On the Edge of Municipal Fiscal Cliffs

September 20, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the upcoming challenge for voters in Detroit—with a Mayoral election around the bend—and the city aspiring to be in the competition for selection by Amazon as its second site. Then we look at the physical and fiscal storm threats to Puerto Rico, before finally looking back at post-riot Ferguson, Missouri.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

On the Edge of a Fiscal State/Local Cliff.  The Latin incantation, “Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus,or, translated: “We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes,” is Detroit’s motto: it came from a French Roman Catholic priest, Father Gabriel Richard, who was born in France in 1767 and moved to Baltimore in 1792 to teach math. Reassigned to do missionary work, he moved first to Illinois and later to Detroit, where he was the assistant pastor at St. Anne’s Church—a church founded in 1701 and possibly the oldest continuously operating Roman Catholic parish in the U.S. Two hundred twelve years ago, on June 11th, a fire destroyed nearly all of then-Detroit, just weeks before the Michigan Territory was established. Today, nearly three years after the once-great city, the “arsenal of democracy” during World War II and home of the world’s most innovative manufacturers, emerged from the nation’s largest ever chapter 9 bankruptcy, national interest in Detroit has waned: in some ways, it has become a tale of two cities: One a city still mired in poverty and unemployment; one an emerging vibrant metropolis and global self-driving car center. And all this is occurring as the voters prepare to re-elect Mike Duggan—whose most profound achievement has been to raze much of the city, after first being elected in a write-in campaign. But, last month, voters in the primary gave him 68% of the votes—likely foretelling November’s re-election—in a campaign against the son of Coleman Young, Detroit’s first black mayor. Almost more than any other city in the nation, Detroit is not just a city emerging from the ashes, but also a city of profound racial transition: Over the past forty-year, Detroit has undergone a racial transformation: from 70% white in the 1960s to just 10% today. The Detroit News described the Mayor’s self-referral as a “metrics nut:” describing cabinet meeting room as one blanketed in graphs charting the city’s employment, ambulance delivery and crime rates, among other statistics. “The police are going to show up in under 14 minutes; the ambulance is going to show up in under 8 minutes; the grass is going to be cut in the parks every 10 to 12 days—it just is.” The paper notes that: “City employees who do not meet these targets do not last long.”  But, as the city’s emergency manager charged by Gov. Snyder with taking the Motor City into chapter 9 bankruptcy and then out noted to me on that very first morning, the critical distinction between municipal and corporate bankruptcy is to ensure the streetlights, traffic lights, police and fire are working. That has been an ongoing, post-plan of debt adjustment priority, and, the numbers have continued to improve: today police response times are down from an average of 40 minutes to 13.

Mayhap a far greater governance challenge, however, has been to reverse the flight of residents from the city—flight which bequeathed 40,000 abandoned properties—properties which could become havens for crime, paid no property taxes, and adversely affected the assessed values of neighboring properties in one of the nation’s largest—by land area of 139 square miles—a city once the home to 1.8 million—thrice today’s population. Or, as David Schleicher of Yale Law School described the city: it “is just too big,” to accommodate “the expense of providing services.” The Mayor has sought to “right-size,” as it were, by means of razing abandoned homes, in part via the expansion of the Detroit Land Bank, a quasi-governmental authority which now owns 96,000 properties across the city—most of them acquired through foreclosure because of unpaid taxes. Thus, the land bank has succeeded in centralizing the city’s control over abandoned and vacant properties; Detroit has replaced an antiquated registry scattered across 83 data sets, and erased liens and back taxes as a means to facilitate the clearing and demolition or restoration of properties. Since his election, the city has focused on the highest density districts, where the city has demolished 11,900 residential properties. The results indicate that the demolition of a blighted property increases the value of a nearby home by 4.2%, according to one study. And the pace has been unprecedented—indeed, so fast there have been allegations of improper contract awards; there has been a federal investigation; and Michigan’s state housing agency suspended funds for two months, after a state audit found improper controls in place. Land bank officials, including the director of demolitions, have resigned. Mayor Duggan, who has not been a subject of the investigation, blames the mistakes on a desire to increase the pace of demolitions, but acknowledges that regulators were right to rap his knuckles.

Under the program there has been, consequently, a high pace of tax foreclosures—the main pipeline for properties which end up in the land bank’s possession: under Michigan law, owners who do not pay taxes after three years lose their property—properties last comprehensively reassessed decades before market values plummeted, meaning many are set too high. Between 2006 and 2012, median sale prices for city houses fell from $70,000 to $16,200; thus, the owner of a house worth $15,000 could owe $3,000 in property taxes. The state-mandated interest rate on property-tax debt is 18% per year. Thus, an update completed at the beginning of this calendar year should lead to lower bills, but it will not be retroactive; thus, up to 53,000 properties will receive foreclosure notices this autumn. While not every foreclosed property will necessarily end up lost, tax foreclosures, driven by government policy rather than market forces, could force out longtime residents, ironically exacerbating the very problem the Mayor is focused upon: even as the demolition drive has already cost the city’s taxpayers some $162 million, the average back taxes for homes put up for auction are $7,700—much less than the cost of demolition. Or, as Michele Oberholtzer, Director of the Tax Foreclosure Prevention Project puts it: “It’s like an auto-immune disorder: We penalize people for not paying, and then we end up paying more for the punishment.” Nevertheless, Mayor and candidate Duggan believes that at the current pace of demolitions, he can clear the city’s long-standing blight within five years—mayhap paving the way for a smaller but much more vibrant city.

Fiscal Hurricane. With still another hurricane bearing down on Puerto Rico (damages caused by Hurricane Irma are estimated at more than $600 million), a fiscal storm appears in the offing after, yesterday, an agreement among Senate Finance Committee leaders to push this month the reauthorization of the Children’s Health Insurance Program for five years raised doubts about with regard to whether Medicaid funds to stabilize the finances of the Puerto Rican health system could be included in that legislation: according to the agreement between the Chairman, Republican Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), and Ranking Member Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), that program would be refinanced for another five years; however, the agreement did not include funds to close the so-called “abyss” in Medicaid funds, which would reach $ 369 million this fiscal year and then rise to about $ 1.2 billion that has been asked annually for reimbursement under the Affordable Care Act, or, as former Puerto Rico Governor Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, who was representing Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, noted: “From what I’ve been told, we are not included.” His statement came as Gov. Rosselló arrived last night in Washington, D.C. along with former Governors Acevedo Vilá and Alejandro García Padilla to meet with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Ca.), as the Senate Finance Committee hurries to approve the reauthorization of the CHIP program before the law expires at the end of this month. Chairman Hatch, however, has indicated that his intention is that the reauthorization of the program not increase the federal deficit—an intention which could singularly complicate the mission—even as House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) earlier this year had told resident commissioner, Jennifer Gonzalez, that CHIP’s reauthorization was the ideal vehicle for legislating new Medicaid allocations, due to the depletion of Affordable Care Act funds in April. (For the current fiscal year, Puerto Rico’s allocation is $172 million. Meanwhile, there are already 12 Puerto Rican municipalities within  the  federally declared disaster zone: the first ones were the municipalities of Vieques and Culebra. Yesterday, Adjuntas, Canóvanas, Carolina, Guaynabo, Juncos, Loíza, Luquillo, Orocovis, Patillas and Utuado were added—with Gov. Rosselló making the announcement yesterday accompanied by FEMA Administrator William Long,  albeit the Governor added: “This does not imply that the list of municipalities is finished, it´s not over. This simply implies that as we receive  information (from the affected municipalities) and we send it to the federal government, then, we are able make these declarations.”

Good Gnus. Puerto Rico’s median household income climbed 7.8% from 2015 to 2016 according to the U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey statistics, with the survey showing that mean household income was up 2.3% after inflation—a stark contrast with the generally negative economic data coming out of Puerto Rico. For example, Puerto Rico’s economic activity index declined 2.1% in July from a year earlier, according to a report from the Government Development Bank for Puerto Rico: according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ household survey, total employment in August on the island was down 0.25% from a year earlier. According to its survey of workplaces, total employment was down 1.1%. In addition, the American Community Survey showed that net migration to the rest of the United States increased to 67,000 in 2016 from an average of 44,400 per year from 2006 to 2015—that is nearly 50%. Data from the Puerto Rico Ports Authority show that the average net migration was 65,700 per year from 2006 to 2015. The difference may reflect that some Puerto Ricans migrate to countries beside the U.S., according to Mario Marazzi, executive director for the Puerto Rico Statistics Institute.

