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.”

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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.

 

Catalysts to Fiscal Recoveries

November 10, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the ongoing challenges to Detroit’s recovery from the nation’s largest ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy; the State of Michigan’s winnowing down of municipalities under state oversight; and the ongoing physical and fiscal challenges to Puerto Rico.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

Reframing the Motor City’s Post Chapter 9 Future. Nolan Finley, a wonderful contributor to the editorial page of the Detroit News, this week noted “elections are a wonderful catalyst for refocusing priorities, as evidenced by the just-completed Detroit mayoral campaign, which moved the city’s comeback conversation away from the downtown development boom and centered it on the uneven progress of the neighborhoods. Never before has such an intense spotlight shown on the places where most Detroit voters actually live.” He attributed some of the credit to the loser in this week’s mayoral election, challenger Coleman Young II, who forced Mayor Mike Duggan to defend his record on improving quality of life in the neighborhoods. He perceptively wrote that while candidate Young’s ugly “Take back the Motherland” rallying cry was dispiriting, it spoke to the governing challenge the newly, re-elected Mayor confronts, writing: “Detroit is not a city united. It must become one. There were too many skirmishes along the racial divide in this mayoral contest. The old city versus suburb story line was replaced by a neighborhood versus downtown narrative, but both are code for black versus white. Four years ago, Duggan’s election as Detroit’s first white mayor in 40 years suggested much of the city was ready to stop looking back at its dark and divisive past and begin focusing on a brighter future.” Now, he wrote, after Mayor Duggan focused his first term on meeting the city’s plan of debt adjustment, and trying to improve the quality of life for residents—and as developers are beginning to add community projects to their downtown portfolios, “too many in the neighborhoods feel as if their lives are not getting better, or at least not fast enough.” Thus, he noted, Mayor Duggan needs to redouble his efforts to restore the city’s residential communities, and push ahead the timetable: “Four years from now, Detroit cannot still be wearing the mantle of America’s most violent city.” He added that while Mayor Duggan has little—too little—authority to address education in Detroit; nevertheless—just as his colleague Rahm Emanuel, the Mayor of Chicago recognized, needs to strongly back Detroit Public School Superintendent Nikolai Vitti’s efforts to rapidly boost the performance of the Detroit Public Schools Community District: it is a key to bringing young families back into the city. And, Mr. Finley wrote, the mayor “must also find a way to connect the neighborhoods to downtown, to instill in all residents a sense of ownership and pride in the rejuvenation of the core city. That means getting way better at inclusion. Downtown’s comeback must be more diverse, and include many more of the people who have grown up and stayed in the city. Encouraging and supporting more African-American entrepreneurs is a great place to begin breaking down the perception that downtown is just for white people: Detroit needs more diversity everywhere in the city, both racial and economic,” referring especially to young millennials who are steeped in social justice and imbued with the obsession to give back that marks their generation. “They are committed Detroiters. And they deserve to be appreciated for their contributions, not made to feel guilty or viewed as a threat to hard-won gains.”

Free, Free at Last. Michigan State officials have released Royal Oak Township, a municipality of about 2,500 just north of Detroit, from its consent agreement: Michigan Treasurer Nick Khouri said the Oakland County municipality has resolved its financial emergency and is ready to emerge from the state oversight imposed since 2014, stating: “I am pleased to see the significant progress Royal Oak Charter Township has made under the consent agreement…Township officials went beyond the agreement and enacted policies that provide the community an opportunity to flourish. I am pleased to say the township is released from its agreement and look forward to working with them as a local partner in the future.” The township’s financial emergency resulted in an assets FY2012 deficit of nearly $541,000. Township Supervisor Donna Squalls noted: “Royal Oak Charter Township is in better shape than ever…The collaboration between state and township has provided an opportunity to enact reforms to ensure our long-term fiscal sustainability.” Treasurer Khouri also said the township was the last Michigan remaining municipality following a consent agreement: Over the last two years, Wayne County, Inkster, and River Rouge were released from consent agreements because of fiscal and financial improvements and operational reforms. The Treasurer noted that today only three communities, Ecorse, Flint, and Hamtramck, remain under state oversight through a Receivership Transition Advisory Board.

