Post-Chapter 9 Elections–and Post Physical & Fiscal Storms

November 6, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider yesterday’s election results in municipalities we have followed through their fiscal stress or chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, including: Flint, and Detroit, in its first Mayoral election since emerging from chapter 9, Then we turn to the historic municipality of Petersburg, Virginia—a municipality which avoided chapter 9 thanks to state intervention. Finally, we consider U.S. District Court Judge Laura Swain’s approval yesterday of an urgent motion from the government of Puerto Rico and the Fiscal Oversight Board (JSF) that requires all federal funds to be allocated for the tasks of assistance and recovery in the wake of Hurricane Maria, removing said funds from possible use in restructuring the U.S. territory’s restructuring of its public debt.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

In Like Flint. Flint Mayor Karen Weaver yesterday prevailed over City Council member Scott Kincaid in a recall election involving 18 candidates, retaining the city’s proposed 30-year agreement with the Detroit water system, with Mayor Weaver prevailing by a 53-32 percent margin, according to the unofficial results. The recall had arisen from a controversy related to the Genesee County’s garbage contract: Mayor Weaver had pressed for an emergency trash collection contract with the former Rizzo Environmental Services in Macomb County over City Council opposition. The controversy arose because a former trash provider, Chuck Rizzo, and his father have reached plea deals with federal prosecutors and are expected to plead guilty this month for their roles in a wide-ranging public corruption scandal in Macomb County—a scandal which has, so far, led to criminal charges against 17 persons. The recall also came amid Mayor Weaver’s ongoing struggle with the Flint City Council with regard to the approval of a 30-year agreement with the Detroit area Great Lakes Water Authority—with City Council opposition arising from apprehension about increased water rates—and in response to last month’s decision by U.S. District Court Judge David Lawson taking the small city to task for failing to act on an April agreement supported by Mayor Weaver, the State of Michigan, and EPA which would have Flint remain on the Detroit area water system. Flint had been supposed to switch to the regional Karegnondi Water Authority; however, Mayor Weaver’s administration rejected that option, because updating of the Flint water treatment facility had been projected to cost more than $68 million and to consume more than three years to complete. The Flint Council had disregarded Judge Lawson’s decision, and approved a two-year extension of service with the Great Lakes Water Authority. Thus, while the prior agreement with the Detroit area water authority had lapsed, Mayor Weaver, the State of Michigan, the Great Lakes Authority, and other supporters have revived the agreement. Last week, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality had filed an emergency motion asking Judge Lawson to approve giving Mayor Weaver the authority to sign the renewed contract by Election Day, because of the inability of the City Council to act—a request from the state which the Judge rejected; however, he has scheduled a hearing on the motion later this month.

Motor City Victory Lap. Detroit Mayor Duggan was re-elected yesterday by more than a 2-1 margin over challenger State Sen. Coleman A. Young II, son of a former Detroit Mayor. In remarks after the decision, Mayor Duggan  noted: “I have been treated with nothing but warmth and kindness from Detroiters in every neighborhood in the city…I hope that this is the year where we put us-versus-them politics behind us forever because we believe in a one Detroit for all of us.” His opponent, in conceding, claimed he had commenced a movement to help the politically dispossessed: “The campaign might be over, but the passion and values are eternal…We are the voice for the voiceless. We are the hope for the hopeless.” Mayor Duggan, who won a write-in primary campaign in 2013 and then defeated Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon in the general election, thus became the Motor City’s first mayor to serve two terms since Dennis Archer in the 1990’s.  In his campaign, the former CEO of the Detroit Medical Center gained prominent endorsements from city labor unions, clergy, and business groups—he overwhelmed his opponent in fundraising: he secured about $2.2 million; whereas Mr. Young raised just under $39,000. Mayor Duggan, in his victory remarks, noted his campaign had focused on spending “time talking about the vision of what we are going to do in the next four years,” adding: “I thought one of the most profound things President Obama ever said was ‘If you have to divide people in order to get elected, you’ll never be able to govern.’”

In his campaign, Mayor Duggan touted public service improvements under his administration in the wake of the nation’s largest-ever municipal bankruptcy, including new streetlights, improved public safety response, and more dependable bus lines. He said he intends to continue work on building a more unified Detroit—focusing now on a series of efforts to fix up neighborhood corridors, roads, and sidewalks—and stating: “There are haves and have-nots in every city in America. We’re building a city here that it doesn’t matter where you start, you have the opportunity to be successful,” adding that he believe the greatest challenge now confronting Motor City residents will be over automobile insurance reform legislation—referring to legislation rejected by the Michigan House last week, but making clear he does not intend to give up: “We were a lot closer this time than we were two years ago, and we have a plan to get it through the next time: It’s going to be one relationship at a time, one vote at a time, but we’ve already had several meetings with both the medical and the legal community, and I think they realize we were three votes away.” 

