Fiscal & Physical Storm Recoveries

October 30, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider, again, the spread of Connecticut’s fiscal blues to its municipalities; then, we observe the lengthening fiscal and human plight of Puerto Rico.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

The Price of Solvency. Ending months of fiscal frustration, the Connecticut House of Representatives late Thursday provided its strong, bipartisan endorsement (126-23) to two-year, $41 billion state budget which closes a gaping deficit, rejects large-scale tax increases, and seeks to bolster the state’s future fiscal stability. Notwithstanding, S&P Global Ratings, the following day, issued its own fiscal storm warnings that it is a budget which will still leave the state’s municipalities at fiscal risk. Governor Dannell Molloy has not yet said if or when he might sign that budget into state law; however, because it passed both Houses by veto-proof margins, the question is no longer “if,” but rather: what will it mean for the state’s municipalities? Thus, S&P warned:  “We note that virtually all local governments will see some reductions to state aid, while only a few—typically those with the greatest economic challenges—will see flat year-over-year state aid.” Similarly, Conn. House Majority Leader Matt Ritter (D-Hartford) told his colleagues: “We’re at the end of a journey: This budget offers needed reforms, but also some immediate comfort that is so needed by a lot of our residents and our towns…In the darkest of days…we found a way to pull through.”

As adopted, the budget bill provides financial assistance to eastern Connecticut homeowners dealing with crumbling foundations, reduced funding for UConn, offers $40 million to help the City of Hartford avoid filing for Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities Executive Director Joe DeLong, in the League’s initial analysis of the municipal impact of the bipartisan budget agreement, noted: “Municipal leaders acknowledge the difficult choices made by state leaders in forging this bipartisan budget agreement and the impact they have on the lives of Connecticut residents: The actions taken by State leaders to support cities and towns protects the interests of residents and businesses across the state and for that we are grateful.” With the State facing a $5 billion biennial budget deficit, the state budget agreement spares towns and cities from the draconian cuts set to roll out under the Governor’s Executive Order and includes many significant structural reforms that municipalities have been advocating for years. Mr. DeLong added that the final budget agreement provides for numerous municipal reforms sought by the League last January in its groundbreaking public policy initiative, “This Report Is Different.”  

Connecticut House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz noted: “Leaders do things that are maybe not in their best interests, or may be against their own beliefs, in an effort to do what’s right. And I think that was done,’’ as Rep. Toni Walker (D-New Haven), Co-Chairwoman of the appropriations committee, described the bill as a significant step toward closing a $3.5 billion deficit over the next two years and righting the state’s wobbly finances for decades to come: “I want everybody to understand we must recalibrate the financial future of Connecticut, for our families and for our businesses and this budget begins that process.’’

As adopted, the budget does not increase income or sales tax rates, although it raises hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue via an assortment of smaller measures, such as higher taxes on cigarettes, a $10 surcharge on motor vehicle registrations to support parks, and new fees on ride-sharing companies, such as Uber. On the other hand, the final agreement rolled back proposed taxes on cellphone plans, second homes, and restaurant meals. In the end, small tax increases represent just .85 percent of the budget; fee hikes constituted an even smaller contribution .11%. On the revenue side, the new budget proposes the elimination of a property tax credit for many middle-income homeowners, raises the cigarette tax, and sweeps $64 million from a clean energy fund.

In the wake of the passage, S&P Global Ratings indicated it would review the state’s municipal bond rating, but noted the municipal impact, citing the $31.4 million cut to the Education Cost Sharing Grant, the primary state grant which goes to cities and towns to help operate their schools—albeit, the cut is to be nearly fully restored next year, and distributed using an updated formula which more heavily favors the state’s lowest-performing school districts. The adopted budget also rejected Gov. Malloy’s proposal to mandate that the state’s cities and towns assume some fiscal share of the state’s soaring contributions to the teachers’ pension fund. Nevertheless, the budget was less generous to municipalities on the revenue front: the 2015 state plan to share sales tax receipts with cities and towns is all but eliminated in this budget, which officially ends the diversion of these receipts into a special account: the last remnants of a program which was supposed to distribute more than $300 million per year in sales tax receipts are: A “municipal transition grant” worth $13 million in FY 2017 and $15 million for next year. Similarly axed: a $36.5 million payment this year to offset a portion of the funds communities with high property tax rates lose because of a state-imposed cap on motor vehicle taxes: the new budget would cut $19 million in each year from grants that reimburse communities for taxes they cannot collect on exempt property owned by the state and by private colleges, hospitals and other nonprofit entities.

The adopted budget, however, from a municipal perspective, proposes to revise the prevailing wage and binding arbitration systems: municipalities would have greater flexibility to launch more publicly financed capital projects without having to pay union-level construction wages, and arbiters would have more options when ruling on wage and other contract issues involving municipalities and their employees.

Nevertheless, S&P noted: “Since new state revenue measures would have less than a year to be collected, this may leave the state without the available resources to fully appropriate for these (municipal grants),” adding: “The length of the budget impasse underscores the state’s struggling financial health.” The rating agency last month had already placed nine Connecticut municipalities and one school district on a “negative” credit watch, warning it could lead to a rating downgrade within 90 days unless their fiscal outlook improves, citing the uncertainty of Connecticut’s ability to maintain existing levels of municipal aid, reinforcing Moody’s moody outlook earlier this month when it warned that the state actions could lead to lower bond ratings for 51 municipalities and six regional school districts, placing ratings for 26 cities and towns and three regional school districts under review for downgrade, and assigning negative outlooks to an additional 25 municipalities and three more regional school districts. For its part, S&P warned: “In the end, if state fiscal pressures persist, all local governments in Connecticut will continue to be affected…and the degree of credit deterioration will depend on each government’s level [of] budgetary reserves and ability to adapt.”

Underpowered. House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) said he does not want to “come to conclusions” before he has all the information regarding the controversial $300 million contract of the Montana-based company, Whitefish Energy Holdings, with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA); nevertheless, Chairman Bishop has given PREPA Chairman Ricardo Ramos until this Thursday to submit a series of documents related to the contract with the company—a company whose largest project prior to Hurricane Maria was $ 1.3 million in the state of Arizona—especially in the wake of the contract award here made without bidding—ergo triggering a series of questions and requests for investigations by the Office of  Inspector General and from the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Chairman Bishop was part of the Congressional delegation with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Ca.) and Deputy Minority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), as well as Puerto Rico resident Commissioner in Washington, D.C., Jennifer González. House Speaker Paul Ryan ((R-Wis.) who had earlier visited the town of Utuado, known as “El Pueblo del Viví,’ which was founded in 1739 by Sebastían de Morfi, and derives its name from a local Indian Chief Otoao, which means between the mountains, to see first-hand the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria—in the wake of which he noted: “Our committee, like other groups, will investigate and we will know what is behind the Whitefish contract. I do not know enough right now to come to a conclusion against or in favor, but that’s the idea, to know the details and how it happened.”

The Chairman was not alone: the Federal Agency for Emergency Management (FEMA) has released a statement making clear that agency’s concerns about certain aspects of the contract, including an absence of certainty that some prices were even “reasonable,” in apparent reference to the hourly pay of some employees of the company. FEMA also warned that entities that fail to meet FEMA requirements may not see their expenses reimbursed. Nevertheless, Chairman Bishop said he will not “let” any concern of FEMA “get in the way…FEMA will do its job,” he insisted when asked if he was worried that FEMA would not reimburse the Puerto Rico government for payments to Whitefish. (Last night, Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares confirmed that he was about to receive a report he had requested from the Office of Management and Budget about the contract.).

