The Fiscal Challenges of Federalism

July 13, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the legal, governing, and judicial challenges to Puerto Rico’s fiscal recovery, before turning to the very different kinds of fiscal recovery challenges confronting Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

Who Is Preempting Whose Power & Authority? Yesterday, the PROMESA Oversight  Board requested dismissal of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló Nevares’ suit in which he is charging that the Oversight Board has usurped his power and authority, with the Board asking the federal court to issue an injunction to prevent such action, noting in its filing: “Although PROMESA relies in the sole discretion of the Board, two major policy instruments that exist, the fiscal plan and the budget, and the law expressly empowers the Board to formulate and certify them…the Governor questions whether PROMESA preserves to the government the political powers and of government to make policy decisions.”  In response, the Board asserted that the Governor’s claim lacks merit, asserting that the law provides that the Board has the final say with regard to budget and tax issues, writing: “The provisions to which the Governor objects are not recommendations in the sense of §205 of PROMESA,” with that response coming just minutes after the U.S. requested—for a second time—its insistence on the “Constitutionality of the PROMESA statute. In a motion filed Wednesday, U.S. Justice Department Assistant Attorney General Thomas Ward advised Judge Laura Taylor Swain that two recent decisions upon which Puerto Rico had relied were not pertinent to the legal issues at hand. Promise law.

In a motion filed Wednesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney General Thomas G. Ward and Jean Lin of the Justice Department asserted before Judge Taylor Swain that two recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions presented by the Aurelius Management Investment Fund were not relevant to the critical issues at hand, after, earlier this week, the Fund had provided the Judge with two U.S. Supreme Court decisions which, it asserted, affirm its perception of the statute, as it continues to argue before the federal court that the actions of the PROMESA Board are null and void, because the members of the Board without the consent of the Senate as required by the U.S. Constitution, referencing two recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, Lucia v. SEC and Ortiz v. United States, where, in the former case, the court, last month, determined that a higher ranking SEC official should have been appointed to his position based on the Appointments Clause of the US Constitution, while, in the Ortiz decision, the Supreme Court held that it has jurisdiction to review decisions of the Armed Forces’ appellate courts—claims which the Justice Department described as incorrect, since such decisions only support his argument that the appointment clause of the U.S. Constitution does not apply to members of the PROMESA Oversight Board—or, as the Justice Department brief put it: “A finding that the clause applies to territorial officials would not only face this historic practice, but would also challenge the current governance structures of the territories and the District of Columbia that have been in place for decades,” adding to that Congress has full authority over its territories—authority which is not subject to the “complex” distribution of the powers of the government provided by the U.S. Constitution.

Last week, Gov. Rosselló had charged that the PROMESA Oversight Board has been trying to make policy decisions that the PROMESA law does not grant it authority to make, as he had petitioned Judge Swain to mandate that the Board to answer the complaint or motion to dismiss by yesterday. His attorneys stated: “The court should expedite resolution of this case to address the injury to the Commonwealth and its people occurring every day due to the Board’s attempt to seize day-to-day control of Puerto Rico’s government.” Even though the PROMESA Board asked for more time, Judge Swain ruled in favor of the Governor’s request—so, the complex federalism sessions are scheduled to resume on the 25th, when the quasi bankruptcy court will entertain oral arguments, possibly including participation by Puerto Rico Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz and House President Carlos Méndez Núñez, who filed a similar suit against the board on July 9th, asserting that the PROMESA Board was preempting the legislature’s rightful powers. Thus, even the Board and the Governor have generally been in agreement this year in their fiscal plans, the Board has insisted its policies must be followed—with its proposed quasi plan of debt adjustment showing a surplus of $6.5 billion from this fiscal year through fiscal year 2023.

In the suit, Gov. Rosselló quotes from Judge Swain’s opinion of last November and order denying the PROMESA Board’s motion to replace the then-chief executive of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority with the board’s own appointee, with the opinion noting: “Congress did not grant the [Oversight Board] the power to supplant, bypass, or replace the Commonwealth’s elected leaders and their appointees in the exercise of their managerial duties whenever the Oversight Board might deem such a change expedient.”

