Motor City Comeback

September 14, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we report Congressional agreement to avert a shutdown, and we report on the remarkable cash purchases of homes in the Motor City, marking mayhap the most dramatic mark yet of Detroit’s Phoenix-like recovery from the nation’s largest ever municipal bankruptcy.  

Keeping the Federal Government Open. The House and Senate yesterday reached agreement to avert a federal government shutdown by passing a large package of appropriations bills, as well as a continuing resolution which will, if signed by the President, fund the rest of the federal government through Pearl Harbor Day, December 7th. The package would keep the government funded past Oct. 1, the deadline for Congress to act. House Appropriations Committee Chair Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) reported that the respective House and Senate bodies had completed work on the Defense and Labor, Health and Human Services and Education annual spending bills—bills which in this case represent the bulk of federal discretionary spending: combined, they total $786 billion, nearly two-thirds of all discretionary appropriations. The anticipation is that by including the continuing resolution (CR) in the package, it will make it less likely the President will make good on threats to shut down the federal government over border wall funding, albeit, last week, the President stated: “If it happens, it happens. If it’s about border security, I’m willing to do anything.”  

Motor City Comeback. There is stunning fiscal reversal of fortune in Detroit, where, after, decades ago, families fled the city, and suburban families wanted no part of moving in from the suburbs—contributing to what triggered the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, suddenly buyers appear to be home shopping—and shopping to purchase homes in Detroit with cash. It seems that affordable housing process, higher income buyers, and growing investor interest—with the investors smelling signal profits from flipping—have made cash deals more common. For the city, a relatively unique one in that it relies on income taxes more than most cities, the impact on assessed property taxes will be icing on the fiscal cake. In the first half of this calendar year, nearly 90% of all single-family and condo purchases were made with cash—more than triple the national average. One cause is that the median price in the first part of this year was only $32,428—which, albeit 20% higher than in the first half of this year: and it seems to be a heck of a bargain: ATTOM Data reports the national median price is $234,000.

So many purchasers are buying for investment purposes: renovating and flipping distressed homes, some as—some as large as 4,200 square feet and with architectural significance—in Detroit’s downtown area and historic neighborhoods. But in older neighborhoods near the regional Federal Reserve offices and the Detroit Institute of Art, home buyers looking to buy those renovated homes—often affluent young professionals or empty-nesters—may also face challenges in getting a mortgage, because those properties are difficult to appraise. Lenders have a challenge in determining the value of a newly renovated home in a neighborhood otherwise filled with distressed properties, because there are few comparable sales to benchmark against. That also makes payments in cash a likely option.

In effect, for the Motor City, this could be a phoenix moment of its fiscal and physical recovery: Quicken Loans is working with Home Depot and the Detroit Land Bank Authority to return Detroit’s vast stock of vacant, abandoned, and foreclosed property to productive use. Under the city’s “Rehabbed and Ready” program, the Authority selects properties in its inventory for Home Depot to rehab; Quicken preapproves interested buyers for mortgage financing; and the homes are purchased—all part of an effort to stabilize the market and create comparable sales to help future buyers.

Quicken Loans Community Fund Vice President of strategic investments, Laura Grannemann, noted: “Tax foreclosure is a force that has generated blight, increased speculation, and driven property values down…But by creating strategically placed sales, it has a ripple effect across the community and allows other individuals to refinance their home and get some equity out or to sell that home and buy a new one.”

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The End of State Usurpation of Local Elected Authority? Uneasy shelter from the Fiscal and Physical Storms?

August 31, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the end of the State of Michigan to usurp local authority via the appointment of an Emergency Manager, the safety of school drinking water has become an issue in Detroit—especially after Flint, and we consider the extraordinary revisions in the projected Hurricane Maria death toll in Puerto Rica—and the White House response.

Protecting a City’s Children. Detroit Public School Superintendent Nikolai P. Vitti has directed turning off drinking water across the district’s 106 schools  in the wake of after discovering higher-than-acceptable levels of copper and lead in some facilities, with Superintendent Vitti noting his decision came out of caution “until a deeper and broader analysis can be conducted to determine the long-term solutions for all schools.” he said in a statement. Test results found elevated levels of lead or copper in 16 out of 24 schools which were recently tested. Supt. Vitti stated: “Although we have no evidence that there are elevated levels of copper or lead in our other schools where we are awaiting test results, out of an abundance of caution and concern for the safety of our students and employees.” His actions, no doubt affected by fiscal and water contamination in Flint, came even as Detroit officials and the Great Lakes Water Authority sought to assure residents that water provided by the authority is safe to drink: they pointed to the city’s aging infrastructure as the problem.  Superintendent Vitti said he will be creating a task force to determine the cause of the elevated levels and solutions, noting he had initiated water testing of all 106 school buildings last spring to ensure the safety of students and employees. Water at 18 schools had been previously shut off. He added: “This was not required by federal, state, or city law or mandate: This testing, unlike previous testing, evaluated all water sources from sinks to drinking fountains.” The District does not plan to test students: a spokesperson for the school system noted: “Dr. Vitti said…he has no evidence at all that children have been impacted from a health standpoint.”

Fiscal & Physical Challenges: Earlier this summer, Supt. Vitti released details from a facilities review which had determined the school district would need to spend $500 million now to fix the deteriorating conditions of its schools—an effort for the system projected to cost as much as $1.4 billion if there is a failure to act swiftly, with the Administrator pointing to the failure by former state-appointed emergency managers to make the right investments in facilities while the system was preempted of authority and state-appointed emergency managers from 2009 to 2016 failed to make the right investments, sending what Dr. Vitti described as “the message to students, parents and employees that we really don’t care about public education in Detroit, that we allow for second-class citizenry in Detroit.” The remarks raised anew questions with regard to Michigan’s governance by means of gubernatorially chosen Emergency Managers.  

Superindent Vitti said he had notified Mayor Mike Duggan of his decision to shut off the drinking water, and a spokesperson, John Roach, noted: Mayor is “fully supportive” of the approach Supt. Vitti has taken, adding: “We will be supporting Dr. Vitti in an advisory capacity through the health department and the DWSD (Detroit Water and Sewerage Department) has offered to partner with the district on any follow-up testing that needs to be done.” At the same time, the Great Lakes Water Authority issued a statement in an effort to assure “residents and customers of GLWA’s regional system that they are not affected by the lead and copper issues,” noting: “Aging school infrastructure (i.e. plumbing) is the reason for the precautionary measure of providing bottled water,” adding water treated by the authority meets and surpasses all federal and state regulations, albeit adding: “A task force will be formed consisting of engineering and water quality experts” to will help the district “understand the cause and identify solutions.” (Initial results this past week showed elevated levels of copper, lead or both at one or more water sources in 16 of 24 school buildings, according to the statement. Water bottles will be provided at the schools until water coolers arrive. The district also found water-quality issues in some schools in 2016.)

The incident in Detroit raises a host of fiscal and governance issues—especially in the wake of the tragedy in upstate Flint—with, in both cases, the state’s history of appointing Emergency Managers to preempt the authority of local elected leaders. In the case of DPS, Dr. Vitti has contacted the Mayor, the Governor, and a task force of engineers and water experts to understand the cause and possible solutions; Superintendent Nikolai P. Vitti opted to close the water taps out of caution “until a deeper and broader analysis can be conducted to determine the long-term solutions for all schools,” with the decision coming just days before the school district’s 106 schools are scheduled to open next Tuesday. (Water bottles will be provided at the schools until water coolers arrive.) Water officials have blamed aging infrastructure as the cause of the public safety threat. Now Dr. Vitti has asked Mike Duggan and Gov. Rick Snyder to convene a task force of engineers and water experts to determine the cause of the elevated lead and copper levels, and to propose solutions. 

Importantly, it seems the public safety risk is limited to Detroit’s public schools: water officials released a statement Wednesday assuring residents and customers of the Great Lakes Water Authority and the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department that they are not affected by the lead and copper issues at the school district, noting: “Aging school infrastructure (i.e. plumbing) is the reason for the precautionary measure of providing bottled water…The water at GLWA’s treatment plants is tested hourly, and DWSD has no lead service lines connected to any DPSCD building. The drinking water is of unquestionable quality.”

