The Political & Fiscal Challenges of Recovery

September 19, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the uncertain fiscal outlook for Hartford – and Connecticut, the ongoing recovery in Detroit from the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy, municipal fiscal erosion in Pennsylvania, and some of the fiscal and physical impacts of Hurricane Irma on Puerto Rico.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

On the Edge of a Fiscal State/Local Cliff. Connecticut lawmakers passed a $40.7 billion two-year state budget early on Saturday; however, Governor Dannel Malloy could veto the legislation and leave the state racing toward severe spending cuts next month. The budget uncertainty came as the state’s capitol city Hartford is approaching debt repayment deadlines this month and next—and now the state budget uncertainty is becoming a major threat to the city; Moody’s noted: “The city owes $3.8 million in September, followed by $26.9 million in October,” with October the “heaviest debt service month this year,” apparently the result of the city’s borrowing $20 million last April to cover its cash flow problems.  Thus, with the Legislature and Gov. Dannel Malloy unable to agree on a balanced state budget, the credit rating agency notes this could be a potentially huge problem for Hartford, writing: “Approximately half of the city’s general fund revenues are derived from state aid, leaving Hartford heavily exposed to the state’s budget delay: If the delay continues, Hartford is in danger of depleting its already weak reserves between now and the end of this calendar year.” And this could become a municipal fiscal cancer—not just for Hartford, but also Bridgeport and New Haven. Mayor Luke Bronin noted: “The absence of a state budget significantly exacerbates Hartford’s fiscal crisis and accelerates our cash flow challenge.” While Gov. Malloy has issued a temporary plan to cover for the lack of a state budget, that plan would sharply cut state aid to cities and towns. Mayor Bronin said that plan, if continued through the rest of FY2018, would mean Hartford “would face a shortfall of about $100 million out of a municipal budget of $329 million.” Thus, he noted: “While we’re focused on managing our liquidity and maintaining basic services, there’s obviously no way to manage a shortfall of that magnitude indefinitely…We are exploring all of our options to restructure Hartford’s obligations and put our Capital City on a sustainable path.” Moody’s, in its assessment, described Hartford’s “path to fiscal sustainability” as one “likely require debt restructuring along with some combination of labor concessions, other expenditure cuts, and new revenues,” albeit not opining on whether debt restructuring to extend the city’s repayment schedule or bankruptcy would be the likelier outcome, but noting that the city’s debt service costs are expected to “ramp up” from $44 million in the current fiscal year to $57 million in 2018-19, and will then continue to grow almost steadily through 2020-21. Thus, Av Harris, a legislative aide to Bridgeport Mayor Joseph P. Ganim, warned Bridgeport, which had filed for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in 1991 (§7-566), worried: “The major impacts haven’t hit yet,” referring to apprehension with regard to the potential fallout if the city does not receive the first big installment in state school aid, noting that state aid represents about 40% of Bridgeport’s current $550 million city budget. Nearby, New Haven Mayor Toni Harp has ordered city agencies to come up with budget cutting contingency plans in case the General Assembly fails to pass a state budget by September. The Mayor said additional spending reductions would be needed to avoid local tax increases, in the event the state budget impasse continues. (New Haven’s Board of Aldermen adopted a $539.9 million city budget on June 6.) Mayor Harp has said New Haven is hoping to receive at least the $30 million in state aid that it got in the fiscal year that ended June 30, and is looking to get an additional $18 million in promised state funding, adding that failure to get that money would put New Haven in a short-term cash crisis.

