Not in Like Flint, and Unschooled for Motor City Recovery

June 15, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the seemingly unremitting efforts by the State of Michigan to force the City of Flint to sign a consent agreement; then we dip south to the Motor City, where, notwithstanding its exit from chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, the city’s ital. efforts to encourage families to move back to the city from the suburbs depends upon turning around a school district which appears to be stumbling under its own quasi plan of debt adjustment from a state takeover.

Not in Like Flint. Flint Mayor Karen Weaver this week made clear she believes state officials cannot force her to sign a consent agreement seeking to make fixes to her city’s water system, challenging them to “bring it on” and take her to court. Her battle parallels a trial of Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon, who is anticipating, next month, to find out whether or not he will face a jury trial on involuntary manslaughter and misconduct charges tied to the Flint water crisis. Genesee District Judge David Goggins has signed an order detailing how the remainder of Secretary Lyon’s preliminary examination will play out: he has been charged involuntary manslaughter and misconduct in office, making him the highest-ranking state government official charged with crimes with regard to how he mishandled Flint water problems—making his the first of 15 criminal cases to advance to a preliminary exam. Ironically, the trial of the state leader is occurring even as, in parallel, the State of Michigan is threatening to withhold funds to Flint not just in an effort to try to force responsibility for ensuring the safety of its drinking water, but that state action could have devastating fiscal impacts, undercutting the city’s effort to preserve its assessed property values: between 2008 and 2016, Flint lost more than three-quarters of its taxable assessed property value. There is almost a David versus Goliath feeling: Flint household income has been declining, even as statewide income has been increasing: household income in the city, at just under $42,000 annually last year, is more than 20% below statewide income.

The issue, a federalism issue involving all three levels of government, involves findings from  last August’s state sanitary survey, which found the city’s water system had “significant deficiencies,” including with the water distribution, finances, “security,” and “operations and management.” The state further charges that the city has not fixed the problems within 120 days as mandated state law, according to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

Mayor Weaver, however, told The Detroit News the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is making “false accusations or lies” with regard to the city’s compliance with state and federal drinking water laws, among other allegations; rather she appears to perceive the proposed consent order to repair the problems as retaliation against her vigorous protest when Gov. Rick Snyder ordered, in April, the end of the state’s free bottled water deliveries to the city, noting: “We have been meeting our requirements every step of the way: There are some other things that need to be done by the end of this month, and some things aren’t required to be done until the end of the year. But every step of the way, we’ve done what we’re supposed to do.” The city currently purchases treated water from the Great Lakes Water Authority; however, Flint’s wastewater treatment plant performs additional treatment for acidity levels, corrosion control, and chlorine, according to the state.

In a letter at the beginning of this week, Michigan Assistant Attorney General Richard Kuhl threatened Flint with federal legal action if the municipality does not enter into and comply with a consent agreement addressing the city’s outstanding violations, writing that the state would prefer voluntary cooperation—having previously written that violations of the Michigan Safe Water Drinking Act mean the city needs to sign a consent decree in which state officials outline unfunded state mandates with which the city would have to comply, including the provision of a “permanent or contractual” manager to oversee control program activities.

At the beginning of this month, Michigan Drinking Water and Municipal Division Director Eric Oswald wrote that correcting the violations would help ensure Flint’s public water supply system prevents “contaminants from entering” the drinking water and prevent “imminent and substantial endangerment of public health.”

Flint is still recovering from a lead contamination water crisis first discovered in the late summer of 2015. The city’s water has tested below federal lead standards for nearly two years, but many residents still refuse to drink from the tap. In his June 4 letter, Director Oswald wrote that state officials had summarized in a March letter the “corrective actions that had been completed” and provided “dates to complete other corrective actions.” In his statement this week, the Director claimed: “The matter at hand is working together to address these deficiencies to help ensure that the city continues to have quality drinking water.”

Mayor Weaver is still considering what legal options might be available to protect her citizens—and the assessed property values of residences and business properties in the city—as well as the fiscal and physical implications of the end of free bottled water shipments—noting she is still pondering over the option of returning to federal court to the judge overseeing the replacement of Flint’s lead service lines, because the state has indicated that the funds may be withheld. Mayor Weaver noted, with regard to the seeming state retaliation: “I just believe this is absolutely retaliation, and then they want to blame us for what they did,” she said, referring to the water crisis that Snyder’s task force was caused by state-appointed emergency managers and negligent DEQ officials.

In her June 11 response epistle and proposed unfunded state mandate as “unnecessary and unwarranted,” adding she was “troubled by the timing of this proposed enforcement action, in the wake of the cessation of state funding for bottled water in Flint.” She further noted that “During two years of collaborative remediation efforts, an ACO has not been necessary,” calling it a “deliberate and willful misuse of the DEQ’s authority for political purposes and not as a good faith effort to address the issues faced by the City of Flint.” Mayor Weaver said she hoped to bring more contractors to Flint to begin the next phase of pipe replacement, but state officials, she said, want everything to be hydro-vacuumed to save money that would return to the state: “Now, after the state and MDEQ have been publicly castigated for their abrupt and unilateral termination of bottled water funding, MDEQ proposes an ACO that raises no issues not previously agreed upon…I thus see this ACO as a deliberate and willful misuse of the DEQ’s authority for political purposes and not a good faith effort to address the issues faced by the city of Flint.”

That would undercut her ongoing efforts to invest in new plumbing for Flint’s citizens: “We’re really trying to, and what I’ve been trying to do all along, is work together and put differences aside for getting what’s best for the people.”

What Will it Take to Earn a Passing Grade? Detroit’s public school district has 200 teaching vacancies, and with the new school year not so far off, a campaign is underway to try to draw kids back to its public schools. That effort, however, confronts an awkward challenge: only half the teachers and support staff and fewer than 40% of central office staff would recommend the Detroit Public School District according to survey data Detroit Public Schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti released this week during a Board of Education meeting—a meeting that provided a temperature reading with regard to how the system’s students, their parents, and school staff perceive the school system. For instance, in response to the question, “How likely are you to recommend Detroit Public Schools Community District to a friend or family member or as a place to work. 40% responded they would not recommend the school district: only 38% replied they would be extremely likely to recommend the city’s schools. Even amongst teachers and support staff, the enthusiasm was missing: 50% were detractors—with the percentage near two-thirds by staff at the central office: overall, a majority in the system replied they would not recommend the system—or, as Superintendent Vitti put it: “That so many staff members were detractors is a problem…There’s nothing that hurts our brand…more than our actual employees. If our own employees are not favorable toward the organization, then how can we ever recruit new parents to schools or new employees to the district?”

The survey, conducted earlier this year, asked for feedback from more than 52,000 students, parents and guardians, teachers, support staff, instructional leaders, and central office staff. The results hardly seemed passing—and make clear that efforts to incentivize families with children in Detroit’s suburbs to move into the city face an uphill struggle. Or, as Superintendent Vitti noted: “If we’re truly going to be transformative, our employees are going to have to take ownership.”

The surveys addressed issues such as school climate, engagement, bullying, rigorous expectations and school safety. But Superintendent Vitti said the data surrounding promoting the district is “the most relevant data point we’re going to be looking at tonight.”

