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In its report, the IFF identified quality schools using Michigan’s less than clear, but outdated quality schools color-coded accountability system–a system due to be replaced next year: a part of that old system provided for the assignment of five colors,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.  

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The Steep & Ethical Challenges in Roads to Fiscal Recovery

October 17, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the ongoing recovery in Detroit from the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history; then we turn to the Constitution State, Connecticut, as the Governor and State Legislature struggle to reach consensus on a budget, before, finally, returning to Petersburg, Virginia to try to reflect on the ethical dimensions of fiscal challenges.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

The Motor City Road to Recovery.  The City of Detroit has issued a request seeking proposals to lead a tender offer and refunding of its financial recovery municipal bonds with the goal of reducing the costs of its debt service, with bids due by the end of next week, all as a continuing part of its chapter 9 plan of debt adjustment. The city has issued $631 million of unsecured B1 and B2 notes and $88 million of unsecured C notes. The bulk of the issuance is intended to secure the requisite capital to pay off various creditors, via so-called term bonds, 30-year municipal debt at a gradually sliding interest rate of 4% for the first two decades, and then 6% over the final decade, as the debt is structured to be interest-only for the first 10 years, before amortizing principal over the remainder of the term, with the city noting: “It is the city’s goal to alleviate the significant escalation of debt service during the period when principal on the B Notes begins to amortize, and that any transaction resulting from this RFP process be executed as early as possible in the first quarter of 2018.” According to Detroit Finance Director John Naglick, “Those bonds are traded very close to par, because people view them as very secure…Those bondholders feel really comfortable because they see the intercept doing what it was designed to do.” The new borrowing is the city’s third since its exit from chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, with the prior two issued via the Michigan Finance Authority. Last week the city announced plans to utilize the private placement of $125 million in municipal bonds, also through the Michigan Finance Authority, provided the issuance is approved by both the Detroit City Council and the Detroit Financial Review commission, with the bonds proposed to be secured by increased revenues the Motor City is receiving from its share of state gas taxes and vehicle registration fees.

Fiscal TurmoilConnecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy yesterday released his fourth fiscal budget proposal—with the issuance coming as he awaits ongoing efforts by leaders in the state legislature attempting to reach consensus on a two-year state budget, declaring: “This is a lean, no-frills, no-nonsense budget…Our goals were simple in putting this plan together: eliminate unpopular tax increases, incorporate ideas from both parties, and shrink the budget and its accompanying legislation down to their essential parts. It is my sincere hope this document will aid the General Assembly in passing a budget that I can sign into law.” The release came as bipartisan leaders from the state legislature were meeting for the 11th day behind closed doors in a so far unrewarding effort to agree on a budget to bring to the Governor—whose most recent budget offer had removed some of the last-minute revenue ideas included in the Democratic budget proposal. Nevertheless, that offer gained no traction with Republican legislators: it had proposed cuts in social services, security, and clean energy—or, as the Governor described it: “This is a stripped down budget.” Specifically, the Governor had proposed an additional $144 million in spending cuts from the most recent Democratic budget proposal, including: nearly $5 million from tax relief for elderly renters; $5.4 million for statewide marketing through the Department of Economic and Community Development; $292,000 in grants for mental health services; $11.8 million from the Connecticut Home Care Program over two years, and; about $1.8 million from other safety net services. His proposed budget would eliminate the state cellphone tax and a statewide property tax on second homes in Connecticut, as proposed by the Democrats; it also proposes the elimination of the 25 cent fee on ridesharing services, such as Uber and Lyft, and it reduces the amount of money Democrats wanted to take from the Green Bank, which helps fund renewable energy projects. His proposal also recommends cutting about $3.3 million each year from the state legislature’s own budget and eliminates the legislative Commissions for women, children, seniors, and minority communities—commissions which had already been reduced from six to two over the past two years. The Governor’s revised budget proposal would cut the number of security staff at the capitol complex to what it was before the metal detectors were implemented—proposed to achieve savings of about $325,000 annually, and the elimination of the Contracting Standards Board, which the state created a decade ago in response to two government scandals—here for a savings of $257,000.

For the state’s municipalities, the Governor’s offer proposes phasing in an unfunded state mandate that municipalities start picking up the normal cost of the teachers’ pension fund: Connecticut municipalities would be mandated to contribute a total of about $91 million in the first year, and $189 million in the second year of the budget—contributions which would be counted as savings for the state—and would be less steep than Gov. Malloy had initially proposed, but still considerably higher than many municipalities may have expected. Indeed, Betsy Gara, the Executive Director of the Council for Small Towns, described the latest gubernatorial budget proposal as a “Swing and a miss: The revised budget proposal continues to shift teachers’ pension costs to towns in a way that will overwhelm property taxpayers,” adding that if the state decides to go in this direction, they will be forced to take legal action, because requiring towns to pick up millions of dollars in teachers’ pension costs without any ability to manage those costs going forward is ‘simply unfair.’” Moreover, she noted, it violates the 2008 bond covenant.

