Three Different Roads to Fiscal Recovery

November 6, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the next critical step in Detroit’s emergence from the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history; then we consider the ongoing legal and fiscal recovery of Ferguson, Missouri, before, finally, trying to go to school in Puerto Rico.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

The Road Out of State Oversight. The city of Detroit expects to get the keys back to its financial house this spring for the first time since it exited bankruptcy in 2014. The question is whether it can keep the house in order once state oversight ends — and local elected officials regain control over budgets and contracts. With two balanced budgets and an audit of a third expected in May, city officials anticipate they will be released early next year from the strict financial controls required under Chapter 9 restructuring. The shift is especially important as voters cast ballots Tuesday for the Detroit leaders who will chart the city’s direction. Both Mayor Mike Duggan and challenger Coleman Young II have offered plans on how they would guide the city financially. Gov. Rick Snyder said he is optimistic about the city’s ability to manage finances on its own. “They’ve been hitting those milestones, and I hope they continue to hit them — that’s a good thing for all of us,” Snyder told The Detroit News.

There is evidence that the oversight is no longer warranted: Detroit’s credit has been upgraded among rating agencies, its employment rate is up and property values are climbing. The city, in a financial update last month, noted economic development in some neighborhoods and Detroit’s downtown, job creation efforts and growth in multifamily home construction. Experts say bankruptcy allowed Detroit to drop billions in debt, setting it on a solid financial path. But the city faces massive future payments for past borrowing and pension obligations that are difficult to plan for. “It really takes the economic environment to cooperate, as well as some very good and focused financial management. Right now, that seems to be all there,” said Lisa Washburn, managing director of the Concord, Massachusetts-based firm Municipal Market Analytics. “Eventually, I suspect there will be another economic downturn and how that affects that region, that’s something outside of their control. But it can’t be outside of their field of vision.”

Post-oversight protections. The landmark municipal bankruptcy set forth strict conditions to help Detroit avoid falling back into debt. A nine-member commission, which under the law includes Duggan and City Council President Brenda Jones, currently signs off on the city’s four-year budget plan, certain contracts and transactions. It has also empowered to review, modify and approve operational budgets. The commission was established as a condition of a financial aid package approved by the state Legislature to defray cuts to Detroit retiree pensions and shield the Detroit Institute of Arts collection from bankruptcy creditors. There are still protections even if the city is released from oversight, Detroit officials note. The state-mandated commission would continue to meet monthly and could step back in if necessary, the city’s Chief Financial Officer John Hill said. The city would continue to hold revenue estimation conferences in February and September to set budgeting limits for each fiscal year, as well as develop a four-year financial plan. Detroit’s numbers are headed in the right direction when it comes to property values, income tax collection, median income and employment. Among the positives:

■The city’s taxable value is projected to climb by about $100 million, from $6.4 billion based on the taxable values from the end of the 2016 calendar year to $6.5 billion at the end of this year, according to data from the CFO’s office.

■The city projects an increase of about $30 million in its residential real estate — the first boost in the property class in almost two decades. Detroit’s level of owner-occupied homes went from a low of 59 percent in 2010 to a projected 74 percent in 2018, based on findings from the reappraisal, officials say.

■City figures show income tax collection has gone from $263.2 million in the 2016 fiscal year to a forecast of $285 million for 2017, based on unaudited figures.

■The city’s employment has gone up from 206,568 in January 2014 to 233,068 this July, according to labor statistics.

■Detroiters’ median household income was $28,099 in 2016, a 7.5 percent hike from the previous year, according to U.S. Census estimates released in September.

Not as encouraging are poverty and crime rates. The poverty rate has dipped 4 percentage points to 35.7 percent, Detroit’s lowest since 2008. But the rate is still the highest among large U.S. cities, as is the city’s violent crime rate. “You can’t ignore what’s happening in the downtown and Midtown, but Detroit is obviously so much bigger than that,” said Matt Butler, a vice president at Moody’s Investors Service and lead analyst for Detroit. “The real story here going forward is how is Detroit able to re-create that development in other areas of the city.”

The city filed for bankruptcy in the summer of 2013 and officially exited on Dec. 10, 2014, with a plan to shed $7 billion in debt and pump $1.7 billion into restructuring and city service improvements over a decade. Last month, Moody’s Investors Service upgraded Detroit’s credit outlook and praised the city for its gains. Detroit’s economy “remains vulnerable,” the report noted, but adds it “is showing real progress.” Detroit recorded a general fund surplus of just over $63 million in fiscal year 2016 and expects an additional surplus for 2017 of about $38.5 million. For 2015, the surplus was about $71 million. But Moody’s warns of economic unknowns that could pose future problems, namely the massive contributions that loom for its two pension funds.

A funding plan forged through Detroit’s bankruptcy coined the “grand bargain” relieved the city of much of those payments through 2023. But in 2024, the city will have to start funding a substantial portion of the pension obligations from its general fund for the General Retirement System and Police and Fire Retirement System. The initial payment was first contemplated at $113.9 million, but city officials later said estimates had been off, in part because of outdated mortality tables. If earnings meet the plan of debt adjustment’s assumed return rate of 6.75 percent, the city’s contribution in 2024 would be $167 million. If there are no earnings, it could soar to $344 million or more. Contributions to the pensions would be annual and could continue for 20-30 years. Investment returns have varied greatly. To minimize a shortfall, the city’s administration established a dedicated Retiree Protection Fund that’s expected to pull together $335 million in the coming years to help meet the required contributions. The City Council would contribute a dedicated amount from its general fund each year. So far, $105 million has been set aside. Moody’s has called the fund a “credit positive action,” noting, however, that once it’s depleted in 2033 the city will be required to fund annual pension payments directly from its budget.

Retooling debt structure. CFO Hill notes that today his greatest concern is restructuring the city’s debt, so, last month, the city solicited requests for proposals from investment banks which could help address debt tied to past capital borrowing and millages—or, as Mr. Hill put it: “We think revenues should increase, but if we can also deal with the structure of the debt and lower those payments then the city will be much better off,” said Hill, adding a plan, he said, would “set the city on the course to have dealt with two of its major challenges.” Indeed, the issue of the city’s debt and finance has been, unsurprisingly, an issue in the mayoral campaign, where Mayor Duggan, during a debate, said Detroit’s City Council has been rigorous in making sure that we “watch every dollar that we have,” and he expects the city will be released from state fiscal oversight this spring—adding that, under his administration, “We won’t ever lose self-determination again.” In response, his opponent, Coleman Young, counters that Detroit will not fully regain budget and contract authority back from the state; moreover, he vowed he would, if elected, find efficiencies and reduce costs—and cut what he deemed the “top heavy” staff to manager ratio, adding: “These are some of the things I am willing to do to make sure we have a balanced budget and our finances get back in order.”  “In theory, it would be great to have as much money plowed into redevelopment as possible, but that comes at a cost,” she said. “With less than seven years away from having to start making pension payments again, you don’t want to find yourself in a budgetary hole at a time when you can see it coming.”

Ferguson’s Steep Road to Recovery. Ferguson, Missouri, a small city of about 21,000, which in 2010 was 67.4% black, and 29.3% white, with 8,192 households of which 39.1% had children under the age of 18 living with them, and 31.5% had a female householder with no husband present—and where 32.9% were non-families, is a relatively young municipality: the median age in the city was 33.1 years, while 10.3% were 65 years of age or older. The gender makeup of the city was 44.8% male and 55.2% female. It is a city where the Mayor is directly elected (Mayor James Knowles ran unopposed in 2014 in an election where voter turnout was approximately 12%.) Ferguson is one of 89 municipalities in St. Louis County, where the county police have jurisdiction throughout. It is a city where the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown still weighs.

Last Friday, in Ferguson, as part of a street theater protest, activists set fire to a model depicting the Ferguson Commission report in front of City Hall: it was a demonstration intended to mock political leaders and the city police department’s response to crime and protests in the city. The demonstration came just two weeks after St. Louis police, using a technique called “kettling,” in which exits are blocked in and people are arrested en masse, arrested dozens of protesters, residents, journalists, and legal observers as people protested, for a third day, after former police officer Jason Stockley was found not guilty in the 2011 fatal shooting of Mr. Lamar–and after Mayor Lyda Krewson challenged the city to recommit itself to reforms laid out in the Ferguson Commission report—the nearly 200-page report which had proposed 189 “calls to action,” and marked the culmination of nearly 10 months of work for a commission established by former Gov. Jay Nixon in 2015, in response to the shooting death of Michael Brown, a black teenager, by a white Ferguson police officer—a report in which Commissioners grouped their post-Ferguson calls for action into three categories: Justice for All, involving urgent police and court reforms; Youth at the Center, exploring policies to promote better lives for children; and Opportunity to Thrive, laying out changes to address economic inequalities.

Regional leaders have largely focused on the “Justice for All” component of the report, overhauling municipal court practices such as jailing defendants who could not pay their fines, even as discussion has commenced on strengthening the Civilian Oversight Board, equipping police with body cameras, and developing police policies for using force and for handling public demonstrations. The report also called for improving the public’s relationship with law enforcement through community policing, by encouraging police departments to facilitate better interactions between officers and those they serve, and allowing the public to weigh in on programs and policies through forums. Starsky Wilson, the former co-chair of the Ferguson Commission, in a recent interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, noted that while police accountability and reform has clearly been the starting point for those revisiting the Commission’s findings, he hoped elected leaders would not forget the aspects of the report devoted to building a better St. Louis for the city’s children: “It can’t just be about police. That’s just one piece of the puzzle.”

