The Knife Edges of Municipal Bankruptcy

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Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing fiscal pipeline to the recovery for the City of Flint, the outcome of a Pennsylvania grand jury investigation of the near municipally bankrupt Pennsylvania capital city of Harrisburg, before addressing the .growing physical and fiscal breakdown in the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico.

In Like Flint? The Michigan legislature has finally agreed to appropriate $20 million to make the requisite match in order for some $100 million in federal aid to go to the city, with the funds to be used to replace corroded pipes which leached lead into the city’s drinking water system, creating not just grave health repercussions, but also devastating the city’s assessed property values and public safety budgets. The city’s near insolvency, which had come in the wake of the decisions which lead to the water contamination by a gubernatorially appointed Emergency Manager, may mark one of the final chapters to the city’s physical and fiscal recovery.

A State Capital’s Near Bankruptcy. Pennsylvania’s capital city, Harrisburg, chartered as a city the year the Civil War commenced, which came close to filing for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, will, in its proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year, follow a court-approved bankruptcy plan, with slightly more revenues than expenditures, except that the city does not expect to be able to hire police as fast as called for in its budget. At a workshop this week, the first of several planned before the City Council votes on the budget for FY2017-2018, the proposed plan proposes minimal increases in most departments, as total revenue is expected to climb to $119.86 million, an increase of about $7 million from last year. City Manager Mark Scott, in a memo to the Council prior to its consideration of the budget, wrote: “In developing our budget recommendations, it is obvious we do not have anywhere near the money we would like to have…Nor is that likely to change any time soon. We cannot expect to address our future by replicating our past. We will have different staffing than in the past and different service delivery expectation. Right now, we are budgeting to establish a solid base—meaning staff skill sets and new, efficient systems/processes.”

In the city, where taxpayers and residents, as well as city officials, consistently list public safety as a top priority, Harrisburg’s five-year plan to increase spending on police was a keystone of the city’s plan of debt adjustment, which was officially confirmed in February. Nevertheless, while the Police Department budget, at $72 million, meaning it is more than 60 percent of the total general fund budget, calls for a significant increase in hiring, and recruiting. City Manager Mark Scott, however, warned that the issue involves more than the budget: “We’re getting people into the academy as fast as we can,” as he advised he hopes the city to realize “a net increase of 18 officers by the end of the year.” Following a trend that began before the 2012 bankruptcy filing, the city again plans to have fewer employees than the year before. This year, however, that is primarily due to the new voter-approved city charter, which transfers sewer workers from the city to the independent Water Department: the new budget authorizes 746 positions, compared to 763 one year earlier.

Tropical Fiscal Typhoon. Puerto Rico, the insolvent U.S. territory, is trapped in a vicious fiscal and physical whirlpool where the austerity measures it has taken to meet its fiscal obligations to its creditors all across the U.S. have come at a steep fiscal and physical cost: some 30,000 public sector employees have lost their jobs, even as the nearly 75% increase in its sales and use tax has backfired: it has served to curtail shopping, adding to the vicious cycle of increasingly drastic fiscal steps in an effort to make payments to bondholders on the mainland—enough so that nearly 33% of the territory’s revenue is currently going to creditors and bondholders, even as its economy has shrunk 10% since 2006. Over this period, the poverty rate has grown to 45%, while the demographic imbalance has deteriorated with the exit of some 300,000 Puerto Ricans—mostly the young and better educated—leaving for Miami and New York. Puerto Rico and its public agencies owe $73 billion to its creditors, nearly five times greater than the nearly $18 billion in debts accumulated by Detroit when it filed for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy four years ago in what was then the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. Now, with U.S. District Court Judge Laura Taylor Swain set to preside next Wednesday (Financial Oversight and Management Board of Puerto Rico, 17-cv-01578), we will witness a unique trial, comparable to those in Jefferson County, Detroit, Stockton, San Bernardino, etc.; however, here there will be differences compared to chapter 9, as there will be roles for both Puerto’s Rico, but also the PROMESA oversight board—with, presumably, both seeking a fiscal recovery, but unlikely to have comparable proposals with regard to the most appropriate and effective plan of debt adjustment. Perhaps the greatest challenge will be economic recovery: for Detroit, whose bankruptcy pales in comparison to Puerto Rico’s; Detroit was able to benefit from a constructive state role and an economy vastly boosted by the federal bailout of its gigantic auto industry. That contrasts with current federal laws discriminating against Puerto Rico’s economy vis-à-vis competitor Caribbean nations, and caught in a Twilight Zone between a state and municipality, with a stream of its young talent streaming to Miami and New York, leaving behind a demographic map of poverty, empty classrooms, and aging people—and dependent on sales taxes, but with sharp reductions in pensions almost certain to sharply and adversely affect sales tax revenues. Judge Taylor will require the wisdom and strength of Job.

