Contrasting Responses to Fiscal and Physical Storms

July 10, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the superb update on the fiscal impact of Hurricanes Irma and Maria on the U.S. Virgin Islands by Jason Bram and Lauren Thomas of the New York Federal Reserve.

Much more dependent on tourism than Puerto Rico, the authors noted that there has been far less attention to the fiscal ravages of the two storms despite the fact that St. Thomas, St. Croix, St. John, and a number of smaller islands suffered comparable devastation. No doubt, they point out, this is in part due to their much smaller population: the U.S. Virgin Islands is home to about 105,000 Americans—1/30th Puerto Rico’s population. It is home to Claude O. Markoe Elementary School in Christiansted, where, long, long ago, this author taught school as part of training for the Peace Corps to teach in Bush Gbaepo Grebo Konweaken, in Grand Gedah County, Liberia.

The Fed authors reminded us that the Virgin Islands had already been fiscally weakened prior to the hurricanes in the wake of a shutdown of a major refinery on St. Croix in 2012—a shutdown which dramatically increased the dependence on tourism: employment dropped by about 15 percent between 2011 and 2014; it has changed little since. Then, last September 20th, Hurricane Maria smote St. Croix where, as they described it, the “magnitude of the damage and disruption for the territory as a whole was unprecedented in recent history.” Adding to the physical and fiscal misery, the Virgin Islands could not count on any assistance from Puerto Rico—and, as we have noted based upon the devastating lack of help from the federal government, the U.S. Virgin Islands were mostly left to fend for themselves.

The economic, physical, and fiscal damage, according to the latest available data, meant that total employment in the U.S. Virgin Islands dropped by an estimated 12% between August 2017—right before Hurricanes Irma and Maria—and November of that year; but by May of this year, the authors found that only a fraction of those job losses, about 600, had been reversed. Indeed, it appears that the fiscal and economic effects of Irma and Maria were “substantially more severe in the Virgin Islands than in Puerto Rico, where employment fell by about 6 percent right after Maria.”

Such a disparate outcome would, they wrote, seem unexpected, especially when considering not only the widespread power outages and pathetic FEMA responses which affected so much of Puerto Rico for so very long—and began to drain the U.S. territory of those most fiscally and physically able to leave for the mainland, especially when compared to the Virgin Islands, where “literally everyone lives within a few miles of the coastline,” unlike Puerto Rico where the steep mountains vastly complicated the task of restoring power to hospitals and police and emergency response centers, leading the Fed authors to pose the question: “With this greater disruption of everyday life occurring in Puerto Rico, why would the economic effect appear considerably more severe in the Virgin Islands?”

The authors note that a critical distinction relates to the Virgin Islands’ high dependence on tourism—a reliance which can be especially pernicious in the wake of a major natural disaster. Thus, they wrote, because tourism tends to be particularly sensitive to the aftermath of natural disasters, “the Virgin Islands’ dependence on this industry largely explains the relatively severe economic hit,” contrasting that with Puerto Rico’s much more diversified economy, illustrating the difference by noting that Puerto Rico’s hotel/accommodation industry, which represents just over 2% of private-sector jobs in Puerto Rico, accounts for about 13% of jobs in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Thus, one fiscal outcome of the storm was the hotel/tourist industry in the U.S. Virgin Islands experienced an especially steep slump after the storm: as of last December, employment in that industry had fallen by 1,300 jobs, or 35%; employment in the broader leisure and hospitality sector—which also includes restaurants and bars but largely caters to visitors—fell by just under 30%. Nearby in Puerto Rico, in comparison, tourism and hospitality job losses accounted for only about 25% of the total job loss. 

The Fed writers also examined the contrasting capacities of the two U.S. territories to accommodate tourists, writing that the damage wrought to hotels in the Virgin Islands after the two hurricanes significantly impacted the capacity for fiscal recovery: by the middle of last May, nearly 90% of Puerto Rico’s 149 hotels had reopened. In contrast, only 60% of the Virgin Islands’ had—adding that, in the Virgin Islands, relief workers were being housed in many of the available rooms, reducing the capacity for tourists or business travelers—and noting: “Remarkably, there has been virtually no new hotel construction in the Virgin Islands for more than two decades.” With the latter, they note, adding to the fiscal challenges to the U.S. Virgin Islands, because of the related sharp decline in restaurant business—finding that local economies had contracted far more sharply in the Virgin Islands than in Puerto Rico, where the surge of rescue workers, including from FEMA and army personnel, utility crews, and construction workers, helped offset the loss of tourists.

Now, they note, the key challenge for the U.S. Virgin Islands’ economy is to restart its vital tourism, noting that the critical steps “appear to be twofold: restoring its capacity to accommodate overnight guests, and encouraging visitors to come,” but, critically, also noting that, in the long-term, the Virgin Islands confront a dilemma: “Is it best to focus resources and policy on a key industry like tourism, which brings in money from outside, or should policy place more of an emphasis on diversifying into other industries, which may be less vulnerable to the periodic hurricane?”

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The Tides of Immgration: Are there Fiscal Consequences?

June 25, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the tides of emigration as they fiscally challenge the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico.

Today, more than one million Puerto Ricans live in New York City, just under one-third of Puerto Ricans who reside in Puerto Rico, with the likelihood of emigrating from Puerto Rico to Gotham increasing for single Puerto Ricans between the ages of 25 and 29 who have never married, do not own property, and whose income is limited, albeit not to the point of being below the federal poverty level. The majority are men, and the destinations of preference seem to be cities in Florida, New York, or Texas. In theory, about a fifth of those who left will return, judging by the rate of return reported on the immigration side to Puerto Rico. According to the most recent census data, in 2016, some 89,000 left Puerto Rico, a number which appears to indicate a rising trend, albeit, there is some evidence that the pattern might be changing—with that pattern affected by not only destination, but also by the level of academic achievement of those leaving Puerto Rico.

While we await, in December, 2017 emigration data, early indications based upon passenger counts at airports, appear to represent very high migration trends, finding, for instance, that last year, more than 281,000 Puerto Ricans left Puerto Rico than arrived there—an indication of the demographic impact of Hurricane Maria. Demographer Judith Rodríguez wrote in the 2016 Migrant Profile (published last week) that “The recent wave of migration in the last decade exceeds the Great Exodus of 1950-60, which has great impact on the social and economic level.” More recent data, however, indicates this demographic tide may finally be ebbing: during this year’s first month, January, 58,202 more arrived on the island than left, with the patter continuing the next month when there was a net positive inflow of 10, 698—a number which ebbed by March to 1,510—a change estimated to be temporary.

After New York, Florida appears to be the emigration state of choice: currently, around 30% of Puerto Rican emigrants choose a city in Florida, mainly in the central zone. At the same time, Texas is rising as a demographic state of choice. It appears more likely than not that New York City will continue to be a focal point of Puerto Rican emigration, due to cultural and family ties with Puerto Ricans since the migrations of the early twentieth century in the wake of the enactment of the Jones-Shafroth Act. According to the most recently updated Census figures, New York City is in the top three exodus destinations for emigrating Puerto Ricans.

But this is not all one-way traffic: many Puerto Ricans appear to be going home, with the largest such numbers coming from the states of Florida and New York; however, the number returning from the states of Massachusetts, Louisiana, and Washington make up more than half the total.