Nevertheless, the Ferguson protests appear to have produced changes, particularly in Ferguson itself, where new city and police leaders came into power. The state Legislature also passed a municipal reform statute, the most significant element of which lowered the cap on revenue from traffic tickets: It can now only make up 12.5 percent of a city’s general operating revenue in St. Louis County, and 20 percent elsewhere, down from 30 percent. Moreover, municipalities which fail to submit a timely and accurate report on their finances to the state auditor will immediately lose jurisdiction over their courts. (The previous law did little to punish the many courts that ignored the limits.) The impact was swift: Ferguson’s Municipal Court revenue plummeted from $2.7 million in 2014 to roughly $500,000 in 2016.

In St. Louis, Mr. Wilson cites several achievements, including the creation of a Civilian Oversight Board and the decision to raise the city’s minimum wage, both in 2015, though state lawmakers negated the wage effort this year. Meanwhile, other bills have been introduced to address some of the Ferguson Commission’s findings, including a measure being considered by the St. Louis Board of Aldermen limiting when St. Louis police could use pepper spray and tear gas. Sponsoring Alderman Megan Green, 15th Ward, reports she hopes it will serve as a starting point for officials to discuss revising the city’s vague ordinance against unlawful assembly. Asked what changes were made in the city police department in response to the Ferguson report, spokeswoman Schron Jackson said the St. Louis Police Department has begun training officers in de-escalation tactics and how implicit bias may affect their work, as well as how to work with victims of violence who are gay, transgender, and bisexual. These kinds of higher training standards were among recommendations laid out by the Ferguson Commission. Additionally, Ms. Jackson said, the department has launched its Community Engagement and Organizational Development Division, which carries out community outreach programs.

But Mr. Wilson questions these early efforts: “When we see police arrest more than 300 people over 18 days, then we have to ask how seriously the increased training requirements were implemented…and how much culture change is actually happening, around use of force: What were the lessons that were learned surrounding de-escalation?” Allegations that police have improperly used force in recent weeks have already prompted the ACLU to challenge St. Louis police tactics in federal court. They have also sparked conversations at the St. Louis Board of Aldermen about when force should be used—and who should investigate afterward. The aldermanic public safety committee has already interviewed Maj. Mary Warnecke, deputy Commander of the department’s Bureau of Professional Standards, and Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner. Attorney Gardner has pitched the formation of a new unit in her office to investigate use-of-force incidents and officer-involved shootings, arguing that it is no longer acceptable for police to be investigating themselves.

In the long-term, the Ferguson Commission recommended shifting deadly force investigations to the Missouri Highway Patrol and the state attorney general—a recommendation in response to which Gov. Eric Greitens said he was open to considering. City lawmakers, too, are exploring Attorney Gardner’s idea, crafting legislation expanding the circuit attorney’s prosecutorial powers and giving the office the ability to open investigations into police officers’ use of force, according to Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed, who notes that events such as the Stockley verdict can be catalysts for change, if legislators work quickly enough: noting that the creation of a Civilian Oversight Board is proof of that. The Aldermen had attempted to institute an oversight board in 2006, but the bill, which included subpoena power, was vetoed by former Mayor Francis Slay. Ferguson finally opened the door for its creation, President Reed said, but subpoena power did not have the requisite support to make it into the final product. With the continued unrest, a new mayor and a more open-minded board, Mr. Reed sees a window of opportunity to revisit subpoena power: “I see a readiness for people now to step outside of what I would call their normal comfort zone and support efforts that probably in a normal state they would be a little more hesitant to support.” Mayor Krewson supports providing subpoena power to the city’s Civilian Oversight Board, which investigates complaints against police, and has said she agrees with community leaders who have demanded local police change how they handle use-of-force investigations and prosecutions. She also has committed to establishing a Racial Equity Fund, a proposed 25-year city fund dedicated to promoting racial equity in the region. “I know I don’t have the decision-making power across all of these things, but I am committed to adding my political will to the push to find the right way to get those things done,” Mayor Krewson said after the first week of protests over Stockley. One thing the Mayor says she has the power to do immediately is oust interim Police Chief Lawrence O’Toole, who declared police “owned the night” after law enforcement used a technique called “kettling” to surround and arrest more than 100 people on a single evening. She has shown no indication that she will act before the chief hiring process plays out.  “We have all the answers we need in the report. The road map exists. The longer (Krewson) chooses not to act, the longer our city hurts,” said Charli Cooksey, a catalyst with the Forward Through Ferguson advocacy group. ‘Not a short-term endeavor.’ There may be a long road ahead in making changes laid out in the report a reality, but leaders have pointed to some encouraging signs. Wilson says he has noticed a more diverse group of people engaging in disruption this time, suggesting that people understand the problems don’t amount to “black people’s issues” alone. “These are justice issues. Racial inequity harms the entire region and all people,” he said.

Forward Through Ferguson, the advocacy group that grew out of the Ferguson Commission, plans to knock on as many as 4,000 doors to get feedback before kicking off a series of policy campaigns next spring. “It’s not a short-term endeavor,” Ms. Cooksey said: “Diverse stakeholders in the region have to be committed to this for years to come.” But those inspired to run for office after the events of Ferguson, such as Rasheen Aldridge, a former Ferguson commissioner and now 5th Ward Democratic Committeeman, contend that new leaders have emerged at the state and local levels who have a better understanding of why young people have been protesting in recent weeks. “We have new people at the table, folks who are for the people, who haven’t been bought out and who haven’t been around for a while,” Aldridge said: “They’re willing to do the work.”

Learning about Fiscal & Physical Recovery. The Department of Education of Puerto Rico expects to open 80 percent of the 1,113 public schools on the island next Monday after having relaxed the criteria to enable the schools by the pressure of parents, mothers and students who demand a return to normalcy. Through twitter, the Department of Education published the list of schools that will open. The slowness in the process of resumption of classes on the island has been criticized by parents, educators, and even legislators who complain that six weeks after the passage of hurricane Maria on the island, only 152 schools have been opened (13 percent of the total) in the educational regions of San Juan, Ponce, Mayagüez and Bayamón. Groups of parents and teachers have held protests; the Federation of Teachers of Puerto Rico (FMPR) has called for a massive demonstration for November 9th to press for the opening of closed schools.  Members of the school community claim that many of the schools are able to operate, with water, no debris, or damage that poses a danger to students, but have not been opened. Even a mother of a special education student started a hunger strike against the DE in Hato Rey to demand that classes be resumed at the Urban Elementary School in Guaynabo, because the prolonged closure is having adverse effects on her child’s health: “Children of special education, when you take away their world, when you take away their school, you take away their therapies, you are leaving them unarmed. It is another hurricane that is reaching them: “I am seeing my daughter break down day by day, I am seeing my daughter who has started to attack herself, something that five years ago she did not do.”

The criticism focuses on the slowness of the work of the US Army Corps of Engineers and a company that contracted to inspect the schools and certify that they do not represent a danger to students and that they have water service, they are free of debris and fumigated. Most the the re-opened schools are without electricity: even the education unions FMPR and National Union of Educators and Education Workers (Unete) maintain that the limited opening of schools could be part of a supposed plan to close schools and eliminate teacher positions, something which had been happening before the impacts of hurricanes Irma and Maria, when Puerto Rico’s public education system had, after severe budget cuts, closed 167 schools—and suffered a decline of some 44,000 students. To date, some 800 schools which have been inspected, but there are still another 300—leaving Education Secretary Keleher to describe her frustration with the “slowness of the inspection process,” and that the Department will not use the Corps of Engineers or the CSA private firm for these works. The Secretary added that there are about 44 schools which will not open because of structural damage; she noted that for schools that will not open, “We are going to relocate that population or to bring them a temporary school, which is like a wagon.”

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Fiscal & Physical Storm Recoveries

October 30, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider, again, the spread of Connecticut’s fiscal blues to its municipalities; then, we observe the lengthening fiscal and human plight of Puerto Rico.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

The Price of Solvency. Ending months of fiscal frustration, the Connecticut House of Representatives late Thursday provided its strong, bipartisan endorsement (126-23) to two-year, $41 billion state budget which closes a gaping deficit, rejects large-scale tax increases, and seeks to bolster the state’s future fiscal stability. Notwithstanding, S&P Global Ratings, the following day, issued its own fiscal storm warnings that it is a budget which will still leave the state’s municipalities at fiscal risk. Governor Dannell Molloy has not yet said if or when he might sign that budget into state law; however, because it passed both Houses by veto-proof margins, the question is no longer “if,” but rather: what will it mean for the state’s municipalities? Thus, S&P warned:  “We note that virtually all local governments will see some reductions to state aid, while only a few—typically those with the greatest economic challenges—will see flat year-over-year state aid.” Similarly, Conn. House Majority Leader Matt Ritter (D-Hartford) told his colleagues: “We’re at the end of a journey: This budget offers needed reforms, but also some immediate comfort that is so needed by a lot of our residents and our towns…In the darkest of days…we found a way to pull through.”

As adopted, the budget bill provides financial assistance to eastern Connecticut homeowners dealing with crumbling foundations, reduced funding for UConn, offers $40 million to help the City of Hartford avoid filing for Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities Executive Director Joe DeLong, in the League’s initial analysis of the municipal impact of the bipartisan budget agreement, noted: “Municipal leaders acknowledge the difficult choices made by state leaders in forging this bipartisan budget agreement and the impact they have on the lives of Connecticut residents: The actions taken by State leaders to support cities and towns protects the interests of residents and businesses across the state and for that we are grateful.” With the State facing a $5 billion biennial budget deficit, the state budget agreement spares towns and cities from the draconian cuts set to roll out under the Governor’s Executive Order and includes many significant structural reforms that municipalities have been advocating for years. Mr. DeLong added that the final budget agreement provides for numerous municipal reforms sought by the League last January in its groundbreaking public policy initiative, “This Report Is Different.”  

