Post Municipal Bankruptcy Futures

September 21, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we report on the unsafe conditions of Detroit’s public schools, and dismissal by the Trump administration for self-government in Puerto Rico, and, a year after Hurricane Maria’s devastating strike on Puerto Rico and underwhelming federal response, the U.S. territory’s continued inequitable status.  Unlike in corporate bankruptcies, in municipal bankruptcies, the challenge is not how to walk away from accumulated debts, but rather how to fiscally resolve them.  

Detroit’s Future? In Detroit, where, last week, organizations gathered at the Marygrove College campus to announce a new cradle-to-career educational partnership, including a state-of-the-art early childhood education center, a new K-12 school, and the introduction of an innovative teacher education training modeled after hospital residency programs; Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has announced the closure of thirty-three more schools because of high levels of copper and/or lead, bringing the total number of schools with tainted water to 57 buildings. The Superintendent’s warning noted: “Of the results just received, 33 of 52 schools have one or more water sources with elevated levels of copper and/or lead…This means that 57 of 86 schools where test results have been provided have one or more water sources with elevated levels of copper and/or lead (this does not include the previous 10 Di-Hydro schools where copper and/or lead was detected).” He added the results were incomplete: the district is still awaiting results for 17 schools. He noted: “As you know, drinking water in these schools was discontinued as we await water test results for all schools. Although the kitchen water has only been turned off in schools where levels were determined high, we have been using bottled water to clean food in all schools: As a reminder, we have not used water to cook food in our kitchens for some time and instead have delivered pre-cooked meals to students. We plan to install filters for kitchen sinks to remedy challenges in kitchens.” Last week, the Superintendent, in a state hyper aware of the physical and fiscal threats of contaminated or unsafe water, that a $2 million water station system would address water quality issues, and School Board Member Deborah Hunter-Harvill confirmed, in the wake of the tests: “We completed our community meeting, and we’ve taken down recommendations and suggestions to make certain our kids are safe.” But who will finance the corrections is unclear: School Board member LaMar Lemmons said he supports spending $2 million to fix the water problems, and he continues to blame the state for neglecting school buildings during a decade of state control, which ended in 2017: “Under the $2 billion (spent) for new school construction and renovation, they did a terrible job. There is no excuse for these schools to not have been maintained.” Supt. Vitti said the most practical, long-term, safest solution for water quality problems inside the schools would be water hydration stations in every building, system currently in use in Flint, Royal Oak, Birmingham and in Baltimore, he noted, adding, in an email earlier this week: “Moving forward, we will continue to use water coolers district-wide and are actively working through the bid processes to make a recommendation to the board for the use of hydration stations. This will occur within the next couple of weeks. The hydration stations would be installed in all schools by next school year and replace the need for water coolers.”

The health apprehension came in the wake of, just days before the first day of class at the beginning of this month, the Superintendents’ decision to shut off drinking water inside all 106 school buildings after finding, in an initial check at 6 schools, high levels of copper and/or lead. The checks themselves are costly: they require stations in every school, one per every 100 students, with a resulting tab of $2 million, after taking into account stations in faculty rooms and gymnasiums, according to Supt. Vitti, who stated he intends to provide information to the Detroit School Board to consider next month, noting that, if the funds are approved, the system could be installed in the next school year. The delay comes at a physical and fiscal cost: the school district is spending $200,000 on bottled water and water coolers for the next several months, with Supt. Vitti reporting the cause of the water contamination is likely the result of the aging of the system’s public infrastructure, as well as older plumbing systems, warning that lower usage of water due to smaller enrollment sizes can lead to copper and lead buildup. Because DPS’ schools were built for use by thousands of students, the sharp decline in attendance has adverse effects, and, as the Superintendent noted: “The reality is our schools are vastly different: some are new, some are old. Some have outdated systems, some have outdated sinks and plumbing,” adding he had consulted with the Governor’s office, the Michigan Departments of Environmental Health, as well as Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, whose critical leadership exposed the Flint lead water crisis, noting: “They have provided lessons on Flint. They gave the recommendation for me to think about piping in general and a long-term solution.”

Despite the tragedy and ongoing Flint related litigation, Michigan has no rules mandating that public school districts test for lead in their water supply. That means, according to the Superintendent, that there are even newer schools built within the last decade which have water-quality issues, noting these problems could be blamed on inadequate piping or non-code compliant piping, adding he had i initiated water testing of DPS’ 106 school buildings last spring, with the testing evaluating all water sources, from sinks to drinking fountains—but learning that the actual source of the contamination remains uncertain—albeit the school system’s widespread infrastructure problems are likely causes: last June, a district report said it would cost $500 million to repair its buildings. The district has said it needs $29.86 million to repair or replace plumbing, according to the facilities report, not related to the current water problems.

Physical & Fiscal Recoveries. Maria was the worst storm to hit Puerto Rico in nearly a century: nearly 3,000 Americans lost their lives, according to a study commissioned by the Puerto Rican government. The storm devastated the economy: thousands of small businesses have been shuttered; some big businesses are leaving, and, in a demographic omen, the exodus of the young, productive population has accelerated. Over the last year, the island’s economy has contracted by 7.6%, according to the latest fiscal plan prepared for PROMESA Board. 

American Inequality. Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló this week asked President Trump to recognize that “Puerto Rico’s territorial status is discriminatory and allows for the unequal treatment of natural-born U.S. citizens.” In his letter to the President, coming one year in the wake of the devastating fiscal and physical impact of Hurricane Maria, the Governor wrote that Puerto Rico’s territorial status had negatively affected post-Maria recovery efforts, noting: “As we revisit all that we have been through in the last year, one thing has not changed and remains the biggest impediment for Puerto Rico’s full and prosperous recovery: the inequalities Puerto Rico faces as the oldest, most populous colony in the world.”

Gov. Rosselló, who campaigned on the promise of promoting statehood for Puerto Rico, added in his letter that FEMA’s bureaucratic processes—processes in which Puerto Rico has no say—had worked to delay disaster recovery, writing: “The ongoing and historic inequalities resulting from Puerto Rico’s territorial status have been exacerbated by a series of decisions by the federal government that have slowed our post-disaster recovery, compared to what has happened in other jurisdictions stateside.” He requested that the President reconsider a State Department request to dismiss a case in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights with regard to the U.S.’ international responsibility regarding Puerto Rico’s status—a case in which the Commission is investigating complaints that the United States is violating the human rights of its citizens in Puerto Rico, because they lack the same political rights as other U.S. citizens, including the right to vote for President unless they relocate to one of the states or the District of Columbia, and, because they have no voting representation in the Congress. The Governor added he felt “compelled to respectfully address the most egregious errors in a [State Department] missive,” which sought to dismiss Puerto Rico’s concerns, noting, especially, the Department’s reference to Puerto Rico as a “self-governing territory,” rather than what the Governor believes is really a “territorial colony,” noting that defining Puerto Rico as self-governing “ignores that Congress often uses its plenary powers over the territory to impose a multitude of federal laws without the Commonwealth’s residents having any voting representation in the U.S. Senate and only a single Resident Commissioner in the U.S. House of Representatives, who cannot vote on the floor of that chamber.” He also disputed the State Department’s assertion that Puerto Ricans are not “banned” from voting for President, writing: “[T]he only way for U.S. citizens from Puerto Rico to vote in such an election and be counted is to leave Puerto Rico. If that is not a ban, then what is?” He further wrote that the current governance upholds an “inherently racist logic that deem the people of Puerto Rico as inferior and unable to fully participate in the institutions of democratic governance.”

The letter also touches on two referenda which statehood supporters have won in Puerto Rico, but that have not been deemed official results by the Department of Justice. The most recent, in 2017, was boycotted by local opposition parties, and the ballot never received final DOJ approval.  While that referendum only had a 23% participation rate, the pro statehood vote was an overwhelming 97%.

Gov. Rosselló added his apprehension in the wake of the U.S. Justice Department’s non-approval of Puerto Rico’s 2017 referendum, noting that “after the legislature even amended the format of the vote to meet the recommendations of the U.S. Justice Department,” the Trump administration had nevertheless “failed” to certify the ballot. Thus, he noted that asking an international body to dismiss its complaint was tantamount to asking it to “turn a blind eye to an inconvenient truth, that Puerto Rico remains the unfinished business of American democracy.” Finally, Gov. Rosselló ended his letter with an appeal to President Trump’s leadership, asking him to “work together to abolish this century old territorial-colonialism once and for all: Statehood for Puerto Rico is not only about realizing Puerto Rico’s full potential. It is about America living up to its most noble values by creating a more perfect Union.” (The Trump Administration has advised the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) that if Puerto Ricans want to vote for President, nothing prevents the government of Puerto Rico from calling for a referendum to determine the position of its residents regarding candidates for the U.S. Presidency—a referendum which, however, would be symbolic.)

The apparent position of the Trump Administration reflects its views that Puerto Ricans, in addition to being able to participate in Presidential primary elections, they may also, according to Kevin Sullivan, the U.S. Deputy Representative to the Organization of American States (OAS), organize and vote in presidential elections. Thus the U.S. representative asked the inter-American tribunal to dismiss the independent complaints filed by lawyer Gregorio Igartua and former governor Pedro Rossello alleging that the lack of participation of Puerto Rico’s residents in Presidential and Congressional elections represents a violation of their human and civil rights. Secretary Sullivan, who asserted that the government of Puerto Rico maintains a “broad” self-government, in a recently disclosed communication from the end of last June, maintained that within the colonial relationship with the U.S. territory, there are some electoral processes related to the federal government. Within this group of electoral processes, he thus sought to highlight as significant the ability for Puerto Ricans to vote in those for presidential primaries, as well as for its non-voting delegate in the U.S. House of Representatives.  Nevertheless, Secretary Sullivan recognized Puerto Ricans’ first vote in favor of statehood via the June 2017 plebiscite, describing that vote as having launched a process of requesting statehood before Congress, which outcome the “United States cannot predict.”

Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez, Puerto Rico’s non-voting Member of Congress, said she would have preferred the recognition of the undemocratic nature of the territorial status, and that statehood remains as “the only viable political status with a relationship with the United States, not territorial and not colonial.”

Puerto Rico Progressive Party representative Jose Aponte noted that it seemed unfortunate “at this point” that the federal government intends to develop some theory with regard to Puerto Rico’s self-government, especially in the wake of enacting the PROMESA law, thereby imposing the PROMESA Board, likening it to colonialism, and emphasizing what he views as Secretary Sullivan’s specious claim in which he advises Puerto Rican leaders that Puerto Ricans, “if they wish…are also free to move to any state,” noting: “It is hypocritical to hide the fact that they have a regime in which we cannot govern with the faculties and minimum rights that any human being deserves.”

