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.

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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.

 

Exiting from State Receivership

April 9, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we return to Flint, Michigan, where, in the wake of last week’s release by Gov. Rick Snyder of the city from receivership and state oversight—the city will have to make its own way to full fiscal and physical recovery from the many years’ of state-imposed choices—but recovery too after the former Michigan Revenue Sharing program has ceased, making the physical and fiscal challenge ever so steep.  

Setting the Path for a Strategic Recovery & a Return to Home Rule. After Gov. Rick Snyder, at the end of last week, announced he was releasing the City of Flint from receivership and state oversight, he has now announced that the State of Michigan will stop providing Flint residents with free bottled water when current supplies run out, citing nearly two years of test results showing falling lead levels in city tap water. Indeed, preliminary data from early this calendar year showed 90 percent of high-risk Flint water sites at or below 4 part per billion of lead, according to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. Thus, if these results hold through end of June, it would be the fourth consecutive six-month period levels have tested below the federal action level of 15 parts per billion. In the wake of the Governor’s announcement, the state plans to close four remaining water bottle distribution centers when supplies are exhausted—something that could happen within the next week, albeit water filters and cartridges will remain available at Flint City Hall.

In his announcement, the Governor said: “I have said all along that ensuring the quality of the water in Flint and helping the people and the city move forward were a top priority for me and my team…We have worked diligently to restore the water quality and the scientific data now proves the water system is stable and the need for bottled water has ended.”  The Governor did not discuss the state’s role in unbalancing and aggravating Flint’s fiscal misery—one to which the State contributed both through its former imposition of Emergency managers to preempt the city’s elected leaders—and through its elimination of state revenue sharing. By 2014, Flint had lost $54.9 million dollars in state aid—funds which would have been sufficient then to have fully paid off its annual deficit, as well as all $30 million of its municipal bond indebtedness, and still have had over $5 million in surplus

One of the hard questions now will be with regard to the potential impact of assessed property values and tax revenues in a city where those values were so harshly impacted by the fear of poisoned water: property tax assessments are mailed out every March: In 2016, those revenues, $19.7 million, made up about 23% of the city’s $81 million in general revenue. Unsurprisingly, that led to appeals to the Michigan Tax Tribunal for a poverty exemption to property taxes, with residents citing the costs associated with the water problems as one reason. Those lower assessed values added to the challenge to Genesee County to sell tax-foreclosed properties.

Mayor Karen Weaver, who has played a key role in the efforts to replace underground lead service lines at homes across the city, wrote to the Gov. last Friday to advise him that residents had “great anxiety” over the prospect of closing water distribution sites., noting: “As I have stated before and will continue to say, this is not what I want for our city, and I stand by my position that free bottled water should be provided to the people of Flint until the last known lead-tainted pipe has been replaced…We know that the water in Flint is much better than when I made the Emergency Declaration in December 2015, and that is a good thing. However, we also know that trust has to be restored before residents are ready to rely only on filtered residents.”

In response, Gov. Snyder replied that Michigan taxpayers were not legally obligated to fund bottled water or Flint distribution sites after last September; however, “in the spirit of good faith and our continued partnership, the state has continued to provide funding for hundreds of thousands of cases of bottled water for the daily use of residents.” Noting that he had provided the Mayor with Weaver recent water testing data and methodology, he added: “Since Flint’s water system has been and continues to be well within the standards set by the federal government, we will now focus even more of our efforts on continuing with the health, education and economic development assistance needed to help move Flint forward,” adding: “I remain steadfast in that commitment.

Nevertheless, with lead service line replacement set to resume this spring, there remain not just physical and fiscal fears, but also lingering apprehensions that underground work could dislodge lead flakes from existing pipes and again contaminate home tap water. That is, parents are scared—hardly a message which would enhance assessed property values.

Thus, it might seem ironic that Gov. Snyder’s decision to end bottled water service came two days after his administration had, last Wednesday, announced it was releasing Flint from receivership—a receivership under which the fateful, devastating decision to begin drawing drinking water from the Flint River until construction of the new regional Karegnondi Water Authority pipeline to Lake Huron was completed. (The City of Flint has been getting its treated water from the Great Lakes Water Authority since October of 2015. Last November, Flint inked a 30-year agreement to stay on the Detroit area system in November 2017 in the wake of a federal court order mandating the City Council to quit delaying a decision about its permanent water source.)

A Silver Lining? Flint lead levels have dropped below 4 parts per billion so far this year, according to the Michigan environmental department; for the second half of 2017, 90 percent of high-risk sites had tested below 6 ppb. Officials also said the state has conducted “extensive flushing and testing” of unfiltered water at schools, day cares and senior homes in Flint—meaning the updated test results are finding lower levels than the statewide 10 parts per billion which Gov. Snyder would like to enforce statewide. Keith Creagh, Director of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, noted: “Flint’s water is undoubtedly one of the most monitored systems in the country, and for the last 22 months several types of extensive testing data points have consistently supported that Flint’s water system has stabilized.”

Nevertheless, the action to stop providing bottled water to the beleaguered city led Michigan Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint) to state: “It’s beyond belief that the Governor expects the folks in Flint to trust the government now, when they lied to our faces about lead in our water just a few years ago…That trust was broken, and families in Flint still don’t feel that the water in their homes is safe to drink.” Similarly, Rep. Sheldon Neeley (D-Flint) stated he was requesting the Governor to continue providing bottled water until the state has successfully addressed the “crisis of confidence” among Flint residents, noting: “From the perspective of Flint residents, it was the same data, personnel and science that failed them. They don’t trust them still.” Rep Neeley added that if the State fails to continue providing services to Flint residents, he would support any legal action the city may take “to compel the state to do its job and continue water service to its citizens.” (The State of Michigan has sent more than $350 million in state funds to Flint since late 2015, in addition to $100 million from the federal government, that has paid for bottled water, water system upgrades, and local health initiatives—with a portion of the funding mandated under a four-year, $97 million settlement reached last year between the state and a coalition which had sued in an attempt to secure safe drinking water. Under the agreement, the state agreed to spend an additional $47 million on top of already budgeted funds to replace lead pipes and provide free bottled water.) Now, an Environmental Department spokeswoman reports she expects the state’s current supply of bottled water will run out within four to seven days.