Nevertheless, the threat to public safety—combined with the heartbreaking, long-term threats to Flint’s children from that city’s public water contamination—could add further challenges to Detroit’s recovery from the nation’s largest-ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy: a critical part of the city’s plan of debt adjustment was to address its vast amassment of abandoned houses by enticing young families with children to move from the suburbs back into the city—an effort which had to rely on a perception of the quality and safety of its public schools. Now, for a system itself recovering from bankruptcy, DPS faces a bill of at least $500 million to repair its buildings: approximately 25% of the system’s school buildings are in unsatisfactory condition and another 20%are in poor condition, according to the report. The district noted nearly $223 million of high-priority repairs involving elevators and lifts, energy supply, heating and cooling systems, sprinklers, standpipes, electrical service and distribution, lighting, wiring, communications, security system, local area networking, public address and intercoms, emergency lights and plumbing fixtures.

Mayor Duggan’s office and the Detroit Health Department Wednesday issued a joint statement supporting “the approach Dr. Vitti has taken to test all water sources within DPS schools and to provide bottled water until the district can implement a plan to ensure that all water is safe for use,” noting: “We will be supporting Dr. Vitti in an advisory capacity through the health department and the DWSD has offered to partner with the district on any follow-up testing that needs to be done. We also will be reaching out to our charter operators in the coming days to work with them on a possible similar testing strategy to the voluntary one Dr. Vitti has implemented.”

Restoring Municipal Authority. Mayhap it is ironic that Michigan’s relatively rare authority for the Governor to appoint an emergency manager to preempt local elected authority reflects the uneven results of the program—a program I well remember from meeting with Kevyn Orr, whom Gov. Rick Snyder had appointed as Emergency Manager  (EM) to preempt all governing authority of Detroit’s Mayor and Council, at the Governor’s office in Detroit on the first day the city entered the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history—and after the grievous failure of a previous gubernatorially-appointed Emergency Manager to help the Motor City. The very concept of state authority to appoint a quasi dictator and to preempt any authority of local leaders elected by the citizens, after all, feels un-American.

Yet, from that very first moment, Mr. Orr had acted to ensure there was no disruption in 9-1-1 responses—and that every traffic and street light worked. Unlike the experience under an Emergency Manager in Flint, Mr. Orr was intently focused on getting Detroit back on its fiscal and physical feet—and restoring elected leadership to today’s grieving city.

Now, as of this week, Michigan no longer has any local government under a state appointed emergency manager—and observers are under the impression the state program to preempt local authority may be quietly laid to rest. It has, after all, been a program of preemption of local democracy with untoward results: while it proved invaluable in Detroit, it has proven fiscally and physically grievous in Flint, where it has been blamed for contributing to Flint’s water contamination crisis. Indeed, two of Flint’s former EMs have been criminally charged in connection with the crisis. Their failures—at a cost of human lives, appears to have put the future of state pre-emption of local governing authority—may well make state officials leery of stepping in to usurp control a local government, even as some municipal market participants and others see state oversight programs as a positive credit feature. The last municipality in Michigan to be put under a state-imposed emergency manager was Lincoln Park—an imposition which ended three years ago. Michigan Treasury spokesperson Ron Leix noted: “Each situation that led to the financial emergency is unique, so I can’t give a broad-brush assessment about how the law will be used in the future…For the first time in 18 years, no Michigan municipality or school district is under state financial oversight through an emergency manager. This is really about the hard work our local units of government have achieved to identify problems and bring together the resources needed to problem-solve challenging financial conditions.”

In Michigan, the emergency manager program was authorized twenty-eight years ago, granting the governor authority to appoint a manager with extensive powers over a troubled municipality or school district. By 2012, Michigan voters repealed the emergency manager program in a referendum; notwithstanding, one month later Gov. Snyder and legislators re-adopted a similar intervention program—under which local governments could opt among three new options in addition to the appointment of an emergency manager who reports directly to the Governor: chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, mediation, or a consent agreement between the state and the city to permit local elected officials to balance their budget on their own. (In Michigan, municipalities which exit emergency management remain under the oversight of a receivership transition advisory board while executive powers are slowly restored to elected mayors and city councils.)

The state intervention/takeover program had mixed success, according to Michigan State University economist Eric Scorsone, who noted: “In some cases it’s worked well, like Allen Park where the situation was pretty clear-cut and the solution was pretty clear as to what needed to be done.” (Allen Park regained full local control of its operations and finances in February of 2017 after nearly four years of state oversight. Last June, S&P Global Ratings upgraded the city to investment-grade BBB-plus from junk-level BB, crediting strong budgetary performance and financial flexibility more than 12 months after exiting state oversight. But the appointment, in Flint, of emergency managers demonstrated the obverse: the small city had four emergency managers: Ed Kurtz, Mike Brown, Darnell Earley, and Gerald Ambrose—where the latter two today are confronted by charges of criminal wrongdoing stemming from the lead contamination crisis and ensuing Legionnaire’s disease outbreak that claimed 12 lives. It was the gubernatorially appointed Mr. Earley who oversaw the decision to change Flint’s water source to the Flint River in April 2014 as the city awaited completion of a new pipeline—a decision with fatal human and fiscal consequences. Indeed, two years ago, Gov. Snyder named a task force to investigate the Flint crisis and review the Emergency Manager law—a review which recommended the Governor consider alternatives to the current approach that would engage local elected officials. (No action has been taken to change the law.)

Because only a minority of states have authorized chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, there is no uniform state role with regard to city or county severe fiscal distress and bankruptcy. Jane Ridley, senior director in the U.S. public finance government group at S&P Global Ratings and sector lead for local governments, has noted that state oversight is considered as part of the rating agency’s local GO criteria: “We do think that having a state that has oversight, especially if it’s a proven mechanism, can be very helpful for struggling entities…If they ended oversight entirely it would likely have an impact on the institutional framework scores and their sub scores.” A Moody’s analyst, Andrew Van Dyck Dobos, noted: “While an EM is in most cases is a last option, the ability for it to implement some policies and procedures is going to be typically viewed, at least at the onset, as a credit positive.”

Ending Shelter from the Storm. U.S. District Judge Timothy Hillman yesterday ruled that temporary housing given to hundreds of Puerto Ricans displaced by Hurricane Maria will end next month, meaning Puerto Ricans will be forced to check out of temporary housing provided by Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as part of the agency’s Transitional Sheltering Assistance (TSA) program. Judge Hillman, in his decision, wrote: I strongly recommend the parties get together to find temporary housing, or other assistance to the Plaintiffs and other members of the class prior to that date,” with his decision coming the same week Puerto Rico updated its official death toll from Maria to 2,975, a vast increase from the original count of 64. Judge Hillman’s decision also comes about two months after a national civil-rights group filed a lawsuit which had sought a restraining order to block FEMA from ending the program. The group, LatinoJustice, argued in the suit that it would lead to families’ evictions. It also came as, two days ago, President Trump met with reporters to respond to questions with regard to the mounting death toll—a session in which the President told the reporters: “I think we did a fantastic job in Puerto Rico.” Some 1,744 Puerto Rican adults and children were in the FEMA program when the lawsuit was filed. U.S. District Judge Leo T. Sorokin temporarily extended the program to the end of last July, and subsequently extended it until today—and then, once more, to September 14th.

Now, the White House is responding to a new estimate which increases the number by about 33% more to 2,975 after an independent study. White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders claimed in a statement that the back-to-back hurricanes which hit last year prompted “the largest domestic disaster response mission in history.” She added that President Donald Trump “remains proud of all of the work the Federal family undertook to help our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico.” She also says the federal government “will continue to be supportive” of Gov. Ricardo Rossello’s accountability efforts and says “the American people, including those grieving the loss of a loved one, deserve no less.” The new estimate of 2,975 dead in the six months after Maria devastated the island in September 2017 was made by researchers with the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University. It was released Tuesday.

The Complex Challenges of Implementing a Municipal Bankruptcy Plan of Debt Adjustment

July 31, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider post-chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy challenges for the City of Detroit, before turning to learn about good gnus from Puerto Rico.

