Can Congress Uninflict Federally Caused Fiscal & Economic Disparities & Distress?

October 13, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the ongoing fiscal, legal, physical, and human challenges to Puerto Rico, before heading north to New Jersey where the fiscal and governing strains between Atlantic City and the Garden State continue to fester.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

Physical, Oratorical, & Fiscal Storms. President Trump served notice yesterday that he may pull back federal relief workers from Puerto Rico, effectively threatening to abandon the U.S. territory amid a staggering humanitarian crisis in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria–even as House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) goes to Puerto Rico this morning to assess not only the damage, but also how to more effectively respond to a staggering humanitarian crisis in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. The Speaker will also bear some good news: the House yesterday approved 353-69, a $36.5 billion disaster aid package to help victims struggling to recover from a string of devastating hurricanes and wildfires, sending the aid package to the Senate, which returns from a weeklong recess next week. While the Trump administration requested $29 billion in supplemental spending last week, it asked for additional resources Tuesday night, including $4.9 billion to fund a loan program that Puerto Rico can use to address basic functions such as infrastructure needs. Speaker Ryan noted: “‎We think it’s critical that we pass this legislation this week to get the people the help they need, to support the victims, and also to help the communities still recovering and dealing with the problems with the hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria.” Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló had warned Congressional leaders that the U.S. territory is “on the brink of a massive liquidity crisis that will intensify in the immediate future.”

President Trump yesterday claimed that it will be up to Congress how much federal money to appropriate for Puerto Rico, but that relief workers will not stay “forever,” even as, three weeks after Hurricane Maria struck, much of Puerto Rico remains without power, with limited access to clean water, hospitals are running short on medicine, and many businesses remain  closed. The President added:  “We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!”

The White House late yesterday issued a statement committing for now “the full force of the U.S. government” to the Puerto Rico recovery, seemingly contradicting the President, who has sought to portray Puerto Rico as in full recovery mode and has voiced frustration with what he considers mismanagement by local leaders. The Governor had warned earlier in the week that the U.S. territory is “on the brink of a massive liquidity crisis that will intensify in the immediate future.” The legislation the House adopted last night allows up to $4.9 billion in direct loans to local governments in a bid to ease Puerto Rico’s fiscal crunch—a vital lifeline, as, absent Congressional action, the territory may not be able to make its payroll or pay vendors by the end of this month.

In contrast, Speaker Ryan said that Puerto Rico must eventually “stand on its own two feet,” but that the federal government needs to continue to respond to the humanitarian crisis: “We’re in the midst of a humanitarian crisis…Yes, we need to make sure that Puerto Rico can begin to stand on its own two feet…But at the moment, there is a humanitarian crisis which has to be attended to, and this is an area where the federal government has a responsibility, and we’re acting on it.”

Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (D-NY), who was born in Puerto Rico, said in a statement that the President’s “most solemn duty is to protect the safety and the security of the American people. By suggesting he might abdicate this responsibility for our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico, Mr. Trump has called into question his ability to lead. We will not allow the federal government to abandon Puerto Rico in its time of need.” Similarly, Jennifer Hing, a spokeswoman for House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), who will accompany Speaker Ryan today, said that those who live on the island “are American citizens and they deserve the federal assistance they need to recover and rebuild. The Chairman and the Committee fully stand by them in these efforts, and will continue to be at the ready to provide the victims of these devastating hurricanes with the necessary federal resources both now and in the future.” Without Congressional action, the territory may not be able to make its payroll or pay vendors by the end of the month. Unmentioned is whether such contemplated assistance might entail repealing the Jones Act—an act which means the price of goods in Puerto Rico is at least double that in neighboring islands—including the U.S. Virgin Islands. The New York Federal Reserve  found that the Act hurts the Puerto Rican economy—Sen. John McCain (R-Az.) and Rep. Gary Palmer (R-Ala.) have offered legislation to repeal or suspend the law.

President Trump yesterday warned that his administration’s response to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico cannot last “forever,” tweeting: “We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!” He added that the U.S. territory’s existing debt and infrastructure issues compounded problems. His tweeting came as the House is preparing to consider legislation under which Puerto Rico would receive a $4.9 billion low-interest federal loan to pay its bills through the end of October, as part of a $36.5 billion package. The temporary assistance comes as Moody’s Investors Service has downgraded the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico’s general obligation bonds to Ca from Caa3, in view of the protracted economic and revenue disruptions caused by Hurricane Maria. The President also threatened he may pull back federal relief workers from Puerto Rico, effectively threatening to abandon the U.S. territory amid a staggering humanitarian crisis in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria: he said that relief workers will not stay “forever.” Three weeks after Hurricane Maria made landfall, much of Puerto Rico, an island of 3.4 million Americans, remains without power. Residents struggle to find clean water, hospitals are running short on medicine, and commerce is slow, with many businesses closed.

The lower ratings are aligned with estimates of Puerto Rico’s reduced debt servicing capacity given extensive damage from Hurricane Maria. Puerto Rico faces almost total economic and revenue disruption in the near term and diminished output and revenue probably through the end of the current fiscal year and maybe well into the next. The weaker trajectory will undercut the government’s ability to repay its debt, a matter now being weighed in a bankruptcy-like proceeding authorized by the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA). For the University of Puerto Rico, the downgrade factors in expected pressure on enrollment-linked revenue and on funding from the Puerto Rican government.

With 155 mile-an-hour winds and a path that cut diagonally across the island, Hurricane Maria was the most destructive storm to hit Puerto Rico in almost 90 years. It knocked out all electric power, destroyed more than 100,000 homes, and ruptured bridges and other public infrastructure. Beyond the disruption of the immediate aftermath, the potential long-term repercussions may be somewhat mixed, however. On one hand, a massive exodus of residents relocating to the mainland, rather than rebuilding on the island, could further erode Puerto Rico’s economic base. Moody’s opined that an infusion of federal relief and rebuilding funds could spur the economic growth and infrastructure replacement that, under normal conditions, has eluded Puerto Rico: “We, nevertheless ,view the economic impact overall as a substantial negative that has weakened the commonwealth’s ability to repay creditors: The negative outlook is consistent with ongoing economic pressures, which will weigh on the commonwealth’s capacity to meet debt and other funding obligations, potentially driving bondholder recovery rates lower as restructuring of the commonwealth’s debt burden unfolds.”

Tens of thousands of islanders left for the U.S. mainland to escape the immediate aftermath of the storm. With conditions back home still grim—approximately 85 percent of residents still lack electricity and 40 percent are without running water, and neither is expected to be fully restored for months—many find themselves scrambling to build new lives away from the island. Particularly in states with large Puerto Rican populations, such as New York, Illinois, Florida, and Connecticut, people are bunking with relatives while trying to find longer-term housing, jobs and schools for their kids.

