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

08/11/17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Foundering Federalism?

07/12/17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perspectives on Municipal Bankruptcy

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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.

State Oversight & Severe Municipal Distress

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eBlog, 04/24/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the unique fiscal challenge confronting Detroit: when and how will it emerge from state oversight? Then we spin the tables to see how Atlantic City is faring to see if it might be on the shores of fiscal recovery; before going back to Detroit to assess the math/fiscal challenges of the state created public school district; then, still in Detroit, we try to assess the status of a lingering issue from the city’s historic municipal bankruptcy: access to drinking water for its lowest income families; before visiting Hartford, to try to gauge how the fiscally stressed central city might fare with the Connecticut legislature. Finally, we revisit the small Virginia municipality of Petersburg to witness a very unique kind of municipal finance for a city so close to insolvency but in need of ensuring the provision of vital, lifesaving municipal services. 

Fiscal & Physical Municipal Balancing. Michigan Deputy Treasurer Eric Scorsone is predicting that by “early next year, Detroit will be out of state oversight,” at a time when the city “will be financially stable by all indications and have a significant surplus.” That track will sync with the city’s scheduled emergence from state oversight, albeit apprehension remains with regard to whether the city has budgeted adequately  to set funds aside to anticipate a balloon pension obligation due in 2024. Nevertheless, Mr. Scorsone has deemed the Motor City’s post-bankruptcy transformation “extraordinary,” describing its achievements in meeting its plan of debt adjustment—as well as complying with the Detroit Financial Review Commission—so well that the “city could basically operate on its own.” He noted that the progress has been sufficient to permit the Commission to be in a dormancy state—subject to any, unanticipated deficits emerging. The Deputy Treasurer credited the Motor City’s strong management team under CFO John Hill both for the city’s fiscal progress, but also for his role in keeping an open line of communication with the state oversight board; he also noted the key role of Mayor Mike Duggan’s leadership for improving basic services such as emergency response times and Detroit’s public infrastructure. Nevertheless, Detroit remains subject to the state board’s approval of any contracts, operating or capital budgets, as well as formal revenue estimates—a process which the Deputy Treasurer noted “allows the city to stay on a strong economic path…[t]hese are all critical tools,” he notes, valuable not just to Detroit, but also to other municipalities an counties to help ensure “long term stability.”

On the Shore of Fiscal Recovery. S&P Global Ratings, which last month upgraded Atlantic City’s general obligation bond rating two notches to CCC in the wake of the city’s settlement with the Borgata Casino, a settlement which yielded the city some $93 million in savings, has led to a Moody’s rating upgrade, with the credit rating agency writing that Atlantic City’s proposed FY2017 budget—one which proposes some $35.3 million in proposed cuts, is a step in the right direction for the state taken-over municipality, noting that the city’s fiscal plan incorporates a 14.6% cut in its operating budget—sufficient to save $8 million, via reductions in salaries and benefits for public safety employees, $6 million in debt service costs, and $3 million in administrative expenses. Nevertheless S&P credit analyst Timothy Little cautioned that pending litigation with regard to whether Atlantic City can make proposed police and firefighter cuts could be a fly in the ointment, writing: “In our view, the proposed budget takes significant measures to improve the city’s structural imbalance and may lead to further improved credit quality; however, risks to fiscal recovery remain from pending lawsuits against state action impeding labor contracts.” The city’s proposed $206.3 million budget, indeed, marks the city’s first since the state takeover placed it under the oversight of the New Jersey’s Local Finance Board, with the state preemption giving the Board the authority to alter outstanding debt, as well as municipal contracts. Mr. Little wrote that this year will mark the first fiscal year of the agreed-to payment-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOT) program for casino gaming properties—a level set at $120 million annually over the next decade—out of which 10.4% will go to Atlantic County. Mr. Little also notes that the budget contains far less state financial support than in previous years, as the $30 million of casino redirected anticipated revenue received in 2015 and 2016 will be cut to $15 million; moreover, the budget includes no state transitional aid—denoting a change or drop of some $26.2 million; some of that, however, will be offset by a $15 million boost from an adjustment to the state Consolidated Municipal Property Tax Relief Act—or, as the analyst wrote: “Long-term fiscal recovery will depend on Atlantic City’s ability to continue to implement fiscal reforms, reduce reliance on nonrecurring revenues, and reduce its long-term liabilities.” Today, New Jersey state aid accounts for 34% of the city’s $206.3 million in budgeted revenue, 31% comes from casino PILOT payments, and 27% from tax revenues. S&P upgraded Atlantic City’s general obligation bond rating two notches to CCC in early March after the Borgata settlement yielded the city $93 million in savings. Moody’s rates Atlantic City debt at Caa3.

Schooled on Bankruptcy. While Detroit, as noted above, has scored high budget marks or grades with the state; the city’s school system remains physically and fiscally below grade. Now, according to the Michigan Department of Education, school officials plan to voluntarily shutter some of the 24 city schools—schools targeted for closure by the state last January, according to State Superintendent Brian Whiston, whose spokesperson, William DiSessa, at a State Board of Education meeting, said:  “Superintendent Whiston doesn’t know which schools, how many schools, or when they may close, but said that they are among the 38 schools threatened for closure by the State Reform Office earlier this year.” Mr. DiSessa added that “the decision to close any schools is the Detroit Public School Community District’s to make.” What that decision will be coming in the wake of the selection of Nikolai Vitti, who last week was selected to lead the Detroit Public Schools Community District. Mr. Vitti, 40, is currently Superintendent of the Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Florida, the 20th largest district in the nation; in the wake of the Detroit board’s decision last week to enter into negotiations with Mr. Vitti for the superintendent’s job, Mr. Vitti described the offer as “humbling and an honor.” The school board also voted, if Mr.Vitti accepts the offer, to ask him to begin next week as a consultant, working with a transition team, before officially commencing on July 1st. The School Board’s decision, after a search began last January, marks the most important decision the board has made during its brief tenure, in the wake of its creation last year and election last November after the Michigan Legislature in June approved $617-million legislation which resolved the debt of Detroit Public Schools via creating the new district, and retaining the old district for the sole purpose if collecting taxes and paying off debt.

