The Fiscal Challenges of Inequity

May 15, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Absences of Fiscal Balances

May 4, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we note the deepening road towards insolvency of the Harvey, Illinois; then we turn south to consider the potential adverse municipal fiscal impacts were the State of Georgia to enable the de-annexation of the small city of Stockbridge. Finally, we journey back to Puerto Rico, where House Natural Resources Committee Chair Rob Bishop is headed for a first-hand assessment of the ongoing fiscal and physical challenges and federal emergency assistance still needed. 

An Absence of Fiscal Balance? In the Land of Lincoln, Illinois, where the state’s courts have heard requests for municipal bankruptcy relief; but where chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy is not authorized; relief appears only to have been granted when not challenged. Under 65 Illinois Comp. Statute 5/8-5-1, smaller municipalities may, if not home rule jurisdictions, seek judicial relief. Under the state’s Local Government Financial Planning and Supervision Act (50 Ill. Comp. Stat. 3200) a municipality with a population under 25,000 suffering a “fiscal emergency” may, after securing a two-thirds vote of the governing body, petition the state to establish a financial planning and supervision commission to address such “fiscal emergency.” Ironically, Harvey, with a population of 25,282, just exceeds that level—some 1,052 Illinois municipalities have less than 25,000 residents. Now, with the municipality unable to meet its police and fire pensions, Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza is holding up more than $1 million in state funds the town is owed—under Illinois statutes which authorize the state to withhold tax revenues a municipality is slated to receive if it does not make the required payments into its police and firefighter pensions: the funds withheld go right into the pension fund instead of town services—which, in the case of Harvey, amount to about $1.4 million, leading to, as we have previously noted, the town’s announcement that it will lay off nearly half of its police and fire department. Making the fiscal situation more dire, the city’s Mayor, Eric Kellogg, has been banned for life from the municipal bond market for misleading investors; the municipality appears to be in a chronic pattern of underfunding its public safety pension funds, even as its operating budget chronically spends more than the revenues it brings in. Ergo, as we have written, under Illinois’ Public Act 96-1495, the Comptroller may be compelled to withhold state tax revenues, which would traditionally be in order to ensure pension payments are made to a municipality which has failed to make full pension payments for years.

In a situation which risks compromising public health and safety, Harvey has laid off nearly half its police and fire force—even as it has warned it might not be able to make payroll—especially with inadequate municipal fiscal resources now being rerouted to oppose the state actions in court.

It being Illinois—and an election year—Gov. Bruce Rauner has been uncharacteristically silent about the brewing fiscal catastrophe. The godfather of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, Jim Spiotto, has joined with the exceptional Chicago Civic Federation in drafting legislation, the Local Government Protection Authority, which includes a provision to:

  • establish an oversight board,
  • set up a clear procedure for dealing with a stressed city, and
  • allow filing for Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. (Legislation which has, to date, gained no traction in the legislature.)

Harvey Town Attorney Bob Fioretti reports: “We are going to find some solution, if possible,” signaling that the municipality was still negotiating with its police and fire pension funds, but warning that, if those discussions falter:  “Layoffs will occur. But the safety of the population is key, and that will continue.”

Mayhap ironically, Illinois adopted its pension law eight years ago as a way to ensure smaller municipalities would stop shorting their pension fund contributions—provisions upheld the week when a judge affirmed that the Illinois comptroller was within the state law to withhold the revenue. Thus, while the Comptroller’s Office issued a statement that it “does not want to see any Harvey employees harmed or any Harvey residents put at risk…the law does not give the Comptroller discretion in this case: The Comptroller’s Office is obligated to follow the law. This dispute is between the retired Harvey police officers’ pension fund and the city of Harvey.”

Nor does Harvey appear to be an isolated case: According to an analysis by Amanda Kass, a researcher at the University of Chicago, there are 74 police or fire pension funds in Illinois municipalities with similar unfunded pension liabilities—leading Chicago Civic Federation President Laurence Msall to note: “If they ignore the law and don’t make the contribution as Harvey has, then yes, those municipalities all around the state have ability to seek an intercept of state revenues that would otherwise come to the municipality.”

The complicating factor for Harvey is, however, not just that it has had years of decline and corruption in government, but also with declining assessed property values and very high property taxes, the municipality has a shrinking set of fiscal options—or, as Mr. Fioretti puts it: “We have an aging population, a declining population, a fixed-income population, and our revenues aren’t even being collected from the real estate taxes. We’re below 50 percent for the year on those collections,” noting that the delinquent real estate tax money is costing the town $12 million this year.”

Uneasy Fiscal Options. While Mr. Msall notes that the State of Illinois helped create the fiscal mess by setting up the pension funds and setting all of the pension levels; now, he notes, Illinois must either dissolve Harvey’s pension into the state fund, or put together an emergency financial team to sort through the wreckage of this and other distressed towns—adding: “Let’s create a board that could be independent with real financial expertise to guide these local governments, not to push them into [municipal] bankruptcy: The best path forward for Harvey is independent oversight that could sort out why they’re not making their financial reports on a regular basis.”

The Cost of Municipal Annexation. Municipalities across Georgia could face higher borrowing costs if the state government enables the “de-annexation” of about half of one small city, that city being Stockbridge, one settled in 1829 when the Concord Methodist Church was organized near present-day Old Stagecoach Road—and, especially, when Stockbridge was granted a post office on April 5, 1847, named for a traveling professor, Levi Stockbridge, who had passed through the area many times before the post office was built. Albeit that heritage remains a matter of some dispute: others contend that the city was named after Thomas Stock, who was State Surveyor and the Georgia State President in the 1820s. The small municipality was incorporated as a town in 1895 and, subsequently, as a city on August 6, 1920. Now, however, more change might be on the way, especially if Georgia Governor Nathan Deal signs into law Senate bills 262 and 263—bills which, if enacted, would de-annex just over half of Stockbridge’s assessable residential and commercial property. Why? Because proposed SB 263, an Act to incorporate the City of Eagles Landing, provide a charter for the City of Eagles Landing; provide for a referendum; provide for transition of powers and duties; provide for community improvement districts; and repeal conflicting laws would effectively have disconcerting fiscal impacts on City Hall in Stockbridge, which was financed with municipal revenue bonds. Neither of the two bills apportions the revenues involved between the to-be two entities—a requirement which, according to some legal experts, is based upon precedent-setting court cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and Georgia when the boundaries of a governmental entity are changed.

Thus, unsurprisingly, during the Georgia Municipal Association’s Georgia Cities Week last week, Stockbridge officials and representatives of the Eagle’s Landing effort held separate meetings with Gov. Deal.  Stockbridge City Attorney Michael Williams described their session as “very productive: The Governor said he would consider the series of points we made…I’m certainly taking him at his word that he will.” Nevertheless, the municipality is hedging its fiscal bets: it has hired three outside law firms to challenge the laws if Gov. Deal approves them.

Should that happen, however, the much reduced City if Stockbridge would still would be obligated to pay off about $13.02 million of privately placed Urban Redevelopment Agency lease-revenue bonds, and $1.5 million of water and sewer notes issued through the Georgia Environmental Facilities Authority—municipal bonds owned by Capitol One Public Funding LLC. Unsurprisingly, the Romulus and Remus of Eagles Landing have expressed no eagerness to help make those payments: sharing only goes so far. The lease-revenue bonds, issued in 2005 and 2006 for projects including funding to purchase land and build city hall, backed by general fund revenues and the city’s taxing power, if needed, even though the city does not currently impose a property tax.

Also unsurprisingly, Jim Spiotto’s firm, Chapman and Cutler LLP, which represents Capital One, wrote to the city a day after the General Assembly ended its session last month, warning it could face potential litigation: “SB 262 and SB 263 infringe Capital One’s constitutional rights under the contracts clause of the U.S. Constitution and the Georgia Constitution by taking away a significant source of the security and source of repayment for the bonds that was contractually bargained for by the bondholders,” Chapman and Cutler partner Laura Appleby wrote to the City Attorney. Unless the bonds are properly apportioned between Stockbridge and Eagle’s Landing, and the [municipal] bondholders have the benefit of the full security that they were originally promised, Ms. Appleby wrote, “We have serious concerns regarding the ability of [Stockbridge] to continue to pay debt service on the bonds because it will have lost a large portion of its ad valorem tax base.”

Jonathan Lewis, Capital One Public Funding’s president, has written to Gov. Deal also requesting a meeting, writing: “The failure of SB 262 and SB 263 to provide for the apportionment of the [municipal] bonds between the City of Stockbridge and, if formed, the City of Eagle’s Landing, is not only an inequitable result for the City of Stockbridge, it is an infringement on Capital One’s constitutional rights under the contracts clause of the U.S. Constitution and the Georgia Constitution, as it removes a significant portion of the security and source of repayment for the bonds…Capital One has come to trust that the State of Georgia will take those actions required to maintain, preserve, and protect the pledges made by its municipalities to their bondholders…Permitting SB 262 and SB 263 to become law would no longer allow us to rely in the State of Georgia [based] on the bedrock public finance principle of non-impairment,” adding that such a “de-annexation” would impair Capital One’s municipal bonds and “create new, unprecedented risks for existing holders and prospective purchasers of State of Georgia local debt.” Mr. Lewis last week also communicated to Georgia Municipal Association Executive Director Larry Hanson, whose organization is made up of 521 municipalities, that if enacted, the de-annexation would require all lenders to Georgia municipalities to “consider, and price in, the potential loss of security from future de-annexations,” because the legislation does not apportion Stockbridge’s outstanding debt: “GMA’s members would bear the burden of this new, Georgia-specific risk in the form of higher interest costs: “The uncertainty created by such a shift sets a dangerous precedent and could produce additional negative unintended consequences as lenders consider municipal financing opportunities within the state.”

