The Key Lessons Learned after a Decade of Municipal Bankruptcies

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eBlog, 04/07/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider Detroit’s first steps to address the blight which crisscrossed the city leading to its municipal bankruptcy. Then we look to New Hampshire to assess whether the state legislature will preempt municipalities’ authority to set election dates. Then we slip south to assess fiscal developments in the efforts to recover from insolvency in Puerto Rico. Finally, we assess and consider some of the broader issues related to municipal bankruptcy.

Post Chapter 9 Recovery. One of Detroit’s first tests with regard to whether it can find new use for the vast stretches of land it cleared of blight went into effect this week when development teams announced by  Mayor Mike Duggan, along with partners: The Platform, a Detroit-based firm, and Century Partners announced they would be investing an estimated $100 million to rehab the architectural jewels in the city’s downtown—the Fisher and Albert Kahn buildings, with the two organizations declaring they will take the lead in overhauling 373 parcels of vacant land and houses in the Fitzgerald neighborhood on the northwest side, where they will coordinate with other firms on a $4 million development plan to rehab 115 vacant homes over two years, create a two-acre park, and landscape 192 vacant lots—with the work occurring in neighborhoods wherein the Detroit Land Bank took control of most of the properties and razed some abandoned homes. Mayor Duggan and other officials described the plan as a kind of reverse gentrification—or, as Mayor Duggan framed it: “We are going to keep the families here while improving the neighborhoods,” making his announcement on an empty lot which is scheduled to become a city park and include a greenway path to nearby Marygrove College: the city leaders hope to transform the neighborhood into a “Blight-Free Quarter Square Mile,” and, if the model works, seek to propagate it other neighborhoods.

Granite State Preemption or Cure? House Speaker Shawn Jasper wants to give New Hampshire towns that postponed their municipal elections due to a snowstorm a way out of facing potential lawsuits from voters who may have been disenfranchised. Speaker Jasper had proposed letting towns ratify the results of their elections by holding another vote, offering a bill to give towns which moved Election Day the option of letting townspeople vote to ratify, or confirm, the results on May 23rd. However, in the wake of about five hours of testimony, the House Election Law Committee voted 10-10 on the Jasper plan, so that a tie vote killed the Speaker’s amendment, leaving 73 towns on their own to address potential legal problems resulting from their decisions to hold their elections on days other than March 14th. The fiscal blizzard in the Granite State now depends upon whether state legislators determine whether or not a special election is needed with regard to those results. New Hampshire Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan noted: “The concept is not entirely new…what is different is that it is applying to an entire class of towns that decided to postpone.”

In the past, the Legislature has voted to “cure” individual election defects. Speaker of the House Shawn Jasper, (R-Hudson, N.H.) noted: “Well, the fact that a bunch of towns moved the day of their town election was unprecedented…And so as a result of doing that, those towns that moved had to start bending other laws to make other issues related to the election work…The Legislature is just granting the authority to allow the towns to correct any defects that may exist,” he added, listing changed time listings, lack of proper notice, and absentee ballot date issues as possible defects in the process. All of those questions, of course, have fiscal consequences—or, as Atkinson Town Administrator Alan Phair put it; “Well, I don’t know the exact cost, what it would be, but I do know that in our case we certainly don’t have the money budgeted to (hold a special election), because we obviously just budgeted for one election…We would certainly go considerably over and have to find the money elsewhere to do it.” Under the proposed amendment, towns and school districts which postponed would hold a hearing, at which the respective governing body would vote on whether to hold a special election with one question: whether or not to ratify results, where a “no” vote would kick out anyone elected in a postponed vote, while nullifying warrant articles, with elected roles to be appointed until the next election. Salem Town Manager (Salem is a town of just under 30,000 in Rockingham County) Leon Goodwin said his elected leaders were of the opinion that its postponement was legal, so that the municipality is moving forward on projects voted on last month, noting: We’re moving on as if the votes were accepted even though there is a cloud hanging over us from Concord,” adding that town counsel advised the town moderator that it was legal to move elections. Yet, even as he remained confident the election issue will be resolved, he cautioned that the town has not budgeted for an additional election; Windham (approximately 14,000) Town Manager David Sullivan said the municipality’s town Counsel would sign off on the town’s fire truck bond, notwithstanding bond counsel elsewhere in the state advising that ratification of the elections would be necessary.

