A Steely Road to the Fiscal Future

March 5, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the Steel City’s long road back to fiscal recovery after 14 years of state fiscal oversight.

Is the Steel City Back? Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto hails: “Pittsburgh is back!” The great American steel city, the subject of our Center’s report years ago, “The Great Challenge Facing America’s Cities,” in which we described the fiscal challenges of Detroit, Chicago, San Bernardino, Calif., Pittsburgh, Providence, R.I. and Baltimore to provide insights for municipalities that may face financial struggles in the future, has emerged from more than a decade of state oversight. The Mayor’s exaltation comes in the wake of Gov. Tom Wolf’s declaration that the Steel City has become the state’s second municipality to emerge from Pennsylvania’s Act 47 program, enabling the Mayor to exult “We are now a city that is financially solvent. We’ve changed our habits and we have safeguards in place to assure we won’t fall into our previous bad habits.” The road back from the precipice of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy involved laying off nearly 500 employees, including 100 police officers, the closure of recreation centers, and the elimination of key municipal services, including mounted police patrols to saltboxes. The Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority (ICA), which has been the supervisory authority for the state, has asked the city for $37,000 to help pay off outstanding bills, and is seeking legislative approval to terminate its operations; the authority is also marking this final chapter by taking steps to dissolve itself, ending fourteen years as the state created fiscal oversight agency, together with the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development to help Pittsburgh avoid chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy—together with the state’s so-called Act 47 coordinators, who, last November, had recommended the city’s release from state oversight since December of 2003). The Authority’s Chair, B.J. Leber, noted: “No. 1, Act 47 is going away: It just doesn’t make sense for us to exist beyond Act 47, either from a logistical standpoint or a community-needs standpoint.”

Exiting state oversight, as we have observed in neighboring New Jersey, is not easily accomplished: the Steel City has been under state oversight ; thus, at least one ICA board member disagrees that Pittsburgh is ready to leave fiscal oversight: Michael Danovitz, the ICA’s longest-serving board member, said the city has not demonstrated a pattern of consistently paying into underfunded employee pension plans, noting: “I don’t believe the work of the ICA is done…This was the first year where they put in enough money to match the outflow of the pensions. One year doesn’t make a pattern.” Last year, Mayor Peduto’s administration had pledged pension payments of $232 million more than state minimums as part of a five-year spending plan approved by the ICA and the state’s Act 47 team. (Under Pennsylvania law, the ICA must remain in place until the later of Act 47 oversight ending or June 30, 2019): Chair Leber said the ICA board has asked the Legislature to amend the law so it can end at the same time as Act 47.

Unlike in the neighboring Garden State, Pittsburgh’s intergovernmental relationship with the state has been much more harmonious: Finance Director Sam Ashbaugh praised the ICA: “We’ve had a very productive and effective working relationship with the new board since they’ve been in place: I think they recognize the financial improvements that the city has enacted.” Yet, even though Pittsburgh is still able to finance its capital budget via its reserve fund, which is in no danger of running out, it still confronts both capital budget and pension challenges, including the priority of finding a long-term solution for dealing with landslides—or, as the Mayor put it: “We came to realize that there were no quick fixes, and we had run out of borrowing room…for us, being in Act 47 for 14 years, meant making difficult decisions to become financially solvent. It definitely had its costs: Our workforce took it on the chin, going without pay raises, and our infrastructure suffered without our ability to borrow,” adding: “We were still in the throes of pension liability.” If anything, the fiscal challenge is made greater by the demographic reality: the city’s population has dropped from 700,000 in 1960 to about 304,000 today.

Measuring State Fiscal Recovery Oversight. Pennsylvania’s fiscal oversight program has shown a mixed picture: the municipality of Aliquippa, just over 21 miles from Pittsburgh, has been under Act 47 for 30 years; it is currently on its sixth recovery program: like Scranton and Chester, which joined in 1992 and 1995, respectively, the success record is mixed, or, as Villanova Professor David Fiorenza put it: “The program was successful for Pittsburgh, especially if I compare it to cities such as Chester.” Approximately 30% of the Act 47 municipalities have been from the Allegheny area.

Pittsburgh’s 2014 fiscal recovery plan had proposed the elimination of operating deficits in the baseline multi-year financial projection, while preserving basic services, in order to avoid the necessity for cash-flow borrowings; the plan also focused on buffering against unanticipated revenue shortfalls or expenditure increases. The fiscal plan sought to gradually reduce the city’s debt in order to: provide greater fiscal capacity to finance daily operations; direct more funding to the city’s capital budget, with priority to roads, bridges, police and fire stations and other core infrastructure; and gradually increase pension fund contributions to actuarially recommended levels. As of the end of 2016, the city’s unassigned fund balance was 17.7% of its operating expenditures, higher than the 16.7% level the Government Finance Officers Association recommends. Pittsburgh two years ago refined its revenue forecasting methods and began subscribing to an external data analytics firm, through which the city receives city and county-level economic indicators including non-farm wages, gross county product, retail sales, and city employment throughout the year. Moody’s rates the city’s general obligation bonds A1. Fitch Ratings and S&P rate them AA-minus and A-plus, respectively. Moody’s unmoodily notes: “Pittsburgh has a favorable credit position, given strong financial results through fiscal 2016.” Or, as the Mayor puts it: “We are now a city that is financially solvent. We’ve changed our habits.”

That does not, however, mean the city’s leaders can rest: the city’s fund balance as a percent of operating revenues (18.4%) falls short of the U.S. median for the rating category (32%), according to Moody’s, although Moody’s reports the fund balance has improved considerably since 2012; nevertheless, the credit rating agency notes that Pittsburgh’s debt and pension liabilities are “somewhat elevated.” The recovery also comes with new fiscal challenges: the Steel City’s police union is demanding the city renegotiate its current agreement, retroactive to 2015, with FOP President Robert Swartzwelder citing a contract provision which authorizes renegotiations in the wake of Act 47 oversight—a factor which the Mayor notes he expects to “happen with all the unions.” That is, recovery brings its own fiscal challenges—including on the capital front—which, for a municipality, like Rome, of hills and rivers, means budgeting for the capital and maintenance costs of some 450 bridges. The Mayor’s proposed FY2018 budget and five-year plan assumes the city would issue $60 million a year in new debt beginning next year to fund capital projects—part of an aggressive fiscal effort to reduce out-year debt service by FY2022 below the 12% target in the debt policy (The Steel City’s debt policy requires contracting with an independent financial advisor when issuing debt; issuing debt only for capital projects included in the capital program; it limits usage of tax revenue anticipation notes; limits its tax-supported debt service to 17% of general fund revenues; and establishes a 10-year goal of reducing this ratio to 12%.)

