Balancing Fiscal & Public Safety

January 9, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the potential fiscal impact of the expiration of the State of New Jersey’s public safety arbitration cap—with the expiration coming as Governor-elect Phil Murphy has been reviewing a report examining the implications for property taxes, state spending, collective bargaining agreements, and public safety. Then we journey south to witness the denouement of the fiscal siege of the historic municipality of Petersburg, Virginia.

Uncapping & Fiscal Impacts. The State of New Jersey’s statute capping public safety arbitration awards at 2% has been in effect for seven years—it was last extended in 2014. Now, with a new Governor taking office, Moody’s has warned that its expiration on the last day of 2017 is a credit negative for the Garden State—and for its municipalities and counties. Indeed, the New Jersey League of Municipalities has been joined by the New Jersey Association of Counties, the New Jersey Conference of Mayors, the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, New Jersey Business and Industry Association, and the New Jersey Realtors Association to urge the new Governor and Legislature to support permanently extending the 2% cap Interest Arbitration Cap, noting that an expired cap would have a negative impact on property taxes and jeopardize the continued delivery of critical services, as well as adversely impact residential and commercial property taxpayers, working class families, and those on fixed incomes. The League’s President, Mayor James Cassella of East Rutherford, noted that the 2% Interest Arbitration Cap has controlled costs: without the cap, municipalities could see costly arbitration awards that would force local officials to reduce services or lay off employees to satisfy the arbitrator’s award and stay within the 2% levy cap. Similarly, New Jersey Association of Counties President Heather Simmons, a Gloucester County Freeholder, noted that failure to permanently extend the 2% cap on binding interest arbitration awards would inequitably alter the collective bargaining process in favor of labor at the expense of taxpayers, and lead to awards by arbitrators with no fiduciary duty to deliver essential services in a cost-effective manner.

Now Moody’s has moodily weighed in, deeming the expiration a credit negative for the state’s cities and  counties, as has Fitch Ratings.

In New Jersey, interest arbitration is a process open only to police and fire employee unions: it is a mechanism to resolve collective bargaining disputes between local governments and unions: when a public employer is unable to reach a contract agreement with a police or fire union, an arbitrator is called in to decide the terms of the contract. When the state adopted the 2 percent property tax levy cap, a separate 2 percent cap on interest arbitration awards was also imposed: that mandates arbitrators to take property taxes into account when issuing awards and providing local officials with a now proven and effective tool to contain property tax increases. The arbitration cap expired on Dec. 31; however, the property tax levy cap is permanent. The New Jersey League noted: “For nearly a decade, the 2 percent cap on binding interest arbitration awards has kept public safety employee salaries and wages under control simply because parties have been closer to reaching an agreement from the onset of negotiations. Moreover, the 2 percent cap on binding interest arbitration awards has established clear parameters for negotiating reasonable successor contracts that preserve the collective bargaining process and take into consideration the separate 2 percent tax levy cap on overall local government spending. And, importantly, the 2 percent cap on binding interest arbitration awards has not negatively impacted public safety services or recruitment.

In the wake of the expiration of the arbitration cap, it appears likely that arbitrator contract awards would exceed 2 percent. That would likely force cities and counties in the Garden State to reduce or eliminate municipal services—or go to the voters to seek approval to exceed the 2 percent property tax cap in order to fund an arbitration award.