Municipal authority to act has been hampered by different state House and Senate approaches: while the two bodies have been moving on parallel tracks in the wake of state officials’ questioning the authority of town moderators to reschedule the March 14 voting sessions of their town meetings, the Senate this week passed SB 248, a bill introduced to ratify actions taken at the rescheduled meetings; however, the bill passed with a committee amendment which deletes all of the original language and provides instead for the creation of a committee to “study the rescheduling of elections.” Senators acknowledged that the bill was not likely to pass through the House in that form—asserting the intent was simply to get a bill to the House for further work. Subsequently, a floor amendment was introduced to restore the bill’s original language, ratifying all actions taken at the rescheduled meetings; however, that amendment failed on a party-line vote, with all nine Democrats voting in favor and all fourteen Republicans voting against, leaving most unclear how this could have become a partisan issue. The question comes down to what level of control local officials should have over local elections. The Speaker described the outcome thusly: “I think it was a case of 10 people (on the committee) thinking that what happened was legal;” however, he maintained that the postponed votes were not legal, adding: “The sad thing is that for school districts with bond issues that passed in those meetings, I don’t see a path forward for them,” adding: “I think if you’re afraid of snowstorms, you ought to move your meetings, probably to May,” noting that state officials are forbidden by law from moving state primary and general elections, as well as the first-in-the-nation presidential primary. Unsurprisingly, town moderators and attorneys who work with them on municipal bond issues disagreed with the Speaker’s interpretation that the postponed elections were illegal and his belief that the only way to rectify the issue was for them to act to individually ratify them, with many arguing they acted legally under a state law which allows them to postpone and reschedule the “deliberative session or voting day” of a town meeting to another day; however, the Speaker maintains that law applies only to town meetings, while town elections are governed under a different statute, which provides: “All towns shall hold an election annually for the election of town officers on the second Tuesday in March.” He also noted that the state’s official political calendar, which has the force of law, states that town elections must be held on March 14, adding: “Without trying to place blame, laws are sometimes very confusing if you look only at parts of them,” noting: “I don’t believe for one second that moving the election was legal.”

The Speaker added that still another state law provides that at special town meetings, no money may be raised or appropriated unless the number of ballots cast at the meeting is at least half the number of those on the checklist who were eligible to vote in the most recent town meeting, albeit adding that such meetings do not apply to the current situation, because they are not elections. The state’s Secretary of State said that after three weeks of research, he was able to report on voter turnout at town elections for the past 11 years, advising that 210 towns held elections in March, and 137 of them “followed the law” by holding their elections on March 14th, while 73 towns had postponed their elections by several days. Now Speaker Jasper asks: “Why would we give over 300 individual moderators the ability to do that when our Secretary of State doesn’t have the ability to do that for a snowstorm in our general election or our presidential primary?” The Speaker notes: “I think we need to provide a way to ensure that we don’t clog up the courts, and we don’t have people spend a lot of their own money to fight this, and the towns don’t have to spend a lot of money fighting it.”

Un-positive Credit Rating for Puerto Rico. Moody’s Investors Service has lowered the credit ratings on debt of the Government Development Bank and five other Puerto Rico issuers, with a total of approximately $13 billion outstanding, and revised down the Commonwealth’s fiscal outlook, and the outlooks for seven affiliated obligors linked to the central government to negative from developing, with the downgrades reflecting what the agency described as “persistent pressures on Puerto Rico’s economic base that indicate a diminishing perceived capacity to repay,” noting that while it continues to “believe that essentially all of Puerto Rico’s debt will be subject to default and loss in a broad restructuring, the securities being downgraded face more severe losses than we had previously expected, in the light of Puerto Rico’s projected economic pressures. For this reason, we downgraded to C from Ca not only the senior notes issued by the now defunct Government Development Bank, but also bonds issued by the Puerto Rico Infrastructure Financing Authority and backed by federal rum tax transfer payments, the Convention Center District Authority’s hotel occupancy tax-backed bonds, the Employees Retirement System’s bonds backed by government pension contributions, and the 1998 Resolution bonds of the Puerto Rico Highways and Transportation Authority.”