An Amazonian Fiscal Future? The former steel city has become, today, a center of higher ed: there are ten universities within the city limits, while the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and Highmark anchor a thriving healthcare industry. Amazon, Google, and Uber, among other companies, have added jobs in the region. Pittsburgh remains in the competition to secure Amazon’s second world headquarters, in no small part in the wake of its focus on arts and culture with a 14-block district which encompasses restaurants, retail shops, art galleries, public parks with art installations and many theaters.

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Petitioning for Municipal Solvency

January 18, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the ongoing fiscal challenges to fiscal recovery for Scranton, Pennsylvania—a municipality that has verged on the edge of chapter 9 bankruptcy for many years.

Petitioning for Municipal Solvency. Scranton, Pennsylvania anticipates returning to court next month to obtain permission to continue imposing a tripled, annual local services tax of $156 on most who work in the city: the municipality has filed a petition in Lackawanna County Court to triple the local services tax. The city, Pennsylvania’s sixth-largest, is the county seat for Lackawanna County, with a population of 77,291. It is one of the nation’s oldest cities, incorporated on February 14, 1856, as a borough in Luzerne, and then as a municipality on April 23, 1866. It gained a reputation as the “Electric City” when electric lights were introduced in 1880 at Dickson Locomotive Works. By the end of the Civil War, Scranton rapidly transformed from a small, agrarian-based village to a multicultural, industrial-based city. From 1860 to 1900, the city’s population increased more than tenfold, in the wake of its official incorporation in 1866.

In 1856, the Borough of Scranton was officially incorporated. It was incorporated as a city of 35,000 in 1866 in Luzerne County, when the surrounding boroughs of Hyde Park (now part of the city’s West Side) and Providence (now part of North Scranton) were merged with Scranton. Twelve years later in 1878, the state passed a law enabling creation of new counties where a county’s population surpassed 150,000, as did Luzerne’s. The law appeared to enable the creation of Lackawanna County, and there was considerable political agitation around the authorizing process. Scranton was designated by the state legislature as the county seat of the newly formed county, which was also established as a separate judicial district, with state judges moving over from Luzerne County after courts were organized in October 1878. This was the last county in the state to be organized. Scranton earned the title as “The Electric City” when it completed the country’s first continuously operating electrified trolley in 1886—but it was also both a coal mining and steel center: at the onset of the 19th century, the city was home to the largest steel plant in the U.S.; by 1900, the city had a population of more than 100,000. However, by 1902, the dwindling iron ore supply, labor issues, and an aging plant began a reversal of fiscal fortunes: the city’s steel company left for New York—leaving Scranton, nevertheless, still as the capital of the anthracite coal industry—by which the municipality attracted thousands of workers needed to mine coal, the city developed new neighborhoods dominated by Italian and Eastern European immigrants, who brought their foods, cultures and religions. But the mining brought fortune and misfortune—the sub-surface mining weakened entire neighborhoods, damaging homes, schools, and businesses when the land collapsed, leading to, in 1913, state enactment of the Davis Act to establish the Bureau of Surface Support in Scranton. By the 1920’s, Scranton became a center for the manufacture of shellac buttons and a primary manufacturer of phonograph records. Thus, it continued to prosper and grow: by the mid-1930s, Scranton’s population had swollen beyond 140,000, because of growth in the mining and silk textile industries—and then, to support the war, in the 1940’s, mining became, once again, a major growth industry. However, even as many cities thrived in the wake of the war, the fortunes and population of Scranton began to ebb: coal production and rail traffic declined rapidly throughout the 1950s, leading to a reversal in employment. Indeed, that decade ended with the Know Mine Disaster, which virtually ended the mining industry in Northeastern Pennsylvania—and hammered the DL&W Railroad, which nearly went bankrupt itself because of the drop in coal traffic. Thus the city, which had served as a key hub of railroad operations lost another critical source of jobs and revenues. By 1957, the NYO&W Railroad, which depended heavily on its Scranton branch for freight traffic, was abandoned—leaving behind mine subsidence, which became an infrastructure nightmare for the city, as pillar supports in abandoned mines began to fail: cave-ins sometimes consumed entire blocks of homes, leaving the city scarred by abandoned coal mining structures, strip mines, and massive culm dumps, some of which caught fire and burned for many years. In 1970, the Secretary of Mines for Pennsylvania suggested that so many underground voids had been left by mining underneath Scranton that it would be “more economical” to abandon the city than make them safe. The physical and fiscal erosion meant that by the 1970s and 1980s, many downtown storefronts and theaters became vacant. By the beginning of this decade, Scranton itself was on the verge of municipal bankruptcy—the fiscal threat so dire that the city cut wages for all municipal officials, including the Mayor and fire chief, to $7.25 per hour—a step forced by estimates that the city treasury had just $5,000.