Who’s on First? Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) of the House Natural Resources Committee, the committee of jurisdiction for U.S. territories, yesterday confirmed he would got to Puerto Rico to meet with island leaders to assess the recovery in the wake of Hurricane Maria’s devastation, noting: “This trip will allow me to better understand the ongoing challenges and the emergency assistance that is still needed.” He is scheduled to meet with Puerto Rico’s non-voting Member of Congress, Jenniffer Gonzalez, as well as Chairman Jose Carrion of the PROMESA Board as part of an effort the Chairman described as a “first hand look at recovery efforts,” pointing out that, in his view, it would be irresponsible for Governor Rosselló, who apparently the Chairman had not advised of his visit, not to implement the government reforms ordered by the PROMESA oversight board—making clear the fiscal gulf between the two leaders, with the Governor observing that Chairman Bishop, with his demands in favor of a dialogue with creditors, seems to be supporting the causes of the territory’s municipal bondholders over the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico.

Unlike chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, wherein state laws create a process—where permitted—for a municipality; there are many fiscal chefs in the kitchen in Puerto Rico, with growing questions with regard to the limits of their respective legal authority under the PROMESA law. A key issue, the final decision with regard to the implementation of cuts to the pension system and the labor reform may yet take a few months. The fiscal stakes, however, especially on an island where there has been a steady stream of college graduates and young professionals moving to the mainland—leaving behind  disproportionate number of older, retired Puerto Ricans, increasingly creates a greater and greater fiscal imbalance. That is now front and center in the wake of the Board’s proposed 10 percent average reduction in pensions—a proposal Gov. Rosselló has rejected, but, as one commentator noted, it is the Board which holds all the cards. The challenge is in interpreting the PROMESA Board’s authority to use its fiscal plans to provide “adequate funding” to Puerto Rico’s public pension systems: under the proposed fiscal plan, the Board cut in pensions would not begin until FY2020—giving time for the PROMESA Board to submit to U.S. Judge Laura Taylor Swain a quasi-plan of chapter 9 debt plan of debt adjustment by the end of this year.

It is not that the Governor believes pension should be off the table—after all, he had recommended a 6% reduction last year; thus, there remains some chance that the government and the Board could reach an agreement and avoid the heavy costs of fighting the fiscal issues out before Judge Swain. Indeed, as we saw in San Bernardino, those back door negotiations between the government and creditors can save an awful lot in lawyers’ fees—or, as former U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Gerardo Carlo-Altier put it: “The ideal thing would be for the Board, the government, and the groups of creditors to reach an agreement in advance and go together to court.”

A key sticking point appears to be the Board’s insistence of labor reforms: under its proposed plan, the Puerto Rico Legislature should approve the labor reform by the end of this month, so that the seven-day reduction for vacation and sick leave would take effect immediately. The elimination of the protections against unjustified dismissal, the mandatory Christmas bonus, and work requirements for the Nutrition Assistance Program (NAP) are proposed for next January—with the PROMESA Board estimating that, absent the enactment of such labor reforms, including: such as employment at will, reductions in sick and vacation leaves, and non-mandatory Christmas bonus; the government of Puerto Rico would stop receiving $330 million within the next five years. They estimate another $ 185 million to cuts in pensions—all of which has led the PROMESA Board to project that, absent the adoption of the reforms proposed in the five-year fiscal plan, Puerto Rico’s economic growth and capacity to finance its public debt service would fail.

Who Will Govern? Are there too many fiscal cooks in the kitchen? In Central Falls, Rhode Island: there was one individual in charge of steering the small city, aka Chocolateville, out of bankruptcy. Similarly, in Detroit, Governor Snyder named Kevyn Orr as Emergency Manager—effectively suspending the governance authority of the Mayor and Council during the pendency of the city’s chapter 9 proceedings until U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes approved Detroit’s plan of debt adjustment. Yet, in Puerto Rico—a territory which is neither a state, nor a municipality; there are a multiplicity of actors—including, now, Chairman Bishop, the Governor, the Legislature, and the PROMESA Board—a Board which Constitutionalist Professor Carlos Ramos González of the Inter-American University Law School believes, even given the power conferred upon it by Congress over Puerto Rico’s elected government, is uncertain with regard to its own authority to implement the structural reforms it favors—or, as he has noted: “Nobody wants to be blamed for cutting pensions: in all the chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy cases, there were pension reductions,” adding that, as we saw especially in the case of Detroit, the issue of equity is challenging: how to make those cuts without plunging many retirees into poverty—a problem of even greater resonance on an island experiencing an outflow of its young professionals, so that the demography already risks insufficient revenues to meet a clearly growing demand.  

Then there is a second challenge: while PROMESA appears clear in its grant of authority to the Board to certify the fiscal plan, it appears to lack any authority to implement it on its own. Unlike Central Falls, Detroit, San Bernardino, or other chapter 9 plans of debt adjustment approved by U.S. Bankruptcy Courts; the current PROMESA statute does not authorize a federal court to control Puerto Rico’s legislative process: there is a separation of powers issue.  Nevertheless, in the wake of the approval of the fiscal plan, the PROMESA Board is trying: it has submitted a preliminary labor reform draft to the Puerto Rico Legislature, where Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz has invited PROMESA President José Carrión III to defend the proposed changes and cuts—an invitation, however, which has not been accepted.  

Former Governor Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, who lectures for a Separation of Powers class at the Law School of the University of Puerto Rico, finds it self-evident that the Legislature will not give way to the Boards proposed labor reforms, noting: “I think the Board has a very weak case in terms of imposing the labor reform. It has a better case in other measures, because they are directly tied to Puerto Rico’s fiscal crisis.” Similarly, Governor Rosselló usually quotes §205 of the PROMESA Act, which refers to the fact that the Board can make “recommendations to the Governor or the Legislature on actions the territorial government may take to ensure compliance with the Fiscal Plan, or to otherwise promote the financial stability, economic growth, management responsibility, and service delivery efficiency of the territorial government.” While Carlo Altieri adds to the debate §108, which, regarding the general powers of the Board, warns that: “Neither the Governor nor the Legislature may— (1) exercise any control, supervision, oversight, or review over the Oversight Board or its activities; or (2) enact, implement, or enforce any statute, resolution, policy, or rule that would impair or defeat the purposes of this Act, as determined by the Oversight Board.”

Indeed, an attorney for the Governor, Richard Cooper of Cleary Gottlieb, noted: “Congress did not grant the Board the power to pass laws or appoint or replace government officials…it left the government of Puerto Rico the capacity and responsibility to make the law (as long as it is consistent with the adopted fiscal plan and adjustment fiscal plan) and manage the government, with all that it entails.” Indeed, in an earlier ‘who’s in charge dispute,’ when the PROMESA Board tried to appoint a trustee to monitor the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), alleging that PROMESA recognizes it as representative of the “debtor,” Judge Swain stated that no section of the PROMESA law granted the Board power with regard to the “the implementation of those (fiscal) plans and budgets,” instead comparing the statute Congress adopted in the 1990’s creating a fiscal control board over Washington, D.C. with PROMESA. She concluded that the Board has the task of establishing the “rails” for the “territorial government” to move “towards credibility and fiscal responsibility.” Indeed, the Congressional Record appears to make no reference to the power of the Board to impose structural governmental reforms—just as Congress lacks any authority to impose such on a state—especially in a nation where it was the states which created the nation, rather than vice versa. Rather, the Congressional debate on Puerto Rico reflected an emphasis on the power of the PROMESA Board to restructure the debt, which is the main burden of Puerto Rico—and, in Congress, Republicans and Democrats have expressed no interest in amending the act, either to strengthen or soften the powers of the Board.

For his part, Chairman Bishop believes that the act allows the Board to implement structural reforms and that it would be an irresponsible attitude of the Puerto Rican government to block them. That indicates there could well be intriguing fiscal and governmental discussions this weekend—albeit it seems most certain that, as Gov. Rosselló has made clear: “We are not going to allow an imposed Board to dictate the public policy of Puerto Rico.”

Notwithstanding their differences over the extent of the powers of the PROMESA Board, Gov. Rosselló and the Board are not at complete odds: they appear to have made common cause before regarding the case of Aurelius investment group and the Electrical Industry and Irrigation Workers Union, the main union of PREPA, to defend the constitutionality of the appointment of the Board members, because six of the seven were proposed by the Congressional leadership; rather, Gov. Rosselló’s administration has limited itself to challenging actions of the Board, not its existence—even as one of his predecessors, former Governor Acevedo Vilá, noting that, even under the colonial situation and the doctrine of Insular Cases decided a century ago by the U.S. Supreme Court, which has repeatedly validated the so-called “plenary powers” of Congress in Puerto Rico, the government of Puerto Rico must challenge the existence of the Board as a violation of the U.S. Constitution under the theory that “to the extent that Board has executive and legislative powers, even under the Insular Cases, it is unconstitutional,” adding that: “Even when organizing the territories, Congress has to guarantee a minimum system of separation of powers.”

