Municipal Fiscal & Professional Erosion in Puerto Rico

February 20, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the municipal fiscal threats to Puerto Rico’s municipios or municipalities, before turning to the continuing threats to the island’s future of its “brain drain” through the emigration of an increasing number of some of the island’s young professionals.

Severe Revenue Erosion. Since the last revenue quarter, Puerto Rico’s 78 municipios—cities and towns governed under Puerto Rico’s Autonomous Municipalities Act of 1991, which establishes that every municipality (those with populations in excess of 50,000 are designated as incorporated—those with less as incorporated towns: cities provision their own services, while towns typically depend on nearby cities for certain services) and must have a strong mayor form of government with a municipal legislature. All have experienced a consistent undermining of revenues: according to the most recent estimates, that includes a reduction of $56 million which will be reflected this fiscal year relating to the payment of movable and immovable property taxes, with the increasing losses related to business closures and the mass exodus of Puerto Ricans to the mainland, even as the capital and operating costs imposed in the wake of Hurricane Maria have left, in their wake, a fiscal hurricane of their own with, likely, long-term fiscal consequences. Some estimate that the losses related to property taxes have been as much as $55 million just in the last fiscal quarter, according to Javier Carrasquillo, President of the Governing Board of the Municipal Revenue Collection Center (CRIM), and the current Mayor of Cidra, a municipio known as La Ciudad de la Eterna, or the City of Eternal Spring.

CRIM is itself governed by a board composed of the President of GDB, the Commissioner of Municipal Affairs, and seven mayors of municipios: those elected mayors hold office for a term of four years (and not more than two consecutive terms) and until their successors have been appointed. CRIM’s principal offices are located at State Road 1, Km. 17.2, San Juan, Puerto Rico 00926. In addition, CRIM operates nine regional centers located in the municipalities of Aguadilla, Arecibo, Bayamón, Caguas, Carolina, Humacao, Mayagüez, Ponce, and San Juan.

CRIM estimated revenues for this fiscal year at $827,148,824 after the discount of the municipal Special Additional Contributions funds for the repayment of municipalities debts and the 5% for CRIM operational expenses. (Revenues of the municipalities of Puerto Rico are principally derived from ad valorem property taxes and Commonwealth contributions: Act No. 83 authorizes municipalities to impose the following property taxes: the Special Additional Tax, without limitation as to rate or amount, which as mentioned above is available primarily for the payment of a municipality’s general obligation debt; and a basic property tax to fund operating expenses up to a maximum amount of 6% of the assessed valuation on all real property within such municipality and up to a maximum amount of 4% of the assessed valuation on all personal property within such municipality (collectively, the “Basic Tax”)). Act No. 83 also continued in effect a special property tax imposed by the government of 1.03% of the assessed valuation of all real and personal property within Puerto Rico (other than exempted property) (the “Special Tax”) for the exclusive purpose of servicing the government’s general obligation debt. A portion of the Basic Tax levied by a municipality may be transferred to other municipalities by virtue of the operation of the Matching Fund.) In addition, under Act No. 64, each municipality is required to levy the Special Additional Tax in such amounts as shall be required for the payment of its general obligation municipal bonds and notes; principal of and interest on all general obligation municipal bonds and notes and on all municipal notes issued in anticipation of the issuance of general obligation bonds also constitute a first lien on the municipality’s Basic Tax. Accordingly, the municipality’s Basic Tax would be available to make debt service payments on general obligation municipal bonds and notes to the extent that the Special Additional Tax, together with moneys on deposit in the municipality’s Redemption Fund, are not sufficient to cover such debt service. Similarly, Act No. 83 provides for an exemption from the Special Additional Tax and Basic Tax on the first $15,000 of assessed valuation of primary personal residences of individuals (the so-called “$15,000 Real Property Exemption”) and an exemption from personal property taxes on the first $50,000 of assessed valuation of property owned by businesses that have gross revenues of less than $150,000 per annum (the “$50,000 Personal Property Exemption”). Recognizing the importance of the real and personal property tax for the fiscal requirements of the municipalities, the government makes annual appropriations to the municipalities from its General Fund as compensation for the amount of the revenues foregone owing to these exemptions. However, under Act No. 83, such appropriations will not be provided to cover any amount of property taxes, which any municipality elects to forgive for primary personal residences registered for the first time after January 1, 1992, and personal property of certain businesses registered for the first time after July 1, 1991.

Acts 83 and 80, which the Legislature approved in 1991, also provide for the following central government contributions to the municipalities: 2.50% of the net internal revenues of the General Fund for fiscal year 2004-2005 and thereafter; 35% of the annual net revenues derived from the operation of the additional lottery system created by Act No. 10, of the Legislature of Puerto Rico (approved in 1989). There are also so-called “Designated Commonwealth Contributions,” which provide an annual amount from the central governments’s General Fund to compensate the municipalities for the $15,000 Real Property Exemption and the $50,000 Personal Property Exemption; and an annual amount from the Commonwealth’s General Fund to compensate the municipalities for the exemption of 0.20% of the assessed valuation of all taxable property within the municipalities (the amounts in the clauses, with the exception of the annual contributions from the Commonwealth as compensation to the municipalities for the Special Additional Tax portions of the $15,000 Real Property Exemption and the $50,000 Personal Property Exemption (defined as the “Commonwealth Contributions”). Act 80, for its part, established the Municipal Matching Fund, into which CRIM is required to deposit with GDB the total amount collected on account of Basic Taxes and the Commonwealth Contributions. Certain funds in the Matching Fund (the “Equalization Moneys”) are available to CRIM in order to guaranty that each municipality will receive revenues in an amount at least equivalent to that received from Equalization Moneys in the previous fiscal year. The Equalization Moneys are comprised of: the Designated Commonwealth Contributions; and a portion of the Basic Tax equal to 1% of the assessed value of personal property and 3% of the assessed value of real property collected by each municipality (the “Designated Basic Tax”)—with all All Equalization funds distributed to the municipalities as follows: first, as may be required so that each municipality receives at least the same amount of aggregate revenues received during the previous fiscal year on account of Equalization Moneys, using first the Designated Commonwealth Contributions, and then, to the extent necessary, the Designated Basic Tax (it has never been necessary to use the Designated Basic Tax to perform such equalization); second, Designated Basic Taxes remaining in the Equalization Moneys are allocated to the municipalities in proportion to the amount by which revenues from their Basic Taxes in such fiscal year exceed their revenues from Basic Taxes in the previous fiscal year; and third, to all municipalities based on certain economic and demographic criteria specified in Act No. 80. The remaining Matching Fund moneys are returned to the municipalities whose Basic Tax levies gave rise to such remaining moneys, and are used, with their other revenues, to meet operating expenses. (Prior to July 1, 1993, the Secretary of the Treasury collected all municipal taxes upon real and personal property, including intangible property) in each municipality; since July 1, 1993, and pursuant to Act No. 80, CRIM has undertaken all of the Secretary of the Treasury’s responsibilities relating to the collection and distribution of such taxes. CRIM is responsible for the appraisal, assessment, notice of imposition, and collection of all municipal property taxes. All property taxes collected by CRIM are deposited at GDB, which acts as fiscal agent to the government and its municipalities. Real property is assessed by CRIM and personal property is self-assessed. These assessment values have not been adjusted to reflect the various applicable real property and personal property exemptions, such as those described under Municipal Revenues above and other exemptions granted under Puerto Rico tax incentives laws. As mentioned above, no real property reassessment has been made in Puerto Rico since 1958. All real property taxes are assessed on the basis of the replacement cost of the related real property in fiscal year 1957-58 values, regardless of when such property was constructed.

