The Precipitous Chapter 9 Road to Recovery

January 3, 2018

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s Blog, we consider the fiscal, scholastic, and governing challenges of the city emerging from the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

The Steep Fiscal Road to Recovery.  After years of failed leadership, financial mismanagement, quasi-chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy which led to a state takeover; the state of Detroit’s Public Schools Community District remains vital to encouraging young families to move back into the city—especially in the wake, last month, of DPS failing to meet critical deadlines necessary to be eligible for vital state aid.  (In 2016, Michigan enacted a $617 million DPS bailout, as we have previously noted.) That action separated the district’s debt from a new district that could start fresh. Now, renewed state intervention would be a critical fiscal step backwards; thus it is fortunate that Superintendent Nikolai Vitti appears to be on top of the situation: he warns that disciplinary action will follow in the wake of DPS’ failure to meet these deadlines, making it critical the Superintendent can trust his staff. It is especially vital now in the wake of a second credit rating upgrade—with the report card having recorded, last month, that DPS that Detroit Public Schools had lost out on $6.5 million in fiscal assistance to whittle down its old debt, because DPS officials had failed to turn in paperwork homework on time, according to Superindent Vitti (Michigan reimburses its public school districts for debt loss under Public Act 86 if they met the Aug. 15 deadline; thus, Superindent Vitte, on Monday, reported: “At this point, Detroit Public Schools is not eligible for the $6.5 million-dollar reimbursement from the state…After speaking with state officials, the available funds have already been disbursed to other qualifying entities. However, we will continue to petition the state to receive the reimbursement.”

Under the agreement, Detroit’s old district is still obligated to pay down its past operating debt; thus, the system’s failure to meet two deadlines last year cost not $6.5 million in aid from the state to help pay down its debt, but also a loss of public trust and confidence. As Superintendent Vitte noted last month: “At this point, Detroit Public Schools is not eligible for the $6.5 million-dollar reimbursement from the state: After speaking with state officials, the available funds have already been disbursed to other qualifying entities.” According to Superintendent Vitti, former CFO Marios Demetriou received the documents, but never completed them or sent them to the state. Even though the missed payout from the state is not expected to harm the day-to-day operations of the new district, it appears to curry a D grade; more importantly, it delays repayment of DPS’ legacy debt—or, as Superintendent Vitti notes: it is “unacceptable….The inability to submit the reimbursement form on time is a vestige of the past that continues to haunt the district…This is directly associated with the need for stronger leaders, systems, and processes. The individuals who were closest to the responsibility to submit the form will no longer be with the district.”

The unscholarly missteps appear to have contributed to ongoing doubts about the city’s fiscal acumen: The Motor City’s credit ratings remain deep in junk-bond territory, even after S&P Global Ratings last month upgraded Detroit’s credit rating from B to B+, while Moody’s last October had lifted its to B1 in the wake of the city’s launch of a new web portal to improve investor access to its financial data and bond offerings, Stephen Winterstein, a Managing Director and chief municipal fixed income strategist at Wilmington Trust Investment Advisors, Inc. to note he was “really optimistic about what they have been doing in terms of disclosure and the investor website is definitely a move in the right direction: The road to recovery is a long one, and I think that Detroit is doing the right things.”

Since exiting from the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in American history just three years ago last month, Detroit has issued debt twice: in August 2015 with $245 million of local government loan program revenue bonds, and in August 2016 with a $615 million general obligation/distributable state aid backed bond sale—albeit both issuances were via the Michigan Finance Authority, with the first enhanced with a statutory lien and intercept feature on the city’s income taxes. CFO John Naglick said that Detroit is also close to deciding on the underwriting team for a request for proposals it launched in October to find banks to lead a tender offer and refunding of its unsecured financial recovery municipal bonds with the aim of lowering its costs and easing a future escalation of debt service. For its part, S&P, in its upgrade, cited positive momentum the city is building with regard to stabilizing its operations and being better prepared to address future significant increases in pension contributions—or, as the agency noted: “We believe the city’s financial position is now more transparent compared with recent years, as is Detroit’s long-term financial strategy, which relies on fairly conservative growth assumptions…We also believe that the city has a stronger capacity to service its debt obligations than in years past.” Indeed, Detroit’s credit ratings are the highest since March of 2012, just over a year before Kevin Orr filed for chapter 9 bankruptcy in July of 2013. Nevertheless, Detroit’s credit rating remains deep in junk territory and vulnerable to another recession, say market participants. Or, as Michigan Attorney General and gubernatorial Bill Scheutte notes: “We still believe Detroit faces a long path that will require years of prudent decision-making from management and the avoidance of major economic shocks before its debt makes sense for investors looking for high-quality municipal exposure…The city still has an abundance of extremely high-risk characteristics and speculative-grade qualities that investors should be very cognizant of and understand what they are taking on.” Notwithstanding, Detroit appears to be on course to exit state oversight this year: it has presented deficit-free budgets for two consecutive years, enabling it to exit from oversight by the Financial Review Commission oversight; it ended FY2016 with a $63 million surplus; Detroit’s four-year forecast predicts an anemic annual growth rate of only about 1%; thus, any adverse public school news could have repercussions.

 

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Governing under Takeovers

December 19, 2017

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s Blog, we consider the fiscal and governing challenges of a city emerging from a quasi-state takeover—and report on continuing, discouraging blocks to Puerto Rico’s fiscal recovery.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

The Steep Fiscal Road to Recovery.  The Hartford City Council last week forwarded Mayor Luke Bronin’s request for Tier III state monitoring under the new Municipal Accountability Review Board, the state Board established by §367 of Public Act 17-2  as a State Board  for the purpose of providing technical, financial and other assistance and related accountability for municipalities experiencing various levels of fiscal distress. That board, which met for the first time on December 8th, now could be the key for Hartford to avoid filing for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy: the Board, chaired by State Treasurer Denise Nappier and Budget Director Benjamin Barnes, is to oversee the city’s budgeting, contracts, and municipal bond transactions. The Council also passed a bond resolution to permit the city to refund all of its outstanding debt obligations. In addition, the Council approved new labor contracts with the City of Hartford Professional Employees Association and the Hartford Police Union that management projects will save Hartford more than $18 million over five years. According to Mayor Bronin, the police labor contract could save the city nearly $2 million this fiscal year; moreover, it calls for long-term structural changes, or, in the Mayor’s words, the agreement “represents another big step toward our goal of fiscal stability,” adding that the employee contracts and state aid were essential to keeping the 123,000-population city out of Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy—even as Mayor Bronin is also seeking concessions from bondholders. (Insurers Assured Guaranty and Build America Mutual wrap approximately 80% of the city’s outstanding municipal bonds.)

In its new report, “Hartford Weaknesses Not Common,” Fitch Ratings noted that Hartford appears to be fiscally unique in that other Connecticut cities are unlikely to face similar problems, after the company assessed the fiscal outlook of several cities, including Bridgeport, New Haven, and Waterbury—finding that while these municipalities have comparable demographics and fiscal challenges, none is as fiscally in trouble, noting the city’s “rapid run-up” of outstanding debt and unfunded pension liabilities as issues that set it apart from nearby municipalities. Indeed, Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin has threatened the state’s capitol city may file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection—a threat which likely assisted in the city’s receipt of an additional $48 million in aid from Connecticut’s FY2018 budget, as well as two recently settled contracts with two labor unions. In addition, Fitch pointed to Hartford’s fiscal reliance on one-time revenue sources, such as the sale of parking garages and other assets, as well as the city’s inability to obtain “significant” union givebacks as factors that augured fiscal challenges compared to other cities in the state which Fitch noted have “substantial flexibility and sound reserves.” Moreover, despite Mayor Luke Bronin’s pressure for labor concessions, only two of the city’s unions have agreed to new contracts—contracts which include pay freezes and other givebacks, albeit two other unions have agreed to pacts offering significant concessions. These changes have enabled Hartford to draw back from the brink of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, but still left the city confronting a $65 million deficit this year, and dramatically in debt and facing public pension payment increases—potentially driving Hartford’s annual debt contribution to over $60 million annually—even as it imposes the highest tax rate of any municipality in the state, especially because of its unenviable inability to levy property taxes on more than half the acreage in the city—a city dominated by state office buildings and other tax-exempt properties. These fiscal precipices and challenges have forced the city to prepare to apply for state oversight and begin a restructuring of Hartford’s $600 million in outstanding debt—a stark contrast with the state’s other municipalities, which, as Fitch noted, have achieved greater success in gaining labor concessions, even as they less reliant on state assistance, according to Fitch: “Unlike Hartford, most Connecticut cities have substantial budget flexibility and sound reserves.” In some contrast, Standard & Poor Global Ratings appeared to be in a more generous giving, seasonal spirit: the agency lifted its long-term rating on Hartford’s general obligation bonds to CCC from CC, and removed the ratings from credit watch with negative implications, reflecting its perspective that Hartford’s bond debt is “vulnerable to nonpayment because a default, a distressed exchange, or redemption remains possible without a positive development and potentially favorable business, financial, or economic conditions,” according to S&P analyst Victor Medeiros, who, nevertheless, noted that S&P could either raise or lower its rating on Hartford over the next year, depending on the city’s ability to refinance its outstanding debt, and realize any contract assistance support from the state. Thus, it has been unsurprising that Mayor Bronin has been insisting that bondholder concessions are essential to the city’s recovery.

