In the Wake of the Storm

October 2, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we report on the recent one-year anniversary of Hurricane Maria’s fiscal and human destruction in Puerto Rico, trying to learn from the incredible New York Fed experts about the fiscal and physical recoveries, before journeying north to assess the state of Atlantic City’s fiscal recovery in the wake of its state takeover. Then we swing south (again) to assess the serious and fiscally challenging costs of ongoing racial segregation in the St. Louis metropolitan region.

Un Ano Duro. Jason Bram and Joelle Scally of the exceptional Liberty Street Economics team at the New York Federal Reserve, writing about the U.S. Territory’s year of hardship in the wake of Hurricane Maria nearly one year ago, described the most destructive storm to slam Puerto Rico in 90 years. They wrote that: “Maria, combined with Hurricane Irma, which had glanced the island about two weeks prior, is estimated to have caused nearly 3,000 deaths and tens of billions of dollars of physical damage. Millions went without power for weeks, in most cases months. Basic services—water, sewage, telecommunications, medical care, schools—suffered massive disruptions. While it is difficult to assign a cost to all the suffering endured by Puerto Rico’s population, we can now at least get a better read on the economic effect of the storms.” In their marvelous post, the dynamic duo examined a few key economic indicators in an effort to gauge the adverse effects of the storms and the extent of the subsequent rebound—not just for Puerto Rico, but also for its various geographic areas and industry sectors. In addition, they examined data from the New York Fed Consumer Credit Panel to assess how well households held up financially and what effects the home mortgage foreclosure and payment moratoria had, noting that, overall, even when the hurricanes struck, the island’s economy had already been “struggling with a decade-long slump and a fiscal crisis.” Thus, they noted that from the outset, the hurricanes “exacerbated a complex pre-existing problem: a population, economy, and tax base that were all in decline.” They estimated that in last year’s fourth quarter, nearly 200,000 Puerto Ricans left Puerto Rico for the mainland—noting that, according to the Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics, about 72,000 had returned by last April—leading them to guesstimate that, as of last June, about 100,000 had returned. They guesstimate a net decline at 100,000—still a 3 percent drop in the population, which had already fallen by about 12 percent (500,000) since peaking in 2005, writing: “Over the years, Puerto Rico’s population loss has contributed to a feedback loop: a lack of economic opportunity and jobs spurs out-migration, which further undermines the island’s economic prospects. Even before the storm, private-sector employment had contracted by about 12 percent since 2005. In the month after Maria, it tumbled another 7 percent…but it has since recovered significantly: as of August 2018, private-sector employment had rebounded by 5 percent from the post-storm trough and was down 2 percent from its pre-storm levels—still a “sizable drop,” but considerably less than the decline seen after some similar disasters.

With regard to overall wage and salary income, which they describe as an even more telling measure of economic vitality than employment, they wrote that those two factors took a much bigger hit than employment during and right after the storm, albeit, they found, income has since rebounded more substantially, reaching new highs early this year: average wage and salary income for these job-holders was up about 7 percent—more than 5 percentage points above the 1.6 percent rise in the CPI. However, while they found that overall employment has reversed much of its steep initial post-hurricane drop, they wrote that some regions and industry sectors have fared much worse than others, noting that, in terms of industries, the post-Maria trends have largely, but not entirely, followed typical patterns after major natural disasters. Thus they determined that the leisure and hospitality industry was one of the hardest hit‒and has been one of the slowest to recover—especially the accommodation segment, where employment plunged more than 20%—unsurprising, in that there has been such a marked decline in tourism; but they found that retail trade employment has also been hit very hard, as have education and health care services. Given the awesome storm destruction, they did find that construction employment has surged nearly 25 percent since Hurricane Maria struck—and, mayhap more surprising, professional and business services, where there has been sturdy job creation since the hurricanes—particularly in waste management and remediation.

In examining income and salary climbs, the dynamic duo determined that the main contributing factor to be the construction industry, where average pay per worker soared more than 50 percent in the first quarter from a year earlier—writing that even though construction represents only about 4 percent of private-sector employment, that surge was sufficient to raise the average substantially—especially compared to other jobs. Large, average pay outside the construction sector was still up moderately in early 2018.

Nevertheless, in assessing whether Puerto Rican workers are really better off this year than before Maria, outside of construction workers, they found that construction jobs may be going to non-Puerto Ricans: relief and rescue workers from the mainland; they also determined that there are fewer jobs in lower-wage sectors, such as restaurants and retailers, and more jobs in higher-paying industries like professional and business services—meaning there “would appear to be fewer job opportunities for many of the more vulnerable low- to moderate-income Puerto Ricans.”

