Confronting the Challenges of Insolvencies

eBlog, 03/17/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the suit filed by the Detroit Public Schools District seeking to prevent the closure of any additional schools in the city; then we snow shovel our way through the high drifts in Cambridge, Massachusetts to explore its creative issuance of mini municipal bonds, before racing to the warmth of Puerto Rico to observe the legal challenge between different kinds of municipal bondholders against Puerto Rico.

Schools of Hard Fiscal Knocks. In response to a threat by the Michigan School Reform Office (SRO) to target up to 16 Detroit public schools for closure in the newly created Detroit Public School District, created in the wake of the old system’s physical and fiscal insolvencies: to move as many as 7,700 students—permitting them to transfer to DPSCD schools, charter schools, or nearby districts; the Detroit Public Schools Community District is seeking to make a preemptive strike against said state plans to shutter some of its schools: the district board has voted to sue the state’s School Reform Office (SSRO) over the threat of school closures in the newly state-created district, suing to prevent the State of Michigan from closing any of its struggling schools, after the Board of Education, in the wake of a five-hour meeting, voted unanimously to file suit against the state School Reform Office, the State of Michigan, and Michigan School Reform Officer Natasha Baker. Detroit School Board Vice President Sonya Mays noted: “The action preserves the full range of our options.” The vote appeared to be in response to the state office’s identification last January of 38 schools statewide for potential closure, because they have ranked in the bottom 5% academically for three straight years: more than two-thirds of those public schools were in Detroit: 16 in the Detroit district, 8 in the Education Achievement Authority, and one charter school. However, a Moody’s report last month said that the student loss would have been somewhat offset by the school district’s absorption of 3,700 students who are currently educated by the Education Achievement Authority and nearly 500 students from one charter school closure

The suit was filed even though the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) had offered a proposal to school districts with schools on that closure list under which, if said districts reached agreement with the state agency on a plan to turn the schools around, then the school reform office would hold off on closure decisions. Detroit Public Schools Interim Superintendent Alycia Merriweather not only had said the district is interested in entering into such an agreement with the MDE, but also is planning to schedule a meeting soon—even as, notwithstanding, the board remains intent on moving forward with the lawsuit. It is unclear how much of the District’s resources will be siphoned out of the city’s ailing physically and educationally system’s budget to finance the litigation. Board President Iris Taylor stated: “We want to make it clear that filing suit is not a rejection of MDE’s offer to enter into a partnership agreement…It is simply the Board and the district ensuring that all options are available to us as we work through these challenges.” Ms. Taylor told the Detroit News that the board believes the school reform office actions were unlawful, because the board believes legislation approved last June which provided a financial rescue to the Detroit Public Schools—and which created the Detroit Public School District—provided the new district a clean slate: “Our district is entitled to operate schools for at least three years without even the threat of closure.” However, Michigan Attorney General Bill Scheutte last summer issued an opinion noting that if the Michigan Legislature had intended to give the district a three-year reprieve, the legislature would have clearly stated such an intent, noting that it had not.

In a city seeking to be a beacon to young families with children as critical towards re-growing its tax base, the suit seeks to bar the state from taking any additional steps to close any DPSDC schools until the court decides whether or not the SSRO has authority to close schools and whether the action taken to create the SSRO and the legislation itself is constitutional. That is, it is a suit regarding governance power and authority—and one in relation to which DPSCD Interim Superintendent Alycia Merriweather stated: “Closing schools creates a hardship for students in numerous areas including transportation, safety, and the provision of wrap around services…As a new district, we are virtually debt free, with a locally elected board, and we deserve the right to build on this foundation and work with our parents, educators, administrators, and the entire community to improve outcomes for all of our children.”

