State Oversight & Severe Municipal Distress

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eBlog, 04/24/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the unique fiscal challenge confronting Detroit: when and how will it emerge from state oversight? Then we spin the tables to see how Atlantic City is faring to see if it might be on the shores of fiscal recovery; before going back to Detroit to assess the math/fiscal challenges of the state created public school district; then, still in Detroit, we try to assess the status of a lingering issue from the city’s historic municipal bankruptcy: access to drinking water for its lowest income families; before visiting Hartford, to try to gauge how the fiscally stressed central city might fare with the Connecticut legislature. Finally, we revisit the small Virginia municipality of Petersburg to witness a very unique kind of municipal finance for a city so close to insolvency but in need of ensuring the provision of vital, lifesaving municipal services. 

Fiscal & Physical Municipal Balancing. Michigan Deputy Treasurer Eric Scorsone is predicting that by “early next year, Detroit will be out of state oversight,” at a time when the city “will be financially stable by all indications and have a significant surplus.” That track will sync with the city’s scheduled emergence from state oversight, albeit apprehension remains with regard to whether the city has budgeted adequately  to set funds aside to anticipate a balloon pension obligation due in 2024. Nevertheless, Mr. Scorsone has deemed the Motor City’s post-bankruptcy transformation “extraordinary,” describing its achievements in meeting its plan of debt adjustment—as well as complying with the Detroit Financial Review Commission—so well that the “city could basically operate on its own.” He noted that the progress has been sufficient to permit the Commission to be in a dormancy state—subject to any, unanticipated deficits emerging. The Deputy Treasurer credited the Motor City’s strong management team under CFO John Hill both for the city’s fiscal progress, but also for his role in keeping an open line of communication with the state oversight board; he also noted the key role of Mayor Mike Duggan’s leadership for improving basic services such as emergency response times and Detroit’s public infrastructure. Nevertheless, Detroit remains subject to the state board’s approval of any contracts, operating or capital budgets, as well as formal revenue estimates—a process which the Deputy Treasurer noted “allows the city to stay on a strong economic path…[t]hese are all critical tools,” he notes, valuable not just to Detroit, but also to other municipalities an counties to help ensure “long term stability.”

On the Shore of Fiscal Recovery. S&P Global Ratings, which last month upgraded Atlantic City’s general obligation bond rating two notches to CCC in the wake of the city’s settlement with the Borgata Casino, a settlement which yielded the city some $93 million in savings, has led to a Moody’s rating upgrade, with the credit rating agency writing that Atlantic City’s proposed FY2017 budget—one which proposes some $35.3 million in proposed cuts, is a step in the right direction for the state taken-over municipality, noting that the city’s fiscal plan incorporates a 14.6% cut in its operating budget—sufficient to save $8 million, via reductions in salaries and benefits for public safety employees, $6 million in debt service costs, and $3 million in administrative expenses. Nevertheless S&P credit analyst Timothy Little cautioned that pending litigation with regard to whether Atlantic City can make proposed police and firefighter cuts could be a fly in the ointment, writing: “In our view, the proposed budget takes significant measures to improve the city’s structural imbalance and may lead to further improved credit quality; however, risks to fiscal recovery remain from pending lawsuits against state action impeding labor contracts.” The city’s proposed $206.3 million budget, indeed, marks the city’s first since the state takeover placed it under the oversight of the New Jersey’s Local Finance Board, with the state preemption giving the Board the authority to alter outstanding debt, as well as municipal contracts. Mr. Little wrote that this year will mark the first fiscal year of the agreed-to payment-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOT) program for casino gaming properties—a level set at $120 million annually over the next decade—out of which 10.4% will go to Atlantic County. Mr. Little also notes that the budget contains far less state financial support than in previous years, as the $30 million of casino redirected anticipated revenue received in 2015 and 2016 will be cut to $15 million; moreover, the budget includes no state transitional aid—denoting a change or drop of some $26.2 million; some of that, however, will be offset by a $15 million boost from an adjustment to the state Consolidated Municipal Property Tax Relief Act—or, as the analyst wrote: “Long-term fiscal recovery will depend on Atlantic City’s ability to continue to implement fiscal reforms, reduce reliance on nonrecurring revenues, and reduce its long-term liabilities.” Today, New Jersey state aid accounts for 34% of the city’s $206.3 million in budgeted revenue, 31% comes from casino PILOT payments, and 27% from tax revenues. S&P upgraded Atlantic City’s general obligation bond rating two notches to CCC in early March after the Borgata settlement yielded the city $93 million in savings. Moody’s rates Atlantic City debt at Caa3.

Schooled on Bankruptcy. While Detroit, as noted above, has scored high budget marks or grades with the state; the city’s school system remains physically and fiscally below grade. Now, according to the Michigan Department of Education, school officials plan to voluntarily shutter some of the 24 city schools—schools targeted for closure by the state last January, according to State Superintendent Brian Whiston, whose spokesperson, William DiSessa, at a State Board of Education meeting, said:  “Superintendent Whiston doesn’t know which schools, how many schools, or when they may close, but said that they are among the 38 schools threatened for closure by the State Reform Office earlier this year.” Mr. DiSessa added that “the decision to close any schools is the Detroit Public School Community District’s to make.” What that decision will be coming in the wake of the selection of Nikolai Vitti, who last week was selected to lead the Detroit Public Schools Community District. Mr. Vitti, 40, is currently Superintendent of the Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Florida, the 20th largest district in the nation; in the wake of the Detroit board’s decision last week to enter into negotiations with Mr. Vitti for the superintendent’s job, Mr. Vitti described the offer as “humbling and an honor.” The school board also voted, if Mr.Vitti accepts the offer, to ask him to begin next week as a consultant, working with a transition team, before officially commencing on July 1st. The School Board’s decision, after a search began last January, marks the most important decision the board has made during its brief tenure, in the wake of its creation last year and election last November after the Michigan Legislature in June approved $617-million legislation which resolved the debt of Detroit Public Schools via creating the new district, and retaining the old district for the sole purpose if collecting taxes and paying off debt.

The twenty-four schools slated for closure emerged from a list of 38 the State of Michigan had targeted last January—all from schools which have performed in the bottom 5 percent of the state for at least three consecutive years, according to the education department. The Motor City had hoped to avoid any such forced state closures—hoping against hope that by entering last month into partnership negotiations with the Michigan State Superintendent’s office, and working with Eastern Michigan University, the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, and Wayne State University, the four institutions would help set “high but attainable” goals at the 24 Detroit schools to improve academic achievement and decrease chronic absenteeism and teacher vacancies. The idea was that those goals would be evaluated after 18 months and again in 36 months, according to state officials. David Hecker, president of the American Federation of Teachers Michigan, noted that he was not aware which schools might be closing or how many; however, he noted that whatever happens to the teachers of the closing schools would be subject to the collective bargaining agreement with the Detroit Federation of Teachers. “If any schools close, it would absolutely be a labor issue that would be governed by the collective bargaining agreement as to how that will work … (and) where they will go,” Mr. Hecker said. “We very strongly are opposed to any school closing for performance reasons.”

