Getting Back in like Flint

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the lessons learned from Flint—lessons that were not unrelated to the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S, history in Detroit.

Immunity for State & Municipal Employees: What Does it Mean in Flint? U.S. Judge Judith Levy, in her 101-page decision this week, held that Flint and Michigan employees can be sued over the city’s lead water contamination; however, she found that Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and the State of Michigan have governmental immunity. The ruling came in response to a suit brought by a resident of Flint, against Gov. Snyder and 13 other public officials. Judge Levy dismissed many of the counts; however, she concurred that Flint resident Shari Guerin, who had brought the suit against the city and the other public officials, had had both her and her child’s “bodily integrity” unknowingly exposed by the dangerous levels of lead in Flint’s drinking water—levels of which the state was aware, but had hidden from the public. Indeed, the Judge wrote: “The conduct of many of the individual governmental defendants was so egregious as to shock the conscience.” Despite dismissing the charges against the Governor, the Michigan Departments of Environmental Quality and Health and Human Services—and the city’s water treatment plant operator, Judge Levy found that some key state leaders, including the state’s Chief Medical Executive and Health and Human Services Director could be sued in their individual capacities—and that Flint officials have no state governmental immunity, writing: “As this case highlights, the more governmental actors that are involved in causing a massive tort in Michigan, the less likely it is that state tort claims can proceed against the individual government actors given the way the state immunity statutes operate…Because the harm that befell plaintiffs was such a massive undertaking, and took so many government actors to cause, the perverse result is that none can be held responsible under state tort law.”

A Vicious Fiscal Whirlpool? For the city, the severe water contamination had not just physical fiscal implications, but also fiscal ones. Indeed, one of the plaintiffs was one of nearly 8,000 homeowners who was in danger of losing homes under tax foreclosure proceedings (Real property tax delinquency in the state entails a three-year forfeiture and foreclosure process)—proceedings which had been scheduled to commence last week until the Flint City Council approved a one-year moratorium—a moratorium which covered residents with two years of unpaid water and sewer bills going back to June 2014. While that temporary reprieve is in question, confronting an unknown outcome before the state-appointed Receivership Transition Advisory Board, which has monitored Flint’s finances since the city’s emergence from state oversight in two years ago last April—and is scheduled to vote on the moratorium at its June meeting; the outstanding water liens and inability to collect have further emptied the city’s coffers—even as, unsurprisingly, assessed property values  have become the latest fiscal hardship as an impoverished Flint still reels from a lead-in-water crisis which was first publicly acknowledged less than two years ago.

According to a recent Michigan State University study, “Flint Fiscal Playbook: An Assessment of the Emergency Manager Years, 2011-2015),” Flint has lost nearly 75 percent of its tax base—and of that base, assessed property valuations reeled to a 50 percent drop from $1.5 billion to $750 million.  Thus, unsurprisingly, more than 100 residents showed up at this week’s Council meeting—understandably upset that they face foreclosure even as they have been confronted by bills for drinking water, which they could neither drink, nor use in any way that might jeopardize the health and safety of their children. Those citizens received a temporary, one-year reprieve from the city—but the reprieve implies greater fiscal challenges to the city.

With liabilities high and revenues and property taxes struggling, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver reports that Flint has trimmed $2 million in annual garbage collection expenses by rebidding the service; expects to cut annual water expenses to $12 million from $21 million; and, due to federal grants, is hiring 33 more firefighters. The city is proceeding with a $37 million renovation of the Capitol Theatre downtown, seeking to create a central, historic space which could enhance the downtown—or, as the Mayor puts it: “I don’t think people should take their eyes off Flint.”

But assessing the dimensions of this disaster, created in no small part under the state’s original takeover of the city via the appointment of the emergency manager who had made the fatal decisions to change the city’s sourcing of drinking water, also includes looking back to the critical governmental decisions—especially Flint’s opting to abandon reliance on the  Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA) and instead rely upon the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA), a regional water authority created as part of Detroit’s chapter 9 plan of debt adjustment—meaning Flint’s citizens will keep drawing Detroit water from their taps—or, as the Mayor put it: “Staying with our water source gives us reassurance our water is good…It gets us out of our $7 million (annual) debt to the KWA. We did not have the finances to be able to do that.” Under the city’s 30-year agreement with the  30-year deal with GLWA, the city will receive a $7 million annual credit equal to its annual municipal bond payment to KWA for as long as Flint remains current with scheduled debt service. In addition, the agreement also enables the city to redirect water plant improvements to upgrading the city’s water distribution system—or, as Mayor Weaver notes: “We have pipes going into the ground now (referring to the planned replacement of lead service lines).We’re addressing this water crisis. The water quality is better. There are some good things going on.”

Mayor Weaver notes Flint has cut its $2 million in annual garbage collection expenses by rebidding the service; the city expects to cut annual water expenses to $12 million from $21 million; and the city continues to work with the Governor to address the public health concerns associated with the Flint water crisis. To try to become an economic magnet or hub, rather than a city to be avoided, the city is focused on a $37 million renovation of the Capitol Theatre, creating a central, historic space which could draw folks to events, restaurants, and bars. As the Mayor puts it: “I don’t think people should take their eyes off Flint…They should know the rest of the story. One of the things I’ve learned is we were going to get more done if we work together. If people are going to help you, why would you not sit down and work things out?”

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The Challenges of Investing in the Future, or, Can God Work a Miracle?

eBlog, 04/18/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the vestige of a most challenging issue during Detroit’s historic bankruptcy: water and sewer fees: how does a municipality balance between its needs and the ability of its lowest income citizens to pay? Then, we look at the same issue—especially because of its regional implications, in the nearly insolvent municipality of Petersburg, Virginia—where, as in many regions, water and sewer services—and costs—have regional dimensions. Finally, we inquire about lingering colonialism in Puerto Rico, where the government is planning a plebiscite so that its citizens can have a voice with regard to the U.S. territory’s future.

Fiscal & Physical Municipal Balancing. The City of Detroit’s Board of Water Commissioners is set to vote on a proposal to scale back a controversial storm water drainage fee in the wake of a backlash from churches and businesses, which have been most unhappy about the newly set $750-per-acre monthly charge—with the Board set to consider an option to reduce the drainage fee to $125 per acre until July, after which it would phase in increases over the next five fiscal years to $677 by July of 2022, according to Gary Brown, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department [DWSD] Director. The Motor City began imposing the fee in July 2015 on the owners of 22,000 parcels with impervious surfaces such as roofs and parking lots which “were not,” as Director Brown noted, “paying anything at all…This essentially is giving them an opportunity to have five years to build green infrastructure projects and get a credit to permanently reduce their costs.”

The issue comes at a politically critical time, as Mayor Mike Duggan, running this year for re-election, has been confronted by opposition to the fee by Detroit’s politically-influential pastors—or, as Pastor Everett Jennings, of New Providence Baptist Church, put it: “They say it’s not taxation, but to me it’s a way to tax the church.” The Pastor notes the proposed monthly water bill for his northwest side church skyrocketed from $650 per month to $7,500 per month after the city began assessing the storm water drainage fee. Similarly, Phil Cifuentes, owner and CEO of Omaha Automation Inc., a small automotive and military manufacturing supplier near the Detroit-Hamtramck border, reports: “I came into a system that wasn’t charging anyone…And then I came into a system that, two years later, was charging the largest water sewerage rates in the country,” referring to the $15,630 bill he received in 2015—with the assessment dated back several years, leading him to note: “If they come down through this new rate, how does that affect everyone who owes them outstanding charges like the $10,000 I owe?”

Property owners will still owe the water department past-due charges at the higher rate; however, according to Mr. Brown, they will be eligible for relief for the next few years. The new phased-in rate structure going before the city water board will commence at $125 effective April Fool’s Day, double on July 1st, increase to $375 in July of 2018, $500 in July of 2019, and $626 in July of 2020. In July 2021, the per-acre fee will increase to $651, followed by a final hike of $26 in July of 2022. Mr. Brown notes: “By having a longer five-year opportunity to phase in, it gives them an opportunity to better budget for the new cost and also to go out and have a green infrastructure project designed.” He added that DWSD customers who were originally being charged $852 per impervious acre will see their rate gradually reduced to $677 by July of 2022 to match the rate charged to the 22,000 parcels in the new five-year phased-in plan: “This all goes away and everybody goes to one flat rate at the end of five years.”

To address an issue which had been raised before now retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes during Detroit’s chapter 9 bankruptcy, Mr. Brown noted that the water department is going to offer grants of up to $50,000 for half of the cost of water retention projects on the sites of large churches and businesses to reduce the amount of storm water and impervious surfaces, according to Mr. Brown, who noted the city agency has budgeted $5 million for the grants, even as he described the drainage fee as having been “a real deterrent” to his plans to buy an adjoining 2.5-acre parcel and build another 40,000-square-foot manufacturing facility. The drainage fee itself was partly a response to a 2015 class action lawsuit Michigan Warehousing Group LLC brought against both the City of Detroit and DWSD for charging some property owners the $852 per acre monthly fee, while charging others nothing or as little as $20 based on the size of their water meter pipe. Thus, as Mr. Brown this week noted: “We’re trying to settle that lawsuit by getting everyone on to a fairer and equitable rate system by putting them on the same rate.” CEO Cifuentes notes that Omaha Automation is part of the class action lawsuit.

