenues. A pension plan is deemed underfunded if it is “less than 60 percent funded,” or its annual contributions are “greater than 10 percent” of annual operating revenues. The new state mandates require the state’s panoply of cities, villages, townships, counties, and county commissions to report pension and retiree health care finances by the end of January. (Municipalities whose books close later could be included in future lists.) The aim is to underline the fiscal need to local elected leaders to do something the federal government simply does not do: reconcile reconciling long-term obligations with current contributions and recurring revenue—that is, not only adopt annual balanced budgets, but also longer term. The new state law, an outgrowth of the Responsible Retiree Reform for Local Government Task Force, is intended to enhance transparency and community awareness of local government finance, as well as to emphasize that failure to account for such obligations could negatively impact municipal bond ratings—effectively raising the costs of capital infrastructure. Indeed, as East Lansing City Manager George Lahanas stated last week, “The city’s pension plan was 80 percent funded in 2003 and is 50 percent funded today…The city has implemented numerous cost-controlling measures over the years to address the legacy cost challenges…City officials have identified that more aggressive payments need to be made moving forward to further address the challenges.”

Nevertheless, in one of the very few states which still try to address municipal fiscal disparities, the Michigan Senate General Government subcommittee met last week and reported (Senate Bill 855) its budget recommendations, including for revenue sharing, the subcommittee matched the Governor’s recommendation, which eliminate the 2.5% increase cities, villages, and townships received this year—a cut, ergo, of some $6.2 million for FY2019; the Senate version retained the counties current year 1% increase (which the Governor had also recommended removing) and added another 1% to the county revenue sharing line item—with the accompanying report language noting the increase was intended to ensure “fairness and stability” across local unit types, since counties do not receive Constitutional revenue sharing payments.  Estimates for sales tax growth related to Constitutional payments anticipate an additional 3.1% next year for cities, villages, and townships, distributed on a per capita basis. 

Moving into the Passing Lane? The Legislature’s actions came as the Detroit Financial Review Commission has approved the Motor City’s Four-Year Financial Plan, setting the stage for the city’s exit from direct state supervision as early as this month, enabling the city with the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history to glimpse the possibility of exiting state oversight—or, as Detroit CFO John Hill put it:  “Today’s FRC approval of the City’s 2019 budget and plan for fiscal years 2020-2022, is another key milestone in the city’s financial recovery: It demonstrates the continued commitment of city leaders to prepare and enact budgets that are realistic and balanced now and into the future. It also demonstrates continued progress toward the waiver of active State oversight, which we expect will occur later this month.” The Commission is scheduled to meet at the end of this month for a vote to end state fiscal oversight, albeit the Commission would remain in existence, so that it could be jump started in the event of any reversal in the city’s fiscal comeback. Thus, Mr. Hill said there would likely be a memorandum of understanding between Detroit and the Commission to lay out the kinds of information the city would need to provide to the Commission for review, as he noted: “They still can at any time decide to change the waiver, although we hope and will make sure that doesn’t happen.” Mr. Hill noted that the now approved financial plan includes Mayor Mike Duggan’s budget for FY2019, as well as fiscal years 2020-2022—and that the Motor City now projects ending the current fiscal year with an operating surplus of $33 million: that would mark Detroit’s fourth consecutive municipal budget surplus since exiting from the nation’s largest ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. He also noted that, as provided for under the city’s plan of debt adjustment, Detroit continues to put aside funds to address the city’s higher-than-expected pension payments, payments starting in 2024, when annual payments of at least $143 million begin. Payments of $20 million run through 2019 with no payments then due through 2023.

Unbalanced Budgets & Power–& Justice. Although they are still evaluating the impact that a new reduction of their budget would have, Puerto Rico’s Judicial Branch has expressed apprehension with regard to the PROMESA Board’s imposed cuts, with Sigfredo Steidel Figueroa, Puerto Rico’s Director of the Office of Court Administration, expressing apprehension: “At the moment, we are evaluating the impact that the proposals of the Fiscal Oversight Board, contained in the fiscal plan published yesterday, could have on the Judicial Branch,” referring to the Board certified plan of staggered cuts for the Judiciary—cuts of $31.9 million, rising to a cut of $161.9 million by 2023. He noted: “In the light of the measures already taken, any proposal for additional reduction to our budget is a matter of concern. Therefore, we will remain vigilant to ensure that the Judicial Branch has the resources it needs to ensure its efficiency and that any budgetary measures taken do not affect the quality of judicial services and the access to justice that corresponds to all the citizens and residents of Puerto Rico,” as he stressed that, “At present, even with the budgetary limitations of recent years, the Judicial Branch has managed to draw and execute the work plan defined by the presiding judge, Maite D. Oronoz Rodríguez, for an increasingly more judicial administration—one of efficiency, transparency, and accessibility.” He added:An independent and robust judiciary is essential to guarantee the legal security necessary for the stability and economic development of Puerto Rico.”

