Municipal Fiscal Distress & State Oversight.

June 18, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Post Municipal Bankruptcy Election, and How Does a City, County, State, or Territory Balance Schools versus Debt?

June 4, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider tomorrow’s primary in post-chapter 9 municipally bankrupt Stockton, and the harsh challenges of getting schooled in Puerto Rico.

Taking New Stock in Stockton? It was Trick or Treat Day in Stockton, in 2014, when Chris McKenzie, the former Executive Director of the California League of Cities described to us, from the U.S. Bankruptcy Court courtroom, Judge Christopher Klein’s rejection of the claims of the remaining holdout creditor, Franklin Templeton Investments, and approved the City of Stockton’s proposed Chapter 9 Bankruptcy Plan of Adjustment. Judge Klein had, earlier, ruled that the federal chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy law preempted California state law and made the city’s contract with the state’s public retirement system, CalPERS, subject to impairment by the city in the Chapter 9 proceeding. Judge Klein determined that that contract was inextricably tied to Stockton’s collective bargaining agreements with various employee groups. The Judge also had stressed that, because the city’s employees were third party beneficiaries of Stockton’s contract with CalPERS, that, contrary to Franklin’s assertion that CalPERS was the city’s largest creditor; rather it was the city’s employees—employees who had experienced substantial reductions in both salaries and pension benefits—effectively rejecting Franklin’s assertion that the employees’ pensions were given favorable treatment in the Plan of Adjustment. Judge Klein, in his opinion, had detailed all the reductions since 2008 (not just since the filing of the case in 2012) which had collectively ended the prior tradition of paying above market salaries and benefits to Stockton employees. Moreover, his decision included the loss of retiree health care,  reductions in positions, salaries and employer pension contributions, and approval of a new pension plan for new hires—a combination which Judge Klein noted meant that any further reductions, as called for by Franklin, would have made city employees “the real victims” of the proceeding. We had also noted that Judge Klein, citing an earlier disclosure by the city of over $13 million in professional services and other costs, had also commented that the high cost of Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy proceedings should be an object lesson for everyone about why Chapter 9 bankruptcy should not be entered into lightly.

One key to the city’s approved plan of debt adjustment was the provision for a $5.1 million contribution for canceling retiree health benefits; however a second was the plan’s focus on the city’s fiscal future: voter approval to increase the city’s sales and use tax to 9 percent, a level expected to generate about $28 million annually, with the proceeds to be devoted to restoring city services and paying for law enforcement.

Moody’s, in its reading of the potential implications of that decision opined that Judge Klein’s ruling could set up future challenges from California cities burdened by their retiree obligations to CalPERS, with Gregory Lipitz, a vice president and senior credit officer at Moody’s, noting: “Local governments will now have more negotiating leverage with labor unions, who cannot count on pensions as ironclad obligations, even in bankruptcy.” A larger question, however, for city and county leaders across the nation was with regard to the potential implications of Judge Klein’s affirmation of Stockton’s plan to pay its municipal bond investors pennies on the dollar while shielding public pensions.

Currently, the city derives its revenues for its general fund from a business tax, fees for services, its property tax, sales tax, and utility user tax. Stockton’s General Fund reserve policy calls for the City to maintain a 17% operating reserve (approximately two months of expenditures) and establishes additional reserves for known contingencies, unforeseen revenue changes, infrastructure failures, and catastrophic events.  The known contingencies include amounts to address staff recruitment and retention, future CalPERS costs and City facilities. The policy establishes an automatic process to deposit one-time revenue increases and expenditure savings into the reserves.  

So now, four years in the wake of its exit from chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, Republican businessman  and gubernatorial candidate John Cox has delivered one-liners and a vow to take back California in a campaign stop in Stockton before tomorrow’s primary election, asking prospective voters: “Are you ready for a Republican governor in 2018?”

According to the polls, this could be an unexpectedly tight race for the No. 2 spot against former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a Democrat. (In the primary, the two top vote recipients will determine which two candidates will face off in the November election.) Currently, Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom is ahead. Republicans have the opportunity to “take back the state of California,” however, candidate Cox said to a group of more than 130 men and women at Brookside Country Club—telling his audience that California deserves and needs an honest and efficient government, which has been missing, focusing most of his speech on what he said is California’s issue with corruption and cronyism worse than his former home state of Illinois. He vowed that, if elected, he would end “the sanctuary protections in the state’s cities.”

Seemingly absent from the debate leading up to this election are vital issues to the city’s fiscal future, especially Forbes’s 2012 ranking Stockton as the nation’s “eighth most miserable city,” and because of its steep drop in home values and high unemployment, and the National Insurance Crime Bureau’s ranking of the city as seventh in auto theft—and its ranking in that same year as the tenth most dangerous city in the U.S., and second only to Oakland as the most dangerous city in the state.

President Trump, a week ago last Friday, endorsed candidate Cox, tweeting: “California finally deserves a great Governor, one who understands borders, crime, and lowering taxes. John Cox is the man‒he’ll be the best Governor you’ve ever had. I fully endorse John Cox for Governor and look forward to working with him to Make California Great Again.” He followed that up with a message that California is in trouble and needs a manager, which is why Trump endorsed him, tweeting: “We will truly make California great again.”

Puerto Rico’s Future? Judge Santiago Cordero Osorio of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico Superior Court last Friday issued a provisional injunction order for the Department of Education to halt the closure of six schools located in the Arecibo educational region—with his decision coming in response to a May 24th complaint by Xiomara Meléndez León, mother of two students from one of the affected schools, and with support in her efforts by the legal team of the Association of Teachers of Puerto Rico. The cease and desist order applies to all administrative proceedings intended to close schools in the muncipios of Laurentino Estrella Colon, Camuy; Hatillo; Molinari, Quebradillas; Vega Baja; Arecibo; and Lares—with Judge Cordero Osorio writing: “What this court has to determine is that according to the administrative regulations and circular letters of the Department of Education, there is and has been applied a formula that establishes a just line for the closure without passion and without prejudice to those schools that thus understand merit close.”  

With so many leaving Puerto Rico for the mainland, the issue with regard to education becomes both increasingly vital, while at the same time, increasingly hard to finance—but also difficult to ascertain fiscal equity—or as one of the litigants put it to the court: “The plaintiff in this case has clearly established on this day that there is much more than doubt as to whether the Department of Education is in effect applying this line in a fair and impartial manner.” Judge Osorio responded that “this court appreciates the evidence presented so far that the action of the Department of Education regarding the closure of schools borders on arbitrary, capricious, and disrespectful;” he also ruled that the uncertainty he saw in the testimonies of the case had created “irreparable emotional damage worse than the closing of schools,” as he ordered Puerto Rico Education Secretary Julia Keleher to appear before him a week from today at a hearing wherein Secretary Keleher must present evidence of the procedures and arguments that the Department took into consideration for the closures.  