Connecticut House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz noted: “Leaders do things that are maybe not in their best interests, or may be against their own beliefs, in an effort to do what’s right. And I think that was done,’’ as Rep. Toni Walker (D-New Haven), Co-Chairwoman of the appropriations committee, described the bill as a significant step toward closing a $3.5 billion deficit over the next two years and righting the state’s wobbly finances for decades to come: “I want everybody to understand we must recalibrate the financial future of Connecticut, for our families and for our businesses and this budget begins that process.’’

As adopted, the budget does not increase income or sales tax rates, although it raises hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue via an assortment of smaller measures, such as higher taxes on cigarettes, a $10 surcharge on motor vehicle registrations to support parks, and new fees on ride-sharing companies, such as Uber. On the other hand, the final agreement rolled back proposed taxes on cellphone plans, second homes, and restaurant meals. In the end, small tax increases represent just .85 percent of the budget; fee hikes constituted an even smaller contribution .11%. On the revenue side, the new budget proposes the elimination of a property tax credit for many middle-income homeowners, raises the cigarette tax, and sweeps $64 million from a clean energy fund.

In the wake of the passage, S&P Global Ratings indicated it would review the state’s municipal bond rating, but noted the municipal impact, citing the $31.4 million cut to the Education Cost Sharing Grant, the primary state grant which goes to cities and towns to help operate their schools—albeit, the cut is to be nearly fully restored next year, and distributed using an updated formula which more heavily favors the state’s lowest-performing school districts. The adopted budget also rejected Gov. Malloy’s proposal to mandate that the state’s cities and towns assume some fiscal share of the state’s soaring contributions to the teachers’ pension fund. Nevertheless, the budget was less generous to municipalities on the revenue front: the 2015 state plan to share sales tax receipts with cities and towns is all but eliminated in this budget, which officially ends the diversion of these receipts into a special account: the last remnants of a program which was supposed to distribute more than $300 million per year in sales tax receipts are: A “municipal transition grant” worth $13 million in FY 2017 and $15 million for next year. Similarly axed: a $36.5 million payment this year to offset a portion of the funds communities with high property tax rates lose because of a state-imposed cap on motor vehicle taxes: the new budget would cut $19 million in each year from grants that reimburse communities for taxes they cannot collect on exempt property owned by the state and by private colleges, hospitals and other nonprofit entities.

The adopted budget, however, from a municipal perspective, proposes to revise the prevailing wage and binding arbitration systems: municipalities would have greater flexibility to launch more publicly financed capital projects without having to pay union-level construction wages, and arbiters would have more options when ruling on wage and other contract issues involving municipalities and their employees.

Nevertheless, S&P noted: “Since new state revenue measures would have less than a year to be collected, this may leave the state without the available resources to fully appropriate for these (municipal grants),” adding: “The length of the budget impasse underscores the state’s struggling financial health.” The rating agency last month had already placed nine Connecticut municipalities and one school district on a “negative” credit watch, warning it could lead to a rating downgrade within 90 days unless their fiscal outlook improves, citing the uncertainty of Connecticut’s ability to maintain existing levels of municipal aid, reinforcing Moody’s moody outlook earlier this month when it warned that the state actions could lead to lower bond ratings for 51 municipalities and six regional school districts, placing ratings for 26 cities and towns and three regional school districts under review for downgrade, and assigning negative outlooks to an additional 25 municipalities and three more regional school districts. For its part, S&P warned: “In the end, if state fiscal pressures persist, all local governments in Connecticut will continue to be affected…and the degree of credit deterioration will depend on each government’s level [of] budgetary reserves and ability to adapt.”

Underpowered. House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) said he does not want to “come to conclusions” before he has all the information regarding the controversial $300 million contract of the Montana-based company, Whitefish Energy Holdings, with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA); nevertheless, Chairman Bishop has given PREPA Chairman Ricardo Ramos until this Thursday to submit a series of documents related to the contract with the company—a company whose largest project prior to Hurricane Maria was $ 1.3 million in the state of Arizona—especially in the wake of the contract award here made without bidding—ergo triggering a series of questions and requests for investigations by the Office of  Inspector General and from the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Chairman Bishop was part of the Congressional delegation with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Ca.) and Deputy Minority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), as well as Puerto Rico resident Commissioner in Washington, D.C., Jennifer González. House Speaker Paul Ryan ((R-Wis.) who had earlier visited the town of Utuado, known as “El Pueblo del Viví,’ which was founded in 1739 by Sebastían de Morfi, and derives its name from a local Indian Chief Otoao, which means between the mountains, to see first-hand the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria—in the wake of which he noted: “Our committee, like other groups, will investigate and we will know what is behind the Whitefish contract. I do not know enough right now to come to a conclusion against or in favor, but that’s the idea, to know the details and how it happened.”

The Chairman was not alone: the Federal Agency for Emergency Management (FEMA) has released a statement making clear that agency’s concerns about certain aspects of the contract, including an absence of certainty that some prices were even “reasonable,” in apparent reference to the hourly pay of some employees of the company. FEMA also warned that entities that fail to meet FEMA requirements may not see their expenses reimbursed. Nevertheless, Chairman Bishop said he will not “let” any concern of FEMA “get in the way…FEMA will do its job,” he insisted when asked if he was worried that FEMA would not reimburse the Puerto Rico government for payments to Whitefish. (Last night, Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares confirmed that he was about to receive a report he had requested from the Office of Management and Budget about the contract.).

Chairman Bishop noted that, as a result of the destruction caused by Hurricane Maria, he is considering possible changes to the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA), albeit, when asked about specific changes, he limited himself to saying that the Oversight Board “does not need more authority;” rather, he said, the focus now needs to be on the provision of power and drinking water. Asked by Majority Leader McCarthy whether the devastation he had witnessed makes him think that the aid mechanism for Puerto Rico should change, he answered that “a lot of infrastructure is needed, and we have to lift the electrical system…I spoke with (Minority Leader) Steny Hoyer. I do not think it would be the best use of taxpayers’ money to build the same grid that we had. We need a 21st century one that is more efficient and effective and we can do it with more transparency,” albeit he was unclear what he meant by transparency. Rep. Hoyer noted: “We know there is an urgency,”  adding the delegation needed to all go back to Washington, D.C. to work together, but “we need an urgency to fix the electrical system and for power to reach the whole island. Governor Rosselló Nevares, who accompanied them on the tour, has said that if the quality of life in Puerto Rico does not reach what it should be: “People will be disappointed, and they will leave.”

The Steep & Ethical Challenges in Roads to Fiscal Recovery

October 17, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the ongoing recovery in Detroit from the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history; then we turn to the Constitution State, Connecticut, as the Governor and State Legislature struggle to reach consensus on a budget, before, finally, returning to Petersburg, Virginia to try to reflect on the ethical dimensions of fiscal challenges.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

The Motor City Road to Recovery.  The City of Detroit has issued a request seeking proposals to lead a tender offer and refunding of its financial recovery municipal bonds with the goal of reducing the costs of its debt service, with bids due by the end of next week, all as a continuing part of its chapter 9 plan of debt adjustment. The city has issued $631 million of unsecured B1 and B2 notes and $88 million of unsecured C notes. The bulk of the issuance is intended to secure the requisite capital to pay off various creditors, via so-called term bonds, 30-year municipal debt at a gradually sliding interest rate of 4% for the first two decades, and then 6% over the final decade, as the debt is structured to be interest-only for the first 10 years, before amortizing principal over the remainder of the term, with the city noting: “It is the city’s goal to alleviate the significant escalation of debt service during the period when principal on the B Notes begins to amortize, and that any transaction resulting from this RFP process be executed as early as possible in the first quarter of 2018.” According to Detroit Finance Director John Naglick, “Those bonds are traded very close to par, because people view them as very secure…Those bondholders feel really comfortable because they see the intercept doing what it was designed to do.” The new borrowing is the city’s third since its exit from chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, with the prior two issued via the Michigan Finance Authority. Last week the city announced plans to utilize the private placement of $125 million in municipal bonds, also through the Michigan Finance Authority, provided the issuance is approved by both the Detroit City Council and the Detroit Financial Review commission, with the bonds proposed to be secured by increased revenues the Motor City is receiving from its share of state gas taxes and vehicle registration fees.

Fiscal TurmoilConnecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy yesterday released his fourth fiscal budget proposal—with the issuance coming as he awaits ongoing efforts by leaders in the state legislature attempting to reach consensus on a two-year state budget, declaring: “This is a lean, no-frills, no-nonsense budget…Our goals were simple in putting this plan together: eliminate unpopular tax increases, incorporate ideas from both parties, and shrink the budget and its accompanying legislation down to their essential parts. It is my sincere hope this document will aid the General Assembly in passing a budget that I can sign into law.” The release came as bipartisan leaders from the state legislature were meeting for the 11th day behind closed doors in a so far unrewarding effort to agree on a budget to bring to the Governor—whose most recent budget offer had removed some of the last-minute revenue ideas included in the Democratic budget proposal. Nevertheless, that offer gained no traction with Republican legislators: it had proposed cuts in social services, security, and clean energy—or, as the Governor described it: “This is a stripped down budget.” Specifically, the Governor had proposed an additional $144 million in spending cuts from the most recent Democratic budget proposal, including: nearly $5 million from tax relief for elderly renters; $5.4 million for statewide marketing through the Department of Economic and Community Development; $292,000 in grants for mental health services; $11.8 million from the Connecticut Home Care Program over two years, and; about $1.8 million from other safety net services. His proposed budget would eliminate the state cellphone tax and a statewide property tax on second homes in Connecticut, as proposed by the Democrats; it also proposes the elimination of the 25 cent fee on ridesharing services, such as Uber and Lyft, and it reduces the amount of money Democrats wanted to take from the Green Bank, which helps fund renewable energy projects. His proposal also recommends cutting about $3.3 million each year from the state legislature’s own budget and eliminates the legislative Commissions for women, children, seniors, and minority communities—commissions which had already been reduced from six to two over the past two years. The Governor’s revised budget proposal would cut the number of security staff at the capitol complex to what it was before the metal detectors were implemented—proposed to achieve savings of about $325,000 annually, and the elimination of the Contracting Standards Board, which the state created a decade ago in response to two government scandals—here for a savings of $257,000.