The non-paying customers included industrial parcels, commercial buildings, churches, and residential parcels where Detroiters have purchased vacant side lots and built additional parking spaces, according to Mr. Brown: “Parking lots were a big part of it—and they weren’t getting a bill, because they didn’t have an account.” Churches in Detroit received large bills because of their large parking lots: for instance, Shield of Faith Church has racked up a $65,000 bill with the city water department, because the storm water drainage fee costs the 300-member congregation nearly $5,000 per month, according to Pastor James Jennings, or as Pastor Jennings had warned prior to the rollback: “It’s actually causing us not to be able to meet our expenses, and we’re about to go under unless God works a miracle.”

The drainage fee also was imposed to pay for needed sewer infrastructure upgrades and try to reduce the city’s overall storm water runoff that causes combined sewage water outflows to discharge into the Detroit River and River Rouge in violation of state and federal environmental laws. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has mandated Detroit to eliminate all sewage discharges by 2022, according to Mr. Brown. The sewage releases vary depending on heavy rainstorms. Last year, the city released 800 million gallons of combined sewage and storm water, according to DWSD. In 2014, a torrential August rain storm contributed to 6.8 billion gallons of untreated sewage and storm water being released—and widespread basement flooding in the city and northern suburbs.

The Fiscal & Physical Costs of Delay. Unlike the federal government, states, cities, and counties have capital budgets. As we have noted previously, however, failure to properly administer one’s capital budgets can have, as we have noted in the case of Flint, Michigan, signal human physical and fiscal costs—or, as Prince George, Virginia Chairman William A. Robertson Jr. put it, with a case study just across the county line in Petersburg of what can happen if a locality goes too long without upgrading its water systems: “Sorry, but this is something we had to do…We don’t want to end up as a Petersburg or a Flint, Michigan.” Thus, with the vote, the county’s rate for drinking water will increase by 10% and the rate for wastewater will rise by 20% effective July 1st. Prince William Utilities Director Chip England noted that the county had performed a water rate study several years ago which “did call for annual rate increases;” however, he said, this rate increase will be the first in three years and just the second in the past 13 years, noting that, as is the case for most localities, Prince George’s utility system is an “enterprise fund” which is intended to be self-funded through customers’ payments for service. Ergo, he advised: “No general fund tax revenues are used to cover the expenses of the department.” But, as in Detroit, the fee increase did not come without opposition: Joe Galloni, president of the 55-plus neighborhood’s homeowner association, noted that many of the residents there are retired and living on fixed incomes: “A lot of folks over there can’t absorb any more increases.” In response, however, board members cited Petersburg’s financial woes and near insolvency as an object lesson in the need to keep current on infrastructure investments. Indeed, Petersburg officials have acknowledged that the city’s aging water and wastewater system is “on the brink of collapse” and estimate that it will take $97 million to repair the system. Like Prince George, Petersburg had gone many years without a rate increase, causing issues not only for the city, but also the region. Now, the Petersburg City Council has recently approved a 13.4% increase—and slated another increase of 14.3% in the city’s budget for next year—and even set plans providing for additional 15 percent increases in each of the following four years. Thus, Supervisor T.J. Webb noted that Petersburg’s financial crisis last year led the city to fall behind on its payments to the South Central Wastewater Authority, a regional entity which provides wastewater treatment to Prince George, Chesterfield County, Colonial Heights, and Dinwiddie County in addition to Petersburg. Had Petersburg not resumed making its $327,000-a-month payments to the authority, the other member jurisdictions would have been required to make up the shortfall, which would have meant an additional $38,000 that Prince George wastewater customers would have had to pay each month. Indeed, Chairman Robertson noted that Petersburg is considering two offers by for-profit companies, Aqua Virginia and Virginia American Water, to purchase the city’s water system.

Vestiges of American Colonialism. Before dawn this morning, the Puerto Rican House of Representatives passed Senate Bill 427, which amends the U.S. territory’s proposed plebiscite and responds to the demands made by the U.S. Justice Department. The actions came in the wake of the threat by U.S. Acting Deputy Attorney General Dana Boente, who had written to Gov. Ricardo Rosselló that the Justice Department would not notify Congress that it approved the ballot or suggest that Congress release funds to hold the plebiscite and educate voters on it. According to Mr. Boente, the current ballot “is not drafted in a way that ensures that its result will accurately reflect the current popular will of the people of Puerto Rico.” Moreover, the Justice Department has objected to the ballot only offering statehood and “free association/independence” as options; the Justice Department apparently believes that the ballot fails to offer Puerto Ricans the option of continuing in the current territorial status, and has alleged that the ballot statement that only statehood status “guarantees” U.S. citizenship by birth for Puerto Ricans is false, as the current territorial status already does this; the Department is also alleging that the ballot language fails to make clear that a vote for Puerto Rico to have a “free association” with the United States would make Puerto Rico an independent nation and strip Puerto Ricans of their U.S. citizenship.

The Justice Department intervention could also jeopardize the Congressional authorization of some $2.5 million to hold a plebiscite on its status in the United States and to educate its voters. While the authorization imposed no limit on when the funds could be used, it did require that prior to the release of the funds, the Justice Department was to notify Congress that the plebiscite ballot and educational materials were consistent with the laws, Constitution, and policies of the United States. Thus, the amended version (Senate 427) was modified in coordination with the Governor’s office and passed by the Puerto Rico Senate, notwithstanding aggravation with federal interference—a kind of interference virtually unimaginable with any U.S. state. Or, as New Progressive Party Senator Luis Daniel Muñiz Cortés put it: “It’s disgusting what the United States is doing with Puerto Rico. I, totally dissatisfied with the measure, will vote in favor if my Party votes in favor of Party discipline, but totally dissatisfied because it is unworthy for the people.” Nonetheless, Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz said that this status consultation was a necessary step toward a definitive definition of Puerto Rico’s status, although he made it clear that his preference would be not to include “the colony” in the plebiscite: “We cannot fall into the game of those who do not want to do anything in Puerto Rico and do not want to do anything there, in the United States,” noting it was not an option to maintain the current status that “overwhelms the Puerto Rican people.” Thus, the approved version includes the territorial situation of Puerto Rico, but does not make specific mention of the Commonwealth; nor does the document refer to U.S. citizenship. 

Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and legislators from his pro-statehood New Progressive Party, had agreed to a measure authorizing a status plebiscite with the first vote to take place on June 11th—with that scheduled vote apparently triggering the demands from the Trump administration—demands, in response to which, Gov. Rosselló promised that his government would add remaining as a U.S. territory as an option to the ballot—and adding that the Congressional authorization of the $2.5 million requires that the Department of Justice notify the U.S. Congress at least 45 days prior to the plebiscite—that is, with sufficient time to provide Puerto Rico until this Saturday to authorize funds for the June 11th plebiscite. The Governor said Puerto Rico’s legislature would act swiftly—as, indeed, it has done. Now, the question will be how the changes might impact the tax-status of Puerto Rico’s future bonds, its economy, and whether it might mean Congress would treat Puerto Rico more like a state, which would have significant implications for programs such as Medicaid.  

State and Local Insolvency & Governance Challenges

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eBlog, 03/29/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the efforts to recover from the brink of insolvency in the small municipality of Petersburg, Virginia, before considering the legal settlement between the State of Michigan and City of Flint to resolve the city’s state-contaminated water which nearly forced it into municipal insolvency.

On the Precipice of Governing & Municipal Insolvency. Consultants hired to pull the historic Virginia municipality of Petersburg from the brink of municipal bankruptcy this week unveiled an FY2018 fiscal plan they claim would put the city on the path to fiscal stability—addressing what interim City Manager Tom Tyrrell described as: “It’s bad, it’s bad, it’s bad.” With the city’s credit ratings at risk, and uncertainty with regard to whether to sell the city’s utility infrastructure for a cash infusion, former Richmond city manager Robert Bobb’s organization presented the Petersburg City Council with the city’s first structurally balanced spending plan in nearly a decade: the proposed $77 million operating budget would increase spending on public safety and restore 10 percent cuts to municipal employees’ pay, even as it proposes cutting the city’s workforce, deeming it to be bloated and structurally inefficient. The recommendations also propose: restructuring municipal departments, the outsourcing of services that could eliminate up to 12 positions, and the reduction through attrition of more than 70 vacancies.

As offered, the plan also recommends about a 13 percent increase in the city’s current operating budget of $68.4 million, which was amended twice this fiscal year: the $77 million total assumes a $6 million cash infusion labeled on a public presentation as a “revenue event,” referring to a controversial issue dividing the elected leaders versus the consultants: Council members and the Washington, D.C. based firm have been at loggerheads over unsolicited proposals from private companies offering to purchase Petersburg’s public city’s utility system—a challenge, especially because of citizen/taxpayer apprehension about private companies increasing rates for consumers at a time when double-digit rate increases already are on the horizon. That, in turn, has raised governance challenges: Mr. Bobb, for instance, has expressed frustration with the city’s elected leaders’ decision to stall negotiations and study the prospect by committee, noting: “The city is out of time…They’re out of time with what’s needed with respect to the long-term financial health of the city. Time’s up.” Mr. Bobb believes the city cannot cut its way to financial health, or raise tax rates for city residents who themselves are struggling to get by, noting that at $1.35 per $100 of assessed value, the city’s real estate tax rate is currently the highest in the region—and at a potential tipping point, as, according to Census data, nearly half the city’s children live below the poverty line, which is set at $24,600 for a family of four. Moreover, Petersburg’s assessed property values have stagnated for the past five years, according to the credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s, which rated the city with a negative outlook at the end of last year: the lowest of any municipality in the state. (The city ended FY2016 with $18.8 million in unpaid bills and began the new fiscal year $12.5 million over budget. The budget since has been balanced, but debts remain.)

