Is the Federal Government Using a Double Standard in Responding to Puerto Rico, adding to its Fiscal and Physical Distress?

eBlog

January 19, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the ongoing federal and fiscal challenges to fiscal recovery for the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico.

Denial of Assistance. As if there has not been enough evidence of a double standard with regard to the provision of federal aid to the hurricane devastation to Puerto Rico, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the U.S. Treasury have written to the Puerto Rico Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority Executive Director Gerardo Portela that, because the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico’s  central cash balance, as publicly reported, has consistently exceeded $1.5 billion in the months following the hurricanes, and “considering the implications of the $6.875 billion of total cash deposits across the Commonwealth, the federal government will institute, as a matter of policy, a cash balance policy that will determine the timing of Community Disaster Loans (CDLs) to the Commonwealth and its instrumentalities, including the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority and the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority.” Translated into English, that means Puerto Rico may have too much cash to be eligible for a federal loan—notwithstanding the discriminatory treatment compared to Houston or Florida, much less that still, nearly four months after the devastating storm—a storm to respond to which President Trump offered paper towels—some four months after the storm, many residents are still without electricity. Nevertheless, according to FEMA, the island is at risk of not receiving federal community disaster loans, because its cash balances may be too high.

For its part, the government of Puerto Rico has opted to pay up its arrears accounts with both the Electric Power Authority and the Aqueduct and Sewer Authority—as well as focus its efforts on legislation to address FEMA’s concerns—in a critical effort to free up federal assistance—assistance already approved by Congress. At the same time, Puerto Rico’s Financial Advisory Authority and Fiscal Agency Wednesday admitted that if FEMA opts not to grant the disaster loan to the U.S. territory, very hard decisions will confront the citizens of Puerto Rico and their leaders—or, as Sen. Anibal Jose Torres put it: the challenge will be to “ensure basic services to the population, the payment of pensions, and the payroll of public employees,” concerns which appear not to be apprehensions of the Trump Administration, even as Gerardo Portela Franco, the Executive Director and Chairman of the Board of Puerto Rico’s Fiscal Agency & Financial Advisory Authority, noted: “We will continue negotiating with the Treasury until we achieve that CDL,” adding: “We have faithfully complied with all the requirements,” referring to the negotiations his agency has had with the U.S. Treasury since last October. The contretemps emerged after El Nuevo Día Wednesday  revealed that FEMA and the U.S. Treasury had halted the disbursement of funds to Puerto Rico under the CDL program until adopting “a cash balance policy” which will determine when and how much funding FEMA will provide to Puerto Rico to address its operational expenses in trying to recover from the effects of Hurricane Maria, theoretically in “consultation” with the Fiscal Oversight Board created by Congress, even as the two stateside federal agencies made clear Puerto Rico will have to “cover its cash needs and those of the PREPA and the AAA.

Unsurprisingly, Héctor Figueroa, the President of the SEIU noted that it was “inconceivable that FEMA and the Treasury retain the aid funds approved three months ago for Puerto Rico following the scourge of Hurricane Maria…Puerto Rican working families continue to be considered second class citizens by the administration of (Donald) Trump and by Congress.”

The situation is further complicated, despite some four months of negotiations, by the fact that FEMA and the U.S. Treasury have yet to specify the specific conditions to be mandated—now, nearly four months after Congress approved a package of aid for Puerto Rico, as well as for the states of Florida, Texas, California, and the U.S. Virgin Islands: in that aid package which Congress approved, however, it appears there was a stipulation that, before the federal government could be obliged to provide aid, Puerto Rico, as collateral, had to pledge the unencumbered revenues from the Sale and Use Tax (IVU) or those paid by foreign corporations under Law 154—albeit it remains unclear whether the specific terms with regard to collateral are still being negotiated. What is clear, however, is a double standard, as the epistle from FEMA does not seem to reflect the human or fiscal urgency of the situation, especially in the wake of the fiscal warnings at the end of last September that “As a result of hurricanes Irma and María, the government, PREPA and AAA projected at the end of September 2017 that it would deplete its operational funds on or near October 31, 2017.” In their letter, however, FEMA and the Treasury opined that, as of December 29, 2017, the central government’s cash balance was approximately $1,700 million—an amount which, according to Portela Franco, does not detract from the fact that Puerto Rico is in a state of “insolvency.”