The Puerto Rico Debt Tango. While the PROMESA Oversight Board and Gov. Rosselló are engaged in a complicated dance over future debt payments and policy, their complicated dance steps are not dissimilar: In successive versions of a fiscal plan that the Governor submitted to the Board in January, February, March, and last month; the Governor said the amount of debt Puerto Rico should carry should be determined through a comparison with debt medians in the 50 mainland states—quite similar to the Board’s certified plan.  Like the Governor’s proposed fiscal plans, the board certified plan has a comparison to the medians for the 50 states and to the 10 states with the highest levels of four measures of debt. The Board certified plan stated: “The implied debt capacity and expected growth in debt capacity in debt capacity must be sufficient to cover both the payments due on the restructured debt, and all payments due on future new money borrowings.” Accordingly, the aggregate debt service due on all fixed payment debt issued in the restructuring of the government’s existing tax-supported debt should be capped at a maximum annual debt service level: “The cap would be derived from the U.S. state rating metrics, and specifically what Moody’s [Investors Service] calls the ‘Debt Service Ratio.’” (The debt service ratio is defined as ratio of total debt payments due in a year divided by a state-government’s own source revenues.)

Under such a construct, it would appear that Puerto Rico could pay about $19 billion of the roughly $45 billion that the central government and its closely related lending entities owe, according to the plan’s exhibit 26. In the same exhibit, the PROMESA Board alternately suggests that one should use an average of a set of four measures of debt capacity and not just own-source revenues. Using this composite measure would mean that Puerto Rico should pay back about $10.7 billion in outstanding debt. But the Board plan notes this would be optimistic for a promised level of payments, rather, it reports, the fixed amount committed to should be cut by 10% to 30% to allow for “implementation risk.” It suggest that 20% should be used and the coupon be adjusted to 5%. These would lead to Puerto Rico committing to pay 19% of its debt—adding: “Any additional cash flow above the maximum annual debt service cap applied to the restructured fixed payment debt that is generated over the long-term from successful implementation of the new fiscal plan could be dedicated to a combination of contingent ‘growth bond’ payments to legacy bond creditors, debt service due on future new money borrowings needed to fund Puerto Rico’s infrastructure investments, and additional ‘PayGo’ capital investment to reduce the government’s historically out-size reliance on borrowing to fund its needs, among other purposes.”

Upsetting State & Local Fiscal Balances

April 27, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we seek to understand the fiscal imbalances in Connecticut and its capitol city of Hartford, before venturing west to assess the uneasy fiscal dilemmas in Illinois.

Biting the Fiscal Hand that Feeds the City? In a letter to Connecticut Treasurer Denise Nappier, House Minority Leader Themis Klarides (R-Derby) this week warned that the state’s fiscal bailout out the City of Hartford will exhaust the state’s ability to issue debt, — at least temporarily, noting that the legislature’s non nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis projects “the state would exceed the statutory bond cap by $522 million” effective next July 1st, because of the Hartford fiscal agreement. That arrangement, implemented earlier this spring by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration and by Treasurer Nappier’s office, commits the State of Connecticut to finance Hartford’s $534 million in outstanding municipal bond debt, in addition to an undetermined about of interest. While state Legislators had ordered fiscal assistance for Hartford last October as part of a final consensus on adopting the budget, now a number are claiming the agreement went beyond what legislators had authorized. At stake is Connecticut’s expectation of retiring this debt over 20 to 30 years—something which could now depend upon how Hartford city leaders renegotiate their obligations with the city’s municipal bondholders—and, especially, at what interest rates—in one of the nation’s oldest states, and one which has long had in statute a debt limit—one which applies not only to bond debt already issued by the state, but also bonded debt it has committed to undertake in the future. Leader Klarides noted that he had been informed by the state’s Office of Fiscal Analysis that the full amount of Hartford which the state is expected to assume, $534 million, would be counted against the state’s bond cap: he has, indeed, requested clarification from the Treasurer with regard to when Hartford’s debt was included in calculations of the state’s debt burden. Unless legislators abandon the cap, the only alternatives to exceeding the limit this summer would be to delay or cancel planned municipal bonding for various projects, such as municipal school construction or capital programs at public colleges and universities; increase taxes or adopt other revenue raising measures, or vote to modify the Connecticut debt limit statute and grant an exemption for the emergency aid for the City of Hartford.

With Republicans currently holding nearly half the seats in the House (71 of 151) and exactly half the seats in the Senate, any traction for the city will confront, ergo, steep political divides—especially in an election year where Republicans have already indicated they plan to campaign on their efforts to stabilize state finances; thus, any effort to curtail other projects is likely to draw objections from both sides of the aisle. Treasurer Nappier’s office did not comment immediately after Leader Klarides issued her letter. Wednesday, Gov. Dannell Malloy’s office, noted that legislators should have known the assistance would count against the state’s debt limit, with a spokesperson for his office noting: “The contract assistance agreement is perfectly in keeping with the legislation passed last year by the bipartisan coalition,” adding that that was language the Legislature had both drafted and passed with support from Leader Klarides—language which stated that contract assistance agreements would constitute a full faith and credit obligation of the state: “This was not ambiguous then, and it is not now. The only question that continues to arise regarding the contract assistance agreement is did Representative Klarides have any idea what she was voting for?”

While there is consensus on both sides of the aisle that the two-year state budget enacted last October appropriated about $80 million in assistance for Hartford over the biennium, legislators had also agreed that Hartford would seek to refinance its debt over the long-term—debt the state would guarantee, committing to make annual debt assistance payments close to $40 million for 20 to 30 years, until the city’s entire $534 million general obligation debt is retired; however, last week, House and Senate Republicans recommended budget adjustments which would reduce traditional state grants to Hartford each year, beginning in the new fiscal year, by an amount equal to the debt assistance—effectively undercutting the fiscal commitment—or, as  effectively neutralizing the deal. Or, as Rep. Klarides put it, legislators were very clear in what they ordered, and that the Governor and Treasurer negotiated last-minute changes with the city and its bondholders that overstepped their authority, noting: “We only agreed to a two-year lifeline: This was a deal that was done in the dark of night.” Leader Klarides declined to speculate what the Legislature will do, but warned that if lawmakers are forced to begin canceling planned borrowing: “Let’s de-authorize Hartford projects.” In response, House Majority Leader Matt Ritter (D-Hartford), unsurprisingly, said exempting the aid for his home community from the statutory debt limit might be the best solution, especially, as he noted, because legislators on both sides of the aisle still want to make adjustments to the state budget for the next fiscal year before the session’s scheduled close on May 9th, noting that the single-largest amount of state borrowing is used to support municipal school construction, and canceling more than $500 million in planned borrowing by July 1 likely would impact many communities across Connecticut. Thus, he added: “If we all agree we want safe schools for our kids, we should come together and talk.”

The difficult negotiations in the Legislature come as Wall Street is warning Connecticut that its municipalities could be in fiscal peril. Last week, Moody’s moodily released an analysis that the recently enacted federal tax law changes may wreak fiscal havoc to the state’s local governments—especially the cap on the deductibility of state and local taxes. There is fiscal apprehension that the federal changes could lead to stagnant assessed property values—changes which would augur bad news for municipal property tax receipts in a state which relies more on property taxes than any other—or., as the exception UConn Law Professor Richard Pomp noted: “Because fewer people are going to be able to deduct the property tax, there is the concern that this will lower the demand for housing: That will lower a municipality’s property tax base at the next reassessment.” The federal tax changes which have led to record federal deficits and debt for the one level of government which does not try to balance its budget means, as Kevin Maloney of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities put it: “There is no way to sugarcoat the fact that the recently passed sweeping federal tax reform will adversely impact a majority of property taxpayers and towns and city governments across Connecticut: Limiting the ability of Connecticut towns and cities to write off property tax paid annually will only place more pressure on the property tax in Connecticut, making Connecticut local economies and tax environment more uncompetitive and depressing the value of homeownership.”

In 2014, more than 41% of returns in Connecticut included a state and local tax deduction (the last year available): the average amount for this deduction was $19,000. Thus, as he put it: “Property taxes represent an absolutely vital source of revenue for cities in Connecticut: According to the Lincoln Institute for Land Policy, property taxes account for 60% of local revenues—twice the national average.” That unbalanced reliance is further complicating fiscal stability in the state, because Connecticut is the state with the nation’s greatest income inequality—creating widely disparate impacts on Connecticut municipalities’ fiscal capacity to provide equitable levels of services.  Those fiscal disparities can cause, as Moody’s reported, “significant headwinds,” especially for cities like Bridgeport, where a shrinking tax base and plummeting assessed property values have generated a vicious fiscal cycle of ever-higher tax increases on remaining residents: higher and higher tax burdens, even as services are reduced. Two years; ago, a Bridgeport family making $75,000 a year faced a tax rate of nearly 16%: as higher income families have fled the municipality, the new federal tax bill could contribute to drive still more away.