Under Mr. Bobb’s proposed plan, in a city where public safety is already the largest expense in the operating budget, he has proposed increasing police pay, addressing salary compression in the department, and providing for a force of 111 full-time and seven part-time employees. He suggests that should Petersburg not reap a $6 million “revenue event” in FY2018, the operating budget would be about 5 percent above this year’s, and a few million below revenues for fiscal years 2016 and 2015. Mr. Bobb’s consultant, Nelsie Birch, who is serving as Petersburg’s CFO, reports the city’s budget process and the development of the upcoming year’s budget have been thwarted by a lack of administrative infrastructure, noting that in the wake of starting work last October, he walked into a city finance department that had two part-time workers out of seven allocated positions—and a municipality with only $75,000 in its checking account. (Last week, there was approximately $700,000.) Today, Mr. Birch holds one of more than a half-dozen high-profile positions now filled by interim workers and consultants; Petersburg is paying about $80,000 for a Florida-based head hunter to help fill some of the city’s key vacancies, including those for city manager, deputy city manager, police chief, and finance director—with the City Council having voted last week to extend the Bobb Group’s contract through the end of September—at a cost to Petersburg’s city taxpayers of about $520,000.

Nevertheless, the eventual governance decisions remain with the Petersburg City Council, which secured its first opportunity to study the plan this week—a plan which will be explored during more than a half-dozen public meetings planned for the coming weeks: explorations which will define the city’s fiscal future—or address the challenge with regard to whether the city continues on its road to chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy.

The fiscal and governance challenges in this pivotal Civil War city, however, extend beyond its borders—or, as the ever so insightful Neal Menkes, the Director of Fiscal Policy for the Virginia Municipal League notes:  

“Perhaps the unstated theme is that the push for ‘regionalism’ is related not just to changing economic realities but to the state’s outmoded governance and taxation models. Local finances are driven primarily by growth in real estate and local sales, revenues that are not sensitive to a service economy. Sharing service costs with the Commonwealth is another downer. K-12 funding formulae are more focused on limiting the state’s liability than meeting the true costs of education.  That’s why locals overmatch by over $3.0 billion a year the amounts required by the state to access state basic aid funding.”

State Preemption of Municipal Authority & Ensuing Physical, Governing, and Fiscal Distress. U.S. District Judge David Lawson yesterday approved a settlement under which Michigan and the City of Flint have agreed to replace water lines at 18,000 homes under a sweeping agreement to settle a lawsuit over lead-contaminated water in the troubled city—where the lead contamination ensued under the aegis of a state-appointed emergency manager. The agreement sets a 2020 deadline to replace lead or galvanized-steel lines serving Flint homes, and provides that the state and the federal government are mandated to finance the resolution, which could cost nearly $100 million; in addition, it provides for the state to spend another $47 million to replace lead pipes and provide free bottled water—with those funds in addition to $40 million budgeted to address the lead-contamination crisis; Michigan will also set aside $10 million to cover unexpected costs, bringing the total to $97 million.

The lawsuit, filed last year by a coalition of religious, environmental, and civil rights activists, alleged state and city officials were violating the Safe Drinking Water Act—with Flint’s water tainted with lead for at least 18 months, as the city, at the time under a state-imposed emergency manager, tapped the Flint River, but did not treat the water to reduce corrosion. Consequently, lead leached from old pipes and fixtures. Judge Lawson, in approving the settlement, called it “fair and reasonable” and “in the best interests of the citizens of Flint and the state,” adding the federal court would maintain jurisdiction over the case and enforce any disputes with residents. Under the agreement, Michigan will spend an additional $47 million to help ensure safe drinking water in Flint by replacing lead pipes and providing free bottled water, with the state aid in addition to $40 million previously budgeted to address Flint’s widespread lead-contamination crisis and another $10 million to cover unexpected costs, bringing the total to $97 million. The suit, brought last year by a coalition of religious, environmental, and civil rights activists, alleged Flint water was unsafe to drink because state and city officials were violating the Safe Drinking Water Act; the settlement covers a litany of work in Flint, including replacing 18,000 lead and other pipes as well as providing continued bottled water distribution and funding of health care programs for affected residents in the city of nearly 100,000 residents. It targets spending $87 million, with the remaining $10 million saved in reserve. Ergo, if more pipes need to be replaced, the state will make “reasonable efforts” to “secure more money in the legislature,” Judge Lawson wrote, adding that the final resolution would not have been possible but for the involvement of Michigan Governor Rick Snyder. Judge Lawson also wrote that the agreement addresses short and long-term concerns over water issues in Flint.

The settlement comes in the wake of last December’s announcement by Michigan Attorney General Bill Scheutte of charges against two former state-appointed emergency managers of Flint, Mich., and two other former city officials, with the charges linked to the disastrous decision by a former state-appointed emergency manager to switch water sources, ultimately resulting in widespread and dangerous lead contamination. Indeed, the events in Flint played a key role in the revocation of state authority to preempt local control—or Public Act 72, known as the Local Government Fiscal Responsibility Act, which was enacted in 1990, but revised to become the Emergency Manager law under current Gov. Rick Snyder. Michigan State University economist Eric Scorsone described the origin of this state preemption law as one based on the legal precedent that local government is a branch of Michigan’s state government; he noted that Public Act 72 was rarely used in the approximately two decades it was in effect through the administrations of Gov. John Engler and Gov. Jennifer Granholm; however, when current Gov. Rick Snyder took office, one of the first bills that he signed in 2011 was Public Act 4, which Mr. Scorsone described as a “beefed-up” emergency manager law—one which Michigan voters rejected by referendum in 2012, only to see a new bill enacted one month later (PA 436), with the revised version providing that the state, rather than the affected local government paying the salary of the emergency manager. The new law also authorized the local government the authority to vote out the state appointed emergency manager after 18 months; albeit the most controversial change made to PA 436 was that it stipulated that the public could not repeal it. The new version also provided that local Michigan governments be provided four choices with regard to how to proceed once the Governor has declared an “emergency” situation: a municipality can choose between a consent agreement, which keeps local officials in charge–but with constraints, neutral evaluation (somewhat akin to a pre-bankruptcy process), filing for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, or suffering the state appointment of an emergency manager. As Mr. Scorsone noted, however, the replacement version did not provide Michigan municipalities with a “true” choice; rather “what you actually find is that a local government can choose a consent agreement, for example, but actually the state Treasurer has to agree that that is the right approach. If they don’t agree, they can force them to go back to one of the other options. So it is a choice, but perhaps a bit of a constrained choice.”

Thus, the liability of the emergency managers and the decisions they made became a major issue in the Flint water crisis—and it undercut the claim that the state could do better than elected local leaders—or, as Mr. Scorsone put it: “The state can take over the local government and run it better and provide the expertise, and that clearly didn’t work in the Flint case. The situation is epically wrong, perhaps, but this is clearly a case of where we have to ask the question: why did it go wrong, and I think it’s a complex answer, but one of the things that needs to be done…we need a better relationship between state and local government.” That has proven to be especially the case in the wake felony charges levied against former state appointed Emergency Managers in Flint of Darnell Earley and Gerald Ambrose, who were each charged with two felonies that carry penalties of up to 20 years—false pretenses and conspiracy to commit false pretenses, in addition to misconduct in office (also a felony) and willful neglect of duty in office, a misdemeanor.

Today, Michigan local governments have four choices in the wake of a gubernatorial declaration of an “emergency” situation: a municipality or county  can choose between a consent agreement, which keeps local officials in charge but with constraints; neutral evaluation, which is like a pre-municipal bankruptcy process;  filing for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy directly; or suffering the appointment of an emergency manager—albeit, as Mr. Scorsone writes: “The choice is a little constrained, to be truthful about it…If you really carefully read PA 436, what you actually find is that a local government can choose consent agreement, for example, but actually the state Treasurer has to agree that that is the right approach. If they don’t agree, they can force them to go back to one of the other options. So it is a choice, but perhaps a bit of a constrained choice…The law is pretty clear that the emergency manager is acting in a way that does provide some governmental immunity…The emergency manager, if there’s a claim against her or him, has to be defended by the Attorney General. That was fairly new to these new emergency manager laws. The city actually has to pay the legal bills of what the Attorney General incurs, and it’s certainly true that there is a degree of immunity provided to that emergency manager, and I suppose the rationale would be that they want some kind of protection because they are making these difficult decisions. But I think this issue is going to be tested in the Flint case to see how that really plays out.” Then, he noted: “The theory is that the state can do it better…The state can take over the local government and run it better and provide the expertise, and that clearly didn’t work in the Flint case. The situation is especially wrong, perhaps, but this is clearly a case of where we have to ask the question why did it go wrong, and I think it’s a complex answer, but one of the things that needs to be done…we need a better relationship between state and local government.”

