The Fiscal Straits of Federalism: constitutional, fiscal, and human challenges for state and local leaders.

08/11/17

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Good Morning! In this a.m.’s blog, we consider the dire state of Hartford, Connecticut and the ongoing constitutional and fiscal challenges to the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico.

Fiscal Heart for Hartford? With no state budget in sight, the first day of school looming, Moody’s this week gloomily wondered whether the capitol city can avoid chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy via a path of debt restructuring and labor concessions as it contemplates looming debt payments of $3.8 million next month, and then $26.9 million in tax anticipation note payments in October. Moreover, given the grim state of Connecticut’s own fisc—upon which Hartford relies for half its municipal budget, Halloween could bring more than fiscal ghouls. Its options, moreover, as we have previously noted, are slim: with one fifth of its municipal budget composed of fixed costs, the option of increasing taxes—in a city with the highest tax rates in the state—would risk the loss of key businesses, potentially reducing, rather than increasing vital revenues. Thus, the challenge of meeting increased debt service costs and rising OPEB and pension obligations seem to more and more point to municipal debt restructuring.

If anything, the fiscal challenge is further complicated by the uncertainty on the state front: Connecticut has yet to adopt the budget for the fiscal year that began on July 1st: legislators have been unable to achieve consensus on a new two-year plan the governor will sign to address the state’s own projected $3.5 billion deficit. Indeed, Gov. Daniel P. Malloy’s budget, which proposes shifts of state education aid from wealthier communities to poorer communities, promises difficult negotiations with an uncertain outcome. Patrice McCarthy, the deputy director and general counsel at the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, warned that while there were previous state budget impasses in 1991 and 2009, this year could be much worse for public school officials: “In those years, while we didn’t have a finalized budget, people had a better idea in each community about how much they’d be receiving: This year, everything is up in the air.”

Fundido. In Latin America, the word fundido can be translated to “dead beat;” while in English, the old expression that one cannot beat a dead horse might seem apt for the challenge confronting U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor Swain, who is presiding over the PROMESA version of a chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy process—a process created under the statute adopted by Congress which Theodore Olson, the former Solicitor General of the United States, this week described in an op-ed to the Wall Street Journal as a law which blatantly violates the Appointments Clause of the U.S Constitution.

Judge Swain this week approved an agreement intended to address creditors’ competing claims with regard to Puerto Rico’s sales tax revenue by the end of this year as part of an effort to resolve an agreement between the island’s two biggest creditor classes, General Obligation bondholders and COFINA bondholders, in part through appointing an agent for each side—agents charged with pursuing the best resolution for their debtor’s estate as a whole, as opposed to advocating for particular creditors of that debtor. (COFINA’s bonds are backed by Puerto Rico’s sales and use tax revenue, unlike Puerto Rico’s General Obligation debt, which carries a constitutional guarantee providing a claim on all of Puerto Rico’s revenues.) Thus, unsurprisingly, Judge Swain had been placed in the position of Solomon: she could threaten to cut the baby in half if the two sides do not reach an agreement by December 15th.  Here, the judicial combatants, who, together, claim to hold approximately half the U.S. territory’s $72 billion in debt, are fighting over which side has the primary claim on sales and use tax revenues.

Separately, Judge Swain this week has held off on responding to a request by creditors of Puerto Rico’s bankrupt power utility, PREPA, to appoint a receiver at the agency, denying a motion by a group of cities and towns to form an official committee in the case, whose attorneys’ fees would be paid by the island’s bankruptcy estate. Judge Swain informed the parties it was unclear whether the municipalities had valid claims against Puerto Rico’s government, a claim which, as we have previously noted, is critical, as Michael Rochelle, an attorney for the muncipios, told the judge his clients are confronted with budget cuts of as much as 50 percent; he plead: “This place will become Greece…We will have municipalities needing to be bankrupted.” Increasingly, too, there are fears that exorbitant legal fees, fees which some experts believe could run to in excess of $1 billion, are coming at the expense of Puerto Rico’s future. In so informing the muncipios, Judge Swain rejected a motion by several municipalities to have a committee representing their interests in Puerto Rico’s Title III case: she said that §1102 of the bankruptcy code allowed committees for creditors or equity security holders, but the municipalities are not the latter, and the municipalities’ principal concerns are not those of being creditors, adding that the municipalities are adequately represented without having their own committee.

The president of the Association of Puerto Rico Mayors, Rolando Ortiz, yesterday made clear the gravity of the fiscal situation, warning that 45 municipalities will be inoperative as early as the close of the fiscal year, under the fiscal plan submitted by Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and certified by the Federal Fiscal Control Board. He noted that the proposal would eliminate a loan of some $350 million, which was granted to municipalities in exchange for exempting public corporations from paying the tax on real property—or, as he stated: “From the fiscal point of view, it leaves us without protection of the judicial apparatus of the country and limits our capacity to serve to the citizens to the extent that they take away resources that we have always used to help the people that we attend in the different cities.”

Indeed, it appears the fiscal impact has already begun to have an effect on the pockets of municipal employees, who have experienced reductions in working hours in 22 municipalities: Arroyo, Toa Alta, Cabo Rojo, Yauco, Las Piedras, Juana Diaz, Comerío, Vieques, Aguadilla, Mayagüez, Toa Baja, Salinas, Adjuntas, Vega Baja, Sabana Grande, Villalba, and Trujillo Alt; five other municipalities had applied the reduction of working hours in previous years. (Ponce, Ciales, Luquillo, Maunabo, and Camuy.) The likely next step, he warned, would be that more municipalities will join the lawsuits filed by the municipalities of San Juan and Caguas—litigation in response to which they said: “The decision of (Judge Swain) what she is going to bring is more cases on the part of the municipalities.” The Mayor of Caguas, a municipality  founded in 1775 of about 150,000 located in the Central Mountain Range, William Miranda Torres, regretted the closure of the judicial door to the municipalities, describing it as a “scenario where they have made decisions, by blow and blow, to make use of our monies without allowing us fair participation,” describing it as “clear discrimination against the municipalities,” noting that the municipalities offer direct services to the citizenry, including  maintenance to infrastructure, health, safety, emergency management, programs to the elderly, garbage collection, cultural programs, fine arts programs and sports programs—adding: “The central government has been stripping municipalities of important resources to provide essential services that will now be very difficult to cover. The humanitarian crisis has come and closing doors give us very few possibilities to fight it from where we can best do it.”

For her part, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz recalled that her municipality continues along the route to sue under PROMESA’s Title VI, even as she praised the management of mayors who filed their appeal by way of Title III: “If the judge (Judge Swain) said it was not for Title III, at least those comrades dared to challenge PROMESA.”

Rising from Municipal Bankruptcies’ Ashes

07/24/17

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Good Morning! You might describe this a.m.’s e or iBlog as The Turnaround Story, as we consider the remarkable fiscal recovery in Atlantic City and observe some of the reflections from Detroit’s riot of half a century ago—a riot which presaged its nation’s largest chapter 9 bankruptcy, before we assess the ongoing fiscal turmoil in the U.S. territory look at Puerto Rico.

New Jersey & You. Governor Chris Christie on Friday announced his administration is delivering an 11.4% decrease in the overall Atlantic City property tax rate for 2017—a tax cut which will provide an annual savings of $621 for the City’s average homeowner, but which, mayhap more importantly, appears to affirm that the city’s fiscal fortunes have gone from the red to the black, after, earlier this month, the City Council accepted its $206 million budget with a proposed 5% reduction in the municipal purpose tax rate, bringing it to about $1.80 per $100 of assessed valuation. Atlantic City’s new budget, after all, marks the first to be accepted since the state took over the city’s finances last November; indeed, as Mayor Don Guardian noted, the fiscal swing was regional: the county and school tax rates also dropped—producing a reduction of more than 11%—and an FY2018 budget $35 million lower than last year—and $56 million below the FY2016 budget: “We had considerably reduced our budget this year and over the last couple of years…I’m just glad that we’re finally able to bring taxes down.” Mayor Guardian added the city would still like to give taxpayers even greater reductions; nevertheless, the tax and budget actions reflect the restoration of the city’s budget authority in the wake of last year’s state takeover: the budget is the first accepted since the state took over the city’s finances in November after the appointment last year of a state fiscal overseer, Jeff Chiesa—whom the Governor thanked, noting:

“Property taxes can be lowered in New Jersey, when localities have the will and leaders step in to make difficult decisions, as the Department of Community Affairs and Senator Jeff Chiesa have done…Our hard work to stop city officials’ irresponsible spending habits is bearing tangible fruit for Atlantic City residents. Annual savings of more than $600 for the average household is substantial money that families can use in their everyday lives. This 11.4% decrease is further proof that what we are doing is working.”

Contributing to the property tax rate decrease is a $35-million reduction in the City’s FY2017 budget, which, at $206.3 million, is about 25% lower than its FY2015 budget, reflecting reduced salaries, benefits, and work schedules of Atlantic City’s firefighters and police officers, as well as the outsourcing of municipal services, such as trash pickup and vehicle towing to private vendors. On the revenue side, the new fiscal budget also reflects a jackpot in the wake of the significant Borgata settlement agreement on property tax appeals—all reflected in the city’s most recent credit upgrade and by Hard Rock’s and Stockton University’s decisions to make capital investments in Atlantic City, as well as developers’ plans to transform other properties, such as the Showboat, into attractions intended to attract a wider variety of age groups to the City for activities beyond gambling—or, as the state-appointed fiscal overseer, Mr. Chiesa noted: “The City is on the road to living within its means…We’re not done yet, but we’ve made tremendous progress that working families can appreciate. We’ll continue to work hard to make even more gains for the City’s residents and businesses.

The Red & the Black. Unsurprisingly, there seems to be little agreement with regard to which level of government merits fiscal congratulations. Atlantic City Mayor Guardian Friday noted: “We had considerably reduced our budget this year and over the last couple of years…“I’m just glad that we’re finally able to bring taxes down.” Unsurprisingly, lame duck Gov. Christie credited the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs and Mr. Chiesa, stating: “Our hard work to stop city officials’ irresponsible spending habits is bearing tangible fruit for Atlantic City residents.” However, Tim Cunningham, the state director of local government services, earlier this month told the Mayor and Council the city and its budget were moving in the “right direction,” adding hopes for the city’s fiscal future, citing Hard Rock and Stockton University’s investment in the city; while Mr. Chiesa, in a statement, added: “The city is on the road to living within its means…We’re not done yet, but we’ve made tremendous progress that working families can appreciate. We’ll continue to work hard to make even more gains for the city’s residents and businesses.”

