The Challenging Transition in the Wake of a State Takeover

September 25, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we report on the likely extension of the Garden State takeover of Atlantic City, because, as one of our most respected and insightful fiscal experts there, Marc Pfeiffer, the Assistant Director of Rutgers University’s Bloustein Local Government Research Center, put it: it is important for New Jersey and Atlantic City to focus on long-term challenges beyond the state takeover period. That is, Mr. Pfeiffer believes continued state oversight will be a positive for Atlantic City municipal bondholders, because it assures more fiscal discipline will be in place—or, in his own words: “You are going to have ongoing stability while the state is involved…The city will have to show that it can stand on its own.”

The Steep Road to Municipal Fiscal Recovery. In the wake of a release of a new state report, “Atlantic City, Building a Foundation for a Shared Prosperity,” [64-page report]  released by New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration, a report recommending continuation of the almost two-year-old state takeover of Atlantic City’s finances, that state governance now appears likely to last a full five years, due to “longstanding challenges” to New Jersey officials, as recommended by the Governor’s office. While the Governor, in his campaign, had, as part of his platform, a commitment to terminate the state takeover of Atlantic City, now, three-quarters of a year after taking office, the Governor appears likely to leave the state takeover in place—indeed, possibly for an additional three years.

The Murphy Administration has released a plan to assist the city to get back on its fiscal feet, a plan which benefited from input from numerous study groups, task forces, and committees, as well as a redirection of some state government funds to youth programs, and a training program for municipal department heads; that plan does not end the takeover; rather the report recommends keeping the takeover in place for the full five years called for under the 2016 law, unless signal fiscal and financial improvement is put in place before then, including the significant reduction or total elimination of Atlantic City’s reliance on state aid—or, as Gov. Murphy put it: “We had a pretty clear-eyed sense of what the challenge was…That doesn’t mean Atlantic City doesn’t need the state, that the state won’t continue to stay the course and be a partner. We’re not going away; we’re going to go out and executive this plan.”

Under New Jersey’s state takeover law gave the state broad powers, including the right to overturn decisions of the city council, override or even abolish city agencies and seize and sell assets, including Atlantic City’s much-coveted water utility. The statue empowers state overseers, in addition, to hire or fire workers, break union contracts, and restructure Atlantic City’s debt, most of which was done to varying degrees, although no major assets have been sold off.

What Is the City’s Perspective? Atlantic City Mayor Frank Gilliam has conceded the uncomfortable governance challenge under the takeover, which was initiated in November of 2016 by former Governor Chris Christie, but he notes that Gov. Murphy’s administration has been willing to listen to concerns and work with city officials, even as it has retained the final governing say-so.

How Can a State Transition Governance Back to a City? Unlike under a chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, where a federal bankruptcy court has the final say in approving (or not) a plan of debt adjustment under which governance authority reverts back to a municipality’s elected leaders, a state takeover lacks a Betty Crocker cookbook set of instructions. Gov. Murphy’s quasi-emergency manager, Jim Johnson, whom the Governor named to review Atlantic City’s transition back to local control, said the state administration should remain in place for an additional three years, unless Atlantic City’s reliance on state aid has been “substantially reduced or eliminated” and that its municipal workforce is on “solid footing.”  Under the provisions of the state takeover, enacted shortly after Atlantic City nearly defaulted on its municipal bond debt, the state was empowered to alter outstanding debt and municipal contracts—or, as Mr. Johnson wrote: “Atlantic City has a set of fiscal, operational, economic and social challenges that will only be resolved with significant direction from, and partnership with the State.”

Focus on the Fiscal Future. Mr. Pfeiffer said it is important for New Jersey and Atlantic City to focus on long-term challenges beyond the state takeover period, adding that the continued state oversight will be a positive for Atlantic City municipal bondholders, because it will assure greater fiscal discipline will be in place, or, as he put it: “You are going to have ongoing stability while the state is involved: The city will have to show that it can stand on its own.”

The report outlines a series of recommendations such, as:

  • the importance of diversifying Atlantic City’s economy beyond casinos,
  • providing increased training for senior municipal workers, and
  • purchasing data that can better track city services.

Mr. Johnson also urged Atlantic City to redirect Casino Reinvestment Development Authority funds into new development projects and toward providing increased financial support for youth programming.

Transitioning Back to Local Control. Atlantic City Mayor Frank Gilliam noted: “The citizens of Atlantic City deserve to have their local elected officials control their destiny…I am very optimistic that this is a huge step in the right direction for Atlantic City and its future.” Mr. Johnson, who was a primary challenger to the Gov. two years ago, was named after that election as a special counsel to review the state’s oversight of Atlantic City—and he came somewhat prepared thanks to his previous service as a U.S. Treasury Undersecretary for enforcement under former President Bill Clinton.

Gov. Murphy, who had been critical of the state takeover during his gubernatorial campaign, and who had criticized former Gov. Chris Christie’s administration for implementing it without support from former Mayor Donald Guardian, noted: “This is a community that needs the state’s help as a partner, not as a big-footing jamming down, taking away—you know, taxation without representation,” adding: “That doesn’t mean that Atlantic City doesn’t need the state, that the state isn’t going to stay the course and be a partner.” The Governor, soon after assuming office, had removed former Gov. Christie’s designated takeover manager Jeffrey Chiesa as the state designee to oversee the state role in Atlantic City. It should be noted, as we have previously, that Mr. Chiesa forged a number of settlements on owed casino property tax appeals and effected a $56 million reduction in Atlantic City’s FY2017 budget. All of which brings us back to the wary fiscal trepidation of Mr. Pfeiffer, because Atlantic City’s debt is still in the high risk range so favored by some casino players in the city: a CCC-plus from S&P Global Ratings and Caa3 from Moody’s Investors Service.

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A British Chapter 9 Municipal Bankruptcy?

August 29, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider a potential fiscal threat to the U.S. Virgin Islands, before considering the fiscal challenge to a municipality across the pond: Northamptonshire County, England.

A U.S. Virgin Islands taxpayer has brought a proposed class action against the U.S. Virgin Islands government, saying it hasn’t paid nearly 20,000 income tax refunds totaling $37 million for the 2016 tax year and the government owes $97 million in refunds since 2007. The complaint filed by Jennifer Duncan, a U.S. citizen who operated a business in the territory in 2016 and pays taxes there, also alleged that the government of the territory set aside no money in 2017 to pay income tax refunds despite a significant deficit in the refund account. The suit alleges that as of March, the U.S. Virgin Islands government had estimated that 19,653 income tax returns claiming refunds had not been paid and claims the territory’s government is using the money as a “bridge fund” to cover budget shortfalls.

A Fiscally Appealing Chapter 9 case? Councilors in Northamptonshire County, England, a county of over a quarter of a million residents, is in severe fiscal distress; now it appears supportive of plans to replace the county’s eight existing councils with two unitary ones in the wake of a government inspector’s recommendation—an action which will trigger a second vote before such a fiscal plan would come into operation in 2020, with the Council voting 31-14—effectively forwarding the quasi chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy plan to all eight of the county’s authorities for a vote on the plan, which comes after the Council, which faces a funding shortfall of about $82 million, issued two notices banning all new spending this year. Conservative Council leader Matt Golby reported the vote would help to give the county an “opportunity to reset,” noting: “There is lots to celebrate about Northamptonshire: Our residents deserve the best we can offer. We need to instill from day one the best practice in all of our scrutiny and functions.” The new, unitary authority would cover Daventry, Northampton, and South Northamptonshire. Labour Councilor Mick Scrimshaw noted: “This is clearly a proposal put forward by government to abolish the political embarrassment of this Council.” The local governmental action came against a seething backdrop of residents, whistling and booing, and swarming the County Hall, shouting: “Criminals!” and holding up banners that read: “Tory councilors wanted for crimes against people in Northamptonshire.”