Observers were surprise that the Republican-backed budget won prevailed in a legislature narrowly controlled by Democrats; yet the fiscal outcome remains uncertain, as Gov. Malloy has said he would veto the bills as they first passed through the Senate before moving to the House of Representatives, noting: “The amended budget that passed in the Senate today is unbalanced, and if it were to reach my desk I would veto it,” last Friday night, stating that the budget “relies on too many unrealistic savings, it contains immense cuts to higher education, and it would violate existing state contracts with our employees, resulting in costly legal battles for years to come.” The passage came with the state budget action two months’ overdue and, currently under emergency control: Under the Governor’s executive order, some schools and cities would see state aid slashed after October 1 unless a budget is enacted before then—burdened by some $73 billion of pension and debt obligations, high taxes, out-migration, and falling revenues—and under a now lame duck governor. Now the legislature has sent him a budget which contains provisions he says he cannot abide, including reductions to the University of Connecticut. Under the proposed budget, general fund appropriations would grow 3.5 percent in FY 2018 to $18.5 billion and 0.6 percent in FY2019 to $18.6 billion; the transportation fund, the next largest, would grow by about 11 percent over the two years, according to the legislature’s Office of Fiscal Analysis (OFA); the bill would also limit general obligation bond allocations to $2 billion a year beginning in fiscal 2018, then apply that same cap to issuances and spending starting in fiscal 2019.  

The budget, if agreed to, It would establish a Municipal Accountability Review Board to allow state oversight of fiscally troubled cities, potentially including its capital city, Hartford, with former U.S. Comptroller General and now gubernatorial candidate David Walker stating: “I think (Malloy) is likely to put the ball back in the court of the state Legislature…I think the last thing we need right now is to increase taxes.” Nevertheless, on Saturday, Gov. Malloy described the GOP budget package as “unbalanced” and “unrealistic: If the responsible solution I negotiated with Democrats isn’t going to pass, then it is incumbent on the legislature to reach a new agreement soon—one that is realistic and, ideally, bipartisan.” Nevertheless, State Rep. Cristin McCarthy Vahey (D-Fairfield) was one of six House Democrats to break ranks, called for a bipartisan fix to the state’s fiscal woes: “We all await the Governor’s next steps and will go forward from there…The challenges confronting us were a long time in the making. We need to figure out a solution working together as leaders. I support every effort that will bring us closer to the kind of compromise we need to successfully adopt a state budget.” However, Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney (D-New Haven) said Gov. Malloy has given his assurances that he would immediately veto what is a “short-sighted” budget that undercuts collective bargaining and public education, noting: “So much for allegedly responsible and realistic budgeting,” adding there was a “substantial danger” that no budget gets passed by Oct. 1, defaulting to the Governor’s cuts: “I think we have to look forward rather than backward and keep our focus on getting a budget.”

It seems an irony that both Republican gubernatorial hopefuls who spoke at yesterday’s rally could become casualties of the proposed elimination of the decade-old Connecticut Citizens’ Election Program, which was adopted after the resignation and imprisonment of former Gov. John Rowland for corruption. Under the program, candidates for governor are eligible for $1.4 million in public funds in the primary and $6.5 million in the general election. (They must raise $250,000 in increments of $100 or less to qualify.) One such candidate, State Rep. Prasad Srinivasan (R-Glastonbury), who has already raised the requisite $250,000—and who voted for the budget, noted: “It’s going to be a different ballgame for all of us…Is this a perfect budget? The answer is, no. Is it a good budget? Yes. We have lived in excess all of these years.” Candidate Walker said if publicly-funded elections, which could cost more than $40 million in 2018, were eliminated, he would be able to more than make up for it, adding, however, that to be fair to those gubernatorial candidates who are far along in qualifying, the subsidy should be kept for the state’s highest office. Mr. Walker is running against House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz (D-Berlin).

