What Could Be the State Role in Averting Municipal Fiscal Distress & Bamkruptcy?

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eBlog, 1/27/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing challenge in Petersburg, Virginia—and the role of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Because, in our federal system, each state has a different blueprint with regard to whether a municipality is even allowed to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy (only 18), and because there is not necessarily rhyme nor reason with regard to fiscal oversight and response mechanisms—as we have observed so wrenchingly in the forlorn case of East Cleveland—the role of states appears to be constantly evolving. So it is this a.m. that we look to Virginia, where the now insolvent municipality of Petersburg had routinely filed financial information with the Virginia auditor of public accounts—but somehow the accumulating fiscal descent into insolvency never triggered alarm bells.   

Virginia Auditor Martha Mavredes this week, testifying before the House Appropriations Committee, told Chairman S. Chris Jones (R-Suffolk) it was “just hard for us to really get our minds around how that was missed,” telling the committee the state currently has no requirement for municipalities to furnish the kind of comprehensive information that would trigger awareness of insolvency; there appears to be no mechanism for the Commonwealth to step in and help. Indeed, that was the very purpose of Chairman Jones to call for the hearing: he wants to better understand options Virginia might consider to not just create some kind of trip wire, but, mayhap more importantly, to act on provisions which could avert future such municipal insolvencies. Auditor Mavredes indicated to the Committee she is scrambling to scrabble together some kind of tripwire or early warning system that would flag financial problems in Virginia’s municipalities at an earlier stage, telling the committee she is using a system devised by the state of Louisiana to help Virginia identify cities and counties in dire fiscal straits. Thus she plans to create a database of all localities in the commonwealth to rate or score their relative fiscal health. Under what she is proposing, her office will approach cities that show warning signs in order to assess more information. Her real issue, she told the committee, is what fiscal assistance tools might be available—or as she put it: the “piece I can’t solve right now is what kind of assistance might be there” once such problems come to light.” Virginia, like a majority of states, has no provision for the state to step in if a locality goes into default. Indeed, it was the thoughtful step of Virginia’s Finance Secretary Ric Brown, who took the unusual step last year to investigate Petersburg’s finances, which led him to discover the city had some $18 million in unpaid bills, an unbalanced budget, and a fiscal practice of papering over deficits with short-term borrowing—a practice that not only jeopardized the city’s bond rating, but also affected the cost of borrowing for the regional public utility. Secretary Brown stressed the need for training local elected officials about budgeting and best practices, and he suggested a program to allow outside management firms to help get cities on a better fiscal foundation. Interestingly, the Committee might want to avail itself of the pioneering work underway by the irrepressibly insightful Don Boyd of the Rockefeller Institute of Government to assess state responses to municipal fiscal distress, seeking to answer the kinds of thoughtful queries Secretary Brown is asking. In a chart for Rockefeller, we tried our own answer:

Understanding Municipal Fiscal Stress

Assessing State Responses to Growing Municipal Fiscal Distress and Insolvency:

  • The Ostriches (head in the sand): Do Nothings/modified harm: e.g. Illinois
  • Denigrators (Alabama is a prime example: when Jefferson County requested authority to raise its own taxes, the Legislature refused, forcing the county into chapter 9 bankruptcy);
  • Learners (Rhode Island is a very good candidate here—in the wake of Central Falls, the state evolved into a much more constructive partnership;
  • Thinkers (I put Colo. & Minn. here—especially because both seem to recognize potential benefits of tax sharing & innovation in intergovernmental fiscal policy);
  • Preemptors (Michigan, because it provides for the usurpation of any local authority through the appointment of an Emergency Manager); New Jersey seems to be fitting in with that category re: Atlantic City;
  • Substitutors: Pa.: Act 47
  • Maybe Do-Nothings: Ohio, even though it authorizes municipal bankruptcy, appears to have been totally non-responsive the petition by East Cleveland to file—and has appeared to play no role in the so-far dysfunctional discussions between Cleveland and East Cleveland).
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