Preempting Authority. House Natural Resources Committee Chair Rob Bishop (R—Utah) this week said the PROMESA Oversight Board should be granted even more power to preempt the authority of the government of Puerto Rico, stating: “Today’s testimony will inform the work of Congress to ensure the Oversight Board and federal partners have the tools to coordinate an effective and sustained recovery,” in a written statement after a hearing of the House Committee on Natural Resources: “It is clear that a stronger mechanism will be necessary to align immediate recovery with long-term revitalization and rebuilding.” Chairman Bishop added: “This committee will work to ensure [the Puerto Rico Oversight Board] has the tools to effectively execute that mission and build a path forward for this island and its residents.” The Board was created last year to oversee fiscal management by the island government, which had said more than $70 billion of debt was unpayable under current economic conditions. Since the hurricane, the Board has clashed with the territorial government over leadership at the power utility. During the hearing the board’s Executive Director, Natalie Jaresko, said the ability of Puerto Rico’s government to repay its debt was “gravely worse” than it was before Hurricane Maria, which arrived Sept. 20. By the end of December, the Board plans to complete a 30 year debt sustainability analysis with Puerto Rico’s government, she said: “After the hurricane, it is even more critical that the Board be able to operate quickly and decisively…to avoid uncertainty and lengthy delays in litigation, Congressional reaffirmation of our exercise of our authority is welcome.” On Oct. 27, the board had filed a motion in the Title III bankruptcy case for the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) seeking the court’s permission to appoint Noel Zamot as the authority’s new leader. The government of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has made it clear that it intends to challenge this motion. The court is scheduled to hold a hearing on the matter on Monday, November 13th.

In calling for more board power, Chairs Bishop and Jaresko probably were at least partly referring to the struggle over PREPA’s leadership. They may also want the Board’s power augmented in other ways: the Board has already announced that it will be creating five-year fiscal plan for Puerto Rico’s government and for its public authorities this winter. Puerto Rico’s government will have substantial needs for federal aid in the coming years, Ms. Jaresko said. Congress plans to tie this aid to the government following the Board’s fiscal plan and this would be appropriate, she said. “Before the hurricanes, the board was determined that Puerto Rico and its instrumentalities could achieve balanced budgets, work its way through its debt problems, and develop a sustainable economy without federal aid,” Ms. Jaresko said in her written testimony. “That is simply no longer possible. Without unprecedented levels of help from the United States government, the recovery we were planning for will fail.” She also said that over the next 1.75 years Puerto Rico’s government will need federal help closing a gap of between $13 billion and $21 billion for basic services. She added the federal government should change tax laws to benefit the island: “The representatives of the Financial Oversight and Management Board (FOMB) who appeared before the House Committee on Natural Resources insist on jeopardizing the necessary resources for the payment of pensions and job stability,” Gov. Rosselló testified in his written statement, adding to that the testimony of Ms. Jaresko and Mr. Zamot “evidenced ignorance about the recovery process in Puerto Rico, presenting incorrect figures relating to the existing conditions on the island,” adding: “I again invite the FOMB to collaborate so that the government of Puerto Rico, together with the support of the federal government, facilitates the fastest possible recovery of our island.” He noted that such assistance should not depend on the Board “assuming the administrative role” which belongs to the elected government of Puerto Rico.

