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.

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.”

 

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.”

Challenges in Rebounding from Insolvency or Municipal Bankruptcy

eBlog, 02/27/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider new development plans for the insolvent, state-taken over Atlantic City, before turning to the post-chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy electoral challenges in Detroit—where the son of a former Mayor is challenging the current Mayor—and where the post-bankrupt city is seeking to confront its exceptional public pension obligations in a city with an upside down population imbalance of retirees to taxpayers.

Spinning the Fiscal Turnstile in Atlantic City? Since New Jersey’s Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA) developed its Tourism District master plan for Atlantic City five years ago, five casino have closed—casinos with assessed values of $11 billion. Those closures appeared to be the key fiscal destabilizers which plunged the city into near municipal bankruptcy and a state takeover. Now the Authority, which handles redevelopment projects and zoning in the Tourism District (The rest of Atlantic City is under the city’s zoning jurisdiction—albeit a city today taken over by the state, and where the Development Authority was given authority by the state over the Tourism District in 2011) has approved spending $2 million for refurbishing. Robert Mulcahy, the Chairman of the authority’s board of directors, states: “The master plan is done to streamline zoning, help eliminate red tape, encourage proper development in the appropriate district, and stimulate investment in commercial, entertainment, housing, and mixed-use properties…This provides a vision to what we want to do.” The proposed land-use regulations’ twenty-five objectives include providing a zoning scheme to stimulate development and maintain public confidence in the casino gaming industry as a unique tool of the city’s urban redevelopment. The new zones would allow for mixed use near the waterfront, and retail development around the Atlantic City Expressway and its waterfront under the state agency blueprint intended to make it easier for companies to turn old industrial buildings into commercial and waterfront areas, to build amusement rides off the Boardwalk, maybe even incentivize craft brewers and distillers to open businesses.  

CRDA Director Lance Landgraf noted: “The city last changed the zoning along the Boardwalk when casinos came in.” Similarly, Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian, who is a CRDA board member, noted: “If we talked 10 years ago about the Southeast Inlet, I think most people saw it as a Miami Beach with a bunch of high-rises that would go from Revel to Brigantine Inlet…Times have changed. People are now looking for mixed-use type of things, which is certainly what is important.” According to the proposed plan, the new tourism district would be intended to maximize recreational and entertainment opportunities, including the growing craft beer trend. Smaller breweries and distilleries have expressed interest in operating in the city, according to the draft plan, which notes it “seeks to reinvigorate the Atlantic City experience by enhancing the Boardwalk, beach and nearby streets through extensive entertainment and event programming; creating an improved street-level experience on major thoroughfares; offering new and dynamic retail offerings and increasing cleanliness and safety.”

Post Chapter 9 Leadership.  Coleman Young II, a state Senator in Michigan representing Detroit, sitting beneath a photograph of his late father and former Detroit Mayor Coleman Young, has officially launched his challenge against current Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, claiming the Motor City needs a leader who focuses on helping residents who are struggling with unemployment and other hardships, and criticizing Mayor Duggan for what he called a lack of attention to Detroit’s neighborhoods, noting: “We need change, and that is why I am running for mayor: I will do whatever it takes—blood, sweat, tears, and toil—and I will fight to the very end to make sure that justice is done for the City of Detroit…In announcing his challenge, Sen. Young recalled his father’s focus on jobs when he served as Detroit’s first black mayor: “I want to put people back to work just like my father, the honorable Coleman Alexander Young did…He is turning over in his grave right now!”

Interestingly, Sen. Young’s challenge came just days after last week’s formal State of the City address by Mayor Duggan—an address in which he focused on putting Detroiters to work and investing in neighborhoods—announcing a new city program, Detroit at Work, which is focused on training Detroit residents for available jobs—a speech which candidate Young, in his speech, deemed a “joke,” stating: “I think it’s kind of funny he waits for four years and now starts talking about the neighborhoods…As far as I’m concerned, he’s just somebody that’s in the way and needs to go. It’s time for change. It’s time for reform.” (Detroit’s primary will be in August; the election is Nov. 7th.)

Rebound? Whomever is elected next November in Detroit will confront lingering challenges from Detroit’s largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. That July 19th filing in 2013, which then Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr described  as “the Olympics of restructuring,” had been critical to ensuring continuity of essential services and critical to rebuilding an economy for the city—an economy besieged after decades of population decline (dropping from 1,849,568 in 1951 to 713,777 by 2010), leaving the city to confront an estimated 40,000 abandoned lots and structures and the loss of 67 percent of its business establishments and 80 percent of its manufacturing base. The city had spent $100 million more, on average, than its revenues since 2008. According to the census, 36 percent of its citizens were below the poverty level, and, the year prior to the city’s bankruptcy filing, Detroit reported the highest violent crime rate for any U.S. city with a population over 200,000. Thus, as the city’s first post-bankruptcy Mayor, Mayor Duggan has faced a city with vast abandoned properties.