There have been several major migratory exoduses from Puerto Rico to the mainland over the years, most recently during the past decade when the island’s population shrank by about 10 percent because of a long economic slide that shows no sign of easing anytime soon. Hurricane Maria struck Sept. 20th, and, according to the latest figures from the Puerto Rican government, killed at least 45 people. It also created a new surge that could have lasting demographic effects on Puerto Rico and on the mainland. “I think that we could expect that people who did not plan to stay permanently might do so now,” said Jorge Duany, a professor of anthropology at Florida International University who has long studied migration from the island. Many of those who left are elderly or sick people who fled or were evacuated because of the dangers posed by living on a tropical island with no power or air conditioning and limited water for an indefinite period of time.  It is too early to know exactly how many have departed Puerto Rico for the mainland, but Florida reports more than 20,000 have come to the Seminole state since Oct. 3rd. There were already about 1 million Puerto Ricans in the Sunshine State, second only to New York.

Addressing the urgency of fiscal assistance, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) stated: “These funds are vital right now, in the near term, to get the aid where it is needed most.” Puerto Rico faces a government shutdown at the end of the month without an infusion of cash, according to Puerto Rico Treasury Secretary Raul Maldonado: the proposed loan provides flexibility for repayment: it allows the Secretary of Homeland Security, in consultation with Treasury Secretary Mnuchin to “determine the terms, conditions, eligible uses, and timing and amount of federal disbursements of loans issued to a territory or possession, and instrumentalities and local governments.”

Gov. Ricardo Rossello Nevares, in his letter at the end of last week to the President, cited “independent damage assessments in the range of $95 billion–approximately 150% of Puerto Rico’s” economy, writing that “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.”

Saving Atlantic City. New Jersey Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez has ruled that Atlantic City can cut its Fire Department by 15 members early next year as a cost-saving measure under the Garden State’s Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act, with his ruling lifting the restriction that any reduction in force must occur through retirements or attrition. Judge Mendez, who in late August had ruled against a state proposal for 50 layoffs, ruled no cuts may take place before February 1st—marking the first legal showdown under New Jersey’s Recovery Act takeover powers under designee Jeffrey Chiesa, which enables the state to alter outstanding municipal contracts. In his decision, Judge Mendez wrote: “Upon careful consideration of the facts and legal arguments, the court is of the view that the plan and timeline for immediate reductions is problematic but it’s not impermissible by the Recovery Act…The court will not restrict the Designee from establishing a plan to reduce the size of the ACFD from the current level of 195 to 180.”  Judge  Mendez ruled the state may exercise its authority; however, the cuts are not allowed until after Feb. 1, according to the ruling: “Upon careful consideration of the facts and legal arguments, the court is of the view that the plan and timeline for immediate reductions is problematic, but it’s not impermissible by the Recovery Act…The court will not restrict the Designee from establishing a plan to reduce the size of the ACFD from the current level of 195 to 180.” In his August ruling, the Judge had written that any reduction in force below 180 members would compromise public safety, and any further reduction would have to come through attrition and retirements. Under this week’s ruling, before the state makes cuts, however, officials must explore other funding to cover lost SAFER Grant funding, allow for additional attrition to take place, and provide fair notice to those who may lose their jobs.

Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian said he had hoped the state would offer an early retirement incentive—especially after, last August, Gov. Chris Christie had signed a bill allowing the state to offer such an incentive to the city’s police officers, firefighters, and first responders facing layoffs. However, the state has said the offer would not be financially beneficial, leading Mayor Guardian to note: “I am disappointed that the state has pushed forward this motion knowing that the state Senate, Assembly, and the Governor all passed an early retirement bill for just this reason: We could have easily gotten to 180 fighters through these incentives.”

New Jersey Community Affairs spokeswoman Lisa Ryan noted: “We remain disappointed by the court’s insistence on requiring an artificially and unnecessarily high number of firefighters…While the decision to allow a modest reduction in firefighters on Feb. 1, 2018, will provide some budget relief, the city will still be forced to make additional and significant reductions to fire salaries in order to afford paying for 180 firefighters.” (Last January, the Fire Department had 225 members; now there are 195, or, as Judge Mendez wrote: “The plans to reduce the size of the ACFD have evolved from a request to approve a force of 125, resulting in a loss of 100 positions, to the current request to reduce the force to 180, resulting in a loss of 15 positions.” 

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Physical & Fiscal Tempests

September 26, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the physical and fiscal threats to Connecticut’s capitol city, and the comparable crime apprehensions which could adversely affect Detroit’s ongoing recovery from the nation’s largest ever municipal bankruptcy, before assessing the equity of the U.S. response to the devastating hurricane in Puerto Rico–and what that might mean to its efforts of physical and fiscal recovery. 

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

 

Bleeding Hartford. As the City of Hartford reeled from a violent weekend during which two men were killed just hours apart, city leaders yesterday promised to bring more police to fearful neighborhoods, with Mayor Luke Bronin vowing the police department will continue increased staffing in areas where crime statistics show “a spike in violence or a risk of increased violence.” The Mayor’s vows came, however, at the same time he yesterday warned the holders of the city’s outstanding municipal bonds that Hartford has exhausted its fiscal capacity to levy new or higher taxes‒or to cut its way out of its insolvency: he reiterated that Hartford needs a substantial amount of state funding to avoid a Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. In a call with investors, Mayor Bronin detailed the city’s fiscal trauma, as well as its potential chapter 9 considerations—with one person describing the blueprint as relying on the “Detroit timeline as template for success,” referring to Detroit’s initial offer for pennies on the dollar. In this instance, the pre-planned investor call was made in the wake of Assured Guaranty’s public offer to support a refinancing of Hartford’s debt under a new Connecticut state law‒a plan under which the city would realize reduced debt service costs over the next 15 years‒with the remaining costs like a ball and chain extended far into the future, or, as Assured described it: “We believe a consensual agreement among stakeholders offers the city a better path forward than bankruptcy.”

Mayor Bronin, for his part, noted: “I appreciate Assured’s willingness to have constructive discussions…We are interested in long-term solutions that leave the city with a path to sustained solvency and strength.” The statements came as the city is biding time awaiting how much aid it might receive from the state, which itself is struggling, confronting high taxes, falling revenues, $73 billion of pension and debt obligations, and the risk of a greater out-migration of its citizens and businesses, as it is confronted by a $3.5 billion deficit over the next two years, even as its budget is nearly three months overdue. That is, Hartford’s fiscal deterioration has become part of a context of broader credit deterioration in the state—which, in response, appears likely to struggle within a context of worsening local credit quality in Connecticut. Not only is the state likely to make deep cuts to local aid in the current biennium: the state is already assuming that its municipalities will draw down reserves as a result—meaning that the fiscal ripples are likely to adversely the borrowing costs of municipalities throughout the state.

