What Lessons Can State & Local Leaders Learn from Unique Fiscal Challenges?

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eBlog, 04/25/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the unique fiscal challenges in Michigan and how the upswing in the state’s economy is—or, in this case, maybe—is not helping the fiscal recovery of the state’s municipalities. Then we remain in Michigan—but straddle to Virginia, to consider state leadership efforts in each state to rethink state roles in dealing with severe fiscal municipal distress. Finally, we zoom to Chicago to glean what wisdom we can from the Godfather of modern municipal bankruptcy, Jim Spiotto: What lessons might be valuable to the nation’s state and local leaders?  

Fiscal & Physical Municipal Balancing I. Nearly a decade after the upswing in Michigan’s economic recovery, the state’s fiscal outlook appears insufficient to help the state’s municipalities weather the next such recession. Notwithstanding continued job growth and record auto sales, Michigan’s per-capita personal income lags the national average; assessed property values are below peak levels in 85% of the state’s municipalities; and state aid is only 80% of what it was 15 years ago.  Thus, interestingly, state business leaders, represented by the Business Leaders for Michigan, a group composed of executives of Michigan’s largest corporations universities, is pressing the Michigan Legislature to assume greater responsibility to address growing public pension liabilities—an issue which municipal leaders in the state fear extend well beyond legacy costs, but also where fiscal stability has been hampered by cuts in state revenue sharing and tax limitations. Michigan’s $10 billion general fund is roughly comparable to what it was nearly two decades ago—notwithstanding the state’s experience in the Great Recession—much less the nation’s largest ever municipal bankruptcy in Detroit, or the ongoing issues in Flint. Moreover, with personal income growth between 2000 and 2013 growing less than half the national average (in the state, the gain was only 31.1%, compared to 66.1% nationally), and now, with public pension obligations outstripping growth in personal income and property values, Michigan’s taxpayers and corporations—and the state’s municipalities—confront hard choices with regard to “legacy costs” for municipal pensions and post-retirement health care obligations—debts which today are consuming nearly 20 percent of some city, township, and school budgets—even as the state’s revenue sharing program has dropped nearly 25 percent for fiscally-stressed municipalities such as Saginaw, Flint, and Detroit just since 2007—rendering the state the only state to realize negative growth rates (8.5%) in municipal revenue in the 2002-2012 decade, according to numbers compiled by the Michigan Municipal League—a decade in which revenue for the state’s cities and towns from state sources realized the sharpest decline of any state in the nation: 56%, a drop so steep that, as the Michigan Municipal League’s COO Tony Minghine put it: “Our system is just broken…We’re not equipped to deal with another recession. If we were to go into another recession right now, we’d see widespread communities failing.” Unsurprisingly, one of the biggest fears is that another wave of chapter 9 filings could trigger the appointment of the state’s ill-fated emergency manager appointments. From the Michigan Municipal League’s perspective, any fiscal resolution would require the state to address what appears to be a faltering revenue base: Michigan’s taxable property is appreciating too slowly to support the cost of government (between 2007 and 2013, the taxable value of property declined by 8 percent in Grand Rapids, 12% in Detroit, 25% in Livonia, 32% in Warren, 22% in Wayne County values, and 24% in Oakland County.) The fiscal threat, as the former U.S. Comptroller General of the General Accounting Office warned: “Most of these numbers will get worse with the mere passage of time.”

Fiscal & Physical Municipal Balancing II. Mayhap Michigan and Virginia state and local leaders need to talk:  Thinking fiscally about a state’s municipal fiscal challenges—and lessons learned—might be underway in Virginia, where, after the state did not move ahead on such an initiative last year, the new state budget has revived the focus on fiscal stress in Virginia cities and counties, with the revived fiscal focus appearing to have been triggered by the ongoing fiscal collapse of one of the state’s oldest cities, Petersburg. Thus, Sen. Emmett Hanger (R-Augusta County), a former Commissioner of the Revenue and member of the state’s House of Delegates, who, today, serves as Senate Finance Co-Chair, and Chair of the Health and Human Services Finance subcommittee, has filed a bill, SJ 278, to study the fiscal stress of local governments: his proposal would create a joint subcommittee to review local and state tax systems, as well as reforms to promote economic assistance and cooperation between regions. Although the legislation was rejected in the Virginia House Finance Committee, where members deferred consideration of tax reform for next year’s longer session, the state’s adopted budget does include two fiscal stress preventive measures originally incorporated in Senator Hanger’s proposed legislation—or, as co-sponsor Sen. Rosalyn Dance (D-Petersburg), noted: “Currently, there is no statutory authority for the Commission on Local Government to intervene in a fiscally stressed locality, and the state does not currently have any authority to assist a locality financially.” To enhance the state’s authority to intervene fiscally, the budget has set guidelines for state officials to identify and help alleviate signs of financial stress to prevent a more severe crisis. Thus, a workgroup, established by the auditor of public accounts, would determine an appropriate fiscal early warning system to identify fiscal stress: the proposed system would consider such criteria as a local government’s expenditure reports and budget information. Local governments which demonstrate fiscal distress would thence be notified and could request a comprehensive review of their finances by the state. After a fiscal review, the commonwealth would then be charged with drafting an “action plan,” which would provide the purpose, duration, and anticipated resources required for such state intervention. The bill would also give the Governor the option to channel up to $500,000 from the general fund toward relief efforts for the fiscally stressed local government.

Virginia’s new budget also provides for the creation of a Joint Subcommittee on Local Government Fiscal Stress, with members drawn from the Senate Finance Committee, the House Appropriations, and the House Finance committees—with the newly created subcommittee charged to study local and state financial practices, such as: regional cooperation and service consolidation, taxing authority, local responsibilities in state programs, and root causes of fiscal stress. Committee member Del. Lashrecse Aird (D-Petersburg) notes: “It is important to have someone who can speak to first-hand experience dealing with issues of local government fiscal stress…This insight will be essential in forming effective solutions that will be sustainable long-term…Prior to now, Virginia had no mechanism to track, measure, or address fiscal stress in localities…Petersburg’s situation is not unique, and it is encouraging that proactive measures are now being taken to guard against future issues. This is essential to ensuring that Virginia’s economy remains strong and that all communities can share in our Commonwealth’s success.”

Municipal Bankruptcy—or Opportunity? The Chicago Civic Federation last week co-hosted a conference, “Chicago’s Fiscal Future: Growth or Insolvency?” with the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, where experts, practitioners, and academics from around the nation met to consider best and worst case scenarios for the Windy City’s fiscal future, including lessons learned from recent chapter 9 municipal bankruptcies. Chicago Fed Vice President William Testa opened up by presenting an alternative method of assessing whether a municipality city is currently insolvent or might become so in the future: he proposed that considering real property in a city might offer both an indicator of the resources available to its governments and how property owners view the prospects of the city, adding that, in addition to traditional financial indicators, property values can be used as a powerful—but not perfect—indicators to reflect a municipality’s current situation and the likelihood for insolvency in the future. He noted that there is considerable evidence that fiscal liabilities of a municipality are capitalized into the value of its properties, and that, if a municipality has high liabilities, those are reflected in an adjustment down in the value of its real estate. Based upon examination, he noted using the examples of Chicago, Milwaukee, and Detroit; Detroit’s property market collapse coincided with its political and economic crises: between 2006 and 2009-2010, the selling price of single family homes in Detroit fell by four-fold; during those years and up to the present, the majority of transactions were done with cash, rather than traditional mortgages, indicating, he said, that the property market is severely distressed. In contrast, he noted, property values in Chicago have seen rebounds in both residential and commercial properties; in Milwaukee, he noted there is less property value, but higher municipal bond ratings, due, he noted, to the state’s reputation for fiscal conservatism and very low unfunded public pension liabilities—on a per capita basis, Chicago’s real estate value compares favorably to other big cities: it lags Los Angeles and New York City, but is ahead of Houston (unsurprisingly given that oil city’s severe pension fiscal crisis) and Phoenix. Nevertheless, he concluded, he believes comparisons between Chicago and Detroit are overblown; the property value indicator shows that property owners in Chicago see value despite the city’s fiscal instability. Therefore, adding the property value indicator could provide additional context to otherwise misleading rankings and ratings that underestimate Chicago’s economic strength.

Lessons Learned from Recent Municipal Bankruptcies. The Chicago Fed conference than convened a session featuring our former State & Local Leader of the Week, Jim Spiotto, a veteran of our more than decade-long efforts to gain former President Ronald Reagan’s signature on PL 100-597 to reform the nation’s municipal bankruptcy laws, who discussed finding from his new, prodigious primer on chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. Mr. Spiotto advised that chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy is expensive, uncertain, and exceptionally rare—adding it is restrictive in that only debt can be adjusted in the process, because U.S. bankruptcy courts do not have the jurisdiction to alter services. Noting that only a minority of states even authorize local governments to file for federal bankruptcy protection, he noted there is no involuntary process whereby a municipality can be pushed into bankruptcy by its creditors—making it profoundly distinct from Chapter 11 corporate bankruptcy, adding that municipal bankruptcy is solely voluntary on the part of the government. Moreover, he said that, in his prodigious labor over decades, he has found that the large municipal governments which have filed for chapter 9 bankruptcy, each has its own fiscal tale, but, as a rule, these filings have generally involved service level insolvency, revenue insolvency, or economic insolvency—adding that if a school system, county, or city does not have these extraordinary fiscal challenges, municipal bankruptcy is probably not the right option. In contrast, he noted, however, if a municipality elects to file for bankruptcy, it would be wise to develop a comprehensive, long-term recovery plan as part of its plan of debt adjustment.