Mayor Karen Weaver, whose administration is working to replace underground lead service lines at homes across the city, published a letter to Gov. Snyder earlier Friday telling him residents had “great anxiety” over the prospect of closing water distribution sites: “As I have stated before and will continue to say, this is not what I want for our city and I stand by my position that free bottled water should be provided to the people of Flint until the last known lead-tainted pipe has been replaced…We know that the water in Flint is much better than when I made the Emergency Declaration in December 2015, and that is a good thing. However, we also know that trust has to be restored before residents are ready to rely only on filtered residents.”

The Fiscal & Legal Challenges of Smaller Municipalities

eBlog

March 28, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing fiscal, physical, intergovernmental, and legal challenges to Flint, Michigan—as too many parties seek to plead innocent to state actions, which have wreaked such devastating fiscal and physical costs. Then we head east to one of the nation’s oldest municipalities, Bristol, Virginia, which appears to be on the precipice of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy.

Fiscal Fraud & Unfiscal Federalism? Andy Arena, the FBI Detroit office’s former director, and lead investigator into the City of Flint’s water crisis, this week testified before the Michigan Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on General Government that he has launched a new probe amid allegations of “financial fraud” and “greed” as critical factor behind the fateful decision years ago to switch the city’s water source, stating: “Without getting too far into depth, we believe there was a significant financial fraud that drove this,” adding that the alleged scheme benefited “individuals.” Or, as he testified: “I believe greed drove this.”

His testimony came as Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette continued the investigation he started in the wake of Gov. Rick Snyder’s declaration, two years ago, of a state of emergency in the wake of the severe and life threatening lead water contamination, as the criminal probe, which has already led to charges against 15 local and state officials—charges resulting in four plea deals and preliminary exams involving six defendants, including state Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon and Chief Medical Executive Eden Wells continue. Now, the investigation is focusing on the potential motivation behind the decision to switch the City of Flint from the Detroit area water system to the new Karegnondi Water Authority—a decision which, when Flint opted to join the regional authority, had terminated its arrangement with the Detroit water system and opened the fateful portals to drawing water from the Flint River as an interim source, e.g. the dreadful step which resulted in contaminated drinking water and calamitous drops in assessed property values—not to mention grave governing questions with regard to the culpability of state appointed emergency managers preempting local elected leaders. (Within 17 months, the decision, made while the city was run by state-appointed emergency managers, was reversed after outbreaks of Legionnaires’ and increased levels of bacteria, total trihalomethanes and lead were found in water. Five years ago, in March, Flint’s City Council members voted 7-1 to join a new regional provider, rather than remain a customer with the Detroit system—as it had for decades. Three days earlier, Flint Emergency Manager Ed Kurtz had approved the agreement, notwithstanding then-State Treasurer Andy Dillon’s skepticism with regard to whether the new regional authority made financial sense.).

Last week, when Sen. Mike Nofs (R-Battle Creek) asked whether the probe involved local, state, and federal entities, Mr. Arena responded: “It kind of cuts across all lines right now…I don’t know that they were working so much in concert, but the end game was people were trying to make money in different ways.” He reiterated that his FBI team has been heading the Flint criminal investigation for more than two years; however, he testified he was uncertain when it might end, adding: “We’re moving at lightning speed…I can assure everyone here that we are working as quickly as we possibly can: Our bottom line is we want justice for the people of Flint, and we have to do that methodically.” Unsurprisingly, he did not detail what “justice” might mean: would it mean reparations for the fiscally and physically devastated city and its taxpayers?

The case, as we have previously written, commenced after the Governor, five years’ ago, preempted all municipal authority via the appointment of Ed Kurtz as the city’s Emergency Manager, effectively preempting any municipal authority for the brewing fiscal, physical, and health catastrophe; Mr. Kurtz, in this preemptive capacity then signed off on the fateful order in June of 2013 to allow the “upgrading of the Flint Water Plant to ready it to treat water from the Flint River to serve as the primary drinking water source for approximately two years and then converting to KWA delivered lake water,” a source which the city used from April of 2014 until October 2015, when the city was reverted to the Detroit system in the wake of an outbreak of Legionnaires’ cases and evidence of elevated levels of lead in the city’s children—a most ill omen, as it signaled to parents the prohibitive cost of health and safety to continue to reside in the city—and the unlikelihood of any ability to sell their homes at any kind of a reasonable price. Mayhap worse, last October, a federal judge dismissed objections by Flint’s City Council and paved the way for Flint officials to move forward with a long-term contract with the Detroit area Great Lakes Water Authority—a position supported by Mayor Karen Weaver as vital to avert chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. Thus, Mayor Weaver, Gov. Snyder, and the EPA supported a proposed 30-year agreement with the Great Lakes Water Authority—a position on which the Flint City Council did not agree—leading to a successful suit by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to compel approval of the agreement.

Concurrently, in a related trial on these physical and fiscal event, before a Genesee District Court Judge in a trial where the state’s Chief Medical Officer has been charged with crimes related to the Flint water crisis, a researcher, Virginia Tech Professor Marc Edwards, testified before Genesee District Court Judge William Crawford yesterday that Dr. Eden Wells had sought to “get to the truth of the matter,” and that had seen no evidence of Dr. Wells having committed crimes during her preliminary examination on potential charges including involuntary manslaughter.(Prosecutors charge that Dr. Wells, a member of Gov. Snyder’s cabinet, failed to protect the health and welfare of Flint area residents, including victims of Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks in the Flint area while the city used the Flint River as its water source in parts of 2014 and 2015: Dr, Wells is charged with attempting to withhold funding for programs designed to help the victims of the water crisis and with lying to an investigator about material facts related to a Flint investigation by the Michigan Attorney General’s Office.) 

