Addressing Municipal Fiscal Disparities

eBlog, 03/01/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the dire stakes for Chicago’s kids if the State of Illinois continues to be unable to get its fiscal act together; then we admire the recent wisdom on fiscal disparities among municipalities in Massachusetts and Connecticut by the ever remarkable Bo Zhao of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.

Bad Fiscal Math.  Chicago Public School CEO Forrest Claypool Monday warned the public schools in the city could be forced to close nearly three weeks early and that summer school programs could be cut if the district does not receive a fast-tracked, favorable preliminary ruling from a Cook County judge in the near future, stating: “These possibilities are deeply painful to every school community.” Mr. Claypool, a former Chief of Staff to Mayor Daley, in an epistle to families with children in the city’s school system, warned the school year could end June 1st instead of June 20th without action; moreover, he noted that CPS’s summer school could be eliminated for all elementary and middle-school students, except those in special education programs, as he sought to increase pressure on Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Illinois legislature to help, warning success would depend on the courts or what has been billed as a “grand bargain” in the state capitol of Springfield to resolve Illinois’ record budget impasse. The CEO’s actions were not coordinated with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who campaigned hard in his first term to extend the year for CPS students—a campaign in which the Mayor sought to reverse what we had termed as a “time bomb,” how to reverse the tide of an exodus of 200,000 citizens and make the city a key demographic destination for the 25-29 age group—i.e., meaning a critical commitment to public schools and safety. Now the state’s inability to act on a budget threatens both: the city’s School Board earlier this month accused the state of employing “separate and unequal systems of funding for public education in Illinois” in its lawsuit filed against both Gov. Rauner and the Illinois State Board of Education, describing its suit as the “last stand” for a cash-strapped district which is “on the brink,” seeking to have Judge Franklin Ulyses Valderrama of the Cook County Chancery Division issue a preliminary injunction which would prevent the state from “continuing to fund two separate but massively unequal systems of education,” noting it intends to present its case for an injunction to the court on Friday. In addition to seeking judicial relief, the System, in its judicial filing, noted that reductions in summer school programs and the academic year could save about $96 million; however, a shortened school year could violate Illinois state requirements with regard to the length of the public school year.

Without any doubt, the threatened disruption is undermining the trust of teachers, students, taxpayers, and parents with regard to the system’s future—brought on here by the awkward math of Gov. Rauner’s veto last December of a measure which would have provided CPS with $215 million in state aid—a measure the Governor argued was contingent on Democratic leaders agreeing to broader state public pension reforms. The ante was upped further at the beginning of the week, when Illinois Secretary of Education Beth Purvis said that instead of threatening cuts to the school year, CPS should focus on pushing legislation to overhaul the state’s education funding formula, stating: “I hope that they would really look seriously at not cutting days from the school year…I think people need to understand that the CPS board adopted a budget with a $215 million hole in it. Why is the governor being held responsible for that instead of the CPS board?” Even as the city sought to pressure the state, however, the Chicago Teachers Union this week issued a statement accusing Mayor Emanuel and the school board of playing politics instead of turning to solutions to help schools such as raising taxes, with union President Karen Lewis stating: “The Mayor is behaving as if he has zero solutions is incredibly irresponsible…Rahm wants us to let him off the hook for under-funding our schools and instead wait for the Bad Bargain to pass the Senate or [Gov.] Rauner’s cold, cold heart to melt and provide fair funds.” For those kids imagining an earlier summer break, CEO Claypool would not say when the district would make a final decision to shorten the school year, noting: “We think it would be wrong to prematurely set a final date for a decision when we still have the opportunity to prevent a shorter school year.”

Revenue Sharing. Bo Zhao, the extraordinary writer for the Boston Federal Reserve who authored the very fine piece: “Walking a Tightrope: Are U.S. State and Local Governments on A Fiscally Sustainable Path?” has now completed another piercing study regarding municipal fiscal disparities: “From Urban Core to Wealthy Towns,” looking at fiscal disparities amongst municipalities in Connecticut, and comparing state policies and practices there with Massachusetts, noting: “Fiscal disparities occur when economic resources and public service needs are not evenly distributed across localities. There are equity concerns associated with fiscal disparities. Using a cost-capacity gap framework and a newly assembled data set, this article is the first study to quantify non-school fiscal disparities across Connecticut municipalities. It finds significant non-school fiscal disparities, driven primarily by the uneven distribution of the property tax base while cost differentials also play an important role. State non-school grants are found to have a relatively small effect in offsetting municipal fiscal disparities.

Unlike previous research focused on a single state, this article also conducts a cross-state comparison. It finds that non-school fiscal disparities in Connecticut are more severe than those in Massachusetts, and non-school grants in Connecticut are less equalizing than those in Massachusetts. This article’s conceptual framework and empirical approach are generalizable to other states and other countries.” Writing that his is the first article to quantify non-school fiscal disparities across the Nutmeg State, he notes they are “driven primarily by the uneven distribution of the property tax base, while cost differentials also play an important role,” as he assesses fiscal disparities amongst the state’s 169 municipalities, writing: “There is recent evidence that this longtime state neglect may have exacerbated non-school fiscal disparities…If state aid formulae are based only on local revenue raising-capacity and ignore cost disparities, they would not fully offset fiscal disparities.” This leads him to note: “Urban core municipalities exhibit the highest average per capita cost, mainly because they have the highest unemployment rate and population density, and the most jobs per capita…This means that nearly one-fifth of Connecticut residents live in the highest cost environments.” In contrast, he notes that “wealthier-property rural towns have the lowest average per capita municipal cost—more than 25 percent lower than the urban core municipal cost.” A key part of the fiscal challenge, he writes, is that in the state, the property tax is the only “tax vehicle authorized for municipal governments and virtually the only own-source revenue available to support the local general fund,” adding that the property tax makes up some 94 percent of own source general fund revenue. All of which led Mr. Zhao to assess or measure what he defines as the “Municipal Gap,” or the difference between municipal cost versus municipal capacity: a measure which he finds demonstrates that “a significant share of Connecticut municipalities and populations face municipal gaps”…with urban core municipalities confronting a gap of as much as $1,000 per capita.

Turning to the state role in addressing fiscal disparities, he notes that non-school grants in the state “do not have an explicit equalization goal.” Such grants are broadly spread, and not “well targeted to fiscally disadvantaged municipalities,” indeed, describing the gap as “very wide,” and noting that a comparison with neighboring Massachusetts would better enable Connecticut law and policy makers to better understand the “relative severity of Connecticut municipal fiscal disparities.” While noting that unlike many other states, neither of these two New England states have active county governments, so that municipalities bear much greater responsibilities for a wide range of public services—and property taxes are almost their sole source of municipal revenues, he distinguishes Connecticut’s greater municipal fiscal disparities in that it has a larger share of its population living in what he terms “smallest-gap” municipalities. Finally, he distinguishes the respective state roles by noting that Massachusetts has a “more explicit equalization goal and its main distribution formula directly considers the differences across municipalities in revenue-raising capacity.”

