The End of State Usurpation of Local Elected Authority? Uneasy shelter from the Fiscal and Physical Storms?

August 31, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the end of the State of Michigan to usurp local authority via the appointment of an Emergency Manager, the safety of school drinking water has become an issue in Detroit—especially after Flint, and we consider the extraordinary revisions in the projected Hurricane Maria death toll in Puerto Rica—and the White House response.

Protecting a City’s Children. Detroit Public School Superintendent Nikolai P. Vitti has directed turning off drinking water across the district’s 106 schools  in the wake of after discovering higher-than-acceptable levels of copper and lead in some facilities, with Superintendent Vitti noting his decision came out of caution “until a deeper and broader analysis can be conducted to determine the long-term solutions for all schools.” he said in a statement. Test results found elevated levels of lead or copper in 16 out of 24 schools which were recently tested. Supt. Vitti stated: “Although we have no evidence that there are elevated levels of copper or lead in our other schools where we are awaiting test results, out of an abundance of caution and concern for the safety of our students and employees.” His actions, no doubt affected by fiscal and water contamination in Flint, came even as Detroit officials and the Great Lakes Water Authority sought to assure residents that water provided by the authority is safe to drink: they pointed to the city’s aging infrastructure as the problem.  Superintendent Vitti said he will be creating a task force to determine the cause of the elevated levels and solutions, noting he had initiated water testing of all 106 school buildings last spring to ensure the safety of students and employees. Water at 18 schools had been previously shut off. He added: “This was not required by federal, state, or city law or mandate: This testing, unlike previous testing, evaluated all water sources from sinks to drinking fountains.” The District does not plan to test students: a spokesperson for the school system noted: “Dr. Vitti said…he has no evidence at all that children have been impacted from a health standpoint.”

Fiscal & Physical Challenges: Earlier this summer, Supt. Vitti released details from a facilities review which had determined the school district would need to spend $500 million now to fix the deteriorating conditions of its schools—an effort for the system projected to cost as much as $1.4 billion if there is a failure to act swiftly, with the Administrator pointing to the failure by former state-appointed emergency managers to make the right investments in facilities while the system was preempted of authority and state-appointed emergency managers from 2009 to 2016 failed to make the right investments, sending what Dr. Vitti described as “the message to students, parents and employees that we really don’t care about public education in Detroit, that we allow for second-class citizenry in Detroit.” The remarks raised anew questions with regard to Michigan’s governance by means of gubernatorially chosen Emergency Managers.  

Superindent Vitti said he had notified Mayor Mike Duggan of his decision to shut off the drinking water, and a spokesperson, John Roach, noted: Mayor is “fully supportive” of the approach Supt. Vitti has taken, adding: “We will be supporting Dr. Vitti in an advisory capacity through the health department and the DWSD (Detroit Water and Sewerage Department) has offered to partner with the district on any follow-up testing that needs to be done.” At the same time, the Great Lakes Water Authority issued a statement in an effort to assure “residents and customers of GLWA’s regional system that they are not affected by the lead and copper issues,” noting: “Aging school infrastructure (i.e. plumbing) is the reason for the precautionary measure of providing bottled water,” adding water treated by the authority meets and surpasses all federal and state regulations, albeit adding: “A task force will be formed consisting of engineering and water quality experts” to will help the district “understand the cause and identify solutions.” (Initial results this past week showed elevated levels of copper, lead or both at one or more water sources in 16 of 24 school buildings, according to the statement. Water bottles will be provided at the schools until water coolers arrive. The district also found water-quality issues in some schools in 2016.)

The incident in Detroit raises a host of fiscal and governance issues—especially in the wake of the tragedy in upstate Flint—with, in both cases, the state’s history of appointing Emergency Managers to preempt the authority of local elected leaders. In the case of DPS, Dr. Vitti has contacted the Mayor, the Governor, and a task force of engineers and water experts to understand the cause and possible solutions; Superintendent Nikolai P. Vitti opted to close the water taps out of caution “until a deeper and broader analysis can be conducted to determine the long-term solutions for all schools,” with the decision coming just days before the school district’s 106 schools are scheduled to open next Tuesday. (Water bottles will be provided at the schools until water coolers arrive.) Water officials have blamed aging infrastructure as the cause of the public safety threat. Now Dr. Vitti has asked Mike Duggan and Gov. Rick Snyder to convene a task force of engineers and water experts to determine the cause of the elevated lead and copper levels, and to propose solutions. 

Importantly, it seems the public safety risk is limited to Detroit’s public schools: water officials released a statement Wednesday assuring residents and customers of the Great Lakes Water Authority and the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department that they are not affected by the lead and copper issues at the school district, noting: “Aging school infrastructure (i.e. plumbing) is the reason for the precautionary measure of providing bottled water…The water at GLWA’s treatment plants is tested hourly, and DWSD has no lead service lines connected to any DPSCD building. The drinking water is of unquestionable quality.”

Nevertheless, the threat to public safety—combined with the heartbreaking, long-term threats to Flint’s children from that city’s public water contamination—could add further challenges to Detroit’s recovery from the nation’s largest-ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy: a critical part of the city’s plan of debt adjustment was to address its vast amassment of abandoned houses by enticing young families with children to move from the suburbs back into the city—an effort which had to rely on a perception of the quality and safety of its public schools. Now, for a system itself recovering from bankruptcy, DPS faces a bill of at least $500 million to repair its buildings: approximately 25% of the system’s school buildings are in unsatisfactory condition and another 20%are in poor condition, according to the report. The district noted nearly $223 million of high-priority repairs involving elevators and lifts, energy supply, heating and cooling systems, sprinklers, standpipes, electrical service and distribution, lighting, wiring, communications, security system, local area networking, public address and intercoms, emergency lights and plumbing fixtures.

Mayor Duggan’s office and the Detroit Health Department Wednesday issued a joint statement supporting “the approach Dr. Vitti has taken to test all water sources within DPS schools and to provide bottled water until the district can implement a plan to ensure that all water is safe for use,” noting: “We will be supporting Dr. Vitti in an advisory capacity through the health department and the DWSD has offered to partner with the district on any follow-up testing that needs to be done. We also will be reaching out to our charter operators in the coming days to work with them on a possible similar testing strategy to the voluntary one Dr. Vitti has implemented.”

Restoring Municipal Authority. Mayhap it is ironic that Michigan’s relatively rare authority for the Governor to appoint an emergency manager to preempt local elected authority reflects the uneven results of the program—a program I well remember from meeting with Kevyn Orr, whom Gov. Rick Snyder had appointed as Emergency Manager  (EM) to preempt all governing authority of Detroit’s Mayor and Council, at the Governor’s office in Detroit on the first day the city entered the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history—and after the grievous failure of a previous gubernatorially-appointed Emergency Manager to help the Motor City. The very concept of state authority to appoint a quasi dictator and to preempt any authority of local leaders elected by the citizens, after all, feels un-American.

Yet, from that very first moment, Mr. Orr had acted to ensure there was no disruption in 9-1-1 responses—and that every traffic and street light worked. Unlike the experience under an Emergency Manager in Flint, Mr. Orr was intently focused on getting Detroit back on its fiscal and physical feet—and restoring elected leadership to today’s grieving city.

Now, as of this week, Michigan no longer has any local government under a state appointed emergency manager—and observers are under the impression the state program to preempt local authority may be quietly laid to rest. It has, after all, been a program of preemption of local democracy with untoward results: while it proved invaluable in Detroit, it has proven fiscally and physically grievous in Flint, where it has been blamed for contributing to Flint’s water contamination crisis. Indeed, two of Flint’s former EMs have been criminally charged in connection with the crisis. Their failures—at a cost of human lives, appears to have put the future of state pre-emption of local governing authority—may well make state officials leery of stepping in to usurp control a local government, even as some municipal market participants and others see state oversight programs as a positive credit feature. The last municipality in Michigan to be put under a state-imposed emergency manager was Lincoln Park—an imposition which ended three years ago. Michigan Treasury spokesperson Ron Leix noted: “Each situation that led to the financial emergency is unique, so I can’t give a broad-brush assessment about how the law will be used in the future…For the first time in 18 years, no Michigan municipality or school district is under state financial oversight through an emergency manager. This is really about the hard work our local units of government have achieved to identify problems and bring together the resources needed to problem-solve challenging financial conditions.”