They noted that local employment data, as of the end of last March, finds a “very mixed picture of the recovery:” whereas San Juan had recovered from almost all of its post-hurricane job losses by last March, nearby municipios were not far behind; however, results for other cities were mixed: they noted that Ponce, Caguas, and Mayaguez had all sustained steep job losses right after Hurricane Maria, but that Ponce’s job count had rebounded almost fully by March, whereas Mayaguez experienced partial recovery. In nearby Vieques, they reported that, as of last March, employment was still down about 40%, and that in the interior, about 20%. They wrote that it was too early to be able to assess what the resulting population changes are for the more isolated municipios.

The authors also examined mortgage payment and foreclosure moratoria impacts from the super storm in the territory, where all real property is subject to taxation, except for property which serves as a primary residence and is valued at less than $150,000, because, in the wake of the storm, a key concern had been that many homeowners would fall behind on their mortgages and possibly face foreclosure. The authors discovered some good gnus: because a number of temporary policies were implemented to provide ill-fated homeowners time to recover, including forbearance on mortgage payments, as well as a suspension of late fees and credit reporting, and a potential loan modification to avoid a big jump in payments when the forbearance ends, in addition to a moratorium on new foreclosures; those governmental actions appeared to achieve their intended aims.

Using the New York Fed Credit Panel data set, constructed from Equifax credit report data which offers insight into mortgage balances and payment behavior, both in Puerto Rico and on the mainland, they determined that, because the moratoria prevented the reporting of delinquencies for participating mortgages on credit reports, mortgage delinquency has been “muted in Puerto Rico, dropping substantially before returning roughly to the pre-storm trend. The foreclosure moratorium had the intended effect of stopping foreclosure starts: new foreclosures on credit reports went to nearly zero in the quarters after the storm, before a small uptick in the second quarter of 2018,” estimating that the total value of payments skipped during the three quarters following the storm was “at least $335 million, which we interpret as a short-term loan to mortgage-holders. Guidance on how these skipped payments will be handled has varied by lender and loan type, but a mortgage modification or a smaller second loan to be paid over the term of the mortgage are likely treatments.” Thus, the Fed noted it believed these moratoria appear to have achieved their intended effects. Nevertheless, and notwithstanding that achievement, they did not feel confident that the territory’s economy is out of the woods, writing: “First, the fiscal, economic, and infrastructure problems that were so prevalent before the hurricanes still loom. Second, much of the recent rebound in economic activity is being driven by federal aid, insurance payouts, and massive reconstruction activity—stimulus that is likely to continue for a while, but not indefinitely. Still, some credit for the economic rebound must go to the people of Puerto Rico, who have shown tremendous fortitude during this incredibly difficult year. We will continue to monitor developments across the various sectors on the island in the coming months; stay tuned to this blog for a more detailed picture of Puerto Rico’s household debt situation.”

No Longer Rolling the Die for Atlantic City’s Fiscal Future. In the wake of a release by New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy’s administration of a 64-page report recommending continued state oversight and control of Atlantic City’s fiscal future through the fall of 2021 of the state Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act, a report which Moody’s deemed a  credit positive,  with Moody analyst Douglas Goldmacher writing that State control has had a strong, positive impact on Atlantic City’s financial position, “which remains weak,” adding: “Without continued state oversight, the city’s ability to continue making substantial fiscal improvements is dubious.” Mr. Goldmacher noted that under state intervention, Atlantic City resolved long-standing tax appeals by casinos and reduced the city’s number of employees—affecting both its payroll and long-term public pension liabilities. At the same time, the state also reduced the city’s transitional aid and increased its Consolidated Municipal Property Tax Relief Act revenue, which Mr. Goldmacher said would create greater reliability with state funding and a more predictable revenue stream.

The Garden State’s five-year quasi-takeover under its Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act began in November 2016 under former Gov. Chris Christie, just after Atlantic City nearly defaulted on its debt and appeared on the verge of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, and is scheduled to endure through . Now, this thorough and comprehensive report focuses on a framework for moving forward—a framework providing a direction for the city, where success will be measured by focusing on the details and establishing processes to move forward—and to effectively implement.  Among key recommendations:

