Fiscal & Service Solvency

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eBlog, 03/10/17

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Fiscal & Public Service Insolvency

eBlog, 03/03/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing challenges for the historic municipality of Petersburg, Virginia as it seeks to depart from insolvency; we consider, anew, the issues related to “service insolvency,” especially assisted by the exceptional insights of Marc Pfeiffer at Rutgers, then turning to the new fiscal plan by the Puerto Rico Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority, before racing back to Virginia for a swing on insolvent links. For readers who missed it, we commend the eBlog earlier this week in which we admired the recent wisdom on fiscal disparities by the ever remarkable Bo Zhao of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston with regard to municipal fiscal disparities.

Selling One’s City. Petersburg, Virginia, the small, historic, and basically insolvent municipality under quasi state control is now trying to get hundreds of properties owned by the city off the books and back on the tax rolls as part of its effort to help resolve its fiscal and trust insolvency. As Michelle Peters, Economic Development Director for Petersburg, notes: “The city owns over 200 properties, but today we had a showcase to feature about 25 properties that we group together based on location, and these properties are already zoned appropriate for commercial development.” Thus the municipality is not only looking to raise revenues from the sale, but also to realize revenues through the conversion of these empty properties into thriving businesses—or as Ms. Peters puts it: “It’s to get the properties back on the tax rolls for the city, because, currently, the city owns them so they are just vacant, there are no taxes being collected,” much less jobs being filled. Ms. Peters notes that while some of the buildings do need work, like an old hotel on Tabb Street, the city stands ready to offer a great deal on great property, and it is ready to make a deal and has incentives to offer:  “We’re ready to sit down at the table and to negotiate, strike a deal and get those properties developed.”

New Jersey & Its Taken-over City. The $72 million tax settlement between Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa and Atlantic City’s state overseers is a “major step forward” in fixing the city’s finances, according to Moody’s Investors Service, which deemed the arrangement as one that has cleared “one of the biggest outstanding items of concern” in the municipality burdened by hundreds of millions of dollars in debt and under state control. Atlantic City owed Borgata $165 million in tax refunds after years of successful tax appeals by the casino, according to the state. The settlement is projected to save the city $93 million in potential debt—savings which amount to a 22 percent reduction of the city’s $424 million total debt, according to Moody’s, albeit, as Moody’s noted: “[W]hile it does not solve the city’s problems, the settlement makes addressing those problems considerably more likely.” The city will bond for the $72 million through New Jersey’s state Municipal Qualified Bond Act, making it a double whammy: because the bonds will be issued via the state MQBA, they will carry an A3 rating, ergo at a much better rate than under the city’s Caa3 junk bond status. Nevertheless, according to the characteristically moody Moody’s, Atlantic City’s finances remain in a “perilous state,” with the credit rating agency citing low cash flow and an economy still heavily dependent upon gambling.

Fiscal & Public Service Insolvency. One of my most admired colleagues in the arena of municipal fiscal distress, Marc Pfeiffer, Senior Policy Fellow and Assistant Director of the Bloustein Local Government Research Center in New Jersey, notes that a new twist on the legal concept of municipal insolvency could change how some financially troubled local governments seek permission to file for federal bankruptcy protection. Writing that municipal insolvency traditionally means a city, county, or other government cannot pay its bills, and can lead in rare instances to a Chapter 9 bankruptcy filing or some other remedy authorized by the state that is not as drastic as a Chapter 9, he notes that, in recent years, the description of “insolvency” has expanded beyond a simple cash shortage to include “service-delivery insolvency,” meaning a municipality is facing a crisis in managing police, fire, ambulance, trash, sewer and other essential safety and health services, adding that service insolvency contributed to Stockton, California, and Detroit filings for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection in 2012 and 2013, respectively: “Neither city could pay its unsustainable debts, but officials’ failure to curb violent crime, spreading blight and decaying infrastructure was even more compelling to the federal bankruptcy judges who decided that Stockton and Detroit were eligible to file for Chapter 9.”

In fact, in meeting with Kevyn Orr, the emergency manager appointed by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, at his first meeting in Detroit, Mr. Orr recounted to me that his very first actions had been to email every employee of the city to ensure they reported to work that morning, noting the critical responsibility to ensure that street lights and traffic lights, as well as other essential public services operated. He wanted to ensure there would be no disruption of such essential services—a concern clearly shared by the eventual overseer of the city’s historic chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, now retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, who, in his decision affirming the city’s plan of debt adjustment, had written: “It is the city’s service delivery insolvency that the court finds most strikingly disturbing in this case…It is inhumane and intolerable, and it must be fixed.” Similarly, his colleague, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Christopher Klein, who presided over Stockton’s chapter 9 trial in California, had noted that without the “muscle” of municipal bankruptcy protection, “It is apparent to me the city would not be able to perform its obligations to its citizens on fundamental public safety as well as other basic public services.” Indeed, in an interview, Judge Rhodes said that while Detroit officials had provided ample evidence of cash and budget insolvency, “the concept of service delivery insolvency put a more understanding face on what otherwise was just plain numbers.” It then became clear, he said, that the only solution for Detroit—as well as any insolvent municipality—was “fresh money,” including hundreds of millions of dollars contributed by the state, city, and private foundations: “It is a rare insolvency situation—corporate or municipal—that can be fixed just by a change in management.”

Thus, Mr. Pfeiffer writes that “Demonstrating that services are dysfunctional could strengthen a local government’s ability to convince a [federal bankruptcy] judge that the city is eligible for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy protection (provided, of course, said municipality is in one the eighteen states which authorize such filings). Or, as Genevieve Nolan, a vice president and senior analyst at Moody’s Investors Service, notes: “With their cases focusing on not just a government’s ability to pay its debts, but also an ability to provide basic services to residents, Stockton and Detroit opened a path for future municipal bankruptcies.”

Mr. Pfeiffer notes that East Cleveland, Ohio, was the first city to invoke service insolvency after Detroit. In its so far patently unsuccessful efforts to obtain authority from the State of Ohio to file for municipal bankruptcy protection—in a city, where, as we have noted on numerous occasions, the city has demonstrated a fiscal inability to sustain basic police, fire, EMS, or trash services. East Cleveland had an approved plan to balance its budget, but then-Mayor Gary Norton told the state the proposed cuts “[would] have the effect of decimating our safety forces.” Ohio state officials initially rejected the municipality’s request for permission to file for municipal bankruptcy, because the request came from the mayor instead of the city council; the city’s status has been frozen since then.