In Michigan, the emergency manager program was authorized twenty-eight years ago, granting the governor authority to appoint a manager with extensive powers over a troubled municipality or school district. By 2012, Michigan voters repealed the emergency manager program in a referendum; notwithstanding, one month later Gov. Snyder and legislators re-adopted a similar intervention program—under which local governments could opt among three new options in addition to the appointment of an emergency manager who reports directly to the Governor: chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, mediation, or a consent agreement between the state and the city to permit local elected officials to balance their budget on their own. (In Michigan, municipalities which exit emergency management remain under the oversight of a receivership transition advisory board while executive powers are slowly restored to elected mayors and city councils.)

The state intervention/takeover program had mixed success, according to Michigan State University economist Eric Scorsone, who noted: “In some cases it’s worked well, like Allen Park where the situation was pretty clear-cut and the solution was pretty clear as to what needed to be done.” (Allen Park regained full local control of its operations and finances in February of 2017 after nearly four years of state oversight. Last June, S&P Global Ratings upgraded the city to investment-grade BBB-plus from junk-level BB, crediting strong budgetary performance and financial flexibility more than 12 months after exiting state oversight. But the appointment, in Flint, of emergency managers demonstrated the obverse: the small city had four emergency managers: Ed Kurtz, Mike Brown, Darnell Earley, and Gerald Ambrose—where the latter two today are confronted by charges of criminal wrongdoing stemming from the lead contamination crisis and ensuing Legionnaire’s disease outbreak that claimed 12 lives. It was the gubernatorially appointed Mr. Earley who oversaw the decision to change Flint’s water source to the Flint River in April 2014 as the city awaited completion of a new pipeline—a decision with fatal human and fiscal consequences. Indeed, two years ago, Gov. Snyder named a task force to investigate the Flint crisis and review the Emergency Manager law—a review which recommended the Governor consider alternatives to the current approach that would engage local elected officials. (No action has been taken to change the law.)

Because only a minority of states have authorized chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, there is no uniform state role with regard to city or county severe fiscal distress and bankruptcy. Jane Ridley, senior director in the U.S. public finance government group at S&P Global Ratings and sector lead for local governments, has noted that state oversight is considered as part of the rating agency’s local GO criteria: “We do think that having a state that has oversight, especially if it’s a proven mechanism, can be very helpful for struggling entities…If they ended oversight entirely it would likely have an impact on the institutional framework scores and their sub scores.” A Moody’s analyst, Andrew Van Dyck Dobos, noted: “While an EM is in most cases is a last option, the ability for it to implement some policies and procedures is going to be typically viewed, at least at the onset, as a credit positive.”

Ending Shelter from the Storm. U.S. District Judge Timothy Hillman yesterday ruled that temporary housing given to hundreds of Puerto Ricans displaced by Hurricane Maria will end next month, meaning Puerto Ricans will be forced to check out of temporary housing provided by Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as part of the agency’s Transitional Sheltering Assistance (TSA) program. Judge Hillman, in his decision, wrote: I strongly recommend the parties get together to find temporary housing, or other assistance to the Plaintiffs and other members of the class prior to that date,” with his decision coming the same week Puerto Rico updated its official death toll from Maria to 2,975, a vast increase from the original count of 64. Judge Hillman’s decision also comes about two months after a national civil-rights group filed a lawsuit which had sought a restraining order to block FEMA from ending the program. The group, LatinoJustice, argued in the suit that it would lead to families’ evictions. It also came as, two days ago, President Trump met with reporters to respond to questions with regard to the mounting death toll—a session in which the President told the reporters: “I think we did a fantastic job in Puerto Rico.” Some 1,744 Puerto Rican adults and children were in the FEMA program when the lawsuit was filed. U.S. District Judge Leo T. Sorokin temporarily extended the program to the end of last July, and subsequently extended it until today—and then, once more, to September 14th.

Now, the White House is responding to a new estimate which increases the number by about 33% more to 2,975 after an independent study. White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders claimed in a statement that the back-to-back hurricanes which hit last year prompted “the largest domestic disaster response mission in history.” She added that President Donald Trump “remains proud of all of the work the Federal family undertook to help our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico.” She also says the federal government “will continue to be supportive” of Gov. Ricardo Rossello’s accountability efforts and says “the American people, including those grieving the loss of a loved one, deserve no less.” The new estimate of 2,975 dead in the six months after Maria devastated the island in September 2017 was made by researchers with the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University. It was released Tuesday.

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The Human Costs of Misgovernance

August 7, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the awful physical, fiscal, and human challenges of municipal governance.

Human Costs of Misgovernance. In the ongoing trial in the Flint water case, Genesee District Judge William Crawford yesterday heard oral arguments in the case of Dr. Eden Wells, the state’s chief medical executive. Judge Crawford said he will make his decision only after all transcripts are completed and after attorneys are given seven days to file additional briefs with the court, meaning that Dr. Wells will likely have to wait several weeks before she learns whether or not she will have to stand trial on charges, including involuntary manslaughter, related to the Flint drinking water crisis—a trial where she faces charges of manslaughter, related to the Flint water crisis. Yesterday, Special prosecutor Todd Flood told Judge Crawford that Dr. Wells had a duty under Michigan state law to warn the public of Legionnaires’ outbreaks in the area during the 17 months that the City of Flint used the Flint River as its source of water—a source turned to under the direction of a state-appointed emergency manager, rather than the city’s elected leaders. The trial proceeded in the wake of the dismissal of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder from the suit after, last Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Judith Levy had ruled that the suit filed on behalf of residents and businesses did not claim that Gov. Rick Snyder was aware of risks when the city switched to Flint River water in 2014—unlike other defendants who testified they knew and disregarded the hazards involved. The pending case is over claims filed on behalf of 12 Flint residents and three businesses: it names twenty-seven defendants, including state and local agencies and officials. The plaintiffs are asking the Court to establish a Flint Victims Compensation Fund, providing the affected Flint residents with medical and financial assistance. Should the state lose, such a decision could pose a financial burden for the recently upgraded state’s credit rating. Moreover, such a decision could have adverse implications for Michigan’s Emergency Manager law for distressed local governments.

Special Prosecutor Todd Flood testified: “The defendant neglected or refused to perform that duty. She knew about it…it was reasonably foreseeable that someone was going to get sick‒that someone was going to get harmed,” arguing that state officials, four of whom face criminal charges related to the Flint water contamination, and Dr. Wells, in particular, was required by her official position to halt the flow of the contaminated water she knew could create a threat.  

The arguments deemed Dr. Wells a hero during the water emergency, in no small part because of her giving credence to the work of Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the Hurley Medical Center pediatrician who had studied the blood levels of Flint’s children—and concluded that the percentage of elevated blood levels doubled in the wake of the state decision to change the source of the city’s drinking water. Dr. Wells, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon, and Gov. Snyder ultimately provided public notice of the outbreaks of Legionnaire’s disease in the city related to the Flint water contamination; however, that notice was not given until January of 2016—long after the fatal damage to human health had occurred—and months after the city’s reliance on the contaminated water source had ceased—reliance which resulted in at least 10 deaths—or, as we previously noted, U.S. Judge Judith Levy’s opinion finding that “some government officials disregarded the risk the water posed, denied the increasingly clear threat the public faced, protected themselves with bottled water, and rejected solutions that would have ended the crisis sooner.  

