Municipal Fiscal Distress & State Oversight.

June 18, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider a new study assessing the potential role of property tax assessments in Detroit’s historic chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy; then we observe, without gambling on the odds, the slow, but steady progress back to self-governance in Atlantic City, and weaning off of state fiscal oversight; before, finally noting the parallel efforts to exit state oversight in Flint, Michigan—where the proximate cause of the city’s fiscal and physical collapse occurred under a quasi-state takeover.

Foreclosing or Creating a City’s Fiscal Recovery? One in 10 Detroit tax foreclosures between 2011 and 2015 were caused by the city’s admittedly inflated property assessments, a study by two Chicago professors has concluded. Over-assessments causing foreclosure were concentrated in the city’s lowest valued homes, those selling for less than $8,000, and resulted in thousands of Detroit homeowners losing their properties, according to the study: “Taxed Out: Illegal property tax assessments and the epidemic of tax foreclosures in Detroit,” which was written by  Bernadette Atuahene and Christopher Berry. Chicago-Kent Law School Professor Atuahene noted: “The very population that most needs the city to get the assessments right, the poorest of the poor, are being most detrimentally affected by the city getting it wrong: “There is a narrative of blaming the poor that focuses on individual responsibility instead of structural injustice. We are trying to change the focus to this structural injustice.” (Professor Atuahene is also a member of the Coalition to End Unconstitutional Tax Foreclosures.) Their study came as the Wayne County Treasurer has foreclosed on about 100,000 Detroit properties for unpaid property taxes for the period from 2011 through 2015, about a quarter of all parcels, as the Motor City suffered the after-effects of population decline, the housing market crash, and the Great Recession.

Professors Atuahene and Berry acknowledged many factors can trigger tax foreclosure, estimating that the number of foreclosures was triggered by over-assessments, in part by calculating the foreclosure rate if all properties were properly assessed. The study also controlled for properties various purchase prices, neighborhoods and sale dates.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan has, as we have noted, acknowledged such over assessments; yet he has made clear accuracy has improved with double-digit reductions over the last four years—and completed the first comprehensive such assessment two years ago for the first time in more than half a century. The city’s Deputy Chief Financial Officer, Alvin Horhn, last week stated he had not reviewed the study; however, he noted that “most of their assumptions rely on data that does not meet the standards of the State Tax Commission and would not be applicable under Michigan law,” a position challenged by Professor Atuahene, who had previously stated the data does comply with the law, noting: “We believe the citywide reappraisal has been an important part of the major reduction in the number of foreclosures occurring in the city, which continue a steady decline and will provide a solid foundation for future growth: The number of foreclosures of owner occupied homes, specifically, has gone down by nearly 90% over the past few years.”

The city’s authority to foreclose, something which became a vital tool to address both property tax revenues and crime in the wake of the city’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, was enabled under former Gov. John Engler 29 years ago under a statewide rewrite of Michigan’s property tax code: changes made in an effort to render it faster and easier to return delinquent properties to productive use. On a related issue, the Motor City is currently facing a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan—a suit which maintains the city’s poverty tax exemption, which erases property taxes for low-income owners, violated homeowner’s due process rights because of its convoluted application process, arguing that the practice violates the federal Fair Housing Act by disproportionately foreclosing on black homeowners. However, the Michigan Court of Appeals has upheld a ruling by Wayne County Judge Robert Colombo, dismissing Wayne County from the lawsuit, ruling the suit should have been brought in front of the Michigan Tax Tribunal. 

Pole, Pole. In Bush Gbaepo Grebo Konweaken, Liberia, a key Gbaepo expression was “pole, pole” (pronounced poleh, poleh), which roughly translated into ‘slowly, but surely’—or haste makes waste. It might be an apt expression for Atlantic City Mayor Frank Gilliam as the boardwalk city has resumed control back from the state to forge its own fiscal destiny—presumably with less gambling on its fiscal future. In his new $225 million budget, the Mayor has proposed to keep property taxes flat for the second consecutive year, and is continuing, according to the state’s Department of Community Affairs, charged with the municipality’s fiscal oversight and providing transitional assistance, to note that the Mayor and Council President Marty Small’s announcement demonstrated that “an understanding of the issues that Atlantic City faces, and an emerging ability to find ways to solve them without resorting to property tax increases: This is a solid budget, and the city staff who worked diligently to draft it should be proud of their efforts.”

Under Mayor Frank Gilliam’s proposed $225 million budget, property taxes would remain flat for a second straight year, there would be some budget cuts, as well as savings realized from municipal bond sales to finance pension and healthcare obligations from 2015. The Mayor also was seeking support for capital improvements, additional library funding, and one-time $500 stipends for full-time municipal employees with salaries below $40,000. The ongoing fiscal recovery is also benefitting from state aid: the state Department of Community Affairs reported the state is providing $3.9 million in transitional aid, a drop from the $13 million awarded to the City of Trenton in 2017 and $26.2 million from 2016. Last year Atlantic City adopted a $222 million budget, which lowered taxes for the first time in more than a decade. The Department’s spokesperson, Lisa Ryan, noted: “Yesterday’s announcement by Mayor Gilliam and Council President [Marty] Small demonstrates city officials are showing an understanding of the issues that Atlantic City faces and an emerging ability to find ways to solve them without resorting to property tax increases: This is a solid budget, and the city staff who worked diligently to draft it should be proud of their efforts.”

Gov. Phil Murphy scaled back New Jersey’s intervention efforts in April with the removal of Jeffrey Chiesa’s role as state designee for Atlantic City. Mr. Chiesa, a former U.S. Senator and New Jersey Attorney General, was appointed to the role by former Gov. Chris Christie after the state takeover took effect.

Not in Like Flint. The Flint City Council was unable last week to override Mayor Karen Weaver’s veto of its amendments to her proposed budget: the Council’s counter proposal had included eight amendments to the Mayor’s $56 million proposed budget for 2018-2019—all of which Mayor Weaver vetoed in the wake of CFO Hughey Newsome’s concerns. The situation is similar to Atlantic City’s, in that this was Flint’s first budget to be considered and adopted in the wake of exiting state oversight. Mayor Weaver advised her colleagues: “This is a crucial time for the City of Flint: this is the first budget we are responsible for since regaining control…I am proud of the budget that I submitted, and I have full faith in the City’s Chief Financial Officer. Just as I have the right to veto the budget, the City Council has the right to override that veto. It is my hope that they would strongly consider my reasons for vetoing and that the Council and I can work together to create a budget that can sustain the City for years to come.” Her veto means the budget will be before the Council for a final vote in order to have it in place for the new fiscal year beginning on the first of next month.

Among the Council proposals the Mayor rejected was employee benefits, including a proposed pay raise for the City Clerk of $20,000, the creation of a new deputy clerk position, a new parliamentarian position, and full health benefits for part-time employees. Or, as CFO Newsome noted: “The risk these added costs could pose on the city’s budget is not in the best interest of the city nor the citizens of Flint,”  as he expressed disappointment over the time wasted on arguing over what amounted to $55,000 in the Mayor’s budget, especially when the city was currently tackling bigger fiscal challenges, such as its $271 million unfunded pension liability and keeping the city’s water fund out of red ink, noting: “These are things that we are looking at, and during all of these [budget] proceedings so little attention was paid to that.”

That is to note that while sliding into chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, or, as in Atlantic City, state oversight, can be easy; the process of extricating one’s city is great: there is added debt. Indeed, Flint remains in a precarious fiscal position, confronted by serious fiscal challenges in the wake of its exit from state financial receivership the month before last. Key among those challenges are: employee retirement funding and the aging, corroded pipes (with a projected price tag of $600 million) which led to the city’s drinking water crisis and state takeover.

On the public pension front, in the wake of state enactment of public pension reforms at the end of 2017 which mandate that municipalities report underfunded retirement benefits, Flint reported a pension system funded at only 37% and zero percent funding of other post-employment retirement benefits, which, according to the state Treasury report, Flint does not prefund.

