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.

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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.”

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

eBlog

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.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

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.”

Municipal Moral & Fiscal Obligations

07/27/17

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Good Morning! In today’s iBlog, we consider the state & local fiscal challenge fiscal in the event of a moral obligation pledge failure; the ongoing, long-term revival and recovery of Detroit from the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history, and the revitalization fiscal challenges in Atlantic City and Puerto Rico.

A Fiscal Bogie or a Moral Municipal Bond? Buena Vista, Virginia, a small, independent city located in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia with a population of about 6,650, where the issue of its public golf course became an election issue—with the antis winning office and opting not to make the bond payments on the course they opposed—rejecting a moral obligation pledge on what has become a failed economic development project, as the city’s elected leaders chose instead to focus—in the wake of the Great Recession—on essential public services, putting the city in a sub par fiscal situation with Vista Links, which was securing the bonds, according to Virginia state records. The company, unsurprisingly,  has sued to get the monies it was promised—potentially putting at risk the city’s city hall and other municipal properties which had been put up as collateral. Buena Vista City Attorney Brian Kearney discerns this to be an issue of a moral obligation bond, rather than a general obligation municipal bond, so that “[W]e could not continue to do this and continue to do our core functions.” In the wake of the fiscal imbroglio, the Virginia Commission on Local Government (COLG)—which provides an annual fiscal stress study‒ended up playing a key role in the Petersburg effort in the General Assembly—finding that very poor management had led to an $18 million hole.

Here, the municipality’s default triggered negotiations with bond insurer, ACA Financial Guaranty Corp., which led to a forbearance agreement—one on which the city subsequently defaulted—triggering the Commonwealth of Virginia  to bar financing backup to the city from the state’s low-cost municipal borrowing pool, lest such borrowing would adversely impact the pool’s credit rating—and thereby drive up capital borrowing costs for cities and counties all across the state. In this instance, the Virginia Resources Authority refused to allow Buena Vista to participate in the Virginia Pooled Financing Program to refinance $9.25 million of water and sewer obligations to lower debt service costs—lest inclusion of such a borrower from the state’s municipal pool would negatively impact the pool’s offering documents—where some pooled infrastructure bonds, backed by the Commonwealth’s moral obligation pledge, are rated double-A by S&P Global Ratings and Moody’s Investors Service.

Seven years ago, the municipality entered into a five-year forbearance agreement with bond insurer ACA Financial Guaranty Corp.—an agreement which permitted Buena Vista to make 50% of its annual municipal bond payments for five years—an agreement on which Buena Vista defaulted when, two years ago, the City Council voted against inclusion of its FY 2015 budgeted commitment to resume full bond payments. That errant shot triggered UMB Bank NA to file a lawsuit in state court in 2016 in an effort to enforce Buena Vista’s fiscal obligation. In response, the municipality contended the golf course deal was void, because only four of the city’s seven council members had voted on the bond resolution and related agreements—which included selling the city’s interest in its “public places,” arguing that Virginia’s constitution mandates that all seven council members be present to vote on the golf course deal, because the agreement granted a deed of trust lien on city hall, police, and court facilities which were to serve as collateral for the bonds.