While it is more difficult to assess who is leaving and who is staying, Census data indicates that 48% of Puerto Ricans living in the D.C. metropolitan area have at least a bachelor’s degree, and, overall, 78% of Puerto Ricans living on the mainland have at least some level of university education, nearly three times the percentage of Puerto Ricans who have moved to Miami. Income wise, Washington, D.C. is the location, which appears to have drawn Puerto Ricans with both the greatest levels of scholastic achievement and the most income: the median household income for Puerto Ricans in the nation’s capital is $87,713. Next, after Washington DC, mainland cities with the highest median income for the Puerto Ricans are Miami ($50,945), Chicago ($47,232) and New Haven ($43,165). The disparity in annual income perhaps demonstrates the lure of emigrating from Puerto Rico, where the median income of a household is around $ 19,977, according to the Census data.

However, for Puerto Ricans leaving for the mainland, nirvana is not guaranteed: in the cities of Springfield and Boston, as well as in Hartford, there are high poverty levels are high for Puerto Ricans: in Springfield, more than one-third of the more than 100,000 Puerto Ricans live below the federal poverty level—a level comparable to the 31% below that level in the Boston metro region, and 26.5% in the Springfield metropolitan area have incomes that place them below the poverty level.  In addition, age is a discriminating factor: in Springfield, almost 50% of Puerto Ricans under the age of 18 live below the poverty line—a figure that compares unfavorably to the 46% of Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico who fall below the federal poverty line of $12,060 for an individual.

The Prospects and Draws for Emigration. Demographic data with regard to those leaving Puerto Rico finds that the bulk of emigrants worked in 2016 as administrative office staff (6,822), followed by operators of production lines (5,445), vendors (4,870), and food preparers (3,264). According to the date, some 382 desperately needed doctors left—while some 1,376 nursing professionals left the island. Stateside, 82% of the 2.2 million Puerto Ricans who are working on the mainland are employed in the private sector; 4% have their own business. 14% of the jobs occupied by Puerto Ricans are in the government. In Puerto Rico, that figure rises to 22%, according to data from the Census Bureau. On the other hand, most of those who immigrated or returned to Puerto Rico were vendors (1,383) or educators (1,101).

Quien Es Encargado? (Who is in charge?) The Puerto Rico Senate has killed a an agreement between Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and the PROMESA Oversight Board, potentially escalating the governance conflict with regard to Puerto Rico’s operating budget and the restructuring of the central government’s $51 billion of debt. Last Friday, Puerto Rico Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz threatened a lawsuit against the Board if it continues to attempt to preempt Puerto Rico’s government in order to impose budget cuts or the repeal of worker protection measures. In a compromise with the Governor, the Board had agreed to maintain Puerto Rico’s mandatory Christmas bonus, vacation and sick day policies in exchange for Gov. Rosselló’s agreement to introduce at-will employment for all employers by repealing a 1976 law, Law 80. The House, at the end of last month, had approved the measure, before the Senate amended it to introduce at-will employment only for employees entering the workforce. Indeed, as we had previously noted, last Thursday, the Senate President had declared the Law 80 repeal to be dead, after speaking with other members of the majority New Progressive Party caucus in the Senate. Moreover, according to a video posted on the El Nuevo Día website, the Senate leader said he had consulted lawyers and was ready to fight in court, if the PROMESA Board seeks to preempt the island’s elected leaders. The power struggle came as the Puerto Rico House has added funding to a budget bill—spending which Puerto Rico House President Carlos Méndez and Treasury Committee President Antonio Soto said they expected the PROMESA Board would reject—relying on the Congressional PROMESA Act granting the Board the right to create and approve its own version of Puerto Rico’s budget—as is, for instance, the current budget. Puerto Rico’s new fiscal budget year begins this Sunday—a date by which, on normal years, like most states, but unlike the federal government, its fiscal year operating budget would normally have been adopted—but, where, last Thursday, PROMESA Board Chair José Carrión, in New York City, stated that if the government opted not to repeal Law 80, the currently certified fiscal plan would operate—a plan which would mandate at-will employment to be introduced by January 1, 2019—a plan which, unsurprisingly, Senate President Rivera Schatz is set to challenge, especially after, on May 9th, Sergio Marxuach, the New Economy Policy Director, testified before the Puerto Rico Senate Committee on Federal, Political, and Economic Relations that repealing Law 80 would be a bad idea, noting that a 2016 International Monetary Fund study showed that in times of economic weakness, eliminating job protections would have had a negative economic impact in the short and medium term, noting: “By triggering a wave of layoffs, reforming employment protections further weakens aggregate demand and delays economic recovery.” Similarly, a 2017 report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development said that in Portugal from 2006 to 2014 “reforms increasing the flexibility of the labor market negatively affect firms’ productivity both in the short- and long-run. A possible explanation is that higher job turnover reduces firms’ incentives to invest in job-specific training and reduce the scope for workers’ specialization.”

In response, Governor Rosselló released a statement: “Puerto Rico has just seen how politics is done and not how a future government should be made in challenging and difficult times, with this regrettable decision by the President of the Senate, Thomas Rivera Schatz.”

Now Senate Finance Committee President Migdalia Padilla is scheduled to meet with the Governor’s fiscal team to discuss the changes which have been included in the joint resolutions that make up the budget for the next fiscal year; he will also  meet with Financial Advisory Authority and Fiscal Agency (Aafaf) Executive Director Raul Maldonado and the Secretary of Finance, Gerardo Portelo—with the Chairman noting: “They are going to have meetings with me so that we can all harmonize what we have observed, what the Board says, and what the Executive establishes.” Chairman Padilla added that he trusts that today will be constituted the conference committee to discuss the House amendments, especially after, at the end of last week, House approval of an FY2019 budget $33.2 million higher than the one presented by PROMESA Board—followed, the next day, by Senate approval, albeit with amendments intended to force a conference committee to settle the differences.

In addition to the perception of preemption, one of the legislature’s greatest reservations with regard to the PROMESA Board’s version of the budget their perception that that version underestimates the revenue estimate is $7,000 million, according to the President of the Finance Commission of the Chamber, Antonio Soto, who noted that the government will close the year with revenues of more than $9,172 million, but the fiscal entity estimates $8,400 million for the next fiscal year, despite the fact that it proposes a growth in the economy of 6.3%.

Senate President Padilla explained that one of the changes that will be introduced to the House version is aimed at addressing the $164,000 reduction for the Independent Special Prosecutor’s Panel Office (OPFEI), advising that he would be subtracting that $164,000 from the additional $2 million that the Chamber allocated in the budget to the Alliance for Alternative Education program. In its version, the Chamber dealt with the cuts contemplated in the PROMESA Board’s proposal for the oversight agencies, such as the Office of Government Ethics, the Office of the Comptroller and the Office of the Citizen Procurator, but left out the Special Prosecutor, noting: “I am not increasing the spending budget; I am simply moving part of an allocation of $2 million,” adding that it is inconsistent with the amendments submitted by the Chamber aimed at ensuring the functioning of the agencies under the Department of Public Safety, such as the Bureau of Emergency Management and Disaster Management, the Emergency Medical Bureau, the Bureau of the Corps of Firemen, and the Bureau of Forensic Sciences—all agencies with regard to which there is heightened concern in the wake of Puerto Rico’s devastating hurricanes and inequitable FEMA responses.  Indeed, Miguel Romero the vice president of the Senate Finance Committee, agreed on the need to assign the necessary funds to the Department of Public Security to ensure its operation: “There is a deficiency of over $40 million that we have to address.” In addition, Senator Padilla indicated the Senate would take a close look at the Board’s proposed $7 million cut to Court Administration, noting: “There is a need for appointment of judges and to maintain diversion programs with the correctional population.” Moreover, Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz also indicated that the controversy centers on inconsistencies between the budget and the fiscal plan, both presented by the PROMESA Board, explaining, in the wake of discussions, that it had been “established that there is a gap between the approved budget and the fiscal plan: basically, regarding the collections we will have available to cover the budget.” With the session scheduled to end on Saturday, that date falls three days after the limit established by the PROMESA Board to approve the budget, with the Board anticipating that, if Puerto Rico does not comply with the agreement reached with the Governor to repeal the Law Against Unjustified Dismissal (Law 80-1976), it will revert the fiscal plan to the approved one.

