Human Needs & Fiscal Imbalances

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing fiscal challenges to the City of Detroit—especially in ensuring equitable tax collections; then we look north to assess the ongoing, serious physical and fiscal challenges to Flint’s long-term recovery, before considering the fiscal plight in Puerto Rico.

Motor City Revenue Uncollections. Unlike most cities, Detroit has a broad tax base in which municipal income taxes constitute the city’s largest single source, and that notwithstanding that the city has the highest rate of concentrated poverty among the top 25 metro areas in the U.S. by population. (Detroit’s revenues, from taxes and state-shared revenues are higher than those of any other large Michigan municipality on a per capita basis: these revenues consist of property taxes, income taxes, utility taxes, casino wagering taxes, and state-shared revenues.) Therefore, it is unsurprising that the city is cracking down on those who owe back income taxes: Detroit has launched an aggressive litigation effort, an effort targeted at thousands of tax evaders living or working at thirty-three properties in the downtown and Midtown areas. The city’s Corporation Counsel, Melvin Butch Hollowell, notes the city has identified at least 7,000 such taxpayers at these properties as potential tax evaders. Collecting those owed taxes is an especially sensitive issue in the wake of the city’s chapter 9 experiences when the decline in revenues of 22 percent over the decade of its most important source of revenues was a key trigger of the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy.

Out Like Flint? Just as in Detroit’s chapter 9 bankruptcy, where now-retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes had to address water cut-offs to families who had not paid their utility bills, so too the issue is confronting Flint—where the current penalty for non-payment under the city’s ordinance is tax foreclosure: something which has put at risk some 8,000 homeowners in the municipality, until, last week, the City Council approved a one-year moratorium on such tax liens: the moratorium covers residents with two years of unpaid water and sewer bills dating back to June of 2014. After the moratorium vote, City Council President Kerry Nelson said: “The people are suffering enough” for being forced to pay for water they cannot drink and are reluctant to use…The calls that I received were numerous. Everywhere I go, people were saying: Do something,” he said: “I did what the charter authorized me to do” with a temporary moratorium “until we look at the ordinance and get it corrected. It needs work. It’s 53 years old. We must start doing something for our community.” The council president insisted the Snyder administration needs to step up “and help us: They created this…the government doesn’t get a free pass.”

Indeed, the question of risk to life and health had been one which now retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Rhodes had to deal with in Detroit’s chapter 9 bankruptcy: how does one balance a city’s fiscal solvency versus human lives; and how does one balance or assess a family’s needs versus the civic duty to pay for vital municipal serves and ensure respect for the law? Now the situation has been further conflicted by the Michigan state-appointed Receivership Transition Advisory Board, which oversees and monitors Flint’s finances in the wake of its emergence from state oversight two years ago. That board has scheduled a vote for next month on the moratorium—as this Friday’s deadline for the thousands of homeowners to pay up under a 1964 ordinance nears—albeit a deadline which has been modified to provide a one-year partial reprieve, in part to give time to amend the ordinance. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the apprehension has had municipal political impacts: a recall effort against Mayor Karen Weaver, who a year ago was in Washington, D.C., for meetings at the White House with President Barack Obama to lobby for more federal aid and to obtain other attention for the city. The Mayor, understandably, notes Flint is now between a rock and a hard place: there is understandable residential anger over access to water critical to everyday life; however, unpaid bills could cause irreparable fiscal harm to the city—leading the Mayor to affirm that she will honor the moratorium and “follow the law: It’s not like something new has been put in place…We’re doing what has always been done. This was something that Council did. This is the legislative body. My role is to execute the law. So I’m carrying out the law that’s put in place.” Nevertheless, after a year in which the city did not enforce its ordinance, due in no small part to credits its was able to offer to its citizens courtesy of state financing, those credits expired at the end of February, a time when lead levels finally recovered to 12 parts per billion, which is under the federal action standard—and after Gov. Rick Snyder last February rejected Mayor Weaver’s request for an extension.  

The fiscal challenge is complicated too as illustrated by the case of former City Councilmember Edward Taylor, who noted that he had received a $1,053 bill from a home he had rented out to a woman whom he recently evicted. The problem? Mr. Taylor said the woman illegally turned on the water, so the city is holding him responsible for paying up. Now he is threatening to sue the City of Flint if he is unable to gain fiscal relief: i.e., he wants the city to erase his debt—but have the city’s grow.  “The calls that I received were numerous. Everywhere I go, people were saying: Do something,” Coincilman Nelson said. “I did what the charter authorized me to do” with a temporary moratorium “until we look at the ordinance and get it corrected. It needs work. It’s 53 years old. We must start doing something for our community.” The council president insisted the Snyder administration needs to step up “and help us: They created this…the government doesn’t get a free pass.”

Tropical Fiscal Typhoon. The administration of Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares declined yesterday to publish the recommended budget for the next fiscal year despite the fact that two days ago the deadline for completing the version of the document to be assessed by the PROMESA Board expired; initially, the Governor’s administration was supposed to turn over the budget to the Board on May 8th; however, the Board had granted a two-week extension—one which expired at the beginning of this week—time in which the Governor’s office could improve and correct some of the issues contained in its draft document—a document which has yet to have been made public, but one which the Governor is expected to make public as part of his budget message to the Legislative Assembly: according to Press Secretary Yennifer Álvarez Jaimes, the budget is currently in the draft phase, so it cannot be published, including the version which is to be provided to the PROMESA Board—even as, today, the Governor is due in the nation’s capital on an official trip, meaning the formal presentation of his budget before the legislature will almost surely be deferred until next week. The delay comes as PROMESA Chair José B. Carrión has indicated the Board will await the document prior to beginning its assessment and evaluation.

The Governor’s representative to the PROMESA Board, Elías Sánchez Sifonte, said the budget process is well advanced and that it is only necessary to complete the legal analysis and align some aspects with the provisions contained in the Fiscal Plan—even as a spokesperson for the Puerto Rico Peoples Democratic Party (PPD) minority in the Senate, Eduardo Bhatia, insisted on his claim to know the content of the document: he stated: “I think the people should know what was proposed in the budget…Yesterday (Monday) was the date to deliver the budget and we know nothing.” Sen. Bhatia, who sued at the beginning of this month to force publication of the budget, had his suit rejected by the San Juan Court of First Instance, because it was preempted under Title III of PROMESA—meaning the case was then brought before U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor Swain, who issued an order giving Puerto Rico until this Friday to present its position in this controversy. 

State Agency BankruptciesPuerto Rico has filed cases in the U.S. District Court in San Juan, according to Puerto Rico’s Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority, to place its Highways and Transportation Authority and Employees Retirement System into Title III bankruptcy—a move affecting some $9.5 billion in debt, with Governor Rosselló asserting he was seeking to protect pensioners and the transportation system by putting both agencies into municipal bankruptcy; he added he had asked the PROMESA Oversight Board to put the two entities into Title III’s chapter 9-like process, because, according to his statement, the island’s creditors had “categorically rejected” the Puerto Rico fiscal plan as a basis for negotiations and have recently started legal actions to undermine the public corporation’s stability. In the board-approved HTA fiscal plan, there would be no debt service paid through at least fiscal year 2026. Gov. Rosselló added that he had filed for Title III, because Puerto Rico faces insolvency in the coming months, and because his government has been unable to reach a consensual deal with its creditors, adding that pensioners will continue to receive their pensions from the General Fund after the territory’s pension fund, ERS, runs out of money. (As of February the ERS had $3.2 billion in debt, of which $2.7 billion was bond principal and $500 million was capital appreciation bonds.)

As Puerto Rico attempts to sort out its tangled financial web, retirees may face bigger cuts than those in past U.S. municipal insolvencies, due in part to an unconventional debt structure which pits pensioners against the very lenders whose money was supposed to sustain them—but also because this is an unbalancing teeter-totter, where the young and upwardly mobile are moving from Puerto Rico to New York City and Florida—leaving behind the impoverished and elderly, so that contributions into the Puerto Rico’s pension system are ebbing, even as demands upon it are increasing, and as the benefit structures are widely perceived as unsustainable. There is recognition that radical cuts to pensioners could deepen the population’s reliance on government subsidies and compound rampant emigration, for, as Gov. Rosselló has noted, most retirees “are already under the poverty line,” so that any pension cuts “would cast them out and challenge their livelihood.” Indeed, Puerto Rico’s Public pensions, which as of June last year had total pension liabilities of $49.6 billion, and which are projected to be insolvent sometime in the second half of this calendar year, today have almost no cash; rather pension benefits are coming out of the territory’s general fund, on a pay-as-you-go basis—imposing a cost to Puerto Rico of as much as $1.5 billion a year: $1.5 billion the territory does not have.

