Human, Fiscal, & Physical Challenges

April 20, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we return to Flint, Michigan to assess its human and fiscal challenges in the wake of its exit from state receivership; then we return to Puerto Rico, a territory plunged once again into darkness and an exorbitant and costly set of fiscal overseers. 

Out Like Flint. Serious fiscal challenges remain for Flint, Michigan, after its exit from state financial receivership. Those challenges include employee retirement funding and the aging, corroded pipes that caused its drinking water crisis, according to Mary Schulz, associate director for Michigan State University’s Extension Center for Local Government Finance and Policy. In the public pension challenge, Michigan’s statute enacted last year mandates that the state’s municipalities report underfunded retirement benefits. That meant, in the wake of Flint’s reporting that it had only funded its pension at 37%–with nothing set aside for its other OPEB benefits, combined with the estimated $600 million to finance the infrastructure repair of its aging water infrastructure, Director Schulz added the small city is also confronted by a serious problem with its public schools—describing the city’s fiscal ills as “Michigan’s Puerto Rico,” adding it would “remain Michigan’s Puerto Rico until the state decides Flint is part of Michigan.”

Michigan Municipal League Director Dan Gilmartin notes that Flint is making better decisions financially, but still suffers from state funding cuts. He observed that Flint’s leaders are making better decisions fiscally—that they have put together a more realistic budget than before its elected leaders were preempted by state imposed emergency managers, noting: “The biggest problem Flint faces now is what all cities in Michigan face, and that is the state’s system of municipal financing, which simply doesn’t work.”

Perhaps in recognition of that, Michigan State Treasurer Nick Khouri, on April 10th announced the end of state-imposed receivership under Michigan’s Local Financial Stability and Choice Act, and he dissolved the Flint Receivership Transition Advisory Board. Treasurer Khouri also signed a resolution repealing all remaining emergency manager orders, noting: “Removing all emergency manager orders gives the City of Flint a fresh start without any lingering restrictions.” Concurrently, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, in an email, wrote: “Under the state’s emergency manager law, emergency managers were put in place in a number of cities facing financial emergencies to ensure residents were protected and their local governments’ fiscal problems were addressed: This process has worked well for the state’s struggling cities, helping to restore financial stability and put them on a path toward long-term success. Flint’s recent exit from receivership marks the end of emergency management for cities in Michigan and a new chapter in the state’s continued comeback.” Indeed, the state action means that Detroit is the only Michigan municipality city still under a form of state oversight, albeit Benton Harbor Area Schools, Pontiac Public Schools, Highland Park School District, and the Muskegon Heights school district remain under state oversight.

The nation’s preeminent chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy expert Jim Spiotto notes that a financial emergency manager is supposed to get a struggling municipality back to a balanced budget, to find a means to increase revenue, to cut unnecessary expenses, and to keep essential services at an acceptable level:  “To the degree that they achieve that, then you want to continue with best practices: If they don’t accomplish that, then even if you return the city back to Mayor and City Council, then they have to do it: Someone has to come up with viable sustainable recovery plan, not just treading water.”

From his perspective, Director Gilmartin notes: “Flint has more realistic numbers in place, especially when it comes to revenues. I think that is the most important thing the city has accomplished from a nuts and bolts standpoint…The negative side of it is the system in which they are working under just doesn’t work for them or any communities in the state. In some cases making all the right decisions at the local level still doesn’t get to where you need to get to, and it will require a change in the state law.” Referencing last year’s Michigan Municipal League report which estimated the state’s municipalities had been shortchanged to the tune of $8 billion since 2002, Director Gilmartin noted: “A lot of the fiscal pressures that Flint and other cities in Michigan find themselves in are there by state actions.” No doubt, he was referencing the nearly $55 million in reduced state aid to Flint by 2014—as the state moved to pare revenue sharing—the state’s fiscal assistance program to provide assistance based upon population and fiscal need—funds which, had they been provided, would have sufficed to not only balance the city’s budget, but also cut sharply into its capital debts—enhancing its credit quality. Indeed, it was the state’s Emergency Manager program that voters repealed six years ago after devastating decisions had plunged Flint into not just dire fiscal straits, but also the fateful decision to change its public drinking water source—a decision poisoning children, and the city’s fisc by decimating its assessed property values. During those desperate human and fiscal times, local elected leaders were preempted—even as two of the gubernatorially named Emergency Managers were charged with criminal wrongdoing in relation to the city’s lead contamination crisis and ensuing Legionnaire’s disease outbreak which claimed 12 lives in the wake of the fateful decision to  change Flint’s water source to the Flint River in April of 2014. Now, as Director Schulz notes: “Until we come up with other solutions that aren’t really punitive in nature and leave communities like Flint vulnerable as repeat customer for emergency management law, these communities will remain in financial and service delivery purgatory indefinitely.”

