The Difficult Interplay of State & Local Physical & Fiscal Challenges, especially those that can threaten lives, health, and public safety.

07/26/17

Share on Twitter

eBlog

Good Morning! In today’s iBlog, we consider the fiscal and physical challenges confronting the City of Flint, Michigan as it seeks to settle on a permanent drinking water source.

Out Like Flint. Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette has provided an update on his criminal investigation of the Flint drinking water crisis—a crisis which evolved from the state’s appointment of an emergency manager in place of the city’s elected leaders, and which has, since, led to steadily higher in the ranks of the state government, with the update coming as the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has sued the City of Flint over claims the City Council has been foot-dragging in approving a switch to the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA) to provide its long-term drinking water. Mr. Schuette was joined by Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton, his special counsel Todd Flood, and his chief criminal investigator Andrew Arena—with, to date, some baker’s dozen current or former Michigan or City of Flint officials charged, including two gubernatorially-appointed emergency managers who were reported to the State Treasurer. The suit alleges “the City Council’s failure to act will cause an imminent and substantial endangerment to public health in Flint.”

Michigan Department of Environmental Quality officials have acknowledged a mistake in failing to require corrosion-control chemicals to be added to the water—a mistake costly to health care, the city’s fisc, and trust in government, in the wake of lead leaching from pipes, joints, and fixtures into Flint homes and drinking water—leaving a situation today where residents are still advised not to drink tap water without a filter: five current or former state employees charged previously are from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and three from the Department of Health and Human Services, in the wake of outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease after the state-ordered water switch—a switch which health investigators have since tied to 12 deaths.

Even though state and federal health officials have yet to definitively link the water switch to the disease, Michigan Attorney General Scheutte and his investigators have come close to doing so in public statements and documents related to the criminal charges. Last September, he warned Michigan Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon he was a focus of the investigation, although, since, there has been no additional notification. But there are difficult fiscal, as well as physical and intergovernmental issues. Richard Baird, a senior advisor to Gov. Rick Snyder, at a meeting with the Flint Water Interagency Coordinating Committee, last Friday noted: “Given that the City of Flint is paying for two water sources and does not have a favorable long-term contract with the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA), the lack of action is costing the city an extra $600,000 each month: The city has projected that it will deplete its water and sewer fund reserves by the 4th quarter of 2018, which will necessitate a significant rate increase for residents and business if the matter is not resolved.”

Such an increase would be hard on the city’s citizens: per capita income for Flint was $23,593 in 2015—nearly 20% below the statewide average. Thus, it is most unsurprising that Mayor Karen Weaver, last April, recommended, with the support of Genesee County, GLWA, and state officials that the city extend its contract with GLWA for 30-years: such a contract would result in about $9 million in savings, because it would lock in a more favorable rate with GLWA and address the $7 million in debt service payments Flint is currently obligated to pay—with Mayor Weaver noting the decision ensured water quality for the city that is still recovering from a water contamination crisis that stemmed from the decision of its previous state-appointed emergency managers to shift water sources and participate in the KWA project. Under her proposed plan, Flint would recoup roughly $7 million in annual debt service by transferring its KWA water rights to the GLWA. (The city was preparing to shift to KWA supplied, untreated water in 2019, with plans to make much-needed upgrades to its treatment plant to comply with federal EPA drinking water standards; however, last April, the Mayor dropped the plan to make the switch to the bond-financed pipeline and recommended the city continue to purchase water from GLWA—claiming the GLWA supplied and treated water is more affordable and would save the city the fiscal and physical risk of still another supply shift: the switch is projected to result in a $2.4 million savings, because GLWA would impose a better rate than is currently available under the current short-term contract with the city.)

The City Council, last Wednesday, voted to postpone the vote on the water plan for another 30 days, after, last month, voting to extend Flint’s contract with GLWA to September in an effort to provide more time to examine and weigh the costs and benefits of the longer term water contract—a delay which Mayor Weaver described as triggering the need to petition the federal court to determine the contours of the legal authority for the city and state to properly execute the requisite agreements to secure a long-term water source “on behalf of the people of Flint.” The state complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court, seeks a declaration that the Flint City Council’s failure to act is a violation of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act and an order that Flint must enter into the long-term agreement with GLWA.

