Overcoming the Fiscal & Physical Challenges of Emerging from Municipal Bankruptcy

06/26/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the extra fiscal challenges of exiting chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy where the fiscal (and in this case physical) odds are stacked against your city. Nevertheless, it appears that San Bernardino’s elected and appointed leaders have overcome terrorism and fiscal challenges to emerge from the nation’s longest municipal bankruptcy. Then we look to see if Detroit’s new bridge to Canada will be not just a physical, but also a fiscal bridge to the city’s future. Finally, we toke (yes, a pun) a look at the ongoing fiscal and governing challenges in Puerto Rico between the U.S. Territory’s own government and the Congressionally appointed oversight board.

On the Other Side of Municipal Bankruptcy: How Sweet It Can Be. Exiting chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy is an exceptional challenge—there is no federal or state bailout, as we have witnessed for, say, major banks, financial institutions, or automobile manufacturers. It is, instead, especially in states like California, where the state, unlike, for instance, Rhode Island, or Michigan, plays no role in helping a city as part of the development of a plan of debt adjustment, an exceptional test of municipal leaders—and U.S. bankruptcy judges. Moreover, because California—in our post General Revenue Sharing economy—likewise provides no program or assistance focused on municipal fiscal disparities, the fiscal lifting is more challenging. An important challenge too is perception or reputation: what must change to send a message to a business or family that this is a city worth moving to?

San Bernardino, after all, has emerged in relatively hale fiscal shape, at long last—even as it faces such an unlevel fiscal playing field, as well as signal budget challenges for public safety in a city where the chances of being a victim of violent crime are nearly 400% higher than the statewide average. Thus, the post-bankrupt municipality confronts—and has plans to address a violent crime wave and a massive amount of deferred maintenance, in the wake of the Council’s adoption of a $120 million general fund operating budget, including funds to hire more police officers and replace outdated equipment—as well as to undertake a violence intervention program—modeled on a program which has proven effective in dramatically reducing homicides in other municipalities which have employed it.

San Bernardino’s new budget provides for repairs and overdue maintenance of streets, streetlights, traffic signals, storm drains, medians, and park facilities; it adds additional maintenance workers in the Public Works and Parks departments. According to City Attorney Gary Saenz: “One of the greatest effects is the perception, now, I think people should give San Bernardino a second look and see that it is an ideal place and has a lot of potential.”

The epic scale of the city’s fiscal and budgetary change from its $45 million deficit five years ago and decline in employees from 1,140 full-time to 746 budgeted for its FY2018 budget offers a perspective: the city has renegotiated contracts, restructured debts, and, as part of its approved plan of bankruptcy debt adjustment, been authorized to pay some of its creditors as little as a cent on the dollar. And, its citizens and taxpayers have elected new leaders and replaced the city’s old, convoluted charter. Moreover, if weathering municipal bankruptcy were not hard enough, the city was also subjected to a horrific terrorist attack which took 14 lives and injured 22 at the Inland Regional Center. Indeed, it somehow seems consistent, that in the middle of these terrible fiscal and terrorist challenges, the city also had to abandon its City Hall building: it was not just fiscally imbalanced, but also seismically unsound.  

A Bridge to Detroit’s Tomorrow. Mayor Mike Duggan last Friday announced the Motor City had reached an agreement with the state to sell land, assets, and some streets for more than $48 million, with the proceeds to be used in the project to construct a second bridge between Windsor, Canada and Detroit. Mayor Duggan reported the city will use the proceeds for related neighborhood programs, job training, and health monitoring—with a key set aside to assist Delray residents to voluntarily relocate to renovated houses in other neighborhoods in Detroit. Joined by Michigan officials, community leaders, as well as representatives from the Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority (the nonprofit entity managing the design, construction, operation, and maintenance of the new Gordie Howe International Bridge), Mayor Duggan noted: “This is a major step forward…This is eliminating one of the last obstacles.” The new bridge named for the city’s former hockey legend, will provide a second highway link for heavy trucks at the busiest U.S.‒Canadian crossing point in the U.S.—a $2.1 billion span scheduled to open in 2020, with Canada supplying Michigan’s $550 million share of the bridge, which the donated funds to be repaid through tolls. There will be other benefits for the U.S. city emerging from the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in history: Rev. Kevin Casillas, pastor of the First Latin American Baptist Church on Fort, in thanking Mayor Duggan and other officials for hammering out the agreement, noted: “Today is a good day in our decade-long fight, advocating for residents of Delray and southwest Detroit…Residents will benefit from health-impact assessments and air monitoring in our community; residents will benefit from job training; residents will benefit from having the option of relocating to another fully updated house elsewhere in the city.” (The Mayor noted that he intends to set up a real estate office in Delray to help homeowners relocate if they wish to move, emphasizing no one would be forced to—and that “If someone want to stay, then they’re welcome to…”). Under the agreement, Detroit will sell the Michigan Department of Transportation 36 parcels of land, underground assets, and approximately five miles of streets in the bridge’s footprint for $48.4 million. Mayor Duggan said Detroit plans to use the proceeds mainly to address four goals: $33 million will be invested in a neighborhood improvement fund, with the bulk, $26 million to assist Delray residents to relocate, and $9 million to upgrade homes; $10 million for a job training initiative to prepare Detroit residents to fill both construction and operations jobs; $2.4 million for air and health monitoring in southwest Detroit over the next 10 years; and $3 million for the Detroit Water & Sewerage Department and Public Lighting Authority to purchase assets in the project’s footprint.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder noted: “Mayor Duggan’s announcement is the result of several years of successful collaboration between the state, the city, the Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority, and numerous stakeholders, including community leaders…Everyone listened to one another, worked hard to understand concerns, and forged a partnership based on solutions. This shows that by working together, we can achieve great things for everyone.”

Fiscal Inhaling in Puerto Rico? Early yesterday morning, the Puerto Rico Senate voted 21-9 to approve the government’s general $ 9.562 billion FY2018 general budget, passing Joint House Resolutions 186, 187, 188, and 189 with no amendments—clearing the way for Governor Ricardo Rosselló to sign it. Giving a lift to the legislative effort, the legislature also approved a bill to regulate the medical marijuana industry—legislation that establishes that it may be used for terminal patients or when no other suitable medical alternative is available. The uplifting governmental actions came as Gov. Ricardo Rosselló opposed demands by the PROMESA Oversight Board that the government furlough employees and suspend their Christmas bonuses. According to a spokesperson for the president of the Puerto Rico House of Representatives, as of the beginning of last weekend, there was also disagreement between the Board and Gov. Rosselló’s ruling party with regard to whether to shift money from school and municipal improvements to a budget reserve fund. In his epistle to the Board, Gov. Rosselló, last Thursday, had written that the Board’s Executive Director, Natalie Jaresko, had informed him that the Board will mandate furloughs and the suspension of any bonuses—a demand which Gov. Rosselló believes usurps his authority under PROMESA, as well as contravenes the Board’s position of earlier this Spring, when it had said there would have to be furloughs and an end to the bonus, unless two conditions were met: 1) Puerto Rico would have to gain a $200 million cash reserve by this Friday, and 2) Puerto Rico would have to submit an implementation plan for reducing spending on government programs. The PROMESA Board, a week ago last Friday, had written that it believed the reserve would be met; however, the Board asserted the implementation plan was inadequate. (In insisting upon the furlough program, the Board assumed such furloughs would save the government $35 million to $40 million on a monthly basis.) Thus, in his letter, Gov. Rosselló wrote: “In contravention of PROMESA §205, the Oversight Board is now trying to strong-arm the government into accepting the expenditure controls.” He appeared especially concerned with the PROMESA Board’s mandate to shift $80 million in the budget for school improvements and reserves for the island’s municipalities.

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Post Chapter 9 Challenges

eBlog, 2/22/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog as we remember the first President of our country,  we consider the accomplishments and challenges ahead for the city recovering from the largest ever municipal bankruptcy; then we visit the historic Civil War city of Petersburg, Virginia—as it struggles on the edge of fiscal and physical insolvency; from thence, we roll the dice to witness a little fiscal Monopoly in the state-taken over City of Atlantic City, before finally succumbing to the Caribbean waters made turbulent by the governance challenges of a federal fiscal takeover of the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, before considering whether to take a puff of forbidden weed as we assess the governing and fiscal challenges in San Bernardino—a city on the precipice of emerging from the longest municipal bankruptcy in American history.   

State of a Post Chapter 9 City. Pointing to FY2015 and 2016 balanced budgets, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, in his fourth State of the City address, pointed to the Motor City’s balanced budgets for FY2015 and 2016 and said the city’s budget will be balanced again at the close of this fiscal year in June—progress he cited which will help the city emerge from state get oversight and back to “self-determination” by 2018. Mayor Duggan cited as priorities: job training, affordable housing, and rebuilding neighborhoods, orating at the nonprofit human rights organization Focus: HOPE on Oakman Boulevard on the city’s northwest side, where residents and others for decades have received critical job training. Mayor Duggan was not just excited about what he called the transformation of city services and finances in a city that exited municipal bankruptcy three years ago, but rather “what comes next,” telling his audience: “We’ve improved the basic services, but if we’re going to fulfill a vision of building a Detroit that includes everybody, then we’ve got to do a whole lot more…You can’t have a recovery that includes everyone if there aren’t jobs available for everyone willing to work.” Ergo, to boost job opportunities, Mayor Duggan announced a new initiative, “Detroit at Work,” which he said would help connect the Motor City’s job seekers with employers, deeming it a portal which would provide a “clear path to jobs.” He also discussed his administration’s program to help city youth secure jobs and the Detroit Skilled Trades Employment Program, a recent partnership with local unions to increase Detroit membership and boost job opportunities.

