Looming Municipal Insolvencies?

October 10, 2017

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

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Foundering Federalism?

07/12/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the seemingly increasing likelihood of chapter 9 bankruptcy for Connecticut’s capital city, Hartford, before veering south to consider the ongoing fiscal storms in the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico.

Moody Blues. In the latest blow from the capital markets to Connecticut’s capital city, Standard & Poor’s Global Ratings late Tuesday lowered Hartford’s general obligation ratings to junk bond status—with the action coming less than a week after we had reported the city had hired a firm to help it explore options for chapter 9 or other steps involving severe fiscal distress. Moody’s Investors Service had already downgraded Hartford’s bonds to a speculative-grade (Ba2), and it has placed the city on review for yet another downgrade.  S&P’s action appeared to reflect an increased likelihood Connecticut’s capital could default on its debt or seek to renegotiate its obligations to its bondholders, with S&P credit analyst Victor Medeiros noting: “The downgrade to BB reflects our opinion of very weak diminished liquidity, including uncertain access to external liquidity and very weak management conditions as multiple city officials have publicly indicated they are actively considering [municipal] bankruptcy.” The ratings actions occurred as the city continues to seek more state aid and concessions from the city’s unions—even as the state remains enmired in its own efforts to adopt its budget. Mayor Luke Bronin, in an interview yesterday, confirmed the possibility of bond restructuring negotiations. This is all occurring at a key time, with the Governor and legislators still negotiating the state’s budget—on which negotiations for the fiscal year which began at the beginning of this month, remain unresolved. In a statement yesterday, Mayor Bronin noted:  “I have said for months that we cannot and will not take any option off the table, because our goal is to get Hartford on the path to sustainability and strength.” He added that any long-term fiscal solution would “will require every stakeholder—from the State of Connecticut to our unions to our bondholders—to play a significant role,” adding: “Today’s downgrade should send a clear message to our legislature, to labor, and to our bondholders that this is the time to come together to support a true, far-sighted restructuring.”

A key fiscal dilemma for the city is that approximately 51 percent of the property in the city is tax-exempt. While the state provides a payment in lieu of local property taxes (PILOT) for property owned and used by the State of Connecticut (such payment is equal to a percentage of the amount of taxes that would be paid if the property were not exempt from taxation, including 100% for facilities used as a correctional facility, 100% for the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal land taken into trust by federal government on or after June 8, 1999, 100% for any town in which more than 50% of all property in the town is state-owned real property, 65% for the Connecticut Valley Hospital facility, and 45% for all other property; such state payments are made only for real property.  

Unretiring Debt. U.S. Federal Judge Laura Taylor Swain gave the government of Puerto Rico and the Employees Retirement Systems (ERS) bondholders until yesterday to settle their dispute over these creditors’ petition for adequate protection—warning that if a deal was not reached, she would issue her own ruling on the matter—a ruling which could mean setting aside at least $18 million every month in a separate account, albeit Judge Swain noted she was not ready at this time to say whether that would entail adequate protection. Her statement came even as Puerto Rico Governor Ricard Rossello Nevares yesterday stated that, contrary to complaints made by the Chapter of Retirees and Pensioners of the Federation of Teachers, the House Joint Resolution does not represent a “threat,” but rather comes to ensure pension payments to public workers who once served the U.S. Territory, adding, however, that the retirement system as it was known no longer exists, stating it “is over,” in the absence of resources that can ensure long-term pension payments: What we have done is that we have changed from a system where it was a fund to a pay system where what implies is that now the government under the General Fund assumes responsibility for the payment of the pension…That is, the retired do not have to fear, quite the opposite. The measure that we are going to do saves and guarantees the System. If we had not implemented this in the fiscal plan…the retirement system would run out of money in the next few months.” Describing it as a “positive measure for pensioners,” because, absent the action, it was “guaranteed to run out of money,” the Governor spoke in the wake of a demonstration, in front of La Fortaleza, where spokesmen of the Chapter of Retirees and Pensioners of the Federation of Teachers denounced the measure—a measure approved by both legislative bodies and sent to the Executive last month as a substitute retirement system for teachers.

Unsurprisingly, the Puerto Rico government and representatives of labor unions and retirees opposed the ERS bondholders’ request to lift the stay under PROMESA’s Title III. In response to Judge Swain’s query to the bondholders: “If I were to enter a sequestration in the manner you stipulated…What would that do for you?” Jones Day attorney Bruce Bennett responded; “Not enough,” as the ERS bondholders argued they needed adequate protection, because Puerto Rico has not made the requisite employer contributions to the ERS, which guarantee payments of their bonds. In contrast, opponents argued the resolution authorizing the issuance of these bonds was an obligation of Puerto Rico’s retirement system‒not the Commonwealth, and creditors were going beyond contractual rights in forcing the government to make appropriations from the general fund and remit them as employer contributions. An attorney representing the retirement system argued the ERS security interest filings were defective in reference to claims by bondholders that they have a right to receive employer contributions; however, an attorney representing the PROMESA Board countered that just because the collateral to their municipal bonds has been reduced, those bondholders are not entitled to such protection, testifying: “What is the claim worth when you have the GOs saying ‘we get all the money because we are in default.’”