Flint City Councilman Eric Mays believes the federal court should give the City Council 30 days in which to call state officials to testify about the deal and allow the City Council to tweak it, stating he wants to amend the agreement to ensure Flint does not lose its investment in the Karegnondi Water Authority—a new pipeline to Lake Huron which was instrumental in Flint switching away from Detroit water while under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager. However, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Director Heidi Grether had given the City Council a deadline to approve the agreement last month, writing: “The City is currently paying $14.1 million per year to obtain water from the GLWA through a 72-inch line that was previously transferred to Genesee County…Due to its decision to transfer the line, Flint will lose use of the 72-inch line on Oct. 1, 2017, absent approval of the Mayor’s recommendation: No other alternate pipeline currently exists to supply GLWA water to Flint.”

At the end of last week, ergo, Mr. Baird told Flint and Genesee County officials that the City Council’s indecision on a long-term water source was not only costing more than a half million dollars each month, but also risking “significant” water rate increases next year if something were not done soon, adding that the city’s stalling on selecting a long-term water source was imposing an extra $600,000 each month, because the city is currently purchasing water from two water sources—the Great Lakes Water Authority, from which it currently gets its treated water, and the Karegnondi Water Authority, from which it contractually would take water by 2019 to 2020. His remarks were given as part of an update on a federal lawsuit the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality filed late last month against the Flint City Council—a suit in which the state alleges the elected council members have endangered the public health by failing to approve a long-term drinking water source. He added that if the Flint City Council continues to delay its vote on the 30-year contract offer, the city’s water and sewer fund reserves are expected to be tapped out by the end of 2018—an outcome which, he warned, would “necessitate a significant rate increase for residents and businesses if this is not resolved.”

Mayor Weaver has recommended the Council approve the 30-year contract with the Detroit area Great Lakes authority, in part to ensure the cleanest water at the most inexpensive price. (The city already pays some of the nation’s highest water rates: approximately $53.84 per month on the water portion of residents’ monthly bill, according to a report from Raftelis Financial Consultants of Missouri). A 2016 report from Food and Water Watch, which surveyed the nation’s 500 biggest water systems, found that Flint residents paid almost double the national average for water and the highest rates in the country despite the city’s water being undrinkable without a filter.

Getting into and out of Municipal Bankruptcy

07/10/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the exceptional fiscal challenge to post-chapter 9 Detroit between building and razing the city; then we head East to Hartford, where the Governor and Legislature unhappily contemplate the Capital City’s fiscal future—and whether it will seek chapter 9 bankruptcy, before finally returning the key Civil War battlefield of Petersburg, Virginia—where a newly brought on Police Chief mayhap signals a turnaround in the city’s fiscal future.  

Raising or Razing a Municipality? Detroit, founded on July 24th in 1701 by Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, the French explorer and adventurer, went on to become one of the country’s most vital music and industrial centers by the early 20th century; indeed, by the 1940’s, the Motor City had become the nation’s fourth-largest city. But that period might have been its apogee: the combination of riots and industrial restructuring led to the loss of jobs in the automobile industry, and signal white flight to the suburbs; since reaching a peak of 1.8 million in the 1950 census, Detroit’s population has declined precipitously: more than 60%.  Nevertheless, it is, today, the nation’s largest city on the U.S.—Canada border, and, with the imminent completion of the Gordie Howe Bridge to Canada, the city—already the anchor of the second-largest region in the Midwest, and the central city of a metro region of some 4.3 million Americans at the U.S. end of the busiest international crossing in North America; the question with regard to how to measure its fiscal comeback has been somewhat unique: it has been—at least up until currently, by the number of razed homes. Indeed, one of former Mayor Dave Bing’s key and touted programs was his pledge to raze 10,000 homes—a goal actually attained last year under Mayor Mike Duggan—under whose leadership some 11,500 homes have been razed. Mayor Duggan reports his current goal is to raze another 2,000 to 4,000 annually—so that, today, the city is host to the country’s largest blight-removal program—a critical component of Detroit’s future in a municipality which has experienced the loss of over one million residents over the last six decades—and where assessed property values of blighted and burned homes can be devastating to a municipality’s budget—and to its public schools. Worse, from a municipal governing perspective, is the challenge: how do the cities’ leaders balance helping its citizens to find affordable housing versus expenditures to raze housing—especially in a city where so many homeowners owed more than their homes were worth after the 2008 housing collapse?

