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.


Fiscal Recoveries from Fiscal & Physical Storms


February 23, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the municipal fiscal threats to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, before taking a fiscal spin on the roulette tables of Atlantic City.

Fiscal Hurricane Fallout. Jaison R. Abel, Jason Bram, Richard Deitz, and Jonathan Hastings of the New York Federal Reserve this week, in their examination of the fallout in the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria on the economies of the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands noted that both were suffering from significant economic downturns and fiscal stress well before the storms hit nearly six months ago—noting that in their wake, the initial job losses in Puerto Rico totaled about 4 percent; in the U.S. Virgin Islands, job losses were double that—and there has been no rebound thus far. The authors wrote that these losses are considerably steeper than what has typically been experienced in the wake of most significant U.S. natural disasters, albeit not nearly as devastating as Hurricane Katrina’s unprecedented impact on the New Orleans economy more than a decade ago. The Fed three noted that domestic air passenger data indicate that from last September through November, more than 150,000 people left Puerto Rico, net of arrivals, and that the number who left the U.S. Virgin Islands was proportionally even larger. Thus, they opined, looking ahead, recovery will be affected by a variety of factors: especially: the level degree of out-migration, the level of external aid these economies receive, and the effectiveness of fiscal and other reforms—especially in Puerto Rico. They noted that Hurricane Maria was the most devastating hurricane to slam Puerto Rico in nearly a century—leaving an enormous toll of lives, homes, and businesses lost or suffering enormous damage, devastation of most crops and other agricultural assets, and severe havoc to its public infrastructure, adding that both for responding to the human and economic misery, the island’s experiencing of the most severe power outage in U.S. history means “it may still take months to fully restore electricity and other critical infrastructure,” describing the devastation to the U.S. Virgin Islands as similar, especially St. Croix, where I taught school long before most readers were born.

Nevertheless, the Fed Gang of Three wrote that recovery is underway in both Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, reporting that, as of last month, satellite images of nighttime lights suggest roughly 75 percent power restoration for Puerto Rico overall, with the southern and western parts of the island seeing nearly full restoration, and San Juan close to that level. In contrast, however, they determined that the eastern end of Puerto Rico and many interior areas have lagged substantially. As of the end of last year, they reported that the labor market has begun to recover in Puerto Rico: employment in leisure and hospitality (largely restaurants), the sector usually most affected by natural disasters, have started to bounce back in Puerto Rico, albeit not yet in the U.S. Virgin Islands. And, as often happens following natural disasters, jobs are being added in both Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in industries involved in clean-up, restoration, and rebuilding efforts—most notably, construction. Thus, they believe Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are confronted with a long and difficult recovery process ahead—a fiscal and physical process made all the more difficult because of poor economic and fiscal conditions prior to the storms.  

Financing a Recovering City’s Emergence from a State Takeover. The Atlantic City Council has voted approval the issuance of debt to pay off millions the municipality owes to pay off deferred pension and health care contributions from 2015—after, in 2015, state officials had urged the delay of some $37.2 million in pension and health care contributions—a delay which, today, officials note has added up to about $47 million with the added interest. In the ordinance the Council voted Wednesday 6-3 to authorize, Atlantic City can now issue as much as $55 million worth of municipal bonds to help finance those accrued debts, with the vote coming in the wake of a lengthy discussion between the Council and 13 residents, each of whom spoke in opposition: some urged the elected leaders to table the matter for further review, while others questioned who had authorized the deferment, whether the city was obligated to pay the interest rate, and whether there were other options to finance the debt—debt which, as of the end of the calendar year, had reached more than $344 million in outstanding debt. Timothy Cunningham, New Jersey’s local government services director and now the state appointed takeover appointee, has explained to residents the option to bond for the deferred payments would prevent it from having to go into the general fund—that is in lieu of the city being forced to raise tax rates: the municipal bond interest payments would instead be financed via the Investment Alternative Tax from casinos, which, under state takeover regulations, are redirected to be used in Atlantic City for debt service, he noted. The City Council had originally slated the issue for a vote last month, but withdrew the scheduled vote in order to host two public hearings on the matter.

At the session, Councilman Jesse Kurtz said he would have preferred a different resolution to making the payments, questioning whether Atlantic City would be obligated to pay back the payments’ interest if the deferment was at the suggestion of the State, noting it did not “sit right” with him to vote for the ordinance without a formal statement from Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration authorizing it: “When we’re short on money, the answer is to borrow money…I don’t like that.” Atlantic City Council President Marty Small responded that after the ordinance was pulled last month, city and state officials asked the Governor’s administration for forgiveness on the payment; however, the response was negative, adding that the city knew the day was coming to pay the deferred payments—and that such payment was the city’s obligation: to act otherwise, he noted, would be “putting the taxpayers in harm’s way” if they did not act to borrow to make the payments: “It’s not us versus you: What affects you, affects us.” Councilmember Kurtz, along with Councilmen Moisse Delgado and Jeffree Fauntleroy II, voted against the measure, while Councilmembers Small, George Tibbitt, Chuen “Jimmy” Cheng, William Marsh, Kaleem Shabazz, and Aaron Randolph voted aye. For his part, Mayor Frank Gilliam, told his colleagues in opposing the matter, the city needs to come up with “better ways to deal with our finances,” regardless of whether council passed the bond ordinance: “We’re still $400 million in debt.”