Mr. Pfeiffer then writes:

Of concern.  [Municipal] Bankruptcy was historically seen as the worst case scenario with severe penalties – in theory the threat of it would prevent local officials from doing irresponsible things. [Indeed, when I first began my redoubtable quest with the Dean of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy Jim Spiotto, while at the National League of Cities, the very idea that the nation’s largest organization representing elected municipal leaders would advocate for amending federal laws so that cities, counties, and other municipal districts could file for such protection drew approbation, to say the least.] Local officials are subject to such political pressures that there needs to be a societal “worst case” that needs to be avoided.  It’s not like a business bankruptcy where assets get sold and equity holders lose investment.  We are dealing with public assets and the public, though charged with for electing responsible representatives, who or which can’t be held fully responsible for what may be foolish, inept, corrupt, or criminal actions by their officials. Thus municipal bankruptcy, rather than dissolution, was a worst case scenario whose impact needed to be avoided at all costs. Lacking a worst case scenario with real meaning, officials may be more prone to take fiscal or political risks if they think the penalty is not that harsh. The current commercial practice of a structured bankruptcy, which is commonly used (and effectively used in Detroit and eventually in San Bernardino and other places) could become common place. If insolvency were extended to “service delivery,” and if it becomes relatively painless, decision-making/political risk is lowered, and political officials can take greater risks with less regard to the consequences. In my view, the impact of bankruptcy needs to be so onerous that elected officials will strive to avoid it and avoid decisions that may look good for short-term but have negative impact in the medium to long-term and could lead to serious consequences. State leaders also need to protect their citizens with controls and oversight to prevent outliers from taking place, and stepping in when signs of fiscal weakness appear.”

Self-Determination. Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has submitted a 10-year fiscal plan to the PROMESA Oversight Board which would allow for annual debt payments of about 18% to 41% of debt due—a plan which anticipates sufficient cash flow in FY2018 to pay 17.6% of the government’s debt service. In the subsequent eight years, under the plan, the government would pay between 30% and 41% per year. The plan, according to the Governor, is based upon strategic fiscal imperatives, including restoring credibility with all stakeholders through transparent, supportable financial information and honoring the U.S. territory’s obligations in accordance with the Constitution of Puerto Rico; reducing the complexity and inefficiency of government to deliver essential services in a cost-effective manner; implementing reforms to improve Puerto Rico’s competitiveness and reduce the cost of doing business; ensuring that economic development processes are effective and aligned to incentivize the necessary investments to promote economic growth and job creation; protecting the most vulnerable segments of our society and transforming our public pensions system; and consensually renegotiating and restructuring debt obligations through Title VI of PROMESA. The plan he proposed, marvelously on the 100th anniversary of the Jones-Shafroth Act making Puerto Rico a U.S. territory, also proposes monitoring liquidity and managing anticipated shortfalls in current forecast, and achieving fiscal balance by 2019 and maintaining fiscal stability with balanced budgets thereafter (through 2027 and beyond). The Governor notes the Fiscal Plan is intended to achieve its objectives through fiscal reform measures, strategic reform initiatives, and financial control reforms, including fiscal reform measures that would reduce Puerto Rico’s decade-long financing gap by $33.3 billion through:

  • revenue enhancements achieved via tax reform and compliance enhancement strategies;
  • government right-sizing and subsidy reductions;
  • more efficient delivery of healthcare services;
  • public pension reform;
  • structural reform initiatives intended to provide the tools to significantly increase Puerto Rico’s capacity to grow its economy;
  • improving ease of business activity;
  • capital efficiency;
  • energy [utility] reform;
  • financial control reforms focused on enhanced transparency, controls, and accountability of budgeting, procurement, and disbursement processes.

The new Fiscal Plan marks an effort to achieve fiscal solvency and long-term economic growth and to comply with the 14 statutory requirements established by Congress’ PROMESA legislation, as well as the five principles established by the PROMESA Oversight Board, and intended to sets a fiscal path to making available to the public and creditor constituents financial information which has been long overdue, noting that upon the Oversight Board’s certification of those fiscal plans it deems to be compliant with PROMESA, the Puerto Rico government and its advisors will promptly convene meetings with organized bondholder groups, insurers, union, local interest business groups, public advocacy groups and municipality representative leaders to discuss and answer all pertinent questions concerning the fiscal plan and to provide additional and necessary momentum as appropriate, noting the intention and preference of the government is to conduct “good-faith” negotiations with creditors to achieve restructuring “voluntary agreements” in the manner and method provided for under the provisions of Title VI of PROMESA.

Related to the service insolvency issues we discussed [above] this early, snowy a.m., Gov. Rosselló added that these figures are for government debt proper—not the debt of issuers of the public corporations (excepting the Highways and Transportation Authority), Puerto Rico’s 88 municipalities, or the territory’s handful of other semi-autonomous authorities, and that its provisions do not count on Congress to restore Affordable Care Act funding. Rather, Gov. Rosselló said he plans to determine the amount of debt the Commonwealth will pay by first determining the sums needed for (related to what Mr. Pfeiffer raised above] “essential services and contingency reserves.” The Governor noted that Puerto Rico’s debt burden will be based on net cash available, and that, if possible, he hopes to be able to use a consensual process under Title VI of PROMESA to decide on the new debt service schedules. [PROMESA requires the creation of certified five-year fiscal plan which would provide a balanced budget to the Commonwealth, restore access to the capital markets, fund essential public services, and pensions, and achieve a sustainable debt burden—all provisions which the board could accept, modify, or completely redo.]  