Thus, the city, in its petition to the court, is seeking approval to maintain a local services tax of $156, some $104 higher than the city’s prior level of $52 a year imposed before 2015. The city had raised the levy from $52 to $156 for every person working within the city limits who earns at least $15,600; now city leaders have deemed the proposed tax increases essential for the city’s recovery under the state-sponsored Act 47 for distressed communities, to which Scranton has belonged since 1992. (The city is junk-rated, albeit, as we noted last summer, S&P awarded it an upgrade in August to BB-plus from BB. The effort to obtain court approval to extend its higher local services tax, if approved, would continue to be $3 a week, or $156 a year per worker. (Previously, it was $1 per week, or $52 a year per worker. Under Pennsylvania law, these kinds of municipal taxes provide for exemptions for those earning less than $15,600 a year.) Scranton’s proposed recovery plan anticipates the city levying its local service tax at $156 a year annually through 2020, with the petition noting: “The Local Services Tax being levied at $156 represents a vital aspect of the plan as well as a key role in bringing about meaningful change to Scranton’s economic status.” Nevertheless, and even though the city confronted no opposition when it sought the previous approval, eight residents now contend the city would be in violation of a cap permitted under state law (Act 511) on a certain group of taxes, including the wage tax, business privilege/mercantile taxes, and the Local Services Tax. Nevertheless, Philadelphia Senior Judge John Braxton  dismissed the opposition as misplaced when he approved Scranton’s 2017 LST petition last February: his order noted the objectors could pursue a different legal avenue—an action they have now taken. Anyone wishing to file a response to the city’s petition has until the first week of next month to file.

The Sinking Ships of States?

September 15, 2017

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s Blog, we consider the ongoing recovery in Detroit from the nation’s largest ever municipal bankruptcy, the unrelenting fiscal challenges for Flint; who voters in the fiscally insolvent municipality of East Cleveland will elect, the steep fiscal erosion for Pennsylvania’s local governments, and the uncertain fiscal outlook for Hartford.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

The Steep Road to Chapter 9 Recovery. Poverty declined and incomes rose last year in the Motor City, marking the first significant income increase recorded by the U.S. Census Bureau since the 2000 census, with Detroiters’ median household income up last year by 7.5% to $28,099 in 2016, according to U.S. Census’ American Community Survey estimates; ergo poverty dropped 4 percentage points to 35.7%‒the lowest level in nearly a decade—perhaps offering a boost to Mayor Mike Duggan’s reelection hopes in November.  Despite the gains, however, Detroit is still the city with the greatest level of poverty in the country—and a city where racial income disparities continue to fester: income data indicates that the incomes of Hispanic and white Detroit residents grew significantly compared to blacks, who make up 79 percent of the city, according to Kurt Metzger, a demographer and director emeritus of Data Driven Detroit, or, as Mr. Metzger writes: “Overall it’s a great story for Detroit…But when you look beneath the surface, we still have a lot of issues. There is a constant narrative out there: Are all boats rising together?” Mayor and candidate for re-election Mike Duggan has made clear he understands there is more work to do: noting that forty-four people graduated last month from the Detroit At Work job training program, which launched last February and from which half have already received job offers, the Mayor told the Detroit News: “Income goes up when one, there is a job opportunity and two, when you have the skills to take advantage of it: As we raise the skills of our residents we will raise the standard of living.” Nevertheless, he added: “Nobody is celebrating a (35.7) percent poverty rate, but the progress is important and it took us years to get here.”

If one looks farther ahead, there might be even more hope: the new data found that fewer of Detroit’s children are living in poverty: the under 18 poverty rate has declined about 14 percent to its lowest level since 2009—albeit still over 50 percent, with the decline attributed to higher numbers of jobs, and, ergo, greater incomes, with Xuan Liu, the manager of research and data analysis for the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments noting that with more residents of the city working (the unemployment rate dropped nearly 25% from 20.6% to its lowest level (16.5%) since 2009), or, as Mr. Liu noted: “Eight years after Great Recession, (census) data is finally show some significant economic benefits for more Detroiters.”

Notwithstanding that good news, it has not been city-wide, but rather concentrated: the city’s 2016 median income remains 14.6% lower today than what residents were earning a decade ago: just $32,886 adjusted for inflation, and while the new census figures show some economic improvements in Detroit, a recent Urban Institute report finds the recovery is not even through the city, noting that tax subsidies and investments are disproportionately favoring downtown and Midtown, with the bulk of the recovery along Detroit River, the Central Businesses District and Lower Woodward Corridor—or, as Mr. Metzger noted, the Motor City still faces a challenge if all of its citizens and families are to participate in the recovery: he notes the 2016 income data shows the gains were realized by Hispanic and white residents, but not for blacks, or as he described it: “The people who are ready and able to take advantage of the turnaround are doing it but those who aren’t, haven’t.” Detroit’s Workforce Development Board has set an employment goal of an additional 40,000 residents to find jobs in the next five years.

Not in like Flint. Unlike Detroit, Flint realized no change in poverty or income: the city so fiscally and physically mismanaged by the State of Michigan via its appointment of a gubernatorial Emergency Manager remains the poorest city in the nation amongst all cities with populations over 65,000: the city’s poverty rate last year was 44.5%; median household income was $25,896—less than half Macomb County’s median household income of $60,143.

Vote! Brandon King is a step closer to remaining Mayor of East Cleveland. Mr. King won the Democratic primary in East Cleveland, with 44.3% of the 1,760 citizens who voted, so that he has narrowed the field: he will continue to defend his seat in November against activist Devin Branch, who is running as a Green Party candidate, after beating out three other candidates for the nomination: former Councilman Mansell Baker, school board President Una Keenon, and community leader Dana Hawkins Jr. Ms. Keenon was the runner-up with 30.3 percent of the vote: she previously served as East Cleveland’s judge. The incumbent, who became Mayor last December after a contentious recall election ousted former Mayor Gary Norton Jr. and Council President Thomas Wheeler, leading to two vacancies on City Council, which council members Barbara Thomas and Nathaniel Martin filled with Mr. Branch and Kelvin Earby—appointees Mr. King decided to be “unlawful,” claiming there were insufficient elected leaders to choose the members, so that he usurped that authority and then appointed his own: Christopher Pitts and Ernest Smith. Unsurprisingly, a lawsuit regarding the appointments is now before the Ohio Supreme Court, even as the city’s petition for chapter 9 remains before the State of Ohio. November will bring elector contests in Ward 3 and for two at-large seats. Notwithstanding that the small municipality of 18,000 is in a state of fiscal emergency, Mayor King has pivoted away from former Mayor Norton’s strategy of trying to merge the city with Cleveland or declare the city in chapter 9 bankruptcy: instead he and the rest of the Democratic candidates want to focus on economic development.