Sanctioned Discrimination. The endorsement that the House Ways and Means Committee effectively incorporated in its “tax reform” legislation reported out of Committee this week appears to discriminate against Puerto Rico, imposing a tariff on the products which Puerto Rico exports to the mainland—threatening to deal a devastating blow to Puerto Rico’s industrial base at the very moment in time the territory is striving to recover from the already disparate hurricane recovery blows. According to economists Joaquín Villamil: “None of these measures, nor the repatriation of profits, the corporate rate and the 20% tax on imports is positive for the island…The companies are not going to pay a 4% royalty to Puerto Rico and a 20% tax to bring their product to the United States. They will leave the island, especially if the tax rate is lowered there.” Mr. Villamil added: “If that happens, 21% of the income received by the Puerto Rican Treasury is eliminated,” he added, referencing P.L. 154, the statute which established a 4% tax on sales of an operation in Puerto Rico to its parent company in the mainland. In its markup, yesterday, the House Ways and Means Committee left almost intact §4303 which establishes a 20% tariff on all imported goods for resale by companies and businesses in the United States. Moreover, the disposition forces multinationals with operations in places such as the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico to repatriate their income to the U.S. What that means is that the production of drugs, medical devices, and many other goods in Puerto Rico is done on U.S. soil; however, for federal tax purposes, Puerto Rico is deemed an international jurisdiction—or, as economist Luis Benítez notes: “This (House Ways and Means bill) generates greater uncertainty about what the economic future of the island should be: with this, the figure of the controlled foreign corporation (CFC) loses the competitive advantage it had (under §936).” He noted that by reducing the corporate rate to multinationals operating in Puerto Rico, the benefit of giving them tax exemptions at the local level is also reduced, as is the case of Law 73 on Industrial Incentives: via the elimination of §936, Puerto Rico, as a place to do business, went from competing with the continental U.S. to competing with countries such as Singapore and Ireland, adding that now a reduction in the corporate rate would cause Puerto Rico not only to compete with the rest of the world, but with jurisdictions on the mainland: “I think that if I were the Secretary of the Treasury, I would tremble with this situation.”

In Puerto Rico, he estimates manufacturing employs approximately 75,000 people directly—a number which rises to 250,000 when indirect and induced jobs are calculated, adding that even though the manufacturing sector has shrunk in the past years, the productive and contributory base rests on that activity, adding that: “As much as it is said that they do not pay taxes, this sector contributes 33% of the revenues…As long as jobs are lost there, the treasury will erode,” noting that the industrial sector plays such a large role in Puerto Rico’s economy that no other sector of the service economy can counterbalance it. He worries that if Congress fails to address the apparent discrimination, the chances that the PROMESA Board and the government of Puerto Rico can put together an economic recovery plan is minimal: “These are implications for all of Puerto Rico: It is difficult to think about options, because if this is approved, it would be disastrous, because of everything that has happened after Hurricane Maria.”

Last night, the former president of the Association of Certified Public Accountants, Kenneth Rivera Robles, who has been part of several lobbying delegations to Washington, remained relatively optimistic that the project language will be amended.

President Woodrow Wilson signed the Jones-Shafroth Act into law on March 2, 1917, with the law providing U.S. citizenship to Puerto Rico’s citizens, granting civil rights to its people, and separating the Executive, Judicial, and Legislative branches of its government. The statute created a locally elected bicameral legislature with a House and Senate—but retained authority for the Governor and the President of the United States to have the authority to veto any law passed by the legislature. In addition, the statute granted Congress the authority to override any action taken by the Puerto Rico legislature, as well as maintain control over fiscal and economic matters, including mail services, immigration, defense, and other basic governmental matters. 

The Steep & Ethical Challenges in Roads to Fiscal Recovery

October 17, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the ongoing recovery in Detroit from the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history; then we turn to the Constitution State, Connecticut, as the Governor and State Legislature struggle to reach consensus on a budget, before, finally, returning to Petersburg, Virginia to try to reflect on the ethical dimensions of fiscal challenges.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

The Motor City Road to Recovery.  The City of Detroit has issued a request seeking proposals to lead a tender offer and refunding of its financial recovery municipal bonds with the goal of reducing the costs of its debt service, with bids due by the end of next week, all as a continuing part of its chapter 9 plan of debt adjustment. The city has issued $631 million of unsecured B1 and B2 notes and $88 million of unsecured C notes. The bulk of the issuance is intended to secure the requisite capital to pay off various creditors, via so-called term bonds, 30-year municipal debt at a gradually sliding interest rate of 4% for the first two decades, and then 6% over the final decade, as the debt is structured to be interest-only for the first 10 years, before amortizing principal over the remainder of the term, with the city noting: “It is the city’s goal to alleviate the significant escalation of debt service during the period when principal on the B Notes begins to amortize, and that any transaction resulting from this RFP process be executed as early as possible in the first quarter of 2018.” According to Detroit Finance Director John Naglick, “Those bonds are traded very close to par, because people view them as very secure…Those bondholders feel really comfortable because they see the intercept doing what it was designed to do.” The new borrowing is the city’s third since its exit from chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, with the prior two issued via the Michigan Finance Authority. Last week the city announced plans to utilize the private placement of $125 million in municipal bonds, also through the Michigan Finance Authority, provided the issuance is approved by both the Detroit City Council and the Detroit Financial Review commission, with the bonds proposed to be secured by increased revenues the Motor City is receiving from its share of state gas taxes and vehicle registration fees.