  • Frameworks need to be reinforced for the structure to be operational. The multi-party nature of the proposed coordinating structures requires strong, consistent leadership and attention to project management to make sure the different groups move forward, have meetings, and communicate regularly. They will also need to efficiently resolve the inevitable differences and turf disputes.
  • Because the plan involves so many parties, time and attention must first be paid to get them to the right tables and gain consensus on the plan; or agree on modifications consistent with the themes. Participants must be “on the island” or otherwise engaged in some manner.
  • The proposed ExecCouncil must regularly meet and its members spend the time and attention necessary to execute the plans. It must establish clear, efficient and timely decision-making and dispute resolution processes. Staff must be assigned to manage coordination and reporting on all the different efforts.
  • Breaking down silos and coordinating across multiple parties requires time and attention. The parties must make the necessary resource commitments for the effort to succeed. Slacking should not be tolerated and be promptly addressed by appropriate leaders. Maintaining momentum is critical, especially after the first rosy blush of initial meetings. The report could not address the historic and underlying challenge of the City: the need for the City’s political infrastructure; the parties, ward leaders, factions, civic associations, and political influencers to come together and align themselves to ensure that the plans are executed. Turf, power, and personality differences must be put aside or compromised if the efforts are to succeed. That will take commitment and expenditure of political and social capital to align these disparate groups.

Moody analyst Douglas Goldmacher wrote: “State control has had a strong, positive impact on the city’s financial position, which remains weak: without continued state oversight, the city’s ability to continue making substantial fiscal improvements is dubious.” Mr. Goldmacher noted that under state intervention, Atlantic City resolved long-standing tax appeals by casinos and reduced its total number of employees—even as New Jersey reduced the city’s transitional aid and increased its Consolidated Municipal Property Tax Relief Act revenue, actions which Mr. Goldmacher wrote would create greater reliability of state funding, as well as a more predictable revenue stream. He noted that, notwithstanding a surge in net cash and an improving reserves under state control, the city’s adjusted fund balance is still near zero. Atlantic City did receive a $108 million lift in 2017 thanks to tax appeal settlements with its casinos. The city’s quasi emergency manager appointed by the Governor, Jim Johnson, laid out a long-term fiscal future in the state’s report—a report which included recommended changes to municipal governance and developing a master plan for redevelopment—one recommending the city diversify its local economy beyond casino gambling.

With regard to revenues and taxation, Mr. Goldmacher urged a focus on the city’s “decimated tax base” and the fact that New Jersey’s Casino Reinvestment Development Authority has partial jurisdiction over many properties which could be developed, adding that he believed ongoing state involvement would make it “far more likely” that Atlantic City and the Authority could coordinate redevelopment efforts. The city, which currently has some $223.6 million of outstanding municipal bond debt, is rated Caa3 by Moody’s with a positive outlook, and CCC-plus with a stable outlook by S&P Global Ratings. Mr. Goldmacher noted: “While the continued oversight is a credit positive, the city is far from being financially secure…The report, which has received preliminary approval from the Governor and is being reviewed in detail, lays out a strong vision for the future. But the devil is in the details, and it remains for the city, state, and CRDA to demonstrate that they can turn this vision into a sound plan.”

The Fiscal Arch. The City of St. Louis has issued FY2018 construction permits for projects valued at $1.14 billion, levels setting a new high; indeed, In FY 2018, St. Louis issued 5,396 building permits for projects totaling $1,142,040,378 in value, a $528 million increase over the previous fiscal year, or, as Mayor Lyda Krewson noted: “These numbers are very encouraging. It shows that developers, investors, and business leaders are bullish on St. Louis…It’s exciting to see that attitude reflected in not just in words, but in actions.  I love seeing all the construction dumpsters around town.” The building permits issued include new construction and rehabs of both residential and commercial property, in addition to smaller permits for alterations or additions. The FY2018 permits also reflect some major projects underway, including the new St. Louis University hospital campus, Ballpark Village Phase II, and St. Louis Community College’s new Center for Nursing and Health Sciences. In addition, large-scale construction projects, and small- and medium-scale rehabs have also been a significant source of development over the past year: of the 7,322 housing units issued permits, 86% are located in rehabilitated buildings. Moreover, development has not been limited to the central corridor: 17 wards across the city exceeded the total building permit value compared to the previous fiscal year.

Nevertheless, not all has changed since the National Governors Association, long ago, convened for its annual meeting there: both in and beyond its city limits, there remain signs of economic decline and ongoing racial segregation: opportunities for the city’s predominantly African-American residents appear grim: while gangs appear not to be especially a problem, drugs and gun violence are. Last weekend, six citizens were slain; nevertheless, while FBI statistics show the national rate of violent crime fell by 0.9% last year, and the murder rate declined by 1.4%, St. Louis last year experienced 205 homicides—the highest murder rate of any big city in the U.S.—more challenging for its leaders: almost all of the city’s homicides take place in just a few neighborhoods: a police plot via a heat map of crimes in St Louis finds clusters of glowing red dots which demonstrate that murders typically occur close to each other, in the same distressed streets in the north. While that would seem to suggest an ability to provide a more focused and efficient response, the city’s Commander of Investigative Services, Major Mary Warnecke, notes: “We do have a homicide rate we’d love to see smaller,” but she describes a host of fiscal and physical obstacles, including: lack of staff, long-running social and economic hardships, use of drugs, and overly lax gun laws, as well as criminals who skip over the Mississippi River to nearby Illinois—which make improvements intensely difficult. She reports that her detectives clear only a dismal 52% of their murder cases, a slight gain on the past few years—in part because they rely heavily on the co-operation of witnesses, who may, unsurprisingly, not be forthcoming. Major Warnecke said her overworked 33 homicide detectives officially have 4.8 cases each, but low clearances mean cases, like bodies, pile up.

