The Long Fiscal Road out from State Fiscal Oversight

07/21/17

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Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we look at Philadelphia’s fiscal challenges as it seeks to fully emerge from state fiscal oversight.

Liberty Bell City. The Board of the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority this Tuesday unanimously approved the City of Philadelphia’s Five Year Plan for FY2018-2022, concurring with the assumptions and estimates that the City’s Plan were reasonable and appropriate, and that the Plan projects positive year-end fund balances for the next five fiscal years. The state authority, created in 1991 by state law, is charged with reviewing Philadelphia’s five-year plans—with state funding to the Liberty Bell city dependent on PICA approval thereof.

While the approval of the long-term fiscal plan was unanimous, the Board noted concerns about a lack of reserves. City officials are estimating general fund revenues for the 2018 fiscal year of $4.405 billion with roughly 75% derived from taxes. In its 43-page report, FICA noted: “The City’s revenue projections have consistently been outperformed by actual collections in recent years…PICA feels confident that the City and its consultant are effectively monitoring tax performance in a way that will allow adjustment to changes in economic growth.” The Board noted the FY2017 results suggested another year of solid performance for most taxes, and that the city continued to manifest signs of ongoing economic expansion since the end of the Great Recession, while continuing to implement certain reforms in order to increase its tax competitiveness. The Board also noted the City has set aside a $200 million provision to fund upcoming labor costs, as well as a $274.6 million contingency fund should the City lose grant funding as a result of federal and/or state actions. The staff noted some key fiscal risks, including pension costs, and the increased volatility of business income and receipts tax revenue.  Thus, the fiscal report card demonstrated improvement, but apprehensions about the future—especially perceptions of sluggish growth. That is, there are concerns with regard to economic growth and U.S. census data indicating more people are moving out of Philadelphia than are moving in. In its most recent manufacturing survey (this month), the Philadelphia Federal Reserve reported the index declined from 27.6 last month to 19.5 this month—with the index gauging new orders, shipments, employment and work hours, which were all positive, but which fell from June levels, with the new-orders index in particular plummeting to 2.1 from 25.9 in June. The New York Federal Reserve also found a July deceleration, or, as Joshua Shapiro, Chief U.S. economist at MFR Inc. described it: “The preponderance of recent survey data point to improving conditions in the manufacturing sector, and we expect the underlying trend of reported output to gradually accelerate in the months ahead. However, an ongoing inventory adjustment in the automotive sector will likely dampen headline factory output data over the near term.” In its report, PICA noted that while the City projects a positive fund balance the next five years, there are risks, such as rising labor, pension, and healthcare costs along with business tax revenue volatility. (The fund balance is projected at $75.5 million in 2018, or 1.7% of general fund obligations; reserves are slated to rise in each of the five years up to a peak of $123.1 million in FY2022 fiscal year, or 2.6% of projected obligations. On Wednesday, the city’s Finance Director, Rob Dubow, said the City of Brotherly Love’s fund balance target goal is 6% to 8% of revenues, but that two sets reserves should help withstand potential economic downturn that may arise over the five-year period. Philadelphia has established a reserve of $200 million for potential labor cost spikes and another one of $270 million to combat possible state and federal budget cuts—or, as Mr. Dubow describes it: “We think having those reserves gives us some more breathing room than we have had in the past…We share PICA’s concern of getting fund balances higher and they do increase over the life of the plan.”

The Thin Line Between Fiscal & Physical Recovery Versus Unsustainability.

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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.

The Knife Edges of Municipal Bankruptcy

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Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing fiscal pipeline to the recovery for the City of Flint, the outcome of a Pennsylvania grand jury investigation of the near municipally bankrupt Pennsylvania capital city of Harrisburg, before addressing the .growing physical and fiscal breakdown in the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico.

