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.

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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.

The Leadership Challenges on the Road to Fiscal and Physical Recovery

September 29, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the fiscal, legal, physical, and human challenges to Puerto Rico; Hartford’s steep fiscal challenges; and Detroit’s ongoing road to fiscal recovery.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

Fiscal Safety Net? The White House yesterday announced President Trump had agreed to waive the Jones Act, which will temporarily lift shipping restrictions on Puerto Rico and enable the hurricane-ravaged island to receive necessary aid; however, the waiver from the shipping law, which mandates that only American-made and-operated vessels may transport cargo between U.S. ports, will only last for 10 days, after which the equivalent of a 20 percent tax will be reimposed. The delayed U.S. response to the save U.S. citizens compared unfavorably to the response to save and protect foreign citizens in Haiti seven years ago, when the U.S. military mobilized as if it were going to war—with the U.S. military, in less than 24 hours, and before first light, already airborne, on its way to seize control of the main airport in Port-au-Prince. Within two days, the Pentagon had 8,000 American troops en route; within two weeks, 33 U.S. military ships and 22,000 troops had arrived. By contrast, eight days after Hurricane Maria ripped across neighboring Puerto Rico, just 4,400 service members were participating in federal operations to assist the devastated U.S. citizens, according to a briefing by an Army general yesterday, in addition to about 1,000 Coast Guard members.

The seemingly inexplicable delay in waiving the Jones Act—temporarily—was due to opposition of the waiver by the Department of Homeland Security, which had argued that a federal agency may not apply for a waiver unless there is a national defense threat (as, apparently, there might have been in Houston and Florida). Sen. John McCain (R-Az.) has, for years, sought to repeal this discriminatory law: The 1920 Jones Act requires that goods shipped between U.S. ports be carried by vessels 1) built in the U.S., 2) majority-owned by American firms, and 3) crewed by U.S. citizens.

Key House and Senate members, since Monday, had been pressing for a one-year waiver from the rules in order to help accelerate deliveries of food, fuel, medical, and other critical supplies to Puerto Rico, especially with current estimates that Puerto Rico could be without power for six months. On Wednesday, 45 U.S. Senate and House Members had signed a letter urging President Trump to appoint a senior general to oversee the military’s aid to Puerto Rico, to deploy the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier, and to increase personnel to assist local law enforcement. U.S. Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D.-N.Y.) warned: “If President Trump doesn’t swiftly deploy every available resource that our country has, then he has failed the people of Puerto Rico – and this will become his Katrina.” The temporary suspension of the onerous and discriminatory Jones law came only in the wake of a fierce backlash against the Trump administration for its inexplicable delay in not immediately lifting the federal law for Puerto Rico, especially after it issued a two-week waiver for Texas and Florida in response to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Nevertheless, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz praised the administration’s decision: she said it could help bring down the cost of emergency medical and other supplies, as well as vital construction materials by nearly 33 percent. Nevertheless, she warned there are still thousands of containers sitting idle at the ports of San Juan, a problem she blamed on “jurisdictional” and bureaucratic issues.

The belated Presidential action came as Puerto Rico continued to suffer the after effects of Hurricane Maria: Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority Executive Director Ricardo Ramos Rodríguez warned it could take PREPA as much as half a year to restore electricity.

Meanwhile, it appears the PROMESA Oversight Board is ready to revise the amount of debt to be paid in the next nine years. The Board is scheduled to meet today in New York City to revise the March-approved fiscal plan: the current Board fiscal plan specifies there should be enough funds to pay approximately 24% of the debt; however, it appears the Board will have little choice today but to revise every fiscal plan. Clearly none of the previous underlying assumptions can hold, and now the Board will have to await the actions and finding of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, while the Treasury Department will have to work with Puerto Rico to settle on a massive restructuring—or, as Puerto Rico House Representative Rafael Hernández Montañez put it: “We can’t have money spent on corporate lawyers and PowerPoint producing technocrats while funding is needed for immediate reconstruction efforts.” While FEMA has committed to paying for 100 percent of the costs of some work, on others, it is mandating a match of 20% to 25% of the costs for other work—a match which appears out of reach for the most savagely damaged municipalities or municipios—now confronted not just by enormous new capital and operating demands, but also by sharply reduced revenues.

Wednesday morning, the PREPA Bondholders Group offered up to $1.85 billion in debtor in possession loans to the authority. According to the group, part of the package would be a new money loan of up to $1 billion. Another part would be their possible acceptance of an $850 million in DIP notes in exchange for $1 billion in outstanding bonds owed to them—or, as the Group noted: “The new funding would allow PREPA to provide the required matching funds under various grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.” In response, PREPA’s Natalie Jaresko said: “We welcome and appreciate the expression of support from creditors…The Board will carefully consider all proposals in coordination with the government, but it is still very early as we begin to navigate a way forward following the catastrophic impact Hurricane Maria had on the island.”

The existing fiscal PREPA plan specifies there should be enough funding to pay about 24% of the debt due over the next decade; that, however, has raised questions with regard to the underlying assumptions of the Board, especially with regard to when FEMA will complete its work on the island.

Rafael Hernández Montañez, a member of Puerto Rico’s House, noted that Hurricane Maria put Puerto Rico’s territory-wide and municipal governments in very difficult financial situations. While FEMA has committed to paying for 100% of the costs of some work, he notes that the federal relief agency is still mandating a government match of 20% to 25% of the costs for other work: “It’s going to be a huge effort to cover that 20% with the government’s unbalanced budget,” adding that the hurricane will also lead to reduced revenues for the local governments.

On Wednesday, 145 U.S. Representatives and Senators signed a letter urging President Trump to appoint a senior general to oversee the military’s aid to Puerto Rico, to deploy the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier, and to increase personnel to assist local law enforcement–the same day as the PREPA Bondholders Group offer. 

