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.

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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.”

Beating the Fiscal Odds?

April 10, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we return to the fiscal gaming tables of Atlantic City, where the State oversight body for the city appears to appreciate the way the fiscal dice are rolling; then we turn south to assess the depressing future for Puerto Rico’s next generation.

Beating the Odds. The New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, the Department which assumed the key role in steering Atlantic City through its quasi plan of debt adjustment, perceives the city is in the midst of a “major breakthrough” in the wake of the sale of $49.2 million in taxable municipal bonds to help finance deferred pension and health care contributions—contributions which had been deferred when the city teetered on the edge of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy and the state stepped in to fiscally take over the municipality. In the wake of the successful sale, the Department reported the success had demonstrated that “investors are confident in Atlantic City’s ability to pay its debt and in the State of New Jersey’s oversight of the city’s finances…[and] is proud of the team of city and state professionals who worked very hard to develop a unique solution to pay the city’s deferred contributions without having to resort to tax increases on city residents,” according to New Jersey Lieutenant Gov. and Department of Community Affairs Commissioner Sheila Oliver, who noted: “These deferred contributions from 2015 were the last major debt hurdle facing Atlantic City. With yesterday’s successful bond sale, the city is now positioned to responsibly finance this debt within its budget and have confidence in its future.” The municipal bonds were sold pursuant to New Jersey’s Municipal Qualified Bond Act, which stipulates that the state Treasurer withhold a portion of the city’s state aid in amounts sufficient to pay the principal and interest on the bonds, with the Treasurer directing a portion of the Investment Alternative Taxes paid by licensed casinos to go to the city for funding the debt service on the municipal bonds. Absent such a plan, Atlantic City would have been forced to raise property taxes by more than $700 on the average assessed home of $140,000—a most unwanted option in the wake of last year’s first-in-a-decade property tax reduction, with the Commission’s Director of Local Government Services, Timothy Cunningham, stating the option had been selected to “spare city taxpayers from picking up this expense” and “immediately ends the accrual of interest.” He added that the state fiscal strategy had demonstrated the state’s willingness and ability to find creative solutions to Atlantic City’s difficult financial problems,” noting that: “Conventional thinking would have been to take the deferred contributions the city owes and incorporate them as part of the city’s budget over the next five years. But that would have resulted in significant tax increases for residents and it wouldn’t have stopped interest from accruing on the deferred contributions.”

The bonds were priced via the Garden State’s Qualified Bond Act program to fund $37.7 million in pension and healthcare payments, after, three years ago, Atlantic City had been granted state approval to defer interest payments in the face of $101 million budget shortfall, creating ever-increasing odds to the city’s bookmakers the city might file for municipal bankruptcy. Under the new fiscal arrangements, Atlantic City, by the end of this year, will owe about $47 million for these obligations—or, as New Jersey Lt. Governor Sheila Y. Oliver put it: “These deferred contributions from 2015 were the last major debt hurdle facing Atlantic City…With yesterday’s successful bond sale, the city is now positioned to responsibly finance this debt within its budget and have confidence in its future.” That fiscal confidence is bolstered, no doubt, by being wrapped with the Garden State’s credit enhancement program and backed by Investment Alternative Tax revenue from casinos, which are directed to pay down debt or debt service payments under the authority the state assumed two years ago in November to take over Atlantic City—a fiscal system under which the State Treasurer withholds a portion of the city’s state aid in amounts sufficient to pay the principal and interest on the municipal bonds, or, as Director Cunningham described it: “This strategy, which culminated in yesterday’s bond sale, demonstrates the state’s willingness and ability to find creative solutions to Atlantic City’s difficult financial problems…Conventional thinking would have been to take the deferred contributions the city owes and incorporate them as part of the city’s budget over the next five years. But that would have resulted in significant tax increases for residents, and it wouldn’t have stopped interest from accruing on the deferred contributions.” New Jersey officials said that without the bond sale, Atlantic City would have been forced to raise property taxes on residents by more than $700 on the average assessed home of $140,000.In the wake of this week’s bond sale, Atlantic City has approximately $400 million in outstanding bond debt, according to Moody’s.