Moody’s analyst Douglas Goldmacher moodily noted: “Given that salary costs are among the largest of municipal expenditures, the cost implications are obvious and considerable. The effect of this is, in most cases, unlikely to be rapid, but ultimately, the loss of the arbitration cap is likely to cause the sector’s credit quality to deteriorate…Although the cap has expired, and it may not be finished. Numerous local governments and local government advocacy groups support the arbitration cap. It is possible that the new governor and New Jersey state Legislature will revisit the matter. Until and unless that occurs, there will be a potentially dangerous mismatch between revenue and expenditures.” The statute, which caps public safety arbitration awards at 2%, came into force on January 1, 2011; it was extended for a three-year period in 2014 when it was last up for renewal. Mr. Goldmacher noted: “The cap played a major role in helping local governments manage public safety costs by instituting a limit on increases in police and fire salaries in arbitration and effectively tying the salary increases to the municipality’s or county’s revenue-raising capabilities…The cap’s expiration, should it prove permanent, is a credit negative for all local governments.” Mr. Goldmacher noted the cap’s existence has been a “valuable tool” in contract negotiations when police and firefighter unions with negotiators often forced to consider small salary increases. A September report by former Gov. Chris Christie’s appointees to the Police and Fire Public Interest Arbitration Impact Task Force stated that municipal property taxes jumped at an annual average of 7.19% for the five years prior to the cap compared to 2.41% since 2011. The report also estimated that the cap has saved taxpayers a collective $429 million. Thus, Mr. Goldmacher notes: “Given that salary costs are among the largest of municipal expenditures, the cost implications are obvious and considerable: Police and fire contracts often serve as a benchmark contract for other negotiations, which had the effect of making a 2% annual increase something of a standard target for most contracts, even for non-public safety collective bargaining units.” While it is possible the cap may be reinstated, Mr. Goldmacher added that as long as no action is taken to address the lapse, New Jersey’s cities and counties confront “a potentially dangerous mismatch” aligning revenue and expenditures, because of how much a 2% property tax cap law would limit their budgetary flexibility, writing: “The effect of this is, in most cases, unlikely to be rapid, but ultimately, the loss of the arbitration cap is likely to cause the sector’s credit quality to deteriorate,” he said. “The degree of deterioration will depend on the idiosyncratic qualities of the given community.”

For its part, Fitch wrote: “…the arbitration cap is beneficial to local government credit quality as it helps to align revenue and spending measures and supports structural balance in the context of statutory caps on property tax growth…bargaining groups may become more emboldened to pursue arbitration as opposed to voluntary settlement if the arbitration cap expires. Arbitration awards were significantly higher prior to the cap, ranging from 2.50% to 5.65% from 1993-2010, according to a report of the New Jersey Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC.)” Fitch also noted that the elimination of the arbitration cap “could force local governments to reduce governmental services and/or rely on one-time resources to accommodate higher wage expenses.”

The Fiscal Siege of Petersburg. Jack Berry, Robert Bobb, and Nelsie Birch, writing in a piece, “Overcoming the latest siege of Petersburg, referenced the city’s then vital role in the Civil War, where, as they wrote: “The series of battles known as the Siege of Petersburg lasted nine months and consisted of devastating trench warfare. It featured the largest concentration of African-American troops in the war, who suffered enormous casualties at the Battle of the Crater.” They went on to write: “Some would say that Petersburg has been under siege ever since the Civil War, that there is a siege mentality in the city. Petersburg even has a Siege Museum…But Petersburg has not always been under siege; it is not today, and it will not be tomorrow. Noting that Petersburg was once the second largest city in Virginia—and home to the largest number of free blacks in Virginia, they noted that it was once “a wealthy city, a major industrial center, and one of the largest rail hubs in the nation,” where, in the wake of the Civil War, a “coalition of Africa-American and white, populist Republicans, controlled the state legislature, which led to the creation of two large public institutions in the region: Virginia State University and Central State Hospital. Later, Fort Lee became another major economic engine for the area.” The authors noted, however, that “Jim Crow laws and Massive Resistance devastated the hopes and dreams of black citizens and fueled racial tensions. In 1985, one of the city’s largest employers, Brown & Williamson Tobacco, shut down its Petersburg factory. Later, Southpark Mall was located north of the city, sucking retail sales out of Petersburg.” These events adversely affected assessed property values—in turn reducing investment in public schools. The historic city seemed on a route to chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy—or being, as they wrote: “relinquishing city status—and being subsumed by neighboring jurisdictions,” all because of what they described as a “self-inflicted, mismanaged city government” which “ran itself into a ditch: In July of 2016, the city faced $18 million in unpaid bills. The budget was $12 million out of balance. Petersburg had nearly run out of cash and was dipping into every available pot of money, regardless of restrictions, to pay bills. A botched water meter conversion project impacted utility billings, which made the cash situation even worse.”