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

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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.

The Different Roads out of Municipal Bankruptcy

eBlog, 1/25/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider yesterday’s guilty plea from the former Mayor of Pennsylvania’s capitol, Harrisburg, for actions he had taken as Mayor which plunged the city to the brink of chapter 9 bankruptcy; then we consider Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s announcement that a majority of Detroiters will see a reduction in their property tax obligations—a sign of the signal fiscal turnaround. Then we head into the icy blast of Winter in Pennsylvania, where the former Mayor of Harrisburg has pleaded guilty to stealing city-purchased artifacts, before veering south to note Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has signed into law an extension of Act 154’s tax on foreign corporations.  

Public Mistrust. Former Harrisburg, Pa., Mayor Stephen Reed pleaded guilty Monday to 20 counts of theft  for stealing artifacts purchased by the city in Dauphin County court Monday, with the outcome coming in the wake of negotiations with the state Attorney General’s office. The 20 counts reflects a dramatic reduction of criminal counts from the original more than 470, including many tied to fiscal decisions during his service as Mayor, a period which had propelled the city to the verge of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy—and a leftover severe set of fiscal challenges still bedeviling the state capitol. The former mayor, in his comments to the press after the proceeding, described it as “gut-wrenchingly humiliating.” The Patriot-News of Harrisburg reported that Mr. Reed, who served as mayor from 1982 to 2009, admitted to taking 20 historic artifacts, but said he had no criminal intent. Judge Kevin Hess scheduled a sentencing hearing for Friday in the Dauphin County Court of Common Pleas in Harrisburg. The trial commenced in the wake of then Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane in July of 2015 announcing the indictment of the former Mayor: prosecutors asserted he had diverted municipal bond proceeds, notably related to an incinerator retrofit project, to a special projects fund he allegedly used to purchase as many as 10,000 Wild West artifacts and other “curiosities” for himself—including a $6,500 vampire hunting kit—a series of disclosures which contributed to the city’s descent into receivership due to municipal bond financing overruns related to an incinerator retrofit project; the Harrisburg City Council filed for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in October of 2011, notwithstanding the objection of then-Mayor Linda Thompson; however, a federal judge two months later negated the filing, and a state-appointed receivership team pulled together a recovery plan approved by the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania in September of 2013. Yesterday, Christopher Papst, author of the book Capital Murder an Investigative Reporter’s Hunt for Answers in a Collapsing City, noted: “Stephen Reed’s guilty plea concerning his stealing of city artifacts is a good start for the people of Harrisburg who deserve answers and justice. But far more needs to be done and more people need to be held accountable for the city’s financial collapse…A strong message must be sent that any impropriety concerning municipal financial dealings will not be tolerated.”

Rebalancing Motor City’s Tax Wheel Alignments. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan has announced that about 55% of residential property owners in the city will see a reduction in their property tax obligations later this year. His announcement came in the wake of the city’s completion of a three-year reappraisal project, as required under Detroit’s plan of debt adjustment approved by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court. According to Mayor Duggan, about 140,000 residents will realize an average reduction of $263 on their tax bills, while 112,000 will see an average increase of $80. The reappraisal process, unlike past years, assessed each property individually. Tax assessments were mailed Monday. The city, despite boasting one of the broadest tax bases of any city in the U.S., (its municipal income taxes constitute the city’s largest single source of revenues), nevertheless have been constrained by the state: only Chrysler and DTE Energy pay business taxes; moreover, state law bars cities from increasing revenues by adding a sales tax or raising residential property tax rates more than inflation. Moreover, in the years leading up to the city’s fiscal collapse into chapter 9 bankruptcy, homeowners had complained that their property taxes did not compare to the market value of their homes. Ergo, now Mayor Duggan is hopeful that the new assessment will improve property tax collections—or as he put it yesterday: “It turns out, when people feel they’re being assessed fairly, they pay their taxes….For years, we basically have taken entire neighborhoods or sections of the city and taken averages, which is the best that could be done with the data available.” But the new assessments are based upon house-by-house reassessments using aerial and street-level photography as well as field visits. In addition, the city digitized field cards for every single residential property, allowing employees to inspect the condition of homes based on the historical information and new ground and aerial photos, according to City Assessor Alvin Horhn—or, as Mr. Horn notes: “Where everything matched up, fine. Whenever there was a difference, we sent people out to look…For the most part, this was done at a desktop (computer) review.” Next up: a citywide reassessment of all commercial and industrial properties will be completed for the winter 2018 tax bills. According to city data, collections have increased steadily from about 68% in 2012-14 during the city’s municipal bankruptcy to 79% in 2015 and a projected 82% last year: from 2015 to 2016, the city reported that property tax collections increased approximately $8 million.

