The Fiscal Challenges of Federalism

July 13, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the legal, governing, and judicial challenges to Puerto Rico’s fiscal recovery, before turning to the very different kinds of fiscal recovery challenges confronting Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

Who Is Preempting Whose Power & Authority? Yesterday, the PROMESA Oversight  Board requested dismissal of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló Nevares’ suit in which he is charging that the Oversight Board has usurped his power and authority, with the Board asking the federal court to issue an injunction to prevent such action, noting in its filing: “Although PROMESA relies in the sole discretion of the Board, two major policy instruments that exist, the fiscal plan and the budget, and the law expressly empowers the Board to formulate and certify them…the Governor questions whether PROMESA preserves to the government the political powers and of government to make policy decisions.”  In response, the Board asserted that the Governor’s claim lacks merit, asserting that the law provides that the Board has the final say with regard to budget and tax issues, writing: “The provisions to which the Governor objects are not recommendations in the sense of §205 of PROMESA,” with that response coming just minutes after the U.S. requested—for a second time—its insistence on the “Constitutionality of the PROMESA statute. In a motion filed Wednesday, U.S. Justice Department Assistant Attorney General Thomas Ward advised Judge Laura Taylor Swain that two recent decisions upon which Puerto Rico had relied were not pertinent to the legal issues at hand. Promise law.

In a motion filed Wednesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney General Thomas G. Ward and Jean Lin of the Justice Department asserted before Judge Taylor Swain that two recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions presented by the Aurelius Management Investment Fund were not relevant to the critical issues at hand, after, earlier this week, the Fund had provided the Judge with two U.S. Supreme Court decisions which, it asserted, affirm its perception of the statute, as it continues to argue before the federal court that the actions of the PROMESA Board are null and void, because the members of the Board without the consent of the Senate as required by the U.S. Constitution, referencing two recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, Lucia v. SEC and Ortiz v. United States, where, in the former case, the court, last month, determined that a higher ranking SEC official should have been appointed to his position based on the Appointments Clause of the US Constitution, while, in the Ortiz decision, the Supreme Court held that it has jurisdiction to review decisions of the Armed Forces’ appellate courts—claims which the Justice Department described as incorrect, since such decisions only support his argument that the appointment clause of the U.S. Constitution does not apply to members of the PROMESA Oversight Board—or, as the Justice Department brief put it: “A finding that the clause applies to territorial officials would not only face this historic practice, but would also challenge the current governance structures of the territories and the District of Columbia that have been in place for decades,” adding to that Congress has full authority over its territories—authority which is not subject to the “complex” distribution of the powers of the government provided by the U.S. Constitution.

Last week, Gov. Rosselló had charged that the PROMESA Oversight Board has been trying to make policy decisions that the PROMESA law does not grant it authority to make, as he had petitioned Judge Swain to mandate that the Board to answer the complaint or motion to dismiss by yesterday. His attorneys stated: “The court should expedite resolution of this case to address the injury to the Commonwealth and its people occurring every day due to the Board’s attempt to seize day-to-day control of Puerto Rico’s government.” Even though the PROMESA Board asked for more time, Judge Swain ruled in favor of the Governor’s request—so, the complex federalism sessions are scheduled to resume on the 25th, when the quasi bankruptcy court will entertain oral arguments, possibly including participation by Puerto Rico Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz and House President Carlos Méndez Núñez, who filed a similar suit against the board on July 9th, asserting that the PROMESA Board was preempting the legislature’s rightful powers. Thus, even the Board and the Governor have generally been in agreement this year in their fiscal plans, the Board has insisted its policies must be followed—with its proposed quasi plan of debt adjustment showing a surplus of $6.5 billion from this fiscal year through fiscal year 2023.

In the suit, Gov. Rosselló quotes from Judge Swain’s opinion of last November and order denying the PROMESA Board’s motion to replace the then-chief executive of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority with the board’s own appointee, with the opinion noting: “Congress did not grant the [Oversight Board] the power to supplant, bypass, or replace the Commonwealth’s elected leaders and their appointees in the exercise of their managerial duties whenever the Oversight Board might deem such a change expedient.”

Mayor of Wilkes-Barre Asks State for Financial Assistance. Mayor Tony George, whose city is confronting a $3.5 million deficit in the upcoming fiscal year, is seeking financial assistance under Pennsylvania’s program for distressed communities, the Financially Distressed Municipalities Act, approval of which request would mean the municipality would be eligible for loans and grants through the state Department of Community and Economic Development. The move came as Standard & Poor’s placed the city’s “BBB-” rating on CreditWatch with negative implications, in the wake of Mayor George’s petition to the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, with the Mayor warning the city faces an estimated $3.5 million deficit next year and in the coming years despite efforts to place Wilkes-Barre on sound financial footing with its participation in Pennsylvania’s Early Intervention Program. The credit rating agency added it will gather more information before making a determination that could make it more expensive for the city to borrow money at higher interest rates, noting: “We expect to resolve the CreditWatch status within 30 days. We could lower the rating if we believe that the city’s credit quality is no longer commensurate with the rating. However, if we believe it does remain commensurate with the current rating, we could affirm the rating and remove it from CreditWatch.” Should the credit rating be downgraded, it would be the second time during Mayor George’s administration, after, a year ago last May, S&P lowered the rating to “BBB-” from “A-” because the city’s cash flow was constrained and was relying on borrowing to make ends meet. City officials are tentatively scheduled to hold a conference call with S&P on August 7th—by which time the state is expected to have made its decision on declaring the city distressed.

Under that state statute, municipalities may also restructure debt. If the Mayor’s request is granted, the state will appoint a financial adviser to design a financial recovery plan for the city—one of the nation’s oldest, having been inhabited first by the Shawanese and Delaware Indian and (Lenape) tribes, so that it was in 1769 that John Durkee led the first recorded Europeans to the area, where they established a frontier settlement named Wilkes-Barre after John Wilkes and Isaac Barre, two British members of Parliament who supported colonial America. At the time, these settlers were aligned with colonial Connecticut, which had a claim on the land that rivaled Pennsylvania’s. Indeed, armed Pennsylvanians twice attempted to evict the residents of Wilkes-Barre in what came to be known as the Pennamite-Yankee Wars, so that it was not until after the American Revolution, in the 1780s, that a settlement was reached granting the disputed land to Pennsylvania. A century later, the city’s population exploded in the wake of the discovery of anthracite coal, an explosion so powerful that the city was nicknamed “The Diamond City:” hundreds of thousands of immigrants flocked to the city. By 1806, it was incorporated as a borough; it became a city in 1871—as it gradually became a major U.S. coal center, and an early home to Woolworth’s, Sterling Hotels, Planter’s Peanuts, Miner’s Bank, Bell Telephone, HBO, Luzerne National Bank, and Stegmaier. But the coal which once contributed so much to the city’s growth, subsequently let it down: not only were there terrible mine disasters, but also the country began to switch to other energy sources. So, the city where Babe Ruth knocked one of his longest ever homes runs is, today, at risk of striking out at the plate.  The city, which a dozen years ago celebrated its 200th anniversary, is now seeking assistance via the state’s Act 47, with the Mayor citing—as additional factors, the lack of cooperation with area unions and his own City Council. He appears to be of the view that there was no other alternative to help stabilize the city’s finances other than filing for status under Pennsylvania’s Act 47 for Distressed Municipalities, noting: “My goal is to bring the city forward, and we’re stifled.”

In Pennsylvania there are four general methods of oversight used to aid local governments: Intergovernmental Cooperation Authorities, which are used with Philadelphia and Pittsburgh; ƒ School district assistance, which can come in the form of technical assistance, or schools which can be deemed in Financial Watch Status or in Financial Recovery Status; Early intervention program for municipalities before Act 475; and Act 47, or Pennsylvania’s Municipalities Financial Recovery Act of 1987.  What Is Pennsylvania’s Act 47? We will go into more depth about Act 47 because that is the program for which Wilkes-Barre recently applied. We also touch on the special consideration taken for Pittsburgh and Philadelphia as it relates to Act 47 as we close this commentary. The Pennsylvania Municipalities Financial Recovery Act of 1987, or Act 47 as it is commonly called, is an assistance program to help Pennsylvania municipalities after they file and are officially designated as “distressed.” Many states, such as the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, generally believe that the status of one of its municipalities can affect others throughout the state. This is even set forth in writing in PA’s Act 47, which states: “Policy—It is hereby declared to be a public policy of the Commonwealth to foster fiscal integrity of municipalities so that they provide for the health, safety and welfare of their citizens; pay principal and interest on their debt obligations when due; meet financial obligations to their employees, vendors and suppliers; and provide for proper financial accounting procedures, budgeting and taxing practices. The failure of a municipality to do so is hereby determined to affect adversely the health, safety and welfare not only of the citizens of the municipality but also of other citizens in this Commonwealth.”

