Charting a Municipal Rovery Budget

April 5, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we shiver on the Appomattox River at first light in the historic Civil War municipality of Petersburg, a municipality which is on the rebound from virtual insolvency—in Virginia, where the state does not specifically authorize its municipalities to file a chapter 9 petition, but does impose a debt limitation barring any municipality from incurring debt in excess of 10% of the assessed valuation of taxable properties. It is a city, which has been, since the dawn of the republic, a strategic center for transportation and commercial activities, and it is a city, which came closest of any in the Commonwealth to filing for insolvency. But, in the wake of the appointment of a former city manager—as well as a state commission to provide assessment and evaluation of municipal fiscal well-being, it is, today, a city of 32,420 that is returning to fiscal health.

Setting the Path for a Strategic Recovery. In her first budget proposal for the historic Virginia municipality of Petersburg in the wake of its insolvency and near first-ever Virginia chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, City Manager Aretha Ferrell-Benavides, who was hired last June just as consultants charged with turning around the city’s finances told the City Council that it needed a $20 million cash infusion to make up a deficit and comply with its own reserve policies, Manager Ferrell-Benavides proposed a rebuilding budget–even as she  expressed cautious optimism to the Mayor and Council that Petersburg can overcome the challenges it faces and continue to restore its financial standing. Thus, she presented a $73 million proposed operating budget–one which focuses on public safety, more funding for the city’s chronically underperforming schools, but cuts to city departments.

In presenting her proposed FY2019 $102.6 million budget, she told the Mayor and Council the spending plan reflects five “strategic priorities,” led by a focus on establishing the city “as a structurally stable organization with a greater focus on customer service, efficiency, accountability, and transparency.” In addition, she added, she is proposing a budget, which aims to “strengthen our fundamental policy and process to achieve long-term fiscal stabilization.”

She cited other priorities, including boosting economic development, encouraging neighborhood revitalization, promoting community engagement, and neighborhood support. Noting that Petersburg confronts some uncertainty with regard to the levels of funding which will be available from the state and federal governments, Manager Ferrell-Benavides outlined revenue and spending plans, plans which, she advised, were based on “conservatism” in their projections, as she proposed an operating budget slightly under this year’s level–a reduction of about $305,000, or about 0.3 % from the amended budget for the current fiscal year–of which approximately 72% or $73 million would be for the operating budget–a 1.5% drop from the current level, while proposing a 6.4% increase in the capital budget for the city’s Utilities Fund, noting that public safety would remain the largest funding category, at about $18.9 million, or about 26% of the total, comparable to the current level. She proposed $13.6 million for the city’s second largest budget category, Social Services, unchanged from the current level services funding, but recommended an increase of about 3% for the city’s public schools, as part of what she asserted was a continuing effort to restore cuts which had been made during the city’s financial crisis in FY2016. For next year, she proposed that the budget allocate about $9.7 million to the school system, an increase of up about $271,000 from $9.5 million this year.

In a post General Revenue Sharing era, Petersburg, with a nearly 80% black population and where more than a quarter of its families are headed by a female householder with no husband present—and more than 11% of its households headed by a single person over the age of 65—has a median family income of $33,927, with nearly a quarter of its residents below the federal poverty level. It is a city, too, living with fear: on Wednesday, more than 100 guns were taken off the streets and destroyed by the order of Petersburg Police Chief Kenneth Miller, who described these as “illegal guns that were taken off streets.” Indeed, some nine months on the job, Chief Miller has been adamant about his decision to have the guns destroyed and not sold “to put these weapons back on the street for gain…We’re not going to take weapons of destruction and try to make a profit off of that.”