The Steep Road to Chapter 9 Recovery. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan likens the gathering regional bid to land Amazon’s second headquarters to delivering Detroit Super Bowl XL more than a decade ago; however, the, as a Detroit News editorial by the ever insightful Daniel Howes noted: “It’s not even close. The hunt for Amazon is far larger, far more competitive and far more likely to tax the ability of just about anyone to corral business, political and civic leaders around a deadline measured in weeks, not years. (The deadline is Oct. 19 to proffer a plan to compete for a $5 billion investment worth 50,000 jobs.) Mayor Mike Duggan noted that with fewer than five weeks to put together its proposal: “We’re up against really tough competition from really good cities.” Or, as the editorial notes: “Yes, we are—as Detroit Regional Chamber CEO Sandy Baruah learned this week when he flew to Toronto for a speech on trade between Canada and the United States. On the minds of the Canadian CEOs: luring Amazon’s massive economic play north of the border, no mean feat in the era of Trump.” Nonetheless, as the editorial added: “That’s not deterring Detroit’s mayor, facing re-election. It’s not deterring Quicken Loans Inc. Chairman Dan Gilbert, who quickly accepted Mayor Duggan’s offer to chair the regional effort to prepare an Amazon bid. And it’s not deterring local and state politicians, or a business community that is far more active in economic development efforts than their predecessors a decade ago…It shouldn’t: In fundamental ways, this region is different than the one industrialist Roger Penske shepherded through the process of bidding for a Super Bowl (at the personal request of Bill Ford Jr., whose family owns the Lions). It’s more competent, more confident and often more regionally cooperative. It has witnessed the deep costs of division and political corruption, of big business that worries more about bragging rights with competitors than being competitive. It’s tasted the ignominy of financial dissolution, and seen how private capital can breed renewal: Weathering the near-collapse of two Detroit automakers, the Great Recession, and the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history can do that. Seeing the crucial importance of individual leaders in a broader mosaic of leadership can, too. So can national embarrassment.”

Southeast Michigan is legendary for parochial infighting pitting city against suburb, for measuring solutions to difficult civic problems in decades, not years, for fixating on why change cannot happen instead of pushing to make it happen. Which raises a critical point that will be answered by the success of Gilbert & Co. to rally disparate leaders quickly around a cohesive bid: Were the speed and decisiveness of the auto restructuring, of the city’s financial workout, of the revitalization of downtown just historical aberrations? 

Or are they harbingers of a can-do future liberated from the confrontational zero-sum game that helped drive Detroit and its hometown auto industry to the edge of complete financial collapse? Look, no one should kid themselves: For a bid that seeks access to regional transit with connections to an international airport, the region that put America on wheels is woefully behind. For a bid that aims to create a second headquarters hub for one of 21st-century America’s iconic corporate brands, southeast Michigan isn’t too far removed from the stain of bankruptcy, municipal and corporate.

How indelible are those stains, if at all?

We’re about to find out.

“This is a no-lose proposition for southeast Michigan,” according to CAO Baruah of the Chamber. “Best case is we prevail under some very heavy competition. Even if we don’t win, but come close. It’s still a win for us. We learn how to do this well.” Whatever happens, business and political leaders arguably are more aligned around the economic way forward than any time in decades. The Democratic mayor of Detroit and the Republican governor coalesce around common problems, and more often than not so do their respective lawmakers.

Business leaders are more predisposed to dig into civic problems, with a dozen or so of their top leaders coming together in a new, still-unnamed group to champion reform. For the first time in a decade or more, Detroit’s automakers are led by longtime Michiganders — Mary Barra at General Motors Co. and Bill Ford and Jim Hackett at Ford.

Poverty declined and incomes rose last year in the Motor City, marking the first significant income increase recorded by the U.S. Census Bureau since the 2000 census, with Detroiters’ median household income up last year by 7.5% to $28,099 in 2016, according to U.S. Census’ American Community Survey estimates; ergo poverty dropped 4 percentage points to 35.7%‒the lowest level in nearly a decade—perhaps offering

Keystone Municipal Fiscal Erosion. Hazleton a small city of just over 25,000 in Luzerne County, is the county’s second largest city and the seventeenth largest city in the Keystone State—it was incorporated as a  borough 160 years ago, and then as a city on December 4, 1891. Now, Department of Community and Economic Development Secretary Dennis Davin has signed documents declaring Hazleton a “financially distressed” municipality under the state’s Act 47, effectively providing the Department the ability to solicit proposals on behalf of the city for professional management services. Mayor Jeff Cusat and City Council President Jack Mundie have been notified: the development puts the city in a position to apply for a $850,000 no-interest emergency loan that the state would make available via a revolving fund; Pennsylvania officials anticipate receiving a loan request from the city, since a consultative report that the Department prepared last month projects that Hazleton will face a $895,267 cash-flow shortage by the end of the year: a cash flow analysis projects $9,782,659 in expenses outpacing $8,887,392 in revenue for the year, according to the report—a report which unsurprisingly concludes: “This clearly is not fiscally sustainable, and it is projected that an extraordinary cash flow deficit will continue to exist.” Secretary Davin will have the final say whether to grant a loan to Hazleton; prior to that, she noted the City Council must adopt a resolution in support of the funding.