Keystone Municipal Fiscal Erosion. The Pennsylvania Economy League reports that fiscal decay has accelerated in all sizes of municipalities throughout the in its new report: “Communities in Crisis: The Truth and Consequences of Municipal Fiscal Distress in Pennsylvania, 1970-2014,” a report which examines 2,388 of the state’s 2,561 municipalities where consistent data existed from 1970, 1990, and 2014, considering, as variables, the available tax base per household, as well as the tax burden, a percentage of the tax base taken in the form of taxes to support local government services‒after which the municipalities were then divided into five quintiles, from  the wealthiest and most fiscally healthy to the most distressed—with Philadelphia and Pittsburgh excluded due to their size and tax structure. The League found that the tax burden has grown on average for all municipalities since 1990, but that the tax base has fallen, on average, in the state’s municipalities since 1970. In addition, the study determined that municipalities in Pennsylvania’s Act 47 distressed municipality program generally performed worse than average despite state assistance.

The study also found that communities which finance their own local police force, as opposed to those which rely solely on Pennsylvania State Police coverage, had double the municipal tax burden and ranked lower. (Readers can find the report in its entirety on the Pennsylvania Economy League’s website.) The League’s President, Chairman Greg Nowak, noted: “The first part of understanding and doing something about a crisis is understanding what it is,” adding that clearly the League believes the state’s local governments are in a fiscal crisis, comparing the new report to one the League released in 2006, which had warned of oncoming fiscal distress—a report, he noted, which had not galvanized either the state or its municipalities to take action. Gerald Cross, the Executive Director for Pennsylvania Economy League Central, said the study also found that tax bases in cities largely remained stagnant even as the local tax burden increased from 1990 to 2014, noting that all the state’s cities were in bottom-quintile rankings in 2014—and that while tax base generally grew in boroughs and first-class townships, the tax burden there also grew from 1990 to 2014; he added that the trend for second-class townships was mixed: while the tax base increased and more second-class townships moved into healthier quintiles, the tax burden also climbed from 1990 to 2014. Or, as Kevin Murphy, the President of the Berks County Community Foundation, put it: “Pennsylvania’s system of local governments is broken and is harming the people living in our communities: It’s a system that was created here in Harrisburg [the state capitol], and it is Harrisburg which needs to fix it.” Pennsylvania has 4,897 local governments, including 1,756 special districts, cities, towns, and first, second, and third class townships.

The Sinking Ship of State? Notwithstanding Gov. Dannel Malloy’s warning before dawn this morning that “The urgency of the present moment cannot be overstated,” the state’s legislators went home in the wake of failing to approve a two-year, $41 billion budget which would have created an array of new taxes and fees, but avoided any increase in the sales or income tax. Thus, in the wake of all-day fiscal marathon, Republicans sent their members home in a chaotic ending, blaming the inability of the other side had failed to marshal the requisite votes: House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, after the Connecticut Senate had earlier given final legislative approval to a package of concessions expected to cover $1.5 billion of the estimated $5 billion state budget deficit through June of 2019, noted that still to be completed, however, is work on the rest of the budget, with the focus on financial aid to cities and towns (the biggest chunk of spending): he add ed that the detailed legal language in the budget, which had been delayed all day long, would not be ready until at least 6 a.m. this morning—with the Senate scheduled to convene at high noon. Notwithstanding the fiscal chaos, Senate Pro Tem leader Martin Looney (New Haven) said the Senate would convene at high noon today to vote on the budget, noting: “The problem is it’s not fully drafted… and what we agreed upon with the governor had not been fully reduced to language that everyone had signed off on: We didn’t have a hold-up in the Senate. We were ready to go forward,’’ raising the possibility that the House could vote later today.

Unsurprisingly, the sticking point appears to be taxes: A big problem appears to have stemmed from a proposal to tax vacation homes—a proposal which encountered opposition among Democrats, because non-residents cannot be taxed differently than residents of Connecticut. Negotiators had been relying on the tax to generate $32 million per year, fiscal resources which would not be available without support from moderate Democrats. The Democratic plan would add new taxes on cellphone bills and vacation homes, along with higher tax rates on hospitals, cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, and hotel rooms—and in an overnight development, a $12 surcharge on all homeowners’ insurance policies statewide for the next five years was proposed in order to help residents with crumbling concrete foundations. (Connecticut homeowners have been grappling for years with problems, and government officials have been unable to reach a comprehensive solution—mayhap Harvey and Irma have sent a physical fiscal message: more than 500 homeowners in 23 towns have filed complaints with the state; however Gov. Malloy fears that more than 30,000 homes could be at risk. The emerging fiscal compromise would also add new taxes on: ride-sharing services, non-prescription drugs, and companies that run fantasy sports gambling. In addition, the package includes more than $40 million as a set aside as part of a multi-pronged effort to help Hartford avert chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy—as well as increased funding for municipalities, even as it avoids deep cuts in public education which had been promised by Gov. Malloy via an executive order to trigger effective October 1st, warning: “The urgency of the present moment cannot be overstated: Local governments, community providers, parents, teachers and students—all of them are best served by passing a budget, and passing it now.”

The fiscal roilings came in the wake of Moody’s statement earlier in the week that Hartford’s “precarious liquidity position could result in insufficient cash flow to meet upcoming debt obligations…Additionally, the city has debt service payments in every month of the fiscal year, compounding the possibility of default at any time.” Interestingly, Gov. Malloy, earlier this week, noted that municipal bondholders and unions hold the key to whether Hartford would file for chapter 9 bankruptcy: “Hartford looks to be going bankrupt, and that ultimately may be the only way for them to resolve their issues…on the other hand, if all of the stakeholders in Hartford, including the unions and the bondholders and others come to the table, maybe that can be avoided.”

The Thin Line Between Fiscal & Physical Recovery Versus Unsustainability.

eBlog

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider, Detroit’s remarkable route to fiscal recovery; then we turn to challenges to a municipality’s authority to deal with distress—or be forced into chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in Pennsylvania, before returning to the stark fiscal challenges to Puerto Rico’s economic sustainability, and then the taxing challenge to Scranton’s efforts for a sustainable fiscal recovery.