The residents of what began as an ancient borough before, in 1835, under the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835, paving the way for an elected Council, are reacting to the quasi-municipal bankruptcy, which has forced the local government to halt all but the minimum services required by law: the Council has already voted to close libraries and stop repairing roads.

Last February, the County became the first, in two decades, to, effectively, run out of money—albeit, it could be that Northamptonshire is a fiscal omen for other cities—many of which are sharply cutting essential services. (The municipality, one of the largest towns in the United Kingdom, with a population over 200,000, was granted its first charter by King Richard I in 1189; its first Mayor was appointed (not elected) by King John in 1215. Northampton was unsuccessful in its application for unitary status in 1996, and recognition as a city in 2000. The city, about 60 miles from London, and one of the largest towns in the United Kingdom, with a current population of over 200,000, dates its founding to its first town charter, granted by King Richard I in 1189; King John appointed its first Mayor.

Councils are Britain’s fundamental unit of local government, dealing with an array of basic needs: trash collection, public transport, libraries, town planning, and care for children and other vulnerable people, among other things. They levy a tax on homes and charge fees for some services. They also collect a nationally set tax on commercial real estate, and keep an increasing share of it. But, for years they received most of their funding from the central government.

The crisis in Northamptonshire is complicated and partly self-inflicted. It has roots in the austerity policies and cost cutting that the Conservative-led national government imposed a decade ago in response to the global financial crisis. The Tories in London argued that austerity was the responsible solution to balance public accounts and encourage future growth. Now some Conservatives, especially at the local level, are openly defying what has been a pillar of the party’s ideology.

Funding from London for local governments has fallen 60 percent since 2010, with reductions expected to total $21 billion by 2020, the Local Government Association has calculated. In response, nearly every council in Britain has cut or outsourced services, sold off assets and tried a host of budget gimmicks, experts in local finance say.

One in 10 of the larger councils that have obligations to care for children and elderly people—about 35 councils in all—are in danger of exhausting their reserves within the next three years, according to the National Audit Office. Rob Whiteman, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, notes: “There’s a slow-moving domino effect.”

Northamptonshire was the first flashing red light. East Sussex County Council, run by Conservatives, recently announced it would reduce services to the “legal minimum.” The Conservative-led county council in Somerset warned it might be facing bankruptcy. This month, two families won a case against Bristol City Council to block plans to reduce funding of special education needs and disability services.

The Northamptonshire Council, having run through its rainy-day funds, now has enough money to pay only for mandatory services for the elderly and children. Unable by law to run a deficit, the council voted in February to shut down 21 of the county’s 36 libraries, remove bus subsidies and suspend road repairs. (A court recently blocked the decision to close the libraries.) At the meeting earlier this month, some councilors seemed resigned to the angry public response.

“I am happy to apologize,” said Richard Auger, a Tory councilor. “I think mistakes were made,” he added. “It’s a situation we’re responsible for.” The crisis is a political embarrassment for Conservatives, who are already divided into warring camps over Brexit. The former leader of the Northamptonshire council, Heather Smith, has resigned from her position, and from the Conservative Party. Investigators sent from London blamed her and other councilors for mishandling local finances, even as she blamed London for impossible mandates and a refusal to consider higher taxes. Sounding increasingly like their Labour opponents, some Conservative councilors in Northamptonshire are now talking about stopping the outsourcing of public services and demanding tax increases—or, as recently elected Conservative Councilor John Elkins put it: “I was a believer that we had to save money, but there had to be other ways than to slash and burn: How did we get to where we are? What the hell has been going on?”

Some describe this as the Graph of Doom, referencing, from 5 years ago, a power point shown to the Northamptonshire Council depicting an unavoidable contradiction: a sharp, rising public demand for local services contrasted against a sharp cutback in revenue from the national government (think post General Revenue Sharing), as part of the austerity program led by Conservatives in London. Ms. Smith described it thusly: “It was showing how we were all heading towards this cliff edge,” referring to a shortfall of $175 million that needed to be addressed by 2020. A committed Tory, Ms. Smith initially embraced the calls for austerity, as did many in reliably Conservative Northamptonshire, noting: “Being a Conservative-run Council, everybody accepted that the country had been overspending and that it was time to scale all of that back…At the time we will be spending millions on transformation we will be cutting frontline services. We should not be making a decision today. We need the detail.”

The fiscal pain, moreover, appears to be contagious: This week, all of the Councils in the county will have similar meetings, prior to submitting a plan for reorganization to James Brokenshire, the Minister responsible for local government. (Legally, only one Council needs to vote to back the plan for it to go to the Secretary of State for approval.)  

Reorganizing Governance. For its part, according to a report requested by the government, the Northamptonshire County Council should simply be abolished: the report, requested by Local Government Secretary Sajid Javid, recommends: Any “a new start” which is “best achieved by the creation of two new unitary councils,” in this case, this being a report which appeared to trigger the resignation of  Council Leader Heather Smith, while Northampton North Parliament Member Michael Ellis called the management of the authority a “national scandal.” He added he had been “appalled” by the report. KPMG , in its audit, warned the Council would have to re-work its FY2019 budget to make £40m worth of cuts. Max Caller, who led the government investigation, said Northamptonshire should have two new unitary authorities by 2020, one covering Daventry, Northampton, and South Northamptonshire; and the other covering Corby, East Northamptonshire, Kettering, and Wellingborough—meaning the County Council would cease to exist. Mr. Caller added that “living within budget constraints is not part of the culture” of the Council, noting it had not responded “well, or in many cases even react, to external and internal criticism,” noting that individual Councilors “appear to have been denied answers” to legitimate questions.

But he was also critical of the Council’s proposed Next Generation Model, under which the County would outsource all services and create four new bodies for: child protection, care of vulnerable adults, providing health and well-being services, and improving the county.

Intergovernmental Challenges. Deputy leader Matthew Golby, who is performing the functions of Council Leader prior to any formal appointment, said the authority accepted the findings the inspector has found with regard to “what he believes to be significant failings at the Council,” adding that while the report says the authority is “in no worse position than any other Council,” Northamptonshire’s leadership “would argue the sector as a whole does face significant financial challenges;” the leaders of Northamptonshire’s district and borough Councils issued a joint statement saying they “acknowledge the enormity of the situation,” but “do not believe a unitary model is the only way forward.”

Northamptonshire County Council’s financial crisis timeline: Funding from the central government for local governments has dropped 60% since 2010, reminiscent of the challenge confronting cities, counties, and states after Congress voted to end the General Revenue Sharing program during the Reagan Administration. According to the Local Government Association, those cuts are projected to total $21 billion by 2020. In response, nearly every Council in Britain has cut or outsourced services, sold off assets, and tried a host of budget gimmicks. Nevertheless, one in 10 of the larger Councils which have obligations to care for children and elderly people—about 35 Councils in all—are in danger of exhausting their reserves within the next three years, according to the National Audit Office—or, as Rob Whiteman, CEO of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, put it: “There’s a slow-moving domino effect,” meaning that Northamptonshire was likely just the first flashing red light. In nearby East Sussex County Council, run by Conservatives, the County recently announced it would reduce services to the “legal minimum,” while the Conservative-led county council in Somerset warned it might be facing bankruptcy.

The fiscal situation means the Northamptonshire Council, having run through its rainy-day funds, now has enough funding to finance only for mandatory services for the elderly and children. Barred by national law from running a deficit, the Council, last February, voted to shut down 21 of the county’s 36 libraries, remove bus subsidies and suspend road repairs. (A court recently blocked the decision to close the libraries.)