For the state’s municipalities, the Governor’s offer proposes phasing in an unfunded state mandate that municipalities start picking up the normal cost of the teachers’ pension fund: Connecticut municipalities would be mandated to contribute a total of about $91 million in the first year, and $189 million in the second year of the budget—contributions which would be counted as savings for the state—and would be less steep than Gov. Malloy had initially proposed, but still considerably higher than many municipalities may have expected. Indeed, Betsy Gara, the Executive Director of the Council for Small Towns, described the latest gubernatorial budget proposal as a “Swing and a miss: The revised budget proposal continues to shift teachers’ pension costs to towns in a way that will overwhelm property taxpayers,” adding that if the state decides to go in this direction, they will be forced to take legal action, because requiring towns to pick up millions of dollars in teachers’ pension costs without any ability to manage those costs going forward is ‘simply unfair.’” Moreover, she noted, it violates the 2008 bond covenant.

In his revised new budget changes, Gov. Malloy has proposed cutting the Education Cost Sharing grant, reducing magnet school funding by about $15 million a year, and eliminating ECS funding immediately for 36 communities. The proposal to eliminate the ECS funding would likely encounter not just legislative challenges, but also judicial: it was just a year ago that a Connecticut judge’s sweeping ruling had declared vast portions of the state’s educational system as unconstitutional, when Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher ruled that Connecticut’s state funding mechanism for public schools violated the state’s constitution and ordered the state to come up with a new funding formula—and mandated the state to set up a mandatory standard for high school graduation, overhaul evaluations for public-school teachers, and create new standards for special education in the wake of a lawsuit filed against the state in 2005 by a coalition of cities, local school boards, parents and their children, who had claimed Connecticut did not give all students a minimally adequate and equal education. The plaintiffs had sought to address funding disparities between wealthy and poor school districts.

Nevertheless, in the wake of a week where the state’s Democratic and Republican legislative leaders have been holed up in the state Capitol, without Gov. Malloy, combing, line-by-line, through budget documents; they report they have been discussing ways to not only cover a projected $3.5 billion deficit in a roughly $40 billion two-year budget, but also to make lasting fiscal changes in hopes of stopping what has become a cycle of budget crises in one of the nation’s wealthiest states—or, as House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, (D-Berlin) put it: “I think what we’ve done over the last few days has been a really good step forward, and I think we’re moving in the right direction,” even as Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano said what the Governor put forward Monday will not pass the legislature: “It is obvious that the governor’s proposal, including his devastating cuts to certain core services and shifting of state expenses onto towns and cities, would not pass the legislature in its current form. Therefore, legislative leaders will continue our efforts to work on a bipartisan budget that can actually pass.”

Getting Schooled on Budgeting & Debt. Even as the Governor and legislature appear to be achieving some progress, the Connecticut Education Association (CEA) is suing the state over Gov. Dannel Malloy’s executive order which cuts $557 million in school funding from 139 municipalities: Connecticut’s largest teachers union has filed an injunction request in Hartford Superior Court, alleging the order violates state law. (The order eliminates education funding in 85 cities and towns and severely cuts funding in another 54 communities.) The suit contends that without a state budget, Gov. Malloy lacks the authority to cut education funding. The municipalities of Torrington, Plainfield, and Brooklyn joined the initial filing. Association President Sheila Cohen noted: “We can’t sit by and watch our public schools dismantled and students and teachers stripped of essential resources…This injunction is the first step toward ensuring that our state lives up to its commitment and constitutional obligations to adequately fund public education.”

Governance in Fiscal Straits? Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen has questioned the legality of Governor Malloy’s executive order, and Connecticut Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano (R-North Haven) noted: “I think the Governor’s order is in very serious legal trouble.” Nevertheless, the Governor, speaking to reporters at the state capitol, accused the CEA of acting prematurely: “Under normal circumstances, those checks don’t go out until the end of October…Secondarily, they’ll have to handle the issue of the fact that we have a lot less money to spend without a budget than we do with a budget…Their stronger argument might be that we can’t make any payments to communities in the absence of a budget. That one I would be afraid of.”

Municipal Fiscal Ethics? Forensic auditors from PBMares, LLP publicly went over their findings from the forensic audit they conducted into the City of Petersburg, Virginia’s financial books during a special City Council meeting. Even though the audit and its findings were released last week, John Hanson and Mike Garber, who were in charge of the audit for PBMares, provided their report to Council and answered their questions, focusing especially on what they deemed the “ethical tone” of the city government, saying they found much evidence of abuse of city money and city resources: “The perception that employees had was that the ethical tone had not been good for quite some time…The culture led employees to do things they might not otherwise do.” They noted misappropriations of fuel for city vehicles, falsification of overtime hours, vacation/sick leave abuse, use of city property for personal gain including lawn mowers and vehicles for travel, excessive or lavish gifts from vendors, and questionable hiring practices. In response, several Council Members asked whether if some of the employees who admitted to misconduct could be named. Messieurs Garber and Hanson, however, declined to reveal names in public, but said they could discuss it in private with City Manager Aretha Ferrell-Benavides, albeit advising the City Council that the ethical problems seemed to be more “systemic,” rather than individual, adding: “For instance, we looked at fuel data usage…And we could tell just looking at it that it was misused, though it would’ve cost tens of thousands of more dollars to find out who exactly took what.”

In response to apprehensions that the audit was insufficient, the auditors noted that because of the city’s limited budget, the scope of PBMares’ work could only go so far. Former Finance Director Nelsie Birch noted that the audit was tasked with focusing on several “troubling areas,” and that a full forensic audit could have cost much more for a city which had hovered on the brink of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. However, Mr. Hanson noted that while the transgressions would have normally fallen under a conflict of interest policy, such was the culture in Petersburg that the city’s employees either did not know, or were allowed to ignore those policies: “When I asked employees what their conflict of interest or gifts and gratuity policy is, people couldn’t answer that question because they didn’t know.”

 

Looming Municipal Insolvencies?

October 10, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the looming municipal fiscal threat to one of the nation’s oldest municipalities, and the ongoing fiscal, legal, physical, and human challenges to Puerto Rico.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

Cascading Insolvency. One of the nation’s oldest municipalities, Scotland, a small Connecticut city founded in 1700, but not incorporated until 1857, still maintains the town meeting as its form of government with a board of selectmen. It is a town with a declining population of fewer than 1,700, where the most recent median income for a household in the town was $56,848, and the median income for a family was $60,147. It is a town today on the edge of insolvency—in a state itself of the verge of insolvency. The town not only has a small population, but also a tiny business community: there is one farm left in the town, a general store, and several home businesses. Contributing to its fiscal challenges: the state owns almost 2,000 acres—a vast space from which the town may not extract property taxes. In the last six years, according to First Selectman Daniel Syme, only one new home has been built, but the property tax base has actually eroded because of a recent revaluation—meaning that today the municipality has one of the 10 highest mill rates in the state. To add to its fiscal challenges, Gov. Malloy’s executive-order budget has eliminated Connecticut’s payment in lieu of taxes program—even as education consumes 81 percent of Scotland’s $5.9 million taxpayer-approved  budget: under Gov. Malloy’s executive order, Scotland’s Education Cost Sharing grant will be cut by 70 percent—from $1.42 million to $426,900. Scotland has $463,000 in its reserve accounts, or about 9 percent of its annual operating budget—meaning that if the Gov. and legislature are unable to resolve the state budget crisis, the town will have to dip into its reserves—or even consider dissolution or chapter 9 bankruptcy. Should the municipality opt for dissolution, however, there is an unclear governmental future. While in some parts of the country, municipalities can disappear and become unincorporated parts of their counties, that is not an option in Connecticut, nor in any New England state, except Maine, where more than 400 settlements, defined as unorganized territories, have no municipal government—ergo, governmental services are provided by the state and the county. Thus it appears that the fiscal fate of this small municipality is very much dependent on resolution of the state budget stalemate—but where part of the state solution is reducing state aid to municipalities.

Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen has offered a legal opinion which questioned the legality of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s plan to administer municipal aid in the absence of a state budget,  he offered the Governor and the legislature one alternative—draft a new state budget. Similarly, Senate Republican leader Len Fasano (R-North Haven), who requested the opinion and has argued the Governor’s plan would overstep his authority, also conceded there may be no plan the Governor could craft—absent a new budget—which would pass legal muster, writing: “We acknowledge the formidable task the Governor faces, in the exercise of his constitutional obligation to take care that the laws are faithfully executed, to maintain the effective operations of state government in the absence of a legislatively enacted budget.” The fiscal challenge: analysts opine state finances, unless adjusted, would run $1.6 billion deficit this fiscal year, with a key reason attributed to surging public retirement benefits and other debt costs, coupled with declining state income tax receipts:  Connecticut is now about 14 weeks into its new fiscal year without an enacted budget—and the fiscal dysfunction has been aggravated by a dispute between Sen. Fasano and Gov. Malloy over the Governor’s plans to handle a program adopted two years ago designed to share sales and use tax receipts with cities and towns: a portion of those funds would go only to communities with high property tax rates to offset revenues they would lose under a related plan to cap taxes on motor vehicles.