Thirsty. A difficult issue—among many—pressed upon now retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes during Detroit’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy came as the Detroit Water and Sewer Department began shutting off water service to some of nearly 18,000 residential customers with delinquent accounts. Slightly less than a year ago, in the wake of numerous battles in Judge Rhodes’ then U.S. bankruptcy courtroom, the issue was again raised: what authority did the city of Detroit have to cut off the delivery of water to the thousands of its customers who were delinquent by more than 90 days? Thus it was that Detroit’s Water and Sewerage Department began shutting off service to customers who had failed to pay their bills—with, at the time, DWSD guesstimating about 20,000 of its customers had defaulted on their payments, and noting that the process of shutting off service to customers with unpaid bills was designed to be equitable and not focused on any particular neighborhood or part of the city—and that the agency was not targeting customers who owed less than a $150 and were only a couple of months behind, noting, instead: “We’re looking for those customers who we’ve repeatedly tried to reach and make contact,” as well as reporting that DWSD was reminding its delinquent customers who were having trouble paying their water bills to contact the department so they may be enrolled in one of its two assistance programs — the WRAP Fund or the “10/30/50” plan. Under the first, the WRAP Fund, customers who were at 150 percent of the poverty level or below could receive up to $1,000 a year in assistance in paying bills, plus up to $1,000 to fix minor plumbing issues leading to high usage. This week, DWSD is reporting it has resumed shutoffs in the wake of sending out notices, adding the department has payment and assistance plans to help those with delinquent accounts avoid losing service. Department Director Gary Brown told the Detroit Free Press that everyone “has a path to not have service interruption.” Indeed, it seems some progress has been achieved: the number of families facing shutoffs is down from 24,000 last April and about 40,000 in April of 2014, according to The Detroit News. In 2014, DWSD disconnected service to more than 30,000 customers due to unpaid bills, prompting protests over its actions. Nonetheless, DWSD began the controversial practice of shutting off water service again this week, this time to some of the nearly 18,000 residential customers with delinquent accounts, in the wake of notices sent out 10 days earlier, according to DWSD Director Gary Brown. Nevertheless, while 17,995 households are subject to having their water turned off, those residents who contact the water department prior to their scheduled shutoffs to make a payment or enter into an assistance plan will avoid being cut off—with experience indicating most do. And, the good gnus is that the number of delinquent accounts is trending down from the 24,302 facing a service interruption last April, according to DWSD. Moreover, this Solomon-like decision of when to shut off water service—since the issue was first so urgently pressed in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court before Judge Rhodes—has gained through experience. DWSD Director Brown reports that once residents are notified, about 90 percent are able to get into a plan and avoid being shut off, and adding that most accounts turned off are restored within 24 hours: “Every residential Detroit customer has a path not to be shut off by asking for assistance or being placed into a payment plan…I’m urging people not to wait until they get a door knocker to come in and ask for assistance to get in a payment plan.” A critical part of the change in how the city deals with shutoffs comes from Detroit’s launch two years ago of its Water Residential Assistance Program, or WRAP, a regional assistance fund created as a component of the Great Lakes Water Authority forged through Detroit’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy: a program designed to help qualifying customers in Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties who are at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level—which equates to $36,450 for a family of four—by covering one-third of the cost of their average monthly bill and freezing overdue amounts. Since a year ago, nearly $5 million has been dedicated to the program—a program in which 5,766 Detroit households are enrolled, according to DWSD, with a retention rate for those enrolled in the program of 90 percent. DWSD spokesperson Bryan Peckinpaugh told the Detroit News the department is committed to helping every customer keep her or his water on and that DWSD provides at least three advance notifications encouraging those facing a service interruption to contact the department to make payment arrangements, adding that the outreach and assistance efforts have been successful, with the number of customers facing potential service interruption at less than half of what it was three years ago.

Fiscally Hard in Hartford. Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin has acknowledged his proposed $612.9 FY2018 budget includes a nearly $50 million gap—with proposed expenditures at $600 million, versus revenues of just over $45 million: a fiscal gap noted moodily by four-notch downgrades to the Connecticut city’s general obligation bonds last year from two credit rating agencies, which cited rising debt-service payments, higher required pension contributions, health-care cost inflation, costly legal judgments from years past, and unrealized concessions from most labor unions. Moody’s Investors Service in 2016 lowered Hartford GOs to a junk-level Ba2. S&P Global Ratings knocked the city to BBB from A-plus, keeping it two notches above speculative grade. Thus, Mayor Bronin, a former chief counsel to Gov. Daniel Malloy, has repeated his request for state fiscal assistance, noting: “The City of Hartford has less taxable property than our suburban neighbor, West Hartford. More than half of our property is non-taxable.” In his proposed “essential services only” budget, Mayor Bronin is asking the Court of Common Council to approve an increase of about $60 million, or 11%, over last year’s approved budget—with a deadline for action the end of next month. An increasing challenge is coming from the stressed city’s accumulating debt: approximately $14 million, or 23%, of that increase is due to debt-service payments, while $12 million is for union concessions which did not materialize, according to the Mayor’s office. Gov. Malloy’s proposed biennial budget, currently in debate by state lawmakers, proposes $35 million of aid to Hartford. Unsurprisingly, that level is proving a tough sell to many suburban and downstate legislators. On the other hand, the Mayor appears to be gaining some traction after, last year, gaining an agreement with the Hartford Fire Fighters Association that might save the city $4 million next year: the agreement included changes to pension contributions and benefits, active and retiree health care, and salary schedules. In addition, last month, Hartford’s largest private-sector employers—insurers Aetna Inc., Travelers Cos. and The Hartford—agreed to donate $10 million per year to the city over five years. Nonetheless, rating agencies Moody’s and S&P have criticized the city for limited operating flexibility, weak reserves, narrowing liquidity, and its rising costs of debt service and pension obligations. Gurtin Municipal Bond Management went so far as to deem the city a “slow-motion train wreck,” adding that while the quadruple-notch downgrades had a headline shock effect, the city’s fundamental credit deterioration had been slow and steady. “The price impact of negative headlines and credit rating downgrades can be swift and severe, which begs the question: How should municipal bond investors and their registered investment advisors react?” Gurtin’s Alex Etzkowitz noted, in a commentary. “The only foolproof solution is to avoid credit distress in the first place by leveraging independent credit research and in-depth, ongoing surveillance of municipal obligors.”

Fighting for a City’s Future. The small city of Petersburg. Virginia, is hardly new to the stress of battle. It was there that General Robert E. Lee’s men fought courageously throughout the Overland Campaign, even as Gen. Lee feared he confronted a campaign he feared could not be won, warning his troops—and politicians: “We must destroy this Army of Grant’s before he gets to the James River. If he gets there, it will become a siege, and then it will be a mere question of time.” Yet, even as he wrote, General Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac was racing toward the James and Petersburg to wage an attack on the city—a highly industrialized city then of 18,000 people, with supplies arriving from all over the South via one of the five railroads or the various plank roads. Indeed, Petersburg was one of the last outposts: without it, Richmond, and possibly the entire Confederacy, was at risk. Today, the city, because of the city’s subpar credit rating, is at fiscal risk: it has been forced to beg its taxpayers to loan it funds for new emergency vehicles—officials are making a fiscal arrangement with private citizens to front the cost for new emergency vehicles, and offering to put up city hall as collateral for said arrangement, as an assurance to the lenders they will be paid back. The challenge: the police department currently needs 16 new vehicles, at a cost of $614,288; the fire department needs three new trucks, at a cost of $2,145,527. Or, as Interim City Manager Tom Tyrrell notes: “Every single day that a firefighter rolls out on a piece of equipment older than he is, or a police officer responds to an emergency call in a car with 160,000 miles on it, are days we want to avoid…We want to get this equipment as soon as possible.” Interim City Finance Director Nelsie Birch has included in the upcoming fiscal year budget the necessary funds to obtain the equipment—equipment Petersburg normally obtains via lease agreements with vendors, but which now, because of its inability to access municipal credit markets due to its “BB” credit rating with a negative outlook, makes it harder than ever to find any vendor—or, as Manager Tyrrell puts it: “We went out four different times…We solicited four different times to the market, and were unsuccessful in getting any parties to propose.” He added that when soliciting these types of agreements, you solicit “thousands of people.” Notwithstanding that the funds for the vehicles is already set aside in the upcoming budget, city officials have been unable to find anyone willing to enter into a lease agreement with the city because of the city’s financial woes.

Last week, the City Council authorized Mr. Tyrrell to “undertake emergency procurement action” in order for the lease of necessary fire and police vehicles, forcing Mr. Tyrrell and other officials to seek private funds to get the equipment—that is, asking individual citizens who have the financial means to put up money for the fire and police vehicles—or, as Mr. Tyrrell puts it: “We’ve reached out to four people, who are interested and capable,” noting they are property owners in Petersburg who will remain anonymous until the deal is closed, describing it thusly: “[This agreement] is outside the rules, because we couldn’t get a partner inside the rules.” Including in this proposed fiscal arrangement: officials must put up additional collateral, in addition to the cars themselves, and in the form of city-owned property—with the cornerstone of the proposal, as it were, being Petersburg City Hall, or, as Mr. Tyrrell notes: “What they’re looking for is some assurance that no matter what happens, we’re going to pay the note…It’s not a securitization in the financial sense, as much as it is in the emotional sense: they know that the city isn’t going to let it go.” He adds, the proposed financial arrangement will be evaluated in two areas: the interest rate and how fast the deal can close, adding: “Although it’s an emergency procurement, we still want to get the best deal we can.”

How Do State & Local Leaders Confront & Respond to Significant Population Declines?

eBlog, 04/21/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the unique fiscal challenge confronting Detroit: how does it deal with the fiscal challenges—challenges also confronting cities such as Cleveland, Philadelphia, Toledo, Dayton, Baltimore, and Philadelphia—which are experiencing significant population declines? What to do with vacant lots which no longer bring in property tax revenues—but enhance criminal proclivities?  