Returning from Municipal Bankruptcy

February 7, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the remarkable signs of fiscal recovery from the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, before returning to consider the ongoing fiscal recovery of Atlantic City, where the chips had been down, but where the city’s elected leaders are demonstrating resiliency.

Taking the Checkered Flag. John Hill, Detroit’s Chief Financial Officer, this week reported the Motor City had realized its first net increase in residential property values in more than 15 years. Although property taxes, unlike in most cities and counties, in Detroit only account for 17.1% of municipal revenues (income taxes bring in 20.4%), the increase marked the first such increase in 16 years—demonstrating not just the fiscal turnaround, but also indicating the city’s revitalization is spreading to more of its neighborhoods. Mr. Hill described it as a “positive sign of the recovery that’s occurring in the city,” and another key step to its emergence from strict state fiscal oversight under the city’s chapter 9 plan of debt adjustment. As Mr. Hill put it: “We do believe that we’ve hit bottom, and we’re now on the way up.” Nevertheless, Mr. Hill was careful to note he does not anticipate significant gains in property tax revenues in the immediate future, rather, as he put it: “[O]ver time, it will certainly have a very positive impact on the city’s revenue.” According to the city, nearly 60 percent of residents will experience a rise of 10 percent or less in assessments this year: the average assessed home value in Detroit is between $20,000 and $50,000. The owner of a home within that range could see an increase in their taxes this year of $22 to $34, according to Alvin Horhn, the city’s chief assessor. Detroit has the seventh highest rate among Michigan municipalities, with a 70.1 mills rate for owner-occupied home in city of Detroit/Detroit school district. Mr. Hill noted that for Detroit properties which show an increase in value this year, the rate will be capped; therefore he projects residents will not experience significant increases except for certain circumstances, such as a property changing hands.

Nevertheless, in the wake of years in which the city’s assessing office had reduced assessments across Detroit to reflect the loss in property values, the valuation or assessment turnaround comes as, in the past decade, the cumulative assessed value of all residential property was $8.4 billion, officials noted Monday: and now it is on the rise: last year, that number was $2.8 billion; this year, the assessed value of Detroit’s 263,000 residential properties rose slightly to $3 billion—or, as Mr. Horhn noted: “For the last 12 to 17 years, we’ve been making massive cuts in the residential (property) class to bring the values in line with the market…It’s been a long ride, but for the first time in a very long time, we see increases in the residential class of property in the city of Detroit.” This year’s assessments come in the wake of a systemic, citywide reassessment of its properties to bring them in line with market value—a reassessment initiated four years ago as part of a state overhaul to bring Detroit’s assessment role into compliance with the General Property Tax Act to ensure all assessments are at one half of the market value and that like properties are uniform. That overhaul imposed a deadline of this August for Detroit to comply with state oversight directives imposed in 2014 in the wake of mismanagement in Detroit’s Assessment Division, widespread over-assessments, and rampant tax delinquencies in the wake of an investigation finding that Detroit was over assessing homes by an average of 65%, based upon an analysis of more than 4,000 appeal decisions by a state tax board. Mr. Hill asserts now that he is confident Detroit’s assessments are fair; better yet, he reports the fixes have led to more residents paying property taxes. Indeed, city officials note that property tax collections increased from an average rate of 69% in 2012-14 to 79 percent in 2015, and 80 percent in 2016; the collection rate for 2017 is projected to be 82%. Mayor Mike Duggan, in a statement at the beginning of the week, noted: “We still have a long way to go to in rebuilding our property values, but the fact that we have halted such a long, steep decline is a significant milestone…This also corresponds with the significant increase in home sale prices we have seen in neighborhoods across the city.”

At the same time, Mr. Horhn notes that Detroit’s commercial properties have increased in value to nearly $3 billion, while industrial properties recovered from a drop last year, rising from $314 million to $513 million. He added that the demolition of blighted homes, as well as improving city services, had contributed to the rise in assessed property values: “It’s perception to a large extent: If people believe things are improving, they’ll invest, and I think that’s what we’re seeing.”

Raking in the Chips? In the wake of a state takeover, and the loss—since 2014, of 11,000 jobs in the region, Atlantic City marked a new step in its fiscal recovery with interviews commencing for the former bankrupt Trump Taj Mahal casino to reopen this summer as a Hard Rock casino resort. Indeed, 1,400 former Taj Mahal employees applied after an invitational event, marking what Hard Rock president Matt Harkness described as the “first brush stroke of the renaissance.” The casino is projected to create more than 3,000 jobs—and to be followed by the re-opening Ocean Resort Casino, which will add thousands of additional jobs. The rising revenues come after, last year, gambling revenue increased for the second consecutive year, marking a remarkable turnaround in the wake of a decade in which five of the city’s 12 casinos shut down, eliminating 11,000 jobs—and, from the fiscal perspective, sharply hurt assessed property values and property tax revenues. New Jersey Casino Control Commission Chair James Plousis noted: “Every single casino won more, and every internet operation reported increased win last year…Total internet win had its fourth straight year of double-digit increases. It shows an industry that is getting stronger and healthier and well-positioned for the future.” In fact, recent figures by the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement show the seven casinos won $2.66 billion in 2017, an increase of 2.2 percent over 2016. Christopher Glaum, Deputy Chief of Financial Investigations for the gaming enforcement division, noted that 2017 was the first year since 2006 when a year-over-year increase in gambling revenue at brick-and-mortar casinos occurred. Moreover, many are betting on the recovery to gain momentum: two of the five casinos which were shuttered in recent years are due to reopen this summer: the Taj—as reported above—under its new ownership, and the Revel, which closed in 2014, will reopen as the Ocean Resort Casino. The fiscal bookies are, however, uncertain about the odds of the reintroduction of two new casinos, apprehensive that that could over saturate the market; however, the rapid increase in internet gaming, which, last year, increased earnings for the casinos by 25 percent appear to demonstrate momentum.  