But, fiscally, the city appears to be on a strong road to recovery. Manager Ferrell-Benavides noted that the challenges that the Petersburg still faces include rising health care costs for city employees, aging water and sewer infrastructure, antiquated technology, the need to recruit and retain employees, and ongoing issues with billing and collections. Nevertheless, she said the city’s efforts to date have produced results, notably an improvement in Petersburg’s municipal bond rating from junk status to investment-grade, adding that her fiscal goal is  to wean the city off its use of revenue anticipation notes. Indeed, with her proposed five-year plan in place to build Petersburg’s cash reserve fund to $6 million, a remarkable turnaround from the city’s negative balance in place at the time of the financial crisis, she testified that her proposed budget was intended to help provide stability to city government by seeing the plan through, noting: “I am committed…and our team is committed, to be here for the next five years.” Her proposed $77 million operating budget would boost spending on public safety and restore 10 percent cuts to municipal workers’ pay, while shrinking a workforce that consultants had charged was bloated and structurally inefficient. 

In the wake of her predecessor, William Johnson’s firing for his role in dipping into the city’s rainy day fund two years ago, Ms. Ferrell-Benavides said big goals within her proposal include building up the reserve, reducing reliance on grant funding, and being conservative with estimates. She testified that her proposed budget, overall, represents a $1.1 million decrease from the FY2018 amended budget, and proposes increasing the reserve to $950,000, adding that the city’s reserve funds are out of the red–and, in good gnus, that Petersburg’s bond rating has been upgraded from junk bond status. She noted that Department heads had been instructed to trim their expenses by 10%, but that cutting salaries was not an option. Her proposed budget includes $18.93 million for public safety, a $3 million increase from two years ago–with the increase part of an effort to stem the exodus of public safety workers to surrounding counties. For the city’s kids, she proposed a budget increase of $300,000 over the current $9.7 million level, telling the Mayor and Council: “This is a big step for us. And that was part of the priorities. Our goal is to annually increase our investment in the school system.” 

The consultants are scheduled to be back in Petersburg later this week and will submit an updated report in the coming weeks. Their perspective will help, as the City Council begins the process drill down into the details over the next two months through work sessions and a round of community meetings—meetings scheduled to begin at the end of this month and finish by the end of May: the Council is scheduled to make its recommended changes to the city manager on May 22nd, after which the city has scheduled a public hearing on June 5, with the Mayor Council scheduled to act on final adoption on June 12th.  

Petersburg, a city still not completely free from the grips of financial crisis, has rolled out a $73 million proposed operating budget that emphasizes public safety, more money for chronically under performing schools, and cuts to city departments.

Advertisements

April 3, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the challenges of governance in insolvency. Who is in charge of steering a municipality, county, or U.S. territory out of insolvency? How? How do we understand and assess the status of the ongoing quasi chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy PROMESA deliberations in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. Then we head north to assess the difficult fiscal balancing challenges in Connecticut.

Governance in Insolvency.  Because, in our country, it was the states which created the federal government, making the U.S. unique in the world; chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy is only, in this country, an option in states which have enacted state legislation to authorize municipal bankruptcy. Thus, unsurprisingly, the process is quite different in the minority of states which have authorized municipal bankruptcy. In some states, such as Rhode Island and Michigan, for instance, the Governor has a vital role in which she or he is granted authority to name an emergency manager–a quasi-dictator to assume governmental and fiscal authority, usurping that of the respective city or county’s elected officials. That is what happened in the cases of Detroit and Central Falls, Rhode Island, where, in each instance, all authority was stripped from the respective Mayors and Councils pending a U.S. Bankruptcy Court’s approval of respective plans of debt adjustment, allowing the respective jurisdictions to emerge from municipal bankruptcy. Thus, in the case of those two municipalities, the state law preempted the governing authority of the respective Mayors and Councils.

That was not the case, however, in Jefferson County, Alabama–a municipal bankruptcy precipitated by the state’s refusal to allow the County to raise its own taxes. Nor was it the case in the instances of Stockton or San Bernardino, California: two chapter 9 cases where the State of California played virtually no role. 

Thus, the question with regard to governance in the event of a default or municipal bankruptcy is a product of our country’s unique form of federalism.