The lawsuit was filed, however, even as the Michigan Department of Education had offered the district and all others impacted by the threat of school closures a proposal under which duly elected school boards and district leadership would remain in full control of their schools, the curriculum, and their districts—an offer which Board President Taylor said the School Board was not necessarily rejecting, but rather in an effort to ensure “all options are available to us as we work through these challenges,” adding: “We appreciate Governor Snyder for hearing our concerns and taking action; however, we continue to believe that SSRO’s actions were unlawful. Among other things, we believe the legislation that created DPSCD in 2016 gave us a clean slate, which means, under the law, our district is entitled to operate schools for at least three years without even the threat of closure.” (Michigan’s legislation enacted in 2009 provides authority for the state to close schools ranked in the bottom 5% academically for three straight years.) This year, however, was the first time the SSRO has announced potential closures of schools under the state legislation—closures which carry a potential cost of foregone state aid from the $617 million state bailout of the fiscally and physically insolvent Detroit Public Schools district, under a state statute to overhaul the old Detroit Public Schools system. The newly created district operates schools and is scheduled to receive future state aid payments under the restructuring backed by Gov. Rick Snyder and state lawmakers. The SSRO threat has targeted up to 16 schools: the Detroit public school system would be at risk of the loss of not just 7,700 students, but also the state revenues that those students would have brought. Under the state proposal, students in the district could opt to transfer to DPSCD schools, charter schools, or nearby districts. Moody’s, last month, had reported that any such student loss would have been somewhat offset by DPSCD’s absorption of 3,700 students who are currently educated by the Education Achievement Authority and nearly 500 students from one charter school closure. The state-run Education Achievement Authority is scheduled to close in July.

Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood Municipal Bonds? Cambridge, Mass., a municipality of just over 107,000 across the Charles River from Boston, has succeeded in raising some $2 million through a sale of community-sourced general obligation minibonds, which the city’s underwriter, aptly named Neighborly, notes could reshape the municipal marketplace. The firm’s head of finance, James McIntyre, notes: “Our intention is to democratize access to municipal bonds.” Here the city will use the proceeds to fund capital projects such as school building renovations, and street and sidewalk improvements. The municipal bonds themselves were offered only to city residents, even though neither my daughter nor her husband, residents, seemed to be aware: individual orders are limited to $20,000, and lowered to a minimum investment amount to $1,000 from the customary $5,000. The opening for orders began selling at the close of business last month, closing last week: the Series A minibonds bonds pay a tax-exempt interest rate of 1.6% and will mature in five years. The firm notes that more than 240 individuals invested in the minibonds—municipal bonds to which Fitch Ratings, S&P Global Ratings, and Moody’s Investors Service assigned AAA ratings, with Cambridge City Manager Louie DePasquale noting: “This will not only engage residents, but we will make them a financial partner in our infrastructure investments.” Indeed, the city has helped via the distribution of “invest in Cambridge” mass-transit posters, a video, and a huge sign in front of City Hall. According to Neighborly founder Jase Wilson, “The most exciting thing about the Cambridge minibond issue is that it’s not a new idea at all…in fact the way our nation’s communities used to borrow money to build public projects.” Indeed, it was just 27 years ago that Denver issued its first minibonds; three years ago the Mile High City generated $12 million through a crowdfunding in $500 increments, as part of a $550 million transaction to finance city road improvements, leading Elizabeth FU of GFOA to note: “The minibonds definitely met Denver’s goal of helping residents invest in the community, so the project was well worth the additional resources and effort…Of course, this tool isn’t for everyone,” she added, noting some municipalities might experience trouble with the additional workload, the level of resources needed for administration, or the additional cost. Meanwhile, back in Cambridge, the municiplity also sold $56.5 million in general obligation municipal purpose loan of 2017 Series B bonds competitively on March 1. Morgan Stanley submitted the winning bid with a true interest cost of 2.303%. Proceeds from that sale will benefit sewer and stormwater, energy efficiency and street repair citywide, including Cambridge Common and Harvard Square. Neighborly’s director of business development, Pitichoke Chulapamornsri, said the firm structures municipal bond financings to connect a city’s capital plan with its residents—or, as he put it: “We are excited to help redefine the ‘public’ in public finance….Communities that are innovative and engaged are usually college towns: They are the ones with the most participation.”

