Overcoming the Fiscal & Physical Challenges of Emerging from Municipal Bankruptcy

06/26/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the extra fiscal challenges of exiting chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy where the fiscal (and in this case physical) odds are stacked against your city. Nevertheless, it appears that San Bernardino’s elected and appointed leaders have overcome terrorism and fiscal challenges to emerge from the nation’s longest municipal bankruptcy. Then we look to see if Detroit’s new bridge to Canada will be not just a physical, but also a fiscal bridge to the city’s future. Finally, we toke (yes, a pun) a look at the ongoing fiscal and governing challenges in Puerto Rico between the U.S. Territory’s own government and the Congressionally appointed oversight board.

On the Other Side of Municipal Bankruptcy: How Sweet It Can Be. Exiting chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy is an exceptional challenge—there is no federal or state bailout, as we have witnessed for, say, major banks, financial institutions, or automobile manufacturers. It is, instead, especially in states like California, where the state, unlike, for instance, Rhode Island, or Michigan, plays no role in helping a city as part of the development of a plan of debt adjustment, an exceptional test of municipal leaders—and U.S. bankruptcy judges. Moreover, because California—in our post General Revenue Sharing economy—likewise provides no program or assistance focused on municipal fiscal disparities, the fiscal lifting is more challenging. An important challenge too is perception or reputation: what must change to send a message to a business or family that this is a city worth moving to?

San Bernardino, after all, has emerged in relatively hale fiscal shape, at long last—even as it faces such an unlevel fiscal playing field, as well as signal budget challenges for public safety in a city where the chances of being a victim of violent crime are nearly 400% higher than the statewide average. Thus, the post-bankrupt municipality confronts—and has plans to address a violent crime wave and a massive amount of deferred maintenance, in the wake of the Council’s adoption of a $120 million general fund operating budget, including funds to hire more police officers and replace outdated equipment—as well as to undertake a violence intervention program—modeled on a program which has proven effective in dramatically reducing homicides in other municipalities which have employed it.

San Bernardino’s new budget provides for repairs and overdue maintenance of streets, streetlights, traffic signals, storm drains, medians, and park facilities; it adds additional maintenance workers in the Public Works and Parks departments. According to City Attorney Gary Saenz: “One of the greatest effects is the perception, now, I think people should give San Bernardino a second look and see that it is an ideal place and has a lot of potential.”

The epic scale of the city’s fiscal and budgetary change from its $45 million deficit five years ago and decline in employees from 1,140 full-time to 746 budgeted for its FY2018 budget offers a perspective: the city has renegotiated contracts, restructured debts, and, as part of its approved plan of bankruptcy debt adjustment, been authorized to pay some of its creditors as little as a cent on the dollar. And, its citizens and taxpayers have elected new leaders and replaced the city’s old, convoluted charter. Moreover, if weathering municipal bankruptcy were not hard enough, the city was also subjected to a horrific terrorist attack which took 14 lives and injured 22 at the Inland Regional Center. Indeed, it somehow seems consistent, that in the middle of these terrible fiscal and terrorist challenges, the city also had to abandon its City Hall building: it was not just fiscally imbalanced, but also seismically unsound.  

A Bridge to Detroit’s Tomorrow. Mayor Mike Duggan last Friday announced the Motor City had reached an agreement with the state to sell land, assets, and some streets for more than $48 million, with the proceeds to be used in the project to construct a second bridge between Windsor, Canada and Detroit. Mayor Duggan reported the city will use the proceeds for related neighborhood programs, job training, and health monitoring—with a key set aside to assist Delray residents to voluntarily relocate to renovated houses in other neighborhoods in Detroit. Joined by Michigan officials, community leaders, as well as representatives from the Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority (the nonprofit entity managing the design, construction, operation, and maintenance of the new Gordie Howe International Bridge), Mayor Duggan noted: “This is a major step forward…This is eliminating one of the last obstacles.” The new bridge named for the city’s former hockey legend, will provide a second highway link for heavy trucks at the busiest U.S.‒Canadian crossing point in the U.S.—a $2.1 billion span scheduled to open in 2020, with Canada supplying Michigan’s $550 million share of the bridge, which the donated funds to be repaid through tolls. There will be other benefits for the U.S. city emerging from the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in history: Rev. Kevin Casillas, pastor of the First Latin American Baptist Church on Fort, in thanking Mayor Duggan and other officials for hammering out the agreement, noted: “Today is a good day in our decade-long fight, advocating for residents of Delray and southwest Detroit…Residents will benefit from health-impact assessments and air monitoring in our community; residents will benefit from job training; residents will benefit from having the option of relocating to another fully updated house elsewhere in the city.” (The Mayor noted that he intends to set up a real estate office in Delray to help homeowners relocate if they wish to move, emphasizing no one would be forced to—and that “If someone want to stay, then they’re welcome to…”). Under the agreement, Detroit will sell the Michigan Department of Transportation 36 parcels of land, underground assets, and approximately five miles of streets in the bridge’s footprint for $48.4 million. Mayor Duggan said Detroit plans to use the proceeds mainly to address four goals: $33 million will be invested in a neighborhood improvement fund, with the bulk, $26 million to assist Delray residents to relocate, and $9 million to upgrade homes; $10 million for a job training initiative to prepare Detroit residents to fill both construction and operations jobs; $2.4 million for air and health monitoring in southwest Detroit over the next 10 years; and $3 million for the Detroit Water & Sewerage Department and Public Lighting Authority to purchase assets in the project’s footprint.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder noted: “Mayor Duggan’s announcement is the result of several years of successful collaboration between the state, the city, the Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority, and numerous stakeholders, including community leaders…Everyone listened to one another, worked hard to understand concerns, and forged a partnership based on solutions. This shows that by working together, we can achieve great things for everyone.”

Fiscal Inhaling in Puerto Rico? Early yesterday morning, the Puerto Rico Senate voted 21-9 to approve the government’s general $ 9.562 billion FY2018 general budget, passing Joint House Resolutions 186, 187, 188, and 189 with no amendments—clearing the way for Governor Ricardo Rosselló to sign it. Giving a lift to the legislative effort, the legislature also approved a bill to regulate the medical marijuana industry—legislation that establishes that it may be used for terminal patients or when no other suitable medical alternative is available. The uplifting governmental actions came as Gov. Ricardo Rosselló opposed demands by the PROMESA Oversight Board that the government furlough employees and suspend their Christmas bonuses. According to a spokesperson for the president of the Puerto Rico House of Representatives, as of the beginning of last weekend, there was also disagreement between the Board and Gov. Rosselló’s ruling party with regard to whether to shift money from school and municipal improvements to a budget reserve fund. In his epistle to the Board, Gov. Rosselló, last Thursday, had written that the Board’s Executive Director, Natalie Jaresko, had informed him that the Board will mandate furloughs and the suspension of any bonuses—a demand which Gov. Rosselló believes usurps his authority under PROMESA, as well as contravenes the Board’s position of earlier this Spring, when it had said there would have to be furloughs and an end to the bonus, unless two conditions were met: 1) Puerto Rico would have to gain a $200 million cash reserve by this Friday, and 2) Puerto Rico would have to submit an implementation plan for reducing spending on government programs. The PROMESA Board, a week ago last Friday, had written that it believed the reserve would be met; however, the Board asserted the implementation plan was inadequate. (In insisting upon the furlough program, the Board assumed such furloughs would save the government $35 million to $40 million on a monthly basis.) Thus, in his letter, Gov. Rosselló wrote: “In contravention of PROMESA §205, the Oversight Board is now trying to strong-arm the government into accepting the expenditure controls.” He appeared especially concerned with the PROMESA Board’s mandate to shift $80 million in the budget for school improvements and reserves for the island’s municipalities.