But beating the odds is not just a matter of fiscal soundness, but also physical safety. Thus, Atlantic City, in finding a new way to combat crime, has beaten the odds in developing ways to stay ahead of crimes before they are committed—meaning that the number of shootings, homicides, and robberies in the city decreased by more than 33% last year, after Atlantic City began using a risk-based policing model which analyzes data to map out crime risk factors around the city and places where crimes are likely to take place: a new tool which has helped police prevent crimes by tackling factors in the environment identified as risks where crimes take place, and not the people. Indeed, the new strategy not only contributed to the reduction by more than a third in shootings, homicides, and robberies last year, but also that greater security appears likely to enhance assessed property values.

Tempus Fugit. U.S. Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency Brock Long has warned it will take up to an estimated $50 billion to help rebuild Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria—even as he warned the U.S. territory is not ready for another disaster. He told NPR that the agency is focused on making Puerto Rico’s roads, homes, bridges, and electrical grid as strong as possible—but that the time to complete the effort is running out: the new hurricane season is projected to hit as early as June 1st. projected to blow in June 1. A critical issue for Puerto Rico’s fiscal future, then, is a double public infrastructure risk: its physical and human capital. On the latter front, Puerto Rico Education officials have announced the closure of some 283 schools through this summer, nearly seven months after Hurricane Maria struck, reporting that Hurricane Maria exacerbated the demographic teeter totter as increasing numbers of families with children who can afford to have left for the continental U.S., leaving, increasingly, a poorer and older population behind with a depleting tax base, but significantly greater fiscal pressures. Thus, during his visit to Puerto Rico, he warned: “We’re running out of time.” And, observing that much of the territory’s infrastructure had collapsed, he added: “We have a long way to go.” He said FEMA is coordinating a Flag Day planning and training exercise with Puerto Rico’s government in which life-saving supplies will be delivered to the island’s 78 municipalities to ensure better response times for any upcoming storms, adding the muncipios and towns will be allowed to store those supplies for future disasters, but stressing that Puerto Rico’s public and private sectors have to build a strong emergency response network and establish unified plans: “FEMA cannot be directly responsible for all of the response and recovery.” Director Long added that the private sector should ensure that communication systems become more resistant—reflecting that Maria had left nearly all of Puerto Rico without phone service after the Category 4 storm struck last September. At the same time, he defended his agency from ongoing criticism that it did not respond quickly enough to the hurricane or dedicate the same amount of resources compared with other natural disasters in the U.S. mainland, asserting: “(That’s) completely false,” adding that in the first six months since Maria hit, FEMA had invested $10 billion in Puerto Rico, in contrast to the $6 billion invested in the six months after Hurricane Katrina: “Recovery never moves as fast as people want it to be…And in this case, moving faster can be detrimental from the standpoint of putting this money to work in a manner that truly makes Puerto Rico stronger and more resilient.” His staffer, Mike Byrne, who serves as FEMA’s federal coordinating officer in Puerto Rico, said he is working with Puerto Rico’s government to determine how federal funds will be used to identify priorities and rebuild damaged infrastructure: he stated that some of the funds will go toward strengthening Puerto Rico’s power grid—some two-thirds of which Maria destroyed: even hoy dia (today), some two-thirds of its distribution system remains to be fixed; more than 50,000 power customers remain in the dark. Nevertheless, he said 96 percent of all customers now have electricity, noting: “We’ve done the Band-Aid,” adding that the recovery process has been slow in part because supplies ranging from construction equipment to power poles have been scarce in light of the natural disasters that hit the U.S. mainland, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands last year

La Escuela or School of Debt. In an in-depth session with NPR’s Hari Sreenivasan, who was joined by San Juan by Danica Coto of the Associated Press, Ms. Cotto noted that, over the last three decades, Puerto Rico has experienced school enrollment drop by 42%; since May of last year, that enrollment has dropped by 38,700—in part reflecting the roughly 135,000 Puerto Ricans who, in the wake of Maria, left for the mainland—that ism, those who could afford to. Ms. Cotto added that for the island’s 4,700 affected teachers, the Secretary of Education has promised that no one will lose her or his job—albeit for a quasi-state in quasi chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, such a commitment seems hard to imagine—the related query is what will happen to the schools themselves—150 of which had been closed in the half decade prior to Maria—and an additional 179 last year. Currently, Ms.Cotto noted, there are about 283 schools in the process of closing.

