A Tale of Two Cities

July 3, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider a tale of two cities connected by geography and history, but divided by a fiscal chasm.

A Fiscal Dividing Line. Mayor Kevin Mumpower was reelected in a unanimous Council vote, Tuesday, to serve a second, consecutive term as Mayor of Bristol, Virginia, an independent, border municipality in southern Virginia of just over 17,000, where, on Thursday, the Council has scheduled a work session to complete its review of applicants for boards and commissions. The Council’s first regularly scheduled meeting is scheduled for next Tuesday. The city is twinned with its neighbor, Bristol, Tennessee, which has a larger population of over 27,000. The twin cities’ heritage dates back more than 250 years to when Evan Shelby came to the area in 1766—an area once inhabited by Cherokee Indians. At first, Mr. Shelby had settled his family at Big Camp Meet—the current day site of the twin border cities, but a site then which Shelby had renamed Sapling Grove, where he built a in 1774 on a hill overlooking what is today downtown Bristol, but which was then a key stop on an expanding nation’s road West for early American explorers such as Daniel Boone and George Rogers Clark—a fort known as Shelby’s Station. Nearly a century later, in 1853, Joseph Anderson, when surveyors projected a junction of two railroad lines at the Virginia-Tennessee state line, Reverend James King conveyed much of his acreage to his son-in-law, Joseph R. Anderson, who then laid out the original town of Bristol, Tennessee/Virginia. About that time, Samuel Goodson, who owned land adjoining the original town of Bristol at the Virginia-Tennessee border, with Beaver Creek serving as the dividing line between the two colonies, began a development known as Goodsonville; however, he was unable to incorporate Bristol across the state lines of Tennessee and Virginia. Three years later, in 1856, Goodsonville and the original Bristol, Virginia were merged to form the composite town of Goodson, Virginia—the very year when the Virginia and Tennessee Railroads reached the cities, with, ergo, two depots, one in Bristol, Tennessee, and the other in Goodson, Virginia; albeit the depot located in Goodson continued to be referred to as Bristol, Virginia. Thirty-four years later, Goodson, Virginia once again took the name Bristol. In 1998, Congress declared Bristol the “Birthplace of Country Music,” in recognition of its contributions to early country music recordings and influence.

Contiguous to the Virginia Bristol is Tennessee, Bristol, with a slightly greater population of around 25,000, has a median income for a household in the city just over $30,039. Nevertheless, despite their abutments, the twin municipalities have starkly different fiscal situations—with the southern twin in Tennessee in fiscal health, but its northern Virginia twin in a near fiscal crisis, seemingly overwhelmed with debt—even after assistance from the Commonwealth of Virginia helped avert deep cuts in funding for the municipality’s public schools. At present, it appears that interest payments by the city are on a course to consume as much as a quarter of the city’s operating budget—or, as City Manager Randall Eads put it: “We’re about as low as you can go and not have cuts to services…We are truly rebuilding this city from the foundation up.”

While the Commonwealth of Virginia does not specifically authorize chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, the state’s courts, six years ago, ruled that “local governing bodies have only those powers expressly granted, those necessarily or fairly implied from expressly granted powers, and those that are essential and indispensable” (see Sinclair v. New Cingular Wireless PCS, 283 Va. 567,576 (Va. 2012), the state’s Dillon Rule compounds the fiscal quandary, providing that if “[T]here is a reasonable doubt about whether legislative power exists, the doubt must be resolved against the local governing body.”

Nevertheless, as the Commonwealth’s Auditor of Public Accounts, Martha Mavredes notes: “The state takes great pride in fiscal soundness and when localities start to falter, that reflects poorly on the state.” Indeed, as we have previously noted, the Commonwealth, two years ago, as Petersburg teetered on the verge of insolvency, had tasked Ms. Mavredes to develop a municipal fiscal early-warning system—a system which, in its first report, put Bristol, along with Petersburg, at the head.

Manager Eads noted: “One of the biggest things we have to overcome as a city is our demographics,” referring to the fiscal challenge in a municipality where nearly a quarter of its residents are in poverty, with more than 40% on some of government assistance, and more than 80% of its school population eligible. That is, it has become clear to Mr. Eads that a new fiscal approach will be necessary.

A Tale of Two Cities. In one area where distinguishing one Bristol from another is enabled by small brass plaques embedded down the center line of State Street which have “Tennessee” on one side and “Virginia” on the other, the twin, bi-state municipalities share a library and an emergency dispatch system; they have connected water systems, and they share payments for the electric bills to finance the neon signs over State Street, which read: “A good place to live.” The twin cities’ city halls are just blocks apart.

However, as we know, looks can be deceiving. Here, the issue of waste appears to have precipitated the fiscal parting of ways: the Virginia Bristol’s old landfill reached capacity about two decades ago; so the municipality opted to construct a new one in a 20-acre limestone pit—one in which the walls were porous. In order to prevent seepage of dangerous chemicals, the city had to purchase a new lining for the landfill walls nearly every other year‒at a cost of $1.2 million each time. That meant, with fees insufficient to cover operating and maintenance costs, the municipality was adding to its debt: currently, Bristol is trying to finance more than $30 million in debt from the landfill, forcing the city to write off $22 million siphoned from the general fund to cover expenses.

Even as unanticipated expenses have soared, the city’s tax base has eroded, hard hit by the collapse of the coal industry, especially in the wake of one of the nation’s largest coal companies, Alpha Natural Resources, headquartered in the city, filing for bankruptcy twelve years ago—at almost the same time as Ball Corp. moved its metal lid-making plant to Mexico. A commercial area developed just off I-81 in the 1990s began to sour. The combination appeared to contribute to the consequent closure of Bristol Mall.