Chairman Bishop noted that, as a result of the destruction caused by Hurricane Maria, he is considering possible changes to the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA), albeit, when asked about specific changes, he limited himself to saying that the Oversight Board “does not need more authority;” rather, he said, the focus now needs to be on the provision of power and drinking water. Asked by Majority Leader McCarthy whether the devastation he had witnessed makes him think that the aid mechanism for Puerto Rico should change, he answered that “a lot of infrastructure is needed, and we have to lift the electrical system…I spoke with (Minority Leader) Steny Hoyer. I do not think it would be the best use of taxpayers’ money to build the same grid that we had. We need a 21st century one that is more efficient and effective and we can do it with more transparency,” albeit he was unclear what he meant by transparency. Rep. Hoyer noted: “We know there is an urgency,”  adding the delegation needed to all go back to Washington, D.C. to work together, but “we need an urgency to fix the electrical system and for power to reach the whole island. Governor Rosselló Nevares, who accompanied them on the tour, has said that if the quality of life in Puerto Rico does not reach what it should be: “People will be disappointed, and they will leave.”

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The Leadership Challenges on the Road to Fiscal and Physical Recovery

September 29, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the fiscal, legal, physical, and human challenges to Puerto Rico; Hartford’s steep fiscal challenges; and Detroit’s ongoing road to fiscal recovery.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

Fiscal Safety Net? The White House yesterday announced President Trump had agreed to waive the Jones Act, which will temporarily lift shipping restrictions on Puerto Rico and enable the hurricane-ravaged island to receive necessary aid; however, the waiver from the shipping law, which mandates that only American-made and-operated vessels may transport cargo between U.S. ports, will only last for 10 days, after which the equivalent of a 20 percent tax will be reimposed. The delayed U.S. response to the save U.S. citizens compared unfavorably to the response to save and protect foreign citizens in Haiti seven years ago, when the U.S. military mobilized as if it were going to war—with the U.S. military, in less than 24 hours, and before first light, already airborne, on its way to seize control of the main airport in Port-au-Prince. Within two days, the Pentagon had 8,000 American troops en route; within two weeks, 33 U.S. military ships and 22,000 troops had arrived. By contrast, eight days after Hurricane Maria ripped across neighboring Puerto Rico, just 4,400 service members were participating in federal operations to assist the devastated U.S. citizens, according to a briefing by an Army general yesterday, in addition to about 1,000 Coast Guard members.

The seemingly inexplicable delay in waiving the Jones Act—temporarily—was due to opposition of the waiver by the Department of Homeland Security, which had argued that a federal agency may not apply for a waiver unless there is a national defense threat (as, apparently, there might have been in Houston and Florida). Sen. John McCain (R-Az.) has, for years, sought to repeal this discriminatory law: The 1920 Jones Act requires that goods shipped between U.S. ports be carried by vessels 1) built in the U.S., 2) majority-owned by American firms, and 3) crewed by U.S. citizens.

Key House and Senate members, since Monday, had been pressing for a one-year waiver from the rules in order to help accelerate deliveries of food, fuel, medical, and other critical supplies to Puerto Rico, especially with current estimates that Puerto Rico could be without power for six months. On Wednesday, 45 U.S. Senate and House Members had signed a letter urging President Trump to appoint a senior general to oversee the military’s aid to Puerto Rico, to deploy the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier, and to increase personnel to assist local law enforcement. U.S. Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D.-N.Y.) warned: “If President Trump doesn’t swiftly deploy every available resource that our country has, then he has failed the people of Puerto Rico – and this will become his Katrina.” The temporary suspension of the onerous and discriminatory Jones law came only in the wake of a fierce backlash against the Trump administration for its inexplicable delay in not immediately lifting the federal law for Puerto Rico, especially after it issued a two-week waiver for Texas and Florida in response to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Nevertheless, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz praised the administration’s decision: she said it could help bring down the cost of emergency medical and other supplies, as well as vital construction materials by nearly 33 percent. Nevertheless, she warned there are still thousands of containers sitting idle at the ports of San Juan, a problem she blamed on “jurisdictional” and bureaucratic issues.

The belated Presidential action came as Puerto Rico continued to suffer the after effects of Hurricane Maria: Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority Executive Director Ricardo Ramos Rodríguez warned it could take PREPA as much as half a year to restore electricity.

Meanwhile, it appears the PROMESA Oversight Board is ready to revise the amount of debt to be paid in the next nine years. The Board is scheduled to meet today in New York City to revise the March-approved fiscal plan: the current Board fiscal plan specifies there should be enough funds to pay approximately 24% of the debt; however, it appears the Board will have little choice today but to revise every fiscal plan. Clearly none of the previous underlying assumptions can hold, and now the Board will have to await the actions and finding of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, while the Treasury Department will have to work with Puerto Rico to settle on a massive restructuring—or, as Puerto Rico House Representative Rafael Hernández Montañez put it: “We can’t have money spent on corporate lawyers and PowerPoint producing technocrats while funding is needed for immediate reconstruction efforts.” While FEMA has committed to paying for 100 percent of the costs of some work, on others, it is mandating a match of 20% to 25% of the costs for other work—a match which appears out of reach for the most savagely damaged municipalities or municipios—now confronted not just by enormous new capital and operating demands, but also by sharply reduced revenues.

Wednesday morning, the PREPA Bondholders Group offered up to $1.85 billion in debtor in possession loans to the authority. According to the group, part of the package would be a new money loan of up to $1 billion. Another part would be their possible acceptance of an $850 million in DIP notes in exchange for $1 billion in outstanding bonds owed to them—or, as the Group noted: “The new funding would allow PREPA to provide the required matching funds under various grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.” In response, PREPA’s Natalie Jaresko said: “We welcome and appreciate the expression of support from creditors…The Board will carefully consider all proposals in coordination with the government, but it is still very early as we begin to navigate a way forward following the catastrophic impact Hurricane Maria had on the island.”

The existing fiscal PREPA plan specifies there should be enough funding to pay about 24% of the debt due over the next decade; that, however, has raised questions with regard to the underlying assumptions of the Board, especially with regard to when FEMA will complete its work on the island.

Rafael Hernández Montañez, a member of Puerto Rico’s House, noted that Hurricane Maria put Puerto Rico’s territory-wide and municipal governments in very difficult financial situations. While FEMA has committed to paying for 100% of the costs of some work, he notes that the federal relief agency is still mandating a government match of 20% to 25% of the costs for other work: “It’s going to be a huge effort to cover that 20% with the government’s unbalanced budget,” adding that the hurricane will also lead to reduced revenues for the local governments.

On Wednesday, 145 U.S. Representatives and Senators signed a letter urging President Trump to appoint a senior general to oversee the military’s aid to Puerto Rico, to deploy the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier, and to increase personnel to assist local law enforcement–the same day as the PREPA Bondholders Group offer. 

The Category 4 Maria destroyed Puerto Rico’s electrical grid; it left the island desperately short of food, clean water, and fuel—and sufficient shipping options, notwithstanding the claim from the Department of Homeland Security that: “Based on consultation with other federal agencies, DHS’s current assessment is that there is sufficient numbers of U.S.-flagged vessels to move commodities to Puerto Rico.” Thus DHS opposed a waiver of the Jones Act (Under the Jones Act federal cabotage rules, the entry of merchandise into Puerto Rico can only be made on US flag and crew ships – the most expensive fleet in the world.), which has been suspended in past natural disasters, to allow less expensive, foreign-flagged ships bring in aid. Former President George W. Bush suspended the Act after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and President Barack Obama suspended it after superstorm Sandy in 2012. In a letter to the Department of Homeland Security, Sen. McCain criticized the department for waiving the Jones Act in the wake of hurricanes Harvey and Irma, but not for Puerto Rico. The Senator, who has long sought a repeal of the Jones Act, noted: “It is unacceptable to force the people of Puerto Rico to pay at least twice as much for food, clean drinking water, supplies, and infrastructure due to Jones Act requirements as they work to recover from this disaster: Now, more than ever, it is time to realize the devastating effect of this policy and implement a full repeal of this archaic and burdensome Act.”  Only the Department of Defense may obtain a Jones Act waiver automatically, which it did to move petroleum products from Texas after Hurricane Harvey. The White House is expected to send Congress a request for a funding package for Puerto Rico in the next few weeks, a senior congressional aide said.

