Restoring Power–and Recovering Governing Authority

July 10, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the challenges of restoration of electric power (as opposed to political power) in Puerto Rico, and then try to explore the risks of powers of appointments of emergency managers by a state—here as the City of Flint, Michigan is still seeking to fiscally and physically recover from the human and fiscal devastation caused by the State of Michigan.

Adios. Walter Higgins, the CEO Puerto Rico’s bankrupt PREPA Electric power authority resigned yesterday, just months after he was chosen to oversee its privatization, an appointment made in an effort to fully restore power some ten months after the human, fiscal, and physical devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria. Now his resignation adds to PREPA’s uphill climb to not only fully restore power, but also to address its $9 billion in debt. Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said in a statement that Mr. Higgins had resigned for personal reasons, while Mr. Higgins, in his resignation letter, wrote that the compensation details outlined in his contract could not be fulfilled—with his written statement coming just one month after the Commonwealth’s Justice Secretary said it would be illegal for him to receive bonuses. According to a PREPA spokesperson, Mr. Higgins will remain as a member of the PREPA Board. Nevertheless, his appointment was stormy itself, after, last month, Puerto Rican officials had questioned how and why he had been awarded a $315,000 contract without authorization from certain government agencies—in response to which PREPA’s Board advised the government as a consultant, rather than filling the vacancy for an executive sub-director of administration and finance. Unsurprisingly, his departure will not be mourned by many Puerto Ricans in view of his generous compensation package of $450,000 annual salary compared to the average income for Puerto Ricans of $19,518.  

Nevertheless, PREPA officials, announced that current Board member Rafael Diaz Granados will become the new CEO—with nearly double the compensation: he will assume the position on Sunday and receive $750,000 a year—a level which Puerto Rico Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz described as the “kind of insult that to Puerto Ricans is unacceptable,” as the government and PROMESA Oversight Board continue to struggle to address and restructure Puerto Rico’s $70 billion in public debt. Nevertheless, as PREPA crews continue restoring power to the last 1,000 or so customers who have been without power since Maria hit nearly a year ago and destroyed up to 75% of transmission lines across the territory, the federal government is still operating 175 generators across the island.

Indeed, U.S. House Natural Resources Committee Chair Rob Bishop (R-Utah) has scheduled a hearing for July 25th to assess and inquire about the status of the Electric Power Authority and to examine the functioning and plans for the privatization of PREPA assets, an issue which the territory’s non-voting Congressional Representative Jenniffer Gonzalez noted “has been under the Committee’s jurisdiction for the past two years.” Rep. Gonzalez added: “I’m surprised with the salary: I did not expect that amount. I do not know the elements which affected Mr. Higgin’s resignation, and I believe that these changes affect the process of recovery on the island.”

Meanwhile, Chairman Bishop had announced a second potential hearing—this one to assess the operation of the PROMESA statute and how the PROMESA Oversight Board is working, after, last week, postponing an official trip with a dozen Members of Congress to assess the physical and fiscal recovery on the island, after meeting, early last month in San Juan with the now former PREPA Director Higgins, and after, in the spring, Chair Bishop, Chair Doug LaMalfa (R-Ca.), of the Subcommittee on Island Affairs, and Chairman Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) had announced a probe into “multiple allegations of corruption and serious allegations of maladministration” during the restoration of the electric service after the storm.

Out Like Flint? Meanwhile, in a criminal and fiscal case arising out of Michigan’s Flint water crisis in the wake of fatal decisions by a gubernatorially appointed Emergency Manager, closing arguments in the involuntary manslaughter case against state Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon began yesterday before Genesee District Court Judge David Goggins, who will determine whether Director Lyon will go on trial in the Flint water crisis prosecution on charges of involuntary manslaughter and misconduct in office connected to the 2014-2015 Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in the Flint region which killed at least 12 people and sickened another 79 people. A misdemeanor charge of “willful neglect” to protect the health of Genesee County residents was added last week. Director Lyon is receiving assistance in his defense from John Bursch, a former Michigan Solicitor General, who was hired for that position by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette—who has brought criminal charges related to the Flint water crisis against Director Lyon and 14 other current and former city and state government employees. Flint still faces financial questions after years of emergency management.

The criminal trial comes as questions still remain with regard to Flint’s long-term financial health, despite six years of state oversight that overhauled the city’s finances, after a 2011 state-ordered preliminary review showed problems with Flint’s finances and ultimately recommended an emergency manager for the city. Last April, State Treasurer Nick Khouri repealed all remaining Emergency Manager orders, with state officials claiming the city’s financial emergency has been addressed to a point where receivership was no longer needed, and, as the Treasurer wrote to Mayor Karen Weaver: “Moreover, it appears that financial conditions have been corrected in a sustainable fashion,” and Flint CFO Hughey Newsome said that while emergency managers had helped Flint get its financial house in order; nevertheless, Flint’s fiscal and physical future remains uncertain: “The after-effects of the water crisis, including the dark cloud of the financials, will be here for some time to come: We’re not out of the woods yet, but I don’t think emergency management can help us moving forward.” In the city’s case, the fateful water crisis with its devastating human and fiscal impacts, hit the city as it was still working to recover from massive job and population losses following years of disinvestment by General Motors. CFO Newsome said the crisis affected the city’s economic development efforts and may have left potential businesses wanting to come to Flint wary because of the water.

Flint’s spending became more in line with its revenues, changes were made to its budgeting procedures, and retiree healthcare costs and pension liabilities were reduced while under emergency management. Nevertheless, past financial overseers have warned the city about what would happen if Flint allows its fiscal responsibilities to slip. Three years ago, former Emergency Manager Jerry Ambrose, in a letter to Gov. Snyder, wrote: “If, however, the new policies, practices and organizational changes are ignored in favor of returning to the historic ways of doing business, it is not likely the city will succeed over the long term: The focus of city leaders will then likely once again return to confronting financial insolvency.”

Today, there are still signs of potential fiscal distress, notwithstanding  the city’s recovery; indeed, Mayor Weaver’s FY2019 budget plans for a more than $276,000 general fund surplus—even as the municipal budget is projected to grow to more than $8 million by FY2023, with that growth attributed by CFO Newsome to ongoing legacy costs and a lack of revenue—or, as he put it: “My last two predecessors have really delivered realistic budgets: I definitely don’t see this administration being irresponsible in that regard, and I don’t see this Council rubberstamping such a budget either.”

And, today, questions about criminal and fiscal accountability are issues for the state’s third branch of government: the judiciary, in District Court Judge William Crawford’s courtroom, where the issues with regard to criminal charges relating to the governmental actions of defendants charged for their actions during the Flint Water Crisis include former Emergency Manager Darnell Early and former City of Flint Public Works Director Howard Croft, and former state-appointed Flint Emergency Manager Jerry Ambrose, who, prosecutors  allege, knew the Flint water treatment plant was not ready to produce clean and safe water, but did nothing to stop it. The trial involves multiple charges, including willful neglect of duty and misconduct in office. (Mr.  Ambrose was the state appointed Emergency Manager from January until April of 2015; he also held the title of Finance Director under former state appointed emergency managers Mike Brown and Darnell Early. To date, four others have entered into a plea agreement in their cases.)