Looking for a fiscal and commercial recovery, the city’s leaders opted to try to enter the commercial real estate business, creating The Falls, intended to be a $260 million hub of restaurants and shops—albeit without, mayhap, closely examining how such a commercial development would be affected by an even larger such development in adjacent Tennessee—where the Tennessee General Assembly had enacted legislation intended to assist its border cities compete with rivals in other states. Because the Volunteer State has no personal income tax, but it has sales tax of up to 9.75%, or nearly double Virginia’s, the difference appears to have been an important factor in providing incentives for those who reside near the border between the two states to opt to reside in Tennessee, but shop in Virginia. The new law allowed developers who built retail within 15 miles of a border to recoup some of the sales and use tax, making projects more attractive.

That led one entrepreneur, Steve Johnson to purchase a 200-acre piece of property, valued at close to $250 million, called The Pinnacle, a complex made up of a million square feet of shops and restaurants, anchored by a Bass Pro Shop, CarMax, Marshalls, and a Belk department store. Unsurprisingly, local Bristol, Virginia officials asked Mr. Johnson to consider developing The Falls instead, pressing the Virginia Legislature to enact provisions for sales and use tax revenue rebates for project developers. In the meantime, Mr. Johnson decided developing the site would be too expensive to level and grade, the roads were too small, and the location was just wrong. Undeterred, the city found another developer, so that, today, The Pinnacle counts nearly 70 merchants, while The Falls has fewer than 10. Thus, instead of helping the city deal with its landfill debt burden, The Falls has significantly added to the fiscal quandary, adding nearly $48 million to the city’s debt—and its political dissatisfaction.

Indeed, unsurprisingly, voters tossed all five Councilmembers from office, electing a slate which included two write-in candidates—and a Council which, early last year, hired a new City Attorney, Randall Eads, who had been a criminal defense attorney, perhaps a key factor in a region which has experienced a plague of methamphetamines and prescription drug abuse. Within six months, the Council removed the then city manager and asked Mr. Eads to step in—perhaps a step that opened his eyes to how grave the city’s physical and fiscal challenges were. In a city beset by such serious drug abuse, one of his first challenges was where to host the perpetrators: the city’s jail, after all, had a capacity of 67 inmates, but, in March, 240 prisoners: the escalating drug crisis meant overcrowding in the municipal jail, and unanticipated costs for those who could not be squeezed in at a regional holding facility at a cost of $38 per inmate per day.

That forced Mr. Eads to see if he could find a way to reduce the inmate population, leading him to propose an alternative punishment program for nonviolent offenders, one which would help them find work and subject them to regular drug testing. Simultaneously, Mr. Eads has been replacing city department heads and working to build morale; he has even been paying for staff picnics out of his pocket. However, it seems as if he has been trying to climb out of a sand hole: absent fiscal changes, the municipality anticipates it will soon face a $2.4 million annual shortfall in debt service payments.

But just on the other side of the state line, in another Bristol City Hall (Tennessee), Bristol City Manager Bill Sorah, who has previous experience in the Virginia Bristol, notes the legal distinctions, especially the differences in the constitutional status of each city: The Commonwealth of Virginia is the only state in which municipalities are independent entities: they are not incorporated as art of the surrounding county. In contrast, Tennessee’s Bristol is a unit of the surrounding Sullivan County: ergo, it faces no problem with inmate overcrowding, no criminal courts to finance, no jail, and no public school system. It has the legal authority denied its counterpart to annex land—authority unavailable on the other side of the border, where Virginia has had a moratorium on annexation for nearly four decades—one the General Assembly recently extended to 2024.

Searching for fiscal solutions. Earlier this year, Virginia Auditor Mavredes granted Bristol $100,000 to hire a consultant to help determine potential fiscal solutions—help which Manager Eads is sure to appreciate—or, as he put it: “We’re in it…so now we’ve got to fix it.” Thus, the city has jacked up fees at the landfill and is pressing ahead with The Falls, and is focusing on putting together a fiscal blueprint to pay down debt and build cash reserves. Indeed, rather than let his city go to pot, he is even entertaining the potential lease from local investors to purchase the shuttered Bristol Mall: the investors are interested in financing a local start-up, Dharma Pharmaceuticals, which wants to convert the vast facility into an operation producing cannabidiol, the marijuana derivative which the Commonwealth Virginia recently approved for treating certain illnesses—meaning the abandoned Penney and Belk buildings could go to pot.

With city’s fiscal year beginning at the end of this week, city leaders have been looking ahead: Mayor Kevin Mumpower outlined his short-term priorities at the beginning of this week’s City Council meeting, and City Manager Randy Eads reported he had an agenda, but would defer presenting it until after the meeting. Mayor Mumpower said many of his goals focus on the city’s long-term fiscal fortunes: “We don’t want the city to ever get to the place it got two years ago. We want it stable and moving forward, so we’re going to look at the charter, see what we can do to refine it and maybe present a few things to the state legislature to draft for us to solidify the city’s financial footing…We know future Councils can undo what we do, but, the way I look at it, that’s on them. Our responsibility is to try to do the right thing.”

The Mayor noted that this could turn out to be a lengthy, detailed process to determine reasonable thresholds so that, in the future, there would be fiscal strictures on borrowing. He reported that his second priority would be promoting economic development and hiring an economic development coordinator—someone with a focus on attracting new businesses to the city. He described a third priority to develop a program to provide inmates job opportunities in order to reduce recidivism and the city’s expensive jail population, noting: “We want to establish that inmate work release program. That is going to be a home run if Randy [Eads], the Sheriff and the Commonwealth’s Attorney can figure this out: We’ve already had several meetings about how we would train these inmates, get them certified, give them a skill set so they’re employable. That would save the city $500,000 to $750,000 a year—that one goal. If that’s successful, it would be a really big deal for the city.”

A second is completion of a state-funded study of the city’s solid waste landfill operations, with that coming as the Council had just voted to increase residential trash collection by $4 per month in order to help offset operating costs, or, as the Mayor put it: “We need to figure out what we’re going to do with our last big albatross: We’re subsidizing the landfill $500,000 this year—it was $1 million—but we’ve done that at the expense of the community.” Finally, Mayor Mumpower reported his last priority would be to establish restricted funds where funds would be set aside for specific needs, including key capital needs such as a fire truck, a school building fund, and another exclusively to pay down debt service: “We need to have money set aside only for those purchases so we don’t have to worry about where those funds are coming from.”

