Returning from Municipal Bankruptcy

February 7, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the remarkable signs of fiscal recovery from the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, before returning to consider the ongoing fiscal recovery of Atlantic City, where the chips had been down, but where the city’s elected leaders are demonstrating resiliency.

Taking the Checkered Flag. John Hill, Detroit’s Chief Financial Officer, this week reported the Motor City had realized its first net increase in residential property values in more than 15 years. Although property taxes, unlike in most cities and counties, in Detroit only account for 17.1% of municipal revenues (income taxes bring in 20.4%), the increase marked the first such increase in 16 years—demonstrating not just the fiscal turnaround, but also indicating the city’s revitalization is spreading to more of its neighborhoods. Mr. Hill described it as a “positive sign of the recovery that’s occurring in the city,” and another key step to its emergence from strict state fiscal oversight under the city’s chapter 9 plan of debt adjustment. As Mr. Hill put it: “We do believe that we’ve hit bottom, and we’re now on the way up.” Nevertheless, Mr. Hill was careful to note he does not anticipate significant gains in property tax revenues in the immediate future, rather, as he put it: “[O]ver time, it will certainly have a very positive impact on the city’s revenue.” According to the city, nearly 60 percent of residents will experience a rise of 10 percent or less in assessments this year: the average assessed home value in Detroit is between $20,000 and $50,000. The owner of a home within that range could see an increase in their taxes this year of $22 to $34, according to Alvin Horhn, the city’s chief assessor. Detroit has the seventh highest rate among Michigan municipalities, with a 70.1 mills rate for owner-occupied home in city of Detroit/Detroit school district. Mr. Hill noted that for Detroit properties which show an increase in value this year, the rate will be capped; therefore he projects residents will not experience significant increases except for certain circumstances, such as a property changing hands.

Nevertheless, in the wake of years in which the city’s assessing office had reduced assessments across Detroit to reflect the loss in property values, the valuation or assessment turnaround comes as, in the past decade, the cumulative assessed value of all residential property was $8.4 billion, officials noted Monday: and now it is on the rise: last year, that number was $2.8 billion; this year, the assessed value of Detroit’s 263,000 residential properties rose slightly to $3 billion—or, as Mr. Horhn noted: “For the last 12 to 17 years, we’ve been making massive cuts in the residential (property) class to bring the values in line with the market…It’s been a long ride, but for the first time in a very long time, we see increases in the residential class of property in the city of Detroit.” This year’s assessments come in the wake of a systemic, citywide reassessment of its properties to bring them in line with market value—a reassessment initiated four years ago as part of a state overhaul to bring Detroit’s assessment role into compliance with the General Property Tax Act to ensure all assessments are at one half of the market value and that like properties are uniform. That overhaul imposed a deadline of this August for Detroit to comply with state oversight directives imposed in 2014 in the wake of mismanagement in Detroit’s Assessment Division, widespread over-assessments, and rampant tax delinquencies in the wake of an investigation finding that Detroit was over assessing homes by an average of 65%, based upon an analysis of more than 4,000 appeal decisions by a state tax board. Mr. Hill asserts now that he is confident Detroit’s assessments are fair; better yet, he reports the fixes have led to more residents paying property taxes. Indeed, city officials note that property tax collections increased from an average rate of 69% in 2012-14 to 79 percent in 2015, and 80 percent in 2016; the collection rate for 2017 is projected to be 82%. Mayor Mike Duggan, in a statement at the beginning of the week, noted: “We still have a long way to go to in rebuilding our property values, but the fact that we have halted such a long, steep decline is a significant milestone…This also corresponds with the significant increase in home sale prices we have seen in neighborhoods across the city.”

At the same time, Mr. Horhn notes that Detroit’s commercial properties have increased in value to nearly $3 billion, while industrial properties recovered from a drop last year, rising from $314 million to $513 million. He added that the demolition of blighted homes, as well as improving city services, had contributed to the rise in assessed property values: “It’s perception to a large extent: If people believe things are improving, they’ll invest, and I think that’s what we’re seeing.”