Bequeathing a Legacy of healthcare and retirees benefit costs: When Mr. Ambrose left in 2015 and turned things over the to the Receivership Transition Advisory Board, he stated that Flint’s other OPEB costs had been reduced from $850 million to $240 million, adding that a new hybrid pension plan put in place by state appointed emergency managers had reduced Flint’s long-term liability; however, he warned, on-going legacy costs are still one of the most pressing issues for Flint’s fiscal future: “Remember, the reality we’re facing: we have a $561 million liability to (Municipal Employees’ Retirement System), and the fund is only at $220 million; we also have an obligation to our 1,800 retirees to make sure that we’re paying our MERS obligation.” (A three percent raise for Flint police officers approved earlier this year added to those liabilities, with those increases attributable to two different contracts, which were imposed on officers by former state-appointed Emergency Managers Michael Brown and Darnell Earley in 2012 and 2014, respectively.)

The RTAB asked CFO Huey Newsome in January how the city would pay the additional $264,000 annually in wages and benefits along with a projected $3.4 million in additional retirement costs over the life of the contract—a question he was unable to specify an answer to at the time: “To tell you exactly where those‒where those dollars will come from right at this point in time, I can’t say…I think the ‘so what’ of this is that, you know, the incremental impact from this pay raise is not going to be that large when you think about the three and a half million. The city still needs to figure out where that three and a half million is coming from.” Moreover, he added, because police negotiated the raise, it also could be an issue with other unions wanting a similar increase during their future negotiations, adding that the city is making increased payments to MERS to avoid balloon payments in the future. For example, Mr. Newsome said, Flint will pay an additional $21.5 million this year, adding that all the city’s funds currently have a positive balance. However, Flint’s budget projections show the water fund will have a $2.1 million deficit in FY2018-19, a deficit projected to increase to $3.3 million by FY2022-23; Flint’s fiscal projections eventually put the water fund balance in the red by 2022-23; however, CFO Newsome warned: “The water fund is probably the most tepid one, because it is expected to be below the reserve balance by the end of the year,” noting the city can only account for 60% of the water that goes through its system, adding that the city has an 80% collection rate on its water bills, which is about $28 million this fiscal year, telling the Mayor and Council: “One of our top priorities is better metering.”

The city’s most-recent budget for 2018-19 calls for a combined revenue increase of $1.09 million more than previous budget projections because of increased assessed property values, more income taxes coming in, and additional state revenue sharing. Nevertheless, one Board member, notwithstanding projections for increased revenue, is apprehensive that Flint’s “tax base is likely going to continue to shrink, and the city currently has limited resources to reverse this trend,” or, as CFO Newsome put it: “Right now, revenue is not there: The income tax is relatively flat. The property tax is flat. That’s reality.” The city’s current proposed FY2019 budget calls for an increase of $120,000 from property taxes, $339,000 increase in income tax revenue, and an additional $631,000 in revenue from the state of Michigan. 

 

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Who Is in Fiscal Command?

June 29, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing challenge of governance in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico: is it a federal judge, a duly elected Governor and legislature, or a board imposed by Congress and the Administration?

Who Is In Fiscal Charge? With the new fiscal year beginning Sunday, the Puerto Rico Legislature is set to approve a budget less than that which was presented to the PROMESA Board. The initial version, approved by the House of Representatives of $8.782 billion provided for an increase of $33.2 million over the amount approved by the PROMESA Board. The Legislative Assembly is, today, expected to approve an FY2019 budget of $8.7 billion. Senator Migdalia Padilla Alvelo of Maraquitas, a small town founded in 1803, who has served in the Senate for nearly two decades, and is the current Finance Commission Chair, yesterday announced that, as part of the legislative discussion, they have managed to identify several items which will adjust the budget without touching the allocations included by the House of Representatives to meet the reductions imposed by the PROMESA Board to the umbrella of the Department of Public Security and tax agencies, such as the Office of Government Ethics and the Office of the Comptroller. Those modifications cleared the path to revert some $50 million for the operation of the Government Central Accounting System (Prifas). Concurrently, the budget was modified to adjust reserves down from $75 to $35 million, with the Senator explaining: “was reduced from $ 75 million to $ 35 million: We reduced the $8,749 billion which the Board had set for expenses to $8.709 billion: “we are below what the PROMESA Board originally set.” House Finance Committee Chair Antonio Soto also confirmed there would be approval of the budget today, explaining that the negotiations with the Senate team had been aimed at reducing the budget to the level proposed by the Board without touching the expense items that had been added, noting: “We understand that we are going to be able to maintain it…in the same level that they established, but including the expense items that are necessary.”

Meanwhile, in a press release, Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz reported that a Conference Committee had been formed to address the amendments introduced on his side, adding: “We had planned to approve the budget today. In the House, the discussion of the measure has been delayed a little, but the House President Carlos Méndez Núñez yesterday told me that that body will approve it today.”

With the action, the PROMESA Oversight Board cancelled its scheduled public meeting set for today—where it had intended to act on the Puerto Rico budget, to await today’s actions by the legislature, and then act tomorrow to approve the U.S. territory’s budget, as well as those of several authorities, with the Board noting the delay would provide more time to “complete required technical and macroeconomic changes to the Commonwealth Fiscal Plan with updated information.” The board still expects to approve a budget by the end of the fiscal year—with the PROMESA Board apparently primed to preempt Puerto Rico’s authority and impose its own fiscal dictates, including a repeal of Law 80 and the establishment of at-will employment, per its preemption demand to Gov. Ricardo Rosselló last month—a demand the Puerto Rico Senate declined to act upon.

The Board preemption yesterday came in the wake of, earlier this week, of its issuance of notices of violation with regard to government-proposed budgets for the Puerto Rico Highways and Transportation Authority and University of Puerto Rico—with, in each instance, the unelected Board notifying the Puerto Rico Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority that the Board required “substantial revisions and additional information” before it could approve the budgets. Some believe the PROMESA Board’s actions could signal a likely rejection of Puerto Rico’s budget tomorrow. PROMESA Board Director Natalie Jaresko said that if Puerto Rico’s elected leaders did not repeal Law 80, the Board would eliminate several accommodations it made to the Governor, including the retention of Christmas bonuses for government employees and a multiyear $345 million economic development and reform implementation initiatives fund.

It appears that, irrespective of the final actions taken by the Legislature, Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares recognizes the authority under the PROMESA statute granted to the Board. Thus, with the clear expectation that Law 80 (the Law Against Unjustified Dismissal) will be repealed,  the Governor appears to seeking to ensure he will play a key role in the process of restructuring the debt in federal court, and that he will be a player in constructing the quasi chapter 9 plan of debt adjustment which is anticipated to be settled by next week.

