State Oversight & Severe Municipal Distress

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eBlog, 04/24/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the unique fiscal challenge confronting Detroit: when and how will it emerge from state oversight? Then we spin the tables to see how Atlantic City is faring to see if it might be on the shores of fiscal recovery; before going back to Detroit to assess the math/fiscal challenges of the state created public school district; then, still in Detroit, we try to assess the status of a lingering issue from the city’s historic municipal bankruptcy: access to drinking water for its lowest income families; before visiting Hartford, to try to gauge how the fiscally stressed central city might fare with the Connecticut legislature. Finally, we revisit the small Virginia municipality of Petersburg to witness a very unique kind of municipal finance for a city so close to insolvency but in need of ensuring the provision of vital, lifesaving municipal services. 

Fiscal & Physical Municipal Balancing. Michigan Deputy Treasurer Eric Scorsone is predicting that by “early next year, Detroit will be out of state oversight,” at a time when the city “will be financially stable by all indications and have a significant surplus.” That track will sync with the city’s scheduled emergence from state oversight, albeit apprehension remains with regard to whether the city has budgeted adequately  to set funds aside to anticipate a balloon pension obligation due in 2024. Nevertheless, Mr. Scorsone has deemed the Motor City’s post-bankruptcy transformation “extraordinary,” describing its achievements in meeting its plan of debt adjustment—as well as complying with the Detroit Financial Review Commission—so well that the “city could basically operate on its own.” He noted that the progress has been sufficient to permit the Commission to be in a dormancy state—subject to any, unanticipated deficits emerging. The Deputy Treasurer credited the Motor City’s strong management team under CFO John Hill both for the city’s fiscal progress, but also for his role in keeping an open line of communication with the state oversight board; he also noted the key role of Mayor Mike Duggan’s leadership for improving basic services such as emergency response times and Detroit’s public infrastructure. Nevertheless, Detroit remains subject to the state board’s approval of any contracts, operating or capital budgets, as well as formal revenue estimates—a process which the Deputy Treasurer noted “allows the city to stay on a strong economic path…[t]hese are all critical tools,” he notes, valuable not just to Detroit, but also to other municipalities an counties to help ensure “long term stability.”

On the Shore of Fiscal Recovery. S&P Global Ratings, which last month upgraded Atlantic City’s general obligation bond rating two notches to CCC in the wake of the city’s settlement with the Borgata Casino, a settlement which yielded the city some $93 million in savings, has led to a Moody’s rating upgrade, with the credit rating agency writing that Atlantic City’s proposed FY2017 budget—one which proposes some $35.3 million in proposed cuts, is a step in the right direction for the state taken-over municipality, noting that the city’s fiscal plan incorporates a 14.6% cut in its operating budget—sufficient to save $8 million, via reductions in salaries and benefits for public safety employees, $6 million in debt service costs, and $3 million in administrative expenses. Nevertheless S&P credit analyst Timothy Little cautioned that pending litigation with regard to whether Atlantic City can make proposed police and firefighter cuts could be a fly in the ointment, writing: “In our view, the proposed budget takes significant measures to improve the city’s structural imbalance and may lead to further improved credit quality; however, risks to fiscal recovery remain from pending lawsuits against state action impeding labor contracts.” The city’s proposed $206.3 million budget, indeed, marks the city’s first since the state takeover placed it under the oversight of the New Jersey’s Local Finance Board, with the state preemption giving the Board the authority to alter outstanding debt, as well as municipal contracts. Mr. Little wrote that this year will mark the first fiscal year of the agreed-to payment-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOT) program for casino gaming properties—a level set at $120 million annually over the next decade—out of which 10.4% will go to Atlantic County. Mr. Little also notes that the budget contains far less state financial support than in previous years, as the $30 million of casino redirected anticipated revenue received in 2015 and 2016 will be cut to $15 million; moreover, the budget includes no state transitional aid—denoting a change or drop of some $26.2 million; some of that, however, will be offset by a $15 million boost from an adjustment to the state Consolidated Municipal Property Tax Relief Act—or, as the analyst wrote: “Long-term fiscal recovery will depend on Atlantic City’s ability to continue to implement fiscal reforms, reduce reliance on nonrecurring revenues, and reduce its long-term liabilities.” Today, New Jersey state aid accounts for 34% of the city’s $206.3 million in budgeted revenue, 31% comes from casino PILOT payments, and 27% from tax revenues. S&P upgraded Atlantic City’s general obligation bond rating two notches to CCC in early March after the Borgata settlement yielded the city $93 million in savings. Moody’s rates Atlantic City debt at Caa3.

Schooled on Bankruptcy. While Detroit, as noted above, has scored high budget marks or grades with the state; the city’s school system remains physically and fiscally below grade. Now, according to the Michigan Department of Education, school officials plan to voluntarily shutter some of the 24 city schools—schools targeted for closure by the state last January, according to State Superintendent Brian Whiston, whose spokesperson, William DiSessa, at a State Board of Education meeting, said:  “Superintendent Whiston doesn’t know which schools, how many schools, or when they may close, but said that they are among the 38 schools threatened for closure by the State Reform Office earlier this year.” Mr. DiSessa added that “the decision to close any schools is the Detroit Public School Community District’s to make.” What that decision will be coming in the wake of the selection of Nikolai Vitti, who last week was selected to lead the Detroit Public Schools Community District. Mr. Vitti, 40, is currently Superintendent of the Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Florida, the 20th largest district in the nation; in the wake of the Detroit board’s decision last week to enter into negotiations with Mr. Vitti for the superintendent’s job, Mr. Vitti described the offer as “humbling and an honor.” The school board also voted, if Mr.Vitti accepts the offer, to ask him to begin next week as a consultant, working with a transition team, before officially commencing on July 1st. The School Board’s decision, after a search began last January, marks the most important decision the board has made during its brief tenure, in the wake of its creation last year and election last November after the Michigan Legislature in June approved $617-million legislation which resolved the debt of Detroit Public Schools via creating the new district, and retaining the old district for the sole purpose if collecting taxes and paying off debt.

The twenty-four schools slated for closure emerged from a list of 38 the State of Michigan had targeted last January—all from schools which have performed in the bottom 5 percent of the state for at least three consecutive years, according to the education department. The Motor City had hoped to avoid any such forced state closures—hoping against hope that by entering last month into partnership negotiations with the Michigan State Superintendent’s office, and working with Eastern Michigan University, the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, and Wayne State University, the four institutions would help set “high but attainable” goals at the 24 Detroit schools to improve academic achievement and decrease chronic absenteeism and teacher vacancies. The idea was that those goals would be evaluated after 18 months and again in 36 months, according to state officials. David Hecker, president of the American Federation of Teachers Michigan, noted that he was not aware which schools might be closing or how many; however, he noted that whatever happens to the teachers of the closing schools would be subject to the collective bargaining agreement with the Detroit Federation of Teachers. “If any schools close, it would absolutely be a labor issue that would be governed by the collective bargaining agreement as to how that will work … (and) where they will go,” Mr. Hecker said. “We very strongly are opposed to any school closing for performance reasons.”