Raking in the Chips? In the wake of a state takeover, and the loss—since 2014, of 11,000 jobs in the region, Atlantic City marked a new step in its fiscal recovery with interviews commencing for the former bankrupt Trump Taj Mahal casino to reopen this summer as a Hard Rock casino resort. Indeed, 1,400 former Taj Mahal employees applied after an invitational event, marking what Hard Rock president Matt Harkness described as the “first brush stroke of the renaissance.” The casino is projected to create more than 3,000 jobs—and to be followed by the re-opening Ocean Resort Casino, which will add thousands of additional jobs. The rising revenues come after, last year, gambling revenue increased for the second consecutive year, marking a remarkable turnaround in the wake of a decade in which five of the city’s 12 casinos shut down, eliminating 11,000 jobs—and, from the fiscal perspective, sharply hurt assessed property values and property tax revenues. New Jersey Casino Control Commission Chair James Plousis noted: “Every single casino won more, and every internet operation reported increased win last year…Total internet win had its fourth straight year of double-digit increases. It shows an industry that is getting stronger and healthier and well-positioned for the future.” In fact, recent figures by the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement show the seven casinos won $2.66 billion in 2017, an increase of 2.2 percent over 2016. Christopher Glaum, Deputy Chief of Financial Investigations for the gaming enforcement division, noted that 2017 was the first year since 2006 when a year-over-year increase in gambling revenue at brick-and-mortar casinos occurred. Moreover, many are betting on the recovery to gain momentum: two of the five casinos which were shuttered in recent years are due to reopen this summer: the Taj—as reported above—under its new ownership, and the Revel, which closed in 2014, will reopen as the Ocean Resort Casino. The fiscal bookies are, however, uncertain about the odds of the reintroduction of two new casinos, apprehensive that that could over saturate the market; however, the rapid increase in internet gaming, which, last year, increased earnings for the casinos by 25 percent appear to demonstrate momentum.  

Now, the fiscal challenge might rest more at the state level, where the new administration of Gov. Phil Murphy, who promised major spending initiatives during his campaign, had been counting on revenue increases from restoring the income tax surcharge on millionaires and legalizing and taxing marijuana. The latter, however, could go up in a proverbial puff of weed—and, in any event, would arrive too late for this year’s Garden State budget. Similarly, the new federal “tax reform” act’s capping on the deduction for state and local taxes will mean increased federal income taxes most for well-off residents of high-tax states such as New Jersey—raising apprehension that a new state surcharge might encourage higher income residents to leave. That effort, however, has been panned by the New Jersey Policy Perspective, which notes: “Policy changes to avoid the new $10,000 cap on state and local tax deductions would mostly benefit New Jersey’s wealthiest families.” New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Depford) notes: “We don’t have a tax problem in New Jersey. New Jersey collects plenty in taxes. We have a government problem in New Jersey, and it’s called too much of it,” noting he has tasked a panel of fellow state Senators and tax experts to “looking at everything,” including the deduction issue. In addition, he is seriously considering shifting to countywide school districts, where possible, in an effort to reduce costs. Or, as he put it: “There is a lot of money to be saved when you do things differently.” Turning to efforts to restore Atlantic City’s finances, the state Senate President said the city is “doing great;” nevertheless, noting that talk about ending the state takeover is unrealistic: “We can adjust certain things there” and Governor Murphy will select someone new to be in charge. But end the state takeover?  “Absolutely not and it’s legislated for five years.”

It seems ironic that in the city where Donald Trump’s company filed for bankruptcy protection five times for the casinos he owned or operated in the city, he was able to simply walk away from his debts: he argued that he had simply used federal bankruptcy laws to his advantage—demonstrating, starkly, the difference between personal and municipal bankruptcy.

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The Raceway to Recovery

Taking the Checkered Flag. Detroit, on the verge of posting its third consecutive balanced budget, appears on course to exit state oversight as early as next year in the wake of yesterday’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) demonstrating the Motor City has steadied its finances after emerging more than three years ago from the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. The state’s Detroit Financial Review Board could vote to waive its authority over the city as early as next month, according to Detroit Chief Financial Officer John Hill, who noted: “We believe we have met all the criteria for the waiver…I believe this will be the last budget that will be done under the FRC’s authority.” The CAFR, officially released Wednesday, appears to support the city’s hopes to soon regain full authority over its own finances: The report notes that Detroit ended its FY2017 with a $53.8 million general fund operating surplus and revenues exceeding expenditures by $108.6 million—even better than the city had originally projected: it ended its most recent fiscal year with a $63 million surplus—as well as a general fund unassigned fund balance of $169 million, better than 15% increase from the previous fiscal year, leading CFO Hill, as he prepares to present the results to the commission at a meeting later this month, to note: “It allows us to have a really good base of information as we are going into our budget process…It also gives us a chance to address some of the items that are identified as things we need to work on.” Mr. Hill added that Detroit has demonstrated vast improvements in its financial health, citing credit rating agency upgrades from rating agencies, a higher employment rate, and enhanced assessed property values: “I have to say that certainly there has been a positive impact from the financial review commission oversight: It’s been a real constructive process where the city has excelled.”