The Dangerous Road to Recovery. The FBI released data yesterday, which found that violent crime in Detroit surged 15.7 percent last year, ranking the city as the nation’s most violent big city, albeit a finding city police officials disputed. Last year, there were 13,705 violent crimes reported—murder, rape, assault, and robbery—more than 10 percent greater than the previous year. Nevertheless, Detroit Police Chief James Craig described the FBI numbers as wrong: he blamed an antiquated software system (CRISNET), which he said caused crimes to be double reported. The system, which was replaced in December, shows a 5 percent reduction in violent crime last year, according to Chief Craig. According to the FBI, Detroit’s rate of 2,047 violent crimes per 100,000 people placed it highest among cities with more than 100,000 residents, higher than St. Louis and Memphis, Tennessee—and seemingly reversing the city’s post chapter 9 implementation of its plan of debt adjustment: violent crime in the Motor City had declined 13% in 2015, making it second in the country behind St. Louis.  According to the FBI report, murders rose in Detroit last year as well: 303 in 2016 from 295 in 2015, up 3 percent, albeit that lagged the national violent crime rate increase, which rose for the second year in a row, up 4.1 percent from last year. Murders in the United States were up by 8.6 percent, according to the FBI data. Thus, notwithstanding the headlines the Windy City, Chicago, has garnered for its rise in murders: 765 in 2016 compared with 478 in 2015, a 60 percent increase, Chicago’s is significantly lower than Detroit’s.

A Double Standard for Puerto Rico? Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo A. Rosselló yesterday warned the U.S. territory was on the brink of a “humanitarian crisis,” even as U.S. Navy vessels docked in Virginia which could be invaluable in rendering the kinds of critical recovery the federal government provided to communities in Texas and Florida remain docked nearly a week after Hurricane Maria knocked out all of Puerto Rico’s electricity, most of its potable water, and fearful of the collapse of a major dam. The Governor urged Congress to act swiftly to avert a deepening disaster, asking that Puerto Rico be accorded the same treatment as hurricane-ravaged states. Despite the silence from President Trump, the Governor urged Republican leaders in Congress to move swiftly to send more funds, supplies, and relief workers: “Puerto Rico, which is part of the United States, can turn into a humanitarian crisis…To avoid that, recognize that we Puerto Ricans are American citizens; when we speak of a catastrophe, everyone must be treated equally.”

The dire physical situation, moreover, could bode even more dire fiscal consequences: as Gov. Rosselló warned Puerto Ricans are expected to flee in droves to the continental U.S., increasingly leaving behind the old and the poor, aggravating the fiscal hurricane—or, as the Governor put it: “If we want to prevent, for example, a mass exodus, we have to take action. Congress, take note: Take action, permit Puerto Rico to have the necessary resources.”

In the wake of criticism for a lack of public support for Puerto Rico, President Trump yesterday took time from tweeting about the NFL to post a pair of tweets which nevertheless identified the devastating connections between the natural disaster to Puerto Rico’s increasingly desperate fiscal situation, writing that while Florida and Texas were coping well from hurricane damage, “Puerto Rico, which was already suffering from broken infrastructure & massive debt, is in deep trouble,” adding in a subsequent tweet: “…owed to Wall Street and the banks which, sadly, must be dealt with. Food, water and medical are top priorities—and doing well.” Congressional leaders yesterday claimed they were awaiting assessments of the damage in Puerto Rico, as well as a formal disaster request from the Trump administration, before Congress can act; unfortunately, such a request is not expected until early to mid-October, even as House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rodney Frelinghusyen (R-N.J.) issued a statement noting that Puerto Ricans on the island “are entitled to equal treatment under the law.”

FEMA is currently drawing from the same $15.3 billion appropriation approved this month by Congress in response to Hurricane Harvey, which hit Texas, and Hurricane Irma, which hit Florida and damaged Puerto Rico and the United States Virgin Islands. FEMA Director Brock Long, and Thomas P. Bossert, the President’s Homeland Security adviser, were both in Puerto Rico yesterday to assess the damage, with Director Long asserting that the federal government had 10,000 people “working around the clock” to help Puerto Rico. Puerto Ricans can now file damage claims with FEMA, which has sent teams to 10 municipios to go house to house to collect information and pass it on, according to Gov. Rosselló; nevertheless, more than half the territory is without potable water—100 percent is without electricity. All of Puerto Rico’s wastewater and water treatment plants lack electricity.

Some Democrats want Congress to quickly approve a relief bill, but to, at the same time, temporarily forgive Puerto Rico’s loan repayments and remove a requirement that Puerto Rico contribute into the federal emergency pot. Indeed, the physical and fiscal damage to the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, has meant the halt of all PROMESA-related creditor and debtor considerations: in the wake of the storm, and the diversion of all Puerto Rico governmental focus on saving lives, it is unlikely Puerto Rico will be making interest payments on its debts for the foreseeable future: the restoration of vital public utilities to ensure the provision of water and electricity is a much higher priority: there is access to safe drinking water to only a quarter of Puerto Rico’s residents. In the three decades that National Guard Brigadier General Wendul G. Hagler II has served, he described the situations as “about as large a scale damage as I have ever seen.” 

A related fiscal danger could be an accelerating exodus of more educated and skilled Puerto Ricans, likely in the thousands, to leave for the continental U.S., leaving behind a population in need of far greater vital public services, but a deteriorated tax base—with some estimates that such an exodus could be greater than 10%.  

On the Edge of Municipal Fiscal Cliffs

September 20, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the upcoming challenge for voters in Detroit—with a Mayoral election around the bend—and the city aspiring to be in the competition for selection by Amazon as its second site. Then we look at the physical and fiscal storm threats to Puerto Rico, before finally looking back at post-riot Ferguson, Missouri.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

On the Edge of a Fiscal State/Local Cliff.  The Latin incantation, “Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus,or, translated: “We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes,” is Detroit’s motto: it came from a French Roman Catholic priest, Father Gabriel Richard, who was born in France in 1767 and moved to Baltimore in 1792 to teach math. Reassigned to do missionary work, he moved first to Illinois and later to Detroit, where he was the assistant pastor at St. Anne’s Church—a church founded in 1701 and possibly the oldest continuously operating Roman Catholic parish in the U.S. Two hundred twelve years ago, on June 11th, a fire destroyed nearly all of then-Detroit, just weeks before the Michigan Territory was established. Today, nearly three years after the once-great city, the “arsenal of democracy” during World War II and home of the world’s most innovative manufacturers, emerged from the nation’s largest ever chapter 9 bankruptcy, national interest in Detroit has waned: in some ways, it has become a tale of two cities: One a city still mired in poverty and unemployment; one an emerging vibrant metropolis and global self-driving car center. And all this is occurring as the voters prepare to re-elect Mike Duggan—whose most profound achievement has been to raze much of the city, after first being elected in a write-in campaign. But, last month, voters in the primary gave him 68% of the votes—likely foretelling November’s re-election—in a campaign against the son of Coleman Young, Detroit’s first black mayor. Almost more than any other city in the nation, Detroit is not just a city emerging from the ashes, but also a city of profound racial transition: Over the past forty-year, Detroit has undergone a racial transformation: from 70% white in the 1960s to just 10% today. The Detroit News described the Mayor’s self-referral as a “metrics nut:” describing cabinet meeting room as one blanketed in graphs charting the city’s employment, ambulance delivery and crime rates, among other statistics. “The police are going to show up in under 14 minutes; the ambulance is going to show up in under 8 minutes; the grass is going to be cut in the parks every 10 to 12 days—it just is.” The paper notes that: “City employees who do not meet these targets do not last long.”  But, as the city’s emergency manager charged by Gov. Snyder with taking the Motor City into chapter 9 bankruptcy and then out noted to me on that very first morning, the critical distinction between municipal and corporate bankruptcy is to ensure the streetlights, traffic lights, police and fire are working. That has been an ongoing, post-plan of debt adjustment priority, and, the numbers have continued to improve: today police response times are down from an average of 40 minutes to 13.