Adrift on the Fiscal Links? While this a.m.’s snow flurries likely precludes a golf outing, ACA Financial Guaranty Corp., a municipal bond insurer, appears ready to take a mighty swing for a birdie, as it is pressing for payback on the defaulted debt which was critical to the financing of Buena Vista, Virginia’s unprofitable municipal golf course, this time teeing the proverbial ball up in federal court. Buena Vista, a municipality nestled near the iconic Blue Ridge of some 2,547 households, and where the median income for a household in the city is in the range of $32,410, and the median income for a family was $39,449—and where only about 8.2 percent of families were below the poverty line, including 14.3 percent of those under age 18 and 10 percent of those age 65 or over. Teeing the fiscal issue up is the municipal debt arising from the issuance by the city and its Public Recreational Facilities Authority of some $9.2 million of lease-revenue municipal bonds insured by ACA twelve years ago—debt upon which the municipality had offered City Hall, police and court facilities, as well as its municipal championship golf course as collateral for the debt—that is, in this duffer’s case, municipal debt which the municipality’s leaders voted to stop repaying, as we have previously noted, in late 2015. Ergo, ACA is taking another swing at the city: it is seeking:

  • the appointment of a receiver appointed for the municipal facilities,
  • immediate payment of the debt, and
  • $525,000 in damages in a new in the U.S. District Court for Western Virginia,

Claiming the municipality “fraudulently induced” ACA to enter into the transaction by representing that the city had authority to enter the contracts. In response, the municipality’s attorney reports that Buena Vista city officials are still open to settlement negotiations, and are more than willing to negotiate—but that ACA has refused its offers. In a case where there appear to have been any number of mulligans, since it was first driven last June, teed off, as it were, in Buena Vista Circuit Court, where ACA sought a declaratory judgment against the Buena Vista and the Public Recreational Facilities Authority, seeking judicial determination with regard to the validity of its agreement with Buena Vista, including municipal bond documents detailing any legal authority to foreclose on city hall, the police department, and/or the municipal golf course. The trajectory of the course of the litigation, however, has not been down the center of the fairway: the lower court case took a severe hook into the fiscal rough when court documents filed by the city contended that the underlying municipal bond deal was void, because only four of the Buena Vista’s seven City Council members voted on the bond resolution, not to mention related agreements which included selling the city’s interest in its “public places.” Moreover, pulling out a driver, Buena Vista, in its filing, wrote that Virginia’s constitution filing, requires all seven council members to be present to vote on a matter which involved backing the golf course’s municipal bonds with an interest in facilities owned by the municipality. That drive indeed appeared to earn a birdie, as ACA then withdrew its state suit; however, it then filed in federal court, where, according to its attorney, it is not seeking to foreclose on Buena Vista’s municipal facilities; rather, in its new federal lawsuit, ACA avers that the tainted vote supposedly invalidating the municipality’s deed of trust supporting the municipal bonds and collateral does not make sense, maintaining in its filing that Buena Vista’s elected leaders had adopted a bond resolution and made representations in the deed, the lease, the forbearance agreement, and in legal opinions which supported the validity of the Council’s actions, writing: “Fundamental principles of equity, waiver, estoppel, and good conscience will not allow the city–after receiving the benefits of the [municipal] bonds and its related transactions–to now disavow the validity of the same city deed of trust that it and its counsel repeatedly acknowledged in writing to be fully valid, binding and enforceable.” Thus, the suit requests a judgment against Buena Vista, declaring the financing documents to be valid, appointing a receiver, and an order granting ACA the right to foreclose on the Buena Vista’s government complex in addition to compensatory damages, with a number of the counts seeking rulings determining that Buena Vista and the authority breached deed and forbearance agreements, in addition to an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, requiring immediate payback on the outstanding bonds, writing: “Defendants’ false statements and omissions were made recklessly and constituted willful and wanton disregard.” In addition to compensatory damages and pre-and post-judgment interest, ACA has asked the U.S. court to order that Buena Vista pay all of its costs and attorneys’ fees; it is also seeking an order compelling the city to move its courthouse to other facilities and make improvements at the existing courthouse, including bringing it up to standards required by the ADA.

Like a severe hook, the city’s municipal public course appears to have been errant from the get-go: it has never turned a profit for Buena Vista; rather it has required general fund subsidies totaling $5.6 million since opening, according to the city’s CAFR. Worse, Buena Vista notes that the taxpayer subsidies have taken a toll on its budget concurrent with the ravages created by the great recession: in 2010, Buena Vista entered a five-year forbearance agreement in which ACA agreed to make bond payments for five years; however, three years ago, the city council voted in its budget not to appropriate the funds to resume payment on the debt, marking the first default on the municipal golf course bond, per material event notices posted on the MSRB’s EMMA.

Federalism & Fiscal Challenges

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eBlog, 2/07/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider some of the implications of New Jersey’s constitution with regard to the state’s takeover of Atlantic City: does the state takeover violate parts of the Garden State’s constitution? Then we head south to the Caribbean to try to understand the extraordinary fiscal challenges to the neighboring U.S. territories of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

New Jersey Federalism? New Jersey Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez has issued an order temporarily blocking the state’s effort to eliminate one hundred Atlantic City firefighter positions—all part of an order which momentarily halts the state from imposing any layoffs or unilateral contract changes to Atlantic City’s 225-member fire department. The issue and legal challenge here arose in the wake of the International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 198, and the AFL-CIO filing a lawsuit arguing that the State of New Jersey’s action under the Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act—which empowered the state takeover of the City, and authorized New Jersey’s Local Finance Board to take over the city, violates New Jersey’s constitution. The suit comes even as the state’s Department of Community Affairs claims the state had already decided before the ruling to push back implementing the firefighter cuts until next September—with the changes to pay structure, hours, and overtime postponed until the end of next week; however, the state made clear the “temporary restraining order signed by Judge Mendez does not change the State’s timetable for advancing reforms of Atlantic City firefighters’ contracts…We decided to delay implementing the proposed contract reforms until February 19th as a good faith gesture to give the fire department more time to prepare.”

Judge Mendez had initially scheduled a hearing for next Monday; however, the state successfully fought to get the case removed to federal court at an undetermined date. Judge Mendez issued the restraining order despite the state, in a court filing, advising the court it would hold off implementing the proposed 100 layoffs until September, and would delay changes to pay structure, hours, overtime, and benefits until February 19th. However, Judge Mendez’s order bars the state from taking any action under the Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act that is “in violation of the Due Process and Equal Protection, Contracts, Takings, Collective Negotiation, and Civil Service clauses of the New Jersey Constitution.” The case marks the first legal challenge to the broad state preemption and takeover of Atlantic City imposed by the state last November: the subsequent court case could shape up to be a significant test of the takeover’s constitutionality against criticisms that it violates residents’ civil rights and the collective bargaining rights of the city’s unions.

The state’s strategy in responding by seeking removal to the federal court seems exceptional—and in stark contrast to the unique concept of dual federalism in this country, especially so in this case, because the New Jersey constitution includes a comparable provision with regard to voiding contracts—or, as a colleague late last night noted: “It’s odd for a state law to be appealed to the federal court when there are state constitutional issues at stake.” Nevertheless, the filing raises two issues: 1) would a federal court even consent? It is, after all, a matter of New Jersey law, and 2) it would seem, especially in a New Jersey court, that the state constitution issue should supersede a federal action.  