The proposed budget assumes FY2019 general fund revenues of approximately $55.8 million, of which $4.7 million is expected to come from property taxes. This would be an increase of about $120,000; Flint’s critical water fund will have a $4 million surplus at the end of FY2018; however, CFO Newsome warned the fund will fall into the red within the next five years if it fails to bring in more money.

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Investing in Fiscal & Human Futures

June 11, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the issue of keeping Puerto Rico’s schools open in the face of quasi municipal bankruptcy; then we veer north to assess post-state taken over Atlantic City: What Are the City’s Fiscal Odds for Its Future?  

The Governance Challenge for Schools and Demographic Changes. Puerto Rico Superior Court Judge Santiago Cordero Osorio has ordered the suspension of the closure of three of the U.S. territory’s schools in Morovis, pending an explanation from Secretary of Education Julia Keleher of the reasoning behind her orders. His ruling came as part of a lawsuit brought by the Municipality of Morovis challenging the closures of Alverio Pimentel, Manuel Alonso Díaz, and the Second David Colón Vega schools—and in the wake of the Judge’s earlier decisions ordering the closure of six other schools in the Arecibo region—closures also being challenged by the Teachers’ Association. In his order, Judge Osorio noted that all these claims will be evaluated in a court hearing scheduled for this morning—one to which he has invited the Secretary of Education or a representative to attend, noting: “This Court appreciates and recapitulates that the State must come prepared to justify in accordance with its regulations the closure, not only of the schools subject to this interdict, but of all the schools of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico that the Department of Education has under its jurisdiction, and that it pretends according to the regulation to close.”

For his part, Mayor Carmen Maldonado of Morovis explained the suit was filed in the wake of a non-response to her request for a meeting with Secretary Keleher, stating, in a press release: “Today we are taking an important step in the defense of public education for Moroveño children. To all parents, principals, teachers and school staff, I invite you to attend that hearing on Monday at the Arecibo Court, so that together we can continue to fight to keep schools open. As I assured them in the many meetings we had, although the power is in the hands of the central government, the reason is on our side and we are going to defend that reason. The fiscal and governance challenge-as we had experienced in Detroit’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, is a state versus local authority issue. Indeed, as the Department’s legal division stated: “The opening and closing of the schools is under the authority of the Secretary of Education and this is established by Law 85 of 2018 (Law on Educational Reform).”

The Rebirth of an Iconic American City?  Victor Fiorillo, writing in the Philadelphia Magazine, asked in his article, “The Re-Re-Re-Birth of Atlantic City,” what if everyone was wrong about the fiscal implications of the closure of the city’s famed casinos. Writing that Atlantic City had first drawn him in about 15 years ago with the opening of the Borgata Casino—at a time when “most other casinos in Atlantic City were in various stages of decay, and here was this brand-new Vegas-style resort with casino restaurants that were actually good and the best shows in town.” But he also noted that, back then, it was really a family focus: “My wife and I spend as much of the summer as possible on the A.C. beach with our 10-year-old and 12-year-old, opting for the relative solitude of the town’s southern end, far from any casinos or bars.” But in revisiting the municipality today, he noted he is not one of the only “believers in Atlantic City,” noting there are “some surprising signs of life these days, not to mention some serious investment—from small ventures, like Longacre’s projects, to big bets like Stockton University’s new beachfront campus and this month’s opening of the $550 million Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in the old Trump Taj Mahal.

Betting on the City’s Future. Mr. Fiorillo then turned to the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing sports gambling, noting: “There’s more money pouring into A.C. right now than in all of Philadelphia,” according to development mogul Bart Blatstein, but, as with gambling, quoting Temple Professor Bryant Simon, author of 2004’s Boardwalk of Dreams: Atlantic City and the Fate of Urban America: “Atlantic City has risen and fallen innumerable times: “This is the story that has been told for a hundred years.” He added: “The irony, of course, is that this new resurgence is happening just a few short years after nearly half the city’s casinos went under, thousands of jobs disappeared, and Atlantic City itself seemed to be left for dead. Then again, maybe there’s no irony here at all. Maybe this more organic, up-from-the-ground rebirth of Atlantic City is exactly the kind of action that could mean sustained success for the city by the sea.”

Leaving on a Jet Plane. Mr. Fiorillo examined the city’s road to its state takeover from a non-fiscal perspective, writing: “It was right around this time that Atlantic City began to fade. Dissertations and books have been written about the many factors that led to the resort’s demise in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but a big one was the sudden ease of jet travel. You could get on a plane after breakfast and be on a beach in Miami for lunch. Atlantic City? Pfft. The Shore town began to disintegrate. By the mid-’70s, the city found itself at a pivotal crossroads. It could do nothing, ride out the downward trend, and see what happened. Or it could come up with some novel and wholly artificial way to inject new life into itself. It opted for the latter, betting that gambling would be Atlantic City’s salvation. Until that point, Nevada was the only place in the United States where you could open up a full-fledged casino. But in 1976, New Jersey citizens voted to make slots and table games legit in Atlantic City. The first casino, Resorts—which just turned 40 and is still standing — opened less than two years later.”

Noting that, for a time, business was booming, he credited Atlantic City’s casinos for bringing hundreds of millions of tourists to the Boardwalk during Atlantic City’s gambling heyday” “Some years, this city of 40,000 residents topped 34 million tourists. But outside the casino walls, the city struggled. The casino owners—including, for a time, Donald Trump—got fat, politicians got their kickbacks, and the impoverished residents of Atlantic City remained just that: And then everything went wrong. The new Atlantic City created in the late 1970s was premised almost entirely on maintaining a casino duopoly with Nevada; once casinos started popping up all over—including in Pennsylvania in 2006—Atlantic City imploded.”

Noting, as we have traced, the city’s fiscal nadir came to a head in January of 2014, when the Atlantic Club, which had opened as the Golden Nugget in 1980, collapsed, followed by Showboat, followed by the Revel, followed shortly thereafter by the Trump Plaza, noting: “Finally, in October 2016, one month before its namesake was elected to the Oval Office, the lights went out at Trump Taj Mahal. In just two and a half years, five casinos vanished, their cavernous buildings shuttered. Atlantic City had bottomed out economically in the most spectacular fashion possible.”

Tracing a Fiscal Turnaround. Writing that when assessed property values drop low enough, neighborhoods become more and affordable—and, ergo, more attractive to developers who could “pick up buildings for pennies on a dollar,” he noted that “Atlantic City suddenly became a risk worth taking”—adding: “Investing in Atlantic City now makes a lot more sense than it did five years ago, but it’s hardly a no-brainer. The city, with its 37% poverty rate) is overwhelmingly poor. Taxes are overwhelmingly high. And walking around on Atlantic or Pacific Avenue, the city’s two main north-south boulevards, which run parallel to and within blocks of the Boardwalk—can be nerve-racking after hours. In daylight, panhandlers accost and prostitutes solicit. Politically, things are hardly ideal: Then-governor Chris Christie instituted a state takeover in 2016.

John Longacre, who has acquired a reputation for building a business by spotting potential where others see potential disaster, and he works primarily in South Philadelphia, where he specializes in recovery projects that save buildings, convert seedy bars into trendy restaurants and turn vacant eyesores into neighborhood hubs, told Mr. Fiorillo: “Every bank in the region is terrified of Atlantic City.” Indeed, Mr. Longacre added: “If you look at the policy surrounding everything that exists in Atlantic City, it’s the perfect storm to keep investors out: From the state handling the zoning to the tax base to rent control, everything that happens from a policy level makes it seem like New Jersey is trying to make Atlantic City fail.” Nevertheless, he seems convinced the fabled city will not fail. Or, as Mr. Fiorillo described it, there are a new breed interested in the fabled city who likely will play an essential role in the city’s future: “It’s not about Aunt Edna and Uncle Fred and their casino bus trips anymore. It’s about younger people who aren’t into Atlantic City for the gambling. It’s about people who don’t just feel comfortable in but desire urban environments, with all their flaws and character. It’s about people who respect and require diversity. It’s about people like me and my wife, who, to be honest, cringe when we drive into a place like Avalon.”