Coming Back. Moody’s has revised upwards its credit rating for Ferguson, Missouri in the wake of efforts to recover fiscally from the aftermath of a controversial police shooting, the rating agency has revised the city’s outlook on its junk-level Ba3 general obligation rating to positive from negative. The city lost its investment grade rating as it dealt with the aftermath of the August 2014 fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American, by a white police officer. The shooting led to local protests and a federal probe in the city of about 21,000 just northwest of St. Louis. The city faced rising legal expenses as it dealt with a federal probe into policing and court tactics and then the costs of a settlement, and took a hit on sales and other taxes. The city has also lost a chunk of court-fine related revenue it relied on as the state government cracked down on local government use of fine levies to balance budgets. After spending cuts and other management efforts, the city is expected to begin to shore up its balance sheet as voter approved tax revenues flow into city coffers. “The positive outlook reflects the likelihood the city’s materially improved fiscal condition will continue over the next two years, especially because new taxes implemented during fiscal years 2016 through 2018 will lead to the greater likelihood of operating surpluses and improving reserve levels,” Moody’s noted, as it affirmed the B1 rating on the city’s 2013 certificates of participation and the B2 rating on its 2012 COPs: the upgrade reflects Ferguson’s current fiscal condition in the wake of several years of rapidly declining reserves and uncertainty for further operating declines; it incorporates a moderately sized tax base with a trend of declining assessed valuation, below average resident wealth, and above average yet manageable debt burden. The agency notes that the rating remains challenged by ebbing reserves and the costs of federal consent decree measures which contributed to operating deficits in fiscal 2014 through 2017; the city anticipates a $312,000 deficit for FY 2017, but, with fully phased in, voter approved taxes coming in next year, the FY2018 budget estimates a $48,000 general fund surplus. From a high in fiscal 2013, the general fund balance declined to $3.6 million or 33.5% of revenues from $10.5 million. Reserve levels remain healthy on a relative basis compared to its peer group but the city’s operating flexibility is notably narrower than it has been. The city is working towards meeting milestones and establishing policies as required in its 2016 Department of Justice consent decree. Consent decree annual expenses have declined to $500,000 from projections of $700,000 to $1.5 million. Tax hikes are projected to generate an additional $2.9 million in annual revenue for the general fund in FY2018.

Advertisements

The Sinking Ships of States?

September 15, 2017

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s Blog, we consider the ongoing recovery in Detroit from the nation’s largest ever municipal bankruptcy, the unrelenting fiscal challenges for Flint; who voters in the fiscally insolvent municipality of East Cleveland will elect, the steep fiscal erosion for Pennsylvania’s local governments, and the uncertain fiscal outlook for Hartford.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

The Steep Road to Chapter 9 Recovery. Poverty declined and incomes rose last year in the Motor City, marking the first significant income increase recorded by the U.S. Census Bureau since the 2000 census, with Detroiters’ median household income up last year by 7.5% to $28,099 in 2016, according to U.S. Census’ American Community Survey estimates; ergo poverty dropped 4 percentage points to 35.7%‒the lowest level in nearly a decade—perhaps offering a boost to Mayor Mike Duggan’s reelection hopes in November.  Despite the gains, however, Detroit is still the city with the greatest level of poverty in the country—and a city where racial income disparities continue to fester: income data indicates that the incomes of Hispanic and white Detroit residents grew significantly compared to blacks, who make up 79 percent of the city, according to Kurt Metzger, a demographer and director emeritus of Data Driven Detroit, or, as Mr. Metzger writes: “Overall it’s a great story for Detroit…But when you look beneath the surface, we still have a lot of issues. There is a constant narrative out there: Are all boats rising together?” Mayor and candidate for re-election Mike Duggan has made clear he understands there is more work to do: noting that forty-four people graduated last month from the Detroit At Work job training program, which launched last February and from which half have already received job offers, the Mayor told the Detroit News: “Income goes up when one, there is a job opportunity and two, when you have the skills to take advantage of it: As we raise the skills of our residents we will raise the standard of living.” Nevertheless, he added: “Nobody is celebrating a (35.7) percent poverty rate, but the progress is important and it took us years to get here.”

If one looks farther ahead, there might be even more hope: the new data found that fewer of Detroit’s children are living in poverty: the under 18 poverty rate has declined about 14 percent to its lowest level since 2009—albeit still over 50 percent, with the decline attributed to higher numbers of jobs, and, ergo, greater incomes, with Xuan Liu, the manager of research and data analysis for the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments noting that with more residents of the city working (the unemployment rate dropped nearly 25% from 20.6% to its lowest level (16.5%) since 2009), or, as Mr. Liu noted: “Eight years after Great Recession, (census) data is finally show some significant economic benefits for more Detroiters.”

Notwithstanding that good news, it has not been city-wide, but rather concentrated: the city’s 2016 median income remains 14.6% lower today than what residents were earning a decade ago: just $32,886 adjusted for inflation, and while the new census figures show some economic improvements in Detroit, a recent Urban Institute report finds the recovery is not even through the city, noting that tax subsidies and investments are disproportionately favoring downtown and Midtown, with the bulk of the recovery along Detroit River, the Central Businesses District and Lower Woodward Corridor—or, as Mr. Metzger noted, the Motor City still faces a challenge if all of its citizens and families are to participate in the recovery: he notes the 2016 income data shows the gains were realized by Hispanic and white residents, but not for blacks, or as he described it: “The people who are ready and able to take advantage of the turnaround are doing it but those who aren’t, haven’t.” Detroit’s Workforce Development Board has set an employment goal of an additional 40,000 residents to find jobs in the next five years.

Not in like Flint. Unlike Detroit, Flint realized no change in poverty or income: the city so fiscally and physically mismanaged by the State of Michigan via its appointment of a gubernatorial Emergency Manager remains the poorest city in the nation amongst all cities with populations over 65,000: the city’s poverty rate last year was 44.5%; median household income was $25,896—less than half Macomb County’s median household income of $60,143.

Vote! Brandon King is a step closer to remaining Mayor of East Cleveland. Mr. King won the Democratic primary in East Cleveland, with 44.3% of the 1,760 citizens who voted, so that he has narrowed the field: he will continue to defend his seat in November against activist Devin Branch, who is running as a Green Party candidate, after beating out three other candidates for the nomination: former Councilman Mansell Baker, school board President Una Keenon, and community leader Dana Hawkins Jr. Ms. Keenon was the runner-up with 30.3 percent of the vote: she previously served as East Cleveland’s judge. The incumbent, who became Mayor last December after a contentious recall election ousted former Mayor Gary Norton Jr. and Council President Thomas Wheeler, leading to two vacancies on City Council, which council members Barbara Thomas and Nathaniel Martin filled with Mr. Branch and Kelvin Earby—appointees Mr. King decided to be “unlawful,” claiming there were insufficient elected leaders to choose the members, so that he usurped that authority and then appointed his own: Christopher Pitts and Ernest Smith. Unsurprisingly, a lawsuit regarding the appointments is now before the Ohio Supreme Court, even as the city’s petition for chapter 9 remains before the State of Ohio. November will bring elector contests in Ward 3 and for two at-large seats. Notwithstanding that the small municipality of 18,000 is in a state of fiscal emergency, Mayor King has pivoted away from former Mayor Norton’s strategy of trying to merge the city with Cleveland or declare the city in chapter 9 bankruptcy: instead he and the rest of the Democratic candidates want to focus on economic development.

Keystone Municipal Fiscal Erosion. The Pennsylvania Economy League reports that fiscal decay has accelerated in all sizes of municipalities throughout the in its new report: “Communities in Crisis: The Truth and Consequences of Municipal Fiscal Distress in Pennsylvania, 1970-2014,” a report which examines 2,388 of the state’s 2,561 municipalities where consistent data existed from 1970, 1990, and 2014, considering, as variables, the available tax base per household, as well as the tax burden, a percentage of the tax base taken in the form of taxes to support local government services‒after which the municipalities were then divided into five quintiles, from  the wealthiest and most fiscally healthy to the most distressed—with Philadelphia and Pittsburgh excluded due to their size and tax structure. The League found that the tax burden has grown on average for all municipalities since 1990, but that the tax base has fallen, on average, in the state’s municipalities since 1970. In addition, the study determined that municipalities in Pennsylvania’s Act 47 distressed municipality program generally performed worse than average despite state assistance.

The study also found that communities which finance their own local police force, as opposed to those which rely solely on Pennsylvania State Police coverage, had double the municipal tax burden and ranked lower. (Readers can find the report in its entirety on the Pennsylvania Economy League’s website.) The League’s President, Chairman Greg Nowak, noted: “The first part of understanding and doing something about a crisis is understanding what it is,” adding that clearly the League believes the state’s local governments are in a fiscal crisis, comparing the new report to one the League released in 2006, which had warned of oncoming fiscal distress—a report, he noted, which had not galvanized either the state or its municipalities to take action. Gerald Cross, the Executive Director for Pennsylvania Economy League Central, said the study also found that tax bases in cities largely remained stagnant even as the local tax burden increased from 1990 to 2014, noting that all the state’s cities were in bottom-quintile rankings in 2014—and that while tax base generally grew in boroughs and first-class townships, the tax burden there also grew from 1990 to 2014; he added that the trend for second-class townships was mixed: while the tax base increased and more second-class townships moved into healthier quintiles, the tax burden also climbed from 1990 to 2014. Or, as Kevin Murphy, the President of the Berks County Community Foundation, put it: “Pennsylvania’s system of local governments is broken and is harming the people living in our communities: It’s a system that was created here in Harrisburg [the state capitol], and it is Harrisburg which needs to fix it.” Pennsylvania has 4,897 local governments, including 1,756 special districts, cities, towns, and first, second, and third class townships.