How Does a Pennsylvania Municipality Become Part of Act 47? The Municipalities Financial Recovery Act authorizes Pennsylvania’s Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED) to validate municipalities as financially distressed. According to Act 47’s criteria, a municipality could be deemed financially distressed if it meets at least one of the following criteria: The municipality has maintained a deficit over a three-year period, with a deficit of 1% or more in each of the previous fiscal years. The municipality’s expenditures have exceeded revenues for a period of three years or more. The municipality has defaulted in payment of principal or interest on any of its bonds or notes or in payment of rentals due any authority. The municipality has missed a payroll for 30 days. The municipality has failed to make required payments to judgment creditors for 30 days beyond the date of the recording of the judgment. The municipality, for a period of at least 30 days beyond the due date, has failed to forward taxes withheld on the income of employees or has failed to transfer employer or employee contributions for Social Security; it has accumulated and has operated for each of two successive years a deficit equal to 5% or more of its revenues; and it has failed to make the budgeted payment of its minimum municipal obligation as required by §§302, 303, or 602 of the act of December 18, 1984 (P.L. 1005, No. 205), per the Municipal Pension Plan Funding Standard and Recovery Act, with respect to a pension fund during the fiscal year for which the payment was budgeted and has failed to take action within that time period to make required payments.

Pennsylvania’s Municipalities Financial Recovery Act authorizes Pennsylvania’s Department of Community and Economic Development to validate municipalities as financially distressed. Key criteria include: A municipality has sought to negotiate resolution or adjustment of a claim in excess of 30% against a fund or budget and has failed to reach an agreement with creditors; a municipality has filed for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy; a municipality has experienced a decrease in a quantified level of municipal service from the preceding fiscal year, which has resulted from the municipality reaching its legal limit in levying real estate taxes for general purposes.  Act 47 offers aid to the commonwealth’s second class cities (defined as those with a population of 250,000 to 999,999) and below which are negatively affected by forces such as short-term swings in the business cycle, or those burdened by more harmful longer-term negative macro-economic shifts: state support or assistance is available in several forms in order to ensure municipalities can provide essential services without interruption.

Over the long-term, Act 47 is focused on balancing ongoing revenues with ongoing expenditures—and investing in the municipality so that growth occurs and, as in a chapter 9 plan of debt adjustment, a municipality can recover. The act provides state-sponsored emergency no-interest loans and grants in order to ensure distressed municipalities can continue meeting debt payments and creditor obligations. The Department appoints a recovery coordinator who creates and then leads in helping to implement a recovery plan. Unlike an emergency manager, the plan provides for a recovery coordinator, who may act as an intermediary between the Mayor and City Council–the recovery plan is similar to a plan of debt adjustment in that it details how the available assistance and other modifications will help the municipality regain its fiscal stability, including via commonwealth economic and community development programs, assistance while negotiating new collective bargaining contracts; and enhanced tax or revenue authority—a key of which is authority to levy a nonresident wage tax.  

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A Tale of Two Cities

July 3, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider a tale of two cities connected by geography and history, but divided by a fiscal chasm.

A Fiscal Dividing Line. Mayor Kevin Mumpower was reelected in a unanimous Council vote, Tuesday, to serve a second, consecutive term as Mayor of Bristol, Virginia, an independent, border municipality in southern Virginia of just over 17,000, where, on Thursday, the Council has scheduled a work session to complete its review of applicants for boards and commissions. The Council’s first regularly scheduled meeting is scheduled for next Tuesday. The city is twinned with its neighbor, Bristol, Tennessee, which has a larger population of over 27,000. The twin cities’ heritage dates back more than 250 years to when Evan Shelby came to the area in 1766—an area once inhabited by Cherokee Indians. At first, Mr. Shelby had settled his family at Big Camp Meet—the current day site of the twin border cities, but a site then which Shelby had renamed Sapling Grove, where he built a in 1774 on a hill overlooking what is today downtown Bristol, but which was then a key stop on an expanding nation’s road West for early American explorers such as Daniel Boone and George Rogers Clark—a fort known as Shelby’s Station. Nearly a century later, in 1853, Joseph Anderson, when surveyors projected a junction of two railroad lines at the Virginia-Tennessee state line, Reverend James King conveyed much of his acreage to his son-in-law, Joseph R. Anderson, who then laid out the original town of Bristol, Tennessee/Virginia. About that time, Samuel Goodson, who owned land adjoining the original town of Bristol at the Virginia-Tennessee border, with Beaver Creek serving as the dividing line between the two colonies, began a development known as Goodsonville; however, he was unable to incorporate Bristol across the state lines of Tennessee and Virginia. Three years later, in 1856, Goodsonville and the original Bristol, Virginia were merged to form the composite town of Goodson, Virginia—the very year when the Virginia and Tennessee Railroads reached the cities, with, ergo, two depots, one in Bristol, Tennessee, and the other in Goodson, Virginia; albeit the depot located in Goodson continued to be referred to as Bristol, Virginia. Thirty-four years later, Goodson, Virginia once again took the name Bristol. In 1998, Congress declared Bristol the “Birthplace of Country Music,” in recognition of its contributions to early country music recordings and influence.

Contiguous to the Virginia Bristol is Tennessee, Bristol, with a slightly greater population of around 25,000, has a median income for a household in the city just over $30,039. Nevertheless, despite their abutments, the twin municipalities have starkly different fiscal situations—with the southern twin in Tennessee in fiscal health, but its northern Virginia twin in a near fiscal crisis, seemingly overwhelmed with debt—even after assistance from the Commonwealth of Virginia helped avert deep cuts in funding for the municipality’s public schools. At present, it appears that interest payments by the city are on a course to consume as much as a quarter of the city’s operating budget—or, as City Manager Randall Eads put it: “We’re about as low as you can go and not have cuts to services…We are truly rebuilding this city from the foundation up.”

While the Commonwealth of Virginia does not specifically authorize chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, the state’s courts, six years ago, ruled that “local governing bodies have only those powers expressly granted, those necessarily or fairly implied from expressly granted powers, and those that are essential and indispensable” (see Sinclair v. New Cingular Wireless PCS, 283 Va. 567,576 (Va. 2012), the state’s Dillon Rule compounds the fiscal quandary, providing that if “[T]here is a reasonable doubt about whether legislative power exists, the doubt must be resolved against the local governing body.”

Nevertheless, as the Commonwealth’s Auditor of Public Accounts, Martha Mavredes notes: “The state takes great pride in fiscal soundness and when localities start to falter, that reflects poorly on the state.” Indeed, as we have previously noted, the Commonwealth, two years ago, as Petersburg teetered on the verge of insolvency, had tasked Ms. Mavredes to develop a municipal fiscal early-warning system—a system which, in its first report, put Bristol, along with Petersburg, at the head.

Manager Eads noted: “One of the biggest things we have to overcome as a city is our demographics,” referring to the fiscal challenge in a municipality where nearly a quarter of its residents are in poverty, with more than 40% on some of government assistance, and more than 80% of its school population eligible. That is, it has become clear to Mr. Eads that a new fiscal approach will be necessary.

A Tale of Two Cities. In one area where distinguishing one Bristol from another is enabled by small brass plaques embedded down the center line of State Street which have “Tennessee” on one side and “Virginia” on the other, the twin, bi-state municipalities share a library and an emergency dispatch system; they have connected water systems, and they share payments for the electric bills to finance the neon signs over State Street, which read: “A good place to live.” The twin cities’ city halls are just blocks apart.

However, as we know, looks can be deceiving. Here, the issue of waste appears to have precipitated the fiscal parting of ways: the Virginia Bristol’s old landfill reached capacity about two decades ago; so the municipality opted to construct a new one in a 20-acre limestone pit—one in which the walls were porous. In order to prevent seepage of dangerous chemicals, the city had to purchase a new lining for the landfill walls nearly every other year‒at a cost of $1.2 million each time. That meant, with fees insufficient to cover operating and maintenance costs, the municipality was adding to its debt: currently, Bristol is trying to finance more than $30 million in debt from the landfill, forcing the city to write off $22 million siphoned from the general fund to cover expenses.

Even as unanticipated expenses have soared, the city’s tax base has eroded, hard hit by the collapse of the coal industry, especially in the wake of one of the nation’s largest coal companies, Alpha Natural Resources, headquartered in the city, filing for bankruptcy twelve years ago—at almost the same time as Ball Corp. moved its metal lid-making plant to Mexico. A commercial area developed just off I-81 in the 1990s began to sour. The combination appeared to contribute to the consequent closure of Bristol Mall.

Looking for a fiscal and commercial recovery, the city’s leaders opted to try to enter the commercial real estate business, creating The Falls, intended to be a $260 million hub of restaurants and shops—albeit without, mayhap, closely examining how such a commercial development would be affected by an even larger such development in adjacent Tennessee—where the Tennessee General Assembly had enacted legislation intended to assist its border cities compete with rivals in other states. Because the Volunteer State has no personal income tax, but it has sales tax of up to 9.75%, or nearly double Virginia’s, the difference appears to have been an important factor in providing incentives for those who reside near the border between the two states to opt to reside in Tennessee, but shop in Virginia. The new law allowed developers who built retail within 15 miles of a border to recoup some of the sales and use tax, making projects more attractive.