At the same time, in a separate fiscal arena, Moody’s Investor Service’s affirmed  Atlantic City’s deep-junk level Caa3 bond rating and retained the city’s negative outlook, citing an ongoing “liquidity crisis” and likely default in the next year notwithstanding the state’s takeover—the city, after all, is confronting a structural deficit of more than $100 million and has suffered five casino closures since 2014; it has $240 million in municipal bond debt and more than $500 million in total debt when factoring in casino tax refunds and other obligations. It would seem Moody’s is seeking to ensure investors are aware of what is transpiring—and needed to remind the city’s municipal bondholders that there will be a new Governor who will have to reassess what actions—and relationship with Atlantic City—they ought to consider.

Statehood I? Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has signed into law a bill for a June referendum on Puerto Rico’s political status. The law provides for a non-binding referendum that would allow the U.S. territory to vote on statehood. The referendum, to be held this June, will allow the voters to choose between statehood and independence/free association. Those in support of Puerto Rican statehood believe approving statehood could help the country restructure its $70 billion in public debt and stave off further federal austerity measures. Functionally, if approved, Puerto Rican statehood would allow the state to receive $10 billion in federal funds per year, as well as allowing government agencies and municipalities to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. In signing the legislation, Gov. Rosselló called the vote “a civil rights issue;” he said the U.S. will have to “respond to the demands of 3.5 million citizens seeking an absolute democracy.” Importantly, if granted statehood, the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico would, at long last, no longer be denied many of the benefits provided to citizens in U.S. mainland and Hawaii, including equal access to Social Security and Medicare, despite paying taxes for these services. In addition, Puerto Rico’s representatives in Congress would be granted the same voting rights as all other Members of Congress—except for the Delegate from the District of Colombia. Under the referendum, voters would, in effect, determine whether to alter Puerto Rico’s status as a territory granted under the Jones-Shafroth Act: they will be asked if they support Puerto Rico becoming a state or a country independent of the United States of America. Should voters opt for independence, a subsequent referendum next October would be held to determine whether citizens wish to maintain some sort of association with the U.S., or become independent. In a written statement from Gov. Rosselló, Puerto Rico House of Representatives President Carlos Méndez said, “The colonial situation that currently defines Puerto Rico has deprived Puerto Ricans of participating fully in the federal government, of voting for the president of the United States, of electing representatives with a say and vote in the federal congress, and of receiving equal treatment in opportunities that strengthen socio-economic development and quality of life.”

Statehood or Independence? Even as Gov. Rosselló has signed into law a provision to allow Puerto Rico’s citizens to vote on their own governing destiny, Congressman Luis Gutiérrez (D-Puerto Rico) today plans to offer legislation in Congress to promote a federal plebiscite in which Puerto Ricans can select between independence and a free association pact between Puerto Rico and the United States, with a draft of his proposal, as reported by El Nuevo Día, stating: “The annexation of Puerto Rico as a state of the Union would be detrimental both to the United States and to Puerto Rico. It is time to return sovereignty to Puerto Rico…Statehood and full assimilation—in which Puerto Rico delivers its nationality, culture, Olympic team, language, and ability to determine its future—is not the only option and is not the best option for Puerto Ricans.” Under the proposed legislation, all Puerto Ricans or a father or mother born in Puerto Rico, would be granted the right to vote; rights granted via federal programs, such as veterans, pensions, and benefits from military service would be recognized. The proposal suggests a process to restructure public debt as well as an agreement to keep the current total of federal transfers, as a bloc, during a transitional period. The bill provides that citizenship of Puerto Rico would be recognized; however, Puerto Ricans would be eligible to retain U.S. citizenship.

Caribbean Fiscal Contagion? Fitch Ratings has lowered its credit ratings for the U.S. Virgin Islands, just seventeen miles from Puerto Rico, downgrading its ratings on about $216 million of the U.S. territory’s water and power authority municipal bonds—acting in the wake of the island government’s rescission of a utility rate increase which had been approved last month. Fitch’s action put the island’s ratings eight levels below investment grade—and near default, and came in the wake, last month, of its downgrade of the Virgin Islands’ public finance authority, which borrows on behalf of the government, writing: “The rating downgrade reflects the heightened credit risk as a consequence of the island’s Water & Power Authority’s continued inability to gain regulatory approval of rate relief needed to address its exceptionally weak cash flow and liquidity.” The downgrade came in the wake of the U.S. territory’s increasing inability to issue municipal debt: the government has been unable to issue municipal debt since December, twice delaying a planned $219 million municipal bond sale. The U.S. territory, confronted by budget shortfalls, had intended to use the bond proceeds to help cover the government’s bills. Virgin Islands Governor Kenneth Mapp has proposed a series of tax increases intended to bolster the territory’s finances and restoring its access to the financial markets. However, as the Romans used to say: tempus fugit: Last week, Gov. Mapp warned the government may not be able to make payroll by the middle of this month if nothing is done.

What Could Be the State Role in Averting Municipal Fiscal Distress & Bamkruptcy?

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eBlog, 1/27/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing challenge in Petersburg, Virginia—and the role of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Because, in our federal system, each state has a different blueprint with regard to whether a municipality is even allowed to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy (only 18), and because there is not necessarily rhyme nor reason with regard to fiscal oversight and response mechanisms—as we have observed so wrenchingly in the forlorn case of East Cleveland—the role of states appears to be constantly evolving. So it is this a.m. that we look to Virginia, where the now insolvent municipality of Petersburg had routinely filed financial information with the Virginia auditor of public accounts—but somehow the accumulating fiscal descent into insolvency never triggered alarm bells.   