Another key issue pending relates to Chamber 1662, on Puerto Rico public pensions, which the Gov. yesterday endorsed—likely to arm himself to oppose the Oversight Board’s proposed average 10% cut in Puerto Rico pension benefits—cuts the Board wishes to trigger in the new fiscal year.

In response to a press question yesterday with regard to whether the Governor would go to court if, as expected, the PROMESA Board preempts Puerto Rico’s law and eliminates the Christmas bonus and current provisions for sick leave and vacations of public employees, the Governor was clear he would, noting:Yes, I’ve always said it. The unfortunate thing is that we will be spending $20 to $25 million a month in litigation processes that we are not sure of how we are going to finish. Second,  the process of restructuring the debt is not started and, instead of having a visibility to finish this in a year and a half, two years, we are talking about years. Possibly eight years, a decade in which this can be resolved, because the Oversight Board is the only entity authorized to submit a plan of debt adjustment. We have been working with them, with certain differences on that adjustment plan. But this is very clear, if you have an agreement, the only difference is pensions where we can sit or go to court for a single component…The content of this adjustment plan will depend not only on the restructuring of the debt, but also on whether the island will continue to be protected against appropriations of its government funds.”

Hurricane Recovery. On the critical issue of recovery from Hurricane Maria, where Puerto Rico received thrown paper towels compared to Houston, estimates are that recovery costs could be as high as $94 billion—Puerto Rico has, to date, received about $6 billion. Nevertheless, Gov. Rosselló appears optimistic, noting the island is in its recovery phase: “I think we’re on the way. Certainly FEMA’s disbursement has been slow, but now a new phase is entering that is important for people to know, which is includes HUD housing and CDBG funds—funds from which Puerto Rico has already begun drawing down: he added: “We hope that by the beginning of January or the end of December we can already have access to the bank of the $18.5 billion.”  

Municipal Fiscal Distress & State Oversight.

June 18, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 4, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fiscal Challenges of Inequity

May 15, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we return to the small municipality of Harvey, Illinois—a city fiscally transfixed between its pension and operating budget constraints in a state which does not provide authority for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy; then we turn east to assess Connecticut’s fiscal road to adjournment and what it might mean for its capital city of Hartford; before heading south to Puerto Rico where there might be too many fiscal cooks in the kitchen, both exacerbating the costs of restoring fiscal solvency, and exacerbating the outflow of higher income Americans from Puerto Rico to the mainland.

Absence of Fiscal Balance? After, nearly a decade ago, the Land of Lincoln—the State of Illinois—adopted its pension law as a means to ensure smaller municipalities would stop underfunding their public pension contributions—provisions which, as we noted in the case of the small municipality of Harvey, were upheld when a judge affirmed that the Illinois Comptroller was within the state law to withhold revenues due to the city—with the Comptroller’s office noting that whilst it did not “want to see any Harvey employees harmed or any Harvey residents put at risk…the law does not give the Comptroller discretion in this case: The Comptroller’s Office is obligated to follow the law. This dispute is between the retired Harvey police officers’ pension fund and the City of Harvey.” But in one of the nation’s largest metro regions—one derived from the 233 settlements there in 1900, the fiscal interdependency and role of the state may have grave fiscal consequences. As we previously noted, U. of Chicago researcher Amanda Kass found there are 74 police or fire pension funds in Illinois municipalities with unfunded pension liabilities similar to that of Harvey. Unsurprisingly, poverty is not equally distributed: so fiscal disparities within the metro region have consequences not just for municipal operating budgets, but also for meeting state constitutionally mandated public pension obligations.

Now, as fiscal disparities in the region grow, there is increasing pressure for the state to step in—it is, after all, one of the majority of states in the nation which does not authorize a municipality to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy: ergo, the fiscal and human challenge in the wake of the state’s enactment of its new statute which permits public pension funds to intercept local revenues to meet pension obligations; the state faces the governance and fiscal challenge of whether to provide for a state takeover—a governing action taken in the case of neighboring Michigan, where the state takeover had perilous health and fiscal consequences in Flint, but appeared to be the key for the remarkable fiscal turnaround in Detroit from the largest municipal chapter 9 bankruptcy in American history. Absent action by the Governor and state legislature, it would seem Illinois will need to adopt an early fiscal warning system of severe municipal fiscal distress—replete with a fiscal process for some means of state assistance or intervention. In Harvey, where Mayor Eric Kellogg has been banned for life from any role in the issuance of municipal debt because of the misleading of investors, the challenge for a city which has so under-budgeted for its public pension obligations, has defaulted on its municipal bond obligations, and provided virtually no fiscal disclosure; Illinois’ new state law (PL 96-1495), which permits public pension funds to compel Illinois’ Comptroller to withhold state tax revenue which would normally go to the city, which went into effect at the beginning of this calendar year, meant the city reasons did not take effect until January 2018. Now, in the wake of the city’s opting to lay off nearly half its police and fire force, the small municipality with the 7th highest violent crime rate in the state is in a fiscal Twilight Zone—and a zone transfixed in the midst of a hotly contested gubernatorial campaign in which neither candidate has yet to offer a meaningful fiscal option.  

Under Illinois’ Financial Distressed City Law ((65 ILCS 5/) Illinois Municipal Code) there are narrow criteria, including requirements that the municipality rank in the highest 5% of all cities in terms of the aggregate of the property tax levy paid while simultaneously in the lowest percentage of municipalities in terms of the tax collected. Under the provisions, the Illinois General Assembly would then need to pass a resolution declaring the city as fiscally distressed—a law used only once before in the state’s history—thirty-eight years ago for the City of East St. Louis. The statute, as we have previously noted, contains an additional quirk—disqualifying in this case: Illinois’ Local Government Financial Planning and Supervision Act mandates an entity must have a population of less than 25,000—putting Harvey, with its waning population measured at 24,947 as of 2016 somewhere with Rod Serling in the Twilight Zone. Absent state action, Harvey could be the first of a number of smaller Illinois municipalities unable to meet its public pension obligations—in response to which, the state would reduce revenues via intercepting local or municipal revenues—aggravating and accelerating municipal fiscal distress.