The twenty-four schools slated for closure emerged from a list of 38 the State of Michigan had targeted last January—all from schools which have performed in the bottom 5 percent of the state for at least three consecutive years, according to the education department. The Motor City had hoped to avoid any such forced state closures—hoping against hope that by entering last month into partnership negotiations with the Michigan State Superintendent’s office, and working with Eastern Michigan University, the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, and Wayne State University, the four institutions would help set “high but attainable” goals at the 24 Detroit schools to improve academic achievement and decrease chronic absenteeism and teacher vacancies. The idea was that those goals would be evaluated after 18 months and again in 36 months, according to state officials. David Hecker, president of the American Federation of Teachers Michigan, noted that he was not aware which schools might be closing or how many; however, he noted that whatever happens to the teachers of the closing schools would be subject to the collective bargaining agreement with the Detroit Federation of Teachers. “If any schools close, it would absolutely be a labor issue that would be governed by the collective bargaining agreement as to how that will work … (and) where they will go,” Mr. Hecker said. “We very strongly are opposed to any school closing for performance reasons.”

Thirsty. A difficult issue—among many—pressed upon now retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes during Detroit’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy came as the Detroit Water and Sewer Department began shutting off water service to some of nearly 18,000 residential customers with delinquent accounts. Slightly less than a year ago, in the wake of numerous battles in Judge Rhodes’ then U.S. bankruptcy courtroom, the issue was again raised: what authority did the city of Detroit have to cut off the delivery of water to the thousands of its customers who were delinquent by more than 90 days? Thus it was that Detroit’s Water and Sewerage Department began shutting off service to customers who had failed to pay their bills—with, at the time, DWSD guesstimating about 20,000 of its customers had defaulted on their payments, and noting that the process of shutting off service to customers with unpaid bills was designed to be equitable and not focused on any particular neighborhood or part of the city—and that the agency was not targeting customers who owed less than a $150 and were only a couple of months behind, noting, instead: “We’re looking for those customers who we’ve repeatedly tried to reach and make contact,” as well as reporting that DWSD was reminding its delinquent customers who were having trouble paying their water bills to contact the department so they may be enrolled in one of its two assistance programs — the WRAP Fund or the “10/30/50” plan. Under the first, the WRAP Fund, customers who were at 150 percent of the poverty level or below could receive up to $1,000 a year in assistance in paying bills, plus up to $1,000 to fix minor plumbing issues leading to high usage. This week, DWSD is reporting it has resumed shutoffs in the wake of sending out notices, adding the department has payment and assistance plans to help those with delinquent accounts avoid losing service. Department Director Gary Brown told the Detroit Free Press that everyone “has a path to not have service interruption.” Indeed, it seems some progress has been achieved: the number of families facing shutoffs is down from 24,000 last April and about 40,000 in April of 2014, according to The Detroit News. In 2014, DWSD disconnected service to more than 30,000 customers due to unpaid bills, prompting protests over its actions. Nonetheless, DWSD began the controversial practice of shutting off water service again this week, this time to some of the nearly 18,000 residential customers with delinquent accounts, in the wake of notices sent out 10 days earlier, according to DWSD Director Gary Brown. Nevertheless, while 17,995 households are subject to having their water turned off, those residents who contact the water department prior to their scheduled shutoffs to make a payment or enter into an assistance plan will avoid being cut off—with experience indicating most do. And, the good gnus is that the number of delinquent accounts is trending down from the 24,302 facing a service interruption last April, according to DWSD. Moreover, this Solomon-like decision of when to shut off water service—since the issue was first so urgently pressed in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court before Judge Rhodes—has gained through experience. DWSD Director Brown reports that once residents are notified, about 90 percent are able to get into a plan and avoid being shut off, and adding that most accounts turned off are restored within 24 hours: “Every residential Detroit customer has a path not to be shut off by asking for assistance or being placed into a payment plan…I’m urging people not to wait until they get a door knocker to come in and ask for assistance to get in a payment plan.” A critical part of the change in how the city deals with shutoffs comes from Detroit’s launch two years ago of its Water Residential Assistance Program, or WRAP, a regional assistance fund created as a component of the Great Lakes Water Authority forged through Detroit’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy: a program designed to help qualifying customers in Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties who are at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level—which equates to $36,450 for a family of four—by covering one-third of the cost of their average monthly bill and freezing overdue amounts. Since a year ago, nearly $5 million has been dedicated to the program—a program in which 5,766 Detroit households are enrolled, according to DWSD, with a retention rate for those enrolled in the program of 90 percent. DWSD spokesperson Bryan Peckinpaugh told the Detroit News the department is committed to helping every customer keep her or his water on and that DWSD provides at least three advance notifications encouraging those facing a service interruption to contact the department to make payment arrangements, adding that the outreach and assistance efforts have been successful, with the number of customers facing potential service interruption at less than half of what it was three years ago.

Fiscally Hard in Hartford. Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin has acknowledged his proposed $612.9 FY2018 budget includes a nearly $50 million gap—with proposed expenditures at $600 million, versus revenues of just over $45 million: a fiscal gap noted moodily by four-notch downgrades to the Connecticut city’s general obligation bonds last year from two credit rating agencies, which cited 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. Moody’s Investors Service in 2016 lowered Hartford GOs to a junk-level Ba2. S&P Global Ratings knocked the city to BBB from A-plus, keeping it two notches above speculative grade. Thus, Mayor Bronin, a former chief counsel to Gov. Daniel Malloy, has repeated his request for state fiscal assistance, noting: “The City of Hartford has less taxable property than our suburban neighbor, West Hartford. More than half of our property is non-taxable.” In his proposed “essential services only” budget, Mayor Bronin is asking the Court of Common Council to approve an increase of about $60 million, or 11%, over last year’s approved budget—with a deadline for action the end of next month. An increasing challenge is coming from the stressed city’s accumulating debt: approximately $14 million, or 23%, of that increase is due to debt-service payments, while $12 million is for union concessions which did not materialize, according to the Mayor’s office. Gov. Malloy’s proposed biennial budget, currently in debate by state lawmakers, proposes $35 million of aid to Hartford. Unsurprisingly, that level is proving a tough sell to many suburban and downstate legislators. On the other hand, the Mayor appears to be gaining some traction after, last year, gaining an agreement with the Hartford Fire Fighters Association that might save the city $4 million next year: the agreement included changes to pension contributions and benefits, active and retiree health care, and salary schedules. In addition, last month, Hartford’s largest private-sector employers—insurers Aetna Inc., Travelers Cos. and The Hartford—agreed to donate $10 million per year to the city over five years. Nonetheless, rating agencies Moody’s and S&P have criticized the city for limited operating flexibility, weak reserves, narrowing liquidity, and its rising costs of debt service and pension obligations. Gurtin Municipal Bond Management went so far as to deem the city a “slow-motion train wreck,” adding that while the quadruple-notch downgrades had a headline shock effect, the city’s fundamental credit deterioration had been slow and steady. “The price impact of negative headlines and credit rating downgrades can be swift and severe, which begs the question: How should municipal bond investors and their registered investment advisors react?” Gurtin’s Alex Etzkowitz noted, in a commentary. “The only foolproof solution is to avoid credit distress in the first place by leveraging independent credit research and in-depth, ongoing surveillance of municipal obligors.”