Meléndez León, the mother who appears as a plaintiff in the case, stated she had resorted to this legal path because the Department of Education had never provided her with concrete explanations with regard to why Laurentino Estrella School in Camuy, which her children attend, had been closed—or, as she put it: “The process that the Department of Education used to select closure schools has never been clarified to the parents: we were never notified.” At the time of the closure, the school had 186 students—of which 62 belonged to Puerto Rico’s Special Education program—and another six were enrolled in the Autism Program. Now, she faces what might be an unequal challenge: one mother versus a huge bureaucracy—where the outcome could have far-reaching impacts. The Education Department, after all, last April proposed the consolidation of some 265 schools throughout the island.

Human, Fiscal, & Physical Challenges

April 20, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we return to Flint, Michigan to assess its human and fiscal challenges in the wake of its exit from state receivership; then we return to Puerto Rico, a territory plunged once again into darkness and an exorbitant and costly set of fiscal overseers. 

Out Like Flint. Serious fiscal challenges remain for Flint, Michigan, after its exit from state financial receivership. Those challenges include employee retirement funding and the aging, corroded pipes that caused its drinking water crisis, according to Mary Schulz, associate director for Michigan State University’s Extension Center for Local Government Finance and Policy. In the public pension challenge, Michigan’s statute enacted last year mandates that the state’s municipalities report underfunded retirement benefits. That meant, in the wake of Flint’s reporting that it had only funded its pension at 37%–with nothing set aside for its other OPEB benefits, combined with the estimated $600 million to finance the infrastructure repair of its aging water infrastructure, Director Schulz added the small city is also confronted by a serious problem with its public schools—describing the city’s fiscal ills as “Michigan’s Puerto Rico,” adding it would “remain Michigan’s Puerto Rico until the state decides Flint is part of Michigan.”

Michigan Municipal League Director Dan Gilmartin notes that Flint is making better decisions financially, but still suffers from state funding cuts. He observed that Flint’s leaders are making better decisions fiscally—that they have put together a more realistic budget than before its elected leaders were preempted by state imposed emergency managers, noting: “The biggest problem Flint faces now is what all cities in Michigan face, and that is the state’s system of municipal financing, which simply doesn’t work.”

Perhaps in recognition of that, Michigan State Treasurer Nick Khouri, on April 10th announced the end of state-imposed receivership under Michigan’s Local Financial Stability and Choice Act, and he dissolved the Flint Receivership Transition Advisory Board. Treasurer Khouri also signed a resolution repealing all remaining emergency manager orders, noting: “Removing all emergency manager orders gives the City of Flint a fresh start without any lingering restrictions.” Concurrently, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, in an email, wrote: “Under the state’s emergency manager law, emergency managers were put in place in a number of cities facing financial emergencies to ensure residents were protected and their local governments’ fiscal problems were addressed: This process has worked well for the state’s struggling cities, helping to restore financial stability and put them on a path toward long-term success. Flint’s recent exit from receivership marks the end of emergency management for cities in Michigan and a new chapter in the state’s continued comeback.” Indeed, the state action means that Detroit is the only Michigan municipality city still under a form of state oversight, albeit Benton Harbor Area Schools, Pontiac Public Schools, Highland Park School District, and the Muskegon Heights school district remain under state oversight.

The nation’s preeminent chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy expert Jim Spiotto notes that a financial emergency manager is supposed to get a struggling municipality back to a balanced budget, to find a means to increase revenue, to cut unnecessary expenses, and to keep essential services at an acceptable level:  “To the degree that they achieve that, then you want to continue with best practices: If they don’t accomplish that, then even if you return the city back to Mayor and City Council, then they have to do it: Someone has to come up with viable sustainable recovery plan, not just treading water.”

From his perspective, Director Gilmartin notes: “Flint has more realistic numbers in place, especially when it comes to revenues. I think that is the most important thing the city has accomplished from a nuts and bolts standpoint…The negative side of it is the system in which they are working under just doesn’t work for them or any communities in the state. In some cases making all the right decisions at the local level still doesn’t get to where you need to get to, and it will require a change in the state law.” Referencing last year’s Michigan Municipal League report which estimated the state’s municipalities had been shortchanged to the tune of $8 billion since 2002, Director Gilmartin noted: “A lot of the fiscal pressures that Flint and other cities in Michigan find themselves in are there by state actions.” No doubt, he was referencing the nearly $55 million in reduced state aid to Flint by 2014—as the state moved to pare revenue sharing—the state’s fiscal assistance program to provide assistance based upon population and fiscal need—funds which, had they been provided, would have sufficed to not only balance the city’s budget, but also cut sharply into its capital debts—enhancing its credit quality. Indeed, it was the state’s Emergency Manager program that voters repealed six years ago after devastating decisions had plunged Flint into not just dire fiscal straits, but also the fateful decision to change its public drinking water source—a decision poisoning children, and the city’s fisc by decimating its assessed property values. During those desperate human and fiscal times, local elected leaders were preempted—even as two of the gubernatorially named Emergency Managers were charged with criminal wrongdoing in relation to the city’s lead contamination crisis and ensuing Legionnaire’s disease outbreak which claimed 12 lives in the wake of the fateful decision to  change Flint’s water source to the Flint River in April of 2014. Now, as Director Schulz notes: “Until we come up with other solutions that aren’t really punitive in nature and leave communities like Flint vulnerable as repeat customer for emergency management law, these communities will remain in financial and service delivery purgatory indefinitely.”

