The Governance Responsibility to Protect a City’s Children

October 10, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we report on the physical and fiscal challenges of the Detroit Public Schools, before zooming south to assess whether the complex municipal financing in Puerto Rico’s recovery has perhaps exacerbated the U.S. territory’s debt challenges.

Protecting a City’s Children. A key challenge in Detroit’s plan of debt adjustment from the nation’s largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy was restoring trust in its public schools—a critical step if families with kids were going to move from the suburbs into the emptied city. That, of course, required making the schools not just trustworthy places for learning, but also safe—and not just safe from a gang perspective, but especially here from water contamination—Flint, not so far away, after all, is on many parents’ minds. Thus, the school district is developing plans to make drinking water safe inside its buildings, especially after a review of testing data shows one school had more than 54 times the allowable amount of lead under federal law, while another exceeded the regulated copper level by nearly 30 times. The Detroit News reviewed hundreds of pages of water reports for 57 buildings which tested for elevated levels of lead and/or copper in the water to provide a detailed look how excessive the metal levels were in the most elevated sources.

The News effort comes as Detroit Public School Superintendent Nikolai Vitti noted: “‎We discontinued the use of drinking water when concerns were identified without any legal requirement to do so, and hydration stations will ensure there is no lead or copper in all water consumed by students and staff, with the Superintendent yesterday reported the system expects to spend nearly $3.8 million enacting a long-term solution to widespread lead and copper contamination in students’ drinking water, with the cost including $741,939 to install 818 hydration stations and filters, $750,000 for water coolers until completed installation of the stations in the summer of 2019, $539,880 for environmental remediation costs, $1.2 million for maintenance services, and $282,000 for facilities maintenance—a tab unanimously approved yesterday by the Detroit Community Schools Board, with long-term plan to get drinking water flowing again inside the 106 Detroit schools after faucets were turned off ahead of the school year. The announcement followed Monday’s by Supt. Vitti, when he reported that he and the school board will reveal corporate funders for some $2 million in hydration stations he wants to install across the district.

The need, as the survey revealed, is urgent: among the elevated levels reported by the Detroit Public School District includes a kitchen faucet inside Mason Elementary-Middle School which had more than 54 times the amount of lead permitted the Safe Drinking Water Act; a drinking fountain inside Mark Twain School for Scholars was tested at more than 53 times the federal threshold; a drinking fountain on the first floor near the kitchen of Bethune Elementary-Middle School that had copper levels at nearly 30 times the permissible level—even as DPS officials still await the test results of 17 more buildings. Nevertheless, from the results so far, there is a failing grade: more than half of the 106 schools inside Michigan’s largest school district have contaminated water. Indeed, with EPA recommending lead limits of 15 micrograms per liter or 15 part per billion, water samples at Mason found extreme elevations of lead at Mason, Twain, Davis Aerospace Technical, and Bagley, and extreme levels of copper at Bethune Academy of the Americas elementary-middle school and Western International. Unsurprisingly, public health and water safety experts report that schools should use a tougher standard for lead levels, and nationally recognized Virginia Tech water expert Marc Edwards said: “Those are not good. There is no doubt there are worrisome lead levels: Whenever you take hundreds of thousands of samples in a school, you are going to get some results that are shockingly high.” At a Board of Education meeting last month, Superintendent Vitti said the most practical, long-term, and safest solution for water quality problems inside the schools would be to provide water hydration stations in every building—systems currently used in public school districts, including in Flint, Royal Oak, and Birmingham, as well as Baltimore: these stations, in addition to cooling water, more importantly remove copper, lead, and other contaminants.

Drinking water screening reports demonstrate that water was collected at some schools in April and others in August, with school district officials reporting sampling began in the district in the spring and continued through last August. In September, Superintendent Vitti said that DPS, through its environmental consulting firm, ATC Group, is following EPA protocol for collecting water samples, adding: “If testing occurred at a school after the regular school year, then it was done during summer school, where nearly 80 of our schools were offering classes,” adding that many of the schools with high levels had already identified for concern two years ago—and that those were the first group of schools to move to water coolers. Supt. Vitti initiated water testing of the 106 school buildings in May and August after initial tests results found that 16 schools showed high levels of copper and/or lead. Another eight tested for elevated levels in the spring after they were identified with concerns in 2016. Last month, the DPS District received more test results, which found an 33 additional schools with elevated contaminant levels, bringing the total number of schools with tainted water to 57 in a District already overwhelmed by some $500 million in building repair needs; moreover, the bad gnus could worsen: the total number of schools with high levels could increase as school officials await more test results on another 17 schools.

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, noted for her expertise in Flint, who is a pediatrician and public health expert, concurred that Detroit’s policymakers need to set a much more aggressive limit on allowable amounts of lead in schools. In addition, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s school sampling guidance recommends that schools address fixtures which measure above 5 micrograms per liter, the same EPA standard as bottled water, according to Dr. Hanna-Attisha; the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends an action level of just 1 microgram per liter for drinking water in child care facilities and schools. Thus, as Dr. Hanna-Attisha warns: “This should be the District’s action level,” in a letter she co-authored with Elin Betanzo, founder of Safe Water Engineering, a consulting firm—a letter with which Superintendent Vitti said he agrees.

Dr. Hanna-Attisha, who witnessed lead levels in some Flint homes reach 22,000 micrograms per liter, said U.S. EPA school sampling guidance encourages schools to sample every drinking water tap a single time unless lead is detected at greater than 20 micrograms per liter, noting: “One low single tap sample is not sufficient to clear a tap as a potential source of lead, because lead release is sporadic.” Her words come with the benefit of her experience and practice as an associate Professor of Pediatrics at the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine, as well as Director of the MSU-Hurley Children’s Hospital Pediatric Public Health Initiative. She adds: “It is not appropriate to use a single low sample that was taken as a follow-up to a high sample to conclude that a drinking tap is ‘safe to drink,’ although this is how many schools have interpreted sampling data.” Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the Director and Health Officer for the Detroit Health Department, said she recommends parents of children 6 and younger be tested for blood lead levels, because of the Motor City’s history of elevated levels for children, which has been primarily due to lead paint in homes, adding that the elevated rates in the tests were concerning: “I think, broadly speaking, I support Dr. Vitti in testing every water source in every school…For any school that comes back with elevated lead levels, the actual reasons for that school is not clear. It can be the infrastructure or the drinking fountain. Providing bottled water and other sources is the right thing to do.”

According to Michigan health officials, children are at higher risk of harm from lead, because their developing brains and nervous systems are more sensitive. Lead can cause health problems for children, including learning problems, behavior problems including hyperactivity, a lower IQ, slowed growth and development and hearing and speech problems. That risk is not just physical, but also fiscal: A key part of Detroit’s chapter 9 plan of debt adjustment approved by the U.S. Judge Steven Rhodes was its focus on the importance of provisions to give incentives for families to move back to the Motor City‒a difficult parental choice in the wake of, four years ago, the Detroit News investigation which reported that nearly 500 Detroit children had died in homicides since 2000.

Notwithstanding the terrible health tragedy in Flint, Michigan has no rules mandating the state’s school districts to test for lead in their water supply, according to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. According to the GAO, at least eight states require schools to test for lead, and many others assist with voluntary testing. Dr. Khaldun said she supports creating a state law to mandate testing of water sources inside schools—a proposal which would entail substantial costs, creating the query: who will pay—and how?

According to Tiffany Brown, a spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, the Department supports any schools which wish to test, and the Department can offer technical assistance and general information on sampling, result interpretation, and recommended remedial actions in the event of elevated lead and/or copper results, adding that there are fiscal resources “available through the Michigan Department of Education,” and that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is providing information and guidance on best management practices for drinking water in schools to protect the health of students and staff.” In the meantime, the Detroit Public School District is spending $200,000 on bottled water and water coolers for the next several months, with the cost to have stations in every school, one for every 100 students, projected to be $2 million, with Dr. Vitti noting the goal is to deliver clean water, not replace the pipes, or as he put it: “We are not looking to replace the plumbing. The stations address the issue of older plumbing along with weekly flushing.”  