Describing this fiscal and physical revival, he writes about the relationship of small projects complemented by large ones: “The Hard Rock Hotel is finally going to open on the Boardwalk later this month, where the Taj Mahal was until October 2016. Pottstown native Todd Moyer, senior vice president of marketing for this new outpost of the rock-and-roll-themed company, got his start in the casino business in 1990, when he worked as a tuxedoed greeter at, coincidentally, the Taj. I was working for Hard Rock out West, when I got the chance to come home: I jumped at it. Sometimes I would be at a bar or restaurant and hear people talking about Atlantic City being dead, and I’d jump in. I’m a defender and a giant supporter of A.C. We’re building hotels all around the world, but really, all the focus lately has been on Atlantic City.”

As for Mr. Longacre, his view is that he would “love for every casino to go out of business and see Atlantic City re-create itself without them, as an urban beach town.” Nevertheless, he believes there is one massive Atlantic City development which will be a game-changer: Stockton, the nearly 50-year-old public university, which has its main campus in Galloway Township, about 20 minutes from the Boardwalk: it is set to debut a brand-new beachfront Atlantic City campus this September, when one thousand students will use the campus, and many of them plan to live in town. Thus, he notes: “Stockton is huge. It’s the first real institutional investment in years that’s not a casino.”

Rolling the Fiscal Dice? As significant as these fiscal changes appear to be, they almost seem to pale against the city’s real world challenges: Atlantic City has a poverty level three times higher than the statewide rate: more than three times the number below the poverty level—and a disability rate among non-poor residents of just under 25%. In its rental housing, the percentage of residents below the federal poverty level is over 90%. A consequent governing challenge for the post-taken over city and the Garden State remains. Mr. Fiorillo notes that whether the gambles being made by Mr. Blatstein, Mr. Longacre, and others are successful remains to be seen—as does the question with regard to whether all the investment will put much of a dent in Atlantic City’s poverty rate or help the town’s current residents. He adds: “And it’s not going to be this summer or next summer when we find out who, if anyone, wins. Nevertheless, he wrote: “When I consider Point Breeze circa 2008 and that same area today, I have hope for this complicated Shore town. There will always be casinos here, for better or worse, and there will always be crime and poverty and grime. This is, after all, a city. But, 10 years from now, when my own kids are (I hope) in very good colleges, it’s not too hard to imagine us spending a summer weekend at some boutique hotel on New York Avenue. We’ll stop into the Boardwalk La Colombe for a draft latte, served up by a very hip-looking third-year Stockton student on break. For lunch, HipCityVeg down in the inlet. Happy hour will be at some John Longacre-owned brewpub overlooking the Atlantic.”

Betting on the Garden City’s Fiscal Future

May 16, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we take a fiscal gamble that Monday’s U.S. Supreme Court decision to strike down the federal anti-gambling law could reap significant fiscal gains for Atlantic City, fueling its fiscal recovery from near insolvency.  

Betting on Atlantic City’s Fiscal Future?  In the wake of the U.S Supreme Court’s PASPA decision to legalize professional sports gambling [Murphy, Governor of New Jersey, et al. v. National Collegiate Athletic Assn. et al, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 16-476] —a decision which could bring in as much as $10 billion in annual new revenues to the State of New Jersey, Atlantic City Mayor Frank Gilliam, expressed excitement, noting: “Sports betting could generate millions in revenue for Atlantic City and diversify our gaming market: I hope that New Jersey is an early adapter of legalized sports betting so we can capitalize on another revenue stream.” Indeed, it would appear that the state’s commitment over the last seven years of $9 million in taxpayer funds on the court battle to legalize sports betting at its casinos and racetracks will be great fiscal news for Atlantic City, which has spent the last few years recovering from the closure of multiple casinos, going into a state fiscal takeover, and skirting the threat of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. Or, as New Jersey State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) put it: “If legalized sports gambling was in place when the Eagles won the Super Bowl, just think what Atlantic City would have looked like.”

Atlantic City is, after all, celebrating its 40th year of casino gambling—albeit, in recent years, it has witnessed the closure of four casinos. Already, though, two of those, including the Hard Rock (which had replaced the former Trump Taj Mahal casino) are set to reopen this summer.  Even before the decision, gaming revenues were increasing: Rummy Pandit, the Executive Director of the Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality, and Tourism at Stockton University noted sports betting will add “another new segment” to provide fiscal sustenance to the boardwalk city. Daniel Wallach, a gaming and sports attorney, in response the query whether the decision would save Atlantic City, noted: “I don’t know that Atlantic City needs saving…but it will provide a dramatic, positive economic impact.”  Emily Raimes, a Vice President at Moody’s, noted that local and state governments which legalize sports betting will “see minor benefits from the incremental tax revenues, although it will take time to implement—adding: “States like New Jersey and Pennsylvania which planned ahead will see the benefits first…Cities like Atlantic City which have long desired sports gambling will see a positive impact depending on how states regulate it.”  

The landmark ruling striking down the federal law which barred states from drafting their own regulations for local sports betting, will allow legal sports books to begin operations throughout the country—something heretofore only allowed in grandfathered-in states Nevada, Oregon, Delaware, and Montana. The case here pitted the State of New Jersey versus the nation’s major sports leagues:  New Jersey had argued legalization of sports gambling would allow the state to capture a new and significant stream of revenue. In its 6-3 decision, the 6-3 majority sided with state authority to legalize sports betting on a case-by-case basis, citing PASPA’s provision prohibiting state authorization of sports gambling schemes as violating the anti-commandeering rule—and holding that PASPA’s provision prohibiting state “licens[ing]” of sports gambling schemes also violates the anti-commandeering rule. In Justice Samuel Alito’s opinion, the Court ruled that, “Congress can be allowed to regulate sports gambling directly, but if it elects not to do so, each State is free to act on its own.”

The decision is expected to bring immediate fiscal benefits not just to the State of New Jersey, which has been fighting for legalized sports gambling since amending its state constitution in November of 2011—a reform which drew legal challenges from the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, and the NCAA, whose lawyers were able to use PASPA as precedent to prevent the referendums New Jersey residents twice approved—with the Garden State pressing its case all the way to the Supreme Court, but also key to the fiscal recovery of Atlantic City: estimated revenue from now legalized sportsbooks is projected to bring up to $9 billion in new revenues to the city—with New Jersey one of 14 states which has active sports betting reforms chambered for debate in their local legislative bodies. Elected and appointed leaders in Atlantic City and Trenton are preparing to roll the dice by capitalizing on a soon-to-be regulated industry—with three members of the New Jersey Legislature already having proposed such legislation in the state Assembly.  State Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Salem, Gloucester, and Cumberland) noted: “We want to act quickly to capitalize on the court’s decision so that we can get sports gaming in place and operating in New Jersey.”

New Jersey voters overwhelmingly approved creating a constitutional amendment to allow sports betting in 2011. The following year, the state Legislature passed the Sports Wagering Act, which was sponsored by former state Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union). Former Gov. Chris Christie signed off on legislation in 2012 and 2014 to enact the amendment. Five sports leagues challenged that statute: the NBA, NCAA, NFL, NHL and MLB — and the case was contested all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments in December. Former Gov. Chris Christie noted: “The favorable Supreme Court ruling on sports gaming will significantly boost the economy of Atlantic City, Atlantic County, and New Jersey as a whole. It will create jobs, encourage tourism, and increase participation at our casinos and sports venues. With today’s ruling, New Jersey’s economy has taken great strides in the right direction;” while state Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo (D-Atlantic) noted: “The timing could not be better. Atlantic City has seen major growth over the last year, with two new casinos opening next month and online gaming revenues rising. Thanks to today’s Supreme Court decision, we can add regulated sports betting to the list of Atlantic City attractions fueling a comeback. This is something the majority of New Jerseyans said they wanted, and now thanks to this decision, will benefit from, as additional funding will be available for social programs that are critical for our residents. This is a good day for Atlantic City and the State of New Jersey. “

The Undelicate Local-State Fiscal Balance

eBlog

April 18, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we try to assess the odds for Atlantic City’s exit from state preemptive control, and then we look west to observe the lingering fiscal and physical damage created by the State of Michigan’s takeover of the City of Flint.

