Post Municipal Bankruptcy Leadership

08/07/17

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Good Morning! In this a.m.’s blog, we consider the fiscal challenge as election season is upon the Motor City: what kind of a race can we expect? Then we observe the changing of the guard in San Bernardino—as the city’s first post-chapter 9 City Manager settles in as she assumes a critical fiscal leadership role in the city emerging from municipal bankruptcy. Third, we consider the changing of the fiscal guard in Atlantic City, as outgoing (not a pun) Gov. Chris Christie begins the process of restoring municipal authority. Then we turn to what might be a fiscal turnaround underway in Puerto Rico, before, fourth, considering the special fiscal challenge to Puerto Rico’s municipios—or municipalities.

Post Municipal Bankruptcy Leadership. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, the city’s first post-chapter 9 mayor, has been sharing his goals for a second term, and speaking about some of his city’s proudest moments as he seeks a high turnout at tomorrow’s primary election mayoral primary election‒the first since the city exited municipal bankruptcy three years ago, noting he is: “very proud of the fact the unemployment rate in Detroit is the lowest it has been in 17 years: today he notes there are 20,000 more Detroiters working than 4 years ago. In January 2014, there were 40,000 vacant houses in the city, and today 25,000. We knocked down 12,000 and 3,000 had families who moved in and fixed them up,” adding: “For most Detroiters, that means the streetlights are on, grass is cut in the parks, busses are running on time, police and ambulances showing up in a timely basis and trash picked up and streets swept.” Notwithstanding those accomplishments, however, he confronts seven contenders—with perhaps the signal challenge coming from Michigan State Senator Coleman Young, Jr., whose father, Coleman Young, served as Detroit’s first African-American Mayor from 1974 to 1994. Mr. Young claims he is the voice for the people who have been forgotten in Detroit’s neighborhoods, noting: “I want to put people to work and reduce poverty of 48% in Detroit. I think that’s atrocious. I also want mass transit that goes more than 3 miles,” adding he is seeking ‘real change,’ charging that today in Detroit: “We’re doing more for the people who left the city of Detroit, than the people who stayed. That’s going to stop in a Young administration.” Remembering his father, he adds: “I don’t think there will ever be another Coleman Young, but I am the closest thing to him that’s on this planet that’s living.” (Other candidates in tomorrow’s non-partisan primary include Articia Bomer, Dean Edward, Curtis Greene, Donna Marie Pitts, and Danetta Simpson.)  

According to an analysis by the Detroit News, voters will have some interesting alternatives: half of the eight candidates have been convicted of felony crimes involving drugs, assault, or weapons—with three charged with gun crimes and two for assault with intent to commit murder, albeit, some of the offenses date back as far as 1977. (Under Michigan election law, convicted felons can vote and run for office, just as long as they are neither incarcerated nor guilty of crimes breaching public trust.

Taking the Reins.  San Bernardino has named its first post-chapter 9 bankruptcy city manager, selecting assistant City Manager and former interim city manager, Andrea Miller, to the position—albeit with some questions with regard to the $253,080 salary in a post-chapter 9 recovering municipality where the average household income is less than $36,000 and where officials assert the city’s budget is insufficient to fully address basic public services, such as street maintenance or a fully funded police department. Nevertheless, Mayor Cary Davis and the City Council voted unanimously, commenting on Ms. Miller’s experience, vision, and commitment to stay long-term, or, as Councilman Fred Shorett told his colleagues: “As the senior councilmember—I’ve been sitting in this dais longer than anybody else—I think we’ve had, if we count you twice, eight city managers in a total of 9 years: We have not had continuity.”  However, apprehension about continuity as the city addresses and implements its plan of debt adjustment remains—or, as Councilmember John Valdivia insisted, there needs to be a “solemn commitment to the people of San Bernardino” by Ms. Miller to serve at least five years, as he told his colleagues: “During Mayor (Carey) Davis’ four years in office, the Council is now voting on the third city manager: San Bernardino cannot expect a successful recovery with this type of rampant leadership turnover at City Hall…Ms. Miller is certainly qualified, but I am concerned that she has already deserted our community once before.” Ms. Miller was the city’s assistant city manager in 2012, when then-City Manager Charles McNeely abruptly resigned, leaving Ms. Miller as interim city manager to discover that the city would have to file for chapter 9 bankruptcy—a responsibility she addressed with aplomb: she led San Bernardino through the first six months of its municipal bankruptcy, before leaving without removing “interim” from her title, instead assuming the position of executive director of the San Gabriel Valley Council of Governments.

Ms. Miller noted: “I would remind the Council that I was here as your interim city manager previously, and I did not accept the permanent appointment, because I felt like I could not make that commitment given some of the dynamics…(Since then) this Council and this community have implemented a new city charter, the Council came together in a really remarkable way and had a discussion with me that we had not been able to have previously: You committed to some regular discussion about what your expectations are, you committed to strategic planning. And so, with all those things and a strategic plan that involves all of us in a stronger, better San Bernardino, yes I can make that commitment.” Interestingly, the new contract mandates at least two strategic planning sessions per year—and, she told the Council additional sessions would probably be wise. The contract the city’s new manager signed is longer than the city’s most recent ones—mayhap leavened by experience: the length and the pay are higher than the $248,076 per year the previous manager received. Although Ms. Miller is not a San Bernardino resident, she told the Mayor and Council she is committed to the city and said the city should strive to recruit other employees who do live in the city.

Not Gaming Atlantic City’s Future. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s administration last week announced it had settled all the remaining tax appeals filed by Atlantic City casinos, ending a remarkable fiscal drain which has contributed to the city’s fiscal woes and state takeover. Indeed, it appears to—through removal of fiscal uncertainty and risk‒open the door to the Mayor and Council to reduce its tax rate over the long-term as the costs of the appeal are known and able to be paid out of the bonds sold earlier this year—effectively spinning the dial towards greater fiscal stability and sustainability. Here, the agreements were reached with: Bally’s, Caesars, Harrah’s, the Golden Nugget, Tropicana, and the shuttered Trump Plaza and Trump Taj Mahal: it comes about half a year in the wake of the state’s tax appeal settlement with Borgata, under which the city agreed to pay $72 million of the $165 million the casino was owed. While the Christie administration did not announce dollar amounts for any of the seven settlements announced last week, it did clarify that an $80 million bond ordinance adopted by the city will cover all the payments—effectively clearing the fiscal path for Atlantic City to act to reduce its tax rate over the long term as the costs of the appeal are known and can be paid out of the municipal bonds sold earlier this year.  

In these tax appeals, the property owners have claimed they paid more in taxes than they should have—effectively burdening the fiscally besieged municipality with hundreds of millions in debt over the last few years as officials sought to avoid going into chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. Unsurprisingly, Gov. Christie has credited the state takeover of Atlantic City for fostering the settlements, asserting his actions were the “the culmination of my administration’s successful efforts to address one of the most significant and vexing challenges that had been facing the city…Because of the agreements announced today, casino property tax appeals no longer threaten the city’s financial future.” The Governor went on to add that his appointment of Jeffrey Chiesa, the former U.S. Senator and New Jersey Attorney General to usurp all municipal fiscal authority in Atlantic City when, in his words, Atlantic City was “overwhelmed by millions of dollars of crushing casino tax appeal debt that they hadn’t unraveled,” have now, in the wake of the state takeover, resulted in the city having a “plan in place to finance this debt that responsibly fits within its budget.” The lame duck Governor added in the wake of the state takeover, the city will see an 11.4% drop in residents’ overall 2017 property tax rate. For his part, Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian described the fiscal turnaround as “more good news for Atlantic City taxpayers that we have been working towards since 2014: When everyone finally works together for the best interest of Atlantic City’s taxpayers and residents, great things can happen.”

Puerto Rican Debt. The Fiscal Supervision Board in the U.S. territory wants to initiate a discussion into Puerto Rico’s debt—and how that debt has weighed on the island’s fiscal crisis—making clear in issuing a statement that its investigation will include an analysis of the fiscal crisis and its taxpayers, and a review of Puerto Rico’s debt and issuance, including disclosure and sales practices, vowing to carry out its investigation consistent with the authority granted under PROMESA. It is unclear, however, how that report will mesh with the provision of PROMESA, §411, which already provides for such an investigation, directing the Government Accounting Office (GAO) to provide a report on the debt of Puerto Rico no later than one year after the approval of PROMESA (a deadline already passed: GAO notes the report is expected by the end of this year.). The fiscal kerfuffle comes as the PROMESA Oversight Board meets today to discuss—and mayhap render a decision with regard to furloughs and an elimination of the Christmas bonus as part of a fiscal oversight effort to address an expected cash shortfall this Fall, after Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, at the end of last month, vowed he would go to court to block any efforts by the PROMESA Board to force furloughs, apprehensive such an action would fiscally backfire by causing a half a billion dollar contraction in Puerto Rico’s economy.

Thus, we might be at an OK Corral showdown: PROMESA Board Chair José Carrión III has warned that if the Board were to mandate furloughs and the governor were to object, the board would sue. As proposed by the PROMESA Board, Puerto Rican government workers are to be furloughed four days a month, unless they work in an excepted class of employees: for instance, teachers and frontline personnel who worked for 24-hour staffed institutions would only be furloughed two days a month, law enforcement personnel not at all—all part of the Board’s fiscal blueprint to save the government $35 million to $40 million monthly.  However, as the ever insightful Municipal Market Advisors managing partner Matt Fabian warns, it appears “inevitable” that furloughs and layoffs would hurt the economy in the medium term—or, as he wrote: “To the extent employee reductions create a protest environment on the island, it may make the Board’s work more difficult going forward, but this is the challenge of downsizing an over-large, mismanaged government.” At the same time, Joseph Rosenblum, the Director of municipal credit research at AllianceBernstein, added: “It would be easier to comment about the situation in Puerto Rico if potential investors had more details on their cash position on a regular basis…And it would also be helpful if the Oversight Board was more transparent about how it arrived at its spending estimates in the fiscal plan.”

Pensiones. The PROMESA Board and Puerto Rico’s muncipios appear to have achieved some progress on the public pension front: PROMESA Board member Andrew Biggs asserts that the fiscal plan called for 10% cuts to pension spending in future fiscal years, while Sobrino Vega said Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has promised to make full pension payments. Natalie Ann Jaresko, the former Ukraine Minister of Finance whom former President Obama appointed to serve as Executive Director of PROMESA Fiscal Control Board, described the reduction as part of the fiscal plan that the Governor had promised to observe: the fiscal plan assumed that the Puerto Rican government would cut $880 million in spending in the current fiscal year. Indeed, in the wake of analyzing the government’s implementation plans, the PROMESA Board appeared comfortable that the cuts would save $662 million—with the Board ordering furloughs to make up the remaining $218 million. The fiscal action came as PROMESA Board member Carlos García said that the board last Spring presented the 10 year fiscal plan guiding government actions with certain conditions, Gov. Rosselló agreed to them, so that the Board approved the plan with said conditions, providing that the government achieve a certain level of liquidity by the end of June and submit valid implementation plans for spending cuts. Indeed, Puerto Rico had $1.8 billion in liquidity at the end of June, well over the $291 million that had been projected, albeit PROMESA Board member Ana Matosantos asserted the $1.8 billion denoted just a single data point. Ms. Jaresko, however, advised that this year’s government cuts were just the beginning: the Board fiscal plan calls for the budget cuts to more than double from $880 million in this year, to $1.7 billion in FY 2019, to $2.1 billion in FY2020.  No Puerto Rican government representative was allowed to make a presentation to the board on the issue of furloughs.

