The End of State Usurpation of Local Elected Authority? Uneasy shelter from the Fiscal and Physical Storms?

August 31, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the end of the State of Michigan to usurp local authority via the appointment of an Emergency Manager, the safety of school drinking water has become an issue in Detroit—especially after Flint, and we consider the extraordinary revisions in the projected Hurricane Maria death toll in Puerto Rica—and the White House response.

Protecting a City’s Children. Detroit Public School Superintendent Nikolai P. Vitti has directed turning off drinking water across the district’s 106 schools  in the wake of after discovering higher-than-acceptable levels of copper and lead in some facilities, with Superintendent Vitti noting his decision came out of caution “until a deeper and broader analysis can be conducted to determine the long-term solutions for all schools.” he said in a statement. Test results found elevated levels of lead or copper in 16 out of 24 schools which were recently tested. Supt. Vitti stated: “Although we have no evidence that there are elevated levels of copper or lead in our other schools where we are awaiting test results, out of an abundance of caution and concern for the safety of our students and employees.” His actions, no doubt affected by fiscal and water contamination in Flint, came even as Detroit officials and the Great Lakes Water Authority sought to assure residents that water provided by the authority is safe to drink: they pointed to the city’s aging infrastructure as the problem.  Superintendent Vitti said he will be creating a task force to determine the cause of the elevated levels and solutions, noting he had initiated water testing of all 106 school buildings last spring to ensure the safety of students and employees. Water at 18 schools had been previously shut off. He added: “This was not required by federal, state, or city law or mandate: This testing, unlike previous testing, evaluated all water sources from sinks to drinking fountains.” The District does not plan to test students: a spokesperson for the school system noted: “Dr. Vitti said…he has no evidence at all that children have been impacted from a health standpoint.”

Fiscal & Physical Challenges: Earlier this summer, Supt. Vitti released details from a facilities review which had determined the school district would need to spend $500 million now to fix the deteriorating conditions of its schools—an effort for the system projected to cost as much as $1.4 billion if there is a failure to act swiftly, with the Administrator pointing to the failure by former state-appointed emergency managers to make the right investments in facilities while the system was preempted of authority and state-appointed emergency managers from 2009 to 2016 failed to make the right investments, sending what Dr. Vitti described as “the message to students, parents and employees that we really don’t care about public education in Detroit, that we allow for second-class citizenry in Detroit.” The remarks raised anew questions with regard to Michigan’s governance by means of gubernatorially chosen Emergency Managers.  

Superindent Vitti said he had notified Mayor Mike Duggan of his decision to shut off the drinking water, and a spokesperson, John Roach, noted: Mayor is “fully supportive” of the approach Supt. Vitti has taken, adding: “We will be supporting Dr. Vitti in an advisory capacity through the health department and the DWSD (Detroit Water and Sewerage Department) has offered to partner with the district on any follow-up testing that needs to be done.” At the same time, the Great Lakes Water Authority issued a statement in an effort to assure “residents and customers of GLWA’s regional system that they are not affected by the lead and copper issues,” noting: “Aging school infrastructure (i.e. plumbing) is the reason for the precautionary measure of providing bottled water,” adding water treated by the authority meets and surpasses all federal and state regulations, albeit adding: “A task force will be formed consisting of engineering and water quality experts” to will help the district “understand the cause and identify solutions.” (Initial results this past week showed elevated levels of copper, lead or both at one or more water sources in 16 of 24 school buildings, according to the statement. Water bottles will be provided at the schools until water coolers arrive. The district also found water-quality issues in some schools in 2016.)

The incident in Detroit raises a host of fiscal and governance issues—especially in the wake of the tragedy in upstate Flint—with, in both cases, the state’s history of appointing Emergency Managers to preempt the authority of local elected leaders. In the case of DPS, Dr. Vitti has contacted the Mayor, the Governor, and a task force of engineers and water experts to understand the cause and possible solutions; Superintendent Nikolai P. Vitti opted to close the water taps out of caution “until a deeper and broader analysis can be conducted to determine the long-term solutions for all schools,” with the decision coming just days before the school district’s 106 schools are scheduled to open next Tuesday. (Water bottles will be provided at the schools until water coolers arrive.) Water officials have blamed aging infrastructure as the cause of the public safety threat. Now Dr. Vitti has asked Mike Duggan and Gov. Rick Snyder to convene a task force of engineers and water experts to determine the cause of the elevated lead and copper levels, and to propose solutions. 

Importantly, it seems the public safety risk is limited to Detroit’s public schools: water officials released a statement Wednesday assuring residents and customers of the Great Lakes Water Authority and the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department that they are not affected by the lead and copper issues at the school district, noting: “Aging school infrastructure (i.e. plumbing) is the reason for the precautionary measure of providing bottled water…The water at GLWA’s treatment plants is tested hourly, and DWSD has no lead service lines connected to any DPSCD building. The drinking water is of unquestionable quality.”

Nevertheless, the threat to public safety—combined with the heartbreaking, long-term threats to Flint’s children from that city’s public water contamination—could add further challenges to Detroit’s recovery from the nation’s largest-ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy: a critical part of the city’s plan of debt adjustment was to address its vast amassment of abandoned houses by enticing young families with children to move from the suburbs back into the city—an effort which had to rely on a perception of the quality and safety of its public schools. Now, for a system itself recovering from bankruptcy, DPS faces a bill of at least $500 million to repair its buildings: approximately 25% of the system’s school buildings are in unsatisfactory condition and another 20%are in poor condition, according to the report. The district noted nearly $223 million of high-priority repairs involving elevators and lifts, energy supply, heating and cooling systems, sprinklers, standpipes, electrical service and distribution, lighting, wiring, communications, security system, local area networking, public address and intercoms, emergency lights and plumbing fixtures.