Aggravating Fiscal & Human Disparities. The White House has let a 10-day Jones Act shipping waiver expire for Puerto Rico, meaning a significant increase in the cost of providing emergency supplies to the hurricane-ravaged island from U.S. ports, in the wake of a spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security confirming yesterday that the Jones Act waiver, which expired on Sunday, will not be extended—so that only U.S‒built and‒operated vessels are make cargo shipments between U.S. ports. The repercussions will be fiscal and physical: gasoline and other critical supplies to save American lives will be far more expensive on an island which could be without power for months. The administration had agreed to temporarily lift the Jones Act shipping restrictions for Puerto Rico on September 28th; today, officials have warned that the biggest challenge for relief efforts is getting supplies distributed around Puerto Rico.

Even as President Trump has acted to put more lives and Puerto Rico’s recovery at greater risk, lawmakers in Congress are still pressing to roll back the Jones Act, with efforts led by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), the Chairman of the House Water and Power Subcommittee of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, recently introducing legislation to permanently exempt Puerto Rico from the Jones Act; indeed, at Sen. McCain’s request, the bill has been placed on the Senate calendar under a fast-track procedure that allows it to bypass the normal committee process; it has not, however, been scheduled for any floor time. Sen. McCain stated: “Now that the temporary Jones Act waiver for Puerto Rico has expired, it is more important than ever for Congress to pass my bill to permanently exempt Puerto Rico from this archaic and burdensome law: Until we provide Puerto Rico with long-term relief, the Jones Act will continue to hinder much-needed efforts to help the people of Puerto Rico recover and rebuild from Hurricane Maria.”

The efforts by Sen. McCain and Chairman Lee came as Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, citing an “unprecedented catastrophe,” urged Congress to provide a significant new influx of money in the near term as Puerto Rico is confronted by what he described as “a massive liquidity crisis:” facing an imminent Medicaid funding crisis, putting nearly one million people at risk of losing their health-care coverage: “[a]bsent extraordinary measures to address the halt in economic activity in Puerto Rico, the humanitarian crisis will deepen, and the unmet basic needs of the American citizens of Puerto Rico will become even greater…Financial damages of this magnitude will subject Puerto Rico’s central government, its instrumentalities, and municipal governments to unsustainable cash shortfalls: As a result, in addition to the immediate humanitarian crisis, Puerto Rico is on the brink of a massive liquidity crisis that will intensify in the immediate future.” Even before Hurricane Maria caused major damage to Puerto Rico’s struggling health-care system, the U.S. territory’s Medicaid program barely had enough funds left to last through the next year; now, however, nearly 900,000 U.S. citizens face the loss of access to Medicaid—more than half of total Puerto Rican enrollment, according to federal estimates: experts predict that unless Congress acts, the federal funding will be exhausted in a matter of months, and, if that happens, Puerto Rico will be responsible for covering all its costs going forward, or, as Edwin Park, Vice President for health policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes: “Unless there’s an assurance of stable and sufficient funding…[the health system] is headed toward a collapse.” Nearly half of Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million residents participate in Medicaid; however, because Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, not a state, Puerto Rico receives only 57 percent of a state’s Medicaid benefits. Under the Affordable Care Act, Puerto Rico received a significant infusion, of about $6.5 billion, to last through FY2019, and, last May, Congress appropriated an additional $300 million. However, those funds were already running low prior to Hurricane Maria, a storm which not only physically and fiscally devastated Puerto Rico and its economy, but also, with the ensuing loss of jobs, meant a critical increase in Medicaid eligibility.

The White House submitted a $29 billion request for disaster assistance; however, none of it was earmarked for Puerto Rico’s Medicaid program. House Energy and Commerce Committee Republicans have proposed giving Puerto Rico an additional $1 billion over the next two years as part of a must-pass bill to fund the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), with one GOP aide stating the $1 billion is specifically meant to address the Medicaid cliff. Adding more uncertainty: the Senate has not given any indication if it will take up legislation to address Puerto Rico’s Medicaid cliff: The Senate Finance Committee passed its CHIP bill this past week, without any funding for Puerto Rico attached. 

In a three-page letter sent to Congressional leaders, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló is requesting more than $4 billion from various agencies and loan program to “meet the immediate emergency needs of Puerto Rico,” writing that while “We are grateful for the federal emergency assistance that has been provided so far; however, [should aid not be available in a timely manner], “This could lead to an acceleration of the high pace of out-migration of Puerto Rico residents to the U.S. mainland impacting a large number of states as diverse as Florida, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Indiana, Wisconsin, Ohio, Texas, and beyond.”

On Puerto Rico’s debt front, with the PROMESA Board at least temporarily relocated to New York City, President Trump has roiled the island’s debt crisis with his suggestion that Puerto Rico’s $73 billion in municipal bond debt load may get erased—or, as he put it: “You can say goodbye to that,” in an interview on Fox News, an interview which appeared to cause a nose dive in the value of Puerto Rico’s municipal bonds, notwithstanding his lack of any authority to unilaterally forgive Puerto Rico’s debt. Indeed, within 24 hours, OMB Budget Director Mick Mulvaney discounted the President’s comments: he said the White House does not intend to become involved in Puerto Rico’s debt restructuring. Indeed, the Trump administration last week sent Congress a request for $29 billion in disaster aid for Puerto Rico, including $16 billion for the government’s flood-insurance program and nearly $13 billion for hurricane relief efforts, according to a White House official. No matter what, however, that debt front looms worse: Gov. Rosselló has warned Puerto Rico could lose up to two months of tax collections as its economic activity is on hold and residents wait for power and basic necessities. Bringing some rational perspective to the issue, House Natural Resource Committee Chair, Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), said the current debt restructuring would proceed under the PROMESA Oversight Board: “Part of the reason to have a board was to have a logical approach [to the debt restructuring]. We need to have this process played out…There’s not going to be one quick panacea to a situation that has developed over a long time…I don’t think it’s time to jump around…when we already have a structure to work with.” Chairman Bishop noted that Hurricane Maria’s devastation would require the board to revise its 10-year fiscal plan, with the goal to achieve a balanced budget pushed back from the current target of FY2019; at the same time, however, Chairman Bishop repeated that the Board must retain its independence from Congress. He also said Congress would consider extending something like the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act to the U.S. Virgin Islands—an action which would open the door to a debt restructuring for the more than $2 billion in public sector Virgin Islands municipal debt.

The godfather of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, Jim Spiotto, noted that it would be Congress, rather than the President, which would pass any municipal bankruptcy legislation, patiently reminding us: “You can’t just use an edict to wipe out debt: If Congress were to wipe out debt, there would be constitutional challenges…Past efforts to repudiate debt debts have had very serious consequences in terms of future access to capital markets and cost of borrowing.” In contrast, if the federal government were to provide something like the Marshall Plan to Puerto Rico, Mr. Spiotto added: the economy could strengthen, and Puerto Rico would be in a position to pay off some its debts.

The Leadership Challenges on the Road to Fiscal and Physical Recovery

September 29, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the fiscal, legal, physical, and human challenges to Puerto Rico; Hartford’s steep fiscal challenges; and Detroit’s ongoing road to fiscal recovery.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

Fiscal Safety Net? The White House yesterday announced President Trump had agreed to waive the Jones Act, which will temporarily lift shipping restrictions on Puerto Rico and enable the hurricane-ravaged island to receive necessary aid; however, the waiver from the shipping law, which mandates that only American-made and-operated vessels may transport cargo between U.S. ports, will only last for 10 days, after which the equivalent of a 20 percent tax will be reimposed. The delayed U.S. response to the save U.S. citizens compared unfavorably to the response to save and protect foreign citizens in Haiti seven years ago, when the U.S. military mobilized as if it were going to war—with the U.S. military, in less than 24 hours, and before first light, already airborne, on its way to seize control of the main airport in Port-au-Prince. Within two days, the Pentagon had 8,000 American troops en route; within two weeks, 33 U.S. military ships and 22,000 troops had arrived. By contrast, eight days after Hurricane Maria ripped across neighboring Puerto Rico, just 4,400 service members were participating in federal operations to assist the devastated U.S. citizens, according to a briefing by an Army general yesterday, in addition to about 1,000 Coast Guard members.

The seemingly inexplicable delay in waiving the Jones Act—temporarily—was due to opposition of the waiver by the Department of Homeland Security, which had argued that a federal agency may not apply for a waiver unless there is a national defense threat (as, apparently, there might have been in Houston and Florida). Sen. John McCain (R-Az.) has, for years, sought to repeal this discriminatory law: The 1920 Jones Act requires that goods shipped between U.S. ports be carried by vessels 1) built in the U.S., 2) majority-owned by American firms, and 3) crewed by U.S. citizens.