Fiscal & Physical Municipal Balancing. While Detroit has emerged fiscally from the nation’s largest ever municipal bankruptcy, it continues to be fiscally and governmentally bedeviled by the governance challenge of such a significant population contraction—it is, after all, a city of about 132 square miles, dotting with neighborhoods which have become splotches of vacant lots and abandoned homes: post-bankrupt Detroit, with neighborhoods that have been gradually emptying out, in a physical sense, is a shadow of its former self, with a population nearly 60% smaller than it was in 1950, but with a stock of some 40,000 abandoned homes and vacant lots—space which brings in no property taxes, but can breed crime and safety costs for the city: between 1978 and 2007, Detroit lost 67% of its business establishments and 80% of its manufacturing base. This untoward, as it were, “ungrowth” has come even as the city has spent $100 million more, on average, than its revenues since 2008: Census figures inform us that more than one in three of the city’s citizens fall below the poverty level—ranking the Motor City, along with Cleveland, Dayton, Toledo, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, as cities realizing major depopulation. Thus, while downtown Detroit today is gleaming towers along a vibrant waterfront, one need not drive far from the internationally acclaimed Detroit Institute of Arts to witness neighborhoods which are nearly abandoned as residents continue to move to the suburbs. Thus, with some of the fiscal issues effectively addressed under the city’s approved plan of debt adjustment, Detroit is commencing a number of initiatives to try to address what might be deemed its physical devastation—a challenge, in some ways, more complex than its finances: How does an emptier city restore blighted neighborhoods and link the islands of neighborhoods which have been left? Or, mayhap better put: how does the city re-envision and rebuild?

Here it seems the city is focused on four key initiatives: draw new families into the city (look at Chicago and how Mayor Emanuel succeeded); convert vacant lots from crime havens to community gardens; convert vast empty spaces to urban farms; devise a strategy to fill empty store fronts; and, again as did Mayor Emanuel, create a strategy to bring back young families with children to live in the city.

Already, Detroit’s downtown core is a new world from my first visit when the National League of Cities convened its annual meeting there in the 1980’s—a time when at the front desk of the hotel I was staying, the attendant told me that even though I could see the convention site from the hotel, it would be a grave risk to life and limb to even think about taking the bus or walking—a situation unchanged on a similar day, Detroit’s very first day in chapter 9 bankruptcy, when I had proposed setting out to walk to the Governor Rick Snyder’s Detroit office to meet just-appointed Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr. Today, the revived downtown has attracted young people, often in redeveloped historic buildings; but that emerging vibrancy does not include housing options for people at different stages of life. Thus, the city is making an effort to offer more differentiated housing options, including townhouses, apartments, carriage homes and more—as well as housing for seniors. Or, as Melissa Dittmer, director of architecture and design for Bedrock LLC, the company leading the development, notes with regard to an initiative just outside of downtown: “For so long, Detroit had a low-self-confidence issue and was willing to take just about” any residential development: “Now the city of Detroit has crossed a threshold. We can do better.”

Outside of the downtown area, one sample neighborhood, Fitzgerald, today has 131 vacant houses and 242 vacant lots; but the city’s Director of Housing and Revitalization, Arthur Jemison, notes these lots need not be filled with houses; instead, the city is moving to invest more than $4 million into the neighborhood to renovate 115 homes, landscape 192 vacant lots, and create a park with a bicycle path, or, as Mr. Jemison notes: “We can’t possibly rebuild every vacant lot with new construction…What we can do is rehabilitate a whole lot of houses, and we can have an intentional landscape scene. The landscape is important, because frankly, if it’s done and managed well, it’s inexpensive and people like it.”

But the comprehensive effort also recognizes the city does not need additional housing stock: it needs less; so it has unearthed a program, RecoveryPark Farms, to construct greenhouses on a 60-acre plot, a plot which until recently represented two dozen blighted blocks on Detroit’s east side. This unique project has diverse goals: it eliminates breeding territory for crime, eliminates blight, and creates opportunities for the unemployed, especially ex-offenders and recovering addicts. The program’s CEO Gary Wozniak, who spent more than three years in federal prison, notes farming offers a career with a lower bar for hiring and gives immediate feedback because “plants grow relatively quickly, so people can start to feel really good about building skill sets. Plus, Detroit has a lot of land.” Already, its harvests are purchased by some of Detroit’s top restaurants on a year-round basis, or, as CEO Wozniak put it: “What we’re doing is commercial-scale agriculture in an urban environment.”

On Detroit’s first day of bankruptcy, the walk from my downtown hotel to the Governor’s uptown office almost seem to resemble post-war Berlin: empty, abandoned buildings and storefronts. Thus, another post-bankruptcy challenge has been how to fill the vacant storefronts along Detroit’s half-abandoned commercial corridors—and, here, a partnership between the City of Detroit and other economic-development organizations, Motor City Match, works to create links between selected landlords and new small businesses, with a goal of converting blighted commercial districts to make them both more livable and more effective at providing job opportunities for residents—or, as Michael Forsyth, Director of small-business services at the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., notes: Motor City Match “helps get businesses from ideas to open.” The program awards $500,000 in grants every quarter, assisting businesses in completing a business plan, finding a place to open, and renovating office space: its CEO, Patrick Beal, CEO of the Detroit Training Center, received $100,000 during the first round of the program and matched it with a $100,000 loan. Now, with the help of Motor City Match, the company has trained more than 5,000 Detroiters in construction, heavy-equipment operation and other skills.

Finally, again as with Mayor Emanuel, the City respects the importance of children—meaning it must focus on public safety, and schools—governance challenges of the first order, especially as we have been long-writing, the parallel financial insolvency of the Detroit public schools. Thus, Ethan Lowenstein, the Director of the Southeast Michigan Stewardship Coalition, is working with educators and local organizations in the region to help young people address environmental challenges in their communities, noting that families with children “leave because they don’t see the strength in their community and they don’t feel recognized as someone who has knowledge.” Mr. Lowenstein is seeking to reverse the city’s depopulation trend by working with the Detroit Public Schools. At two schools he works with in southwest Detroit, he says, students were on a walk around their community and noticed tires were being illegally dumped. The schools helped the students and worked with community members to identify areas with illegally dumped tires, and eventually the tires were recycled into doormats.  

In recovery from chapter 9 bankruptcy, sometimes the fiscal part can seem easy compared to the human dimension.

Balancing the Odds for Puerto Rico’s Fiscal Future

eBlog, 03/15/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the tea leaves from the outcome of yesterday’s snowy session on Puerto Rico in New York City’s Alexander Hamilton Building, where the PROMESA Board considered Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló’s most recent efforts to reassert ownership and control of Puerto Rico’s fiscal future.

Is There Promise or UnPromise in PROMESA? The Puerto Rico Oversight Board, meeting yesterday in the Alexander Hamilton Building in New York, unanimously certified the latest turnaround plan by Governor Ricardo Rosselló to alleviate the U.S. territory’s fiscal insolvency, albeit with some critical amendments, including the implementation of a 10% progressive reduction in public pension benefits by FY2020, albeit, as was the case in Detroit’s plan of debt adjustment, adjusted so that no retiree would fall below the federal poverty level: the decade-long plan thus permits the payment of 26.2% of debt due, while imposing austerity measures including partial government employee furloughs and elimination of their Christmas bonus, unless the government meets targets for liquidity and budgeting. The plan would cut pension spending by 10%, in what the Board determined would ensure sufficient fiscal resources to fund 26% of debt due in the next nine years as a “first salvo.” Emphasizing the critical need to address a $50-billion debt load among Puerto Rico’s three main public retirement systems and a depletion of available funds by 2022, the PROMESA Board added it would also formulate efforts to fund existing pension obligations on a pay-as-you-go basis, liquidating assets and using revenues of the government’s General Fund to that end.  Board Executive Director Ramón Ruiz Comas said the Oversight Board wanted to implement additional “safeguards to ensure sufficient liquidity and budgetary savings,” designed to generate $35 to $40 million in monthly savings, including the elimination of Christmas bonus payments to public employees, and a furlough program to begin July 1st—the furlough would eliminate four work days per month for most personnel working in the executive branch, and two work days per month for teachers and other front-line personnel—the furlough would exempt law enforcement personnel. In addition, the Board conditioned the Christmas bonus elimination and work reduction program on the budget proposal for FY2018 which the government is scheduled to submit by April 30: if the government’s liquidity plan and right-sizing measures are able to generate an additional $200 million in cash reserves by June 30th, the furlough program would be deferred to September 1st or eliminated outright; likewise, the removal of Christmas bonuses could be reduced or eliminated if the Oversight Board finds that the government’s plan is producing enough cash-flow. Subsequent to that part of the session, Gerardo Portela, Director of the commonwealth’s Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority made a presentation on behalf of Puerto Rico’s muncipios of the fiscal plan—a plan which had undergone various changes over last weekend in a contentious set of negotiations between local officials and the PROMESA Board. Puerto Rico Governor Gov. Rosselló Nevares is slated to give a live televised address to provide his public response to the board’s recommendations. 