Promising Good Gnus? Even if perceived by many Puerto Ricans as colonial overseers, the PROMESA Board, acting in a quasi-Emergency Manager role, such as Kevyn Orr did in putting together and managing the plan of debt adjustment for Detroit, is offering some hope for fiscal promise, as the Board is poised to lift its fiscal forecast and predicting a budget surplus in the wake of the recovery from the devastating Hurricane Maria, predicting a cumulative surplus, prior to debt payments, of in excess of $20 billion through 2058, or 500% greater than its quasi plan of debt adjustment certified by the PROMESA Board last June. PROMESA Board Executive Director has indicated that plan will be certified “in the coming weeks,” adding: “The changes in the fiscal plan will come from new data in actual FY18 revenue and expense figures, budget to actuals, and disaster spending.” Earlier last summer, the PROMESA Board, in certifying the most recent fiscal plan, had estimated that Puerto Rico would have a cumulative surplus of about $4 billion over the next four decades; the new projection, incorporating higher than expected disaster aid and tax receipts, would lift that projection to more than $20 billion.

From the Ashes of Municipal Bankruptcy

September 17, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we report, again, on the remarkable fiscal and neighborhood recovery of Detroit—a demonstration of how chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy can lay the foundation for extraordinary fiscal and physical recovery. Then we look south to consider a new strategic plan for Puerto Rico—a U.S. territory surely on notice that it cannot count on FEMA in a major, life-threatening disaster.  

The Phoenix of American Cities? Detroit, the once and mayhap future automobile capital of the U.S. and one-time Motown music capital, filed for the nation’s largest ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy five years and two months ago in the wake of a loss of more than a million residents, cuts in state aid, and collapsing real estate values—forcing the city to borrow to meet its operating costs. It came in the wake of the city experiencing periodic episodes of corruption and mismanagement for years—a critical consequence of this former great American industrial city’s dysfunction had been its erosion as a core for jobs: employment had fled the urban core, at a time it was rising in the metropolitan area—even as other cities were seeing something of a city-center revival. The Motor City’s ability to borrow in the municipal markets was exhausted after years of issuing long-term debt to pay its operating bills: the city had listed liabilities in excess of $17 billion—equal to $25,000 for every remaining resident. In his report, the city’s Emergency Manager, Kevyn Orr, described the city as “dysfunctional and wasteful after years of budgetary restrictions, mismanagement, crippling operational practices and, in some cases, indifference or corruption.” For residents, escaping these debts and physical deterioration accompanied by high violent crime rates and unperforming schools meant moving to the suburbs: of the 264,209 households in Detroit, only 9.2% were married couple families with children under 18; another 78,438 households, or nearly 30%, were families headed by women.

Now, as the ever insightful Daniel Howes of the Detroit News has written, the city’s neighborhoods are in play: he wrote: “Three months after Ford Motor Co. confirmed plans to convert Corktown’s dilapidated Michigan Central Depot into its center for mobility and self-driving vehicle development, a consortium backed by $50 million from the Kresge Foundation is planning a cradle-to-career educational complex on the campus of Marygrove College at Wyoming and McNichols.” He was referring to the city’s historic district near downtown, one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods—and one listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is not just an old part of the city, but one which gained its heritage in the middle of the last century when, in the wake of the Great Irish Potato Famine in the 1840’s, the great Irish migration to the U.S. made Detroit the city with the largest new home—with many Irish settling on the west side of the city; they were primarily from County Cork, and thus the neighborhood came to be known as Corktown. Kresge’s CEO, Rip Rapson, at the end of last week answered “unequivocally ‘yes.’ The time for the pivot to the neighborhoods is now,” in what he deemed an “an unprecedented model of neighborhood revitalization.”

A critical element to this revitalization could come from the physically and fiscally depleted Detroit Public Schools—so physically dangerous and unperforming that they served to discourage families with children from wanting to live in the city; yet, now, as Mr. Howes wrote: “The symbolism is striking. The Detroit Public Schools Community District board, burdened with a legacy of underperforming schools and labor troubles, is wagering it can create a new model for traditional public education by partnering with the University of Michigan’s School of Education, Starfish Family Services, and Marygrove to teach local students and teach their teachers…Borrowing from the residency programs used in medical education, the Ann Arbor university founded 201 years ago in Detroit would leverage its reputation and expertise in what University President Mark Schlissel calls “teamwork in service to the public.” That is, the effort is to anchor community redevelopment, as Chicago did, by education: the Detroit Public School District would operate a K-8 school and a high school carved from the former Bates Academy on the east edge of campus, while the University of Michigan would operate an undergraduate “residency” program for aspiring teachers.

Mr. Howes went on to write that, even as Detroit’s downtown and Midtown attract billions in private investment, especially from mortgage mogul Dan Gilbert and the Ilitch family to big corporate relocations and small business investment, neighborhood residents and the civic groups representing them have continued to ask: ‘what about us?’ The answer, it seems, is driving in: the Ford Motor Co. reports it will invest $740 million to build out the Corktown campus. Kresge is spearheading numerous community initiatives. A JPMorgan Chase program continues to invest in small-business creation.

On the elected front, Mayor Mike Duggan, seeking re-election, has made neighborhood revitalization a key issue in his campaign for, as Mr. Howe noted, two reasons: “It’s politically potent in a city that struggled for decades to provide basic services, and, second, it’s the next obvious step in the city’s revitalization: Reinvesting in downtown and Midtown, essentially the spine of Detroit, helps bolster tax base, fuel economic activity, and create tax-paying jobs. Reinvesting in neighborhoods and improving traditional public education strengthens community and gives Detroiters a reason to stay, to reap the benefits of rising property values.”

Kresge CEO Rip Rapson, a critical player in Detroit’s physical and fiscal recovery, notes: “What this town needs to be shown again and again is you can take big ideas and make them real…So many people are waiting to see efforts like this fail.” The heart, as Mr. Howes noted, of the so-called “P-20 Partnership” is Detroit’s reconstituted public school district, a campaign backed by Kresge’s contributions, the University of Michigan’s commitment to train teachers to teach Detroit’s youth— and the courage of its leadership to develop a new model for educating the city’s kids, right in the heart of a neighborhood.”

A new Strategic Plan for Puerto Rico? While FEMA has approved a new document for emergency response for Puerto Rico, it is a plan with a critical MIA: municipios—and this with time uncertain, as Hurricane Isaac is lurking in the Caribbean and FEMA is caught in a quagmire over the President’s assertion that fewer than 50 lives were lost in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria. FEMA’s Deputy Federal Coordinating Officer in Puerto Rico, Justo “Tito” Hernández has asserted that the “The Strategic Plan was revised. And we are already doing exercises based on the plan. That is already finished,”in an interview with El Nuevo Día, claiming the changes are intended to correct errors which were made before, during, and after the hurricane. In addition, the document already required amendments, in line with federal regulations. (As a rule, the Strategic Plan is modified every five years; the current one was created in October of 2014 and revised after Hurricane Maria.) Yet, even though this plan for the Commonwealth is ready, the Emergency Management Plan for each municipio has yet to be certified by the Puerto Rico State Agency for Emergency and Disaster Management or FEMA, according to Commissioner Carlos Acevedo, who noted: “The plans, I am waiting for the company (hired to develop them) to deliver them to me. And they should be handing me the plans tomorrow (today).” However, both Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares and Commissioner Acevedo have pointed out, in separate interviews, that the government is prepared to face the challenges of the new hurricane season. Gov. Rosselló Nevares stated that now the “people” have an emergency plan, noting there have been workshops “throughout Puerto Rico on how to develop those personal emergency plans,” that changes were made at federal, state, and municipal levels regarding the distribution of food and medication, and that another “public health response” will be implemented. Nevertheless, Gov. Rosselló Nevares recognized that the island’s infrastructure, including the homes of thousands of families that still have blue tarps on their roofs and the power grid, remain vulnerable, stating: “It is no less true that, although there are parts that are more robust, it is a somewhat more fragile (power) grid. Therefore, we want to change and transform it,” he added, referring to the process he has begun to privatize PREPA, the Electric Power Authority: “There are significant improvements, particularly in the area of preparation, but without a doubt, Puerto Rico remains vulnerable, particularly in the infrastructure area.” The Governor added that this scenario will require quick action to transform the power grid and “a bit of luck that an event like María or even a lower-category one, does not impact Puerto Rico, again, and further collapse areas that are already vulnerable.” In addition, he noted, that already, unlike last year, when the government contacted the American Public Power Association with a month of delay after the cyclone, agreements with energy companies have been reached, albeit noting that other initiatives “take time, but are being executed,” and that 64 people are being trained to exercise “very particular functions” amid any new emergency.

With regard to addressing the dysfunction of the government during Maria, the Governor said that “people have been trained based on these new protocols.” Even so, emergency management experts have indicated that unsettled issues in critical areas with regard to the Commonwealth’s role in future emergencies remain: the preparation that the government claims has been questioned by the former executive Director of the former State Office for Emergency and Disaster Management, Epifanio Jiménez, who reiterated that the problem after Maria was the lack of implementation of the existing plans—or, as he put it: “They’re using Maria’s category 5 as a pretext—which is true, it’s a precedent—but they use it as an excuse to justify the collapse of agencies and agency leaders because, when Hurricane Georges hit, the leaders knew their work and the island recovered after 32 days.”

A simple look at the 2014 Strategic Hurricane Plan, which experts say was not followed, reveals that the Health, Family, Emergency Management Agency, and General Services Administration (SGA) departments, among other government agencies, failed in their respective functions before, during, and after the hurricane; moreover, if all of these agencies had fulfilled their responsibilities, fatalities estimated today at 2,975 (except by the White House) would have been avoided, according to the study by the Milken Institute of the George Washington University.

The Strategic Plan is governed by the National Incident Management System (NIMS), which establishes and defines the entire procedure for emergency management. It is backed by Presidential orders. FEMA develops the plan, theoretically in partnership with state authorities—clearly part of the challenge, as Puerto Rico is in a quasi-twilight zone between being a state or a municipality. This matters, because such a plan is intended to detail the function of what is called the Emergency Support Function, which is nothing more than the function that each agency will have before, during, and after an emergency.

Some of the Changes. The NMEAD Commissioner (Negotiator for the Management of Emergencies and Administrator for Disasters) Carlos Acevedo, said that now the Department of Family Affairs has a list of vulnerable groups. He added that the emergency management center integrated the private sector, and even had training. However, according to Mr. Jiménez:  “That is nonsense,” recalling that the private sector was already integrated into emergencies, because there must be agreements with agencies. To avoid the collapse of communications, Commissioner Acevedo said they now have a voice and data satellite system. The Telecommunications Regulatory Board and the NMEAD have a list of radio amateurs to use analog communication, if necessary, he added, albeit noting: “That has to be refined, and the JRT has to make sure that the private sector responds.” Moreover, Commissioner Acevedo said the services of cell phone companies, which also collapsed in the wake of the hurricane, is an issue that remains in the hands of the private sector. Finally, he noted he has also held meetings with the directors of hospitals and dialysis centers on the island, stressing that each party has increased its capacity to provide services.