Council President Jack Mundie said that although he believes the city would have avoided Act 47 if the Mayor had followed the Council’s budget, the declaration leaves the city with little choice but to participate in the program. The city would have realized about $500,000 had the Mayor followed through with a plan to sell delinquent taxes to a collection agency and accepted another $220,000 payment from Hazleton City Authority in advance of land it expects to sell as the state looks to extend Route 424 into Humboldt Industrial Park. Mayor Cusat, however, has opposed paying fees related to the tax sale and has said he has seen no evidence that the land sale would take place this year to justify accepting the upfront payment—and, he has warned on several occasions that cash-flow issues put the city at risk of missing payroll; ergo, he believes it vital for the city to secure an emergency loan so that it may continue meeting payroll. He believes the city can make payroll on October 6th, provided the municipality takes advantage of a 30-day grace period for paying health insurance, explaining that is the date “when our quarterly health insurance payment is due, which is approximately $300,000. The only chance we have of making the Oct. 6 payroll is if I do not pay health insurance and I take advance of the 30-day grace period.” Council President Mundie added that he also does not want to see city workers go unpaid.

The $850,000 loan resolution was, thus, placed on yesterday’s meeting agenda: an offer Council President Mundie believed to be hard to refuse: “It’s payable over 10 years; there’s no interest; and payments are once a year: How can you refuse that money?” And, as Mayor Cusat noted: The city would confront severe repercussions if Council did not approve the loan resolution: “If they don’t pass it, the state has notified me that it’s almost guaranteed the city will be sent into immediate receivership—which has only happened once in the history of Pennsylvania: “I’m hoping that Council finally realizes how serious this problem is and agrees to the resolution,” adding there is a time element: the process for securing emergency funds could take up to 30 days, leaving no room for delays.  He also cited a recently released Communities in Crisis report prepared by Pennsylvania Economy League, “Communities in Crisis: The Truth and Consequences of Municipal Fiscal Distress in Pennsylvania, 1970-2014,” which he views as “critical” of Act 47: the report found that tax burdens have grown for all types of municipalities since 1990, even as municipal tax bases have been steadily shrinking since 1970: the report states that:

  • only one of the 14 municipalities which have participated in Act 47 had a tax base in 2014 that was at least on par with the tax base for communities that never participated;
  • that the tax burden for most Act 47 municipalities increased at a rate higher than non-Act 47 municipal averages; and
  • that six boroughs that exited Act 47 between 1990 and 2007 had tax bases that were significantly below the non-Act 47 borough average for 2014.

Or, as the report concludes: “This indicates that Act 47 was not successful in restoring tax base value to the boroughs that exited the program.” Thus, unsurprisingly, Council President Mundie fears the program would result in tax increases and the sale or lease of municipal authority assets—which the Council does not support, or, as he put it: “The state is going to force us into doing things we don’t want to do…I think [it] wants to sell the water and sewer (authorities).”  For his part, Mayor Cusat said the declaration of distress should not come as a surprise: when, previously, he tried to get the city to participate in the Early Intervention Program, he said that he learned the city had met two criteria to meet distressed status, ergo: “I’ve been warning council of this for the past year and a half, that we were headed in this direction: It shouldn’t come as a shock that Secretary Davin signed the documents.”

Shutting the Spigot? But tempus fugit: Pennsylvania state officials who confirmed Hazleton’s participation in Act 47 are expressing apprehensions with regard to how the House Republican’s fund transfers could impact the business community, specifically pointing to the removal of money from the Act 47 Revolving Aid Fund, a step which, if enacted, could pull the fiscal safety net out from under the state’s distressed communities: “Without this funding, cities would have a much more difficult time exiting Act 47,” according to Secretary Davin.