Mr. Sreenivasan inquired about the demographics of those students, some 319,000 in public schools, staying behind—in response to which Ms. Cotto responded that 30% have special needs, or about twice the average of the U.S. mainland. One can appreciate immediately the disparate fiscal and human implications—for Puerto Rico’s hopes for recovery—and for its fiscal future. And she asked about the equity in the process for determining which schools would close, reminding us of Detroit Emergency Manager Kevin Orr’s recognition that any final plan of debt adjustment for Detroit to exit the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in the nation’s history would require a perception that the public schools were competitive with surrounding jurisdictions.

Ms. Cotto noted that the bulk of public school closures in Puerto Rico will be in rural areas, noting that along the north coast of the island, some muncipios will experience closures of nearly half their public schools—creating a risk of an increasing number of young Americans losing access to public education—and a risk to local tax bases. Several other municipalities will see 44 to 46% of its schools close.

What Are the Fiscal Conditions & Promises of Recovery?

March 30, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the potential impact of urban school leadership; then we try to assess the equity of federal responses to hurricanes, before trying to understand and assess the status of the ongoing quasi chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy PROMESA deliberations in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico.

Schooled in Municipal Finance? As we wrote, years ago, in our studies on Central Falls, Detroit, San Bernardino, and Chicago; schools matter: they determine whether families with kids will want to live in a central city—raising the issue, who ought to be setting the policies for such schools. In its report, five years ago, the Center for American Progress report cited several school districts like Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore—but not Detroit, were examples of municipalities where mayoral governance of public schools has had some measure of success in improving the achievement gap for students, or, as the Center noted: “Governance constitutes a structural barrier to academic and management improvement in too many large urban districts, where turf battles and political squabbles involving school leaders and an array of stakeholders have for too long taken energy and focus away from the core mission of education.” In the case of Detroit, of course, the issue was further addled by the largest municipal bankruptcy in the nation’s history and the state takeover of the Motor City’s schools.

Thus, interestingly, the report stated “mayoral accountability aims to address the governing challenges in urban districts by making a single office responsible for the performance of the city’s public schools. Citywide priorities such as reducing the achievement gap receive more focused attention.” In fact, many cities and counties have independent school boards—and there was certainly little shining evidence that the state takeover in Detroit was a paradigm; rather it appeared to lead to the creation of a quasi apartheid system under which charter schools competed with public schools to the detriment of the latter.

In its report, the Center finds: “[T]he only problem is this belief about mayoral control of schools has not worked well for Detroit. It has done just the opposite since the 1999 state takeover of the schools under former Gov. John Engler, which allowed for the mayor of Detroit to make some appointments to the school board. Since the state took over governance of the schools, when it was in a surplus, the district has been on a downward spiral with each year returning ballooning deficits under rotating state-appointed emergency managers. The district lost thousands of students to suburban schools as corruption and graft also became a hallmark of a system that took away resources that were meant to educate the city’s kids. Such history is what informs the resistance to outside involvement with the new Detroit Public Schools Community District that is now under an elected board with Superintendent Nikolai Vitti. His leadership is being received as a breath of fresh air as he implements needed reforms. That is what is now fueling skepticism and reservation about Mayor Mike Duggan’s bus loop initiative to help stem the tide of some 30,000 Detroit students he says attend schools in the suburbs.” Because of the critical importance to Detroit of income taxes, Mayor Duggan has always had a high priority of sending a message to families about the quality of the Motor City’s schools.  Superintendent Vitti noted that previous policies had “favored charter schools over traditional public schools.” Superintendent Vitti said he believes this issue is less about mayoral control than the Mayor Duggan’s leadership efforts to entice families with children back to the city, adding that he is not really concerned about mayoral control of the schools, noting: “I have no evidence or belief that the mayor is interested in running schools…I honestly believe the Mayor’s intent is to recruit students back to the city.”