That led one entrepreneur, Steve Johnson to purchase a 200-acre piece of property, valued at close to $250 million, called The Pinnacle, a complex made up of a million square feet of shops and restaurants, anchored by a Bass Pro Shop, CarMax, Marshalls, and a Belk department store. Unsurprisingly, local Bristol, Virginia officials asked Mr. Johnson to consider developing The Falls instead, pressing the Virginia Legislature to enact provisions for sales and use tax revenue rebates for project developers. In the meantime, Mr. Johnson decided developing the site would be too expensive to level and grade, the roads were too small, and the location was just wrong. Undeterred, the city found another developer, so that, today, The Pinnacle counts nearly 70 merchants, while The Falls has fewer than 10. Thus, instead of helping the city deal with its landfill debt burden, The Falls has significantly added to the fiscal quandary, adding nearly $48 million to the city’s debt—and its political dissatisfaction.

Indeed, unsurprisingly, voters tossed all five Councilmembers from office, electing a slate which included two write-in candidates—and a Council which, early last year, hired a new City Attorney, Randall Eads, who had been a criminal defense attorney, perhaps a key factor in a region which has experienced a plague of methamphetamines and prescription drug abuse. Within six months, the Council removed the then city manager and asked Mr. Eads to step in—perhaps a step that opened his eyes to how grave the city’s physical and fiscal challenges were. In a city beset by such serious drug abuse, one of his first challenges was where to host the perpetrators: the city’s jail, after all, had a capacity of 67 inmates, but, in March, 240 prisoners: the escalating drug crisis meant overcrowding in the municipal jail, and unanticipated costs for those who could not be squeezed in at a regional holding facility at a cost of $38 per inmate per day.

That forced Mr. Eads to see if he could find a way to reduce the inmate population, leading him to propose an alternative punishment program for nonviolent offenders, one which would help them find work and subject them to regular drug testing. Simultaneously, Mr. Eads has been replacing city department heads and working to build morale; he has even been paying for staff picnics out of his pocket. However, it seems as if he has been trying to climb out of a sand hole: absent fiscal changes, the municipality anticipates it will soon face a $2.4 million annual shortfall in debt service payments.

But just on the other side of the state line, in another Bristol City Hall (Tennessee), Bristol City Manager Bill Sorah, who has previous experience in the Virginia Bristol, notes the legal distinctions, especially the differences in the constitutional status of each city: The Commonwealth of Virginia is the only state in which municipalities are independent entities: they are not incorporated as art of the surrounding county. In contrast, Tennessee’s Bristol is a unit of the surrounding Sullivan County: ergo, it faces no problem with inmate overcrowding, no criminal courts to finance, no jail, and no public school system. It has the legal authority denied its counterpart to annex land—authority unavailable on the other side of the border, where Virginia has had a moratorium on annexation for nearly four decades—one the General Assembly recently extended to 2024.

Searching for fiscal solutions. Earlier this year, Virginia Auditor Mavredes granted Bristol $100,000 to hire a consultant to help determine potential fiscal solutions—help which Manager Eads is sure to appreciate—or, as he put it: “We’re in it…so now we’ve got to fix it.” Thus, the city has jacked up fees at the landfill and is pressing ahead with The Falls, and is focusing on putting together a fiscal blueprint to pay down debt and build cash reserves. Indeed, rather than let his city go to pot, he is even entertaining the potential lease from local investors to purchase the shuttered Bristol Mall: the investors are interested in financing a local start-up, Dharma Pharmaceuticals, which wants to convert the vast facility into an operation producing cannabidiol, the marijuana derivative which the Commonwealth Virginia recently approved for treating certain illnesses—meaning the abandoned Penney and Belk buildings could go to pot.

With city’s fiscal year beginning at the end of this week, city leaders have been looking ahead: Mayor Kevin Mumpower outlined his short-term priorities at the beginning of this week’s City Council meeting, and City Manager Randy Eads reported he had an agenda, but would defer presenting it until after the meeting. Mayor Mumpower said many of his goals focus on the city’s long-term fiscal fortunes: “We don’t want the city to ever get to the place it got two years ago. We want it stable and moving forward, so we’re going to look at the charter, see what we can do to refine it and maybe present a few things to the state legislature to draft for us to solidify the city’s financial footing…We know future Councils can undo what we do, but, the way I look at it, that’s on them. Our responsibility is to try to do the right thing.”

The Mayor noted that this could turn out to be a lengthy, detailed process to determine reasonable thresholds so that, in the future, there would be fiscal strictures on borrowing. He reported that his second priority would be promoting economic development and hiring an economic development coordinator—someone with a focus on attracting new businesses to the city. He described a third priority to develop a program to provide inmates job opportunities in order to reduce recidivism and the city’s expensive jail population, noting: “We want to establish that inmate work release program. That is going to be a home run if Randy [Eads], the Sheriff and the Commonwealth’s Attorney can figure this out: We’ve already had several meetings about how we would train these inmates, get them certified, give them a skill set so they’re employable. That would save the city $500,000 to $750,000 a year—that one goal. If that’s successful, it would be a really big deal for the city.”

A second is completion of a state-funded study of the city’s solid waste landfill operations, with that coming as the Council had just voted to increase residential trash collection by $4 per month in order to help offset operating costs, or, as the Mayor put it: “We need to figure out what we’re going to do with our last big albatross: We’re subsidizing the landfill $500,000 this year—it was $1 million—but we’ve done that at the expense of the community.” Finally, Mayor Mumpower reported his last priority would be to establish restricted funds where funds would be set aside for specific needs, including key capital needs such as a fire truck, a school building fund, and another exclusively to pay down debt service: “We need to have money set aside only for those purchases so we don’t have to worry about where those funds are coming from.”

Post Municipal Bankruptcy Election, and How Does a City, County, State, or Territory Balance Schools versus Debt?

June 4, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider tomorrow’s primary in post-chapter 9 municipally bankrupt Stockton, and the harsh challenges of getting schooled in Puerto Rico.

Taking New Stock in Stockton? It was Trick or Treat Day in Stockton, in 2014, when Chris McKenzie, the former Executive Director of the California League of Cities described to us, from the U.S. Bankruptcy Court courtroom, Judge Christopher Klein’s rejection of the claims of the remaining holdout creditor, Franklin Templeton Investments, and approved the City of Stockton’s proposed Chapter 9 Bankruptcy Plan of Adjustment. Judge Klein had, earlier, ruled that the federal chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy law preempted California state law and made the city’s contract with the state’s public retirement system, CalPERS, subject to impairment by the city in the Chapter 9 proceeding. Judge Klein determined that that contract was inextricably tied to Stockton’s collective bargaining agreements with various employee groups. The Judge also had stressed that, because the city’s employees were third party beneficiaries of Stockton’s contract with CalPERS, that, contrary to Franklin’s assertion that CalPERS was the city’s largest creditor; rather it was the city’s employees—employees who had experienced substantial reductions in both salaries and pension benefits—effectively rejecting Franklin’s assertion that the employees’ pensions were given favorable treatment in the Plan of Adjustment. Judge Klein, in his opinion, had detailed all the reductions since 2008 (not just since the filing of the case in 2012) which had collectively ended the prior tradition of paying above market salaries and benefits to Stockton employees. Moreover, his decision included the loss of retiree health care,  reductions in positions, salaries and employer pension contributions, and approval of a new pension plan for new hires—a combination which Judge Klein noted meant that any further reductions, as called for by Franklin, would have made city employees “the real victims” of the proceeding. We had also noted that Judge Klein, citing an earlier disclosure by the city of over $13 million in professional services and other costs, had also commented that the high cost of Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy proceedings should be an object lesson for everyone about why Chapter 9 bankruptcy should not be entered into lightly.

One key to the city’s approved plan of debt adjustment was the provision for a $5.1 million contribution for canceling retiree health benefits; however a second was the plan’s focus on the city’s fiscal future: voter approval to increase the city’s sales and use tax to 9 percent, a level expected to generate about $28 million annually, with the proceeds to be devoted to restoring city services and paying for law enforcement.

Moody’s, in its reading of the potential implications of that decision opined that Judge Klein’s ruling could set up future challenges from California cities burdened by their retiree obligations to CalPERS, with Gregory Lipitz, a vice president and senior credit officer at Moody’s, noting: “Local governments will now have more negotiating leverage with labor unions, who cannot count on pensions as ironclad obligations, even in bankruptcy.” A larger question, however, for city and county leaders across the nation was with regard to the potential implications of Judge Klein’s affirmation of Stockton’s plan to pay its municipal bond investors pennies on the dollar while shielding public pensions.

Currently, the city derives its revenues for its general fund from a business tax, fees for services, its property tax, sales tax, and utility user tax. Stockton’s General Fund reserve policy calls for the City to maintain a 17% operating reserve (approximately two months of expenditures) and establishes additional reserves for known contingencies, unforeseen revenue changes, infrastructure failures, and catastrophic events.  The known contingencies include amounts to address staff recruitment and retention, future CalPERS costs and City facilities. The policy establishes an automatic process to deposit one-time revenue increases and expenditure savings into the reserves.  

So now, four years in the wake of its exit from chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, Republican businessman  and gubernatorial candidate John Cox has delivered one-liners and a vow to take back California in a campaign stop in Stockton before tomorrow’s primary election, asking prospective voters: “Are you ready for a Republican governor in 2018?”