Director Schulz notes a more profound threat to municipal fiscal equity: she has identified at least 93 Michigan municipalities with a taxable value per capita under $20,000, describing that as a “good indicator” for which municipalities in the state are prime candidates for finding themselves under a gubernatorially imposed Emergency Manager, in addition to 32 other municipalities in the state which  are either deemed service insolvent or on the verge of service insolvency. Flint’s taxable value per capita of $7575 comes in as the second lowest behind St. Louis, Michigan, which has a taxable value of $6733. Ms. Schulz defines such insolvency as the level below which a municipality is likely unable to fiscally provide “a basic level of services a city need to provide to its residents.” Indeed, a report released by Treasurer Khouri’s office has identified nearly 25% of the state’s local units of government as having an underfunded pension plan, retirement health care plan, or both—an issue which, as we have noted in the eGnus, comes after the State, last December enacted legislation creating thresholds on pensions and OPEB which all municipalities must meet in order to be considered funded at a viable level, meaning OPEB liabilities must be at least 40% funded, and pensions 60% funded. While the Treasurer may grant waivers, such granting is premised on plans approved to remedy the underfunding—failure to do so could trigger oversight by a three-member Michigan Stability Board appointed by the Governor. As Director Schulz notes: “The winds here are blowing such that the municipality stability board is going to be up and running soon, and there will be an effort to give that board emergency manager powers…That means they can break contacts, they can sell assets…whatever it needs to put money in the OPEB.” But in the face of such preemption—preemption which, after all, had caused such human and fiscal damage to Detroit, Detroit’s public schools, and to the City of Flint; Director Gilmartin notes: “Getting the community back to zero is the easy part and is just a function of budgeting, but having it function and provide services is harder: I would say that a lot of the support for emergency management by the state has dwindled based on the experience over the last several years.”

A Storm of Leaders. If the human health and safety, and fiscal challenges created by state oversight in Michigan give one pause; the multiplicity—and cost—of the many overseers of Puerto Rico and its future by the inequitable storm response by Congress and the Trump Administration—and by the costly “who’s on first…” sets of conflicting fiscal overseers could experience at least some level of greater clarity today, as the PROMESA Board releases its proposed fiscal plans it intends to certify, including the maintenance of its mandate to the federal court for an average public pension cut of 10 percent—after having kept under advisement the concerns of Governor Ricardo Rosselló the inclusion in the revised fiscal, quasi chapter 9 plan of debt adjustment immediate reductions in sick and vacation leave.

Thus, it appears U.S. Judge Laura Taylor Swain will consider a proposed adjustment plan to reduce public pensions later this year which would total savings of as much as nearly $1.45 billion over the next five years—a level below the PROMESA Board’s proposed $1.58 million—but massive when put in the context that the current average public pension on the island is roughly $1,100 a month, but more than 38,000 retired government employees receive only $500, because of the type of job they had and the number of years worked.

Thus, there are fiscal and human dilemmas—and governance challenges: even though the PROMESA law authorizes the restructuring of retirement systems, it is unclear whether the Congressionally-created Board has the authority to impose such a significant, unfunded federal mandate on the government of Puerto Rico, including labor reforms, and restrictions of vacation and sick leaves. Last year, Governor Rosselló agreed to a reduction in pensions for government retirees, but then his aim was to propose cuts of 6 percent.

At the moment, he is against it. A few weeks ago, after negotiations with the Board, Governor Rosselló proposed a labor reform similar to the one he negotiated with members of the Board, with differences on how to balance it with an increase in the minimum wage and when to put it in into effect—a proposal he subsequently withdrew after the PROMESA Board mandated that the labor reform be in full force in January 2019, instead of phasing it in over next three years, and conditioning the increase from $7.25 to $8.25 per hour in the minimum wage to the increase in labor participation rates—proposals which, in any event, made clear the “too many leaders” governance challenges—as these were proposals with little chance of approval by the Puerto Rican House. That is, for the Governor, there is not only a federal judge, and a PROMESA Board, but also his own legislature elected by Puerto Ricans—not appointed by non-Puerto Ricans. (Under the PROMESA Law, which also created the territorial judicial system to restructure the public debt of Puerto Rico, the PROMESA Board also has power over the local government until four consecutive balanced budgets and medium and long-term access to the financial markets are achieved. Thus, as the ever insightful Gregory Makoff of the Center for International Governance Innovation—and former U.S. Treasury Advisor put it: “While the lack of cooperation with the Board may be good in political terms in the short-term, it simply delays the return of confidence and extends the time it will take for the Oversight Board to leave the island.” Thus, he has recommended the Board and Gov. Rosselló propose to Judge Swain a cut from $45 billion to $6 billion of the public debt backed by taxes, with a payment of only 13.6 cents per each dollar owed, with the aim of equating it with the average that the states have. All of this has been complicated this week by the blackout Wednesday, before the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, PREPA, yesterday announced it had restored power to some 870,000 customers.

As in  Central Falls, Rhode Island, and in Detroit, in their respective chapter 9 bankruptcies, the issue and debate on pensions appears to be a matter which will be settled or resolved by the court—not the parties or Board. While the Board has the power to propose a reform in the retirement systems, it appears to lack the administrative or legislative mechanisms to implement a labor reform. The marvelous Puerto Rican daily newspaper, El Nuevo Día asked one of the PROMESA Board sources if it were possible for the Board to go to Court and demand the implementation of a labor reform in case the Governor does not propose such legislation—the response to which was such a probability was “low.” Concurrently, an advisor to House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) with regard to proposing legislation to address the issue receive a doubtful response, albeit an official in the Chairman’s office said recently that if the Rosselló administration does not implement the labor reforms proposed by the PROMESA Board, the option for the Board would be to further reduce the expenses of the government of Puerto Rico. Put another way, Carlos Ramos González, Professor of Constitutional Law at the Interamerican University of Puerto Rico, is of the view that, notwithstanding the impasse, “in one way or another, the Board will end up imposing its criteria. How it will do it remains to be seen.”

Physical, Not Fiscal—But Fiscal Storms.  Amid the governance and fiscal storm, a physical storm in the form of am island-wide blackout hit Puerto Rico Wednesday after an excavator accidentally downed a transmission line, contributing to the ongoing physical and fiscal challenge to repair an increasingly unstable power grid nearly seven months after Hurricane Maria. More than 1.4 million homes and businesses lost power, marking the second major outage in less than a week, with the previous one affecting some 840,000 customers. PREPA estimated it would take 24 to 36 hours to restore power to all customers—it is focusing first on re-establishing service for hospitals, water pumping systems, the main airport in San Juan and other critical facilities. The physical blackout came as the PROMESA Board has placed PREPA, a public monopoly with $9 billion of debt, in the equivalent of its own quasi chapter 9 bankruptcy, in an effort to help advance plans to modernize the utility and transform it into a regulated private utility—after, last January, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló announced plans to put the utility up for sale.