Post Municipal Bankruptcy Election, and How Does a City, County, State, or Territory Balance Schools versus Debt?

June 4, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider tomorrow’s primary in post-chapter 9 municipally bankrupt Stockton, and the harsh challenges of getting schooled in Puerto Rico.

Taking New Stock in Stockton? It was Trick or Treat Day in Stockton, in 2014, when Chris McKenzie, the former Executive Director of the California League of Cities described to us, from the U.S. Bankruptcy Court courtroom, Judge Christopher Klein’s rejection of the claims of the remaining holdout creditor, Franklin Templeton Investments, and approved the City of Stockton’s proposed Chapter 9 Bankruptcy Plan of Adjustment. Judge Klein had, earlier, ruled that the federal chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy law preempted California state law and made the city’s contract with the state’s public retirement system, CalPERS, subject to impairment by the city in the Chapter 9 proceeding. Judge Klein determined that that contract was inextricably tied to Stockton’s collective bargaining agreements with various employee groups. The Judge also had stressed that, because the city’s employees were third party beneficiaries of Stockton’s contract with CalPERS, that, contrary to Franklin’s assertion that CalPERS was the city’s largest creditor; rather it was the city’s employees—employees who had experienced substantial reductions in both salaries and pension benefits—effectively rejecting Franklin’s assertion that the employees’ pensions were given favorable treatment in the Plan of Adjustment. Judge Klein, in his opinion, had detailed all the reductions since 2008 (not just since the filing of the case in 2012) which had collectively ended the prior tradition of paying above market salaries and benefits to Stockton employees. Moreover, his decision included the loss of retiree health care,  reductions in positions, salaries and employer pension contributions, and approval of a new pension plan for new hires—a combination which Judge Klein noted meant that any further reductions, as called for by Franklin, would have made city employees “the real victims” of the proceeding. We had also noted that Judge Klein, citing an earlier disclosure by the city of over $13 million in professional services and other costs, had also commented that the high cost of Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy proceedings should be an object lesson for everyone about why Chapter 9 bankruptcy should not be entered into lightly.

One key to the city’s approved plan of debt adjustment was the provision for a $5.1 million contribution for canceling retiree health benefits; however a second was the plan’s focus on the city’s fiscal future: voter approval to increase the city’s sales and use tax to 9 percent, a level expected to generate about $28 million annually, with the proceeds to be devoted to restoring city services and paying for law enforcement.

Moody’s, in its reading of the potential implications of that decision opined that Judge Klein’s ruling could set up future challenges from California cities burdened by their retiree obligations to CalPERS, with Gregory Lipitz, a vice president and senior credit officer at Moody’s, noting: “Local governments will now have more negotiating leverage with labor unions, who cannot count on pensions as ironclad obligations, even in bankruptcy.” A larger question, however, for city and county leaders across the nation was with regard to the potential implications of Judge Klein’s affirmation of Stockton’s plan to pay its municipal bond investors pennies on the dollar while shielding public pensions.

Currently, the city derives its revenues for its general fund from a business tax, fees for services, its property tax, sales tax, and utility user tax. Stockton’s General Fund reserve policy calls for the City to maintain a 17% operating reserve (approximately two months of expenditures) and establishes additional reserves for known contingencies, unforeseen revenue changes, infrastructure failures, and catastrophic events.  The known contingencies include amounts to address staff recruitment and retention, future CalPERS costs and City facilities. The policy establishes an automatic process to deposit one-time revenue increases and expenditure savings into the reserves.  

So now, four years in the wake of its exit from chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, Republican businessman  and gubernatorial candidate John Cox has delivered one-liners and a vow to take back California in a campaign stop in Stockton before tomorrow’s primary election, asking prospective voters: “Are you ready for a Republican governor in 2018?”

According to the polls, this could be an unexpectedly tight race for the No. 2 spot against former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a Democrat. (In the primary, the two top vote recipients will determine which two candidates will face off in the November election.) Currently, Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom is ahead. Republicans have the opportunity to “take back the state of California,” however, candidate Cox said to a group of more than 130 men and women at Brookside Country Club—telling his audience that California deserves and needs an honest and efficient government, which has been missing, focusing most of his speech on what he said is California’s issue with corruption and cronyism worse than his former home state of Illinois. He vowed that, if elected, he would end “the sanctuary protections in the state’s cities.”

Seemingly absent from the debate leading up to this election are vital issues to the city’s fiscal future, especially Forbes’s 2012 ranking Stockton as the nation’s “eighth most miserable city,” and because of its steep drop in home values and high unemployment, and the National Insurance Crime Bureau’s ranking of the city as seventh in auto theft—and its ranking in that same year as the tenth most dangerous city in the U.S., and second only to Oakland as the most dangerous city in the state.

President Trump, a week ago last Friday, endorsed candidate Cox, tweeting: “California finally deserves a great Governor, one who understands borders, crime, and lowering taxes. John Cox is the man‒he’ll be the best Governor you’ve ever had. I fully endorse John Cox for Governor and look forward to working with him to Make California Great Again.” He followed that up with a message that California is in trouble and needs a manager, which is why Trump endorsed him, tweeting: “We will truly make California great again.”

Puerto Rico’s Future? Judge Santiago Cordero Osorio of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico Superior Court last Friday issued a provisional injunction order for the Department of Education to halt the closure of six schools located in the Arecibo educational region—with his decision coming in response to a May 24th complaint by Xiomara Meléndez León, mother of two students from one of the affected schools, and with support in her efforts by the legal team of the Association of Teachers of Puerto Rico. The cease and desist order applies to all administrative proceedings intended to close schools in the muncipios of Laurentino Estrella Colon, Camuy; Hatillo; Molinari, Quebradillas; Vega Baja; Arecibo; and Lares—with Judge Cordero Osorio writing: “What this court has to determine is that according to the administrative regulations and circular letters of the Department of Education, there is and has been applied a formula that establishes a just line for the closure without passion and without prejudice to those schools that thus understand merit close.”  

With so many leaving Puerto Rico for the mainland, the issue with regard to education becomes both increasingly vital, while at the same time, increasingly hard to finance—but also difficult to ascertain fiscal equity—or as one of the litigants put it to the court: “The plaintiff in this case has clearly established on this day that there is much more than doubt as to whether the Department of Education is in effect applying this line in a fair and impartial manner.” Judge Osorio responded that “this court appreciates the evidence presented so far that the action of the Department of Education regarding the closure of schools borders on arbitrary, capricious, and disrespectful;” he also ruled that the uncertainty he saw in the testimonies of the case had created “irreparable emotional damage worse than the closing of schools,” as he ordered Puerto Rico Education Secretary Julia Keleher to appear before him a week from today at a hearing wherein Secretary Keleher must present evidence of the procedures and arguments that the Department took into consideration for the closures.  

