Federal Tax Reform in a Post-Chapter 9 Era

December 4, 2017

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s Blog, we consider the fiscal and governing challenges that the pending federal tax “reform” legislation might have for the nation’s city emerging from the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history, before returning to the governance challenges in Puerto Rico.  

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

Harming Post Chapter 9 Recovery? As the House and Senate race, this week, to conference on federal tax legislation, the potential fiscal impact on post chapter 9 Detroit provides grim tidings. The proposed changes would eliminate federal tax credits vital to Detroit’s emergency from chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy; the elimination of low-income housing tax credits would reduce financing options for the city: the combination, because it would adversely affect business investment and development, could undercut the pace of the city’s recovery. Most at risk are historic rehabilitation and low income housing tax credits: the House version of the tax “reform” legislation proposes to eliminate historic tax credits—the Senate version would reduce them by 50%; both versions propose the elimination of new market tax credits. The greatest threat is the potential elimination of the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LITC), proposed by the House, potentially undercutting as much as 40% of the current financing for low income housing in the Motor City. While both the House and Senate versions retain a 9% low income housing tax credit, the credit, as proposed, would limit how much the Michigan State Housing Development Agency may award on an annual basis—putting as much as $280 million at risk. According to the National Housing Conference, the production of low income housing could decline by as much as 50%. The combined impact could leave owners and developers of low income housing with fewer options for rehabilitation—an impact potentially with disproportionate omens for post-chapter 9 municipalities such as Detroit.   

Is There Promise or Democracy in PROMESA? Since the imposition by Congress of the PROMESA, quasi-chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy legislation, under which a board named by former President Obama appointed seven voting members, with Gov. Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló serving as an ex officio member, but with no voting rights—there have been singular disparities, including between the harsh fiscal measures imposed on the U.S. territory, measures imposing austerity for Puerto Rico, even as the PROMESA Executive Director receives an annual salary of $625,000—an amount 500% greater than the executive director of Detroit’s chapter 9 bankruptcy oversight board, and some $225,000 more than the President of the United States—with Puerto Rico’s taxpayers footing the tab for what is perceived as an unelected board acting as an autocratic body which threatens to undermine the autonomy of Puerto Rico’s government. Unsurprisingly, the Congressional statute includes few incentives for transparency, much less accountability to the citizens and taxpayers of Puerto Rico. Indeed, when the Center for Investigative Journalism and the Legal Clinic of the Interamerican University Law School, attorneys Judith Berkan, Steven Lausell, Luis José Torres, and Annette Martínez—both in one case before the San Juan Superior Court and in another before federal Judge Jay A. García-Gregory, as well as the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press submitted an amicus brief seeking clarification with regard to the legal standards of transparency and accountability which should be applied to the board, the PROMESA Board asserted that the right of access to information does not apply to it. 

Governance in Insolvency. As we have followed the different and unique models of chapter 9 and insolvencies from Central Falls, Rhode Island, through San Bernardino, Stockton, Detroit, Jefferson County, etc., it has been respective state laws—or the absence thereof—which have determined the critical role of governance—whether it be guided via a federal bankruptcy court, a state oversight board, in large part determined by the original authority under the U.S. system of governance whereby the states—because they created the federal government—individually determine the eligibility of municipalities to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. In Puerto Rico, sort of a hybrid, being neither a state, nor a municipality, the issue of governing oversight is paving new ground. Thus, in Puerto Rico, it has opened the question with regard to whether the Governor or Congress ought to have the authority to name an oversight board—a body—whether overseeing the District of Colombia, New York City, Detroit, Central Falls, Atlantic City, etc.—to exercise oversight in the wake of insolvency. Such boards, after all, can protect a jurisdiction from pressures by partisan and outside actors. Moreover, the appointment of experts with both experience and expertise not subject to voters’ understandable angst can empower such appointed—and presumably expert officials, to take on complex fiscal and financial questions, including debt restructuring, access to the municipal markets, and credit.  Moreover, because appointed board members are not affected by elections, they are in a sometimes better position to impose austerity measures—measures which would likely rarely be supported by a majority of voters—or, as former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry said the District of Columbia oversight Board, it “was able to do some things that needed to be done that, politically, I would not do, would not do, would not do,” such as firing 2,000 human-service workers. 

In Puerto Rico—which, after all, is neither a municipality nor a state, the bad gnus is that these governance disparities are certain to continue: indeed, despite the PROMESA Board’s November 27th recommendations, Gov. Rosselló announced he would spend close to $113 million on government employees’ Christmas bonuses-an announcement the PROMESA Board responded to by stating that its members expect “to be consulted during the formulation and prior to the announcement of policies such as this to ensure the Government is upholding the principles of fiscal responsibility.” (Note: it would have to be a challenge for PROMESA Board members to observe the current federal tax bills in the U.S. House and Senate as measured by Congress’ Joint Committee on Taxation and the Congressional Budget Office and believe that Congress is actually exercising “fiscal responsibility.”)

Nevertheless, there might be some help at hand for the U.S. territory: House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Tx.), in trying to mold in conference with the Senate the pending tax reform legislation, is considering options to avert what top Puerto Rican officials fear could be still another devastating blow to its already tottering economy: both versions would end Puerto Rico’s status as an offshore tax haven for U.S. companies—a devastating potential blow, especially given the current federal Jones Act which imposes such disproportionate shipping costs on Puerto Rico compared to other, competitive Caribbean nations. Now, the Governor, as well as Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez, Puerto Rico’s sole nonvoting member of Congress, are warning that Puerto Rico’s slow recovery from Hurricane Maria could suffer an irreparable setback if manufacturers decide to close their factories. Commissioner Gonzalez said 40% of Puerto Rico’s economy relies on manufacturing, with much of that related to pharmaceuticals; ergo, she is worried that any drop in the $2 billion of annual revenue these businesses provide would undercut the economic recovery plan instituted by the PROMESA Board. The Commissioner notes: “Forty percent of the island is living in poverty,” even though the federal child tax credit only applies to a third child for residents of Puerto Rico.

Thus, many eyes in Puerto Rico—and, presumably in the PROMESA Board—are laser focused on the House-Senate tax conference this week, where the House version would extend, for five years, the so-called rum cover which provides an excise tax rebate to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands on locally produced rum—a provision which Republican leaders appear unlikely to retain, albeit, they appear to be amenable to changes which could help reboot the island’s economy. (Puerto Rico produces 77% of the rum consumed in the U.S., according to the Puerto Rico Industrial Development Agency.) In a sense, part of the challenge is that for Puerto Rico, the issue has become whether to focus its lobbying on retaining its quasi-tax haven status. Gov. Rosselló worries that if that status were altered, “companies with a strong presence on the island would be forced to shutter those operations and decamp for the mainland or, worse, a lower-tax country…This would put tens of thousands of U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico out of work and demolish our tax base right as we are trying to rebound from historic storms.” Chairman Brady, after meeting with Commissioner Gonzalez at the end of last week, told reporters the meeting was with regard to “ideas on how best to help Puerto Rico…I know the Senate too has some ideas as well…“Yeah, we’re going to keep working on that.” In conference, the House bill imposes a 20% excise tax on payments by a U.S. company to a foreign subsidiary; the Senate bill proposes a tax ranging from 12.5% to 15.625% on the income of foreign corporations with intangible assets in the U.S. Unsurprisingly, Puerto Rico officials and U.S. businesses operating there describe both the House and Senate versions as putting Puerto Rico at a disadvantage—or, as one official noted: “The companies are asking from exemptions from all of this if Puerto Rico is involved…They want to be exempted from the taxes going forward that would prevent companies from accumulating untaxed profits abroad.” Foreign earnings, which includes revenues earned by corporations operating in Puerto Rico, could be repatriated at a 14% rate if the funds were held in cash and 7% if its illiquid assets under the House bill; the Senate version would tax cash at 10% and illiquid assets at 5%. Companies operating in Puerto Rico would be taxed at the same rate on the mainland of the U.S. and in foreign countries. In addition, the average manufacturing wage is three times lower in Puerto Rico than on the mainland and companies operating there can claim an 80% tax credit for taxes paid to the territorial government, according to officials. Senate Finance Committee Chair Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) noted he wishes to “help Puerto Rico, but not in this tax bill.”