Fighting for a City’s Future. The small city of Petersburg. Virginia, is hardly new to the stress of battle. It was there that General Robert E. Lee’s men fought courageously throughout the Overland Campaign, even as Gen. Lee feared he confronted a campaign he feared could not be won, warning his troops—and politicians: “We must destroy this Army of Grant’s before he gets to the James River. If he gets there, it will become a siege, and then it will be a mere question of time.” Yet, even as he wrote, General Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac was racing toward the James and Petersburg to wage an attack on the city—a highly industrialized city then of 18,000 people, with supplies arriving from all over the South via one of the five railroads or the various plank roads. Indeed, Petersburg was one of the last outposts: without it, Richmond, and possibly the entire Confederacy, was at risk. Today, the city, because of the city’s subpar credit rating, is at fiscal risk: it has been forced to beg its taxpayers to loan it funds for new emergency vehicles—officials are making a fiscal arrangement with private citizens to front the cost for new emergency vehicles, and offering to put up city hall as collateral for said arrangement, as an assurance to the lenders they will be paid back. The challenge: the police department currently needs 16 new vehicles, at a cost of $614,288; the fire department needs three new trucks, at a cost of $2,145,527. Or, as Interim City Manager Tom Tyrrell notes: “Every single day that a firefighter rolls out on a piece of equipment older than he is, or a police officer responds to an emergency call in a car with 160,000 miles on it, are days we want to avoid…We want to get this equipment as soon as possible.” Interim City Finance Director Nelsie Birch has included in the upcoming fiscal year budget the necessary funds to obtain the equipment—equipment Petersburg normally obtains via lease agreements with vendors, but which now, because of its inability to access municipal credit markets due to its “BB” credit rating with a negative outlook, makes it harder than ever to find any vendor—or, as Manager Tyrrell puts it: “We went out four different times…We solicited four different times to the market, and were unsuccessful in getting any parties to propose.” He added that when soliciting these types of agreements, you solicit “thousands of people.” Notwithstanding that the funds for the vehicles is already set aside in the upcoming budget, city officials have been unable to find anyone willing to enter into a lease agreement with the city because of the city’s financial woes.

Last week, the City Council authorized Mr. Tyrrell to “undertake emergency procurement action” in order for the lease of necessary fire and police vehicles, forcing Mr. Tyrrell and other officials to seek private funds to get the equipment—that is, asking individual citizens who have the financial means to put up money for the fire and police vehicles—or, as Mr. Tyrrell puts it: “We’ve reached out to four people, who are interested and capable,” noting they are property owners in Petersburg who will remain anonymous until the deal is closed, describing it thusly: “[This agreement] is outside the rules, because we couldn’t get a partner inside the rules.” Including in this proposed fiscal arrangement: officials must put up additional collateral, in addition to the cars themselves, and in the form of city-owned property—with the cornerstone of the proposal, as it were, being Petersburg City Hall, or, as Mr. Tyrrell notes: “What they’re looking for is some assurance that no matter what happens, we’re going to pay the note…It’s not a securitization in the financial sense, as much as it is in the emotional sense: they know that the city isn’t going to let it go.” He adds, the proposed financial arrangement will be evaluated in two areas: the interest rate and how fast the deal can close, adding: “Although it’s an emergency procurement, we still want to get the best deal we can.”

Getting Out of Insolvency & Back on Fiscal Track

eBlog, 04/14/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing recovery of Atlantic City, New Jersey—where the Mayor this week proposed, in his first post-state takeover budget, the first tax cuts in a decade. Then we head west to the Motor City, where the city, as part of its fiscal recovery from the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history is seeking to ensure all its taxpayers pay what they owe, before then veering south to assess the first 100 days of the PROMESA oversight of the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico.

Getting Back on the Fiscal Track. Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian this week presented his proposed $206 million budget to the City Council, which unanimously voted 7-0 to introduce it at a special meeting, and the City has scheduled a public budget hearing for May 17th. In a taste of the fiscal turnaround for the city, the proposed budget includes the first municipal tax decrease in a decade. It also marks the first budget for the city since the State of New Jersey usurped control over Atlantic City’s finances last November. As proposed, it is more than $35 million or 21% less than last year’s and would reduce the municipal tax rate by 5 percent, according to both city and state officials. The city has scheduled a public budget hearing for May 17th.

As proposed, the steepest cut is in public safety—some $8 million, but the draft proposal also seeks cuts in administration costs ($5 million), as well as proposing savings via the privatization of trash pickup, payroll, and vehicle towing services. The smaller budget request is projected to reduce the city’s costs of debt service by $6 million. Unsurprisingly, the proposed tax cuts—the first in nearly a decade, drew the strongest applause: Atlantic City’s municipal tax rate has skyrocketed 96 percent since 2010, a period during which the city’s tax base dropped by nearly 66%. The $206.3 million budget Mayor Guardian presented features $6 million of cuts to debt service at $30.8 million and proposes to allocate $8 million less for public safety.

Mayor Guardian, who is running for his second term as Mayor this fall, said in a statement before presenting the budget that state overseers have played an instrumental role in crafting the new spending plan which features the proposed 5% property tax cut. It could mark a key point in the city’s efforts to regain governance control back from the State of New Jersey—a takeover the Republican mayor had bitterly contested, which took effect last November after New Jersey’s Local Finance Board rejected the city’s five-year recovery plan, or, as the Mayor put it: “From the beginning, I have said that we need to work with the State of New Jersey to stabilize Atlantic City and to reduce the outrageous property taxes that we inherited from years of reckless spending…Even though the entire state takeover was both excessive and unnecessary, the state did play an important role in helping us turn things around.”