According to the polls, this could be an unexpectedly tight race for the No. 2 spot against former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a Democrat. (In the primary, the two top vote recipients will determine which two candidates will face off in the November election.) Currently, Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom is ahead. Republicans have the opportunity to “take back the state of California,” however, candidate Cox said to a group of more than 130 men and women at Brookside Country Club—telling his audience that California deserves and needs an honest and efficient government, which has been missing, focusing most of his speech on what he said is California’s issue with corruption and cronyism worse than his former home state of Illinois. He vowed that, if elected, he would end “the sanctuary protections in the state’s cities.”

Seemingly absent from the debate leading up to this election are vital issues to the city’s fiscal future, especially Forbes’s 2012 ranking Stockton as the nation’s “eighth most miserable city,” and because of its steep drop in home values and high unemployment, and the National Insurance Crime Bureau’s ranking of the city as seventh in auto theft—and its ranking in that same year as the tenth most dangerous city in the U.S., and second only to Oakland as the most dangerous city in the state.

President Trump, a week ago last Friday, endorsed candidate Cox, tweeting: “California finally deserves a great Governor, one who understands borders, crime, and lowering taxes. John Cox is the man‒he’ll be the best Governor you’ve ever had. I fully endorse John Cox for Governor and look forward to working with him to Make California Great Again.” He followed that up with a message that California is in trouble and needs a manager, which is why Trump endorsed him, tweeting: “We will truly make California great again.”

Puerto Rico’s Future? Judge Santiago Cordero Osorio of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico Superior Court last Friday issued a provisional injunction order for the Department of Education to halt the closure of six schools located in the Arecibo educational region—with his decision coming in response to a May 24th complaint by Xiomara Meléndez León, mother of two students from one of the affected schools, and with support in her efforts by the legal team of the Association of Teachers of Puerto Rico. The cease and desist order applies to all administrative proceedings intended to close schools in the muncipios of Laurentino Estrella Colon, Camuy; Hatillo; Molinari, Quebradillas; Vega Baja; Arecibo; and Lares—with Judge Cordero Osorio writing: “What this court has to determine is that according to the administrative regulations and circular letters of the Department of Education, there is and has been applied a formula that establishes a just line for the closure without passion and without prejudice to those schools that thus understand merit close.”  

With so many leaving Puerto Rico for the mainland, the issue with regard to education becomes both increasingly vital, while at the same time, increasingly hard to finance—but also difficult to ascertain fiscal equity—or as one of the litigants put it to the court: “The plaintiff in this case has clearly established on this day that there is much more than doubt as to whether the Department of Education is in effect applying this line in a fair and impartial manner.” Judge Osorio responded that “this court appreciates the evidence presented so far that the action of the Department of Education regarding the closure of schools borders on arbitrary, capricious, and disrespectful;” he also ruled that the uncertainty he saw in the testimonies of the case had created “irreparable emotional damage worse than the closing of schools,” as he ordered Puerto Rico Education Secretary Julia Keleher to appear before him a week from today at a hearing wherein Secretary Keleher must present evidence of the procedures and arguments that the Department took into consideration for the closures.  

Meléndez León, the mother who appears as a plaintiff in the case, stated she had resorted to this legal path because the Department of Education had never provided her with concrete explanations with regard to why Laurentino Estrella School in Camuy, which her children attend, had been closed—or, as she put it: “The process that the Department of Education used to select closure schools has never been clarified to the parents: we were never notified.” At the time of the closure, the school had 186 students—of which 62 belonged to Puerto Rico’s Special Education program—and another six were enrolled in the Autism Program. Now, she faces what might be an unequal challenge: one mother versus a huge bureaucracy—where the outcome could have far-reaching impacts. The Education Department, after all, last April proposed the consolidation of some 265 schools throughout the island.

The Steep & Ethical Challenges in Roads to Fiscal Recovery

October 17, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the ongoing recovery in Detroit from the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history; then we turn to the Constitution State, Connecticut, as the Governor and State Legislature struggle to reach consensus on a budget, before, finally, returning to Petersburg, Virginia to try to reflect on the ethical dimensions of fiscal challenges.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

The Motor City Road to Recovery.  The City of Detroit has issued a request seeking proposals to lead a tender offer and refunding of its financial recovery municipal bonds with the goal of reducing the costs of its debt service, with bids due by the end of next week, all as a continuing part of its chapter 9 plan of debt adjustment. The city has issued $631 million of unsecured B1 and B2 notes and $88 million of unsecured C notes. The bulk of the issuance is intended to secure the requisite capital to pay off various creditors, via so-called term bonds, 30-year municipal debt at a gradually sliding interest rate of 4% for the first two decades, and then 6% over the final decade, as the debt is structured to be interest-only for the first 10 years, before amortizing principal over the remainder of the term, with the city noting: “It is the city’s goal to alleviate the significant escalation of debt service during the period when principal on the B Notes begins to amortize, and that any transaction resulting from this RFP process be executed as early as possible in the first quarter of 2018.” According to Detroit Finance Director John Naglick, “Those bonds are traded very close to par, because people view them as very secure…Those bondholders feel really comfortable because they see the intercept doing what it was designed to do.” The new borrowing is the city’s third since its exit from chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, with the prior two issued via the Michigan Finance Authority. Last week the city announced plans to utilize the private placement of $125 million in municipal bonds, also through the Michigan Finance Authority, provided the issuance is approved by both the Detroit City Council and the Detroit Financial Review commission, with the bonds proposed to be secured by increased revenues the Motor City is receiving from its share of state gas taxes and vehicle registration fees.

Fiscal TurmoilConnecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy yesterday released his fourth fiscal budget proposal—with the issuance coming as he awaits ongoing efforts by leaders in the state legislature attempting to reach consensus on a two-year state budget, declaring: “This is a lean, no-frills, no-nonsense budget…Our goals were simple in putting this plan together: eliminate unpopular tax increases, incorporate ideas from both parties, and shrink the budget and its accompanying legislation down to their essential parts. It is my sincere hope this document will aid the General Assembly in passing a budget that I can sign into law.” The release came as bipartisan leaders from the state legislature were meeting for the 11th day behind closed doors in a so far unrewarding effort to agree on a budget to bring to the Governor—whose most recent budget offer had removed some of the last-minute revenue ideas included in the Democratic budget proposal. Nevertheless, that offer gained no traction with Republican legislators: it had proposed cuts in social services, security, and clean energy—or, as the Governor described it: “This is a stripped down budget.” Specifically, the Governor had proposed an additional $144 million in spending cuts from the most recent Democratic budget proposal, including: nearly $5 million from tax relief for elderly renters; $5.4 million for statewide marketing through the Department of Economic and Community Development; $292,000 in grants for mental health services; $11.8 million from the Connecticut Home Care Program over two years, and; about $1.8 million from other safety net services. His proposed budget would eliminate the state cellphone tax and a statewide property tax on second homes in Connecticut, as proposed by the Democrats; it also proposes the elimination of the 25 cent fee on ridesharing services, such as Uber and Lyft, and it reduces the amount of money Democrats wanted to take from the Green Bank, which helps fund renewable energy projects. His proposal also recommends cutting about $3.3 million each year from the state legislature’s own budget and eliminates the legislative Commissions for women, children, seniors, and minority communities—commissions which had already been reduced from six to two over the past two years. The Governor’s revised budget proposal would cut the number of security staff at the capitol complex to what it was before the metal detectors were implemented—proposed to achieve savings of about $325,000 annually, and the elimination of the Contracting Standards Board, which the state created a decade ago in response to two government scandals—here for a savings of $257,000.

For the state’s municipalities, the Governor’s offer proposes phasing in an unfunded state mandate that municipalities start picking up the normal cost of the teachers’ pension fund: Connecticut municipalities would be mandated to contribute a total of about $91 million in the first year, and $189 million in the second year of the budget—contributions which would be counted as savings for the state—and would be less steep than Gov. Malloy had initially proposed, but still considerably higher than many municipalities may have expected. Indeed, Betsy Gara, the Executive Director of the Council for Small Towns, described the latest gubernatorial budget proposal as a “Swing and a miss: The revised budget proposal continues to shift teachers’ pension costs to towns in a way that will overwhelm property taxpayers,” adding that if the state decides to go in this direction, they will be forced to take legal action, because requiring towns to pick up millions of dollars in teachers’ pension costs without any ability to manage those costs going forward is ‘simply unfair.’” Moreover, she noted, it violates the 2008 bond covenant.

In his revised new budget changes, Gov. Malloy has proposed cutting the Education Cost Sharing grant, reducing magnet school funding by about $15 million a year, and eliminating ECS funding immediately for 36 communities. The proposal to eliminate the ECS funding would likely encounter not just legislative challenges, but also judicial: it was just a year ago that a Connecticut judge’s sweeping ruling had declared vast portions of the state’s educational system as unconstitutional, when Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher ruled that Connecticut’s state funding mechanism for public schools violated the state’s constitution and ordered the state to come up with a new funding formula—and mandated the state to set up a mandatory standard for high school graduation, overhaul evaluations for public-school teachers, and create new standards for special education in the wake of a lawsuit filed against the state in 2005 by a coalition of cities, local school boards, parents and their children, who had claimed Connecticut did not give all students a minimally adequate and equal education. The plaintiffs had sought to address funding disparities between wealthy and poor school districts.