Mayhap a far greater governance challenge, however, has been to reverse the flight of residents from the city—flight which bequeathed 40,000 abandoned properties—properties which could become havens for crime, paid no property taxes, and adversely affected the assessed values of neighboring properties in one of the nation’s largest—by land area of 139 square miles—a city once the home to 1.8 million—thrice today’s population. Or, as David Schleicher of Yale Law School described the city: it “is just too big,” to accommodate “the expense of providing services.” The Mayor has sought to “right-size,” as it were, by means of razing abandoned homes, in part via the expansion of the Detroit Land Bank, a quasi-governmental authority which now owns 96,000 properties across the city—most of them acquired through foreclosure because of unpaid taxes. Thus, the land bank has succeeded in centralizing the city’s control over abandoned and vacant properties; Detroit has replaced an antiquated registry scattered across 83 data sets, and erased liens and back taxes as a means to facilitate the clearing and demolition or restoration of properties. Since his election, the city has focused on the highest density districts, where the city has demolished 11,900 residential properties. The results indicate that the demolition of a blighted property increases the value of a nearby home by 4.2%, according to one study. And the pace has been unprecedented—indeed, so fast there have been allegations of improper contract awards; there has been a federal investigation; and Michigan’s state housing agency suspended funds for two months, after a state audit found improper controls in place. Land bank officials, including the director of demolitions, have resigned. Mayor Duggan, who has not been a subject of the investigation, blames the mistakes on a desire to increase the pace of demolitions, but acknowledges that regulators were right to rap his knuckles.

Under the program there has been, consequently, a high pace of tax foreclosures—the main pipeline for properties which end up in the land bank’s possession: under Michigan law, owners who do not pay taxes after three years lose their property—properties last comprehensively reassessed decades before market values plummeted, meaning many are set too high. Between 2006 and 2012, median sale prices for city houses fell from $70,000 to $16,200; thus, the owner of a house worth $15,000 could owe $3,000 in property taxes. The state-mandated interest rate on property-tax debt is 18% per year. Thus, an update completed at the beginning of this calendar year should lead to lower bills, but it will not be retroactive; thus, up to 53,000 properties will receive foreclosure notices this autumn. While not every foreclosed property will necessarily end up lost, tax foreclosures, driven by government policy rather than market forces, could force out longtime residents, ironically exacerbating the very problem the Mayor is focused upon: even as the demolition drive has already cost the city’s taxpayers some $162 million, the average back taxes for homes put up for auction are $7,700—much less than the cost of demolition. Or, as Michele Oberholtzer, Director of the Tax Foreclosure Prevention Project puts it: “It’s like an auto-immune disorder: We penalize people for not paying, and then we end up paying more for the punishment.” Nevertheless, Mayor and candidate Duggan believes that at the current pace of demolitions, he can clear the city’s long-standing blight within five years—mayhap paving the way for a smaller but much more vibrant city.

Fiscal Hurricane. With still another hurricane bearing down on Puerto Rico (damages caused by Hurricane Irma are estimated at more than $600 million), a fiscal storm appears in the offing after, yesterday, an agreement among Senate Finance Committee leaders to push this month the reauthorization of the Children’s Health Insurance Program for five years raised doubts about with regard to whether Medicaid funds to stabilize the finances of the Puerto Rican health system could be included in that legislation: according to the agreement between the Chairman, Republican Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), and Ranking Member Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), that program would be refinanced for another five years; however, the agreement did not include funds to close the so-called “abyss” in Medicaid funds, which would reach $ 369 million this fiscal year and then rise to about $ 1.2 billion that has been asked annually for reimbursement under the Affordable Care Act, or, as former Puerto Rico Governor Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, who was representing Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, noted: “From what I’ve been told, we are not included.” His statement came as Gov. Rosselló arrived last night in Washington, D.C. along with former Governors Acevedo Vilá and Alejandro García Padilla to meet with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Ca.), as the Senate Finance Committee hurries to approve the reauthorization of the CHIP program before the law expires at the end of this month. Chairman Hatch, however, has indicated that his intention is that the reauthorization of the program not increase the federal deficit—an intention which could singularly complicate the mission—even as House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) earlier this year had told resident commissioner, Jennifer Gonzalez, that CHIP’s reauthorization was the ideal vehicle for legislating new Medicaid allocations, due to the depletion of Affordable Care Act funds in April. (For the current fiscal year, Puerto Rico’s allocation is $172 million. Meanwhile, there are already 12 Puerto Rican municipalities within  the  federally declared disaster zone: the first ones were the municipalities of Vieques and Culebra. Yesterday, Adjuntas, Canóvanas, Carolina, Guaynabo, Juncos, Loíza, Luquillo, Orocovis, Patillas and Utuado were added—with Gov. Rosselló making the announcement yesterday accompanied by FEMA Administrator William Long,  albeit the Governor added: “This does not imply that the list of municipalities is finished, it´s not over. This simply implies that as we receive  information (from the affected municipalities) and we send it to the federal government, then, we are able make these declarations.”

Good Gnus. Puerto Rico’s median household income climbed 7.8% from 2015 to 2016 according to the U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey statistics, with the survey showing that mean household income was up 2.3% after inflation—a stark contrast with the generally negative economic data coming out of Puerto Rico. For example, Puerto Rico’s economic activity index declined 2.1% in July from a year earlier, according to a report from the Government Development Bank for Puerto Rico: according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ household survey, total employment in August on the island was down 0.25% from a year earlier. According to its survey of workplaces, total employment was down 1.1%. In addition, the American Community Survey showed that net migration to the rest of the United States increased to 67,000 in 2016 from an average of 44,400 per year from 2006 to 2015—that is nearly 50%. Data from the Puerto Rico Ports Authority show that the average net migration was 65,700 per year from 2006 to 2015. The difference may reflect that some Puerto Ricans migrate to countries beside the U.S., according to Mario Marazzi, executive director for the Puerto Rico Statistics Institute.