Meléndez León, the mother who appears as a plaintiff in the case, stated she had resorted to this legal path because the Department of Education had never provided her with concrete explanations with regard to why Laurentino Estrella School in Camuy, which her children attend, had been closed—or, as she put it: “The process that the Department of Education used to select closure schools has never been clarified to the parents: we were never notified.” At the time of the closure, the school had 186 students—of which 62 belonged to Puerto Rico’s Special Education program—and another six were enrolled in the Autism Program. Now, she faces what might be an unequal challenge: one mother versus a huge bureaucracy—where the outcome could have far-reaching impacts. The Education Department, after all, last April proposed the consolidation of some 265 schools throughout the island.

Motor City Rising

June 1, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the remarkable turnaround of Detroit—a city which, when I inquired on its very first day in chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, for walking directions from my hotel to the Governor’s Detroit office—in response to which I was told the one mile route was not doable—not because I would be too physically challenged,  but rather because I would be slain. Yet now, as the  fine editorial writers for the Detroit News, Daniel Howes and Nolan Finley, wrote: “A regional divide that appeared to be healing since Detroit’s historic bankruptcy is busting wide open over a plan for regional transit, exposing anxiety that the city is prospering at the expense of the suburbs,” noting that the trigger is a is a proposed millage to fund expansion of the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan, a $5.4 billion plan that would seem to promise an exceptional reshaping of the metro region—indeed: a reversal a what had been a decades-long shift of the economy from downtown Detroit to is suburbs: an exodus that contributed to a wasteland and the nation’s largest ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy.” Or, as they wrote: “That battle reveals growing suburban resentments over the region’s shifting economic fortunes: decades-long capital flow is reversing directions as more jobs and tax revenue flee the ‘burbs for a rejuvenated downtown.”

Mr. Finley noted that Mayor Mike Duggan, this week, told him: “I can’t explain why Oakland and Macomb (suburban counties) are doing what they’re doing” three weeks ago Microsoft brought 400 employees from Southfield into the city of Detroit. And last week, Tata Technologies said they were moving 200 people from Novi and into Detroit. Google is in the process of moving people from Birmingham into the city of Detroit.” What the Mayor was alluding to was a u-turn from a decade of moderate and upper income families leaving Detroit for its suburban counties in the days when former Mayor Coleman Young had advised criminals to “hit Eight Mile” has the relationship between the Metro Motor City’s regional leaders become so difficult in the wake of the unexpected reverse exodus: this time from Detroit’s suburbs back into the city. Billions in private sector investment, spearheaded by Dan Gilbert’s Quicken Loans Inc., the Ilitch family, and growing enthusiasm among other business leaders to be part of the city’s post-chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy have been changing demographic and economic patterns.

As the city continues under decreasing state oversight to carry out its judicially approved plan of debt adjustment, Mayor Duggan notes: “Expectations are rising.” This, after all, is not a City Hall bound mayor, but rather what the editors described as a “short, stocky, balding white guy who is no stranger to block after block of dilapidated houses—and who was reelected to a second term with an amazing 72% of the vote in a city where slightly more than 82% of the voters are black—and where, when he took office, there were about 40,000 abandoned homes. He is not a stay at City Hall type fellow either—rather an inveterate inspector of this mammoth rebuilding of an iconic city, who listens—and with his cell phone—takes action immediately in response to constituents concerns. After all, as the Mayor notes: “Expectations are rising…People are putting more demands on me and more demands on the administration, and I think that’s a really good thing and that will keep us motivated to work hard.”

Already, the urban wasteland is changing—almost on a daily basis: already, under a city program which supports renovation over demolition to try to preserve the mid-century architectural character of neighborhoods, that number of abandoned homes has been halved—with many of the units set aside for affordable housing. In his State of the City address this year, Mayor Duggan said he wants 8,000 more homes demolished, 2,000 sold, another 1,000 renovated and 11,000 more boarded up by the end of next year.

On that first day of the nation’s largest ever municipal bankruptcy, Kevin Orr, whom the Governor had tapped to become the Emergency Manager for Detroit, had flown out from the Washington, D.C. region, and told me his first actions were to email every employee of Detroit that he would be filing that morning in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, but that he expected every employee to report to work—and that the most critical priorities were that every traffic and street light work—and that there be a professional, courteous, and prompt response to every 911 call.  

That was a challenge—especially for a municipality in bankruptcy, but, by 2016, the city had completed a $185 million streetlight repair project; 911 response times have been reduced from 50 minutes in 2013 to 14.5 minutes last year, and ambulance response times fell from 20 minutes in 2014 to the national average of 8 minutes this year.

As we have previously noted, two months ago, just three and a half years after Detroit emerged from chapter 9, the city has exited from state oversight; its homeless population has, for the third consecutive year, declined—and, its unemployment rate, which had peaked during the fiscal crisis at 28%, is now below 8%. No wonder the suburbs are becoming fiscally jealous. And the downtown, which was unsafe for pedestrians when the National League of Cities hosted its annual meeting there in the 1980’s and on the city’s first day in bankruptcy, has been transformed into a modern, walkable metropolis.

Nevertheless, the seeming bulldog, relentless leader has refused to sugarcoat the fiscal and physical challenge—or, as he puts it: “I don’t spend a lot of time promising. I just say, here’s what we’re doing next and here’s why we’re doing it and then we do what we say…Over time, you don’t restore trust by making more promises; you restore trust by actually doing what you said you were going to do.”

Mr. Finley wrote that the Mayor, deemed a “truth teller” by Detroit Housing Director Arthur Jemison, has been direct in confronting the city’s harsh legacy of racist policies after the Great Depression lured thousands upon thousands of African-Americans north in the early decades of the 20th century to work in auto factories—luring them to a city at a time when Federal Housing Administration guidelines barred blacks in the city from obtaining home mortgages and even led to the construction in 1941 of a wall bordering the heavily African-American 8 Mile neighborhood to segregate it from a new housing development for whites.

Aaron Foley — the 33-year-old author of How to Live in Detroit Without Being a Jackass, noted: “When you deliver that kind of message about this is why black people are on this side of the wall in 8 Mile versus the other side of the wall, that gets people talking: This is a history that we all know in Detroit, and for the city government to acknowledge that in the way that it did on that platform, it did resonate.”

Mayor Duggan’s concern for Detroit’s people—and not forcing low-income families out, is evidenced too by his words: “Every single time that we had a building where the federal [housing] credits were expiring and people were going to get forced out of their affordable units, I had to sit down for hours with the building owner to convince them why those who stayed were entitled to be there, and I thought: I need to do just one speech and explain that this is the right thing to do…Since then there’s been just great support for the direction we’re going in the city. We have very little pushback now from our developers over making sure that what they’re doing is equitable.”

The Fiscal Challenges of Inequity

May 15, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we return to the small municipality of Harvey, Illinois—a city fiscally transfixed between its pension and operating budget constraints in a state which does not provide authority for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy; then we turn east to assess Connecticut’s fiscal road to adjournment and what it might mean for its capital city of Hartford; before heading south to Puerto Rico where there might be too many fiscal cooks in the kitchen, both exacerbating the costs of restoring fiscal solvency, and exacerbating the outflow of higher income Americans from Puerto Rico to the mainland.

