Exiting State Fiscal Oversight–After Emerging from Municipal Bankruptcy

eBlog

Share on Twitter

eBlog, 04/28/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the consider the unique fiscal challenge confronting Detroit: how does it exit from Michigan state oversight?  

What Is Key to the Windy City’s Future? Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan testifying: “It’s gonna happen!” before a Michigan state House panel, advised legislators that the Motor City could meet requirements to end the state’s financial oversight next year; at the same time, he urged the lawmakers to do something about the city’s high auto insurance costs. He noted that Detroit has paid $7 billion of its $18 billion in debt and obligations after emerging from chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in 2014, in an effort to demonstrate why such oversight ought no longer to fiscally oversee the city. The state-appointed Financial Review Commission—which oversees all major Detroit operations and labor contracts—was created amid the nation’s largest ever municipal bankruptcy to ensure the city’s recovery was well handled. But now, the Mayor testified, state oversight is interfering, instead of helping, because all major city and labor contracts are delayed 30 days awaiting for approval from the state oversight commission. He and John Walsh, Gov. Rick Snyder’s Director of Strategy, told lawmakers on the House committee that the city’s “grand bargain” agreement to devote hundreds of millions of dollars in state and private philanthropy aid, in part to alleviate some pension cuts to city retirees, has helped with trimming unemployment, slowed population losses, and encouraged development projects. Mr. Walsh, a former state representative from Livonia who played a key role in securing the $195 million in state aid for Detroit, said the city is “well managed,” noting: “It wasn’t just broke. It was broken.” Now, Mr. Walsh said the city is on its way to better times. As evidence of the city’s recovery, Mayor Duggan stressed to lawmakers that thousands of street lights have been installed, blighted houses have been demolished, emergency response times have improved, and buildings revitalized. Nevertheless, the Mayor continued his lobbying of lawmakers to address high auto insurance costs, warning: “If you can’t afford the car insurance, you either drive to work illegally or you lose your job…People are being ripped off,” he said, because of rising health care costs associated with auto insurance—which, he warned, hikes overall rates. Mr. Walsh testified that the economic health of Metro Detroit affects the entire state, because it accounts for 44 percent of Michigan’s total sales and income tax revenue. “All in all, I think it was a very successful effort. There are plenty of challenges ahead to be sure.” Mayor Duggan made the comments just a day after the filing deadline for the mayoral election—an election for which an even dozen challengers have already submitted petitions, while the only other certified candidate on the ballot than the incumbent is Michigan State Senator Coleman Young II, the son of the city’s first black mayor.

As evidence of the city’s recovery, Mayor Duggan noted that Detroit’s ambulance response time dipped below the national average last week for the first time in at least a decade, as he was speaking before a House committee in Lansing with regard to the critical “Grand Bargain” which marked the keystone to the city’s gaining former U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes’ approval of the city’s plan of debt adjustment to exit chapter 9 bankruptcy. Testifying that the average response time for the city’s emergency medical services was 7 minutes and 58 seconds last week, a response time besting the national EMS average, Mayor Duggan noted: “We did it in a boring way,” telling the panel his administration hired more emergency medical technicians and improved maintenance to make sure ambulances work properly. He did not remind them that at no point during the city’s largest in American history chapter 9 bankruptcy had there been any disruption in 9-1-1 service, but did testify that average EMS response times in Detroit were close to 20 minutes for life-threatening calls subsequently, when he first took office in 2014—a time when the city had six EMS rigs, compared to the 37 which are in service during peak times today. The Mayor added the city is on track to deliver its third balanced budget this June, setting the stage for an exit in early 2018 from state oversight under the Detroit Financial Review Commission—which was adopted to monitor the city’s post-bankruptcy finances. The commission would not dissolve, however, and it could resume oversight in the event the city’s finances worsen.