Fitch made another key observation: many Connecticut local governments lack the same practical revenue constraints as Hartford due to stronger demographics, less reliance on state aid, and lower property tax rates. (Hartford’s mill rate is by far the state’s highest at 74.29.), noting: “In a state with an abundance of high-wealth cities and towns, Hartford continues to be challenged by poverty and blight,” contrasting the city with New Haven, Waterbury, Bridgeport, and New Britain‒all of which Fitch noted had successfully negotiated union concession on healthcare and pension-related costs, so that, as Fitch Director Kevin Dolan noted: “Their ability to raise revenues is not as constrained as Hartford’s and their overall expenditure flexibility is stronger.” said Fitch director Kevin Dolan. (Fitch rates New Haven and New Britain with A-minuses, and A and AA-minus respectively to Bridgeport and Waterbury.) State Senator L. Scott Frantz (R-Greenwich) noted: “I hate to say it, but it’s gotten so desperate in so many cases with the municipalities that they really need to be able to have the power go in there and open up contracts–not maybe not even renegotiate them–and just set the terms for the next three to five years, or longer, to make sure that each one of these cities is back on a sustainable track: The costs are smothering them, and their revenue situation has gotten worse, because people don’t necessary want to live in those cities as they start to deteriorate even further.”

Fiscal & Physical Storm Recovery. Just as on the mainland, municipalities in Puerto Rico assumed the first responder responsibilities in Puerto Rico in reaction to Hurricane Maria; however, the storm revealed the many challenges and obstacles faced—and ongoing—for Mayors (Alcaldes) to meet the needs of their people—including laws or decrees which limit their powers or scope of authority, state economic responsibilities which reduce their economic resources, and legislation which fails to recognize inadequate municipal fiscal resources and capacity. Thus, in the wake of the fiscal and physical devastation, Puerto Rico Senator Thomas Rivera Schatz, the fourteenth and sixteenth President of the Senate of Puerto Rico, is leading efforts to grant some mayors a greater degree of independence to operate and manage the finances of municipalities. He is proposing, effectively, to elevate municipal autonomy to a constitutional rank—a level which he believes should have been granted to City Councils by law, noting that with such a change, municipios “would not have to wait, as they had to wait, for federal and state agencies to handle issues that no one better than they would have handled. They would have the faculty, the responsibility, and the resources to do so…In emergencies, something that cannot be lost is time. Then and before the circumstances that the communications from the capital to the municipalities were practically zero, that shows you that, at a local level, they must have the faculty, the tools, and the resources.”

The Senate President’s proposal arose during exchanges between the Senate and Mayors, conversations which have resulted previously in a series of legislative measures, in what the Senate leader acknowledged to be a complex process, but a track which the Senator stated would, after consultation, be the result of consensus with Mayors of both political parties—providing via the Law of Autonomous Municipalities, “Puerto Rico’s municipalities a scope of action free of interference on the part of the State, even as it reformed a structure of government, to be efficient in collections.” (To date, 12 of Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities have achieved the highest level of hierarchy granted by the Autonomous Municipalities Law.)

In a sense, not so different from the state/local strains in the 50 states, one of the greatest complaints by Puerto Rico’s Mayors has been over the economic burdens—or unfunded mandates—Puerto Rico has imposed on the municipios, as well as the decrees which establish contracts with foreign companies and grant them tax benefits, exemptions, and incentives—all state actions taken without municipal consultation—thereby, enabling businesses to avoid the payment of patents and municipal taxes, and undermining municipal collections—or, as the Senate President put it: “The reality of the case is that, for 12 to 16 years, governments have been legislating to nourish the State with economic resources.”  Currently, Puerto Rico’s municipalities contribute $116 million for the redemption of state debt, another $ 160 million for Puerto Rico’s Retirement System, and an additional $ 169 million to subsidize the Government Health Plan. Again, as the Senator noted: “If there are municipal governments that have a structure capable of raising their finances, of providing their services…the State does not have to intervene with them, taxing their resources.” Sen. Schatz noted that his proposal does not include eliminating municipalities; he confirmed that the governing challenge is to realize a “model” of interaction between the municipalities and the state—and that “the citizen has in his municipal environment everything he needs to be able to live happily and have quality of life. The end of the road is that. If it’s called county, province, or whatever you want to call it; the name does not do the thing, it’s the concept.” He asserted he was not proposing to “reward” municipalities, but rather to focus on establishing collaboration agreements through which there could be shared administrative tasks—in a way to not only achieve efficiencies, but also provide greater authority and ability for Puerto Rico’s municipalities to access funds free of intermediaries, noting: “The mayors did an exceptional job (during the emergency), and, practically without resources, had to come to the rescue of their citizens, open access, help sick people, cause the distribution of supplies with logic and speed…the passage of hurricanes rules out the idea of ​​eliminating municipalities.”

Thus, he affirmed that those municipalities which have achieved the maximum hierarchy of autonomy would have total independence, while the other municipalities would remain subject to the actions of the Puerto Rican government until they manage to establish fiscal sustainability—all as part of what he was outlining as a path to greater municipal autonomy, arguing that each of these changes implied the island’s municipalities need to make fiscal and governing adjustments: they have to watch over their finances and make sure they have the resources to meet their payroll, even as he acknowledged that repairing the finances in battered municipalities economically will take time, and said that, for this, the project will include some scales and grace periods to attain that fiscal solvency, noting: “The legislation we can approve, but, to get to the point where we would like to be, it will take years.”

For the president of the Association of Mayors, Rolando Ortiz, who has served as the Mayor of Cayey for a decade, after previously serving as Member of the Puerto Rico House of Representatives from 1993 to 1997, and being reelected in 2012 with 73.29% of the votes–the largest margin of victory for any mayor in that election, the assistance provided by the municipalities to the central government to face the crisis that the country is going through is the best way to see the urgency of empowering the municipalities via this legislation—or, as he put it: “If it were not for the municipalities, I assure you that the crisis would be monumental. We have been patrolling rural roads to ensure there are no trees on the road that impede the mobility of the family.” Mayor Ortiz agreed that the proposal includes hierarchy levels, so that municipal executives comply with minimum responsibilities and mandates which allow them to reach the maximum level: “It can be a strategy to prioritize the process from the perspective of land management, but it cannot take as an only category the element of the organization of the territory, but also the efficiency in public performance, economic capacity, efficiency in the service,” adding he has not heard “any Mayor in opposition to that proposal.” His colleague, Bayamón Mayor Ramón Luis Rivera Cruz, was more reserved when addressing the issue. Although he had no objections to the establishment of the project or to what has been proposed, he indicated that there were other mechanisms to prevent state governments from harming the municipalities that reached the maximum level of hierarchy—as well as other issues which must be addressed, such as the limitation on the collection of patents and the contribution on property. 

Senate President Rivera Schatz indicated the Senate is working on several amendments to the Autonomous Municipalities Law, and that some have already been established or approved, as a preamble to what will be the final project, noting: “We are going to discuss it with all the municipal governments to achieve a consensus project of what the procedure and the route will be.”

In response to a query whether the PROMESA Board could interfere, he noted that every government operation has a fiscal impact, so that he was seeking to create a positive: “It proposes efficiency, capacity to generate more collections, so who could oppose that?” Maybe, the Board. To me, honestly, I do not care in the least what anyone on the Board thinks.” Asked what would happen if the PROMESA Board proposed for the elimination of municipalities, he noted that the Board can say what they want and express what they want, but they will not eliminate municipal governments, they will not achieve it, because in Puerto Rico that would be untenable.

Unreform? Even as Puerto Rico’s state and local leaders are grappling with fiscal governance issues and recovering from the massive hurricane with far less fiscal and physical assistance than the federal government provided to Houston and Florida, there are growing apprehensions about disparities in the final tax “reform” legislation scheduled for a vote as early as today in the U.S. House of Representatives—concerns that the legislation might impose a new tax on Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories, with non-voting Rep. Jennifer González Colón (Puerto Rico) expressing apprehension that bill will impose a 12.5% tax on intangible property imported from foreign countries—and that, under the legislation, Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories would be treated as foreign countries. El Vocero, last Friday, on its news website reported that Rep. González Colón (R-P.R.) said the planned tax bill treated Puerto Rico like a colony: the taxed intangible assets would include items such trademarks and patents generated abroad, tweeting that “The tax reform benefits domestic, not foreign companies…While we are a colony, there will be more legislation like this passed…Unfair taxes show a lack of commitment and consistency from leadership in Congress; showing true hypocrisy.” The Federal Affairs Administration of Puerto Rico last Friday released a statement calling for the tax bill to be changed and for additional aid to recover from Hurricane Maria, noting the conference report could “destroy 75,000 jobs and wipe out a third of [Puerto Rico’s] tax base.” Howard Cure, director of municipal bond research at Evercore, noted that for Puerto Rico, still trying to recover from Hurricane Maria, and with a 10.6% unemployment rate: “Obviously, any tax law change that makes Puerto Rico less competitive for certain industries to expand or remain on the island is a negative for bondholders who really need the economy to stabilize and grow in order to help in their debt recovery.” Similarly, Cumberland Advisors portfolio manager and analyst Shawn Burgess said: “My understanding is that this would impact foreign corporations operating on the island and not necessarily U.S. companies. However, it is a travesty for Congress to treat Puerto Rico as essentially a foreign entity at a time when they need all the assistance they can get. Those are U.S. citizens and deserve to be treated as equals…Leave it to Congress to shoot themselves in the foot: They had voiced their support for helping the commonwealth financially, and they hit them with tax reform terms that could be a detriment to their long-term economic health.” Similarly, Ted Hampton of Moody’s noted: “In view of Puerto Rico’s economic fragility, which was exacerbated by Hurricane Maria, new federal taxes on businesses there would only serve as additional barriers potentially blocking path to recovery. In creating the [PROMESA] oversight board, the federal government declared its intention to restore economic growth in Puerto Rico. New taxes on the island would be at odds with that mission.”