On a Golden Parachute in Highland Park? In an Illinois County, Highland Park, where more than a century ago in 1867, ten men purchased Highland Park for the gaudy sum of $39,198.70 to become the original stockholders of the Highland Park Building Company—after which, following construction of the Chicago and Milwaukee Railroad, a depot was established at Highland Park and a plat, extending south to Central Avenue, was laid out in 1856, leading to the establishment of the municipality on March 11, 1869, with a population of 500; today, the Chicago suburb has a different distinction: it is a county with some of the state’s highest property taxes, and one where more than one-third of employees at one park district are making more than six figures: out of 51 employees listed in compensation documents provided by the Park District of Highland Park, 18 earn more than $100,000 in total compensation. (In Illinois, park districts receive the bulk of their funding from local property taxes: the Park District of Highland Park is no exception, with more than 57% of its funding coming from local tax dollars.)

Part of the cost appears to stem from lavish severance payouts. Thus, one proposal in the Illinois General Assembly, Senate Bill 3604, would limit government workers’ ability to collect extravagant severance packages, or “golden parachutes.” The bill, the Government Severance Pay Act, would mandate specific provisions in government employment contracts to limit the capacity for excessive severance pay, imposing a fixed ceiling on severance payouts, capping any severance pay at the equivalent of 20 weeks of compensation, and re-establishing public-worker severance pay as a privilege, rather than an entitlement, mandating that government worker contracts include a provision barring severance packages for employees terminated due to misconduct. Illinois Sen. Bill Cunningham (D-Chicago) would require greater transparency in severance pay negotiations for public university officials, as well as cap their payouts at one year’s compensation. Indeed, it seems leaving municipal employment has been munificent in the state: the Better Government Association illustrated as much in a report released last October, cataloguing a number of big severance payouts. University officials comprised seven of the nine Illinois officials listed in the report. The College of DuPage Board of Trustees issued one of the largest severance packages for a government employee in Illinois history, according to the Chicago Tribune, reporting that during his tenure, President Robert Breuder hid more than $95 million in public expenditures, $243,300 of which was used to purchase liquor—an item listed as “instructional supplies” on ledger lines. Generously, trustees purchased Mr. Breuder’s early retirement for nearly $763,000 in severance pay.

Fiscal Fire in the Hole

April 24, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we return to the Windy City region and the small Chicago suburb of Harvey, as it teeters on the edge of insolvency in a state where municipalities are not authorized to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, albeit under Illinois’ Local Government Financial Planning and Supervision Act (see 50 Ill. Comp. Stat. 320), a local Illinois government with a population under 25,000 suffering from a “fiscal emergency” may—if it secures a two-thirds vote of its Council, petition the Governor to appoint a financial planning and supervision commission to recommend that the local government be granted the authority to file for chapter 9 via submission to the Illinois Legislature—something which happened twenty-nine years ago in the case of East St. Louis.

Fire in the Hole. Illinois Rep. Jeanne Ives (R-Ill.), whose Chicago suburban district includes all or portions of Wheaton, Warrenville, West Chicago, Winfield, Carol Stream, Lisle, and Naperville—and who served on the Wheaton City Council prior to being elected to the Legislature, yesterday said the embattled, small municipality of Harvey was not alone in its inability to meet Illinois’ pension demand, adding the small city should strongly consider filing for municipal bankruptcy. In the wake, as we have noted, of the state’s withholding of funds to Harvey because of its non-payment into the pension system, firefighters and police officers have been laid off. That is, there is a growing human risk—and, as with fire, it is a risk which could spread to other municipalities in the region—from Burbank to Niles to Maywood, small cities in comparable fiscal straits. With boarded up businesses on the main street, it appears, as Rep. Ives notes, that “Bankruptcy is the only way out.”

In the wake of the State of Illinois’ decision to withhold state assistance because of its failure to make mandatory public pension contributions, the city laid off nearly one-third of its 67 firefighters and 12 of its 81 police officers. Harvey has not kept pace with pension payments for more than 10 years. With boarded up businesses on the municipality’s main street, Rep. Ives, ergo, notes: “Bankruptcy is the only way out.” Adding, in reference to the small city’s layoffs: “Forty-two retired Harvey firefighters have saved a collective $1.42 million, but have already collected nearly $25 million in retirement.” Her comments came in the wake of the Cook County Appellate Court overturning of a prior decision by the Cook County Circuit Court and grant of a temporary restraining order against the Illinois State Comptroller with regard to the hold of $1.4 million from the City of Harvey. The Mayor, Eric Kellogg, has released a statement noting: “We will not entertain any conversation concerning the filing of bankruptcy;” however, the municipality’s fiscal options are limited. Even though the Appellate Court of Cook County has overturned the prior decision of the Cook County Circuity Court and granted a temporary restraining order against the Illinois State Comptroller regarding the hold of $1.4 million from Harvey, the option of raising local taxes appears most unlikely—or, as one local taxpayer who used to own a restaurant there put it: “My property taxes were $80,000 a year: How many hot dogs can you sell?”

As our insightful colleagues at the Municipal Market Journal observe, Illinois’ statute, P.A. 96-1495, “potentially transforms pension funding problems into service funding issues and may accelerate fiscal deterioration of some municipalities. The law, which recently became effective, requires that the Illinois Comptroller to withhold and divert state revenues targeted for a municipality to police and fire pension plans when requested to do so by the funds, because of the failure of the sponsor to make required contributions. The Journal goes on to observe: “The City of North Chicago is the second, but according to a recently published paper by the University of Chicago’s Amanda Kass, there are over 600 individual police and fire pension funds in the state and 29% were less than 50% funded in 2016 (Chicago excluded). This suggests that, if the court upholds that the state must divert money away from municipalities that short their police and fire pensions, more governments may be thrust into fiscal distress.” Their note adds: “Because of a lack of readily available information, the paper uses the Illinois Department of Insurance’s calculations regarding what should have been contributed to the pensions during the period from 2003-2010 to determine the municipalities that are more likely to be at risk of a diversion. Fifty-four municipalities responsible for 71 funds contributed 50% or less of what the Illinois Department of Insurance said should be paid, and, as a result, the funds are worse off with a 47% funded ratio in 2016 compared with a state average (again, excluding Chicago) of 60%. Notably, over 50% are in Cook County. The Department of Insurance (DOI) is one of three sources that can determine the contribution (an actuary hired by the fund or by the municipality can also make the determination).

Can Congress Uninflict Federally Caused Fiscal & Economic Disparities & Distress?

October 13, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the ongoing fiscal, legal, physical, and human challenges to Puerto Rico, before heading north to New Jersey where the fiscal and governing strains between Atlantic City and the Garden State continue to fester.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

Physical, Oratorical, & Fiscal Storms. President Trump served notice yesterday that he may pull back federal relief workers from Puerto Rico, effectively threatening to abandon the U.S. territory amid a staggering humanitarian crisis in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria–even as House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) goes to Puerto Rico this morning to assess not only the damage, but also how to more effectively respond to a staggering humanitarian crisis in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. The Speaker will also bear some good news: the House yesterday approved 353-69, a $36.5 billion disaster aid package to help victims struggling to recover from a string of devastating hurricanes and wildfires, sending the aid package to the Senate, which returns from a weeklong recess next week. While the Trump administration requested $29 billion in supplemental spending last week, it asked for additional resources Tuesday night, including $4.9 billion to fund a loan program that Puerto Rico can use to address basic functions such as infrastructure needs. Speaker Ryan noted: “‎We think it’s critical that we pass this legislation this week to get the people the help they need, to support the victims, and also to help the communities still recovering and dealing with the problems with the hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria.” Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló had warned Congressional leaders that the U.S. territory is “on the brink of a massive liquidity crisis that will intensify in the immediate future.”

President Trump yesterday claimed that it will be up to Congress how much federal money to appropriate for Puerto Rico, but that relief workers will not stay “forever,” even as, three weeks after Hurricane Maria struck, much of Puerto Rico remains without power, with limited access to clean water, hospitals are running short on medicine, and many businesses remain  closed. The President added:  “We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!”

The White House late yesterday issued a statement committing for now “the full force of the U.S. government” to the Puerto Rico recovery, seemingly contradicting the President, who has sought to portray Puerto Rico as in full recovery mode and has voiced frustration with what he considers mismanagement by local leaders. The Governor had warned earlier in the week that the U.S. territory is “on the brink of a massive liquidity crisis that will intensify in the immediate future.” The legislation the House adopted last night allows up to $4.9 billion in direct loans to local governments in a bid to ease Puerto Rico’s fiscal crunch—a vital lifeline, as, absent Congressional action, the territory may not be able to make its payroll or pay vendors by the end of this month.

In contrast, Speaker Ryan said that Puerto Rico must eventually “stand on its own two feet,” but that the federal government needs to continue to respond to the humanitarian crisis: “We’re in the midst of a humanitarian crisis…Yes, we need to make sure that Puerto Rico can begin to stand on its own two feet…But at the moment, there is a humanitarian crisis which has to be attended to, and this is an area where the federal government has a responsibility, and we’re acting on it.”

Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (D-NY), who was born in Puerto Rico, said in a statement that the President’s “most solemn duty is to protect the safety and the security of the American people. By suggesting he might abdicate this responsibility for our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico, Mr. Trump has called into question his ability to lead. We will not allow the federal government to abandon Puerto Rico in its time of need.” Similarly, Jennifer Hing, a spokeswoman for House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), who will accompany Speaker Ryan today, said that those who live on the island “are American citizens and they deserve the federal assistance they need to recover and rebuild. The Chairman and the Committee fully stand by them in these efforts, and will continue to be at the ready to provide the victims of these devastating hurricanes with the necessary federal resources both now and in the future.” Without Congressional action, the territory may not be able to make its payroll or pay vendors by the end of the month. Unmentioned is whether such contemplated assistance might entail repealing the Jones Act—an act which means the price of goods in Puerto Rico is at least double that in neighboring islands—including the U.S. Virgin Islands. The New York Federal Reserve  found that the Act hurts the Puerto Rican economy—Sen. John McCain (R-Az.) and Rep. Gary Palmer (R-Ala.) have offered legislation to repeal or suspend the law.

President Trump yesterday warned that his administration’s response to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico cannot last “forever,” tweeting: “We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!” He added that the U.S. territory’s existing debt and infrastructure issues compounded problems. His tweeting came as the House is preparing to consider legislation under which Puerto Rico would receive a $4.9 billion low-interest federal loan to pay its bills through the end of October, as part of a $36.5 billion package. The temporary assistance comes as Moody’s Investors Service has downgraded the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico’s general obligation bonds to Ca from Caa3, in view of the protracted economic and revenue disruptions caused by Hurricane Maria. The President also threatened he may pull back federal relief workers from Puerto Rico, effectively threatening to abandon the U.S. territory amid a staggering humanitarian crisis in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria: he said that relief workers will not stay “forever.” Three weeks after Hurricane Maria made landfall, much of Puerto Rico, an island of 3.4 million Americans, remains without power. Residents struggle to find clean water, hospitals are running short on medicine, and commerce is slow, with many businesses closed.

The lower ratings are aligned with estimates of Puerto Rico’s reduced debt servicing capacity given extensive damage from Hurricane Maria. Puerto Rico faces almost total economic and revenue disruption in the near term and diminished output and revenue probably through the end of the current fiscal year and maybe well into the next. The weaker trajectory will undercut the government’s ability to repay its debt, a matter now being weighed in a bankruptcy-like proceeding authorized by the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA). For the University of Puerto Rico, the downgrade factors in expected pressure on enrollment-linked revenue and on funding from the Puerto Rican government.

With 155 mile-an-hour winds and a path that cut diagonally across the island, Hurricane Maria was the most destructive storm to hit Puerto Rico in almost 90 years. It knocked out all electric power, destroyed more than 100,000 homes, and ruptured bridges and other public infrastructure. Beyond the disruption of the immediate aftermath, the potential long-term repercussions may be somewhat mixed, however. On one hand, a massive exodus of residents relocating to the mainland, rather than rebuilding on the island, could further erode Puerto Rico’s economic base. Moody’s opined that an infusion of federal relief and rebuilding funds could spur the economic growth and infrastructure replacement that, under normal conditions, has eluded Puerto Rico: “We, nevertheless ,view the economic impact overall as a substantial negative that has weakened the commonwealth’s ability to repay creditors: The negative outlook is consistent with ongoing economic pressures, which will weigh on the commonwealth’s capacity to meet debt and other funding obligations, potentially driving bondholder recovery rates lower as restructuring of the commonwealth’s debt burden unfolds.”

Tens of thousands of islanders left for the U.S. mainland to escape the immediate aftermath of the storm. With conditions back home still grim—approximately 85 percent of residents still lack electricity and 40 percent are without running water, and neither is expected to be fully restored for months—many find themselves scrambling to build new lives away from the island. Particularly in states with large Puerto Rican populations, such as New York, Illinois, Florida, and Connecticut, people are bunking with relatives while trying to find longer-term housing, jobs and schools for their kids.

There have been several major migratory exoduses from Puerto Rico to the mainland over the years, most recently during the past decade when the island’s population shrank by about 10 percent because of a long economic slide that shows no sign of easing anytime soon. Hurricane Maria struck Sept. 20th, and, according to the latest figures from the Puerto Rican government, killed at least 45 people. It also created a new surge that could have lasting demographic effects on Puerto Rico and on the mainland. “I think that we could expect that people who did not plan to stay permanently might do so now,” said Jorge Duany, a professor of anthropology at Florida International University who has long studied migration from the island. Many of those who left are elderly or sick people who fled or were evacuated because of the dangers posed by living on a tropical island with no power or air conditioning and limited water for an indefinite period of time.  It is too early to know exactly how many have departed Puerto Rico for the mainland, but Florida reports more than 20,000 have come to the Seminole state since Oct. 3rd. There were already about 1 million Puerto Ricans in the Sunshine State, second only to New York.

Addressing the urgency of fiscal assistance, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) stated: “These funds are vital right now, in the near term, to get the aid where it is needed most.” Puerto Rico faces a government shutdown at the end of the month without an infusion of cash, according to Puerto Rico Treasury Secretary Raul Maldonado: the proposed loan provides flexibility for repayment: it allows the Secretary of Homeland Security, in consultation with Treasury Secretary Mnuchin to “determine the terms, conditions, eligible uses, and timing and amount of federal disbursements of loans issued to a territory or possession, and instrumentalities and local governments.”

Gov. Ricardo Rossello Nevares, in his letter at the end of last week to the President, cited “independent damage assessments in the range of $95 billion–approximately 150% of Puerto Rico’s” economy, writing that “financial damages of this magnitude will subject Puerto Rico’s central government, its instrumentalities, and municipal governments to unsustainable cash shortfalls: As a result, in addition to the immediate humanitarian crisis, Puerto Rico is on the brink of a massive liquidity crisis that will intensify in the immediate future.”

Saving Atlantic City. New Jersey Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez has ruled that Atlantic City can cut its Fire Department by 15 members early next year as a cost-saving measure under the Garden State’s Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act, with his ruling lifting the restriction that any reduction in force must occur through retirements or attrition. Judge Mendez, who in late August had ruled against a state proposal for 50 layoffs, ruled no cuts may take place before February 1st—marking the first legal showdown under New Jersey’s Recovery Act takeover powers under designee Jeffrey Chiesa, which enables the state to alter outstanding municipal contracts. In his decision, Judge Mendez wrote: “Upon careful consideration of the facts and legal arguments, the court is of the view that the plan and timeline for immediate reductions is problematic but it’s not impermissible by the Recovery Act…The court will not restrict the Designee from establishing a plan to reduce the size of the ACFD from the current level of 195 to 180.”  Judge  Mendez ruled the state may exercise its authority; however, the cuts are not allowed until after Feb. 1, according to the ruling: “Upon careful consideration of the facts and legal arguments, the court is of the view that the plan and timeline for immediate reductions is problematic, but it’s not impermissible by the Recovery Act…The court will not restrict the Designee from establishing a plan to reduce the size of the ACFD from the current level of 195 to 180.” In his August ruling, the Judge had written that any reduction in force below 180 members would compromise public safety, and any further reduction would have to come through attrition and retirements. Under this week’s ruling, before the state makes cuts, however, officials must explore other funding to cover lost SAFER Grant funding, allow for additional attrition to take place, and provide fair notice to those who may lose their jobs.

Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian said he had hoped the state would offer an early retirement incentive—especially after, last August, Gov. Chris Christie had signed a bill allowing the state to offer such an incentive to the city’s police officers, firefighters, and first responders facing layoffs. However, the state has said the offer would not be financially beneficial, leading Mayor Guardian to note: “I am disappointed that the state has pushed forward this motion knowing that the state Senate, Assembly, and the Governor all passed an early retirement bill for just this reason: We could have easily gotten to 180 fighters through these incentives.”

New Jersey Community Affairs spokeswoman Lisa Ryan noted: “We remain disappointed by the court’s insistence on requiring an artificially and unnecessarily high number of firefighters…While the decision to allow a modest reduction in firefighters on Feb. 1, 2018, will provide some budget relief, the city will still be forced to make additional and significant reductions to fire salaries in order to afford paying for 180 firefighters.” (Last January, the Fire Department had 225 members; now there are 195, or, as Judge Mendez wrote: “The plans to reduce the size of the ACFD have evolved from a request to approve a force of 125, resulting in a loss of 100 positions, to the current request to reduce the force to 180, resulting in a loss of 15 positions.” 

Measuring Municipal Fiscal Distress

August 29, 2017

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s Blog, we consider the new Local Government Fiscal Distress bi-cameral body in Virginia and its early actions; then we veer north to Atlantic City, where both the Governor and the courts are weighing in on the city’s fiscal future; before scrambling west to Scranton, Pennsylvania—as it seeks to respond to a fiscally adverse judicial ruling, then back west to the very small municipality of East Cleveland, Ohio—as it awaits authority to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy—and municipal elections—then to Detroit’s ongoing efforts to recover revenues as part of its recovery from the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy, before finally ending up in the Windy City, where the incomparable Lawrence Msall has proposed a Local Government Protection Authority—a quasi-judicial body—to serve as a resource for the Chicago Public School System.  