Professor Edwards is among those who believe that Flint’s switch to river water without proper treatment to make it less corrosive triggered both elevated lead and increased Legionella bacteria in large buildings in Flint at the time, adding that he disagreed with the approach taken by the Flint Area Community Health and Environment Partnership, which contracted with the state to find the root cause of the Legionella outbreaks, which officials have reported lead to the deaths of at least a dozen people in Genesee County while the river was in use. Thus, Professor Edwards notes, instead of focusing on the potential for the bacteria in water filters, state fiscal resources would have been put to better use if directed to investigate cases tied to large buildings, particularly hospitals, where his own testing showed very high levels were present. Moreover, in response to the query whether Dr. Wells did anything to discourage his research, Prof. Edwards responded: “To the contrary. She seemed interested, and she encouraged it.”

The Fiscally Desperate State of a Small Municipality. Far to the east of Flint, in one of the nation’s oldest municipalities, Bristol, Virginia, a municipality which, in 1880, had a population of 1,562—a population which gradually grew to 19,042 in 1980, before waning to 16,060 by 2016. The area of what is, today, Bristol, was once inhabited by early Americans, Cherokee Indians, with the name, according to legend, because numerous deer and buffalo met there to feast in the canebrakes; it was subsequently renamed the site Sapling Grove, and then, in 1890, finally settled upon as Bristol. It used to have a fort on a hill overlooking what is now downtown Bristol: it marked an important stopping-off place for notables, including Daniel Boone and George Rogers Clark, as well as hundreds of pioneers, who found Bristol, a former trading post, way station, and stockade, to be a cornerstone to opening up a young nation to the West.  Now, a Virginia Auditor of Public Accounts (APA) new report has found the municipality may require state fiscal assistance to address its significant debt tied to The Falls development and landfill operations—having, at the end of last week, in its fiscal distress monitoring report of local governments, assessed the small city as scoring poorly on a set of financial metrics, including debt overload, cash flow issues, revenue shortfalls, deficit spending, billing issues, and a lack of qualified staff. The small municipality today has a median household income of $27,389. Approximately 13.2% of families and 16.2% of the population fall below federal poverty levels–including 25.8% of those under age 18. The Auditor’s report notes: “During follow-up with the City of Bristol, we observed two primary issues that we concluded are contributing to a situation of fiscal distress at the city: issues specific to the operational sustainability of its solid waste disposal fund and the debt and future revenues related to The Falls commercial development project,” positions which Bristol City Manager Randy Eads noted “exactly” portrayed the city’s financial problems, as opposed to preliminary findings released last year which included some incorrect information. Specific findings found that the city does not have unrestricted reserves to use for a revenue shortfall or unforeseen situations, and that the city is not in the “most desirable” position to meet its fiscal obligations without obtaining additional revenues.

As part of the report, the APA issued written notification to Gov. Ralph Northam, the General Assembly’s money committees, the Secretary of Finance, and city officials detailing these specific issues and recommending that Bristol may warrant further assistance from the state to help assess and stabilize areas of concern—with such potential state assistance including an independent consultant reviewing the viability of landfill operations and developing long-range financial forecasts for revenue—each items sought by the city. Or, as Manager Eads noted: “That’s something we requested from the APA. It’s our understanding there’s $500,000 the state has set aside to help low-scoring localities with some of their financial issues…We requested funds for a detailed financial analysis of the landfill and requested funds for a financial planning firm to help us with a three-, five- and 10-year financial forecast.” Manager Eads reports he plans to meet with Virginia legislators to seek support. Bristol’s solid waste fund has $33.5 million in long-term bond debt; the municipality’s general fund continues to transfer funds to pay bills, according to the report. The report notes that city officials completed a significant refinancing of all short-term debt earlier this year; however, debt remains a challenge: “However, the city’s increasing debt service costs continue to be a concerning factor, as Bristol’s ability to pay the debt service will be contingent upon sufficient future revenues received from The Falls project,” according to the report. The auditor’s office notes the city is entitled to additional sales tax revenues under provision of a state law, but notes “Bristol continues to experience some uncertainty with its long-term revenue stream and future growth after all phases of The Falls project are implemented.”

Intergovernmental Federalism Fiscal Recovery Challenges

March 26, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing fiscal challenges to Connecticut’s capitol city of Hartford, and the fiscal challenges bequeathed to the Garden State by the previous gubernatorial administration, before wondering about the level of physical and fiscal commitment of the U.S. to its U.S. territory of Puerto Rico.

Capitol & Capital Debts. The Hartford City Council is scheduled to vote today on whether to approve an agreement between the city and the state on a fiscal arrangement under which the state would pay off Hartford’s general obligation debt of approximately $550 million over the next two decades as part of the consensus seemingly settled as part of the Connecticut state budget—an agreement under which the state would assume responsibility to finance Hartford’s annual debt payments, payments projected to be in excess of $56 million by 2021, while the city would continue to make payments on its new minor league ballpark, about $5 million per year—a fiscal pact described by Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin as the :”[K]ind of long-term partnership we’ve been working for, and I’m proud that we got it done.” Mayor Bronin is pressing Council to vote before April Fool’s Day, which happens to be the city’s deadline for its next debt payment: if executed by then, the state would pay the $12 million which Hartford currently owes, under the provisions in the current state fiscal budget which, when adopted, had pledged tens of millions of dollars in additional fiscal assistance to the state capitol, fiscal assistance regarded as vital to avert a looming chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy—and, under which, similar in a sense to New Jersey’s Atlantic City, the aid provided included the imposition of state oversight. The effect of the state fiscal assistance meant that in the  current fiscal year, Connecticut would assume responsibility for Hartford’s remaining debt of $12 million; in addition, the state is to provide Hartford another $24 million to help close the city’s current budget deficit—and, in future years, assume the city’s full debt payment. The agreement provides that the state could go further and potentially finance additional subsidies to the city. Mayor Bronin had sought approximately $40 million in extra aid each year, in addition to the $270 million the city already receives—albeit, the additional state aid comes with some fiscal strings attached: a state oversight board, as in Michigan and New Jersey, is authorized to restrict how the municipality may budget, and finance: contracts and other documents must be run by the panel, and the board will have final say over new labor agreements and any issuance of capital debt. Going further, under the provisions, even if the oversight board were to go out of existence, Hartford’s fiscal authority would still be subject to state oversight: e.g. if the city wished to make its required payment to the pension fund, such payment(s) would be subject to oversight by both the Connecticut Treasurer and the Secretary of Connecticut’s Office of Policy and Management—where a spokesperson noted: “Connecticut cannot allow a city to default on its bond obligations or financially imperil itself for the foreseeable future: This action will ultimately best position Hartford to move into a better financial future.”