The Sinking Ship of State? Notwithstanding Gov. Dannel Malloy’s warning before dawn this morning that “The urgency of the present moment cannot be overstated,” the state’s legislators went home in the wake of failing to approve a two-year, $41 billion budget which would have created an array of new taxes and fees, but avoided any increase in the sales or income tax. Thus, in the wake of all-day fiscal marathon, Republicans sent their members home in a chaotic ending, blaming the inability of the other side had failed to marshal the requisite votes: House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, after the Connecticut Senate had earlier given final legislative approval to a package of concessions expected to cover $1.5 billion of the estimated $5 billion state budget deficit through June of 2019, noted that still to be completed, however, is work on the rest of the budget, with the focus on financial aid to cities and towns (the biggest chunk of spending): he add ed that the detailed legal language in the budget, which had been delayed all day long, would not be ready until at least 6 a.m. this morning—with the Senate scheduled to convene at high noon. Notwithstanding the fiscal chaos, Senate Pro Tem leader Martin Looney (New Haven) said the Senate would convene at high noon today to vote on the budget, noting: “The problem is it’s not fully drafted… and what we agreed upon with the governor had not been fully reduced to language that everyone had signed off on: We didn’t have a hold-up in the Senate. We were ready to go forward,’’ raising the possibility that the House could vote later today.

Unsurprisingly, the sticking point appears to be taxes: A big problem appears to have stemmed from a proposal to tax vacation homes—a proposal which encountered opposition among Democrats, because non-residents cannot be taxed differently than residents of Connecticut. Negotiators had been relying on the tax to generate $32 million per year, fiscal resources which would not be available without support from moderate Democrats. The Democratic plan would add new taxes on cellphone bills and vacation homes, along with higher tax rates on hospitals, cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, and hotel rooms—and in an overnight development, a $12 surcharge on all homeowners’ insurance policies statewide for the next five years was proposed in order to help residents with crumbling concrete foundations. (Connecticut homeowners have been grappling for years with problems, and government officials have been unable to reach a comprehensive solution—mayhap Harvey and Irma have sent a physical fiscal message: more than 500 homeowners in 23 towns have filed complaints with the state; however Gov. Malloy fears that more than 30,000 homes could be at risk. The emerging fiscal compromise would also add new taxes on: ride-sharing services, non-prescription drugs, and companies that run fantasy sports gambling. In addition, the package includes more than $40 million as a set aside as part of a multi-pronged effort to help Hartford avert chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy—as well as increased funding for municipalities, even as it avoids deep cuts in public education which had been promised by Gov. Malloy via an executive order to trigger effective October 1st, warning: “The urgency of the present moment cannot be overstated: Local governments, community providers, parents, teachers and students—all of them are best served by passing a budget, and passing it now.”

The fiscal roilings came in the wake of Moody’s statement earlier in the week that Hartford’s “precarious liquidity position could result in insufficient cash flow to meet upcoming debt obligations…Additionally, the city has debt service payments in every month of the fiscal year, compounding the possibility of default at any time.” Interestingly, Gov. Malloy, earlier this week, noted that municipal bondholders and unions hold the key to whether Hartford would file for chapter 9 bankruptcy: “Hartford looks to be going bankrupt, and that ultimately may be the only way for them to resolve their issues…on the other hand, if all of the stakeholders in Hartford, including the unions and the bondholders and others come to the table, maybe that can be avoided.”

Fiscal & Physical Hurricanes

September 8, 2017

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s Blog, we consider the increasing risk of Hartford going into municipal bankruptcy, the Nutmeg State’s fiscal challenge—and whether the state’s leaders can agree to a bipartisan budget; then we consider some of the anomalies as the Commonwealth of Virginia tests out its new fiscal stress oversight program; finally, we observe that fearful transit of Hurricane Irma, one of the most powerful hurricanes ever recorded, as it roared through the U.S. Territories of the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, where we feared for lives and physical and fiscal safety.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

On the Edge of Chapter 9. Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin fired a warning shot across the bow yesterday at the state legislature and Governor Dannel Malloy, notifying the parties the city would be seeking permission to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy if the city is unable to obtain the requisite funds it needs to continue to operate by early November, in a letter also signed by Hartford Treasurer Adam Cloud and Council President Thomas “TJ” Clarke II.  In the state, where Bridgeport filed in 1991 (the case was dismissed the same year), the statute §7-566) provides that a municipality may only file for chapter 9 protection with the express prior written consent of the governor—at which point, if given, the governor must submit a report to the Treasurer and General Assembly. In his sharply worded epistle to Gov. Malloy and House and Senate leaders, Mayor Bronin cautioned: “If the state fails to enact a budget and continues to operate under the governor’s current executive order, the city of Hartford will be unable to meet its financial obligations in approximately 60 days.” Thus, while the state’s budget stalemate constitutes a fiscal threat to many Connecticut cities, it has posed exceptional problems for Hartford: projections show the capital city, facing a $65 million deficit this year, will run into cash-flow issues in November and December, including a $39.2 million end-of-year shortage. The fiscal hurricane came as Gov. Malloy yesterday unveiled new budget proposals intended to restore funding for municipalities and reject major education cuts planned for October 1, as Democrats and Republicans met in an attempt to reach common ground. However, Mayor Bronin warned that the “extraordinary measures” other towns are considering in response to the state’s ongoing budget gridlock—layoffs, cuts to services and drawing from rainy day funds—are actions Hartford has taken already, noting the city last year laid off 40 workers and cut millions from city departments—and dipped into Hartford’s rainy-day fund to help offset deficits. Notwithstanding, the city still had to borrow millions in June to help pay its bills: “For the past year, we have highlighted the urgency of Hartford’s fiscal crisis: The time has come to decide, together, what future we want for our capital city,” he wrote, urging legislators to embrace a “farsighted, collaborative approach” that includes giving Hartford more than the minimum amount of state aid it needs: he has requested at least $40 million more this year. Mayor Bronin also encouraged lawmakers “create a mechanism” to allow Hartford to achieve “fair labor contracts that truly reflect the city’s ability to pay,” and to “join us in insisting that bondholders and other stakeholders participate in the solution: “You could fail to adopt a budget, or write off Hartford’s problem as unsolvable—requiring a Chapter 9 Bankruptcy filing in the coming weeks.” Noting he wants to avoid chapter 9, the Mayor added: “A well-planned bankruptcy is a tool that can be used to address long-term liabilities like debt and pension obligations…“I think there’s a reality that Hartford needs real and major restructuring that could be accomplished in a bankruptcy: “It could be accomplished outside of a bankruptcy, but I think as days go by it becomes more likely that Hartford will be going bankrupt.” If there might be some light at the end of the fiscal tunnel, it was Connecticut House Majority Leader Matthew Ritter’s statement: “I would agree with the mayor that it does not help Hartford to give them well short of what they need, because then they’re just back in a hopeless scenario next spring: The goal is not to put Band-Aids on this. The goal is to try to begin structural reforms… Moody’s, last month, had warned Hartford was rapidly approaching debt repayment deadlines: “the city’s path to fiscal sustainability will likely require debt restructuring along with some combination of labor concessions, other expenditure cuts and new revenues,” with bills coming due for $3.8 million this month, and $26.9 million next month in October. Hartford’s leaders yesterday stressed they want a long-term solution to Hartford’s problems—or, as the Mayor put it; “We’re not interested in patches. We’re not interested in a short-term bailout…We’re not interested in Band-Aids. And we’re not interested in leaving this problem for future legislatures or future mayors…We’re interested in fixing this.”

Nevertheless, the challenge of obtaining state fiscal assistance will be hampered by the state’s own fiscal challenges: Connecticut has operated under Gov. Malloy’s executive orders since July 1, while the state legislature is still working out a biennial budget for FY2018 and 2019—efforts the Governor expects to result in a new compromise budget by today: under his most recent executive order, however, state aid for Hartford is down nearly 25% from last year—leaving the city to confront a nearly $50 million deficit for FY2018 and projecting that to grow to about $83 million next fiscal year. According to Mayor Bronin, one option would be for the state to provide the city with “just enough additional assistance” to avoid short-term liquidity problems without the structural overhaul and the necessary investment to reinvigorate the city—or, as he wrote: “This might be the path of least resistance, but it’s also the path that leads to a less competitive Connecticut,” adding that failure to adopt a budget or writing off Hartford as a lost cause would force a municipal bankruptcy filing. A third option, according to the Mayor, would be a “farsighted, collaborative approach,” which would include reimbursing the city for its disproportionate share of non-taxable property‒or about half of overall property; enable relief for the city in labor contracts; and forcing bondholders and other stakeholders to the table. Thus, he noted, he would prefer an avenue other than municipal bankruptcy.