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Municipal Fiscal Distress & State Oversight.

June 18, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider a new study assessing the potential role of property tax assessments in Detroit’s historic chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy; then we observe, without gambling on the odds, the slow, but steady progress back to self-governance in Atlantic City, and weaning off of state fiscal oversight; before, finally noting the parallel efforts to exit state oversight in Flint, Michigan—where the proximate cause of the city’s fiscal and physical collapse occurred under a quasi-state takeover.

Foreclosing or Creating a City’s Fiscal Recovery? One in 10 Detroit tax foreclosures between 2011 and 2015 were caused by the city’s admittedly inflated property assessments, a study by two Chicago professors has concluded. Over-assessments causing foreclosure were concentrated in the city’s lowest valued homes, those selling for less than $8,000, and resulted in thousands of Detroit homeowners losing their properties, according to the study: “Taxed Out: Illegal property tax assessments and the epidemic of tax foreclosures in Detroit,” which was written by  Bernadette Atuahene and Christopher Berry. Chicago-Kent Law School Professor Atuahene noted: “The very population that most needs the city to get the assessments right, the poorest of the poor, are being most detrimentally affected by the city getting it wrong: “There is a narrative of blaming the poor that focuses on individual responsibility instead of structural injustice. We are trying to change the focus to this structural injustice.” (Professor Atuahene is also a member of the Coalition to End Unconstitutional Tax Foreclosures.) Their study came as the Wayne County Treasurer has foreclosed on about 100,000 Detroit properties for unpaid property taxes for the period from 2011 through 2015, about a quarter of all parcels, as the Motor City suffered the after-effects of population decline, the housing market crash, and the Great Recession.

Professors Atuahene and Berry acknowledged many factors can trigger tax foreclosure, estimating that the number of foreclosures was triggered by over-assessments, in part by calculating the foreclosure rate if all properties were properly assessed. The study also controlled for properties various purchase prices, neighborhoods and sale dates.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan has, as we have noted, acknowledged such over assessments; yet he has made clear accuracy has improved with double-digit reductions over the last four years—and completed the first comprehensive such assessment two years ago for the first time in more than half a century. The city’s Deputy Chief Financial Officer, Alvin Horhn, last week stated he had not reviewed the study; however, he noted that “most of their assumptions rely on data that does not meet the standards of the State Tax Commission and would not be applicable under Michigan law,” a position challenged by Professor Atuahene, who had previously stated the data does comply with the law, noting: “We believe the citywide reappraisal has been an important part of the major reduction in the number of foreclosures occurring in the city, which continue a steady decline and will provide a solid foundation for future growth: The number of foreclosures of owner occupied homes, specifically, has gone down by nearly 90% over the past few years.”

The city’s authority to foreclose, something which became a vital tool to address both property tax revenues and crime in the wake of the city’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, was enabled under former Gov. John Engler 29 years ago under a statewide rewrite of Michigan’s property tax code: changes made in an effort to render it faster and easier to return delinquent properties to productive use. On a related issue, the Motor City is currently facing a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan—a suit which maintains the city’s poverty tax exemption, which erases property taxes for low-income owners, violated homeowner’s due process rights because of its convoluted application process, arguing that the practice violates the federal Fair Housing Act by disproportionately foreclosing on black homeowners. However, the Michigan Court of Appeals has upheld a ruling by Wayne County Judge Robert Colombo, dismissing Wayne County from the lawsuit, ruling the suit should have been brought in front of the Michigan Tax Tribunal. 

Pole, Pole. In Bush Gbaepo Grebo Konweaken, Liberia, a key Gbaepo expression was “pole, pole” (pronounced poleh, poleh), which roughly translated into ‘slowly, but surely’—or haste makes waste. It might be an apt expression for Atlantic City Mayor Frank Gilliam as the boardwalk city has resumed control back from the state to forge its own fiscal destiny—presumably with less gambling on its fiscal future. In his new $225 million budget, the Mayor has proposed to keep property taxes flat for the second consecutive year, and is continuing, according to the state’s Department of Community Affairs, charged with the municipality’s fiscal oversight and providing transitional assistance, to note that the Mayor and Council President Marty Small’s announcement demonstrated that “an understanding of the issues that Atlantic City faces, and an emerging ability to find ways to solve them without resorting to property tax increases: This is a solid budget, and the city staff who worked diligently to draft it should be proud of their efforts.”

Under Mayor Frank Gilliam’s proposed $225 million budget, property taxes would remain flat for a second straight year, there would be some budget cuts, as well as savings realized from municipal bond sales to finance pension and healthcare obligations from 2015. The Mayor also was seeking support for capital improvements, additional library funding, and one-time $500 stipends for full-time municipal employees with salaries below $40,000. The ongoing fiscal recovery is also benefitting from state aid: the state Department of Community Affairs reported the state is providing $3.9 million in transitional aid, a drop from the $13 million awarded to the City of Trenton in 2017 and $26.2 million from 2016. Last year Atlantic City adopted a $222 million budget, which lowered taxes for the first time in more than a decade. The Department’s spokesperson, Lisa Ryan, noted: “Yesterday’s announcement by Mayor Gilliam and Council President [Marty] Small demonstrates city officials are showing an understanding of the issues that Atlantic City faces and an emerging ability to find ways to solve them without resorting to property tax increases: This is a solid budget, and the city staff who worked diligently to draft it should be proud of their efforts.”

Gov. Phil Murphy scaled back New Jersey’s intervention efforts in April with the removal of Jeffrey Chiesa’s role as state designee for Atlantic City. Mr. Chiesa, a former U.S. Senator and New Jersey Attorney General, was appointed to the role by former Gov. Chris Christie after the state takeover took effect.