The Category 4 Maria destroyed Puerto Rico’s electrical grid; it left the island desperately short of food, clean water, and fuel—and sufficient shipping options, notwithstanding the claim from the Department of Homeland Security that: “Based on consultation with other federal agencies, DHS’s current assessment is that there is sufficient numbers of U.S.-flagged vessels to move commodities to Puerto Rico.” Thus DHS opposed a waiver of the Jones Act (Under the Jones Act federal cabotage rules, the entry of merchandise into Puerto Rico can only be made on US flag and crew ships – the most expensive fleet in the world.), which has been suspended in past natural disasters, to allow less expensive, foreign-flagged ships bring in aid. Former President George W. Bush suspended the Act after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and President Barack Obama suspended it after superstorm Sandy in 2012. In a letter to the Department of Homeland Security, Sen. McCain criticized the department for waiving the Jones Act in the wake of hurricanes Harvey and Irma, but not for Puerto Rico. The Senator, who has long sought a repeal of the Jones Act, noted: “It is unacceptable to force the people of Puerto Rico to pay at least twice as much for food, clean drinking water, supplies, and infrastructure due to Jones Act requirements as they work to recover from this disaster: Now, more than ever, it is time to realize the devastating effect of this policy and implement a full repeal of this archaic and burdensome Act.”  Only the Department of Defense may obtain a Jones Act waiver automatically, which it did to move petroleum products from Texas after Hurricane Harvey. The White House is expected to send Congress a request for a funding package for Puerto Rico in the next few weeks, a senior congressional aide said.

The Road to Hartford’s Default. Citing deep cuts to higher education, sharp reductions in aid to distressed communities, and unsound deferrals of public pension payments, Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy yesterday made good on his pledge to veto the budget that legislature, earlier this month, had adopted, deeming it: “unbalanced, unsustainable, and unwise,” adding his apprehension that were it to be implemented, it would undermine the state’s long-term fiscal stability and essentially guarantee the City of Hartford’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. His veto came as the Governor and top legislators continued bipartisan talks in an attempt to reach a compromise; however, despite legislative attempts to pass a bill to increase the hospital provider tax to 8 percent, a 25 percent increase over the current level, the legislature will not meet today. In his executive order, the Governor allowed key stated services to remain operating; however, he ordered steep cuts to municipalities and certain social service programs: under his orders, approximately 85 communities would see their education cost sharing grants, the biggest source of state funding for public education in Connecticut, cut to zero next month—no doubt a critical element provoking the Connecticut Council of Small Towns, which represents more than 100 of the state’s smallest communities, to seek an override in a special session the week after next in order to avoid local property tax increases. Nevertheless, Gov. Malloy stood strongly against the Republican plan and a potential override, stating: “This budget adopts changes to the state’s pension plan that are both financially and legally unsound…This budget grabs ‘savings’ today on the false promise of change a decade from now, a promise that cannot be made because no legislature can unilaterally bind a future legislature.” He added his apprehensions that the changes proposed to the state’s pension system could expose Connecticut taxpayers to potentially costly litigation down the road: “Prior administrations and legislatures have, over decades, consistently and dangerously underfunded the state’s pension obligations,’’ a strategy, he noted, which he said has led to crippling debt and limited the state’s ability to invest in transportation, education, and other important initiatives. Nonetheless, Republican leaders urged the Governor to sign the two-year, $40.7 billion budget, saying it makes significant structural changes, such as capping the state’s bonding authority and limiting spending. Fiscally conservative Democrats who bolted to the Republican side had criticized a Democratic budget proposal which had proposed new taxes on vacation homes, monthly cellphone bills, and fantasy sports betting, as well as increased taxes on cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, and hotel room rates.

House Republican leader Themis Klarides (R-Derby) warned she and her colleagues will try to override the veto—a steep challenge, as in Connecticut, that requires a two-thirds vote in each chambers, meaning 101 votes in the House and 24 in the Senate. The crucial Republican amendment passed with 78 votes in the House and 21 in the Senate—well short of the override margin in both chambers. The action came as S&P Global Ratings this week lowered Hartford’s credit rating, writing that its opinion “reflects our opinion that a default, a distressed exchange, or redemption appears to be a virtual certainty,” albeit noting that the city could still avoid chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy by restructuring its debts. The agency wrote: “In our view, the potential for a bond restructuring or distressed exchange offering has solidified with the news that both bond insurers are open to supporting such a measure in an effort to head off a bankruptcy filing. Under our criteria, we would consider any distressed offer where the investor receives less value than the promise of the original securities to be tantamount to a default. The mayor’s public statement citing the need to restructure even if the state budget provides necessary short-term funds further supports our view that a restructuring is a virtual certainty.” Hartford’s fiscal plight is, if anything, made more dire by the fiscal crisis of Connecticut, which is still without a budget—and where the Legislature has under consideration a budget proposal from the Governor to slash state aid to the state’s capitol city of Hartford—where the Mayor notes that even were the state to make the payments it owes, Hartford would still be unable to pay its debts—so that S&P dropped the city’s credit rating from B- to C—a four-notch downgrade, writing: “The downgrade to ‘CC’ reflects our opinion that a default, a distressed exchange, or redemption appears to be a virtual certainty.”

The Steep Recovery Road. Almost three years after exiting chapter 9 bankruptcy, Detroit is meeting its plan of debt adjustment, but still confronts fiscal challenges to a full return to the municipal market, even as it nears its exit from Michigan state oversight next year. Detroit’s Deputy Chief Financial Officer and City Finance Director, John Hill, this week noted that while the Motor City recognizes that any debt the city plans to issue will still need a security boost from a quality revenue stream and some enhancement, such as a state intercept, Detroit’s plan of debt adjustment did not assume the need for market access in a traditional and predictable way, without added security layers, for at least a decade. That assessment remains true today, as Detroit nears its third anniversary from its exit from the nation’s largest ever municipal bankruptcy. With chapter 9, Mr. Hill adds: “Everything that we have been able to do since exiting bankruptcy has an attached revenue stream to it: You secure it, and bond lawyers agonize over how that will be protected in the unlikely event of another bankruptcy, because everyone has to ask the question now. Then there is a strong intercept mechanism that goes to a trustee like U.S. Bank where the bondholders now know this is absolutely secure.”

Municipal Market Analytics partner Matt Fabian notes that Detroit continues to struggle with challenges which predate its chapter 9 bankruptcy, adding the city is unlikely to regain an ability to access the traditional municipal markets on its own in the near-to-medium term: “They don’t have traditional reliable access where if they need to go to the market, you can predict with certainty that they will and they will be within a generally predictable spread,” adding that reestablishing its presence in the traditional market is important, because it indicates whether bondholders have confidence in the city as a going concern. In fact, Detroit has adopted balanced budgets for two consecutive years; it is on a fiscal path to exiting Michigan Financial Review Commission oversight, and the city ended FY2016 with a $63 million surplus in its general fund; however, Detroit’s four-year fiscal forecast shows an annual growth rate of only about 1%.