With regard to neighborhoods, Mayor Duggan touted his Neighborhood Strategic Fund, his initiative to encourage neighborhood development, especially in wake of the exceptional success of Detroit’s new downtown: this fund allocates $30 million from philanthropic organizations toward development, commencing with the engagement of residents in the areas of Livernois/McNicols, West Village, and in southwest Detroit to create revitalized and walkable communities—under the city’s plan to align with the city’s vision for “20-minute neighborhoods” to provide nearby residents with close, walkable access to grocery stores and other amenities—or, as Mayor Duggan noted: “If we can prove that when you invest in these neighborhoods, the neighborhoods start to come back. The first $30 million will only be the beginning. I want everybody to watch…If we prove this works…then we go back for another $30 million and another $30 million as we move across the neighborhoods all through this city.”

In a related issue, the Mayor touted the return of the Department of Public Works’ Street Sweeping Unit, which is preparing to relaunch residential cleanings for the 2017 season, marking the first time in seven years for the program. On the affordable housing front, Mayor Duggan addressed affordable housing, saying that future projects will ensure such housing exists in all parts of the city, referencing a new ordinance, by Councilwoman Mary Sheffield, which seeks to guarantee that 20 percent of the units in new residential projects which receive financial support from the city will be affordable: “We are going to build a city where there is a mix of incomes in every corner and neighborhood and we’re going to be working hard.”

But in his address—no doubt with his re-election lurking somewhere behind his words, Mayor Duggan reflected not just on his successes, but also some missteps, including his administration’s massive federally funded demolition program, now the focus of a federal probe and state and city reviews: that initiative has been successful in the razing of nearly 11,000 abandoned homes since the spring of 2014, but has also triggered federal and state investigations over spiraling costs and bidding practices: an ongoing state review of the program’s billing practices turned up $7.3 million in what the State of Michigan deems “inappropriate” or “inaccurate” costs: the vast majority in connection with a controversial set-price bid pilot in 2014 designed to quickly bring down big bundles of houses—an initiative over which Mayor Duggan has so far rejected the state’s assertion that about $6 million tied to costs of the pilot were inappropriate. Thus, yesterday, he conceded that the federal government’s decision to suspend the demolition program for 60 days beginning last August had been warranted, but noted the city has since overhauled procedures and made improvements to get the program back on track, so that, he said, he is confident the city will raze an additional 10,000 homes in the next two years.

For new initiatives, Mayor Duggan said the Detroit Police Department will hire new officers, and invest in equipment and technology, and he announced the launch of Detroit Health Department’s Sister Friends program, a volunteer program to provide support to pregnant women and their families. On the school front, the Mayor noted what he deemed a “complete alliance” between his office and the new Detroit Public Schools Community District school board, saying the city has joined the Board in its attempt to convince the state’s School Reform Office not to close low-performing schools. (As many as 24 of 119 city schools could potentially be shuttered as soon as this summer.) In a hint of the state-local challenge to come, Mayor Duggan said: “The new school board hasn’t had an opportunity to address the problem…We have 110,000 schoolchildren in this city, which means we need 110,000 seats in quality schools. Closing a school doesn’t add a quality seat. All it does is bounce our children around from place to place. Before you close a school, you need to make sure there’s a better alternative.”

Fiscal & Physical Repair. In a surprising turn of events in Virginia, the Petersburg City Council accepted a motion by Councilman Charlie Cuthbert to postpone the vote on moving forward with the bids for Petersburg’s aging water system, after the Council had been scheduled to vote on whether to move forward with the bids the city had received from Aqua Virginia and Virginia American Water Company to purchase the nearly insolvent city’s water and wastewater system. While the vote, by itself, would not have authorized such a sale, it would have paved the way for formal consideration of such proposals. Under his motion, Councilman Cuthbert outlined a plan to delay the vote, so the Council and the City would have more time to consider options, in part through the formation of a seven person committee, which would be separate from the one the Robert Bobb Group, which is currently overseeing the city in place of the Mayor and Council, has been proposing. Mayhap unsurprisingly, citizens’ reactions to a potential sale has been negative; thus there was approbation when Councilmember Cuthbert’s motion passed—even as it appears many citizen/tax/ratepayers appeared to be hoping for the bids to be scrapped entirely: many had spoken in strong opposition, and there were numerous signs held up in chambers for the Mayor and Council to read: “Listen to us for once, do not sell our water,” or, as one citizen told the elected officials: “We have a choice to make: to make the easy, wrong decision, or the hard, right decision,” as he addressed the Council. The city’s residents and taxpayers appear to want other options to be explored, with many citing reports of Aqua Virginia having trouble with the localities with which it holds contracts.

On the fiscal front, many citizens expressed apprehension that any short-term profit the city would realize by selling its system would be paid back by the citizens in the form of rate-hikes by Aqua Virginia or Virginia American, or as one constituent said: “Never have I seen private industry interested in what the citizens want…They’re going to come in here and raise the rates.” Interim City Manager Tom Tyrell had begun the meeting by giving a presentation outlining the problems with the system. Due to past mismanagement and a lack of investment over decades, the Petersburg water system is in urgent need of upgrades. Tyrell outlined certain deficiencies, such as water pumps that need replacing, and pipes nearly blocked by sediment build up. The water quality has never come into question, but Mr. Tyrell said that the system is very close to needing a complete overhaul: the projected cost needed to get the system completely up to standard is about $97 million. Mr. Tyrell stressed that water rates will need to increase whether or not the city sells the system, going over Petersburg’s water rates, which have been relatively low for many years, ranking near the lowest amongst municipalities across the Commonwealth of Virginia. Even if the rates were to double, he told citizens, the rates still would still not be in the top 15 amongst Virginia localities. The Council had received two unsolicited bids for the system in December, one from Aqua Virginia, a second from the Virginia American Water Company. The Robert Bobb Group recommended to the Council that it move forward to examine the detailed proposals in order to “keep all options open.” The cost of moving forward with the proposals will cost approximately $100,000, which includes the cost of examining each proposal. Thus, the Robert Bobb Group recommended that the Council put together a citizens’ advisory group as an outside adviser group. The council gave no timetable on when they will officially vote to see if the bids will go forward. The people who will make up the seven person committee were not established.

Monopoly Sale. Atlantic City has sold two of its Boardwalk properties and several lots along the Inlet for nearly $6 million, closing on three properties at the end of last week, according to city officials—meaning that a Philadelphia-based developer has gained control of five waterfront properties since 2015. His purchases, he said, reflect his belief in Atlantic City’s revival. Mayor Don Guardian reported the city had received wire transfers for the former Boardwalk volleyball court on New Jersey Avenue ($3.8 million), Garden Pier ($1.5 million) and 12 lots bordered by the Absecon Inlet, Oriental Avenue and Dewey Place ($660,000), according to Atlantic City Planning and Development Director Elizabeth Terenik, all part of a way to raise money for the insolvent municipality – and to spur redevelopment, or, as Ms. Terenik noted: “The effort was part of the Guardian administration’s initiative to leverage underutilized or surplus public lands for economic development and jobs, and to increase the ratable base.” How the new owner intends to develop the properties or use them, however, is unclear—as is the confusing governance issue in a city under state control. The Inlet lots were sold in a city land auction last summer, purchased through an entity called A.C. Main Street Renaissance, according to city officials: the Atlantic City Council approved the auction and voted to name the purchaser, conditional redeveloper of Garden Pier and the volleyball court last year. Unsurprisingly, Council President Marty Small deemed the sales as great news for the city, saying they would bring revenue, jobs, and “new partners to the Inlet area…This instills investor confidence…It lets me know that we made the right decision by going out to auction for land and getting much-needed revenue for the city.”

Paying the Piper. Atlantic City has also announced its intention to issue $72 million in municipal bonds to pay for its tax settlement with the Borgata casino, securing the funds to cover its property tax refunds by borrowing though New Jersey’s Municipal Qualified Bond Act (MQBA), according to Lisa Ryan, a spokeswoman for the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, which is overseeing the state takeover which took effect last November, with her announcement coming just a week after the state announced it had struck a deal for Atlantic City to pay less than half of the $165 million it owes the Borgata in tax appeals from 2009 to 2015, or, as Ms. Ryan noted: “Qualified bonds will be issued in one or more tranches to achieve the settlement amount…The parties are confident in the City’s ability to access the capital market and raise the necessary amount needed to cover the financing,” albeit adding that the city’s borrowing costs would not be known until the sale. (The Garden State’s MQBA is a state intercept program which diverts a municipality’s qualified state aid to a trustee for debt service payments.) Prior to the New Jersey’s state takeover of Atlantic City, city officials had proposed paying $103 million for a Borgata settlement through MQBA bonding as part of a five-year rescue plan—a plan which the state’s Department of Community Affairs had rejected.

