A British Chapter 9 Municipal Bankruptcy?

August 29, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider a potential fiscal threat to the U.S. Virgin Islands, before considering the fiscal challenge to a municipality across the pond: Northamptonshire County, England.

A U.S. Virgin Islands taxpayer has brought a proposed class action against the U.S. Virgin Islands government, saying it hasn’t paid nearly 20,000 income tax refunds totaling $37 million for the 2016 tax year and the government owes $97 million in refunds since 2007. The complaint filed by Jennifer Duncan, a U.S. citizen who operated a business in the territory in 2016 and pays taxes there, also alleged that the government of the territory set aside no money in 2017 to pay income tax refunds despite a significant deficit in the refund account. The suit alleges that as of March, the U.S. Virgin Islands government had estimated that 19,653 income tax returns claiming refunds had not been paid and claims the territory’s government is using the money as a “bridge fund” to cover budget shortfalls.

A Fiscally Appealing Chapter 9 case? Councilors in Northamptonshire County, England, a county of over a quarter of a million residents, is in severe fiscal distress; now it appears supportive of plans to replace the county’s eight existing councils with two unitary ones in the wake of a government inspector’s recommendation—an action which will trigger a second vote before such a fiscal plan would come into operation in 2020, with the Council voting 31-14—effectively forwarding the quasi chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy plan to all eight of the county’s authorities for a vote on the plan, which comes after the Council, which faces a funding shortfall of about $82 million, issued two notices banning all new spending this year. Conservative Council leader Matt Golby reported the vote would help to give the county an “opportunity to reset,” noting: “There is lots to celebrate about Northamptonshire: Our residents deserve the best we can offer. We need to instill from day one the best practice in all of our scrutiny and functions.” The new, unitary authority would cover Daventry, Northampton, and South Northamptonshire. Labour Councilor Mick Scrimshaw noted: “This is clearly a proposal put forward by government to abolish the political embarrassment of this Council.” The local governmental action came against a seething backdrop of residents, whistling and booing, and swarming the County Hall, shouting: “Criminals!” and holding up banners that read: “Tory councilors wanted for crimes against people in Northamptonshire.”

The residents of what began as an ancient borough before, in 1835, under the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835, paving the way for an elected Council, are reacting to the quasi-municipal bankruptcy, which has forced the local government to halt all but the minimum services required by law: the Council has already voted to close libraries and stop repairing roads.

Last February, the County became the first, in two decades, to, effectively, run out of money—albeit, it could be that Northamptonshire is a fiscal omen for other cities—many of which are sharply cutting essential services. (The municipality, one of the largest towns in the United Kingdom, with a population over 200,000, was granted its first charter by King Richard I in 1189; its first Mayor was appointed (not elected) by King John in 1215. Northampton was unsuccessful in its application for unitary status in 1996, and recognition as a city in 2000. The city, about 60 miles from London, and one of the largest towns in the United Kingdom, with a current population of over 200,000, dates its founding to its first town charter, granted by King Richard I in 1189; King John appointed its first Mayor.

Councils are Britain’s fundamental unit of local government, dealing with an array of basic needs: trash collection, public transport, libraries, town planning, and care for children and other vulnerable people, among other things. They levy a tax on homes and charge fees for some services. They also collect a nationally set tax on commercial real estate, and keep an increasing share of it. But, for years they received most of their funding from the central government.

The crisis in Northamptonshire is complicated and partly self-inflicted. It has roots in the austerity policies and cost cutting that the Conservative-led national government imposed a decade ago in response to the global financial crisis. The Tories in London argued that austerity was the responsible solution to balance public accounts and encourage future growth. Now some Conservatives, especially at the local level, are openly defying what has been a pillar of the party’s ideology.

Funding from London for local governments has fallen 60 percent since 2010, with reductions expected to total $21 billion by 2020, the Local Government Association has calculated. In response, nearly every council in Britain has cut or outsourced services, sold off assets and tried a host of budget gimmicks, experts in local finance say.

One in 10 of the larger councils that have obligations to care for children and elderly people—about 35 councils in all—are in danger of exhausting their reserves within the next three years, according to the National Audit Office. Rob Whiteman, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, notes: “There’s a slow-moving domino effect.”

Northamptonshire was the first flashing red light. East Sussex County Council, run by Conservatives, recently announced it would reduce services to the “legal minimum.” The Conservative-led county council in Somerset warned it might be facing bankruptcy. This month, two families won a case against Bristol City Council to block plans to reduce funding of special education needs and disability services.