Is There a Mother Hubbard Problem? Even as Hartford is desperately seeking state aid to avoid filing for bankruptcy, the state has its own serious fiscal challenges: it faces a biennial revenue gap of up to $5 billion, and municipal bond rating agencies have slammed it with six downgrades over the last year and a half. State legislative leaders claim they will have an idea of whether is light at the end of the proverbial tunnel by next week when they will be voting on a partisan or a bipartisan budget next week: Republican legislative leaders have been pressing their Democratic colleagues to make changes they assert would improve future budgets, but do not necessarily make it easier to close the current $3.5 billion budget deficit: most of the changes the Republicans had wanted to make in the state’s relationship with its labor unions foundered in the wake of the $1.57 billion concession package approved in a mostly party line vote. Republican lawmakers insist they have revised their budget proposals to reflect the new labor agreement; however, they are not ready to release them to the public, much less share them with Democratic legislative leaders. Senate President Martin Looney (D-New Haven), said the “significant unanswered question” is how Republican legislators close the gap between their original proposals and the labor agreement: “We hope to get all of these issues resolved, so at least we will know where we stand in relation to each other,” adding there are hopes of a vote in both chambers next week: as of today, there is no certainty with regard to whether the budget would pass, or, as House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz (D-Berlin) noted, it is worth trying to reach a bipartisan deal, “but in the end I don’t know if the differences are too large to overcome,” adding they cannot just pass a budget with the votes in either chamber, because any such budget also must pass muster with the Governor, who has not even been complimentary of his own party’s efforts to put together a budget. Senate Republican President Len Fasano (R-North Haven) said in order for there to be any progress on closing Connecticut’s $3.5 billion budget gap, there first has to be agreement over structural changes, such as a spending and a bonding cap, deeming it “an appetizer to the main meal: “You’ve got to get through this,” before you start talking about the budget numbers. Democratic legislative leaders agreed they share an interest in structural changes, but are not in agreement with how Republican lawmakers want to implement some of them.

Not So Fiscally Rich in Richmond? Or Whoops! Richmond, Virginia—notwithstanding a 25% poverty level, has been in the midst of a building boom; it has reported balancing its budget, and that it holds a savings reserve of $114 million—in addition to which, the state has logged budget surpluses in each of its most recent fiscal years; it currently has an AA rating from the three major credit rating, each of which reports that the former capital of the Confederacy has a modestly growing tax base, manageable municipal debt, and a long-term stable outlook—albeit with disproportionate levels of poverty. Nevertheless, State Auditor Martha S. Mavredes, according to a recent state report distributed within government circles, including the Virginia Municipal League and the Virginia Association of Counties, has cited the municipalities of Richmond and Bristol as failing to meet the minimum standard for financial health:

In the case of Richmond, according to the report, the city scored less than 16 on the test for the past two fiscal years—a score which Auditor Mavredes described as indicating severe stress in her testimony last month before the General Assembly’s Joint Subcommittee on Local Government Fiscal Stress, noting that the test was applied for fiscal years 2014, 2015, and 2016. The fiscal test is based on information contained in annual audited financial reports provided by each locality—except the municipalities of Hopewell and Manassas Park have stopped providing reports—with the fiscal stress rankings based on the results of ten ratios which primarily rely on revenues, expenses, assets, liabilities, and unused savings: the test weighs the level of reserves and a municipality’s ability to meet liabilities without borrowing, raising taxes, or withdrawing from reserves—as well as the extent to which a locality is able to meet the following fiscal year’s obligations without changes to revenues or expenses: Richmond’s score was near 50 in FY2014, but fell below 16 in FY2015  and to 13.7 in FY2016. Thus, even though Virginia has no authority to intervene in local finances, the new fiscal measuring system has created a mechanism to help focus fiscal attention in advance of any serious fiscal crisis.

It turns out the municipality with the biggest red flag, initially known as City A, is Bristol, an independent city of around 18,000—the twin city of Bristol, Tennessee, just across the state line, which runs down the middle of its main street: State Street. Bristol, more than a week ago, acknowledged the city is in communication with the Virginia auditor’s office to determine her audit designated Bristol with a score below 5 on a scale which uses any number below 16 as a sign of potential distress. That audit also showed City B, which fell from a score just below 50 in 2014 to below 14 the next two years, to be state capitol Richmond.

Asked about Richmond’s precipitous fiscal fall under the scale, Auditor Mavredes said that the high score for 2014 was incorrect, because of a keyboard error by her office. Instead of a steep fall, “it’s more of a flat line,” she added. Timely financial reporting has been a consistent concern for the city, which has been late in filing its CAFR for three years, although Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney has vowed to file it on time this year—and the Auditor’s office, which compiles an annual financial report for localities, is still awaiting Richmond’s fy2016 information.

The Virginia Association of Counties confirmed that Richmond County, on the Northern Neck, and Page County, with a slowing population of about 24,000 and county seat is Luray in the northern Shenandoah Valley, were two flagged by the system for what Auditor Mavredes deemed “consistently low scores:” 5.9 in 2014, 8.2 in 2015, and 7.3 last year. Page, as County B, declined from 21 in 2014 to about 15.5 in 2015, and 11.1 in 2016. Dean A. Lynch, the Virginia Association of Counties Executive Director, said both counties are “very aware” of the concerns the auditor raised. Notwithstanding, he noted that VACo believes some differences among localities stem from how they report their financial results: “We’re trying to get a group to meet with (the auditor) so we can all get on the same page,” noting, for example, the initial assessment shows Fairfax and Stafford, both fairly wealthy counties, with relatively low scores. VaCo officials believe that has less to do with their financial condition than how they report school system debt and assets—a contention with which Auditor Mavredes agrees, so she is not concerned by the scores, because she recognizes the local government is reporting the debt, while the school system is showing the assets. She also notes that some localities might show high scores, even though they have small budgets: for example, Nottoway County scored the best among counties in the new system at 98.1 last year, leading the Auditor to note: “Some localities are very debt-averse…Some of it is just the choices they’ve made in regard to the locality. They might not have many resources, but they have managed well with the resources they’ve had.” Vaco Director Lynch notes that the larger issue of fiscal stress for rural localities, such as Richmond County and Page, is the amount of money they are required to pay as their match for state funding of public education and other services, as well as their ability to generate it: “They do feel they are having a tough time in meeting some of their core services: I think if you go back and talk to Page County and Richmond County, they have trouble meeting the match that is required. It’s a state funding issue.”

Peligroso. Cataloged by the National Hurricane Center as an “extremely dangerous: cyclone, Hurricane Irma, slammed its way through northern Puerto Rico, with the Category 5 phenomenon lashing Puerto Rico with sustained maximum winds at 185 mph: by early this morning, the Aqueduct and Sewer Authority confirmed that about 80,000 people have no water—by 10:53 p.m., Irma’s eye was located at latitude 19.4 degrees north and longitude 66.8 degrees west: about 85 miles from San Juan—a half hour after some 22 hospitals had lost power, according to the Director of the State Agency for the Management of Emergencies, Abner Gomez. By yesterday morning, more than a million were without electricity.

The PROMESA fiscal oversight board yesterday reported it was working for the federal government to accelerate assistance to Puerto Rico: Gov. Ricardo Rosselló rejected that claim, stressing that no member of the Board has communicated with him to make himself available: “Yo sé que los mejores intereses de todo el mundo están en el pueblo Puerto Rico”: I know that the best interests of the whole world are in the town of Puerto Rico.  So far I have not had personal communication (with members of the PROMESA Board), but we certainly give the invitation to anyone who wants to collaborate. For its assumption, including the members of the Board.” Board Chair José Carrión told the media that he worked “closely with Governor Rosselló to coordinate support for Puerto Rico after the hurricane, asserting: “We have approached the federal government to activate Title V of PROMESA,” which Mr. Carrión asserted provides authority under Title to speed up assignments after a disaster. Similarly, in a written statement, the Board’s Executive Director, Natalie Jaresko, noted: “We have approached the federal government to activate Title V of PROMESA, which allows the Board to work with agencies to accelerate activation of allocations and loans after a disaster…We expect residents of Puerto Rico to remain safe during hurricane Irma and that any damage to the island due to the hurricane will be minimal.”

Puerto’s Rico’s first recovery focus in the wake of Irma will be on the island of Culebra, with a population of around 1,000. Generally, it appears, the worst fears were not realized: the hurricane (Humacao) spared much of the eastern region of Puerto Rico: there was one tree fall reported—even as there were a reported 500 refugees between the villages of Utuado, Lares, Adjuntas, Jayuya and Ciales.  By 8, last evening, there were approximately 77,000 subscribers without water service, as Irma’s eye passed just north of Puerto Rico—leaving some 868,846 without power—just hours after U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price had declared a public health emergency in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands to facilitate the provision of federal services.