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The Key Lessons Learned after a Decade of Municipal Bankruptcies

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eBlog, 04/07/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider Detroit’s first steps to address the blight which crisscrossed the city leading to its municipal bankruptcy. Then we look to New Hampshire to assess whether the state legislature will preempt municipalities’ authority to set election dates. Then we slip south to assess fiscal developments in the efforts to recover from insolvency in Puerto Rico. Finally, we assess and consider some of the broader issues related to municipal bankruptcy.

Post Chapter 9 Recovery. One of Detroit’s first tests with regard to whether it can find new use for the vast stretches of land it cleared of blight went into effect this week when development teams announced by  Mayor Mike Duggan, along with partners: The Platform, a Detroit-based firm, and Century Partners announced they would be investing an estimated $100 million to rehab the architectural jewels in the city’s downtown—the Fisher and Albert Kahn buildings, with the two organizations declaring they will take the lead in overhauling 373 parcels of vacant land and houses in the Fitzgerald neighborhood on the northwest side, where they will coordinate with other firms on a $4 million development plan to rehab 115 vacant homes over two years, create a two-acre park, and landscape 192 vacant lots—with the work occurring in neighborhoods wherein the Detroit Land Bank took control of most of the properties and razed some abandoned homes. Mayor Duggan and other officials described the plan as a kind of reverse gentrification—or, as Mayor Duggan framed it: “We are going to keep the families here while improving the neighborhoods,” making his announcement on an empty lot which is scheduled to become a city park and include a greenway path to nearby Marygrove College: the city leaders hope to transform the neighborhood into a “Blight-Free Quarter Square Mile,” and, if the model works, seek to propagate it other neighborhoods.

Granite State Preemption or Cure? House Speaker Shawn Jasper wants to give New Hampshire towns that postponed their municipal elections due to a snowstorm a way out of facing potential lawsuits from voters who may have been disenfranchised. Speaker Jasper had proposed letting towns ratify the results of their elections by holding another vote, offering a bill to give towns which moved Election Day the option of letting townspeople vote to ratify, or confirm, the results on May 23rd. However, in the wake of about five hours of testimony, the House Election Law Committee voted 10-10 on the Jasper plan, so that a tie vote killed the Speaker’s amendment, leaving 73 towns on their own to address potential legal problems resulting from their decisions to hold their elections on days other than March 14th. The fiscal blizzard in the Granite State now depends upon whether state legislators determine whether or not a special election is needed with regard to those results. New Hampshire Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan noted: “The concept is not entirely new…what is different is that it is applying to an entire class of towns that decided to postpone.”

In the past, the Legislature has voted to “cure” individual election defects. Speaker of the House Shawn Jasper, (R-Hudson, N.H.) noted: “Well, the fact that a bunch of towns moved the day of their town election was unprecedented…And so as a result of doing that, those towns that moved had to start bending other laws to make other issues related to the election work…The Legislature is just granting the authority to allow the towns to correct any defects that may exist,” he added, listing changed time listings, lack of proper notice, and absentee ballot date issues as possible defects in the process. All of those questions, of course, have fiscal consequences—or, as Atkinson Town Administrator Alan Phair put it; “Well, I don’t know the exact cost, what it would be, but I do know that in our case we certainly don’t have the money budgeted to (hold a special election), because we obviously just budgeted for one election…We would certainly go considerably over and have to find the money elsewhere to do it.” Under the proposed amendment, towns and school districts which postponed would hold a hearing, at which the respective governing body would vote on whether to hold a special election with one question: whether or not to ratify results, where a “no” vote would kick out anyone elected in a postponed vote, while nullifying warrant articles, with elected roles to be appointed until the next election. Salem Town Manager (Salem is a town of just under 30,000 in Rockingham County) Leon Goodwin said his elected leaders were of the opinion that its postponement was legal, so that the municipality is moving forward on projects voted on last month, noting: We’re moving on as if the votes were accepted even though there is a cloud hanging over us from Concord,” adding that town counsel advised the town moderator that it was legal to move elections. Yet, even as he remained confident the election issue will be resolved, he cautioned that the town has not budgeted for an additional election; Windham (approximately 14,000) Town Manager David Sullivan said the municipality’s town Counsel would sign off on the town’s fire truck bond, notwithstanding bond counsel elsewhere in the state advising that ratification of the elections would be necessary.

Municipal authority to act has been hampered by different state House and Senate approaches: while the two bodies have been moving on parallel tracks in the wake of state officials’ questioning the authority of town moderators to reschedule the March 14 voting sessions of their town meetings, the Senate this week passed SB 248, a bill introduced to ratify actions taken at the rescheduled meetings; however, the bill passed with a committee amendment which deletes all of the original language and provides instead for the creation of a committee to “study the rescheduling of elections.” Senators acknowledged that the bill was not likely to pass through the House in that form—asserting the intent was simply to get a bill to the House for further work. Subsequently, a floor amendment was introduced to restore the bill’s original language, ratifying all actions taken at the rescheduled meetings; however, that amendment failed on a party-line vote, with all nine Democrats voting in favor and all fourteen Republicans voting against, leaving most unclear how this could have become a partisan issue. The question comes down to what level of control local officials should have over local elections. The Speaker described the outcome thusly: “I think it was a case of 10 people (on the committee) thinking that what happened was legal;” however, he maintained that the postponed votes were not legal, adding: “The sad thing is that for school districts with bond issues that passed in those meetings, I don’t see a path forward for them,” adding: “I think if you’re afraid of snowstorms, you ought to move your meetings, probably to May,” noting that state officials are forbidden by law from moving state primary and general elections, as well as the first-in-the-nation presidential primary. Unsurprisingly, town moderators and attorneys who work with them on municipal bond issues disagreed with the Speaker’s interpretation that the postponed elections were illegal and his belief that the only way to rectify the issue was for them to act to individually ratify them, with many arguing they acted legally under a state law which allows them to postpone and reschedule the “deliberative session or voting day” of a town meeting to another day; however, the Speaker maintains that law applies only to town meetings, while town elections are governed under a different statute, which provides: “All towns shall hold an election annually for the election of town officers on the second Tuesday in March.” He also noted that the state’s official political calendar, which has the force of law, states that town elections must be held on March 14, adding: “Without trying to place blame, laws are sometimes very confusing if you look only at parts of them,” noting: “I don’t believe for one second that moving the election was legal.”