Post Chapter 9 Challenges

eBlog, 2/22/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog as we remember the first President of our country,  we consider the accomplishments and challenges ahead for the city recovering from the largest ever municipal bankruptcy; then we visit the historic Civil War city of Petersburg, Virginia—as it struggles on the edge of fiscal and physical insolvency; from thence, we roll the dice to witness a little fiscal Monopoly in the state-taken over City of Atlantic City, before finally succumbing to the Caribbean waters made turbulent by the governance challenges of a federal fiscal takeover of the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, before considering whether to take a puff of forbidden weed as we assess the governing and fiscal challenges in San Bernardino—a city on the precipice of emerging from the longest municipal bankruptcy in American history.   

State of a Post Chapter 9 City. Pointing to FY2015 and 2016 balanced budgets, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, in his fourth State of the City address, pointed to the Motor City’s balanced budgets for FY2015 and 2016 and said the city’s budget will be balanced again at the close of this fiscal year in June—progress he cited which will help the city emerge from state get oversight and back to “self-determination” by 2018. Mayor Duggan cited as priorities: job training, affordable housing, and rebuilding neighborhoods, orating at the nonprofit human rights organization Focus: HOPE on Oakman Boulevard on the city’s northwest side, where residents and others for decades have received critical job training. Mayor Duggan was not just excited about what he called the transformation of city services and finances in a city that exited municipal bankruptcy three years ago, but rather “what comes next,” telling his audience: “We’ve improved the basic services, but if we’re going to fulfill a vision of building a Detroit that includes everybody, then we’ve got to do a whole lot more…You can’t have a recovery that includes everyone if there aren’t jobs available for everyone willing to work.” Ergo, to boost job opportunities, Mayor Duggan announced a new initiative, “Detroit at Work,” which he said would help connect the Motor City’s job seekers with employers, deeming it a portal which would provide a “clear path to jobs.” He also discussed his administration’s program to help city youth secure jobs and the Detroit Skilled Trades Employment Program, a recent partnership with local unions to increase Detroit membership and boost job opportunities.

With regard to neighborhoods, Mayor Duggan touted his Neighborhood Strategic Fund, his initiative to encourage neighborhood development, especially in wake of the exceptional success of Detroit’s new downtown: this fund allocates $30 million from philanthropic organizations toward development, commencing with the engagement of residents in the areas of Livernois/McNicols, West Village, and in southwest Detroit to create revitalized and walkable communities—under the city’s plan to align with the city’s vision for “20-minute neighborhoods” to provide nearby residents with close, walkable access to grocery stores and other amenities—or, as Mayor Duggan noted: “If we can prove that when you invest in these neighborhoods, the neighborhoods start to come back. The first $30 million will only be the beginning. I want everybody to watch…If we prove this works…then we go back for another $30 million and another $30 million as we move across the neighborhoods all through this city.”

In a related issue, the Mayor touted the return of the Department of Public Works’ Street Sweeping Unit, which is preparing to relaunch residential cleanings for the 2017 season, marking the first time in seven years for the program. On the affordable housing front, Mayor Duggan addressed affordable housing, saying that future projects will ensure such housing exists in all parts of the city, referencing a new ordinance, by Councilwoman Mary Sheffield, which seeks to guarantee that 20 percent of the units in new residential projects which receive financial support from the city will be affordable: “We are going to build a city where there is a mix of incomes in every corner and neighborhood and we’re going to be working hard.”

But in his address—no doubt with his re-election lurking somewhere behind his words, Mayor Duggan reflected not just on his successes, but also some missteps, including his administration’s massive federally funded demolition program, now the focus of a federal probe and state and city reviews: that initiative has been successful in the razing of nearly 11,000 abandoned homes since the spring of 2014, but has also triggered federal and state investigations over spiraling costs and bidding practices: an ongoing state review of the program’s billing practices turned up $7.3 million in what the State of Michigan deems “inappropriate” or “inaccurate” costs: the vast majority in connection with a controversial set-price bid pilot in 2014 designed to quickly bring down big bundles of houses—an initiative over which Mayor Duggan has so far rejected the state’s assertion that about $6 million tied to costs of the pilot were inappropriate. Thus, yesterday, he conceded that the federal government’s decision to suspend the demolition program for 60 days beginning last August had been warranted, but noted the city has since overhauled procedures and made improvements to get the program back on track, so that, he said, he is confident the city will raze an additional 10,000 homes in the next two years.

For new initiatives, Mayor Duggan said the Detroit Police Department will hire new officers, and invest in equipment and technology, and he announced the launch of Detroit Health Department’s Sister Friends program, a volunteer program to provide support to pregnant women and their families. On the school front, the Mayor noted what he deemed a “complete alliance” between his office and the new Detroit Public Schools Community District school board, saying the city has joined the Board in its attempt to convince the state’s School Reform Office not to close low-performing schools. (As many as 24 of 119 city schools could potentially be shuttered as soon as this summer.) In a hint of the state-local challenge to come, Mayor Duggan said: “The new school board hasn’t had an opportunity to address the problem…We have 110,000 schoolchildren in this city, which means we need 110,000 seats in quality schools. Closing a school doesn’t add a quality seat. All it does is bounce our children around from place to place. Before you close a school, you need to make sure there’s a better alternative.”

Fiscal & Physical Repair. In a surprising turn of events in Virginia, the Petersburg City Council accepted a motion by Councilman Charlie Cuthbert to postpone the vote on moving forward with the bids for Petersburg’s aging water system, after the Council had been scheduled to vote on whether to move forward with the bids the city had received from Aqua Virginia and Virginia American Water Company to purchase the nearly insolvent city’s water and wastewater system. While the vote, by itself, would not have authorized such a sale, it would have paved the way for formal consideration of such proposals. Under his motion, Councilman Cuthbert outlined a plan to delay the vote, so the Council and the City would have more time to consider options, in part through the formation of a seven person committee, which would be separate from the one the Robert Bobb Group, which is currently overseeing the city in place of the Mayor and Council, has been proposing. Mayhap unsurprisingly, citizens’ reactions to a potential sale has been negative; thus there was approbation when Councilmember Cuthbert’s motion passed—even as it appears many citizen/tax/ratepayers appeared to be hoping for the bids to be scrapped entirely: many had spoken in strong opposition, and there were numerous signs held up in chambers for the Mayor and Council to read: “Listen to us for once, do not sell our water,” or, as one citizen told the elected officials: “We have a choice to make: to make the easy, wrong decision, or the hard, right decision,” as he addressed the Council. The city’s residents and taxpayers appear to want other options to be explored, with many citing reports of Aqua Virginia having trouble with the localities with which it holds contracts.

On the fiscal front, many citizens expressed apprehension that any short-term profit the city would realize by selling its system would be paid back by the citizens in the form of rate-hikes by Aqua Virginia or Virginia American, or as one constituent said: “Never have I seen private industry interested in what the citizens want…They’re going to come in here and raise the rates.” Interim City Manager Tom Tyrell had begun the meeting by giving a presentation outlining the problems with the system. Due to past mismanagement and a lack of investment over decades, the Petersburg water system is in urgent need of upgrades. Tyrell outlined certain deficiencies, such as water pumps that need replacing, and pipes nearly blocked by sediment build up. The water quality has never come into question, but Mr. Tyrell said that the system is very close to needing a complete overhaul: the projected cost needed to get the system completely up to standard is about $97 million. Mr. Tyrell stressed that water rates will need to increase whether or not the city sells the system, going over Petersburg’s water rates, which have been relatively low for many years, ranking near the lowest amongst municipalities across the Commonwealth of Virginia. Even if the rates were to double, he told citizens, the rates still would still not be in the top 15 amongst Virginia localities. The Council had received two unsolicited bids for the system in December, one from Aqua Virginia, a second from the Virginia American Water Company. The Robert Bobb Group recommended to the Council that it move forward to examine the detailed proposals in order to “keep all options open.” The cost of moving forward with the proposals will cost approximately $100,000, which includes the cost of examining each proposal. Thus, the Robert Bobb Group recommended that the Council put together a citizens’ advisory group as an outside adviser group. The council gave no timetable on when they will officially vote to see if the bids will go forward. The people who will make up the seven person committee were not established.

Monopoly Sale. Atlantic City has sold two of its Boardwalk properties and several lots along the Inlet for nearly $6 million, closing on three properties at the end of last week, according to city officials—meaning that a Philadelphia-based developer has gained control of five waterfront properties since 2015. His purchases, he said, reflect his belief in Atlantic City’s revival. Mayor Don Guardian reported the city had received wire transfers for the former Boardwalk volleyball court on New Jersey Avenue ($3.8 million), Garden Pier ($1.5 million) and 12 lots bordered by the Absecon Inlet, Oriental Avenue and Dewey Place ($660,000), according to Atlantic City Planning and Development Director Elizabeth Terenik, all part of a way to raise money for the insolvent municipality – and to spur redevelopment, or, as Ms. Terenik noted: “The effort was part of the Guardian administration’s initiative to leverage underutilized or surplus public lands for economic development and jobs, and to increase the ratable base.” How the new owner intends to develop the properties or use them, however, is unclear—as is the confusing governance issue in a city under state control. The Inlet lots were sold in a city land auction last summer, purchased through an entity called A.C. Main Street Renaissance, according to city officials: the Atlantic City Council approved the auction and voted to name the purchaser, conditional redeveloper of Garden Pier and the volleyball court last year. Unsurprisingly, Council President Marty Small deemed the sales as great news for the city, saying they would bring revenue, jobs, and “new partners to the Inlet area…This instills investor confidence…It lets me know that we made the right decision by going out to auction for land and getting much-needed revenue for the city.”