The human health and safety crisis arose from a governing issue: the State of Michigan’s reliance on substituting state appointed emergency managers over municipal elected leaders. Thus, Gov. Ric Snyder, named Darnell Earley as Flint’s emergency manager—displacing the city’s Mayor and City Council—in September of 2013—at a time, according to some to the document before the court in which the plaintiffs allege the defendants knew, prior to the fatal drinking water switch, that the Flint River had been was professionally evaluated and rejected as a drinking water source, with the decision to source water from the Flint River made on April 25, 2014, after the city’s contract with Detroit to receive Lake Huron water ended and the city was awaiting the completion of the new Karegnondi water pipeline—a $285 million pipeline to provide Lake Huron water to Flint and Genesee County. Flint has since entered into a long-term primary water agreement with the Great Lakes Water Authority. (Two and a half years ago, Mr. Earley was one of fourteen officials named as defendants in a class action lawsuit brought in federal court by Flint residents, a complaint alleging that “Defendant’s conduct in exposing Flint’s residents to toxic water was so egregious and so outrageous that it shocks the conscience,” and that: “For more than 18 months, state and local government officials ignored irrefutable evidence that the water pumped from the Flint River exposed (users) to extreme toxicity.” The suit also named Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, former Flint Mayor Dayne Walling, and former Flint Emergency Manager Jerry Ambrose.

Fiscal, Physical, & Human Challenges of Municipal Governance

August 6, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the awful physical, fiscal, and human challenges of municipal governance.  

An Enduring State of Emergency. Governor Rick Snyder of Michigan was in West Michigan yesterday morning: he was touring a water system construction site in Parchment, a municipality in Kalamazoo County of less than 2,000. The construction here includes a new pressure reduction system, which will allow Parchment to transition to the City of Kalamazoo water system. The city’s water supply is being flushed out, and the city of Kalamazoo will provide water to Parchment and Cooper Township residents. The transition, raising eerie memories of a previous transfer by the Governor in Flint, comes in the wake of finding that water in Parchment was contaminated with man-made chemicals called perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). City residents were warned to stop using the water due to the contamination on July 26th, after water tests showed the PFAS level in Parchment was 20 times higher than the EPA recommended amount of 70 parts per trillion. A local state of emergency has been set for Parchment, and neighboring Cooper Township, after, just last week, Gov. Snyder declared a state of emergency for Kalamazoo County.

Fear for children—fear that the impact of Flint’s lead-tainted water could last decades—and distrust in the state and local governance to make decisions affecting children whose development could be hurt, is, unsurprisingly causing generations of residents to lose trust in government. It is, of course, at the same time tainting the assessed property values of homes in cities in Michigan so adversely affected for decades to come by state-imposed emergency managers. What parents would wish to move to a municipality knowing the drinking water would have long-term devastating consequences for their child?

What are the fiscal challenges for municipal elected leaders—especially in a state where the long-term physical and fiscal damages were wrought by state-imposed emergency managers? What do the long-term health effects for children exposed to the lead-tainted water mean for a municipality with regard to legal vulnerability and to financing a long-term recovery? At a conference at the end of last week, Detroit News reporter Leonard Fleming noted: “They don’t trust government officials: It could take a generation or two for residents to trust the city and state again and its water.”

At the conference, Dr. Lawrence Reynolds, who was on the Governor’s Flint task force, said some health officials have tried to minimize the effects of the water on residents; nevertheless, he warned there are babies who drank lead-tainted formula for six to nine months who could experience serious disabilities later in life: “It was a civil rights crisis, a human rights crisis, an environmental racism, and there is no excuse for what was done.” Moreover, there appears little end in sight: Cynthia Lindsey, an attorney representing Flint residents in a class-action lawsuit, said it could take three to four years for the legal process to play out. That is, Flint is held hostage by decisions imposed upon it by a state-imposed emergency manager, and now the question of who will finance—and how long will it take to replace all the city’s pipes, provide it access to safe and affordable drinking water, and long-term health care appear to be decisions to be made in a courtroom.

The fateful decision that led to the lead water contamination was not a municipal decision, but rather one made by the state in 2011 via a state imposed emergency manager, Darnell Earley. That was a decision which led to the finding that hundreds of children have since been diagnosed with lead poisoning; a dozen Flint residents have died of Legionella from drinking river water. Today, some 15 state public employees have been indicted by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette for their roles in the water crisis—indictments on charges ranging from obstructing an investigation to involuntary manslaughter.

Now Attorney General Schuette is running to replace the term-limited Governor Rick Snyder. Some in the state claim the candidate is using the Flint charges to “make himself look like a hero.” In the Democratic gubernatorial primary, ex-state Senator Gretchen Whitmer (D-Lansing) has released a plan to speed the replacement of lead pipes, while former Detroit health director Abdul El-Sayed received the endorsement of “Little Miss Flint,” the student whose letter brought former President Barack Obama to the community.

Former Flint Mayor Dayne Walling, who lost his first race for that position in 2009 to a car dealer named Don Williamson, but, when former Mayor Williamson resigned to avoid a recall for lying about the city’s budget deficit, was elected in a special election to replace him: he was elected after promising “to transform Flint into a sustainable 21st-century city with new jobs, safe neighborhoods, great schools and opportunity for all.” Candidate Walling reports that his own trust in government is lower than it was prior to the city’s drinking water contamination; now he claims he wants to take the hard lessons he has learned to the place he sees as the major source of Flint’s problems: the state capitol in Lansing.

Representation could matter: over the last four decades, assessed property values fell more than 40 percent—and with them property tax receipts. That led to, after the city’s police union’s refusal to accept pay cuts, laying off a third of the police force—meaning that for a period of time, the city, with about 100,000 residents, was sometimes able to put only six officers on the street at one time. Unsurprisingly, murders nearly doubled between 2009 and 2010—a year when Flint had the nation’s highest murder rate—and the year when Gov. Ric Snyder announced he was appointing an emergency manager, Ed Kurz, to preempt local control and authority in an effort to eliminate the city’s $10 million general fund deficit. Just prior to that preemption of local authority, the Flint City Council had endorsed a plan to detach the city from the Detroit water system, due to what the Council believed to be unaffordable rates, and join the new Karegnondi Water Authority, which planned to build a pipeline from Lake Huron. Mr. Kurtz authorized an engineering study to prepare the city’s water treatment plant to process Flint River water instead. A sequential state-appointed Emergency Manager, Darnell Earley, implemented the changeover—a fateful decision with precipitous health and human safety and fiscal consequences. Mr. Earley has been charged with false pretenses, conspiracy, willful neglect of duty, misconduct in office, and involuntary manslaughter—charges which will be aired next Monday at a hearing, where he is likely to maintain That the City Council had decided to draw from the Flint River until the new pipeline was completed, and that he was, therefore, only executing their orders. (Mr. Kurz, who has not been charged, has previously testified before Congress that his responsibility was “strictly finance,” thus, he bore no responsibility to ensure “safe drinking water.”

Today, Mr. Walling, currently working as a public policy consultant for Michigan State University, notes he believes there ought to be changes in the relationship between Flint and the State of Michigan, noting: “The distress of Michigan’s cities, starting with Detroit and Flint, is a direct result of policies made in Lansing,” adding: “The only good news is that policy changes at the state level can help restore Michigan’s once-great cities.”

According to a Michigan State University 2015 study: “Beyond State Takeovers: Reconsidering the Role of State Government in Local Financial Distress, with Important Lessons for Michigan and its Embattled Cities,” by Joshua Sapotichne, Erika Rosebrook, Eric A. Scorsone, Danielle Kaminski, Mary Doidge, and Traci Taylor; the State of Michigan has the second-most stringent local taxation limits in the nation—limits which impose what they term “tremendous pressure on local lawmakers’ ability to generate critical revenue.” The fiscal pressure on the state’s local governments has been intensified by decisions to divert revenue sharing, the former program intended to address fiscal disparities, to instead enable state tax cuts. The decision disproportionately impacted the state’s most fiscally challenged municipalities: Flint’s loss was $54 million; Detroit lost $200 million, contributing to its 2013 chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. Indeed, the state decision indirectly contributed to state imposition of nine emergency managers.

Thus, unsurprisingly, former Mayor Walling has a list of the new policies he wants to enact as a state representative: Allow cities to charge commuters the same income tax rate as residents (instead of just half); broaden the sales and use tax to services; provide state pension retirement assistance. This would have especial import for Flint, where the city’s taxpayers are currently financing the pensions of employees who worked for the city when it had 200,000 residents—pension payments now consuming, he says, a quarter of the city’s budget.