The Road to Hartford’s Default. Citing deep cuts to higher education, sharp reductions in aid to distressed communities, and unsound deferrals of public pension payments, Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy yesterday made good on his pledge to veto the budget that legislature, earlier this month, had adopted, deeming it: “unbalanced, unsustainable, and unwise,” adding his apprehension that were it to be implemented, it would undermine the state’s long-term fiscal stability and essentially guarantee the City of Hartford’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. His veto came as the Governor and top legislators continued bipartisan talks in an attempt to reach a compromise; however, despite legislative attempts to pass a bill to increase the hospital provider tax to 8 percent, a 25 percent increase over the current level, the legislature will not meet today. In his executive order, the Governor allowed key stated services to remain operating; however, he ordered steep cuts to municipalities and certain social service programs: under his orders, approximately 85 communities would see their education cost sharing grants, the biggest source of state funding for public education in Connecticut, cut to zero next month—no doubt a critical element provoking the Connecticut Council of Small Towns, which represents more than 100 of the state’s smallest communities, to seek an override in a special session the week after next in order to avoid local property tax increases. Nevertheless, Gov. Malloy stood strongly against the Republican plan and a potential override, stating: “This budget adopts changes to the state’s pension plan that are both financially and legally unsound…This budget grabs ‘savings’ today on the false promise of change a decade from now, a promise that cannot be made because no legislature can unilaterally bind a future legislature.” He added his apprehensions that the changes proposed to the state’s pension system could expose Connecticut taxpayers to potentially costly litigation down the road: “Prior administrations and legislatures have, over decades, consistently and dangerously underfunded the state’s pension obligations,’’ a strategy, he noted, which he said has led to crippling debt and limited the state’s ability to invest in transportation, education, and other important initiatives. Nonetheless, Republican leaders urged the Governor to sign the two-year, $40.7 billion budget, saying it makes significant structural changes, such as capping the state’s bonding authority and limiting spending. Fiscally conservative Democrats who bolted to the Republican side had criticized a Democratic budget proposal which had proposed new taxes on vacation homes, monthly cellphone bills, and fantasy sports betting, as well as increased taxes on cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, and hotel room rates.

House Republican leader Themis Klarides (R-Derby) warned she and her colleagues will try to override the veto—a steep challenge, as in Connecticut, that requires a two-thirds vote in each chambers, meaning 101 votes in the House and 24 in the Senate. The crucial Republican amendment passed with 78 votes in the House and 21 in the Senate—well short of the override margin in both chambers. The action came as S&P Global Ratings this week lowered Hartford’s credit rating, writing that its opinion “reflects our opinion that a default, a distressed exchange, or redemption appears to be a virtual certainty,” albeit noting that the city could still avoid chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy by restructuring its debts. The agency wrote: “In our view, the potential for a bond restructuring or distressed exchange offering has solidified with the news that both bond insurers are open to supporting such a measure in an effort to head off a bankruptcy filing. Under our criteria, we would consider any distressed offer where the investor receives less value than the promise of the original securities to be tantamount to a default. The mayor’s public statement citing the need to restructure even if the state budget provides necessary short-term funds further supports our view that a restructuring is a virtual certainty.” Hartford’s fiscal plight is, if anything, made more dire by the fiscal crisis of Connecticut, which is still without a budget—and where the Legislature has under consideration a budget proposal from the Governor to slash state aid to the state’s capitol city of Hartford—where the Mayor notes that even were the state to make the payments it owes, Hartford would still be unable to pay its debts—so that S&P dropped the city’s credit rating from B- to C—a four-notch downgrade, writing: “The downgrade to ‘CC’ reflects our opinion that a default, a distressed exchange, or redemption appears to be a virtual certainty.”

The Steep Recovery Road. Almost three years after exiting chapter 9 bankruptcy, Detroit is meeting its plan of debt adjustment, but still confronts fiscal challenges to a full return to the municipal market, even as it nears its exit from Michigan state oversight next year. Detroit’s Deputy Chief Financial Officer and City Finance Director, John Hill, this week noted that while the Motor City recognizes that any debt the city plans to issue will still need a security boost from a quality revenue stream and some enhancement, such as a state intercept, Detroit’s plan of debt adjustment did not assume the need for market access in a traditional and predictable way, without added security layers, for at least a decade. That assessment remains true today, as Detroit nears its third anniversary from its exit from the nation’s largest ever municipal bankruptcy. With chapter 9, Mr. Hill adds: “Everything that we have been able to do since exiting bankruptcy has an attached revenue stream to it: You secure it, and bond lawyers agonize over how that will be protected in the unlikely event of another bankruptcy, because everyone has to ask the question now. Then there is a strong intercept mechanism that goes to a trustee like U.S. Bank where the bondholders now know this is absolutely secure.”

Municipal Market Analytics partner Matt Fabian notes that Detroit continues to struggle with challenges which predate its chapter 9 bankruptcy, adding the city is unlikely to regain an ability to access the traditional municipal markets on its own in the near-to-medium term: “They don’t have traditional reliable access where if they need to go to the market, you can predict with certainty that they will and they will be within a generally predictable spread,” adding that reestablishing its presence in the traditional market is important, because it indicates whether bondholders have confidence in the city as a going concern. In fact, Detroit has adopted balanced budgets for two consecutive years; it is on a fiscal path to exiting Michigan Financial Review Commission oversight, and the city ended FY2016 with a $63 million surplus in its general fund; however, Detroit’s four-year fiscal forecast shows an annual growth rate of only about 1%.

The city’s public pension obligations, mayhap the thorniest issue in cobbling together its plan of debt adjustment, are to be met per its economic plan, via a balloon payment.  Mr. Fabian notes that the Motor City’s recovery plan and future revenue growth is complicated by the need to set aside from surpluses an additional $335 million between Fy2016 and Fy2023 to address that significant, unfunded pension liability, worrying that while the plan is “fiscally responsible;” nevertheless, it comes “at the expense of using these funds for reinvestment and service improvement.”

The plan to address pension obligations is aimed at shoring up the city’s long-term fiscal health and Naglick says it shows the city has recognized the need to tackle it. Detroit developed a long-term funding model with the help of actuarial consultant Cheiron, obtained City Council approval for changes to the pension funding ordinance that established the Retiree Protection Trust Fund, and deposited $105 million into this IRS Section 115 Trust. This fund, said Detriot CFO John Naglick, will grow to over $335 million by 2024 and will provide a buffer to increased contributions beginning then. “More importantly, the growing contributions each year from the general fund to the trust will build budget capacity to make the increased contributions in future years,” he said.

Mayor Mike Duggan claimed during his 2016 State of the City speech that consultants who advised the city through bankruptcy had miscalculated the pension deficit by $490 million. Pension woes aren’t the only challenge the city faces. Fabian said that economic development has been limited to the city’s downtown and midtown areas. The rest of Detroit’s neighborhoods haven’t fared so well.

Dan Loepp, the president and CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, and Gerry Anderson, the Chairman and CEO of DTE Energy, are regarded to be among the important business leaders in Detroit, two key sectors of the Motor City’s economy, who see Detroit’s fiscal and economic trajectory as intertwined with the future of their companies; they  have headquarters in downtown and employ thousands of people including Detroiters—companies which had been making conscious and deliberate investments in the city. Asked recently to offer their perspectives about where Detroit is headed and how to include the many who are left out of the recovery, Mr. Loepp responded: “I’m a native Detroiter, and I lead a company that’s been a business resident of Detroit for nearly 80 years. I remember how uneasy it felt to be in Detroit when the national economy collapsed 10 years ago. It was hard and scary…From then to now, I strongly believe Detroit’s comeback is one of the best stories in America. The downtown is pulsing with growth and action. You’ve got business and residential development that has connected the river to Midtown and is now expanding into neighborhoods.” He added Detroit today is clear of debt and venture capital flowing backed by a city leadership which is “working well together, noting Detroit today is “now positioned to compete and win investment and jobs against any city in the country. All of this is great for Detroit.”