The Speaker added that still another state law provides that at special town meetings, no money may be raised or appropriated unless the number of ballots cast at the meeting is at least half the number of those on the checklist who were eligible to vote in the most recent town meeting, albeit adding that such meetings do not apply to the current situation, because they are not elections. The state’s Secretary of State said that after three weeks of research, he was able to report on voter turnout at town elections for the past 11 years, advising that 210 towns held elections in March, and 137 of them “followed the law” by holding their elections on March 14th, while 73 towns had postponed their elections by several days. Now Speaker Jasper asks: “Why would we give over 300 individual moderators the ability to do that when our Secretary of State doesn’t have the ability to do that for a snowstorm in our general election or our presidential primary?” The Speaker notes: “I think we need to provide a way to ensure that we don’t clog up the courts, and we don’t have people spend a lot of their own money to fight this, and the towns don’t have to spend a lot of money fighting it.”

Un-positive Credit Rating for Puerto Rico. Moody’s Investors Service has lowered the credit ratings on debt of the Government Development Bank and five other Puerto Rico issuers, with a total of approximately $13 billion outstanding, and revised down the Commonwealth’s fiscal outlook, and the outlooks for seven affiliated obligors linked to the central government to negative from developing, with the downgrades reflecting what the agency described as “persistent pressures on Puerto Rico’s economic base that indicate a diminishing perceived capacity to repay,” noting that while it continues to “believe that essentially all of Puerto Rico’s debt will be subject to default and loss in a broad restructuring, the securities being downgraded face more severe losses than we had previously expected, in the light of Puerto Rico’s projected economic pressures. For this reason, we downgraded to C from Ca not only the senior notes issued by the now defunct Government Development Bank, but also bonds issued by the Puerto Rico Infrastructure Financing Authority and backed by federal rum tax transfer payments, the Convention Center District Authority’s hotel occupancy tax-backed bonds, the Employees Retirement System’s bonds backed by government pension contributions, and the 1998 Resolution bonds of the Puerto Rico Highways and Transportation Authority.”

Puerto Rico Governor Rossello late Wednesday said that the U.S. territory’s fiscal plan, approved by the PROMESA Board, does not contemplate any double taxation, adding that, between the increase in the property tax and the reduction of expenses in the municipalities, he favored the latter as a measure to compensate for the absence of the state subsidy of $350 million. He reiterated that, as a substitute for these funds, the properties which are not currently paying taxes to the Centro de Recaution de Ingresos Municipales (CRIM: the Municipal Revenue Collection Center) should be identified, because they are not included in their registry. The Governor also stressed that the economic outcome of these two fiscal initiatives is still being evaluated, albeit he estimated that they could generate about $100 million, noting: “Whatever the differential after that for the municipalities, there are two mechanisms that can be worked: One, a mechanism to seek an additional source of income, or, two, to avail cuts…The central government has taken the cutting position. We are already establishing a protocol to cut in the agencies, to consolidate, to eliminate the expenses that are not necessary, to go from 131 to between 35 to 40 agencies. That has been our action. The municipalities—now we will have a conversation with our technical team—will have several options: ‘either cut as did the central government or seek mechanisms to raise more funds or impose taxes.’” Currently, mayors evaluate to increase the arbitrage of the real property to 11.83% or to 12.83% in all the municipalities; the concept is for members of the Executive to offer assistance to do the modeling. Thus, the president of the board of CRIM, Cidra Mayor Javier Carrasquillo, said CRIM will be “sensitive to the reality of the pockets of Puerto Ricans: We have to be cautious and responsible in the recommendation that we are going to make…There is nothing definitive yet. There are recommendations.” The Governor noted that the PROMESA Board approved fiscal plan approved last month does not contemplate an increase in property taxation, asserting it was “false to imply that our fiscal plan entails an increase in the rate or a double rate on properties,” albeit recalling that the disappearance of $350 million in transfers to municipalities begins on July 1, when the fiscal year begins, promising it will be done progressively, so that in the next budget (2017-2018) $175 million disappear, and the remaining $175 million, the next fiscal year, describing it as a “two-year fade out.” Unsurprisingly, he did not specify when or how the plan would fiscally benefit this island’s municipalities, stating: “We have already been able to have pilot efforts to identify different municipalities where 60% of their properties are not being assessed…We are going to commit ourselves so that all these properties are in the system.”

The End of a Chapter 9 Era? Municipal bankruptcy is a rarity: even notwithstanding the Great Recession which produced a significant number of corporate bankruptcies—and federal bailouts to large for-profit corporations and quasi-federal corporations, such as Fannie Mae; the federal government offered no bailouts to cities or counties. Yet from one of the nation’s smallest cities, Central Falls, to major, iconic cities such as Detroit and Jefferson County, the nation experienced a just-ended spate, before—with San Bernardino’s exit last month, the likely closure of an era—even as we await some resolution of the request by East Cleveland to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. The lessons learned, compiled by the nation’s leading light of municipal bankruptcy, therefore bear consideration. Jim Spiotto, with whom I had the honor and good fortune over nearly a decade of effort leading to former President Reagan’s signing into law of the municipal bankruptcy amendments of 1988, offers us a critical guide of ten lessons learned:

  1. Do not defer funding of essential services and infrastructure: Detroit is a wake- up call for others that there is never a good reason to defer funding of essential services and infrastructure at an acceptable level. If you do, Detroit’s fate will be yours.
  2. Labor and pension contracts under state constitutional and statutory provisions should not be interpreted as a mutual suicide pact: It appears one of the reasons why resolution of pension and labor costs was not achieved in Detroit prior to filing Chapter 9 was the belief of the workers and retirees that, under the Michigan constitution, those contractual rights could not be impaired or diminished to any degree. This position failed to take into consideration that the municipality can only pay that which it has revenues to pay and, in an eroding declining financial situation, there will never be sufficient funds to pay all obligations, especially those that may be unaffordable and unsustainable.
  3. Don’t question that which should be beyond questioning and is needed for the long-term financial survival of the municipality: A dedicated source of payment, statutory lien or special revenues established under state law must be honored and should not be contested. Capital markets work effectively when credibility and predictability of outcome are clear and unquestioned. Current effort to pass new legislation (California SB222 and Michigan HB5650) to grant statutory first lien on dedicated revenues. Further, as noted in the Senate Report for the 1988 Amendments to the Bankruptcy Code and Chapter 9 “Section 904 [of Chapter 9 limiting the jurisdiction and power of the Bankruptcy Court] and the tenth amendment prohibits the interpretation that pledges of revenues granted pursuant to state statutory or constitutional provisions to bondholders can be terminated by filing a Chapter 9 proceeding”. This follows the precedent from the 1975 financial distress of New York City and the State of New York’s highest court ruling the state imposed moratorium was unconstitutional given the constitutional mandate to pay available revenues to the general obligation bondholders. See Flushing Nat. Bank et. al. v. Mun. Assistance Corp. of New York, 40 N.Y.S.2nd 731, 737-738 (N.Y. 1976). Just as statutory liens and special revenues, there is a strong argument that state statutory and constitutional mandated payments (mandated set asides, priorities, appropriations and dedicated tax revenue payments) should not and cannot be impaired, limited, modified or delayed by a Chapter 9 proceeding given the rulings of the Supreme Court in the Ashton and Bekins cases and the prohibitions of Sections 903 and 904 of Chapter 9 of the Bankruptcy Code.
  4. Debt adjustment is a process, but a recovery plan is a solution: As noted above, while Detroit has proceeded with debt adjustment which provides some additional runway so it can take takeoff in a recovery, such plan is not the cure for the systemic problem. Rather, the plan provides additional breathing room so that the municipality, through its Mayor and its elected officials, may proceed with a recovery plan, reinvest in Detroit, stimulate the economy, create new jobs, clear and develop blighted areas and raise the level of services and infrastructure to that which is acceptable and attract new business and new citizens.
  5. Successful plans of debt adjustment have one common feature: virtually all significant issues have been settled and resolved with major creditors: While the Detroit Plan started with sound and fury between the emergency manager and creditors and what they would receive, in the end, similar to what occurred in Vallejo, Jefferson County and even in Stockton (with one exception), major creditors ultimately reached agreement and supported the Plan of Debt Adjustment that allowed the municipality to move forward, confirm the Plan and begin its journey to recovery.
  6. One size does not fit all: There are many ways to draft a plan of debt adjustment and sometimes the more creative, the better. As noted above, traditionally major cities of size with significant debt did not file Chapter 9. They refinanced their debt with the backing of the state which reduced their future borrowing costs and allowed them to recover by having the liquidity and the reduced costs necessary to deal with their financial difficulties. Detroit chose a different path.
  7. A recovery plan must provide for essential services and infrastructure: “Best interest of creditors” and “feasibility” can only mean an appropriate reinvestment in the municipality through a recovery plan where there is funding of essential services and infrastructure at an acceptable level to stimulate the municipality’s economy to attract new employers and taxpayers thereby increasing tax revenues and addressing the systemic problem. While no plan of debt adjustment is perfect or assured, there should be, as the Bankruptcy Court in Detroit throughout the case pointed out, a plan to show the survivability and future success of the City.
  8. Confirmation of a plan of debt adjustment is only the beginning of the journey to financial recovery, not the end: It is important to recognize, as noted above, that Chapter 9 is a process, not a solution. The recovery plan, which will take dedication and effort by the elected officials of the City along with residents, public workers and other creditors is the only way to achieve success. It is measured not by months, but by years, and by the constant vigilance to ensure that the systemic problem is addressed effectively in a permanent fix.