Virginia Auditor Martha Mavredes this week, testifying before the House Appropriations Committee, told Chairman S. Chris Jones (R-Suffolk) it was “just hard for us to really get our minds around how that was missed,” telling the committee the state currently has no requirement for municipalities to furnish the kind of comprehensive information that would trigger awareness of insolvency; there appears to be no mechanism for the Commonwealth to step in and help. Indeed, that was the very purpose of Chairman Jones to call for the hearing: he wants to better understand options Virginia might consider to not just create some kind of trip wire, but, mayhap more importantly, to act on provisions which could avert future such municipal insolvencies. Auditor Mavredes indicated to the Committee she is scrambling to scrabble together some kind of tripwire or early warning system that would flag financial problems in Virginia’s municipalities at an earlier stage, telling the committee she is using a system devised by the state of Louisiana to help Virginia identify cities and counties in dire fiscal straits. Thus she plans to create a database of all localities in the commonwealth to rate or score their relative fiscal health. Under what she is proposing, her office will approach cities that show warning signs in order to assess more information. Her real issue, she told the committee, is what fiscal assistance tools might be available—or as she put it: the “piece I can’t solve right now is what kind of assistance might be there” once such problems come to light.” Virginia, like a majority of states, has no provision for the state to step in if a locality goes into default. Indeed, it was the thoughtful step of Virginia’s Finance Secretary Ric Brown, who took the unusual step last year to investigate Petersburg’s finances, which led him to discover the city had some $18 million in unpaid bills, an unbalanced budget, and a fiscal practice of papering over deficits with short-term borrowing—a practice that not only jeopardized the city’s bond rating, but also affected the cost of borrowing for the regional public utility. Secretary Brown stressed the need for training local elected officials about budgeting and best practices, and he suggested a program to allow outside management firms to help get cities on a better fiscal foundation. Interestingly, the Committee might want to avail itself of the pioneering work underway by the irrepressibly insightful Don Boyd of the Rockefeller Institute of Government to assess state responses to municipal fiscal distress, seeking to answer the kinds of thoughtful queries Secretary Brown is asking. In a chart for Rockefeller, we tried our own answer:

Understanding Municipal Fiscal Stress

Assessing State Responses to Growing Municipal Fiscal Distress and Insolvency:

  • The Ostriches (head in the sand): Do Nothings/modified harm: e.g. Illinois
  • Denigrators (Alabama is a prime example: when Jefferson County requested authority to raise its own taxes, the Legislature refused, forcing the county into chapter 9 bankruptcy);
  • Learners (Rhode Island is a very good candidate here—in the wake of Central Falls, the state evolved into a much more constructive partnership;
  • Thinkers (I put Colo. & Minn. here—especially because both seem to recognize potential benefits of tax sharing & innovation in intergovernmental fiscal policy);
  • Preemptors (Michigan, because it provides for the usurpation of any local authority through the appointment of an Emergency Manager); New Jersey seems to be fitting in with that category re: Atlantic City;
  • Substitutors: Pa.: Act 47
  • Maybe Do-Nothings: Ohio, even though it authorizes municipal bankruptcy, appears to have been totally non-responsive the petition by East Cleveland to file—and has appeared to play no role in the so-far dysfunctional discussions between Cleveland and East Cleveland).

The Different Roads out of Municipal Bankruptcy

eBlog, 1/25/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider yesterday’s guilty plea from the former Mayor of Pennsylvania’s capitol, Harrisburg, for actions he had taken as Mayor which plunged the city to the brink of chapter 9 bankruptcy; then we consider Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s announcement that a majority of Detroiters will see a reduction in their property tax obligations—a sign of the signal fiscal turnaround. Then we head into the icy blast of Winter in Pennsylvania, where the former Mayor of Harrisburg has pleaded guilty to stealing city-purchased artifacts, before veering south to note Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has signed into law an extension of Act 154’s tax on foreign corporations.  

Public Mistrust. Former Harrisburg, Pa., Mayor Stephen Reed pleaded guilty Monday to 20 counts of theft  for stealing artifacts purchased by the city in Dauphin County court Monday, with the outcome coming in the wake of negotiations with the state Attorney General’s office. The 20 counts reflects a dramatic reduction of criminal counts from the original more than 470, including many tied to fiscal decisions during his service as Mayor, a period which had propelled the city to the verge of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy—and a leftover severe set of fiscal challenges still bedeviling the state capitol. The former mayor, in his comments to the press after the proceeding, described it as “gut-wrenchingly humiliating.” The Patriot-News of Harrisburg reported that Mr. Reed, who served as mayor from 1982 to 2009, admitted to taking 20 historic artifacts, but said he had no criminal intent. Judge Kevin Hess scheduled a sentencing hearing for Friday in the Dauphin County Court of Common Pleas in Harrisburg. The trial commenced in the wake of then Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane in July of 2015 announcing the indictment of the former Mayor: prosecutors asserted he had diverted municipal bond proceeds, notably related to an incinerator retrofit project, to a special projects fund he allegedly used to purchase as many as 10,000 Wild West artifacts and other “curiosities” for himself—including a $6,500 vampire hunting kit—a series of disclosures which contributed to the city’s descent into receivership due to municipal bond financing overruns related to an incinerator retrofit project; the Harrisburg City Council filed for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in October of 2011, notwithstanding the objection of then-Mayor Linda Thompson; however, a federal judge two months later negated the filing, and a state-appointed receivership team pulled together a recovery plan approved by the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania in September of 2013. Yesterday, Christopher Papst, author of the book Capital Murder an Investigative Reporter’s Hunt for Answers in a Collapsing City, noted: “Stephen Reed’s guilty plea concerning his stealing of city artifacts is a good start for the people of Harrisburg who deserve answers and justice. But far more needs to be done and more people need to be held accountable for the city’s financial collapse…A strong message must be sent that any impropriety concerning municipal financial dealings will not be tolerated.”

Rebalancing Motor City’s Tax Wheel Alignments. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan has announced that about 55% of residential property owners in the city will see a reduction in their property tax obligations later this year. His announcement came in the wake of the city’s completion of a three-year reappraisal project, as required under Detroit’s plan of debt adjustment approved by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court. According to Mayor Duggan, about 140,000 residents will realize an average reduction of $263 on their tax bills, while 112,000 will see an average increase of $80. The reappraisal process, unlike past years, assessed each property individually. Tax assessments were mailed Monday. The city, despite boasting one of the broadest tax bases of any city in the U.S., (its municipal income taxes constitute the city’s largest single source of revenues), nevertheless have been constrained by the state: only Chrysler and DTE Energy pay business taxes; moreover, state law bars cities from increasing revenues by adding a sales tax or raising residential property tax rates more than inflation. Moreover, in the years leading up to the city’s fiscal collapse into chapter 9 bankruptcy, homeowners had complained that their property taxes did not compare to the market value of their homes. Ergo, now Mayor Duggan is hopeful that the new assessment will improve property tax collections—or as he put it yesterday: “It turns out, when people feel they’re being assessed fairly, they pay their taxes….For years, we basically have taken entire neighborhoods or sections of the city and taken averages, which is the best that could be done with the data available.” But the new assessments are based upon house-by-house reassessments using aerial and street-level photography as well as field visits. In addition, the city digitized field cards for every single residential property, allowing employees to inspect the condition of homes based on the historical information and new ground and aerial photos, according to City Assessor Alvin Horhn—or, as Mr. Horn notes: “Where everything matched up, fine. Whenever there was a difference, we sent people out to look…For the most part, this was done at a desktop (computer) review.” Next up: a citywide reassessment of all commercial and industrial properties will be completed for the winter 2018 tax bills. According to city data, collections have increased steadily from about 68% in 2012-14 during the city’s municipal bankruptcy to 79% in 2015 and a projected 82% last year: from 2015 to 2016, the city reported that property tax collections increased approximately $8 million.