Mayor of Wilkes-Barre Asks State for Financial Assistance. Mayor Tony George, whose city is confronting a $3.5 million deficit in the upcoming fiscal year, is seeking financial assistance under Pennsylvania’s program for distressed communities, the Financially Distressed Municipalities Act, approval of which request would mean the municipality would be eligible for loans and grants through the state Department of Community and Economic Development. The move came as Standard & Poor’s placed the city’s “BBB-” rating on CreditWatch with negative implications, in the wake of Mayor George’s petition to the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, with the Mayor warning the city faces an estimated $3.5 million deficit next year and in the coming years despite efforts to place Wilkes-Barre on sound financial footing with its participation in Pennsylvania’s Early Intervention Program. The credit rating agency added it will gather more information before making a determination that could make it more expensive for the city to borrow money at higher interest rates, noting: “We expect to resolve the CreditWatch status within 30 days. We could lower the rating if we believe that the city’s credit quality is no longer commensurate with the rating. However, if we believe it does remain commensurate with the current rating, we could affirm the rating and remove it from CreditWatch.” Should the credit rating be downgraded, it would be the second time during Mayor George’s administration, after, a year ago last May, S&P lowered the rating to “BBB-” from “A-” because the city’s cash flow was constrained and was relying on borrowing to make ends meet. City officials are tentatively scheduled to hold a conference call with S&P on August 7th—by which time the state is expected to have made its decision on declaring the city distressed.

Under that state statute, municipalities may also restructure debt. If the Mayor’s request is granted, the state will appoint a financial adviser to design a financial recovery plan for the city—one of the nation’s oldest, having been inhabited first by the Shawanese and Delaware Indian and (Lenape) tribes, so that it was in 1769 that John Durkee led the first recorded Europeans to the area, where they established a frontier settlement named Wilkes-Barre after John Wilkes and Isaac Barre, two British members of Parliament who supported colonial America. At the time, these settlers were aligned with colonial Connecticut, which had a claim on the land that rivaled Pennsylvania’s. Indeed, armed Pennsylvanians twice attempted to evict the residents of Wilkes-Barre in what came to be known as the Pennamite-Yankee Wars, so that it was not until after the American Revolution, in the 1780s, that a settlement was reached granting the disputed land to Pennsylvania. A century later, the city’s population exploded in the wake of the discovery of anthracite coal, an explosion so powerful that the city was nicknamed “The Diamond City:” hundreds of thousands of immigrants flocked to the city. By 1806, it was incorporated as a borough; it became a city in 1871—as it gradually became a major U.S. coal center, and an early home to Woolworth’s, Sterling Hotels, Planter’s Peanuts, Miner’s Bank, Bell Telephone, HBO, Luzerne National Bank, and Stegmaier. But the coal which once contributed so much to the city’s growth, subsequently let it down: not only were there terrible mine disasters, but also the country began to switch to other energy sources. So, the city where Babe Ruth knocked one of his longest ever homes runs is, today, at risk of striking out at the plate.  The city, which a dozen years ago celebrated its 200th anniversary, is now seeking assistance via the state’s Act 47, with the Mayor citing—as additional factors, the lack of cooperation with area unions and his own City Council. He appears to be of the view that there was no other alternative to help stabilize the city’s finances other than filing for status under Pennsylvania’s Act 47 for Distressed Municipalities, noting: “My goal is to bring the city forward, and we’re stifled.”