Subsequently, last March 22nd, the city filed a motion to dismiss the federal suit for failure to state a claim—a claim on which U.S. District Judge Norman K. Moon held a hearing last Friday—with the municipality arguing that the golf course’s lease-revenue debt is not a general obligation. Therefore, the city appears to be driving at a legal claim it has the right to stop payment on its obligation, asserting: “The city seeks to enforce the express terms of the bonds, under which the city’s obligation to pay rent is subject to annual appropriations by the City Council, and ceases upon a failure of appropriations.” Moreover, pulling another fiscal club from its bag, the city claimed the municipal bonds here are not a debt of the city; rather, the city has told the court that the deed of trust lien for the collateral backing the bonds is void. That is an assertion which ACA, in its motion to dismiss, deemed an improper attempt to litigate the merits of the suit at the pleading stage, noting: “Worse, the city wants this court to rule that the city only has a ‘moral obligation’ to pay its debts, and that [ACA’s] only remedy upon default is to foreclose on a fraction of the collateral pledged by the city and the Public Recreational Facilities Authority of the city of Buena Vista….If adopted, this court will be sending a message to the market that no lender should ever finance public projects in Virginia because municipalities: (a) have unbridled discretion to not repay loans; and (b) can limit the collateral that can be foreclosed upon.” In a statement subsequently, ACA added: “It’s unfortunate that Buena Vista’s elected officials have forced ACA into court after recklessly choosing to have the city default on $9.2 million in debt even though the city has ample funds to make the payments that are owed…This is particularly troubling, because ACA spent years negotiating in good faith after the city claimed financial hardship, and even provided a generous forbearance agreement that reduced payments by 50% starting in 2011…After the city defaulted on that deal in 2014, it offered ACA only pennies on the dollar, while seeking to be absolved of all future burdens of this financing. Left with no reasonable alternative, we must look to the court for an equitable and fair outcome.”

In the nonce, as its legal costs mount, Buena Vista’s access to the municipal credit markets has not only adversely affected its ability to borrow from state financing programs, but also there is growing apprehension there could be implications for other local governments and potentially the Commonwealth of Virginia. Virginia Finance Secretary Ric Brown, when this issue first cropped up, had written previous Buena Vista Mayor Mike Clements: “This ability cannot be jeopardized or put at risk by permitting a defaulting locality to participate in a state pool financing program such as the VPSA: The Commonwealth certainly expects localities to do what is necessary to meet their debt obligations and to protect Virginia localities’ reputation for fiscal discipline.” (Virginia’s Commission on Local Government has revealed that 53% of Virginia’s counties and cities are experiencing above average or high fiscal stress.).

Motor City Recovery. Louis Aguilar of the Detroit News this week reported that Detroit is expected to grow by some 60,000 residents by 2040—growth which would mark the first time Detroit’s population will have increased since the 1950s, according to a study by the Urban Institute, “Southeast Michigan Housing Futures,” which notes that Detroit will finally end its decades-long loss of residents. Xuan Liu, manager of research and data analysis for the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, said the study builds on recent analyses done by SEMCOG, the Michigan Department of Transportation, and the University of Michigan: “It is a reflection of both the improvements we’ve seen in the city and the changing demographic trends.” The report indicates the region’s population base will include a larger percentage of residents over the age of 65 who are more inclined to remain where they are; the population increase in population will be influenced by the continued inflow of young adults and a small but steady rise of the Latino population. The study warns these changes will present major challenges, including the doubling of senior-headed households over the next three decades: by 2040, the study projects these households will make up 37% of the region’s households versus 22% in 2010; it adds that African-American households in the Detroit metro area disproportionately suffered from the effects of the housing crisis:  African-American homeownership rates dropped from a higher than the national average in 1990 and 2000 to be in line with the national average by 2014. Interestingly, it projects that the demand for rental housing is expected to grow throughout the region, with aging households likely comprising the bulk of this net growth as established renter households age—but warning that the region, and Michigan more broadly, lack affordable rental housing for low-income households. Overall, the Metro Detroit region is expected to gain approximately 380,000 households by 2040, according to the study.

For the Motor City, the report found that by 2016, Detroit’s population had slowed to its lowest pace in decades, according U.S. Census data: as of one year ago, Detroit’s population was 672,795, a loss of 3,541 residents—a decline comparable to the previous year: between 2000 to 2010, Detroit was losing more than 23,700 annually, on average, according to the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments; in the first decade of this century, the region lost 372,242 jobs, its population shrank by 137,375; and inflation-adjusted personal income retreated from 13.7% above the U.S. average to 4.8% below in 2010.