Taking Stock in Stockton!

eBlog

September 7, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the remarkable fiscal success of the implementation of Stockton’s plan of debt adjustment, before crossing over Tropical Storm Florence to the equally stormy demands of the PROMESA Board to the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico’s Governor Ricardo Rosselló to make major changes to his fiscal blueprint for the territory’s quasi plan of debt adjustment.

Taking Positive Stock in Stockton. Stockton, California, a now post-chapter 9 municipality, which was founded by Captain Charles Maria Weber in 1849 after his acquisition of Rancho Campo de los Francese, was the first community in California to have a name not of Spanish or Native American origin. The city, with a population just under 350,000, making it the state’s 13th largest, was named an All-America City in 1999, 2004, 2015, and again last year. It is also one of the cities we focused upon as part of our chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy analyses, after, a decade ago, it became the second largest city in the United States to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy protection—a petition which was successful when, three years ago last February, the U.S. Bankruptcy Court approved its plan of debt adjustment. This week, S&P upgraded the city’s credit rating to “positive,” with CFO Matt Paulin noting the upgrade reflected the health and strength of the city’s general fund—after, last summer, the City Council approved the FY2018-19 budget, which anticipates $229.6 million in general fund revenues, versus $220.6 million in expenditures—with S&P, last month, noting its rating action “reflects our view of the city’s sustained strong-to-very strong financial performance, sustained very strong budgetary flexibility, and institutionalized integration of a revised reserve policy into its last three budget cycles.”   S&P analyst Chris Morgan noted: “What we’re seeing is a pretty good record of discipline in terms of spending and having a long-term view…“We’re increasingly confident they’re going to continue to meet their obligations,” adding that, over the last three budget cycles, Stockton has adopted a 20-year plan and built up its reserves. Stockton CFO Matt Paulin described the four-notch upgrade as unusual; he said it marked a reflection of the city’s fiscal discipline and improvement: “It’s really an affirmation of the things we’ve instituted here at the city so we can maintain fiscal sustainability.” The rating here, on some $9.4 million of lease revenue bonds, backed by the city’s general fund, had been originally issued in 1999 to finance a police administration building; they were refunded in 2006.

While the new fiscal upgrade reflects key progress, the city still confronts challenges to return to investment grade status: its economy remains weak, and, according to S&P, the city continues to fester under a significant public pension obligation, so that, as analyst Morgan put it: “How they handle the next recession is the big question.” And that, CFO Paulin, notes, is a challenge in that the city is not yet, fiscally, where it needs to be. nevertheless, he believes the policies it has enacted will get it there, noting: “I think if we continue to sustain what we’re doing, I’m pretty confident we’ll get to that investment grade next time around,” noting that the rating reflected the city’s strong-to very strong financial performance, sustained very strong budget flexibility, and “institutionalized integration of a revised reserve policy into the last three budget cycles,” adding that since the city’s emergence from chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, the city has only issued two refundings. Now a $150 million sewer plant renovation could become the trigger for Stockton’s first post-chapter 9 municipal bonds if it is unable to secure sufficient grant funding from Uncle Sam or the State by next spring.

Mandating Mandate Retention. Without having been signed into law, the Puerto Rico Senate’s proposal to relieve municipios from the mandate to contribute to Puerto Rico’s health reform program has, nevertheless, been countermanded and preempted by the PROMESA Oversight Board after, yesterday, PROMESA Oversight Board Director Natalie Jaresko wrote to Governor Ricardo Rossello Nevares, to Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz, and to House Leader Carlos Méndez to warn them that the bill which would exempt municipalities from their contribution to the government’s health plan is “inconsistent” with the unelected Board’s certified fiscal plan. Chair Jaresko wrote: “The Board is willing to amend the Certified Fiscal Plan for the Commonwealth to permit the municipality exemption contemplated by SB 879, provided that the legislation be amended such that the exemption terminates by September 30, 2019,” a deadline imposed by the Board which coincides with the moment when the federal funds to finance Mi Salud (My Health), would expire. The bill establishes that the exemption from payment to municipios would remain until the end of FY2020. In her letter, Director Jaresko also wrote to the officials that to grant the exemption, the government will need to identify the resources which would be devoted to cover the budget provisions to which the municipios would stop contributing. (Since 2006, municipios have been mandated to contribute to Mi Salud, based on the number of participants per municipio—a contribution currently equal to $168 million. The decision appears to be based upon the premise that once the Affordable Care Act ended, the federal government allocated over $2 billion for the payment of the health plan, an allocation apparently intended to cover such expenses for about two years. Thus, at the beginning of the week, Secretary of Public Affairs Ramon Rosario Cortes, said that the “Governor intends to pass any relief that may be possible to municipalities;” albeit he warned that the measure, approved by the Legislature, should be subject to PROMESA Board oversight—especially, as the Governor noted: “At the moment, there has been no discussion with the Board.”

The PROMESA Oversight Board has also demanded major changes to the fiscal plan Gov. Ricardo Rosselló submitted, with the Board requesting seeking more cuts as well as more conservative projections for revenues, making the demands in a seven-page epistle—changes coming, mayhap ironically, because of good gnus: revenues have been demonstrating improvement over projections, and emigration from the island to the mainland appears to be ebbing—or, as Director Jaresko, in her epistle to the Governor, wrote: “The June certified fiscal plan already identified the structural reforms and fiscal measures that are necessary to comply with [the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act], accordingly, the Oversight Board intended this revision to the fiscal plan to incorporate the latest material information and certain technical adjustments, not to renegotiate policy initiatives…Unfortunately, the proposed plan does not reflect all of the latest information for baseline projections and includes several new policies that are inconsistent with PROMESA’s mandate.” Ms. Jaresko, in the letter, returned to two issues of fiscal governance which have been fractious, asserting that the Governor has failed to eliminate the annual Christmas bonus and failed to propose a plan to increase “agency efficiency personnel savings,” charging that Gov. Rosselló had not included the PROMESA Board’s mandated 10 percent cuts to pensions, and that his plan includes an implementation of Social Security which is more expensive than the Board’s approved plan provided.

Director Jaresko also noted that Gov. Rosselló’s plan includes $99 million in investment in items such as public private partnerships and the Puerto Rico Innovation and Technology Services Office, which were contingent on the repeal of a labor law. Since, however, the Puerto Rico Senate has opted not to repeal the statute (Law 80), she stated Gov. Rosselló should not include spending on these items in her proposed fiscal plan, noting that Gov. Rosselló has included $725 million in additional implementation costs associated with the planned government reforms, warning that if he intends to include these provisions, he will have to find offsetting savings. In her epistle, the Director further noted that she believes his plan improperly uses projected FY2019 revenues as a base from which to apply gross national product growth rates to figure out future levels of revenue. Since the current fiscal year will include substantial amounts of recovery-related revenues and these are only temporary, using the current year in this way may over-estimate revenues for the coming years, she admonished. She wrote that Gov. Rosselló assumes a higher than necessary $4.09 billion in baseline payroll expenditures—calling for this item to be reduced—and that the lower total be used to recalculate payroll in the government going forward. Finally, Director Jaresko complained that the Governor’s plan had removed implementation exhibits which included timelines and statements that the government would produce quarterly performance reports, insisting that these must be reintroduced—and giving Gov. Rosselló until noon next Wednesday to comply.

The End of State Usurpation of Local Elected Authority? Uneasy shelter from the Fiscal and Physical Storms?

August 31, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the end of the State of Michigan to usurp local authority via the appointment of an Emergency Manager, the safety of school drinking water has become an issue in Detroit—especially after Flint, and we consider the extraordinary revisions in the projected Hurricane Maria death toll in Puerto Rica—and the White House response.

Protecting a City’s Children. Detroit Public School Superintendent Nikolai P. Vitti has directed turning off drinking water across the district’s 106 schools  in the wake of after discovering higher-than-acceptable levels of copper and lead in some facilities, with Superintendent Vitti noting his decision came out of caution “until a deeper and broader analysis can be conducted to determine the long-term solutions for all schools.” he said in a statement. Test results found elevated levels of lead or copper in 16 out of 24 schools which were recently tested. Supt. Vitti stated: “Although we have no evidence that there are elevated levels of copper or lead in our other schools where we are awaiting test results, out of an abundance of caution and concern for the safety of our students and employees.” His actions, no doubt affected by fiscal and water contamination in Flint, came even as Detroit officials and the Great Lakes Water Authority sought to assure residents that water provided by the authority is safe to drink: they pointed to the city’s aging infrastructure as the problem.  Superintendent Vitti said he will be creating a task force to determine the cause of the elevated levels and solutions, noting he had initiated water testing of all 106 school buildings last spring to ensure the safety of students and employees. Water at 18 schools had been previously shut off. He added: “This was not required by federal, state, or city law or mandate: This testing, unlike previous testing, evaluated all water sources from sinks to drinking fountains.” The District does not plan to test students: a spokesperson for the school system noted: “Dr. Vitti said…he has no evidence at all that children have been impacted from a health standpoint.”

Fiscal & Physical Challenges: Earlier this summer, Supt. Vitti released details from a facilities review which had determined the school district would need to spend $500 million now to fix the deteriorating conditions of its schools—an effort for the system projected to cost as much as $1.4 billion if there is a failure to act swiftly, with the Administrator pointing to the failure by former state-appointed emergency managers to make the right investments in facilities while the system was preempted of authority and state-appointed emergency managers from 2009 to 2016 failed to make the right investments, sending what Dr. Vitti described as “the message to students, parents and employees that we really don’t care about public education in Detroit, that we allow for second-class citizenry in Detroit.” The remarks raised anew questions with regard to Michigan’s governance by means of gubernatorially chosen Emergency Managers.  

Superindent Vitti said he had notified Mayor Mike Duggan of his decision to shut off the drinking water, and a spokesperson, John Roach, noted: Mayor is “fully supportive” of the approach Supt. Vitti has taken, adding: “We will be supporting Dr. Vitti in an advisory capacity through the health department and the DWSD (Detroit Water and Sewerage Department) has offered to partner with the district on any follow-up testing that needs to be done.” At the same time, the Great Lakes Water Authority issued a statement in an effort to assure “residents and customers of GLWA’s regional system that they are not affected by the lead and copper issues,” noting: “Aging school infrastructure (i.e. plumbing) is the reason for the precautionary measure of providing bottled water,” adding water treated by the authority meets and surpasses all federal and state regulations, albeit adding: “A task force will be formed consisting of engineering and water quality experts” to will help the district “understand the cause and identify solutions.” (Initial results this past week showed elevated levels of copper, lead or both at one or more water sources in 16 of 24 school buildings, according to the statement. Water bottles will be provided at the schools until water coolers arrive. The district also found water-quality issues in some schools in 2016.)