The Road Out of State Oversight. The re-election comes at a critical time, as the City expects to have its full municipal fiscal authority restored next spring for the first time since it exited the nation’s largest ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy three years ago—challenging the city’s appointed and elected leaders with the task of resuming governance after the end of state oversight—and as the Mayor and Council resume authority over budgets and contracts. With two balanced budgets and an audit of a third expected next May, city leaders anticipate Detroit will be released early next year from the strict financial controls required under the city’s approved plan of debt adjustment—a key issue during the just completed campaign, where both the Mayor and his challenger had proposed plans with regard to how they would fiscally guide the recovering city—and as Michigan Governor Rick Snyder expressed optimism about the city’s ability to manage its finances, telling the Detroit News: “They’ve been hitting those milestones, and I hope they continue to hit them—that’s a good thing for all of us.”

Indeed, the Motor City’s credit rating has been upgraded; its employment rate is up; assessed property values are climbing. In its financial update last month, the city noted economic development in some neighborhoods and Detroit’s downtown, job creation efforts, and growth in multifamily home construction. Nonetheless, the road to recovery will remain not just steep, but also pot-holed: it confronts very large future payments for past borrowing and public pension obligations under the plan of debt adjustment—or, as our colleague Lisa Washburn of Municipal Market Analytics noted: “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…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.”

Petersburg. In one of the most closely watched municipal elections in Virginia, last night, Gloria Person-Brown, the wife of the current embattled City Treasurer Kevin Brown of Petersburg, was trounced by former City Council member Kenneth Pritchett, with Mr. Pritchett winning by a large margin: he captured more than 70 percent of the vote. In his campaign, stating he had been frustrated by the city’s low credit rating, and by the city’s struggles with collecting revenue and timely payment of bills, Mr. Pritchett vowed he would implement policies and standardize internal controls to improve the office’s operations. Likely, in the wake of a Virginia state fiscal report last September—a report which scrutinized eight specific aspects of city governance and fiscal responsibilities—and contained allegations of theft involving Ms. Person-Brown’s husband, City Treasurer Kevin Brown. Some Council members then had called for his resignation, and even Ms. Person-Brown had distanced herself from her husband’s actions during the election, albeit she did not say he had done anything wrong. Rather she ran on a platform of improving the Treasurer’s services, including instituting more checks and balances, and calling for more accountability.

Stepping in to Help Puerto Rico. U.S. District Court Judge Laura Taylor Swain has approved, with various changes, an urgent motion from the government of Puerto Rico and the PROMESA Fiscal Oversight Board which mandates that all federal funds to be allocated to the country for the tasks of assistance and recovery due to the passage of Hurricane Maria may not be claimed in the process of restructuring the public debt, accepting to the request of the Authority for Financial Supervision and Tax Agency and the JSF during the general hearing held in New York City‒in which it emerged that, in part, the order would restrict the use of disaster assistance funds as a condition of the federal government, so that Puerto Rico can receive assistance: the order will establish that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funds for Puerto Rico following in the wake of Hurricane Maria, as well as funds granted by other federal agencies, will be maintained. Judge Swain granted the order after listening to the arguments of Suzanne Uhland, legal representative of AAFAF, as well as lawyers from municipal insurers and the organized group of General Obligations bondholders (GOs), who underscored the need to incorporate into the order transparency criteria and mechanisms to ensure that some entity such as the JSF has influence in how federal funds granted by the government will be used. Matthew J. Troy, the federal government’s representative in the case, told Judge Swain that to include specific language which would give the Puerto Rican government priority in claiming funds that had been misused by state agencies or public corporations in the Island was indispensable for Puerto Rico to receive funds from the federal government: as part of the order, it would be established that, in the event federal funds were misused, it will be up to the central government to claim these funds from the agency or public corporation which received them from the federal government. Judge Swain has scheduled a follow-up hearing for next Wednesday.

During the hearing, an attorney, Marcia Goldstein, pointed out that it is urgent to know what role if any the Junta de Supervisión y Administración Financiera for Puerto Rico (the JSF) will have with regard to the approval of the contracts for the recovery tasks. The PROMESA law establishes, among other things, that the federal agency has the power to review the contracts granted by the Puerto Rican government or the dependencies subject to the control of the JSF. To date, however, it is uncertain whether the JSF has examined or had influence in the process of hiring dozens of companies which would be responsible for multiple tasks, from infrastructure repair to the audit of federal funds. In an interview with the Puerto Rican El Nuevo Día a little over a week ago, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), in the wake of his visit to Puerto Rico, pointed out that the JSF will have a key role in defining the scope of the aid package that Puerto Rico would need and how such resources would be allocated.

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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.”

 

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.

What Could Be A Constructive State Role in Municipal Fiscal Stress?

August 25, 2017

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s Blog, we consider Virginia’s innovative thinking with regard to a state role in measuring municipal fiscal distress. Then we consider the changes in Detroit’s demographic conditions—changes which might augur further fiscal challenges on the Motor City’s road to recovery from the nation’s largest ever chapter 9 bankruptcy, before, finally, turning to Puerto Rico, where the legislature has just adjourned.

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Municipal Fiscal Distress: What Is a State Role? Martha S. Mavredes, Virginia’s Auditor of Public Accounts, warned the legislature’s new Joint Subcommittee on Local Government Fiscal Stress, a committee created last June in the 2017 Appropriations Act in the wake of the near chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy of Petersburg, a subcommittee which has been tasked with a broad examination of local government fiscal stress, including disparity in taxing authority between cities and counties and local responsibility for delivery of state-mandated services, but also to examine potential incentives to encourage regional cooperation and possible savings obtained from such efforts, that four localities−two cities and two counties−are showing signs of potentially serious fiscal stress. While Auditor Mavredes did not publicly identify the four localities, she did request time first to notify the four and to open discussions to determine whether the initial financial assessments are accurate.