A Bridge to Tomorrow? The Detroit City Council this week okayed the $48 million agreement to open the way for the sale of city-owned property and streets in the path of the new Gordie Howe International Bridge to Canada—with the agreement also incorporating provisions to help residents living near the Delray neighborhood where the bridge will be located. Under the pact, the city will sell 36 city-owned parcels of land–land which Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority Director of Communications Mark Butler siad was needed for the Gordie Howe bridge project. Courtesy of Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority noted: “The funding relates to activities in advance of the P3 partner coming on board…As a normal course of business, WDBA, either directly or through the Michigan Department of Transportation, is providing funds to Detroit for property, assets, and services. The city in turn, is using those funds to purchase or swap homes outside of the project footprint, job training etc.” The bridge authority, a Canadian Crown corporation, will manage the Public-Private Partnership procurement process; the authority will also responsible for project oversight, including the actual construction and operation of the new crossing—whilst Canadian taxpayers will be fronting the funding to pay for the deal under an arrangement with the State of Michigan—under which there will be no cost or financial liability to Michigan or to Michigan taxpayers: Canada plans to recoup its money through tolls after the bridge is constructed. The Motor City will sell 36 city-owned parcels of land, underground assets, and approximately 5 miles of city owned streets needed for the bridge project. Under the agreement, the underlying property has been conveyed to the State of Michigan, but Canada is providing the funds. The bridge authority is expected to select a contractor for the project at the end of this year; construction will begin sometime next year.

Is There a Promise of Revitalization? The PROMESA Board this week appointed Noel Zamot to serve as Revitalization Coordinator for the U.S. territory—with Governor Ricardo Rosselló concurring the appointment would benefit Puerto Rico’s ability to compete—a key issue for any meaningful, long-term fiscal recovery. He added: “With over 25 years of experience in the aerospace and defense industry, we are convinced that Mr. Zamot will contribute to our economic development agenda and increase Puerto Rico’s competitiveness.” The federal statute’s Title V provided for such an appointment, a key part to any post chapter 9 plan of debt adjustment. Direct. PROMESA Board Chair José Carrión III noted: “Noel Zamot’s successful career and multifaceted experience interfacing between the government and the private sector in critical defense infrastructure areas will allow him to hit the ground running to foster strategic infrastructure investment expeditiously.” Mr. Zamot noted: “I am honored by this opportunity to serve and give back to Puerto Rico, my birthplace, and contribute to its success…Over more than two decades of professional experience, I have seen firsthand how investments in infrastructure can have a catalyzing effect on economic growth and prosperity.”

New Jersey & You. With major new developments under construction, renewed investor interest, and a slowly diversifying economy, it appears Atlantic City might be moving more swiftly from the red to the black—at a key point in political time, as voters in the city and New Jersey head to the polls next November for statewide and municipal elections—and, potentially, the end of state oversight of the city. Moreover, two new major projects are set to open next year, mayhap setting the stage for the city’s fiscal recovery—but also economic revitalization. Some of the stir relates to the purchase and $500 million renovation of the former Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort—an opening projected to bring thousands of jobs and a strong brand to the city’s famed boardwalk. But mayhap the more promising development will be the completion of the $220 million Atlantic City Gateway project: a 67,500 square foot development which will serve as a new campus for Stockton University, including an academic building and housing for 500 students, and the new South Jersey Gas headquarters: the company believes its cutting-edge headquarters will trigger recruitment and growth, as it is projected to bring 15,000 square feet of new retail to the boardwalk.  

Interestingly, what has bedeviled the city, low land prices‒at their lowest in decades, is now attracting successful developers, who have been buying up buildings: commercial real estate brokers note an uptick in leasing activity since the Gateway project was announced: the promise of jobs, residents, and revenue no longer overwhelmed by the gaming industry appears to be remaking the city’s image and adding to its physical and fiscal turnaround. Bart Blatstein, CEO of Tower Investments, notes: “Of course I see upside. This is what I do for a living. And it’s incredible–the upside in Atlantic City is like nowhere else I’ve seen in my 40-year career. Atlantic City is a great story. It’s got a wonderful new chapter ahead of it.”

Getting into and out of Municipal Bankruptcy

07/10/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the exceptional fiscal challenge to post-chapter 9 Detroit between building and razing the city; then we head East to Hartford, where the Governor and Legislature unhappily contemplate the Capital City’s fiscal future—and whether it will seek chapter 9 bankruptcy, before finally returning the key Civil War battlefield of Petersburg, Virginia—where a newly brought on Police Chief mayhap signals a turnaround in the city’s fiscal future.  