Act 54 Where Are You? Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has signed into law an extension of Act 154’s tax on foreign corporations (mainly corporations manufacturing pharmaceuticals and other high-tech products), a key action to preserve revenues which provide a quarter of the U.S. Territory’s general fund revenues; the action came as Public Affairs Secretary Ramon Rosario Cortés submitted a measure to replace Puerto Rico’s Moratorium Law, an action which he said could mean Puerto Rico could dedicate some of the savings from which to provide “payment of interest or some part of the principal” in negotiations with the island’s creditors: “The obligations of the government of Puerto Rico will be fulfilled in an orderly process. The government is going to commit itself to the policy that what it is directed is to pay the obligations of the government of Puerto Rico. The first thing is essential services.” The discussion occurs at a pivotal point, as, since before the administration of newly elected Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares taking office, Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz had announced that they were in tune to extend the expiration of the moratorium scheduled for the end of this month. If the government does not extend the litigation deadlock, it will face $1.3 billion in February, leaving it with no cash for operations, according to a liquidity report by Conway Mackenzie. Secretary Cortés, in response to a query yesterday with regard to interest payments, did note that would be possible “with the savings that are achieved, guaranteeing priority, which are essential services…The government of Puerto Rico will be making savings with this measure and the savings that will be made will be part of the renegotiation process, which could include the payment of interest or some part of principal, but in negotiation with creditors.” The revenues, as reported over the most recent half fiscal year, accounted for 25% of all General Fund revenues—more even than the $713 million in individual income taxes. The Act, adopted in 2010 to help address the dire fiscal imbalance, was set to impose a continually declining levy rate on foreign corporations until it would phase out this year, based on Treasury regulations promulgated six years ago which allow corporations to take tax credits against temporary excise taxes. Now a tricky shoal to navigate in the midst of the major transition in power in Washington, D.C. The issue involves whether the IRS will grant an extension of Act 154 past its current scheduled expiration at the end of this calendar year. According to Puerto Rico, 10 corporations and partnerships paid some 90 percent of all Act 154 taxes in FY2016. The law mainly affects corporations manufacturing pharmaceuticals and other high-tech products on the island.

Are American Cities at a Financial Brink?

eBlog, 1/13/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing fiscal and physical challenges to the City of Flint, Michigan in the wake of the disastrous state appointment of an Emergency Manager with the subsequent devastating health and fiscal subsequent crises, before turning to a new report, When Cities Are at the Financial Brink” which would have us understand that the risk of insolvency for large cities is now higher than at any point since the federal government first passed a municipal bankruptcy law in the 1930’s,” before briefly considering the potential impact on every state, local government, and public school system in the country were Congress to adopt the President-elect’s proposed infrastructure plan; then we consider the challenge of aging: what do longer lifespans of city, county, and state employees augur for state and local public pension obligations and credit ratings?

Not In Like Flint. Residents of the City of Flint received less than a vote of confidence Wednesday about the state of and safety of their long-contaminated drinking water, precipitated in significant part by the appointment of an Emergency Manager by Governor Rick Snyder. Nevertheless, at this week’s town hall, citizens heard from state officials that city water reaching homes continues to improve in terms of proper lead, copper, alkaline, and bacteria levels—seeking to describe Flint as very much like other American cities. The statements, however, appeared to fall far short of bridging the trust gap between Flint residents and the ability to trust their water and those in charge of it appears wide—or, as one Flint resident described it: “I’m hoping for a lot…But I’ve been hoping for three years.” Indeed, residents received less than encouraging words. They were informed that they should, more than 30 months into Flint’s water crisis, continue to use filters at home; that it will take roughly three years for Flint to replace lead water service lines throughout the city; that the funds to finance that replacement have not been secured, and that Flint’s municipal treatment plants needs well over $100 million in upgrades: it appears unlikely the city will be ready to handle water from the new Karegnondi Water Authority until late-2019-early 2020. The state-federal presentation led to a searing statement from one citizen: “I’ve got kids that are sick…My teeth are falling out…You have no solution to this problem.”