Unequal Treatment? The Financial Oversight and Management Board in Puerto Rico reports that over reliance on outside consultants with conflicts of interest and the failure to invest in a competent workforce have imposed huge costs on and severely weakened the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) and other Puerto Rico government agencies, with the report including an entire chapter just on interest rate swap agreements, a complicated and high risk investment which, it estimates, has cost Puerto Rican government entities nearly $1.1 billion when they repeatedly bet the wrong way on interest rate movements—meaning that, instead of these investments reducing Puerto Rico’s debt, government entities, including PREPA, had to take on more debt to pay for the losses. It appears that the swaps, a novel means of transactions to Puerto Rico’s Government Development Bank (GDB), where officials made these interest rate bets, or, as the report found, many of the GDB Board members who were required to approve the swap transactions, “were not familiar with the mechanics and risks associated with swaps. Many told us outright they could not describe how a swap worked. Instead, the GDB Board members told us they relied on the advice presented to them by the swap advisor.” That appears to denote that the GDB board members effectively ceded control over their investments in these very risky financial instruments to a third-party swap advisor—an advisor  that earned, and will garner fees for as long as the government of Puerto Rico continued to invest in the swaps, regardless of the outcome—an outcome in this case which entailed enormous losses. Moreover, the report demonstrated that, more generally, as the financial condition of Puerto Rico deteriorated, the deals became more complex and less transparent. An example of the utility PREPA’s overreliance on an outside restructuring advisor, AlixPartners, to lead PREPA’s debt restructuring negotiations with its municipal bondholders, as well as developing PREPA’s business plan and savings initiatives, revealed that PREPA paid Alix Partners $45 million in fees for a debt restructuring deal which was ultimately rejected by the PROMESA Oversight Board, which found the proposed financial agreement called for PREPA to pay more debt than the economy of Puerto Rico could support, and as the Puerto Rico Energy Commission found that the review lacked appropriate due diligence over the ongoing fees for legal counsel, financial advisors, and underwriters that would have accrued had the PREPA restructuring deal moved forward: the Commission specifically noted that the restructuring team charged with ensuring the reasonableness of advisor fees “includes the very advisors whose fees are in question…that is not the arm’s-length relationship necessary to protect consumers from excess fees.”

Investment in Good Governance. For elected state and local leaders, over reliance on consultants can go hand-in-hand with a failure to invest in the technical capacity and expertise of government staff. As noted by a Kobre & Kim report prepared on the evolving fiscal situation in Puerto Rico, PREPA has suffered over the years from a high degree of political interference, including the appointment of hundreds of political appointees to managerial and technical positions without regard for qualifications—appointments which appear to have not only cost considerably from a fiscal perspective, but also weakened the managerial competence of the agency. However, instead of recognizing this reality and implementing labor reforms designed to sharply curtail the influence of political appointees within the agency, the PROMESA Board has instead sought an across-the-board salary freeze and benefit cuts, even as the Board recognizes that PREPA has lost 30% of its workforce since 2012 and has severe shortages of skilled workers in key areas—and that it has developed no plan for workforce training and development, effectively seeming to force PREPA to continue to depend on consultants, rather than build its own expertise.

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A Human Rights Perspective on Puerto Rico’s Fiscal and Physical Future

October 5, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we report on the consideration by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights with regard to perspectives on statehood—and whether the federal government is violating human rights in the U.S. territory created by the Jones-Shafroth Act.

Unequal Treatment? The United States, today, at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), meeting at the University of Colorado in Boulder, will defend itself from the denunciations of statesmen sectors who charge that the lack of voting rights for Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens, represents a violation of human and civil rights. In a way, that seems ironic, as the co-author of the Jones-Shafroth Act, as Governor of Colorado, before serving in the U.S. Senate, kicked the issue off, performing—in a three-piece suit—the opening kickoff in a game at Folsom Field in Boulder in a game between the U. of Colorado and the Colorado School of Mines, prior to being elected to the U.S. Senate, where he co-authored the Jones-Shafroth Act—the issue under heated debate today, where the U.S. mission to the OAS, will seek to defend against a charge filed by statespersons who are seeking censure against the U.S. for denying Puerto Ricans who live in Puerto Rico equal rights to vote and be represented in Congress—and in the electoral college. Former Gov. Pedro Rosselló Rossello and attorney Gregorio Igartúa is representing Puerto Rico. The U.S. alternate representative to the Organization of American States, Kevin Sullivan, has been requesting—in writing—since last June, the dismissal of the complaints—complaints some of which date back to 2006—which were not even admitted for consideration until last Spring, noting that the current status violates the U.S. Declaration of Human Rights. The Trump Administration response is that, under the current territorial status, Puerto Rico “has a distinctive status, in fact exceptional,” with a “broad base of self-government.” The Administration also asserts that Puerto Rico has a limited participation in federal processes, through the Presidential primaries and the election of a non-voting Representative in Congress. Attorney Orlando Vidal, who has represented former Governor Rosselló González in this process, today’s will help educate about the lack of political rights under the current territorial status, or, as he put it: “Sometimes, it is necessary that someone from the outside, as the Commission is here, and with an independent and objective point of view, clarify situations that for many, for so long plunged into this issue, it is perhaps difficult to perceive clearly,” adding, there is an easily available “friendly solution:” to direct the admission of Puerto Rico as a state. Today’s Commission session will be chaired by Margarette May Macaulay of Trinidad and Tobago.

More than a decade ago, under the George W. Bush administration, Kein Marshall, the Administration’s Director of the Justice Department’s Legal Office, appearing before the House Subcommittee on Insular Affairs, had recommended calling a referendum: “territory yes or no,” followed by, if the current status was rejected, a consultation to determine whether a governing path forward would be statehood or independence—with Mr. Marshall defending, in his testimony, the report of the Working Group of the White House which, among other things, affirmed in 2005 that the power of the Congress is so broad that, if it wanted, it has the authority to cede the island to another country.

From an international governance perspective, in the international forum, it was two years ago that, in an explanatory vote, in October of 2016, the Obama administration supported a U.N. resolution in favor of self-determination and independence; shortly before, however, on June 30, 2016, President Obama had signed the PROMESA, a statute roughly modeled after chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, except that, in imposing both a financial control board and a judicial process, the outcome, as we have seen, has been a ‘who’s on first, what’s on second’ process—with prohibitive fiscal costs, even as it creates the appearance of a denial of democracy for the U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico. It was 15 years ago that the IACHR determined, in analyzing a complaint filed by a civic group, that nations “cannot invoke their domestic, constitutional, or other laws to justify the lack of compliance with their international obligations.”

El Otro Lado. The other side, as it were, of the Jones‒Shafroth Act, was the Jones Act—an act sponsored by the co-author at the behest of the U.S. shipping industry which has vastly compromised the ability to provide assistance towards Puerto Rico’s recovery from Hurricane Maria—assistance desperately needed for this territory where an estimated 8,000 small businesses still remain shuttered—representing about 10% of the total according to the island’s Urban Retailers Association—and continues to undercut hopes for fiscal and economic recovery. The Jones Act, strongly lobbied for by the domestic shipping industry, mandates that  transportation of goods between two U.S. ports must be carried out by a vessel which was built in the U.S. and operated primarily by U.S. citizens—meaning the cost of materials to help the island recover cost far more than for other, nearby Caribbean nations—and meaning that millions of Americans, including Puerto Ricans following Hurricane Maria last year, are paying hugely inflated prices for gasoline and other consumer products which are vital to recovery—and to equity. The act mandates that carrying goods shipped in U.S. waters between U.S. ports to be U.S.-built, U.S.-registered, U.S.-owned, and manned by crews, at least 75% of whom are U.S. citizens. Mark J. Perry, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and Professor of Economics at the University of Michigan this week noted: “Because of this absurd, antiquated protectionism, it’s now twice as expensive to ship critical goods – fuel, food and building supplies, among other things – from the U.S. mainland to Puerto Rico, as it is to ship from any other foreign port in the world. Just the major damage done to Puerto Rico from the Jones Act is enough reason to tell us that now is the time – past due time – to repeal the anti-consumer Jones Act.”

As Arian Campo Flores and Andrew Scurria of Dow Jones last week pointed out, in Puerto Rica’s fiscal year which ended last June, the island’s economy had contracted by 7.6%. An estimated 8,000 small businesses remain shuttered; Teva Pharmacuticals has announced it will close a manufacturing plant in the municipio of Manati—and, manufacturing employment has decreased by 35%. More fiscally depressing: the Puerto Rico government is now projecting that its population will decline by 12% over the next five years—as an increasing number of young, educated, and trained citizens move to the mainland, leaving behind an older, poorer population.

In the Wake of the Storm

October 2, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we report on the recent one-year anniversary of Hurricane Maria’s fiscal and human destruction in Puerto Rico, trying to learn from the incredible New York Fed experts about the fiscal and physical recoveries, before journeying north to assess the state of Atlantic City’s fiscal recovery in the wake of its state takeover. Then we swing south (again) to assess the serious and fiscally challenging costs of ongoing racial segregation in the St. Louis metropolitan region.