The incident in Detroit raises a host of fiscal and governance issues—especially in the wake of the tragedy in upstate Flint—with, in both cases, the state’s history of appointing Emergency Managers to preempt the authority of local elected leaders. In the case of DPS, Dr. Vitti has contacted the Mayor, the Governor, and a task force of engineers and water experts to understand the cause and possible solutions; Superintendent Nikolai P. Vitti opted to close the water taps out of caution “until a deeper and broader analysis can be conducted to determine the long-term solutions for all schools,” with the decision coming just days before the school district’s 106 schools are scheduled to open next Tuesday. (Water bottles will be provided at the schools until water coolers arrive.) Water officials have blamed aging infrastructure as the cause of the public safety threat. Now Dr. Vitti has asked Mike Duggan and Gov. Rick Snyder to convene a task force of engineers and water experts to determine the cause of the elevated lead and copper levels, and to propose solutions. 

Importantly, it seems the public safety risk is limited to Detroit’s public schools: water officials released a statement Wednesday assuring residents and customers of the Great Lakes Water Authority and the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department that they are not affected by the lead and copper issues at the school district, noting: “Aging school infrastructure (i.e. plumbing) is the reason for the precautionary measure of providing bottled water…The water at GLWA’s treatment plants is tested hourly, and DWSD has no lead service lines connected to any DPSCD building. The drinking water is of unquestionable quality.”

Nevertheless, the threat to public safety—combined with the heartbreaking, long-term threats to Flint’s children from that city’s public water contamination—could add further challenges to Detroit’s recovery from the nation’s largest-ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy: a critical part of the city’s plan of debt adjustment was to address its vast amassment of abandoned houses by enticing young families with children to move from the suburbs back into the city—an effort which had to rely on a perception of the quality and safety of its public schools. Now, for a system itself recovering from bankruptcy, DPS faces a bill of at least $500 million to repair its buildings: approximately 25% of the system’s school buildings are in unsatisfactory condition and another 20%are in poor condition, according to the report. The district noted nearly $223 million of high-priority repairs involving elevators and lifts, energy supply, heating and cooling systems, sprinklers, standpipes, electrical service and distribution, lighting, wiring, communications, security system, local area networking, public address and intercoms, emergency lights and plumbing fixtures.

Mayor Duggan’s office and the Detroit Health Department Wednesday issued a joint statement supporting “the approach Dr. Vitti has taken to test all water sources within DPS schools and to provide bottled water until the district can implement a plan to ensure that all water is safe for use,” noting: “We will be supporting Dr. Vitti in an advisory capacity through the health department and the DWSD has offered to partner with the district on any follow-up testing that needs to be done. We also will be reaching out to our charter operators in the coming days to work with them on a possible similar testing strategy to the voluntary one Dr. Vitti has implemented.”

Restoring Municipal Authority. Mayhap it is ironic that Michigan’s relatively rare authority for the Governor to appoint an emergency manager to preempt local elected authority reflects the uneven results of the program—a program I well remember from meeting with Kevyn Orr, whom Gov. Rick Snyder had appointed as Emergency Manager  (EM) to preempt all governing authority of Detroit’s Mayor and Council, at the Governor’s office in Detroit on the first day the city entered the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history—and after the grievous failure of a previous gubernatorially-appointed Emergency Manager to help the Motor City. The very concept of state authority to appoint a quasi dictator and to preempt any authority of local leaders elected by the citizens, after all, feels un-American.

Yet, from that very first moment, Mr. Orr had acted to ensure there was no disruption in 9-1-1 responses—and that every traffic and street light worked. Unlike the experience under an Emergency Manager in Flint, Mr. Orr was intently focused on getting Detroit back on its fiscal and physical feet—and restoring elected leadership to today’s grieving city.

Now, as of this week, Michigan no longer has any local government under a state appointed emergency manager—and observers are under the impression the state program to preempt local authority may be quietly laid to rest. It has, after all, been a program of preemption of local democracy with untoward results: while it proved invaluable in Detroit, it has proven fiscally and physically grievous in Flint, where it has been blamed for contributing to Flint’s water contamination crisis. Indeed, two of Flint’s former EMs have been criminally charged in connection with the crisis. Their failures—at a cost of human lives, appears to have put the future of state pre-emption of local governing authority—may well make state officials leery of stepping in to usurp control a local government, even as some municipal market participants and others see state oversight programs as a positive credit feature. The last municipality in Michigan to be put under a state-imposed emergency manager was Lincoln Park—an imposition which ended three years ago. Michigan Treasury spokesperson Ron Leix noted: “Each situation that led to the financial emergency is unique, so I can’t give a broad-brush assessment about how the law will be used in the future…For the first time in 18 years, no Michigan municipality or school district is under state financial oversight through an emergency manager. This is really about the hard work our local units of government have achieved to identify problems and bring together the resources needed to problem-solve challenging financial conditions.”

In Michigan, the emergency manager program was authorized twenty-eight years ago, granting the governor authority to appoint a manager with extensive powers over a troubled municipality or school district. By 2012, Michigan voters repealed the emergency manager program in a referendum; notwithstanding, one month later Gov. Snyder and legislators re-adopted a similar intervention program—under which local governments could opt among three new options in addition to the appointment of an emergency manager who reports directly to the Governor: chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, mediation, or a consent agreement between the state and the city to permit local elected officials to balance their budget on their own. (In Michigan, municipalities which exit emergency management remain under the oversight of a receivership transition advisory board while executive powers are slowly restored to elected mayors and city councils.)

The state intervention/takeover program had mixed success, according to Michigan State University economist Eric Scorsone, who noted: “In some cases it’s worked well, like Allen Park where the situation was pretty clear-cut and the solution was pretty clear as to what needed to be done.” (Allen Park regained full local control of its operations and finances in February of 2017 after nearly four years of state oversight. Last June, S&P Global Ratings upgraded the city to investment-grade BBB-plus from junk-level BB, crediting strong budgetary performance and financial flexibility more than 12 months after exiting state oversight. But the appointment, in Flint, of emergency managers demonstrated the obverse: the small city had four emergency managers: Ed Kurtz, Mike Brown, Darnell Earley, and Gerald Ambrose—where the latter two today are confronted by charges of criminal wrongdoing stemming from the lead contamination crisis and ensuing Legionnaire’s disease outbreak that claimed 12 lives. It was the gubernatorially appointed Mr. Earley who oversaw the decision to change Flint’s water source to the Flint River in April 2014 as the city awaited completion of a new pipeline—a decision with fatal human and fiscal consequences. Indeed, two years ago, Gov. Snyder named a task force to investigate the Flint crisis and review the Emergency Manager law—a review which recommended the Governor consider alternatives to the current approach that would engage local elected officials. (No action has been taken to change the law.)

Because only a minority of states have authorized chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, there is no uniform state role with regard to city or county severe fiscal distress and bankruptcy. Jane Ridley, senior director in the U.S. public finance government group at S&P Global Ratings and sector lead for local governments, has noted that state oversight is considered as part of the rating agency’s local GO criteria: “We do think that having a state that has oversight, especially if it’s a proven mechanism, can be very helpful for struggling entities…If they ended oversight entirely it would likely have an impact on the institutional framework scores and their sub scores.” A Moody’s analyst, Andrew Van Dyck Dobos, noted: “While an EM is in most cases is a last option, the ability for it to implement some policies and procedures is going to be typically viewed, at least at the onset, as a credit positive.”

Ending Shelter from the Storm. U.S. District Judge Timothy Hillman yesterday ruled that temporary housing given to hundreds of Puerto Ricans displaced by Hurricane Maria will end next month, meaning Puerto Ricans will be forced to check out of temporary housing provided by Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as part of the agency’s Transitional Sheltering Assistance (TSA) program. Judge Hillman, in his decision, wrote: I strongly recommend the parties get together to find temporary housing, or other assistance to the Plaintiffs and other members of the class prior to that date,” with his decision coming the same week Puerto Rico updated its official death toll from Maria to 2,975, a vast increase from the original count of 64. Judge Hillman’s decision also comes about two months after a national civil-rights group filed a lawsuit which had sought a restraining order to block FEMA from ending the program. The group, LatinoJustice, argued in the suit that it would lead to families’ evictions. It also came as, two days ago, President Trump met with reporters to respond to questions with regard to the mounting death toll—a session in which the President told the reporters: “I think we did a fantastic job in Puerto Rico.” Some 1,744 Puerto Rican adults and children were in the FEMA program when the lawsuit was filed. U.S. District Judge Leo T. Sorokin temporarily extended the program to the end of last July, and subsequently extended it until today—and then, once more, to September 14th.

Now, the White House is responding to a new estimate which increases the number by about 33% more to 2,975 after an independent study. White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders claimed in a statement that the back-to-back hurricanes which hit last year prompted “the largest domestic disaster response mission in history.” She added that President Donald Trump “remains proud of all of the work the Federal family undertook to help our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico.” She also says the federal government “will continue to be supportive” of Gov. Ricardo Rossello’s accountability efforts and says “the American people, including those grieving the loss of a loved one, deserve no less.” The new estimate of 2,975 dead in the six months after Maria devastated the island in September 2017 was made by researchers with the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University. It was released Tuesday.

Municipal Bankruptcies Are Complicated Affairs. Really.

August 17, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider a rejection of an appeal challenging Jefferson County’s approved plan of debt adjustment from its chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, and the recurring governance challenge in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico whether the elected Governor and Legislature—or a federal Judge, or a Control Board ought to be making vital governing decisions.

Please note, there will be a temporary respite for eGnus and eBlog readers before publications resume the last week of this month.

A Fiscally Appealing Chapter 9 case? The U.S. Eleventh Court of Appeals has dismissed a challenge to Jefferson County’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy plan of debt adjustment, holding (please see Andrew Bennett et al v. Jefferson County, No. 15-11690, 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, August 16, 2018), holding that the U.S. District Court had erred when  it dismissed Jefferson County’s appeal, holding that the Chapter 9 case brought by a group of ratepayers of Jefferson County’s sewer system could be brought due to the concept of “equitable mootness,” a doctrine the court wrote which, until yesterday, “we have not been asked to apply in a chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy case,” with the court adding: “Municipal bankruptcy proceedings are usually complicated affairs, and the chapter 9 proceeding for Jefferson County, Alabama, involving about $3.2 billion in total sewer-related debt—has proved no different.”

Under the terms of the decision, the County would cut over $100 million in general fund expenditures, and the creditors will write off a significant amount of outstanding debt—over the course of the next four decades, the County is directed to implement a series of single-digit sewer rate increases—totaling about 365%–an amount which the court noted was “not far off of the national increase in inflation in the previous 40 years.” The court, in effect, with its decision, rejected the assertion by County ratepayers that their plan “validated corrupt government activity.”