PROMESA Board Chair Jose Carrion, at the end of last week, issued a warning: “We hope the government and the legislature will comply. We don’t want to sue the government, but we have to fulfill the duties that we understand the law gives us.” That is to write that in this fiscal governance Rod Serling Twilight Zone, somewhere between chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy and hegemony; there is an ongoing question with regard to sovereignty, autonomy, and, as they would say in Puerto Rico, al fin (in the end): who is ultimately responsible for making decisions in Puerto Rico? We have a federal, quasi U.S. bankruptcy judge, a federal oversight board, a Governor, and a legislature—with only the latter two representing the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico.

And now, in the midst of a 21st century exodus of the young and educated to Florida and New York, it appears that banks are joining this exodus—threating, potentially, to further not only isolate Puerto Rico’s financial system—a system in which the number of consumer banks has dropped by half over the past decade, and in which two of the largest, Bank of Nova Scotia and Bank of Santander SA, have been quietly shrinking—the challenge of governance and fiscal recovery as Puerto Rico seeks to emerge from recession and rebuild after last year’s Hurricane Maria, a small number of financial institutions could end up in charge of deposits and lending for its 3 million citizens. Poplar, Inc., First Bancorp/Puerto Rico, and OFG Bancorp, are cash rich and have many branches, but these financial institutions appear to have limited ability to facilitate trade beyond the Caribbean and Florida—and, as economist Antonio Fernos of the Interamerican University of Puerto Rico notes: “What would really be negative is if we lose access to the network of international banks.” The U.S. territory, once was an attractive place for banks to invest, with pharmaceutical manufacturing driving growth, meant that financial institutions entered and opened what had been scarce financing for everything from homes and cars to consumer electronics. However, as Congress changed the rules which had incentivized pharmaceutical companies to locate there—and as Congress moved to make it more attractive to provide shipping to other Caribbean nations, rather than the U.S. territory, many drug companies departed. Today, in the wake of a decade-long recession, Puerto Rico’s economy is 14% smaller, and the emigration of college graduates to the mainland appears to have accelerated—leaving behind the elderly and those who could not afford to leave—increasing a crushing public pension burden, while imposing greater fiscal burdens to serve an increasingly elderly and poor population left behind—and left with over $120 billion in debt and pension liabilities, and now, in then wake of Maria’s devastation, a spike in mortgage delinquency.

Human, Fiscal, & Physical Challenges

April 20, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we return to Flint, Michigan to assess its human and fiscal challenges in the wake of its exit from state receivership; then we return to Puerto Rico, a territory plunged once again into darkness and an exorbitant and costly set of fiscal overseers. 

Out Like Flint. Serious fiscal challenges remain for Flint, Michigan, after its exit from state financial receivership. Those challenges include employee retirement funding and the aging, corroded pipes that caused its drinking water crisis, according to Mary Schulz, associate director for Michigan State University’s Extension Center for Local Government Finance and Policy. In the public pension challenge, Michigan’s statute enacted last year mandates that the state’s municipalities report underfunded retirement benefits. That meant, in the wake of Flint’s reporting that it had only funded its pension at 37%–with nothing set aside for its other OPEB benefits, combined with the estimated $600 million to finance the infrastructure repair of its aging water infrastructure, Director Schulz added the small city is also confronted by a serious problem with its public schools—describing the city’s fiscal ills as “Michigan’s Puerto Rico,” adding it would “remain Michigan’s Puerto Rico until the state decides Flint is part of Michigan.”

Michigan Municipal League Director Dan Gilmartin notes that Flint is making better decisions financially, but still suffers from state funding cuts. He observed that Flint’s leaders are making better decisions fiscally—that they have put together a more realistic budget than before its elected leaders were preempted by state imposed emergency managers, noting: “The biggest problem Flint faces now is what all cities in Michigan face, and that is the state’s system of municipal financing, which simply doesn’t work.”

Perhaps in recognition of that, Michigan State Treasurer Nick Khouri, on April 10th announced the end of state-imposed receivership under Michigan’s Local Financial Stability and Choice Act, and he dissolved the Flint Receivership Transition Advisory Board. Treasurer Khouri also signed a resolution repealing all remaining emergency manager orders, noting: “Removing all emergency manager orders gives the City of Flint a fresh start without any lingering restrictions.” Concurrently, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, in an email, wrote: “Under the state’s emergency manager law, emergency managers were put in place in a number of cities facing financial emergencies to ensure residents were protected and their local governments’ fiscal problems were addressed: This process has worked well for the state’s struggling cities, helping to restore financial stability and put them on a path toward long-term success. Flint’s recent exit from receivership marks the end of emergency management for cities in Michigan and a new chapter in the state’s continued comeback.” Indeed, the state action means that Detroit is the only Michigan municipality city still under a form of state oversight, albeit Benton Harbor Area Schools, Pontiac Public Schools, Highland Park School District, and the Muskegon Heights school district remain under state oversight.