Unsheltered from the Storm. For some municipios, the cut in their remittances in the wake of Hurricane Maria reached as much as $6 million, as is the case of San Juan; however, in percentage terms, the most affected were Guayanilla and Manatí, with a reduction of 11.7% and 11.4%, respectively—meaning those municipios were forced to make signal fiscal adjustments even as expenses were swiftly rising. Indeed, as Mr. Carrasquillo had already warned, there would be a $30 million reduction from lotteries, even as collections between July and December were projected to be down by 15%. And even that amount has been assessed as only a start: In addition to the $ 56 million, municipios will have to deduct the money they have stopped receiving due to the elimination of the Sales and Use Tax on processed foods approved by the government in the wake of Hurricane Maria—as well as the exemption of the SUT collection for small businesses, with sales volumes for less than a million dollars, which was applied between November 20 and December 31. (Usually that 1% of SUT goes to municipalities to be used for essential services, such as garbage collection.) Mr. Carrasquillo said that the impact of the SUT exemption will not be measurable until they receive the Municipal Finance Corporation report; nor will the reduction which municipalities will have in their public coffers from the licenses payment: “Businesses file the license form once the economic activity year passed, so that will not be defined until January of 2019. We can only speculate now,” he added—with his own municipio having experienced the closure of some 123 businesses in the wake of the storm.

The current budget of Caguas, a municipio of about 142,000, is $ 92 million, an amount which reflects a reduction of $26,000 in the wake of rental space declines, as well as business related income losses and a court loss after an anticipated gain from a municipal initiative imposed on businesses which generated more than $3 million annually was struck down by the courts. In the municipio, some 25% of the nearly 5,000 shops remain closed, meaning, as the Mayor worries: “I cannot guarantee essential services for the population if the funds we need do not come.” The president of the Mayors Federation, Carlos Molina, estimated the direct impact in his municipality, Arecibo, to be $5 million, including the 20% in CRIM reduction. Thus, he reflects, municipios have no choice but to reduce operational expenses and establish consortiums to provide services to achieve lower costs: “We have to be realistic about how the island lives today, but we have to look for options and not wait for a miracle to happen.”

Mayor Rolando Ortiz of Cayey adds that the urgency of the municipalities is no longer limited to furloughs, but to shutdowns and closings: “There is no way out, because the municipal institution is misunderstood by the Governor. They see how effective we were before, during and after the hurricane, but now, when apparently that crisis has already passed and we say ‘we want to help,’ they are not there.” In his city, the CRIM reduction will be $700,000: “When they reduce money for municipalities, they are taking money from the most needy people of the island. Poverty is increasing.” But hope for a turnaround, in the wake of the PROMESA Board’s non-certification of Senate Bill 774 which would create a $100 million Municipal Recovery Fund, has been dashed.

Undercutting Hopes for a Recovery from the Storm. In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, Florida Hospital, which operates 26 hospitals throughout the Gator state, the hospital has recruited as many as 45 health care professionals from Puerto Rico, including nurses, medical technologists, and nutrition specialists. With a mainland nursing shortage and an aging U.S. population, which is fueling demand for health care services, estimates are that the U.S. will need to produce over one million new registered nurses by 2022 to fill newly created jobs and replace a legion of soon-to-be retirees, meaning, that Florida, the premier retiree state in the nation, commenced an international recruitment program for nurses a decade ago, but, in recent years, has looked increasingly at Puerto as one of its most promising pipelines for talent. Prior to Hurricane Maria, about 3% of Florida Hospital’s nurses came from Puerto Rico as a growing number of its residents migrated to the U.S. to escape the economic problems plaguing the island; however, that percentage is expected to double; in fact, Florida Hospital has even developed an outreach program, partnering with community groups to find and help healthcare professionals from Puerto Rico find jobs. The hospital also fast tracks the hiring process: interviews, applications, as well as getting the state requirements for nursing are all expedited. In nearby Missouri, CoxHealth, a nonprofit regional healthcare system operating six hospitals and 80 clinics, initiated a nurse recruitment effort in Puerto Rico last spring, describing recruitment as an easier option compared to other countries because of work visa, language, and other issues. For nursing professionals from Puerto Rico, where pay can be $14.15 an hour, long shifts, and attending to as many as 15 patients at a time because of hospital was understaffing, the move to Florida would seem almost a no-brainer: the pay in Florida is $25.71 per hour—and the case load far lower. Mary Perrone, the international recruiter for Florida Hospital, said 20 more nurses from Puerto Rico will finish training and be on staff in the coming weeks; CoxHealth sent a recruiting team to Puerto Rico last weekend for on-site interviews with nursing candidates. If all goes well, it hopes to hire 30 more nurses soon.

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The Motor City’s Road to Recovery

eBlog

January 17, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the ongoing fiscal recovery in Detroit from the nation’s largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy.

The City of Detroit, which filed for municipal bankruptcy protection on July 19, 2013—in what remains the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, in what then-Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr described as “the Olympics of restructuring,” a step he took to ensure continuity of essential services and critical to rebuilding the Motor City, continues on its resurgent comeback, with last years home sales ending on a high note. After decades of population decline (In 1950, there were 1,849,568 people in Detroit; by 2010, there were 713,777), the city reported the median sales price increased from last year to this year by nearly 50%. Realcomp Ltd. Data, moreover, indicates continued increases in assessed values this year: median sales prices increased from $159,000 in 2016 to $170,000 last year, while average days listed declined from 74 a year ago in December to 44 last month. Realcomp Board of Governor David Elya predicts demand and market listing will increase further this year, noting the Motor City is experiencing a higher inventory crunch due to higher demand—demand driven by a solid employment outlook—a remarkable turnaround from the onset of its chapter 9 filing, when the Motor City was home to an estimated 40,000 abandoned lots and structures: between 1978 and 2007, Detroit lost 67 percent of its business establishments and 80 percent of its manufacturing base. Or, as the insightful Billy Hamilton wrote at the time: the city was “either the ghost of a lost time and place in America, or a resource of enormous potential.”

Detroit, which relies on taxes and state-shared revenues higher than those of any other large Michigan municipality on a per capita basis, derives its revenues from a broader base than most municipalities: property taxes, income tax, utility taxes, a casino wagering tax, and state-shared revenues. Notwithstanding, its revenues, prior to its filing, had declined over the previous decade by 22 percent, even as it was accruing more debt based on obligations for post-employment benefits. The city’s decline into chapter 9 predated the housing crisis, or, as the Citizens Research Council reported: the overall loss of 15,648 business establishments from 1972 until 2007 did not capture the effects of the severe 2008 recession, much less the bankruptcies and subsequent recovery of General Motors and Chrysler and the restructuring of the automotive supplier network, on the number of businesses in the city.

Nevertheless, persistence, along with the sharp recovery of the automobile markets, combined with the city’s being home to one of the broadest tax bases of any city in the U.S. [Municipal income taxes constitute the city’s largest single source, contributing about 21 percent of total revenue in 2012, or $323.5 million in 2002, the last year in which the city realized a general fund surplus.] appears to have been instrumental in the remarkable turnaround.

Balancing Fiscal & Public Safety

January 9, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the potential fiscal impact of the expiration of the State of New Jersey’s public safety arbitration cap—with the expiration coming as Governor-elect Phil Murphy has been reviewing a report examining the implications for property taxes, state spending, collective bargaining agreements, and public safety. Then we journey south to witness the denouement of the fiscal siege of the historic municipality of Petersburg, Virginia.

Uncapping & Fiscal Impacts. The State of New Jersey’s statute capping public safety arbitration awards at 2% has been in effect for seven years—it was last extended in 2014. Now, with a new Governor taking office, Moody’s has warned that its expiration on the last day of 2017 is a credit negative for the Garden State—and for its municipalities and counties. Indeed, the New Jersey League of Municipalities has been joined by the New Jersey Association of Counties, the New Jersey Conference of Mayors, the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, New Jersey Business and Industry Association, and the New Jersey Realtors Association to urge the new Governor and Legislature to support permanently extending the 2% cap Interest Arbitration Cap, noting that an expired cap would have a negative impact on property taxes and jeopardize the continued delivery of critical services, as well as adversely impact residential and commercial property taxpayers, working class families, and those on fixed incomes. The League’s President, Mayor James Cassella of East Rutherford, noted that the 2% Interest Arbitration Cap has controlled costs: without the cap, municipalities could see costly arbitration awards that would force local officials to reduce services or lay off employees to satisfy the arbitrator’s award and stay within the 2% levy cap. Similarly, New Jersey Association of Counties President Heather Simmons, a Gloucester County Freeholder, noted that failure to permanently extend the 2% cap on binding interest arbitration awards would inequitably alter the collective bargaining process in favor of labor at the expense of taxpayers, and lead to awards by arbitrators with no fiduciary duty to deliver essential services in a cost-effective manner.