The Difficult Challenge of Ending State Fiscal Preemption. In the Garden State, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy has removed and replaced former Gov. Chris Christie’s designee, attorney Jeff Chiesa, who had been tapped to preempt local governance authority and run the famed city in an effort to avert its filing for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. The new Governor’s action has the effect of retaining state oversight of the fiscal governance of Atlantic City–effectively leaving the city still under state authority first imposed by former Governor Christie in November of 2016. As we had noted, that state takeover did not remove the Mayor and Council; however, Mr. Chiesa was granted broad powers in the city, such as the ability to break union contracts and sell off city assets. Ironically, it was also a prohibitively costly takeover to state taxpayers: Mr. Chesia’s law firm has filed a claim with the State of New Jersey for at least $4 million in taxpayer dollars for its work. Indeed, unlike the city’s elected leaders, Mr. Chiesa has been compensated at a rate of $400 an hour; his firm colleagues have been paid slightly less. In announcing the replacement, Gov. Murphy left unsaid the status of his earlier vow to end the state takeover of Atlantic City; he did, however, announce that state control of the city would revert to the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, currently overseen by New Jersey Lt. Governor Sheila Oliver, a long-time opponent of the state takeover. Left unclear are the new Governor’s time frame or commitment with regard to restoring local control—as, under the current statute signed by former Gov. Christie, state control and preemption could persist until 2021.

During his campaign, then candidate Murphy had campaigned for ending the state takeover; however, when pressed to clarify his intentions last February, then candidate Murphy responded that the state would be a “partner” with the city—comments similar to those he made this week, when he said: “The economic revitalization of Atlantic City is critical to advancing our overall state economy…The actions we are taking today will ensure we are working in full partnership with the city to ensure economic growth and empowerment for all Atlantic City residents.”  Indeed, New Jersey Lt. Governor Oliver said the Department will “continue to play an active role in Atlantic City to build upon the significant gains the city and state have made over the last 18 months in stabilizing Atlantic City’s finances: This ongoing partnership between DCA’s knowledgeable local government experts and the City’s governing body and its professionals will keep Atlantic City moving in the right direction for its residents and businesses and the surrounding region.” For his part, Atlantic City Mayor Frank Gilliam notes: “Atlantic City’s rebirth is looking very bright.”

For their part, former Gov. Christie and New Jersey State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) had pressed for the state takeover in the wake of the shuttering of five of the famed resort city’s casinos over the last decade, causing a swoon in the seaside city’s tax ratables by $14 million, and its debt to balloon to over $500 million. Unsurprisingly, former Gov. Christie, Sen. Sweeney, and others claim the state takeover has helped restore the city—a saving which, not coincidentally, has meant thousands of jobs in the state, and, mayhap more fiscally valuable, millions of dollars in state tax revenues. Since the takeover commenced, New Jersey has settled tax appeal debt with Borgata casino and worked with the city to adopt a municipal budget providing the first municipal tax decrease in almost a decade. Describing the state preemption and takeover, former Gov. Christie noted: “If you compare the results Sen. Chiesa has gotten from what he billed with what you all have paid to the people who have been running this city into the ground, Sen. Chiesa is the biggest bargain in the world…You all should wish he stays here for the rest of his life.” Unsurprisingly, however, many city leaders, some state lawmakers, and union officials have opposed the takeover, saying it violates civil rights and damages collective bargaining. 

Atlantic City Mayor Frank Gilliam has, unsurprisingly, applauded the new Governor’s action, noting: “Atlantic City’s rebirth is looking very bright.”

Out Like Flint. A visibly irate Mayor Karen Weaver has stated the city is exploring legal options against Gov. Rick Snyder and the state after the Governor told her “to get over” the ending of water distribution in the citya characterization the Governor’s office disputed as inaccurate. In a hastily called news conference in her office, Mayor Weaver said she met with the Governor Monday morning in Lansing in an effort to dissuade him from his announced decision to have the state cease the provision of bottled drinking water to the various “pods” across Flint—in the wake of, more than two years ago, the city’s declaration of a lead contamination state of emergency. However, on April 6th, Gov. Snyder, citing nearly two years of test results showing lead levels in city tap water below federal standards, had ordered the end of such distributions. Thus, in the wake of her meeting with the Governor, Mayor Weaver noted: “We did not get very far in the conversation, because one of the things the Governor basically said was we need to get over it.”

But, from her perspective—and responsibility–Mayor Weaver stated that providing water to the residents of Flint is a “moral issue,” especially since it had been the state’s action—in appointing an Emergency Manager to preempt all local authority—who had been responsible for Flint’s lead-in-water crisis. Noting that, since it was state action which had precipitated the physical and fiscal crisis, she believes the burden is on the state to reestablish trust: “They gave us their word that they would see us through this lead and galvanized service line replacement and that we would have pods stay open until then…And they backed out on what they said.”

However, Anna Heaton, a spokesperson for Gov. Snyder disagreed: she said: “It was a good discussion about the city and state’s continued partnership, and an offer for economic development help, since the Mayor brought the city’s new economic development official with her to the meeting…State taxpayers could ceased funding the pods last September, but, in the wake of the city’s request, the Governor opted to keep them open—and keep them open a full seven months past when the state could have ceased funding them, asserting this action was taken in order to help with the state’s continued partnership with the city, and to “foster trust with residents as the water quality continued to improve.” Her comments came in the wake of an earlier announcement by Gov. Snyder, in which he said the state has “worked diligently to restore the water quality and the scientific data now proves the water system is stable and the need for bottled water has ended.”

Mayor Weaver said the Governor, in the 35-minute meeting, had wanted to discuss economic development, but she told him the bottled water issue was not going away. Flint’s legal counsel, Angela Wheeler, added: “We do have to explore all possibilities” with regard to whether Flint will opt to sue the state—as Mayor Weaver has been clear that the State of Michigan should wait until all of the city’s lead service lines are replaced.

Beating the Fiscal Odds?

April 10, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we return to the fiscal gaming tables of Atlantic City, where the State oversight body for the city appears to appreciate the way the fiscal dice are rolling; then we turn south to assess the depressing future for Puerto Rico’s next generation.

Beating the Odds. The New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, the Department which assumed the key role in steering Atlantic City through its quasi plan of debt adjustment, perceives the city is in the midst of a “major breakthrough” in the wake of the sale of $49.2 million in taxable municipal bonds to help finance deferred pension and health care contributions—contributions which had been deferred when the city teetered on the edge of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy and the state stepped in to fiscally take over the municipality. In the wake of the successful sale, the Department reported the success had demonstrated that “investors are confident in Atlantic City’s ability to pay its debt and in the State of New Jersey’s oversight of the city’s finances…[and] is proud of the team of city and state professionals who worked very hard to develop a unique solution to pay the city’s deferred contributions without having to resort to tax increases on city residents,” according to New Jersey Lieutenant Gov. and Department of Community Affairs Commissioner Sheila Oliver, who noted: “These deferred contributions from 2015 were the last major debt hurdle facing Atlantic City. With yesterday’s successful bond sale, the city is now positioned to responsibly finance this debt within its budget and have confidence in its future.” The municipal bonds were sold pursuant to New Jersey’s Municipal Qualified Bond Act, which stipulates that the state Treasurer withhold a portion of the city’s state aid in amounts sufficient to pay the principal and interest on the bonds, with the Treasurer directing a portion of the Investment Alternative Taxes paid by licensed casinos to go to the city for funding the debt service on the municipal bonds. Absent such a plan, Atlantic City would have been forced to raise property taxes by more than $700 on the average assessed home of $140,000—a most unwanted option in the wake of last year’s first-in-a-decade property tax reduction, with the Commission’s Director of Local Government Services, Timothy Cunningham, stating the option had been selected to “spare city taxpayers from picking up this expense” and “immediately ends the accrual of interest.” He added that the state fiscal strategy had demonstrated the state’s willingness and ability to find creative solutions to Atlantic City’s difficult financial problems,” noting that: “Conventional thinking would have been to take the deferred contributions the city owes and incorporate them as part of the city’s budget over the next five years. But that would have resulted in significant tax increases for residents and it wouldn’t have stopped interest from accruing on the deferred contributions.”