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Governance Amidst Fiscal and Stormy Challenges & Uneven Federalism

December 1, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the fiscal and governing challenges in one of the nation’s oldest municipalities, and its remarkable turnaround from verging on becoming the first municipality in Virginia to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, before veering south to assess what President Trump has described as the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico suffering from “from broken infrastructure and massive debt.” 

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

Revolutionary Municipality. Petersburg, Virginia’s City Council, one of the oldest of the nation’s cities, as part of its fiscal recovery, last week had voted 5-2 to request the Virginia Legislature to change the city’s charter in order to transfer the most critical duties of the Treasurer’s Office to a newly-created role of city collector—a position under the Council’s control, as part of its wish list for the newly elected state legislature. Petersburg, an independent city of just over 32,000, is significant for its role in African-American history: it is the site of one of the oldest free black settlements in the state–and the nation.  The unprecedented City Council effort seeks to strip power from an elected office—an office some believe curried some fault for contributing to Petersburg’s near chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. Ironically, the effort came the same month that voters elected a former Member of the City Council to the office of Treasurer. Councilman Treska Wilson-Smith, who opposed the move, stated: “The citizens just voted in a Treasurer. For us to get rid of that position is a slap in the face to the citizens who put them in there.” Unsurprisingly, State Senator Rosalyn Dance, who for a dozen years has represented the city as part of her district in the Virginia House of Delegates, and who will consider the city’s legislative agenda, said she was concerned. Noting that the newly-elected treasurer has yet to serve a day in office, she added that much of the turmoil had to do with the current Treasurer, so, she said: “I hope [the] Council will take a second look at what they want to do.” Former Councilman and Treasurer-elect Kenneth Pritchett, who declined to comment, ran on a platform of improving the office’s operations by standardizing internal controls and implementing new policies: he urged Petersburg residents to contact lawmakers in a Facebook message posted after the Council took action, calling the decision “a prime example of total disrespect for the citizens’ vote.”

Nevertheless, Council Members who supported the legislative agenda language said it was time for a change, or, as Councilman Darrin Hill noted: “I respect the opinion of the citizens, but still, we believe if we keep on doing the same thing that we have done, then we will keep on getting the same results.” Other Councilmembers felt even better about their votes after the Council received good financial news earlier this week when newly audited reports showed a boost in Petersburg’s reserve funds, increased revenue, and a drop in expenditures—a marked fiscal reversal. In addition, the city’s external auditor provided a clean opinion—a step up from last year’s “modified” opinion—an opinion which had hinted the city had failed to comply with proper accounting principles—and a municipal fiscal year which commenced $19 million in the hole—and $12 million over budget—in response to which the Council raised taxes, cut more than $3 million in funding from the city’s chronically underperforming schools, eliminated a popular youth summer program, and closed cultural sites. Former Richmond City Manager Robert Bobb’s organization—which had been hired to help the city recoup from the verge of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, had supported transferring some of the duties of the Treasurer to a city collector position as a means to enhance the city’s ability to improve its tax collections.

Subsequently, late last September, another shoe fell with a 115-page report which examined eight specific aspects of city governance—and found allegations of theft involving current Treasurer Kevin Brown—claims Mr. Brown repeatedly denied, but appeared to contribute to his decision not to run for reelection—an elected which Mr. Pritchett won by a wide margin, winning just over 70 percent.  Nevertheless, Mayor Samuel Parham told his colleagues: “We are treading too thin now to risk someone who is just getting to know the job. We can’t operate as a city of hoping…Now that we are paying our bills and showing growth, there is no need to go back in time and have a situation that we had.” However, some Councilmembers believe they should await more facts with regard to Mr. Brown’s actions, especially with regard to uncollected municipal tax revenues, or, as Councilmember Wilson-Smith put it: “There are some questions which we still have unanswered when it comes to why the taxes were not collected: It appears to me that a lot of the taxes are not being collected, because they are un-collectable,” or, as she noted: Many listed for unpaid taxes were deceased.

David Foley with Robinson, Farmer, Cox Associates, Petersburg’s external auditor, had presented figures before Petersburg residents and the City Council, noting the clean opinion is a substantial improvement from last year, when auditors issued a modified opinion which suggested Petersburg had failed to maintain accounting principles—testifying that the improvement mainly came from the city being able to provide evidence of the status of some of its major financial accounts, such as public utilities. He did recommend that Petersburg strengthen some of its internal controls over the next fiscal year—noting, especially, the reconciliation of the city’s public utility system, which some officials have suggested should be sold to private companies. Indeed, City Manager Aretha Ferrell-Benavides told City Council members that a plan to correct some of the deficiencies will start in January, with monthly updates on corrective actions that she would like to continue to take. The see-saw, key fiscal change of nearly $2 million more than had been projected arose from a combination of increased real estate tax collections, and a $2.5 million reduction in expenditures, mainly came from health and welfare, and non-departmental categories: in total, there was a $7.5 million increase in the city’s chief operating fund. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Foley, in response to Councilmember Charlie Cuthbert, noted: “It was a significant year. There is still a long way to go,” indirectly referencing the city’s commencement of FY2017 $19 million in the hole and $12 million over budget—and with dire threats of legal action over unpaid bills—triggering a tidal wave of legal bills of nearly $1 million—of which about $830,000 went to Mr. Bobb’s group—while the city spent nearly $200,000 on a forensic audit.  Council members received the presentation on the annual financial report with a scant two days prior to the state imposed deadline to submit the report—after, last year, the city was about seven months late in submitting its annual financial report.

Insufficient Shelter from the Fiscal Storm. In the brutal wake of Hurricane Maria, which destroyed about 57,000 homes in Puerto Rico last September and left another 254,000 severely impacted, 50 percent of the U.S. territory’s remaining 3.5 million inhabitants are still without electricity—a lack that has adversely impacted the ability to reconstruct the toll wrought by Maria, not to mention the economy, or loss of those, more than 150,000, who could afford to leave for New York and Florida. Puerto Rico still confronts a lack of drinking water. Governor Ricardo Rosselló had assured that 95% of the island would have electricity by today, but, like too many other promises, that is not to be. An irony is that the recent visit of former President Bill Clinton, who did not come down to toss paper towels, but rather to bring fiscal and physical assistance, may be, at long last, an omen of recovery. It was just 19 days ago that Gov. Roselló appeared before Congress to request some $94 billion to rebuild the U.S. territory—a request unmet, and a request raising questions about the Puerto Rican government’s ability to manage such a vast project, especially in the wake of the $300 million no-bid contract awarded to a small Montana utility company, Whitefish, to restore the territory’s power—an effort House Natural Resources Committee Chair Rob Bishop (R-Utah) described as raising a “credibility gap.” Indeed, in the wake of that decision, Chairman Bishop and others in the Congress have called for the unelected PROMESA Financial Oversight and Management Board, known on the island as “la junta,” to extend its powers to overseeing the rebuilding effort as well—a call which, unsurprisingly, many Puerto Ricans, including pro-statehood Governor Rosselló, see as a further threat to their democratic rights. 