Thirsty. A difficult issue—among many—pressed upon now retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes during Detroit’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy came as the Detroit Water and Sewer Department began shutting off water service to some of nearly 18,000 residential customers with delinquent accounts. Slightly less than a year ago, in the wake of numerous battles in Judge Rhodes’ then U.S. bankruptcy courtroom, the issue was again raised: what authority did the city of Detroit have to cut off the delivery of water to the thousands of its customers who were delinquent by more than 90 days? Thus it was that Detroit’s Water and Sewerage Department began shutting off service to customers who had failed to pay their bills—with, at the time, DWSD guesstimating about 20,000 of its customers had defaulted on their payments, and noting that the process of shutting off service to customers with unpaid bills was designed to be equitable and not focused on any particular neighborhood or part of the city—and that the agency was not targeting customers who owed less than a $150 and were only a couple of months behind, noting, instead: “We’re looking for those customers who we’ve repeatedly tried to reach and make contact,” as well as reporting that DWSD was reminding its delinquent customers who were having trouble paying their water bills to contact the department so they may be enrolled in one of its two assistance programs — the WRAP Fund or the “10/30/50” plan. Under the first, the WRAP Fund, customers who were at 150 percent of the poverty level or below could receive up to $1,000 a year in assistance in paying bills, plus up to $1,000 to fix minor plumbing issues leading to high usage. This week, DWSD is reporting it has resumed shutoffs in the wake of sending out notices, adding the department has payment and assistance plans to help those with delinquent accounts avoid losing service. Department Director Gary Brown told the Detroit Free Press that everyone “has a path to not have service interruption.” Indeed, it seems some progress has been achieved: the number of families facing shutoffs is down from 24,000 last April and about 40,000 in April of 2014, according to The Detroit News. In 2014, DWSD disconnected service to more than 30,000 customers due to unpaid bills, prompting protests over its actions. Nonetheless, DWSD began the controversial practice of shutting off water service again this week, this time to some of the nearly 18,000 residential customers with delinquent accounts, in the wake of notices sent out 10 days earlier, according to DWSD Director Gary Brown. Nevertheless, while 17,995 households are subject to having their water turned off, those residents who contact the water department prior to their scheduled shutoffs to make a payment or enter into an assistance plan will avoid being cut off—with experience indicating most do. And, the good gnus is that the number of delinquent accounts is trending down from the 24,302 facing a service interruption last April, according to DWSD. Moreover, this Solomon-like decision of when to shut off water service—since the issue was first so urgently pressed in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court before Judge Rhodes—has gained through experience. DWSD Director Brown reports that once residents are notified, about 90 percent are able to get into a plan and avoid being shut off, and adding that most accounts turned off are restored within 24 hours: “Every residential Detroit customer has a path not to be shut off by asking for assistance or being placed into a payment plan…I’m urging people not to wait until they get a door knocker to come in and ask for assistance to get in a payment plan.” A critical part of the change in how the city deals with shutoffs comes from Detroit’s launch two years ago of its Water Residential Assistance Program, or WRAP, a regional assistance fund created as a component of the Great Lakes Water Authority forged through Detroit’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy: a program designed to help qualifying customers in Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties who are at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level—which equates to $36,450 for a family of four—by covering one-third of the cost of their average monthly bill and freezing overdue amounts. Since a year ago, nearly $5 million has been dedicated to the program—a program in which 5,766 Detroit households are enrolled, according to DWSD, with a retention rate for those enrolled in the program of 90 percent. DWSD spokesperson Bryan Peckinpaugh told the Detroit News the department is committed to helping every customer keep her or his water on and that DWSD provides at least three advance notifications encouraging those facing a service interruption to contact the department to make payment arrangements, adding that the outreach and assistance efforts have been successful, with the number of customers facing potential service interruption at less than half of what it was three years ago.

Fiscally Hard in Hartford. Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin has acknowledged his proposed $612.9 FY2018 budget includes a nearly $50 million gap—with proposed expenditures at $600 million, versus revenues of just over $45 million: a fiscal gap noted moodily by four-notch downgrades to the Connecticut city’s general obligation bonds last year from two credit rating agencies, which cited rising debt-service payments, higher required pension contributions, health-care cost inflation, costly legal judgments from years past, and unrealized concessions from most labor unions. Moody’s Investors Service in 2016 lowered Hartford GOs to a junk-level Ba2. S&P Global Ratings knocked the city to BBB from A-plus, keeping it two notches above speculative grade. Thus, Mayor Bronin, a former chief counsel to Gov. Daniel Malloy, has repeated his request for state fiscal assistance, noting: “The City of Hartford has less taxable property than our suburban neighbor, West Hartford. More than half of our property is non-taxable.” In his proposed “essential services only” budget, Mayor Bronin is asking the Court of Common Council to approve an increase of about $60 million, or 11%, over last year’s approved budget—with a deadline for action the end of next month. An increasing challenge is coming from the stressed city’s accumulating debt: approximately $14 million, or 23%, of that increase is due to debt-service payments, while $12 million is for union concessions which did not materialize, according to the Mayor’s office. Gov. Malloy’s proposed biennial budget, currently in debate by state lawmakers, proposes $35 million of aid to Hartford. Unsurprisingly, that level is proving a tough sell to many suburban and downstate legislators. On the other hand, the Mayor appears to be gaining some traction after, last year, gaining an agreement with the Hartford Fire Fighters Association that might save the city $4 million next year: the agreement included changes to pension contributions and benefits, active and retiree health care, and salary schedules. In addition, last month, Hartford’s largest private-sector employers—insurers Aetna Inc., Travelers Cos. and The Hartford—agreed to donate $10 million per year to the city over five years. Nonetheless, rating agencies Moody’s and S&P have criticized the city for limited operating flexibility, weak reserves, narrowing liquidity, and its rising costs of debt service and pension obligations. Gurtin Municipal Bond Management went so far as to deem the city a “slow-motion train wreck,” adding that while the quadruple-notch downgrades had a headline shock effect, the city’s fundamental credit deterioration had been slow and steady. “The price impact of negative headlines and credit rating downgrades can be swift and severe, which begs the question: How should municipal bond investors and their registered investment advisors react?” Gurtin’s Alex Etzkowitz noted, in a commentary. “The only foolproof solution is to avoid credit distress in the first place by leveraging independent credit research and in-depth, ongoing surveillance of municipal obligors.”

Fighting for a City’s Future. The small city of Petersburg. Virginia, is hardly new to the stress of battle. It was there that General Robert E. Lee’s men fought courageously throughout the Overland Campaign, even as Gen. Lee feared he confronted a campaign he feared could not be won, warning his troops—and politicians: “We must destroy this Army of Grant’s before he gets to the James River. If he gets there, it will become a siege, and then it will be a mere question of time.” Yet, even as he wrote, General Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac was racing toward the James and Petersburg to wage an attack on the city—a highly industrialized city then of 18,000 people, with supplies arriving from all over the South via one of the five railroads or the various plank roads. Indeed, Petersburg was one of the last outposts: without it, Richmond, and possibly the entire Confederacy, was at risk. Today, the city, because of the city’s subpar credit rating, is at fiscal risk: it has been forced to beg its taxpayers to loan it funds for new emergency vehicles—officials are making a fiscal arrangement with private citizens to front the cost for new emergency vehicles, and offering to put up city hall as collateral for said arrangement, as an assurance to the lenders they will be paid back. The challenge: the police department currently needs 16 new vehicles, at a cost of $614,288; the fire department needs three new trucks, at a cost of $2,145,527. Or, as Interim City Manager Tom Tyrrell notes: “Every single day that a firefighter rolls out on a piece of equipment older than he is, or a police officer responds to an emergency call in a car with 160,000 miles on it, are days we want to avoid…We want to get this equipment as soon as possible.” Interim City Finance Director Nelsie Birch has included in the upcoming fiscal year budget the necessary funds to obtain the equipment—equipment Petersburg normally obtains via lease agreements with vendors, but which now, because of its inability to access municipal credit markets due to its “BB” credit rating with a negative outlook, makes it harder than ever to find any vendor—or, as Manager Tyrrell puts it: “We went out four different times…We solicited four different times to the market, and were unsuccessful in getting any parties to propose.” He added that when soliciting these types of agreements, you solicit “thousands of people.” Notwithstanding that the funds for the vehicles is already set aside in the upcoming budget, city officials have been unable to find anyone willing to enter into a lease agreement with the city because of the city’s financial woes.

Last week, the City Council authorized Mr. Tyrrell to “undertake emergency procurement action” in order for the lease of necessary fire and police vehicles, forcing Mr. Tyrrell and other officials to seek private funds to get the equipment—that is, asking individual citizens who have the financial means to put up money for the fire and police vehicles—or, as Mr. Tyrrell puts it: “We’ve reached out to four people, who are interested and capable,” noting they are property owners in Petersburg who will remain anonymous until the deal is closed, describing it thusly: “[This agreement] is outside the rules, because we couldn’t get a partner inside the rules.” Including in this proposed fiscal arrangement: officials must put up additional collateral, in addition to the cars themselves, and in the form of city-owned property—with the cornerstone of the proposal, as it were, being Petersburg City Hall, or, as Mr. Tyrrell notes: “What they’re looking for is some assurance that no matter what happens, we’re going to pay the note…It’s not a securitization in the financial sense, as much as it is in the emotional sense: they know that the city isn’t going to let it go.” He adds, the proposed financial arrangement will be evaluated in two areas: the interest rate and how fast the deal can close, adding: “Although it’s an emergency procurement, we still want to get the best deal we can.”

Public Trust, Public Safety, & Municipal Fiscal Sustainability: Has the Nation Experienced the Closing of its Chapter on Municipal Bankruptcies?

 

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eBlog, 04/20/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the unique and ongoing fiscal and physical challenges confronting Flint, Michigan in the wake of the drinking water crisis spawned by a state-appointed Emergency Manager, before heading far west to assess San Bernardino’s nearing formal exit from chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy—marking the last municipality to exit after the surge which came in the wake of the Great Recession.