Act 54 Where Are You? Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has signed into law an extension of Act 154’s tax on foreign corporations (mainly corporations manufacturing pharmaceuticals and other high-tech products), a key action to preserve revenues which provide a quarter of the U.S. Territory’s general fund revenues; the action came as Public Affairs Secretary Ramon Rosario Cortés submitted a measure to replace Puerto Rico’s Moratorium Law, an action which he said could mean Puerto Rico could dedicate some of the savings from which to provide “payment of interest or some part of the principal” in negotiations with the island’s creditors: “The obligations of the government of Puerto Rico will be fulfilled in an orderly process. The government is going to commit itself to the policy that what it is directed is to pay the obligations of the government of Puerto Rico. The first thing is essential services.” The discussion occurs at a pivotal point, as, since before the administration of newly elected Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares taking office, Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz had announced that they were in tune to extend the expiration of the moratorium scheduled for the end of this month. If the government does not extend the litigation deadlock, it will face $1.3 billion in February, leaving it with no cash for operations, according to a liquidity report by Conway Mackenzie. Secretary Cortés, in response to a query yesterday with regard to interest payments, did note that would be possible “with the savings that are achieved, guaranteeing priority, which are essential services…The government of Puerto Rico will be making savings with this measure and the savings that will be made will be part of the renegotiation process, which could include the payment of interest or some part of principal, but in negotiation with creditors.” The revenues, as reported over the most recent half fiscal year, accounted for 25% of all General Fund revenues—more even than the $713 million in individual income taxes. The Act, adopted in 2010 to help address the dire fiscal imbalance, was set to impose a continually declining levy rate on foreign corporations until it would phase out this year, based on Treasury regulations promulgated six years ago which allow corporations to take tax credits against temporary excise taxes. Now a tricky shoal to navigate in the midst of the major transition in power in Washington, D.C. The issue involves whether the IRS will grant an extension of Act 154 past its current scheduled expiration at the end of this calendar year. According to Puerto Rico, 10 corporations and partnerships paid some 90 percent of all Act 154 taxes in FY2016. The law mainly affects corporations manufacturing pharmaceuticals and other high-tech products on the island.

Are American Cities at a Financial Brink?

eBlog, 1/13/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing fiscal and physical challenges to the City of Flint, Michigan in the wake of the disastrous state appointment of an Emergency Manager with the subsequent devastating health and fiscal subsequent crises, before turning to a new report, When Cities Are at the Financial Brink” which would have us understand that the risk of insolvency for large cities is now higher than at any point since the federal government first passed a municipal bankruptcy law in the 1930’s,” before briefly considering the potential impact on every state, local government, and public school system in the country were Congress to adopt the President-elect’s proposed infrastructure plan; then we consider the challenge of aging: what do longer lifespans of city, county, and state employees augur for state and local public pension obligations and credit ratings?

Not In Like Flint. Residents of the City of Flint received less than a vote of confidence Wednesday about the state of and safety of their long-contaminated drinking water, precipitated in significant part by the appointment of an Emergency Manager by Governor Rick Snyder. Nevertheless, at this week’s town hall, citizens heard from state officials that city water reaching homes continues to improve in terms of proper lead, copper, alkaline, and bacteria levels—seeking to describe Flint as very much like other American cities. The statements, however, appeared to fall far short of bridging the trust gap between Flint residents and the ability to trust their water and those in charge of it appears wide—or, as one Flint resident described it: “I’m hoping for a lot…But I’ve been hoping for three years.” Indeed, residents received less than encouraging words. They were informed that they should, more than 30 months into Flint’s water crisis, continue to use filters at home; that it will take roughly three years for Flint to replace lead water service lines throughout the city; that the funds to finance that replacement have not been secured, and that Flint’s municipal treatment plants needs well over $100 million in upgrades: it appears unlikely the city will be ready to handle water from the new Karegnondi Water Authority until late-2019-early 2020. The state-federal presentation led to a searing statement from one citizen: “I’ve got kids that are sick…My teeth are falling out…You have no solution to this problem.”

Nevertheless, progress is happening: in the last six months of water sampling in Flint, lead readings averaged 12 parts per billion, below the federal action level of 15 ppb, and down from 20 ppb in the first six months of last year. Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech researcher who helped identify the city’s contamination problems, said: “Levels of bacteria we’re seeing are at dramatically lower levels than we saw a year ago.” However, the physical, fiscal, public trust, and health damage to the citizens of Flint during the year-and-a-half of using the Flint River as prescribed by the state-appointed Emergency Manager has had a two-fold impact: the recovery has been slow and residents have little faith in the safety of the water. Mayor Karen Weaver has sought to spearhead a program of quick pipeline replacement, but that process has been hindered by a lack of funding.

State Intervention in Municipal Bankruptcy. In a new report yesterday, “When Cities Are at the Financial Brink,” Manhattan Institute authors Daniel DiSalvo and Stephen Eide wrote the “risk of insolvency for large cities in now higher than at any point since the federal government first passed a municipal bankruptcy law in the 1930’s,” adding that “states…should intervene at the outset and appoint a receiver before allowing a city or other local government entity to petition for bankruptcy in federal court—and writing, contrary to recent history: “Recent experiences with municipal bankruptcies indicates that when local officials manage the process, they often fail to propose the changes necessary to stabilize their city’s future finances.” Instead, they opine in writing about connections between chapter 9, and the role of the states, there should be what they term “intervention bankruptcy,” which could be an ‘attractive alternative’ to the current Chapter 9. They noted, however, that Congress is unlikely to amend the current municipal bankruptcy chapter 9, adding, moreover, that further empowering federal judges in municipal affairs “is sure to raise federalism concerns.” It might be that they overlook that chapter 9, reflecting the dual sovereignty created by the founding fathers, incorporates that same federalism, so that a municipality may only file for chapter 9 federal bankruptcy if authorized by state law—something only 18 states do—and that in doing so, each state has the prerogative to determine, as we have often noted, the process—so that, as we have also written, there are states which:

  • Precipitate municipal bankruptcy (Alabama);
  • Contribute to municipal insolvency (California);
  • Opt, through enactment of enabling legislation, significant state roles—including the power and authority to appoint emergency managers (Michigan and Rhode Island, for instance);
  • Have authority to preempt local authority and take over a municipality (New Jersey and Atlantic City.).