Fiscal & Physical Storms

September 6, 2017

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s Blog, we consider the new state fiscal oversight program in Virginia; then we move west to the Motor City, where November’s election will test voters’ perception of the fiscal state of post-chapter 9 Detroit. Then we veer back East to the Nutmeg state—a state whose state fiscal problems could wreak havoc with its municipalities. Finally, with Hurricane Irma, one of the most fearsome hurricanes ever recorded, bearing down this a.m. on the U.S. Territories of the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, we fear for lives and physical and fiscal safety.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

Not So Fiscally Rich in Richmond? Richmond, Virginia—notwithstanding a 25% poverty level, has been in the midst of a building boom; it has reported balancing its budget, and that it holds a savings reserve of $114 million—in addition to which, the state has logged  budget surpluses in each of its most recent fiscal years; it currently has an AA rating from the three major credit rating, each of which reports that the former capital of the Confederacy has a modestly growing tax base, manageable municipal debt, and a long-term stable outlook—albeit with disproportionate levels of poverty. Nevertheless, State Auditor Martha S. Mavredes, according to a recent state report distributed within government circles, including the Virginia Municipal League and the Virginia Association of Counties, has cited the municipalities of Richmond and Bristol as failing to meet the minimum standard for financial health. In the case of Richmond, according to the report, the city scored less than 16 on the test for the past two fiscal years—a score which Auditor Mavredes described as indicating severe stress in her testimony last month before the General Assembly’s Joint Subcommittee on Local Government Fiscal Stress, noting that the test was applied for fiscal years 2014, 2015, and 2016. The fiscal test is based on information contained in annual audited financial reports provided by each locality—except the municipalities of Hopewell and Manassas Park have stopped providing reports—with the fiscal stress rankings based on the results of ten ratios which primarily rely on revenues, expenses, assets, liabilities, and unused savings: the test weighs the level of reserves and a municipality’s ability to meet liabilities without borrowing, raising taxes, or withdrawing from reserves—as well as the extent to which a locality is able to meet the following fiscal year’s obligations without changes to revenues or expenses: Richmond’s score was near 50 in FY2014, but fell below 16 in FY2015  and to 13.7 in FY2016. Thus, even though Virginia has no authority to intervene in local finances, the new fiscal measuring system has created a mechanism to help focus fiscal attention in advance of any serious fiscal crisis.

Whereto the Motor City? Edward Isaac Dovere, writing for Politico, reported that in a new POLITICO-Morning Consult poll, only 27% of Motor City residents reported they had a very or somewhat favorable view of Detroit, compared with a quarter of respondents who said they had an unfavorable view; only 5% said they considered Detroit very safe: 41% responded they considered it very unsafe. The fear factor—in addition to apprehension about the city’s school options—appear to be discouraging young families: the keys to the city’s hope for a vibrant fiscal future.  Those keys are vital, as Detroit’s population appears to be continuing to decline. About the Mayor, he writes: “There’s no mystique to what he’s doing, or why people seem to want four more years of him, he and his aides say. A big part of whatever success he’s had is just showing up, after decades when his predecessors didn’t: ‘In Detroit,’ said Duggan’s campaign manager Rico Razo, ‘people just want a response.’”

Nutmeg or Constitution State Blues. Connecticut, which was designated the Constitution State by the General Assembly in 1959, albeit according to others the “Nutmeg State,” because its early inhabitants had the reputation of being so ingenious and shrewd that they were able to make and sell wooden nutmegs—is certainly in some need today of fiscal shrewdness. Connecticut Comptroller Kevin Lembo has warned Gov. Dannel Malloy that unless the legislature acts swiftly to enact a budget, the “inability to pass a budget will slow Connecticut’s economic growth and will ultimately lead to the state and its municipalities receiving downgrades in credit ratings that will cost taxpayers even more,” adding that the state, which is currently in fiscal limbo, operating under Gov. Malloy’s executive orders since the beginning of July, otherwise confronts a $93.9 million FY2018 deficit—adding: the state’s economy “continues to post mixed results across an array of key economic indicators: These results do not indicate that the state can grow its way out of the current revenue stagnation.” Making sure there is appreciation that the state inaction would affect far more than just the state, he added: “The inability to pass a budget…will ultimately lead to the state and its municipalities receiving downgrades in credit ratings.” The dire warning comes as the state’s 169 towns, one borough, and nineteen chartered cities are caught in the middle—and fearing an outcome, as Gov. Malloy has proposed in his biennial budget for the legislature to cut local funding by $650 million—and mandate municipalities ante up $400 million annually for public pension contributions for the state’s teachers.

The holdup in state aid to local governments comes as both state and local borrowing costs are suffering: Moody’s has hit the state with three credit downgrades, so that for local governments—even as their state aid is delayed and uncertain, their municipal bond interest rates are climbing. Indeed, Moody has deemed Gov. Malloy’s modified executive order a credit negative for local governments, because it reduces total aid to municipalities by nearly 40% from fy2017 levels: that order, issued last month, reduces the largest source of state municipal aid, the state’s education cost sharing, by $557 million relative to the last fiscal year. Thus, Controller Lembo warns that the inability to set a state budget can only aggravate state and local fiscal conditions, noting: “This problem is exacerbated each month as potential sources of additional revenue are foregone due to the absence of the necessary changes to the revenue structure.”  That is aggravated by higher state expenditures: the Comptroller noted that state expenditures through the first month of the state’s fiscal year were more than 10% higher than last year, a double-digit increase he attributes to rising fixed costs, including debt and public pension obligations. If anything, the woeful fiscal situation could be exacerbated by preliminary data indicating that the state lost 600 jobs in July, a disheartening downturn after the last fiscal year when the state had posted 11,600 new payroll jobs; indeed, during the last period of economic recovery, employment growth averaged over 16,000 annually.

Physical & Fiscal Storm. President Trump yesterday declared a state of emergency in Puerto Rico and ordered that federal assistance be provided to local authorities. Gov. Ricardo Rossello, early this morning warned: “The day has arrived,” as Hurricane Irma neared landfall, registering sustained winds of 185 miles per hour, far greater than levels measured under Hurricane Harvey in Houston. The Governor stated: “We want to make sure that in those areas of high vulnerability people can mobilize to one of our shelters; we are still preparing for what could be a catastrophic event.” The Governor called on anyone living in flood areas to seek refuge in each of a relative or friend or one of the shelters enabled. Already this a.m., the number of refugees in Puerto Rico due to the hurricane rose to 707, distributed in schools operating in the 13 police areas. The San Juan area commander, Colonel Juan Cáceres, said there are six shelters open the San Juan, noting: “In addition to staff working 12-hour shifts, area commanders are divided into two work shifts: 6:00 am to 6:00 pm and vice versa. We will be patrolling and doing surveillance work as long as the weather permits and in the commercial areas that are still selling merchandise to protect consumers.” The city’s security plan will emphasize traffic control and direction: The refugees were not only Puerto Ricans, but also tourists. By the time you read this post, the territory is expected to experience the physical intensity of Irma, a category 5 hurricane with winds of 185 miles per hour. For a territory already in severe fiscal distress, the storm promises dire fiscal and physical challenges.

 

Measuring Municipal Fiscal Distress

August 29, 2017

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s Blog, we consider the new Local Government Fiscal Distress bi-cameral body in Virginia and its early actions; then we veer north to Atlantic City, where both the Governor and the courts are weighing in on the city’s fiscal future; before scrambling west to Scranton, Pennsylvania—as it seeks to respond to a fiscally adverse judicial ruling, then back west to the very small municipality of East Cleveland, Ohio—as it awaits authority to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy—and municipal elections—then to Detroit’s ongoing efforts to recover revenues as part of its recovery from the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy, before finally ending up in the Windy City, where the incomparable Lawrence Msall has proposed a Local Government Protection Authority—a quasi-judicial body—to serve as a resource for the Chicago Public School System.  