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

Measuring Municipal Fiscal Distress. When Virginia Auditor of Public Accounts Martha S. Mavredes last week testified before the Commonwealth’s new Joint House-Senate Subcommittee on Local Government Fiscal Stress, she named Bristol as one of the state’s four financially distressed localities—a naming which Bristol City Manager Randy Eads confirmed Monday. Bristol is an independent city in the Commonwealth of Virginia with a population just under 18,000: it is the twin city of Bristol, Tennessee, just across the state line: a line which bisects middle of its main street, State Street. According to the auditor, the cities of Petersburg and Bristol scored below 5 on a financial assessment model that uses 16 as the minimum threshold for indicating financial stress, with Bristol scoring lower than Petersburg. One other city and two counties scored below 16. For his part, City Manager Eads said he and the municipality’s CFO “will be working with the APA to determine how the scores were reached,” adding: “The city will also be open to working with the APA to address any issues.” (Bristol scored below the threshold the past three years, dropping to 4.25 in 2016. Petersburg had a score of 4.48 in 2016, when its financial woes became public.) Even though the State of Virginia has no authority to directly involve itself in a municipality’s finances (Virginia does not specifically authorize its municipal entities to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, certain provisions of the state’s laws [§15.2-4910] do allow for a trust indenture to contain provisions for protecting and enforcing rights and remedies of municipal bondholders—including the appointment of a receiver.), its new system examines the Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports submitted annually and scores them on 10 financial ratios—including four that measure the health of the locality’s general fund used to finance its budget. Manager Eads testified: “At the moment, the city does not have all of the necessary information from the APA to fully address any questions…We have been informed, by the APA, that we will receive more information from them the first week of September.” He added that the city leaders have taken steps to bolster cash flow and reserves, while reducing their reliance on borrowing short-term tax anticipation notes. In addition, the city has recently began implementing a series of budgetary and financial policies prior to the APA scores being released—steps seemingly recognized earlier this summer when Moody’s upgraded the city’s outlook to stable and its municipal bond rating to Baa2 with an underlying A3 enhanced rating, after a downgrade in 2016. Nevertheless, the road back is steep: the city still maintains more than $100 million in long-term general obligation bond debt with about half of it tied to The Falls commercial center in the Exit 5 area, which has yet to attract significant numbers of tenants.

Fiscal Fire? The State of New Jersey’s plan to slash Atlantic City’s fire department by 50 members was blocked by Superior court Judge Julio Mendez, preempting the state’s efforts to reduce the number of firefighters in the city from 198 to 148. The state, which preempted local authority last November, has sought to sharply reduce the city’s expenditures: state officials had last February proposed to move the Fire Department to a less expensive health plan and reduce staffing in the department from 225 firefighters to 125. In his ruling, however, Judge Mendez wrote: “The court holds that the (fire department’s union) have established by clear and convincing evidence that Defendants’ proposal to reduce the size of the Atlantic City Fire Department to 148 firefighters will cause irreparable harm in that it compromises the public safety of Atlantic City’s residents and visitors.” Judge Mendez had previously granted the union’s request to block the state’s actions, ruling last March that any reduction below 180 firefighters “compromises public safety,” and that any reduction should happen “through attrition and retirements.”

Gov. Christie Friday signed into law an alternative fiscal measure for the city, S. 3311, which requires the state to offer an early-retirement incentive program to the city’s police officers, firefighters, and first responders facing layoffs, noting at the bill signing what he deemed the Garden State’s success in its stewardship of the city since November under the Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act, citing Atlantic City’s “great strides to secure its finances and its future.” The Governor noted a drop of 11.4 percent in the city’s overall property-tax rate, the resolution of casino property-tax appeals, and recent investments in the city. For their parts, Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, sponsors of the legislation, said the new law would let the city “reduce the size of its police and fire departments without jeopardizing public safety,” adding that the incentive plan, which became effective with the Governor’s signature, would not affect existing contracts or collective bargaining rights—or, as Sen. Sweeney stated: “We don’t want to see any layoffs occur, but if a reduction in workers is required, early retirement should be offered first to the men and women who have served the city.” For his part, Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian said, “I’m glad that the Governor and the State continue to follow the plan that we gave them 10 months ago. As all the pieces that we originally proposed continue to come together, Atlantic City will continue to move further in the right direction.”

For its part, the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, which has been the fiscal overseer of the state takeover of Atlantic City, has touted the fiscal progress achieved this year from state intervention, including the adoption of a $206.3 million budget that is 20 percent lower than the city’s FY2015 budget, due to even $56 million less than 2015 due to savings from staff adjustments and outsourcing certain municipal services. Nevertheless, Atlantic City, has yet to see the dial spin from red to black: the city, with some $224 million in bonded debt, has deep junk-level credit ratings of CC by S&P Global Ratings and Caa3 by Moody’s Investors Service; it confronts looming debt service payments, including $6.1 million owed on Nov. 1, according to S&P.

Scrambling in Scranton. Moody’s is also characteristically moody about the fiscal ills of Scranton, Pennsylvania, especially in the wake of a court decision barring the city from  collecting certain taxes under a state law—a decision Moody’s noted  “may reduce tax revenue, which is a vital funding source for the city’s operations.” Lackawanna County Court of Common Pleas Judge James Gibbons, at the beginning of the month, in a preliminary ruling against the city, in response to a challenge by a group of eight taxpayers, led by Mayoral candidate Gary St. Fleur, had challenged Scranton’s ability to levy and collect certain taxes under Pennsylvania’s Act 511, a state local tax enabling act. His preliminary ruling against the city affects whether the Home Rule Charter law supersedes the statutory cap contained in Act 511. Unsurprisingly, the City of Scranton has filed a motion for reconsideration and requested the court to enable it to appeal to the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania. The city, the state’s sixth-largest city (77,000), and the County seat for Lackawanna County is the geographic and cultural center of the Lackawanna River valley, was incorporated on St. Valentine’s Day 161 years ago—going on to become a major industrial city, a center of mining and railroads, and attracted thousands of new immigrants. It was a city, which acted to earn the moniker of the “Electric City” when electric lights were first introduced in 1880 at Dickson Locomotive Works. Today, the city is striving to exit state oversight under the state’s Act 47—oversight the municipality has been under for a quarter century.

Currently, Moody’s does not provide a credit rating for the city; however, Standard and Poor’s last month upgraded the city’s general obligation bonds to a still-junk BB-plus, citing revenue from a sewer-system sale, whilst Standard and Poor’s cited the city’s improved budget flexibility and liquidity, stemming largely from a sewer-system sale which enabled the municipality to retire more than $40 million of high-coupon debt. Moreover, Scranton suspended its cost-of-living-adjustments, and manifested its intent to apply a portion of sewer system sale proceeds to meet its public pension liabilities. Ergo, Moody’s writes: “These positive steps have been important for paying off high interest debt and funding the city’s distressed pension plans…While these one-off revenue infusions have been positive, Scranton faces an elevated fixed cost burden of over 40% of general fund revenues…Act 511 tax revenues are an important revenue source for achieving ongoing, balanced operations, particularly as double-digit property tax increases have been met with significant discontent from city residents. The potential loss of Act 511 tax revenues comes at a time when revenues for the city are projected to be stagnant through 2020.”

The road to municipal fiscal insolvency is easier, mayhap, because it is downhill: Scranton fiscal challenges commenced five years ago, when its City Council skipped a $1 million municipal bond payment in the wake if a political spat; Scranton has since repaid the debt. Nevertheless, as Moody’s notes: “If the city cannot balance its budget without illegally taxing the Scranton people, it is absolute proof that the budget is not sustainable…Scranton has sold off all its public assets and raised taxes excessively with the result being a declining tax base and unfriendly business environment…The city needs to come to terms with present economic realities by cutting spending and lowering taxes. This is the only option for the city.”

Scranton Mayoral candidate Gary St. Fleur has said the city should file for Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy and has pushed for a related ballot measure. Combined taxes collected under Act 511, including a local services tax that Scranton recently tripled, cannot exceed 1.2% of Scranton’s total market value.  Based on 2015 market values, according to Moody’s, Scranton’s “511 cap” totals $27.3 million. In fiscal 2015 and 2016, the city collected $34.5 million and $36.8 million, respectively, and for 2018, the city has budgeted to receive $38 million.  The city, said Moody’s, relied on those revenues for 37.7% of fiscal 2015 and 35.9% of fiscal 2016 total governmental revenues. “A significant reduction in these tax revenues would leave the city a significant revenue gap if total Act 511 tax revenues were decline by nearly 25%,” Moody’s said.

Heavy Municipal Fiscal Lifting. Being mayor of battered East Cleveland is one of those difficult jobs that many people (and readers) would decline. If you were to motor along Euclid Avenue, the city’s main street, you would witness why: it is riddled with potholes and flanked by abandoned, decayed buildings. Unsurprisingly, in a city still awaiting authorization from the State of Ohio to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, blight, rising crime, and poor schools, have created the pretext for East Clevelanders to leave: The city boasted 33,000 people in 1990; today it has just 17,843, according to the latest U.S. Census figures. Nevertheless, hope can spring eternal: four candidates, including current Mayor Brandon L. King, are seeking the Democratic nomination in next month’s Mayoral primary (Mayor King replaced former Mayor Gary Norton last year after Norton was recalled by voters.)