Mayor Duggan’s response, moreover, has attracted the focus of multiple investigations, including federal subpoenas into bidding practices and the costs of demolitions—even as a separate grand jury has been reported to have subpoenaed as many as 30 contractors and Detroit municipal agencies, and Michigan officials have sought fines, because contractors mishandled asbestos from razed homes. Mayhap even more challenging: a recent blight survey by Loveland Technologies, a private company which maps the city, questions whether demolition is even keeping pace with blight in Detroit: the report indicates that vacancies in neighborhoods targeted for demolition have actually increased 64% over the last four years.

Hard Fiscal Challenges in Hartford: Is there a Role for the State? The Restructuring of Municipal Debt. Connecticut Gov. Daniel Malloy stated that the state would be willing to help the City of Hartford avoid chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy—but only if the city gets its own financial house in order, with his comments coming in the wake of the decision by Mayor Luke Bronin to hire an international law firm with expertise in municipal bankruptcies—with the Mayor making clear the city is also exploring other fiscal alternatives. Gov. Malloy has proposed offering millions more in state aid to the capital city in his budget proposal, to date, the state legislature, already enmired in its own, ongoing budget stalemate—has not reacted. Thus, the Governor noted: “I don’t know whether we can be all things to all people, but I think Hartford has to, first and foremost, help itself…But we should play a role. I think we need to do that not just in Hartford, but in Bridgeport and New Haven, and other urban environments and Waterbury. There’s a role for us to play.” The stakes are significant: Hartford is trying to close a $65 million fiscal gap—a gap which, should it not be able to bridge, would mean the city would have to seek express, prior written consent of the Governor to file a municipal bankruptcy petition (Conn. Gen. Stat.§7-566)—consent not yet sought by the city—or, as the Governor put it on Friday: “There’s no request for that…I don’t think they’re in a position to say definitively what they are going to do. I’m certainly not going to prejudge anything. That should be viewed as a last resort, not as a first.”

House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz (D-Berlin and Southington) and a former Member of the Berlin Council, reports the legislature could vote as early as a week from tomorrow on a two-year, $40 billion state budget, albeit some officials question whether a comprehensive agreement could be reached by that date, after the legislature has missed a series of deadlines, including the end of the legislative session on June 7th, not to mention the fiscal year of June 30th.  Meanwhile, the city awaits its fiscal fate: it has approved a budget of nearly $613 million, counting on nearly half the funds to come from the state; meanwhile, the city has hired the law firm of Greenberg Traurig to begin exploration of the option of filing for bankruptcy—or, as Mayor Bronin noted: “One important element of any municipal restructuring is the restructuring of debt…They will be beginning the process of reaching out to bond holders to initiate discussion about potential debt restructuring.”

Municipal Physical & Fiscal Safety. The fiscally challenged municipality of Petersburg, Virginia has brought on a new Chief of Police, “Kenny” Miller, a former Marine with 36 years of law enforcement experience.  Chief Miller views his new home as an “opportune place to give back” after a “blessed” career with one of Virginia’s largest police agencies—in the wake of serving 34 of his 36 years as an officer with the Virginia Beach Police Department. Chief Miller, who was sworn in last Friday afternoon, in the wake of a national search, noted: “You got to get out there and engage people…If people see that you care, they know you care. You can’t police inside of a building,” adding: “Engagement means working with the community…Solving problems together. People that live in the communities know the problems better than I do just passing through…We need to break down some barriers and get some trust going.” Chief Miller commences in his new role as the historic city seeks to turn around a fiscal and leadership crisis—one which left some parts of city government in dysfunction. The police department has had its own woes—including the Police Department, where, a year and a half ago, former Petersburg Chief John I. Dixon III acknowledged, after weeks of silence, that an audit of the department’s evidence and property room turned up $13,356 in missing cash related to three criminal cases—a finding which led former Petersburg Commonwealth’s Attorney Cassandra Conover to ask Virginia State Police to investigate “any issues involving” the police department that had come to her attention through “conversations and media reports” of alleged police misconduct or corruption—an investigation which remains ongoing. But the new Chief will face a different kind of fiscal challenge in the wake of the resignations of 28 sworn officers who have resigned in the last nine months after the city’s leaders imposed an across-the-board 10 percent pay cut for the city’s nearly 600 full-time workforce a year ago—and dropped 12 civilians from emergency communications positions. Nevertheless, Chief Miller said he was attracted to Petersburg because “the job was tailor-made for me. It’s a city on the rise, and I wanted to be part of something good…I don’t do it for the money. I’ve been blessed. I want to give back, (and) Petersburg is the opportune place to give back…The community members and the city leadership team are all working together to bring Petersburg to a beginning of a new horizon: “So why not be a part of that great opportunity?”