Public Trust, Public Safety, & Due Diligence. Flint, Michigan Mayor Karen Weaver has recommended Flint continue obtaining its drinking water via the Detroit Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA), reversing the position she had taken a year ago in the wake of the lead-contaminated drinking water crisis. Flint returned to the Detroit-area authority which sends water to Flint from Lake Huron in October of 2015 after the discovery that Flint River water was not treated with corrosion control chemicals for 18 months. Mayor Weaver said she believed residents would stick with a plan to draw from a pipeline to Lake Huron which is under construction; however, she said she had re-evaluated that decision as a condition of receiving $100 million in federal funding to address the manmade disaster, noting that switching the city’s water source again might prove too great a risk, and that remaining with Detroit’s water supply from Lake Huron would cost her citizens and businesses less. Last year, Mayor Weaver had stated that the city’s nearly 100,000 residents would stay with a plan to draw from a Karegnondi Water Authority pipeline to Lake Huron—a pipeline which remains under construction, noting, then, that switching water sources would be too risky and could cause needless disruptions for the city’s residents—still apprehensive about public health and safety in the wake of the health problems stemming from the decision by a state-imposed Emergency Manager nearly three years ago to switch and draw drinking water from the Flint River, as an interim source after deciding to switch to the fledgling Genesee County regional system and sever its ties to the Detroit system, now known as the regional Great Lakes Water Authority. Even today, federal, state, and local officials continue to advise Flint residents not to drink the water without a filter even though it complies with federal standards, as the city awaits completion of the replacement of its existing lead service lines—or, as Mayor Weaver put it: “At the end of the day, I believe this is the best decision, because one of the things we wanted to make sure we did was put public health first,” at a press conference attended by county, state, federal and Great Lakes authority officials, adding: “We have to put that above money and everything else. That was what we did. And what didn’t take place last time was public health. We’ve done our due diligence.” The 30-year contract with the Great Lakes authority keeps Flint as a member of the Karegnondi authority—a decision supported by the State of Michigan, EPA, and Genesee County officials, albeit the long-term contract still requires the approval of the Flint City Council and Flint Receivership Transition Advisory Board, a panel appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder charged with monitoring Flint’s fiscal conditions in the wake of the city’s emergence from a state-inflicted Emergency Manager two years ago.

City Councilman Eric Mays this week said he will be asking tough questions when he and his eight other colleagues will be briefed on the plan. There is also a town hall tonight in Flint to take public comments. Councilman Mays notes he is concerned the city may be “giving up ownership” in the new Genesee regional authority, something he opposes, adding he would be closely scrutinizing what he deems a “valuable asset to the city.” Mayor Weaver has said she personally wanted to review the earlier decision in the wake of last month’s receipt from the Environmental Protection Agency of $100 million to assist the city to address and recover from the drinking water disaster that took such a human and fiscal toll. (EPA is mandating that Flint provide a 30-day public comment period.) Mayor Weaver notes she anticipates some opposition, making clear any final decision will depend upon “public feedback and public opinion.” Currently, the city remains under contract to make $7 million in annual municipal bond payments over 28 years to the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA); however, the Great Lakes authority said it would pay a $7 million “credit” for the KWA debt as long as Flint obligates itself to make its debt service payments. There is, at least so far, no indication with regard to how any such agreement would affect water rates. That matters, because, according to the Census Bureau, the city’s median household income is $7,059, significantly lower than the median Michigan-wide household income, and some $11,750 less than U.S. median household income. The GLWA said Flint customers would save a projected $1.8 million over 30 years compared with non-contractual charges they would have paid otherwise; in return, the Flint area authority would become a back-up system for the Detroit area authority, saving it an estimated $600 million over prior estimates and ensuring Metro Detroit communities would still receive water in the event of an interruption in Great Lakes authority service.

Robert Kaplan, the Chicago-based EPA’s acting regional administrator, said he signed off on the deal because the agency believes it protects the health of residents: “What’s best for public health is to stay on the water that’s currently being provided.” Jeff Wright, the KWA’s chief executive and drain commissioner of Genesee County, said the recommended plan not only would allow Flint to remain with the Genesee regional system, but also to be a back-up water supply, which, he noted, “is critically important to the safety of Flint’s residents who have not had a back-up system since the beginning of the Flint water crisis,” adding: “Whether (or not) Flint ultimately chooses high-quality Lake Huron water delivered through the newly constructed KWA pipeline, the highest quality treated water from Genesee County’s Water Treatment Plant or any other EPA-approved alternative, we will continue to assist Flint residents as they strive to recover from the Flint Water Crisis.” 

Keeping the Detroit system. The Great Lakes Water Authority Has embraced Mayor Weaver’s recommendation, with CEO Sue McCormick noting: “Flint residents can be assured that they will continue to receive water of unquestionable quality, at a significant cost savings.” Michigan Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint) noted: “It provides us a long-term safe water source that we know is reliable. KWA could do the same thing, but this is an answer to help deal with one of the major parts of it,” adding the recommended move to stay on Detroit area water is “another example of the emergency manager sort of making a short-term terrible decision that’s cost us taxpayers half a billion dollars, if not more.” Emergency managers appointed by Snyder decided with the approval of the Flint City Council to switch to the Flint River water in part to save money. Flint officials said they thought Detroit water system price hikes were too high. For more than a year, the EPA has delayed any switch to KWA because of deficiencies including that the Flint treatment plant is not equipped to properly treat water. Staying with the Great Lakes authority may be an initial tough sell because of the city’s history, Mayor Weaver warned, but she is trying to get residents to move on. A town hall is scheduled for this evening at House of Prayer Missionary Baptist Church in Flint for public feedback. “I can’t change what happened,” Mayor Weaver said. “All I can do is move forward.”

Moody Blues in San Bernardino? As San Bernardino awaits its final judicial blessing from U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury of its plan of debt adjustment to formally exit chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, Moody’s has issued a short report, noting the city will exit bankruptcy with higher revenues and an improved balance sheet; however, the rating agency notes the city will confront significant operational challenges associated with deferred maintenance and potential service shortfalls—even being so glum as to indicate there is a possibility that, together with the pressure of its public pension liabilities, the city faces continued fiscal pressures and that continued financial distress could increase, so that a return to municipal bankruptcy is possible. Moody’s moody report notes the debt adjustment plan is forcing creditors to bear most of the restructuring challenge, especially as Moody’s analyzes the city’s plan to favor its pension obligations over bonded municipal debt and post-retirement OPEB liabilities. Of course, as we noted early on, the city’s pension liabilities are quite distinct from those of other chapter 9 municipalities, such as Detroit, Central Falls, Rhode Island, and Jefferson County. Under the city’s plan, San Bernardino municipal bondholders are scheduled to receive a major buzz cut—some 45%, even as some other creditors whom we have previously described, are scheduled (and still objecting) to receive as little as a 1% recovery on unsecured claims. Thus, Moody’s concludes that the Southern California city will continue to have to confront rising pension costs and public safety needs. Moody’s adjusted net pension liability will remain unchanged at $904 million, a figure which dwarfs the projected bankruptcy savings of approximately $350 million. The California Public Employees’ Retirement System also recently reduced its discount rate, meaning the city’s already increasing pension contributions will rise even faster. Additionally, Moody’s warns, a failure to invest more in public safety or police could exacerbate already-elevated crime levels. That means the city will likely be confronted by higher capital and operating borrowing costs, noting that, even after municipal debt reductions, the city might find itself unable to fund even 50 percent of its deferred maintenance. 

However, as San Bernardino’s Mayor Davis has noted, the city, in wake of the longest municipal bankruptcy in American history, is poised for growth in the wake of outsourcing fire services to the county and waste removal services to a private contractor, and reaching agreements with city employees, including police officers and retirees, to substantially reduce healthcare OPEB benefits to lessen pension reductions. Indeed, the city’s plan of adjustment agreement on its $56 million in pension obligation bonds—and in significant part with CalPERS—meant its retirees fared better, as Moody’s has noted, than the city’s municipal bondholders to whom San Bernardino committed to pay 40 percent of what they are owed—far more than its early offer of one percent. San Bernardino’s pension bondholders succeeded in wrangling a richer recovery than the city’s opening offer of one percent, but far less than CalPERS, which received a nearly 100 percent recovery. (San Bernardino did not make some $13 million in payments to CalPERS early in the chapter 9 process, but subsequently set up payments to make the public employee pension fund whole.) The city was aided in those efforts in the wake of U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury’s ruling against the argument made by pension bond attorneys: in the wake of the city’s pension bondholders entering into mediation again prior to exit confirmation, substantial agreement was achieved for those bondholders—bondholders whose confidence in the city remains important, especially in the wake of the city’s subsequent issuance of $68 million in water and sewer bonds at competitive interest rates—with the payments to come from the city’s water and sewer revenues, which were not included in the chapter 9 bankruptcy. The proceeds from these municipal bonds were, in fact, issued to provide capital to meet critical needs to facilitate seismic upgrades to San Bernardino’s water reservoirs and funding for the first phase of the Clean Water Factor–Recycled Water Program.

The Art & Commitment of Municipal Fiscal Recovery

eBlog, 04/11/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing recovery of the city of Flint, Michigan, before heading east to one of the smallest municipalities in America, Central Falls, Rhode Island, as it maintains its epic recovery from chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, before finally turning south to assess recent developments in Puerto Rico. We note the terrible shooting yesterday at North Park Elementary School in San Bernardino; however, as former San Bernardino School Board Member Judi Penman noted, referring to the police department: “It is one of the most organized and well-prepared police departments around, and they are well prepared for this type of situation.” Indeed, even if sadly, the experience the city’s school police department gained from coordinating with the city’s police department in the wake of the December 2, 2015 terrorist attack appeared to enhance the swift and coordinated response—even as calls came in yesterday from the White House and California Gov. Jerry Brown to offer condolences and aid, according to San Bernardino Mayor Carey Davis.