Trust & Intergovernmental Tensions. By candidate Walling’s own admission, throughout most of Flint’s drinking water crisis, he believed assurances from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality that Flint’s water met safe drinking standards. When residents confronted him with discolored, foul-smelling water, he said: “I thought that water had come out of their tap because of a failure in the system at their house or near the house,” adding that it was not until three years ago when, in the wake of listening to Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha describe her discovery that Flint children were showing elevated levels of lead in their blood, did he finally realize the city’s entire water system was tainted, asserting that it was at that moment in time that he ordered the city to issue a lead advisory, advising mothers not to mix hot tap water with formula, and for all residents to filter their water and flush it for five minutes. (In her recent memoir, What the Eyes Don’t See, Dr. Hanna-Attisha devotes an entire chapter to her meeting with Mr. Walling, criticizing him for opting out of joining her news conference on lead levels, because he was more concerned about traveling to Washington to meet Pope Francis.)

Candidate Walling’s campaign flyers assert: “My priorities are roads, schools, jobs.” they declare. As he challenges incumbent Mayor Karen Weaver, he says most voters he interacts with want to talk about the shabby state of Michigan’s roads or the excessive auto insurance rates paid by residents of Flint and Detroit. But, it appears, he is willing to support repeal of Michigan’s Emergency Manager law—a concept which journalist Anna Clark notes, in The Poisoned City, her new history of the water crisis: “The idea of emergency management is that an outside official who is not constrained by local politics or the prospect of a reelection bid will be able to better make the difficult decisions necessary to get a struggling city or school district back on solid ground.” But in Flint, emergency managers made decisions based on saving money, not the health and safety of the citizens with whose well-being they had been entrusted. Candidate Walling, in retrospect, notes: “I wish that I had never been part of any of it: “This has all happened to a community that I deeply love, and it is motivating me to make sure policy changes are made to make sure this never happens again.”

Restoring Power–and Recovering Governing Authority

July 10, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the challenges of restoration of electric power (as opposed to political power) in Puerto Rico, and then try to explore the risks of powers of appointments of emergency managers by a state—here as the City of Flint, Michigan is still seeking to fiscally and physically recover from the human and fiscal devastation caused by the State of Michigan.

Adios. Walter Higgins, the CEO Puerto Rico’s bankrupt PREPA Electric power authority resigned yesterday, just months after he was chosen to oversee its privatization, an appointment made in an effort to fully restore power some ten months after the human, fiscal, and physical devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria. Now his resignation adds to PREPA’s uphill climb to not only fully restore power, but also to address its $9 billion in debt. Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said in a statement that Mr. Higgins had resigned for personal reasons, while Mr. Higgins, in his resignation letter, wrote that the compensation details outlined in his contract could not be fulfilled—with his written statement coming just one month after the Commonwealth’s Justice Secretary said it would be illegal for him to receive bonuses. According to a PREPA spokesperson, Mr. Higgins will remain as a member of the PREPA Board. Nevertheless, his appointment was stormy itself, after, last month, Puerto Rican officials had questioned how and why he had been awarded a $315,000 contract without authorization from certain government agencies—in response to which PREPA’s Board advised the government as a consultant, rather than filling the vacancy for an executive sub-director of administration and finance. Unsurprisingly, his departure will not be mourned by many Puerto Ricans in view of his generous compensation package of $450,000 annual salary compared to the average income for Puerto Ricans of $19,518.  

Nevertheless, PREPA officials, announced that current Board member Rafael Diaz Granados will become the new CEO—with nearly double the compensation: he will assume the position on Sunday and receive $750,000 a year—a level which Puerto Rico Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz described as the “kind of insult that to Puerto Ricans is unacceptable,” as the government and PROMESA Oversight Board continue to struggle to address and restructure Puerto Rico’s $70 billion in public debt. Nevertheless, as PREPA crews continue restoring power to the last 1,000 or so customers who have been without power since Maria hit nearly a year ago and destroyed up to 75% of transmission lines across the territory, the federal government is still operating 175 generators across the island.

Indeed, U.S. House Natural Resources Committee Chair Rob Bishop (R-Utah) has scheduled a hearing for July 25th to assess and inquire about the status of the Electric Power Authority and to examine the functioning and plans for the privatization of PREPA assets, an issue which the territory’s non-voting Congressional Representative Jenniffer Gonzalez noted “has been under the Committee’s jurisdiction for the past two years.” Rep. Gonzalez added: “I’m surprised with the salary: I did not expect that amount. I do not know the elements which affected Mr. Higgin’s resignation, and I believe that these changes affect the process of recovery on the island.”

Meanwhile, Chairman Bishop had announced a second potential hearing—this one to assess the operation of the PROMESA statute and how the PROMESA Oversight Board is working, after, last week, postponing an official trip with a dozen Members of Congress to assess the physical and fiscal recovery on the island, after meeting, early last month in San Juan with the now former PREPA Director Higgins, and after, in the spring, Chair Bishop, Chair Doug LaMalfa (R-Ca.), of the Subcommittee on Island Affairs, and Chairman Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) had announced a probe into “multiple allegations of corruption and serious allegations of maladministration” during the restoration of the electric service after the storm.

Out Like Flint? Meanwhile, in a criminal and fiscal case arising out of Michigan’s Flint water crisis in the wake of fatal decisions by a gubernatorially appointed Emergency Manager, closing arguments in the involuntary manslaughter case against state Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon began yesterday before Genesee District Court Judge David Goggins, who will determine whether Director Lyon will go on trial in the Flint water crisis prosecution on charges of involuntary manslaughter and misconduct in office connected to the 2014-2015 Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in the Flint region which killed at least 12 people and sickened another 79 people. A misdemeanor charge of “willful neglect” to protect the health of Genesee County residents was added last week. Director Lyon is receiving assistance in his defense from John Bursch, a former Michigan Solicitor General, who was hired for that position by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette—who has brought criminal charges related to the Flint water crisis against Director Lyon and 14 other current and former city and state government employees. Flint still faces financial questions after years of emergency management.

The criminal trial comes as questions still remain with regard to Flint’s long-term financial health, despite six years of state oversight that overhauled the city’s finances, after a 2011 state-ordered preliminary review showed problems with Flint’s finances and ultimately recommended an emergency manager for the city. Last April, State Treasurer Nick Khouri repealed all remaining Emergency Manager orders, with state officials claiming the city’s financial emergency has been addressed to a point where receivership was no longer needed, and, as the Treasurer wrote to Mayor Karen Weaver: “Moreover, it appears that financial conditions have been corrected in a sustainable fashion,” and Flint CFO Hughey Newsome said that while emergency managers had helped Flint get its financial house in order; nevertheless, Flint’s fiscal and physical future remains uncertain: “The after-effects of the water crisis, including the dark cloud of the financials, will be here for some time to come: We’re not out of the woods yet, but I don’t think emergency management can help us moving forward.” In the city’s case, the fateful water crisis with its devastating human and fiscal impacts, hit the city as it was still working to recover from massive job and population losses following years of disinvestment by General Motors. CFO Newsome said the crisis affected the city’s economic development efforts and may have left potential businesses wanting to come to Flint wary because of the water.

Flint’s spending became more in line with its revenues, changes were made to its budgeting procedures, and retiree healthcare costs and pension liabilities were reduced while under emergency management. Nevertheless, past financial overseers have warned the city about what would happen if Flint allows its fiscal responsibilities to slip. Three years ago, former Emergency Manager Jerry Ambrose, in a letter to Gov. Snyder, wrote: “If, however, the new policies, practices and organizational changes are ignored in favor of returning to the historic ways of doing business, it is not likely the city will succeed over the long term: The focus of city leaders will then likely once again return to confronting financial insolvency.”

Today, there are still signs of potential fiscal distress, notwithstanding  the city’s recovery; indeed, Mayor Weaver’s FY2019 budget plans for a more than $276,000 general fund surplus—even as the municipal budget is projected to grow to more than $8 million by FY2023, with that growth attributed by CFO Newsome to ongoing legacy costs and a lack of revenue—or, as he put it: “My last two predecessors have really delivered realistic budgets: I definitely don’t see this administration being irresponsible in that regard, and I don’t see this Council rubberstamping such a budget either.”