Do You Recall or Remember at All? Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, the white mayor of the largest African-American city in America, last month spoke at a business conference in Michigan about the racially divisive public policies of the first half of 20th century which helped contribute to Detroit’s long, painful decline in the second half of the last century—a decline which ended in five torrid nights and days of riots which contributed to the burning and looting of some 2,509 businesses—and to the exodus of nearly 1.2 million citizens. The Mayor, campaigning for re-election, noted: “If we fail again, I don’t know if the city can come back.” His remarks appropriately come at the outset of this summer’s 50th anniversary of the summer the City Detroit burned.

Boston University economics Professor Robert Margo, a Detroit native who has studied the economic effects of the 1960’s U.S. riots, noting how a way of life evaporated in 120 hours for the most black residents in the riot’s epicenter, said: “It wasn’t just that people lived in that neighborhood; they shopped and conducted business in that neighborhood. Overnight all your institutions were gone,” noting that calculating the economic devastation from that week in 1967 was more than a numbers exercise: there was an unquantifiable human cost. That economic devastation, he noted, exacerbated civic and problems already well underway: job losses, white flight, middle-income black flight, and the decay and virtual wholesale abandonment of neighborhoods, where, subsequently, once-vibrant neighborhoods were bulldozed, so that, even today, if we were to tour along main artery of the riot, Rosa Parks Boulevard (which was 12th Street at the time of the riots), you would see overgrown vacant lots, lone empty commercial and light industrial buildings, boarded-up old homes—that is, sites which impose extra security costs and fire hazards for the city’s budget, but continue to undercut municipal revenues. Yet, you would also be able to find evidence of the city’s turnaround: townhouses, apartments, and the Virginia Park Community Plaza strip mall built from a grassroots community effort. But the once teeming avenue of stores, pharmacies, bars, lounges, gas stations, pawn shops, laundromats, and myriad of other businesses today have long since disappeared.

In the wake of the terrible violence, former President Lyndon Johnson created the Kerner Commission, formally titled the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, to analyze the causes and effects of the nationwide wave of 1967 riots. That 426-page report concluded that Detroit’s “city assessor’s office placed the loss—excluding building stock, private furnishings, and the buildings of churches and charitable institutions—at approximately $22 million. Insurance payouts, according to the State Insurance Bureau, will come to about $32 million, representing an estimated 65 to 75 percent of the total loss,” while concluding the nation was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” Absent federal action, the Commission warned, the country faced a “system of ’apartheid’” in its major cities: two Americas: delivering an indictment of a “white society” for isolating and neglecting African-Americans and urging federal legislation to promote racial integration and to enrich slums—primarily through the creation of jobs, job training programs, and decent housing. In April of 1968, one month after the release of the Kerner Commission report, rioting broke out in more than 100 cities across the country in the wake of the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.

In excerpts from the Kerner Report summary, the Commission analyzed patterns in the riots and offered explanations for the disturbances. Reports determined that, in Detroit, adjusted for inflation, there were losses in the city in excess of $315 million—with those numbers not even reflecting untabulated losses from businesses which either under-insured or had no insurance at all—and simply not covering at all other economic losses, such as missed wages, lost sales and future business, and personal taxes lost by the city because the stores had simply disappeared. Academic analysis determined that riot areas in Detroit showed a loss of 237,000 residents between 1960 and 1980, while the rest of the entire city lost 252,000 people in that same time span. Data shows that 64 percent of Detroit’s black population in 1967 lived in the riot tracts. U. of Michigan Professor June Thomas, of the Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, wrote: “The loss of the commercial strips in several areas preceded the loss of housing in the nearby residential areas. That means that some of the residential areas were still intact but negatively affected by nearby loss of commercial strips.” The riots devastated assessed property values—creating signal incentives to leave the city for its suburbs—if one could afford to.

On the small business side, the loss of families and households, contributed to the exodus—an exodus from a city of 140 square miles that left it like a post WWII Berlin—but with lasting fiscal impacts, or, as Professor Bill Volz of the WSU Mike Ilitch School of Business notes: the price to reconstitute a business was too high for many, and others simply chose to follow the population migration elsewhere: “Most didn’t get rebuilt. They were gone, those mom-and-pop stores…Those small business, they were a critical part of the glue that made a neighborhood. Those small businesses anchored people there. Not rebuilding those small businesses, it just hurt the neighborhood feel that it critical in a city that is 140 square miles. This is a city of neighborhoods.” Or, maybe, he might have said: “was.” Professor Thomas adds that the Motor City’s rules and the realities of post-war suburbanization also made it nearly impossible to replace neighborhood businesses: “It’s important to point out that, as set in place by zoning and confirmed by the (city’s) 1951 master plan, Detroit’s main corridors had a lot of strip commercial space that was not easily converted or economically viable given the wave of suburban malls that had already been built and continued to draw shoppers and commerce…This, of course, all came on top of loss of many businesses, especially black-owned, because of urban renewal and I-75 construction.”

Left en Atras? (Left Behind?As of last week, two-thirds of Puerto Rico’s muncipios, or municipalities, had reported system breakdowns, according to Ramón Luis Cruz Burgos, the deputy spokesman of the delegation of the Popular Democratic Party (PPD) in the Puerto Rico House Of Representatives: he added that in Puerto Rico, a great blackout occurs every day due to the susceptibility of the electric power system, noting, for instance, that last month, for six consecutive days, nearly 70 percent of Puerto Rico’s municipalities had problems with electricity service, or, as he stated: “In Puerto Rico we have a big blackout every day. We have investigated the complaints that have been filed at the Autoridad de Energía Eléctrica (AEE) for blackouts in different sectors, and we conclude that daily, two-thirds of the island are left without light. This means that sectors of some 51 municipalities are left in the dark and face problems with the daily electricity service.”

It seems an odd juxtaposition/comparison with the events that triggered the nation’s largest ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in Detroit—even as it reminds us that in Puerto Rico, not only is the Commonwealth ineligible for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, but also its municipalities. Mr. Cruz Burgos noted that reliability in the electric power system is one of the most important issues in the economic development of a country, expressing exasperation and apprehension that interruptions in service have become the order of the day: “Over the last two months, we have seen how more than half of the island’s villages are left dark for hours and even for several days, because the utility takes too long to repair breakdowns,” warning this problem will be further aggravated during the month of August, when energy consumption in schools and public facilities increases: “In the last two months, there are not many schools operating and the use of university facilities is also reduced for the summer vacation period. In addition, many employees go on vacation so operations in public facilities reduce their operation and, therefore, energy consumption.”

Jose Aponte Hernandez, Chair of the International and House Relations Committee, blamed the interruptions on the previous administration of Gov. Luis Fortuno, claiming: it had “abandoned the aggressive program of maintenance of the electrical structure implemented by former Gov. Luis Fortuna, claiming: “In the past four years the administration of the PPD did not lift a finger to rehabilitate the ESA structure. On the contrary, they went out of their way to destroy it in order to justify millionaire-consulting contracts. That is why today we are confronting these blackouts.”

The struggle for basic public services—just as there was a generation ago in Detroit, reflect the fiscal and governing challenge for Puerto Rico and its 88 municipalities at a time when non-Puerto Rican municipal bondholders have launched litigation in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims to demand payment of $3.1 billion in principal and interest in Puerto Rico Employment Retirement System bonds (In Altair Global Credit Opportunities Fund (A), LLC et al. v. The United States of America)—the first suit against the U.S. government proper, in contrast to prior litigation already filed against the Puerto Rico Oversight Board, with the suit relying on just compensation claims and that PROMESA is a federal entity. Here, as the Wizard of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, Jim Spiotto, notes, the key is whether the PROMESA board was acting on behalf of the federal government or on behalf of Puerto Rico—adding that he believes it was acting for Puerto Rico and, ergo, should not be considered part of the federal government, and that the U.S. Court of Federal Claims may find that the federal government’s actions were illegal. Nevertheless, the issue remains with regard to whether the bonds should be paid from the pledged collateral—in this case being Puerto Rico employer contributions. (The Altair complaint alleges that the PROMESA Board is a federal entity which has encouraged, directed, and even forced Puerto Rico to default on its ERS bonds—a board created by Congress which has directed the stream of employer contributions away from the bondholders and into the General Fund, according to these bondholders’ allegations.

Lone Star Blues

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eBlog, 2/16/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the dwindling timeline confronting the city of Dallas to take action to avert a potential municipal bankruptcy; then we return to the small municipality of Petersburg, Virginia—an insolvent city with what appears to be an increasingly insolvent governing model, enmeshing the small city in litigation it can ill afford. Finally, we return to the trying governing and fiscal challenges in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico—caught between changing administrations, a federal oversight board, a disparate Medicaid regime than for other states and counties, and trying to adjust to a new Administration and Congress.

Dallas, Humpty-Dumpty, & Chapter 9? In a state where, as one state and local government expert yesterday described it, that state has created a governance structure which allows everyone to avoid accountability, the City of Dallas is confronting a public pension problem that could force the city into municipal bankruptcy [Texas Local Government Code §101.006—seven Texas towns and cities have filed for such protection.]. Should the city lose its current case against its firefighters—a case with some $4 billion at stake—municipal bankruptcy could ensue. Another Texan, noting the challenge of putting “Humpty Dumpty back together again,” said failure of the city to emulate Houston and come to terms with its employees, retirees, and taxpayers would be “cataclysmic.” With about two weeks remaining to file bills in the Longhorn legislature and negotiations over the city’s mismanaged and underfunded police and fire pension at a standstill, state lawmakers note they will likely be forced to step into the crisis, if the city is to avoid chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy—or, as Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas) noted: “I think we’re forced to step in. We’re [17] days away from the deadline, and there is yet to be an agreement between the city and the pension board…I think at this point we have to have a summit or some form of intervention, get everyone to the table and hammer those final issues down. If they don’t do that, it’s going to be a plan that’s drawn by the legislators, and we don’t have a stake interest like the other groups do to understand the nuances.” His statement came in the wake of a stoppage in negotiations over the last couple weeks—negotiations originally set up by the state, and negotiations with a short fuse: the last chance for the Texas Legislature to file bills to address the issue is looming: March 1st.