Not in Like Flint. The Flint City Council was unable last week to override Mayor Karen Weaver’s veto of its amendments to her proposed budget: the Council’s counter proposal had included eight amendments to the Mayor’s $56 million proposed budget for 2018-2019—all of which Mayor Weaver vetoed in the wake of CFO Hughey Newsome’s concerns. The situation is similar to Atlantic City’s, in that this was Flint’s first budget to be considered and adopted in the wake of exiting state oversight. Mayor Weaver advised her colleagues: “This is a crucial time for the City of Flint: this is the first budget we are responsible for since regaining control…I am proud of the budget that I submitted, and I have full faith in the City’s Chief Financial Officer. Just as I have the right to veto the budget, the City Council has the right to override that veto. It is my hope that they would strongly consider my reasons for vetoing and that the Council and I can work together to create a budget that can sustain the City for years to come.” Her veto means the budget will be before the Council for a final vote in order to have it in place for the new fiscal year beginning on the first of next month.

Among the Council proposals the Mayor rejected was employee benefits, including a proposed pay raise for the City Clerk of $20,000, the creation of a new deputy clerk position, a new parliamentarian position, and full health benefits for part-time employees. Or, as CFO Newsome noted: “The risk these added costs could pose on the city’s budget is not in the best interest of the city nor the citizens of Flint,”  as he expressed disappointment over the time wasted on arguing over what amounted to $55,000 in the Mayor’s budget, especially when the city was currently tackling bigger fiscal challenges, such as its $271 million unfunded pension liability and keeping the city’s water fund out of red ink, noting: “These are things that we are looking at, and during all of these [budget] proceedings so little attention was paid to that.”

That is to note that while sliding into chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, or, as in Atlantic City, state oversight, can be easy; the process of extricating one’s city is great: there is added debt. Indeed, Flint remains in a precarious fiscal position, confronted by serious fiscal challenges in the wake of its exit from state financial receivership the month before last. Key among those challenges are: employee retirement funding and the aging, corroded pipes (with a projected price tag of $600 million) which led to the city’s drinking water crisis and state takeover.

On the public pension front, in the wake of state enactment of public pension reforms at the end of 2017 which mandate that municipalities report underfunded retirement benefits, Flint reported a pension system funded at only 37% and zero percent funding of other post-employment retirement benefits, which, according to the state Treasury report, Flint does not prefund.

The proposed budget assumes FY2019 general fund revenues of approximately $55.8 million, of which $4.7 million is expected to come from property taxes. This would be an increase of about $120,000; Flint’s critical water fund will have a $4 million surplus at the end of FY2018; however, CFO Newsome warned the fund will fall into the red within the next five years if it fails to bring in more money.

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.

The Fiscal & Legal Challenges of Smaller Municipalities

eBlog

March 28, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing fiscal, physical, intergovernmental, and legal challenges to Flint, Michigan—as too many parties seek to plead innocent to state actions, which have wreaked such devastating fiscal and physical costs. Then we head east to one of the nation’s oldest municipalities, Bristol, Virginia, which appears to be on the precipice of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy.

Fiscal Fraud & Unfiscal Federalism? Andy Arena, the FBI Detroit office’s former director, and lead investigator into the City of Flint’s water crisis, this week testified before the Michigan Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on General Government that he has launched a new probe amid allegations of “financial fraud” and “greed” as critical factor behind the fateful decision years ago to switch the city’s water source, stating: “Without getting too far into depth, we believe there was a significant financial fraud that drove this,” adding that the alleged scheme benefited “individuals.” Or, as he testified: “I believe greed drove this.”

His testimony came as Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette continued the investigation he started in the wake of Gov. Rick Snyder’s declaration, two years ago, of a state of emergency in the wake of the severe and life threatening lead water contamination, as the criminal probe, which has already led to charges against 15 local and state officials—charges resulting in four plea deals and preliminary exams involving six defendants, including state Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon and Chief Medical Executive Eden Wells continue. Now, the investigation is focusing on the potential motivation behind the decision to switch the City of Flint from the Detroit area water system to the new Karegnondi Water Authority—a decision which, when Flint opted to join the regional authority, had terminated its arrangement with the Detroit water system and opened the fateful portals to drawing water from the Flint River as an interim source, e.g. the dreadful step which resulted in contaminated drinking water and calamitous drops in assessed property values—not to mention grave governing questions with regard to the culpability of state appointed emergency managers preempting local elected leaders. (Within 17 months, the decision, made while the city was run by state-appointed emergency managers, was reversed after outbreaks of Legionnaires’ and increased levels of bacteria, total trihalomethanes and lead were found in water. Five years ago, in March, Flint’s City Council members voted 7-1 to join a new regional provider, rather than remain a customer with the Detroit system—as it had for decades. Three days earlier, Flint Emergency Manager Ed Kurtz had approved the agreement, notwithstanding then-State Treasurer Andy Dillon’s skepticism with regard to whether the new regional authority made financial sense.).

Last week, when Sen. Mike Nofs (R-Battle Creek) asked whether the probe involved local, state, and federal entities, Mr. Arena responded: “It kind of cuts across all lines right now…I don’t know that they were working so much in concert, but the end game was people were trying to make money in different ways.” He reiterated that his FBI team has been heading the Flint criminal investigation for more than two years; however, he testified he was uncertain when it might end, adding: “We’re moving at lightning speed…I can assure everyone here that we are working as quickly as we possibly can: Our bottom line is we want justice for the people of Flint, and we have to do that methodically.” Unsurprisingly, he did not detail what “justice” might mean: would it mean reparations for the fiscally and physically devastated city and its taxpayers?