Notwithstanding, he warned that challenges remain: “The bankruptcy, while hard, gave the city’s leadership a clean slate to solve challenges faced by residents. The Mayor and council are working together on issues like lighting, infrastructure, zoning, and demolition…the Mayor, especially, has spent considerable energy advocating for the people of Detroit—doing things like making sure new housing developments hold space for working people of all incomes. This will promote a stronger, more diverse Detroit…Institutional issues, like improving the city’s schools and making neighborhoods safer for city residents, will take time to solve. They will take a constant, steady focus. And they need people within state and local government to work hand-in-hand with people from the neighborhoods to do the tough labor of finding sustainable solutions.” Nevertheless, he cautioned that the Motor City’s recovery is incomplete without participation of the majority: “Detroit can’t truly ‘come back’ if people living in the city are left behind. We need to always make sure there is a focus on people and that we make people a priority. Schools need to be improved. Transit needs to be addressed in a comprehensive way. Employment opportunities and housing need to be part of the master plan.”

Municipal Moral & Fiscal Obligations

07/27/17

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Good Morning! In today’s iBlog, we consider the state & local fiscal challenge fiscal in the event of a moral obligation pledge failure; the ongoing, long-term revival and recovery of Detroit from the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history, and the revitalization fiscal challenges in Atlantic City and Puerto Rico.

A Fiscal Bogie or a Moral Municipal Bond? Buena Vista, Virginia, a small, independent city located in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia with a population of about 6,650, where the issue of its public golf course became an election issue—with the antis winning office and opting not to make the bond payments on the course they opposed—rejecting a moral obligation pledge on what has become a failed economic development project, as the city’s elected leaders chose instead to focus—in the wake of the Great Recession—on essential public services, putting the city in a sub par fiscal situation with Vista Links, which was securing the bonds, according to Virginia state records. The company, unsurprisingly,  has sued to get the monies it was promised—potentially putting at risk the city’s city hall and other municipal properties which had been put up as collateral. Buena Vista City Attorney Brian Kearney discerns this to be an issue of a moral obligation bond, rather than a general obligation municipal bond, so that “[W]e could not continue to do this and continue to do our core functions.” In the wake of the fiscal imbroglio, the Virginia Commission on Local Government (COLG)—which provides an annual fiscal stress study‒ended up playing a key role in the Petersburg effort in the General Assembly—finding that very poor management had led to an $18 million hole.

Here, the municipality’s default triggered negotiations with bond insurer, ACA Financial Guaranty Corp., which led to a forbearance agreement—one on which the city subsequently defaulted—triggering the Commonwealth of Virginia  to bar financing backup to the city from the state’s low-cost municipal borrowing pool, lest such borrowing would adversely impact the pool’s credit rating—and thereby drive up capital borrowing costs for cities and counties all across the state. In this instance, the Virginia Resources Authority refused to allow Buena Vista to participate in the Virginia Pooled Financing Program to refinance $9.25 million of water and sewer obligations to lower debt service costs—lest inclusion of such a borrower from the state’s municipal pool would negatively impact the pool’s offering documents—where some pooled infrastructure bonds, backed by the Commonwealth’s moral obligation pledge, are rated double-A by S&P Global Ratings and Moody’s Investors Service.

Seven years ago, the municipality entered into a five-year forbearance agreement with bond insurer ACA Financial Guaranty Corp.—an agreement which permitted Buena Vista to make 50% of its annual municipal bond payments for five years—an agreement on which Buena Vista defaulted when, two years ago, the City Council voted against inclusion of its FY 2015 budgeted commitment to resume full bond payments. That errant shot triggered UMB Bank NA to file a lawsuit in state court in 2016 in an effort to enforce Buena Vista’s fiscal obligation. In response, the municipality contended the golf course deal was void, because only four of the city’s seven council members had voted on the bond resolution and related agreements—which included selling the city’s interest in its “public places,” arguing that Virginia’s constitution mandates that all seven council members be present to vote on the golf course deal, because the agreement granted a deed of trust lien on city hall, police, and court facilities which were to serve as collateral for the bonds.

Subsequently, last March 22nd, the city filed a motion to dismiss the federal suit for failure to state a claim—a claim on which U.S. District Judge Norman K. Moon held a hearing last Friday—with the municipality arguing that the golf course’s lease-revenue debt is not a general obligation. Therefore, the city appears to be driving at a legal claim it has the right to stop payment on its obligation, asserting: “The city seeks to enforce the express terms of the bonds, under which the city’s obligation to pay rent is subject to annual appropriations by the City Council, and ceases upon a failure of appropriations.” Moreover, pulling another fiscal club from its bag, the city claimed the municipal bonds here are not a debt of the city; rather, the city has told the court that the deed of trust lien for the collateral backing the bonds is void. That is an assertion which ACA, in its motion to dismiss, deemed an improper attempt to litigate the merits of the suit at the pleading stage, noting: “Worse, the city wants this court to rule that the city only has a ‘moral obligation’ to pay its debts, and that [ACA’s] only remedy upon default is to foreclose on a fraction of the collateral pledged by the city and the Public Recreational Facilities Authority of the city of Buena Vista….If adopted, this court will be sending a message to the market that no lender should ever finance public projects in Virginia because municipalities: (a) have unbridled discretion to not repay loans; and (b) can limit the collateral that can be foreclosed upon.” In a statement subsequently, ACA added: “It’s unfortunate that Buena Vista’s elected officials have forced ACA into court after recklessly choosing to have the city default on $9.2 million in debt even though the city has ample funds to make the payments that are owed…This is particularly troubling, because ACA spent years negotiating in good faith after the city claimed financial hardship, and even provided a generous forbearance agreement that reduced payments by 50% starting in 2011…After the city defaulted on that deal in 2014, it offered ACA only pennies on the dollar, while seeking to be absolved of all future burdens of this financing. Left with no reasonable alternative, we must look to the court for an equitable and fair outcome.”

In the nonce, as its legal costs mount, Buena Vista’s access to the municipal credit markets has not only adversely affected its ability to borrow from state financing programs, but also there is growing apprehension there could be implications for other local governments and potentially the Commonwealth of Virginia. Virginia Finance Secretary Ric Brown, when this issue first cropped up, had written previous Buena Vista Mayor Mike Clements: “This ability cannot be jeopardized or put at risk by permitting a defaulting locality to participate in a state pool financing program such as the VPSA: The Commonwealth certainly expects localities to do what is necessary to meet their debt obligations and to protect Virginia localities’ reputation for fiscal discipline.” (Virginia’s Commission on Local Government has revealed that 53% of Virginia’s counties and cities are experiencing above average or high fiscal stress.).

Motor City Recovery. Louis Aguilar of the Detroit News this week reported that Detroit is expected to grow by some 60,000 residents by 2040—growth which would mark the first time Detroit’s population will have increased since the 1950s, according to a study by the Urban Institute, “Southeast Michigan Housing Futures,” which notes that Detroit will finally end its decades-long loss of residents. Xuan Liu, manager of research and data analysis for the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, said the study builds on recent analyses done by SEMCOG, the Michigan Department of Transportation, and the University of Michigan: “It is a reflection of both the improvements we’ve seen in the city and the changing demographic trends.” The report indicates the region’s population base will include a larger percentage of residents over the age of 65 who are more inclined to remain where they are; the population increase in population will be influenced by the continued inflow of young adults and a small but steady rise of the Latino population. The study warns these changes will present major challenges, including the doubling of senior-headed households over the next three decades: by 2040, the study projects these households will make up 37% of the region’s households versus 22% in 2010; it adds that African-American households in the Detroit metro area disproportionately suffered from the effects of the housing crisis:  African-American homeownership rates dropped from a higher than the national average in 1990 and 2000 to be in line with the national average by 2014. Interestingly, it projects that the demand for rental housing is expected to grow throughout the region, with aging households likely comprising the bulk of this net growth as established renter households age—but warning that the region, and Michigan more broadly, lack affordable rental housing for low-income households. Overall, the Metro Detroit region is expected to gain approximately 380,000 households by 2040, according to the study.

For the Motor City, the report found that by 2016, Detroit’s population had slowed to its lowest pace in decades, according U.S. Census data: as of one year ago, Detroit’s population was 672,795, a loss of 3,541 residents—a decline comparable to the previous year: between 2000 to 2010, Detroit was losing more than 23,700 annually, on average, according to the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments; in the first decade of this century, the region lost 372,242 jobs, its population shrank by 137,375; and inflation-adjusted personal income retreated from 13.7% above the U.S. average to 4.8% below in 2010.