Nevertheless, in the wake of a week where the state’s Democratic and Republican legislative leaders have been holed up in the state Capitol, without Gov. Malloy, combing, line-by-line, through budget documents; they report they have been discussing ways to not only cover a projected $3.5 billion deficit in a roughly $40 billion two-year budget, but also to make lasting fiscal changes in hopes of stopping what has become a cycle of budget crises in one of the nation’s wealthiest states—or, as House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, (D-Berlin) put it: “I think what we’ve done over the last few days has been a really good step forward, and I think we’re moving in the right direction,” even as Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano said what the Governor put forward Monday will not pass the legislature: “It is obvious that the governor’s proposal, including his devastating cuts to certain core services and shifting of state expenses onto towns and cities, would not pass the legislature in its current form. Therefore, legislative leaders will continue our efforts to work on a bipartisan budget that can actually pass.”

Getting Schooled on Budgeting & Debt. Even as the Governor and legislature appear to be achieving some progress, the Connecticut Education Association (CEA) is suing the state over Gov. Dannel Malloy’s executive order which cuts $557 million in school funding from 139 municipalities: Connecticut’s largest teachers union has filed an injunction request in Hartford Superior Court, alleging the order violates state law. (The order eliminates education funding in 85 cities and towns and severely cuts funding in another 54 communities.) The suit contends that without a state budget, Gov. Malloy lacks the authority to cut education funding. The municipalities of Torrington, Plainfield, and Brooklyn joined the initial filing. Association President Sheila Cohen noted: “We can’t sit by and watch our public schools dismantled and students and teachers stripped of essential resources…This injunction is the first step toward ensuring that our state lives up to its commitment and constitutional obligations to adequately fund public education.”

Governance in Fiscal Straits? Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen has questioned the legality of Governor Malloy’s executive order, and Connecticut Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano (R-North Haven) noted: “I think the Governor’s order is in very serious legal trouble.” Nevertheless, the Governor, speaking to reporters at the state capitol, accused the CEA of acting prematurely: “Under normal circumstances, those checks don’t go out until the end of October…Secondarily, they’ll have to handle the issue of the fact that we have a lot less money to spend without a budget than we do with a budget…Their stronger argument might be that we can’t make any payments to communities in the absence of a budget. That one I would be afraid of.”

Municipal Fiscal Ethics? Forensic auditors from PBMares, LLP publicly went over their findings from the forensic audit they conducted into the City of Petersburg, Virginia’s financial books during a special City Council meeting. Even though the audit and its findings were released last week, John Hanson and Mike Garber, who were in charge of the audit for PBMares, provided their report to Council and answered their questions, focusing especially on what they deemed the “ethical tone” of the city government, saying they found much evidence of abuse of city money and city resources: “The perception that employees had was that the ethical tone had not been good for quite some time…The culture led employees to do things they might not otherwise do.” They noted misappropriations of fuel for city vehicles, falsification of overtime hours, vacation/sick leave abuse, use of city property for personal gain including lawn mowers and vehicles for travel, excessive or lavish gifts from vendors, and questionable hiring practices. In response, several Council Members asked whether if some of the employees who admitted to misconduct could be named. Messieurs Garber and Hanson, however, declined to reveal names in public, but said they could discuss it in private with City Manager Aretha Ferrell-Benavides, albeit advising the City Council that the ethical problems seemed to be more “systemic,” rather than individual, adding: “For instance, we looked at fuel data usage…And we could tell just looking at it that it was misused, though it would’ve cost tens of thousands of more dollars to find out who exactly took what.”

In response to apprehensions that the audit was insufficient, the auditors noted that because of the city’s limited budget, the scope of PBMares’ work could only go so far. Former Finance Director Nelsie Birch noted that the audit was tasked with focusing on several “troubling areas,” and that a full forensic audit could have cost much more for a city which had hovered on the brink of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. However, Mr. Hanson noted that while the transgressions would have normally fallen under a conflict of interest policy, such was the culture in Petersburg that the city’s employees either did not know, or were allowed to ignore those policies: “When I asked employees what their conflict of interest or gifts and gratuity policy is, people couldn’t answer that question because they didn’t know.”

 

Looming Municipal Insolvencies?

October 10, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the looming municipal fiscal threat to one of the nation’s oldest municipalities, and the ongoing fiscal, legal, physical, and human challenges to Puerto Rico.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

Cascading Insolvency. One of the nation’s oldest municipalities, Scotland, a small Connecticut city founded in 1700, but not incorporated until 1857, still maintains the town meeting as its form of government with a board of selectmen. It is a town with a declining population of fewer than 1,700, where the most recent median income for a household in the town was $56,848, and the median income for a family was $60,147. It is a town today on the edge of insolvency—in a state itself of the verge of insolvency. The town not only has a small population, but also a tiny business community: there is one farm left in the town, a general store, and several home businesses. Contributing to its fiscal challenges: the state owns almost 2,000 acres—a vast space from which the town may not extract property taxes. In the last six years, according to First Selectman Daniel Syme, only one new home has been built, but the property tax base has actually eroded because of a recent revaluation—meaning that today the municipality has one of the 10 highest mill rates in the state. To add to its fiscal challenges, Gov. Malloy’s executive-order budget has eliminated Connecticut’s payment in lieu of taxes program—even as education consumes 81 percent of Scotland’s $5.9 million taxpayer-approved  budget: under Gov. Malloy’s executive order, Scotland’s Education Cost Sharing grant will be cut by 70 percent—from $1.42 million to $426,900. Scotland has $463,000 in its reserve accounts, or about 9 percent of its annual operating budget—meaning that if the Gov. and legislature are unable to resolve the state budget crisis, the town will have to dip into its reserves—or even consider dissolution or chapter 9 bankruptcy. Should the municipality opt for dissolution, however, there is an unclear governmental future. While in some parts of the country, municipalities can disappear and become unincorporated parts of their counties, that is not an option in Connecticut, nor in any New England state, except Maine, where more than 400 settlements, defined as unorganized territories, have no municipal government—ergo, governmental services are provided by the state and the county. Thus it appears that the fiscal fate of this small municipality is very much dependent on resolution of the state budget stalemate—but where part of the state solution is reducing state aid to municipalities.

Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen has offered a legal opinion which questioned the legality of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s plan to administer municipal aid in the absence of a state budget,  he offered the Governor and the legislature one alternative—draft a new state budget. Similarly, Senate Republican leader Len Fasano (R-North Haven), who requested the opinion and has argued the Governor’s plan would overstep his authority, also conceded there may be no plan the Governor could craft—absent a new budget—which would pass legal muster, writing: “We acknowledge the formidable task the Governor faces, in the exercise of his constitutional obligation to take care that the laws are faithfully executed, to maintain the effective operations of state government in the absence of a legislatively enacted budget.” The fiscal challenge: analysts opine state finances, unless adjusted, would run $1.6 billion deficit this fiscal year, with a key reason attributed to surging public retirement benefits and other debt costs, coupled with declining state income tax receipts:  Connecticut is now about 14 weeks into its new fiscal year without an enacted budget—and the fiscal dysfunction has been aggravated by a dispute between Sen. Fasano and Gov. Malloy over the Governor’s plans to handle a program adopted two years ago designed to share sales and use tax receipts with cities and towns: a portion of those funds would go only to communities with high property tax rates to offset revenues they would lose under a related plan to cap taxes on motor vehicles.

Aggravating Fiscal & Human Disparities. The White House has let a 10-day Jones Act shipping waiver expire for Puerto Rico, meaning a significant increase in the cost of providing emergency supplies to the hurricane-ravaged island from U.S. ports, in the wake of a spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security confirming yesterday that the Jones Act waiver, which expired on Sunday, will not be extended—so that only U.S‒built and‒operated vessels are make cargo shipments between U.S. ports. The repercussions will be fiscal and physical: gasoline and other critical supplies to save American lives will be far more expensive on an island which could be without power for months. The administration had agreed to temporarily lift the Jones Act shipping restrictions for Puerto Rico on September 28th; today, officials have warned that the biggest challenge for relief efforts is getting supplies distributed around Puerto Rico.

Even as President Trump has acted to put more lives and Puerto Rico’s recovery at greater risk, lawmakers in Congress are still pressing to roll back the Jones Act, with efforts led by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), the Chairman of the House Water and Power Subcommittee of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, recently introducing legislation to permanently exempt Puerto Rico from the Jones Act; indeed, at Sen. McCain’s request, the bill has been placed on the Senate calendar under a fast-track procedure that allows it to bypass the normal committee process; it has not, however, been scheduled for any floor time. Sen. McCain stated: “Now that the temporary Jones Act waiver for Puerto Rico has expired, it is more important than ever for Congress to pass my bill to permanently exempt Puerto Rico from this archaic and burdensome law: Until we provide Puerto Rico with long-term relief, the Jones Act will continue to hinder much-needed efforts to help the people of Puerto Rico recover and rebuild from Hurricane Maria.”