Mayor Bronin, in reflecting on the imposition of state fiscal oversight, noted that while the state assistance would help offset Hartford’s escalating deficits, deficits now projected to reach $94 million by 2023, noted: “This debt transaction does not leave us with big surpluses: “We’re looking to achieve sufficient stability over the next five years, and we can use that period to focus on growth.” Hartford Council President Glendowlyn Thames likewise expressed confidence, noting: “This plan is really tight, and it’s just surviving: We have to focus on an economic development strategy that gets us to the point where we’re thriving.”

State Fiscal Stress. For its part, with less than a week before the state enters its final fiscal quarter, the Connecticut legislature still has its own significant state debt issue to resolve—with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy warning he still expects the state legislature will honor a new budget control it enacted last fall to help rebuild the state’s modest emergency reserves, stating: “I don’t think I have given up any hope, or all hope” that legislators will close the $192 million projected shortfall in the fiscal year which ends June 30th; however, the Governor also said legislative leaders professed commitment to both write and commit to a new, bipartisan budget may be waning, stating: “The grand coalition seems to be fraying, and I think that’s what gives rise to the inability to respond to the budget being out of balance,” he said, referencing last October’s grand bargain under which there was bipartisan agreement on a new, two-year plan to balance state finances—an agreement achieved in a process excluding the Governor, who, nevertheless, signed the budget to end the stalemate, despite what he had described as significant flaws, including a reliance on too many rosy assumptions, hundreds of millions of dollars swept from off-budget and one-time sources, as well as unprecedented savings targets the administration had to achieve after the budget was in force. Indeed, meeting that exacting target is proving elusive: the fiscal gap in January exceeded $240 million in January, before declining to the current $192 million: it has yet to meet the critical 1% of the General Fund threshold—a threshold which, if exceeded, mandates the Comptroller to confirm, and triggers a requirement for the Governor to issue a deficit-mitigation plan to the legislature within one month.

The new state local fiscal oversight arrangement provides that, even if the state oversight board goes away, the city’s fiscal practices would remain subject to state oversight—where any perceived failures would subject the city fiscal scrutiny by the Connecticut Treasurer and the Secretary of Connecticut’s Office of Policy and Management, a spokesperson for which noted: “Connecticut cannot allow a city to default on its bond obligations or financially imperil itself for the foreseeable future: This action will ultimately best position Hartford to move into a better financial future.” Hartford City Council President Glendowlyn Thames asserted her confidence with regard to the contract, but noted more work needed to be done: “This plan is really tight, and it’s just surviving: We have to focus on an economic development strategy that gets us to the point where we’re thriving.”

Post Christie Garden State? New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, in his first post Chris Christie fiscal challenge is targeting state tax incentives as a potential source of revenue for the cash-starved state, noting, in his first fiscal address earlier this month that $8 billion in corporate state tax credits approved by the New Jersey Economic Development Authority under former Gov. Chris Christie had made the state’s fiscal cliff even steeper to scale, noting that one of his first fiscal actions was to sign an executive order directing the state Comptroller’s office to audit the New Jersey Economic Development Authority’s tax incentive programs, dating back to 2010 (the current program is set to expire in 2019), describing the programs as “massive giveaways, in many cases imprecisely directed, [which] will ultimately deprive us of the full revenues we desperately need: “These massive giveaways, in many cases imprecisely directed, will ultimately deprive us of the full revenues we desperately need to build a stronger and fairer economic future,” as the new Governor was presenting his $37.4 billion budget to the Garden State state legislature, noting: “We were told these tax breaks would nurse New Jersey back to health and yet our economy still lags.” Under his Executive Order the Gov., in January, had directed Comptroller Philip James Degnan to examine the Grow New Jersey Assistance Program, the Economic Redevelopment and Growth Grant Program, and other programs which have existed under the NJEDA since 2010 when former Gov. Christie assumed office: the audit is aimed at comparing the economic impact from projects that received the tax breaks with the jobs and salaries they created: it is, as a spokesperson explained: “[A]n important opportunity to evaluate the effectiveness of the State’s existing incentive programs.” New Jersey Policy Perspective, in its perspective, notes that the $8.4 billion of tax breaks NJEDA approved under former Gov. Christie compared to $1.2 billion of subsidies awarded during the previous decade, subsidies which the organization frets have hampered New Jersey’s fiscal flexibility to fund vital investments such as transportation and schools. Indeed, a key fiscal challenge for the new Governor of a state with the second lowest state bond rating—in the wake of 11 downgrades under former Gov. Christie, downgradings caused by rising public pension obligations and increasing fiscal deficits—will be how to fiscally engineer a turnaround—or, as Fitch’s Marcy Block advises: “It’s always a good idea for a new administration to see what the tax incentives program is like and what potential revenue they are missing out on,” after Fitch, last week, noted that the new Governor’s budget proposes $2 billion in revenue growth, including $1.5 billion from tax increases,” adding that the Governor’s proposed plan to readjust the Garden State’s sales and use tax back up to 7% from the 6.625% level it dropped to under former Gov. Christie was a “positive step” which would provide $581 million in additional revenue, even though it would impose strict fiscal restraints: “These increased revenues would go to new spending and leave the state with still slim reserves and reduced flexibility to respond to future economic downturns through revenue raising: The state has significant spending pressures, not only due to the demands of underfunded retiree benefit liabilities, but also because natural revenue increases resulting from modest economic growth in recent years have gone primarily towards the phased-in growth in annual pension contributions.”