Exiting State Fiscal Oversight–After Emerging from Municipal Bankruptcy

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eBlog, 04/28/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the consider the unique fiscal challenge confronting Detroit: how does it exit from Michigan state oversight?  

What Is Key to the Windy City’s Future? Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan testifying: “It’s gonna happen!” before a Michigan state House panel, advised legislators that the Motor City could meet requirements to end the state’s financial oversight next year; at the same time, he urged the lawmakers to do something about the city’s high auto insurance costs. He noted that Detroit has paid $7 billion of its $18 billion in debt and obligations after emerging from chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in 2014, in an effort to demonstrate why such oversight ought no longer to fiscally oversee the city. The state-appointed Financial Review Commission—which oversees all major Detroit operations and labor contracts—was created amid the nation’s largest ever municipal bankruptcy to ensure the city’s recovery was well handled. But now, the Mayor testified, state oversight is interfering, instead of helping, because all major city and labor contracts are delayed 30 days awaiting for approval from the state oversight commission. He and John Walsh, Gov. Rick Snyder’s Director of Strategy, told lawmakers on the House committee that the city’s “grand bargain” agreement to devote hundreds of millions of dollars in state and private philanthropy aid, in part to alleviate some pension cuts to city retirees, has helped with trimming unemployment, slowed population losses, and encouraged development projects. Mr. Walsh, a former state representative from Livonia who played a key role in securing the $195 million in state aid for Detroit, said the city is “well managed,” noting: “It wasn’t just broke. It was broken.” Now, Mr. Walsh said the city is on its way to better times. As evidence of the city’s recovery, Mayor Duggan stressed to lawmakers that thousands of street lights have been installed, blighted houses have been demolished, emergency response times have improved, and buildings revitalized. Nevertheless, the Mayor continued his lobbying of lawmakers to address high auto insurance costs, warning: “If you can’t afford the car insurance, you either drive to work illegally or you lose your job…People are being ripped off,” he said, because of rising health care costs associated with auto insurance—which, he warned, hikes overall rates. Mr. Walsh testified that the economic health of Metro Detroit affects the entire state, because it accounts for 44 percent of Michigan’s total sales and income tax revenue. “All in all, I think it was a very successful effort. There are plenty of challenges ahead to be sure.” Mayor Duggan made the comments just a day after the filing deadline for the mayoral election—an election for which an even dozen challengers have already submitted petitions, while the only other certified candidate on the ballot than the incumbent is Michigan State Senator Coleman Young II, the son of the city’s first black mayor.

As evidence of the city’s recovery, Mayor Duggan noted that Detroit’s ambulance response time dipped below the national average last week for the first time in at least a decade, as he was speaking before a House committee in Lansing with regard to the critical “Grand Bargain” which marked the keystone to the city’s gaining former U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes’ approval of the city’s plan of debt adjustment to exit chapter 9 bankruptcy. Testifying that the average response time for the city’s emergency medical services was 7 minutes and 58 seconds last week, a response time besting the national EMS average, Mayor Duggan noted: “We did it in a boring way,” telling the panel his administration hired more emergency medical technicians and improved maintenance to make sure ambulances work properly. He did not remind them that at no point during the city’s largest in American history chapter 9 bankruptcy had there been any disruption in 9-1-1 service, but did testify that average EMS response times in Detroit were close to 20 minutes for life-threatening calls subsequently, when he first took office in 2014—a time when the city had six EMS rigs, compared to the 37 which are in service during peak times today. The Mayor added the city is on track to deliver its third balanced budget this June, setting the stage for an exit in early 2018 from state oversight under the Detroit Financial Review Commission—which was adopted to monitor the city’s post-bankruptcy finances. The commission would not dissolve, however, and it could resume oversight in the event the city’s finances worsen.

What Lessons Can State & Local Leaders Learn from Unique Fiscal Challenges?

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eBlog, 04/25/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the unique fiscal challenges in Michigan and how the upswing in the state’s economy is—or, in this case, maybe—is not helping the fiscal recovery of the state’s municipalities. Then we remain in Michigan—but straddle to Virginia, to consider state leadership efforts in each state to rethink state roles in dealing with severe fiscal municipal distress. Finally, we zoom to Chicago to glean what wisdom we can from the Godfather of modern municipal bankruptcy, Jim Spiotto: What lessons might be valuable to the nation’s state and local leaders?  

Fiscal & Physical Municipal Balancing I. Nearly a decade after the upswing in Michigan’s economic recovery, the state’s fiscal outlook appears insufficient to help the state’s municipalities weather the next such recession. Notwithstanding continued job growth and record auto sales, Michigan’s per-capita personal income lags the national average; assessed property values are below peak levels in 85% of the state’s municipalities; and state aid is only 80% of what it was 15 years ago.  Thus, interestingly, state business leaders, represented by the Business Leaders for Michigan, a group composed of executives of Michigan’s largest corporations universities, is pressing the Michigan Legislature to assume greater responsibility to address growing public pension liabilities—an issue which municipal leaders in the state fear extend well beyond legacy costs, but also where fiscal stability has been hampered by cuts in state revenue sharing and tax limitations. Michigan’s $10 billion general fund is roughly comparable to what it was nearly two decades ago—notwithstanding the state’s experience in the Great Recession—much less the nation’s largest ever municipal bankruptcy in Detroit, or the ongoing issues in Flint. Moreover, with personal income growth between 2000 and 2013 growing less than half the national average (in the state, the gain was only 31.1%, compared to 66.1% nationally), and now, with public pension obligations outstripping growth in personal income and property values, Michigan’s taxpayers and corporations—and the state’s municipalities—confront hard choices with regard to “legacy costs” for municipal pensions and post-retirement health care obligations—debts which today are consuming nearly 20 percent of some city, township, and school budgets—even as the state’s revenue sharing program has dropped nearly 25 percent for fiscally-stressed municipalities such as Saginaw, Flint, and Detroit just since 2007—rendering the state the only state to realize negative growth rates (8.5%) in municipal revenue in the 2002-2012 decade, according to numbers compiled by the Michigan Municipal League—a decade in which revenue for the state’s cities and towns from state sources realized the sharpest decline of any state in the nation: 56%, a drop so steep that, as the Michigan Municipal League’s COO Tony Minghine put it: “Our system is just broken…We’re not equipped to deal with another recession. If we were to go into another recession right now, we’d see widespread communities failing.” Unsurprisingly, one of the biggest fears is that another wave of chapter 9 filings could trigger the appointment of the state’s ill-fated emergency manager appointments. From the Michigan Municipal League’s perspective, any fiscal resolution would require the state to address what appears to be a faltering revenue base: Michigan’s taxable property is appreciating too slowly to support the cost of government (between 2007 and 2013, the taxable value of property declined by 8 percent in Grand Rapids, 12% in Detroit, 25% in Livonia, 32% in Warren, 22% in Wayne County values, and 24% in Oakland County.) The fiscal threat, as the former U.S. Comptroller General of the General Accounting Office warned: “Most of these numbers will get worse with the mere passage of time.”

Fiscal & Physical Municipal Balancing II. Mayhap Michigan and Virginia state and local leaders need to talk:  Thinking fiscally about a state’s municipal fiscal challenges—and lessons learned—might be underway in Virginia, where, after the state did not move ahead on such an initiative last year, the new state budget has revived the focus on fiscal stress in Virginia cities and counties, with the revived fiscal focus appearing to have been triggered by the ongoing fiscal collapse of one of the state’s oldest cities, Petersburg. Thus, Sen. Emmett Hanger (R-Augusta County), a former Commissioner of the Revenue and member of the state’s House of Delegates, who, today, serves as Senate Finance Co-Chair, and Chair of the Health and Human Services Finance subcommittee, has filed a bill, SJ 278, to study the fiscal stress of local governments: his proposal would create a joint subcommittee to review local and state tax systems, as well as reforms to promote economic assistance and cooperation between regions. Although the legislation was rejected in the Virginia House Finance Committee, where members deferred consideration of tax reform for next year’s longer session, the state’s adopted budget does include two fiscal stress preventive measures originally incorporated in Senator Hanger’s proposed legislation—or, as co-sponsor Sen. Rosalyn Dance (D-Petersburg), noted: “Currently, there is no statutory authority for the Commission on Local Government to intervene in a fiscally stressed locality, and the state does not currently have any authority to assist a locality financially.” To enhance the state’s authority to intervene fiscally, the budget has set guidelines for state officials to identify and help alleviate signs of financial stress to prevent a more severe crisis. Thus, a workgroup, established by the auditor of public accounts, would determine an appropriate fiscal early warning system to identify fiscal stress: the proposed system would consider such criteria as a local government’s expenditure reports and budget information. Local governments which demonstrate fiscal distress would thence be notified and could request a comprehensive review of their finances by the state. After a fiscal review, the commonwealth would then be charged with drafting an “action plan,” which would provide the purpose, duration, and anticipated resources required for such state intervention. The bill would also give the Governor the option to channel up to $500,000 from the general fund toward relief efforts for the fiscally stressed local government.