Because the Commonwealth of Virginia was apprehensive that a default by Petersburg would have had severe fiscal repercussions for municipalities across the state, the Commonwealth, as we have previously written, provided a consulting team to diagnose the fiscal issues and recommend fiscal measures—including, in its recommendations, pay cuts of 10 percent pay cuts for the entire city workforce. Even as the state-imposed overseer was acting, an aroused citizenry, via a grassroots group called “Clean Sweep,” attended every City Council session, demanding greater fiscal accountability. A year ago last October, former Mayor Howard Meyers and the City Council brought in a fiscal posse in an effort to restructure, hiring former Richmond City Manager Robert Bobb and his team, who set up a temporary war room in the City Hall building where General Robert E. Lee had met with his senior Confederate officers during the Siege of Petersburg. Mr. Bobb wrote of the fiscal war room: “We dug in for the long haul, with Nelsie Birch leading efforts to peel back layers of the financial onion. We got a handle on cash flow, figured out the extent of the unpaid bills, found checks stashed in drawers, arranged short-term financing, crafted a new budget, dramatically cut spending, put pressure on the city treasurer to collect taxes, and revamped the decrepit utility system…New financial policies were put in place; debt was restructured; water and sewer rates were increased to comply with debt covenants; the organization was right-sized; new managers were hired.”

Mr. Bobb described this war room process as one in which—at the same time—his team teamed with Mayor Sam Parham and the members of the Petersburg City Council “every step of the way,” to make the tough decisions, adding that, during this process, “Our strongest ally was the Governor’s Office, in particular, Virginia Secretary of Finance Ric Brown.” Indeed, by last November, external auditors reported a signal fiscal turnaround: Petersburg reported a year-end surplus of $7.2 million—and the report was on time; the auditor’s opinion was clean.

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Recovering after a Quasi-State Takeover

December 8, 2017

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s Blog, we consider the fiscal and governing challenges of a city emerging from a quasi-state takeover—and report that last night, House Republicans voted 235-193 to pass and send to the Senate a stopgap bill to keep the federal government open for another two weeks, freeing up space to finish both the federal budget for the year that began last October 1st—and to try to craft a conference report on federal tax reform. The House vote now awaits Senate action, where leaders plan to act swiftly to put the bill on President Trump’s desk and avoid a shutdown on Saturday.

.Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

A Founding Municipality. Petersburg, Virginia—where archaeological excavations have found evidence of a prehistoric Native American settlement dated to 6500 BC, was, when the English first began to settle America, arriving in Virginia in 1607, in a region then occupied by Algonquin speaking early Americans—was founded at a strategic point along the Appomattox River. Nearly four decades later, the Virginia Colony established Fort Henry along the banks of the Appomattox River. The colony established Fort Henry—from which Colonel Abraham Wood sent several famous expeditions in subsequent years to explore points to the west; by 1675, his son-in-law, Peter Jones, who commanded Fort Henry opened the aptly named Peter’s Point trading post. In 1733, the founder of Virginia’s capitol of Richmond, Col. William Boyd, settled on plans for a municipality there—to be called Petersburgh—an appellation the Virginia General Assembly formally incorporated as Petersburg on December 17, 1748.