The authors added: “The recent experience of some bankrupt cities, as well as much legal scholarship casts doubt on the effectiveness of municipal bankruptcy.” It is doubtful the citizens in Stockton, Central Falls, Detroit, Jefferson County, or San Bernardino would agree—albeit, of course, all would have preferred the federal bailouts received in the wake of the Great Recession by Detroit’s automobile manufacturers, and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Similarly, it sees increasingly clear that the State of Michigan was a significant contributor to the near insolvency of Flint—by the very same appointment of an Emergency Manager by the Governor to preempt any local control.

Despite the current chapter 9 waning of cases as San Bernardino awaits U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury’s approval of its exit from the nation’s longest municipal bankruptcy, the two authors noted: “Cities’ debt-levels are near all-time highs. And the risk of municipal insolvency is greater than at any time since the Great Depression.” While municipal debt levels are far better off than the federal government’s, and the post-Great Recession collapse of the housing market has improved significantly, they also wrote that pension debt is increasingly a problem. The two authors cited a 2014 report by Moody’s Investors Service which wrote that rising public pension obligations would challenge post-bankruptcy recoveries in Vallejo and Stockton—perhaps not fully understanding the fine distinctions between state constitutions and laws and how they vary from state to state, thereby—as we noted in the near challenges in the Detroit case between Michigan’s constitution with regard to contracts versus chapter 9. Thus, they claim that “A more promising approach would be for state-appointed receivers to manage municipal bankruptcy plans – subject, of course, to federal court approval.” Congress, of course, as would seem appropriate under our Constitutional system of dual sovereignty, specifically left it to each of the states to determine whether such a state wanted to allow a municipality to even file for municipal bankruptcy (18 do), and, if so, to specifically set out the legal process and authority to do so. The authors, however, wrote that anything was preferable to leaving local officials in charge—mayhap conveniently overlooking the role of the State of Alabama in precipitating Jefferson County’s insolvency.  

American Infrastructure FirstIn his campaign, the President-elect vowed he would transform “America’s crumbling infrastructure into a golden opportunity for accelerated economic growth and more rapid productivity gains with a deficit-neutral plan targeting substantial new infrastructure investments,” a plan the campaign said which would provide maximum flexibility to the states—a plan, “American Infrastructure First” plan composed of $137 billion in federal tax credits which would, however, only be available investors in revenue-producing projects—such as toll roads and airports—meaning the proposed infrastructure plan would not address capital investment in the nation’s public schools, libraries, etc. Left unclear is how such a plan would impact the nation’s public infrastructure, the financing of which is, currently, primarily financed by state and local governments through the use of tax-exempt municipal bonds—where the financing is accomplished by means of local or state property, sales, and/or income taxes—and some user fees. According to the Boston Federal Reserve, annual capital spending by state and local governments over the last decade represented about 2.3% of GDP and about 12% of state and local spending: in FY2012 alone, these governments provided more than $331 billion in capital spending. Of that, local governments accounted for nearly two-thirds of those capital investments—accounting for 14.4 percent of all outstanding state and local tax-exempt debt. Indeed, the average real per capita capital expenditure by local governments, over the 2000-2012 time period, according to the Boston Federal Reserve was $724—nearly double state capital spending. Similarly, according to Census data, state governments are responsible for about one-third of state and local capital financing. Under the President-elect’s proposed “American Infrastructure First” plan composed of $137 billion in federal tax credits—such credit would only be available to investors in revenue-producing projects—such as toll roads and airports—meaning the proposed infrastructure plan would not address capital investment in the nation’s public schools, libraries, etc. Similarly, because less than 2 percent of the nation’s 70,000 bridges in need of rebuilding or repairs are tolled, the proposed plan would be of no value to those respective states, local governments, or users. Perhaps, to state and local leaders, more worrisome is that according to a Congressional Budget Office 2015 report, of public infrastructure projects which have relied upon some form of private financing, more than half of the eight which have been open for more than five years have either filed for bankruptcy or been taken over by state or local governments.

Moody Southern Pension Blues. S&P Global Ratings Wednesday lowered Dallas’s credit rating one notch to AA-minus while keeping its outlook negative, with the action following in the wake of Moody’s downgrade last month—with, in each case, the agencies citing increased fiscal risk related to Dallas’ struggling Police and Fire Pension Fund, currently seeking to stem and address from a recent run on the bank from retirees amid efforts to keep the fund from failing, or, as S&P put it: “The downgrade reflects our view that despite the city’s broad and diverse economy, which continues to grow, stable financial performance, and very strong management practices, expected continued deterioration in the funded status of the city’s police and fire pension system coupled with growing carrying costs for debt, pension, and other post-employment benefit obligations is significant and negatively affects Dallas’ creditworthiness.” S&P lowered its rating on Dallas’ moral obligation bonds to A-minus from A, retaining a negative outlook, with its analysis noting: “Deterioration over the next two years in the city’s budget flexibility, performance, or liquidity could result in a downgrade…Similarly, uncertainty regarding future fixed cost expenditures could make budgeting and forecasting more difficult…If the city’s debt service, pension, and OPEB carrying charge elevate to a level we view as very high and the city is not successful in implementing an affordable plan to address the large pension liabilities, we could lower the rating multiple notches.” For its part, Fitch Ratings this week reported that a downgrade is likely if the Texas Legislature fails to provide a structural solution to the city’s pension fund problem. The twin ratings calls come in the wake of Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings report to the Texas Pension Review Board last November that the combined impact of the pension fund and a court case involving back pay for Dallas Police officers could come to $8 billion—mayhap such an obligation that it could force the municipality into chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, albeit stating that Dallas is not legally responsible for the $4 billion pension liability, even though he said that the city wants to help. The fund has an estimated $6 billion in future liabilities under its current structure. In testimony to the Texas State Pension Review Board, Mayor Rawlings said the pension crisis has made recruitment of police officers more difficult just as the city faces a flood of retirements.

