Getting Back in like Flint

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the lessons learned from Flint—lessons that were not unrelated to the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S, history in Detroit.

Immunity for State & Municipal Employees: What Does it Mean in Flint? U.S. Judge Judith Levy, in her 101-page decision this week, held that Flint and Michigan employees can be sued over the city’s lead water contamination; however, she found that Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and the State of Michigan have governmental immunity. The ruling came in response to a suit brought by a resident of Flint, against Gov. Snyder and 13 other public officials. Judge Levy dismissed many of the counts; however, she concurred that Flint resident Shari Guerin, who had brought the suit against the city and the other public officials, had had both her and her child’s “bodily integrity” unknowingly exposed by the dangerous levels of lead in Flint’s drinking water—levels of which the state was aware, but had hidden from the public. Indeed, the Judge wrote: “The conduct of many of the individual governmental defendants was so egregious as to shock the conscience.” Despite dismissing the charges against the Governor, the Michigan Departments of Environmental Quality and Health and Human Services—and the city’s water treatment plant operator, Judge Levy found that some key state leaders, including the state’s Chief Medical Executive and Health and Human Services Director could be sued in their individual capacities—and that Flint officials have no state governmental immunity, writing: “As this case highlights, the more governmental actors that are involved in causing a massive tort in Michigan, the less likely it is that state tort claims can proceed against the individual government actors given the way the state immunity statutes operate…Because the harm that befell plaintiffs was such a massive undertaking, and took so many government actors to cause, the perverse result is that none can be held responsible under state tort law.”

A Vicious Fiscal Whirlpool? For the city, the severe water contamination had not just physical fiscal implications, but also fiscal ones. Indeed, one of the plaintiffs was one of nearly 8,000 homeowners who was in danger of losing homes under tax foreclosure proceedings (Real property tax delinquency in the state entails a three-year forfeiture and foreclosure process)—proceedings which had been scheduled to commence last week until the Flint City Council approved a one-year moratorium—a moratorium which covered residents with two years of unpaid water and sewer bills going back to June 2014. While that temporary reprieve is in question, confronting an unknown outcome before the state-appointed Receivership Transition Advisory Board, which has monitored Flint’s finances since the city’s emergence from state oversight in two years ago last April—and is scheduled to vote on the moratorium at its June meeting; the outstanding water liens and inability to collect have further emptied the city’s coffers—even as, unsurprisingly, assessed property values  have become the latest fiscal hardship as an impoverished Flint still reels from a lead-in-water crisis which was first publicly acknowledged less than two years ago.

According to a recent Michigan State University study, “Flint Fiscal Playbook: An Assessment of the Emergency Manager Years, 2011-2015),” Flint has lost nearly 75 percent of its tax base—and of that base, assessed property valuations reeled to a 50 percent drop from $1.5 billion to $750 million.  Thus, unsurprisingly, more than 100 residents showed up at this week’s Council meeting—understandably upset that they face foreclosure even as they have been confronted by bills for drinking water, which they could neither drink, nor use in any way that might jeopardize the health and safety of their children. Those citizens received a temporary, one-year reprieve from the city—but the reprieve implies greater fiscal challenges to the city.

With liabilities high and revenues and property taxes struggling, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver reports that Flint has trimmed $2 million in annual garbage collection expenses by rebidding the service; expects to cut annual water expenses to $12 million from $21 million; and, due to federal grants, is hiring 33 more firefighters. The city is proceeding with a $37 million renovation of the Capitol Theatre downtown, seeking to create a central, historic space which could enhance the downtown—or, as the Mayor puts it: “I don’t think people should take their eyes off Flint.”

But assessing the dimensions of this disaster, created in no small part under the state’s original takeover of the city via the appointment of the emergency manager who had made the fatal decisions to change the city’s sourcing of drinking water, also includes looking back to the critical governmental decisions—especially Flint’s opting to abandon reliance on the  Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA) and instead rely upon the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA), a regional water authority created as part of Detroit’s chapter 9 plan of debt adjustment—meaning Flint’s citizens will keep drawing Detroit water from their taps—or, as the Mayor put it: “Staying with our water source gives us reassurance our water is good…It gets us out of our $7 million (annual) debt to the KWA. We did not have the finances to be able to do that.” Under the city’s 30-year agreement with the  30-year deal with GLWA, the city will receive a $7 million annual credit equal to its annual municipal bond payment to KWA for as long as Flint remains current with scheduled debt service. In addition, the agreement also enables the city to redirect water plant improvements to upgrading the city’s water distribution system—or, as Mayor Weaver notes: “We have pipes going into the ground now (referring to the planned replacement of lead service lines).We’re addressing this water crisis. The water quality is better. There are some good things going on.”

Mayor Weaver notes Flint has cut its $2 million in annual garbage collection expenses by rebidding the service; the city expects to cut annual water expenses to $12 million from $21 million; and the city continues to work with the Governor to address the public health concerns associated with the Flint water crisis. To try to become an economic magnet or hub, rather than a city to be avoided, the city is focused on a $37 million renovation of the Capitol Theatre, creating a central, historic space which could draw folks to events, restaurants, and bars. As the Mayor puts it: “I don’t think people should take their eyes off Flint…They should know the rest of the story. One of the things I’ve learned is we were going to get more done if we work together. If people are going to help you, why would you not sit down and work things out?”

Puerto Rico & Municipal Bankruptcy: a process of pain where “failure is not an option.”

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Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the opening under U.S. Judge Laura Swain of the unique, quasi chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy process which opened this week in Puerto Rico, where Judge Swain noted the process “will certainly involve pain,” but that “failure is not an option.”

Getting Ready to Rumble. Judge Swain has combined two major PROMESA Title III filings made earlier this month by Puerto Rican authorities—one for its general obligation debt, and one for debt which is backed by the Puerto Rico’s Commonwealth or COFINA sales tax revenues. Reuters helps explain, writing: “The island’s initial bankruptcy filing on [May 3] included only its central government, which owes some $18 billion in general obligation, or GO debt, backed by its constitution…The COFINA filing [on May 5] will pull in another $17 billion or so in debt under the Title III umbrella. Overall the island’s government and various agencies have a debt load of $74 billion that they cannot repay.” Unsurprisingly, as Bloomberg notes, a sizeable separation between general obligation and COFINA bondholders has already emerged. Judge Swain’s early decision to merge the two filings for administrative purposes appears to denote a small victory for the PROMESA Board, as some COFINA stakeholders had objected (COFINA bondholders were the first to sue the government of Puerto Rico after the freeze on creditor litigation under PROMESA expired at Midnight May 1st.) They accuse Puerto Rico, Governor Ricardo Rossello and other officials of angling to repurpose the tax revenue earmarked to pay COFINA debt.: they argued that COFINA is a separate entity whose assets, in the form of sales tax revenue, are earmarked only for creditors.” The debt here dwarfs any we have seen in Detroit, San Bernardino, etc.: Puerto Rico, according to the PROMESA Board, cannot even meet 25% of its $900 million necessary to service its municipal debt. And, in some sense, that debt—owed to investors in the 50 states, pales compared to the human obligations at home: NPR’s Greg Allen describes: “retirees who are owed pensions; 180 closed public schools, $500 million in cuts proposed for the university here…So lots of pain to come here—and the governor is going to be releasing a budget later this month, which will show a lot more pain coming. Among the things that are going to happen is, I think, big cuts in health care benefits.” He estimated the trial could exceed the duration of Detroit’s chapter 9, taking as many as five years to conclude. Judge Swain will—as Judge Rhodes had to in Detroit, and as was the very hard case in Central Falls, Rhode Island’s municipal bankruptcy‒Puerto Rico’s $49 billion in government pension obligations. But Puerto Rico’s debt is not just fiscal: the island has a poverty rate of 45%–a level dwarfing what we have experienced in previous chapter 9 bankruptcies. The current case may not affect all of these because some are for the employees of semi-autonomous Puerto Rico entities like the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority. And, the trial here dwarfs the previous largest U.S. municipal bankruptcy in Detroit, where the stakes involved $18 billion in debt, pension obligations, and other OPEB benefits. The pension obligations have been described as liabilities of as much as $45 billion. On the trial’s first day, Judge Swain heard presentations with regard to whether the case should include mediation—and, if so, which parties should be included: that is, she will have a Solomon-like set of choices, choosing between Puerto’s Rico’s citizens, its municipal bondholders, suppliers owed money, pensioners, and government employees. Judge Swain will also hear presentations with regard to whether—and when‒Puerto Rico should be required to submit lists of its creditors and in what manner and how notice to creditors will be made. The PROMESA Oversight Board attorney Martin Bienenstock said he anticipates other Puerto Rico public entities, including the Highways and Transportation Authority, would soon file for Title III later. The considerations in the court will also have to address how some $800 million set aside in Puerto Rico’s certified 10-year fiscal recovery plan will be apportioned between competing claims–including those of constitutionally backed general obligation debt (GO) and sales-tax backed or COFINA bonds.