Capital for the Capitol. In a rare Saturday session, the Connecticut Senate passed legislation to enable the state to claw back emergency debt assistance for its capital city, Hartford, through aid cuts beginning in mid-2022, with a bipartisan 28-6 vote—forwarding the bill to the House and Gov. Dannel Malloy—as legislators raced to overwhelmingly approve a new state budget shortly before their midnight deadline Wednesday which would:  restore aid for towns; reverse health care cuts for the elderly, poor, and disabled; and defer a transportation crisis. The $20.86 billion package, which now moves to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s desk, does not increase taxes; it does raise the maximum tax rate cities and towns can levy on motor vehicles. In addition, the bill would spend rather than save more than $300 million from this April’s $1 billion surge in state income tax revenues. The final fiscal compromise does not include several major changes sought by Republicans to collective bargaining rules affecting state and municipal employees. And, even as the state’s fiscal finances are projected to face multi-billion-dollar deficits after the next election tied in part to legacy debt costs amassed over the last 80 years, the new budget would leave Connecticut with $1.1 billion in its emergency reserves: it will boost General Fund spending about 1.6 percent over the adopted budget for the current fiscal year, and is 1.1 percent higher than the preliminary 2018-19 budget lawmakers adopted last October. The budget also includes provisions intended to protect Connecticut households and businesses which might be confronted with higher federal tax obligations under the new federal tax law changes. Indeed, in the end, the action was remarkably bipartisan: the Senate passed the budget 36-0 after a mere 17 minutes of debate; the House debated only 20 minutes before voting 142-8 for adoption.

In addition to reacting to the new federal tax laws, the final fiscal actions also dealt with the sharp, negative reaction from voters in the wake of tightening  Medicare eligibility requirements for the Medicare Savings Program, which uses Medicaid funds to help low-income elderly and disabled patients cover premiums and medication costs—acting to postpone cutbacks to July 1st, even though it worsened a deficit in the current fiscal year, after learning an estimated 113,000 seniors and disabled residents would lose some or all assistance. As adopted, the new budget reverses all cutbacks, at a cost of approximately $130 million. Legislators also acted to restore some $12 million to reverse new restrictions on the Medicaid-funded health insurance program for poor adults, with advocates claiming this funding would enable approximately 13,500 adults from households earning between 155 and 138 percent of the federal poverty level to retain state-sponsored coverage.

State Aid to Connecticut Cities & Towns. Legislators also took a different approach with this budget regarding aid to cities and towns. After clashing with Gov. Malloy last November, when Gov. Malloy had been mandated by the legislature to achieve unprecedented savings after the budget was in force, including the reduction of $91 million from statutory grants to cities and towns; the new budget gives communities $70.5 million more in 2018-19 than they received this year—and bars the Governor from cutting town grants to achieve savings targets. As adopted, the fiscal package means that some municipalities in the state, cities and towns with the highest local tax rates, could be adversely impacted: the legislation raises the statewide cap on municipal property taxes from a maximum rate of 39 mills to 45 mills. On the other hand, the final legislation provides additional education and other funding for communities with large numbers of evacuees from Puerto Rico—dipping into a portion of last month’s $1.3 billion surge in state income tax receipts tied chiefly to capital gains and other investment income—and notwithstanding the state’s new revenue “volatility” cap which was established last fall to force Connecticut to save such funds. As adopted, the new state budget “carries forward” $299 million in resources earmarked for payments to hospitals this fiscal year—a fiscal action which means the state has an extra $299 million to spend in the next budget while simultaneously enlarging the outgoing fiscal year’s deficit by the same amount. (The new deficit for the outgoing fiscal year would be $686 million, which would be closed entirely with the dollars in the budget reserve—which is filled primarily with this spring’s income tax receipts.) The budget reserve is now projected to have between $700 million and $800 million on hand when the state completes its current fiscal year. That could be a fiscal issue, as it would leave Connecticut with a fiscal cushion of just under 6 percent of annual operating costs, a cushion which, while the state’s largest reserve since 2009, would still be far below the 15 percent level recommended by Comptroller Kevin P. Lembo—and, mayhap of greater fiscal concern, smaller than the projected deficits in the first two fiscal years after the November elections: according to Connecticut’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis, the newly adopted budget, absent adjustment, would run $2 billion in deficit in FY2019-20—a deficit that office projects would increase by more than 25 percent by FY2020-21, with the bulk of those deficits attributable both to surging retirement benefit costs stemming from decades of inadequate state savings, as well as the Connecticut economy’s sluggish recovery from the last recession.

As adopted, Connecticut’s new budget also retains and scales back a controversial plan to reinforce new state caps on spending and borrowing and other mechanisms designed to encourage better savings habits; it includes a new provision to transfer an extra $29 million in sales tax receipts next fiscal year to the Special Transportation Fund—designed in an effort to avert planned rail and transit fare increases—ergo, it does not establish tolls on state highways.

Reacting to Federal Tax Changes. The legislature approved a series of tax changes in response to new federal tax laws capping deductions for state and local taxes at $10,000: one provision would establish a new Pass-Through Entity Tax aimed at certain small businesses, such as limited liability corporations; a second provision allows municipalities to provide a property tax credit to taxpayers who make voluntary donations to a “community-supporting organization” approved by the municipality: under this provision, as an example, a household owing $7,000 in state income taxes and $6,000 in local property taxes could, in lieu of paying the property taxes, make a $6,000 contribution to a municipality’s charitable organization.

Impacts on Connecticut’s Municipalities. The bill would enable the state to reduce non-education aid to its capital city of Hartford by an amount equal to the debt deal. It would authorize the legislature to pare non-education grants to Hartford if the city’s deficit exceeds 2% of annual operating costs in a fiscal year, or a 1% gap for two straight year—albeit the legislature would be free to restore other funds—or, as Mayor Luke Bronin put it: “I fully understand respect legislators’ desire to revisit the agreement after five years.” Under the so-called contract assistance agreement, which Gov. Malloy, Connecticut State Treasurer Denise Nappier, and Mayor Luke Bronin signed in late March, the state would pay off the principal on the City of Hartford’s roughly $540 million of general obligation debt over 20 to 30 years. With Connecticut’s new Municipal Accountability Review Board, not dissimilar to the Michigan fiscal review Board for Detroit, having just approved Mayor Bronin’s five-year plan. In the wake of the legislative action, Mayor Bronin had warned that significant fiscal cuts in the out years could imperil the city at that time, albeit adding: “That said, I fully understand and respect legislators’ desire to revisit the agreement after five years, and my commitment is that we will continue to work hard to earn the confidence our the legislature and the state as a whole as we move our capital city in the right direction.”

Dying to Leave. While we have previously explored the departure of many young, college-educated Puerto Ricans to the mainland, depleting both municipio and the Puerto Rico treasuries of vital tax revenues, the Departamento of Salud (Health Department) reports that even though Puerto Rico’s population has declined by nearly 17% over the decade, the U.S. territory’s suicide rate has increased significantly, especially in the months immediately following Hurricane Maria, particularly among older adults, with social workers reporting that elderly people are especially vulnerable when their daily routines are disrupted for long periods. Part of the upsurge is demographically related: As those going have left for New York City, Florida, and other sites on the East Coast, it is older Americans left behind—many who went as long as six months without electricity, who appear to be at risk. Adrian Gonzalez, the COO (Chief Operating Officer at Castañer General Hospital in Castañer, a small town in the central mountains) noted: “We have elderly people who live alone, with no power, no water and very little food.” Dr. Angel Munoz, a clinical psychologist in Ponce, said people who care for older adults need to be trained to identify the warning signs of suicide: “Many of these elderly people either live alone or are being taken care of by neighbors.”