Virginia’s new budget also provides for the creation of a Joint Subcommittee on Local Government Fiscal Stress, with members drawn from the Senate Finance Committee, the House Appropriations, and the House Finance committees—with the newly created subcommittee charged to study local and state financial practices, such as: regional cooperation and service consolidation, taxing authority, local responsibilities in state programs, and root causes of fiscal stress. Committee member Del. Lashrecse Aird (D-Petersburg) notes: “It is important to have someone who can speak to first-hand experience dealing with issues of local government fiscal stress…This insight will be essential in forming effective solutions that will be sustainable long-term…Prior to now, Virginia had no mechanism to track, measure, or address fiscal stress in localities…Petersburg’s situation is not unique, and it is encouraging that proactive measures are now being taken to guard against future issues. This is essential to ensuring that Virginia’s economy remains strong and that all communities can share in our Commonwealth’s success.”

Municipal Bankruptcy—or Opportunity? The Chicago Civic Federation last week co-hosted a conference, “Chicago’s Fiscal Future: Growth or Insolvency?” with the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, where experts, practitioners, and academics from around the nation met to consider best and worst case scenarios for the Windy City’s fiscal future, including lessons learned from recent chapter 9 municipal bankruptcies. Chicago Fed Vice President William Testa opened up by presenting an alternative method of assessing whether a municipality city is currently insolvent or might become so in the future: he proposed that considering real property in a city might offer both an indicator of the resources available to its governments and how property owners view the prospects of the city, adding that, in addition to traditional financial indicators, property values can be used as a powerful—but not perfect—indicators to reflect a municipality’s current situation and the likelihood for insolvency in the future. He noted that there is considerable evidence that fiscal liabilities of a municipality are capitalized into the value of its properties, and that, if a municipality has high liabilities, those are reflected in an adjustment down in the value of its real estate. Based upon examination, he noted using the examples of Chicago, Milwaukee, and Detroit; Detroit’s property market collapse coincided with its political and economic crises: between 2006 and 2009-2010, the selling price of single family homes in Detroit fell by four-fold; during those years and up to the present, the majority of transactions were done with cash, rather than traditional mortgages, indicating, he said, that the property market is severely distressed. In contrast, he noted, property values in Chicago have seen rebounds in both residential and commercial properties; in Milwaukee, he noted there is less property value, but higher municipal bond ratings, due, he noted, to the state’s reputation for fiscal conservatism and very low unfunded public pension liabilities—on a per capita basis, Chicago’s real estate value compares favorably to other big cities: it lags Los Angeles and New York City, but is ahead of Houston (unsurprisingly given that oil city’s severe pension fiscal crisis) and Phoenix. Nevertheless, he concluded, he believes comparisons between Chicago and Detroit are overblown; the property value indicator shows that property owners in Chicago see value despite the city’s fiscal instability. Therefore, adding the property value indicator could provide additional context to otherwise misleading rankings and ratings that underestimate Chicago’s economic strength.

Lessons Learned from Recent Municipal Bankruptcies. The Chicago Fed conference than convened a session featuring our former State & Local Leader of the Week, Jim Spiotto, a veteran of our more than decade-long efforts to gain former President Ronald Reagan’s signature on PL 100-597 to reform the nation’s municipal bankruptcy laws, who discussed finding from his new, prodigious primer on chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. Mr. Spiotto advised that chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy is expensive, uncertain, and exceptionally rare—adding it is restrictive in that only debt can be adjusted in the process, because U.S. bankruptcy courts do not have the jurisdiction to alter services. Noting that only a minority of states even authorize local governments to file for federal bankruptcy protection, he noted there is no involuntary process whereby a municipality can be pushed into bankruptcy by its creditors—making it profoundly distinct from Chapter 11 corporate bankruptcy, adding that municipal bankruptcy is solely voluntary on the part of the government. Moreover, he said that, in his prodigious labor over decades, he has found that the large municipal governments which have filed for chapter 9 bankruptcy, each has its own fiscal tale, but, as a rule, these filings have generally involved service level insolvency, revenue insolvency, or economic insolvency—adding that if a school system, county, or city does not have these extraordinary fiscal challenges, municipal bankruptcy is probably not the right option. In contrast, he noted, however, if a municipality elects to file for bankruptcy, it would be wise to develop a comprehensive, long-term recovery plan as part of its plan of debt adjustment.

He was followed by Professor Eric Scorsone, Senior Deputy State Treasurer in the Michigan Department of Treasury, who spoke of the fall and rise of Detroit, focusing on the Motor City’s recovery—who noted that by the time Gov. Rick Snyder appointed Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, Detroit was arguably insolvent by all of the measures Mr. Spiotto had described, noting that it took the chapter 9 bankruptcy process and mediation to bring all of the city’s communities together to develop the “Grand Bargain” involving a federal judge, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, the Kellogg Foundation, and the Detroit Institute of Arts (a bargain outlined on the napkin of a U.S. District Court Judge, no less) which allowed Detroit to complete and approved plan of debt adjustment and exit municipal bankruptcy. He added that said plan, thus, mandated the philanthropic community, the State of Michigan, and the City of Detroit to put up funding to offset significant proposed public pension cuts. The outcome of this plan of adjustment and its requisite flexibility and comprehensive nature, have proven durable: Prof. Scorsone said the City of Detroit’s finances have significantly improved, and the city is on track to have its oversight board, the Financial Review Commission (FRC) become dormant in 2018—adding that Detroit’s economic recovery since chapter 9 bankruptcy has been extraordinary: much better than could have been imagined five years ago. The city sports a budget surplus, basic services are being provided again, and people and businesses are returning to Detroit.

Harrison J. Goldin, the founder of Goldin Associates, focused his remarks on the near-bankruptcy of New York City in the 1970s, which he said is a unique case, but one with good lessons for other municipal and state leaders (Mr. Goldin was CFO of New York City when it teetered on the edge of bankruptcy). He described Gotham’s disarray in managing and tracking its finances and expenditures prior to his appointment as CFO, noting that the fiscal and financial crisis forced New York City to live within its means and become more transparent in its budgeting. At the same time, he noted, the fiscal crisis also forced difficult cuts to services: the city had to close municipal hospitals, reduce pensions, and close firehouses—even as it increased fees, such as requiring tuition at the previously free City University of New York system and raising bus and subway fares. Nevertheless, he noted: there was an upside: a stable financial environment paved the way for the city to prosper. Thus, he advised, the lesson of all of the municipal bankruptcies and near-bankruptcies he has consulted on is that a coalition of public officials, unions, and civic leaders must come together to implement the four steps necessary for financial recovery: “first, documenting definitively the magnitude of the problem; second, developing a credible multi-year remediation plan; third, formulating credible independent mechanisms for monitoring compliance; and finally, establishing service priorities around which consensus can coalesce.”

State Oversight & Severe Municipal Distress

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eBlog, 04/24/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the unique fiscal challenge confronting Detroit: when and how will it emerge from state oversight? Then we spin the tables to see how Atlantic City is faring to see if it might be on the shores of fiscal recovery; before going back to Detroit to assess the math/fiscal challenges of the state created public school district; then, still in Detroit, we try to assess the status of a lingering issue from the city’s historic municipal bankruptcy: access to drinking water for its lowest income families; before visiting Hartford, to try to gauge how the fiscally stressed central city might fare with the Connecticut legislature. Finally, we revisit the small Virginia municipality of Petersburg to witness a very unique kind of municipal finance for a city so close to insolvency but in need of ensuring the provision of vital, lifesaving municipal services. 