In Like Flint? The Michigan legislature has finally agreed to appropriate $20 million to make the requisite match in order for some $100 million in federal aid to go to the city, with the funds to be used to replace corroded pipes which leached lead into the city’s drinking water system, creating not just grave health repercussions, but also devastating the city’s assessed property values and public safety budgets. The city’s near insolvency, which had come in the wake of the decisions which lead to the water contamination by a gubernatorially appointed Emergency Manager, may mark one of the final chapters to the city’s physical and fiscal recovery.

A State Capital’s Near Bankruptcy. Pennsylvania’s capital city, Harrisburg, chartered as a city the year the Civil War commenced, which came close to filing for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, will, in its proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year, follow a court-approved bankruptcy plan, with slightly more revenues than expenditures, except that the city does not expect to be able to hire police as fast as called for in its budget. At a workshop this week, the first of several planned before the City Council votes on the budget for FY2017-2018, the proposed plan proposes minimal increases in most departments, as total revenue is expected to climb to $119.86 million, an increase of about $7 million from last year. City Manager Mark Scott, in a memo to the Council prior to its consideration of the budget, wrote: “In developing our budget recommendations, it is obvious we do not have anywhere near the money we would like to have…Nor is that likely to change any time soon. We cannot expect to address our future by replicating our past. We will have different staffing than in the past and different service delivery expectation. Right now, we are budgeting to establish a solid base—meaning staff skill sets and new, efficient systems/processes.”

In the city, where taxpayers and residents, as well as city officials, consistently list public safety as a top priority, Harrisburg’s five-year plan to increase spending on police was a keystone of the city’s plan of debt adjustment, which was officially confirmed in February. Nevertheless, while the Police Department budget, at $72 million, meaning it is more than 60 percent of the total general fund budget, calls for a significant increase in hiring, and recruiting. City Manager Mark Scott, however, warned that the issue involves more than the budget: “We’re getting people into the academy as fast as we can,” as he advised he hopes the city to realize “a net increase of 18 officers by the end of the year.” Following a trend that began before the 2012 bankruptcy filing, the city again plans to have fewer employees than the year before. This year, however, that is primarily due to the new voter-approved city charter, which transfers sewer workers from the city to the independent Water Department: the new budget authorizes 746 positions, compared to 763 one year earlier.

Tropical Fiscal Typhoon. Puerto Rico, the insolvent U.S. territory, is trapped in a vicious fiscal and physical whirlpool where the austerity measures it has taken to meet its fiscal obligations to its creditors all across the U.S. have come at a steep fiscal and physical cost: some 30,000 public sector employees have lost their jobs, even as the nearly 75% increase in its sales and use tax has backfired: it has served to curtail shopping, adding to the vicious cycle of increasingly drastic fiscal steps in an effort to make payments to bondholders on the mainland—enough so that nearly 33% of the territory’s revenue is currently going to creditors and bondholders, even as its economy has shrunk 10% since 2006. Over this period, the poverty rate has grown to 45%, while the demographic imbalance has deteriorated with the exit of some 300,000 Puerto Ricans—mostly the young and better educated—leaving for Miami and New York. Puerto Rico and its public agencies owe $73 billion to its creditors, nearly five times greater than the nearly $18 billion in debts accumulated by Detroit when it filed for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy four years ago in what was then the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. Now, with U.S. District Court Judge Laura Taylor Swain set to preside next Wednesday (Financial Oversight and Management Board of Puerto Rico, 17-cv-01578), we will witness a unique trial, comparable to those in Jefferson County, Detroit, Stockton, San Bernardino, etc.; however, here there will be differences compared to chapter 9, as there will be roles for both Puerto’s Rico, but also the PROMESA oversight board—with, presumably, both seeking a fiscal recovery, but unlikely to have comparable proposals with regard to the most appropriate and effective plan of debt adjustment. Perhaps the greatest challenge will be economic recovery: for Detroit, whose bankruptcy pales in comparison to Puerto Rico’s; Detroit was able to benefit from a constructive state role and an economy vastly boosted by the federal bailout of its gigantic auto industry. That contrasts with current federal laws discriminating against Puerto Rico’s economy vis-à-vis competitor Caribbean nations, and caught in a Twilight Zone between a state and municipality, with a stream of its young talent streaming to Miami and New York, leaving behind a demographic map of poverty, empty classrooms, and aging people—and dependent on sales taxes, but with sharp reductions in pensions almost certain to sharply and adversely affect sales tax revenues. Judge Taylor will require the wisdom and strength of Job.