For his part, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie praised former U.S. Sen. Jeffrey Chiesa for his role as the state’s designee leading the financial recovery and his contributions in helping to achieve the city’s first property tax cut in a decade. Gov. Christie credited Mr. Chiesa with withstanding union challenges to make firefighter and police cuts, as well as reaching a $72 million settlement with the Borgata casino which is projected to save the city $93 million on $165 million of owed property tax refunds from 2009 to 2015, noting: “As promised, we quickly put Atlantic City on the path to financial stability, with taxpayers and employers reaping the benefits of unprecedented property tax relief with no reduction in services by a more accountable government…I commend Senator Chiesa for leading Atlantic City to turn the corner, holding the line on expenses and making responsible choices to revitalize the city.”

Atlantic City is planning to issue $72 million in municipal bonds to finance the Borgata settlement though New Jersey’s Municipal Qualified Bond Act: the savings from the settlement, brokered by the state, were a key factor in S&P Global Ratings’ upgrade of Atlantic City’s junk-level general obligation bond debt: Atlantic City, which is weighed down by some $224 million in bonded debt, is rated Caa3 by Moody’s Investors Service. State overseer Chiesa noted: “Over the past five months, I have met so many smart, talented, tenacious people who want to see the city succeed. This inspires me every day to tackle the challenges facing the city to ensure that the progress we’ve made continues.”

A key contributor to the improved fiscal outlook appears to come from some of the unilateral contract changes to public safety officials, imposed by Mr. Chiesa, which led to reduced salaries and benefits for police and firefighters, albeit the courts will have the final say so: the unions have sued to block the cuts, arguing the takeover law is unconstitutional. In addition, the state also reach agreement on a $72 million tax settlement with Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa which is projected to save Atlantic City $93 million and essentially put Borgata back on its tax rolls. The casino had withheld property tax payments, but is now paying its part of casino payments in lieu of property taxes, or, as Mr. Chiesa put it: “Real progress is being made in the city, which is great news for the people who live, work and visit Atlantic City.”

Gov. Chris Christie, in his final term in office, praised Mr. Chiesa and jabbed at his political opponents in a statement issued before the City Council meeting, noting: “It took us merely a few months to lower property taxes for the first time in the past decade, when local leaders shamelessly spent beyond their means to satisfy their special political interests,” he said, even as Atlantic City officials described the budget as a collaborative effort with the state. Or, as Mayor Guardian put it: “He’s the governor. He makes those comments…What I think is [that] it’s clear the city moves ahead with the state.” Council President Marty Small, who chairs the Revenue and Finance Committee, said he was “intimately involved” in the budget process, describing it as a “win-win-win for everybody, particularly the taxpayers.”

Don’t Tax Me: Get the Feller behind the Tree! Getting citizens to pay their taxes is a problem everywhere, of course, but Detroit had a particularly hard time going after scofflaws because budget cuts decimated its ability to enforce the law. Even the citizens and businesses who paid up created logistical havoc for beleaguered city bureaucrats. Part of the reason, it seems, is that in Detroit, the only way to file taxes has been on paper. While that might be merely an irritation for taxpayers, it has been a nightmare for the city’s revenuers, who must devote endless hours typing data into computer systems. It appears also to have led to some innovation: last year the Motor City opted to send out more than 7,000 mailings to deadbeat tax filers, that is taxpayers who were still delinquent on their 2014 taxes; the city suspected each delinquent owed at least $350; ergo it randomly selected some taxpayers to receive one of six different letters, each with a different message in a black box on the mailing: One such message appealed to residents’ civic pride: “Detroit’s rising is at hand. The collection of taxes is essential to our success.” Another simply made clear that Detroit’s revenue department had detailed information on the deadbeats: “Our records indicate you had a federal income of $X for tax year 2014.” (Detroit is somewhat unique in that it has an income tax under which residents owe 2.4 percent of their incomes to the city, after a $600 exemption. Nonresidents who work in Detroit pay a rate of 1.2 percent.) Another message made a bold declaration: “Failure to file a tax return is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of $500 and 90 days in jail.”

It seems that threats have proven more effective than cajoling: More than 10 percent of taxpayers responded to the letter mentioning a fine and jail time, some 300% greater than the response rate to the city’s basic control letter. This revenue experiment was overseen by Ben Meiselman, a graduate student at the University of Michigan’s economics department, who manned a desk in Detroit’s tax office to run the experiment. He wrote the messages included in the mailings to reflect behavioral economics research, noting: “I find that a single sentence, strategically placed in mailings to attract attention, can have an economically meaningful impact on tax filing behavior,” in his working paper, “Ghostbusting in Detroit: Evidence on Non-filers from a Controlled Field Experiment,” which he intends to eventually become a chapter in his doctoral dissertation. And it turns out that providing details of a taxpayer’s income boosted the response rate by 63 percent, even as a letter from the city which combined a threat with income information was less effective than a threat by itself. Or, as one city official noted: “Keeping it simple seems to be the key,” especially as city officials learned that appeals to civic pride fell flat: the response rate was just 0.8 percentage points higher than that of a basic letter. Nevertheless, the city still confronts a long uphill fiscal cliff, even if it manages to apply the results of the experiment and triple the response rate from tax delinquents: according to the IRS, approximately six percent of U.S. taxpayers break the law by not filing with the Service each year, but, in Detroit, Mr. Meiselman estimated that some 46 percent of taxpayers had not submitted their 2014 returns by the due date in the following year—and that the return rate was getting worse.

Thus, Detroit’s next step was to back up threats with action—mayhap especially because there appears to have been little enforcement for the past decade: Detroit had not undertaken an audit or tax investigation in more than a decade. One outcome of insolvency and municipal bankruptcy, it appears, can hit hard: Detroit’s tax office, which once had a staff of about 70, is today about half that: it is a department which was recently reorganized, in the wake of last year’s takeover by the state of Michigan, a takeover intended to free up city employees to collect unpaid income taxes. The city also eased such filings by permitting them to be submitted electronically for the first time. And, wow!: 77 percent of filers took advantage. Detroit has sent out 15,000 letters since July 2016 and has collected $5.3 million through letters, audits, and investigations. And some of the amounts collected are significant, particularly for those who have juked, dodged, and evaded paying taxes for years: in one instance, a taxpayer agreed to pay $400,000. Detroit also began filing misdemeanor charges and lawsuits in small claims court to get its tax revenues, especially after learning that only one in five residents in several high-end apartments buildings had filed income taxes, helping to persuade a judge to issue an order requiring landlords to turn over tenant information.