Here are other survey result highlights:

  • Just 42% of students in grades 3-5, 46% in grades 6-8 and 50% of students in grades 9-12 had positive feelings about school safety—an indication that a large number of students do not feel safe in district schools.
  • 69% of students in grades 3-5, 63% in grades 6-8, and 55% in grades 9-12 had positive feelings about rigorous expectations.
  • 56% of students in grades 3-5, 45% of students in grades 6-8, and 40% of students in grades 9-12 had positive feelings about school climate.
  • A larger percentage of parents and guardians, 72%, felt positively about school safety; however, just 26% felt positively about the engagement of families in the district.
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Paternal Governance?

June 12, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the demographic disparities in the wake of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, before turning to the human and fiscal challenges in the federal courtroom issue of keeping schools open in the face of quasi-municipal bankruptcy; then we view the ongoing governing challenges and wonder when there might be too many cooks in the fiscal kitchen.   

Demographic Devastation. According to new data from the Puerto Rican Demographic Registry, 68% of Puerto Ricans who died between September and December of 2017, during the emergency caused by Hurricanes Irma and María, were over the age of 70. The new data from the Demographic Registry finds that nearly half of the deaths recorded in this period occurred among people who were hospitalized in Puerto Rico. Moreover, the risk of death, according to the data, was higher for men: 54% of the deceased were male, even though males make up only 48% of the island’s current population. The new data also found that deaths attributed to diseases such as Alzheimer’s, diabetes, septicemia, pneumonia, and chronic heart or respiratory conditions showed significant increases in the period which followed the hurricanes—or, as Puerto Rico demographer Judith Rodríguez noted: “This gives us a more specific idea of the health risk that the hurricane brought. That was the only significant factor to cause that increase seen in the data.” Ms. Rodríguez further reported that cases of septicemia doubled between August and September, reporting that this disease, often associated with infections in hospitals, noting: “The highest number of deaths is in hospital patients; however there were high-risk factors among people who were in care homes for the elderly, or who, in the middle of an emergency, were taken to an ER.”

Health and safety—especially for the most vulnerable—appeared to be related not just to damage caused by the hurricanes to the physical hospitals and clinics, but also by the stark disruptions of electricity: diesel supply to keep emergency generators operating, combined with failures in backup systems and telecommunications plagued the provision of vital health care services. Moreover, the issues took long to resolve: even as late as last December, at least two hospital were operating with electric generators. As the Senior Vice President of Operations at San Jorge Children’s Hospital, Domingo Cruz, noted: “It is always a risk (death) when there are patients in ventilators (artificial) and there is an outage.” Perhaps in a hope for the future, the data shows that death among Puerto Rican children due to the storms was less than 1%.

After storm reports also noted that even though tardy, the arrival from the mainland of hospital ships played a vital role: Good Samaritan Hospital Administrator Marilyn Morales reported that, due to their condition, many patients were transferred to the USNS Comfort hospital ship, the U.S. Navy’s largest such ship, as well as to the Medical Centers of Mayagüez and Río Piedras. The USNS Comfort is the largest U.S. Navy floating hospital. This ship and a series of field hospitals were set up in Puerto Rico during the first months that followed Hurricane Maria. Administrator Morales noted: “We understand that deaths (at the Good Samaritan Hospital) were minimal.”

It was not, however, just hospitals which were so adversely impacted: by early last October, access to vital pharmacies due to the loss of electricity and communications contributed to the health care emergency response breakdowns: some pharmacies did not have access to the system they use to process prescriptions; thus, they were only dispensing medicines if a patient paid the full price of the drug. According to the Health Department: “In the case of not having electronic systems for dispensing medications, the pharmacy must provide the medication to the patient and, then, it will have up to 60 days to process it.”

Many health professionals with private practices had to overcome many obstacles to offer services to their patients, mainly due to the lack of power, the impossibility of using some equipment only with a generator, and of billing for medical services. Demographer Rodríguez noted: “There are some conditions whose deterioration could be accelerated by issues associated with the emergency left by the hurricane. Chronic and degenerative diseases were the most affected in this process. These diseases skyrocketed, and many people might have died months later because of issues associated with the hurricane.”

Quien Es Encargado? (Who is in charge?) As we have noted, in chapter 9 municipal bankruptcies—in the minority of states which have authorized them, the state law determines the governance until a plan of debt adjustment is approved by a U.S. Bankruptcy Court. In Puerto Rico, under the PROMESA statute adopted by Congress, there is a hybrid form of governance—a form which has left unclear authority in this governmentally different circumstance where it is not a municipality which is fiscally exhausted, but rather a quasi-state—or, a U.S. territory. Thus, we have a Governor, a legislature, an oversight PROMESA Board imposed by the President and Congress, and a U.S. federal Judge.  It might be that some accommodation in governance is emerging: the PROMESA Board has proposed to the Puerto Rico Legislature that the raising of salaries or disbursement of allocated funds would not be allowed unless quarterly reports are presented and cuts established in the fiscal plan are executed, according to the its modified version submitted to the Legislature. Under the proposal, in order to ensure that the government does not spend more than it receives and complies with the spending cuts to which it committed in its certified fiscal plan, the budget modified by the Oversight Board restricts in a reserve fund the funds which would be used to increase the salaries of teachers and the Police. The Board also established that the government of Puerto Rico is mandated to submit quarterly reports beyond those required by PROMESA before it is authorized to appropriate any funding, with said conditions spelled out in the joint resolutions that the Board has sent to the Legislature as part of the budget certification process. Included in this unfunded mandate is a provision barring the Office of Management and Budget from disbursing funding to fulfill the promise made by Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares to increase the salary of teachers and the Police, or to provide Social Security. In addition, the mandate bars the authorization of funding to Puerto Rican agencies absent Board approval.

The Board’s restrictions, adopted in an effort to ensure a balanced budget, in addition to the repeal of the Unjust Dismissal Law (Law 80-1976), which eliminates the statute which provided certain legal remedies to private sector employees, is part of a structural reforms package imposed by the Board as part of its agreement with Gov. Rosselló Nevares to avoid litigation in Court.

Gov. Rosselló’s representative to the PROMESA Board, Christian Sobrino, concurs that it makes sense that the Board has established conditions for granting the monthly increase of $125 to Police and teachers, starting in the upcoming fiscal year, and that these imposed conditions are also subject to the repeal of Law 80, because this move may impact the revenue projection required by the Board. Nevertheless, unsurprisingly, Mr. Sobrino described the Board’s new demands as “complicating” the interaction between Puerto Rico and the PROMESA Board: noting: “But there is a reality: you can provide the benefits (if)  you have the income to budgetary support. If you do not have them, you do not have them: The revenue projection is the key part that makes all these agreements and these other programmatic commitments possible.” Thus he stressed the importance of the Legislature proceeding with the repeal of Law 80: “The effect of not carrying out this repeal would imply a reduction in the budgetary revenues available to the government and make it very difficult to maintain a series of benefits , including that (salary) increase and also the Christmas bonus to public employees: If the agreement can be complied with, there should be no problem moving that allocation (the money for salary increase) to the Public Security umbrella. If that agreement is not maintained, then additional cuts have to be made.”