Interestingly, Steve Tobocman, the Director of Global Detroit, an economic-development nonprofit which focuses on maximizing the potential of immigrants and the international community, said that enacting municipal policies which welcome foreign-born residents could be a critical strategy to reverse the population loss: “No American city has been able to rebound from population loss without getting serious about immigration growth…In 1980, 29 of the 50 largest cities lost population. Most of the cities that lost population have since reversed course due to an influx of immigrants. No American city has been able to rebound from population loss without getting serious about immigration growth.” Now that avenue could be closing with President Trump’s efforts to curtail immigration, especially from Mexico and the Middle East, leading Mr. Tobocman to note he had no reason to anticipate any help from Washington, D.C. in helping rebuild Detroit’s population, or energizing its economy, with immigrants. Rather, he warns, he is apprehensive that other policy promises, particularly the proposed border wall with Mexico, actively threaten Michigan’s economy: “Mexico is our second-largest trading partner after Canada…Metro Detroit is the largest metro area trading with Mexico. One hundred thousand jobs are supported by our trade with Mexico.”

Upside Down Fiscal Challenge. A key challenge to Detroit, because of the inverted fiscal pyramid creating by its population decline, is there are far fewer paying into to Detroit’s public pension system, against far more receiving post-retirement pensions, sort of an upside down fiscal dilemma—and one which, increasingly, confronts the city’s fiscal future. Now Mayor (and Candidate) Duggan has announced a plan he believes will help Detroit to city meet its 2024 balloon payment on its public pension obligation, or, as Detroit Chief Financial Officer John Hill puts it, a plan designed to be more than adequate to address the looming future payment of more than $100 million owed beginning in 2024: “What the mayor is proposing is that we take money now and put into a pension protection fund and then use that money in 2024 and beyond to help make some of those payments: So part of the money would come from the budget, and the other would come from the fund,” describing the provisions in Detroit’s plan of debt adjustment for down payments to the city’s pension obligation in Mayor Duggan’s $1 billion general fund budget for the 2017-18 fiscal year the Mayor presented to the Detroit City Council at the end of last week. Mr. Hill said that the payment plan would give the city budget longer to catch up to the $132 million it would have to pay going forward, describing it as “really a way for us to proactively address the future pension obligation payment and not wait to deal with it down the road.”

However, there appears to be a fiscal fly in the ointment: last year, in his 2016 State of the City speech, Mayor Duggan said that consultants who advised the city through its chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy had miscalculated the city’s pension deficit by $490 million—actuarial estimates at the time which projected a payment of $111 million in 2024—a figure subsequently increased by the actuary to $194.4 million—leading Mayor Duggan to assert that the payment had been “concealed” from him by former Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr during the city’s bankruptcy, with, according to the Mayor, Mr. Orr’s team using overly optimistic assumptions which made Detroit’s future pension payout obligations appear artificially low. The revised estimates have since forced the city to address the large future payment, beginning in FY2016, when the city set aside $20 million and another $10 million to start its pension trust fund, with the payment coming in addition to the $20 million contribution to the legacy plans the city is mandated to make under Detroit’s plan of debt adjustment. Now Mayor Duggan is proposing Detroit set aside an additional $50 million from a general fund surplus and another $10 million into the trust fund this year: the city projects it will have $90 million in the trust at the end of FY2017. In the following fiscal years, the city is proposing to add another $15 million to the fund, $20 million in FY2019, $45 million in FY2020, $50 million in FY2021, $55 million in FY2022, and $60 million for FY2023. Or, as Detroit Finance Director John Naglick describes it: “All total, we propose that the City would deposit $335 million into the trust fund through the end of FY23, with interest, the fund is projected to grow to $377 million.” Mr. Naglick adds that Detroit expects that the general fund would be required to contribute a total of $143.2 million beginning in FY2024: “We propose to make that payment by pulling $78.5 million out of the trust and appropriating $64.7 million from the general fund that year.” CFO Hill noted that by addressing the 2024 obligation payment with the plan, Detroit would remain on track to exit state oversight as projected, stating: “We believe that after we have executed three balanced budgets and met a number of other requirements that the Detroit Review Commission could vote to waive their oversight…We believe that one of the factors that they are going to want to see to support that waiver is that we have proactively dealt with the pension obligations in 2024.” There could, however, be a flaw in the ointment: Mayor Duggan warned last week that Detroit may decide to sue Mr. Orr’s law firm, Jones Day, if the city finds that Mr. Orr had an obligation to keep the city informed on the pension payments.

The Challenge of Post-Insolvency Governance

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eBlog, 2/21/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the role of citizens when a municipality emerges from municipal bankruptcy—and at how little effort seems to have been taken for such cities to share with each other. Then we take a gamble at the roulette wheels in Atlantic City, where the third branch of government, the judiciary, is weighing in even as candidates for next year’s Mayoral election from the City Council are announcing.  

The Challenge of Emerging from Chapter 9 Municipal Bankruptcy. San Bernardino Neighborhood Association Council President Amelia Lopez recently asked if the city’s emergence from municipal bankruptcy might mark the moment to change the city from the ground up, or, as Ms. Lopez put it: “Coming out of bankruptcy is an opportunity…The city is looking for direction. We’re here to have a say in that direction.” No U.S. city has ever been in bankruptcy for as long as San Bernardino, so the question she is raising might singularly impact the city’s future. Yet it comes at a time when citizen activism has altered: of San Bernardino’s 60 neighborhoods, 19 or 20 are active, compared to 30 a decade ago. But the Neighborhood Association Council plans to send representatives to a national convention of neighborhood associations in March and to try to work more closely with elected San Bernardino leaders. It would be interesting were the Council to try to contact comparable neighborhood organizations in Stockton, Jefferson County, and Detroit to both learn what efforts had worked—and which had failed.