Not surprisingly, in Puerto Rico, where the unemployment rate is nearly triple the current U.S. rate, the issue of furloughs has raised governance issues: Sobrino Vega, the Governor’s chief economic advisor non-voting representative on the PROMESA Oversight Board, said there was only one government of Puerto Rico and that was Gov. Rosselló’s, adding that under §205 of PROMESA, the board only had the powers to recommend on issues such as furloughs, noting: “We can’t take lightly the impact of the furloughs on the economy,” adding the government will meet its fiscal goals, but it will do it according its own choices, but that the Puerto Rican government will cooperate with the Board on other matters besides furloughs. His statement came in the wake of PROMESA Board Chair José Carrión III’s statement in June that if Puerto Rico did not comply with a board order for furloughs, the Board would sue.

Cambio?  Puerto Rico Commonwealth Treasury Secretary Raul Maldonado has reported that Puerto Rico’s tax revenue collections last month were was ahead of projections, marking a positive start to the new fiscal year for an island struggling with municipal bankruptcy and a 45% poverty rate. Secretary Maldonado reported the positive cambio (in Spanish, “cambio” translates to change—and may be used both to describe cash as well as change, just as in English.): “I think we are going to be $20 to $30 million over the forecast: For July, we started the fiscal year already in positive territory, because we are over the forecast. We have to close the books on the final adjustment but we feel we are over the budget.” His office had reported the revenue collection forecast for July, the start of Puerto Rico’s 2017-2018 fiscal year, was $600.8 million: in the previous fiscal year, Puerto Rico’s tax collections exceeded forecasts by $234.9 million, or 2.6%, to $9.33 million, with the key drivers coming from the foreign corporations excise tax, the sales and use tax, and the motor vehicle excise tax. Sec. Maldonado, who is also Puerto Rico’s CFO, reported that each government department is required to freeze its spending and purchase orders at 95% of the monthly budget, noting: “I want to make sure that they don’t overspend. By freezing 5%, I am creating a cushion so if there is any variance on a monthly basis we can address that. It is a hardline budget approach but it is a special time here.” Sec. Maldonado also said he was launching a centralized tax collection pilot program, with guidance from the U.S. Treasury—one under which three large and three small municipalities have enrolled in an effort to assess which might best increase tax collection efficiency while cutting bureaucracy in Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities, noting: “We are going to submit the tax reform during August, and we will include that option as an alternative to the municipalities.”

Municipal Moral & Fiscal Obligations

07/27/17

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Good Morning! In today’s iBlog, we consider the state & local fiscal challenge fiscal in the event of a moral obligation pledge failure; the ongoing, long-term revival and recovery of Detroit from the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history, and the revitalization fiscal challenges in Atlantic City and Puerto Rico.

A Fiscal Bogie or a Moral Municipal Bond? Buena Vista, Virginia, a small, independent city located in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia with a population of about 6,650, where the issue of its public golf course became an election issue—with the antis winning office and opting not to make the bond payments on the course they opposed—rejecting a moral obligation pledge on what has become a failed economic development project, as the city’s elected leaders chose instead to focus—in the wake of the Great Recession—on essential public services, putting the city in a sub par fiscal situation with Vista Links, which was securing the bonds, according to Virginia state records. The company, unsurprisingly,  has sued to get the monies it was promised—potentially putting at risk the city’s city hall and other municipal properties which had been put up as collateral. Buena Vista City Attorney Brian Kearney discerns this to be an issue of a moral obligation bond, rather than a general obligation municipal bond, so that “[W]e could not continue to do this and continue to do our core functions.” In the wake of the fiscal imbroglio, the Virginia Commission on Local Government (COLG)—which provides an annual fiscal stress study‒ended up playing a key role in the Petersburg effort in the General Assembly—finding that very poor management had led to an $18 million hole.

Here, the municipality’s default triggered negotiations with bond insurer, ACA Financial Guaranty Corp., which led to a forbearance agreement—one on which the city subsequently defaulted—triggering the Commonwealth of Virginia  to bar financing backup to the city from the state’s low-cost municipal borrowing pool, lest such borrowing would adversely impact the pool’s credit rating—and thereby drive up capital borrowing costs for cities and counties all across the state. In this instance, the Virginia Resources Authority refused to allow Buena Vista to participate in the Virginia Pooled Financing Program to refinance $9.25 million of water and sewer obligations to lower debt service costs—lest inclusion of such a borrower from the state’s municipal pool would negatively impact the pool’s offering documents—where some pooled infrastructure bonds, backed by the Commonwealth’s moral obligation pledge, are rated double-A by S&P Global Ratings and Moody’s Investors Service.

Seven years ago, the municipality entered into a five-year forbearance agreement with bond insurer ACA Financial Guaranty Corp.—an agreement which permitted Buena Vista to make 50% of its annual municipal bond payments for five years—an agreement on which Buena Vista defaulted when, two years ago, the City Council voted against inclusion of its FY 2015 budgeted commitment to resume full bond payments. That errant shot triggered UMB Bank NA to file a lawsuit in state court in 2016 in an effort to enforce Buena Vista’s fiscal obligation. In response, the municipality contended the golf course deal was void, because only four of the city’s seven council members had voted on the bond resolution and related agreements—which included selling the city’s interest in its “public places,” arguing that Virginia’s constitution mandates that all seven council members be present to vote on the golf course deal, because the agreement granted a deed of trust lien on city hall, police, and court facilities which were to serve as collateral for the bonds.

Subsequently, last March 22nd, the city filed a motion to dismiss the federal suit for failure to state a claim—a claim on which U.S. District Judge Norman K. Moon held a hearing last Friday—with the municipality arguing that the golf course’s lease-revenue debt is not a general obligation. Therefore, the city appears to be driving at a legal claim it has the right to stop payment on its obligation, asserting: “The city seeks to enforce the express terms of the bonds, under which the city’s obligation to pay rent is subject to annual appropriations by the City Council, and ceases upon a failure of appropriations.” Moreover, pulling another fiscal club from its bag, the city claimed the municipal bonds here are not a debt of the city; rather, the city has told the court that the deed of trust lien for the collateral backing the bonds is void. That is an assertion which ACA, in its motion to dismiss, deemed an improper attempt to litigate the merits of the suit at the pleading stage, noting: “Worse, the city wants this court to rule that the city only has a ‘moral obligation’ to pay its debts, and that [ACA’s] only remedy upon default is to foreclose on a fraction of the collateral pledged by the city and the Public Recreational Facilities Authority of the city of Buena Vista….If adopted, this court will be sending a message to the market that no lender should ever finance public projects in Virginia because municipalities: (a) have unbridled discretion to not repay loans; and (b) can limit the collateral that can be foreclosed upon.” In a statement subsequently, ACA added: “It’s unfortunate that Buena Vista’s elected officials have forced ACA into court after recklessly choosing to have the city default on $9.2 million in debt even though the city has ample funds to make the payments that are owed…This is particularly troubling, because ACA spent years negotiating in good faith after the city claimed financial hardship, and even provided a generous forbearance agreement that reduced payments by 50% starting in 2011…After the city defaulted on that deal in 2014, it offered ACA only pennies on the dollar, while seeking to be absolved of all future burdens of this financing. Left with no reasonable alternative, we must look to the court for an equitable and fair outcome.”

In the nonce, as its legal costs mount, Buena Vista’s access to the municipal credit markets has not only adversely affected its ability to borrow from state financing programs, but also there is growing apprehension there could be implications for other local governments and potentially the Commonwealth of Virginia. Virginia Finance Secretary Ric Brown, when this issue first cropped up, had written previous Buena Vista Mayor Mike Clements: “This ability cannot be jeopardized or put at risk by permitting a defaulting locality to participate in a state pool financing program such as the VPSA: The Commonwealth certainly expects localities to do what is necessary to meet their debt obligations and to protect Virginia localities’ reputation for fiscal discipline.” (Virginia’s Commission on Local Government has revealed that 53% of Virginia’s counties and cities are experiencing above average or high fiscal stress.).

Motor City Recovery. Louis Aguilar of the Detroit News this week reported that Detroit is expected to grow by some 60,000 residents by 2040—growth which would mark the first time Detroit’s population will have increased since the 1950s, according to a study by the Urban Institute, “Southeast Michigan Housing Futures,” which notes that Detroit will finally end its decades-long loss of residents. Xuan Liu, manager of research and data analysis for the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, said the study builds on recent analyses done by SEMCOG, the Michigan Department of Transportation, and the University of Michigan: “It is a reflection of both the improvements we’ve seen in the city and the changing demographic trends.” The report indicates the region’s population base will include a larger percentage of residents over the age of 65 who are more inclined to remain where they are; the population increase in population will be influenced by the continued inflow of young adults and a small but steady rise of the Latino population. The study warns these changes will present major challenges, including the doubling of senior-headed households over the next three decades: by 2040, the study projects these households will make up 37% of the region’s households versus 22% in 2010; it adds that African-American households in the Detroit metro area disproportionately suffered from the effects of the housing crisis:  African-American homeownership rates dropped from a higher than the national average in 1990 and 2000 to be in line with the national average by 2014. Interestingly, it projects that the demand for rental housing is expected to grow throughout the region, with aging households likely comprising the bulk of this net growth as established renter households age—but warning that the region, and Michigan more broadly, lack affordable rental housing for low-income households. Overall, the Metro Detroit region is expected to gain approximately 380,000 households by 2040, according to the study.

For the Motor City, the report found that by 2016, Detroit’s population had slowed to its lowest pace in decades, according U.S. Census data: as of one year ago, Detroit’s population was 672,795, a loss of 3,541 residents—a decline comparable to the previous year: between 2000 to 2010, Detroit was losing more than 23,700 annually, on average, according to the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments; in the first decade of this century, the region lost 372,242 jobs, its population shrank by 137,375; and inflation-adjusted personal income retreated from 13.7% above the U.S. average to 4.8% below in 2010.