Federalism, Governance, & Bankruptcy

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eBlog, 2/15/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the evolving governance challenge in New Jersey and the state takeover of fiscally troubled Atlantic City—a breach into which it appears the third branch of government—the judiciary—might step. Next, we turn to whether governmental trust by citizens, taxpayers, and voters can be exhausted–or bankrupted–as the third branch of government, the judiciary–as in the case of New Jersey–could determine the fate of the former and current mayors of the fiscally insolvent municipality of Petersburg, Virginia. Finally, we try to get warm again by visiting Puerto Rico—where the territorial status puts Puerto Rico between a state and a municipality—what Rod Serling likely would have deemed a fiscal Twilight Zone—further complicated by language barriers—and, in a country where the federal government may not authorize states to file for bankruptcy protection, in a governance challenge with a new Governor. No doubt, one can imagine if Congress appointed an oversight board to take over New Jersey or Illinois or Kansas, the ruckus would lead to a Constitutional crisis.

We Await the Third Branch. The first legal action challenging the State of New Jersey’s takeover of Atlantic City finances will be decided at the local level in the wake of U.S. District Court Judge Renee Marie Bumb’s decision to remand the case back to Atlantic County Superior Court. The case involves a lawsuit from the union representing Atlantic City firefighters which alleges state officials are unlawfully seeking to lay off 100 firefighters and alter the union’s contract; Judge Bumb held that the federal court lacks jurisdiction, since the complaint does not assert any federal claims, thereby granting International Association of Firefighters Local 198’s “emergency motion” to remand the lawsuit to New Jersey state court, saying it was inappropriate for the defendants to remove the action to federal court. Thus, the case will revert to New Jersey Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez, who temporarily blocked the state-ordered firefighter cuts at the beginning of the month. The case involves the suit filed by the International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 198, and the AFL-CIO challenging the state’s action to proceed with 100 layoffs and other unilateral contract changes under New Jersey’s Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act—the legislation enacted last November in the wake of the New Jersey Local Finance Board’s rejection of Atlantic City’s rescue plan. The suit claims the act violates New Jersey’s constitution. This legislation, which was implemented last November after the New Jersey’s Local Finance Board rejected an Atlantic City rescue plan, empowers the state alter outstanding Atlantic City debt and municipal contracts. Prior to Judge Mendez’s Ground Hog Day ruling, the state was planning to set up changes to the firefighters’ work schedule, salaries, and benefits commencing by cutting the 225-member staff roughly in half beginning in September.

Hear Ye—or Hear Ye Not. A hearing for the civil case brought against Petersburg Mayor Samuel Parham and Councilman and former Mayor W. Howard Myers is set for tomorrow morning. Both men are defendants in a civil court case brought about by members of registered voters from the fifth and third wards of Petersburg. Members of the third and fifth wards signed petitions to have both men removed from their positions. The civil case calls for both Parham and Myers to be removed from office due to “neglect, misuse of office, and incompetence in the performance of their duties.” The purpose of hearing is to determine trial date, to hear any motions, to determine whether Mayors Parham and Myers will be tried separately, and if they want to be tried by judge or jury. James E. Cornwell of Sands Anderson Law Firm will be representing messieurs Myers and Parham. (Mr. Cornwell recently represented the Board of Supervisors in Bath County, Virginia, where the board was brought to court over a closed-doors decision to cut the county budget by $75,000 and eliminate the county tourism office.) The City Council voted 5-2 on Tuesday night to have the representation of Mr. Myers and Mayor Parham be paid for by the city. Mayor Parham, Vice Mayor Joe Hart, Councilman Charlie Cuthbert, former Mayor Myers, and Councilman Darrin Hill all voted yes to the proposition, while Councilwoman Treska Wilson-Smith and Councilwoman Annette Smith-Lee voted no. Mayor Parham and Councilmember Hill stated that the Council’s decision to pay for the representation was necessary to “protect the integrity of the Council,” noting: “It may not be a popular decision, but it’s [Myers and Parham] today, and it could be another council tomorrow.” Messieurs Hill and Parham argued that the recall petition could happen to any member of council: “[The petitions] are a total attack on our current leadership…We expect to get the truth told and these accusations against us laid to rest.” The legal confrontation is further muddied by City Attorney Joseph Preston’s inability to represent the current and former Mayors, because he was also named in the recall petition, and could be called as a witness during a trial.

Federalism, Governance, & Hegemony. Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has said that he is setting aside $146 million for the payment of interest due on general obligation municipal bonds, noting, in an address to the Association of Puerto Rico Industrialists, that he plans to pay off GO holders owed $1.3 million, because the Commonwealth defaulted on its payment at the beginning of this month, so, instead, he said the interest would be drawn from “claw back” funds, a term the government uses to describe the diversion of revenue streams which had supported other municipal bonds. Now the Governor has reported the $146 million would be held in an account at Banco Popular, ready to be used to meet subsequent general obligation payments to bondholders—noting that the funds to be used had not been “destined” to be used for essential services for Puerto Rico’s people; the Governor did not answer a question as to which bond revenues were being clawed back; however, his announcement creates the potential to partially address the nearly 9 month default on a $779 million payment.

But mayhap the harder, evolving governance issue is the scope of the PROMESA Board to “govern” in Puerto Rico: the statute Congress enacted and former President Obama signed does not vest authority in the PROMESA Oversight Board to review all legislation introduced by the current administration before its approval—thus, the growing perception or apprehension is the implication that Congress has created an entity which is violating the autonomy of the Government of Puerto Rico. It is, for instance, understood that Congress and the President lack the legal or Constitutional authority to take over the State of Illinois—a state which, arguably—has its own serious fiscal disabilities. Thus, it should come as no surprise that Gov. Rosselló’s administration is feeling besieged by disparate treatment at the receipt of a letter sent by the PROMESA Board at the beginning of this month—an epistle in which Board Chair José B. Carrión requested that the Puerto Rican Government discuss with the Board the implications of any new legislation before submission, citing §§204, 207, and 303 of PROMESA as part of the “many tools that can be deployed in terms of legislation.” Unsurprisingly, Elías Sánchez Sifonte, Gov. Rosselló’s representative to the Board, wrote that the Board’s “request to preliminarily review all legislation, as a right they can exercise, is not considered in PROMESA, and it violates the autonomy of the Government of Puerto Rico,” noting that Governor Rosselló’s administration “is working and will continue to work in cooperation with the Oversight Board on all issues” considered under PROMESA. Nevertheless, in the epistle, Mr. Sifonte wrote that “nowhere” in §204 is there any mention that the Government of Puerto Rico must submit its legislation for revision, rather: “It only requires that the legislation be submitted to the Board after it has been properly approved,” even as Mr. Sifonte acknowledged in the letter that after the Fiscal Plan has been certified, the Commonwealth must forward any adopted legislation to the PROMESA Board, accompanied by a cost estimate and a certification stating if it is consistent with the fiscal plan. Moreover, Mr. Sifonte added, because there is currently no fiscal plan, such a certification is not applicable, although a cost estimate is—the deadline for the fiscal plan is February 28th at the latest.