He was followed by Professor Eric Scorsone, Senior Deputy State Treasurer in the Michigan Department of Treasury, who spoke of the fall and rise of Detroit, focusing on the Motor City’s recovery—who noted that by the time Gov. Rick Snyder appointed Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, Detroit was arguably insolvent by all of the measures Mr. Spiotto had described, noting that it took the chapter 9 bankruptcy process and mediation to bring all of the city’s communities together to develop the “Grand Bargain” involving a federal judge, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, the Kellogg Foundation, and the Detroit Institute of Arts (a bargain outlined on the napkin of a U.S. District Court Judge, no less) which allowed Detroit to complete and approved plan of debt adjustment and exit municipal bankruptcy. He added that said plan, thus, mandated the philanthropic community, the State of Michigan, and the City of Detroit to put up funding to offset significant proposed public pension cuts. The outcome of this plan of adjustment and its requisite flexibility and comprehensive nature, have proven durable: Prof. Scorsone said the City of Detroit’s finances have significantly improved, and the city is on track to have its oversight board, the Financial Review Commission (FRC) become dormant in 2018—adding that Detroit’s economic recovery since chapter 9 bankruptcy has been extraordinary: much better than could have been imagined five years ago. The city sports a budget surplus, basic services are being provided again, and people and businesses are returning to Detroit.

Harrison J. Goldin, the founder of Goldin Associates, focused his remarks on the near-bankruptcy of New York City in the 1970s, which he said is a unique case, but one with good lessons for other municipal and state leaders (Mr. Goldin was CFO of New York City when it teetered on the edge of bankruptcy). He described Gotham’s disarray in managing and tracking its finances and expenditures prior to his appointment as CFO, noting that the fiscal and financial crisis forced New York City to live within its means and become more transparent in its budgeting. At the same time, he noted, the fiscal crisis also forced difficult cuts to services: the city had to close municipal hospitals, reduce pensions, and close firehouses—even as it increased fees, such as requiring tuition at the previously free City University of New York system and raising bus and subway fares. Nevertheless, he noted: there was an upside: a stable financial environment paved the way for the city to prosper. Thus, he advised, the lesson of all of the municipal bankruptcies and near-bankruptcies he has consulted on is that a coalition of public officials, unions, and civic leaders must come together to implement the four steps necessary for financial recovery: “first, documenting definitively the magnitude of the problem; second, developing a credible multi-year remediation plan; third, formulating credible independent mechanisms for monitoring compliance; and finally, establishing service priorities around which consensus can coalesce.”

Getting Out of Insolvency & Back on Fiscal Track

eBlog, 04/14/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing recovery of Atlantic City, New Jersey—where the Mayor this week proposed, in his first post-state takeover budget, the first tax cuts in a decade. Then we head west to the Motor City, where the city, as part of its fiscal recovery from the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history is seeking to ensure all its taxpayers pay what they owe, before then veering south to assess the first 100 days of the PROMESA oversight of the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico.

Getting Back on the Fiscal Track. Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian this week presented his proposed $206 million budget to the City Council, which unanimously voted 7-0 to introduce it at a special meeting, and the City has scheduled a public budget hearing for May 17th. In a taste of the fiscal turnaround for the city, the proposed budget includes the first municipal tax decrease in a decade. It also marks the first budget for the city since the State of New Jersey usurped control over Atlantic City’s finances last November. As proposed, it is more than $35 million or 21% less than last year’s and would reduce the municipal tax rate by 5 percent, according to both city and state officials. The city has scheduled a public budget hearing for May 17th.

As proposed, the steepest cut is in public safety—some $8 million, but the draft proposal also seeks cuts in administration costs ($5 million), as well as proposing savings via the privatization of trash pickup, payroll, and vehicle towing services. The smaller budget request is projected to reduce the city’s costs of debt service by $6 million. Unsurprisingly, the proposed tax cuts—the first in nearly a decade, drew the strongest applause: Atlantic City’s municipal tax rate has skyrocketed 96 percent since 2010, a period during which the city’s tax base dropped by nearly 66%. The $206.3 million budget Mayor Guardian presented features $6 million of cuts to debt service at $30.8 million and proposes to allocate $8 million less for public safety.

Mayor Guardian, who is running for his second term as Mayor this fall, said in a statement before presenting the budget that state overseers have played an instrumental role in crafting the new spending plan which features the proposed 5% property tax cut. It could mark a key point in the city’s efforts to regain governance control back from the State of New Jersey—a takeover the Republican mayor had bitterly contested, which took effect last November after New Jersey’s Local Finance Board rejected the city’s five-year recovery plan, or, as the Mayor put it: “From the beginning, I have said that we need to work with the State of New Jersey to stabilize Atlantic City and to reduce the outrageous property taxes that we inherited from years of reckless spending…Even though the entire state takeover was both excessive and unnecessary, the state did play an important role in helping us turn things around.”

For his part, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie praised former U.S. Sen. Jeffrey Chiesa for his role as the state’s designee leading the financial recovery and his contributions in helping to achieve the city’s first property tax cut in a decade. Gov. Christie credited Mr. Chiesa with withstanding union challenges to make firefighter and police cuts, as well as reaching a $72 million settlement with the Borgata casino which is projected to save the city $93 million on $165 million of owed property tax refunds from 2009 to 2015, noting: “As promised, we quickly put Atlantic City on the path to financial stability, with taxpayers and employers reaping the benefits of unprecedented property tax relief with no reduction in services by a more accountable government…I commend Senator Chiesa for leading Atlantic City to turn the corner, holding the line on expenses and making responsible choices to revitalize the city.”

Atlantic City is planning to issue $72 million in municipal bonds to finance the Borgata settlement though New Jersey’s Municipal Qualified Bond Act: the savings from the settlement, brokered by the state, were a key factor in S&P Global Ratings’ upgrade of Atlantic City’s junk-level general obligation bond debt: Atlantic City, which is weighed down by some $224 million in bonded debt, is rated Caa3 by Moody’s Investors Service. State overseer Chiesa noted: “Over the past five months, I have met so many smart, talented, tenacious people who want to see the city succeed. This inspires me every day to tackle the challenges facing the city to ensure that the progress we’ve made continues.”

A key contributor to the improved fiscal outlook appears to come from some of the unilateral contract changes to public safety officials, imposed by Mr. Chiesa, which led to reduced salaries and benefits for police and firefighters, albeit the courts will have the final say so: the unions have sued to block the cuts, arguing the takeover law is unconstitutional. In addition, the state also reach agreement on a $72 million tax settlement with Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa which is projected to save Atlantic City $93 million and essentially put Borgata back on its tax rolls. The casino had withheld property tax payments, but is now paying its part of casino payments in lieu of property taxes, or, as Mr. Chiesa put it: “Real progress is being made in the city, which is great news for the people who live, work and visit Atlantic City.”

Gov. Chris Christie, in his final term in office, praised Mr. Chiesa and jabbed at his political opponents in a statement issued before the City Council meeting, noting: “It took us merely a few months to lower property taxes for the first time in the past decade, when local leaders shamelessly spent beyond their means to satisfy their special political interests,” he said, even as Atlantic City officials described the budget as a collaborative effort with the state. Or, as Mayor Guardian put it: “He’s the governor. He makes those comments…What I think is [that] it’s clear the city moves ahead with the state.” Council President Marty Small, who chairs the Revenue and Finance Committee, said he was “intimately involved” in the budget process, describing it as a “win-win-win for everybody, particularly the taxpayers.”

Don’t Tax Me: Get the Feller behind the Tree! Getting citizens to pay their taxes is a problem everywhere, of course, but Detroit had a particularly hard time going after scofflaws because budget cuts decimated its ability to enforce the law. Even the citizens and businesses who paid up created logistical havoc for beleaguered city bureaucrats. Part of the reason, it seems, is that in Detroit, the only way to file taxes has been on paper. While that might be merely an irritation for taxpayers, it has been a nightmare for the city’s revenuers, who must devote endless hours typing data into computer systems. It appears also to have led to some innovation: last year the Motor City opted to send out more than 7,000 mailings to deadbeat tax filers, that is taxpayers who were still delinquent on their 2014 taxes; the city suspected each delinquent owed at least $350; ergo it randomly selected some taxpayers to receive one of six different letters, each with a different message in a black box on the mailing: One such message appealed to residents’ civic pride: “Detroit’s rising is at hand. The collection of taxes is essential to our success.” Another simply made clear that Detroit’s revenue department had detailed information on the deadbeats: “Our records indicate you had a federal income of $X for tax year 2014.” (Detroit is somewhat unique in that it has an income tax under which residents owe 2.4 percent of their incomes to the city, after a $600 exemption. Nonresidents who work in Detroit pay a rate of 1.2 percent.) Another message made a bold declaration: “Failure to file a tax return is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of $500 and 90 days in jail.”