The Steep Route of Chapter 9 Debt Adjustment. Direct Construction Services, minority-owned firm, which has participated in Detroit’s federally funded demolition program, is suing Mayor Mike Duggan, the city’s land bank, and Detroit’s building authority as well as high-ranking officials from each division—alleging racial discrimination and retaliation. The suit asks the court to award damages and declare the actions of the city, its land bank and building authority as “discriminatory and illegal.” The suit alleges that some contractors had been asked to change bidding and cost figures “to reflect compliance” under the federal demolition Hardest Hit Fund guidelines. Filed in federal court, it charges that Service’s managing member, Timothy Drakeford, was treated unfairly based on his race and that officials in the program conspired to have him suspended for refusing to falsify documents and for cooperating with federal authorities. Mr. Drakeford, who is barred from bidding on federally funded demolition work, is also suing for breach of contract and discrimination against black contractors. The suit charges that some contractors, including Mr. Drakeford, had been asked to change bidding and cost numbers “to reflect compliance” under the federal Hardest Hit Fund guidelines; indeed, the suit alleges it was subsequently suspended—not because of the quality of its work, but rather “because of the refusal to change numbers in bid packages.” The suit adds: “This case arises because of defendants’ breach of contract, concert of action, due process violations, and discrimination on the grounds of race in its implementation of the Hardest Hit Homeowner demolition program, including failure to timely pay black contractors in comparison to their white counterparts, improper and disparate discipline and retaliation.”

This issues here are not new—and have previously been the focus of FBI, state, and city investigations, especially over bidding practices and rising costs. As we have previously noted, the city’s plan of debt adjustment efforts to raze abandoned homes was a particular focus—a program through which federal assistance was misappropriated while the city worked to demolish homes after its bankruptcy—in that case involving federal funds allocated via the Michigan State Housing Development Authority. The suit contends that Direct Construction was awarded three contracts for demolition work by the land bank, and asserts that payments were delayed and harder to obtain from the land bank than for “larger white companies,” such as Adamo and Homrich, two firms awarded the largest percentage of the work to date. The suit asserts Direct Construction was under contract for several demolition packages, but still has not been paid, and references in excess of $143,000 in unpaid invoices, noting: This “repetitive process has gone on for over a year now, with no success,” contending that it had been performing work on two contracts which it had been awarded for a total of 48 homes—before, on December 19, 2016, being hit with an “immediate stop work order” from the land bank, without explanation. A year ago in February, Direct received a letter regarding an Office of Inspector General report, which suggested that photographs submitted for repayment of sidewalk work had been falsified and that the company would not be compensated—a letter followed up the next month by a notice of suspension. (Direct was among a few businesses suspended last year on claims of manipulating sidewalk repair photographs to obtain payment.)

Detroit Corporation Counsel Lawrence Garcia yesterday noted: “The Office of Inspector General found that not only did Mr. Drakeford personally manipulate a photo of a demolition site to conceal tires that had not been removed from the lot, but also gave information that was not truthful to the OIG’s investigators. For the penalties issued with respect to these matters, the Detroit Land Bank, the DBA and the city followed the recommendations of the independently appointed inspector general…These facts more than justify the city’s actions.” Indeed, that office, at the request of the land bank, had initiated investigations in December of 2016 into allegations that sidewalk repair photographs were being doctored. (The land bank mandates that its contractors to take “before and after” photographs of sidewalks, drive approaches, neighboring residences, and surrounding areas to document conditions.) The Office, the following February, flagged Direct Construction over five of its submitted photographs, concluding the photos had been modified to disguise incomplete work; it recommended the company be barred from doing work in the city’s demolition program until at least 2020. (The Michigan State Housing Development Authority began placing greater emphasis on sidewalk replacement photographs in October of 2016, when a new set of practices went into place—at a point in time when federally funded demolition had been suspended for two months after a review by the Michigan Homeowner Assistance Nonprofit Housing Corp.).

Since Mayor Duggan’s election in 2013, the city has razed nearly 13,000 homes—a task that has fiscal and physical consequences—reducing assessed property values and property taxes, but also leaving medical scars: over that time, the percentage of children 6 and younger with elevated lead levels rose from 6.9% in 2012 to 8.7% in 2016, according to state records. Early last year, the land bank repaid $1.37 million to address improper expenses identified by auditors for the state. The land bank last summer reached a settlement with state housing officials to pay $5 million to resolve a dispute over invoices the state determined to be improperly submitted. Detroit’s administration has claimed the city has been transparent with its demolition program and cooperated fully with all inquiries.

Good Gnus. In Puerto Rico, Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares and the Labor Secretary Carlos Saavedra are celebrating a turnaround in employment in the U.S. territory: between May and June, some 11,000 people joined the island’s labor market, dropping Puerto Rico’s unemployment rate to its lowest level in half a century. Gov. Rosselló Nevares yesterday reported the unemployment rate to be 9.3%, the lowest rate in the last 50 years, noting: “On this occasion, unemployment drops and the participation rate increases are all numbers going in the right direction.” Sec. Saavedra explained the increase between May and June reflects summer employment programs, but at a level considerably better than in previous years, especially in the commercial and self-employment sectors—and, as he noted: “We have seen a substantial increase in self-employment,” apparently reflecting many involved with repairs and reconstruction for damage caused by Hurricane María, especially electricians, and builders. Economist Juan Lara explained that jurisdictions which have suffered deep economic declines as a result of a natural disaster experience a period of rebound that leads to growth, but cautioned: “[T]his can hardly be maintained in the long-term without a change in the economic model.” He estimated that in the next five or six years, federal investments could keep the economy in positive territory, noting: “The important thing is to remember that these funds do not last forever and that the economy needs sustained redevelopment.”

For his part, Gov. Rosselló stressed that the current economic improvement is occurring without the federal government having released a penny of the more than $1.8 billion in promised HUD assistance. Nevertheless, there can be little question but that the more than $3 billion in insurance claims already paid, according to according to Iraelia Pernas, the Executive Director of the Puerto Rico Insurance Companies Association have had a positive, if one-time, impact. Similarly, the island is anticipating, in August, a large CDBG grant.

Gov. Rosselló Nevares attributed the jobs upturn, interestingly, to emigration: many who were unemployed left Puerto Rico for the mainland, even as he reported the total number of citizens employed has increased, as well as the labor participation rate (not seasonally adjusted), which rose from 40.5% in May to 41.1% last month. percent in June. In the first months following Hurricane María, nearly 200,000 people left Puerto Rico. Many, however, have returned.

Informacion Mejor? PROMESA Oversight Board Executive Director Natalie Jaresko has reported the Board “welcomes the publication” of fiscal information mandated by the Board, after, on July 10th, the Board had sent a letter to FAFAA Executive Director Gerardo Portela Franco, complaining of a failure to submit documents, including documents comparing the General Fund budget to actual spending; PayGo balances; and public employee payroll, headcount, and attendance. The board said that, according to the approved quasi-plan of debt adjustment, the first two documents had been due on May 31st, and the third on June 30th. FAFAA released the PayGo report on July 17, and the other two reports last Friday.  Ms. Jaresko wrote: “The Oversight Board welcomes the publication of the General Fund to Actual Report, the Human Resources Report and the Payroll Report: Full monthly public reporting is essential to increase transparency of government finances, increase accountability, and monitor compliance and progress as per the fiscal plan and budget objectives in order to eliminate Puerto Rico’s structural deficits…The Oversight Board is committed to continuing this important work of monitoring full compliance by the government with reporting requirements, in order to achieve PROMESA’s mandate of restoring fiscal responsibility and market access to Puerto Rico.”

Rebuilding the Motor City, and Reconsidering Colonialism in Puerto Rico

July 27, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider post-chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy challenges in Detroit, before turning to legislative and legal challenges to Puerto Rico.

A Foreclosed Motor City Future? In Detroit, time is running out for the owners of foreclosed properties under a new program which arose out of a legal settlement two years ago intended to protect the rights of low-income owner-occupants of foreclosed homes to purchase back their properties back for $1,000—a plan which provided that occupied homes on tap for this coming fall’s tax auction will instead be purchased by the City of Detroit and sold to owner-occupants who can prove they qualify for the city’s poverty tax exemption or have in the past—an exemption which would reduce or eliminate property tax liabilities for those who qualify. The plan is an indication of one of the most challenging aspects of fashioning a plan of debt adjustment for recovering from the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history: how does one enhance the property tax base by attracting higher income families to move back into the city without jeopardizing thousands upon thousands of the city’s poorest families?