The Northamptonshire Council, having run through its rainy-day funds, now has enough money to pay only for mandatory services for the elderly and children. Unable by law to run a deficit, the council voted in February to shut down 21 of the county’s 36 libraries, remove bus subsidies and suspend road repairs. (A court recently blocked the decision to close the libraries.) At the meeting earlier this month, some councilors seemed resigned to the angry public response.

“I am happy to apologize,” said Richard Auger, a Tory councilor. “I think mistakes were made,” he added. “It’s a situation we’re responsible for.” The crisis is a political embarrassment for Conservatives, who are already divided into warring camps over Brexit. The former leader of the Northamptonshire council, Heather Smith, has resigned from her position, and from the Conservative Party. Investigators sent from London blamed her and other councilors for mishandling local finances, even as she blamed London for impossible mandates and a refusal to consider higher taxes. Sounding increasingly like their Labour opponents, some Conservative councilors in Northamptonshire are now talking about stopping the outsourcing of public services and demanding tax increases—or, as recently elected Conservative Councilor John Elkins put it: “I was a believer that we had to save money, but there had to be other ways than to slash and burn: How did we get to where we are? What the hell has been going on?”

Some describe this as the Graph of Doom, referencing, from 5 years ago, a power point shown to the Northamptonshire Council depicting an unavoidable contradiction: a sharp, rising public demand for local services contrasted against a sharp cutback in revenue from the national government (think post General Revenue Sharing), as part of the austerity program led by Conservatives in London. Ms. Smith described it thusly: “It was showing how we were all heading towards this cliff edge,” referring to a shortfall of $175 million that needed to be addressed by 2020. A committed Tory, Ms. Smith initially embraced the calls for austerity, as did many in reliably Conservative Northamptonshire, noting: “Being a Conservative-run Council, everybody accepted that the country had been overspending and that it was time to scale all of that back…At the time we will be spending millions on transformation we will be cutting frontline services. We should not be making a decision today. We need the detail.”

The fiscal pain, moreover, appears to be contagious: This week, all of the Councils in the county will have similar meetings, prior to submitting a plan for reorganization to James Brokenshire, the Minister responsible for local government. (Legally, only one Council needs to vote to back the plan for it to go to the Secretary of State for approval.)  

Reorganizing Governance. For its part, according to a report requested by the government, the Northamptonshire County Council should simply be abolished: the report, requested by Local Government Secretary Sajid Javid, recommends: Any “a new start” which is “best achieved by the creation of two new unitary councils,” in this case, this being a report which appeared to trigger the resignation of  Council Leader Heather Smith, while Northampton North Parliament Member Michael Ellis called the management of the authority a “national scandal.” He added he had been “appalled” by the report. KPMG , in its audit, warned the Council would have to re-work its FY2019 budget to make £40m worth of cuts. Max Caller, who led the government investigation, said Northamptonshire should have two new unitary authorities by 2020, one covering Daventry, Northampton, and South Northamptonshire; and the other covering Corby, East Northamptonshire, Kettering, and Wellingborough—meaning the County Council would cease to exist. Mr. Caller added that “living within budget constraints is not part of the culture” of the Council, noting it had not responded “well, or in many cases even react, to external and internal criticism,” noting that individual Councilors “appear to have been denied answers” to legitimate questions.

But he was also critical of the Council’s proposed Next Generation Model, under which the County would outsource all services and create four new bodies for: child protection, care of vulnerable adults, providing health and well-being services, and improving the county.

Intergovernmental Challenges. Deputy leader Matthew Golby, who is performing the functions of Council Leader prior to any formal appointment, said the authority accepted the findings the inspector has found with regard to “what he believes to be significant failings at the Council,” adding that while the report says the authority is “in no worse position than any other Council,” Northamptonshire’s leadership “would argue the sector as a whole does face significant financial challenges;” the leaders of Northamptonshire’s district and borough Councils issued a joint statement saying they “acknowledge the enormity of the situation,” but “do not believe a unitary model is the only way forward.”