It seems that threats have proven more effective than cajoling: More than 10 percent of taxpayers responded to the letter mentioning a fine and jail time, some 300% greater than the response rate to the city’s basic control letter. This revenue experiment was overseen by Ben Meiselman, a graduate student at the University of Michigan’s economics department, who manned a desk in Detroit’s tax office to run the experiment. He wrote the messages included in the mailings to reflect behavioral economics research, noting: “I find that a single sentence, strategically placed in mailings to attract attention, can have an economically meaningful impact on tax filing behavior,” in his working paper, “Ghostbusting in Detroit: Evidence on Non-filers from a Controlled Field Experiment,” which he intends to eventually become a chapter in his doctoral dissertation. And it turns out that providing details of a taxpayer’s income boosted the response rate by 63 percent, even as a letter from the city which combined a threat with income information was less effective than a threat by itself. Or, as one city official noted: “Keeping it simple seems to be the key,” especially as city officials learned that appeals to civic pride fell flat: the response rate was just 0.8 percentage points higher than that of a basic letter. Nevertheless, the city still confronts a long uphill fiscal cliff, even if it manages to apply the results of the experiment and triple the response rate from tax delinquents: according to the IRS, approximately six percent of U.S. taxpayers break the law by not filing with the Service each year, but, in Detroit, Mr. Meiselman estimated that some 46 percent of taxpayers had not submitted their 2014 returns by the due date in the following year—and that the return rate was getting worse.

Thus, Detroit’s next step was to back up threats with action—mayhap especially because there appears to have been little enforcement for the past decade: Detroit had not undertaken an audit or tax investigation in more than a decade. One outcome of insolvency and municipal bankruptcy, it appears, can hit hard: Detroit’s tax office, which once had a staff of about 70, is today about half that: it is a department which was recently reorganized, in the wake of last year’s takeover by the state of Michigan, a takeover intended to free up city employees to collect unpaid income taxes. The city also eased such filings by permitting them to be submitted electronically for the first time. And, wow!: 77 percent of filers took advantage. Detroit has sent out 15,000 letters since July 2016 and has collected $5.3 million through letters, audits, and investigations. And some of the amounts collected are significant, particularly for those who have juked, dodged, and evaded paying taxes for years: in one instance, a taxpayer agreed to pay $400,000. Detroit also began filing misdemeanor charges and lawsuits in small claims court to get its tax revenues, especially after learning that only one in five residents in several high-end apartments buildings had filed income taxes, helping to persuade a judge to issue an order requiring landlords to turn over tenant information.

These various steps appears to be helping: The number of residents filing tax returns more than doubled last year from the previous year; filings by non-residents increased by more than a third. City returns from 2016 are due, along with state and federal returns, by next Tuesday—the same deadline as applies to all readers of this eBlog, and, this year, Detroit officials are optimistic—or, as one wag put it: In the past, “people knew we weren’t coming after them…Now we are following up on those threats.”

The Promise or PROMESA of the First 100 Days. The PROMESA oversight board, provided by the Congress with authority over the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, has now surpassed its first one hundred days, created a juxtaposed governance challenge, especially for Governor Rosselló: how can he make sure that the framework set up during this period of quasi dual governance provides for the change Puerto Rico needs? How can he gain the approval of the Board for a long-term fiscal plan as the main achievement of his incipient administration? To prevail, it appears, he will have to convince the Oversight Board that his proposed budgets are based on real possibilities of revenues and that such estimates are free of dependence on loans and that he will conduct the restructuring of Puerto Rico’s public debt on favorable terms, and that he will take the key role in the reconstruction of the government apparatus to higher levels of service, efficiency, participation, and transparency. And, now, there appears to be some evidence that he is achieving progress. Puerto Rico’s statute on permits is intended address a serial inefficiency with regard to the “absurd and abusive terms” to obtain permits, delays which have hindered and discouraged the generation of new economic activity. The effort to provide for the progressive elimination of the costly redundancy in programs and services via the consolidation of agencies, with security first, appear to be key steps in achieving changes to restore financial health. Moreover, the creation of a spending budget 10 per cent below the current one appears to mark an important step in the goal of reasserting self-governance.

Nevertheless, the fiscal and governance challenges of recovering from fiscal insolvency can be beset from any angle: note, for instance, Judge Lauracelis Roques Arroyo has revived an “audit” of Puerto Rico’s debt and reversed Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s attempt to dismantle the debt audit commission. (Judge Roques Arroyo is a member of the Carolina Region of the Puerto Rico Superior Court.) And, thus, he has ruled that Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s attempt to dismantle a commission auditing Puerto Rico’s debt was illegal. The statute in question, law 97 of 2015, created the Puerto Rico Commission for the Comprehensive Audit of the Public Credit. The commission aimed to find Puerto Rico debt which was legally invalid. The commission’s first report in June of last year had reviewed documents connected with the Commonwealth’s $3.5 billion general obligation bond and $1.2 billion tax and revenue anticipation note, both sold in 2014. In this report, the Commission had raised doubts with regard to the legality of much of Puerto Rico’s bond debt. Late last September, the commission questioned the legality of the series 2013A power revenue bonds from the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), raising concerns with regard to the behavior of Morgan Stanley, Ernst &Young, and URS Corp. in the municipal bond sale and the period leading up to it. In early October, possibly in response to the commission’s work, the SEC commenced an investigation of PREPA’s 2012 and 2013 bonds. Ergo, Judge Arroyo’s order late last week returned three public interest members to the board, according to attorney Manuel Rodriguez Banchs; the order provided that the Governor has no authority to intervene with the commission: it said that the dismissal of the public interest members was illegal. The board has $650,000 in its account right now, according to board member Roberto Pagán, e.g. adequate to do a substantial amount of additional work. Gov. Rosselló, thus, is considering how to react to the judge’s order, according to the El Vocero news website.

Governance & Fiscal Recovery

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eBlog, 04/03/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing recovery efforts in Ferguson, Missouri; then we return to the Motor City to assess what and how home ownership might have changed in the wake of the city’s recovery from the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, before returning to the azure waters of Puerto Rico to assess its most recent fiscal developments.

A Recovering City’s Future? Ferguson, Missouri voters tomorrow will pick between Mayor James Knowles III and Councilwoman Ella Jones in the Mayoral election–for a 3-year term: Mayor Knowles was first elected Mayor on April 5, 2011, after serving on the Ferguson City Council for six years: he became the youngest mayor in Ferguson’s history when he took office at the age of 31, while Councilwoman Jones became the first African-American woman to be elected to her position. But tomorrow could mark a check point in the wake of the dramatic leadership changes since the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown put the St. Louis suburb at the center of the debate over the treatment of blacks by the nation’s police forces–and on the brink of insolvency. Mayor Knowles, who is finishing his second term, noted: “These past three years have been very difficult, but I’ve been the one who has shown I can lead through tough times…That I can take the heat, but also make the changes, the reforms necessary to make the community move forward.” Nevertheless, in the wake of the killing of an unarmed black teenager, by a white police officer nearly three years ago, Mayor Knowles has borne the brunt of considerable anger, as Ferguson went from a mostly unheard-of St. Louis suburb to a flash-point of racial unrest. After months of protests following the shooting, people rioted that November when a grand jury declined to charge the officer, who resigned that month. There was further unrest the following March when the U.S. Department of Justice cleared the officer of wrongdoing—and issued a scathing report alleging racial bias and profiling by the small city’s police department and courts—a report which appeared to lead to the resignations of the city’s police chief, city manager, municipal judge, and city attorney. Indeed, of all the city’s top officials, only Mayor Knowles remains—and that notwithstanding threats in phone calls and emails, a stolen identity, and having his home’s windows broken.  In contrast, Councilwoman Jones has lived most of her life in Ferguson: she is serving her first term as a Councilwoman, and, in her campaign, assert she wants the Mayor’s office to be “inclusive for everyone, instead of exclusive,” noting: “We have to listen and stop turning our heads and turning a deaf ear to people, because they’re just like you and I. They want to be heard and they have a right to be heard.”

Whomever the voters elect will confront a daunting fiscal challenge: the city lost millions of dollars of revenue after municipal court reforms were implemented following Mr. Brown’s death: sales and use tax revenues dropped as businesses victimized by looters were burned and closed: many have not returned. Similarly, the city has more than a dozen police vacancies: the city lacks sufficient budget resources to compete with larger, better funded governments in St. Louis County—and still is handicapped by its unfunded costs of compliance with U.S. the Justice Department imposed consent decree to improve the police and municipal court systems and eliminate racial bias: an unfunded federal mandate projected to cost the impoverished city budget and taxpayers more than $2 million. The city of about 20,000, which actually experienced a population decline of nearly 6% since 2000, nevertheless has experienced a gradual increase in median income to $43,998 by 2015—approximately 86% of average statewide household income.

And, irrespective of whom the voters select, this is not a position of responsibility that pays much: the Mayor’s pay is $4,200 annually; rather, as the incumbent notes: it’s the love of their community and the opportunity to be its face to the outside world: “These past three years have been very difficult, but I’ve been the one who has shown I can lead through tough times…That I can take the heat but also make the changes, the reforms necessary to make the community move forward.” In contrast, Councilwoman Jones said she wants the Mayor’s office to be “inclusive for everyone, instead of exclusive…We have to listen and stop turning our heads and turning a deaf ear to people, because they’re just like you and I. They want to be heard and they have a right to be heard,” she said.