As the state taken over city struggles to adjust, Mayor Don Guardian, in a statement, noted: “I’m glad the state is seeing the wisdom in what we proposed in our fiscal plan back in November…I applaud them for getting the actual amount due upfront lower, even though they have had over two years to do it. It remains to be seen how the other $30 million will be taken care of, but the quicker we can get this issue off the table, the quicker we can move forward tackling the remaining legacy debt.” Atlantic City last utilized New Jersey’s state credit enhancement program in May of 2015 to pay off an emergency $40 million loan and retire $12 million of maturing bond anticipation notes, paying a substantial fiscal penalty for a $41 million taxable full faith and credit general obligation municipal bond sale to address its loan payment with Bank of America Merrill Lynch pricing the bonds to yield at 7.25% in 2028 and 7.75% in 2045. Today, the city, under state control, is seeking to recover from five casino closures since 2014, closures which have bequeathed it with $224 million in outstanding municipal bond debt—debt sufficient according to Moody’s to have saddled the city with some $36.8 million in debt service last year.

Grass Fire? Two separate groups have now filed lawsuits challenging San Bernardino’s Measure O, the initiative citizens approved last November to allow marijuana dispensaries in the city—a measure yet to be implemented by the city—and one which now, according to City Attorney Gary Saenz, will almost surely be further delayed because of the suit. Should Measure O be struck down, the related, quasi-backup Measure N, a second marijuana initiative San Bernardino voters approved last November, but which received fewer votes, would pop up, as it were. The twin suits, one filed by a group of marijuana-related entities, the second by interested property owners in San Bernardino, challenge Measure O on multiple grounds, including the measure’s language determining where dispensaries may operate in the city. One suit charges: “The overlay zones together with the parcel numbers and the location criteria limit the locations within the City of San Bernardino where marijuana businesses may be permitted to only approximately 3 to 5 parcels of land within the entire city, and all of these parcels of land are either owned or controlled by the proponents of Measure O…The locations of these 3 to 5 parcels of land, furthermore, are incompatible for a medical marijuana business by virtue of the locations and surrounding land uses and for this reason are in conflict with the City of San Bernardino General Plan.” Unsurprisingly, Roger Jon Diamond, the attorney for the proponents of Measure O, disputes that number and predicts the challenge will fail, noting that thirteen marijuana dispensaries and related groups that describe themselves as non-profits are operating in San Bernardino or which have invested substantial sums of money in plans to operate in San Bernardino. The soon to be out of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy city, prior to citizen adoption of Measure O, means, according to Counselor Diamond, that the dispensaries have been operating illegally, or as he put it: “There’s a concept in the law called clean hands: If you don’t have clean hands, you can’t maintain a lawsuit…Here we have people who don’t qualify (to operate a dispensary in their current location), complaining that they would not become legal under the new law. It sounds like sour grapes.”

The second, related suit, filed earlier this month, calculates a somewhat higher (not a pun) number of eligible locations—between three to twelve, but makes the same observation regarding physical location: “We think there is a financial interest in the people who wrote it up,” said Stephen Levine of Milligan, Beswick Levine & Knox: “We don’t think that is fair, because it was so narrowly constricted. Zoning by parcel numbers is a highly unusual practice in California. Let’s include Colorado and Washington State in there, too; they don’t use parcel numbers for this.” (Measure O restricts marijuana businesses to marijuana business overlay districts, which are identified by parcel number, and further prohibits the businesses from being within 600 feet of schools or residentially zoned property.) In this case, Mr. Levine is representing a consortium of property owners calling themselves AMF as well as Wendy McCammack, a business owner and former San Bernardino Councilmember. According to Mr. Levine, the plaintiffs’ interest is in possible changes in assessed property values due to the location of the dispensaries.

Getting High on the City Agenda. The City Council last week, in a closed session, discussed the lawsuit in closed session; however, City Attorney Saenz reported he was unaware aware of the lawsuit and had yet to decide upon a response to either, noting: “We haven’t totally assessed the merits of the lawsuit, nor how we’ll respond.” Nevertheless, the lawsuits’ arguments appear likely to interfere with the city’s process of incorporating Measure O into the development code and beginning to issue permits, or, as Mr. Saenz notes: “It (the AMF lawsuit) very much calls into question the validity of Measure O…Being a city of very limited resources, we don’t want to expend resources on an implementation that’s never going to occur. That would be a waste of resources.” The suits will also complicate governance: last month the city, on its website, and in a letter to interested parties, said it would provide an update in March on when the marijuana measure would be implemented: “City departments are in the process of integrating the provisions of Measure O into the City’s existing Development Code, developing procedures for receiving applications, and identifying provisions that may require interpretation and clarification prior to implementation…The San Bernardino Development Code and Measure O are both complex legal regulatory frameworks and it will require time to properly implement this new law.”

Governance & Challenges. Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has arrived in Washington, D.C., where he will meet with his colleagues at the National Governors Association and join them at the White House tomorrow; he will also dine with Vice President Mike Pence this week. Last week, in Puerto Rico, he had hosted Chairman Sean Duffy (R-Wisc.), of the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Housing & Insurance, and an author of the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act – in San Juan.  Chairman Duffy told the Governor he is available to amend PROMESA to ensure that the PROMESA oversight board treats Puerto Rico fairly, according to an office press statement. The lunch this week might occasion an interesting discussion in the wake of the Governor’s claim that the PROMESA Oversight Board’s plans for austerity may violate federal law: the Governor’s Chief of Staff, William Villafañe, this week stated: “The Fiscal Supervision Board officials cannot act outside of the law that created the body. If the board were to force the implementation of a fiscal plan that affects people’s essential services, it would be acting contrary to the PROMESA law.” His complaints appear to signify an escalation of tensions between the U.S. territory and the PROMESA Board: Mr. Villafañe added: “The [PROMESA] board is warned that it must act in conformance with the law…The commitment of Governor Ricardo Rosselló is to achieve economies that allow government efficiency, doing more with fewer expenses, without affecting essential services to the people and without laying off public employees.” If anything, Mr. Villafañe added fuel to his fire by criticizing the Board’s new interim executive director, Ramón Ruiz Comas, in the wake of Mr. Ruiz’ radio statement this week that if Gov. Rosselló did not present an acceptable fiscal plan by the end of February, the PROMESA Board would provide its own—and the plan would be deemed the legally, binding plan—in reaction to which, Mr. Villafañe had responded: “To make expressions prejudging a fiscal plan proposal that the board has not yet seen demonstrates on the part of the board improvisation and lack of a collaborative attitude for the benefit of the Puerto Rican people,” adding that “The board must be aware that the federal Congress will supervise the board.” He went on to say that when the Governor presents a fiscal plan, Congress will be aware of the way the board evaluates it.

Mr. Villafañe’s complaints and warnings extend tensions between the board and the U.S. territory: even before the Governor took office in January, a Rosselló official complained that the board was seeking a $2 billion cut in spending. On Feb. 13 the governor rejected the board’s claimed right to review bills before they are submitted to the Puerto Rico legislature. On Jan. 18 the board sent a letter to Gov. Rosselló stating that spending cuts and/or tax raises equaling 44% of the general fund would have to be made in the next 18 months. At its Jan. 28 meeting, board chairman José Carrion, for emphasis, said twice that some governor-proposed changes to the board’s Jan. 18 proposals may be OK, “as long as the ultimate fiscal plan is based on solid savings and revenue projections, a once and done approach, and not simply on hope or predictions that various changes will generate more revenues in the future.”

Threatened Municipal Insolvencies

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eBlog, 10/14/16

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the threatened insolvency of the small municipality of Wayne, Michigan; then we puff our way West to consider the puffy revenue options confronting San Bernardino voters next month with regard to legalizing marijuana—as the city nears exit from the longest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history; then we offer an editorial from the Stockton News with regard to next month’s election in post-municipally bankrupt Stockton, before zooming to the small, virtually insolvent municipality of Petersburg, Virginia as it considers spending its way out of insolvency, before—finally—heading northeast to Atlantic City, where Mayor Don Guardian is seeking to stave off municipal bankruptcy through the sale of some nearly 500 abandoned buildings. Wow.