Coming Back. Moody’s has revised upwards its credit rating for Ferguson, Missouri in the wake of efforts to recover fiscally from the aftermath of a controversial police shooting, the rating agency has revised the city’s outlook on its junk-level Ba3 general obligation rating to positive from negative. The city lost its investment grade rating as it dealt with the aftermath of the August 2014 fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American, by a white police officer. The shooting led to local protests and a federal probe in the city of about 21,000 just northwest of St. Louis. The city faced rising legal expenses as it dealt with a federal probe into policing and court tactics and then the costs of a settlement, and took a hit on sales and other taxes. The city has also lost a chunk of court-fine related revenue it relied on as the state government cracked down on local government use of fine levies to balance budgets. After spending cuts and other management efforts, the city is expected to begin to shore up its balance sheet as voter approved tax revenues flow into city coffers. “The positive outlook reflects the likelihood the city’s materially improved fiscal condition will continue over the next two years, especially because new taxes implemented during fiscal years 2016 through 2018 will lead to the greater likelihood of operating surpluses and improving reserve levels,” Moody’s noted, as it affirmed the B1 rating on the city’s 2013 certificates of participation and the B2 rating on its 2012 COPs: the upgrade reflects Ferguson’s current fiscal condition in the wake of several years of rapidly declining reserves and uncertainty for further operating declines; it incorporates a moderately sized tax base with a trend of declining assessed valuation, below average resident wealth, and above average yet manageable debt burden. The agency notes that the rating remains challenged by ebbing reserves and the costs of federal consent decree measures which contributed to operating deficits in fiscal 2014 through 2017; the city anticipates a $312,000 deficit for FY 2017, but, with fully phased in, voter approved taxes coming in next year, the FY2018 budget estimates a $48,000 general fund surplus. From a high in fiscal 2013, the general fund balance declined to $3.6 million or 33.5% of revenues from $10.5 million. Reserve levels remain healthy on a relative basis compared to its peer group but the city’s operating flexibility is notably narrower than it has been. The city is working towards meeting milestones and establishing policies as required in its 2016 Department of Justice consent decree. Consent decree annual expenses have declined to $500,000 from projections of $700,000 to $1.5 million. Tax hikes are projected to generate an additional $2.9 million in annual revenue for the general fund in FY2018.

On the Steep Edge of Chapter 9

September 12, 2017

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s Blog, we consider the increasing risk of Hartford going into municipal bankruptcy, the Nutmeg State’s fiscal challenge—and whether the state’s leaders can agree to a bipartisan budget; then we consider the ongoing fiscal challenges to Detroit’s comeback from the nation’s largest ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy: the road is steep.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

On the Edge of Chapter 9. Connecticut legislators plan to move forward with a state budget vote this week—one which is not expected to include a sales and use take hike and which may not get much support from their Republican colleagues. In his declaration, last week, Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin, in warning the city may be filing for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy within sixty days pending state budget action, noted Hartford “believes that a restructuring of its outstanding bond indebtedness will be necessary to assure the fiscal stability of the city in the future regardless of any funding received from the State.” Nevertheless, as Municipal Market Analytics noted: “It’s unclear that the city will be able to satisfy the standard conditions for entry into bankruptcy protection such as proving itself insolvent,” albeit MMA noted that in the absence of a state bailout cash, the city will unable to make payments to its bondholders, nevertheless, noting that Connecticut fiscal changes enacted last summer “would reasonably allow the city to refinance its outstanding debt under provisions that not only purport to provide a statutory lien to bondholders, but also allow principal to be back-loaded and extended for 30 years. Under Connecticut law, municipalities may secure refunding bonds with a statutory lien if they provide for such in the resolution. MMA adds that even without a lien, Hartford “could also refinance, at a minimum, approximately 80% of its outstanding general obligation debt covered by bond insurance policies,” noting that “While this would not eliminate principal currently owed, it would avoid the expense of a chapter 9 bankruptcy.” However, as William Faulkner used to write of the “odor of verbena,” the reputation of chapter 9 can create contagion: MMA notes that “some municipal investors will still not loan capital to Bridgeport for its attempted bankruptcy filing twenty-six years ago.” Thus there is apprehension in the state house that Connecticut’s own interest rates could be adversely affected were Hartford to default or file for chapter 9—adding that such a filing would thus have fiscal adverse reverberations for the state, but also undermine business complacency about remaining in the city: “It is hard to expect that declaring bankruptcy would help the city retain its current employers or attract new ones. Amazon is unlikely to locate its headquarters in a bankrupt city.” Unsurprisingly, Connecticut legislators may be considering some sort of fiscal evaluation model like Virginia’s as a quasi- oversight and/or restructuring regime for local governments.

Meanwhile Connecticut House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz (D-Berlin) said a proposal to raise the sales and use tax as high as 6.85% has been removed from the Democratic budget proposal after facing strong opposition from moderates in his party, as the Speaker’s draft budget proposal sought to close a two-year $3.5 billion deficit, advising his colleagues: “The Senate was not comfortable with that, so it was our opinion as House Democrats that we would drop that off of our proposal in an effort to come to an agreement that would pass in both chambers.’’ Nevertheless, a proposal to raise the sales tax on restaurant meals to 7% remains under consideration—drawing strong opposition from the Farmington-based Connecticut Restaurant Association, and raising apprehensions from the industry, because it was unclear exactly which meals would be covered by the increased tax—even as restaurants now confront stiffer competition from ready-made meals at supermarkets, raising questions with regard to the definition of food and beverage—something to be resolved, according to officials, by the Connecticut Department of Revenue Services.

The fiscal dilemma has, moreover, not just been between the parties, but also between Gov. Malloy and Democrats, with the Governor opposed to many of the tax hikes they have proposed, albeit late last week he said he would agree to a small sales tax increase. Nevertheless, even as state Democratic leaders were still working on a budget agreement with the Governor, separate, simultaneous talks with Republicans broke down yesterday. While Republicans indicated they would not rule out further negotiations, the breakdown appears to be taxing: Gov. Malloy is still seeking tax increases on hospitals, cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, e-cigarettes, and real estate transactions—leading Republicans to charge that Democrats are unwilling to address major, long-term structural changes which would include spending and bonding caps, along with changing the prevailing wage for labor on municipal projects that unions and many Democrats have strongly opposed for years, or, as House Republican Leader Themis Klarides (R.-Seymour) noted: “It is very clear they have no interest in changing the way the State of Connecticut works…They want to fix it for this week, for next month, for next year. They do not want to fix this problem that has been a spiraling problem…“This might as well be Irma: I have more confidence on where Irma is going than where the state is going, based on the destruction they have left in their wake.’’

Republicans plan to release a revised budget proposal today, among which some of Gov. Malloy’s proposals could be included as part of a budget proposal House Democrats plan to consider Thursday, including an expansion of the state’s bottle bill to include juices, teas, and sports drinks. When consumers fail to return their bottles, the nickel deposit is kept by the state. As a result, the state expects to collect an additional $2.8 million starting on Jan. 1, and then another $7.4 million in the second year of the two-year budget from unclaimed deposits. The legislature appears fiscally anxious as Gov. Malloy’s October 1 deadline approaches—the date on which he is set to invoke large cuts: under his revised executive order, 85 communities would receive no educational cost-sharing funds; 54 towns would receive less money.

