The Indelicate Challenge of Restoring Political Authority in the Wake of Municipal Insolvency

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the historic Civil War municipality of Petersburg’s, Virginia’s steps back to solvency and restoration of municipal control, and then to the indelicate imbalance of fiscal power in Puerto Rico—and whether the federal preemption might be causing more fiscal damage to its fiscal future.

Returning to Solvency. The Petersburg, Virginia City Council last night approved its FY2018 budget, a budget which includes outsourcing jobs—with more than a dozen city employees slated to lose their jobs as a result. The new municipal budget includes an increase in water rates—an increase of nearly 15%–an increase the city’s elected officials deemed necessary in order to finance needed repairs, as well as to update its systems for billing and collections—and to cover its past due arrears of $1.9 million. The session came as the Council began discussions with regard to hiring a new city manager and police chief—and whether to beef up is personal property tax enforcement: the city estimates it could be losing as much as $7 million annually from inadequate collection efforts. The actions by the Mayor and Council reflect a restoration of municipal authority in the wake of state intervention.

The Unpromise of PROMESA? Neither the government of Puerto Rico, nor the PROMESA Oversight Board has been able to state how much in municipal bond interest payments will be made for the next fiscal year—even as the gates of the University of Puerto Rico have been locked, depriving the U.S. territory of the jewel in its crown. The University, which has relied upon 30% of its financing from the government—financing critical to Puerto Rico’s hopes to keep its most promising future generation on the island, rather than incentivized to leave for New York City or Miami—increasingly threatening to leave behind an older and less educated population, more dependent on governmental services, but less able to pay taxes. However, as the PROMESA Board struggles over its preemptive decision with regard to what percent of Puerto Rico’s debt obligations to its municipal bondholders should be mandated, (according to the Board’s March approved fiscal plan, the bonds most closely associated with Puerto Rico’s government would pay $404 million in debt service in the coming fiscal year—approximately one-eighth of the $3.28 billion debt service due), the question with regard to investing in Puerto Rico’s fiscal and physical future remains murky—indeed, murky enough that the balance between Puerto Rico’s $404 million in debt service costs versus investments in its future has been left hanging.

Part of the challenge of preemptive governance is, as we perceived in the first instance of the Michigan takeover of Flint, that there can be signal human and fiscal damage to life, property, and fiscal solvency. Thus, the imbalance where the federal takeover under PROMESA, the Act intended to serve as the fiscal guide through FY2026, is to what extent disinvestment in Puerto Rico’s physical infrastructure and its municipalities might aggravate, rather than restore the territory’s solvency and create a fiscal foundation for its future. And that future is at stake—a future where the gates of its premier university are locked, and where demographers report the loss of population of 61,874 in one year—and where last Sunday’s plebiscite witnessed a drop of more than 50% in voter participation, with markedly reduced percentages in Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities—where participation was 23%, less than a third the level of 1998. Demographer Raúl Figueroa noted: “The population is declining…To give people an idea, from 2015 to 2016, the loss of population was 61, 874,” adding that every year between 1% and 2% of the population is lost. The Mayors of Yauco (a municipality which lost nearly 10% of its population over the last decade) and Ponce, Puerto Rico’s second largest city, known as the City of Lions (population of 194,636), founded in 1692, an important trading and distribution center, as well as a key port of entry—indeed, one of the busiest ports in the Caribbean, which has seen a 9.36% decline in its population—a decline which Mayor Maria Mayita Meléndez, attribute to emigration: Mayor Meléndez notes that since 2006, more than 25,000 Puerto Ricans have left Ponce.

Getting Back in like Flint

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the lessons learned from Flint—lessons that were not unrelated to the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S, history in Detroit.

Immunity for State & Municipal Employees: What Does it Mean in Flint? U.S. Judge Judith Levy, in her 101-page decision this week, held that Flint and Michigan employees can be sued over the city’s lead water contamination; however, she found that Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and the State of Michigan have governmental immunity. The ruling came in response to a suit brought by a resident of Flint, against Gov. Snyder and 13 other public officials. Judge Levy dismissed many of the counts; however, she concurred that Flint resident Shari Guerin, who had brought the suit against the city and the other public officials, had had both her and her child’s “bodily integrity” unknowingly exposed by the dangerous levels of lead in Flint’s drinking water—levels of which the state was aware, but had hidden from the public. Indeed, the Judge wrote: “The conduct of many of the individual governmental defendants was so egregious as to shock the conscience.” Despite dismissing the charges against the Governor, the Michigan Departments of Environmental Quality and Health and Human Services—and the city’s water treatment plant operator, Judge Levy found that some key state leaders, including the state’s Chief Medical Executive and Health and Human Services Director could be sued in their individual capacities—and that Flint officials have no state governmental immunity, writing: “As this case highlights, the more governmental actors that are involved in causing a massive tort in Michigan, the less likely it is that state tort claims can proceed against the individual government actors given the way the state immunity statutes operate…Because the harm that befell plaintiffs was such a massive undertaking, and took so many government actors to cause, the perverse result is that none can be held responsible under state tort law.”

A Vicious Fiscal Whirlpool? For the city, the severe water contamination had not just physical fiscal implications, but also fiscal ones. Indeed, one of the plaintiffs was one of nearly 8,000 homeowners who was in danger of losing homes under tax foreclosure proceedings (Real property tax delinquency in the state entails a three-year forfeiture and foreclosure process)—proceedings which had been scheduled to commence last week until the Flint City Council approved a one-year moratorium—a moratorium which covered residents with two years of unpaid water and sewer bills going back to June 2014. While that temporary reprieve is in question, confronting an unknown outcome before the state-appointed Receivership Transition Advisory Board, which has monitored Flint’s finances since the city’s emergence from state oversight in two years ago last April—and is scheduled to vote on the moratorium at its June meeting; the outstanding water liens and inability to collect have further emptied the city’s coffers—even as, unsurprisingly, assessed property values  have become the latest fiscal hardship as an impoverished Flint still reels from a lead-in-water crisis which was first publicly acknowledged less than two years ago.