Director Schulz notes a more profound threat to municipal fiscal equity: she has identified at least 93 Michigan municipalities with a taxable value per capita under $20,000, describing that as a “good indicator” for which municipalities in the state are prime candidates for finding themselves under a gubernatorially imposed Emergency Manager, in addition to 32 other municipalities in the state which  are either deemed service insolvent or on the verge of service insolvency. Flint’s taxable value per capita of $7575 comes in as the second lowest behind St. Louis, Michigan, which has a taxable value of $6733. Ms. Schulz defines such insolvency as the level below which a municipality is likely unable to fiscally provide “a basic level of services a city need to provide to its residents.” Indeed, a report released by Treasurer Khouri’s office has identified nearly 25% of the state’s local units of government as having an underfunded pension plan, retirement health care plan, or both—an issue which, as we have noted in the eGnus, comes after the State, last December enacted legislation creating thresholds on pensions and OPEB which all municipalities must meet in order to be considered funded at a viable level, meaning OPEB liabilities must be at least 40% funded, and pensions 60% funded. While the Treasurer may grant waivers, such granting is premised on plans approved to remedy the underfunding—failure to do so could trigger oversight by a three-member Michigan Stability Board appointed by the Governor. As Director Schulz notes: “The winds here are blowing such that the municipality stability board is going to be up and running soon, and there will be an effort to give that board emergency manager powers…That means they can break contacts, they can sell assets…whatever it needs to put money in the OPEB.” But in the face of such preemption—preemption which, after all, had caused such human and fiscal damage to Detroit, Detroit’s public schools, and to the City of Flint; Director Gilmartin notes: “Getting the community back to zero is the easy part and is just a function of budgeting, but having it function and provide services is harder: I would say that a lot of the support for emergency management by the state has dwindled based on the experience over the last several years.”

A Storm of Leaders. If the human health and safety, and fiscal challenges created by state oversight in Michigan give one pause; the multiplicity—and cost—of the many overseers of Puerto Rico and its future by the inequitable storm response by Congress and the Trump Administration—and by the costly “who’s on first…” sets of conflicting fiscal overseers could experience at least some level of greater clarity today, as the PROMESA Board releases its proposed fiscal plans it intends to certify, including the maintenance of its mandate to the federal court for an average public pension cut of 10 percent—after having kept under advisement the concerns of Governor Ricardo Rosselló the inclusion in the revised fiscal, quasi chapter 9 plan of debt adjustment immediate reductions in sick and vacation leave.

Thus, it appears U.S. Judge Laura Taylor Swain will consider a proposed adjustment plan to reduce public pensions later this year which would total savings of as much as nearly $1.45 billion over the next five years—a level below the PROMESA Board’s proposed $1.58 million—but massive when put in the context that the current average public pension on the island is roughly $1,100 a month, but more than 38,000 retired government employees receive only $500, because of the type of job they had and the number of years worked.

Thus, there are fiscal and human dilemmas—and governance challenges: even though the PROMESA law authorizes the restructuring of retirement systems, it is unclear whether the Congressionally-created Board has the authority to impose such a significant, unfunded federal mandate on the government of Puerto Rico, including labor reforms, and restrictions of vacation and sick leaves. Last year, Governor Rosselló agreed to a reduction in pensions for government retirees, but then his aim was to propose cuts of 6 percent.