The city’s public pension obligations, mayhap the thorniest issue in cobbling together its plan of debt adjustment, are to be met per its economic plan, via a balloon payment.  Mr. Fabian notes that the Motor City’s recovery plan and future revenue growth is complicated by the need to set aside from surpluses an additional $335 million between Fy2016 and Fy2023 to address that significant, unfunded pension liability, worrying that while the plan is “fiscally responsible;” nevertheless, it comes “at the expense of using these funds for reinvestment and service improvement.”

The plan to address pension obligations is aimed at shoring up the city’s long-term fiscal health and Naglick says it shows the city has recognized the need to tackle it. Detroit developed a long-term funding model with the help of actuarial consultant Cheiron, obtained City Council approval for changes to the pension funding ordinance that established the Retiree Protection Trust Fund, and deposited $105 million into this IRS Section 115 Trust. This fund, said Detriot CFO John Naglick, will grow to over $335 million by 2024 and will provide a buffer to increased contributions beginning then. “More importantly, the growing contributions each year from the general fund to the trust will build budget capacity to make the increased contributions in future years,” he said.

Mayor Mike Duggan claimed during his 2016 State of the City speech that consultants who advised the city through bankruptcy had miscalculated the pension deficit by $490 million. Pension woes aren’t the only challenge the city faces. Fabian said that economic development has been limited to the city’s downtown and midtown areas. The rest of Detroit’s neighborhoods haven’t fared so well.

Dan Loepp, the president and CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, and Gerry Anderson, the Chairman and CEO of DTE Energy, are regarded to be among the important business leaders in Detroit, two key sectors of the Motor City’s economy, who see Detroit’s fiscal and economic trajectory as intertwined with the future of their companies; they  have headquarters in downtown and employ thousands of people including Detroiters—companies which had been making conscious and deliberate investments in the city. Asked recently to offer their perspectives about where Detroit is headed and how to include the many who are left out of the recovery, Mr. Loepp responded: “I’m a native Detroiter, and I lead a company that’s been a business resident of Detroit for nearly 80 years. I remember how uneasy it felt to be in Detroit when the national economy collapsed 10 years ago. It was hard and scary…From then to now, I strongly believe Detroit’s comeback is one of the best stories in America. The downtown is pulsing with growth and action. You’ve got business and residential development that has connected the river to Midtown and is now expanding into neighborhoods.” He added Detroit today is clear of debt and venture capital flowing backed by a city leadership which is “working well together, noting Detroit today is “now positioned to compete and win investment and jobs against any city in the country. All of this is great for Detroit.”

Notwithstanding, he warned that challenges remain: “The bankruptcy, while hard, gave the city’s leadership a clean slate to solve challenges faced by residents. The Mayor and council are working together on issues like lighting, infrastructure, zoning, and demolition…the Mayor, especially, has spent considerable energy advocating for the people of Detroit—doing things like making sure new housing developments hold space for working people of all incomes. This will promote a stronger, more diverse Detroit…Institutional issues, like improving the city’s schools and making neighborhoods safer for city residents, will take time to solve. They will take a constant, steady focus. And they need people within state and local government to work hand-in-hand with people from the neighborhoods to do the tough labor of finding sustainable solutions.” Nevertheless, he cautioned that the Motor City’s recovery is incomplete without participation of the majority: “Detroit can’t truly ‘come back’ if people living in the city are left behind. We need to always make sure there is a focus on people and that we make people a priority. Schools need to be improved. Transit needs to be addressed in a comprehensive way. Employment opportunities and housing need to be part of the master plan.”

On the Steep Edge of Chapter 9

September 12, 2017

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s Blog, we consider the increasing risk of Hartford going into municipal bankruptcy, the Nutmeg State’s fiscal challenge—and whether the state’s leaders can agree to a bipartisan budget; then we consider the ongoing fiscal challenges to Detroit’s comeback from the nation’s largest ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy: the road is steep.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

On the Edge of Chapter 9. Connecticut legislators plan to move forward with a state budget vote this week—one which is not expected to include a sales and use take hike and which may not get much support from their Republican colleagues. In his declaration, last week, Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin, in warning the city may be filing for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy within sixty days pending state budget action, noted Hartford “believes that a restructuring of its outstanding bond indebtedness will be necessary to assure the fiscal stability of the city in the future regardless of any funding received from the State.” Nevertheless, as Municipal Market Analytics noted: “It’s unclear that the city will be able to satisfy the standard conditions for entry into bankruptcy protection such as proving itself insolvent,” albeit MMA noted that in the absence of a state bailout cash, the city will unable to make payments to its bondholders, nevertheless, noting that Connecticut fiscal changes enacted last summer “would reasonably allow the city to refinance its outstanding debt under provisions that not only purport to provide a statutory lien to bondholders, but also allow principal to be back-loaded and extended for 30 years. Under Connecticut law, municipalities may secure refunding bonds with a statutory lien if they provide for such in the resolution. MMA adds that even without a lien, Hartford “could also refinance, at a minimum, approximately 80% of its outstanding general obligation debt covered by bond insurance policies,” noting that “While this would not eliminate principal currently owed, it would avoid the expense of a chapter 9 bankruptcy.” However, as William Faulkner used to write of the “odor of verbena,” the reputation of chapter 9 can create contagion: MMA notes that “some municipal investors will still not loan capital to Bridgeport for its attempted bankruptcy filing twenty-six years ago.” Thus there is apprehension in the state house that Connecticut’s own interest rates could be adversely affected were Hartford to default or file for chapter 9—adding that such a filing would thus have fiscal adverse reverberations for the state, but also undermine business complacency about remaining in the city: “It is hard to expect that declaring bankruptcy would help the city retain its current employers or attract new ones. Amazon is unlikely to locate its headquarters in a bankrupt city.” Unsurprisingly, Connecticut legislators may be considering some sort of fiscal evaluation model like Virginia’s as a quasi- oversight and/or restructuring regime for local governments.