Raising or Razing a Municipality? Detroit, founded on July 24th in 1701 by Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, the French explorer and adventurer, went on to become one of the country’s most vital music and industrial centers by the early 20th century; indeed, by the 1940’s, the Motor City had become the nation’s fourth-largest city. But that period might have been its apogee: the combination of riots and industrial restructuring led to the loss of jobs in the automobile industry, and signal white flight to the suburbs; since reaching a peak of 1.8 million in the 1950 census, Detroit’s population has declined precipitously: more than 60%.  Nevertheless, it is, today, the nation’s largest city on the U.S.—Canada border, and, with the imminent completion of the Gordie Howe Bridge to Canada, the city—already the anchor of the second-largest region in the Midwest, and the central city of a metro region of some 4.3 million Americans at the U.S. end of the busiest international crossing in North America; the question with regard to how to measure its fiscal comeback has been somewhat unique: it has been—at least up until currently, by the number of razed homes. Indeed, one of former Mayor Dave Bing’s key and touted programs was his pledge to raze 10,000 homes—a goal actually attained last year under Mayor Mike Duggan—under whose leadership some 11,500 homes have been razed. Mayor Duggan reports his current goal is to raze another 2,000 to 4,000 annually—so that, today, the city is host to the country’s largest blight-removal program—a critical component of Detroit’s future in a municipality which has experienced the loss of over one million residents over the last six decades—and where assessed property values of blighted and burned homes can be devastating to a municipality’s budget—and to its public schools. Worse, from a municipal governing perspective, is the challenge: how do the cities’ leaders balance helping its citizens to find affordable housing versus expenditures to raze housing—especially in a city where so many homeowners owed more than their homes were worth after the 2008 housing collapse?

Mayor Duggan’s response, moreover, has attracted the focus of multiple investigations, including federal subpoenas into bidding practices and the costs of demolitions—even as a separate grand jury has been reported to have subpoenaed as many as 30 contractors and Detroit municipal agencies, and Michigan officials have sought fines, because contractors mishandled asbestos from razed homes. Mayhap even more challenging: a recent blight survey by Loveland Technologies, a private company which maps the city, questions whether demolition is even keeping pace with blight in Detroit: the report indicates that vacancies in neighborhoods targeted for demolition have actually increased 64% over the last four years.

Hard Fiscal Challenges in Hartford: Is there a Role for the State? The Restructuring of Municipal Debt. Connecticut Gov. Daniel Malloy stated that the state would be willing to help the City of Hartford avoid chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy—but only if the city gets its own financial house in order, with his comments coming in the wake of the decision by Mayor Luke Bronin to hire an international law firm with expertise in municipal bankruptcies—with the Mayor making clear the city is also exploring other fiscal alternatives. Gov. Malloy has proposed offering millions more in state aid to the capital city in his budget proposal, to date, the state legislature, already enmired in its own, ongoing budget stalemate—has not reacted. Thus, the Governor noted: “I don’t know whether we can be all things to all people, but I think Hartford has to, first and foremost, help itself…But we should play a role. I think we need to do that not just in Hartford, but in Bridgeport and New Haven, and other urban environments and Waterbury. There’s a role for us to play.” The stakes are significant: Hartford is trying to close a $65 million fiscal gap—a gap which, should it not be able to bridge, would mean the city would have to seek express, prior written consent of the Governor to file a municipal bankruptcy petition (Conn. Gen. Stat.§7-566)—consent not yet sought by the city—or, as the Governor put it on Friday: “There’s no request for that…I don’t think they’re in a position to say definitively what they are going to do. I’m certainly not going to prejudge anything. That should be viewed as a last resort, not as a first.”