The Dean of municipal insolvency debt, Jim Spiotto, noted the import of having creditors involved in these efforts, as their support could be vital to spurring reinvestment in Puerto Rico’s economy. Mr. Spiotto’s comments came in the context of a possible agreement by some creditors to reinvest in some part of Puerto Rico, enhancing the possibility that the PROMESA Board may be willing to consider Puerto Rico’s willingness to increase its payback of debt, according to Mr. Spiotto, something which could occur under PROMESA’ Title VI.

At the session, the Oversight Board was asked about the status of debt negotiations with Puerto Rico’s bondholders and about the possibility, already requested by Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, of pushing back a stay on litigation beyond its current end on May 1st—to which Oversight Board member Arthur González responded that negotiations had yet to proceed to an outline with regard to what fiscal resources would be available for debt service: he did say that the fiscal plan would provide such an outline, and that he thought there was real hope to reaching agreements with creditors, adding that the PROMESA Board had yet to determine whether the current stay on litigation should be extended.

Balance or Imbalance. Brad Setser, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told the Bond Buyer that the proposed plan’s near term fiscal austerity may be too severe, warning that the “drag on Puerto Rico’s economy–and ultimately on its ability to collect tax revenues–may still be underestimated.” As in Detroit’s plan of debt adjustment, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes’s recognition that preserving the Detroit Institute of Arts was vital to the Motor City’s long-term recovery, so too, Mr. Setser recognizes that any final agreement which would handicap Puerto Rico’s economic growth prospects could backfire.  

 

 

Fiscal & Public Service Insolvency

eBlog, 03/03/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing challenges for the historic municipality of Petersburg, Virginia as it seeks to depart from insolvency; we consider, anew, the issues related to “service insolvency,” especially assisted by the exceptional insights of Marc Pfeiffer at Rutgers, then turning to the new fiscal plan by the Puerto Rico Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority, before racing back to Virginia for a swing on insolvent links. For readers who missed it, we commend the eBlog earlier this week in which we admired the recent wisdom on fiscal disparities by the ever remarkable Bo Zhao of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston with regard to municipal fiscal disparities.

Selling One’s City. Petersburg, Virginia, the small, historic, and basically insolvent municipality under quasi state control is now trying to get hundreds of properties owned by the city off the books and back on the tax rolls as part of its effort to help resolve its fiscal and trust insolvency. As Michelle Peters, Economic Development Director for Petersburg, notes: “The city owns over 200 properties, but today we had a showcase to feature about 25 properties that we group together based on location, and these properties are already zoned appropriate for commercial development.” Thus the municipality is not only looking to raise revenues from the sale, but also to realize revenues through the conversion of these empty properties into thriving businesses—or as Ms. Peters puts it: “It’s to get the properties back on the tax rolls for the city, because, currently, the city owns them so they are just vacant, there are no taxes being collected,” much less jobs being filled. Ms. Peters notes that while some of the buildings do need work, like an old hotel on Tabb Street, the city stands ready to offer a great deal on great property, and it is ready to make a deal and has incentives to offer:  “We’re ready to sit down at the table and to negotiate, strike a deal and get those properties developed.”

New Jersey & Its Taken-over City. The $72 million tax settlement between Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa and Atlantic City’s state overseers is a “major step forward” in fixing the city’s finances, according to Moody’s Investors Service, which deemed the arrangement as one that has cleared “one of the biggest outstanding items of concern” in the municipality burdened by hundreds of millions of dollars in debt and under state control. Atlantic City owed Borgata $165 million in tax refunds after years of successful tax appeals by the casino, according to the state. The settlement is projected to save the city $93 million in potential debt—savings which amount to a 22 percent reduction of the city’s $424 million total debt, according to Moody’s, albeit, as Moody’s noted: “[W]hile it does not solve the city’s problems, the settlement makes addressing those problems considerably more likely.” The city will bond for the $72 million through New Jersey’s state Municipal Qualified Bond Act, making it a double whammy: because the bonds will be issued via the state MQBA, they will carry an A3 rating, ergo at a much better rate than under the city’s Caa3 junk bond status. Nevertheless, according to the characteristically moody Moody’s, Atlantic City’s finances remain in a “perilous state,” with the credit rating agency citing low cash flow and an economy still heavily dependent upon gambling.

Fiscal & Public Service Insolvency. One of my most admired colleagues in the arena of municipal fiscal distress, Marc Pfeiffer, Senior Policy Fellow and Assistant Director of the Bloustein Local Government Research Center in New Jersey, notes that a new twist on the legal concept of municipal insolvency could change how some financially troubled local governments seek permission to file for federal bankruptcy protection. Writing that municipal insolvency traditionally means a city, county, or other government cannot pay its bills, and can lead in rare instances to a Chapter 9 bankruptcy filing or some other remedy authorized by the state that is not as drastic as a Chapter 9, he notes that, in recent years, the description of “insolvency” has expanded beyond a simple cash shortage to include “service-delivery insolvency,” meaning a municipality is facing a crisis in managing police, fire, ambulance, trash, sewer and other essential safety and health services, adding that service insolvency contributed to Stockton, California, and Detroit filings for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection in 2012 and 2013, respectively: “Neither city could pay its unsustainable debts, but officials’ failure to curb violent crime, spreading blight and decaying infrastructure was even more compelling to the federal bankruptcy judges who decided that Stockton and Detroit were eligible to file for Chapter 9.”

In fact, in meeting with Kevyn Orr, the emergency manager appointed by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, at his first meeting in Detroit, Mr. Orr recounted to me that his very first actions had been to email every employee of the city to ensure they reported to work that morning, noting the critical responsibility to ensure that street lights and traffic lights, as well as other essential public services operated. He wanted to ensure there would be no disruption of such essential services—a concern clearly shared by the eventual overseer of the city’s historic chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, now retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, who, in his decision affirming the city’s plan of debt adjustment, had written: “It is the city’s service delivery insolvency that the court finds most strikingly disturbing in this case…It is inhumane and intolerable, and it must be fixed.” Similarly, his colleague, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Christopher Klein, who presided over Stockton’s chapter 9 trial in California, had noted that without the “muscle” of municipal bankruptcy protection, “It is apparent to me the city would not be able to perform its obligations to its citizens on fundamental public safety as well as other basic public services.” Indeed, in an interview, Judge Rhodes said that while Detroit officials had provided ample evidence of cash and budget insolvency, “the concept of service delivery insolvency put a more understanding face on what otherwise was just plain numbers.” It then became clear, he said, that the only solution for Detroit—as well as any insolvent municipality—was “fresh money,” including hundreds of millions of dollars contributed by the state, city, and private foundations: “It is a rare insolvency situation—corporate or municipal—that can be fixed just by a change in management.”

Thus, Mr. Pfeiffer writes that “Demonstrating that services are dysfunctional could strengthen a local government’s ability to convince a [federal bankruptcy] judge that the city is eligible for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy protection (provided, of course, said municipality is in one the eighteen states which authorize such filings). Or, as Genevieve Nolan, a vice president and senior analyst at Moody’s Investors Service, notes: “With their cases focusing on not just a government’s ability to pay its debts, but also an ability to provide basic services to residents, Stockton and Detroit opened a path for future municipal bankruptcies.”

Mr. Pfeiffer notes that East Cleveland, Ohio, was the first city to invoke service insolvency after Detroit. In its so far patently unsuccessful efforts to obtain authority from the State of Ohio to file for municipal bankruptcy protection—in a city, where, as we have noted on numerous occasions, the city has demonstrated a fiscal inability to sustain basic police, fire, EMS, or trash services. East Cleveland had an approved plan to balance its budget, but then-Mayor Gary Norton told the state the proposed cuts “[would] have the effect of decimating our safety forces.” Ohio state officials initially rejected the municipality’s request for permission to file for municipal bankruptcy, because the request came from the mayor instead of the city council; the city’s status has been frozen since then.