For his part, Mayor Mike Duggan noted that a third straight balanced budget proves his administration, in partnership with the City Council can “effectively manage the city’s finances: “This is another big step forward and helps set the stage for the end of the active state financial oversight,” as the Mayor preps to present the new budget later this month. Detroit Financial Review Commission member “Ike” McKinnon also credited the leadership role Mayor Duggan deserved for with getting the city’s finances back on track: “I remember when Mike Duggan took over as Mayor, we certainly had some hope and thoughts that things would happen…I did not know that it would happen this quickly. This says a lot about what he’s doing and certainly working with the state.”

The state’s financial review commission could vote to waive its authority over the city as early as next month, according to Mr. Hill. Zin any event, even if it does not, Detroit would no longer require the state board’s approval on budgeting or contracts, as it has since exiting chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. As Mr. Hill put it: “We believe we have met all the criteria for the waiver…I believe this will be the last budget that will be done under the FRC’s authority.”

Key highlights of Detroit’s CAFR include the Motor City ending FY2017 fiscal year with a $53.8 million general fund operating surplus and revenues exceeding expenditures by $108.6 million. (The City had projected a $51 million surplus for FY2017). Detroit’s general fund unassigned fund balance will be $169 million, a $26 million increase from the previous fiscal year, according to the report. 

Detroit has also reported improvements in its management of $100 million in federal grants with no questioned costs resulting from audits, for the second consecutive year—after, two years ago, the city had federal funding for blight demolition funding suspended for two months due to procedural errors. Thus, hopes are high for the release from state oversight, albeit, concerns remain with regard to the looming 2024 pension payment and subsequent debt restructuring the following year. Mr. Hill notes: “I am sure that the FRC, as well as the city–because we are dealing with those issues, will be looking at those two items to make sure that plans are in place, money has been put aside, and the budget is able to absorb the additional costs that will come in those years.” Detroit is confronted by challenges to amortize debt payments on roughly $630 million of B notes that would see payments jump from $60 million to $120 million by 2025—notes issued as part of the implementation of Detroit’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy plan of debt adjustment—notes which are unsecured. Indeed, pending before the City Council is a proposal pending to dedicate $50 million from the city coffers to pay begin paying off the debt. Going forward, according to Mr. Hill, the strategy would be to dedicate a combination of restructuring some of the debt as well as paying it off, with the effort to address pension obligations a critical component to shoring up Detroit’s long-term fiscal health. The Motor City’s  long-term funding model approved by the City Council to modify its pension provisions which established the Retiree Protection Trust Fund, and deposited $105 million–$90 million from amounts reserved in FY2016 and 2017, plus $15 million appropriated in Fiscal 2018—and, for FY2018-2021 including the addition of an additional $115 million, contemplates another $115 million from FY2022–FY2023.

Calming the Fiscal Waters

eBlog

January 24, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the physical, governance, and fiscal challenges confronted—and overcome, by the City of Flint, Michigan.

Restoring Fiscal Municipal Authority. For the first time in seven years, Flint, Michigan local officials are in control of the city’s daily finances and government decisions after, on Monday, Michigan Treasurer Nick Khouri signed off on a recommendation from Flint’s Receivership Transition Advisory Board (RTAB), the state-appointed board overseeing Flint’s fiscal recovery-to grant Mayor Karen Weaver and the Council greater authority in daily decision-making. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, seven years ago, preempted local governance and fiscal authority after concurring with a state review panel that there was a “local government financial emergency” in Flint, and that an emergency financial manager should be appointed to oversee the city’s affairs. The Governor ultimately appointed four emergency managers to run the city from 2011 until 2015–two of whom were subsequently charged with criminal wrongdoing related to their roles in the Flint water crisis. In declaring the financial emergency in Flint, state officials said city leaders had failed to fix a structural deficit and criticized city officials for not moving with the degree of urgency required considering the seriousness of the city’s financial problems.

Notwithstanding, the State of Michigan retains authority with regard to certain fiscal and budgetary issues, including approval of the municipality’s budget, requests to issue debt, and collective bargaining agreements. Treasurer Khouri noted:  “Today is an important day for our shared goal of moving Flint forward…Thanks to the progress city leaders have made, this is an appropriate time for the Mayor and City Council to assume greater responsibility for day-to-day operations and finances.” Mayor Weaver noted: “This is an exciting development for the city of Flint…We have been waiting for this for years,” adding the state action will bring the city a step closer to its ultimate goal of home rule through rescinding Michigan’s Emergency Order 20, which mandated that resolutions approved by both Mayor Weaver and the City Council receive the state board’s approval before going into effect.