Now Moody’s has moodily weighed in, deeming the expiration a credit negative for the state’s cities and  counties, as has Fitch Ratings.

In New Jersey, interest arbitration is a process open only to police and fire employee unions: it is a mechanism to resolve collective bargaining disputes between local governments and unions: when a public employer is unable to reach a contract agreement with a police or fire union, an arbitrator is called in to decide the terms of the contract. When the state adopted the 2 percent property tax levy cap, a separate 2 percent cap on interest arbitration awards was also imposed: that mandates arbitrators to take property taxes into account when issuing awards and providing local officials with a now proven and effective tool to contain property tax increases. The arbitration cap expired on Dec. 31; however, the property tax levy cap is permanent. The New Jersey League noted: “For nearly a decade, the 2 percent cap on binding interest arbitration awards has kept public safety employee salaries and wages under control simply because parties have been closer to reaching an agreement from the onset of negotiations. Moreover, the 2 percent cap on binding interest arbitration awards has established clear parameters for negotiating reasonable successor contracts that preserve the collective bargaining process and take into consideration the separate 2 percent tax levy cap on overall local government spending. And, importantly, the 2 percent cap on binding interest arbitration awards has not negatively impacted public safety services or recruitment.

In the wake of the expiration of the arbitration cap, it appears likely that arbitrator contract awards would exceed 2 percent. That would likely force cities and counties in the Garden State to reduce or eliminate municipal services—or go to the voters to seek approval to exceed the 2 percent property tax cap in order to fund an arbitration award.

Moody’s analyst Douglas Goldmacher moodily noted: “Given that salary costs are among the largest of municipal expenditures, the cost implications are obvious and considerable. The effect of this is, in most cases, unlikely to be rapid, but ultimately, the loss of the arbitration cap is likely to cause the sector’s credit quality to deteriorate…Although the cap has expired, and it may not be finished. Numerous local governments and local government advocacy groups support the arbitration cap. It is possible that the new governor and New Jersey state Legislature will revisit the matter. Until and unless that occurs, there will be a potentially dangerous mismatch between revenue and expenditures.” The statute, which caps public safety arbitration awards at 2%, came into force on January 1, 2011; it was extended for a three-year period in 2014 when it was last up for renewal. Mr. Goldmacher noted: “The cap played a major role in helping local governments manage public safety costs by instituting a limit on increases in police and fire salaries in arbitration and effectively tying the salary increases to the municipality’s or county’s revenue-raising capabilities…The cap’s expiration, should it prove permanent, is a credit negative for all local governments.” Mr. Goldmacher noted the cap’s existence has been a “valuable tool” in contract negotiations when police and firefighter unions with negotiators often forced to consider small salary increases. A September report by former Gov. Chris Christie’s appointees to the Police and Fire Public Interest Arbitration Impact Task Force stated that municipal property taxes jumped at an annual average of 7.19% for the five years prior to the cap compared to 2.41% since 2011. The report also estimated that the cap has saved taxpayers a collective $429 million. Thus, Mr. Goldmacher notes: “Given that salary costs are among the largest of municipal expenditures, the cost implications are obvious and considerable: Police and fire contracts often serve as a benchmark contract for other negotiations, which had the effect of making a 2% annual increase something of a standard target for most contracts, even for non-public safety collective bargaining units.” While it is possible the cap may be reinstated, Mr. Goldmacher added that as long as no action is taken to address the lapse, New Jersey’s cities and counties confront “a potentially dangerous mismatch” aligning revenue and expenditures, because of how much a 2% property tax cap law would limit their budgetary flexibility, writing: “The effect of this is, in most cases, unlikely to be rapid, but ultimately, the loss of the arbitration cap is likely to cause the sector’s credit quality to deteriorate,” he said. “The degree of deterioration will depend on the idiosyncratic qualities of the given community.”

For its part, Fitch wrote: “…the arbitration cap is beneficial to local government credit quality as it helps to align revenue and spending measures and supports structural balance in the context of statutory caps on property tax growth…bargaining groups may become more emboldened to pursue arbitration as opposed to voluntary settlement if the arbitration cap expires. Arbitration awards were significantly higher prior to the cap, ranging from 2.50% to 5.65% from 1993-2010, according to a report of the New Jersey Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC.)” Fitch also noted that the elimination of the arbitration cap “could force local governments to reduce governmental services and/or rely on one-time resources to accommodate higher wage expenses.”

The Fiscal Siege of Petersburg. Jack Berry, Robert Bobb, and Nelsie Birch, writing in a piece, “Overcoming the latest siege of Petersburg, referenced the city’s then vital role in the Civil War, where, as they wrote: “The series of battles known as the Siege of Petersburg lasted nine months and consisted of devastating trench warfare. It featured the largest concentration of African-American troops in the war, who suffered enormous casualties at the Battle of the Crater.” They went on to write: “Some would say that Petersburg has been under siege ever since the Civil War, that there is a siege mentality in the city. Petersburg even has a Siege Museum…But Petersburg has not always been under siege; it is not today, and it will not be tomorrow. Noting that Petersburg was once the second largest city in Virginia—and home to the largest number of free blacks in Virginia, they noted that it was once “a wealthy city, a major industrial center, and one of the largest rail hubs in the nation,” where, in the wake of the Civil War, a “coalition of Africa-American and white, populist Republicans, controlled the state legislature, which led to the creation of two large public institutions in the region: Virginia State University and Central State Hospital. Later, Fort Lee became another major economic engine for the area.” The authors noted, however, that “Jim Crow laws and Massive Resistance devastated the hopes and dreams of black citizens and fueled racial tensions. In 1985, one of the city’s largest employers, Brown & Williamson Tobacco, shut down its Petersburg factory. Later, Southpark Mall was located north of the city, sucking retail sales out of Petersburg.” These events adversely affected assessed property values—in turn reducing investment in public schools. The historic city seemed on a route to chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy—or being, as they wrote: “relinquishing city status—and being subsumed by neighboring jurisdictions,” all because of what they described as a “self-inflicted, mismanaged city government” which “ran itself into a ditch: In July of 2016, the city faced $18 million in unpaid bills. The budget was $12 million out of balance. Petersburg had nearly run out of cash and was dipping into every available pot of money, regardless of restrictions, to pay bills. A botched water meter conversion project impacted utility billings, which made the cash situation even worse.”

Because the Commonwealth of Virginia was apprehensive that a default by Petersburg would have had severe fiscal repercussions for municipalities across the state, the Commonwealth, as we have previously written, provided a consulting team to diagnose the fiscal issues and recommend fiscal measures—including, in its recommendations, pay cuts of 10 percent pay cuts for the entire city workforce. Even as the state-imposed overseer was acting, an aroused citizenry, via a grassroots group called “Clean Sweep,” attended every City Council session, demanding greater fiscal accountability. A year ago last October, former Mayor Howard Meyers and the City Council brought in a fiscal posse in an effort to restructure, hiring former Richmond City Manager Robert Bobb and his team, who set up a temporary war room in the City Hall building where General Robert E. Lee had met with his senior Confederate officers during the Siege of Petersburg. Mr. Bobb wrote of the fiscal war room: “We dug in for the long haul, with Nelsie Birch leading efforts to peel back layers of the financial onion. We got a handle on cash flow, figured out the extent of the unpaid bills, found checks stashed in drawers, arranged short-term financing, crafted a new budget, dramatically cut spending, put pressure on the city treasurer to collect taxes, and revamped the decrepit utility system…New financial policies were put in place; debt was restructured; water and sewer rates were increased to comply with debt covenants; the organization was right-sized; new managers were hired.”