A Bridge to Tomorrow? The Detroit City Council this week okayed the $48 million agreement to open the way for the sale of city-owned property and streets in the path of the new Gordie Howe International Bridge to Canada—with the agreement also incorporating provisions to help residents living near the Delray neighborhood where the bridge will be located. Under the pact, the city will sell 36 city-owned parcels of land–land which Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority Director of Communications Mark Butler siad was needed for the Gordie Howe bridge project. Courtesy of Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority noted: “The funding relates to activities in advance of the P3 partner coming on board…As a normal course of business, WDBA, either directly or through the Michigan Department of Transportation, is providing funds to Detroit for property, assets, and services. The city in turn, is using those funds to purchase or swap homes outside of the project footprint, job training etc.” The bridge authority, a Canadian Crown corporation, will manage the Public-Private Partnership procurement process; the authority will also responsible for project oversight, including the actual construction and operation of the new crossing—whilst Canadian taxpayers will be fronting the funding to pay for the deal under an arrangement with the State of Michigan—under which there will be no cost or financial liability to Michigan or to Michigan taxpayers: Canada plans to recoup its money through tolls after the bridge is constructed. The Motor City will sell 36 city-owned parcels of land, underground assets, and approximately 5 miles of city owned streets needed for the bridge project. Under the agreement, the underlying property has been conveyed to the State of Michigan, but Canada is providing the funds. The bridge authority is expected to select a contractor for the project at the end of this year; construction will begin sometime next year.

Is There a Promise of Revitalization? The PROMESA Board this week appointed Noel Zamot to serve as Revitalization Coordinator for the U.S. territory—with Governor Ricardo Rosselló concurring the appointment would benefit Puerto Rico’s ability to compete—a key issue for any meaningful, long-term fiscal recovery. He added: “With over 25 years of experience in the aerospace and defense industry, we are convinced that Mr. Zamot will contribute to our economic development agenda and increase Puerto Rico’s competitiveness.” The federal statute’s Title V provided for such an appointment, a key part to any post chapter 9 plan of debt adjustment. Direct. PROMESA Board Chair José Carrión III noted: “Noel Zamot’s successful career and multifaceted experience interfacing between the government and the private sector in critical defense infrastructure areas will allow him to hit the ground running to foster strategic infrastructure investment expeditiously.” Mr. Zamot noted: “I am honored by this opportunity to serve and give back to Puerto Rico, my birthplace, and contribute to its success…Over more than two decades of professional experience, I have seen firsthand how investments in infrastructure can have a catalyzing effect on economic growth and prosperity.”

New Jersey & You. With major new developments under construction, renewed investor interest, and a slowly diversifying economy, it appears Atlantic City might be moving more swiftly from the red to the black—at a key point in political time, as voters in the city and New Jersey head to the polls next November for statewide and municipal elections—and, potentially, the end of state oversight of the city. Moreover, two new major projects are set to open next year, mayhap setting the stage for the city’s fiscal recovery—but also economic revitalization. Some of the stir relates to the purchase and $500 million renovation of the former Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort—an opening projected to bring thousands of jobs and a strong brand to the city’s famed boardwalk. But mayhap the more promising development will be the completion of the $220 million Atlantic City Gateway project: a 67,500 square foot development which will serve as a new campus for Stockton University, including an academic building and housing for 500 students, and the new South Jersey Gas headquarters: the company believes its cutting-edge headquarters will trigger recruitment and growth, as it is projected to bring 15,000 square feet of new retail to the boardwalk.  

Interestingly, what has bedeviled the city, low land prices‒at their lowest in decades, is now attracting successful developers, who have been buying up buildings: commercial real estate brokers note an uptick in leasing activity since the Gateway project was announced: the promise of jobs, residents, and revenue no longer overwhelmed by the gaming industry appears to be remaking the city’s image and adding to its physical and fiscal turnaround. Bart Blatstein, CEO of Tower Investments, notes: “Of course I see upside. This is what I do for a living. And it’s incredible–the upside in Atlantic City is like nowhere else I’ve seen in my 40-year career. Atlantic City is a great story. It’s got a wonderful new chapter ahead of it.”

Rising from Municipal Bankruptcies’ Ashes

07/24/17

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Good Morning! You might describe this a.m.’s e or iBlog as The Turnaround Story, as we consider the remarkable fiscal recovery in Atlantic City and observe some of the reflections from Detroit’s riot of half a century ago—a riot which presaged its nation’s largest chapter 9 bankruptcy, before we assess the ongoing fiscal turmoil in the U.S. territory look at Puerto Rico.

New Jersey & You. Governor Chris Christie on Friday announced his administration is delivering an 11.4% decrease in the overall Atlantic City property tax rate for 2017—a tax cut which will provide an annual savings of $621 for the City’s average homeowner, but which, mayhap more importantly, appears to affirm that the city’s fiscal fortunes have gone from the red to the black, after, earlier this month, the City Council accepted its $206 million budget with a proposed 5% reduction in the municipal purpose tax rate, bringing it to about $1.80 per $100 of assessed valuation. Atlantic City’s new budget, after all, marks the first to be accepted since the state took over the city’s finances last November; indeed, as Mayor Don Guardian noted, the fiscal swing was regional: the county and school tax rates also dropped—producing a reduction of more than 11%—and an FY2018 budget $35 million lower than last year—and $56 million below the FY2016 budget: “We had considerably reduced our budget this year and over the last couple of years…I’m just glad that we’re finally able to bring taxes down.” Mayor Guardian added the city would still like to give taxpayers even greater reductions; nevertheless, the tax and budget actions reflect the restoration of the city’s budget authority in the wake of last year’s state takeover: the budget is the first accepted since the state took over the city’s finances in November after the appointment last year of a state fiscal overseer, Jeff Chiesa—whom the Governor thanked, noting:

“Property taxes can be lowered in New Jersey, when localities have the will and leaders step in to make difficult decisions, as the Department of Community Affairs and Senator Jeff Chiesa have done…Our hard work to stop city officials’ irresponsible spending habits is bearing tangible fruit for Atlantic City residents. Annual savings of more than $600 for the average household is substantial money that families can use in their everyday lives. This 11.4% decrease is further proof that what we are doing is working.”

Contributing to the property tax rate decrease is a $35-million reduction in the City’s FY2017 budget, which, at $206.3 million, is about 25% lower than its FY2015 budget, reflecting reduced salaries, benefits, and work schedules of Atlantic City’s firefighters and police officers, as well as the outsourcing of municipal services, such as trash pickup and vehicle towing to private vendors. On the revenue side, the new fiscal budget also reflects a jackpot in the wake of the significant Borgata settlement agreement on property tax appeals—all reflected in the city’s most recent credit upgrade and by Hard Rock’s and Stockton University’s decisions to make capital investments in Atlantic City, as well as developers’ plans to transform other properties, such as the Showboat, into attractions intended to attract a wider variety of age groups to the City for activities beyond gambling—or, as the state-appointed fiscal overseer, Mr. Chiesa noted: “The City is on the road to living within its means…We’re not done yet, but we’ve made tremendous progress that working families can appreciate. We’ll continue to work hard to make even more gains for the City’s residents and businesses.

The Red & the Black. Unsurprisingly, there seems to be little agreement with regard to which level of government merits fiscal congratulations. Atlantic City Mayor Guardian Friday noted: “We had considerably reduced our budget this year and over the last couple of years…“I’m just glad that we’re finally able to bring taxes down.” Unsurprisingly, lame duck Gov. Christie credited the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs and Mr. Chiesa, stating: “Our hard work to stop city officials’ irresponsible spending habits is bearing tangible fruit for Atlantic City residents.” However, Tim Cunningham, the state director of local government services, earlier this month told the Mayor and Council the city and its budget were moving in the “right direction,” adding hopes for the city’s fiscal future, citing Hard Rock and Stockton University’s investment in the city; while Mr. Chiesa, in a statement, added: “The city is on the road to living within its means…We’re not done yet, but we’ve made tremendous progress that working families can appreciate. We’ll continue to work hard to make even more gains for the city’s residents and businesses.”

Do You Recall or Remember at All? Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, the white mayor of the largest African-American city in America, last month spoke at a business conference in Michigan about the racially divisive public policies of the first half of 20th century which helped contribute to Detroit’s long, painful decline in the second half of the last century—a decline which ended in five torrid nights and days of riots which contributed to the burning and looting of some 2,509 businesses—and to the exodus of nearly 1.2 million citizens. The Mayor, campaigning for re-election, noted: “If we fail again, I don’t know if the city can come back.” His remarks appropriately come at the outset of this summer’s 50th anniversary of the summer the City Detroit burned.

Boston University economics Professor Robert Margo, a Detroit native who has studied the economic effects of the 1960’s U.S. riots, noting how a way of life evaporated in 120 hours for the most black residents in the riot’s epicenter, said: “It wasn’t just that people lived in that neighborhood; they shopped and conducted business in that neighborhood. Overnight all your institutions were gone,” noting that calculating the economic devastation from that week in 1967 was more than a numbers exercise: there was an unquantifiable human cost. That economic devastation, he noted, exacerbated civic and problems already well underway: job losses, white flight, middle-income black flight, and the decay and virtual wholesale abandonment of neighborhoods, where, subsequently, once-vibrant neighborhoods were bulldozed, so that, even today, if we were to tour along main artery of the riot, Rosa Parks Boulevard (which was 12th Street at the time of the riots), you would see overgrown vacant lots, lone empty commercial and light industrial buildings, boarded-up old homes—that is, sites which impose extra security costs and fire hazards for the city’s budget, but continue to undercut municipal revenues. Yet, you would also be able to find evidence of the city’s turnaround: townhouses, apartments, and the Virginia Park Community Plaza strip mall built from a grassroots community effort. But the once teeming avenue of stores, pharmacies, bars, lounges, gas stations, pawn shops, laundromats, and myriad of other businesses today have long since disappeared.

In the wake of the terrible violence, former President Lyndon Johnson created the Kerner Commission, formally titled the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, to analyze the causes and effects of the nationwide wave of 1967 riots. That 426-page report concluded that Detroit’s “city assessor’s office placed the loss—excluding building stock, private furnishings, and the buildings of churches and charitable institutions—at approximately $22 million. Insurance payouts, according to the State Insurance Bureau, will come to about $32 million, representing an estimated 65 to 75 percent of the total loss,” while concluding the nation was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” Absent federal action, the Commission warned, the country faced a “system of ’apartheid’” in its major cities: two Americas: delivering an indictment of a “white society” for isolating and neglecting African-Americans and urging federal legislation to promote racial integration and to enrich slums—primarily through the creation of jobs, job training programs, and decent housing. In April of 1968, one month after the release of the Kerner Commission report, rioting broke out in more than 100 cities across the country in the wake of the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.