Stay or Not? Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Jennifer González Colón reports that an extension the stay on litigation of the PROMESA debt litigation stay is unlikely, notwithstanding Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s proposed extension as incorporated in his proposed fiscal plan the Governor said he was seeking, with Del. González Colón (D-P.R.), Puerto Rico’s non-voting representative Congress noting there simply was insufficient time for Congress to act to amend PROMESA before the end of the stay. (PROMESA set the stay on debt-related suits against the Commonwealth on Feb. 15th, but allowed the PROMESA Oversight Board the option of moving it to May 1, which it did at the end of January.) Gov. Rosselló, in his plan, has argued that it was reasonable to ask for an extension, because his predecessor failed to use his time in office after PROMESA’s enactment to seek a negotiated debt restructuring: he said the extension would allow his administration time to release FY2015 and 2016 financial information, noting he would prefer reaching a negotiated agreement with creditors, rather than having a court impose restructuring terms. (Title VI of PROMESA allows the Oversight Board to reach negotiated solutions with municipal bondholders while the stay is in effect.) Indeed, in his plan he submitted at the end of last month, Gov. Rosselló said the Board probably will start PROMESA Title III’s court-supervised bankruptcy process before the stay elapses. Unsurprisingly, groups representing holders of both general obligation and Puerto Rico Sales Tax Financing Corp. (COFINA) senior bonds have said they are opposed to extending the litigation stay: José F. Rodríguez, an individual investor, as well as several investment firms, such as Decagon Holdings, GoldenTree Asset Management, and Whitebox Advisors—who are the main bondholders of the Puerto Rico Sales Tax Financing Corporation (COFINA)—will appeal U.S. District Court Judge Francisco A. Besosa’s ruling in favor of several general obligation bondholders, spearheaded by the Lex Claims and Jacana Holdings funds.  Mr. Rodríguez’s intentions—and those of several investments funds—to appeal the ruling at the First Circuit Court of Appeals was disclosed on Monday, making this the sole lawsuit against the U.S. territory which is currently active, after the approval of PROMESA last year, and in the midst of the automatic stay on litigations decreed by the federal statute. The plaintiffs are holding nearly $2 billion in COFINA senior notes.

According to the court’s notice, Mr. Rodríguez and the funds led by Decagon will go to the federal court to request revocation of Judge Besosa’s ruling: the Judge had agreed to hear Lex’s case, notwithstanding the request made by the main COFINA bondholders, Puerto Rico, and the PROMESA Oversight Board to apply the automatic stay on litigation. Last month, Judge Besosa—who had previously ordered Puerto Rico not to lose any time in commencing negotiations with its creditors—concluded that Lex’s lawsuit should be examined on its merits, with this judicial effort coming, even as the territory’s general obligation bond holders have asked Judge Besosa to declare the Emergency Moratorium Act unconstitutional, arguing that the enactment of the statute prompted Puerto Rico to default on its general obligation bonds other debt obligations. GO bondholders have also asked Judge Besosa to ban the government from paying COFINA bondholders—who are essentially the only ones who continue receiving payments for the amount they are owed, and to declare COFINA a null structure, since it served to divert the funds which it believes belong to the central Government. In his verdict, Judge Besosa denied the Government’s petition to halt the case and authorized the PROMESA Oversight Board to intervene in the lawsuit; however, he rejected the request made by COFINA’s primary bondholders to be part of the lawsuit to determine if the stay on litigations is applicable or not. In the wake of his decision, the Oversight Board filed a motion to appeal the decision—a request to which Puerto Rico has yet to intervene—notwithstanding apprehensions that the Lex Claims litigation could result in certain of the territory’s assets being frozen, something which would be likely were Judge Besosa to determine that the Moratorium Act is unconstitutional. According to the case file at the Court of Appeals, the Oversight Board has until March 24th to act.  