  • 936. More than a decade ago, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) reached an agreement with former President Bill Clinton to allow the phasing out of section 936, the tax provision with permitted U.S. corporations to pay reduced corporate income taxes on income derived from Puerto Rico—a provision allowed to expire in 2006—after which the U.S. territory’s economy has contracted in all but one year—a tax extinguishment at which m any economists describe as the trigger for the subsequent fiscal and economic decline of Puerto Rico. Thus, as part of the new PROMESA statute, §409, in establishing an eight Congressional-member Congressional Task Force on Economic Growth in Puerto Rico, laid the foundation for the report released one year ago, in which the section addressing the federal tax treatment of Puerto Rico, noted: “The task force believes that Puerto Rico is too often relegated to an afterthought in Congressional deliberations over federal business tax reform legislation. The Task Force recommends that Congress make Puerto Rico integral to any future deliberations over tax reform legislation….The Task Force recommends that Congress continue to be mindful of the fact that Puerto Rico and the other territories are U.S. jurisdictions, home to U.S. citizens or nationals, and that jobs in Puerto Rico and the other territories are American jobs.” Third, the task force said it was open to Congress providing companies that invest in Puerto Rico “more competitive tax treatment.” Thus it was last week that Governor Ricardo Rosselló tweeted that people should read the Congressional leadership’s “OWN guidelines on the task force report. Three main points, did not follow a single one.” The tweet recognizes there are no provisions in the legislation awaiting the President’s signature this week to soften the impact of the new modified territorial tax system—a system which will treat Puerto Rico as a foreign country, rather than an integral part of the United States, a change which Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.) this week predicted would act as a “a devastating blow to Puerto Rico’s economic recovery…Thousands more businesses will have to leave the island, forcing thousands Puerto Ricans to lose their jobs and leave the island.” Indeed, adding fiscal insult to injury, House Ways and Means Committee Chair Kevin Brady (R-Tx.) admitted that the “opportunity zone” provision in the House version of tax reform authored by Resident Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez, Puerto Rico’s nonvoting member of the House of Representatives, to make Puerto Rico eligible for designation as a new “opportunity zone” that would receive favorable tax treatment, was stripped out because it would have violated the Senate’s Byrd Rule, the parliamentary rule barring consideration of non-germane provisions from qualifying for passage by a simple majority vote instead of a 60-vote super-majority. Adding still further fiscal insult to injury, the latest installment of emergency funding for recovery from hurricanes which hammered Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Florida, and Houston had been expected this month; however, those fiscal measures have been deferred to next year in the rush to complete the tax/deficit legislation and reach an agreement to avoid a federal government shutdown this week. (The Opportunity Zone proposal was included in the Senate version of tax reform, adopted from a bipartisan proposal by Senators Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) which would defer federal capital gains taxes on investments in qualifying low-income communities—under which all of Puerto Rico could, theoretically, have qualified as one of a limited number of jurisdictions. As the ever insightful Tracy Gordon of the Tax Policy Center had noted: part of the motivation for the opportunity zone designation had been to stem the migration of residents, which has accelerated since Hurricane Maria areas getting the designation throughout the United States. To qualify, the area must have “mutually reinforcing state, local, or private economic development initiatives to attract investment and foster startup activity,” and must “have demonstrated success in geographically targeted development programs such as promise zones, the new markets tax credit, empowerment zones, and renewal communities; and have recently experienced significant layoffs due to business closures or relocations.” Thus, Ms. Gordon notes: “There’s a concern you are basically taking away an incentive to be in Puerto Rico which is this foreign corporation status.” The tax conference report simply ignores the recommendation last year by the bipartisan Congressional Task Force on Economic Growth in Puerto Rico to “make Puerto Rico integral to any future deliberations over tax reform,” not acting on the recommendation for a permanent extension of a rum cover-over payment to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands the revenues of which have been used by the territories to pay for local government operations; last year’s Congressional report had warned that “Failure to extend the provision will cause harm to Puerto Rico’s (and the U.S. Virgin Islands’) fiscal condition at a time when it is already in peril.’’ Similarly, the conference report includes no provisions addressing the task force’s recommendation that the federal child tax credit include the first and second children of families living in Puerto Rico, not just the third as specified under current law.

Cascading Municipal Insolvencies

October 11, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the looming municipal fiscal threat to one of the nation’s oldest municipalities, and the ongoing fiscal, legal, physical, and human challenges to Puerto Rico.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

Cascading Insolvency. With questions stirring with regard to the potential impact of a chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy on the City of Hartford, the city’s leaders have called two public meetings to examine its effects on other cities and towns, inviting Kevyn Orr, the mastermind of putting Detroit into chapter 9, and then overseeing the city’s successful plan of debt adjustment; Central Falls, Rhode Island  Mayor James Diossa—where the city filed for chapter 9 the day our class of No. Virginia city and county staff visited its city hall in 2011 (publishing, in the wake of the visit, the “Financial Crisis Tool Kit,”) and Don Graves, senior director of corporate community initiatives at Key Bank. The focus is to better acquaint citizens on what municipal bankruptcy is—and is not, or, as the Mayor put it: “so we can learn from their experiences…As we consider all of our options for putting the city of Hartford on a path to sustainability and strength, it’s essential that our residents are a part of that conversation…We’ve had a number of requests for a more detailed discussion of what [municipal] bankruptcy would mean for our city.” With Connecticut still without a budget, Hartford is confronted not only by its current $65 million deficit and mounting debt, but also accelerating cash flow problems. Mayor Luke Bronin has requested at least $40 million from the state, in addition to the projected $260 million: Connecticut House Democrats have said they would set aside $40 million to $45 million; however, a Republican budget was adopted instead: that plan, vetoed by the Governor, only offered the city $7 million in additional aid. The city’s delegation in the Connecticut Legislature said last week that they oppose chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, even as they acknowledged but they acknowledged it might be one of the few options left: or, Rep. Brandon McGee (D-Hartford) put it: “It’s been really impossible to reassure people that bankruptcy is not there…it’s there. It’s real.” One of his counterparts, state Sen. Douglas McCrory (D-Hartford), noted: lawmakers “have to get something done very quickly in order to save Hartford.”

Out-Sized Municipal Debt. Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Guam all face out-sized debt burdens relative to their gross domestic products, and each of the U.S. territories faces a repayment challenge, the Government Accountability Office found. Susan Irving and David Gootnick of the General Accounting Office, in their new report on Puerto Rico and other U.S. Territories (GAO-18-160), reported that between fiscal years 2005 and 2014, the latest figures available, Puerto Rico’s total public debt outstanding (public debt) nearly doubled from $39.2 billion to $67.8 billion, reaching 66 percent of Gross Domestic Product; despite some revenue growth, Puerto Rico’s net position was negative and declining during the period, reflecting its deteriorating financial position. They wrote that experts pointed to several factors as contributing to Puerto Rico’s high debt levels, and in September 2016 Puerto Rico missed up to $1.5 billion in debt payments. The outcome of the ongoing debt restructuring process will determine future debt repayment. Their report, released last week, details the debt situations of U.S. overseas territories from fiscal years 2005-2015 and provides brief commentary on their outlooks. (There are  five: Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI), Guam, American Samoa, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. Puerto Rico’s public debt exploded in the decade the report covers, from $39.2 billion to $67.8 billion, reaching 66% of the island’s GDP. Even after some revenue growth in that period, Puerto Rico’s overall financial position deteriorated, leading to its eventual default on billions of dollars of bonds. GAO found that Puerto Rico’s fiscal challenges arose from the following factors: the use of debt to finance regular government operations, poor disclosure leading to investors being unaware of the extent of the fiscal crisis in the territory, the appeal of territorial debt being exempt from federal, state, and local taxation for investors in all states, as well as recession and population decline. Thus, the two authors noted: Puerto Rico’s long-term fiscal trajectory is dependent upon the restructuring process underway through the PROMESA Oversight Board.

Looming Municipal Insolvencies?