A Lost Fiscal Decade? Joel Kurth and Mike Wilkinson, writing in Bridge Magazine, note that still, today, home mortgages remain a rarity in Detroit: “Home sales with mortgages are rare in Detroit, occurring in just a few areas: Miles from downtown Detroit and its debates about gentrification, a more modest question surrounds the real estate in many city neighborhoods. Cash or charge?” The pair found that “sales with mortgages are rare in Detroit, occurring in just a few areas.”  Their piece outlines remarkable oscillations in assessed property values, noting that the average home sale price in the city went from $84,109 in 2001 down to $12, 517 in 2009, and then back up to $50,308 by last year—still far below the unadjusted 2001 level—albeit they found that the average price last year for homes purchased with a mortgage was $155,650. In comparing homeownership rates, they noted that last year’s rate of 47% remained under the year 2000 rate of 55%. Thus, they found that obtaining a mortgage continues to be challenging in outlying neighborhoods across Detroit, with the vast majority of homes sold for cash to landlords and investors, rather than homeowners, according to sales data and numerous interviews—posing hard questions about who will benefit in a revival rooted in downtown and Midtown in what remains the nation’s poorest city—a city where, according to the Census Bureau, 39.3% of people live below the poverty line (defined as $24,250 for a family of four), making it “the poorest in America with more than 300,000 people, followed by Cleveland (39.2%), Fresno, Calif., (30.5%), Memphis (29.8%), and Milwaukee (29%), albeit finding the Motor City’s rate has actually decreased from 2012, when it was 42.3%. The authors quoted a real estate agent: “Detroit is evolving into a new place, but outside of hot areas, neighborhoods just aren’t where they need to be to increase property values enough for banks to lend money.”

Nevertheless, a joint report by Bridge and Detroit public radio station WDET did find some grounds for optimism, determining that home sales and prices are increasing citywide after bottoming out after the mortgage meltdown, which left in excess of 65,000 foreclosures; the report noted that in some neighborhoods, prices are rising so swiftly that they are creating bidding wars, albeit the gains are uneven, and mortgage lending is mostly confined to more affluent neighborhoods, according to records from Realcomp Ltd. II: last year, only 19% of 3,800 Detroit homes sold by conventional means were financed with mortgages, demonstrating signal disparities: homes with mortgages sold for an average of $155,000; cash sales averaged $30,000—an imbalance Mayor Mike Duggan fears could “cripple” the Motor City’s recovery, according to Erica Ward Gerson, Chairwoman of the Detroit Land Bank Authority, which assembles and sells properties: she deemed the number of cash sales a “serious, serious problem,” because they can deter home ownership and depress property values, noting that cheap sales are usually rentals or vacant houses, while pricier sales are often out of reach for ordinary buyers. Most home sales in Detroit require cash; only 19 percent of the 3,800 sales in 2016 involved a mortgage, reflecting the difficulty to secure loans in a city where property values are less than half what they were a decade ago. 

In response, Mayor Duggan has sought to team with banks, foundations, and nonprofits to offer a number of programs to increase the availability of home loans; to date, as one non-profit in the city notes, the programs have demonstrated some success; however, most focus on stable neighborhoods, e.g., not where the most serious challenges remain: in more impoverished east side neighborhoods, homes last year sold for $4,000 to $40,000 in cash, according to Realcomp data—even as, a few miles away in downtown and Midtown, homes and lofts sell for $250,000 or more, according to records. Indeed, according to the Urban Institute, in 2014, 97% of Detroit homes sold for cash—nearly thrice the national average of 36%; cities with comparable populations, such as Memphis, Columbus, and El Paso, last year had at least five times as many mortgages as the approximately 710 mortgages sold in Detroit, according to data from RealtyTrac, a California-based company that tracks real estate. Indeed, according to the Urban Institute, Detroit once had one of the highest rates of home ownership among African-Americans nationwide; but, today, the city is majority renters: since 2000, the percentage of renters has increased to 53 percent from 45 percent, according to the U.S. Census.

Don’t Bank on the City’s Future. A key fiscal issue appears to be the reluctance of banks in Detroit to offer home mortgages for less than $50,000, a figure higher than many Detroit homes are worth—a seeming legacy of the sharp withering of assessed property values after the real-estate crash. Moreover, acquiring clear titles necessary for mortgages has become more difficult, because all too many Detroit homes have liens, and way too many are in such disrepair that making them livable can multiply purchase prices. Then, almost as if adding injury to insult, current federal regulations promulgated after the crash have increased the cost of issuing mortgages. Indeed, according to the Urban Institute: only one in five Detroit residents have credit scores high enough to obtain a mortgage. Erica Ward Gerson, Chair of the Detroit Land Bank, notes that Mayor Duggan, even before he took office three years ago, had recognized how critical mortgages would be to the city’s fiscal recovery: he went, in 2015, to Denver to the Clinton Global Initiative America to plead his case to the former President and leaders of foundations and banks: afraid that low appraisals and the refusal to loan small amounts would undercut any long-term recovery chances for the city. That leadership turned out to be key: In the wake of Mayor Duggan personally taking at least one bank leader on tours of stable neighborhoods in Detroit where lending was impossible, Ms. Gerson noted that in “lightning speed,” five banks, community foundations, and nonprofits teamed to form the Detroit Home Mortgage program, which removes barriers to lending and issues mortgages for up to $75,000 more than appraised value. Now, in this new initiative, announced in February, the Mayor hopes to secure financing for 1,000 mortgages over the next 3-5 years.

Governing from Afar. It is now expected to take the PROMESA Oversight Board several more months to set up the administrative structure to pass judgment over the budgetary impact of every law enacted by Puerto Rico; nevertheless, the announcement that this process will be set in motion marks the consolidation of Puerto Rico’s public finances, coming just as Puerto Rico bondholders and bond insurers have repeated a request to the Oversight Board to initiate immediate debt negotiations. The Ad Hoc Group of GO Bondholders, which had requested the negotiations get started last week, had joined with other creditors in asking the PROMESA Board to commence negotiations this morning in New York City, with the creditors having rejected the Board’s request for a mediator to oversee the negotiations. The creditors complained it would take too long to set up the mediation ground rules and that there are only a few weeks to complete the debt negotiations, writing they had “all agreed not to participate in a mediation that lacks basic process,” seeking to trigger the PROMESA provision on a consensual debt negotiation process, which can run until May 1, when a stay on litigation allowed by PROMESA and the board will end. PROMESA Board Chair José Carrión III, for his part, has claimed that his plan is not to create a “super government,” at least in terms of the amount of people in the organism, notwithstanding that the Board’s new executive director and former Ukraine Minister of Finance, Natalie Jaresko, has been tasked with creating an office which, among other things, should have the capacity to pass judgment over the fiscal impact of each law passed in the last few months and those which might be ratified from now onward—or, as the Chairman describes it: “She will start hiring (personnel), of whom the vast majority will be Puerto Rican. We are searching for people who don’t just see this as an employment opportunity, but as a patriotic duty.”

To date, the PROMESA Board’s primary task has been to certify a long-term fiscal plan, but now the hard part of agreeing on the details and putting the legislative process under the magnifying glass commence—much like the long and painful process of reaching resolution of a plan of debt adjustment under chapter 9. To date, via letters addressed to the Governor and the leaders of the legislative chambers, the PROMESA Board first established a work calendar to which the Puerto Rico Legislature is to comply with the budget the Governor must submit before the end of the month—then granting the legislature just two weeks in May to assess and amend said budget—upon which the PROMESA Board will have the final say. Indeed, if, by the end of June, the Governor and the Legislature have not complied with the Board’s mandates, the Board—which has powers greater than Puerto Rico’s elected officials—could impose its own budget for Puerto Rico’s FY2018 year that begins on July 1st.

The process, in contrast to chapter 9 in local governments, will not include all branches; rather, the PROMESA Board is expected to continue to makes its exchanges with the Governor—not the legislators, which make up a branch of government with two leaders and where, at least on paper, Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz promises to ignore the members of the fiscal authority. Indeed, according to PROMESA, the exchange related to the revision of every law is made directly with the Governor, to whom the Board has granted seven days—after the statute is adopted—to present the fiscal impact estimate, if any, on the Governments revenues and expenditures. Or, as former Senator Fernando Martín, who is the executive president of the Puerto Rican Independence Party, put it: “As long as they take their draconian powers seriously, I believe they will do what they announced: examine passed legislation; repeal any legislation that proves contradictory with the fiscal plan; or, to soften the blow, try to make the Legislature modify it,” adding that the PROMESA Board’s defense against the Government of Puerto Rico’s bondholders is to be rigorous in controlling expenses: “Paraphrasing the current Governor’s father, the worst is yet to come: austerity, by itself, cannot be a recipe,” rather they will have to encourage solving “the structural problem in the relations between Puerto Rico and the U.S., since the solution means ending colonialism”.