Mr. Bobb described this war room process as one in which—at the same time—his team teamed with Mayor Sam Parham and the members of the Petersburg City Council “every step of the way,” to make the tough decisions, adding that, during this process, “Our strongest ally was the Governor’s Office, in particular, Virginia Secretary of Finance Ric Brown.” Indeed, by last November, external auditors reported a signal fiscal turnaround: Petersburg reported a year-end surplus of $7.2 million—and the report was on time; the auditor’s opinion was clean.

Getting Schooled on Disaster

December 15, 2017

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s Blog, we consider the fiscal and governing challenges of a city emerging from a quasi-state takeover—and report on continuing, discouraging blocks to Puerto Rico’s fiscal recovery.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

The Steep Fiscal Road to Recovery. Detroit’s Cerveny – Grandmont neighborhood, where median household income has declined by 5 percent since 2000 and average household incomes are under $38,000—and median home sale prices are just over $51,000, this week was one of 10 areas in the Motor City yesterday was cited in a report, “Reset, Rethink, Rebuild: A Shared Vision of Performing Schools in Quality Buildings for Every Child in Detroit”  a study about neighborhoods, educational opportunity, and the conditions of public school buildings, as one of ten neighborhoods wherein it is nearly impossible to find a quality school. Indeed, the report determined that the problem is deeper than just those 10 neighborhoods: Only 20 percent of the children enrolled in a public school in the city, whether charter or traditional public, are attending a quality school: a discouraging, failing grade with implications for both assessed property values and Detroit’s budget. Chris Uhl, the Executive Director of the eastern region for IFF, which published the study, noted: “The fact that four out of five kids in this city” are not attending a quality school “is pretty horrifying to me…that…should catalyze action.” The report notes that nearly half of the space in school buildings in the city is underutilized. A key recommendation of the report was that greater coordination is needed between leaders of the Detroit Public School System and the authorizers of charter schools—presumably including the current U.S. Secretary of Education. (Currently, only Grand Valley State University and Central Michigan University are authorized to open new charters in the city, but there are a number of other authorizers with schools in the city.)  IFF’s recommendations are similar last week’s report by the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren.

In its report, the IFF identified quality schools using Michigan’s less than clear, but outdated quality schools color-coded accountability system–a system due to be replaced next year: a part of that old system provided for the assignment of five colors, based on how well students achieved academic goals. Of the city’s 178 general education public schools, just 2.4% received the equivalent of an A.  The report makes clear that the steep road back from the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy requires a greater focus on the next generation’s future: schools good enough to attract families back into the city—attracted by a good school to enroll their children. Today, too few of them exist—or, as the report notes: Detroit needs nearly 70,000 more seats available in quality schools to ensure that every child has access to such a school. Tonya Allen, President and CEO of the Skillman Foundation, which funded the research, noted: “We’re not meeting the demand, which leaves us vulnerable to leakages: for students to leave the city to go to school in the suburbs.”

A Taxing Recovery? Just as Puerto Ricans were treated unequally by the federal response to hurricane devastation compared to Houston and Florida, so too there is apprehension that the tax “reform” legislation nearing completion in Congress—especially as there is growing apprehension that Congress could move towards adopting a territorial tax system for businesses—that is a new tax system which would treat Puerto Rico as a foreign country with respect to the numerous foreign subsidiaries of U.S. corporations which operate there. Puerto Rico Secretary of Economic Development and Commerce Manuel Laboy Rivera is apprehensive that subsidiaries of U.S. corporations which receive favorable treatment under current federal law could find the emerging federal tax reform would impose a new 20 percent federal excise tax on all pharmaceuticals, medical devices, and other products shipped to the mainland—that is a new, discriminatory tax—which would be in addition to the Jones Act provisions which render Puerto Rico unable to compete fairly vis-à-vis other Caribbean competitor nations—even as Puerto Rico is subject to the federal minimum wage and other federal regulations involving workplace safety and environmental protection. Indeed, last December, a bipartisan congressional task force had recommended changes in the tax treatment of the U.S. territory with the Congressional Task Force on Economic Growth writing: “Puerto Rico is too often relegated to an afterthought in Congressional deliberations over federal business tax reform legislation. The task force recommends that Congress make Puerto Rico integral to any future deliberations over tax reform.” Among the recommendations: a modification of the federal child tax credit to include the first and second children of families living in Puerto Rico, not just the third as specified under current law; the report also recommended making permanent the so-called rum cover-over payments to the governments of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The task force, however, was divided with regard to whether to fully expand the eligibility of Puerto Rican families for the Earned Income Tax Credit. The report recommended that a domestic business production credit known as Section 199 that has covered Puerto Rico since 2006 should be maintained as long as Section 199 continues. Now, however, that credit has been targeted for elimination in the pending tax reform negotiations as they enter their final hours. Under the discriminatory treatment, for federal tax purposes, Puerto Rico is considered outside the U.S. tax code, even though for virtually all other issues the island is treated as a domestic part of the U.S. For the purposes of federal tax reform, however, Senate Finance Committee Chair Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said during the Finance Committee’s deliberations that Puerto Rico’s tax issues would be handled in separate legislation. So, it seems that for Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, where 20% to 40% of all businesses are at risk of being shuttered in the wake of the hurricane and its ensuing devastation for the economy because of challenges ranging from the lack of electricity to loss of inventory, physical damage to their facilities, business interruption, and lack of capital; the message from Congress is to wait for next year.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Tx.) has informed reporters that he and other lawmakers are considering several options for Puerto Rico—especially in the wake of meeting with Resident Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez, Puerto Rico’s non-voting Representative in Congress, to discuss her request to consider making Puerto Rico an economic opportunity zone or empowerment zone—provisions adopted by Congress to abet economic recovery in hard-hit cities and counties. Thus, a change would be to treat Puerto Rico similarly—as if it were, gasp, a part of the United States for federal tax purposes and eligible for the same treatment. Likewise, tax reform could have been a vehicle for Congress to eliminate or reduce the discriminatory 20% excise tax on goods from Puerto Rico—a tax which undercuts Puerto Rico’s ability to compete with Cuba, and other countries in the region.

Even as the tax reform-deficit/debt increase legislation has swiftly moved towards the President’s desk, in New York, U.S. Judge Laura Taylor Swain, presiding over Puerto Rico’s quasi-chapter 9 case, heard from attorneys for the Employees Retirement System and the Puerto Rico Oversight Board—with the critical issue what claims of Puerto Rico’s bondholders are valid. PROMESA Oversight Board attorney Steven Weise said the 2008 Financing Statements governing Puerto Rico’s municipal bonds did not provide bondholders any collateral, arguing that the bondholders’ written arguments quoted from legal rulings about “security agreements,” but that what is allowed in these agreements are not allowed in Financing Statements—adding that the system’s legal name changed in the last several years, but that bondholders had failed to properly follow-up on this development—a failure which meant, at least as he argued, that the system should not be legally obligated to pay interest on the municipal bonds—even as Bruce Bennett, representing bondholders, told Judge Swain the bondholders had a lien on employer contributions, based on multiple commitments, arguing that the 2008 Financing Statements gave the bondholders the lien. He said errors in the document were not of such gravity to merit undercutting to undercut the bondholders’ claims—and adding that the Spanish name of the system had not changed, and that the change in the English name was just a translation change—a change without legal significance. Moreover, he noted, that along with the Financing Statements, a parallel “security agreement” had been created in 2008 and this perfected the lien; further, he argued, the 2015 and 2016 Financing Statements also assured the bondholders’ lien on the employer contributions.

Where Are the Lights? U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Lieutenant General Todd Semonite, the commanding General and Chief Engineer for the Corps reports that Puerto Rico’s electrical grid is unlikely to be fully restored until the end of May, a far more pessimistic timeline that suggested by Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello, who Wednesday stated he expects Puerto Rico’s electric grid to reach 75 percent of customers by the end of January—and 95 percent by the end of February—and 100 percent by the end of May. Adding to the dissonance, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority last month pledged service would reach 95 percent of customers by the end of this month—even though, as of Wednesday, just 61 percent of electricity had been restored.  