Moreover, according to Mr. Sifonte, “[o]nce the Plan is certified, every piece of legislation to be submitted will be consistent with the Fiscal Plan and will be accompanied by the proper certification, which, in his view, means that it should be protected from Board review, according to the Congressional report that gave way to PROMESA, adding that his purpose in communicating was to “help” both Puerto Rico and the PROMESA Board understand and respect each other’s authority—or, as he noted: “PROMESA’s broad powers are recognized, and we recognize all of the Board’s powers contained within the law. What shouldn’t happen is for them to want to go further, despite those extensive powers, and occupy a space that belongs to the officials elected by the people, because then that would in fact infringe upon the full democracy of our country,” adding that “the administration’s intention is not to interfere with the Oversight Board while the members carry out their mission under the federal statute, but the letter seeks to clarify “the autonomy of Puerto Rico’s Government, which is safeguarded under PROMESA.” The letter also states that the Government’s interpretation of PROMESA is based on Section 204(a)(6), which establishes that the Oversight Board may review legislation before it is approved “only by request of the Legislature.” Finally, Mr. Sifonte addressed a fundamental federalism apprehension: referencing §207 of PROMESA, which establishes that “the territory” cannot issue, acquire, or modify debt, he wrote that Puerto Rico has not issued, nor does it intend to issue any debt, referencing the Puerto Rico Financial Emergency & Fiscal Responsibility Act, and emphasizing this statute marks a change in public policy, with the intention of paying the creditors, just as Governor Rosselló this month had announced. Finally, he noted: the “inappropriateness” of the Chairman’s proposition, where—under the protection of §303 of PROMESA—he tells the Government that “the compliance measures under PROMESA should be a last resort and hopefully won’t be necessary,” noting that that provision “expressly says that the Government of Puerto Rico retains the duty to exercise political power or the territory’s governmental powers.”

What Could Be the State Role in Averting Municipal Fiscal Distress & Bamkruptcy?

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eBlog, 1/27/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing challenge in Petersburg, Virginia—and the role of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Because, in our federal system, each state has a different blueprint with regard to whether a municipality is even allowed to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy (only 18), and because there is not necessarily rhyme nor reason with regard to fiscal oversight and response mechanisms—as we have observed so wrenchingly in the forlorn case of East Cleveland—the role of states appears to be constantly evolving. So it is this a.m. that we look to Virginia, where the now insolvent municipality of Petersburg had routinely filed financial information with the Virginia auditor of public accounts—but somehow the accumulating fiscal descent into insolvency never triggered alarm bells.   

Virginia Auditor Martha Mavredes this week, testifying before the House Appropriations Committee, told Chairman S. Chris Jones (R-Suffolk) it was “just hard for us to really get our minds around how that was missed,” telling the committee the state currently has no requirement for municipalities to furnish the kind of comprehensive information that would trigger awareness of insolvency; there appears to be no mechanism for the Commonwealth to step in and help. Indeed, that was the very purpose of Chairman Jones to call for the hearing: he wants to better understand options Virginia might consider to not just create some kind of trip wire, but, mayhap more importantly, to act on provisions which could avert future such municipal insolvencies. Auditor Mavredes indicated to the Committee she is scrambling to scrabble together some kind of tripwire or early warning system that would flag financial problems in Virginia’s municipalities at an earlier stage, telling the committee she is using a system devised by the state of Louisiana to help Virginia identify cities and counties in dire fiscal straits. Thus she plans to create a database of all localities in the commonwealth to rate or score their relative fiscal health. Under what she is proposing, her office will approach cities that show warning signs in order to assess more information. Her real issue, she told the committee, is what fiscal assistance tools might be available—or as she put it: the “piece I can’t solve right now is what kind of assistance might be there” once such problems come to light.” Virginia, like a majority of states, has no provision for the state to step in if a locality goes into default. Indeed, it was the thoughtful step of Virginia’s Finance Secretary Ric Brown, who took the unusual step last year to investigate Petersburg’s finances, which led him to discover the city had some $18 million in unpaid bills, an unbalanced budget, and a fiscal practice of papering over deficits with short-term borrowing—a practice that not only jeopardized the city’s bond rating, but also affected the cost of borrowing for the regional public utility. Secretary Brown stressed the need for training local elected officials about budgeting and best practices, and he suggested a program to allow outside management firms to help get cities on a better fiscal foundation. Interestingly, the Committee might want to avail itself of the pioneering work underway by the irrepressibly insightful Don Boyd of the Rockefeller Institute of Government to assess state responses to municipal fiscal distress, seeking to answer the kinds of thoughtful queries Secretary Brown is asking. In a chart for Rockefeller, we tried our own answer:

Understanding Municipal Fiscal Stress

Assessing State Responses to Growing Municipal Fiscal Distress and Insolvency:

  • The Ostriches (head in the sand): Do Nothings/modified harm: e.g. Illinois
  • Denigrators (Alabama is a prime example: when Jefferson County requested authority to raise its own taxes, the Legislature refused, forcing the county into chapter 9 bankruptcy);
  • Learners (Rhode Island is a very good candidate here—in the wake of Central Falls, the state evolved into a much more constructive partnership;
  • Thinkers (I put Colo. & Minn. here—especially because both seem to recognize potential benefits of tax sharing & innovation in intergovernmental fiscal policy);
  • Preemptors (Michigan, because it provides for the usurpation of any local authority through the appointment of an Emergency Manager); New Jersey seems to be fitting in with that category re: Atlantic City;
  • Substitutors: Pa.: Act 47
  • Maybe Do-Nothings: Ohio, even though it authorizes municipal bankruptcy, appears to have been totally non-responsive the petition by East Cleveland to file—and has appeared to play no role in the so-far dysfunctional discussions between Cleveland and East Cleveland).

Who’s at Risk of Defaulting?

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eBlog, 12/16/16

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the challenge to state and local leaders arising from both the Federal Reserve’s decision to increase interest rates, apprehensions about growing state budget gaps—and the respective implications for city and county credit ratings—as well, of course, to the incoming Trump administration and next Congress’ proposals on federal tax reform where—as under former President Ronald Reagan, the authority of state and local governments to issue tax exempt municipal bonds is expected to come under challenge—as is the deductibility of state and local taxes. Moreover, with the Federal Reserve’s decision to raise interest rates, those increases could boost mortgage rates—adversely impacting assessed property values—putting cities, counties, and school districts into distinctly uncomfortable territory. Then we turn to the frigid weather in East Cleveland, where the city’s insolvency has let to increasing service insolvency and an inability to clear the city’s roads—threatening the capacity and ability to provide emergency public services. Then we follow the nation’s frigid weather east to Shenandoah, where the fiscally beset municipality of Petersburg, Virginia was hit yesterday by a 4th U.S. Circuit decision, even as S&P Credit granted it a small Yuletide respite. Finally, we venture back west to Chicago, where Municipal Market Analytics helps us to try to untangle the fiscal arithmetic so burdening the Chicago Public Schools.