A Hot Potato of Municipal Debt. Under Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s proposed FY2019 General Fund budget, the Governor included no request to meet Puerto Rico’s debt, adding he intended not to follow the PROMESA Board’s directives in several parts of his budget—those debt obligations for Puerto Rico and its entities are in excess of $2.5 billion: last month’s projections by the Board certified a much higher amount of $3.84 billion. Matt Fabian of Municipal Market Analytics described it this way: “Bondholders have to wait until the Commonwealth makes a secured or otherwise legally protected provision to pay debt service before they can begin to (dis)count their chickens: The alternative, which is where we are today, is an assumption that debt service will be paid out of surplus funds. ‘Surplus funds’ haven’t happened in a decade and the storm has only made things worse: a better base case assumption is the Commonwealth spending every dollar of cash and credit at its disposal, regardless of what the budget says: That doesn’t leave much room for the payment of debt service and is good reason for bondholders to continue to litigate.” Under the PROMESA Board’s approved fiscal plan, Puerto Rico should have $1.13 billion in surplus funds available for debt service in FY2023—with the Board silent with regard to what percent the Gov. would be expected to dedicate to debt service. The Gov.’s budget request does seek nearly a 10% reduction for the general fund, with a statement from his office noting the proposal for operational expenditures of $7 billion is 6% less than that for the current fiscal year and 22% less than the final budget of former Gov. Alejandro García Padilla. The Governor proposed no reductions in pension benefits—indeed, it goes so far as to explicitly include that his budget does not follow the demands of the PROMESA Oversight Board for the proposed pension cuts, to enact new labor reforms, or to eliminate a long-standing Christmas bonus for government workers.

Nevertheless, PROMESA Board Executive Director Natalie Jaresko, appears optimistic that Gov. Ricardo Rosselló Nevares’s government will correct the “deficiencies” in the recommended budget without having to resort to litigation: while explaining the Board’s reasoning for rejecting the Governor’s proposed budget last week, Director Jaresko stressed that correcting the expenses and collections program, as well as implementing all the reforms contained in the fiscal plan, is necessary to channel the island’s economy and to promote transparency and accountability in the use of public funds, adding that approving a budget in accordance with the new certified fiscal plan is critical to achieve the renegotiation of Puerto Rico’s debt—adding that, should the Rosselló administration not do its part, the Board would proceed with what PROMESA establishes: “The fiscal plan is not a menu you can choose from.”

The Absences of Fiscal Balances

May 4, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we note the deepening road towards insolvency of the Harvey, Illinois; then we turn south to consider the potential adverse municipal fiscal impacts were the State of Georgia to enable the de-annexation of the small city of Stockbridge. Finally, we journey back to Puerto Rico, where House Natural Resources Committee Chair Rob Bishop is headed for a first-hand assessment of the ongoing fiscal and physical challenges and federal emergency assistance still needed. 

An Absence of Fiscal Balance? In the Land of Lincoln, Illinois, where the state’s courts have heard requests for municipal bankruptcy relief; but where chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy is not authorized; relief appears only to have been granted when not challenged. Under 65 Illinois Comp. Statute 5/8-5-1, smaller municipalities may, if not home rule jurisdictions, seek judicial relief. Under the state’s Local Government Financial Planning and Supervision Act (50 Ill. Comp. Stat. 3200) a municipality with a population under 25,000 suffering a “fiscal emergency” may, after securing a two-thirds vote of the governing body, petition the state to establish a financial planning and supervision commission to address such “fiscal emergency.” Ironically, Harvey, with a population of 25,282, just exceeds that level—some 1,052 Illinois municipalities have less than 25,000 residents. Now, with the municipality unable to meet its police and fire pensions, Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza is holding up more than $1 million in state funds the town is owed—under Illinois statutes which authorize the state to withhold tax revenues a municipality is slated to receive if it does not make the required payments into its police and firefighter pensions: the funds withheld go right into the pension fund instead of town services—which, in the case of Harvey, amount to about $1.4 million, leading to, as we have previously noted, the town’s announcement that it will lay off nearly half of its police and fire department. Making the fiscal situation more dire, the city’s Mayor, Eric Kellogg, has been banned for life from the municipal bond market for misleading investors; the municipality appears to be in a chronic pattern of underfunding its public safety pension funds, even as its operating budget chronically spends more than the revenues it brings in. Ergo, as we have written, under Illinois’ Public Act 96-1495, the Comptroller may be compelled to withhold state tax revenues, which would traditionally be in order to ensure pension payments are made to a municipality which has failed to make full pension payments for years.

In a situation which risks compromising public health and safety, Harvey has laid off nearly half its police and fire force—even as it has warned it might not be able to make payroll—especially with inadequate municipal fiscal resources now being rerouted to oppose the state actions in court.

It being Illinois—and an election year—Gov. Bruce Rauner has been uncharacteristically silent about the brewing fiscal catastrophe. The godfather of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, Jim Spiotto, has joined with the exceptional Chicago Civic Federation in drafting legislation, the Local Government Protection Authority, which includes a provision to:

  • establish an oversight board,
  • set up a clear procedure for dealing with a stressed city, and
  • allow filing for Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. (Legislation which has, to date, gained no traction in the legislature.)

Harvey Town Attorney Bob Fioretti reports: “We are going to find some solution, if possible,” signaling that the municipality was still negotiating with its police and fire pension funds, but warning that, if those discussions falter:  “Layoffs will occur. But the safety of the population is key, and that will continue.”

Mayhap ironically, Illinois adopted its pension law eight years ago as a way to ensure smaller municipalities would stop shorting their pension fund contributions—provisions upheld the week when a judge affirmed that the Illinois comptroller was within the state law to withhold the revenue. Thus, while the Comptroller’s Office issued a statement that it “does not want to see any Harvey employees harmed or any Harvey residents put at risk…the law does not give the Comptroller discretion in this case: The Comptroller’s Office is obligated to follow the law. This dispute is between the retired Harvey police officers’ pension fund and the city of Harvey.”

Nor does Harvey appear to be an isolated case: According to an analysis by Amanda Kass, a researcher at the University of Chicago, there are 74 police or fire pension funds in Illinois municipalities with similar unfunded pension liabilities—leading Chicago Civic Federation President Laurence Msall to note: “If they ignore the law and don’t make the contribution as Harvey has, then yes, those municipalities all around the state have ability to seek an intercept of state revenues that would otherwise come to the municipality.”

The complicating factor for Harvey is, however, not just that it has had years of decline and corruption in government, but also with declining assessed property values and very high property taxes, the municipality has a shrinking set of fiscal options—or, as Mr. Fioretti puts it: “We have an aging population, a declining population, a fixed-income population, and our revenues aren’t even being collected from the real estate taxes. We’re below 50 percent for the year on those collections,” noting that the delinquent real estate tax money is costing the town $12 million this year.”