Mr. Pfeiffer then writes:

Of concern.  [Municipal] Bankruptcy was historically seen as the worst case scenario with severe penalties – in theory the threat of it would prevent local officials from doing irresponsible things. [Indeed, when I first began my redoubtable quest with the Dean of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy Jim Spiotto, while at the National League of Cities, the very idea that the nation’s largest organization representing elected municipal leaders would advocate for amending federal laws so that cities, counties, and other municipal districts could file for such protection drew approbation, to say the least.] Local officials are subject to such political pressures that there needs to be a societal “worst case” that needs to be avoided.  It’s not like a business bankruptcy where assets get sold and equity holders lose investment.  We are dealing with public assets and the public, though charged with for electing responsible representatives, who or which can’t be held fully responsible for what may be foolish, inept, corrupt, or criminal actions by their officials. Thus municipal bankruptcy, rather than dissolution, was a worst case scenario whose impact needed to be avoided at all costs. Lacking a worst case scenario with real meaning, officials may be more prone to take fiscal or political risks if they think the penalty is not that harsh. The current commercial practice of a structured bankruptcy, which is commonly used (and effectively used in Detroit and eventually in San Bernardino and other places) could become common place. If insolvency were extended to “service delivery,” and if it becomes relatively painless, decision-making/political risk is lowered, and political officials can take greater risks with less regard to the consequences. In my view, the impact of bankruptcy needs to be so onerous that elected officials will strive to avoid it and avoid decisions that may look good for short-term but have negative impact in the medium to long-term and could lead to serious consequences. State leaders also need to protect their citizens with controls and oversight to prevent outliers from taking place, and stepping in when signs of fiscal weakness appear.”

Self-Determination. Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has submitted a 10-year fiscal plan to the PROMESA Oversight Board which would allow for annual debt payments of about 18% to 41% of debt due—a plan which anticipates sufficient cash flow in FY2018 to pay 17.6% of the government’s debt service. In the subsequent eight years, under the plan, the government would pay between 30% and 41% per year. The plan, according to the Governor, is based upon strategic fiscal imperatives, including restoring credibility with all stakeholders through transparent, supportable financial information and honoring the U.S. territory’s obligations in accordance with the Constitution of Puerto Rico; reducing the complexity and inefficiency of government to deliver essential services in a cost-effective manner; implementing reforms to improve Puerto Rico’s competitiveness and reduce the cost of doing business; ensuring that economic development processes are effective and aligned to incentivize the necessary investments to promote economic growth and job creation; protecting the most vulnerable segments of our society and transforming our public pensions system; and consensually renegotiating and restructuring debt obligations through Title VI of PROMESA. The plan he proposed, marvelously on the 100th anniversary of the Jones-Shafroth Act making Puerto Rico a U.S. territory, also proposes monitoring liquidity and managing anticipated shortfalls in current forecast, and achieving fiscal balance by 2019 and maintaining fiscal stability with balanced budgets thereafter (through 2027 and beyond). The Governor notes the Fiscal Plan is intended to achieve its objectives through fiscal reform measures, strategic reform initiatives, and financial control reforms, including fiscal reform measures that would reduce Puerto Rico’s decade-long financing gap by $33.3 billion through:

  • revenue enhancements achieved via tax reform and compliance enhancement strategies;
  • government right-sizing and subsidy reductions;
  • more efficient delivery of healthcare services;
  • public pension reform;
  • structural reform initiatives intended to provide the tools to significantly increase Puerto Rico’s capacity to grow its economy;
  • improving ease of business activity;
  • capital efficiency;
  • energy [utility] reform;
  • financial control reforms focused on enhanced transparency, controls, and accountability of budgeting, procurement, and disbursement processes.

The new Fiscal Plan marks an effort to achieve fiscal solvency and long-term economic growth and to comply with the 14 statutory requirements established by Congress’ PROMESA legislation, as well as the five principles established by the PROMESA Oversight Board, and intended to sets a fiscal path to making available to the public and creditor constituents financial information which has been long overdue, noting that upon the Oversight Board’s certification of those fiscal plans it deems to be compliant with PROMESA, the Puerto Rico government and its advisors will promptly convene meetings with organized bondholder groups, insurers, union, local interest business groups, public advocacy groups and municipality representative leaders to discuss and answer all pertinent questions concerning the fiscal plan and to provide additional and necessary momentum as appropriate, noting the intention and preference of the government is to conduct “good-faith” negotiations with creditors to achieve restructuring “voluntary agreements” in the manner and method provided for under the provisions of Title VI of PROMESA.

Related to the service insolvency issues we discussed [above] this early, snowy a.m., Gov. Rosselló added that these figures are for government debt proper—not the debt of issuers of the public corporations (excepting the Highways and Transportation Authority), Puerto Rico’s 88 municipalities, or the territory’s handful of other semi-autonomous authorities, and that its provisions do not count on Congress to restore Affordable Care Act funding. Rather, Gov. Rosselló said he plans to determine the amount of debt the Commonwealth will pay by first determining the sums needed for (related to what Mr. Pfeiffer raised above] “essential services and contingency reserves.” The Governor noted that Puerto Rico’s debt burden will be based on net cash available, and that, if possible, he hopes to be able to use a consensual process under Title VI of PROMESA to decide on the new debt service schedules. [PROMESA requires the creation of certified five-year fiscal plan which would provide a balanced budget to the Commonwealth, restore access to the capital markets, fund essential public services, and pensions, and achieve a sustainable debt burden—all provisions which the board could accept, modify, or completely redo.]  

Adrift on the Fiscal Links? While this a.m.’s snow flurries likely precludes a golf outing, ACA Financial Guaranty Corp., a municipal bond insurer, appears ready to take a mighty swing for a birdie, as it is pressing for payback on the defaulted debt which was critical to the financing of Buena Vista, Virginia’s unprofitable municipal golf course, this time teeing the proverbial ball up in federal court. Buena Vista, a municipality nestled near the iconic Blue Ridge of some 2,547 households, and where the median income for a household in the city is in the range of $32,410, and the median income for a family was $39,449—and where only about 8.2 percent of families were below the poverty line, including 14.3 percent of those under age 18 and 10 percent of those age 65 or over. Teeing the fiscal issue up is the municipal debt arising from the issuance by the city and its Public Recreational Facilities Authority of some $9.2 million of lease-revenue municipal bonds insured by ACA twelve years ago—debt upon which the municipality had offered City Hall, police and court facilities, as well as its municipal championship golf course as collateral for the debt—that is, in this duffer’s case, municipal debt which the municipality’s leaders voted to stop repaying, as we have previously noted, in late 2015. Ergo, ACA is taking another swing at the city: it is seeking:

  • the appointment of a receiver appointed for the municipal facilities,
  • immediate payment of the debt, and
  • $525,000 in damages in a new in the U.S. District Court for Western Virginia,

Claiming the municipality “fraudulently induced” ACA to enter into the transaction by representing that the city had authority to enter the contracts. In response, the municipality’s attorney reports that Buena Vista city officials are still open to settlement negotiations, and are more than willing to negotiate—but that ACA has refused its offers. In a case where there appear to have been any number of mulligans, since it was first driven last June, teed off, as it were, in Buena Vista Circuit Court, where ACA sought a declaratory judgment against the Buena Vista and the Public Recreational Facilities Authority, seeking judicial determination with regard to the validity of its agreement with Buena Vista, including municipal bond documents detailing any legal authority to foreclose on city hall, the police department, and/or the municipal golf course. The trajectory of the course of the litigation, however, has not been down the center of the fairway: the lower court case took a severe hook into the fiscal rough when court documents filed by the city contended that the underlying municipal bond deal was void, because only four of the Buena Vista’s seven City Council members voted on the bond resolution, not to mention related agreements which included selling the city’s interest in its “public places.” Moreover, pulling out a driver, Buena Vista, in its filing, wrote that Virginia’s constitution filing, requires all seven council members to be present to vote on a matter which involved backing the golf course’s municipal bonds with an interest in facilities owned by the municipality. That drive indeed appeared to earn a birdie, as ACA then withdrew its state suit; however, it then filed in federal court, where, according to its attorney, it is not seeking to foreclose on Buena Vista’s municipal facilities; rather, in its new federal lawsuit, ACA avers that the tainted vote supposedly invalidating the municipality’s deed of trust supporting the municipal bonds and collateral does not make sense, maintaining in its filing that Buena Vista’s elected leaders had adopted a bond resolution and made representations in the deed, the lease, the forbearance agreement, and in legal opinions which supported the validity of the Council’s actions, writing: “Fundamental principles of equity, waiver, estoppel, and good conscience will not allow the city–after receiving the benefits of the [municipal] bonds and its related transactions–to now disavow the validity of the same city deed of trust that it and its counsel repeatedly acknowledged in writing to be fully valid, binding and enforceable.” Thus, the suit requests a judgment against Buena Vista, declaring the financing documents to be valid, appointing a receiver, and an order granting ACA the right to foreclose on the Buena Vista’s government complex in addition to compensatory damages, with a number of the counts seeking rulings determining that Buena Vista and the authority breached deed and forbearance agreements, in addition to an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, requiring immediate payback on the outstanding bonds, writing: “Defendants’ false statements and omissions were made recklessly and constituted willful and wanton disregard.” In addition to compensatory damages and pre-and post-judgment interest, ACA has asked the U.S. court to order that Buena Vista pay all of its costs and attorneys’ fees; it is also seeking an order compelling the city to move its courthouse to other facilities and make improvements at the existing courthouse, including bringing it up to standards required by the ADA.