Mayor Weaver, in the wake of the long saga in which a state-imposed emergency manager had led to a massive physical and fiscal crisis, said she has hopes for the city and state to “officially divorce” by the end of this year, noting that with the appointment of CFO Hughey Newsome last  year, the newly elected City Council, and approval of a 30-year contract with the Great Lakes Water Authority; Flint is both more fiscally and physically solvent: the new water contract is projected to save Flint as much as $9 million by providing a more favorable rate—an important consideration  with GLWA and addresses $7 million in debt service payments the city is currently obligated to pay on bonds issued to finance the Karegnondi Water Authority pipeline under construction.

The city of just over 100,000, with a majority minority population where just under 30 percent of the families have a female head of household, and where 33.9 percent of all households were made up of individuals and just under 10 percent had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older, finances its budget via a 1 percent income tax on residents and 0.5 percent on non-residents: it has a strong Mayor-council form of government. It has operated under at least four charters, beginning in 1855: its current charter provides for a strong Mayor form of government—albeit one which has instituted the appointment of an Ombudsperson; the City Council is composed of members elected from Flint’s nine wards.

In the wake of ending its water contract with Detroit via a state-appointed emergency manager, its travails—physical and fiscal were triggered: the state appointed  emergency manager shifted to Flint River water as the city awaited completion of a new KWA pipeline—but that emergency manager failed to ensure safe drinking water as part of the switch—a failure which, as we have noted, led to the contamination crisis which poisoned not just the city’s drinking water, but also its fiscal stability—leading to nearly eight years of a state takeover in the wake of Gov. Rick Snyder’s 2011 declaration of a financial emergency within the city.

Even though Gov. Snyder declared an end to Flint’s financial emergency on April 29, 2015, the RTAB, which is appointed by the Governor, had continued to review financial decisions in the city. Discussions with regard to planning the RTAB’s departure from Flint began last August as part of an annual report from the Michigan Treasury Department mandated for Michigan municipalities operating under financial receivership. Thus, Treasurer Khouri’s signature was the final stamp of approval needed to thrust the RTAB unanimous suggestion of January 11th into immediate action, repealing an order mandating that the State of Michigan review all decisions made by the Mayor and Council—and ending a long and traumatic state takeover which caused immense human physical and municipal devastation. It marked the final step from the city’s emergence two years ago in April from the control of a state-imposed emergency manager to home rule order under the guidance of a the state-imposed Board—a board devised with the aim of ensuring a smooth transition by maintaining the measures prescribed upon the emergency manager’s exit. Here, as we have previously noted, the Emergency Manager was appointed by the Governor under Public Act 436 to preempt local elected leadership and to bring long-term financial stability back to the city by addressing any and all issues which had threatened the Flint’s fiscal solvency—but which, instead, first led to greater fiscal stress, and, more critically, to physical harm and danger to Flint’s citizens, thereby jeopardizing the very fiscal help which the state purported to want. Four different individuals served as emergency manager from December 2011 to April 2015: in order, they were Michael K. Brown, Edward J. Kurtz, Darnell Earley, and Gerald Ambrose.

The action repealed Emergency Manager Order No. 20, an order imposed by former Flint Emergency Manager Jerry Ambrose in his final days with the city—an order which mandated resolutions approved by both the Mayor and City Council in order to receive the Advisory Board’s approval, prior to going into effect. as Mayor Weaver put it, the step was a “welcome end to an arranged marriage,” adding: “We are so thankful‒and I’m speaking on behalf of the proud, great city of Flint: the RTAB has been in place for several years now, and one of the things it did represent is that the city was in turmoil and financial distress. And I know over the past two years we have been fiscally responsible… I think it’s absolutely time, and time for the locally elected officials to run the city, and we’ve been anxiously ready to do so….this feels like a welcome way to end an arranged marriage.”

Mayor Weaver noted that the appointment of Hughey Newsome as Flint’s interim chief financial officer, combined with the city’s new Council members and approval of a 30-year contract with the Great Lakes Water Authority, has helped to move Flint in a fiscally and financially solvent direction.

The Motor City’s Road to Recovery

eBlog

January 17, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the ongoing fiscal recovery in Detroit from the nation’s largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy.