In excerpts from the Kerner Report summary, the Commission analyzed patterns in the riots and offered explanations for the disturbances. Reports determined that, in Detroit, adjusted for inflation, there were losses in the city in excess of $315 million—with those numbers not even reflecting untabulated losses from businesses which either under-insured or had no insurance at all—and simply not covering at all other economic losses, such as missed wages, lost sales and future business, and personal taxes lost by the city because the stores had simply disappeared. Academic analysis determined that riot areas in Detroit showed a loss of 237,000 residents between 1960 and 1980, while the rest of the entire city lost 252,000 people in that same time span. Data shows that 64 percent of Detroit’s black population in 1967 lived in the riot tracts. U. of Michigan Professor June Thomas, of the Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, wrote: “The loss of the commercial strips in several areas preceded the loss of housing in the nearby residential areas. That means that some of the residential areas were still intact but negatively affected by nearby loss of commercial strips.” The riots devastated assessed property values—creating signal incentives to leave the city for its suburbs—if one could afford to.

On the small business side, the loss of families and households, contributed to the exodus—an exodus from a city of 140 square miles that left it like a post WWII Berlin—but with lasting fiscal impacts, or, as Professor Bill Volz of the WSU Mike Ilitch School of Business notes: the price to reconstitute a business was too high for many, and others simply chose to follow the population migration elsewhere: “Most didn’t get rebuilt. They were gone, those mom-and-pop stores…Those small business, they were a critical part of the glue that made a neighborhood. Those small businesses anchored people there. Not rebuilding those small businesses, it just hurt the neighborhood feel that it critical in a city that is 140 square miles. This is a city of neighborhoods.” Or, maybe, he might have said: “was.” Professor Thomas adds that the Motor City’s rules and the realities of post-war suburbanization also made it nearly impossible to replace neighborhood businesses: “It’s important to point out that, as set in place by zoning and confirmed by the (city’s) 1951 master plan, Detroit’s main corridors had a lot of strip commercial space that was not easily converted or economically viable given the wave of suburban malls that had already been built and continued to draw shoppers and commerce…This, of course, all came on top of loss of many businesses, especially black-owned, because of urban renewal and I-75 construction.”

Left en Atras? (Left Behind?As of last week, two-thirds of Puerto Rico’s muncipios, or municipalities, had reported system breakdowns, according to Ramón Luis Cruz Burgos, the deputy spokesman of the delegation of the Popular Democratic Party (PPD) in the Puerto Rico House Of Representatives: he added that in Puerto Rico, a great blackout occurs every day due to the susceptibility of the electric power system, noting, for instance, that last month, for six consecutive days, nearly 70 percent of Puerto Rico’s municipalities had problems with electricity service, or, as he stated: “In Puerto Rico we have a big blackout every day. We have investigated the complaints that have been filed at the Autoridad de Energía Eléctrica (AEE) for blackouts in different sectors, and we conclude that daily, two-thirds of the island are left without light. This means that sectors of some 51 municipalities are left in the dark and face problems with the daily electricity service.”

It seems an odd juxtaposition/comparison with the events that triggered the nation’s largest ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in Detroit—even as it reminds us that in Puerto Rico, not only is the Commonwealth ineligible for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, but also its municipalities. Mr. Cruz Burgos noted that reliability in the electric power system is one of the most important issues in the economic development of a country, expressing exasperation and apprehension that interruptions in service have become the order of the day: “Over the last two months, we have seen how more than half of the island’s villages are left dark for hours and even for several days, because the utility takes too long to repair breakdowns,” warning this problem will be further aggravated during the month of August, when energy consumption in schools and public facilities increases: “In the last two months, there are not many schools operating and the use of university facilities is also reduced for the summer vacation period. In addition, many employees go on vacation so operations in public facilities reduce their operation and, therefore, energy consumption.”

Jose Aponte Hernandez, Chair of the International and House Relations Committee, blamed the interruptions on the previous administration of Gov. Luis Fortuno, claiming: it had “abandoned the aggressive program of maintenance of the electrical structure implemented by former Gov. Luis Fortuna, claiming: “In the past four years the administration of the PPD did not lift a finger to rehabilitate the ESA structure. On the contrary, they went out of their way to destroy it in order to justify millionaire-consulting contracts. That is why today we are confronting these blackouts.”

The struggle for basic public services—just as there was a generation ago in Detroit, reflect the fiscal and governing challenge for Puerto Rico and its 88 municipalities at a time when non-Puerto Rican municipal bondholders have launched litigation in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims to demand payment of $3.1 billion in principal and interest in Puerto Rico Employment Retirement System bonds (In Altair Global Credit Opportunities Fund (A), LLC et al. v. The United States of America)—the first suit against the U.S. government proper, in contrast to prior litigation already filed against the Puerto Rico Oversight Board, with the suit relying on just compensation claims and that PROMESA is a federal entity. Here, as the Wizard of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, Jim Spiotto, notes, the key is whether the PROMESA board was acting on behalf of the federal government or on behalf of Puerto Rico—adding that he believes it was acting for Puerto Rico and, ergo, should not be considered part of the federal government, and that the U.S. Court of Federal Claims may find that the federal government’s actions were illegal. Nevertheless, the issue remains with regard to whether the bonds should be paid from the pledged collateral—in this case being Puerto Rico employer contributions. (The Altair complaint alleges that the PROMESA Board is a federal entity which has encouraged, directed, and even forced Puerto Rico to default on its ERS bonds—a board created by Congress which has directed the stream of employer contributions away from the bondholders and into the General Fund, according to these bondholders’ allegations.

On the Hard Roads of Fiscal Recovery

eBlog

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the growing, remarkable fiscal recoveries in post-bankruptcy Detroit and formerly insolvent Atlantic City, before turning to the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico as it seeks, along with the oversight PROMESA Board, an alternative to municipal bankruptcy.

Pacing a City’s Economic Recovery. JP Morgan Chairman and Chief Executive Officer yesterday described the city of Detroit’s economic recovery as one which has moved faster than expected—indeed, so much so that the giant financial institution today will announce it is expanding its investment in the city over the next two years, bringing the total effort to $150 million by 2019—some two years ahead of schedule. Mr. Dimon credited the city’s economic progress to strong collaboration between civic, business, and nonprofit leadership, as well as improving economic conditions in the city. If anything, over the last three years, the bank has become an enthusiastic partner in the Motor City’s recovery from the nation’s largest ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy via investing more than $107 million in loans and grants to enhance the city’s remarkable progress in implementing its plan of debt adjustment and achieving the goal of complete restoration of its fiscal autonomy. JP Morgan’s investments have included $50 million in community development financing, $25.8 million to revitalize neighborhoods, $15 million for workforce development, $9.5 million for small business expansion, and $6.9 million in additional investments. In addition, Morgan appears to be ready for more, with the bank’s future investments likely to focus on:

  • further revitalizing Detroit’s neighborhoods,
  • strengthening the city’s workforce system, and
  • helping minority-owned small businesses grow.

Indeed, Mr. Dimon noted: “Detroit’s resurgence is a model for what can be accomplished when leaders work together to create economic growth and opportunity…This collaboration allowed us to speed up our investment and extend our commitment over the next two years. Going forward, I hope business, government and nonprofit leaders will see Detroit’s comeback as a shining example of how to put aside differences and work to find meaningful and innovative solutions to our most pressing economic problems.” For his part, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan called JPMorgan Chase “a true partner” in the city’s work to restore economic growth and opportunity, noting that Morgan’s investments “have enabled thousands of Detroiters to receive training and created new opportunities for entrepreneurs and revitalized neighborhoods. There is more work to do, and I hope our continued partnership will build a thriving economy for all Detroiters.”

Indeed, the giant financial institution has extended its fiscal commitment: it plans to make investments of about $30 million focused on creating livable, inclusive, and sustainable neighborhoods. Officials report that will include preparing residents with the skills needed for high-paying careers and providing small businesses with capital. In addition, JPMorgan Chase officials said they will invest about $13 million re-paid loans paid back into two community development investment funds with which the bank has partnered in the community: Invest Detroit and Capital Impact Partners. This post-municipal bankruptcy investment in Detroit has been key, city officials, report to enabling Detroit to test solutions, adapt programs, and even find models that could be applied to other cities. For instance, the city’s Motor City Mapping project, Detroit’s comprehensive effort to digitize Detroit’s property information and create clear communication channels back and forth between the public, the government, and city service providers, has provided JP Morgan with insights how blight mapping can be applied in other cities to bring community partners together to fight blight—the bank has already shared the mapping technology in Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati.

Is Atlantic City like Dracula? New Jersey State Senator Jim Whelan (D-Northfield), the former Mayor of Atlantic City and previous teacher in the city’s public school system, yesterday noted: “I always say Atlantic City is like Dracula—you can’t kill it, no matter how hard we try.” Indeed, the city’s gleaming casinos are turning profits, and plans have recently been announced to embark upon a $375 million renovation and reopening of the Trump Taj Mahal by Hard Rock casino; Stockton University just broke ground on a satellite campus. A luxury apartment complex, the first to be constructed in Atlantic City in decades, is underway. With upgrades in the city’s credit rating, a city that was on the brink of chapter 9 bankruptcy and taken over by the state is, today, on the road to recovery. The fiscal recovery comes in the wake of a decade which featured a 50 percent drop in the city’s casino revenues, witnessed the closure of nearly half of the casinos, and loss of 10,000 jobs, a loss which triggered a massive spike in home foreclosures—indeed losses which so imperiled the city’s fisc that the state took over the city. But this week, with a new playground ready for when the local elementary school lets out and a reduction in property taxes, there is a note of fiscal optimism. David G. Schwartz, an Atlantic City native, who currently serves as the Director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, described it this way: “I think we are definitely into the next phase of the city’s history…Atlantic City has faced adversity before, and it has always moved forward–even though it sometimes took a few decades.”

My distinguished colleague, Marc Pfeiffer, the Assistant Director of the Bloustein Local Government Research Center in New Jersey, who, after a brief 37-year career in New Jersey local government administration, and a mere 26 years of service in New Jersey’s Division of Local Government Services, described the remarkable fiscal turnaround this way:

“The state is proceeding with its low-key recovery approach, working hand-in-hand with Mayor Guardian’s administration and the City Councilinsofar as politically feasible, and when not, pushing ahead using the authority in the law.  A few fits and starts with some challenges along the way, but it is a generally forward, positive trajectory. The recent Superior and Appellate decisions affirmed (or until appealed to the Supreme Court) the validity of New Jersey’s authority under the law, which eliminated the uncertainty of the last year. That’s good.  Jeff Chiesa’s team can now work with the city’s administration to make the changes which have long been discussed: reducing costs, modifying service levels and workforce size, in order to meet the city’s needs today given its new and evolving economy.”

In answer to the query what still remains to be addressed, he noted that the hard political issue of payments in lieu of taxes is being challenged by the neighboring County Executive and mayors of surrounding jurisdictions.  He reports that finding a “chunk of money to bring down long-term debt” to enable reductions in the city’s property tax is still a challenge—as is the enduring question with regard to how to address the water authority: how can it be monetized and meet the city’s interest in not losing ownership of it.  