Mr. Martin believes that the Governor—as the leader of the Executive branch—, the Senate President, and the House Speaker could have the judicial strength to sue: “If the Governor accepts my call to challenge the Board and the intervention in the Island’s governmental affairs, I am more than willing to help combat the Board. If I was Governor and they rejected a law I signed, I would challenge the Board’s actions in court.” However, because the PROMESA Board was imposed by Congress, in exchange for offering Puerto Rico the possibility of a quasi-chapter 9 territorial bankruptcy procedure, and because the federal law bases the Board’s control over the Island on the power Congress has to legislate through the territorial clause of the United States Constitution; it would seem his advice would be unlikely to pass judicial muster—even as Mr. Martin notes: “The Governor of Puerto Rico is Ricardo Rosselló, elected by the people’s votes. It is not Mr. Carrión. Even though Ricardo Rosselló does not belong to my party, I respect the position he holds and the power he has according to what is established by our Constitution.” Ferrer added.

Donde Estamos? Currently, while the PROMESA Board is still reviewing the workday reduction for public employees and the elimination of the Christmas bonus if its members believe that there will not be enough cash in the coffers by July 1st, the tax reduction for doctors would cost $185 million per year. Thus, the Representative from the New Progressive Party, José Enrique “Quiquito” Meléndez, opines that Governor Rosselló’s government has had “a particular worry,” which is if the Board’s power over Puerto Rico’s laws includes measures passed before the certification of the fiscal plan. Ergo. Rep. Meléndez considers that the one with the greatest cost will be the doctors’; however, among the laws which would be subject to the Board’s review would lie the financing for the plebiscite and the office of the Inspector General—or as he described it: “The plebiscite’s impact is not substantial, even without the $2.5 million that the federal government can grant.” The cost of the plebiscite—whose possible celebration is mentioned in PROMESA, has been estimated at $5 million at least—an amount that Mr. Martín does not foresee that the Board would want to say that holding a consultation on Puerto Rico’s political future, even under a Board that could only exist under the territorial status, to be “a superfluous cost.”

The Uneven Shape of Colonial Governance. Because of the PROMESA Board’s absolute power over Puerto Rico’s elected officials and even the finances of the Puerto Rico Judicial Branch, the governance situation appears to be without precedence since Congress granted Puerto Rico a structure to form a local government.

State and Local Insolvency & Governance Challenges

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eBlog, 03/29/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the efforts to recover from the brink of insolvency in the small municipality of Petersburg, Virginia, before considering the legal settlement between the State of Michigan and City of Flint to resolve the city’s state-contaminated water which nearly forced it into municipal insolvency.

On the Precipice of Governing & Municipal Insolvency. Consultants hired to pull the historic Virginia municipality of Petersburg from the brink of municipal bankruptcy this week unveiled an FY2018 fiscal plan they claim would put the city on the path to fiscal stability—addressing what interim City Manager Tom Tyrrell described as: “It’s bad, it’s bad, it’s bad.” With the city’s credit ratings at risk, and uncertainty with regard to whether to sell the city’s utility infrastructure for a cash infusion, former Richmond city manager Robert Bobb’s organization presented the Petersburg City Council with the city’s first structurally balanced spending plan in nearly a decade: the proposed $77 million operating budget would increase spending on public safety and restore 10 percent cuts to municipal employees’ pay, even as it proposes cutting the city’s workforce, deeming it to be bloated and structurally inefficient. The recommendations also propose: restructuring municipal departments, the outsourcing of services that could eliminate up to 12 positions, and the reduction through attrition of more than 70 vacancies.

As offered, the plan also recommends about a 13 percent increase in the city’s current operating budget of $68.4 million, which was amended twice this fiscal year: the $77 million total assumes a $6 million cash infusion labeled on a public presentation as a “revenue event,” referring to a controversial issue dividing the elected leaders versus the consultants: Council members and the Washington, D.C. based firm have been at loggerheads over unsolicited proposals from private companies offering to purchase Petersburg’s public city’s utility system—a challenge, especially because of citizen/taxpayer apprehension about private companies increasing rates for consumers at a time when double-digit rate increases already are on the horizon. That, in turn, has raised governance challenges: Mr. Bobb, for instance, has expressed frustration with the city’s elected leaders’ decision to stall negotiations and study the prospect by committee, noting: “The city is out of time…They’re out of time with what’s needed with respect to the long-term financial health of the city. Time’s up.” Mr. Bobb believes the city cannot cut its way to financial health, or raise tax rates for city residents who themselves are struggling to get by, noting that at $1.35 per $100 of assessed value, the city’s real estate tax rate is currently the highest in the region—and at a potential tipping point, as, according to Census data, nearly half the city’s children live below the poverty line, which is set at $24,600 for a family of four. Moreover, Petersburg’s assessed property values have stagnated for the past five years, according to the credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s, which rated the city with a negative outlook at the end of last year: the lowest of any municipality in the state. (The city ended FY2016 with $18.8 million in unpaid bills and began the new fiscal year $12.5 million over budget. The budget since has been balanced, but debts remain.)

Under Mr. Bobb’s proposed plan, in a city where public safety is already the largest expense in the operating budget, he has proposed increasing police pay, addressing salary compression in the department, and providing for a force of 111 full-time and seven part-time employees. He suggests that should Petersburg not reap a $6 million “revenue event” in FY2018, the operating budget would be about 5 percent above this year’s, and a few million below revenues for fiscal years 2016 and 2015. Mr. Bobb’s consultant, Nelsie Birch, who is serving as Petersburg’s CFO, reports the city’s budget process and the development of the upcoming year’s budget have been thwarted by a lack of administrative infrastructure, noting that in the wake of starting work last October, he walked into a city finance department that had two part-time workers out of seven allocated positions—and a municipality with only $75,000 in its checking account. (Last week, there was approximately $700,000.) Today, Mr. Birch holds one of more than a half-dozen high-profile positions now filled by interim workers and consultants; Petersburg is paying about $80,000 for a Florida-based head hunter to help fill some of the city’s key vacancies, including those for city manager, deputy city manager, police chief, and finance director—with the City Council having voted last week to extend the Bobb Group’s contract through the end of September—at a cost to Petersburg’s city taxpayers of about $520,000.

Nevertheless, the eventual governance decisions remain with the Petersburg City Council, which secured its first opportunity to study the plan this week—a plan which will be explored during more than a half-dozen public meetings planned for the coming weeks: explorations which will define the city’s fiscal future—or address the challenge with regard to whether the city continues on its road to chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy.

The fiscal and governance challenges in this pivotal Civil War city, however, extend beyond its borders—or, as the ever so insightful Neal Menkes, the Director of Fiscal Policy for the Virginia Municipal League notes:  

“Perhaps the unstated theme is that the push for ‘regionalism’ is related not just to changing economic realities but to the state’s outmoded governance and taxation models. Local finances are driven primarily by growth in real estate and local sales, revenues that are not sensitive to a service economy. Sharing service costs with the Commonwealth is another downer. K-12 funding formulae are more focused on limiting the state’s liability than meeting the true costs of education.  That’s why locals overmatch by over $3.0 billion a year the amounts required by the state to access state basic aid funding.”

State Preemption of Municipal Authority & Ensuing Physical, Governing, and Fiscal Distress. U.S. District Judge David Lawson yesterday approved a settlement under which Michigan and the City of Flint have agreed to replace water lines at 18,000 homes under a sweeping agreement to settle a lawsuit over lead-contaminated water in the troubled city—where the lead contamination ensued under the aegis of a state-appointed emergency manager. The agreement sets a 2020 deadline to replace lead or galvanized-steel lines serving Flint homes, and provides that the state and the federal government are mandated to finance the resolution, which could cost nearly $100 million; in addition, it provides for the state to spend another $47 million to replace lead pipes and provide free bottled water—with those funds in addition to $40 million budgeted to address the lead-contamination crisis; Michigan will also set aside $10 million to cover unexpected costs, bringing the total to $97 million.

The lawsuit, filed last year by a coalition of religious, environmental, and civil rights activists, alleged state and city officials were violating the Safe Drinking Water Act—with Flint’s water tainted with lead for at least 18 months, as the city, at the time under a state-imposed emergency manager, tapped the Flint River, but did not treat the water to reduce corrosion. Consequently, lead leached from old pipes and fixtures. Judge Lawson, in approving the settlement, called it “fair and reasonable” and “in the best interests of the citizens of Flint and the state,” adding the federal court would maintain jurisdiction over the case and enforce any disputes with residents. Under the agreement, Michigan will spend an additional $47 million to help ensure safe drinking water in Flint by replacing lead pipes and providing free bottled water, with the state aid in addition to $40 million previously budgeted to address Flint’s widespread lead-contamination crisis and another $10 million to cover unexpected costs, bringing the total to $97 million. The suit, brought last year by a coalition of religious, environmental, and civil rights activists, alleged Flint water was unsafe to drink because state and city officials were violating the Safe Drinking Water Act; the settlement covers a litany of work in Flint, including replacing 18,000 lead and other pipes as well as providing continued bottled water distribution and funding of health care programs for affected residents in the city of nearly 100,000 residents. It targets spending $87 million, with the remaining $10 million saved in reserve. Ergo, if more pipes need to be replaced, the state will make “reasonable efforts” to “secure more money in the legislature,” Judge Lawson wrote, adding that the final resolution would not have been possible but for the involvement of Michigan Governor Rick Snyder. Judge Lawson also wrote that the agreement addresses short and long-term concerns over water issues in Flint.