In the case of Puerto Rico, the U.S. territory created under the Jones-Shafroth Act, however, the issue falls under Rod Sterling’s Twilight Zone–as Puerto Rico is neither a municipality, nor a state: a legal status which has perplexed Congress, and now appears to plague the author of the PROMESA law, House Natural Resources Committee Chair Rob Bishop (R-Utah) with regard to who, exactly, has governing or governance authority in Puerto Rico during its quasi-chapter 9 bankruptcy process: is it Puerto Rico’s elected Governor and legislature? Is it the PROMESA Board imposed by the U.S. Congress? Is it U.S. Judge Laura Swain, presiding over the quasi-chapter 9 bankruptcy trial in New York City? 

Chairman Bishop has defended the PROMESA’s Board’s authority to preempt the Governor and Legislature’s ruling and governance authority, stressing that the federal statute gave the Board the power to promote “structural reforms” and fiscal authority, writing to Board Chair Jose Carrion: “It has been delegated a statutory duty to order any reforms–fiscal or structural–to the government of Puerto Rico to ensure compliance with the purpose of PROMESA, as he demanded the federally named Board use its power to make a transparent assessment of the economic impact of Hurricanes Irma and Maria on Puerto Rico’s fiscal conditions–and to ensure that the relative legal priorities and liens of Puerto Rico’s public debt are respected–leaving murky whether he intended that to mean municipal bonholders and other lien holders living far away from Puerto Rico ought to have a priority over U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico still trying to recover from violent hurricanes which received far less in federal response aid than the City of Houston–even appearing to link his demands for reforms to the continuity of that more limited federal storm recovery assistance to compliance with his insistence that there be greater “accountability, goodwill, and cooperation from the government of Puerto Rico…” Indeed, it seems ironic that a key Chairman of the U.S. Congress, which has voted to create the greatest national debt in the history of the United States, would insist upon a quite different standard of accountability for Puerto Rico than for his own colleagues.

It seems that the federal appeals court, which may soon consider an appeal of Judge Swain’s opinion with regard to Puerto Rico’s Highway and Transportation Authority not to be mandated to make payments on its special revenue debt during said authority’s own insolvency, could help Puerto Rico: a positive decision would give Puerto Rico access to special revenues during the pendency of its proceedings in the quasi-chapter 9 case before Judge Swain.

Stabilizing the Ship of State. Farther north in Connecticut, progressive Democrats at the end of last week pressed in the General Assembly against Connecticut’s new fiscal stability panel, charging its recommendations shortchange key priorities, such as poorer municipalities, education and social services—even as the leaders of the Commission on Fiscal Stability and Economic Growth conceded they were limited by severe time constraints. Nevertheless, Co-Chairs Robert Patricelli and Jim Smith asserted the best way to invest in all of these priorities would be to end the cycle of state budget deficits and jump-start a lagging state economy. The co-chairs aired their perspectives at a marathon public hearing in the Hall of the House, answering questions from members of four legislative committees: Appropriations; Commerce; Finance, Revenue and Bonding; and Planning and Development—where Rep. Robyn Porter (D-New Haven) charged: “I’m only seeing sacrifice from the same people over and over again,” stating she was increasingly concerned about growing income inequality, asking: “When do we strike a balance?” Indeed, New York and Connecticut, with the wealthiest 1 percent of households in those states earning more than 40 times the average annual income of the bottom 99 percent, demonstrate the governance and fiscal challenge of that trend. In its report, the 14-member Commission made a wide array of recommendations centered on a major redistribution of state taxes—primarily reducing income tax rates across the board, while boosting the sales and corporation levies. Ironically, however, because the wealthy pay the majority of state income taxes, the proposed changes would disproportionately accrue to the benefit of the state’s highest income residents—in effect mirroring the federal tax reform, leading Rep. Porter to question why the Commission made such recommendations, including another to do away immediately with the estate tax on estates valued at more than $2 million, but gradually phase in an increase to the minimum wage over the next four years.  From a municipal perspective, Rep. James Albis (D-East Haven), cited a 2014 state tax incidence report showing that Connecticut’s heavy reliance on property taxes to fund municipal government “is incredibly regressive,” noting it has the effect of shifting a huge burden onto lower-middle- and low-income households—even as the report found that households earning less than $48,000 per year effectively pay nearly one-quarter of their annual income to cover state and local taxes. Rep. Brandon McGee (D-Hartford), the Vice Chair of the legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, said the Committee’s recommendations lack bold ideas on how to revitalize Connecticut’s poor urban centers—with his concerns mirrored by Rep. Toni E. Walker (D-New Haven), Chair of the House Appropriations Committee, who warned she fears a commission proposal to cut $1 billion from the state’s nearly $20 billion annual operating budget would inevitably reduce municipal aid, especially to the state’s cities. Co-Chair Patricelli appeared to concur, noting: “Candidly, I would agree we came up a little short on the cities,” adding that the high property tax rates in Hartford and other urban centers hinder economic growth: “They really are fighting with one or more hands tied behind their backs.”