Motor City Taxing. Detroit hopes to file some 700 lawsuits by Thursday against landlords and housing investors in a renewed effort to collect unpaid property taxes on abandoned homes that have already been forfeited; indeed, by the end of November, the city hopes to double the filings, going after as many as 1,500 corporations and investors whose abandonment of Detroit homes has been blamed for contributing to the Motor City’s blight epidemic: Motor City Law PLC, working on behalf of the city, has filed more than 60 lawsuits since last week in Wayne County Circuit Court; the remainder are expected to be filed before a Thursday statute of limitations deadline: the suits target banks, land speculators, limited liability corporations, and individuals with three or more rental properties in Detroit: investors who typically purchase homes at bargain prices at a Wayne County auction and then eventually stop paying property tax bills and lose the home in foreclosure: the concern is that unscrupulous landlords have been abusing the auction system. The city expects to file an additional 800 lawsuits over the next quarter—with the recovery effort coming in the wake of last year’s suits by the city against more than 500 banks and LLCs which had an ownership stake in houses that sold at auction for less than what was owed to the city in property taxes. Eli Savit, senior adviser and counsel to Mayor Mike Duggan, noted that those suits netted Detroit more than $5 million in judgments, even as, he reports: “Many cases are still being litigated.” To date, the 69 lawsuits filed since Aug. 18 in circuit court were for tax bills exceeding $25,000 each; unpaid tax bills for less than $25,000 will be filed in district court. (The unpaid taxes date back years as the properties were auctioned off by the Wayne County Treasurer’s Office between 2013 and 2016 or sent to the Detroit Land Bank Authority, which oversees demolitions if homes cannot be rehabilitated or sold.) The suits here indicate that former property owners have no recourse for lowering their unpaid tax debt, because they are now “time barred from filing an appeal” with Detroit’s Board of Review or the Michigan Tax Tribunal; Detroit officials have noted that individual homeowners would not be targeted by the lawsuits for unpaid taxes; rather the suits seek to establish a legal means for going after investors who purchase cheap homes at auction, and then either rent them out and opt not to not pay the taxes, or walk away from the house, because it is damaged beyond repair—behavior which is now something the city is seeking to turn around.

Local Government Fiscal Protection? Just as the Commonwealth of Virginia has created a fiscal or financial assessment model to serve as an early warning system so that the State could act before a chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy occurred, the fiscal wizard of Illinois, the incomparable Chicago Civic Federation’s Laurence Msall has proposed a Local Government Protection Authority—a quasi-judicial body—to serve as a resource for the Chicago Public School System (CPS): it would be responsible to assist the CPS board and administration in finding solutions to stabilize the school district’s finances. The $5.75 billion CPS proposed budget for this school year comes with two significant asterisks: 1) There is an expectation of $269 million from the City of Chicago, and 2) There is an expectation of $300 million from the State of Illinois, especially if the state’s school funding crisis is resolved in the Democrats’ favor.

Nevertheless, in the end, CPS’s fiscal fate will depend upon Windy City Mayor Rahm Emanuel: he, after all, not only names the school board, but also is accountable to voters if the city’s schools falter: he has had six years in office to get CPS on a stable financial course, even as CPS is viewed by many in the city as seeking to file for bankruptcy (for which there is no specific authority under Illinois law). Worse, it appears that just the discussion of a chapter 9 option is contributing to the emigration of parents and students to flee to suburban or private schools.

Thus, Mr. Msall is suggesting once again putting CPS finances under state oversight, as it was in the 1980s and early 1990s, recommending consideration of a Local Government Protection Authority, which would “be a quasi-judicial body…to assist the CPS board and administration in finding solutions to stabilize the district’s finances.” Fiscal options could include spending cuts, tax hikes, employee benefit changes, labor contract negotiations, and debt adjustment. Alternatively, as Mr. Msall writes: “If the stakeholders could not find a solution, the LGPA would be empowered to enforce a binding resolution of outstanding issues.” As we noted, a signal fiscal challenge Mayor Emanuel described was to attack crime in order to bring young families back into the city—and to upgrade its schools—schools where today some 380,000 students appear caught in a school system cracking under a massive and rising debt load.  

Far East of Eden. East Cleveland Mayor Gary Norton Jr. and City Council President Thomas Wheeler have both been narrowly recalled from their positions in a special election, setting the stage for the small Ohio municipality waiting for the state to—in some year—respond to its request to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy to elect a new leader. Interestingly, one challenger for the job who is passionate about the city, is Una H. R. Keenon, 83, who now heads the city school board, and campaigning on a platform of seeking a blue-ribbon panel to examine the city’s finances. Mansell Baker, 33, a former East Cleveland Councilmember, wants to focus on eliminating the city’s debt, while Dana Hawkins Jr., 34, leader of a foundation, vows to get residents to come together and save the city. The key decisions are likely to emerge next month in the September 12 Democratic primary—where the winner will face Devin Branch of the Green Party in November. Early voting has begun.

How Does A City Turn Around Its Fiscal Future?

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider a state’s response to a municipal fiscal insolvency, before turning to the challenge the Windy City is facing in the virtually politically insolvent State of Illinois, before finally turning to the uncertain political, governing, and fiscal future of East Cleveland, Ohio.  

Addressing Disparate Municipal Fiscal Distress. More than a century ago, Petersburg, Virginia, was a highly industrialized city of 18,000 people—and the hub and supply center for the Confederacy: supplies arrived from all over the South via one of the five railroads or the various plank roads; it was also the last outpost. Today, it is one of the last fiscal outposts, but, mayhap, because of its fiscal distress, set to be a model for the nation and federalism with regard to how the Commonwealth of Virginia—unlike, for instance, Ohio, is responding. More than 53 percent of Virginia’s counties and cities have reported above-average or high fiscal stress, according to a report by the Commission on Local Government. Petersburg, a city grappling with a severe financial crisis, placed third on the state fiscal stress index behind the cities of Emporia and Buena Vista. Del. Lashrecse Aird (D-Petersburg) noted: “Petersburg does have some financial challenges, but they’re actually not unique. There are a lot of counties and localities within the commonwealth right now that are facing similar fiscal distressers.”  

The Virginia Legislature has dropped a proposed study of local government finances in its just completed legislative session, a legislative initiative which co-sponsor Rosalyn Dance (D-Petersburg) had described to her colleagues as necessary, because:  “Currently, there is no statutory authority for the Commission on Local Government to intervene in a fiscally stressed locality, and the state does not currently have any authority to assist a locality financially;” nevertheless, Virginia’s new fiscal year state budget did revive a focus on fiscal stress in Virginia cities and counties. Motivated by the City of Petersburg’s financial crisis, Sen. Emmett Hanger (R-Augusta County), who co-Chairs the Virginia Senate Finance Committee, had filed a bill (SJ 278) to study the fiscal stress of local governments: his bill proposed the creation of a joint subcommittee to review local and state tax systems, as well as reforms to promote economic assistance and cooperation between regions. Under SJ 278, a 15-member joint subcommittee would have reviewed local government and state tax systems, local responsibilities for delivery of state programs, and causes of fiscal stress among local governments. In addition, the study would have been focused on creating financial incentives and reforms to promote increased cooperation among Virginia’s regions. We will have to, however, await developments, as his proposal was rejected in the House Finance Committee, as members deferred consideration of tax reform for next year’s longer session; however, the adopted state budget did incorporate two fiscal stress preventive measures originally introduced in Sen. Hanger’s bill.

Del. Aird had identified the study as a top priority for this session, identifying: “what we as a Commonwealth need to do to put protections into place and allow localities to have tools and resources to prevent this type of challenge from occurring into the future,” noting: “I believe that this legislation will help address fiscal issues that localities are experiencing: ‘Currently, there is no statutory authority for the Commission on Local Government to intervene in a fiscally stressed locality, and the state does not currently have any authority to assist a locality financially.’” In the case of Petersburg, the city received technical assistance from state officials, including cataloging liabilities and obligations, researching problems, and reviewing city funds; however, state intervention could only be triggered by a request from the municipality: the state’s statutes forbid the Commonwealth from imposing reactive measures to an insolvent municipality.

To modify the conditions to enhance the ability of the state to intervene, the proposal set guidelines for state officials to identify and help alleviate signs of financial stress to prevent a more severe fiscal crisis, proposing the creation of a workgroup established by the Auditor of Public Accounts, who would have been responsible to create an early warning system for identifying fiscal stress, taking into consideration such criteria as a local government’s expenditure reports and budget information. In the event such distress was determined, such a local government would be notified and entitled to request a comprehensive review of its finances by the state. After such a review, the state would be responsible to draft an ‘action plan’ detailing: purpose, duration, and the requisite state resources for such intervention; in addition, the governor would be offered the option to channel up to $500,000 from the general fund toward relief efforts for the local government in need. As Del. Aird noted: “It is important to have someone who can speak to first-hand experience dealing with issues of local government fiscal stress: This insight will be essential in forming effective solutions that will be sustainable long-term, adding: “Prior to now, Virginia had no mechanism to track, measure, or address fiscal stress in localities…Petersburg’s situation is not unique, and it is encouraging that proactive measures are now being taken to guard against future issues. This is essential to ensuring that Virginia’s economy remains strong and that all communities can share in our commonwealth’s success.”