Could this be a Jewel in the Crown on Flint’s Road to Fiscal Recovery? In most instances of severe municipal fiscal distress or bankruptcy, the situation has been endemic to the municipality; however, as we have noted in Jefferson County, the state can be a proximate cause. Certainly that appears to have been the case in Flint, where the Governor’s appointment of an emergency manager proved to be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back at an exceptional cost and risk to human health and safety. The fiscal challenge is, as always, what does it take to recover? In the case of Flint, the city’s hopes appear to depend upon the restoration of one of the small city’s iconic jewels: the historic, downtown Capitol Theatre—where the goal is to restore it to its original glory, dating back to 1928, when it opened as a vaudeville house: it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985, but has been empty now for more than a decade—indeed, not just empty, but rather scheduled to become still another parking lot. Instead, however, the property will undergo a $37 million renovation to become a 1,600-seat movie palace and performance venue, which will provide 28,000 square feet of ground-floor retail and second-floor office space; an additional performance space will be created in the basement for small-scale workshops, experimental theater, and other performances. Jeremy Piper, chairman of the Cultural Center Corp., a Flint lawyer, will manage the new performing arts venue in the cultural center; he will also serve as co-chair of a committee that is raising the last $4 million of the $37 million needed to bring the theater back to life. The goal and hope is that the renovated theater will, as has been the experience in other cities, such as New York City’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, help serve as a foundation for Flint’s fiscal and physical recovery. The new theater is intended to become the focal point of 12,000, 13,000, or 14,000 people coming into downtown Flint for a performance and then going out for dinner—that is, to benefit and revive a downtown economy. Indeed, already, the venture firm SkyPoint is planning to open a large fine-dining restaurant on the ground floor and mezzanine timed to the rejuvenated theater’s reopening—SkyPoint Ventures being the company co-founded by Phil Hagerman, the CEO of Flint-based Diplomat Pharmacy Inc., and his wife, Jocelyn, whose Hagerman Foundation (the author, here, notes his middle name, derived from his great grandfather, is Hagerman) donated $4 million toward the Capitol’s renovation. In 2016, the Flint-based C.S. Mott Foundation announced a grant of $15 million for the Capitol Theatre project as part of $100 million it pledged to the city in the wake of the water crisis. The project also received $5.5 million from the Michigan Strategic Fund.

The ambitious effort comes as Michigan has paid $12 million to outside attorneys for work related to the Flint drinking water crisis, but out of which nearly 30% has gone to pay criminal and civil defense attorneys hired by Gov. Rick Snyder—an amount expected to climb as the lead poisoning of Flint’s drinking water has proven to be devastating for Flint and its children, but enriching for the state’s legal industry: Jeffrey Swartz, an associate professor at Western Michigan University-Cooley Law School, notes: “It’s a lot of money…I can see $10 million to $15 million being eaten up very quickly.” He added, moreover, that the state is still “on your way up the slope” in terms of mounting legal costs. The approved value of outside legal contracts, not all of which has been spent, is at least $16.6 million, adding that the Michigan Legislature may want to appoint a commission to review the appropriateness of all outside legal bills before they are approved for payment: already, Gov. Rick Snyder’s office has spent a combined $3.35 million for outside criminal and civil defense lawyers; the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has spent $3.65 million; the Department of Health and Human Services has spent $956,000; and the Treasury Department has spent $35,555, according to figures released to the Free Press. In addition, the state has paid $340,000 to reimburse the City of Flint for some of its civil and criminal legal defense costs related to the drinking water crisis, which a task force appointed by Gov. Snyder has said was mainly brought on by mistakes made at the state level. Yet to be equitably addressed are some $1.3 million in Flint legal costs. Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, whose investigation is still ongoing, has charged 13 current or former state and municipal officials, including five from the Dept. of Environmental Quality, the Dept. of Health and Human Safety, the City of Flint, and two former state-appointed emergency managers who ran the city and reported to the state’s Treasury Department; no one, however, from Gov. Snyder’s office has been charged.

The Remarkable Recovery of Chocolateville. Central Falls, Rhode Island Mayor James A. Diossa, the remarkable elected leader who has piloted the fiscal recovery of one of the nation’s smallest cities from chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, this week noted: “Our efforts and dedication to following fiscally sound budgeting practices are clearly paying off, leaving the City in a strong position. I would like to personally thank the Council and Administrative Financial Officer Len Morganis for their efforts in helping to lead the comeback of this great City.” The Mayor’s ebullient comments came in the wake of credit rating agency Standard and Poor’s rating upgrade for one of the nation’s smallest cities from “BB” to “BBB,” with S&P noting: “Central Falls is operating under a much stronger economic and management environment since emerging from bankruptcy in 2012. The City of Central Falls now has an investment grade credit rating from S&P due to diligently following the post-bankruptcy plan in conjunction with surpassing budgetary projections.”

One of the nation’s smallest municipalities (population of 19,000, city land size of one-square-mile), Central Falls is Rhode Island’s smallest and poorest city—and the site of a George Mason University class project on municipal fiscal distress—and guidebook for municipal leaders. Its post-bankruptcy recovery under Mayor Diossa has demonstrated several years of strong budgetary performance, and has “fully adhered to the established post-bankruptcy plan,” or, as Mayor Diossa put it: “S&P’s latest ratings report is yet another sign of Central Falls’ turnaround from bankruptcy.” Mr. Morganis noted: “The City of Central Falls now has an investment grade credit rating from S&P due to diligently following the post-bankruptcy plan in conjunction with surpassing budgetary projections,” adding that the credit rating agency’s statement expressed confidence that strong budgetary performance will continue post Rhode Island State oversight. S&P, in its upgrade, credited Mayor Diossa’s commitment to sound and transparent fiscal practices, noting the small city has an adequate management environment with improved financial policies and practices under their Financial Management Assessment (FMA) methodology—and that Central Falls exhibited a strong budgetary performance, with an operating surplus in the general fund and break-even operating results at the total governmental fund level in FY2016. Moreover, S&P reported, the former mill town and manufacturer of scrumptious chocolate bars has strong liquidity, with total government available cash at 28.7% of total governmental fund expenditures and 1.9 times governmental debt service, along with a strong institutional framework score. Similarly, Maureen Gurghigian, Managing Director of Hilltop Securities, noted: “A multi-step upgrade of this magnitude is uncommon: this is a tribute to the hard work of the City’s and the Administrative Finance Officer’s adherence to their plan and excellent relationship with State Government.” The remarkable recovery comes as one of the nation’s smallest cities heads towards a formal exit from chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy at the end of FY2017. S&P, in its upgrade, noted the city is operating under a “much stronger economic and management environment,” in the wake of its 2012 exit from municipal bankruptcy, or, as Mayor Diossa, put it: “Obviously we’ve had a lot of conversations with the rating agencies, and I was hoping we’d get an upgrade of at least one notch…When we got the triple upgrade, first, I was surprised and second, it reaffirmed the work that we’re doing. Our bonds are no longer junk. We’re investment level. It’s like getting good news at a health checkup.”  S&P, in its report, noted several years of sound budgeting and full adherence to a six-year post-bankruptcy plan which state-appointed receiver and former Rhode Island Supreme Court Justice Robert Flanders crafted. The hardest part of that recovery, as Judge Flanders noted to us so many years ago in City Hall,was his swift decision to curtail the city’s pension payments—cuts of as much as 55 percent—a statement he made with obvious emotion, recognizing the human costs. (Central Falls is among the approximately one-quarter of Rhode Island municipalities with locally administered pension plans.) Unsurprisingly, Mayor Diossa, maintains he is “fully committed” to the fiscal discipline first imposed by Judge Flanders, noting the municipality had a general fund surplus of 11% of expenditures in FY2016, and adding: “That reserve fund is very important.” He noted Central Falls also expects a surplus for this fiscal year, adding that the city’s expenses are 3% below budget, and that even as the city has reduced the residential property tax rate for the first time in a decade, even as it has earmarked 107% of its annual required contribution to the pension plan and contributed $100,000 toward its future OPEB liability.

The End of an Era? Mayor Diossa, recounting the era of chapter 9 bankruptcies, noted Pennsylvania’s capital, Harrisburg, in 2011; Jefferson County, Alabama; Stockton, Mammoth Lakes and San Bernardino, California; and Detroit: “I think Central Falls is a microcosm of all of them…I followed Detroit and heard all the discussions. They had the same issues that we had…sky-high costs, not budgeting appropriately,” adding his credit and appreciation—most distinctly from California—of the State of Rhode Island’s longstanding involvement: “The state’s been very involved,” commending Governors Lincoln Chafee and Gina Raimondo. Nevertheless, he warns: fiscal challenges remain; indeed, S&P adds: “The city’s debt and contingent liability profile is very weak…We view the pension and other post-employment benefit [OPEB] liabilities as a credit concern given the very low funded ratio and high fixed costs…They are still a concern with wealth metrics and resources that are probably below average for Rhode Island, so that’s a bit of a disadvantage…That adds more importance to the fact that they achieved an investment-grade rating through what I think is pretty good financial management and getting their house in order.” The city’s location, said Diossa, is another means to trumpet the city.