Nevertheless, progress is happening: in the last six months of water sampling in Flint, lead readings averaged 12 parts per billion, below the federal action level of 15 ppb, and down from 20 ppb in the first six months of last year. Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech researcher who helped identify the city’s contamination problems, said: “Levels of bacteria we’re seeing are at dramatically lower levels than we saw a year ago.” However, the physical, fiscal, public trust, and health damage to the citizens of Flint during the year-and-a-half of using the Flint River as prescribed by the state-appointed Emergency Manager has had a two-fold impact: the recovery has been slow and residents have little faith in the safety of the water. Mayor Karen Weaver has sought to spearhead a program of quick pipeline replacement, but that process has been hindered by a lack of funding.

State Intervention in Municipal Bankruptcy. In a new report yesterday, “When Cities Are at the Financial Brink,” Manhattan Institute authors Daniel DiSalvo and Stephen Eide wrote the “risk of insolvency for large cities in now higher than at any point since the federal government first passed a municipal bankruptcy law in the 1930’s,” adding that “states…should intervene at the outset and appoint a receiver before allowing a city or other local government entity to petition for bankruptcy in federal court—and writing, contrary to recent history: “Recent experiences with municipal bankruptcies indicates that when local officials manage the process, they often fail to propose the changes necessary to stabilize their city’s future finances.” Instead, they opine in writing about connections between chapter 9, and the role of the states, there should be what they term “intervention bankruptcy,” which could be an ‘attractive alternative’ to the current Chapter 9. They noted, however, that Congress is unlikely to amend the current municipal bankruptcy chapter 9, adding, moreover, that further empowering federal judges in municipal affairs “is sure to raise federalism concerns.” It might be that they overlook that chapter 9, reflecting the dual sovereignty created by the founding fathers, incorporates that same federalism, so that a municipality may only file for chapter 9 federal bankruptcy if authorized by state law—something only 18 states do—and that in doing so, each state has the prerogative to determine, as we have often noted, the process—so that, as we have also written, there are states which:

  • Precipitate municipal bankruptcy (Alabama);
  • Contribute to municipal insolvency (California);
  • Opt, through enactment of enabling legislation, significant state roles—including the power and authority to appoint emergency managers (Michigan and Rhode Island, for instance);
  • Have authority to preempt local authority and take over a municipality (New Jersey and Atlantic City.).

The authors added: “The recent experience of some bankrupt cities, as well as much legal scholarship casts doubt on the effectiveness of municipal bankruptcy.” It is doubtful the citizens in Stockton, Central Falls, Detroit, Jefferson County, or San Bernardino would agree—albeit, of course, all would have preferred the federal bailouts received in the wake of the Great Recession by Detroit’s automobile manufacturers, and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Similarly, it sees increasingly clear that the State of Michigan was a significant contributor to the near insolvency of Flint—by the very same appointment of an Emergency Manager by the Governor to preempt any local control.

Despite the current chapter 9 waning of cases as San Bernardino awaits U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury’s approval of its exit from the nation’s longest municipal bankruptcy, the two authors noted: “Cities’ debt-levels are near all-time highs. And the risk of municipal insolvency is greater than at any time since the Great Depression.” While municipal debt levels are far better off than the federal government’s, and the post-Great Recession collapse of the housing market has improved significantly, they also wrote that pension debt is increasingly a problem. The two authors cited a 2014 report by Moody’s Investors Service which wrote that rising public pension obligations would challenge post-bankruptcy recoveries in Vallejo and Stockton—perhaps not fully understanding the fine distinctions between state constitutions and laws and how they vary from state to state, thereby—as we noted in the near challenges in the Detroit case between Michigan’s constitution with regard to contracts versus chapter 9. Thus, they claim that “A more promising approach would be for state-appointed receivers to manage municipal bankruptcy plans – subject, of course, to federal court approval.” Congress, of course, as would seem appropriate under our Constitutional system of dual sovereignty, specifically left it to each of the states to determine whether such a state wanted to allow a municipality to even file for municipal bankruptcy (18 do), and, if so, to specifically set out the legal process and authority to do so. The authors, however, wrote that anything was preferable to leaving local officials in charge—mayhap conveniently overlooking the role of the State of Alabama in precipitating Jefferson County’s insolvency.  