 

The Challenges of Fiscal Disparities

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eBlog, 12/29/16

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider Detroit’s ongoing challenges to recovery from the nation’s largest ever municipal bankruptcy—a city unbailed out by the federal government, but which, as we noted earlier this week, Detroit News editorial writer Daniel Howes described as “perceptively changing,” especially as we write this rainy morning with regard to its thousands of abandoned homes and buildings. Then we turn to Virginia’s Petersburg, the historic city which danced on the edge of municipal bankruptcy—threatening the solvency of regional public utilities—as it faces challenges to its future. Finally, we look at the newly released census figures to better grasp the scope of fiscal disparities in the State of Ohio—especially with regard to the fiscally depleted municipality of East Cleveland.

Unbuilding & Rebuilding a City’s Future. In the final week of the year, Detroit neared the razing of an industrial building which once covered an entire city block—marking the razing of some 3,130 structures razed this year, bringing the total razed since the city emerged from chapter 9 bankruptcy to around 10,700 over the last three years—with the vast bulk of those owned by Detroit’s Land Bank Authority. Nevertheless, giving some idea of the vast scope of the city’s challenge, its blight task force in 2014 had projected that the city would need to tear down 40,000—and that some 38,000 others were at risk of collapse. Indeed, still today, many blocks in the city have more abandoned houses and empty lots than lived-in homes, a scar reminding us of the exodus of whites and much of the black middle class from the city: an exodus of more than half the city’s population since the 1950’s. In 1950, there were 1,849,568 people in Detroit, but, by 2010, there were 713,777. The city today is home to an estimated 40,000 abandoned lots and structures. Between 1978 and 2007, Detroit lost 67 percent of its business establishments and 80 percent of its manufacturing base. Thus, as Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan has stated, he believes the mass demolitions are necessary for Detroit if it is to attract families to city neighborhoods and staunch the decades of population loss.

Detroit Fire Investigations Division Capt. Winston Farrow adds that the removal of dangerous buildings and empty houses is vital to public safety and the quality of life in Detroit: “It eliminates the opportunities for criminals to set fires in vacant houses…The problem was more just the sheer numbers of dwellings that we had.” In another sign that the strategy is working, the average sale prices of over 100 houses sold in Detroit has increased over the past three years, according to the Land Bank.

Nevertheless, the challenge to the city’s future remains: the Detroit News quoted the owner of 3D Wrecking, Sheila Davenport: “You can tear down a house on one block and go back several months later and where houses were occupied (they) are now abandoned and need to be demolished…It just seems like it never ends.” And, of course, it is a costly process; on average, the city expends $12,616 to knock down a house—a process made fiscally easier through the receipt of more than $128 million in federal funds over the past three years—with another $130 million in the pipeline—along with $40 million from the city’s general fund set aside for further demolitions. (Federal funding had been temporarily halted earlier this year, but resumed after an audit determined demolition costs above a federal cap of $25,000 per house were redistributed to 350 other properties to have those houses appear to meet the cap.)

Syncopating Time. Notwithstanding the cold rain falling in Petersburg this morning, work has finally commenced to restore one of the city’s highest-profile landmarks after months of delay caused by the city’s budget crisis—with the construction to repair a nearly 180-year-old clock tower and roof, a $1.2 million project financed by the Virginia Resource Authority—financed, according to a city spokesperson who stated the VRA municipal bond was “approved prior to the financial crisis.” The work—to properly coordinate the clocks on the clock tower, had been deferred last year when the city discovered its fiscal cupboards were bare—even as city officials had been ordered to close the building two years because of structural problems with the historic edifice—during which time Circuit Court jury trials were temporarily moved to the Dinwiddie County Circuit Courthouse. But it is now in a different courthouse where the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals is weighing a lawsuit over a Petersburg Bureau of Police policy concerning social media which could result in a finding that would cost the fiscally challenged municipality millions of dollars after a federal court ruled that a lower court must decide whether the city government can be held liable for damages in the case. In its ruling, the court determined that the police department’s social media policy, put in place in 2013, violated employees’ First Amendment free speech rights. Moreover, the federal judges ordered the case be sent back to U.S. District Court in Richmond to determine whether “the city may also be held liable for the injuries that were caused by the applications of that policy.” The case arose two years ago last March, when two former Petersburg police officers claimed they were unjustly punished for posting comments on Facebook which criticized the department for promoting officers they considered too inexperienced. Their comments were reported to former Police Chief John I. Dixon III. The two officers were found to have violated a policy that Chief Dixon had instituted in April of 2013—a policy which prohibited department employees from giving out information “that would tend to discredit or reflect unfavorably upon the [department] or any other City of Petersburg department or its employees,” according to the appeals court opinion. The two officers were reprimanded and placed on probation—ergo, because they were on probation, they were barred from taking a test to qualify for promotion to sergeant. In addition, the officers had also been investigated over allegations of misconduct, which they claimed were filed in retaliation after the police department learned of their intent to file suit. The appeals court, however, has upheld the district court’s ruling that those investigations were not retaliatory, because “each arose from discrete allegations of misconduct” not related to the Facebook postings or the social media policy. For a municipality on the edge of chapter 9, the stakes on this appeal are high: the two officers are seeking compensatory damages of $2 million, plus punitive damages amounting to $350,000, plus attorney fees.

Ohio Fiscal Disparities. It was a generation ago that Congress eliminated the General Revenue Sharing program signed into law by former President Richard Nixon to address signal fiscal disparities. Today, it is possible to see how significant those disparities are becoming. According to the latest estimates available from the U.S. Census Bureau, median family incomes in Ohio cities range from $221,148 in the Columbus suburb of New Albany to $30,411 in East Cleveland, the city unbalanced between its waiting for Godot efforts to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy or a response to its efforts to become part of the City of Cleveland. The new Census figures make clear the extraordinary fiscal disparities in the state: after New Albany, the rest of the top five in Ohio are: Indian Hill near Cincinnati ($208,158), the Cleveland suburb of Pepper Pike ($162,292), and two Columbus suburbs: Powell at ($147,344) and Dublin ($139,860). The statistics are from surveys conducted from 2011 through 2015 and released this month—the latest estimates available from the U.S. Census Bureau for smaller areas.