Mayor Duggan’s office and the Detroit Health Department Wednesday issued a joint statement supporting “the approach Dr. Vitti has taken to test all water sources within DPS schools and to provide bottled water until the district can implement a plan to ensure that all water is safe for use,” noting: “We will be supporting Dr. Vitti in an advisory capacity through the health department and the DWSD has offered to partner with the district on any follow-up testing that needs to be done. We also will be reaching out to our charter operators in the coming days to work with them on a possible similar testing strategy to the voluntary one Dr. Vitti has implemented.”

Restoring Municipal Authority. Mayhap it is ironic that Michigan’s relatively rare authority for the Governor to appoint an emergency manager to preempt local elected authority reflects the uneven results of the program—a program I well remember from meeting with Kevyn Orr, whom Gov. Rick Snyder had appointed as Emergency Manager  (EM) to preempt all governing authority of Detroit’s Mayor and Council, at the Governor’s office in Detroit on the first day the city entered the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history—and after the grievous failure of a previous gubernatorially-appointed Emergency Manager to help the Motor City. The very concept of state authority to appoint a quasi dictator and to preempt any authority of local leaders elected by the citizens, after all, feels un-American.

Yet, from that very first moment, Mr. Orr had acted to ensure there was no disruption in 9-1-1 responses—and that every traffic and street light worked. Unlike the experience under an Emergency Manager in Flint, Mr. Orr was intently focused on getting Detroit back on its fiscal and physical feet—and restoring elected leadership to today’s grieving city.

Now, as of this week, Michigan no longer has any local government under a state appointed emergency manager—and observers are under the impression the state program to preempt local authority may be quietly laid to rest. It has, after all, been a program of preemption of local democracy with untoward results: while it proved invaluable in Detroit, it has proven fiscally and physically grievous in Flint, where it has been blamed for contributing to Flint’s water contamination crisis. Indeed, two of Flint’s former EMs have been criminally charged in connection with the crisis. Their failures—at a cost of human lives, appears to have put the future of state pre-emption of local governing authority—may well make state officials leery of stepping in to usurp control a local government, even as some municipal market participants and others see state oversight programs as a positive credit feature. The last municipality in Michigan to be put under a state-imposed emergency manager was Lincoln Park—an imposition which ended three years ago. Michigan Treasury spokesperson Ron Leix noted: “Each situation that led to the financial emergency is unique, so I can’t give a broad-brush assessment about how the law will be used in the future…For the first time in 18 years, no Michigan municipality or school district is under state financial oversight through an emergency manager. This is really about the hard work our local units of government have achieved to identify problems and bring together the resources needed to problem-solve challenging financial conditions.”

In Michigan, the emergency manager program was authorized twenty-eight years ago, granting the governor authority to appoint a manager with extensive powers over a troubled municipality or school district. By 2012, Michigan voters repealed the emergency manager program in a referendum; notwithstanding, one month later Gov. Snyder and legislators re-adopted a similar intervention program—under which local governments could opt among three new options in addition to the appointment of an emergency manager who reports directly to the Governor: chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, mediation, or a consent agreement between the state and the city to permit local elected officials to balance their budget on their own. (In Michigan, municipalities which exit emergency management remain under the oversight of a receivership transition advisory board while executive powers are slowly restored to elected mayors and city councils.)

The state intervention/takeover program had mixed success, according to Michigan State University economist Eric Scorsone, who noted: “In some cases it’s worked well, like Allen Park where the situation was pretty clear-cut and the solution was pretty clear as to what needed to be done.” (Allen Park regained full local control of its operations and finances in February of 2017 after nearly four years of state oversight. Last June, S&P Global Ratings upgraded the city to investment-grade BBB-plus from junk-level BB, crediting strong budgetary performance and financial flexibility more than 12 months after exiting state oversight. But the appointment, in Flint, of emergency managers demonstrated the obverse: the small city had four emergency managers: Ed Kurtz, Mike Brown, Darnell Earley, and Gerald Ambrose—where the latter two today are confronted by charges of criminal wrongdoing stemming from the lead contamination crisis and ensuing Legionnaire’s disease outbreak that claimed 12 lives. It was the gubernatorially appointed Mr. Earley who oversaw the decision to change Flint’s water source to the Flint River in April 2014 as the city awaited completion of a new pipeline—a decision with fatal human and fiscal consequences. Indeed, two years ago, Gov. Snyder named a task force to investigate the Flint crisis and review the Emergency Manager law—a review which recommended the Governor consider alternatives to the current approach that would engage local elected officials. (No action has been taken to change the law.)

Because only a minority of states have authorized chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, there is no uniform state role with regard to city or county severe fiscal distress and bankruptcy. Jane Ridley, senior director in the U.S. public finance government group at S&P Global Ratings and sector lead for local governments, has noted that state oversight is considered as part of the rating agency’s local GO criteria: “We do think that having a state that has oversight, especially if it’s a proven mechanism, can be very helpful for struggling entities…If they ended oversight entirely it would likely have an impact on the institutional framework scores and their sub scores.” A Moody’s analyst, Andrew Van Dyck Dobos, noted: “While an EM is in most cases is a last option, the ability for it to implement some policies and procedures is going to be typically viewed, at least at the onset, as a credit positive.”

Ending Shelter from the Storm. U.S. District Judge Timothy Hillman yesterday ruled that temporary housing given to hundreds of Puerto Ricans displaced by Hurricane Maria will end next month, meaning Puerto Ricans will be forced to check out of temporary housing provided by Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as part of the agency’s Transitional Sheltering Assistance (TSA) program. Judge Hillman, in his decision, wrote: I strongly recommend the parties get together to find temporary housing, or other assistance to the Plaintiffs and other members of the class prior to that date,” with his decision coming the same week Puerto Rico updated its official death toll from Maria to 2,975, a vast increase from the original count of 64. Judge Hillman’s decision also comes about two months after a national civil-rights group filed a lawsuit which had sought a restraining order to block FEMA from ending the program. The group, LatinoJustice, argued in the suit that it would lead to families’ evictions. It also came as, two days ago, President Trump met with reporters to respond to questions with regard to the mounting death toll—a session in which the President told the reporters: “I think we did a fantastic job in Puerto Rico.” Some 1,744 Puerto Rican adults and children were in the FEMA program when the lawsuit was filed. U.S. District Judge Leo T. Sorokin temporarily extended the program to the end of last July, and subsequently extended it until today—and then, once more, to September 14th.