The severity of the crisis could be partially alleviated by a settlement reached late yesterday by the failing Dallas Police and Fire Pension System in its litigation against its former real estate advisers, whom pension officials had accused of leading the retirement fund astray. CDK Realty Advisors and the Dallas pension system both agreed to drop all claims and counterclaims with prejudice, according to court records filed late yesterday—and came as the city’s pension system and its attorneys have also been battling litigation from four City Council members, Mayor Mike Rawlings, a former contract auditor, and active and retired police and firefighters. The stakes are the city’s fiscal future: its retirement fund is now set to become insolvent within the next decade because of major losses and overvaluations—mostly from real estate—and generous benefits guaranteed by the system. Advising me that the “stigma or consequences for a city with the pride and stature of Dallas to fail would be cataclysmic,” one of the nation’s most insightful state and local pension wizards described the city’s pension challenge as “about as bad as any I have ever seen.”  

Hear Ye—or Hear Ye Not. A hearing for the civil case brought against Petersburg Mayor Samuel Parham and Councilman and former Mayor W. Howard Myers is set for this morning: Both men are defendants in a civil court case brought about by members of registered voters from the fifth and third wards of Petersburg: members of the third and fifth wards signed petitions to have both men removed from their positions. The civil case calls for both Parham and Myers to be removed from office due to “neglect, misuse of office, and incompetence in the performance of their duties.” The purpose of hearing is to determine a trial date, to hear any motions, to determine whether Messieurs Parham and Myers will be tried separately, and if they want to be tried by judge or jury. James E. Cornwell of Sands Anderson Law Firm will be representing Myers and Parham. The City Council voted 5-2 on Tuesday night to have the representation of Mr. Myers and Mayor Parham be paid for by the city. Mayor Parham, Vice Mayor Joe Hart, Councilman Charlie Cuthbert, former Mayor Myers, and Councilman Darrin Hill all voted yes to the proposition, while Councilwoman Treska Wilson-Smith and Councilwoman Annette Smith-Lee voted no. Mayor Parham and Councilmember Hill stated that the Council’s decision to pay for the representation was necessary to “protect the integrity of the Council,” noting: “It may not be a popular decision, but it’s [Myers and Parham] today, and it could be another council tomorrow.” Messieurs Hill and Parham argued that the recall petition could happen to any member of council: “[The petitions] are a total attack on our current leadership…We expect to get the truth told and these accusations against us laid to rest.” The legal confrontation is further muddied by City Attorney Joseph Preston’s inability to represent the current and former Mayors, because he was also named in the recall petition, and could be called as a witness during a trial.

Municipal Governance Bankruptcy? Virginia Commonwealth’s Attorney Cassandra Conover has felt forced to write a complaint, suggesting a conflict of interest in the virtually insolvent municipality of Petersburg, Virginia, in the wake of a city council vote to have the city pay for the legal expenses of Mayor Samuel Parham and Councilman Howard Myers. Ms. Conover, in an advisory opinion, described the vote to approve those expenses as a conflict of interest for the current and former mayors: “It is my advisory opinion that the undeclared conflict of interest disqualified both councilmen from voting on this motion and renders the vote invalid.” (The vote in question, as we have previously noted, was to hire a private attorney to represent Mayor Sam Parham and Councilman Howard Myers after more than 400 neighbors signed a petition to oust two Councilmembers from office.) Ms. Conover cited Virginia Code §2.2-3112, which says an employee of a state or local government entity “shall disqualify himself from participating in the transaction where the transaction involves a property or business or governmental agency in which he has a personal interest,” noting that Code §2.2-3115(F) mandates that in such a situation, there must be oral or written statements that show the transaction involved; the nature of the employee’s personal interest: that he (or she) is a member of a business, profession, occupation or group of members which are affected by the transaction: and that he is able to participate fairly, objectively and in the public interest. In this case, Ms. Conover stated that there was “no evidence that all four of these requirements were met in this case: concluding that the undeclared conflict of interest disqualified both men from voting and renders the vote invalid. 

The governance issue was not just the concept of an insolvent city’s Council voting to use public municipal funds to hire the private attorney, but also that neither Mayor Parham, nor Councilmember Myers recused himself from voting. Nevertheless, Petersburg City Attorney Joseph Preston responded that there was no conflict of interest and that the pair of elected officials had acted legally. Mayor Parham said the city likely will pay the bill for the personal attorney he and Councilmember Myers retained, albeit noting: “We’ve had to make cuts to schools and public safety, and we’re just starting to get back on our feet. It is a shame that we have to pump funds into something like this.” City Attorney Preston noted that Ms. Conover’s advisory opinion “adequately represents what occurred at their council meeting,” but he said he believes the pair of elected officials were legally allowed to take part in the vote, citing Virginia Code §2.2-3112 which provides that persons who have a conflict of interest can submit a disclosure statement on the issue—filings which the two elected officials filed with the Clerk of Court’s office the day after the vote. In addition, City Attorney Preston cited a decision from the Virginia Attorney General’s Office from 2009 which had ruled in favor of the Gloucester County Board of Supervisors, who were seeking compensation for their legal expenses; Ms. Conover, however, responded that the Attorney General’s 2009 decision did not apply to this case, because the charges against the Gloucester Board of Supervisors had been dismissed, and the court ordered the locality to pay for the majority of the legal fees which the board members had accrued, adding that the insolvent city had offered no estimate with regard to how much their legal fees could be. Notwithstanding the Commonwealth Attorney’s opinion, it appears unlikely that the Council will vote on the issue again: Mayor Parham yesterday noted: “I don’t feel like there was any conflict, and we did as we were advised by our attorney…We’ve had to make cuts to schools and public safety, and we’re just starting to get back on our feet. It is a shame that we have to pump funds into something like this.”  

Federalism, Governance, & Hegemony. With the enactment of the PROMESA legislation, Congress created governance and fiscal oversight responsibilities in the hands of seven non-elected officials to make critical fiscal reforms and restructuring of Puerto Rico—either through federal courts or via voluntary negotiations—for a debt that adds up to about $69 billion, but the new law also tasked a Congressional Task Force with analyzing initiatives which could help the island’s economy to grow; however, this bipartisan and bicameral committee ceased to exist upon submitting its report; ergo, unsurprisingly, both Governor Ricardo Rosselló and Jenniffer González, the new Resident Commissioner for Puerto Rico, have demanded that the PROMESA board members support their claims. But now a key area of concern has arisen: if the U.S. territory is unable to comply with the implementation of an information system which methodically integrates the management of important data for Medicaid claims—as mandated for federal eligibility as part of an integrated system to process claims and recover information, which is a Medicaid program requirement for federal fund eligibility which Puerto Rico should have long ago met, the island faces a more stark January 1 deadline by which it must comply with 60% of this system or be confronted with a fine of $147 million—a threat so dire that, according to the Health Secretary, Dr. Rafael Rodríguez Mercado, failing to comply with this requirement would mean the end of the Puerto Rico Government Health Plan. Puerto Rico is the only jurisdiction lacking such a platform, a platform intended to protect against medical fraud and establish eligibility, compliance, and service quality controls.

It was revealed in December, during the new government’s transition hearings for the Department of Health that the development of this platform began in 2011, but that it was not until 2014 that the project was resumed in its planning stage. The necessary funds to begin the implementation phase were finally matched during this fiscal year. The last administration predicted that the basic modules would begin working in a year and a half, and that the entire system would be operating in five years: it was expected that the window for the disbursement of Medicare and Medicaid funds would open in a year and a half. However, under threat of a fine, the government now expects to reach this goal before the date predicted by the last administration. Dr. Rodríguez Mercado stressed that there are currently 470,000 Puerto Ricans without health care insurance, many of whom cannot afford private insurance or are ineligible for the Government Health Plan, thus, many of these people seek out services in Centro Médico, an institution with a multi-million dollar deficit, when they become sick or are injured. Dr. Mercado further noted the disproportionate percentage of Medicare and Medicaid fraud cases, further undermining the territory’s credibility with the federal government—and, adding that local governments have complied  with the implementation of a Medicaid Fraud Control Unit (MFCU), which he says falls under the purview of the Department of Justice. Nevertheless, despite differing points of emphasis, both the leadership of the PROMESA Oversight Board and Resident Commissioner Jenifer González yesterday restated the importance of preventing Puerto Rico’s healthcare system from falling into a fiscal abyss, given the depletion of the $1.2 billion in Medicaid funds which has been provided on an annual basis under the Affordable Care Act.

Yesterday, in the wake of separate meetings with Commissioner González, with one of Speaker Paul Ryan’s advisors, and with Congresswoman Elise Stefanik (R-NY), PROMESA Oversight Board Chair José Carrión claimed that “we always try to include healthcare and economic development issues” in the meetings held in Congress, describing meetings in which he had been joined by Board member Carlos García and interim executive director, Ramón Ruiz Comas, as sessions to provide updates, while trying to deal with the issue which most concerns the Board: health care—emphasizing that especially in the wake of the end of the Congressional Task Force on Economic Growth in Puerto Rico.  

Who’s at Risk of Defaulting?

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eBlog, 12/16/16

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the challenge to state and local leaders arising from both the Federal Reserve’s decision to increase interest rates, apprehensions about growing state budget gaps—and the respective implications for city and county credit ratings—as well, of course, to the incoming Trump administration and next Congress’ proposals on federal tax reform where—as under former President Ronald Reagan, the authority of state and local governments to issue tax exempt municipal bonds is expected to come under challenge—as is the deductibility of state and local taxes. Moreover, with the Federal Reserve’s decision to raise interest rates, those increases could boost mortgage rates—adversely impacting assessed property values—putting cities, counties, and school districts into distinctly uncomfortable territory. Then we turn to the frigid weather in East Cleveland, where the city’s insolvency has let to increasing service insolvency and an inability to clear the city’s roads—threatening the capacity and ability to provide emergency public services. Then we follow the nation’s frigid weather east to Shenandoah, where the fiscally beset municipality of Petersburg, Virginia was hit yesterday by a 4th U.S. Circuit decision, even as S&P Credit granted it a small Yuletide respite. Finally, we venture back west to Chicago, where Municipal Market Analytics helps us to try to untangle the fiscal arithmetic so burdening the Chicago Public Schools.

