Trying to Recover on all Pistons

07/19/17

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Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we look back at the steep road out of the nation’s largest ever municipal bankruptcy—in Detroit, where the Chicago Federal Reserve and former U.S. Chief Bankruptcy Judge Thomas Bennett, who presided over Jefferson County’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy case, has noted: “[S]tates can have precipitating roles as well as preventative roles” in work he did for the Chicago Federal Reserve. Indeed, it seems the Great Recession demarcated the nation’s states into distinct fiscal categories: those with state oversight programs which either protected against or offered fiscal support to assist troubled municipalities, versus those, such as Alabama or California—with the former appearing to aid and abet Jefferson County’s descent into chapter 9 bankruptcy, and California, home to the largest number of chapter 9 bankruptcies over the last two decades, contributing to fiscal distress, but avoiding any acceptance of risk. Therefore, we try to provide our own fiscal autopsy of Detroit’s journey into and out of the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy.

I met in the Governor’s Detroit offices with Kevyn Orr, whom Governor Rick Snyder had asked to come out from Washington, D.C. to serve as the city’s Emergency Manager to take the city into—and out of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy: the largest in American history. Having been told by the hotel staff that it was unsafe to walk the few blocks from my hotel to the Governor’s Detroit offices on the city’s very first day in insolvency—a day in which the city was spending 38 cents on every dollar of taxes collected from residents and businesses on legacy costs and operating debt payments totaling $18 billion; it was clear from the get go, as he told me that early morning, there was no choice other than chapter 9: it was an essential, urgent step in order to ensure the provision of essential services, including street and traffic lights, emergency first responders, and basic maintenance of the Motor City’s crumbling infrastructure—especially given the grim statistics, with police response times averaging 58 minutes across the city, fewer than a third of the city’s ambulances in service, 40% of the city’s 88,000 traffic lights not working, “primarily due to disrepair and neglect.” It was, as my walk made clear, a city aptly described as: “[I]nfested with urban blight, which depresses property values, provides a fertile breeding ground for crime and tinder for fires…and compels the city to devote precious resources to demolition.” Of course, not just physical blight and distress, but also fiscal distress: the Motor City’s unbalanced fiscal condition was foundering under its failure to make some $108 million in pension payments—payments which, under the Michigan constitution, because they are contracts, were constitutionally binding. Nevertheless, in one of his early steps to staunch the fiscal bleeding, Mr. Orr halted a $39.7 million payment on $1.4 billion in pension debt issued by former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s administration to make the city pension funds appear better funded than they really were; thus, Mr. Orr’s stop payment was essential to avoid immediate cash insolvency at a moment in time when Detroit’s cash position was in deepening debt. Thus, in his filing, Mr. Orr aptly described the city’s dire position and the urgency of swift action thusly: “Without this, the city’s death spiral I describe herein will continue.”

Today, the equivalent of a Presidential term later, the city has installed 65,000 new streetlights; it has cut police and emergency responder response times to 25% of what they were; it has razed 11,847 blighted buildings. Indeed, ambulance response times in Detroit today are half of what they were—and close to the national average—even as the city’s unrestricted general fund finished FY2016 fiscal year with a $143 million surplus, 200% of the prior fiscal year: as of March 31st, Detroit sported a general fund surplus of $51 million, with $52.8 million more cash on hand than March of last year, according to the Detroit Financial Review Commission—with the surplus now dedicated to setting aside an additional $20 million into a trust fund for a pension “funding cliff” the city has anticipated in its plan of debt adjustment by 2024.  

Trying to Run on all Pistons. The Detroit City Council has voted 7-1 to approve a resolution to allow the Motor City to realize millions of dollars in income tax revenues from its National Basketball Association Pistons players, employees, and visiting NBA players—with such revenues dedicated to finance neighborhood improvements across the Motor City, under a Neighborhood Improvement Fund—a fund proposed in June by Councilwoman (and ordained Minister) Mary Sheffield, with the proposal coming a week after the City Council agreed to issue some $34.5 million in municipal bonds to finance modifications to the Little Caesars Arena—where the Pistons are scheduled to play next season. Councilwoman Sheffield advised her colleagues the fund would also enable the city to focus on blight removal, home repairs for seniors, educational opportunities for young people, and affordable housing development in neighborhoods outside of downtown and Midtown—or, as she put it: “This sets the framework; it expresses what the fund should be used for; and it ultimately gives Council the ability to propose projects.” She further noted the Council could, subsequently, impose additional limitations with regard to the use of the funds—noting she had come up with the proposal in response to complaints from Detroit constituents who had complained the city’s recovery efforts had left them out—stating: “It’s not going to solve all of the problems, and it’s not going to please everyone, but I do believe it’s a step in the right direction to make sure these catalyst projects have some type of tangible benefits for residents.”