From a governance perspective, he notes that the State of New Jersey had managed to keep all these issues relatively low-key: negotiations have been undertaken far from the public spotlight—mayhap depriving the public of critical information, but, at the same time, facilitating fiscal progress in avoiding the once, seemingly certain municipal bankruptcy.

Importantly, he adds that Atlantic City’s evolving economy cannot be ignored: “We’ve seen new investment and construction; new market rate rentals, South Jersey Gas moving its headquarters to Atlantic City; there is a new Stockton State University campus, and the pending revitalization and reopening of the shuttered Taj Mahal as a Hard Rock casino: “casino gaming revenues are up as we slide into the prime season.” Finally, he writes: “We seem to be getting to the point of ‘right-sizing’ the city, both economically and governmentally…which may be complicated by the pending elections—where the issue will be the upcoming primary battle to determine who will run against Mayor Guardian this fall.

Could There Be Promise in PROMESA? PROMESA Puerto Rico Oversight Board Chair José Carrión has advised the Governor Rosselló that the board has deferred until a week from Monday for either the board approving the Governor’s budget or notifying the Governor of violations and providing a description of corrective actions, writing: “We have received a working draft of the proposed budget, and are reviewing the submission and its completeness…The board will provide the Governor an additional 14 days to amend and improve the submission before it approves it or identifies violations.” The Governor’s working draft has yet to be made public; and constructing it will be perilous: according to the PROMESA board-certified fiscal plan, as of mid-March the Board expects the Governor to add nearly $924 million in revenues and cut $951 million in expenses from Puerto Rico’s All Government Activities budget—changes in a deteriorating economy the equivalent of nearly 10% of the Commonwealth’s budget.

Dr. José G. Caraballo, a professor in the Department of Business Administration at the University of Puerto Rico at Cayey, who also serves as the Director of the Census Information Center at the University, this week provided some perspective—or what he called “conjectures” with regard to the cause of what he called Puerto Rico’s “unsustainable indebtedness,” noting one hypothesis is that a “bloating” government inflated the government payroll, increasing the need to borrow. That perspective is valuable: for instance, he writes: “Even when there is no academic study showing that the payroll is payable or not, the proportion of government employees to the overall population aged 16 and older was lower in 2001 than in 1988, when there were no debt problems. In fact, the ratio of government workers to the population, ages 16-64, in 2013 was 10.3 percent in the U.S. and 11.2 percent in Puerto Rico, reducing the validity of this claim.”

Addressing the hypothesis that reckless and corrupt administrations had caused Puerto Rico’s fiscal and debt crisis, he noted: “I acknowledge that fiscal mismanagement has exacerbated this crisis, but there are studies showing that the (low) quality of administrators was similar from 1975-2000, and there is no evidence that the corruption of the 2000s was worse than the corruption in the 1970s or 1980s, when there was no debt crisis,” adding that “debt (measured in the correct way, either adjusted for inflation or as a share of gross domestic product) actually decreased from over the decade from 1977-1987.”  

Finally, he turned to an underlying issue: the disparate treatment of Puerto Rico created by §936 of the Internal Revenue Code—under which the industrial incentives provided to Puerto Rico were stripped, undercutting the island’s economy and disadvantaging it compared to other Caribbean nations: he noted that the proportion of manufacturing left the U.S. territory without any substitutable economic strategy, reduced government revenues, and increased Puerto Rico’s dependency on external funding—noting that in 1995, manufacturing represented 42% of Puerto Rico’s GDP, creating more than 30% of the local bank deposits and generating 17% of the total direct employment. Thus, he added; “It is far from a coincidence that when the transition period of the §936 ended in 2006, Puerto Rico entered the largest economic depression in more than 100 years. I verified the relationship between this deindustrialization and indebtedness with advanced statistical methods in a recent paper.”

Dr. José G. Caraballo offered that Congress could include Puerto Rico in the Guam-Northern Mariana Islands Visa Waiver Program—a change which he suggested would draw more tourists from Asia; remove the federal navigation acts which force Puerto Ricans to exclusively contract expensive U.S. vessels; implement new industrial policies; or provide parity in the distribution of Medicare and Medicaid assistance.

State Oversight & Severe Municipal Distress

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eBlog, 04/24/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the unique fiscal challenge confronting Detroit: when and how will it emerge from state oversight? Then we spin the tables to see how Atlantic City is faring to see if it might be on the shores of fiscal recovery; before going back to Detroit to assess the math/fiscal challenges of the state created public school district; then, still in Detroit, we try to assess the status of a lingering issue from the city’s historic municipal bankruptcy: access to drinking water for its lowest income families; before visiting Hartford, to try to gauge how the fiscally stressed central city might fare with the Connecticut legislature. Finally, we revisit the small Virginia municipality of Petersburg to witness a very unique kind of municipal finance for a city so close to insolvency but in need of ensuring the provision of vital, lifesaving municipal services. 

Fiscal & Physical Municipal Balancing. Michigan Deputy Treasurer Eric Scorsone is predicting that by “early next year, Detroit will be out of state oversight,” at a time when the city “will be financially stable by all indications and have a significant surplus.” That track will sync with the city’s scheduled emergence from state oversight, albeit apprehension remains with regard to whether the city has budgeted adequately  to set funds aside to anticipate a balloon pension obligation due in 2024. Nevertheless, Mr. Scorsone has deemed the Motor City’s post-bankruptcy transformation “extraordinary,” describing its achievements in meeting its plan of debt adjustment—as well as complying with the Detroit Financial Review Commission—so well that the “city could basically operate on its own.” He noted that the progress has been sufficient to permit the Commission to be in a dormancy state—subject to any, unanticipated deficits emerging. The Deputy Treasurer credited the Motor City’s strong management team under CFO John Hill both for the city’s fiscal progress, but also for his role in keeping an open line of communication with the state oversight board; he also noted the key role of Mayor Mike Duggan’s leadership for improving basic services such as emergency response times and Detroit’s public infrastructure. Nevertheless, Detroit remains subject to the state board’s approval of any contracts, operating or capital budgets, as well as formal revenue estimates—a process which the Deputy Treasurer noted “allows the city to stay on a strong economic path…[t]hese are all critical tools,” he notes, valuable not just to Detroit, but also to other municipalities an counties to help ensure “long term stability.”

On the Shore of Fiscal Recovery. S&P Global Ratings, which last month upgraded Atlantic City’s general obligation bond rating two notches to CCC in the wake of the city’s settlement with the Borgata Casino, a settlement which yielded the city some $93 million in savings, has led to a Moody’s rating upgrade, with the credit rating agency writing that Atlantic City’s proposed FY2017 budget—one which proposes some $35.3 million in proposed cuts, is a step in the right direction for the state taken-over municipality, noting that the city’s fiscal plan incorporates a 14.6% cut in its operating budget—sufficient to save $8 million, via reductions in salaries and benefits for public safety employees, $6 million in debt service costs, and $3 million in administrative expenses. Nevertheless S&P credit analyst Timothy Little cautioned that pending litigation with regard to whether Atlantic City can make proposed police and firefighter cuts could be a fly in the ointment, writing: “In our view, the proposed budget takes significant measures to improve the city’s structural imbalance and may lead to further improved credit quality; however, risks to fiscal recovery remain from pending lawsuits against state action impeding labor contracts.” The city’s proposed $206.3 million budget, indeed, marks the city’s first since the state takeover placed it under the oversight of the New Jersey’s Local Finance Board, with the state preemption giving the Board the authority to alter outstanding debt, as well as municipal contracts. Mr. Little wrote that this year will mark the first fiscal year of the agreed-to payment-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOT) program for casino gaming properties—a level set at $120 million annually over the next decade—out of which 10.4% will go to Atlantic County. Mr. Little also notes that the budget contains far less state financial support than in previous years, as the $30 million of casino redirected anticipated revenue received in 2015 and 2016 will be cut to $15 million; moreover, the budget includes no state transitional aid—denoting a change or drop of some $26.2 million; some of that, however, will be offset by a $15 million boost from an adjustment to the state Consolidated Municipal Property Tax Relief Act—or, as the analyst wrote: “Long-term fiscal recovery will depend on Atlantic City’s ability to continue to implement fiscal reforms, reduce reliance on nonrecurring revenues, and reduce its long-term liabilities.” Today, New Jersey state aid accounts for 34% of the city’s $206.3 million in budgeted revenue, 31% comes from casino PILOT payments, and 27% from tax revenues. S&P upgraded Atlantic City’s general obligation bond rating two notches to CCC in early March after the Borgata settlement yielded the city $93 million in savings. Moody’s rates Atlantic City debt at Caa3.

Schooled on Bankruptcy. While Detroit, as noted above, has scored high budget marks or grades with the state; the city’s school system remains physically and fiscally below grade. Now, according to the Michigan Department of Education, school officials plan to voluntarily shutter some of the 24 city schools—schools targeted for closure by the state last January, according to State Superintendent Brian Whiston, whose spokesperson, William DiSessa, at a State Board of Education meeting, said:  “Superintendent Whiston doesn’t know which schools, how many schools, or when they may close, but said that they are among the 38 schools threatened for closure by the State Reform Office earlier this year.” Mr. DiSessa added that “the decision to close any schools is the Detroit Public School Community District’s to make.” What that decision will be coming in the wake of the selection of Nikolai Vitti, who last week was selected to lead the Detroit Public Schools Community District. Mr. Vitti, 40, is currently Superintendent of the Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Florida, the 20th largest district in the nation; in the wake of the Detroit board’s decision last week to enter into negotiations with Mr. Vitti for the superintendent’s job, Mr. Vitti described the offer as “humbling and an honor.” The school board also voted, if Mr.Vitti accepts the offer, to ask him to begin next week as a consultant, working with a transition team, before officially commencing on July 1st. The School Board’s decision, after a search began last January, marks the most important decision the board has made during its brief tenure, in the wake of its creation last year and election last November after the Michigan Legislature in June approved $617-million legislation which resolved the debt of Detroit Public Schools via creating the new district, and retaining the old district for the sole purpose if collecting taxes and paying off debt.

The twenty-four schools slated for closure emerged from a list of 38 the State of Michigan had targeted last January—all from schools which have performed in the bottom 5 percent of the state for at least three consecutive years, according to the education department. The Motor City had hoped to avoid any such forced state closures—hoping against hope that by entering last month into partnership negotiations with the Michigan State Superintendent’s office, and working with Eastern Michigan University, the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, and Wayne State University, the four institutions would help set “high but attainable” goals at the 24 Detroit schools to improve academic achievement and decrease chronic absenteeism and teacher vacancies. The idea was that those goals would be evaluated after 18 months and again in 36 months, according to state officials. David Hecker, president of the American Federation of Teachers Michigan, noted that he was not aware which schools might be closing or how many; however, he noted that whatever happens to the teachers of the closing schools would be subject to the collective bargaining agreement with the Detroit Federation of Teachers. “If any schools close, it would absolutely be a labor issue that would be governed by the collective bargaining agreement as to how that will work … (and) where they will go,” Mr. Hecker said. “We very strongly are opposed to any school closing for performance reasons.”

