Restoring Power–and Recovering Governing Authority

July 10, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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