Now, the White House is responding to a new estimate which increases the number by about 33% more to 2,975 after an independent study. White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders claimed in a statement that the back-to-back hurricanes which hit last year prompted “the largest domestic disaster response mission in history.” She added that President Donald Trump “remains proud of all of the work the Federal family undertook to help our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico.” She also says the federal government “will continue to be supportive” of Gov. Ricardo Rossello’s accountability efforts and says “the American people, including those grieving the loss of a loved one, deserve no less.” The new estimate of 2,975 dead in the six months after Maria devastated the island in September 2017 was made by researchers with the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University. It was released Tuesday.

Planning for a Quasi Plan of Debt Adjustment

eBlog

August 3, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s ambitious plans for Puerto Rico.  

Governor Ricardo Rossello Nevares believes now is the time to accelerate the pace the pace and demand both programmatic and fiscal results from the U.S. territory’s agency directors to better prepare for a post-recovery quasi plan of debt adjustment. The closing of so many of the island’s schools and the emigration to the mainland of so many health care professionals, and the unhappy state of relations with not just the legislature, but also Puerto Rico municipalities appears to make this a critical point for readjustment. Or, as the Governor put it: “In general, I have always seen the government, particularly in these times, as one which has been in almost continuous transformation—or, to make an analogy with the business sector, as a time to focus on a start-up phase: “Sometimes, you run a lot as if your government was like a Fortune 500 corporation, where things are more or less the same and you keep moving forward. But the reason I aspired was to make some changes…and that requires, in addition to having very specific objectives, to understand, one, that there are changes of roles in that process, as in the start-ups, and two, to know what is the time to execute those changes.”

One area of focus appears to be making his government more open—especially after a year and a half which has seen scandal that touched several of his closest collaborators, the operational and administrative collapse of the Electric Power Authority, the closing of schools, and the flight of health professionals to the mainland. Add to that the ongoing governance challenge imposed by the President and Congress—where the issue of who is steering governance going forward is imbalanced between the Governor, legislature, PROMESA Oversight Board, and. Now, a federal judge—all as Puerto Rico is still not fully recovered from the massive Hurricane Maria—and yet finds itself in the new hurricane season, recognizing it will not receive the same level of FEMA federal assistance in the event of a severe storm as other states or municipalities on the mainland.

Nevertheless, the Governor is focusing on the future—a future beginning to emerge under his “ideas map” which he keeps on his desk: “Puerto Rico: Vision 20/20,” under which he hopes to align his team via setting objectives and what he terms “intangible characteristics” as part of his governing blueprint for the new school year and post-Maria rebuilding.

Thus, in the second half of this year, the Governor intends to focus on reducing some of the bureaucracy of governance, beginning with making the permitting process more practical and less bureaucratically cumbersome—cutting the process in half, and awarding at least three public-private partnerships before the end of the year—or, as he put it: “Accompanying some results with the restructuring of the debt, that would be a great achievement in my assessment,” adding that by November, he hopes his new model of My Health will be implemented, and, by December, new health care legislation will be enacted, followed by a new energy policy for Puerto Rico. Or, as the Governor put it: “My administration has a diversity of people who come from different administrations. My goal is not to select someone because they have gray hair or are very young or certain demographic. The main objective is the commitment to comply with the priorities of this administration and the ability to work as a team.”

A key player on the new team will be Christian Sobrino, who will take the place currently held by Gerardo Portelo, to serve as Puerto Rico’s representative before the PROMESA Oversight Board, while Mr. Portelo will become the main investment officer.

Gov. Rosselló Nevares not only has reconfigured his team of close advisers, but also has transferred to La Fortaleza the tasks to implement the fiscal plan which, until now, has been in the hands of Aafaf—indeed, the Governor has already signed an executive order on the roles of the CFO, but said he could submit legislation on the subject. (The CFO office is one of the reforms in the fiscal plan certified by the Oversight Board which the Governor does not question.)

To address the governing challenges with regard to education, health, and safety, Gov. Rosselló Nevares noted: “We are making sure that students can have a full faculty, that there are challenges and obstacles, of course. If it is a large system, and the transformation, rare as it is soft, is typically a rocky process,” noting his plan to implement educational vouchers and charter schools is still in place. With regard to the vital issue of health care, the Governor noted it is urgent to improve the processes for the response to a disaster, a criterion under which he intends, henceforward, to evaluate all the heads of the respective agencies, adding that he is committed to converting Mi Salud into a model single region with free selection of doctors by indigents. In addition, he has set a goal of reducing crime by 20%, noting that, the havoc created by Hurricane Maria undoubtedly contributed to the significant crime rate increase: “I understand, what happens is that it is not consistent then with what was happening at the beginning of the year. At the beginning of the year, in January, we had a rise particularly in the murders, and it is not after that where one, truth, the capacities to measure all these things improve; they do not get worse, because that’s where the descent happens. Everything is subject to evaluation here, but we have used the same mechanism, the same metrics.”

Restoration of Governing Authority? Asked whether he had given much thought to a post PROMESA Oversight Board governing future, the Governor said: “I have not had that conversation, honestly I have not had it…If there is space to look for something that is optimal for the people of Puerto Rico, I will consider it. But, at this moment, I believe that the Judge must decide…and I cannot predict what her decision will be…after which, we will evaluate that decision, what it entails, and we will take the appropriate actions,” adding that his objective is to present a plan to the President and Congress with regard to Puerto Rico’s reconstruction.

With regard to his relationship with the legislature, he noted: “Our objective, both mine and that of the legislative leaders, I am sure is the welfare of the people of Puerto Rico. I did not start to differences that one can and should calculate that they are going to have on the road; we have a finite time to make some great changes for Puerto Rico. I trust that now, when you see the tax reform, you will act in the best interests of the people of Puerto Rico. I trust that when we see public policy, for example, to mitigate environmental impact, we act in the best interests of the people of Puerto Rico, among other initiatives that we will be presenting. Differences will always be there. I have already established my position: we will be able to work together for the welfare of the people of Puerto Rico.