Meanwhile Connecticut House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz (D-Berlin) said a proposal to raise the sales and use tax as high as 6.85% has been removed from the Democratic budget proposal after facing strong opposition from moderates in his party, as the Speaker’s draft budget proposal sought to close a two-year $3.5 billion deficit, advising his colleagues: “The Senate was not comfortable with that, so it was our opinion as House Democrats that we would drop that off of our proposal in an effort to come to an agreement that would pass in both chambers.’’ Nevertheless, a proposal to raise the sales tax on restaurant meals to 7% remains under consideration—drawing strong opposition from the Farmington-based Connecticut Restaurant Association, and raising apprehensions from the industry, because it was unclear exactly which meals would be covered by the increased tax—even as restaurants now confront stiffer competition from ready-made meals at supermarkets, raising questions with regard to the definition of food and beverage—something to be resolved, according to officials, by the Connecticut Department of Revenue Services.

The fiscal dilemma has, moreover, not just been between the parties, but also between Gov. Malloy and Democrats, with the Governor opposed to many of the tax hikes they have proposed, albeit late last week he said he would agree to a small sales tax increase. Nevertheless, even as state Democratic leaders were still working on a budget agreement with the Governor, separate, simultaneous talks with Republicans broke down yesterday. While Republicans indicated they would not rule out further negotiations, the breakdown appears to be taxing: Gov. Malloy is still seeking tax increases on hospitals, cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, e-cigarettes, and real estate transactions—leading Republicans to charge that Democrats are unwilling to address major, long-term structural changes which would include spending and bonding caps, along with changing the prevailing wage for labor on municipal projects that unions and many Democrats have strongly opposed for years, or, as House Republican Leader Themis Klarides (R.-Seymour) noted: “It is very clear they have no interest in changing the way the State of Connecticut works…They want to fix it for this week, for next month, for next year. They do not want to fix this problem that has been a spiraling problem…“This might as well be Irma: I have more confidence on where Irma is going than where the state is going, based on the destruction they have left in their wake.’’

Republicans plan to release a revised budget proposal today, among which some of Gov. Malloy’s proposals could be included as part of a budget proposal House Democrats plan to consider Thursday, including an expansion of the state’s bottle bill to include juices, teas, and sports drinks. When consumers fail to return their bottles, the nickel deposit is kept by the state. As a result, the state expects to collect an additional $2.8 million starting on Jan. 1, and then another $7.4 million in the second year of the two-year budget from unclaimed deposits. The legislature appears fiscally anxious as Gov. Malloy’s October 1 deadline approaches—the date on which he is set to invoke large cuts: under his revised executive order, 85 communities would receive no educational cost-sharing funds; 54 towns would receive less money.

Nevertheless, the Governor and legislature are working in fiscal quicksand: Gov. Malloy, a Democrat, has been running the state by executive order since July 1st: he and the legislature remain at odds over a biennial spending plan while the Governor is proposing to raise the conveyance tax on real estate transactions, which he projects would bring in an expected $127 million more to the state over two years. However, the proposal comes as sources late yesterday reported that Alexion Pharmaceuticals Inc. will today announce that its corporate headquarters is moving from New Haven to Boston as part of a major “restructuring.” The state has provided Alexion with more than $26 million in state assistance to remain in Connecticut, so the announcement is likely to be a double fiscal whammy: not only will the company move, but also it plans to announce significant layoffs, renewing debate with regard to how the state can remain economically competitive. (Alexion had moved to New Haven early last year from Cheshire with a $6 million grant from the state, and a subsidized $20 million loan which will be fully forgiven if Alexion has 650 workers in Connecticut by 2017.) On average, Alexion had 827 employees in the state this year through June 30. Alexion also was offered tax credits, which could be worth as much as $25 million as part of the Malloy administration’s so-called “First Five” program. Alexion had located in a newly constructed 14-story building in downtown New Haven as part of an urban revitalization project intended to tie two sections of the city together—thus Alexion’s move was key to the completion of the first phase of the project. Gov.  Malloy noted: “Hartford looks to be going bankrupt, and that ultimately may be the only way for them to resolve their issues.” In releasing his proposed a $41 billion state budget, the Governor said that if all of the stakeholders in Hartford, including the unions and the bondholders and others come to the table, maybe that can be avoided: “Hartford looks to be going bankrupt, and that ultimately may be the only way for them to resolve their issues.” The Governor added: “There is an issue that Hartford has done some pretty stupid things over the years, and that bondholders and bond rating agencies tolerated that stupidity: And if there’s going to be relief, it has to be comprehensive in nature.” With Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin having, as we previously noted, warned that Hartford would file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy absent critical support from the state, labor unions, and its bondholders, the Mayor has been pressing for an additional $40 million from the state to avoid bankruptcy—even as the Governor and state legislative leaders claim the state budget provides enough to Hartford—or, in the Governor’s words: “presents the opportunity to help Hartford.” The budget proposal also calls for a four-tiered municipal board to oversee Hartford and other distressed cities. Gov. Malloy, a lame duck, ergo with waning political power, confronts an evenly divided state Senate, and a narrowly divided state House (79-72), so balancing the deck of the fiscal Titanic between revenues and expenditures—and addressing long-term capital and public pension obligations is an exceptional fiscal challenge. The Governor’s budget proposals would also repeal the back-to-school sales tax holiday and increase the cigarette tax by 45 cents to $4.35 per pack, effective the end of next month, as well as increase the conveyance tax on real estate sales.

Leaving Chapter 9 Is Uneasy. Detroit is finding that returning to access traditional capital markets is a challenge: notwithstanding significant downtown economic progress, that progress has been mostly in the increasingly vibrant downtown and Midtown areas. Significant parts of the 139-square mile city continue to struggle with pre-chapter 9 challenges, even as the narrow relief window for the city’s public pension obligations is winnowing, effectively imposing increasing fiscal pressure—especially in the wake of the city’s general fund revenues coming up short for FY2016: Detroit’s four-year fiscal forecast predicts an annual growth rate of approximately 1%. Thus, with its plan of debt adjustment requiring annual set-asides from surpluses of an additional $335 million (between FY16 and FY23) to address those obligations, that has cut into fiscal resources vital to reinvestment and improvement in public services—especially in outlying neighborhoods. Nevertheless, Detroit Future City reports that the annual decline in the city’s population of 672,000 has been slowing. Indeed, job growth has been above the nationwide average since 2010, and that growth appears to be in higher paying jobs of over $40 thousand per year, implying that the job growth is targeted at educated or skilled workers—a key development to encouraging migration to the city—where the 25-34 year-old population has grown by 10 thousand since 2011. Notwithstanding, however, more than 40% of Detroit’s population lives in poverty, nearly triple the statewide rate—and a rate which appears to have some correlation with violent crime. Thus, even though the city has made some progress in reducing overall violent crime, murders have still been rising—albeit at a 2.4% rate. Nevertheless, perceptions matter: a recent Politico-Morning Consult poll reported that 41% of Detroit residents said they consider the city very unsafe. Moreover, in a city where only 78.3% of students graduate high school and just 13.5% of those that reside in Detroit have a bachelor’s degree—half the national rate, the number of families with children has declined by more than 40%. Thus, unsurprisingly, with housing and blight still a problem, the city’s vacancy rate is close to 30%, and some 80,000 met or were expected to soon meet the definition of blight. Worse: some 8,000 properties are scheduled to enter the foreclosure auction process this year.