Nevertheless, despite the quasi-takeover threat from Congress, U.S. District Court Judge Laura Taylor Swain has denied the PROMESA Oversight Board’s request to appoint an emergency manager, similar to those appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder in Detroit, or by the former Governor of Rhode Island for Central Falls under their respective authority under state authorizations of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. Puerto Rico, because it is not a state, does not have such authority; consequently, Judge Swain has determined the Board does not have the authority to appoint public officials—a holding which Gov. Rosselló responded to by noting that the decision upheld his office’s position about the board’s power, writing: “It is clear that the [board] does not have the power to take full control of the Government or its instrumentalities…[T]he administration and public management of Puerto Rico remains with the democratically elected government.

The Human & Fiscal Challenges of Recovery

November 3, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the ongoing fiscal recovery of Michigan municipalities; the City of Detroit’s efforts to upgrade the quality of rental housing, and the ongoing fiscal and human plight of the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

Royal R-O-L-A-I-D-S. Michigan State officials Wednesday released Royal Oak Township, a suburb of Detroit and a charter township of Oakland County with a population as of the 2010 census of 2,419, from its consent agreement, with Michigan Treasurer Nick Khouri stating the Oakland County township is now free of the fiscal agreement under which the state placed it three years ago to resolve a financial emergency: “I am pleased to see the significant progress Royal Oak Charter Township has made under the consent agreement…Township officials went beyond the agreement and enacted policies that provide the community an opportunity to flourish. I am pleased to say the township is released from its agreement and look forward to working with them as a local partner in the future.” He added that progress has been made since 2014 to resolve issues that led to a financial emergency for the Oakland County community, for example, noting that today the township has a general fund balance of $920,000 instead of a deficit—and that police and fire services are improved. Township Supervisor Donna Squalls says the community has been able to work with the state and “enact reforms to ensure our long-term fiscal sustainability. Royal Oak Township’s financial emergency resulted in an assets deficit of nearly $541,000 for its 2012 budget year. Township Supervisor Donna Squalls noted: “Royal Oak Charter Township is in better shape than ever: The collaboration between state and township has provided an opportunity to enact reforms to ensure our long-term fiscal sustainability.” For his part, State Treasurer Khouri noted the township was the last remaining Michigan municipality operating under a fiscal consent agreement: over the last two years, Wayne County, Inkster, and River Rouge were released from consent agreements in response to fiscal and financial improvements and operational reforms. The Treasurer stated only three communities: Ecorse, Flint, and Hamtramck remain under state oversight through a Receivership Transition Advisory Board.

Protecting the Motor City’s Renters. The Detroit City Council this week voted unanimously to update its rental regulations, am update which included the enactment of rules to bar landlords from collecting rent on units which have not passed city inspections. Under the current ordinance, housing units are supposed to be registered and have passed city inspections by obtaining a certificate of compliance prior to being available for rental purposes; however, before they can be rented out. However, city officials admit they have permitted most landlords to ignore those rules for more than a decade—rules adopted to ensure compliance with safety regulations, especially lead poisoning prevention efforts, for which inspections are a part of obtaining a certificate of compliance. Or, as Councilman Andre Spivey put it: “We hope it will improve the quality of life in our neighborhoods and entire city.” However, some landlords have claimed that enforcing inspections with the threat of rent being withheld would discourage the incentive to provide rental housing opportunities in the city—already a challenge because of apprehensions about crime and the quality of public schools—with some even vowing to sue the city. Last year, just 4,174 addresses were registered and inspected—less than 3 percent of the Motor City’s estimated 140,000 rental units—and more than 20 percent below the number registered a decade ago. Indeed, last year, the Detroit News reported that only one of every 13 eviction cases was filed on an address legally registered with the city—with the paper reporting that families facing eviction in homes that were never inspected by the city and had numerous problems, including: lack of heat, hazardous electric systems, missing windows, and rodent infestation.

Under the updated regulations, to be phased in over the next six months, tenants who live in rentals which have not passed city inspections would be given the option to could put their rent in an escrow account for 90 days. If the landlord, by the end of such period, had failed to obtain a city certificate, the renter will be able to keep the money. Subsequently, a tenant would be permitted to continue to put rent in escrow if the landlord does not comply, while the city would hire a third-party company to manage the escrow fund. The new escrow provision will be phased in, and each neighborhood will have different deadlines. Renters who are escrowing their payments will also have the right to “retain possession of the rental property,” according to the updated regulations.

A Motor City of Dreams? Meanwhile, yesterday, Renu Zaretsky, writing for the Tax Policy Center, “Transformational Brownfield of Dreams in a Motor City,” about the role of fiscal tax policy in revitalizing two Michigan cities, noted that the city’s famed Renaissance Center had been constructed to revitalize Detroit in the wake of the 1967 riots—with Henry Ford II, in 1971, convincing dozens of businesses to invest in the $350 million project; however, she noted: the hoped-for transformation never took place, leading to the collapse of the Center’s assessed property value—and crushing hopes for the city’s fiscal revival. Yet, today, Detroit and the state of Michigan seem poised to invest half a trillion dollars to try once again to revitalize the recovering downtown—a downtown in which developer Dan Gilbert, the founder of Quicken Loans, is investing to transform via 3.2 million square feet of office, residential, and retail space, including a skyscraper and 900 apartments—albeit, Mr. Gilbert is seeking tax incentives to support the effort, claiming taxpayer subsidies are “essential,” for not only this project, but also other investment in the city. Under his proposal, he would to put up a total of $1.9 billion, with about $500 million up-front: in return, he is seeking the leverage of additional funding from a newly amended state tax incentive program—under which he anticipated some $557 million over the next three and a half decades, based on new state legislation Gov. Rick Snyder signed last summer to amend the state’s Brownfield Redevelopment Financing Act of 1996: under the state’s current statute, brownfield developers could recoup limited construction costs (such as demolition, site preparation, and infrastructure improvements) via tax increment financing; however, under his new proposal, the state would directly subsidize construction costs that directly benefit an eligible property—with the municipal bonds backed by Michigan state sales and income taxes generated during on-site construction, as well as 50 percent of state income and withholding taxes from those who will live and work on the sites in the future, as well as the added property tax revenue. The Detroit Brownfield Redevelopment Authority would issue municipal bonds to finance the project, with the bond payments secured by some $229.6 million in property tax revenues, $18.2 million from construction site state income taxes, $1.6 million from city income taxes, and $307.9 million from state income taxes paid by future workers and residents. She notes that Mr. Gilbert promises this project would attract 2,122 residents who would pay monthly rents ranging from $2,287 to $3,321 and create 8,500 direct permanent jobs, including 5,400 office jobs paying an annual average of $85,000 and 1,700 retail and service positions paying $25,000—with Michigan reimbursed via captured state and municipal income taxes over the next two decades.  