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do.

eBlog, 03/06/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the trials and tribulations of really emerging from the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in American history; then we turn to an alternative to municipal bankruptcy: dissolution.

The Hard Road of Exiting Municipal Bankruptcy: A Time of Fragility. Christopher Ilitch, the Chief Executive Officer of Ilitch Holdings Inc., companies in Detroit which represent leading brands in the food, sports, and entertainment industries (including Little Caesars, the Detroit Red Wings, the Detroit Tigers, Olympia Entertainment, Uptown Entertainment, Blue Line Foodservice Distribution, Champion Foods, Little Caesars Pizza Kit Fundraising Program, and Olympia Development), notes that “We are at a critical time in Detroit’s history,” speaking at the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Detroit Policy Conference: “There’s been no community that’s been through what Detroit has been through. Through the depths, there’s been a lot of choices.” Indeed, as the very fine editor of the Detroit News, Daniel Howeswrote: “There still is, and how they’re made could meaningfully impact Detroit’s arc of reinvention: despite a booming development scene spearheaded now by the Ilitch family’s $1.2 billion District Detroit, Quicken Loans Inc. Chairman Dan Gilbert’s empire-building, more effective policing and a burgeoning downtown scene, four words loom: “We’re not there yet.” Mr. Howes notes that the cost of new construction projects still cannot be fully recouped through commercial and residential rents, adding: “The business climate, including taxes and regulation, still is not as attractive as it could be. And longstanding residents in the city’s neighborhoods worry that the reinvention of downtown and Midtown risks leaving them behind.” Or, as Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones puts it: “We have been talking about downtown and Midtown so much, and we know downtown and Midtown are important…If we are going to subsidize development, we would like to see something in it for us as well.” That is, exiting chapter 9 bankruptcy is not a panacea: one’s city still confronts a steep hill to execute its plan of debt adjustment—and a hill the scaling of which comes at higher borrowing costs than other cities of the same size. That is to say, long-term recovery has to involve the entire community—not just the municipal government. Or, as Mr. Howes notes: “Business leaders stepped in to acquire new police cruisers and EMT trucks, even as some of them finance ‘secondary patrols’ of downtown districts. The moves by General Motors Co. and Gilbert’s Rock Ventures LLC, to name two, to employ off-duty Detroit police officers are supported by Detroit Police Chief James Craig…The partnership has been bipartisan and regional. It’s been public and private, city and suburb. It’s required Republicans to act less Republican and Democrats to act less Democratic. That’s not because either side is suddenly non-partisan, but because the long history of confrontation and suspicion chronically under-delivers.” But he adds the critical point: “[A]s the city moves into an election year, as the memories of recessionary hardship dim, as the construction and investment boom continues. None of it is guaranteed, including collaboration forged by leaders under difficult circumstances…If there’s any town in America that can make its virtuous circle become a vicious cycle, Detroit is it. Remembering what’s worked, what hasn’t, and how inclusion can improve the chances for success remains critical…It’s a tricky balance that depends most on leadership and transparency so long as the macro-economic environment remains positive. If there are two themes connecting the reinvention of Detroit with its present, they are that a) experts expect the building and redevelopment boom to continue and b) neighborhood concerns are real and should not be dismissed.” In Detroit, it turned out going into chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy—a slide enabled by criminal behavior of its Mayor, and the profound failure to make it a city on a hill—a city which would draw families and businesses—was easy. That means getting out—and staying out—is the opposite in this fragile time of recovery, or, as Moddie Turay, executive vice president of real estate and financial services at the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., notes: “There’s a ton that’s happening here. We’re just not there yet…We have another five or so years to go. We are at a fragile time — a great time in the city, but still a fragile time.”

Disappearville? Breaking Up Is Hard to Do. Mayor Margaret J. Nelms and her Council Members in Centerville, North Carolina have voted to dissolve the town’s charter and become unincorporated in the wake of voters’ rejection, in January, of an effort to raise property taxes. The municipality (town), founded in 1882, in the rural northeastern corner of Franklin County had a population of 89 as of the 2010 census, a ten percent decline from the previous census: this is a municipality without a post office or a zip code—or, now, a future. It was incorporated during the same time period as the dissolution of the nearby town of Wood in 1961, roughly 80 years after first settlement. Unlike elected officials of other Franklin County municipalities (as well as the county itself) which have four-year terms, in Centerville, the Mayor and its three-member Town Council are elected every two years. The city’s downtown consists of two small old-fashioned country stores—Arnold’s and The Country Store, with one also the local gas station. The City has its own volunteer fire department: there is no police department, so Centerville—like the surrounding unincorporated area—is patrolled by the Franklin County sheriff.