Like a severe hook, the city’s municipal public course appears to have been errant from the get-go: it has never turned a profit for Buena Vista; rather it has required general fund subsidies totaling $5.6 million since opening, according to the city’s CAFR. Worse, Buena Vista notes that the taxpayer subsidies have taken a toll on its budget concurrent with the ravages created by the great recession: in 2010, Buena Vista entered a five-year forbearance agreement in which ACA agreed to make bond payments for five years; however, three years ago, the city council voted in its budget not to appropriate the funds to resume payment on the debt, marking the first default on the municipal golf course bond, per material event notices posted on the MSRB’s EMMA.

The Roads out of Municipal Bankruptcy

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eBlog, 2/24/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the post-chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy trajectories of the nation’s longest (San Bernardino) and largest (Detroit) municipal bankruptcies.

Exit I. So Long, Farewell…San Bernardino City Manager Mark Scott was given a two-week extension to his expired contract this week—on the very same day the Reno, Nevada City Council selected him as one of two finalists to be Reno’s City Manager—with the extension granted just a little over the turbulent year Mr. Scott had devoted to working with the Mayor, Council, and attorneys to complete and submit to U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury San Bernardino’s proposed plan of debt adjustment—with the city, at the end of January, in the wake of San Bernardino’s “final, final” confirmation hearing, where the city gained authority to issue water and sewer revenue bonds prior to this month’s final bankruptcy confirmation hearing—or, as Urban Futures Chief Executive Officer Michael Busch, whose firm provided the city with financial guidance throughout the four-plus years of bankruptcy, put it: “It has been a lot of work, and the city has made a lot of tough decisions, but I think some of the things the city has done will become best practices for cities in distress.” Judge Jury is expected to make few changes from the redline suggestions made to her preliminary ruling by San Bernardino in its filing at the end of January—marking, as Mayor Carey Davis noted: a “milestone…After today, we have approval of the bankruptcy exit confirmation order.” Indeed, San Bernardino has already acted on much of its plan—and now, Mayor Davis notes the city exiting from the longest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history is poised for growth in the wake of outsourcing fire services to the county and waste removal services to a private contractor, and reaching agreements with city employees, including police officers and retirees, to substantially reduce healthcare OPEB benefits to lessen pension reductions. Indeed, the city’s plan agreement on its $56 million in pension obligation bonds—and in significant part with CalPERS—meant its retirees fared better than the city’s municipal bondholders to whom San Bernardino committed to pay 40 percent of what they are owed—far more than its early offer of one percent. San Bernardino’s pension bondholders succeeded in wrangling a richer recovery than the city’s opening offer of one percent, but far less than CalPERS, which received a nearly 100 percent recovery. (San Bernardino did not make some $13 million in payments to CalPERS early in the chapter 9 process, but did set up payments to make the public employee pension fund whole; the city was aided in those efforts as we have previously noted after Judge Jury ruled against the argument made by pension bond attorneys two years ago. After the city’s pension bondholders entered into mediation again prior to exit confirmation, substantial agreement was achieved for th0se bondholders, no doubt beneficial at the end of last year to the city’s water department’s issuance of $68 million in water and sewer bonds at competitive interest rates in November and December—with the payments to come from the city’s water and sewer revenues, which were not included in the bankruptcy. The proceeds from these municipal bonds will meet critical needs to facilitate seismic upgrades to San Bernardino’s water reservoirs and funding for the first phase of the Clean Water Factor–Recycled Water Program.

Now, with some eager anticipation of Judge Jury’s final verdict, Assistant San Bernardino City Attorney Jolena Grider advised the Mayor and Council with regard to the requested contract extension: “If you don’t approve this, we have no city manager…We’re in the midst of getting out of bankruptcy. That just sends the wrong message to the bankruptcy court, to our creditors.” Ergo, the City Council voted 8-0, marking the first vote taken under the new city charter, which requires the Mayor to vote, to extend the departing Manager’s contract until March 7th, the day after the Council’s next meeting—and, likely the very same day Mr. Scott will return to Reno for a second interview, after beating out two others to reach the final round of interviews. Reno city officials assert they will make their selection on March 8th—and Mr. Scott will be one of four candidates.

For their part, San Bernardino Councilmembers Henry Nickel, Virginia Marquez, and John Valdivia reported they would not vote to extend Mr. Scott’s contract on a month-to-month basis, although they joined other Councilmembers in praising the city manager who commenced his service almost immediately after the December 2nd terrorist attack, and, of course, played a key role in steering the city through the maze to exit the nation’s longest ever municipal bankruptcy. Nevertheless, Councilmember Nickel noted: “Month-to-month may be more destabilizing than the alternative…Uncertainty is not a friend of investment and the business community, which is what our city needs now.” From his perspective, as hard and stressful as his time in San Bernardino had to be, Mr. Scott, in a radio interview while he was across the border in Reno, noted: “I’ve worked for 74 council members—I counted them one time on a plane…And I’ve liked 72 of them.”

Exit II. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan says the Motor City is on track to exit Michigan state fiscal oversight by next year , in the wake of a third straight year of balancing its books, during his State of the City address: noting, “When Kevyn Orr (Gov. Rick Snyder’s appointed Emergency Manager who shepherded Detroit through the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history) departed, and we left bankruptcy in December 2014, a lot of people predicted Detroit would be right back in the same financial problems, that we couldn’t manage our own affairs, but instead we finished 2015 with the first balanced budget in 12 years, and we finished 2016 with the second, and this year we are going to finish with the third….I fully expect that by early 2018 we will be out from financial review commission oversight, because we would have made budget and paid our bills three years in a row.”

Nonetheless, the fiscal challenge remains steep: Detroit confronts stiff fiscal challenges, including an unexpected gap in public pensions, and the absence of a long-term economic plan. It faces disproportionate long-term borrowing costs because of its lingering low credit ratings—ratings of B2 and B from Moody’s Investors Service and S&P Global Ratings, respectively, albeit each assigns the city stable outlooks. Nevertheless, the Mayor is eyes forward: “If we want to fulfill the vision of a building a Detroit that includes everybody, we have to do a whole lot more.” By more, he went on, the city has work to do to bring back jobs, referencing his focus on a new job training program which will match citizens to training programs and then to jobs. (Detroit’s unemployment rate has dropped by nearly 50 percent from three years ago, but still is the highest of any Michigan city at just under 10 percent.) The Mayor expressed hope that the potential move of the NBA’s Detroit Pistons to the new Little Caesars Arena in downtown Detroit would create job opportunities for the city: “After the action of the Detroit city council in support of the first step of our next project very shortly, the Pistons will be hiring people from the city of Detroit.” The new arena, to be financed with municipal bonds, is set to open in September as home to the Detroit Red Wings hockey team, which will abandon the Joe Louis Arena on the Detroit riverfront, after the Detroit City Council this week voted to support plans for the Pistons’ move, albeit claiming the vote was not an endorsement of the complex deal involving millions in tax subsidies. Indeed, moving the NBA team will carry a price tag of $34 million to adapt the design of the nearly finished arena: the city has agreed to contribute toward the cost for the redesign which Mayor Duggan said will be funded through savings generated by the refinancing of $250 million of 2014 bonds issued by the Detroit Development Authority.

Mayor Duggan reiterated his commitment to stand with Detroit Public Schools Community District and its new school board President Iris Taylor against the threat of school closures. His statements came in the face of threats by the Michigan School Reform Office, which has identified 38 underperforming schools, the vast bulk of which (25) are in the city, stating: “We aren’t saying schools are where they need to be now…They need to be turned around, but we need 110,000 seats in quality schools and closing schools doesn’t add a single quality seat, all it does is bounce children around.” Mayor Duggan noted that Detroit also remains committed to its demolition program—a program which has, to date, razed some 11,000 abandoned homes, more than half the goal the city has set, in some part assisted by some $42 million in funds from the U.S Department of Treasury’s Hardest Hit Funds program for its blight removal program last October, the first installment of a new $130 million blight allocation for the city which was part of an appropriations bill Congress passed in December of 2015—but where a portion of that amount had been suspended by the Treasury for two months after a review found that internal controls needed improvement. Now, Major Duggan reports: “We have a team of state employees and land bank employees and a new process in place to get the program up and running and this time our goal isn’t only to be fast but to be in federal compliance too.” Of course, with a new Administration in office in Washington, D.C., James Thurber—were he still alive—might be warning the Mayor not to count any chickens before they’re hatched.

