Fiscal & Service Solvency

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eBlog, 03/10/17

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

The Roads out of Municipal Bankruptcy

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eBlog, 2/24/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the post-chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy trajectories of the nation’s longest (San Bernardino) and largest (Detroit) municipal bankruptcies.

Exit I. So Long, Farewell…San Bernardino City Manager Mark Scott was given a two-week extension to his expired contract this week—on the very same day the Reno, Nevada City Council selected him as one of two finalists to be Reno’s City Manager—with the extension granted just a little over the turbulent year Mr. Scott had devoted to working with the Mayor, Council, and attorneys to complete and submit to U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury San Bernardino’s proposed plan of debt adjustment—with the city, at the end of January, in the wake of San Bernardino’s “final, final” confirmation hearing, where the city gained authority to issue water and sewer revenue bonds prior to this month’s final bankruptcy confirmation hearing—or, as Urban Futures Chief Executive Officer Michael Busch, whose firm provided the city with financial guidance throughout the four-plus years of bankruptcy, put it: “It has been a lot of work, and the city has made a lot of tough decisions, but I think some of the things the city has done will become best practices for cities in distress.” Judge Jury is expected to make few changes from the redline suggestions made to her preliminary ruling by San Bernardino in its filing at the end of January—marking, as Mayor Carey Davis noted: a “milestone…After today, we have approval of the bankruptcy exit confirmation order.” Indeed, San Bernardino has already acted on much of its plan—and now, Mayor Davis notes the city exiting from the longest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history is poised for growth in the wake of outsourcing fire services to the county and waste removal services to a private contractor, and reaching agreements with city employees, including police officers and retirees, to substantially reduce healthcare OPEB benefits to lessen pension reductions. Indeed, the city’s plan agreement on its $56 million in pension obligation bonds—and in significant part with CalPERS—meant its retirees fared better than the city’s municipal bondholders to whom San Bernardino committed to pay 40 percent of what they are owed—far more than its early offer of one percent. San Bernardino’s pension bondholders succeeded in wrangling a richer recovery than the city’s opening offer of one percent, but far less than CalPERS, which received a nearly 100 percent recovery. (San Bernardino did not make some $13 million in payments to CalPERS early in the chapter 9 process, but did set up payments to make the public employee pension fund whole; the city was aided in those efforts as we have previously noted after Judge Jury ruled against the argument made by pension bond attorneys two years ago. After the city’s pension bondholders entered into mediation again prior to exit confirmation, substantial agreement was achieved for th0se bondholders, no doubt beneficial at the end of last year to the city’s water department’s issuance of $68 million in water and sewer bonds at competitive interest rates in November and December—with the payments to come from the city’s water and sewer revenues, which were not included in the bankruptcy. The proceeds from these municipal bonds will meet critical needs to facilitate seismic upgrades to San Bernardino’s water reservoirs and funding for the first phase of the Clean Water Factor–Recycled Water Program.

Now, with some eager anticipation of Judge Jury’s final verdict, Assistant San Bernardino City Attorney Jolena Grider advised the Mayor and Council with regard to the requested contract extension: “If you don’t approve this, we have no city manager…We’re in the midst of getting out of bankruptcy. That just sends the wrong message to the bankruptcy court, to our creditors.” Ergo, the City Council voted 8-0, marking the first vote taken under the new city charter, which requires the Mayor to vote, to extend the departing Manager’s contract until March 7th, the day after the Council’s next meeting—and, likely the very same day Mr. Scott will return to Reno for a second interview, after beating out two others to reach the final round of interviews. Reno city officials assert they will make their selection on March 8th—and Mr. Scott will be one of four candidates.

For their part, San Bernardino Councilmembers Henry Nickel, Virginia Marquez, and John Valdivia reported they would not vote to extend Mr. Scott’s contract on a month-to-month basis, although they joined other Councilmembers in praising the city manager who commenced his service almost immediately after the December 2nd terrorist attack, and, of course, played a key role in steering the city through the maze to exit the nation’s longest ever municipal bankruptcy. Nevertheless, Councilmember Nickel noted: “Month-to-month may be more destabilizing than the alternative…Uncertainty is not a friend of investment and the business community, which is what our city needs now.” From his perspective, as hard and stressful as his time in San Bernardino had to be, Mr. Scott, in a radio interview while he was across the border in Reno, noted: “I’ve worked for 74 council members—I counted them one time on a plane…And I’ve liked 72 of them.”