The Uncertainties of Fiscal Challenges. Natalie Jaresko is the newly named Executive Director of the PROMESA federal control board overseeing Puerto Rico’s finances, who previously served during a critical time in Ukraine’s history from 2014 to 2016 as it faced a deep recession, and about whom PROMESA Board Chair Jose Carrion noted: “Ukraine’s situation three years ago, like Puerto Rico’s today, was near catastrophic, but she worked with stakeholders to bring needed reforms that restored confidence, economic vitality and reinvestment in the country and its citizens. That’s exactly what Puerto Rico needs today;” came as Ms. Jaresko yesterday told the Board that with the tools at its disposal, Puerto Rico urgently needs to reduce the fiscal deficit and restructure the public debt, “all at once,” while acknowledging that the austerity measures may cause “things to get worse before they get better.” Her dire warnings came as the U.S. territory’s recovery prospects for the commonwealth’s general obligation and COFINA bonds continued to weaken, and, in the wake of last week’s moody Moody’s dropping of the Commonwealth’s debt ratings to its lowest rating, C, which equates with a less than 35% recovery on defaulted debt. Or, as our respected colleagues at Municipal Market Analytics put it: “[T]he ranges of potential bondholder outcomes are much wider than those, with a materially deeper low-end. For some (or many) of the commonwealth’s most lightly secured bonds (e.g., GDB, PFC, etc.) recoveries could hypothetically dip into the single digits. Further, any low end becomes more likely the longer Puerto Rico’s restructuring takes to achieve as time:

1) Allows progressively more negative economic data to materialize, forcing all parties to adopt more conservative and sustainable projections for future commonwealth revenues;

2) Allows local stakeholder groups—in particular students and workers—to organize and expand nascent protest efforts, further affecting the political center of gravity on the island;

3) Worsens potential entropy in commonwealth legislative outcomes;

4) Frustrates even pro-bondholder policymakers in the US Congress, which has little interest in, or ability to, re-think PROMESA and/or Federal aid compacts with the commonwealth.”

On the other hand, the longer the restructuring process ultimately takes, the more investable will be the security that the island borrows against in the future (whatever that is). So while the industry in general would likely benefit from a faster resolution that removes Puerto Rico from the headlines, the traditional investors who will consider lending to a “fixed” commonwealth should prefer that all parties take their time. Finally, if bleakly, MMA notes: “In our view, reliable projections of bondholder recovery impossible, and we fail to understand how any rating agency with an expected loss methodology can rate Puerto Rico’s bonds at all…Remember that the Governor’s Fiscal Plan, accepted by the Oversight Board, makes available about a quarter of the debt service to be paid on tax-backed debt through 2027, down from about 35% that was in the prior plan that the Board rejected. As we’ve noted before, the severity of the proposal greatly reduces the likelihood that an agreement will be reached with creditors by May 1 (when the stay on litigation ends), not only increasing the prospect of a Title III restructuring (cram down) un-der PROMESA, but also a host of related creditor litigation against the plan itself and board decisions both large and small. The outcomes of even normal litigation risks are inherently unpredictable, but the prospects here for multi-layered, multi-dimensional lawsuits create a problem several orders of magnitude worse than normal.

Governance Insolvency?

eBlog, 2/10/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider an increasing governance insolvency in Petersburg, Virginia—a virtually fiscally insolvent municipality, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s request to the Michigan legislature for an additional $48 million for the City of Flint, and the efforts of Puerto Rico to adjust itself to the new administration and Congress in Washington, D.C.

Governance Insolvency? Petersburg, Virginia City Council members, at the first council meeting since residents had petitioned a court to remove the Mayor and a Councilmember from office, were confronted with copies of “Robert’s Rules of Order,” and an organizational chart explaining that the voters are in charge. Nonetheless, that was insufficient to prevent the Council from suspending its own rules over complaints from its own members and city residents to allow for a vote to permit the use of taxpayers’ dollars for the hiring of a private lawyer to defend Mayor Samuel Parham and Councilman W. Howard Myers from removal petitions. The move appeared to further inflame tensions between Petersburg’s governing body and the community it serves at a time when the Council has come under fire from good-government advocates and the ACLU of Virginia. The vote followed a brief recess called after Petersburg resident Ron Flock requested to learn when the Council had (publicly) voted to hire an attorney to defend Mayor Parham and Councilmember Myers, noting: “There should be no reason why (the City Attorney) cannot represent the defendants in this hearing…At what point did you as City Council approve this expenditure?” The query came in the wake, at the beginning of this week, of Richmond attorney, James Cornwell, appearing in court to defend the Mayor and Councilmember against allegations of “neglect, misuse of office, and incompetence” that voters from their respective wards had lodged in January in Petersburg Circuit Court. Councilmember Wilson-Smith noted: “This resolution does not say how much this is costing and where the money is coming from, and I would like to know that,” with regard to the proposed resolution in advance of her vote in opposition. Neither the Mayor nor Councilmember recused themselves from voting: each voted on the measure over the dissent of audience members, who at first murmured, then hooted their disapproval at their decision not to recuse themselves from the vote. The petitioners who are seeking to oust the two elected officials have supported their ouster in large part because of their perceptions about not only their roles in the city’s collapse into insolvency, but also allegations with regard to their ethical breaches and violations of open-government law. (Virginia statutes allow for the removal of elected officials for specific reasons, which include certain criminal convictions.)

City Council Ethics, Conduct, & Insolvency. The kerfuffle came as Robert Bobb, the former Richmond City Manager, whom the city hired last October to help address its insolvency, unveiled proposed revisions to the City Council’s rules, including provisions for Councilmembers’ conduct and a detailed explanation of state laws on open records. Mr. Bobb spent time on how those laws applied to public meetings, an issue identified by the ACLU of Virginia last November in an epistle sharply critical of Council practices which the ACLU wrote violated “the spirit of open-government laws.” Mr. Bobb also formally named Joseph Preston, whom the city had retained last October as the new City Attorney, as Petersburg’s official parliamentarian. (In fact, it was in October that Mr. Preston had defended a Council vote to hire the Bobb Group that several registered parliamentarians then said appeared to be in violation of both the Council’s rules at the time and Petersburg’s charter.) Mr. Preston told the Mayor and Council it was too soon to estimate what the cost to the city’s budget and taxpayers would be to defend that Mayor and Councilmember—with the case to commence before Petersburg Circuit Judge Joseph M. Teefey Jr. next week.

Not in like Flint. State of Michigan officials have decided to end the state-funded water subsidies which, since 2014, had helped Flint residents—a city where more than 40 percent of the residents live below the federal poverty level—and where the median household income is $24,862—pay their water bills after the city’s water system became contaminated with lead due to decisions and actions taken by Gov. Rick Snyder’s former appointed Emergency Manager. Word of the abrupt state cutoff spread yesterday in the wake of a senior advisor to the Governor sending a letter to the city’s interim chief financial officer, David Sabuda, that the state credits, which applied to the water portion of Flint utility customers’ accounts, would end at the end of this month: the March billing statement will be the last to include the water usage credits, which were 20 percent for commercial customers and 65 percent for residential. In addition, the state will also no longer provide $1.2 million in monthly funding for the water the city receives from the Great Lakes Water Authority. Flint Mayor Karen Weaver issued a statement expressing concern at the manner and abruptness of the state’s action; nevertheless, she described it as a welcome sign that the city’s water is improving. The Governor’s decision comes after, last December, charges were filed against two of Gov. Snyder’s former appointed state emergency managers for the city—they were accused of misleading the Michigan Department of Treasury into issuing millions in municipal bonds, but then misused the proceeds to finance the construction of a new pipeline and force Flint’s drinking water source to be switched to the contaminated Flint River. The decision also came just ten days after the filing of a $722 million class action lawsuit against the EPA on behalf of more than 1,700 residents impacted by the water crisis. In response to the abrupt state cutoff, however, Mayor Weaver described the Governor’s action as a sign that the city’s water quality had improved—albeit stopping short of saying it was entirely safe: “I am aware that the water quality in the City of Flint is improving and that is a good thing…We knew the state’s assistance with these water-related expenses would come to an end at some point. I just wish we were given more notice so we at City Hall, and the residents, had more time to prepare for the changes.”