The nation’s preeminent chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy expert Jim Spiotto notes that a financial emergency manager is supposed to get a struggling municipality back to a balanced budget, to find a means to increase revenue, to cut unnecessary expenses, and to keep essential services at an acceptable level:  “To the degree that they achieve that, then you want to continue with best practices: If they don’t accomplish that, then even if you return the city back to Mayor and City Council, then they have to do it: Someone has to come up with viable sustainable recovery plan, not just treading water.”

From his perspective, Director Gilmartin notes: “Flint has more realistic numbers in place, especially when it comes to revenues. I think that is the most important thing the city has accomplished from a nuts and bolts standpoint…The negative side of it is the system in which they are working under just doesn’t work for them or any communities in the state. In some cases making all the right decisions at the local level still doesn’t get to where you need to get to, and it will require a change in the state law.” Referencing last year’s Michigan Municipal League report which estimated the state’s municipalities had been shortchanged to the tune of $8 billion since 2002, Director Gilmartin noted: “A lot of the fiscal pressures that Flint and other cities in Michigan find themselves in are there by state actions.” No doubt, he was referencing the nearly $55 million in reduced state aid to Flint by 2014—as the state moved to pare revenue sharing—the state’s fiscal assistance program to provide assistance based upon population and fiscal need—funds which, had they been provided, would have sufficed to not only balance the city’s budget, but also cut sharply into its capital debts—enhancing its credit quality. Indeed, it was the state’s Emergency Manager program that voters repealed six years ago after devastating decisions had plunged Flint into not just dire fiscal straits, but also the fateful decision to change its public drinking water source—a decision poisoning children, and the city’s fisc by decimating its assessed property values. During those desperate human and fiscal times, local elected leaders were preempted—even as two of the gubernatorially named Emergency Managers were charged with criminal wrongdoing in relation to the city’s lead contamination crisis and ensuing Legionnaire’s disease outbreak which claimed 12 lives in the wake of the fateful decision to  change Flint’s water source to the Flint River in April of 2014. Now, as Director Schulz notes: “Until we come up with other solutions that aren’t really punitive in nature and leave communities like Flint vulnerable as repeat customer for emergency management law, these communities will remain in financial and service delivery purgatory indefinitely.”

Director Schulz notes a more profound threat to municipal fiscal equity: she has identified at least 93 Michigan municipalities with a taxable value per capita under $20,000, describing that as a “good indicator” for which municipalities in the state are prime candidates for finding themselves under a gubernatorially imposed Emergency Manager, in addition to 32 other municipalities in the state which  are either deemed service insolvent or on the verge of service insolvency. Flint’s taxable value per capita of $7575 comes in as the second lowest behind St. Louis, Michigan, which has a taxable value of $6733. Ms. Schulz defines such insolvency as the level below which a municipality is likely unable to fiscally provide “a basic level of services a city need to provide to its residents.” Indeed, a report released by Treasurer Khouri’s office has identified nearly 25% of the state’s local units of government as having an underfunded pension plan, retirement health care plan, or both—an issue which, as we have noted in the eGnus, comes after the State, last December enacted legislation creating thresholds on pensions and OPEB which all municipalities must meet in order to be considered funded at a viable level, meaning OPEB liabilities must be at least 40% funded, and pensions 60% funded. While the Treasurer may grant waivers, such granting is premised on plans approved to remedy the underfunding—failure to do so could trigger oversight by a three-member Michigan Stability Board appointed by the Governor. As Director Schulz notes: “The winds here are blowing such that the municipality stability board is going to be up and running soon, and there will be an effort to give that board emergency manager powers…That means they can break contacts, they can sell assets…whatever it needs to put money in the OPEB.” But in the face of such preemption—preemption which, after all, had caused such human and fiscal damage to Detroit, Detroit’s public schools, and to the City of Flint; Director Gilmartin notes: “Getting the community back to zero is the easy part and is just a function of budgeting, but having it function and provide services is harder: I would say that a lot of the support for emergency management by the state has dwindled based on the experience over the last several years.”

A Storm of Leaders. If the human health and safety, and fiscal challenges created by state oversight in Michigan give one pause; the multiplicity—and cost—of the many overseers of Puerto Rico and its future by the inequitable storm response by Congress and the Trump Administration—and by the costly “who’s on first…” sets of conflicting fiscal overseers could experience at least some level of greater clarity today, as the PROMESA Board releases its proposed fiscal plans it intends to certify, including the maintenance of its mandate to the federal court for an average public pension cut of 10 percent—after having kept under advisement the concerns of Governor Ricardo Rosselló the inclusion in the revised fiscal, quasi chapter 9 plan of debt adjustment immediate reductions in sick and vacation leave.