According to a recent Michigan State University study, “Flint Fiscal Playbook: An Assessment of the Emergency Manager Years, 2011-2015),” Flint has lost nearly 75 percent of its tax base—and of that base, assessed property valuations reeled to a 50 percent drop from $1.5 billion to $750 million.  Thus, unsurprisingly, more than 100 residents showed up at this week’s Council meeting—understandably upset that they face foreclosure even as they have been confronted by bills for drinking water, which they could neither drink, nor use in any way that might jeopardize the health and safety of their children. Those citizens received a temporary, one-year reprieve from the city—but the reprieve implies greater fiscal challenges to the city.

With liabilities high and revenues and property taxes struggling, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver reports that Flint has trimmed $2 million in annual garbage collection expenses by rebidding the service; expects to cut annual water expenses to $12 million from $21 million; and, due to federal grants, is hiring 33 more firefighters. The city is proceeding with a $37 million renovation of the Capitol Theatre downtown, seeking to create a central, historic space which could enhance the downtown—or, as the Mayor puts it: “I don’t think people should take their eyes off Flint.”

But assessing the dimensions of this disaster, created in no small part under the state’s original takeover of the city via the appointment of the emergency manager who had made the fatal decisions to change the city’s sourcing of drinking water, also includes looking back to the critical governmental decisions—especially Flint’s opting to abandon reliance on the  Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA) and instead rely upon the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA), a regional water authority created as part of Detroit’s chapter 9 plan of debt adjustment—meaning Flint’s citizens will keep drawing Detroit water from their taps—or, as the Mayor put it: “Staying with our water source gives us reassurance our water is good…It gets us out of our $7 million (annual) debt to the KWA. We did not have the finances to be able to do that.” Under the city’s 30-year agreement with the  30-year deal with GLWA, the city will receive a $7 million annual credit equal to its annual municipal bond payment to KWA for as long as Flint remains current with scheduled debt service. In addition, the agreement also enables the city to redirect water plant improvements to upgrading the city’s water distribution system—or, as Mayor Weaver notes: “We have pipes going into the ground now (referring to the planned replacement of lead service lines).We’re addressing this water crisis. The water quality is better. There are some good things going on.”

Mayor Weaver notes Flint has cut its $2 million in annual garbage collection expenses by rebidding the service; the city expects to cut annual water expenses to $12 million from $21 million; and the city continues to work with the Governor to address the public health concerns associated with the Flint water crisis. To try to become an economic magnet or hub, rather than a city to be avoided, the city is focused on a $37 million renovation of the Capitol Theatre, creating a central, historic space which could draw folks to events, restaurants, and bars. As the Mayor puts it: “I don’t think people should take their eyes off Flint…They should know the rest of the story. One of the things I’ve learned is we were going to get more done if we work together. If people are going to help you, why would you not sit down and work things out?”

The Hard Road to Fiscal Sustainability

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Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider, Detroit’s remarkable route to fiscal recovery, before returning to the stark fiscal challenges to Puerto Rico’s economic sustainability.

The Road to Recovery from Municipal Bankruptcy.  Detroit, which has roared back from the largest municipal bankruptcy ever, but, in doing so paid an average 81% of what it owed to its municipal bondholders as part of its plan of debt adjustment, nearly 25% more than either San Bernardino or Stockton, now, in the wake of its decades of its more than 50% population decline  (In 1950, there were 1,849,568 people in Detroit; in 2010, there were 713,777.), is ready to tackle its housing dilemma. Post-chapter 9 Detroit inherited an estimated 40,000 abandoned lots and structures and an 80% erosion of its manufacturing base—that in a municipality where 36 percent of its citizens were below the federal poverty level, and, the year it filed for chapter 9, had reported the highest violent crime rate for any U.S. city with a population over 200,000.

Thus, Mayor Mike Duggan now vows that his administration plans to launch a street-by-street initiative effective August 1st to board up abandoned homes in the city while demolition crews continue razing blighted houses. That will be a painstaking challenge: in a city of 142 square miles, the city reports some 25,000 unsecured houses, the bulk of which have been scheduled to be razed—but, up to now, the pace of demolitions has been limited to 4,000-5,000 annually, according to the Mayor. Thus, he posits: “We’re going to go through and board up every house we can’t get to so we’re not just saying to people, ‘It’s going to be five years before we get to everything. Wait!’”

Mayor Duggan, speaking at the Mackinac Policy Conference, vowed the city will begin deploying six crews beginning at the end of next month, with the teams slated to go through each neighborhood and close off vacant and abandoned homes—homes that are susceptible to crime, to being scrapped for metal and finishings, and becoming uninhabitable safety hazards. Mayor Duggan made the announcement, as the city’s plan of adjustment and the city’s actions in implementing it appear certain to be fodder for the upcoming mayoral primary election set for August 8th—with whichever candidate is chosen slated to confront Michigan state Sen. Coleman Young II (D) in the November 7th general election. Indeed, unsurprisingly, Sen. Young (1st District), who previously served two terms in the Michigan House prior to being elected to the State Senate, is the son of former Detroit Mayor Coleman Young—who served as the Motor City’s Mayor from 1973-1994, this week blasted Mayor Duggan for waiting until his fourth year in office to address the safety hazard of unsecured houses: he accused his upcoming opponent of “playing games with the people and the public, because it’s election time,” adding he was “just amazed now all of sudden that he cares about the neighborhoods and he wants to do this…Where was he for the last 3.5 years in office? They just should have addressed that first.”