The ongoing discussion comes amidst the state’s fiscal commitment to assume responsibility to pay for Hartford’s general obligation debt service payments, more than $50 million annually—a fiscal commitment which understandably is creating equity questions for other municipalities in the state confronted by fiscal challenges. Like a teeter-totter, balancing fiscal needs in a state where the state itself has a ways to go to balance its own budget creates a test of fiscal and moral courage.

The Steep & Winding Road Out of Municipal Bankruptcy and State Oversight

February 26, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the hard road out of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy and state oversight.

Motor City Races to Earn the Checkered Flag. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan last Friday presented his proposed annual budget to the City Council, informing Councilmembers that, if approved, his $2 billion budget would be the keystone for formal exit from Michigan state oversight: that is, he advised he believed it would lay the ground work for ending the Financial Review Commission created in the wake of the city’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy: “Once we get this budget passed, we have the opportunity to get out from active state oversight…I don’t have enough good things to say about how the administration and Council has worked together.” As we had noted last month, Michigan Treasurer Nick Khouri, the Chair of the state oversight commission, made clear that the trigger to such an exit would be for the city to post its third straight budget surplus—with the Treasurer noting: “I think everyone, including me, has just been impressed with the progress that’s been made in the city of Detroit, both financially and operationally.”

For Detroit to fully emerge from the nation’s largest ever municipal bankruptcy, it must both comply with the provisions of the federal chapter 9 bankruptcy code, which provides that the debtor must file a plan (11 U.S.C. §941); neither creditors nor the U.S. Bankruptcy Court may control the affairs of a municipality indirectly through the mechanism of proposing a plan of adjustment of a municipality’s debts that would in effect determine the municipality’s future tax and/or spending decisions: the standards for plan confirmation in municipal bankruptcy cases are a combination of the statutory requirements of 11 U.S.C. §943(b) and portions of 11 U.S.C. §129. Key confirmation standards provide that the federal bankruptcy court must confirm a plan if the following conditions are met: the plan complies with the provisions of title 11 made applicable by sections 103(e) and 901;the plan complies with the provisions of chapter 9; all amounts to be paid by the debtor or by any person for services or expenses in the case or incident to the plan have been fully disclosed and are reasonable; the debtor is not prohibited by law from taking any action necessary to carry out the plan; except to the extent that the holder of a particular claim has agreed to a different treatment of such claim, the plan provides that on the effective date of the plan, each holder of a claim of a kind specified in section 507(a)(1) will receive on account of such claim cash equal to the allowed amount of such claim; any regulatory or electoral approval necessary under applicable non-bankruptcy law in order to carry out any provision of the plan has been obtained, or such provision is expressly conditioned on such approval; and the plan is in the best interests of creditors and is feasible.