Nota bene: We wish all readers a well-deserved holiday to you and your loved ones; we will resume the week after next.

Who’s at Risk of Default? Municipal Market Analytics this week, drawing from compiled data, noted that the trend of annually declining defaults is over—breaking a six-year trend—and warning that it “expects that issuer-credit quality has begun to erode,” describing the ominous trend as not only a factor of more “aggressive/permissive” underwriting standards, but also the risk created by growing state budget gaps—gaps which are likely to result in a double fiscal whammy for municipalities, counties, and school districts of reduced local aid—as well as less state public infrastructure investment. MMA suggests “municipal default activity will increase in 2017.”

Brrr! Municipal insolvency, as we have previously noted, often involves service insolvency. Thus it is that many side streets in the insolvent municipality of East Cleveland are complete sheets of ice—and have been so for an entire week, because the city does not have any working snow plows, leading one constituent to liken living in the city to being in the “Ice Age.” With bitter cold from the lake snow, which has been falling in heavy bands, neither of the municipality’s two salt trucks are working, leading some city officials to opine that the money spent on the recent special recall election could have been better used to fix the salt trucks. With one resident noting that “It is very precarious until you get into Cleveland or until you get into Cleveland Heights,” residents can easily make out the boundary where East Cleveland ends and Cleveland Heights begins: on the latter side, the streets are totally cleared. Ice free and this is all “full of ice.” One beleaguered resident noted: “I really hope that we can one day join with Cleveland…That is the only answer.”

Teeter Tottering in Petersburg. The fiscally struggling, historic Virginia municipality of Petersburg was on a teeter totter yesterday, after the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday ruled that the city’s police department’s policy barring its employees from criticizing the department on social media was unconstitutional (for further details, please see this morning’s Little Legalities in the eGnus), because its social media policy constituted a “virtual blanket prohibition” on all speech critical of the department and was “unconstitutionally overbroad,” but as the city was removed by S&P Global Ratings from Credit Watch.  In its decision, the court acknowledged a city’s need for discipline, but found that the policy and the disciplinary actions taken pursuant to it would, if upheld, lead to an utter lack of transparency in law enforcement operations that the First Amendment cannot countenance. (The suit had been filed after two of the city’s officers were placed on probation for discussing on Facebook their concerns about inexperienced officers being promoted and leading the department’s training programs: the department’s policy prohibited employees from posting anything that would “tend to discredit or reflect unfavorably” upon the agency—something the court held the police cannot be allowed to do.) In its ratings change, S&P, nevertheless, maintained its junk BB ratings on Petersburg’s general obligation bonds: the city has just over $55 million general obligation, full faith and credit bonds and Qualified Zone Academy bonds outstanding. S&P analyst Timothy Little wrote: “We removed the rating from CreditWatch due to the city securing $6.5 million in cash-flow notes…The negative outlook reflects the extreme uncertainty regarding the city’s ability to return to structural balance and what will likely be persistently very weak liquidity in a difficult budgetary environment,” adding that: “In our opinion, the interest rate is high compared to other non-distressed entities that annually place TANs, further underscoring the fiscal distress of the city.” The continued fiscal distress hinged on the city’s ongoing inability to balance its budget, in the main part because municipal property and other taxes have been less than projected, while expenditures for public safety and health and welfare have exceeded the city’s budget by $2.5 million, according to S&P. (A Virginia technical assistance team reported that general fund expenditures exceeded revenue by at least $5.3 million in FY 2016, and identified a structural imbalance with Petersburg’s FY2017 budget—leading to a state estimate that the city has $18.8 million in unpaid obligations to external entities and internal loans, including repayment of the TANs. S&P further noted that even though the city’s economy is diverse, its 27.5% poverty rate is more than double the statewide level—meaning it bears disproportionate fiscal challenges.

Pixie Dust? Municipal Market Analytics this week inquired into the harsh realities of determining interest rates with regard to municipalities in fiscal straits seeking to go to market (not to buy a fat pig!), focusing on the Chicago Public Schools—suggesting that investors in the school district’s new capital improvement tax bonds should seriously consider the bond-holder settlements in Detroit—and the ongoing legal battles in Puerto Rico—in trying to determine what interest rate would constitute sufficient compensation for the legal and credit uncertainties present in a muni transaction, suggesting: “Basically, rather than use its traditional alternative revenue bond security (which entails a pledge of state aid backstopped by an unlimited property tax), CPS is directly pledging its new limited property tax levy solely for the benefit of bondholders.” Theoretically, MMA notes, the new municipal security (rated A by Fitch and BBB by Kroll) insulates municipal bondholders from CPS’s not very investor friendly credit rating and profile—especially its very high unfunded public pension liability, but then wrote: “However, the real perceived strength here is the durability of the structure, or persistence of regular debt service payments, in a hypothetical (and currently not-permitted) municipal bankruptcy. This durability relies upon legal opinions that conclude that the new bond obligations would be considered backed by special revenues and therefore bond-holders would not see their lien impaired.” However, MMA noted, such reliance might not be something upon which to hang one’s Santa stocking, writing: “The aspiration of the structure is to insulate the bondholders from the fiscal troubles of the district, although the repayment schedule suggests that the district may have taken a more short-term view of the soundness of the transaction given the back-loaded principal. The main trouble with the transaction lies not with the documents but with the assumption—generally implicit, yet quite explicit in the opinions—that the fiscally distressed district will unconditionally continue to abide by, and not challenge the provisions of the indentures or ‘use or claim the right to use’ the capital improvement tax revenues. In other words, to rely on the willingness of CPS not to act exactly like every recent distressed city (and territory) in invading, capturing, and re-purposing every bondholder asset within and beyond easy reach. Even constitutional bond protections have fallen victim to debtor challenges during government disruption. So for this security to function fully as described, CPS would need to experience a Goldilocks bankruptcy the likes of which the municipal market has not seen in decades.” Thus, MMA, in a Yule gifted insight, strongly encourages potential muni investors to carefully unwrap the seasonal gift to determine whether it is really of better credit quality than CPS’ alternative revenue bonds, and “to be avoided by accounts who consider a CPS municipal bankruptcy to be likely or even unavoidable.”

Can Municipal Insolvency Be Contagious?

eBlog, 10/24/16

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the risks of fiscal contagion emanating from the historic city of Petersburg, Virginia, where the city’s virtual insolvency risks the solvency of the regional wastewater authority—and, therefore, the other participating municipalities. Next, with Election Day approaching, we travel to post-chapter 9 Stockton where the ballot issue of a sales tax increase on next month’s municipal ballot has divided the city’s candidates for Mayor and Council. Finally, we consider the exceptional challenges for the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico in the wake of the first PROMESA board meeting.

Can Municipal Insolvency Be Contagious? The South Central Wastewater Authority (SCWA), which provides wastewater treatment services to protect and enhance the environment for the City of Petersburg, the City of Colonial Heights, Chesterfield County, Dinwiddie County, and Prince George County, Virginia, may have to dip into its cash reserves and raise rates for its four other member municipalities if Petersburg fails to resume making its monthly payments very soon: to make up for the gap, each of the other four member jurisdictions would have to increase its monthly payments by approximately 61 percent. At a special meeting at the end of last week, the boards of the SCWA and the Appomattox River Water Authority were briefed on the outlook for SCWA’s finances due to Petersburg’s looming insolvency—with SCWA accounting manager Melissa B. Wilkins warning that unless the authority can tap some of its cash reserves, without Petersburg’s monthly payments, the Authority will be insolvent by the middle of next month—or, as she put it: “Right now, mid-October, we’re broke.” Indeed, forecasts provided to the directors, all municipal government officials from Petersburg, Chesterfield County, Colonial Heights, Dinwiddie County, and Prince George County, make clear that if SCWA does not begin to receive payments consistently by Petersburg and does not tap into its reserves, its operating cash will go into the red as early as next month: by the end of the fiscal year next June, the figures show the authority’s cash balance will be nearly $3 million in arrears. Ms. Wilkens advised that if Petersburg were to start making regular monthly payments beginning with the amount due for this month, and if SCWA were to shift about $996,000 in unused construction funds from a reserve account to the authority’s operating account, the authority would end the fiscal year with a positive cash balance of $35. Ms. Wilkin’s forecast assumes that SCWA will continue to operate under a “bare bones” budget—one which would not include any deposits into the authority’s reserves and puts a hold on any non-mandated construction projects. The key issue is that Petersburg imposes a disproportionate burden on the joint authority: the city accounts for approximately 55 percent of SCWA’s treatment load; ergo its share is of SCWA’s operating and maintenance costs. Its failure to do so means that to make up for the non-payment, each of the other four member municipalities would have to increase its monthly payments by about 61 percent.

The urgency and briefing come in the wake of the suit the authority filed against Petersburg last month, seeking the appointment of a receiver to oversee the city’s utility revenue and make sure the money collected from residents is used to pay SCWA and not for other purposes: the authority claims Petersburg owed it more than $1.5 million in overdue payments. Two weeks ago, Petersburg Circuit Court Judge Joseph M. Teefey Jr. opined that the suit contained “sufficient information that an emergency exists, and it is necessary that this court appoint a special receiver” to make sure residents’ wastewater payments are not used for other purposes, naming attorney Bruce Matson of the Richmond-based law firm LeClairRyan as the receiver. In addition, Judge Teefey, on his own initiative, ordered the city and the wastewater authority to meet with a mediator, McCammon Group of Richmond, because of “the special relationship of the parties to this action and the potential conflicts that are a consequence of these relationships.” In response, the City of Petersburg’s attorneys have filed a motion asking Judge Teefey to issue a stay of his order or to vacate it, because the appointment of a receiver automatically puts the city in technical default on more than $12 million in debt. The court has scheduled a hearing in the case for next Monday.)