State Oversight & Severe Municipal Distress

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eBlog, 04/24/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the unique fiscal challenge confronting Detroit: when and how will it emerge from state oversight? Then we spin the tables to see how Atlantic City is faring to see if it might be on the shores of fiscal recovery; before going back to Detroit to assess the math/fiscal challenges of the state created public school district; then, still in Detroit, we try to assess the status of a lingering issue from the city’s historic municipal bankruptcy: access to drinking water for its lowest income families; before visiting Hartford, to try to gauge how the fiscally stressed central city might fare with the Connecticut legislature. Finally, we revisit the small Virginia municipality of Petersburg to witness a very unique kind of municipal finance for a city so close to insolvency but in need of ensuring the provision of vital, lifesaving municipal services. 

Fiscal & Physical Municipal Balancing. Michigan Deputy Treasurer Eric Scorsone is predicting that by “early next year, Detroit will be out of state oversight,” at a time when the city “will be financially stable by all indications and have a significant surplus.” That track will sync with the city’s scheduled emergence from state oversight, albeit apprehension remains with regard to whether the city has budgeted adequately  to set funds aside to anticipate a balloon pension obligation due in 2024. Nevertheless, Mr. Scorsone has deemed the Motor City’s post-bankruptcy transformation “extraordinary,” describing its achievements in meeting its plan of debt adjustment—as well as complying with the Detroit Financial Review Commission—so well that the “city could basically operate on its own.” He noted that the progress has been sufficient to permit the Commission to be in a dormancy state—subject to any, unanticipated deficits emerging. The Deputy Treasurer credited the Motor City’s strong management team under CFO John Hill both for the city’s fiscal progress, but also for his role in keeping an open line of communication with the state oversight board; he also noted the key role of Mayor Mike Duggan’s leadership for improving basic services such as emergency response times and Detroit’s public infrastructure. Nevertheless, Detroit remains subject to the state board’s approval of any contracts, operating or capital budgets, as well as formal revenue estimates—a process which the Deputy Treasurer noted “allows the city to stay on a strong economic path…[t]hese are all critical tools,” he notes, valuable not just to Detroit, but also to other municipalities an counties to help ensure “long term stability.”

On the Shore of Fiscal Recovery. S&P Global Ratings, which last month upgraded Atlantic City’s general obligation bond rating two notches to CCC in the wake of the city’s settlement with the Borgata Casino, a settlement which yielded the city some $93 million in savings, has led to a Moody’s rating upgrade, with the credit rating agency writing that Atlantic City’s proposed FY2017 budget—one which proposes some $35.3 million in proposed cuts, is a step in the right direction for the state taken-over municipality, noting that the city’s fiscal plan incorporates a 14.6% cut in its operating budget—sufficient to save $8 million, via reductions in salaries and benefits for public safety employees, $6 million in debt service costs, and $3 million in administrative expenses. Nevertheless S&P credit analyst Timothy Little cautioned that pending litigation with regard to whether Atlantic City can make proposed police and firefighter cuts could be a fly in the ointment, writing: “In our view, the proposed budget takes significant measures to improve the city’s structural imbalance and may lead to further improved credit quality; however, risks to fiscal recovery remain from pending lawsuits against state action impeding labor contracts.” The city’s proposed $206.3 million budget, indeed, marks the city’s first since the state takeover placed it under the oversight of the New Jersey’s Local Finance Board, with the state preemption giving the Board the authority to alter outstanding debt, as well as municipal contracts. Mr. Little wrote that this year will mark the first fiscal year of the agreed-to payment-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOT) program for casino gaming properties—a level set at $120 million annually over the next decade—out of which 10.4% will go to Atlantic County. Mr. Little also notes that the budget contains far less state financial support than in previous years, as the $30 million of casino redirected anticipated revenue received in 2015 and 2016 will be cut to $15 million; moreover, the budget includes no state transitional aid—denoting a change or drop of some $26.2 million; some of that, however, will be offset by a $15 million boost from an adjustment to the state Consolidated Municipal Property Tax Relief Act—or, as the analyst wrote: “Long-term fiscal recovery will depend on Atlantic City’s ability to continue to implement fiscal reforms, reduce reliance on nonrecurring revenues, and reduce its long-term liabilities.” Today, New Jersey state aid accounts for 34% of the city’s $206.3 million in budgeted revenue, 31% comes from casino PILOT payments, and 27% from tax revenues. S&P upgraded Atlantic City’s general obligation bond rating two notches to CCC in early March after the Borgata settlement yielded the city $93 million in savings. Moody’s rates Atlantic City debt at Caa3.