In this instance, the municipalities include one city, known only as City A, which, under the new state fiscal rating system, scored even lower than Petersburg in an assessment of data from 2016 under the “financial assessment model” designed by the auditor and a high-level work group based on a similar system in Louisiana. Both cities scored below 5 on a system which uses 16 as the minimum threshold for indicating financial stress. One other city and two counties scored below 16, and two localities, Hopewell and Manassas Park, have yet to submit financial data for 2016. (Indeed, Hopewell has failed so far to even submit a financial statement for FY2015.) Or, as the Auditor noted in her testimony: “I can’t even review the numbers of these places…I don’t have the data.”

Subcommittee Chairman Emmett W. Hanger Jr. (R-Augusta) concurred that it would be premature to identify the localities prior to notifying them and verifying the numbers used to assess them; however, other Virginia legislative leaders questioned whether the state is doing its job by not sharing concerns with the public—or, as House Appropriations Chairman S. Chris Jones (R-Suffolk) noted: “I think we would want to know those who are below 16: Knowing and not taking any affirmative actions is almost malfeasance.” As a former Mayor, it would seem Chairman Jones knew of what he was speaking. His perspective was reinforced by Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City), who co-chairs the Senate Finance with Sen. Hanger, who noted: “It’s important that we know, and it’s important that they know we know.”

While Virginia does not specifically authorize its municipal entities to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, the state does bar any of its cities or towns from incurring debt in excess of 10% of its assessed property valuation (see §1762), the Commonwealth has no authority to intervene directly in a locality’s finances, albeit Virginia Secretary of Finance Richard D. Brown played a critical role in halting, as we have previously noted, Petersburg’s near insolvency via the provision of state technical support on a voluntary basis to the distressed small city when it was confronted by nearly $19 million in unpaid bills—a fiscal precipice which led both the Virginia Legislature and Gov. Terry McAuliffe to recognize the importance of determining whether there might be increasing fiscal disparities within the state—and whether the state might be able to play a greater role in averting other potential municipal fiscal risks—leading to provisions in last year’s budget to direct the Virginia Auditor to create a municipal fiscal monitoring system to identify potentially stressed localities and offer to help, appropriating up to $500,000 as an incentive to cooperate.

And it appears the Legislature is impressed—or, as Chair Hanger said to Auditor Mavredes: “I’m impressed that you and your team stood this up as quickly as you did.” The new system the Auditor’s team put together examines the Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports submitted to the auditor annually and scores them on 10 financial ratios−including four which measure the health of the locality’s general fund used to finance its budget. That first fiscal scorecard identified Petersburg as the sole municipality publicly identified with a score which fell below the stress threshold for the past three years, reaching 4.48 in 2016, when its increasingly desperate fiscal situation became public. Auditor Mavredes told the legislative leaders: “Petersburg is a locality I would have wanted to look at, having seen these scores without knowing anything else.” 

Nevertheless, Petersburg is not the sole city the Auditor found to be in fiscal trouble: she testified that “City A” also scored below the threshold the last three years, dropping to 4.25 in 2016, testifying: “This is a city (on which) I will be doing follow-up.” In addition, she said she plans to contact at least three other localities, noting that City B fell precipitously from a score just under 50 in 2014 to between 13 and 14 in each of the next two years. She told the legislator her first question is whether the data used in the 2014 assessment are correct. She noted that County A demonstrates what Auditor Mavredes deemed “consistently low scores,” from just under 6 in 2014, to 8.23 the next year, and 7.31 last year; County B declined sharply from a score of 21 in 2014 to under 16 the next year and just over 11 in 2016, leading Co-Chair Jones to comment: “That seems to me to be a huge drop over a two-year period.” However, Ms. Mavredes responded the cause of the drop could be as simple and as unavoidable as the loss of a major employer, which is why she testified she intends to follow-up with the locality to determine what happened. Chairman Jones made clear his preference would be that such a fiscal examination take place in public view—or, as he put it: “If they’re not doing A, B, C, I think the public ought to know what is happening in that community.”

Fiscal Omens for the Motor City? Even as Detroit continues to recover from the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, the recovery continues to be uneven, and now there appears to be an emerging threat to its fiscal future: the number of families with children has declined by 43 percent since 2000 with only about a quarter of households with children, according to a report released this week from the nonprofit Detroit Future City, which also detailed a slowing population decline and job growth. In its report, “139 Square Miles,” the average size of Detroit households has declined over the past decade, with an average 2.6 people per household: Detroit households with children now make up 26 percent of the city, a steep, nearly 33 percent drop from 2000, with the data taking into account other types of households in the city which also experienced a decline. Today, in the Motor City, non-family households make up about 44 percent and households without children, about 31 percent. That compares to seventeen years ago, when, according to Edward Lynch, a planner for Detroit Future City, there were 115,000 families with children living in Detroit compared to only 65,000 families with children by 2015. Mr. Lynch noted: “We didn’t look specifically into the causes, but a lot of people point to different things (such as) schools as to why people have been moving out of the city for quite some time.” Unsurprisingly, but certainly related, is the state of enrollment at the Detroit Public Schools Community District, which is itself emerging from fiscal insolvency, even as it is experiencing ongoing decline: since the 2010-11 school year, the district has experienced a 41% enrollment decline: more than 30,000 students, even as charter school enrollment has increased 14%. Mr. Lynch notes: “We’re trying to provide a baseline analysis of the City of Detroit as it stands at this point in time…We’re hoping this will be used by a broad range of stakeholders and residents to get a clear picture of what’s happening at this point.”