The City of Detroit, which filed for municipal bankruptcy protection on July 19, 2013—in what remains the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, in what then-Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr described as “the Olympics of restructuring,” a step he took to ensure continuity of essential services and critical to rebuilding the Motor City, continues on its resurgent comeback, with last years home sales ending on a high note. After decades of population decline (In 1950, there were 1,849,568 people in Detroit; by 2010, there were 713,777), the city reported the median sales price increased from last year to this year by nearly 50%. Realcomp Ltd. Data, moreover, indicates continued increases in assessed values this year: median sales prices increased from $159,000 in 2016 to $170,000 last year, while average days listed declined from 74 a year ago in December to 44 last month. Realcomp Board of Governor David Elya predicts demand and market listing will increase further this year, noting the Motor City is experiencing a higher inventory crunch due to higher demand—demand driven by a solid employment outlook—a remarkable turnaround from the onset of its chapter 9 filing, when the Motor City was home to an estimated 40,000 abandoned lots and structures: between 1978 and 2007, Detroit lost 67 percent of its business establishments and 80 percent of its manufacturing base. Or, as the insightful Billy Hamilton wrote at the time: the city was “either the ghost of a lost time and place in America, or a resource of enormous potential.”

Detroit, which relies on taxes and state-shared revenues higher than those of any other large Michigan municipality on a per capita basis, derives its revenues from a broader base than most municipalities: property taxes, income tax, utility taxes, a casino wagering tax, and state-shared revenues. Notwithstanding, its revenues, prior to its filing, had declined over the previous decade by 22 percent, even as it was accruing more debt based on obligations for post-employment benefits. The city’s decline into chapter 9 predated the housing crisis, or, as the Citizens Research Council reported: the overall loss of 15,648 business establishments from 1972 until 2007 did not capture the effects of the severe 2008 recession, much less the bankruptcies and subsequent recovery of General Motors and Chrysler and the restructuring of the automotive supplier network, on the number of businesses in the city.

Nevertheless, persistence, along with the sharp recovery of the automobile markets, combined with the city’s being home to one of the broadest tax bases of any city in the U.S. [Municipal income taxes constitute the city’s largest single source, contributing about 21 percent of total revenue in 2012, or $323.5 million in 2002, the last year in which the city realized a general fund surplus.] appears to have been instrumental in the remarkable turnaround.

The Precipitous Chapter 9 Road to Recovery

January 3, 2018

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s Blog, we consider the fiscal, scholastic, and governing challenges of the city emerging from the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

The Steep Fiscal Road to Recovery.  After years of failed leadership, financial mismanagement, quasi-chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy which led to a state takeover; the state of Detroit’s Public Schools Community District remains vital to encouraging young families to move back into the city—especially in the wake, last month, of DPS failing to meet critical deadlines necessary to be eligible for vital state aid.  (In 2016, Michigan enacted a $617 million DPS bailout, as we have previously noted.) That action separated the district’s debt from a new district that could start fresh. Now, renewed state intervention would be a critical fiscal step backwards; thus it is fortunate that Superintendent Nikolai Vitti appears to be on top of the situation: he warns that disciplinary action will follow in the wake of DPS’ failure to meet these deadlines, making it critical the Superintendent can trust his staff. It is especially vital now in the wake of a second credit rating upgrade—with the report card having recorded, last month, that DPS that Detroit Public Schools had lost out on $6.5 million in fiscal assistance to whittle down its old debt, because DPS officials had failed to turn in paperwork homework on time, according to Superindent Vitti (Michigan reimburses its public school districts for debt loss under Public Act 86 if they met the Aug. 15 deadline; thus, Superindent Vitte, on Monday, reported: “At this point, Detroit Public Schools is not eligible for the $6.5 million-dollar reimbursement from the state…After speaking with state officials, the available funds have already been disbursed to other qualifying entities. However, we will continue to petition the state to receive the reimbursement.”

Under the agreement, Detroit’s old district is still obligated to pay down its past operating debt; thus, the system’s failure to meet two deadlines last year cost not $6.5 million in aid from the state to help pay down its debt, but also a loss of public trust and confidence. As Superintendent Vitte noted last month: “At this point, Detroit Public Schools is not eligible for the $6.5 million-dollar reimbursement from the state: After speaking with state officials, the available funds have already been disbursed to other qualifying entities.” According to Superintendent Vitti, former CFO Marios Demetriou received the documents, but never completed them or sent them to the state. Even though the missed payout from the state is not expected to harm the day-to-day operations of the new district, it appears to curry a D grade; more importantly, it delays repayment of DPS’ legacy debt—or, as Superintendent Vitti notes: it is “unacceptable….The inability to submit the reimbursement form on time is a vestige of the past that continues to haunt the district…This is directly associated with the need for stronger leaders, systems, and processes. The individuals who were closest to the responsibility to submit the form will no longer be with the district.”