Schooled on Bankruptcy. While Detroit, as noted above, has scored high budget marks or grades with the state; the city’s school system remains physically and fiscally below grade. Now, according to the Michigan Department of Education, school officials plan to voluntarily shutter some of the 24 city schools—schools targeted for closure by the state last January, according to State Superintendent Brian Whiston, whose spokesperson, William DiSessa, at a State Board of Education meeting, said:  “Superintendent Whiston doesn’t know which schools, how many schools, or when they may close, but said that they are among the 38 schools threatened for closure by the State Reform Office earlier this year.” Mr. DiSessa added that “the decision to close any schools is the Detroit Public School Community District’s to make.” What that decision will be coming in the wake of the selection of Nikolai Vitti, who last week was selected to lead the Detroit Public Schools Community District. Mr. Vitti, 40, is currently Superintendent of the Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Florida, the 20th largest district in the nation; in the wake of the Detroit board’s decision last week to enter into negotiations with Mr. Vitti for the superintendent’s job, Mr. Vitti described the offer as “humbling and an honor.” The school board also voted, if Mr.Vitti accepts the offer, to ask him to begin next week as a consultant, working with a transition team, before officially commencing on July 1st. The School Board’s decision, after a search began last January, marks the most important decision the board has made during its brief tenure, in the wake of its creation last year and election last November after the Michigan Legislature in June approved $617-million legislation which resolved the debt of Detroit Public Schools via creating the new district, and retaining the old district for the sole purpose if collecting taxes and paying off debt.

The twenty-four schools slated for closure emerged from a list of 38 the State of Michigan had targeted last January—all from schools which have performed in the bottom 5 percent of the state for at least three consecutive years, according to the education department. The Motor City had hoped to avoid any such forced state closures—hoping against hope that by entering last month into partnership negotiations with the Michigan State Superintendent’s office, and working with Eastern Michigan University, the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, and Wayne State University, the four institutions would help set “high but attainable” goals at the 24 Detroit schools to improve academic achievement and decrease chronic absenteeism and teacher vacancies. The idea was that those goals would be evaluated after 18 months and again in 36 months, according to state officials. David Hecker, president of the American Federation of Teachers Michigan, noted that he was not aware which schools might be closing or how many; however, he noted that whatever happens to the teachers of the closing schools would be subject to the collective bargaining agreement with the Detroit Federation of Teachers. “If any schools close, it would absolutely be a labor issue that would be governed by the collective bargaining agreement as to how that will work … (and) where they will go,” Mr. Hecker said. “We very strongly are opposed to any school closing for performance reasons.”

