Physical & Fiscal Storms

September 20, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the fiscal challenge confronting the small Virginia municipality of Pound; then we turn to the fiscal and physical storms pounding the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico.

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Pound fiscally pounded. The Council of the small Virginia Town of Pound, the original home of former U-2 pilot Gary Powers, with a population under 1,200, where the median income for a household is under $30,000, confronted by an inability to make payroll and pay other bills due has unanimously agreed in an emergency meeting to borrow enough to pay employees, but not any other outstanding obligations. The Mayor and interim Town Manager George Dean advised the Council that resources in the general fund get low about this time every year; this year, he noted, however, the town has experienced some unanticipated expenditures; thus it needed to tap into its line of credit. As factors, Manager Dean identified unbudgeted overtime, especially in the police department, as the single biggest problem.  He added: “I did not budget to have a chief of police and an assistant police chief in the office side by side,” adding the town could not sustain the current level of overtime. In response, Councilman Terry Short said that with eight officers, there should be no need for overtime, asking how the officers are receiving more overtime than is budgeted. The Manager responded: “You have to ask him,” referring to Chief Tony Baker—which unsurprisingly led Councilman Clifton Cauthorne to note that the town manager is in charge of the finances. But Manager Dean was clear: “I’m not telling the Chief of Police how to run his department: You all need to address that.”  But Councilmember Short noted that when four full-time officers are receiving more than 100 hours of overtime, “we’ve got a problem.”  Town clerk and bookkeeper Jenny Carter, however, said the Police Department was not the only position drawing overtime out of the general fund, telling Council her position also is paid through that account, and she logs considerable overtime, because the office is so understaffed. She had four meetings last month, Ms. Carter noted, and it took 23 and a half hours to type up all those minutes. So, how much was budgeted, Councilman Danny Stanley asked. Eight hours, Ms. Dean responded. While there was some discussion that the seasonal financial crush should ease when the town converts to a twice-annually billing cycle, Ms. Carter said she was confident that will resolve matters in the future; however, she also suggested Council consider increasing the town’s line of credit—a suggestion Councilmember Cauthorne was quick to oppose, noting: “I feel that is like giving a drunk more booze,” adding this was not the first year the town has run into this fiscal problem—or, as one of his colleagues added: “[it] just continues to snowball,” overspending every year, robbing Peter to pay Paul, borrowing money it does not have and without a method to pay it back. Asked how much the town has repaid of its original debt, Ms. Dean said the town still owes the bank about $65,000, adding the town has access to roughly $35,000 available of a $100,000 line of credit, while Ms. Carter said the town is negative $24,500 in the general fund, with open payables of almost another $10,000. If the Council is going to put any more on the line of credit, Councilman Cauthorne made clear he wants to revisit automatic spending cuts—reminding his colleagues that Pound had adopted a plan in 2014 to trigger automatic cuts if the town ever reached $55,000 of its line of credit—an action the Council rescinded a year later.

Councilmember Short said the town’s internal controls require use of time cards, and other kinds of time sheets have not been approved, moving to mandate immediately that all employees use time cards as required by Pound’s internal controls policy: he further noted that the town has a budget and has policies and procedures to control operations, adding: “All we have to do is follow it. It’s that simple.” Council unanimously endorsed requiring time cards as per existing policy. Councilmember Short then moved that all overtime require approval of the town manager, including the police force, but Manager Dean immediately objected, stating: “That’s not going to work,” adding he was not going to comply and Council would have to figure out who was going to tell the police chief, adding: “I am not in control of the chief of police’s overtime hours…He works for you…We’ve got a financial problem here and we’ve got to do something about it: the Council is being asked to borrow money to pay for bills which “we are not controlling.” With regard to employees spending more money than is budgeted, he added: “I don’t know of any business that works like that. If they do, it ain’t long before they are out of business…” He noted they are obligating all taxpayers in the town when they sign contracts borrowing money and citizens are financially obligated to repay that money if the town goes under.

Fiscal & Physical Storms. Promesa Oversight Board Executive Director Natalie Jaresko, in an interview with the Bond Buyer, warned that Puerto Rico is confronted by what this morning could be the strongest hurricane to ever hit the U.S. territory, further decimating public utilizes and forcing the virtually insolvent government to rebuild dozens of communities. But she also said she anticipated Puerto Rico’s fiscal ability to make its requisite municipal bond payments should improve after nine years, expressing optimism with regard to Puerto Rico’s future and the PROMESA board’s relationship with the government of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló—albit, she added, the next few years of reform will inevitably be tough: the PROMESA Board does not expect Puerto Rico to return to nominal gross national product growth until FY2022 and inflation-adjusted growth until FY2024, adding that by the end of the next decade, she anticipates Puerto Rico’s economy to be growing, noting: “In the years 11 to 40 there’s bound to be more cash in all the estimates available for debt service: So creditors shouldn’t only focus on the 10 years.” She added that the Board is working on a “plan of adjustment” for the debt, as provided under PROMESA, albeit she was uncertain when the plan would be publicly released. With regard to timing, she said, in the interview, that Judge Swain has said she plans to rule by mid-December on the dispute between the Puerto Rico Sales Tax Financing Corp. (COFINA) and Puerto Rico over the ownership of sales tax proceeds allotted for the former. Once this is done, she noted, Puerto Rico may pay some of the debt due this fiscal year, adding that work on restructuring all of Puerto Rico’s public sector debt is proceeding simultaneously on three tracks: in negotiations, in the private mediation process overseen by Barbara Houser, and in the Title III litigation process overseen by Judge Swain. She added that the PROMESA Board is working with PREPA and parts of Gov. Rosselló’s administration to adopt a new fiscal plan for PREPA, noting that lowering Puerto Rico’s electric rates would be a vital step for enhancing the economy—albeit Hurricane Maria appears to have very different implications.