Thirsty. A difficult issue—among many—pressed upon now retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes during Detroit’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy came as the Detroit Water and Sewer Department began shutting off water service to some of nearly 18,000 residential customers with delinquent accounts. Slightly less than a year ago, in the wake of numerous battles in Judge Rhodes’ then U.S. bankruptcy courtroom, the issue was again raised: what authority did the city of Detroit have to cut off the delivery of water to the thousands of its customers who were delinquent by more than 90 days? Thus it was that Detroit’s Water and Sewerage Department began shutting off service to customers who had failed to pay their bills—with, at the time, DWSD guesstimating about 20,000 of its customers had defaulted on their payments, and noting that the process of shutting off service to customers with unpaid bills was designed to be equitable and not focused on any particular neighborhood or part of the city—and that the agency was not targeting customers who owed less than a $150 and were only a couple of months behind, noting, instead: “We’re looking for those customers who we’ve repeatedly tried to reach and make contact,” as well as reporting that DWSD was reminding its delinquent customers who were having trouble paying their water bills to contact the department so they may be enrolled in one of its two assistance programs — the WRAP Fund or the “10/30/50” plan. Under the first, the WRAP Fund, customers who were at 150 percent of the poverty level or below could receive up to $1,000 a year in assistance in paying bills, plus up to $1,000 to fix minor plumbing issues leading to high usage. This week, DWSD is reporting it has resumed shutoffs in the wake of sending out notices, adding the department has payment and assistance plans to help those with delinquent accounts avoid losing service. Department Director Gary Brown told the Detroit Free Press that everyone “has a path to not have service interruption.” Indeed, it seems some progress has been achieved: the number of families facing shutoffs is down from 24,000 last April and about 40,000 in April of 2014, according to The Detroit News. In 2014, DWSD disconnected service to more than 30,000 customers due to unpaid bills, prompting protests over its actions. Nonetheless, DWSD began the controversial practice of shutting off water service again this week, this time to some of the nearly 18,000 residential customers with delinquent accounts, in the wake of notices sent out 10 days earlier, according to DWSD Director Gary Brown. Nevertheless, while 17,995 households are subject to having their water turned off, those residents who contact the water department prior to their scheduled shutoffs to make a payment or enter into an assistance plan will avoid being cut off—with experience indicating most do. And, the good gnus is that the number of delinquent accounts is trending down from the 24,302 facing a service interruption last April, according to DWSD. Moreover, this Solomon-like decision of when to shut off water service—since the issue was first so urgently pressed in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court before Judge Rhodes—has gained through experience. DWSD Director Brown reports that once residents are notified, about 90 percent are able to get into a plan and avoid being shut off, and adding that most accounts turned off are restored within 24 hours: “Every residential Detroit customer has a path not to be shut off by asking for assistance or being placed into a payment plan…I’m urging people not to wait until they get a door knocker to come in and ask for assistance to get in a payment plan.” A critical part of the change in how the city deals with shutoffs comes from Detroit’s launch two years ago of its Water Residential Assistance Program, or WRAP, a regional assistance fund created as a component of the Great Lakes Water Authority forged through Detroit’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy: a program designed to help qualifying customers in Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties who are at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level—which equates to $36,450 for a family of four—by covering one-third of the cost of their average monthly bill and freezing overdue amounts. Since a year ago, nearly $5 million has been dedicated to the program—a program in which 5,766 Detroit households are enrolled, according to DWSD, with a retention rate for those enrolled in the program of 90 percent. DWSD spokesperson Bryan Peckinpaugh told the Detroit News the department is committed to helping every customer keep her or his water on and that DWSD provides at least three advance notifications encouraging those facing a service interruption to contact the department to make payment arrangements, adding that the outreach and assistance efforts have been successful, with the number of customers facing potential service interruption at less than half of what it was three years ago.

Fiscally Hard in Hartford. Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin has acknowledged his proposed $612.9 FY2018 budget includes a nearly $50 million gap—with proposed expenditures at $600 million, versus revenues of just over $45 million: a fiscal gap noted moodily by four-notch downgrades to the Connecticut city’s general obligation bonds last year from two credit rating agencies, which cited rising debt-service payments, higher required pension contributions, health-care cost inflation, costly legal judgments from years past, and unrealized concessions from most labor unions. Moody’s Investors Service in 2016 lowered Hartford GOs to a junk-level Ba2. S&P Global Ratings knocked the city to BBB from A-plus, keeping it two notches above speculative grade. Thus, Mayor Bronin, a former chief counsel to Gov. Daniel Malloy, has repeated his request for state fiscal assistance, noting: “The City of Hartford has less taxable property than our suburban neighbor, West Hartford. More than half of our property is non-taxable.” In his proposed “essential services only” budget, Mayor Bronin is asking the Court of Common Council to approve an increase of about $60 million, or 11%, over last year’s approved budget—with a deadline for action the end of next month. An increasing challenge is coming from the stressed city’s accumulating debt: approximately $14 million, or 23%, of that increase is due to debt-service payments, while $12 million is for union concessions which did not materialize, according to the Mayor’s office. Gov. Malloy’s proposed biennial budget, currently in debate by state lawmakers, proposes $35 million of aid to Hartford. Unsurprisingly, that level is proving a tough sell to many suburban and downstate legislators. On the other hand, the Mayor appears to be gaining some traction after, last year, gaining an agreement with the Hartford Fire Fighters Association that might save the city $4 million next year: the agreement included changes to pension contributions and benefits, active and retiree health care, and salary schedules. In addition, last month, Hartford’s largest private-sector employers—insurers Aetna Inc., Travelers Cos. and The Hartford—agreed to donate $10 million per year to the city over five years. Nonetheless, rating agencies Moody’s and S&P have criticized the city for limited operating flexibility, weak reserves, narrowing liquidity, and its rising costs of debt service and pension obligations. Gurtin Municipal Bond Management went so far as to deem the city a “slow-motion train wreck,” adding that while the quadruple-notch downgrades had a headline shock effect, the city’s fundamental credit deterioration had been slow and steady. “The price impact of negative headlines and credit rating downgrades can be swift and severe, which begs the question: How should municipal bond investors and their registered investment advisors react?” Gurtin’s Alex Etzkowitz noted, in a commentary. “The only foolproof solution is to avoid credit distress in the first place by leveraging independent credit research and in-depth, ongoing surveillance of municipal obligors.”

Fighting for a City’s Future. The small city of Petersburg. Virginia, is hardly new to the stress of battle. It was there that General Robert E. Lee’s men fought courageously throughout the Overland Campaign, even as Gen. Lee feared he confronted a campaign he feared could not be won, warning his troops—and politicians: “We must destroy this Army of Grant’s before he gets to the James River. If he gets there, it will become a siege, and then it will be a mere question of time.” Yet, even as he wrote, General Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac was racing toward the James and Petersburg to wage an attack on the city—a highly industrialized city then of 18,000 people, with supplies arriving from all over the South via one of the five railroads or the various plank roads. Indeed, Petersburg was one of the last outposts: without it, Richmond, and possibly the entire Confederacy, was at risk. Today, the city, because of the city’s subpar credit rating, is at fiscal risk: it has been forced to beg its taxpayers to loan it funds for new emergency vehicles—officials are making a fiscal arrangement with private citizens to front the cost for new emergency vehicles, and offering to put up city hall as collateral for said arrangement, as an assurance to the lenders they will be paid back. The challenge: the police department currently needs 16 new vehicles, at a cost of $614,288; the fire department needs three new trucks, at a cost of $2,145,527. Or, as Interim City Manager Tom Tyrrell notes: “Every single day that a firefighter rolls out on a piece of equipment older than he is, or a police officer responds to an emergency call in a car with 160,000 miles on it, are days we want to avoid…We want to get this equipment as soon as possible.” Interim City Finance Director Nelsie Birch has included in the upcoming fiscal year budget the necessary funds to obtain the equipment—equipment Petersburg normally obtains via lease agreements with vendors, but which now, because of its inability to access municipal credit markets due to its “BB” credit rating with a negative outlook, makes it harder than ever to find any vendor—or, as Manager Tyrrell puts it: “We went out four different times…We solicited four different times to the market, and were unsuccessful in getting any parties to propose.” He added that when soliciting these types of agreements, you solicit “thousands of people.” Notwithstanding that the funds for the vehicles is already set aside in the upcoming budget, city officials have been unable to find anyone willing to enter into a lease agreement with the city because of the city’s financial woes.

Last week, the City Council authorized Mr. Tyrrell to “undertake emergency procurement action” in order for the lease of necessary fire and police vehicles, forcing Mr. Tyrrell and other officials to seek private funds to get the equipment—that is, asking individual citizens who have the financial means to put up money for the fire and police vehicles—or, as Mr. Tyrrell puts it: “We’ve reached out to four people, who are interested and capable,” noting they are property owners in Petersburg who will remain anonymous until the deal is closed, describing it thusly: “[This agreement] is outside the rules, because we couldn’t get a partner inside the rules.” Including in this proposed fiscal arrangement: officials must put up additional collateral, in addition to the cars themselves, and in the form of city-owned property—with the cornerstone of the proposal, as it were, being Petersburg City Hall, or, as Mr. Tyrrell notes: “What they’re looking for is some assurance that no matter what happens, we’re going to pay the note…It’s not a securitization in the financial sense, as much as it is in the emotional sense: they know that the city isn’t going to let it go.” He adds, the proposed financial arrangement will be evaluated in two areas: the interest rate and how fast the deal can close, adding: “Although it’s an emergency procurement, we still want to get the best deal we can.”

Getting Out of Insolvency & Back on Fiscal Track

eBlog, 04/14/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing recovery of Atlantic City, New Jersey—where the Mayor this week proposed, in his first post-state takeover budget, the first tax cuts in a decade. Then we head west to the Motor City, where the city, as part of its fiscal recovery from the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history is seeking to ensure all its taxpayers pay what they owe, before then veering south to assess the first 100 days of the PROMESA oversight of the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico.

Getting Back on the Fiscal Track. Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian this week presented his proposed $206 million budget to the City Council, which unanimously voted 7-0 to introduce it at a special meeting, and the City has scheduled a public budget hearing for May 17th. In a taste of the fiscal turnaround for the city, the proposed budget includes the first municipal tax decrease in a decade. It also marks the first budget for the city since the State of New Jersey usurped control over Atlantic City’s finances last November. As proposed, it is more than $35 million or 21% less than last year’s and would reduce the municipal tax rate by 5 percent, according to both city and state officials. The city has scheduled a public budget hearing for May 17th.