These various steps appears to be helping: The number of residents filing tax returns more than doubled last year from the previous year; filings by non-residents increased by more than a third. City returns from 2016 are due, along with state and federal returns, by next Tuesday—the same deadline as applies to all readers of this eBlog, and, this year, Detroit officials are optimistic—or, as one wag put it: In the past, “people knew we weren’t coming after them…Now we are following up on those threats.”

The Promise or PROMESA of the First 100 Days. The PROMESA oversight board, provided by the Congress with authority over the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, has now surpassed its first one hundred days, created a juxtaposed governance challenge, especially for Governor Rosselló: how can he make sure that the framework set up during this period of quasi dual governance provides for the change Puerto Rico needs? How can he gain the approval of the Board for a long-term fiscal plan as the main achievement of his incipient administration? To prevail, it appears, he will have to convince the Oversight Board that his proposed budgets are based on real possibilities of revenues and that such estimates are free of dependence on loans and that he will conduct the restructuring of Puerto Rico’s public debt on favorable terms, and that he will take the key role in the reconstruction of the government apparatus to higher levels of service, efficiency, participation, and transparency. And, now, there appears to be some evidence that he is achieving progress. Puerto Rico’s statute on permits is intended address a serial inefficiency with regard to the “absurd and abusive terms” to obtain permits, delays which have hindered and discouraged the generation of new economic activity. The effort to provide for the progressive elimination of the costly redundancy in programs and services via the consolidation of agencies, with security first, appear to be key steps in achieving changes to restore financial health. Moreover, the creation of a spending budget 10 per cent below the current one appears to mark an important step in the goal of reasserting self-governance.

Nevertheless, the fiscal and governance challenges of recovering from fiscal insolvency can be beset from any angle: note, for instance, Judge Lauracelis Roques Arroyo has revived an “audit” of Puerto Rico’s debt and reversed Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s attempt to dismantle the debt audit commission. (Judge Roques Arroyo is a member of the Carolina Region of the Puerto Rico Superior Court.) And, thus, he has ruled that Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s attempt to dismantle a commission auditing Puerto Rico’s debt was illegal. The statute in question, law 97 of 2015, created the Puerto Rico Commission for the Comprehensive Audit of the Public Credit. The commission aimed to find Puerto Rico debt which was legally invalid. The commission’s first report in June of last year had reviewed documents connected with the Commonwealth’s $3.5 billion general obligation bond and $1.2 billion tax and revenue anticipation note, both sold in 2014. In this report, the Commission had raised doubts with regard to the legality of much of Puerto Rico’s bond debt. Late last September, the commission questioned the legality of the series 2013A power revenue bonds from the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), raising concerns with regard to the behavior of Morgan Stanley, Ernst &Young, and URS Corp. in the municipal bond sale and the period leading up to it. In early October, possibly in response to the commission’s work, the SEC commenced an investigation of PREPA’s 2012 and 2013 bonds. Ergo, Judge Arroyo’s order late last week returned three public interest members to the board, according to attorney Manuel Rodriguez Banchs; the order provided that the Governor has no authority to intervene with the commission: it said that the dismissal of the public interest members was illegal. The board has $650,000 in its account right now, according to board member Roberto Pagán, e.g. adequate to do a substantial amount of additional work. Gov. Rosselló, thus, is considering how to react to the judge’s order, according to the El Vocero news website.

The Art & Commitment of Municipal Fiscal Recovery

eBlog, 04/11/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing recovery of the city of Flint, Michigan, before heading east to one of the smallest municipalities in America, Central Falls, Rhode Island, as it maintains its epic recovery from chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, before finally turning south to assess recent developments in Puerto Rico. We note the terrible shooting yesterday at North Park Elementary School in San Bernardino; however, as former San Bernardino School Board Member Judi Penman noted, referring to the police department: “It is one of the most organized and well-prepared police departments around, and they are well prepared for this type of situation.” Indeed, even if sadly, the experience the city’s school police department gained from coordinating with the city’s police department in the wake of the December 2, 2015 terrorist attack appeared to enhance the swift and coordinated response—even as calls came in yesterday from the White House and California Gov. Jerry Brown to offer condolences and aid, according to San Bernardino Mayor Carey Davis.

Could this be a Jewel in the Crown on Flint’s Road to Fiscal Recovery? In most instances of severe municipal fiscal distress or bankruptcy, the situation has been endemic to the municipality; however, as we have noted in Jefferson County, the state can be a proximate cause. Certainly that appears to have been the case in Flint, where the Governor’s appointment of an emergency manager proved to be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back at an exceptional cost and risk to human health and safety. The fiscal challenge is, as always, what does it take to recover? In the case of Flint, the city’s hopes appear to depend upon the restoration of one of the small city’s iconic jewels: the historic, downtown Capitol Theatre—where the goal is to restore it to its original glory, dating back to 1928, when it opened as a vaudeville house: it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985, but has been empty now for more than a decade—indeed, not just empty, but rather scheduled to become still another parking lot. Instead, however, the property will undergo a $37 million renovation to become a 1,600-seat movie palace and performance venue, which will provide 28,000 square feet of ground-floor retail and second-floor office space; an additional performance space will be created in the basement for small-scale workshops, experimental theater, and other performances. Jeremy Piper, chairman of the Cultural Center Corp., a Flint lawyer, will manage the new performing arts venue in the cultural center; he will also serve as co-chair of a committee that is raising the last $4 million of the $37 million needed to bring the theater back to life. The goal and hope is that the renovated theater will, as has been the experience in other cities, such as New York City’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, help serve as a foundation for Flint’s fiscal and physical recovery. The new theater is intended to become the focal point of 12,000, 13,000, or 14,000 people coming into downtown Flint for a performance and then going out for dinner—that is, to benefit and revive a downtown economy. Indeed, already, the venture firm SkyPoint is planning to open a large fine-dining restaurant on the ground floor and mezzanine timed to the rejuvenated theater’s reopening—SkyPoint Ventures being the company co-founded by Phil Hagerman, the CEO of Flint-based Diplomat Pharmacy Inc., and his wife, Jocelyn, whose Hagerman Foundation (the author, here, notes his middle name, derived from his great grandfather, is Hagerman) donated $4 million toward the Capitol’s renovation. In 2016, the Flint-based C.S. Mott Foundation announced a grant of $15 million for the Capitol Theatre project as part of $100 million it pledged to the city in the wake of the water crisis. The project also received $5.5 million from the Michigan Strategic Fund.