A Bridge to Tomorrow? The Detroit City Council this week okayed the $48 million agreement to open the way for the sale of city-owned property and streets in the path of the new Gordie Howe International Bridge to Canada—with the agreement also incorporating provisions to help residents living near the Delray neighborhood where the bridge will be located. Under the pact, the city will sell 36 city-owned parcels of land–land which Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority Director of Communications Mark Butler siad was needed for the Gordie Howe bridge project. Courtesy of Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority noted: “The funding relates to activities in advance of the P3 partner coming on board…As a normal course of business, WDBA, either directly or through the Michigan Department of Transportation, is providing funds to Detroit for property, assets, and services. The city in turn, is using those funds to purchase or swap homes outside of the project footprint, job training etc.” The bridge authority, a Canadian Crown corporation, will manage the Public-Private Partnership procurement process; the authority will also responsible for project oversight, including the actual construction and operation of the new crossing—whilst Canadian taxpayers will be fronting the funding to pay for the deal under an arrangement with the State of Michigan—under which there will be no cost or financial liability to Michigan or to Michigan taxpayers: Canada plans to recoup its money through tolls after the bridge is constructed. The Motor City will sell 36 city-owned parcels of land, underground assets, and approximately 5 miles of city owned streets needed for the bridge project. Under the agreement, the underlying property has been conveyed to the State of Michigan, but Canada is providing the funds. The bridge authority is expected to select a contractor for the project at the end of this year; construction will begin sometime next year.

Is There a Promise of Revitalization? The PROMESA Board this week appointed Noel Zamot to serve as Revitalization Coordinator for the U.S. territory—with Governor Ricardo Rosselló concurring the appointment would benefit Puerto Rico’s ability to compete—a key issue for any meaningful, long-term fiscal recovery. He added: “With over 25 years of experience in the aerospace and defense industry, we are convinced that Mr. Zamot will contribute to our economic development agenda and increase Puerto Rico’s competitiveness.” The federal statute’s Title V provided for such an appointment, a key part to any post chapter 9 plan of debt adjustment. Direct. PROMESA Board Chair José Carrión III noted: “Noel Zamot’s successful career and multifaceted experience interfacing between the government and the private sector in critical defense infrastructure areas will allow him to hit the ground running to foster strategic infrastructure investment expeditiously.” Mr. Zamot noted: “I am honored by this opportunity to serve and give back to Puerto Rico, my birthplace, and contribute to its success…Over more than two decades of professional experience, I have seen firsthand how investments in infrastructure can have a catalyzing effect on economic growth and prosperity.”

New Jersey & You. With major new developments under construction, renewed investor interest, and a slowly diversifying economy, it appears Atlantic City might be moving more swiftly from the red to the black—at a key point in political time, as voters in the city and New Jersey head to the polls next November for statewide and municipal elections—and, potentially, the end of state oversight of the city. Moreover, two new major projects are set to open next year, mayhap setting the stage for the city’s fiscal recovery—but also economic revitalization. Some of the stir relates to the purchase and $500 million renovation of the former Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort—an opening projected to bring thousands of jobs and a strong brand to the city’s famed boardwalk. But mayhap the more promising development will be the completion of the $220 million Atlantic City Gateway project: a 67,500 square foot development which will serve as a new campus for Stockton University, including an academic building and housing for 500 students, and the new South Jersey Gas headquarters: the company believes its cutting-edge headquarters will trigger recruitment and growth, as it is projected to bring 15,000 square feet of new retail to the boardwalk.  

Interestingly, what has bedeviled the city, low land prices‒at their lowest in decades, is now attracting successful developers, who have been buying up buildings: commercial real estate brokers note an uptick in leasing activity since the Gateway project was announced: the promise of jobs, residents, and revenue no longer overwhelmed by the gaming industry appears to be remaking the city’s image and adding to its physical and fiscal turnaround. Bart Blatstein, CEO of Tower Investments, notes: “Of course I see upside. This is what I do for a living. And it’s incredible–the upside in Atlantic City is like nowhere else I’ve seen in my 40-year career. Atlantic City is a great story. It’s got a wonderful new chapter ahead of it.”

Foundering Federalism?

07/12/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the seemingly increasing likelihood of chapter 9 bankruptcy for Connecticut’s capital city, Hartford, before veering south to consider the ongoing fiscal storms in the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico.

Moody Blues. In the latest blow from the capital markets to Connecticut’s capital city, Standard & Poor’s Global Ratings late Tuesday lowered Hartford’s general obligation ratings to junk bond status—with the action coming less than a week after we had reported the city had hired a firm to help it explore options for chapter 9 or other steps involving severe fiscal distress. Moody’s Investors Service had already downgraded Hartford’s bonds to a speculative-grade (Ba2), and it has placed the city on review for yet another downgrade.  S&P’s action appeared to reflect an increased likelihood Connecticut’s capital could default on its debt or seek to renegotiate its obligations to its bondholders, with S&P credit analyst Victor Medeiros noting: “The downgrade to BB reflects our opinion of very weak diminished liquidity, including uncertain access to external liquidity and very weak management conditions as multiple city officials have publicly indicated they are actively considering [municipal] bankruptcy.” The ratings actions occurred as the city continues to seek more state aid and concessions from the city’s unions—even as the state remains enmired in its own efforts to adopt its budget. Mayor Luke Bronin, in an interview yesterday, confirmed the possibility of bond restructuring negotiations. This is all occurring at a key time, with the Governor and legislators still negotiating the state’s budget—on which negotiations for the fiscal year which began at the beginning of this month, remain unresolved. In a statement yesterday, Mayor Bronin noted:  “I have said for months that we cannot and will not take any option off the table, because our goal is to get Hartford on the path to sustainability and strength.” He added that any long-term fiscal solution would “will require every stakeholder—from the State of Connecticut to our unions to our bondholders—to play a significant role,” adding: “Today’s downgrade should send a clear message to our legislature, to labor, and to our bondholders that this is the time to come together to support a true, far-sighted restructuring.”

A key fiscal dilemma for the city is that approximately 51 percent of the property in the city is tax-exempt. While the state provides a payment in lieu of local property taxes (PILOT) for property owned and used by the State of Connecticut (such payment is equal to a percentage of the amount of taxes that would be paid if the property were not exempt from taxation, including 100% for facilities used as a correctional facility, 100% for the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal land taken into trust by federal government on or after June 8, 1999, 100% for any town in which more than 50% of all property in the town is state-owned real property, 65% for the Connecticut Valley Hospital facility, and 45% for all other property; such state payments are made only for real property.  

Unretiring Debt. U.S. Federal Judge Laura Taylor Swain gave the government of Puerto Rico and the Employees Retirement Systems (ERS) bondholders until yesterday to settle their dispute over these creditors’ petition for adequate protection—warning that if a deal was not reached, she would issue her own ruling on the matter—a ruling which could mean setting aside at least $18 million every month in a separate account, albeit Judge Swain noted she was not ready at this time to say whether that would entail adequate protection. Her statement came even as Puerto Rico Governor Ricard Rossello Nevares yesterday stated that, contrary to complaints made by the Chapter of Retirees and Pensioners of the Federation of Teachers, the House Joint Resolution does not represent a “threat,” but rather comes to ensure pension payments to public workers who once served the U.S. Territory, adding, however, that the retirement system as it was known no longer exists, stating it “is over,” in the absence of resources that can ensure long-term pension payments: What we have done is that we have changed from a system where it was a fund to a pay system where what implies is that now the government under the General Fund assumes responsibility for the payment of the pension…That is, the retired do not have to fear, quite the opposite. The measure that we are going to do saves and guarantees the System. If we had not implemented this in the fiscal plan…the retirement system would run out of money in the next few months.” Describing it as a “positive measure for pensioners,” because, absent the action, it was “guaranteed to run out of money,” the Governor spoke in the wake of a demonstration, in front of La Fortaleza, where spokesmen of the Chapter of Retirees and Pensioners of the Federation of Teachers denounced the measure—a measure approved by both legislative bodies and sent to the Executive last month as a substitute retirement system for teachers.