Where Is Batman? Moody’s has lowered the credit rating of Wayne, Michigan, a city of just under 18,000 just west of Detroit in Wayne County, where the median age in the city is under 40, into junk territory: the small city is on the brink of insolvency with the State of Michigan opting not to help.  Moody’s, in its downgrade, noted: “The downgrade of the city’s issuer rating reflects a very stressed financial position given an ongoing structural imbalance with few options to make timely expenditure cuts or revenue enhancements.” The fiscal challenge comes in the wake of the voters’ rejection last August to approve joining the South Macomb Oakland Regional Services Authority, a scheme hatched by Hazel Park and Eastpointe to allow the two communities to circumvent state constitutional limits on property taxes: indeed, had the measure passed, it would have enabled Wayne to more than double its local property taxes. While Michigan state law strictly caps the amount of taxes a single community may levy, it allows two or more communities to create authorities for providing police and fire services, and levy a separate tax. For instance, neighboring Eastpointe and Hazel Park add an extra 14 mills. The rejected tax levy would have imposed an estimated $354 per household on the winter tax bill alone—but might too have raised sufficient revenue to stave off a chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy filing if it had passed. The municipality has been hard hit by falling property values and rising legacy costs; it has been doing cost-cutting, but will have to deal with how much of its budget goes to support benefits for current workers, and especially, retirees. Some have suggested the municipality should consider consolidation with a neighboring community, especially as the city has limited flexibility to raise revenues elsewhere. In early August, it requested a state financial review, but last week the state said the city retains options to address its structural gap such as making further reductions to retiree healthcare coverage and so direct state oversight is not warranted. For its part, Moody’s wrote that, based on the state review, it concluded that the city has sufficient liquidity to cover operations this year, but will fall short next year without operating adjustments. At the beginning of the week, the city council met to discuss selling the city’s recreation center and retiring approximately $2.8 million of bonds sold through the local building authority which are tied to the center. City leaders are also mulling over a fourth attempt at getting voters to pass a levy increase to fix its structural imbalance as well as additional reductions to retiree healthcare benefits: Wayne began charging retirees 30% of their healthcare premiums last month; however, savings from the change have fallen short of the requisite amount needed to offset the current operating gap. The small city’s request for the state financial review followed voters’ rejection in August of the city’s proposal to join a suburban authority and levy a tax to fund fire and rescue services; voters similarly rejected the proposal to join the South Macomb Oakland Regional Services Authority, which was created by the nearby cities of Eastpointe and Hazel Park last year—as well as a millage proposal that would have raised approximately $5 million to help the city’s strained liquidity. The additional revenue would have enabled the city to stabilize its general fund balance to $2.9 million, according to Moody’s. On the cost side, where expenditures have exceeded revenue by roughly $2 million over the past few years, Wayne balanced its books for the current fiscal year by draining other funds, including its internal service fund and a retiree healthcare trust. City budget officials report closing FY2016 with near depletion of the city’s OPEB trust and a $400,000 draw on general operating reserves. The city expects to draw another $1.6 million of general fund balance in fiscal 2017 and estimates likely depletion of fund balance by December 2017.

Puffing Up Revenues? As San Bernardino nears its exit from the longest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history early next year, the city’s voters are huffing and puffing over a proposed revenue proposal at the ballot next month: Measure N allowing marijuana in the city is projected to raise more than $18 million in net revenue to the city, several times more than either of the competing marijuana measures, according to a study released by the campaign for Measure N: that study, prepared by Whitney Economics on behalf of the committee for Measure O, concluded Measure O would bring between $19.5 and $24.8 million in revenue. In contrast, New ERA calculates Measure N would bring in $18.2 million, Measure O would bring in $2.4 million, and Measure P would bring in $4.8 million, after the costs related to each measure are accounted for. The huffing and puffing and fiscal visions related to possible estimated revenues which might be generated from sales tax, permit fees, and other assessments stipulated in each initiative, as well as job creation potential from retail, manufacturing, and cultivation allowed by each initiative. Indeed, the confusing array of psychedelic revenue options for voters in a city where marijuana is technically prohibited—but where there are currently 22 dispensaries, is certain to toke voters as they enter the polls to opt between three different measures on November’s ballot—each of which would replace the current ban with a different approach to regulation: if more than one of them gets higher (a pun) than 50 percent of the vote, whichever measure has more “yes” votes will become law in the city. The three options for voters:

  • Measure N, submitted by San Bernardino citizen Katharine Redmon, would establish a 5 percent tax on gross receipts and allow at least 20 medical marijuana dispensaries, if at least 20 apply.
  • Measure O, submitted by citizen Vincent Guzman, would establish an application fee of $250 and annual fees of $5 per square foot of canopy for cultivation, $5 per square foot occupied by the business for manufacturing/test, $100 per vehicle used in transportation, $5 per square foot of dispensary and $1 per square foot of canopy for nurseries.
  • Measure P, prepared by the city attorney’s office, was intended by the City Council as a way to maintain more control over marijuana businesses if residents are inclined to allow them. Because of that, state law would allow fees equal to the cost of enforcement.

Gross receipts for dispensaries are based on the maximum dispensaries allowed under the restrictions of each measure—20 under Measure N, 5 under Measure O, and 10 under Measure P, with the demand at each dispensary estimated based on Palm Springs. That would then be combined with the gross receipts tax, with some $2.3 million expected for Measure N, zero for Measures O and P, and sales tax revenue of $930,027, $744,022 and $837,025, respectively. There are similar calculations for cultivation, manufacturing, and distribution. For instance, proposed Measure P allows the most cultivation, with expected output totaling more than 500,000 pounds of product and employing 840 people, according to one study: Measure N compares at 155,000 pounds and 380 employees, while Measure O would be close to 116,000 pounds and 285 employees in cultivation, according to the study. In contrast, Beau Whitney of Whitney Economics in Portland provided the City with a four-page study which criticizes Measure N for exempting cooperatives and nonprofits, which is how existing illegal dispensaries in the city are organized; ergo, he notes, Measure P offers limited revenue potential: “Other proposals put forth by comparison, either have limited amounts of revenue generation or provide protectionist policies and carve outs for special groups.” Both authors also anticipate significant positive indirect economic impact, dismissing critics’ concerns that dispensaries would hurt property values and other aspects of the economy. Marijuana opponent Darren Espiritu, of the San Bernardino Chair of Citizens Against Legalizing Marijuana, said revenue forecasts in Colorado fell short of industry promises—advising that Colorado state officials now expect about $150 million per year in marijuana tax revenue, out of the state’s $10 billion general fund. He adds: “No amount of revenue can replace a child’s life…Marijuana is ending up in the hands of children at an increasingly younger age. Marijuana use has dramatic negative impacts on the growing brain up to the age of 25.”

Hard Choices for a City’s Fiscal Future. Michael Fitzgerald, a columnist for the Stockton Record, yesterday wrote:  “Stockton voters have one major piece of unfinished business left over from the (chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy), one last gotta-do so the city can move forward: ousting Mayor Anthony Silva…Silva is a loose end of the bankruptcy in the sense that he came in through the side door of that extreme and unprecedented event. Were it not for the electorate’s outraged determination to punish incumbents, he never would have been elected. Which is not to say disadvantaged voters who felt ignored by City Hall were not justified in voting for someone who listened. But it has long been clear Silva is an epic mistake…The only two substantial policies Silva championed, the fiscally suicidal Safe Streets crime-fighting plan and a reduction in building fees, were handed to him by developers…Politically, he botched his first six months so badly, denouncing fellow council members, exhorting his supporters to harangue them, he ensured he’d never command a council majority. He marginalized himself:

But then it appears Silva did not understand the office for which he ran. He has been publicly shocked and perturbed by the statutory limitations placed on the mayor’s power.

Ethical lapses followed. Silva promised if elected not to work two jobs. But he did. He promised not to take a mayor’s salary until crime tumbled. But he did. There were more.

What did not follow was policy. It became clear that “The People’s Mayor” had no real ideas for governing and no real interest in the hard work that goes into civic improvements.

When I asked him what his position on growth was — on sprawl vs. infill — he looked at me as if I had spoken to him in Mandarin.

His treatment of the homeless issue is typical. First he did publicity stunts, sleeping in a box overnight as TV cameras rolled. Next, he used a homeless man as a prop at his State of the City address, then left the poor man to become homeless again.

Finally he proposed the city purchase a hotel. His proposal included no realistic idea of cost, funding or affordability. He ignored entirely how the hotel should link to county/private services to transition homeless people into permanent housing

To top it off, he proposed “any person who refuses our services and simply just wishes to live where they want … will (be) escorted to the city line.” Which is illegal. The proposal was DOA.

Then there was Silva’s farfetched “Stockton Proud” agenda. This plan calls for terraforming beaches onto the waterfront, building a space needle “100% funded by private money,” attracting cruise ships, and other ideas so unrealistic it could have been dreamed up by Michael Jackson for Neverland Ranch.

Administratively, Silva is no better. He leaked the name of a city manager hire, sabotaging the process, leading to the hire of next-in-line Kurt Wilson; yet he complains about Wilson, oblivious that his bungling put Wilson in the job.

But it is as a distraction from the serious business of governance where Silva has been a Hall-of-Famer. I doubt anyone will ever surpass him.

It’s not only the things he intended to do, such as his Chicken Little act over adding chloramines to the water (after he voted to do it!); he brought in Erin Brockovich and her alarmist sidekick who frightened the public with wildly irresponsible warnings of brain-eating amoeba.

It’s also his inadvertent, soap-opera string of goofs, scandals, brushes with the law and strange, almost creepy-clown behavior.

I am not going to rehash those. It is tragic, though, that while Sacramento made bold progress under (badly flawed) Mayor Kevin Johnson, and Fresno gained national recognition for its progress under Mayor Ashley Swearingen, Stockton stuck itself with Silva.

Worse, Silva is refusing to cooperate with investigators trying to understand how his stolen gun came to be used to kill a 13-year-old. And he has been indicted on felony and misdemeanor charges related to his alleged participation in an alcohol-fueled strip poker game with teens.

He deserves his day in court.