For his part, Gov. Murphy has emphasized that while he opposes many of the state tax expenditures doled out by the former Christie administration, a $5 billion incentives program that the NJEDA’s Grow New Jersey Program is offering Amazon to build its planned second headquarters in Newark would be a positive for the state. (Newark is on Amazon’s short list of 20 municipalities it is considering for a new facility that could house up to 50,000 employees: the city is offering $2 billion in tax breaks of its own to create $7 billion in total subsidies.) The Governor noted a win here would be “a transformative moment for our state: It could literally spur billions of dollars in new investments, in infrastructure, in communities and in people,” as he noted that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has grown jobs at a rate seven times greater than New Jersey in recent years, despite only spending $22,000 in economic incentives per job compared to $160,000 for each job in New Jersey, noting that other priorities beyond taxes are important to lure businesses, such as investments in education, workforce housing, and infrastructure: “Even with these heralded gifts, our economic growth has trailed almost every other competitor state in the nation in literally almost every category: “Massachusetts and our other competitor states are providing businesses a greater value for money and with that value in hand they are cleaning our clocks.”

Free, Free at Last? Announcing that “We’ve reached an agreement that is beneficial both for the taxpayer and for the people of Puerto Rico,” referring to a pact that is to lead to the release of some held up $4.7 billion in federal disaster recovery assistance reached between Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello and U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, the pair has announced at the end of last week agreement on the release of some $4.7 billion in disaster recovery loans which Congress had signed off on six months ago—but funds which Sec. Mnuchin had delayed releasing on account of disagreement over the terms of repayment, describing it as a “super-lien” Community Disaster Loan. After a meeting between the two, the new, tentative agreement would allow Puerto Rico access to the fiscal assistance once the cash balance in its treasury falls below $1.1 billion—a level more than the Secretary’s initial request of $800 million. (As of March 9th, U.S. territory had about $1.45 billion in cash.) The agreement ended half a year of tense negotiations over what were perceived as discriminatory loan conditions compared to the terms under which federal assistance had been provided to Houston and Florida in the wake of the hurricanes. Indeed, Gov. Rossello had written to Congress that the Treasury was demanding that repayment of those loans be given the highest priority, even over the provision of essential emergency services in Puerto Rico—even as the Treasury was proposing to bar Puerto Rico’s eligibility for future loan forgiveness. Under the new agreement, the odd couple have announced that the revised agreement would grant high priority to repayment of the federal loans—not above the funding of essential services, but presumably above the more than $70 billion Puerto Rico owes to its municipal bondholders. From his perspective, Sec. Mnuchin noted: “We want to make sure that the taxpayers are protected: It’s not something we’re going to do for the benefit of the bondholders, but it is something we would consider down the road for the benefit of the people if it’s needed,” opening the previously slammed door for access by Puerto Rico to the full amount approved by Congress, more than double the amount the Trump Administration had sought to impose. Nevertheless, notwithstanding the agreement, the terms must still be agreed to by Puerto Rico’s legislature, the PROMESA oversight board, and the federal court overseeing the quasi-chapter 9 bankruptcy proceedings. Under the terms of the agreement, Puerto Rico may borrow up to $4.7 billion if its cash balances fall below $1.1 billion. (Puerto Rico’s central bank account had $1.45 billion as of March 9th.) Governor Rosselló described the federal loan as one which will have a “super lien: There will be a lien within the Commonwealth, but it won’t be a lien over the essential services…I think both of our visions are aligned. We both want the taxpayer to be protected, but we also want the U.S. citizen who lives in Puerto Rico to have guaranteed essential services. And both of those objectives were agreed upon,”  noting that the U.S. government frequently forgives these types of loans. For his part, Secretary Mnuchin said the topic of loan forgiveness would be dealt with later “based on the facts and circumstances at the time,” and that, if and when the topic came up, the Treasury would consult with FEMA, the Congressional leadership and the administration, noting: “It’s not something we’re going to do for the benefit of bondholders, but it is something we would consider down the road for the benefit of the people of Puerto Rico.” The discussions come as the Commonwealth continues in the midst of its Title III municipal-like bankruptcy process affecting more than $50 billion of Puerto Rico’s $72 billion of public sector debt—with a multiplicity of actors, including: Puerto Rico’s legislature, the PROMESA Oversight Board, and Title III Judge Laura Taylor Swain. Under the terms, Puerto Rico would be allowed to draw upon the money repeatedly, as needed, according to Gov. Rossello, who noted that the U.S. Virgin Islands has already taken four draws totaling $200 million. The access here would be to fiscal resources available until March 2020.