The unscholarly missteps appear to have contributed to ongoing doubts about the city’s fiscal acumen: The Motor City’s credit ratings remain deep in junk-bond territory, even after S&P Global Ratings last month upgraded Detroit’s credit rating from B to B+, while Moody’s last October had lifted its to B1 in the wake of the city’s launch of a new web portal to improve investor access to its financial data and bond offerings, Stephen Winterstein, a Managing Director and chief municipal fixed income strategist at Wilmington Trust Investment Advisors, Inc. to note he was “really optimistic about what they have been doing in terms of disclosure and the investor website is definitely a move in the right direction: The road to recovery is a long one, and I think that Detroit is doing the right things.”

Since exiting from the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in American history just three years ago last month, Detroit has issued debt twice: in August 2015 with $245 million of local government loan program revenue bonds, and in August 2016 with a $615 million general obligation/distributable state aid backed bond sale—albeit both issuances were via the Michigan Finance Authority, with the first enhanced with a statutory lien and intercept feature on the city’s income taxes. CFO John Naglick said that Detroit is also close to deciding on the underwriting team for a request for proposals it launched in October to find banks to lead a tender offer and refunding of its unsecured financial recovery municipal bonds with the aim of lowering its costs and easing a future escalation of debt service. For its part, S&P, in its upgrade, cited positive momentum the city is building with regard to stabilizing its operations and being better prepared to address future significant increases in pension contributions—or, as the agency noted: “We believe the city’s financial position is now more transparent compared with recent years, as is Detroit’s long-term financial strategy, which relies on fairly conservative growth assumptions…We also believe that the city has a stronger capacity to service its debt obligations than in years past.” Indeed, Detroit’s credit ratings are the highest since March of 2012, just over a year before Kevin Orr filed for chapter 9 bankruptcy in July of 2013. Nevertheless, Detroit’s credit rating remains deep in junk territory and vulnerable to another recession, say market participants. Or, as Michigan Attorney General and gubernatorial Bill Scheutte notes: “We still believe Detroit faces a long path that will require years of prudent decision-making from management and the avoidance of major economic shocks before its debt makes sense for investors looking for high-quality municipal exposure…The city still has an abundance of extremely high-risk characteristics and speculative-grade qualities that investors should be very cognizant of and understand what they are taking on.” Notwithstanding, Detroit appears to be on course to exit state oversight this year: it has presented deficit-free budgets for two consecutive years, enabling it to exit from oversight by the Financial Review Commission oversight; it ended FY2016 with a $63 million surplus; Detroit’s four-year forecast predicts an anemic annual growth rate of only about 1%; thus, any adverse public school news could have repercussions.

 

Governance Amidst Fiscal and Stormy Challenges & Uneven Federalism

December 1, 2017

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

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catalysts to Fiscal Recoveries

November 10, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the ongoing challenges to Detroit’s recovery from the nation’s largest ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy; the State of Michigan’s winnowing down of municipalities under state oversight; and the ongoing physical and fiscal challenges to Puerto Rico.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

Reframing the Motor City’s Post Chapter 9 Future. Nolan Finley, a wonderful contributor to the editorial page of the Detroit News, this week noted “elections are a wonderful catalyst for refocusing priorities, as evidenced by the just-completed Detroit mayoral campaign, which moved the city’s comeback conversation away from the downtown development boom and centered it on the uneven progress of the neighborhoods. Never before has such an intense spotlight shown on the places where most Detroit voters actually live.” He attributed some of the credit to the loser in this week’s mayoral election, challenger Coleman Young II, who forced Mayor Mike Duggan to defend his record on improving quality of life in the neighborhoods. He perceptively wrote that while candidate Young’s ugly “Take back the Motherland” rallying cry was dispiriting, it spoke to the governing challenge the newly, re-elected Mayor confronts, writing: “Detroit is not a city united. It must become one. There were too many skirmishes along the racial divide in this mayoral contest. The old city versus suburb story line was replaced by a neighborhood versus downtown narrative, but both are code for black versus white. Four years ago, Duggan’s election as Detroit’s first white mayor in 40 years suggested much of the city was ready to stop looking back at its dark and divisive past and begin focusing on a brighter future.” Now, he wrote, after Mayor Duggan focused his first term on meeting the city’s plan of debt adjustment, and trying to improve the quality of life for residents—and as developers are beginning to add community projects to their downtown portfolios, “too many in the neighborhoods feel as if their lives are not getting better, or at least not fast enough.” Thus, he noted, Mayor Duggan needs to redouble his efforts to restore the city’s residential communities, and push ahead the timetable: “Four years from now, Detroit cannot still be wearing the mantle of America’s most violent city.” He added that while Mayor Duggan has little—too little—authority to address education in Detroit; nevertheless—just as his colleague Rahm Emanuel, the Mayor of Chicago recognized, needs to strongly back Detroit Public School Superintendent Nikolai Vitti’s efforts to rapidly boost the performance of the Detroit Public Schools Community District: it is a key to bringing young families back into the city. And, Mr. Finley wrote, the mayor “must also find a way to connect the neighborhoods to downtown, to instill in all residents a sense of ownership and pride in the rejuvenation of the core city. That means getting way better at inclusion. Downtown’s comeback must be more diverse, and include many more of the people who have grown up and stayed in the city. Encouraging and supporting more African-American entrepreneurs is a great place to begin breaking down the perception that downtown is just for white people: Detroit needs more diversity everywhere in the city, both racial and economic,” referring especially to young millennials who are steeped in social justice and imbued with the obsession to give back that marks their generation. “They are committed Detroiters. And they deserve to be appreciated for their contributions, not made to feel guilty or viewed as a threat to hard-won gains.”