Campaigning & Turning around the Motor City’s Fiscal Future. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, last week, at the annual Mackinac Policy Conference spoke about the racially divisive public policies of the first half of 20th century which, he said, had helped contribute to Detroit’s long slide into municipal bankruptcy—indeed, the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history—but one which he said had helped lay the foundation for a conversation about how Detroit could grow for the first time in half a century without making the mistakes of the past that had, inexorably, led to an exodus of nearly 1.2 million from 1956 to its chapter 9 bankruptcy—noting: “If we fail again, I don’t know if the city can come back.” His remarks, mayhap ironically, came nearly a half century from the 1976 Detroit riot, a riot which  began downtown and was only curtailed after former U.S. President Lyndon Johnson ordered the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions to intervene, along with then Michigan Gov. George Romney ordering in the Michigan Army National Guard. The toll from the riot: 43 dead, 1,189 injured, 2,000 of the city’s buildings destroyed, and 7,200 arrests.  

But, rather than discussing or issuing a progress report on the city’s remarkable turnaround, Mayor Duggan instead spoke of the city’s racial tensions that had sparked that riot, in many ways, according to the Mayor, coming from the housing policies of former President Franklin Roosevelt—a policy which placed or zoned blacks in the city into so-called “red zones,” thereby creating the kind of racial tensions central to the 1943 and 1967 riots—a federal policy adopted in 1934 which steered federally backed mortgages away from neighborhoods with blacks and other racial minorities. Indeed, the Mayor quoted from a 1934 Federal Housing Administration manual that instructed mortgage bankers that “incompatible racial groups should not be permitted to live in the same communities;” the manual also instructed housing appraisers to “predict the probability of the location being invaded by…incompatible racial and social groups…, so that, as the Mayor added: “If you were adjacent to a minority area, your appraisal got downgraded.”

Thus, federal housing policies were a critical component contributing to the historic white and middle class flight from Detroit to its suburbs—suburbs where federal housing policies through the Federal Housing Administration subsidized more than half of the mortgages for new construction—or, as Mayor Duggan described the federal policies: “There was a conscious federal policy that discarded what was left behind and subsidized the move to the suburbs: This is our history, and it’s something we still have to overcome.” His blunt Mayoral message to the business community was that the city’s hisgtory of race and class segregation had to be acknowledged—or, as he put it: “I just wanted to deliver a message to the broader community to say, ‘Look, there’s a place for you to come invest in Detroit. Here are the ground rules, here is the reasoning behind the ground rules… and if you want to come in and invest in the city, move into the city and be part of it with the understanding that the recovery includes everybody, we’d love to have you: The African-American community voted for me, and I can’t tell you what an enormous responsibility that feels like.” Thus, the Mayor made clear that he and the Detroit City Council have been focused on governing mechanisms that ensure longtime Detroiters are not displaced by downtown and Midtown revitalization—enacting an ordinance mandating that housing developments in receipt of city tax subsidies have at least 20 percent of the units classified as affordable housing for lower-income residents, and mandating that 51% of the person-hours for construction of the new Little Caesars Arena be performed by Detroiters: “We’re going to fight economic segregation…It would be so easy in this city to have one area be all wealthy people and one area all poor people.”

The Challenge of Municipal Fiscal Recovery. Judge James Gibbons of the Lackawanna, Pennsylvania County Court of Common Pleas last week heard the City of Scranton’s preliminary arguments in response to a lawsuit by eight taxpayers seeking to bar the municipality from tripling its local services tax. The suit, filed March 2nd, contends that Scranton has been collecting taxes which exceed the legal issuance; it calls for the issuance of a mandamus against the city. In response, city attorneys, note that, as a home rule charter city, Scranton is not subject to the cap that Pennsylvania’s Act 511 stipulates. (The taxing legal and political regime, as we have previously noted, in one of the nation’s oldest cities, comes in the wake of its action to raise the levy from $52 to $156 for every person working within the city limits who earns at least $15,600, with the city justifying the action under Pennsylvania Act 47 and municipal planning code.) The taxpayer group, led by independent Mayoral candidate Gary St. Fleur, in seeking a mandamus action, has charged that lowering taxes across the board is the only way for the city to be able to fiscally recover.

Mr. St. Fleur, an independent candidate for mayor, has initiated a ballot measure to force 76,000-population county seat Scranton into chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, citing a Wells Fargo report from October 2016, which found that a 2014 audit of Scranton revealed $375 million in liabilities and $184 million in unfunded non-pension post-retirement public pension benefits to government employees. (Mr. St. Fleur’s group, last February, had also objected to the city’s annual petition to the court to raise the tax—an objection rejected by visiting Judge John Braxton—a decision which, unsurprisingly, prompted the taxpayer group to initiate its own suit, notwithstanding that Scranton is a home-rule community, so that, in Pennsylvania, it has the authority to levy taxes.) Unsurprisingly, the anti-tax challengers’ attorney, John McGovern, counters that Act 511, which, when enacted 52 years ago, authorized the local Earned Income Tax, which authorizes municipalities and school districts the legal authority to levy a tax on individual gross earned income/compensation and net profits (the tax is based on the taxpayer’s place of residence or domicile, not place of employment) is separate from the Pennsylvania personal income tax. He charges that the Act has two “very specific” sections which cap how much the City of Scranton can tax, charging: “Call it a duck or a goose, call it a rate or a cap, but for the city to say it can tax whatever it wants, that alone is dangerous and absurd,” adding: “At this point, we’re dealing with 2017, and the city is spending like a drunken sailor…State law clearly states there is a cap to taxation through the Act 511 law…If we do not win, that would allow any city to raise taxes in any amount it wants.”