To date, with a looming deadline in a month, the United Community Housing Coalition has received about 140 applications—the foundation received funds from the City and foundations to purchase the homes—with the assistance available to prospective homeowners who can prove they could have qualified for the tax exemption between 2014 and 2017, but did not receive one—and that they agree to sign a sworn statement they would have qualified in the past. The effort matters: Wayne County Treasurer Eric Sabree estimates as many as 700 owner-occupied homes in Detroit are at risk of being sold at the fall tax foreclosure auction.

Quien Es Encargado? (Who is in charge?) U.S. District Court Judge Laura Taylor Swain Wednesday stated she would issue an opinion soon with regard to the hard federalism question emerging from the by Puerto Rico versus the PROMESA Oversight Board over their authority, noting at the end of the Title II bankruptcy hearing: “I realize the urgency of the situation,” at the end of a Title III bankruptcy hearing in San Juan, referring to two adversary proceedings against the Board–one brought by Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, and the other by the Presidents of the Puerto Rico Senate and House of Representatives—while PROMESA Board attorney Martin Bienenstock described the Governor’s effort to challenge the Board’s efforts to preempt the legislative power and authority of the U.S. Territory’s elected Governor and Legislature as “ineffectual.” Mr. Peter Friedman, representing the Governor and Puerto Rico’s Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority (FAFAA), responded that the Governor was just trying to raise a narrow set of issues: they want the federal court to reject the notion that they have no meaningful role in governing.  But the unelected Mr. Bienenstock said the Governor’s challenge is based on five discrete issues intertwined with the PROMESA Board’s ability to revive the economy, regain capital markets access, and do other things mandated by the PROMESA law, as he focused especially on two issues: what he characterized as the Board’s power over “reprogramming” the use of unused Puerto Rico government funds, arguing before Judge Swain that if the Governor were permitted to appropriate and authorize funding to carry out his responsibilities, then the PROMESA Board would have lost control over the budget, fiscal plan, and debt restructuring.

In response to this extraordinary claim, Judge Swain said that while she recognized the Board has some authority, she questioned whether it applies to funding lines that had been authorized before PROMESA’s passage, describing the issue as a “conundrum,” even as Mr. Bienenstock testified that the Governor wants to make it legal to “knowingly and willingly” spend more than the PROMESA Board budget authorizes. This raised an issue which goes to the heart of governance in a democracy: should those elected by the citizens of a jurisdiction have the final say as opposed to those who neither reside in nor come from such a jurisdiction have the final governing authority?

Crossing Swords. Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló, stated he would not testify before the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee unless Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) said he was sorry for a Tweet tweeted from the Committee’s account last week: “Call your office, @ricardorossello,” accompanied an invitation to the hearing, where invited witnesses were to be grilled on a management crisis at PREPA. Gov. Rosselló noted the tweet falsely suggested that he was hard to reach. Perhaps more importantly, for the Governor, the Chairman’s comments appeared to reflect a disrespect which would not be shown to the Governor of any State, emphasizing the perception that the federal government has a colonialist attitude toward the Commonwealth, where residents are U.S. citizens, but are barred from having a vote in the House and Senate. Chairman Bishop did not apologize for the demeaning tweet, asserting that its removal meant no apology was required—a position hard to imagine he would make to Utah Governor Gary Herbert.

Converting Swords to Plowshares? With Congress adjourning today for six weeks, Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Jenifer Gonzalez hopes her pro-democracy project can be discussed by Chairman Bishop’s Committee in September: her legislation, HR 6246, would enable the admission of the territory of Puerto Rico into the Union as a State. Chair Bishop, according to the Commissioner, “has a plan” to move the prospects for statehood forward in the short 19-day legislative window before this Congress adjourns in November. Rep. Gonzalez affirmed that her legislative goal is to incorporate Puerto Rico as a territory, which would be considered as a promise of statehood, and create a Congress Working Group, so that, within a period of just over a year, there would be a report on changes to laws that would have to be put in place to admit the island as a state in January of 2021.

Lighting up PREPA? Puerto Rico’s Governor Ricardo Rosselló was a no-show at a Congressional hearing Wednesday afternoon on efforts to wrench control of the bankrupt Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority from Puerto Rico’s government—a hearing, “Management Crisis at the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority and Implications for Recovery,” with regard to which Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) had written: “Despite your recognition of the politicization that has plagued PREPA and your commitment towards allowing for independence, the recent departure of PREPA’s CEO after only four months of service and the resignation of the majority of PREPA’s governing board are the most recent signs of the utility’s continued dysfunction and a sign that ‘political forces…continue to control PREPA.’” The Governor, late Tuesday had announced he would not be able to participate in the hearing—a hearing at which there was to be a focus on corruption within the utility and the possibility of privatization—but at which the Committee was scheduled to receive testimony from the invaluable chapter 9 expert Jim Spiotto, as well as DOE Assistant Secretary Bruce Walker.  In its most recent audit, Ernst & Young had noted there substantial  doubt whether PREPA could continue as a going concern, since it does not have sufficient funds to fully repay its obligations as they come due and is restructuring its long-term debt. (PREPA utility filed for bankruptcy one year ago in the face of accruing $9 billion in debt, under PROMESA’s provisions in Title III.

Restoring Power–and Recovering Governing Authority

July 10, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the challenges of restoration of electric power (as opposed to political power) in Puerto Rico, and then try to explore the risks of powers of appointments of emergency managers by a state—here as the City of Flint, Michigan is still seeking to fiscally and physically recover from the human and fiscal devastation caused by the State of Michigan.

Adios. Walter Higgins, the CEO Puerto Rico’s bankrupt PREPA Electric power authority resigned yesterday, just months after he was chosen to oversee its privatization, an appointment made in an effort to fully restore power some ten months after the human, fiscal, and physical devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria. Now his resignation adds to PREPA’s uphill climb to not only fully restore power, but also to address its $9 billion in debt. Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said in a statement that Mr. Higgins had resigned for personal reasons, while Mr. Higgins, in his resignation letter, wrote that the compensation details outlined in his contract could not be fulfilled—with his written statement coming just one month after the Commonwealth’s Justice Secretary said it would be illegal for him to receive bonuses. According to a PREPA spokesperson, Mr. Higgins will remain as a member of the PREPA Board. Nevertheless, his appointment was stormy itself, after, last month, Puerto Rican officials had questioned how and why he had been awarded a $315,000 contract without authorization from certain government agencies—in response to which PREPA’s Board advised the government as a consultant, rather than filling the vacancy for an executive sub-director of administration and finance. Unsurprisingly, his departure will not be mourned by many Puerto Ricans in view of his generous compensation package of $450,000 annual salary compared to the average income for Puerto Ricans of $19,518.  

Nevertheless, PREPA officials, announced that current Board member Rafael Diaz Granados will become the new CEO—with nearly double the compensation: he will assume the position on Sunday and receive $750,000 a year—a level which Puerto Rico Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz described as the “kind of insult that to Puerto Ricans is unacceptable,” as the government and PROMESA Oversight Board continue to struggle to address and restructure Puerto Rico’s $70 billion in public debt. Nevertheless, as PREPA crews continue restoring power to the last 1,000 or so customers who have been without power since Maria hit nearly a year ago and destroyed up to 75% of transmission lines across the territory, the federal government is still operating 175 generators across the island.

Indeed, U.S. House Natural Resources Committee Chair Rob Bishop (R-Utah) has scheduled a hearing for July 25th to assess and inquire about the status of the Electric Power Authority and to examine the functioning and plans for the privatization of PREPA assets, an issue which the territory’s non-voting Congressional Representative Jenniffer Gonzalez noted “has been under the Committee’s jurisdiction for the past two years.” Rep. Gonzalez added: “I’m surprised with the salary: I did not expect that amount. I do not know the elements which affected Mr. Higgin’s resignation, and I believe that these changes affect the process of recovery on the island.”

Meanwhile, Chairman Bishop had announced a second potential hearing—this one to assess the operation of the PROMESA statute and how the PROMESA Oversight Board is working, after, last week, postponing an official trip with a dozen Members of Congress to assess the physical and fiscal recovery on the island, after meeting, early last month in San Juan with the now former PREPA Director Higgins, and after, in the spring, Chair Bishop, Chair Doug LaMalfa (R-Ca.), of the Subcommittee on Island Affairs, and Chairman Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) had announced a probe into “multiple allegations of corruption and serious allegations of maladministration” during the restoration of the electric service after the storm.