Thirsty. A difficult issue—among many—pressed upon now retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes during Detroit’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy came as the Detroit Water and Sewer Department began shutting off water service to some of nearly 18,000 residential customers with delinquent accounts. Slightly less than a year ago, in the wake of numerous battles in Judge Rhodes’ then U.S. bankruptcy courtroom, the issue was again raised: what authority did the city of Detroit have to cut off the delivery of water to the thousands of its customers who were delinquent by more than 90 days? Thus it was that Detroit’s Water and Sewerage Department began shutting off service to customers who had failed to pay their bills—with, at the time, DWSD guesstimating about 20,000 of its customers had defaulted on their payments, and noting that the process of shutting off service to customers with unpaid bills was designed to be equitable and not focused on any particular neighborhood or part of the city—and that the agency was not targeting customers who owed less than a $150 and were only a couple of months behind, noting, instead: “We’re looking for those customers who we’ve repeatedly tried to reach and make contact,” as well as reporting that DWSD was reminding its delinquent customers who were having trouble paying their water bills to contact the department so they may be enrolled in one of its two assistance programs — the WRAP Fund or the “10/30/50” plan. Under the first, the WRAP Fund, customers who were at 150 percent of the poverty level or below could receive up to $1,000 a year in assistance in paying bills, plus up to $1,000 to fix minor plumbing issues leading to high usage. This week, DWSD is reporting it has resumed shutoffs in the wake of sending out notices, adding the department has payment and assistance plans to help those with delinquent accounts avoid losing service. Department Director Gary Brown told the Detroit Free Press that everyone “has a path to not have service interruption.” Indeed, it seems some progress has been achieved: the number of families facing shutoffs is down from 24,000 last April and about 40,000 in April of 2014, according to The Detroit News. In 2014, DWSD disconnected service to more than 30,000 customers due to unpaid bills, prompting protests over its actions. Nonetheless, DWSD began the controversial practice of shutting off water service again this week, this time to some of the nearly 18,000 residential customers with delinquent accounts, in the wake of notices sent out 10 days earlier, according to DWSD Director Gary Brown. Nevertheless, while 17,995 households are subject to having their water turned off, those residents who contact the water department prior to their scheduled shutoffs to make a payment or enter into an assistance plan will avoid being cut off—with experience indicating most do. And, the good gnus is that the number of delinquent accounts is trending down from the 24,302 facing a service interruption last April, according to DWSD. Moreover, this Solomon-like decision of when to shut off water service—since the issue was first so urgently pressed in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court before Judge Rhodes—has gained through experience. DWSD Director Brown reports that once residents are notified, about 90 percent are able to get into a plan and avoid being shut off, and adding that most accounts turned off are restored within 24 hours: “Every residential Detroit customer has a path not to be shut off by asking for assistance or being placed into a payment plan…I’m urging people not to wait until they get a door knocker to come in and ask for assistance to get in a payment plan.” A critical part of the change in how the city deals with shutoffs comes from Detroit’s launch two years ago of its Water Residential Assistance Program, or WRAP, a regional assistance fund created as a component of the Great Lakes Water Authority forged through Detroit’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy: a program designed to help qualifying customers in Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties who are at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level—which equates to $36,450 for a family of four—by covering one-third of the cost of their average monthly bill and freezing overdue amounts. Since a year ago, nearly $5 million has been dedicated to the program—a program in which 5,766 Detroit households are enrolled, according to DWSD, with a retention rate for those enrolled in the program of 90 percent. DWSD spokesperson Bryan Peckinpaugh told the Detroit News the department is committed to helping every customer keep her or his water on and that DWSD provides at least three advance notifications encouraging those facing a service interruption to contact the department to make payment arrangements, adding that the outreach and assistance efforts have been successful, with the number of customers facing potential service interruption at less than half of what it was three years ago.