Fiscal TurmoilConnecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy yesterday released his fourth fiscal budget proposal—with the issuance coming as he awaits ongoing efforts by leaders in the state legislature attempting to reach consensus on a two-year state budget, declaring: “This is a lean, no-frills, no-nonsense budget…Our goals were simple in putting this plan together: eliminate unpopular tax increases, incorporate ideas from both parties, and shrink the budget and its accompanying legislation down to their essential parts. It is my sincere hope this document will aid the General Assembly in passing a budget that I can sign into law.” The release came as bipartisan leaders from the state legislature were meeting for the 11th day behind closed doors in a so far unrewarding effort to agree on a budget to bring to the Governor—whose most recent budget offer had removed some of the last-minute revenue ideas included in the Democratic budget proposal. Nevertheless, that offer gained no traction with Republican legislators: it had proposed cuts in social services, security, and clean energy—or, as the Governor described it: “This is a stripped down budget.” Specifically, the Governor had proposed an additional $144 million in spending cuts from the most recent Democratic budget proposal, including: nearly $5 million from tax relief for elderly renters; $5.4 million for statewide marketing through the Department of Economic and Community Development; $292,000 in grants for mental health services; $11.8 million from the Connecticut Home Care Program over two years, and; about $1.8 million from other safety net services. His proposed budget would eliminate the state cellphone tax and a statewide property tax on second homes in Connecticut, as proposed by the Democrats; it also proposes the elimination of the 25 cent fee on ridesharing services, such as Uber and Lyft, and it reduces the amount of money Democrats wanted to take from the Green Bank, which helps fund renewable energy projects. His proposal also recommends cutting about $3.3 million each year from the state legislature’s own budget and eliminates the legislative Commissions for women, children, seniors, and minority communities—commissions which had already been reduced from six to two over the past two years. The Governor’s revised budget proposal would cut the number of security staff at the capitol complex to what it was before the metal detectors were implemented—proposed to achieve savings of about $325,000 annually, and the elimination of the Contracting Standards Board, which the state created a decade ago in response to two government scandals—here for a savings of $257,000.

For the state’s municipalities, the Governor’s offer proposes phasing in an unfunded state mandate that municipalities start picking up the normal cost of the teachers’ pension fund: Connecticut municipalities would be mandated to contribute a total of about $91 million in the first year, and $189 million in the second year of the budget—contributions which would be counted as savings for the state—and would be less steep than Gov. Malloy had initially proposed, but still considerably higher than many municipalities may have expected. Indeed, Betsy Gara, the Executive Director of the Council for Small Towns, described the latest gubernatorial budget proposal as a “Swing and a miss: The revised budget proposal continues to shift teachers’ pension costs to towns in a way that will overwhelm property taxpayers,” adding that if the state decides to go in this direction, they will be forced to take legal action, because requiring towns to pick up millions of dollars in teachers’ pension costs without any ability to manage those costs going forward is ‘simply unfair.’” Moreover, she noted, it violates the 2008 bond covenant.

In his revised new budget changes, Gov. Malloy has proposed cutting the Education Cost Sharing grant, reducing magnet school funding by about $15 million a year, and eliminating ECS funding immediately for 36 communities. The proposal to eliminate the ECS funding would likely encounter not just legislative challenges, but also judicial: it was just a year ago that a Connecticut judge’s sweeping ruling had declared vast portions of the state’s educational system as unconstitutional, when Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher ruled that Connecticut’s state funding mechanism for public schools violated the state’s constitution and ordered the state to come up with a new funding formula—and mandated the state to set up a mandatory standard for high school graduation, overhaul evaluations for public-school teachers, and create new standards for special education in the wake of a lawsuit filed against the state in 2005 by a coalition of cities, local school boards, parents and their children, who had claimed Connecticut did not give all students a minimally adequate and equal education. The plaintiffs had sought to address funding disparities between wealthy and poor school districts.

