Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider, Detroit’s remarkable route to fiscal recovery; then we turn to challenges to a municipality’s authority to deal with distress—or be forced into chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in Pennsylvania, before returning to the stark fiscal challenges to Puerto Rico’s economic sustainability, and then the taxing challenge to Scranton’s efforts for a sustainable fiscal recovery.
Campaigning & Turning around the Motor City’s Fiscal Future. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, last week, at the annual Mackinac Policy Conference spoke about the racially divisive public policies of the first half of 20th century which, he said, had helped contribute to Detroit’s long slide into municipal bankruptcy—indeed, the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history—but one which he said had helped lay the foundation for a conversation about how Detroit could grow for the first time in half a century without making the mistakes of the past that had, inexorably, led to an exodus of nearly 1.2 million from 1956 to its chapter 9 bankruptcy—noting: “If we fail again, I don’t know if the city can come back.” His remarks, mayhap ironically, came nearly a half century from the 1976 Detroit riot, a riot which began downtown and was only curtailed after former U.S. President Lyndon Johnson ordered the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions to intervene, along with then Michigan Gov. George Romney ordering in the Michigan Army National Guard. The toll from the riot: 43 dead, 1,189 injured, 2,000 of the city’s buildings destroyed, and 7,200 arrests.
But, rather than discussing or issuing a progress report on the city’s remarkable turnaround, Mayor Duggan instead spoke of the city’s racial tensions that had sparked that riot, in many ways, according to the Mayor, coming from the housing policies of former President Franklin Roosevelt—a policy which placed or zoned blacks in the city into so-called “red zones,” thereby creating the kind of racial tensions central to the 1943 and 1967 riots—a federal policy adopted in 1934 which steered federally backed mortgages away from neighborhoods with blacks and other racial minorities. Indeed, the Mayor quoted from a 1934 Federal Housing Administration manual that instructed mortgage bankers that “incompatible racial groups should not be permitted to live in the same communities;” the manual also instructed housing appraisers to “predict the probability of the location being invaded by…incompatible racial and social groups…, so that, as the Mayor added: “If you were adjacent to a minority area, your appraisal got downgraded.”
Thus, federal housing policies were a critical component contributing to the historic white and middle class flight from Detroit to its suburbs—suburbs where federal housing policies through the Federal Housing Administration subsidized more than half of the mortgages for new construction—or, as Mayor Duggan described the federal policies: “There was a conscious federal policy that discarded what was left behind and subsidized the move to the suburbs: This is our history, and it’s something we still have to overcome.” His blunt Mayoral message to the business community was that the city’s hisgtory of race and class segregation had to be acknowledged—or, as he put it: “I just wanted to deliver a message to the broader community to say, ‘Look, there’s a place for you to come invest in Detroit. Here are the ground rules, here is the reasoning behind the ground rules… and if you want to come in and invest in the city, move into the city and be part of it with the understanding that the recovery includes everybody, we’d love to have you: The African-American community voted for me, and I can’t tell you what an enormous responsibility that feels like.” Thus, the Mayor made clear that he and the Detroit City Council have been focused on governing mechanisms that ensure longtime Detroiters are not displaced by downtown and Midtown revitalization—enacting an ordinance mandating that housing developments in receipt of city tax subsidies have at least 20 percent of the units classified as affordable housing for lower-income residents, and mandating that 51% of the person-hours for construction of the new Little Caesars Arena be performed by Detroiters: “We’re going to fight economic segregation…It would be so easy in this city to have one area be all wealthy people and one area all poor people.”
The Challenge of Municipal Fiscal Recovery. Judge James Gibbons of the Lackawanna, Pennsylvania County Court of Common Pleas last week heard the City of Scranton’s preliminary arguments in response to a lawsuit by eight taxpayers seeking to bar the municipality from tripling its local services tax. The suit, filed March 2nd, contends that Scranton has been collecting taxes which exceed the legal issuance; it calls for the issuance of a mandamus against the city. In response, city attorneys, note that, as a home rule charter city, Scranton is not subject to the cap that Pennsylvania’s Act 511 stipulates. (The taxing legal and political regime, as we have previously noted, in one of the nation’s oldest cities, comes in the wake of its action to raise the levy from $52 to $156 for every person working within the city limits who earns at least $15,600, with the city justifying the action under Pennsylvania Act 47 and municipal planning code.) The taxpayer group, led by independent Mayoral candidate Gary St. Fleur, in seeking a mandamus action, has charged that lowering taxes across the board is the only way for the city to be able to fiscally recover.