The Fiscal Agony of the Absence of Chapter 9

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Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the growing physical and fiscal breakdown in the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico as it seeks, along with the oversight PROMESA Board, an alternative to municipal bankruptcy.

Tropical Fiscal Typhoon. With the expiration of the freeze on litigation against the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico expiring yesterday, municipal bondholders filed suit against the Puerto Rico, likely marking the front end of a number of suits in the wake of Puerto Rico’s under the PROMESA law after its default on $1.3 billion of principal owed since the previous Governor declared the $70 billion public debt load unpayable in June of 2015. Bondholders filed two new lawsuits, even as the stay was lifted from at least 13 others. In the suits, the plaintiffs are seeking 11 declaratory judgments, two writs of mandamus, and three permanent injunctions. The fiscal meltdown came against a wavering political backdrop, as a demonstration in Puerto Rico’s capital, San Juan, against the PROMESA board’s austerity measures Monday turned violent: there was extensive damage to a Banco Popular office building’s windows, fires being lit, and car windows being smashed. The newest suits come after the administration of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló was unable to negotiate any agreement with the territory’s municipal bondholders after the May 1st deadline of the litigation freeze. His Chief of Staff, William Villafane, told the AP just hours before the freeze expired that the government preferred to reach a deal with bondholders, adding, however, that a municipal bankruptcy-like process could be an option if negotiations were to fail. A group representing those who bought a portion of the $16 billion worth of municipal bonds backed by Puerto Rico’s sales tax, charged that the government plan to cut its $70 billion debt was unconstitutional; they accused government leaders of perpetrating “unfair, unjust, and illegally punitive terms.” Ambac Assurance Corp. filed its own suit, accusing the government of illegally retaining $300 million owed to bondholders. The suit alleges it had been forced to pay more than $52 million in insurance claims because of ongoing defaults by Puerto Rico’s government. The tropical storm of litigation, coming on top of nearly a dozen lawsuits prior to the freeze imposed under the PROMESA law, came as Aurelius Capital Management LP, and other hedge funds, sued Puerto Rico in New York state court, seeking to recoup past-due payments on some $1.4 billion in defaulted general obligation bonds.

The precipitous storm of litigation appeared to mark the collapse of restructuring negotiations, as well as to signal the PROMESA board will vote to trigger the PROMESA Title III provisions to trigger a quasi-chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy proceeding. The fiscal disruption, at the same time, appeared to come as a physical disruption of riots and active lawsuits, leading the Dean of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, Jim Spiotto, to note: “Sometimes it is darkest before the dawn.” Counselor Spiotto added that a “litigation meltdown is not a solution” to the Puerto Rico debt problem; rather, he added: “You may have all the rights in the world, but if the [debtor] party doesn’t survive, thrive, your ability to get repaid is severely diminished,” noting that litigation is the least likely means of reaching a long-term solution, since the debtor is going to be hit by substantial attorney’s fees. Further, he explained, even were the PROMESA Oversight Board to initiate Title III to consolidate all Puerto Rico debt cases into a single quasi-bankruptcy process, that would simply open the way to a long and costly trail of appeals; thus, he notes that instead, all parties need a “time out” if there is to be a realistic chance of a fiscal solution, noting that would almost surely lead to a better outcome for all parties. Or, as U.S. Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D.-NY.) put it: “The power to comprehensively restructure 100 per cent of Puerto Rico’s debt is the reason why I voted ‘yes’ on [PROMESA] last year….Inconceivably, today, May 2, 2017, the island is on the same path as it was prior to the enactment of the law. This is unconscionable. It is imperative the board use this powerful tool and vote to file for a Title III proceeding immediately.”

The fiscal collapse also creates a constitutional and governance crisis. Article VI of Puerto Rico’s constitution (§8) provides that: “In case the available revenues including surplus for any fiscal year are insufficient to meet the appropriations made for that year, interest on the public debt and amortization thereof shall first be paid, and other disbursements shall thereafter be made in accordance with the order of priorities established by law;” however, Title III of the federal PROMESA statute would supersede this.

The growing challenge spread also, as Ambac filed suit against the U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, seeking to bar access by the U.S. territory to a federal excise tax imposed on rum manufactured in the territory and sold in the mainland U.S. Moreover, Ambac also filed two other lawsuits over Puerto Rico’s alleged efforts to break the lien securing some $17 billion in sales-tax municipal bonds—one suit in federal court, the other in New York state court. One, in federal court, sought a court order safeguarding the revenue stream that backs those bonds.

Amid the various court challenges, Gerardo Portela, the Executive Director of Puerto Rico’s Financial Advisory and Tax Agency, yesterday claimed: “We are talking to all the different groups of bondholders,” after leaving La Fortaleza after holding a meeting with Governor Rosselló. Moreover, with the increasing threat to critical public services, Puerto Rico Property Secretary Raul Maldonado yesterday provided assurances that the government already has part of the money required by the Fiscal Supervision Board to avoid the reduction of working hours in public employees.

Just to provide some scale of what is unfolding, the quasi chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy here under a federal court-supervised restructuring for a portion of Puerto Rico’s $70 billion debt would be 800% larger than Detroit’s—which to date, has marked the largest chapter 9 bankruptcy in American history. However, with Puerto Rico neither a municipality, nor a state, it falls into a legal and fiscal Twilight Zone. In the wake of bondholder rejection, over the weekend, of an offer to pay 50 cents on the dollar to holders of Puerto Rico general obligation and sales-tax bonds backed by Puerto Rico’s constitution, it increasingly appears a non-federal bankruptcy court will be pressed to try to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

Meanwhile, in Congress, federal legislation, HR 1366, the U.S. Territories Investor Protection Act of 2017, a bill to try to close a legal loophole which some in Congress believe allowed broker-dealers to defraud Puerto Rico investors was passed on a voice vote by the House and will now move to the Senate for consideration. The legislation would extend all the rules under the Investment Company Act of 1940, which apply, to investment companies on the U.S. mainland to those investment companies operating in Puerto Rico and the other U.S. territories. Rep. Velázquez, in introducing the bill, noted: “Today’s bipartisan action in the House is a huge step for the people of Puerto Rico, and I will keep applying pressure for Senate action.” A companion bill in the Senate (S. 484), sponsored by Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., has already cleared the Senate Banking Committee. The Congresswoman said that the legislators had “acted in the best interest of retirees and individual investors in Puerto Rico,” adding that: “For far too long, Puerto Rican retirees and others have been preyed on by unscrupulous investors who have exploited this disparity in the rules…By passing this measure in the House, we are one step closer to putting an end to these abuses.”

What Lessons Can State & Local Leaders Learn from Unique Fiscal Challenges?