October 10, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the looming municipal fiscal threat to one of the nation’s oldest municipalities, and the ongoing fiscal, legal, physical, and human challenges to Puerto Rico.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

Cascading Insolvency. One of the nation’s oldest municipalities, Scotland, a small Connecticut city founded in 1700, but not incorporated until 1857, still maintains the town meeting as its form of government with a board of selectmen. It is a town with a declining population of fewer than 1,700, where the most recent median income for a household in the town was $56,848, and the median income for a family was $60,147. It is a town today on the edge of insolvency—in a state itself of the verge of insolvency. The town not only has a small population, but also a tiny business community: there is one farm left in the town, a general store, and several home businesses. Contributing to its fiscal challenges: the state owns almost 2,000 acres—a vast space from which the town may not extract property taxes. In the last six years, according to First Selectman Daniel Syme, only one new home has been built, but the property tax base has actually eroded because of a recent revaluation—meaning that today the municipality has one of the 10 highest mill rates in the state. To add to its fiscal challenges, Gov. Malloy’s executive-order budget has eliminated Connecticut’s payment in lieu of taxes program—even as education consumes 81 percent of Scotland’s $5.9 million taxpayer-approved  budget: under Gov. Malloy’s executive order, Scotland’s Education Cost Sharing grant will be cut by 70 percent—from $1.42 million to $426,900. Scotland has $463,000 in its reserve accounts, or about 9 percent of its annual operating budget—meaning that if the Gov. and legislature are unable to resolve the state budget crisis, the town will have to dip into its reserves—or even consider dissolution or chapter 9 bankruptcy. Should the municipality opt for dissolution, however, there is an unclear governmental future. While in some parts of the country, municipalities can disappear and become unincorporated parts of their counties, that is not an option in Connecticut, nor in any New England state, except Maine, where more than 400 settlements, defined as unorganized territories, have no municipal government—ergo, governmental services are provided by the state and the county. Thus it appears that the fiscal fate of this small municipality is very much dependent on resolution of the state budget stalemate—but where part of the state solution is reducing state aid to municipalities.

Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen has offered a legal opinion which questioned the legality of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s plan to administer municipal aid in the absence of a state budget,  he offered the Governor and the legislature one alternative—draft a new state budget. Similarly, Senate Republican leader Len Fasano (R-North Haven), who requested the opinion and has argued the Governor’s plan would overstep his authority, also conceded there may be no plan the Governor could craft—absent a new budget—which would pass legal muster, writing: “We acknowledge the formidable task the Governor faces, in the exercise of his constitutional obligation to take care that the laws are faithfully executed, to maintain the effective operations of state government in the absence of a legislatively enacted budget.” The fiscal challenge: analysts opine state finances, unless adjusted, would run $1.6 billion deficit this fiscal year, with a key reason attributed to surging public retirement benefits and other debt costs, coupled with declining state income tax receipts:  Connecticut is now about 14 weeks into its new fiscal year without an enacted budget—and the fiscal dysfunction has been aggravated by a dispute between Sen. Fasano and Gov. Malloy over the Governor’s plans to handle a program adopted two years ago designed to share sales and use tax receipts with cities and towns: a portion of those funds would go only to communities with high property tax rates to offset revenues they would lose under a related plan to cap taxes on motor vehicles.

Aggravating Fiscal & Human Disparities. The White House has let a 10-day Jones Act shipping waiver expire for Puerto Rico, meaning a significant increase in the cost of providing emergency supplies to the hurricane-ravaged island from U.S. ports, in the wake of a spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security confirming yesterday that the Jones Act waiver, which expired on Sunday, will not be extended—so that only U.S‒built and‒operated vessels are make cargo shipments between U.S. ports. The repercussions will be fiscal and physical: gasoline and other critical supplies to save American lives will be far more expensive on an island which could be without power for months. The administration had agreed to temporarily lift the Jones Act shipping restrictions for Puerto Rico on September 28th; today, officials have warned that the biggest challenge for relief efforts is getting supplies distributed around Puerto Rico.

Even as President Trump has acted to put more lives and Puerto Rico’s recovery at greater risk, lawmakers in Congress are still pressing to roll back the Jones Act, with efforts led by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), the Chairman of the House Water and Power Subcommittee of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, recently introducing legislation to permanently exempt Puerto Rico from the Jones Act; indeed, at Sen. McCain’s request, the bill has been placed on the Senate calendar under a fast-track procedure that allows it to bypass the normal committee process; it has not, however, been scheduled for any floor time. Sen. McCain stated: “Now that the temporary Jones Act waiver for Puerto Rico has expired, it is more important than ever for Congress to pass my bill to permanently exempt Puerto Rico from this archaic and burdensome law: Until we provide Puerto Rico with long-term relief, the Jones Act will continue to hinder much-needed efforts to help the people of Puerto Rico recover and rebuild from Hurricane Maria.”

The efforts by Sen. McCain and Chairman Lee came as Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, citing an “unprecedented catastrophe,” urged Congress to provide a significant new influx of money in the near term as Puerto Rico is confronted by what he described as “a massive liquidity crisis:” facing an imminent Medicaid funding crisis, putting nearly one million people at risk of losing their health-care coverage: “[a]bsent extraordinary measures to address the halt in economic activity in Puerto Rico, the humanitarian crisis will deepen, and the unmet basic needs of the American citizens of Puerto Rico will become even greater…Financial damages of this magnitude will subject Puerto Rico’s central government, its instrumentalities, and municipal governments to unsustainable cash shortfalls: As a result, in addition to the immediate humanitarian crisis, Puerto Rico is on the brink of a massive liquidity crisis that will intensify in the immediate future.” Even before Hurricane Maria caused major damage to Puerto Rico’s struggling health-care system, the U.S. territory’s Medicaid program barely had enough funds left to last through the next year; now, however, nearly 900,000 U.S. citizens face the loss of access to Medicaid—more than half of total Puerto Rican enrollment, according to federal estimates: experts predict that unless Congress acts, the federal funding will be exhausted in a matter of months, and, if that happens, Puerto Rico will be responsible for covering all its costs going forward, or, as Edwin Park, Vice President for health policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes: “Unless there’s an assurance of stable and sufficient funding…[the health system] is headed toward a collapse.” Nearly half of Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million residents participate in Medicaid; however, because Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, not a state, Puerto Rico receives only 57 percent of a state’s Medicaid benefits. Under the Affordable Care Act, Puerto Rico received a significant infusion, of about $6.5 billion, to last through FY2019, and, last May, Congress appropriated an additional $300 million. However, those funds were already running low prior to Hurricane Maria, a storm which not only physically and fiscally devastated Puerto Rico and its economy, but also, with the ensuing loss of jobs, meant a critical increase in Medicaid eligibility.

The White House submitted a $29 billion request for disaster assistance; however, none of it was earmarked for Puerto Rico’s Medicaid program. House Energy and Commerce Committee Republicans have proposed giving Puerto Rico an additional $1 billion over the next two years as part of a must-pass bill to fund the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), with one GOP aide stating the $1 billion is specifically meant to address the Medicaid cliff. Adding more uncertainty: the Senate has not given any indication if it will take up legislation to address Puerto Rico’s Medicaid cliff: The Senate Finance Committee passed its CHIP bill this past week, without any funding for Puerto Rico attached. 

In a three-page letter sent to Congressional leaders, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló is requesting more than $4 billion from various agencies and loan program to “meet the immediate emergency needs of Puerto Rico,” writing that while “We are grateful for the federal emergency assistance that has been provided so far; however, [should aid not be available in a timely manner], “This could lead to an acceleration of the high pace of out-migration of Puerto Rico residents to the U.S. mainland impacting a large number of states as diverse as Florida, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Indiana, Wisconsin, Ohio, Texas, and beyond.”

On Puerto Rico’s debt front, with the PROMESA Board at least temporarily relocated to New York City, President Trump has roiled the island’s debt crisis with his suggestion that Puerto Rico’s $73 billion in municipal bond debt load may get erased—or, as he put it: “You can say goodbye to that,” in an interview on Fox News, an interview which appeared to cause a nose dive in the value of Puerto Rico’s municipal bonds, notwithstanding his lack of any authority to unilaterally forgive Puerto Rico’s debt. Indeed, within 24 hours, OMB Budget Director Mick Mulvaney discounted the President’s comments: he said the White House does not intend to become involved in Puerto Rico’s debt restructuring. Indeed, the Trump administration last week sent Congress a request for $29 billion in disaster aid for Puerto Rico, including $16 billion for the government’s flood-insurance program and nearly $13 billion for hurricane relief efforts, according to a White House official. No matter what, however, that debt front looms worse: Gov. Rosselló has warned Puerto Rico could lose up to two months of tax collections as its economic activity is on hold and residents wait for power and basic necessities. Bringing some rational perspective to the issue, House Natural Resource Committee Chair, Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), said the current debt restructuring would proceed under the PROMESA Oversight Board: “Part of the reason to have a board was to have a logical approach [to the debt restructuring]. We need to have this process played out…There’s not going to be one quick panacea to a situation that has developed over a long time…I don’t think it’s time to jump around…when we already have a structure to work with.” Chairman Bishop noted that Hurricane Maria’s devastation would require the board to revise its 10-year fiscal plan, with the goal to achieve a balanced budget pushed back from the current target of FY2019; at the same time, however, Chairman Bishop repeated that the Board must retain its independence from Congress. He also said Congress would consider extending something like the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act to the U.S. Virgin Islands—an action which would open the door to a debt restructuring for the more than $2 billion in public sector Virgin Islands municipal debt.