On the plus side, Detroit Future City reports that for the first time in six decades, Detroit’s population decline has slowed, in no small part due to the job growth since the Great Recession: since the first quarter of 2010, Detroit has added 30,000 private-sector jobs, bringing the total jobs in the city to 238,400. The areas of growth include business services, automotive, financial services, and production technology. Perhaps better gnus: the largest increase in jobs has been among those that pay more than $40,000 annually.

ReGrowing in the Wake of Chapter 9. Even as the City of Detroit has razed more than 12,000 blighted houses over the past four years, the challenge of razing or relocating abandoned commercial structures—structures which can be safety threats to the community—has proved more difficult. Moreover, unlike the case with commercial buildings, the city may not make use of federal funds to tear down commercial properties—a stiff challenge, as some 83% of the city’s initial blight force list of over 5,400 blighted commercial properties, of which some 83% had been privately owned. Unsurprisingly, with November’s mayoral election not so far off, the issue has been drawn into the campaign, with the Mayor proposing to double the rate of demolitions to 300—a still challenge as, at least as of the day before yesterday, only 67 have come down. A spokesperson for the Mayor, John Roach, reports that, as of last week, some 97 commercial demolitions were at various stages in the razing pipeline: 18 buildings are currently ready to be razed, while the city sorts through the bidding and contract approval process—and the city’s auditors are assessing the residential demolition program to gain important lessons learned, especially in the wake of changes to the contracting process which mandated that each demolition gain approval from both the Detroit City Council and the Detroit Financial Review Commission.

More and more people are interested in moving downtown; however, the amount of new housing units has not been able to keep up with demand, a new study released Thursday by the Downtown Detroit Partnership said. In its third installment, the Greater Downtown Residential Market Study found that demand for market-rate and affordable housing in the area will grow by nearly 10,000 units over the next five years. The study, commissioned in part by Invest Detroit and conducted by Clinton, N.J.-based Zimmerman Volk Associates Inc., examined the Downtown, Corktown, Rivertown, Lafayette Park, Eastern Market, Midtown, Woodbridge, TechTown and New Center neighborhoods. “We’re seeing a continued demand for residential units, and that demand is increasing faster than the current supply of available units,” DDP CEO Eric Larson said in a statement. “There is a great opportunity in the city for developers for both market-rate and affordable units.”  While the area’s housing demand is projected to swell over the next five years, developers have proposed building roughly 7,400 units over the next three years, shy of the 10,000 projection over five years. Annual demand is projected to be as high as 2,000 units. The study found that 1,750 units have gone up in 2017. Of those units projected to be built in the next three years, 74 percent are forecast to be market-rate rentals and the rest affordable housing. Affordable housing includes those with incomes between 30 and 80 percent of the area’s median income.

Investing in Puerto Rico’s Future. Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello has signed into law four of the five bills approved by the legislature in the extraordinary session that ended last week, including the new statute to guarantee the payment to Puerto Rico’s pensioners and establish a new defined contribution plan for public servants, or, as the Governor noted: “This first special session assured that retirees receive their pensions and that we comply with the Fiscal Plan so that we can continue to provide government services to the people.” The new law is intended to create a legal framework so that Puerto Rico can guarantee payments to its retirees via a “pay as you go” system, or, as the Governor noted: “To leave things as they were would have turned out that as soon as in September, our retirees would not receive the payment of their pension for which they worked for decades in the public service.” Under the new provisions, the General Fund will allocate $ 2 billion this year so that retirees continue to receive their monthly pensions; the bill also creates a Defined Contribution Plan, similar to a 401k, with Gov. Rossello noting: “In the past, public servants were held back by a percentage of their salary and went on to a trust that was used to pay for the administrative expenses and inefficiencies of the Government…That irresponsible practice ended with our Administration.”

Gov. Rossello also signed House Bill 1162, which makes technical amendments to the statute which created the Commission of the Equality for Puerto Rico, to incorporate the results of the plebiscite of June of 2017, providing that the members of the Commission shall not receive any remuneration for their services, noting that “this recommendation of amendment we receive[d] from baseball superstar Ivan Rodriguez so that the expenses of the members of the Commission are not met with public funds in the face of the fiscal situation that the Government is going through…I told the people of Puerto Rico from the electoral process that a vote for this server was a vote for statehood and a government that seeks equality at the national level as American citizens.”