Mr. St. Fleur, an independent candidate for mayor, has initiated a ballot measure to force 76,000-population county seat Scranton into chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, citing a Wells Fargo report from October 2016, which found that a 2014 audit of Scranton revealed $375 million in liabilities and $184 million in unfunded non-pension post-retirement public pension benefits to government employees. (Mr. St. Fleur’s group, last February, had also objected to the city’s annual petition to the court to raise the tax—an objection rejected by visiting Judge John Braxton—a decision which, unsurprisingly, prompted the taxpayer group to initiate its own suit, notwithstanding that Scranton is a home-rule community, so that, in Pennsylvania, it has the authority to levy taxes.) Unsurprisingly, the anti-tax challengers’ attorney, John McGovern, counters that Act 511, which, when enacted 52 years ago, authorized the local Earned Income Tax, which authorizes municipalities and school districts the legal authority to levy a tax on individual gross earned income/compensation and net profits (the tax is based on the taxpayer’s place of residence or domicile, not place of employment) is separate from the Pennsylvania personal income tax. He charges that the Act has two “very specific” sections which cap how much the City of Scranton can tax, charging: “Call it a duck or a goose, call it a rate or a cap, but for the city to say it can tax whatever it wants, that alone is dangerous and absurd,” adding: “At this point, we’re dealing with 2017, and the city is spending like a drunken sailor…State law clearly states there is a cap to taxation through the Act 511 law…If we do not win, that would allow any city to raise taxes in any amount it wants.”
In contrast, David Fiorenza, a Villanova School of Business finance Professor and former CFO of Radnor Township, noted: “Scranton has made progress from three years ago, in part due to the renegotiating of some city union contracts and the low-interest rates on debt…The challenges this city will face will be the uncertainty of the state and federal budget as it relates to school funding and other funds that have been relied on for some many years.” Kevin Conaboy, whose firm is representing the city, told the court the city may raise its taxes under the state’s home-rule provisions, and he noted that Pennsylvania’s home rule provisions supersede a cap in the state’s Act 511 local tax enabling act. Moreover, Scranton city leaders have deemed the revenue increase essential for Scranton’s recovery under the state-sponsored Act 47 workout for distressed communities, to which Scranton has been subject since 1992.
Is the Bell Tolling for Act 47? The case is re-raising questions with regard to the effectiveness of the state’s municipal fiscal distress law, Act 47, a program which some critics charge has become an addiction rather than a cure. Villanova School of Business Professor David Fiorenza, referring to a 2014 change to the state enabling law, believes municipalities stay in the program for too long: “Act 47 is effective, but continues to present a problem as cities are able to request an extension after the five-year time period has expired…A five-year time frame is sufficient for a municipality to assess their financial situation and implement any changes. However, if the economy enters a recession during this time period, it will impede their financial progress.”
Physical & Fiscal Atrophy. Puerto Rico has lost two percent of its people in each of the past three years—but a two percent which in fiscal terms is far more grave from a fiscal perspective: the two percent, according to the insightful fiscal wizards at Federal Reserve Bank of New York, means that “If people continue to leave the island at the pace that has been set in recent years, the economic potential of Puerto Rico will only continue to deteriorate.” That outflow is comparable to 18 million Americans emigrating from the 50 states: it marks nearly a 12% drop: some 400,000 fewer Puerto Ricans today compared to 2007—meaning, increasingly, a U.S. territory entrapped in a fiscal tornado: unemployment is at 11.5%, so, unsurprisingly, the young and mobile are leaving the island behind. With unemployment at 11.5%, Puerto Rico in a quasi-chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, federal law discriminating against the territory’s economy, and its municipalities unable to access chapter 9—the $74 billion accumulated debt and quasi-federal takeover has created incentives for more and more Puerto Ricans, from all economic levels, to leave—creating a vicious fiscal cycle of reduced government revenue, but ever-increasing debt: Puerto Rico’s municipal bond debt has grown 87 percent just since 2006—making the increasing obligations a further incentive to emigrate.
The PROMESA Board’s proposed plan to revert to fiscal sustainability does not appear to address the physical demographic realities: it assumes the population will shrink just 0.2 percent each year over the next decade, relying on that projection as the basis for its projections of tax receipts and economic growth—projections which Sergio Marxuach, Public Policy Director at the Center for the New Economy in San Juan, generously describes as: “[R]eally, really optimistic.” The harsh reality appears to be that the growing earnings disparity between Puerto Rico and the continental U.S. is so stark that any family focused on its health, safety, and financially viable future—in a situation of today where the Puerto Rican government has closed schools to save money—means that teachers can double or triple their earnings if they move to the mainland: doing that math adds up to younger generations of child-bearing age being increasingly likely to leave Puerto Rico for the mainland. Coming on top of Puerto Rico’s more than a decade-long population decline, it seems that, more and more, for those who can afford it, the option of leaving is the only choice—meaning, for those who cannot afford to—the Puerto Rico left behind could become increasingly older and less fiscally able to construct a fiscal future.