Several large power outages have hit Puerto Rico in recent months, but Wednesday was the first time since Hurricane Maria that the U.S. territory has experienced a full island-wide blackout. Officials said restoring power to hospitals, airports, banking centers and water pumping systems was their priority. Following that would be businesses and then homes. By late that day, power had returned to several hospitals and at least five of the island’s 78 municipalities. Federal officials who testified before Congress last week said they expect to have a plan by June on how to strengthen and stabilize Puerto Rico’s power grid, noting that up to 75% of distribution lines were damaged by high winds and flooding. Meanwhile, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is overseeing the federal power restoration efforts, said it hopes to have the entire island fully restored by next month: some 40,000 power customers still remain without normal electrical service as a result of the hurricane. The new blackout occurred as Puerto Rico legislators debate a bill that would privatize the island’s power company, which is $14 billion in debt and relies on infrastructure nearly three times older than the industry average.

 

What Municipal Fiscal Items Might Be Found in Stockings?

December 11, 2017

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s Blog, we consider the ongoing and renewed fiscal challenges confronting Connecticut–albeit with some hints that Santa might have paid an early visit and filled some stockings in Hartford; then we observe the still unmet, post-hurricane fiscal and physical storms which have slammed the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico–but where the federal response has been less than anemic.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

Coal in the Fiscal Stocking? Barely weeks after Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy signed the state’s FY2018 budget, Connecticut has a new round of fiscal crises—meaning the Governor will have to go back to the fiscal drawing board to come up with a new fiscal plan to address a state deficit of at least $207 million, even as he is confronted by a hurtling insolvency for the state’s special transportation fund: Connecticut statutes mandate the Governor to submit a mitigation plan within 30 days when a shortfall exceeds 1% of the general fund. Ergo, Gov. Malloy alerted bond rating municipal bond rating agencies that the fund, key to back stopping critical transportation projects, could be in the red by the beginning of next summer, noting to reporters: “It’s the same things I’ve been telling you guys for years, that we’ve got do something about the transportation fund: “Revenue is coming in, and was predicted to come in slower in large part because people are buying less gas and gas is cheaper.” His remarks follow by just under three years is then announcement of a 30-year, $100 billion transportation infrastructure program—a program which, however, has scarcely commenced. Now, as the Governor anticipates the state’s budget deficit to rise, given delays in implementing reductions in medical benefits which had been projected to play a key fiscal role in the state’s $41 billion biennial spending plan, the Gov. added: “Unless they’re selling new hats that deliver rabbits, a mitigation plan means there only two things you can do—cut spending, raise revenue, or do a combination of both,” with his comments coming a day after huddling with legislative leaders about the hemorrhaging deficit—just two months after the Governor had signed—four months’ late—and now as Congress is on the precipice of sending the White House a tax cut bill that will signally increase the federal debt and deficit—and impose Medicaid cuts and discombobulate Connecticut’s budget—even if the federal government does not shut down. With the Constitution State on the market to sell $400 million of taxable general obligation bonds and $350 million of GO bond anticipation notes, S&P has been less than optimistic, with analyst David Hitchcock indicating a 33% chance the agency could lower Connecticut’s rating within two years, writing: “The outlook reflects what we believe to be increasing constraints on achieving long-term structural balance, highlighted by Connecticut’s delay in enacting a fiscal 2018-2019 biennial budget.” The rating agency is apprehensive about the state’s above-average debt, high unfunded public pension liabilities, as well as OPEB unfunded post-employment benefit liabilities—all coming at a time of population declines, economic stagnation, and weak reserves. Likewise, Fitch warned Connecticut was a state to flag in the new year: “The state has struggled in recent years with revenues failing far short of projections,” while Municipal Market Analytics indicated it anticipates the new state deficit to trigger aid cuts, cuts which will adversely impact the state’s municipalities, writing: “There is a significant medium-term downside scenario developing for the paper of middle-class and poorer Connecticut towns.” Thus, Gov. Malloy said he expects the General Assembly to reconvene for a special session prior to Christmas, especially due to the potential fiscal impact of the announced CVS takeover of Aetna—the state’s largest employer, based in Hartford, and Stanley Black & Decker’s announcement that it will open a 23,000-square-foot advanced manufacturing center in downtown Hartford—kind of a pre-Christmas good gnus/bad gnus combination. , giving the global tools maker its first presence in the Capital City. Almost as if Santa had left an early fiscal stocking present, the twin developments indicate that Hartford, notwithstanding its fiscal and financial struggles and economic decline, is resilient: a city now at a crossroads, with the addition of more than 1,000 new housing units, the opening of the University of Connecticut’s new campus at the old Hartford Times building.

Build Back Mejor! Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló flew to New York yesterday for fiscal and physical reconstruction meetings, after meetings with Puerto Rico Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz and House Leader Carlos Méndez, as he sought to reach consensus on a unified strategy and position with Congress and the Trump administration—hoping that President Trump will agree to some special dispensations for the U.S. territory—especially with regard to manufacturing. His voyage comes as the Justice Department has filed a constitutional defense of the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act, arguing the law gives the federal government flexibility in making appointments to address Puerto Rico’s debt crisis—with the trip coming as the federal government, last week, responded to an August 7th filing by hedge fund Aurelius Capital in the Title III bankruptcy case: PROMESA Oversight Board Executive Director Natalie Jaresko said the board supported the U.S. filing in defense of PROMESA’s constitutionality, noting: “We welcome the United States Solicitor General’s legal arguments in support of PROMESA and the board’s constitutionality…The devastation of Hurricanes Irma and Maria make it even more important to have in place an orderly process for restoring the island’s finances, providing oversight and increasing confidence among residents and businesses while upholding equitable treatment for creditors.” Potentially at stake are the fates of $74 billion in outstanding public sector debt, $49 billion in pensions, and the control not only of Puerto Rico’s government, but also its public corporations: in the complaint, Aurelius said the Title III bankruptcy petition should be dismissed, because its filing was not validly authorized by the validly constituted oversight board: in particular, Aurelius charged that the appointments clause of the U.S. Constitution was breached in appointing the PROMESA board’s members, arguing that, according to the Constitution, all “principal officers” of the United States must be appointed by the President of the United States, and approved by the U.S. Senate. In its August complaint, Aurelius had argued that the board members are “principal officers” of the U.S. In a responding federal brief, the federal government wrote that the PROMESA appointments scheme “is not subject to the Appointments Clause, because the Oversight Board is a component of the territorial government,” noting that Congress enacted PROMESA under the Territory Clause of Article IV of the Constitution, which gives Congress “‘broad latitude to develop innovative approaches to territorial governance,’ Puerto Rico v. Sanchez Valle (2016),” with the U.S. attorneys writing: “The Appointments Clause does not govern the appointment of territorial officers, including members of the Oversight Board, because Congress may legislate for the territories ‘in a manner…that would exceed its powers or at least would be very unusual, in the context of national legislation enacted under other powers delegated to it.’ Palmore v. United States (1973).” The attorneys added that historical practice shows that the “Appointments Clause is inapplicable to the appointment of territorial officers.” (In 1900, Congress passed the Foraker Act, which said that a locally-elected house of representatives should work alongside a governor and 11-member elected council nominated by the President and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. In 1947, the U.S. government gave Puerto Rico the power to also elect a governor.) Ergo, the federal lawyers argued that these local elections are not in conformity with the Appointments Clause, but rather have historically been practiced without challenge. Not dissimilarly, Aurelius Capital had also argued that PROMESA’s appointment mechanism for the Oversight Board also encroached on the U.S. President’s executive authority in violation of the Constitution’s separation of powers: while the statute encouraged the President to pick six of the seven board members from those nominated by Congress, according to the act: “he could have requested the recommendatory lists to be supplemented with additional candidates or nominated his own candidates for Senate confirmation under PROMESA’s appointments structure.”