The case, as we have previously written, commenced after the Governor, five years’ ago, preempted all municipal authority via the appointment of Ed Kurtz as the city’s Emergency Manager, effectively preempting any municipal authority for the brewing fiscal, physical, and health catastrophe; Mr. Kurtz, in this preemptive capacity then signed off on the fateful order in June of 2013 to allow the “upgrading of the Flint Water Plant to ready it to treat water from the Flint River to serve as the primary drinking water source for approximately two years and then converting to KWA delivered lake water,” a source which the city used from April of 2014 until October 2015, when the city was reverted to the Detroit system in the wake of an outbreak of Legionnaires’ cases and evidence of elevated levels of lead in the city’s children—a most ill omen, as it signaled to parents the prohibitive cost of health and safety to continue to reside in the city—and the unlikelihood of any ability to sell their homes at any kind of a reasonable price. Mayhap worse, last October, a federal judge dismissed objections by Flint’s City Council and paved the way for Flint officials to move forward with a long-term contract with the Detroit area Great Lakes Water Authority—a position supported by Mayor Karen Weaver as vital to avert chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. Thus, Mayor Weaver, Gov. Snyder, and the EPA supported a proposed 30-year agreement with the Great Lakes Water Authority—a position on which the Flint City Council did not agree—leading to a successful suit by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to compel approval of the agreement.

Concurrently, in a related trial on these physical and fiscal event, before a Genesee District Court Judge in a trial where the state’s Chief Medical Officer has been charged with crimes related to the Flint water crisis, a researcher, Virginia Tech Professor Marc Edwards, testified before Genesee District Court Judge William Crawford yesterday that Dr. Eden Wells had sought to “get to the truth of the matter,” and that had seen no evidence of Dr. Wells having committed crimes during her preliminary examination on potential charges including involuntary manslaughter.(Prosecutors charge that Dr. Wells, a member of Gov. Snyder’s cabinet, failed to protect the health and welfare of Flint area residents, including victims of Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks in the Flint area while the city used the Flint River as its water source in parts of 2014 and 2015: Dr, Wells is charged with attempting to withhold funding for programs designed to help the victims of the water crisis and with lying to an investigator about material facts related to a Flint investigation by the Michigan Attorney General’s Office.) 

Professor Edwards is among those who believe that Flint’s switch to river water without proper treatment to make it less corrosive triggered both elevated lead and increased Legionella bacteria in large buildings in Flint at the time, adding that he disagreed with the approach taken by the Flint Area Community Health and Environment Partnership, which contracted with the state to find the root cause of the Legionella outbreaks, which officials have reported lead to the deaths of at least a dozen people in Genesee County while the river was in use. Thus, Professor Edwards notes, instead of focusing on the potential for the bacteria in water filters, state fiscal resources would have been put to better use if directed to investigate cases tied to large buildings, particularly hospitals, where his own testing showed very high levels were present. Moreover, in response to the query whether Dr. Wells did anything to discourage his research, Prof. Edwards responded: “To the contrary. She seemed interested, and she encouraged it.”

The Fiscally Desperate State of a Small Municipality. Far to the east of Flint, in one of the nation’s oldest municipalities, Bristol, Virginia, a municipality which, in 1880, had a population of 1,562—a population which gradually grew to 19,042 in 1980, before waning to 16,060 by 2016. The area of what is, today, Bristol, was once inhabited by early Americans, Cherokee Indians, with the name, according to legend, because numerous deer and buffalo met there to feast in the canebrakes; it was subsequently renamed the site Sapling Grove, and then, in 1890, finally settled upon as Bristol. It used to have a fort on a hill overlooking what is now downtown Bristol: it marked an important stopping-off place for notables, including Daniel Boone and George Rogers Clark, as well as hundreds of pioneers, who found Bristol, a former trading post, way station, and stockade, to be a cornerstone to opening up a young nation to the West.  Now, a Virginia Auditor of Public Accounts (APA) new report has found the municipality may require state fiscal assistance to address its significant debt tied to The Falls development and landfill operations—having, at the end of last week, in its fiscal distress monitoring report of local governments, assessed the small city as scoring poorly on a set of financial metrics, including debt overload, cash flow issues, revenue shortfalls, deficit spending, billing issues, and a lack of qualified staff. The small municipality today has a median household income of $27,389. Approximately 13.2% of families and 16.2% of the population fall below federal poverty levels–including 25.8% of those under age 18. The Auditor’s report notes: “During follow-up with the City of Bristol, we observed two primary issues that we concluded are contributing to a situation of fiscal distress at the city: issues specific to the operational sustainability of its solid waste disposal fund and the debt and future revenues related to The Falls commercial development project,” positions which Bristol City Manager Randy Eads noted “exactly” portrayed the city’s financial problems, as opposed to preliminary findings released last year which included some incorrect information. Specific findings found that the city does not have unrestricted reserves to use for a revenue shortfall or unforeseen situations, and that the city is not in the “most desirable” position to meet its fiscal obligations without obtaining additional revenues.

As part of the report, the APA issued written notification to Gov. Ralph Northam, the General Assembly’s money committees, the Secretary of Finance, and city officials detailing these specific issues and recommending that Bristol may warrant further assistance from the state to help assess and stabilize areas of concern—with such potential state assistance including an independent consultant reviewing the viability of landfill operations and developing long-range financial forecasts for revenue—each items sought by the city. Or, as Manager Eads noted: “That’s something we requested from the APA. It’s our understanding there’s $500,000 the state has set aside to help low-scoring localities with some of their financial issues…We requested funds for a detailed financial analysis of the landfill and requested funds for a financial planning firm to help us with a three-, five- and 10-year financial forecast.” Manager Eads reports he plans to meet with Virginia legislators to seek support. Bristol’s solid waste fund has $33.5 million in long-term bond debt; the municipality’s general fund continues to transfer funds to pay bills, according to the report. The report notes that city officials completed a significant refinancing of all short-term debt earlier this year; however, debt remains a challenge: “However, the city’s increasing debt service costs continue to be a concerning factor, as Bristol’s ability to pay the debt service will be contingent upon sufficient future revenues received from The Falls project,” according to the report. The auditor’s office notes the city is entitled to additional sales tax revenues under provision of a state law, but notes “Bristol continues to experience some uncertainty with its long-term revenue stream and future growth after all phases of The Falls project are implemented.”