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eBlog, 04/25/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the unique fiscal challenges in Michigan and how the upswing in the state’s economy is—or, in this case, maybe—is not helping the fiscal recovery of the state’s municipalities. Then we remain in Michigan—but straddle to Virginia, to consider state leadership efforts in each state to rethink state roles in dealing with severe fiscal municipal distress. Finally, we zoom to Chicago to glean what wisdom we can from the Godfather of modern municipal bankruptcy, Jim Spiotto: What lessons might be valuable to the nation’s state and local leaders?  

Fiscal & Physical Municipal Balancing I. Nearly a decade after the upswing in Michigan’s economic recovery, the state’s fiscal outlook appears insufficient to help the state’s municipalities weather the next such recession. Notwithstanding continued job growth and record auto sales, Michigan’s per-capita personal income lags the national average; assessed property values are below peak levels in 85% of the state’s municipalities; and state aid is only 80% of what it was 15 years ago.  Thus, interestingly, state business leaders, represented by the Business Leaders for Michigan, a group composed of executives of Michigan’s largest corporations universities, is pressing the Michigan Legislature to assume greater responsibility to address growing public pension liabilities—an issue which municipal leaders in the state fear extend well beyond legacy costs, but also where fiscal stability has been hampered by cuts in state revenue sharing and tax limitations. Michigan’s $10 billion general fund is roughly comparable to what it was nearly two decades ago—notwithstanding the state’s experience in the Great Recession—much less the nation’s largest ever municipal bankruptcy in Detroit, or the ongoing issues in Flint. Moreover, with personal income growth between 2000 and 2013 growing less than half the national average (in the state, the gain was only 31.1%, compared to 66.1% nationally), and now, with public pension obligations outstripping growth in personal income and property values, Michigan’s taxpayers and corporations—and the state’s municipalities—confront hard choices with regard to “legacy costs” for municipal pensions and post-retirement health care obligations—debts which today are consuming nearly 20 percent of some city, township, and school budgets—even as the state’s revenue sharing program has dropped nearly 25 percent for fiscally-stressed municipalities such as Saginaw, Flint, and Detroit just since 2007—rendering the state the only state to realize negative growth rates (8.5%) in municipal revenue in the 2002-2012 decade, according to numbers compiled by the Michigan Municipal League—a decade in which revenue for the state’s cities and towns from state sources realized the sharpest decline of any state in the nation: 56%, a drop so steep that, as the Michigan Municipal League’s COO Tony Minghine put it: “Our system is just broken…We’re not equipped to deal with another recession. If we were to go into another recession right now, we’d see widespread communities failing.” Unsurprisingly, one of the biggest fears is that another wave of chapter 9 filings could trigger the appointment of the state’s ill-fated emergency manager appointments. From the Michigan Municipal League’s perspective, any fiscal resolution would require the state to address what appears to be a faltering revenue base: Michigan’s taxable property is appreciating too slowly to support the cost of government (between 2007 and 2013, the taxable value of property declined by 8 percent in Grand Rapids, 12% in Detroit, 25% in Livonia, 32% in Warren, 22% in Wayne County values, and 24% in Oakland County.) The fiscal threat, as the former U.S. Comptroller General of the General Accounting Office warned: “Most of these numbers will get worse with the mere passage of time.”

Fiscal & Physical Municipal Balancing II. Mayhap Michigan and Virginia state and local leaders need to talk:  Thinking fiscally about a state’s municipal fiscal challenges—and lessons learned—might be underway in Virginia, where, after the state did not move ahead on such an initiative last year, the new state budget has revived the focus on fiscal stress in Virginia cities and counties, with the revived fiscal focus appearing to have been triggered by the ongoing fiscal collapse of one of the state’s oldest cities, Petersburg. Thus, Sen. Emmett Hanger (R-Augusta County), a former Commissioner of the Revenue and member of the state’s House of Delegates, who, today, serves as Senate Finance Co-Chair, and Chair of the Health and Human Services Finance subcommittee, has filed a bill, SJ 278, to study the fiscal stress of local governments: his proposal would create a joint subcommittee to review local and state tax systems, as well as reforms to promote economic assistance and cooperation between regions. Although the legislation was rejected in the Virginia House Finance Committee, where members deferred consideration of tax reform for next year’s longer session, the state’s adopted budget does include two fiscal stress preventive measures originally incorporated in Senator Hanger’s proposed legislation—or, as co-sponsor Sen. Rosalyn Dance (D-Petersburg), noted: “Currently, there is no statutory authority for the Commission on Local Government to intervene in a fiscally stressed locality, and the state does not currently have any authority to assist a locality financially.” To enhance the state’s authority to intervene fiscally, the budget has set guidelines for state officials to identify and help alleviate signs of financial stress to prevent a more severe crisis. Thus, a workgroup, established by the auditor of public accounts, would determine an appropriate fiscal early warning system to identify fiscal stress: the proposed system would consider such criteria as a local government’s expenditure reports and budget information. Local governments which demonstrate fiscal distress would thence be notified and could request a comprehensive review of their finances by the state. After a fiscal review, the commonwealth would then be charged with drafting an “action plan,” which would provide the purpose, duration, and anticipated resources required for such state intervention. The bill would also give the Governor the option to channel up to $500,000 from the general fund toward relief efforts for the fiscally stressed local government.

Virginia’s new budget also provides for the creation of a Joint Subcommittee on Local Government Fiscal Stress, with members drawn from the Senate Finance Committee, the House Appropriations, and the House Finance committees—with the newly created subcommittee charged to study local and state financial practices, such as: regional cooperation and service consolidation, taxing authority, local responsibilities in state programs, and root causes of fiscal stress. Committee member Del. Lashrecse Aird (D-Petersburg) notes: “It is important to have someone who can speak to first-hand experience dealing with issues of local government fiscal stress…This insight will be essential in forming effective solutions that will be sustainable long-term…Prior to now, Virginia had no mechanism to track, measure, or address fiscal stress in localities…Petersburg’s situation is not unique, and it is encouraging that proactive measures are now being taken to guard against future issues. This is essential to ensuring that Virginia’s economy remains strong and that all communities can share in our Commonwealth’s success.”

Municipal Bankruptcy—or Opportunity? The Chicago Civic Federation last week co-hosted a conference, “Chicago’s Fiscal Future: Growth or Insolvency?” with the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, where experts, practitioners, and academics from around the nation met to consider best and worst case scenarios for the Windy City’s fiscal future, including lessons learned from recent chapter 9 municipal bankruptcies. Chicago Fed Vice President William Testa opened up by presenting an alternative method of assessing whether a municipality city is currently insolvent or might become so in the future: he proposed that considering real property in a city might offer both an indicator of the resources available to its governments and how property owners view the prospects of the city, adding that, in addition to traditional financial indicators, property values can be used as a powerful—but not perfect—indicators to reflect a municipality’s current situation and the likelihood for insolvency in the future. He noted that there is considerable evidence that fiscal liabilities of a municipality are capitalized into the value of its properties, and that, if a municipality has high liabilities, those are reflected in an adjustment down in the value of its real estate. Based upon examination, he noted using the examples of Chicago, Milwaukee, and Detroit; Detroit’s property market collapse coincided with its political and economic crises: between 2006 and 2009-2010, the selling price of single family homes in Detroit fell by four-fold; during those years and up to the present, the majority of transactions were done with cash, rather than traditional mortgages, indicating, he said, that the property market is severely distressed. In contrast, he noted, property values in Chicago have seen rebounds in both residential and commercial properties; in Milwaukee, he noted there is less property value, but higher municipal bond ratings, due, he noted, to the state’s reputation for fiscal conservatism and very low unfunded public pension liabilities—on a per capita basis, Chicago’s real estate value compares favorably to other big cities: it lags Los Angeles and New York City, but is ahead of Houston (unsurprisingly given that oil city’s severe pension fiscal crisis) and Phoenix. Nevertheless, he concluded, he believes comparisons between Chicago and Detroit are overblown; the property value indicator shows that property owners in Chicago see value despite the city’s fiscal instability. Therefore, adding the property value indicator could provide additional context to otherwise misleading rankings and ratings that underestimate Chicago’s economic strength.