Currently the Duggan administration estimates city crews can board up 100-200 homes each week and that the effort will take two years to complete, so that, as Mayor Duggan notes: “By the end of two years, we’ll have every house in the city either demolished, reoccupied, or boarded…So at least it will be secure. Kids won’t be wandering in and out.” In making the statement, Mayor Duggan acknowledged the city has fallen well short of its avowed initial goal of razing 10,000 blighted homes annually, describing that as “not a practical goal.” Since Mayor Duggan took office in 2014, Detroit has razed some 11,593 blighted structures; there are 331 more contracted for demolitions, and then another 2,141 in the pipeline.

In making his responses, Mayor Duggan acknowledged that his initial commitment to raze more than 5,000 homes per year had gotten him into “trouble,” noting: “I feel bad for the people who took the grief for it, because I pushed them;” he said the city will post notices on unsecured privately owned homes for which city crews will be covering the windows and doors with plywood, noting: “We’ll go down and board up every house that’s not scheduled to come down in the next six to 12 months,” adding that the city’s budget is bearing the burden more often than not, because the cost of going after the home owners of such abandoned homes has proved impractical and costly: “You’ve got a lot of people in this town (who say), ‘My uncle died, left me the house, the house is in a bad neighborhood,’ they don’t even live here…To send them bills is not practical.” To date, for the most part, Mayor Duggan said the city has been delivering plywood to some neighborhood groups and relying on volunteers to board up houses on their streets; however, he added that there are a lot of neighborhoods with mostly senior citizens who “just physically can’t put these huge sheets of wood onto these houses…We finally said, ‘You know the most efficient way to do it just roll through the city.’”

On the Road to Fiscal Recovery. As we reported earlier this week, Detroit completed its most recent fiscal year with a $63 million surplus according to its Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, which the city filed with the Michigan Treasury Department on Tuesday, with Detroit CFO John Hill noting the FY2016 surplus was some $22 million higher than the city had projected, an outcome  to which he attributed the city’s improved financial controls, stronger-than-anticipated revenues, and lower costs due to unfilled vacancies—something, he told the Detroit News, the city believes “will have a lot of positive implications on the future.” In the near future, it offers the potential for Detroit to exit from state oversight by the Financial Review Commission under terms of Detroit’s plan of debt adjustment. Or, as Mayor Mike Duggan noted: “This audit confirms that the administration is making good on its promise to manage Detroit’s finances responsibly…With deficit-free budgets two years in a row, we have put the city on the path to exit Financial Review Commission oversight.” In fact, the city now projects an FY2017 $51 million surplus.

All this is increasing optimism that the 2017 audit of the Motor City’s finances could trigger a vote by the Commission to suspend its direct financial oversight, obviating the current required state oversight and requisite approvals on all the city’s budgets and contracts. Of the city’s reported $143 million in accumulated unassigned fund balances, including this year’s surplus, the city has allocated $50 million from its FY2016 balance as a down payment to help set up the city’s Retiree Protection Fund to help it address pension obligations scheduled to come due in 2024 under the terms of the city’s plan of debt adjustment. In addition, the city has set aside $50 million in its FY2018 budget for blight remediation and capital improvements—an amount which would leave a cushion of about $43 million in an unassigned fund balance—but which account could only be drawn from with the approval of Mayor Duggan, the City Council, or the state review commission. The city primarily draws from this account for one-time costs, such as to address blight and for its capital budget. CFO Hill has expressed hope the ongoing, positive cash flow and budget balances will enhance the city’s credit rating—and, thereby reduce its borrowing or capital costs.

What Constitutes Economic Sustainability? Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has proposed an austere Fy2018 General Fund budget which, he reports, would reduce the territory’s operating expenses by 9.1%, describing his plan as comparable to “those we had established in the fiscal plan.” As proposed, the Governor would allocate at least $2.04 billion for pensions—an amount that would leave naught to meet Puerto Rico’s debt obligations: he noted that funding pensions was vital to protect Puerto Rico’s most vulnerable citizens—and that the “measures implemented in this budget are those that we had established in the fiscal plan.” Nevertheless, Gov. Rosselló said his budget was different from past budgets, because it was balanced: it projects that the central government would have sufficient balance to remit $404 million of $3.283 billion in scheduled debt service, or 12.3%, in FY2018. The budget does not include the debt from semi-autonomous and autonomous public sector entities, but shows near balance: $9.1 billion in revenue and $8.987 billion in spending, according to the Puerto Rico Office of Management and Budget, with an increase of nearly 6% in spending. In the Governor’s proposed budget, all General Fund payments for debt would be eliminated—guaranteeing a battle with the PROMESA Board, which, in its plan, had projected there would be $404 million available cash flow “post-measures” for FY2018, with the Board seemingly pressing to ensure funds were included in the budget to address Puerto Rico’s debt services to municipal bond holders—even as the Governor appears focused on protecting the territory’s most vulnerable citizens. In contrast, the PROMESA board certified decade-long quasi plan of debt adjustment incorporated the amount of municipal bond debt service to be paid each year—providing that amount be $3.28 billion.

The challenge is complex: with apprehension that the territory’s young professionals are increasingly leaving to New York and Miami, leaving behind an increasingly elderly and impoverished population—less able to remit taxes, but in greater and greater need for public services, and for promised pension payments, the critical planned increase by the Governor in public pension funding is imperiled: each of Puerto Rico’s three government pension systems is projected to run out of liquid assets in FY2018, unsurprisingly leading the Governor to propose allocating at least $2.04 billion in his budget to cover pension funding—marking a stark change from his previous budget, when the line item to cover “pay-as-you-go” pension funding was absent. (Puerto Rico has three public pension systems: the Employee Retirement System, the Teacher’s Retirement System, and the Judiciary Retirement System.) In contrast, the PROMESA Board, last March, in its decade-long oversight fiscal plan, ordered a cut in public pension obligations effective in FY2020, projecting fiscal savings for the subsequent six years in the range of $83 million. It is unclear whether those projections incorporated the potential fiscal impacts on either sales tax revenues, or the increased costs of aid to those falling below the poverty level.