Chief Miller enters the job as Petersburg is straining to overcome a fiscal and leadership crisis that left some parts of city government in dysfunction; moreover, the police department has had its own woes. Seventeen months ago, former Petersburg police Chief John I. Dixon III acknowledged after weeks of silence that an audit of the department’s evidence and property room turned up $13,356 in missing cash related to three criminal cases. That led former Petersburg Commonwealth’s Attorney Cassandra Conover to ask the Virginia State Police to investigate “any issues involving” the police department which had come to her attention through “conversations and media reports” of alleged police misconduct or corruption. Nevertheless, Chief Miller reports he was “intrigued” by those officers who stayed with the force in spite of the pay cut “and showed virtue with respect to policing: Policing isn’t something that you do, it’s what you are: There are men and women there who really care about the city, and (those) people stayed.” He adds, he was attracted to Petersburg, because “the job was tailor-made for me. It’s a city on the rise, and I wanted to be part of something good…I’m now in my 36th year in law enforcement…And I don’t do it for the money. I’ve been blessed. I want to give back, (and) Petersburg is the opportune place to give back. The community members and the city leadership team are all working together to bring Petersburg to a beginning of a new horizon: So why not be a part of that great opportunity?” According to an announcement of his appointment as Petersburg’s Chief on Virginia Beach’s Facebook page: “[H]is connection with multiple civic leaders and groups throughout the city have forged and strengthened deep bonds between the Virginia Beach community and the police department.”

Getting Back in like Flint

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the lessons learned from Flint—lessons that were not unrelated to the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S, history in Detroit.

Immunity for State & Municipal Employees: What Does it Mean in Flint? U.S. Judge Judith Levy, in her 101-page decision this week, held that Flint and Michigan employees can be sued over the city’s lead water contamination; however, she found that Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and the State of Michigan have governmental immunity. The ruling came in response to a suit brought by a resident of Flint, against Gov. Snyder and 13 other public officials. Judge Levy dismissed many of the counts; however, she concurred that Flint resident Shari Guerin, who had brought the suit against the city and the other public officials, had had both her and her child’s “bodily integrity” unknowingly exposed by the dangerous levels of lead in Flint’s drinking water—levels of which the state was aware, but had hidden from the public. Indeed, the Judge wrote: “The conduct of many of the individual governmental defendants was so egregious as to shock the conscience.” Despite dismissing the charges against the Governor, the Michigan Departments of Environmental Quality and Health and Human Services—and the city’s water treatment plant operator, Judge Levy found that some key state leaders, including the state’s Chief Medical Executive and Health and Human Services Director could be sued in their individual capacities—and that Flint officials have no state governmental immunity, writing: “As this case highlights, the more governmental actors that are involved in causing a massive tort in Michigan, the less likely it is that state tort claims can proceed against the individual government actors given the way the state immunity statutes operate…Because the harm that befell plaintiffs was such a massive undertaking, and took so many government actors to cause, the perverse result is that none can be held responsible under state tort law.”

A Vicious Fiscal Whirlpool? For the city, the severe water contamination had not just physical fiscal implications, but also fiscal ones. Indeed, one of the plaintiffs was one of nearly 8,000 homeowners who was in danger of losing homes under tax foreclosure proceedings (Real property tax delinquency in the state entails a three-year forfeiture and foreclosure process)—proceedings which had been scheduled to commence last week until the Flint City Council approved a one-year moratorium—a moratorium which covered residents with two years of unpaid water and sewer bills going back to June 2014. While that temporary reprieve is in question, confronting an unknown outcome before the state-appointed Receivership Transition Advisory Board, which has monitored Flint’s finances since the city’s emergence from state oversight in two years ago last April—and is scheduled to vote on the moratorium at its June meeting; the outstanding water liens and inability to collect have further emptied the city’s coffers—even as, unsurprisingly, assessed property values  have become the latest fiscal hardship as an impoverished Flint still reels from a lead-in-water crisis which was first publicly acknowledged less than two years ago.