American Infrastructure FirstIn his campaign, the President-elect vowed he would transform “America’s crumbling infrastructure into a golden opportunity for accelerated economic growth and more rapid productivity gains with a deficit-neutral plan targeting substantial new infrastructure investments,” a plan the campaign said which would provide maximum flexibility to the states—a plan, “American Infrastructure First” plan composed of $137 billion in federal tax credits which would, however, only be available investors in revenue-producing projects—such as toll roads and airports—meaning the proposed infrastructure plan would not address capital investment in the nation’s public schools, libraries, etc. Left unclear is how such a plan would impact the nation’s public infrastructure, the financing of which is, currently, primarily financed by state and local governments through the use of tax-exempt municipal bonds—where the financing is accomplished by means of local or state property, sales, and/or income taxes—and some user fees. According to the Boston Federal Reserve, annual capital spending by state and local governments over the last decade represented about 2.3% of GDP and about 12% of state and local spending: in FY2012 alone, these governments provided more than $331 billion in capital spending. Of that, local governments accounted for nearly two-thirds of those capital investments—accounting for 14.4 percent of all outstanding state and local tax-exempt debt. Indeed, the average real per capita capital expenditure by local governments, over the 2000-2012 time period, according to the Boston Federal Reserve was $724—nearly double state capital spending. Similarly, according to Census data, state governments are responsible for about one-third of state and local capital financing. Under the President-elect’s proposed “American Infrastructure First” plan composed of $137 billion in federal tax credits—such credit would only be available to investors in revenue-producing projects—such as toll roads and airports—meaning the proposed infrastructure plan would not address capital investment in the nation’s public schools, libraries, etc. Similarly, because less than 2 percent of the nation’s 70,000 bridges in need of rebuilding or repairs are tolled, the proposed plan would be of no value to those respective states, local governments, or users. Perhaps, to state and local leaders, more worrisome is that according to a Congressional Budget Office 2015 report, of public infrastructure projects which have relied upon some form of private financing, more than half of the eight which have been open for more than five years have either filed for bankruptcy or been taken over by state or local governments.

Moody Southern Pension Blues. S&P Global Ratings Wednesday lowered Dallas’s credit rating one notch to AA-minus while keeping its outlook negative, with the action following in the wake of Moody’s downgrade last month—with, in each case, the agencies citing increased fiscal risk related to Dallas’ struggling Police and Fire Pension Fund, currently seeking to stem and address from a recent run on the bank from retirees amid efforts to keep the fund from failing, or, as S&P put it: “The downgrade reflects our view that despite the city’s broad and diverse economy, which continues to grow, stable financial performance, and very strong management practices, expected continued deterioration in the funded status of the city’s police and fire pension system coupled with growing carrying costs for debt, pension, and other post-employment benefit obligations is significant and negatively affects Dallas’ creditworthiness.” S&P lowered its rating on Dallas’ moral obligation bonds to A-minus from A, retaining a negative outlook, with its analysis noting: “Deterioration over the next two years in the city’s budget flexibility, performance, or liquidity could result in a downgrade…Similarly, uncertainty regarding future fixed cost expenditures could make budgeting and forecasting more difficult…If the city’s debt service, pension, and OPEB carrying charge elevate to a level we view as very high and the city is not successful in implementing an affordable plan to address the large pension liabilities, we could lower the rating multiple notches.” For its part, Fitch Ratings this week reported that a downgrade is likely if the Texas Legislature fails to provide a structural solution to the city’s pension fund problem. The twin ratings calls come in the wake of Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings report to the Texas Pension Review Board last November that the combined impact of the pension fund and a court case involving back pay for Dallas Police officers could come to $8 billion—mayhap such an obligation that it could force the municipality into chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, albeit stating that Dallas is not legally responsible for the $4 billion pension liability, even though he said that the city wants to help. The fund has an estimated $6 billion in future liabilities under its current structure. In testimony to the Texas State Pension Review Board, Mayor Rawlings said the pension crisis has made recruitment of police officers more difficult just as the city faces a flood of retirements.

 

Can Municipal Insolvency Affect Neighboring Municipalities?