COFINA Under Attack. Likewise, the appeal made by the group of COFINA’s primary bondholders in the Lex Claims case arrives at a time when the GO bondholders have launched a media campaign asking for the elimination of the public corporation that issues debt payable with the Puerto Rico Sales and Use Tax (IVU, by its Spanish acronym). Last week, Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz and House Speaker Carlos “Johnny” Méndez backed COFINA and pointed out that the entity was lawfully created with the endorsement of both main political parties. However, in the fiscal plan prepared by Ricardo Rosselló Nevares’s administration and certified by the OB on Monday, the IVU funds that are sent every year to COFINA appear as part of the revenues the Government would use to pay for public services. In that sense, Rosselló Nevares’s plan is an echo of what former Governor Alejandro García Padilla did, which was to combine all revenues that, according to the bond contracts, should have been reserved for the repayment of the debt. According to Gov. Rosselló Nevares’s plan, one of the revenues would be what is allocated to the General Fund—10.5% of the IVU—, but the plan also adds an allocation identified as “Additional IVU”. In this allocation, which is referred to COFINA, the IVU allotments to foster the film industry and for the Municipality Financing Corporation add up to $850 million this fiscal year. The amount increases to $906 million in FY 2019, and continues to increase until it reaches $9.936 billion in 10 years.

 

What Could Be the State Role in Municipal Fiscal Distress?

 

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eBlog, 03/08/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the state role in addressing fiscal stress, in this instance looking at how the Commonwealth of Virginia is reacting to the fiscal events we have been tracking in Petersburg. Then we spin the roulette table to check out what the Borgata Casino settlement in Atlantic City might imply for Atlantic City’s fiscal fortunes, a city where—similar to the emerging fiscal oversight role in Virginia, the state is playing an outsized role, before tracking the promises of PROMESA in Puerto Rico.

The State Role in Municipal Fiscal Stress. One hundred fifty-three years ago, Union General George Meade, marching from Cold Harbor, Virginia, led his Army of the Potomac across the James River on transports and a 2,200-foot long pontoon bridge at Windmill Point, and then his lead elements crossed the Appomattox River and attacked the Petersburg defenses on June 15. The 5,400 defenders of Petersburg under command of Gen. Beauregard were driven from their first line of entrenchments back to Harrison Creek. The following day, the II Corps captured another section of the Confederate line; on the 17th, the IX Corps gained more ground, forcing Confederate General Robert E. Lee to rush reinforcements to Petersburg from the Army of Northern Virginia. Gen. Lee’s efforts succeeded, and the greatest opportunity to capture Petersburg without a siege was lost.

Now, the plight of Petersburg is not from enemy forces, but rather fiscal insolvency—seemingly alerting the Commonwealth of Virginia to rethink its state role with regard to the financial stress confronting the state’s cities, counties, and towns. Thus, last month, Virginia, in the state budget it adopted before adjournment, included a provision to establish a system for the state to detect fiscal distress among localities sooner than it did with Petersburg last year, as well as to create a joint subcommittee to consider the broader causes of growing fiscal stress for the state’s local governments. Under the provisions, the Co-Chairs of the Senate Finance Committee are to appoint five members from their Committee, and the Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee is to name four members from his Committee and two members of the House Finance Committee to a Joint Subcommittee on Local Government Fiscal Stress. The new Joint Subcommittee’s goals and objectives encompass reviewing: (i) savings opportunities from increased regional cooperation and consolidation of services; (ii) local responsibilities for service delivery of state-mandated or high priority programs, (iii) causes of fiscal stress among local governments, (iv) potential financial incentives and other governmental reforms to encourage increased regional cooperation; and (v) the different taxing authorities of cities and counties. The new initiative could prove crucial to impending initiatives to reform state tax policies and refocus economic development at the regional level, as the General Assembly considers the fiscal tools and capacity local governments in the commonwealth have to raise the requisite revenues they need to provide services—especially those mandated by the state. Or, as Gregory H. Wingfield, former head of the Greater Richmond Partnership and now a senior fellow at the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University, puts it: “I hope they recognize we’ve got to have some restructuring, or we’re going to have other situations like Petersburg…This is a very timely commission that’s looking at something that’s really important to local governments.”