Paying the Piper. Atlantic City has also announced its intention to issue $72 million in municipal bonds to pay for its tax settlement with the Borgata casino, securing the funds to cover its property tax refunds by borrowing though New Jersey’s Municipal Qualified Bond Act (MQBA), according to Lisa Ryan, a spokeswoman for the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, which is overseeing the state takeover which took effect last November, with her announcement coming just a week after the state announced it had struck a deal for Atlantic City to pay less than half of the $165 million it owes the Borgata in tax appeals from 2009 to 2015, or, as Ms. Ryan noted: “Qualified bonds will be issued in one or more tranches to achieve the settlement amount…The parties are confident in the City’s ability to access the capital market and raise the necessary amount needed to cover the financing,” albeit adding that the city’s borrowing costs would not be known until the sale. (The Garden State’s MQBA is a state intercept program which diverts a municipality’s qualified state aid to a trustee for debt service payments.) Prior to the New Jersey’s state takeover of Atlantic City, city officials had proposed paying $103 million for a Borgata settlement through MQBA bonding as part of a five-year rescue plan—a plan which the state’s Department of Community Affairs had rejected.

As the state taken over city struggles to adjust, Mayor Don Guardian, in a statement, noted: “I’m glad the state is seeing the wisdom in what we proposed in our fiscal plan back in November…I applaud them for getting the actual amount due upfront lower, even though they have had over two years to do it. It remains to be seen how the other $30 million will be taken care of, but the quicker we can get this issue off the table, the quicker we can move forward tackling the remaining legacy debt.” Atlantic City last utilized New Jersey’s state credit enhancement program in May of 2015 to pay off an emergency $40 million loan and retire $12 million of maturing bond anticipation notes, paying a substantial fiscal penalty for a $41 million taxable full faith and credit general obligation municipal bond sale to address its loan payment with Bank of America Merrill Lynch pricing the bonds to yield at 7.25% in 2028 and 7.75% in 2045. Today, the city, under state control, is seeking to recover from five casino closures since 2014, closures which have bequeathed it with $224 million in outstanding municipal bond debt—debt sufficient according to Moody’s to have saddled the city with some $36.8 million in debt service last year.

Grass Fire? Two separate groups have now filed lawsuits challenging San Bernardino’s Measure O, the initiative citizens approved last November to allow marijuana dispensaries in the city—a measure yet to be implemented by the city—and one which now, according to City Attorney Gary Saenz, will almost surely be further delayed because of the suit. Should Measure O be struck down, the related, quasi-backup Measure N, a second marijuana initiative San Bernardino voters approved last November, but which received fewer votes, would pop up, as it were. The twin suits, one filed by a group of marijuana-related entities, the second by interested property owners in San Bernardino, challenge Measure O on multiple grounds, including the measure’s language determining where dispensaries may operate in the city. One suit charges: “The overlay zones together with the parcel numbers and the location criteria limit the locations within the City of San Bernardino where marijuana businesses may be permitted to only approximately 3 to 5 parcels of land within the entire city, and all of these parcels of land are either owned or controlled by the proponents of Measure O…The locations of these 3 to 5 parcels of land, furthermore, are incompatible for a medical marijuana business by virtue of the locations and surrounding land uses and for this reason are in conflict with the City of San Bernardino General Plan.” Unsurprisingly, Roger Jon Diamond, the attorney for the proponents of Measure O, disputes that number and predicts the challenge will fail, noting that thirteen marijuana dispensaries and related groups that describe themselves as non-profits are operating in San Bernardino or which have invested substantial sums of money in plans to operate in San Bernardino. The soon to be out of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy city, prior to citizen adoption of Measure O, means, according to Counselor Diamond, that the dispensaries have been operating illegally, or as he put it: “There’s a concept in the law called clean hands: If you don’t have clean hands, you can’t maintain a lawsuit…Here we have people who don’t qualify (to operate a dispensary in their current location), complaining that they would not become legal under the new law. It sounds like sour grapes.”

The second, related suit, filed earlier this month, calculates a somewhat higher (not a pun) number of eligible locations—between three to twelve, but makes the same observation regarding physical location: “We think there is a financial interest in the people who wrote it up,” said Stephen Levine of Milligan, Beswick Levine & Knox: “We don’t think that is fair, because it was so narrowly constricted. Zoning by parcel numbers is a highly unusual practice in California. Let’s include Colorado and Washington State in there, too; they don’t use parcel numbers for this.” (Measure O restricts marijuana businesses to marijuana business overlay districts, which are identified by parcel number, and further prohibits the businesses from being within 600 feet of schools or residentially zoned property.) In this case, Mr. Levine is representing a consortium of property owners calling themselves AMF as well as Wendy McCammack, a business owner and former San Bernardino Councilmember. According to Mr. Levine, the plaintiffs’ interest is in possible changes in assessed property values due to the location of the dispensaries.

Getting High on the City Agenda. The City Council last week, in a closed session, discussed the lawsuit in closed session; however, City Attorney Saenz reported he was unaware aware of the lawsuit and had yet to decide upon a response to either, noting: “We haven’t totally assessed the merits of the lawsuit, nor how we’ll respond.” Nevertheless, the lawsuits’ arguments appear likely to interfere with the city’s process of incorporating Measure O into the development code and beginning to issue permits, or, as Mr. Saenz notes: “It (the AMF lawsuit) very much calls into question the validity of Measure O…Being a city of very limited resources, we don’t want to expend resources on an implementation that’s never going to occur. That would be a waste of resources.” The suits will also complicate governance: last month the city, on its website, and in a letter to interested parties, said it would provide an update in March on when the marijuana measure would be implemented: “City departments are in the process of integrating the provisions of Measure O into the City’s existing Development Code, developing procedures for receiving applications, and identifying provisions that may require interpretation and clarification prior to implementation…The San Bernardino Development Code and Measure O are both complex legal regulatory frameworks and it will require time to properly implement this new law.”

Governance & Challenges. Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has arrived in Washington, D.C., where he will meet with his colleagues at the National Governors Association and join them at the White House tomorrow; he will also dine with Vice President Mike Pence this week. Last week, in Puerto Rico, he had hosted Chairman Sean Duffy (R-Wisc.), of the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Housing & Insurance, and an author of the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act – in San Juan.  Chairman Duffy told the Governor he is available to amend PROMESA to ensure that the PROMESA oversight board treats Puerto Rico fairly, according to an office press statement. The lunch this week might occasion an interesting discussion in the wake of the Governor’s claim that the PROMESA Oversight Board’s plans for austerity may violate federal law: the Governor’s Chief of Staff, William Villafañe, this week stated: “The Fiscal Supervision Board officials cannot act outside of the law that created the body. If the board were to force the implementation of a fiscal plan that affects people’s essential services, it would be acting contrary to the PROMESA law.” His complaints appear to signify an escalation of tensions between the U.S. territory and the PROMESA Board: Mr. Villafañe added: “The [PROMESA] board is warned that it must act in conformance with the law…The commitment of Governor Ricardo Rosselló is to achieve economies that allow government efficiency, doing more with fewer expenses, without affecting essential services to the people and without laying off public employees.” If anything, Mr. Villafañe added fuel to his fire by criticizing the Board’s new interim executive director, Ramón Ruiz Comas, in the wake of Mr. Ruiz’ radio statement this week that if Gov. Rosselló did not present an acceptable fiscal plan by the end of February, the PROMESA Board would provide its own—and the plan would be deemed the legally, binding plan—in reaction to which, Mr. Villafañe had responded: “To make expressions prejudging a fiscal plan proposal that the board has not yet seen demonstrates on the part of the board improvisation and lack of a collaborative attitude for the benefit of the Puerto Rican people,” adding that “The board must be aware that the federal Congress will supervise the board.” He went on to say that when the Governor presents a fiscal plan, Congress will be aware of the way the board evaluates it.

Mr. Villafañe’s complaints and warnings extend tensions between the board and the U.S. territory: even before the Governor took office in January, a Rosselló official complained that the board was seeking a $2 billion cut in spending. On Feb. 13 the governor rejected the board’s claimed right to review bills before they are submitted to the Puerto Rico legislature. On Jan. 18 the board sent a letter to Gov. Rosselló stating that spending cuts and/or tax raises equaling 44% of the general fund would have to be made in the next 18 months. At its Jan. 28 meeting, board chairman José Carrion, for emphasis, said twice that some governor-proposed changes to the board’s Jan. 18 proposals may be OK, “as long as the ultimate fiscal plan is based on solid savings and revenue projections, a once and done approach, and not simply on hope or predictions that various changes will generate more revenues in the future.”

Driving Out of Municipal Bankruptcy

eBlog, 12/11/16

Good Morning! In this p.m.’s eBlog, we consider the economic resurgence of post-bankrupt Detroit, using human and, increasingly, artificial intelligence to focus on the city’s future. Then we head to East Cleveland, where, in the wake of the narrowest of recalls of both the Mayor and Council President in an insolvent municipality—the question is what (and whether) its fiscal future might be. Then we head to the snowy north, where Michigan House Speaker Kevin Cotter has issued a dire warning of many municipal bankruptcies unless there is a state-local plan to address its seemingly unpayable public pension obligations. Then, we zoom East as the State of New Jersey begins to fill in the blanks with regard to how it is and will be implementing its state takeover of Atlantic City. Finally, we head south to the fiscally beleaguered city of Petersburg to observe both the near-term fiscal actions to address its insolvency and ask what will ensue.