What Could Be A Constructive State Role in Municipal Fiscal Stress?

August 25, 2017

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s Blog, we consider Virginia’s innovative thinking with regard to a state role in measuring municipal fiscal distress. Then we consider the changes in Detroit’s demographic conditions—changes which might augur further fiscal challenges on the Motor City’s road to recovery from the nation’s largest ever chapter 9 bankruptcy, before, finally, turning to Puerto Rico, where the legislature has just adjourned.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

Municipal Fiscal Distress: What Is a State Role? Martha S. Mavredes, Virginia’s Auditor of Public Accounts, warned the legislature’s new Joint Subcommittee on Local Government Fiscal Stress, a committee created last June in the 2017 Appropriations Act in the wake of the near chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy of Petersburg, a subcommittee which has been tasked with a broad examination of local government fiscal stress, including disparity in taxing authority between cities and counties and local responsibility for delivery of state-mandated services, but also to examine potential incentives to encourage regional cooperation and possible savings obtained from such efforts, that four localities−two cities and two counties−are showing signs of potentially serious fiscal stress. While Auditor Mavredes did not publicly identify the four localities, she did request time first to notify the four and to open discussions to determine whether the initial financial assessments are accurate.

In this instance, the municipalities include one city, known only as City A, which, under the new state fiscal rating system, scored even lower than Petersburg in an assessment of data from 2016 under the “financial assessment model” designed by the auditor and a high-level work group based on a similar system in Louisiana. Both cities scored below 5 on a system which uses 16 as the minimum threshold for indicating financial stress. One other city and two counties scored below 16, and two localities, Hopewell and Manassas Park, have yet to submit financial data for 2016. (Indeed, Hopewell has failed so far to even submit a financial statement for FY2015.) Or, as the Auditor noted in her testimony: “I can’t even review the numbers of these places…I don’t have the data.”

Subcommittee Chairman Emmett W. Hanger Jr. (R-Augusta) concurred that it would be premature to identify the localities prior to notifying them and verifying the numbers used to assess them; however, other Virginia legislative leaders questioned whether the state is doing its job by not sharing concerns with the public—or, as House Appropriations Chairman S. Chris Jones (R-Suffolk) noted: “I think we would want to know those who are below 16: Knowing and not taking any affirmative actions is almost malfeasance.” As a former Mayor, it would seem Chairman Jones knew of what he was speaking. His perspective was reinforced by Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City), who co-chairs the Senate Finance with Sen. Hanger, who noted: “It’s important that we know, and it’s important that they know we know.”

While Virginia does not specifically authorize its municipal entities to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, the state does bar any of its cities or towns from incurring debt in excess of 10% of its assessed property valuation (see §1762), the Commonwealth has no authority to intervene directly in a locality’s finances, albeit Virginia Secretary of Finance Richard D. Brown played a critical role in halting, as we have previously noted, Petersburg’s near insolvency via the provision of state technical support on a voluntary basis to the distressed small city when it was confronted by nearly $19 million in unpaid bills—a fiscal precipice which led both the Virginia Legislature and Gov. Terry McAuliffe to recognize the importance of determining whether there might be increasing fiscal disparities within the state—and whether the state might be able to play a greater role in averting other potential municipal fiscal risks—leading to provisions in last year’s budget to direct the Virginia Auditor to create a municipal fiscal monitoring system to identify potentially stressed localities and offer to help, appropriating up to $500,000 as an incentive to cooperate.

And it appears the Legislature is impressed—or, as Chair Hanger said to Auditor Mavredes: “I’m impressed that you and your team stood this up as quickly as you did.” The new system the Auditor’s team put together examines the Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports submitted to the auditor annually and scores them on 10 financial ratios−including four which measure the health of the locality’s general fund used to finance its budget. That first fiscal scorecard identified Petersburg as the sole municipality publicly identified with a score which fell below the stress threshold for the past three years, reaching 4.48 in 2016, when its increasingly desperate fiscal situation became public. Auditor Mavredes told the legislative leaders: “Petersburg is a locality I would have wanted to look at, having seen these scores without knowing anything else.” 

Nevertheless, Petersburg is not the sole city the Auditor found to be in fiscal trouble: she testified that “City A” also scored below the threshold the last three years, dropping to 4.25 in 2016, testifying: “This is a city (on which) I will be doing follow-up.” In addition, she said she plans to contact at least three other localities, noting that City B fell precipitously from a score just under 50 in 2014 to between 13 and 14 in each of the next two years. She told the legislator her first question is whether the data used in the 2014 assessment are correct. She noted that County A demonstrates what Auditor Mavredes deemed “consistently low scores,” from just under 6 in 2014, to 8.23 the next year, and 7.31 last year; County B declined sharply from a score of 21 in 2014 to under 16 the next year and just over 11 in 2016, leading Co-Chair Jones to comment: “That seems to me to be a huge drop over a two-year period.” However, Ms. Mavredes responded the cause of the drop could be as simple and as unavoidable as the loss of a major employer, which is why she testified she intends to follow-up with the locality to determine what happened. Chairman Jones made clear his preference would be that such a fiscal examination take place in public view—or, as he put it: “If they’re not doing A, B, C, I think the public ought to know what is happening in that community.”