Uneasy Fiscal Options. While Mr. Msall notes that the State of Illinois helped create the fiscal mess by setting up the pension funds and setting all of the pension levels; now, he notes, Illinois must either dissolve Harvey’s pension into the state fund, or put together an emergency financial team to sort through the wreckage of this and other distressed towns—adding: “Let’s create a board that could be independent with real financial expertise to guide these local governments, not to push them into [municipal] bankruptcy: The best path forward for Harvey is independent oversight that could sort out why they’re not making their financial reports on a regular basis.”

The Cost of Municipal Annexation. Municipalities across Georgia could face higher borrowing costs if the state government enables the “de-annexation” of about half of one small city, that city being Stockbridge, one settled in 1829 when the Concord Methodist Church was organized near present-day Old Stagecoach Road—and, especially, when Stockbridge was granted a post office on April 5, 1847, named for a traveling professor, Levi Stockbridge, who had passed through the area many times before the post office was built. Albeit that heritage remains a matter of some dispute: others contend that the city was named after Thomas Stock, who was State Surveyor and the Georgia State President in the 1820s. The small municipality was incorporated as a town in 1895 and, subsequently, as a city on August 6, 1920. Now, however, more change might be on the way, especially if Georgia Governor Nathan Deal signs into law Senate bills 262 and 263—bills which, if enacted, would de-annex just over half of Stockbridge’s assessable residential and commercial property. Why? Because proposed SB 263, an Act to incorporate the City of Eagles Landing, provide a charter for the City of Eagles Landing; provide for a referendum; provide for transition of powers and duties; provide for community improvement districts; and repeal conflicting laws would effectively have disconcerting fiscal impacts on City Hall in Stockbridge, which was financed with municipal revenue bonds. Neither of the two bills apportions the revenues involved between the to-be two entities—a requirement which, according to some legal experts, is based upon precedent-setting court cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and Georgia when the boundaries of a governmental entity are changed.

Thus, unsurprisingly, during the Georgia Municipal Association’s Georgia Cities Week last week, Stockbridge officials and representatives of the Eagle’s Landing effort held separate meetings with Gov. Deal.  Stockbridge City Attorney Michael Williams described their session as “very productive: The Governor said he would consider the series of points we made…I’m certainly taking him at his word that he will.” Nevertheless, the municipality is hedging its fiscal bets: it has hired three outside law firms to challenge the laws if Gov. Deal approves them.

Should that happen, however, the much reduced City if Stockbridge would still would be obligated to pay off about $13.02 million of privately placed Urban Redevelopment Agency lease-revenue bonds, and $1.5 million of water and sewer notes issued through the Georgia Environmental Facilities Authority—municipal bonds owned by Capitol One Public Funding LLC. Unsurprisingly, the Romulus and Remus of Eagles Landing have expressed no eagerness to help make those payments: sharing only goes so far. The lease-revenue bonds, issued in 2005 and 2006 for projects including funding to purchase land and build city hall, backed by general fund revenues and the city’s taxing power, if needed, even though the city does not currently impose a property tax.

Also unsurprisingly, Jim Spiotto’s firm, Chapman and Cutler LLP, which represents Capital One, wrote to the city a day after the General Assembly ended its session last month, warning it could face potential litigation: “SB 262 and SB 263 infringe Capital One’s constitutional rights under the contracts clause of the U.S. Constitution and the Georgia Constitution by taking away a significant source of the security and source of repayment for the bonds that was contractually bargained for by the bondholders,” Chapman and Cutler partner Laura Appleby wrote to the City Attorney. Unless the bonds are properly apportioned between Stockbridge and Eagle’s Landing, and the [municipal] bondholders have the benefit of the full security that they were originally promised, Ms. Appleby wrote, “We have serious concerns regarding the ability of [Stockbridge] to continue to pay debt service on the bonds because it will have lost a large portion of its ad valorem tax base.”

Jonathan Lewis, Capital One Public Funding’s president, has written to Gov. Deal also requesting a meeting, writing: “The failure of SB 262 and SB 263 to provide for the apportionment of the [municipal] bonds between the City of Stockbridge and, if formed, the City of Eagle’s Landing, is not only an inequitable result for the City of Stockbridge, it is an infringement on Capital One’s constitutional rights under the contracts clause of the U.S. Constitution and the Georgia Constitution, as it removes a significant portion of the security and source of repayment for the bonds…Capital One has come to trust that the State of Georgia will take those actions required to maintain, preserve, and protect the pledges made by its municipalities to their bondholders…Permitting SB 262 and SB 263 to become law would no longer allow us to rely in the State of Georgia [based] on the bedrock public finance principle of non-impairment,” adding that such a “de-annexation” would impair Capital One’s municipal bonds and “create new, unprecedented risks for existing holders and prospective purchasers of State of Georgia local debt.” Mr. Lewis last week also communicated to Georgia Municipal Association Executive Director Larry Hanson, whose organization is made up of 521 municipalities, that if enacted, the de-annexation would require all lenders to Georgia municipalities to “consider, and price in, the potential loss of security from future de-annexations,” because the legislation does not apportion Stockbridge’s outstanding debt: “GMA’s members would bear the burden of this new, Georgia-specific risk in the form of higher interest costs: “The uncertainty created by such a shift sets a dangerous precedent and could produce additional negative unintended consequences as lenders consider municipal financing opportunities within the state.”

Who’s on First? Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) of the House Natural Resources Committee, the committee of jurisdiction for U.S. territories, yesterday confirmed he would got to Puerto Rico to meet with island leaders to assess the recovery in the wake of Hurricane Maria’s devastation, noting: “This trip will allow me to better understand the ongoing challenges and the emergency assistance that is still needed.” He is scheduled to meet with Puerto Rico’s non-voting Member of Congress, Jenniffer Gonzalez, as well as Chairman Jose Carrion of the PROMESA Board as part of an effort the Chairman described as a “first hand look at recovery efforts,” pointing out that, in his view, it would be irresponsible for Governor Rosselló, who apparently the Chairman had not advised of his visit, not to implement the government reforms ordered by the PROMESA oversight board—making clear the fiscal gulf between the two leaders, with the Governor observing that Chairman Bishop, with his demands in favor of a dialogue with creditors, seems to be supporting the causes of the territory’s municipal bondholders over the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico.

Unlike chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, wherein state laws create a process—where permitted—for a municipality; there are many fiscal chefs in the kitchen in Puerto Rico, with growing questions with regard to the limits of their respective legal authority under the PROMESA law. A key issue, the final decision with regard to the implementation of cuts to the pension system and the labor reform may yet take a few months. The fiscal stakes, however, especially on an island where there has been a steady stream of college graduates and young professionals moving to the mainland—leaving behind  disproportionate number of older, retired Puerto Ricans, increasingly creates a greater and greater fiscal imbalance. That is now front and center in the wake of the Board’s proposed 10 percent average reduction in pensions—a proposal Gov. Rosselló has rejected, but, as one commentator noted, it is the Board which holds all the cards. The challenge is in interpreting the PROMESA Board’s authority to use its fiscal plans to provide “adequate funding” to Puerto Rico’s public pension systems: under the proposed fiscal plan, the Board cut in pensions would not begin until FY2020—giving time for the PROMESA Board to submit to U.S. Judge Laura Taylor Swain a quasi-plan of chapter 9 debt plan of debt adjustment by the end of this year.