Fiscal & Physical Municipal Balancing. Michigan Deputy Treasurer Eric Scorsone is predicting that by “early next year, Detroit will be out of state oversight,” at a time when the city “will be financially stable by all indications and have a significant surplus.” That track will sync with the city’s scheduled emergence from state oversight, albeit apprehension remains with regard to whether the city has budgeted adequately  to set funds aside to anticipate a balloon pension obligation due in 2024. Nevertheless, Mr. Scorsone has deemed the Motor City’s post-bankruptcy transformation “extraordinary,” describing its achievements in meeting its plan of debt adjustment—as well as complying with the Detroit Financial Review Commission—so well that the “city could basically operate on its own.” He noted that the progress has been sufficient to permit the Commission to be in a dormancy state—subject to any, unanticipated deficits emerging. The Deputy Treasurer credited the Motor City’s strong management team under CFO John Hill both for the city’s fiscal progress, but also for his role in keeping an open line of communication with the state oversight board; he also noted the key role of Mayor Mike Duggan’s leadership for improving basic services such as emergency response times and Detroit’s public infrastructure. Nevertheless, Detroit remains subject to the state board’s approval of any contracts, operating or capital budgets, as well as formal revenue estimates—a process which the Deputy Treasurer noted “allows the city to stay on a strong economic path…[t]hese are all critical tools,” he notes, valuable not just to Detroit, but also to other municipalities an counties to help ensure “long term stability.”

On the Shore of Fiscal Recovery. S&P Global Ratings, which last month upgraded Atlantic City’s general obligation bond rating two notches to CCC in the wake of the city’s settlement with the Borgata Casino, a settlement which yielded the city some $93 million in savings, has led to a Moody’s rating upgrade, with the credit rating agency writing that Atlantic City’s proposed FY2017 budget—one which proposes some $35.3 million in proposed cuts, is a step in the right direction for the state taken-over municipality, noting that the city’s fiscal plan incorporates a 14.6% cut in its operating budget—sufficient to save $8 million, via reductions in salaries and benefits for public safety employees, $6 million in debt service costs, and $3 million in administrative expenses. Nevertheless S&P credit analyst Timothy Little cautioned that pending litigation with regard to whether Atlantic City can make proposed police and firefighter cuts could be a fly in the ointment, writing: “In our view, the proposed budget takes significant measures to improve the city’s structural imbalance and may lead to further improved credit quality; however, risks to fiscal recovery remain from pending lawsuits against state action impeding labor contracts.” The city’s proposed $206.3 million budget, indeed, marks the city’s first since the state takeover placed it under the oversight of the New Jersey’s Local Finance Board, with the state preemption giving the Board the authority to alter outstanding debt, as well as municipal contracts. Mr. Little wrote that this year will mark the first fiscal year of the agreed-to payment-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOT) program for casino gaming properties—a level set at $120 million annually over the next decade—out of which 10.4% will go to Atlantic County. Mr. Little also notes that the budget contains far less state financial support than in previous years, as the $30 million of casino redirected anticipated revenue received in 2015 and 2016 will be cut to $15 million; moreover, the budget includes no state transitional aid—denoting a change or drop of some $26.2 million; some of that, however, will be offset by a $15 million boost from an adjustment to the state Consolidated Municipal Property Tax Relief Act—or, as the analyst wrote: “Long-term fiscal recovery will depend on Atlantic City’s ability to continue to implement fiscal reforms, reduce reliance on nonrecurring revenues, and reduce its long-term liabilities.” Today, New Jersey state aid accounts for 34% of the city’s $206.3 million in budgeted revenue, 31% comes from casino PILOT payments, and 27% from tax revenues. S&P upgraded Atlantic City’s general obligation bond rating two notches to CCC in early March after the Borgata settlement yielded the city $93 million in savings. Moody’s rates Atlantic City debt at Caa3.

Schooled on Bankruptcy. While Detroit, as noted above, has scored high budget marks or grades with the state; the city’s school system remains physically and fiscally below grade. Now, according to the Michigan Department of Education, school officials plan to voluntarily shutter some of the 24 city schools—schools targeted for closure by the state last January, according to State Superintendent Brian Whiston, whose spokesperson, William DiSessa, at a State Board of Education meeting, said:  “Superintendent Whiston doesn’t know which schools, how many schools, or when they may close, but said that they are among the 38 schools threatened for closure by the State Reform Office earlier this year.” Mr. DiSessa added that “the decision to close any schools is the Detroit Public School Community District’s to make.” What that decision will be coming in the wake of the selection of Nikolai Vitti, who last week was selected to lead the Detroit Public Schools Community District. Mr. Vitti, 40, is currently Superintendent of the Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Florida, the 20th largest district in the nation; in the wake of the Detroit board’s decision last week to enter into negotiations with Mr. Vitti for the superintendent’s job, Mr. Vitti described the offer as “humbling and an honor.” The school board also voted, if Mr.Vitti accepts the offer, to ask him to begin next week as a consultant, working with a transition team, before officially commencing on July 1st. The School Board’s decision, after a search began last January, marks the most important decision the board has made during its brief tenure, in the wake of its creation last year and election last November after the Michigan Legislature in June approved $617-million legislation which resolved the debt of Detroit Public Schools via creating the new district, and retaining the old district for the sole purpose if collecting taxes and paying off debt.

The twenty-four schools slated for closure emerged from a list of 38 the State of Michigan had targeted last January—all from schools which have performed in the bottom 5 percent of the state for at least three consecutive years, according to the education department. The Motor City had hoped to avoid any such forced state closures—hoping against hope that by entering last month into partnership negotiations with the Michigan State Superintendent’s office, and working with Eastern Michigan University, the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, and Wayne State University, the four institutions would help set “high but attainable” goals at the 24 Detroit schools to improve academic achievement and decrease chronic absenteeism and teacher vacancies. The idea was that those goals would be evaluated after 18 months and again in 36 months, according to state officials. David Hecker, president of the American Federation of Teachers Michigan, noted that he was not aware which schools might be closing or how many; however, he noted that whatever happens to the teachers of the closing schools would be subject to the collective bargaining agreement with the Detroit Federation of Teachers. “If any schools close, it would absolutely be a labor issue that would be governed by the collective bargaining agreement as to how that will work … (and) where they will go,” Mr. Hecker said. “We very strongly are opposed to any school closing for performance reasons.”

Thirsty. A difficult issue—among many—pressed upon now retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes during Detroit’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy came as the Detroit Water and Sewer Department began shutting off water service to some of nearly 18,000 residential customers with delinquent accounts. Slightly less than a year ago, in the wake of numerous battles in Judge Rhodes’ then U.S. bankruptcy courtroom, the issue was again raised: what authority did the city of Detroit have to cut off the delivery of water to the thousands of its customers who were delinquent by more than 90 days? Thus it was that Detroit’s Water and Sewerage Department began shutting off service to customers who had failed to pay their bills—with, at the time, DWSD guesstimating about 20,000 of its customers had defaulted on their payments, and noting that the process of shutting off service to customers with unpaid bills was designed to be equitable and not focused on any particular neighborhood or part of the city—and that the agency was not targeting customers who owed less than a $150 and were only a couple of months behind, noting, instead: “We’re looking for those customers who we’ve repeatedly tried to reach and make contact,” as well as reporting that DWSD was reminding its delinquent customers who were having trouble paying their water bills to contact the department so they may be enrolled in one of its two assistance programs — the WRAP Fund or the “10/30/50” plan. Under the first, the WRAP Fund, customers who were at 150 percent of the poverty level or below could receive up to $1,000 a year in assistance in paying bills, plus up to $1,000 to fix minor plumbing issues leading to high usage. This week, DWSD is reporting it has resumed shutoffs in the wake of sending out notices, adding the department has payment and assistance plans to help those with delinquent accounts avoid losing service. Department Director Gary Brown told the Detroit Free Press that everyone “has a path to not have service interruption.” Indeed, it seems some progress has been achieved: the number of families facing shutoffs is down from 24,000 last April and about 40,000 in April of 2014, according to The Detroit News. In 2014, DWSD disconnected service to more than 30,000 customers due to unpaid bills, prompting protests over its actions. Nonetheless, DWSD began the controversial practice of shutting off water service again this week, this time to some of the nearly 18,000 residential customers with delinquent accounts, in the wake of notices sent out 10 days earlier, according to DWSD Director Gary Brown. Nevertheless, while 17,995 households are subject to having their water turned off, those residents who contact the water department prior to their scheduled shutoffs to make a payment or enter into an assistance plan will avoid being cut off—with experience indicating most do. And, the good gnus is that the number of delinquent accounts is trending down from the 24,302 facing a service interruption last April, according to DWSD. Moreover, this Solomon-like decision of when to shut off water service—since the issue was first so urgently pressed in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court before Judge Rhodes—has gained through experience. DWSD Director Brown reports that once residents are notified, about 90 percent are able to get into a plan and avoid being shut off, and adding that most accounts turned off are restored within 24 hours: “Every residential Detroit customer has a path not to be shut off by asking for assistance or being placed into a payment plan…I’m urging people not to wait until they get a door knocker to come in and ask for assistance to get in a payment plan.” A critical part of the change in how the city deals with shutoffs comes from Detroit’s launch two years ago of its Water Residential Assistance Program, or WRAP, a regional assistance fund created as a component of the Great Lakes Water Authority forged through Detroit’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy: a program designed to help qualifying customers in Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties who are at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level—which equates to $36,450 for a family of four—by covering one-third of the cost of their average monthly bill and freezing overdue amounts. Since a year ago, nearly $5 million has been dedicated to the program—a program in which 5,766 Detroit households are enrolled, according to DWSD, with a retention rate for those enrolled in the program of 90 percent. DWSD spokesperson Bryan Peckinpaugh told the Detroit News the department is committed to helping every customer keep her or his water on and that DWSD provides at least three advance notifications encouraging those facing a service interruption to contact the department to make payment arrangements, adding that the outreach and assistance efforts have been successful, with the number of customers facing potential service interruption at less than half of what it was three years ago.