Double Standards? The Capitol Hill newspaper, Politico, this week published an in-depth analysis of the seeming discriminatory responses to the federal responses to the savage hurricanes which struck Houston and Puerto Rico., reporting that while no two hurricanes are exactly alike, here, nine days after the respective hurricanes struck, “FEMA had approved $141.8 million in individual assistance to Hurricane Harvey victims, versus just $6.2 million for Hurricane Maria victims,” adding that the difference in response personnel mirrored the discriminatory responses, reporting there were 30,000 responders in Houston versus 10,000 in Puerto Rico, adding: “No two hurricanes are alike, and Harvey and Maria were vastly different storms that struck areas with vastly different financial, geographic and political situations. But a comparison of government statistics relating to the two recovery efforts strongly supports the views of disaster-recovery experts that FEMA and the Trump administration exerted a faster, and initially greater, effort in Texas, even though the damage in Puerto Rico exceeded that in Houston: Within six days of Hurricane Harvey, U.S. Northern Command had deployed 73 helicopters over Houston, which are critical for saving victims and delivering emergency supplies. It took at least three weeks after Maria before it had more than 70 helicopters flying above Puerto Rico; nine days after the respective hurricanes, FEMA had approved $141.8 million in individual assistance to Harvey victims, versus just $6.2 million for Maria victims. The periodical reported that it took just 10 days for FEMA to approve permanent disaster work for Texas, but 43 days for the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.  Politico, in an ominous portion of its reporting, notes: “[P]residential leadership plays a larger role. But as the administration moves to rebuild Texas and Puerto Rico, the contrast in the Trump administration’s responses to Harvey and Maria is taking on new dimensions. The federal government has already begun funding projects to help make permanent repairs to Texas infrastructure. But, in Puerto Rico, that funding has yet to start, as local officials continue to negotiate the details of an experimental funding system that the island agreed to adopt after a long, contentious discussion with Trump’s Office of Management and Budget. The report also notes: “Seventy-eight days after the two hurricanes, FEMA had received 18 percent more applications from victims of Maria than from victims of Harvey, but had approved 13 percent more applicants from Harvey than from Maria. At the time, 39 percent of applicants from Harvey had been approved compared with just 28 percent of applicants from Maria.”

Finally, the report notes that, as of last week,  six months after Hurricane Harvey, Texas was already receiving federal dollars from FEMA for more than a dozen permanent projects to repair schools, roads, and other public infrastructure which were damaged by the storm, while in Puerto Rico, FEMA has, so far, “not funded a single dollar for similar permanent work projects.”

Elected versus Unelected Governance. Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló yesterday reported he was rejecting the PROMESA Oversight Board’s “illegal” demands for labor law reforms and a 10% cut in pension outlays, stating: “The Board pretends to dictate the public policy of the government, and that, aside from being illegal, is unacceptable.” Gov. Rosselló was responding to demand letters from the Board for changes to the fiscal plans he had submitted, along with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, and the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority earlier this month. Gov. Rosselló noted that §205 of the PROMESA statute allows the Board to make public policy recommendations, but not to set policy, adding that the PROMESA Board’s proposed mandates would make it “practically impossible” to increase Puerto Rico’s minimum wage, as he contemplated the Board’s demand of a $1.58 billion cut in government expenditures, nearly 10% more than he had proposed, and adding he would be “tenaz” (tenacious) in opposing the proposed 10% cut in public pension outlays demanded by the PROMESA Board—with the political friction reflecting governing apprehension about the potential impact on employment at a time when Puerto Rico’s unemployment rate is more than 300% higher than on the mainland—and, because of perceptions that such decisions ought to be reflective of the will of the island’s voters and taxpayers, rather than an outside board.