Detroit: a Resurgent Home of Innovation. Detroit, an early home of the automobile (I have a photo of my two grandfathers in the first automobile ever on the Ann Arbor campus of the University of Michigan), and now recovering from the largest chapter 9 bankruptcy in history, is one of the nation’s foremost cities in investing strategically in the future. Using its history with the automobile industry and its web of universities, the city appears to be at the forefront now of connecting artificial intelligence (AI) to the industry—a strategic investment in its future. Spatial Labs Inc., an artificial intelligence (AI) company which was founded in Cincinnati, but which has opted to keep its headquarters in Detroit, is one of 12 startups which was part of the Techstars Mobility accelerator program last summer in Detroit—a startup round of $2 million led by Serra Ventures of Champaign, Ill., and joined by Connectic Ventures of Covington, Ky.; the M25 Group of Chicago; Fulcrum Equity Partners of Atlanta; and Caerus Investment Partners of Chicago. Spatial, last September, had announced a development agreement with Ford Motor Co. at the Techstars Demo Day. As part of its participation in the program, Spatial received $20,000 in equity funding from Techstars and $100,000 from Detroit-based Fontinalis Partners LLC. Spatial CEO Lyden Faust told Crains: “We didn’t expect to move to Detroit, but personally, I’ve loved being here, and there are so many more opportunities here compared to Cincinnati.” The company was offered space at Ford Field by Ted Serbinski, managing director of the Techstars program in Detroit, and received a grant, which Mr. Faust said the company will use to hire several data scientists and ramp up marketing. Spatial’s co-founder and chief technology officer is Will Kiessling, who had been lead engineer and technologist at GE Aviation in Evandale, Ohio, from 2007 to last January—there he was used to managing huge amounts of data during engine development and testing, which he likened as bringing “the same logic to remote test jet engines as it is to remote test cities: Billions of people interact with maps across multiple devices every day. Bringing social context to maps using Spatial’s patent-pending technology will improve map usability in many industries, including travel, real estate and automotive.” With the rise of AI and machine learning and the shift to mobility and location, Spatial is at the intersection of a massive shift in the industry. And Detroit seems to be working hard to be first in the right lane.

Michigan Municipalities on the Brink. Michigan House Speaker Kevin Cotter (R-Mt. Pleasant), in an Op Ed for the Detroit News, wrote:

Many local communities in Michigan are drowning in debt and on the brink of bankruptcy, and yet almost no one is talking about it. Even fewer people are working on a plan to try to fix it…This is unacceptable and could have dire consequences for every Michigan resident. Something needs to be done now, before disaster strikes.

Reforming retirement systems is a controversial topic, but inaction is simply not an option. We recently made some waves by starting the discussion in the Michigan House, and it is my hope that we all continue that conversation into the new year. Debating the problem openly and honestly is an important first step, but we need to go further and find a permanent solution. It is well past time to put people over politics and do the right thing.

For decades, bad deals were made all over the state, handing out generous and unrealistic health care benefits left and right. Those debts are now weighing down our local governments, which is why we don’t have as many police officers on the streets as we could have and why our fire protection is spread thinner than it could be. This isn’t just a problem on a spreadsheet; you and I are still paying for those deals today in very real ways.

Local governments are struggling to make their payments on this debt, and they are falling further behind every year. A few are on the brink of bankruptcy, and many more will be there soon. Municipal bankruptcies mean fewer police, holes in fire coverage, and a busy signal when you dial 911. Imagine what happened in Detroit a few years ago happening in Kalamazoo, Jackson or Midland. Think of it happening in your city.

Bankruptcy also means former employees with retirement benefits could lose them all. Bankruptcy courts end deals like that with no recourse, and retirees are an easy target for them. Local governments, police and firefighter unions and politicians from both parties publicly agreed we need to solve this crisis now to prevent deep and destructive cuts in our cities and to save the retirements our first responders are planning on.

Our plan asked local public employees to contribute just 20 percent toward their own retirement healthcare plan, the same percentage state employees have been contributing for years. That is still far better than what private sector employees receive. We went further and completely eliminated our own coverage in the state Legislature when I took office six years ago, because it was the right thing to do.

That plan didn’t have the support to pass before our current term ends, but having everyone acknowledge the problem together is a great first step. We’ve heard their constructive criticism, but now we need to hear their ideas. Our committees won’t have the chance to hear from the thousands of police recruits and trainee firefighters who were never hired over the years because of busted budgets. Our representatives will never hear from the people who have died because of slow emergency response times due to budget cuts.

Denial is no longer an alternative, but bankruptcy unfortunately is. Our plan was the only plan out there to save our cities, protect critical services and guarantee first responder benefits for life. Now we need a new plan, and a better plan.

State Governance in Municipal Insolvency. In the wake of the Atlantic City’s Municipal Utilities Authority’s Nov. 28 special meeting; in particular, its vote to give outgoing members a $3,000 ‘gift’ in addition to their regular compensation and benefits package, as we have previously noted, Jeff Chiesa, who is heading up the state’s takeover of the boardwalk city has announced New Jersey will use its new power over the municipality to veto the water authority’s decision to give its board members $3,000 gifts, with his spokesperson noting: “The Division of Local Government Services rejects the action taken at the Atlantic City.” The statement from Mr. Chiesa’s office noted: “This action is further evidence of the MUA’s disregard for the ratepayers they serve, and clearly demonstrates the authority does not understand the severity of the city’s financial condition.” Local Government Services Director—along with Mr. Chiesa—made clear they will also review the remainder of the MUA board meeting minutes, making clear the breadth of authority granted to the state under its takeover powers—including the ability to hire or fire employees, sell city assets, or break union contracts. The state power, moreover, reaches farther to the authority to veto the minutes of municipal governmental meetings. 

What’s Next for Governance in an Insolvent Municipality? Recalled East Cleveland Mayor Gary Norton has now provided details of the city’s handover of power in the wake of his narrow loss in last week’s recall election by twenty votes—along with City Council President Thomas Wheeler. The Mayor stated: “Because that election is so close, we will hold off until December 27th and wait the 21 days to ensure East Cleveland that the election results are final, the election results are certified, and the appropriate individuals enter the mayor’s office and leave council or stay on council.” Should a recount find that Council President Wheeler was not, in fact, recalled, he would become Mayor; if he does not and the current results stand, Council Vice President Brandon King will be mayor until next year’s regular mayoral election. Outgoing Mayor Norton said the government’s business will continue without interruption while the mayor’s office and any openings on council are filled. At the press conference, Council Vice President Brandon King was asked about the status of the city proposed merger with Cleveland—a proposal both Mayor Norton and Council President Wheeler had supported. In response, he noted: “I think when you look at that issue, that’s something that is not over and it will continue to be discussed. And I think that’s probably going to be my only comment on that.” To continue, however, the Mayor and Council will have to act: The ordinance appointing commissioners to study annexation expired before the City of Cleveland chose its representatives. Indeed, according to a Cleveland city council spokesperson, the city has not received a new list of merger commissioners, so East Cleveland’s newly constituted Council would have to pass a new ordinance to restart the merger process. East Cleveland has been in fiscal emergency since 2012. 

Back to a City’s Viable & Fiscally Stable Future. Just as once stagecoaches carry Wells Fargo safe boxes were once guarded by tough characters, like Wyatt Earp, armed with sawed-off shotguns loaded with deadly buckshot to fend off attacks from dastardly outlaws; now it appears that Wells Fargo might pay a favor back: it has agreed to provide a loan of some $6.5 million to the small, insolvent municipality of Petersburg, Virginia—a decision arrived at in the wake of steep municipal budget cuts, tax increases, and greater financial vigilance.  Interim City Manager Tom Tyrrell announced that the city was approved for the loan by Wells Fargo—a loan carrying an interest rate of 4.5 percent, but where the repayment of all principal and interest is due by next October. City Manager Tyrell, in a press release, noted: “This is part of the plan to provide short-term financing to allow city functions to continue. It is not an infusion of cash to pay off past obligations…We will pay our past obligations and will announce our program to accomplish those payments as Phase Two of our Fiscal Stability Plan.” The loan comes in the wake of efforts to secure one that commenced last summer after the lender who previously had provided short-term revenue anticipation notes declined to lend the municipality funds. Thus, last September, as we have previously noted, the City Council had adopted a package of budget cuts and tax increases recommended by consulting firm PFM Group as a way to reassure potential lenders that Petersburg was working seriously to remedy its fiscal plight—and, subsequently, hired another consulting firm, the Robert Bobb Group—headed by former Richmond City Manager Robert Bobb, to take over operation of the city government. The Wells Fargo loan will not address the roughly $19 million the city owes in past-due payments left over from its FY2016 fiscal year; however, according to the city: “It does give us enough breathing room to continue to meet our current expenditures…[It is a] short-term loan [that] allows us to pay our current fiscal 2017 expenses while meeting city payroll, current debt financing and emergency first responder services.” Indeed, Mr. Bobb noted: “We are still in a crisis mode, and this is not the time to interpret short-term financing as a long-term accomplishment.” His company noted that its focus for the next few months will remain on maintaining normal municipal operations and delivering essential public services while reinforcing city finances. Next year, the plan is to commence on “Phase Two,” in which the goal will be to begin paying down longer-term debt and past-due bills.