Thus, it appears U.S. Judge Laura Taylor Swain will consider a proposed adjustment plan to reduce public pensions later this year which would total savings of as much as nearly $1.45 billion over the next five years—a level below the PROMESA Board’s proposed $1.58 million—but massive when put in the context that the current average public pension on the island is roughly $1,100 a month, but more than 38,000 retired government employees receive only $500, because of the type of job they had and the number of years worked.

Thus, there are fiscal and human dilemmas—and governance challenges: even though the PROMESA law authorizes the restructuring of retirement systems, it is unclear whether the Congressionally-created Board has the authority to impose such a significant, unfunded federal mandate on the government of Puerto Rico, including labor reforms, and restrictions of vacation and sick leaves. Last year, Governor Rosselló agreed to a reduction in pensions for government retirees, but then his aim was to propose cuts of 6 percent.

At the moment, he is against it. A few weeks ago, after negotiations with the Board, Governor Rosselló proposed a labor reform similar to the one he negotiated with members of the Board, with differences on how to balance it with an increase in the minimum wage and when to put it in into effect—a proposal he subsequently withdrew after the PROMESA Board mandated that the labor reform be in full force in January 2019, instead of phasing it in over next three years, and conditioning the increase from $7.25 to $8.25 per hour in the minimum wage to the increase in labor participation rates—proposals which, in any event, made clear the “too many leaders” governance challenges—as these were proposals with little chance of approval by the Puerto Rican House. That is, for the Governor, there is not only a federal judge, and a PROMESA Board, but also his own legislature elected by Puerto Ricans—not appointed by non-Puerto Ricans. (Under the PROMESA Law, which also created the territorial judicial system to restructure the public debt of Puerto Rico, the PROMESA Board also has power over the local government until four consecutive balanced budgets and medium and long-term access to the financial markets are achieved. Thus, as the ever insightful Gregory Makoff of the Center for International Governance Innovation—and former U.S. Treasury Advisor put it: “While the lack of cooperation with the Board may be good in political terms in the short-term, it simply delays the return of confidence and extends the time it will take for the Oversight Board to leave the island.” Thus, he has recommended the Board and Gov. Rosselló propose to Judge Swain a cut from $45 billion to $6 billion of the public debt backed by taxes, with a payment of only 13.6 cents per each dollar owed, with the aim of equating it with the average that the states have. All of this has been complicated this week by the blackout Wednesday, before the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, PREPA, yesterday announced it had restored power to some 870,000 customers.

As in  Central Falls, Rhode Island, and in Detroit, in their respective chapter 9 bankruptcies, the issue and debate on pensions appears to be a matter which will be settled or resolved by the court—not the parties or Board. While the Board has the power to propose a reform in the retirement systems, it appears to lack the administrative or legislative mechanisms to implement a labor reform. The marvelous Puerto Rican daily newspaper, El Nuevo Día asked one of the PROMESA Board sources if it were possible for the Board to go to Court and demand the implementation of a labor reform in case the Governor does not propose such legislation—the response to which was such a probability was “low.” Concurrently, an advisor to House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) with regard to proposing legislation to address the issue receive a doubtful response, albeit an official in the Chairman’s office said recently that if the Rosselló administration does not implement the labor reforms proposed by the PROMESA Board, the option for the Board would be to further reduce the expenses of the government of Puerto Rico. Put another way, Carlos Ramos González, Professor of Constitutional Law at the Interamerican University of Puerto Rico, is of the view that, notwithstanding the impasse, “in one way or another, the Board will end up imposing its criteria. How it will do it remains to be seen.”

Physical, Not Fiscal—But Fiscal Storms.  Amid the governance and fiscal storm, a physical storm in the form of am island-wide blackout hit Puerto Rico Wednesday after an excavator accidentally downed a transmission line, contributing to the ongoing physical and fiscal challenge to repair an increasingly unstable power grid nearly seven months after Hurricane Maria. More than 1.4 million homes and businesses lost power, marking the second major outage in less than a week, with the previous one affecting some 840,000 customers. PREPA estimated it would take 24 to 36 hours to restore power to all customers—it is focusing first on re-establishing service for hospitals, water pumping systems, the main airport in San Juan and other critical facilities. The physical blackout came as the PROMESA Board has placed PREPA, a public monopoly with $9 billion of debt, in the equivalent of its own quasi chapter 9 bankruptcy, in an effort to help advance plans to modernize the utility and transform it into a regulated private utility—after, last January, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló announced plans to put the utility up for sale.