Three years ago, the headquarters created a “real time crime center”, a collection of screens to relay images from cameras all over the city, letting police monitor for trouble. Pictures are matched with reports from Shotspotter—lots of microphones in public places which record sounds of gunshots. These are instantly analyzed, letting police know precisely where and what type of weapons are in use. Police would like access to drones for better aerial footage; however, local regulations do not permit them.

Not Fiscally Petering Out. Standard & Poor’s has raised Petersburg, Virginia’s credit rating from a BB to BB+–with a positive outlook, marking the second consecutive year in the historic municipality’s fiscal recovery from near chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. S&P’s Timothy Barrett and Nora Wittstruck, after, last year, receiving a special tour, outlining the various economic opportunities and challenges within the city, this year followed up with a conference call, where, as Mr. Barrett put it: “We go through an economic update, a capital plan update, a debt update, a managerial update, and a policy practice update. I think in particular with [Petersburg], we concentrated on detailed updates on the financial progress.” Thus the S&P dynamic duo noted that a large part of S&P’s decision to raise Petersburg’s credit rating came from the city’s improved fund balance, with Mr. Barrett noting: “From our standpoint, usually the higher the reserves, the better the budgetary flexibility.” Petersburg, which came closer to filing for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy than any other municipality in the Commonwealth, has budgeted fiscal resources to continue rebuilding the fund balance; it has set a goal of building the balance back up to equal 10% of the city’s general fund—demonstrating, as Mr. Barrett put it: “One of the reasons why we continue to have a positive outlook on the city is in part because they have set those goals and outlines for themselves,” adding that the city’s actions to clear out its backlog of unpaid bills was a contributing factor to the rating upgrade—or, as Ms. Wittstruck noted: “They have essentially caught up in all those past due obligations…We regarded that as a big step in the right direction.”

Nevertheless, Petersburg still has a fiscal ways to go—its credit rating is still below investment grade, and Ms. Wittstruck and Mr. Barrett said that the city would have to remain diligent when managing finances in order for the rating to keep getting raised, with S&P noting there is a one-in-three chance the city’s rating could be raised again in the next two years: Mr. Barrett said S&P will review the rating again next year, noting there will likely be a focus on the city’s fiscal weaknesses, including weak budgetary flexibility, weak debt and contingent liability profile, and historically weak management. Nevertheless, the report found the city to sport a “strong institutional framework score” and that it had demonstrated “adequate budgetary performance,” adding that the city’s proximity to Fort Lee and Richmond was “generating significant economic activity.” Going forward, Mr. Barrett cited the city’s “economic metrics,” such as its high tax rate and relatively low-income level, as challenges city administrations will face as they not only try to achieve financial stability, but improve the overall health of the locality.

The Challenging Transition in the Wake of a State Takeover

September 25, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we report on the likely extension of the Garden State takeover of Atlantic City, because, as one of our most respected and insightful fiscal experts there, Marc Pfeiffer, the Assistant Director of Rutgers University’s Bloustein Local Government Research Center, put it: it is important for New Jersey and Atlantic City to focus on long-term challenges beyond the state takeover period. That is, Mr. Pfeiffer believes continued state oversight will be a positive for Atlantic City municipal bondholders, because it assures more fiscal discipline will be in place—or, in his own words: “You are going to have ongoing stability while the state is involved…The city will have to show that it can stand on its own.”

The Steep Road to Municipal Fiscal Recovery. In the wake of a release of a new state report, “Atlantic City, Building a Foundation for a Shared Prosperity,” [64-page report]  released by New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration, a report recommending continuation of the almost two-year-old state takeover of Atlantic City’s finances, that state governance now appears likely to last a full five years, due to “longstanding challenges” to New Jersey officials, as recommended by the Governor’s office. While the Governor, in his campaign, had, as part of his platform, a commitment to terminate the state takeover of Atlantic City, now, three-quarters of a year after taking office, the Governor appears likely to leave the state takeover in place—indeed, possibly for an additional three years.