The ambitious effort comes as Michigan has paid $12 million to outside attorneys for work related to the Flint drinking water crisis, but out of which nearly 30% has gone to pay criminal and civil defense attorneys hired by Gov. Rick Snyder—an amount expected to climb as the lead poisoning of Flint’s drinking water has proven to be devastating for Flint and its children, but enriching for the state’s legal industry: Jeffrey Swartz, an associate professor at Western Michigan University-Cooley Law School, notes: “It’s a lot of money…I can see $10 million to $15 million being eaten up very quickly.” He added, moreover, that the state is still “on your way up the slope” in terms of mounting legal costs. The approved value of outside legal contracts, not all of which has been spent, is at least $16.6 million, adding that the Michigan Legislature may want to appoint a commission to review the appropriateness of all outside legal bills before they are approved for payment: already, Gov. Rick Snyder’s office has spent a combined $3.35 million for outside criminal and civil defense lawyers; the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has spent $3.65 million; the Department of Health and Human Services has spent $956,000; and the Treasury Department has spent $35,555, according to figures released to the Free Press. In addition, the state has paid $340,000 to reimburse the City of Flint for some of its civil and criminal legal defense costs related to the drinking water crisis, which a task force appointed by Gov. Snyder has said was mainly brought on by mistakes made at the state level. Yet to be equitably addressed are some $1.3 million in Flint legal costs. Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, whose investigation is still ongoing, has charged 13 current or former state and municipal officials, including five from the Dept. of Environmental Quality, the Dept. of Health and Human Safety, the City of Flint, and two former state-appointed emergency managers who ran the city and reported to the state’s Treasury Department; no one, however, from Gov. Snyder’s office has been charged.

The Remarkable Recovery of Chocolateville. Central Falls, Rhode Island Mayor James A. Diossa, the remarkable elected leader who has piloted the fiscal recovery of one of the nation’s smallest cities from chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, this week noted: “Our efforts and dedication to following fiscally sound budgeting practices are clearly paying off, leaving the City in a strong position. I would like to personally thank the Council and Administrative Financial Officer Len Morganis for their efforts in helping to lead the comeback of this great City.” The Mayor’s ebullient comments came in the wake of credit rating agency Standard and Poor’s rating upgrade for one of the nation’s smallest cities from “BB” to “BBB,” with S&P noting: “Central Falls is operating under a much stronger economic and management environment since emerging from bankruptcy in 2012. The City of Central Falls now has an investment grade credit rating from S&P due to diligently following the post-bankruptcy plan in conjunction with surpassing budgetary projections.”

One of the nation’s smallest municipalities (population of 19,000, city land size of one-square-mile), Central Falls is Rhode Island’s smallest and poorest city—and the site of a George Mason University class project on municipal fiscal distress—and guidebook for municipal leaders. Its post-bankruptcy recovery under Mayor Diossa has demonstrated several years of strong budgetary performance, and has “fully adhered to the established post-bankruptcy plan,” or, as Mayor Diossa put it: “S&P’s latest ratings report is yet another sign of Central Falls’ turnaround from bankruptcy.” Mr. Morganis noted: “The City of Central Falls now has an investment grade credit rating from S&P due to diligently following the post-bankruptcy plan in conjunction with surpassing budgetary projections,” adding that the credit rating agency’s statement expressed confidence that strong budgetary performance will continue post Rhode Island State oversight. S&P, in its upgrade, credited Mayor Diossa’s commitment to sound and transparent fiscal practices, noting the small city has an adequate management environment with improved financial policies and practices under their Financial Management Assessment (FMA) methodology—and that Central Falls exhibited a strong budgetary performance, with an operating surplus in the general fund and break-even operating results at the total governmental fund level in FY2016. Moreover, S&P reported, the former mill town and manufacturer of scrumptious chocolate bars has strong liquidity, with total government available cash at 28.7% of total governmental fund expenditures and 1.9 times governmental debt service, along with a strong institutional framework score. Similarly, Maureen Gurghigian, Managing Director of Hilltop Securities, noted: “A multi-step upgrade of this magnitude is uncommon: this is a tribute to the hard work of the City’s and the Administrative Finance Officer’s adherence to their plan and excellent relationship with State Government.” The remarkable recovery comes as one of the nation’s smallest cities heads towards a formal exit from chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy at the end of FY2017. S&P, in its upgrade, noted the city is operating under a “much stronger economic and management environment,” in the wake of its 2012 exit from municipal bankruptcy, or, as Mayor Diossa, put it: “Obviously we’ve had a lot of conversations with the rating agencies, and I was hoping we’d get an upgrade of at least one notch…When we got the triple upgrade, first, I was surprised and second, it reaffirmed the work that we’re doing. Our bonds are no longer junk. We’re investment level. It’s like getting good news at a health checkup.”  S&P, in its report, noted several years of sound budgeting and full adherence to a six-year post-bankruptcy plan which state-appointed receiver and former Rhode Island Supreme Court Justice Robert Flanders crafted. The hardest part of that recovery, as Judge Flanders noted to us so many years ago in City Hall,was his swift decision to curtail the city’s pension payments—cuts of as much as 55 percent—a statement he made with obvious emotion, recognizing the human costs. (Central Falls is among the approximately one-quarter of Rhode Island municipalities with locally administered pension plans.) Unsurprisingly, Mayor Diossa, maintains he is “fully committed” to the fiscal discipline first imposed by Judge Flanders, noting the municipality had a general fund surplus of 11% of expenditures in FY2016, and adding: “That reserve fund is very important.” He noted Central Falls also expects a surplus for this fiscal year, adding that the city’s expenses are 3% below budget, and that even as the city has reduced the residential property tax rate for the first time in a decade, even as it has earmarked 107% of its annual required contribution to the pension plan and contributed $100,000 toward its future OPEB liability.