In his proposed budget, Gov. Rosselló has recommended to the legislature a $9.56 billion FY2018 General Fund budget, seeking a 6.4% increase—but, after compensating for public pension obligations, actually providing 21.8% less for spending. Within his proposed budget, the Governor is asking for $583 million more for “other operating expenses,” but $555 million less for salaries and related costs, and retaining $195 million as a reserve. (In the wake of the final action by the Puerto Rico legislature, the PROMESA Board is authorized to reject any final budget and substitute its own.)

However, there is now a third party to this increasingly complex fiscal process, in the form of U.S. Judge Laura Swain, who, under PROMESA’s Title III municipal bankruptcy process, has some discretion of her own to consider changes in the amounts of debt paid in the next fiscal year—albeit, as we have learned from the chapter 9 proceedings in Detroit, San Bernardino, etc., the judicial system in these exceptionally complex chapter 9 cases acts with  considerable deliberation—not haste; moreover, unlike a normal chapter 9 process, PROMESA section 106(e) prohibits Judge Swain from deviating from the PROMESA Board’s certified fiscal plan and budgets.

Gov. Rosselló’s budget, unlike previous proposals, includes a $2 billion payment for Puerto Rico’s three public pension systems, noting: “One of the most important differences, he said, as mandated by the PROMESA Board, in this budget is that, contrary to the previous ones, it really is balanced,” adding that, as proposed, Puerto Rico had created a $200 million reserve. In addition, the Governor reported he would soon propose measures to simplify Puerto Rico’s tax system. Overall, his proposed plan contains some $924 million in revenue increases versus $851 million expense cuts for FY2018: among the key fiscal plan measures to increase FY2018 revenues is $519 million by extending the Act 154 foreign corporation tax and $150 million through improving tax compliance.

What Might it Mean to Puerto’s Rico’s Fiscal Future? The PROMESA Oversight Board, which had requested a structurally balanced budget, seeking a “once and done” approach to the Puerto Rico government’s fiscal crisis, had focused on immediate large spending cuts and revenue increases in the budget. Indeed, as proposed by the Governor, there are significant changes, including reductions in support for the University of Puerto Rico ($411 million) and $250 million to the island’s municipalities or muncipios. The plan encompasses freezing payroll increases and eliminating vacation and sick day liquidations—all with the aim to reduce Puerto Rico’s debt service costs by 76% through FY2026. San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz said, “The governor’s public policy has been to act as the messenger of the junta [i.e. the Oversight Board] and, in this way, has hidden behind it to become the executioner of Puerto Rico,” according to the El Vocero news web site. “The budget message will be another sign that the governor turns his back on the people.”

The Roads Out of and into Insolvency

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider Detroit’s remarkable route to fiscal recovery, before returning to the stark fiscal challenges to Puerto Rico’s economic sustainability.

The Road to Recovery from Municipal Bankruptcy. The Motor City, Detroit, ended its FY2016 fiscal year with a $63 million surplus, etching into the books the city’s second consecutive balanced budget out of  the nation’s largest ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, an achievement officials hope will earn it better standing in the bond markets and a path out of financial oversight. Its new Comprehensive Annual Financial Report also discloses that, for the first time in more than a decade, the city did not have any costs scrutinized for its federal grant use. Nevertheless, despite hopes of a turnaround in a decades-long population decline, the most recent census data finds that Detroit lost population—0.5% or 3,541 persons in the latest U.S. Census estimates, the same number as last year, a year which marked the slowest rate of exodus in decades. While Mayor Mike Duggan has given special emphasis to the importance of population regrowth as a means of measuring the city’s economic recovery, his Chief of Staff, Alexis Wiley, notes: “We are pleased in the direction that we are heading…The data are a year behind.”

Indeed, measures of building permits, home prices, and 3,000 more occupied residences reported by DTE Energy in the city in March versus the same time a year earlier all appear to affirm that recovery is sustained, even though, based on data from July 1, 2016, Detroit has dropped down from 21st to 23rd in terms of size ranking amongst the country’s largest cities. (Last year, for the first time since before the Civil War, Detroit fell out of the top 20.) The City’s CFO, John Hill, reported Detroit’s FY2016 fiscal surplus was about $22 million higher than the city projected—a figure he attributed to improved financial controls, stronger-than-anticipated revenues, and lower costs due to unfilled vacancies—or, as he told the Detroit News: “We are operating in a very fiscally responsible way that we believe will have a lot of positive implications on the future.”

That fiscal upward trajectory matters, because, under the city’s plan of debt adjustment, Detroit must achieve three consecutive years of balanced budgets to exit oversight by the Financial Review Commission. Unsurprisingly, Mayor Mike Duggan noted: “This audit confirms that the administration is making good on its promise to manage Detroit’s finances responsibly…With deficit-free budgets two years in a row, we have put the city on the path to exit Financial Review Commission oversight.” Indeed, Detroit now projects a $51 million surplus in the 2017 fiscal year, which closes on the last day of June, according to CFO Hill—potentially paving the way for a vote by the review commission early next year to lift its direct fiscal oversight—freeing Detroit from the mandate of state approval of its budgets and contracts. The CAFR also notes $143 million in accumulated unassigned fund balances, including this year’s surplus—out of which the city has allocated $50 million to help set up the Retiree Protection Fund to help it deal with pension obligations, which will come due in 2024, as well as a matching $50 million for FY2018 for blight remediation and capital improvements. Even with that, $43 million remains in an unassigned fund balance, which city officials noted would carry over to the next fiscal year—with restrictions that none may be allocated without approvals from Mayor Duggan, the City Council, or the state review commission. Mr. Hill hopes the strong fiscal news will enhance the city’s credit rating and thereby reduce the cost of servicing its debt and capital budget.