As we have noted—and she writes: this is a fiscal dare: notwithstanding its fiscal recovery, the Motor City still has the highest rate of concentrated poverty among the 25 most populous metro areas in the U.S.; its median household income is about $26,000; and its unemployment rate was 9.6% in July. That is: this is a gamble in an area in the downtown where—on the day Detroit filed for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, the hotel clerk told me it was unsafe for me to walk to the Governor’s Detroit offices—about a half mile away—to meet with Kevin Orr on his very first morning as the Governor’s appointed Emergency Manager. Now, nearly a decade later, the fiscal challenge—and risk—is whether new state tax expenditures which benefit developers could succeed in boosting Detroit’s recovering revenues.

Physical & Fiscal Destruction. Hurricane Maria left no equina or corner of Puerto Rico untouched: the cataclysmic storm meted out systemic physical and fiscal devastation to the U.S. territory and to the lives and livlihoods of its 3.4 million American citizens. This morning, more than five weeks later, too many residents still lack safe and clean drinking water, access to food, and communications. Power, and transportation links are only partially restored. While tens of thousands of public servants and volunteers are now hard at work restoring those essential needs and unblocking constraints from logistics to information flow, the contrast with the federal responses in Houston and Florida have become even more stark. It means Puerto Rico’s leaders face two simultaneous challenges: addressing people’s most urgent physical needs, and laying the foundations for the direction of the medium- and long-term recovery and reconstruction efforts ahead.

In a way similar to Detroit, Puerto Rico confronts a legacy of debt and economic uncertainty, but, as we have noted above; the physical and fiscal devastation might offer a historic opportunity to reimagine Puerto Rico’s future. Yet, how the island’s fiscal and physical reconstruction is conceived and implemented will determine the future of the island: it will be the architecture of Puerto Rico’s physical and civic infrastructure for the next half century, or, as Puerto Rico’s Economic Secretary Manuel Laboy said recently: “We have this historic opportunity: Instead of going with incremental changes, we can go and push the envelope to really transform the infrastructure. That is the silver lining opportunity that we have.” After all, Hurricane Maria exacerbated the considerable challenges already confronting Puerto Rico: a massive public finance debt crisis and migration flows which have witnessed a dramatic outflow of the island’s population: an outflow of more than 10%–but an unbalanced 10%, as the outflow has been characterized disproportionately by being both younger and more educated, meaning Puerto Rico has disproportionately greater low-income and elderly citizens in need of greater fiscal assistance, even as those most valuable to a vibrant economy has become smaller.

The fiscal and human challenge, this, will be for its leaders not to employ the paper towels thrown at them by President Trump, but rather to leverage its considerable natural assets: its central location in the Caribbean region, its hard-working and resourceful residents, its mostly mild climate, and its development-friendly topography. Indeed, many agencies involved in the reconstruction are rightly conducting a “needs assessment” to align their aid efforts. Equally important to medium- and long-term reconstruction is an “asset map” to ensure that Puerto Rico’s strengths, resources, and opportunities are taken into account when imagining the future potential of the island. At the same time, as part of rebuilding, its leaders will need to anticipate that global warming means that more category 4 and 5 storms are certain in the future—so that rebuilding what was is not a constructive option: there will have to be innovation to creating a resilient infrastructure for power, water and sanitation, communications and transportation.

But, again as in Detroit, the physical, governance, and fiscal reform process which Puerto Rico’s new administration has promised must remain front and center: how can Puerto Rico restore its own fiscal and political solvency—a challenge hardly enhanced in the wake of criticism of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority’s (PREPA) now-canceled contract with Whitefish Energy Holdings: the territory must create transparent budgets and plans with regard to how recovery funding is allocated—as well as complete its exploration how citizen panels and consultations to review different design options and careful procurement, oversight, and reporting mechanisms can earn respect and support—not only from its citizens and taxpayers, but also from the PROMESA Oversight Board: a transparent procurement system which can assess the myriad offers that will come in to ensure that the legacies created are cost-effective and the best options for the people and the island. 

Puerto Rico’s Municipalities or Muncipios. Unsurprisingly, the fiscal crisis which has enveloped most of Puerto Rico’s municipalities has multiplied after the passage of Hurricane Maria. The economic burden to respond to the emergency situation has undermined efforts to refills depleted coffers, meaning that the municipal executives of the Popular Democratic Party (PDP), grouped under the Association of Mayors, have not ruled out imposing austerity measures in addition to those applied last year—or, as Association President Rolando Ortiz, the Mayor of Cayey, put it:I am sure that all municipalities are exposed to having to reduce working hours or eliminate places permanently, because we are all exposed to lack of income.” According to reports from El Nuevo Día from last August, some 15 municipalities had to cut working hours of their employees—in some municipalities up to 50%, including in the towns of Vieques, Toa Baja, Las Piedras, and Cabo Rojo. The physical and fiscal devastation comes in the wake of fiscal declines of the municipalities in the past decades after assuming burdens imposed by the Commonwealth, such as mandated increases in contributions to the Retirement Systems, the subsidy to the Government Health Plan, and the reduction in the government contribution. Even though the municipalities have been unable to generate specific data on the economic impact that the municipalities have suffered in the wake of Maria’s impact, Mr. Ortiz emphasized that the blow has been severe: the mayors have had to assume recovery and first response tasks which were not budgeted, such as the collection and disposition of debris and the purchase and supply of diesel and gasoline. Notwithstanding that some of the funds will be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), such funding will not represent an automatic improvement in the coffers. As Mr. Ortiz notes: “Before the hurricanes Irma and María, 40 municipalities were about to close their operations. With this impact we have had, we have almost two months of zero commercial economic activity…it makes the fiscal situation precarious.” One of the most serious fiscal claims of the mayors has been for the return of $ 350 million in revenue from contributions that the central government has proposed to cut to municipal assistance in the next fiscal year—with the Mayors meeting yesterday in San Juan to discuss the economic and social situation of each of the associated municipalities in the wake of the storms, where they agreed that the urgency of water and food supplies and the restoration of basic services persists—and that they could not “validate” the claim of Puerto Rico’s Aqueduct and Sewer Authority that 82 percent of subscribers have service. Mayor Marcelo Trujillo of Humacao noted: “If electricity does not arrive, the municipality will go bankrupt, given the case that we depend on 13 industries, trade, and hospitals that we have that are working halfway,” adding that some of the businesses in his city which are open, are only partly operating—while the municipality’s largest shopping center remains shuttered—depriving the community of tax revenues, earned income, and hop—and meaning, as he reported, that the municipality has been unable to restore operations, because the Casa Alcaldía (town hall) suffered damages that prevent work from there. 

His colleague, the Mayor of Comerío, José A. Josian Santiago, noted: “As of July 1 of next year, my budget goes down from 60 percent from $10 million to $4 million, which would mean that, at this time of crisis, I have to leave 200 employees out of a total of 300. How am I going to operate? How will I respond to the emergency?” He noted that the current situation of Comerío is complicated, because, in addition to the lack of basic services, citizens have no way to obtain money for the purchase of food and basic necessities, because banks and ATM’s are closed: “It is a fatigue for my team, as for the people, to be every day trying to survive. A country cannot establish that as a condition of life. There is no way to sentence the communities of our municipalities to survive every day.”