According to a recent Michigan State University study, “Flint Fiscal Playbook: An Assessment of the Emergency Manager Years, 2011-2015),” Flint has lost nearly 75 percent of its tax base—and of that base, assessed property valuations reeled to a 50 percent drop from $1.5 billion to $750 million.  Thus, unsurprisingly, more than 100 residents showed up at this week’s Council meeting—understandably upset that they face foreclosure even as they have been confronted by bills for drinking water, which they could neither drink, nor use in any way that might jeopardize the health and safety of their children. Those citizens received a temporary, one-year reprieve from the city—but the reprieve implies greater fiscal challenges to the city.

With liabilities high and revenues and property taxes struggling, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver reports that Flint has trimmed $2 million in annual garbage collection expenses by rebidding the service; expects to cut annual water expenses to $12 million from $21 million; and, due to federal grants, is hiring 33 more firefighters. The city is proceeding with a $37 million renovation of the Capitol Theatre downtown, seeking to create a central, historic space which could enhance the downtown—or, as the Mayor puts it: “I don’t think people should take their eyes off Flint.”

But assessing the dimensions of this disaster, created in no small part under the state’s original takeover of the city via the appointment of the emergency manager who had made the fatal decisions to change the city’s sourcing of drinking water, also includes looking back to the critical governmental decisions—especially Flint’s opting to abandon reliance on the  Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA) and instead rely upon the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA), a regional water authority created as part of Detroit’s chapter 9 plan of debt adjustment—meaning Flint’s citizens will keep drawing Detroit water from their taps—or, as the Mayor put it: “Staying with our water source gives us reassurance our water is good…It gets us out of our $7 million (annual) debt to the KWA. We did not have the finances to be able to do that.” Under the city’s 30-year agreement with the  30-year deal with GLWA, the city will receive a $7 million annual credit equal to its annual municipal bond payment to KWA for as long as Flint remains current with scheduled debt service. In addition, the agreement also enables the city to redirect water plant improvements to upgrading the city’s water distribution system—or, as Mayor Weaver notes: “We have pipes going into the ground now (referring to the planned replacement of lead service lines).We’re addressing this water crisis. The water quality is better. There are some good things going on.”

Mayor Weaver notes Flint has cut its $2 million in annual garbage collection expenses by rebidding the service; the city expects to cut annual water expenses to $12 million from $21 million; and the city continues to work with the Governor to address the public health concerns associated with the Flint water crisis. To try to become an economic magnet or hub, rather than a city to be avoided, the city is focused on a $37 million renovation of the Capitol Theatre, creating a central, historic space which could draw folks to events, restaurants, and bars. As the Mayor puts it: “I don’t think people should take their eyes off Flint…They should know the rest of the story. One of the things I’ve learned is we were going to get more done if we work together. If people are going to help you, why would you not sit down and work things out?”

Solomon’s Choices: Who Will Define Puerto Rico’s Fiscal Future–and How?

eBlog

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the growing physical and fiscal breakdown in the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico as it seeks, along with the oversight PROMESA Board, an alternative to municipal bankruptcy. 

Tropical Fiscal Typhoon. U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts has selected Southern District of New York Judge Laura Taylor Swain, who previously served as a federal bankruptcy Judge for the Eastern District of New York from 1996 until 2000 to preside over Puerto Rico’s PROMESA Title III bankruptcy proceedings—presiding, thus, over a municipal bankruptcy nearly 500% larger than that of Detroit’s–one which will grapple with creating a human and fiscal blueprint for the future of some 3.5 million Americans—and force Judge Swain to grapple with the battle between the citizens of the country and the holders of its debt spread throughout the U.S. (Title III of PROMESA, which is modeled after Chapter 9 of the Municipal Bankruptcy Code and nearly a century of legal precedent, provides a framework for protecting Puerto Rico’s citizens while also respecting the legitimate rights and priorities of creditors.) For example, the recent Chapter 9 restructuring in Detroit sought reasonable accommodations for vulnerable pensioners and respected secured creditors’ rights.