Nota bene: We wish all readers a well-deserved holiday to you and your loved ones; we will resume the week after next.

Who’s at Risk of Default? Municipal Market Analytics this week, drawing from compiled data, noted that the trend of annually declining defaults is over—breaking a six-year trend—and warning that it “expects that issuer-credit quality has begun to erode,” describing the ominous trend as not only a factor of more “aggressive/permissive” underwriting standards, but also the risk created by growing state budget gaps—gaps which are likely to result in a double fiscal whammy for municipalities, counties, and school districts of reduced local aid—as well as less state public infrastructure investment. MMA suggests “municipal default activity will increase in 2017.”

Brrr! Municipal insolvency, as we have previously noted, often involves service insolvency. Thus it is that many side streets in the insolvent municipality of East Cleveland are complete sheets of ice—and have been so for an entire week, because the city does not have any working snow plows, leading one constituent to liken living in the city to being in the “Ice Age.” With bitter cold from the lake snow, which has been falling in heavy bands, neither of the municipality’s two salt trucks are working, leading some city officials to opine that the money spent on the recent special recall election could have been better used to fix the salt trucks. With one resident noting that “It is very precarious until you get into Cleveland or until you get into Cleveland Heights,” residents can easily make out the boundary where East Cleveland ends and Cleveland Heights begins: on the latter side, the streets are totally cleared. Ice free and this is all “full of ice.” One beleaguered resident noted: “I really hope that we can one day join with Cleveland…That is the only answer.”

Teeter Tottering in Petersburg. The fiscally struggling, historic Virginia municipality of Petersburg was on a teeter totter yesterday, after the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday ruled that the city’s police department’s policy barring its employees from criticizing the department on social media was unconstitutional (for further details, please see this morning’s Little Legalities in the eGnus), because its social media policy constituted a “virtual blanket prohibition” on all speech critical of the department and was “unconstitutionally overbroad,” but as the city was removed by S&P Global Ratings from Credit Watch.  In its decision, the court acknowledged a city’s need for discipline, but found that the policy and the disciplinary actions taken pursuant to it would, if upheld, lead to an utter lack of transparency in law enforcement operations that the First Amendment cannot countenance. (The suit had been filed after two of the city’s officers were placed on probation for discussing on Facebook their concerns about inexperienced officers being promoted and leading the department’s training programs: the department’s policy prohibited employees from posting anything that would “tend to discredit or reflect unfavorably” upon the agency—something the court held the police cannot be allowed to do.) In its ratings change, S&P, nevertheless, maintained its junk BB ratings on Petersburg’s general obligation bonds: the city has just over $55 million general obligation, full faith and credit bonds and Qualified Zone Academy bonds outstanding. S&P analyst Timothy Little wrote: “We removed the rating from CreditWatch due to the city securing $6.5 million in cash-flow notes…The negative outlook reflects the extreme uncertainty regarding the city’s ability to return to structural balance and what will likely be persistently very weak liquidity in a difficult budgetary environment,” adding that: “In our opinion, the interest rate is high compared to other non-distressed entities that annually place TANs, further underscoring the fiscal distress of the city.” The continued fiscal distress hinged on the city’s ongoing inability to balance its budget, in the main part because municipal property and other taxes have been less than projected, while expenditures for public safety and health and welfare have exceeded the city’s budget by $2.5 million, according to S&P. (A Virginia technical assistance team reported that general fund expenditures exceeded revenue by at least $5.3 million in FY 2016, and identified a structural imbalance with Petersburg’s FY2017 budget—leading to a state estimate that the city has $18.8 million in unpaid obligations to external entities and internal loans, including repayment of the TANs. S&P further noted that even though the city’s economy is diverse, its 27.5% poverty rate is more than double the statewide level—meaning it bears disproportionate fiscal challenges.

Pixie Dust? Municipal Market Analytics this week inquired into the harsh realities of determining interest rates with regard to municipalities in fiscal straits seeking to go to market (not to buy a fat pig!), focusing on the Chicago Public Schools—suggesting that investors in the school district’s new capital improvement tax bonds should seriously consider the bond-holder settlements in Detroit—and the ongoing legal battles in Puerto Rico—in trying to determine what interest rate would constitute sufficient compensation for the legal and credit uncertainties present in a muni transaction, suggesting: “Basically, rather than use its traditional alternative revenue bond security (which entails a pledge of state aid backstopped by an unlimited property tax), CPS is directly pledging its new limited property tax levy solely for the benefit of bondholders.” Theoretically, MMA notes, the new municipal security (rated A by Fitch and BBB by Kroll) insulates municipal bondholders from CPS’s not very investor friendly credit rating and profile—especially its very high unfunded public pension liability, but then wrote: “However, the real perceived strength here is the durability of the structure, or persistence of regular debt service payments, in a hypothetical (and currently not-permitted) municipal bankruptcy. This durability relies upon legal opinions that conclude that the new bond obligations would be considered backed by special revenues and therefore bond-holders would not see their lien impaired.” However, MMA noted, such reliance might not be something upon which to hang one’s Santa stocking, writing: “The aspiration of the structure is to insulate the bondholders from the fiscal troubles of the district, although the repayment schedule suggests that the district may have taken a more short-term view of the soundness of the transaction given the back-loaded principal. The main trouble with the transaction lies not with the documents but with the assumption—generally implicit, yet quite explicit in the opinions—that the fiscally distressed district will unconditionally continue to abide by, and not challenge the provisions of the indentures or ‘use or claim the right to use’ the capital improvement tax revenues. In other words, to rely on the willingness of CPS not to act exactly like every recent distressed city (and territory) in invading, capturing, and re-purposing every bondholder asset within and beyond easy reach. Even constitutional bond protections have fallen victim to debtor challenges during government disruption. So for this security to function fully as described, CPS would need to experience a Goldilocks bankruptcy the likes of which the municipal market has not seen in decades.” Thus, MMA, in a Yule gifted insight, strongly encourages potential muni investors to carefully unwrap the seasonal gift to determine whether it is really of better credit quality than CPS’ alternative revenue bonds, and “to be avoided by accounts who consider a CPS municipal bankruptcy to be likely or even unavoidable.”

State Preemption of a Municipality: Moving into Uncharted Territory

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eBlog, 11/10/16

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider yesterday’s granting of authority for a state takeover of the City of Atlantic City by the New Jersey Local Finance Board—a state takeover which will likely be impacted by Tuesday’s Presidential election—as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie appears to be a potential Cabinet or other senior advisor to President-elect Donald Trump. Actual governance will shift from local accountability to the state’s Division of Local Government Services—marking the second state takeover of a municipality in New Jersey’s history. Then we consider an election result in post-chapter 9 Detroit affecting future community development, before trying to become schooled with regard to the downgrading of Chicago’s Public Schools—a downgrading that could undercut some of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s leadership efforts to draw young families into the nation’s third largest city.