Who’s on First? The governance challenge in Puerto Rico involves federalism: yesterday, House Natural Resources Committee Chair Rob Bishop (R-Utah), criticized the Puerto Rico Oversight Board and the Governor over their failure to engage with bondholders in restructuring the Commonwealth’s debt, writing to PROMESA Board Chairman José Carrión: “The Committee has been unsatisfied with the implementation of PROMESA and the lack of respect for Congressional requirements of the fiscal plan…And now, due to intentional misinterpretations of the statute, the promise we made to Puerto Rico may take decades to fulfill,” adding he had become “frustrated” with the Board’s unwillingness to engage in dialogue and reach consensual restructuring agreements with creditors: he noted that both the Rosselló administration and the PROMESA Board must show “much greater degrees of transparency, accountability, goodwill and cooperation,”  amid seemingly growing apprehensions on his part that Puerto Rico government costs will increase, even as its population is projected to decline, and that he was becoming increasingly concerned with the “extreme amount” being spent on Title III bankruptcy litigation. He said that Board should make sure it is the sole legal representative of Puerto Rico in these cases—and asked that the PROMESA Board define what constitutes “essential public services” in Puerto Rico: “I ask that you adhere to the mandates of PROMESA and work closely with creditors and the Puerto Rican government as you finalize and certify the fiscal plans…“My committee will be monitoring your actions closely; and as we near the two-year anniversary of the passage of PROMESA, an oversight hearing on the status of achieving PROMESA’s goals will likely be merited.”

For its part, the PROMESA Oversight Board has rejected fiscal plans presented by Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and the island’s two public authorities and has demanded the territory reduce public pensions by 10% , writing, this week, three letters outlining its demands for changes in fiscal plans submitted this month by the central government, Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, and Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority. Under the PROMESA statute, the federal court overseeing the quasi-chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy is mandated to accept the fiscal plans, including their allotments for debt—plans which the PROMESA Board has demanded, as revised, be submitted by 5 p.m. next Thursday. The Board is directed there should be no benefit reductions for those making less than $1,000 per month from a combination of their Social Security benefits and retirement plans and that employees should be shifted from a defined-benefit plan to a defined-contribution plan by July 1st of next year; it directed that police, teachers, and judges under age 40 should be enrolled in Social Security and their pension contributions be lowered by the amount of their Social Security contribution, directing this for the PREPA, PRASA, Teachers, Employees, and Judiciary retirement systems. In its letter concerning the central government, the PROMESA Board directed Gov. Rosselló to make many changes: some require more information; some are “structural” changes focused on reforming laws to make the economy more vibrant; at least one adds revenues without requiring a greater burden; and many of them require greater tax burdens, or assume lower tax revenues or higher expenditures—noting that any final plan, to be approved, should aim at achieving a total $5.66 billion in agency efficiency savings through FY2023, but that Puerto Rico’s oil taxes should be kept constant rather than adjusted each year.

The Board directed that a single Office of the CFO should be created to oversee the Department of the Treasury, Office of Management and Budget, Office of Administration and Transformation of Human Resources, General Services Administration, and Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority—adding that Puerto Rico will be mandated to convert to legally at-will employment by the end of this year, reduce mandatory vacation and sick leave to a total of 14 days immediately, and add a work requirement for the Nutritional Assistance Program by no later than Jan. 1st, 2021—and that any increase in the minimum wage to $8.25 must be linked to conditions—and, for Puerto Ricans 25 or younger, such an increase would only be permitted if and when Puerto Rico eliminated the current mandatory Christmas bonus for employers.

The Precipitous Chapter 9 Road to Recovery

January 3, 2018

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s Blog, we consider the fiscal, scholastic, and governing challenges of the city emerging from the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

The Steep Fiscal Road to Recovery.  After years of failed leadership, financial mismanagement, quasi-chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy which led to a state takeover; the state of Detroit’s Public Schools Community District remains vital to encouraging young families to move back into the city—especially in the wake, last month, of DPS failing to meet critical deadlines necessary to be eligible for vital state aid.  (In 2016, Michigan enacted a $617 million DPS bailout, as we have previously noted.) That action separated the district’s debt from a new district that could start fresh. Now, renewed state intervention would be a critical fiscal step backwards; thus it is fortunate that Superintendent Nikolai Vitti appears to be on top of the situation: he warns that disciplinary action will follow in the wake of DPS’ failure to meet these deadlines, making it critical the Superintendent can trust his staff. It is especially vital now in the wake of a second credit rating upgrade—with the report card having recorded, last month, that DPS that Detroit Public Schools had lost out on $6.5 million in fiscal assistance to whittle down its old debt, because DPS officials had failed to turn in paperwork homework on time, according to Superindent Vitti (Michigan reimburses its public school districts for debt loss under Public Act 86 if they met the Aug. 15 deadline; thus, Superindent Vitte, on Monday, reported: “At this point, Detroit Public Schools is not eligible for the $6.5 million-dollar reimbursement from the state…After speaking with state officials, the available funds have already been disbursed to other qualifying entities. However, we will continue to petition the state to receive the reimbursement.”