Fiscal Omens for the Motor City? Even as Detroit continues to recover from the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, the recovery continues to be uneven, and now there appears to be an emerging threat to its fiscal future: the number of families with children has declined by 43 percent since 2000 with only about a quarter of households with children, according to a report released this week from the nonprofit Detroit Future City, which also detailed a slowing population decline and job growth. In its report, “139 Square Miles,” the average size of Detroit households has declined over the past decade, with an average 2.6 people per household: Detroit households with children now make up 26 percent of the city, a steep, nearly 33 percent drop from 2000, with the data taking into account other types of households in the city which also experienced a decline. Today, in the Motor City, non-family households make up about 44 percent and households without children, about 31 percent. That compares to seventeen years ago, when, according to Edward Lynch, a planner for Detroit Future City, there were 115,000 families with children living in Detroit compared to only 65,000 families with children by 2015. Mr. Lynch noted: “We didn’t look specifically into the causes, but a lot of people point to different things (such as) schools as to why people have been moving out of the city for quite some time.” Unsurprisingly, but certainly related, is the state of enrollment at the Detroit Public Schools Community District, which is itself emerging from fiscal insolvency, even as it is experiencing ongoing decline: since the 2010-11 school year, the district has experienced a 41% enrollment decline: more than 30,000 students, even as charter school enrollment has increased 14%. Mr. Lynch notes: “We’re trying to provide a baseline analysis of the City of Detroit as it stands at this point in time…We’re hoping this will be used by a broad range of stakeholders and residents to get a clear picture of what’s happening at this point.”

On the plus side, Detroit Future City reports that for the first time in six decades, Detroit’s population decline has slowed, in no small part due to the job growth since the Great Recession: since the first quarter of 2010, Detroit has added 30,000 private-sector jobs, bringing the total jobs in the city to 238,400. The areas of growth include business services, automotive, financial services, and production technology. Perhaps better gnus: the largest increase in jobs has been among those that pay more than $40,000 annually.

ReGrowing in the Wake of Chapter 9. Even as the City of Detroit has razed more than 12,000 blighted houses over the past four years, the challenge of razing or relocating abandoned commercial structures—structures which can be safety threats to the community—has proved more difficult. Moreover, unlike the case with commercial buildings, the city may not make use of federal funds to tear down commercial properties—a stiff challenge, as some 83% of the city’s initial blight force list of over 5,400 blighted commercial properties, of which some 83% had been privately owned. Unsurprisingly, with November’s mayoral election not so far off, the issue has been drawn into the campaign, with the Mayor proposing to double the rate of demolitions to 300—a still challenge as, at least as of the day before yesterday, only 67 have come down. A spokesperson for the Mayor, John Roach, reports that, as of last week, some 97 commercial demolitions were at various stages in the razing pipeline: 18 buildings are currently ready to be razed, while the city sorts through the bidding and contract approval process—and the city’s auditors are assessing the residential demolition program to gain important lessons learned, especially in the wake of changes to the contracting process which mandated that each demolition gain approval from both the Detroit City Council and the Detroit Financial Review Commission.

More and more people are interested in moving downtown; however, the amount of new housing units has not been able to keep up with demand, a new study released Thursday by the Downtown Detroit Partnership said. In its third installment, the Greater Downtown Residential Market Study found that demand for market-rate and affordable housing in the area will grow by nearly 10,000 units over the next five years. The study, commissioned in part by Invest Detroit and conducted by Clinton, N.J.-based Zimmerman Volk Associates Inc., examined the Downtown, Corktown, Rivertown, Lafayette Park, Eastern Market, Midtown, Woodbridge, TechTown and New Center neighborhoods. “We’re seeing a continued demand for residential units, and that demand is increasing faster than the current supply of available units,” DDP CEO Eric Larson said in a statement. “There is a great opportunity in the city for developers for both market-rate and affordable units.”  While the area’s housing demand is projected to swell over the next five years, developers have proposed building roughly 7,400 units over the next three years, shy of the 10,000 projection over five years. Annual demand is projected to be as high as 2,000 units. The study found that 1,750 units have gone up in 2017. Of those units projected to be built in the next three years, 74 percent are forecast to be market-rate rentals and the rest affordable housing. Affordable housing includes those with incomes between 30 and 80 percent of the area’s median income.

Investing in Puerto Rico’s Future. Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello has signed into law four of the five bills approved by the legislature in the extraordinary session that ended last week, including the new statute to guarantee the payment to Puerto Rico’s pensioners and establish a new defined contribution plan for public servants, or, as the Governor noted: “This first special session assured that retirees receive their pensions and that we comply with the Fiscal Plan so that we can continue to provide government services to the people.” The new law is intended to create a legal framework so that Puerto Rico can guarantee payments to its retirees via a “pay as you go” system, or, as the Governor noted: “To leave things as they were would have turned out that as soon as in September, our retirees would not receive the payment of their pension for which they worked for decades in the public service.” Under the new provisions, the General Fund will allocate $ 2 billion this year so that retirees continue to receive their monthly pensions; the bill also creates a Defined Contribution Plan, similar to a 401k, with Gov. Rossello noting: “In the past, public servants were held back by a percentage of their salary and went on to a trust that was used to pay for the administrative expenses and inefficiencies of the Government…That irresponsible practice ended with our Administration.”

Gov. Rossello also signed House Bill 1162, which makes technical amendments to the statute which created the Commission of the Equality for Puerto Rico, to incorporate the results of the plebiscite of June of 2017, providing that the members of the Commission shall not receive any remuneration for their services, noting that “this recommendation of amendment we receive[d] from baseball superstar Ivan Rodriguez so that the expenses of the members of the Commission are not met with public funds in the face of the fiscal situation that the Government is going through…I told the people of Puerto Rico from the electoral process that a vote for this server was a vote for statehood and a government that seeks equality at the national level as American citizens.”

The Fiscal Straits of Federalism: constitutional, fiscal, and human challenges for state and local leaders.

08/11/17

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Good Morning! In this a.m.’s blog, we consider the dire state of Hartford, Connecticut and the ongoing constitutional and fiscal challenges to the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico.

Fiscal Heart for Hartford? With no state budget in sight, the first day of school looming, Moody’s this week gloomily wondered whether the capitol city can avoid chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy via a path of debt restructuring and labor concessions as it contemplates looming debt payments of $3.8 million next month, and then $26.9 million in tax anticipation note payments in October. Moreover, given the grim state of Connecticut’s own fisc—upon which Hartford relies for half its municipal budget, Halloween could bring more than fiscal ghouls. Its options, moreover, as we have previously noted, are slim: with one fifth of its municipal budget composed of fixed costs, the option of increasing taxes—in a city with the highest tax rates in the state—would risk the loss of key businesses, potentially reducing, rather than increasing vital revenues. Thus, the challenge of meeting increased debt service costs and rising OPEB and pension obligations seem to more and more point to municipal debt restructuring.