A Fiscal Cliff Foretold? The virtual chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy was anticipated by some, in what some deem the Graph of Doom, referring to a staff power point shown to the Northamptonshire Council five years ago, which depicted an unavoidable contradiction: a sharp, rising public demand for local services contrasting with a sharp cutback in funding from the national government, as part of the austerity program led by Conservatives in London—or, as Senior Counselor at the time Ms. Smith noted: “It was showing how we were all heading towards this cliff edge,” a fiscal precipice of $175 million that needed to be addressed by 2020. A committed Tory, Ms. Smith initially embraced the calls for austerity, as did many in reliably Conservative Northamptonshire—or, as she put it: “Being a Conservative-run Council, everybody accepted that the country had been overspending and that it was time to scale all of that back.” The problem, however, was how. The Council needed to find huge savings, but it also had limited revenue sources. Raising taxes was ruled out: deemed ideologically unpalatable while the Conservatives were making austerity-related cutbacks. Eric Pickles, the government minister who oversaw local government financing between 2010 and 2015, said it was a “moral duty” for the Tories to keep local taxes low, noting: “Some Conservative Councils had a big fight over it, and said, ‘No, we’re not doing it,’ ” Ms. Smith said. Indeed, before declaring bankruptcy, Northamptonshire took the desperate step of selling and leasing back a $70 million headquarters building it opened in October.

Last February, the Council recognized the depth of its fiscal plight and issued a formal notification of de facto municipal bankruptcy. In response, Conservative leaders in London dispatched government inspectors—inspectors who, last March, issued a damning report: Max Caller, the chief inspector who wrote the report, said that the County Council’s troubles were self-inflicted and that the Next Gen approach did not have any “documented underpinning” that set out how it was expected to deliver savings. In an interview, Inspector Caller noted: “The things that they did were unwise: You could say that they didn’t want to face up to the challenges of austerity, but all the other councils have.” According to his findings, Northamptonshire overspent by $130 million over three years, but took no steps to rein in expenditures—or, as he put it: “Everything has been a waste of money…You can’t go year after year holding down taxation rates at local level and taking the money away and expecting the same level of service. That’s not possible.”

This year, the British government announced some new financial aid for councils, including about $200 million for adult social services. Nevertheless, according to some experts, local Councils are still confronted by a $4 billion funding hole. In response, according to an annual government survey of Council leaders, an overwhelming majority of county councils across England plan to raise council tax, their levy on homes, and 5.99% this year— the maximum the central government will allow. Many have also said they would like to raise business rates, a move the central government is still rejecting.

Prior to declaring municipal bankruptcy, Northamptonshire had taken the desperate step of selling and leasing back a $70 million headquarters building it opened in October—a step which drew withering public ridicule—and instead of helping, appeared to prompt the arrival of national government inspectors. According to officials, Northamptonshire’s fiscal plight was clear from the moment the national government began to pull back on grants to local authorities. What appeared to stun local elected leaders was that a Conservative national government would allow a local government to slide into bankruptcy, or, as former Councilor Smith put it: “I honestly believed that the government would not let us sink because we were a Conservative authority…But I was wrong. They were quite happy to just throw us out and annihilate us, really.”

Last month, the Northamptonshire Council issued a §114 notice which banned any new expenditure of public money, a critical step as the jurisdiction seeks to achieve $90 million in budget savings this year; the Council voted to shut down most of the county’s libraries, after, in recent years, closing local centers for children and sharply reduced educational funding. The fiscal action that appeared to most shake the public was the vote to shut down the libraries. Conservative Councilor Sam Rumens noted: “I couldn’t face the libraries being cut.”

Becoming Positively Moody in Detroit

May 24, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we observe Detroit’s physical and fiscal progress from the nation’s largest ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, before exploring the seeming good gnus of lower unemployment data from Puerto Rico.

Motor City Upgrade. Moody’s on Tuesday upgraded Detroit’s issuer rating to the highest level in seven years, awarding the Motor City an upgrade from to Ba3 from B1, with a stable outlook, noting: “The upgrade reflects further improvement in the city’s financial reserves, which has facilitated implementation of a pension funding strategy that will lessen the budgetary impact of a future spike in required contributions…The upgrade also considers ongoing economic recovery that is starting to show real dividends to tax collections.” The stable outlook, according to Moody’s, incorporates the Motor City’s high leverage, weak socioeconomic profile, and “volatile nature” of local taxes.  Albeit not a credit rating, Detroit likely received another economic and fiscal boost in the wake of President Trump’s actions calling for new tariffs on cars and trucks imported to the U.S., with an estimated additional duty of up to 25% under consideration.

The twin positive developments follow just weeks after the 11-member Detroit Financial Review Commission, created to oversee city finances following its 2013 chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, voted unanimously to restore Detroit’s authority to approve budgets and contracts without review commission approval, effectively putting Detroit on fiscal and financial probation, with a prerequisite that the restoration of full, quasi home rule powers be that the city implement three straight years of deficit-free budgets—a condition Detroit has complied since 2014, according Detroit Chief Financial Officer John Hill. Or, as Councilmember Janee L. Ayers told the Commission this week: “Not to say that we don’t recognize everything that you’ve brought to the table, but I do recognize that you’re not really gone yet.” The city recorded an FY2018 surplus of $36 million, in the wake of regaining local control over its budget and contract authority, with a projected FY2018 $36 million surplus via increasing property tax revenues and plans that will earmark $335 million by 2024 to address key pension obligations in the city bankruptcy plan of debt adjustment for its two public pension funds. In addition, Moody’s revised Detroit’s outlook to stable from positive—albeit an upgrade which does not apply to any of its current $1.9 billion in outstanding debt, writing that its upgrade reflects an improvement in Detroit’s financial reserves, which have allowed Detroit to implement a funding strategy for its looming pension obligations “that will lessen the budgetary impact of a future spike in required contributions.”

As part of its approved plan of debt adjustment by retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, Detroit must pay $20 million annually through FY2019 to its two pension funds, after which, moreover, contributions will increase significantly beginning in 2024. Moody’s noted: “The stable outlook is based on the city’s strong preparation for challenges ahead including the need to make capital investments and absorb pending spikes to fixed costs…Underperformance of pension assets and revenue volatility remain notable budgetary risks, but the city has amassed a large reserve cushion and adopted conservative budgetary assumptions that provide breathing room to respond to adverse developments,” adding that the “ongoing economic recovery that is starting to show real dividends to tax collections: Further growth in the city’s reserves and tax base growth to fund capital projects for either the city or its school district could lead to additional upgrades. In contrast, however, the agency warned that a downgrade could be spurred by slowed or stalled economic recovery, depletion of financial reserves, or growth in Detroit’s debt or pension burden, fixed costs, or capital needs.

CFO Hill noted: “A second rating upgrade in just seven months from Moody’s shows that we have created the financial management infrastructure necessary to continue to meet our obligations and enhance our fiscal position…Working with the Mayor and City Council, our team has made a variety of improvements to financial management practices and our financial planning and budgeting practices are strong, as reaffirmed by Moody’s in their report.”

Nevertheless, while the gnus on the ratings front is exhilarating, governing and fiscal challenges remain. A key challenge is the ongoing population hemorrhaging—a hemorrhaging which has slowed to a tenth of its pace over the previous decade, but, according to the Census Bureau’s most recent release, which determined last week that the city’s population was 673,104 as of last summer, a decline of 2,376 residents, slightly down from last year’s 2,770, even as the metropolitan region continued to grow, as did cities such as Grand Rapids and Lansing, which posted among the largest gains. Nevertheless, Mayor Mike Duggan, who, after his reelection last November, said his performance should be measured by the milestone of reversing the outflow, has blamed the city’s schools for the continued losses: “At this point it’s about the schools: We have got to create a city where families want to raise their children and have them go to the schools…There are a whole number of pieces that have gotten better but at the end of the day, I think the ultimate report card is the population going up or going down and our report card isn’t good enough.”