The head of the Puerto Rico Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority, the public corporation and governmental instrumentality in Puerto Rico which has assumed the majority of the fiscal agency and financial advisory responsibilities previously held by the Government Development Bank for Puerto Rico, and the Puerto Rican entity in charge of collaboration, communication, and cooperation between the Government of Puerto Rico and the PROMESA Oversight Board, noted that the figure cited in the letter includes the reserves required by La Junta de Supervisión y Administración Financiera (JSF) to finance the process of renegotiation of the debt in court, as well as the payment of pensions and public payroll, two priority items for Governor Rosselló Nevares.

Indeed, a review of Puerto Rico’s most recent liquidity report seems to validate Mr. Portela Franco’s views, noting, for instance, in his January 5th report, that the Department of Hacienda projections include the collections which are regularly sent to Cofina—reports still awaiting the attention of U.S. Judge Laura Taylor Swain—a figure in the range of  $316 million. In addition, the report reveals that, so far this fiscal year, Puerto Rico’s central government has withheld $ 437 million from the Automobile Accident Administration (ACAA) and the Highway and Transportation Authority (ACT), among others—even as government suppliers are owed about $ 331 million and government agencies hold $ 276 million in debt to each other, including water and electricity bills. Thus, as Portela Franco and Andrés Méndez, in charge of liquidity matters in the Aafaf, noted: the government seems to undress a saint to dress others such as the AEE and the AAA: “As we have to inject liquidity to the AAA and the AEE, that balance of the Treasury’s TSA account will fall precipitously,” adding that, without the FEMA loan, it would be necessary to continue adopting what he termed “difficult decisions,” such as stretching payments to suppliers.

Unsurprisingly, Governor Rosselló Nevares, described the epistle from Washington, D.C. as one in which the “government of Puerto Rico and the Treasury have reached an agreement. The agreement is that when the collections go down in Puerto Rico, the loans begin to arrive. What does this mean? That at the moment, we still have resources that are going to be running out,but that they will want to transfer those loans once it happens to that.” The Governor also rejected that the Oversight Board has an additional responsibility in the process of granting the CDL, because PROMESA had already established that the federal entity will have authority to interfere in any loan that Puerto Rico receives. (The epistle from FEMA and the U.S. Treasury notes that the cash policy for the loan from Puerto Rico will be adopted “in consultation with the government and the JSF.”

As of the end of last month, Puerto Rico had $1.7 billion of available cash, notwithstanding earlier predictions by local officials that the government would run out of money in late October because of the economic toll of responding to the hurricanes: by the end of November, it still had funds in other accounts, albeit some of it was earmarked for specific uses and could not be used to keep Puerto Rico’s government operating.

In FEMA’s epistle to Gerardo Portela, the Executive Director of Puerto Rico’s Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority, FEMA noted: “Under this cash balance policy, funds will be provided through the CDL program when the commonwealth’s central cash balance decreases to a certain level.” Executive Director Portela, earlier this week, noted that, because of the delay in federal loans, Puerto Rico’s central government will begin procedures to allow it to lend money to the island’s public electricity and water utilities, even as he urged the federal government to distribute the loans, stating: “AAFAF has complied with all the demands of federal agencies; however, despite our continuous efforts, to date, the Treasury Department and FEMA have not provided the final terms and conditions under which they will disburse the funds granted by the Congress.” With damage from Hurricane Maria estimated to total as much as $100 billion, Governor Ricardo Rossello earlier this month warned that Puerto Rico’s electric utility may be unable to continue recovery work in February due to lack of funds—even though, more than 100 days after the storm slamming into an island which had already filed a record-setting quasi chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in May devastated Puerto Rico’s economy and destroyed its electrical grid: still today, about 45 percent of Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority customers are still without power.

The Epistle:

Mr. Gerardo J. Portela Franco

Executive Director and Chairman of the Board

Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority

Government of Puerto Rico

Robe1io Sanchez Vilella Government Center

De Diego Avenue, Stop 22

San Juan, Puerto Rico, 00907

Dear Mr. Portela Franco:

This letter summarizes the Federal Government’s policy for providing Community Disaster Loan (CDL) Program assistance to the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, its instrumentalities, and municipalities as a result of Hurricanes Irma (DR-4336-PR) and Maria (DR-4339-PR). The purpose of the CDL Program is to provide loans to eligible recipients that have suffered a substantial loss of tax and other revenues as a result of a major disaster and that demonstrate a need for Federal financial assistance to perform essential governmental functions. The Additional Supplemental Appropriations for Disaster Relief Requirements Act of 2017, signed into law by the President on October 26, 2017, included $4.9 billion for CD Ls to assist the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and local governments in Florida and Texas in maintaining essential services as a result of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria.