Thinking about Tomorrow: A City’s Post Insolvency & State Takeover Future? Notwithstanding Atlantic City’s current status as a ward of the State of New Jersey, there appears to be strong interest in the city’s future elected leadership—albeit, at least to date, an absence of substantive proposals from aspiring candidates. Atlantic City Councilman Frank Gilliam yesterday officially jumped into the mayor’s race, joining previously announced candidate Edward Lea.  Mr. Gilliam, a Democrat, kicked off his campaign with his slate of council running mates—where he spoke about addressing high taxes, unemployment, foreclosures, and other issues, vowing brighter days would come under new leadership: “The Atlantic City that we see right now will not be the Atlantic City we will see in the future…There will be prosperity. There will be equality. There will be fairness from the bottom to the top.” Councilmember Gilliam has served on the City Council since 2010; now he joins a crowded primary: he will face Council President Marty Small and Fareed Abdullah in the June Democratic primary, with the winner set to take on Republican Mayor Don Guardian next November. Councilman Gilliam’s running mates are incumbent Councilmen Moisse “Mo” Delgado, George Tibbitt, and candidate Jeffree Fauntleroy II, who are all seeking at-large seats. Last Friday, candidate Abdullah, a substitute teacher and former City Council candidate, said would also be running for Mayor—meaning a three-way Democratic primary, with the winner to challenge incumbent Republican Mayor Don Guardian.

Councilman Gilliam last year voted against a number of proposals to address the city’s finances, including measures to seek bids for services, dissolve the city’s water authority and approve the administration’s fiscal recovery plan to avoid a state takeover. In some cases, he cited a lack of information about the proposals, or in the case of the fiscal plan, not enough time to review the information. In announcing his bid, he noted: “People elected me to vote on what I think is best for them, not what my other colleagues think is best for them…When you give an individual a document five hours before a vote, that doesn’t give me the proper opportunity to have my fellow folks aware that I’m making the best-informed decision…For too long Atlantic City’s politics and the leaders of this city have sucked the blood out of our town…The time for new leadership is right now.”

Fire in the Hole. Aspiring to be an elected leader in a municipality where the state has preempted such authority comes as the challenge of governing an insolvent city has become more complex and challenging in the wake of Atlantic City Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez restraining order early this month barring the State of New Jersey from cutting Atlantic City’s firefighter workforce or unilaterally altering any of their contracts as part of its state takeover—a judicial decision which caused Moody’s Investors Services to be decidedly moody, deeming Judge Mendez’s decision a credit negative for the cash-strapped city. Or, as the crack credit rating analyst for Moody’s Douglas Goldmacher last week noted: “These developments signal that any actions the state takes to reduce the city’s work force or abrogate labor contracts will prompt a legal challenge, leading to considerable delays in the Atlantic City recovery process, a credit negative for the city…The success or failure of the state to implement broad expenditure cuts for Atlantic City is of tremendous import to the city’s credit quality.” Mr. Goldmacher noted that negotiations with the firefighters and other unions would typically be handled by city officials; however, the Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act legislation approved by New Jersey lawmakers last year enables the state to alter outstanding municipal contracts, an authority which has now been rendered uncertain. Mr. Goldmacher noted that the firefighters’ court challenge could pave the way for other unions to challenge staffing cuts—effectively handcuffing both municipal and state efforts. He wrote that current city revenues are “insufficient” for debt service and routine expenditures making budget cuts the most likely avenue for permanent financial improvement: “Leaving aside the question of constitutionality, extensive litigation will delay negotiations…Even if other unions refrain from filing suit, the state’s negotiations will be materially impacted by the ongoing lawsuit, delaying or even preventing cost-cutting efforts.”

Lone Star Blues

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eBlog, 2/16/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the dwindling timeline confronting the city of Dallas to take action to avert a potential municipal bankruptcy; then we return to the small municipality of Petersburg, Virginia—an insolvent city with what appears to be an increasingly insolvent governing model, enmeshing the small city in litigation it can ill afford. Finally, we return to the trying governing and fiscal challenges in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico—caught between changing administrations, a federal oversight board, a disparate Medicaid regime than for other states and counties, and trying to adjust to a new Administration and Congress.