Fiscally Hard in Hartford. Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin has acknowledged his proposed $612.9 FY2018 budget includes a nearly $50 million gap—with proposed expenditures at $600 million, versus revenues of just over $45 million: a fiscal gap noted moodily by four-notch downgrades to the Connecticut city’s general obligation bonds last year from two credit rating agencies, which cited rising debt-service payments, higher required pension contributions, health-care cost inflation, costly legal judgments from years past, and unrealized concessions from most labor unions. Moody’s Investors Service in 2016 lowered Hartford GOs to a junk-level Ba2. S&P Global Ratings knocked the city to BBB from A-plus, keeping it two notches above speculative grade. Thus, Mayor Bronin, a former chief counsel to Gov. Daniel Malloy, has repeated his request for state fiscal assistance, noting: “The City of Hartford has less taxable property than our suburban neighbor, West Hartford. More than half of our property is non-taxable.” In his proposed “essential services only” budget, Mayor Bronin is asking the Court of Common Council to approve an increase of about $60 million, or 11%, over last year’s approved budget—with a deadline for action the end of next month. An increasing challenge is coming from the stressed city’s accumulating debt: approximately $14 million, or 23%, of that increase is due to debt-service payments, while $12 million is for union concessions which did not materialize, according to the Mayor’s office. Gov. Malloy’s proposed biennial budget, currently in debate by state lawmakers, proposes $35 million of aid to Hartford. Unsurprisingly, that level is proving a tough sell to many suburban and downstate legislators. On the other hand, the Mayor appears to be gaining some traction after, last year, gaining an agreement with the Hartford Fire Fighters Association that might save the city $4 million next year: the agreement included changes to pension contributions and benefits, active and retiree health care, and salary schedules. In addition, last month, Hartford’s largest private-sector employers—insurers Aetna Inc., Travelers Cos. and The Hartford—agreed to donate $10 million per year to the city over five years. Nonetheless, rating agencies Moody’s and S&P have criticized the city for limited operating flexibility, weak reserves, narrowing liquidity, and its rising costs of debt service and pension obligations. Gurtin Municipal Bond Management went so far as to deem the city a “slow-motion train wreck,” adding that while the quadruple-notch downgrades had a headline shock effect, the city’s fundamental credit deterioration had been slow and steady. “The price impact of negative headlines and credit rating downgrades can be swift and severe, which begs the question: How should municipal bond investors and their registered investment advisors react?” Gurtin’s Alex Etzkowitz noted, in a commentary. “The only foolproof solution is to avoid credit distress in the first place by leveraging independent credit research and in-depth, ongoing surveillance of municipal obligors.”

Fighting for a City’s Future. The small city of Petersburg. Virginia, is hardly new to the stress of battle. It was there that General Robert E. Lee’s men fought courageously throughout the Overland Campaign, even as Gen. Lee feared he confronted a campaign he feared could not be won, warning his troops—and politicians: “We must destroy this Army of Grant’s before he gets to the James River. If he gets there, it will become a siege, and then it will be a mere question of time.” Yet, even as he wrote, General Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac was racing toward the James and Petersburg to wage an attack on the city—a highly industrialized city then of 18,000 people, with supplies arriving from all over the South via one of the five railroads or the various plank roads. Indeed, Petersburg was one of the last outposts: without it, Richmond, and possibly the entire Confederacy, was at risk. Today, the city, because of the city’s subpar credit rating, is at fiscal risk: it has been forced to beg its taxpayers to loan it funds for new emergency vehicles—officials are making a fiscal arrangement with private citizens to front the cost for new emergency vehicles, and offering to put up city hall as collateral for said arrangement, as an assurance to the lenders they will be paid back. The challenge: the police department currently needs 16 new vehicles, at a cost of $614,288; the fire department needs three new trucks, at a cost of $2,145,527. Or, as Interim City Manager Tom Tyrrell notes: “Every single day that a firefighter rolls out on a piece of equipment older than he is, or a police officer responds to an emergency call in a car with 160,000 miles on it, are days we want to avoid…We want to get this equipment as soon as possible.” Interim City Finance Director Nelsie Birch has included in the upcoming fiscal year budget the necessary funds to obtain the equipment—equipment Petersburg normally obtains via lease agreements with vendors, but which now, because of its inability to access municipal credit markets due to its “BB” credit rating with a negative outlook, makes it harder than ever to find any vendor—or, as Manager Tyrrell puts it: “We went out four different times…We solicited four different times to the market, and were unsuccessful in getting any parties to propose.” He added that when soliciting these types of agreements, you solicit “thousands of people.” Notwithstanding that the funds for the vehicles is already set aside in the upcoming budget, city officials have been unable to find anyone willing to enter into a lease agreement with the city because of the city’s financial woes.

Last week, the City Council authorized Mr. Tyrrell to “undertake emergency procurement action” in order for the lease of necessary fire and police vehicles, forcing Mr. Tyrrell and other officials to seek private funds to get the equipment—that is, asking individual citizens who have the financial means to put up money for the fire and police vehicles—or, as Mr. Tyrrell puts it: “We’ve reached out to four people, who are interested and capable,” noting they are property owners in Petersburg who will remain anonymous until the deal is closed, describing it thusly: “[This agreement] is outside the rules, because we couldn’t get a partner inside the rules.” Including in this proposed fiscal arrangement: officials must put up additional collateral, in addition to the cars themselves, and in the form of city-owned property—with the cornerstone of the proposal, as it were, being Petersburg City Hall, or, as Mr. Tyrrell notes: “What they’re looking for is some assurance that no matter what happens, we’re going to pay the note…It’s not a securitization in the financial sense, as much as it is in the emotional sense: they know that the city isn’t going to let it go.” He adds, the proposed financial arrangement will be evaluated in two areas: the interest rate and how fast the deal can close, adding: “Although it’s an emergency procurement, we still want to get the best deal we can.”

Balancing the Odds for Puerto Rico’s Fiscal Future

eBlog, 03/15/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the tea leaves from the outcome of yesterday’s snowy session on Puerto Rico in New York City’s Alexander Hamilton Building, where the PROMESA Board considered Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló’s most recent efforts to reassert ownership and control of Puerto Rico’s fiscal future.