For her part, Petersburg Interim City Manager Dironna Moore Belton, who represents the city on the SCWWA’s board, indicated she was hopeful the city would be able to resume making its monthly payments in the very near future, stating that the city is currently seeking a short-term loan to help that effort, advising the board Petersburg has identified a list of “key obligations” to be paid each month, which includes payments to regional authorities such as SCWWA, the Appomattox River Water Authority, and Riverside Regional Jail—albeit acknowledging that to keep current on those payments, that would “still not address some past-due payments.” Ms. Belton stated that city officials and their financial advisers “have a long-term package we are working on to address fiscal year 2016 past-due payments.”

Financing Post Municipal Bankruptcy City Services. Stockton residents in two weeks will have a say on whether to approve a quarter-cent restricted sales tax increase where the new revenues would be dedicated toward funding libraries, a recreation program, and other services in the city. The vote on Measure M is projected to generate $9 million a year and $144 million overall for library and recreation services, including after-school programs, homework centers, and children’s story times. It will be a heavy lift: Measure M requires approval of two-thirds of voters to pass. Since 1980, proponents argue, the city has underfunded its library and recreation services; they add that the city’s municipal bankruptcy and the recession “only compounded previously existing problems;” moreover, they argue that since 1980, the city’s population has doubled, but not a single new library has been built. The main goal for proponents of the tax is to get Stockton to go from an average spending per resident of $15 on public libraries and recreation to California’s median of $35 per capita. Last June, the City Council voted 5-2, with councilmen Michael Tubbs and Dan Wright opposing, to reopen the Fair Oaks Library; however, the facility is not expected to open for several months. The City’s Community Service Director John Alita, speaking as a private citizen, told the Stockton Record the city has had to close pools, has under maintained playing fields, and has reduced the average time libraries are open to less than 30 hours per week, noting: “The more that those things continue, then the less and less there is opportunity for our community members to actually benefit from these amenities that we made and created to provide for them…(The) combined benefit of restoring what would be a normal schedule to residents and then being able to enhance that in areas where there’s nothing right now, I think we see that as Measure M’s greatest benefit.” (Last year, the Stockton Unified School District had the lowest third-grade literacy rate in San Joaquin County at 16 percent, according to University of the Pacific’s annual San Joaquin Literacy Report Card.) All six of the city’s Council Members have endorsed Measure M, as have civil rights leader Dolores Huerta, San Joaquin County Superintendent of Schools James Mousalimas, the League of Women Voters, and the Greater Stockton Chamber of Commerce. As proposed, Measure M would essentially leave the sales tax unchanged, as a state sales tax increase approved by the passage of Proposition 30 in 2012 will expire this year.

Nonetheless, incumbent Mayor and candidate for re-election Anthony Silva, City Council candidate Steve Colangelo, and former Councilman Ralph Lee White have expressed apprehensions, testifying before the City Council last May they opposed approving a new tax when Measure A funds are not being used to fund library services. (Measure A, a three-quarter cent tax, was a tax increase approved by voters in 2014 with no restrictions, but with the city’s promise funds would be used to hire more police officers—a promise as yet unmet.) Mayor Silva, at a candidate’s forum last week, said: “I’m kind of caught in the middle on this one: All that money that we promised has not been spent exactly on what it was promised to you. So here comes another tax,” adding that Measure A had also promised to fund essential services, including opening libraries and pools; however, but none of those things were done…I love libraries…I love books, but the schools already have libraries.” Another opponent. Ned Leiba, a CPA, who closely monitors the Stockton’s finances, noting what he termed was poor management of Measure A funds and the city’s overall “problem with accounting and auditing,” stated: “You don’t want to give money to an entity that can’t be responsible.” Mr. Leiba, a member of the Measure A oversight committee, said that instead, Measure M proponents should pressure the city into using budgeted but unspent funds and not a new tax to open libraries. Stockton wants to “hold on to every shekel,” but there’s no basis for management’s claim that there’s no money, he added: “You want to exhaust all other remedies before you turn to taxes.” Were voters to adopt Measure M, a seven-member oversight committee would be appointed to do an annual review of how much money is generated and how funds are used. It appears that were the measure to pass, all dollars collected by the restricted sales tax would be placed in a separate city fund to be used for libraries and recreation services in Stockton.  

Wherefore the Promise of PROMESA? The process of unravelling insolvency is slow and frustrating: it can be even more trying where it involves a quasi-state and there are issues of sovereignty. Ergo, despite two meetings, the federal control board has, to date, evidenced scant progress—likely awaiting the outcome of both U.S. and Puerto Rico elections. Moreover, despite the ongoing recovery from the Great Recession, our respected colleagues at Municipal Market Analytics note that the fifty-two year-to-date first time payment defaulters so far this year has broken above last year’s trend (forty-eight between January and October), noting that in order for this year to finish with fewer defaults than last year (a trend that has held every year since MMA began collecting this data in 2009), “there can be no more than six additional defaults in November and December. Those two months have together averaged 14 defaults since 2013, strongly suggesting that 2016 will see a break in the downtrend.” For its part, the representatives of the U.S. territory advised the PROMESA Board it lacked any fiscal ability to finance any of its debt service over the next decade absent changes in federal laws to address both the island’s economy—and those provisions which harm its ability to compete against other Caribbean nations, noting that Puerto Rico’s GDP has contracted for nine of the last ten years in real terms, driven by the expiration of incentives provided under §936 of the U.S. tax code and the U.S. financial crisis, both of which were exacerbated by out-migration and extraordinary austerity measures taken by the Commonwealth, measures including reducing government consumption by 12% in real terms from 2006 through 2015, cutting the public administration headcount by approximately a quarter; reducing or deferring critical capital expenditures; delaying tax refunds and vendor payments; implementing significant new revenue measures, including recent sales and petroleum products tax increases generating approximately $1.4 billion annually; depleting liquidity and undertaking extraordinary short-term borrowings from pension and insurance systems; reforming pensions, converting defined benefit plans to defined contribution plans—austerity measures which they said had been insufficient to eliminate deficits, thereby incurring significant deficit financing, a ballooning debt load, and persistent economic decline, as evidenced by driving emigration to the U.S. mainland: a loss of not just some 9% of the island’s population—but disproportionately a loss for the best-educated.

The statistics, part of a 100-page fiscal plan submitted to the PROMESA Board, sought to identify the resources available to support basic governmental services and promote growth; it promised to put together a specific debt restructuring proposal in the wake of receipt of input from the Oversight Board. The plan warns that if the U.S. territory were to take various steps to improve revenues, reduce spending, and improve economic growth, it would still face a $6 billion gap over the decade—leaving no resources to meet commonwealth-supported debt. The plan addressed neither the financial outlook for Puerto Rico’s public corporations or municipalities (which also owe roughly $17 billion of debt). The plan treats $50.2 billion of debt as being addressed by the fiscal plan and the remainder of Puerto Rico’s debt as independent of it, because it is supported by the public corporations, municipalities, and other public entities. For priorities, Puerto Rico’s first is for Congress to continue Affordable Care Act funding to the Commonwealth beyond its planned end in FY2018—a continuation which the territory projects this could mean an additional $16.1 billion in direct Puerto Rico government revenues and an additional $8.4 billion in indirect revenues due to improved economic performance. Gov. Padilla also asked for an indefinite extension of the Affordable Care Act and that Congress treat Puerto Rico similarly to the 50 states with regard to Medicaid spending—and the extension of the earned income tax credit program to Puerto Rico, noting that such changes would lead to an $18.9 billion surplus, which could be used for the payments. This would be out of a total scheduled debt service of $34.2 billion. In its plan, the Governor recommended seven principals critical to reducing the government financing gap and restoring economic growth: any austerity must be minimal; the government must introduce improved budgetary controls and financial transparency; Puerto Rico needs to improve tax enforcement, consolidate agencies, reduce workforce, and reform its tax policy to eliminate the revenue impact of the planned end of the Act 154 tax in fiscal 2018; change local labor regulations, simplify permitting in order to promote economic growth, and invest in strategic growth-promoting projects. Fifth, Puerto Rico’s government must continue to protect vulnerable members of the population, such as the elderly, young, disabled, and poor through government services. The territory must reduce its debt to a “sustainable” level. And, seventh, the federal government must be involved to help generate economic growth.

He identified other concerns, as well, including caution in balancing amongst the island’s creditors, noting a “contingent value right or growth bond that pays creditors in the event growth targets set in the plan are exceeded should therefore be considered as part of any debt restructuring,” and that, because local municipal bondholders are believed to hold $8 billion to $12 billion of Puerto Rico’s debt, according to an official with the Puerto Rico Fiscal Agency and Financial Authority, the plan says there must be consideration of the impact of debt restructuring on the local economy. Finally, Puerto Rico Secretary of the Treasury Juan Zaragoza advised the board that Puerto Rico currently owes $1.3 billion to $1.35 billion to suppliers.

 

What Is a State’s Role When a Municipality Can No Longer Provide Essential Public Services?

eBlog, 9/27/16

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the risk of municipal fiscal contagion—and what the critical role of a state might be as the small municipality of Petersburg, Virginia’s fiscal plight appears to be spreading to neighboring municipalities and utilities: Virginia currently lacks a clearly defined legal or legislated route to address not just insolvency, but also to avoid the spread of fiscal contagion. Then we journey to Atlantic City, where a comparable fiscal challenge—but in a state with a much longer history of state-local consideration—appears on the verge of a total state takeover: we ask whether the city’s end is nigh: will the state, in fact, take it over? Then we turn to the school yards in Chicago, where a threatened teacher strike augurs fiscal downgrades and worse fiscal math for Chicago Public Schools—a city beleaguered by this year’s terrible increase in murders and now unsettling math.

When It Rains, It Pours. The small Virginia municipality of Petersburg, near insolvency–or its tipping point, uncertain of what role the Commonwealth of Virginia will take in a state where, were the city to file a chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy petition, its municipal bondholders holding bonds to which statutory liens have attached would continue to receive payments on those bonds, [§15.2-5358], now is confronted by the filing of two similar lawsuits, accusing the city of repeated failures to meet payment due dates. The fiscal crisis is finally forcing the State of Virginia to contemplate what role it might have to take—a role which would set a precedent in a state which does not specifically authorize its municipal entities to file for municipal bankruptcy—and where the only such petition filed—by an economic development authority—was dismissed. The likely mechanism that will leave the state little alternative but to act is likely to be the filing of two lawsuits against the city over past-due payments—suits alleging similar accusations of repeated failures to meet payment due dates even before Petersburg’s fiscal problems evolved into a crisis: the South Central Wastewater Authority last week filed a lawsuit against the city, seeking more than $1 million and the appointment of a receiver to make sure the money the authority says it is owed is not spent by the city on other things, with the suit alleging: “Since 2011, city officials have failed to regularly and timely bill and collect monies for wastewater services and have failed to make payments due and owing to South Central.”