The court also reviewed, de novo, the lower court’s conclusion that the doctrine of equitable mootness applied to this case—at that lower court, Jefferson County had argued the doctrine of equitable mootness applied and barred the ratepayers’ appeal from the U.S. bankruptcy court. The court here agreed, explaining why said doctrine could apply in a municipal bankruptcy case. (Essentially, the doctrine, the court explained, the courts may, under certain circumstances, reject bankruptcy appeals if the underlying rulings which would have gone into effect would have been “extremely burdensome.” The court went on to decide that some of the principles “will weigh more heavily in chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy cases “precisely because of how many people may be affected,” unlike in a chapter 11 bankruptcy, noting previous chapter 9 municipal bankruptcies we have written about in Stockton and Vallejo, where the district courts’ reasoning involved the implications that “municipalities and their bankruptcies implicate issues of sovereignty; whereas corporations or individuals and their bankruptcies do not—and that, accordingly, it is important for us to tread carefully where self-governance is concerned.” The court further noted: “In addition, it is not at all clear in which direction the ratepayers’ federalism arguments will cut from one chapter 9 bankruptcy to the next. Given the interests of the municipality and those of its residents (among others), there is a countervailing argument that a court ought to be more solicitous to the municipality that has obtained confirmation of its plan….”

Finally, the court recognized that “given the centrality of the constitutional rights to the fabric of the republic, there is a fair argument to be made that we should allow some leniency when a party which has allowed a bankruptcy plan to go into effect asserts,” adding, with regard to federalism concerns, “it will be appropriate to note them when deciding whether the doctrine should bar an appeal in a particular bankruptcy case,” which, is, as the court noted: “precisely what we did.”

 Jefferson County Commissioner David Carrington, a previous State & Local Leader of the Week, who led the county’s negotiations during its municipal bankruptcy case, said County leaders are pleased with the ruling, noting: “We were always confident in our Chapter 9 plan of adjustment,” but wincing that the years of litigation had come at great expense to county taxpayers running into “hundreds of thousands of dollars in frivolous litigation fees that could have been used for capital improvements to the sewer system.” (The County had filed its plan of debt adjustment in November of 2011—a plan subsequently approved by the court five years ago. Nevertheless, as the dean of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, Jim Spiotto, noted, the case had become one of the longest municipal bankruptcy cases in U.S. history.

Another Appeal. Meanwhile, south of Jefferson County, Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló confirmed yesterday that the executive branch will also appeal the decision of Judge Laura Taylor Swain, the judge assigned by the federal court to deal with the quasi chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy of Puerto Rico—a decision in which it was determined that the PROMESA Oversight Board has the authority to impose its certified fiscal plan and budget, with the Governor stating: “It has become very clear what is the unworthy colonial situation in Puerto Rico, where some courts have decided that in some aspects of the budget the hands are tied to the Legislative Assembly and somewhat to the executive to make determinations, so of course we are going to appeal,” with his comments coming in the wake of Judge Swain’s dismissal, earlier this month, of nine of the allegations presented in the suit of the Financial Advisory Authority and Fiscal Agency (Aafaf), as well as all the allegations of the lawsuit filed by the Puerto Rico Legislature—and the legislative leadership, where the respective leaders, Thomas Rivera Schatz and Carlos “Johnny” Méndez, already filed an information motion before the court notifying it they would attend the First Circuit of Appeals of Boston—albeit, Governor Rosselló, noted, he would not provide them with the power to “make executive decisions with the vehicle of the executive order.”

Colocar el Interruptor. Nearly a year after Hurricane Maria plunged Puerto Rico into physical and fiscal darkness, NPR’s Adrian Florida reports: “Now nearly 11 months after Hurricane Maria plunged Puerto Rico into darkness, officials there say they are done restoring the island’s power: no more lanterns, and no more “candles.” PREPA has announced its work restoring power to the island is done: it took almost a year, tens of thousands of new poles, thousands of miles of wire, and help from two federal agencies. She described it as a “restoration plagued by scandal and delays. It cost some $3 billion. And now that it’s done, experts agree the power grid is just as fragile as before the hurricane. This morning, Jose Ortiz, the fifth CEO to head the power utility since the storm, was offering a reality check on local radio station WKAQ. Some homes still don’t have power because they’re damaged

Fiscal, Physical, & Human Challenges of Municipal Governance

August 6, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the awful physical, fiscal, and human challenges of municipal governance.  

An Enduring State of Emergency. Governor Rick Snyder of Michigan was in West Michigan yesterday morning: he was touring a water system construction site in Parchment, a municipality in Kalamazoo County of less than 2,000. The construction here includes a new pressure reduction system, which will allow Parchment to transition to the City of Kalamazoo water system. The city’s water supply is being flushed out, and the city of Kalamazoo will provide water to Parchment and Cooper Township residents. The transition, raising eerie memories of a previous transfer by the Governor in Flint, comes in the wake of finding that water in Parchment was contaminated with man-made chemicals called perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). City residents were warned to stop using the water due to the contamination on July 26th, after water tests showed the PFAS level in Parchment was 20 times higher than the EPA recommended amount of 70 parts per trillion. A local state of emergency has been set for Parchment, and neighboring Cooper Township, after, just last week, Gov. Snyder declared a state of emergency for Kalamazoo County.

Fear for children—fear that the impact of Flint’s lead-tainted water could last decades—and distrust in the state and local governance to make decisions affecting children whose development could be hurt, is, unsurprisingly causing generations of residents to lose trust in government. It is, of course, at the same time tainting the assessed property values of homes in cities in Michigan so adversely affected for decades to come by state-imposed emergency managers. What parents would wish to move to a municipality knowing the drinking water would have long-term devastating consequences for their child?

What are the fiscal challenges for municipal elected leaders—especially in a state where the long-term physical and fiscal damages were wrought by state-imposed emergency managers? What do the long-term health effects for children exposed to the lead-tainted water mean for a municipality with regard to legal vulnerability and to financing a long-term recovery? At a conference at the end of last week, Detroit News reporter Leonard Fleming noted: “They don’t trust government officials: It could take a generation or two for residents to trust the city and state again and its water.”

At the conference, Dr. Lawrence Reynolds, who was on the Governor’s Flint task force, said some health officials have tried to minimize the effects of the water on residents; nevertheless, he warned there are babies who drank lead-tainted formula for six to nine months who could experience serious disabilities later in life: “It was a civil rights crisis, a human rights crisis, an environmental racism, and there is no excuse for what was done.” Moreover, there appears little end in sight: Cynthia Lindsey, an attorney representing Flint residents in a class-action lawsuit, said it could take three to four years for the legal process to play out. That is, Flint is held hostage by decisions imposed upon it by a state-imposed emergency manager, and now the question of who will finance—and how long will it take to replace all the city’s pipes, provide it access to safe and affordable drinking water, and long-term health care appear to be decisions to be made in a courtroom.

The fateful decision that led to the lead water contamination was not a municipal decision, but rather one made by the state in 2011 via a state imposed emergency manager, Darnell Earley. That was a decision which led to the finding that hundreds of children have since been diagnosed with lead poisoning; a dozen Flint residents have died of Legionella from drinking river water. Today, some 15 state public employees have been indicted by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette for their roles in the water crisis—indictments on charges ranging from obstructing an investigation to involuntary manslaughter.

Now Attorney General Schuette is running to replace the term-limited Governor Rick Snyder. Some in the state claim the candidate is using the Flint charges to “make himself look like a hero.” In the Democratic gubernatorial primary, ex-state Senator Gretchen Whitmer (D-Lansing) has released a plan to speed the replacement of lead pipes, while former Detroit health director Abdul El-Sayed received the endorsement of “Little Miss Flint,” the student whose letter brought former President Barack Obama to the community.

Former Flint Mayor Dayne Walling, who lost his first race for that position in 2009 to a car dealer named Don Williamson, but, when former Mayor Williamson resigned to avoid a recall for lying about the city’s budget deficit, was elected in a special election to replace him: he was elected after promising “to transform Flint into a sustainable 21st-century city with new jobs, safe neighborhoods, great schools and opportunity for all.” Candidate Walling reports that his own trust in government is lower than it was prior to the city’s drinking water contamination; now he claims he wants to take the hard lessons he has learned to the place he sees as the major source of Flint’s problems: the state capitol in Lansing.

Representation could matter: over the last four decades, assessed property values fell more than 40 percent—and with them property tax receipts. That led to, after the city’s police union’s refusal to accept pay cuts, laying off a third of the police force—meaning that for a period of time, the city, with about 100,000 residents, was sometimes able to put only six officers on the street at one time. Unsurprisingly, murders nearly doubled between 2009 and 2010—a year when Flint had the nation’s highest murder rate—and the year when Gov. Ric Snyder announced he was appointing an emergency manager, Ed Kurz, to preempt local control and authority in an effort to eliminate the city’s $10 million general fund deficit. Just prior to that preemption of local authority, the Flint City Council had endorsed a plan to detach the city from the Detroit water system, due to what the Council believed to be unaffordable rates, and join the new Karegnondi Water Authority, which planned to build a pipeline from Lake Huron. Mr. Kurtz authorized an engineering study to prepare the city’s water treatment plant to process Flint River water instead. A sequential state-appointed Emergency Manager, Darnell Earley, implemented the changeover—a fateful decision with precipitous health and human safety and fiscal consequences. Mr. Earley has been charged with false pretenses, conspiracy, willful neglect of duty, misconduct in office, and involuntary manslaughter—charges which will be aired next Monday at a hearing, where he is likely to maintain That the City Council had decided to draw from the Flint River until the new pipeline was completed, and that he was, therefore, only executing their orders. (Mr. Kurz, who has not been charged, has previously testified before Congress that his responsibility was “strictly finance,” thus, he bore no responsibility to ensure “safe drinking water.”

Today, Mr. Walling, currently working as a public policy consultant for Michigan State University, notes he believes there ought to be changes in the relationship between Flint and the State of Michigan, noting: “The distress of Michigan’s cities, starting with Detroit and Flint, is a direct result of policies made in Lansing,” adding: “The only good news is that policy changes at the state level can help restore Michigan’s once-great cities.”

According to a Michigan State University 2015 study: “Beyond State Takeovers: Reconsidering the Role of State Government in Local Financial Distress, with Important Lessons for Michigan and its Embattled Cities,” by Joshua Sapotichne, Erika Rosebrook, Eric A. Scorsone, Danielle Kaminski, Mary Doidge, and Traci Taylor; the State of Michigan has the second-most stringent local taxation limits in the nation—limits which impose what they term “tremendous pressure on local lawmakers’ ability to generate critical revenue.” The fiscal pressure on the state’s local governments has been intensified by decisions to divert revenue sharing, the former program intended to address fiscal disparities, to instead enable state tax cuts. The decision disproportionately impacted the state’s most fiscally challenged municipalities: Flint’s loss was $54 million; Detroit lost $200 million, contributing to its 2013 chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. Indeed, the state decision indirectly contributed to state imposition of nine emergency managers.

Thus, unsurprisingly, former Mayor Walling has a list of the new policies he wants to enact as a state representative: Allow cities to charge commuters the same income tax rate as residents (instead of just half); broaden the sales and use tax to services; provide state pension retirement assistance. This would have especial import for Flint, where the city’s taxpayers are currently financing the pensions of employees who worked for the city when it had 200,000 residents—pension payments now consuming, he says, a quarter of the city’s budget.