The bonds were priced via the Garden State’s Qualified Bond Act program to fund $37.7 million in pension and healthcare payments, after, three years ago, Atlantic City had been granted state approval to defer interest payments in the face of $101 million budget shortfall, creating ever-increasing odds to the city’s bookmakers the city might file for municipal bankruptcy. Under the new fiscal arrangements, Atlantic City, by the end of this year, will owe about $47 million for these obligations—or, as New Jersey Lt. Governor Sheila Y. Oliver put it: “These deferred contributions from 2015 were the last major debt hurdle facing Atlantic City…With yesterday’s successful bond sale, the city is now positioned to responsibly finance this debt within its budget and have confidence in its future.” That fiscal confidence is bolstered, no doubt, by being wrapped with the Garden State’s credit enhancement program and backed by Investment Alternative Tax revenue from casinos, which are directed to pay down debt or debt service payments under the authority the state assumed two years ago in November to take over Atlantic City—a fiscal system under which the State Treasurer withholds a portion of the city’s state aid in amounts sufficient to pay the principal and interest on the municipal bonds, or, as Director Cunningham described it: “This strategy, which culminated in yesterday’s bond sale, demonstrates the state’s willingness and ability to find creative solutions to Atlantic City’s difficult financial problems…Conventional thinking would have been to take the deferred contributions the city owes and incorporate them as part of the city’s budget over the next five years. But that would have resulted in significant tax increases for residents, and it wouldn’t have stopped interest from accruing on the deferred contributions.” New Jersey officials said that without the bond sale, Atlantic City would have been forced to raise property taxes on residents by more than $700 on the average assessed home of $140,000.In the wake of this week’s bond sale, Atlantic City has approximately $400 million in outstanding bond debt, according to Moody’s.

But beating the odds is not just a matter of fiscal soundness, but also physical safety. Thus, Atlantic City, in finding a new way to combat crime, has beaten the odds in developing ways to stay ahead of crimes before they are committed—meaning that the number of shootings, homicides, and robberies in the city decreased by more than 33% last year, after Atlantic City began using a risk-based policing model which analyzes data to map out crime risk factors around the city and places where crimes are likely to take place: a new tool which has helped police prevent crimes by tackling factors in the environment identified as risks where crimes take place, and not the people. Indeed, the new strategy not only contributed to the reduction by more than a third in shootings, homicides, and robberies last year, but also that greater security appears likely to enhance assessed property values.

Tempus Fugit. U.S. Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency Brock Long has warned it will take up to an estimated $50 billion to help rebuild Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria—even as he warned the U.S. territory is not ready for another disaster. He told NPR that the agency is focused on making Puerto Rico’s roads, homes, bridges, and electrical grid as strong as possible—but that the time to complete the effort is running out: the new hurricane season is projected to hit as early as June 1st. projected to blow in June 1. A critical issue for Puerto Rico’s fiscal future, then, is a double public infrastructure risk: its physical and human capital. On the latter front, Puerto Rico Education officials have announced the closure of some 283 schools through this summer, nearly seven months after Hurricane Maria struck, reporting that Hurricane Maria exacerbated the demographic teeter totter as increasing numbers of families with children who can afford to have left for the continental U.S., leaving, increasingly, a poorer and older population behind with a depleting tax base, but significantly greater fiscal pressures. Thus, during his visit to Puerto Rico, he warned: “We’re running out of time.” And, observing that much of the territory’s infrastructure had collapsed, he added: “We have a long way to go.” He said FEMA is coordinating a Flag Day planning and training exercise with Puerto Rico’s government in which life-saving supplies will be delivered to the island’s 78 municipalities to ensure better response times for any upcoming storms, adding the muncipios and towns will be allowed to store those supplies for future disasters, but stressing that Puerto Rico’s public and private sectors have to build a strong emergency response network and establish unified plans: “FEMA cannot be directly responsible for all of the response and recovery.” Director Long added that the private sector should ensure that communication systems become more resistant—reflecting that Maria had left nearly all of Puerto Rico without phone service after the Category 4 storm struck last September. At the same time, he defended his agency from ongoing criticism that it did not respond quickly enough to the hurricane or dedicate the same amount of resources compared with other natural disasters in the U.S. mainland, asserting: “(That’s) completely false,” adding that in the first six months since Maria hit, FEMA had invested $10 billion in Puerto Rico, in contrast to the $6 billion invested in the six months after Hurricane Katrina: “Recovery never moves as fast as people want it to be…And in this case, moving faster can be detrimental from the standpoint of putting this money to work in a manner that truly makes Puerto Rico stronger and more resilient.” His staffer, Mike Byrne, who serves as FEMA’s federal coordinating officer in Puerto Rico, said he is working with Puerto Rico’s government to determine how federal funds will be used to identify priorities and rebuild damaged infrastructure: he stated that some of the funds will go toward strengthening Puerto Rico’s power grid—some two-thirds of which Maria destroyed: even hoy dia (today), some two-thirds of its distribution system remains to be fixed; more than 50,000 power customers remain in the dark. Nevertheless, he said 96 percent of all customers now have electricity, noting: “We’ve done the Band-Aid,” adding that the recovery process has been slow in part because supplies ranging from construction equipment to power poles have been scarce in light of the natural disasters that hit the U.S. mainland, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands last year

La Escuela or School of Debt. In an in-depth session with NPR’s Hari Sreenivasan, who was joined by San Juan by Danica Coto of the Associated Press, Ms. Cotto noted that, over the last three decades, Puerto Rico has experienced school enrollment drop by 42%; since May of last year, that enrollment has dropped by 38,700—in part reflecting the roughly 135,000 Puerto Ricans who, in the wake of Maria, left for the mainland—that ism, those who could afford to. Ms. Cotto added that for the island’s 4,700 affected teachers, the Secretary of Education has promised that no one will lose her or his job—albeit for a quasi-state in quasi chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, such a commitment seems hard to imagine—the related query is what will happen to the schools themselves—150 of which had been closed in the half decade prior to Maria—and an additional 179 last year. Currently, Ms.Cotto noted, there are about 283 schools in the process of closing.

Mr. Sreenivasan inquired about the demographics of those students, some 319,000 in public schools, staying behind—in response to which Ms. Cotto responded that 30% have special needs, or about twice the average of the U.S. mainland. One can appreciate immediately the disparate fiscal and human implications—for Puerto Rico’s hopes for recovery—and for its fiscal future. And she asked about the equity in the process for determining which schools would close, reminding us of Detroit Emergency Manager Kevin Orr’s recognition that any final plan of debt adjustment for Detroit to exit the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in the nation’s history would require a perception that the public schools were competitive with surrounding jurisdictions.

Ms. Cotto noted that the bulk of public school closures in Puerto Rico will be in rural areas, noting that along the north coast of the island, some muncipios will experience closures of nearly half their public schools—creating a risk of an increasing number of young Americans losing access to public education—and a risk to local tax bases. Several other municipalities will see 44 to 46% of its schools close.

Intergovernmental Federalism Fiscal Recovery Challenges

March 26, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing fiscal challenges to Connecticut’s capitol city of Hartford, and the fiscal challenges bequeathed to the Garden State by the previous gubernatorial administration, before wondering about the level of physical and fiscal commitment of the U.S. to its U.S. territory of Puerto Rico.