Free, Free at Last. Michigan State officials have released Royal Oak Township, a municipality of about 2,500 just north of Detroit, from its consent agreement: Michigan Treasurer Nick Khouri said the Oakland County municipality has resolved its financial emergency and is ready to emerge from the state oversight imposed since 2014, stating: “I am pleased to see the significant progress Royal Oak Charter Township has made under the consent agreement…Township officials went beyond the agreement and enacted policies that provide the community an opportunity to flourish. I am pleased to say the township is released from its agreement and look forward to working with them as a local partner in the future.” The township’s financial emergency resulted in an assets FY2012 deficit of nearly $541,000. Township Supervisor Donna Squalls noted: “Royal Oak Charter Township is in better shape than ever…The collaboration between state and township has provided an opportunity to enact reforms to ensure our long-term fiscal sustainability.” Treasurer Khouri also said the township was the last Michigan remaining municipality following a consent agreement: Over the last two years, Wayne County, Inkster, and River Rouge were released from consent agreements because of fiscal and financial improvements and operational reforms. The Treasurer noted that today only three communities, Ecorse, Flint, and Hamtramck, remain under state oversight through a Receivership Transition Advisory Board.

Preempting Authority. House Natural Resources Committee Chair Rob Bishop (R—Utah) this week said the PROMESA Oversight Board should be granted even more power to preempt the authority of the government of Puerto Rico, stating: “Today’s testimony will inform the work of Congress to ensure the Oversight Board and federal partners have the tools to coordinate an effective and sustained recovery,” in a written statement after a hearing of the House Committee on Natural Resources: “It is clear that a stronger mechanism will be necessary to align immediate recovery with long-term revitalization and rebuilding.” Chairman Bishop added: “This committee will work to ensure [the Puerto Rico Oversight Board] has the tools to effectively execute that mission and build a path forward for this island and its residents.” The Board was created last year to oversee fiscal management by the island government, which had said more than $70 billion of debt was unpayable under current economic conditions. Since the hurricane, the Board has clashed with the territorial government over leadership at the power utility. During the hearing the board’s Executive Director, Natalie Jaresko, said the ability of Puerto Rico’s government to repay its debt was “gravely worse” than it was before Hurricane Maria, which arrived Sept. 20. By the end of December, the Board plans to complete a 30 year debt sustainability analysis with Puerto Rico’s government, she said: “After the hurricane, it is even more critical that the Board be able to operate quickly and decisively…to avoid uncertainty and lengthy delays in litigation, Congressional reaffirmation of our exercise of our authority is welcome.” On Oct. 27, the board had filed a motion in the Title III bankruptcy case for the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) seeking the court’s permission to appoint Noel Zamot as the authority’s new leader. The government of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has made it clear that it intends to challenge this motion. The court is scheduled to hold a hearing on the matter on Monday, November 13th.