Is There Promise or UnPromise in PROMESA? The Puerto Rico Oversight Board, meeting yesterday in the Alexander Hamilton Building in New York, unanimously certified the latest turnaround plan by Governor Ricardo Rosselló to alleviate the U.S. territory’s fiscal insolvency, albeit with some critical amendments, including the implementation of a 10% progressive reduction in public pension benefits by FY2020, albeit, as was the case in Detroit’s plan of debt adjustment, adjusted so that no retiree would fall below the federal poverty level: the decade-long plan thus permits the payment of 26.2% of debt due, while imposing austerity measures including partial government employee furloughs and elimination of their Christmas bonus, unless the government meets targets for liquidity and budgeting. The plan would cut pension spending by 10%, in what the Board determined would ensure sufficient fiscal resources to fund 26% of debt due in the next nine years as a “first salvo.” Emphasizing the critical need to address a $50-billion debt load among Puerto Rico’s three main public retirement systems and a depletion of available funds by 2022, the PROMESA Board added it would also formulate efforts to fund existing pension obligations on a pay-as-you-go basis, liquidating assets and using revenues of the government’s General Fund to that end.  Board Executive Director Ramón Ruiz Comas said the Oversight Board wanted to implement additional “safeguards to ensure sufficient liquidity and budgetary savings,” designed to generate $35 to $40 million in monthly savings, including the elimination of Christmas bonus payments to public employees, and a furlough program to begin July 1st—the furlough would eliminate four work days per month for most personnel working in the executive branch, and two work days per month for teachers and other front-line personnel—the furlough would exempt law enforcement personnel. In addition, the Board conditioned the Christmas bonus elimination and work reduction program on the budget proposal for FY2018 which the government is scheduled to submit by April 30: if the government’s liquidity plan and right-sizing measures are able to generate an additional $200 million in cash reserves by June 30th, the furlough program would be deferred to September 1st or eliminated outright; likewise, the removal of Christmas bonuses could be reduced or eliminated if the Oversight Board finds that the government’s plan is producing enough cash-flow. Subsequent to that part of the session, Gerardo Portela, Director of the commonwealth’s Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority made a presentation on behalf of Puerto Rico’s muncipios of the fiscal plan—a plan which had undergone various changes over last weekend in a contentious set of negotiations between local officials and the PROMESA Board. Puerto Rico Governor Gov. Rosselló Nevares is slated to give a live televised address to provide his public response to the board’s recommendations. 

The Dean of municipal insolvency debt, Jim Spiotto, noted the import of having creditors involved in these efforts, as their support could be vital to spurring reinvestment in Puerto Rico’s economy. Mr. Spiotto’s comments came in the context of a possible agreement by some creditors to reinvest in some part of Puerto Rico, enhancing the possibility that the PROMESA Board may be willing to consider Puerto Rico’s willingness to increase its payback of debt, according to Mr. Spiotto, something which could occur under PROMESA’ Title VI.

At the session, the Oversight Board was asked about the status of debt negotiations with Puerto Rico’s bondholders and about the possibility, already requested by Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, of pushing back a stay on litigation beyond its current end on May 1st—to which Oversight Board member Arthur González responded that negotiations had yet to proceed to an outline with regard to what fiscal resources would be available for debt service: he did say that the fiscal plan would provide such an outline, and that he thought there was real hope to reaching agreements with creditors, adding that the PROMESA Board had yet to determine whether the current stay on litigation should be extended.

Balance or Imbalance. Brad Setser, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told the Bond Buyer that the proposed plan’s near term fiscal austerity may be too severe, warning that the “drag on Puerto Rico’s economy–and ultimately on its ability to collect tax revenues–may still be underestimated.” As in Detroit’s plan of debt adjustment, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes’s recognition that preserving the Detroit Institute of Arts was vital to the Motor City’s long-term recovery, so too, Mr. Setser recognizes that any final agreement which would handicap Puerto Rico’s economic growth prospects could backfire.  

 

 

Fiscal & Public Service Insolvency

eBlog, 03/03/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing challenges for the historic municipality of Petersburg, Virginia as it seeks to depart from insolvency; we consider, anew, the issues related to “service insolvency,” especially assisted by the exceptional insights of Marc Pfeiffer at Rutgers, then turning to the new fiscal plan by the Puerto Rico Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority, before racing back to Virginia for a swing on insolvent links. For readers who missed it, we commend the eBlog earlier this week in which we admired the recent wisdom on fiscal disparities by the ever remarkable Bo Zhao of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston with regard to municipal fiscal disparities.

Selling One’s City. Petersburg, Virginia, the small, historic, and basically insolvent municipality under quasi state control is now trying to get hundreds of properties owned by the city off the books and back on the tax rolls as part of its effort to help resolve its fiscal and trust insolvency. As Michelle Peters, Economic Development Director for Petersburg, notes: “The city owns over 200 properties, but today we had a showcase to feature about 25 properties that we group together based on location, and these properties are already zoned appropriate for commercial development.” Thus the municipality is not only looking to raise revenues from the sale, but also to realize revenues through the conversion of these empty properties into thriving businesses—or as Ms. Peters puts it: “It’s to get the properties back on the tax rolls for the city, because, currently, the city owns them so they are just vacant, there are no taxes being collected,” much less jobs being filled. Ms. Peters notes that while some of the buildings do need work, like an old hotel on Tabb Street, the city stands ready to offer a great deal on great property, and it is ready to make a deal and has incentives to offer:  “We’re ready to sit down at the table and to negotiate, strike a deal and get those properties developed.”

New Jersey & Its Taken-over City. The $72 million tax settlement between Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa and Atlantic City’s state overseers is a “major step forward” in fixing the city’s finances, according to Moody’s Investors Service, which deemed the arrangement as one that has cleared “one of the biggest outstanding items of concern” in the municipality burdened by hundreds of millions of dollars in debt and under state control. Atlantic City owed Borgata $165 million in tax refunds after years of successful tax appeals by the casino, according to the state. The settlement is projected to save the city $93 million in potential debt—savings which amount to a 22 percent reduction of the city’s $424 million total debt, according to Moody’s, albeit, as Moody’s noted: “[W]hile it does not solve the city’s problems, the settlement makes addressing those problems considerably more likely.” The city will bond for the $72 million through New Jersey’s state Municipal Qualified Bond Act, making it a double whammy: because the bonds will be issued via the state MQBA, they will carry an A3 rating, ergo at a much better rate than under the city’s Caa3 junk bond status. Nevertheless, according to the characteristically moody Moody’s, Atlantic City’s finances remain in a “perilous state,” with the credit rating agency citing low cash flow and an economy still heavily dependent upon gambling.

Fiscal & Public Service Insolvency. One of my most admired colleagues in the arena of municipal fiscal distress, Marc Pfeiffer, Senior Policy Fellow and Assistant Director of the Bloustein Local Government Research Center in New Jersey, notes that a new twist on the legal concept of municipal insolvency could change how some financially troubled local governments seek permission to file for federal bankruptcy protection. Writing that municipal insolvency traditionally means a city, county, or other government cannot pay its bills, and can lead in rare instances to a Chapter 9 bankruptcy filing or some other remedy authorized by the state that is not as drastic as a Chapter 9, he notes that, in recent years, the description of “insolvency” has expanded beyond a simple cash shortage to include “service-delivery insolvency,” meaning a municipality is facing a crisis in managing police, fire, ambulance, trash, sewer and other essential safety and health services, adding that service insolvency contributed to Stockton, California, and Detroit filings for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection in 2012 and 2013, respectively: “Neither city could pay its unsustainable debts, but officials’ failure to curb violent crime, spreading blight and decaying infrastructure was even more compelling to the federal bankruptcy judges who decided that Stockton and Detroit were eligible to file for Chapter 9.”

In fact, in meeting with Kevyn Orr, the emergency manager appointed by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, at his first meeting in Detroit, Mr. Orr recounted to me that his very first actions had been to email every employee of the city to ensure they reported to work that morning, noting the critical responsibility to ensure that street lights and traffic lights, as well as other essential public services operated. He wanted to ensure there would be no disruption of such essential services—a concern clearly shared by the eventual overseer of the city’s historic chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, now retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, who, in his decision affirming the city’s plan of debt adjustment, had written: “It is the city’s service delivery insolvency that the court finds most strikingly disturbing in this case…It is inhumane and intolerable, and it must be fixed.” Similarly, his colleague, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Christopher Klein, who presided over Stockton’s chapter 9 trial in California, had noted that without the “muscle” of municipal bankruptcy protection, “It is apparent to me the city would not be able to perform its obligations to its citizens on fundamental public safety as well as other basic public services.” Indeed, in an interview, Judge Rhodes said that while Detroit officials had provided ample evidence of cash and budget insolvency, “the concept of service delivery insolvency put a more understanding face on what otherwise was just plain numbers.” It then became clear, he said, that the only solution for Detroit—as well as any insolvent municipality—was “fresh money,” including hundreds of millions of dollars contributed by the state, city, and private foundations: “It is a rare insolvency situation—corporate or municipal—that can be fixed just by a change in management.”

Thus, Mr. Pfeiffer writes that “Demonstrating that services are dysfunctional could strengthen a local government’s ability to convince a [federal bankruptcy] judge that the city is eligible for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy protection (provided, of course, said municipality is in one the eighteen states which authorize such filings). Or, as Genevieve Nolan, a vice president and senior analyst at Moody’s Investors Service, notes: “With their cases focusing on not just a government’s ability to pay its debts, but also an ability to provide basic services to residents, Stockton and Detroit opened a path for future municipal bankruptcies.”