By the 20th century, the upward growth in one of the nation’s oldest cities peaked—at just over 41,000 residents: by 2010, the population had declined more than 20 percent—and the municipality had a poverty rate of 27.5%, double the statewide average, and nearly 33% greater than in 1999. The city’s largest employer, Brown & Williamson, departed in the mid-1980s. By last year, 100% of Petersburg School District students were eligible for free or reduced price lunch—even as the district lagged behind state graduation rates; the  and the rate of students receiving advanced diplomas. Last year, the city’s violent crime rate was just under twice the U.S. average. By 2014, Petersburg’s violent crime rate of 581 per 100,000 residents was nearly 30% higher than the violent crime rate in Danville—even though, unlike Danville, Petersburg is in the thriving Richmond metropolitan area—and has potential partners in higher education (Virginia State University and Richard Bland College) and philanthropy (Cameron Foundation), as well as a unique concentration of affordable, historic housing. Yet the city’s unassigned General Fund reverses grew from $20.4 million in FY2005 to $35.0 million by FY2014, or 55% of operating expenditures; it has very strong liquidity, with total government available cash equal to 11.5% of total governmental fund expenditures and more than ten times greater than annual debt service payments. Nevertheless, as we have previously noted, a state technical assistance team’s review last year determined that the City had exhausted most of its unrestricted reserves—also noting that in FY 2015, the City’s final budget called for General Fund revenue of $81.4 million and spending of $81.1 million, even as the municipality’s CAFR reported that actual revenue was $77 million, while spending was $82.9 million—leading to a conclusion that, based on General Ledger reports, all funds expenditures exceeded all funds revenue by at least $5.3 million.

Moreover, notwithstanding its string of operating deficits, Petersburg undertook a series of costly, low return economic development investments—purchasing a hotel, supporting a local baseball team, and building a new library—all investments beyond the city’s means. Nevertheless, after a state intervention, after nearly a decade of near insolvency, the city’s most recent Comprehensive Annual Finance Report demonstrates Petersburg is emerging from its fiscal bog—closing FY2017 having collected $73,069,843 in revenues, while spending $65,861,125 in expenditures: meaning the positive $7,208,718 difference nearly eclipsed the $7.7 million deficit which had been carried over from FY2016—unsurprisingly leading Blake Rane, the city’s Finance Director, to note: “We’re really excited about the changes that occurred in 2017: As the new administration, we are super excited that the road we have to go on is starting at a better position than where we thought it would be.” Similarly, Mayor Samuel Parham, at a news conference, noted: “We’re showing outside development that Petersburg is a safe investment…There was a time when people thought we were going to fall into the Appomattox.”

Much of the fiscal recovery credit, as we have previously noted, may be credited in part to strict expenditure practices instituted by the Robert Bobb Group, the turnaround team headed by the former City of Richmond Manager, which ran the city administration from October 2016 until September—where the team found Petersburg had always overestimated revenues, according to former Finance Director Nelsie Birch, so that the fiscal challenge was to get a “handle on spending,” a challenge met via the adoption of a very conservative FY2017 budget with a strong focus on improving Petersburg’s collection practices—including enforcement:  For the first time in several years, the city put delinquent properties up for tax sale—or, as City Manager Aretha Ferrell Benavides put it: “The new billing and collecting office is moving on collecting now: People are realizing that we’re not going to sit and wait.”  The results are significant: Petersburg’s fund balance is nearly at zero after dropping to a negative $7.7 million. Today that balance is a shadow of its former level at negative $143,933, and Manager Benavides notes: “We’re working on building up [the fund balance], because we’ve been very dependent on short-term loans through Revenue Anticipation Notes.”

Other key steps on the city’s road to recovery included selling excess water from the city’s water system, selling pieces of city-owned property, and even selling the city’s water system, or, as Mr. Bobb put it: “Moving forward, the city still needs that liquidity event (that was not intended to be a pun), because a major snowstorm, or a major water line break, sinkhole, etc., those things would be a significant drain on the city, unless it has a major fund balance.” As part of its fiscal diet, Manager Benavides notes Petersburg is still examining options to sell as many as 320 pieces of city-owned property, with the City Council already having approved the disposition of some of these properties over the past several months. The fiscal road, like the city’s history and geography, has been steep, but the fiscal exertions appear to be paying off, as it were.