Exit II. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan says the Motor City is on track to exit Michigan state fiscal oversight by next year , in the wake of a third straight year of balancing its books, during his State of the City address: noting, “When Kevyn Orr (Gov. Rick Snyder’s appointed Emergency Manager who shepherded Detroit through the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history) departed, and we left bankruptcy in December 2014, a lot of people predicted Detroit would be right back in the same financial problems, that we couldn’t manage our own affairs, but instead we finished 2015 with the first balanced budget in 12 years, and we finished 2016 with the second, and this year we are going to finish with the third….I fully expect that by early 2018 we will be out from financial review commission oversight, because we would have made budget and paid our bills three years in a row.”

Nonetheless, the fiscal challenge remains steep: Detroit confronts stiff fiscal challenges, including an unexpected gap in public pensions, and the absence of a long-term economic plan. It faces disproportionate long-term borrowing costs because of its lingering low credit ratings—ratings of B2 and B from Moody’s Investors Service and S&P Global Ratings, respectively, albeit each assigns the city stable outlooks. Nevertheless, the Mayor is eyes forward: “If we want to fulfill the vision of a building a Detroit that includes everybody, we have to do a whole lot more.” By more, he went on, the city has work to do to bring back jobs, referencing his focus on a new job training program which will match citizens to training programs and then to jobs. (Detroit’s unemployment rate has dropped by nearly 50 percent from three years ago, but still is the highest of any Michigan city at just under 10 percent.) The Mayor expressed hope that the potential move of the NBA’s Detroit Pistons to the new Little Caesars Arena in downtown Detroit would create job opportunities for the city: “After the action of the Detroit city council in support of the first step of our next project very shortly, the Pistons will be hiring people from the city of Detroit.” The new arena, to be financed with municipal bonds, is set to open in September as home to the Detroit Red Wings hockey team, which will abandon the Joe Louis Arena on the Detroit riverfront, after the Detroit City Council this week voted to support plans for the Pistons’ move, albeit claiming the vote was not an endorsement of the complex deal involving millions in tax subsidies. Indeed, moving the NBA team will carry a price tag of $34 million to adapt the design of the nearly finished arena: the city has agreed to contribute toward the cost for the redesign which Mayor Duggan said will be funded through savings generated by the refinancing of $250 million of 2014 bonds issued by the Detroit Development Authority.

Mayor Duggan reiterated his commitment to stand with Detroit Public Schools Community District and its new school board President Iris Taylor against the threat of school closures. His statements came in the face of threats by the Michigan School Reform Office, which has identified 38 underperforming schools, the vast bulk of which (25) are in the city, stating: “We aren’t saying schools are where they need to be now…They need to be turned around, but we need 110,000 seats in quality schools and closing schools doesn’t add a single quality seat, all it does is bounce children around.” Mayor Duggan noted that Detroit also remains committed to its demolition program—a program which has, to date, razed some 11,000 abandoned homes, more than half the goal the city has set, in some part assisted by some $42 million in funds from the U.S Department of Treasury’s Hardest Hit Funds program for its blight removal program last October, the first installment of a new $130 million blight allocation for the city which was part of an appropriations bill Congress passed in December of 2015—but where a portion of that amount had been suspended by the Treasury for two months after a review found that internal controls needed improvement. Now, Major Duggan reports: “We have a team of state employees and land bank employees and a new process in place to get the program up and running and this time our goal isn’t only to be fast but to be in federal compliance too.” Of course, with a new Administration in office in Washington, D.C., James Thurber—were he still alive—might be warning the Mayor not to count any chickens before they’re hatched.

The Fiscal, Balancing Challenges of Federalism

eBlog, 2/16/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the fiscal, balancing challenges of federalism, as Connecticut Governor Daniel Malloy’s proposed budget goes to the state legislature; then we return to the small municipality of Petersburg, Virginia—the insolvent city which now confronts not just fiscal issues, but, increasingly, trust issues—including how an insolvent city should bear the costs of litigation against its current and former mayor—including their respective ethical governing responsibilities. Finally, we seek the warming waters of the Caribbean to witness a fiscal electrical storm—all while wishing readers to think about the President who would never tell a lie…