Lessons Learned from Recent Municipal Bankruptcies. The Chicago Fed conference than convened a session featuring our former State & Local Leader of the Week, Jim Spiotto, a veteran of our more than decade-long efforts to gain former President Ronald Reagan’s signature on PL 100-597 to reform the nation’s municipal bankruptcy laws, who discussed finding from his new, prodigious primer on chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. Mr. Spiotto advised that chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy is expensive, uncertain, and exceptionally rare—adding it is restrictive in that only debt can be adjusted in the process, because U.S. bankruptcy courts do not have the jurisdiction to alter services. Noting that only a minority of states even authorize local governments to file for federal bankruptcy protection, he noted there is no involuntary process whereby a municipality can be pushed into bankruptcy by its creditors—making it profoundly distinct from Chapter 11 corporate bankruptcy, adding that municipal bankruptcy is solely voluntary on the part of the government. Moreover, he said that, in his prodigious labor over decades, he has found that the large municipal governments which have filed for chapter 9 bankruptcy, each has its own fiscal tale, but, as a rule, these filings have generally involved service level insolvency, revenue insolvency, or economic insolvency—adding that if a school system, county, or city does not have these extraordinary fiscal challenges, municipal bankruptcy is probably not the right option. In contrast, he noted, however, if a municipality elects to file for bankruptcy, it would be wise to develop a comprehensive, long-term recovery plan as part of its plan of debt adjustment.

He was followed by Professor Eric Scorsone, Senior Deputy State Treasurer in the Michigan Department of Treasury, who spoke of the fall and rise of Detroit, focusing on the Motor City’s recovery—who noted that by the time Gov. Rick Snyder appointed Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, Detroit was arguably insolvent by all of the measures Mr. Spiotto had described, noting that it took the chapter 9 bankruptcy process and mediation to bring all of the city’s communities together to develop the “Grand Bargain” involving a federal judge, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, the Kellogg Foundation, and the Detroit Institute of Arts (a bargain outlined on the napkin of a U.S. District Court Judge, no less) which allowed Detroit to complete and approved plan of debt adjustment and exit municipal bankruptcy. He added that said plan, thus, mandated the philanthropic community, the State of Michigan, and the City of Detroit to put up funding to offset significant proposed public pension cuts. The outcome of this plan of adjustment and its requisite flexibility and comprehensive nature, have proven durable: Prof. Scorsone said the City of Detroit’s finances have significantly improved, and the city is on track to have its oversight board, the Financial Review Commission (FRC) become dormant in 2018—adding that Detroit’s economic recovery since chapter 9 bankruptcy has been extraordinary: much better than could have been imagined five years ago. The city sports a budget surplus, basic services are being provided again, and people and businesses are returning to Detroit.

Harrison J. Goldin, the founder of Goldin Associates, focused his remarks on the near-bankruptcy of New York City in the 1970s, which he said is a unique case, but one with good lessons for other municipal and state leaders (Mr. Goldin was CFO of New York City when it teetered on the edge of bankruptcy). He described Gotham’s disarray in managing and tracking its finances and expenditures prior to his appointment as CFO, noting that the fiscal and financial crisis forced New York City to live within its means and become more transparent in its budgeting. At the same time, he noted, the fiscal crisis also forced difficult cuts to services: the city had to close municipal hospitals, reduce pensions, and close firehouses—even as it increased fees, such as requiring tuition at the previously free City University of New York system and raising bus and subway fares. Nevertheless, he noted: there was an upside: a stable financial environment paved the way for the city to prosper. Thus, he advised, the lesson of all of the municipal bankruptcies and near-bankruptcies he has consulted on is that a coalition of public officials, unions, and civic leaders must come together to implement the four steps necessary for financial recovery: “first, documenting definitively the magnitude of the problem; second, developing a credible multi-year remediation plan; third, formulating credible independent mechanisms for monitoring compliance; and finally, establishing service priorities around which consensus can coalesce.”

State and Local Insolvency & Governance Challenges

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eBlog, 03/29/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the efforts to recover from the brink of insolvency in the small municipality of Petersburg, Virginia, before considering the legal settlement between the State of Michigan and City of Flint to resolve the city’s state-contaminated water which nearly forced it into municipal insolvency.

On the Precipice of Governing & Municipal Insolvency. Consultants hired to pull the historic Virginia municipality of Petersburg from the brink of municipal bankruptcy this week unveiled an FY2018 fiscal plan they claim would put the city on the path to fiscal stability—addressing what interim City Manager Tom Tyrrell described as: “It’s bad, it’s bad, it’s bad.” With the city’s credit ratings at risk, and uncertainty with regard to whether to sell the city’s utility infrastructure for a cash infusion, former Richmond city manager Robert Bobb’s organization presented the Petersburg City Council with the city’s first structurally balanced spending plan in nearly a decade: the proposed $77 million operating budget would increase spending on public safety and restore 10 percent cuts to municipal employees’ pay, even as it proposes cutting the city’s workforce, deeming it to be bloated and structurally inefficient. The recommendations also propose: restructuring municipal departments, the outsourcing of services that could eliminate up to 12 positions, and the reduction through attrition of more than 70 vacancies.

As offered, the plan also recommends about a 13 percent increase in the city’s current operating budget of $68.4 million, which was amended twice this fiscal year: the $77 million total assumes a $6 million cash infusion labeled on a public presentation as a “revenue event,” referring to a controversial issue dividing the elected leaders versus the consultants: Council members and the Washington, D.C. based firm have been at loggerheads over unsolicited proposals from private companies offering to purchase Petersburg’s public city’s utility system—a challenge, especially because of citizen/taxpayer apprehension about private companies increasing rates for consumers at a time when double-digit rate increases already are on the horizon. That, in turn, has raised governance challenges: Mr. Bobb, for instance, has expressed frustration with the city’s elected leaders’ decision to stall negotiations and study the prospect by committee, noting: “The city is out of time…They’re out of time with what’s needed with respect to the long-term financial health of the city. Time’s up.” Mr. Bobb believes the city cannot cut its way to financial health, or raise tax rates for city residents who themselves are struggling to get by, noting that at $1.35 per $100 of assessed value, the city’s real estate tax rate is currently the highest in the region—and at a potential tipping point, as, according to Census data, nearly half the city’s children live below the poverty line, which is set at $24,600 for a family of four. Moreover, Petersburg’s assessed property values have stagnated for the past five years, according to the credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s, which rated the city with a negative outlook at the end of last year: the lowest of any municipality in the state. (The city ended FY2016 with $18.8 million in unpaid bills and began the new fiscal year $12.5 million over budget. The budget since has been balanced, but debts remain.)

Under Mr. Bobb’s proposed plan, in a city where public safety is already the largest expense in the operating budget, he has proposed increasing police pay, addressing salary compression in the department, and providing for a force of 111 full-time and seven part-time employees. He suggests that should Petersburg not reap a $6 million “revenue event” in FY2018, the operating budget would be about 5 percent above this year’s, and a few million below revenues for fiscal years 2016 and 2015. Mr. Bobb’s consultant, Nelsie Birch, who is serving as Petersburg’s CFO, reports the city’s budget process and the development of the upcoming year’s budget have been thwarted by a lack of administrative infrastructure, noting that in the wake of starting work last October, he walked into a city finance department that had two part-time workers out of seven allocated positions—and a municipality with only $75,000 in its checking account. (Last week, there was approximately $700,000.) Today, Mr. Birch holds one of more than a half-dozen high-profile positions now filled by interim workers and consultants; Petersburg is paying about $80,000 for a Florida-based head hunter to help fill some of the city’s key vacancies, including those for city manager, deputy city manager, police chief, and finance director—with the City Council having voted last week to extend the Bobb Group’s contract through the end of September—at a cost to Petersburg’s city taxpayers of about $520,000.