As proposed, the steepest cut is in public safety—some $8 million, but the draft proposal also seeks cuts in administration costs ($5 million), as well as proposing savings via the privatization of trash pickup, payroll, and vehicle towing services. The smaller budget request is projected to reduce the city’s costs of debt service by $6 million. Unsurprisingly, the proposed tax cuts—the first in nearly a decade, drew the strongest applause: Atlantic City’s municipal tax rate has skyrocketed 96 percent since 2010, a period during which the city’s tax base dropped by nearly 66%. The $206.3 million budget Mayor Guardian presented features $6 million of cuts to debt service at $30.8 million and proposes to allocate $8 million less for public safety.

Mayor Guardian, who is running for his second term as Mayor this fall, said in a statement before presenting the budget that state overseers have played an instrumental role in crafting the new spending plan which features the proposed 5% property tax cut. It could mark a key point in the city’s efforts to regain governance control back from the State of New Jersey—a takeover the Republican mayor had bitterly contested, which took effect last November after New Jersey’s Local Finance Board rejected the city’s five-year recovery plan, or, as the Mayor put it: “From the beginning, I have said that we need to work with the State of New Jersey to stabilize Atlantic City and to reduce the outrageous property taxes that we inherited from years of reckless spending…Even though the entire state takeover was both excessive and unnecessary, the state did play an important role in helping us turn things around.”

For his part, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie praised former U.S. Sen. Jeffrey Chiesa for his role as the state’s designee leading the financial recovery and his contributions in helping to achieve the city’s first property tax cut in a decade. Gov. Christie credited Mr. Chiesa with withstanding union challenges to make firefighter and police cuts, as well as reaching a $72 million settlement with the Borgata casino which is projected to save the city $93 million on $165 million of owed property tax refunds from 2009 to 2015, noting: “As promised, we quickly put Atlantic City on the path to financial stability, with taxpayers and employers reaping the benefits of unprecedented property tax relief with no reduction in services by a more accountable government…I commend Senator Chiesa for leading Atlantic City to turn the corner, holding the line on expenses and making responsible choices to revitalize the city.”

Atlantic City is planning to issue $72 million in municipal bonds to finance the Borgata settlement though New Jersey’s Municipal Qualified Bond Act: the savings from the settlement, brokered by the state, were a key factor in S&P Global Ratings’ upgrade of Atlantic City’s junk-level general obligation bond debt: Atlantic City, which is weighed down by some $224 million in bonded debt, is rated Caa3 by Moody’s Investors Service. State overseer Chiesa noted: “Over the past five months, I have met so many smart, talented, tenacious people who want to see the city succeed. This inspires me every day to tackle the challenges facing the city to ensure that the progress we’ve made continues.”

A key contributor to the improved fiscal outlook appears to come from some of the unilateral contract changes to public safety officials, imposed by Mr. Chiesa, which led to reduced salaries and benefits for police and firefighters, albeit the courts will have the final say so: the unions have sued to block the cuts, arguing the takeover law is unconstitutional. In addition, the state also reach agreement on a $72 million tax settlement with Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa which is projected to save Atlantic City $93 million and essentially put Borgata back on its tax rolls. The casino had withheld property tax payments, but is now paying its part of casino payments in lieu of property taxes, or, as Mr. Chiesa put it: “Real progress is being made in the city, which is great news for the people who live, work and visit Atlantic City.”

Gov. Chris Christie, in his final term in office, praised Mr. Chiesa and jabbed at his political opponents in a statement issued before the City Council meeting, noting: “It took us merely a few months to lower property taxes for the first time in the past decade, when local leaders shamelessly spent beyond their means to satisfy their special political interests,” he said, even as Atlantic City officials described the budget as a collaborative effort with the state. Or, as Mayor Guardian put it: “He’s the governor. He makes those comments…What I think is [that] it’s clear the city moves ahead with the state.” Council President Marty Small, who chairs the Revenue and Finance Committee, said he was “intimately involved” in the budget process, describing it as a “win-win-win for everybody, particularly the taxpayers.”

Don’t Tax Me: Get the Feller behind the Tree! Getting citizens to pay their taxes is a problem everywhere, of course, but Detroit had a particularly hard time going after scofflaws because budget cuts decimated its ability to enforce the law. Even the citizens and businesses who paid up created logistical havoc for beleaguered city bureaucrats. Part of the reason, it seems, is that in Detroit, the only way to file taxes has been on paper. While that might be merely an irritation for taxpayers, it has been a nightmare for the city’s revenuers, who must devote endless hours typing data into computer systems. It appears also to have led to some innovation: last year the Motor City opted to send out more than 7,000 mailings to deadbeat tax filers, that is taxpayers who were still delinquent on their 2014 taxes; the city suspected each delinquent owed at least $350; ergo it randomly selected some taxpayers to receive one of six different letters, each with a different message in a black box on the mailing: One such message appealed to residents’ civic pride: “Detroit’s rising is at hand. The collection of taxes is essential to our success.” Another simply made clear that Detroit’s revenue department had detailed information on the deadbeats: “Our records indicate you had a federal income of $X for tax year 2014.” (Detroit is somewhat unique in that it has an income tax under which residents owe 2.4 percent of their incomes to the city, after a $600 exemption. Nonresidents who work in Detroit pay a rate of 1.2 percent.) Another message made a bold declaration: “Failure to file a tax return is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of $500 and 90 days in jail.”

It seems that threats have proven more effective than cajoling: More than 10 percent of taxpayers responded to the letter mentioning a fine and jail time, some 300% greater than the response rate to the city’s basic control letter. This revenue experiment was overseen by Ben Meiselman, a graduate student at the University of Michigan’s economics department, who manned a desk in Detroit’s tax office to run the experiment. He wrote the messages included in the mailings to reflect behavioral economics research, noting: “I find that a single sentence, strategically placed in mailings to attract attention, can have an economically meaningful impact on tax filing behavior,” in his working paper, “Ghostbusting in Detroit: Evidence on Non-filers from a Controlled Field Experiment,” which he intends to eventually become a chapter in his doctoral dissertation. And it turns out that providing details of a taxpayer’s income boosted the response rate by 63 percent, even as a letter from the city which combined a threat with income information was less effective than a threat by itself. Or, as one city official noted: “Keeping it simple seems to be the key,” especially as city officials learned that appeals to civic pride fell flat: the response rate was just 0.8 percentage points higher than that of a basic letter. Nevertheless, the city still confronts a long uphill fiscal cliff, even if it manages to apply the results of the experiment and triple the response rate from tax delinquents: according to the IRS, approximately six percent of U.S. taxpayers break the law by not filing with the Service each year, but, in Detroit, Mr. Meiselman estimated that some 46 percent of taxpayers had not submitted their 2014 returns by the due date in the following year—and that the return rate was getting worse.

Thus, Detroit’s next step was to back up threats with action—mayhap especially because there appears to have been little enforcement for the past decade: Detroit had not undertaken an audit or tax investigation in more than a decade. One outcome of insolvency and municipal bankruptcy, it appears, can hit hard: Detroit’s tax office, which once had a staff of about 70, is today about half that: it is a department which was recently reorganized, in the wake of last year’s takeover by the state of Michigan, a takeover intended to free up city employees to collect unpaid income taxes. The city also eased such filings by permitting them to be submitted electronically for the first time. And, wow!: 77 percent of filers took advantage. Detroit has sent out 15,000 letters since July 2016 and has collected $5.3 million through letters, audits, and investigations. And some of the amounts collected are significant, particularly for those who have juked, dodged, and evaded paying taxes for years: in one instance, a taxpayer agreed to pay $400,000. Detroit also began filing misdemeanor charges and lawsuits in small claims court to get its tax revenues, especially after learning that only one in five residents in several high-end apartments buildings had filed income taxes, helping to persuade a judge to issue an order requiring landlords to turn over tenant information.

These various steps appears to be helping: The number of residents filing tax returns more than doubled last year from the previous year; filings by non-residents increased by more than a third. City returns from 2016 are due, along with state and federal returns, by next Tuesday—the same deadline as applies to all readers of this eBlog, and, this year, Detroit officials are optimistic—or, as one wag put it: In the past, “people knew we weren’t coming after them…Now we are following up on those threats.”

The Promise or PROMESA of the First 100 Days. The PROMESA oversight board, provided by the Congress with authority over the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, has now surpassed its first one hundred days, created a juxtaposed governance challenge, especially for Governor Rosselló: how can he make sure that the framework set up during this period of quasi dual governance provides for the change Puerto Rico needs? How can he gain the approval of the Board for a long-term fiscal plan as the main achievement of his incipient administration? To prevail, it appears, he will have to convince the Oversight Board that his proposed budgets are based on real possibilities of revenues and that such estimates are free of dependence on loans and that he will conduct the restructuring of Puerto Rico’s public debt on favorable terms, and that he will take the key role in the reconstruction of the government apparatus to higher levels of service, efficiency, participation, and transparency. And, now, there appears to be some evidence that he is achieving progress. Puerto Rico’s statute on permits is intended address a serial inefficiency with regard to the “absurd and abusive terms” to obtain permits, delays which have hindered and discouraged the generation of new economic activity. The effort to provide for the progressive elimination of the costly redundancy in programs and services via the consolidation of agencies, with security first, appear to be key steps in achieving changes to restore financial health. Moreover, the creation of a spending budget 10 per cent below the current one appears to mark an important step in the goal of reasserting self-governance.

Nevertheless, the fiscal and governance challenges of recovering from fiscal insolvency can be beset from any angle: note, for instance, Judge Lauracelis Roques Arroyo has revived an “audit” of Puerto Rico’s debt and reversed Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s attempt to dismantle the debt audit commission. (Judge Roques Arroyo is a member of the Carolina Region of the Puerto Rico Superior Court.) And, thus, he has ruled that Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s attempt to dismantle a commission auditing Puerto Rico’s debt was illegal. The statute in question, law 97 of 2015, created the Puerto Rico Commission for the Comprehensive Audit of the Public Credit. The commission aimed to find Puerto Rico debt which was legally invalid. The commission’s first report in June of last year had reviewed documents connected with the Commonwealth’s $3.5 billion general obligation bond and $1.2 billion tax and revenue anticipation note, both sold in 2014. In this report, the Commission had raised doubts with regard to the legality of much of Puerto Rico’s bond debt. Late last September, the commission questioned the legality of the series 2013A power revenue bonds from the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), raising concerns with regard to the behavior of Morgan Stanley, Ernst &Young, and URS Corp. in the municipal bond sale and the period leading up to it. In early October, possibly in response to the commission’s work, the SEC commenced an investigation of PREPA’s 2012 and 2013 bonds. Ergo, Judge Arroyo’s order late last week returned three public interest members to the board, according to attorney Manuel Rodriguez Banchs; the order provided that the Governor has no authority to intervene with the commission: it said that the dismissal of the public interest members was illegal. The board has $650,000 in its account right now, according to board member Roberto Pagán, e.g. adequate to do a substantial amount of additional work. Gov. Rosselló, thus, is considering how to react to the judge’s order, according to the El Vocero news website.