Due to Puerto Rico’s perilous fiscal condition, it currently is making pension payments, for the most part, on a pay-as-you-go basis: public corporations and municipalities are making their employer contributions; however, those contributions are going into a segregated account; in addition, the fiscal plan contemplates making public corporations and municipalities similarly transform to a pay-go pension system—with the Territory supporting its position before Judge Swain by its police power authority.

The State of Puerto Rico’s Municipalities. The Puerto Rico Center for Integrity and Public Policy has reported that Puerto Rico’s municipal government finances deteriorated in FY2016 after improving in the prior two fiscal years. Arnaldo Cruz, a co-founder of the Center, said the cause of the deterioration was likely related to the election year, based on the collection of data and responses from 68 of the territory’s 78 municipios. Mr. Cruz added that the ten non-responders happened to be ones which had received D’s and F’s in past years. The updated study found that 30 municipalities nearly have the muncipios received more than 40% of their general fund revenue from the central government—mayhap presaging fiscal mayhem under the PROMESA Board’s intentions to eliminate such state aid to local governments over the next two fiscal years—i.e,: a cut of some $428 million. Such severe cuts would come even as the study found that more than half the muncipios realized a decrease their net assets last year, and half realized a decrease in their general fund balance—even as 27 municipios allocated more than 15% of their general fund income to debt repayment.

According to the March fiscal plan, Puerto Rico’s municipalities have:

  • $556 million in outstanding bond debt;
  • $1.1 billion in loans to private entities; and
  • Owe $2 billion to Puerto Rico government entities, primarily the Government Development Bank for Puerto Rico.

Mr. Cruz notes a potentially greater fiscal risk is related to Government Development Bank loans, which Puerto Rico’s municipalities continued to receive last year: last month, however, the Puerto Rico Senate approved a bill to allow the municipalities to declare an emergency and declare a moratorium on the payment of their debt. The fate of the effort, however, is uncertain, because the legislation died when the legislature adjourned before House action—mayhap to be taken up next month when they reconvene.

What Are the Challenges of Governance Takeovers?

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the evolving state takeover of Atlantic City, with the appointment by the state of what Mayor Don Guardian deemed the “occupation force.” We consider the role of the state and mechanisms for a state takeover—as well as the options for the municipality. Then we look far south to a seemingly comparable federal takeover of a quasi-state, as the Puerto Rico Oversight Board created under the new PROMESA law preps for its first meeting at the end of this week in Puerto Rico—a meeting that will come during transition periods of administrations both in the federal and Puerto Rican governments—adding still greater challenges to the U.S. territory’s transition.

State Preemption of a Municipality? The twilight period during which Atlantic City has awaited its state takeover now appears to be over, or, as Mayor Don Guardian posed it, the “occupation force” of a “governor we don’t like” has been named. Last night, New Jersey tasked Jeffrey Chiesa, a longtime ally and associate of Gov. Chris Christie—indeed, an associate the Governor once named to fill in as one of the state’s U.S. Senators in the wake of the death of former U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, and who also served as New Jersey’s Attorney General, to serve as the “director’s designee” to execute the state takeover of Atlantic City, from which position he will report to New Jersey’s Department of Community Affairs, under the leadership of Tim Cunningham, the Director of New Jersey’s Local Finance Board. In this new capacity, Mr. Chiesa will have far-reaching powers, including the authority to unilaterally hire, fire, eliminate departments and authorities, sell assets, terminate union contracts, and veto any action by City Council, according to the state’s Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act. In its release, the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs said Mr. Chiesa would use his authority “judiciously.”

In the statement, Mr. Chiesa said: “It is my hope to work together with firm conviction and not disrupt the democratic process…I am committed to improving essential government and community services for the people of the Atlantic City…I will listen to the people and work hand in hand with local stakeholders to create solutions that will prevent waste and relieve generations of taxpayers from the burden of long-term debt. We will put Atlantic City back on a path to fiscal stability.”

With regard to governance, the Department said Atlantic City Mayor and City Council will “maintain day-to-day municipal functions.”  Mr. Chiesa’s role will be to oversee “fiscal recovery efforts,” with the release from the Department noting his immediate steps would include entering into PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) agreements with casinos, ensuring that debt service and county and school payments are made on time, in addition to exploring “right-sizing the City’s work force.”