Post-Chapter 9 Elections–and Post Physical & Fiscal Storms

November 6, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider yesterday’s election results in municipalities we have followed through their fiscal stress or chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, including: Flint, and Detroit, in its first Mayoral election since emerging from chapter 9, Then we turn to the historic municipality of Petersburg, Virginia—a municipality which avoided chapter 9 thanks to state intervention. Finally, we consider U.S. District Court Judge Laura Swain’s approval yesterday of an urgent motion from the government of Puerto Rico and the Fiscal Oversight Board (JSF) that requires all federal funds to be allocated for the tasks of assistance and recovery in the wake of Hurricane Maria, removing said funds from possible use in restructuring the U.S. territory’s restructuring of its public debt.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

In Like Flint. Flint Mayor Karen Weaver yesterday prevailed over City Council member Scott Kincaid in a recall election involving 18 candidates, retaining the city’s proposed 30-year agreement with the Detroit water system, with Mayor Weaver prevailing by a 53-32 percent margin, according to the unofficial results. The recall had arisen from a controversy related to the Genesee County’s garbage contract: Mayor Weaver had pressed for an emergency trash collection contract with the former Rizzo Environmental Services in Macomb County over City Council opposition. The controversy arose because a former trash provider, Chuck Rizzo, and his father have reached plea deals with federal prosecutors and are expected to plead guilty this month for their roles in a wide-ranging public corruption scandal in Macomb County—a scandal which has, so far, led to criminal charges against 17 persons. The recall also came amid Mayor Weaver’s ongoing struggle with the Flint City Council with regard to the approval of a 30-year agreement with the Detroit area Great Lakes Water Authority—with City Council opposition arising from apprehension about increased water rates—and in response to last month’s decision by U.S. District Court Judge David Lawson taking the small city to task for failing to act on an April agreement supported by Mayor Weaver, the State of Michigan, and EPA which would have Flint remain on the Detroit area water system. Flint had been supposed to switch to the regional Karegnondi Water Authority; however, Mayor Weaver’s administration rejected that option, because updating of the Flint water treatment facility had been projected to cost more than $68 million and to consume more than three years to complete. The Flint Council had disregarded Judge Lawson’s decision, and approved a two-year extension of service with the Great Lakes Water Authority. Thus, while the prior agreement with the Detroit area water authority had lapsed, Mayor Weaver, the State of Michigan, the Great Lakes Authority, and other supporters have revived the agreement. Last week, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality had filed an emergency motion asking Judge Lawson to approve giving Mayor Weaver the authority to sign the renewed contract by Election Day, because of the inability of the City Council to act—a request from the state which the Judge rejected; however, he has scheduled a hearing on the motion later this month.

Motor City Victory Lap. Detroit Mayor Duggan was re-elected yesterday by more than a 2-1 margin over challenger State Sen. Coleman A. Young II, son of a former Detroit Mayor. In remarks after the decision, Mayor Duggan  noted: “I have been treated with nothing but warmth and kindness from Detroiters in every neighborhood in the city…I hope that this is the year where we put us-versus-them politics behind us forever because we believe in a one Detroit for all of us.” His opponent, in conceding, claimed he had commenced a movement to help the politically dispossessed: “The campaign might be over, but the passion and values are eternal…We are the voice for the voiceless. We are the hope for the hopeless.” Mayor Duggan, who won a write-in primary campaign in 2013 and then defeated Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon in the general election, thus became the Motor City’s first mayor to serve two terms since Dennis Archer in the 1990’s.  In his campaign, the former CEO of the Detroit Medical Center gained prominent endorsements from city labor unions, clergy, and business groups—he overwhelmed his opponent in fundraising: he secured about $2.2 million; whereas Mr. Young raised just under $39,000. Mayor Duggan, in his victory remarks, noted his campaign had focused on spending “time talking about the vision of what we are going to do in the next four years,” adding: “I thought one of the most profound things President Obama ever said was ‘If you have to divide people in order to get elected, you’ll never be able to govern.’”

In his campaign, Mayor Duggan touted public service improvements under his administration in the wake of the nation’s largest-ever municipal bankruptcy, including new streetlights, improved public safety response, and more dependable bus lines. He said he intends to continue work on building a more unified Detroit—focusing now on a series of efforts to fix up neighborhood corridors, roads, and sidewalks—and stating: “There are haves and have-nots in every city in America. We’re building a city here that it doesn’t matter where you start, you have the opportunity to be successful,” adding that he believe the greatest challenge now confronting Motor City residents will be over automobile insurance reform legislation—referring to legislation rejected by the Michigan House last week, but making clear he does not intend to give up: “We were a lot closer this time than we were two years ago, and we have a plan to get it through the next time: It’s going to be one relationship at a time, one vote at a time, but we’ve already had several meetings with both the medical and the legal community, and I think they realize we were three votes away.” 

The Road Out of State Oversight. The re-election comes at a critical time, as the City expects to have its full municipal fiscal authority restored next spring for the first time since it exited the nation’s largest ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy three years ago—challenging the city’s appointed and elected leaders with the task of resuming governance after the end of state oversight—and as the Mayor and Council resume authority over budgets and contracts. With two balanced budgets and an audit of a third expected next May, city leaders anticipate Detroit will be released early next year from the strict financial controls required under the city’s approved plan of debt adjustment—a key issue during the just completed campaign, where both the Mayor and his challenger had proposed plans with regard to how they would fiscally guide the recovering city—and as Michigan Governor Rick Snyder expressed optimism about the city’s ability to manage its finances, telling the Detroit News: “They’ve been hitting those milestones, and I hope they continue to hit them—that’s a good thing for all of us.”

Indeed, the Motor City’s credit rating has been upgraded; its employment rate is up; assessed property values are climbing. In its financial update last month, the city noted economic development in some neighborhoods and Detroit’s downtown, job creation efforts, and growth in multifamily home construction. Nonetheless, the road to recovery will remain not just steep, but also pot-holed: it confronts very large future payments for past borrowing and public pension obligations under the plan of debt adjustment—or, as our colleague Lisa Washburn of Municipal Market Analytics noted: “It really takes the economic environment to cooperate, as well as some very good and focused financial management. Right now, that seems to be all there…Eventually, I suspect there will be another economic downturn and how that affects that region, that’s something outside of their control. But it can’t be outside of their field of vision.”

Petersburg. In one of the most closely watched municipal elections in Virginia, last night, Gloria Person-Brown, the wife of the current embattled City Treasurer Kevin Brown of Petersburg, was trounced by former City Council member Kenneth Pritchett, with Mr. Pritchett winning by a large margin: he captured more than 70 percent of the vote. In his campaign, stating he had been frustrated by the city’s low credit rating, and by the city’s struggles with collecting revenue and timely payment of bills, Mr. Pritchett vowed he would implement policies and standardize internal controls to improve the office’s operations. Likely, in the wake of a Virginia state fiscal report last September—a report which scrutinized eight specific aspects of city governance and fiscal responsibilities—and contained allegations of theft involving Ms. Person-Brown’s husband, City Treasurer Kevin Brown. Some Council members then had called for his resignation, and even Ms. Person-Brown had distanced herself from her husband’s actions during the election, albeit she did not say he had done anything wrong. Rather she ran on a platform of improving the Treasurer’s services, including instituting more checks and balances, and calling for more accountability.