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

Measuring Municipal Fiscal Distress. When Virginia Auditor of Public Accounts Martha S. Mavredes last week testified before the Commonwealth’s new Joint House-Senate Subcommittee on Local Government Fiscal Stress, she named Bristol as one of the state’s four financially distressed localities—a naming which Bristol City Manager Randy Eads confirmed Monday. Bristol is an independent city in the Commonwealth of Virginia with a population just under 18,000: it is the twin city of Bristol, Tennessee, just across the state line: a line which bisects middle of its main street, State Street. According to the auditor, the cities of Petersburg and Bristol scored below 5 on a financial assessment model that uses 16 as the minimum threshold for indicating financial stress, with Bristol scoring lower than Petersburg. One other city and two counties scored below 16. For his part, City Manager Eads said he and the municipality’s CFO “will be working with the APA to determine how the scores were reached,” adding: “The city will also be open to working with the APA to address any issues.” (Bristol scored below the threshold the past three years, dropping to 4.25 in 2016. Petersburg had a score of 4.48 in 2016, when its financial woes became public.) Even though the State of Virginia has no authority to directly involve itself in a municipality’s finances (Virginia does not specifically authorize its municipal entities to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, certain provisions of the state’s laws [§15.2-4910] do allow for a trust indenture to contain provisions for protecting and enforcing rights and remedies of municipal bondholders—including the appointment of a receiver.), its new system examines the Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports submitted annually and scores them on 10 financial ratios—including four that measure the health of the locality’s general fund used to finance its budget. Manager Eads testified: “At the moment, the city does not have all of the necessary information from the APA to fully address any questions…We have been informed, by the APA, that we will receive more information from them the first week of September.” He added that the city leaders have taken steps to bolster cash flow and reserves, while reducing their reliance on borrowing short-term tax anticipation notes. In addition, the city has recently began implementing a series of budgetary and financial policies prior to the APA scores being released—steps seemingly recognized earlier this summer when Moody’s upgraded the city’s outlook to stable and its municipal bond rating to Baa2 with an underlying A3 enhanced rating, after a downgrade in 2016. Nevertheless, the road back is steep: the city still maintains more than $100 million in long-term general obligation bond debt with about half of it tied to The Falls commercial center in the Exit 5 area, which has yet to attract significant numbers of tenants.

Fiscal Fire? The State of New Jersey’s plan to slash Atlantic City’s fire department by 50 members was blocked by Superior court Judge Julio Mendez, preempting the state’s efforts to reduce the number of firefighters in the city from 198 to 148. The state, which preempted local authority last November, has sought to sharply reduce the city’s expenditures: state officials had last February proposed to move the Fire Department to a less expensive health plan and reduce staffing in the department from 225 firefighters to 125. In his ruling, however, Judge Mendez wrote: “The court holds that the (fire department’s union) have established by clear and convincing evidence that Defendants’ proposal to reduce the size of the Atlantic City Fire Department to 148 firefighters will cause irreparable harm in that it compromises the public safety of Atlantic City’s residents and visitors.” Judge Mendez had previously granted the union’s request to block the state’s actions, ruling last March that any reduction below 180 firefighters “compromises public safety,” and that any reduction should happen “through attrition and retirements.”

Gov. Christie Friday signed into law an alternative fiscal measure for the city, S. 3311, which requires the state to offer an early-retirement incentive program to the city’s police officers, firefighters, and first responders facing layoffs, noting at the bill signing what he deemed the Garden State’s success in its stewardship of the city since November under the Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act, citing Atlantic City’s “great strides to secure its finances and its future.” The Governor noted a drop of 11.4 percent in the city’s overall property-tax rate, the resolution of casino property-tax appeals, and recent investments in the city. For their parts, Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, sponsors of the legislation, said the new law would let the city “reduce the size of its police and fire departments without jeopardizing public safety,” adding that the incentive plan, which became effective with the Governor’s signature, would not affect existing contracts or collective bargaining rights—or, as Sen. Sweeney stated: “We don’t want to see any layoffs occur, but if a reduction in workers is required, early retirement should be offered first to the men and women who have served the city.” For his part, Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian said, “I’m glad that the Governor and the State continue to follow the plan that we gave them 10 months ago. As all the pieces that we originally proposed continue to come together, Atlantic City will continue to move further in the right direction.”

For its part, the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, which has been the fiscal overseer of the state takeover of Atlantic City, has touted the fiscal progress achieved this year from state intervention, including the adoption of a $206.3 million budget that is 20 percent lower than the city’s FY2015 budget, due to even $56 million less than 2015 due to savings from staff adjustments and outsourcing certain municipal services. Nevertheless, Atlantic City, has yet to see the dial spin from red to black: the city, with some $224 million in bonded debt, has deep junk-level credit ratings of CC by S&P Global Ratings and Caa3 by Moody’s Investors Service; it confronts looming debt service payments, including $6.1 million owed on Nov. 1, according to S&P.

Scrambling in Scranton. Moody’s is also characteristically moody about the fiscal ills of Scranton, Pennsylvania, especially in the wake of a court decision barring the city from  collecting certain taxes under a state law—a decision Moody’s noted  “may reduce tax revenue, which is a vital funding source for the city’s operations.” Lackawanna County Court of Common Pleas Judge James Gibbons, at the beginning of the month, in a preliminary ruling against the city, in response to a challenge by a group of eight taxpayers, led by Mayoral candidate Gary St. Fleur, had challenged Scranton’s ability to levy and collect certain taxes under Pennsylvania’s Act 511, a state local tax enabling act. His preliminary ruling against the city affects whether the Home Rule Charter law supersedes the statutory cap contained in Act 511. Unsurprisingly, the City of Scranton has filed a motion for reconsideration and requested the court to enable it to appeal to the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania. The city, the state’s sixth-largest city (77,000), and the County seat for Lackawanna County is the geographic and cultural center of the Lackawanna River valley, was incorporated on St. Valentine’s Day 161 years ago—going on to become a major industrial city, a center of mining and railroads, and attracted thousands of new immigrants. It was a city, which acted to earn the moniker of the “Electric City” when electric lights were first introduced in 1880 at Dickson Locomotive Works. Today, the city is striving to exit state oversight under the state’s Act 47—oversight the municipality has been under for a quarter century.

Currently, Moody’s does not provide a credit rating for the city; however, Standard and Poor’s last month upgraded the city’s general obligation bonds to a still-junk BB-plus, citing revenue from a sewer-system sale, whilst Standard and Poor’s cited the city’s improved budget flexibility and liquidity, stemming largely from a sewer-system sale which enabled the municipality to retire more than $40 million of high-coupon debt. Moreover, Scranton suspended its cost-of-living-adjustments, and manifested its intent to apply a portion of sewer system sale proceeds to meet its public pension liabilities. Ergo, Moody’s writes: “These positive steps have been important for paying off high interest debt and funding the city’s distressed pension plans…While these one-off revenue infusions have been positive, Scranton faces an elevated fixed cost burden of over 40% of general fund revenues…Act 511 tax revenues are an important revenue source for achieving ongoing, balanced operations, particularly as double-digit property tax increases have been met with significant discontent from city residents. The potential loss of Act 511 tax revenues comes at a time when revenues for the city are projected to be stagnant through 2020.”

The road to municipal fiscal insolvency is easier, mayhap, because it is downhill: Scranton fiscal challenges commenced five years ago, when its City Council skipped a $1 million municipal bond payment in the wake if a political spat; Scranton has since repaid the debt. Nevertheless, as Moody’s notes: “If the city cannot balance its budget without illegally taxing the Scranton people, it is absolute proof that the budget is not sustainable…Scranton has sold off all its public assets and raised taxes excessively with the result being a declining tax base and unfriendly business environment…The city needs to come to terms with present economic realities by cutting spending and lowering taxes. This is the only option for the city.”

Scranton Mayoral candidate Gary St. Fleur has said the city should file for Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy and has pushed for a related ballot measure. Combined taxes collected under Act 511, including a local services tax that Scranton recently tripled, cannot exceed 1.2% of Scranton’s total market value.  Based on 2015 market values, according to Moody’s, Scranton’s “511 cap” totals $27.3 million. In fiscal 2015 and 2016, the city collected $34.5 million and $36.8 million, respectively, and for 2018, the city has budgeted to receive $38 million.  The city, said Moody’s, relied on those revenues for 37.7% of fiscal 2015 and 35.9% of fiscal 2016 total governmental revenues. “A significant reduction in these tax revenues would leave the city a significant revenue gap if total Act 511 tax revenues were decline by nearly 25%,” Moody’s said.

Heavy Municipal Fiscal Lifting. Being mayor of battered East Cleveland is one of those difficult jobs that many people (and readers) would decline. If you were to motor along Euclid Avenue, the city’s main street, you would witness why: it is riddled with potholes and flanked by abandoned, decayed buildings. Unsurprisingly, in a city still awaiting authorization from the State of Ohio to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, blight, rising crime, and poor schools, have created the pretext for East Clevelanders to leave: The city boasted 33,000 people in 1990; today it has just 17,843, according to the latest U.S. Census figures. Nevertheless, hope can spring eternal: four candidates, including current Mayor Brandon L. King, are seeking the Democratic nomination in next month’s Mayoral primary (Mayor King replaced former Mayor Gary Norton last year after Norton was recalled by voters.)