The action came in the wake of Puerto Rico’s announcement last week that it was restructuring a portion of its nearly $73 billion in debt—an action which it was clear almost from the get-go that the requisite two-thirds majority of Puerto Rico’s municipal bondholders would not have supported. (Puerto Rico’s constitution provides that payments to holders of so-called “general obligation” bonds have priority over all other expenditures—even as another group of creditors has first access to revenues from the territory’s sales tax.) More critically, Judge Swain will be presiding over a process affecting the lives and futures of some 3.5 million Americans—nearly 500% greater than the population of Detroit. And while the poverty rate in Detroit was 40%, the surrounding region, especially after the federal bailout of the auto industry, differs signally from Puerto Rico, where the poverty rate is 46.1%–and where there is no surrounding state to address or help finance schools, health care, etc. Indeed, Puerto Rico, in its efforts to address its debt, has cut its health care and public transportation fiscal support; closed schools; and increased sales taxes. With the Bureau of Labor Statistics reporting an unemployment rate of at 12.2%, and, in the wake of last year’s Zika virus, when thousands of workers who were fighting the epidemic were let go from their jobs; the U.S. territory’s fiscal conditions have been exacerbated by the emigration of some of its most able talent—or, as the Pew Research Center has noted:  “More recent Puerto Rican arrivals from the island are also less well off than earlier migrants, with lower household incomes and a greater likelihood of living in poverty.”

For Judge Swain—as was the case in Detroit, Central Falls, San Bernardino, Stockton, etc., a grave challenge in seeking to fashion a plan of debt adjustment will resolve around public pensions. While the state constitutional issues, which complicated—and nearly led to a U.S. Supreme Court federalism challenge—do not appear to be at issue here; nevertheless the human aspect is. Just as former Rhode Island Supreme Court Judge Robert G. Flanders, Jr., who served as Central Falls’ Receiver during that city’s chapter 9 bankruptcy—and told us, with his voice breaking—of the deep pension cuts which he had summarily imposed of as much as 50%—so too Puerto Rico’s public pension funds have been depleted. Thus, it will fall to Judge Swain to seek to balance the desperate human needs on one side versus the demands of municipal bondholders on the other. Finally, the trial over which Judge Swain will preside has an element somewhat distinct from the others we have traced: can she press, as part of this process to fashion a plan of debt adjustment, for measures—likely ones which would have to emanate from Congress—to address the current drain of some of Puerto Rico’s most valuable human resources: taxpayers fleeing to the mainland. Today, Puerto Rico’s population is more than 8% smaller than seven years ago; the territory has been in recession almost continuously for a decade—and Puerto Rico is in the midst of political turmoil: should it change its form of governance: a poll two months’ ago found that 57% support statehood. Indeed, even were Puerto Rico’s voters to vote that way, and even though the 2016 GOP platform backed statehood; it seems most unlikely that in the nation’s increasingly polarized status the majority in the U.S. Congress would agree to any provision which would change the balance of political power in the U.S. Senate.

Municipal Fiscal Accountability

Share on Twitter

eBlog, 03/31/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing recovery efforts in Atlantic City after its “lost decade,” before venturing inland to one of the nation’s oldest cities, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania (founded in 1769) as it confronts the challenges of an early state intervention program, and, finally, to Southern California, where the City of Compton faces singular fiscal distrust from its citizens and taxpayers.  

A Lost Fiscal Decade? Atlantic City’s redevelopment effort appears to be gathering momentum following a “lost decade” which featured the closing of five casinos, a housing crisis and major recession, according to a new report released by the South Jersey Economic Review, with author Oliver Cooke writing: “The fact remains that Atlantic City’s redevelopment will take many years…The impact of the local area’s economy’s lost decade on its residents’ welfare has been stark.” The study finds the city to be in recovery—to be stable, but that it is still in critical condition with some work to do.  Nevertheless, its vital signs from developers and its improving economy are all good: that is, while the patient may not regain all its previous strength and capability,  it can thrive: it is “over(cost),” and needs to lose some of the fat it built up by going on a (budget) diet—a road to recovery which will remain steep and tortuous, because it lacks the fiscal capacity it had 15 or 20 years ago—and has to slim down to reflect it.  That is, the city will have to stress itself more in order to get better.  