The Virginia General Assembly drafted the provisions in the state budget to create what it deems a “prioritized early warning system” through the auditor of public accounts to detect fiscal distress in local governments before it becomes a crisis. Under the provisions, the auditor will collect information from municipalities, as well as state and regional entities, which could indicate fiscal distress, as well as missed debt payments, diminished cash flow, revenue shortfalls, excessive debt, and/or unsupportable expenses. The new Virginia budget also provides a process for the auditor to follow and notify a locality that meets the criteria for fiscal distress, as well as the Governor and Chairs of the General Assembly’s finance committees. The state is authorized to draw up to $500,000 in unspent appropriations for local aid to instead finance assistance to the troubled localities. The Governor and money committee Chairs, once notified that “a specific locality is in need of intervention because of a worsening financial situation,” would be mandated to produce a plan for intervention before appropriating any money from the new reserve; the local governing body and its constitutional officers would be required to assist, rather than resist, such state intervention—or, as House Appropriations Chairman S. Chris Jones (R-Suffolk) describes it: “The approach was to assist and not to bring a sledgehammer to try to kill a gnat,” noting he had been struck last fall by the presentation of Virginia’s Auditor of Public Accounts Martha S. Mavredes with regard to the fiscal stress monitoring systems used by other states, including one in Louisiana which, he said, “would have picked up Petersburg’s problem several years before it came to light…At the end of the day, it appears you had a dysfunctional local government, both on the administrative and elected sides, that was ignoring the elephant that was in the room.”

The ever so insightful Director of Fiscal Policy at the Virginia Municipal League, Neal Menkes, a previous State & Local Leader of the Week, notes that Petersburg is far from alone in its financial stress, which was caused by factors “beyond just sloppy management: It included a series of economic blows,” he noted, citing the loss of the city’s manufacturing base in the 1980s and subsequently its significant retail presence in the region. The Virginia Commission on Local Government identified 22 localities—all but two of them cities—which experienced “high stress” in FY2013-14, of which Petersburg was third, and an additional 49 localities, including Richmond, which had experienced “above average” fiscal stress. Or as one of the wisest of former state municipal league Directors, Mike Amyx, who was the Virginia Municipal League Director for a mere three decades, notes: “It’s a growing list.”

The Commonwealth’s new budget, ergo, creates the Joint Subcommittee on Local Government Fiscal Stress, charged with taking a sweeping look at the reasons for stress, including:

  • Unfunded state mandates for locally delivered services, and
  • Unequal taxing authority among localities.

The subcommittee will look at ways for localities to save money by consolidating services and potential incentives to increase regional cooperation, or as Virginia Senate Finance Co-Chairman Emmett Hanger (R-Augusta) notes: “We need to dig deeply into the relationship of state and local governments,” expressing his concerns with regard to potential threats to local revenues, such as taxes on machinery and tools, and on business, professional and occupational licenses (BPOL), as well as fiscal disparities with regard to local capacity or ability to finance core services such as education and mental health treatment, or, as he puts it: “We do need to address the relative levels of wealth of local governments…We need to look at all of the formulas in place for who gets what from state government…Our tax system is still antiquated, and local governments have to rely too heavily on real estate taxes.”  

The subcommittee will include Sen. Hanger and Chairman Jones, as chairs of the respective Budget Committees, and House Finance Chairman R. Lee Ware Jr. (R-Powhatan), whose panel grapples every year with the push to reduce local tax burdens and the need to give localities the ability to generate revenue for services. Chairman Jones, a former Suffolk Mayor and city councilmember, said he is “keenly aware of the relationship between state and local governments. It is a complex relationship. The solutions aren’t simple…You’ve got to be able to replace that revenue at the local level—you can’t piecemeal this.”