Getting Schooled in Demography. With Puerto Rico’s new school year set to start Monday, it remains uncertain how many students and teachers will be present. Secretary of Education Julia Keleher yesterday reported that 20,000 regular teachers have already been relocated, out of which only 550 have reported “difficulties” with the changes—only 18,000 students out of the island’s 305,000 have yet to confirm which school they will attend. A declining school population has created jitters with regard to which schools to close—and how to involve parents—or not to—in this Solomon-like process. Nevertheless, as one mother bitterly complained: “Parents were not involved in anything, ever.” Indeed, many parents and teachers believe that the closure was improvised. For instance, a newspaper delivery vehicle (El Nuevo Día) which had stopped opposite a school was hailed by a driver of a truck with the Education logo: its driver asked if the school was open. When they told him it was not, the man said he was to deliver food for the school cafeteria. It seems the decision to keep Jacinto López Martínez School open was taken after the Secretary of Education, along with Mayor Carlos López of Dorado, visited the school at the end of the semester—or, as Principal Lois Santiago described it: “There has been a crazy (student) relocation. The majority appears (enrolled) in the Jacinto López Martínez School, but there are first former students who‒we do not know how‒appear in the Escuela Libre de Música…There is a student listed in the Luisa Valderrama School, which is an hour away.”

Dorado Physical Education Teacher Miguel Rubildo said that, last week, he went to the Arecibo educational region to request some of the available positions, but the options he was given were in the municipalities of Quebradillas and Florida, while the principals of the schools Jacinto López Martínez and Esperanza González confirmed that, a little more than a week before the beginning of the semester, they did not know the number of teachers who would be relocated in their schools, much less whether there would even be classrooms available for them.

Getting Schooled on Fiscal Challenges

June 19, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the fiscal challenge in the Connecticut legislature with how to get the state’s capitol city back on its feet, before turning, as the new hurricane season gets underway, to assess the Detroit-kinds of challenges to a public school system when so many families are leaving.

Recovering from Near Municipal Bankruptcy. With the new fiscal year fast approaching, Connecticut Governor Gov. Dannel P. Malloy vetoed bi-partisan legislation last Thursday which would have changed how the state board overseeing Hartford’s finances would have operated, and which would have required the continued financial support of Hartford for five years, but would allow the state to reduce other municipal aid to Hartford in the sixth year if the city failed to meet its obligations. The proposed legislation did not modify the debt assistance agreement signed by state Treasurer Denise Nappier and the provision which required the state to pay off the entire principal of Hartford’s bonded debt over the next 20 to 30 years, under which the state will make about $40 million in annual payments on the debt—all steps taken in the wake of the city’s teetering, last year, on the edge of municipal bankruptcy—when the state intervened to take on the city’s debt through the Municipal Accountability Review Board—a step, in retrospect, which has helped the city begin to rebalance its finances. However, it appears the city needs more time.

Republican legislators believed they should have been allowed to lower other municipal aid to Hartford in order to account for the obligations elsewhere in the budget, but the legislation Gov. Malloy vetoed sought to delay those types of decisions for at least five years. The Governor, however, noted: “The legislature may elect to offset contract assistance to Hartford in the future, and must approve state aid amounts for all communities; but it makes little sense to make an out year reduction without giving the program the opportunity to see results before imposing what amounts to a sanction.” In contrast, Senate Republican President Len Fasano (R-Wallingford) said the veto “demonstrates the Governor’s arrogance and lack of respect for taxpayer dollars,” adding: “Once again, when it comes to support for the city of Hartford, Gov. Malloy completely dismisses the intent and the voice of the legislature: this veto practically ensures a rough road ahead for Hartford, because, absent this fix, the legislature probably won’t be willing to help Hartford in the future.”

In his veto message—legislation which had gained bipartisan support, and which would have modified the $534 million bailout the legislature had approved last year in order to help the city it avoid filing for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, the Governor wrote that Senate Bill 528, an Act Concerning State Contract Assistance Provide to Certain Municipalities, would make “significant, detrimental impacts to the new Account Review Board and its operations,” noting that the changes to the Hartford bailout were “a reflection of indignation on the part of some legislators,” who were upset that the Municipal Accountability Review Board “exercised its statutory authority in coming to the aid of our capital city.” Instead, he told legislators, it is critical for the state to have “a viable mechanism in place to allow it to intervene in the case of other troubled municipalities in a way that is both effective and that holds those municipalities highly accountable.” He noted that the Municipal Accountability Review Board works; ergo there was no reason for the legislature to seek to change it at this point in time.

The vetoed measure had been passed in the House 105-45, with all Republicans voting in favor, but more than half of the House Democrats rejected the proposal, arguing that five years was insufficient to assist Hartford with its financial difficulties—even as opponents insisted the bailout was a “major misunderstanding,” because they had understood they were voting only for a two-year bailout, not a long-term $500 million deal that stretched into the future. Now, it will be, unlike in neighboring New Jersey, the legislature’s budget and tax committees which would need to vote on any future financial bailout, with a series of fiscal trip wires if any municipality were seeking an agreement similar to the one which was approved last year for Hartford. For his part, Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano (R-North Haven) noted: “This veto demonstrates the Governor’s arrogance and lack of respect for taxpayer dollars: once again, when it comes to support for the city of Hartford, Gov. Malloy completely dismisses the intent and the voice of the legislature. This veto practically ensures a rough road ahead for Hartford, because absent this fix, the Legislature probably won’t be willing to help Hartford in the future…This bill was the result of extensive bipartisan negotiations, supported by the Hartford delegation and the Mayor of Hartford: it defines what state assistance Hartford will be receiving and also puts into place needed protections to ensure taxpayer dollars are not squandered.’’