At the moment, he is against it. A few weeks ago, after negotiations with the Board, Governor Rosselló proposed a labor reform similar to the one he negotiated with members of the Board, with differences on how to balance it with an increase in the minimum wage and when to put it in into effect—a proposal he subsequently withdrew after the PROMESA Board mandated that the labor reform be in full force in January 2019, instead of phasing it in over next three years, and conditioning the increase from $7.25 to $8.25 per hour in the minimum wage to the increase in labor participation rates—proposals which, in any event, made clear the “too many leaders” governance challenges—as these were proposals with little chance of approval by the Puerto Rican House. That is, for the Governor, there is not only a federal judge, and a PROMESA Board, but also his own legislature elected by Puerto Ricans—not appointed by non-Puerto Ricans. (Under the PROMESA Law, which also created the territorial judicial system to restructure the public debt of Puerto Rico, the PROMESA Board also has power over the local government until four consecutive balanced budgets and medium and long-term access to the financial markets are achieved. Thus, as the ever insightful Gregory Makoff of the Center for International Governance Innovation—and former U.S. Treasury Advisor put it: “While the lack of cooperation with the Board may be good in political terms in the short-term, it simply delays the return of confidence and extends the time it will take for the Oversight Board to leave the island.” Thus, he has recommended the Board and Gov. Rosselló propose to Judge Swain a cut from $45 billion to $6 billion of the public debt backed by taxes, with a payment of only 13.6 cents per each dollar owed, with the aim of equating it with the average that the states have. All of this has been complicated this week by the blackout Wednesday, before the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, PREPA, yesterday announced it had restored power to some 870,000 customers.

As in  Central Falls, Rhode Island, and in Detroit, in their respective chapter 9 bankruptcies, the issue and debate on pensions appears to be a matter which will be settled or resolved by the court—not the parties or Board. While the Board has the power to propose a reform in the retirement systems, it appears to lack the administrative or legislative mechanisms to implement a labor reform. The marvelous Puerto Rican daily newspaper, El Nuevo Día asked one of the PROMESA Board sources if it were possible for the Board to go to Court and demand the implementation of a labor reform in case the Governor does not propose such legislation—the response to which was such a probability was “low.” Concurrently, an advisor to House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) with regard to proposing legislation to address the issue receive a doubtful response, albeit an official in the Chairman’s office said recently that if the Rosselló administration does not implement the labor reforms proposed by the PROMESA Board, the option for the Board would be to further reduce the expenses of the government of Puerto Rico. Put another way, Carlos Ramos González, Professor of Constitutional Law at the Interamerican University of Puerto Rico, is of the view that, notwithstanding the impasse, “in one way or another, the Board will end up imposing its criteria. How it will do it remains to be seen.”

Physical, Not Fiscal—But Fiscal Storms.  Amid the governance and fiscal storm, a physical storm in the form of am island-wide blackout hit Puerto Rico Wednesday after an excavator accidentally downed a transmission line, contributing to the ongoing physical and fiscal challenge to repair an increasingly unstable power grid nearly seven months after Hurricane Maria. More than 1.4 million homes and businesses lost power, marking the second major outage in less than a week, with the previous one affecting some 840,000 customers. PREPA estimated it would take 24 to 36 hours to restore power to all customers—it is focusing first on re-establishing service for hospitals, water pumping systems, the main airport in San Juan and other critical facilities. The physical blackout came as the PROMESA Board has placed PREPA, a public monopoly with $9 billion of debt, in the equivalent of its own quasi chapter 9 bankruptcy, in an effort to help advance plans to modernize the utility and transform it into a regulated private utility—after, last January, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló announced plans to put the utility up for sale.

Several large power outages have hit Puerto Rico in recent months, but Wednesday was the first time since Hurricane Maria that the U.S. territory has experienced a full island-wide blackout. Officials said restoring power to hospitals, airports, banking centers and water pumping systems was their priority. Following that would be businesses and then homes. By late that day, power had returned to several hospitals and at least five of the island’s 78 municipalities. Federal officials who testified before Congress last week said they expect to have a plan by June on how to strengthen and stabilize Puerto Rico’s power grid, noting that up to 75% of distribution lines were damaged by high winds and flooding. Meanwhile, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is overseeing the federal power restoration efforts, said it hopes to have the entire island fully restored by next month: some 40,000 power customers still remain without normal electrical service as a result of the hurricane. The new blackout occurred as Puerto Rico legislators debate a bill that would privatize the island’s power company, which is $14 billion in debt and relies on infrastructure nearly three times older than the industry average.