Several large power outages have hit Puerto Rico in recent months, but Wednesday was the first time since Hurricane Maria that the U.S. territory has experienced a full island-wide blackout. Officials said restoring power to hospitals, airports, banking centers and water pumping systems was their priority. Following that would be businesses and then homes. By late that day, power had returned to several hospitals and at least five of the island’s 78 municipalities. Federal officials who testified before Congress last week said they expect to have a plan by June on how to strengthen and stabilize Puerto Rico’s power grid, noting that up to 75% of distribution lines were damaged by high winds and flooding. Meanwhile, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is overseeing the federal power restoration efforts, said it hopes to have the entire island fully restored by next month: some 40,000 power customers still remain without normal electrical service as a result of the hurricane. The new blackout occurred as Puerto Rico legislators debate a bill that would privatize the island’s power company, which is $14 billion in debt and relies on infrastructure nearly three times older than the industry average.

 

The Undelicate Local-State Fiscal Balance

eBlog

April 18, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we try to assess the odds for Atlantic City’s exit from state preemptive control, and then we look west to observe the lingering fiscal and physical damage created by the State of Michigan’s takeover of the City of Flint.

The Difficult Challenge of Ending State Fiscal Preemption. In the Garden State, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy has removed and replaced former Gov. Chris Christie’s designee, attorney Jeff Chiesa, who had been tapped to preempt local governance authority and run the famed city in an effort to avert its filing for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. The new Governor’s action has the effect of retaining state oversight of the fiscal governance of Atlantic City–effectively leaving the city still under state authority first imposed by former Governor Christie in November of 2016. As we had noted, that state takeover did not remove the Mayor and Council; however, Mr. Chiesa was granted broad powers in the city, such as the ability to break union contracts and sell off city assets. Ironically, it was also a prohibitively costly takeover to state taxpayers: Mr. Chesia’s law firm has filed a claim with the State of New Jersey for at least $4 million in taxpayer dollars for its work. Indeed, unlike the city’s elected leaders, Mr. Chiesa has been compensated at a rate of $400 an hour; his firm colleagues have been paid slightly less. In announcing the replacement, Gov. Murphy left unsaid the status of his earlier vow to end the state takeover of Atlantic City; he did, however, announce that state control of the city would revert to the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, currently overseen by New Jersey Lt. Governor Sheila Oliver, a long-time opponent of the state takeover. Left unclear are the new Governor’s time frame or commitment with regard to restoring local control—as, under the current statute signed by former Gov. Christie, state control and preemption could persist until 2021.

During his campaign, then candidate Murphy had campaigned for ending the state takeover; however, when pressed to clarify his intentions last February, then candidate Murphy responded that the state would be a “partner” with the city—comments similar to those he made this week, when he said: “The economic revitalization of Atlantic City is critical to advancing our overall state economy…The actions we are taking today will ensure we are working in full partnership with the city to ensure economic growth and empowerment for all Atlantic City residents.”  Indeed, New Jersey Lt. Governor Oliver said the Department will “continue to play an active role in Atlantic City to build upon the significant gains the city and state have made over the last 18 months in stabilizing Atlantic City’s finances: This ongoing partnership between DCA’s knowledgeable local government experts and the City’s governing body and its professionals will keep Atlantic City moving in the right direction for its residents and businesses and the surrounding region.” For his part, Atlantic City Mayor Frank Gilliam notes: “Atlantic City’s rebirth is looking very bright.”

For their part, former Gov. Christie and New Jersey State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) had pressed for the state takeover in the wake of the shuttering of five of the famed resort city’s casinos over the last decade, causing a swoon in the seaside city’s tax ratables by $14 million, and its debt to balloon to over $500 million. Unsurprisingly, former Gov. Christie, Sen. Sweeney, and others claim the state takeover has helped restore the city—a saving which, not coincidentally, has meant thousands of jobs in the state, and, mayhap more fiscally valuable, millions of dollars in state tax revenues. Since the takeover commenced, New Jersey has settled tax appeal debt with Borgata casino and worked with the city to adopt a municipal budget providing the first municipal tax decrease in almost a decade. Describing the state preemption and takeover, former Gov. Christie noted: “If you compare the results Sen. Chiesa has gotten from what he billed with what you all have paid to the people who have been running this city into the ground, Sen. Chiesa is the biggest bargain in the world…You all should wish he stays here for the rest of his life.” Unsurprisingly, however, many city leaders, some state lawmakers, and union officials have opposed the takeover, saying it violates civil rights and damages collective bargaining. 

Atlantic City Mayor Frank Gilliam has, unsurprisingly, applauded the new Governor’s action, noting: “Atlantic City’s rebirth is looking very bright.”

