Unretiring Municipal Fiscal Challenges

May 22, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we return to the small municipality of Harvey, Illinois, where an aging population has fiscally sapped the town’s treasury, before exploring the disparate hurricane response treatment for Puerto Rico.

Municipal Pension Insolvency? In the Land of Lincoln, ranked the most financially unstable state in the nation according to a new S.S. News and World Report ranking by McKinsey & Co., some Illinois legislators are considering rolling back enforcement of a 2011 pension delinquency statute to help other Illinois municipalities avoid Harvey’s fiscal and physical dilemma between municipal taxes and public safety (Harvey underpaid its police and fire pensions by $2.9 million in 2016.)—with the efforts in Springfield coming in the wake of state action setting a precedent in retaining tax revenues it had collected to distribute to Harvey, because the small municipality had failed to make its pension payments. Indeed, so far this year, in the wake of the court’s decision withholding tax revenues collected by the state on behalf of Harvey; the Illinois Comptroller, in the wake of a court decision, has withheld more than $1.8 million in tax revenues from Harvey, forcing the city to lay off firefighters and police officers.

In response, State Sen. Napoleon Harris (D-Harvey) has proposed a bill, 40 ILCS 5/4-109, which would defer those tax revenue collections back to 2020; his bill would also create exceptions for distressed communities, such as Harvey, as Sen. Harris reminded his colleagues: “There’s going to be many other municipalities unable to pay these skyrocketing pension costs as well as continue to [provide] the public services that the citizens need and demand,” as he testified before the Illinois Licensed Activities and Pensions Committee, which approved amendments to his bill. The legislative action came as analysts at Wirepoints, an Illinois government watchdog group, have warned that Harvey is not alone—finding there to be more than 200 municipalities at similar risk of state tax withholdings in order to ensure the continuity of pension payments—payments protected under the Illinois Constitution. To date, Danville, the County seat of Vermillion County, a municipality of about 31,600 120 miles south of Chicago; East St. Louis, and Kanakee appear to be in the most desperate fiscal binds. In Danville, the municipality recently adopted a fee, the revenues for which would go directly to finance the municipality’s public pension obligations; Kanakee’s leaders voted to raise taxes.

In response to the fiscal and equity crisis, both Republicans and Democrats in the Illinois Legislature have questioned why there was no state oversight of delinquent municipalities like Harvey; nevertheless, Sen. Harris’ proposed legislation has been reported to the full Illinois Senate—that in a state ranked the most financially unstable in the country by U.S. New and World Report, based upon McKinsey & Company’s 2018 ranking of the nation’s most fiscally unstable states: the report considered credit rating and state public pension liability to rank states on long-term stability; for the near term, the report measured each state’s cash solvency and budget balance. Indeed, Illinois’ public pension debt, currently estimated at $130 billion, but measured as high as $250 billion by Moody’s last summer, was a factor in Moody’s analysis. Even Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner recognizes the epic scope of the fiscal problem, describing Illinois as the most financially unstable state in the nation.

For Illinois legislators, the fiscal dilemma is made more difficult by what Illinois State Sen. Bill Haine (D-Alton) reminded his colleagues: “We’re gonna see in the paper that the state waives the amounts due, and then they’re going to read that the Aldermen there are getting paid $100,000 a year,” even as he, nevertheless, voted for the bill. (In FY2017, the City of Harvey allocated $240,000 in wages for six aldermen—wages which did not account for public pension contributions and other “fringe benefits” that the budget lists—or, as Michael Moirano, who represents the Harvey Police Pension fund put it: “We cannot continue to do that and hope to resolve these pension issues,” adding that even though negotiations are underway to reach an agreement with the City of Harvey, the proposed “bill will make a mutually agreeable resolution impossible.”

Meanwhile in Springfield, where Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza has certified Harvey’s delinquency, a spokesperson noted: “The Comptroller’s Office does not want to see any Harvey employees harmed, or any Harvey residents put at risk…but the law does not give the Comptroller discretion in this case.” Similarly, Sen. Harris told his colleagues: “There’s going to be many other municipalities unable to pay these skyrocketing pension costs as well as continue to [provide] the public services that the citizens need and demand.”

Powering Up? For more than a week, Puerto Rico’s non-voting U.S. Representative Jennifer Gonzalez has been urging  FEMA to extend the contract under which mainland power crews have been helping repair the U.S. territory’s power grid—a request that FEMA has denied, meaning that line restoration crews hired by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will work to restore power in Puerto Rico, leaving the rest of the job to crews working for Puerto Rico’s public utility, PREPA, as, eight months after Hurricane Maria’s devastation, as many as 16,000 homes remain without power. With the Corps’ current work force of about 700 line workers scheduled to end their service this Friday, time is running out. Officials for PREPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the agency which hired the mainland contractors at FEMA’s request, have reported they expect everyone on the island to have power restored by the end of this month—the day before the official start of the Atlantic hurricane season. However, in her urgent extension request, Rep. Gonzalez expressed doubts that PREPA had the resources to complete the job quickly, writing: “I must urge that there be an extension of the mission that allows agency and contract crews to remain in place to see that the system is 100 percent restored.”

There appear, however, to be some crossed governance wires: Mike Byrne, who is in charge at FEMA of the federal response, wrote last Thursday that his decision not to extend the line restoration contract came “per the direction provided by the Energy Unified Command Group and confirmed by the PREPA Chief Executive Officer,” Walter Higgins. (The Energy Unified Command Group is the multi-agency group coordinating the power restoration effort, comprising FEMA itself, the Army Corps, which reports to FEMA, and PREPA.) In addition, it appears that some of the most challenging work awaits: sites still waiting for power are among the most difficult to reach because of mountainous and forested terrain. They include areas in the municipalities of Arecibo, Caguas, Humacao, and in Yabucoa, the city where Hurricane Maria made its initial, destructive landfall–a municipio founded in October 3, 1793 when Don Manuel Colón de Bonilla and his wife, Catalina Morales Pacheco, donated the lands to the people.

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