The efforts by Sen. McCain and Chairman Lee came as Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, citing an “unprecedented catastrophe,” urged Congress to provide a significant new influx of money in the near term as Puerto Rico is confronted by what he described as “a massive liquidity crisis:” facing an imminent Medicaid funding crisis, putting nearly one million people at risk of losing their health-care coverage: “[a]bsent extraordinary measures to address the halt in economic activity in Puerto Rico, the humanitarian crisis will deepen, and the unmet basic needs of the American citizens of Puerto Rico will become even greater…Financial damages of this magnitude will subject Puerto Rico’s central government, its instrumentalities, and municipal governments to unsustainable cash shortfalls: As a result, in addition to the immediate humanitarian crisis, Puerto Rico is on the brink of a massive liquidity crisis that will intensify in the immediate future.” Even before Hurricane Maria caused major damage to Puerto Rico’s struggling health-care system, the U.S. territory’s Medicaid program barely had enough funds left to last through the next year; now, however, nearly 900,000 U.S. citizens face the loss of access to Medicaid—more than half of total Puerto Rican enrollment, according to federal estimates: experts predict that unless Congress acts, the federal funding will be exhausted in a matter of months, and, if that happens, Puerto Rico will be responsible for covering all its costs going forward, or, as Edwin Park, Vice President for health policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes: “Unless there’s an assurance of stable and sufficient funding…[the health system] is headed toward a collapse.” Nearly half of Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million residents participate in Medicaid; however, because Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, not a state, Puerto Rico receives only 57 percent of a state’s Medicaid benefits. Under the Affordable Care Act, Puerto Rico received a significant infusion, of about $6.5 billion, to last through FY2019, and, last May, Congress appropriated an additional $300 million. However, those funds were already running low prior to Hurricane Maria, a storm which not only physically and fiscally devastated Puerto Rico and its economy, but also, with the ensuing loss of jobs, meant a critical increase in Medicaid eligibility.

The White House submitted a $29 billion request for disaster assistance; however, none of it was earmarked for Puerto Rico’s Medicaid program. House Energy and Commerce Committee Republicans have proposed giving Puerto Rico an additional $1 billion over the next two years as part of a must-pass bill to fund the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), with one GOP aide stating the $1 billion is specifically meant to address the Medicaid cliff. Adding more uncertainty: the Senate has not given any indication if it will take up legislation to address Puerto Rico’s Medicaid cliff: The Senate Finance Committee passed its CHIP bill this past week, without any funding for Puerto Rico attached. 

In a three-page letter sent to Congressional leaders, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló is requesting more than $4 billion from various agencies and loan program to “meet the immediate emergency needs of Puerto Rico,” writing that while “We are grateful for the federal emergency assistance that has been provided so far; however, [should aid not be available in a timely manner], “This could lead to an acceleration of the high pace of out-migration of Puerto Rico residents to the U.S. mainland impacting a large number of states as diverse as Florida, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Indiana, Wisconsin, Ohio, Texas, and beyond.”

On Puerto Rico’s debt front, with the PROMESA Board at least temporarily relocated to New York City, President Trump has roiled the island’s debt crisis with his suggestion that Puerto Rico’s $73 billion in municipal bond debt load may get erased—or, as he put it: “You can say goodbye to that,” in an interview on Fox News, an interview which appeared to cause a nose dive in the value of Puerto Rico’s municipal bonds, notwithstanding his lack of any authority to unilaterally forgive Puerto Rico’s debt. Indeed, within 24 hours, OMB Budget Director Mick Mulvaney discounted the President’s comments: he said the White House does not intend to become involved in Puerto Rico’s debt restructuring. Indeed, the Trump administration last week sent Congress a request for $29 billion in disaster aid for Puerto Rico, including $16 billion for the government’s flood-insurance program and nearly $13 billion for hurricane relief efforts, according to a White House official. No matter what, however, that debt front looms worse: Gov. Rosselló has warned Puerto Rico could lose up to two months of tax collections as its economic activity is on hold and residents wait for power and basic necessities. Bringing some rational perspective to the issue, House Natural Resource Committee Chair, Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), said the current debt restructuring would proceed under the PROMESA Oversight Board: “Part of the reason to have a board was to have a logical approach [to the debt restructuring]. We need to have this process played out…There’s not going to be one quick panacea to a situation that has developed over a long time…I don’t think it’s time to jump around…when we already have a structure to work with.” Chairman Bishop noted that Hurricane Maria’s devastation would require the board to revise its 10-year fiscal plan, with the goal to achieve a balanced budget pushed back from the current target of FY2019; at the same time, however, Chairman Bishop repeated that the Board must retain its independence from Congress. He also said Congress would consider extending something like the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act to the U.S. Virgin Islands—an action which would open the door to a debt restructuring for the more than $2 billion in public sector Virgin Islands municipal debt.

The godfather of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, Jim Spiotto, noted that it would be Congress, rather than the President, which would pass any municipal bankruptcy legislation, patiently reminding us: “You can’t just use an edict to wipe out debt: If Congress were to wipe out debt, there would be constitutional challenges…Past efforts to repudiate debt debts have had very serious consequences in terms of future access to capital markets and cost of borrowing.” In contrast, if the federal government were to provide something like the Marshall Plan to Puerto Rico, Mr. Spiotto added: the economy could strengthen, and Puerto Rico would be in a position to pay off some its debts.

Physical & Fiscal Storms

September 20, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the fiscal challenge confronting the small Virginia municipality of Pound; then we turn to the fiscal and physical storms pounding the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

Pound fiscally pounded. The Council of the small Virginia Town of Pound, the original home of former U-2 pilot Gary Powers, with a population under 1,200, where the median income for a household is under $30,000, confronted by an inability to make payroll and pay other bills due has unanimously agreed in an emergency meeting to borrow enough to pay employees, but not any other outstanding obligations. The Mayor and interim Town Manager George Dean advised the Council that resources in the general fund get low about this time every year; this year, he noted, however, the town has experienced some unanticipated expenditures; thus it needed to tap into its line of credit. As factors, Manager Dean identified unbudgeted overtime, especially in the police department, as the single biggest problem.  He added: “I did not budget to have a chief of police and an assistant police chief in the office side by side,” adding the town could not sustain the current level of overtime. In response, Councilman Terry Short said that with eight officers, there should be no need for overtime, asking how the officers are receiving more overtime than is budgeted. The Manager responded: “You have to ask him,” referring to Chief Tony Baker—which unsurprisingly led Councilman Clifton Cauthorne to note that the town manager is in charge of the finances. But Manager Dean was clear: “I’m not telling the Chief of Police how to run his department: You all need to address that.”  But Councilmember Short noted that when four full-time officers are receiving more than 100 hours of overtime, “we’ve got a problem.”  Town clerk and bookkeeper Jenny Carter, however, said the Police Department was not the only position drawing overtime out of the general fund, telling Council her position also is paid through that account, and she logs considerable overtime, because the office is so understaffed. She had four meetings last month, Ms. Carter noted, and it took 23 and a half hours to type up all those minutes. So, how much was budgeted, Councilman Danny Stanley asked. Eight hours, Ms. Dean responded. While there was some discussion that the seasonal financial crush should ease when the town converts to a twice-annually billing cycle, Ms. Carter said she was confident that will resolve matters in the future; however, she also suggested Council consider increasing the town’s line of credit—a suggestion Councilmember Cauthorne was quick to oppose, noting: “I feel that is like giving a drunk more booze,” adding this was not the first year the town has run into this fiscal problem—or, as one of his colleagues added: “[it] just continues to snowball,” overspending every year, robbing Peter to pay Paul, borrowing money it does not have and without a method to pay it back. Asked how much the town has repaid of its original debt, Ms. Dean said the town still owes the bank about $65,000, adding the town has access to roughly $35,000 available of a $100,000 line of credit, while Ms. Carter said the town is negative $24,500 in the general fund, with open payables of almost another $10,000. If the Council is going to put any more on the line of credit, Councilman Cauthorne made clear he wants to revisit automatic spending cuts—reminding his colleagues that Pound had adopted a plan in 2014 to trigger automatic cuts if the town ever reached $55,000 of its line of credit—an action the Council rescinded a year later.

Councilmember Short said the town’s internal controls require use of time cards, and other kinds of time sheets have not been approved, moving to mandate immediately that all employees use time cards as required by Pound’s internal controls policy: he further noted that the town has a budget and has policies and procedures to control operations, adding: “All we have to do is follow it. It’s that simple.” Council unanimously endorsed requiring time cards as per existing policy. Councilmember Short then moved that all overtime require approval of the town manager, including the police force, but Manager Dean immediately objected, stating: “That’s not going to work,” adding he was not going to comply and Council would have to figure out who was going to tell the police chief, adding: “I am not in control of the chief of police’s overtime hours…He works for you…We’ve got a financial problem here and we’ve got to do something about it: the Council is being asked to borrow money to pay for bills which “we are not controlling.” With regard to employees spending more money than is budgeted, he added: “I don’t know of any business that works like that. If they do, it ain’t long before they are out of business…” He noted they are obligating all taxpayers in the town when they sign contracts borrowing money and citizens are financially obligated to repay that money if the town goes under.