And, today, questions about criminal and fiscal accountability are issues for the state’s third branch of government: the judiciary, in District Court Judge William Crawford’s courtroom, where the issues with regard to criminal charges relating to the governmental actions of defendants charged for their actions during the Flint Water Crisis include former Emergency Manager Darnell Early and former City of Flint Public Works Director Howard Croft, and former state-appointed Flint Emergency Manager Jerry Ambrose, who, prosecutors  allege, knew the Flint water treatment plant was not ready to produce clean and safe water, but did nothing to stop it. The trial involves multiple charges, including willful neglect of duty and misconduct in office. (Mr.  Ambrose was the state appointed Emergency Manager from January until April of 2015; he also held the title of Finance Director under former state appointed emergency managers Mike Brown and Darnell Early. To date, four others have entered into a plea agreement in their cases.)

Bequeathing a Legacy of healthcare and retirees benefit costs: When Mr. Ambrose left in 2015 and turned things over the to the Receivership Transition Advisory Board, he stated that Flint’s other OPEB costs had been reduced from $850 million to $240 million, adding that a new hybrid pension plan put in place by state appointed emergency managers had reduced Flint’s long-term liability; however, he warned, on-going legacy costs are still one of the most pressing issues for Flint’s fiscal future: “Remember, the reality we’re facing: we have a $561 million liability to (Municipal Employees’ Retirement System), and the fund is only at $220 million; we also have an obligation to our 1,800 retirees to make sure that we’re paying our MERS obligation.” (A three percent raise for Flint police officers approved earlier this year added to those liabilities, with those increases attributable to two different contracts, which were imposed on officers by former state-appointed Emergency Managers Michael Brown and Darnell Earley in 2012 and 2014, respectively.)

The RTAB asked CFO Huey Newsome in January how the city would pay the additional $264,000 annually in wages and benefits along with a projected $3.4 million in additional retirement costs over the life of the contract—a question he was unable to specify an answer to at the time: “To tell you exactly where those‒where those dollars will come from right at this point in time, I can’t say…I think the ‘so what’ of this is that, you know, the incremental impact from this pay raise is not going to be that large when you think about the three and a half million. The city still needs to figure out where that three and a half million is coming from.” Moreover, he added, because police negotiated the raise, it also could be an issue with other unions wanting a similar increase during their future negotiations, adding that the city is making increased payments to MERS to avoid balloon payments in the future. For example, Mr. Newsome said, Flint will pay an additional $21.5 million this year, adding that all the city’s funds currently have a positive balance. However, Flint’s budget projections show the water fund will have a $2.1 million deficit in FY2018-19, a deficit projected to increase to $3.3 million by FY2022-23; Flint’s fiscal projections eventually put the water fund balance in the red by 2022-23; however, CFO Newsome warned: “The water fund is probably the most tepid one, because it is expected to be below the reserve balance by the end of the year,” noting the city can only account for 60% of the water that goes through its system, adding that the city has an 80% collection rate on its water bills, which is about $28 million this fiscal year, telling the Mayor and Council: “One of our top priorities is better metering.”

The city’s most-recent budget for 2018-19 calls for a combined revenue increase of $1.09 million more than previous budget projections because of increased assessed property values, more income taxes coming in, and additional state revenue sharing. Nevertheless, one Board member, notwithstanding projections for increased revenue, is apprehensive that Flint’s “tax base is likely going to continue to shrink, and the city currently has limited resources to reverse this trend,” or, as CFO Newsome put it: “Right now, revenue is not there: The income tax is relatively flat. The property tax is flat. That’s reality.” The city’s current proposed FY2019 budget calls for an increase of $120,000 from property taxes, $339,000 increase in income tax revenue, and an additional $631,000 in revenue from the state of Michigan. 

 

Getting Schooled on Fiscal Challenges

June 19, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the fiscal challenge in the Connecticut legislature with how to get the state’s capitol city back on its feet, before turning, as the new hurricane season gets underway, to assess the Detroit-kinds of challenges to a public school system when so many families are leaving.

Recovering from Near Municipal Bankruptcy. With the new fiscal year fast approaching, Connecticut Governor Gov. Dannel P. Malloy vetoed bi-partisan legislation last Thursday which would have changed how the state board overseeing Hartford’s finances would have operated, and which would have required the continued financial support of Hartford for five years, but would allow the state to reduce other municipal aid to Hartford in the sixth year if the city failed to meet its obligations. The proposed legislation did not modify the debt assistance agreement signed by state Treasurer Denise Nappier and the provision which required the state to pay off the entire principal of Hartford’s bonded debt over the next 20 to 30 years, under which the state will make about $40 million in annual payments on the debt—all steps taken in the wake of the city’s teetering, last year, on the edge of municipal bankruptcy—when the state intervened to take on the city’s debt through the Municipal Accountability Review Board—a step, in retrospect, which has helped the city begin to rebalance its finances. However, it appears the city needs more time.

Republican legislators believed they should have been allowed to lower other municipal aid to Hartford in order to account for the obligations elsewhere in the budget, but the legislation Gov. Malloy vetoed sought to delay those types of decisions for at least five years. The Governor, however, noted: “The legislature may elect to offset contract assistance to Hartford in the future, and must approve state aid amounts for all communities; but it makes little sense to make an out year reduction without giving the program the opportunity to see results before imposing what amounts to a sanction.” In contrast, Senate Republican President Len Fasano (R-Wallingford) said the veto “demonstrates the Governor’s arrogance and lack of respect for taxpayer dollars,” adding: “Once again, when it comes to support for the city of Hartford, Gov. Malloy completely dismisses the intent and the voice of the legislature: this veto practically ensures a rough road ahead for Hartford, because, absent this fix, the legislature probably won’t be willing to help Hartford in the future.”

In his veto message—legislation which had gained bipartisan support, and which would have modified the $534 million bailout the legislature had approved last year in order to help the city it avoid filing for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, the Governor wrote that Senate Bill 528, an Act Concerning State Contract Assistance Provide to Certain Municipalities, would make “significant, detrimental impacts to the new Account Review Board and its operations,” noting that the changes to the Hartford bailout were “a reflection of indignation on the part of some legislators,” who were upset that the Municipal Accountability Review Board “exercised its statutory authority in coming to the aid of our capital city.” Instead, he told legislators, it is critical for the state to have “a viable mechanism in place to allow it to intervene in the case of other troubled municipalities in a way that is both effective and that holds those municipalities highly accountable.” He noted that the Municipal Accountability Review Board works; ergo there was no reason for the legislature to seek to change it at this point in time.

The vetoed measure had been passed in the House 105-45, with all Republicans voting in favor, but more than half of the House Democrats rejected the proposal, arguing that five years was insufficient to assist Hartford with its financial difficulties—even as opponents insisted the bailout was a “major misunderstanding,” because they had understood they were voting only for a two-year bailout, not a long-term $500 million deal that stretched into the future. Now, it will be, unlike in neighboring New Jersey, the legislature’s budget and tax committees which would need to vote on any future financial bailout, with a series of fiscal trip wires if any municipality were seeking an agreement similar to the one which was approved last year for Hartford. For his part, Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano (R-North Haven) noted: “This veto demonstrates the Governor’s arrogance and lack of respect for taxpayer dollars: once again, when it comes to support for the city of Hartford, Gov. Malloy completely dismisses the intent and the voice of the legislature. This veto practically ensures a rough road ahead for Hartford, because absent this fix, the Legislature probably won’t be willing to help Hartford in the future…This bill was the result of extensive bipartisan negotiations, supported by the Hartford delegation and the Mayor of Hartford: it defines what state assistance Hartford will be receiving and also puts into place needed protections to ensure taxpayer dollars are not squandered.’’

His counterpart, Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney (D-New Haven) said no final decisions have been made with regard to whether the Senate would override the two latest vetoes, noting: “We will review the Governor’s veto messages and consult with our caucus members in order to determine any next steps the caucus may want to take.’’ A veto-override session is slated for Monday, because a little-known provision in the state Constitution provides that all veto sessions must be held on a Monday. House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz (D-Berlin) said the House, where the measure had passed 105-45, is pushing to override at least two vetoes, while final decisions have not been revealed on the other five vetoes.