Nevertheless, the governance situation remains difficult, especially in the wake of the PROMESA Board’s conclusion that, for what it asserted was the second time, Gov. Rosselló’s budget did not comply with PROMESA, and then proceeded to preempt that authority and impose its own adjustments—a fiscal and governance move which would mark the first time that the government of Puerto Rico would have constraints to use its funds. As written, the preemption reads: “The Secretary of Treasury, the treasurer and Executive Directors of each agency or Public Corporation covered by the New Fiscal Plan for Puerto Rico certified by the [PROMESA] Oversight Board, and the Director of the OMB (or their respective successors) shall be responsible for not spending or encumbering during fiscal year 2019 any amount that exceeds the appropriations authorized for such year. This prohibition applies to every appropriation set forth in this Joint Resolution, including appropriations for payroll and related costs. Any violation of this prohibition shall constitute a violation of this Joint Resolution and Act 230-1974.” In addition, in another section of the document, the Board mandated that quarterly reports must be submitted no later than 15 days after the closing of each fiscal quarter and that the Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority (FAFAA) and the OMB will certify that “no amount” of the Social Security Reserve funds in the Puerto Rico Police Department or the promised increases have been used to cover any expenses.

A Teaching Moment? In the wake of learning about the new conditions established by the PROMESA Board, Grichelle Toledo, the Secretary-General of the Puerto Rico Teachers Association-Local Union, noted that Gov. Rosselló had promised a monthly salary increase of $125 per month “beginning the 2018-2019 school year,” noting that it had been “10 years without a salary increase, and the cost of living has risen, benefits have been reduced and some have even been eliminated.”

Indeed, as we have noted previously, the loss of human capital—teachers, health care professionals, and others, harms the possibility of a sustained economic recovery. That is, the Board’s actions risk that Puerto Rico is in danger of losing one of its most critical assets, its skilled workforce, at a time when the island is in dire need of rebuilding: already teachers are leaving for more secure jobs on the mainland, a predictable outcome after the cash-strapped government announced it would close some 200 schools. Police, thousands of whom called in sick daily last year because they were not being paid overtime, are finding brighter futures in cities eager to find trained, bilingual officers.

An analysis by El Nuevo Día of the Governor’s proposed budget last month after agreement with the PROMESA Board, which focuses on the General Fund determined that the Board made sure to increase its own budget by 7.8%, plus another 3.7% to pay lawyers working in Title III cases, even as it cut FAFAA’s by nearly 10%. The Board met its part of its agreement with the Governor by not touching the Legislature’s budget, authorizing $ 50 million to municipios, and approving $25 million for the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) scholarship fund. However, the Board cut the Budget of the Health Insurance Administration by 41%, and cut the Office of Community Planning and Development by 21%, the State Commission on Elections by nearly 12%; the Police by 4%–and, of all places, the Fire Department by 11%, and the State Agency for Emergency and Disaster Management by 14%–mayhap an ill omen as the new hurricane season has already commenced.

Motor City Rising

June 1, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the remarkable turnaround of Detroit—a city which, when I inquired on its very first day in chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, for walking directions from my hotel to the Governor’s Detroit office—in response to which I was told the one mile route was not doable—not because I would be too physically challenged,  but rather because I would be slain. Yet now, as the  fine editorial writers for the Detroit News, Daniel Howes and Nolan Finley, wrote: “A regional divide that appeared to be healing since Detroit’s historic bankruptcy is busting wide open over a plan for regional transit, exposing anxiety that the city is prospering at the expense of the suburbs,” noting that the trigger is a is a proposed millage to fund expansion of the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan, a $5.4 billion plan that would seem to promise an exceptional reshaping of the metro region—indeed: a reversal a what had been a decades-long shift of the economy from downtown Detroit to is suburbs: an exodus that contributed to a wasteland and the nation’s largest ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy.” Or, as they wrote: “That battle reveals growing suburban resentments over the region’s shifting economic fortunes: decades-long capital flow is reversing directions as more jobs and tax revenue flee the ‘burbs for a rejuvenated downtown.”

Mr. Finley noted that Mayor Mike Duggan, this week, told him: “I can’t explain why Oakland and Macomb (suburban counties) are doing what they’re doing” three weeks ago Microsoft brought 400 employees from Southfield into the city of Detroit. And last week, Tata Technologies said they were moving 200 people from Novi and into Detroit. Google is in the process of moving people from Birmingham into the city of Detroit.” What the Mayor was alluding to was a u-turn from a decade of moderate and upper income families leaving Detroit for its suburban counties in the days when former Mayor Coleman Young had advised criminals to “hit Eight Mile” has the relationship between the Metro Motor City’s regional leaders become so difficult in the wake of the unexpected reverse exodus: this time from Detroit’s suburbs back into the city. Billions in private sector investment, spearheaded by Dan Gilbert’s Quicken Loans Inc., the Ilitch family, and growing enthusiasm among other business leaders to be part of the city’s post-chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy have been changing demographic and economic patterns.

As the city continues under decreasing state oversight to carry out its judicially approved plan of debt adjustment, Mayor Duggan notes: “Expectations are rising.” This, after all, is not a City Hall bound mayor, but rather what the editors described as a “short, stocky, balding white guy who is no stranger to block after block of dilapidated houses—and who was reelected to a second term with an amazing 72% of the vote in a city where slightly more than 82% of the voters are black—and where, when he took office, there were about 40,000 abandoned homes. He is not a stay at City Hall type fellow either—rather an inveterate inspector of this mammoth rebuilding of an iconic city, who listens—and with his cell phone—takes action immediately in response to constituents concerns. After all, as the Mayor notes: “Expectations are rising…People are putting more demands on me and more demands on the administration, and I think that’s a really good thing and that will keep us motivated to work hard.”

Already, the urban wasteland is changing—almost on a daily basis: already, under a city program which supports renovation over demolition to try to preserve the mid-century architectural character of neighborhoods, that number of abandoned homes has been halved—with many of the units set aside for affordable housing. In his State of the City address this year, Mayor Duggan said he wants 8,000 more homes demolished, 2,000 sold, another 1,000 renovated and 11,000 more boarded up by the end of next year.

On that first day of the nation’s largest ever municipal bankruptcy, Kevin Orr, whom the Governor had tapped to become the Emergency Manager for Detroit, had flown out from the Washington, D.C. region, and told me his first actions were to email every employee of Detroit that he would be filing that morning in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, but that he expected every employee to report to work—and that the most critical priorities were that every traffic and street light work—and that there be a professional, courteous, and prompt response to every 911 call.  

That was a challenge—especially for a municipality in bankruptcy, but, by 2016, the city had completed a $185 million streetlight repair project; 911 response times have been reduced from 50 minutes in 2013 to 14.5 minutes last year, and ambulance response times fell from 20 minutes in 2014 to the national average of 8 minutes this year.

As we have previously noted, two months ago, just three and a half years after Detroit emerged from chapter 9, the city has exited from state oversight; its homeless population has, for the third consecutive year, declined—and, its unemployment rate, which had peaked during the fiscal crisis at 28%, is now below 8%. No wonder the suburbs are becoming fiscally jealous. And the downtown, which was unsafe for pedestrians when the National League of Cities hosted its annual meeting there in the 1980’s and on the city’s first day in bankruptcy, has been transformed into a modern, walkable metropolis.

Nevertheless, the seeming bulldog, relentless leader has refused to sugarcoat the fiscal and physical challenge—or, as he puts it: “I don’t spend a lot of time promising. I just say, here’s what we’re doing next and here’s why we’re doing it and then we do what we say…Over time, you don’t restore trust by making more promises; you restore trust by actually doing what you said you were going to do.”

Mr. Finley wrote that the Mayor, deemed a “truth teller” by Detroit Housing Director Arthur Jemison, has been direct in confronting the city’s harsh legacy of racist policies after the Great Depression lured thousands upon thousands of African-Americans north in the early decades of the 20th century to work in auto factories—luring them to a city at a time when Federal Housing Administration guidelines barred blacks in the city from obtaining home mortgages and even led to the construction in 1941 of a wall bordering the heavily African-American 8 Mile neighborhood to segregate it from a new housing development for whites.