Unsurprisingly, the Puerto Rico government and representatives of labor unions and retirees opposed the ERS bondholders’ request to lift the stay under PROMESA’s Title III. In response to Judge Swain’s query to the bondholders: “If I were to enter a sequestration in the manner you stipulated…What would that do for you?” Jones Day attorney Bruce Bennett responded; “Not enough,” as the ERS bondholders argued they needed adequate protection, because Puerto Rico has not made the requisite employer contributions to the ERS, which guarantee payments of their bonds. In contrast, opponents argued the resolution authorizing the issuance of these bonds was an obligation of Puerto Rico’s retirement system‒not the Commonwealth, and creditors were going beyond contractual rights in forcing the government to make appropriations from the general fund and remit them as employer contributions. An attorney representing the retirement system argued the ERS security interest filings were defective in reference to claims by bondholders that they have a right to receive employer contributions; however, an attorney representing the PROMESA Board countered that just because the collateral to their municipal bonds has been reduced, those bondholders are not entitled to such protection, testifying: “What is the claim worth when you have the GOs saying ‘we get all the money because we are in default.’”

Due to Puerto Rico’s perilous fiscal condition, it currently is making pension payments, for the most part, on a pay-as-you-go basis: public corporations and municipalities are making their employer contributions; however, those contributions are going into a segregated account; in addition, the fiscal plan contemplates making public corporations and municipalities similarly transform to a pay-go pension system—with the Territory supporting its position before Judge Swain by its police power authority.

The State of Puerto Rico’s Municipalities. The Puerto Rico Center for Integrity and Public Policy has reported that Puerto Rico’s municipal government finances deteriorated in FY2016 after improving in the prior two fiscal years. Arnaldo Cruz, a co-founder of the Center, said the cause of the deterioration was likely related to the election year, based on the collection of data and responses from 68 of the territory’s 78 municipios. Mr. Cruz added that the ten non-responders happened to be ones which had received D’s and F’s in past years. The updated study found that 30 municipalities nearly have the muncipios received more than 40% of their general fund revenue from the central government—mayhap presaging fiscal mayhem under the PROMESA Board’s intentions to eliminate such state aid to local governments over the next two fiscal years—i.e,: a cut of some $428 million. Such severe cuts would come even as the study found that more than half the muncipios realized a decrease their net assets last year, and half realized a decrease in their general fund balance—even as 27 municipios allocated more than 15% of their general fund income to debt repayment.

According to the March fiscal plan, Puerto Rico’s municipalities have:

  • $556 million in outstanding bond debt;
  • $1.1 billion in loans to private entities; and
  • Owe $2 billion to Puerto Rico government entities, primarily the Government Development Bank for Puerto Rico.

Mr. Cruz notes a potentially greater fiscal risk is related to Government Development Bank loans, which Puerto Rico’s municipalities continued to receive last year: last month, however, the Puerto Rico Senate approved a bill to allow the municipalities to declare an emergency and declare a moratorium on the payment of their debt. The fate of the effort, however, is uncertain, because the legislation died when the legislature adjourned before House action—mayhap to be taken up next month when they reconvene.

Getting Out of Insolvency & Back on Fiscal Track

eBlog, 04/14/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing recovery of Atlantic City, New Jersey—where the Mayor this week proposed, in his first post-state takeover budget, the first tax cuts in a decade. Then we head west to the Motor City, where the city, as part of its fiscal recovery from the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history is seeking to ensure all its taxpayers pay what they owe, before then veering south to assess the first 100 days of the PROMESA oversight of the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico.

Getting Back on the Fiscal Track. Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian this week presented his proposed $206 million budget to the City Council, which unanimously voted 7-0 to introduce it at a special meeting, and the City has scheduled a public budget hearing for May 17th. In a taste of the fiscal turnaround for the city, the proposed budget includes the first municipal tax decrease in a decade. It also marks the first budget for the city since the State of New Jersey usurped control over Atlantic City’s finances last November. As proposed, it is more than $35 million or 21% less than last year’s and would reduce the municipal tax rate by 5 percent, according to both city and state officials. The city has scheduled a public budget hearing for May 17th.

As proposed, the steepest cut is in public safety—some $8 million, but the draft proposal also seeks cuts in administration costs ($5 million), as well as proposing savings via the privatization of trash pickup, payroll, and vehicle towing services. The smaller budget request is projected to reduce the city’s costs of debt service by $6 million. Unsurprisingly, the proposed tax cuts—the first in nearly a decade, drew the strongest applause: Atlantic City’s municipal tax rate has skyrocketed 96 percent since 2010, a period during which the city’s tax base dropped by nearly 66%. The $206.3 million budget Mayor Guardian presented features $6 million of cuts to debt service at $30.8 million and proposes to allocate $8 million less for public safety.

Mayor Guardian, who is running for his second term as Mayor this fall, said in a statement before presenting the budget that state overseers have played an instrumental role in crafting the new spending plan which features the proposed 5% property tax cut. It could mark a key point in the city’s efforts to regain governance control back from the State of New Jersey—a takeover the Republican mayor had bitterly contested, which took effect last November after New Jersey’s Local Finance Board rejected the city’s five-year recovery plan, or, as the Mayor put it: “From the beginning, I have said that we need to work with the State of New Jersey to stabilize Atlantic City and to reduce the outrageous property taxes that we inherited from years of reckless spending…Even though the entire state takeover was both excessive and unnecessary, the state did play an important role in helping us turn things around.”

For his part, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie praised former U.S. Sen. Jeffrey Chiesa for his role as the state’s designee leading the financial recovery and his contributions in helping to achieve the city’s first property tax cut in a decade. Gov. Christie credited Mr. Chiesa with withstanding union challenges to make firefighter and police cuts, as well as reaching a $72 million settlement with the Borgata casino which is projected to save the city $93 million on $165 million of owed property tax refunds from 2009 to 2015, noting: “As promised, we quickly put Atlantic City on the path to financial stability, with taxpayers and employers reaping the benefits of unprecedented property tax relief with no reduction in services by a more accountable government…I commend Senator Chiesa for leading Atlantic City to turn the corner, holding the line on expenses and making responsible choices to revitalize the city.”

Atlantic City is planning to issue $72 million in municipal bonds to finance the Borgata settlement though New Jersey’s Municipal Qualified Bond Act: the savings from the settlement, brokered by the state, were a key factor in S&P Global Ratings’ upgrade of Atlantic City’s junk-level general obligation bond debt: Atlantic City, which is weighed down by some $224 million in bonded debt, is rated Caa3 by Moody’s Investors Service. State overseer Chiesa noted: “Over the past five months, I have met so many smart, talented, tenacious people who want to see the city succeed. This inspires me every day to tackle the challenges facing the city to ensure that the progress we’ve made continues.”

A key contributor to the improved fiscal outlook appears to come from some of the unilateral contract changes to public safety officials, imposed by Mr. Chiesa, which led to reduced salaries and benefits for police and firefighters, albeit the courts will have the final say so: the unions have sued to block the cuts, arguing the takeover law is unconstitutional. In addition, the state also reach agreement on a $72 million tax settlement with Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa which is projected to save Atlantic City $93 million and essentially put Borgata back on its tax rolls. The casino had withheld property tax payments, but is now paying its part of casino payments in lieu of property taxes, or, as Mr. Chiesa put it: “Real progress is being made in the city, which is great news for the people who live, work and visit Atlantic City.”

Gov. Chris Christie, in his final term in office, praised Mr. Chiesa and jabbed at his political opponents in a statement issued before the City Council meeting, noting: “It took us merely a few months to lower property taxes for the first time in the past decade, when local leaders shamelessly spent beyond their means to satisfy their special political interests,” he said, even as Atlantic City officials described the budget as a collaborative effort with the state. Or, as Mayor Guardian put it: “He’s the governor. He makes those comments…What I think is [that] it’s clear the city moves ahead with the state.” Council President Marty Small, who chairs the Revenue and Finance Committee, said he was “intimately involved” in the budget process, describing it as a “win-win-win for everybody, particularly the taxpayers.”