The settlement comes in the wake of last December’s announcement by Michigan Attorney General Bill Scheutte of charges against two former state-appointed emergency managers of Flint, Mich., and two other former city officials, with the charges linked to the disastrous decision by a former state-appointed emergency manager to switch water sources, ultimately resulting in widespread and dangerous lead contamination. Indeed, the events in Flint played a key role in the revocation of state authority to preempt local control—or Public Act 72, known as the Local Government Fiscal Responsibility Act, which was enacted in 1990, but revised to become the Emergency Manager law under current Gov. Rick Snyder. Michigan State University economist Eric Scorsone described the origin of this state preemption law as one based on the legal precedent that local government is a branch of Michigan’s state government; he noted that Public Act 72 was rarely used in the approximately two decades it was in effect through the administrations of Gov. John Engler and Gov. Jennifer Granholm; however, when current Gov. Rick Snyder took office, one of the first bills that he signed in 2011 was Public Act 4, which Mr. Scorsone described as a “beefed-up” emergency manager law—one which Michigan voters rejected by referendum in 2012, only to see a new bill enacted one month later (PA 436), with the revised version providing that the state, rather than the affected local government paying the salary of the emergency manager. The new law also authorized the local government the authority to vote out the state appointed emergency manager after 18 months; albeit the most controversial change made to PA 436 was that it stipulated that the public could not repeal it. The new version also provided that local Michigan governments be provided four choices with regard to how to proceed once the Governor has declared an “emergency” situation: a municipality can choose between a consent agreement, which keeps local officials in charge–but with constraints, neutral evaluation (somewhat akin to a pre-bankruptcy process), filing for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, or suffering the state appointment of an emergency manager. As Mr. Scorsone noted, however, the replacement version did not provide Michigan municipalities with a “true” choice; rather “what you actually find is that a local government can choose a consent agreement, for example, but actually the state Treasurer has to agree that that is the right approach. If they don’t agree, they can force them to go back to one of the other options. So it is a choice, but perhaps a bit of a constrained choice.”

Thus, the liability of the emergency managers and the decisions they made became a major issue in the Flint water crisis—and it undercut the claim that the state could do better than elected local leaders—or, as Mr. Scorsone put it: “The state can take over the local government and run it better and provide the expertise, and that clearly didn’t work in the Flint case. The situation is epically wrong, perhaps, but this is clearly a case of where we have to ask the question: why did it go wrong, and I think it’s a complex answer, but one of the things that needs to be done…we need a better relationship between state and local government.” That has proven to be especially the case in the wake felony charges levied against former state appointed Emergency Managers in Flint of Darnell Earley and Gerald Ambrose, who were each charged with two felonies that carry penalties of up to 20 years—false pretenses and conspiracy to commit false pretenses, in addition to misconduct in office (also a felony) and willful neglect of duty in office, a misdemeanor.

Today, Michigan local governments have four choices in the wake of a gubernatorial declaration of an “emergency” situation: a municipality or county  can choose between a consent agreement, which keeps local officials in charge but with constraints; neutral evaluation, which is like a pre-municipal bankruptcy process;  filing for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy directly; or suffering the appointment of an emergency manager—albeit, as Mr. Scorsone writes: “The choice is a little constrained, to be truthful about it…If you really carefully read PA 436, what you actually find is that a local government can choose consent agreement, for example, but actually the state Treasurer has to agree that that is the right approach. If they don’t agree, they can force them to go back to one of the other options. So it is a choice, but perhaps a bit of a constrained choice…The law is pretty clear that the emergency manager is acting in a way that does provide some governmental immunity…The emergency manager, if there’s a claim against her or him, has to be defended by the Attorney General. That was fairly new to these new emergency manager laws. The city actually has to pay the legal bills of what the Attorney General incurs, and it’s certainly true that there is a degree of immunity provided to that emergency manager, and I suppose the rationale would be that they want some kind of protection because they are making these difficult decisions. But I think this issue is going to be tested in the Flint case to see how that really plays out.” Then, he noted: “The theory is that the state can do it better…The state can take over the local government and run it better and provide the expertise, and that clearly didn’t work in the Flint case. The situation is especially wrong, perhaps, but this is clearly a case of where we have to ask the question why did it go wrong, and I think it’s a complex answer, but one of the things that needs to be done…we need a better relationship between state and local government.”

The Challenge of Recovering from or Averting Municipal Bankrupty

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eBlog, 03/28/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing recovery in Detroit from the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, before spinning the tables in Atlantic City, where the state takeover of the city has been expensive—and where the state’s own credit rating has been found wanting.

Home Team? A Detroit developer, an organization, Dominic Rand, has initiated a project “Home Team,” seeking to purchase up to up 25 square miles of property on the Motor City’s northwest side with a goal of keeping neighborhoods occupied by avoiding foreclosures and offering renters a path to homeownership. Nearly four years after the city’s chapter 9 filing for what former Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr deemed “the Olympics of restructuring,” to ensure continuity of essential services while developing a plan of debt adjustment to restructure the city’s finances—and to try to address the nearly 40 percent population decline and related abandonment of an estimated 40,000 abandoned lots and structures, as well as the loss of 67 percent of its business establishments and 80 percent of its manufacturing base, Mr. Rand reports he is excited about this initiative by an organization for purchases of homes slated for this year’s annual county tax foreclosure auction. His effort is intended to rehabilitate the homes and help tenants become homeowners. The effort seeks to end the cycle of home foreclosures due to unpaid property taxes. 

This is not the first such effort, however, so whether it will succeed or not is open to question. Officials at the United Community Housing Coalition note that previous such initiatives have failed, remembering Paramount Mortgage’s comparable effort, when the company purchased 2,000 properties, in part financed through $10 million from the Detroit police and fire pension fund—an effort which failed and, in its wake, left 90 percent of those in demolition status. Fox 2 reported that the City “does not support this proposal,” questioning its “ability to deliver on such a massive scale with no particular track record to indicate they would be successful,” adding the organization, if it wants to “start out by becoming a community partner through Detroit Land Bank and show what they can do with up to nine properties, they are welcome to do so.”

At first, the Home Team Detroit development group considered purchasing every property in Detroit subject to this year’s annual county tax foreclosure auction; instead, however, the group focused on the northwest quadrant covering 25 square miles and 24 neighborhoods—an area larger than Manhattan—with founder David Prentice noting: our “game plan is pretty simple: You are going to have a quadrant of (Detroit) with properties that are primarily occupied.” Mr. Prentice believes this initiative would address what he believes is one of Detroit’s biggest problems: halting the hemorrhaging of home foreclosures due to unpaid property taxes—an initiative one Detroit City Council member told the Detroit News was “unique and comprehensive.” Thus, city officials are reviewing the entity’s proposal—even as it reminds us of the Motor City’s ongoing home ownership challenge—a city where, still, more than 11,000 homes a year have ended in foreclosure over each of the last four years. Under the city’s process, the city warns property owners in January if their properties are at risk of tax foreclosure: as of last January, the Home Team group reports its targeted area has 11,073 properties headed for foreclosure.

Home Team is seeking approval from Detroit to purchase the properties via a “right of first refusal,” under which Mayor Mike Duggan and the Detroit City Council would have to approve the sale—and Wayne County and the State of Michigan would at least have to agree to not buy them as well, since both also have the option to buy the properties prior to such public auctions. Home Team claims it has the resources and expertise to buy the properties, rehab the homes, find new residents, and allow it to work with people traditional lenders would not consider due to poor credit ratings or because of the locations of the properties. The group claims its land contract system, or contracts for deeds, under which tenants make payments directly to the property owner and often have no ownership stake until the entire debt is paid, would work as an alternative to traditional mortgages—even as housing advocate groups such as the United Community Housing Coalition warn that land contracts are financial traps, and the nonprofit Michigan Legal Services told the Detroit News that many land contract deals are “gaming the system,” referencing a recent Detroit News story about many residents with land contracts losing out on actually getting a home—and others warning that those families sign contracts may end up owing significantly more than they would by renting, yet, at the end of such transactions, “have nothing to show for it.” (In recent years, the News reports, land contracts have outnumbered traditional mortgages in Detroit.) Mr. Prentice, while agreeing that “most land contracts are designed for the tenants to fail,” suggested his company’s land contracts would come without the high penalties, high monthly payments—payments which increase in time, and rising interest rates which have trapped unwary families in the past—and, he has vowed the company would fix up every property before putting it back on the market.

Detroit City Councilman George Cushingberry, who represents a major portion of the targeted area, told the News: “I like that it’s comprehensive and takes into account that one of the issues that prevents home ownership is financial literacy.” Yet, the ambitious proposal has also encountered neighborhood opposition: the Northwest Detroit Neighborhood Coalition has launched a petition drive to block the plan—and drawn support from eight neighborhood groups, with the Coalition issuing a statement: “We the people of northwest Detroit hereby declare our strong opposition to high-volume purchases of tax-foreclosed properties (10+ parcels) and other high-volume transfers of properties to real estate investors…Proposals like the one currently being circulated by (Home Team Detroit) do not serve the needs or interests of Detroit neighborhood residents. These bulk purchases only accelerate vacancy, blight, and further erosion of our community.” However, Melvin “Butch” Hollowell, Detroit’s Corporation Counsel, said the city opposes the effort, which would require the city to authorize a purchase agreement for the properties, noting: “The city does not support this proposal: We have a number of serious concerns, especially Home Team Detroit’s ability to deliver on such a massive scale with no particular track record to suggest they would be successful. If they want to start out by becoming a community partner through the Detroit Land Bank (Authority) and show what they can do with up to nine properties, they are welcome to do so and go from there.”