Lone Star Blues

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eBlog, 2/16/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the dwindling timeline confronting the city of Dallas to take action to avert a potential municipal bankruptcy; then we return to the small municipality of Petersburg, Virginia—an insolvent city with what appears to be an increasingly insolvent governing model, enmeshing the small city in litigation it can ill afford. Finally, we return to the trying governing and fiscal challenges in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico—caught between changing administrations, a federal oversight board, a disparate Medicaid regime than for other states and counties, and trying to adjust to a new Administration and Congress.

Dallas, Humpty-Dumpty, & Chapter 9? In a state where, as one state and local government expert yesterday described it, that state has created a governance structure which allows everyone to avoid accountability, the City of Dallas is confronting a public pension problem that could force the city into municipal bankruptcy [Texas Local Government Code §101.006—seven Texas towns and cities have filed for such protection.]. Should the city lose its current case against its firefighters—a case with some $4 billion at stake—municipal bankruptcy could ensue. Another Texan, noting the challenge of putting “Humpty Dumpty back together again,” said failure of the city to emulate Houston and come to terms with its employees, retirees, and taxpayers would be “cataclysmic.” With about two weeks remaining to file bills in the Longhorn legislature and negotiations over the city’s mismanaged and underfunded police and fire pension at a standstill, state lawmakers note they will likely be forced to step into the crisis, if the city is to avoid chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy—or, as Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas) noted: “I think we’re forced to step in. We’re [17] days away from the deadline, and there is yet to be an agreement between the city and the pension board…I think at this point we have to have a summit or some form of intervention, get everyone to the table and hammer those final issues down. If they don’t do that, it’s going to be a plan that’s drawn by the legislators, and we don’t have a stake interest like the other groups do to understand the nuances.” His statement came in the wake of a stoppage in negotiations over the last couple weeks—negotiations originally set up by the state, and negotiations with a short fuse: the last chance for the Texas Legislature to file bills to address the issue is looming: March 1st.

The severity of the crisis could be partially alleviated by a settlement reached late yesterday by the failing Dallas Police and Fire Pension System in its litigation against its former real estate advisers, whom pension officials had accused of leading the retirement fund astray. CDK Realty Advisors and the Dallas pension system both agreed to drop all claims and counterclaims with prejudice, according to court records filed late yesterday—and came as the city’s pension system and its attorneys have also been battling litigation from four City Council members, Mayor Mike Rawlings, a former contract auditor, and active and retired police and firefighters. The stakes are the city’s fiscal future: its retirement fund is now set to become insolvent within the next decade because of major losses and overvaluations—mostly from real estate—and generous benefits guaranteed by the system. Advising me that the “stigma or consequences for a city with the pride and stature of Dallas to fail would be cataclysmic,” one of the nation’s most insightful state and local pension wizards described the city’s pension challenge as “about as bad as any I have ever seen.”  

Hear Ye—or Hear Ye Not. A hearing for the civil case brought against Petersburg Mayor Samuel Parham and Councilman and former Mayor W. Howard Myers is set for this morning: Both men are defendants in a civil court case brought about by members of registered voters from the fifth and third wards of Petersburg: members of the third and fifth wards signed petitions to have both men removed from their positions. The civil case calls for both Parham and Myers to be removed from office due to “neglect, misuse of office, and incompetence in the performance of their duties.” The purpose of hearing is to determine a trial date, to hear any motions, to determine whether Messieurs Parham and Myers will be tried separately, and if they want to be tried by judge or jury. James E. Cornwell of Sands Anderson Law Firm will be representing Myers and Parham. The City Council voted 5-2 on Tuesday night to have the representation of Mr. Myers and Mayor Parham be paid for by the city. Mayor Parham, Vice Mayor Joe Hart, Councilman Charlie Cuthbert, former Mayor Myers, and Councilman Darrin Hill all voted yes to the proposition, while Councilwoman Treska Wilson-Smith and Councilwoman Annette Smith-Lee voted no. Mayor Parham and Councilmember Hill stated that the Council’s decision to pay for the representation was necessary to “protect the integrity of the Council,” noting: “It may not be a popular decision, but it’s [Myers and Parham] today, and it could be another council tomorrow.” Messieurs Hill and Parham argued that the recall petition could happen to any member of council: “[The petitions] are a total attack on our current leadership…We expect to get the truth told and these accusations against us laid to rest.” The legal confrontation is further muddied by City Attorney Joseph Preston’s inability to represent the current and former Mayors, because he was also named in the recall petition, and could be called as a witness during a trial.

Municipal Governance Bankruptcy? Virginia Commonwealth’s Attorney Cassandra Conover has felt forced to write a complaint, suggesting a conflict of interest in the virtually insolvent municipality of Petersburg, Virginia, in the wake of a city council vote to have the city pay for the legal expenses of Mayor Samuel Parham and Councilman Howard Myers. Ms. Conover, in an advisory opinion, described the vote to approve those expenses as a conflict of interest for the current and former mayors: “It is my advisory opinion that the undeclared conflict of interest disqualified both councilmen from voting on this motion and renders the vote invalid.” (The vote in question, as we have previously noted, was to hire a private attorney to represent Mayor Sam Parham and Councilman Howard Myers after more than 400 neighbors signed a petition to oust two Councilmembers from office.) Ms. Conover cited Virginia Code §2.2-3112, which says an employee of a state or local government entity “shall disqualify himself from participating in the transaction where the transaction involves a property or business or governmental agency in which he has a personal interest,” noting that Code §2.2-3115(F) mandates that in such a situation, there must be oral or written statements that show the transaction involved; the nature of the employee’s personal interest: that he (or she) is a member of a business, profession, occupation or group of members which are affected by the transaction: and that he is able to participate fairly, objectively and in the public interest. In this case, Ms. Conover stated that there was “no evidence that all four of these requirements were met in this case: concluding that the undeclared conflict of interest disqualified both men from voting and renders the vote invalid. 

The governance issue was not just the concept of an insolvent city’s Council voting to use public municipal funds to hire the private attorney, but also that neither Mayor Parham, nor Councilmember Myers recused himself from voting. Nevertheless, Petersburg City Attorney Joseph Preston responded that there was no conflict of interest and that the pair of elected officials had acted legally. Mayor Parham said the city likely will pay the bill for the personal attorney he and Councilmember Myers retained, albeit noting: “We’ve had to make cuts to schools and public safety, and we’re just starting to get back on our feet. It is a shame that we have to pump funds into something like this.” City Attorney Preston noted that Ms. Conover’s advisory opinion “adequately represents what occurred at their council meeting,” but he said he believes the pair of elected officials were legally allowed to take part in the vote, citing Virginia Code §2.2-3112 which provides that persons who have a conflict of interest can submit a disclosure statement on the issue—filings which the two elected officials filed with the Clerk of Court’s office the day after the vote. In addition, City Attorney Preston cited a decision from the Virginia Attorney General’s Office from 2009 which had ruled in favor of the Gloucester County Board of Supervisors, who were seeking compensation for their legal expenses; Ms. Conover, however, responded that the Attorney General’s 2009 decision did not apply to this case, because the charges against the Gloucester Board of Supervisors had been dismissed, and the court ordered the locality to pay for the majority of the legal fees which the board members had accrued, adding that the insolvent city had offered no estimate with regard to how much their legal fees could be. Notwithstanding the Commonwealth Attorney’s opinion, it appears unlikely that the Council will vote on the issue again: Mayor Parham yesterday noted: “I don’t feel like there was any conflict, and we did as we were advised by our attorney…We’ve had to make cuts to schools and public safety, and we’re just starting to get back on our feet. It is a shame that we have to pump funds into something like this.”  

Federalism, Governance, & Hegemony. With the enactment of the PROMESA legislation, Congress created governance and fiscal oversight responsibilities in the hands of seven non-elected officials to make critical fiscal reforms and restructuring of Puerto Rico—either through federal courts or via voluntary negotiations—for a debt that adds up to about $69 billion, but the new law also tasked a Congressional Task Force with analyzing initiatives which could help the island’s economy to grow; however, this bipartisan and bicameral committee ceased to exist upon submitting its report; ergo, unsurprisingly, both Governor Ricardo Rosselló and Jenniffer González, the new Resident Commissioner for Puerto Rico, have demanded that the PROMESA board members support their claims. But now a key area of concern has arisen: if the U.S. territory is unable to comply with the implementation of an information system which methodically integrates the management of important data for Medicaid claims—as mandated for federal eligibility as part of an integrated system to process claims and recover information, which is a Medicaid program requirement for federal fund eligibility which Puerto Rico should have long ago met, the island faces a more stark January 1 deadline by which it must comply with 60% of this system or be confronted with a fine of $147 million—a threat so dire that, according to the Health Secretary, Dr. Rafael Rodríguez Mercado, failing to comply with this requirement would mean the end of the Puerto Rico Government Health Plan. Puerto Rico is the only jurisdiction lacking such a platform, a platform intended to protect against medical fraud and establish eligibility, compliance, and service quality controls.