In contrast, David Fiorenza, a Villanova School of Business finance Professor and former CFO of Radnor Township, noted: “Scranton has made progress from three years ago, in part due to the renegotiating of some city union contracts and the low-interest rates on debt…The challenges this city will face will be the uncertainty of the state and federal budget as it relates to school funding and other funds that have been relied on for some many years.” Kevin Conaboy, whose firm is representing the city, told the court the city may raise its taxes under the state’s home-rule provisions, and he noted that Pennsylvania’s home rule provisions supersede a cap in the state’s Act 511 local tax enabling act. Moreover, Scranton city leaders have deemed the revenue increase essential for Scranton’s recovery under the state-sponsored Act 47 workout for distressed communities, to which Scranton has been subject since 1992.

Is the Bell Tolling for Act 47? The case is re-raising questions with regard to the effectiveness of the state’s municipal fiscal distress law, Act 47, a program which some critics charge has become an addiction rather than a cure. Villanova School of Business Professor David Fiorenza, referring to a 2014 change to the state enabling law, believes municipalities stay in the program for too long: “Act 47 is effective, but continues to present a problem as cities are able to request an extension after the five-year time period has expired…A five-year time frame is sufficient for a municipality to assess their financial situation and implement any changes. However, if the economy enters a recession during this time period, it will impede their financial progress.”

Physical & Fiscal Atrophy. Puerto Rico has lost two percent of its people in each of the past three years—but a two percent which in fiscal terms is far more grave from a fiscal perspective: the two percent, according to the insightful fiscal wizards at Federal Reserve Bank of New York, means that “If people continue to leave the island at the pace that has been set in recent years, the economic potential of Puerto Rico will only continue to deteriorate.” That outflow is comparable to 18 million Americans emigrating from the 50 states: it marks nearly a 12% drop: some 400,000 fewer Puerto Ricans today compared to 2007—meaning, increasingly, a U.S. territory entrapped in a fiscal tornado: unemployment is at 11.5%, so, unsurprisingly, the young and mobile are leaving the island behind. With unemployment at 11.5%, Puerto Rico in a quasi-chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, federal law discriminating against the territory’s economy, and its municipalities unable to access chapter 9—the $74 billion accumulated debt and quasi-federal takeover has created incentives for more and more Puerto Ricans, from all economic levels, to leave—creating a vicious fiscal cycle of reduced government revenue, but ever-increasing debt: Puerto Rico’s municipal bond debt has grown 87 percent just since 2006—making the increasing obligations a further incentive to emigrate.

The PROMESA Board’s proposed plan to revert to fiscal sustainability does not appear to address the physical demographic realities: it assumes the population will shrink just 0.2 percent each year over the next decade, relying on that projection as the basis for its projections of tax receipts and economic growth—projections which Sergio Marxuach, Public Policy Director at the Center for the New Economy in San Juan, generously describes as: “[R]eally, really optimistic.” The harsh reality appears to be that the growing earnings disparity between Puerto Rico and the continental U.S. is so stark that any family focused on its health, safety, and financially viable future—in a situation of today where the Puerto Rican government has closed schools to save money—means that teachers can double or triple their earnings if they move to the mainland: doing that math adds up to younger generations of child-bearing age being increasingly likely to leave Puerto Rico for the mainland. Coming on top of Puerto Rico’s more than a decade-long population decline, it seems that, more and more, for those who can afford it, the option of leaving is the only choice—meaning, for those who cannot afford to—the Puerto Rico left behind could become increasingly older and less fiscally able to construct a fiscal future.

Municipal Fiscal Accountability

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eBlog, 03/31/17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Different Roads out of Municipal Bankruptcy

eBlog, 1/25/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider yesterday’s guilty plea from the former Mayor of Pennsylvania’s capitol, Harrisburg, for actions he had taken as Mayor which plunged the city to the brink of chapter 9 bankruptcy; then we consider Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s announcement that a majority of Detroiters will see a reduction in their property tax obligations—a sign of the signal fiscal turnaround. Then we head into the icy blast of Winter in Pennsylvania, where the former Mayor of Harrisburg has pleaded guilty to stealing city-purchased artifacts, before veering south to note Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has signed into law an extension of Act 154’s tax on foreign corporations.  

Public Mistrust. Former Harrisburg, Pa., Mayor Stephen Reed pleaded guilty Monday to 20 counts of theft  for stealing artifacts purchased by the city in Dauphin County court Monday, with the outcome coming in the wake of negotiations with the state Attorney General’s office. The 20 counts reflects a dramatic reduction of criminal counts from the original more than 470, including many tied to fiscal decisions during his service as Mayor, a period which had propelled the city to the verge of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy—and a leftover severe set of fiscal challenges still bedeviling the state capitol. The former mayor, in his comments to the press after the proceeding, described it as “gut-wrenchingly humiliating.” The Patriot-News of Harrisburg reported that Mr. Reed, who served as mayor from 1982 to 2009, admitted to taking 20 historic artifacts, but said he had no criminal intent. Judge Kevin Hess scheduled a sentencing hearing for Friday in the Dauphin County Court of Common Pleas in Harrisburg. The trial commenced in the wake of then Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane in July of 2015 announcing the indictment of the former Mayor: prosecutors asserted he had diverted municipal bond proceeds, notably related to an incinerator retrofit project, to a special projects fund he allegedly used to purchase as many as 10,000 Wild West artifacts and other “curiosities” for himself—including a $6,500 vampire hunting kit—a series of disclosures which contributed to the city’s descent into receivership due to municipal bond financing overruns related to an incinerator retrofit project; the Harrisburg City Council filed for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in October of 2011, notwithstanding the objection of then-Mayor Linda Thompson; however, a federal judge two months later negated the filing, and a state-appointed receivership team pulled together a recovery plan approved by the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania in September of 2013. Yesterday, Christopher Papst, author of the book Capital Murder an Investigative Reporter’s Hunt for Answers in a Collapsing City, noted: “Stephen Reed’s guilty plea concerning his stealing of city artifacts is a good start for the people of Harrisburg who deserve answers and justice. But far more needs to be done and more people need to be held accountable for the city’s financial collapse…A strong message must be sent that any impropriety concerning municipal financial dealings will not be tolerated.”