The godfather of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, Jim Spiotto, noted that it would be Congress, rather than the President, which would pass any municipal bankruptcy legislation, patiently reminding us: “You can’t just use an edict to wipe out debt: If Congress were to wipe out debt, there would be constitutional challenges…Past efforts to repudiate debt debts have had very serious consequences in terms of future access to capital markets and cost of borrowing.” In contrast, if the federal government were to provide something like the Marshall Plan to Puerto Rico, Mr. Spiotto added: the economy could strengthen, and Puerto Rico would be in a position to pay off some its debts.

The Sinking Ships of States?

September 15, 2017

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s Blog, we consider the ongoing recovery in Detroit from the nation’s largest ever municipal bankruptcy, the unrelenting fiscal challenges for Flint; who voters in the fiscally insolvent municipality of East Cleveland will elect, the steep fiscal erosion for Pennsylvania’s local governments, and the uncertain fiscal outlook for Hartford.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

The Steep Road to Chapter 9 Recovery. Poverty declined and incomes rose last year in the Motor City, marking the first significant income increase recorded by the U.S. Census Bureau since the 2000 census, with Detroiters’ median household income up last year by 7.5% to $28,099 in 2016, according to U.S. Census’ American Community Survey estimates; ergo poverty dropped 4 percentage points to 35.7%‒the lowest level in nearly a decade—perhaps offering a boost to Mayor Mike Duggan’s reelection hopes in November.  Despite the gains, however, Detroit is still the city with the greatest level of poverty in the country—and a city where racial income disparities continue to fester: income data indicates that the incomes of Hispanic and white Detroit residents grew significantly compared to blacks, who make up 79 percent of the city, according to Kurt Metzger, a demographer and director emeritus of Data Driven Detroit, or, as Mr. Metzger writes: “Overall it’s a great story for Detroit…But when you look beneath the surface, we still have a lot of issues. There is a constant narrative out there: Are all boats rising together?” Mayor and candidate for re-election Mike Duggan has made clear he understands there is more work to do: noting that forty-four people graduated last month from the Detroit At Work job training program, which launched last February and from which half have already received job offers, the Mayor told the Detroit News: “Income goes up when one, there is a job opportunity and two, when you have the skills to take advantage of it: As we raise the skills of our residents we will raise the standard of living.” Nevertheless, he added: “Nobody is celebrating a (35.7) percent poverty rate, but the progress is important and it took us years to get here.”

If one looks farther ahead, there might be even more hope: the new data found that fewer of Detroit’s children are living in poverty: the under 18 poverty rate has declined about 14 percent to its lowest level since 2009—albeit still over 50 percent, with the decline attributed to higher numbers of jobs, and, ergo, greater incomes, with Xuan Liu, the manager of research and data analysis for the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments noting that with more residents of the city working (the unemployment rate dropped nearly 25% from 20.6% to its lowest level (16.5%) since 2009), or, as Mr. Liu noted: “Eight years after Great Recession, (census) data is finally show some significant economic benefits for more Detroiters.”

Notwithstanding that good news, it has not been city-wide, but rather concentrated: the city’s 2016 median income remains 14.6% lower today than what residents were earning a decade ago: just $32,886 adjusted for inflation, and while the new census figures show some economic improvements in Detroit, a recent Urban Institute report finds the recovery is not even through the city, noting that tax subsidies and investments are disproportionately favoring downtown and Midtown, with the bulk of the recovery along Detroit River, the Central Businesses District and Lower Woodward Corridor—or, as Mr. Metzger noted, the Motor City still faces a challenge if all of its citizens and families are to participate in the recovery: he notes the 2016 income data shows the gains were realized by Hispanic and white residents, but not for blacks, or as he described it: “The people who are ready and able to take advantage of the turnaround are doing it but those who aren’t, haven’t.” Detroit’s Workforce Development Board has set an employment goal of an additional 40,000 residents to find jobs in the next five years.

Not in like Flint. Unlike Detroit, Flint realized no change in poverty or income: the city so fiscally and physically mismanaged by the State of Michigan via its appointment of a gubernatorial Emergency Manager remains the poorest city in the nation amongst all cities with populations over 65,000: the city’s poverty rate last year was 44.5%; median household income was $25,896—less than half Macomb County’s median household income of $60,143.

Vote! Brandon King is a step closer to remaining Mayor of East Cleveland. Mr. King won the Democratic primary in East Cleveland, with 44.3% of the 1,760 citizens who voted, so that he has narrowed the field: he will continue to defend his seat in November against activist Devin Branch, who is running as a Green Party candidate, after beating out three other candidates for the nomination: former Councilman Mansell Baker, school board President Una Keenon, and community leader Dana Hawkins Jr. Ms. Keenon was the runner-up with 30.3 percent of the vote: she previously served as East Cleveland’s judge. The incumbent, who became Mayor last December after a contentious recall election ousted former Mayor Gary Norton Jr. and Council President Thomas Wheeler, leading to two vacancies on City Council, which council members Barbara Thomas and Nathaniel Martin filled with Mr. Branch and Kelvin Earby—appointees Mr. King decided to be “unlawful,” claiming there were insufficient elected leaders to choose the members, so that he usurped that authority and then appointed his own: Christopher Pitts and Ernest Smith. Unsurprisingly, a lawsuit regarding the appointments is now before the Ohio Supreme Court, even as the city’s petition for chapter 9 remains before the State of Ohio. November will bring elector contests in Ward 3 and for two at-large seats. Notwithstanding that the small municipality of 18,000 is in a state of fiscal emergency, Mayor King has pivoted away from former Mayor Norton’s strategy of trying to merge the city with Cleveland or declare the city in chapter 9 bankruptcy: instead he and the rest of the Democratic candidates want to focus on economic development.

Keystone Municipal Fiscal Erosion. The Pennsylvania Economy League reports that fiscal decay has accelerated in all sizes of municipalities throughout the in its new report: “Communities in Crisis: The Truth and Consequences of Municipal Fiscal Distress in Pennsylvania, 1970-2014,” a report which examines 2,388 of the state’s 2,561 municipalities where consistent data existed from 1970, 1990, and 2014, considering, as variables, the available tax base per household, as well as the tax burden, a percentage of the tax base taken in the form of taxes to support local government services‒after which the municipalities were then divided into five quintiles, from  the wealthiest and most fiscally healthy to the most distressed—with Philadelphia and Pittsburgh excluded due to their size and tax structure. The League found that the tax burden has grown on average for all municipalities since 1990, but that the tax base has fallen, on average, in the state’s municipalities since 1970. In addition, the study determined that municipalities in Pennsylvania’s Act 47 distressed municipality program generally performed worse than average despite state assistance.

The study also found that communities which finance their own local police force, as opposed to those which rely solely on Pennsylvania State Police coverage, had double the municipal tax burden and ranked lower. (Readers can find the report in its entirety on the Pennsylvania Economy League’s website.) The League’s President, Chairman Greg Nowak, noted: “The first part of understanding and doing something about a crisis is understanding what it is,” adding that clearly the League believes the state’s local governments are in a fiscal crisis, comparing the new report to one the League released in 2006, which had warned of oncoming fiscal distress—a report, he noted, which had not galvanized either the state or its municipalities to take action. Gerald Cross, the Executive Director for Pennsylvania Economy League Central, said the study also found that tax bases in cities largely remained stagnant even as the local tax burden increased from 1990 to 2014, noting that all the state’s cities were in bottom-quintile rankings in 2014—and that while tax base generally grew in boroughs and first-class townships, the tax burden there also grew from 1990 to 2014; he added that the trend for second-class townships was mixed: while the tax base increased and more second-class townships moved into healthier quintiles, the tax burden also climbed from 1990 to 2014. Or, as Kevin Murphy, the President of the Berks County Community Foundation, put it: “Pennsylvania’s system of local governments is broken and is harming the people living in our communities: It’s a system that was created here in Harrisburg [the state capitol], and it is Harrisburg which needs to fix it.” Pennsylvania has 4,897 local governments, including 1,756 special districts, cities, towns, and first, second, and third class townships.

The Sinking Ship of State? Notwithstanding Gov. Dannel Malloy’s warning before dawn this morning that “The urgency of the present moment cannot be overstated,” the state’s legislators went home in the wake of failing to approve a two-year, $41 billion budget which would have created an array of new taxes and fees, but avoided any increase in the sales or income tax. Thus, in the wake of all-day fiscal marathon, Republicans sent their members home in a chaotic ending, blaming the inability of the other side had failed to marshal the requisite votes: House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, after the Connecticut Senate had earlier given final legislative approval to a package of concessions expected to cover $1.5 billion of the estimated $5 billion state budget deficit through June of 2019, noted that still to be completed, however, is work on the rest of the budget, with the focus on financial aid to cities and towns (the biggest chunk of spending): he add ed that the detailed legal language in the budget, which had been delayed all day long, would not be ready until at least 6 a.m. this morning—with the Senate scheduled to convene at high noon. Notwithstanding the fiscal chaos, Senate Pro Tem leader Martin Looney (New Haven) said the Senate would convene at high noon today to vote on the budget, noting: “The problem is it’s not fully drafted… and what we agreed upon with the governor had not been fully reduced to language that everyone had signed off on: We didn’t have a hold-up in the Senate. We were ready to go forward,’’ raising the possibility that the House could vote later today.