Mr. Pfeiffer notes that East Cleveland, Ohio, was the first city to invoke service insolvency after Detroit. In its so far patently unsuccessful efforts to obtain authority from the State of Ohio to file for municipal bankruptcy protection—in a city, where, as we have noted on numerous occasions, the city has demonstrated a fiscal inability to sustain basic police, fire, EMS, or trash services. East Cleveland had an approved plan to balance its budget, but then-Mayor Gary Norton told the state the proposed cuts “[would] have the effect of decimating our safety forces.” Ohio state officials initially rejected the municipality’s request for permission to file for municipal bankruptcy, because the request came from the mayor instead of the city council; the city’s status has been frozen since then.

Mr. Pfeiffer then writes:

Of concern.  [Municipal] Bankruptcy was historically seen as the worst case scenario with severe penalties – in theory the threat of it would prevent local officials from doing irresponsible things. [Indeed, when I first began my redoubtable quest with the Dean of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy Jim Spiotto, while at the National League of Cities, the very idea that the nation’s largest organization representing elected municipal leaders would advocate for amending federal laws so that cities, counties, and other municipal districts could file for such protection drew approbation, to say the least.] Local officials are subject to such political pressures that there needs to be a societal “worst case” that needs to be avoided.  It’s not like a business bankruptcy where assets get sold and equity holders lose investment.  We are dealing with public assets and the public, though charged with for electing responsible representatives, who or which can’t be held fully responsible for what may be foolish, inept, corrupt, or criminal actions by their officials. Thus municipal bankruptcy, rather than dissolution, was a worst case scenario whose impact needed to be avoided at all costs. Lacking a worst case scenario with real meaning, officials may be more prone to take fiscal or political risks if they think the penalty is not that harsh. The current commercial practice of a structured bankruptcy, which is commonly used (and effectively used in Detroit and eventually in San Bernardino and other places) could become common place. If insolvency were extended to “service delivery,” and if it becomes relatively painless, decision-making/political risk is lowered, and political officials can take greater risks with less regard to the consequences. In my view, the impact of bankruptcy needs to be so onerous that elected officials will strive to avoid it and avoid decisions that may look good for short-term but have negative impact in the medium to long-term and could lead to serious consequences. State leaders also need to protect their citizens with controls and oversight to prevent outliers from taking place, and stepping in when signs of fiscal weakness appear.”

Self-Determination. Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has submitted a 10-year fiscal plan to the PROMESA Oversight Board which would allow for annual debt payments of about 18% to 41% of debt due—a plan which anticipates sufficient cash flow in FY2018 to pay 17.6% of the government’s debt service. In the subsequent eight years, under the plan, the government would pay between 30% and 41% per year. The plan, according to the Governor, is based upon strategic fiscal imperatives, including restoring credibility with all stakeholders through transparent, supportable financial information and honoring the U.S. territory’s obligations in accordance with the Constitution of Puerto Rico; reducing the complexity and inefficiency of government to deliver essential services in a cost-effective manner; implementing reforms to improve Puerto Rico’s competitiveness and reduce the cost of doing business; ensuring that economic development processes are effective and aligned to incentivize the necessary investments to promote economic growth and job creation; protecting the most vulnerable segments of our society and transforming our public pensions system; and consensually renegotiating and restructuring debt obligations through Title VI of PROMESA. The plan he proposed, marvelously on the 100th anniversary of the Jones-Shafroth Act making Puerto Rico a U.S. territory, also proposes monitoring liquidity and managing anticipated shortfalls in current forecast, and achieving fiscal balance by 2019 and maintaining fiscal stability with balanced budgets thereafter (through 2027 and beyond). The Governor notes the Fiscal Plan is intended to achieve its objectives through fiscal reform measures, strategic reform initiatives, and financial control reforms, including fiscal reform measures that would reduce Puerto Rico’s decade-long financing gap by $33.3 billion through:

  • revenue enhancements achieved via tax reform and compliance enhancement strategies;
  • government right-sizing and subsidy reductions;
  • more efficient delivery of healthcare services;
  • public pension reform;
  • structural reform initiatives intended to provide the tools to significantly increase Puerto Rico’s capacity to grow its economy;
  • improving ease of business activity;
  • capital efficiency;
  • energy [utility] reform;
  • financial control reforms focused on enhanced transparency, controls, and accountability of budgeting, procurement, and disbursement processes.

The new Fiscal Plan marks an effort to achieve fiscal solvency and long-term economic growth and to comply with the 14 statutory requirements established by Congress’ PROMESA legislation, as well as the five principles established by the PROMESA Oversight Board, and intended to sets a fiscal path to making available to the public and creditor constituents financial information which has been long overdue, noting that upon the Oversight Board’s certification of those fiscal plans it deems to be compliant with PROMESA, the Puerto Rico government and its advisors will promptly convene meetings with organized bondholder groups, insurers, union, local interest business groups, public advocacy groups and municipality representative leaders to discuss and answer all pertinent questions concerning the fiscal plan and to provide additional and necessary momentum as appropriate, noting the intention and preference of the government is to conduct “good-faith” negotiations with creditors to achieve restructuring “voluntary agreements” in the manner and method provided for under the provisions of Title VI of PROMESA.

Related to the service insolvency issues we discussed [above] this early, snowy a.m., Gov. Rosselló added that these figures are for government debt proper—not the debt of issuers of the public corporations (excepting the Highways and Transportation Authority), Puerto Rico’s 88 municipalities, or the territory’s handful of other semi-autonomous authorities, and that its provisions do not count on Congress to restore Affordable Care Act funding. Rather, Gov. Rosselló said he plans to determine the amount of debt the Commonwealth will pay by first determining the sums needed for (related to what Mr. Pfeiffer raised above] “essential services and contingency reserves.” The Governor noted that Puerto Rico’s debt burden will be based on net cash available, and that, if possible, he hopes to be able to use a consensual process under Title VI of PROMESA to decide on the new debt service schedules. [PROMESA requires the creation of certified five-year fiscal plan which would provide a balanced budget to the Commonwealth, restore access to the capital markets, fund essential public services, and pensions, and achieve a sustainable debt burden—all provisions which the board could accept, modify, or completely redo.]  

Adrift on the Fiscal Links? While this a.m.’s snow flurries likely precludes a golf outing, ACA Financial Guaranty Corp., a municipal bond insurer, appears ready to take a mighty swing for a birdie, as it is pressing for payback on the defaulted debt which was critical to the financing of Buena Vista, Virginia’s unprofitable municipal golf course, this time teeing the proverbial ball up in federal court. Buena Vista, a municipality nestled near the iconic Blue Ridge of some 2,547 households, and where the median income for a household in the city is in the range of $32,410, and the median income for a family was $39,449—and where only about 8.2 percent of families were below the poverty line, including 14.3 percent of those under age 18 and 10 percent of those age 65 or over. Teeing the fiscal issue up is the municipal debt arising from the issuance by the city and its Public Recreational Facilities Authority of some $9.2 million of lease-revenue municipal bonds insured by ACA twelve years ago—debt upon which the municipality had offered City Hall, police and court facilities, as well as its municipal championship golf course as collateral for the debt—that is, in this duffer’s case, municipal debt which the municipality’s leaders voted to stop repaying, as we have previously noted, in late 2015. Ergo, ACA is taking another swing at the city: it is seeking:

  • the appointment of a receiver appointed for the municipal facilities,
  • immediate payment of the debt, and
  • $525,000 in damages in a new in the U.S. District Court for Western Virginia,