Rebalancing Motor City’s Tax Wheel Alignments. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan has announced that about 55% of residential property owners in the city will see a reduction in their property tax obligations later this year. His announcement came in the wake of the city’s completion of a three-year reappraisal project, as required under Detroit’s plan of debt adjustment approved by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court. According to Mayor Duggan, about 140,000 residents will realize an average reduction of $263 on their tax bills, while 112,000 will see an average increase of $80. The reappraisal process, unlike past years, assessed each property individually. Tax assessments were mailed Monday. The city, despite boasting one of the broadest tax bases of any city in the U.S., (its municipal income taxes constitute the city’s largest single source of revenues), nevertheless have been constrained by the state: only Chrysler and DTE Energy pay business taxes; moreover, state law bars cities from increasing revenues by adding a sales tax or raising residential property tax rates more than inflation. Moreover, in the years leading up to the city’s fiscal collapse into chapter 9 bankruptcy, homeowners had complained that their property taxes did not compare to the market value of their homes. Ergo, now Mayor Duggan is hopeful that the new assessment will improve property tax collections—or as he put it yesterday: “It turns out, when people feel they’re being assessed fairly, they pay their taxes….For years, we basically have taken entire neighborhoods or sections of the city and taken averages, which is the best that could be done with the data available.” But the new assessments are based upon house-by-house reassessments using aerial and street-level photography as well as field visits. In addition, the city digitized field cards for every single residential property, allowing employees to inspect the condition of homes based on the historical information and new ground and aerial photos, according to City Assessor Alvin Horhn—or, as Mr. Horn notes: “Where everything matched up, fine. Whenever there was a difference, we sent people out to look…For the most part, this was done at a desktop (computer) review.” Next up: a citywide reassessment of all commercial and industrial properties will be completed for the winter 2018 tax bills. According to city data, collections have increased steadily from about 68% in 2012-14 during the city’s municipal bankruptcy to 79% in 2015 and a projected 82% last year: from 2015 to 2016, the city reported that property tax collections increased approximately $8 million.

Act 54 Where Are You? Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has signed into law an extension of Act 154’s tax on foreign corporations (mainly corporations manufacturing pharmaceuticals and other high-tech products), a key action to preserve revenues which provide a quarter of the U.S. Territory’s general fund revenues; the action came as Public Affairs Secretary Ramon Rosario Cortés submitted a measure to replace Puerto Rico’s Moratorium Law, an action which he said could mean Puerto Rico could dedicate some of the savings from which to provide “payment of interest or some part of the principal” in negotiations with the island’s creditors: “The obligations of the government of Puerto Rico will be fulfilled in an orderly process. The government is going to commit itself to the policy that what it is directed is to pay the obligations of the government of Puerto Rico. The first thing is essential services.” The discussion occurs at a pivotal point, as, since before the administration of newly elected Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares taking office, Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz had announced that they were in tune to extend the expiration of the moratorium scheduled for the end of this month. If the government does not extend the litigation deadlock, it will face $1.3 billion in February, leaving it with no cash for operations, according to a liquidity report by Conway Mackenzie. Secretary Cortés, in response to a query yesterday with regard to interest payments, did note that would be possible “with the savings that are achieved, guaranteeing priority, which are essential services…The government of Puerto Rico will be making savings with this measure and the savings that will be made will be part of the renegotiation process, which could include the payment of interest or some part of principal, but in negotiation with creditors.” The revenues, as reported over the most recent half fiscal year, accounted for 25% of all General Fund revenues—more even than the $713 million in individual income taxes. The Act, adopted in 2010 to help address the dire fiscal imbalance, was set to impose a continually declining levy rate on foreign corporations until it would phase out this year, based on Treasury regulations promulgated six years ago which allow corporations to take tax credits against temporary excise taxes. Now a tricky shoal to navigate in the midst of the major transition in power in Washington, D.C. The issue involves whether the IRS will grant an extension of Act 154 past its current scheduled expiration at the end of this calendar year. According to Puerto Rico, 10 corporations and partnerships paid some 90 percent of all Act 154 taxes in FY2016. The law mainly affects corporations manufacturing pharmaceuticals and other high-tech products on the island.

Bankrupting a State’s Future?

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March 14, 2016. Share on Twitter

Keystone Municipal Bankruptcy Schooling. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s state budget dysfunction now could force one of the Keystone’s state’s public school districts into chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. School Superintendent Scott Deisley, in a letter he posted on the Red Lion School District’s website, noted: “Our cash flow analysis for the remainder of this school year is dire…Unless we take some extraordinary measures right now, the district will likely face bankruptcy by the end of the fiscal year.” The bitter fiscal stalemate between Gov. Tom Wolf and the Pennsylvania legislature has remained deadlocked for over nine months on the state’s FY2016 budget—even as Gov. Wolf approved three-fourths of the spending plan last December, while holding out for an increase in basic education assistance. For those students trying to learn basic math, Superintendent Deisley instructs that the school district has received less than 50 percent of its owed basic education funding from the state—some $9.7 million remains outstanding—leading the Superintendent to recommend the withholding of payments for cyber and charter tuition expenses, effective immediately, to preserve the district’s cash flow. Earlier this month, the Board of School Directors allowed the administration to withhold vendor payments, but now the school will delay all requests for purchases until funds become available, instead focusing first on essential classroom needs, followed by debt service and utilities—with payroll at the tail end, and all other expenses denied. The Superintendent believes that borrowing to cover expenses would entail too much risk, noting: “When a public school district takes a loan out for operational cash shortfalls, those bonds are not transferable from one fiscal year to another…This option is not viable since the repayment of any loan would correspond with the same time frame in which we are at risk for running out of money. The risk associated with taking out a loan and hoping that the state budget impasse will be resolved in time for us to make our repayment is too uncertain.” Red Lion District business manager Tonja Wheeler late last week issued a statement: “Red Lion Area School District is not filing for bankruptcy. We are cutting travel, conferences and other non-essential purchases to survive this budget impasse. This is not just a Red Lion Area School District problem, this is a statewide problem.”