His counterpart, Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney (D-New Haven) said no final decisions have been made with regard to whether the Senate would override the two latest vetoes, noting: “We will review the Governor’s veto messages and consult with our caucus members in order to determine any next steps the caucus may want to take.’’ A veto-override session is slated for Monday, because a little-known provision in the state Constitution provides that all veto sessions must be held on a Monday. House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz (D-Berlin) said the House, where the measure had passed 105-45, is pushing to override at least two vetoes, while final decisions have not been revealed on the other five vetoes.

A key niggle is a growing recognition that whatever final legislation is signed into law will, in effect, create a fiscal blueprint: thus the legislature has adopted a bill to clarify the process for the state’s municipalities in the future, under which the legislature’s budget and tax committees would need to vote on any future fiscal rescues, in advance, with a series of financial trip wires if any municipality were seeking an agreement similar to the one which had been approved last year for Hartford.

A veto-override session is scheduled for Monday, June 25, because a little-known provision in the state Constitution says that all veto sessions must be held on a Monday. House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz of Berlin said the House is pushing to override at least two vetoes, while final decisions have not been revealed on the other five vetoes.

El Fin. Puerto Rico’s legislature is nearing the end of its regular session—even as the new hurricane season is opening its season, so the gale budgetary challenges are anticipated to dominate its closing days—with the key issues being approval of the new year’s fiscal budget and repeal of the island’s Unjustified Dismissal Law (Law 80-1976). The focus, this week, will be on getting revenues for FY2019, some $9.1 billion—or some $700 million greater than the amount proposed by the PROMESA Oversight Board, promising a fierce legislative battle. Víctor Parés, president of the Commission for Economic Development, Planning, Telecommunications, Energy and Public-Private Partnerships, and president of the Finance Committee, Antonio Soto,  had indicated they would meet this week with personnel from the Department of the Treasury to define how the income estimates included in the Board’s proposal will be readjusted. Mr. Parés noted:Government revenues have increased this fiscal year; it is new money; it has to be allocated; and it is part of what is going to be negotiated and agreed with the Executive,” identifying key priorities as education, health, and safety.

The first in that list is, perhaps, of greatest apprehension, with the Department of Education facing a cut of $191.5 million—a cut of such severity that as many as eight programs could be put at risk, including special education, where the proposed cut would be $78.2 million. The Board has also recommended a cut of $16.1 million to the Department of Health, and just under $50 million to the Department of Public Security—that is, a reduction which would likely mean laying off as many as 1,300 police officers. That sets up a challenge, this week, with the Puerto Rico House, on Thursday, scheduled to act on the budget.

The regular session will defer to a special session consideration of the Incentive Code, described as a “very technical document,” which could be approved in July during an extraordinary session that Governor Ricardo Roselló Nevares would convene. With regard to the version of pending legislation to repeal the House-passed Law 80, the future is uncertain: Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz announced the Senate would not agree to the amendments.  

A New Civil Code? Rep. Maria Milagros Charbonier is expected to introduce a proposed, renewed Civil Code, with debate deferred to August on the proposal—a comprehensive document dealing with family, persons, royals, obligations, contracts, and successions, but which does not address the issues of surrogate motherhood, domestic partnerships, and the minimum age. It proposes to increase the age to marry from 14 to 18 years, and limit marriages to the third degree of consanguinity. It would maintain the grounds for divorce for cruel treatment, adultery, as well as those of mutual consent and irreparable rupture. The new proposals come in the wake of four years of evaluation of the Civil Code.

Dying Communities? Verónica Dávila, a second-grade teacher at Pasom Palmas, in rural Puerto Rico, yesterday noted that a “community without a school…is a vacant community: It’s actually a dead community.” Pasom Palmas, located in Utuado in the central mountains of the island, is, in land area, the third-largest municipality in Puerto Rico (after Arecibo and Ponce): it has a population over 35,000 spread over 24 wards. The community derives its name from the Taíno word Otoao, which translates as “between mountains.” It is also known as La Ciudad del Vivi, because of the river which runs through it. It is the 11th oldest municipality in Puerto Rico—founded two hundred seventy-nine years ago. Her school has been teaching children for more than  70 years, but it closed its doors forever this month—one of some nearly 300 in Puerto Rico which are shutting down permanently this summer in the wake of Hurricane Maria’s devastation: it smote Utuado especially hard. It took two months to reopen Paso Palmas after the storm, and the school remained without water and had only limited electricity from a generator, which took the Federal Emergency Management Agency seven months to provide. The school’s population fell to 55, as about a dozen students and their families left the area after Maria.

In April, the government listed 283 schools for permanent closure—subsequently granting relief to 18, a number further revised after a court, last week, ordered a halt to the closure of still nine others. Whatever the final number, the school math paints a grim fiscal and demographic picture. After spending cuts for public education of about $1.5 billion over the last six years, and school closures forcing relocation of about 60,000 students—and the new laws providing vouchers for students to attend private schools and paving the way for charter schools, one can sense the physical challenges ahead. In Paso Palmas, kids, no longer able to attend school there, are confronted with the closest school being a forty minute drive along difficult roads—and that is without counting the walk several students make each morning to reach a road passable by car—or that some families simply do not have cars or money for gasoline. It, of course, renders futile concepts of parents’ days or PTA participation.

Whose Math? The income estimate for the next fiscal year could be readjusted by the PROMESA Board to reflect an increase that would have a direct impact on the coffers of countless agencies, in response to issues such as this which have been raised in three days of public hearings with regard to how the proposed cuts by the Board will impact Puerto Rico. A key issue at the top of the list is the $78 million decrease in the budget dedicated to the Special Education Program of the Department of Education. Representative Antonio Soto said that in a meeting with the technical staff of the PROMESA Board, he told them that the income of this fiscal year should reach $9,100 million. In his opinion, it made “no sense” that the estimated income of the U.S. territory for the upcoming fiscal year would decline by $700 million when the government projects estimated economic growth, benefitting from the injection of federal assistance to provide a 6.3% boost to the economy—or, as he put it: “It’s simple math: They tell me that the estimated income they have is what we provided, so we have to validate the information.”