Nevertheless, the eventual governance decisions remain with the Petersburg City Council, which secured its first opportunity to study the plan this week—a plan which will be explored during more than a half-dozen public meetings planned for the coming weeks: explorations which will define the city’s fiscal future—or address the challenge with regard to whether the city continues on its road to chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy.

The fiscal and governance challenges in this pivotal Civil War city, however, extend beyond its borders—or, as the ever so insightful Neal Menkes, the Director of Fiscal Policy for the Virginia Municipal League notes:  

“Perhaps the unstated theme is that the push for ‘regionalism’ is related not just to changing economic realities but to the state’s outmoded governance and taxation models. Local finances are driven primarily by growth in real estate and local sales, revenues that are not sensitive to a service economy. Sharing service costs with the Commonwealth is another downer. K-12 funding formulae are more focused on limiting the state’s liability than meeting the true costs of education.  That’s why locals overmatch by over $3.0 billion a year the amounts required by the state to access state basic aid funding.”

State Preemption of Municipal Authority & Ensuing Physical, Governing, and Fiscal Distress. U.S. District Judge David Lawson yesterday approved a settlement under which Michigan and the City of Flint have agreed to replace water lines at 18,000 homes under a sweeping agreement to settle a lawsuit over lead-contaminated water in the troubled city—where the lead contamination ensued under the aegis of a state-appointed emergency manager. The agreement sets a 2020 deadline to replace lead or galvanized-steel lines serving Flint homes, and provides that the state and the federal government are mandated to finance the resolution, which could cost nearly $100 million; in addition, it provides for the state to spend another $47 million to replace lead pipes and provide free bottled water—with those funds in addition to $40 million budgeted to address the lead-contamination crisis; Michigan will also set aside $10 million to cover unexpected costs, bringing the total to $97 million.

The lawsuit, filed last year by a coalition of religious, environmental, and civil rights activists, alleged state and city officials were violating the Safe Drinking Water Act—with Flint’s water tainted with lead for at least 18 months, as the city, at the time under a state-imposed emergency manager, tapped the Flint River, but did not treat the water to reduce corrosion. Consequently, lead leached from old pipes and fixtures. Judge Lawson, in approving the settlement, called it “fair and reasonable” and “in the best interests of the citizens of Flint and the state,” adding the federal court would maintain jurisdiction over the case and enforce any disputes with residents. Under the agreement, Michigan will spend an additional $47 million to help ensure safe drinking water in Flint by replacing lead pipes and providing free bottled water, with the state aid in addition to $40 million previously budgeted to address Flint’s widespread lead-contamination crisis and another $10 million to cover unexpected costs, bringing the total to $97 million. The suit, brought last year by a coalition of religious, environmental, and civil rights activists, alleged Flint water was unsafe to drink because state and city officials were violating the Safe Drinking Water Act; the settlement covers a litany of work in Flint, including replacing 18,000 lead and other pipes as well as providing continued bottled water distribution and funding of health care programs for affected residents in the city of nearly 100,000 residents. It targets spending $87 million, with the remaining $10 million saved in reserve. Ergo, if more pipes need to be replaced, the state will make “reasonable efforts” to “secure more money in the legislature,” Judge Lawson wrote, adding that the final resolution would not have been possible but for the involvement of Michigan Governor Rick Snyder. Judge Lawson also wrote that the agreement addresses short and long-term concerns over water issues in Flint.

The settlement comes in the wake of last December’s announcement by Michigan Attorney General Bill Scheutte of charges against two former state-appointed emergency managers of Flint, Mich., and two other former city officials, with the charges linked to the disastrous decision by a former state-appointed emergency manager to switch water sources, ultimately resulting in widespread and dangerous lead contamination. Indeed, the events in Flint played a key role in the revocation of state authority to preempt local control—or Public Act 72, known as the Local Government Fiscal Responsibility Act, which was enacted in 1990, but revised to become the Emergency Manager law under current Gov. Rick Snyder. Michigan State University economist Eric Scorsone described the origin of this state preemption law as one based on the legal precedent that local government is a branch of Michigan’s state government; he noted that Public Act 72 was rarely used in the approximately two decades it was in effect through the administrations of Gov. John Engler and Gov. Jennifer Granholm; however, when current Gov. Rick Snyder took office, one of the first bills that he signed in 2011 was Public Act 4, which Mr. Scorsone described as a “beefed-up” emergency manager law—one which Michigan voters rejected by referendum in 2012, only to see a new bill enacted one month later (PA 436), with the revised version providing that the state, rather than the affected local government paying the salary of the emergency manager. The new law also authorized the local government the authority to vote out the state appointed emergency manager after 18 months; albeit the most controversial change made to PA 436 was that it stipulated that the public could not repeal it. The new version also provided that local Michigan governments be provided four choices with regard to how to proceed once the Governor has declared an “emergency” situation: a municipality can choose between a consent agreement, which keeps local officials in charge–but with constraints, neutral evaluation (somewhat akin to a pre-bankruptcy process), filing for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, or suffering the state appointment of an emergency manager. As Mr. Scorsone noted, however, the replacement version did not provide Michigan municipalities with a “true” choice; rather “what you actually find is that a local government can choose a consent agreement, for example, but actually the state Treasurer has to agree that that is the right approach. If they don’t agree, they can force them to go back to one of the other options. So it is a choice, but perhaps a bit of a constrained choice.”

Thus, the liability of the emergency managers and the decisions they made became a major issue in the Flint water crisis—and it undercut the claim that the state could do better than elected local leaders—or, as Mr. Scorsone put it: “The state can take over the local government and run it better and provide the expertise, and that clearly didn’t work in the Flint case. The situation is epically wrong, perhaps, but this is clearly a case of where we have to ask the question: why did it go wrong, and I think it’s a complex answer, but one of the things that needs to be done…we need a better relationship between state and local government.” That has proven to be especially the case in the wake felony charges levied against former state appointed Emergency Managers in Flint of Darnell Earley and Gerald Ambrose, who were each charged with two felonies that carry penalties of up to 20 years—false pretenses and conspiracy to commit false pretenses, in addition to misconduct in office (also a felony) and willful neglect of duty in office, a misdemeanor.

Today, Michigan local governments have four choices in the wake of a gubernatorial declaration of an “emergency” situation: a municipality or county  can choose between a consent agreement, which keeps local officials in charge but with constraints; neutral evaluation, which is like a pre-municipal bankruptcy process;  filing for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy directly; or suffering the appointment of an emergency manager—albeit, as Mr. Scorsone writes: “The choice is a little constrained, to be truthful about it…If you really carefully read PA 436, what you actually find is that a local government can choose consent agreement, for example, but actually the state Treasurer has to agree that that is the right approach. If they don’t agree, they can force them to go back to one of the other options. So it is a choice, but perhaps a bit of a constrained choice…The law is pretty clear that the emergency manager is acting in a way that does provide some governmental immunity…The emergency manager, if there’s a claim against her or him, has to be defended by the Attorney General. That was fairly new to these new emergency manager laws. The city actually has to pay the legal bills of what the Attorney General incurs, and it’s certainly true that there is a degree of immunity provided to that emergency manager, and I suppose the rationale would be that they want some kind of protection because they are making these difficult decisions. But I think this issue is going to be tested in the Flint case to see how that really plays out.” Then, he noted: “The theory is that the state can do it better…The state can take over the local government and run it better and provide the expertise, and that clearly didn’t work in the Flint case. The situation is especially wrong, perhaps, but this is clearly a case of where we have to ask the question why did it go wrong, and I think it’s a complex answer, but one of the things that needs to be done…we need a better relationship between state and local government.”