Implementing the CDL Program in the Commonwealth must be undertaken in a manner that is compatible with the ongoing financial restructuring of the Commonwealth’s financial obligations, including pursuant to the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA). For example, pursuant to PROMESA the Financial Oversight and Management Board (FOMB) must approve any new debt incun-ed by the Conunonwealth or by any of its instrumentalities that the FOMB has designated as covered territorial instrumentalities under PRO MESA, including the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREP A) and the Pue1io Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (PRASA). Title III of PRO MESA also established a bankruptcy-like restructuring process for Puerto Rico and its covered territorial instrumentalities. As you are aware, the Commonwealth and PREPA have filed for Title III restructuring; PRASA has not.

As a result of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, the Commonwealth, PREP A, and PRASA projected in late

September 2017 that they would exhaust their operating funds on or about October 31, 2017. However, as of December 29, 2017, the Commonwealth’s central cash balance was approximately $1.7 billion. It is our understanding that the higher-than-expected central cash balance three months after the hurricanes resulted from greater-than-expected receipts, strategic management of payables, and the structure of relief funds from FEMA and other federal agencies, among other factors, although a review of the underlying detail is still underway. In addition to its central cash balance, on December 18, 2017, the Commonwealth released a report indicating that $6.875 billion in unrestricted and restricted cash was on deposit in over 800 accounts across all Commonwealth governmental entities. Despite these Commonwealth cash balances, the Commonwealth now indicates that PREPA and PRASA have an imminent need for liquidity in January 2018, and, as a result, each entity has applied for a CDL to cover operating expenditures.

Because the Commonwealth’s central cash balance, 1\S publicly reported, has consistently exceeded $1.5 billion in the months following the hurricanes, and considering the implications of the reported $6.875 billion of total cash across the Commonwealth, the Federal Government will institute, as a matter of policy, a Cash Balance Policy that will determine the timing of CD Ls to the Commonwealth and its instrumentalities, including PREP A and PRASA. Under this Cash Balance Policy, funds will be provided through the CDL Program when the Commonwealth’s central cash balance decreases to a certain level. This Cash Balance Policy level will be dete1mined by the Federal Government in consultation with the Commonwealth and the FOMB.

The current posture of the Federal Government is to disburse CDL program financing directly to the Commonwealth, which could then sub-lend to its various entities (including PREP A and PRASA), although this approach may be revised over time. Subsidiary borrowers will be expected to comply with remmitting, repayment, and collateral requirements that apply to the primary borrower. Unless the Cash Balance Policy level is reached, however, the Commonwealth will need to support its own liquidity needs and those of PREPA and PRASA.

Notwithstanding the above policy, local governments (as such term is defined in 42 U.S.C. §5122(8)) in Puerto Rico, including the 78 municipalities, will be eligible to apply directly for CD Ls independent of the Commonwealth under the traditional terms and conditions of Section 417 of the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, 42 U.S.C. §5184 (irrespective of the cash balance of the Commonwealth). Under these terms, a local government demonstrating a substantial loss of revenues may receive a streamlined CDL up to 25 percent of its annual budget, subject to a $5 million cap. FEMA will make arrangements to meet directly with the local governments and their management associations the week of January 15, 2018, in Puerto Rico to facilitate applications to the CDL Program onthe most timely basis possible consistent with program terms and requirements. If it is determined that a local government should require assistance beyond the $5 million cap, the Federal Government will consider providing additional financing under different terms and conditions, as appropriate.

FEMA and the Department of Treasury look forward to continuing to work with the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and its instrumentalities and local governments to ensure funding is available for operating expenses to perform governmental functions while respecting the PROMESA Title III proceedings, the statutory authorities granted to the FOMB under PROMESA, and the overall fiscal condition of the Commonwealth and its instrumentalities and local governments.

Respectfully,

Alex Amparo

Assistant Administrator Recovery Directorate

Federal Emergency Management Agency

Gary Grippo

Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Finance

U.S. Department of Treasury

 

cc: Governor Ricardo Rossello Nevares, Commonwealth of Puerto Rico

Financial Oversight and Management Board, Commonwealth of Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico State Agency for Emergency and Disaster Management

U.S. Office of Management and Budget

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Human Needs & Fiscal Imbalances

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing fiscal challenges to the City of Detroit—especially in ensuring equitable tax collections; then we look north to assess the ongoing, serious physical and fiscal challenges to Flint’s long-term recovery, before considering the fiscal plight in Puerto Rico.