Trust & Intergovernmental Tensions. By candidate Walling’s own admission, throughout most of Flint’s drinking water crisis, he believed assurances from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality that Flint’s water met safe drinking standards. When residents confronted him with discolored, foul-smelling water, he said: “I thought that water had come out of their tap because of a failure in the system at their house or near the house,” adding that it was not until three years ago when, in the wake of listening to Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha describe her discovery that Flint children were showing elevated levels of lead in their blood, did he finally realize the city’s entire water system was tainted, asserting that it was at that moment in time that he ordered the city to issue a lead advisory, advising mothers not to mix hot tap water with formula, and for all residents to filter their water and flush it for five minutes. (In her recent memoir, What the Eyes Don’t See, Dr. Hanna-Attisha devotes an entire chapter to her meeting with Mr. Walling, criticizing him for opting out of joining her news conference on lead levels, because he was more concerned about traveling to Washington to meet Pope Francis.)

Candidate Walling’s campaign flyers assert: “My priorities are roads, schools, jobs.” they declare. As he challenges incumbent Mayor Karen Weaver, he says most voters he interacts with want to talk about the shabby state of Michigan’s roads or the excessive auto insurance rates paid by residents of Flint and Detroit. But, it appears, he is willing to support repeal of Michigan’s Emergency Manager law—a concept which journalist Anna Clark notes, in The Poisoned City, her new history of the water crisis: “The idea of emergency management is that an outside official who is not constrained by local politics or the prospect of a reelection bid will be able to better make the difficult decisions necessary to get a struggling city or school district back on solid ground.” But in Flint, emergency managers made decisions based on saving money, not the health and safety of the citizens with whose well-being they had been entrusted. Candidate Walling, in retrospect, notes: “I wish that I had never been part of any of it: “This has all happened to a community that I deeply love, and it is motivating me to make sure policy changes are made to make sure this never happens again.”

Potholes in the Motor City Road to Recovery & un Federalism in Puerto Rico

eBlog

July 20, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider some of the post chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy challenges Detroit confronts, before returning to some of the legal, governing, and judicial challenges to Puerto Rico’s fiscal recovery.

The Potholes in Recovering from Municipal Bankruptcy. Five years out from the nation’s largest ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy incurred in the wake of accruing some $14 billion in long-term debt, the city’s plan of debt adjustment has unrolled in a sparkling fashion, especially downtown and around Michigan Central Station. Just under 40% of jobs in Detroit are deemed high skill—higher than the surrounding neighborhoods—and especially valuable in a city which, unlike most, boast an income tax. Nevertheless, median income, at about $56,000 is the lowest in the nation among major metropolitan regions. And the sorry state of the Detroit Public School system continues to discourage families with kids to move from the city’s suburbs into the city: in excess of 90% of eighth graders lack proficiency in math and reading.

A key to the recovery has been the auto industry—and major foundations, including the Kresge, Ford, and the Community Foundation of Southeast Michigan—all of which contributed to the so-called “grand bargain” in the city’s chapter 9 plan of debt adjustment approved by Judge Steven Rhodes—an adjustment which brought in hundreds of millions of dollars to safeguard pensions and preserve the city’s jewel in its crown: the Detroit Institute of Art. Moreover, since then, foundations have contributed great sums to workforce training in Detroit, retail revival, human welfare services and more—as well as for-profit corporations, such as JP Morgan Chase, which has been pumping $150 million into the city to support a variety of efforts from retail to job training. Moreover, millennials and empty-nesters have moved downtown: in the past few years, a trickle of newcomers has swelled to a flood, meaning what, on the city’s first day in chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy when it was unsafe to walk downtown, is, today, an area of dozens of new residential developments, which have been built or are underway in the greater downtown, from the revival of classic skyscrapers like the David Whitney Building and Broderick Tower to new construction like the Auburn and DuCharme Place. If anything, an urban challenge confronting city leaders today is the escalation of rents—forcing questions with regard to displacement.

Changing the Premise of PROMESA? In the wake of Judge Laura Swain Taylor’s rulings, there appears to be increasing pressure in Congress to revise or repeal the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act [PROMESA], after a the Judge suggested the U.S. government could be liable for cuts to bond values mandated by the PROMESA Oversight Board. U.S. Court of Federal Claims Chief Judge Susan Braden issued her opinion [Altair Global Credit Opportunity Fund et al. v. The U.S. Court of Federal Claims, No. 17-970C, July 17, 2018, in the case filed by investment funds against the U.S. government concerning defaulted employment retirement system bonds. Judge Braden’s signal that she was inclined to rule in favor on the claims drew reactions from members of the Puerto Rico Task Force of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus—or as U.S. Rep. Darren Soto )D-Fl.) put it: “This ruling exposes additional problems with the PROMESA act…It may also be a catalyst to support a reform or repeal to provide Puerto Rico full bankruptcy rights.”

Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.), who was born in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico, agreed that the opinion may have an impact on Puerto Rico; however, he was uncertain it would be for the better—rather, he seemed apprehensive Judge Braden’s opinion placed the interests of creditors in front of those of the citizens of Puerto Rico—American citizens, noting: “By making the U.S. government liable for Puerto Rico’s debt, the court has essentially determined that bondholders can have priority over the needs of the Puerto Rican people: This would force the federal government to make the hedge funds whole, rather than focusing on the true intent of PROMESA: helping Puerto Rico get on a sustainable economic and fiscal path. We have to make sure the people of Puerto Rico come first.” In stark contrast, Manal Mehta, founder of Sunesis Capital, agreed the ruling would help bondholders, but he saw this as a positive. “The plaintiffs had to get over the hurdle to show this is actually a claim against the federal government to get to federal claims court. This is a solid win for creditors,” noting: “It looks like the court made the correct decision, as the Lebron [legal case] test emphasizes ‘federal control’ to determine whether something is ‘federal’ for takings purposes, and it’s clear Congress controls the [PROMESA] Oversight Board, as it appoints it: So there’s now a takings route for creditors, at least in situations where the PROMESA Oversight Board/government has wiped out prepetition collateral, and it’s unlikely to be overturned.” Put more starkly, he added: “Until final adjudication, this ruling strikes a dagger at the heart of the legitimacy of the Oversight Board: I suspect that this will lead Congress to remove and reappoint members of the Oversight Board in a manner that is consistent with the appointments clause of the U.S. Constitution as well as modify Title III of PROMESA to ensure that the federal government does not become liable for creditor claims.”

In her decision, Judge Swain wrote that the PROMESA Oversight Board was part of Puerto Rico’s government, not the federal government. Reminiscent of the old question ‘Who’s on first and what’s on second, Judge Braden’s ruling reached the opposite conclusion, likely, as New York Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez put it: “There’s a good chance this ruling will be appealed.”

Federalism?  Just when the House Popular Democratic Party (PDP) minority joined the suits against the PROMESA Board, Rafael Cox Alomar, a former Popular Resident Commissioner candidate, said that there appears to be consensus in federal court regarding the fact that the territorial clause grants the U.S. Congress absolute powers over the island: “The environment is completely different, and it is an environment where the theory that Congress has plenary powers, powers that are basically unlimited seems to be growing. In other words, the colonial character of the relationship has been reaffirmed,” he added, asserting that he believe the U.S. Supreme Court has established that the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico does not have its own sovereignty with regard to double jeopardy cases, noting: “I do not think that, in the current environment, arguing that PROMESA is unconstitutional or that the Board does not have the power to do this, or that…or that Congress cannot get involved in legislating in internal affairs without the consent of Puerto Ricans, will be very successful,” suggesting “a new model based on the sovereignty of Puerto Rico is what is needed.”

Adding to the matter, the Popular Democratic Party caucus yesterday filed suit in federal court questioning the constitutionality of the creation of the PROMESA Board, as well as the alleged usurpation of powers, making it the third case filed in the wake of the PROMESA Board’s failure to certify the budget approved by the Legislative Assembly facing the breach of the agreement reached with Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares, which included repealing the Law of Unjust Dismissal (Law 80-1976) as a requirement to, among other things, retain the Christmas bonus of public employees.

Indeed, the courtroom is in a traffic jam: last week, Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares sued the Board for usurpation of his authority, while, in a separate lawsuit, the Legislative Assembly argued an excess of authority on the part of the PROMESA Board—or, as House Member Rafael “Tatito” Hernández put it: “The Board wants to rule, wants to legislate, and wants to establish public policy in Puerto Rico without being democratically elected. It does not have that power, and it does not result from any clause in PROMESA Law. We are not challenging PROMESA; we are specifically challenging the Board.”

Not in Like Flint, and Unschooled for Motor City Recovery

June 15, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the seemingly unremitting efforts by the State of Michigan to force the City of Flint to sign a consent agreement; then we dip south to the Motor City, where, notwithstanding its exit from chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, the city’s ital. efforts to encourage families to move back to the city from the suburbs depends upon turning around a school district which appears to be stumbling under its own quasi plan of debt adjustment from a state takeover.

Not in Like Flint. Flint Mayor Karen Weaver this week made clear she believes state officials cannot force her to sign a consent agreement seeking to make fixes to her city’s water system, challenging them to “bring it on” and take her to court. Her battle parallels a trial of Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon, who is anticipating, next month, to find out whether or not he will face a jury trial on involuntary manslaughter and misconduct charges tied to the Flint water crisis. Genesee District Judge David Goggins has signed an order detailing how the remainder of Secretary Lyon’s preliminary examination will play out: he has been charged involuntary manslaughter and misconduct in office, making him the highest-ranking state government official charged with crimes with regard to how he mishandled Flint water problems—making his the first of 15 criminal cases to advance to a preliminary exam. Ironically, the trial of the state leader is occurring even as, in parallel, the State of Michigan is threatening to withhold funds to Flint not just in an effort to try to force responsibility for ensuring the safety of its drinking water, but that state action could have devastating fiscal impacts, undercutting the city’s effort to preserve its assessed property values: between 2008 and 2016, Flint lost more than three-quarters of its taxable assessed property value. There is almost a David versus Goliath feeling: Flint household income has been declining, even as statewide income has been increasing: household income in the city, at just under $42,000 annually last year, is more than 20% below statewide income.

The issue, a federalism issue involving all three levels of government, involves findings from  last August’s state sanitary survey, which found the city’s water system had “significant deficiencies,” including with the water distribution, finances, “security,” and “operations and management.” The state further charges that the city has not fixed the problems within 120 days as mandated state law, according to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

Mayor Weaver, however, told The Detroit News the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is making “false accusations or lies” with regard to the city’s compliance with state and federal drinking water laws, among other allegations; rather she appears to perceive the proposed consent order to repair the problems as retaliation against her vigorous protest when Gov. Rick Snyder ordered, in April, the end of the state’s free bottled water deliveries to the city, noting: “We have been meeting our requirements every step of the way: There are some other things that need to be done by the end of this month, and some things aren’t required to be done until the end of the year. But every step of the way, we’ve done what we’re supposed to do.” The city currently purchases treated water from the Great Lakes Water Authority; however, Flint’s wastewater treatment plant performs additional treatment for acidity levels, corrosion control, and chlorine, according to the state.