The Price of Solvency. Even as Puerto Rico is struggling to recover without anything comparable to the federal assistance rendered to Houston and Florida, the PROMESA federal oversight board has given the U.S. territory about seven weeks to revise its financial recovery plan to account for the devastating damage suffered in Hurricane Maria, raising the possibility the territory will need to impose deeper losses on owners of its $74 billion debt. The panel earlier this week mandated that Puerto Rico will need to seek approval for any contract over $10 million, significantly expanding its supervision—a step taken in the wake of PREPA’s decision to grant a critical $300 million rebuilding contact to a small Montana company which had just two full-time employees before beginning its work in Puerto Rico. With Maria wreaking an estimated $95 billion in physical devastation, Puerto Rico’s municipal bonds have tumbled on speculation that investors will be forced to accept even steeper concessions than previously anticipated: the territory’s main operational account, which receives most of its public funds and covers most of its expenses, is now projected to report a deficit of $2.4 billion by the end of this year—a deficit exploded not just by the storm devastation, but also by Maria’s toll on the government’s tax collections—or, as PROMESA Board Executive Director Natalie Jaresko put it: “The devastation has affected millions of lives, decimated critical infrastructure, made revenue collections almost impossible…In light of this new reality, we must work urgently towards revising the certified fiscal plans.” The commonwealth and PREPA have been ordered to submit to the federal board their updated fiscal plans by Dec. 22nd. It is unclear, however, whether the PROMESA Board has fully taken into account the demographic changes caused by the physical storm: The revisions need to take into account the anticipated population loss because of Maria, with Hunter College’s Center for Puerto Rican Studies estimates Puerto Rico will lose 14 percent of its population by 2019 because of the storm.

Director Jaresko told the PROMESA Board the hurricane left several variables that will affect the amount of revenues available and spending that will be necessary in the next few years, meaning that the territory’s fiscal recovery plan should show that structural balance should be achieved by FY2022, so that, according to the schedule discussed by the Board, it will seek draft fiscal plans from the commonwealth government, PREPA, and the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority by Dec. 22nd, aiming to have approved fiscal plans for these entities by Ground Hog Day. The Board plans to adopt certified plans by March 16th, after holding two public meetings in Puerto Rico and one in New York City to receive public comment on the revision to the fiscal plans: these are tentatively scheduled for Nov. 16, 28, and Dec. 4.

The Human & Fiscal Prices of Insolvency

October 20, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the spread of Connecticut’s fiscal blues to its municipalities; then we consider the health and fiscal health challenge to Flint; before, finally, observing the seemingly worsening fiscal and human plight of Puerto Rico.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

The Price of Solvency. It appears that the City of Hartford would have to restructure its debt to receive the requisite state assistance to keep it out of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy under the emerging state budget compromise between the Governor and Legislature. Under the terms of the discussions, the State of Connecticut would also guarantee a major refunding of the city’s debt, as well as cover a major share of the city’s debt payments, at least for this fiscal year and next, with House Majority Leader Matt Ritter (D-Hartford) indicating this was part of a bipartisan compromise the legislature recognizes is needed to avert municipal bankruptcy: “This budget gives the city all of the tools it needs to be on a structural path to sustainability…This solution truly is a bipartisan one.” According to the city’s Mayor Luke Bronin, Hartford needs about $40 million annually in new state assistance to avert bankruptcy. The emerging agreement also includes $28 million per year for a new Municipal Accountability Review Board, likely similar to what the Commonwealth of Virginia has used so effectively, to focus on municipalities at risk of fiscal insolvency and to intervene beforehand: approximately $20 million of that $28 million would be earmarked for Hartford. The new state budget would require Hartford to restructure a significant portion of its capital debt, but the state would guarantee this refinancing, an action which—as was the case in Detroit—will help Hartford have access to lower borrowing costs: the agreement also calls for the state to pay $20 million of the city’s annual debt service—at least for this fiscal year and next.

The state actions came as Moody’s Investor Service this week placed ratings of 26 of the state’s municipalities, as well as three of the state’s regional school districts under review for downgrade, citing state aid cuts in the absence of a budget, warning those municipalities and districts face cuts in state funding equal to 100% or more of available fund balance or cash—with those cities most at risk: Hartford (which currently receives 50 percent of its revenues from the state), New Haven, New Britain, West Haven, and Bridgeport. Moody’s was even fiscally moodier, dropping the credit ratings of an additional 25 Connecticut cities and towns, and three other regional school districts, while maintaining the existing negative outlook on the rating of one town. Moody’s list did not, however, include Hartford. The down-gradings come as the state has continued to operate under Executive order in the absence of an approved fiscal budget, now more than a fiscal quarter overdue. Gov. Dannel Malloy, at the beginning of the week, had submitted his fourth FY2018-19 budget to lawmakers, a $41.3 billion spending plan in the wake of his veto last month of the version approved by the legislature, reporting that his most recent fiscal plan would eliminate some revenue proposals, including new taxes on second homes, cell phone surcharges, ridesharing fees, and daily fantasy sports fees—instead, he has proposed an additional $150 million in spending over the biennium, while simplifying the implementor language. According to Moody’s, under the Governor’s new executive order, state aid to local governments will be nearly $1 billion below last year’s level—or, as Moody’s put it: “The current budget impasse highlights the ongoing vulnerability of funding that Connecticut provides to its local governments.” Connecticut traditionally has provided significant funding to its local governments, largely through education cost sharing grants, but also through payments in lieu of taxes and other smaller governmental grants. Connecticut’s GO bond prices have deteriorated with 10-year credit spreads around 80 basis points, well above historical levels, according to Janney Capital Markets Managing Director Alan Schankel: “A state’s fiscal stress tends to flow downstream to local governments, and Connecticut is no exception.” The fiscal irony is that despite the state’s high per capita wealth, the state’s debt, at 9.2% of gross state product, is highest among the states, lagging only behind Illinois.

Not in Like Flint. U.S. District Court Judge David Lawson has ordered Flint’s City Council to choose a long-term water source for the city by Monday after it spent more than three months refusing to make a decision. In his 29-page opinion, he took Flint’s City Council to task for sitting on an April agreement backed by Mayor Karen Weaver, the state and the federal Environmental Protection Agencies that would see the city stay on the Detroit area water system through a new 30-year contract with the Great Lakes Water Authority, writing:. “The failure of leadership, in light of the past crises and manifold warnings related to the Flint water system, is breathtaking.” Judge Lawson’s decision came in response to a suit filed by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality last June in the wake of the Flint City Council ignoring the state’s deadline for a water supply decision, arguing the delay would “cause an imminent and substantial endangerment to public health in Flint.” The Council, in hearing and filings, had requested more time from the court; however, Judge Lawson wrote that the state had demonstrated potential for “irreparable injury” in Flint and that there was an urgency to act, because the city’s short-term water agreements have expired and the long-term agreement is time sensitive, concluding: “The City Council has not voted on the negotiated agreement, it has not proposed an alternative, and the future of Flint’s fragile water system—its safety, reliability, and financial stability— is in peril…Because of the city’s indecision, the court must issue its ruling.” Judge Lawson’s order likely ensures the City Council will approve the proposed contract with the Great Lakes Authority that it had been resisting though it was negotiated with Mayor Karen Weaver’s approval. The city could choose to risk defying the court order; however, the State of Michigan has warned that tens of millions of dollars in extensive repairs and updates need to be made to the inactive Flint water plant—repairs which would take three and a half years to complete.