Now, the fiscal challenge might rest more at the state level, where the new administration of Gov. Phil Murphy, who promised major spending initiatives during his campaign, had been counting on revenue increases from restoring the income tax surcharge on millionaires and legalizing and taxing marijuana. The latter, however, could go up in a proverbial puff of weed—and, in any event, would arrive too late for this year’s Garden State budget. Similarly, the new federal “tax reform” act’s capping on the deduction for state and local taxes will mean increased federal income taxes most for well-off residents of high-tax states such as New Jersey—raising apprehension that a new state surcharge might encourage higher income residents to leave. That effort, however, has been panned by the New Jersey Policy Perspective, which notes: “Policy changes to avoid the new $10,000 cap on state and local tax deductions would mostly benefit New Jersey’s wealthiest families.” New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Depford) notes: “We don’t have a tax problem in New Jersey. New Jersey collects plenty in taxes. We have a government problem in New Jersey, and it’s called too much of it,” noting he has tasked a panel of fellow state Senators and tax experts to “looking at everything,” including the deduction issue. In addition, he is seriously considering shifting to countywide school districts, where possible, in an effort to reduce costs. Or, as he put it: “There is a lot of money to be saved when you do things differently.” Turning to efforts to restore Atlantic City’s finances, the state Senate President said the city is “doing great;” nevertheless, noting that talk about ending the state takeover is unrealistic: “We can adjust certain things there” and Governor Murphy will select someone new to be in charge. But end the state takeover?  “Absolutely not and it’s legislated for five years.”

It seems ironic that in the city where Donald Trump’s company filed for bankruptcy protection five times for the casinos he owned or operated in the city, he was able to simply walk away from his debts: he argued that he had simply used federal bankruptcy laws to his advantage—demonstrating, starkly, the difference between personal and municipal bankruptcy.


Calming the Fiscal Waters


January 24, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the physical, governance, and fiscal challenges confronted—and overcome, by the City of Flint, Michigan.

Restoring Fiscal Municipal Authority. For the first time in seven years, Flint, Michigan local officials are in control of the city’s daily finances and government decisions after, on Monday, Michigan Treasurer Nick Khouri signed off on a recommendation from Flint’s Receivership Transition Advisory Board (RTAB), the state-appointed board overseeing Flint’s fiscal recovery-to grant Mayor Karen Weaver and the Council greater authority in daily decision-making. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, seven years ago, preempted local governance and fiscal authority after concurring with a state review panel that there was a “local government financial emergency” in Flint, and that an emergency financial manager should be appointed to oversee the city’s affairs. The Governor ultimately appointed four emergency managers to run the city from 2011 until 2015–two of whom were subsequently charged with criminal wrongdoing related to their roles in the Flint water crisis. In declaring the financial emergency in Flint, state officials said city leaders had failed to fix a structural deficit and criticized city officials for not moving with the degree of urgency required considering the seriousness of the city’s financial problems.

Notwithstanding, the State of Michigan retains authority with regard to certain fiscal and budgetary issues, including approval of the municipality’s budget, requests to issue debt, and collective bargaining agreements. Treasurer Khouri noted:  “Today is an important day for our shared goal of moving Flint forward…Thanks to the progress city leaders have made, this is an appropriate time for the Mayor and City Council to assume greater responsibility for day-to-day operations and finances.” Mayor Weaver noted: “This is an exciting development for the city of Flint…We have been waiting for this for years,” adding the state action will bring the city a step closer to its ultimate goal of home rule through rescinding Michigan’s Emergency Order 20, which mandated that resolutions approved by both Mayor Weaver and the City Council receive the state board’s approval before going into effect.

Mayor Weaver, in the wake of the long saga in which a state-imposed emergency manager had led to a massive physical and fiscal crisis, said she has hopes for the city and state to “officially divorce” by the end of this year, noting that with the appointment of CFO Hughey Newsome last  year, the newly elected City Council, and approval of a 30-year contract with the Great Lakes Water Authority; Flint is both more fiscally and physically solvent: the new water contract is projected to save Flint as much as $9 million by providing a more favorable rate—an important consideration  with GLWA and addresses $7 million in debt service payments the city is currently obligated to pay on bonds issued to finance the Karegnondi Water Authority pipeline under construction.

The city of just over 100,000, with a majority minority population where just under 30 percent of the families have a female head of household, and where 33.9 percent of all households were made up of individuals and just under 10 percent had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older, finances its budget via a 1 percent income tax on residents and 0.5 percent on non-residents: it has a strong Mayor-council form of government. It has operated under at least four charters, beginning in 1855: its current charter provides for a strong Mayor form of government—albeit one which has instituted the appointment of an Ombudsperson; the City Council is composed of members elected from Flint’s nine wards.