The second suit, filed last month by a road paving company, alleges that Petersburg failed to make payments on time for the company’s work repaving U.S. Route 460 East—a contract which specified that the company would receive payment within 30 days of the work being billed. In its filing, however, the company noted that its bills were paid late and that many times “those checks bore dates that made it appear they had been issued on time pursuant to the contract terms, even though delivery did not occur until weeks or months later.” The company’s corporate credit manager and chief financial officer met in July 2015 with Petersburg’s then Finance Director to discuss the problems—in the wake of which the city proposed a very delayed schedule—late enough that the company halted work on the project. The suit charges it has been left with an unpaid balance of about $214,000, so that it is seeking payment of that balance plus interest of 1 percent per month. For its part, the South Central Wastewater Authority alleges a similar pattern of late payments stretching back to mid-2011: “Since 2011, city officials have failed to regularly and timely bill and collect monies for wastewater services and have failed to make payments due and owing to South Central…This failure by Petersburg became sustained and serious beginning in the middle of 2012 and has become chronic and severe since…Despite continuous communication and extraordinary forbearance by [South Central] regarding Petersburg’s payment practices, which only resulted in repeated assurances of payment followed by more broken commitments, Petersburg has now altogether ceased making payments.” The suit charges the city is delinquent by $1.2 million, excluding penalty fees. Another $410,000 came due on the first of this month, according to the lawsuit. Because the Authority, moreover, provides wastewater treatment for the municipalities of Petersburg and Colonial Heights, and the counties of Chesterfield, Dinwiddie, and Prince George; and because Petersburg uses about half of the wastewater plant’s capacity, South Central’s complaint notes that  if Petersburg continues to fail to make payments, the authority will have to ask the other municipalities to pay higher rates, or it may be forced to shut down the treatment plant—a shutdown which, the utility notes, “would endanger public health and require an alternate means of treatment to prevent the flow of untreated wastewater directly into the Appomattox River…Planning, permitting, financing and construction of new facilities would take years. The scale and seriousness of this crisis cannot be overstated.” Indeed, the scale and complexity of the growing list of creditors of the municipality unearthed by auditors last summer determined Petersburg owed a total of about $3.4 million to six regional organizations: South Central, the Appomattox River Water Authority, the Central Virginia Waste Management Authority and Riverside Regional Jail, Crater Youth Care and the District 19 Community Services Board. It has become increasingly apparent that Petersburg’s fiscal problems have become contagious to adjacent municipalities and essential public services, so that, increasingly, the Commonwealth of Virginia will be forced to act.

Indeed, Virginia Secretary of Finance Richard D. Brown last week briefed members of the General Assembly’s Finance Committees on his department’s effort to help Petersburg figure out how to close its $12 million budget gap and generate enough cash flow to both keep the city government operating and to begin to pay down a debt that has ballooned to nearly $19 million. But, as it has become apparent the city likely will simply be unable to get out by itself, its fiscal collapse risks spreading—as can be noted from the impact of its non-payment to a regional facility—adjacent municipalities, it would appear the Governor and Virginia legislature will have little choice but to both act on measures to protect the state’s AAA credit rating, but also to prevent the fiscal distress from spreading. The Virginian Commission on Local Government, which has measured local fiscal distress in the state for three decades: notes in its stress index measures cities’ and counties’ revenue capacity, revenue effort, and median household income: it ranks Petersburg as the third-most fiscally stressed locality in Virginia—behind Emporia and Buena Vista.

The increasing apprehension in Richmond has led the Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Del. S. Chris Jones (R-Suffolk) to ask: “How did this get this bad without anyone knowing about it?” It also triggered his appointment last week of Del. R. Steven Landes (R-Augusta) to head a subcommittee to study states dealing with fiscally stressed localities and come up with solutions if a situation similar to that in Petersburg were to occur elsewhere in Virginia—or, as the Chairman put it: “We want to do our due diligence to see if there is legislation we might have to put in place to give authority to the state in certain circumstances to potentially take action…Right now, we don’t have the authority to do this, which is why I thought it is important to have this subcommittee between now and January and then begin the process to come up with some legislation.” In doing so, the Chairman emphasized that the state legislature will look primarily for proposals aimed at protecting the state’s interests—not those of the troubled localities, stating: “We are elected to represent our citizens at the state level, and we have our AAA bond rating to consider.” For his part, Chairman Landes said his committee will also examine the state’s options with regard to steps it could take to shorten its response time when a locality is heading toward the fiscal cliff, noting: “We want to make sure that audit information is getting to the money committees and the administration, because we would much rather be kept abreast sooner rather than later,” even as he vowed that a “bailout” for Petersburg is out of the question, noting: “I’m not aware where the state has ever stepped in to provide a locality a bailout…I don’t see that happening.”

Balancing on the Prick of the NeedleWhile it seems clear that neither the Governor nor the Legislature have much willingness to either grant municipal bankruptcy or provide significant fiscal assistance; nevertheless, there appears to be recognition that should Petersburg default, it would have implications for other municipalities in the state, especially if there were a default—such a default—increasingly possible in Petersburg’s case, because it is unclear how Petersburg, by Saturday, will come up with a $1.4 million principal-and-interest payment owed to the Virginia Resources Authority, a premier funding source for local government infrastructure financing through bond and loan programs. Under Virginia’s intercept provision, the Commonwealth is authorized to seize dollars it directs to localities for services, such as for schools, police and welfare, and use them, instead, to make scheduled payments on bonds to avoid default.

Interim City Manager Dironna Moore Belton acknowledged in an email last week that in order to secure short-term financing and bring long-term stability to the city, it cannot default on its loan payments. But Ms. Belton did not provide any specifics about from where she would take these dollars: “The city regularly collects revenues which go toward paying obligations…(and) has set aside dollars from incoming revenue to make the VRA payment;” however, in light of the $1.2 million lawsuit filed last week by the South Central Wastewater Authority, calls for the city to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy have grown louder at public meetings and on internet message boards. However, as one expert commentator warns: “The state’s position is that Petersburg has dug themselves into a very unusual hole, and that they are going to have to take some very stringent and even draconian steps to get their house in order.” It is no longer certain, however, that the municipality has the capacity to get out by itself—indeed, it seems that, more likely than not, its fiscal tribulations will, increasingly, adversely affect neighboring public utilities and jurisdictions. According to Secretary Brown, the possibility of the city defaulting on bond payments is very real—a default which would leave the municipality with few alternatives—to which the Secretary remarked: “Some say that if it’s gotten to the point where they can’t operate, they should look at their charter and un-incorporate.” Such incorporation, however, would be a version of passing the buck—after all: which government would then be responsible for not only providing essential public services, but also paying off the growing mountain of municipal debts?

Thirsty City. Just as the provision of drinking water was a difficult issue in Detroit’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, and has become so in Petersburg, so too the issue has arisen in San Bernardino, where the city’s municipal water department has announced water bills will increase by an average of $3.50 starting in October—with some of the increased  costs triggered by a state mandated water reduction goal of 28% this past summer—even as the utility notes the importance of conserving water during winter months: the Board of Water Commissioners, which is responsible for water rates in the city, voted unanimously to impose the higher rates, the first increase in four years; the city has approved further increases to go into effect next July 1st and in the subsequent July 1st of 2018. Again, just as in Detroit, virtually all who attended the session and vote came away angry—as the city water department’s General Manager put it: “For all of us, the last thing we want to do is cause economic distress to people…But we need to take care of what we’ve got, or we’re going to end up spending more in the future.” Since the city’s last rate increase, the water department has had to deal with California’s historic drought; the rising cost of imported water; new water quality regulations; and other expenses. Cost-cutting efforts include operating with fewer employees than in 2007, requiring employees to pay for a larger portion of their benefits, and securing as much as $350,000 in rebates from Southern California Edison, according to the water department. According to the water department website, the average water bill in San Bernardino, will be just under $50 per month, higher than average in adjacent Riverside and Redlands, but less than in Colton, Rialto, the East Valley Water District, the Cucamonga Valley Water District, the West Valley Water District and Fontana. Unlike Detroit, where one of the most difficult issues for then U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes was how to balance the critical public health and safety issues related to water versus affordability; that question appears not to have arisen in San Bernardino.

Can a City Maintain its Sovereignty? Just as the question of sovereignty for a municipality in Virginia has become an issue, so too the question of whether the State of New Jersey will take over Atlantic  City and dissolve its sovereignty, after the New Jersey Division of Local Government Services notified Atlantic City that it has until Monday to comply with the terms of a $73 million state loan or face the possibility of default, warning that, because the city is in violation of its loan terms, it must act swiftly to “cure the breach.” As part of its effortsd to cure that “breach,” Atlantic City has reached an agreement with its water utility to purchase its old municipal airport property in a deal that officials of the city hope will help it avoid a state takeover. The Municipal Utilities Authority, which provides Atlantic City’s drinking water and is financially independent from the city, plans to purchase the 143-acres of the former Bader Field airport for at least $100 million through bonding, officials announced at a press conference yesterday, with Mayor Donald Guardian touting the partnership as a way of maintaining both the city and utility’s “sovereignty” while also helping the city dig its way out of more than $500 million of total debt. Mayor Guardian said he hopes the agreement, one which still needs city council and state approval, prevents New Jersey’s Local Finance Board from taking action after it violated the terms of a $73 million bridge loan that called for dissolving the MUA. Nevertheless, the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs declined to comment on whether the Local Finance Board would accept the Atlantic City MUA plan—a key apprehension after that Board last Thursday had imposed a deadline of next Monday to fix a breach of a condition on its $73 million bridge loan or face a possible default where the state could seek full repayment and withhold state aid—indeed, under the terms of last July’s loan agreement mandating the city needed to dissolve the MUA by September 15th, the state could demand full repayment of the $73 million loan and withhold state aid if the city were unable to avert a default by the October 3 deadline. For his part, MUA Executive Director Bruce Ward said the authority will get an agreement with the city before deciding how to proceed with the property. Mr. Ward added that floating a bond for the Bader Field purchase is attainable and that the MUA has advisors who will help strategize the borrowing. The MUA has $15.7 million in annual revenues with $16.6 million of net water revenue debt outstanding, according to Moody’s Investors Service.