What Might Be a City’s Weakest Link? The state initiative comes as the city intends to write off $9 million in uncollected internal debt Petersburg has accumulated over the past 17 years: debt representing loans from Petersburg’s general fund to other city enterprises since 2000 which its leaders now concede they will never collect—or, as former Richmond City Manager—and now consultant for the city Robert Bobb notes: “This is something that the leadership should have addressed between 2000 and last year, but the issue was not being addressed.” As a result, when Petersburg officials receive the city’s financial audit for FY2017, it will show a negative fund balance that will make it even harder to secure financing for capital projects, albeit, it is expected to clear the uncollected debt from the books for the current fiscal year and the upcoming fiscal year—or, as Virginia Finance Director Ric Brown notes: “They’re taking it on the chin in FY2016 by clearing it all out of the books: To me, the most important thing is not how bad ‘16 is—it’s going forward whether FY2017 and FY2018 improve.” With its bond rating downgraded last year to BB with a negative outlook, Petersburg already faces a stiff fiscal challenge in raising capital—the municipality recently experienced an inability to raise capital to purchase police cars and fire equipment—making manifest the connection between public safety and assessed property values.

Nevertheless, Mr. Bobb has promised that this fiscal year will end without an operating deficit and the next one will begin with the first structurally balanced budget in nearly a decade—to which Secretary Brown notes: “It’s going to take some time, but I believe the sense of everyone is he’s making progress.” The Secretary noted that when the Commonwealth acted to come to Petersburg’s assistance last summer, he discovered the municipality had ended the fiscal year with $18.8 million in unpaid bills and $12 million over its operating budget; ergo, he testified the bottom line was “not going to be good” in the city’s FY2016 CAFR; however, Petersburg has worked in phases to pay its bills, reduce its costs, and rebuild its underpersonned, overwhelmed bureaucracy: The city has reduced its unpaid bills to $5.5 million, with the largest remaining obligation a $1.49 million payment to the Virginia Retirement System—a payment the city has agreed to pay by the end of December. The city’s school system has some $1.3 million in debt to its public retirement system due next month for teacher pensions. Nevertheless, in the school of lost and found, Mr. Bobb reports that city employees have scoured “every desk drawer” and discovered an additional $300,000 in unpaid bills, some of them dating back to 2015—unsurprisingly describing it as “[A] mess to clean up things from the past to where we are today.” Petersburg also has a gaping $1.9 million hole in the school system budget, in no small part by making payments this year to last year’s budget, a practice Mr. Bobb notes to be a [mal]practice the city has followed for 10 years—putting the city’s school budget near the minimum required by the Virginia Standards of Quality.

Nevertheless, Petersburg completed the first phase of recovery, focusing on short-term financing concerns, at the end of March. That has allowed it to focus on long-term financing and a fiscal plan, including developing policies for capital improvements, debt, and reserves to ensure financial stability. In the final stage, from July 1 until Mr. Bobb’s contract ends on September 30th, the city will develop five-year financial and capital improvement plans, as well as a budget transition plan, for ongoing financial performance and monitoring—as well as refilling the fiscal architecture via filling critical positions, including a finance director, which Mr. Brown notes, will be critical to filling middle management positions, such as accountants, which are vital to maintain the city’s financial stability: “If they don’t get that in place, there’s a real risk they’ll slide back.”

Petersburg wasn’t even at the top of the list of the most fiscally stressed localities ranked by the Virginia Commission on Local Government in 2014. It was third, behind Emporia and Buena Vista, and just ahead of Martinsville and Covington. “We’re only as strong as our weakest link,” said Sen. Rosalyn R. Dance, D-Petersburg, who served as the city’s mayor from 1992 to 2004. “We’re not the only ones there.”

Whither Chicago? The Windy City, nearly 350 years old, named “Chicago,” based upon a French rendering of the Native American word “shikaakwa,” from the Miami-Illinois language, is today defined by the Census Bureau as the city and suburbs extending into Wisconsin and Indiana; however, it is, today, a city experiencing population decline: last year it lost just under 20,000 residents—and its surrounding state, Illinois, saw its population decline more than any other state: 37,508 people, according to census data released last December. During the Great Recession, families chose to stay in or move to core urban areas, and migration to the suburbs decelerated; however, in the recovery, there is a reverse trend: families are deciding it is time to move back to the suburbs.

Thus, by most estimates, Chicago’s population will continue to decline, with the Chicago Tribune, from a survey of dozens of former residents, reporting the depopulation stems from reactions to: high taxes, the state budget stalemate, crime, the unemployment rate, and weather—with black residents among those leaving in search of safe neighborhoods and prosperity: it seems many are heading to the suburbs and warm-weather states: Chicago lost 181,000 black residents between 2000 and 2010, according to census data. Just under 90,000 Chicagoans left the city and its immediately surrounding suburbs for other states last year, according to an analysis of census data released in March, marking the greatest outflow since at least 1990. It appears that, more than any other city, Chicago has relied upon the increase in Mexican immigrants to offset the decline of its native-born population: during the 1990s, that immigration accounted for most of Chicago’s growth. After 2007, when Mexican-born populations began to fall across the nation’s major metropolitan areas, most cities managed to make up for the loss with the growth of their native populations, but that has not been the case for Chicago (nor Detroit, which, according to census data, realized a decline of 3,541 residents from 2015 to 2016). While Chicago’s changes may be small in context, they could be a harbinger of more losses to come.

As we had noted in our fiscal report on Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel focused on drawing in new businesses, concerned that any perception that assessed property taxes might have to increase—or that schools and crime rates would not improve—would adversely affect companies’ willingness to come to Chicago—meaning an intense focus on confronting fiscal challenges: such as credit quality threats: e.g. avoiding having a disproportionate percent of the city’s budget devoted to long-term pension borrowing obligations instead of critical future investments: the more of its budget the city had to divert to meeting unsustainable pension obligations, the less it would have to address its goal of investments in the city’s infrastructure, schools, and public safety—investments the Mayor believed fundamental to the city’s economic and fiscal future.  We noted a critical change: Investing in the Future: Mayor Emanuel created enterprise funds so that a greater portion of municipal services were not financed through property taxes and the operating budget: some 83 percent of its budget was focused on schools and public safety, in an effort to draw back young families. Nevertheless, amid growing perceptions that Chicago’s cost of living has become too high, rising property taxes, and perceived growth in crime; some are apprehensive Chicago could be at a tipping point: the period in a city’s time when an increasing number of residents believe it is time to leave—or, as one leaver noted: “It’s just sad to see that people have to leave the city to protect their own future cost of living.”

Does East Cleveland Have a Fiscal Future? In the small Ohio municipality of East Cleveland, a city waiting on the State of Ohio for nearly a year to obtain permission to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, there is an upcoming Mayoral election—an election which could decide whether the city has a fiscal future—and where voters will have to decide among an array of candidates: who might they elect as most likely to turn the fortunes of the City around, and avert its continuing slide towards insolvency? One candidate, who previously served as Chairman of the East Cleveland Audit Committee, noted a report to the Council detailing twenty-four budget appropriations totaling approximately $2,440,076 in unauthorized and questionable expenditures—and that his committee had provided documentation to the Auditor of State’s Office of Local Government Services regarding the hiring of 10 individuals in violation of a Council-mandated hiring freeze, costing the City approximately $408,475 in unauthorized payroll costs, adding: “All told, the Audit Committee uncovered approximately $3,055,351 in illegal and suspicious spending by the Norton Administration…The truth is, as I stated in the beginning, the municipal government of East Cleveland is afflicted with the cancer of corruption that has been allowed to grow because of two main reasons: The first being, the indifference displayed by Ohio and Cuyahoga County government officials who failed in their respective responsibility when confronted with documented facts.  They collectively have turned a blind eye to what was, and is, happening in East Cleveland.  No one wants to get their hands dirty with so-called ‘black politics,’ even if the legal and financial evidence is given to them on a ‘silver platter.’  Personally, I smell the stench of secret political deals which produced a ‘hands off policy.’”

He added that a symptom of what he described as “this cancer” included some “$41, 857, 430 in unwarranted expenses and debt that was generated during the first 3 years of Mayor Norton’s first term as Mayor. I anticipate that whenever an audit is conducted for 2013 thru 2016, the $41 million figure will grow by an additional $25 million to $35 million.” Addressing the unresponsiveness of the State of Ohio, he described the Governor’s Financial Planning and Supervision Commission as a “joke:  It has been wholly unimpressive and has not provided the necessary oversight and forced accountability one would have expected from the Commission at the beginning.  Furthermore, The Commission became tainted when Governor Kasich appointed Helen Forbes Fields to the Commission.  She has a number of personal conflicts of interests that prevent her from being an impartial member of the Commission.  I can recall a conversation I had with the former Commission Chair, Sharon Hanrahan when she admitted to me that the State Government did not have the ‘political will’ to clean up the mess we were trying to get them to address.” He added, that, if elected, in order to bring accountability for the mismanagement of public funds, he would seek assistance from Ohio and federal law enforcement agencies to ensure those responsible for the mismanagement of East Cleveland’s financial resources would be held accountable, estimating that between $5 million and $15 million dollars could be recovered.