Nevertheless, in the wake of a week where the state’s Democratic and Republican legislative leaders have been holed up in the state Capitol, without Gov. Malloy, combing, line-by-line, through budget documents; they report they have been discussing ways to not only cover a projected $3.5 billion deficit in a roughly $40 billion two-year budget, but also to make lasting fiscal changes in hopes of stopping what has become a cycle of budget crises in one of the nation’s wealthiest states—or, as House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, (D-Berlin) put it: “I think what we’ve done over the last few days has been a really good step forward, and I think we’re moving in the right direction,” even as Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano said what the Governor put forward Monday will not pass the legislature: “It is obvious that the governor’s proposal, including his devastating cuts to certain core services and shifting of state expenses onto towns and cities, would not pass the legislature in its current form. Therefore, legislative leaders will continue our efforts to work on a bipartisan budget that can actually pass.”

Getting Schooled on Budgeting & Debt. Even as the Governor and legislature appear to be achieving some progress, the Connecticut Education Association (CEA) is suing the state over Gov. Dannel Malloy’s executive order which cuts $557 million in school funding from 139 municipalities: Connecticut’s largest teachers union has filed an injunction request in Hartford Superior Court, alleging the order violates state law. (The order eliminates education funding in 85 cities and towns and severely cuts funding in another 54 communities.) The suit contends that without a state budget, Gov. Malloy lacks the authority to cut education funding. The municipalities of Torrington, Plainfield, and Brooklyn joined the initial filing. Association President Sheila Cohen noted: “We can’t sit by and watch our public schools dismantled and students and teachers stripped of essential resources…This injunction is the first step toward ensuring that our state lives up to its commitment and constitutional obligations to adequately fund public education.”

Governance in Fiscal Straits? Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen has questioned the legality of Governor Malloy’s executive order, and Connecticut Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano (R-North Haven) noted: “I think the Governor’s order is in very serious legal trouble.” Nevertheless, the Governor, speaking to reporters at the state capitol, accused the CEA of acting prematurely: “Under normal circumstances, those checks don’t go out until the end of October…Secondarily, they’ll have to handle the issue of the fact that we have a lot less money to spend without a budget than we do with a budget…Their stronger argument might be that we can’t make any payments to communities in the absence of a budget. That one I would be afraid of.”

Municipal Fiscal Ethics? Forensic auditors from PBMares, LLP publicly went over their findings from the forensic audit they conducted into the City of Petersburg, Virginia’s financial books during a special City Council meeting. Even though the audit and its findings were released last week, John Hanson and Mike Garber, who were in charge of the audit for PBMares, provided their report to Council and answered their questions, focusing especially on what they deemed the “ethical tone” of the city government, saying they found much evidence of abuse of city money and city resources: “The perception that employees had was that the ethical tone had not been good for quite some time…The culture led employees to do things they might not otherwise do.” They noted misappropriations of fuel for city vehicles, falsification of overtime hours, vacation/sick leave abuse, use of city property for personal gain including lawn mowers and vehicles for travel, excessive or lavish gifts from vendors, and questionable hiring practices. In response, several Council Members asked whether if some of the employees who admitted to misconduct could be named. Messieurs Garber and Hanson, however, declined to reveal names in public, but said they could discuss it in private with City Manager Aretha Ferrell-Benavides, albeit advising the City Council that the ethical problems seemed to be more “systemic,” rather than individual, adding: “For instance, we looked at fuel data usage…And we could tell just looking at it that it was misused, though it would’ve cost tens of thousands of more dollars to find out who exactly took what.”