Absence of Fiscal Balance? After, nearly a decade ago, the Land of Lincoln—the State of Illinois—adopted its pension law as a means to ensure smaller municipalities would stop underfunding their public pension contributions—provisions which, as we noted in the case of the small municipality of Harvey, were upheld when a judge affirmed that the Illinois Comptroller was within the state law to withhold revenues due to the city—with the Comptroller’s office noting that whilst it did not “want to see any Harvey employees harmed or any Harvey residents put at risk…the law does not give the Comptroller discretion in this case: The Comptroller’s Office is obligated to follow the law. This dispute is between the retired Harvey police officers’ pension fund and the City of Harvey.” But in one of the nation’s largest metro regions—one derived from the 233 settlements there in 1900, the fiscal interdependency and role of the state may have grave fiscal consequences. As we previously noted, U. of Chicago researcher Amanda Kass found there are 74 police or fire pension funds in Illinois municipalities with unfunded pension liabilities similar to that of Harvey. Unsurprisingly, poverty is not equally distributed: so fiscal disparities within the metro region have consequences not just for municipal operating budgets, but also for meeting state constitutionally mandated public pension obligations.

Now, as fiscal disparities in the region grow, there is increasing pressure for the state to step in—it is, after all, one of the majority of states in the nation which does not authorize a municipality to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy: ergo, the fiscal and human challenge in the wake of the state’s enactment of its new statute which permits public pension funds to intercept local revenues to meet pension obligations; the state faces the governance and fiscal challenge of whether to provide for a state takeover—a governing action taken in the case of neighboring Michigan, where the state takeover had perilous health and fiscal consequences in Flint, but appeared to be the key for the remarkable fiscal turnaround in Detroit from the largest municipal chapter 9 bankruptcy in American history. Absent action by the Governor and state legislature, it would seem Illinois will need to adopt an early fiscal warning system of severe municipal fiscal distress—replete with a fiscal process for some means of state assistance or intervention. In Harvey, where Mayor Eric Kellogg has been banned for life from any role in the issuance of municipal debt because of the misleading of investors, the challenge for a city which has so under-budgeted for its public pension obligations, has defaulted on its municipal bond obligations, and provided virtually no fiscal disclosure; Illinois’ new state law (PL 96-1495), which permits public pension funds to compel Illinois’ Comptroller to withhold state tax revenue which would normally go to the city, which went into effect at the beginning of this calendar year, meant the city reasons did not take effect until January 2018. Now, in the wake of the city’s opting to lay off nearly half its police and fire force, the small municipality with the 7th highest violent crime rate in the state is in a fiscal Twilight Zone—and a zone transfixed in the midst of a hotly contested gubernatorial campaign in which neither candidate has yet to offer a meaningful fiscal option.  

Under Illinois’ Financial Distressed City Law ((65 ILCS 5/) Illinois Municipal Code) there are narrow criteria, including requirements that the municipality rank in the highest 5% of all cities in terms of the aggregate of the property tax levy paid while simultaneously in the lowest percentage of municipalities in terms of the tax collected. Under the provisions, the Illinois General Assembly would then need to pass a resolution declaring the city as fiscally distressed—a law used only once before in the state’s history—thirty-eight years ago for the City of East St. Louis. The statute, as we have previously noted, contains an additional quirk—disqualifying in this case: Illinois’ Local Government Financial Planning and Supervision Act mandates an entity must have a population of less than 25,000—putting Harvey, with its waning population measured at 24,947 as of 2016 somewhere with Rod Serling in the Twilight Zone. Absent state action, Harvey could be the first of a number of smaller Illinois municipalities unable to meet its public pension obligations—in response to which, the state would reduce revenues via intercepting local or municipal revenues—aggravating and accelerating municipal fiscal distress.

Capital for the Capitol. In a rare Saturday session, the Connecticut Senate passed legislation to enable the state to claw back emergency debt assistance for its capital city, Hartford, through aid cuts beginning in mid-2022, with a bipartisan 28-6 vote—forwarding the bill to the House and Gov. Dannel Malloy—as legislators raced to overwhelmingly approve a new state budget shortly before their midnight deadline Wednesday which would:  restore aid for towns; reverse health care cuts for the elderly, poor, and disabled; and defer a transportation crisis. The $20.86 billion package, which now moves to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s desk, does not increase taxes; it does raise the maximum tax rate cities and towns can levy on motor vehicles. In addition, the bill would spend rather than save more than $300 million from this April’s $1 billion surge in state income tax revenues. The final fiscal compromise does not include several major changes sought by Republicans to collective bargaining rules affecting state and municipal employees. And, even as the state’s fiscal finances are projected to face multi-billion-dollar deficits after the next election tied in part to legacy debt costs amassed over the last 80 years, the new budget would leave Connecticut with $1.1 billion in its emergency reserves: it will boost General Fund spending about 1.6 percent over the adopted budget for the current fiscal year, and is 1.1 percent higher than the preliminary 2018-19 budget lawmakers adopted last October. The budget also includes provisions intended to protect Connecticut households and businesses which might be confronted with higher federal tax obligations under the new federal tax law changes. Indeed, in the end, the action was remarkably bipartisan: the Senate passed the budget 36-0 after a mere 17 minutes of debate; the House debated only 20 minutes before voting 142-8 for adoption.

In addition to reacting to the new federal tax laws, the final fiscal actions also dealt with the sharp, negative reaction from voters in the wake of tightening  Medicare eligibility requirements for the Medicare Savings Program, which uses Medicaid funds to help low-income elderly and disabled patients cover premiums and medication costs—acting to postpone cutbacks to July 1st, even though it worsened a deficit in the current fiscal year, after learning an estimated 113,000 seniors and disabled residents would lose some or all assistance. As adopted, the new budget reverses all cutbacks, at a cost of approximately $130 million. Legislators also acted to restore some $12 million to reverse new restrictions on the Medicaid-funded health insurance program for poor adults, with advocates claiming this funding would enable approximately 13,500 adults from households earning between 155 and 138 percent of the federal poverty level to retain state-sponsored coverage.

State Aid to Connecticut Cities & Towns. Legislators also took a different approach with this budget regarding aid to cities and towns. After clashing with Gov. Malloy last November, when Gov. Malloy had been mandated by the legislature to achieve unprecedented savings after the budget was in force, including the reduction of $91 million from statutory grants to cities and towns; the new budget gives communities $70.5 million more in 2018-19 than they received this year—and bars the Governor from cutting town grants to achieve savings targets. As adopted, the fiscal package means that some municipalities in the state, cities and towns with the highest local tax rates, could be adversely impacted: the legislation raises the statewide cap on municipal property taxes from a maximum rate of 39 mills to 45 mills. On the other hand, the final legislation provides additional education and other funding for communities with large numbers of evacuees from Puerto Rico—dipping into a portion of last month’s $1.3 billion surge in state income tax receipts tied chiefly to capital gains and other investment income—and notwithstanding the state’s new revenue “volatility” cap which was established last fall to force Connecticut to save such funds. As adopted, the new state budget “carries forward” $299 million in resources earmarked for payments to hospitals this fiscal year—a fiscal action which means the state has an extra $299 million to spend in the next budget while simultaneously enlarging the outgoing fiscal year’s deficit by the same amount. (The new deficit for the outgoing fiscal year would be $686 million, which would be closed entirely with the dollars in the budget reserve—which is filled primarily with this spring’s income tax receipts.) The budget reserve is now projected to have between $700 million and $800 million on hand when the state completes its current fiscal year. That could be a fiscal issue, as it would leave Connecticut with a fiscal cushion of just under 6 percent of annual operating costs, a cushion which, while the state’s largest reserve since 2009, would still be far below the 15 percent level recommended by Comptroller Kevin P. Lembo—and, mayhap of greater fiscal concern, smaller than the projected deficits in the first two fiscal years after the November elections: according to Connecticut’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis, the newly adopted budget, absent adjustment, would run $2 billion in deficit in FY2019-20—a deficit that office projects would increase by more than 25 percent by FY2020-21, with the bulk of those deficits attributable both to surging retirement benefit costs stemming from decades of inadequate state savings, as well as the Connecticut economy’s sluggish recovery from the last recession.