In the wake of ending its water contract with Detroit via a state-appointed emergency manager, its travails—physical and fiscal were triggered: the state appointed  emergency manager shifted to Flint River water as the city awaited completion of a new KWA pipeline—but that emergency manager failed to ensure safe drinking water as part of the switch—a failure which, as we have noted, led to the contamination crisis which poisoned not just the city’s drinking water, but also its fiscal stability—leading to nearly eight years of a state takeover in the wake of Gov. Rick Snyder’s 2011 declaration of a financial emergency within the city.

Even though Gov. Snyder declared an end to Flint’s financial emergency on April 29, 2015, the RTAB, which is appointed by the Governor, had continued to review financial decisions in the city. Discussions with regard to planning the RTAB’s departure from Flint began last August as part of an annual report from the Michigan Treasury Department mandated for Michigan municipalities operating under financial receivership. Thus, Treasurer Khouri’s signature was the final stamp of approval needed to thrust the RTAB unanimous suggestion of January 11th into immediate action, repealing an order mandating that the State of Michigan review all decisions made by the Mayor and Council—and ending a long and traumatic state takeover which caused immense human physical and municipal devastation. It marked the final step from the city’s emergence two years ago in April from the control of a state-imposed emergency manager to home rule order under the guidance of a the state-imposed Board—a board devised with the aim of ensuring a smooth transition by maintaining the measures prescribed upon the emergency manager’s exit. Here, as we have previously noted, the Emergency Manager was appointed by the Governor under Public Act 436 to preempt local elected leadership and to bring long-term financial stability back to the city by addressing any and all issues which had threatened the Flint’s fiscal solvency—but which, instead, first led to greater fiscal stress, and, more critically, to physical harm and danger to Flint’s citizens, thereby jeopardizing the very fiscal help which the state purported to want. Four different individuals served as emergency manager from December 2011 to April 2015: in order, they were Michael K. Brown, Edward J. Kurtz, Darnell Earley, and Gerald Ambrose.

The action repealed Emergency Manager Order No. 20, an order imposed by former Flint Emergency Manager Jerry Ambrose in his final days with the city—an order which mandated resolutions approved by both the Mayor and City Council in order to receive the Advisory Board’s approval, prior to going into effect. as Mayor Weaver put it, the step was a “welcome end to an arranged marriage,” adding: “We are so thankful‒and I’m speaking on behalf of the proud, great city of Flint: the RTAB has been in place for several years now, and one of the things it did represent is that the city was in turmoil and financial distress. And I know over the past two years we have been fiscally responsible… I think it’s absolutely time, and time for the locally elected officials to run the city, and we’ve been anxiously ready to do so….this feels like a welcome way to end an arranged marriage.”

Mayor Weaver noted that the appointment of Hughey Newsome as Flint’s interim chief financial officer, combined with the city’s new Council members and approval of a 30-year contract with the Great Lakes Water Authority, has helped to move Flint in a fiscally and financially solvent direction.


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.


The Precipitous Chapter 9 Road to Recovery

January 3, 2018

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s Blog, we consider the fiscal, scholastic, and governing challenges of the city emerging from the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

The Steep Fiscal Road to Recovery.  After years of failed leadership, financial mismanagement, quasi-chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy which led to a state takeover; the state of Detroit’s Public Schools Community District remains vital to encouraging young families to move back into the city—especially in the wake, last month, of DPS failing to meet critical deadlines necessary to be eligible for vital state aid.  (In 2016, Michigan enacted a $617 million DPS bailout, as we have previously noted.) That action separated the district’s debt from a new district that could start fresh. Now, renewed state intervention would be a critical fiscal step backwards; thus it is fortunate that Superintendent Nikolai Vitti appears to be on top of the situation: he warns that disciplinary action will follow in the wake of DPS’ failure to meet these deadlines, making it critical the Superintendent can trust his staff. It is especially vital now in the wake of a second credit rating upgrade—with the report card having recorded, last month, that DPS that Detroit Public Schools had lost out on $6.5 million in fiscal assistance to whittle down its old debt, because DPS officials had failed to turn in paperwork homework on time, according to Superindent Vitti (Michigan reimburses its public school districts for debt loss under Public Act 86 if they met the Aug. 15 deadline; thus, Superindent Vitte, on Monday, reported: “At this point, Detroit Public Schools is not eligible for the $6.5 million-dollar reimbursement from the state…After speaking with state officials, the available funds have already been disbursed to other qualifying entities. However, we will continue to petition the state to receive the reimbursement.”

Under the agreement, Detroit’s old district is still obligated to pay down its past operating debt; thus, the system’s failure to meet two deadlines last year cost not $6.5 million in aid from the state to help pay down its debt, but also a loss of public trust and confidence. As Superintendent Vitte noted last month: “At this point, Detroit Public Schools is not eligible for the $6.5 million-dollar reimbursement from the state: After speaking with state officials, the available funds have already been disbursed to other qualifying entities.” According to Superintendent Vitti, former CFO Marios Demetriou received the documents, but never completed them or sent them to the state. Even though the missed payout from the state is not expected to harm the day-to-day operations of the new district, it appears to curry a D grade; more importantly, it delays repayment of DPS’ legacy debt—or, as Superintendent Vitti notes: it is “unacceptable….The inability to submit the reimbursement form on time is a vestige of the past that continues to haunt the district…This is directly associated with the need for stronger leaders, systems, and processes. The individuals who were closest to the responsibility to submit the form will no longer be with the district.”