Federalism, Governance, & Hegemony. Former Puerto Rico Governor Anibal Acevedo Vilá yesterday brought a message from the Popular Democratic Party (PDP) to U.S. Senate leaders, saying that the New Progressive Party has legislated “another rigged status consultation” to fabricate a majority in favor of statehood, meeting with Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), an old ally of his collective, and advisors of the Chair Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Chair of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee and Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Washington). The apparent intention was to begin to build a relationship with Jeff Sessions, whom the U.S. Senate yesterday confirmed as the new U.S. Attorney General. It would be in his newly confirmed capacity that the Attorney General would be in a position to approve a plebiscite’s ballot definitions and educational campaign between statehood and political sovereignty (free association or independence), which the NPP Government has set for this coming June 11th. Mr. Acevedo Vilá noted that by excluding a Commonwealth definition from the consultation, be it sovereign or developed, “a very high percentage of the Puerto Rican population” has been excluded. The former Governor of the U.S. territory is pursuing the presidency of his party; he will face former Representative Héctor Ferrer by the end of the month. He was accompanied by a delegation of legislators from his party, such as Luis Vega Ramos and Brenda López de Arrarás, who have also had their own meetings with Members of Congress concerning status, healthcare, and federal tax incentives for investment in Puerto Rico.

The meetings came as the PROMESA Puerto Rico Oversight Board fired off two letters this month asserting its authority over Puerto Rico’s legislature as its effort to oversee the island’s economy and address the debt crisis have, unsurprisingly, encountered resistance from Puerto Rico’s elected officials. Last week, the PROMESA Board sent a letter to the governor’s representative on the board, Elías Sánchez, asserting that it has many ways it can control the legislature even though Puerto Rico has yet to adopt a fiscal plan, pointing to §207 and §303 of the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act, which address the board’s oversight of the government’s handling of debt. In addition, the board noted §204(a)(1)-(2), which states, “Except to the extent that the oversight board may provide otherwise in its bylaws, rules, and procedures, not later than seven business days after a territorial government duly enacts any law during any fiscal year in which the oversight board is in operation, the Governor shall submit the law to the oversight board.” The federal law adds that such submission is supposed to be accompanied by an independent entity’s estimate of the law’s cost: if the board finds the law inconsistent with the fiscal plan, the board can ask for it to be corrected or blocked. In the PROMESA Board’s epistle of last week, the letter notes that its review of the laws “is independent of the existence of a certified fiscal plan.” Since this PROMESA section is titled “Review of activities to ensure compliance with fiscal plan,” however, this is unclear.

The issue arose even as, this week, the PROMESA Board fired off another missive stating: “We believe that all government entities need to do the utmost to reduce expenses, including those relating to professional service contracts, as soon as possible and as much as possible,” noting the board “is currently focused on the goal of certifying a ten-year fiscal plan for Puerto Rico.” (Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló is supposed to submit a proposed fiscal plan covering government revenues and spending by February 21st—while the PROMESA Board has set a March 15th deadline to certify the plan. Yet the nature of the U.S. hegemony remains at issue: Puerto Rico’s Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz has threatened to sue the Oversight Board if it attempts to exercise authority over the legislature, according to the El Vocero news website.  

 

 

What Is a State’s Role in Averting Municipal Fiscal Contagion?

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eBlog, 9/28/16

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider, again, the risk of municipal fiscal contagion—and what the critical role of a state might be as the small municipality of Petersburg, Virginia’s fiscal plight appears to threaten neighboring municipalities and utilities: Virginia currently lacks a clearly defined legal or legislated route to address not just insolvency, but also to avoid the spread of fiscal contagion. Nor does the state appear to have any policy to enhance the ability of its cities to fiscally strengthen themselves. Then we try to go to school in Detroit—where the state almost seems intent on micromanaging the city’s public and charter schools so critical to the city’s long-term fiscal future. Then we jet to O’Hare to consider an exceptionally insightful report raising our age-old question with regard to: are there too many municipalities in a region? Since we’re there, we then look at the eroding fiscal plight of Cook County’s largest municipality: Chicago, a city increasingly caught between the fiscal plights of its public schools and public pension liabilities.  From thence we go up the river to Flint, where Congressional action last night might promise some fiscal hope—before, finally, ending this morn’s long journey in East Cleveland—where a weary Mayor continues to await a response from the State of Ohio—making the wait for Godot seem impossibly short—and the non-response from the State increasingly irresponsible.

Where Was Virginia While Petersburg Was Fiscally Collapsing? President Obama yesterday helicoptered into Fort Lee, just 4.3 miles from the fiscally at risk municipality of Petersburg, in a region where Petersburg’s regional partners are wondering whether they will ever be reimbursed for delinquent bills: current regional partners to which the city owes money include the South Central Wastewater Authority, Appomattox River Water Authority, Central Virginia Waste Management, Riverside Regional Jail, Crater Criminal Justice Academy, and Crater Youth Care Commission. Acting City Manager Dironna Moore Belton has apparently advised these authorities to expect a partial payment in October—or as a spokesperson of a law firm yesterday stated: “The City appears committed to meeting its financial obligations for these important and necessary services going forward and to starting to pay down past due amounts dating back to the 2016 fiscal year…We appreciate the plan the city presented; however we have to reserve judgment until we see whether the City follows through on these commitments.” One option, it appears, alluded to by the Acting City Manager would be via a tax anticipation note. Given the municipality’s virtual insolvency, however, such additional borrowing would likely come at a frightful cost.

The municipality is caught in a fiscal void. It appears to have totally botched the rollout of new water meters intended to reduce leakage and facilitate more efficient billing. It appears to be insolvent—and imperiling the fiscal welfare of other municipalities and public utilities in its region. It appears the city has been guilty of charges that when it did collect water bills, it diverted funds toward other activities and failed to remit to the water authority. While it seems the city has paid the Virginia Resources Authority to stave off default, questions have arisen with regard to the role of the Commonwealth of Virginia—one of the majority of states which does not permit municipalities to file for chapter 9 bankruptcy. But questions have also arisen with regard to what role—or lack of a role—the state has played over the last two fiscal years, years in which the city’s auditor has given it a clean signoff on its CAFRs; and GFOA awarded the city its award for financial reporting. There is, of course, also the bedeviling query: if Virginia law does not permit localities to go into municipal bankruptcy, and if Petersburg’s insolvency threatens the fiscal solvency of a public regional utility and, potentially, other regional municipalities, what is the state role and responsibility—a state, after all, which rightly is apprehensive that is its coveted AAA credit rating could be at risk were Petersburg to become insolvent.

In this case, it seems that Petersburg passed the Virginia State Auditor’s scrutiny because (1) it submitted the required documents according to the state’s schedule, regardless of whether or not the numbers were correct; (2) the firm used by the city was probably out of its league. (It appears Petersburg used a firm that specialized in small town audits); (3) the City Council apparently did not focus on material weaknesses identified by the private CPA (nor did the State Auditor). The previous city manager, by design, accident, or level of competence, simply did not put up much of a struggle when the Council would amend the budget in mid-year to increase spending—a task no doubt politically challenging in the wake of the Great Recession—a fiscal slam which, according to the State Auditor’s presentation, devastated the city’s finances, forcing the city in a posture of surviving off cash reserves. (http://sfc.virginia.gov/pdf/committee_meeting_presentations/2016%20Interim/092216_No2b_Mavredes_SFC%20Locality%20Fiscal%20Indicators%20Overview.pdf). Now, in the wake of fiscal failures at both levels of government, the Virginia Senate Finance Committee last week devoted a great deal of time discussing “early warning systems,” or fiscal distress trip wires which would alert a state early on of impending municipal fiscal distress. Currently, in Virginia, no state agency has the responsibility for such an activity. That augurs ill: it means the real question is: is Petersburg an anomaly or the beginning of a trend?

The challenge for the state—because its credit rating could be adversely affected if it fails to act, and Petersburg’s fiscal contagion spreads to its regional neighbors and public utilities, a larger question for the Governor and legislators might be with regard to the state’s strictures in Virginia which bar municipal bankruptcy, bar annexation, prohibit local income taxes, cap local sales tax, and have been increasing state-driven costs for K-12, line-of-duty, water and wastewater, etc.

Who’s Governing a City’ Future? Michigan Attorney General Bill Scheutte yesterday stated the state would close poorly performing Detroit schools by the end of the current academic year if they ranked among the state’s worst in the past three years in an official legal opinion—an opinion contradictory to a third-party legal analysis that Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration had said would prevent the state from forcing closure any Detroit public schools until at least 2019, because they had been transferred to a new debt-free district as part of a financial rescue package legislators approved this year—a state law which empowers the School Reform Office authority to close public schools which perform in the lowest five percent for three consecutive years. Indeed, in his opinion, Attorney General Scheutte wrote that enabling the state’s $617 million district bailout specified Detroit closures should be mandatory unless such closures would result in an unreasonable hardship for students, writing: “The law is clear: Michigan parents and their children do not have to be stuck indefinitely in a failing school…Detroit students and parents deserve accountability and high performing schools. If a child can’t spell opportunity, they won’t have opportunity.” The Attorney General’s opinion came in response to a request by Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof (R-West Olive) and House Speaker Kevin Cotter (R-Mount Pleasant) as part of the issue with regard to whether the majority in the state legislature, the City of Detroit, or the Detroit Public Schools ought to be guiding DPS, currently under Emergency Manager retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes would best serve the interest of the city’s children. It appears, at least from the perspective of the state capitol, this will be a decision preempted by the state, with the Governor’s School Reform Office seemingly likely to ultimately decide whether to close any number of struggling schools around the state—a decision his administration has said would likely be made—even as the school year is already underway—“a couple of months” away. The state office last month released a list of 124 schools that performed in the bottom 5 percent last year, on which list more than a third, 47, were Detroit schools.