Dallas, Humpty-Dumpty, & Chapter 9? In a state where, as one state and local government expert yesterday described it, that state has created a governance structure which allows everyone to avoid accountability, the City of Dallas is confronting a public pension problem that could force the city into municipal bankruptcy [Texas Local Government Code §101.006—seven Texas towns and cities have filed for such protection.]. Should the city lose its current case against its firefighters—a case with some $4 billion at stake—municipal bankruptcy could ensue. Another Texan, noting the challenge of putting “Humpty Dumpty back together again,” said failure of the city to emulate Houston and come to terms with its employees, retirees, and taxpayers would be “cataclysmic.” With about two weeks remaining to file bills in the Longhorn legislature and negotiations over the city’s mismanaged and underfunded police and fire pension at a standstill, state lawmakers note they will likely be forced to step into the crisis, if the city is to avoid chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy—or, as Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas) noted: “I think we’re forced to step in. We’re [17] days away from the deadline, and there is yet to be an agreement between the city and the pension board…I think at this point we have to have a summit or some form of intervention, get everyone to the table and hammer those final issues down. If they don’t do that, it’s going to be a plan that’s drawn by the legislators, and we don’t have a stake interest like the other groups do to understand the nuances.” His statement came in the wake of a stoppage in negotiations over the last couple weeks—negotiations originally set up by the state, and negotiations with a short fuse: the last chance for the Texas Legislature to file bills to address the issue is looming: March 1st.

The severity of the crisis could be partially alleviated by a settlement reached late yesterday by the failing Dallas Police and Fire Pension System in its litigation against its former real estate advisers, whom pension officials had accused of leading the retirement fund astray. CDK Realty Advisors and the Dallas pension system both agreed to drop all claims and counterclaims with prejudice, according to court records filed late yesterday—and came as the city’s pension system and its attorneys have also been battling litigation from four City Council members, Mayor Mike Rawlings, a former contract auditor, and active and retired police and firefighters. The stakes are the city’s fiscal future: its retirement fund is now set to become insolvent within the next decade because of major losses and overvaluations—mostly from real estate—and generous benefits guaranteed by the system. Advising me that the “stigma or consequences for a city with the pride and stature of Dallas to fail would be cataclysmic,” one of the nation’s most insightful state and local pension wizards described the city’s pension challenge as “about as bad as any I have ever seen.”  

Hear Ye—or Hear Ye Not. A hearing for the civil case brought against Petersburg Mayor Samuel Parham and Councilman and former Mayor W. Howard Myers is set for this morning: Both men are defendants in a civil court case brought about by members of registered voters from the fifth and third wards of Petersburg: members of the third and fifth wards signed petitions to have both men removed from their positions. The civil case calls for both Parham and Myers to be removed from office due to “neglect, misuse of office, and incompetence in the performance of their duties.” The purpose of hearing is to determine a trial date, to hear any motions, to determine whether Messieurs Parham and Myers will be tried separately, and if they want to be tried by judge or jury. James E. Cornwell of Sands Anderson Law Firm will be representing Myers and Parham. The City Council voted 5-2 on Tuesday night to have the representation of Mr. Myers and Mayor Parham be paid for by the city. Mayor Parham, Vice Mayor Joe Hart, Councilman Charlie Cuthbert, former Mayor Myers, and Councilman Darrin Hill all voted yes to the proposition, while Councilwoman Treska Wilson-Smith and Councilwoman Annette Smith-Lee voted no. Mayor Parham and Councilmember Hill stated that the Council’s decision to pay for the representation was necessary to “protect the integrity of the Council,” noting: “It may not be a popular decision, but it’s [Myers and Parham] today, and it could be another council tomorrow.” Messieurs Hill and Parham argued that the recall petition could happen to any member of council: “[The petitions] are a total attack on our current leadership…We expect to get the truth told and these accusations against us laid to rest.” The legal confrontation is further muddied by City Attorney Joseph Preston’s inability to represent the current and former Mayors, because he was also named in the recall petition, and could be called as a witness during a trial.

Municipal Governance Bankruptcy? Virginia Commonwealth’s Attorney Cassandra Conover has felt forced to write a complaint, suggesting a conflict of interest in the virtually insolvent municipality of Petersburg, Virginia, in the wake of a city council vote to have the city pay for the legal expenses of Mayor Samuel Parham and Councilman Howard Myers. Ms. Conover, in an advisory opinion, described the vote to approve those expenses as a conflict of interest for the current and former mayors: “It is my advisory opinion that the undeclared conflict of interest disqualified both councilmen from voting on this motion and renders the vote invalid.” (The vote in question, as we have previously noted, was to hire a private attorney to represent Mayor Sam Parham and Councilman Howard Myers after more than 400 neighbors signed a petition to oust two Councilmembers from office.) Ms. Conover cited Virginia Code §2.2-3112, which says an employee of a state or local government entity “shall disqualify himself from participating in the transaction where the transaction involves a property or business or governmental agency in which he has a personal interest,” noting that Code §2.2-3115(F) mandates that in such a situation, there must be oral or written statements that show the transaction involved; the nature of the employee’s personal interest: that he (or she) is a member of a business, profession, occupation or group of members which are affected by the transaction: and that he is able to participate fairly, objectively and in the public interest. In this case, Ms. Conover stated that there was “no evidence that all four of these requirements were met in this case: concluding that the undeclared conflict of interest disqualified both men from voting and renders the vote invalid. 