State Preemption of a Municipality? In the wake of yesterday’s 5-0 vote by the New Jersey Local Finance Board, Gov. Chris Christie’s administration was granted the authority to immediately seize control of financially distressed Atlantic City, with the unanimous vote paving the way for a five-year state takeover—a takeover Governor Christie referred to as the best way to keep the city from becoming the first New Jersey municipality since 1938 to go into chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. By way of the vote, the state usurped the authority to assume key functions usually controlled by local elected leaders: renegotiating union contracts, hiring and firing employees, and selling municipal assets. The right to wrest governance authority was power included under the Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act approved by New Jersey lawmakers last May when Atlantic City was given 150-days to craft an acceptable rescue plan to avert a June default. The action, which City Council President Marty Small described as “definitely a sad day in the history of Atlantic City,” marks the first state takeover of a municipality since New Jersey took over Camden more than a decade ago. The New Jersey Local Finance Board, however, did not grant the state the authority to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy on behalf of the city. Under the terms of the state preemption, Timothy Cunningham, the Director of the Division of Local Government Services, will assume responsibility during the takeover—albeit he indicated he was uncertain what duties or responsibilities would remain with the city’s elected local leaders—describing the decision as moving into “unchartered territory,” as well as an “unbelievable responsibility.” The decision continues to leave murky the exact role of the emergency management team.

Yesterday’s developments mark an escalation of state preemption of local authority which commenced six years ago when the Governor announced the state was taking over the city’s tourism district and installing a state monitor. Last year, the Governor appointed an emergency management team. It seems very unclear what the role of those state appointees was—albeit it seems clear they were not accountable to the taxpayers of Atlantic City and, seemingly, were not held to any accountability to the Governor. The situation will now likely be further muddled by the likely role of Governor Christie in the new Trump Administration—meaning Lt. Governor Kim Guadagno would become Governor. Nevertheless, Moody’s Investor Services, in the wake of the state decision, termed the takeover a “credit positive,” because the state will be able to ensure the city’s debt payments due on the first and fifteenth of next month will be made. Notwithstanding the state takeover, the state preemption creates uncertainty with regard to whether Atlantic City can meet its upcoming debt service requirements: Atlantic City made its $9.4 million November 1 bond payment and next owes $2.3 million on the first of December—and then $4.8 million on December 15th, according to Moody’s Investors Service.

Community Development in the Motor City. Detroit voters approved a ballot measure, Measure B, backed by some union and business groups which will require developers of major projects to engage residents to negotiate jobs, affordable housing, or other benefits, according to unofficial election results, but rejected Proposal A, a competing grassroots plan which would have further increased the benefits to residents. The prevailing version, Proposal B, which was earlier approved by Detroit’s City Council, earned adoption by a 53 percent to 47 percent margin: the new ordinance makes Detroit the first city in the nation with such a sweeping requirement, according to Detroit Councilman Scott Benson, who worked on the community benefits agreement for more than a year with consultation from stakeholders. Councilmember Benson noted: “The city of Detroit is the tip of the spear when it comes to community benefits: We are the only city to have a CBA that’s going to be enacted that’s structured this way. The only one in the country.” The ordinance is set to take effect at the beginning of next year. The battle over the benefits plan had sharply divided voters: developers and unions opposed it, claiming it would be a “jobs killer” that will drive away much-needed development in the city. The community-led Proposal A would have required more enforcement and larger investments by developers. According to unofficial results, 54 percent of voters turned it down. Proposal B will require developers to provide community benefits for projects worth at least $75 million or for those that would expand or renovate structures where a developer seeks city-owned land or tax breaks of at least $1 million. Under the proposal, a neighborhood advisory council will be established for areas affected by development with appointments from the city’s planning director and in consultation with the council.

Failing Municipal Grades. S&P Global Ratings yesterday downgraded the Chicago Board of Education’s credit rating to B from B-plus with a negative outlook, with analyst Jennifer Boyd writing: “The rating action reflects our view of the district’s continued weak liquidity in its most recent cash flow forecast and reliance on cash flow borrowing, combined with the increased expenditures in the district’s new labor contract that exacerbate the district’s structural imbalance challenges.” The lowered grade came at a bad time: Chicago Public Schools has been planning the sale of millions of dollars of long-term municipal bonds next week—bonds which will now be much more costly to the city. The rating agency noted, in its downgrade, CPS’s reliance on short-term borrowing to cover daily expenses, plus $55 million in costs added to this year’s budget by the recent agreement with the Chicago Teachers’ Union, noting, “The Board’s extremely weak cash position is a significant credit weakness, in our view.” For its part, CPS, among other assumptions in its budget this year, has been optimistically assuming the state legislature will come through with $215 million in aid, warning it will cut that amount from schools if that assistance fails to materialize. CPS’s chief financial officer yesterday said “CPS continues to make important strides in improving the district’s financial stability,” and that CPS would continue to press for an overhaul of Illinois’ education funding formula, which he said would “lay the groundwork for fiscal stability” at CPS and other school systems. However, S&P warned there was at least a 33% chance of another downgrade within the next year—with the credit warnings coming at a most inopportune time: CPS is scheduled to sell roughly $420 million in bonds to refinance some of its old debts along with what S&P described as “computer servers and equipment.” For its part, Fitch Ratings noted: “The lack of an adequate financial cushion leaves CPS ill-prepared to withstand even a moderate economic downturn.” With Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s key focus on schools and public safety as essential to bringing young families into the city, the fresh downgrade as well as a recent one from Moody’s cannot be good news—and it appears to undercut CPS’ claims that the nation’s third largest public school district is on better fiscal footing with the help of additional state aid and a property tax levy. In its own report card, Fitch reported that its B-plus rating for CPS reflects what it termed “chronic structural imbalance, slim reserves, and a weak liquidity position which are exacerbated by rising long-term liability costs, a historically acrimonious labor relationship, and the lack of an independent ability to raise revenues.” All of this marks a distinct setback to the recent CPS efforts to obtain a passing credit grade in the wake of a one-time increase in state aid, passage of a $250 million property tax levy for teachers’ pensions, and $81 million drawn from its nearly drained reserves. Moreover, CPS has been relying on $215 million in state aid for teachers’ pensions—based on optimistic assumptions that the legislature will act on pension reforms in its next session—and that such reforms would not be found unconstitutional.

What Is a State’s Role When a Municipality Can No Longer Provide Essential Public Services?

eBlog, 9/27/16

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider 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 be spreading to 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. Then we journey to Atlantic City, where a comparable fiscal challenge—but in a state with a much longer history of state-local consideration—appears on the verge of a total state takeover: we ask whether the city’s end is nigh: will the state, in fact, take it over? Then we turn to the school yards in Chicago, where a threatened teacher strike augurs fiscal downgrades and worse fiscal math for Chicago Public Schools—a city beleaguered by this year’s terrible increase in murders and now unsettling math.