Motor City Revenue Uncollections. Unlike most cities, Detroit has a broad tax base in which municipal income taxes constitute the city’s largest single source, and that notwithstanding that the city has the highest rate of concentrated poverty among the top 25 metro areas in the U.S. by population. (Detroit’s revenues, from taxes and state-shared revenues are higher than those of any other large Michigan municipality on a per capita basis: these revenues consist of property taxes, income taxes, utility taxes, casino wagering taxes, and state-shared revenues.) Therefore, it is unsurprising that the city is cracking down on those who owe back income taxes: Detroit has launched an aggressive litigation effort, an effort targeted at thousands of tax evaders living or working at thirty-three properties in the downtown and Midtown areas. The city’s Corporation Counsel, Melvin Butch Hollowell, notes the city has identified at least 7,000 such taxpayers at these properties as potential tax evaders. Collecting those owed taxes is an especially sensitive issue in the wake of the city’s chapter 9 experiences when the decline in revenues of 22 percent over the decade of its most important source of revenues was a key trigger of the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy.

Out Like Flint? Just as in Detroit’s chapter 9 bankruptcy, where now-retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes had to address water cut-offs to families who had not paid their utility bills, so too the issue is confronting Flint—where the current penalty for non-payment under the city’s ordinance is tax foreclosure: something which has put at risk some 8,000 homeowners in the municipality, until, last week, the City Council approved a one-year moratorium on such tax liens: the moratorium covers residents with two years of unpaid water and sewer bills dating back to June of 2014. After the moratorium vote, City Council President Kerry Nelson said: “The people are suffering enough” for being forced to pay for water they cannot drink and are reluctant to use…The calls that I received were numerous. Everywhere I go, people were saying: Do something,” he said: “I did what the charter authorized me to do” with a temporary moratorium “until we look at the ordinance and get it corrected. It needs work. It’s 53 years old. We must start doing something for our community.” The council president insisted the Snyder administration needs to step up “and help us: They created this…the government doesn’t get a free pass.”

Indeed, the question of risk to life and health had been one which now retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Rhodes had to deal with in Detroit’s chapter 9 bankruptcy: how does one balance a city’s fiscal solvency versus human lives; and how does one balance or assess a family’s needs versus the civic duty to pay for vital municipal serves and ensure respect for the law? Now the situation has been further conflicted by the Michigan state-appointed Receivership Transition Advisory Board, which oversees and monitors Flint’s finances in the wake of its emergence from state oversight two years ago. That board has scheduled a vote for next month on the moratorium—as this Friday’s deadline for the thousands of homeowners to pay up under a 1964 ordinance nears—albeit a deadline which has been modified to provide a one-year partial reprieve, in part to give time to amend the ordinance. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the apprehension has had municipal political impacts: a recall effort against Mayor Karen Weaver, who a year ago was in Washington, D.C., for meetings at the White House with President Barack Obama to lobby for more federal aid and to obtain other attention for the city. The Mayor, understandably, notes Flint is now between a rock and a hard place: there is understandable residential anger over access to water critical to everyday life; however, unpaid bills could cause irreparable fiscal harm to the city—leading the Mayor to affirm that she will honor the moratorium and “follow the law: It’s not like something new has been put in place…We’re doing what has always been done. This was something that Council did. This is the legislative body. My role is to execute the law. So I’m carrying out the law that’s put in place.” Nevertheless, after a year in which the city did not enforce its ordinance, due in no small part to credits its was able to offer to its citizens courtesy of state financing, those credits expired at the end of February, a time when lead levels finally recovered to 12 parts per billion, which is under the federal action standard—and after Gov. Rick Snyder last February rejected Mayor Weaver’s request for an extension.  

The fiscal challenge is complicated too as illustrated by the case of former City Councilmember Edward Taylor, who noted that he had received a $1,053 bill from a home he had rented out to a woman whom he recently evicted. The problem? Mr. Taylor said the woman illegally turned on the water, so the city is holding him responsible for paying up. Now he is threatening to sue the City of Flint if he is unable to gain fiscal relief: i.e., he wants the city to erase his debt—but have the city’s grow.  “The calls that I received were numerous. Everywhere I go, people were saying: Do something,” Coincilman Nelson said. “I did what the charter authorized me to do” with a temporary moratorium “until we look at the ordinance and get it corrected. It needs work. It’s 53 years old. We must start doing something for our community.” The council president insisted the Snyder administration needs to step up “and help us: They created this…the government doesn’t get a free pass.”