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.

Balancing Fiscal & Public Safety

January 9, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the potential fiscal impact of the expiration of the State of New Jersey’s public safety arbitration cap—with the expiration coming as Governor-elect Phil Murphy has been reviewing a report examining the implications for property taxes, state spending, collective bargaining agreements, and public safety. Then we journey south to witness the denouement of the fiscal siege of the historic municipality of Petersburg, Virginia.

Uncapping & Fiscal Impacts. The State of New Jersey’s statute capping public safety arbitration awards at 2% has been in effect for seven years—it was last extended in 2014. Now, with a new Governor taking office, Moody’s has warned that its expiration on the last day of 2017 is a credit negative for the Garden State—and for its municipalities and counties. Indeed, the New Jersey League of Municipalities has been joined by the New Jersey Association of Counties, the New Jersey Conference of Mayors, the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, New Jersey Business and Industry Association, and the New Jersey Realtors Association to urge the new Governor and Legislature to support permanently extending the 2% cap Interest Arbitration Cap, noting that an expired cap would have a negative impact on property taxes and jeopardize the continued delivery of critical services, as well as adversely impact residential and commercial property taxpayers, working class families, and those on fixed incomes. The League’s President, Mayor James Cassella of East Rutherford, noted that the 2% Interest Arbitration Cap has controlled costs: without the cap, municipalities could see costly arbitration awards that would force local officials to reduce services or lay off employees to satisfy the arbitrator’s award and stay within the 2% levy cap. Similarly, New Jersey Association of Counties President Heather Simmons, a Gloucester County Freeholder, noted that failure to permanently extend the 2% cap on binding interest arbitration awards would inequitably alter the collective bargaining process in favor of labor at the expense of taxpayers, and lead to awards by arbitrators with no fiduciary duty to deliver essential services in a cost-effective manner.

Now Moody’s has moodily weighed in, deeming the expiration a credit negative for the state’s cities and  counties, as has Fitch Ratings.

In New Jersey, interest arbitration is a process open only to police and fire employee unions: it is a mechanism to resolve collective bargaining disputes between local governments and unions: when a public employer is unable to reach a contract agreement with a police or fire union, an arbitrator is called in to decide the terms of the contract. When the state adopted the 2 percent property tax levy cap, a separate 2 percent cap on interest arbitration awards was also imposed: that mandates arbitrators to take property taxes into account when issuing awards and providing local officials with a now proven and effective tool to contain property tax increases. The arbitration cap expired on Dec. 31; however, the property tax levy cap is permanent. The New Jersey League noted: “For nearly a decade, the 2 percent cap on binding interest arbitration awards has kept public safety employee salaries and wages under control simply because parties have been closer to reaching an agreement from the onset of negotiations. Moreover, the 2 percent cap on binding interest arbitration awards has established clear parameters for negotiating reasonable successor contracts that preserve the collective bargaining process and take into consideration the separate 2 percent tax levy cap on overall local government spending. And, importantly, the 2 percent cap on binding interest arbitration awards has not negatively impacted public safety services or recruitment.

In the wake of the expiration of the arbitration cap, it appears likely that arbitrator contract awards would exceed 2 percent. That would likely force cities and counties in the Garden State to reduce or eliminate municipal services—or go to the voters to seek approval to exceed the 2 percent property tax cap in order to fund an arbitration award.

Moody’s analyst Douglas Goldmacher moodily noted: “Given that salary costs are among the largest of municipal expenditures, the cost implications are obvious and considerable. The effect of this is, in most cases, unlikely to be rapid, but ultimately, the loss of the arbitration cap is likely to cause the sector’s credit quality to deteriorate…Although the cap has expired, and it may not be finished. Numerous local governments and local government advocacy groups support the arbitration cap. It is possible that the new governor and New Jersey state Legislature will revisit the matter. Until and unless that occurs, there will be a potentially dangerous mismatch between revenue and expenditures.” The statute, which caps public safety arbitration awards at 2%, came into force on January 1, 2011; it was extended for a three-year period in 2014 when it was last up for renewal. Mr. Goldmacher noted: “The cap played a major role in helping local governments manage public safety costs by instituting a limit on increases in police and fire salaries in arbitration and effectively tying the salary increases to the municipality’s or county’s revenue-raising capabilities…The cap’s expiration, should it prove permanent, is a credit negative for all local governments.” Mr. Goldmacher noted the cap’s existence has been a “valuable tool” in contract negotiations when police and firefighter unions with negotiators often forced to consider small salary increases. A September report by former Gov. Chris Christie’s appointees to the Police and Fire Public Interest Arbitration Impact Task Force stated that municipal property taxes jumped at an annual average of 7.19% for the five years prior to the cap compared to 2.41% since 2011. The report also estimated that the cap has saved taxpayers a collective $429 million. Thus, Mr. Goldmacher notes: “Given that salary costs are among the largest of municipal expenditures, the cost implications are obvious and considerable: Police and fire contracts often serve as a benchmark contract for other negotiations, which had the effect of making a 2% annual increase something of a standard target for most contracts, even for non-public safety collective bargaining units.” While it is possible the cap may be reinstated, Mr. Goldmacher added that as long as no action is taken to address the lapse, New Jersey’s cities and counties confront “a potentially dangerous mismatch” aligning revenue and expenditures, because of how much a 2% property tax cap law would limit their budgetary flexibility, writing: “The effect of this is, in most cases, unlikely to be rapid, but ultimately, the loss of the arbitration cap is likely to cause the sector’s credit quality to deteriorate,” he said. “The degree of deterioration will depend on the idiosyncratic qualities of the given community.”