In a letter at the beginning of this week, Michigan Assistant Attorney General Richard Kuhl threatened Flint with federal legal action if the municipality does not enter into and comply with a consent agreement addressing the city’s outstanding violations, writing that the state would prefer voluntary cooperation—having previously written that violations of the Michigan Safe Water Drinking Act mean the city needs to sign a consent decree in which state officials outline unfunded state mandates with which the city would have to comply, including the provision of a “permanent or contractual” manager to oversee control program activities.

At the beginning of this month, Michigan Drinking Water and Municipal Division Director Eric Oswald wrote that correcting the violations would help ensure Flint’s public water supply system prevents “contaminants from entering” the drinking water and prevent “imminent and substantial endangerment of public health.”

Flint is still recovering from a lead contamination water crisis first discovered in the late summer of 2015. The city’s water has tested below federal lead standards for nearly two years, but many residents still refuse to drink from the tap. In his June 4 letter, Director Oswald wrote that state officials had summarized in a March letter the “corrective actions that had been completed” and provided “dates to complete other corrective actions.” In his statement this week, the Director claimed: “The matter at hand is working together to address these deficiencies to help ensure that the city continues to have quality drinking water.”

Mayor Weaver is still considering what legal options might be available to protect her citizens—and the assessed property values of residences and business properties in the city—as well as the fiscal and physical implications of the end of free bottled water shipments—noting she is still pondering over the option of returning to federal court to the judge overseeing the replacement of Flint’s lead service lines, because the state has indicated that the funds may be withheld. Mayor Weaver noted, with regard to the seeming state retaliation: “I just believe this is absolutely retaliation, and then they want to blame us for what they did,” she said, referring to the water crisis that Snyder’s task force was caused by state-appointed emergency managers and negligent DEQ officials.

In her June 11 response epistle and proposed unfunded state mandate as “unnecessary and unwarranted,” adding she was “troubled by the timing of this proposed enforcement action, in the wake of the cessation of state funding for bottled water in Flint.” She further noted that “During two years of collaborative remediation efforts, an ACO has not been necessary,” calling it a “deliberate and willful misuse of the DEQ’s authority for political purposes and not as a good faith effort to address the issues faced by the City of Flint.” Mayor Weaver said she hoped to bring more contractors to Flint to begin the next phase of pipe replacement, but state officials, she said, want everything to be hydro-vacuumed to save money that would return to the state: “Now, after the state and MDEQ have been publicly castigated for their abrupt and unilateral termination of bottled water funding, MDEQ proposes an ACO that raises no issues not previously agreed upon…I thus see this ACO as a deliberate and willful misuse of the DEQ’s authority for political purposes and not a good faith effort to address the issues faced by the city of Flint.”

That would undercut her ongoing efforts to invest in new plumbing for Flint’s citizens: “We’re really trying to, and what I’ve been trying to do all along, is work together and put differences aside for getting what’s best for the people.”

What Will it Take to Earn a Passing Grade? Detroit’s public school district has 200 teaching vacancies, and with the new school year not so far off, a campaign is underway to try to draw kids back to its public schools. That effort, however, confronts an awkward challenge: only half the teachers and support staff and fewer than 40% of central office staff would recommend the Detroit Public School District according to survey data Detroit Public Schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti released this week during a Board of Education meeting—a meeting that provided a temperature reading with regard to how the system’s students, their parents, and school staff perceive the school system. For instance, in response to the question, “How likely are you to recommend Detroit Public Schools Community District to a friend or family member or as a place to work. 40% responded they would not recommend the school district: only 38% replied they would be extremely likely to recommend the city’s schools. Even amongst teachers and support staff, the enthusiasm was missing: 50% were detractors—with the percentage near two-thirds by staff at the central office: overall, a majority in the system replied they would not recommend the system—or, as Superintendent Vitti put it: “That so many staff members were detractors is a problem…There’s nothing that hurts our brand…more than our actual employees. If our own employees are not favorable toward the organization, then how can we ever recruit new parents to schools or new employees to the district?”

The survey, conducted earlier this year, asked for feedback from more than 52,000 students, parents and guardians, teachers, support staff, instructional leaders, and central office staff. The results hardly seemed passing—and make clear that efforts to incentivize families with children in Detroit’s suburbs to move into the city face an uphill struggle. Or, as Superintendent Vitti noted: “If we’re truly going to be transformative, our employees are going to have to take ownership.”

The surveys addressed issues such as school climate, engagement, bullying, rigorous expectations and school safety. But Superintendent Vitti said the data surrounding promoting the district is “the most relevant data point we’re going to be looking at tonight.”

Here are other survey result highlights:

  • Just 42% of students in grades 3-5, 46% in grades 6-8 and 50% of students in grades 9-12 had positive feelings about school safety—an indication that a large number of students do not feel safe in district schools.
  • 69% of students in grades 3-5, 63% in grades 6-8, and 55% in grades 9-12 had positive feelings about rigorous expectations.
  • 56% of students in grades 3-5, 45% of students in grades 6-8, and 40% of students in grades 9-12 had positive feelings about school climate.
  • A larger percentage of parents and guardians, 72%, felt positively about school safety; however, just 26% felt positively about the engagement of families in the district.

Investing in Fiscal & Human Futures

June 11, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the issue of keeping Puerto Rico’s schools open in the face of quasi municipal bankruptcy; then we veer north to assess post-state taken over Atlantic City: What Are the City’s Fiscal Odds for Its Future?  

The Governance Challenge for Schools and Demographic Changes. Puerto Rico Superior Court Judge Santiago Cordero Osorio has ordered the suspension of the closure of three of the U.S. territory’s schools in Morovis, pending an explanation from Secretary of Education Julia Keleher of the reasoning behind her orders. His ruling came as part of a lawsuit brought by the Municipality of Morovis challenging the closures of Alverio Pimentel, Manuel Alonso Díaz, and the Second David Colón Vega schools—and in the wake of the Judge’s earlier decisions ordering the closure of six other schools in the Arecibo region—closures also being challenged by the Teachers’ Association. In his order, Judge Osorio noted that all these claims will be evaluated in a court hearing scheduled for this morning—one to which he has invited the Secretary of Education or a representative to attend, noting: “This Court appreciates and recapitulates that the State must come prepared to justify in accordance with its regulations the closure, not only of the schools subject to this interdict, but of all the schools of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico that the Department of Education has under its jurisdiction, and that it pretends according to the regulation to close.”

For his part, Mayor Carmen Maldonado of Morovis explained the suit was filed in the wake of a non-response to her request for a meeting with Secretary Keleher, stating, in a press release: “Today we are taking an important step in the defense of public education for Moroveño children. To all parents, principals, teachers and school staff, I invite you to attend that hearing on Monday at the Arecibo Court, so that together we can continue to fight to keep schools open. As I assured them in the many meetings we had, although the power is in the hands of the central government, the reason is on our side and we are going to defend that reason. The fiscal and governance challenge-as we had experienced in Detroit’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, is a state versus local authority issue. Indeed, as the Department’s legal division stated: “The opening and closing of the schools is under the authority of the Secretary of Education and this is established by Law 85 of 2018 (Law on Educational Reform).”

The Rebirth of an Iconic American City?  Victor Fiorillo, writing in the Philadelphia Magazine, asked in his article, “The Re-Re-Re-Birth of Atlantic City,” what if everyone was wrong about the fiscal implications of the closure of the city’s famed casinos. Writing that Atlantic City had first drawn him in about 15 years ago with the opening of the Borgata Casino—at a time when “most other casinos in Atlantic City were in various stages of decay, and here was this brand-new Vegas-style resort with casino restaurants that were actually good and the best shows in town.” But he also noted that, back then, it was really a family focus: “My wife and I spend as much of the summer as possible on the A.C. beach with our 10-year-old and 12-year-old, opting for the relative solitude of the town’s southern end, far from any casinos or bars.” But in revisiting the municipality today, he noted he is not one of the only “believers in Atlantic City,” noting there are “some surprising signs of life these days, not to mention some serious investment—from small ventures, like Longacre’s projects, to big bets like Stockton University’s new beachfront campus and this month’s opening of the $550 million Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in the old Trump Taj Mahal.

Betting on the City’s Future. Mr. Fiorillo then turned to the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing sports gambling, noting: “There’s more money pouring into A.C. right now than in all of Philadelphia,” according to development mogul Bart Blatstein, but, as with gambling, quoting Temple Professor Bryant Simon, author of 2004’s Boardwalk of Dreams: Atlantic City and the Fate of Urban America: “Atlantic City has risen and fallen innumerable times: “This is the story that has been told for a hundred years.” He added: “The irony, of course, is that this new resurgence is happening just a few short years after nearly half the city’s casinos went under, thousands of jobs disappeared, and Atlantic City itself seemed to be left for dead. Then again, maybe there’s no irony here at all. Maybe this more organic, up-from-the-ground rebirth of Atlantic City is exactly the kind of action that could mean sustained success for the city by the sea.”

Leaving on a Jet Plane. Mr. Fiorillo examined the city’s road to its state takeover from a non-fiscal perspective, writing: “It was right around this time that Atlantic City began to fade. Dissertations and books have been written about the many factors that led to the resort’s demise in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but a big one was the sudden ease of jet travel. You could get on a plane after breakfast and be on a beach in Miami for lunch. Atlantic City? Pfft. The Shore town began to disintegrate. By the mid-’70s, the city found itself at a pivotal crossroads. It could do nothing, ride out the downward trend, and see what happened. Or it could come up with some novel and wholly artificial way to inject new life into itself. It opted for the latter, betting that gambling would be Atlantic City’s salvation. Until that point, Nevada was the only place in the United States where you could open up a full-fledged casino. But in 1976, New Jersey citizens voted to make slots and table games legit in Atlantic City. The first casino, Resorts—which just turned 40 and is still standing — opened less than two years later.”

Noting that, for a time, business was booming, he credited Atlantic City’s casinos for bringing hundreds of millions of tourists to the Boardwalk during Atlantic City’s gambling heyday” “Some years, this city of 40,000 residents topped 34 million tourists. But outside the casino walls, the city struggled. The casino owners—including, for a time, Donald Trump—got fat, politicians got their kickbacks, and the impoverished residents of Atlantic City remained just that: And then everything went wrong. The new Atlantic City created in the late 1970s was premised almost entirely on maintaining a casino duopoly with Nevada; once casinos started popping up all over—including in Pennsylvania in 2006—Atlantic City imploded.”