Aaron Foley — the 33-year-old author of How to Live in Detroit Without Being a Jackass, noted: “When you deliver that kind of message about this is why black people are on this side of the wall in 8 Mile versus the other side of the wall, that gets people talking: This is a history that we all know in Detroit, and for the city government to acknowledge that in the way that it did on that platform, it did resonate.”

Mayor Duggan’s concern for Detroit’s people—and not forcing low-income families out, is evidenced too by his words: “Every single time that we had a building where the federal [housing] credits were expiring and people were going to get forced out of their affordable units, I had to sit down for hours with the building owner to convince them why those who stayed were entitled to be there, and I thought: I need to do just one speech and explain that this is the right thing to do…Since then there’s been just great support for the direction we’re going in the city. We have very little pushback now from our developers over making sure that what they’re doing is equitable.”

Planning Municipal Debt Adjustment

May 21, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we take a fiscal perspective on post-chapter 9 Vallejo, before exploring the seeming good gnus of lower unemployment data from Puerto Rico.

Fiscal Reinvention.  After Vallejo, a waterfront city in Solano County of about 115,000 in California’s Bay Area, filed for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, just over a decade ago, on May 17, 2008, claiming it could no longer afford to pay wages and benefits promised to its employees; it appears its chapter 9 plan of debt adjustment has worked. The municipality, which served twice as California’s capital, was the nation’s largest city to file for municipal bankruptcy when it did—a period during which, in the wake of cuts of as much as 40 percent in its police force, and closure of its fire stations, leading to sharp increases in crime—there were, consequently, serious declines in assessed property values.  The municipality’s cash reserves disappeared; it was unable to pay its bills amid falling property tax revenue, soaring costs of employee compensation and pension liabilities, and a consequent surge in foreclosures. Thus, with its official exit, the city will be able to resume its governance—albeit, as Moody’s moodily explained last month, the city’s plan of debt adjustment will bequeath “significant unfunded and rapidly rising pension obligations,” adding that in addition to higher taxes, the city will be confronted by “challenges associated with deferred maintenance and potential service shortfalls.” Further, the credit rating agency noted, the “probability of continued financial distress and possibly even a return to bankruptcy.” Today, median household income in the city is under $40,000, while average municipal employee compensation is over $114,000. The city currently has 17 police sergeants receiving compensation packages which range from $220,000-$469,000—in addition to generous promised retirement pensions.  

Vallejo Assistant City Manager Craig Whittom last week noted that the city had been left to determine its Chapter 9 bankruptcy end date in the wake of U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Michael McManus’ approval of the city’s plan of debt adjustment last August—a key component of that plan being the codification of municipal bond repayment obligations to the city’s largest creditor, Union Bank, a plan approved by the Vallejo City Council three weeks ago, with Mr. Whittom noting that Vallejo’s formal chapter 9 exit is important in tangible ways for the city. For instance, he noted the elimination of real estate agents’ requirement to disclose that the city is in bankruptcy when selling properties, albeit conceding that municipal bankruptcy-deferred lawsuits against the city will now be free to go forward.

Nevertheless, leaving municipal bankruptcy is a fiscal challenge of its own—especially in instances where a municipality’s plan of debt adjustment does not take into account public pension obligations. As Ed Mendel of Calpensions explained: “Vallejo received court approval to exit from bankruptcy last week with a plan that includes a sharp increase in pension payments to CalPERS—the opposite of what many expected when the city declared bankruptcy in May 2008,” a resolution which, left the municipality with a proverbial ball and chain around its ankle because, by 2014, the city was confronted by ballooning public pension liabilities, with CNN reporting that Vallejo’s recent public-safety retirees have annual pension benefits which top $100,000 a year, leading Wallet-Hub to describe Vallejo as the “second least recovered city.”  That is, absent the ability to trim benefits for current employees, there are few options to keep pensions from consuming ever-increasing parts of a municipality’s budget.

Nevertheless, the city’s leaders have demonstrated innovative fiscal grit and determination: it has begun reinventing itself, using technology to fill personnel gaps, rallying residents to volunteer to provide public services, and even offering its voters the chance to decide how their taxes will be used—in return for an increase in the sales tax. Now, for the first time in five years, the city expects to have enough money to address potholes, weeds in public rights of way, etc.  

Lessons Learned. Prior to its chapter 9 filing, Vallejo’s salaries for city employees had ballooned: a number of top officials were making $200,000 or $300,000—enough so that some 80 percent of the city’s budget went toward compensation, even as the city’s credit rating was downgraded to junk status—meaning that, as part of the city’s plan of debt adjustment, the municipality paid only five cents for every dollar it owed to its bondholders, while the city also reduced employees’ pay, health care and other benefits—making it harder to attract key employees.  

That meant, as former Councilmember Marti Brown noted, that for Vallejo to fiscally survive, the city needed to study best practices from around the world and bring some of them to California—an effort which, in retrospect, she said turned “out to be a really positive experience for the city.” Together with former Councilmember Stephanie Gomes, the two elected leaders focused on public safety: they went the neighborhood to neighborhood setting up e-mail groups and social media accounts so residents could, for instance, share pictures of suspicious vehicles and other information: the number of neighborhood watch groups jumped nearly 300% from 15 to 350. Moreover, the City Council worked out an unusual compact with residents: in return for agreeing to a one-penny sales tax increase, projected to generate an additional $9.5 million in revenue, the resident gained the right to vote on how the funds would be used: citizen participatory budgeting—the first in a North American city.

This fiscal and governing innovation—or “ground-up restructuring,” as Karol Denniston, a partner with Squire Patton Boggs LLP notes, has meant that, today, Vallejo is “now routinely one of the top 10 cities where people want to live, which is a huge turn-around from when they entered bankruptcy.” The median listing price in Vallejo had soared to $420,000 by last month from $290,000 in May of 2015, according to realtor.com, crediting city leaders for turning around the relationships with its police and fire employees: “It looks like someone was able to improve those relationships: You have to bring the employees and the taxpayers along at the same time to reach a good consensus on financial goals.” Thus, unsurprisingly, last week, Finance Director Ron Millard presented a structurally balanced $105 million budget to the City Council for the fifth consecutive year—proposing reserves of 17.3%, after a strict fiscal diet of austerity measures in the intervening years composed of cutting police and fire services to the bone, tax increases, and economic development measures.

The Challenging Road to Recovery. Puerto Rico’s unemployment rate slipped below 10% last month for the first time in nearly two decades—albeit the change is more a reflection of emigration than economic improvement. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nonetheless, Puerto Rico’s unemployment rate was 9.9%, its lowest level since it was 9.8% in November of 2000—a rate nearly 50% lower than the Spring of 2009. The BLS reported that the number of residents with jobs declined 1% last month from April of 2017 according to the Bureau’s Current Employment Statistics, and this showed total non-farm employment declining last month by 3.6% from a year earlier, with private sector non-farm employment down 3.3% from a year earlier—denoting a further sign of the fiscal challenges ahead as the U.S. territory restructures its debt. Of concern is who is leaving, as Advantage Business Consulting President Vicente Feliciano noted that the “unemployment rate is down mainly due to emigration: Thus, there are fewer people employed, but as a result of emigration, fewer people are looking for a job; meanwhile, the Puerto Rico economy is being impacted by the start of [hurricane-related] insurance and federal transfers.” Nevertheless, he reported that the Economic Activity Index in March 2018 was up with respect to February 2018: “Cement sales are up over 20% in March 2018 compared to March 2017. While these transfers are only beginning, they are non-recurrent and therefore should not be the basis for debt renegotiation.” However, Inteligencia Económica Chairman Gustavo Vélez noted: “The [labor force] participation rate remains very low…The information that I have is that the labor market is not normalized yet. Nevertheless, key industries like construction and retail are doing well because of the federal recovery funds already deployed into the local economy ($10 billion since October 2017).” According to the most recent economic activity index release (March), the index was down 2.6% from a year earlier; however, this was a rebound from the 19.7% decline in November 2017 from November 2016.