Detroit officials estimate the new ordinance will help generate a projected $1.3 million annually. In addition, city leaders hope to find other sources to add to the fund—sources the Councilmember reports, which will be both public and private: “We as a council are going to look at other development projects and sources that could go into the fund too.” As adopted, the resolution provides: “[I]t is imperative that the neighborhoods, and all other areas of the City, benefit from the Detroit Pistons’ return downtown …In turn, the City will receive income tax revenue, from the multimillion dollar salaries of the NBA players as well as other Pistons employees and Palace Sports & Entertainment employees.” The Council has forwarded the adopted proposals to Mayor Duggan’s office for final consideration and action. The proposed new revenues—unless the tax is modified or rejected by the Mayor—would be dedicated for use in the city’s Neighborhood Improvement Fund in FY2018—with decisions with regard to how to allocate the funds—by Council District or citywide—to be determined at a later date. The funds, however, could also be used to address one of the lingering challenges from the city’s adopted plan of debt adjustment from its chapter 9 bankruptcy: meeting its public pension obligations when general fund revenues are insufficient, “should there be any unforeseen shortfall,” as the resolution provides.

This fiscal recovery, however, remains an ongoing challenge: Detroit CFO John Hill laid up the proverbial hook shot up by advising the Council that the reason the city reserved the right to use the Pistons tax revenue to cover pension or debt obligation shortfalls was because of the large pension obligation payment the city will confront in 2024: “We knew that in meeting our pensions and debt obligation in 2024 and 2025 that those funds get very tight: If this kind of valve wasn’t there, I would have a lot of concerns that in those years its tighter and we don’t get revenues we expect we don’t get any of those funds to meet those obligations.”

But, as in basketball, there is another side: at the beginning of the week, the NBA, Palace Sports & Entertainment, and Olympia Entertainment were added to a federal lawsuit—a suit filed in late June by community activist Robert Davis and Detroit city clerk candidate D. Etta Wilcox against the Detroit Public Schools Community District. The suit seeks to force a vote on the $34.5 million public funding portion of the Pistons’ deal, under which Detroit, as noted above, is seeking to capture the school operating tax, the proceeds of which are currently used to service $250 million of bonds DDA bonds previously issued for the arena project in addition to the $34.5 million of additional bonds the city planned to issue for the Pistons relocation.

Meeting Post-Bankruptcy Pension Obligations

07/14/17, le Jour de Bastille!

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Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider a vote by the Detroit City Council to approve a resolution allowing for the city to realize millions of dollars in income taxes from its NBA Pistons players, employees, and visiting NBA players to fund neighborhood improvements in the post-chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy city. We also make public our new guidebook: “Changing Landscapes in Constituent Communication: A Guidebook for Elected Leaders,” as well as our new prezi: a visual feast for Virginia’s elected leaders on the changing means to hear from and communicate to constituents. Please view at: https://fiscalbankruptcy.wordpress.com/the-reports/.

Trying to Run on all Pistons. The Detroit City Council has voted 7-1 to approve a resolution to allow the Motor City to realize millions of dollars in income tax revenues from its National Basketball Association Pistons players, employees, and visiting NBA players—with such revenues dedicated to finance neighborhood improvements across the Motor City, under a Neighborhood Improvement Fund—a fund proposed in June by Councilwoman (and ordained Minister) Mary Sheffield, with the proposal coming a week after the City Council agreed to issue some $34.5 million in municipal bonds to finance modifications to the Little Caesars Arena—where the Pistons are scheduled to play next season. Councilwoman Sheffield advised her colleagues the fund would also enable the city to focus on blight removal, home repairs for seniors, educational opportunities for young people, and affordable housing development in neighborhoods outside of downtown and Midtown—or, as she put it: “This sets the framework; it expresses what the fund should be used for; and it ultimately gives Council the ability to propose projects.” She further noted the Council could, subsequently, impose additional limitations with regard to the use of the funds—noting she had come up with the proposal in response to complaints from Detroit constituents who had complained the city’s recovery efforts had left them out—stating: “It’s not going to solve all of the problems, and it’s not going to please everyone, but I do believe it’s a step in the right direction to make sure these catalyst projects have some type of tangible benefits for residents.”

Detroit officials estimate the new ordinance will help generate a projected $1.3 million annually. In addition, city leaders hope to find other sources to add to the fund—sources the Councilmember reports, which will be both public and private: “We as a council are going to look at other development projects and sources that could go into the fund too.” As adopted, the resolution provides: “[I]t is imperative that the neighborhoods, and all other areas of the City, benefit from the Detroit Pistons’ return downtown …In turn, the City will receive income tax revenue, from the multimillion dollar salaries of the NBA players as well as other Pistons employees and Palace Sports & Entertainment employees.” The Council has forwarded the adopted proposals to Mayor Duggan’s office for final consideration and action. The proposed new revenues—unless the tax is modified or rejected by the Mayor–would be dedicated for use in the city’s Neighborhood Improvement Fund in FY2018—with decisions with regard to how to allocate the funds–by Council District or citywide—to be determined at a later date. The funds, however, could also be used to address one of the lingering challenges from the city’s adopted plan of debt adjustment from its chapter 9 bankruptcy: meeting its public pension obligations when general fund revenues are insufficient, “should there be any unforeseen shortfall,” as the resolution provides.

Human Needs & Fiscal Imbalances

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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