Key House and Senate members, since Monday, had been pressing for a one-year waiver from the rules in order to help accelerate deliveries of food, fuel, medical, and other critical supplies to Puerto Rico, especially with current estimates that Puerto Rico could be without power for six months. On Wednesday, 45 U.S. Senate and House Members had signed a letter urging President Trump to appoint a senior general to oversee the military’s aid to Puerto Rico, to deploy the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier, and to increase personnel to assist local law enforcement. U.S. Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D.-N.Y.) warned: “If President Trump doesn’t swiftly deploy every available resource that our country has, then he has failed the people of Puerto Rico – and this will become his Katrina.” The temporary suspension of the onerous and discriminatory Jones law came only in the wake of a fierce backlash against the Trump administration for its inexplicable delay in not immediately lifting the federal law for Puerto Rico, especially after it issued a two-week waiver for Texas and Florida in response to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Nevertheless, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz praised the administration’s decision: she said it could help bring down the cost of emergency medical and other supplies, as well as vital construction materials by nearly 33 percent. Nevertheless, she warned there are still thousands of containers sitting idle at the ports of San Juan, a problem she blamed on “jurisdictional” and bureaucratic issues.

The belated Presidential action came as Puerto Rico continued to suffer the after effects of Hurricane Maria: Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority Executive Director Ricardo Ramos Rodríguez warned it could take PREPA as much as half a year to restore electricity.

Meanwhile, it appears the PROMESA Oversight Board is ready to revise the amount of debt to be paid in the next nine years. The Board is scheduled to meet today in New York City to revise the March-approved fiscal plan: the current Board fiscal plan specifies there should be enough funds to pay approximately 24% of the debt; however, it appears the Board will have little choice today but to revise every fiscal plan. Clearly none of the previous underlying assumptions can hold, and now the Board will have to await the actions and finding of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, while the Treasury Department will have to work with Puerto Rico to settle on a massive restructuring—or, as Puerto Rico House Representative Rafael Hernández Montañez put it: “We can’t have money spent on corporate lawyers and PowerPoint producing technocrats while funding is needed for immediate reconstruction efforts.” While FEMA has committed to paying for 100 percent of the costs of some work, on others, it is mandating a match of 20% to 25% of the costs for other work—a match which appears out of reach for the most savagely damaged municipalities or municipios—now confronted not just by enormous new capital and operating demands, but also by sharply reduced revenues.

Wednesday morning, the PREPA Bondholders Group offered up to $1.85 billion in debtor in possession loans to the authority. According to the group, part of the package would be a new money loan of up to $1 billion. Another part would be their possible acceptance of an $850 million in DIP notes in exchange for $1 billion in outstanding bonds owed to them—or, as the Group noted: “The new funding would allow PREPA to provide the required matching funds under various grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.” In response, PREPA’s Natalie Jaresko said: “We welcome and appreciate the expression of support from creditors…The Board will carefully consider all proposals in coordination with the government, but it is still very early as we begin to navigate a way forward following the catastrophic impact Hurricane Maria had on the island.”

The existing fiscal PREPA plan specifies there should be enough funding to pay about 24% of the debt due over the next decade; that, however, has raised questions with regard to the underlying assumptions of the Board, especially with regard to when FEMA will complete its work on the island.

Rafael Hernández Montañez, a member of Puerto Rico’s House, noted that Hurricane Maria put Puerto Rico’s territory-wide and municipal governments in very difficult financial situations. While FEMA has committed to paying for 100% of the costs of some work, he notes that the federal relief agency is still mandating a government match of 20% to 25% of the costs for other work: “It’s going to be a huge effort to cover that 20% with the government’s unbalanced budget,” adding that the hurricane will also lead to reduced revenues for the local governments.

On Wednesday, 145 U.S. Representatives and Senators signed a letter urging President Trump to appoint a senior general to oversee the military’s aid to Puerto Rico, to deploy the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier, and to increase personnel to assist local law enforcement–the same day as the PREPA Bondholders Group offer. 

The Category 4 Maria destroyed Puerto Rico’s electrical grid; it left the island desperately short of food, clean water, and fuel—and sufficient shipping options, notwithstanding the claim from the Department of Homeland Security that: “Based on consultation with other federal agencies, DHS’s current assessment is that there is sufficient numbers of U.S.-flagged vessels to move commodities to Puerto Rico.” Thus DHS opposed a waiver of the Jones Act (Under the Jones Act federal cabotage rules, the entry of merchandise into Puerto Rico can only be made on US flag and crew ships – the most expensive fleet in the world.), which has been suspended in past natural disasters, to allow less expensive, foreign-flagged ships bring in aid. Former President George W. Bush suspended the Act after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and President Barack Obama suspended it after superstorm Sandy in 2012. In a letter to the Department of Homeland Security, Sen. McCain criticized the department for waiving the Jones Act in the wake of hurricanes Harvey and Irma, but not for Puerto Rico. The Senator, who has long sought a repeal of the Jones Act, noted: “It is unacceptable to force the people of Puerto Rico to pay at least twice as much for food, clean drinking water, supplies, and infrastructure due to Jones Act requirements as they work to recover from this disaster: Now, more than ever, it is time to realize the devastating effect of this policy and implement a full repeal of this archaic and burdensome Act.”  Only the Department of Defense may obtain a Jones Act waiver automatically, which it did to move petroleum products from Texas after Hurricane Harvey. The White House is expected to send Congress a request for a funding package for Puerto Rico in the next few weeks, a senior congressional aide said.

The Road to Hartford’s Default. Citing deep cuts to higher education, sharp reductions in aid to distressed communities, and unsound deferrals of public pension payments, Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy yesterday made good on his pledge to veto the budget that legislature, earlier this month, had adopted, deeming it: “unbalanced, unsustainable, and unwise,” adding his apprehension that were it to be implemented, it would undermine the state’s long-term fiscal stability and essentially guarantee the City of Hartford’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. His veto came as the Governor and top legislators continued bipartisan talks in an attempt to reach a compromise; however, despite legislative attempts to pass a bill to increase the hospital provider tax to 8 percent, a 25 percent increase over the current level, the legislature will not meet today. In his executive order, the Governor allowed key stated services to remain operating; however, he ordered steep cuts to municipalities and certain social service programs: under his orders, approximately 85 communities would see their education cost sharing grants, the biggest source of state funding for public education in Connecticut, cut to zero next month—no doubt a critical element provoking the Connecticut Council of Small Towns, which represents more than 100 of the state’s smallest communities, to seek an override in a special session the week after next in order to avoid local property tax increases. Nevertheless, Gov. Malloy stood strongly against the Republican plan and a potential override, stating: “This budget adopts changes to the state’s pension plan that are both financially and legally unsound…This budget grabs ‘savings’ today on the false promise of change a decade from now, a promise that cannot be made because no legislature can unilaterally bind a future legislature.” He added his apprehensions that the changes proposed to the state’s pension system could expose Connecticut taxpayers to potentially costly litigation down the road: “Prior administrations and legislatures have, over decades, consistently and dangerously underfunded the state’s pension obligations,’’ a strategy, he noted, which he said has led to crippling debt and limited the state’s ability to invest in transportation, education, and other important initiatives. Nonetheless, Republican leaders urged the Governor to sign the two-year, $40.7 billion budget, saying it makes significant structural changes, such as capping the state’s bonding authority and limiting spending. Fiscally conservative Democrats who bolted to the Republican side had criticized a Democratic budget proposal which had proposed new taxes on vacation homes, monthly cellphone bills, and fantasy sports betting, as well as increased taxes on cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, and hotel room rates.

House Republican leader Themis Klarides (R-Derby) warned she and her colleagues will try to override the veto—a steep challenge, as in Connecticut, that requires a two-thirds vote in each chambers, meaning 101 votes in the House and 24 in the Senate. The crucial Republican amendment passed with 78 votes in the House and 21 in the Senate—well short of the override margin in both chambers. The action came as S&P Global Ratings this week lowered Hartford’s credit rating, writing that its opinion “reflects our opinion that a default, a distressed exchange, or redemption appears to be a virtual certainty,” albeit noting that the city could still avoid chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy by restructuring its debts. The agency wrote: “In our view, the potential for a bond restructuring or distressed exchange offering has solidified with the news that both bond insurers are open to supporting such a measure in an effort to head off a bankruptcy filing. Under our criteria, we would consider any distressed offer where the investor receives less value than the promise of the original securities to be tantamount to a default. The mayor’s public statement citing the need to restructure even if the state budget provides necessary short-term funds further supports our view that a restructuring is a virtual certainty.” Hartford’s fiscal plight is, if anything, made more dire by the fiscal crisis of Connecticut, which is still without a budget—and where the Legislature has under consideration a budget proposal from the Governor to slash state aid to the state’s capitol city of Hartford—where the Mayor notes that even were the state to make the payments it owes, Hartford would still be unable to pay its debts—so that S&P dropped the city’s credit rating from B- to C—a four-notch downgrade, writing: “The downgrade to ‘CC’ reflects our opinion that a default, a distressed exchange, or redemption appears to be a virtual certainty.”

The Steep Recovery Road. Almost three years after exiting chapter 9 bankruptcy, Detroit is meeting its plan of debt adjustment, but still confronts fiscal challenges to a full return to the municipal market, even as it nears its exit from Michigan state oversight next year. Detroit’s Deputy Chief Financial Officer and City Finance Director, John Hill, this week noted that while the Motor City recognizes that any debt the city plans to issue will still need a security boost from a quality revenue stream and some enhancement, such as a state intercept, Detroit’s plan of debt adjustment did not assume the need for market access in a traditional and predictable way, without added security layers, for at least a decade. That assessment remains true today, as Detroit nears its third anniversary from its exit from the nation’s largest ever municipal bankruptcy. With chapter 9, Mr. Hill adds: “Everything that we have been able to do since exiting bankruptcy has an attached revenue stream to it: You secure it, and bond lawyers agonize over how that will be protected in the unlikely event of another bankruptcy, because everyone has to ask the question now. Then there is a strong intercept mechanism that goes to a trustee like U.S. Bank where the bondholders now know this is absolutely secure.”