Nevertheless, the governance authority to so disrupt a city’s public school system is hardly clear: John Walsh, Gov. Snyder’s director of strategic policy, had told The Detroit News that the state could not immediately close any Detroit schools, citing an August 2nd legal memorandum Miller Canfield attorneys sent Detroit school district emergency manager Judge Rhodes, a memorandum which made clear that the transferral of Detroit schools to a new-debt free district under the provisions of the state-enacted legislation had essentially reset the three-year countdown clock allowing the state to close them—a legal position the state attorney general yesterday rejected, writing: a school “need not be operated by the community district for the immediately preceding three school years before it is subject to closure.” Michigan State Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo (D-Detroit) reacted to the state opinion by noting it would not give Detroit’s schools a chance to make serious improvements as part of so-called “fresh start” promised by the legislature as part of the $617 million school reform package enacted last June, noting that she believes the timing of its release—just one week before student count day—is part of an intentional effort to destabilize the district: “We could possibly lose students, because parents are afraid and confused, that’s what this is all about…They want the district to implode…They want to completely remake public education, and implode the district to charter the district. There’s big money in charter schools…This is about business over children.”

Are There Too Many Municipalities? Can We Afford Them All? The Chicago Civic Federation recently released a report, “Unincorporated Cook County: A Profile of Unincorporated Areas in Cook County and Recommendations to Facilitate Incorporation,” which examines unincorporated areas in Cook County—a county with a population larger than that of 29 individual states—and the combined populations of the seven smallest states—a county in which there are some 135 incorporated municipalities partially or wholly within the county, the largest of which is the City of Chicago, home to approximately 54% of the population of the county. Approximately 2.4%, or 126,034, of Cook County’s 5.2 million residents live in unincorporated areas of the County and therefore do not pay taxes to a municipality. According to Civic Federation calculations, Cook County spends approximately $42.9 million annually in expenses related to the delivery of municipal-type services to unincorporated areas, including law enforcement, building and zoning and liquor control. Because the areas only generate $24.0 million toward defraying the cost of these special services, County taxpayers effectively pay an $18.9 million subsidy, even as they pay taxes for their own municipal services. The portion of Cook County which lies outside Chicago’s city limits is divided into 30 townships, which often divide or share governmental services with local municipalities. Thus, this new report builds on the long-term effort by the Federation in the wake of its 2014 comprehensive analysis of all unincorporated areas in Cook County as well as recommendations to assist the County in eliminating unincorporated areas. .In this new report, the Federation looks at the $18.9 million cost to the County of providing municipal-type services in unincorporated areas compared to revenue generated from the unincorporated areas, finding it spent approximately $18.9 million more on unincorporated area services than the total revenue it collected in those areas in FY2014, including nearly $24.0 million in revenues generated from the unincorporated areas of the county compared to $42.9 million in expenses related to the delivery of municipal-type services to the unincorporated areas of the county—or, as the report notes: “In sum, all Cook County taxpayers provide an $18.9 million subsidy to residents in the unincorporated areas. On a per capita basis, the variance between revenues and expenditures is $150, or the difference between $340 per capita in expenditures versus $190 per capita in revenues collected. The report found that in that fiscal year, Cook County’s cost to provide law enforcement, building and zoning, animal control and liquor control services was approximately $42.9 million or $340.49 per resident of the unincorporated areas. The following chart identifies the Cook County agencies that provide services to the unincorporated areas and the costs associated with providing those services. The county’s services to these unincorporated areas are funded through a variety of taxes and fees, including revenues generated from both incorporated and unincorporated taxpayers to fund operations countywide: some revenues are generated or are distributed solely within the unincorporated areas, such as income taxes, building and zoning fees, state sales taxes, wheel taxes (the wheel tax is an annual license fee authorizing the use of any motor vehicle within the unincorporated area of Cook County). The annual rate varies depending on the type of vehicle as well as a vehicle’s class, weight, and number of axles. Receipts from this tax are deposited in the Public Safety Fund. In FY2014 the tax generated an estimated $3.8 million., and business and liquor license fees, but the report found these areas also generated revenues from the Cook County sales and property taxes, which totaled nearly $15.5 million in revenue, noting, however, those taxes are imposed at the same rate in both incorporated and unincorporated areas and are used to fund all county functions. With regard to revenues generated solely within the unincorporated areas of the county, the Federation wrote that the State of Illinois allocates income tax funds to Cook County based on the number of residents in unincorporated areas: if unincorporated areas are annexed to municipalities, then the distribution of funds is correspondingly reduced by the number of inhabitants annexed into municipalities. Thus, in FY2014, Cook County collected approximately $12.0 million in income tax distribution based on the population of residents residing in the unincorporated areas of Cook County. The report determined the Wheel Tax garnered an estimated $3.8 million in FY2014 from the unincorporated areas; $3.7 million from permit and zoning fees (including a contractor’s business registration fee, annual inspection fees, and local public entity and non-profit organization fees (As of December 1, 2014, all organizations are required to pay 100% of standard building, zoning and inspection fees.). The County receives a cut of the Illinois Retailer’s Occupation Tax (a tax on the sale of certain merchandise at the rate of 6.25%. Of the 6.25%, 1.0% of the 6.25% is distributed to Cook County for sales made in the unincorporated areas of the County. In FY2014 this amounted to approximately $2.8 million in revenue. However, if the unincorporated areas of Cook County are annexed by a municipality this revenue would be redirected to the municipalities that annexed the unincorporated areas.) Cook County also receives a fee from cable television providers for the right and franchise to construct and operate cable television systems in unincorporated Cook County (which garnered nearly $1.3 million in revenue in FY2104). Businesses located in unincorporated Cook County pay an annual fee in order to obtain a liquor license that allows for the sale of alcoholic liquor. The minimum required license fee is $3,000 plus additional background check fees and other related liquor license application fees. In FY2014 these fees generated $365,904. Finally, businesses in unincorporated Cook County engaged in general sales, involved in office operations, or not exempt are required to obtain a Cook County general business license—for which a fee of $40 for a two-year license is imposed—enough in FY2014 for the county to count approximately $32,160 in revenue.

Who’s Financing a City’s Future? It almost seems as if the largest municipality within Cook County is caught between its past and its future—here it is accrued public pension liabilities versus its public schools. The city has raised taxes and moved to shore up its debt-ridden pension system—obligated by the Illinois constitution to pay, but under further pressure and facing a potential strike by its teachers, who are seeking greater benefits. The Chicago arithmetic for the public schools, the nation’s third-largest public school district is an equation which counts on the missing variables of state aid and union concessions—neither of which appears to be forthcoming. Indeed, this week, Moody’s, doing its own moody math, cut the Big Shoulder city’s credit rating deeper into junk, citing its “precarious liquidity” and reliance on borrowed money, even as preliminary data demonstrated a continuing enrollment decline drop of almost 14,000 students—a decline that will add fiscal insult to injury and, likely, provoke potential investors to insist upon higher interest rates. According to the Chicago Board of Education, enrollment has eroded from some 414,000 students in 2007 to 396,000 last year: a double whammy, because it not only reduces its funding, but likely also means the Mayor’s goal of drawing younger families to move into the city might not be working. In our report on Chicago, we had noted: “The demographics are recovering from the previous decade which saw an exodus of 200,000. In the decade, the city lost 7.1% of its jobs. Now, revenues are coming back, but the city faces an exceptional challenge in trying to shape its future. With a current debt level of $63,525 per capita, one expert noted that if one included the debt per capita with the unfunded liability per capita, the city would be a prime “candidate for fiscal distress.” Nevertheless, unemployment is coming down (11.3% unemployment, seasonally adjusted) and census data demonstrated the city is returning as a destination for the key demographic group, the 25-29 age group, which grew from 227,000 in 2006 to 274,000 by end of 2011.) Ergo, the steady drop in enrollment could signal a reversal of those once “recovering” demographics. Or, as Moody’s notes, the chronic financial strains may lead investors to demand higher interest rates—rates already unaffordably high with yields of as much as 9 percent, according to Moody’s. Like an olden times Pac-Man, principal and interest rate costs are chewing into CPS’s budget consuming more than 10 percent of this year’s $5.4 billion budget, or as the ever perspicacious Richard Ciccarone of Merritt Research Services in the Windy City put it: “To say that they’re challenged is an understatement…The problems that they’re having poses risks to continued operations and the timely repayment of liabilities.” Moody’s VP in Chicago Rachel Cortez notes: “Because the reserves and the liquidity have weakened steadily over the past few years, there’s less room for uncertainty in the budget: They don’t have any cash left to buffer against revenue or expenditure assumptions that don’t pan out.” And the math threatens to worsen: CPS’ budget for FY2016-17 anticipate the school district will gain concessions from the union, including phasing out CPS’ practice of covering most of teachers’ pension contributions—a phase-out the teachers’ union has already rejected; CPS is also counting on $215 million in aid contingent on Illinois adopting a pension overhaul—the kind of math made virtually impossible under the state’s constitution, r, as Moody’s would put it: an “unrealistic expectations.” Even though lawmakers approved a $250 million property-tax levy for teachers’ pensions, those funds will not be forthcoming until after the end of the fiscal year—and they will barely make a dent in CPS’s $10 billion in unfunded retirement liabilities.