Un Ano Duro. Jason Bram and Joelle Scally of the exceptional Liberty Street Economics team at the New York Federal Reserve, writing about the U.S. Territory’s year of hardship in the wake of Hurricane Maria nearly one year ago, described the most destructive storm to slam Puerto Rico in 90 years. They wrote that: “Maria, combined with Hurricane Irma, which had glanced the island about two weeks prior, is estimated to have caused nearly 3,000 deaths and tens of billions of dollars of physical damage. Millions went without power for weeks, in most cases months. Basic services—water, sewage, telecommunications, medical care, schools—suffered massive disruptions. While it is difficult to assign a cost to all the suffering endured by Puerto Rico’s population, we can now at least get a better read on the economic effect of the storms.” In their marvelous post, the dynamic duo examined a few key economic indicators in an effort to gauge the adverse effects of the storms and the extent of the subsequent rebound—not just for Puerto Rico, but also for its various geographic areas and industry sectors. In addition, they examined data from the New York Fed Consumer Credit Panel to assess how well households held up financially and what effects the home mortgage foreclosure and payment moratoria had, noting that, overall, even when the hurricanes struck, the island’s economy had already been “struggling with a decade-long slump and a fiscal crisis.” Thus, they noted that from the outset, the hurricanes “exacerbated a complex pre-existing problem: a population, economy, and tax base that were all in decline.” They estimated that in last year’s fourth quarter, nearly 200,000 Puerto Ricans left Puerto Rico for the mainland—noting that, according to the Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics, about 72,000 had returned by last April—leading them to guesstimate that, as of last June, about 100,000 had returned. They guesstimate a net decline at 100,000—still a 3 percent drop in the population, which had already fallen by about 12 percent (500,000) since peaking in 2005, writing: “Over the years, Puerto Rico’s population loss has contributed to a feedback loop: a lack of economic opportunity and jobs spurs out-migration, which further undermines the island’s economic prospects. Even before the storm, private-sector employment had contracted by about 12 percent since 2005. In the month after Maria, it tumbled another 7 percent…but it has since recovered significantly: as of August 2018, private-sector employment had rebounded by 5 percent from the post-storm trough and was down 2 percent from its pre-storm levels—still a “sizable drop,” but considerably less than the decline seen after some similar disasters.

With regard to overall wage and salary income, which they describe as an even more telling measure of economic vitality than employment, they wrote that those two factors took a much bigger hit than employment during and right after the storm, albeit, they found, income has since rebounded more substantially, reaching new highs early this year: average wage and salary income for these job-holders was up about 7 percent—more than 5 percentage points above the 1.6 percent rise in the CPI. However, while they found that overall employment has reversed much of its steep initial post-hurricane drop, they wrote that some regions and industry sectors have fared much worse than others, noting that, in terms of industries, the post-Maria trends have largely, but not entirely, followed typical patterns after major natural disasters. Thus they determined that the leisure and hospitality industry was one of the hardest hit‒and has been one of the slowest to recover—especially the accommodation segment, where employment plunged more than 20%—unsurprising, in that there has been such a marked decline in tourism; but they found that retail trade employment has also been hit very hard, as have education and health care services. Given the awesome storm destruction, they did find that construction employment has surged nearly 25 percent since Hurricane Maria struck—and, mayhap more surprising, professional and business services, where there has been sturdy job creation since the hurricanes—particularly in waste management and remediation.

In examining income and salary climbs, the dynamic duo determined that the main contributing factor to be the construction industry, where average pay per worker soared more than 50 percent in the first quarter from a year earlier—writing that even though construction represents only about 4 percent of private-sector employment, that surge was sufficient to raise the average substantially—especially compared to other jobs. Large, average pay outside the construction sector was still up moderately in early 2018.

Nevertheless, in assessing whether Puerto Rican workers are really better off this year than before Maria, outside of construction workers, they found that construction jobs may be going to non-Puerto Ricans: relief and rescue workers from the mainland; they also determined that there are fewer jobs in lower-wage sectors, such as restaurants and retailers, and more jobs in higher-paying industries like professional and business services—meaning there “would appear to be fewer job opportunities for many of the more vulnerable low- to moderate-income Puerto Ricans.”

They noted that local employment data, as of the end of last March, finds a “very mixed picture of the recovery:” whereas San Juan had recovered from almost all of its post-hurricane job losses by last March, nearby municipios were not far behind; however, results for other cities were mixed: they noted that Ponce, Caguas, and Mayaguez had all sustained steep job losses right after Hurricane Maria, but that Ponce’s job count had rebounded almost fully by March, whereas Mayaguez experienced partial recovery. In nearby Vieques, they reported that, as of last March, employment was still down about 40%, and that in the interior, about 20%. They wrote that it was too early to be able to assess what the resulting population changes are for the more isolated municipios.

The authors also examined mortgage payment and foreclosure moratoria impacts from the super storm in the territory, where all real property is subject to taxation, except for property which serves as a primary residence and is valued at less than $150,000, because, in the wake of the storm, a key concern had been that many homeowners would fall behind on their mortgages and possibly face foreclosure. The authors discovered some good gnus: because a number of temporary policies were implemented to provide ill-fated homeowners time to recover, including forbearance on mortgage payments, as well as a suspension of late fees and credit reporting, and a potential loan modification to avoid a big jump in payments when the forbearance ends, in addition to a moratorium on new foreclosures; those governmental actions appeared to achieve their intended aims.

Using the New York Fed Credit Panel data set, constructed from Equifax credit report data which offers insight into mortgage balances and payment behavior, both in Puerto Rico and on the mainland, they determined that, because the moratoria prevented the reporting of delinquencies for participating mortgages on credit reports, mortgage delinquency has been “muted in Puerto Rico, dropping substantially before returning roughly to the pre-storm trend. The foreclosure moratorium had the intended effect of stopping foreclosure starts: new foreclosures on credit reports went to nearly zero in the quarters after the storm, before a small uptick in the second quarter of 2018,” estimating that the total value of payments skipped during the three quarters following the storm was “at least $335 million, which we interpret as a short-term loan to mortgage-holders. Guidance on how these skipped payments will be handled has varied by lender and loan type, but a mortgage modification or a smaller second loan to be paid over the term of the mortgage are likely treatments.” Thus, the Fed noted it believed these moratoria appear to have achieved their intended effects. Nevertheless, and notwithstanding that achievement, they did not feel confident that the territory’s economy is out of the woods, writing: “First, the fiscal, economic, and infrastructure problems that were so prevalent before the hurricanes still loom. Second, much of the recent rebound in economic activity is being driven by federal aid, insurance payouts, and massive reconstruction activity—stimulus that is likely to continue for a while, but not indefinitely. Still, some credit for the economic rebound must go to the people of Puerto Rico, who have shown tremendous fortitude during this incredibly difficult year. We will continue to monitor developments across the various sectors on the island in the coming months; stay tuned to this blog for a more detailed picture of Puerto Rico’s household debt situation.”

No Longer Rolling the Die for Atlantic City’s Fiscal Future. In the wake of a release by New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy’s administration of a 64-page report recommending continued state oversight and control of Atlantic City’s fiscal future through the fall of 2021 of the state Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act, a report which Moody’s deemed a  credit positive,  with Moody analyst Douglas Goldmacher writing that State control has had a strong, positive impact on Atlantic City’s financial position, “which remains weak,” adding: “Without continued state oversight, the city’s ability to continue making substantial fiscal improvements is dubious.” Mr. Goldmacher noted that under state intervention, Atlantic City resolved long-standing tax appeals by casinos and reduced the city’s number of employees—affecting both its payroll and long-term public pension liabilities. At the same time, the state also reduced the city’s transitional aid and increased its Consolidated Municipal Property Tax Relief Act revenue, which Mr. Goldmacher said would create greater reliability with state funding and a more predictable revenue stream.

The Garden State’s five-year quasi-takeover under its Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act began in November 2016 under former Gov. Chris Christie, just after Atlantic City nearly defaulted on its debt and appeared on the verge of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, and is scheduled to endure through . Now, this thorough and comprehensive report focuses on a framework for moving forward—a framework providing a direction for the city, where success will be measured by focusing on the details and establishing processes to move forward—and to effectively implement.  Among key recommendations:

  • Frameworks need to be reinforced for the structure to be operational. The multi-party nature of the proposed coordinating structures requires strong, consistent leadership and attention to project management to make sure the different groups move forward, have meetings, and communicate regularly. They will also need to efficiently resolve the inevitable differences and turf disputes.
  • Because the plan involves so many parties, time and attention must first be paid to get them to the right tables and gain consensus on the plan; or agree on modifications consistent with the themes. Participants must be “on the island” or otherwise engaged in some manner.
  • The proposed ExecCouncil must regularly meet and its members spend the time and attention necessary to execute the plans. It must establish clear, efficient and timely decision-making and dispute resolution processes. Staff must be assigned to manage coordination and reporting on all the different efforts.
  • Breaking down silos and coordinating across multiple parties requires time and attention. The parties must make the necessary resource commitments for the effort to succeed. Slacking should not be tolerated and be promptly addressed by appropriate leaders. Maintaining momentum is critical, especially after the first rosy blush of initial meetings. The report could not address the historic and underlying challenge of the City: the need for the City’s political infrastructure; the parties, ward leaders, factions, civic associations, and political influencers to come together and align themselves to ensure that the plans are executed. Turf, power, and personality differences must be put aside or compromised if the efforts are to succeed. That will take commitment and expenditure of political and social capital to align these disparate groups.