Hating City Hall is part of Stockton’s civic culture. But if it must be done, it must be done wisely. Hate incompetence. Hate failure to adequately serve the city’s disadvantaged. Above all, hate the charlatans, because they hold the city back.

Spending When a City Has No Money to Spend. The Petersburg City Council has voted 5-1 to spend more than a quarter-million dollars, as the municipality teeters on insolvency, to enter into emergency negotiations with the Robert C. Bobb Group, claiming the purpose was intended “to preserve the interests of the City to maintain the proper functioning of the government,” with the vote coming in the wake of two closed-door sessions. Mr. Bobb is a former Richmond city manager who also served briefly as an emergency financial manager for the Detroit Public Schools—where, under his watch, DPS’s deficit tripled—in no small part because of a series of arrangements with armies of “consultants,” as he sought, under Michigan’s emergency manager law,  to address DPS’s $327 million budget shortfall by closing nearly half of Detroit’s schools and increasing class sizes in the remaining ones to as high as sixty—even as he submitted an AMEX bill with more than $1 million in travel charges, but proposed closing half the district’s schools and increasing class sizes up to 60 children in a classroom and cutting all general bus service—and proposed putting DPS into chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. Nevertheless, Petersburg Mayor W. Howard Myers noted: “We felt that this is an emergency situation, because of the situation the city is in,” even as he declined to state how much the contract would cost the insolvent municipality—already confronted with the effects of a $12 million shortfall in the current fiscal year’s budget even as it is desperately trying to pay down nearly $19 million in debts identified at the close of the previous fiscal year. For his part, Mr. Bobb said: “Our goal is not to be the permanent solution, but to help stabilize them and help recruit permanent leadership.” It remains unclear what the decision might mean with regard to the municipality’s request for state assistance. Virginia Sen. Rosalyn R. Dance (D-Petersburg) voiced concern about the cost and timing of the proposal, noting: “We just committed to spend some money, and I don’t know how much money we’ve committed to spend…If we have extra money to spend, it should be going to the schools.” There was no public comment period; the Council first took 90 minutes to discuss personnel measures related to the performance of the interim city manager. Afterward, the members broke for discussion of procurement and pending litigation.

Mayor Myers said the city faces several possible lawsuits but declined to elaborate. He said money to fund the Bobb Group’s work will come from savings the city has incurred from not filling open positions. For his part, Mr. Bobb declined to comment on his firm’s fees, citing ongoing negotiations; however, he noted he planned to take an active role in assisting the city, although the day-to-day work will be conducted mostly by other staff members of the Washington, D.C.-based business. Indeed, at the request of Petersburg Commonwealth’s Attorney Cassandra S. Conover, Petersburg Circuit Court Judge Joseph M. Teefey has signed an order directing Chesterfield County Commonwealth’s Attorney William W. Davenport to expand his ongoing probe of the Petersburg Bureau of Police—and, widening the scope, to include “any and all” issues involving the City of Petersburg’s finances: the investigation now will include “allegations regarding financial improprieties of the City of Petersburg which warrant investigating and/or any prosecutions resulting from any charges placed pursuant to said investigation.” Counselor Davenport was appointed last December after the Commonwealth Attorney requested a special prosecutor to look into a case of money alleged to have disappeared from the police evidence room. (The Virginia State Police and the FBI have been assisting with that probe.) Ms. Conover reports she met with representatives of several state and federal agencies last week, including the Virginia State Police, to discuss the status of that investigation as well as questions related to Petersburg’s finances, noting that, as a result of that meeting, she had submitted an order calling for an expansion of the investigation “to include all financial matters/improprieties of the City of Petersburg.” Meanwhile, a team of auditors and other financial experts led by state Secretary of Finance Ric Brown subsequently reported that Petersburg’s system of accounting for revenue and spending had numerous shortcomings, including more than 30 “exit points” for city funds – individuals or departments who or which were allowed to write checks without specific authorization: as a result of the system’s flaws, the state team said, city officials literally did not know exactly how much annual revenue the city had received or how much it had spent until after the end of the fiscal year, when an outside consultant “reconciled” the various departments’ income and spending ledgers.

Tempus Fugit. Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian yesterday the city would use tax liens, emergency condemnation, or eminent domain proceedings to take control of nearly 500 abandoned buildings and sell them to developers who would either repair or raze them, demarking the city’s latest effort to raise revenues to avert a state takeover. According to Mayor Guardian, in addition to being a fiscal boost, the move could address a longstanding gripe among visitors about the seaside gambling resort: “It has frustrated the community for decades that it seemed almost impossible to do anything about these abandoned properties.” The proposal appears to stem from the Mayor’s efforts this year to successfully enlist six neighborhood associations to walk their communities and come up with a list of properties which appeared to be abandoned—an outreach that has resulted in identifying some 598 properties—albeit, since then, the owners of more than 100 of them have begun repair work on their structures after the city threatened to take possession of them, according to Mayor Guardian. (Atlantic City differentiates between buildings in good shape which are simply currently vacant versus properties in unsafe or uninhabitable condition, many of which have not generated taxes in months or years.) Mayor Guardian said he does not have a target figure in mind in terms of how much revenue the city might bring in by selling abandoned properties, yet notes that every little bit helps as it tries to cobble together a financial plan to stave off a threatened state takeover of its assets and major decision-making powers by next month.

Municipal Sovereignty: What’s at Stake?

eBlog, 9/26/16

In this morning’s eBlog, we wonder whether the end for Atlantic City is nigh: will the state, in fact, take it over? Then we turn to the beleaguered cities of Cleveland and East Cleveland as they contemplate a potential merger: could that avert a chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy—an option which the State of Ohio has made like waiting for Godot? Then we veer east to Connecticut, where the capital City of Hartford faces insolvency—captive to fiscal and physical borders bequeathed from Pilgrim times. Just as inequality in that state’s schools propelled a powerful Connecticut Supreme Court decision, so too, we consider an insightful piece about the inequity of the post municipal bankruptcy Detroit school situation. What might it augur for the city’s post-bankruptcy future? Then, as Horace Greeley asked, we go west, where the governance challenges in San Bernardino and the upcoming ballot question about marijuana have made for heated debate about what kind of debates can the city hold to inform voters on an upcoming election critical to the city’s post-municipal bankruptcy charter. Finally, we look south to the U.S. Virgin Islands—just a hop, skip, and a jump from Puerto Rico to consider how this U.S. Territory is addressing its fiscal challenges. Phew!

Can a City Maintain its Sovereignty? The New Jersey Division of Local Government Services has notified Atlantic City that it has until next Monday to comply with the terms of a $73 million state loan or face the possibility of default because it is in violation of its loan terms, so that it must act swiftly to “cure the breach to come into compliance with the agreement,” albeit LGS spokesperson Tammori Petty noted: “We decline to speculate on next actions.” The notification appears to be a response to Mayor Don Guardian’s request last week for a reprieve after the City Council failed to agree to meet one of the terms in the loan agreement: dissolving the Atlantic Municipal Utilities Authority by September 15th. Should the city not comply by the looming deadline, the state can demand full repayment of the $73 million as well as withhold any state aid. In addition, the state could also to seize the city’s municipal utility authority or its airport as collateral, based on the terms by which the city had agreed to the bridge loan terms in order to avoid defaulting on a $3.4 million debt payment—a payment, which under the terms of the agreement, fell due at the beginning of last month. Doug Goldmacher of Moody’s noted that the city’s “inability to meet its loan covenants is a credit negative and indicative of the city’s severe fiscal distress.” Should the state take over Atlantic City, the Local Finance Board would be authorized and empowered to alter debt and municipal contracts. For the beleaguered city which has tried to weather the closure of four of its casinos—closures reducing its tax base by as much as 70 percent, in addition to undercutting assessed property values—the options appear to be waning. Nevertheless, the Mayor’s Chief of Staff, Chris Filiciello, stated: “We continue to focus on putting together the 150 day plan…If we are given the time to complete and present it, we know it will be the best plan to move Atlantic City forward while still maintaining our local sovereignty.”

To Be or Not to Be? Two of the nation’s poorest cities, East Cleveland and Cleveland, (East Cleveland’s per capita income of $12,602 ranks it 1,000th in Ohio, while Cleveland’s $14,291 ranks it 887th) are undertaking so far informal discussions about a potential merger, albeit with recognition even a combined municipality would need a sizable boost in taxpayer dollars to make it happen. From Cleveland’s perspective, the city is exploring whether there might be development possibilities through such a combination—albeit recognizing the potential pitfalls: East Cleveland is so impoverished that some residents fill their own potholes. Moreover, from a governance perspective, there appears little initiative: East Cleveland has learned that requesting authority from the State of Ohio to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy is like waiting for Godot. Nevertheless, after long balking at the concept of dissolving their city, its elected leaders agreed last month to pursue annexation by the City of Cleveland without the list of demands it had earlier made as a prerequisite, such as continuing the pay of its Mayor and elected officials as its Council had originally submitted to the dismay of Cleveland officials. Nevertheless, with the writing seemingly on the wall, Thomas Wheeler, President of East Cleveland City Council, notes: “Without a revenue stream, I don’t know how we would exist,” adding he and East Cleveland Mayor Gary Norton recognize their city is out of options: it has millions in unpaid bills, and it has had no access to borrow on the municipal credit market for years; it is so cash strapped that in the wake of deep cuts in its workforce, only five firefighters were available to respond to a recent house fire: it is becoming a municipality of crumbling streets, abandoned buildings, uncertain waits for essential emergency 9-1-1 services, and, increasingly, so dangerous that citizens have armed themselves, knowing it could be a long wait for police. Nevertheless, some Cleveland politicians are enthusiastic about the possibility of a merger, citing development possibilities along a main thoroughfare which connects East Cleveland with Cleveland’s fastest-growing neighborhood, University Circle, the home of its fine research hospitals, Case Western Reserve University, and most of Cleveland’s cultural institutions. Ergo: negotiations by a commission consisting of three members from each municipality could begin sometime in the next few months.