Sen. Chad Barefoot (R), whose district includes Centerville, the sponsor of the state legislation [Senate Bill DRS45094-LM-35 (02/16)] to dissolve the municipality, noted: “There are a lot of towns like Centerville in North Carolina…What they’re doing is pretty courageous. They’re acting like adults. It’s something very hard to do, but it’s very responsible.” His proposed bill, the Repeal Centerville Charter, will allow the dissolution of the town, except that the governing board of the Town of Centerville would be continued in office for days thereafter for the sole purpose of liquidating the assets and liabilities of the Town and filing any financial reports which may be required by law, with any remaining net assets to be paid over to the Centerville Fire Department, which would be directed to use those funds for some public purpose. (In Centerville, the main municipal services provided to residents are: streetlights in the town center; Centerville also pays for an annual audit and holds municipal elections, although only a dozen citizens voted in the most recent municipal election, in 2015.) Centerville will continue to exist as a community, but any local-government services will be provided by the county: any remaining municipal funds left over after the town is unincorporated will be donated to the local volunteer fire department, according to the legislation. Dissolution is a painful choice: Frank Albano, the owner of an antique store in Centerville, rued the city did not consider other fiscal options, such as charging businesses like his an $100 annual operating fee, or asked $5 per float in the New Year’s Day parade. He notes: “The more local the government is, the better.”

The decision to dissolve is, however, not new: it was nearly a century ago that Farrington Carpenter, a Harvard-educated rancher in Colorado, noted that—at the time—there were 20 counties in the Mile High state with populations under 5,000. Municipalities—and their voters—rarely agree to give up their identities, leading him to query: “How can such small counties afford the cost of a complete county government?”  On the other end of the country, in Pennsylvania, home to more municipalities than any state in the union, running the gamut from metropolitan cities to first, second, and third class townships, it has long been a vexing governance conundrum how such a governing model is sustainable. Indeed, James Brooks, my former colleague from when I workd at the National League of Cities, where he serves as Director of City Solutions, reports that according to NLC’s 2015 report examining the economic vitality of cities, the smallest cities have generally been slower to recover—or, as one commentator describes it: “They can’t solve their problems themselves…Wealth has left these little cities to such a degree that they’re basically bankrupt.”

Are Municipal Bankruptcies at the End of the Longest Stretch in U.S. History?

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eBlog, 1/29/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider an extraordinary ending to mayhap the most significant string of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcies in American history, with U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury’ milestone decision that she will issue a written confirmation order to confirm San Bernardino’s plan of debt adjustment. When San Bernardino emerges from the longest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, it will mean that for the first time since the Great Recession, no municipality is in bankruptcy—albeit, in the case of East Cleveland, Ohio, the absence appears to be more a matter of incompetency than governance.   

The End of the Longest Road. Nearly four and a half years after filing for what has become the longest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, the California municipality of San Bernardino is ready to celebrate its likely last appearance before U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury, after Judge Jury on Friday agreed to issue a written confirmation order consistent with the fifty page proposal the city’s attorneys had submitted, noting: “The last words I will say is congratulations to the city…I look forward to the order and I look forward to the city having a prosperous future.” Expectations are that San Bernardino will remain in its current bankruptcy status for about two more months, as Judge Jury deals with a smattering of creditors who have said they intend to appeal her decision. One such creditor, as we have previously noted, is a citizen of the city who alleged he had been beaten by San Bernardino police officers six years ago—a beating in which he testified he had incurred brain damage; ergo he is appealing that he should be entitled to more than the one percent of the amount a jury had awarded—and should also be allowed to be to sue the officers individually, with his attorney having testified before the court that, notwithstanding San Bernardino’s municipal bankruptcy, an appellate court, in the City of Vallejo’s chapter 9 bankruptcy, had ruled that individual police officers should be held liable for excessive force. However, Judge Jury had ruled that, unlike Vallejo, San Bernardino’s plan of debt adjustment did include an injunction against claims against city employees, holding that San Bernardino “has demonstrated, with unrefuted evidence, that the city does not have the financial resources to pay the holders of litigation claims except pursuant to the terms of the plan…There certainly are no legal bases or equitable grounds for treating the four objectors any differently than all of the other holders of litigation claims.” Judge Jury did not advise the city when she would sign the confirmation order—a date which will start the two-week clock for any appeals—but not interfere with the projected official exit from the nation’s longest ever municipal bankruptcy projected for April.

In the wake of the momentous day, Mayor Carey Davis said: “The bankruptcy has been a major focus, and now we can work more on our other goals.” That is, the city’s plan of debt adjustment could best be likened to a municipal fiscal blueprint demonstrating both for the federal bankruptcy court, but also for the city’s citizens as well as credit rating agencies: a detailed 20-year recipe and guidance with regard to the city’s blueprint for reinvesting in police and infrastructure in a future of constrained fiscal options—a blueprint that emerged from a strategic plan developed via a series of meetings two years ago, where, Mayor Davis noted, leaders “had to make one of the first goals fiscal stability, although we have begun to turn that corner already, with three years of balanced budgets, two years of surpluses.”

Nevertheless, as the records demonstrate, filing for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy is a politically and fiscally expensive undertaking: San Bernardino will end up expending at least $25 million for attorneys and consultants—albeit that will likely turn out to be a pretty smart investment: the city estimates the final, court-approved plan of debt adjustment will provide for some $350 million in savings—savings reflected in substantial concessions by retirees, unions, and payment obligations to the city’s municipal bondholders—or, as San Bernardino City Attorney Gary Saenz said outside the courtroom: “I’m very proud that all of our creditors recognize that, while the deals are tough, they’re best for all involved…Each of those decisions, we made with the people of San Bernardino in mind. They are the most important reason we did anything. This was all done so they can get the service levels they deserve.”

Governance Insolvency?

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eBlog, 1/0617

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the political and legal turmoil in the insolvent municipality of East Cleveland, before turning to the continued uncertainty with regard to Atlantic City’s future. Then we try to get schooled in the new governance set to commence for Detroit’s public schools, before returning to what appears to be a state of emergency declared this week by the new Governor of Puerto Rico.

Bankrupt Municipal Governance? The insolvent city of East Cleveland is confronted not just with fiscal insolvency, but, increasingly, governance chaos in the wake of the recall of its former Mayor and the city’s Law Director, Willa Hemmons, yesterday issuing a legal opinion that appointments made to the City Council last week were illegal. That opinion was countered late yesterday by East Cleveland Councilwoman Barbara Thomas, who issued a statement contradicting Ms. Hemmons’ opinion that appointments to council made in a December 29th meeting were illegal, writing that not only was there an absence of a quorum, but also the actions were in violation of the city’s charter. The Councilwoman, who represents Ward 2, and Nathaniel Martin, at-large council member, had selected Devin Branch and Kelvin Earby to fill the Ward 3 and at-large seats left open when voters recalled former Council President Thomas Wheeler and Mayor Gary Norton. Ward 4 councilwoman Joie Graham had left the meeting last week during executive session, because she did not agree with the interview process for new members. In response, Councilwoman Thomas, in a statement, claimed she had met with an unnamed attorney and believes that Law Director Hemmons has confused “charter positions which apply to organizational meetings of City Council following a regular election with the procedures Council is required to follow to fill a vacancy on Council.” In addition, the Councilwoman charged the document was improperly served. Thus, she stated: “I am disappointed, because I had hoped that having a new mayor would give us an opportunity for a fresh start and that the administration and Council would work together for the benefit of the citizens of East Cleveland.”