Mayor Duggan added that Detroit utility records show at least 3,000 more homes are occupied than last year; however, it appears to be one- and two-person households who are moving in; families with children are moving out. Nevertheless, researchers believe the overall trend is a marked improvement for Detroit. As we had noted in or report, and other researchers have, the Motor City lost an average of 23,700 annually in the decade from 2000 to 2010; Detroit’s population declined by nearly 1.2 million since its 1950 peak. If anything, moreover, the challenge remains if the city leaders hope to reverse the decades-long exodus: the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments forecasts Detroit will continue to experience further decline through 2024, after which the Council guesstimates Detroit will bottom out at 631,668. 

Nevertheless, Detroit, the nation’s 23rd largest city, is experiencing less of a population loss than a number of other major cities, including Baltimore, St. Louis, Chicago, and Pittsburgh, according to the most recent estimates; or as Mayor Kurt Metzger of Pleasant Ridge, a demographer and director emeritus of Data Driven Detroit put it: “Our decreasing losses should be put up against similar older urban cities, rather than the sprawling, growing cities of the south and west: “I still believe that the population of Detroit may indeed be growing.” (Last year, Detroit issued 27 permits to build single-family homes in the city, according to the Southeast Michigan Conference of Governments–another 911 building permits were issued for multi-family structures, and 60 permits for condominiums. Meanwhile 3,197 houses were razed, according to the Detroit regional council of governments.

A key appears to be, as Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel determined in Chicago, the city’s schools. Thus, Mayor Duggan said he hopes the Detroit School Board will approve his bus loop plan as a means to help lure families back into the city proper, noting that many families in the city send their children to schools in the suburbs‒and end up moving there. In his State of the City Address, he said he intended to create a busing system in northwest Detroit to transport children to participating traditional public and charter schools and the Northwest Activities Center. This will be an ongoing governance challenge—as his colleague Mayor Metzger noted: “There’s no lessening of the interest in outlying townships: People are still looking for big houses, big lots with low taxes.” Indeed, even as Detroit continues to witness an ongoing exodus, municipalities in the metropolitan region‒the Townships of Macomb, Canton, Lyon, and Shelby are all growing.  

Detroit Chief Financial Officer John Hill notes: “A second rating upgrade in just seven months from Moody’s shows that we have created the financial management infrastructure necessary to continue to meet our obligations and enhance our fiscal position: Working with the Mayor and City Council, our team has made a variety of improvements to financial management practices and our financial planning and budgeting practices are strong, as reaffirmed by Moody’s in their report.” Thus, in the wake of the State of Michigan’s restoration of governing authority and control of the city’s finances on April 30th, three years after its Chapter 9 exit in December of 2014, Detroit now has the power to enter into contracts and enact city budgets without seeking state approval first, albeit, as Moody’s notes: “Underperformance of pension assets and revenue volatility remain notable budgetary risks, but the city has amassed a large reserve cushion and adopted conservative budgetary assumptions that provide breathing room to respond to adverse developments.”

Motor City Transformation?  In the wake of real estate development firm Bedrock Detroit gaining final approval from the Michigan Strategic Fund for its so-called “transformational” projects in downtown Detroit, the stated has approved $618 million in brownfield incentives for the $2.1 billion project, relying in part on some $250 million secured by new brownfield tax credits, enacted last year by the legislature—a development which Mayor Duggan said represents a “major step forward for Detroit and other Michigan cities that are rebuilding: Thanks to this new tool, we will be able to make sure these projects realize their full potential to create thousands of new jobs in our cities.” In what will be the first Michigan municipality to use the Transformational Brownfield Plan tax incentive program, a program using tax-increment financing to capture growth in property tax revenue in a designated area, as well as a construction period income tax capture and use-tax exemption, employee withholding tax capture, and resident income tax capture; the MIThrive program is projected to total $618 million in foregone tax revenue over approximately 30 years. While Bedrock noted that the tax increment financing “will not capture any city of Detroit taxes, and it will have no impact on the Detroit Public Schools Community District,” the plan is intended to support $250 million in municipal bond financing by authorizing the capture of an estimated average of $18.56 million of principal and interest payments annually, primarily supported by state taxes over the next three decades, to repay the bonds, with all tax capture limited to newly created revenues from the development sites themselves: the TIF financing and sales tax exemption will cover approximately 15% of the project costs; Bedrock is responsible for 85% of the total $2.15 billion investment, per the financing package the Detroit City Council approved last November, under which Bedrock’s proposed projects are to include the redevelopment of former J.L. Hudson’s department store site, new construction on a two-block area east of its headquarters downtown, the Book Tower and Book Building, and a 310,000-square-foot addition to the One Campus Martius building Gilbert co-owns with Detroit-based Meridian. Altogether, the projects are estimated to support an estimated 22,000 new jobs, including 15,000 related to the construction and over 7,000 new permanent, high-wage jobs occupying the office, retail, hotel, event and exhibition spaces—all a part of the ongoing development planned as part of Detroit’s plan of debt adjustment.

In an unrelated, but potentially unintended bit of fiscal assistance, President Trump’s new press for tariffs of as much as 25% on cars and trucks imported to the U.S., Detroit might well be a taking a fiscal checkered flag.

Avoiding Risks to Puerto Rico’s Recovery. Yesterday, in testifying before the PROMESA Board, Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares  told the members his governing challenge was to “solve problems, and not to see how they get worse,” as he defended the agreement with the Oversight Board—and as he urged the Puerto Rico Legislature to comply with his fiscal plan and repeal what he described as the unjust dismissal law (Law 80), a key item in the certified fiscal plan that the PROMESA Board is reevaluating. That law in question, the Labor Transformation and Flexibility Act, which he had signed last year, represented the first significant and comprehensive labor law reform to occur in Puerto Rico in decades. As enacted, the most significant changes to the labor law include:  

  • effective date (there is still no cap for employees hired before the effective date);
  • Eliminating the presumption that a termination was without just cause and shifting the burden to the employee to prove the termination was without just cause;
  • Revising the definition of just cause to state that it is a “pattern of performance that is deficient, inefficient, unsatisfactory, poor, tardy, or negligent”;
  • Shortening the statute of limitations for Law 80 claims from three years to one year, and requiring all Law 80 claims filed after the Act’s effective date have a mandatory settlement hearing within 60 days of the filing of the answer; and
  • Clarifying the standard for constructive discharge to require an employee to prove that the employer’s conduct created a hostile work environment such that the only reasonable thing for the employee to do was resign.