As adopted, Connecticut’s new budget also retains and scales back a controversial plan to reinforce new state caps on spending and borrowing and other mechanisms designed to encourage better savings habits; it includes a new provision to transfer an extra $29 million in sales tax receipts next fiscal year to the Special Transportation Fund—designed in an effort to avert planned rail and transit fare increases—ergo, it does not establish tolls on state highways.

Reacting to Federal Tax Changes. The legislature approved a series of tax changes in response to new federal tax laws capping deductions for state and local taxes at $10,000: one provision would establish a new Pass-Through Entity Tax aimed at certain small businesses, such as limited liability corporations; a second provision allows municipalities to provide a property tax credit to taxpayers who make voluntary donations to a “community-supporting organization” approved by the municipality: under this provision, as an example, a household owing $7,000 in state income taxes and $6,000 in local property taxes could, in lieu of paying the property taxes, make a $6,000 contribution to a municipality’s charitable organization.

Impacts on Connecticut’s Municipalities. The bill would enable the state to reduce non-education aid to its capital city of Hartford by an amount equal to the debt deal. It would authorize the legislature to pare non-education grants to Hartford if the city’s deficit exceeds 2% of annual operating costs in a fiscal year, or a 1% gap for two straight year—albeit the legislature would be free to restore other funds—or, as Mayor Luke Bronin put it: “I fully understand respect legislators’ desire to revisit the agreement after five years.” Under the so-called contract assistance agreement, which Gov. Malloy, Connecticut State Treasurer Denise Nappier, and Mayor Luke Bronin signed in late March, the state would pay off the principal on the City of Hartford’s roughly $540 million of general obligation debt over 20 to 30 years. With Connecticut’s new Municipal Accountability Review Board, not dissimilar to the Michigan fiscal review Board for Detroit, having just approved Mayor Bronin’s five-year plan. In the wake of the legislative action, Mayor Bronin had warned that significant fiscal cuts in the out years could imperil the city at that time, albeit adding: “That said, I fully understand and respect legislators’ desire to revisit the agreement after five years, and my commitment is that we will continue to work hard to earn the confidence our the legislature and the state as a whole as we move our capital city in the right direction.”

Dying to Leave. While we have previously explored the departure of many young, college-educated Puerto Ricans to the mainland, depleting both municipio and the Puerto Rico treasuries of vital tax revenues, the Departamento of Salud (Health Department) reports that even though Puerto Rico’s population has declined by nearly 17% over the decade, the U.S. territory’s suicide rate has increased significantly, especially in the months immediately following Hurricane Maria, particularly among older adults, with social workers reporting that elderly people are especially vulnerable when their daily routines are disrupted for long periods. Part of the upsurge is demographically related: As those going have left for New York City, Florida, and other sites on the East Coast, it is older Americans left behind—many who went as long as six months without electricity, who appear to be at risk. Adrian Gonzalez, the COO (Chief Operating Officer at Castañer General Hospital in Castañer, a small town in the central mountains) noted: “We have elderly people who live alone, with no power, no water and very little food.” Dr. Angel Munoz, a clinical psychologist in Ponce, said people who care for older adults need to be trained to identify the warning signs of suicide: “Many of these elderly people either live alone or are being taken care of by neighbors.”

A Hot Potato of Municipal Debt. Under Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s proposed FY2019 General Fund budget, the Governor included no request to meet Puerto Rico’s debt, adding he intended not to follow the PROMESA Board’s directives in several parts of his budget—those debt obligations for Puerto Rico and its entities are in excess of $2.5 billion: last month’s projections by the Board certified a much higher amount of $3.84 billion. Matt Fabian of Municipal Market Analytics described it this way: “Bondholders have to wait until the Commonwealth makes a secured or otherwise legally protected provision to pay debt service before they can begin to (dis)count their chickens: The alternative, which is where we are today, is an assumption that debt service will be paid out of surplus funds. ‘Surplus funds’ haven’t happened in a decade and the storm has only made things worse: a better base case assumption is the Commonwealth spending every dollar of cash and credit at its disposal, regardless of what the budget says: That doesn’t leave much room for the payment of debt service and is good reason for bondholders to continue to litigate.” Under the PROMESA Board’s approved fiscal plan, Puerto Rico should have $1.13 billion in surplus funds available for debt service in FY2023—with the Board silent with regard to what percent the Gov. would be expected to dedicate to debt service. The Gov.’s budget request does seek nearly a 10% reduction for the general fund, with a statement from his office noting the proposal for operational expenditures of $7 billion is 6% less than that for the current fiscal year and 22% less than the final budget of former Gov. Alejandro García Padilla. The Governor proposed no reductions in pension benefits—indeed, it goes so far as to explicitly include that his budget does not follow the demands of the PROMESA Oversight Board for the proposed pension cuts, to enact new labor reforms, or to eliminate a long-standing Christmas bonus for government workers.

Nevertheless, PROMESA Board Executive Director Natalie Jaresko, appears optimistic that Gov. Ricardo Rosselló Nevares’s government will correct the “deficiencies” in the recommended budget without having to resort to litigation: while explaining the Board’s reasoning for rejecting the Governor’s proposed budget last week, Director Jaresko stressed that correcting the expenses and collections program, as well as implementing all the reforms contained in the fiscal plan, is necessary to channel the island’s economy and to promote transparency and accountability in the use of public funds, adding that approving a budget in accordance with the new certified fiscal plan is critical to achieve the renegotiation of Puerto Rico’s debt—adding that, should the Rosselló administration not do its part, the Board would proceed with what PROMESA establishes: “The fiscal plan is not a menu you can choose from.”

Beating the Fiscal Odds?

April 10, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we return to the fiscal gaming tables of Atlantic City, where the State oversight body for the city appears to appreciate the way the fiscal dice are rolling; then we turn south to assess the depressing future for Puerto Rico’s next generation.