Hard Fiscal Times for Hartford. S&P Global Ratings has downgraded the City of Hartford four notches, with the downgrade coming in the wake of the Connecticut Supreme Court decision’s [Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding v. Rell] finding unconstitutional the state’s fiscal disparities in school funding—or, as Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin put it: “The rating agency action reflects what I’ve been saying for many months, which is that the city of Hartford can’t cut or tax its way out of this challenge by itself.” Or, as S&P credit analyst Timothy Little put it, “Until the city can adopt a credible plan and sustain improved budgetary performance, the rating reflects our weak view of management conditions.” The city, which is on course to insolvency by the end of the year, reflects what S&P, in its downgrade, cited continued deficits and the “lack of a credible plan” to balance the 125,000-population city’s budget and curb out-year fiscal gaps—and it cited a one-third chance of further downgrades within a year. Mayor Bronin has repeated his call for help from the state and the region’s suburbs, pressing for consideration of a regional tax and state reconsideration of tax laws to abate municipal reliance on property taxes, noting: “We can put Hartford and the capital region on a path to fiscal health and economic growth, but it’s going to take everyone coming together—in Hartford, the region and the state—to face the realities that we need to face.” As our respected colleagues at Municipal Market Analytics put it, Hartford’s struggles parallel those of many older cities: the city confronts high, escalating fixed costs: debt service, pension obligations, and other post-employment benefits—fixed costs which now consume nearly 20 percent of its annual budget, even as it has a depleting or disparate municipal tax base, because more than one-third of its population lives below the poverty line. Unemployment reached nearly 11% in July, nearly double the statewide rate of 5.6 percent. As MMA notes, the fiscal numbers appear to more than offset the capital city’s concentrations of art, entertainment, and hospital clusters—even as its dependence on state aid meant that this year’s $45 million state aid reduction triggered a spike in its reliance on short-term debt—meaning the city’s debt service could nearly double to about $46 million by FY2018, according to forecasts by city officials. Mayor Bronin notes that past budget practices made Hartford a disaster waiting to happen, or, as he puts it: “When governments are in fiscal crisis, one approach is to hide it or minimize it just to buy a little more time. That’s what Hartford did for many years…That’s not the approach I take. We’re opening the books and telling the real story, because that’s the only way we’re going to be able to make real and lasting change.” The city band-aided its FY2017 $553 million budget on reserves and labor concessions—neither of which the city has yet to realize; the fiscal cliff looms larger in the out-years, when there are anticipated gaps of more than $30 million in FY2018, rising to $50 million thereafter.” … Judge Thomas’ ruling in the 11-year case, like those of Horton v. Meskill in 1977 and Sheff v. O’Neill in 1996, spotlights the most glaring feature of Connecticut’s taxing arrangements — the inequity of school funding.

Sins of the Founding Fathers? Connecticut, like much of New England, traces its municipal roots to the four century-old system of towns, towns based on the parish boundaries of the Puritans, which required that every resident be able to walk to church, meaning, in the case of Connecticut municipalities, many remain approximately the same size geographically, albeit that some of its cities are among the smallest towns (17 square miles in the case of Hartford, 5.5 square miles in New London). From the original parish boundaries have devolved municipal boundaries, each town with taxing power and its own elected council, police department, public works department, fire department and school system. That appears to have contributed to a governance system in which the state is made up of several medium-to-large Metropolitan Statistical Areas, defined as having one or more adjacent counties or county equivalents with at least one urban core of 50,000 population, plus adjacent area tied to the core through a high degree of social and economic integration measured by commuting ties. Of the 382 MSAs nationally, the New York City MSA is ranked No. 1 in population; the Boston MSA is No. 10; the largest MSA in Connecticut, the Hartford-West Hartford-East Hartford MSA, is made up of 29 towns: it is ranked 47th in the country in population. In 2015, it had a population of 1,211,324, just below the New Orleans-Metairie MSA at 1,262,888, and just above the Salt Lake City MSA at 1,170,266. The Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk MSA ranks 57th, with a population just under a million; the New Haven-Milford MSA ranks 65th with a population 859,470; the Norwich-New London MSA ranks 175th with a population of 271,863. If one transposed these places: if Simsbury were in Louisiana, it would be a neighborhood of New Orleans; if it were in Utah, it would be a neighborhood of Salt Lake City. That seems to mean a double fiscal whammy bedevils the state’s municipalities: 1) the terrible disparities or inequities so devastatingly painted by Connecticut Supreme Court Justice Moukawsher in his school decision, but 2) the inefficiency of the arrangement. Or, as Toni Gold, a transportation and community development consultant and a member of the board of the Connecticut Main Street Center, last Saturday wrote: “Regionalism is the dirtiest word in the Connecticut political vocabulary because real regionalism would require small towns and affluent suburbs alike to stop pretending that they have no connection to or responsibility for the center cities on which they depend. This snipping of a state into a lot of minuscule towns is not what the rest of the country does — and for good reason. It is financially irrational…If all legislative remedies fail in the wake of the CCJEF decision, one must ask whether there isn’t a broader legal remedy. All the school funding cases have been brought under the state constitution. Why couldn’t there be a federal case, brought on the broader issue under the 14th Amendment to the federal Constitution, which says in part, “nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws?”

Schooling on Detroit’s Future. The State of Michigan, as we have noted, in the wake of the insolvency of the Detroit Public School System, has created a dual system of public and charter schools, with the former now under the auspices of retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes. Vikram David Amar, last Friday, writing in Justia, “In a Case with Blockbuster Potential, Detroit School Children Assert a Federal Constitutional Right to Literacy,” wrote about a class action lawsuit, Gary B. v. Snyder, pending in the U.S. District Court for Eastern Michigan, which has been filed on behalf of children who attend some of the most dilapidated and lowest-performing Detroit public schools, in which the plaintiffs allege Gov. Rick Snyder and other state officials are violating the constitutional rights of Detroit children by depriving students of their “fundamental right” to literacy under the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process and equal protection clauses. The 129-page complaint “recites in heart-wrenching detail the physical, curricular, and human resource shortcomings of the schools attended by the plaintiffs;” it also documents what he describes as the “woeful underperformance of the students at these schools, as compared to other schools in the state and also to the state’s competency baselines established for various grade levels. It is hard to believe the conditions laid out in the Complaint exist in 21st Century America; at times the allegations seem more like the setting of a Dickens novel.” He notes that the complaint also proposes what he deems an “an ambitious legal theory, effectively asking the federal court to apply ‘heightened scrutiny’ to what is going on in Detroit, and urging it not to apply the deference ordinarily given to state and local school officials [author’s emphasis]concerning their administration of public education.” The complaint identifies two related, but distinct grounds for judicial skepticism—the first being equal protection (describing the plaintiffs as a “discrete class,” almost all of whom are “low income children of color.”), but the second asserts that “heightened judicial oversight is warranted, because in the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause there is a ‘fundamental right of access to literacy,’ which presupposes better facilities, better instructional materials, and better teacher training than exist in Detroit. It asserts a federal “fundamental right” to literacy under the so-called “substantive due process doctrine” of the Fourteenth Amendment, the lawsuit is path-breaking, and perhaps ultimately destined for the Supreme Court. The complaint here asserts that many “Detroit public school children lack any realistic chance at literacy; the Complaint links its concept of literacy directly to expressive and political rights (including military service), saying that literacy is essential not only to success in the workplace and higher education, but also (importantly) to ‘be[ing] an informed citizen capable of participating in democracy.’” He notes that the complaint repeatedly points out, “the State of Michigan (like other states) has made attendance in some kind of state-approved school compulsory, so the State is already interfering with private choices in this realm, and in ways that allegedly make it nigh impossible for Detroit children to attain literacy.” Finally, he writes:

But the affirmative/negative rights line does implicitly bring up probably the biggest hurdle for the plaintiffs—the practical and logistical concerns about appropriate remedies that might disincline federal courts to become deeply involved in decisions about school facilities, curricula, teacher training, and the like. Most of the other settings in which the Court has recognized a fundamental right do not involve the remedial complexity the Snyder case implicates. And as the Court cautioned in Rodriguez, at a time when the federal judiciary was in the midst of a mixed experience of federal judicial oversight over busing, pupil reassignment, and other aspects of the federal judicial effort to eliminate the vestiges of racial school segregation:

He writes: “We stand on familiar ground when we continue to acknowledge that the Justices of this Court lack both the expertise and the familiarity with local problems so necessary to the making of wise decisions with respect to the raising and disposition of public revenues. . . . In addition to matters of fiscal policy, this case also involves the most persistent and difficult questions of educational policy, another area in which this Court’s lack of specialized knowledge and experience counsels against premature interference with the informed judgments made at the state and local levels. Education, perhaps even more than welfare assistance, presents a myriad of ‘intractable economic, social, and even philosophical problems.’ The very complexity of the problems of financing and managing a . . . public school system suggests that ‘there will be more than one constitutionally permissible method of solving them,’ and that, within the limits of rationality, ‘the legislature’s efforts to tackle the problems’ should be entitled to respect.”