The analysis, which was conducted in conjunction with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University, notes that vital signs from developers and its improving economy are in good condition—maybe even allowing the city to thrive, even if it is unable to regain all its previous strength and fiscal capacity—put in fiscal cookbook terms: Atlantic City is over(cost)weight and needs to lose some of the fat it built up by going on a (budget) diet.  The report also noted that Atlantic City is on track with some positive developments, including the decision at the beginning of this month by Hard Rock International to buy and reopen the closed Trump Taj Mahal property, as well as a recent $72 million settlement with the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa related to $165 million in owed tax refunds. Mr. Cooke also highlighted other high-profile projects underway, including the reopening of the Showboat casino by developer Bart Blatstein and a $220 million public-private partnership for a new Stockton University satellite residential campus. Nonetheless, he warned that Atlantic City still faces a deep fiscal challenge in the wake of the loss to the city’s metropolitan area of more than 25,000 jobs in the last decade—and its heavy burden of $224 million in municipal bond debt, tied, in large part, to casino property tax appeals. Ultimately, as the ever insightful Marc Pfeiffer of the Bloustein Local Government Research Center and former Deputy Director with the state Division of Local Government Services, the city’s emergence from state control and fiscal recovery will depend on the nuances of the that relationship and whether—in the end—the state imposed Local Finance Board acts with the city’s most critical interests at heart.  

Don’t Run Out of Cash! Wilkes-Barre, first incorporated as a Borough in 1806, is the home of one of Babe Ruth’s longest-ever home runs. It became a city in 1871: today it is a city of over 40,000, but one which has been confronted by constant population decline since the 1930s: today it is less than half the size it was in 1940 and around two-thirds the size it was in 1970. It is a most remarkable city, made up of an extraordinary heritage of ethnic groups, the largest of which are: Italian (just over 25%), Polish (just under 25%), Irish (21%), German (17.9%) English (17.1%) Welsh (16.2%) Slovak (13.8%); Russian (13.4%); Ukranian (12.8%); Mexican (7%); and Puerto Rican (6.4%). (Please note: my math is not at fault, but rather cross-breeding.) Demographically, the city’s citizens and families are diverse: with 19.9% under the age of 18, 12.6% from 18 to 24, 26.1% from 25 to 44, 20.8% from 45 to 64, and 20.6% who are 65 years of age or older. The city has the 4th-largest downtown workforce in the state of Pennsylvania; its family median income is $44,430, about 66% of the national average, and an unemployment rate of just under 7%. The municipality in 2015 had a poverty rate of 32.5%, nearly double the statewide average. Last year, the City of Wilkes-Barre was awarded a $60,000 grant through the Pennsylvania Department of Economic Development (DCED) Early Intervention Program (EIP) to develop a fiscal, operational and mission management 5 year plan for the city—from which the city selected Public Financial Management (PFM) as its consultant to assist in working with the city on its 5 year plan—and from which the city has since received PFM’s Draft Financial Condition Assessment and Draft Financial Trend Forecasting related to the city’s 5 year plan. As part of the intervention, two internal committees were created to develop new sources of revenue for the city. The Revenue Improvement Task Force is comprised of employees from Finance, Tax, Health, Code, and Administration and was directed to analyze and improve upon existing revenue streams; the Small Business Task Force was designed to develop guidance for those interested in opening small businesses in Wilkes-Barre and is comprised of employees from Zoning, Health, Code, Licensing, and Administration. Overall, Mayor Anthony “Tony” George and his administration are confident that they have made significant progress is restoring law and order via the city’s goals of strengthening intergovernmental relationships, improving public safety, fixing infrastructure, fighting blight, restoring and improving city services and achieving long-term economic development.

Nevertheless, the quest for fiscal improvement and reliance on consultants has proven challenging: some of PFM’s proposed options to address city finances have caused a stir. City council Chairwoman Beth Gilbert and City Administrator Ted Wampole, for instance, agreed privatizing the ambulance and public works services as a cost-saving measure was one of the most drastic steps proposed by The PFM Group of Philadelphia, with Chair Gilbert noting: “I stand vehemently against any privatization of any of our city services, especially as an attempt to save money;” she warned the city could end up paying more for services in the long run, and residents could receive less than they get now—adding: “If privatization is on the table, then so is quality.” The financial consultant hired last year for $75,000 to assist the city with developing a game plan to fix its finances under the state’s Early Intervention Program was scheduled to present the options at a public meeting last night at City Hall. PFM representatives, paid from the combination of a $60,000 state grant and $15,000 from the city, have appeared before council several times since December.

Gordon Mann, director of The PFM Group, last night warned: “If the gunshot wound to the city’s financial health doesn’t kill it, the cancer will: both need to be treated, but not at the same time…You need to address the bullet wound, and you need to put yourself in the position to address the cancer.” Mr. Mann, at the meeting, provided an update on where the city stands and where it’s going if nothing is done to address the municipality’s structural problems of flat revenues and escalating expenses for pensions, payroll and long-term debt; then he identified a number of steps to stabilize the city and balance its books, beginning with: “Don’t run out of cash,” and “[D]on’t bother playing the blame game and pointing the finger at prior administrations either,…It may not be your fault, but it is your problem.”