A key niggle is a growing recognition that whatever final legislation is signed into law will, in effect, create a fiscal blueprint: thus the legislature has adopted a bill to clarify the process for the state’s municipalities in the future, under which the legislature’s budget and tax committees would need to vote on any future fiscal rescues, in advance, with a series of financial trip wires if any municipality were seeking an agreement similar to the one which had been approved last year for Hartford.

A veto-override session is scheduled for Monday, June 25, because a little-known provision in the state Constitution says that all veto sessions must be held on a Monday. House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz of Berlin said the House is pushing to override at least two vetoes, while final decisions have not been revealed on the other five vetoes.

El Fin. Puerto Rico’s legislature is nearing the end of its regular session—even as the new hurricane season is opening its season, so the gale budgetary challenges are anticipated to dominate its closing days—with the key issues being approval of the new year’s fiscal budget and repeal of the island’s Unjustified Dismissal Law (Law 80-1976). The focus, this week, will be on getting revenues for FY2019, some $9.1 billion—or some $700 million greater than the amount proposed by the PROMESA Oversight Board, promising a fierce legislative battle. Víctor Parés, president of the Commission for Economic Development, Planning, Telecommunications, Energy and Public-Private Partnerships, and president of the Finance Committee, Antonio Soto,  had indicated they would meet this week with personnel from the Department of the Treasury to define how the income estimates included in the Board’s proposal will be readjusted. Mr. Parés noted:Government revenues have increased this fiscal year; it is new money; it has to be allocated; and it is part of what is going to be negotiated and agreed with the Executive,” identifying key priorities as education, health, and safety.

The first in that list is, perhaps, of greatest apprehension, with the Department of Education facing a cut of $191.5 million—a cut of such severity that as many as eight programs could be put at risk, including special education, where the proposed cut would be $78.2 million. The Board has also recommended a cut of $16.1 million to the Department of Health, and just under $50 million to the Department of Public Security—that is, a reduction which would likely mean laying off as many as 1,300 police officers. That sets up a challenge, this week, with the Puerto Rico House, on Thursday, scheduled to act on the budget.

The regular session will defer to a special session consideration of the Incentive Code, described as a “very technical document,” which could be approved in July during an extraordinary session that Governor Ricardo Roselló Nevares would convene. With regard to the version of pending legislation to repeal the House-passed Law 80, the future is uncertain: Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz announced the Senate would not agree to the amendments.  

A New Civil Code? Rep. Maria Milagros Charbonier is expected to introduce a proposed, renewed Civil Code, with debate deferred to August on the proposal—a comprehensive document dealing with family, persons, royals, obligations, contracts, and successions, but which does not address the issues of surrogate motherhood, domestic partnerships, and the minimum age. It proposes to increase the age to marry from 14 to 18 years, and limit marriages to the third degree of consanguinity. It would maintain the grounds for divorce for cruel treatment, adultery, as well as those of mutual consent and irreparable rupture. The new proposals come in the wake of four years of evaluation of the Civil Code.

Dying Communities? Verónica Dávila, a second-grade teacher at Pasom Palmas, in rural Puerto Rico, yesterday noted that a “community without a school…is a vacant community: It’s actually a dead community.” Pasom Palmas, located in Utuado in the central mountains of the island, is, in land area, the third-largest municipality in Puerto Rico (after Arecibo and Ponce): it has a population over 35,000 spread over 24 wards. The community derives its name from the Taíno word Otoao, which translates as “between mountains.” It is also known as La Ciudad del Vivi, because of the river which runs through it. It is the 11th oldest municipality in Puerto Rico—founded two hundred seventy-nine years ago. Her school has been teaching children for more than  70 years, but it closed its doors forever this month—one of some nearly 300 in Puerto Rico which are shutting down permanently this summer in the wake of Hurricane Maria’s devastation: it smote Utuado especially hard. It took two months to reopen Paso Palmas after the storm, and the school remained without water and had only limited electricity from a generator, which took the Federal Emergency Management Agency seven months to provide. The school’s population fell to 55, as about a dozen students and their families left the area after Maria.

In April, the government listed 283 schools for permanent closure—subsequently granting relief to 18, a number further revised after a court, last week, ordered a halt to the closure of still nine others. Whatever the final number, the school math paints a grim fiscal and demographic picture. After spending cuts for public education of about $1.5 billion over the last six years, and school closures forcing relocation of about 60,000 students—and the new laws providing vouchers for students to attend private schools and paving the way for charter schools, one can sense the physical challenges ahead. In Paso Palmas, kids, no longer able to attend school there, are confronted with the closest school being a forty minute drive along difficult roads—and that is without counting the walk several students make each morning to reach a road passable by car—or that some families simply do not have cars or money for gasoline. It, of course, renders futile concepts of parents’ days or PTA participation.

Whose Math? The income estimate for the next fiscal year could be readjusted by the PROMESA Board to reflect an increase that would have a direct impact on the coffers of countless agencies, in response to issues such as this which have been raised in three days of public hearings with regard to how the proposed cuts by the Board will impact Puerto Rico. A key issue at the top of the list is the $78 million decrease in the budget dedicated to the Special Education Program of the Department of Education. Representative Antonio Soto said that in a meeting with the technical staff of the PROMESA Board, he told them that the income of this fiscal year should reach $9,100 million. In his opinion, it made “no sense” that the estimated income of the U.S. territory for the upcoming fiscal year would decline by $700 million when the government projects estimated economic growth, benefitting from the injection of federal assistance to provide a 6.3% boost to the economy—or, as he put it: “It’s simple math: They tell me that the estimated income they have is what we provided, so we have to validate the information.”

A Physical & Fiscal Storm of the Ages

May 30, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we worry that, based upon a New England Journal of Medicine study, Hurricane Maria caused far greater human and property devastation than official FEMA and other federal reports reported.

The Journal study reported that at least 4,645 people died as a result of Hurricane Maria, a storm which wreaked some $90 billion in damage and its physical and human devastation across Puerto Rico last year—an estimate which far exceeds the federal government’s official death toll of 64—and makes clear that the brief Presidential visit to throw paper towels marked an embarrassing demonstration—one now in even starker contrast to the White House response to Houston. The study found that health-care disruption for the elderly and the loss of basic utility services for the chronically ill had significant impacts across the U.S. territory, leaving disparate and devastating chaos not just to human lives, but also to Puerto Rico’s electrical grid and public infrastructure—meaning some communities or muncipios were completely isolated for weeks amid road closures and communications failures.

Scientists from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center Researchers calculated the number of deaths by surveying nearly 3,300 randomly chosen households across Puerto Rico, comparing the estimated post-hurricane death rate to the mortality rate for previous year: their surveys indicated that the mortality rate was 14.3 deaths per 1,000 residents from Sept. 20 through Dec. 31, 2017, a 62% increase in the mortality rate compared to 2016, or what they termed 4,645 “excess deaths,” writing: “Our results indicate that the official death count of 64 is a substantial underestimate of the true burden of mortality after Hurricane Maria.”

The study criticized Puerto Rico’s methods for counting the dead, as well as the lack of transparency in sharing information, noting it would detract from planning for future natural disasters. The authors called for patients, communities, and doctors to develop contingency plans for natural disasters. Today, more than eight months after the powerful hurricane’s physical and human devastation, Puerto Rico’s slow recovery has been marked by a persistent lack of water, a faltering power grid, and a shortage of essential services. These failures, moreover, on the cusp of the new hurricane season, have exacerbated Puerto Rico’s fiscal challenges.

The study also found that Puerto Rico’s recovery was hindered by numerous systemic failures, as well as what the scientists determined assessed as a complex method for certifying the deaths in San Juan: they noted that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that deaths can be directly attributed to storms like Maria if they are caused by forces related to the event, from flying debris to loss of medical services; however, in Puerto Rico, such deaths continued for months.