When It Rains, It Pours. The small Virginia municipality of Petersburg, near insolvency–or its tipping point, uncertain of what role the Commonwealth of Virginia will take in a state where, were the city to file a chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy petition, its municipal bondholders holding bonds to which statutory liens have attached would continue to receive payments on those bonds, [§15.2-5358], now is confronted by the filing of two similar lawsuits, accusing the city of repeated failures to meet payment due dates. The fiscal crisis is finally forcing the State of Virginia to contemplate what role it might have to take—a role which would set a precedent in a state which does not specifically authorize its municipal entities to file for municipal bankruptcy—and where the only such petition filed—by an economic development authority—was dismissed. The likely mechanism that will leave the state little alternative but to act is likely to be the filing of two lawsuits against the city over past-due payments—suits alleging similar accusations of repeated failures to meet payment due dates even before Petersburg’s fiscal problems evolved into a crisis: the South Central Wastewater Authority last week filed a lawsuit against the city, seeking more than $1 million and the appointment of a receiver to make sure the money the authority says it is owed is not spent by the city on other things, with the suit alleging: “Since 2011, city officials have failed to regularly and timely bill and collect monies for wastewater services and have failed to make payments due and owing to South Central.”

The second suit, filed last month by a road paving company, alleges that Petersburg failed to make payments on time for the company’s work repaving U.S. Route 460 East—a contract which specified that the company would receive payment within 30 days of the work being billed. In its filing, however, the company noted that its bills were paid late and that many times “those checks bore dates that made it appear they had been issued on time pursuant to the contract terms, even though delivery did not occur until weeks or months later.” The company’s corporate credit manager and chief financial officer met in July 2015 with Petersburg’s then Finance Director to discuss the problems—in the wake of which the city proposed a very delayed schedule—late enough that the company halted work on the project. The suit charges it has been left with an unpaid balance of about $214,000, so that it is seeking payment of that balance plus interest of 1 percent per month. For its part, the South Central Wastewater Authority alleges a similar pattern of late payments stretching back to mid-2011: “Since 2011, city officials have failed to regularly and timely bill and collect monies for wastewater services and have failed to make payments due and owing to South Central…This failure by Petersburg became sustained and serious beginning in the middle of 2012 and has become chronic and severe since…Despite continuous communication and extraordinary forbearance by [South Central] regarding Petersburg’s payment practices, which only resulted in repeated assurances of payment followed by more broken commitments, Petersburg has now altogether ceased making payments.” The suit charges the city is delinquent by $1.2 million, excluding penalty fees. Another $410,000 came due on the first of this month, according to the lawsuit. Because the Authority, moreover, provides wastewater treatment for the municipalities of Petersburg and Colonial Heights, and the counties of Chesterfield, Dinwiddie, and Prince George; and because Petersburg uses about half of the wastewater plant’s capacity, South Central’s complaint notes that  if Petersburg continues to fail to make payments, the authority will have to ask the other municipalities to pay higher rates, or it may be forced to shut down the treatment plant—a shutdown which, the utility notes, “would endanger public health and require an alternate means of treatment to prevent the flow of untreated wastewater directly into the Appomattox River…Planning, permitting, financing and construction of new facilities would take years. The scale and seriousness of this crisis cannot be overstated.” Indeed, the scale and complexity of the growing list of creditors of the municipality unearthed by auditors last summer determined Petersburg owed a total of about $3.4 million to six regional organizations: South Central, the Appomattox River Water Authority, the Central Virginia Waste Management Authority and Riverside Regional Jail, Crater Youth Care and the District 19 Community Services Board. It has become increasingly apparent that Petersburg’s fiscal problems have become contagious to adjacent municipalities and essential public services, so that, increasingly, the Commonwealth of Virginia will be forced to act.

Indeed, Virginia Secretary of Finance Richard D. Brown last week briefed members of the General Assembly’s Finance Committees on his department’s effort to help Petersburg figure out how to close its $12 million budget gap and generate enough cash flow to both keep the city government operating and to begin to pay down a debt that has ballooned to nearly $19 million. But, as it has become apparent the city likely will simply be unable to get out by itself, its fiscal collapse risks spreading—as can be noted from the impact of its non-payment to a regional facility—adjacent municipalities, it would appear the Governor and Virginia legislature will have little choice but to both act on measures to protect the state’s AAA credit rating, but also to prevent the fiscal distress from spreading. The Virginian Commission on Local Government, which has measured local fiscal distress in the state for three decades: notes in its stress index measures cities’ and counties’ revenue capacity, revenue effort, and median household income: it ranks Petersburg as the third-most fiscally stressed locality in Virginia—behind Emporia and Buena Vista.

The increasing apprehension in Richmond has led the Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Del. S. Chris Jones (R-Suffolk) to ask: “How did this get this bad without anyone knowing about it?” It also triggered his appointment last week of Del. R. Steven Landes (R-Augusta) to head a subcommittee to study states dealing with fiscally stressed localities and come up with solutions if a situation similar to that in Petersburg were to occur elsewhere in Virginia—or, as the Chairman put it: “We want to do our due diligence to see if there is legislation we might have to put in place to give authority to the state in certain circumstances to potentially take action…Right now, we don’t have the authority to do this, which is why I thought it is important to have this subcommittee between now and January and then begin the process to come up with some legislation.” In doing so, the Chairman emphasized that the state legislature will look primarily for proposals aimed at protecting the state’s interests—not those of the troubled localities, stating: “We are elected to represent our citizens at the state level, and we have our AAA bond rating to consider.” For his part, Chairman Landes said his committee will also examine the state’s options with regard to steps it could take to shorten its response time when a locality is heading toward the fiscal cliff, noting: “We want to make sure that audit information is getting to the money committees and the administration, because we would much rather be kept abreast sooner rather than later,” even as he vowed that a “bailout” for Petersburg is out of the question, noting: “I’m not aware where the state has ever stepped in to provide a locality a bailout…I don’t see that happening.”

Balancing on the Prick of the NeedleWhile it seems clear that neither the Governor nor the Legislature have much willingness to either grant municipal bankruptcy or provide significant fiscal assistance; nevertheless, there appears to be recognition that should Petersburg default, it would have implications for other municipalities in the state, especially if there were a default—such a default—increasingly possible in Petersburg’s case, because it is unclear how Petersburg, by Saturday, will come up with a $1.4 million principal-and-interest payment owed to the Virginia Resources Authority, a premier funding source for local government infrastructure financing through bond and loan programs. Under Virginia’s intercept provision, the Commonwealth is authorized to seize dollars it directs to localities for services, such as for schools, police and welfare, and use them, instead, to make scheduled payments on bonds to avoid default.