Electing a Higher Future for Post-Chapter 9 San Bernardino? With an exit from chapter 9 bankruptcy finally within sight—and elections just around the corner, the San Bernardino City Council has voted to schedule not one, but at least two sets of debates at City Hall, after the Council overruled City Manager Mark Scott’s decision not to permit such debates. Mr. Scott had emailed those seeking or proposing such pre-election debates, debates customary in previous election years, that none would be permitted this election year,  out of a concern about a conflict of interest since the city had placed two measures on the ballot—albeit, in his email, Mr. Scott had written the City Council could vote to reverse him if it wished—an email which, unsurprisingly, drew a response from Council Members, some of whom attacked him for seeking to shut down free speech, while others defended him as implementing the implied direction of a Council that has directed staff not to spend any funds to educate the public about the city charter ballot measure. However, the Council has been unanimous in the vote to allow pre-election debates at City Hall and on the public access channel, waiving fees for both—or, as Councilman John Valdivia put it: “The actual statement from Mr. Scott is that there is a council discretion to overturn his decision, so I think he left it completely wide open for the Council to make the ultimate decision…This is unacceptable on behalf of what Mr. Scott is attempting to do.” Surprisingly, Mr. Scott was not at the meeting; however, he wrote in an email that it seemed “smart to stay completely arms-length” because the city was behind both Measure L (to replace the city charter), and Measure P, to replace the city’s marijuana ban with a regulatory scheme. City Attorney Gary Saenz noted: “It’s necessary to take precaution and care that you don’t cross over the line into endorsement and you stick within the parameters of education…Sometimes that’s hard to do. I personally encountered a forum – or a couple of forums, actually – when I was campaigning and there was a conflict of interest that I believe tainted the discussions.”

Entering Virgin Territory.  Just 17 miles from Puerto Rico lies the insular area, the U.S. Virgin Islands, which consist of the main islands of Saint Croix (where the author trained for his Peace Corps service in Liberia, West Africa) Saint John, and Saint Thomas, as well as many other surrounding minor islands reaching a total land area of 133.73 square miles with a population just over 106,000. Tourism is the primary economic activity, although there is a significant rum manufacturing sector. Previously part of the Kingdom of Denmark-Norway, they were sold to the United States in 1917: they are considered an organized, unincorporated U.S. Territory. The Territory has convened five constitutional conventions; however, its most recent and only proposed Constitution, adopted in 2009, was rejected by Congress in 2010. Thus, its status vis-à-vis the U.S. government, as it confronts severe fiscal challenges, is more difficult than Puerto Rico’s. Now U.S. Virgin Islands Gov. Kenneth Mapp has introduced legislation to authorize issuance of some $396 million in municipal bonds, with the goal of issuance this this fall—with the proposal for the fiscally challenged U.S. territory coming as his government is seeking approval of revenue increases and spending reductions. A confidential draft of the territory’s five-year financial plan of September 15th shows that, absent any changes in revenue measures or spending, the government anticipates operating deficits between $130 million and $140 million from FY2017—FY 2021, thus triggering the government to propose a wide array of revenue and spending initiatives—an array which the government projects would lead to operating deficits of $0.8 million in FY2017, $14.3 million in FY2018, and $13.8 million in FY2019—but followed by surpluses of $50 million in fiscal 2020 and $77.5 million in fiscal 2021. Gov. Mapp has, ergo, proposed revenue initiatives to increase the marine terminal user’s tax (adding $7 million in annual revenue), a new internet gross receipts tax ($5.1 million annually), an increase in cigarette taxes ($6.9 million a year), and an increase in beer taxes ($12.8 million annually)—both to reduce the current and projected deficits, but also to apply to economic development. The cuts he has proposed would affect hat it would produce at least $25 million annually. In the five year plan, Gov. Mapp proposes to take out a $55 million working capital loan and a $55 million draw on a line of credit; he projects using nearly 40 percent of the bond proceeds for operating expenses, and the balance for capital projects. Under his proposal, the interest rate on the bonds may not exceed 9.5%, nor a term of more than 30 years, with the draft legislation providing that the municipal bond issuance will be sold as either: a matching fund revenue bond, paid back with a portion of taxes on the sale of rum in the 50 states that the federal government sends to the Virgin Islands; or a gross receipts taxes bond, paid back from a government sales tax. Compared to Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands have significantly higher unemployment and murder rates, but a significantly better rate with regard to infant mortality.

Can Municipal Insolvency Affect Neighboring Municipalities?

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eBlog, 9/23/16

In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the chances of getting high in San Bernardino—the city in municipal bankruptcy longer than any other in U.S. history—but now on the verge not only of elections, but also ballot questions, including the legalization of marijuana—something which could, presumably not only make citizens high, but mayhap municipal revenues higher. Then we veer East to Michigan, where the complex issues imposed by the legislature on the virtually insolvent Detroit Public Schools, via the creation of a state-imposed charter and public school system has created threatening credit problems—as well as governance problems for the Detroit Public Schools. Finally, we head further East to the small Virginia municipality of Petersburg, famous as a site during the Civil War where, in nine months of trench war in which vastly outnumbered confederate forces warded off Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, the city was the essential supply line to Confederate Commander Robert E. Lee. Today, the historic city faces a fiscal rather than armed challenge—it is virtually insolvent—and, as we note—because now, as then, the small city is connected to other cities in the state, its insolvency could have ever widening fiscal ramifications–or fiscal contagion– for other municipalities…We wonder what the tipping point into insolvency might be–or when the Commonwealth of Virginia might feel compelled to act.  

Electing a Higher Future for Post-Chapter 9 San Bernardino? San Bernardino City Manager Mark Scott has informed the City Council he will not allow any of the traditional election forums or local election broadcasts unless a majority of the council members vote to undo his decision—even as Councilman Henry Nickel responded he considered that to be a decision which ought to be determined by the city’s elected leaders, calling it a “suppression of the First Amendment rights of the public to hear items that are relevant to our government: It is not up to the unilateral decision of the city manager to deviate substantially from prior practice and policy until and unless it has been presented by the City Council, which has the policy-making power both under the current charter and the (proposed) new city charter.” In his email to his colleagues on the Council, he emphasized, however, that even though the Council could reinstate election events and broadcasts, there might be a conflict of interest: “Just so you know, UNLESS directed otherwise by Council action, we have told those who have asked that we will NOT allow use of the Council Chamber for any election events or taping between now and the November election, nor will we be doing any local election broadcasts on Channel 3,” acknowledging that even though this “has been done in the past,” it just seemed “smart to stay completely arms’ length” this election year. The discussion came as city officials worked on and endorsed a measure that would replace San Bernardino’s city charter and another that would allow marijuana in the city—with the first measure, Measure L, to allow voters to replace the existing city charter with a new one created by a charter review committee—which, by a 6-1 vote, Council adopted. The manager’s announcement would also—unless reversed—mean there would be no public discussion about getting high on the three pending marijuana legalization measures—where all three have been authored by advocates of legalization and none representing the view that dispensaries should remain illegal—in part because only one counter-argument is printed against each measure for the November ballot, and — by random chance — City Clerk Gigi Hanna had selected arguments against each measure that had been filed by proponents of competing measures. (If more than one measure receives more than 50 percent of the vote, whichever measure gets the most “yes” votes will become law…) The city has had a medical marijuana ban on its books since 2007, but enforcement was ineffective, with dispensaries dotting the city in open defiance. City officials had attempted on several occasions to replace the ban with what they hoped would be a more effective regulatory framework; however, they were preempted last July when the City Council determined resident Vincent Guzman had secured sufficient signatures that legally his measure had to be put November’s ballot—Measure O—with Mr. Guzman having written: “Measure O is the only one to generate significant tax revenue for San Bernardino: It funds both enforcement and general city services. It reduces the number of dispensaries and eliminates them near our schools and homes.” In his advocacy, Mr. Guzman cited a study by economist Beau Whitney estimating that Measure O [“The San Bernardino Regulate Marijuana Act of 2016”] would allow an outside special interest group to establish a marijuana monopoly in the city,” the argument against contends: “Measure O circumvents local control and does not comply with our local general plan and land use policies.” Nevertheless, proponents claim the measure, if adopted, would generate between $19.5 million and $24.8 million in revenue for San Bernardino in addition to 2,750 jobs. Opening the doors to getting municipally high stimulated a second group to secure sufficient signatures to place its own, alternative regulation plan on the ballot—all of which led the City Council to draft its own version, which would require separate licenses for marijuana cultivation, marketing, testing, distribution, and dispensaries; application fees and enforcement fees would be set yearly to match the cost of providing the service. Under the city’s version, dispensaries could only be within industrial zones, and could not be within 600 feet of a school, park, library or recreation center, nor within 100 feet of a residential zone or religious center; and no two dispensaries could be within 1,000 feet of each other, amounting to a significant limitation on the number of dispensaries, according to Graham, the primary author of the initiative. The city’s proposal is on the ballot as Measure P, and it’s supported by the same group that opposed Measure O: “Measure P is the only medical marijuana ordinance supported and put on the ballot by our local elected officials,” the group’s ballot statement reads:  “Measure P was drafted by the city attorney’s office – and not by marijuana industry special interest groups.” The argument says Measure P is the only one that would retain local control, “including a potential ban.” In the alphabetic voting guide for readers, the other citizen-submitted ballot item, Measure N, an anti-marijuana measure supported by several City Council members, who claim that even though the harmful effects of marijuana are well-documented, the proponents continue to advocate for its legalization: “The legalization experiment in Colorado and Washington is a disaster. The ‘Regulate and Control’ policy attempt has failed, yielding huge increases in underage and adult use, and drugged driving.” That opposition is signed by Mayor Davis and City Council Members Jim Mulvihill, Fred Shorett, and Virginia Marquez.