Stepping in to Help Puerto Rico. U.S. District Court Judge Laura Taylor Swain has approved, with various changes, an urgent motion from the government of Puerto Rico and the PROMESA Fiscal Oversight Board which mandates that all federal funds to be allocated to the country for the tasks of assistance and recovery due to the passage of Hurricane Maria may not be claimed in the process of restructuring the public debt, accepting to the request of the Authority for Financial Supervision and Tax Agency and the JSF during the general hearing held in New York City‒in which it emerged that, in part, the order would restrict the use of disaster assistance funds as a condition of the federal government, so that Puerto Rico can receive assistance: the order will establish that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funds for Puerto Rico following in the wake of Hurricane Maria, as well as funds granted by other federal agencies, will be maintained. Judge Swain granted the order after listening to the arguments of Suzanne Uhland, legal representative of AAFAF, as well as lawyers from municipal insurers and the organized group of General Obligations bondholders (GOs), who underscored the need to incorporate into the order transparency criteria and mechanisms to ensure that some entity such as the JSF has influence in how federal funds granted by the government will be used. Matthew J. Troy, the federal government’s representative in the case, told Judge Swain that to include specific language which would give the Puerto Rican government priority in claiming funds that had been misused by state agencies or public corporations in the Island was indispensable for Puerto Rico to receive funds from the federal government: as part of the order, it would be established that, in the event federal funds were misused, it will be up to the central government to claim these funds from the agency or public corporation which received them from the federal government. Judge Swain has scheduled a follow-up hearing for next Wednesday.

During the hearing, an attorney, Marcia Goldstein, pointed out that it is urgent to know what role if any the Junta de Supervisión y Administración Financiera for Puerto Rico (the JSF) will have with regard to the approval of the contracts for the recovery tasks. The PROMESA law establishes, among other things, that the federal agency has the power to review the contracts granted by the Puerto Rican government or the dependencies subject to the control of the JSF. To date, however, it is uncertain whether the JSF has examined or had influence in the process of hiring dozens of companies which would be responsible for multiple tasks, from infrastructure repair to the audit of federal funds. In an interview with the Puerto Rican El Nuevo Día a little over a week ago, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), in the wake of his visit to Puerto Rico, pointed out that the JSF will have a key role in defining the scope of the aid package that Puerto Rico would need and how such resources would be allocated.

Looming Municipal Insolvencies?

October 10, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the looming municipal fiscal threat to one of the nation’s oldest municipalities, and the ongoing fiscal, legal, physical, and human challenges to Puerto Rico.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

Cascading Insolvency. One of the nation’s oldest municipalities, Scotland, a small Connecticut city founded in 1700, but not incorporated until 1857, still maintains the town meeting as its form of government with a board of selectmen. It is a town with a declining population of fewer than 1,700, where the most recent median income for a household in the town was $56,848, and the median income for a family was $60,147. It is a town today on the edge of insolvency—in a state itself of the verge of insolvency. The town not only has a small population, but also a tiny business community: there is one farm left in the town, a general store, and several home businesses. Contributing to its fiscal challenges: the state owns almost 2,000 acres—a vast space from which the town may not extract property taxes. In the last six years, according to First Selectman Daniel Syme, only one new home has been built, but the property tax base has actually eroded because of a recent revaluation—meaning that today the municipality has one of the 10 highest mill rates in the state. To add to its fiscal challenges, Gov. Malloy’s executive-order budget has eliminated Connecticut’s payment in lieu of taxes program—even as education consumes 81 percent of Scotland’s $5.9 million taxpayer-approved  budget: under Gov. Malloy’s executive order, Scotland’s Education Cost Sharing grant will be cut by 70 percent—from $1.42 million to $426,900. Scotland has $463,000 in its reserve accounts, or about 9 percent of its annual operating budget—meaning that if the Gov. and legislature are unable to resolve the state budget crisis, the town will have to dip into its reserves—or even consider dissolution or chapter 9 bankruptcy. Should the municipality opt for dissolution, however, there is an unclear governmental future. While in some parts of the country, municipalities can disappear and become unincorporated parts of their counties, that is not an option in Connecticut, nor in any New England state, except Maine, where more than 400 settlements, defined as unorganized territories, have no municipal government—ergo, governmental services are provided by the state and the county. Thus it appears that the fiscal fate of this small municipality is very much dependent on resolution of the state budget stalemate—but where part of the state solution is reducing state aid to municipalities.

Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen has offered a legal opinion which questioned the legality of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s plan to administer municipal aid in the absence of a state budget,  he offered the Governor and the legislature one alternative—draft a new state budget. Similarly, Senate Republican leader Len Fasano (R-North Haven), who requested the opinion and has argued the Governor’s plan would overstep his authority, also conceded there may be no plan the Governor could craft—absent a new budget—which would pass legal muster, writing: “We acknowledge the formidable task the Governor faces, in the exercise of his constitutional obligation to take care that the laws are faithfully executed, to maintain the effective operations of state government in the absence of a legislatively enacted budget.” The fiscal challenge: analysts opine state finances, unless adjusted, would run $1.6 billion deficit this fiscal year, with a key reason attributed to surging public retirement benefits and other debt costs, coupled with declining state income tax receipts:  Connecticut is now about 14 weeks into its new fiscal year without an enacted budget—and the fiscal dysfunction has been aggravated by a dispute between Sen. Fasano and Gov. Malloy over the Governor’s plans to handle a program adopted two years ago designed to share sales and use tax receipts with cities and towns: a portion of those funds would go only to communities with high property tax rates to offset revenues they would lose under a related plan to cap taxes on motor vehicles.

Aggravating Fiscal & Human Disparities. The White House has let a 10-day Jones Act shipping waiver expire for Puerto Rico, meaning a significant increase in the cost of providing emergency supplies to the hurricane-ravaged island from U.S. ports, in the wake of a spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security confirming yesterday that the Jones Act waiver, which expired on Sunday, will not be extended—so that only U.S‒built and‒operated vessels are make cargo shipments between U.S. ports. The repercussions will be fiscal and physical: gasoline and other critical supplies to save American lives will be far more expensive on an island which could be without power for months. The administration had agreed to temporarily lift the Jones Act shipping restrictions for Puerto Rico on September 28th; today, officials have warned that the biggest challenge for relief efforts is getting supplies distributed around Puerto Rico.

Even as President Trump has acted to put more lives and Puerto Rico’s recovery at greater risk, lawmakers in Congress are still pressing to roll back the Jones Act, with efforts led by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), the Chairman of the House Water and Power Subcommittee of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, recently introducing legislation to permanently exempt Puerto Rico from the Jones Act; indeed, at Sen. McCain’s request, the bill has been placed on the Senate calendar under a fast-track procedure that allows it to bypass the normal committee process; it has not, however, been scheduled for any floor time. Sen. McCain stated: “Now that the temporary Jones Act waiver for Puerto Rico has expired, it is more important than ever for Congress to pass my bill to permanently exempt Puerto Rico from this archaic and burdensome law: Until we provide Puerto Rico with long-term relief, the Jones Act will continue to hinder much-needed efforts to help the people of Puerto Rico recover and rebuild from Hurricane Maria.”

The efforts by Sen. McCain and Chairman Lee came as Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, citing an “unprecedented catastrophe,” urged Congress to provide a significant new influx of money in the near term as Puerto Rico is confronted by what he described as “a massive liquidity crisis:” facing an imminent Medicaid funding crisis, putting nearly one million people at risk of losing their health-care coverage: “[a]bsent extraordinary measures to address the halt in economic activity in Puerto Rico, the humanitarian crisis will deepen, and the unmet basic needs of the American citizens of Puerto Rico will become even greater…Financial damages of this magnitude will subject Puerto Rico’s central government, its instrumentalities, and municipal governments to unsustainable cash shortfalls: As a result, in addition to the immediate humanitarian crisis, Puerto Rico is on the brink of a massive liquidity crisis that will intensify in the immediate future.” Even before Hurricane Maria caused major damage to Puerto Rico’s struggling health-care system, the U.S. territory’s Medicaid program barely had enough funds left to last through the next year; now, however, nearly 900,000 U.S. citizens face the loss of access to Medicaid—more than half of total Puerto Rican enrollment, according to federal estimates: experts predict that unless Congress acts, the federal funding will be exhausted in a matter of months, and, if that happens, Puerto Rico will be responsible for covering all its costs going forward, or, as Edwin Park, Vice President for health policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes: “Unless there’s an assurance of stable and sufficient funding…[the health system] is headed toward a collapse.” Nearly half of Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million residents participate in Medicaid; however, because Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, not a state, Puerto Rico receives only 57 percent of a state’s Medicaid benefits. Under the Affordable Care Act, Puerto Rico received a significant infusion, of about $6.5 billion, to last through FY2019, and, last May, Congress appropriated an additional $300 million. However, those funds were already running low prior to Hurricane Maria, a storm which not only physically and fiscally devastated Puerto Rico and its economy, but also, with the ensuing loss of jobs, meant a critical increase in Medicaid eligibility.