What Constitutes Economic Sustainability? University of Puerto Rico interim President Nivia Fernandez, just hours before her arrest for failing to reopen an institution closed in the wake of a two-month student strike, has resigned, along with three members of the University’s Board of Governors in the wake of a judicial threat for her arrest if she failed to present a plan to end the student strike—a strike which commenced last March in protest of the $450 million in budget cuts sought by the PROMESA oversight board. Now there are apprehensions that strike could spread to other sectors—especially with Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló expected to release his proposed budget with deep cuts to programs today—a budget constructed in response to demands by the PROMESA Board for a structurally balanced budget. Those proposed cuts have provoked students to go on strike, leading to the closure at several of the university’s campuses since late March. Likely, the rate of civilian unrest will grow, or, as University of Puerto Rico sociology Professor Emilio Pantojas García has noted, the student strike may foreshadow a wave of demonstrations in coming months as Gov. Rosselló’s budget will almost certainly call for reductions in public pensions and health care—with the PROMESA Board calling for spending cuts and revenue increases in the coming fiscal year equal to nearly 11 percent of projected revenues for all central government activities—a proportion projected to increase to 28.8% by FY2022. Moreover, because the bulk of the revenue increases and spending cuts would impact the General Fund, the human and fiscal impact is expected to be much greater. University of Puerto Rico political science Professor José Garriga Pico notes: “In some, the opposition to the austerity measures will lead them to frustration and fear, as well as real suffering, and an intensification of the militancy against the Financial Oversight Board, its policies, Gov. Rosselló, and his budget proposal. These could engage in protest that may turn confrontation and violence.”

In the face of the Oversight Board’s demands for cuts at the University, Gov. Rosselló, last February, proposed a $300 million cut—leading to the resignations by the President of the University and 10 of its 11 rectors; subsequently, the PROMESA Board upped the ante, ordering the annual cut to be $411 million for the upcoming fiscal year, which starts next month—a cut of 44% compared to FY2015 appropriations—with the Board noting that out-year cuts will have to be deeper.  Yet the Board orders have put governance between a rock and a hard place: this spring a judge ordered then interim university President Nivia Fernández to submit a plan to reopen the main Rio Piedras campus; however, the Puerto Rico police department, claiming it would not act out of respect for the traditional autonomy of the University, provoked a judicial threat for Ms. Fernández’s imprisonment if she failed to comply—a threat obviated by her resignation, along with several members of the university board. Nevertheless, the judge, even after excusing Ms. Fernández from her prison sentence, maintained a $1,000 per day fine on the university until it opened operations—this, as the University, as of last February, had some $496 million in outstanding debt outstanding, according to the PROMESA board certified fiscal plan—and as Moody’s senior credit officer Diane Viacava, earlier this year, wrote that the government’s planned cuts for Puerto Rico were a “credit negative because they will be difficult for the university to absorb,” predicting that the university was likely to default on subsequent payments “absent a resumption of fund transfers to the trustees.”

A Hole in Puerto Rico’s Fiscal Safety Net: Should Congress Amend Chapter 9 Municipal Bankruptcy?

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Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the growing physical and fiscal breakdown in the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico as it seeks, along with the oversight PROMESA Board, an alternative to municipal bankruptcy—but we especially focus on the fiscal plight of the territory’s many, many municipalities—or muncipios, which, because Puerto Rico is not a state, do not have access to chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy .   

Tropical Fiscal Typhoon. When former President Ronald Reagan signed Public Law 100-597, legislation authorizing municipal into law 29 years ago, no one was contemplating a U.S. territory, such as Puerto Rico—so that the federal statute, in coherence and compliance with the concepts of dual sovereignty, which served as the unique foundation of the nation, provided that a city, county, or other municipality could only file for chapter 9 if authorized by state law—something a majority of states have not authorized. Unsurprisingly, none of us contemplated or thought about U.S. territories, such as Puerto Rico, Guam, etc.: Puerto Rico is to be considered a state for purposes of the bankruptcy code, except that, unlike a state, it may not authorize its municipalities (and by extension, its utilities) to resolve debts under Chapter 9 of the code. Ergo, no municipio in Puerto Rico has access to a U.S. bankruptcy court, even as 36 of the island’s 78 muncipios have negative budget balances; 46% are experiencing fiscal distress. Their combined total debt is $3.8 billion. In total, the combined debt borne by Puerto Rico’s municipalities is about 5.5% of Puerto Rico’s outstanding debt.  