The governance issue was not just the concept of an insolvent city’s Council voting to use public municipal funds to hire the private attorney, but also that neither Mayor Parham, nor Councilmember Myers recused himself from voting. Nevertheless, Petersburg City Attorney Joseph Preston responded that there was no conflict of interest and that the pair of elected officials had acted legally. Mayor Parham said the city likely will pay the bill for the personal attorney he and Councilmember Myers retained, albeit noting: “We’ve had to make cuts to schools and public safety, and we’re just starting to get back on our feet. It is a shame that we have to pump funds into something like this.” City Attorney Preston noted that Ms. Conover’s advisory opinion “adequately represents what occurred at their council meeting,” but he said he believes the pair of elected officials were legally allowed to take part in the vote, citing Virginia Code §2.2-3112 which provides that persons who have a conflict of interest can submit a disclosure statement on the issue—filings which the two elected officials filed with the Clerk of Court’s office the day after the vote. In addition, City Attorney Preston cited a decision from the Virginia Attorney General’s Office from 2009 which had ruled in favor of the Gloucester County Board of Supervisors, who were seeking compensation for their legal expenses; Ms. Conover, however, responded that the Attorney General’s 2009 decision did not apply to this case, because the charges against the Gloucester Board of Supervisors had been dismissed, and the court ordered the locality to pay for the majority of the legal fees which the board members had accrued, adding that the insolvent city had offered no estimate with regard to how much their legal fees could be. Notwithstanding the Commonwealth Attorney’s opinion, it appears unlikely that the Council will vote on the issue again: Mayor Parham yesterday noted: “I don’t feel like there was any conflict, and we did as we were advised by our attorney…We’ve had to make cuts to schools and public safety, and we’re just starting to get back on our feet. It is a shame that we have to pump funds into something like this.”  

Federalism, Governance, & Hegemony. With the enactment of the PROMESA legislation, Congress created governance and fiscal oversight responsibilities in the hands of seven non-elected officials to make critical fiscal reforms and restructuring of Puerto Rico—either through federal courts or via voluntary negotiations—for a debt that adds up to about $69 billion, but the new law also tasked a Congressional Task Force with analyzing initiatives which could help the island’s economy to grow; however, this bipartisan and bicameral committee ceased to exist upon submitting its report; ergo, unsurprisingly, both Governor Ricardo Rosselló and Jenniffer González, the new Resident Commissioner for Puerto Rico, have demanded that the PROMESA board members support their claims. But now a key area of concern has arisen: if the U.S. territory is unable to comply with the implementation of an information system which methodically integrates the management of important data for Medicaid claims—as mandated for federal eligibility as part of an integrated system to process claims and recover information, which is a Medicaid program requirement for federal fund eligibility which Puerto Rico should have long ago met, the island faces a more stark January 1 deadline by which it must comply with 60% of this system or be confronted with a fine of $147 million—a threat so dire that, according to the Health Secretary, Dr. Rafael Rodríguez Mercado, failing to comply with this requirement would mean the end of the Puerto Rico Government Health Plan. Puerto Rico is the only jurisdiction lacking such a platform, a platform intended to protect against medical fraud and establish eligibility, compliance, and service quality controls.

It was revealed in December, during the new government’s transition hearings for the Department of Health that the development of this platform began in 2011, but that it was not until 2014 that the project was resumed in its planning stage. The necessary funds to begin the implementation phase were finally matched during this fiscal year. The last administration predicted that the basic modules would begin working in a year and a half, and that the entire system would be operating in five years: it was expected that the window for the disbursement of Medicare and Medicaid funds would open in a year and a half. However, under threat of a fine, the government now expects to reach this goal before the date predicted by the last administration. Dr. Rodríguez Mercado stressed that there are currently 470,000 Puerto Ricans without health care insurance, many of whom cannot afford private insurance or are ineligible for the Government Health Plan, thus, many of these people seek out services in Centro Médico, an institution with a multi-million dollar deficit, when they become sick or are injured. Dr. Mercado further noted the disproportionate percentage of Medicare and Medicaid fraud cases, further undermining the territory’s credibility with the federal government—and, adding that local governments have complied  with the implementation of a Medicaid Fraud Control Unit (MFCU), which he says falls under the purview of the Department of Justice. Nevertheless, despite differing points of emphasis, both the leadership of the PROMESA Oversight Board and Resident Commissioner Jenifer González yesterday restated the importance of preventing Puerto Rico’s healthcare system from falling into a fiscal abyss, given the depletion of the $1.2 billion in Medicaid funds which has been provided on an annual basis under the Affordable Care Act.

Yesterday, in the wake of separate meetings with Commissioner González, with one of Speaker Paul Ryan’s advisors, and with Congresswoman Elise Stefanik (R-NY), PROMESA Oversight Board Chair José Carrión claimed that “we always try to include healthcare and economic development issues” in the meetings held in Congress, describing meetings in which he had been joined by Board member Carlos García and interim executive director, Ramón Ruiz Comas, as sessions to provide updates, while trying to deal with the issue which most concerns the Board: health care—emphasizing that especially in the wake of the end of the Congressional Task Force on Economic Growth in Puerto Rico.  