Investing in Fiscal & Human Futures

June 11, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the issue of keeping Puerto Rico’s schools open in the face of quasi municipal bankruptcy; then we veer north to assess post-state taken over Atlantic City: What Are the City’s Fiscal Odds for Its Future?  

The Governance Challenge for Schools and Demographic Changes. Puerto Rico Superior Court Judge Santiago Cordero Osorio has ordered the suspension of the closure of three of the U.S. territory’s schools in Morovis, pending an explanation from Secretary of Education Julia Keleher of the reasoning behind her orders. His ruling came as part of a lawsuit brought by the Municipality of Morovis challenging the closures of Alverio Pimentel, Manuel Alonso Díaz, and the Second David Colón Vega schools—and in the wake of the Judge’s earlier decisions ordering the closure of six other schools in the Arecibo region—closures also being challenged by the Teachers’ Association. In his order, Judge Osorio noted that all these claims will be evaluated in a court hearing scheduled for this morning—one to which he has invited the Secretary of Education or a representative to attend, noting: “This Court appreciates and recapitulates that the State must come prepared to justify in accordance with its regulations the closure, not only of the schools subject to this interdict, but of all the schools of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico that the Department of Education has under its jurisdiction, and that it pretends according to the regulation to close.”

For his part, Mayor Carmen Maldonado of Morovis explained the suit was filed in the wake of a non-response to her request for a meeting with Secretary Keleher, stating, in a press release: “Today we are taking an important step in the defense of public education for Moroveño children. To all parents, principals, teachers and school staff, I invite you to attend that hearing on Monday at the Arecibo Court, so that together we can continue to fight to keep schools open. As I assured them in the many meetings we had, although the power is in the hands of the central government, the reason is on our side and we are going to defend that reason. The fiscal and governance challenge-as we had experienced in Detroit’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, is a state versus local authority issue. Indeed, as the Department’s legal division stated: “The opening and closing of the schools is under the authority of the Secretary of Education and this is established by Law 85 of 2018 (Law on Educational Reform).”

The Rebirth of an Iconic American City?  Victor Fiorillo, writing in the Philadelphia Magazine, asked in his article, “The Re-Re-Re-Birth of Atlantic City,” what if everyone was wrong about the fiscal implications of the closure of the city’s famed casinos. Writing that Atlantic City had first drawn him in about 15 years ago with the opening of the Borgata Casino—at a time when “most other casinos in Atlantic City were in various stages of decay, and here was this brand-new Vegas-style resort with casino restaurants that were actually good and the best shows in town.” But he also noted that, back then, it was really a family focus: “My wife and I spend as much of the summer as possible on the A.C. beach with our 10-year-old and 12-year-old, opting for the relative solitude of the town’s southern end, far from any casinos or bars.” But in revisiting the municipality today, he noted he is not one of the only “believers in Atlantic City,” noting there are “some surprising signs of life these days, not to mention some serious investment—from small ventures, like Longacre’s projects, to big bets like Stockton University’s new beachfront campus and this month’s opening of the $550 million Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in the old Trump Taj Mahal.

Betting on the City’s Future. Mr. Fiorillo then turned to the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing sports gambling, noting: “There’s more money pouring into A.C. right now than in all of Philadelphia,” according to development mogul Bart Blatstein, but, as with gambling, quoting Temple Professor Bryant Simon, author of 2004’s Boardwalk of Dreams: Atlantic City and the Fate of Urban America: “Atlantic City has risen and fallen innumerable times: “This is the story that has been told for a hundred years.” He added: “The irony, of course, is that this new resurgence is happening just a few short years after nearly half the city’s casinos went under, thousands of jobs disappeared, and Atlantic City itself seemed to be left for dead. Then again, maybe there’s no irony here at all. Maybe this more organic, up-from-the-ground rebirth of Atlantic City is exactly the kind of action that could mean sustained success for the city by the sea.”

Leaving on a Jet Plane. Mr. Fiorillo examined the city’s road to its state takeover from a non-fiscal perspective, writing: “It was right around this time that Atlantic City began to fade. Dissertations and books have been written about the many factors that led to the resort’s demise in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but a big one was the sudden ease of jet travel. You could get on a plane after breakfast and be on a beach in Miami for lunch. Atlantic City? Pfft. The Shore town began to disintegrate. By the mid-’70s, the city found itself at a pivotal crossroads. It could do nothing, ride out the downward trend, and see what happened. Or it could come up with some novel and wholly artificial way to inject new life into itself. It opted for the latter, betting that gambling would be Atlantic City’s salvation. Until that point, Nevada was the only place in the United States where you could open up a full-fledged casino. But in 1976, New Jersey citizens voted to make slots and table games legit in Atlantic City. The first casino, Resorts—which just turned 40 and is still standing — opened less than two years later.”

Noting that, for a time, business was booming, he credited Atlantic City’s casinos for bringing hundreds of millions of tourists to the Boardwalk during Atlantic City’s gambling heyday” “Some years, this city of 40,000 residents topped 34 million tourists. But outside the casino walls, the city struggled. The casino owners—including, for a time, Donald Trump—got fat, politicians got their kickbacks, and the impoverished residents of Atlantic City remained just that: And then everything went wrong. The new Atlantic City created in the late 1970s was premised almost entirely on maintaining a casino duopoly with Nevada; once casinos started popping up all over—including in Pennsylvania in 2006—Atlantic City imploded.”

Noting, as we have traced, the city’s fiscal nadir came to a head in January of 2014, when the Atlantic Club, which had opened as the Golden Nugget in 1980, collapsed, followed by Showboat, followed by the Revel, followed shortly thereafter by the Trump Plaza, noting: “Finally, in October 2016, one month before its namesake was elected to the Oval Office, the lights went out at Trump Taj Mahal. In just two and a half years, five casinos vanished, their cavernous buildings shuttered. Atlantic City had bottomed out economically in the most spectacular fashion possible.”