Moody analyst Douglas Goldmacher wrote: “State control has had a strong, positive impact on the city’s financial position, which remains weak: without continued state oversight, the city’s ability to continue making substantial fiscal improvements is dubious.” Mr. Goldmacher noted that under state intervention, Atlantic City resolved long-standing tax appeals by casinos and reduced its total number of employees—even as New Jersey reduced the city’s transitional aid and increased its Consolidated Municipal Property Tax Relief Act revenue, actions which Mr. Goldmacher wrote would create greater reliability of state funding, as well as a more predictable revenue stream. He noted that, notwithstanding a surge in net cash and an improving reserves under state control, the city’s adjusted fund balance is still near zero. Atlantic City did receive a $108 million lift in 2017 thanks to tax appeal settlements with its casinos. The city’s quasi emergency manager appointed by the Governor, Jim Johnson, laid out a long-term fiscal future in the state’s report—a report which included recommended changes to municipal governance and developing a master plan for redevelopment—one recommending the city diversify its local economy beyond casino gambling.

With regard to revenues and taxation, Mr. Goldmacher urged a focus on the city’s “decimated tax base” and the fact that New Jersey’s Casino Reinvestment Development Authority has partial jurisdiction over many properties which could be developed, adding that he believed ongoing state involvement would make it “far more likely” that Atlantic City and the Authority could coordinate redevelopment efforts. The city, which currently has some $223.6 million of outstanding municipal bond debt, is rated Caa3 by Moody’s with a positive outlook, and CCC-plus with a stable outlook by S&P Global Ratings. Mr. Goldmacher noted: “While the continued oversight is a credit positive, the city is far from being financially secure…The report, which has received preliminary approval from the Governor and is being reviewed in detail, lays out a strong vision for the future. But the devil is in the details, and it remains for the city, state, and CRDA to demonstrate that they can turn this vision into a sound plan.”

The Fiscal Arch. The City of St. Louis has issued FY2018 construction permits for projects valued at $1.14 billion, levels setting a new high; indeed, In FY 2018, St. Louis issued 5,396 building permits for projects totaling $1,142,040,378 in value, a $528 million increase over the previous fiscal year, or, as Mayor Lyda Krewson noted: “These numbers are very encouraging. It shows that developers, investors, and business leaders are bullish on St. Louis…It’s exciting to see that attitude reflected in not just in words, but in actions.  I love seeing all the construction dumpsters around town.” The building permits issued include new construction and rehabs of both residential and commercial property, in addition to smaller permits for alterations or additions. The FY2018 permits also reflect some major projects underway, including the new St. Louis University hospital campus, Ballpark Village Phase II, and St. Louis Community College’s new Center for Nursing and Health Sciences. In addition, large-scale construction projects, and small- and medium-scale rehabs have also been a significant source of development over the past year: of the 7,322 housing units issued permits, 86% are located in rehabilitated buildings. Moreover, development has not been limited to the central corridor: 17 wards across the city exceeded the total building permit value compared to the previous fiscal year.

Nevertheless, not all has changed since the National Governors Association, long ago, convened for its annual meeting there: both in and beyond its city limits, there remain signs of economic decline and ongoing racial segregation: opportunities for the city’s predominantly African-American residents appear grim: while gangs appear not to be especially a problem, drugs and gun violence are. Last weekend, six citizens were slain; nevertheless, while FBI statistics show the national rate of violent crime fell by 0.9% last year, and the murder rate declined by 1.4%, St. Louis last year experienced 205 homicides—the highest murder rate of any big city in the U.S.—more challenging for its leaders: almost all of the city’s homicides take place in just a few neighborhoods: a police plot via a heat map of crimes in St Louis finds clusters of glowing red dots which demonstrate that murders typically occur close to each other, in the same distressed streets in the north. While that would seem to suggest an ability to provide a more focused and efficient response, the city’s Commander of Investigative Services, Major Mary Warnecke, notes: “We do have a homicide rate we’d love to see smaller,” but she describes a host of fiscal and physical obstacles, including: lack of staff, long-running social and economic hardships, use of drugs, and overly lax gun laws, as well as criminals who skip over the Mississippi River to nearby Illinois—which make improvements intensely difficult. She reports that her detectives clear only a dismal 52% of their murder cases, a slight gain on the past few years—in part because they rely heavily on the co-operation of witnesses, who may, unsurprisingly, not be forthcoming. Major Warnecke said her overworked 33 homicide detectives officially have 4.8 cases each, but low clearances mean cases, like bodies, pile up.

Three years ago, the headquarters created a “real time crime center”, a collection of screens to relay images from cameras all over the city, letting police monitor for trouble. Pictures are matched with reports from Shotspotter—lots of microphones in public places which record sounds of gunshots. These are instantly analyzed, letting police know precisely where and what type of weapons are in use. Police would like access to drones for better aerial footage; however, local regulations do not permit them.

Not Fiscally Petering Out. Standard & Poor’s has raised Petersburg, Virginia’s credit rating from a BB to BB+–with a positive outlook, marking the second consecutive year in the historic municipality’s fiscal recovery from near chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. S&P’s Timothy Barrett and Nora Wittstruck, after, last year, receiving a special tour, outlining the various economic opportunities and challenges within the city, this year followed up with a conference call, where, as Mr. Barrett put it: “We go through an economic update, a capital plan update, a debt update, a managerial update, and a policy practice update. I think in particular with [Petersburg], we concentrated on detailed updates on the financial progress.” Thus the S&P dynamic duo noted that a large part of S&P’s decision to raise Petersburg’s credit rating came from the city’s improved fund balance, with Mr. Barrett noting: “From our standpoint, usually the higher the reserves, the better the budgetary flexibility.” Petersburg, which came closer to filing for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy than any other municipality in the Commonwealth, has budgeted fiscal resources to continue rebuilding the fund balance; it has set a goal of building the balance back up to equal 10% of the city’s general fund—demonstrating, as Mr. Barrett put it: “One of the reasons why we continue to have a positive outlook on the city is in part because they have set those goals and outlines for themselves,” adding that the city’s actions to clear out its backlog of unpaid bills was a contributing factor to the rating upgrade—or, as Ms. Wittstruck noted: “They have essentially caught up in all those past due obligations…We regarded that as a big step in the right direction.”

Nevertheless, Petersburg still has a fiscal ways to go—its credit rating is still below investment grade, and Ms. Wittstruck and Mr. Barrett said that the city would have to remain diligent when managing finances in order for the rating to keep getting raised, with S&P noting there is a one-in-three chance the city’s rating could be raised again in the next two years: Mr. Barrett said S&P will review the rating again next year, noting there will likely be a focus on the city’s fiscal weaknesses, including weak budgetary flexibility, weak debt and contingent liability profile, and historically weak management. Nevertheless, the report found the city to sport a “strong institutional framework score” and that it had demonstrated “adequate budgetary performance,” adding that the city’s proximity to Fort Lee and Richmond was “generating significant economic activity.” Going forward, Mr. Barrett cited the city’s “economic metrics,” such as its high tax rate and relatively low-income level, as challenges city administrations will face as they not only try to achieve financial stability, but improve the overall health of the locality.

Post Municipal Bankruptcy Futures

September 21, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we report on the unsafe conditions of Detroit’s public schools, and dismissal by the Trump administration for self-government in Puerto Rico, and, a year after Hurricane Maria’s devastating strike on Puerto Rico and underwhelming federal response, the U.S. territory’s continued inequitable status.  Unlike in corporate bankruptcies, in municipal bankruptcies, the challenge is not how to walk away from accumulated debts, but rather how to fiscally resolve them.  