Out Like Flint. A visibly irate Mayor Karen Weaver has stated the city is exploring legal options against Gov. Rick Snyder and the state after the Governor told her “to get over” the ending of water distribution in the citya characterization the Governor’s office disputed as inaccurate. In a hastily called news conference in her office, Mayor Weaver said she met with the Governor Monday morning in Lansing in an effort to dissuade him from his announced decision to have the state cease the provision of bottled drinking water to the various “pods” across Flint—in the wake of, more than two years ago, the city’s declaration of a lead contamination state of emergency. However, on April 6th, Gov. Snyder, citing nearly two years of test results showing lead levels in city tap water below federal standards, had ordered the end of such distributions. Thus, in the wake of her meeting with the Governor, Mayor Weaver noted: “We did not get very far in the conversation, because one of the things the Governor basically said was we need to get over it.”

But, from her perspective—and responsibility–Mayor Weaver stated that providing water to the residents of Flint is a “moral issue,” especially since it had been the state’s action—in appointing an Emergency Manager to preempt all local authority—who had been responsible for Flint’s lead-in-water crisis. Noting that, since it was state action which had precipitated the physical and fiscal crisis, she believes the burden is on the state to reestablish trust: “They gave us their word that they would see us through this lead and galvanized service line replacement and that we would have pods stay open until then…And they backed out on what they said.”

However, Anna Heaton, a spokesperson for Gov. Snyder disagreed: she said: “It was a good discussion about the city and state’s continued partnership, and an offer for economic development help, since the Mayor brought the city’s new economic development official with her to the meeting…State taxpayers could ceased funding the pods last September, but, in the wake of the city’s request, the Governor opted to keep them open—and keep them open a full seven months past when the state could have ceased funding them, asserting this action was taken in order to help with the state’s continued partnership with the city, and to “foster trust with residents as the water quality continued to improve.” Her comments came in the wake of an earlier announcement by Gov. Snyder, in which he said the state has “worked diligently to restore the water quality and the scientific data now proves the water system is stable and the need for bottled water has ended.”

Mayor Weaver said the Governor, in the 35-minute meeting, had wanted to discuss economic development, but she told him the bottled water issue was not going away. Flint’s legal counsel, Angela Wheeler, added: “We do have to explore all possibilities” with regard to whether Flint will opt to sue the state—as Mayor Weaver has been clear that the State of Michigan should wait until all of the city’s lead service lines are replaced.

The Once & Future Puerto Rico?

April 17, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we try to assess the fiscal and future governance options for Puerto Rico: will it become a second class state? A nation? Or, at long last, an integral part of the nation? And governance: who is in charge of its governance?

Before Hurricane Maria wracked its terrible human, fiscal, and physical toll; more than 50% of Americans knew not that Puerto Ricans were U.S. citizens. Still, today, some six months after the disaster, more than 50,000 have no electricity. The fiscal and physical toll on low-income Americans on the island has been especially harsh: of the nearly 1.2 million applications to FEMA for assistance to help fix damaged homes, nearly 60% have been rejected: FEMA provided no assistance, citing the lack of lack of title deeds or because the edifices in need were constructed on stolen land or in contravention of building codes. That is to write that this exceptionally powerful storm took a grievous toll not just on life and limb, but especially on the local and state economy, destroying an estimated 80% of Puerto Rico’s agricultural crop, including coffee and banana plantations—where regrowing is projected to take years. The super storm devastated 20% of businesses—today an estimated 10,000 firms remain closed. Discouragingly, the government forecasts output will shrink by another 11% in the year to June 2018.

It might be, ojala que si (one hopes) that a burst of growth will ensue, with estimates of as much as 8% next year, in no small part thanks to federal recovery assistance and as much as $20 billion in private-insurance payments—as well as Puerto Ricans dipping into their own savings to make repairs to their own homes and businesses. Yet, even those positive signs can appear to pale against the scope of the physical misery: by one estimate, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands will lose nearly $48 billion in output—and employment equivalent to 332,000 people working for a year. Of perhaps longer term fiscal concern are the estimated thousands of Puerto Ricans who left the island for Florida and other points on the mainland—disproportionately those better educated and with greater fiscal resources—leaving behind older and poorer Americans, and a greater physical and fiscal burden for Puerto Rico’s government.

The massive storm—and disparate treatment by the Trump administration and Congress—have encumbered Puerto Rico with massive debts, both to its central government and municipalities, but also to its businesses. Encumbered with massive debts—including $70 billion to its municipal bondholders and another $50 billion in public pension liabilities; Governor Ricardo Rosselló’s administration is making deep cuts: prior to the massive storm, the government had been committed to slashing funding to its local governments by $175 million, closing 184 schools, and cutting public pensions—pensions which, at just over $1,000 are not especially generous. Now, that task will be eased, provided the PROMESA oversight Board approves, to moderate the proposed cuts in services in order to do less harm the reviving economy.

Assisted by federal tax incentives, Puerto Rico’s economic model was for decades based on manufacturing, especially of pharmaceuticals. However, what Congress can bestow; it can take away. Thus it was that over the last decade, Congress steadily eroded economic incentives—Congressional actions which contributed to the territory’s massive debt crisis, and contributing to the World Bank dropping Puerto Rico 58 places in its ranking compared to the mainland with regard to the ease of doing business.