Don’t Tax Me: Get the Feller behind the Tree! Getting citizens to pay their taxes is a problem everywhere, of course, but Detroit had a particularly hard time going after scofflaws because budget cuts decimated its ability to enforce the law. Even the citizens and businesses who paid up created logistical havoc for beleaguered city bureaucrats. Part of the reason, it seems, is that in Detroit, the only way to file taxes has been on paper. While that might be merely an irritation for taxpayers, it has been a nightmare for the city’s revenuers, who must devote endless hours typing data into computer systems. It appears also to have led to some innovation: last year the Motor City opted to send out more than 7,000 mailings to deadbeat tax filers, that is taxpayers who were still delinquent on their 2014 taxes; the city suspected each delinquent owed at least $350; ergo it randomly selected some taxpayers to receive one of six different letters, each with a different message in a black box on the mailing: One such message appealed to residents’ civic pride: “Detroit’s rising is at hand. The collection of taxes is essential to our success.” Another simply made clear that Detroit’s revenue department had detailed information on the deadbeats: “Our records indicate you had a federal income of $X for tax year 2014.” (Detroit is somewhat unique in that it has an income tax under which residents owe 2.4 percent of their incomes to the city, after a $600 exemption. Nonresidents who work in Detroit pay a rate of 1.2 percent.) Another message made a bold declaration: “Failure to file a tax return is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of $500 and 90 days in jail.”

It seems that threats have proven more effective than cajoling: More than 10 percent of taxpayers responded to the letter mentioning a fine and jail time, some 300% greater than the response rate to the city’s basic control letter. This revenue experiment was overseen by Ben Meiselman, a graduate student at the University of Michigan’s economics department, who manned a desk in Detroit’s tax office to run the experiment. He wrote the messages included in the mailings to reflect behavioral economics research, noting: “I find that a single sentence, strategically placed in mailings to attract attention, can have an economically meaningful impact on tax filing behavior,” in his working paper, “Ghostbusting in Detroit: Evidence on Non-filers from a Controlled Field Experiment,” which he intends to eventually become a chapter in his doctoral dissertation. And it turns out that providing details of a taxpayer’s income boosted the response rate by 63 percent, even as a letter from the city which combined a threat with income information was less effective than a threat by itself. Or, as one city official noted: “Keeping it simple seems to be the key,” especially as city officials learned that appeals to civic pride fell flat: the response rate was just 0.8 percentage points higher than that of a basic letter. Nevertheless, the city still confronts a long uphill fiscal cliff, even if it manages to apply the results of the experiment and triple the response rate from tax delinquents: according to the IRS, approximately six percent of U.S. taxpayers break the law by not filing with the Service each year, but, in Detroit, Mr. Meiselman estimated that some 46 percent of taxpayers had not submitted their 2014 returns by the due date in the following year—and that the return rate was getting worse.

Thus, Detroit’s next step was to back up threats with action—mayhap especially because there appears to have been little enforcement for the past decade: Detroit had not undertaken an audit or tax investigation in more than a decade. One outcome of insolvency and municipal bankruptcy, it appears, can hit hard: Detroit’s tax office, which once had a staff of about 70, is today about half that: it is a department which was recently reorganized, in the wake of last year’s takeover by the state of Michigan, a takeover intended to free up city employees to collect unpaid income taxes. The city also eased such filings by permitting them to be submitted electronically for the first time. And, wow!: 77 percent of filers took advantage. Detroit has sent out 15,000 letters since July 2016 and has collected $5.3 million through letters, audits, and investigations. And some of the amounts collected are significant, particularly for those who have juked, dodged, and evaded paying taxes for years: in one instance, a taxpayer agreed to pay $400,000. Detroit also began filing misdemeanor charges and lawsuits in small claims court to get its tax revenues, especially after learning that only one in five residents in several high-end apartments buildings had filed income taxes, helping to persuade a judge to issue an order requiring landlords to turn over tenant information.

These various steps appears to be helping: The number of residents filing tax returns more than doubled last year from the previous year; filings by non-residents increased by more than a third. City returns from 2016 are due, along with state and federal returns, by next Tuesday—the same deadline as applies to all readers of this eBlog, and, this year, Detroit officials are optimistic—or, as one wag put it: In the past, “people knew we weren’t coming after them…Now we are following up on those threats.”

The Promise or PROMESA of the First 100 Days. The PROMESA oversight board, provided by the Congress with authority over the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, has now surpassed its first one hundred days, created a juxtaposed governance challenge, especially for Governor Rosselló: how can he make sure that the framework set up during this period of quasi dual governance provides for the change Puerto Rico needs? How can he gain the approval of the Board for a long-term fiscal plan as the main achievement of his incipient administration? To prevail, it appears, he will have to convince the Oversight Board that his proposed budgets are based on real possibilities of revenues and that such estimates are free of dependence on loans and that he will conduct the restructuring of Puerto Rico’s public debt on favorable terms, and that he will take the key role in the reconstruction of the government apparatus to higher levels of service, efficiency, participation, and transparency. And, now, there appears to be some evidence that he is achieving progress. Puerto Rico’s statute on permits is intended address a serial inefficiency with regard to the “absurd and abusive terms” to obtain permits, delays which have hindered and discouraged the generation of new economic activity. The effort to provide for the progressive elimination of the costly redundancy in programs and services via the consolidation of agencies, with security first, appear to be key steps in achieving changes to restore financial health. Moreover, the creation of a spending budget 10 per cent below the current one appears to mark an important step in the goal of reasserting self-governance.

Nevertheless, the fiscal and governance challenges of recovering from fiscal insolvency can be beset from any angle: note, for instance, Judge Lauracelis Roques Arroyo has revived an “audit” of Puerto Rico’s debt and reversed Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s attempt to dismantle the debt audit commission. (Judge Roques Arroyo is a member of the Carolina Region of the Puerto Rico Superior Court.) And, thus, he has ruled that Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s attempt to dismantle a commission auditing Puerto Rico’s debt was illegal. The statute in question, law 97 of 2015, created the Puerto Rico Commission for the Comprehensive Audit of the Public Credit. The commission aimed to find Puerto Rico debt which was legally invalid. The commission’s first report in June of last year had reviewed documents connected with the Commonwealth’s $3.5 billion general obligation bond and $1.2 billion tax and revenue anticipation note, both sold in 2014. In this report, the Commission had raised doubts with regard to the legality of much of Puerto Rico’s bond debt. Late last September, the commission questioned the legality of the series 2013A power revenue bonds from the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), raising concerns with regard to the behavior of Morgan Stanley, Ernst &Young, and URS Corp. in the municipal bond sale and the period leading up to it. In early October, possibly in response to the commission’s work, the SEC commenced an investigation of PREPA’s 2012 and 2013 bonds. Ergo, Judge Arroyo’s order late last week returned three public interest members to the board, according to attorney Manuel Rodriguez Banchs; the order provided that the Governor has no authority to intervene with the commission: it said that the dismissal of the public interest members was illegal. The board has $650,000 in its account right now, according to board member Roberto Pagán, e.g. adequate to do a substantial amount of additional work. Gov. Rosselló, thus, is considering how to react to the judge’s order, according to the El Vocero news website.

The Challenge of Recovering from or Averting Municipal Bankrupty

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eBlog, 03/28/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing recovery in Detroit from the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, before spinning the tables in Atlantic City, where the state takeover of the city has been expensive—and where the state’s own credit rating has been found wanting.