Out Like Flint. The City of Flint will continue to receive its water from the Great Lakes Water Authority for another year, time presumed to be sufficient to construct a newly required stretch of pipeline and allow for testing of water Flint will treat from its new source, the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA). The decision came as the Senate, in its race to leave Washington, D.C. yesterday, passed legislation to appropriate some $170 million—but funds which would only actually be available and finally acted upon in December when Congress is scheduled to come back from two months’ of recess—after the House of Representatives adopted an amendment to a water projects bill, the Water Resources Development Act, which would authorize—but not appropriate—the funds for communities such as Flint where the president has declared a state of emergency because of contaminants like lead. Meanwhile, the Michigan Strategic Fund, an arm of the Michigan Economic Development Corp., Tuesday approved a loan of up to $3.5 million to help Flint finance the $7.5-million pipeline the EPA is requiring to allow treated KWA water to be tested for six months before it is piped to Flint residents to drink. While the pipeline connecting Flint and Lake Huron is almost completed, the EPA wants an additional 3.5-mile pipeline constructed so that Flint residents can continue to be supplied with drinking water from the GLWA in Detroit while raw KWA water, treated at the Flint Water Treatment Plant, is tested for six months. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is expected to pay $4.2 million of the pipeline cost through a grant, with the loan covering the balance of the cost. Even though the funds the Strategic Fund has approved is in the form of a loan, with 2% interest and 15 years of payments beginning in October of 2018, state officials said they were considering various funding sources to repay the loan so cash-strapped Flint will not be on the hook for the money. Time is of the essence; Flint’s emergency contract for Detroit water, which has already been extended, is currently scheduled to end next June 30th.  

Waiting for Godot. Last April 27th, East Cleveland Mayor Gary Norton wrote to Ohio State Tax Commissioner Joseph W. Testa for approval for his city to file chapter 9 bankruptcy: “Given East Cleveland’s decades-long economic decline and precipitous decrease in revenue, the City is hereby requesting your approval of its Petition for Municipal Bankruptcy. Despite the City’s best Efforts, East Cleveland is insolvent pursuant…Based upon Financial Appropriations projections for the years 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019, the City will be unable to sustain basic Fire, Police, EMS or rubbish collection services. The City has tried to negotiate with its creditors in good faith as required by 11 U.S.C. 109. It has been a somewhat impracticable effort. The City’s Financial Recovery Plan, approved by the City Council, the Financial Commission and the Fiscal Supervisors, while intended to restore the City to fiscal solvency, will have the effect of decimating our safety forces. Hence, our goal to effect a plan that will adjust our debts pursuant to 11 U.S.C. 109 puts us in a catch-22 that is unrealistic. This is particularly true now that petitions for Merger/Annexation with the City of Cleveland have been delayed by court action in the decision of Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Michael Russo, Court Case No. 850236.” Mayor Norton closed his letter: “Thank you for your prompt consideration of this urgent matter.” He is still waiting.

 

The Hard Challenges of Fiscal Recovery

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eBlog, 7/05/16

In this morning’s eBlog, we focus—again—on the ongoing efforts to protect the health and safety of the citizens of Flint, Michigan, and the so far remarkable fiscal recovery of Detroit’s surrounding county of Wayne, which was itself on the brink of insolvency. We note that East Cleveland deferred a Council vote last night on whether to seek annexation with Cleveland.

In Like Flint. The Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA) board yesterday voted to extend its emergency service agreement with the city of Flint for an additional year without an increase in charges through the term of the agreement. The GLWA was created in November of 2014 to provide water and waste water services to 126 municipalities in seven Southeastern Michigan counties, and which, commencing this year, assumed operational, infrastructure improvements, environmental compliance and budget-setting responsibilities for the regional water and sewage treatment plants, major water transmission mains and sewage interceptors, and related facilities, leases these facilities from the City of Detroit for an allocation of $50 million per year to fund capital improvements for the City of Detroit retail system and/or debt obligations. GLWA also funds a Water Residential Assistance Program to assist low-income residential customers throughout the system. The GLWA board includes one representative each from Oakland, Macomb, and Wayne counties, as well as two representatives from the City of Detroit, and one from the State of Michigan to represent customer communities outside the tri-county area. GLWA CEO Sue McCormick noted: “This tragedy continues to increase costs for a city that is experiencing a public health emergency, and we want to reassure residents the GLWA will not increase costs to them through the term of the city’s agreement with us. As a larger, established system, we have the ability to hold the line on charges for Flint in light of the public health situation they are facing.” (Flint’s water supply was switched from the Detroit water authority to the Flint River to cut costs in 2014 in anticipation of an eventual move to the Karegnondi Water Authority, when it starts taking water from Lake Huron. Just when Flint will start receiving water from Karegnondi is uncertain: it was expected to be by the end of this summer, but now Karegnondi is not expected to be operational until next summer; Flint’s connection to it will come sometime after that.

Batman. Wayne County, the most populous in Michigan, with nearly 2 million, where the county seat is Detroit, nearly followed Detroit into insolvency, but now, in the wake of cutting retiree health-care bills, public pension benefits, labor costs, it has earned higher ratings from credit rating agencies: Fitch Ratings last month raised it four levels to BB+—one step below investment grade, and Moody’s and S&P also raised their outlooks. The County now projects that by the end of this fiscal year, the government expects to have a surplus of $67.6 million, compared to a deficit of $146 million in FY2013—or, as County Executive Warren Evans put it: “We had to agree on the size of the problem before we could agree on how to fix it…We did a good job assessing our debt and making stakeholders aware of the situation.” A financial review from auditing firm Ernst & Young, coupled with research from a group put together during Mr. Evans’ transition into office, determined that among the major issues the county confronted were dealing with a $70-million deficit, and pension funding at 45%, down from 95% just a decade earlier. Nevertheless, the road to recovery is pock-marked with potholes: the county still has a junk-level grade from all three major rating companies. Moreover, it faces a shrinking population and an unemployment rate in May that was 5.7 percent, a full percentage point higher than the national rate. Wayne also confronts new costs as it plans to issue municipal debt to finance a jail (in Detroit)—in addition to the debt service it is already paying on some $200 million of municipal bonds issued six years ago for a new facility which was halted midway through construction because of cost overruns: some of that debt service is supported by a federal interest subsidy—a subsidy under review by the Internal Revenue Service. In addition, a judge has ordered improvements at Wayne’s existing jail after finding that Wayne County neglected maintenance. Nevertheless, compared to 2015, when Gov. Rick Snyder was contemplating the appointment of an Emergency Manager for the county, Mr. Evans’ recovery plan, a plan which included cutting future pension and health-care benefits for retirees and 5 percent across-the-board wage cuts (designed to save $230 million over four years), earned the county a consent agreement with the state that left it in charge of its own destiny, but it required officials to work together to turn around the county’s finances, eventually paving the way for Mr. Evans to reach agreements with 11 employee unions that cut its unfunded liabilities for retiree health-care benefits. S&P notes that today Wayne County still faces challenges including a “weak tax base,” but if the county keeps up its improvements, it may work its way back to investment grade. Or, as S&P credit analyst John Sauter put it: “They’re in much better shape, but the question is whether they can keep up and stay there.”

Annexation or Municipal Bankruptcy? The Mayor and Council of East Cleveland last night voted to table until the 19th a vote on proposed ordinance 04-16, an ordinance declaring the desire of the City Council of East Cleveland to enter into negotiations with the City of Cleveland for annexation by Cleveland (for corporate municipal purposes only). If adopted, the ordinance would trigger the appointment of three Commissioners to represent East Cleveland—as well as a letter from Mayor Norton to the Cleveland Foundation pledging his support and cooperation for a fiscal analysis and report by Conway Mackenzie, Inc. Interestingly, that would defer the vote to the middle of the RNC Convention in Cleveland.