The havoc wreaked by Maria could be especially creative for the island’s private sector, which represents a chronically missed opportunity. Puerto Rico, for all its problems, is a beautiful tropical island, with white-sanded beaches, rainforest, fascinating history, lovely colonial buildings and a vibrant mix of Latin-American and European culture. Yet, with 3.5 million visitors a year, its tourism industry is less than half the size of Hawaii’s. It has an excellent climate for growing coffee and other highly marketable products, yet its agriculture sector is inefficient and tiny. The island has a well-educated, bilingual middle-class, including a surfeit of engineers, trained at the well-regarded University of Puerto Rico for the manufacturing industry, and cheap to hire. But in the wake of the departing multinationals, they are also leaving. Isabel Rullán, a 20-something former migrant, who has returned to the island from Washington to try to improve linkages to the diaspora, estimates that half her university classmates are on the mainland.

Quien Es Encargado? (Who is in charge?) Unlike a normal chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy proceeding, the process created by Congress under the PROMESA law created a distinct governance model—one which does create a quasi emergency manager, but here in the form of a board, the PROMESA Board, which, today, will submit its proposed fiscal plan, or quasi plan of debt adjustment to U.S. Judge Laura Swain Taylor; it will maintain its requirement to propose the reduction of the public pensions of Puerto Ricans by an average of 10 percent. Until last weekend, the PROMESA Board had kept under review the complaints to Governor Ricardo Rosselló with regard to the inclusion in its revised fiscal plan of the central government the base of a labor reform which, among other proposals, calls for the immediate reduction in vacation and sick leaves from 15 to 7 days for workers of private companies, according to two sources close to the Board. Under the fiscal plan proposed by the Governor Rosselló, the cuts would reach $1.45 billion in five years. The PROMESA Board has requested that they total $1.58 million by June of 2023. The proposal, unsurprisingly, has raised questions with regard to whether the Congress has the authority to impose on the government of Puerto Rico a reform of its labor laws—any more than its inability under our form of federalism to dictate changes in any state’s retirement systems—contracts which are inherent in state constitutions.

Pension reductions in chapter 9 cases, because they involve contracts, are difficult, as contracts are protected under state constitutions—moreover, as we saw in Detroit’s plan of debt adjustment approved by now retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, the court wanted to ensure that any such reductions would not subject the retiree to income below the federal poverty level—a level which, Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello told Reuters, in an interview this past week, “many retirees are already under,” as he warned  that any further pension cuts could “cast them out and challenge their livelihood.” That is, in the U.S. territory struggling with a 45 percent poverty rate and unemployment more than double the U.S. national average, the fiscal challenge of how to restructure nearly $70 billion in debt, where public pensions, which owe $45 billion in benefits, are also virtually insolvent, makes the challenges which had confronted Judge Rhodes pale in comparison.  Moreover, with the current pensions already virtually insolvent, paying pension benefits out of Puerto Rico’s general fund, on a pay-as-you-go basis, could cost the virtually bankrupt Puerto Rico $1.5 billion a year. The PROMESA Board has recommended that Gov. Rossello reduce pensions by 10 percent.  

For their part, the island’s pensioners have formed a negotiating committee, advised by Robert Gordon, an attorney who advised retirees in Detroit’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, as well as Hector Mayol, the former administrator of Puerto Rico’s public pensions. The fiscal challenge in Puerto Rico, however, promises to be more stiff than Detroit—or, as Moody’s put it: Puerto Rico’s “unusual circumstances mean that it will not conform exactly” to recent public bankruptcies, in which “judges reduced creditor claims far more than amounts owed to pensioners.” Moreover, the scope or size of Puerto Rico’s public pension chasm is exacerbated by the ongoing emigration of young professionals from Puerto Rico to the mainland—making it almost like an increasingly unbalanced teeter totter.  The U.S. territory’s largest public pension, the Employee Retirement System (ERS), which covers nearly 100,000 retirees, is projected to run out of cash this year: it is confronted by a double fiscal whammy: in addition to paying retiree benefits, ERS owes some $3.1 billion to repay debts on municipal bonds it issued in 2008—bonds issued to finance Puerto Rico’s public pension obligations. Last year, Governor Rosselló had agreed to a reduction in pensions for government retirees, indicating a willingness to seek as much as a 6% reduction. That appears not, however, to be something he currently supports.

A few weeks ago, in the wake of negotiations with the PROMESA Board, Governor Rosselló proposed a labor reform similar to the one he negotiated with members of the Board, with differences with regard to how to balance it with an increase in the minimum wage and when to implement such changes. The Governor, however, withdrew the proposal when the Board required that the labor reform be in full force by next January, instead of applying it gradually over the next three years, and conditioned the increase from $ 7.25 to $ 8.25 per hour in the minimum wage to the increase in labor participation rates. It seems the PROMESA Board is intent upon labor reform as an essential element for future economic growth.