The fiscal plight of Puerto Rico’s municipalities has also been affected by the territory’s dismal fiscal condition: From 2000 to 2010, the population of Puerto Rico decreased, the first such decrease in census history for Puerto Rico, declining by 2.2%; but that seemingly small percentage obscures a harsher reality: it is the young and talented who are emigrating to Miami, New York City, and other parts on the mainland, leaving behind a declining and aging population—e.g. a population less able to pay taxes, but far more dependent on governmental assistance. At the same time, Puerto Rico’s investment in its human infrastructure has contributed to the economy’s decline: especially the disinvestment in its human infrastructure: a public teacher’s base salary starts at $24,000—even as the salary for a legislative advisor for Puerto Rico starts at $74,000. That is, if Puerto Rico’s youngest generation is to be its foundation for its future—and if its leaders are critical to local fiscal and governing leadership in a quasi-state where 36 of the island’s 78 municipalities, or just under half, are in fiscal distress—but, combined, have outstanding debt of about $3.8 billion; something will have to give. These municipalities, moreover, unlike Detroit, or San Bernardino, or Central Falls, have no recourse to municipal bankruptcy: they are in a fiscal Twilight Zone. (Puerto Rico has a negative real growth rate; per capita income in 2010 was estimated at $16,300; 46.1% of the territory’s population is in poverty, according to the most recent 2106 estimate; but that poverty is harsher outside of San Juan.) A declining and aging population adversely affects economic output—indeed, as former Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr who steered the city out of the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history recognized, the key to its plan of debt adjustment was restoring its economic viability.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who is of Puerto Rican descent, has indicated there should be a more favorable interpretation of the law to make the system fairer to Puerto Rico: to allow the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico to create its own emergency municipal bankruptcy measures—something, however, which only Congress and the Trump administration could facilitate. It seems clear that Justice Sotomayor does believe Puerto Rico ought to be considered the equivalent of a state, i.e. empowered to create its own bankruptcy laws. However, as the First Circuit Court of Appeals has interpreted, Puerto Rico is barred from enacting its own bankruptcy laws: it is treated as a state—in a country of dual federalism wherein the federal government, consequently, has no authority to authorize state access to bankruptcy protection.

Human Needs & Fiscal Imbalances

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing fiscal challenges to the City of Detroit—especially in ensuring equitable tax collections; then we look north to assess the ongoing, serious physical and fiscal challenges to Flint’s long-term recovery, before considering the fiscal plight in Puerto Rico.

Motor City Revenue Uncollections. Unlike most cities, Detroit has a broad tax base in which municipal income taxes constitute the city’s largest single source, and that notwithstanding that the city has the highest rate of concentrated poverty among the top 25 metro areas in the U.S. by population. (Detroit’s revenues, from taxes and state-shared revenues are higher than those of any other large Michigan municipality on a per capita basis: these revenues consist of property taxes, income taxes, utility taxes, casino wagering taxes, and state-shared revenues.) Therefore, it is unsurprising that the city is cracking down on those who owe back income taxes: Detroit has launched an aggressive litigation effort, an effort targeted at thousands of tax evaders living or working at thirty-three properties in the downtown and Midtown areas. The city’s Corporation Counsel, Melvin Butch Hollowell, notes the city has identified at least 7,000 such taxpayers at these properties as potential tax evaders. Collecting those owed taxes is an especially sensitive issue in the wake of the city’s chapter 9 experiences when the decline in revenues of 22 percent over the decade of its most important source of revenues was a key trigger of the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy.

Out Like Flint? Just as in Detroit’s chapter 9 bankruptcy, where now-retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes had to address water cut-offs to families who had not paid their utility bills, so too the issue is confronting Flint—where the current penalty for non-payment under the city’s ordinance is tax foreclosure: something which has put at risk some 8,000 homeowners in the municipality, until, last week, the City Council approved a one-year moratorium on such tax liens: the moratorium covers residents with two years of unpaid water and sewer bills dating back to June of 2014. After the moratorium vote, City Council President Kerry Nelson said: “The people are suffering enough” for being forced to pay for water they cannot drink and are reluctant to use…The calls that I received were numerous. Everywhere I go, people were saying: Do something,” he said: “I did what the charter authorized me to do” with a temporary moratorium “until we look at the ordinance and get it corrected. It needs work. It’s 53 years old. We must start doing something for our community.” The council president insisted the Snyder administration needs to step up “and help us: They created this…the government doesn’t get a free pass.”

Indeed, the question of risk to life and health had been one which now retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Rhodes had to deal with in Detroit’s chapter 9 bankruptcy: how does one balance a city’s fiscal solvency versus human lives; and how does one balance or assess a family’s needs versus the civic duty to pay for vital municipal serves and ensure respect for the law? Now the situation has been further conflicted by the Michigan state-appointed Receivership Transition Advisory Board, which oversees and monitors Flint’s finances in the wake of its emergence from state oversight two years ago. That board has scheduled a vote for next month on the moratorium—as this Friday’s deadline for the thousands of homeowners to pay up under a 1964 ordinance nears—albeit a deadline which has been modified to provide a one-year partial reprieve, in part to give time to amend the ordinance. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the apprehension has had municipal political impacts: a recall effort against Mayor Karen Weaver, who a year ago was in Washington, D.C., for meetings at the White House with President Barack Obama to lobby for more federal aid and to obtain other attention for the city. The Mayor, understandably, notes Flint is now between a rock and a hard place: there is understandable residential anger over access to water critical to everyday life; however, unpaid bills could cause irreparable fiscal harm to the city—leading the Mayor to affirm that she will honor the moratorium and “follow the law: It’s not like something new has been put in place…We’re doing what has always been done. This was something that Council did. This is the legislative body. My role is to execute the law. So I’m carrying out the law that’s put in place.” Nevertheless, after a year in which the city did not enforce its ordinance, due in no small part to credits its was able to offer to its citizens courtesy of state financing, those credits expired at the end of February, a time when lead levels finally recovered to 12 parts per billion, which is under the federal action standard—and after Gov. Rick Snyder last February rejected Mayor Weaver’s request for an extension.  

The fiscal challenge is complicated too as illustrated by the case of former City Councilmember Edward Taylor, who noted that he had received a $1,053 bill from a home he had rented out to a woman whom he recently evicted. The problem? Mr. Taylor said the woman illegally turned on the water, so the city is holding him responsible for paying up. Now he is threatening to sue the City of Flint if he is unable to gain fiscal relief: i.e., he wants the city to erase his debt—but have the city’s grow.  “The calls that I received were numerous. Everywhere I go, people were saying: Do something,” Coincilman Nelson said. “I did what the charter authorized me to do” with a temporary moratorium “until we look at the ordinance and get it corrected. It needs work. It’s 53 years old. We must start doing something for our community.” The council president insisted the Snyder administration needs to step up “and help us: They created this…the government doesn’t get a free pass.”