The unscholarly missteps appear to have contributed to ongoing doubts about the city’s fiscal acumen: The Motor City’s credit ratings remain deep in junk-bond territory, even after S&P Global Ratings last month upgraded Detroit’s credit rating from B to B+, while Moody’s last October had lifted its to B1 in the wake of the city’s launch of a new web portal to improve investor access to its financial data and bond offerings, Stephen Winterstein, a Managing Director and chief municipal fixed income strategist at Wilmington Trust Investment Advisors, Inc. to note he was “really optimistic about what they have been doing in terms of disclosure and the investor website is definitely a move in the right direction: The road to recovery is a long one, and I think that Detroit is doing the right things.”

Since exiting from the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in American history just three years ago last month, Detroit has issued debt twice: in August 2015 with $245 million of local government loan program revenue bonds, and in August 2016 with a $615 million general obligation/distributable state aid backed bond sale—albeit both issuances were via the Michigan Finance Authority, with the first enhanced with a statutory lien and intercept feature on the city’s income taxes. CFO John Naglick said that Detroit is also close to deciding on the underwriting team for a request for proposals it launched in October to find banks to lead a tender offer and refunding of its unsecured financial recovery municipal bonds with the aim of lowering its costs and easing a future escalation of debt service. For its part, S&P, in its upgrade, cited positive momentum the city is building with regard to stabilizing its operations and being better prepared to address future significant increases in pension contributions—or, as the agency noted: “We believe the city’s financial position is now more transparent compared with recent years, as is Detroit’s long-term financial strategy, which relies on fairly conservative growth assumptions…We also believe that the city has a stronger capacity to service its debt obligations than in years past.” Indeed, Detroit’s credit ratings are the highest since March of 2012, just over a year before Kevin Orr filed for chapter 9 bankruptcy in July of 2013. Nevertheless, Detroit’s credit rating remains deep in junk territory and vulnerable to another recession, say market participants. Or, as Michigan Attorney General and gubernatorial Bill Scheutte notes: “We still believe Detroit faces a long path that will require years of prudent decision-making from management and the avoidance of major economic shocks before its debt makes sense for investors looking for high-quality municipal exposure…The city still has an abundance of extremely high-risk characteristics and speculative-grade qualities that investors should be very cognizant of and understand what they are taking on.” Notwithstanding, Detroit appears to be on course to exit state oversight this year: it has presented deficit-free budgets for two consecutive years, enabling it to exit from oversight by the Financial Review Commission oversight; it ended FY2016 with a $63 million surplus; Detroit’s four-year forecast predicts an anemic annual growth rate of only about 1%; thus, any adverse public school news could have repercussions.



Governing under Takeovers

December 19, 2017

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s Blog, we consider the fiscal and governing challenges of a city emerging from a quasi-state takeover—and report on continuing, discouraging blocks to Puerto Rico’s fiscal recovery.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

The Steep Fiscal Road to Recovery.  The Hartford City Council last week forwarded Mayor Luke Bronin’s request for Tier III state monitoring under the new Municipal Accountability Review Board, the state Board established by §367 of Public Act 17-2  as a State Board  for the purpose of providing technical, financial and other assistance and related accountability for municipalities experiencing various levels of fiscal distress. That board, which met for the first time on December 8th, now could be the key for Hartford to avoid filing for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy: the Board, chaired by State Treasurer Denise Nappier and Budget Director Benjamin Barnes, is to oversee the city’s budgeting, contracts, and municipal bond transactions. The Council also passed a bond resolution to permit the city to refund all of its outstanding debt obligations. In addition, the Council approved new labor contracts with the City of Hartford Professional Employees Association and the Hartford Police Union that management projects will save Hartford more than $18 million over five years. According to Mayor Bronin, the police labor contract could save the city nearly $2 million this fiscal year; moreover, it calls for long-term structural changes, or, in the Mayor’s words, the agreement “represents another big step toward our goal of fiscal stability,” adding that the employee contracts and state aid were essential to keeping the 123,000-population city out of Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy—even as Mayor Bronin is also seeking concessions from bondholders. (Insurers Assured Guaranty and Build America Mutual wrap approximately 80% of the city’s outstanding municipal bonds.)