Fiscally Hard in Hartford. Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin has acknowledged his proposed $612.9 FY2018 budget includes a nearly $50 million gap—with proposed expenditures at $600 million, versus revenues of just over $45 million: a fiscal gap noted moodily by four-notch downgrades to the Connecticut city’s general obligation bonds last year from two credit rating agencies, which cited rising debt-service payments, higher required pension contributions, health-care cost inflation, costly legal judgments from years past, and unrealized concessions from most labor unions. Moody’s Investors Service in 2016 lowered Hartford GOs to a junk-level Ba2. S&P Global Ratings knocked the city to BBB from A-plus, keeping it two notches above speculative grade. Thus, Mayor Bronin, a former chief counsel to Gov. Daniel Malloy, has repeated his request for state fiscal assistance, noting: “The City of Hartford has less taxable property than our suburban neighbor, West Hartford. More than half of our property is non-taxable.” In his proposed “essential services only” budget, Mayor Bronin is asking the Court of Common Council to approve an increase of about $60 million, or 11%, over last year’s approved budget—with a deadline for action the end of next month. An increasing challenge is coming from the stressed city’s accumulating debt: approximately $14 million, or 23%, of that increase is due to debt-service payments, while $12 million is for union concessions which did not materialize, according to the Mayor’s office. Gov. Malloy’s proposed biennial budget, currently in debate by state lawmakers, proposes $35 million of aid to Hartford. Unsurprisingly, that level is proving a tough sell to many suburban and downstate legislators. On the other hand, the Mayor appears to be gaining some traction after, last year, gaining an agreement with the Hartford Fire Fighters Association that might save the city $4 million next year: the agreement included changes to pension contributions and benefits, active and retiree health care, and salary schedules. In addition, last month, Hartford’s largest private-sector employers—insurers Aetna Inc., Travelers Cos. and The Hartford—agreed to donate $10 million per year to the city over five years. Nonetheless, rating agencies Moody’s and S&P have criticized the city for limited operating flexibility, weak reserves, narrowing liquidity, and its rising costs of debt service and pension obligations. Gurtin Municipal Bond Management went so far as to deem the city a “slow-motion train wreck,” adding that while the quadruple-notch downgrades had a headline shock effect, the city’s fundamental credit deterioration had been slow and steady. “The price impact of negative headlines and credit rating downgrades can be swift and severe, which begs the question: How should municipal bond investors and their registered investment advisors react?” Gurtin’s Alex Etzkowitz noted, in a commentary. “The only foolproof solution is to avoid credit distress in the first place by leveraging independent credit research and in-depth, ongoing surveillance of municipal obligors.”

Fighting for a City’s Future. The small city of Petersburg. Virginia, is hardly new to the stress of battle. It was there that General Robert E. Lee’s men fought courageously throughout the Overland Campaign, even as Gen. Lee feared he confronted a campaign he feared could not be won, warning his troops—and politicians: “We must destroy this Army of Grant’s before he gets to the James River. If he gets there, it will become a siege, and then it will be a mere question of time.” Yet, even as he wrote, General Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac was racing toward the James and Petersburg to wage an attack on the city—a highly industrialized city then of 18,000 people, with supplies arriving from all over the South via one of the five railroads or the various plank roads. Indeed, Petersburg was one of the last outposts: without it, Richmond, and possibly the entire Confederacy, was at risk. Today, the city, because of the city’s subpar credit rating, is at fiscal risk: it has been forced to beg its taxpayers to loan it funds for new emergency vehicles—officials are making a fiscal arrangement with private citizens to front the cost for new emergency vehicles, and offering to put up city hall as collateral for said arrangement, as an assurance to the lenders they will be paid back. The challenge: the police department currently needs 16 new vehicles, at a cost of $614,288; the fire department needs three new trucks, at a cost of $2,145,527. Or, as Interim City Manager Tom Tyrrell notes: “Every single day that a firefighter rolls out on a piece of equipment older than he is, or a police officer responds to an emergency call in a car with 160,000 miles on it, are days we want to avoid…We want to get this equipment as soon as possible.” Interim City Finance Director Nelsie Birch has included in the upcoming fiscal year budget the necessary funds to obtain the equipment—equipment Petersburg normally obtains via lease agreements with vendors, but which now, because of its inability to access municipal credit markets due to its “BB” credit rating with a negative outlook, makes it harder than ever to find any vendor—or, as Manager Tyrrell puts it: “We went out four different times…We solicited four different times to the market, and were unsuccessful in getting any parties to propose.” He added that when soliciting these types of agreements, you solicit “thousands of people.” Notwithstanding that the funds for the vehicles is already set aside in the upcoming budget, city officials have been unable to find anyone willing to enter into a lease agreement with the city because of the city’s financial woes.