Who’s on First? Confidential conversations between the PROMESA Board and Gov. Ricardo Rosselló Nevares’s administration continued over the past few days without the certainty to reach a balance between the revenues and expenses the Government will have during the upcoming fiscal year—a year commencing in little over a month, on July 1st. Yet, even with the adjustments made by Governor Rosselló, following some of the Board’s mandates, government expenses are proposed for some $8.73 billion, a level some $200 million higher than the revenue certified by the Board. Nevertheless, neither the Board, nor the Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority (FAFAA) have been willing to discuss the preparation of the new budget or the differences, which have been publicly outlined between the parties. For his part, the Governor has refused to accept the revenue scheme certified by the Board to prepare the budget, instead opting to use the numbers contained in the new Fiscal Plan—while the PROMESA Board has objected that pensions adjustments contained in the Fiscal Plan have not been implemented, nor have their proposed labor reforms been listed.

Some parties have indicated that, as part of the process between the parties, Puerto Rico has promised, as required by the PROMESA Board, to eliminate Law 80, a Puerto Rican law which protects workers from unjust dismissals, in exchange for the allocation of some $100 million to municipalities, as well as an increase in funds for the Legislature, the Governor’s Office, and the Federal Affairs Administration. The see-saw issue at a time of steep cuts in Puerto Rican government services and school closures, including limitations in the Government’s Health Plan, has led Gov. Rosselló Nevares’ administration to criticize the seemingly contradictory fiscal situation in which the PROMESA Board has requested nearly a 33% increase from $60 million to $80 million in the amount it receives to finance its operation and bankruptcy lawsuits of the central government and several public agencies, at the same time, as Rafael Hernández Montañez, spokesman of the Popular Democratic Party minority in the House, expressed the Board does not appear to “think the same about the elimination of workers’ rights,” and at the same time the Governor is looking to increase government investment in Puerto Rico’s future.

Phoenix Rises in Detroit!

April 30, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we recognize and celebrate Detroit’s emergence from the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.

More than three years since the Motor City emerged from the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, the Michigan Financial Review Commission is widely expected to act early this afternoon to vote on a waiver, after its Executive Director, Kevin Kubacki, had, last December, notified Gov. Rick Snyder of the city’s fiscal successes in holding open vacancies and reporting “revenues trending above the city’s adopted budget.” The city’s exit, if approved as expected, would restore local control and end state oversight of the City of Detroit. The expected outcome arrives in the wake of three consecutive municipal budget surpluses—something unanticipated for the federal government any year in the forseeable future. In the case of the Commission, Detroit’s fiscal accomplishment met a crucial threshold required to exit oversight: the Motor City completed FY2017 with a $53.8 million general fund operating surplus and revenues exceeding expenditures by $108.6 million—after recording an FY2016 $63 million surplus, and $71 million for FY2015. Michigan’s statute still requires the Review Commission to meet each year to grant Detroit a waiver to continue local control until the completion of 10 consecutive years.

In acknowledging the historic fiscal recovery, Mayor Mike Duggan noted that the restoration is akin to a suspension, as the oversight commission will not be active—but will remain in a so-called “dormancy period” under which, he said, referring to the Commission: “They do continue to review our finances, and, if we, in the future, run a deficit, they come back to life; and it takes another three years before we can move them out.”

On the morning Detroit went into chapter 9 bankruptcy—a morning I was warned it was too dangerous to walk the less than a mile from my downtown hotel to the Governor’s Detroit offices to meet with Kevyn Orr as he accepted Gov. Snyder’s request that he serve as Emergency Manager; Mr. Orr told me he had ordered every employee to report to work on time—and that the highest priority would be to ensure that all traffic and street lights were operating—and no 9-1-1 call was ignored. We sometimes forget—to our peril—that while the federal government can shut down, that is not an option for a city or county.  From the critical—to the vital everyday services, crews in Detroit have started cleaning 2,000 miles of residential streets, with Mayor Duggan’s office reporting that the first of three city-wide street sweeping operations is underway: each will take 10 weeks to complete.

The state oversight has, unsurprisingly, been prickly, at times: it has added levels of frustration to governance. For example, under the state oversight, all major city and labor contracts are delayed 30 days in order to await approval from the state. Nevertheless, with Detroit a vital component of Michigan’s economy, Detroit Chief Financial Officer John Hill had likened this oversight as a “real constructive process where the city has excelled.” Indeed, under the city’s plan of chapter 9 debt adjustment, Detroit had committed to shed some $7 billion in debt, while at the same time investing some $1.7 billion into restructuring and municipal city service improvements over a decade. In addition, the city had accepted the state fiscal oversight of its municipal finances, including budgets, contracts, and collective bargaining agreements with municipal employees. In return, the carrot, as it were, was that the state would assist by defraying cuts to Detroit retiree pensions and shield the Detroit Institute of Arts collection from bankruptcy creditors. The plan of debt adjustment also provided for relief of most public pension obligations to Detroit’s two pension funds through FY2023—after which Detroit will have to start funding a substantial portion of the pension obligations from its general fund for the General Retirement System and Police and Fire Retirement System.

Follow the Yellow Brick Road? While the Review Commission’s vote of fiscal and governing confidence for Detroit is a recognition of fiscal responsibility and accountability…and pride, the road of bankruptcy is steeper than for other municipalities—and the road is not unencumbered. Detroit is, in many ways, fiscally unique: more than 20 percent of its revenues are derived from a municipal income tax versus 17 percent from property taxes. That means the Motor City cannot fiscally rest: as in Chicago, city leaders need to continue to work with the state and the city’s School Board to improve the city’s public schools in order to attract families to move back into the city—a challenge made more difficult at a time when the current Congress and Administration have demonstrated little interest in addressing fiscal disparities: so Detroit is not competing on a level playing field.

In Michigan, however, the federal disinterest is partially offset by Michigan’s Revenue Sharing program, which, for the current fiscal year, provides that each eligible local unit is eligible to receive 100% of its eligible payment, according to Section 952 of 2016 PA 268. Therefore, if a city’s, village’s, or township’s FY 2010 statutory payment was greater than $4,500, the local unit will be eligible to receive a “Percent Payment” equal to 78.51044% of the local unit’s FY 2010 statutory payment. If a city’s, village’s, or township’s population is greater than 7,500, the local unit will be eligible to receive a “Population Payment” equal to the local unit’s population multiplied by $2.64659. Cities, villages, or townships that had a FY 2010 statutory payment greater than $4,500 and have a population greater than 7,500 will receive the greater of the “Percent Payment” or “Population Payment.