Northamptonshire County Council’s financial crisis timeline: Funding from the central government for local governments has dropped 60% since 2010, reminiscent of the challenge confronting cities, counties, and states after Congress voted to end the General Revenue Sharing program during the Reagan Administration. According to the Local Government Association, those cuts are projected to total $21 billion by 2020. In response, nearly every Council in Britain has cut or outsourced services, sold off assets, and tried a host of budget gimmicks. Nevertheless, one in 10 of the larger Councils which have obligations to care for children and elderly people—about 35 Councils in all—are in danger of exhausting their reserves within the next three years, according to the National Audit Office—or, as Rob Whiteman, CEO of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, put it: “There’s a slow-moving domino effect,” meaning that Northamptonshire was likely just the first flashing red light. In nearby East Sussex County Council, run by Conservatives, the County recently announced it would reduce services to the “legal minimum,” while the Conservative-led county council in Somerset warned it might be facing bankruptcy.

The fiscal situation means the Northamptonshire Council, having run through its rainy-day funds, now has enough funding to finance only for mandatory services for the elderly and children. Barred by national law from running a deficit, the Council, last February, voted to shut down 21 of the county’s 36 libraries, remove bus subsidies and suspend road repairs. (A court recently blocked the decision to close the libraries.)

A Fiscal Cliff Foretold? The virtual chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy was anticipated by some, in what some deem the Graph of Doom, referring to a staff power point shown to the Northamptonshire Council five years ago, which depicted an unavoidable contradiction: a sharp, rising public demand for local services contrasting with a sharp cutback in funding from the national government, as part of the austerity program led by Conservatives in London—or, as Senior Counselor at the time Ms. Smith noted: “It was showing how we were all heading towards this cliff edge,” a fiscal precipice of $175 million that needed to be addressed by 2020. A committed Tory, Ms. Smith initially embraced the calls for austerity, as did many in reliably Conservative Northamptonshire—or, as she put it: “Being a Conservative-run Council, everybody accepted that the country had been overspending and that it was time to scale all of that back.” The problem, however, was how. The Council needed to find huge savings, but it also had limited revenue sources. Raising taxes was ruled out: deemed ideologically unpalatable while the Conservatives were making austerity-related cutbacks. Eric Pickles, the government minister who oversaw local government financing between 2010 and 2015, said it was a “moral duty” for the Tories to keep local taxes low, noting: “Some Conservative Councils had a big fight over it, and said, ‘No, we’re not doing it,’ ” Ms. Smith said. Indeed, before declaring bankruptcy, Northamptonshire took the desperate step of selling and leasing back a $70 million headquarters building it opened in October.

Last February, the Council recognized the depth of its fiscal plight and issued a formal notification of de facto municipal bankruptcy. In response, Conservative leaders in London dispatched government inspectors—inspectors who, last March, issued a damning report: Max Caller, the chief inspector who wrote the report, said that the County Council’s troubles were self-inflicted and that the Next Gen approach did not have any “documented underpinning” that set out how it was expected to deliver savings. In an interview, Inspector Caller noted: “The things that they did were unwise: You could say that they didn’t want to face up to the challenges of austerity, but all the other councils have.” According to his findings, Northamptonshire overspent by $130 million over three years, but took no steps to rein in expenditures—or, as he put it: “Everything has been a waste of money…You can’t go year after year holding down taxation rates at local level and taking the money away and expecting the same level of service. That’s not possible.”

This year, the British government announced some new financial aid for councils, including about $200 million for adult social services. Nevertheless, according to some experts, local Councils are still confronted by a $4 billion funding hole. In response, according to an annual government survey of Council leaders, an overwhelming majority of county councils across England plan to raise council tax, their levy on homes, and 5.99% this year— the maximum the central government will allow. Many have also said they would like to raise business rates, a move the central government is still rejecting.

Prior to declaring municipal bankruptcy, Northamptonshire had taken the desperate step of selling and leasing back a $70 million headquarters building it opened in October—a step which drew withering public ridicule—and instead of helping, appeared to prompt the arrival of national government inspectors. According to officials, Northamptonshire’s fiscal plight was clear from the moment the national government began to pull back on grants to local authorities. What appeared to stun local elected leaders was that a Conservative national government would allow a local government to slide into bankruptcy, or, as former Councilor Smith put it: “I honestly believed that the government would not let us sink because we were a Conservative authority…But I was wrong. They were quite happy to just throw us out and annihilate us, really.”

Last month, the Northamptonshire Council issued a §114 notice which banned any new expenditure of public money, a critical step as the jurisdiction seeks to achieve $90 million in budget savings this year; the Council voted to shut down most of the county’s libraries, after, in recent years, closing local centers for children and sharply reduced educational funding. The fiscal action that appeared to most shake the public was the vote to shut down the libraries. Conservative Councilor Sam Rumens noted: “I couldn’t face the libraries being cut.”

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