Unsurprisingly, the sticking point appears to be taxes: A big problem appears to have stemmed from a proposal to tax vacation homes—a proposal which encountered opposition among Democrats, because non-residents cannot be taxed differently than residents of Connecticut. Negotiators had been relying on the tax to generate $32 million per year, fiscal resources which would not be available without support from moderate Democrats. The Democratic plan would add new taxes on cellphone bills and vacation homes, along with higher tax rates on hospitals, cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, and hotel rooms—and in an overnight development, a $12 surcharge on all homeowners’ insurance policies statewide for the next five years was proposed in order to help residents with crumbling concrete foundations. (Connecticut homeowners have been grappling for years with problems, and government officials have been unable to reach a comprehensive solution—mayhap Harvey and Irma have sent a physical fiscal message: more than 500 homeowners in 23 towns have filed complaints with the state; however Gov. Malloy fears that more than 30,000 homes could be at risk. The emerging fiscal compromise would also add new taxes on: ride-sharing services, non-prescription drugs, and companies that run fantasy sports gambling. In addition, the package includes more than $40 million as a set aside as part of a multi-pronged effort to help Hartford avert chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy—as well as increased funding for municipalities, even as it avoids deep cuts in public education which had been promised by Gov. Malloy via an executive order to trigger effective October 1st, warning: “The urgency of the present moment cannot be overstated: Local governments, community providers, parents, teachers and students—all of them are best served by passing a budget, and passing it now.”

The fiscal roilings came in the wake of Moody’s statement earlier in the week that Hartford’s “precarious liquidity position could result in insufficient cash flow to meet upcoming debt obligations…Additionally, the city has debt service payments in every month of the fiscal year, compounding the possibility of default at any time.” Interestingly, Gov. Malloy, earlier this week, noted that municipal bondholders and unions hold the key to whether Hartford would file for chapter 9 bankruptcy: “Hartford looks to be going bankrupt, and that ultimately may be the only way for them to resolve their issues…on the other hand, if all of the stakeholders in Hartford, including the unions and the bondholders and others come to the table, maybe that can be avoided.”

On the Steep Edge of Chapter 9

September 12, 2017

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s Blog, we consider the increasing risk of Hartford going into municipal bankruptcy, the Nutmeg State’s fiscal challenge—and whether the state’s leaders can agree to a bipartisan budget; then we consider the ongoing fiscal challenges to Detroit’s comeback from the nation’s largest ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy: the road is steep.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

On the Edge of Chapter 9. Connecticut legislators plan to move forward with a state budget vote this week—one which is not expected to include a sales and use take hike and which may not get much support from their Republican colleagues. In his declaration, last week, Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin, in warning the city may be filing for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy within sixty days pending state budget action, noted Hartford “believes that a restructuring of its outstanding bond indebtedness will be necessary to assure the fiscal stability of the city in the future regardless of any funding received from the State.” Nevertheless, as Municipal Market Analytics noted: “It’s unclear that the city will be able to satisfy the standard conditions for entry into bankruptcy protection such as proving itself insolvent,” albeit MMA noted that in the absence of a state bailout cash, the city will unable to make payments to its bondholders, nevertheless, noting that Connecticut fiscal changes enacted last summer “would reasonably allow the city to refinance its outstanding debt under provisions that not only purport to provide a statutory lien to bondholders, but also allow principal to be back-loaded and extended for 30 years. Under Connecticut law, municipalities may secure refunding bonds with a statutory lien if they provide for such in the resolution. MMA adds that even without a lien, Hartford “could also refinance, at a minimum, approximately 80% of its outstanding general obligation debt covered by bond insurance policies,” noting that “While this would not eliminate principal currently owed, it would avoid the expense of a chapter 9 bankruptcy.” However, as William Faulkner used to write of the “odor of verbena,” the reputation of chapter 9 can create contagion: MMA notes that “some municipal investors will still not loan capital to Bridgeport for its attempted bankruptcy filing twenty-six years ago.” Thus there is apprehension in the state house that Connecticut’s own interest rates could be adversely affected were Hartford to default or file for chapter 9—adding that such a filing would thus have fiscal adverse reverberations for the state, but also undermine business complacency about remaining in the city: “It is hard to expect that declaring bankruptcy would help the city retain its current employers or attract new ones. Amazon is unlikely to locate its headquarters in a bankrupt city.” Unsurprisingly, Connecticut legislators may be considering some sort of fiscal evaluation model like Virginia’s as a quasi- oversight and/or restructuring regime for local governments.

Meanwhile Connecticut House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz (D-Berlin) said a proposal to raise the sales and use tax as high as 6.85% has been removed from the Democratic budget proposal after facing strong opposition from moderates in his party, as the Speaker’s draft budget proposal sought to close a two-year $3.5 billion deficit, advising his colleagues: “The Senate was not comfortable with that, so it was our opinion as House Democrats that we would drop that off of our proposal in an effort to come to an agreement that would pass in both chambers.’’ Nevertheless, a proposal to raise the sales tax on restaurant meals to 7% remains under consideration—drawing strong opposition from the Farmington-based Connecticut Restaurant Association, and raising apprehensions from the industry, because it was unclear exactly which meals would be covered by the increased tax—even as restaurants now confront stiffer competition from ready-made meals at supermarkets, raising questions with regard to the definition of food and beverage—something to be resolved, according to officials, by the Connecticut Department of Revenue Services.

The fiscal dilemma has, moreover, not just been between the parties, but also between Gov. Malloy and Democrats, with the Governor opposed to many of the tax hikes they have proposed, albeit late last week he said he would agree to a small sales tax increase. Nevertheless, even as state Democratic leaders were still working on a budget agreement with the Governor, separate, simultaneous talks with Republicans broke down yesterday. While Republicans indicated they would not rule out further negotiations, the breakdown appears to be taxing: Gov. Malloy is still seeking tax increases on hospitals, cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, e-cigarettes, and real estate transactions—leading Republicans to charge that Democrats are unwilling to address major, long-term structural changes which would include spending and bonding caps, along with changing the prevailing wage for labor on municipal projects that unions and many Democrats have strongly opposed for years, or, as House Republican Leader Themis Klarides (R.-Seymour) noted: “It is very clear they have no interest in changing the way the State of Connecticut works…They want to fix it for this week, for next month, for next year. They do not want to fix this problem that has been a spiraling problem…“This might as well be Irma: I have more confidence on where Irma is going than where the state is going, based on the destruction they have left in their wake.’’

Republicans plan to release a revised budget proposal today, among which some of Gov. Malloy’s proposals could be included as part of a budget proposal House Democrats plan to consider Thursday, including an expansion of the state’s bottle bill to include juices, teas, and sports drinks. When consumers fail to return their bottles, the nickel deposit is kept by the state. As a result, the state expects to collect an additional $2.8 million starting on Jan. 1, and then another $7.4 million in the second year of the two-year budget from unclaimed deposits. The legislature appears fiscally anxious as Gov. Malloy’s October 1 deadline approaches—the date on which he is set to invoke large cuts: under his revised executive order, 85 communities would receive no educational cost-sharing funds; 54 towns would receive less money.

Nevertheless, the Governor and legislature are working in fiscal quicksand: Gov. Malloy, a Democrat, has been running the state by executive order since July 1st: he and the legislature remain at odds over a biennial spending plan while the Governor is proposing to raise the conveyance tax on real estate transactions, which he projects would bring in an expected $127 million more to the state over two years. However, the proposal comes as sources late yesterday reported that Alexion Pharmaceuticals Inc. will today announce that its corporate headquarters is moving from New Haven to Boston as part of a major “restructuring.” The state has provided Alexion with more than $26 million in state assistance to remain in Connecticut, so the announcement is likely to be a double fiscal whammy: not only will the company move, but also it plans to announce significant layoffs, renewing debate with regard to how the state can remain economically competitive. (Alexion had moved to New Haven early last year from Cheshire with a $6 million grant from the state, and a subsidized $20 million loan which will be fully forgiven if Alexion has 650 workers in Connecticut by 2017.) On average, Alexion had 827 employees in the state this year through June 30. Alexion also was offered tax credits, which could be worth as much as $25 million as part of the Malloy administration’s so-called “First Five” program. Alexion had located in a newly constructed 14-story building in downtown New Haven as part of an urban revitalization project intended to tie two sections of the city together—thus Alexion’s move was key to the completion of the first phase of the project. Gov.  Malloy noted: “Hartford looks to be going bankrupt, and that ultimately may be the only way for them to resolve their issues.” In releasing his proposed a $41 billion state budget, the Governor said that if all of the stakeholders in Hartford, including the unions and the bondholders and others come to the table, maybe that can be avoided: “Hartford looks to be going bankrupt, and that ultimately may be the only way for them to resolve their issues.” The Governor added: “There is an issue that Hartford has done some pretty stupid things over the years, and that bondholders and bond rating agencies tolerated that stupidity: And if there’s going to be relief, it has to be comprehensive in nature.” With Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin having, as we previously noted, warned that Hartford would file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy absent critical support from the state, labor unions, and its bondholders, the Mayor has been pressing for an additional $40 million from the state to avoid bankruptcy—even as the Governor and state legislative leaders claim the state budget provides enough to Hartford—or, in the Governor’s words: “presents the opportunity to help Hartford.” The budget proposal also calls for a four-tiered municipal board to oversee Hartford and other distressed cities. Gov. Malloy, a lame duck, ergo with waning political power, confronts an evenly divided state Senate, and a narrowly divided state House (79-72), so balancing the deck of the fiscal Titanic between revenues and expenditures—and addressing long-term capital and public pension obligations is an exceptional fiscal challenge. The Governor’s budget proposals would also repeal the back-to-school sales tax holiday and increase the cigarette tax by 45 cents to $4.35 per pack, effective the end of next month, as well as increase the conveyance tax on real estate sales.