Confused Governance. Meanwhile, in Atlantic City—which has a Mayor and Council and a state appointed Emergency Manager, but which is under a state takeover, Mayor Don Guardian yesterday offered his now unofficial State of the City speech. Unsurprisingly, he listed the numerous challenges facing his city, including a state takeover and hundreds of millions of dollars in debt. Mayor Guardian also requested billionaire investor Carl Icahn to sell the abandoned Trump Taj Mahal Casino, stating the city cannot afford to allow such a critical component of its historic boardwalk to continue vacant indefinitely, deeming such inactions the “the worst of the worst” in terms of outcomes for the property—and the city’s tax rolls. The Tropicana, which was boarded up last October, not only hammered the city’s anticipated property tax revenues, but meant 3,000 people lost their jobs, and, of course, the city lost a key attraction for visitors. Mr. Icahn had shuttered it last fall in the wake of a strike by the casino’s workers’ union. Mr. Icahn, however, responded by saying he would be happy to sell the casino to the insolvent city, but only if the city made Mr. Icahn whole by paying him the $300 million he claims he had lost on his real estate gamble, adding Mayor Guardian was wrong to attack an investor who had previously rescued the city’s Tropicana casino and attempted to do the same with the Tropicana. Prior to last summer’s strike to restore health insurance and pension benefits—which had been terminated in federal bankruptcy court—and the subsequent closure, Mr. Icahn had promised to invest some $100 million into the casino—a promise never kept.

Learning to Govern in the Big D. With the retirement of former U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, who had so generously accepted the Governor’s challenge to serve as the Detroit Public School Emergency Manager, Detroit’s newly elected school board is planning a major celebration this month as it will assume control of city schools which have been under gubernatorial-appointed emergency managers for years. Moreover, with the state having creating a dual system of public and charter schools, the governing challenge for these new school board members promises to be daunting. Whom will the newly elected board select to be superintendent? Will a majority vote to file suit to prevent further school closures? How will the new board address the challenge of balancing state-created charter schools versus public schools? How can the new Board create balance so that there can be a smooth transition with long-struggling schools which will rejoin the district this summer?  The seven board members who were elected by Detroit voters in November have been doing some prep learning themselves: they have devoted the last two months in an intensive orientation on Detroit schools, trying to comprehend a complicated district which now serves about 45,000 children in 97 schools—children who will be future civic leaders, but, mayhap more importantly, a school system whose reputation will be critical in determining whether young families with children will opt to move into Detroit—or leave the city.

Extraordinary Governmental Authority & Promising Insurance? In Puerto Rico, Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares this week signed a decree which provides him extraordinary authority, similar to those granted a governor in the wake of a natural disaster. The new executive order declares a state of emergency, with the emergency creating a “risk of accelerating capital flight from the territory, putting at risk natural resources, and risking public health and safety.” The new Governor’s actions came as the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico and some of its instrumentalities failed to make municipal bond interest payments this week, Puerto Rico’s largest municipal bond insurer, Assured Guaranty Ltd. subsidiaries, made $43 million of interest payments to holders of insured general obligation and other municipal bonds. The payments came as Puerto Rico’s infrastructure financing authority PRIFA was unable to transfer funds to its bond trustee to pay debt due New Year’s Day on certain tax-exempt bonds, according to a regulatory filing on Tuesday, further confirmation of a default by the U.S. territory. The trustee for PRIFA’s series 2005B and 2006 bonds claimed it had not received sufficient funds from PRIFA for the payment of debt, although it held a small residual amount from prior payments that it allocated to pay interest. In addition, the trustee for its series 2005 C bonds reported it did not receive funds from PRIFA to pay debt service. The territory had said last week that PRIFA would have insufficient funds to make the full payment on its special tax revenue bonds, Series 2005A-C and Series 2006; ergo, $36 million was expected not to be paid. As of midweek, the island’s largest bond insurer, Assured Guaranty Municipal Corp. and Assured Guaranty Corp. had received and processed $43 million of claim notices for missed January 1 payments, out of $44 million of total expected claims, with the expected claims including $39 million of Puerto Rico general obligation payments and $5 million for Puerto Rico Public Buildings Authority payments. In addition, on Tuesday, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority made the full interest payment due on its bonds insured by Assured Guaranty; thus, no insurance claims were filed. In a statement, Assured President and CEO Dominic Frederico said: “While the outgoing Puerto Rico administration has once again chosen to violate Puerto Rico’s constitution by ignoring the senior payment priority securing the Commonwealth’s general obligation bonds, we look forward to working with the new administration, PROMESA Oversight Board and other creditors to achieve consensual restructuring agreements that respect the constitutional, statutory, contractual and property rights of creditors while also supporting the island’s economic recovery…We were pleased that PREPA made its bond interest payment, and we continue to join PREPA and the other participating creditors in seeking implementation of the consensual restructuring contemplated by the PREPA restructuring support agreement.” In its release, the company wrote that any obligor where amounts were due but no claims are expected, the payments were made by the obligor from its available funds or reserves, adding that municipal bond investors owning Puerto Rico-related bonds insured by Assured Guaranty will continue to receive uninterrupted full and timely payment of scheduled principal and interest in accordance with the terms of the insurance policies.

Leaving Municipal Bankruptcy: Such Sweet Sorrow

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eBlog, 1/03/17

Good Morning! Happy New Year! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the next—and final—steps for the City of San Bernardino to exit the nation’s longest in U.S. history municipal bankruptcy, then we consider the underlying fiscal strengths that could be critical to Atlantic City’s emergence from state control and back to solvency. Finally, we try to assess whether one of President Obama’s final laws—expanding Petersburg’s national park—might help the fiscally ailing municipality, before finally comparing and contrasting the fiscal dilemmas of two U.S. territories: Puerto Rico and Guam.

Leaving Chapter 9. In just over three weeks, San Bernardino could receive its exit clearance from U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury from the longest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. That will reduce court-related costs and burdens to the city; the real issue will be with regard to how it implements its plan of debt adjustment, with Mayor Carey Davis noting: “The city is poised and setting the stage for quite a bit of continued growth and improvements for 2017.” But, in the wake of the long bankruptcy, the new city which emerges will be different: it will have a new charter as soon as California Secretary of State Alex Padilla confirms the city’s election results, clearing the path for the city to begin implementing a new charter much more similar to those of other, successful cities—changes such as moving to a system where the City Council votes with the Mayor to set policy which is then implemented by the city manager. That change will take effect immediately; other changes will need to be implemented by the City Council approving changes to the municipal code. For her part, Judge Jury noted the city’s plan of debt resolution did not hinge on the charter approval; nevertheless, she praised the outcome: “(City officials) successfully amended their charter, which will give them modern-day, real-life flexibility in making decisions that need to be made…There was too much political power and not enough management under their charter, to be frank, compared to most cities in California.”

There were other critical steps to this longest-ever plan to exit municipal bankruptcy, including: catching up on audits for the first time since 2010, the city caught up on its audits, perhaps allowing it to operate in 2017 under less suspicion and with eligibility for more state and federal grants; significant outsourcing, especially with the transfer of the 137-year old Fire Department to county control; redevelopment at the Carousel Mall, and attempts to alleviate homelessness; albeit Mayor Carey Davis notes: “As you can see, there’s a full plate ahead of us in 2017…I’m sure there will be some unexpected needs that will be in place with a stronger city hall, a city hall that is doing a much better job with our financial reporting, but I think that with the changes of 2016 we’ll have a strong front to show investors.”