The Pennsylvania Economy League reports that fiscal decay has accelerated in all sizes of municipalities throughout the in its new report: “Communities in Crisis: The Truth and Consequences of Municipal Fiscal Distress in Pennsylvania, 1970-2014,” a report which examines 2,388 of the state’s 2,561 municipalities where consistent data existed from 1970, 1990, and 2014, considering, as variables, the available tax base per household, as well as the tax burden, a percentage of the tax base taken in the form of taxes to support local government services‒after which the municipalities were then divided into five quintiles, from  the wealthiest and most fiscally healthy to the most distressed—with Philadelphia and Pittsburgh excluded due to their size and tax structure. The League found that the tax burden has grown on average for all municipalities since 1990, but that the tax base has fallen, on average, in the state’s municipalities since 1970. In addition, the study determined that municipalities in Pennsylvania’s Act 47 distressed municipality program generally performed worse than average despite state assistance.

The study also found that communities which finance their own local police force, as opposed to those which rely solely on Pennsylvania State Police coverage, had double the municipal tax burden and ranked lower. (Readers can find the report in its entirety on the Pennsylvania Economy League’s website.) The League’s President, Chairman Greg Nowak, noted: “The first part of understanding and doing something about a crisis is understanding what it is,” adding that clearly the League believes the state’s local governments are in a fiscal crisis, comparing the new report to one the League released in 2006, which had warned of oncoming fiscal distress—a report, he noted, which had not galvanized either the state or its municipalities to take action. Gerald Cross, the Executive Director for Pennsylvania Economy League Central, said the study also found that tax bases in cities largely remained stagnant even as the local tax burden increased from 1990 to 2014, noting that all the state’s cities were in bottom-quintile rankings in 2014—and that while tax base generally grew in boroughs and first-class townships, the tax burden there also grew from 1990 to 2014; he added that the trend for second-class townships was mixed: while the tax base increased and more second-class townships moved into healthier quintiles, the tax burden also climbed from 1990 to 2014. Or, as Kevin Murphy, the President of the Berks County Community Foundation put it: “Pennsylvania’s system of local governments is broken and is harming the people living in our communities: It’s a system that was created here in Harrisburg [the state capitol], and it is Harrisburg which needs to fix it.” Pennsylvania has 4,897 local governments, including 1,756 special districts, cities, towns, and first, second, and third class townships.

Physical & Fiscal Destruction. Municipal fiscal analysts are apprehensive that Hurricane Irma’s physical and fiscal impact on Puerto Rico’s economy may be worse, because of the U.S. territory’s physical, fiscal, and capital debt—or, as Howard Cure of Evercore Wealth Management described it: “Entities that suffer a natural disaster need a strong balance sheet to take care of immediate clean-up and assessment needs until funding from the federal government and insurance companies becomes available.” The island lacks the requisite resources to recover on its own in the wake of a decade of fiscal deterioration—and now it is seemingly transfixed in the middle of a decade of fiscal decline, even as it is attempting to restructure its roughly $69 billion of public sector debt—and restore electricity to some 70% of the Puerto Ricans in the wake of Irma. Mr. Cure described Puerto Rico’s need to repair its power and water systems to be made more vital in the wake of many years of neglect, warning: Irma’s damage “could expedite the downward spiral of the economy and could cause even more of the workforce to leave.” Moody’s Investors Service senior credit officer Rick Donner added in his own fiscal apprehensions, writing: “Reports of widespread power outages that may persist for weeks in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Irma highlight longstanding liquidity pressures and an aging infrastructure that have beleaguered [the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority] for many years: Long-term power outages will have negative impacts on PREPA’s revenues and will pose added challenges in Puerto Rico’s overall recovery from this natural disaster; Any damage from the storm will also add to the stress related to PREPA’s recent default and could impact ultimate recovery for bondholders.” Some fiscal and physical help could come from the PROMESA Oversight Board, where Executive Director Natalie Jaresko said, “We are working closely with Gov. Rosselló to coordinate support for Puerto Rico in the aftermath of the storm. We have also reached out to the federal government to activate Title V, which allows the board to work with agencies to accelerate the deployment of grants and loans following a disaster.”

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