Driving a Municipality into Municipal Bankruptcy?

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eBlog, 4/28/16

In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the critical fiscal situation confronting Ferguson, Missouri—where the small municipality—confronted with seemingly prohibitive federal sanctions in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed man, by a police officer, in the wake of which there were riots and subsequent U.S. Justice Department sanctions imposed on the municipality—fiscal sanctions that risk the municipality’s viability.

Federally Driven Municipal Bankruptcy? Moody’s has further downgraded Ferguson, Missouri’s bond ratings into junk territory as the small city, amid tries to address the fiscal strains of dealing with fallout from the controversial 2014 fatal police shooting—the rating agency assigned the municipality a negative outlook in the wake of the city’s voters approving a sales tax for economic development, but voting down a property tax hike—meaning the city is likely to fall short of the revenues it projects it will need in the wake of the police shooting of Michael Brown in 2014. It seems the federally imposed fiscal penalties are further imbalancing the municipality’s chances of survival. The small city already faced imposing odds: Brookings analyst Elizabeth Kneebone last year had noted that at “the start of the 2000s, the five census tracts that fall within Ferguson’s border registered poverty rates ranging between 4 and 16 percent…However, by 2008-2012 almost all of Ferguson’s neighborhoods had poverty rates at or above the 20 percent threshold at which the negative effects of concentrated poverty begin to emerge.” But now, in the wake of voters’ approval of a 0.5% sales tax hike for economic development, but rejection of a proposed $0.40 per $100 of assessed value property tax hike that would have generated $640,000 annually, or 22.6% of the city’s projected budget deficit, the fiscal dilemma appears certain to deteriorate. The property tax increase would have cost about $76 annually for a home worth $100,000.

Ferguson, which has been experiencing a declining population, has average per family income of $36,645 annually. Thus, it can hardly seem surprising that its voters shot down a proposed $0.40 per $100 of assessed value property tax hike that would have generated $640,000 annually, or 22.6% of the city’s projected budget deficit. In contrast, voters approved the sales and use tax hike–expected to raise about $1 million per year, or 28.2% of the deficit. Ferguson operates on a $14.5 million budget. Thus the city’s leaders had warned both tax increases were needed to address the city’s deficit and the costs of compliance with the unfunded federally mandated police and municipal court reforms under a consent agreement the city recently reached with federal authorities.

As Moody’s moodily noted: “The downgrade reflects the continued pressure on the city’s finances from a persistent structural imbalance and incorporates the recently approved US Department of Justice consent decree, projected to increase annual general fund expenses over the next several years.” That pressure comes from the city’s projections that compliance with the federally-imposed implementation mandates could run as high as $1.5 million in the first year with costs falling under $1 million in subsequent years. Moody’s analysts further noted that, in the wake of the election: “both ballot measures were integral to city management’s proposed solution to close a large general fund budget gap that existed before accounting for the additional consent decree costs.” To make matters more fiscally grim, the credit rating agency expressed apprehension with regard to further credit erosion in the wake of the vote—as it will likely be forced to cut spending even further to meet the federally imposed penalties—with the agency apprehensive that the combination of unfunded federal mandates, reduced revenue, and substantial liabilities could lead not just to still further downgrades, but also potential default. City leaders say measures associated with the agreement will cost Ferguson $2.3 million over three years, including $1 million in year one—a seemingly overwhelming level for a municipality already facing a $2.9 million deficit due largely to fallout from the shooting, such as sales tax declines, skyrocketing legal costs, and the imposition of hundreds of thousands of dollars in court fines and fees from reforms already in place.

The pending FY’2017 budget calls for across-the-board pay cuts of 3 percent—but, in the wake of the voters’ actions, the city will likely be forced to lay off members of the police force, firefighters, and consider closure of a fire station—potentially imperiling the city’s implementation of the type of community policing mandated under the Justice Department settlement. Revenues to pay for requirements such as software and hiring of police record analysts would also be hard to come by. Indeed, the federal requirements could force the city into receivership or to file a chapter 9 petition, as provided for under Mo.Ann.Statute§91.730.