Fiscal Challenges Amid Governance Transitions

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eBlog, 12/06/16

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing health and fiscal challenges of Flint, Michigan as we await the outcome of today’s mayoral recall election in the insolvent municipality of East Cleveland, after which we attempt to update readers on the porous state of Atlantic City’s municipal utility. Then we seek to escape winter by heading south to Puerto Rico—where the combination of changing administrations in both the U.S. and Puerto Rico leave unclear what the fiscal path forward will be if the U.S. territory is to avoid not just fiscal, but also health care insolvency.

Out like Flint. University of Michigan researchers have more than tripled their estimate of the number of water service lines in the small city of Flint which will need to be replaced, nearly quadrupling the number of lead or galvanized steel lines the city has from 8,000 to 29,100—or more than half service lines leading to 55,000 homes and businesses in Flint, according Mayor Karen Weaver, who notes the updated report makes it important that the city move beyond the use of filters and instead move toward wholesale replacement of water lines: “These findings make it even more imperative that the state and federal government step up to pay for replacing lead-tainted service lines.” The figures are daunting: of the municipality’s 29,100 parcels, 17,500 would need full replacement of service lines, while 11,600 would require partial replacement, according to the researchers. The estimate was mandated by EPA to comply with the requirements of the federal Lead and Copper Rule: because the lead in the city’s water supply exceeded the federal action level of 15 parts per billion, the city is mandated to replace more than 2,000 service lines by next June—a physical and fiscal challenge given that Flint’s records describing the location of lead service lines in Flint have proven to be unreliable, and records for some parcels appear to not even exist, according to city officials—meaning that visual inspections, more time-consuming and expensive route—has served as the city’s only means to obtain an accurate assessment of where lead and galvanized steel service lines were installed. Thus, under Mayor Weaver’s initiative, municipal crews continue to replace service lines in neighborhoods most likely to have lead service lines, and where a significant number of young children or seniors live: the Mayor’s goal is to have service lines replaced at 1,000 homes by the end of this month, although the actual number may be fewer if bad weather occurs—weather with this morning’s chilled rain at temperatures just above freezing augurs ill. To help, the state of Michigan has set aside $25 million to pay for pipe replacements through September of next year—estimated to be sufficient to pay for replacing pipes to about 5,000 homes. In addition, Congress is considering an aid package that would bring tens of millions of dollars to Flint which could be used to repair the city’s damaged water system. If the 29,100 figure proves accurate, replacing the other 28,100 service lines could cost at least $140 million. A key element on this health and fiscal challenge could be yesterday’s agreement between U.S. House and Senate leaders on a bipartisan bill to authorize $170 million for Flint and other cities beleaguered by lead in drinking water, and to provide relief to drought-stricken California. A vote on the water-projects bill could take place this week as Congress wraps up its legislative work for the year.

The Utility & Atlantic City. Atlantic City’s utility water authority board members last week raised rates in an effort to cover an unexpected budget hole—but then topped it off by paying themselves a $3,000 per board member, even as the Municipal Utilities Authority (MUA) board approved the 10 percent rate hike for next year, a 20 percent increase over what had been set at last week’s special meeting to cover lost revenue from a contract change with New Jersey American Water. Under the new plan, residential rates would increase to $50 per quarter from $45 last year; nevertheless, the utility’s rates would still rank near the bottom for the region, according to Atlantic County Utilities Authority data. The MUA’s $14.7 million 2017 budget, down just under 10 percent from last year, is scheduled to be adopted on December 21st, according to an authority news release. The increase would appear unlikely to garner much favor in the insolvent city—especially in the wake of the board’s decision to award themselves $3,000 gifts this December “for their dedicated service,” according to a resolution, notwithstanding that the money was supposed to be a parting gift, not a Christmas gift, according to one board member. Board Vice Chairman Gary Hill yesterday claimed the “December 2016” was an error in the resolution’s language. It appears it has been a tradition that MUA Board members are to receive a cash bonus or gift once they leave the board: the authority’s seven board members make $6,000 salaries and can receive benefits, according to public records. Now, however, the Board’s challenge could be complicated by a different kind of fiscal disruption: American Water, a private company which had been considered a potential buyer of the MUA, which had a $1.7 million contract with the MUA, and was the MUA’s top customer, has recently notified the MUA it no longer needs it to provide water; it turns out that capital improvements to its Atlantic County system have increased its water capacity and “in essence eliminated NJAW’s need to purchase water from the ACMUA,” according to the company letter to the authority; instead, American Water wanted to buy 500,000 gallons of water per day, down from the 1.2 million gallons per day it has recently purchased; however, the lower volume would convert the company from a “bulk purchaser” to a “commercial customer,” meaning it would have to pay a $7 million connection charge, according to the letter, so that, according to the company’s statement: “We cannot justify the additional costs the ACMUA’s proposal would have on the company and its customers, since these significant capital investments eliminate the need for New Jersey American Water to purchase additional water.” Ergo, the contract change and its effect on the MUA budget led to the special board meeting where rates were raised—and bonuses were raised; now MUA and American Water are discussing a potential agreement under which the company would only buy water from the MUA in emergency situations, according to Chairman Hill: the MUA could get just $200,000 under such an arrangement. The fiscal and physical situation is, of course, further complicated from a governance perspective as the city’s public water utility has been at the center of debate between Atlantic City and the State of New Jersey—which has just taken over the city. American Water lobbyist Philip Norcross attended a 2015 meeting with city and state officials in which the MUA was discussed. Mr. Norcross’ brother is South Jersey powerbroker George Norcross. Authority officials questioned the timing of the contract change, hinting it was a strategic move by American Water to get the valuable water works, according to the meeting transcript. “They’re putting pressure on,” said Deputy Executive Director Garth Moyle.

Administration Transitions & Puerto Rico. The new PROMESA law to create a quasi-chapter 9 mechanism for the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico will face signal challenges as the governance of both the U.S. and Puerto Rico are in transition to new administrations. Unsurprisingly, President-elect Trump devoted little time to addressing what his position would be with regard to the implementation and administration of the new law. Thus, while Congress and the Treasury Department have put together both a framework and a Board to assist in Puerto Rico’s recovery; whether and how those might be modified or addressed now will depend upon both the incoming administration in Washington and new Governor in Puerto Rico—where the new head of the Senate’s Health Commission, Ángel Chayanne Martínez Santiago, yesterday urgently requested a meeting with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) to discuss a possible health emergency declaration because of apprehension that all federal health care funds could expire on the island by this summer, writing that the federal health care assistance affects some 1.6 million U.S. citizens: “We need to declare a health emergency in Puerto Rico immediately. We have no doubt that this is a matter of vital importance—nor can there be any question but that this is a matter of vital importance for Congress and the White House.” The letter warns that, without a doubt, the greatest portion of the territory’s existing Affordable Health Care funds will have been spent before the end of this month, noting: “We are urgently requesting this meeting with Speaker Ryan to set out a strategy to avoid having Puerto Ricans losing all access to health care.”

The situation is further complicated as Puerto Rico is going through its own governance transition. Thus, the U.S. territory’s Governor-elect, Ricardo Rosselló, now must determine not only how to coordinate with the PROMESA board, but also how to address Puerto Rico’s budget, debt, and grave health care situation—and how to seek to work with the new Trump administration after reviewing both the numbers in the Commonwealth’s current 10-year fiscal plan submitted last October by outgoing Gov. García Padilla. A critical issue will be Medicaid—an issue on which the outgoing administration had warned Congress “ultimately will have to address Puerto Rico’s inequitable treatment under Medicaid and its need for economic growth incentives.” The pending proposal by the outgoing Administration of President Obama opined that Congress create Medicaid parity between Puerto Rico and the states, and extend certain tax credits to the Commonwealth: this has now become a more urgent issue as Medicaid funding for Puerto Rico is due to expire near the end of 2017, creating what is called a “Medicaid cliff.” And even that challenge can be expected to be further muddied by potential consideration by the incoming Trump Administration to convert Medicaid’s entitlement status to a block grant program to the states. The risk for Puerto Rico in all this would be if it were to fall between the cracks: should that happen, Puerto Rico’s government, where annual health care expenditures are near $2.4 billion annually, the U.S. territory would either have to raise revenues and find ways to cut expenses while providing consistent levels of care or drastically pare healthcare benefits—benefits already significantly lower than to Americans living in the other 50 states, because Puerto Rico’s Medicaid funding is capped, rather than entitled—meaning that, despite disproportionate health care needs, it receives disproportionately less than any of the 50 states.  