Puerto Rico Governor Rossello late Wednesday said that the U.S. territory’s fiscal plan, approved by the PROMESA Board, does not contemplate any double taxation, adding that, between the increase in the property tax and the reduction of expenses in the municipalities, he favored the latter as a measure to compensate for the absence of the state subsidy of $350 million. He reiterated that, as a substitute for these funds, the properties which are not currently paying taxes to the Centro de Recaution de Ingresos Municipales (CRIM: the Municipal Revenue Collection Center) should be identified, because they are not included in their registry. The Governor also stressed that the economic outcome of these two fiscal initiatives is still being evaluated, albeit he estimated that they could generate about $100 million, noting: “Whatever the differential after that for the municipalities, there are two mechanisms that can be worked: One, a mechanism to seek an additional source of income, or, two, to avail cuts…The central government has taken the cutting position. We are already establishing a protocol to cut in the agencies, to consolidate, to eliminate the expenses that are not necessary, to go from 131 to between 35 to 40 agencies. That has been our action. The municipalities—now we will have a conversation with our technical team—will have several options: ‘either cut as did the central government or seek mechanisms to raise more funds or impose taxes.’” Currently, mayors evaluate to increase the arbitrage of the real property to 11.83% or to 12.83% in all the municipalities; the concept is for members of the Executive to offer assistance to do the modeling. Thus, the president of the board of CRIM, Cidra Mayor Javier Carrasquillo, said CRIM will be “sensitive to the reality of the pockets of Puerto Ricans: We have to be cautious and responsible in the recommendation that we are going to make…There is nothing definitive yet. There are recommendations.” The Governor noted that the PROMESA Board approved fiscal plan approved last month does not contemplate an increase in property taxation, asserting it was “false to imply that our fiscal plan entails an increase in the rate or a double rate on properties,” albeit recalling that the disappearance of $350 million in transfers to municipalities begins on July 1, when the fiscal year begins, promising it will be done progressively, so that in the next budget (2017-2018) $175 million disappear, and the remaining $175 million, the next fiscal year, describing it as a “two-year fade out.” Unsurprisingly, he did not specify when or how the plan would fiscally benefit this island’s municipalities, stating: “We have already been able to have pilot efforts to identify different municipalities where 60% of their properties are not being assessed…We are going to commit ourselves so that all these properties are in the system.”

The End of a Chapter 9 Era? Municipal bankruptcy is a rarity: even notwithstanding the Great Recession which produced a significant number of corporate bankruptcies—and federal bailouts to large for-profit corporations and quasi-federal corporations, such as Fannie Mae; the federal government offered no bailouts to cities or counties. Yet from one of the nation’s smallest cities, Central Falls, to major, iconic cities such as Detroit and Jefferson County, the nation experienced a just-ended spate, before—with San Bernardino’s exit last month, the likely closure of an era—even as we await some resolution of the request by East Cleveland to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. The lessons learned, compiled by the nation’s leading light of municipal bankruptcy, therefore bear consideration. Jim Spiotto, with whom I had the honor and good fortune over nearly a decade of effort leading to former President Reagan’s signing into law of the municipal bankruptcy amendments of 1988, offers us a critical guide of ten lessons learned:

  1. Do not defer funding of essential services and infrastructure: Detroit is a wake- up call for others that there is never a good reason to defer funding of essential services and infrastructure at an acceptable level. If you do, Detroit’s fate will be yours.
  2. Labor and pension contracts under state constitutional and statutory provisions should not be interpreted as a mutual suicide pact: It appears one of the reasons why resolution of pension and labor costs was not achieved in Detroit prior to filing Chapter 9 was the belief of the workers and retirees that, under the Michigan constitution, those contractual rights could not be impaired or diminished to any degree. This position failed to take into consideration that the municipality can only pay that which it has revenues to pay and, in an eroding declining financial situation, there will never be sufficient funds to pay all obligations, especially those that may be unaffordable and unsustainable.
  3. Don’t question that which should be beyond questioning and is needed for the long-term financial survival of the municipality: A dedicated source of payment, statutory lien or special revenues established under state law must be honored and should not be contested. Capital markets work effectively when credibility and predictability of outcome are clear and unquestioned. Current effort to pass new legislation (California SB222 and Michigan HB5650) to grant statutory first lien on dedicated revenues. Further, as noted in the Senate Report for the 1988 Amendments to the Bankruptcy Code and Chapter 9 “Section 904 [of Chapter 9 limiting the jurisdiction and power of the Bankruptcy Court] and the tenth amendment prohibits the interpretation that pledges of revenues granted pursuant to state statutory or constitutional provisions to bondholders can be terminated by filing a Chapter 9 proceeding”. This follows the precedent from the 1975 financial distress of New York City and the State of New York’s highest court ruling the state imposed moratorium was unconstitutional given the constitutional mandate to pay available revenues to the general obligation bondholders. See Flushing Nat. Bank et. al. v. Mun. Assistance Corp. of New York, 40 N.Y.S.2nd 731, 737-738 (N.Y. 1976). Just as statutory liens and special revenues, there is a strong argument that state statutory and constitutional mandated payments (mandated set asides, priorities, appropriations and dedicated tax revenue payments) should not and cannot be impaired, limited, modified or delayed by a Chapter 9 proceeding given the rulings of the Supreme Court in the Ashton and Bekins cases and the prohibitions of Sections 903 and 904 of Chapter 9 of the Bankruptcy Code.
  4. Debt adjustment is a process, but a recovery plan is a solution: As noted above, while Detroit has proceeded with debt adjustment which provides some additional runway so it can take takeoff in a recovery, such plan is not the cure for the systemic problem. Rather, the plan provides additional breathing room so that the municipality, through its Mayor and its elected officials, may proceed with a recovery plan, reinvest in Detroit, stimulate the economy, create new jobs, clear and develop blighted areas and raise the level of services and infrastructure to that which is acceptable and attract new business and new citizens.
  5. Successful plans of debt adjustment have one common feature: virtually all significant issues have been settled and resolved with major creditors: While the Detroit Plan started with sound and fury between the emergency manager and creditors and what they would receive, in the end, similar to what occurred in Vallejo, Jefferson County and even in Stockton (with one exception), major creditors ultimately reached agreement and supported the Plan of Debt Adjustment that allowed the municipality to move forward, confirm the Plan and begin its journey to recovery.
  6. One size does not fit all: There are many ways to draft a plan of debt adjustment and sometimes the more creative, the better. As noted above, traditionally major cities of size with significant debt did not file Chapter 9. They refinanced their debt with the backing of the state which reduced their future borrowing costs and allowed them to recover by having the liquidity and the reduced costs necessary to deal with their financial difficulties. Detroit chose a different path.
  7. A recovery plan must provide for essential services and infrastructure: “Best interest of creditors” and “feasibility” can only mean an appropriate reinvestment in the municipality through a recovery plan where there is funding of essential services and infrastructure at an acceptable level to stimulate the municipality’s economy to attract new employers and taxpayers thereby increasing tax revenues and addressing the systemic problem. While no plan of debt adjustment is perfect or assured, there should be, as the Bankruptcy Court in Detroit throughout the case pointed out, a plan to show the survivability and future success of the City.
  8. Confirmation of a plan of debt adjustment is only the beginning of the journey to financial recovery, not the end: It is important to recognize, as noted above, that Chapter 9 is a process, not a solution. The recovery plan, which will take dedication and effort by the elected officials of the City along with residents, public workers and other creditors is the only way to achieve success. It is measured not by months, but by years, and by the constant vigilance to ensure that the systemic problem is addressed effectively in a permanent fix.