Interim City Manager Dironna Moore Belton acknowledged in an email last week that in order to secure short-term financing and bring long-term stability to the city, it cannot default on its loan payments. But Ms. Belton did not provide any specifics about from where she would take these dollars: “The city regularly collects revenues which go toward paying obligations…(and) has set aside dollars from incoming revenue to make the VRA payment;” however, in light of the $1.2 million lawsuit filed last week by the South Central Wastewater Authority, calls for the city to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy have grown louder at public meetings and on internet message boards. However, as one expert commentator warns: “The state’s position is that Petersburg has dug themselves into a very unusual hole, and that they are going to have to take some very stringent and even draconian steps to get their house in order.” It is no longer certain, however, that the municipality has the capacity to get out by itself—indeed, it seems that, more likely than not, its fiscal tribulations will, increasingly, adversely affect neighboring public utilities and jurisdictions. According to Secretary Brown, the possibility of the city defaulting on bond payments is very real—a default which would leave the municipality with few alternatives—to which the Secretary remarked: “Some say that if it’s gotten to the point where they can’t operate, they should look at their charter and un-incorporate.” Such incorporation, however, would be a version of passing the buck—after all: which government would then be responsible for not only providing essential public services, but also paying off the growing mountain of municipal debts?

Thirsty City. Just as the provision of drinking water was a difficult issue in Detroit’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, and has become so in Petersburg, so too the issue has arisen in San Bernardino, where the city’s municipal water department has announced water bills will increase by an average of $3.50 starting in October—with some of the increased  costs triggered by a state mandated water reduction goal of 28% this past summer—even as the utility notes the importance of conserving water during winter months: the Board of Water Commissioners, which is responsible for water rates in the city, voted unanimously to impose the higher rates, the first increase in four years; the city has approved further increases to go into effect next July 1st and in the subsequent July 1st of 2018. Again, just as in Detroit, virtually all who attended the session and vote came away angry—as the city water department’s General Manager put it: “For all of us, the last thing we want to do is cause economic distress to people…But we need to take care of what we’ve got, or we’re going to end up spending more in the future.” Since the city’s last rate increase, the water department has had to deal with California’s historic drought; the rising cost of imported water; new water quality regulations; and other expenses. Cost-cutting efforts include operating with fewer employees than in 2007, requiring employees to pay for a larger portion of their benefits, and securing as much as $350,000 in rebates from Southern California Edison, according to the water department. According to the water department website, the average water bill in San Bernardino, will be just under $50 per month, higher than average in adjacent Riverside and Redlands, but less than in Colton, Rialto, the East Valley Water District, the Cucamonga Valley Water District, the West Valley Water District and Fontana. Unlike Detroit, where one of the most difficult issues for then U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes was how to balance the critical public health and safety issues related to water versus affordability; that question appears not to have arisen in San Bernardino.

Can a City Maintain its Sovereignty? Just as the question of sovereignty for a municipality in Virginia has become an issue, so too the question of whether the State of New Jersey will take over Atlantic  City and dissolve its sovereignty, after the New Jersey Division of Local Government Services notified Atlantic City that it has until Monday to comply with the terms of a $73 million state loan or face the possibility of default, warning that, because the city is in violation of its loan terms, it must act swiftly to “cure the breach.” As part of its effortsd to cure that “breach,” Atlantic City has reached an agreement with its water utility to purchase its old municipal airport property in a deal that officials of the city hope will help it avoid a state takeover. The Municipal Utilities Authority, which provides Atlantic City’s drinking water and is financially independent from the city, plans to purchase the 143-acres of the former Bader Field airport for at least $100 million through bonding, officials announced at a press conference yesterday, with Mayor Donald Guardian touting the partnership as a way of maintaining both the city and utility’s “sovereignty” while also helping the city dig its way out of more than $500 million of total debt. Mayor Guardian said he hopes the agreement, one which still needs city council and state approval, prevents New Jersey’s Local Finance Board from taking action after it violated the terms of a $73 million bridge loan that called for dissolving the MUA. Nevertheless, the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs declined to comment on whether the Local Finance Board would accept the Atlantic City MUA plan—a key apprehension after that Board last Thursday had imposed a deadline of next Monday to fix a breach of a condition on its $73 million bridge loan or face a possible default where the state could seek full repayment and withhold state aid—indeed, under the terms of last July’s loan agreement mandating the city needed to dissolve the MUA by September 15th, the state could demand full repayment of the $73 million loan and withhold state aid if the city were unable to avert a default by the October 3 deadline. For his part, MUA Executive Director Bruce Ward said the authority will get an agreement with the city before deciding how to proceed with the property. Mr. Ward added that floating a bond for the Bader Field purchase is attainable and that the MUA has advisors who will help strategize the borrowing. The MUA has $15.7 million in annual revenues with $16.6 million of net water revenue debt outstanding, according to Moody’s Investors Service.

Learning about Debt—or Failing Grades? Moody’s yesterday awarded a failing credit grade to Chicago Public Schools, downgrading CPS’ bond rating further into junk status, lowering its view of the school system’s debt one notch to a B3 rating, citing a variety of factors, including CPS’ reliance on short-term borrowing, a “deepening structural deficit,” and a budget “built on unrealistic expectations” of help from a state government with money woes of its own. If there could be fiscal insult to financial injury, it arrived yesterday when CPS announced budgets at about 300 schools would lose a total of $45 million because of enrollment declines, and the Chicago Teachers Union said its members authorized a strike if contract talks break down. Unsurprisingly, that led the ever so moody Moody’s to warn that its debt rating could decline even further—a downgrade that would make the school district’s borrowing more expensive, even as CPS’ Board is set to vote Wednesday on the system’s $338 million capital budget—a budget projected to swell amid plans to borrow up to $945 million in long-term debt for a variety of other school infrastructure projects. For its part, the union yesterday announced that more than 95% of members who submitted a ballot last week voted in favor of authorizing a strike, easily crossing the requisite 75% threshold: CTU’s House of Delegates will meet Wednesday to discuss a possible strike date which could come as soon as October 11th—a strike, were it to occur, which added to Moody’s fiscal moodiness, as it noted CPS’ “increasingly precarious liquidity position and acute need for cash flow borrowing to support ongoing operations…The downgrade is also based on CPS’s deepening structural deficit, with budgets that are built on unrealistic expectations of assistance from the State of Illinois, which faces its own financial challenges. The rating also incorporates escalating pension contribution requirements, strong employee bargaining groups that impede cost cutting efforts, and elevated debt service expenses.” (CPS is offering raises in a new multi-year contract offer but it wants to phase out the $130 million annual tab for covering 7% of teachers’ 9% pension contribution. The union argues that the contract offer results in a pay cut and is strike-worthy.)