What Atlantic City’s elected government leaders will do—and what they may do could now be the outcome of the third branch of the state’s government: the courts, especially in the wake of Mayor Guardian’s making clear yesterday that the city was poised to go to court to block any actions by the state that it regards as civil rights violations. Early yesterday, Mayor Guardian said the city would go to court if the state takes actions “we see as unconstitutional.”

The road ahead promises to be steep: the state takeover comes with the Governor potentially leaving to join the new Trump Administration; Atlantic City has a roughly $100 million annual budget deficit and about $500 million in total debt. The city’s ratable base has declined from $20 billion in 2010 to $6 billion today as the casino municipality faced more competition in neighboring states: five of the city’s famed boardwalk casinos have closed since 2014—with significant implications for unemployment, per capita income, and assessed property values.

State Preemption. In the wake of last week’s state Local Finance Board vote to usurp major decision-making powers from Atlantic City’s elected leaders week, Local Government Services Director Timothy Cunningham noted: “The simple fact is Atlantic City cannot afford to function the way it has in the past…I look forward to meeting with Mayor Guardian and members of the City Council and starting the process of bringing this great city back to financial stability. It is my hope to work together with firm conviction and not disrupt the democratic process.”

As we have previously noted, the Board’s vote for the takeover came in the wake of the state Department of Community Affairs Commissioner Charles Richman rejecting the city’s fiscal-recovery plan last week—a plan which the Department criticized, because it failed to balance the city’s 2017 budget, ran a five-year shortfall of $106 million, and did not accurately estimate cost and revenue projections. In addition, the Department expressed concerns over the Bader (airport) Field sale, calling the water authority’s plan to issue $126 million in low-interest, long-term bonds to pay for the land “dubious at best.”

Federal Preemption. The Puerto Rico Oversight Board has scheduled its first session in Puerto Rico for this Friday, with the meeting set outside of Fajardo, Puerto Rico. While the session will be by invitation only, it is scheduled to be streamed online at www.oversightboard.pr.gov, and to be followed by a press conference. It follows two earlier meetings convened in New York City. At this week’s session, the agenda includes a presentation by Conway MacKenzie Inc. on the government’s liquidity; a presentation by the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority; public testimony on Puerto Rico’s proposed fiscal plan; and the creation of procedures to approve transactions of the board’s “covered entities.”

The timing of the meeting comes during both U.S. mainland and Puerto Rican transition periods—where the position of the incoming Trump administration vis-à-vis Puerto Rico remains to be developed—albeit a spokesperson for the U.S. Treasury noted: “We all have a role to play in the coming months: the current and future governor, the oversight board, local legislature, Congress, and the current and future administrations in Washington…At Treasury, this is a top priority and we are committed to ensuring a smooth transition to the next administration.” The bar is high: Puerto Rico is facing some $70 billion in debt and at least $46 billion in unfunded pension liabilities: the U.S. territory’s public pension systems currently have more than 330,000 members and serve as the primary source of income for more than 150,000 retirees, according to the Treasury.

For his part, Puerto Rico Governor-elect Ricardo Rosselló faces the awkward position of being a newly elected U.S. governor—but one whose power and authority is circumscribed by the new federal law, so that he will have to work with the new seven-member oversight board, imposed by the PROMESA law to address some hybrid form of governance: that board has the power to require balanced budgets and fiscal plans from commonwealth leaders, as well as to file debt restructuring petitions on behalf of Puerto Rico and its entities in federal district court as a last resort, if voluntary negotiations with creditors fail. It comes as the PROMESA Board is reviewing the fiscal plan submitted by outgoing Puerto Rico Gov. Alejandro García Padilla last October. In this ‘feeling out’ process of governance—all parties have a narrow window in which to govern even during the respective U.S. and Puerto Rican governance transitions: the new federal law, PROMESA, includes an automatic stay on debt-related litigation until February 15th, a stay intended to provide time to address what a Treasury official deemed “the most urgent aspects of the problems facing the island,” even though acknowledging the federal government and new PROMESA law lack key tools to prevent another crisis when, for example, federal healthcare funding is exhausted. The U.S. territory currently receives $1.5 billion in funding under the Affordable Care Act—funds scheduled to expire next year absent additional federal action—funding in an island wracked by Zika and other serious health care challenges where expiration could impact about 900,000 Puerto Ricans, according to the Treasury.

Thus, in the transition process between now and January 20th, the Treasury is looking to the eight-member Congressional Task Force on Economic Growth in Puerto Rico to help address urgent healthcare and tax solutions on the federal level. The task force, made up of equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats, has been tasked with identifying federal laws and programs that impede Puerto Rico’s growth and recommending changes that could spur economic growth—changes which could be incorporated as part of a potential year-end omnibus bill designed to keep the government open and operating.