In its new report, “Hartford Weaknesses Not Common,” Fitch Ratings noted that Hartford appears to be fiscally unique in that other Connecticut cities are unlikely to face similar problems, after the company assessed the fiscal outlook of several cities, including Bridgeport, New Haven, and Waterbury—finding that while these municipalities have comparable demographics and fiscal challenges, none is as fiscally in trouble, noting the city’s “rapid run-up” of outstanding debt and unfunded pension liabilities as issues that set it apart from nearby municipalities. Indeed, Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin has threatened the state’s capitol city may file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection—a threat which likely assisted in the city’s receipt of an additional $48 million in aid from Connecticut’s FY2018 budget, as well as two recently settled contracts with two labor unions. In addition, Fitch pointed to Hartford’s fiscal reliance on one-time revenue sources, such as the sale of parking garages and other assets, as well as the city’s inability to obtain “significant” union givebacks as factors that augured fiscal challenges compared to other cities in the state which Fitch noted have “substantial flexibility and sound reserves.” Moreover, despite Mayor Luke Bronin’s pressure for labor concessions, only two of the city’s unions have agreed to new contracts—contracts which include pay freezes and other givebacks, albeit two other unions have agreed to pacts offering significant concessions. These changes have enabled Hartford to draw back from the brink of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, but still left the city confronting a $65 million deficit this year, and dramatically in debt and facing public pension payment increases—potentially driving Hartford’s annual debt contribution to over $60 million annually—even as it imposes the highest tax rate of any municipality in the state, especially because of its unenviable inability to levy property taxes on more than half the acreage in the city—a city dominated by state office buildings and other tax-exempt properties. These fiscal precipices and challenges have forced the city to prepare to apply for state oversight and begin a restructuring of Hartford’s $600 million in outstanding debt—a stark contrast with the state’s other municipalities, which, as Fitch noted, have achieved greater success in gaining labor concessions, even as they less reliant on state assistance, according to Fitch: “Unlike Hartford, most Connecticut cities have substantial budget flexibility and sound reserves.” In some contrast, Standard & Poor Global Ratings appeared to be in a more generous giving, seasonal spirit: the agency lifted its long-term rating on Hartford’s general obligation bonds to CCC from CC, and removed the ratings from credit watch with negative implications, reflecting its perspective that Hartford’s bond debt is “vulnerable to nonpayment because a default, a distressed exchange, or redemption remains possible without a positive development and potentially favorable business, financial, or economic conditions,” according to S&P analyst Victor Medeiros, who, nevertheless, noted that S&P could either raise or lower its rating on Hartford over the next year, depending on the city’s ability to refinance its outstanding debt, and realize any contract assistance support from the state. Thus, it has been unsurprising that Mayor Bronin has been insisting that bondholder concessions are essential to the city’s recovery.

Fitch made another key observation: many Connecticut local governments lack the same practical revenue constraints as Hartford due to stronger demographics, less reliance on state aid, and lower property tax rates. (Hartford’s mill rate is by far the state’s highest at 74.29.), noting: “In a state with an abundance of high-wealth cities and towns, Hartford continues to be challenged by poverty and blight,” contrasting the city with New Haven, Waterbury, Bridgeport, and New Britain‒all of which Fitch noted had successfully negotiated union concession on healthcare and pension-related costs, so that, as Fitch Director Kevin Dolan noted: “Their ability to raise revenues is not as constrained as Hartford’s and their overall expenditure flexibility is stronger.” said Fitch director Kevin Dolan. (Fitch rates New Haven and New Britain with A-minuses, and A and AA-minus respectively to Bridgeport and Waterbury.) State Senator L. Scott Frantz (R-Greenwich) noted: “I hate to say it, but it’s gotten so desperate in so many cases with the municipalities that they really need to be able to have the power go in there and open up contracts–not maybe not even renegotiate them–and just set the terms for the next three to five years, or longer, to make sure that each one of these cities is back on a sustainable track: The costs are smothering them, and their revenue situation has gotten worse, because people don’t necessary want to live in those cities as they start to deteriorate even further.”

Fiscal & Physical Storm Recovery. Just as on the mainland, municipalities in Puerto Rico assumed the first responder responsibilities in Puerto Rico in reaction to Hurricane Maria; however, the storm revealed the many challenges and obstacles faced—and ongoing—for Mayors (Alcaldes) to meet the needs of their people—including laws or decrees which limit their powers or scope of authority, state economic responsibilities which reduce their economic resources, and legislation which fails to recognize inadequate municipal fiscal resources and capacity. Thus, in the wake of the fiscal and physical devastation, Puerto Rico Senator Thomas Rivera Schatz, the fourteenth and sixteenth President of the Senate of Puerto Rico, is leading efforts to grant some mayors a greater degree of independence to operate and manage the finances of municipalities. He is proposing, effectively, to elevate municipal autonomy to a constitutional rank—a level which he believes should have been granted to City Councils by law, noting that with such a change, municipios “would not have to wait, as they had to wait, for federal and state agencies to handle issues that no one better than they would have handled. They would have the faculty, the responsibility, and the resources to do so…In emergencies, something that cannot be lost is time. Then and before the circumstances that the communications from the capital to the municipalities were practically zero, that shows you that, at a local level, they must have the faculty, the tools, and the resources.”

The Senate President’s proposal arose during exchanges between the Senate and Mayors, conversations which have resulted previously in a series of legislative measures, in what the Senate leader acknowledged to be a complex process, but a track which the Senator stated would, after consultation, be the result of consensus with Mayors of both political parties—providing via the Law of Autonomous Municipalities, “Puerto Rico’s municipalities a scope of action free of interference on the part of the State, even as it reformed a structure of government, to be efficient in collections.” (To date, 12 of Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities have achieved the highest level of hierarchy granted by the Autonomous Municipalities Law.)