The White House submitted a $29 billion request for disaster assistance; however, none of it was earmarked for Puerto Rico’s Medicaid program. House Energy and Commerce Committee Republicans have proposed giving Puerto Rico an additional $1 billion over the next two years as part of a must-pass bill to fund the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), with one GOP aide stating the $1 billion is specifically meant to address the Medicaid cliff. Adding more uncertainty: the Senate has not given any indication if it will take up legislation to address Puerto Rico’s Medicaid cliff: The Senate Finance Committee passed its CHIP bill this past week, without any funding for Puerto Rico attached. 

In a three-page letter sent to Congressional leaders, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló is requesting more than $4 billion from various agencies and loan program to “meet the immediate emergency needs of Puerto Rico,” writing that while “We are grateful for the federal emergency assistance that has been provided so far; however, [should aid not be available in a timely manner], “This could lead to an acceleration of the high pace of out-migration of Puerto Rico residents to the U.S. mainland impacting a large number of states as diverse as Florida, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Indiana, Wisconsin, Ohio, Texas, and beyond.”

On Puerto Rico’s debt front, with the PROMESA Board at least temporarily relocated to New York City, President Trump has roiled the island’s debt crisis with his suggestion that Puerto Rico’s $73 billion in municipal bond debt load may get erased—or, as he put it: “You can say goodbye to that,” in an interview on Fox News, an interview which appeared to cause a nose dive in the value of Puerto Rico’s municipal bonds, notwithstanding his lack of any authority to unilaterally forgive Puerto Rico’s debt. Indeed, within 24 hours, OMB Budget Director Mick Mulvaney discounted the President’s comments: he said the White House does not intend to become involved in Puerto Rico’s debt restructuring. Indeed, the Trump administration last week sent Congress a request for $29 billion in disaster aid for Puerto Rico, including $16 billion for the government’s flood-insurance program and nearly $13 billion for hurricane relief efforts, according to a White House official. No matter what, however, that debt front looms worse: Gov. Rosselló has warned Puerto Rico could lose up to two months of tax collections as its economic activity is on hold and residents wait for power and basic necessities. Bringing some rational perspective to the issue, House Natural Resource Committee Chair, Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), said the current debt restructuring would proceed under the PROMESA Oversight Board: “Part of the reason to have a board was to have a logical approach [to the debt restructuring]. We need to have this process played out…There’s not going to be one quick panacea to a situation that has developed over a long time…I don’t think it’s time to jump around…when we already have a structure to work with.” Chairman Bishop noted that Hurricane Maria’s devastation would require the board to revise its 10-year fiscal plan, with the goal to achieve a balanced budget pushed back from the current target of FY2019; at the same time, however, Chairman Bishop repeated that the Board must retain its independence from Congress. He also said Congress would consider extending something like the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act to the U.S. Virgin Islands—an action which would open the door to a debt restructuring for the more than $2 billion in public sector Virgin Islands municipal debt.

The godfather of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, Jim Spiotto, noted that it would be Congress, rather than the President, which would pass any municipal bankruptcy legislation, patiently reminding us: “You can’t just use an edict to wipe out debt: If Congress were to wipe out debt, there would be constitutional challenges…Past efforts to repudiate debt debts have had very serious consequences in terms of future access to capital markets and cost of borrowing.” In contrast, if the federal government were to provide something like the Marshall Plan to Puerto Rico, Mr. Spiotto added: the economy could strengthen, and Puerto Rico would be in a position to pay off some its debts.

Physical & Fiscal Solvency & the Unremitting Challenges of Water

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the route to fiscal solvency taken by the small Virginia municipality of Petersburg, the major legal challenges to the physical and fiscal future of Flint; and the ongoing fiscal, legal, physical, and human challenges to Puerto Rico.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

The Road Back to Fiscal Solvency. Forensic auditors earlier this week presented their findings from the audit they conducted into the city of Peters burg’s financial books during a special City Council meeting in the small, historic Virginia City of Petersburg, and answered questions from Council Members. Their key focus was on the “ethical tone” of the city government: they noted they had found much evidence of abuse of city money and city resources: “The perception that employees had was that the ethical tone had not been good for quite some time: The culture led employees to do things they might not otherwise do.” The list of misdeeds included misappropriations of fuel for city vehicles, falsification of overtime hours, vacation/sick leave abuse, use of city property for personal gain including lawn mowers and vehicles for travel, excessive or lavish gifts from vendors, and questionable hiring practices. They added that the ethical problems appeared to be more “systemic” rather than individual, testifying, for instance, that they had examined fuel consumption and “[W]e could tell just looking at it that it was misused, though it would’ve cost tens of thousands of more dollars to find out who exactly took what.” Because of the city’s limited budget, the scope of the auditor’s (PBMares) work could only go so far. Council Members Darrin Hill and Treska Wilson-Smith both expressed sentiments that the audit did not go far enough; however, former Finance Director Nelsie Birch noted that the audit was tasked with focusing on several “troubling areas,” and that a full forensic audit could have cost much more money than the nearly insolvent city had. In fact, the city spent approximately $1 million on turnaround services, with the vast bulk of that amount to the Bobb Group to obtain outside help from the firm led by the former Richmond City Manager in its efforts to pull Petersburg back from the brink of insolvency and scrutinize the cash-strapped government’s books. The city devoted nearly $195,000 to a forensic audit by the firm PBMares. Former Mayor and now City Councilman Howard Myers believes Petersburg’s taxpayers have gotten their money’s worth: “They brought us from the depths of indebtedness…I think the resistance then was mainly misinformed about the nature of how things had gotten to the point they were.” But from the abyss of insolvency, city officials now project Petersburg will have $2 million in savings left over from the fiscal year which ended June 30. To get there, the city has deeply reduced pay for emergency workers, cut funding for public schools, and eliminated programs for children in an effort to close a $12 million hole in the city’s budget—even as those efforts still left the Council confronted by some $18.8 million in past-due bills, as well as litigation over the city’s mounting debts—not to mention growing taxpayer pressure to cease to exist, but rather to dissolve its charter and revert to becoming part of one or more counties. Nevertheless, as Mayor Samuel Parham put it: “We had to take a chance: We were at a point where all the banks were laughing at us, saying: ‘We’re not going to pay you a dime; you couldn’t afford to mail an envelope.’”

Today, it seems that gamble has paid off: the contract with Mr. Bobb’s firm ended last month, and, as Mayor Parham stated: “Look, God bless Robert Bobb…We couldn’t get anyone — nobody wanted to come risk their career to save Petersburg. The storm was so massive, it was sinking all of us, but he told us he had dealt with many storms in his 40-year career.” The appointment of Mr. Bobb, however, was a political gambit which drew the opposition of a “good government group,” Clean Sweep Petersburg, which had helped launch an effort to recall Mr. Myers and Mayor Parham. The issue which created the greatest political discord: privatization of the city’s water and sewer authority.  In an interview this week, Mr. Bobb noted that the city’s future fiscal success will depend largely on the City Council’s ability to be accountable to taxpayers through their own decisions and those of the fresh administration hired in a municipal reset. Critical to that success will be firm municipal oversight of cash flow, strong leadership in the finance department, and a newly created revenue collection department designed to wrest responsibility away from the Treasurer’s office, which, according to Mr. Bobb, was not under the Council’s purview: he added the city’s elected leaders “have a tremendous fiduciary responsibility to perform at a high level on behalf of the city’s taxpayers: I think they have a chance, absolutely. They really have to control spending, though, and be careful.” He added that  of the $10 million the firm calculated it had helped save or bring in through a combination of state money it pursued, savings achieved by restructuring debt, the sale of city assets and other actions: “We’ve given the administration and the City Council a reset and an opportunity to build moving forward: “It really is up to the City Council now.”