In his revised new budget changes, Gov. Malloy has proposed cutting the Education Cost Sharing grant, reducing magnet school funding by about $15 million a year, and eliminating ECS funding immediately for 36 communities. The proposal to eliminate the ECS funding would likely encounter not just legislative challenges, but also judicial: it was just a year ago that a Connecticut judge’s sweeping ruling had declared vast portions of the state’s educational system as unconstitutional, when Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher ruled that Connecticut’s state funding mechanism for public schools violated the state’s constitution and ordered the state to come up with a new funding formula—and mandated the state to set up a mandatory standard for high school graduation, overhaul evaluations for public-school teachers, and create new standards for special education in the wake of a lawsuit filed against the state in 2005 by a coalition of cities, local school boards, parents and their children, who had claimed Connecticut did not give all students a minimally adequate and equal education. The plaintiffs had sought to address funding disparities between wealthy and poor school districts.

Nevertheless, in the wake of a week where the state’s Democratic and Republican legislative leaders have been holed up in the state Capitol, without Gov. Malloy, combing, line-by-line, through budget documents; they report they have been discussing ways to not only cover a projected $3.5 billion deficit in a roughly $40 billion two-year budget, but also to make lasting fiscal changes in hopes of stopping what has become a cycle of budget crises in one of the nation’s wealthiest states—or, as House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, (D-Berlin) put it: “I think what we’ve done over the last few days has been a really good step forward, and I think we’re moving in the right direction,” even as Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano said what the Governor put forward Monday will not pass the legislature: “It is obvious that the governor’s proposal, including his devastating cuts to certain core services and shifting of state expenses onto towns and cities, would not pass the legislature in its current form. Therefore, legislative leaders will continue our efforts to work on a bipartisan budget that can actually pass.”

Getting Schooled on Budgeting & Debt. Even as the Governor and legislature appear to be achieving some progress, the Connecticut Education Association (CEA) is suing the state over Gov. Dannel Malloy’s executive order which cuts $557 million in school funding from 139 municipalities: Connecticut’s largest teachers union has filed an injunction request in Hartford Superior Court, alleging the order violates state law. (The order eliminates education funding in 85 cities and towns and severely cuts funding in another 54 communities.) The suit contends that without a state budget, Gov. Malloy lacks the authority to cut education funding. The municipalities of Torrington, Plainfield, and Brooklyn joined the initial filing. Association President Sheila Cohen noted: “We can’t sit by and watch our public schools dismantled and students and teachers stripped of essential resources…This injunction is the first step toward ensuring that our state lives up to its commitment and constitutional obligations to adequately fund public education.”

Governance in Fiscal Straits? Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen has questioned the legality of Governor Malloy’s executive order, and Connecticut Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano (R-North Haven) noted: “I think the Governor’s order is in very serious legal trouble.” Nevertheless, the Governor, speaking to reporters at the state capitol, accused the CEA of acting prematurely: “Under normal circumstances, those checks don’t go out until the end of October…Secondarily, they’ll have to handle the issue of the fact that we have a lot less money to spend without a budget than we do with a budget…Their stronger argument might be that we can’t make any payments to communities in the absence of a budget. That one I would be afraid of.”

Municipal Fiscal Ethics? Forensic auditors from PBMares, LLP publicly went over their findings from the forensic audit they conducted into the City of Petersburg, Virginia’s financial books during a special City Council meeting. Even though the audit and its findings were released last week, John Hanson and Mike Garber, who were in charge of the audit for PBMares, provided their report to Council and answered their questions, focusing especially on what they deemed the “ethical tone” of the city government, saying they 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.” They noted 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. In response, several Council Members asked whether if some of the employees who admitted to misconduct could be named. Messieurs Garber and Hanson, however, declined to reveal names in public, but said they could discuss it in private with City Manager Aretha Ferrell-Benavides, albeit advising the City Council that the ethical problems seemed to be more “systemic,” rather than individual, adding: “For instance, we looked at fuel data usage…And we 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.”

In response to apprehensions that the audit was insufficient, the auditors noted that because of the city’s limited budget, the scope of PBMares’ work could only go so far. 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 for a city which had hovered on the brink of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. However, Mr. Hanson noted that while the transgressions would have normally fallen under a conflict of interest policy, such was the culture in Petersburg that the city’s employees either did not know, or were allowed to ignore those policies: “When I asked employees what their conflict of interest or gifts and gratuity policy is, people couldn’t answer that question because they didn’t know.”