For its part, Fitch wrote: “…the arbitration cap is beneficial to local government credit quality as it helps to align revenue and spending measures and supports structural balance in the context of statutory caps on property tax growth…bargaining groups may become more emboldened to pursue arbitration as opposed to voluntary settlement if the arbitration cap expires. Arbitration awards were significantly higher prior to the cap, ranging from 2.50% to 5.65% from 1993-2010, according to a report of the New Jersey Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC.)” Fitch also noted that the elimination of the arbitration cap “could force local governments to reduce governmental services and/or rely on one-time resources to accommodate higher wage expenses.”

The Fiscal Siege of Petersburg. Jack Berry, Robert Bobb, and Nelsie Birch, writing in a piece, “Overcoming the latest siege of Petersburg, referenced the city’s then vital role in the Civil War, where, as they wrote: “The series of battles known as the Siege of Petersburg lasted nine months and consisted of devastating trench warfare. It featured the largest concentration of African-American troops in the war, who suffered enormous casualties at the Battle of the Crater.” They went on to write: “Some would say that Petersburg has been under siege ever since the Civil War, that there is a siege mentality in the city. Petersburg even has a Siege Museum…But Petersburg has not always been under siege; it is not today, and it will not be tomorrow. Noting that Petersburg was once the second largest city in Virginia—and home to the largest number of free blacks in Virginia, they noted that it was once “a wealthy city, a major industrial center, and one of the largest rail hubs in the nation,” where, in the wake of the Civil War, a “coalition of Africa-American and white, populist Republicans, controlled the state legislature, which led to the creation of two large public institutions in the region: Virginia State University and Central State Hospital. Later, Fort Lee became another major economic engine for the area.” The authors noted, however, that “Jim Crow laws and Massive Resistance devastated the hopes and dreams of black citizens and fueled racial tensions. In 1985, one of the city’s largest employers, Brown & Williamson Tobacco, shut down its Petersburg factory. Later, Southpark Mall was located north of the city, sucking retail sales out of Petersburg.” These events adversely affected assessed property values—in turn reducing investment in public schools. The historic city seemed on a route to chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy—or being, as they wrote: “relinquishing city status—and being subsumed by neighboring jurisdictions,” all because of what they described as a “self-inflicted, mismanaged city government” which “ran itself into a ditch: In July of 2016, the city faced $18 million in unpaid bills. The budget was $12 million out of balance. Petersburg had nearly run out of cash and was dipping into every available pot of money, regardless of restrictions, to pay bills. A botched water meter conversion project impacted utility billings, which made the cash situation even worse.”

Because the Commonwealth of Virginia was apprehensive that a default by Petersburg would have had severe fiscal repercussions for municipalities across the state, the Commonwealth, as we have previously written, provided a consulting team to diagnose the fiscal issues and recommend fiscal measures—including, in its recommendations, pay cuts of 10 percent pay cuts for the entire city workforce. Even as the state-imposed overseer was acting, an aroused citizenry, via a grassroots group called “Clean Sweep,” attended every City Council session, demanding greater fiscal accountability. A year ago last October, former Mayor Howard Meyers and the City Council brought in a fiscal posse in an effort to restructure, hiring former Richmond City Manager Robert Bobb and his team, who set up a temporary war room in the City Hall building where General Robert E. Lee had met with his senior Confederate officers during the Siege of Petersburg. Mr. Bobb wrote of the fiscal war room: “We dug in for the long haul, with Nelsie Birch leading efforts to peel back layers of the financial onion. We got a handle on cash flow, figured out the extent of the unpaid bills, found checks stashed in drawers, arranged short-term financing, crafted a new budget, dramatically cut spending, put pressure on the city treasurer to collect taxes, and revamped the decrepit utility system…New financial policies were put in place; debt was restructured; water and sewer rates were increased to comply with debt covenants; the organization was right-sized; new managers were hired.”

Mr. Bobb described this war room process as one in which—at the same time—his team teamed with Mayor Sam Parham and the members of the Petersburg City Council “every step of the way,” to make the tough decisions, adding that, during this process, “Our strongest ally was the Governor’s Office, in particular, Virginia Secretary of Finance Ric Brown.” Indeed, by last November, external auditors reported a signal fiscal turnaround: Petersburg reported a year-end surplus of $7.2 million—and the report was on time; the auditor’s opinion was clean.

Governance Amidst Fiscal and Stormy Challenges & Uneven Federalism

December 1, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the fiscal and governing challenges in one of the nation’s oldest municipalities, and its remarkable turnaround from verging on becoming the first municipality in Virginia to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, before veering south to assess what President Trump has described as the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico suffering from “from broken infrastructure and massive debt.” 

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

Revolutionary Municipality. Petersburg, Virginia’s City Council, one of the oldest of the nation’s cities, as part of its fiscal recovery, last week had voted 5-2 to request the Virginia Legislature to change the city’s charter in order to transfer the most critical duties of the Treasurer’s Office to a newly-created role of city collector—a position under the Council’s control, as part of its wish list for the newly elected state legislature. Petersburg, an independent city of just over 32,000, is significant for its role in African-American history: it is the site of one of the oldest free black settlements in the state–and the nation.  The unprecedented City Council effort seeks to strip power from an elected office—an office some believe curried some fault for contributing to Petersburg’s near chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. Ironically, the effort came the same month that voters elected a former Member of the City Council to the office of Treasurer. Councilman Treska Wilson-Smith, who opposed the move, stated: “The citizens just voted in a Treasurer. For us to get rid of that position is a slap in the face to the citizens who put them in there.” Unsurprisingly, State Senator Rosalyn Dance, who for a dozen years has represented the city as part of her district in the Virginia House of Delegates, and who will consider the city’s legislative agenda, said she was concerned. Noting that the newly-elected treasurer has yet to serve a day in office, she added that much of the turmoil had to do with the current Treasurer, so, she said: “I hope [the] Council will take a second look at what they want to do.” Former Councilman and Treasurer-elect Kenneth Pritchett, who declined to comment, ran on a platform of improving the office’s operations by standardizing internal controls and implementing new policies: he urged Petersburg residents to contact lawmakers in a Facebook message posted after the Council took action, calling the decision “a prime example of total disrespect for the citizens’ vote.”