Fighting for Cities’ Futures

eBlog, 1/23/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing fiscal and governing challenge to Detroit’s future—especially with regard to the quality of education for the city’s future leaders; then we learn from one of the unsung heroes, retired U.S. Judge Gerald Rosen, about his reflections and role in Detroit’s exit from the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history. Then we return to the historic Virginia municipality of Petersburg, where, in its struggle to exit insolvency, a citizen effort is underway to recall its elected leaders. Finally, in the category of ‘when it rains it pours,’ we consider the city hall relocation underway in San Bernardino—one month before it hopes to gain U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury’s approval of the city’s plan of debt adjustment, permitting the city to egress from the longest municipal bankruptcy in American history.

Fighting for Detroit’s Fiscal Future. The City of Detroit is siding with seven Detroit public schoolchildren suing Gov. Rick Snyder and Michigan state education officials over their right to access literacy. (See Jessie v. Snyder, #16-CV-13292, U.S. District Court), having filed an amicus brief in a proposed class action lawsuit against Gov. Snyder and Michigan education officials in a legal challenge seeking to establish that literacy is a U.S. constitutional right. The suit, which was filed last September by a California public interest law firm, claims the state has functionally excluded Detroit children from the state’s educational system; the suit seeks class-action status and several guarantees of equal access to literacy, screening, intervention, a statewide accountability system, as well as other measures. Detroit’s amicus brief urged the court to hold access to literacy as being fundamental, arguing the plaintiffs have alleged sufficient facts to show they are being denied that right: “Denying children access to literacy today inevitably impedes tomorrow’s job seekers and taxpayers; fathers and mothers; citizens and voters…That is why the Supreme Court has stressed the ‘significant social costs borne by our nation’ when children suffer the ‘stigma of illiteracy’—and are thereby denied ‘the basic tools by which (to) lead economically productive lives to the benefit of us all…The City of Detroit (though it does not control Detroit’s schools) is all too familiar with illiteracy’s far-reaching effects.”

A critical fiscal issue for every city and county is the perceived quality of its public schools—a perception critical to encouraging families with children to move into the city—thereby positively affecting assessed property values. The challenge has been greater in Detroit, where the schools’ fiscal and educational insolvencies led to the appointment of former U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes to serve as DPS’s Emergency Manager. In Detroit, politics at the state level imposing a disproportionate number of charter schools has meant that today Detroit has a greater share of students in charters than any U.S. city except New Orleans; however, half the charters perform only as well, or worse than, Detroit’s traditional public schools—mayhap a challenge of having a state attempt to substitute itself over local control. Perhaps former state representative Thomas F. Stallworth III, who helped navigate the passage of the 2014 legislation that paved Detroit’s way out of bankruptcy, put it more succinctly: “We’ll either invest in our own children and prepare them to fill these jobs, or I suppose maybe people will migrate from other places in the country to fill them…If that’s the case, we are still left with this underbelly of generational poverty with no clear path out.”

But, in Michigan, it appears that it has been for-profit companies that expressed the greatest interest: they now operate about 80 percent of charters in Michigan, far more than in any other state. In the wake of the state action, and even as Michigan and Detroit continued to preside over an exodus of families, the number of charter schools grew: Michigan today has nearly 220,000 fewer students than it did in 2003, but more than 100 new charter schools. The number not only grew, but the legislature made sure accountability did not: the legislature in 2012 repealed in the Revised School Code Act 451 the state’s longstanding requirement that the Michigan Department of Education issue annual reports monitoring charter school performance; and the state even created a state-run school district, with new charters, in an effort to try to turn around Detroit’s lowest performing schools. Indeed, 24 charter schools have opened in Detroit since the legislature removed the cap 2011: eighteen charters whose existing schools were at or below Detroit’s dismal performance expanded or opened new schools—that despite increasing evidence students in one company’s schools grew less academically than students in the neighboring traditional public schools. By 2015, the Education Trust-Midwest Michigan noted that charter school authorizers’ performance overall had improved marginally over the previous year, but remained terribly low compared to leading states’ charter sectors, in its report, Accountability for All: 2016, The Broken Promise of Michigan’s Charter Sector. The report celebrates high-performing authorizers and sheds light on the devastatingly low performance of other authorizers, adding that roughly one-quarter of one group’s eligible schools ranked among the worst performing 10 percent of schools statewide. Similarly, according to the Trust, a federal review of a grant application for Michigan charter schools found an “unreasonably high” number of charters among the worst-performing 5 percent of public schools statewide, even as the number of charters on the list had doubled from 2010 to 2014.

The great press to create charter schools has led to another challenge: today Detroit has roughly 30,000 more seats, charter and traditional public, than students. For a system desperate for investment in quality education, instead it has badly failed in elementary math; and there is great risk of a discriminatory system: Detroit Public Schools today bears the human and fiscal burden of trying to educate most of Detroit’s special education students. In contrast, charter schools are concentrated downtown, with its boom in renovation and wealthier residents. With only 1,894 high school age students, there are 11 high schools. Meanwhile, northwest Detroit — where it seems every other house is boarded up, burned or abandoned — has nearly twice the number of high school age students, 3,742, and just three high schools. The northeastern part of the city is even more of an education desert: 6,018 high school age students and two high schools.

Like others elsewhere, charter schools receive roughly the same per-pupil state dollars as public schools; however, in Detroit, it is about $7,300 a year — roughly half what New York or Boston schools get, and about $3,500 less than charters in Denver or Milwaukee.