Fiscal & Service Solvency

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eBlog, 03/10/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the long-term recovery of Chocolateville, or Central Falls, Rhode Island—one of the smallest municipalities in the nation; then we head West, even as no longer young, to consider the eroding fiscal situation confronting California’s CalPERS’ pension system, before, finally considering how Congress and the President, in trying to replace the Affordable Care Act, might impact Puerto Rico’s fiscal and service-related insolvency.

The Long & Exceptional Fiscal Road to Recovery. It was nearly five years ago that I sat with my class in a nearly empty City Hall in Central Falls, or Chocolateville, Rhode Island, the small (one square mile former mill town of indescribably delicious chocolate bars) with the newly appointed Judge Robert Flanders on his first day of the municipality’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy after his appointment by the Governor: a chapter 9 bankruptcy which that very same evening so sobered the City of Providence and its unions that their contemplation of filing for chapter 9 was squelched—and the State initiated its own unique sharing commitment to create teams of city managers, state legislators and others to act as intervention advisory teams so that no other municipality in the state would fall into insolvency. Our visit also led to our publication of a Financial Crisis Toolkit, which we promptly shared with municipal leaders across the State of Michigan at the Michigan Municipal League’s annual meeting in Detroit.
Today, it is Mayor James Diossa who has earned such deserved credit for what he describes as the “efforts and dedication to following fiscally sound budgeting practices,” efforts which, he said, “are clearly paying off, leaving the city in a strong position.” In the school of municipal finance, those efforts were rewarded with the credit rating elevation in its long-term general obligation rating three notches to BBB from BB, with credit analyst Victor Medeiros describing the fiscal recovery as one where, today, the city is “operating under a much stronger economic and management environment since emerging from bankruptcy in 2012…The city has had several years of strong budgetary performance, and has fully adhered to the established post-bankruptcy plan….The positive outlook reflects the possibility that strong budgetary performance could lead to improved reserves in line with the city’s new formal reserve policy.” The credit rating agency added that the city’s fiscal leadership had succeeded in ensuring strong liquidity, assessing total available cash at 28.7% of total governmental fund expenditures and nearly twice governmental debt service, leading S&P to award it a “strong institutional framework score.” That score should augur well as the city seeks to exit state oversight a year from next month: a path which S&P noted could continue to improve if it can build and sustain its gains in reserves and adhere to its successful financial practices, particularly after the city exits state oversight, or, as S&P put it: “Improving reserves over time would suggest that the city can position itself to better respond to the revenue effects of the next recession,” noting, however, the exceptional fiscal challenge in the state’s poorest municipality.

 

How Does a Public Pension System Protect against Insolvency? In California, the Solomon’s Choice awaits: what does CalPERS do when retiree of one of its members is from a municipality which has not paid in? In this case, one example is a retiree of a human services consortium which had closed with nearly half a million dollars in arrears to CalPERS. The conundrum: what is fair to the employee/retiree who fully paid in, but whose government or governmental agency had not? Or, as Michael Coleman, fiscal policy adviser for the League of California Cities, puts it: “Unless something is done to stem the mounting costs or to find ways to fund those mounting costs for employees, then the only recourse, beyond reducing service levels to unsustainable levels, is going to be to cut benefits for retirees,” an action which occurred for the first time last year, when CalPERS took such action against the tiny City of Loyalton, a municipality originally known as Smith’s Neck, but a name which the city fathers changed during Civil War—incorporated in 1901 as a dry town, its size was set at 50.6 square miles: it was California’s second largest city after Los Angeles. Today, Loyalton, the only incorporated city in Sierra County, helps us to grasp what can happen to public pension promises when there are insufficient resources: what will give? The answer, as Richard Costigan, Chair of CalPERS’ finance and administration committee puts it: “We end up being the bad person, because if the payments aren’t coming in, we’re left with the obligation to reduce the benefit, as we did in Loyalton…Otherwise the rest of the people in the system who have paid their bills would be paying for that responsibility.”
As all, except readers of this blog, are getting older (and, hopefully, wiser), cities, counties, states, and other municipal entities confront longer lifespans, so that, similar to the fiscal chasm looming in California, the day could be looming that what was promised thirty years ago is not fiscally available. In the Golden State, CalPERS has been paying benefits out faster that it has been gathering them, leading, at the end of last year, the state agency to reduce the assumed return on its investments to 7 percent from 7.5 percent—an action which, in turn, will requisition higher annual contributions from municipal and county governments, actions mandated by its fiduciary responsibility. While the state agency does not negotiate or set benefits, it does manage them on behalf of local governments, most of which are fulfilling their obligations.

 

Unpromising Turn. The PROMESA oversight board, deeming Puerto Rico’s liquidity to be critically low, has demanded the U.S. territory immediately adopt emergency spending cuts, writing to Gov. Ricardo Rosselló in an epistle that unless the government immediately adopted emergency measures, it could be insolvent in a “matter of months,” suggesting the government consider the immediate implementation of furloughs of most executive branch employees for four days each month, and teachers and other emergency personnel positions, such as law enforcement, two days a month; the Board urged Puerto Rico to put in place comparable furlough measures in other government entities, such as public corporations, authorities, and the legislative and judicial branches, in addition to recommending cutting spending for professional service contract expenditures by half. In addition, threatening public service solvency, the PROMESA Board directed the reduction of healthcare costs by negotiating drug pricing and rate reductions for health plans and providers. Mayhap most, at least from a governing perspective, critically, the PROMESA the board called for the Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Administration to implement a new liquidity plan by immediately controlling all Puerto Rico government accounts and spending, writing: “Given Puerto Rico’s lack of normal capital market access and our need to focus on a sustainable restructuring of debt is neither practical nor prudent to address this cash shortfall with new short-term borrowing,” warning Puerto Rico could face a cash deficit of about $190 million by the start of the new fiscal year, and that the Employment Retirement System and the Teachers Retirement System funds will be insolvent by the end of the calendar year. Adding to the threatening fiscal situation, Puerto Rico anticipates the loss of some $800 million in Affordable Care Act funding in the coming fiscal year.

 

Doctor Needed. As the U.S. House of Representatives reported out of two committees, yesterday, legislation to partially replace the Affordable Care Act, bills which, as introduced by the House Republicans—with the blessing of the Trump White House, omitted Puerto Rico, raising the specter that Congress could also fail to fund the U.S. territory’s Children’s Health Insurance Program, omissions Gov. Rosselló’s representative in Washington, D.C. warned might have implications threatening the reauthorization of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which could happen this summer, attributing  Puerto Rico’s exclusion from the two initial bills seeking to repeal and replace Obamacare—the first aimed at granting tax credits instead of direct subsidies, and the other which seeks to convert Medicaid in the states into a plan of block grants, like in the Island—to its colonial status: “As a territory, Puerto Rico isn’t automatically included in health reform legislation. It already happened with Obamacare. The Republican plan is a reform bill for the 50 states.” Indeed, Governor Rosselló’s fiscal plan complied with the PROMESA Oversight Board’s mandate to exclude any extensions of the nearly $1.2 billion in Medicaid funds currently granted under the Affordable Care Act, funds which could be depleted by the end of this year—and without any explanation for such clear discrimination against U.S. citizens.

Fiscal & Public Service Insolvency

eBlog, 03/03/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing challenges for the historic municipality of Petersburg, Virginia as it seeks to depart from insolvency; we consider, anew, the issues related to “service insolvency,” especially assisted by the exceptional insights of Marc Pfeiffer at Rutgers, then turning to the new fiscal plan by the Puerto Rico Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority, before racing back to Virginia for a swing on insolvent links. For readers who missed it, we commend the eBlog earlier this week in which we admired the recent wisdom on fiscal disparities by the ever remarkable Bo Zhao of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston with regard to municipal fiscal disparities.