Awkward Transition & Fiscal Death Spiral? Puerto Rico Governor-Elect Ricardo Rosselló this weekend declined outgoing Gov. Alejandro García Padilla’s offer to work on a fiscal plan for the federal PROMESA oversight board. Under the PROMESA law, the U.S. territory’s governor is mandated to submit a five-year plan which itemizes steps to bring about fiscal responsibility, regain access to capital markets, fund essential public services, fund provisions, and achieve a sustainable debt burden. Last October, Gov. Padilla indeed presented a 10 year plan to PROMESA’s Oversight Board which noted that Puerto Rico simply could not afford paying down its debt without federal aid, noting that the government would be still $6 billion short for operating expenses over the next decade absent federal help and without paying any debt service. Last month, the PROMESA Oversight Board members indicated they believed substantial cuts to Puerto Rico government spending beyond those included in the outgoing Governor’s plan were necessary—adding that the Board expected a revised version of the plan from Governor Padilla by next week—a demand with which Governor Padilla said he would not cooperate if it meant revising the plan to include additional austerity, noting the island has had enough austerity, so that further budget cuts would only lead to an “economic death spiral.” Thus, last Friday the Governor Padilla sent a letter to Governor-elect Rosselló to invite him to become part of a joint effort to put together a revised fiscal recovery plan. Gov.-elect Rosselló, however, publicly rejected the outgoing Governor’s offer, responding, at least according to El Vocero’s news website, that Governor Padilla had not released sufficient financial data for the incoming Governor to work with him—leaving the incoming Governor little time or opportunity to offer his own plan—and the PROMESA Board is scheduled to certify (or not) the plan set before it by the end of next month.

TheExceptional Governing Challenges on Roads to Fiscal Recovery

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eBlog, 12/02/16

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the hard role to recovery not just from San Bernardino’s longest-ever municipal bankruptcy, but also the savage terrorist attack a year ago. Then we venture East to observe the evolving state role in New Jersey’s takeover of Atlantic City, where the new designee named by Gov. Chris Christie, Jeffrey Chiesa, yesterday introduced himself to residents and taxpayers, but offered little guidance about exactly how he will usurp the roles of the Mayor and City Council in governing and trying to get the famed boardwalk city out of insolvency and back to fiscal stability. Finally, we look north to the metropolitan Hartford, Connecticut region, where the municipalities in the region are seeking to work out fiscal mechanisms to address Hartford’s potential municipal bankruptcy in order to ensure no disruption of metropolitan water and sewer services—a different, but in this case critical element of a “sharing economy.”  

The Jagged Road to Chapter 9 Recovery. It was one year ago today that terrorists struck in San Bernardino—the city in chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy longer than any other city in U.S. history, marking, then, a day of 14 deaths—with victims caught in the crossfire of gun shots and carnage in the wake of the wanton attack by Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik—and a horror still not over, as it will be another nine months before the trial against Enrique Marquez Jr., who has been charged with buying some of the weapons which were used in the attack, commences in September—months after the beleaguered city anticipates exiting from bankruptcy. Because the shootings took place at a San Bernardino County facility in San Bernardino, the long-term recovery has been further complicated from a governance perspective: many of the shooting survivors are accusing San Bernardino County of cutting off much-needed support for the survivors of the attack, including refusing to approve counseling or antidepressant medication. Others, who were physically wounded are seeking, so far unsuccessfully, to get surgeries and physical therapy covered. The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors earlier this week convened a closed-door session at which survivors said they felt betrayed and abandoned, left to deal with California’s complicated workers’ compensation program without guidance or help. Their health insurers will not cover their injuries because they occurred in a workplace attack. Congressman Pete Aguilar (D-Ca.), whose district includes San Bernardino, reports that his hometown had been added to a list of cities with which people are familiar for a terrible reason, such as Littleton, Colo., or Newtown, Conn. Nevertheless, he is defiant, insisting “We will not be defined by this tragedy.”

However, murder rates in the city have been climbing: the city of just over 200,000 is grappling with a spike in violent crime, homicides especially: to date, this year, the city has reported 49 killings, already more than last year’s total, which included the terrorist victims—its homicide rate tops that of Chicago, which has become the poster child for big-city violent crime and is on pace for more than 600 killings this year. San Bernardino Police Chief Jarrod Burguan, however, said the crime wave is not unique to the chapter 9 municipality—a currently bankrupt city where empty storefronts and pawn shops have long lined downtown streets. Nevertheless, Brian Levin, a criminal justice professor at California State University, San Bernardino, who studies hate crimes, yesterday noted: “we’re a better community now, even though we’re hurt.” Professor Levin is one who, in the days and weeks which ensued after the mass tragedy, met with faith leaders, law enforcement, and families of the victims—where he discovered a unity of shock and shared pain. Today, he notes: “The attack will always be a part of our history…But here’s the thing: so will the heroics of those police officers and first responders and medical staff, and so will the grace of the families. We’re writing the rest of the history. The bastards lost.” Now the city awaits early next year for emerging not just from the physical tragedy, but also the longest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy ever.  

Atlantic City Blues.  Jeffrey Chiesa, a former New Jersey Attorney General, U.S. Senator, and, now, Governor Chris Christie’s designee to run the state takeover of Atlantic City, yesterday introduced himself at a City Council meeting and took questions from city taxpayers and residents. He provided, however, in this first public meeting no details on plans to address either the city’s fiscal plight—or its interim governance. He reported the State of New Jersey does not yet have a plan to address the city’s $100 million budget hole, much less to pay down the Atlantic City’s $500 million debt, noting: “It has been two weeks…My plan is to do what I think is necessary to create a structural financial situation that works not for six months, not for a year, but indefinitely so that this place can flourish in a way that it deserves to flourish.” He noted he and his law firm will be paid hourly for their work, albeit he did not report what that hourly rate will be—especially as the state retention agreement remains incomplete, albeit promising: “We’ll make sure that’s available once it’s been finalized.” Related to governance, he noted that—related to his state-granted authority to sell city assets, hire or fire workers or break union contracts, among other powers—he would listen to residents and stakeholders before making major decisions: “What this designation has done is consolidate authority, per the legislation, in the designee to make those decisions…That does not mean that I’m not listening. That does not mean I’m pretending I have all the answers without consulting with other people.” Describing the seaside city as a “jewel” and “truly unique,” he added that he understood concerns about an outsider overseeing the city: “I know that most of you don’t know who I am…All I can do is be judged by my actions and the decision that I make, and I hope you give me time to do that.” He did say that he would have to move swiftly to address immediate issues, likely referring to reaching agreements with casinos to make payments in lieu of property taxes, and then focusing on the city’s expenses—noting: “That timeframe is pretty compressed…So we will take the steps we need to take.”

Fiscally Hard for Hartford. As we have recounted in the fiscally strapped municipality of Petersburg, Virginia, municipal fiscal insolvency cannot occur in a geographic vacuum: whether in Detroit—or as we note above today, in San Bernardino, fiscal insolvency has repercussions for adjacent municipalities. So too in Hartford, the Metropolitan District Commission (MDC) completed its planned $173 million municipal bond sale late last week, temporarily ending the controversy over a $5.5 million reserve fund. Under the provisions, that fund would be paid by seven of the eight MDC municipalities to cover the sewage fee for the second half of 2017 if the City of Hartford is unable to contribute its share, as it has indicated it will be unable to do. Ergo, it means that adjacent Windsor, the first English settlement in the state which abuts Hartford on its northern border, with a population of under 30,000 would contribute over $700,000, with East Hartford contributing about $900,000. The other group members in the metro region, Bloomfield, Newington, Rocky Hill, West Hartford, and Wethersfield, would pay the remaining $900,000, proportionately. One outcome of this watery alliance and experience is that the MDC will, when the state legislature convenes next February, propose two laws to avoid the necessity for a reserve fund in the future, with MDC Chairman William DiBella suggesting that the eight member municipalities be required to set aside as untouchable the percentage of their property taxes the cities and towns already know they will owe to the MDC for sewage services. (Currently, property taxes go into the municipalities’ general funds, and the cities extract the sewage fee when it is due, provided the funds are, in fact, available; however, like water at the tap, that has not always been the experience.) In effect, the consortium is recommending a selves-imposed budgeting municipal mandate, with Chairman DiBella noting: “Every town would have to do it. That way, one town can’t stiff us. You wouldn’t have to go out and borrow money or take charity and hope you get it back.” As the Chairman noted: “We never had a problem like this…Who thought a town would go bankrupt? With the proposed law, if a town were to go bankrupt, the sewage fund would be in a dedicated account and can’t be reached,” or touched in a bankruptcy proceeding. Another potential resolution would be to allow the MDC to borrow money over a long-term for operating expenses. The MDC would then be able to pay Hartford’s $5.5 million bill and look for a city reimbursement in other ways.

There has been increased pressure for a resolution—especially in the wake of municipal bond holders of the MDC, holders who, last week, made clear to the authority they would not buy its municipal bonds if a reserve fund was not put into place. That appeared to be a key incentive for the board’s action earlier this week for the MDC board, including representatives of all eight municipal members, to vote unanimously to adopt the water and sewer service provider’s 2017 budget, which contains the unwelcome “bail-out” fund for Hartford—albeit Chair DiBella said there would be no guarantee the agency could cover a Hartford default or continue operating or pay the bondholders. A key part of the incentive to try to work together relates to potential fiscal contagion: because of concerns over Hartford’s finances and fiscal condition, credit rating agencies have recently downgraded MDC’s bond rating from AA+ to AA, a downgrade expected to cost the agency and its member towns an estimated $500,000 in a higher interest rate for the bonds. The towns, unsurprisingly, are apprehensive the credit rating agencies will now consider changing their credit ratings. In contrast, creating the reserve fund would keep MDC’s credit rating where it is: thus, MDC officials hope that passing the two proposed laws would prompt the credit rating agencies to return its rating to AA+.