In response to apprehensions that the audit was insufficient, the auditors noted that because of the city’s limited budget, the scope of PBMares’ work could only go so far. Former Finance Director Nelsie Birch noted that the audit was tasked with focusing on several “troubling areas,” and that a full forensic audit could have cost much more for a city which had hovered on the brink of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. However, Mr. Hanson noted that while the transgressions would have normally fallen under a conflict of interest policy, such was the culture in Petersburg that the city’s employees either did not know, or were allowed to ignore those policies: “When I asked employees what their conflict of interest or gifts and gratuity policy is, people couldn’t answer that question because they didn’t know.”

 

Human, Physical, & Fiscal Storms

October 3, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider Connecticut and its capital city’s fiscal road—including the assessment of municipal bankruptcy for Hartford, and then, with the President set to visit today, the fiscal, legal, physical, and human challenges to Puerto Rico.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

The Road to Municipal Bankruptcy. Connecticut Comptroller Kevin Lembo yesterday said the state, still lacking an FY2018 budget, remains on track to end the year with a deficit of $93.9 million under the provisions of an executive order by the Governor, even as Hartford City Council members yesterday received a legal report about the city’s bleak fiscal situation from advisers hired to explore chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy as one way to restructure Hartford’s fiscal future. An attorney from Greenberg Traurig, the firm hired by Hartford to assess the viability of Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection, and a representative from financial advisory group Rothschild & Co., stressed that even if Hartford were to file for bankruptcy, the city would remain under the leadership and control of elected officials. Greenberg Traurig attorney Maria DiConza advised: “When a municipality files for bankruptcy, a judge, a court, does not take over and run the city: The city continues to run itself during the court-supervised process.” She added that filing for Chapter 9 protection would allow the city to restructure debt and re-open contractual arrangements: “It’s not a process where the court is taking over operations of the city. And that’s something that’s really important to understand.” Moreover, Todd Snyder, a restructuring specialist with Rothschild & Co., stressed that Hartford’s elected leaders would not be superseded by the orders of a federal bankruptcy court, should city leaders opt to take Hartford’s affairs there: “I want to be very, very clear—a federal judge is not going to come in here and say, ‘Oh, you’re overspending in this area, and you should change the way you govern the city of Hartford…That’s not going to happen.”

In response, Councilmember Larry Deutsch asked what would happen if the city “stiffed the bondholders” of a looming $27 million bond payment at the end of this month—in response to which, Mr. Snyder replied that opting not to make that municipal bond payment would be “tantamount to making the decision that you are going to file for bankruptcy.” Ms. DiConza advised that the city’s municipal bondholders could not repossess city property to cover missed payments, but they could take Hartford to court and try to force the city to raise taxes to cover its debts.

Councilwoman Wildaliz Bermudez questioned whether the two attorneys were doing enough to divert the city from bankruptcy “at all costs,” having previously deemed Mayor Luke Bronin’s consideration of municipal bankruptcy “undemocratic.” To that, Ms. DiConza said: “The city is trying to avoid bankruptcy—‘at all costs’ is really a question for you,” referring to the Council: “What is the cost of the city avoiding bankruptcy? Is the cost that people are going with trash all over their lawn, because there’s no trash service? Is the cost that crime is going to go up, because there’s no payments to the police force? Is the cost that taxes go up? That’s the question the city has to decide. What are the costs of avoiding Chapter 9?” Mr. Snyder added that whether or not Hartford files for municipal bankruptcy, the city still needs to address longstanding structural issues with the city’s finances that see it posting deficits and increasing debt year after year: “There’s a need to address all the constituencies about making contributions to this solution: We live in a beautiful city, and people have valuable property. I would think that restructuring our obligations and entering into a new partnership with the state would enhance everybody’s life in the city.”