If anything, the fiscal challenge is further complicated by the uncertainty on the state front: Connecticut has yet to adopt the budget for the fiscal year that began on July 1st: legislators have been unable to achieve consensus on a new two-year plan the governor will sign to address the state’s own projected $3.5 billion deficit. Indeed, Gov. Daniel P. Malloy’s budget, which proposes shifts of state education aid from wealthier communities to poorer communities, promises difficult negotiations with an uncertain outcome. Patrice McCarthy, the deputy director and general counsel at the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, warned that while there were previous state budget impasses in 1991 and 2009, this year could be much worse for public school officials: “In those years, while we didn’t have a finalized budget, people had a better idea in each community about how much they’d be receiving: This year, everything is up in the air.”

Fundido. In Latin America, the word fundido can be translated to “dead beat;” while in English, the old expression that one cannot beat a dead horse might seem apt for the challenge confronting U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor Swain, who is presiding over the PROMESA version of a chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy process—a process created under the statute adopted by Congress which Theodore Olson, the former Solicitor General of the United States, this week described in an op-ed to the Wall Street Journal as a law which blatantly violates the Appointments Clause of the U.S Constitution.

Judge Swain this week approved an agreement intended to address creditors’ competing claims with regard to Puerto Rico’s sales tax revenue by the end of this year as part of an effort to resolve an agreement between the island’s two biggest creditor classes, General Obligation bondholders and COFINA bondholders, in part through appointing an agent for each side—agents charged with pursuing the best resolution for their debtor’s estate as a whole, as opposed to advocating for particular creditors of that debtor. (COFINA’s bonds are backed by Puerto Rico’s sales and use tax revenue, unlike Puerto Rico’s General Obligation debt, which carries a constitutional guarantee providing a claim on all of Puerto Rico’s revenues.) Thus, unsurprisingly, Judge Swain had been placed in the position of Solomon: she could threaten to cut the baby in half if the two sides do not reach an agreement by December 15th.  Here, the judicial combatants, who, together, claim to hold approximately half the U.S. territory’s $72 billion in debt, are fighting over which side has the primary claim on sales and use tax revenues.

Separately, Judge Swain this week has held off on responding to a request by creditors of Puerto Rico’s bankrupt power utility, PREPA, to appoint a receiver at the agency, denying a motion by a group of cities and towns to form an official committee in the case, whose attorneys’ fees would be paid by the island’s bankruptcy estate. Judge Swain informed the parties it was unclear whether the municipalities had valid claims against Puerto Rico’s government, a claim which, as we have previously noted, is critical, as Michael Rochelle, an attorney for the muncipios, told the judge his clients are confronted with budget cuts of as much as 50 percent; he plead: “This place will become Greece…We will have municipalities needing to be bankrupted.” Increasingly, too, there are fears that exorbitant legal fees, fees which some experts believe could run to in excess of $1 billion, are coming at the expense of Puerto Rico’s future. In so informing the muncipios, Judge Swain rejected a motion by several municipalities to have a committee representing their interests in Puerto Rico’s Title III case: she said that §1102 of the bankruptcy code allowed committees for creditors or equity security holders, but the municipalities are not the latter, and the municipalities’ principal concerns are not those of being creditors, adding that the municipalities are adequately represented without having their own committee.

The president of the Association of Puerto Rico Mayors, Rolando Ortiz, yesterday made clear the gravity of the fiscal situation, warning that 45 municipalities will be inoperative as early as the close of the fiscal year, under the fiscal plan submitted by Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and certified by the Federal Fiscal Control Board. He noted that the proposal would eliminate a loan of some $350 million, which was granted to municipalities in exchange for exempting public corporations from paying the tax on real property—or, as he stated: “From the fiscal point of view, it leaves us without protection of the judicial apparatus of the country and limits our capacity to serve to the citizens to the extent that they take away resources that we have always used to help the people that we attend in the different cities.”

Indeed, it appears the fiscal impact has already begun to have an effect on the pockets of municipal employees, who have experienced reductions in working hours in 22 municipalities: Arroyo, Toa Alta, Cabo Rojo, Yauco, Las Piedras, Juana Diaz, Comerío, Vieques, Aguadilla, Mayagüez, Toa Baja, Salinas, Adjuntas, Vega Baja, Sabana Grande, Villalba, and Trujillo Alt; five other municipalities had applied the reduction of working hours in previous years. (Ponce, Ciales, Luquillo, Maunabo, and Camuy.) The likely next step, he warned, would be that more municipalities will join the lawsuits filed by the municipalities of San Juan and Caguas—litigation in response to which they said: “The decision of (Judge Swain) what she is going to bring is more cases on the part of the municipalities.” The Mayor of Caguas, a municipality  founded in 1775 of about 150,000 located in the Central Mountain Range, William Miranda Torres, regretted the closure of the judicial door to the municipalities, describing it as a “scenario where they have made decisions, by blow and blow, to make use of our monies without allowing us fair participation,” describing it as “clear discrimination against the municipalities,” noting that the municipalities offer direct services to the citizenry, including  maintenance to infrastructure, health, safety, emergency management, programs to the elderly, garbage collection, cultural programs, fine arts programs and sports programs—adding: “The central government has been stripping municipalities of important resources to provide essential services that will now be very difficult to cover. The humanitarian crisis has come and closing doors give us very few possibilities to fight it from where we can best do it.”

For her part, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz recalled that her municipality continues along the route to sue under PROMESA’s Title VI, even as she praised the management of mayors who filed their appeal by way of Title III: “If the judge (Judge Swain) said it was not for Title III, at least those comrades dared to challenge PROMESA.”

Trying to Recover on all Pistons

07/19/17

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Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we look back at the steep road out of the nation’s largest ever municipal bankruptcy—in Detroit, where the Chicago Federal Reserve and former U.S. Chief Bankruptcy Judge Thomas Bennett, who presided over Jefferson County’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy case, has noted: “[S]tates can have precipitating roles as well as preventative roles” in work he did for the Chicago Federal Reserve. Indeed, it seems the Great Recession demarcated the nation’s states into distinct fiscal categories: those with state oversight programs which either protected against or offered fiscal support to assist troubled municipalities, versus those, such as Alabama or California—with the former appearing to aid and abet Jefferson County’s descent into chapter 9 bankruptcy, and California, home to the largest number of chapter 9 bankruptcies over the last two decades, contributing to fiscal distress, but avoiding any acceptance of risk. Therefore, we try to provide our own fiscal autopsy of Detroit’s journey into and out of the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy.