In a sense, not so different from the state/local strains in the 50 states, one of the greatest complaints by Puerto Rico’s Mayors has been over the economic burdens—or unfunded mandates—Puerto Rico has imposed on the municipios, as well as the decrees which establish contracts with foreign companies and grant them tax benefits, exemptions, and incentives—all state actions taken without municipal consultation—thereby, enabling businesses to avoid the payment of patents and municipal taxes, and undermining municipal collections—or, as the Senate President put it: “The reality of the case is that, for 12 to 16 years, governments have been legislating to nourish the State with economic resources.”  Currently, Puerto Rico’s municipalities contribute $116 million for the redemption of state debt, another $ 160 million for Puerto Rico’s Retirement System, and an additional $ 169 million to subsidize the Government Health Plan. Again, as the Senator noted: “If there are municipal governments that have a structure capable of raising their finances, of providing their services…the State does not have to intervene with them, taxing their resources.” Sen. Schatz noted that his proposal does not include eliminating municipalities; he confirmed that the governing challenge is to realize a “model” of interaction between the municipalities and the state—and that “the citizen has in his municipal environment everything he needs to be able to live happily and have quality of life. The end of the road is that. If it’s called county, province, or whatever you want to call it; the name does not do the thing, it’s the concept.” He asserted he was not proposing to “reward” municipalities, but rather to focus on establishing collaboration agreements through which there could be shared administrative tasks—in a way to not only achieve efficiencies, but also provide greater authority and ability for Puerto Rico’s municipalities to access funds free of intermediaries, noting: “The mayors did an exceptional job (during the emergency), and, practically without resources, had to come to the rescue of their citizens, open access, help sick people, cause the distribution of supplies with logic and speed…the passage of hurricanes rules out the idea of ​​eliminating municipalities.”

Thus, he affirmed that those municipalities which have achieved the maximum hierarchy of autonomy would have total independence, while the other municipalities would remain subject to the actions of the Puerto Rican government until they manage to establish fiscal sustainability—all as part of what he was outlining as a path to greater municipal autonomy, arguing that each of these changes implied the island’s municipalities need to make fiscal and governing adjustments: they have to watch over their finances and make sure they have the resources to meet their payroll, even as he acknowledged that repairing the finances in battered municipalities economically will take time, and said that, for this, the project will include some scales and grace periods to attain that fiscal solvency, noting: “The legislation we can approve, but, to get to the point where we would like to be, it will take years.”

For the president of the Association of Mayors, Rolando Ortiz, who has served as the Mayor of Cayey for a decade, after previously serving as Member of the Puerto Rico House of Representatives from 1993 to 1997, and being reelected in 2012 with 73.29% of the votes–the largest margin of victory for any mayor in that election, the assistance provided by the municipalities to the central government to face the crisis that the country is going through is the best way to see the urgency of empowering the municipalities via this legislation—or, as he put it: “If it were not for the municipalities, I assure you that the crisis would be monumental. We have been patrolling rural roads to ensure there are no trees on the road that impede the mobility of the family.” Mayor Ortiz agreed that the proposal includes hierarchy levels, so that municipal executives comply with minimum responsibilities and mandates which allow them to reach the maximum level: “It can be a strategy to prioritize the process from the perspective of land management, but it cannot take as an only category the element of the organization of the territory, but also the efficiency in public performance, economic capacity, efficiency in the service,” adding he has not heard “any Mayor in opposition to that proposal.” His colleague, Bayamón Mayor Ramón Luis Rivera Cruz, was more reserved when addressing the issue. Although he had no objections to the establishment of the project or to what has been proposed, he indicated that there were other mechanisms to prevent state governments from harming the municipalities that reached the maximum level of hierarchy—as well as other issues which must be addressed, such as the limitation on the collection of patents and the contribution on property. 

Senate President Rivera Schatz indicated the Senate is working on several amendments to the Autonomous Municipalities Law, and that some have already been established or approved, as a preamble to what will be the final project, noting: “We are going to discuss it with all the municipal governments to achieve a consensus project of what the procedure and the route will be.”

In response to a query whether the PROMESA Board could interfere, he noted that every government operation has a fiscal impact, so that he was seeking to create a positive: “It proposes efficiency, capacity to generate more collections, so who could oppose that?” Maybe, the Board. To me, honestly, I do not care in the least what anyone on the Board thinks.” Asked what would happen if the PROMESA Board proposed for the elimination of municipalities, he noted that the Board can say what they want and express what they want, but they will not eliminate municipal governments, they will not achieve it, because in Puerto Rico that would be untenable.

Unreform? Even as Puerto Rico’s state and local leaders are grappling with fiscal governance issues and recovering from the massive hurricane with far less fiscal and physical assistance than the federal government provided to Houston and Florida, there are growing apprehensions about disparities in the final tax “reform” legislation scheduled for a vote as early as today in the U.S. House of Representatives—concerns that the legislation might impose a new tax on Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories, with non-voting Rep. Jennifer González Colón (Puerto Rico) expressing apprehension that bill will impose a 12.5% tax on intangible property imported from foreign countries—and that, under the legislation, Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories would be treated as foreign countries. El Vocero, last Friday, on its news website reported that Rep. González Colón (R-P.R.) said the planned tax bill treated Puerto Rico like a colony: the taxed intangible assets would include items such trademarks and patents generated abroad, tweeting that “The tax reform benefits domestic, not foreign companies…While we are a colony, there will be more legislation like this passed…Unfair taxes show a lack of commitment and consistency from leadership in Congress; showing true hypocrisy.” The Federal Affairs Administration of Puerto Rico last Friday released a statement calling for the tax bill to be changed and for additional aid to recover from Hurricane Maria, noting the conference report could “destroy 75,000 jobs and wipe out a third of [Puerto Rico’s] tax base.” Howard Cure, director of municipal bond research at Evercore, noted that for Puerto Rico, still trying to recover from Hurricane Maria, and with a 10.6% unemployment rate: “Obviously, any tax law change that makes Puerto Rico less competitive for certain industries to expand or remain on the island is a negative for bondholders who really need the economy to stabilize and grow in order to help in their debt recovery.” Similarly, Cumberland Advisors portfolio manager and analyst Shawn Burgess said: “My understanding is that this would impact foreign corporations operating on the island and not necessarily U.S. companies. However, it is a travesty for Congress to treat Puerto Rico as essentially a foreign entity at a time when they need all the assistance they can get. Those are U.S. citizens and deserve to be treated as equals…Leave it to Congress to shoot themselves in the foot: They had voiced their support for helping the commonwealth financially, and they hit them with tax reform terms that could be a detriment to their long-term economic health.” Similarly, Ted Hampton of Moody’s noted: “In view of Puerto Rico’s economic fragility, which was exacerbated by Hurricane Maria, new federal taxes on businesses there would only serve as additional barriers potentially blocking path to recovery. In creating the [PROMESA] oversight board, the federal government declared its intention to restore economic growth in Puerto Rico. New taxes on the island would be at odds with that mission.”