Robbery or the Cost of Municipal Fiscal Distress? The law firm of Jeffrey Chiesa, whom New Jersey Governor Chris Christie named to oversee the state takeover of Atlantic City, has billed the State of New Jersey about $287,000 for its work so far, according to multiple reports, including some $80,000 alone for Mr. Chiesa. The fiscal information came in the wake of the release by the state of invoices that showed the law firm submitted more than $207,000 in bills for the first three months of work, November through January—with some twenty-two members of the firm billing the state. In addition, Mr. Chiesa, who bills the State $400-an-hour for his time, reports he himself has billed $80,000 over that same period, noting to the Press those invoices were not included in the state’s data released last Friday, because they have yet to be fully reviewed. He added that the state has imposed “no cap” on the fees his firm may charge—leading State Assemblyman Chris A. Brown (R-Atlantic), who has been critical of the takeover, to note: “The governor handing over the city to a political insider without a transparent plan is like leaving your home without locking the door, and it looks like we just got robbed.”  The release of the data could not have come with more awkward timing, with the figures aired approximately a week after Mr. Chiesa wrote to Atlantic City police officers announcing the state was seeking to cut salaries, change benefits, and introduce longer shifts to save the city money—and as the state is calling for similar cuts and 100 layoffs in the city’s fire department—efforts in response to which Atlantic City’s police and fire unions have filed suit to prevent, with a judge last week ruling the state cannot yet move forward with the fire layoffs until he determines whether the state proposal is constitutional—even as Mr. Chiesa has defended the cuts, calling negotiations with the unions “money grabs.” For his part, at the end of last week, Mr. Chiesa defended his bills, claiming his firm helped negotiate a $72 million settlement with the Borgata casino in a long-running tax dispute with the city, gaining more than a 50 percent savings to the city from the refund it owed in the wake of tax appeals, deeming that an “important success on behalf of the city.”

Nevertheless, as S&P Global Ratings noted last week in upgrading Atlantic City’s credit rating from “CC” to “CCC,” despite assistance from the state, there is still the distinct possibility the city could still default on its debt over the next year and that filing for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy remains an option down the line.  Nevertheless, S&P analyst Timothy Little wrote that the upgrade reflected S&P’s opinion that “the near-term likelihood” of Atlantic City defaulting on its debt has “diminished” because of the state takeover and the state’s role in brokering the Borgata Casino agreement—an upgrade which a spokesperson for the Governor described as “early signs our efforts are working, that we will successfully revitalize the Atlantic City and restore the luster of this jewel in the crown.”  However, despite the upgrade, Atlantic City still remains junk-rate, and S&P reported the city’s recovery remains “tenuous:” It has a debt payment of $675,000 due on April Fool’s Day, $1.6 million on May Day, $1.5 million on June 1st, and another $3.5 million on August 1st—all payments which S&P believes will be made on time and in full, albeit warning that more substantial debts will come due later in the year, meaning, according to S&P, that the city’s recovery remains “tenuous,” and that Atlantic City is unlikely “to have the capacity to meet its financial commitment…and that there is at least a one-in-two likelihood” of a default in the next year.” Or, as Mr. Little wrote: “Despite the state’s increased intervention, [municipal] bankruptcy remains an option for the city and, in our opinion, a consideration if timely and adequate gains are not made to improve the city’s structural imbalance.”

 

Addressing Municipal Fiscal Disparities

eBlog, 03/01/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the dire stakes for Chicago’s kids if the State of Illinois continues to be unable to get its fiscal act together; then we admire the recent wisdom on fiscal disparities among municipalities in Massachusetts and Connecticut by the ever remarkable Bo Zhao of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.

Bad Fiscal Math.  Chicago Public School CEO Forrest Claypool Monday warned the public schools in the city could be forced to close nearly three weeks early and that summer school programs could be cut if the district does not receive a fast-tracked, favorable preliminary ruling from a Cook County judge in the near future, stating: “These possibilities are deeply painful to every school community.” Mr. Claypool, a former Chief of Staff to Mayor Daley, in an epistle to families with children in the city’s school system, warned the school year could end June 1st instead of June 20th without action; moreover, he noted that CPS’s summer school could be eliminated for all elementary and middle-school students, except those in special education programs, as he sought to increase pressure on Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Illinois legislature to help, warning success would depend on the courts or what has been billed as a “grand bargain” in the state capitol of Springfield to resolve Illinois’ record budget impasse. The CEO’s actions were not coordinated with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who campaigned hard in his first term to extend the year for CPS students—a campaign in which the Mayor sought to reverse what we had termed as a “time bomb,” how to reverse the tide of an exodus of 200,000 citizens and make the city a key demographic destination for the 25-29 age group—i.e., meaning a critical commitment to public schools and safety. Now the state’s inability to act on a budget threatens both: the city’s School Board earlier this month accused the state of employing “separate and unequal systems of funding for public education in Illinois” in its lawsuit filed against both Gov. Rauner and the Illinois State Board of Education, describing its suit as the “last stand” for a cash-strapped district which is “on the brink,” seeking to have Judge Franklin Ulyses Valderrama of the Cook County Chancery Division issue a preliminary injunction which would prevent the state from “continuing to fund two separate but massively unequal systems of education,” noting it intends to present its case for an injunction to the court on Friday. In addition to seeking judicial relief, the System, in its judicial filing, noted that reductions in summer school programs and the academic year could save about $96 million; however, a shortened school year could violate Illinois state requirements with regard to the length of the public school year.

Without any doubt, the threatened disruption is undermining the trust of teachers, students, taxpayers, and parents with regard to the system’s future—brought on here by the awkward math of Gov. Rauner’s veto last December of a measure which would have provided CPS with $215 million in state aid—a measure the Governor argued was contingent on Democratic leaders agreeing to broader state public pension reforms. The ante was upped further at the beginning of the week, when Illinois Secretary of Education Beth Purvis said that instead of threatening cuts to the school year, CPS should focus on pushing legislation to overhaul the state’s education funding formula, stating: “I hope that they would really look seriously at not cutting days from the school year…I think people need to understand that the CPS board adopted a budget with a $215 million hole in it. Why is the governor being held responsible for that instead of the CPS board?” Even as the city sought to pressure the state, however, the Chicago Teachers Union this week issued a statement accusing Mayor Emanuel and the school board of playing politics instead of turning to solutions to help schools such as raising taxes, with union President Karen Lewis stating: “The Mayor is behaving as if he has zero solutions is incredibly irresponsible…Rahm wants us to let him off the hook for under-funding our schools and instead wait for the Bad Bargain to pass the Senate or [Gov.] Rauner’s cold, cold heart to melt and provide fair funds.” For those kids imagining an earlier summer break, CEO Claypool would not say when the district would make a final decision to shorten the school year, noting: “We think it would be wrong to prematurely set a final date for a decision when we still have the opportunity to prevent a shorter school year.”

Revenue Sharing. Bo Zhao, the extraordinary writer for the Boston Federal Reserve who authored the very fine piece: “Walking a Tightrope: Are U.S. State and Local Governments on A Fiscally Sustainable Path?” has now completed another piercing study regarding municipal fiscal disparities: “From Urban Core to Wealthy Towns,” looking at fiscal disparities amongst municipalities in Connecticut, and comparing state policies and practices there with Massachusetts, noting: “Fiscal disparities occur when economic resources and public service needs are not evenly distributed across localities. There are equity concerns associated with fiscal disparities. Using a cost-capacity gap framework and a newly assembled data set, this article is the first study to quantify non-school fiscal disparities across Connecticut municipalities. It finds significant non-school fiscal disparities, driven primarily by the uneven distribution of the property tax base while cost differentials also play an important role. State non-school grants are found to have a relatively small effect in offsetting municipal fiscal disparities.

Unlike previous research focused on a single state, this article also conducts a cross-state comparison. It finds that non-school fiscal disparities in Connecticut are more severe than those in Massachusetts, and non-school grants in Connecticut are less equalizing than those in Massachusetts. This article’s conceptual framework and empirical approach are generalizable to other states and other countries.” Writing that his is the first article to quantify non-school fiscal disparities across the Nutmeg State, he notes they are “driven primarily by the uneven distribution of the property tax base, while cost differentials also play an important role,” as he assesses fiscal disparities amongst the state’s 169 municipalities, writing: “There is recent evidence that this longtime state neglect may have exacerbated non-school fiscal disparities…If state aid formulae are based only on local revenue raising-capacity and ignore cost disparities, they would not fully offset fiscal disparities.” This leads him to note: “Urban core municipalities exhibit the highest average per capita cost, mainly because they have the highest unemployment rate and population density, and the most jobs per capita…This means that nearly one-fifth of Connecticut residents live in the highest cost environments.” In contrast, he notes that “wealthier-property rural towns have the lowest average per capita municipal cost—more than 25 percent lower than the urban core municipal cost.” A key part of the fiscal challenge, he writes, is that in the state, the property tax is the only “tax vehicle authorized for municipal governments and virtually the only own-source revenue available to support the local general fund,” adding that the property tax makes up some 94 percent of own source general fund revenue. All of which led Mr. Zhao to assess or measure what he defines as the “Municipal Gap,” or the difference between municipal cost versus municipal capacity: a measure which he finds demonstrates that “a significant share of Connecticut municipalities and populations face municipal gaps”…with urban core municipalities confronting a gap of as much as $1,000 per capita.