Beating the Odds. The New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, the Department which assumed the key role in steering Atlantic City through its quasi plan of debt adjustment, perceives the city is in the midst of a “major breakthrough” in the wake of the sale of $49.2 million in taxable municipal bonds to help finance deferred pension and health care contributions—contributions which had been deferred when the city teetered on the edge of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy and the state stepped in to fiscally take over the municipality. In the wake of the successful sale, the Department reported the success had demonstrated that “investors are confident in Atlantic City’s ability to pay its debt and in the State of New Jersey’s oversight of the city’s finances…[and] is proud of the team of city and state professionals who worked very hard to develop a unique solution to pay the city’s deferred contributions without having to resort to tax increases on city residents,” according to New Jersey Lieutenant Gov. and Department of Community Affairs Commissioner Sheila Oliver, who noted: “These deferred contributions from 2015 were the last major debt hurdle facing Atlantic City. With yesterday’s successful bond sale, the city is now positioned to responsibly finance this debt within its budget and have confidence in its future.” The municipal bonds were sold pursuant to New Jersey’s Municipal Qualified Bond Act, which stipulates that the state Treasurer withhold a portion of the city’s state aid in amounts sufficient to pay the principal and interest on the bonds, with the Treasurer directing a portion of the Investment Alternative Taxes paid by licensed casinos to go to the city for funding the debt service on the municipal bonds. Absent such a plan, Atlantic City would have been forced to raise property taxes by more than $700 on the average assessed home of $140,000—a most unwanted option in the wake of last year’s first-in-a-decade property tax reduction, with the Commission’s Director of Local Government Services, Timothy Cunningham, stating the option had been selected to “spare city taxpayers from picking up this expense” and “immediately ends the accrual of interest.” He added that the state fiscal strategy had demonstrated the state’s willingness and ability to find creative solutions to Atlantic City’s difficult financial problems,” noting that: “Conventional thinking would have been to take the deferred contributions the city owes and incorporate them as part of the city’s budget over the next five years. But that would have resulted in significant tax increases for residents and it wouldn’t have stopped interest from accruing on the deferred contributions.”

The bonds were priced via the Garden State’s Qualified Bond Act program to fund $37.7 million in pension and healthcare payments, after, three years ago, Atlantic City had been granted state approval to defer interest payments in the face of $101 million budget shortfall, creating ever-increasing odds to the city’s bookmakers the city might file for municipal bankruptcy. Under the new fiscal arrangements, Atlantic City, by the end of this year, will owe about $47 million for these obligations—or, as New Jersey Lt. Governor Sheila Y. Oliver put it: “These deferred contributions from 2015 were the last major debt hurdle facing Atlantic City…With yesterday’s successful bond sale, the city is now positioned to responsibly finance this debt within its budget and have confidence in its future.” That fiscal confidence is bolstered, no doubt, by being wrapped with the Garden State’s credit enhancement program and backed by Investment Alternative Tax revenue from casinos, which are directed to pay down debt or debt service payments under the authority the state assumed two years ago in November to take over Atlantic City—a fiscal system under which the State Treasurer withholds a portion of the city’s state aid in amounts sufficient to pay the principal and interest on the municipal bonds, or, as Director Cunningham described it: “This strategy, which culminated in yesterday’s bond sale, demonstrates the state’s willingness and ability to find creative solutions to Atlantic City’s difficult financial problems…Conventional thinking would have been to take the deferred contributions the city owes and incorporate them as part of the city’s budget over the next five years. But that would have resulted in significant tax increases for residents, and it wouldn’t have stopped interest from accruing on the deferred contributions.” New Jersey officials said that without the bond sale, Atlantic City would have been forced to raise property taxes on residents by more than $700 on the average assessed home of $140,000.In the wake of this week’s bond sale, Atlantic City has approximately $400 million in outstanding bond debt, according to Moody’s.

But beating the odds is not just a matter of fiscal soundness, but also physical safety. Thus, Atlantic City, in finding a new way to combat crime, has beaten the odds in developing ways to stay ahead of crimes before they are committed—meaning that the number of shootings, homicides, and robberies in the city decreased by more than 33% last year, after Atlantic City began using a risk-based policing model which analyzes data to map out crime risk factors around the city and places where crimes are likely to take place: a new tool which has helped police prevent crimes by tackling factors in the environment identified as risks where crimes take place, and not the people. Indeed, the new strategy not only contributed to the reduction by more than a third in shootings, homicides, and robberies last year, but also that greater security appears likely to enhance assessed property values.

Tempus Fugit. U.S. Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency Brock Long has warned it will take up to an estimated $50 billion to help rebuild Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria—even as he warned the U.S. territory is not ready for another disaster. He told NPR that the agency is focused on making Puerto Rico’s roads, homes, bridges, and electrical grid as strong as possible—but that the time to complete the effort is running out: the new hurricane season is projected to hit as early as June 1st. projected to blow in June 1. A critical issue for Puerto Rico’s fiscal future, then, is a double public infrastructure risk: its physical and human capital. On the latter front, Puerto Rico Education officials have announced the closure of some 283 schools through this summer, nearly seven months after Hurricane Maria struck, reporting that Hurricane Maria exacerbated the demographic teeter totter as increasing numbers of families with children who can afford to have left for the continental U.S., leaving, increasingly, a poorer and older population behind with a depleting tax base, but significantly greater fiscal pressures. Thus, during his visit to Puerto Rico, he warned: “We’re running out of time.” And, observing that much of the territory’s infrastructure had collapsed, he added: “We have a long way to go.” He said FEMA is coordinating a Flag Day planning and training exercise with Puerto Rico’s government in which life-saving supplies will be delivered to the island’s 78 municipalities to ensure better response times for any upcoming storms, adding the muncipios and towns will be allowed to store those supplies for future disasters, but stressing that Puerto Rico’s public and private sectors have to build a strong emergency response network and establish unified plans: “FEMA cannot be directly responsible for all of the response and recovery.” Director Long added that the private sector should ensure that communication systems become more resistant—reflecting that Maria had left nearly all of Puerto Rico without phone service after the Category 4 storm struck last September. At the same time, he defended his agency from ongoing criticism that it did not respond quickly enough to the hurricane or dedicate the same amount of resources compared with other natural disasters in the U.S. mainland, asserting: “(That’s) completely false,” adding that in the first six months since Maria hit, FEMA had invested $10 billion in Puerto Rico, in contrast to the $6 billion invested in the six months after Hurricane Katrina: “Recovery never moves as fast as people want it to be…And in this case, moving faster can be detrimental from the standpoint of putting this money to work in a manner that truly makes Puerto Rico stronger and more resilient.” His staffer, Mike Byrne, who serves as FEMA’s federal coordinating officer in Puerto Rico, said he is working with Puerto Rico’s government to determine how federal funds will be used to identify priorities and rebuild damaged infrastructure: he stated that some of the funds will go toward strengthening Puerto Rico’s power grid—some two-thirds of which Maria destroyed: even hoy dia (today), some two-thirds of its distribution system remains to be fixed; more than 50,000 power customers remain in the dark. Nevertheless, he said 96 percent of all customers now have electricity, noting: “We’ve done the Band-Aid,” adding that the recovery process has been slow in part because supplies ranging from construction equipment to power poles have been scarce in light of the natural disasters that hit the U.S. mainland, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands last year

La Escuela or School of Debt. In an in-depth session with NPR’s Hari Sreenivasan, who was joined by San Juan by Danica Coto of the Associated Press, Ms. Cotto noted that, over the last three decades, Puerto Rico has experienced school enrollment drop by 42%; since May of last year, that enrollment has dropped by 38,700—in part reflecting the roughly 135,000 Puerto Ricans who, in the wake of Maria, left for the mainland—that ism, those who could afford to. Ms. Cotto added that for the island’s 4,700 affected teachers, the Secretary of Education has promised that no one will lose her or his job—albeit for a quasi-state in quasi chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, such a commitment seems hard to imagine—the related query is what will happen to the schools themselves—150 of which had been closed in the half decade prior to Maria—and an additional 179 last year. Currently, Ms.Cotto noted, there are about 283 schools in the process of closing.