Municipio Assistencia. In addition to the federal terms worked out for the territory, the new terms also provide that the U.S. Treasury will be making loans available for up to $5 million to every Puerto Rico municipality. FEMA is planning to make more than $30 billion available for rebuilding, while HUD is considering grants of more than $10 billion—leading Sec. Mnuchin to add: “There’s a lot of money to be allocated here, and I think it is going to have an enormous impact on the economy here: I think we are well on the path to a recovery of the economy here.” The Secretary added he would be returning to Puerto Rico on a quarterly basis to meet with the Governor, assess progress, and examine the island’s economy. His announcement came as the federal government is scaling back the number of contractors working on Puerto Rico’s electrical grid—critical work on an island where, still today, an estimated 100,000 island residents still lack power, with, last week, the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing testimony from U.S. officials about bureaucratic challenges to power-restoration efforts, leading to bipartisan questioning about the drawdown of personnel there by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps, which brought in Fluor and PowerSecure as contractors to spearhead reconstruction of damaged transmission and distribution lines, has already reduced the number of contract workers by nearly 75%, according to tweets from the official Army Corps Twitter account, even as nearly 100,000 customers still lack service. Worse, of the restoration challenge remaining, the bulk is projected to fall mostly on Puerto Rico’s bankrupt public power utility, PREPA, especially after, last week, Fluor halted its subcontract efforts. Despite the Corps pledge to “do all possible work with the funds available” before the contractors leave Puerto Rico, access to vital construction materials, such as concrete poles, transformers and conductors were in short supply, and the Army Corps struggled to purchase and transport materials quickly enough, hindered, no doubt, in part by the discriminatory shipping rules (the Jones Act), increasingly forcing linemen to scrounge for replacement parts. The Corps has acknowledged the supply shortages, noting that natural disasters last year in Texas, Florida, and California strained supplies of construction materials across the U.S. Twelve Democratic Senators have written to Army Corps officials to inquire whether keeping its contractors in place would accelerate the timetable for power restoration—PREPA, last week, reported last week that 32% of the 755 towers and poles that were downed by Hurricane Maria still have not been repaired, and that, of 1,238 damaged conductors and insulators, 28% have not. Rep. Jenniffer González-Colón, Puerto Rico’s Republican delegate to Congress, in a letter to Army Corps officials last week, wrote: “The average citizen on the street in those communities cannot tolerate even the perception that at this point we will begin to wind down the urgent relief mission and that the process of finishing the job will slow down.”

Disparate Physical & Fiscal Responses to Municipal Physical & Fiscal Distress

eBlog

January 16, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the ongoing fiscal and physical challenges of restoring power in hurricane devastated Puerto Rico, which the Trump Administration and Congress have opted to treat in a very different manner than other hurricane devastated municipalities and states.

Prospects for Recovery. Notwithstanding the opposition of his own designated coordinator for the restoration of electric power, Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello yesterday gave the go-ahead to sign an agreement which will allow Puerto Rico’s muncipios to hire companies and experts to repair the island’s electric distribution lines, with Puerto Rico Secretary of the Interior, William Villafañe, announcing—in the wake of a demonstration by residents of bigger muncipios which remain without electricity since Hurricanes Irma and María passed last September, that the Electric Power Authority (AEE) will sign an agreement with the muncipios to allow them to hire companies to repair power lines. The breakthrough came in the wake of a meeting with the presidents of the Federation and the Association of Mayors, Carlos Molina (Arecibo) and Rolando Ortiz (Cayey), respectively, as well as the Mayor (Alcalde) of Bayamón, Ramón Luis Rivera, and others officials. The agreement, which until yesterday had not been shown to the Mayors, is supposed to have a series of security restrictions; in addition, the agreement is intended to empower the muncipios to offer injury insurance, as well as be eligible for FEMA reimbursement. Secretary Villafañe noted that Governor disagreed with the result of last Monday’s meeting, in which the coordinator designated for the restoration efforts of electric power, Carlos Torres, and the AEE refused to establish an agreement with the municipios out of security concerns.

Thus, among the security conditions the agreement mandates, is that Mayors will be required to establish contracts exclusively with contractors who have specialized equipment and trucks. In a clarification, Secretary Villafañe assured reporters that PREPA retirees may continue to provide services, as is the case of the Pepino Power Authority, an initiative of the Mayor Javier Jiménez of San Sebastian—a muncipio founded in 1752 by Captain Cristóbal González de la Cruz, who among other neighbors, had an interest in converting some cow farms into an agricultural village. The foundation of the town from the religious aspect, was consummated in December 1762 by Mariano Martin, the then Puerto Rico Catholic Bishop: by the beginning, 1700, San Sebastian was a conglomerate of a few cow farms, owned by some residents of the Partido de Aguada. Las Vegas was the former plain site of one of the first cow farms located by the Guatemala riverside at the north; another of those cow farms was Pepinito (today’s downtown), which was a low green mountain with a white calcium carbonate face. From these geographical accidents come the first names of the then new village, albeit one of the oldest municipalities in the United States: Las Vegas del Pepino (Cucumber Fields). Indeed, the permission to found the muncipio was officially given in 1752.

By the beginning of the 19th century, wealthy Spanish families arrived in Pepino, fleeing the revolutions of Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. Subsequently, families from Catalonia and the Basque country in Spain came to Puerto Rico as well as a significant number of isleños (Canary Islanders)—with the isleños taking over the local political power and developing a coffee industry. Much as they did in Nevada, the Basques brought some material progress to the muncipio; in addition, the new resident Basques, in remembrance of their home region and its religious patron, saw the need of upgrading the old traditional Pepino used by the Canary Islanders to the new and “up-dated” San Sebastián—even though, still today, the citizens of San Sebastián are called “pepinianos.” Permission to found the muncipio was officially given in 1752, under the leadership of the founder, Captain Cristóbal González de la Cruz, who sought to convert cattle fincas (ranches/farms) into an agricultural village—with the governmental transformation consummated in December of 1762 by Mariano Martin, the island Catholic bishop at that time. The muncipio grew by the beginning of the 19th century, with the arrival of wealthy Spanish families, fleeing the revolutions of Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. Nearly a century later, several Catalon families from northern Spain and the Canary Islands joined the large number of isleños (Canary Islanders) who had made El Pepino their home—new arrivals who, in the wake of taking over the local political power, developing a coffee industry, and changing the muncipio’s name, in remembrance of their home region and its religious patron, to the new and “up-dated” San Sebastián, notwithstanding that, still today, the citizens of San Sebastián are called “pepinianos.”