Will There Ever Be Shelter from the Storm? More than two months after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, the U.S. territory, unlike Houston or Florida, has yet to receive any of the $4.9 billion of short-term loans promised in the storm aid package Congress passed at the end of October. Gov. Christian Sobrino, Gov. Rosselló representative on the PROMESA oversight board, confirmed last Friday that no Puerto Rican entity has received any portion of the funds, which were requested for basic functions—with the inexplicable delay raising fear after the Puerto Rican government told the oversight board that the island utility, PREPA, and water utility, PRASA, would run out of money this month—as discussions with the U.S. Treasury and Department of Homeland Security remain unsettled. Puerto Rico has requested $94 billion in federal aid, only a portion of which has been granted, as Members of Congress have raised concerns over how the island’s government will steward billions in federal money—an ironic concern given the current Congressional tax cut proposals projected to add $1.4 trillion to the federal debt, raising questions with regard to not just discrimination, but also a double standard. Puerto Rico Rep. Rafael “Tatito” Hernandez, of Puerto Rico’s House of Representatives, last Wednesday wrote to U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin with regard to the status of the loan package—an epistle to which, at least as of last Friday, he has received no response. Rep. Hernandez noted that Members of Congress still need reassurance that the funds will be well spent, adding that: “A lot of them have some issues.” Whether their issues in any way are comparable to the scale of as much as $100 billion of damage to Puerto Rico, however, or to the challenge to the PROMESA Board as it seeks to unwind the equivalent of the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history is another question. Now Puerto Rico warns it will have to redraw plans for economic reforms. As fabulous Matt Fabian of Municipal Market Analytics noted: “There is a risk that Puerto Rico will use the operating loans and rebuilding dollars as short-term financing to avoid making hard choices in terms of making economic reforms.” As of last Friday, Puerto Rico’s utility, PREPA, was generating only 68% of the power needed and 7% of customers still lacked access to clean water. 

On the Steep Edge of Chapter 9

September 12, 2017

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s Blog, we consider the increasing risk of Hartford going into municipal bankruptcy, the Nutmeg State’s fiscal challenge—and whether the state’s leaders can agree to a bipartisan budget; then we consider the ongoing fiscal challenges to Detroit’s comeback from the nation’s largest ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy: the road is steep.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

On the Edge of Chapter 9. Connecticut legislators plan to move forward with a state budget vote this week—one which is not expected to include a sales and use take hike and which may not get much support from their Republican colleagues. In his declaration, last week, Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin, in warning the city may be filing for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy within sixty days pending state budget action, noted Hartford “believes that a restructuring of its outstanding bond indebtedness will be necessary to assure the fiscal stability of the city in the future regardless of any funding received from the State.” Nevertheless, as Municipal Market Analytics noted: “It’s unclear that the city will be able to satisfy the standard conditions for entry into bankruptcy protection such as proving itself insolvent,” albeit MMA noted that in the absence of a state bailout cash, the city will unable to make payments to its bondholders, nevertheless, noting that Connecticut fiscal changes enacted last summer “would reasonably allow the city to refinance its outstanding debt under provisions that not only purport to provide a statutory lien to bondholders, but also allow principal to be back-loaded and extended for 30 years. Under Connecticut law, municipalities may secure refunding bonds with a statutory lien if they provide for such in the resolution. MMA adds that even without a lien, Hartford “could also refinance, at a minimum, approximately 80% of its outstanding general obligation debt covered by bond insurance policies,” noting that “While this would not eliminate principal currently owed, it would avoid the expense of a chapter 9 bankruptcy.” However, as William Faulkner used to write of the “odor of verbena,” the reputation of chapter 9 can create contagion: MMA notes that “some municipal investors will still not loan capital to Bridgeport for its attempted bankruptcy filing twenty-six years ago.” Thus there is apprehension in the state house that Connecticut’s own interest rates could be adversely affected were Hartford to default or file for chapter 9—adding that such a filing would thus have fiscal adverse reverberations for the state, but also undermine business complacency about remaining in the city: “It is hard to expect that declaring bankruptcy would help the city retain its current employers or attract new ones. Amazon is unlikely to locate its headquarters in a bankrupt city.” Unsurprisingly, Connecticut legislators may be considering some sort of fiscal evaluation model like Virginia’s as a quasi- oversight and/or restructuring regime for local governments.

Meanwhile Connecticut House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz (D-Berlin) said a proposal to raise the sales and use tax as high as 6.85% has been removed from the Democratic budget proposal after facing strong opposition from moderates in his party, as the Speaker’s draft budget proposal sought to close a two-year $3.5 billion deficit, advising his colleagues: “The Senate was not comfortable with that, so it was our opinion as House Democrats that we would drop that off of our proposal in an effort to come to an agreement that would pass in both chambers.’’ Nevertheless, a proposal to raise the sales tax on restaurant meals to 7% remains under consideration—drawing strong opposition from the Farmington-based Connecticut Restaurant Association, and raising apprehensions from the industry, because it was unclear exactly which meals would be covered by the increased tax—even as restaurants now confront stiffer competition from ready-made meals at supermarkets, raising questions with regard to the definition of food and beverage—something to be resolved, according to officials, by the Connecticut Department of Revenue Services.