Unfortunately, since the Great Recession, local units of government have been hit with three major blows, all of which involve the state government. The first is the major decline in revenue sharing as the state struggled to balance its budget during the recession of 2007-2009. (Statutory revenue sharing declined from a peak of $684 million in FY 2001 to $210 million in FY 2012 and only recovered to $249 million by FY 2016. Total revenue sharing which fell from a peak of $1.326 billion in FY 2001 had only recovered to $998 million in FY 2016.)

Nevertheless, and, against seemingly all odds, it appears the civic pride created in this extraordinary challenge to recover from the largest chapter 9 in American history has given the Governor, legislature, and Detroit’s leaders—and citizens—a resolute determination to succeed.

Human, Fiscal, & Physical Challenges

April 20, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we return to Flint, Michigan to assess its human and fiscal challenges in the wake of its exit from state receivership; then we return to Puerto Rico, a territory plunged once again into darkness and an exorbitant and costly set of fiscal overseers. 

Out Like Flint. Serious fiscal challenges remain for Flint, Michigan, after its exit from state financial receivership. Those challenges include employee retirement funding and the aging, corroded pipes that caused its drinking water crisis, according to Mary Schulz, associate director for Michigan State University’s Extension Center for Local Government Finance and Policy. In the public pension challenge, Michigan’s statute enacted last year mandates that the state’s municipalities report underfunded retirement benefits. That meant, in the wake of Flint’s reporting that it had only funded its pension at 37%–with nothing set aside for its other OPEB benefits, combined with the estimated $600 million to finance the infrastructure repair of its aging water infrastructure, Director Schulz added the small city is also confronted by a serious problem with its public schools—describing the city’s fiscal ills as “Michigan’s Puerto Rico,” adding it would “remain Michigan’s Puerto Rico until the state decides Flint is part of Michigan.”

Michigan Municipal League Director Dan Gilmartin notes that Flint is making better decisions financially, but still suffers from state funding cuts. He observed that Flint’s leaders are making better decisions fiscally—that they have put together a more realistic budget than before its elected leaders were preempted by state imposed emergency managers, noting: “The biggest problem Flint faces now is what all cities in Michigan face, and that is the state’s system of municipal financing, which simply doesn’t work.”

Perhaps in recognition of that, Michigan State Treasurer Nick Khouri, on April 10th announced the end of state-imposed receivership under Michigan’s Local Financial Stability and Choice Act, and he dissolved the Flint Receivership Transition Advisory Board. Treasurer Khouri also signed a resolution repealing all remaining emergency manager orders, noting: “Removing all emergency manager orders gives the City of Flint a fresh start without any lingering restrictions.” Concurrently, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, in an email, wrote: “Under the state’s emergency manager law, emergency managers were put in place in a number of cities facing financial emergencies to ensure residents were protected and their local governments’ fiscal problems were addressed: This process has worked well for the state’s struggling cities, helping to restore financial stability and put them on a path toward long-term success. Flint’s recent exit from receivership marks the end of emergency management for cities in Michigan and a new chapter in the state’s continued comeback.” Indeed, the state action means that Detroit is the only Michigan municipality city still under a form of state oversight, albeit Benton Harbor Area Schools, Pontiac Public Schools, Highland Park School District, and the Muskegon Heights school district remain under state oversight.

The nation’s preeminent chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy expert Jim Spiotto notes that a financial emergency manager is supposed to get a struggling municipality back to a balanced budget, to find a means to increase revenue, to cut unnecessary expenses, and to keep essential services at an acceptable level:  “To the degree that they achieve that, then you want to continue with best practices: If they don’t accomplish that, then even if you return the city back to Mayor and City Council, then they have to do it: Someone has to come up with viable sustainable recovery plan, not just treading water.”

From his perspective, Director Gilmartin notes: “Flint has more realistic numbers in place, especially when it comes to revenues. I think that is the most important thing the city has accomplished from a nuts and bolts standpoint…The negative side of it is the system in which they are working under just doesn’t work for them or any communities in the state. In some cases making all the right decisions at the local level still doesn’t get to where you need to get to, and it will require a change in the state law.” Referencing last year’s Michigan Municipal League report which estimated the state’s municipalities had been shortchanged to the tune of $8 billion since 2002, Director Gilmartin noted: “A lot of the fiscal pressures that Flint and other cities in Michigan find themselves in are there by state actions.” No doubt, he was referencing the nearly $55 million in reduced state aid to Flint by 2014—as the state moved to pare revenue sharing—the state’s fiscal assistance program to provide assistance based upon population and fiscal need—funds which, had they been provided, would have sufficed to not only balance the city’s budget, but also cut sharply into its capital debts—enhancing its credit quality. Indeed, it was the state’s Emergency Manager program that voters repealed six years ago after devastating decisions had plunged Flint into not just dire fiscal straits, but also the fateful decision to change its public drinking water source—a decision poisoning children, and the city’s fisc by decimating its assessed property values. During those desperate human and fiscal times, local elected leaders were preempted—even as two of the gubernatorially named Emergency Managers were charged with criminal wrongdoing in relation to the city’s lead contamination crisis and ensuing Legionnaire’s disease outbreak which claimed 12 lives in the wake of the fateful decision to  change Flint’s water source to the Flint River in April of 2014. Now, as Director Schulz notes: “Until we come up with other solutions that aren’t really punitive in nature and leave communities like Flint vulnerable as repeat customer for emergency management law, these communities will remain in financial and service delivery purgatory indefinitely.”

Director Schulz notes a more profound threat to municipal fiscal equity: she has identified at least 93 Michigan municipalities with a taxable value per capita under $20,000, describing that as a “good indicator” for which municipalities in the state are prime candidates for finding themselves under a gubernatorially imposed Emergency Manager, in addition to 32 other municipalities in the state which  are either deemed service insolvent or on the verge of service insolvency. Flint’s taxable value per capita of $7575 comes in as the second lowest behind St. Louis, Michigan, which has a taxable value of $6733. Ms. Schulz defines such insolvency as the level below which a municipality is likely unable to fiscally provide “a basic level of services a city need to provide to its residents.” Indeed, a report released by Treasurer Khouri’s office has identified nearly 25% of the state’s local units of government as having an underfunded pension plan, retirement health care plan, or both—an issue which, as we have noted in the eGnus, comes after the State, last December enacted legislation creating thresholds on pensions and OPEB which all municipalities must meet in order to be considered funded at a viable level, meaning OPEB liabilities must be at least 40% funded, and pensions 60% funded. While the Treasurer may grant waivers, such granting is premised on plans approved to remedy the underfunding—failure to do so could trigger oversight by a three-member Michigan Stability Board appointed by the Governor. As Director Schulz notes: “The winds here are blowing such that the municipality stability board is going to be up and running soon, and there will be an effort to give that board emergency manager powers…That means they can break contacts, they can sell assets…whatever it needs to put money in the OPEB.” But in the face of such preemption—preemption which, after all, had caused such human and fiscal damage to Detroit, Detroit’s public schools, and to the City of Flint; Director Gilmartin notes: “Getting the community back to zero is the easy part and is just a function of budgeting, but having it function and provide services is harder: I would say that a lot of the support for emergency management by the state has dwindled based on the experience over the last several years.”

A Storm of Leaders. If the human health and safety, and fiscal challenges created by state oversight in Michigan give one pause; the multiplicity—and cost—of the many overseers of Puerto Rico and its future by the inequitable storm response by Congress and the Trump Administration—and by the costly “who’s on first…” sets of conflicting fiscal overseers could experience at least some level of greater clarity today, as the PROMESA Board releases its proposed fiscal plans it intends to certify, including the maintenance of its mandate to the federal court for an average public pension cut of 10 percent—after having kept under advisement the concerns of Governor Ricardo Rosselló the inclusion in the revised fiscal, quasi chapter 9 plan of debt adjustment immediate reductions in sick and vacation leave.