Nevertheless, Council Members who supported the legislative agenda language said it was time for a change, or, as Councilman Darrin Hill noted: “I respect the opinion of the citizens, but still, we believe if we keep on doing the same thing that we have done, then we will keep on getting the same results.” Other Councilmembers felt even better about their votes after the Council received good financial news earlier this week when newly audited reports showed a boost in Petersburg’s reserve funds, increased revenue, and a drop in expenditures—a marked fiscal reversal. In addition, the city’s external auditor provided a clean opinion—a step up from last year’s “modified” opinion—an opinion which had hinted the city had failed to comply with proper accounting principles—and a municipal fiscal year which commenced $19 million in the hole—and $12 million over budget—in response to which the Council raised taxes, cut more than $3 million in funding from the city’s chronically underperforming schools, eliminated a popular youth summer program, and closed cultural sites. Former Richmond City Manager Robert Bobb’s organization—which had been hired to help the city recoup from the verge of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, had supported transferring some of the duties of the Treasurer to a city collector position as a means to enhance the city’s ability to improve its tax collections.

Subsequently, late last September, another shoe fell with a 115-page report which examined eight specific aspects of city governance—and found allegations of theft involving current Treasurer Kevin Brown—claims Mr. Brown repeatedly denied, but appeared to contribute to his decision not to run for reelection—an elected which Mr. Pritchett won by a wide margin, winning just over 70 percent.  Nevertheless, Mayor Samuel Parham told his colleagues: “We are treading too thin now to risk someone who is just getting to know the job. We can’t operate as a city of hoping…Now that we are paying our bills and showing growth, there is no need to go back in time and have a situation that we had.” However, some Councilmembers believe they should await more facts with regard to Mr. Brown’s actions, especially with regard to uncollected municipal tax revenues, or, as Councilmember Wilson-Smith put it: “There are some questions which we still have unanswered when it comes to why the taxes were not collected: It appears to me that a lot of the taxes are not being collected, because they are un-collectable,” or, as she noted: Many listed for unpaid taxes were deceased.

David Foley with Robinson, Farmer, Cox Associates, Petersburg’s external auditor, had presented figures before Petersburg residents and the City Council, noting the clean opinion is a substantial improvement from last year, when auditors issued a modified opinion which suggested Petersburg had failed to maintain accounting principles—testifying that the improvement mainly came from the city being able to provide evidence of the status of some of its major financial accounts, such as public utilities. He did recommend that Petersburg strengthen some of its internal controls over the next fiscal year—noting, especially, the reconciliation of the city’s public utility system, which some officials have suggested should be sold to private companies. Indeed, City Manager Aretha Ferrell-Benavides told City Council members that a plan to correct some of the deficiencies will start in January, with monthly updates on corrective actions that she would like to continue to take. The see-saw, key fiscal change of nearly $2 million more than had been projected arose from a combination of increased real estate tax collections, and a $2.5 million reduction in expenditures, mainly came from health and welfare, and non-departmental categories: in total, there was a $7.5 million increase in the city’s chief operating fund. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Foley, in response to Councilmember Charlie Cuthbert, noted: “It was a significant year. There is still a long way to go,” indirectly referencing the city’s commencement of FY2017 $19 million in the hole and $12 million over budget—and with dire threats of legal action over unpaid bills—triggering a tidal wave of legal bills of nearly $1 million—of which about $830,000 went to Mr. Bobb’s group—while the city spent nearly $200,000 on a forensic audit.  Council members received the presentation on the annual financial report with a scant two days prior to the state imposed deadline to submit the report—after, last year, the city was about seven months late in submitting its annual financial report.

Insufficient Shelter from the Fiscal Storm. In the brutal wake of Hurricane Maria, which destroyed about 57,000 homes in Puerto Rico last September and left another 254,000 severely impacted, 50 percent of the U.S. territory’s remaining 3.5 million inhabitants are still without electricity—a lack that has adversely impacted the ability to reconstruct the toll wrought by Maria, not to mention the economy, or loss of those, more than 150,000, who could afford to leave for New York and Florida. Puerto Rico still confronts a lack of drinking water. Governor Ricardo Rosselló had assured that 95% of the island would have electricity by today, but, like too many other promises, that is not to be. An irony is that the recent visit of former President Bill Clinton, who did not come down to toss paper towels, but rather to bring fiscal and physical assistance, may be, at long last, an omen of recovery. It was just 19 days ago that Gov. Roselló appeared before Congress to request some $94 billion to rebuild the U.S. territory—a request unmet, and a request raising questions about the Puerto Rican government’s ability to manage such a vast project, especially in the wake of the $300 million no-bid contract awarded to a small Montana utility company, Whitefish, to restore the territory’s power—an effort House Natural Resources Committee Chair Rob Bishop (R-Utah) described as raising a “credibility gap.” Indeed, in the wake of that decision, Chairman Bishop and others in the Congress have called for the unelected PROMESA Financial Oversight and Management Board, known on the island as “la junta,” to extend its powers to overseeing the rebuilding effort as well—a call which, unsurprisingly, many Puerto Ricans, including pro-statehood Governor Rosselló, see as a further threat to their democratic rights. 

Nevertheless, despite the quasi-takeover threat from Congress, U.S. District Court Judge Laura Taylor Swain has denied the PROMESA Oversight Board’s request to appoint an emergency manager, similar to those appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder in Detroit, or by the former Governor of Rhode Island for Central Falls under their respective authority under state authorizations of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. Puerto Rico, because it is not a state, does not have such authority; consequently, Judge Swain has determined the Board does not have the authority to appoint public officials—a holding which Gov. Rosselló responded to by noting that the decision upheld his office’s position about the board’s power, writing: “It is clear that the [board] does not have the power to take full control of the Government or its instrumentalities…[T]he administration and public management of Puerto Rico remains with the democratically elected government.