In Pennsylvania there are four general methods of oversight used to aid local governments: Intergovernmental Cooperation Authorities, which are used with Philadelphia and Pittsburgh; ƒ School district assistance, which can come in the form of technical assistance, or schools which can be deemed in Financial Watch Status or in Financial Recovery Status; Early intervention program for municipalities before Act 475; and Act 47, or Pennsylvania’s Municipalities Financial Recovery Act of 1987.  What Is Pennsylvania’s Act 47? We will go into more depth about Act 47 because that is the program for which Wilkes-Barre recently applied. We also touch on the special consideration taken for Pittsburgh and Philadelphia as it relates to Act 47 as we close this commentary. The Pennsylvania Municipalities Financial Recovery Act of 1987, or Act 47 as it is commonly called, is an assistance program to help Pennsylvania municipalities after they file and are officially designated as “distressed.” Many states, such as the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, generally believe that the status of one of its municipalities can affect others throughout the state. This is even set forth in writing in PA’s Act 47, which states: “Policy—It is hereby declared to be a public policy of the Commonwealth to foster fiscal integrity of municipalities so that they provide for the health, safety and welfare of their citizens; pay principal and interest on their debt obligations when due; meet financial obligations to their employees, vendors and suppliers; and provide for proper financial accounting procedures, budgeting and taxing practices. The failure of a municipality to do so is hereby determined to affect adversely the health, safety and welfare not only of the citizens of the municipality but also of other citizens in this Commonwealth.”

How Does a Pennsylvania Municipality Become Part of Act 47? The Municipalities Financial Recovery Act authorizes Pennsylvania’s Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED) to validate municipalities as financially distressed. According to Act 47’s criteria, a municipality could be deemed financially distressed if it meets at least one of the following criteria: The municipality has maintained a deficit over a three-year period, with a deficit of 1% or more in each of the previous fiscal years. The municipality’s expenditures have exceeded revenues for a period of three years or more. The municipality has defaulted in payment of principal or interest on any of its bonds or notes or in payment of rentals due any authority. The municipality has missed a payroll for 30 days. The municipality has failed to make required payments to judgment creditors for 30 days beyond the date of the recording of the judgment. The municipality, for a period of at least 30 days beyond the due date, has failed to forward taxes withheld on the income of employees or has failed to transfer employer or employee contributions for Social Security; it has accumulated and has operated for each of two successive years a deficit equal to 5% or more of its revenues; and it has failed to make the budgeted payment of its minimum municipal obligation as required by §§302, 303, or 602 of the act of December 18, 1984 (P.L. 1005, No. 205), per the Municipal Pension Plan Funding Standard and Recovery Act, with respect to a pension fund during the fiscal year for which the payment was budgeted and has failed to take action within that time period to make required payments.

Pennsylvania’s Municipalities Financial Recovery Act authorizes Pennsylvania’s Department of Community and Economic Development to validate municipalities as financially distressed. Key criteria include: A municipality has sought to negotiate resolution or adjustment of a claim in excess of 30% against a fund or budget and has failed to reach an agreement with creditors; a municipality has filed for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy; a municipality has experienced a decrease in a quantified level of municipal service from the preceding fiscal year, which has resulted from the municipality reaching its legal limit in levying real estate taxes for general purposes.  Act 47 offers aid to the commonwealth’s second class cities (defined as those with a population of 250,000 to 999,999) and below which are negatively affected by forces such as short-term swings in the business cycle, or those burdened by more harmful longer-term negative macro-economic shifts: state support or assistance is available in several forms in order to ensure municipalities can provide essential services without interruption.

Over the long-term, Act 47 is focused on balancing ongoing revenues with ongoing expenditures—and investing in the municipality so that growth occurs and, as in a chapter 9 plan of debt adjustment, a municipality can recover. The act provides state-sponsored emergency no-interest loans and grants in order to ensure distressed municipalities can continue meeting debt payments and creditor obligations. The Department appoints a recovery coordinator who creates and then leads in helping to implement a recovery plan. Unlike an emergency manager, the plan provides for a recovery coordinator, who may act as an intermediary between the Mayor and City Council–the recovery plan is similar to a plan of debt adjustment in that it details how the available assistance and other modifications will help the municipality regain its fiscal stability, including via commonwealth economic and community development programs, assistance while negotiating new collective bargaining contracts; and enhanced tax or revenue authority—a key of which is authority to levy a nonresident wage tax.  

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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.

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.