In calling for more board power, Chairs Bishop and Jaresko probably were at least partly referring to the struggle over PREPA’s leadership. They may also want the Board’s power augmented in other ways: the Board has already announced that it will be creating five-year fiscal plan for Puerto Rico’s government and for its public authorities this winter. Puerto Rico’s government will have substantial needs for federal aid in the coming years, Ms. Jaresko said. Congress plans to tie this aid to the government following the Board’s fiscal plan and this would be appropriate, she said. “Before the hurricanes, the board was determined that Puerto Rico and its instrumentalities could achieve balanced budgets, work its way through its debt problems, and develop a sustainable economy without federal aid,” Ms. Jaresko said in her written testimony. “That is simply no longer possible. Without unprecedented levels of help from the United States government, the recovery we were planning for will fail.” She also said that over the next 1.75 years Puerto Rico’s government will need federal help closing a gap of between $13 billion and $21 billion for basic services. She added the federal government should change tax laws to benefit the island: “The representatives of the Financial Oversight and Management Board (FOMB) who appeared before the House Committee on Natural Resources insist on jeopardizing the necessary resources for the payment of pensions and job stability,” Gov. Rosselló testified in his written statement, adding to that the testimony of Ms. Jaresko and Mr. Zamot “evidenced ignorance about the recovery process in Puerto Rico, presenting incorrect figures relating to the existing conditions on the island,” adding: “I again invite the FOMB to collaborate so that the government of Puerto Rico, together with the support of the federal government, facilitates the fastest possible recovery of our island.” He noted that such assistance should not depend on the Board “assuming the administrative role” which belongs to the elected government of Puerto Rico.

Sanctioned Discrimination. The endorsement that the House Ways and Means Committee effectively incorporated in its “tax reform” legislation reported out of Committee this week appears to discriminate against Puerto Rico, imposing a tariff on the products which Puerto Rico exports to the mainland—threatening to deal a devastating blow to Puerto Rico’s industrial base at the very moment in time the territory is striving to recover from the already disparate hurricane recovery blows. According to economists Joaquín Villamil: “None of these measures, nor the repatriation of profits, the corporate rate and the 20% tax on imports is positive for the island…The companies are not going to pay a 4% royalty to Puerto Rico and a 20% tax to bring their product to the United States. They will leave the island, especially if the tax rate is lowered there.” Mr. Villamil added: “If that happens, 21% of the income received by the Puerto Rican Treasury is eliminated,” he added, referencing P.L. 154, the statute which established a 4% tax on sales of an operation in Puerto Rico to its parent company in the mainland. In its markup, yesterday, the House Ways and Means Committee left almost intact §4303 which establishes a 20% tariff on all imported goods for resale by companies and businesses in the United States. Moreover, the disposition forces multinationals with operations in places such as the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico to repatriate their income to the U.S. What that means is that the production of drugs, medical devices, and many other goods in Puerto Rico is done on U.S. soil; however, for federal tax purposes, Puerto Rico is deemed an international jurisdiction—or, as economist Luis Benítez notes: “This (House Ways and Means bill) generates greater uncertainty about what the economic future of the island should be: with this, the figure of the controlled foreign corporation (CFC) loses the competitive advantage it had (under §936).” He noted that by reducing the corporate rate to multinationals operating in Puerto Rico, the benefit of giving them tax exemptions at the local level is also reduced, as is the case of Law 73 on Industrial Incentives: via the elimination of §936, Puerto Rico, as a place to do business, went from competing with the continental U.S. to competing with countries such as Singapore and Ireland, adding that now a reduction in the corporate rate would cause Puerto Rico not only to compete with the rest of the world, but with jurisdictions on the mainland: “I think that if I were the Secretary of the Treasury, I would tremble with this situation.”

In Puerto Rico, he estimates manufacturing employs approximately 75,000 people directly—a number which rises to 250,000 when indirect and induced jobs are calculated, adding that even though the manufacturing sector has shrunk in the past years, the productive and contributory base rests on that activity, adding that: “As much as it is said that they do not pay taxes, this sector contributes 33% of the revenues…As long as jobs are lost there, the treasury will erode,” noting that the industrial sector plays such a large role in Puerto Rico’s economy that no other sector of the service economy can counterbalance it. He worries that if Congress fails to address the apparent discrimination, the chances that the PROMESA Board and the government of Puerto Rico can put together an economic recovery plan is minimal: “These are implications for all of Puerto Rico: It is difficult to think about options, because if this is approved, it would be disastrous, because of everything that has happened after Hurricane Maria.”

Last night, the former president of the Association of Certified Public Accountants, Kenneth Rivera Robles, who has been part of several lobbying delegations to Washington, remained relatively optimistic that the project language will be amended.

President Woodrow Wilson signed the Jones-Shafroth Act into law on March 2, 1917, with the law providing U.S. citizenship to Puerto Rico’s citizens, granting civil rights to its people, and separating the Executive, Judicial, and Legislative branches of its government. The statute created a locally elected bicameral legislature with a House and Senate—but retained authority for the Governor and the President of the United States to have the authority to veto any law passed by the legislature. In addition, the statute granted Congress the authority to override any action taken by the Puerto Rico legislature, as well as maintain control over fiscal and economic matters, including mail services, immigration, defense, and other basic governmental matters.