The Challenge of Revenue Sharing—or Passing the Buck? S&P Global Ratings yesterday warned that Connecticut Governor Daniel Malloy’s proposed budget could negatively affect smaller towns while benefiting the cities, noting that from a municipal credit perspective, “S&P Global Ratings believes that communities lacking the reserves or budgetary flexibility to cushion outsized budget gaps will feel the greatest effects of the proposed budget.” S&P, as an example, cited Groton, a town of under 30,000, which has an AA+ credit rating, which could find its $12.1 million reserve balance depleted by a proposed $8.2 million reduction in state aid and a $3.9 million increase to its public pension obligations. Meanwhile, state capitol Hartford, once the richest city in the United States, today is one of the poorest cities in the nation with 3 out of every 10 families living below the poverty line—which is to write that 83% of Hartford’s jobs are filled by commuters from neighboring towns who earn over $80,000, while 75% of Hartford residents who commute to work in other towns earn just $40,000. Thus, under Gov. Rowland’s proposed budget, Hartford would receive sufficient state aid under the Governor’s proposal to likely erase its projected FY2018 nearly $41 million fiscal year 2018 budget gap, according to S&P, leading the rating agency to find that shifting of costs from the state to municipal governments would be a credit positive for Connecticut, but credit negative for many of the affected towns: “Those [municipal] governments lacking the budgetary flexibility to make revenue and expenditure adjustments will be the most vulnerable to immediate downgrades.” With the Connecticut legislature expected to act by the end of April, S&P noted that the state itself—caught between fixed costs and declining revenues, will confront both Gov. Malloy and the legislature with hard choices, or, as S&P analyst David Hitchcock put it: “Bringing the [budget] into balance will involve painful adjustments,” especially as the state is seeking to close a projected $1.7 billion annual deficit. Thus, S&P calculated that general fund debt service, pension, and other OPEB payments will amount to just under 30 percent of revised forecast revenues plus proposed revenue enhancements for FY2018, assuming the legislature agrees to Gov. Malloy’s plan to “share” some one-third, or about $408 million of annual employer teacher pension contributions with cities and towns, effectively reducing state contributions.

As Mr. Hitchcock penned: “Rising state pension and other post-employment benefit payments are colliding with weak revenue growth because of poor economic performance in the state’s financial sector…Although other states are also reporting weak revenue growth and rising pension costs, Connecticut remains especially vulnerable to an unexpected economic downturn due to its particularly volatile revenue structure.” Unsurprisingly, especially given the perfect party split in the state Senate and near balance in the House, acting on the budget promises a heavy lift to confront accumulated debt: Deputy Senate Republican Majority Leader Scott Frantz (R-Greenwich) said the state’s—whose state motto is Qui transtulit sustinet (He who transplanted sustains)—financial struggles have been predictable for more than a decade, “with a completely unsustainable rate of growth in spending on structural costs and far too much borrowing that further adds to the state’s fixed costs, especially as interest rates rise….” adding: “The proposed budget is an admission that the state can no longer afford to pay for many of its obligations and will rely on the municipalities to pick up the slack, which means that local property tax rates will rise.” The Governor’s proposals to modify the state’s school-aid formula could, according to Mr. Hitchcock, be a means by which Connecticut could comply with state Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher’s order for the state to revise its revenue sharing formula to better assist its poorest municipalities: “It could benefit poor cities at the expense of the rich and lower overall local aid;” however, he added that “[c]ombined with other local aid cuts, municipalities’ credit quality could be subject to greater uncertainty.” With regard to Governor Malloy’s proposed pension obligation “sharing,” our esteemed colleagues at Municipal Market Analytics described the shift in teacher pension costs to be “a more positive credit development for the state,” notwithstanding what MMA described as “quite high” challenges. Under the proposal, the municipalities of Hartford and Waterbury would receive about $40 million apiece in incremental aid, while 145 municipalities would lose aid after the netting of pension costs. Several middle-class towns, according to MMA’s analysis, could realize reductions in pension aid of more than $10 million—some of which might be offset by the Governor’s proposal to permit towns to begin assessing property taxes on hospitals, which in turn would be eligible for some state reimbursement.

Hear Ye—or Hear Ye Not. Petersburg residents who say their elected leaders are to blame for the historic city’s fiscal challenges and insolvency yesterday withdrew their efforts to oust Mayor Samuel Parham and Councilman W. Howard Myers (and former mayor) from office in court over procedural issues, notwithstanding that good-government advocates had collected the requisite number of signatures to lodge their complaints against the duo. An attorney representing the pair testified before Petersburg Circuit Court Judge Joseph Teefey that the cover letters accompanying those petitions were drafted after the signatures were gathered. Thus, according to the attorney, even if the petition signers knew why they were endorsing efforts to unseat the elected officials, they were not aware of the specific reasoning later presented to the court.