Leaving Chapter 9 Is Uneasy. Detroit is finding that returning to access traditional capital markets is a challenge: notwithstanding significant downtown economic progress, that progress has been mostly in the increasingly vibrant downtown and Midtown areas. Significant parts of the 139-square mile city continue to struggle with pre-chapter 9 challenges, even as the narrow relief window for the city’s public pension obligations is winnowing, effectively imposing increasing fiscal pressure—especially in the wake of the city’s general fund revenues coming up short for FY2016: Detroit’s four-year fiscal forecast predicts an annual growth rate of approximately 1%. Thus, with its plan of debt adjustment requiring annual set-asides from surpluses of an additional $335 million (between FY16 and FY23) to address those obligations, that has cut into fiscal resources vital to reinvestment and improvement in public services—especially in outlying neighborhoods. Nevertheless, Detroit Future City reports that the annual decline in the city’s population of 672,000 has been slowing. Indeed, job growth has been above the nationwide average since 2010, and that growth appears to be in higher paying jobs of over $40 thousand per year, implying that the job growth is targeted at educated or skilled workers—a key development to encouraging migration to the city—where the 25-34 year-old population has grown by 10 thousand since 2011. Notwithstanding, however, more than 40% of Detroit’s population lives in poverty, nearly triple the statewide rate—and a rate which appears to have some correlation with violent crime. Thus, even though the city has made some progress in reducing overall violent crime, murders have still been rising—albeit at a 2.4% rate. Nevertheless, perceptions matter: a recent Politico-Morning Consult poll reported that 41% of Detroit residents said they consider the city very unsafe. Moreover, in a city where only 78.3% of students graduate high school and just 13.5% of those that reside in Detroit have a bachelor’s degree—half the national rate, the number of families with children has declined by more than 40%. Thus, unsurprisingly, with housing and blight still a problem, the city’s vacancy rate is close to 30%, and some 80,000 met or were expected to soon meet the definition of blight. Worse: some 8,000 properties are scheduled to enter the foreclosure auction process this year.

Measuring Municipal Fiscal Distress

August 29, 2017

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s Blog, we consider the new Local Government Fiscal Distress bi-cameral body in Virginia and its early actions; then we veer north to Atlantic City, where both the Governor and the courts are weighing in on the city’s fiscal future; before scrambling west to Scranton, Pennsylvania—as it seeks to respond to a fiscally adverse judicial ruling, then back west to the very small municipality of East Cleveland, Ohio—as it awaits authority to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy—and municipal elections—then to Detroit’s ongoing efforts to recover revenues as part of its recovery from the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy, before finally ending up in the Windy City, where the incomparable Lawrence Msall has proposed a Local Government Protection Authority—a quasi-judicial body—to serve as a resource for the Chicago Public School System.  

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

Measuring Municipal Fiscal Distress. When Virginia Auditor of Public Accounts Martha S. Mavredes last week testified before the Commonwealth’s new Joint House-Senate Subcommittee on Local Government Fiscal Stress, she named Bristol as one of the state’s four financially distressed localities—a naming which Bristol City Manager Randy Eads confirmed Monday. Bristol is an independent city in the Commonwealth of Virginia with a population just under 18,000: it is the twin city of Bristol, Tennessee, just across the state line: a line which bisects middle of its main street, State Street. According to the auditor, the cities of Petersburg and Bristol scored below 5 on a financial assessment model that uses 16 as the minimum threshold for indicating financial stress, with Bristol scoring lower than Petersburg. One other city and two counties scored below 16. For his part, City Manager Eads said he and the municipality’s CFO “will be working with the APA to determine how the scores were reached,” adding: “The city will also be open to working with the APA to address any issues.” (Bristol scored below the threshold the past three years, dropping to 4.25 in 2016. Petersburg had a score of 4.48 in 2016, when its financial woes became public.) Even though the State of Virginia has no authority to directly involve itself in a municipality’s finances (Virginia does not specifically authorize its municipal entities to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, certain provisions of the state’s laws [§15.2-4910] do allow for a trust indenture to contain provisions for protecting and enforcing rights and remedies of municipal bondholders—including the appointment of a receiver.), its new system examines the Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports submitted annually and scores them on 10 financial ratios—including four that measure the health of the locality’s general fund used to finance its budget. Manager Eads testified: “At the moment, the city does not have all of the necessary information from the APA to fully address any questions…We have been informed, by the APA, that we will receive more information from them the first week of September.” He added that the city leaders have taken steps to bolster cash flow and reserves, while reducing their reliance on borrowing short-term tax anticipation notes. In addition, the city has recently began implementing a series of budgetary and financial policies prior to the APA scores being released—steps seemingly recognized earlier this summer when Moody’s upgraded the city’s outlook to stable and its municipal bond rating to Baa2 with an underlying A3 enhanced rating, after a downgrade in 2016. Nevertheless, the road back is steep: the city still maintains more than $100 million in long-term general obligation bond debt with about half of it tied to The Falls commercial center in the Exit 5 area, which has yet to attract significant numbers of tenants.

Fiscal Fire? The State of New Jersey’s plan to slash Atlantic City’s fire department by 50 members was blocked by Superior court Judge Julio Mendez, preempting the state’s efforts to reduce the number of firefighters in the city from 198 to 148. The state, which preempted local authority last November, has sought to sharply reduce the city’s expenditures: state officials had last February proposed to move the Fire Department to a less expensive health plan and reduce staffing in the department from 225 firefighters to 125. In his ruling, however, Judge Mendez wrote: “The court holds that the (fire department’s union) have established by clear and convincing evidence that Defendants’ proposal to reduce the size of the Atlantic City Fire Department to 148 firefighters will cause irreparable harm in that it compromises the public safety of Atlantic City’s residents and visitors.” Judge Mendez had previously granted the union’s request to block the state’s actions, ruling last March that any reduction below 180 firefighters “compromises public safety,” and that any reduction should happen “through attrition and retirements.”

Gov. Christie Friday signed into law an alternative fiscal measure for the city, S. 3311, which requires the state to offer an early-retirement incentive program to the city’s police officers, firefighters, and first responders facing layoffs, noting at the bill signing what he deemed the Garden State’s success in its stewardship of the city since November under the Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act, citing Atlantic City’s “great strides to secure its finances and its future.” The Governor noted a drop of 11.4 percent in the city’s overall property-tax rate, the resolution of casino property-tax appeals, and recent investments in the city. For their parts, Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, sponsors of the legislation, said the new law would let the city “reduce the size of its police and fire departments without jeopardizing public safety,” adding that the incentive plan, which became effective with the Governor’s signature, would not affect existing contracts or collective bargaining rights—or, as Sen. Sweeney stated: “We don’t want to see any layoffs occur, but if a reduction in workers is required, early retirement should be offered first to the men and women who have served the city.” For his part, Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian said, “I’m glad that the Governor and the State continue to follow the plan that we gave them 10 months ago. As all the pieces that we originally proposed continue to come together, Atlantic City will continue to move further in the right direction.”

For its part, the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, which has been the fiscal overseer of the state takeover of Atlantic City, has touted the fiscal progress achieved this year from state intervention, including the adoption of a $206.3 million budget that is 20 percent lower than the city’s FY2015 budget, due to even $56 million less than 2015 due to savings from staff adjustments and outsourcing certain municipal services. Nevertheless, Atlantic City, has yet to see the dial spin from red to black: the city, with some $224 million in bonded debt, has deep junk-level credit ratings of CC by S&P Global Ratings and Caa3 by Moody’s Investors Service; it confronts looming debt service payments, including $6.1 million owed on Nov. 1, according to S&P.