The fiscal dilemma has, moreover, not just been between the parties, but also between Gov. Malloy and Democrats, with the Governor opposed to many of the tax hikes they have proposed, albeit late last week he said he would agree to a small sales tax increase. Nevertheless, even as state Democratic leaders were still working on a budget agreement with the Governor, separate, simultaneous talks with Republicans broke down yesterday. While Republicans indicated they would not rule out further negotiations, the breakdown appears to be taxing: Gov. Malloy is still seeking tax increases on hospitals, cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, e-cigarettes, and real estate transactions—leading Republicans to charge that Democrats are unwilling to address major, long-term structural changes which would include spending and bonding caps, along with changing the prevailing wage for labor on municipal projects that unions and many Democrats have strongly opposed for years, or, as House Republican Leader Themis Klarides (R.-Seymour) noted: “It is very clear they have no interest in changing the way the State of Connecticut works…They want to fix it for this week, for next month, for next year. They do not want to fix this problem that has been a spiraling problem…“This might as well be Irma: I have more confidence on where Irma is going than where the state is going, based on the destruction they have left in their wake.’’

Republicans plan to release a revised budget proposal today, among which some of Gov. Malloy’s proposals could be included as part of a budget proposal House Democrats plan to consider Thursday, including an expansion of the state’s bottle bill to include juices, teas, and sports drinks. When consumers fail to return their bottles, the nickel deposit is kept by the state. As a result, the state expects to collect an additional $2.8 million starting on Jan. 1, and then another $7.4 million in the second year of the two-year budget from unclaimed deposits. The legislature appears fiscally anxious as Gov. Malloy’s October 1 deadline approaches—the date on which he is set to invoke large cuts: under his revised executive order, 85 communities would receive no educational cost-sharing funds; 54 towns would receive less money.

Nevertheless, the Governor and legislature are working in fiscal quicksand: Gov. Malloy, a Democrat, has been running the state by executive order since July 1st: he and the legislature remain at odds over a biennial spending plan while the Governor is proposing to raise the conveyance tax on real estate transactions, which he projects would bring in an expected $127 million more to the state over two years. However, the proposal comes as sources late yesterday reported that Alexion Pharmaceuticals Inc. will today announce that its corporate headquarters is moving from New Haven to Boston as part of a major “restructuring.” The state has provided Alexion with more than $26 million in state assistance to remain in Connecticut, so the announcement is likely to be a double fiscal whammy: not only will the company move, but also it plans to announce significant layoffs, renewing debate with regard to how the state can remain economically competitive. (Alexion had moved to New Haven early last year from Cheshire with a $6 million grant from the state, and a subsidized $20 million loan which will be fully forgiven if Alexion has 650 workers in Connecticut by 2017.) On average, Alexion had 827 employees in the state this year through June 30. Alexion also was offered tax credits, which could be worth as much as $25 million as part of the Malloy administration’s so-called “First Five” program. Alexion had located in a newly constructed 14-story building in downtown New Haven as part of an urban revitalization project intended to tie two sections of the city together—thus Alexion’s move was key to the completion of the first phase of the project. Gov.  Malloy noted: “Hartford looks to be going bankrupt, and that ultimately may be the only way for them to resolve their issues.” In releasing his proposed a $41 billion state budget, the Governor said that if all of the stakeholders in Hartford, including the unions and the bondholders and others come to the table, maybe that can be avoided: “Hartford looks to be going bankrupt, and that ultimately may be the only way for them to resolve their issues.” The Governor added: “There is an issue that Hartford has done some pretty stupid things over the years, and that bondholders and bond rating agencies tolerated that stupidity: And if there’s going to be relief, it has to be comprehensive in nature.” With Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin having, as we previously noted, warned that Hartford would file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy absent critical support from the state, labor unions, and its bondholders, the Mayor has been pressing for an additional $40 million from the state to avoid bankruptcy—even as the Governor and state legislative leaders claim the state budget provides enough to Hartford—or, in the Governor’s words: “presents the opportunity to help Hartford.” The budget proposal also calls for a four-tiered municipal board to oversee Hartford and other distressed cities. Gov. Malloy, a lame duck, ergo with waning political power, confronts an evenly divided state Senate, and a narrowly divided state House (79-72), so balancing the deck of the fiscal Titanic between revenues and expenditures—and addressing long-term capital and public pension obligations is an exceptional fiscal challenge. The Governor’s budget proposals would also repeal the back-to-school sales tax holiday and increase the cigarette tax by 45 cents to $4.35 per pack, effective the end of next month, as well as increase the conveyance tax on real estate sales.

Leaving Chapter 9 Is Uneasy. Detroit is finding that returning to access traditional capital markets is a challenge: notwithstanding significant downtown economic progress, that progress has been mostly in the increasingly vibrant downtown and Midtown areas. Significant parts of the 139-square mile city continue to struggle with pre-chapter 9 challenges, even as the narrow relief window for the city’s public pension obligations is winnowing, effectively imposing increasing fiscal pressure—especially in the wake of the city’s general fund revenues coming up short for FY2016: Detroit’s four-year fiscal forecast predicts an annual growth rate of approximately 1%. Thus, with its plan of debt adjustment requiring annual set-asides from surpluses of an additional $335 million (between FY16 and FY23) to address those obligations, that has cut into fiscal resources vital to reinvestment and improvement in public services—especially in outlying neighborhoods. Nevertheless, Detroit Future City reports that the annual decline in the city’s population of 672,000 has been slowing. Indeed, job growth has been above the nationwide average since 2010, and that growth appears to be in higher paying jobs of over $40 thousand per year, implying that the job growth is targeted at educated or skilled workers—a key development to encouraging migration to the city—where the 25-34 year-old population has grown by 10 thousand since 2011. Notwithstanding, however, more than 40% of Detroit’s population lives in poverty, nearly triple the statewide rate—and a rate which appears to have some correlation with violent crime. Thus, even though the city has made some progress in reducing overall violent crime, murders have still been rising—albeit at a 2.4% rate. Nevertheless, perceptions matter: a recent Politico-Morning Consult poll reported that 41% of Detroit residents said they consider the city very unsafe. Moreover, in a city where only 78.3% of students graduate high school and just 13.5% of those that reside in Detroit have a bachelor’s degree—half the national rate, the number of families with children has declined by more than 40%. Thus, unsurprisingly, with housing and blight still a problem, the city’s vacancy rate is close to 30%, and some 80,000 met or were expected to soon meet the definition of blight. Worse: some 8,000 properties are scheduled to enter the foreclosure auction process this year.

Puerto Rico & Municipal Bankruptcy: a process of pain where “failure is not an option.”

eBlog

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the opening under U.S. Judge Laura Swain of the unique, quasi chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy process which opened this week in Puerto Rico, where Judge Swain noted the process “will certainly involve pain,” but that “failure is not an option.”