Not unsurprisingly, Barb Rudolph, a citizen activist who had helped spearhead the attempt, said she felt discouraged but not defeated, noting: “We began collecting these signatures last March, and in all that time we’ve been trying to learn about this process…We will take the information we have learned today and use that to increase our chances of success moving forward.” The petition cited “neglect of duty, misuse of office, or incompetence in the performance of duties,” charging the two elected officials for failing to heed warnings of Petersburg’s impending fiscal insolvency; they alleged ethical breaches and violations of open government law.

But now a different fiscal and ethical challenge for the insolvent municipality ensues: who will foot the tab? Last week the Council had voted to suspend its own rules, so that members could consider whether Petersburg’s taxpayers should pick up the cost of the litigation, with the Council voting 5-2 to have the city’s taxpayers foot the tab for Sands Anderson lawyer James E. Cornwell Jr., who had previously, successfully defended elected officials against similar suits. Unsurprisingly, the current and former Mayor—with neither offering to recuse himself—voted in favor of the measure. Even that vote, it appears, was only taken in the wake of a residents’ questions about whether Council had voted to approve hiring a lawyer for the case.

A Day Late & a Dollar Short? Mayor Parham and Councilmember Myers signed a written statement acknowledging their interest in the vote with the city clerk’s office the following day. The Mayor in a subsequent interview, claimed that the attorney hired by the city told him after that vote that the action was legal and supported by an opinion issued by the Virginia Attorney General’s Office, noting: “Who would want to run for elected office if they knew they could bear the full cost of going to court over actions they took?” To date, the two elected officials have not disclosed the contract or specific terms within it detailing what the pair’s litigation has cost the city budget and the city’s taxpayers. Nor has there been a full disclosure in response to Petersburg Commonwealth’s Attorney Cassandra Conover’s determination last week with regard to whether the Mayor and former Mayor’s votes to have Petersburg’s taxpayers cover their legal fees presented a conflict of interest.

Electric Storm in Puerto Rico. Yesterday, Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló stated that the reorganization of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) Governing Board’s composition and member benefits will not affect the fiscal recovery process that is currently underway, noting: “I remind you that we announced a week or week and a half ago that we had reached an agreement with the bondholders to extend and reevaluate the Restructuring Support Agreement (RSA) terms. Everything is on the table,” referring to the extension for which he had secured municipal bondholders’ approval—until March 31. His statement came in the wake of the Puerto Rican House of Representatives Monday voting to approve a bill altering the Board’s composition and member benefits—despite PREPA Executive Director Javier Quintana’s warning that the governance model should remain unaltered, since its structure was designed to comply with their creditors’ demands. However, Gov. Rosselló argued that, according to PROMESA, the Governor of Puerto Rico and his administration are the ones responsible for executing plans and public policies: “Therefore, the Governor and the Executive branch should feel confident that the Board and the executive directors will in fact execute our administration’s strategies and public policies. We believe we should have the power to appoint people who will carry out the changes proposed by this administration.” The Governor emphasized: “We have taken steps to have a Board that responds not to the Governor or partisan interests, but to the strategy outlined by this administration, which was validated by the Puerto Rican people.”

Indeed, at the beginning of the week, the Puerto Rican government had approved what will be the Board’s new composition, which would include the executive director of the Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority (FAFAA), the Secretary of the Department of Economic Development and Commerce, and the executive director of the Public-Private Partnerships Authority among its members: “We campaigned with a platform, the people of Puerto Rico validated it, and the Oversight Board expects all of these entities to respond to what will be a larger plan,” he insisted. Gov. Rosselló added that adjustments are essential, due to the Government’s current fiscal situation, specifically referring to the compensation paid to the members of the Board, which can reach $60,000. If this measure becomes law, the compensation would be limited to an allowance of no more than $200 per day for regular or special sessions. (The measure, pending the Senate’s approval, would establish that no member may receive more than $30,000 per year in diet allowances.) Currently, the Governing Board’s annual expenses—including salaries and other benefits—are approximately $995,000 per year. Meanwhile, PREPA has a debt of almost $9 billion, including a $700-million credit line to purchase fuel and no access to the capital markets.