Fiscal & Physical Storms. Promesa Oversight Board Executive Director Natalie Jaresko, in an interview with the Bond Buyer, warned that Puerto Rico is confronted by what this morning could be the strongest hurricane to ever hit the U.S. territory, further decimating public utilizes and forcing the virtually insolvent government to rebuild dozens of communities. But she also said she anticipated Puerto Rico’s fiscal ability to make its requisite municipal bond payments should improve after nine years, expressing optimism with regard to Puerto Rico’s future and the PROMESA board’s relationship with the government of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló—albit, she added, the next few years of reform will inevitably be tough: the PROMESA Board does not expect Puerto Rico to return to nominal gross national product growth until FY2022 and inflation-adjusted growth until FY2024, adding that by the end of the next decade, she anticipates Puerto Rico’s economy to be growing, noting: “In the years 11 to 40 there’s bound to be more cash in all the estimates available for debt service: So creditors shouldn’t only focus on the 10 years.” She added that the Board is working on a “plan of adjustment” for the debt, as provided under PROMESA, albeit she was uncertain when the plan would be publicly released. With regard to timing, she said, in the interview, that Judge Swain has said she plans to rule by mid-December on the dispute between the Puerto Rico Sales Tax Financing Corp. (COFINA) and Puerto Rico over the ownership of sales tax proceeds allotted for the former. Once this is done, she noted, Puerto Rico may pay some of the debt due this fiscal year, adding that work on restructuring all of Puerto Rico’s public sector debt is proceeding simultaneously on three tracks: in negotiations, in the private mediation process overseen by Barbara Houser, and in the Title III litigation process overseen by Judge Swain. She added that the PROMESA Board is working with PREPA and parts of Gov. Rosselló’s administration to adopt a new fiscal plan for PREPA, noting that lowering Puerto Rico’s electric rates would be a vital step for enhancing the economy—albeit Hurricane Maria appears to have very different implications.

With regard to the relationship between the PROMESA Board and the Governor, the Director was generally positive, adding she said she was satisfied with government’s progress in releasing financial information to the board, noting that the Rosselló administration is providing the PROMESA board a report comparing budgeted to actual spending department by department, as well as weekly reports on cash and liquidity, adding that Puerto Rico is moving towards better accounting practices.

Interestingly, the Director said the experience she gained from her service as the Minister of Finance for Ukraine from 2014–2016, taught her “implementation is everything.” Last month, she said, a lack of implementation plans had led the PROMESA Board to order Puerto Rico to institute furloughs, noting: “There are governments aplenty that can adopt plans, adopt laws, have full commitment and desire to change but implementation at an agency level in a bureaucracy is extremely difficult: that is the key to success,” adding that she believes the Rosselló administration has been “committed” to the fiscal plan: “If you take the case of right-sizing the government, I have no doubt there is a desire and intent and it is part of the public campaign of the governor to right-size the government. So I don’t think there’s not an alignment in the goal.” Nevertheless, as she put it—and as we have learned from Pound: “[T]he devil will be in the details of the implementation and enforcement of the fiscal plan, and that is the biggest lesson learned [from the Ukraine.]” to execute cuts in an agency, the agency can run out of money eight or nine months into the fiscal year, she said. “Then the agency usually turns to the central government for an additional allocation to continue operations…“There is a general fatigue among creditors [with Puerto Rico’s continuing problems] and I understand that because they have been dealing with these problems for years. But the problems that grew didn’t evolve overnight and didn’t evolve over one year and resolving them is also going to take time.”

It is unclear what level of fiscal planning will be sufficient today as Hurricane Maria, bringing sustained winds of 160 miles per hour (mph) appears relentlessly approaching—with the government insisting its the priority is to save lives, even as it continues to deal with the after effects of Hurricane Irma, which passed tens of miles above the north coast. The National Weather Service warned: “It is catastrophic in every way, winds, rain and storm surge. We are talking about an extremely dangerous event.” Along with winds of 160 mph and even higher gusts, Maria was predicted to bring 12 to 18 inches of rain, and up to 25 inches for isolated areas in Puerto Rico: the storm surge is estimated from 6 to 9 feet, with large breaking waves that could reach 25 feet. Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares urged citizens and families to seek save havens to prevent the loss of human lives: “We have not experienced an event of this magnitude in our modern history…An event like this has never happened before. Maria is predicted to be the worst atmospheric event in a century in Puerto Rico, and, if we do not take precautions, we will have loss of lives that we could have avoided.” The Governor noted that yesterday afternoon residents had already begun to move in five communities which are threatened due to their location in flood-prone areas: Juana Matos, in Cataño; Playita, in Salinas; Amelia, in Guaynabo; Islote, in Arecibo, and Palo Seco, in Toa Baja: by yesterday afternoon, there was clearance and authorization for opening 499 shelters, 49 more than for Hurricane Irma: the Gov. noted: “The main goal is to save lives. If you are in a flood area, your life is in danger. If you live in a wooden home, your life is in danger.” Already, from the previous Hurricane Irma 27 municipalities in Puerto Rico have already been declared disaster areas. Thus, even as Maria roars in, there are still many, many customers without power, homeless citizens, houses without walls, trees lying on power lines, and debris accumulated along the roads.

At the request of the Puerto Rican government, President Trump had already authorized a new emergency declaration before the arrival Maria: Puerto Rico FEMA Director Alejandro de la Campa indicated that he had requested more equipment from the US Department of Defense: “We are asking for more ships, and the aircraft carrier (available for the emergency) has moved to be in a safe area… And ships with helicopters that we will use in case of evacuation or search and rescue are still in the area.” Nevertheless, due to the fragility of the infrastructure of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), the Governor anticipates Puerto Rico will be without power after the passage of Maria: “No one in Puerto Rico should expect to have power on the days following María. The time it will take us to fix (the damage caused by the hurricane) remains to be seen.” PREPA Executive Director Ricardo Ramos noted that the total recovery of the system after the passage of Hurricane Hugo in 1989 took about six months. One especially cruel threat will be water: Elí Díaz, the Executive Director of the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority, noted: “If there is damage to large generators, there will be no power generation, therefore, our facilities will not have power to operate,” adding that there are approximately 1,300 generators which received preventive maintenance since the beginning of the hurricane season, but they are not enough for their 4,000 facilities, including pumping stations. By yesterday afternoon, they managed to prepare 110 tanker trucks, more than double those used during Irma, and are already managing imports from the port of Jacksonville in agreement with private companies. He added that since last Sunday, the levels of the Carraízo and La Plata dams have been gradually dropped to about three meters in order to prevent them from having to open the emergency flood gates.

For his part, last evening, President Trump tweeted his support: “Puerto Rico being hit hard by new monster Hurricane. Be careful, our hearts are with you-will be there to help!” The eye of the hurricane passed near or over St. Croix last night, prompting U.S. Virgin Islands Gov. Kenneth Mapp to insist that people remain alert. St. Croix was largely spared the widespread damage caused by Hurricane Irma on the chain’s St. Thomas and St. John islands just two weeks ago; however, this time, the island would experience five hours of hurricane force winds, Mapp warned: “For folks in their homes, I really recommend that you not be in any kind of sleepwear: Make sure you have your shoes on. Make sure you have a jacket around.”

The Sinking Ships of States?

September 15, 2017

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s Blog, we consider the ongoing recovery in Detroit from the nation’s largest ever municipal bankruptcy, the unrelenting fiscal challenges for Flint; who voters in the fiscally insolvent municipality of East Cleveland will elect, the steep fiscal erosion for Pennsylvania’s local governments, and the uncertain fiscal outlook for Hartford.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

The Steep Road to Chapter 9 Recovery. Poverty declined and incomes rose last year in the Motor City, marking the first significant income increase recorded by the U.S. Census Bureau since the 2000 census, with Detroiters’ median household income up last year by 7.5% to $28,099 in 2016, according to U.S. Census’ American Community Survey estimates; ergo poverty dropped 4 percentage points to 35.7%‒the lowest level in nearly a decade—perhaps offering a boost to Mayor Mike Duggan’s reelection hopes in November.  Despite the gains, however, Detroit is still the city with the greatest level of poverty in the country—and a city where racial income disparities continue to fester: income data indicates that the incomes of Hispanic and white Detroit residents grew significantly compared to blacks, who make up 79 percent of the city, according to Kurt Metzger, a demographer and director emeritus of Data Driven Detroit, or, as Mr. Metzger writes: “Overall it’s a great story for Detroit…But when you look beneath the surface, we still have a lot of issues. There is a constant narrative out there: Are all boats rising together?” Mayor and candidate for re-election Mike Duggan has made clear he understands there is more work to do: noting that forty-four people graduated last month from the Detroit At Work job training program, which launched last February and from which half have already received job offers, the Mayor told the Detroit News: “Income goes up when one, there is a job opportunity and two, when you have the skills to take advantage of it: As we raise the skills of our residents we will raise the standard of living.” Nevertheless, he added: “Nobody is celebrating a (35.7) percent poverty rate, but the progress is important and it took us years to get here.”