The Act mandates that all Puerto Rico employment laws be applied in a similar fashion to federal employment laws, unless explicitly stated otherwise in the local law. It applies Title VII’s cap on punitive and compensatory damages to damages for discrimination and retaliation claims, and eliminates the mandate for written probationary agreements; it imposes a mandatory probationary period of 12 months for all administrative, executive and professional employees, and a nine-month period for all other employees. It provides a statutory definition for “employment contract,” which specifically excludes the relationship between an employer and independent contractor. The Act also includes a non-rebuttable presumption that an individual is an independent contractor if the individual meets the five-part test in the statute. It modifies the definition of overtime to require overtime pay for work over eight hours in any calendar day instead of eight hours in any 24-hour period, and changes the overtime rate for employees hired after the Act’s effective date to time and one-half their regular rate. (The overtime rate for employees hired prior to the Act remains at two times the employee’s regular rate.). The Act provides for alternative workweek agreements in which employees can work four 10-hour days without being entitled to overtime, but must be paid overtime for hours worked in excess of 10 in one day. The provisions provide that, in order to accrue vacation and sick pay, employees must work a minimum of 130 hours per month; sick leave will accrue at the rate of one day per month—and, to earn a Christmas Bonus, employees must work 1,350 hours between October 1 and September 30 of the following year; employees on disability leave have a right to reinstatement for six months if the employer has 15 or fewer employees; employers with more than 15 employees must provide employees on disability leave with the right to reinstatement for one year, as was required prior to the Act. For employees, the law includes certain enumerated employee rights, including a prohibition against discrimination or retaliation; protection from workplace injuries or illnesses; protection of privacy; timely compensation; and the individual or collective right to sue or file claims for actions arising out of the employment contract.

In his presentation, the Governor suggested that the repeal of the statute would be a vital component to controlling Puerto Rico’s budget, in no small part by granting additional funds to municipalities, granting budgetary increases in multiple government agencies, including the Governor’s Office and the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration (PRFAA), as well as increasing the salary of teachers and the Police. While the Governor proposed no cuts, a preliminary analysis of the document published by the Office of Management and Budget determined that the consolidated budget for FY 2018-19 would total $25.323 billion, or 82% lower than the current consolidated budget, as the Governor sought to assure the Board he has achieved some $2 billion in savings, and reduced Puerto Rico’s operating expenses by 22%.

In his presentation to the 18th Puerto Rico Legislative Assembly, the Governor warned that Puerto Rico has an approximate “18-month window” to define its future, taking advantage of an injection of FEMA funds in the wake of Hurricane Maria, as he appeared to challenge them to be part of that transformation, noting: “We have an understanding with the (Board) that allows the approval of a budget that, under the complex and difficult circumstances, benefits Puerto Rico: Ladies and gentlemen legislators: you know everything that is at risk. I already exercised my responsibility, and I fully trust in the commitment you have with Puerto Rico.”

According to Gov. Rosselló, repealing Law 80, which last year was amended to grant greater flexibility to companies in the process of dismissing workers, would be the first step for what would be a phase of greater economic activity on the island, and would join different measures which have been put into effect to provide Puerto Rico a “stronger” position to renegotiate the terms of its debt, as he contrasted his proposal versus the cuts and austerity warnings proposed by the PROMESA Board, adding that, beginning in August, the Sales and Use Tax on processed food will be reduced, and that tax rates will be reduced without fear of the “restrictions” previously established and imposed by the Board, adding that participants of Mi Salud (My Health) will be able to “choose where they can obtain health services, beyond a region in Puerto Rico,” and that the budget guarantees teachers and the police will receive an increase of $ 125 per month.

Shifting & Shafting? In his proposed budget, the Governor proposed that municipalities would be compensated for the supposed reduction in the contributions of the General Fund, stating: “Through the agreement, the disbursement of 78 million dollars that this Legislature approved for the municipalities during the current recovery period is secured; the Municipal Economic Development Fund of $50 million per year is created.” Under the administration’s proposed budget, the contribution to municipalities would be about $175.8 million, which would be consistent with the adjustment required for that item in the certified fiscal plan. As a result of the agreement with the Board, municipalities would, therefore, practically receive another $ 128 million. As proposed, Puerto Rico’s government payroll would be reduced for the third consecutive year: for example, payments for public services and those purchased will increase 23% and 16%, respectively; professional services would increase by 40%. Expenses for the Governor’s office would see an increase of 182%.

“This is how government should work.”

May 15, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we fiscally visit the small municipality of Evans, New York, a town of about 41 square miles in upstate New York which was established in 1821—seventeen years after its first settler arrived, and today home to about 14,000—but a municipality so broke after years of fiscal and financial mismanagement that it lost access to the municipal market in the wake of the withdrawal of its credit rating.

Absence of Fiscal Balance? Evans Town Supervisor Mary K. Hosler has reported that the municipality was unable to secure a loan in the wake of the withdrawal of its credit rating. In her 3rd State of the Town Address, where she advised citizens that “much can be accomplished when politics are checked at the door, and a spirit of cooperation is adopted at all levels of our town government;” she added that it was her hope that citizens would leave with “a sense that our Town is mending and moving ahead with strength and momentum,” as she noted: “By way of brief overview, as many of you are aware, the Town has been faced with numerous challenges over the past two years. Unfortunately, a decade of financial mismanagement came to a head during my first year in office, and we were faced with what turned out to be the worst financial crisis in the history of the Town. There were very few options available as the Town was facing the possibility of insolvency or a control board.”

In New York, a municipality—or its emergency financial control board, may file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy: the Empire State’s §§85.80 to 85.90 authorize the state legislature to create a financial control board—something created in September of 1975 for New York City; however, the New York State Constitution also contains certain fiscal limitations on municipal debt—including a limit of 9 percent of the average full valuation of said municipality’s taxable real estate for municipalities with populations under 125,000.

Supervisor Hosler introduced Evans Finance Director Brittany Gloss to present the municipality’s financial accomplishments and the progress being made in terms of economic development and, “most importantly: where we are headed,” reminding constituents that any loans would have been “costly to our residents: financially, in the loss of services, and the loss of local control,” adding:  “It has been said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results. Well, we stopped the insanity, which meant we had to identify the problems and take action. Every decision was critical to move the needle in the right direction, and work the Town out of this financial disaster. These decisions were often painstaking and gut‐wrenching, but they were necessary to change the Town’s financial course. They were reviewed from all angles, and made with the taxpayer’s interest and the future of the Town of Evans in the forefront. And these difficult decisions have yielded positive results.” In her introduction, Supervisor Hosler, noting the town’s bond rating had been restored to an A rating, reported: “We’re  definitely on the recovery side of the balance sheet,” with the former bank vice president who played a key role in steering the town toward solvency, telling the audience that the municipality had turned to Erie County for assistance two years ago—or, as Erie County Comptroller Stefan I. Mychajliw recalled, the call came as the town’s payroll and bills were piling up, late at night as he was “on the couch with a horrible flu.” Nevertheless, he stated that he advises every town supervisor to let him know if they ever need anything, adding: “That night I had three or four conference calls with three of my most senior staff.”

Remarkably, by the next morning, he had already helped pull together three possible fiscal plans for the town—with the one which led to the fiscal rescue: an unprecedented $980,000 short-term loan from Erie County.

For her part, Supervisor Hosler knew when she ran for office three years ago that there were financial problems; however, it was not until she took office that she discovered thousands of missing financial transactions, internal audits which had never been completed, and a $2.6 million deficit. The fiscal depths appeared to be the result of the municipality’s debt issued in 2007, when the town had borrowed $12.6 million to install new water lines, hydrants, and a water storage tower. In that transaction, instead of putting those funds into a separate account, as required, the town combined the money with the rest of its municipal funds. Thus, a subsequent New York State audit found that $2 million of those funds were used to cover operating expenses, with the bulk for the municipality’s troubled water operations—putting the municipality on a seemingly unending reliance on tax-anticipation notes to make ends meet—that is, until the ends were at the end—or, as Supervisor Hosler described it: “Not six months into office, I’m thinking ‘Holy Lord, this is a big climb’…We had to keep moving on all fronts.”