Municipal Market Analytics partner Matt Fabian notes that Detroit continues to struggle with challenges which predate its chapter 9 bankruptcy, adding the city is unlikely to regain an ability to access the traditional municipal markets on its own in the near-to-medium term: “They don’t have traditional reliable access where if they need to go to the market, you can predict with certainty that they will and they will be within a generally predictable spread,” adding that reestablishing its presence in the traditional market is important, because it indicates whether bondholders have confidence in the city as a going concern. In fact, Detroit has adopted balanced budgets for two consecutive years; it is on a fiscal path to exiting Michigan Financial Review Commission oversight, and the city ended FY2016 with a $63 million surplus in its general fund; however, Detroit’s four-year fiscal forecast shows an annual growth rate of only about 1%.

The city’s public pension obligations, mayhap the thorniest issue in cobbling together its plan of debt adjustment, are to be met per its economic plan, via a balloon payment.  Mr. Fabian notes that the Motor City’s recovery plan and future revenue growth is complicated by the need to set aside from surpluses an additional $335 million between Fy2016 and Fy2023 to address that significant, unfunded pension liability, worrying that while the plan is “fiscally responsible;” nevertheless, it comes “at the expense of using these funds for reinvestment and service improvement.”

The plan to address pension obligations is aimed at shoring up the city’s long-term fiscal health and Naglick says it shows the city has recognized the need to tackle it. Detroit developed a long-term funding model with the help of actuarial consultant Cheiron, obtained City Council approval for changes to the pension funding ordinance that established the Retiree Protection Trust Fund, and deposited $105 million into this IRS Section 115 Trust. This fund, said Detriot CFO John Naglick, will grow to over $335 million by 2024 and will provide a buffer to increased contributions beginning then. “More importantly, the growing contributions each year from the general fund to the trust will build budget capacity to make the increased contributions in future years,” he said.

Mayor Mike Duggan claimed during his 2016 State of the City speech that consultants who advised the city through bankruptcy had miscalculated the pension deficit by $490 million. Pension woes aren’t the only challenge the city faces. Fabian said that economic development has been limited to the city’s downtown and midtown areas. The rest of Detroit’s neighborhoods haven’t fared so well.

Dan Loepp, the president and CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, and Gerry Anderson, the Chairman and CEO of DTE Energy, are regarded to be among the important business leaders in Detroit, two key sectors of the Motor City’s economy, who see Detroit’s fiscal and economic trajectory as intertwined with the future of their companies; they  have headquarters in downtown and employ thousands of people including Detroiters—companies which had been making conscious and deliberate investments in the city. Asked recently to offer their perspectives about where Detroit is headed and how to include the many who are left out of the recovery, Mr. Loepp responded: “I’m a native Detroiter, and I lead a company that’s been a business resident of Detroit for nearly 80 years. I remember how uneasy it felt to be in Detroit when the national economy collapsed 10 years ago. It was hard and scary…From then to now, I strongly believe Detroit’s comeback is one of the best stories in America. The downtown is pulsing with growth and action. You’ve got business and residential development that has connected the river to Midtown and is now expanding into neighborhoods.” He added Detroit today is clear of debt and venture capital flowing backed by a city leadership which is “working well together, noting Detroit today is “now positioned to compete and win investment and jobs against any city in the country. All of this is great for Detroit.”

Notwithstanding, he warned that challenges remain: “The bankruptcy, while hard, gave the city’s leadership a clean slate to solve challenges faced by residents. The Mayor and council are working together on issues like lighting, infrastructure, zoning, and demolition…the Mayor, especially, has spent considerable energy advocating for the people of Detroit—doing things like making sure new housing developments hold space for working people of all incomes. This will promote a stronger, more diverse Detroit…Institutional issues, like improving the city’s schools and making neighborhoods safer for city residents, will take time to solve. They will take a constant, steady focus. And they need people within state and local government to work hand-in-hand with people from the neighborhoods to do the tough labor of finding sustainable solutions.” Nevertheless, he cautioned that the Motor City’s recovery is incomplete without participation of the majority: “Detroit can’t truly ‘come back’ if people living in the city are left behind. We need to always make sure there is a focus on people and that we make people a priority. Schools need to be improved. Transit needs to be addressed in a comprehensive way. Employment opportunities and housing need to be part of the master plan.”

On the Steep Edge of Chapter 9

September 12, 2017

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

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Measuring Municipal Fiscal Distress

August 29, 2017

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s Blog, we consider the new Local Government Fiscal Distress bi-cameral body in Virginia and its early actions; then we veer north to Atlantic City, where both the Governor and the courts are weighing in on the city’s fiscal future; before scrambling west to Scranton, Pennsylvania—as it seeks to respond to a fiscally adverse judicial ruling, then back west to the very small municipality of East Cleveland, Ohio—as it awaits authority to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy—and municipal elections—then to Detroit’s ongoing efforts to recover revenues as part of its recovery from the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy, before finally ending up in the Windy City, where the incomparable Lawrence Msall has proposed a Local Government Protection Authority—a quasi-judicial body—to serve as a resource for the Chicago Public School System.  

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

Measuring Municipal Fiscal Distress. When Virginia Auditor of Public Accounts Martha S. Mavredes last week testified before the Commonwealth’s new Joint House-Senate Subcommittee on Local Government Fiscal Stress, she named Bristol as one of the state’s four financially distressed localities—a naming which Bristol City Manager Randy Eads confirmed Monday. Bristol is an independent city in the Commonwealth of Virginia with a population just under 18,000: it is the twin city of Bristol, Tennessee, just across the state line: a line which bisects middle of its main street, State Street. According to the auditor, the cities of Petersburg and Bristol scored below 5 on a financial assessment model that uses 16 as the minimum threshold for indicating financial stress, with Bristol scoring lower than Petersburg. One other city and two counties scored below 16. For his part, City Manager Eads said he and the municipality’s CFO “will be working with the APA to determine how the scores were reached,” adding: “The city will also be open to working with the APA to address any issues.” (Bristol scored below the threshold the past three years, dropping to 4.25 in 2016. Petersburg had a score of 4.48 in 2016, when its financial woes became public.) Even though the State of Virginia has no authority to directly involve itself in a municipality’s finances (Virginia does not specifically authorize its municipal entities to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, certain provisions of the state’s laws [§15.2-4910] do allow for a trust indenture to contain provisions for protecting and enforcing rights and remedies of municipal bondholders—including the appointment of a receiver.), its new system examines the Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports submitted annually and scores them on 10 financial ratios—including four that measure the health of the locality’s general fund used to finance its budget. Manager Eads testified: “At the moment, the city does not have all of the necessary information from the APA to fully address any questions…We have been informed, by the APA, that we will receive more information from them the first week of September.” He added that the city leaders have taken steps to bolster cash flow and reserves, while reducing their reliance on borrowing short-term tax anticipation notes. In addition, the city has recently began implementing a series of budgetary and financial policies prior to the APA scores being released—steps seemingly recognized earlier this summer when Moody’s upgraded the city’s outlook to stable and its municipal bond rating to Baa2 with an underlying A3 enhanced rating, after a downgrade in 2016. Nevertheless, the road back is steep: the city still maintains more than $100 million in long-term general obligation bond debt with about half of it tied to The Falls commercial center in the Exit 5 area, which has yet to attract significant numbers of tenants.

Fiscal Fire? The State of New Jersey’s plan to slash Atlantic City’s fire department by 50 members was blocked by Superior court Judge Julio Mendez, preempting the state’s efforts to reduce the number of firefighters in the city from 198 to 148. The state, which preempted local authority last November, has sought to sharply reduce the city’s expenditures: state officials had last February proposed to move the Fire Department to a less expensive health plan and reduce staffing in the department from 225 firefighters to 125. In his ruling, however, Judge Mendez wrote: “The court holds that the (fire department’s union) have established by clear and convincing evidence that Defendants’ proposal to reduce the size of the Atlantic City Fire Department to 148 firefighters will cause irreparable harm in that it compromises the public safety of Atlantic City’s residents and visitors.” Judge Mendez had previously granted the union’s request to block the state’s actions, ruling last March that any reduction below 180 firefighters “compromises public safety,” and that any reduction should happen “through attrition and retirements.”

Gov. Christie Friday signed into law an alternative fiscal measure for the city, S. 3311, which requires the state to offer an early-retirement incentive program to the city’s police officers, firefighters, and first responders facing layoffs, noting at the bill signing what he deemed the Garden State’s success in its stewardship of the city since November under the Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act, citing Atlantic City’s “great strides to secure its finances and its future.” The Governor noted a drop of 11.4 percent in the city’s overall property-tax rate, the resolution of casino property-tax appeals, and recent investments in the city. For their parts, Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, sponsors of the legislation, said the new law would let the city “reduce the size of its police and fire departments without jeopardizing public safety,” adding that the incentive plan, which became effective with the Governor’s signature, would not affect existing contracts or collective bargaining rights—or, as Sen. Sweeney stated: “We don’t want to see any layoffs occur, but if a reduction in workers is required, early retirement should be offered first to the men and women who have served the city.” For his part, Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian said, “I’m glad that the Governor and the State continue to follow the plan that we gave them 10 months ago. As all the pieces that we originally proposed continue to come together, Atlantic City will continue to move further in the right direction.”

For its part, the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, which has been the fiscal overseer of the state takeover of Atlantic City, has touted the fiscal progress achieved this year from state intervention, including the adoption of a $206.3 million budget that is 20 percent lower than the city’s FY2015 budget, due to even $56 million less than 2015 due to savings from staff adjustments and outsourcing certain municipal services. Nevertheless, Atlantic City, has yet to see the dial spin from red to black: the city, with some $224 million in bonded debt, has deep junk-level credit ratings of CC by S&P Global Ratings and Caa3 by Moody’s Investors Service; it confronts looming debt service payments, including $6.1 million owed on Nov. 1, according to S&P.