Noting, as we have traced, the city’s fiscal nadir came to a head in January of 2014, when the Atlantic Club, which had opened as the Golden Nugget in 1980, collapsed, followed by Showboat, followed by the Revel, followed shortly thereafter by the Trump Plaza, noting: “Finally, in October 2016, one month before its namesake was elected to the Oval Office, the lights went out at Trump Taj Mahal. In just two and a half years, five casinos vanished, their cavernous buildings shuttered. Atlantic City had bottomed out economically in the most spectacular fashion possible.”

Tracing a Fiscal Turnaround. Writing that when assessed property values drop low enough, neighborhoods become more and affordable—and, ergo, more attractive to developers who could “pick up buildings for pennies on a dollar,” he noted that “Atlantic City suddenly became a risk worth taking”—adding: “Investing in Atlantic City now makes a lot more sense than it did five years ago, but it’s hardly a no-brainer. The city, with its 37% poverty rate) is overwhelmingly poor. Taxes are overwhelmingly high. And walking around on Atlantic or Pacific Avenue, the city’s two main north-south boulevards, which run parallel to and within blocks of the Boardwalk—can be nerve-racking after hours. In daylight, panhandlers accost and prostitutes solicit. Politically, things are hardly ideal: Then-governor Chris Christie instituted a state takeover in 2016.

John Longacre, who has acquired a reputation for building a business by spotting potential where others see potential disaster, and he works primarily in South Philadelphia, where he specializes in recovery projects that save buildings, convert seedy bars into trendy restaurants and turn vacant eyesores into neighborhood hubs, told Mr. Fiorillo: “Every bank in the region is terrified of Atlantic City.” Indeed, Mr. Longacre added: “If you look at the policy surrounding everything that exists in Atlantic City, it’s the perfect storm to keep investors out: From the state handling the zoning to the tax base to rent control, everything that happens from a policy level makes it seem like New Jersey is trying to make Atlantic City fail.” Nevertheless, he seems convinced the fabled city will not fail. Or, as Mr. Fiorillo described it, there are a new breed interested in the fabled city who likely will play an essential role in the city’s future: “It’s not about Aunt Edna and Uncle Fred and their casino bus trips anymore. It’s about younger people who aren’t into Atlantic City for the gambling. It’s about people who don’t just feel comfortable in but desire urban environments, with all their flaws and character. It’s about people who respect and require diversity. It’s about people like me and my wife, who, to be honest, cringe when we drive into a place like Avalon.”

Describing this fiscal and physical revival, he writes about the relationship of small projects complemented by large ones: “The Hard Rock Hotel is finally going to open on the Boardwalk later this month, where the Taj Mahal was until October 2016. Pottstown native Todd Moyer, senior vice president of marketing for this new outpost of the rock-and-roll-themed company, got his start in the casino business in 1990, when he worked as a tuxedoed greeter at, coincidentally, the Taj. I was working for Hard Rock out West, when I got the chance to come home: I jumped at it. Sometimes I would be at a bar or restaurant and hear people talking about Atlantic City being dead, and I’d jump in. I’m a defender and a giant supporter of A.C. We’re building hotels all around the world, but really, all the focus lately has been on Atlantic City.”

As for Mr. Longacre, his view is that he would “love for every casino to go out of business and see Atlantic City re-create itself without them, as an urban beach town.” Nevertheless, he believes there is one massive Atlantic City development which will be a game-changer: Stockton, the nearly 50-year-old public university, which has its main campus in Galloway Township, about 20 minutes from the Boardwalk: it is set to debut a brand-new beachfront Atlantic City campus this September, when one thousand students will use the campus, and many of them plan to live in town. Thus, he notes: “Stockton is huge. It’s the first real institutional investment in years that’s not a casino.”

Rolling the Fiscal Dice? As significant as these fiscal changes appear to be, they almost seem to pale against the city’s real world challenges: Atlantic City has a poverty level three times higher than the statewide rate: more than three times the number below the poverty level—and a disability rate among non-poor residents of just under 25%. In its rental housing, the percentage of residents below the federal poverty level is over 90%. A consequent governing challenge for the post-taken over city and the Garden State remains. Mr. Fiorillo notes that whether the gambles being made by Mr. Blatstein, Mr. Longacre, and others are successful remains to be seen—as does the question with regard to whether all the investment will put much of a dent in Atlantic City’s poverty rate or help the town’s current residents. He adds: “And it’s not going to be this summer or next summer when we find out who, if anyone, wins. Nevertheless, he wrote: “When I consider Point Breeze circa 2008 and that same area today, I have hope for this complicated Shore town. There will always be casinos here, for better or worse, and there will always be crime and poverty and grime. This is, after all, a city. But, 10 years from now, when my own kids are (I hope) in very good colleges, it’s not too hard to imagine us spending a summer weekend at some boutique hotel on New York Avenue. We’ll stop into the Boardwalk La Colombe for a draft latte, served up by a very hip-looking third-year Stockton student on break. For lunch, HipCityVeg down in the inlet. Happy hour will be at some John Longacre-owned brewpub overlooking the Atlantic.”

Motor City Rising

June 1, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the remarkable turnaround of Detroit—a city which, when I inquired on its very first day in chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, for walking directions from my hotel to the Governor’s Detroit office—in response to which I was told the one mile route was not doable—not because I would be too physically challenged,  but rather because I would be slain. Yet now, as the  fine editorial writers for the Detroit News, Daniel Howes and Nolan Finley, wrote: “A regional divide that appeared to be healing since Detroit’s historic bankruptcy is busting wide open over a plan for regional transit, exposing anxiety that the city is prospering at the expense of the suburbs,” noting that the trigger is a is a proposed millage to fund expansion of the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan, a $5.4 billion plan that would seem to promise an exceptional reshaping of the metro region—indeed: a reversal a what had been a decades-long shift of the economy from downtown Detroit to is suburbs: an exodus that contributed to a wasteland and the nation’s largest ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy.” Or, as they wrote: “That battle reveals growing suburban resentments over the region’s shifting economic fortunes: decades-long capital flow is reversing directions as more jobs and tax revenue flee the ‘burbs for a rejuvenated downtown.”

Mr. Finley noted that Mayor Mike Duggan, this week, told him: “I can’t explain why Oakland and Macomb (suburban counties) are doing what they’re doing” three weeks ago Microsoft brought 400 employees from Southfield into the city of Detroit. And last week, Tata Technologies said they were moving 200 people from Novi and into Detroit. Google is in the process of moving people from Birmingham into the city of Detroit.” What the Mayor was alluding to was a u-turn from a decade of moderate and upper income families leaving Detroit for its suburban counties in the days when former Mayor Coleman Young had advised criminals to “hit Eight Mile” has the relationship between the Metro Motor City’s regional leaders become so difficult in the wake of the unexpected reverse exodus: this time from Detroit’s suburbs back into the city. Billions in private sector investment, spearheaded by Dan Gilbert’s Quicken Loans Inc., the Ilitch family, and growing enthusiasm among other business leaders to be part of the city’s post-chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy have been changing demographic and economic patterns.

As the city continues under decreasing state oversight to carry out its judicially approved plan of debt adjustment, Mayor Duggan notes: “Expectations are rising.” This, after all, is not a City Hall bound mayor, but rather what the editors described as a “short, stocky, balding white guy who is no stranger to block after block of dilapidated houses—and who was reelected to a second term with an amazing 72% of the vote in a city where slightly more than 82% of the voters are black—and where, when he took office, there were about 40,000 abandoned homes. He is not a stay at City Hall type fellow either—rather an inveterate inspector of this mammoth rebuilding of an iconic city, who listens—and with his cell phone—takes action immediately in response to constituents concerns. After all, as the Mayor notes: “Expectations are rising…People are putting more demands on me and more demands on the administration, and I think that’s a really good thing and that will keep us motivated to work hard.”

Already, the urban wasteland is changing—almost on a daily basis: already, under a city program which supports renovation over demolition to try to preserve the mid-century architectural character of neighborhoods, that number of abandoned homes has been halved—with many of the units set aside for affordable housing. In his State of the City address this year, Mayor Duggan said he wants 8,000 more homes demolished, 2,000 sold, another 1,000 renovated and 11,000 more boarded up by the end of next year.

On that first day of the nation’s largest ever municipal bankruptcy, Kevin Orr, whom the Governor had tapped to become the Emergency Manager for Detroit, had flown out from the Washington, D.C. region, and told me his first actions were to email every employee of Detroit that he would be filing that morning in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, but that he expected every employee to report to work—and that the most critical priorities were that every traffic and street light work—and that there be a professional, courteous, and prompt response to every 911 call.  

That was a challenge—especially for a municipality in bankruptcy, but, by 2016, the city had completed a $185 million streetlight repair project; 911 response times have been reduced from 50 minutes in 2013 to 14.5 minutes last year, and ambulance response times fell from 20 minutes in 2014 to the national average of 8 minutes this year.

As we have previously noted, two months ago, just three and a half years after Detroit emerged from chapter 9, the city has exited from state oversight; its homeless population has, for the third consecutive year, declined—and, its unemployment rate, which had peaked during the fiscal crisis at 28%, is now below 8%. No wonder the suburbs are becoming fiscally jealous. And the downtown, which was unsafe for pedestrians when the National League of Cities hosted its annual meeting there in the 1980’s and on the city’s first day in bankruptcy, has been transformed into a modern, walkable metropolis.

Nevertheless, the seeming bulldog, relentless leader has refused to sugarcoat the fiscal and physical challenge—or, as he puts it: “I don’t spend a lot of time promising. I just say, here’s what we’re doing next and here’s why we’re doing it and then we do what we say…Over time, you don’t restore trust by making more promises; you restore trust by actually doing what you said you were going to do.”

Mr. Finley wrote that the Mayor, deemed a “truth teller” by Detroit Housing Director Arthur Jemison, has been direct in confronting the city’s harsh legacy of racist policies after the Great Depression lured thousands upon thousands of African-Americans north in the early decades of the 20th century to work in auto factories—luring them to a city at a time when Federal Housing Administration guidelines barred blacks in the city from obtaining home mortgages and even led to the construction in 1941 of a wall bordering the heavily African-American 8 Mile neighborhood to segregate it from a new housing development for whites.

Aaron Foley — the 33-year-old author of How to Live in Detroit Without Being a Jackass, noted: “When you deliver that kind of message about this is why black people are on this side of the wall in 8 Mile versus the other side of the wall, that gets people talking: This is a history that we all know in Detroit, and for the city government to acknowledge that in the way that it did on that platform, it did resonate.”

Mayor Duggan’s concern for Detroit’s people—and not forcing low-income families out, is evidenced too by his words: “Every single time that we had a building where the federal [housing] credits were expiring and people were going to get forced out of their affordable units, I had to sit down for hours with the building owner to convince them why those who stayed were entitled to be there, and I thought: I need to do just one speech and explain that this is the right thing to do…Since then there’s been just great support for the direction we’re going in the city. We have very little pushback now from our developers over making sure that what they’re doing is equitable.”