Nevertheless, the Governor and legislature are working in fiscal quicksand: Gov. Malloy, a Democrat, has been running the state by executive order since July 1st: he and the legislature remain at odds over a biennial spending plan while the Governor is proposing to raise the conveyance tax on real estate transactions, which he projects would bring in an expected $127 million more to the state over two years. However, the proposal comes as sources late yesterday reported that Alexion Pharmaceuticals Inc. will today announce that its corporate headquarters is moving from New Haven to Boston as part of a major “restructuring.” The state has provided Alexion with more than $26 million in state assistance to remain in Connecticut, so the announcement is likely to be a double fiscal whammy: not only will the company move, but also it plans to announce significant layoffs, renewing debate with regard to how the state can remain economically competitive. (Alexion had moved to New Haven early last year from Cheshire with a $6 million grant from the state, and a subsidized $20 million loan which will be fully forgiven if Alexion has 650 workers in Connecticut by 2017.) On average, Alexion had 827 employees in the state this year through June 30. Alexion also was offered tax credits, which could be worth as much as $25 million as part of the Malloy administration’s so-called “First Five” program. Alexion had located in a newly constructed 14-story building in downtown New Haven as part of an urban revitalization project intended to tie two sections of the city together—thus Alexion’s move was key to the completion of the first phase of the project. Gov.  Malloy noted: “Hartford looks to be going bankrupt, and that ultimately may be the only way for them to resolve their issues.” In releasing his proposed a $41 billion state budget, the Governor said that if all of the stakeholders in Hartford, including the unions and the bondholders and others come to the table, maybe that can be avoided: “Hartford looks to be going bankrupt, and that ultimately may be the only way for them to resolve their issues.” The Governor added: “There is an issue that Hartford has done some pretty stupid things over the years, and that bondholders and bond rating agencies tolerated that stupidity: And if there’s going to be relief, it has to be comprehensive in nature.” With Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin having, as we previously noted, warned that Hartford would file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy absent critical support from the state, labor unions, and its bondholders, the Mayor has been pressing for an additional $40 million from the state to avoid bankruptcy—even as the Governor and state legislative leaders claim the state budget provides enough to Hartford—or, in the Governor’s words: “presents the opportunity to help Hartford.” The budget proposal also calls for a four-tiered municipal board to oversee Hartford and other distressed cities. Gov. Malloy, a lame duck, ergo with waning political power, confronts an evenly divided state Senate, and a narrowly divided state House (79-72), so balancing the deck of the fiscal Titanic between revenues and expenditures—and addressing long-term capital and public pension obligations is an exceptional fiscal challenge. The Governor’s budget proposals would also repeal the back-to-school sales tax holiday and increase the cigarette tax by 45 cents to $4.35 per pack, effective the end of next month, as well as increase the conveyance tax on real estate sales.

Leaving Chapter 9 Is Uneasy. Detroit is finding that returning to access traditional capital markets is a challenge: notwithstanding significant downtown economic progress, that progress has been mostly in the increasingly vibrant downtown and Midtown areas. Significant parts of the 139-square mile city continue to struggle with pre-chapter 9 challenges, even as the narrow relief window for the city’s public pension obligations is winnowing, effectively imposing increasing fiscal pressure—especially in the wake of the city’s general fund revenues coming up short for FY2016: Detroit’s four-year fiscal forecast predicts an annual growth rate of approximately 1%. Thus, with its plan of debt adjustment requiring annual set-asides from surpluses of an additional $335 million (between FY16 and FY23) to address those obligations, that has cut into fiscal resources vital to reinvestment and improvement in public services—especially in outlying neighborhoods. Nevertheless, Detroit Future City reports that the annual decline in the city’s population of 672,000 has been slowing. Indeed, job growth has been above the nationwide average since 2010, and that growth appears to be in higher paying jobs of over $40 thousand per year, implying that the job growth is targeted at educated or skilled workers—a key development to encouraging migration to the city—where the 25-34 year-old population has grown by 10 thousand since 2011. Notwithstanding, however, more than 40% of Detroit’s population lives in poverty, nearly triple the statewide rate—and a rate which appears to have some correlation with violent crime. Thus, even though the city has made some progress in reducing overall violent crime, murders have still been rising—albeit at a 2.4% rate. Nevertheless, perceptions matter: a recent Politico-Morning Consult poll reported that 41% of Detroit residents said they consider the city very unsafe. Moreover, in a city where only 78.3% of students graduate high school and just 13.5% of those that reside in Detroit have a bachelor’s degree—half the national rate, the number of families with children has declined by more than 40%. Thus, unsurprisingly, with housing and blight still a problem, the city’s vacancy rate is close to 30%, and some 80,000 met or were expected to soon meet the definition of blight. Worse: some 8,000 properties are scheduled to enter the foreclosure auction process this year.

Municipal Moral & Fiscal Obligations

07/27/17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trying to Recover on all Pistons

07/19/17

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Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we look back at the steep road out of the nation’s largest ever municipal bankruptcy—in Detroit, where the Chicago Federal Reserve and former U.S. Chief Bankruptcy Judge Thomas Bennett, who presided over Jefferson County’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy case, has noted: “[S]tates can have precipitating roles as well as preventative roles” in work he did for the Chicago Federal Reserve. Indeed, it seems the Great Recession demarcated the nation’s states into distinct fiscal categories: those with state oversight programs which either protected against or offered fiscal support to assist troubled municipalities, versus those, such as Alabama or California—with the former appearing to aid and abet Jefferson County’s descent into chapter 9 bankruptcy, and California, home to the largest number of chapter 9 bankruptcies over the last two decades, contributing to fiscal distress, but avoiding any acceptance of risk. Therefore, we try to provide our own fiscal autopsy of Detroit’s journey into and out of the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy.

I met in the Governor’s Detroit offices with Kevyn Orr, whom Governor Rick Snyder had asked to come out from Washington, D.C. to serve as the city’s Emergency Manager to take the city into—and out of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy: the largest in American history. Having been told by the hotel staff that it was unsafe to walk the few blocks from my hotel to the Governor’s Detroit offices on the city’s very first day in insolvency—a day in which the city was spending 38 cents on every dollar of taxes collected from residents and businesses on legacy costs and operating debt payments totaling $18 billion; it was clear from the get go, as he told me that early morning, there was no choice other than chapter 9: it was an essential, urgent step in order to ensure the provision of essential services, including street and traffic lights, emergency first responders, and basic maintenance of the Motor City’s crumbling infrastructure—especially given the grim statistics, with police response times averaging 58 minutes across the city, fewer than a third of the city’s ambulances in service, 40% of the city’s 88,000 traffic lights not working, “primarily due to disrepair and neglect.” It was, as my walk made clear, a city aptly described as: “[I]nfested with urban blight, which depresses property values, provides a fertile breeding ground for crime and tinder for fires…and compels the city to devote precious resources to demolition.” Of course, not just physical blight and distress, but also fiscal distress: the Motor City’s unbalanced fiscal condition was foundering under its failure to make some $108 million in pension payments—payments which, under the Michigan constitution, because they are contracts, were constitutionally binding. Nevertheless, in one of his early steps to staunch the fiscal bleeding, Mr. Orr halted a $39.7 million payment on $1.4 billion in pension debt issued by former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s administration to make the city pension funds appear better funded than they really were; thus, Mr. Orr’s stop payment was essential to avoid immediate cash insolvency at a moment in time when Detroit’s cash position was in deepening debt. Thus, in his filing, Mr. Orr aptly described the city’s dire position and the urgency of swift action thusly: “Without this, the city’s death spiral I describe herein will continue.”