Scrambling in Scranton. Moody’s is also characteristically moody about the fiscal ills of Scranton, Pennsylvania, especially in the wake of a court decision barring the city from  collecting certain taxes under a state law—a decision Moody’s noted  “may reduce tax revenue, which is a vital funding source for the city’s operations.” Lackawanna County Court of Common Pleas Judge James Gibbons, at the beginning of the month, in a preliminary ruling against the city, in response to a challenge by a group of eight taxpayers, led by Mayoral candidate Gary St. Fleur, had challenged Scranton’s ability to levy and collect certain taxes under Pennsylvania’s Act 511, a state local tax enabling act. His preliminary ruling against the city affects whether the Home Rule Charter law supersedes the statutory cap contained in Act 511. Unsurprisingly, the City of Scranton has filed a motion for reconsideration and requested the court to enable it to appeal to the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania. The city, the state’s sixth-largest city (77,000), and the County seat for Lackawanna County is the geographic and cultural center of the Lackawanna River valley, was incorporated on St. Valentine’s Day 161 years ago—going on to become a major industrial city, a center of mining and railroads, and attracted thousands of new immigrants. It was a city, which acted to earn the moniker of the “Electric City” when electric lights were first introduced in 1880 at Dickson Locomotive Works. Today, the city is striving to exit state oversight under the state’s Act 47—oversight the municipality has been under for a quarter century.

Currently, Moody’s does not provide a credit rating for the city; however, Standard and Poor’s last month upgraded the city’s general obligation bonds to a still-junk BB-plus, citing revenue from a sewer-system sale, whilst Standard and Poor’s cited the city’s improved budget flexibility and liquidity, stemming largely from a sewer-system sale which enabled the municipality to retire more than $40 million of high-coupon debt. Moreover, Scranton suspended its cost-of-living-adjustments, and manifested its intent to apply a portion of sewer system sale proceeds to meet its public pension liabilities. Ergo, Moody’s writes: “These positive steps have been important for paying off high interest debt and funding the city’s distressed pension plans…While these one-off revenue infusions have been positive, Scranton faces an elevated fixed cost burden of over 40% of general fund revenues…Act 511 tax revenues are an important revenue source for achieving ongoing, balanced operations, particularly as double-digit property tax increases have been met with significant discontent from city residents. The potential loss of Act 511 tax revenues comes at a time when revenues for the city are projected to be stagnant through 2020.”

The road to municipal fiscal insolvency is easier, mayhap, because it is downhill: Scranton fiscal challenges commenced five years ago, when its City Council skipped a $1 million municipal bond payment in the wake if a political spat; Scranton has since repaid the debt. Nevertheless, as Moody’s notes: “If the city cannot balance its budget without illegally taxing the Scranton people, it is absolute proof that the budget is not sustainable…Scranton has sold off all its public assets and raised taxes excessively with the result being a declining tax base and unfriendly business environment…The city needs to come to terms with present economic realities by cutting spending and lowering taxes. This is the only option for the city.”

Scranton Mayoral candidate Gary St. Fleur has said the city should file for Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy and has pushed for a related ballot measure. Combined taxes collected under Act 511, including a local services tax that Scranton recently tripled, cannot exceed 1.2% of Scranton’s total market value.  Based on 2015 market values, according to Moody’s, Scranton’s “511 cap” totals $27.3 million. In fiscal 2015 and 2016, the city collected $34.5 million and $36.8 million, respectively, and for 2018, the city has budgeted to receive $38 million.  The city, said Moody’s, relied on those revenues for 37.7% of fiscal 2015 and 35.9% of fiscal 2016 total governmental revenues. “A significant reduction in these tax revenues would leave the city a significant revenue gap if total Act 511 tax revenues were decline by nearly 25%,” Moody’s said.

Heavy Municipal Fiscal Lifting. Being mayor of battered East Cleveland is one of those difficult jobs that many people (and readers) would decline. If you were to motor along Euclid Avenue, the city’s main street, you would witness why: it is riddled with potholes and flanked by abandoned, decayed buildings. Unsurprisingly, in a city still awaiting authorization from the State of Ohio to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, blight, rising crime, and poor schools, have created the pretext for East Clevelanders to leave: The city boasted 33,000 people in 1990; today it has just 17,843, according to the latest U.S. Census figures. Nevertheless, hope can spring eternal: four candidates, including current Mayor Brandon L. King, are seeking the Democratic nomination in next month’s Mayoral primary (Mayor King replaced former Mayor Gary Norton last year after Norton was recalled by voters.)

Motor City Taxing. Detroit hopes to file some 700 lawsuits by Thursday against landlords and housing investors in a renewed effort to collect unpaid property taxes on abandoned homes that have already been forfeited; indeed, by the end of November, the city hopes to double the filings, going after as many as 1,500 corporations and investors whose abandonment of Detroit homes has been blamed for contributing to the Motor City’s blight epidemic: Motor City Law PLC, working on behalf of the city, has filed more than 60 lawsuits since last week in Wayne County Circuit Court; the remainder are expected to be filed before a Thursday statute of limitations deadline: the suits target banks, land speculators, limited liability corporations, and individuals with three or more rental properties in Detroit: investors who typically purchase homes at bargain prices at a Wayne County auction and then eventually stop paying property tax bills and lose the home in foreclosure: the concern is that unscrupulous landlords have been abusing the auction system. The city expects to file an additional 800 lawsuits over the next quarter—with the recovery effort coming in the wake of last year’s suits by the city against more than 500 banks and LLCs which had an ownership stake in houses that sold at auction for less than what was owed to the city in property taxes. Eli Savit, senior adviser and counsel to Mayor Mike Duggan, noted that those suits netted Detroit more than $5 million in judgments, even as, he reports: “Many cases are still being litigated.” To date, the 69 lawsuits filed since Aug. 18 in circuit court were for tax bills exceeding $25,000 each; unpaid tax bills for less than $25,000 will be filed in district court. (The unpaid taxes date back years as the properties were auctioned off by the Wayne County Treasurer’s Office between 2013 and 2016 or sent to the Detroit Land Bank Authority, which oversees demolitions if homes cannot be rehabilitated or sold.) The suits here indicate that former property owners have no recourse for lowering their unpaid tax debt, because they are now “time barred from filing an appeal” with Detroit’s Board of Review or the Michigan Tax Tribunal; Detroit officials have noted that individual homeowners would not be targeted by the lawsuits for unpaid taxes; rather the suits seek to establish a legal means for going after investors who purchase cheap homes at auction, and then either rent them out and opt not to not pay the taxes, or walk away from the house, because it is damaged beyond repair—behavior which is now something the city is seeking to turn around.

Local Government Fiscal Protection? Just as the Commonwealth of Virginia has created a fiscal or financial assessment model to serve as an early warning system so that the State could act before a chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy occurred, the fiscal wizard of Illinois, the incomparable Chicago Civic Federation’s Laurence Msall has proposed a Local Government Protection Authority—a quasi-judicial body—to serve as a resource for the Chicago Public School System (CPS): it would be responsible to assist the CPS board and administration in finding solutions to stabilize the school district’s finances. The $5.75 billion CPS proposed budget for this school year comes with two significant asterisks: 1) There is an expectation of $269 million from the City of Chicago, and 2) There is an expectation of $300 million from the State of Illinois, especially if the state’s school funding crisis is resolved in the Democrats’ favor.

Nevertheless, in the end, CPS’s fiscal fate will depend upon Windy City Mayor Rahm Emanuel: he, after all, not only names the school board, but also is accountable to voters if the city’s schools falter: he has had six years in office to get CPS on a stable financial course, even as CPS is viewed by many in the city as seeking to file for bankruptcy (for which there is no specific authority under Illinois law). Worse, it appears that just the discussion of a chapter 9 option is contributing to the emigration of parents and students to flee to suburban or private schools.

Thus, Mr. Msall is suggesting once again putting CPS finances under state oversight, as it was in the 1980s and early 1990s, recommending consideration of a Local Government Protection Authority, which would “be a quasi-judicial body…to assist the CPS board and administration in finding solutions to stabilize the district’s finances.” Fiscal options could include spending cuts, tax hikes, employee benefit changes, labor contract negotiations, and debt adjustment. Alternatively, as Mr. Msall writes: “If the stakeholders could not find a solution, the LGPA would be empowered to enforce a binding resolution of outstanding issues.” As we noted, a signal fiscal challenge Mayor Emanuel described was to attack crime in order to bring young families back into the city—and to upgrade its schools—schools where today some 380,000 students appear caught in a school system cracking under a massive and rising debt load.  

Far East of Eden. East Cleveland Mayor Gary Norton Jr. and City Council President Thomas Wheeler have both been narrowly recalled from their positions in a special election, setting the stage for the small Ohio municipality waiting for the state to—in some year—respond to its request to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy to elect a new leader. Interestingly, one challenger for the job who is passionate about the city, is Una H. R. Keenon, 83, who now heads the city school board, and campaigning on a platform of seeking a blue-ribbon panel to examine the city’s finances. Mansell Baker, 33, a former East Cleveland Councilmember, wants to focus on eliminating the city’s debt, while Dana Hawkins Jr., 34, leader of a foundation, vows to get residents to come together and save the city. The key decisions are likely to emerge next month in the September 12 Democratic primary—where the winner will face Devin Branch of the Green Party in November. Early voting has begun.