Scrambling in Scranton. Moody’s is also characteristically moody about the fiscal ills of Scranton, Pennsylvania, especially in the wake of a court decision barring the city from  collecting certain taxes under a state law—a decision Moody’s noted  “may reduce tax revenue, which is a vital funding source for the city’s operations.” Lackawanna County Court of Common Pleas Judge James Gibbons, at the beginning of the month, in a preliminary ruling against the city, in response to a challenge by a group of eight taxpayers, led by Mayoral candidate Gary St. Fleur, had challenged Scranton’s ability to levy and collect certain taxes under Pennsylvania’s Act 511, a state local tax enabling act. His preliminary ruling against the city affects whether the Home Rule Charter law supersedes the statutory cap contained in Act 511. Unsurprisingly, the City of Scranton has filed a motion for reconsideration and requested the court to enable it to appeal to the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania. The city, the state’s sixth-largest city (77,000), and the County seat for Lackawanna County is the geographic and cultural center of the Lackawanna River valley, was incorporated on St. Valentine’s Day 161 years ago—going on to become a major industrial city, a center of mining and railroads, and attracted thousands of new immigrants. It was a city, which acted to earn the moniker of the “Electric City” when electric lights were first introduced in 1880 at Dickson Locomotive Works. Today, the city is striving to exit state oversight under the state’s Act 47—oversight the municipality has been under for a quarter century.

Currently, Moody’s does not provide a credit rating for the city; however, Standard and Poor’s last month upgraded the city’s general obligation bonds to a still-junk BB-plus, citing revenue from a sewer-system sale, whilst Standard and Poor’s cited the city’s improved budget flexibility and liquidity, stemming largely from a sewer-system sale which enabled the municipality to retire more than $40 million of high-coupon debt. Moreover, Scranton suspended its cost-of-living-adjustments, and manifested its intent to apply a portion of sewer system sale proceeds to meet its public pension liabilities. Ergo, Moody’s writes: “These positive steps have been important for paying off high interest debt and funding the city’s distressed pension plans…While these one-off revenue infusions have been positive, Scranton faces an elevated fixed cost burden of over 40% of general fund revenues…Act 511 tax revenues are an important revenue source for achieving ongoing, balanced operations, particularly as double-digit property tax increases have been met with significant discontent from city residents. The potential loss of Act 511 tax revenues comes at a time when revenues for the city are projected to be stagnant through 2020.”

The road to municipal fiscal insolvency is easier, mayhap, because it is downhill: Scranton fiscal challenges commenced five years ago, when its City Council skipped a $1 million municipal bond payment in the wake if a political spat; Scranton has since repaid the debt. Nevertheless, as Moody’s notes: “If the city cannot balance its budget without illegally taxing the Scranton people, it is absolute proof that the budget is not sustainable…Scranton has sold off all its public assets and raised taxes excessively with the result being a declining tax base and unfriendly business environment…The city needs to come to terms with present economic realities by cutting spending and lowering taxes. This is the only option for the city.”

Scranton Mayoral candidate Gary St. Fleur has said the city should file for Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy and has pushed for a related ballot measure. Combined taxes collected under Act 511, including a local services tax that Scranton recently tripled, cannot exceed 1.2% of Scranton’s total market value.  Based on 2015 market values, according to Moody’s, Scranton’s “511 cap” totals $27.3 million. In fiscal 2015 and 2016, the city collected $34.5 million and $36.8 million, respectively, and for 2018, the city has budgeted to receive $38 million.  The city, said Moody’s, relied on those revenues for 37.7% of fiscal 2015 and 35.9% of fiscal 2016 total governmental revenues. “A significant reduction in these tax revenues would leave the city a significant revenue gap if total Act 511 tax revenues were decline by nearly 25%,” Moody’s said.

Heavy Municipal Fiscal Lifting. Being mayor of battered East Cleveland is one of those difficult jobs that many people (and readers) would decline. If you were to motor along Euclid Avenue, the city’s main street, you would witness why: it is riddled with potholes and flanked by abandoned, decayed buildings. Unsurprisingly, in a city still awaiting authorization from the State of Ohio to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, blight, rising crime, and poor schools, have created the pretext for East Clevelanders to leave: The city boasted 33,000 people in 1990; today it has just 17,843, according to the latest U.S. Census figures. Nevertheless, hope can spring eternal: four candidates, including current Mayor Brandon L. King, are seeking the Democratic nomination in next month’s Mayoral primary (Mayor King replaced former Mayor Gary Norton last year after Norton was recalled by voters.)

Motor City Taxing. Detroit hopes to file some 700 lawsuits by Thursday against landlords and housing investors in a renewed effort to collect unpaid property taxes on abandoned homes that have already been forfeited; indeed, by the end of November, the city hopes to double the filings, going after as many as 1,500 corporations and investors whose abandonment of Detroit homes has been blamed for contributing to the Motor City’s blight epidemic: Motor City Law PLC, working on behalf of the city, has filed more than 60 lawsuits since last week in Wayne County Circuit Court; the remainder are expected to be filed before a Thursday statute of limitations deadline: the suits target banks, land speculators, limited liability corporations, and individuals with three or more rental properties in Detroit: investors who typically purchase homes at bargain prices at a Wayne County auction and then eventually stop paying property tax bills and lose the home in foreclosure: the concern is that unscrupulous landlords have been abusing the auction system. The city expects to file an additional 800 lawsuits over the next quarter—with the recovery effort coming in the wake of last year’s suits by the city against more than 500 banks and LLCs which had an ownership stake in houses that sold at auction for less than what was owed to the city in property taxes. Eli Savit, senior adviser and counsel to Mayor Mike Duggan, noted that those suits netted Detroit more than $5 million in judgments, even as, he reports: “Many cases are still being litigated.” To date, the 69 lawsuits filed since Aug. 18 in circuit court were for tax bills exceeding $25,000 each; unpaid tax bills for less than $25,000 will be filed in district court. (The unpaid taxes date back years as the properties were auctioned off by the Wayne County Treasurer’s Office between 2013 and 2016 or sent to the Detroit Land Bank Authority, which oversees demolitions if homes cannot be rehabilitated or sold.) The suits here indicate that former property owners have no recourse for lowering their unpaid tax debt, because they are now “time barred from filing an appeal” with Detroit’s Board of Review or the Michigan Tax Tribunal; Detroit officials have noted that individual homeowners would not be targeted by the lawsuits for unpaid taxes; rather the suits seek to establish a legal means for going after investors who purchase cheap homes at auction, and then either rent them out and opt not to not pay the taxes, or walk away from the house, because it is damaged beyond repair—behavior which is now something the city is seeking to turn around.

Local Government Fiscal Protection? Just as the Commonwealth of Virginia has created a fiscal or financial assessment model to serve as an early warning system so that the State could act before a chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy occurred, the fiscal wizard of Illinois, the incomparable Chicago Civic Federation’s Laurence Msall has proposed a Local Government Protection Authority—a quasi-judicial body—to serve as a resource for the Chicago Public School System (CPS): it would be responsible to assist the CPS board and administration in finding solutions to stabilize the school district’s finances. The $5.75 billion CPS proposed budget for this school year comes with two significant asterisks: 1) There is an expectation of $269 million from the City of Chicago, and 2) There is an expectation of $300 million from the State of Illinois, especially if the state’s school funding crisis is resolved in the Democrats’ favor.

Nevertheless, in the end, CPS’s fiscal fate will depend upon Windy City Mayor Rahm Emanuel: he, after all, not only names the school board, but also is accountable to voters if the city’s schools falter: he has had six years in office to get CPS on a stable financial course, even as CPS is viewed by many in the city as seeking to file for bankruptcy (for which there is no specific authority under Illinois law). Worse, it appears that just the discussion of a chapter 9 option is contributing to the emigration of parents and students to flee to suburban or private schools.

Thus, Mr. Msall is suggesting once again putting CPS finances under state oversight, as it was in the 1980s and early 1990s, recommending consideration of a Local Government Protection Authority, which would “be a quasi-judicial body…to assist the CPS board and administration in finding solutions to stabilize the district’s finances.” Fiscal options could include spending cuts, tax hikes, employee benefit changes, labor contract negotiations, and debt adjustment. Alternatively, as Mr. Msall writes: “If the stakeholders could not find a solution, the LGPA would be empowered to enforce a binding resolution of outstanding issues.” As we noted, a signal fiscal challenge Mayor Emanuel described was to attack crime in order to bring young families back into the city—and to upgrade its schools—schools where today some 380,000 students appear caught in a school system cracking under a massive and rising debt load.  

Far East of Eden. East Cleveland Mayor Gary Norton Jr. and City Council President Thomas Wheeler have both been narrowly recalled from their positions in a special election, setting the stage for the small Ohio municipality waiting for the state to—in some year—respond to its request to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy to elect a new leader. Interestingly, one challenger for the job who is passionate about the city, is Una H. R. Keenon, 83, who now heads the city school board, and campaigning on a platform of seeking a blue-ribbon panel to examine the city’s finances. Mansell Baker, 33, a former East Cleveland Councilmember, wants to focus on eliminating the city’s debt, while Dana Hawkins Jr., 34, leader of a foundation, vows to get residents to come together and save the city. The key decisions are likely to emerge next month in the September 12 Democratic primary—where the winner will face Devin Branch of the Green Party in November. Early voting has begun.