Out Like Flint? Meanwhile, in a criminal and fiscal case arising out of Michigan’s Flint water crisis in the wake of fatal decisions by a gubernatorially appointed Emergency Manager, closing arguments in the involuntary manslaughter case against state Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon began yesterday before Genesee District Court Judge David Goggins, who will determine whether Director Lyon will go on trial in the Flint water crisis prosecution on charges of involuntary manslaughter and misconduct in office connected to the 2014-2015 Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in the Flint region which killed at least 12 people and sickened another 79 people. A misdemeanor charge of “willful neglect” to protect the health of Genesee County residents was added last week. Director Lyon is receiving assistance in his defense from John Bursch, a former Michigan Solicitor General, who was hired for that position by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette—who has brought criminal charges related to the Flint water crisis against Director Lyon and 14 other current and former city and state government employees. Flint still faces financial questions after years of emergency management.

The criminal trial comes as questions still remain with regard to Flint’s long-term financial health, despite six years of state oversight that overhauled the city’s finances, after a 2011 state-ordered preliminary review showed problems with Flint’s finances and ultimately recommended an emergency manager for the city. Last April, State Treasurer Nick Khouri repealed all remaining Emergency Manager orders, with state officials claiming the city’s financial emergency has been addressed to a point where receivership was no longer needed, and, as the Treasurer wrote to Mayor Karen Weaver: “Moreover, it appears that financial conditions have been corrected in a sustainable fashion,” and Flint CFO Hughey Newsome said that while emergency managers had helped Flint get its financial house in order; nevertheless, Flint’s fiscal and physical future remains uncertain: “The after-effects of the water crisis, including the dark cloud of the financials, will be here for some time to come: We’re not out of the woods yet, but I don’t think emergency management can help us moving forward.” In the city’s case, the fateful water crisis with its devastating human and fiscal impacts, hit the city as it was still working to recover from massive job and population losses following years of disinvestment by General Motors. CFO Newsome said the crisis affected the city’s economic development efforts and may have left potential businesses wanting to come to Flint wary because of the water.

Flint’s spending became more in line with its revenues, changes were made to its budgeting procedures, and retiree healthcare costs and pension liabilities were reduced while under emergency management. Nevertheless, past financial overseers have warned the city about what would happen if Flint allows its fiscal responsibilities to slip. Three years ago, former Emergency Manager Jerry Ambrose, in a letter to Gov. Snyder, wrote: “If, however, the new policies, practices and organizational changes are ignored in favor of returning to the historic ways of doing business, it is not likely the city will succeed over the long term: The focus of city leaders will then likely once again return to confronting financial insolvency.”

Today, there are still signs of potential fiscal distress, notwithstanding  the city’s recovery; indeed, Mayor Weaver’s FY2019 budget plans for a more than $276,000 general fund surplus—even as the municipal budget is projected to grow to more than $8 million by FY2023, with that growth attributed by CFO Newsome to ongoing legacy costs and a lack of revenue—or, as he put it: “My last two predecessors have really delivered realistic budgets: I definitely don’t see this administration being irresponsible in that regard, and I don’t see this Council rubberstamping such a budget either.”

And, today, questions about criminal and fiscal accountability are issues for the state’s third branch of government: the judiciary, in District Court Judge William Crawford’s courtroom, where the issues with regard to criminal charges relating to the governmental actions of defendants charged for their actions during the Flint Water Crisis include former Emergency Manager Darnell Early and former City of Flint Public Works Director Howard Croft, and former state-appointed Flint Emergency Manager Jerry Ambrose, who, prosecutors  allege, knew the Flint water treatment plant was not ready to produce clean and safe water, but did nothing to stop it. The trial involves multiple charges, including willful neglect of duty and misconduct in office. (Mr.  Ambrose was the state appointed Emergency Manager from January until April of 2015; he also held the title of Finance Director under former state appointed emergency managers Mike Brown and Darnell Early. To date, four others have entered into a plea agreement in their cases.)

Bequeathing a Legacy of healthcare and retirees benefit costs: When Mr. Ambrose left in 2015 and turned things over the to the Receivership Transition Advisory Board, he stated that Flint’s other OPEB costs had been reduced from $850 million to $240 million, adding that a new hybrid pension plan put in place by state appointed emergency managers had reduced Flint’s long-term liability; however, he warned, on-going legacy costs are still one of the most pressing issues for Flint’s fiscal future: “Remember, the reality we’re facing: we have a $561 million liability to (Municipal Employees’ Retirement System), and the fund is only at $220 million; we also have an obligation to our 1,800 retirees to make sure that we’re paying our MERS obligation.” (A three percent raise for Flint police officers approved earlier this year added to those liabilities, with those increases attributable to two different contracts, which were imposed on officers by former state-appointed Emergency Managers Michael Brown and Darnell Earley in 2012 and 2014, respectively.)

The RTAB asked CFO Huey Newsome in January how the city would pay the additional $264,000 annually in wages and benefits along with a projected $3.4 million in additional retirement costs over the life of the contract—a question he was unable to specify an answer to at the time: “To tell you exactly where those‒where those dollars will come from right at this point in time, I can’t say…I think the ‘so what’ of this is that, you know, the incremental impact from this pay raise is not going to be that large when you think about the three and a half million. The city still needs to figure out where that three and a half million is coming from.” Moreover, he added, because police negotiated the raise, it also could be an issue with other unions wanting a similar increase during their future negotiations, adding that the city is making increased payments to MERS to avoid balloon payments in the future. For example, Mr. Newsome said, Flint will pay an additional $21.5 million this year, adding that all the city’s funds currently have a positive balance. However, Flint’s budget projections show the water fund will have a $2.1 million deficit in FY2018-19, a deficit projected to increase to $3.3 million by FY2022-23; Flint’s fiscal projections eventually put the water fund balance in the red by 2022-23; however, CFO Newsome warned: “The water fund is probably the most tepid one, because it is expected to be below the reserve balance by the end of the year,” noting the city can only account for 60% of the water that goes through its system, adding that the city has an 80% collection rate on its water bills, which is about $28 million this fiscal year, telling the Mayor and Council: “One of our top priorities is better metering.”

The city’s most-recent budget for 2018-19 calls for a combined revenue increase of $1.09 million more than previous budget projections because of increased assessed property values, more income taxes coming in, and additional state revenue sharing. Nevertheless, one Board member, notwithstanding projections for increased revenue, is apprehensive that Flint’s “tax base is likely going to continue to shrink, and the city currently has limited resources to reverse this trend,” or, as CFO Newsome put it: “Right now, revenue is not there: The income tax is relatively flat. The property tax is flat. That’s reality.” The city’s current proposed FY2019 budget calls for an increase of $120,000 from property taxes, $339,000 increase in income tax revenue, and an additional $631,000 in revenue from the state of Michigan. 

 

Municipal Fiscal Distress & State Oversight.

June 18, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider a new study assessing the potential role of property tax assessments in Detroit’s historic chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy; then we observe, without gambling on the odds, the slow, but steady progress back to self-governance in Atlantic City, and weaning off of state fiscal oversight; before, finally noting the parallel efforts to exit state oversight in Flint, Michigan—where the proximate cause of the city’s fiscal and physical collapse occurred under a quasi-state takeover.

Foreclosing or Creating a City’s Fiscal Recovery? One in 10 Detroit tax foreclosures between 2011 and 2015 were caused by the city’s admittedly inflated property assessments, a study by two Chicago professors has concluded. Over-assessments causing foreclosure were concentrated in the city’s lowest valued homes, those selling for less than $8,000, and resulted in thousands of Detroit homeowners losing their properties, according to the study: “Taxed Out: Illegal property tax assessments and the epidemic of tax foreclosures in Detroit,” which was written by  Bernadette Atuahene and Christopher Berry. Chicago-Kent Law School Professor Atuahene noted: “The very population that most needs the city to get the assessments right, the poorest of the poor, are being most detrimentally affected by the city getting it wrong: “There is a narrative of blaming the poor that focuses on individual responsibility instead of structural injustice. We are trying to change the focus to this structural injustice.” (Professor Atuahene is also a member of the Coalition to End Unconstitutional Tax Foreclosures.) Their study came as the Wayne County Treasurer has foreclosed on about 100,000 Detroit properties for unpaid property taxes for the period from 2011 through 2015, about a quarter of all parcels, as the Motor City suffered the after-effects of population decline, the housing market crash, and the Great Recession.