Tropical Fiscal Typhoon. The administration of Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares declined yesterday to publish the recommended budget for the next fiscal year despite the fact that two days ago the deadline for completing the version of the document to be assessed by the PROMESA Board expired; initially, the Governor’s administration was supposed to turn over the budget to the Board on May 8th; however, the Board had granted a two-week extension—one which expired at the beginning of this week—time in which the Governor’s office could improve and correct some of the issues contained in its draft document—a document which has yet to have been made public, but one which the Governor is expected to make public as part of his budget message to the Legislative Assembly: according to Press Secretary Yennifer Álvarez Jaimes, the budget is currently in the draft phase, so it cannot be published, including the version which is to be provided to the PROMESA Board—even as, today, the Governor is due in the nation’s capital on an official trip, meaning the formal presentation of his budget before the legislature will almost surely be deferred until next week. The delay comes as PROMESA Chair José B. Carrión has indicated the Board will await the document prior to beginning its assessment and evaluation.

The Governor’s representative to the PROMESA Board, Elías Sánchez Sifonte, said the budget process is well advanced and that it is only necessary to complete the legal analysis and align some aspects with the provisions contained in the Fiscal Plan—even as a spokesperson for the Puerto Rico Peoples Democratic Party (PPD) minority in the Senate, Eduardo Bhatia, insisted on his claim to know the content of the document: he stated: “I think the people should know what was proposed in the budget…Yesterday (Monday) was the date to deliver the budget and we know nothing.” Sen. Bhatia, who sued at the beginning of this month to force publication of the budget, had his suit rejected by the San Juan Court of First Instance, because it was preempted under Title III of PROMESA—meaning the case was then brought before U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor Swain, who issued an order giving Puerto Rico until this Friday to present its position in this controversy. 

State Agency BankruptciesPuerto Rico has filed cases in the U.S. District Court in San Juan, according to Puerto Rico’s Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority, to place its Highways and Transportation Authority and Employees Retirement System into Title III bankruptcy—a move affecting some $9.5 billion in debt, with Governor Rosselló asserting he was seeking to protect pensioners and the transportation system by putting both agencies into municipal bankruptcy; he added he had asked the PROMESA Oversight Board to put the two entities into Title III’s chapter 9-like process, because, according to his statement, the island’s creditors had “categorically rejected” the Puerto Rico fiscal plan as a basis for negotiations and have recently started legal actions to undermine the public corporation’s stability. In the board-approved HTA fiscal plan, there would be no debt service paid through at least fiscal year 2026. Gov. Rosselló added that he had filed for Title III, because Puerto Rico faces insolvency in the coming months, and because his government has been unable to reach a consensual deal with its creditors, adding that pensioners will continue to receive their pensions from the General Fund after the territory’s pension fund, ERS, runs out of money. (As of February the ERS had $3.2 billion in debt, of which $2.7 billion was bond principal and $500 million was capital appreciation bonds.)

As Puerto Rico attempts to sort out its tangled financial web, retirees may face bigger cuts than those in past U.S. municipal insolvencies, due in part to an unconventional debt structure which pits pensioners against the very lenders whose money was supposed to sustain them—but also because this is an unbalancing teeter-totter, where the young and upwardly mobile are moving from Puerto Rico to New York City and Florida—leaving behind the impoverished and elderly, so that contributions into the Puerto Rico’s pension system are ebbing, even as demands upon it are increasing, and as the benefit structures are widely perceived as unsustainable. There is recognition that radical cuts to pensioners could deepen the population’s reliance on government subsidies and compound rampant emigration, for, as Gov. Rosselló has noted, most retirees “are already under the poverty line,” so that any pension cuts “would cast them out and challenge their livelihood.” Indeed, Puerto Rico’s Public pensions, which as of June last year had total pension liabilities of $49.6 billion, and which are projected to be insolvent sometime in the second half of this calendar year, today have almost no cash; rather pension benefits are coming out of the territory’s general fund, on a pay-as-you-go basis—imposing a cost to Puerto Rico of as much as $1.5 billion a year: $1.5 billion the territory does not have.

Perspectives on Municipal Bankruptcy

eBlog

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the potential descent into municipal bankruptcy by Hartford—and whether, if, and if so, how, the state might help. Then, as U.S. Judge Laura Swain preps for deliberations to begin tomorrow in Puerto Rico, we consider preliminary agreements yesterday with the U.S. territory’s Government Development Bank. 

A State Capital’s Near Bankruptcy. The Hartford City Council is letting Mayor Tony George get his way in dealing with the Connecticut city’s crushing debt, having voted 3-2 to borrow up to $52 million to restructure the city’s long-term debt (the city has $550 million total debt outstanding), a plan Mayor George has been seeking for months—indeed, the Mayor had given an ultimatum to the Council to approve the plan, or he would seek to have the city declared financially distressed under the state’s Act 47. Councilman Tony Brooks, who had previously opposed the plan, broke the tie, stating: “If I have to choose between debt or a tax increase, I will choose debt.” The votes came in the wake of Mayor Bronin and Hartford Corporation Counsel Howard Rifkin acknowledging that Hartford had been soliciting proposals for law firms in the event of a Chapter 9 bankruptcy filing, even as Gov. Malloy was proposing to draw on the state’s reserves in an effort to the Nutmeg State’s current fiscal-year budget balance in the wake of his Budget Secretary’s reduction in projected state revenues by $409.5 million, a reduction plunging the general fund deficit to minus $389.8 million—making it seem as if the pleading was to Mother Hubbard just when her cupboard was bare.