In a letter to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, Mr. Lembo said the administration’s spending reduction authority under his executive order should allow him to meet current state savings targets, adding, however, that state spending trends so far, some 7.2 percent higher than the same period last fiscal year, demonstrate that fixed costs (including debt, state employee and teachers retirement and retiree health care) continue to rise, while discretionary spending is forcibly decreasing, writing: “The state’s municipalities, nonprofits and Connecticut residents, including the most vulnerable, depend on discretionary program spending for critical services and to enhance the quality of life…Vital programs that have faced significant cuts include Grants for Substance Abuse Services; Mental Health Service Grants; the Connecticut Home Care Program, Aid to the Disabled; Employment Opportunities; and the Early Care and Education program. He added: “The state’s capacity to meet its spending obligations is impaired by the inability to enact a budget that provides for policy changes that increase revenue. This problem is exacerbated each month as potential sources of additional revenue are foregone due to the absence of necessary changes to the revenue structure,” warning that as the “state enters the second quarter of the fiscal year, even a potential agreement to increase in the hospital tax remains in doubt, even though it would result in higher federal reimbursements. Moreover, ongoing budget uncertainty will slow Connecticut’s economic growth and could ultimately lead to the state and its municipalities receiving downgrades in credit ratings that will cost taxpayers even more…These results do not indicate Connecticut can grow its way out of the current revenue stagnation, especially in light of the state missing it revenue targets in the last two fiscal years.”

Adding to the downbeat state fiscal plight, he reported that preliminary state Department of Labor (DOL) data for August 2017 show that Connecticut lost 3,900 jobs during the month of August to a level of 1,687,200 seasonally adjusted, adding that July’s original preliminary job loss of 600 had been revised down by the Bureau of Labor Statistics to a loss of 1,100. Over the past 12-month period ending in August, the state has posted 6,000 new payroll jobs. During the last period of economic recovery, employment growth averaged over 16,000 annually. 

Physical & Fiscal Mayhem. Some two weeks after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, creating a humanitarian crisis, President Trump arrives today to see first-hand the damage, becoming the first President of the United States to make an official visit in the wake of a crisis. The President will meet with Gov. Rosselló Nevares and San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz—who had alerted the media about the signal seeming disparities in responding to the human, physical, and fiscal crisis compared to Houston and Florida.

As President Trump visits Puerto Rico today, nearly two weeks after the destruction and havoc created by Hurricane Maria, officials report only 5% of the island has electricity and its schools are not close to reopening. Puerto Rico Secretary of Education Julia Kelleher told CNN on Sunday that some public schools might not resume classes until mid-month because of storm damage, though decisions will be made on a regional basis. The U.S. territory has 1,113 public schools and a student population of 350,000; however, only a small fraction (400) have been assessed for damage; thus, school districts from Florida to Massachusetts are anticipating an influx of Puerto Rican students displaced by the hurricane, so a different kind of relief operation is underway to identify which schools have space and which resources will be needed in the wake of last month’s loss, all across Puerto Rico, of power and communications. Officials hope to reopen some schools by mid-month. Edwin Meléndez, Director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York, said his conservative estimate is that more than 200,000 children and adults will leave Puerto Rico for the mainland—with his decision coming one day after President Trump took to Twitter to criticize the leadership of Puerto Rican leaders, especially San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz and those the President claimed “want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort.” The inexplicably belated, temporary suspension of the Jones Act has enabled FEMA to expand its delivery of food and water throughout Puerto Rico, though officials stressed that many people still lack the essentials: FEMA has, finally, been able to deliver food and water to all of Puerto Rico’s 79 municipalities; however, FEMA reports that some isolated areas of these municipalities may not have received the commodities, partly because lack of communication systems has hampered distribution efforts. As of late Sunday, there was safe drinking water available to 41% of Puerto Rico; FEMA has installed eleven regional staging areas for food and water distribution; some 5 percent off the island has power, and Gov. Ricardo Rossello reported the Army Corps of Engineers has begun a mission to repair the power grid. Over the next few days, close to a million gallons of gasoline and half a million gallons of diesel fuel will arrive, according to the Governor, who added that just over one-third of Puerto Rico’s residents now have phone service: all landlines are operating, but only about 11% of the cell towers are operational; 51 of 69 hospitals are running in some capacity now, along with 46 of 48 dialysis centers.

Brookings’ Michael O’Hanlon yesterday described the “patriotism, courage, compassion, and grit of the several thousand Coast Guard and other U.S. military personnel belatedly detailed by the White House to respond, writing: “But the overall approach might best be described as a modest response to a disaster: at a time when so many American citizens are suffering, we need to consider a much more massive effort.”