Capitol & Capital Debts. The Hartford City Council is scheduled to vote today on whether to approve an agreement between the city and the state on a fiscal arrangement under which the state would pay off Hartford’s general obligation debt of approximately $550 million over the next two decades as part of the consensus seemingly settled as part of the Connecticut state budget—an agreement under which the state would assume responsibility to finance Hartford’s annual debt payments, payments projected to be in excess of $56 million by 2021, while the city would continue to make payments on its new minor league ballpark, about $5 million per year—a fiscal pact described by Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin as the :”[K]ind of long-term partnership we’ve been working for, and I’m proud that we got it done.” Mayor Bronin is pressing Council to vote before April Fool’s Day, which happens to be the city’s deadline for its next debt payment: if executed by then, the state would pay the $12 million which Hartford currently owes, under the provisions in the current state fiscal budget which, when adopted, had pledged tens of millions of dollars in additional fiscal assistance to the state capitol, fiscal assistance regarded as vital to avert a looming chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy—and, under which, similar in a sense to New Jersey’s Atlantic City, the aid provided included the imposition of state oversight. The effect of the state fiscal assistance meant that in the  current fiscal year, Connecticut would assume responsibility for Hartford’s remaining debt of $12 million; in addition, the state is to provide Hartford another $24 million to help close the city’s current budget deficit—and, in future years, assume the city’s full debt payment. The agreement provides that the state could go further and potentially finance additional subsidies to the city. Mayor Bronin had sought approximately $40 million in extra aid each year, in addition to the $270 million the city already receives—albeit, the additional state aid comes with some fiscal strings attached: a state oversight board, as in Michigan and New Jersey, is authorized to restrict how the municipality may budget, and finance: contracts and other documents must be run by the panel, and the board will have final say over new labor agreements and any issuance of capital debt. Going further, under the provisions, even if the oversight board were to go out of existence, Hartford’s fiscal authority would still be subject to state oversight: e.g. if the city wished to make its required payment to the pension fund, such payment(s) would be subject to oversight by both the Connecticut Treasurer and the Secretary of Connecticut’s Office of Policy and Management—where a spokesperson noted: “Connecticut cannot allow a city to default on its bond obligations or financially imperil itself for the foreseeable future: This action will ultimately best position Hartford to move into a better financial future.”

Mayor Bronin, in reflecting on the imposition of state fiscal oversight, noted that while the state assistance would help offset Hartford’s escalating deficits, deficits now projected to reach $94 million by 2023, noted: “This debt transaction does not leave us with big surpluses: “We’re looking to achieve sufficient stability over the next five years, and we can use that period to focus on growth.” Hartford Council President Glendowlyn Thames likewise expressed confidence, noting: “This plan is really tight, and it’s just surviving: We have to focus on an economic development strategy that gets us to the point where we’re thriving.”

State Fiscal Stress. For its part, with less than a week before the state enters its final fiscal quarter, the Connecticut legislature still has its own significant state debt issue to resolve—with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy warning he still expects the state legislature will honor a new budget control it enacted last fall to help rebuild the state’s modest emergency reserves, stating: “I don’t think I have given up any hope, or all hope” that legislators will close the $192 million projected shortfall in the fiscal year which ends June 30th; however, the Governor also said legislative leaders professed commitment to both write and commit to a new, bipartisan budget may be waning, stating: “The grand coalition seems to be fraying, and I think that’s what gives rise to the inability to respond to the budget being out of balance,” he said, referencing last October’s grand bargain under which there was bipartisan agreement on a new, two-year plan to balance state finances—an agreement achieved in a process excluding the Governor, who, nevertheless, signed the budget to end the stalemate, despite what he had described as significant flaws, including a reliance on too many rosy assumptions, hundreds of millions of dollars swept from off-budget and one-time sources, as well as unprecedented savings targets the administration had to achieve after the budget was in force. Indeed, meeting that exacting target is proving elusive: the fiscal gap in January exceeded $240 million in January, before declining to the current $192 million: it has yet to meet the critical 1% of the General Fund threshold—a threshold which, if exceeded, mandates the Comptroller to confirm, and triggers a requirement for the Governor to issue a deficit-mitigation plan to the legislature within one month.

The new state local fiscal oversight arrangement provides that, even if the state oversight board goes away, the city’s fiscal practices would remain subject to state oversight—where any perceived failures would subject the city fiscal scrutiny by the Connecticut Treasurer and the Secretary of Connecticut’s Office of Policy and Management, a spokesperson for which noted: “Connecticut cannot allow a city to default on its bond obligations or financially imperil itself for the foreseeable future: This action will ultimately best position Hartford to move into a better financial future.” Hartford City Council President Glendowlyn Thames asserted her confidence with regard to the contract, but noted more work needed to be done: “This plan is really tight, and it’s just surviving: We have to focus on an economic development strategy that gets us to the point where we’re thriving.”

Post Christie Garden State? New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, in his first post Chris Christie fiscal challenge is targeting state tax incentives as a potential source of revenue for the cash-starved state, noting, in his first fiscal address earlier this month that $8 billion in corporate state tax credits approved by the New Jersey Economic Development Authority under former Gov. Chris Christie had made the state’s fiscal cliff even steeper to scale, noting that one of his first fiscal actions was to sign an executive order directing the state Comptroller’s office to audit the New Jersey Economic Development Authority’s tax incentive programs, dating back to 2010 (the current program is set to expire in 2019), describing the programs as “massive giveaways, in many cases imprecisely directed, [which] will ultimately deprive us of the full revenues we desperately need: “These massive giveaways, in many cases imprecisely directed, will ultimately deprive us of the full revenues we desperately need to build a stronger and fairer economic future,” as the new Governor was presenting his $37.4 billion budget to the Garden State state legislature, noting: “We were told these tax breaks would nurse New Jersey back to health and yet our economy still lags.” Under his Executive Order the Gov., in January, had directed Comptroller Philip James Degnan to examine the Grow New Jersey Assistance Program, the Economic Redevelopment and Growth Grant Program, and other programs which have existed under the NJEDA since 2010 when former Gov. Christie assumed office: the audit is aimed at comparing the economic impact from projects that received the tax breaks with the jobs and salaries they created: it is, as a spokesperson explained: “[A]n important opportunity to evaluate the effectiveness of the State’s existing incentive programs.” New Jersey Policy Perspective, in its perspective, notes that the $8.4 billion of tax breaks NJEDA approved under former Gov. Christie compared to $1.2 billion of subsidies awarded during the previous decade, subsidies which the organization frets have hampered New Jersey’s fiscal flexibility to fund vital investments such as transportation and schools. Indeed, a key fiscal challenge for the new Governor of a state with the second lowest state bond rating—in the wake of 11 downgrades under former Gov. Christie, downgradings caused by rising public pension obligations and increasing fiscal deficits—will be how to fiscally engineer a turnaround—or, as Fitch’s Marcy Block advises: “It’s always a good idea for a new administration to see what the tax incentives program is like and what potential revenue they are missing out on,” after Fitch, last week, noted that the new Governor’s budget proposes $2 billion in revenue growth, including $1.5 billion from tax increases,” adding that the Governor’s proposed plan to readjust the Garden State’s sales and use tax back up to 7% from the 6.625% level it dropped to under former Gov. Christie was a “positive step” which would provide $581 million in additional revenue, even though it would impose strict fiscal restraints: “These increased revenues would go to new spending and leave the state with still slim reserves and reduced flexibility to respond to future economic downturns through revenue raising: The state has significant spending pressures, not only due to the demands of underfunded retiree benefit liabilities, but also because natural revenue increases resulting from modest economic growth in recent years have gone primarily towards the phased-in growth in annual pension contributions.”

For his part, Gov. Murphy has emphasized that while he opposes many of the state tax expenditures doled out by the former Christie administration, a $5 billion incentives program that the NJEDA’s Grow New Jersey Program is offering Amazon to build its planned second headquarters in Newark would be a positive for the state. (Newark is on Amazon’s short list of 20 municipalities it is considering for a new facility that could house up to 50,000 employees: the city is offering $2 billion in tax breaks of its own to create $7 billion in total subsidies.) The Governor noted a win here would be “a transformative moment for our state: It could literally spur billions of dollars in new investments, in infrastructure, in communities and in people,” as he noted that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has grown jobs at a rate seven times greater than New Jersey in recent years, despite only spending $22,000 in economic incentives per job compared to $160,000 for each job in New Jersey, noting that other priorities beyond taxes are important to lure businesses, such as investments in education, workforce housing, and infrastructure: “Even with these heralded gifts, our economic growth has trailed almost every other competitor state in the nation in literally almost every category: “Massachusetts and our other competitor states are providing businesses a greater value for money and with that value in hand they are cleaning our clocks.”