Under the math, if voters provide more than 50 percent on the city’s drafted measure and more “yes” votes than either of the citizen-submitted initiatives, the municipally-written measure would become law. Moreover, unlike those initiatives, it could be modified as state law regarding marijuana changes, which led the City Council to put the medical marijuana regulation on the ballot in a 5-2 vote—albeit reluctantly, in some cases. The most vocal advocate of the ban has been Mayor Carey Davis, who gave extensive evidence that marijuana legalization has been harmful in Colorado and suggested it would stretch thin an already understaffed police department. But the city had no legal alternative to putting the two citizen initiatives on the ballot — other than immediately adopting the framework they suggest, and Deputy City Attorney Steven Graham said that was not an option, either, for the measure that imposed a tax on marijuana. (California law forbids cities from passing a tax without a vote of the public. It is unclear legally whether a voter-originated tax can pass in an election at which Council Members are not up for a vote, which is the case in November according to Counselor Graham.) The City-drafted measure would require:

  • separate licenses for marijuana cultivation, marketing, testing, distribution, and dispensaries;
  • application fees and enforcement fees would be set yearly to match the cost of providing the service;
  • Dispensaries could only be within industrial zones, and could not be within 600 feet of a school, park, library or recreation center, nor within 100 feet of a residential zone or religious center;
  • And no two dispensaries could be within 1,000 feet of each other, amounting to a significant limitation on the number of dispensaries, said Graham, the primary author of the initiative.

Protecting Tomorrow’s Leaders? The Michigan Finance Authority has approved a plan to issue $235 million of debt to refund some Detroit Public Schools (DPS) municipal bonds before they lose their state aid backing at the end of this month, approving an authorizing resolution for the issuance to be backed solely by an existing 18-mill non-homestead levy—with the fabulous Matt Fabian of Municipal Market Analytics warning the “investor will be at risk if the levy produced by the 18 mills continues to decline or is disrupted by, for example, assessment appeals in the future. Some kind of state backstop or protection would be needed to make this investment grade.” The Michigan Finance Authority has not, however, provided any indication with regard to whether it intends to backstop the bond refunding, albeit the Authority has stated the outstanding bonds will be refunded and defeased at par “plus any applicable redemption premium and accrued interest,” suggesting that those bondholders will be made whole—albeit with the uncertainty remaining that should the state-aid pledge evaporate or shift, there would be likely adverse credit quality implications, because of the shift to entire reliance on a property tax pledge. The outstanding bonds lost their investment grade status amid uncertainty about the state planned to restructure the debt after the state-ordered restructuring of Detroit Public Schools took effect July 1. The state assistance is set to shift to the state-mandated newly formed public school district that operates schools while the former district remains intact only to collect taxes and repay bonds. Under the provisions, the operating levy of roughly $50 million to $60 million per year will go to pay off debt service on the refunding bonds, which will retire 2011 and 2012 DPS state aid bonds with a final maturity of 2023. The state Finance Authority intends to issue the refunding bonds on or before the end of this month—the date when the current, outstanding bonds lose their state aid backing because, without students, the old district will no longer be able to collect state aid. The pending switch could cause fiscal shivers: the existing municipal bonds had initially carried S&P A ratings because of the state aid pledge; they also carried a limited tax general obligation pledge—albeit DPS’s underlying GO credit ratings are junk level—or, in school parlance, D-, with S&P last week having demoted the credit rating from B to BB-minus, warning that with the October deadline looming closer and ushering in the new fiscal year, there is increasing doubt with regard to whether bondholders would receive full and timely payment on their bonds—with the new drop the third such comparable action over the last three months—moodily moving in some syncopation with Moody’s, which recently revised the outlook on DPS’ Caa1 issuer rating to “developing” from “negative.”

What External Event Can Force a Municipality into Chapter 9 Bankruptcy? The City of Petersburg, the small, independent city in Virginia, a municipality on the steep edge of insolvency, and in which there seems little indication the Virginia legislature is poised to step in, a new shoe has dropped that would seem likely to precipitate a defining event: the South Central Wastewater Authority has filed a $1.2 million lawsuit over unpaid sewer bills, noting the has failed to pay for any wastewater services since May: “The City of Petersburg charges its residents for wastewater service. Under the service agreement between South Central and the city, these fees should be used to pay the costs of that service, including the costs of having the wastewater treated by South Central.” The suit seeks the appointment of a receiver to make sure the more than $1 million the authority says it is owed is not spent by the city on other things. According to the suit, filed in Petersburg Circuit Court, the authority is not only seeking to recover past-due amounts, but also requesting that the court appoint a receiver to supervise Petersburg’s billing and collection of wastewater fees from its residents, writing: “South Central seeks this appointment to ensure that the money is used for its intended purposes and that residents continue to receive the wastewater service they pay for…South Central is particularly dependent upon the regular and timely payment by the city of Petersburg, whose share of these costs account for more than half of South Central’s budget for operations and maintenance.” In addition to seeking payment of about $1.5 million in overdue service charges and penalties, South Central said it was filing the lawsuit “to request the court to appoint a receiver to supervise Petersburg’s billing and collection of wastewater fees from its residents. South Central seeks this appointment to ensure that the money is used for its intended purposes and that residents continue to receive the wastewater service they pay for,” adding that while the utility “appreciates the difficult financial circumstances the city of Petersburg is experiencing. Nevertheless, efforts to resolve the arrearages have been unsuccessful and — if left unaddressed — threaten the continued operation of South Central and the finances of the other member localities and their residents.” That is, there is a fiscal interdependence, and insolvency by Petersburg could have consequences for other Virginia public authorities, including the other four Virginia municipalities served by South Central. For its part, the city had billed residents for the service, but has not been remitting the fees to the CVWMA — a situation similar to what prompted South Central’s lawsuit. In response, interim Petersburg City Attorney Mark Flynn unsurprisingly noted the city “is disappointed that the authority has chosen to file a lawsuit,” adding that the “city is and has been working with the authority to resolve the amounts it owes: The lawsuit does not help the city and the authority in achieving resolution for the city’s obligations. As the authority and citizens know, the City Council and management have been working to resolve the city’s financial difficulties.” Moreover, for the municipality, in which a recent state audit of its finances determined the city is facing a $12 million budget gap in the current fiscal year while dealing with nearly $19 million in unpaid bills, including those to South Central, the suit threatens to unravel efforts by city officials to close the budget gap and repay unpaid obligations—efforts including its approval earlier this month of a series of austerity measures aimed at freeing up much-needed cash flow, including tax increases, pay cuts of city staff members, and the closing of the city’s three museums.

When it Rains, it Pours. The suit could hardly have come at a more inopportune time—as Rochelle Small-Toney, a deputy city manager in Fayetteville, North Carolina, has just removed herself out of the competition to be the city’s next city manager, according to Petersburg Mayor W. Howard Myers III—she had been in the city last week as City Council convened to hire a city manager in the midst of an ongoing financial crisis; however, Council Members were unable to agree on a hire and adjourned the meeting without taking action after local media reported that Ms. Small-Toney had resigned in the midst of a financial controversy from a previous position as city manager of Savannah, Georgia; ergo, the Council had voted unanimously to hire an executive search firm to conduct a national search for a new city manager—albeit with what funds unclear. Indeed, when asked by Ward 4 Councilman Brian Moore what funding source could be tapped to pay for the search, he was advised to talk with the city’s Finance Department and negotiate the best possible financial arrangement: Petersburg has been operating without a permanent city manager since early last March, when William E. Johnson III was fired amid the municipality’s emerging fiscal crisis and a furor over the mishandling of a plan to replace water meters throughout the city. Former City Attorney Brian Telfair resigned at the same time for health reasons. Dironna Moore Belton, who was the general manager of Petersburg Area Transit at the time, was named shortly afterward as interim city manager. At the same time, Mark Flynn of the Richmond law firm of Woodley & Flynn was contracted to act as interim city attorney. Ms. Belton is one of the applicants for the permanent city manager position; however, it is unclear whether she and the other candidates will have to re-apply if a search firm is hired.