Municipal Credit Roulette. State intervention and a settlement of tax refunds owed to a casino drove a two-notch S&P Global Ratings upgrade of Atlantic City’s general obligation debt to CCC from CC. The rating remains deep within speculative grade, the outlook is developing. S&P analyst Timothy Little wrote that the upgrade reflected a state takeover of Atlantic City finances that took effect in November which has helped “diminish” the near-term likelihood of a default. A $72 million settlement with the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa over $165 million in owed tax refunds that saves Atlantic City $93 million also contributed to the city’s first S&P upgrade since 1998, according to S&P. Mayor Don Guardian noted that obtaining a CCC rating was “definitely a step in the right direction: As we continue to implement the recommendations from our fiscal plan submitted last year, and working together with the state, we know that our credit rating will continue to improve higher and higher.” Nevertheless, notwithstanding the credit rating lift, Mr. Little warned that Atlantic City’s financial recovery is “tenuous” in the early stages of state intervention, ergo the low credit rating reflects what he terms “weak liquidity” and an “uncertain long-term recovery,” reminding us that Atlantic City has upcoming debt service payments of $675,000 due on none other than April Fool’s Day, followed by another $1.6 million on May Day, $1.5 million on June 1st, and $3.5 million on August 1st. Nevertheless, Atlantic City and the state fully contemplate making the required payments in full and on time. Mr. Little sums up the fiscal states:  “In our opinion, Atlantic City’s obligations remain vulnerable to nonpayment and, in the event of adverse financial or economic conditions, the city is not likely to have the capacity to meet its financial commitment…Due to the uncertainty of the city’s ability to meet its sizable end-of-year debt service payments, we consider there to be at least a one-in-two likelihood of default over the next year.” He adds that, notwithstanding the State of New Jersey’s enhanced governing role with Atlantic City finances, chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy remains an option for the city if adequate gains are not accomplished to improve the city’s structural imbalance, as well as noting that S&P does not consider the city to have a “credible plan” in place to reach long-term fiscal stability. For his part, Evercore Wealth Management Director of Municipal Credit Research Howard Cure said that while the municipal credit upgrade reflects the Borgata Casino tax resolution, the rating, nonetheless, makes clear how steep the road to fiscal recovery will be: “You really need the cooperation of the city, but also the employees of the city for there to be a real meaningful recovery…This could go bad in a hurry.”

Is There Promise in Promesa? Elias Sanchez Sifonte, Puerto Rico’s representative to the PROMESA Fiscal Supervision Board, late Tuesday wrote to PROMESA Board Chairman José B. Carrión to urge that the Board take concrete actions in its final recommendations to address the U.S. territory’s physical health and the renegotiation of public debt—that is, to comply with the provisions of PROMESA and advocate for Puerto Rico with the White House and Congress in order to avoid “the fiscal precipice” which Puerto Rico confronts, especially once the federal funds which are used in My Health expire. Mr. Sifonte also requested additional time for Puerto Rico to renegotiate its debt, reminding the Board that PROMESA “makes it very clear that an extension of the funds under the Affordable Care Act is critical.” With grave health challenges, the board representative appears especially apprehensive with regard to the debate commencing today in the House of Representatives to make massive changes in the existing Affordable Care Act.

Recounting Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares efforts to address Puerto Rico’s severe fiscal situation, he further noted that the Governor’s efforts would little serve if the PROMESA Board bars Puerto Rico from a voluntary process through which to renegotiate what it owes to various types of creditors, arguing that Puerto Rico ought to be able to negotiate with its municipal bondholders, and, ergo, seeking an extension of the current suspension of litigation set to expire at the end of May to the end of this year, noting: “It would be very unfair that after all the progress achieved in the past two months, the government cannot achieve a restructuring under Title VI simply because the past government intentionally or negligently truncated the Title VI process at the expense of the new administration.” His letter came as Gerardo Portela Franco, the Executive Director of the Puerto Rico Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority (FIFAA), reported that administration officials have had initial talks with the PROMESA board about the plan and are in the process of making suggested changes. FIFAA will manage the implementation the measures and lead negotiations with Puerto Rico’s creditors over restructuring the government’s $70 billion of debt.