It is not that the Governor believes pension should be off the table—after all, he had recommended a 6% reduction last year; thus, there remains some chance that the government and the Board could reach an agreement and avoid the heavy costs of fighting the fiscal issues out before Judge Swain. Indeed, as we saw in San Bernardino, those back door negotiations between the government and creditors can save an awful lot in lawyers’ fees—or, as former U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Gerardo Carlo-Altier put it: “The ideal thing would be for the Board, the government, and the groups of creditors to reach an agreement in advance and go together to court.”

A key sticking point appears to be the Board’s insistence of labor reforms: under its proposed plan, the Puerto Rico Legislature should approve the labor reform by the end of this month, so that the seven-day reduction for vacation and sick leave would take effect immediately. The elimination of the protections against unjustified dismissal, the mandatory Christmas bonus, and work requirements for the Nutrition Assistance Program (NAP) are proposed for next January—with the PROMESA Board estimating that, absent the enactment of such labor reforms, including: such as employment at will, reductions in sick and vacation leaves, and non-mandatory Christmas bonus; the government of Puerto Rico would stop receiving $330 million within the next five years. They estimate another $ 185 million to cuts in pensions—all of which has led the PROMESA Board to project that, absent the adoption of the reforms proposed in the five-year fiscal plan, Puerto Rico’s economic growth and capacity to finance its public debt service would fail.

Who Will Govern? Are there too many fiscal cooks in the kitchen? In Central Falls, Rhode Island: there was one individual in charge of steering the small city, aka Chocolateville, out of bankruptcy. Similarly, in Detroit, Governor Snyder named Kevyn Orr as Emergency Manager—effectively suspending the governance authority of the Mayor and Council during the pendency of the city’s chapter 9 proceedings until U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes approved Detroit’s plan of debt adjustment. Yet, in Puerto Rico—a territory which is neither a state, nor a municipality; there are a multiplicity of actors—including, now, Chairman Bishop, the Governor, the Legislature, and the PROMESA Board—a Board which Constitutionalist Professor Carlos Ramos González of the Inter-American University Law School believes, even given the power conferred upon it by Congress over Puerto Rico’s elected government, is uncertain with regard to its own authority to implement the structural reforms it favors—or, as he has noted: “Nobody wants to be blamed for cutting pensions: in all the chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy cases, there were pension reductions,” adding that, as we saw especially in the case of Detroit, the issue of equity is challenging: how to make those cuts without plunging many retirees into poverty—a problem of even greater resonance on an island experiencing an outflow of its young professionals, so that the demography already risks insufficient revenues to meet a clearly growing demand.  

Then there is a second challenge: while PROMESA appears clear in its grant of authority to the Board to certify the fiscal plan, it appears to lack any authority to implement it on its own. Unlike Central Falls, Detroit, San Bernardino, or other chapter 9 plans of debt adjustment approved by U.S. Bankruptcy Courts; the current PROMESA statute does not authorize a federal court to control Puerto Rico’s legislative process: there is a separation of powers issue.  Nevertheless, in the wake of the approval of the fiscal plan, the PROMESA Board is trying: it has submitted a preliminary labor reform draft to the Puerto Rico Legislature, where Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz has invited PROMESA President José Carrión III to defend the proposed changes and cuts—an invitation, however, which has not been accepted.  

Former Governor Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, who lectures for a Separation of Powers class at the Law School of the University of Puerto Rico, finds it self-evident that the Legislature will not give way to the Boards proposed labor reforms, noting: “I think the Board has a very weak case in terms of imposing the labor reform. It has a better case in other measures, because they are directly tied to Puerto Rico’s fiscal crisis.” Similarly, Governor Rosselló usually quotes §205 of the PROMESA Act, which refers to the fact that the Board can make “recommendations to the Governor or the Legislature on actions the territorial government may take to ensure compliance with the Fiscal Plan, or to otherwise promote the financial stability, economic growth, management responsibility, and service delivery efficiency of the territorial government.” While Carlo Altieri adds to the debate §108, which, regarding the general powers of the Board, warns that: “Neither the Governor nor the Legislature may— (1) exercise any control, supervision, oversight, or review over the Oversight Board or its activities; or (2) enact, implement, or enforce any statute, resolution, policy, or rule that would impair or defeat the purposes of this Act, as determined by the Oversight Board.”

Indeed, an attorney for the Governor, Richard Cooper of Cleary Gottlieb, noted: “Congress did not grant the Board the power to pass laws or appoint or replace government officials…it left the government of Puerto Rico the capacity and responsibility to make the law (as long as it is consistent with the adopted fiscal plan and adjustment fiscal plan) and manage the government, with all that it entails.” Indeed, in an earlier ‘who’s in charge dispute,’ when the PROMESA Board tried to appoint a trustee to monitor the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), alleging that PROMESA recognizes it as representative of the “debtor,” Judge Swain stated that no section of the PROMESA law granted the Board power with regard to the “the implementation of those (fiscal) plans and budgets,” instead comparing the statute Congress adopted in the 1990’s creating a fiscal control board over Washington, D.C. with PROMESA. She concluded that the Board has the task of establishing the “rails” for the “territorial government” to move “towards credibility and fiscal responsibility.” Indeed, the Congressional Record appears to make no reference to the power of the Board to impose structural governmental reforms—just as Congress lacks any authority to impose such on a state—especially in a nation where it was the states which created the nation, rather than vice versa. Rather, the Congressional debate on Puerto Rico reflected an emphasis on the power of the PROMESA Board to restructure the debt, which is the main burden of Puerto Rico—and, in Congress, Republicans and Democrats have expressed no interest in amending the act, either to strengthen or soften the powers of the Board.

For his part, Chairman Bishop believes that the act allows the Board to implement structural reforms and that it would be an irresponsible attitude of the Puerto Rican government to block them. That indicates there could well be intriguing fiscal and governmental discussions this weekend—albeit it seems most certain that, as Gov. Rosselló has made clear: “We are not going to allow an imposed Board to dictate the public policy of Puerto Rico.”