The Challenge of “Shared” Governance. Unlike in Central Falls, San Bernardino, Detroit, Jefferson County, or other chapter 9 cases where state enacted chapter 9 statutes prescribed governance through the process, the PROMESA statute created a territorial judicial system to restructure Puerto Rico’s public debt, creating a Board empowered to reign until four consecutive balanced budgets and medium and long-term access to the financial markets are achieved—or, as our colleague and expert, Gregory Makoff, of the Center for International Governance Innovation, who worked for a year as an advisor to the Department of Treasury in the Puerto Rican case, put it: “While the lack of cooperation with the Board may be good in political terms in the short-term, it simply delays the return of confidence and extends the time it will take for the Oversight Board to leave the island.” Mr. Makoff has recommended the Board and Gov. Rosselló propose to Judge Swain a cut of from $45 down to $6 billion of the public debt backed by taxes, with a payment of only 13.6 cents per each dollar owed, with the intent of equating it with the average that the states have. His suggestion comes as the Board aims to disclose its plans as early as this evening in advance of its scheduled sessions at the end of the week at the San Juan Convention Center, where, Thursday, the Board wants to certify Puerto Rico’s and PREPA’s proposed plans, and then, Friday, vote on the plans of the other public corporations: the Aqueducts and Sewers Authority (PRASA), the Highways and Transportation Authority (PRHTA), the Government Development Bank, the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) and the Cooperatives Supervision & Insurance Corporation (COSSEC).

Fiscal Balancing. The PROMESA law authorizes the Board the power to impose a fiscal plan and propose to Judge Swain a quasi plan of debt adjustment, as under chapter 9, on behalf of the government, much as in a chapter 9 plan of debt adjustment‒albeit the PROMESA statute does not grant the Board the power to enact laws or appoint or replace government officials. The Congressional act retained for the government of Puerto Rico the capacity and responsibility to enact laws consistent with the fiscal plan and the fiscal adjustment plan, as well as, obviously, to operate the government.

The Promise & Unpromise of PROMESA: Who Is Encargado II? Unlike in a, dare one write “traditional” chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, where state enacted legislation defines governing authority in the interim before a municipality receives approval of its plan of debt adjustment to exit municipal bankruptcy, the Congressional PROMESA statute has left blurred the balance—or really imbalance—of authority between the power of the Board to approve a budget and fiscal plans, with its possible lack of authority to implement reforms, such as changes to federal regulations it promotes. An adviser to House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop ((R-Utah) recently noted that if the Rosselló administration does not implement the labor reform proposed by the PROMESA Board, the option for the Board would be to further reduce the expenses of the government of Puerto Rico—or, as Constitutional Law Professor Carlos Ramos González, at the Interamerican University of Puerto Rico, describes it, notwithstanding the impasse, “in one way or another, the Board will end up imposing its criteria. How it will do it remains to be seen.” An adviser to Chair Bishop said recently that if Gov. Rosselló’s administration does not implement the labor reform proposed by the Board, the option for the PROMESA Board would be to further reduce the expenses of the government of Puerto Rico—or, as Professor González put it: “In one way or another, the Board will end up imposing its criteria. How it will do it remains to be seen.”

The Uncertain State of the State. An ongoing challenge to full recovery for Puerto Rico is its uncertain status—a challenge that has marked it from its beginning: in February of 1917, during debate on the Senate floor of HR 9533 to provide for a civil government for Puerto Rico, when Sen. James Wadsworth (R-N.Y) inquired of Senate sponsor John F. Shafroth of Colorado whether it would “provide woman suffrage in Puerto Rico?” Sen. Shafroth made clear his intent that the eligibility of voters in Puerto Rico—as in other states—“may be prescribed by the Legislature of Puerto Rico.” That debate, more than a century ago, lingers as what some have described as “the albatross hanging around the island’s neck: the uncertainty over its status.” Is it a state? A country? Or some lesser form of government?  Even though thousands of Puerto Ricans have fought and died serving their country in World Wars I and II, in Vietnam and Afghanistan, Puerto Rico has never been treated as a state—and its own citizens have been unable to decide themselves whether they wish to support statehood.

Some believe Puerto Rico will become a state eventually. But to get there, especially without risking a violent nationalist repulse, Puerto Rico needs to understand what the federal requirements and barriers will be—and what the promise of PROMESA really will mean. And, as they used to say in Rome: tempus fugit. Time is running out: for, absent economic and fiscal recovery soon, the flood of emigration of young Americans from Puerto Rico will become a brain-drain boding a demographic death-spiral, leaving the island with too few taxpayers to cover its more rapidly growing health care costs for an aged population.