Nevertheless, the virtual state budget shutdown is exacting a cost on the state’s students’ futures: Moody’s last month downgraded three of the state’s school districts and withdrew their enhanced ratings based on the Commonwealth’s pre-default intercept programs, lowering the pre-default enhanced ratings of the Chester Upland, Duquesne City, and Steelton Highspire school districts—credit ratings downgrades that will exact higher borrowing costs—all at the expense of the state’s future leaders—and, increasingly, on the state—where S&P last week placed its AA-minus general obligation rating for Pennsylvania on credit watch with negative implications, in what could be the first of several rating actions against the commonwealth in 2016.

Moody Blues in Atlantic City. The New Jersey Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee last Thursday, in a 9-1 vote with three abstentions, reported a bill, which the full Senate could take up as early as today, to provide authority for the state to take sweeping control of financially struggling Atlantic City in the wake of a tense hearing marked by fierce opposition from local leaders. The bill had the backing of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, as well as a likely candidate for Gov. Christie’s position in next year’s gubernatorial election, state Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), the main sponsor of the takeover legislation, who warned his colleagues that time was running out and his bill is needed to help save Atlantic City from municipal bankruptcy — adding that such a bankruptcy could cause a contagion scenario that would hurt the credit rating of municipalities across New Jersey. Sen. Sweeney added: “We need to fix this now…Otherwise, how are we going to pay employees in a month if there are no funds?” Chief Senate sponsor, State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), in pushing the state takeover bill, emphasized that the legislation is necessary to prevent municipal bankruptcy by Atlantic City: the proposed legislation would empower the New Jersey Local Finance Board to renegotiate Atlantic City’s outstanding debt and municipal contracts for up to five years, reorganize government operations, consolidate agencies—as well as provide authority to leverage some of the city’s assets, such as the Atlantic City Municipal Water Authority, to gain needed revenue. As Sen. Sweeney described it: “Atlantic City’s fiscal crisis is severe and immediate…The state needs to take a more active role to help prevent a total financial collapse. The intervention will allow the state and the city to work together to accomplish what Atlantic City can’t do on its own.”

Nevertheless, the proposed legislation faces opposition in the Assembly, so the fate of the so-called “Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act” remains uncertain—especially in the face of opposition by New Jersey Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Secaucus), who is opposed to the bill because of the provisions within it which would empower the state to break union contracts for up to a five-year period—or, as Speaker Prieto put it: “The state already has the authority to help Atlantic City avoid financial disaster and collective bargaining rights must not be trampled…I still remain willing to negotiate and have asked all parties to sit down together in the same room, but no one has taken me up on my offer.”

Unsurprisingly, Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian attended the committee session to express strong opposition to the intervention bill—along with members of the city council, as well as representatives from Atlantic City’s police and fire departments, testifying that the proposed legislation “gives the State the authority to unilaterally terminate collective bargaining agreements, to abolish any City departments and eliminate non-elected positions in the city, and to sell off valuable City-owned assets without consent from the local government or input from City residents…This legislation is a one-sided surrender of our responsibilities as local leaders and deprives the residents of Atlantic City of even the most modest aspects of self-governance and local control.” Mayor Guardian urged the committee instead to only approve a companion bill, “The Casino Property Tax Stabilization Act,” proposed legislation which would allow Atlantic City’s eight casinos to make payments in lieu of taxes over a 10-year period—exempting casinos from Atlantic City’s regular property tax in exchange for PILT payments on a quarterly basis—a bill which was then unanimously adopted—a bill which, however, is similar to one Gov. Christie vetoed earlier this year—and is unlikely to sign. (The Committee subsequently voted unanimously to do so.) In his statement to the Committee, Mayor Guardian testified about the “significant cuts in every department” the city had adopted, describing the proposed legislation as the opposite of a partnership, rather a “license for the state to abolish local government.”

Tick Tock. With Puerto Rico potentially facing insolvency by the end of this month, and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wi.) having set March 29th as the deadline for House action on Puerto Rico legislation, the Puerto Rico House of Representatives late last week passed a bill to help the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority issue debt, House Bill 2786, legislation which would set up the Corporation for the Revitalization of the Aqueduct and Sewer Authority, and provide the new authority with authority to issue municipal bonds—even as it would prohibit any increase in water and sewer rates over the next three years—in addition to barring any amount in excess of 20 percent of rate revenue to be dedicated to finance capital improvement bonds. Calculation of this 20 percent would not include revenue paying off bonds the corporation sold to refinance existing PRASA bonds. That is, the U.S. territory is not just facing a looming fiscal insolvency, but also a looming infrastructure breakdown: the island’s public utility, PRASA, has been unable to issue new municipal debt, forcing it to halt 55 projects already under construction and to defer commencement of 86 projects in its capital improvement program—even as it has fallen $140 million behind in debt with its suppliers and contractors—leading the utility, last week, to warn it may have to default on certain loans and bonds with the Puerto Rico Infrastructure Finance Authority, the Government Development Bank for Puerto Rico, and the United States Department of Agriculture. In an EMMA posting, PRASA said if HB 2786 did not become law and if it were unable to sell a bond, its board might approve the defaults.

One can see the onset of a vicious cycle: PRASA increased its water rates by 60% in the second half of 2013 with a goal of covering the utility’s operating expenses, debt service, and the provision of reserves through the end of FY2017—all based upon the assumption it would be able to issue a bond to cover capital improvement expenses. But that assumption came before decisions by the Government Development Bank for Puerto Rico and the downgrading of Puerto Rico: meaning PRASA has been unable to sell a municipal bond: it had $4.75 billion of debt outstanding at the end of last year. The crisis has reached such a stage that the Securities and Exchange Commission’s investment management division is now urging bond funds, especially those with exposure to Puerto Rico debt, to monitor and continually update their EMMA disclosures based on the risks associated with their investments. In a statement which can hardly be auspicious for Puerto Rico or PRASA, the SEC division noted: “The division believes that full and accurate information about fund risks, including risks that arise as a result of changing market conditions, is important to investors in mutual funds, exchange traded funds, and other registered investment companies…In the staff’s view, any fund investing in Puerto Rico debt should consider, based on the nature and significance of its investments, whether such disclosure is appropriate.”