House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz (D-Berlin and Southington) and a former Member of the Berlin Council, reports the legislature could vote as early as a week from tomorrow on a two-year, $40 billion state budget, albeit some officials question whether a comprehensive agreement could be reached by that date, after the legislature has missed a series of deadlines, including the end of the legislative session on June 7th, not to mention the fiscal year of June 30th.  Meanwhile, the city awaits its fiscal fate: it has approved a budget of nearly $613 million, counting on nearly half the funds to come from the state; meanwhile, the city has hired the law firm of Greenberg Traurig to begin exploration of the option of filing for bankruptcy—or, as Mayor Bronin noted: “One important element of any municipal restructuring is the restructuring of debt…They will be beginning the process of reaching out to bond holders to initiate discussion about potential debt restructuring.”

Municipal Physical & Fiscal Safety. The fiscally challenged municipality of Petersburg, Virginia has brought on a new Chief of Police, “Kenny” Miller, a former Marine with 36 years of law enforcement experience.  Chief Miller views his new home as an “opportune place to give back” after a “blessed” career with one of Virginia’s largest police agencies—in the wake of serving 34 of his 36 years as an officer with the Virginia Beach Police Department. Chief Miller, who was sworn in last Friday afternoon, in the wake of a national search, noted: “You got to get out there and engage people…If people see that you care, they know you care. You can’t police inside of a building,” adding: “Engagement means working with the community…Solving problems together. People that live in the communities know the problems better than I do just passing through…We need to break down some barriers and get some trust going.” Chief Miller commences in his new role as the historic city seeks to turn around a fiscal and leadership crisis—one which left some parts of city government in dysfunction. The police department has had its own woes—including the Police Department, where, a year and a half ago, former Petersburg Chief John I. Dixon III acknowledged, after weeks of silence, that an audit of the department’s evidence and property room turned up $13,356 in missing cash related to three criminal cases—a finding which led former Petersburg Commonwealth’s Attorney Cassandra Conover to ask Virginia State Police to investigate “any issues involving” the police department that had come to her attention through “conversations and media reports” of alleged police misconduct or corruption—an investigation which remains ongoing. But the new Chief will face a different kind of fiscal challenge in the wake of the resignations of 28 sworn officers who have resigned in the last nine months after the city’s leaders imposed an across-the-board 10 percent pay cut for the city’s nearly 600 full-time workforce a year ago—and dropped 12 civilians from emergency communications positions. Nevertheless, Chief Miller said he was attracted to Petersburg because “the job was tailor-made for me. It’s a city on the rise, and I wanted to be part of something good…I don’t do it for the money. I’ve been blessed. I want to give back, (and) Petersburg is the opportune place to give back…The community members and the city leadership team are all working together to bring Petersburg to a beginning of a new horizon: “So why not be a part of that great opportunity?”

Chief Miller enters the job as Petersburg is straining to overcome a fiscal and leadership crisis that left some parts of city government in dysfunction; moreover, the police department has had its own woes. Seventeen months ago, former Petersburg police Chief John I. Dixon III acknowledged after weeks of silence that an audit of the department’s evidence and property room turned up $13,356 in missing cash related to three criminal cases. That led former Petersburg Commonwealth’s Attorney Cassandra Conover to ask the Virginia State Police to investigate “any issues involving” the police department which had come to her attention through “conversations and media reports” of alleged police misconduct or corruption. Nevertheless, Chief Miller reports he was “intrigued” by those officers who stayed with the force in spite of the pay cut “and showed virtue with respect to policing: Policing isn’t something that you do, it’s what you are: There are men and women there who really care about the city, and (those) people stayed.” He adds, he was attracted to Petersburg, because “the job was tailor-made for me. It’s a city on the rise, and I wanted to be part of something good…I’m now in my 36th year in law enforcement…And I don’t do it for the money. I’ve been blessed. I want to give back, (and) Petersburg is the opportune place to give back. The community members and the city leadership team are all working together to bring Petersburg to a beginning of a new horizon: So why not be a part of that great opportunity?” According to an announcement of his appointment as Petersburg’s Chief on Virginia Beach’s Facebook page: “[H]is connection with multiple civic leaders and groups throughout the city have forged and strengthened deep bonds between the Virginia Beach community and the police department.”