Governance Amidst Fiscal and Stormy Challenges & Uneven Federalism

December 1, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the fiscal and governing challenges in one of the nation’s oldest municipalities, and its remarkable turnaround from verging on becoming the first municipality in Virginia to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, before veering south to assess what President Trump has described as the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico suffering from “from broken infrastructure and massive debt.” 

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

Revolutionary Municipality. Petersburg, Virginia’s City Council, one of the oldest of the nation’s cities, as part of its fiscal recovery, last week had voted 5-2 to request the Virginia Legislature to change the city’s charter in order to transfer the most critical duties of the Treasurer’s Office to a newly-created role of city collector—a position under the Council’s control, as part of its wish list for the newly elected state legislature. Petersburg, an independent city of just over 32,000, is significant for its role in African-American history: it is the site of one of the oldest free black settlements in the state–and the nation.  The unprecedented City Council effort seeks to strip power from an elected office—an office some believe curried some fault for contributing to Petersburg’s near chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. Ironically, the effort came the same month that voters elected a former Member of the City Council to the office of Treasurer. Councilman Treska Wilson-Smith, who opposed the move, stated: “The citizens just voted in a Treasurer. For us to get rid of that position is a slap in the face to the citizens who put them in there.” Unsurprisingly, State Senator Rosalyn Dance, who for a dozen years has represented the city as part of her district in the Virginia House of Delegates, and who will consider the city’s legislative agenda, said she was concerned. Noting that the newly-elected treasurer has yet to serve a day in office, she added that much of the turmoil had to do with the current Treasurer, so, she said: “I hope [the] Council will take a second look at what they want to do.” Former Councilman and Treasurer-elect Kenneth Pritchett, who declined to comment, ran on a platform of improving the office’s operations by standardizing internal controls and implementing new policies: he urged Petersburg residents to contact lawmakers in a Facebook message posted after the Council took action, calling the decision “a prime example of total disrespect for the citizens’ vote.”

Nevertheless, Council Members who supported the legislative agenda language said it was time for a change, or, as Councilman Darrin Hill noted: “I respect the opinion of the citizens, but still, we believe if we keep on doing the same thing that we have done, then we will keep on getting the same results.” Other Councilmembers felt even better about their votes after the Council received good financial news earlier this week when newly audited reports showed a boost in Petersburg’s reserve funds, increased revenue, and a drop in expenditures—a marked fiscal reversal. In addition, the city’s external auditor provided a clean opinion—a step up from last year’s “modified” opinion—an opinion which had hinted the city had failed to comply with proper accounting principles—and a municipal fiscal year which commenced $19 million in the hole—and $12 million over budget—in response to which the Council raised taxes, cut more than $3 million in funding from the city’s chronically underperforming schools, eliminated a popular youth summer program, and closed cultural sites. Former Richmond City Manager Robert Bobb’s organization—which had been hired to help the city recoup from the verge of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, had supported transferring some of the duties of the Treasurer to a city collector position as a means to enhance the city’s ability to improve its tax collections.

Subsequently, late last September, another shoe fell with a 115-page report which examined eight specific aspects of city governance—and found allegations of theft involving current Treasurer Kevin Brown—claims Mr. Brown repeatedly denied, but appeared to contribute to his decision not to run for reelection—an elected which Mr. Pritchett won by a wide margin, winning just over 70 percent.  Nevertheless, Mayor Samuel Parham told his colleagues: “We are treading too thin now to risk someone who is just getting to know the job. We can’t operate as a city of hoping…Now that we are paying our bills and showing growth, there is no need to go back in time and have a situation that we had.” However, some Councilmembers believe they should await more facts with regard to Mr. Brown’s actions, especially with regard to uncollected municipal tax revenues, or, as Councilmember Wilson-Smith put it: “There are some questions which we still have unanswered when it comes to why the taxes were not collected: It appears to me that a lot of the taxes are not being collected, because they are un-collectable,” or, as she noted: Many listed for unpaid taxes were deceased.