Selling One’s City. Petersburg, Virginia, the small, historic, and basically insolvent municipality under quasi state control is now trying to get hundreds of properties owned by the city off the books and back on the tax rolls as part of its effort to help resolve its fiscal and trust insolvency. As Michelle Peters, Economic Development Director for Petersburg, notes: “The city owns over 200 properties, but today we had a showcase to feature about 25 properties that we group together based on location, and these properties are already zoned appropriate for commercial development.” Thus the municipality is not only looking to raise revenues from the sale, but also to realize revenues through the conversion of these empty properties into thriving businesses—or as Ms. Peters puts it: “It’s to get the properties back on the tax rolls for the city, because, currently, the city owns them so they are just vacant, there are no taxes being collected,” much less jobs being filled. Ms. Peters notes that while some of the buildings do need work, like an old hotel on Tabb Street, the city stands ready to offer a great deal on great property, and it is ready to make a deal and has incentives to offer:  “We’re ready to sit down at the table and to negotiate, strike a deal and get those properties developed.”

New Jersey & Its Taken-over City. The $72 million tax settlement between Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa and Atlantic City’s state overseers is a “major step forward” in fixing the city’s finances, according to Moody’s Investors Service, which deemed the arrangement as one that has cleared “one of the biggest outstanding items of concern” in the municipality burdened by hundreds of millions of dollars in debt and under state control. Atlantic City owed Borgata $165 million in tax refunds after years of successful tax appeals by the casino, according to the state. The settlement is projected to save the city $93 million in potential debt—savings which amount to a 22 percent reduction of the city’s $424 million total debt, according to Moody’s, albeit, as Moody’s noted: “[W]hile it does not solve the city’s problems, the settlement makes addressing those problems considerably more likely.” The city will bond for the $72 million through New Jersey’s state Municipal Qualified Bond Act, making it a double whammy: because the bonds will be issued via the state MQBA, they will carry an A3 rating, ergo at a much better rate than under the city’s Caa3 junk bond status. Nevertheless, according to the characteristically moody Moody’s, Atlantic City’s finances remain in a “perilous state,” with the credit rating agency citing low cash flow and an economy still heavily dependent upon gambling.

Fiscal & Public Service Insolvency. One of my most admired colleagues in the arena of municipal fiscal distress, Marc Pfeiffer, Senior Policy Fellow and Assistant Director of the Bloustein Local Government Research Center in New Jersey, notes that a new twist on the legal concept of municipal insolvency could change how some financially troubled local governments seek permission to file for federal bankruptcy protection. Writing that municipal insolvency traditionally means a city, county, or other government cannot pay its bills, and can lead in rare instances to a Chapter 9 bankruptcy filing or some other remedy authorized by the state that is not as drastic as a Chapter 9, he notes that, in recent years, the description of “insolvency” has expanded beyond a simple cash shortage to include “service-delivery insolvency,” meaning a municipality is facing a crisis in managing police, fire, ambulance, trash, sewer and other essential safety and health services, adding that service insolvency contributed to Stockton, California, and Detroit filings for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection in 2012 and 2013, respectively: “Neither city could pay its unsustainable debts, but officials’ failure to curb violent crime, spreading blight and decaying infrastructure was even more compelling to the federal bankruptcy judges who decided that Stockton and Detroit were eligible to file for Chapter 9.”

In fact, in meeting with Kevyn Orr, the emergency manager appointed by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, at his first meeting in Detroit, Mr. Orr recounted to me that his very first actions had been to email every employee of the city to ensure they reported to work that morning, noting the critical responsibility to ensure that street lights and traffic lights, as well as other essential public services operated. He wanted to ensure there would be no disruption of such essential services—a concern clearly shared by the eventual overseer of the city’s historic chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, now retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, who, in his decision affirming the city’s plan of debt adjustment, had written: “It is the city’s service delivery insolvency that the court finds most strikingly disturbing in this case…It is inhumane and intolerable, and it must be fixed.” Similarly, his colleague, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Christopher Klein, who presided over Stockton’s chapter 9 trial in California, had noted that without the “muscle” of municipal bankruptcy protection, “It is apparent to me the city would not be able to perform its obligations to its citizens on fundamental public safety as well as other basic public services.” Indeed, in an interview, Judge Rhodes said that while Detroit officials had provided ample evidence of cash and budget insolvency, “the concept of service delivery insolvency put a more understanding face on what otherwise was just plain numbers.” It then became clear, he said, that the only solution for Detroit—as well as any insolvent municipality—was “fresh money,” including hundreds of millions of dollars contributed by the state, city, and private foundations: “It is a rare insolvency situation—corporate or municipal—that can be fixed just by a change in management.”

Thus, Mr. Pfeiffer writes that “Demonstrating that services are dysfunctional could strengthen a local government’s ability to convince a [federal bankruptcy] judge that the city is eligible for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy protection (provided, of course, said municipality is in one the eighteen states which authorize such filings). Or, as Genevieve Nolan, a vice president and senior analyst at Moody’s Investors Service, notes: “With their cases focusing on not just a government’s ability to pay its debts, but also an ability to provide basic services to residents, Stockton and Detroit opened a path for future municipal bankruptcies.”

Mr. Pfeiffer notes that East Cleveland, Ohio, was the first city to invoke service insolvency after Detroit. In its so far patently unsuccessful efforts to obtain authority from the State of Ohio to file for municipal bankruptcy protection—in a city, where, as we have noted on numerous occasions, the city has demonstrated a fiscal inability to sustain basic police, fire, EMS, or trash services. East Cleveland had an approved plan to balance its budget, but then-Mayor Gary Norton told the state the proposed cuts “[would] have the effect of decimating our safety forces.” Ohio state officials initially rejected the municipality’s request for permission to file for municipal bankruptcy, because the request came from the mayor instead of the city council; the city’s status has been frozen since then.

Mr. Pfeiffer then writes:

Of concern.  [Municipal] Bankruptcy was historically seen as the worst case scenario with severe penalties – in theory the threat of it would prevent local officials from doing irresponsible things. [Indeed, when I first began my redoubtable quest with the Dean of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy Jim Spiotto, while at the National League of Cities, the very idea that the nation’s largest organization representing elected municipal leaders would advocate for amending federal laws so that cities, counties, and other municipal districts could file for such protection drew approbation, to say the least.] Local officials are subject to such political pressures that there needs to be a societal “worst case” that needs to be avoided.  It’s not like a business bankruptcy where assets get sold and equity holders lose investment.  We are dealing with public assets and the public, though charged with for electing responsible representatives, who or which can’t be held fully responsible for what may be foolish, inept, corrupt, or criminal actions by their officials. Thus municipal bankruptcy, rather than dissolution, was a worst case scenario whose impact needed to be avoided at all costs. Lacking a worst case scenario with real meaning, officials may be more prone to take fiscal or political risks if they think the penalty is not that harsh. The current commercial practice of a structured bankruptcy, which is commonly used (and effectively used in Detroit and eventually in San Bernardino and other places) could become common place. If insolvency were extended to “service delivery,” and if it becomes relatively painless, decision-making/political risk is lowered, and political officials can take greater risks with less regard to the consequences. In my view, the impact of bankruptcy needs to be so onerous that elected officials will strive to avoid it and avoid decisions that may look good for short-term but have negative impact in the medium to long-term and could lead to serious consequences. State leaders also need to protect their citizens with controls and oversight to prevent outliers from taking place, and stepping in when signs of fiscal weakness appear.”