With regard to the relationship between the PROMESA Board and the Governor, the Director was generally positive, adding she said she was satisfied with government’s progress in releasing financial information to the board, noting that the Rosselló administration is providing the PROMESA board a report comparing budgeted to actual spending department by department, as well as weekly reports on cash and liquidity, adding that Puerto Rico is moving towards better accounting practices.

Interestingly, the Director said the experience she gained from her service as the Minister of Finance for Ukraine from 2014–2016, taught her “implementation is everything.” Last month, she said, a lack of implementation plans had led the PROMESA Board to order Puerto Rico to institute furloughs, noting: “There are governments aplenty that can adopt plans, adopt laws, have full commitment and desire to change but implementation at an agency level in a bureaucracy is extremely difficult: that is the key to success,” adding that she believes the Rosselló administration has been “committed” to the fiscal plan: “If you take the case of right-sizing the government, I have no doubt there is a desire and intent and it is part of the public campaign of the governor to right-size the government. So I don’t think there’s not an alignment in the goal.” Nevertheless, as she put it—and as we have learned from Pound: “[T]he devil will be in the details of the implementation and enforcement of the fiscal plan, and that is the biggest lesson learned [from the Ukraine.]” to execute cuts in an agency, the agency can run out of money eight or nine months into the fiscal year, she said. “Then the agency usually turns to the central government for an additional allocation to continue operations…“There is a general fatigue among creditors [with Puerto Rico’s continuing problems] and I understand that because they have been dealing with these problems for years. But the problems that grew didn’t evolve overnight and didn’t evolve over one year and resolving them is also going to take time.”

It is unclear what level of fiscal planning will be sufficient today as Hurricane Maria, bringing sustained winds of 160 miles per hour (mph) appears relentlessly approaching—with the government insisting its the priority is to save lives, even as it continues to deal with the after effects of Hurricane Irma, which passed tens of miles above the north coast. The National Weather Service warned: “It is catastrophic in every way, winds, rain and storm surge. We are talking about an extremely dangerous event.” Along with winds of 160 mph and even higher gusts, Maria was predicted to bring 12 to 18 inches of rain, and up to 25 inches for isolated areas in Puerto Rico: the storm surge is estimated from 6 to 9 feet, with large breaking waves that could reach 25 feet. Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares urged citizens and families to seek save havens to prevent the loss of human lives: “We have not experienced an event of this magnitude in our modern history…An event like this has never happened before. Maria is predicted to be the worst atmospheric event in a century in Puerto Rico, and, if we do not take precautions, we will have loss of lives that we could have avoided.” The Governor noted that yesterday afternoon residents had already begun to move in five communities which are threatened due to their location in flood-prone areas: Juana Matos, in Cataño; Playita, in Salinas; Amelia, in Guaynabo; Islote, in Arecibo, and Palo Seco, in Toa Baja: by yesterday afternoon, there was clearance and authorization for opening 499 shelters, 49 more than for Hurricane Irma: the Gov. noted: “The main goal is to save lives. If you are in a flood area, your life is in danger. If you live in a wooden home, your life is in danger.” Already, from the previous Hurricane Irma 27 municipalities in Puerto Rico have already been declared disaster areas. Thus, even as Maria roars in, there are still many, many customers without power, homeless citizens, houses without walls, trees lying on power lines, and debris accumulated along the roads.

At the request of the Puerto Rican government, President Trump had already authorized a new emergency declaration before the arrival Maria: Puerto Rico FEMA Director Alejandro de la Campa indicated that he had requested more equipment from the US Department of Defense: “We are asking for more ships, and the aircraft carrier (available for the emergency) has moved to be in a safe area… And ships with helicopters that we will use in case of evacuation or search and rescue are still in the area.” Nevertheless, due to the fragility of the infrastructure of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), the Governor anticipates Puerto Rico will be without power after the passage of Maria: “No one in Puerto Rico should expect to have power on the days following María. The time it will take us to fix (the damage caused by the hurricane) remains to be seen.” PREPA Executive Director Ricardo Ramos noted that the total recovery of the system after the passage of Hurricane Hugo in 1989 took about six months. One especially cruel threat will be water: Elí Díaz, the Executive Director of the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority, noted: “If there is damage to large generators, there will be no power generation, therefore, our facilities will not have power to operate,” adding that there are approximately 1,300 generators which received preventive maintenance since the beginning of the hurricane season, but they are not enough for their 4,000 facilities, including pumping stations. By yesterday afternoon, they managed to prepare 110 tanker trucks, more than double those used during Irma, and are already managing imports from the port of Jacksonville in agreement with private companies. He added that since last Sunday, the levels of the Carraízo and La Plata dams have been gradually dropped to about three meters in order to prevent them from having to open the emergency flood gates.

For his part, last evening, President Trump tweeted his support: “Puerto Rico being hit hard by new monster Hurricane. Be careful, our hearts are with you-will be there to help!” The eye of the hurricane passed near or over St. Croix last night, prompting U.S. Virgin Islands Gov. Kenneth Mapp to insist that people remain alert. St. Croix was largely spared the widespread damage caused by Hurricane Irma on the chain’s St. Thomas and St. John islands just two weeks ago; however, this time, the island would experience five hours of hurricane force winds, Mapp warned: “For folks in their homes, I really recommend that you not be in any kind of sleepwear: Make sure you have your shoes on. Make sure you have a jacket around.”

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