Fiscal & Physical Challenges to the Nation’s State & Local Leaders

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August 17, 2017

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s Blog, we consider the fiscal and physical challenges to municipal and state leaders in the wake of the physical violence this week in Charlottesville, Virginia—and the wavering response from President Donald Trump. Then we return to the City of Flint, where federal court decisions appear to have opened the way for help to assist in access to safe drinking water for the city’s beleaguered residents. Finally, we ask to what degree there might be promise in PROMESA, as the PROMESA Board appears to be seeking independent fiscal analysis in an effort to better address options for fiscal recovery.

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Fiscal & Physical Municipal Mayhem. Municipal leaders across the nation are suddenly on notice that the federal government cannot be counted upon to help respond to threats of violence and mayhem by alt-right groups in the wake the events last Saturday in Charlottesville, Virginia, as alt-right leaders and white nationalist groups have vowed to stage more rallies in coming days: a group claiming it is advocating free speech has planned a rally for Saturday on the historic Boston Common, with a group advocating racial justice planning its own gathering in opposition. Boston officials have responded by setting strict conditions, including no sticks, weapons, or backpacks—or, as Mayor Marty Walsh stated: “Make no mistake: We do not welcome any hate groups to Boston, and we reject their message.” A similar rally scheduled for the end of this month in San Francisco has prompted House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Ca.)) and several California lawmakers to urge the National Park Service to rescind the permit to gather on federal parkland there. Indeed, the events this week in Charlottesville—and the President’s response, has confronted municipal leaders with hard questions with regard to how to deal with their Confederate monuments, an issue that has suddenly become much more urgent.

In the wake of the violent public clashes, mayors, governors, and other civic leaders are taking steps that even a week ago might not have seemed necessary. Now, however, uncertain of any federal support, city and county leaders will be confronted by costly decisions both with regard to granting permits, but also with regard to what resources to make available to avert injuries to citizens and destruction of local businesses—fearing that the white nationalist movement could attract a larger following, a following perhaps abetted by the remarks yesterday of President Trump. Darrel Stephens, the Executive Director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, noted that many of the people who came to Charlottesville wore helmets and carried shields: “These guys, the shields that they showed up with. . . you don’t bring that stuff to a demonstration to just express a view…You bring that there prepared for violence. Why else would you have them?”

From time immemorial in our country, demonstrations in cities have been part of the fabric of the nation, so this challenge is not new: there were certain members of Parliament in the mid-1775’s who very much wanted to ban “hate groups” from Colonials in places such as Chesapeake, Williamsburg, Petersburg, Yorktown, that Virginia municipality where a combined French and American army under Alexandria’s George Washington pinned down and besieged a British force under Lord Cornwallis, forcing his surrender on Oct. 19, 1781. The marches and rallies in Virginia, it seemed, were vital to securing independence from Britain. One may well imagine Lord Cornwallis’ response.

We have, in this country, a long and honored tradition of marches and rallies—the writer even spent unmitigated hours negotiating with authorities in the U.S. Embassy in Vienna, the City of Vienna, and Austria to obtain a permit to demonstrate against the killings at Kent State. It is hard to imagine a more important tradition in our young nation than the right to demonstrate: the challenge of governance, however, is how to ensure such demonstrations do not risk life and limb. That is the hard task upon which Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe is now proposing to embark upon, appropriately recognizing the Commonwealth—and its cities and counties—really need to rethink how to protect citizens and their rights—much as former President Kennedy and Johnson had to do in a different era. That responsibility will also require determining how to define “hate groups”?  Was the Confederate Army a hate group? Was George Washington’s army a hate group?

In Like Flint? The United States 6th Circuit Court of Appeals’ reversal on July 28th of a federal court’s decision in two lawsuits filed by Flint, Michigan residents over the contamination of their drinking water, has emboldened lawyers and their plaintiffs, who said residents of the predominately African-American city still are being billed for dirty water they cannot use, clearing the way for tens of thousands of Flint residents to continue their lawsuit against the State of Michigan and local officials—or, as the prevailing attorney noted: “The court’s decision means that the trial court’s dismissal of the case was legally incorrect and the appeals court has sent it back…A lot of our case deals with the fact that residents in Flint have been charged three-times the national rate for water, because the city is trying to balance their budget and these charges and fees come at the exact time that they couldn’t use the water…Not only did they come during the period in which they were getting contaminated water and having their children poisoned, but the water bills kept coming and they were told not to drink the water by an EPA mandate, and they were also told that if they didn’t pay their bill, they’d have a lien placed on their home and face foreclosure. That’s not America.”

In its ruling, the federal appeals court overturned a lower federal court ruling which had dismissed a major class-action lawsuit filed in 2015 on behalf of tens of thousands of Flint residents against Gov. Rick Snyder, the city of Flint, and Flint municipal officials who were involved in deciding to switch to the Flint River as its water source. The decision allows the plaintiffs to seek relief from the State of Michigan in another case in the form of compensation for education, medical monitoring and evaluation services for ongoing harm from Flint’s contaminated water crisis, as well opening the way for cases seeking financial damages against individual state employees, the city of Flint, city employees, and state-appointed emergency managers to proceed. The decision came as Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette and his legal team have pursued criminal and misdemeanor charges against or accepted plea deals with 15 persons, including former Flint employees and former and current state officials, as well as two former Flint emergency managers appointed by Governor Snyder. (The class-action lawsuits involve Flint residents who experienced personal injury and property damage from the Flint River decision, after they were exposed to toxic lead that leached from the city’s pipes into the water supply.) The trial court ruled that the federal Safe Drinking Water Act stopped the plaintiffs from seeking damages, but the appeals panel ruling allows U.S. District Judge Judith Levy to continue weighing the issue.