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eBlog, 9/23/16

In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the chances of getting high in San Bernardino—the city in municipal bankruptcy longer than any other in U.S. history—but now on the verge not only of elections, but also ballot questions, including the legalization of marijuana—something which could, presumably not only make citizens high, but mayhap municipal revenues higher. Then we veer East to Michigan, where the complex issues imposed by the legislature on the virtually insolvent Detroit Public Schools, via the creation of a state-imposed charter and public school system has created threatening credit problems—as well as governance problems for the Detroit Public Schools. Finally, we head further East to the small Virginia municipality of Petersburg, famous as a site during the Civil War where, in nine months of trench war in which vastly outnumbered confederate forces warded off Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, the city was the essential supply line to Confederate Commander Robert E. Lee. Today, the historic city faces a fiscal rather than armed challenge—it is virtually insolvent—and, as we note—because now, as then, the small city is connected to other cities in the state, its insolvency could have ever widening fiscal ramifications–or fiscal contagion– for other municipalities…We wonder what the tipping point into insolvency might be–or when the Commonwealth of Virginia might feel compelled to act.  

Electing a Higher Future for Post-Chapter 9 San Bernardino? San Bernardino City Manager Mark Scott has informed the City Council he will not allow any of the traditional election forums or local election broadcasts unless a majority of the council members vote to undo his decision—even as Councilman Henry Nickel responded he considered that to be a decision which ought to be determined by the city’s elected leaders, calling it a “suppression of the First Amendment rights of the public to hear items that are relevant to our government: It is not up to the unilateral decision of the city manager to deviate substantially from prior practice and policy until and unless it has been presented by the City Council, which has the policy-making power both under the current charter and the (proposed) new city charter.” In his email to his colleagues on the Council, he emphasized, however, that even though the Council could reinstate election events and broadcasts, there might be a conflict of interest: “Just so you know, UNLESS directed otherwise by Council action, we have told those who have asked that we will NOT allow use of the Council Chamber for any election events or taping between now and the November election, nor will we be doing any local election broadcasts on Channel 3,” acknowledging that even though this “has been done in the past,” it just seemed “smart to stay completely arms’ length” this election year. The discussion came as city officials worked on and endorsed a measure that would replace San Bernardino’s city charter and another that would allow marijuana in the city—with the first measure, Measure L, to allow voters to replace the existing city charter with a new one created by a charter review committee—which, by a 6-1 vote, Council adopted. The manager’s announcement would also—unless reversed—mean there would be no public discussion about getting high on the three pending marijuana legalization measures—where all three have been authored by advocates of legalization and none representing the view that dispensaries should remain illegal—in part because only one counter-argument is printed against each measure for the November ballot, and — by random chance — City Clerk Gigi Hanna had selected arguments against each measure that had been filed by proponents of competing measures. (If more than one measure receives more than 50 percent of the vote, whichever measure gets the most “yes” votes will become law…) The city has had a medical marijuana ban on its books since 2007, but enforcement was ineffective, with dispensaries dotting the city in open defiance. City officials had attempted on several occasions to replace the ban with what they hoped would be a more effective regulatory framework; however, they were preempted last July when the City Council determined resident Vincent Guzman had secured sufficient signatures that legally his measure had to be put November’s ballot—Measure O—with Mr. Guzman having written: “Measure O is the only one to generate significant tax revenue for San Bernardino: It funds both enforcement and general city services. It reduces the number of dispensaries and eliminates them near our schools and homes.” In his advocacy, Mr. Guzman cited a study by economist Beau Whitney estimating that Measure O [“The San Bernardino Regulate Marijuana Act of 2016”] would allow an outside special interest group to establish a marijuana monopoly in the city,” the argument against contends: “Measure O circumvents local control and does not comply with our local general plan and land use policies.” Nevertheless, proponents claim the measure, if adopted, would generate between $19.5 million and $24.8 million in revenue for San Bernardino in addition to 2,750 jobs. Opening the doors to getting municipally high stimulated a second group to secure sufficient signatures to place its own, alternative regulation plan on the ballot—all of which led the City Council to draft its own version, which would require separate licenses for marijuana cultivation, marketing, testing, distribution, and dispensaries; application fees and enforcement fees would be set yearly to match the cost of providing the service. Under the city’s version, dispensaries could only be within industrial zones, and could not be within 600 feet of a school, park, library or recreation center, nor within 100 feet of a residential zone or religious center; and no two dispensaries could be within 1,000 feet of each other, amounting to a significant limitation on the number of dispensaries, according to Graham, the primary author of the initiative. The city’s proposal is on the ballot as Measure P, and it’s supported by the same group that opposed Measure O: “Measure P is the only medical marijuana ordinance supported and put on the ballot by our local elected officials,” the group’s ballot statement reads:  “Measure P was drafted by the city attorney’s office – and not by marijuana industry special interest groups.” The argument says Measure P is the only one that would retain local control, “including a potential ban.” In the alphabetic voting guide for readers, the other citizen-submitted ballot item, Measure N, an anti-marijuana measure supported by several City Council members, who claim that even though the harmful effects of marijuana are well-documented, the proponents continue to advocate for its legalization: “The legalization experiment in Colorado and Washington is a disaster. The ‘Regulate and Control’ policy attempt has failed, yielding huge increases in underage and adult use, and drugged driving.” That opposition is signed by Mayor Davis and City Council Members Jim Mulvihill, Fred Shorett, and Virginia Marquez.