Free, Free at Last? Announcing that “We’ve reached an agreement that is beneficial both for the taxpayer and for the people of Puerto Rico,” referring to a pact that is to lead to the release of some held up $4.7 billion in federal disaster recovery assistance reached between Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello and U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, the pair has announced at the end of last week agreement on the release of some $4.7 billion in disaster recovery loans which Congress had signed off on six months ago—but funds which Sec. Mnuchin had delayed releasing on account of disagreement over the terms of repayment, describing it as a “super-lien” Community Disaster Loan. After a meeting between the two, the new, tentative agreement would allow Puerto Rico access to the fiscal assistance once the cash balance in its treasury falls below $1.1 billion—a level more than the Secretary’s initial request of $800 million. (As of March 9th, U.S. territory had about $1.45 billion in cash.) The agreement ended half a year of tense negotiations over what were perceived as discriminatory loan conditions compared to the terms under which federal assistance had been provided to Houston and Florida in the wake of the hurricanes. Indeed, Gov. Rossello had written to Congress that the Treasury was demanding that repayment of those loans be given the highest priority, even over the provision of essential emergency services in Puerto Rico—even as the Treasury was proposing to bar Puerto Rico’s eligibility for future loan forgiveness. Under the new agreement, the odd couple have announced that the revised agreement would grant high priority to repayment of the federal loans—not above the funding of essential services, but presumably above the more than $70 billion Puerto Rico owes to its municipal bondholders. From his perspective, Sec. Mnuchin noted: “We want to make sure that the taxpayers are protected: It’s not something we’re going to do for the benefit of the bondholders, but it is something we would consider down the road for the benefit of the people if it’s needed,” opening the previously slammed door for access by Puerto Rico to the full amount approved by Congress, more than double the amount the Trump Administration had sought to impose. Nevertheless, notwithstanding the agreement, the terms must still be agreed to by Puerto Rico’s legislature, the PROMESA oversight board, and the federal court overseeing the quasi-chapter 9 bankruptcy proceedings. Under the terms of the agreement, Puerto Rico may borrow up to $4.7 billion if its cash balances fall below $1.1 billion. (Puerto Rico’s central bank account had $1.45 billion as of March 9th.) Governor Rosselló described the federal loan as one which will have a “super lien: There will be a lien within the Commonwealth, but it won’t be a lien over the essential services…I think both of our visions are aligned. We both want the taxpayer to be protected, but we also want the U.S. citizen who lives in Puerto Rico to have guaranteed essential services. And both of those objectives were agreed upon,”  noting that the U.S. government frequently forgives these types of loans. For his part, Secretary Mnuchin said the topic of loan forgiveness would be dealt with later “based on the facts and circumstances at the time,” and that, if and when the topic came up, the Treasury would consult with FEMA, the Congressional leadership and the administration, noting: “It’s not something we’re going to do for the benefit of bondholders, but it is something we would consider down the road for the benefit of the people of Puerto Rico.” The discussions come as the Commonwealth continues in the midst of its Title III municipal-like bankruptcy process affecting more than $50 billion of Puerto Rico’s $72 billion of public sector debt—with a multiplicity of actors, including: Puerto Rico’s legislature, the PROMESA Oversight Board, and Title III Judge Laura Taylor Swain. Under the terms, Puerto Rico would be allowed to draw upon the money repeatedly, as needed, according to Gov. Rossello, who noted that the U.S. Virgin Islands has already taken four draws totaling $200 million. The access here would be to fiscal resources available until March 2020.

Municipio Assistencia. In addition to the federal terms worked out for the territory, the new terms also provide that the U.S. Treasury will be making loans available for up to $5 million to every Puerto Rico municipality. FEMA is planning to make more than $30 billion available for rebuilding, while HUD is considering grants of more than $10 billion—leading Sec. Mnuchin to add: “There’s a lot of money to be allocated here, and I think it is going to have an enormous impact on the economy here: I think we are well on the path to a recovery of the economy here.” The Secretary added he would be returning to Puerto Rico on a quarterly basis to meet with the Governor, assess progress, and examine the island’s economy. His announcement came as the federal government is scaling back the number of contractors working on Puerto Rico’s electrical grid—critical work on an island where, still today, an estimated 100,000 island residents still lack power, with, last week, the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing testimony from U.S. officials about bureaucratic challenges to power-restoration efforts, leading to bipartisan questioning about the drawdown of personnel there by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps, which brought in Fluor and PowerSecure as contractors to spearhead reconstruction of damaged transmission and distribution lines, has already reduced the number of contract workers by nearly 75%, according to tweets from the official Army Corps Twitter account, even as nearly 100,000 customers still lack service. Worse, of the restoration challenge remaining, the bulk is projected to fall mostly on Puerto Rico’s bankrupt public power utility, PREPA, especially after, last week, Fluor halted its subcontract efforts. Despite the Corps pledge to “do all possible work with the funds available” before the contractors leave Puerto Rico, access to vital construction materials, such as concrete poles, transformers and conductors were in short supply, and the Army Corps struggled to purchase and transport materials quickly enough, hindered, no doubt, in part by the discriminatory shipping rules (the Jones Act), increasingly forcing linemen to scrounge for replacement parts. The Corps has acknowledged the supply shortages, noting that natural disasters last year in Texas, Florida, and California strained supplies of construction materials across the U.S. Twelve Democratic Senators have written to Army Corps officials to inquire whether keeping its contractors in place would accelerate the timetable for power restoration—PREPA, last week, reported last week that 32% of the 755 towers and poles that were downed by Hurricane Maria still have not been repaired, and that, of 1,238 damaged conductors and insulators, 28% have not. Rep. Jenniffer González-Colón, Puerto Rico’s Republican delegate to Congress, in a letter to Army Corps officials last week, wrote: “The average citizen on the street in those communities cannot tolerate even the perception that at this point we will begin to wind down the urgent relief mission and that the process of finishing the job will slow down.”

Motoring Back from Chapter 9 Bankruptcy

March 9, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the state of the City of Detroit, the state of the post-state takeover Atlantic City, and the hard to explain delay by the U.S. Treasury of a loan to the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico.

An Extraordinary Chapter 9 Exit. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan yesterday described the Motor City as one becoming a “world-class place to put down your roots” and make an impact: “We’re at a time where I think the trajectory is going the right way…We all know what the issues are. We’re no longer talking about streetlights out, getting grass cut in the parks. We’re making progress. We’re not talking all that much about balancing the budget.” His remarks, coming nearly five years after I met with Kevin Orr on the day he had arrived in Detroit at the request of the Governor Rick Snyder to serve as the Emergency Manager and steer the city into and out of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, denote how well his plan of debt adjustment as approved by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes has worked.

Thus, yesterday, the Mayor touted the Detroit Promise, a city scholarship program which covers college tuition fees for graduates of the city’s school district, as well as boosting a bus “loop” connecting local charter schools, city schools and after-school programs. Maybe of greater import, the Mayor reported that his administration intends to have every vacant, abandoned house demolished, boarded up, or remodeled by next year—adding that last year foreclosures had declined to their lowest level since 2008. Over the last six months, the city has boarded up 5,000 houses, sold 3,000 vacant houses for rehab, razed nearly 14,000 abandoned houses, and sold an estimated 9,000 side lots. The overall architecture of the Motor City’s housing future envisions the preservation of 10,000 affordable housing units and creation of 2,000 new ones over the next five years.