Today, the equivalent of a Presidential term later, the city has installed 65,000 new streetlights; it has cut police and emergency responder response times to 25% of what they were; it has razed 11,847 blighted buildings. Indeed, ambulance response times in Detroit today are half of what they were—and close to the national average—even as the city’s unrestricted general fund finished FY2016 fiscal year with a $143 million surplus, 200% of the prior fiscal year: as of March 31st, Detroit sported a general fund surplus of $51 million, with $52.8 million more cash on hand than March of last year, according to the Detroit Financial Review Commission—with the surplus now dedicated to setting aside an additional $20 million into a trust fund for a pension “funding cliff” the city has anticipated in its plan of debt adjustment by 2024.  

Trying to Run on all Pistons. The Detroit City Council has voted 7-1 to approve a resolution to allow the Motor City to realize millions of dollars in income tax revenues from its National Basketball Association Pistons players, employees, and visiting NBA players—with such revenues dedicated to finance neighborhood improvements across the Motor City, under a Neighborhood Improvement Fund—a fund proposed in June by Councilwoman (and ordained Minister) Mary Sheffield, with the proposal coming a week after the City Council agreed to issue some $34.5 million in municipal bonds to finance modifications to the Little Caesars Arena—where the Pistons are scheduled to play next season. Councilwoman Sheffield advised her colleagues the fund would also enable the city to focus on blight removal, home repairs for seniors, educational opportunities for young people, and affordable housing development in neighborhoods outside of downtown and Midtown—or, as she put it: “This sets the framework; it expresses what the fund should be used for; and it ultimately gives Council the ability to propose projects.” She further noted the Council could, subsequently, impose additional limitations with regard to the use of the funds—noting she had come up with the proposal in response to complaints from Detroit constituents who had complained the city’s recovery efforts had left them out—stating: “It’s not going to solve all of the problems, and it’s not going to please everyone, but I do believe it’s a step in the right direction to make sure these catalyst projects have some type of tangible benefits for residents.”

Detroit officials estimate the new ordinance will help generate a projected $1.3 million annually. In addition, city leaders hope to find other sources to add to the fund—sources the Councilmember reports, which will be both public and private: “We as a council are going to look at other development projects and sources that could go into the fund too.” As adopted, the resolution provides: “[I]t is imperative that the neighborhoods, and all other areas of the City, benefit from the Detroit Pistons’ return downtown …In turn, the City will receive income tax revenue, from the multimillion dollar salaries of the NBA players as well as other Pistons employees and Palace Sports & Entertainment employees.” The Council has forwarded the adopted proposals to Mayor Duggan’s office for final consideration and action. The proposed new revenues—unless the tax is modified or rejected by the Mayor—would be dedicated for use in the city’s Neighborhood Improvement Fund in FY2018—with decisions with regard to how to allocate the funds—by Council District or citywide—to be determined at a later date. The funds, however, could also be used to address one of the lingering challenges from the city’s adopted plan of debt adjustment from its chapter 9 bankruptcy: meeting its public pension obligations when general fund revenues are insufficient, “should there be any unforeseen shortfall,” as the resolution provides.

This fiscal recovery, however, remains an ongoing challenge: Detroit CFO John Hill laid up the proverbial hook shot up by advising the Council that the reason the city reserved the right to use the Pistons tax revenue to cover pension or debt obligation shortfalls was because of the large pension obligation payment the city will confront in 2024: “We knew that in meeting our pensions and debt obligation in 2024 and 2025 that those funds get very tight: If this kind of valve wasn’t there, I would have a lot of concerns that in those years its tighter and we don’t get revenues we expect we don’t get any of those funds to meet those obligations.”

But, as in basketball, there is another side: at the beginning of the week, the NBA, Palace Sports & Entertainment, and Olympia Entertainment were added to a federal lawsuit—a suit filed in late June by community activist Robert Davis and Detroit city clerk candidate D. Etta Wilcox against the Detroit Public Schools Community District. The suit seeks to force a vote on the $34.5 million public funding portion of the Pistons’ deal, under which Detroit, as noted above, is seeking to capture the school operating tax, the proceeds of which are currently used to service $250 million of bonds DDA bonds previously issued for the arena project in addition to the $34.5 million of additional bonds the city planned to issue for the Pistons relocation.

The Thin Line Between Fiscal & Physical Recovery Versus Unsustainability.

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Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider, Detroit’s remarkable route to fiscal recovery; then we turn to challenges to a municipality’s authority to deal with distress—or be forced into chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in Pennsylvania, before returning to the stark fiscal challenges to Puerto Rico’s economic sustainability, and then the taxing challenge to Scranton’s efforts for a sustainable fiscal recovery.

Campaigning & Turning around the Motor City’s Fiscal Future. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, last week, at the annual Mackinac Policy Conference spoke about the racially divisive public policies of the first half of 20th century which, he said, had helped contribute to Detroit’s long slide into municipal bankruptcy—indeed, the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history—but one which he said had helped lay the foundation for a conversation about how Detroit could grow for the first time in half a century without making the mistakes of the past that had, inexorably, led to an exodus of nearly 1.2 million from 1956 to its chapter 9 bankruptcy—noting: “If we fail again, I don’t know if the city can come back.” His remarks, mayhap ironically, came nearly a half century from the 1976 Detroit riot, a riot which  began downtown and was only curtailed after former U.S. President Lyndon Johnson ordered the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions to intervene, along with then Michigan Gov. George Romney ordering in the Michigan Army National Guard. The toll from the riot: 43 dead, 1,189 injured, 2,000 of the city’s buildings destroyed, and 7,200 arrests.  

But, rather than discussing or issuing a progress report on the city’s remarkable turnaround, Mayor Duggan instead spoke of the city’s racial tensions that had sparked that riot, in many ways, according to the Mayor, coming from the housing policies of former President Franklin Roosevelt—a policy which placed or zoned blacks in the city into so-called “red zones,” thereby creating the kind of racial tensions central to the 1943 and 1967 riots—a federal policy adopted in 1934 which steered federally backed mortgages away from neighborhoods with blacks and other racial minorities. Indeed, the Mayor quoted from a 1934 Federal Housing Administration manual that instructed mortgage bankers that “incompatible racial groups should not be permitted to live in the same communities;” the manual also instructed housing appraisers to “predict the probability of the location being invaded by…incompatible racial and social groups…, so that, as the Mayor added: “If you were adjacent to a minority area, your appraisal got downgraded.”