Spinning the Wheel of Misfortune. A key challenge for Atlantic City—and the State of New Jersey, which has assumed control over the city, relates to casinos: how to emerge from over reliance on gambling, which produces some 67 percent of the city’s revenues. Despite losing half its value in Atlantic City over the past decade, the gaming industry appears to remain a critical component of Atlantic City’s future. Notwithstanding the multiple bankruptcies of former casino owner and now President-elect Donald Trump in the fabled city, the industry still represents a more than $3.7 billion economy: in 2015, the casino industry totaled revenues of $3.7 billion, $2.4 billion of which was from gambling, according to New Jersey state figures. Through the first nine months of last year, there was $2.8 billion in total revenue. Ironically, the impact of Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort’s closing in October remains to be determined. Still, as seemingly mouth-watering as such revenues would appear to be, they contrast with the more than double $5.2 billion in casino revenues from a decade ago—since then competition from outside the market has contributed to the closing of five casinos since 2014. So it seems to be a positive sign that over the past couple of years, Atlantic City properties increased their non-gaming attractions, with the increase in non-gaming attractions demonstrating a steady growth in non-gaming revenue. Indeed, between 2012 and last year, non-gaming revenue nearly quadrupled from $252 million to more than $998 million, according to state records.

A Fiscal Battlefield. President Obama has signed into law new federal legislation for a major expansion of Petersburg National Battlefield: the battlefield commemorates the Civil War’s longest battlefield conflict, marked by bursts of bloody trench warfare spanning some 10 months from 1864 to 1865. The new law, however, does not pay for the addition of more than 7,000 acres to the existing 2,700 acres of rolling hills, earthworks, and siege lines already under protection at Petersburg. Supporters of the new law say the larger boundary would not only protect historic sites from commercial development, but also give park visitors a more comprehensive understanding of the Petersburg campaign, which left tens of thousands of men dead. According to National Park Service figures, the park draws approximately 200,000 visitors a year, far fewer than such higher-profile sites as Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, with more than 1 million tourists annually. Nevertheless, the park has proved key to the area economy, bringing in some $10 million a year. Officials hope expanding the battlefield’s protected footprint would bring in even more visitors. However, the newly enacted legislation does not include any new funding.

The land changes come as the City of Petersburg, trying to unwind nearly $19 million in unpaid obligations, having reduced its employees’ pay and experienced the repossession of its firefighting equipment, is trying to determine how the federal changes might affect its fiscal distress. Today, according to National Park Service figures, the park draws about 200,000 visitors a year. Notwithstanding, the Petersburg park plays a key role in the regional economy, bringing in some $10 million a year. Thus, officials hope expanding the battlefield’s protected footprint would bring in even more visitors—visitors who might help enhance the city’s tax base. That might happen, as the Park Service’s first priority is expected to focus on the acquisition of still more private property and most vulnerable to commercial development. While that would risk creating a fiscal issue due to foregone property tax revenues, it might have the counter impact of raising the assessed values of property within the city limits—and create a means to help the city grapple with nearly $19 million in unpaid obligations.

Are Fiscal Crises Contagious? A question has arisen whether the promise of the newly enacted PROMESA law to provide a quasi-municipal bankruptcy mechanism for the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico to address its fiscal meltdown might be contagious for the territory’s U.S. counterpart Guam, where Fitch Ratings has cut Guam’s business-tax revenue bonds to junk, noting that PROMESA “fundamentally” alters the premise used to rate debt issued by U.S. territorial governments. Even though Guam is nearly 10,000 miles away from Puerto Rico, analysts claim the new Congressional law has set a precedent which could let other U.S. territories escape from obligations to their municipal bondholders. In contrast, S&P Global Ratings analyst Paul Dyson maintains an A rating for Guam—a rating which he notes reflects the territory’s ability to pay investors, adding that the new federal PROMESA law “currently applies only to Puerto Rico.” Indeed, Mr. Dyson points out that: “We have no indication that Guam is going to do something similar to PROMESA.” S&P reports that Guam’s economic outlook is stable: the territory is host to U.S. Air Force and Navy bases, and its economy likely to benefit from U.S. plans to expand its military operations on the island, which is the closest U.S. territory to potential hot spots in Asia. In contrast, however, Guam has not adopted a balanced budget; it has rising pension liabilities, and growing debt—debt of some $3.2 billion in obligations for a population of about 165,700, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

The Many & Daunting Challenges of Municipal Bankruptcy

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eBlog, 12/30/16

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the retirement of an exceptional public leader, retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, who presided over Detroit’s largest in U.S, history chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy and then went on to accept the unforgiving position of emergency manager for the Detroit Public Schools—a key role in the ongoing challenges to recovery from the nation’s largest ever municipal bankruptcy. Then we head into the gale of the Northeaster to New Jersey’s Atlantic City—as the state slowly begins to unroll the mechanics of its takeover of the fiscally insolvent municipality, before finally heading to the warmer West Coast, where San Bernardino leaders are preparing for the restoration of municipal authority and coming back from the nation’s longest-ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy.

Retirement after Extraordinary Work.  Electronic rhythm guitar player and retired U.S. bankruptcy judge Steven Rhodes, to whom Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder presented the challenge of becoming emergency manager, an offer he accepted, came out of retirement, and became the school district’s fifth emergency manager—with the official title “transition manager”—on March 1 for a salary of $18,750 a month. Now, nearly 10 months later, a Detroit district plagued by about $515 million in operating debt has been replaced with a new, debt-free Detroit district, courtesy of a $617 million bailout for which Judge Rhodes had lobbied the Republican-led Legislature. But the legacy of Judge Rhodes, who is set to depart tomorrow, remains to be fully appreciated. Judge Rhodes, who presided over Detroit’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy before leaving to accept the Governor’s appointment to serve as the emergency manager for the Detroit Public Schools system—a position in which he served for about 10 months to be in charge of the state’s largest school district during one of its most tumultuous periods—and during which, last June, the state created, in effect, a dual system of charter and public schools. At the inception of this harrowing task, he inherited a school system collapsing from a string of teacher sick-outs that closed dozens of schools, sparked a lawsuit, and from a system of unsafe public buildings. As we have previously posted, the legislature and Governor had enacted a $617-million financial rescue package which created the new district to replace the old Detroit Public Schools—even as it created a separate system of charter schools—and put Judge Rhodes in charge of overseeing the complex task of overseeing the new, 45,000 student district. He leaves, unsurprisingly, with a system in fiscally and physically significantly improved condition—helping, in his final chapter of public service, to help bring in additional fiscal resources via the sale of more than a dozen small, unused parcels of land for $3 million to Olympia Development, the developer of the new Little Caesars Arena in Detroit, and future home to the Red Wings and Pistons. In addition, the school district agreed to sell its license for the radio station at the Detroit School of Arts to Detroit Public Television in an agreement valued at $9 million, pending regulatory approval. (Detroit Public TV already pays the district for being able to operate the station, WRCJ-FM (90.9). Under the agreement, the station will stay in the district. (Students will have enhanced opportunities to learn about broadcasting as a result of the deal, according to DPS officials.) As part of the transition, Judge Rhodes has transferred authority to a seven-member elected public school board which will take office in January, making it the first school board with any significant decision-making power since 2009, when a series of state-appointed emergency managers began controlling the district.