The Murphy Administration has released a plan to assist the city to get back on its fiscal feet, a plan which benefited from input from numerous study groups, task forces, and committees, as well as a redirection of some state government funds to youth programs, and a training program for municipal department heads; that plan does not end the takeover; rather the report recommends keeping the takeover in place for the full five years called for under the 2016 law, unless signal fiscal and financial improvement is put in place before then, including the significant reduction or total elimination of Atlantic City’s reliance on state aid—or, as Gov. Murphy put it: “We had a pretty clear-eyed sense of what the challenge was…That doesn’t mean Atlantic City doesn’t need the state, that the state won’t continue to stay the course and be a partner. We’re not going away; we’re going to go out and executive this plan.”

Under New Jersey’s state takeover law gave the state broad powers, including the right to overturn decisions of the city council, override or even abolish city agencies and seize and sell assets, including Atlantic City’s much-coveted water utility. The statue empowers state overseers, in addition, to hire or fire workers, break union contracts, and restructure Atlantic City’s debt, most of which was done to varying degrees, although no major assets have been sold off.

What Is the City’s Perspective? Atlantic City Mayor Frank Gilliam has conceded the uncomfortable governance challenge under the takeover, which was initiated in November of 2016 by former Governor Chris Christie, but he notes that Gov. Murphy’s administration has been willing to listen to concerns and work with city officials, even as it has retained the final governing say-so.

How Can a State Transition Governance Back to a City? Unlike under a chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, where a federal bankruptcy court has the final say in approving (or not) a plan of debt adjustment under which governance authority reverts back to a municipality’s elected leaders, a state takeover lacks a Betty Crocker cookbook set of instructions. Gov. Murphy’s quasi-emergency manager, Jim Johnson, whom the Governor named to review Atlantic City’s transition back to local control, said the state administration should remain in place for an additional three years, unless Atlantic City’s reliance on state aid has been “substantially reduced or eliminated” and that its municipal workforce is on “solid footing.”  Under the provisions of the state takeover, enacted shortly after Atlantic City nearly defaulted on its municipal bond debt, the state was empowered to alter outstanding debt and municipal contracts—or, as Mr. Johnson wrote: “Atlantic City has a set of fiscal, operational, economic and social challenges that will only be resolved with significant direction from, and partnership with the State.”

Focus on the Fiscal Future. Mr. Pfeiffer said it is important for New Jersey and Atlantic City to focus on long-term challenges beyond the state takeover period, adding that the continued state oversight will be a positive for Atlantic City municipal bondholders, because it will assure greater fiscal discipline will be in place, or, as he put it: “You are going to have ongoing stability while the state is involved: The city will have to show that it can stand on its own.”

The report outlines a series of recommendations such, as:

  • the importance of diversifying Atlantic City’s economy beyond casinos,
  • providing increased training for senior municipal workers, and
  • purchasing data that can better track city services.

Mr. Johnson also urged Atlantic City to redirect Casino Reinvestment Development Authority funds into new development projects and toward providing increased financial support for youth programming.

Transitioning Back to Local Control. Atlantic City Mayor Frank Gilliam noted: “The citizens of Atlantic City deserve to have their local elected officials control their destiny…I am very optimistic that this is a huge step in the right direction for Atlantic City and its future.” Mr. Johnson, who was a primary challenger to the Gov. two years ago, was named after that election as a special counsel to review the state’s oversight of Atlantic City—and he came somewhat prepared thanks to his previous service as a U.S. Treasury Undersecretary for enforcement under former President Bill Clinton.

Gov. Murphy, who had been critical of the state takeover during his gubernatorial campaign, and who had criticized former Gov. Chris Christie’s administration for implementing it without support from former Mayor Donald Guardian, noted: “This is a community that needs the state’s help as a partner, not as a big-footing jamming down, taking away—you know, taxation without representation,” adding: “That doesn’t mean that Atlantic City doesn’t need the state, that the state isn’t going to stay the course and be a partner.” The Governor, soon after assuming office, had removed former Gov. Christie’s designated takeover manager Jeffrey Chiesa as the state designee to oversee the state role in Atlantic City. It should be noted, as we have previously, that Mr. Chiesa forged a number of settlements on owed casino property tax appeals and effected a $56 million reduction in Atlantic City’s FY2017 budget. All of which brings us back to the wary fiscal trepidation of Mr. Pfeiffer, because Atlantic City’s debt is still in the high risk range so favored by some casino players in the city: a CCC-plus from S&P Global Ratings and Caa3 from Moody’s Investors Service.

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.

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.