The End of an Era? Mayor Diossa, recounting the era of chapter 9 bankruptcies, noted Pennsylvania’s capital, Harrisburg, in 2011; Jefferson County, Alabama; Stockton, Mammoth Lakes and San Bernardino, California; and Detroit: “I think Central Falls is a microcosm of all of them…I followed Detroit and heard all the discussions. They had the same issues that we had…sky-high costs, not budgeting appropriately,” adding his credit and appreciation—most distinctly from California—of the State of Rhode Island’s longstanding involvement: “The state’s been very involved,” commending Governors Lincoln Chafee and Gina Raimondo. Nevertheless, he warns: fiscal challenges remain; indeed, S&P adds: “The city’s debt and contingent liability profile is very weak…We view the pension and other post-employment benefit [OPEB] liabilities as a credit concern given the very low funded ratio and high fixed costs…They are still a concern with wealth metrics and resources that are probably below average for Rhode Island, so that’s a bit of a disadvantage…That adds more importance to the fact that they achieved an investment-grade rating through what I think is pretty good financial management and getting their house in order.” The city’s location, said Diossa, is another means to trumpet the city.

The Uncertainties of Fiscal Challenges. Natalie Jaresko is the newly named Executive Director of the PROMESA federal control board overseeing Puerto Rico’s finances, who previously served during a critical time in Ukraine’s history from 2014 to 2016 as it faced a deep recession, and about whom PROMESA Board Chair Jose Carrion noted: “Ukraine’s situation three years ago, like Puerto Rico’s today, was near catastrophic, but she worked with stakeholders to bring needed reforms that restored confidence, economic vitality and reinvestment in the country and its citizens. That’s exactly what Puerto Rico needs today;” came as Ms. Jaresko yesterday told the Board that with the tools at its disposal, Puerto Rico urgently needs to reduce the fiscal deficit and restructure the public debt, “all at once,” while acknowledging that the austerity measures may cause “things to get worse before they get better.” Her dire warnings came as the U.S. territory’s recovery prospects for the commonwealth’s general obligation and COFINA bonds continued to weaken, and, in the wake of last week’s moody Moody’s dropping of the Commonwealth’s debt ratings to its lowest rating, C, which equates with a less than 35% recovery on defaulted debt. Or, as our respected colleagues at Municipal Market Analytics put it: “[T]he ranges of potential bondholder outcomes are much wider than those, with a materially deeper low-end. For some (or many) of the commonwealth’s most lightly secured bonds (e.g., GDB, PFC, etc.) recoveries could hypothetically dip into the single digits. Further, any low end becomes more likely the longer Puerto Rico’s restructuring takes to achieve as time:

1) Allows progressively more negative economic data to materialize, forcing all parties to adopt more conservative and sustainable projections for future commonwealth revenues;

2) Allows local stakeholder groups—in particular students and workers—to organize and expand nascent protest efforts, further affecting the political center of gravity on the island;

3) Worsens potential entropy in commonwealth legislative outcomes;

4) Frustrates even pro-bondholder policymakers in the US Congress, which has little interest in, or ability to, re-think PROMESA and/or Federal aid compacts with the commonwealth.”

On the other hand, the longer the restructuring process ultimately takes, the more investable will be the security that the island borrows against in the future (whatever that is). So while the industry in general would likely benefit from a faster resolution that removes Puerto Rico from the headlines, the traditional investors who will consider lending to a “fixed” commonwealth should prefer that all parties take their time. Finally, if bleakly, MMA notes: “In our view, reliable projections of bondholder recovery impossible, and we fail to understand how any rating agency with an expected loss methodology can rate Puerto Rico’s bonds at all…Remember that the Governor’s Fiscal Plan, accepted by the Oversight Board, makes available about a quarter of the debt service to be paid on tax-backed debt through 2027, down from about 35% that was in the prior plan that the Board rejected. As we’ve noted before, the severity of the proposal greatly reduces the likelihood that an agreement will be reached with creditors by May 1 (when the stay on litigation ends), not only increasing the prospect of a Title III restructuring (cram down) un-der PROMESA, but also a host of related creditor litigation against the plan itself and board decisions both large and small. The outcomes of even normal litigation risks are inherently unpredictable, but the prospects here for multi-layered, multi-dimensional lawsuits create a problem several orders of magnitude worse than normal.

Addressing Municipal Fiscal Distress

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eBlog, 04/05/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider some unique efforts to address municipal fiscal distress by the Illinois Legislature, based upon tag team efforts by the irrepressible fiscal tag team of Jim Spiotto and Laurence Msall of the Chicago Civic Federation. The effort matters, especially as the Volker Alliance’s William Glasgall, its Director of State and Local Programs, has raised issues and questions vis-à-vis state roles relating to addressing severe municipal fiscal distress. As we have noted—with only a minority of states even authorizing municipal bankruptcy, there are significant differences in state roles relating to severe municipal fiscal distress and insolvency. Thus, this Illinois initiative could offer a new way to think about state constructive roles. Then we turn to Ferguson, Missouri to assess its municipal election results—and its remarkable, gritty fiscal recovery from the brink of insolvency.

Addressing Municipal Fiscal Distress. The Illinois Legislature is considering House Bill 2575, the Illinois Local Government Protection Authority Act, offered by Rep. David Harris (R-Arlington Heights), which would establish an Authority for the purpose of achieving solutions to financial difficulties faced by units of local government, creating a board of trustees, and defining the Authority’s duties and powers, including the ability to obtain the unit of local government’s records—and to recommend revenue increases. The legislation provides for a petition process, whereby certain entities may petition the Authority to review a unit of local government; it also sets forth participation requirements. The effort comes in the wake of distressed local governments struggling under the weight of pension, healthcare, and other debts: it would propose this new, special authority for fiscal guidance to fiscally strapped local units of government, but without mandating severe budget cuts—or, as Rep. Harris described it: a “cooperative effort between the state and financially unit of local government…(one which) involves local elected officials and local governmental bodies and taxpayers, workers, and business entities developing a plan of financial recovery — is the best way to find a permanent solution to current financial challenges.” According to the Chicago Civic Federation, which asserts the intent is to help the state’s municipalities recover without being forced into chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, such an authority could be valuable—especially in a state which, like the majority of states, does not generally permit a city, county, or other municipal entity to file for bankruptcy. Under the proposal, nine trustees would oversee the new authority, including four appointed by the Illinois Municipal League; the Governor, Speaker of the House, and Minority Leader, and their state Senate counterparts would each appoint one member: the new authority would rely on the Illinois Comptroller’s office to provide reports and some operational support; the legislation would also set a fee schedule to enable coverage of its administrative costs.