Getting Ready to Rumble. Judge Swain has combined two major PROMESA Title III filings made earlier this month by Puerto Rican authorities—one for its general obligation debt, and one for debt which is backed by the Puerto Rico’s Commonwealth or COFINA sales tax revenues. Reuters helps explain, writing: “The island’s initial bankruptcy filing on [May 3] included only its central government, which owes some $18 billion in general obligation, or GO debt, backed by its constitution…The COFINA filing [on May 5] will pull in another $17 billion or so in debt under the Title III umbrella. Overall the island’s government and various agencies have a debt load of $74 billion that they cannot repay.” Unsurprisingly, as Bloomberg notes, a sizeable separation between general obligation and COFINA bondholders has already emerged. Judge Swain’s early decision to merge the two filings for administrative purposes appears to denote a small victory for the PROMESA Board, as some COFINA stakeholders had objected (COFINA bondholders were the first to sue the government of Puerto Rico after the freeze on creditor litigation under PROMESA expired at Midnight May 1st.) They accuse Puerto Rico, Governor Ricardo Rossello and other officials of angling to repurpose the tax revenue earmarked to pay COFINA debt.: they argued that COFINA is a separate entity whose assets, in the form of sales tax revenue, are earmarked only for creditors.” The debt here dwarfs any we have seen in Detroit, San Bernardino, etc.: Puerto Rico, according to the PROMESA Board, cannot even meet 25% of its $900 million necessary to service its municipal debt. And, in some sense, that debt—owed to investors in the 50 states, pales compared to the human obligations at home: NPR’s Greg Allen describes: “retirees who are owed pensions; 180 closed public schools, $500 million in cuts proposed for the university here…So lots of pain to come here—and the governor is going to be releasing a budget later this month, which will show a lot more pain coming. Among the things that are going to happen is, I think, big cuts in health care benefits.” He estimated the trial could exceed the duration of Detroit’s chapter 9, taking as many as five years to conclude. Judge Swain will—as Judge Rhodes had to in Detroit, and as was the very hard case in Central Falls, Rhode Island’s municipal bankruptcy‒Puerto Rico’s $49 billion in government pension obligations. But Puerto Rico’s debt is not just fiscal: the island has a poverty rate of 45%–a level dwarfing what we have experienced in previous chapter 9 bankruptcies. The current case may not affect all of these because some are for the employees of semi-autonomous Puerto Rico entities like the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority. And, the trial here dwarfs the previous largest U.S. municipal bankruptcy in Detroit, where the stakes involved $18 billion in debt, pension obligations, and other OPEB benefits. The pension obligations have been described as liabilities of as much as $45 billion. On the trial’s first day, Judge Swain heard presentations with regard to whether the case should include mediation—and, if so, which parties should be included: that is, she will have a Solomon-like set of choices, choosing between Puerto’s Rico’s citizens, its municipal bondholders, suppliers owed money, pensioners, and government employees. Judge Swain will also hear presentations with regard to whether—and when‒Puerto Rico should be required to submit lists of its creditors and in what manner and how notice to creditors will be made. The PROMESA Oversight Board attorney Martin Bienenstock said he anticipates other Puerto Rico public entities, including the Highways and Transportation Authority, would soon file for Title III later. The considerations in the court will also have to address how some $800 million set aside in Puerto Rico’s certified 10-year fiscal recovery plan will be apportioned between competing claims–including those of constitutionally backed general obligation debt (GO) and sales-tax backed or COFINA bonds.

Public Trust, Public Safety, & Municipal Fiscal Sustainability: Has the Nation Experienced the Closing of its Chapter on Municipal Bankruptcies?

 

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eBlog, 04/20/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the unique and ongoing fiscal and physical challenges confronting Flint, Michigan in the wake of the drinking water crisis spawned by a state-appointed Emergency Manager, before heading far west to assess San Bernardino’s nearing formal exit from chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy—marking the last municipality to exit after the surge which came in the wake of the Great Recession.

Public Trust, Public Safety, & Due Diligence. Flint, Michigan Mayor Karen Weaver has recommended Flint continue obtaining its drinking water via the Detroit Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA), reversing the position she had taken a year ago in the wake of the lead-contaminated drinking water crisis. Flint returned to the Detroit-area authority which sends water to Flint from Lake Huron in October of 2015 after the discovery that Flint River water was not treated with corrosion control chemicals for 18 months. Mayor Weaver said she believed residents would stick with a plan to draw from a pipeline to Lake Huron which is under construction; however, she said she had re-evaluated that decision as a condition of receiving $100 million in federal funding to address the manmade disaster, noting that switching the city’s water source again might prove too great a risk, and that remaining with Detroit’s water supply from Lake Huron would cost her citizens and businesses less. Last year, Mayor Weaver had stated that the city’s nearly 100,000 residents would stay with a plan to draw from a Karegnondi Water Authority pipeline to Lake Huron—a pipeline which remains under construction, noting, then, that switching water sources would be too risky and could cause needless disruptions for the city’s residents—still apprehensive about public health and safety in the wake of the health problems stemming from the decision by a state-imposed Emergency Manager nearly three years ago to switch and draw drinking water from the Flint River, as an interim source after deciding to switch to the fledgling Genesee County regional system and sever its ties to the Detroit system, now known as the regional Great Lakes Water Authority. Even today, federal, state, and local officials continue to advise Flint residents not to drink the water without a filter even though it complies with federal standards, as the city awaits completion of the replacement of its existing lead service lines—or, as Mayor Weaver put it: “At the end of the day, I believe this is the best decision, because one of the things we wanted to make sure we did was put public health first,” at a press conference attended by county, state, federal and Great Lakes authority officials, adding: “We have to put that above money and everything else. That was what we did. And what didn’t take place last time was public health. We’ve done our due diligence.” The 30-year contract with the Great Lakes authority keeps Flint as a member of the Karegnondi authority—a decision supported by the State of Michigan, EPA, and Genesee County officials, albeit the long-term contract still requires the approval of the Flint City Council and Flint Receivership Transition Advisory Board, a panel appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder charged with monitoring Flint’s fiscal conditions in the wake of the city’s emergence from a state-inflicted Emergency Manager two years ago.