Unlike in a non-municipal corporate bankruptcy (chapter 11), where the requirement that the plan be in the “best interests of creditors,” means in the “best interest of creditors” if creditors would receive as much under the plan as they would if the debtor were liquidated; under chapter 9, because, as one can appreciate, the option of Detroit to sell its streets, ambulances, and other publicly owned municipal assets is simply not an option, in municipal bankruptcy, the “best interests of creditors” test has generally been interpreted to mean that the plan must be better than other alternatives available to the creditors. It is not, in a sense, different from a Solomon’s Choice (Kings 3:16-28): that is, in lieu of the alternative to municipal chapter 9 bankruptcy of permitting each and every creditor to fend for itself, the federal bankruptcy court instead seeks to interpret what is in the “best interests of creditors” as a means to balance a reasonable effort by the municipality against the obligations it has to its retirees, municipal duties, service obligations, and its creditors—albeit, of course, leaving the door open for unhappy parties to object to confirmation, (see, viz. 11 U.S.C. §§ 901(a), 943, 1109, 1128(b)). The statute provides that a city or municipality may exit after a municipal debtor receives a discharge in a chapter 9 case after: (1) confirmation of the plan; (2) deposit by the debtor of any consideration to be distributed under the plan with the disbursing agent appointed by the court; and (3) a determination by the court that securities deposited with the disbursing agent will constitute valid legal obligations of the debtor and that any provision made to pay or secure payment of such obligations is valid. (11 U.S.C. §944(b)). Thus, the discharge is conditioned not only upon confirmation, but also upon deposit of the consideration to be distributed under the plan and a court determination of the validity of securities to be issued. (The Financial Review Commission is responsible for oversight of the City of Detroit and the Detroit Public Schools Community District, pursuant to the Michigan Financial Review Commission Act (Public Act 181 of 2014); it ensures both are meeting statutory requirements, reviews and approves their budgets, and establishes programs and requirements for prudent fiscal management, among other roles and responsibilities.)

As part of Detroit’s approved plan of debt adjustment, the State of Michigan mandated the appointment of a financial review commission to oversee the Motor City’s finances, including budgets, contracts, and collective bargaining agreements with municipal employees—a commission, ergo, which Mayor Duggan, last Friday, made clear would not simply disappear in a puff of smoke, but rather go into a “dormancy period: They do continue to review our finances, and if we in the future run a deficit, they come back to life, and it takes another three years before we can move them out.”

Mayor Duggan’s proposed budget includes an $8 million boost to Detroit’s Police Department budget—enough to hire 141 new full-time positions. With the increase, the Mayor noted, the city will be able to expand its Project Greenlight and Ceasefire programs—adding that the Motor City had struggled to fill police department vacancies until about two years ago when the City Council passed a new contract. Detroit had improved from its last place ranking in violent crime in 2014, moving up to second worst in 2015, vis-à-vis rates per resident in cities with 50,000 or more people: in 2014, Detroit had recorded 13,616 violent crimes, for a rate of about 994 incidents per 50,000 people, declining to 11,846 violent crimes in 2015, and to a violent crime rate of about 880. Since then, the city has been able to hire 500 new officers, albeit, as the Mayor noted: “This city is not nearly where it needs to be for safety.”  Additionally, Mayor Duggan said his budget allows Detroit to double the rate of commercial demolitions with a goal of having all “unsalvageable” buildings on major streets razed by 2019. That would put the city on track for cleaning up its commercial corridors, he added. The budget allocates $100 million of the unassigned fund balance to blight remediation and capital projects, which is double the resources allocated last fiscal year. Other budget plans include more funding for summer jobs programs and Detroit At Work; neighborhood redevelopment plans for areas such as Delray, Osborn, Cody Rouge, and East English Village; and boosting animal control so it can operate seven days a week.

The $2 billion budget dedicates $1 billion to the city’s general fund. Chief Financial Officer John Hill said it is able to maintain its $62.3 million budget reserve, which exceeds the $53.6 million requirementCouncilman Scott Benson said the Mayor presented a “conservative fiscal budget” which allows Detroit to live within its means. The Councilmember said prior to the meeting that he had hoped the budget would address funding for poverty and neighborhood revitalization. However, council members received the budget 20 minutes before the meeting and Councilmember Benson said he needed more time to review it. “We’re seeing some good things,” he said of Mayor Duggan’s proposals, “But I want to dig into the numbers and actually go through it with a fine-tooth comb.” Officials say city council has until March 9 to approve the budget.