Under the math, if voters provide more than 50 percent on the city’s drafted measure and more “yes” votes than either of the citizen-submitted initiatives, the municipally-written measure would become law. Moreover, unlike those initiatives, it could be modified as state law regarding marijuana changes, which led the City Council to put the medical marijuana regulation on the ballot in a 5-2 vote—albeit reluctantly, in some cases. The most vocal advocate of the ban has been Mayor Carey Davis, who gave extensive evidence that marijuana legalization has been harmful in Colorado and suggested it would stretch thin an already understaffed police department. But the city had no legal alternative to putting the two citizen initiatives on the ballot — other than immediately adopting the framework they suggest, and Deputy City Attorney Steven Graham said that was not an option, either, for the measure that imposed a tax on marijuana. (California law forbids cities from passing a tax without a vote of the public. It is unclear legally whether a voter-originated tax can pass in an election at which Council Members are not up for a vote, which is the case in November according to Counselor Graham.) The City-drafted measure would require:

  • separate licenses for marijuana cultivation, marketing, testing, distribution, and dispensaries;
  • application fees and enforcement fees would be set yearly to match the cost of providing the service;
  • Dispensaries could only be within industrial zones, and could not be within 600 feet of a school, park, library or recreation center, nor within 100 feet of a residential zone or religious center;
  • And no two dispensaries could be within 1,000 feet of each other, amounting to a significant limitation on the number of dispensaries, said Graham, the primary author of the initiative.

Protecting Tomorrow’s Leaders? The Michigan Finance Authority has approved a plan to issue $235 million of debt to refund some Detroit Public Schools (DPS) municipal bonds before they lose their state aid backing at the end of this month, approving an authorizing resolution for the issuance to be backed solely by an existing 18-mill non-homestead levy—with the fabulous Matt Fabian of Municipal Market Analytics warning the “investor will be at risk if the levy produced by the 18 mills continues to decline or is disrupted by, for example, assessment appeals in the future. Some kind of state backstop or protection would be needed to make this investment grade.” The Michigan Finance Authority has not, however, provided any indication with regard to whether it intends to backstop the bond refunding, albeit the Authority has stated the outstanding bonds will be refunded and defeased at par “plus any applicable redemption premium and accrued interest,” suggesting that those bondholders will be made whole—albeit with the uncertainty remaining that should the state-aid pledge evaporate or shift, there would be likely adverse credit quality implications, because of the shift to entire reliance on a property tax pledge. The outstanding bonds lost their investment grade status amid uncertainty about the state planned to restructure the debt after the state-ordered restructuring of Detroit Public Schools took effect July 1. The state assistance is set to shift to the state-mandated newly formed public school district that operates schools while the former district remains intact only to collect taxes and repay bonds. Under the provisions, the operating levy of roughly $50 million to $60 million per year will go to pay off debt service on the refunding bonds, which will retire 2011 and 2012 DPS state aid bonds with a final maturity of 2023. The state Finance Authority intends to issue the refunding bonds on or before the end of this month—the date when the current, outstanding bonds lose their state aid backing because, without students, the old district will no longer be able to collect state aid. The pending switch could cause fiscal shivers: the existing municipal bonds had initially carried S&P A ratings because of the state aid pledge; they also carried a limited tax general obligation pledge—albeit DPS’s underlying GO credit ratings are junk level—or, in school parlance, D-, with S&P last week having demoted the credit rating from B to BB-minus, warning that with the October deadline looming closer and ushering in the new fiscal year, there is increasing doubt with regard to whether bondholders would receive full and timely payment on their bonds—with the new drop the third such comparable action over the last three months—moodily moving in some syncopation with Moody’s, which recently revised the outlook on DPS’ Caa1 issuer rating to “developing” from “negative.”