City Councilman Eric Mays this week said he will be asking tough questions when he and his eight other colleagues will be briefed on the plan. There is also a town hall tonight in Flint to take public comments. Councilman Mays notes he is concerned the city may be “giving up ownership” in the new Genesee regional authority, something he opposes, adding he would be closely scrutinizing what he deems a “valuable asset to the city.” Mayor Weaver has said she personally wanted to review the earlier decision in the wake of last month’s receipt from the Environmental Protection Agency of $100 million to assist the city to address and recover from the drinking water disaster that took such a human and fiscal toll. (EPA is mandating that Flint provide a 30-day public comment period.) Mayor Weaver notes she anticipates some opposition, making clear any final decision will depend upon “public feedback and public opinion.” Currently, the city remains under contract to make $7 million in annual municipal bond payments over 28 years to the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA); however, the Great Lakes authority said it would pay a $7 million “credit” for the KWA debt as long as Flint obligates itself to make its debt service payments. There is, at least so far, no indication with regard to how any such agreement would affect water rates. That matters, because, according to the Census Bureau, the city’s median household income is $7,059, significantly lower than the median Michigan-wide household income, and some $11,750 less than U.S. median household income. The GLWA said Flint customers would save a projected $1.8 million over 30 years compared with non-contractual charges they would have paid otherwise; in return, the Flint area authority would become a back-up system for the Detroit area authority, saving it an estimated $600 million over prior estimates and ensuring Metro Detroit communities would still receive water in the event of an interruption in Great Lakes authority service.

Robert Kaplan, the Chicago-based EPA’s acting regional administrator, said he signed off on the deal because the agency believes it protects the health of residents: “What’s best for public health is to stay on the water that’s currently being provided.” Jeff Wright, the KWA’s chief executive and drain commissioner of Genesee County, said the recommended plan not only would allow Flint to remain with the Genesee regional system, but also to be a back-up water supply, which, he noted, “is critically important to the safety of Flint’s residents who have not had a back-up system since the beginning of the Flint water crisis,” adding: “Whether (or not) Flint ultimately chooses high-quality Lake Huron water delivered through the newly constructed KWA pipeline, the highest quality treated water from Genesee County’s Water Treatment Plant or any other EPA-approved alternative, we will continue to assist Flint residents as they strive to recover from the Flint Water Crisis.” 

Keeping the Detroit system. The Great Lakes Water Authority Has embraced Mayor Weaver’s recommendation, with CEO Sue McCormick noting: “Flint residents can be assured that they will continue to receive water of unquestionable quality, at a significant cost savings.” Michigan Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint) noted: “It provides us a long-term safe water source that we know is reliable. KWA could do the same thing, but this is an answer to help deal with one of the major parts of it,” adding the recommended move to stay on Detroit area water is “another example of the emergency manager sort of making a short-term terrible decision that’s cost us taxpayers half a billion dollars, if not more.” Emergency managers appointed by Snyder decided with the approval of the Flint City Council to switch to the Flint River water in part to save money. Flint officials said they thought Detroit water system price hikes were too high. For more than a year, the EPA has delayed any switch to KWA because of deficiencies including that the Flint treatment plant is not equipped to properly treat water. Staying with the Great Lakes authority may be an initial tough sell because of the city’s history, Mayor Weaver warned, but she is trying to get residents to move on. A town hall is scheduled for this evening at House of Prayer Missionary Baptist Church in Flint for public feedback. “I can’t change what happened,” Mayor Weaver said. “All I can do is move forward.”

Moody Blues in San Bernardino? As San Bernardino awaits its final judicial blessing from U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury of its plan of debt adjustment to formally exit chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, Moody’s has issued a short report, noting the city will exit bankruptcy with higher revenues and an improved balance sheet; however, the rating agency notes the city will confront significant operational challenges associated with deferred maintenance and potential service shortfalls—even being so glum as to indicate there is a possibility that, together with the pressure of its public pension liabilities, the city faces continued fiscal pressures and that continued financial distress could increase, so that a return to municipal bankruptcy is possible. Moody’s moody report notes the debt adjustment plan is forcing creditors to bear most of the restructuring challenge, especially as Moody’s analyzes the city’s plan to favor its pension obligations over bonded municipal debt and post-retirement OPEB liabilities. Of course, as we noted early on, the city’s pension liabilities are quite distinct from those of other chapter 9 municipalities, such as Detroit, Central Falls, Rhode Island, and Jefferson County. Under the city’s plan, San Bernardino municipal bondholders are scheduled to receive a major buzz cut—some 45%, even as some other creditors whom we have previously described, are scheduled (and still objecting) to receive as little as a 1% recovery on unsecured claims. Thus, Moody’s concludes that the Southern California city will continue to have to confront rising pension costs and public safety needs. Moody’s adjusted net pension liability will remain unchanged at $904 million, a figure which dwarfs the projected bankruptcy savings of approximately $350 million. The California Public Employees’ Retirement System also recently reduced its discount rate, meaning the city’s already increasing pension contributions will rise even faster. Additionally, Moody’s warns, a failure to invest more in public safety or police could exacerbate already-elevated crime levels. That means the city will likely be confronted by higher capital and operating borrowing costs, noting that, even after municipal debt reductions, the city might find itself unable to fund even 50 percent of its deferred maintenance. 

However, as San Bernardino’s Mayor Davis has noted, the city, in wake of the longest municipal bankruptcy in American history, is poised for growth in the wake of outsourcing fire services to the county and waste removal services to a private contractor, and reaching agreements with city employees, including police officers and retirees, to substantially reduce healthcare OPEB benefits to lessen pension reductions. Indeed, the city’s plan of adjustment agreement on its $56 million in pension obligation bonds—and in significant part with CalPERS—meant its retirees fared better, as Moody’s has noted, than the city’s municipal bondholders to whom San Bernardino committed to pay 40 percent of what they are owed—far more than its early offer of one percent. San Bernardino’s pension bondholders succeeded in wrangling a richer recovery than the city’s opening offer of one percent, but far less than CalPERS, which received a nearly 100 percent recovery. (San Bernardino did not make some $13 million in payments to CalPERS early in the chapter 9 process, but subsequently set up payments to make the public employee pension fund whole.) The city was aided in those efforts in the wake of U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury’s ruling against the argument made by pension bond attorneys: in the wake of the city’s pension bondholders entering into mediation again prior to exit confirmation, substantial agreement was achieved for those bondholders—bondholders whose confidence in the city remains important, especially in the wake of the city’s subsequent issuance of $68 million in water and sewer bonds at competitive interest rates—with the payments to come from the city’s water and sewer revenues, which were not included in the chapter 9 bankruptcy. The proceeds from these municipal bonds were, in fact, issued to provide capital to meet critical needs to facilitate seismic upgrades to San Bernardino’s water reservoirs and funding for the first phase of the Clean Water Factor–Recycled Water Program.