Thus, it appears U.S. Judge Laura Taylor Swain will consider a proposed adjustment plan to reduce public pensions later this year which would total savings of as much as nearly $1.45 billion over the next five years—a level below the PROMESA Board’s proposed $1.58 million—but massive when put in the context that the current average public pension on the island is roughly $1,100 a month, but more than 38,000 retired government employees receive only $500, because of the type of job they had and the number of years worked.

Thus, there are fiscal and human dilemmas—and governance challenges: even though the PROMESA law authorizes the restructuring of retirement systems, it is unclear whether the Congressionally-created Board has the authority to impose such a significant, unfunded federal mandate on the government of Puerto Rico, including labor reforms, and restrictions of vacation and sick leaves. Last year, Governor Rosselló agreed to a reduction in pensions for government retirees, but then his aim was to propose cuts of 6 percent.

At the moment, he is against it. A few weeks ago, after negotiations with the Board, Governor Rosselló proposed a labor reform similar to the one he negotiated with members of the Board, with differences on how to balance it with an increase in the minimum wage and when to put it in into effect—a proposal he subsequently withdrew after the PROMESA Board mandated that the labor reform be in full force in January 2019, instead of phasing it in over next three years, and conditioning the increase from $7.25 to $8.25 per hour in the minimum wage to the increase in labor participation rates—proposals which, in any event, made clear the “too many leaders” governance challenges—as these were proposals with little chance of approval by the Puerto Rican House. That is, for the Governor, there is not only a federal judge, and a PROMESA Board, but also his own legislature elected by Puerto Ricans—not appointed by non-Puerto Ricans. (Under the PROMESA Law, which also created the territorial judicial system to restructure the public debt of Puerto Rico, the PROMESA Board also has power over the local government until four consecutive balanced budgets and medium and long-term access to the financial markets are achieved. Thus, as the ever insightful Gregory Makoff of the Center for International Governance Innovation—and former U.S. Treasury Advisor put it: “While the lack of cooperation with the Board may be good in political terms in the short-term, it simply delays the return of confidence and extends the time it will take for the Oversight Board to leave the island.” Thus, he has recommended the Board and Gov. Rosselló propose to Judge Swain a cut from $45 billion to $6 billion of the public debt backed by taxes, with a payment of only 13.6 cents per each dollar owed, with the aim of equating it with the average that the states have. All of this has been complicated this week by the blackout Wednesday, before the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, PREPA, yesterday announced it had restored power to some 870,000 customers.

As in  Central Falls, Rhode Island, and in Detroit, in their respective chapter 9 bankruptcies, the issue and debate on pensions appears to be a matter which will be settled or resolved by the court—not the parties or Board. While the Board has the power to propose a reform in the retirement systems, it appears to lack the administrative or legislative mechanisms to implement a labor reform. The marvelous Puerto Rican daily newspaper, El Nuevo Día asked one of the PROMESA Board sources if it were possible for the Board to go to Court and demand the implementation of a labor reform in case the Governor does not propose such legislation—the response to which was such a probability was “low.” Concurrently, an advisor to House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) with regard to proposing legislation to address the issue receive a doubtful response, albeit an official in the Chairman’s office said recently that if the Rosselló administration does not implement the labor reforms proposed by the PROMESA Board, the option for the Board would be to further reduce the expenses of the government of Puerto Rico. Put another way, Carlos Ramos González, Professor of Constitutional Law at the Interamerican University of Puerto Rico, is of the view that, notwithstanding the impasse, “in one way or another, the Board will end up imposing its criteria. How it will do it remains to be seen.”

Physical, Not Fiscal—But Fiscal Storms.  Amid the governance and fiscal storm, a physical storm in the form of am island-wide blackout hit Puerto Rico Wednesday after an excavator accidentally downed a transmission line, contributing to the ongoing physical and fiscal challenge to repair an increasingly unstable power grid nearly seven months after Hurricane Maria. More than 1.4 million homes and businesses lost power, marking the second major outage in less than a week, with the previous one affecting some 840,000 customers. PREPA estimated it would take 24 to 36 hours to restore power to all customers—it is focusing first on re-establishing service for hospitals, water pumping systems, the main airport in San Juan and other critical facilities. The physical blackout came as the PROMESA Board has placed PREPA, a public monopoly with $9 billion of debt, in the equivalent of its own quasi chapter 9 bankruptcy, in an effort to help advance plans to modernize the utility and transform it into a regulated private utility—after, last January, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló announced plans to put the utility up for sale.

Several large power outages have hit Puerto Rico in recent months, but Wednesday was the first time since Hurricane Maria that the U.S. territory has experienced a full island-wide blackout. Officials said restoring power to hospitals, airports, banking centers and water pumping systems was their priority. Following that would be businesses and then homes. By late that day, power had returned to several hospitals and at least five of the island’s 78 municipalities. Federal officials who testified before Congress last week said they expect to have a plan by June on how to strengthen and stabilize Puerto Rico’s power grid, noting that up to 75% of distribution lines were damaged by high winds and flooding. Meanwhile, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is overseeing the federal power restoration efforts, said it hopes to have the entire island fully restored by next month: some 40,000 power customers still remain without normal electrical service as a result of the hurricane. The new blackout occurred as Puerto Rico legislators debate a bill that would privatize the island’s power company, which is $14 billion in debt and relies on infrastructure nearly three times older than the industry average.

 

Beating the Fiscal Odds?

April 10, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we return to the fiscal gaming tables of Atlantic City, where the State oversight body for the city appears to appreciate the way the fiscal dice are rolling; then we turn south to assess the depressing future for Puerto Rico’s next generation.

Beating the Odds. The New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, the Department which assumed the key role in steering Atlantic City through its quasi plan of debt adjustment, perceives the city is in the midst of a “major breakthrough” in the wake of the sale of $49.2 million in taxable municipal bonds to help finance deferred pension and health care contributions—contributions which had been deferred when the city teetered on the edge of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy and the state stepped in to fiscally take over the municipality. In the wake of the successful sale, the Department reported the success had demonstrated that “investors are confident in Atlantic City’s ability to pay its debt and in the State of New Jersey’s oversight of the city’s finances…[and] is proud of the team of city and state professionals who worked very hard to develop a unique solution to pay the city’s deferred contributions without having to resort to tax increases on city residents,” according to New Jersey Lieutenant Gov. and Department of Community Affairs Commissioner Sheila Oliver, who noted: “These deferred contributions from 2015 were the last major debt hurdle facing Atlantic City. With yesterday’s successful bond sale, the city is now positioned to responsibly finance this debt within its budget and have confidence in its future.” The municipal bonds were sold pursuant to New Jersey’s Municipal Qualified Bond Act, which stipulates that the state Treasurer withhold a portion of the city’s state aid in amounts sufficient to pay the principal and interest on the bonds, with the Treasurer directing a portion of the Investment Alternative Taxes paid by licensed casinos to go to the city for funding the debt service on the municipal bonds. Absent such a plan, Atlantic City would have been forced to raise property taxes by more than $700 on the average assessed home of $140,000—a most unwanted option in the wake of last year’s first-in-a-decade property tax reduction, with the Commission’s Director of Local Government Services, Timothy Cunningham, stating the option had been selected to “spare city taxpayers from picking up this expense” and “immediately ends the accrual of interest.” He added that the state fiscal strategy had demonstrated the state’s willingness and ability to find creative solutions to Atlantic City’s difficult financial problems,” noting that: “Conventional thinking would have been to take the deferred contributions the city owes and incorporate them as part of the city’s budget over the next five years. But that would have resulted in significant tax increases for residents and it wouldn’t have stopped interest from accruing on the deferred contributions.”