Tracing a Fiscal Turnaround. Writing that when assessed property values drop low enough, neighborhoods become more and affordable—and, ergo, more attractive to developers who could “pick up buildings for pennies on a dollar,” he noted that “Atlantic City suddenly became a risk worth taking”—adding: “Investing in Atlantic City now makes a lot more sense than it did five years ago, but it’s hardly a no-brainer. The city, with its 37% poverty rate) is overwhelmingly poor. Taxes are overwhelmingly high. And walking around on Atlantic or Pacific Avenue, the city’s two main north-south boulevards, which run parallel to and within blocks of the Boardwalk—can be nerve-racking after hours. In daylight, panhandlers accost and prostitutes solicit. Politically, things are hardly ideal: Then-governor Chris Christie instituted a state takeover in 2016.

John Longacre, who has acquired a reputation for building a business by spotting potential where others see potential disaster, and he works primarily in South Philadelphia, where he specializes in recovery projects that save buildings, convert seedy bars into trendy restaurants and turn vacant eyesores into neighborhood hubs, told Mr. Fiorillo: “Every bank in the region is terrified of Atlantic City.” Indeed, Mr. Longacre added: “If you look at the policy surrounding everything that exists in Atlantic City, it’s the perfect storm to keep investors out: From the state handling the zoning to the tax base to rent control, everything that happens from a policy level makes it seem like New Jersey is trying to make Atlantic City fail.” Nevertheless, he seems convinced the fabled city will not fail. Or, as Mr. Fiorillo described it, there are a new breed interested in the fabled city who likely will play an essential role in the city’s future: “It’s not about Aunt Edna and Uncle Fred and their casino bus trips anymore. It’s about younger people who aren’t into Atlantic City for the gambling. It’s about people who don’t just feel comfortable in but desire urban environments, with all their flaws and character. It’s about people who respect and require diversity. It’s about people like me and my wife, who, to be honest, cringe when we drive into a place like Avalon.”

Describing this fiscal and physical revival, he writes about the relationship of small projects complemented by large ones: “The Hard Rock Hotel is finally going to open on the Boardwalk later this month, where the Taj Mahal was until October 2016. Pottstown native Todd Moyer, senior vice president of marketing for this new outpost of the rock-and-roll-themed company, got his start in the casino business in 1990, when he worked as a tuxedoed greeter at, coincidentally, the Taj. I was working for Hard Rock out West, when I got the chance to come home: I jumped at it. Sometimes I would be at a bar or restaurant and hear people talking about Atlantic City being dead, and I’d jump in. I’m a defender and a giant supporter of A.C. We’re building hotels all around the world, but really, all the focus lately has been on Atlantic City.”

As for Mr. Longacre, his view is that he would “love for every casino to go out of business and see Atlantic City re-create itself without them, as an urban beach town.” Nevertheless, he believes there is one massive Atlantic City development which will be a game-changer: Stockton, the nearly 50-year-old public university, which has its main campus in Galloway Township, about 20 minutes from the Boardwalk: it is set to debut a brand-new beachfront Atlantic City campus this September, when one thousand students will use the campus, and many of them plan to live in town. Thus, he notes: “Stockton is huge. It’s the first real institutional investment in years that’s not a casino.”

Rolling the Fiscal Dice? As significant as these fiscal changes appear to be, they almost seem to pale against the city’s real world challenges: Atlantic City has a poverty level three times higher than the statewide rate: more than three times the number below the poverty level—and a disability rate among non-poor residents of just under 25%. In its rental housing, the percentage of residents below the federal poverty level is over 90%. A consequent governing challenge for the post-taken over city and the Garden State remains. Mr. Fiorillo notes that whether the gambles being made by Mr. Blatstein, Mr. Longacre, and others are successful remains to be seen—as does the question with regard to whether all the investment will put much of a dent in Atlantic City’s poverty rate or help the town’s current residents. He adds: “And it’s not going to be this summer or next summer when we find out who, if anyone, wins. Nevertheless, he wrote: “When I consider Point Breeze circa 2008 and that same area today, I have hope for this complicated Shore town. There will always be casinos here, for better or worse, and there will always be crime and poverty and grime. This is, after all, a city. But, 10 years from now, when my own kids are (I hope) in very good colleges, it’s not too hard to imagine us spending a summer weekend at some boutique hotel on New York Avenue. We’ll stop into the Boardwalk La Colombe for a draft latte, served up by a very hip-looking third-year Stockton student on break. For lunch, HipCityVeg down in the inlet. Happy hour will be at some John Longacre-owned brewpub overlooking the Atlantic.”

Post Municipal Bankruptcy Election, and How Does a City, County, State, or Territory Balance Schools versus Debt?

June 4, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider tomorrow’s primary in post-chapter 9 municipally bankrupt Stockton, and the harsh challenges of getting schooled in Puerto Rico.

Taking New Stock in Stockton? It was Trick or Treat Day in Stockton, in 2014, when Chris McKenzie, the former Executive Director of the California League of Cities described to us, from the U.S. Bankruptcy Court courtroom, Judge Christopher Klein’s rejection of the claims of the remaining holdout creditor, Franklin Templeton Investments, and approved the City of Stockton’s proposed Chapter 9 Bankruptcy Plan of Adjustment. Judge Klein had, earlier, ruled that the federal chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy law preempted California state law and made the city’s contract with the state’s public retirement system, CalPERS, subject to impairment by the city in the Chapter 9 proceeding. Judge Klein determined that that contract was inextricably tied to Stockton’s collective bargaining agreements with various employee groups. The Judge also had stressed that, because the city’s employees were third party beneficiaries of Stockton’s contract with CalPERS, that, contrary to Franklin’s assertion that CalPERS was the city’s largest creditor; rather it was the city’s employees—employees who had experienced substantial reductions in both salaries and pension benefits—effectively rejecting Franklin’s assertion that the employees’ pensions were given favorable treatment in the Plan of Adjustment. Judge Klein, in his opinion, had detailed all the reductions since 2008 (not just since the filing of the case in 2012) which had collectively ended the prior tradition of paying above market salaries and benefits to Stockton employees. Moreover, his decision included the loss of retiree health care,  reductions in positions, salaries and employer pension contributions, and approval of a new pension plan for new hires—a combination which Judge Klein noted meant that any further reductions, as called for by Franklin, would have made city employees “the real victims” of the proceeding. We had also noted that Judge Klein, citing an earlier disclosure by the city of over $13 million in professional services and other costs, had also commented that the high cost of Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy proceedings should be an object lesson for everyone about why Chapter 9 bankruptcy should not be entered into lightly.