Self-Determination. Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has submitted a 10-year fiscal plan to the PROMESA Oversight Board which would allow for annual debt payments of about 18% to 41% of debt due—a plan which anticipates sufficient cash flow in FY2018 to pay 17.6% of the government’s debt service. In the subsequent eight years, under the plan, the government would pay between 30% and 41% per year. The plan, according to the Governor, is based upon strategic fiscal imperatives, including restoring credibility with all stakeholders through transparent, supportable financial information and honoring the U.S. territory’s obligations in accordance with the Constitution of Puerto Rico; reducing the complexity and inefficiency of government to deliver essential services in a cost-effective manner; implementing reforms to improve Puerto Rico’s competitiveness and reduce the cost of doing business; ensuring that economic development processes are effective and aligned to incentivize the necessary investments to promote economic growth and job creation; protecting the most vulnerable segments of our society and transforming our public pensions system; and consensually renegotiating and restructuring debt obligations through Title VI of PROMESA. The plan he proposed, marvelously on the 100th anniversary of the Jones-Shafroth Act making Puerto Rico a U.S. territory, also proposes monitoring liquidity and managing anticipated shortfalls in current forecast, and achieving fiscal balance by 2019 and maintaining fiscal stability with balanced budgets thereafter (through 2027 and beyond). The Governor notes the Fiscal Plan is intended to achieve its objectives through fiscal reform measures, strategic reform initiatives, and financial control reforms, including fiscal reform measures that would reduce Puerto Rico’s decade-long financing gap by $33.3 billion through:

  • revenue enhancements achieved via tax reform and compliance enhancement strategies;
  • government right-sizing and subsidy reductions;
  • more efficient delivery of healthcare services;
  • public pension reform;
  • structural reform initiatives intended to provide the tools to significantly increase Puerto Rico’s capacity to grow its economy;
  • improving ease of business activity;
  • capital efficiency;
  • energy [utility] reform;
  • financial control reforms focused on enhanced transparency, controls, and accountability of budgeting, procurement, and disbursement processes.

The new Fiscal Plan marks an effort to achieve fiscal solvency and long-term economic growth and to comply with the 14 statutory requirements established by Congress’ PROMESA legislation, as well as the five principles established by the PROMESA Oversight Board, and intended to sets a fiscal path to making available to the public and creditor constituents financial information which has been long overdue, noting that upon the Oversight Board’s certification of those fiscal plans it deems to be compliant with PROMESA, the Puerto Rico government and its advisors will promptly convene meetings with organized bondholder groups, insurers, union, local interest business groups, public advocacy groups and municipality representative leaders to discuss and answer all pertinent questions concerning the fiscal plan and to provide additional and necessary momentum as appropriate, noting the intention and preference of the government is to conduct “good-faith” negotiations with creditors to achieve restructuring “voluntary agreements” in the manner and method provided for under the provisions of Title VI of PROMESA.

Related to the service insolvency issues we discussed [above] this early, snowy a.m., Gov. Rosselló added that these figures are for government debt proper—not the debt of issuers of the public corporations (excepting the Highways and Transportation Authority), Puerto Rico’s 88 municipalities, or the territory’s handful of other semi-autonomous authorities, and that its provisions do not count on Congress to restore Affordable Care Act funding. Rather, Gov. Rosselló said he plans to determine the amount of debt the Commonwealth will pay by first determining the sums needed for (related to what Mr. Pfeiffer raised above] “essential services and contingency reserves.” The Governor noted that Puerto Rico’s debt burden will be based on net cash available, and that, if possible, he hopes to be able to use a consensual process under Title VI of PROMESA to decide on the new debt service schedules. [PROMESA requires the creation of certified five-year fiscal plan which would provide a balanced budget to the Commonwealth, restore access to the capital markets, fund essential public services, and pensions, and achieve a sustainable debt burden—all provisions which the board could accept, modify, or completely redo.]  

Adrift on the Fiscal Links? While this a.m.’s snow flurries likely precludes a golf outing, ACA Financial Guaranty Corp., a municipal bond insurer, appears ready to take a mighty swing for a birdie, as it is pressing for payback on the defaulted debt which was critical to the financing of Buena Vista, Virginia’s unprofitable municipal golf course, this time teeing the proverbial ball up in federal court. Buena Vista, a municipality nestled near the iconic Blue Ridge of some 2,547 households, and where the median income for a household in the city is in the range of $32,410, and the median income for a family was $39,449—and where only about 8.2 percent of families were below the poverty line, including 14.3 percent of those under age 18 and 10 percent of those age 65 or over. Teeing the fiscal issue up is the municipal debt arising from the issuance by the city and its Public Recreational Facilities Authority of some $9.2 million of lease-revenue municipal bonds insured by ACA twelve years ago—debt upon which the municipality had offered City Hall, police and court facilities, as well as its municipal championship golf course as collateral for the debt—that is, in this duffer’s case, municipal debt which the municipality’s leaders voted to stop repaying, as we have previously noted, in late 2015. Ergo, ACA is taking another swing at the city: it is seeking:

  • the appointment of a receiver appointed for the municipal facilities,
  • immediate payment of the debt, and
  • $525,000 in damages in a new in the U.S. District Court for Western Virginia,

Claiming the municipality “fraudulently induced” ACA to enter into the transaction by representing that the city had authority to enter the contracts. In response, the municipality’s attorney reports that Buena Vista city officials are still open to settlement negotiations, and are more than willing to negotiate—but that ACA has refused its offers. In a case where there appear to have been any number of mulligans, since it was first driven last June, teed off, as it were, in Buena Vista Circuit Court, where ACA sought a declaratory judgment against the Buena Vista and the Public Recreational Facilities Authority, seeking judicial determination with regard to the validity of its agreement with Buena Vista, including municipal bond documents detailing any legal authority to foreclose on city hall, the police department, and/or the municipal golf course. The trajectory of the course of the litigation, however, has not been down the center of the fairway: the lower court case took a severe hook into the fiscal rough when court documents filed by the city contended that the underlying municipal bond deal was void, because only four of the Buena Vista’s seven City Council members voted on the bond resolution, not to mention related agreements which included selling the city’s interest in its “public places.” Moreover, pulling out a driver, Buena Vista, in its filing, wrote that Virginia’s constitution filing, requires all seven council members to be present to vote on a matter which involved backing the golf course’s municipal bonds with an interest in facilities owned by the municipality. That drive indeed appeared to earn a birdie, as ACA then withdrew its state suit; however, it then filed in federal court, where, according to its attorney, it is not seeking to foreclose on Buena Vista’s municipal facilities; rather, in its new federal lawsuit, ACA avers that the tainted vote supposedly invalidating the municipality’s deed of trust supporting the municipal bonds and collateral does not make sense, maintaining in its filing that Buena Vista’s elected leaders had adopted a bond resolution and made representations in the deed, the lease, the forbearance agreement, and in legal opinions which supported the validity of the Council’s actions, writing: “Fundamental principles of equity, waiver, estoppel, and good conscience will not allow the city–after receiving the benefits of the [municipal] bonds and its related transactions–to now disavow the validity of the same city deed of trust that it and its counsel repeatedly acknowledged in writing to be fully valid, binding and enforceable.” Thus, the suit requests a judgment against Buena Vista, declaring the financing documents to be valid, appointing a receiver, and an order granting ACA the right to foreclose on the Buena Vista’s government complex in addition to compensatory damages, with a number of the counts seeking rulings determining that Buena Vista and the authority breached deed and forbearance agreements, in addition to an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, requiring immediate payback on the outstanding bonds, writing: “Defendants’ false statements and omissions were made recklessly and constituted willful and wanton disregard.” In addition to compensatory damages and pre-and post-judgment interest, ACA has asked the U.S. court to order that Buena Vista pay all of its costs and attorneys’ fees; it is also seeking an order compelling the city to move its courthouse to other facilities and make improvements at the existing courthouse, including bringing it up to standards required by the ADA.

Like a severe hook, the city’s municipal public course appears to have been errant from the get-go: it has never turned a profit for Buena Vista; rather it has required general fund subsidies totaling $5.6 million since opening, according to the city’s CAFR. Worse, Buena Vista notes that the taxpayer subsidies have taken a toll on its budget concurrent with the ravages created by the great recession: in 2010, Buena Vista entered a five-year forbearance agreement in which ACA agreed to make bond payments for five years; however, three years ago, the city council voted in its budget not to appropriate the funds to resume payment on the debt, marking the first default on the municipal golf course bond, per material event notices posted on the MSRB’s EMMA.