Turning to the state role in addressing fiscal disparities, he notes that non-school grants in the state “do not have an explicit equalization goal.” Such grants are broadly spread, and not “well targeted to fiscally disadvantaged municipalities,” indeed, describing the gap as “very wide,” and noting that a comparison with neighboring Massachusetts would better enable Connecticut law and policy makers to better understand the “relative severity of Connecticut municipal fiscal disparities.” While noting that unlike many other states, neither of these two New England states have active county governments, so that municipalities bear much greater responsibilities for a wide range of public services—and property taxes are almost their sole source of municipal revenues, he distinguishes Connecticut’s greater municipal fiscal disparities in that it has a larger share of its population living in what he terms “smallest-gap” municipalities. Finally, he distinguishes the respective state roles by noting that Massachusetts has a “more explicit equalization goal and its main distribution formula directly considers the differences across municipalities in revenue-raising capacity.”

The Roads out of Municipal Bankruptcy

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eBlog, 2/24/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the post-chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy trajectories of the nation’s longest (San Bernardino) and largest (Detroit) municipal bankruptcies.

Exit I. So Long, Farewell…San Bernardino City Manager Mark Scott was given a two-week extension to his expired contract this week—on the very same day the Reno, Nevada City Council selected him as one of two finalists to be Reno’s City Manager—with the extension granted just a little over the turbulent year Mr. Scott had devoted to working with the Mayor, Council, and attorneys to complete and submit to U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury San Bernardino’s proposed plan of debt adjustment—with the city, at the end of January, in the wake of San Bernardino’s “final, final” confirmation hearing, where the city gained authority to issue water and sewer revenue bonds prior to this month’s final bankruptcy confirmation hearing—or, as Urban Futures Chief Executive Officer Michael Busch, whose firm provided the city with financial guidance throughout the four-plus years of bankruptcy, put it: “It has been a lot of work, and the city has made a lot of tough decisions, but I think some of the things the city has done will become best practices for cities in distress.” Judge Jury is expected to make few changes from the redline suggestions made to her preliminary ruling by San Bernardino in its filing at the end of January—marking, as Mayor Carey Davis noted: a “milestone…After today, we have approval of the bankruptcy exit confirmation order.” Indeed, San Bernardino has already acted on much of its plan—and now, Mayor Davis notes the city exiting from the longest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history is poised for growth in the wake of outsourcing fire services to the county and waste removal services to a private contractor, and reaching agreements with city employees, including police officers and retirees, to substantially reduce healthcare OPEB benefits to lessen pension reductions. Indeed, the city’s plan agreement on its $56 million in pension obligation bonds—and in significant part with CalPERS—meant its retirees fared better than the city’s municipal bondholders to whom San Bernardino committed to pay 40 percent of what they are owed—far more than its early offer of one percent. San Bernardino’s pension bondholders succeeded in wrangling a richer recovery than the city’s opening offer of one percent, but far less than CalPERS, which received a nearly 100 percent recovery. (San Bernardino did not make some $13 million in payments to CalPERS early in the chapter 9 process, but did set up payments to make the public employee pension fund whole; the city was aided in those efforts as we have previously noted after Judge Jury ruled against the argument made by pension bond attorneys two years ago. After the city’s pension bondholders entered into mediation again prior to exit confirmation, substantial agreement was achieved for th0se bondholders, no doubt beneficial at the end of last year to the city’s water department’s issuance of $68 million in water and sewer bonds at competitive interest rates in November and December—with the payments to come from the city’s water and sewer revenues, which were not included in the bankruptcy. The proceeds from these municipal bonds will meet critical needs to facilitate seismic upgrades to San Bernardino’s water reservoirs and funding for the first phase of the Clean Water Factor–Recycled Water Program.

Now, with some eager anticipation of Judge Jury’s final verdict, Assistant San Bernardino City Attorney Jolena Grider advised the Mayor and Council with regard to the requested contract extension: “If you don’t approve this, we have no city manager…We’re in the midst of getting out of bankruptcy. That just sends the wrong message to the bankruptcy court, to our creditors.” Ergo, the City Council voted 8-0, marking the first vote taken under the new city charter, which requires the Mayor to vote, to extend the departing Manager’s contract until March 7th, the day after the Council’s next meeting—and, likely the very same day Mr. Scott will return to Reno for a second interview, after beating out two others to reach the final round of interviews. Reno city officials assert they will make their selection on March 8th—and Mr. Scott will be one of four candidates.

For their part, San Bernardino Councilmembers Henry Nickel, Virginia Marquez, and John Valdivia reported they would not vote to extend Mr. Scott’s contract on a month-to-month basis, although they joined other Councilmembers in praising the city manager who commenced his service almost immediately after the December 2nd terrorist attack, and, of course, played a key role in steering the city through the maze to exit the nation’s longest ever municipal bankruptcy. Nevertheless, Councilmember Nickel noted: “Month-to-month may be more destabilizing than the alternative…Uncertainty is not a friend of investment and the business community, which is what our city needs now.” From his perspective, as hard and stressful as his time in San Bernardino had to be, Mr. Scott, in a radio interview while he was across the border in Reno, noted: “I’ve worked for 74 council members—I counted them one time on a plane…And I’ve liked 72 of them.”

Exit II. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan says the Motor City is on track to exit Michigan state fiscal oversight by next year , in the wake of a third straight year of balancing its books, during his State of the City address: noting, “When Kevyn Orr (Gov. Rick Snyder’s appointed Emergency Manager who shepherded Detroit through the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history) departed, and we left bankruptcy in December 2014, a lot of people predicted Detroit would be right back in the same financial problems, that we couldn’t manage our own affairs, but instead we finished 2015 with the first balanced budget in 12 years, and we finished 2016 with the second, and this year we are going to finish with the third….I fully expect that by early 2018 we will be out from financial review commission oversight, because we would have made budget and paid our bills three years in a row.”

Nonetheless, the fiscal challenge remains steep: Detroit confronts stiff fiscal challenges, including an unexpected gap in public pensions, and the absence of a long-term economic plan. It faces disproportionate long-term borrowing costs because of its lingering low credit ratings—ratings of B2 and B from Moody’s Investors Service and S&P Global Ratings, respectively, albeit each assigns the city stable outlooks. Nevertheless, the Mayor is eyes forward: “If we want to fulfill the vision of a building a Detroit that includes everybody, we have to do a whole lot more.” By more, he went on, the city has work to do to bring back jobs, referencing his focus on a new job training program which will match citizens to training programs and then to jobs. (Detroit’s unemployment rate has dropped by nearly 50 percent from three years ago, but still is the highest of any Michigan city at just under 10 percent.) The Mayor expressed hope that the potential move of the NBA’s Detroit Pistons to the new Little Caesars Arena in downtown Detroit would create job opportunities for the city: “After the action of the Detroit city council in support of the first step of our next project very shortly, the Pistons will be hiring people from the city of Detroit.” The new arena, to be financed with municipal bonds, is set to open in September as home to the Detroit Red Wings hockey team, which will abandon the Joe Louis Arena on the Detroit riverfront, after the Detroit City Council this week voted to support plans for the Pistons’ move, albeit claiming the vote was not an endorsement of the complex deal involving millions in tax subsidies. Indeed, moving the NBA team will carry a price tag of $34 million to adapt the design of the nearly finished arena: the city has agreed to contribute toward the cost for the redesign which Mayor Duggan said will be funded through savings generated by the refinancing of $250 million of 2014 bonds issued by the Detroit Development Authority.

Mayor Duggan reiterated his commitment to stand with Detroit Public Schools Community District and its new school board President Iris Taylor against the threat of school closures. His statements came in the face of threats by the Michigan School Reform Office, which has identified 38 underperforming schools, the vast bulk of which (25) are in the city, stating: “We aren’t saying schools are where they need to be now…They need to be turned around, but we need 110,000 seats in quality schools and closing schools doesn’t add a single quality seat, all it does is bounce children around.” Mayor Duggan noted that Detroit also remains committed to its demolition program—a program which has, to date, razed some 11,000 abandoned homes, more than half the goal the city has set, in some part assisted by some $42 million in funds from the U.S Department of Treasury’s Hardest Hit Funds program for its blight removal program last October, the first installment of a new $130 million blight allocation for the city which was part of an appropriations bill Congress passed in December of 2015—but where a portion of that amount had been suspended by the Treasury for two months after a review found that internal controls needed improvement. Now, Major Duggan reports: “We have a team of state employees and land bank employees and a new process in place to get the program up and running and this time our goal isn’t only to be fast but to be in federal compliance too.” Of course, with a new Administration in office in Washington, D.C., James Thurber—were he still alive—might be warning the Mayor not to count any chickens before they’re hatched.