Claiming the municipality “fraudulently induced” ACA to enter into the transaction by representing that the city had authority to enter the contracts. In response, the municipality’s attorney reports that Buena Vista city officials are still open to settlement negotiations, and are more than willing to negotiate—but that ACA has refused its offers. In a case where there appear to have been any number of mulligans, since it was first driven last June, teed off, as it were, in Buena Vista Circuit Court, where ACA sought a declaratory judgment against the Buena Vista and the Public Recreational Facilities Authority, seeking judicial determination with regard to the validity of its agreement with Buena Vista, including municipal bond documents detailing any legal authority to foreclose on city hall, the police department, and/or the municipal golf course. The trajectory of the course of the litigation, however, has not been down the center of the fairway: the lower court case took a severe hook into the fiscal rough when court documents filed by the city contended that the underlying municipal bond deal was void, because only four of the Buena Vista’s seven City Council members voted on the bond resolution, not to mention related agreements which included selling the city’s interest in its “public places.” Moreover, pulling out a driver, Buena Vista, in its filing, wrote that Virginia’s constitution filing, requires all seven council members to be present to vote on a matter which involved backing the golf course’s municipal bonds with an interest in facilities owned by the municipality. That drive indeed appeared to earn a birdie, as ACA then withdrew its state suit; however, it then filed in federal court, where, according to its attorney, it is not seeking to foreclose on Buena Vista’s municipal facilities; rather, in its new federal lawsuit, ACA avers that the tainted vote supposedly invalidating the municipality’s deed of trust supporting the municipal bonds and collateral does not make sense, maintaining in its filing that Buena Vista’s elected leaders had adopted a bond resolution and made representations in the deed, the lease, the forbearance agreement, and in legal opinions which supported the validity of the Council’s actions, writing: “Fundamental principles of equity, waiver, estoppel, and good conscience will not allow the city–after receiving the benefits of the [municipal] bonds and its related transactions–to now disavow the validity of the same city deed of trust that it and its counsel repeatedly acknowledged in writing to be fully valid, binding and enforceable.” Thus, the suit requests a judgment against Buena Vista, declaring the financing documents to be valid, appointing a receiver, and an order granting ACA the right to foreclose on the Buena Vista’s government complex in addition to compensatory damages, with a number of the counts seeking rulings determining that Buena Vista and the authority breached deed and forbearance agreements, in addition to an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, requiring immediate payback on the outstanding bonds, writing: “Defendants’ false statements and omissions were made recklessly and constituted willful and wanton disregard.” In addition to compensatory damages and pre-and post-judgment interest, ACA has asked the U.S. court to order that Buena Vista pay all of its costs and attorneys’ fees; it is also seeking an order compelling the city to move its courthouse to other facilities and make improvements at the existing courthouse, including bringing it up to standards required by the ADA.

Like a severe hook, the city’s municipal public course appears to have been errant from the get-go: it has never turned a profit for Buena Vista; rather it has required general fund subsidies totaling $5.6 million since opening, according to the city’s CAFR. Worse, Buena Vista notes that the taxpayer subsidies have taken a toll on its budget concurrent with the ravages created by the great recession: in 2010, Buena Vista entered a five-year forbearance agreement in which ACA agreed to make bond payments for five years; however, three years ago, the city council voted in its budget not to appropriate the funds to resume payment on the debt, marking the first default on the municipal golf course bond, per material event notices posted on the MSRB’s EMMA.

A Midwestern Tale of Two Cities

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eBlog, 2/14/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the tale of two cities in Detroit: is a city set to displace Chicago as the capitol of the Midwest—or is a city with its fiscal future in re-jeopardy, because of its inability and conflicts with the state over how to educate its children in a way that will create incentives for families to want to move back into the city?

Post Chapter 9 Reinvention? In opting to relocate its regional headquarters to downtown Detroit, Microsoft has sent a message that the city’s emergence from the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in American history is a success: the city is even threatening to displace Chicago as a regional headquarters of choice for the Midwest. That’s an honor long owned by Chicago. The extraordinary changes in the city—fashioned through the path-breaking efforts not just of former emergency manager Kevyn Orr and now retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, but also the fiscal rebuilding blueprint, the city’s court-approved plan of debt adjustment, a plan aptly described by the Detroit News an “arc of change, the redemptive power of reinvention, and critical facts on the ground say a bid by Detroit and southeast Michigan to be part of that conversation could be real for those with the courage to take a real, hard look.”  The paper, continuing its own comparison of Detroit to the Windy City—two cities which appear to be fiscally headed in opposite directions, aptly notes the respective state roles, contentious as they are, but noting that while the Michigan government is “aggressively attacking its unfunded liabilities,” instead of being (in Illinois) a state legislature “deaf to the fiscal ticking time bomb of its state pensions.” An iconic city’s recovery from bankruptcy is, after all, not just designing and implementing an architectural and fiscal turnaround, but also reversing the fiscal and economic momentum; thus, unsurprisingly, in a reminder of the old aphorism: “Go West, young man;” today it is civic leader, Quicken Loans Inc. Chairman Dan Gilbert who actively recruits young talent to the Motor City, telling potential new Detroiters: anyone can go work in Chicago and most will change nothing, but you could make a difference working and living in Detroit. Or, as the News describes it: “So could companies looking to reduce costs, find a vibrant food, arts and culture scene, and join an enthusiastic business community with global connections. They could find both in Detroit. Or in Ann Arbor, with the University of Michigan.”  

Might There Be a Fly in the State Ointment? Yet for a city one-third its former size, the more pressing challenge to its fiscal future is likely to rest on the perceived quality of its public schools—schools in a city where the Detroit Public School system became physically and fiscally insolvent—and where the state intervened to not just appoint an emergency manager, but also where the legislature created and imposed what some deem the nation’s most economically disparate school system—or, as the New Jersey nonprofit EdBuild, in its report “Fault Lines: America’s Most Segregating School District Borders,” described it: nearly half of the households in Detroit Public Schools—49.2%—live in poverty, compared with 6.5% in Grosse Pointe Public Schools—with the non-profit noting to the Detroit News: “Fault Lines shows how school finance systems have led to school segregation along class lines within communities around the country, and how judicial and legislative actions have actually served to strengthen these borders that divide our children and our communities:” its report traces the economic gap between Detroit and Grosse Pointe schools to a 1974 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Milliken v. Bradley, which blocked busing between districts to achieve racial integration, writing: “Income segregation in the Detroit metropolitan area parallels the racial segregation that inspired the Milliken case and has worsened since the case was first argued.” Today, there are some 97 traditional public schools in Detroit, 98 charter schools, and 14 schools in the Education Achievement Authority, a controversial state-run district created in 2012—that is, there are an estimated 30,000 more seats than students in the city in the wake of the state’s 2015 “rescue” of the Detroit Public Schools—a rescue of a public school district which had been under state control, and a rescue which pledged some $617 million to address the debt, but also invoked a number of unorthodox “reforms” which state legislators argued would promise a brighter future: the reforms included provisions which permit the hiring uncertified teachers, penalization of striking employees, and the outsourcing of academic roles, like the superintendent position, to surrounding districts, and the state closure of all schools that fall in the bottom 5 percent of academic performance for three years in a row: a category into which dozens of Detroit public schools fall. The state also authorized charter schools for Detroit.

Now, a new Michigan School Reform Office school closing plan has reignited debate in Detroit over how to fix the Motor City’s fractured system of public schools, less than seven months after the Michigan Legislature spent $617 million relieving Detroit Public Schools of crushing debt which had hovered on the brink of its own chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. Indeed, the perceived fiscal threat to the city’s future has led Mayor Mike Duggan to deem the state school closing plan “irrational,” because many of the other nearby public schools in Detroit are on the brink of being deemed failing schools—or, as Mayor Duggan noted: “You don’t throw people out of the boat without looking out to see if there’s a life raft.” Moreover, the Mayor and the newly elected Board of Education for the Detroit Public Schools Community District have threatened to sue Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration to stop the proposed closures—closures which the state is evaluating to determine whether such closures would create unreasonable hardships for students, such as distance to other schools with capacity, if the buildings are closed. Ergo, unsurprisingly, Governor Snyder is confronting pressure from school leaders, parents, businesses and civic groups to consider the impact that another round of school closings might have on Detroit’s ongoing recovery—and on its neighborhoods and commercial corridors hard hit by decades of abandonment and disinvestment—or, as Veronica Conforme, Chancellor of the Education Achievement Authority, notes: such closures would “cause disruption in the neighborhoods.”

The state-municipal tussle relates to the tug-of-rope state-local challenge about how to address Detroit’s worst-performing schools under a 7-year-old state statute which has never been fully enforced—and comes as the Michigan School Reform Office has announced that twenty-five Detroit schools may be closed in June due to persistently low student test scores—creating apprehension that these closures, coming at a time when then city’s focus on fuller implementation of its approved plan of debt adjustment envisions revitalization shifting from downtown and Midtown to Detroit’s vast neighborhoods and commercial corridors. Unsurprisingly, some business and community leaders are concerned that the impact mass school closings could undercut the city’s efforts to turn around pockets of the city which have been showing signs of rebirth, or, as Sandy Baruah, President and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber, who worries that abruptly closing two dozen schools could “create other crises” in city neighborhoods, puts it: “I don’t want to see neighborhoods that are on the early path to recovery be dealt a setback.” That is, in the post chapter 9 city, rebuilding neighborhoods must go hand in hand with schools: the presence of a school, after all, affects the assessed values of properties, residential and commercial, in a neighborhood.