Out Like Flint. Thousands of Flint, Michigan’s citizens are still grappling with the effects of the city’s state-caused lead-poisoning drinking water crisis, one occasioned by a gubernatorially appointed Emergency Manager, which has, today, confronted the city with many citizens facing possible tax liens and even foreclosure on their homes due to unpaid water bills: more than 8,000 residents have received notices that past-due water bills—categorized as those left unpaid for six months or more—must be resolved to avoid a lien being placed on their property. The bills in question cover two years: they total more than $5 million in delinquent water and sewer charges, according to the city. The ongoing fiscal and physical stress comes amid an involuntary manslaughter trial after  Federal Judge Judith Levy last June ruled that the conduct of government officials was “so egregious as to shock the conscience,” approving a $97 million settlement from the State of Michigan to replace water lines in at least 18,000 households.

Nevertheless, today, the water in Flint remains unsafe to drink without a filter. Unsurprisingly, in the city, where the estimated median household income in 2015 ($25,342) was more than 10 percent lower than in 2000, and where assessed housing (home/condo) values have dropped by nearly 50 percent to a level 75 percent lower than the statewide average, the city is ensnared in a vicious fiscal quandary: the liens threatened by the city, if implemented, represent the first step in making a claim on an individual’s property, setting off a legal process which could ultimately result in families losing their homes—further depressing assessed property values. And that is in a municipality where the city’s residents face some of the highest water bills in the country.  (To bring some relief, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder last year approved a $30 million plan to reimburse residents for a portion of payments made since April 2014 on water used for drinking, bathing, and cooking.) That state assistance ended early this year, however, so now the city’s leaders are faced with the grim task of condemnation: once water payments are missed on water or sewer accounts for more than six months, the city’s ordinance requires the Treasurer to transfer the lien to a homeowner’s property tax bill—or, as Mayor Karen Weaver puts it: “We must follow the law…I understand the concerns that have been raised, and I am working to see if any changes or something can be done to help those affected by this, especially given the extraordinary circumstances we have endured due to the water crisis.”

But Flint’s fiscal and physical crisis has become a legal entanglement for the State of Michigan, where, in another courtroom, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, whose original appointment of a series of state-appointed emergency managers who ran Flint city government from 2011 until mid-2015, making key decisions related to city’s water system (under former Emergency Manager Darnell Earley, the city changed its water source in what was explained as a cost-saving move, switching from pre-treated water from Lake Huron to raw water from the Flint River—and after which the DEQ did not require the city to treat the water to make it less corrosive to lead pipes and plumbing, causing lead to leach into the water supply).

That decision to preempt the city’s local elected officials had led to the fateful decision to switch the city’s water supply to a contaminated system; while state responsibility appears to be a hot potato—with state leaders not saying who initially opposed issuing a  state emergency over the Flint water crisis. During a preliminary examination this Wednesday, in the criminal case against Nick Lyon, Director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, special prosecutor Todd Flood read from a November 2015 email from Richard Baird, a senior advisor to Gov. Snyder, in which Mr. Baird had written “the ‘boss’ wanted to avoid triggering the emergency, which authorizes the Michigan State Police to coordinate relief efforts and requests for assistance from the federal government.” (Former President Obama signed an emergency declaration for Flint days after Gov. Snyder ultimately requested it, clearing the way for federal assistance to replace damaged lead and galvanized water service lines in the city.) Thus, the ongoing criminal trials in which the State of Michigan and City of Flint employees have been charged with criminal wrongdoing related to the water crisis (of which there are a total of 13 pending in Genesee District Court). In the trial, Corinne Miller, the former head of Disease Control for the State of Michigan, testified in a key court hearing Wednesday that the court must determine if Nick Lyon, the then Director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, must face an involuntary manslaughter charge. (Note, Mr. Lyon, has remained on the job while facing charges of involuntary manslaughter and misconduct in office.)

Indeed, the Michigan courtrooms have become filled: attorneys for 21 law firms have filed a consolidated class-action lawsuit against two engineering firms, Flint officials, and Michigan officials, including Gov. Rick Snyder and former state Treasurer Andy Dillon over Flint’s lead-contaminated water—so egregious that last June, Judith Levy ruled that Flint residents have sufficiently argued that the conduct of government officials “was so egregious as to shock the conscience.” The complaint before her had noted that approximately 100,000 Flint residents “have experienced and will continue to experience serious personal injury and property damage caused by defendents’ deliberate, reckless and negligent misconduct…Defendents caused a public health crisis by exposing (Flint residents) to contaminated water” and “exacerbated the crisis by concealing and misrepresenting its scope, failing to take effective remedial action to eliminate it, and then lying about it to cover up their misconduct.”

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Flint’s 100,000 residents and other users of its water system, says the defendants acted recklessly and did not respect residents’ due process rights argues that the engineering firms and government officials unconstitutionally did not treat the predominantly black residents of Flint the same as the predominantly white residents of great Genesee County. In late July, a three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals allowed plaintiffs in one case before Judge Levy to try to seek relief from Gov. Snyder in the form of compensation for education, medical monitoring and evaluation services for ongoing harm from Flint’s lead-contaminated water. In the other case, the appeals judges dismissed the possibility of seeking penalties for Gov. Snyder, the State of Michigan, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. All three of the judges, however, wrote that the 11th Amendment gives the state and Snyder immunity against damages sought by private citizens.

Undercutting Sovereignty. President Trump set off a broad sale of Puerto Rico’s municipal bonds this week when he said: “You can say goodbye to that,” referring to the U.S. territory’s $73 billion debt as one option to help Puerto Rico recover from Hurricane Maria in an interview on Fox News during his visit to Puerto Rico—a suggestion which OMB Director Mick Mulvaney discounted just hours later, stating the White House does not intend to become involved in Puerto Rico debt restructuring—debt which, in any case, the President has no unilateral authority to forgive. The President had stated: “We’re going to work something out. We have to look at their whole debt structure. They owe a lot of money to your friends on Wall Street, and we’re going to have to wipe that out…you can wave goodbye to that,” unsurprisingly leading some to understand that the Trump administration would force municipal bondholders to forgive Puerto Rico’s debt. (The price of Puerto Rico’s municipal bonds, already down in the wake of Hurricane Maria, fell another 31 percent—only recovering in the wake of comments by Office of Management and Budget Director Mulvaney, attempting to backtrack, stating: “I wouldn’t take it word for word with that. I talked to the President about this at some length yesterday as we flew home on Air Force One: The primary focus of the federal effort is to make sure the island is safe and that we’re rebuilding the island,” adding that the federal government would not pay off debts or bail out municipal bondholders: “I think what you heard the President say is that Puerto Rico is going to have to figure out a way to solve its debt problem.”

The White House Wednesday asked Congress to approve $29 billion in additional hurricane relief and municipal debt forgiveness, seeking to help Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, as well as shore up the debt-ridden federal flood insurance program which provides flood insurance to homes and small businesses. The latest request seeks $12.8 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to stay current with the nearly $200 million a day the agency is spending on recovery work; the request also seeks action by Congress to erase some $16 billion in debt that the National Flood Insurance Program owes to the Treasury: under the White House proposal, premiums for flood insurance would rise, at least for homeowners who could afford to pay more, while private insurers would be encouraged to start writing their own flood insurance.

For the devastated U.S. territory, however, the physical and fiscal destruction has only worsened Puerto Rico’s short and long-term fiscal plight—or, as Gov. Rossello noted: “As far as the comment made about wiping the debt clean, that is the opinion of the President,” noting, carefully, he could not comment further because of the ongoing legal proceedings. Fortunately, in Congress, House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) is putting together a funding package to aid Puerto Rico, and he said members of his committee and other Representatives were meeting to discuss temporary measures to reduce government rules slowing Puerto Rico’s recovery: his group will examine options for ways to make Puerto Rico’s and the U.S. Virgin Island’s electrical systems more resistant to storms, as well as consider how to improve things in both territories in the short-, medium-, and long-term.