For his part, the Mayor Rivera, who had notified the government last September of his interest in collaborating in the restoration of electricity, only learned yesterday that the agreement had been approved; however, the municipal executive of Cayey and President of the Association of Mayors said that as long as they do not see the document, they will not believe it, because, to date, they have neither been allowed to see or sign the document in question: Mayor Ortiz said that during the meeting yesterday, Coordinator Torres again expressed his disagreement with allowing municipalities to collaborate in the restoration of light: “He (Torres) will have control of the materials, will have control of the brigades, control of resources–and that this resource, which is so important in the process of re-energizing the country, says that he does not agree with the Mayors intervening in this process or giving us the agreement to sign…They said that they were going to give us the power to energize the system and work with brigades that we can hire, and that they will give us brigades to work with the municipalities, and they will give us materials, (but) we leave here with nothing in the hand, with a promise of agreement.” Mayor Ortiz explained that in Cayey the muncipio has retirees from PREPA willing to start working, however, absent an agreement, they are not only barred by law from doing so, but also prevented from obtaining protection from the State Insurance Fund Corporation in case of injury to these workers. The Mayor added: “What he (Coordinator Torres) does not know is that in all of our communities and in all of our cities there are people trained with extraordinary resources to work on that system, because they have done it in all the previous events.”  Nevertheless, Mayor Rivera assured that as soon as the document is sent and signed, he has two companies with three brigades ready to work in the Bayamón distribution lines. He estimated that these works can begin today, if the legal division of La Fortaleza advances in the drafting of the agreement with the municipalities.

Unbalanced Politics? The restoration efforts have also been hampered by allegations of partisan discrimination: the number of brigades distributed among the municipalities of the northern region supposedly differed by 480 in the municipalities of the New Progressive Party (PNP) versus 174 in those led by the PPD, according to the President of the Municipal Legislature of Dorado, Carlos Alberto López. However, Secretary Villafañe refuted those data with others: he indicated that among the six municipalities with less than 20% of electric power service restored, five are NPOPs, while among the 35 that already have more than 60% service, 20 are from PPD.

What Would Rod Serling Say? The former host of the Twilight Zone, Rod Serling, who opened each week’s show by saying a “Dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, and dimension of mind: you just crossed over into The Twilight Zone,” seems consistent with Moody’s characteristically moody new report on Puerto Rico’s fiscal plan, writing: “These repeated delays in revising Puerto Rico’s fiscal plan…underscore the economic uncertainties that Puerto Rico faces as a result of post-Maria factors, including surging migration to the U.S. mainland, potentially unsustainable operating conditions for the territory’s manufacturers, and the federal recovery and rebuilding assistance that may fall short of what Puerto Rico needs to prevent lasting and severe damage to its economic base…Together, the growing challenges from these factors may further reduce already low recovery prospects for holders of Puerto Rico’s 17 rated debt types.” The insights, provided by Moody’s senior at least 200,000 Puerto Ricans have left Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria struck, or about 6% of the pre-Maria population—adding that manufacturing, an important part of Puerto Rico’s economy, has been steadily dropping over the last two decades—and warning that, in the bitter wake of Maria, some manufactures may decide to move to other areas less likely to be hit by future hurricanes. The analysts further warned that the federal government’s new 12.5% excise tax on profits derived from patents and other intangible assets is another negative. Finally, they noted that the amount of federal aid to Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria will affect Puerto Rico’s trajectory of recovery amid growing doubt and uncertainty whether Gov. Rosselló’s request for $94.4 billion in aid will be honored—especially, with the federal government on the verge of shutting down this week—and its failure, to date—in disbursing any portion of a Congressionally-approved $4.9 billion Community Disaster Loan to Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and some other jurisdictions hit by recent natural disasters. Last week, Reorg Research reported that Puerto Rico’s debt restructuring and arguments between the U.S. Treasury and Puerto Rico over the latter’s control of the funds has delayed the funds’ release.

If anything, the federal inability to act has been further clouded by unclear governance: last week, Puerto Rico Sen. Minority Leader Eduardo Bhatia, who, during his tenure as Senate President, had been selected as Chair of the Council of State Governments of the Eastern Regional Conference (CSG-ERC) and later elected as President of the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators, thereby becoming the first Senate President and the first Puerto Rican to preside over the organization, as well as serve on the Board of the Council of State Government (CSG), National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO) and the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda (NHLA); brought up a different concern about the fiscal plan’s delay: in the new style of Trumpian governance, he tweeted to Gov. Ricardo Rosselló: “This is your great opportunity to regain lost confidence…Make your fiscal plan public today, so that there is no doubt, the people know your proposal and participate in the reconstruction of Puerto Rico,” adding that the people of Puerto Rico deserved a chance to comment prior to the draft’s submission to the PROMESA Oversight Board, tweeting: “In all countries of the world, ideas are discussed before decisions are made, not later…Otherwise, the process is a mockery of the serious people of Puerto Rico who want to contribute to the common good.”

Stormy Governance & Federalism Challenges in the Wake of a Storm

eBlog

November 14, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s eBlog, we consider the governance and federalism challenges in the wake of the devastating Hurricane Maria impact on the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, where questions in a federal courtroom about the balance between Puerto Rico’s government and the federally appointed oversight board for Puerto Rico consider not just the Puerto Rican government’s authority—but also that of the Congress.  