The warnings of Wayne State University Professor Nicholas Schroeck with regard to the risk to public health and the financial stability of the water supply system appeared key to persuading Judge Lawson to side with the state and issue a pre-emptive order. The Judge, in early August, had appointed a mediator in an effort to try gain an agreement between the city and the state Dept. of Environmental Quality; however, when the sides were unable to settle, he warned that  extending Flint’s contract with the Detroit area water system beyond 30 days could result in funding problems: “It seems to me that inaction is inviting intervention.” The Weaver administration analyzed various long-term water options for Flint, and the Mayor said Tuesday the Great Lakes agreement “proved to be in the best interest of public health by avoiding another water source switch, which could result in unforeseen issues.” The Michigan DEQ praised Judge Lawson for “recognizing there is no need to wait…and remains committed to working with the City of Flint to implement a plan once a source water determination has been finalized to ensure compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act.” In its arguments before Judge Lawson, the State of Michigan had warned: “The City Council’s failure to act will result in at least a 55-63% increase in the water rate being charged to Flint residents, create an immediate risk of bankrupting the Flint water fund, will preclude required investment in Flint’s water distribution system, and create another imminent and substantial endangerment to public health in Flint.” That was similar to a statement from a key aide to Gov. Rick Snyder who had warned that stalling the water contract decision was costing the City of Flint an extra $600,000 a month, because it was paying for two sources—Great Lakes, from which it currently gets its treated water, and Karegnondi, from which it contractually would receive water by 2019 to 2020. Under the 30-year agreement with Great Lakes, Flint would no longer have to make payments to Karegnondi.

Unresponsiveness. President Trump last week awarded himself a perfect rating for his response to the hurricane that devastated Puerto Rico: “I would give myself a 10,” he responded when asked by reporters how he would score his efforts, on a one to 10 scale. He told Fox News correspondent Geraldo Rivera that Puerto Rican governments “owe a lot of money to your friends on Wall Street, and we’re going to have to wipe that out. You can say goodbye to that.” A comment to which OMB Director Mick Mulvaney noted: “I wouldn’t take it word for word.” Indeed, a week later, Congressional Republicans unveiled a relief plan that would only add to Puerto Rico’s unsustainable debt load. In his meeting this week with Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló, who was in Washington to press for federal disaster relief, the President claimed: “We have provided so much, so fast.” Yet, today nearly 80 percent of the island remains without electricity, and almost 30 of the island still does not have access to clean water, according to Puerto Rican government figures.

In contrast with Texas after Hurricane Harvey and Florida after Irma, where thousands of repair workers rushed in to restring power lines, only a few hundred electrical workers from outside Puerto Rico have arrived to help: it was not until last Saturday that the Puerto Rican government said it had the federal funding needed to bring in more workers. That compares to some 5,300 workers from outside the region who converged on coastal Texas in the days after Hurricane Harvey to restore a power loss about a tenth of the size that struck Puerto Rico. Similarly, in Florida, 18,000 outside workers went in after Hurricane Irma knocked out electricity to most of the state last month, according to Florida Power and Light; whereas, in Puerto Rico, the challenge of restoration has fallen on the shoulders of about 900 members of local crews—an outcome industry experts report to be a result of poor planning, a slow response by power officials, and Puerto Rico’s dire fiscal situation—a sharp contrast to the President’s claim that his administration deserved a 10 for its response to the hurricanes which struck Puerto Rico and other parts of the United States.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, charged by FEMA with restoring Puerto Rico’s power, estimated that it needed at least 2,000 additional workers. So far, the Corps has brought only about 200 workers, and most of them were dedicated not to restoring power, but to installing generators at crucial locations. In the wake of major storms, such as Katrina, power companies typically rely on mutual aid agreements to get electricity restored: such outside companies send thousands of workers, and electric companies pay for the service with funds from FEMA. However, providing such assistance to Puerto Rico is not just logistically a greater challenge—but also a discriminatorily greater challenge: the Jones Act—which the President only suspended for ten days—means that the time and cost of shipping comes at a 20% premium.  

The Human Storm. Maria risks accelerating the trend of the last decade of economic decline and depopulation, described as “a slower-moving catastrophe,” which is wreaking a devastating toll: The number of residents had plunged by 11 percent, the economy had shrunk by 15 percent, and the government has become fiscally insolvent. Already ranked among the worst cycles of economic decline and depopulation in postwar American history, the aftermath of Maria threatens an acceleration of residents fleeing en masse: accelerating economic decline and potentially accelerating a vicious cycle. Lyman Stone, an independent migration researcher and economist at the Agriculture Department notes: “We are watching a real live demographic and population collapse on a monumental scale.” At a news conference last week, Gov. Rosselló warned that without significant help, “millions” could leave for the U.S. mainland: You’re not going to get hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans moving to the States—you’re going to get millions…You’re going to get millions, creating a devastating demographic shift for us here in Puerto Rico.” Puerto Rico Treasury Secretary Raúl Maldonado has warned, meanwhile, that without more aid, the government could suffer a shutdown by the end of the month.

Today, only about 40 percent of Puerto Ricans in the territory are employed or seeking work—more than 33% below levels on the mainland. The danger, now, is of increased flight—but flight by the young and those with college degrees. After all, with the PROMESA Board charged with fashioning a fiscal plan to pay off more than $70 billion in Puerto Rico’s municipal debt calling for efforts to raise taxes and significant cuts to the government, the Board has predicted continuing shrinkage of the Puerto Rican economy. Thus, there is a real apprehension

As a result, for Washington and Puerto Rican officials planning a recovery, the ongoing exodus poses a multifaceted dilemma. “They’ve got to start from the ground up,” a former U.S. Treasury official said of any new plan for the island. In the short-term, at least, the island is likely to see an economic boost; rebuilding after a hurricane often injects a jolt of spending into local economies. But, according to recent research of 90 years of natural disasters in the United States, published as a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, major natural disasters also have unfavorable effects: They increase out-migration, lower home prices, and raise poverty rates. Like many on the island, Sergio M. Marxuach, policy director for the Center for a New Economy, a San Juan-based think tank, said a massive federal investment is necessary. “We’re going to need some significant government intervention — essentially a big rescue package, not only to rebuild the economy but get it growing…People are saying, ‘I don’t want my children to grow up in a place where the economy is going to be devastated for the next 10 years.’ If enough people think that way, it’s going to be a self-reinforcing downward spiral.”

In addressing complaints about ongoing struggles on the island, President Trump noted this week that the disaster in Puerto Rico in many ways had begun years ago. Puerto Rico “was in very poor shape before the hurricanes ever hit. Their electrical grid was destroyed before the hurricanes got there. It was in very bad shape, was not working, was in bankruptcy.”