A year and a half later, Evans has received an A credit rating from S&P Global Ratings, easing the way for the municipality to issue municipal bonds to finance $5.2 million for a new water tower, with S&P noting: “The stable outlook reflects S&P Global Ratings’ view that Evans has implemented various corrective steps to restore structural balanced operations over the past three audited fiscal years. It also reflects our expectation that the town will likely maintain strong budgetary performance, which will likely support its efforts to eliminate its negative fund balance and rebuild its budgetary flexibility.” Indeed, the town’s current deficit of $320,000 is a shadow of its former $2.6 million—and Supervisor Hosler is hopeful it can be eliminated by the end of the fiscal year—a fiscal accomplishment which could create a fiscal bonus: lower capital borrowing costs on municipal bonds the municipality hopes to issue for its water system.

The $2.6 million deficit is down to $320,000, and now Supervisor Hosler is hopeful it can be erased by the end of this year. In addition, with the credit rating, she is hoping to get a lower rate on water bonds to hopefully lower water rates. As Comptroller Mychajliw put it: “I’m just thrilled for her and the town: This is how government should work.”

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.”

The Fiscal Challenges of Exiting from Fiscal Oversight

April 23, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we return to Michigan to assess the unbalanced state of its municipal public pension and post-retirement health care obligations, before turning to the state’s largest city, Detroit, which appears to be on the brink of earning freedom from state oversight—marking the remarkable fiscal exodus from the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in American history. Then we return to Puerto Rico, a territory plunged once again into darkness and an exorbitant and costly set of fiscal overseers. 

Imbalanced Fiscal Stress. In the Michigan Treasury Department’s first round of assessments under a new state law, the Treasury reported that 110 of 490 local units of government across the state are underfunded for retiree health care benefits, pension obligations‒or both. That number is expected to increase. Nineteen municipalities in Wayne County, including Allen Park, Dearborn and two of the five Grosse Pointes (Farms and Woods), are behind on their retiree health care funding, the state says, as well as six Wayne County jurisdictions, including Redford Township, Trenton, Wayne and Westland are underfunded on both, as are Hazel Park, Oak Park, and Madison Heights in Oakland County. The state fiscal oversight effort to highlight the expanding obligations competing for scarce taxpayer dollars in the state which is home to the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in American history, the result of the state’s “Protecting Local Government Retirement and Benefits Act,” Act 202, which was enacted last December, marks a pioneering effort to put tighter local data to detect and assess the likelihood of severe fiscal distress—kind of a municipal fiscal radar—or, as Michigan Deputy Treasurer Eric Scorsone, who is the designated head of the State and Local Finance Group,  describes it: “By working together, we can help ensure the benefits promised by communities are delivered to their retirees and help ensure that the fiscal health of communities allows them to be vibrant now and into the future,” Eric Scorsone, deputy state treasurer and head of Treasury’s State and Local Finance Group, put it: “This is just a start. One of the common denominators of the financial crisis has been legacy costs. We know this is a big liability out there”—and it continues to grow for current and retired public employees, as well as their counterparts in public schools, whose districts are not covered by the new state law. In an era featuring longer lifespans, the unfunded liability of the Michigan Public School Employees Retirement System totaled $29.1 billion, or 40.3 percent, at the end of FY2015-16—an aggregate number, the likes of which have not been previously available at the municipal level. Now, under the new statute, a municipality’s post-retirement health care plan is deemed underfunded if its assets are “less than 40 percent” of its obligations, or require annual contributions “greater than 12 percent” of a jurisdiction’s annual operating revenues. A pension plan is deemed underfunded if it is “less than 60 percent funded,” or its annual contributions are “greater than 10 percent” of annual operating revenues. The new state mandates require the state’s panoply of cities, villages, townships, counties, and county commissions to report pension and retiree health care finances by the end of January. (Municipalities whose books close later could be included in future lists.) The aim is to underline the fiscal need to local elected leaders to do something the federal government simply does not do: reconcile reconciling long-term obligations with current contributions and recurring revenue—that is, not only adopt annual balanced budgets, but also longer term. The new state law, an outgrowth of the Responsible Retiree Reform for Local Government Task Force, is intended to enhance transparency and community awareness of local government finance, as well as to emphasize that failure to account for such obligations could negatively impact municipal bond ratings—effectively raising the costs of capital infrastructure. Indeed, as East Lansing City Manager George Lahanas stated last week, “The city’s pension plan was 80 percent funded in 2003 and is 50 percent funded today…The city has implemented numerous cost-controlling measures over the years to address the legacy cost challenges…City officials have identified that more aggressive payments need to be made moving forward to further address the challenges.”

Nevertheless, in one of the very few states which still try to address municipal fiscal disparities, the Michigan Senate General Government subcommittee met last week and reported (Senate Bill 855) its budget recommendations, including for revenue sharing, the subcommittee matched the Governor’s recommendation, which eliminate the 2.5% increase cities, villages, and townships received this year—a cut, ergo, of some $6.2 million for FY2019; the Senate version retained the counties current year 1% increase (which the Governor had also recommended removing) and added another 1% to the county revenue sharing line item—with the accompanying report language noting the increase was intended to ensure “fairness and stability” across local unit types, since counties do not receive Constitutional revenue sharing payments.  Estimates for sales tax growth related to Constitutional payments anticipate an additional 3.1% next year for cities, villages, and townships, distributed on a per capita basis. 

Moving into the Passing Lane? The Legislature’s actions came as the Detroit Financial Review Commission has approved the Motor City’s Four-Year Financial Plan, setting the stage for the city’s exit from direct state supervision as early as this month, enabling the city with the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history to glimpse the possibility of exiting state oversight—or, as Detroit CFO John Hill put it:  “Today’s FRC approval of the City’s 2019 budget and plan for fiscal years 2020-2022, is another key milestone in the city’s financial recovery: It demonstrates the continued commitment of city leaders to prepare and enact budgets that are realistic and balanced now and into the future. It also demonstrates continued progress toward the waiver of active State oversight, which we expect will occur later this month.” The Commission is scheduled to meet at the end of this month for a vote to end state fiscal oversight, albeit the Commission would remain in existence, so that it could be jump started in the event of any reversal in the city’s fiscal comeback. Thus, Mr. Hill said there would likely be a memorandum of understanding between Detroit and the Commission to lay out the kinds of information the city would need to provide to the Commission for review, as he noted: “They still can at any time decide to change the waiver, although we hope and will make sure that doesn’t happen.” Mr. Hill noted that the now approved financial plan includes Mayor Mike Duggan’s budget for FY2019, as well as fiscal years 2020-2022—and that the Motor City now projects ending the current fiscal year with an operating surplus of $33 million: that would mark Detroit’s fourth consecutive municipal budget surplus since exiting from the nation’s largest ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. He also noted that, as provided for under the city’s plan of debt adjustment, Detroit continues to put aside funds to address the city’s higher-than-expected pension payments, payments starting in 2024, when annual payments of at least $143 million begin. Payments of $20 million run through 2019 with no payments then due through 2023.

Unbalanced Budgets & Power–& Justice. Although they are still evaluating the impact that a new reduction of their budget would have, Puerto Rico’s Judicial Branch has expressed apprehension with regard to the PROMESA Board’s imposed cuts, with Sigfredo Steidel Figueroa, Puerto Rico’s Director of the Office of Court Administration, expressing apprehension: “At the moment, we are evaluating the impact that the proposals of the Fiscal Oversight Board, contained in the fiscal plan published yesterday, could have on the Judicial Branch,” referring to the Board certified plan of staggered cuts for the Judiciary—cuts of $31.9 million, rising to a cut of $161.9 million by 2023. He noted: “In the light of the measures already taken, any proposal for additional reduction to our budget is a matter of concern. Therefore, we will remain vigilant to ensure that the Judicial Branch has the resources it needs to ensure its efficiency and that any budgetary measures taken do not affect the quality of judicial services and the access to justice that corresponds to all the citizens and residents of Puerto Rico,” as he stressed that, “At present, even with the budgetary limitations of recent years, the Judicial Branch has managed to draw and execute the work plan defined by the presiding judge, Maite D. Oronoz Rodríguez, for an increasingly more judicial administration—one of efficiency, transparency, and accessibility.” He added:An independent and robust judiciary is essential to guarantee the legal security necessary for the stability and economic development of Puerto Rico.”