Motor City Taxing. Detroit hopes to file some 700 lawsuits by Thursday against landlords and housing investors in a renewed effort to collect unpaid property taxes on abandoned homes that have already been forfeited; indeed, by the end of November, the city hopes to double the filings, going after as many as 1,500 corporations and investors whose abandonment of Detroit homes has been blamed for contributing to the Motor City’s blight epidemic: Motor City Law PLC, working on behalf of the city, has filed more than 60 lawsuits since last week in Wayne County Circuit Court; the remainder are expected to be filed before a Thursday statute of limitations deadline: the suits target banks, land speculators, limited liability corporations, and individuals with three or more rental properties in Detroit: investors who typically purchase homes at bargain prices at a Wayne County auction and then eventually stop paying property tax bills and lose the home in foreclosure: the concern is that unscrupulous landlords have been abusing the auction system. The city expects to file an additional 800 lawsuits over the next quarter—with the recovery effort coming in the wake of last year’s suits by the city against more than 500 banks and LLCs which had an ownership stake in houses that sold at auction for less than what was owed to the city in property taxes. Eli Savit, senior adviser and counsel to Mayor Mike Duggan, noted that those suits netted Detroit more than $5 million in judgments, even as, he reports: “Many cases are still being litigated.” To date, the 69 lawsuits filed since Aug. 18 in circuit court were for tax bills exceeding $25,000 each; unpaid tax bills for less than $25,000 will be filed in district court. (The unpaid taxes date back years as the properties were auctioned off by the Wayne County Treasurer’s Office between 2013 and 2016 or sent to the Detroit Land Bank Authority, which oversees demolitions if homes cannot be rehabilitated or sold.) The suits here indicate that former property owners have no recourse for lowering their unpaid tax debt, because they are now “time barred from filing an appeal” with Detroit’s Board of Review or the Michigan Tax Tribunal; Detroit officials have noted that individual homeowners would not be targeted by the lawsuits for unpaid taxes; rather the suits seek to establish a legal means for going after investors who purchase cheap homes at auction, and then either rent them out and opt not to not pay the taxes, or walk away from the house, because it is damaged beyond repair—behavior which is now something the city is seeking to turn around.

Local Government Fiscal Protection? Just as the Commonwealth of Virginia has created a fiscal or financial assessment model to serve as an early warning system so that the State could act before a chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy occurred, the fiscal wizard of Illinois, the incomparable Chicago Civic Federation’s Laurence Msall has proposed a Local Government Protection Authority—a quasi-judicial body—to serve as a resource for the Chicago Public School System (CPS): it would be responsible to assist the CPS board and administration in finding solutions to stabilize the school district’s finances. The $5.75 billion CPS proposed budget for this school year comes with two significant asterisks: 1) There is an expectation of $269 million from the City of Chicago, and 2) There is an expectation of $300 million from the State of Illinois, especially if the state’s school funding crisis is resolved in the Democrats’ favor.

Nevertheless, in the end, CPS’s fiscal fate will depend upon Windy City Mayor Rahm Emanuel: he, after all, not only names the school board, but also is accountable to voters if the city’s schools falter: he has had six years in office to get CPS on a stable financial course, even as CPS is viewed by many in the city as seeking to file for bankruptcy (for which there is no specific authority under Illinois law). Worse, it appears that just the discussion of a chapter 9 option is contributing to the emigration of parents and students to flee to suburban or private schools.

Thus, Mr. Msall is suggesting once again putting CPS finances under state oversight, as it was in the 1980s and early 1990s, recommending consideration of a Local Government Protection Authority, which would “be a quasi-judicial body…to assist the CPS board and administration in finding solutions to stabilize the district’s finances.” Fiscal options could include spending cuts, tax hikes, employee benefit changes, labor contract negotiations, and debt adjustment. Alternatively, as Mr. Msall writes: “If the stakeholders could not find a solution, the LGPA would be empowered to enforce a binding resolution of outstanding issues.” As we noted, a signal fiscal challenge Mayor Emanuel described was to attack crime in order to bring young families back into the city—and to upgrade its schools—schools where today some 380,000 students appear caught in a school system cracking under a massive and rising debt load.  

Far East of Eden. East Cleveland Mayor Gary Norton Jr. and City Council President Thomas Wheeler have both been narrowly recalled from their positions in a special election, setting the stage for the small Ohio municipality waiting for the state to—in some year—respond to its request to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy to elect a new leader. Interestingly, one challenger for the job who is passionate about the city, is Una H. R. Keenon, 83, who now heads the city school board, and campaigning on a platform of seeking a blue-ribbon panel to examine the city’s finances. Mansell Baker, 33, a former East Cleveland Councilmember, wants to focus on eliminating the city’s debt, while Dana Hawkins Jr., 34, leader of a foundation, vows to get residents to come together and save the city. The key decisions are likely to emerge next month in the September 12 Democratic primary—where the winner will face Devin Branch of the Green Party in November. Early voting has begun.

The Fiscal Straits of Federalism: constitutional, fiscal, and human challenges for state and local leaders.

08/11/17

Share on Twitter

Blog

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s blog, we consider the dire state of Hartford, Connecticut and the ongoing constitutional and fiscal challenges to the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico.

Fiscal Heart for Hartford? With no state budget in sight, the first day of school looming, Moody’s this week gloomily wondered whether the capitol city can avoid chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy via a path of debt restructuring and labor concessions as it contemplates looming debt payments of $3.8 million next month, and then $26.9 million in tax anticipation note payments in October. Moreover, given the grim state of Connecticut’s own fisc—upon which Hartford relies for half its municipal budget, Halloween could bring more than fiscal ghouls. Its options, moreover, as we have previously noted, are slim: with one fifth of its municipal budget composed of fixed costs, the option of increasing taxes—in a city with the highest tax rates in the state—would risk the loss of key businesses, potentially reducing, rather than increasing vital revenues. Thus, the challenge of meeting increased debt service costs and rising OPEB and pension obligations seem to more and more point to municipal debt restructuring.

If anything, the fiscal challenge is further complicated by the uncertainty on the state front: Connecticut has yet to adopt the budget for the fiscal year that began on July 1st: legislators have been unable to achieve consensus on a new two-year plan the governor will sign to address the state’s own projected $3.5 billion deficit. Indeed, Gov. Daniel P. Malloy’s budget, which proposes shifts of state education aid from wealthier communities to poorer communities, promises difficult negotiations with an uncertain outcome. Patrice McCarthy, the deputy director and general counsel at the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, warned that while there were previous state budget impasses in 1991 and 2009, this year could be much worse for public school officials: “In those years, while we didn’t have a finalized budget, people had a better idea in each community about how much they’d be receiving: This year, everything is up in the air.”

Fundido. In Latin America, the word fundido can be translated to “dead beat;” while in English, the old expression that one cannot beat a dead horse might seem apt for the challenge confronting U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor Swain, who is presiding over the PROMESA version of a chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy process—a process created under the statute adopted by Congress which Theodore Olson, the former Solicitor General of the United States, this week described in an op-ed to the Wall Street Journal as a law which blatantly violates the Appointments Clause of the U.S Constitution.

Judge Swain this week approved an agreement intended to address creditors’ competing claims with regard to Puerto Rico’s sales tax revenue by the end of this year as part of an effort to resolve an agreement between the island’s two biggest creditor classes, General Obligation bondholders and COFINA bondholders, in part through appointing an agent for each side—agents charged with pursuing the best resolution for their debtor’s estate as a whole, as opposed to advocating for particular creditors of that debtor. (COFINA’s bonds are backed by Puerto Rico’s sales and use tax revenue, unlike Puerto Rico’s General Obligation debt, which carries a constitutional guarantee providing a claim on all of Puerto Rico’s revenues.) Thus, unsurprisingly, Judge Swain had been placed in the position of Solomon: she could threaten to cut the baby in half if the two sides do not reach an agreement by December 15th.  Here, the judicial combatants, who, together, claim to hold approximately half the U.S. territory’s $72 billion in debt, are fighting over which side has the primary claim on sales and use tax revenues.

Separately, Judge Swain this week has held off on responding to a request by creditors of Puerto Rico’s bankrupt power utility, PREPA, to appoint a receiver at the agency, denying a motion by a group of cities and towns to form an official committee in the case, whose attorneys’ fees would be paid by the island’s bankruptcy estate. Judge Swain informed the parties it was unclear whether the municipalities had valid claims against Puerto Rico’s government, a claim which, as we have previously noted, is critical, as Michael Rochelle, an attorney for the muncipios, told the judge his clients are confronted with budget cuts of as much as 50 percent; he plead: “This place will become Greece…We will have municipalities needing to be bankrupted.” Increasingly, too, there are fears that exorbitant legal fees, fees which some experts believe could run to in excess of $1 billion, are coming at the expense of Puerto Rico’s future. In so informing the muncipios, Judge Swain rejected a motion by several municipalities to have a committee representing their interests in Puerto Rico’s Title III case: she said that §1102 of the bankruptcy code allowed committees for creditors or equity security holders, but the municipalities are not the latter, and the municipalities’ principal concerns are not those of being creditors, adding that the municipalities are adequately represented without having their own committee.

The president of the Association of Puerto Rico Mayors, Rolando Ortiz, yesterday made clear the gravity of the fiscal situation, warning that 45 municipalities will be inoperative as early as the close of the fiscal year, under the fiscal plan submitted by Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and certified by the Federal Fiscal Control Board. He noted that the proposal would eliminate a loan of some $350 million, which was granted to municipalities in exchange for exempting public corporations from paying the tax on real property—or, as he stated: “From the fiscal point of view, it leaves us without protection of the judicial apparatus of the country and limits our capacity to serve to the citizens to the extent that they take away resources that we have always used to help the people that we attend in the different cities.”