Professors Atuahene and Berry acknowledged many factors can trigger tax foreclosure, estimating that the number of foreclosures was triggered by over-assessments, in part by calculating the foreclosure rate if all properties were properly assessed. The study also controlled for properties various purchase prices, neighborhoods and sale dates.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan has, as we have noted, acknowledged such over assessments; yet he has made clear accuracy has improved with double-digit reductions over the last four years—and completed the first comprehensive such assessment two years ago for the first time in more than half a century. The city’s Deputy Chief Financial Officer, Alvin Horhn, last week stated he had not reviewed the study; however, he noted that “most of their assumptions rely on data that does not meet the standards of the State Tax Commission and would not be applicable under Michigan law,” a position challenged by Professor Atuahene, who had previously stated the data does comply with the law, noting: “We believe the citywide reappraisal has been an important part of the major reduction in the number of foreclosures occurring in the city, which continue a steady decline and will provide a solid foundation for future growth: The number of foreclosures of owner occupied homes, specifically, has gone down by nearly 90% over the past few years.”

The city’s authority to foreclose, something which became a vital tool to address both property tax revenues and crime in the wake of the city’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, was enabled under former Gov. John Engler 29 years ago under a statewide rewrite of Michigan’s property tax code: changes made in an effort to render it faster and easier to return delinquent properties to productive use. On a related issue, the Motor City is currently facing a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan—a suit which maintains the city’s poverty tax exemption, which erases property taxes for low-income owners, violated homeowner’s due process rights because of its convoluted application process, arguing that the practice violates the federal Fair Housing Act by disproportionately foreclosing on black homeowners. However, the Michigan Court of Appeals has upheld a ruling by Wayne County Judge Robert Colombo, dismissing Wayne County from the lawsuit, ruling the suit should have been brought in front of the Michigan Tax Tribunal. 

Pole, Pole. In Bush Gbaepo Grebo Konweaken, Liberia, a key Gbaepo expression was “pole, pole” (pronounced poleh, poleh), which roughly translated into ‘slowly, but surely’—or haste makes waste. It might be an apt expression for Atlantic City Mayor Frank Gilliam as the boardwalk city has resumed control back from the state to forge its own fiscal destiny—presumably with less gambling on its fiscal future. In his new $225 million budget, the Mayor has proposed to keep property taxes flat for the second consecutive year, and is continuing, according to the state’s Department of Community Affairs, charged with the municipality’s fiscal oversight and providing transitional assistance, to note that the Mayor and Council President Marty Small’s announcement demonstrated that “an understanding of the issues that Atlantic City faces, and an emerging ability to find ways to solve them without resorting to property tax increases: This is a solid budget, and the city staff who worked diligently to draft it should be proud of their efforts.”

Under Mayor Frank Gilliam’s proposed $225 million budget, property taxes would remain flat for a second straight year, there would be some budget cuts, as well as savings realized from municipal bond sales to finance pension and healthcare obligations from 2015. The Mayor also was seeking support for capital improvements, additional library funding, and one-time $500 stipends for full-time municipal employees with salaries below $40,000. The ongoing fiscal recovery is also benefitting from state aid: the state Department of Community Affairs reported the state is providing $3.9 million in transitional aid, a drop from the $13 million awarded to the City of Trenton in 2017 and $26.2 million from 2016. Last year Atlantic City adopted a $222 million budget, which lowered taxes for the first time in more than a decade. The Department’s spokesperson, Lisa Ryan, noted: “Yesterday’s announcement by Mayor Gilliam and Council President [Marty] Small demonstrates city officials are showing an understanding of the issues that Atlantic City faces and an emerging ability to find ways to solve them without resorting to property tax increases: This is a solid budget, and the city staff who worked diligently to draft it should be proud of their efforts.”

Gov. Phil Murphy scaled back New Jersey’s intervention efforts in April with the removal of Jeffrey Chiesa’s role as state designee for Atlantic City. Mr. Chiesa, a former U.S. Senator and New Jersey Attorney General, was appointed to the role by former Gov. Chris Christie after the state takeover took effect.

Not in Like Flint. The Flint City Council was unable last week to override Mayor Karen Weaver’s veto of its amendments to her proposed budget: the Council’s counter proposal had included eight amendments to the Mayor’s $56 million proposed budget for 2018-2019—all of which Mayor Weaver vetoed in the wake of CFO Hughey Newsome’s concerns. The situation is similar to Atlantic City’s, in that this was Flint’s first budget to be considered and adopted in the wake of exiting state oversight. Mayor Weaver advised her colleagues: “This is a crucial time for the City of Flint: this is the first budget we are responsible for since regaining control…I am proud of the budget that I submitted, and I have full faith in the City’s Chief Financial Officer. Just as I have the right to veto the budget, the City Council has the right to override that veto. It is my hope that they would strongly consider my reasons for vetoing and that the Council and I can work together to create a budget that can sustain the City for years to come.” Her veto means the budget will be before the Council for a final vote in order to have it in place for the new fiscal year beginning on the first of next month.

Among the Council proposals the Mayor rejected was employee benefits, including a proposed pay raise for the City Clerk of $20,000, the creation of a new deputy clerk position, a new parliamentarian position, and full health benefits for part-time employees. Or, as CFO Newsome noted: “The risk these added costs could pose on the city’s budget is not in the best interest of the city nor the citizens of Flint,”  as he expressed disappointment over the time wasted on arguing over what amounted to $55,000 in the Mayor’s budget, especially when the city was currently tackling bigger fiscal challenges, such as its $271 million unfunded pension liability and keeping the city’s water fund out of red ink, noting: “These are things that we are looking at, and during all of these [budget] proceedings so little attention was paid to that.”

That is to note that while sliding into chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, or, as in Atlantic City, state oversight, can be easy; the process of extricating one’s city is great: there is added debt. Indeed, Flint remains in a precarious fiscal position, confronted by serious fiscal challenges in the wake of its exit from state financial receivership the month before last. Key among those challenges are: employee retirement funding and the aging, corroded pipes (with a projected price tag of $600 million) which led to the city’s drinking water crisis and state takeover.

On the public pension front, in the wake of state enactment of public pension reforms at the end of 2017 which mandate that municipalities report underfunded retirement benefits, Flint reported a pension system funded at only 37% and zero percent funding of other post-employment retirement benefits, which, according to the state Treasury report, Flint does not prefund.

The proposed budget assumes FY2019 general fund revenues of approximately $55.8 million, of which $4.7 million is expected to come from property taxes. This would be an increase of about $120,000; Flint’s critical water fund will have a $4 million surplus at the end of FY2018; however, CFO Newsome warned the fund will fall into the red within the next five years if it fails to bring in more money.

Innovative, but Challenging Paths to Exiting Municipal Bankruptcy

May 25, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we observe Detroit’s physical and fiscal progress from the nation’s largest ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, before exploring the seeming good gnus of lower unemployment data from Puerto Rico.

Motor City Upgrade. Moody’s has upgraded Detroit’s issuer rating to the highest level in seven years, awarding the Motor City an upgrade from to Ba3 from B1, with a stable outlook, noting: “The upgrade reflects further improvement in the city’s financial reserves, which has facilitated implementation of a pension funding strategy that will lessen the budgetary impact of a future spike in required contributions…The upgrade also considers ongoing economic recovery that is starting to show real dividends to tax collections.” The stable outlook, according to Moody’s, incorporates the Motor City’s high leverage, weak socioeconomic profile, and “volatile nature” of local taxes. Albeit not a credit rating, Detroit likely received another economic and fiscal boost in the wake of President Trump’s actions calling for new tariffs on cars and trucks imported to the U.S., with an estimated additional duty of up to 25% under consideration.