At the Level of a Muncipio. While many have considered the fiscal and physical impact on the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, fewer have considered the fiscal challenge to Puerto Rico’s municipalities. Consider, for instance, Juncos, one of Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities: it is located in the eastern central region of the island; it is spread over 9 wards and Juncos Pueblo (the downtown area and the administrative center of the city). The city, one of the oldest in the United States,was founded on the request of Tomas Pizarro on August 2, 1797, having previously been a village which evolved from a small ranch, the Hatillo de los Juncos. Hurricane Maria has changed this municipality forever: more than 1,000 families in Juncos lost it all that unforgettable September 20th, when Hurricane Maria struck. Yet, in a remarkable effort, residents of the La Hormiga sector of Las Piñas neighborhood, in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, organized to help recover the humble community that is often highlighted by criminal incidents in the area: one of the community leaders of the sector, Wanda Bonilla, highlighted the deed of the trash rescuers: “Thanks to them, they have also relieved the pick up of the rubble.” The city’s community board worked immediately to install a shelter in the neighborhood community center given the circumstances that some 17 families, with between five and seven members each, where the storm tore the roofs off their homes—and most of those homes have single mothers. She noted: “Our president, Ivelisse Esquilín, who also lost everything, is helping us through the Municipality and with other donations.” Juncos Mayor Alfredo Alejandro noted that, in the wake of the storm, crossing arms was not an option for anyone “in the neighborhood” even though many of the 60 families living in the sector experienced the grief of having lost their home: “You have to do it because imagine …right now, look here, I have these pieces of a car to see if I invent a type of small generator to, even be, to turn on a fan.” The Mayor described Maria’s devastation to be of “great proportions:” Out of population of 42,000 people, more than 1,000 lost their homes and a comparable number suffered major damage to their structures; 85% of the city’s residents are still without potable water, while there are few expectations that electricity will soon be restored.

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.” 

Cascading Municipal Insolvencies

October 11, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the looming municipal fiscal threat to one of the nation’s oldest municipalities, and the ongoing fiscal, legal, physical, and human challenges to Puerto Rico.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

Cascading Insolvency. With questions stirring with regard to the potential impact of a chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy on the City of Hartford, the city’s leaders have called two public meetings to examine its effects on other cities and towns, inviting Kevyn Orr, the mastermind of putting Detroit into chapter 9, and then overseeing the city’s successful plan of debt adjustment; Central Falls, Rhode Island  Mayor James Diossa—where the city filed for chapter 9 the day our class of No. Virginia city and county staff visited its city hall in 2011 (publishing, in the wake of the visit, the “Financial Crisis Tool Kit,”) and Don Graves, senior director of corporate community initiatives at Key Bank. The focus is to better acquaint citizens on what municipal bankruptcy is—and is not, or, as the Mayor put it: “so we can learn from their experiences…As we consider all of our options for putting the city of Hartford on a path to sustainability and strength, it’s essential that our residents are a part of that conversation…We’ve had a number of requests for a more detailed discussion of what [municipal] bankruptcy would mean for our city.” With Connecticut still without a budget, Hartford is confronted not only by its current $65 million deficit and mounting debt, but also accelerating cash flow problems. Mayor Luke Bronin has requested at least $40 million from the state, in addition to the projected $260 million: Connecticut House Democrats have said they would set aside $40 million to $45 million; however, a Republican budget was adopted instead: that plan, vetoed by the Governor, only offered the city $7 million in additional aid. The city’s delegation in the Connecticut Legislature said last week that they oppose chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, even as they acknowledged but they acknowledged it might be one of the few options left: or, Rep. Brandon McGee (D-Hartford) put it: “It’s been really impossible to reassure people that bankruptcy is not there…it’s there. It’s real.” One of his counterparts, state Sen. Douglas McCrory (D-Hartford), noted: lawmakers “have to get something done very quickly in order to save Hartford.”

Out-Sized Municipal Debt. Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Guam all face out-sized debt burdens relative to their gross domestic products, and each of the U.S. territories faces a repayment challenge, the Government Accountability Office found. Susan Irving and David Gootnick of the General Accounting Office, in their new report on Puerto Rico and other U.S. Territories (GAO-18-160), reported that between fiscal years 2005 and 2014, the latest figures available, Puerto Rico’s total public debt outstanding (public debt) nearly doubled from $39.2 billion to $67.8 billion, reaching 66 percent of Gross Domestic Product; despite some revenue growth, Puerto Rico’s net position was negative and declining during the period, reflecting its deteriorating financial position. They wrote that experts pointed to several factors as contributing to Puerto Rico’s high debt levels, and in September 2016 Puerto Rico missed up to $1.5 billion in debt payments. The outcome of the ongoing debt restructuring process will determine future debt repayment. Their report, released last week, details the debt situations of U.S. overseas territories from fiscal years 2005-2015 and provides brief commentary on their outlooks. (There are  five: Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI), Guam, American Samoa, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. Puerto Rico’s public debt exploded in the decade the report covers, from $39.2 billion to $67.8 billion, reaching 66% of the island’s GDP. Even after some revenue growth in that period, Puerto Rico’s overall financial position deteriorated, leading to its eventual default on billions of dollars of bonds. GAO found that Puerto Rico’s fiscal challenges arose from the following factors: the use of debt to finance regular government operations, poor disclosure leading to investors being unaware of the extent of the fiscal crisis in the territory, the appeal of territorial debt being exempt from federal, state, and local taxation for investors in all states, as well as recession and population decline. Thus, the two authors noted: Puerto Rico’s long-term fiscal trajectory is dependent upon the restructuring process underway through the PROMESA Oversight Board.

Looming Municipal Insolvencies?

October 10, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the looming municipal fiscal threat to one of the nation’s oldest municipalities, and the ongoing fiscal, legal, physical, and human challenges to Puerto Rico.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

Cascading Insolvency. One of the nation’s oldest municipalities, Scotland, a small Connecticut city founded in 1700, but not incorporated until 1857, still maintains the town meeting as its form of government with a board of selectmen. It is a town with a declining population of fewer than 1,700, where the most recent median income for a household in the town was $56,848, and the median income for a family was $60,147. It is a town today on the edge of insolvency—in a state itself of the verge of insolvency. The town not only has a small population, but also a tiny business community: there is one farm left in the town, a general store, and several home businesses. Contributing to its fiscal challenges: the state owns almost 2,000 acres—a vast space from which the town may not extract property taxes. In the last six years, according to First Selectman Daniel Syme, only one new home has been built, but the property tax base has actually eroded because of a recent revaluation—meaning that today the municipality has one of the 10 highest mill rates in the state. To add to its fiscal challenges, Gov. Malloy’s executive-order budget has eliminated Connecticut’s payment in lieu of taxes program—even as education consumes 81 percent of Scotland’s $5.9 million taxpayer-approved  budget: under Gov. Malloy’s executive order, Scotland’s Education Cost Sharing grant will be cut by 70 percent—from $1.42 million to $426,900. Scotland has $463,000 in its reserve accounts, or about 9 percent of its annual operating budget—meaning that if the Gov. and legislature are unable to resolve the state budget crisis, the town will have to dip into its reserves—or even consider dissolution or chapter 9 bankruptcy. Should the municipality opt for dissolution, however, there is an unclear governmental future. While in some parts of the country, municipalities can disappear and become unincorporated parts of their counties, that is not an option in Connecticut, nor in any New England state, except Maine, where more than 400 settlements, defined as unorganized territories, have no municipal government—ergo, governmental services are provided by the state and the county. Thus it appears that the fiscal fate of this small municipality is very much dependent on resolution of the state budget stalemate—but where part of the state solution is reducing state aid to municipalities.

Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen has offered a legal opinion which questioned the legality of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s plan to administer municipal aid in the absence of a state budget,  he offered the Governor and the legislature one alternative—draft a new state budget. Similarly, Senate Republican leader Len Fasano (R-North Haven), who requested the opinion and has argued the Governor’s plan would overstep his authority, also conceded there may be no plan the Governor could craft—absent a new budget—which would pass legal muster, writing: “We acknowledge the formidable task the Governor faces, in the exercise of his constitutional obligation to take care that the laws are faithfully executed, to maintain the effective operations of state government in the absence of a legislatively enacted budget.” The fiscal challenge: analysts opine state finances, unless adjusted, would run $1.6 billion deficit this fiscal year, with a key reason attributed to surging public retirement benefits and other debt costs, coupled with declining state income tax receipts:  Connecticut is now about 14 weeks into its new fiscal year without an enacted budget—and the fiscal dysfunction has been aggravated by a dispute between Sen. Fasano and Gov. Malloy over the Governor’s plans to handle a program adopted two years ago designed to share sales and use tax receipts with cities and towns: a portion of those funds would go only to communities with high property tax rates to offset revenues they would lose under a related plan to cap taxes on motor vehicles.

Aggravating Fiscal & Human Disparities. The White House has let a 10-day Jones Act shipping waiver expire for Puerto Rico, meaning a significant increase in the cost of providing emergency supplies to the hurricane-ravaged island from U.S. ports, in the wake of a spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security confirming yesterday that the Jones Act waiver, which expired on Sunday, will not be extended—so that only U.S‒built and‒operated vessels are make cargo shipments between U.S. ports. The repercussions will be fiscal and physical: gasoline and other critical supplies to save American lives will be far more expensive on an island which could be without power for months. The administration had agreed to temporarily lift the Jones Act shipping restrictions for Puerto Rico on September 28th; today, officials have warned that the biggest challenge for relief efforts is getting supplies distributed around Puerto Rico.

Even as President Trump has acted to put more lives and Puerto Rico’s recovery at greater risk, lawmakers in Congress are still pressing to roll back the Jones Act, with efforts led by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), the Chairman of the House Water and Power Subcommittee of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, recently introducing legislation to permanently exempt Puerto Rico from the Jones Act; indeed, at Sen. McCain’s request, the bill has been placed on the Senate calendar under a fast-track procedure that allows it to bypass the normal committee process; it has not, however, been scheduled for any floor time. Sen. McCain stated: “Now that the temporary Jones Act waiver for Puerto Rico has expired, it is more important than ever for Congress to pass my bill to permanently exempt Puerto Rico from this archaic and burdensome law: Until we provide Puerto Rico with long-term relief, the Jones Act will continue to hinder much-needed efforts to help the people of Puerto Rico recover and rebuild from Hurricane Maria.”

The efforts by Sen. McCain and Chairman Lee came as Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, citing an “unprecedented catastrophe,” urged Congress to provide a significant new influx of money in the near term as Puerto Rico is confronted by what he described as “a massive liquidity crisis:” facing an imminent Medicaid funding crisis, putting nearly one million people at risk of losing their health-care coverage: “[a]bsent extraordinary measures to address the halt in economic activity in Puerto Rico, the humanitarian crisis will deepen, and the unmet basic needs of the American citizens of Puerto Rico will become even greater…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.” Even before Hurricane Maria caused major damage to Puerto Rico’s struggling health-care system, the U.S. territory’s Medicaid program barely had enough funds left to last through the next year; now, however, nearly 900,000 U.S. citizens face the loss of access to Medicaid—more than half of total Puerto Rican enrollment, according to federal estimates: experts predict that unless Congress acts, the federal funding will be exhausted in a matter of months, and, if that happens, Puerto Rico will be responsible for covering all its costs going forward, or, as Edwin Park, Vice President for health policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes: “Unless there’s an assurance of stable and sufficient funding…[the health system] is headed toward a collapse.” Nearly half of Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million residents participate in Medicaid; however, because Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, not a state, Puerto Rico receives only 57 percent of a state’s Medicaid benefits. Under the Affordable Care Act, Puerto Rico received a significant infusion, of about $6.5 billion, to last through FY2019, and, last May, Congress appropriated an additional $300 million. However, those funds were already running low prior to Hurricane Maria, a storm which not only physically and fiscally devastated Puerto Rico and its economy, but also, with the ensuing loss of jobs, meant a critical increase in Medicaid eligibility.

The White House submitted a $29 billion request for disaster assistance; however, none of it was earmarked for Puerto Rico’s Medicaid program. House Energy and Commerce Committee Republicans have proposed giving Puerto Rico an additional $1 billion over the next two years as part of a must-pass bill to fund the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), with one GOP aide stating the $1 billion is specifically meant to address the Medicaid cliff. Adding more uncertainty: the Senate has not given any indication if it will take up legislation to address Puerto Rico’s Medicaid cliff: The Senate Finance Committee passed its CHIP bill this past week, without any funding for Puerto Rico attached. 

In a three-page letter sent to Congressional leaders, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló is requesting more than $4 billion from various agencies and loan program to “meet the immediate emergency needs of Puerto Rico,” writing that while “We are grateful for the federal emergency assistance that has been provided so far; however, [should aid not be available in a timely manner], “This could lead to an acceleration of the high pace of out-migration of Puerto Rico residents to the U.S. mainland impacting a large number of states as diverse as Florida, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Indiana, Wisconsin, Ohio, Texas, and beyond.”

On Puerto Rico’s debt front, with the PROMESA Board at least temporarily relocated to New York City, President Trump has roiled the island’s debt crisis with his suggestion that Puerto Rico’s $73 billion in municipal bond debt load may get erased—or, as he put it: “You can say goodbye to that,” in an interview on Fox News, an interview which appeared to cause a nose dive in the value of Puerto Rico’s municipal bonds, notwithstanding his lack of any authority to unilaterally forgive Puerto Rico’s debt. Indeed, within 24 hours, OMB Budget Director Mick Mulvaney discounted the President’s comments: he said the White House does not intend to become involved in Puerto Rico’s debt restructuring. Indeed, the Trump administration last week sent Congress a request for $29 billion in disaster aid for Puerto Rico, including $16 billion for the government’s flood-insurance program and nearly $13 billion for hurricane relief efforts, according to a White House official. No matter what, however, that debt front looms worse: Gov. Rosselló has warned Puerto Rico could lose up to two months of tax collections as its economic activity is on hold and residents wait for power and basic necessities. Bringing some rational perspective to the issue, House Natural Resource Committee Chair, Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), said the current debt restructuring would proceed under the PROMESA Oversight Board: “Part of the reason to have a board was to have a logical approach [to the debt restructuring]. We need to have this process played out…There’s not going to be one quick panacea to a situation that has developed over a long time…I don’t think it’s time to jump around…when we already have a structure to work with.” Chairman Bishop noted that Hurricane Maria’s devastation would require the board to revise its 10-year fiscal plan, with the goal to achieve a balanced budget pushed back from the current target of FY2019; at the same time, however, Chairman Bishop repeated that the Board must retain its independence from Congress. He also said Congress would consider extending something like the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act to the U.S. Virgin Islands—an action which would open the door to a debt restructuring for the more than $2 billion in public sector Virgin Islands municipal debt.

The godfather of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, Jim Spiotto, noted that it would be Congress, rather than the President, which would pass any municipal bankruptcy legislation, patiently reminding us: “You can’t just use an edict to wipe out debt: If Congress were to wipe out debt, there would be constitutional challenges…Past efforts to repudiate debt debts have had very serious consequences in terms of future access to capital markets and cost of borrowing.” In contrast, if the federal government were to provide something like the Marshall Plan to Puerto Rico, Mr. Spiotto added: the economy could strengthen, and Puerto Rico would be in a position to pay off some its debts.