Learning about Debt—or Failing Grades? Moody’s yesterday awarded a failing credit grade to Chicago Public Schools, downgrading CPS’ bond rating further into junk status, lowering its view of the school system’s debt one notch to a B3 rating, citing a variety of factors, including CPS’ reliance on short-term borrowing, a “deepening structural deficit,” and a budget “built on unrealistic expectations” of help from a state government with money woes of its own. If there could be fiscal insult to financial injury, it arrived yesterday when CPS announced budgets at about 300 schools would lose a total of $45 million because of enrollment declines, and the Chicago Teachers Union said its members authorized a strike if contract talks break down. Unsurprisingly, that led the ever so moody Moody’s to warn that its debt rating could decline even further—a downgrade that would make the school district’s borrowing more expensive, even as CPS’ Board is set to vote Wednesday on the system’s $338 million capital budget—a budget projected to swell amid plans to borrow up to $945 million in long-term debt for a variety of other school infrastructure projects. For its part, the union yesterday announced that more than 95% of members who submitted a ballot last week voted in favor of authorizing a strike, easily crossing the requisite 75% threshold: CTU’s House of Delegates will meet Wednesday to discuss a possible strike date which could come as soon as October 11th—a strike, were it to occur, which added to Moody’s fiscal moodiness, as it noted CPS’ “increasingly precarious liquidity position and acute need for cash flow borrowing to support ongoing operations…The downgrade is also based on CPS’s deepening structural deficit, with budgets that are built on unrealistic expectations of assistance from the State of Illinois, which faces its own financial challenges. The rating also incorporates escalating pension contribution requirements, strong employee bargaining groups that impede cost cutting efforts, and elevated debt service expenses.” (CPS is offering raises in a new multi-year contract offer but it wants to phase out the $130 million annual tab for covering 7% of teachers’ 9% pension contribution. The union argues that the contract offer results in a pay cut and is strike-worthy.)

Municipal Sovereignty: What’s at Stake?

eBlog, 9/26/16

In this morning’s eBlog, we wonder whether the end for Atlantic City is nigh: will the state, in fact, take it over? Then we turn to the beleaguered cities of Cleveland and East Cleveland as they contemplate a potential merger: could that avert a chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy—an option which the State of Ohio has made like waiting for Godot? Then we veer east to Connecticut, where the capital City of Hartford faces insolvency—captive to fiscal and physical borders bequeathed from Pilgrim times. Just as inequality in that state’s schools propelled a powerful Connecticut Supreme Court decision, so too, we consider an insightful piece about the inequity of the post municipal bankruptcy Detroit school situation. What might it augur for the city’s post-bankruptcy future? Then, as Horace Greeley asked, we go west, where the governance challenges in San Bernardino and the upcoming ballot question about marijuana have made for heated debate about what kind of debates can the city hold to inform voters on an upcoming election critical to the city’s post-municipal bankruptcy charter. Finally, we look south to the U.S. Virgin Islands—just a hop, skip, and a jump from Puerto Rico to consider how this U.S. Territory is addressing its fiscal challenges. Phew!

Can a City Maintain its Sovereignty? The New Jersey Division of Local Government Services has notified Atlantic City that it has until next Monday to comply with the terms of a $73 million state loan or face the possibility of default because it is in violation of its loan terms, so that it must act swiftly to “cure the breach to come into compliance with the agreement,” albeit LGS spokesperson Tammori Petty noted: “We decline to speculate on next actions.” The notification appears to be a response to Mayor Don Guardian’s request last week for a reprieve after the City Council failed to agree to meet one of the terms in the loan agreement: dissolving the Atlantic Municipal Utilities Authority by September 15th. Should the city not comply by the looming deadline, the state can demand full repayment of the $73 million as well as withhold any state aid. In addition, the state could also to seize the city’s municipal utility authority or its airport as collateral, based on the terms by which the city had agreed to the bridge loan terms in order to avoid defaulting on a $3.4 million debt payment—a payment, which under the terms of the agreement, fell due at the beginning of last month. Doug Goldmacher of Moody’s noted that the city’s “inability to meet its loan covenants is a credit negative and indicative of the city’s severe fiscal distress.” Should the state take over Atlantic City, the Local Finance Board would be authorized and empowered to alter debt and municipal contracts. For the beleaguered city which has tried to weather the closure of four of its casinos—closures reducing its tax base by as much as 70 percent, in addition to undercutting assessed property values—the options appear to be waning. Nevertheless, the Mayor’s Chief of Staff, Chris Filiciello, stated: “We continue to focus on putting together the 150 day plan…If we are given the time to complete and present it, we know it will be the best plan to move Atlantic City forward while still maintaining our local sovereignty.”

To Be or Not to Be? Two of the nation’s poorest cities, East Cleveland and Cleveland, (East Cleveland’s per capita income of $12,602 ranks it 1,000th in Ohio, while Cleveland’s $14,291 ranks it 887th) are undertaking so far informal discussions about a potential merger, albeit with recognition even a combined municipality would need a sizable boost in taxpayer dollars to make it happen. From Cleveland’s perspective, the city is exploring whether there might be development possibilities through such a combination—albeit recognizing the potential pitfalls: East Cleveland is so impoverished that some residents fill their own potholes. Moreover, from a governance perspective, there appears little initiative: East Cleveland has learned that requesting authority from the State of Ohio to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy is like waiting for Godot. Nevertheless, after long balking at the concept of dissolving their city, its elected leaders agreed last month to pursue annexation by the City of Cleveland without the list of demands it had earlier made as a prerequisite, such as continuing the pay of its Mayor and elected officials as its Council had originally submitted to the dismay of Cleveland officials. Nevertheless, with the writing seemingly on the wall, Thomas Wheeler, President of East Cleveland City Council, notes: “Without a revenue stream, I don’t know how we would exist,” adding he and East Cleveland Mayor Gary Norton recognize their city is out of options: it has millions in unpaid bills, and it has had no access to borrow on the municipal credit market for years; it is so cash strapped that in the wake of deep cuts in its workforce, only five firefighters were available to respond to a recent house fire: it is becoming a municipality of crumbling streets, abandoned buildings, uncertain waits for essential emergency 9-1-1 services, and, increasingly, so dangerous that citizens have armed themselves, knowing it could be a long wait for police. Nevertheless, some Cleveland politicians are enthusiastic about the possibility of a merger, citing development possibilities along a main thoroughfare which connects East Cleveland with Cleveland’s fastest-growing neighborhood, University Circle, the home of its fine research hospitals, Case Western Reserve University, and most of Cleveland’s cultural institutions. Ergo: negotiations by a commission consisting of three members from each municipality could begin sometime in the next few months.

Hard Fiscal Times for Hartford. S&P Global Ratings has downgraded the City of Hartford four notches, with the downgrade coming in the wake of the Connecticut Supreme Court decision’s [Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding v. Rell] finding unconstitutional the state’s fiscal disparities in school funding—or, as Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin put it: “The rating agency action reflects what I’ve been saying for many months, which is that the city of Hartford can’t cut or tax its way out of this challenge by itself.” Or, as S&P credit analyst Timothy Little put it, “Until the city can adopt a credible plan and sustain improved budgetary performance, the rating reflects our weak view of management conditions.” The city, which is on course to insolvency by the end of the year, reflects what S&P, in its downgrade, cited continued deficits and the “lack of a credible plan” to balance the 125,000-population city’s budget and curb out-year fiscal gaps—and it cited a one-third chance of further downgrades within a year. Mayor Bronin has repeated his call for help from the state and the region’s suburbs, pressing for consideration of a regional tax and state reconsideration of tax laws to abate municipal reliance on property taxes, noting: “We can put Hartford and the capital region on a path to fiscal health and economic growth, but it’s going to take everyone coming together—in Hartford, the region and the state—to face the realities that we need to face.” As our respected colleagues at Municipal Market Analytics put it, Hartford’s struggles parallel those of many older cities: the city confronts high, escalating fixed costs: debt service, pension obligations, and other post-employment benefits—fixed costs which now consume nearly 20 percent of its annual budget, even as it has a depleting or disparate municipal tax base, because more than one-third of its population lives below the poverty line. Unemployment reached nearly 11% in July, nearly double the statewide rate of 5.6 percent. As MMA notes, the fiscal numbers appear to more than offset the capital city’s concentrations of art, entertainment, and hospital clusters—even as its dependence on state aid meant that this year’s $45 million state aid reduction triggered a spike in its reliance on short-term debt—meaning the city’s debt service could nearly double to about $46 million by FY2018, according to forecasts by city officials. Mayor Bronin notes that past budget practices made Hartford a disaster waiting to happen, or, as he puts it: “When governments are in fiscal crisis, one approach is to hide it or minimize it just to buy a little more time. That’s what Hartford did for many years…That’s not the approach I take. We’re opening the books and telling the real story, because that’s the only way we’re going to be able to make real and lasting change.” The city band-aided its FY2017 $553 million budget on reserves and labor concessions—neither of which the city has yet to realize; the fiscal cliff looms larger in the out-years, when there are anticipated gaps of more than $30 million in FY2018, rising to $50 million thereafter.” … Judge Thomas’ ruling in the 11-year case, like those of Horton v. Meskill in 1977 and Sheff v. O’Neill in 1996, spotlights the most glaring feature of Connecticut’s taxing arrangements — the inequity of school funding.