The government of Puerto Rico, notwithstanding the inadequate FEMA response compared to Houston, nevertheless was sharply criticized for its response , especially after initially reporting that only 16 Puerto Ricans had died as a result of the storm—a number which more than doubled by the time of the President’s very brief visit to assess the damage last September: a number which continued to escalate until early last December, at which time authorities 64 had died, an official death toll, which counted those who suffered injuries, were swept away in floodwaters, or were unable to reach hospitals while facing severe medical conditions. The Journal study, however, concludes there were likely thousands more Americans who died in the weeks and months that followed, but who were not counted—raising questions with regard to both the role of FEMA, as well as the manner and integrity of the Puerto Rico government’s protocols for certifying hurricane-related deaths: Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s administration did not release mortality data immediately after the storm, nor did his administration’s officials provide much information publicly about the process officials were using to enumerate the dead.

However, in the wake of pressure by Congress, as well as statistical analyses from news organizations assessing a much higher death toll, Gov. Rosselló enlisted the assistance of George Washington University experts to review the government’s death certification process, vowing that “regardless of what the death certificate says,” each death would be inspected closely to ensure a correct tally, stating: “This is about more than numbers. These are lives: real people, leaving behind loved ones and families.”

Dean Lynn Goldman of the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health anticipates the university will release an initial report as early as next month: GW’s findings will include the first government-sponsored attempt by researchers and epidemiologists to quantify Hurricane Maria’s deadliness, as experts are assessing statistical mortality data, intending to examine medical records and to interview family members of those who died—with Dean Goldman making clear that death certificates bearing the phrase “natural causes” will require further investigation.

Simultaneously, the Center for Investigative Journalism in Puerto Rico has gone to court in an effort to seek Puerto Rico’s Department of Health and Demographic Registry’s mortality data for the months since last November, the last month for which such information was available. The Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics has also announced it intends to provide an independent death count and use subpoena powers to retrieve the data.

The Chan School researchers reported there are several reasons the death toll in Puerto Rico has been so drastically underestimated, noting that, for every disaster-related death, such passing must be confirmed by the government’s Forensic Sciences Institute, which requires that bodies be sent to San Juan or that a medical examiner travel to the local municipio; consequently, it can be difficult to track indirect deaths from a worsening of chronic conditions due to the storm; moreover, the researchers reported that the government of Puerto Rico stopped sharing mortality data with the public last December, leading them to write: “As the United States prepares for its next hurricane season, it will be critical to review how disaster-related deaths will be counted, in order to mobilize an appropriate response operation and account for the fate of those affected.”

Many families here are awaiting clarity on what happened to their loved ones when “natural causes” became the only explanation. That is what was written on Leon’s death certificate the morning a local law enforcement official brought the document to the family home. The Puerto Rico Department of Justice’s Yamil Juarbe said in a statement it is customary for local officials in these cases to review bodies for any signs of trauma and talk to relatives to learn about the deceased’s medical history. That information is collected and sent to the central office of the Institute of Forensic Sciences.

Meanwhile, even as FEMA is accelerating community disaster loans to help municipios mitigate the loss of income due to natural disasters, the Government of Puerto Rico reaffirmed that, for the time being, it does not anticipate needing the $4.9 loan: last Friday, FEMA announced that the approval of another $39 million in loans from the CDL program for the municipalities of Aguadilla, Cabo Rojo, Canóvanas, Carolina, Manatí, Mayagüez, Peñuelas, and Orocovis—after, last month, approving $53.7 million in CDL loans for 12 other municipalities, including Bayamón, Caguas, Humacao, Juncos, Ponce, Toa Baja, and Trujillo Alto. Thus, to date, FEMA has allocated at least $ 92.8 million for municipios in the U.S. territory, and $371 million for the U.S. Virgin Islands; the $4.9 billion loan passed by Congress to help local municipios mitigate the loss of income has not been available to Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares—something due in part, as Puerto Rico Treasury Secretary Raúl Maldonado noted, because the “Rosselló administration Government has consistently had more than $ 2 billion available…The administration has been very successful in lowering operational costs and achieving an increase in collections.” Nevertheless, access to the loan will remain open through March of 2020—access which could prove invaluable in the event of another disaster or a drop in the income of public corporations.

Human, Fiscal, & Physical Challenges

April 20, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we return to Flint, Michigan to assess its human and fiscal challenges in the wake of its exit from state receivership; then we return to Puerto Rico, a territory plunged once again into darkness and an exorbitant and costly set of fiscal overseers. 

Out Like Flint. Serious fiscal challenges remain for Flint, Michigan, after its exit from state financial receivership. Those challenges include employee retirement funding and the aging, corroded pipes that caused its drinking water crisis, according to Mary Schulz, associate director for Michigan State University’s Extension Center for Local Government Finance and Policy. In the public pension challenge, Michigan’s statute enacted last year mandates that the state’s municipalities report underfunded retirement benefits. That meant, in the wake of Flint’s reporting that it had only funded its pension at 37%–with nothing set aside for its other OPEB benefits, combined with the estimated $600 million to finance the infrastructure repair of its aging water infrastructure, Director Schulz added the small city is also confronted by a serious problem with its public schools—describing the city’s fiscal ills as “Michigan’s Puerto Rico,” adding it would “remain Michigan’s Puerto Rico until the state decides Flint is part of Michigan.”

Michigan Municipal League Director Dan Gilmartin notes that Flint is making better decisions financially, but still suffers from state funding cuts. He observed that Flint’s leaders are making better decisions fiscally—that they have put together a more realistic budget than before its elected leaders were preempted by state imposed emergency managers, noting: “The biggest problem Flint faces now is what all cities in Michigan face, and that is the state’s system of municipal financing, which simply doesn’t work.”

Perhaps in recognition of that, Michigan State Treasurer Nick Khouri, on April 10th announced the end of state-imposed receivership under Michigan’s Local Financial Stability and Choice Act, and he dissolved the Flint Receivership Transition Advisory Board. Treasurer Khouri also signed a resolution repealing all remaining emergency manager orders, noting: “Removing all emergency manager orders gives the City of Flint a fresh start without any lingering restrictions.” Concurrently, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, in an email, wrote: “Under the state’s emergency manager law, emergency managers were put in place in a number of cities facing financial emergencies to ensure residents were protected and their local governments’ fiscal problems were addressed: This process has worked well for the state’s struggling cities, helping to restore financial stability and put them on a path toward long-term success. Flint’s recent exit from receivership marks the end of emergency management for cities in Michigan and a new chapter in the state’s continued comeback.” Indeed, the state action means that Detroit is the only Michigan municipality city still under a form of state oversight, albeit Benton Harbor Area Schools, Pontiac Public Schools, Highland Park School District, and the Muskegon Heights school district remain under state oversight.

The nation’s preeminent chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy expert Jim Spiotto notes that a financial emergency manager is supposed to get a struggling municipality back to a balanced budget, to find a means to increase revenue, to cut unnecessary expenses, and to keep essential services at an acceptable level:  “To the degree that they achieve that, then you want to continue with best practices: If they don’t accomplish that, then even if you return the city back to Mayor and City Council, then they have to do it: Someone has to come up with viable sustainable recovery plan, not just treading water.”

From his perspective, Director Gilmartin notes: “Flint has more realistic numbers in place, especially when it comes to revenues. I think that is the most important thing the city has accomplished from a nuts and bolts standpoint…The negative side of it is the system in which they are working under just doesn’t work for them or any communities in the state. In some cases making all the right decisions at the local level still doesn’t get to where you need to get to, and it will require a change in the state law.” Referencing last year’s Michigan Municipal League report which estimated the state’s municipalities had been shortchanged to the tune of $8 billion since 2002, Director Gilmartin noted: “A lot of the fiscal pressures that Flint and other cities in Michigan find themselves in are there by state actions.” No doubt, he was referencing the nearly $55 million in reduced state aid to Flint by 2014—as the state moved to pare revenue sharing—the state’s fiscal assistance program to provide assistance based upon population and fiscal need—funds which, had they been provided, would have sufficed to not only balance the city’s budget, but also cut sharply into its capital debts—enhancing its credit quality. Indeed, it was the state’s Emergency Manager program that voters repealed six years ago after devastating decisions had plunged Flint into not just dire fiscal straits, but also the fateful decision to change its public drinking water source—a decision poisoning children, and the city’s fisc by decimating its assessed property values. During those desperate human and fiscal times, local elected leaders were preempted—even as two of the gubernatorially named Emergency Managers were charged with criminal wrongdoing in relation to the city’s lead contamination crisis and ensuing Legionnaire’s disease outbreak which claimed 12 lives in the wake of the fateful decision to  change Flint’s water source to the Flint River in April of 2014. Now, as Director Schulz notes: “Until we come up with other solutions that aren’t really punitive in nature and leave communities like Flint vulnerable as repeat customer for emergency management law, these communities will remain in financial and service delivery purgatory indefinitely.”