  • 936. More than a decade ago, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) reached an agreement with former President Bill Clinton to allow the phasing out of section 936, the tax provision with permitted U.S. corporations to pay reduced corporate income taxes on income derived from Puerto Rico—a provision allowed to expire in 2006—after which the U.S. territory’s economy has contracted in all but one year—a tax extinguishment at which m any economists describe as the trigger for the subsequent fiscal and economic decline of Puerto Rico. Thus, as part of the new PROMESA statute, §409, in establishing an eight Congressional-member Congressional Task Force on Economic Growth in Puerto Rico, laid the foundation for the report released one year ago, in which the section addressing the federal tax treatment of Puerto Rico, noted: “The task force believes that Puerto Rico is too often relegated to an afterthought in Congressional deliberations over federal business tax reform legislation. The Task Force recommends that Congress make Puerto Rico integral to any future deliberations over tax reform legislation….The Task Force recommends that Congress continue to be mindful of the fact that Puerto Rico and the other territories are U.S. jurisdictions, home to U.S. citizens or nationals, and that jobs in Puerto Rico and the other territories are American jobs.” Third, the task force said it was open to Congress providing companies that invest in Puerto Rico “more competitive tax treatment.” Thus it was last week that Governor Ricardo Rosselló tweeted that people should read the Congressional leadership’s “OWN guidelines on the task force report. Three main points, did not follow a single one.” The tweet recognizes there are no provisions in the legislation awaiting the President’s signature this week to soften the impact of the new modified territorial tax system—a system which will treat Puerto Rico as a foreign country, rather than an integral part of the United States, a change which Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.) this week predicted would act as a “a devastating blow to Puerto Rico’s economic recovery…Thousands more businesses will have to leave the island, forcing thousands Puerto Ricans to lose their jobs and leave the island.” Indeed, adding fiscal insult to injury, House Ways and Means Committee Chair Kevin Brady (R-Tx.) admitted that the “opportunity zone” provision in the House version of tax reform authored by Resident Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez, Puerto Rico’s nonvoting member of the House of Representatives, to make Puerto Rico eligible for designation as a new “opportunity zone” that would receive favorable tax treatment, was stripped out because it would have violated the Senate’s Byrd Rule, the parliamentary rule barring consideration of non-germane provisions from qualifying for passage by a simple majority vote instead of a 60-vote super-majority. Adding still further fiscal insult to injury, the latest installment of emergency funding for recovery from hurricanes which hammered Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Florida, and Houston had been expected this month; however, those fiscal measures have been deferred to next year in the rush to complete the tax/deficit legislation and reach an agreement to avoid a federal government shutdown this week. (The Opportunity Zone proposal was included in the Senate version of tax reform, adopted from a bipartisan proposal by Senators Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) which would defer federal capital gains taxes on investments in qualifying low-income communities—under which all of Puerto Rico could, theoretically, have qualified as one of a limited number of jurisdictions. As the ever insightful Tracy Gordon of the Tax Policy Center had noted: part of the motivation for the opportunity zone designation had been to stem the migration of residents, which has accelerated since Hurricane Maria areas getting the designation throughout the United States. To qualify, the area must have “mutually reinforcing state, local, or private economic development initiatives to attract investment and foster startup activity,” and must “have demonstrated success in geographically targeted development programs such as promise zones, the new markets tax credit, empowerment zones, and renewal communities; and have recently experienced significant layoffs due to business closures or relocations.” Thus, Ms. Gordon notes: “There’s a concern you are basically taking away an incentive to be in Puerto Rico which is this foreign corporation status.” The tax conference report simply ignores the recommendation last year by the bipartisan Congressional Task Force on Economic Growth in Puerto Rico to “make Puerto Rico integral to any future deliberations over tax reform,” not acting on the recommendation for a permanent extension of a rum cover-over payment to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands the revenues of which have been used by the territories to pay for local government operations; last year’s Congressional report had warned that “Failure to extend the provision will cause harm to Puerto Rico’s (and the U.S. Virgin Islands’) fiscal condition at a time when it is already in peril.’’ Similarly, the conference report includes no provisions addressing the task force’s recommendation that the federal child tax credit include the first and second children of families living in Puerto Rico, not just the third as specified under current law.