Under the agreement, Detroit’s old district is still obligated to pay down its past operating debt; thus, the system’s failure to meet two deadlines last year cost not $6.5 million in aid from the state to help pay down its debt, but also a loss of public trust and confidence. As Superintendent Vitte noted last month: “At this point, Detroit Public Schools is not eligible for the $6.5 million-dollar reimbursement from the state: After speaking with state officials, the available funds have already been disbursed to other qualifying entities.” According to Superintendent Vitti, former CFO Marios Demetriou received the documents, but never completed them or sent them to the state. Even though the missed payout from the state is not expected to harm the day-to-day operations of the new district, it appears to curry a D grade; more importantly, it delays repayment of DPS’ legacy debt—or, as Superintendent Vitti notes: it is “unacceptable….The inability to submit the reimbursement form on time is a vestige of the past that continues to haunt the district…This is directly associated with the need for stronger leaders, systems, and processes. The individuals who were closest to the responsibility to submit the form will no longer be with the district.”

The unscholarly missteps appear to have contributed to ongoing doubts about the city’s fiscal acumen: The Motor City’s credit ratings remain deep in junk-bond territory, even after S&P Global Ratings last month upgraded Detroit’s credit rating from B to B+, while Moody’s last October had lifted its to B1 in the wake of the city’s launch of a new web portal to improve investor access to its financial data and bond offerings, Stephen Winterstein, a Managing Director and chief municipal fixed income strategist at Wilmington Trust Investment Advisors, Inc. to note he was “really optimistic about what they have been doing in terms of disclosure and the investor website is definitely a move in the right direction: The road to recovery is a long one, and I think that Detroit is doing the right things.”

Since exiting from the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in American history just three years ago last month, Detroit has issued debt twice: in August 2015 with $245 million of local government loan program revenue bonds, and in August 2016 with a $615 million general obligation/distributable state aid backed bond sale—albeit both issuances were via the Michigan Finance Authority, with the first enhanced with a statutory lien and intercept feature on the city’s income taxes. CFO John Naglick said that Detroit is also close to deciding on the underwriting team for a request for proposals it launched in October to find banks to lead a tender offer and refunding of its unsecured financial recovery municipal bonds with the aim of lowering its costs and easing a future escalation of debt service. For its part, S&P, in its upgrade, cited positive momentum the city is building with regard to stabilizing its operations and being better prepared to address future significant increases in pension contributions—or, as the agency noted: “We believe the city’s financial position is now more transparent compared with recent years, as is Detroit’s long-term financial strategy, which relies on fairly conservative growth assumptions…We also believe that the city has a stronger capacity to service its debt obligations than in years past.” Indeed, Detroit’s credit ratings are the highest since March of 2012, just over a year before Kevin Orr filed for chapter 9 bankruptcy in July of 2013. Nevertheless, Detroit’s credit rating remains deep in junk territory and vulnerable to another recession, say market participants. Or, as Michigan Attorney General and gubernatorial Bill Scheutte notes: “We still believe Detroit faces a long path that will require years of prudent decision-making from management and the avoidance of major economic shocks before its debt makes sense for investors looking for high-quality municipal exposure…The city still has an abundance of extremely high-risk characteristics and speculative-grade qualities that investors should be very cognizant of and understand what they are taking on.” Notwithstanding, Detroit appears to be on course to exit state oversight this year: it has presented deficit-free budgets for two consecutive years, enabling it to exit from oversight by the Financial Review Commission oversight; it ended FY2016 with a $63 million surplus; Detroit’s four-year forecast predicts an anemic annual growth rate of only about 1%; thus, any adverse public school news could have repercussions.