The bonds were priced via the Garden State’s Qualified Bond Act program to fund $37.7 million in pension and healthcare payments, after, three years ago, Atlantic City had been granted state approval to defer interest payments in the face of $101 million budget shortfall, creating ever-increasing odds to the city’s bookmakers the city might file for municipal bankruptcy. Under the new fiscal arrangements, Atlantic City, by the end of this year, will owe about $47 million for these obligations—or, as New Jersey Lt. Governor Sheila Y. Oliver put it: “These deferred contributions from 2015 were the last major debt hurdle facing Atlantic City…With yesterday’s successful bond sale, the city is now positioned to responsibly finance this debt within its budget and have confidence in its future.” That fiscal confidence is bolstered, no doubt, by being wrapped with the Garden State’s credit enhancement program and backed by Investment Alternative Tax revenue from casinos, which are directed to pay down debt or debt service payments under the authority the state assumed two years ago in November to take over Atlantic City—a fiscal system under which the State Treasurer withholds a portion of the city’s state aid in amounts sufficient to pay the principal and interest on the municipal bonds, or, as Director Cunningham described it: “This strategy, which culminated in yesterday’s bond sale, demonstrates the state’s willingness and ability to find creative solutions to Atlantic City’s difficult financial problems…Conventional thinking would have been to take the deferred contributions the city owes and incorporate them as part of the city’s budget over the next five years. But that would have resulted in significant tax increases for residents, and it wouldn’t have stopped interest from accruing on the deferred contributions.” New Jersey officials said that without the bond sale, Atlantic City would have been forced to raise property taxes on residents by more than $700 on the average assessed home of $140,000.In the wake of this week’s bond sale, Atlantic City has approximately $400 million in outstanding bond debt, according to Moody’s.

But beating the odds is not just a matter of fiscal soundness, but also physical safety. Thus, Atlantic City, in finding a new way to combat crime, has beaten the odds in developing ways to stay ahead of crimes before they are committed—meaning that the number of shootings, homicides, and robberies in the city decreased by more than 33% last year, after Atlantic City began using a risk-based policing model which analyzes data to map out crime risk factors around the city and places where crimes are likely to take place: a new tool which has helped police prevent crimes by tackling factors in the environment identified as risks where crimes take place, and not the people. Indeed, the new strategy not only contributed to the reduction by more than a third in shootings, homicides, and robberies last year, but also that greater security appears likely to enhance assessed property values.

Tempus Fugit. U.S. Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency Brock Long has warned it will take up to an estimated $50 billion to help rebuild Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria—even as he warned the U.S. territory is not ready for another disaster. He told NPR that the agency is focused on making Puerto Rico’s roads, homes, bridges, and electrical grid as strong as possible—but that the time to complete the effort is running out: the new hurricane season is projected to hit as early as June 1st. projected to blow in June 1. A critical issue for Puerto Rico’s fiscal future, then, is a double public infrastructure risk: its physical and human capital. On the latter front, Puerto Rico Education officials have announced the closure of some 283 schools through this summer, nearly seven months after Hurricane Maria struck, reporting that Hurricane Maria exacerbated the demographic teeter totter as increasing numbers of families with children who can afford to have left for the continental U.S., leaving, increasingly, a poorer and older population behind with a depleting tax base, but significantly greater fiscal pressures. Thus, during his visit to Puerto Rico, he warned: “We’re running out of time.” And, observing that much of the territory’s infrastructure had collapsed, he added: “We have a long way to go.” He said FEMA is coordinating a Flag Day planning and training exercise with Puerto Rico’s government in which life-saving supplies will be delivered to the island’s 78 municipalities to ensure better response times for any upcoming storms, adding the muncipios and towns will be allowed to store those supplies for future disasters, but stressing that Puerto Rico’s public and private sectors have to build a strong emergency response network and establish unified plans: “FEMA cannot be directly responsible for all of the response and recovery.” Director Long added that the private sector should ensure that communication systems become more resistant—reflecting that Maria had left nearly all of Puerto Rico without phone service after the Category 4 storm struck last September. At the same time, he defended his agency from ongoing criticism that it did not respond quickly enough to the hurricane or dedicate the same amount of resources compared with other natural disasters in the U.S. mainland, asserting: “(That’s) completely false,” adding that in the first six months since Maria hit, FEMA had invested $10 billion in Puerto Rico, in contrast to the $6 billion invested in the six months after Hurricane Katrina: “Recovery never moves as fast as people want it to be…And in this case, moving faster can be detrimental from the standpoint of putting this money to work in a manner that truly makes Puerto Rico stronger and more resilient.” His staffer, Mike Byrne, who serves as FEMA’s federal coordinating officer in Puerto Rico, said he is working with Puerto Rico’s government to determine how federal funds will be used to identify priorities and rebuild damaged infrastructure: he stated that some of the funds will go toward strengthening Puerto Rico’s power grid—some two-thirds of which Maria destroyed: even hoy dia (today), some two-thirds of its distribution system remains to be fixed; more than 50,000 power customers remain in the dark. Nevertheless, he said 96 percent of all customers now have electricity, noting: “We’ve done the Band-Aid,” adding that the recovery process has been slow in part because supplies ranging from construction equipment to power poles have been scarce in light of the natural disasters that hit the U.S. mainland, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands last year

La Escuela or School of Debt. In an in-depth session with NPR’s Hari Sreenivasan, who was joined by San Juan by Danica Coto of the Associated Press, Ms. Cotto noted that, over the last three decades, Puerto Rico has experienced school enrollment drop by 42%; since May of last year, that enrollment has dropped by 38,700—in part reflecting the roughly 135,000 Puerto Ricans who, in the wake of Maria, left for the mainland—that ism, those who could afford to. Ms. Cotto added that for the island’s 4,700 affected teachers, the Secretary of Education has promised that no one will lose her or his job—albeit for a quasi-state in quasi chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, such a commitment seems hard to imagine—the related query is what will happen to the schools themselves—150 of which had been closed in the half decade prior to Maria—and an additional 179 last year. Currently, Ms.Cotto noted, there are about 283 schools in the process of closing.

Mr. Sreenivasan inquired about the demographics of those students, some 319,000 in public schools, staying behind—in response to which Ms. Cotto responded that 30% have special needs, or about twice the average of the U.S. mainland. One can appreciate immediately the disparate fiscal and human implications—for Puerto Rico’s hopes for recovery—and for its fiscal future. And she asked about the equity in the process for determining which schools would close, reminding us of Detroit Emergency Manager Kevin Orr’s recognition that any final plan of debt adjustment for Detroit to exit the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in the nation’s history would require a perception that the public schools were competitive with surrounding jurisdictions.

Ms. Cotto noted that the bulk of public school closures in Puerto Rico will be in rural areas, noting that along the north coast of the island, some muncipios will experience closures of nearly half their public schools—creating a risk of an increasing number of young Americans losing access to public education—and a risk to local tax bases. Several other municipalities will see 44 to 46% of its schools close.