PROMESA Board Chair Jose Carrion, at the end of last week, issued a warning: “We hope the government and the legislature will comply. We don’t want to sue the government, but we have to fulfill the duties that we understand the law gives us.” That is to write that in this fiscal governance Rod Serling Twilight Zone, somewhere between chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy and hegemony; there is an ongoing question with regard to sovereignty, autonomy, and, as they would say in Puerto Rico, al fin (in the end): who is ultimately responsible for making decisions in Puerto Rico? We have a federal, quasi U.S. bankruptcy judge, a federal oversight board, a Governor, and a legislature—with only the latter two representing the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico.

And now, in the midst of a 21st century exodus of the young and educated to Florida and New York, it appears that banks are joining this exodus—threating, potentially, to further not only isolate Puerto Rico’s financial system—a system in which the number of consumer banks has dropped by half over the past decade, and in which two of the largest, Bank of Nova Scotia and Bank of Santander SA, have been quietly shrinking—the challenge of governance and fiscal recovery as Puerto Rico seeks to emerge from recession and rebuild after last year’s Hurricane Maria, a small number of financial institutions could end up in charge of deposits and lending for its 3 million citizens. Poplar, Inc., First Bancorp/Puerto Rico, and OFG Bancorp, are cash rich and have many branches, but these financial institutions appear to have limited ability to facilitate trade beyond the Caribbean and Florida—and, as economist Antonio Fernos of the Interamerican University of Puerto Rico notes: “What would really be negative is if we lose access to the network of international banks.” The U.S. territory, once was an attractive place for banks to invest, with pharmaceutical manufacturing driving growth, meant that financial institutions entered and opened what had been scarce financing for everything from homes and cars to consumer electronics. However, as Congress changed the rules which had incentivized pharmaceutical companies to locate there—and as Congress moved to make it more attractive to provide shipping to other Caribbean nations, rather than the U.S. territory, many drug companies departed. Today, in the wake of a decade-long recession, Puerto Rico’s economy is 14% smaller, and the emigration of college graduates to the mainland appears to have accelerated—leaving behind the elderly and those who could not afford to leave—increasing a crushing public pension burden, while imposing greater fiscal burdens to serve an increasingly elderly and poor population left behind—and left with over $120 billion in debt and pension liabilities, and now, in then wake of Maria’s devastation, a spike in mortgage delinquency.

Human, Fiscal, & Physical Challenges

April 20, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we return to Flint, Michigan to assess its human and fiscal challenges in the wake of its exit from state receivership; then we return to Puerto Rico, a territory plunged once again into darkness and an exorbitant and costly set of fiscal overseers. 

Out Like Flint. Serious fiscal challenges remain for Flint, Michigan, after its exit from state financial receivership. Those challenges include employee retirement funding and the aging, corroded pipes that caused its drinking water crisis, according to Mary Schulz, associate director for Michigan State University’s Extension Center for Local Government Finance and Policy. In the public pension challenge, Michigan’s statute enacted last year mandates that the state’s municipalities report underfunded retirement benefits. That meant, in the wake of Flint’s reporting that it had only funded its pension at 37%–with nothing set aside for its other OPEB benefits, combined with the estimated $600 million to finance the infrastructure repair of its aging water infrastructure, Director Schulz added the small city is also confronted by a serious problem with its public schools—describing the city’s fiscal ills as “Michigan’s Puerto Rico,” adding it would “remain Michigan’s Puerto Rico until the state decides Flint is part of Michigan.”

Michigan Municipal League Director Dan Gilmartin notes that Flint is making better decisions financially, but still suffers from state funding cuts. He observed that Flint’s leaders are making better decisions fiscally—that they have put together a more realistic budget than before its elected leaders were preempted by state imposed emergency managers, noting: “The biggest problem Flint faces now is what all cities in Michigan face, and that is the state’s system of municipal financing, which simply doesn’t work.”

Perhaps in recognition of that, Michigan State Treasurer Nick Khouri, on April 10th announced the end of state-imposed receivership under Michigan’s Local Financial Stability and Choice Act, and he dissolved the Flint Receivership Transition Advisory Board. Treasurer Khouri also signed a resolution repealing all remaining emergency manager orders, noting: “Removing all emergency manager orders gives the City of Flint a fresh start without any lingering restrictions.” Concurrently, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, in an email, wrote: “Under the state’s emergency manager law, emergency managers were put in place in a number of cities facing financial emergencies to ensure residents were protected and their local governments’ fiscal problems were addressed: This process has worked well for the state’s struggling cities, helping to restore financial stability and put them on a path toward long-term success. Flint’s recent exit from receivership marks the end of emergency management for cities in Michigan and a new chapter in the state’s continued comeback.” Indeed, the state action means that Detroit is the only Michigan municipality city still under a form of state oversight, albeit Benton Harbor Area Schools, Pontiac Public Schools, Highland Park School District, and the Muskegon Heights school district remain under state oversight.

The nation’s preeminent chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy expert Jim Spiotto notes that a financial emergency manager is supposed to get a struggling municipality back to a balanced budget, to find a means to increase revenue, to cut unnecessary expenses, and to keep essential services at an acceptable level:  “To the degree that they achieve that, then you want to continue with best practices: If they don’t accomplish that, then even if you return the city back to Mayor and City Council, then they have to do it: Someone has to come up with viable sustainable recovery plan, not just treading water.”

From his perspective, Director Gilmartin notes: “Flint has more realistic numbers in place, especially when it comes to revenues. I think that is the most important thing the city has accomplished from a nuts and bolts standpoint…The negative side of it is the system in which they are working under just doesn’t work for them or any communities in the state. In some cases making all the right decisions at the local level still doesn’t get to where you need to get to, and it will require a change in the state law.” Referencing last year’s Michigan Municipal League report which estimated the state’s municipalities had been shortchanged to the tune of $8 billion since 2002, Director Gilmartin noted: “A lot of the fiscal pressures that Flint and other cities in Michigan find themselves in are there by state actions.” No doubt, he was referencing the nearly $55 million in reduced state aid to Flint by 2014—as the state moved to pare revenue sharing—the state’s fiscal assistance program to provide assistance based upon population and fiscal need—funds which, had they been provided, would have sufficed to not only balance the city’s budget, but also cut sharply into its capital debts—enhancing its credit quality. Indeed, it was the state’s Emergency Manager program that voters repealed six years ago after devastating decisions had plunged Flint into not just dire fiscal straits, but also the fateful decision to change its public drinking water source—a decision poisoning children, and the city’s fisc by decimating its assessed property values. During those desperate human and fiscal times, local elected leaders were preempted—even as two of the gubernatorially named Emergency Managers were charged with criminal wrongdoing in relation to the city’s lead contamination crisis and ensuing Legionnaire’s disease outbreak which claimed 12 lives in the wake of the fateful decision to  change Flint’s water source to the Flint River in April of 2014. Now, as Director Schulz notes: “Until we come up with other solutions that aren’t really punitive in nature and leave communities like Flint vulnerable as repeat customer for emergency management law, these communities will remain in financial and service delivery purgatory indefinitely.”