The appeals court decision came just prior to dismissal, this week, in federal District Court, of a whistleblower lawsuit against Flint Mayor Karen Weaver filed by a former city official who alleged she was fired for raising alarms over possible misuse of water crisis contributions. Former City Administrator Natasha Henderson sued Mayor Weaver and the City of Flint in May of last year, claiming she was wrongfully terminated two days after sending then-city attorney Anthony Chubb an email asking him to look into an “allegation of unethical conduct” by Mayor Weaver; however, U.S. District Court Judge Sean Cox permanently dismissed the three-count complaint, ruling Ms. Henderson failed to prove Mayor Weaver was aware of her complaint prior to firing her, writing: “The Court concludes that Henderson has not produced sufficient circumstantial evidence from which a reasonable jury could infer that Weaver knew of Ms. Henderson’s complaint to Mr. Chubb before she fired Henderson.”

Ms. Henderson had emailed Mr. Chubb one day after a purported conversation with Mayor Weaver’s administrative assistant, Maxine Murray. Ms. Murray “fearfully” told Ms. Henderson that the Mayor had asked her and a volunteer to direct water crisis contributions into the Mayor’s political fund, Karen about Flint, according to the suit. Mr. Chubb was serving as interim chief legal officer during Ms. Henderson’s suit, and said he was seeking the permanent appointment. Ms. Henderson speculated he gave the Mayor a “preview of information about her accused malfeasance” in order to “curry favor,” a speculation with which Mr. Chubb took exception. Judge Cox, in his opinion, noted: “Henderson seeks to prove Weaver’s knowledge by circumstantial evidence,” as he also dismissed a First Amendment claim by Ms. Henderson, ruling that her speech was not constitutionally protected, because she was operating in an official government capacity, not as a private citizen. At the same time, he was entitled to “absolute immunity” against defamation claims by Ms. Henderson, who alleged the Mayor had made false statements about her after her firing, writing: “Weaver is entitled to immunity, because her alleged statements were made in the scope of her executive authority.”

Is There Promise in PROMESA? The PROMESA Board has issued an RFP in an effort to secure an independent research team to conduct an investigation into Puerto Rico’s debt and its connection with the U.S. territory’s fiscal crisis, defining the scope to include:

  • a review of the factors contributing to the fiscal crisis in Puerto Rico, including changes in the economy, expansion of spending commitments and benefit programs, changes in the federal financing it receives and its dependence on debt to finance a structural budget deficit,
  • a review of Puerto Rico’s debt, the general use of the proceeds of borrowing, the relationship between debt and the structural budget deficit of Puerto Rico, the extent of its debt instruments and how Puerto Rico’s debt practices compare with the debt practices of large municipal states and jurisdictions, and
  • a review of debt issuance, disclosure and sale practices of Puerto Rico, including its interpretation of Puerto Rico’s constitutional debt limit.

It was also stated that proposers will be evaluated and selected based on their professional qualifications, the competitiveness of their economic proposal, the integrity and quality of their response to the RFP, their relevant experience in conducting research, their knowledge and experience in federal securities law, knowledge and experience in the municipal bond market, government budget and fiscal management, and the ability to commence work immediately—albeit failure to meet all the above areas will not necessarily disqualify a proposal.

The independent investigative team will report to the Special Investigation Committee of the Supervisory Board, composed of members Ana Matosantos, David Skeel, and Arthur González.

The Art of State Fiscal Intervention

08/08/17

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Good Morning! In this a.m.’s blog, we consider the political and fiscal challenges to recovery for a municipality with disproportionate levels of crime and low income—but aided by state intervention.

Ending the Fiscal Siege of Petersburg. More than a century ago, from June 9, 1864, to March 25, 1865, during the American Civil War, the Richmond–Petersburg Campaign was torn by a series of battles around Petersburg, Virginia. In the past few years, the battle waged has been fiscal rather than physical for the independent city of about 32,420, where, last year, Virginia Finance Secretary Ric Brown, in providing a fiscal update, based on a state audit of the city’s books dating to 2012, had reported the municipality was facing a $12 million budget gap—and nearly $19 million in unpaid bills. But now, Sec. Brown has just announced that the small municipality’s bond rating outlook has been upgraded from “negative” to “stable,” confirming the value of the Commonwealth’s fiscal intervention. S&P’s announcement, coming nearly one year of weathering one of the lowest possible municipal bond ratings, led Mayor Samuel Parham to note: “We are proud of everyone’s efforts who made this positive reassessment possible.” But it is one small, fiscal step: At last week’s session, the City Council agreed to develop a deficit-reduction plan at its next meeting, scheduled for a week from Thursday: more fiscal work portends in the wake of last month’s action by the Council to approve a salary cut for the city’s 600 full-time employees: layoffs of staff and other austerity measures are now a real possibility.