Last week, the City Council authorized Mr. Tyrrell to “undertake emergency procurement action” in order for the lease of necessary fire and police vehicles, forcing Mr. Tyrrell and other officials to seek private funds to get the equipment—that is, asking individual citizens who have the financial means to put up money for the fire and police vehicles—or, as Mr. Tyrrell puts it: “We’ve reached out to four people, who are interested and capable,” noting they are property owners in Petersburg who will remain anonymous until the deal is closed, describing it thusly: “[This agreement] is outside the rules, because we couldn’t get a partner inside the rules.” Including in this proposed fiscal arrangement: officials must put up additional collateral, in addition to the cars themselves, and in the form of city-owned property—with the cornerstone of the proposal, as it were, being Petersburg City Hall, or, as Mr. Tyrrell notes: “What they’re looking for is some assurance that no matter what happens, we’re going to pay the note…It’s not a securitization in the financial sense, as much as it is in the emotional sense: they know that the city isn’t going to let it go.” He adds, the proposed financial arrangement will be evaluated in two areas: the interest rate and how fast the deal can close, adding: “Although it’s an emergency procurement, we still want to get the best deal we can.”

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.”

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do.

eBlog, 03/06/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the trials and tribulations of really emerging from the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in American history; then we turn to an alternative to municipal bankruptcy: dissolution.

The Hard Road of Exiting Municipal Bankruptcy: A Time of Fragility. Christopher Ilitch, the Chief Executive Officer of Ilitch Holdings Inc., companies in Detroit which represent leading brands in the food, sports, and entertainment industries (including Little Caesars, the Detroit Red Wings, the Detroit Tigers, Olympia Entertainment, Uptown Entertainment, Blue Line Foodservice Distribution, Champion Foods, Little Caesars Pizza Kit Fundraising Program, and Olympia Development), notes that “We are at a critical time in Detroit’s history,” speaking at the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Detroit Policy Conference: “There’s been no community that’s been through what Detroit has been through. Through the depths, there’s been a lot of choices.” Indeed, as the very fine editor of the Detroit News, Daniel Howeswrote: “There still is, and how they’re made could meaningfully impact Detroit’s arc of reinvention: despite a booming development scene spearheaded now by the Ilitch family’s $1.2 billion District Detroit, Quicken Loans Inc. Chairman Dan Gilbert’s empire-building, more effective policing and a burgeoning downtown scene, four words loom: “We’re not there yet.” Mr. Howes notes that the cost of new construction projects still cannot be fully recouped through commercial and residential rents, adding: “The business climate, including taxes and regulation, still is not as attractive as it could be. And longstanding residents in the city’s neighborhoods worry that the reinvention of downtown and Midtown risks leaving them behind.” Or, as Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones puts it: “We have been talking about downtown and Midtown so much, and we know downtown and Midtown are important…If we are going to subsidize development, we would like to see something in it for us as well.” That is, exiting chapter 9 bankruptcy is not a panacea: one’s city still confronts a steep hill to execute its plan of debt adjustment—and a hill the scaling of which comes at higher borrowing costs than other cities of the same size. That is to say, long-term recovery has to involve the entire community—not just the municipal government. Or, as Mr. Howes notes: “Business leaders stepped in to acquire new police cruisers and EMT trucks, even as some of them finance ‘secondary patrols’ of downtown districts. The moves by General Motors Co. and Gilbert’s Rock Ventures LLC, to name two, to employ off-duty Detroit police officers are supported by Detroit Police Chief James Craig…The partnership has been bipartisan and regional. It’s been public and private, city and suburb. It’s required Republicans to act less Republican and Democrats to act less Democratic. That’s not because either side is suddenly non-partisan, but because the long history of confrontation and suspicion chronically under-delivers.” But he adds the critical point: “[A]s the city moves into an election year, as the memories of recessionary hardship dim, as the construction and investment boom continues. None of it is guaranteed, including collaboration forged by leaders under difficult circumstances…If there’s any town in America that can make its virtuous circle become a vicious cycle, Detroit is it. Remembering what’s worked, what hasn’t, and how inclusion can improve the chances for success remains critical…It’s a tricky balance that depends most on leadership and transparency so long as the macro-economic environment remains positive. If there are two themes connecting the reinvention of Detroit with its present, they are that a) experts expect the building and redevelopment boom to continue and b) neighborhood concerns are real and should not be dismissed.” In Detroit, it turned out going into chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy—a slide enabled by criminal behavior of its Mayor, and the profound failure to make it a city on a hill—a city which would draw families and businesses—was easy. That means getting out—and staying out—is the opposite in this fragile time of recovery, or, as Moddie Turay, executive vice president of real estate and financial services at the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., notes: “There’s a ton that’s happening here. We’re just not there yet…We have another five or so years to go. We are at a fragile time — a great time in the city, but still a fragile time.”