Home Team? A Detroit developer, an organization, Dominic Rand, has initiated a project “Home Team,” seeking to purchase up to up 25 square miles of property on the Motor City’s northwest side with a goal of keeping neighborhoods occupied by avoiding foreclosures and offering renters a path to homeownership. Nearly four years after the city’s chapter 9 filing for what former Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr deemed “the Olympics of restructuring,” to ensure continuity of essential services while developing a plan of debt adjustment to restructure the city’s finances—and to try to address the nearly 40 percent population decline and related abandonment of an estimated 40,000 abandoned lots and structures, as well as the loss of 67 percent of its business establishments and 80 percent of its manufacturing base, Mr. Rand reports he is excited about this initiative by an organization for purchases of homes slated for this year’s annual county tax foreclosure auction. His effort is intended to rehabilitate the homes and help tenants become homeowners. The effort seeks to end the cycle of home foreclosures due to unpaid property taxes. 

This is not the first such effort, however, so whether it will succeed or not is open to question. Officials at the United Community Housing Coalition note that previous such initiatives have failed, remembering Paramount Mortgage’s comparable effort, when the company purchased 2,000 properties, in part financed through $10 million from the Detroit police and fire pension fund—an effort which failed and, in its wake, left 90 percent of those in demolition status. Fox 2 reported that the City “does not support this proposal,” questioning its “ability to deliver on such a massive scale with no particular track record to indicate they would be successful,” adding the organization, if it wants to “start out by becoming a community partner through Detroit Land Bank and show what they can do with up to nine properties, they are welcome to do so.”

At first, the Home Team Detroit development group considered purchasing every property in Detroit subject to this year’s annual county tax foreclosure auction; instead, however, the group focused on the northwest quadrant covering 25 square miles and 24 neighborhoods—an area larger than Manhattan—with founder David Prentice noting: our “game plan is pretty simple: You are going to have a quadrant of (Detroit) with properties that are primarily occupied.” Mr. Prentice believes this initiative would address what he believes is one of Detroit’s biggest problems: halting the hemorrhaging of home foreclosures due to unpaid property taxes—an initiative one Detroit City Council member told the Detroit News was “unique and comprehensive.” Thus, city officials are reviewing the entity’s proposal—even as it reminds us of the Motor City’s ongoing home ownership challenge—a city where, still, more than 11,000 homes a year have ended in foreclosure over each of the last four years. Under the city’s process, the city warns property owners in January if their properties are at risk of tax foreclosure: as of last January, the Home Team group reports its targeted area has 11,073 properties headed for foreclosure.

Home Team is seeking approval from Detroit to purchase the properties via a “right of first refusal,” under which Mayor Mike Duggan and the Detroit City Council would have to approve the sale—and Wayne County and the State of Michigan would at least have to agree to not buy them as well, since both also have the option to buy the properties prior to such public auctions. Home Team claims it has the resources and expertise to buy the properties, rehab the homes, find new residents, and allow it to work with people traditional lenders would not consider due to poor credit ratings or because of the locations of the properties. The group claims its land contract system, or contracts for deeds, under which tenants make payments directly to the property owner and often have no ownership stake until the entire debt is paid, would work as an alternative to traditional mortgages—even as housing advocate groups such as the United Community Housing Coalition warn that land contracts are financial traps, and the nonprofit Michigan Legal Services told the Detroit News that many land contract deals are “gaming the system,” referencing a recent Detroit News story about many residents with land contracts losing out on actually getting a home—and others warning that those families sign contracts may end up owing significantly more than they would by renting, yet, at the end of such transactions, “have nothing to show for it.” (In recent years, the News reports, land contracts have outnumbered traditional mortgages in Detroit.) Mr. Prentice, while agreeing that “most land contracts are designed for the tenants to fail,” suggested his company’s land contracts would come without the high penalties, high monthly payments—payments which increase in time, and rising interest rates which have trapped unwary families in the past—and, he has vowed the company would fix up every property before putting it back on the market.

Detroit City Councilman George Cushingberry, who represents a major portion of the targeted area, told the News: “I like that it’s comprehensive and takes into account that one of the issues that prevents home ownership is financial literacy.” Yet, the ambitious proposal has also encountered neighborhood opposition: the Northwest Detroit Neighborhood Coalition has launched a petition drive to block the plan—and drawn support from eight neighborhood groups, with the Coalition issuing a statement: “We the people of northwest Detroit hereby declare our strong opposition to high-volume purchases of tax-foreclosed properties (10+ parcels) and other high-volume transfers of properties to real estate investors…Proposals like the one currently being circulated by (Home Team Detroit) do not serve the needs or interests of Detroit neighborhood residents. These bulk purchases only accelerate vacancy, blight, and further erosion of our community.” However, Melvin “Butch” Hollowell, Detroit’s Corporation Counsel, said the city opposes the effort, which would require the city to authorize a purchase agreement for the properties, noting: “The city does not support this proposal: We have a number of serious concerns, especially Home Team Detroit’s ability to deliver on such a massive scale with no particular track record to suggest they would be successful. If they want to start out by becoming a community partner through the Detroit Land Bank (Authority) and show what they can do with up to nine properties, they are welcome to do so and go from there.”

Robbery or the Cost of Municipal Fiscal Distress? The law firm of Jeffrey Chiesa, whom New Jersey Governor Chris Christie named to oversee the state takeover of Atlantic City, has billed the State of New Jersey about $287,000 for its work so far, according to multiple reports, including some $80,000 alone for Mr. Chiesa. The fiscal information came in the wake of the release by the state of invoices that showed the law firm submitted more than $207,000 in bills for the first three months of work, November through January—with some twenty-two members of the firm billing the state. In addition, Mr. Chiesa, who bills the State $400-an-hour for his time, reports he himself has billed $80,000 over that same period, noting to the Press those invoices were not included in the state’s data released last Friday, because they have yet to be fully reviewed. He added that the state has imposed “no cap” on the fees his firm may charge—leading State Assemblyman Chris A. Brown (R-Atlantic), who has been critical of the takeover, to note: “The governor handing over the city to a political insider without a transparent plan is like leaving your home without locking the door, and it looks like we just got robbed.”  The release of the data could not have come with more awkward timing, with the figures aired approximately a week after Mr. Chiesa wrote to Atlantic City police officers announcing the state was seeking to cut salaries, change benefits, and introduce longer shifts to save the city money—and as the state is calling for similar cuts and 100 layoffs in the city’s fire department—efforts in response to which Atlantic City’s police and fire unions have filed suit to prevent, with a judge last week ruling the state cannot yet move forward with the fire layoffs until he determines whether the state proposal is constitutional—even as Mr. Chiesa has defended the cuts, calling negotiations with the unions “money grabs.” For his part, at the end of last week, Mr. Chiesa defended his bills, claiming his firm helped negotiate a $72 million settlement with the Borgata casino in a long-running tax dispute with the city, gaining more than a 50 percent savings to the city from the refund it owed in the wake of tax appeals, deeming that an “important success on behalf of the city.”

Nevertheless, as S&P Global Ratings noted last week in upgrading Atlantic City’s credit rating from “CC” to “CCC,” despite assistance from the state, there is still the distinct possibility the city could still default on its debt over the next year and that filing for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy remains an option down the line.  Nevertheless, S&P analyst Timothy Little wrote that the upgrade reflected S&P’s opinion that “the near-term likelihood” of Atlantic City defaulting on its debt has “diminished” because of the state takeover and the state’s role in brokering the Borgata Casino agreement—an upgrade which a spokesperson for the Governor described as “early signs our efforts are working, that we will successfully revitalize the Atlantic City and restore the luster of this jewel in the crown.”  However, despite the upgrade, Atlantic City still remains junk-rate, and S&P reported the city’s recovery remains “tenuous:” It has a debt payment of $675,000 due on April Fool’s Day, $1.6 million on May Day, $1.5 million on June 1st, and another $3.5 million on August 1st—all payments which S&P believes will be made on time and in full, albeit warning that more substantial debts will come due later in the year, meaning, according to S&P, that the city’s recovery remains “tenuous,” and that Atlantic City is unlikely “to have the capacity to meet its financial commitment…and that there is at least a one-in-two likelihood” of a default in the next year.” Or, as Mr. Little wrote: “Despite the state’s increased intervention, [municipal] bankruptcy remains an option for the city and, in our opinion, a consideration if timely and adequate gains are not made to improve the city’s structural imbalance.”

 

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.