That fiscal endeavor will proceed under a newly appointed City Manager, Aretha R. Ferrell-Benavides, who was appointed last month to be responsible for the day-to-day operations of the city and report directly to the City Council. She does not come unprepared for the task, having served as the interim city manager, where she was put in the awkward role of informing the City Council and a packed hall of residents about the requisite critical cuts to city services and reduced funding for the city’s schools—already among the lowest-performing in the Commonwealth—as well as cuts to fire and police services in a city which has an unusually high rate of crime: some 87% higher than in comparison to the Virginia mean and are 35% higher than the national mean. With regard to violent offenses, Petersburg, has a rate that is 313% higher than the Virginia average; its property crime is 63% higher than the statewide mean. Nearly 30% of the city’s residents live in poverty, more double the statewide rate, and the city has a disproportionate percentage of its population older than 65.  As the population has declined from its peak in 1980, it has also aged — more than 15 percent of residents are 65 or older, vs. 13 percent statewide., and 22% higher than the country’s average—all steps necessary she warned, because, otherwise, Petersburg had about a month before it would confront the unthinkable: total collapse—it was a fiscal state which Virginia Finance Secretary Ric Brown noted to be unlike anything he had ever observed in his 46 years minding state ledgers in various roles.

In describing its upgrade to a “stable” outlook, Standard and Poor’s states that a “stable” outlook means the rating is unlikely to change. This is a slight improvement from a “negative” outlook. Standard and Poor’s Primary Credit Analyst, Timothy Barrett, said that the city had “taken several key steps toward financial recovery, including repaying a portion of past due obligations in addition to creating a viable plan to strengthening budgetary flexibility and liquidity, supported by some recently adopted financial policies.”

Petersburg Finance Director Blake Rane notes that the improved fiscal outlook will enhance the city’s fiscal “flexibility: It’s clear [the city] has changed trajectory in the past year, to a point where there is no risk beyond what the “BB” already says,” adding: “It’s really hard to move Standard and Poor’s [rating], and get the kind of movement we did.” In its report, Standard and Poor’s noted Petersburg has “taken several key steps toward financial recovery, including repaying a portion of past due obligations in addition to creating a viable plan to strengthening budgetary flexibility and liquidity, supported by some recently adopted financial policies.”

Notwithstanding the good gnus, Petersburg’s leaders recognize this is no time to let up: Despite the good news,  interim Finance Director Nelsie Birch and the other city officials recognize much fiscal effort remains: “It should help the investment community have confidence that the city is moving in the right direction, though we are still non-investment grade credit.” Until the city restores its fund balance, which would require at least $7.7 million dollars, the city’s credit rating will have to await a boost to investment grade—some two notches higher than its current grade—meaning it must pay higher interest rates for capital investment and borrowing than most Virginia municipalities.

Addressing Municipal Fiscal Distress at the White House and State House

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07/31/17

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Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider whether President Trump’s appointment of new White House Communications Director of Communications might have fiscal implications for Puerto Rico’s fiscal future; then we turn to leadership efforts in the Virginia General Assembly to refine what a state’s role in oversight of municipal fiscal distress might be. 

Might There Be a Change in White House Direction vis-à-vis Puerto Rico? Prior to his new appointment as White House Director of Communications, Anthony Scaramucci, more than a year ago, questioned whether the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico should be granted authority more akin to a sovereign nation than a state—power which would, were it granted, authorize Puerto Rico to authorize its muncipios the authority to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, writing in an op-ed, “The shame of leaving Puerto Rico in limbo,” in Medium a year ago last May, just as the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee was seeking to report the PROMESA legislation. Mr. Scaramucci then indicated that creditors wanted to file with regard to the actions taken by the Puerto Rican government as if they were “equal to the intransigence of the Kirchner government in Argentina, but in reality the situations (of both countries) are completely different.” He explained: Not only does Puerto Rico not have the same public policy options as Argentina, but its economy and ability to pay its debts are worse off: Not only does Puerto Rico not have the same public policy options as Argentina, but its economy and ability to pay its debts are worse off.” He further noted that House Speaker Paul Ryan (R.-Wis.) was in a difficult situation to deal with the situation in Puerto Rico, amid what he described as a “civil war” within the Republican Party—a war he described as “induced by Donald Trump.”

Now, of course, Mr. Scaramucci is in a starkly different position—one where he might be able to influence White House policy. Having written, previously, that the “tax code of the Commonwealth must be revised to be more friendly to economic development…Social assistance programs should be drastically reduced and labor laws softened,” Mr. Scaramucci has also called for public-private partnerships to make “essential” government services more efficient, such as the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority—noting: “Ultimately…we must also allow Puerto Rico to operate as a sovereign country or grant them legal protections more similar to those of the states (which is the preference of the Puerto Rican people).” He argued that the case of Puerto Rico represents a “failure on multiple levels: the insatiable desire of US investment funds for Puerto Rico triple exemption bonds; U.S. Congressmen of the status of the Congressionally-created territory, and misappropriation of funds by the Puerto Rican government: “We must now face our failures and take pragmatic measures to create a better future:  The tax code of the Commonwealth must be revised to be more friendly to economic development; social assistance programs should be drastically reduced, and labor laws softened.” He noted that public-private partnerships could be vital in rendering “essential” government services more efficient, such as the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, noting: “Ultimately, we must also allow Puerto Rico to operate as a sovereign country or grant them legal protections more similar to those of the states (which is the preference of the Puerto Rican people).” Referencing that, as in the Great Recession of 2008, he noted the case of Puerto Rico represents a “failure on multiple levels: the insatiable desire of US investment funds for Puerto Rico triple exemption bonds; U.S. Congressmen of the status of ELA (Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico), and misappropriation of funds by the Puerto Rican government…But as we did after 2008, we must now face our failures and take pragmatic measures to create a better future.”