The cratering fiscal situation was underlined by the additional credit rating downgrade yesterday from S&P Global Ratings, with analyst Victor Medeiros noting: “The downgrade and the credit watch placement reflect the heightened uncertainty on whether the state will increase intergovernmental aid or otherwise lend the necessary state support to enable Hartford to achieve structural balance and prevent it from further fiscal deterioration.” Last year, S&P and Moody’s each hit the city with four-notch downgrades, citing rising debt-service payments, higher required pension contributions, health-care cost inflation, costly legal judgments from years past, and unrealized concessions from most labor unions. Now the Mayor and Council face deficits of $14 million this year and nearly 400% higher next year. Yet even with such projected deficits, Mayor George he has been unable to gain meaningful union concessions—and the outlook for his requested $40 million in additional state aid seems bleak. Mayor Bronin describes the fiscal crisis this way: “Acting alone, Hartford has no road to a sustainable budget path.” Hartford City Administrator Ted Wampole advised the elected officials that the proposed borrowing and debt restructuring plan would put the city in a better cash flow position headed into the new year, albeit warning it would just be the first in a series of difficult decisions the city faces when it comes to finances; he added that all expenses will be evaluated, as will possible ways to increase revenues, noting: “This is the very beginning of what will be a long process…This is something we needed to do. The alternative is we run out of money.”

Could the State Really Help? If there is grim news for Hartford, it is that the state is itself fiscally strapped: Connecticut Governor Danel Malloy has called for virtually wiping out the state’s rainy-day fund.  In Connecticut, a municipality may only file with the express prior written permission or consent from the Governor (see Conn. §7-566)—with Bridgeport, in 1991, the only previous city to ever file for chapter 9 [a filing dismissed in August of the same year]). Now legislative gridlock persists as thousands of state employees face layoffs. Bond rating agencies have hammered both the state and capital city Hartford over the past year. Fitch Ratings at the end of last week dropped Connecticut’s issuer default rating to A-plus from AA-minus, the first to move the state out of the double-A category. Nevertheless, according to Mr. Medeiros, uncertainty over state aid prompted Hartford to seek solicitations for a bankruptcy lawyer: “While a bankruptcy filing remains distant, in our opinion, by raising the possibility, we believe that elected officials are seeking to better understand the legal qualifications, process, and consequences associated with this action if there is no budgetary support at the state level.” Governor Malloy has also announced deficit-mitigation actions in an effort to close the current-year shortfall, writing to Nutmeg state legislators: “I find it necessary to take aggressive steps.” Such steps include draining all but $1.3 million of the budget reserve fund, nearly $100 million in revenue transfers, $33.5 million in rescissions, and $22.6 million in other actions—including cuts in state aid to local governments—cuts which will require legislative approval. Gov. Malloy has also begun a contingency plan for laying off state workers—especially in anticipation, as the state faces a possible FY2018-19 $5 billion shortfall—and political as well as fiscal challenges in a state where the Senate is split evenly between Democrats and Republicans 18-18, and the Democrats hold a slim 79-72 advantage in the House of Representatives.

Gov. Malloy last February proposed a $40.6 billion biennial budget, proposing a shift of teacher pension costs to municipalities—hardly a proposal which would help Hartford—and one which has, so far, encountered little support in the legislature. In a seeming understatement, S&P Ratings noted: “This could help stabilize the share of the state’s budget devoted to its substantial fixed costs, a potentially positive credit development, although it may pressure local government finances.” According to Moody’s, Connecticut continues to have the highest debt-service costs as a percent of own-source governmental revenues among the 50 states, even though it declined from 14.3% to 13.3%. 

Tropical Fiscal Typhoon. Preparations in the Federal Court, in Hato Rey, the U.S. territoriy’s banking district and the closest thing to a downtown that Puerto Rico has, for tomorrow’s first hearing related to the process of restructuring the public debt of Puerto Rico, under Title III of PROMESA before federal Judge Laura Swain are underway: the preparations alone will necessitate rejiggering court rooms, including ensuring one is available for closed circuit TV coverage and another for the general public.  Title III of the federal law PROMESA permits a process of public debt restructuring, which is supervised by a Tribunal, as long as the creditors and the government do not reach agreements that benefit them both.

The trial begins after, yesterday, Puerto Rico announced that the Government Development Bank, which had served as the primary fiscal agent for the U.S. territory, had reached a liquidation agreement with its creditors, avoiding a protracted bankruptcy, with the agreement executed under the terms of Title VI of the PROMESA statute, according to Gov. Ricardo Rossello’s office—an agreement which would avoid a Title III bankruptcy, and, under which the bank’s assets will be split between two separate entities, according to a term sheet made public yesterday. Under the agreement, the first entity, holding $5.3 billion in GDB assets, would issue three tranches of debt with different protections in exchange for varying principal reductions: beneficiaries would include municipal depositors and bondholders, such as Avenue Capital Management, Brigade Capital Management, and Fir Tree Partners. The second entity, funded with public entity loans and $50 million in cash, would benefit all other depositors. While the details remain to be confirmed, the agreement would appear to mean a haircut of approximately 45% for a group of small municipal bondholders in Puerto Rico, with potential losses of up to 45 percent for some bondholders. A spokesperson for the Governor issued a statement on his behalf noting: “[B]efore we are bondholders, we are Puerto Ricans, and we recognize the circumstances that Puerto Rico faces.”

The government bank’s plan represents an end to what was once the equivalent of a central bank in charge of holding deposits from government agencies and Puerto Rico’s nearly 100 municipalities—and marks the steps to comply with the PROMESA Board’s approval last month of steps to wind down the bank.