Mr. Sreenivasan inquired about the demographics of those students, some 319,000 in public schools, staying behind—in response to which Ms. Cotto responded that 30% have special needs, or about twice the average of the U.S. mainland. One can appreciate immediately the disparate fiscal and human implications—for Puerto Rico’s hopes for recovery—and for its fiscal future. And she asked about the equity in the process for determining which schools would close, reminding us of Detroit Emergency Manager Kevin Orr’s recognition that any final plan of debt adjustment for Detroit to exit the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in the nation’s history would require a perception that the public schools were competitive with surrounding jurisdictions.

Ms. Cotto noted that the bulk of public school closures in Puerto Rico will be in rural areas, noting that along the north coast of the island, some muncipios will experience closures of nearly half their public schools—creating a risk of an increasing number of young Americans losing access to public education—and a risk to local tax bases. Several other municipalities will see 44 to 46% of its schools close.

Charting a Municipal Rovery Budget

April 5, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we shiver on the Appomattox River at first light in the historic Civil War municipality of Petersburg, a municipality which is on the rebound from virtual insolvency—in Virginia, where the state does not specifically authorize its municipalities to file a chapter 9 petition, but does impose a debt limitation barring any municipality from incurring debt in excess of 10% of the assessed valuation of taxable properties. It is a city, which has been, since the dawn of the republic, a strategic center for transportation and commercial activities, and it is a city, which came closest of any in the Commonwealth to filing for insolvency. But, in the wake of the appointment of a former city manager—as well as a state commission to provide assessment and evaluation of municipal fiscal well-being, it is, today, a city of 32,420 that is returning to fiscal health.

Setting the Path for a Strategic Recovery. In her first budget proposal for the historic Virginia municipality of Petersburg in the wake of its insolvency and near first-ever Virginia chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, City Manager Aretha Ferrell-Benavides, who was hired last June just as consultants charged with turning around the city’s finances told the City Council that it needed a $20 million cash infusion to make up a deficit and comply with its own reserve policies, Manager Ferrell-Benavides proposed a rebuilding budget–even as she  expressed cautious optimism to the Mayor and Council that Petersburg can overcome the challenges it faces and continue to restore its financial standing. Thus, she presented a $73 million proposed operating budget–one which focuses on public safety, more funding for the city’s chronically underperforming schools, but cuts to city departments.

In presenting her proposed FY2019 $102.6 million budget, she told the Mayor and Council the spending plan reflects five “strategic priorities,” led by a focus on establishing the city “as a structurally stable organization with a greater focus on customer service, efficiency, accountability, and transparency.” In addition, she added, she is proposing a budget, which aims to “strengthen our fundamental policy and process to achieve long-term fiscal stabilization.”

She cited other priorities, including boosting economic development, encouraging neighborhood revitalization, promoting community engagement, and neighborhood support. Noting that Petersburg confronts some uncertainty with regard to the levels of funding which will be available from the state and federal governments, Manager Ferrell-Benavides outlined revenue and spending plans, plans which, she advised, were based on “conservatism” in their projections, as she proposed an operating budget slightly under this year’s level–a reduction of about $305,000, or about 0.3 % from the amended budget for the current fiscal year–of which approximately 72% or $73 million would be for the operating budget–a 1.5% drop from the current level, while proposing a 6.4% increase in the capital budget for the city’s Utilities Fund, noting that public safety would remain the largest funding category, at about $18.9 million, or about 26% of the total, comparable to the current level. She proposed $13.6 million for the city’s second largest budget category, Social Services, unchanged from the current level services funding, but recommended an increase of about 3% for the city’s public schools, as part of what she asserted was a continuing effort to restore cuts which had been made during the city’s financial crisis in FY2016. For next year, she proposed that the budget allocate about $9.7 million to the school system, an increase of up about $271,000 from $9.5 million this year.

In a post General Revenue Sharing era, Petersburg, with a nearly 80% black population and where more than a quarter of its families are headed by a female householder with no husband present—and more than 11% of its households headed by a single person over the age of 65—has a median family income of $33,927, with nearly a quarter of its residents below the federal poverty level. It is a city, too, living with fear: on Wednesday, more than 100 guns were taken off the streets and destroyed by the order of Petersburg Police Chief Kenneth Miller, who described these as “illegal guns that were taken off streets.” Indeed, some nine months on the job, Chief Miller has been adamant about his decision to have the guns destroyed and not sold “to put these weapons back on the street for gain…We’re not going to take weapons of destruction and try to make a profit off of that.”

But, fiscally, the city appears to be on a strong road to recovery. Manager Ferrell-Benavides noted that the challenges that the Petersburg still faces include rising health care costs for city employees, aging water and sewer infrastructure, antiquated technology, the need to recruit and retain employees, and ongoing issues with billing and collections. Nevertheless, she said the city’s efforts to date have produced results, notably an improvement in Petersburg’s municipal bond rating from junk status to investment-grade, adding that her fiscal goal is  to wean the city off its use of revenue anticipation notes. Indeed, with her proposed five-year plan in place to build Petersburg’s cash reserve fund to $6 million, a remarkable turnaround from the city’s negative balance in place at the time of the financial crisis, she testified that her proposed budget was intended to help provide stability to city government by seeing the plan through, noting: “I am committed…and our team is committed, to be here for the next five years.” Her proposed $77 million operating budget would boost spending on public safety and restore 10 percent cuts to municipal workers’ pay, while shrinking a workforce that consultants had charged was bloated and structurally inefficient. 

In the wake of her predecessor, William Johnson’s firing for his role in dipping into the city’s rainy day fund two years ago, Ms. Ferrell-Benavides said big goals within her proposal include building up the reserve, reducing reliance on grant funding, and being conservative with estimates. She testified that her proposed budget, overall, represents a $1.1 million decrease from the FY2018 amended budget, and proposes increasing the reserve to $950,000, adding that the city’s reserve funds are out of the red–and, in good gnus, that Petersburg’s bond rating has been upgraded from junk bond status. She noted that Department heads had been instructed to trim their expenses by 10%, but that cutting salaries was not an option. Her proposed budget includes $18.93 million for public safety, a $3 million increase from two years ago–with the increase part of an effort to stem the exodus of public safety workers to surrounding counties. For the city’s kids, she proposed a budget increase of $300,000 over the current $9.7 million level, telling the Mayor and Council: “This is a big step for us. And that was part of the priorities. Our goal is to annually increase our investment in the school system.” 

The consultants are scheduled to be back in Petersburg later this week and will submit an updated report in the coming weeks. Their perspective will help, as the City Council begins the process drill down into the details over the next two months through work sessions and a round of community meetings—meetings scheduled to begin at the end of this month and finish by the end of May: the Council is scheduled to make its recommended changes to the city manager on May 22nd, after which the city has scheduled a public hearing on June 5, with the Mayor Council scheduled to act on final adoption on June 12th.  

Petersburg, a city still not completely free from the grips of financial crisis, has rolled out a $73 million proposed operating budget that emphasizes public safety, more money for chronically under performing schools, and cuts to city departments.