The Mayor touted the success of the city’s Project Green Light program, noting that some 300 businesses have joined the effort, which has realized, over the last three years a 40% in carjackings, a 30% decline in homicides since 2012, and 37% fewer fires, adding that the city intends to expand the Operation Ceasefire program, which has decreased shootings and other crimes, to other police precincts. On the economic front, the Mayor stated that Lear, Microsoft, Adient, and other major enterprises are moving or planning to open sites: over the last four years, more than 25 companies of 100-500 jobs relocated to Detroit. On the public infrastructure radar screen, Mayor Duggan noted plans for $90 million in road improvements are scheduled this year, including plans to expand the Strategic Neighborhood Fund to target seven more areas across the city, add stores, and renovate properties. Nearly two years after Michigan Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof (R-West Olive) shepherded through the legislature a plan to pay off the Detroit School District’s debt, describing it to his colleagues as a “realistic compromise for a path to the future…At the end of the day, our responsibility is to solve the problem: Without legislative action, the Detroit Public Schools would head toward bankruptcy, which would cost billions of dollars and cost every student in every district in Michigan,” the Mayor yesterday noted that a bigger city focus on public schools is the next front in Detroit’s post-bankruptcy turnaround as part of the city’s path to exiting state oversight. He also unveiled a plan to partner with the Detroit Public Schools Community District, describing the recovery of the district as vital to encourage young families to move back into the city, proposing the formation of an education commission on which he would serve, as well as other stakeholders to take on coordinating some city-wide educational initiatives, such as putting out a universal report card on school quality (which he noted would require state support) and coordinating bus routes and extracurricular programs to serve the city’s kids regardless of what schools they attend.

The Mayor, who at the end of last month unveiled a $2 billion balanced budget, noted that once the Council acts upon it, the city would have the opportunity to exit active state oversight: “I expect in April or May, we’re going to see the financial review commission vote to end oversight and return self-determination to the City of Detroit,” adding: “As everybody here knows, the financial review commission doesn’t entirely go away: they go into a dormancy period. If we in the future run a deficit, they come back.”

His proposed budget relies on the use of $100 million of an unassigned fund balance to help increase spending on capital projects, including increased focus on blight remediation, stating he hopes to double the rate of commercial demolition and get rid of every vacant, “unsalvageable” commercial property on major streets by the end of next year—a key goal from the plan he unveiled last October to devote $125 million of bond funds towards the revitalization of Detroit neighborhood commercial corridors, part of the city’s planned $317 million improvements to some 300 miles of roads and thousands of damaged sidewalks—adding that these investments have been made possible from the city’s $ billion general fund thanks to increasing income tax revenues—revenues projected to rise 2.7% for the coming fiscal year and add another $6million to $7 million to the city’s coffers. Indeed, CFO John Hill reported that the budget maintains more than a 5% reserve, and that the city continues to put aside fiscal resources to address the  higher-than-expected pension payments commencing in 2024, the fiscal year in which Detroit officials project they will face annual payments of at least $143 million under the city’s plan of debt adjustment, adding that the retiree protection fund has performed well: “What we believe is that we will not have to make major changes to the fund in order for us to have the money that we need in 2024 to begin payments; In 2016 those returns weren’t so good and have since improved in 2017 and 2018, when they will be higher than the 6.75% return that we expected.” He noted that Detroit is also looking at ways to restructure its debt, because, with its limited tax general obligation bonds scheduled to mature in the next decade, Detroit could be in a position to return to the municipal market and finance its capital projects. Finally, on the public safety front, the Mayor’s budget proposes to provide the Detroit Police Department an $8 million boost, allowing the police department to make an additional 141 new hires.

Taking Bets on Atlantic City. The Atlantic City Council Wednesday approved its FY2019 budget, increasing the tax levy by just under 3%, creating sort of a seesaw pattern to the levy, which three years ago had reached an all-time high of $18.00 per one thousand dollars of valuation, before dropping in each of the last two years. Now Atlantic City’s FY2019 budget proposal shows an increase of $439,754 or 3.06%, with Administrator Lund outlining some of the highlights at this week’s Council session. He reported that over the years, the city’s landfill has been user fee-based ($1 per occupant per month) to be self-sufficient; however, some unforeseen expenses had been incurred which imposed a strain on the landfill’s $900,000 budget. Based on a county population of 14,000, the money generated from the assessment amounts to roughly $168,000 per year, allowing the Cass County Landfill to remain open. However, the financing leaves up to each individual city the decision of fee assessments. Thus, he told the Council: “The Per Capita payment to the landfill accounted for about .35 to .40 cents of the increase.”  Meanwhile, two General Department heads requested budget increases this year and five Department Heads including; the Police Department and Library submitted budgets smaller than the previous year. Noting that he “never advocate(s) for a tax increase,” Mr. Lund stated: “But it is what it is. It was supposed to go up to $16.98 last year and now we are at $16.86, so it’s still less,” adding that the city’s continuous debt remains an anchor to Atlantic City’s credit rating—but that his proposed budget includes a complete debt assumption and plan to deleverage the City over the next ten years.

Unshelter from the Storm. New York Federal Reserve Bank President, the very insightful William Dudley, warns that Puerto Rico should not misinterpret the economic boost from reconstruction following hurricanes that hit it hard last year as a sign of underlying strength: “It’s really important not to be seduced by that strong recovery in the immediate aftermath of the disaster,” as he met with Puerto Rican leaders in San Juan: “We would expect there to be a bounce in 2018 as the construction activity gets underway in earnest,” warning, however, he expects economic growth to slow again in 2019 or 2020: “It’s “important not to misinterpret what it means, because a lot still needs to be done on the fiscal side and the long-term economic development side.”

President Dudley and his team toured densely populated, lower-income, hard hit  San Juan neighborhoods, noting the prevalence of “blue roofs”—temporary roofs overlaid with blue tarps which had been used as temporary cover for the more permanent structures devastated by the hurricanes, leading him to recognize that lots of “construction needs to take place before the next storm season,” a season which starts in just two more months—and a season certain to be complicated by ongoing, persistent, and discriminatory delays in federal aid—delays which U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin blamed on Puerto Rico, stating: “We are not holding this up…We have documents in front of them that [spell out the terms under which] we are prepared to lend,” adding that the Trump Administration has yet to determine whether any of the Treasury loans would ultimately be forgiven in testimony in Washington, D.C. before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government.

Here, the loan in question, a $4.7 billion Community Disaster Loan Congress and the President approved last November to benefit the U.S. territory’s government, public corporations, and municipalities—but where the principal still has not been made available, appears to stem from disagreements with regard to how Puerto Rico would use these funds—questions which the Treasury had not raised with the City of Houston or the State of Florida.  It appears that some of the Treasury’s apprehensions, ironically, relate to Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s proposed tax cuts in his State of the Commonwealth Speech, in which the Governor announced tax cuts to stimulate growth, pay increases for the police and public school teachers, and where he added his administration would reduce the size of government through consolidation and attrition, with no layoffs, e.g. a stimulus policy not unlike the massive federal tax cuts enacted by President Trump and the U.S. Congress. It seems, for the Treasury, that what is good for the goose is not for the gander.

At the end of last month, Gov. Rosselló sent a letter to Congress concerned that the Treasury was now offering only $2.065 billion, writing that the proposal “imposed restrictions seemingly designed to make it extremely difficult for Puerto Rico to access these funds when it needs federal assistance the most.” This week, Secretary Mnuchin stated: “We are monitoring their cash flows to make sure that they have the necessary funds.” Puerto Rico reports it is asking for changes to the Treasury loan documents; however, Sec. Mnuchin, addressing the possibility of potential loans, noted: “We’re not making any decision today whether they will be forgiven or…won’t be forgiven.” Eric LeCompte, executive director of Jubilee USA, a non-profit devoted to the forgiveness of debt on humanitarian grounds, believes the priority should be to provide assistance for rebuilding as rapidly as possible, noting: “Almost six months after Hurricane Maria, we are still dealing with real human and economic suffering…It seems everyone is trying to work together to get the first installment of financing sent and it needs to be urgently sent.”

Part of the problem—and certainly part of the hope—is that President Dudley might be able to lend his acumen and experience to help. While the Treasury appears to be most concerned about greater Puerto Rico public budget transparency, Mr. Dudley, on the ground there, is more concerned that Puerto Rican leaders not misinterpret the economic boost from reconstruction following the devastating hurricanes as a sign of underlying strength, noting: “It’s really important not to be seduced by that strong recovery in the immediate aftermath of the disaster: We would expect there to be a bounce in 2018 as the construction activity gets underway in earnest,” before the economic growth slows again in 2019 or 2020, adding, ergo, that it was “important not to misinterpret what it means, because a lot still needs to be done on the fiscal side and the long-term economic development side.”