Tropical Fiscal Typhoon. The administration of Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares declined yesterday to publish the recommended budget for the next fiscal year despite the fact that two days ago the deadline for completing the version of the document to be assessed by the PROMESA Board expired; initially, the Governor’s administration was supposed to turn over the budget to the Board on May 8th; however, the Board had granted a two-week extension—one which expired at the beginning of this week—time in which the Governor’s office could improve and correct some of the issues contained in its draft document—a document which has yet to have been made public, but one which the Governor is expected to make public as part of his budget message to the Legislative Assembly: according to Press Secretary Yennifer Álvarez Jaimes, the budget is currently in the draft phase, so it cannot be published, including the version which is to be provided to the PROMESA Board—even as, today, the Governor is due in the nation’s capital on an official trip, meaning the formal presentation of his budget before the legislature will almost surely be deferred until next week. The delay comes as PROMESA Chair José B. Carrión has indicated the Board will await the document prior to beginning its assessment and evaluation.

The Governor’s representative to the PROMESA Board, Elías Sánchez Sifonte, said the budget process is well advanced and that it is only necessary to complete the legal analysis and align some aspects with the provisions contained in the Fiscal Plan—even as a spokesperson for the Puerto Rico Peoples Democratic Party (PPD) minority in the Senate, Eduardo Bhatia, insisted on his claim to know the content of the document: he stated: “I think the people should know what was proposed in the budget…Yesterday (Monday) was the date to deliver the budget and we know nothing.” Sen. Bhatia, who sued at the beginning of this month to force publication of the budget, had his suit rejected by the San Juan Court of First Instance, because it was preempted under Title III of PROMESA—meaning the case was then brought before U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor Swain, who issued an order giving Puerto Rico until this Friday to present its position in this controversy. 

State Agency BankruptciesPuerto Rico has filed cases in the U.S. District Court in San Juan, according to Puerto Rico’s Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority, to place its Highways and Transportation Authority and Employees Retirement System into Title III bankruptcy—a move affecting some $9.5 billion in debt, with Governor Rosselló asserting he was seeking to protect pensioners and the transportation system by putting both agencies into municipal bankruptcy; he added he had asked the PROMESA Oversight Board to put the two entities into Title III’s chapter 9-like process, because, according to his statement, the island’s creditors had “categorically rejected” the Puerto Rico fiscal plan as a basis for negotiations and have recently started legal actions to undermine the public corporation’s stability. In the board-approved HTA fiscal plan, there would be no debt service paid through at least fiscal year 2026. Gov. Rosselló added that he had filed for Title III, because Puerto Rico faces insolvency in the coming months, and because his government has been unable to reach a consensual deal with its creditors, adding that pensioners will continue to receive their pensions from the General Fund after the territory’s pension fund, ERS, runs out of money. (As of February the ERS had $3.2 billion in debt, of which $2.7 billion was bond principal and $500 million was capital appreciation bonds.)

As Puerto Rico attempts to sort out its tangled financial web, retirees may face bigger cuts than those in past U.S. municipal insolvencies, due in part to an unconventional debt structure which pits pensioners against the very lenders whose money was supposed to sustain them—but also because this is an unbalancing teeter-totter, where the young and upwardly mobile are moving from Puerto Rico to New York City and Florida—leaving behind the impoverished and elderly, so that contributions into the Puerto Rico’s pension system are ebbing, even as demands upon it are increasing, and as the benefit structures are widely perceived as unsustainable. There is recognition that radical cuts to pensioners could deepen the population’s reliance on government subsidies and compound rampant emigration, for, as Gov. Rosselló has noted, most retirees “are already under the poverty line,” so that any pension cuts “would cast them out and challenge their livelihood.” Indeed, Puerto Rico’s Public pensions, which as of June last year had total pension liabilities of $49.6 billion, and which are projected to be insolvent sometime in the second half of this calendar year, today have almost no cash; rather pension benefits are coming out of the territory’s general fund, on a pay-as-you-go basis—imposing a cost to Puerto Rico of as much as $1.5 billion a year: $1.5 billion the territory does not have.

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.”