Wilkes Barre is not unlike many of Pennsylvania’s 3rd class cities (York, Erie, Easton, etc.), all in varying degrees of fiscal distress, albeit with some doing better than others. The municipal revenues derived from the property tax and earned income tax will simply not sustain a city like Wilkes Barre—that it, unless and until the state’s municipalities have access to collective bargaining/binding arbitration and pension reform: the current, antiquated revenue options leave the state’s municipalities caught between a rock and a hard place. Worse, mayhap, is the increasing rate of privatization—where an alarming trend across the Commonwealth of communities selling off assets (water, sewer, parking, etc.), more often than not to plug capital into pensions, is, increasingly, leaving communities with no assets and with no pension reform facing the same issue in the future. 

Not Comping Compton: Corruption & Fiscal Distress. In Compton, California, known as the Hub City, because of its location in nearly the exact geographical center of Los Angeles County, the City of Compton is one of the oldest cities in the county and the eighth to incorporate.  The city traces its roots to territory settled in 1867 by a band of 30 pioneering families, who were led to the area by Griffith Dickenson Compton—families who had wagon-trained south from Stockton, California in search of ways to earn a living other than in the rapidly depleting gold fields, but where, the day before yesterday, the city’s former deputy treasurer was arrested for allegedly stealing nearly $4 million from the city. FBI agents arrested Salvador Galvan of La Mirada on Wednesday morning, as part of a federal criminal complaint filed Tuesday, alleging that, for six years, Mr. Galvan skimmed about $3.7 million from cash collected from parking fines, business licenses, and city fees: an audit found discrepancies ranging from $200 to $8,000 per day. Mr. Galvan, who has been an employee of the city for twenty-three years, has been charged with theft concerning programs receiving federal funds. If convicted, he could face up to five years in prison. As Joseph Serna and Angel Jennings of the La Times yesterday wrote: “The money adds up to an important chunk of the budget in a city once beset with financial problems and the possibility of [municipal] bankruptcy.” Prosecutors claim that one former city employee saw all these payments as an opportunity, alleging that the former municipal treasurer, over the last six years, skimmed more than $3.7 million from City Hall, taking as much as $200 to $8,000 a day—small enough, according to federal prosecutors, to avoid detection, even as Mr. Galvan’s purchase of a new Audi and other upscale expenses on a $60,000 salary, raised questions.

The arrest marks a setback for the Southern California city which has prided itself in recent years for its recovery from some of the crime, blight, and corruption which had threatened the city with municipal insolvency—or, as Compton Mayor Aja Brown noted: the allegations “challenge the public’s trust.”  Mayor Brown noted the wake-up call comes as the city has been working in recent months to improve financial controls and create new processes for detecting fraud—even as some of the city’s taxpayers question how the city could have missed such criminal activity for so many years. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department had arrested Mr. Galvan last December in the wake of City Treasurer Doug Sanders’ confirmation with regard to “suspicious activity” in a ledger discovered by one of his employees: his position in the city involved responsibility for handling cash: as part of his duties, he collected funds from residents paying their water bills, business licenses, building permits, and trash bills. According to reports, Mr. Galvan maintained accurate receipts of the cash he received for city fees, but he would submit a lower amount to the city’s deposit records and, ultimately, on the deposit slips verified by his supervisors and the banks, according to federal prosecutors. Indeed, an audit which compared a computer-generated spreadsheet tracking money coming in to the city with documents Mr. Galvan prepared made clear that he had commenced skimming cash in 2010—starting slowly, at first, but escalating from less than $10,000 to $879,536 by 2015, a loss unaccounted for in the city’s accounting system. While Mr. Galvan faces a maximum of 10 years in federal prison, if convicted, the city faces a trial of public trust—or, as Mayor Brown, in a statement, notes: “Unfortunately, the actions of one employee can challenge the public’s trust that we strive daily as a City to rebuild…The alleged embezzlement and theft of public funds is an egregious affront to the hard-working residents of Compton as well as to our dedicated employees. The actions of one person does not represent our committed City employees who — like you — are just as disappointed.”