Municipal Fiscal Accountability

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eBlog, 03/31/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing recovery efforts in Atlantic City after its “lost decade,” before venturing inland to one of the nation’s oldest cities, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania (founded in 1769) as it confronts the challenges of an early state intervention program, and, finally, to Southern California, where the City of Compton faces singular fiscal distrust from its citizens and taxpayers.  

A Lost Fiscal Decade? Atlantic City’s redevelopment effort appears to be gathering momentum following a “lost decade” which featured the closing of five casinos, a housing crisis and major recession, according to a new report released by the South Jersey Economic Review, with author Oliver Cooke writing: “The fact remains that Atlantic City’s redevelopment will take many years…The impact of the local area’s economy’s lost decade on its residents’ welfare has been stark.” The study finds the city to be in recovery—to be stable, but that it is still in critical condition with some work to do.  Nevertheless, its vital signs from developers and its improving economy are all good: that is, while the patient may not regain all its previous strength and capability,  it can thrive: it is “over(cost),” and needs to lose some of the fat it built up by going on a (budget) diet—a road to recovery which will remain steep and tortuous, because it lacks the fiscal capacity it had 15 or 20 years ago—and has to slim down to reflect it.  That is, the city will have to stress itself more in order to get better.  

The analysis, which was conducted in conjunction with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University, notes that vital signs from developers and its improving economy are in good condition—maybe even allowing the city to thrive, even if it is unable to regain all its previous strength and fiscal capacity—put in fiscal cookbook terms: Atlantic City is over(cost)weight and needs to lose some of the fat it built up by going on a (budget) diet.  The report also noted that Atlantic City is on track with some positive developments, including the decision at the beginning of this month by Hard Rock International to buy and reopen the closed Trump Taj Mahal property, as well as a recent $72 million settlement with the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa related to $165 million in owed tax refunds. Mr. Cooke also highlighted other high-profile projects underway, including the reopening of the Showboat casino by developer Bart Blatstein and a $220 million public-private partnership for a new Stockton University satellite residential campus. Nonetheless, he warned that Atlantic City still faces a deep fiscal challenge in the wake of the loss to the city’s metropolitan area of more than 25,000 jobs in the last decade—and its heavy burden of $224 million in municipal bond debt, tied, in large part, to casino property tax appeals. Ultimately, as the ever insightful Marc Pfeiffer of the Bloustein Local Government Research Center and former Deputy Director with the state Division of Local Government Services, the city’s emergence from state control and fiscal recovery will depend on the nuances of the that relationship and whether—in the end—the state imposed Local Finance Board acts with the city’s most critical interests at heart.  

Don’t Run Out of Cash! Wilkes-Barre, first incorporated as a Borough in 1806, is the home of one of Babe Ruth’s longest-ever home runs. It became a city in 1871: today it is a city of over 40,000, but one which has been confronted by constant population decline since the 1930s: today it is less than half the size it was in 1940 and around two-thirds the size it was in 1970. It is a most remarkable city, made up of an extraordinary heritage of ethnic groups, the largest of which are: Italian (just over 25%), Polish (just under 25%), Irish (21%), German (17.9%) English (17.1%) Welsh (16.2%) Slovak (13.8%); Russian (13.4%); Ukranian (12.8%); Mexican (7%); and Puerto Rican (6.4%). (Please note: my math is not at fault, but rather cross-breeding.) Demographically, the city’s citizens and families are diverse: with 19.9% under the age of 18, 12.6% from 18 to 24, 26.1% from 25 to 44, 20.8% from 45 to 64, and 20.6% who are 65 years of age or older. The city has the 4th-largest downtown workforce in the state of Pennsylvania; its family median income is $44,430, about 66% of the national average, and an unemployment rate of just under 7%. The municipality in 2015 had a poverty rate of 32.5%, nearly double the statewide average. Last year, the City of Wilkes-Barre was awarded a $60,000 grant through the Pennsylvania Department of Economic Development (DCED) Early Intervention Program (EIP) to develop a fiscal, operational and mission management 5 year plan for the city—from which the city selected Public Financial Management (PFM) as its consultant to assist in working with the city on its 5 year plan—and from which the city has since received PFM’s Draft Financial Condition Assessment and Draft Financial Trend Forecasting related to the city’s 5 year plan. As part of the intervention, two internal committees were created to develop new sources of revenue for the city. The Revenue Improvement Task Force is comprised of employees from Finance, Tax, Health, Code, and Administration and was directed to analyze and improve upon existing revenue streams; the Small Business Task Force was designed to develop guidance for those interested in opening small businesses in Wilkes-Barre and is comprised of employees from Zoning, Health, Code, Licensing, and Administration. Overall, Mayor Anthony “Tony” George and his administration are confident that they have made significant progress is restoring law and order via the city’s goals of strengthening intergovernmental relationships, improving public safety, fixing infrastructure, fighting blight, restoring and improving city services and achieving long-term economic development.

Nevertheless, the quest for fiscal improvement and reliance on consultants has proven challenging: some of PFM’s proposed options to address city finances have caused a stir. City council Chairwoman Beth Gilbert and City Administrator Ted Wampole, for instance, agreed privatizing the ambulance and public works services as a cost-saving measure was one of the most drastic steps proposed by The PFM Group of Philadelphia, with Chair Gilbert noting: “I stand vehemently against any privatization of any of our city services, especially as an attempt to save money;” she warned the city could end up paying more for services in the long run, and residents could receive less than they get now—adding: “If privatization is on the table, then so is quality.” The financial consultant hired last year for $75,000 to assist the city with developing a game plan to fix its finances under the state’s Early Intervention Program was scheduled to present the options at a public meeting last night at City Hall. PFM representatives, paid from the combination of a $60,000 state grant and $15,000 from the city, have appeared before council several times since December.

Gordon Mann, director of The PFM Group, last night warned: “If the gunshot wound to the city’s financial health doesn’t kill it, the cancer will: both need to be treated, but not at the same time…You need to address the bullet wound, and you need to put yourself in the position to address the cancer.” Mr. Mann, at the meeting, provided an update on where the city stands and where it’s going if nothing is done to address the municipality’s structural problems of flat revenues and escalating expenses for pensions, payroll and long-term debt; then he identified a number of steps to stabilize the city and balance its books, beginning with: “Don’t run out of cash,” and “[D]on’t bother playing the blame game and pointing the finger at prior administrations either,…It may not be your fault, but it is your problem.”

Wilkes Barre is not unlike many of Pennsylvania’s 3rd class cities (York, Erie, Easton, etc.), all in varying degrees of fiscal distress, albeit with some doing better than others. The municipal revenues derived from the property tax and earned income tax will simply not sustain a city like Wilkes Barre—that it, unless and until the state’s municipalities have access to collective bargaining/binding arbitration and pension reform: the current, antiquated revenue options leave the state’s municipalities caught between a rock and a hard place. Worse, mayhap, is the increasing rate of privatization—where an alarming trend across the Commonwealth of communities selling off assets (water, sewer, parking, etc.), more often than not to plug capital into pensions, is, increasingly, leaving communities with no assets and with no pension reform facing the same issue in the future. 

Not Comping Compton: Corruption & Fiscal Distress. In Compton, California, known as the Hub City, because of its location in nearly the exact geographical center of Los Angeles County, the City of Compton is one of the oldest cities in the county and the eighth to incorporate.  The city traces its roots to territory settled in 1867 by a band of 30 pioneering families, who were led to the area by Griffith Dickenson Compton—families who had wagon-trained south from Stockton, California in search of ways to earn a living other than in the rapidly depleting gold fields, but where, the day before yesterday, the city’s former deputy treasurer was arrested for allegedly stealing nearly $4 million from the city. FBI agents arrested Salvador Galvan of La Mirada on Wednesday morning, as part of a federal criminal complaint filed Tuesday, alleging that, for six years, Mr. Galvan skimmed about $3.7 million from cash collected from parking fines, business licenses, and city fees: an audit found discrepancies ranging from $200 to $8,000 per day. Mr. Galvan, who has been an employee of the city for twenty-three years, has been charged with theft concerning programs receiving federal funds. If convicted, he could face up to five years in prison. As Joseph Serna and Angel Jennings of the La Times yesterday wrote: “The money adds up to an important chunk of the budget in a city once beset with financial problems and the possibility of [municipal] bankruptcy.” Prosecutors claim that one former city employee saw all these payments as an opportunity, alleging that the former municipal treasurer, over the last six years, skimmed more than $3.7 million from City Hall, taking as much as $200 to $8,000 a day—small enough, according to federal prosecutors, to avoid detection, even as Mr. Galvan’s purchase of a new Audi and other upscale expenses on a $60,000 salary, raised questions.

The arrest marks a setback for the Southern California city which has prided itself in recent years for its recovery from some of the crime, blight, and corruption which had threatened the city with municipal insolvency—or, as Compton Mayor Aja Brown noted: the allegations “challenge the public’s trust.”  Mayor Brown noted the wake-up call comes as the city has been working in recent months to improve financial controls and create new processes for detecting fraud—even as some of the city’s taxpayers question how the city could have missed such criminal activity for so many years. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department had arrested Mr. Galvan last December in the wake of City Treasurer Doug Sanders’ confirmation with regard to “suspicious activity” in a ledger discovered by one of his employees: his position in the city involved responsibility for handling cash: as part of his duties, he collected funds from residents paying their water bills, business licenses, building permits, and trash bills. According to reports, Mr. Galvan maintained accurate receipts of the cash he received for city fees, but he would submit a lower amount to the city’s deposit records and, ultimately, on the deposit slips verified by his supervisors and the banks, according to federal prosecutors. Indeed, an audit which compared a computer-generated spreadsheet tracking money coming in to the city with documents Mr. Galvan prepared made clear that he had commenced skimming cash in 2010—starting slowly, at first, but escalating from less than $10,000 to $879,536 by 2015, a loss unaccounted for in the city’s accounting system. While Mr. Galvan faces a maximum of 10 years in federal prison, if convicted, the city faces a trial of public trust—or, as Mayor Brown, in a statement, notes: “Unfortunately, the actions of one employee can challenge the public’s trust that we strive daily as a City to rebuild…The alleged embezzlement and theft of public funds is an egregious affront to the hard-working residents of Compton as well as to our dedicated employees. The actions of one person does not represent our committed City employees who — like you — are just as disappointed.”