The twin positive developments follow just weeks after the 11-member Detroit Financial Review Commission, created to oversee city finances following its 2013 chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, voted unanimously to restore Detroit’s authority to approve budgets and contracts without review commission approval, effectively putting Detroit on fiscal and financial probation, with a prerequisite that the restoration of full, quasi home rule powers be that the city implement three straight years of deficit-free budgets—a condition Detroit has complied since 2014, according Detroit Chief Financial Officer John Hill. Or, as Councilmember Janee L. Ayers told the Commission this week: “Not to say that we don’t recognize everything that you’ve brought to the table, but I do recognize that you’re not really gone yet.” The city recorded an FY2018 surplus of $36 million, in the wake of regaining local control over its budget and contract authority, with a projected FY2018 $36 million surplus via increasing property tax revenues and plans that will earmark $335 million by 2024 to address key pension obligations in the city bankruptcy plan of debt adjustment for its two public pension funds. In addition, Moody’s revised Detroit’s outlook to stable from positive—albeit an upgrade which does not apply to any of its current $1.9 billion in outstanding debt, writing that its upgrade reflects an improvement in Detroit’s financial reserves, which have allowed Detroit to implement a funding strategy for its looming pension obligations “that will lessen the budgetary impact of a future spike in required contributions.”

As part of its approved plan of debt adjustment by former U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, Detroit must pay $20 million annually through FY2019 to its two pension funds, after which, moreover, contributions will increase significantly beginning in 2024. Moody’s noted: “The stable outlook is based on the city’s strong preparation for challenges ahead including the need to make capital investments and absorb pending spikes to fixed costs…Underperformance of pension assets and revenue volatility remain notable budgetary risks, but the city has amassed a large reserve cushion and adopted conservative budgetary assumptions that provide breathing room to respond to adverse developments,” adding that the “ongoing economic recovery that is starting to show real dividends to tax collections: Further growth in the city’s reserves and tax base growth to fund capital projects for either the city or its school district could lead to additional upgrades. In contrast, the agency warned that a downgrade could be spurred by slowed or stalled economic recovery, depletion of financial reserves, or growth in Detroit’s debt or pension burden, fixed costs, or capital needs. CFO Hill noted: “A second rating upgrade in just seven months from Moody’s shows that we have created the financial management infrastructure necessary to continue to meet our obligations and enhance our fiscal position…Working with the Mayor and City Council, our team has made a variety of improvements to financial management practices and our financial planning and budgeting practices are strong, as reaffirmed by Moody’s in their report.”

Nevertheless, while the gnus on the ratings front is exhilarating, governing and fiscal challenges remain. A key challenge is the ongoing population hemorrhaging—a hemorrhaging which has slowed to a tenth of its pace over the previous decade, but, according to the Census Bureau’s most recent release, the Bureau determined last week that the city’s population was 673,104 as of last summer, a decline of 2,376 residents, slightly down from last year’s 2,770, even as the metropolitan region continued to grow, as did cities such as Grand Rapids and Lansing, which posted among the largest gains. Nevertheless, Mayor Mike Duggan, after his reelection last November, said his performance should be measured by the milestone of reversing the outflow. He has blamed the city’s schools for the continued losses: “At this point it’s about the schools: We have got to create a city where families want to raise their children and have them go to the schools…There are a whole number of pieces that have gotten better but at the end of the day, I think the ultimate report card is the population going up or going down and our report card isn’t good enough.”

Mayor Duggan added that Detroit utility records show at least 3,000 more homes are occupied than last year; however, it appears to be one- and two-person households who are moving in; families with children are moving out. Nevertheless, researchers believe the overall trend is a marked improvement for Detroit. As we had noted in or report, and other researchers have, the Motor City lost an average of 23,700 annually in the decade from 2000 to 2010; Detroit’s population declined by nearly 1.2 million since its 1950 peak. If anything, moreover, the challenge remains if the city leaders hope to reverse the decades-long exodus: the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments forecasts Detroit will continue to experience further decline through 2024, after which the Council guesstimates Detroit will bottom out at 631,668. 

Nevertheless, Detroit, the nation’s 23rd largest city, is experiencing less of a population loss than a number of other major cities, including Baltimore, St. Louis, Chicago, and Pittsburgh, according to the most recent estimates, or as Mayor Kurt Metzger of Pleasant Ridge, a demographer and director emeritus of Data Driven Detroit put it: “Our decreasing losses should be put up against similar older urban cities, rather than the sprawling, growing cities of the south and west: “I still believe that the population of Detroit may indeed be growing.” (Last year, Detroit issued 27 permits to build single-family homes in the city, according to the Southeast Michigan Conference of Governments–another 911 building permits were issued for multi-family structures, and 60 permits for condominiums. Meanwhile 3,197 houses were razed, while according to the Detroit regional council of governments.

A key appears to be, as Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel determined in Chicago, the city’s schools. Thus, Mayor Duggan said he hopes the Detroit School Board will approve his bus loop plan as a means to help lure families back into the city proper, noting that many families in the city send their children to schools in the suburbs‒and end up moving there. In his State of the City Address, he said he intended to create a busing system in northwest Detroit to transport children to participating traditional public and charter schools and the Northwest Activities Center. This will be an ongoing governance challenge—as his colleague Mayor Metzger noted: “There’s no lessening of the interest in outlying townships: People are still looking for big houses, big lots with low taxes.” Indeed, even as Detroit continues to witness an ongoing exodus, municipalities in the metropolitan region‒the Townships of Macomb, Canton, Lyon, and Shelby are all growing. 

Detroit Chief Financial Officer John Hill notes: “A second rating upgrade in just seven months from Moody’s shows that we have created the financial management infrastructure necessary to continue to meet our obligations and enhance our fiscal position: Working with the Mayor and City Council, our team has made a variety of improvements to financial management practices and our financial planning and budgeting practices are strong, as reaffirmed by Moody’s in their report.” Thus, in the wake of the State of Michigan’s restoration of governing authority and control of the city’s finances on April 30th, more than three years after its Chapter 9 exit in December of 2014, Detroit now has the power to enter into contracts and enact city budgets without seeking state approval first, albeit, as Moody’s notes: “Underperformance of pension assets and revenue volatility remain notable budgetary risks, but the city has amassed a large reserve cushion and adopted conservative budgetary assumptions that provide breathing room to respond to adverse developments.”

Motor City Transformation?  In the wake of real estate development firm Bedrock Detroit gaining final approval from the Michigan Strategic Fund for its so-called “transformational” projects in downtown Detroit, the state has approved $618 million in brownfield incentives for the $2.1 billion project, relying in part on some $250 million secured by new brownfield tax credits, enacted last year by the legislature—a development which Mayor Duggan said represents a “major step forward for Detroit and other Michigan cities that are rebuilding: Thanks to this new tool, we will be able to make sure these projects realize their full potential to create thousands of new jobs in our cities.” In what will be the first Michigan to use the Transformational Brownfield Plan tax incentive program, a program using tax-increment financing to capture growth in property tax revenue in a designated area, as well as a construction period income tax capture and use-tax exemption, employee withholding tax capture, and resident income tax capture; the MIThrive program is projected to total $618 million in foregone tax revenue over approximately 30 years. While Bedrock noted that the tax increment financing “will not capture any city of Detroit taxes, and it will have no impact on the Detroit Public Schools Community District,” the plan is intended to support $250 million in municipal bond financing by authorizing the capture of an estimated average of $18.56 million of principal and interest payments annually, primarily supported by state taxes over the next three decades, to repay the bonds, with all tax capture limited to newly created revenues from the development sites themselves: the TIF financing and sales tax exemption will cover approximately 15% of the project costs; Bedrock is responsible for 85% of the total $2.15 billion investment, per the financing package the Detroit City Council approved last November, under which Bedrock’s proposed projects are to include the redevelopment of former J.L. Hudson’s department store site, new construction on a two-block area east of its headquarters downtown, the Book Tower and Book Building, and a 310,000-square-foot addition to the One Campus Martius building Gilbert co-owns with Detroit-based Meridian. Altogether, the projects are estimated to support an estimated 22,000 new jobs, including 15,000 related to the construction and over 7,000 new permanent, high-wage jobs occupying the office, retail, hotel, event and exhibition spaces—all a part of the ongoing development planned as part of Detroit’s plan of debt adjustment.

In an unrelated, but potentially unintended bit of fiscal assistance, President Trump’s new press for tariffs of as much as 25% on cars and trucks imported to the U.S., Detroit might well be a taking a fiscal checkered flag.