Thus, federal housing policies were a critical component contributing to the historic white and middle class flight from Detroit to its suburbs—suburbs where federal housing policies through the Federal Housing Administration subsidized more than half of the mortgages for new construction—or, as Mayor Duggan described the federal policies: “There was a conscious federal policy that discarded what was left behind and subsidized the move to the suburbs: This is our history, and it’s something we still have to overcome.” His blunt Mayoral message to the business community was that the city’s hisgtory of race and class segregation had to be acknowledged—or, as he put it: “I just wanted to deliver a message to the broader community to say, ‘Look, there’s a place for you to come invest in Detroit. Here are the ground rules, here is the reasoning behind the ground rules… and if you want to come in and invest in the city, move into the city and be part of it with the understanding that the recovery includes everybody, we’d love to have you: The African-American community voted for me, and I can’t tell you what an enormous responsibility that feels like.” Thus, the Mayor made clear that he and the Detroit City Council have been focused on governing mechanisms that ensure longtime Detroiters are not displaced by downtown and Midtown revitalization—enacting an ordinance mandating that housing developments in receipt of city tax subsidies have at least 20 percent of the units classified as affordable housing for lower-income residents, and mandating that 51% of the person-hours for construction of the new Little Caesars Arena be performed by Detroiters: “We’re going to fight economic segregation…It would be so easy in this city to have one area be all wealthy people and one area all poor people.”

The Challenge of Municipal Fiscal Recovery. Judge James Gibbons of the Lackawanna, Pennsylvania County Court of Common Pleas last week heard the City of Scranton’s preliminary arguments in response to a lawsuit by eight taxpayers seeking to bar the municipality from tripling its local services tax. The suit, filed March 2nd, contends that Scranton has been collecting taxes which exceed the legal issuance; it calls for the issuance of a mandamus against the city. In response, city attorneys, note that, as a home rule charter city, Scranton is not subject to the cap that Pennsylvania’s Act 511 stipulates. (The taxing legal and political regime, as we have previously noted, in one of the nation’s oldest cities, comes in the wake of its action to raise the levy from $52 to $156 for every person working within the city limits who earns at least $15,600, with the city justifying the action under Pennsylvania Act 47 and municipal planning code.) The taxpayer group, led by independent Mayoral candidate Gary St. Fleur, in seeking a mandamus action, has charged that lowering taxes across the board is the only way for the city to be able to fiscally recover.

Mr. St. Fleur, an independent candidate for mayor, has initiated a ballot measure to force 76,000-population county seat Scranton into chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, citing a Wells Fargo report from October 2016, which found that a 2014 audit of Scranton revealed $375 million in liabilities and $184 million in unfunded non-pension post-retirement public pension benefits to government employees. (Mr. St. Fleur’s group, last February, had also objected to the city’s annual petition to the court to raise the tax—an objection rejected by visiting Judge John Braxton—a decision which, unsurprisingly, prompted the taxpayer group to initiate its own suit, notwithstanding that Scranton is a home-rule community, so that, in Pennsylvania, it has the authority to levy taxes.) Unsurprisingly, the anti-tax challengers’ attorney, John McGovern, counters that Act 511, which, when enacted 52 years ago, authorized the local Earned Income Tax, which authorizes municipalities and school districts the legal authority to levy a tax on individual gross earned income/compensation and net profits (the tax is based on the taxpayer’s place of residence or domicile, not place of employment) is separate from the Pennsylvania personal income tax. He charges that the Act has two “very specific” sections which cap how much the City of Scranton can tax, charging: “Call it a duck or a goose, call it a rate or a cap, but for the city to say it can tax whatever it wants, that alone is dangerous and absurd,” adding: “At this point, we’re dealing with 2017, and the city is spending like a drunken sailor…State law clearly states there is a cap to taxation through the Act 511 law…If we do not win, that would allow any city to raise taxes in any amount it wants.”

In contrast, David Fiorenza, a Villanova School of Business finance Professor and former CFO of Radnor Township, noted: “Scranton has made progress from three years ago, in part due to the renegotiating of some city union contracts and the low-interest rates on debt…The challenges this city will face will be the uncertainty of the state and federal budget as it relates to school funding and other funds that have been relied on for some many years.” Kevin Conaboy, whose firm is representing the city, told the court the city may raise its taxes under the state’s home-rule provisions, and he noted that Pennsylvania’s home rule provisions supersede a cap in the state’s Act 511 local tax enabling act. Moreover, Scranton city leaders have deemed the revenue increase essential for Scranton’s recovery under the state-sponsored Act 47 workout for distressed communities, to which Scranton has been subject since 1992.

Is the Bell Tolling for Act 47? The case is re-raising questions with regard to the effectiveness of the state’s municipal fiscal distress law, Act 47, a program which some critics charge has become an addiction rather than a cure. Villanova School of Business Professor David Fiorenza, referring to a 2014 change to the state enabling law, believes municipalities stay in the program for too long: “Act 47 is effective, but continues to present a problem as cities are able to request an extension after the five-year time period has expired…A five-year time frame is sufficient for a municipality to assess their financial situation and implement any changes. However, if the economy enters a recession during this time period, it will impede their financial progress.”

Physical & Fiscal Atrophy. Puerto Rico has lost two percent of its people in each of the past three years—but a two percent which in fiscal terms is far more grave from a fiscal perspective: the two percent, according to the insightful fiscal wizards at Federal Reserve Bank of New York, means that “If people continue to leave the island at the pace that has been set in recent years, the economic potential of Puerto Rico will only continue to deteriorate.” That outflow is comparable to 18 million Americans emigrating from the 50 states: it marks nearly a 12% drop: some 400,000 fewer Puerto Ricans today compared to 2007—meaning, increasingly, a U.S. territory entrapped in a fiscal tornado: unemployment is at 11.5%, so, unsurprisingly, the young and mobile are leaving the island behind. With unemployment at 11.5%, Puerto Rico in a quasi-chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, federal law discriminating against the territory’s economy, and its municipalities unable to access chapter 9—the $74 billion accumulated debt and quasi-federal takeover has created incentives for more and more Puerto Ricans, from all economic levels, to leave—creating a vicious fiscal cycle of reduced government revenue, but ever-increasing debt: Puerto Rico’s municipal bond debt has grown 87 percent just since 2006—making the increasing obligations a further incentive to emigrate.

The PROMESA Board’s proposed plan to revert to fiscal sustainability does not appear to address the physical demographic realities: it assumes the population will shrink just 0.2 percent each year over the next decade, relying on that projection as the basis for its projections of tax receipts and economic growth—projections which Sergio Marxuach, Public Policy Director at the Center for the New Economy in San Juan, generously describes as: “[R]eally, really optimistic.” The harsh reality appears to be that the growing earnings disparity between Puerto Rico and the continental U.S. is so stark that any family focused on its health, safety, and financially viable future—in a situation of today where the Puerto Rican government has closed schools to save money—means that teachers can double or triple their earnings if they move to the mainland: doing that math adds up to younger generations of child-bearing age being increasingly likely to leave Puerto Rico for the mainland. Coming on top of Puerto Rico’s more than a decade-long population decline, it seems that, more and more, for those who can afford it, the option of leaving is the only choice—meaning, for those who cannot afford to—the Puerto Rico left behind could become increasingly older and less fiscally able to construct a fiscal future.