That early checkered flag for the Motor City ought to help salve the city’s reputational wounds in the wake of the KO administered to the city’s bid to host Amazon. Indeed, as Quicken Loans Chairman Dan Gilbert wrote, it was Detroit’s negative reputation, not a lack of talent which knocked it out of the running for an Amazon headquarters, as he tweeted to the 60-plus member bid committee who crafted Detroit’s bid: “We are all disappointed,” referring to the city’s failed bid to make the cut for the top 20 finalists. Nevertheless, Mr. Gilbert urged members not to accept the “conventional belief” that Detroit had fallen short because of its challenges with regional transportation and attracting talent; rather, he wrote, the “elephant in the room” was the nasty reputation associated with the post-bankruptcy city’s 50-plus years of decline: “Old, negative reputations do not die easily. I believe this is the single largest obstacle that we face…Outstanding state-of-the-art videos, well-packaged and eye-catching proposals, complex and generous tax incentives, and highly compelling and improving metrics cannot, nor will not overcome the strong negative connotations that the Detroit brand still needs to conquer.” Regional leaders had been informed that Detroit’s bid had failed to move on because of inadequate mass transit and questionable ability to attract talent.

As part of Detroit’s approved plan of debt adjustment, the State of Michigan mandated the appointment of a financial review commission to oversee the Motor City’s finances, including budgets, contracts, and collective bargaining agreements with municipal employees—a commission, ergo, which Mayor Duggan, last Friday, made clear would not simply disappear in a puff of smoke, but rather go into a “dormancy period: They do continue to review our finances, and if we in the future run a deficit, they come back to life, and it takes another three years before we can move them out.”

Mayor Duggan’s proposed budget includes an $8 million boost to Detroit’s Police Department budget—enough to hire 141 new full-time positions. With the increase, the Mayor noted, the city will be able to expand its Project Greenlight and Ceasefire programs—adding that the Motor City had struggled to fill police department vacancies until about two years ago when the City Council passed a new contract. Detroit had improved for its last place raking in violent crime in 2014, moving up to second worst in 2015, vis-à-vis rates per resident in cities with 50,000 or more people: in 2014, Detroit had recorded 13,616 violent crimes, for a rate of about 994 incidents per 50,000 people, declining 11,846 violent crimes in 2015, and to a violent crime rate of about 880. Since then, the city has been able to hire 500 new officers, albeit, as the Mayor noted: “This city is not nearly where it needs to be for safety.”  Additionally, Mayor Duggan said his budget allows Detroit to double the rate of commercial demolitions with a goal of having all “unsalvageable” buildings on major streets razed by 2019. That would put the city on track for cleaning up its commercial corridors, he said. The budget allocates $100 million of the unassigned fund balance to blight remediation and capital projects, which is double the money allocated last fiscal year. Other budget plans include more funding for summer jobs programs and Detroit At Work; neighborhood redevelopment plans for areas such as Delray, Osborn, Cody Rouge and East English Village, and boosting animal control so it can operate seven days a week. 

The $2 billion budget dedicates $1 billion to the city’s general fund. Chief Financial Officer John Hill said Detroit is able to maintain its $62.3 million budget reserve, which exceeds the $53.6 million requirementCouncilman Scott Benson said the mayor presented a “conservative fiscal budget” that allows Detroit to live within its means, having said, prior to the meeting, that he hoped the budget would address funding for poverty and neighborhood revitalization. However, council members received the budget 20 minutes before the meeting and Councilmember Benson said he needed more time to review it. “We’re seeing some good things,” he said of Mayor Duggan’s proposals. “But I want to dig into the numbers and actually go through it with a fine-tooth comb.” Officials say city council has until March 9 to approve the budget.

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.

 

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.