I met in the Governor’s Detroit offices with Kevyn Orr, whom Governor Rick Snyder had asked to come out from Washington, D.C. to serve as the city’s Emergency Manager to take the city into—and out of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy: the largest in American history. Having been told by the hotel staff that it was unsafe to walk the few blocks from my hotel to the Governor’s Detroit offices on the city’s very first day in insolvency—a day in which the city was spending 38 cents on every dollar of taxes collected from residents and businesses on legacy costs and operating debt payments totaling $18 billion; it was clear from the get go, as he told me that early morning, there was no choice other than chapter 9: it was an essential, urgent step in order to ensure the provision of essential services, including street and traffic lights, emergency first responders, and basic maintenance of the Motor City’s crumbling infrastructure—especially given the grim statistics, with police response times averaging 58 minutes across the city, fewer than a third of the city’s ambulances in service, 40% of the city’s 88,000 traffic lights not working, “primarily due to disrepair and neglect.” It was, as my walk made clear, a city aptly described as: “[I]nfested with urban blight, which depresses property values, provides a fertile breeding ground for crime and tinder for fires…and compels the city to devote precious resources to demolition.” Of course, not just physical blight and distress, but also fiscal distress: the Motor City’s unbalanced fiscal condition was foundering under its failure to make some $108 million in pension payments—payments which, under the Michigan constitution, because they are contracts, were constitutionally binding. Nevertheless, in one of his early steps to staunch the fiscal bleeding, Mr. Orr halted a $39.7 million payment on $1.4 billion in pension debt issued by former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s administration to make the city pension funds appear better funded than they really were; thus, Mr. Orr’s stop payment was essential to avoid immediate cash insolvency at a moment in time when Detroit’s cash position was in deepening debt. Thus, in his filing, Mr. Orr aptly described the city’s dire position and the urgency of swift action thusly: “Without this, the city’s death spiral I describe herein will continue.”

Today, the equivalent of a Presidential term later, the city has installed 65,000 new streetlights; it has cut police and emergency responder response times to 25% of what they were; it has razed 11,847 blighted buildings. Indeed, ambulance response times in Detroit today are half of what they were—and close to the national average—even as the city’s unrestricted general fund finished FY2016 fiscal year with a $143 million surplus, 200% of the prior fiscal year: as of March 31st, Detroit sported a general fund surplus of $51 million, with $52.8 million more cash on hand than March of last year, according to the Detroit Financial Review Commission—with the surplus now dedicated to setting aside an additional $20 million into a trust fund for a pension “funding cliff” the city has anticipated in its plan of debt adjustment by 2024.  

Trying to Run on all Pistons. The Detroit City Council has voted 7-1 to approve a resolution to allow the Motor City to realize millions of dollars in income tax revenues from its National Basketball Association Pistons players, employees, and visiting NBA players—with such revenues dedicated to finance neighborhood improvements across the Motor City, under a Neighborhood Improvement Fund—a fund proposed in June by Councilwoman (and ordained Minister) Mary Sheffield, with the proposal coming a week after the City Council agreed to issue some $34.5 million in municipal bonds to finance modifications to the Little Caesars Arena—where the Pistons are scheduled to play next season. Councilwoman Sheffield advised her colleagues the fund would also enable the city to focus on blight removal, home repairs for seniors, educational opportunities for young people, and affordable housing development in neighborhoods outside of downtown and Midtown—or, as she put it: “This sets the framework; it expresses what the fund should be used for; and it ultimately gives Council the ability to propose projects.” She further noted the Council could, subsequently, impose additional limitations with regard to the use of the funds—noting she had come up with the proposal in response to complaints from Detroit constituents who had complained the city’s recovery efforts had left them out—stating: “It’s not going to solve all of the problems, and it’s not going to please everyone, but I do believe it’s a step in the right direction to make sure these catalyst projects have some type of tangible benefits for residents.”

Detroit officials estimate the new ordinance will help generate a projected $1.3 million annually. In addition, city leaders hope to find other sources to add to the fund—sources the Councilmember reports, which will be both public and private: “We as a council are going to look at other development projects and sources that could go into the fund too.” As adopted, the resolution provides: “[I]t is imperative that the neighborhoods, and all other areas of the City, benefit from the Detroit Pistons’ return downtown …In turn, the City will receive income tax revenue, from the multimillion dollar salaries of the NBA players as well as other Pistons employees and Palace Sports & Entertainment employees.” The Council has forwarded the adopted proposals to Mayor Duggan’s office for final consideration and action. The proposed new revenues—unless the tax is modified or rejected by the Mayor—would be dedicated for use in the city’s Neighborhood Improvement Fund in FY2018—with decisions with regard to how to allocate the funds—by Council District or citywide—to be determined at a later date. The funds, however, could also be used to address one of the lingering challenges from the city’s adopted plan of debt adjustment from its chapter 9 bankruptcy: meeting its public pension obligations when general fund revenues are insufficient, “should there be any unforeseen shortfall,” as the resolution provides.

This fiscal recovery, however, remains an ongoing challenge: Detroit CFO John Hill laid up the proverbial hook shot up by advising the Council that the reason the city reserved the right to use the Pistons tax revenue to cover pension or debt obligation shortfalls was because of the large pension obligation payment the city will confront in 2024: “We knew that in meeting our pensions and debt obligation in 2024 and 2025 that those funds get very tight: If this kind of valve wasn’t there, I would have a lot of concerns that in those years its tighter and we don’t get revenues we expect we don’t get any of those funds to meet those obligations.”

But, as in basketball, there is another side: at the beginning of the week, the NBA, Palace Sports & Entertainment, and Olympia Entertainment were added to a federal lawsuit—a suit filed in late June by community activist Robert Davis and Detroit city clerk candidate D. Etta Wilcox against the Detroit Public Schools Community District. The suit seeks to force a vote on the $34.5 million public funding portion of the Pistons’ deal, under which Detroit, as noted above, is seeking to capture the school operating tax, the proceeds of which are currently used to service $250 million of bonds DDA bonds previously issued for the arena project in addition to the $34.5 million of additional bonds the city planned to issue for the Pistons relocation.