What External Event Can Force a Municipality into Chapter 9 Bankruptcy? The City of Petersburg, the small, independent city in Virginia, a municipality on the steep edge of insolvency, and in which there seems little indication the Virginia legislature is poised to step in, a new shoe has dropped that would seem likely to precipitate a defining event: the South Central Wastewater Authority has filed a $1.2 million lawsuit over unpaid sewer bills, noting the has failed to pay for any wastewater services since May: “The City of Petersburg charges its residents for wastewater service. Under the service agreement between South Central and the city, these fees should be used to pay the costs of that service, including the costs of having the wastewater treated by South Central.” The suit seeks the appointment of a receiver to make sure the more than $1 million the authority says it is owed is not spent by the city on other things. According to the suit, filed in Petersburg Circuit Court, the authority is not only seeking to recover past-due amounts, but also requesting that the court appoint a receiver to supervise Petersburg’s billing and collection of wastewater fees from its residents, writing: “South Central seeks this appointment to ensure that the money is used for its intended purposes and that residents continue to receive the wastewater service they pay for…South Central is particularly dependent upon the regular and timely payment by the city of Petersburg, whose share of these costs account for more than half of South Central’s budget for operations and maintenance.” In addition to seeking payment of about $1.5 million in overdue service charges and penalties, South Central said it was filing the lawsuit “to request the court to appoint a receiver to supervise Petersburg’s billing and collection of wastewater fees from its residents. South Central seeks this appointment to ensure that the money is used for its intended purposes and that residents continue to receive the wastewater service they pay for,” adding that while the utility “appreciates the difficult financial circumstances the city of Petersburg is experiencing. Nevertheless, efforts to resolve the arrearages have been unsuccessful and — if left unaddressed — threaten the continued operation of South Central and the finances of the other member localities and their residents.” That is, there is a fiscal interdependence, and insolvency by Petersburg could have consequences for other Virginia public authorities, including the other four Virginia municipalities served by South Central. For its part, the city had billed residents for the service, but has not been remitting the fees to the CVWMA — a situation similar to what prompted South Central’s lawsuit. In response, interim Petersburg City Attorney Mark Flynn unsurprisingly noted the city “is disappointed that the authority has chosen to file a lawsuit,” adding that the “city is and has been working with the authority to resolve the amounts it owes: The lawsuit does not help the city and the authority in achieving resolution for the city’s obligations. As the authority and citizens know, the City Council and management have been working to resolve the city’s financial difficulties.” Moreover, for the municipality, in which a recent state audit of its finances determined the city is facing a $12 million budget gap in the current fiscal year while dealing with nearly $19 million in unpaid bills, including those to South Central, the suit threatens to unravel efforts by city officials to close the budget gap and repay unpaid obligations—efforts including its approval earlier this month of a series of austerity measures aimed at freeing up much-needed cash flow, including tax increases, pay cuts of city staff members, and the closing of the city’s three museums.

When it Rains, it Pours. The suit could hardly have come at a more inopportune time—as Rochelle Small-Toney, a deputy city manager in Fayetteville, North Carolina, has just removed herself out of the competition to be the city’s next city manager, according to Petersburg Mayor W. Howard Myers III—she had been in the city last week as City Council convened to hire a city manager in the midst of an ongoing financial crisis; however, Council Members were unable to agree on a hire and adjourned the meeting without taking action after local media reported that Ms. Small-Toney had resigned in the midst of a financial controversy from a previous position as city manager of Savannah, Georgia; ergo, the Council had voted unanimously to hire an executive search firm to conduct a national search for a new city manager—albeit with what funds unclear. Indeed, when asked by Ward 4 Councilman Brian Moore what funding source could be tapped to pay for the search, he was advised to talk with the city’s Finance Department and negotiate the best possible financial arrangement: Petersburg has been operating without a permanent city manager since early last March, when William E. Johnson III was fired amid the municipality’s emerging fiscal crisis and a furor over the mishandling of a plan to replace water meters throughout the city. Former City Attorney Brian Telfair resigned at the same time for health reasons. Dironna Moore Belton, who was the general manager of Petersburg Area Transit at the time, was named shortly afterward as interim city manager. At the same time, Mark Flynn of the Richmond law firm of Woodley & Flynn was contracted to act as interim city attorney. Ms. Belton is one of the applicants for the permanent city manager position; however, it is unclear whether she and the other candidates will have to re-apply if a search firm is hired.