Notwithstanding their differences over the extent of the powers of the PROMESA Board, Gov. Rosselló and the Board are not at complete odds: they appear to have made common cause before regarding the case of Aurelius investment group and the Electrical Industry and Irrigation Workers Union, the main union of PREPA, to defend the constitutionality of the appointment of the Board members, because six of the seven were proposed by the Congressional leadership; rather, Gov. Rosselló’s administration has limited itself to challenging actions of the Board, not its existence—even as one of his predecessors, former Governor Acevedo Vilá, noting that, even under the colonial situation and the doctrine of Insular Cases decided a century ago by the U.S. Supreme Court, which has repeatedly validated the so-called “plenary powers” of Congress in Puerto Rico, the government of Puerto Rico must challenge the existence of the Board as a violation of the U.S. Constitution under the theory that “to the extent that Board has executive and legislative powers, even under the Insular Cases, it is unconstitutional,” adding that: “Even when organizing the territories, Congress has to guarantee a minimum system of separation of powers.”

The Puerto Rico Debt Tango. While the PROMESA Oversight Board and Gov. Rosselló are engaged in a complicated dance over future debt payments and policy, their complicated dance steps are not dissimilar: In successive versions of a fiscal plan that the Governor submitted to the Board in January, February, March, and last month; the Governor said the amount of debt Puerto Rico should carry should be determined through a comparison with debt medians in the 50 mainland states—quite similar to the Board’s certified plan.  Like the Governor’s proposed fiscal plans, the board certified plan has a comparison to the medians for the 50 states and to the 10 states with the highest levels of four measures of debt. The Board certified plan stated: “The implied debt capacity and expected growth in debt capacity in debt capacity must be sufficient to cover both the payments due on the restructured debt, and all payments due on future new money borrowings.” Accordingly, the aggregate debt service due on all fixed payment debt issued in the restructuring of the government’s existing tax-supported debt should be capped at a maximum annual debt service level: “The cap would be derived from the U.S. state rating metrics, and specifically what Moody’s [Investors Service] calls the ‘Debt Service Ratio.’” (The debt service ratio is defined as ratio of total debt payments due in a year divided by a state-government’s own source revenues.)

Under such a construct, it would appear that Puerto Rico could pay about $19 billion of the roughly $45 billion that the central government and its closely related lending entities owe, according to the plan’s exhibit 26. In the same exhibit, the PROMESA Board alternately suggests that one should use an average of a set of four measures of debt capacity and not just own-source revenues. Using this composite measure would mean that Puerto Rico should pay back about $10.7 billion in outstanding debt. But the Board plan notes this would be optimistic for a promised level of payments, rather, it reports, the fixed amount committed to should be cut by 10% to 30% to allow for “implementation risk.” It suggest that 20% should be used and the coupon be adjusted to 5%. These would lead to Puerto Rico committing to pay 19% of its debt—adding: “Any additional cash flow above the maximum annual debt service cap applied to the restructured fixed payment debt that is generated over the long-term from successful implementation of the new fiscal plan could be dedicated to a combination of contingent ‘growth bond’ payments to legacy bond creditors, debt service due on future new money borrowings needed to fund Puerto Rico’s infrastructure investments, and additional ‘PayGo’ capital investment to reduce the government’s historically out-size reliance on borrowing to fund its needs, among other purposes.”

The Uneven Challenges to Chapter 9 Recovery from Municipal Bankruptcy

Mayday, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we note the uneven recovery in Detroit from the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in American history.

An Absence of Fiscal Balance? In a new report by 24/7 Wall Street about the nation’s poorest urban regions, Detroit is ranked 5th, raising, the publication notes, the question why so many communities in such good times have been left fiscally behind. . The report — from 24/7 Wall St., a New York-based financial news organization — ranks the Detroit area at No. 5 in a list of impoverished communities. It also raises the question: During such good economic times, why are so many being left behind? While the report notes the seeming good times for the U.S. economy, it also reports that the share of Americans living below the federal poverty level ($25,100 for a family of four) has increased by nearly 10 percent since 2010. But of greater concern for state and local leaders, the concentration of poverty has also risen—or, as the report noted: “This increased concentration of poverty is far more pronounced in certain metropolitan areas: The share of poor residents living in extremely poor neighborhoods—defined as those with a poverty rate of at least 40%—climbed by more than 3.5% in 20 metro areas in the last six years.” That is, in a post-Richard Nixon era where the federal government no longer appears to believe it has a role in providing some fiscal equity, the report writes that the Detroit metro area has “long been the poster child for economic decline in postindustrial America.”

It appears we are in a state of fiscal disequilibrium, where no major municipality is any longer in chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, and Detroit, emerging from the largest ever municipal bankruptcy and now a center of innovation again for the auto industry, with the city’s poverty rates having declined by more than 10% from 2015 to 2016—to its lowest rate in a decade. Nevertheless, with a poverty rate of 35.7% in 2016, the report found that an increasing share of residents in the metro region are, today, below the federal poverty level: 16.2%, putting the Motor City behind Bakersfield, Fresno, Springfield (Mass.), and Albuquerque, N.M. The report noted: “The share of poor residents living in extremely poor neighborhoods—defined as those with a poverty rate of at least 40%—climbed by more than 3.5% in 20 metro areas in the last six years: Such high-poverty neighborhoods are often characterized by high crime rates, low educational attainment rates, and high unemployment. Partially as a result, those living in these extremely poor neighborhoods are at a greatly reduced likelihood of success and upward economic mobility.”

The 24/7 Wall Street bears out Brooking’s 2016 report which defined the Detroit metro region (including Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, Livingston, St. Clair, and Lapeer) to have the highest rate of concentrated poverty among the most populous metro areas in the U.S. That is, in a nationally growing economy, one can, mayhap, better appreciate some of the appeal of President Trump, as there remains, in a growing economy, a large segment of the population unable to take advantage of the growing economy.

Part of it, of course, is that the issue of fiscal disparities is neither on the agenda of the President nor Congress.

Nevertheless, as our colleagues at Municipal Market Analytics note, Detroit’s exit from state oversight this week after shedding about $7 billion of its fiscal liabilities  “seems a bit fast, given the depths of the city’s challenges, and suggests that the state continues to value a narrative of quick rebound versus evidence that such can be sustained.” While MMA noted Detroit’s relatively conservative budgeting, small resulting surpluses, planning for the upcoming spike in pension payments, and decision to redeem $52M in recovery bonds; it noted the “the rising pension payments are a significant concern (even with funds set aside to temporarily smooth incremental costs) particularly when considered in conjunction with the city’s limited flexibility to address other potential events outside of its control such as reductions in federal or state aid, changes in federal policies that impact the economy in the state and/or nationally, and probably most concerning, an economic recession.”

Interestingly, MMA noted that were the Motor City’s recovery to stumble, the “potential for additional state intervention or aid is remote. Going forward, the city is likely on its own,” adding that, notwithstanding that the city has become an epicenter of the self-driving car industry; nevertheless,  this represents just a portion of the city and: “The rising living costs in these areas risks pushing existing residents out to more challenged neighborhoods, creating a greater income divide and worsening inequality. Notwithstanding the burgeoning economy in some pockets of Detroit, significant challenges remain across the vast city including horribly high poverty, crime, and poor educational outcomes. Detroit’s poverty rate is 39.4%, and only 13.8% have attained at least a bachelor’s degree.”