The exceptional leader of the Federation, Laurence Msall, noted: “The LGPA would serve as a resource to assist distressed municipalities in making determinations as to what essential governmental services are sustainable and affordable and what combination of revenue increases and service cuts, and other actions would be necessary to ensure fiscal sustainability and access to critical services.” Under the proposed legislation, a municipality could petition the authority to intervene; but also, the Illinois Comptroller, a public pension fund, or even a large creditor owed a substantial debt could. The proposal would authorize a municipality to petition too—provided it committed to participate—and provided it met specific criteria, including inadequate liquidity, overdue debt, weak pension funding ratios, or signal budget imbalances. If triggered, the suggested new authority would be authorized to recommend budget cuts, tax increases, and/or pension funding actions: as proposed, the authority would be charged with reviewing whether the city, county, or other unit of government should:

  • try to negotiate a debt restructuring,
  • explore public-private partnerships, or
  • asset sales and consolidation.

The authority would be authorized to consider potential pension reforms, such as whether the municipality should offer more corporate-style retirement plans, as well as whether it should establish a trust to fund its OPEB post-retirement healthcare obligations.

The proposed legislation authorizes authority to set fiscal targets; it offers the option for the proposed new authority to serve as a mediator in negotiations between a municipality and debtors, to endorse tax increases—increases which might trigger a public referendum, and issue recommendations to the Illinois state government with regard to the diversion of funds to address specific municipal funding mandates—granting authority too to seek declaratory and injunctive relief with regard to the exercise of its powers and implementation of its findings and recommendations. Finally, as a last resort, the authority could recommend pursuit of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. The nation’s architect of the federal municipal chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy law, Jim Spiotto, notes: “This municipal protection authority concept could be the means of providing state and local government cooperation and oversight while allowing the municipality, its elected officials, workers and unions, creditors and bondholders to have a means of participation with a definitive end result.” For his part, Mr. Msall described the rationale as vital to establishing “a systematic means of evaluating and assisting these governments,” instead of taking on municipal fiscal distress on a case-by-case effort, noting that “The Civic Federation is very concerned about the financial condition of many local governments in the state of Illinois, and many of them which will not be able to seek assistance unless there is the creation of this authority.”

& The Winner is: Ferguson, Missouri voters have reelected incumbent Mayor James Knowles III to a third term in the municipality’s first mayoral election since protests erupted there three years ago in the wake of one of the city’s white police officer’s shooting of an unarmed black 18-year-old—a shooting which ignited a national protest and led to a federal Justice Department intervention and harsh fiscal penalties for the nearly insolvent municipality. Mayor Knowles won by a 56%–44% margin against Councilwoman Ella Jones, who is black, in a small municipality which was once an overwhelmingly white “sundown town” where, until the 1960s, African-Americans were banned after dark. Perhaps ironically, the Mayor’s reelection followed just one day in the wake of U.S. Attorney General Gen. Jeff Sessions’ order that the U.S. Justice Department review its existing consent decrees with municipal police departments—the agreement in Ferguson, imposed under the Obama administration, imposed unfunded federal mandates, including demands to levy new taxes. In its report, the Obama Justice Department had alleged that the Ferguson Police Department and the City of Ferguson relied on unconstitutional practices in order to balance the city’s budget through racially motivated excessive fines and punishments, so that former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder stated the federal government would use its authority to dismantle the Ferguson Police Department—a threat, which at the time, Ferguson’s then-Mayor had warned could mark the first time in the nation’s history that the federal government might force a municipality into municipal bankruptcy, and led credit rating agency Moody’s to place the municipality’s municipal bond rating on review for downgrade because of threats to the city’s solvency—with the downgrade of the city’s general obligation rating reflecting what the credit rating agency described as “the continued pressure on the city’s finances from a persistent structural imbalance and incorporating the recently approved U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) consent decree, projected to increase annual General Fund expenses over the next several years,” in the wake of Moody’s assessment after the U.S. Justice Department lawsuit against the small city, noting its downgrade then had reflected concerns related to the uncertainty of the potential financial impact of litigation costs from the federal lawsuit and the price tag for implementing the proposed DOJ consent decree, writing: “We believe fiscal ramifications from these items will be significant and could result in insolvency.”

Indeed, the Justice Department’s unfunded federal mandates included federally imposed financial penalties, and the mandate to levy new, municipal taxes: leading to voter approval of a utility tax hike projected to generate $700,000 annually—an increase which Mayor Knowles, at the time, described as a critical vote, because, had the measure failed, the city’s police force’s authorized number would have been cut to 44, and firefighter jobs would also have been cut; he had warned, in addition, that the vote was intended to make clear the city was fiscally viable. So, today, in the wake of resignations and elections, Ferguson features three black council members, a black police chief, and a black city manager—and, in the interim, Mayor Knowles has survived a recall attempt (in 2015), noting in a Facebook post during the campaign that he wanted to follow the example set by former President Abraham Lincoln: “For those familiar with history, during the Civil War, Lincoln was often criticized by people on both sides of the issues of slavery and the war because of his even-handedness and his resistance to the pressures of radicals on both sides. He knew radicalism, even after the war, would further divide us, which it has for generations.”

Mayor Knowles’ challenger, Councilmember Jones, ran, because, she said, it was “time for Ferguson to unite and become one Ferguson, and we cannot move forward under the leadership that we are under at this point,” harshly criticizing the U.S. Attorney General’s move to review the city’s consent decree—one which Mr. Sessions had previously claimed was based on a report that was “anecdotal” and “not so scientifically based,” with Councilmember Jones warning that the Attorney General’s action was “not going to help Ferguson at all,” adding: “We need that consent decree in order to keep Ferguson moving forward.” Nevertheless, the gritty, can-do leadership of the city’s elected officials appears to have defied the odds: City Manager De’Carlon Seewood recently wrote that in the wake of a “drastic decline” in revenue, “the city’s operating budget is beyond lean. It’s emaciated.”