David Foley with Robinson, Farmer, Cox Associates, Petersburg’s external auditor, had presented figures before Petersburg residents and the City Council, noting the clean opinion is a substantial improvement from last year, when auditors issued a modified opinion which suggested Petersburg had failed to maintain accounting principles—testifying that the improvement mainly came from the city being able to provide evidence of the status of some of its major financial accounts, such as public utilities. He did recommend that Petersburg strengthen some of its internal controls over the next fiscal year—noting, especially, the reconciliation of the city’s public utility system, which some officials have suggested should be sold to private companies. Indeed, City Manager Aretha Ferrell-Benavides told City Council members that a plan to correct some of the deficiencies will start in January, with monthly updates on corrective actions that she would like to continue to take. The see-saw, key fiscal change of nearly $2 million more than had been projected arose from a combination of increased real estate tax collections, and a $2.5 million reduction in expenditures, mainly came from health and welfare, and non-departmental categories: in total, there was a $7.5 million increase in the city’s chief operating fund. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Foley, in response to Councilmember Charlie Cuthbert, noted: “It was a significant year. There is still a long way to go,” indirectly referencing the city’s commencement of FY2017 $19 million in the hole and $12 million over budget—and with dire threats of legal action over unpaid bills—triggering a tidal wave of legal bills of nearly $1 million—of which about $830,000 went to Mr. Bobb’s group—while the city spent nearly $200,000 on a forensic audit.  Council members received the presentation on the annual financial report with a scant two days prior to the state imposed deadline to submit the report—after, last year, the city was about seven months late in submitting its annual financial report.

Insufficient Shelter from the Fiscal Storm. In the brutal wake of Hurricane Maria, which destroyed about 57,000 homes in Puerto Rico last September and left another 254,000 severely impacted, 50 percent of the U.S. territory’s remaining 3.5 million inhabitants are still without electricity—a lack that has adversely impacted the ability to reconstruct the toll wrought by Maria, not to mention the economy, or loss of those, more than 150,000, who could afford to leave for New York and Florida. Puerto Rico still confronts a lack of drinking water. Governor Ricardo Rosselló had assured that 95% of the island would have electricity by today, but, like too many other promises, that is not to be. An irony is that the recent visit of former President Bill Clinton, who did not come down to toss paper towels, but rather to bring fiscal and physical assistance, may be, at long last, an omen of recovery. It was just 19 days ago that Gov. Roselló appeared before Congress to request some $94 billion to rebuild the U.S. territory—a request unmet, and a request raising questions about the Puerto Rican government’s ability to manage such a vast project, especially in the wake of the $300 million no-bid contract awarded to a small Montana utility company, Whitefish, to restore the territory’s power—an effort House Natural Resources Committee Chair Rob Bishop (R-Utah) described as raising a “credibility gap.” Indeed, in the wake of that decision, Chairman Bishop and others in the Congress have called for the unelected PROMESA Financial Oversight and Management Board, known on the island as “la junta,” to extend its powers to overseeing the rebuilding effort as well—a call which, unsurprisingly, many Puerto Ricans, including pro-statehood Governor Rosselló, see as a further threat to their democratic rights. 

Nevertheless, despite the quasi-takeover threat from Congress, U.S. District Court Judge Laura Taylor Swain has denied the PROMESA Oversight Board’s request to appoint an emergency manager, similar to those appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder in Detroit, or by the former Governor of Rhode Island for Central Falls under their respective authority under state authorizations of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. Puerto Rico, because it is not a state, does not have such authority; consequently, Judge Swain has determined the Board does not have the authority to appoint public officials—a holding which Gov. Rosselló responded to by noting that the decision upheld his office’s position about the board’s power, writing: “It is clear that the [board] does not have the power to take full control of the Government or its instrumentalities…[T]he administration and public management of Puerto Rico remains with the democratically elected government.

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.

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.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

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.”