It was revealed in December, during the new government’s transition hearings for the Department of Health that the development of this platform began in 2011, but that it was not until 2014 that the project was resumed in its planning stage. The necessary funds to begin the implementation phase were finally matched during this fiscal year. The last administration predicted that the basic modules would begin working in a year and a half, and that the entire system would be operating in five years: it was expected that the window for the disbursement of Medicare and Medicaid funds would open in a year and a half. However, under threat of a fine, the government now expects to reach this goal before the date predicted by the last administration. Dr. Rodríguez Mercado stressed that there are currently 470,000 Puerto Ricans without health care insurance, many of whom cannot afford private insurance or are ineligible for the Government Health Plan, thus, many of these people seek out services in Centro Médico, an institution with a multi-million dollar deficit, when they become sick or are injured. Dr. Mercado further noted the disproportionate percentage of Medicare and Medicaid fraud cases, further undermining the territory’s credibility with the federal government—and, adding that local governments have complied  with the implementation of a Medicaid Fraud Control Unit (MFCU), which he says falls under the purview of the Department of Justice. Nevertheless, despite differing points of emphasis, both the leadership of the PROMESA Oversight Board and Resident Commissioner Jenifer González yesterday restated the importance of preventing Puerto Rico’s healthcare system from falling into a fiscal abyss, given the depletion of the $1.2 billion in Medicaid funds which has been provided on an annual basis under the Affordable Care Act.

Yesterday, in the wake of separate meetings with Commissioner González, with one of Speaker Paul Ryan’s advisors, and with Congresswoman Elise Stefanik (R-NY), PROMESA Oversight Board Chair José Carrión claimed that “we always try to include healthcare and economic development issues” in the meetings held in Congress, describing meetings in which he had been joined by Board member Carlos García and interim executive director, Ramón Ruiz Comas, as sessions to provide updates, while trying to deal with the issue which most concerns the Board: health care—emphasizing that especially in the wake of the end of the Congressional Task Force on Economic Growth in Puerto Rico.  

A Midwestern Tale of Two Cities

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eBlog, 2/14/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the tale of two cities in Detroit: is a city set to displace Chicago as the capitol of the Midwest—or is a city with its fiscal future in re-jeopardy, because of its inability and conflicts with the state over how to educate its children in a way that will create incentives for families to want to move back into the city?

Post Chapter 9 Reinvention? In opting to relocate its regional headquarters to downtown Detroit, Microsoft has sent a message that the city’s emergence from the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in American history is a success: the city is even threatening to displace Chicago as a regional headquarters of choice for the Midwest. That’s an honor long owned by Chicago. The extraordinary changes in the city—fashioned through the path-breaking efforts not just of former emergency manager Kevyn Orr and now retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, but also the fiscal rebuilding blueprint, the city’s court-approved plan of debt adjustment, a plan aptly described by the Detroit News an “arc of change, the redemptive power of reinvention, and critical facts on the ground say a bid by Detroit and southeast Michigan to be part of that conversation could be real for those with the courage to take a real, hard look.”  The paper, continuing its own comparison of Detroit to the Windy City—two cities which appear to be fiscally headed in opposite directions, aptly notes the respective state roles, contentious as they are, but noting that while the Michigan government is “aggressively attacking its unfunded liabilities,” instead of being (in Illinois) a state legislature “deaf to the fiscal ticking time bomb of its state pensions.” An iconic city’s recovery from bankruptcy is, after all, not just designing and implementing an architectural and fiscal turnaround, but also reversing the fiscal and economic momentum; thus, unsurprisingly, in a reminder of the old aphorism: “Go West, young man;” today it is civic leader, Quicken Loans Inc. Chairman Dan Gilbert who actively recruits young talent to the Motor City, telling potential new Detroiters: anyone can go work in Chicago and most will change nothing, but you could make a difference working and living in Detroit. Or, as the News describes it: “So could companies looking to reduce costs, find a vibrant food, arts and culture scene, and join an enthusiastic business community with global connections. They could find both in Detroit. Or in Ann Arbor, with the University of Michigan.”  

Might There Be a Fly in the State Ointment? Yet for a city one-third its former size, the more pressing challenge to its fiscal future is likely to rest on the perceived quality of its public schools—schools in a city where the Detroit Public School system became physically and fiscally insolvent—and where the state intervened to not just appoint an emergency manager, but also where the legislature created and imposed what some deem the nation’s most economically disparate school system—or, as the New Jersey nonprofit EdBuild, in its report “Fault Lines: America’s Most Segregating School District Borders,” described it: nearly half of the households in Detroit Public Schools—49.2%—live in poverty, compared with 6.5% in Grosse Pointe Public Schools—with the non-profit noting to the Detroit News: “Fault Lines shows how school finance systems have led to school segregation along class lines within communities around the country, and how judicial and legislative actions have actually served to strengthen these borders that divide our children and our communities:” its report traces the economic gap between Detroit and Grosse Pointe schools to a 1974 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Milliken v. Bradley, which blocked busing between districts to achieve racial integration, writing: “Income segregation in the Detroit metropolitan area parallels the racial segregation that inspired the Milliken case and has worsened since the case was first argued.” Today, there are some 97 traditional public schools in Detroit, 98 charter schools, and 14 schools in the Education Achievement Authority, a controversial state-run district created in 2012—that is, there are an estimated 30,000 more seats than students in the city in the wake of the state’s 2015 “rescue” of the Detroit Public Schools—a rescue of a public school district which had been under state control, and a rescue which pledged some $617 million to address the debt, but also invoked a number of unorthodox “reforms” which state legislators argued would promise a brighter future: the reforms included provisions which permit the hiring uncertified teachers, penalization of striking employees, and the outsourcing of academic roles, like the superintendent position, to surrounding districts, and the state closure of all schools that fall in the bottom 5 percent of academic performance for three years in a row: a category into which dozens of Detroit public schools fall. The state also authorized charter schools for Detroit.

Now, a new Michigan School Reform Office school closing plan has reignited debate in Detroit over how to fix the Motor City’s fractured system of public schools, less than seven months after the Michigan Legislature spent $617 million relieving Detroit Public Schools of crushing debt which had hovered on the brink of its own chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. Indeed, the perceived fiscal threat to the city’s future has led Mayor Mike Duggan to deem the state school closing plan “irrational,” because many of the other nearby public schools in Detroit are on the brink of being deemed failing schools—or, as Mayor Duggan noted: “You don’t throw people out of the boat without looking out to see if there’s a life raft.” Moreover, the Mayor and the newly elected Board of Education for the Detroit Public Schools Community District have threatened to sue Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration to stop the proposed closures—closures which the state is evaluating to determine whether such closures would create unreasonable hardships for students, such as distance to other schools with capacity, if the buildings are closed. Ergo, unsurprisingly, Governor Snyder is confronting pressure from school leaders, parents, businesses and civic groups to consider the impact that another round of school closings might have on Detroit’s ongoing recovery—and on its neighborhoods and commercial corridors hard hit by decades of abandonment and disinvestment—or, as Veronica Conforme, Chancellor of the Education Achievement Authority, notes: such closures would “cause disruption in the neighborhoods.”

The state-municipal tussle relates to the tug-of-rope state-local challenge about how to address Detroit’s worst-performing schools under a 7-year-old state statute which has never been fully enforced—and comes as the Michigan School Reform Office has announced that twenty-five Detroit schools may be closed in June due to persistently low student test scores—creating apprehension that these closures, coming at a time when then city’s focus on fuller implementation of its approved plan of debt adjustment envisions revitalization shifting from downtown and Midtown to Detroit’s vast neighborhoods and commercial corridors. Unsurprisingly, some business and community leaders are concerned that the impact mass school closings could undercut the city’s efforts to turn around pockets of the city which have been showing signs of rebirth, or, as Sandy Baruah, President and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber, who worries that abruptly closing two dozen schools could “create other crises” in city neighborhoods, puts it: “I don’t want to see neighborhoods that are on the early path to recovery be dealt a setback.” That is, in the post chapter 9 city, rebuilding neighborhoods must go hand in hand with schools: the presence of a school, after all, affects the assessed values of properties, residential and commercial, in a neighborhood.