Detroit’s Future? In Detroit, where, last week, organizations gathered at the Marygrove College campus to announce a new cradle-to-career educational partnership, including a state-of-the-art early childhood education center, a new K-12 school, and the introduction of an innovative teacher education training modeled after hospital residency programs; Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has announced the closure of thirty-three more schools because of high levels of copper and/or lead, bringing the total number of schools with tainted water to 57 buildings. The Superintendent’s warning noted: “Of the results just received, 33 of 52 schools have one or more water sources with elevated levels of copper and/or lead…This means that 57 of 86 schools where test results have been provided have one or more water sources with elevated levels of copper and/or lead (this does not include the previous 10 Di-Hydro schools where copper and/or lead was detected).” He added the results were incomplete: the district is still awaiting results for 17 schools. He noted: “As you know, drinking water in these schools was discontinued as we await water test results for all schools. Although the kitchen water has only been turned off in schools where levels were determined high, we have been using bottled water to clean food in all schools: As a reminder, we have not used water to cook food in our kitchens for some time and instead have delivered pre-cooked meals to students. We plan to install filters for kitchen sinks to remedy challenges in kitchens.” Last week, the Superintendent, in a state hyper aware of the physical and fiscal threats of contaminated or unsafe water, that a $2 million water station system would address water quality issues, and School Board Member Deborah Hunter-Harvill confirmed, in the wake of the tests: “We completed our community meeting, and we’ve taken down recommendations and suggestions to make certain our kids are safe.” But who will finance the corrections is unclear: School Board member LaMar Lemmons said he supports spending $2 million to fix the water problems, and he continues to blame the state for neglecting school buildings during a decade of state control, which ended in 2017: “Under the $2 billion (spent) for new school construction and renovation, they did a terrible job. There is no excuse for these schools to not have been maintained.” Supt. Vitti said the most practical, long-term, safest solution for water quality problems inside the schools would be water hydration stations in every building, system currently in use in Flint, Royal Oak, Birmingham and in Baltimore, he noted, adding, in an email earlier this week: “Moving forward, we will continue to use water coolers district-wide and are actively working through the bid processes to make a recommendation to the board for the use of hydration stations. This will occur within the next couple of weeks. The hydration stations would be installed in all schools by next school year and replace the need for water coolers.”

The health apprehension came in the wake of, just days before the first day of class at the beginning of this month, the Superintendents’ decision to shut off drinking water inside all 106 school buildings after finding, in an initial check at 6 schools, high levels of copper and/or lead. The checks themselves are costly: they require stations in every school, one per every 100 students, with a resulting tab of $2 million, after taking into account stations in faculty rooms and gymnasiums, according to Supt. Vitti, who stated he intends to provide information to the Detroit School Board to consider next month, noting that, if the funds are approved, the system could be installed in the next school year. The delay comes at a physical and fiscal cost: the school district is spending $200,000 on bottled water and water coolers for the next several months, with Supt. Vitti reporting the cause of the water contamination is likely the result of the aging of the system’s public infrastructure, as well as older plumbing systems, warning that lower usage of water due to smaller enrollment sizes can lead to copper and lead buildup. Because DPS’ schools were built for use by thousands of students, the sharp decline in attendance has adverse effects, and, as the Superintendent noted: “The reality is our schools are vastly different: some are new, some are old. Some have outdated systems, some have outdated sinks and plumbing,” adding he had consulted with the Governor’s office, the Michigan Departments of Environmental Health, as well as Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, whose critical leadership exposed the Flint lead water crisis, noting: “They have provided lessons on Flint. They gave the recommendation for me to think about piping in general and a long-term solution.”

Despite the tragedy and ongoing Flint related litigation, Michigan has no rules mandating that public school districts test for lead in their water supply. That means, according to the Superintendent, that there are even newer schools built within the last decade which have water-quality issues, noting these problems could be blamed on inadequate piping or non-code compliant piping, adding he had i initiated water testing of DPS’ 106 school buildings last spring, with the testing evaluating all water sources, from sinks to drinking fountains—but learning that the actual source of the contamination remains uncertain—albeit the school system’s widespread infrastructure problems are likely causes: last June, a district report said it would cost $500 million to repair its buildings. The district has said it needs $29.86 million to repair or replace plumbing, according to the facilities report, not related to the current water problems.

Physical & Fiscal Recoveries. Maria was the worst storm to hit Puerto Rico in nearly a century: nearly 3,000 Americans lost their lives, according to a study commissioned by the Puerto Rican government. The storm devastated the economy: thousands of small businesses have been shuttered; some big businesses are leaving, and, in a demographic omen, the exodus of the young, productive population has accelerated. Over the last year, the island’s economy has contracted by 7.6%, according to the latest fiscal plan prepared for PROMESA Board. 

American Inequality. Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló this week asked President Trump to recognize that “Puerto Rico’s territorial status is discriminatory and allows for the unequal treatment of natural-born U.S. citizens.” In his letter to the President, coming one year in the wake of the devastating fiscal and physical impact of Hurricane Maria, the Governor wrote that Puerto Rico’s territorial status had negatively affected post-Maria recovery efforts, noting: “As we revisit all that we have been through in the last year, one thing has not changed and remains the biggest impediment for Puerto Rico’s full and prosperous recovery: the inequalities Puerto Rico faces as the oldest, most populous colony in the world.”

Gov. Rosselló, who campaigned on the promise of promoting statehood for Puerto Rico, added in his letter that FEMA’s bureaucratic processes—processes in which Puerto Rico has no say—had worked to delay disaster recovery, writing: “The ongoing and historic inequalities resulting from Puerto Rico’s territorial status have been exacerbated by a series of decisions by the federal government that have slowed our post-disaster recovery, compared to what has happened in other jurisdictions stateside.” He requested that the President reconsider a State Department request to dismiss a case in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights with regard to the U.S.’ international responsibility regarding Puerto Rico’s status—a case in which the Commission is investigating complaints that the United States is violating the human rights of its citizens in Puerto Rico, because they lack the same political rights as other U.S. citizens, including the right to vote for President unless they relocate to one of the states or the District of Columbia, and, because they have no voting representation in the Congress. The Governor added he felt “compelled to respectfully address the most egregious errors in a [State Department] missive,” which sought to dismiss Puerto Rico’s concerns, noting, especially, the Department’s reference to Puerto Rico as a “self-governing territory,” rather than what the Governor believes is really a “territorial colony,” noting that defining Puerto Rico as self-governing “ignores that Congress often uses its plenary powers over the territory to impose a multitude of federal laws without the Commonwealth’s residents having any voting representation in the U.S. Senate and only a single Resident Commissioner in the U.S. House of Representatives, who cannot vote on the floor of that chamber.” He also disputed the State Department’s assertion that Puerto Ricans are not “banned” from voting for President, writing: “[T]he only way for U.S. citizens from Puerto Rico to vote in such an election and be counted is to leave Puerto Rico. If that is not a ban, then what is?” He further wrote that the current governance upholds an “inherently racist logic that deem the people of Puerto Rico as inferior and unable to fully participate in the institutions of democratic governance.”

The letter also touches on two referenda which statehood supporters have won in Puerto Rico, but that have not been deemed official results by the Department of Justice. The most recent, in 2017, was boycotted by local opposition parties, and the ballot never received final DOJ approval.  While that referendum only had a 23% participation rate, the pro statehood vote was an overwhelming 97%.

Gov. Rosselló added his apprehension in the wake of the U.S. Justice Department’s non-approval of Puerto Rico’s 2017 referendum, noting that “after the legislature even amended the format of the vote to meet the recommendations of the U.S. Justice Department,” the Trump administration had nevertheless “failed” to certify the ballot. Thus, he noted that asking an international body to dismiss its complaint was tantamount to asking it to “turn a blind eye to an inconvenient truth, that Puerto Rico remains the unfinished business of American democracy.” Finally, Gov. Rosselló ended his letter with an appeal to President Trump’s leadership, asking him to “work together to abolish this century old territorial-colonialism once and for all: Statehood for Puerto Rico is not only about realizing Puerto Rico’s full potential. It is about America living up to its most noble values by creating a more perfect Union.” (The Trump Administration has advised the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) that if Puerto Ricans want to vote for President, nothing prevents the government of Puerto Rico from calling for a referendum to determine the position of its residents regarding candidates for the U.S. Presidency—a referendum which, however, would be symbolic.)

The apparent position of the Trump Administration reflects its views that Puerto Ricans, in addition to being able to participate in Presidential primary elections, they may also, according to Kevin Sullivan, the U.S. Deputy Representative to the Organization of American States (OAS), organize and vote in presidential elections. Thus the U.S. representative asked the inter-American tribunal to dismiss the independent complaints filed by lawyer Gregorio Igartua and former governor Pedro Rossello alleging that the lack of participation of Puerto Rico’s residents in Presidential and Congressional elections represents a violation of their human and civil rights. Secretary Sullivan, who asserted that the government of Puerto Rico maintains a “broad” self-government, in a recently disclosed communication from the end of last June, maintained that within the colonial relationship with the U.S. territory, there are some electoral processes related to the federal government. Within this group of electoral processes, he thus sought to highlight as significant the ability for Puerto Ricans to vote in those for presidential primaries, as well as for its non-voting delegate in the U.S. House of Representatives.  Nevertheless, Secretary Sullivan recognized Puerto Ricans’ first vote in favor of statehood via the June 2017 plebiscite, describing that vote as having launched a process of requesting statehood before Congress, which outcome the “United States cannot predict.”

Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez, Puerto Rico’s non-voting Member of Congress, said she would have preferred the recognition of the undemocratic nature of the territorial status, and that statehood remains as “the only viable political status with a relationship with the United States, not territorial and not colonial.”

Puerto Rico Progressive Party representative Jose Aponte noted that it seemed unfortunate “at this point” that the federal government intends to develop some theory with regard to Puerto Rico’s self-government, especially in the wake of enacting the PROMESA law, thereby imposing the PROMESA Board, likening it to colonialism, and emphasizing what he views as Secretary Sullivan’s specious claim in which he advises Puerto Rican leaders that Puerto Ricans, “if they wish…are also free to move to any state,” noting: “It is hypocritical to hide the fact that they have a regime in which we cannot govern with the faculties and minimum rights that any human being deserves.”

Promising Good Gnus? Even if perceived by many Puerto Ricans as colonial overseers, the PROMESA Board, acting in a quasi-Emergency Manager role, such as Kevyn Orr did in putting together and managing the plan of debt adjustment for Detroit, is offering some hope for fiscal promise, as the Board is poised to lift its fiscal forecast and predicting a budget surplus in the wake of the recovery from the devastating Hurricane Maria, predicting a cumulative surplus, prior to debt payments, of in excess of $20 billion through 2058, or 500% greater than its quasi plan of debt adjustment certified by the PROMESA Board last June. PROMESA Board Executive Director has indicated that plan will be certified “in the coming weeks,” adding: “The changes in the fiscal plan will come from new data in actual FY18 revenue and expense figures, budget to actuals, and disaster spending.” Earlier last summer, the PROMESA Board, in certifying the most recent fiscal plan, had estimated that Puerto Rico would have a cumulative surplus of about $4 billion over the next four decades; the new projection, incorporating higher than expected disaster aid and tax receipts, would lift that projection to more than $20 billion.

Is There Second Class U.S. Citizenship?

eBlog

September 18, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we report on the dismissal by the Trump administration for self-government in Puerto Rico, and await today’s PROMESA Board oversight hearing. We also examine pro-active efforts by the government to reduce future hurricane vulnerability on the island.   

Is There A Second Class U.S. Citizenship? The Trump administration has dismissed complaints filed by pro-statehood supporters, emphasizing that nothing prevents anyone from Puerto Rico who wishes to participate in the electoral process from moving to the mainland—with Kevin Sullivan, the Deputy Chief of Mission for the U.S. to the Organization of American States coming in response to complaints filed 12 years ago by former Governor Pedro Rossello and attorney Gregorio Igartua.  The complains are to be considered October 5th at an Inter-American Commission on Human Rights public hearing, as part of the 169th session of the OAS autonomous body, at the University of Colorado. According to Deputy Chief Sullivan’s communication with IACHR Executive Director, Paulo Abrao,  nothing in the American Declaration (of Human Rights) suggests that OAS member states cannot maintain federal systems in which their citizens participation in local and federal elections is determined by their residence or the state of the federal entity where they reside. Mr. Sullivan asserted that Puerto Rico’s current political status is not inconsistent with the American Declaration of Human Rights, and he defended the quasi-colonial position by arguing that it allows a limited participation, because Puerto Ricans can participate in voting in Presidential primaries, and they have the right to elect a non-voting Member to Congress. Mr. Sullivan went on to note that although Puerto Rico does not have state sovereignty, he claimed it has a “distinctive, in fact exceptional, status” with a “broad base of self-government.” Just over a year ago, Puerto Ricans, by referendum, voted for statehood for the first time on June 11, 2017, effectively initiating what Mr. Sullivan deemed a “political process,” the outcome of which, he said, “cannot be predicted by the United States,” even as he admitted that other territories’ petitions have been accepted. He added that Puerto Rican residents, who are U.S. citizens, are also free to move to any state, if they wish.

Proactive Shelter from the Next Storm. Luis Burdiel Agudo, Puerto Rico’s President of the state-owned Economic Development Bank, has recommended making aid to homeowners rebuilding after Hurricane Maria contingent on their relocating out of flood-prone areas, with the President of the state-owned Economic Development Bank, warning: “We need to move families to a safe place.”  Most local governments give homeowners the choice between raising their house or taking a buyout to move somewhere safer; however, elevating one’s home costs around $44,000, according to government estimates—an especially high bar in Puerto Rico, where the median income is $20,078, and the poverty rate is 43.5%‒the median home value is about $100,000. Those who remain in flood-prone areas also require flood insurance, which is difficult to obtain given the low-income rate in the Commonwealth. Nevertheless, Puerto Rico is withholding aid entirely unless residents move. 

Federal Assistance & Hard Choices. The federal government is expected to provide $20 billion in federal funding to rebuild after Hurricanes Irma and Maria, and to better prepare for future storms—creating an almost Scylla versus Charybdis choice: thousands of the more than 100,000 homeowners on the island will have to choose between staying in their current property or rebuilding their homes. 

Could There Be Promise in PROMESA? The PROMESA Oversight Board is soliciting feedback on its report on the causes and development of Puerto Rico’s debt crisis, the Board’s Special Claims Committee set to “pursue claims from the results” of a debt investigation, and a hearing set for today in San Juan—a hearing which will be streamed live on the Board’s website—with audio available in both English and Spanish. Board members Andrew Biggs, Arthur González, Ana Matosantos, and David Skeel are on the Special Claims Committee. The debt report includes a section which lays out numerous ways Puerto Rico’s municipal bonds and the steps that led to their issuance may have run afoul of laws and regulations. One issue which might or might not be addressed will be with regard to federal allocations promised to Puerto Rico to mitigate the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria—some $41 billion, especially because authorities estimate that less than a quarter of those funds have, in fact, been disbursed. Moreover, the promised, but unreceived amount appears to be less than half the projected level of $100 billion needed to complete reconstruction. According to the data offered by the US government and Puerto Rico, Puerto Rico’s El Nuevo Día has only been able to detail disbursements of approximately $7.640 billion to government entities, businesses, and families in Puerto Rico. Omar Marrero, the Director of the Central Recovery and Reconstruction Office (CRRO), noted: “The reimbursement process has been really hard, particularly when FEMA has imposed some requirements on us as if we were a risk jurisdiction, when we were not declared so.” At the same time, the government of Puerto Rico has not managed yet to get funds flowing from the permanent project program under §428 of the Stafford Act, which will guide most repairs and new constructions. Director Marrero argues that the continued “discriminatory treatment” is an example of Puerto Rico’s lack of political power due to its territorial status. If anything, in the wake of the Whitefish scandal, attention on the management of emergency funds has increased, and, as recently as last weekend, President Trump fanned the idea that the government of Puerto Rico is one of the most corrupt in the country.

To date, the bulk of the federal assistance has come via Congressional resolutions, with the distribution mainly through HUD, FEMA, and the Department of Health and Human Services: half of the allocations were made through the CDBG Disaster Recovery program; however, not even the first $1.5 billion has been made available—funds which were to be allocated last month to assist with the reconstruction of houses destroyed or damaged by the hurricane. Director Marrero noted: “It is still necessary to sign the agreement between HUD and the Puerto Rico Department of Housing. Without that contract, the funds cannot be disbursed,” adding that second part of the CDBG-DR package, which would reach $ 8.2 billion, will not arrive until next year, which would delay its impact on the economy and the development of infrastructure projects. He added that the funds are more important, especially because FEMA did not approve granting federal assistance for permanent reconstruction work, “based on having a bad experience with that program.” The wait may be understood as especially stressful, because the potential aid package from Congress includes nearly $2 billion in CDBG funding which must be used to rebuild the power grid. With the hurricane season still vicious, there are obvious fears at the delay. Thus, Puerto Rico is pressing to reactivate exemptions in the payment of part of the cost for debris removal and taking emergency measures in the face of a natural disaster. The disaster has also re-demonstrated a double standard: in the Lone Star State, Texas, where Hurricane Harvey caused $125 billion in damage, according to the National Hurricane Center, FEMA claimed it provided $13.820 billion in “the pockets of survivors” via federal and state grants, and flood insurance programs ($ 8.8 billion). In Puerto Rico, however, the percentage of homes with FEMA insurance is minimal.

Stormy Fiscal Warnings. Moody’s has warned that a “large part of the money (FEMA assistance) will not remain on the island,” a fiscal storm warning which could undercut Puerto Rico’s expectations of 2019 6.5% economic growth. Some of that projection assumes the government will be able to efficiently take advantage of the $4.8 billion in extra Medicaid assistance it received—funds which can be used until next September without a local match. Nevertheless, Puerto Rico must plan on the resumption of its contribution to the Mi Salud plan—a plan which will be complicated by the apprehension that Medicaid emergency funds may run out during in FY2020—an exhaustion which could carry a price tag of as much as $1 billion.