With the significant fiscal challenges to the Detroit Public Schools, Mayor Mike Duggan had proposed an appointed Detroit Education Commission to determine which neighborhoods most needed new schools and to set standards to close failing schools and ensure that only high performing or promising ones could replicate. Backed by a coalition of philanthropies and civic leaders, the teachers’ union and some charter school operators, Mayor Duggan has succeeded in restoring local control of majority-black Detroit Public Schools, and supported the proposal. In the waning days of the legislative session, House Republicans offered a deal: $617 million to pay off the debt of the Detroit Public Schools, but no commission. Lawmakers were forced to take it to prevent the city school system from going bankrupt.

An Interview with Gerald Rosen. U.S. District Court Judge Gerald Rosen, who, as we have written, played an invaluable role in the so-called “Grand Bargain,” which paved the way for Detroit to exit the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history—and who will now join retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, who presided over Detroit’s municipal bankruptcy, in an interview with the Detroit Free Press, said, in response to the query how well Detroit was doing in adhering to its court approved plan of debt adjustment:  “We are hitting the marks, exceeding them in most areas — certainly revenue, I think the last report I saw was about 2 percent above the projected revenue. On budget. Expenditures are below — not much — but slightly below what was projected. Those are two important things…Certainly, investment and growth in the downtown area, certainly Midtown, and with the Ilitch development coming to fruition, the Red Wings, Pistons, some of the entertainment venues becoming a reality now, I expect the area between Midtown and downtown will become very vibrant over the next two-three years.”

Asked what the most difficult part of that case was, aside from the Grand Bargain, Judge Rosen responded: “You have to go back and see what the case was when we found it, which was an assetless bankruptcy. That was the most difficult part, for me. Certainly, there were a lot of first-impression legal issues. Certainly there were issues that could have gone all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, whether it was the collision between the federal bankruptcy code and the federal constitutional supremacy clause and the Michigan Constitution’s provisions to protect pensions. But there were also a lot of other really important issues: The tenor of the security instruments, of the finance instruments, the level and tenor of their security, were all major issues in the bankruptcy, whether they could be crammed down all across the rope line on the financial creditors’ side were really first-impression issues.” He added: “Overwhelmingly, the most challenging issue for me was an assetless bankruptcy—other than the art. I’ll never forget when I was reading Kevyn Orr’s proposal for creditors, coming to the asset section and realizing that there really weren’t any assets other than the art…It was devastating. Kevyn, he had just hired Christie’s to appraise the art, so he was clearly serious about it. I remember thinking, ‘What the hell have I gotten myself into?’ My job is to get deals. To get deals, you have to have revenue or assets that can be monetized into revenue, and the cupboard was pretty much bare. There didn’t seem to be much to work with for deals, other than the art.

There were other aspects to the DIA that I was concerned about. This was a time when Detroit was cannibalizing its heritage to mortgage its future, consistently over the decades. In terms of Detroit’s future, it didn’t make sense to me to do that again, but I was realistic.

Time was Detroit’s enemy. The only way to get through the bankruptcy in any sort of expeditious way was through consensual agreements, and the only asset that could be monetized was the art. So that’s basically what led to the idea of the Grand Bargain—trying to figure out a way to monetize the art without liquidating it, and giving the proceeds to the retirees. Neat trick.

I’ll never forget sitting in this little condo (in Florida) thinking, “What the hell have I gotten myself into? Is my legacy going to be that we liquidated one of the great art collections in the world for sheikhs in Dubai and oligarchs in Russia?” I wasn’t very excited about that.

There was another aspect too. One of the few nascently growing areas in Detroit was Midtown. I went on the DIA website and I saw that the DIA attracted over 600,000 people a year to Midtown. I thought, “Gee whiz, liquidating the DIA would be like dropping a hydrogen bomb in Midtown.” It would suck the life out of it. So there was that part of it.”

What would be the theme song for Detroit’s bankruptcy case?

“Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow.”

We might be having some new City Council members a year from now. What would you suggest to the new ones potentially coming on board?

“I’m not in politics. I’m not a political person in the sense of being involved in the political maw, but my observation is that Mayor (Mike) Duggan is working very positively with President (Brenda) Jones and other members of the council in a way that has not been done by any mayor in years and years.

“At the same time, my word of caution is that we have to be careful to continue to provide the fertile ground that Detroit is for investment for people coming in. Part of that is not placing onerous regulation on people coming in, with artificial employment requirements. I understand the social need for that and I applaud it. I think if Detroit is going to continue the comeback that we are on, the neighborhoods have to be part of it and the African-American population has to be part of it. But you can’t disincentivize people coming in.”

You think that’s been done recently?

“I’m a little bit concerned about the community benefits ordinance. The one that was passed was certainly better than the alternative, but I’m still leery of it because it’s creating entry barriers.”

What was the most surprising individual (Kwame Kilpatrick text) message you saw?

“A lot of that is sealed. I would just refer to it generically by saying there was very little public business conducted by the Mayor and his associates. I’m sure they conducted business by communication means other than texts, but these were city-provided pagers. I assume that the city provided the pagers for people to be able to conduct city business on them, and I saw very little. I learned a lot of new text language that I hadn’t known before, and I appreciate urbandictionary.com.”