Director Schulz notes a more profound threat to municipal fiscal equity: she has identified at least 93 Michigan municipalities with a taxable value per capita under $20,000, describing that as a “good indicator” for which municipalities in the state are prime candidates for finding themselves under a gubernatorially imposed Emergency Manager, in addition to 32 other municipalities in the state which  are either deemed service insolvent or on the verge of service insolvency. Flint’s taxable value per capita of $7575 comes in as the second lowest behind St. Louis, Michigan, which has a taxable value of $6733. Ms. Schulz defines such insolvency as the level below which a municipality is likely unable to fiscally provide “a basic level of services a city need to provide to its residents.” Indeed, a report released by Treasurer Khouri’s office has identified nearly 25% of the state’s local units of government as having an underfunded pension plan, retirement health care plan, or both—an issue which, as we have noted in the eGnus, comes after the State, last December enacted legislation creating thresholds on pensions and OPEB which all municipalities must meet in order to be considered funded at a viable level, meaning OPEB liabilities must be at least 40% funded, and pensions 60% funded. While the Treasurer may grant waivers, such granting is premised on plans approved to remedy the underfunding—failure to do so could trigger oversight by a three-member Michigan Stability Board appointed by the Governor. As Director Schulz notes: “The winds here are blowing such that the municipality stability board is going to be up and running soon, and there will be an effort to give that board emergency manager powers…That means they can break contacts, they can sell assets…whatever it needs to put money in the OPEB.” But in the face of such preemption—preemption which, after all, had caused such human and fiscal damage to Detroit, Detroit’s public schools, and to the City of Flint; Director Gilmartin notes: “Getting the community back to zero is the easy part and is just a function of budgeting, but having it function and provide services is harder: I would say that a lot of the support for emergency management by the state has dwindled based on the experience over the last several years.”

A Storm of Leaders. If the human health and safety, and fiscal challenges created by state oversight in Michigan give one pause; the multiplicity—and cost—of the many overseers of Puerto Rico and its future by the inequitable storm response by Congress and the Trump Administration—and by the costly “who’s on first…” sets of conflicting fiscal overseers could experience at least some level of greater clarity today, as the PROMESA Board releases its proposed fiscal plans it intends to certify, including the maintenance of its mandate to the federal court for an average public pension cut of 10 percent—after having kept under advisement the concerns of Governor Ricardo Rosselló the inclusion in the revised fiscal, quasi chapter 9 plan of debt adjustment immediate reductions in sick and vacation leave.

Thus, it appears U.S. Judge Laura Taylor Swain will consider a proposed adjustment plan to reduce public pensions later this year which would total savings of as much as nearly $1.45 billion over the next five years—a level below the PROMESA Board’s proposed $1.58 million—but massive when put in the context that the current average public pension on the island is roughly $1,100 a month, but more than 38,000 retired government employees receive only $500, because of the type of job they had and the number of years worked.

Thus, there are fiscal and human dilemmas—and governance challenges: even though the PROMESA law authorizes the restructuring of retirement systems, it is unclear whether the Congressionally-created Board has the authority to impose such a significant, unfunded federal mandate on the government of Puerto Rico, including labor reforms, and restrictions of vacation and sick leaves. Last year, Governor Rosselló agreed to a reduction in pensions for government retirees, but then his aim was to propose cuts of 6 percent.

At the moment, he is against it. A few weeks ago, after negotiations with the Board, Governor Rosselló proposed a labor reform similar to the one he negotiated with members of the Board, with differences on how to balance it with an increase in the minimum wage and when to put it in into effect—a proposal he subsequently withdrew after the PROMESA Board mandated that the labor reform be in full force in January 2019, instead of phasing it in over next three years, and conditioning the increase from $7.25 to $8.25 per hour in the minimum wage to the increase in labor participation rates—proposals which, in any event, made clear the “too many leaders” governance challenges—as these were proposals with little chance of approval by the Puerto Rican House. That is, for the Governor, there is not only a federal judge, and a PROMESA Board, but also his own legislature elected by Puerto Ricans—not appointed by non-Puerto Ricans. (Under the PROMESA Law, which also created the territorial judicial system to restructure the public debt of Puerto Rico, the PROMESA Board also has power over the local government until four consecutive balanced budgets and medium and long-term access to the financial markets are achieved. Thus, as the ever insightful Gregory Makoff of the Center for International Governance Innovation—and former U.S. Treasury Advisor put it: “While the lack of cooperation with the Board may be good in political terms in the short-term, it simply delays the return of confidence and extends the time it will take for the Oversight Board to leave the island.” Thus, he has recommended the Board and Gov. Rosselló propose to Judge Swain a cut from $45 billion to $6 billion of the public debt backed by taxes, with a payment of only 13.6 cents per each dollar owed, with the aim of equating it with the average that the states have. All of this has been complicated this week by the blackout Wednesday, before the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, PREPA, yesterday announced it had restored power to some 870,000 customers.

As in  Central Falls, Rhode Island, and in Detroit, in their respective chapter 9 bankruptcies, the issue and debate on pensions appears to be a matter which will be settled or resolved by the court—not the parties or Board. While the Board has the power to propose a reform in the retirement systems, it appears to lack the administrative or legislative mechanisms to implement a labor reform. The marvelous Puerto Rican daily newspaper, El Nuevo Día asked one of the PROMESA Board sources if it were possible for the Board to go to Court and demand the implementation of a labor reform in case the Governor does not propose such legislation—the response to which was such a probability was “low.” Concurrently, an advisor to House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) with regard to proposing legislation to address the issue receive a doubtful response, albeit an official in the Chairman’s office said recently that if the Rosselló administration does not implement the labor reforms proposed by the PROMESA Board, the option for the Board would be to further reduce the expenses of the government of Puerto Rico. Put another way, Carlos Ramos González, Professor of Constitutional Law at the Interamerican University of Puerto Rico, is of the view that, notwithstanding the impasse, “in one way or another, the Board will end up imposing its criteria. How it will do it remains to be seen.”

Physical, Not Fiscal—But Fiscal Storms.  Amid the governance and fiscal storm, a physical storm in the form of am island-wide blackout hit Puerto Rico Wednesday after an excavator accidentally downed a transmission line, contributing to the ongoing physical and fiscal challenge to repair an increasingly unstable power grid nearly seven months after Hurricane Maria. More than 1.4 million homes and businesses lost power, marking the second major outage in less than a week, with the previous one affecting some 840,000 customers. PREPA estimated it would take 24 to 36 hours to restore power to all customers—it is focusing first on re-establishing service for hospitals, water pumping systems, the main airport in San Juan and other critical facilities. The physical blackout came as the PROMESA Board has placed PREPA, a public monopoly with $9 billion of debt, in the equivalent of its own quasi chapter 9 bankruptcy, in an effort to help advance plans to modernize the utility and transform it into a regulated private utility—after, last January, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló announced plans to put the utility up for sale.

Several large power outages have hit Puerto Rico in recent months, but Wednesday was the first time since Hurricane Maria that the U.S. territory has experienced a full island-wide blackout. Officials said restoring power to hospitals, airports, banking centers and water pumping systems was their priority. Following that would be businesses and then homes. By late that day, power had returned to several hospitals and at least five of the island’s 78 municipalities. Federal officials who testified before Congress last week said they expect to have a plan by June on how to strengthen and stabilize Puerto Rico’s power grid, noting that up to 75% of distribution lines were damaged by high winds and flooding. Meanwhile, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is overseeing the federal power restoration efforts, said it hopes to have the entire island fully restored by next month: some 40,000 power customers still remain without normal electrical service as a result of the hurricane. The new blackout occurred as Puerto Rico legislators debate a bill that would privatize the island’s power company, which is $14 billion in debt and relies on infrastructure nearly three times older than the industry average.