Has There Been a Double Standard? In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which sent a number of us from Arlington County, Virginia hurtling to Mississippi to try to assist in rebuilding, and which leveraged Congress to name a bipartisan committee, a mere seventeen days after the storm struck, to investigate the Bush Administration’s response to the storm, with, in the Senate, twenty-two FEMA oversight hearings in six months—and within eight months, the release of 500-plus-page investigations into the Bush administration’s handling of the crisis—investigations with dozens of recommendations for reform; there has been no comparable reaction from this Congress to a storm which caused a much greater loss of American lives—nearly 70% more. The U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which oversees FEMA, has held just two hearings; neither the House nor the Senate has issued any major reports. Hurricane Maria, according to George Washington University’s report, killed an estimated 2,975 Americans in Puerto Rico—an estimate which, last week, the President claimed was a fake number. Or, as Irwin Redlener, the Director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University put it: “Puerto Rico is getting far less attention, in spite of it being one of the worst disasters in modern American history, than Katrina, and far less attention than we got for Superstorm Sandy…From the beginning, the handling of Maria’s consequences both from the White House and Congress has been abysmally inadequate.” Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of Katrina’s Gulf Coast devastation, House GOP leaders called for an investigation; they created a select committee to investigate the storm. That committee held nine public hearings; it reviewed more than 500,000 pages of documents, according to the 582-page report, titled “A Failure of Initiative,” which was released less than six months after Katrina struck. The Senate conducted its own investigation into the Bush administration’s response to Katrina, with the Senate Committee on Government Affairs holding nearly two dozen hearings with 85 witnesses; the Committee reviewed over 838,000 pages of documents; it heard testimony from 325 persons involved in the response. Many of the hearings focused on narrow issues, such as search-and-rescue efforts after the storm. In this Congress, in contrast, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has held two hearings related to the 2017 hurricane season, and it has reviewed more than 17,000 documents.  Last week, Ranking House Oversight Committee Member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) released a report complaining about a lack of hearings and responsible oversight—a report which might have triggered Chairman Tray Gowdy (R-S.C), Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, to FEMA to request all communications from 13 FEMA officials related to 10 different aspects of FEMA’s response to the storm, including the lack of qualified personnel, wiring issues with the electrical system and problems with existing disaster plans. It was just the second letter requesting information about FEMA sent by the committee and the first since Oct. 11, 2017.

Remembering & Thanking Those Who Serve

September 11, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we remember those who died on 9/11; we remember those leaders, like then Arlington County Deputy Fire Chief Jim Schwartz, who became the incident commander that morning, in command of all local, state, and federal responders, demonstrating that while the federal government can shut down, city and county governments are the only governments in this country that can never shut down, but rather, as Detroit’s Emergency Manager, on the first day of Detroit’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, emailed to every employee of the city: they were to report to work, on time—and the critical operations were to ensure every street light and traffic light was working—and there was a prompt and effective response to every 911 call. This foggy morning, we consider too, the challenge to Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania—a municipality where the population has declined more than 50% since 1930–denied state fiscal assistance, and awaiting the physical wrath of Hurricane Florence, before, finally, assessing changes to halt the shipping discrimination against the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico.

The Bar against Wilkes-Barre. Officials in Wilkes-Barre are regrouping after the coordinators of Pennsylvania’s Act 47 program for struggling municipalities rejected the city’s request made last June 29th for distressed status—a denial having the effect of barring the city from filing for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. Mayor Tony George and the city’s consultant, Public Financial Management, were scheduled to meet this week with representatives of the state Department of Community and Economic Development, the overseer of the state’s program for distressed cities. Under the state’s Act 47, the Dept. of Community and Economic Development is authorized to declare certain municipalities as financially distressed—a declaration which provides for the restructuring of debt of financially distressed municipalities, limits the ability of financially distressed municipalities to obtain government funding, authorizes municipalities to participate in federal debt adjustment actions and bankruptcy actions under certain circumstances, and provides for consolidation or merger of contiguous municipalities to relieve financial distress. That means a scheduled call at the end of this week with Pennsylvania DCED could be determinative with regard to a possibility the state could reverse its position and declare the municipality financially distressed.

Mayor Anthony George, last June, had applied for Act 47 “distressed” status, the same month in which S&P dropped the municipality’s credit rating to BBB (minus) with negative implications, noting: “[T]he CreditWatch listing means we believe there is at least a one-in-two chance that we will lower the rating within the coming 90 days following the receipt of information from the city regarding its plans in response to the state’s rejection…Any action on our part regarding the rating—either keeping it the same or revising it downward—hinges on our better understanding of those plans.” DCED, five weeks later, convened a hearing at City Hall, where Mayor George projected an FY2019 shortfall of $3.5 million—one which, according to a DCED overview, could spike to $16 million by FY2021. Under Act 47, the city would have been enabled Wilkes-Barre to triple its emergency services tax to $156 a year, as well as gain access to a $3 million interest free, 10-year loan—as well as gain authorization to enact a commuter tax. However, DCED hearing officer and former York Mayor Kim Bracey, in her final report, wrote that Wilkes-Barre should continue to pursue measures through the state’s early intervention program, in which the city enrolled two years ago. State lawmakers formalized early intervention in 2014 as part of the DCED Act 47 process.

With the greatest number of municipalities of any state in the nation, the process, however, appears confusing—or, as Mayor George put it: “I don’t understand what you [DCED] want us to do.” According to Professor David Fiorenza, the city can fix the deficit with two or three financial decisions that can lay the groundwork for long-term surpluses: “Cities can’t have it both ways, that is, when they have surpluses in their budgets they want less state intervention and when there are deficits they want the commonwealth to be there for the bailouts.” (Professor Fiorenza was a former chief financial officer of Radnor Township.)

The Mayor and his staff expect to learn more from the state DCED Friday via a conference call—weather, of course, permitting. In this instance, the call comes a week Pennsylvania DCED Secretary Dennis Davin stated the state would not declare the municipality financially distressed—noting that, instead, Mayor George should pursue other options to avoid the invocation of Act 47. (According to the Department, a quarter of the city’s current budget relies on intergovernmental assistance, versus 55% from local taxes.)

The municipality’s request for distressed status, however, is not supported by its state representatives, Sen. John Yudichak (D-Plymouth Township) and Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski (D-Wilkes-Barre), who had secured $260,000 in state funds to enable the municipality get Wilkes-Barre into the state’s Early Intervention Program (EIP), writing, in late July, in opposition to Mayor George’s request, noting that the intervention program also had a five-year timetable—from which the city had four years remaining, adding that the city was making progress with the help of PFM as evidenced in the municipal bond restructuring, which, they noted, had improved its cash flow, with Rep. Pashinski adding: “We’re trying to preserve the integrity of the city.”

At the end of last month, Sec. Davin had written: “Opportunities remain to keep the city out of financial distress status: Each and every viable option must be considered, including modest gains in the fund balance and earned income tax collections, the need to perform a property reassessment and recommendations for asset monetization.”

The clock on all this is ticking, with S&P indicating at least a “one-in-two chance” that it would lower its rating within 90 days of receiving any information from the city regarding its follow-up plans, adding: “Any action on our part regarding the rating–either keeping it the same or revising it downward, hinges on our better understanding of those plans.” From his perspective, Professor David Fiorenza of the Villanova School of Business noted: “The state made the right decision…I hope this decision will send the message to Pennsylvania cities and municipalities to take care of their financial house as these deficits can be remedied.” According to the Wilkes-Barre-based Pennsylvania Economy League, 44 of Pennsylvania’s cities, or 77.2%, have experienced population declines since 2010—complicating its efforts to refinance its long-term debt: the city issued $52 million in municipal bonds two years ago to refinance debt and adjust balloon payments to level, and tapped minimum municipal obligation relief under state law to reduce its 2017 pension payment to $5.6 million from $6.5 million. But the state relief program expires this year, while the city’s obligation is projected to spike to $7.1 million in 2020.