Director Schulz notes a more profound threat to municipal fiscal equity: she has identified at least 93 Michigan municipalities with a taxable value per capita under $20,000, describing that as a “good indicator” for which municipalities in the state are prime candidates for finding themselves under a gubernatorially imposed Emergency Manager, in addition to 32 other municipalities in the state which  are either deemed service insolvent or on the verge of service insolvency. Flint’s taxable value per capita of $7575 comes in as the second lowest behind St. Louis, Michigan, which has a taxable value of $6733. Ms. Schulz defines such insolvency as the level below which a municipality is likely unable to fiscally provide “a basic level of services a city need to provide to its residents.” Indeed, a report released by Treasurer Khouri’s office has identified nearly 25% of the state’s local units of government as having an underfunded pension plan, retirement health care plan, or both—an issue which, as we have noted in the eGnus, comes after the State, last December enacted legislation creating thresholds on pensions and OPEB which all municipalities must meet in order to be considered funded at a viable level, meaning OPEB liabilities must be at least 40% funded, and pensions 60% funded. While the Treasurer may grant waivers, such granting is premised on plans approved to remedy the underfunding—failure to do so could trigger oversight by a three-member Michigan Stability Board appointed by the Governor. As Director Schulz notes: “The winds here are blowing such that the municipality stability board is going to be up and running soon, and there will be an effort to give that board emergency manager powers…That means they can break contacts, they can sell assets…whatever it needs to put money in the OPEB.” But in the face of such preemption—preemption which, after all, had caused such human and fiscal damage to Detroit, Detroit’s public schools, and to the City of Flint; Director Gilmartin notes: “Getting the community back to zero is the easy part and is just a function of budgeting, but having it function and provide services is harder: I would say that a lot of the support for emergency management by the state has dwindled based on the experience over the last several years.”

A Storm of Leaders. If the human health and safety, and fiscal challenges created by state oversight in Michigan give one pause; the multiplicity—and cost—of the many overseers of Puerto Rico and its future by the inequitable storm response by Congress and the Trump Administration—and by the costly “who’s on first…” sets of conflicting fiscal overseers could experience at least some level of greater clarity today, as the PROMESA Board releases its proposed fiscal plans it intends to certify, including the maintenance of its mandate to the federal court for an average public pension cut of 10 percent—after having kept under advisement the concerns of Governor Ricardo Rosselló the inclusion in the revised fiscal, quasi chapter 9 plan of debt adjustment immediate reductions in sick and vacation leave.

Thus, it appears U.S. Judge Laura Taylor Swain will consider a proposed adjustment plan to reduce public pensions later this year which would total savings of as much as nearly $1.45 billion over the next five years—a level below the PROMESA Board’s proposed $1.58 million—but massive when put in the context that the current average public pension on the island is roughly $1,100 a month, but more than 38,000 retired government employees receive only $500, because of the type of job they had and the number of years worked.

Thus, there are fiscal and human dilemmas—and governance challenges: even though the PROMESA law authorizes the restructuring of retirement systems, it is unclear whether the Congressionally-created Board has the authority to impose such a significant, unfunded federal mandate on the government of Puerto Rico, including labor reforms, and restrictions of vacation and sick leaves. Last year, Governor Rosselló agreed to a reduction in pensions for government retirees, but then his aim was to propose cuts of 6 percent.

At the moment, he is against it. A few weeks ago, after negotiations with the Board, Governor Rosselló proposed a labor reform similar to the one he negotiated with members of the Board, with differences on how to balance it with an increase in the minimum wage and when to put it in into effect—a proposal he subsequently withdrew after the PROMESA Board mandated that the labor reform be in full force in January 2019, instead of phasing it in over next three years, and conditioning the increase from $7.25 to $8.25 per hour in the minimum wage to the increase in labor participation rates—proposals which, in any event, made clear the “too many leaders” governance challenges—as these were proposals with little chance of approval by the Puerto Rican House. That is, for the Governor, there is not only a federal judge, and a PROMESA Board, but also his own legislature elected by Puerto Ricans—not appointed by non-Puerto Ricans. (Under the PROMESA Law, which also created the territorial judicial system to restructure the public debt of Puerto Rico, the PROMESA Board also has power over the local government until four consecutive balanced budgets and medium and long-term access to the financial markets are achieved. Thus, as the ever insightful Gregory Makoff of the Center for International Governance Innovation—and former U.S. Treasury Advisor put it: “While the lack of cooperation with the Board may be good in political terms in the short-term, it simply delays the return of confidence and extends the time it will take for the Oversight Board to leave the island.” Thus, he has recommended the Board and Gov. Rosselló propose to Judge Swain a cut from $45 billion to $6 billion of the public debt backed by taxes, with a payment of only 13.6 cents per each dollar owed, with the aim of equating it with the average that the states have. All of this has been complicated this week by the blackout Wednesday, before the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, PREPA, yesterday announced it had restored power to some 870,000 customers.

As in  Central Falls, Rhode Island, and in Detroit, in their respective chapter 9 bankruptcies, the issue and debate on pensions appears to be a matter which will be settled or resolved by the court—not the parties or Board. While the Board has the power to propose a reform in the retirement systems, it appears to lack the administrative or legislative mechanisms to implement a labor reform. The marvelous Puerto Rican daily newspaper, El Nuevo Día asked one of the PROMESA Board sources if it were possible for the Board to go to Court and demand the implementation of a labor reform in case the Governor does not propose such legislation—the response to which was such a probability was “low.” Concurrently, an advisor to House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) with regard to proposing legislation to address the issue receive a doubtful response, albeit an official in the Chairman’s office said recently that if the Rosselló administration does not implement the labor reforms proposed by the PROMESA Board, the option for the Board would be to further reduce the expenses of the government of Puerto Rico. Put another way, Carlos Ramos González, Professor of Constitutional Law at the Interamerican University of Puerto Rico, is of the view that, notwithstanding the impasse, “in one way or another, the Board will end up imposing its criteria. How it will do it remains to be seen.”

Physical, Not Fiscal—But Fiscal Storms.  Amid the governance and fiscal storm, a physical storm in the form of am island-wide blackout hit Puerto Rico Wednesday after an excavator accidentally downed a transmission line, contributing to the ongoing physical and fiscal challenge to repair an increasingly unstable power grid nearly seven months after Hurricane Maria. More than 1.4 million homes and businesses lost power, marking the second major outage in less than a week, with the previous one affecting some 840,000 customers. PREPA estimated it would take 24 to 36 hours to restore power to all customers—it is focusing first on re-establishing service for hospitals, water pumping systems, the main airport in San Juan and other critical facilities. The physical blackout came as the PROMESA Board has placed PREPA, a public monopoly with $9 billion of debt, in the equivalent of its own quasi chapter 9 bankruptcy, in an effort to help advance plans to modernize the utility and transform it into a regulated private utility—after, last January, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló announced plans to put the utility up for sale.

Several large power outages have hit Puerto Rico in recent months, but Wednesday was the first time since Hurricane Maria that the U.S. territory has experienced a full island-wide blackout. Officials said restoring power to hospitals, airports, banking centers and water pumping systems was their priority. Following that would be businesses and then homes. By late that day, power had returned to several hospitals and at least five of the island’s 78 municipalities. Federal officials who testified before Congress last week said they expect to have a plan by June on how to strengthen and stabilize Puerto Rico’s power grid, noting that up to 75% of distribution lines were damaged by high winds and flooding. Meanwhile, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is overseeing the federal power restoration efforts, said it hopes to have the entire island fully restored by next month: some 40,000 power customers still remain without normal electrical service as a result of the hurricane. The new blackout occurred as Puerto Rico legislators debate a bill that would privatize the island’s power company, which is $14 billion in debt and relies on infrastructure nearly three times older than the industry average.