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U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor Swain has denied the PROMESA Oversight Board’s request to deny the request to appoint Noel Zamot as the Transformation Officer (CTO), noting that the powers granted to the special panel by Congress are insufficiently broad to limit the actions of the government of Puerto Rico, holding that the Puerto Rico Oversight Board lacked authority to replace the leader of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA). The Board had requested the Judge to confirm its appointment of Noel Zamot as PREPA’s Chief Transformation Office—a position comparable to CEO. Instead, Judge Swain called on the Board and Gov. Ricardo Rosselló to work collaboratively to address the U.S. territory’s problems—a call, in response to which, Gov. Rosselló responded by noting: “We are very pleased with the decision issued today by Judge Laura Taylor Swain, since it reiterates our position regarding the limit of power of the Financial Oversight and Management Board.…It is clear that the Financial Oversight and Management Board does not have the power to take full control of the government or its instrumentalities…We recognize that the reconstruction and recovery of the island requires a union of wills; therefore, we welcome any collaboration or technical support that the Board wishes to offer to the government elected by Puerto Ricans to ensure the best interests of the people of Puerto Rico.” Judge Swain noted that Congress could have eased the governance role of the oversight board if it had given the Board direct authority over Puerto Rico’s government and public entities; however, as she noted: it had not—instead it deliberately split power between the federally appointed oversight board and the government, adding: “I urge you to work together,” in regard to the PROMESA Board and the Rosselló administration, noting that every moment spent on complicated and expensive litigation was time lost for the Puerto Rico people. Judge Swain noted that the Board has multiple mechanisms to discharge its functions without requiring its direct intervention after the Congressionally created public corporation, its governing board and its executive director, Ricardo Ramos, were unable to articulate and effectively implement a plan to restore the electricity grid after its collapse in the wake of Hurricane Maria. Nevertheless, Judge Swain also called on the government of Puerto Rico to address the situation of the island, noting that millions of American citizens remain in the dark and in a dangerous situation, while every controversy aired in court is “a minute lost” for the future of Puerto Rico.

Unsurprisingly, Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares responded he was pleased with Judge Swain’s decision, noting in written statements that the decision issued today by Judge Swain “reiterates our position on the power limit of the JSF: We have been clear from day one about the powers the [PROMESA] Board has, and those it does not have. It is clear that the (Board) does not have the power to take control of the government as a whole or its instrumentalities,” adding: “Our position is validated and it is recognized that the administration and public management of Puerto Rico remains with the democratically elected government…As Governor of Puerto Rico, I will defend the democratic rights of my people over any challenge and in any forum. We recognize that the reconstruction and recovery of the Island requires a union of wills, therefore, we welcome any collaboration or technical support that the Board wishes to offer to the Government elected by the Puerto Ricans to ensure the best interests of the People of Puerto Rico.”

The U.S. government yesterday filed notice it would defend the court supervised restructuring of Puerto Rico’s debt against a constitutional challenge by an investor—with the filing coming in response to the Title III bankruptcy case related to Puerto Rico’s government debt to an adversary proceeding filed last August by the Aurelius Capital hedge fund. (Aurelius owned $473 million of Puerto Rico municipal bonds as of July.) The government argued that the Title III bankruptcy petition should be dismissed, because its filing had not been authorized by a validly constituted oversight board, whilst the fund asserted that the appointments clause of the U.S. Constitution, Article II, Section 2, Clause 2 of the United States Constitution, which empowers the President to appoint certain public officials with the “advice and consent” of the U.S. Senate was breached in appointing the board’s members: the Board was appointed under the Puerto Rico Oversight Management and Economic Stability Act to oversee fiscal and economic management in the territory and the restructuring of more than $70 billion of debt that the Puerto Rico government said could not be repaid under current economic conditions.

Aurelius claimed that the PROMESA Board is “unconstitutional,” and, because it is, its actions are “are void,” pressing Judge Swain to dismiss the case. In response, the Justice Department notified the court it would file a memorandum supporting PROMESA’s constitutionality on or before December 6th. Part of the dispute will relate to the process itself: the Board, as we noted initially, was named by the U.S. House and Senate Majority and Minority leaders, the Speaker and House Minority Leader, and former President Obama: neither U.S. Senate committees nor the Senate as a whole voted on the confirmations. Last Friday, the government of Puerto Rico, the COFINA Seniors Bondholders Coalition, the Unsecured Creditors Committee, and the Official Committee of Retired Employees of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico submitted memoranda against the Aurelius position, with the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico pressing the federal court to lift the stay on litigation outside of the bankruptcy process, arguing that Aurelius is seeking actions against the debtor and the Oversight Board outside the Title III process—something it asserts is barred by the PROMESA statute. In contrast, the COFINA Seniors argue that the Oversight Board’s membership is constitutional, because Congress’s power over the territories is plenary and not subject to the structural limitations of the United States Constitution, while the Unsecured Creditors argued that the “U.S. Constitution gives Congress virtually unlimited authority to govern unincorporated territories directly, or to delegate that power to such agencies as it” deems fit. This group said that there is precedent for the Board members’ appointment procedures, asserting the Board members are territorial officials and not U.S. government officials, as Aurelius claims.

Power to Puerto Rico. On a separate front, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico notched a significant win in court yesterday when Judge Swain rejected the appointment of a former military officer to oversee the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), after the PROMESA Board had sought to appoint retired Air Force Col. Noel Zamot to supervise the reconstruction and operations of PREPA in the wake of Hurricane Maria’s devastation of the U.S. territory’s utility and the subsequent territory-wide blackout on September 20th—an inability to restore service since has led to accusations of mismanagement, especially as, PREPA, two months after the hurricane, is generating only 48 percent of its normal output. Thus it was that Judge Swain ruled that the PROMESA Board may not unilaterally seize control of the U.S. territory’s government agencies—a signal legal victory for the administration of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and others who have argued that no independent official should oversee a local government agency—or, as the Governor noted: “Our position has been validated and it has been recognized that the administration and public management of Puerto Rico remains with the democratically elected government.” PREPA is $9 billion in debt and continues to face scrutiny after signing a $300 million contract with Montana-based Whitefish Energy Holdings—a contract cancelled at the end of last month at the Governor’s request, but which is now undergoing federal and local audits. Both Gov. Rosselló and PREPA Director Ricardo Ramos are scheduled to testify this morning in Washington, D.C. before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.