In an interview with the Detroit Free Press, Judge Rhodes said that at the “very highest level, the most challenging part of the job for me was the politics of it. Because, as a judge, I was never involved in politics. We had a fixed process. We engaged that process, the process concluded with a result, and we moved on. But here, there are political considerations to everything, and I was not prepared for that.” In response to a follow-up question with regard to the greatest challenges of his emergency position, Judge Rhodes responded: “What surprised and disappointed me the most was the level of antagonism between Detroit on one side and the rest of the state and Lansing on the other side. Each side has predisposed views of the other side that are not based on fact, and that are not only unproductive, but counterproductive, and are not in the best interest of the children in the city. Both sides need to find very specific ways and methods to break through that, and they need to do it very soon.”

Now, he notes, the newly elected school board will have to take “very specific actions to reach out to decision- and policy-makers in Lansing to work with them on achieving Detroit’s goals, to educate them on where DPSCD is, the progress it has made, and how it’s going to make progress in the future. And it has to do that outreach in a spirit of collaboration, cooperation, and reaching out for help, and with the assumption that people in Lansing want to help, not with the assumption that they are anti-Detroit.” He added that the school board will also have to do something few other school boards in the U.S. must: it will have to carve out a constructive relationship with the Detroit Financial Review Commission (FRC): “I hope and expect that the board’s relationship will simply continue the relationship that I and the staff here have already established, which is a cooperative, collaborative working relationship that recognizes our autonomy, (and) at the same time recognizes the value that the FRC brings to enhancing the credibility of DPSCD…We have an example, a concrete example, of how the work of the FRC benefited DPSCD financially. It was the adviser that the FRC retained that helped us to identify a health insurance provider that was more comprehensive and less money.

Arithmetic. As to the new system’s fiscal viability, Judge Rhodes noted: “It’s better than where I hoped it would be. My goal was to have a balanced budget for this year, meaning revenues equaling expenditures. It turned out, through the hard work of the staff, and selling certain assets that we were not using and would never use, we actually will have a surplus this year, which we will use to create a much-needed fund balance…It’s not as much of a fund balance as we need, but it’s a really good start, and not one that I would have predicted or foreseen when we were putting our budget together last spring. (The school district has a $48.2-million projected fund balance, or reserve fund. It’s roughly $650-million, the FY2017 budget is balanced.) With regard to the system’s fiscal stability going forward, Judge Rhodes noted: “I’m confident that we are in a position to maintain a balanced budget going forward. I think there are also opportunities to increase the fund balance, which is something we should be doing. There are aspects of school finance, however, that do concern me. In order to achieve academic success, which is our goal, as it is every school district’s, funding provided by the Legislature has to recognize two fundamental distinctions between Detroit and other school districts. No. 1 is that 60 percent of our students live in poverty, which means it’s more challenging to educate them, and therefore more expensive to educate them. And you can attribute those expenses to enhanced reading services, enhanced wraparound services, and enhanced truancy and attendance services.

He noted a second, distinguishing factor and challenge: “A second factor (is) our special needs and special education children. We have a higher percentage than other districts. They are of course more expensive to educate, and in some cases, significantly more expensive to educate. And I don’t want to give the impression that we don’t want those students. We do, we absolutely do. They are as entitled to an education as any other child. But the reality is they are more expensive to educate. While some of that difference is made up by federal grants, it’s not all of it. And so, that puts an extra strain on the budget….School funding is based now, generally speaking, on the concept that equality is equity. We give the same amount for every child in the state. The problem is equality is not equity, or I should say is not always equity. In this case, it’s not.”

The State of the City. As the State of New Jersey takeover of Atlantic City continues to unroll, it appears one of the final actions of 2016 will be a state imposed mandate to the city for an across-the-board pay cut, a 15-step salary guide with pay capped at $90,000, increased health-care contributions from employees, and the imposition of 12-hour work shifts for police officers.  The orders by Mr. Chiesa, the quasi-ruler of the city, appear to be the beginning of what will be a more comprehensive effort on how part to address the city’s $500 million of debt–with Mr. Chiesa indicating he now intends to meet with all of the groups involved. In an email to members obtained by the Press of Atlantic City, union President Matt Rogers recapped a meeting the union delegation had the day before yesterday with representatives from the state who are in command of Atlantic City as part of the state takeover. Among the state’s emerging demands are an across-the-board pay cut, a 15-step salary guide with pay capped at $90,000, increased health-care contributions from union members, and tasking officers to work 12-hour shifts. It seems that some of the state’s demands were similar to a new contract the city and union had already agreed upon; however, the state had refused to approve. It appears the state will insist upon the layoff of an additional to 250 members. The actions mark some of the first under the reign of former New Jersey Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa as he has insisted upon meeting with all of the groups involved in the city’s budget and vital operations prior to focusing on addressing the city’s $500 million of debt.

Prepping to Exit Chapter 9. As San Bernardino prepares to exit municipal bankruptcy—the nation’s longest ever—next month, City Manager Mark Scott reports he will be meeting with Mayor Carey Davis and the City Council, as well as his key managers to put together an action-focused work plan, noting: U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury will put out a “written ruling on January 27, and then there will be several months of paperwork before we officially exit bankruptcy.” Ergo, his goal is to be ready by that date in the wake of approval of its plan of debt adjustment under which the beleaguered city eliminated some $350 million in one-time and ongoing expenditures—a goal immeasurably helped by city voter approval last November of a new charter—albeit a charter which still awaits approval by California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, paving the way for the city to transition from a strong mayor council-manager form of governance—and one without an elected city attorney—which the manager described as one which led to multiple agendas and infighting which had contributed to pushing “the city into bankruptcy. No one was working together.” Under the newly adopted charter, the mayor will have a tiebreaker vote except when it comes to appointing or removing the city attorney, city manager, or city clerk positions, at which point, the mayor would have one vote. Indeed, as part of his agreement to work for the city, Mr. Scott informed the city’s elected officials he was unwilling to stay at San Bernardino long-term absent adoption of a new charter, noting: “I was not interested in working in such a confusing form of government for long…I wanted to help, but it was contingent on the charter being able to pass. The pre-existing form of governance was unrecognizable to anyone who studied government.”

If it can be deemed easy to slide into municipal bankruptcy, getting out and long-term recovery is a challenge—one which will require innovative policies to attract new economic growth via zoning and land use policies that attract investment in key locations—a challenge made more difficult in the city’s case not only because of its bankruptcy, but also because of last year’s terrorism incident—one which could hardly be expected to serve as an incentive for new families or businesses. Another critical hurdle is the city’s 34% poverty rate–the highest of any large city in the state, along with the worst homicide rate per capita in the state. Thus, unsurprisingly, Mr. Scott notes that San Bernardino will be fiscally solvent before it is service level solvent: he has predicted the city’s police service levels will be where they should be in a few years; however, it will probably take a decade for parks and recreation to reach pre-bankruptcy levels; moreover, the city is in no position to issue new capital debt, because it lacks the requisite fiscal resources to pay bondholders.