Hurricane Relief? Puerto Rico government officials are scheduled to meet at the White House this week to discuss a possible, temporary modification of the Jones Act (as opposed to the Jones-Shafroth Act) to create a five-year administrative exemption in U.S. cabotage statutes, amendments to allow maritime transportation of natural gas between the mainland and Puerto Rico on non-US ships. The Merchant Marine Act of 1920, also known as the Jones Act, provides for the promotion and maintenance of the U.S. merchant marine–§27 of the Act addresses cabotage, as opposed to cottage cheese: it provides for the regulation of the U.S. merchant marine and the regulation of maritime commerce in U.S. waters and between U.S. ports, mandating that all goods transported by water between U.S. ports be carried on U.S. flag ships, constructed in the United States, owned and crewed by U.S. citizens and U.S. permanent residents. Under the cabotage laws, the maritime cargo between U.S. ports and Puerto Rico must be accomplished in U.S. owned, registered, and crewed boats—that is, at a much greater than free market cost. A temporary administrative exemption, such as the one proposed by Puerto Rican leaders, would have to be granted “in the interest of the national defense” of the U.S., according to a 2013 report from the Government Accountability Office. The protectionist statute means the cost of providing relief to Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria was far greater than for other Caribbean nations. Now, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), and Puerto Rico Senate Vice President appear hopeful that the U.S. territory and the Southern States Energy Board, a potent combination of the governors of 16 states, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, might be able to gain an exemption in these discriminatory cabotage laws, with a meeting scheduled next week at the White House to promote the idea that international vessels could also transport natural gas products between U.S. ports and Puerto Rico.

Unsurprisingly, the concept has the support of the Southern States Energy Board, which brings together 16 Republican governors along with the Democrats of the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, and proposes a more comprehensive exemption, to include all energy products. During their September 16-18 meeting in Biloxi, Mississippi, the Southern States Energy Board anticipates considering a resolution by Arkansas State Senator Gary Stubblefield (R-Branch, Arkansas) seeking to have President Trump issue an Executive Order granting a 10 year exemption in the transportation of energy products between Puerto Rico and the mainland—and urging the Congress to enact a permanent waiver.

Taking Stock in Stockton!

eBlog

September 7, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the remarkable fiscal success of the implementation of Stockton’s plan of debt adjustment, before crossing over Tropical Storm Florence to the equally stormy demands of the PROMESA Board to the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico’s Governor Ricardo Rosselló to make major changes to his fiscal blueprint for the territory’s quasi plan of debt adjustment.

Taking Positive Stock in Stockton. Stockton, California, a now post-chapter 9 municipality, which was founded by Captain Charles Maria Weber in 1849 after his acquisition of Rancho Campo de los Francese, was the first community in California to have a name not of Spanish or Native American origin. The city, with a population just under 350,000, making it the state’s 13th largest, was named an All-America City in 1999, 2004, 2015, and again last year. It is also one of the cities we focused upon as part of our chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy analyses, after, a decade ago, it became the second largest city in the United States to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy protection—a petition which was successful when, three years ago last February, the U.S. Bankruptcy Court approved its plan of debt adjustment. This week, S&P upgraded the city’s credit rating to “positive,” with CFO Matt Paulin noting the upgrade reflected the health and strength of the city’s general fund—after, last summer, the City Council approved the FY2018-19 budget, which anticipates $229.6 million in general fund revenues, versus $220.6 million in expenditures—with S&P, last month, noting its rating action “reflects our view of the city’s sustained strong-to-very strong financial performance, sustained very strong budgetary flexibility, and institutionalized integration of a revised reserve policy into its last three budget cycles.”   S&P analyst Chris Morgan noted: “What we’re seeing is a pretty good record of discipline in terms of spending and having a long-term view…“We’re increasingly confident they’re going to continue to meet their obligations,” adding that, over the last three budget cycles, Stockton has adopted a 20-year plan and built up its reserves. Stockton CFO Matt Paulin described the four-notch upgrade as unusual; he said it marked a reflection of the city’s fiscal discipline and improvement: “It’s really an affirmation of the things we’ve instituted here at the city so we can maintain fiscal sustainability.” The rating here, on some $9.4 million of lease revenue bonds, backed by the city’s general fund, had been originally issued in 1999 to finance a police administration building; they were refunded in 2006.

While the new fiscal upgrade reflects key progress, the city still confronts challenges to return to investment grade status: its economy remains weak, and, according to S&P, the city continues to fester under a significant public pension obligation, so that, as analyst Morgan put it: “How they handle the next recession is the big question.” And that, CFO Paulin, notes, is a challenge in that the city is not yet, fiscally, where it needs to be. nevertheless, he believes the policies it has enacted will get it there, noting: “I think if we continue to sustain what we’re doing, I’m pretty confident we’ll get to that investment grade next time around,” noting that the rating reflected the city’s strong-to very strong financial performance, sustained very strong budget flexibility, and “institutionalized integration of a revised reserve policy into the last three budget cycles,” adding that since the city’s emergence from chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, the city has only issued two refundings. Now a $150 million sewer plant renovation could become the trigger for Stockton’s first post-chapter 9 municipal bonds if it is unable to secure sufficient grant funding from Uncle Sam or the State by next spring.

Mandating Mandate Retention. Without having been signed into law, the Puerto Rico Senate’s proposal to relieve municipios from the mandate to contribute to Puerto Rico’s health reform program has, nevertheless, been countermanded and preempted by the PROMESA Oversight Board after, yesterday, PROMESA Oversight Board Director Natalie Jaresko wrote to Governor Ricardo Rossello Nevares, to Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz, and to House Leader Carlos Méndez to warn them that the bill which would exempt municipalities from their contribution to the government’s health plan is “inconsistent” with the unelected Board’s certified fiscal plan. Chair Jaresko wrote: “The Board is willing to amend the Certified Fiscal Plan for the Commonwealth to permit the municipality exemption contemplated by SB 879, provided that the legislation be amended such that the exemption terminates by September 30, 2019,” a deadline imposed by the Board which coincides with the moment when the federal funds to finance Mi Salud (My Health), would expire. The bill establishes that the exemption from payment to municipios would remain until the end of FY2020. In her letter, Director Jaresko also wrote to the officials that to grant the exemption, the government will need to identify the resources which would be devoted to cover the budget provisions to which the municipios would stop contributing. (Since 2006, municipios have been mandated to contribute to Mi Salud, based on the number of participants per municipio—a contribution currently equal to $168 million. The decision appears to be based upon the premise that once the Affordable Care Act ended, the federal government allocated over $2 billion for the payment of the health plan, an allocation apparently intended to cover such expenses for about two years. Thus, at the beginning of the week, Secretary of Public Affairs Ramon Rosario Cortes, said that the “Governor intends to pass any relief that may be possible to municipalities;” albeit he warned that the measure, approved by the Legislature, should be subject to PROMESA Board oversight—especially, as the Governor noted: “At the moment, there has been no discussion with the Board.”

The PROMESA Oversight Board has also demanded major changes to the fiscal plan Gov. Ricardo Rosselló submitted, with the Board requesting seeking more cuts as well as more conservative projections for revenues, making the demands in a seven-page epistle—changes coming, mayhap ironically, because of good gnus: revenues have been demonstrating improvement over projections, and emigration from the island to the mainland appears to be ebbing—or, as Director Jaresko, in her epistle to the Governor, wrote: “The June certified fiscal plan already identified the structural reforms and fiscal measures that are necessary to comply with [the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act], accordingly, the Oversight Board intended this revision to the fiscal plan to incorporate the latest material information and certain technical adjustments, not to renegotiate policy initiatives…Unfortunately, the proposed plan does not reflect all of the latest information for baseline projections and includes several new policies that are inconsistent with PROMESA’s mandate.” Ms. Jaresko, in the letter, returned to two issues of fiscal governance which have been fractious, asserting that the Governor has failed to eliminate the annual Christmas bonus and failed to propose a plan to increase “agency efficiency personnel savings,” charging that Gov. Rosselló had not included the PROMESA Board’s mandated 10 percent cuts to pensions, and that his plan includes an implementation of Social Security which is more expensive than the Board’s approved plan provided.

Director Jaresko also noted that Gov. Rosselló’s plan includes $99 million in investment in items such as public private partnerships and the Puerto Rico Innovation and Technology Services Office, which were contingent on the repeal of a labor law. Since, however, the Puerto Rico Senate has opted not to repeal the statute (Law 80), she stated Gov. Rosselló should not include spending on these items in her proposed fiscal plan, noting that Gov. Rosselló has included $725 million in additional implementation costs associated with the planned government reforms, warning that if he intends to include these provisions, he will have to find offsetting savings. In her epistle, the Director further noted that she believes his plan improperly uses projected FY2019 revenues as a base from which to apply gross national product growth rates to figure out future levels of revenue. Since the current fiscal year will include substantial amounts of recovery-related revenues and these are only temporary, using the current year in this way may over-estimate revenues for the coming years, she admonished. She wrote that Gov. Rosselló assumes a higher than necessary $4.09 billion in baseline payroll expenditures—calling for this item to be reduced—and that the lower total be used to recalculate payroll in the government going forward. Finally, Director Jaresko complained that the Governor’s plan had removed implementation exhibits which included timelines and statements that the government would produce quarterly performance reports, insisting that these must be reintroduced—and giving Gov. Rosselló until noon next Wednesday to comply.