Indeed, it appears the fiscal impact has already begun to have an effect on the pockets of municipal employees, who have experienced reductions in working hours in 22 municipalities: Arroyo, Toa Alta, Cabo Rojo, Yauco, Las Piedras, Juana Diaz, Comerío, Vieques, Aguadilla, Mayagüez, Toa Baja, Salinas, Adjuntas, Vega Baja, Sabana Grande, Villalba, and Trujillo Alt; five other municipalities had applied the reduction of working hours in previous years. (Ponce, Ciales, Luquillo, Maunabo, and Camuy.) The likely next step, he warned, would be that more municipalities will join the lawsuits filed by the municipalities of San Juan and Caguas—litigation in response to which they said: “The decision of (Judge Swain) what she is going to bring is more cases on the part of the municipalities.” The Mayor of Caguas, a municipality  founded in 1775 of about 150,000 located in the Central Mountain Range, William Miranda Torres, regretted the closure of the judicial door to the municipalities, describing it as a “scenario where they have made decisions, by blow and blow, to make use of our monies without allowing us fair participation,” describing it as “clear discrimination against the municipalities,” noting that the municipalities offer direct services to the citizenry, including  maintenance to infrastructure, health, safety, emergency management, programs to the elderly, garbage collection, cultural programs, fine arts programs and sports programs—adding: “The central government has been stripping municipalities of important resources to provide essential services that will now be very difficult to cover. The humanitarian crisis has come and closing doors give us very few possibilities to fight it from where we can best do it.”

For her part, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz recalled that her municipality continues along the route to sue under PROMESA’s Title VI, even as she praised the management of mayors who filed their appeal by way of Title III: “If the judge (Judge Swain) said it was not for Title III, at least those comrades dared to challenge PROMESA.”

Foundering Federalism?

07/12/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the seemingly increasing likelihood of chapter 9 bankruptcy for Connecticut’s capital city, Hartford, before veering south to consider the ongoing fiscal storms in the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico.

Moody Blues. In the latest blow from the capital markets to Connecticut’s capital city, Standard & Poor’s Global Ratings late Tuesday lowered Hartford’s general obligation ratings to junk bond status—with the action coming less than a week after we had reported the city had hired a firm to help it explore options for chapter 9 or other steps involving severe fiscal distress. Moody’s Investors Service had already downgraded Hartford’s bonds to a speculative-grade (Ba2), and it has placed the city on review for yet another downgrade.  S&P’s action appeared to reflect an increased likelihood Connecticut’s capital could default on its debt or seek to renegotiate its obligations to its bondholders, with S&P credit analyst Victor Medeiros noting: “The downgrade to BB reflects our opinion of very weak diminished liquidity, including uncertain access to external liquidity and very weak management conditions as multiple city officials have publicly indicated they are actively considering [municipal] bankruptcy.” The ratings actions occurred as the city continues to seek more state aid and concessions from the city’s unions—even as the state remains enmired in its own efforts to adopt its budget. Mayor Luke Bronin, in an interview yesterday, confirmed the possibility of bond restructuring negotiations. This is all occurring at a key time, with the Governor and legislators still negotiating the state’s budget—on which negotiations for the fiscal year which began at the beginning of this month, remain unresolved. In a statement yesterday, Mayor Bronin noted:  “I have said for months that we cannot and will not take any option off the table, because our goal is to get Hartford on the path to sustainability and strength.” He added that any long-term fiscal solution would “will require every stakeholder—from the State of Connecticut to our unions to our bondholders—to play a significant role,” adding: “Today’s downgrade should send a clear message to our legislature, to labor, and to our bondholders that this is the time to come together to support a true, far-sighted restructuring.”

A key fiscal dilemma for the city is that approximately 51 percent of the property in the city is tax-exempt. While the state provides a payment in lieu of local property taxes (PILOT) for property owned and used by the State of Connecticut (such payment is equal to a percentage of the amount of taxes that would be paid if the property were not exempt from taxation, including 100% for facilities used as a correctional facility, 100% for the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal land taken into trust by federal government on or after June 8, 1999, 100% for any town in which more than 50% of all property in the town is state-owned real property, 65% for the Connecticut Valley Hospital facility, and 45% for all other property; such state payments are made only for real property.  

Unretiring Debt. U.S. Federal Judge Laura Taylor Swain gave the government of Puerto Rico and the Employees Retirement Systems (ERS) bondholders until yesterday to settle their dispute over these creditors’ petition for adequate protection—warning that if a deal was not reached, she would issue her own ruling on the matter—a ruling which could mean setting aside at least $18 million every month in a separate account, albeit Judge Swain noted she was not ready at this time to say whether that would entail adequate protection. Her statement came even as Puerto Rico Governor Ricard Rossello Nevares yesterday stated that, contrary to complaints made by the Chapter of Retirees and Pensioners of the Federation of Teachers, the House Joint Resolution does not represent a “threat,” but rather comes to ensure pension payments to public workers who once served the U.S. Territory, adding, however, that the retirement system as it was known no longer exists, stating it “is over,” in the absence of resources that can ensure long-term pension payments: What we have done is that we have changed from a system where it was a fund to a pay system where what implies is that now the government under the General Fund assumes responsibility for the payment of the pension…That is, the retired do not have to fear, quite the opposite. The measure that we are going to do saves and guarantees the System. If we had not implemented this in the fiscal plan…the retirement system would run out of money in the next few months.” Describing it as a “positive measure for pensioners,” because, absent the action, it was “guaranteed to run out of money,” the Governor spoke in the wake of a demonstration, in front of La Fortaleza, where spokesmen of the Chapter of Retirees and Pensioners of the Federation of Teachers denounced the measure—a measure approved by both legislative bodies and sent to the Executive last month as a substitute retirement system for teachers.

Unsurprisingly, the Puerto Rico government and representatives of labor unions and retirees opposed the ERS bondholders’ request to lift the stay under PROMESA’s Title III. In response to Judge Swain’s query to the bondholders: “If I were to enter a sequestration in the manner you stipulated…What would that do for you?” Jones Day attorney Bruce Bennett responded; “Not enough,” as the ERS bondholders argued they needed adequate protection, because Puerto Rico has not made the requisite employer contributions to the ERS, which guarantee payments of their bonds. In contrast, opponents argued the resolution authorizing the issuance of these bonds was an obligation of Puerto Rico’s retirement system‒not the Commonwealth, and creditors were going beyond contractual rights in forcing the government to make appropriations from the general fund and remit them as employer contributions. An attorney representing the retirement system argued the ERS security interest filings were defective in reference to claims by bondholders that they have a right to receive employer contributions; however, an attorney representing the PROMESA Board countered that just because the collateral to their municipal bonds has been reduced, those bondholders are not entitled to such protection, testifying: “What is the claim worth when you have the GOs saying ‘we get all the money because we are in default.’”

Due to Puerto Rico’s perilous fiscal condition, it currently is making pension payments, for the most part, on a pay-as-you-go basis: public corporations and municipalities are making their employer contributions; however, those contributions are going into a segregated account; in addition, the fiscal plan contemplates making public corporations and municipalities similarly transform to a pay-go pension system—with the Territory supporting its position before Judge Swain by its police power authority.

The State of Puerto Rico’s Municipalities. The Puerto Rico Center for Integrity and Public Policy has reported that Puerto Rico’s municipal government finances deteriorated in FY2016 after improving in the prior two fiscal years. Arnaldo Cruz, a co-founder of the Center, said the cause of the deterioration was likely related to the election year, based on the collection of data and responses from 68 of the territory’s 78 municipios. Mr. Cruz added that the ten non-responders happened to be ones which had received D’s and F’s in past years. The updated study found that 30 municipalities nearly have the muncipios received more than 40% of their general fund revenue from the central government—mayhap presaging fiscal mayhem under the PROMESA Board’s intentions to eliminate such state aid to local governments over the next two fiscal years—i.e,: a cut of some $428 million. Such severe cuts would come even as the study found that more than half the muncipios realized a decrease their net assets last year, and half realized a decrease in their general fund balance—even as 27 municipios allocated more than 15% of their general fund income to debt repayment.

According to the March fiscal plan, Puerto Rico’s municipalities have:

  • $556 million in outstanding bond debt;
  • $1.1 billion in loans to private entities; and
  • Owe $2 billion to Puerto Rico government entities, primarily the Government Development Bank for Puerto Rico.

Mr. Cruz notes a potentially greater fiscal risk is related to Government Development Bank loans, which Puerto Rico’s municipalities continued to receive last year: last month, however, the Puerto Rico Senate approved a bill to allow the municipalities to declare an emergency and declare a moratorium on the payment of their debt. The fate of the effort, however, is uncertain, because the legislation died when the legislature adjourned before House action—mayhap to be taken up next month when they reconvene.