One key to the city’s approved plan of debt adjustment was the provision for a $5.1 million contribution for canceling retiree health benefits; however a second was the plan’s focus on the city’s fiscal future: voter approval to increase the city’s sales and use tax to 9 percent, a level expected to generate about $28 million annually, with the proceeds to be devoted to restoring city services and paying for law enforcement.

Moody’s, in its reading of the potential implications of that decision opined that Judge Klein’s ruling could set up future challenges from California cities burdened by their retiree obligations to CalPERS, with Gregory Lipitz, a vice president and senior credit officer at Moody’s, noting: “Local governments will now have more negotiating leverage with labor unions, who cannot count on pensions as ironclad obligations, even in bankruptcy.” A larger question, however, for city and county leaders across the nation was with regard to the potential implications of Judge Klein’s affirmation of Stockton’s plan to pay its municipal bond investors pennies on the dollar while shielding public pensions.

Currently, the city derives its revenues for its general fund from a business tax, fees for services, its property tax, sales tax, and utility user tax. Stockton’s General Fund reserve policy calls for the City to maintain a 17% operating reserve (approximately two months of expenditures) and establishes additional reserves for known contingencies, unforeseen revenue changes, infrastructure failures, and catastrophic events.  The known contingencies include amounts to address staff recruitment and retention, future CalPERS costs and City facilities. The policy establishes an automatic process to deposit one-time revenue increases and expenditure savings into the reserves.  

So now, four years in the wake of its exit from chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, Republican businessman  and gubernatorial candidate John Cox has delivered one-liners and a vow to take back California in a campaign stop in Stockton before tomorrow’s primary election, asking prospective voters: “Are you ready for a Republican governor in 2018?”

According to the polls, this could be an unexpectedly tight race for the No. 2 spot against former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a Democrat. (In the primary, the two top vote recipients will determine which two candidates will face off in the November election.) Currently, Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom is ahead. Republicans have the opportunity to “take back the state of California,” however, candidate Cox said to a group of more than 130 men and women at Brookside Country Club—telling his audience that California deserves and needs an honest and efficient government, which has been missing, focusing most of his speech on what he said is California’s issue with corruption and cronyism worse than his former home state of Illinois. He vowed that, if elected, he would end “the sanctuary protections in the state’s cities.”

Seemingly absent from the debate leading up to this election are vital issues to the city’s fiscal future, especially Forbes’s 2012 ranking Stockton as the nation’s “eighth most miserable city,” and because of its steep drop in home values and high unemployment, and the National Insurance Crime Bureau’s ranking of the city as seventh in auto theft—and its ranking in that same year as the tenth most dangerous city in the U.S., and second only to Oakland as the most dangerous city in the state.

President Trump, a week ago last Friday, endorsed candidate Cox, tweeting: “California finally deserves a great Governor, one who understands borders, crime, and lowering taxes. John Cox is the man‒he’ll be the best Governor you’ve ever had. I fully endorse John Cox for Governor and look forward to working with him to Make California Great Again.” He followed that up with a message that California is in trouble and needs a manager, which is why Trump endorsed him, tweeting: “We will truly make California great again.”

Puerto Rico’s Future? Judge Santiago Cordero Osorio of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico Superior Court last Friday issued a provisional injunction order for the Department of Education to halt the closure of six schools located in the Arecibo educational region—with his decision coming in response to a May 24th complaint by Xiomara Meléndez León, mother of two students from one of the affected schools, and with support in her efforts by the legal team of the Association of Teachers of Puerto Rico. The cease and desist order applies to all administrative proceedings intended to close schools in the muncipios of Laurentino Estrella Colon, Camuy; Hatillo; Molinari, Quebradillas; Vega Baja; Arecibo; and Lares—with Judge Cordero Osorio writing: “What this court has to determine is that according to the administrative regulations and circular letters of the Department of Education, there is and has been applied a formula that establishes a just line for the closure without passion and without prejudice to those schools that thus understand merit close.”  

With so many leaving Puerto Rico for the mainland, the issue with regard to education becomes both increasingly vital, while at the same time, increasingly hard to finance—but also difficult to ascertain fiscal equity—or as one of the litigants put it to the court: “The plaintiff in this case has clearly established on this day that there is much more than doubt as to whether the Department of Education is in effect applying this line in a fair and impartial manner.” Judge Osorio responded that “this court appreciates the evidence presented so far that the action of the Department of Education regarding the closure of schools borders on arbitrary, capricious, and disrespectful;” he also ruled that the uncertainty he saw in the testimonies of the case had created “irreparable emotional damage worse than the closing of schools,” as he ordered Puerto Rico Education Secretary Julia Keleher to appear before him a week from today at a hearing wherein Secretary Keleher must present evidence of the procedures and arguments that the Department took into consideration for the closures.  

Meléndez León, the mother who appears as a plaintiff in the case, stated she had resorted to this legal path because the Department of Education had never provided her with concrete explanations with regard to why Laurentino Estrella School in Camuy, which her children attend, had been closed—or, as she put it: “The process that the Department of Education used to select closure schools has never been clarified to the parents: we were never notified.” At the time of the closure, the school had 186 students—of which 62 belonged to Puerto Rico’s Special Education program—and another six were enrolled in the Autism Program. Now, she faces what might be an unequal challenge: one mother versus a huge bureaucracy—where the outcome could have far-reaching impacts. The Education Department, after all, last April proposed the consolidation of some 265 schools throughout the island.