Sins of the Founding Fathers? Connecticut, like much of New England, traces its municipal roots to the four century-old system of towns, towns based on the parish boundaries of the Puritans, which required that every resident be able to walk to church, meaning, in the case of Connecticut municipalities, many remain approximately the same size geographically, albeit that some of its cities are among the smallest towns (17 square miles in the case of Hartford, 5.5 square miles in New London). From the original parish boundaries have devolved municipal boundaries, each town with taxing power and its own elected council, police department, public works department, fire department and school system. That appears to have contributed to a governance system in which the state is made up of several medium-to-large Metropolitan Statistical Areas, defined as having one or more adjacent counties or county equivalents with at least one urban core of 50,000 population, plus adjacent area tied to the core through a high degree of social and economic integration measured by commuting ties. Of the 382 MSAs nationally, the New York City MSA is ranked No. 1 in population; the Boston MSA is No. 10; the largest MSA in Connecticut, the Hartford-West Hartford-East Hartford MSA, is made up of 29 towns: it is ranked 47th in the country in population. In 2015, it had a population of 1,211,324, just below the New Orleans-Metairie MSA at 1,262,888, and just above the Salt Lake City MSA at 1,170,266. The Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk MSA ranks 57th, with a population just under a million; the New Haven-Milford MSA ranks 65th with a population 859,470; the Norwich-New London MSA ranks 175th with a population of 271,863. If one transposed these places: if Simsbury were in Louisiana, it would be a neighborhood of New Orleans; if it were in Utah, it would be a neighborhood of Salt Lake City. That seems to mean a double fiscal whammy bedevils the state’s municipalities: 1) the terrible disparities or inequities so devastatingly painted by Connecticut Supreme Court Justice Moukawsher in his school decision, but 2) the inefficiency of the arrangement. Or, as Toni Gold, a transportation and community development consultant and a member of the board of the Connecticut Main Street Center, last Saturday wrote: “Regionalism is the dirtiest word in the Connecticut political vocabulary because real regionalism would require small towns and affluent suburbs alike to stop pretending that they have no connection to or responsibility for the center cities on which they depend. This snipping of a state into a lot of minuscule towns is not what the rest of the country does — and for good reason. It is financially irrational…If all legislative remedies fail in the wake of the CCJEF decision, one must ask whether there isn’t a broader legal remedy. All the school funding cases have been brought under the state constitution. Why couldn’t there be a federal case, brought on the broader issue under the 14th Amendment to the federal Constitution, which says in part, “nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws?”

Schooling on Detroit’s Future. The State of Michigan, as we have noted, in the wake of the insolvency of the Detroit Public School System, has created a dual system of public and charter schools, with the former now under the auspices of retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes. Vikram David Amar, last Friday, writing in Justia, “In a Case with Blockbuster Potential, Detroit School Children Assert a Federal Constitutional Right to Literacy,” wrote about a class action lawsuit, Gary B. v. Snyder, pending in the U.S. District Court for Eastern Michigan, which has been filed on behalf of children who attend some of the most dilapidated and lowest-performing Detroit public schools, in which the plaintiffs allege Gov. Rick Snyder and other state officials are violating the constitutional rights of Detroit children by depriving students of their “fundamental right” to literacy under the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process and equal protection clauses. The 129-page complaint “recites in heart-wrenching detail the physical, curricular, and human resource shortcomings of the schools attended by the plaintiffs;” it also documents what he describes as the “woeful underperformance of the students at these schools, as compared to other schools in the state and also to the state’s competency baselines established for various grade levels. It is hard to believe the conditions laid out in the Complaint exist in 21st Century America; at times the allegations seem more like the setting of a Dickens novel.” He notes that the complaint also proposes what he deems an “an ambitious legal theory, effectively asking the federal court to apply ‘heightened scrutiny’ to what is going on in Detroit, and urging it not to apply the deference ordinarily given to state and local school officials [author’s emphasis]concerning their administration of public education.” The complaint identifies two related, but distinct grounds for judicial skepticism—the first being equal protection (describing the plaintiffs as a “discrete class,” almost all of whom are “low income children of color.”), but the second asserts that “heightened judicial oversight is warranted, because in the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause there is a ‘fundamental right of access to literacy,’ which presupposes better facilities, better instructional materials, and better teacher training than exist in Detroit. It asserts a federal “fundamental right” to literacy under the so-called “substantive due process doctrine” of the Fourteenth Amendment, the lawsuit is path-breaking, and perhaps ultimately destined for the Supreme Court. The complaint here asserts that many “Detroit public school children lack any realistic chance at literacy; the Complaint links its concept of literacy directly to expressive and political rights (including military service), saying that literacy is essential not only to success in the workplace and higher education, but also (importantly) to ‘be[ing] an informed citizen capable of participating in democracy.’” He notes that the complaint repeatedly points out, “the State of Michigan (like other states) has made attendance in some kind of state-approved school compulsory, so the State is already interfering with private choices in this realm, and in ways that allegedly make it nigh impossible for Detroit children to attain literacy.” Finally, he writes:

But the affirmative/negative rights line does implicitly bring up probably the biggest hurdle for the plaintiffs—the practical and logistical concerns about appropriate remedies that might disincline federal courts to become deeply involved in decisions about school facilities, curricula, teacher training, and the like. Most of the other settings in which the Court has recognized a fundamental right do not involve the remedial complexity the Snyder case implicates. And as the Court cautioned in Rodriguez, at a time when the federal judiciary was in the midst of a mixed experience of federal judicial oversight over busing, pupil reassignment, and other aspects of the federal judicial effort to eliminate the vestiges of racial school segregation:

He writes: “We stand on familiar ground when we continue to acknowledge that the Justices of this Court lack both the expertise and the familiarity with local problems so necessary to the making of wise decisions with respect to the raising and disposition of public revenues. . . . In addition to matters of fiscal policy, this case also involves the most persistent and difficult questions of educational policy, another area in which this Court’s lack of specialized knowledge and experience counsels against premature interference with the informed judgments made at the state and local levels. Education, perhaps even more than welfare assistance, presents a myriad of ‘intractable economic, social, and even philosophical problems.’ The very complexity of the problems of financing and managing a . . . public school system suggests that ‘there will be more than one constitutionally permissible method of solving them,’ and that, within the limits of rationality, ‘the legislature’s efforts to tackle the problems’ should be entitled to respect.”

Electing a Higher Future for Post-Chapter 9 San Bernardino? With an exit from chapter 9 bankruptcy finally within sight—and elections just around the corner, the San Bernardino City Council has voted to schedule not one, but at least two sets of debates at City Hall, after the Council overruled City Manager Mark Scott’s decision not to permit such debates. Mr. Scott had emailed those seeking or proposing such pre-election debates, debates customary in previous election years, that none would be permitted this election year,  out of a concern about a conflict of interest since the city had placed two measures on the ballot—albeit, in his email, Mr. Scott had written the City Council could vote to reverse him if it wished—an email which, unsurprisingly, drew a response from Council Members, some of whom attacked him for seeking to shut down free speech, while others defended him as implementing the implied direction of a Council that has directed staff not to spend any funds to educate the public about the city charter ballot measure. However, the Council has been unanimous in the vote to allow pre-election debates at City Hall and on the public access channel, waiving fees for both—or, as Councilman John Valdivia put it: “The actual statement from Mr. Scott is that there is a council discretion to overturn his decision, so I think he left it completely wide open for the Council to make the ultimate decision…This is unacceptable on behalf of what Mr. Scott is attempting to do.” Surprisingly, Mr. Scott was not at the meeting; however, he wrote in an email that it seemed “smart to stay completely arms-length” because the city was behind both Measure L (to replace the city charter), and Measure P, to replace the city’s marijuana ban with a regulatory scheme. City Attorney Gary Saenz noted: “It’s necessary to take precaution and care that you don’t cross over the line into endorsement and you stick within the parameters of education…Sometimes that’s hard to do. I personally encountered a forum – or a couple of forums, actually – when I was campaigning and there was a conflict of interest that I believe tainted the discussions.”

Entering Virgin Territory.  Just 17 miles from Puerto Rico lies the insular area, the U.S. Virgin Islands, which consist of the main islands of Saint Croix (where the author trained for his Peace Corps service in Liberia, West Africa) Saint John, and Saint Thomas, as well as many other surrounding minor islands reaching a total land area of 133.73 square miles with a population just over 106,000. Tourism is the primary economic activity, although there is a significant rum manufacturing sector. Previously part of the Kingdom of Denmark-Norway, they were sold to the United States in 1917: they are considered an organized, unincorporated U.S. Territory. The Territory has convened five constitutional conventions; however, its most recent and only proposed Constitution, adopted in 2009, was rejected by Congress in 2010. Thus, its status vis-à-vis the U.S. government, as it confronts severe fiscal challenges, is more difficult than Puerto Rico’s. Now U.S. Virgin Islands Gov. Kenneth Mapp has introduced legislation to authorize issuance of some $396 million in municipal bonds, with the goal of issuance this this fall—with the proposal for the fiscally challenged U.S. territory coming as his government is seeking approval of revenue increases and spending reductions. A confidential draft of the territory’s five-year financial plan of September 15th shows that, absent any changes in revenue measures or spending, the government anticipates operating deficits between $130 million and $140 million from FY2017—FY 2021, thus triggering the government to propose a wide array of revenue and spending initiatives—an array which the government projects would lead to operating deficits of $0.8 million in FY2017, $14.3 million in FY2018, and $13.8 million in FY2019—but followed by surpluses of $50 million in fiscal 2020 and $77.5 million in fiscal 2021. Gov. Mapp has, ergo, proposed revenue initiatives to increase the marine terminal user’s tax (adding $7 million in annual revenue), a new internet gross receipts tax ($5.1 million annually), an increase in cigarette taxes ($6.9 million a year), and an increase in beer taxes ($12.8 million annually)—both to reduce the current and projected deficits, but also to apply to economic development. The cuts he has proposed would affect hat it would produce at least $25 million annually. In the five year plan, Gov. Mapp proposes to take out a $55 million working capital loan and a $55 million draw on a line of credit; he projects using nearly 40 percent of the bond proceeds for operating expenses, and the balance for capital projects. Under his proposal, the interest rate on the bonds may not exceed 9.5%, nor a term of more than 30 years, with the draft legislation providing that the municipal bond issuance will be sold as either: a matching fund revenue bond, paid back with a portion of taxes on the sale of rum in the 50 states that the federal government sends to the Virgin Islands; or a gross receipts taxes bond, paid back from a government sales tax. Compared to Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands have significantly higher unemployment and murder rates, but a significantly better rate with regard to infant mortality.