If one looks farther ahead, there might be even more hope: the new data found that fewer of Detroit’s children are living in poverty: the under 18 poverty rate has declined about 14 percent to its lowest level since 2009—albeit still over 50 percent, with the decline attributed to higher numbers of jobs, and, ergo, greater incomes, with Xuan Liu, the manager of research and data analysis for the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments noting that with more residents of the city working (the unemployment rate dropped nearly 25% from 20.6% to its lowest level (16.5%) since 2009), or, as Mr. Liu noted: “Eight years after Great Recession, (census) data is finally show some significant economic benefits for more Detroiters.”

Notwithstanding that good news, it has not been city-wide, but rather concentrated: the city’s 2016 median income remains 14.6% lower today than what residents were earning a decade ago: just $32,886 adjusted for inflation, and while the new census figures show some economic improvements in Detroit, a recent Urban Institute report finds the recovery is not even through the city, noting that tax subsidies and investments are disproportionately favoring downtown and Midtown, with the bulk of the recovery along Detroit River, the Central Businesses District and Lower Woodward Corridor—or, as Mr. Metzger noted, the Motor City still faces a challenge if all of its citizens and families are to participate in the recovery: he notes the 2016 income data shows the gains were realized by Hispanic and white residents, but not for blacks, or as he described it: “The people who are ready and able to take advantage of the turnaround are doing it but those who aren’t, haven’t.” Detroit’s Workforce Development Board has set an employment goal of an additional 40,000 residents to find jobs in the next five years.

Not in like Flint. Unlike Detroit, Flint realized no change in poverty or income: the city so fiscally and physically mismanaged by the State of Michigan via its appointment of a gubernatorial Emergency Manager remains the poorest city in the nation amongst all cities with populations over 65,000: the city’s poverty rate last year was 44.5%; median household income was $25,896—less than half Macomb County’s median household income of $60,143.

Vote! Brandon King is a step closer to remaining Mayor of East Cleveland. Mr. King won the Democratic primary in East Cleveland, with 44.3% of the 1,760 citizens who voted, so that he has narrowed the field: he will continue to defend his seat in November against activist Devin Branch, who is running as a Green Party candidate, after beating out three other candidates for the nomination: former Councilman Mansell Baker, school board President Una Keenon, and community leader Dana Hawkins Jr. Ms. Keenon was the runner-up with 30.3 percent of the vote: she previously served as East Cleveland’s judge. The incumbent, who became Mayor last December after a contentious recall election ousted former Mayor Gary Norton Jr. and Council President Thomas Wheeler, leading to two vacancies on City Council, which council members Barbara Thomas and Nathaniel Martin filled with Mr. Branch and Kelvin Earby—appointees Mr. King decided to be “unlawful,” claiming there were insufficient elected leaders to choose the members, so that he usurped that authority and then appointed his own: Christopher Pitts and Ernest Smith. Unsurprisingly, a lawsuit regarding the appointments is now before the Ohio Supreme Court, even as the city’s petition for chapter 9 remains before the State of Ohio. November will bring elector contests in Ward 3 and for two at-large seats. Notwithstanding that the small municipality of 18,000 is in a state of fiscal emergency, Mayor King has pivoted away from former Mayor Norton’s strategy of trying to merge the city with Cleveland or declare the city in chapter 9 bankruptcy: instead he and the rest of the Democratic candidates want to focus on economic development.

Keystone Municipal Fiscal Erosion. The Pennsylvania Economy League reports that fiscal decay has accelerated in all sizes of municipalities throughout the in its new report: “Communities in Crisis: The Truth and Consequences of Municipal Fiscal Distress in Pennsylvania, 1970-2014,” a report which examines 2,388 of the state’s 2,561 municipalities where consistent data existed from 1970, 1990, and 2014, considering, as variables, the available tax base per household, as well as the tax burden, a percentage of the tax base taken in the form of taxes to support local government services‒after which the municipalities were then divided into five quintiles, from  the wealthiest and most fiscally healthy to the most distressed—with Philadelphia and Pittsburgh excluded due to their size and tax structure. The League found that the tax burden has grown on average for all municipalities since 1990, but that the tax base has fallen, on average, in the state’s municipalities since 1970. In addition, the study determined that municipalities in Pennsylvania’s Act 47 distressed municipality program generally performed worse than average despite state assistance.

The study also found that communities which finance their own local police force, as opposed to those which rely solely on Pennsylvania State Police coverage, had double the municipal tax burden and ranked lower. (Readers can find the report in its entirety on the Pennsylvania Economy League’s website.) The League’s President, Chairman Greg Nowak, noted: “The first part of understanding and doing something about a crisis is understanding what it is,” adding that clearly the League believes the state’s local governments are in a fiscal crisis, comparing the new report to one the League released in 2006, which had warned of oncoming fiscal distress—a report, he noted, which had not galvanized either the state or its municipalities to take action. Gerald Cross, the Executive Director for Pennsylvania Economy League Central, said the study also found that tax bases in cities largely remained stagnant even as the local tax burden increased from 1990 to 2014, noting that all the state’s cities were in bottom-quintile rankings in 2014—and that while tax base generally grew in boroughs and first-class townships, the tax burden there also grew from 1990 to 2014; he added that the trend for second-class townships was mixed: while the tax base increased and more second-class townships moved into healthier quintiles, the tax burden also climbed from 1990 to 2014. Or, as Kevin Murphy, the President of the Berks County Community Foundation, put it: “Pennsylvania’s system of local governments is broken and is harming the people living in our communities: It’s a system that was created here in Harrisburg [the state capitol], and it is Harrisburg which needs to fix it.” Pennsylvania has 4,897 local governments, including 1,756 special districts, cities, towns, and first, second, and third class townships.

The Sinking Ship of State? Notwithstanding Gov. Dannel Malloy’s warning before dawn this morning that “The urgency of the present moment cannot be overstated,” the state’s legislators went home in the wake of failing to approve a two-year, $41 billion budget which would have created an array of new taxes and fees, but avoided any increase in the sales or income tax. Thus, in the wake of all-day fiscal marathon, Republicans sent their members home in a chaotic ending, blaming the inability of the other side had failed to marshal the requisite votes: House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, after the Connecticut Senate had earlier given final legislative approval to a package of concessions expected to cover $1.5 billion of the estimated $5 billion state budget deficit through June of 2019, noted that still to be completed, however, is work on the rest of the budget, with the focus on financial aid to cities and towns (the biggest chunk of spending): he add ed that the detailed legal language in the budget, which had been delayed all day long, would not be ready until at least 6 a.m. this morning—with the Senate scheduled to convene at high noon. Notwithstanding the fiscal chaos, Senate Pro Tem leader Martin Looney (New Haven) said the Senate would convene at high noon today to vote on the budget, noting: “The problem is it’s not fully drafted… and what we agreed upon with the governor had not been fully reduced to language that everyone had signed off on: We didn’t have a hold-up in the Senate. We were ready to go forward,’’ raising the possibility that the House could vote later today.

Unsurprisingly, the sticking point appears to be taxes: A big problem appears to have stemmed from a proposal to tax vacation homes—a proposal which encountered opposition among Democrats, because non-residents cannot be taxed differently than residents of Connecticut. Negotiators had been relying on the tax to generate $32 million per year, fiscal resources which would not be available without support from moderate Democrats. The Democratic plan would add new taxes on cellphone bills and vacation homes, along with higher tax rates on hospitals, cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, and hotel rooms—and in an overnight development, a $12 surcharge on all homeowners’ insurance policies statewide for the next five years was proposed in order to help residents with crumbling concrete foundations. (Connecticut homeowners have been grappling for years with problems, and government officials have been unable to reach a comprehensive solution—mayhap Harvey and Irma have sent a physical fiscal message: more than 500 homeowners in 23 towns have filed complaints with the state; however Gov. Malloy fears that more than 30,000 homes could be at risk. The emerging fiscal compromise would also add new taxes on: ride-sharing services, non-prescription drugs, and companies that run fantasy sports gambling. In addition, the package includes more than $40 million as a set aside as part of a multi-pronged effort to help Hartford avert chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy—as well as increased funding for municipalities, even as it avoids deep cuts in public education which had been promised by Gov. Malloy via an executive order to trigger effective October 1st, warning: “The urgency of the present moment cannot be overstated: Local governments, community providers, parents, teachers and students—all of them are best served by passing a budget, and passing it now.”

The fiscal roilings came in the wake of Moody’s statement earlier in the week that Hartford’s “precarious liquidity position could result in insufficient cash flow to meet upcoming debt obligations…Additionally, the city has debt service payments in every month of the fiscal year, compounding the possibility of default at any time.” Interestingly, Gov. Malloy, earlier this week, noted that municipal bondholders and unions hold the key to whether Hartford would file for chapter 9 bankruptcy: “Hartford looks to be going bankrupt, and that ultimately may be the only way for them to resolve their issues…on the other hand, if all of the stakeholders in Hartford, including the unions and the bondholders and others come to the table, maybe that can be avoided.”