Twenty-four hours left in the Obama administration. It’s pardon and commutation time. Does the former mayor deserve one?

No. Absolutely not. I have to be a little cautious, but I presided over that grand jury for 2 ½ years.

Political Leadership & Municipal Insolvency. In Virginia, Petersburg residents who blame their elected municipal leaders for their city’s collapse into insolvency have filed dual petitions to oust both the incumbent and former mayor from their City Council seats—after, over months, gathering the legally required number of signatures from registered voters of Wards 3 and 5 to ask for the removal of Mayor Samuel Parham and W. Howard Myers, whose term as mayor ended this month; both are up for re-election next year. According to the petition, Mayor Parham “has conducted himself in the office of City Councilman, Vice Mayor and Mayor in such a way to govern the City of Petersburg chaotically, unpredictably, secretly and wastefully.” The two-page cover sheet to the petition has garnered 276 certified signatures. (Virginia law requires the petitioners to gather signatures equal to 10 percent of the voter turnout in the contest that resulted in an official’s initial election. For Parham, the number is 160.) The petitions were filed on January 20th in Petersburg Circuit Court under a provision in Virginia law which allows the court to remove officials for specific reasons, which includes certain criminal convictions. Here, in this instance, petitioners cited “neglect of duty, misuse of office, or incompetence in the performance of duties,” faulting the current and former mayor with failing to heed warnings of Petersburg’s impending insolvency, but also alleging ethical breaches and violations of open government law. “Nothing has happened in the new year, with the installation of new council officers, to demonstrate that Myers or Parham are any more capable of providing effective oversight of city government than they have over the past two years,” according to Ms. Barb Rudolph, a local activist and organizer of the good government group Clean Sweep Petersburg. The effort came as Petersburg’s mounting legal claims have now exceeded nearly $19 million in past-due invoices and the city’s budget which was $12 million over budget: the municipality has experienced a stretch of structurally imbalanced budgets dating back to 2009. The City Council fired former City Manager William E. Johnson II last March. For his part, Mayor Parham defended his decisions since taking office, reporting he has done the best he could with the guidance he has received, and noting: “I serve at the pleasure of the people of Petersburg and, with God as my witness, I have tried my best.”

The ouster filings came as former Richmond City Manager, now consultant Robert Bobb, has been hired by the City Council to try to put the city back into solvency. Mr. Bobb has issued a request for a forensic audit of spending over the past three fiscal years—notwithstanding reservations expressed by City Attorney Joseph Preston, who noted that the city’s finances are included in a special grand jury investigation which began as a probe of the Petersburg Police Department. Petersburg obtained short-term financing last month to help meet payroll and other ongoing expenses, with Mr. Bobb reporting the cost of Petersburg’s outstanding invoices has been cut from nearly $19 million to about $6 million. Next comes a session to meet with about 400 of the city’s vendors to try to begin to sort out what they are owed, with a city spokesperson Thursday stating the Petersburg has entered into a payment plan to make good on Petersburg’s share of employee and school worker pensions overdue to the Virginia Retirement System: Petersburg and the city school division collectively owed just over $4.2 million to the system as of last week; however, current payments have resumed, and plans are in place to pay down the balance by $100,000 each month, officials said.

The citizen petitions focus largely on events from last year, but reference years of mounting trouble. The issue for the courts is sufficiency, as a judge in Bath County last week demonstrated when the judge dismissed a similar petition to remove three members of the county’s Board of Supervisors, finding the complaints raised by residents there were insufficient to require a judicial reversal of election results. However, Ms. Rudolph said the Petersburg petitions contain more serious charges, noting: “We believe that, on its merits, it’s far more substantive than the Bath County removal action that was recently rejected by the circuit court there.” Included among the two-page list of grievances documenting reasons for Mayor Myers’ removal were allegations he had “flagrantly and repeatedly acted in contravention of the City of Petersburg’s Code of Ethics” by attempting to “intimidate and silence a critic,” who remains unnamed, by “attempting to harm the citizen’s good standing with her employer.” Petitioners also criticized the Myers-led council for possibly violating the Council’s own rules and the city charter in holding a re-do of a vote to bring in the Bobb Group two days after an initial measure to hire the firm failed. City Attorney Preston has said that the Council did nothing wrong.

Quake & Shake. San Bernardino, on track to end the longest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history next month, now faces a physical and fiscal challenge not listed in its plan of debt adjustment: a substantial earthquake risk. San Bernardino has two independent engineering evaluations — from 2007 and 2016 — saying City Hall would be unsafe in an earthquake. Specifically, the February 2016 study concludes a magnitude 6.0 earthquake would lead to “a likelihood of building failure” for City Hall, which was designed before code updates following the 1971 Sylmar and 1994 Northridge earthquakes. The building sits along two fault lines. That means the City has plans for vacating City Hall by April, as all employees move out of a building determined to be a substantial earthquake risk, with the approximately 200 municipal employees set to relocate to several leased sites set by a unanimous Council vote. A public information counter will direct members of the public to whatever service they’re seeking, as will signs.