Remaking a City’s Fiscal Future

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eBlog, 7/13/16

In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the complex fiscal challenges confronting the Windy City, where we noted a few years ago in our report: Chicago, after a significant effort to remake itself into a global city, today confronts unprecedented challenges. The city took a serious turn for the worse during the first decade of the new century. The gleaming towers, swank restaurants, and smart shops remain, but Chicago is experiencing a decline different from other large cities. It is a troubled place, one falling behind its large urban brethren and presenting a host of challenges for Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Challenges confronting the city’s fiscal future are: schools, which one commentator cited as ‘almost insoluble;’ police—crime—gangs (also ‘almost insoluble’); infrastructure (on which the mayor has earned very high marks); pensions, where Chicagoans’ long-term debt and pension obligations per capita rose 185% since 2002—which are inextricably linked to the state; and bringing jobs back to Chicago. These challenges come as state and federal aid are reduced.” This morning we consider some of the ongoing fiscal challenges as the city OBM prepares a preliminary budget based on the requests submitted by the departments and the resources OBM expects will be available to fund those needs. This preliminary budget is used to inform the Annual Financial Analysis, which by Executive Order is issued on or before July 31st of each year. The Annual Financial Analysis presents an overview of the City’s financial condition, and it serves as the starting point for preparing next year’s budget. The document includes a historical analysis of the City’s revenue and expenditures; financial forecasts for the City’s major funds; and detailed analyses of the City’s reserves, capital program, debt, and pensions.

The Fiscally Windy City. Chicago’s long-term principal and interest payment schedule for the city’s general obligation debt swelled last year by about $1.7 billion, forcing Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his finance team to confront a severe liquidity problem even as it also was challenged by the state’s constitution as it sought to address longer term pension obligations and a liquidity crunch. Chicago published its 2015 comprehensive annual financial report or CAFR last Friday; it will soon release its annual financial analysis—which will include the fiscal gap the city must close ahead of the fall release of a 2017 budget as well as multi-year projections based on various revenue scenarios. It appears the city has made progress in reducing its structural budget deficit and reducing some of its pension liabilities—mostly via tax increases in a state where the Illinois Supreme Court has ruled the state constitution bars the city’s ability the alter benefits—meaning its net position for reporting purposes has deteriorated. Nevertheless, Chicago’s ending balance strengthened, allowing the administration to make good on its commitment to rely less on debt for operations. No doubt some of the urgency to act were spurred by Moody’s characteristically moody downgrades of the city’s General Obligation bonds, as well as water and wastewater credit ratings last year; the bad news is—as in most states—the city’s hands are tied absent state authority to address its pension challenges and the adoption of a state budget—or, as the ever prescient Richard Ciccarone, president of Merritt Research Services, put it: “We are a long way from the finish line…Investors will be watching closely to see whether the city is able to stay the course on the promises they’ve made to investors” about debt practices and aligning revenues with expenses.

Nevertheless, from a different perspective, key goals set by Mayor Emanuel to reverse the outflow of young professions appear to be succeeding: Despite the city of Chicago’s population loss over the past few decades, its economic trends have been generally more encouraging. Household income is an important indicator of Chicago’s fortunes relative to those of its suburbs. In 1990, median household income in the city was just 67% of the median household income in suburban Chicago. By 2010, this income ratio had climbed to 73%. Decomposing household income statistics by (self-reported) racial/ethnic group reveals that this trend was pervasive for the three largest groups: non-Hispanic white, black, and Hispanic. The ratio of city median income to suburban median income among white households experienced the greatest change; it rose from 77% in 1990 to 98% (near parity) in 2010. Moreover, these robust trends are enhanced by rising share of adults aged 25 and older who have attained at least a bachelor’s degree—those millennials the Mayor had sought to relocate from the city’s suburbs into the city: twenty-six years ago, among adults aged 25 and older, 19% of those residing in the city had attained a four-year college degree versus 28% of those residing in the suburbs; by 2010, Chicagoans in this age demographic had almost reached the same share in this regard as their suburban counterparts (33% for city residents versus 35% for suburban residents). The non-Hispanic whites again experienced the greatest change among the three largest racial/ethnic groups. In 1990, 29% of the white city population aged 25 and older had a four-year college degree—the same percentage as the white suburban population in this age demographic; however, by 2010, 55% of such white city dwellers had a bachelor’s degree, while 39% of their white suburbanite counterparts did. Between 1990 and 2010, the city’s black population also made substantial gains in education, as evidenced by the share of black adults aged 25 and older with a bachelor’s degree having risen from 11% to 17%. Moreover, it appears from new data examinations of specific neighborhoods that we can actually perceive how geographically concentrated the city’s gains in college-educated adults aged 25 and older have been: the gains have been highly concentrated in Chicago’s central business district and the surrounding areas, as well as the neighborhoods west of Chicago’s northern lakeshore: the Near South Side realized an increase in the share of adults with a four-year college degree climb from 9% in 1980 to 68% in 2010. In Chicago’s neighborhoods west of its northern lakeshore, the shares of the college-educated population there typically doubled or tripled between 1980 and 2010. One can see the importance of a long-term strategy—and appreciate how vital in not so far away Detroit the efforts of retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge and now Detroit Public Schools Emergency Manager Steven Rhodes is to Detroit’s fiscal future.

Schooling on Debt. Mayor Emanuel, upon his election, had determined that a key to the city’s fiscal recovery was to lure young families with children back into the city—the very acute challenge today in Detroit. That meant signal investments in public safety and Chicago’s Public Schools, and its Park District—for which there has been a price: a total overlapping burden of $19.4 billion for a debt per capita figure of $7,211—or nearly a 33% debt per capita increase between FY2014 versus FY2006. Nevertheless, Mr. Ciccarone warns that the Chicago Public Schools, notwithstanding some assistance provided by the increasingly fiscally dysfunctional state to help CPS address a $1 billion deficit, could well force CPS to impose the legislature’s authorized $250 million in additional property taxes. But it is on the public pension front where the most challenge is: according to the city’s 2015 CAFR, Chicago’s net pension liability totaled $33.9 billion—including $18.6 billion of municipal employees’ fund liabilities, $2.5 billion of laborers’ fund liabilities, $9 billion of police fund liabilities, and $3.8 billion of firefighter fund obligations—the city’s first fiscal reporting on the figure based on actuarial reports from its four funds applying GASB’s new calculations for reporting purposes. The GASB changes do not impact funding or the size of the actuarially accrued unfunded liabilities—which were approximately $20 billion at the end of 2014, but as the ever insightful Mr. Ciccarone advises: “It provides a more vivid picture of the unfunded scale and scope of the liabilities and how they weigh down the balance sheet.” And that’s before next year, when the net police and fire figures are projected to worsen as the funds factor in changes recently approved by the Illinois General Assembly delaying a shift to an actuarial required contribution and extending deadline for reaching a 90% funded ratio. Nevertheless, CFO Brown reports Chicago will unveil a municipal employees’ fund fix this summer. Chicago closed out FY2015 with a total fund balance of $215 million, up $65 million from last fiscal year’s $150 million, dedicating a portion to cover operating expenses, such as judgments and union settlements, leaving an unassigned balance of $93 million. In addition, the city was successful in reducing other OPEB unfunded liabilities, primarily through phasing out most retiree healthcare subsidies. Of course, that phase out awaits a pending state constitutional challenge.