Mr. Scaramucci’s comments came as the City or Pueblo of San Juan has filed a legal challenge to the PROMESA Oversight Board’s approval of the Government Development Bank (GDB) for Puerto Rico debt restructuring agreement: San Juan is seeking a declaratory judgement and injunctive relief against the PROMESA Oversight Board, the GDB, and the Puerto Rico Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority before U.S. Judge Laura Swain Taylor in the U.S. District Court for Puerto Rico—a judge by now immersed in multiple bankruptcy filings, after the Bastille Day PROMESA Board’s approval of a restructuring agreement for the GDB’s $4.8 billion in debt—an approval for which the Board asserted it had authority under PROMESA’s Title VI.

San Juan’s filing claims the GDB holds more than $152 million in San Juan deposits—deposits which the city asserts are the property of San Juan, and thereby ineligible for Title VI restructuring, which explicitly addresses only municipal bonds, loans, and other similar securities. San Juan then claims the GDB deposits are “secured,” unlike the funds which the GDB owes to municipal bondholders—even as the PROMESA Board’s approved Restructuring Support Agreement provides for the municipalities to vote in the same class as all the other GDB creditors, asserting that such a voting practice would be contrary to PROMESA. The suit also notes that, under Puerto Rico statutes, municipal depositors are allowed to set-off their deposits against their GDB loan balances; however, the Restructuring Support Agreement (RSA) is grossly inaccurate in accounting for these deposits against the loans and, thus, the agreement is breaching the law—asserting:

“The ultimate effect of the RSA would be to provide a windfall to the GDB’s bondholders by using the resources of San Juan and other municipalities for the payment of bondholder claims while imposing enormous losses on those same municipal depositors through the confiscation of their excess [special tax deposit] and their statutorily guaranteed right to setoff deposits at the GDB against their loans from the GDB.” The suit further charged that the PROMESA Board convened illegal executive private sessions concerning the creation of the RSA—sessions which included representatives of the GDB and FAFAA. (The federal statute only allows executive sessions with board members and its staff present, according to the suit.)  Thus, in its complaint , the city is requesting that Judge Swain find the board’s approval of the agreement invalid, and that Judge Swain further find that PROMESA and Article VI, Clause 2 of the U.S. Constitution preempt Puerto Rican laws and executive order that have stopped the municipalities from withdrawing their funds from the GDB for over a year.

Not Petering Out. In the Virginia Legislature, Del. Lashrecse Aird (D-Petersburg), the youngest woman ever elected to the House of Delegates, recently noted: “In this session, I’m carrying a very light load, just four or five bills, that are locality bill requests: As a lawmaker overall, you will always see me supporting those initiatives and those policy issues that reference those three priorities: jobs, education, and healthcare. I think that if I can execute on those priorities, that will definitely improve the quality of life for the citizens, the families and kids, not just for Petersburg but the entire district.” Del. Air noted that last year, the City of  Petersburg’s financial situation made headlines throughout the Commonwealth, and led to serious conversations about the financial health of Virginia’s cities and counties: “What we saw in Petersburg, in addition to a declining economy nationwide, was longstanding financial mismanagement, negligence, and declining cash balances dating back to 2009. And, what we saw in localities like Emporia, Martinsville, Lynchburg, Buena Vista—all classified as having significant fiscal stress—is that these historic cities were displaying similar indicators, and they were largely going unaddressed.” Thus, she played a key role in creating a work group which has examined local fiscal distress—and which has produced an action plan, a plan from which components have been incorporated into the state’s new budget: including:

  • improving how the Commonwealth of Virginia monitors fiscal activity and increases the level of oversight by the auditor of public accounts;
  • establishing a mechanism which is responsive to situations of local fiscal distress; and
  • providing readily available resources should intervention become necessary.

As a start, she noted that Virginia House has adopted a budget which allocates up to $500,000 to conduct intervention and remediation efforts in situations of local fiscal distress that have been previously documented by the Office of the State Secretary of Finance prior to January 1st, 2017. As part of a longer-term approach, the effort incorporates additional language establishing a Joint Subcommittee on Local Government Fiscal Stress, with the new subcommittee charged to review:

  • savings opportunities for increased regional cooperation and consolidation of services;
  • local responsibilities for service delivery of state-mandated or high-priority programs;
  • causes of fiscal stress; potential financial incentives and other governmental reforms for regional cooperation; and
  • the different taxing authorities of cities and counties.

Or, she she put it:

“An integral part of the approach we take towards addressing fiscal distress must also include conversations about electing capable local leadership and providing training in areas most critical to effective governance and financial management. Where there are gaps in knowledge and understanding, elected officials must be willing to educate themselves in every area necessary for good governance.”