Disappearville? Breaking Up Is Hard to Do. Mayor Margaret J. Nelms and her Council Members in Centerville, North Carolina have voted to dissolve the town’s charter and become unincorporated in the wake of voters’ rejection, in January, of an effort to raise property taxes. The municipality (town), founded in 1882, in the rural northeastern corner of Franklin County had a population of 89 as of the 2010 census, a ten percent decline from the previous census: this is a municipality without a post office or a zip code—or, now, a future. It was incorporated during the same time period as the dissolution of the nearby town of Wood in 1961, roughly 80 years after first settlement. Unlike elected officials of other Franklin County municipalities (as well as the county itself) which have four-year terms, in Centerville, the Mayor and its three-member Town Council are elected every two years. The city’s downtown consists of two small old-fashioned country stores—Arnold’s and The Country Store, with one also the local gas station. The City has its own volunteer fire department: there is no police department, so Centerville—like the surrounding unincorporated area—is patrolled by the Franklin County sheriff.

Sen. Chad Barefoot (R), whose district includes Centerville, the sponsor of the state legislation [Senate Bill DRS45094-LM-35 (02/16)] to dissolve the municipality, noted: “There are a lot of towns like Centerville in North Carolina…What they’re doing is pretty courageous. They’re acting like adults. It’s something very hard to do, but it’s very responsible.” His proposed bill, the Repeal Centerville Charter, will allow the dissolution of the town, except that the governing board of the Town of Centerville would be continued in office for days thereafter for the sole purpose of liquidating the assets and liabilities of the Town and filing any financial reports which may be required by law, with any remaining net assets to be paid over to the Centerville Fire Department, which would be directed to use those funds for some public purpose. (In Centerville, the main municipal services provided to residents are: streetlights in the town center; Centerville also pays for an annual audit and holds municipal elections, although only a dozen citizens voted in the most recent municipal election, in 2015.) Centerville will continue to exist as a community, but any local-government services will be provided by the county: any remaining municipal funds left over after the town is unincorporated will be donated to the local volunteer fire department, according to the legislation. Dissolution is a painful choice: Frank Albano, the owner of an antique store in Centerville, rued the city did not consider other fiscal options, such as charging businesses like his an $100 annual operating fee, or asked $5 per float in the New Year’s Day parade. He notes: “The more local the government is, the better.”

The decision to dissolve is, however, not new: it was nearly a century ago that Farrington Carpenter, a Harvard-educated rancher in Colorado, noted that—at the time—there were 20 counties in the Mile High state with populations under 5,000. Municipalities—and their voters—rarely agree to give up their identities, leading him to query: “How can such small counties afford the cost of a complete county government?”  On the other end of the country, in Pennsylvania, home to more municipalities than any state in the union, running the gamut from metropolitan cities to first, second, and third class townships, it has long been a vexing governance conundrum how such a governing model is sustainable. Indeed, James Brooks, my former colleague from when I workd at the National League of Cities, where he serves as Director of City Solutions, reports that according to NLC’s 2015 report examining the economic vitality of cities, the smallest cities have generally been slower to recover—or, as one commentator describes it: “They can’t solve their problems themselves…Wealth has left these little cities to such a degree that they’re basically bankrupt.”

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.