Avoiding Risks to Puerto Rico’s Recovery. Yesterday, in testifying before the PROMESA Board, Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares  told the members his governing challenge was to “solve problems, and not to see how they get worse,” as he defended the agreement with the Oversight Board—and as he urged the Puerto Rico Legislature to comply with his fiscal plan and repeal what he described as the unjust dismissal law (Law 80), a key item in the certified fiscal plan that the PROMESA Board is reevaluating. That law in question, the Labor Transformation and Flexibility Act, which he had signed last year, represented the first significant and comprehensive labor law reform to occur in Puerto Rico in decades. As enacted, the most significant changes to the labor law include:  

  • Effective date (there is still no cap for employees hired before the effective date);
  • Eliminating the presumption that a termination was without just cause and shifting the burden to the employee to prove the termination was without just cause;
  • Revising the definition of just cause to state that it is a “pattern of performance that is deficient, inefficient, unsatisfactory, poor, tardy, or negligent”;
  • Shortening the statute of limitations for Law 80 claims from three years to one year, and requiring all Law 80 claims filed after the Act’s effective date to have a mandatory settlement hearing within 60 days of the filing of the answer; and
  • Clarifying the standard for constructive discharge to require an employee to prove that the employer’s conduct created a hostile work environment such that the only reasonable thing for the employee to do was resign.

The Act mandates that all Puerto Rico employment laws be applied in a similar fashion to federal employment laws, unless explicitly stated otherwise in the local law. It applies Title VII’s cap on punitive and compensatory damages to damages for discrimination and retaliation claims, and eliminates the mandate for written probationary agreements; it imposes a mandatory probationary period of 12 months for all administrative, executive and professional employees, and a nine-month period for all other employees. It provides a statutory definition for “employment contract,” which specifically excludes the relationship between an employer and independent contractor. The Act also includes a non-rebuttable presumption that an individual is an independent contractor if the individual meets the five-part test in the statute. It modifies the definition of overtime to require overtime pay for work over eight hours in any calendar day instead of eight hours in any 24-hour period, and changes the overtime rate for employees hired after the Act’s effective date to time and one-half their regular rate. (The overtime rate for employees hired prior to the Act remains at two times the employee’s regular rate.). The Act provides for alternative workweek agreements in which employees can work four 10-hour days without being entitled to overtime, but must be paid overtime for hours worked in excess of 10 in one day. The provisions provide that, in order to accrue vacation and sick pay, employees must work a minimum of 130 hours per month; sick leave will accrue at the rate of one day per month—and, to earn a Christmas Bonus, employees must work 1,350 hours between October 1 and September 30 of the following year; employees on disability leave have a right to reinstatement for six months if the employer has 15 or fewer employees; employers with more than 15 employees must provide employees on disability leave with the right to reinstatement for one year, as was required prior to the Act. For employees, the law includes certain enumerated employee rights, including a prohibition against discrimination or retaliation; protection from workplace injuries or illnesses; protection of privacy; timely compensation; and the individual or collective right to sue or file claims for actions arising out of the employment contract.

In his presentation, the Governor suggested that the repeal of the statute would be a vital component to controlling Puerto Rico’s budget, in no small part by granting additional funds to municipalities, granting budgetary increases in multiple government agencies, including the Governor’s Office and the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration (PRFAA), as well as increasing the salary of teachers and the Police. While the Governor proposed no cuts, a preliminary analysis of the document published by the Office of Management and Budget determined that the consolidated budget for FY 2018-19 would total $ 25.323 billion, or 82% lower than the current consolidated budget, as the Governor sought to assure the Board he has achieved some $2 billion in savings, and reduced Puerto Rico’s operating expenses by 22%.

In his presentation to the 18th Puerto Rico Legislative Assembly, the Governor warned that Puerto Rico has an approximate “18-month window” to define its future, taking advantage of an injection of FEMA funds in the wake of Hurricane Maria, as he appeared to challenge them to be part of that transformation, noting: “We have an understanding with the (Board) that allows the approval of a budget that, under the complex and difficult circumstances, benefits Puerto Rico: Ladies and gentlemen legislators: you know everything that is at risk. I already exercised my responsibility, and I fully trust in the commitment you have with Puerto Rico.”

According to Gov. Rosselló Nevares, repealing Law 80, which last year was amended to grant greater flexibility to companies in the process of dismissing workers, would be the first step for what would be a phase of greater economic activity on the island, and would join different measures which have been put into effect to provide Puerto Rico a “stronger” position to renegotiate the terms of its debt, as he contrasted his proposal versus the cuts and austerity warnings proposed by the PROMESA Board, adding that, beginning in August, the Sales and Use Tax on processed food will be reduced, and that tax rates will be reduced without fear of the “restrictions” previously established and imposed by the Board, adding that participants of Mi Salud (My Health) will be able to “choose where they can obtain health services, beyond a region in Puerto Rico,” and that the budget guarantees teachers and the police will receive an increase of $125 per month.

Shifting & Shafting? In his proposed budget, the Governor proposed that municipalities would be compensated for the supposed reduction in the contributions of the General Fund, stating: “Through the agreement, the disbursement of 78 million dollars that this Legislature approved for the municipalities during the current recovery period is secured; the Municipal Economic Development Fund of $50 million per year is created.” Under the administration’s proposed budget, the contribution to municipalities would be about $175.8 million, which would be consistent with the adjustment required for that item in the certified fiscal plan. As a result of the agreement with the Board, municipalities would, therefore, practically receive another $ 128 million. As proposed, Puerto Rico’s government payroll would be reduced for the third consecutive year: for example, payments for public services and those purchased will increase 23% and 16%, respectively; professional services would increase by 40%. Expenses for the Governor’s office would see an increase of 182%.

Ending the Long Delay? The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) yesterday announced it is accelerating community disaster loans to help Puerto Rico muncipios mitigate the loss of income due to natural disasters, the Government of Puerto Rico reaffirmed that, for the time being, as well as the approval of another $39 million in loans from the CDL program for the municipalities of Aguadilla, Cabo Rojo, Canóvanas, Carolina, Manatí, Mayagüez, Peñuelas, and Orocovis—with the approvals coming in the wake of  last month’s approvals for Bayamón, Caguas, Humacao, Juncos, Ponce, Toa Baja, and Trujillo Alto—meaning that, in total, FEMA has, to date, distributed at least $92.8 million for municipalities on the island and $371 million for the U.S. Virgin Islands, as part of the $4.9 billion loan passed by Congress to help local governments recover. At the same time, the U.S. territory’s Treasury Secretary Raúl Maldonado reported: “The administration (of Puerto Rico) has been very successful in lowering operational costs and achieving an increase in collections.” The new loans will offer access to the Puerto Rican Government through March of 2020, as Secretary Maldonado considers that it may be useful in case of another disaster or a drop in the income of public corporations.

Nevertheless, because Puerto Rico—unlike other U.S. states, is also under the authority of the PROMESA Board, it appears that Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s budget will have to be revised and may be rejected if proposed labor reforms do not satisfy the Board—with Board Executive Director Natalie Jaresko, in the wake of the Governor’s release of his proposed $8.73 billion general fund budget to the Legislature Tuesday night dictating that the future of the budget is linked to the legislature’s approval of at-will employment. Her statement came after the Governor and the board had announced an agreement on a compromise on reforming labor practices as well as agreeing to other changes in the Board-certified fiscal plan. In exchange for the Board waiving its demands for the abolition of the Christmas bonus and reduction of the island’s mandatory 27 days of vacation and sick leave, Gov. Rosselló agreed to bring at-will employment to the territory by repealing Law 80 from 1976—a concession which Director Jaresko described this agreement as an “accommodation.” Earlier this week, Director Jaresko said that the first step for Gov. Rosselló should be to resubmit a fiscal plan consistent with the new agreement with the Board, followed by a resubmitted budget consistent with the new plan, adding she anticipated these actions should all be completed by the end of June: the agreed-to changes to the fiscal plan are expected to reduce the 30 year surplus to $35 billion from $39 billion in the April certified fiscal plan, according to Director Jaresko, who noted that most of the surplus is expected to be used for debt payment. From the Governor’s perspective, he noted: “The approval of the agreed budget makes it easier for Puerto Rico to be in a stronger position to renegotiate the terms of the debt. We have significantly improved the management and controls over the cash flow of the General Fund. Contrary to the past, there is now visibility on how cash flows in government operations. At present Puerto Rico has robust and reliable cash balances.” Finally, she stated she expected it would take 12 to 18 months for the Board to create a plan of adjustment on the debt and pensions for the central government—a plan which would likely take the Title III bankruptcy court several more months to confirm.