What Lessons Can State & Local Leaders Learn from Unique Fiscal Challenges?

eBlog

Share on Twitter

eBlog, 04/25/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the unique fiscal challenges in Michigan and how the upswing in the state’s economy is—or, in this case, maybe—is not helping the fiscal recovery of the state’s municipalities. Then we remain in Michigan—but straddle to Virginia, to consider state leadership efforts in each state to rethink state roles in dealing with severe fiscal municipal distress. Finally, we zoom to Chicago to glean what wisdom we can from the Godfather of modern municipal bankruptcy, Jim Spiotto: What lessons might be valuable to the nation’s state and local leaders?  

Fiscal & Physical Municipal Balancing I. Nearly a decade after the upswing in Michigan’s economic recovery, the state’s fiscal outlook appears insufficient to help the state’s municipalities weather the next such recession. Notwithstanding continued job growth and record auto sales, Michigan’s per-capita personal income lags the national average; assessed property values are below peak levels in 85% of the state’s municipalities; and state aid is only 80% of what it was 15 years ago.  Thus, interestingly, state business leaders, represented by the Business Leaders for Michigan, a group composed of executives of Michigan’s largest corporations universities, is pressing the Michigan Legislature to assume greater responsibility to address growing public pension liabilities—an issue which municipal leaders in the state fear extend well beyond legacy costs, but also where fiscal stability has been hampered by cuts in state revenue sharing and tax limitations. Michigan’s $10 billion general fund is roughly comparable to what it was nearly two decades ago—notwithstanding the state’s experience in the Great Recession—much less the nation’s largest ever municipal bankruptcy in Detroit, or the ongoing issues in Flint. Moreover, with personal income growth between 2000 and 2013 growing less than half the national average (in the state, the gain was only 31.1%, compared to 66.1% nationally), and now, with public pension obligations outstripping growth in personal income and property values, Michigan’s taxpayers and corporations—and the state’s municipalities—confront hard choices with regard to “legacy costs” for municipal pensions and post-retirement health care obligations—debts which today are consuming nearly 20 percent of some city, township, and school budgets—even as the state’s revenue sharing program has dropped nearly 25 percent for fiscally-stressed municipalities such as Saginaw, Flint, and Detroit just since 2007—rendering the state the only state to realize negative growth rates (8.5%) in municipal revenue in the 2002-2012 decade, according to numbers compiled by the Michigan Municipal League—a decade in which revenue for the state’s cities and towns from state sources realized the sharpest decline of any state in the nation: 56%, a drop so steep that, as the Michigan Municipal League’s COO Tony Minghine put it: “Our system is just broken…We’re not equipped to deal with another recession. If we were to go into another recession right now, we’d see widespread communities failing.” Unsurprisingly, one of the biggest fears is that another wave of chapter 9 filings could trigger the appointment of the state’s ill-fated emergency manager appointments. From the Michigan Municipal League’s perspective, any fiscal resolution would require the state to address what appears to be a faltering revenue base: Michigan’s taxable property is appreciating too slowly to support the cost of government (between 2007 and 2013, the taxable value of property declined by 8 percent in Grand Rapids, 12% in Detroit, 25% in Livonia, 32% in Warren, 22% in Wayne County values, and 24% in Oakland County.) The fiscal threat, as the former U.S. Comptroller General of the General Accounting Office warned: “Most of these numbers will get worse with the mere passage of time.”

Fiscal & Physical Municipal Balancing II. Mayhap Michigan and Virginia state and local leaders need to talk:  Thinking fiscally about a state’s municipal fiscal challenges—and lessons learned—might be underway in Virginia, where, after the state did not move ahead on such an initiative last year, the new state budget has revived the focus on fiscal stress in Virginia cities and counties, with the revived fiscal focus appearing to have been triggered by the ongoing fiscal collapse of one of the state’s oldest cities, Petersburg. Thus, Sen. Emmett Hanger (R-Augusta County), a former Commissioner of the Revenue and member of the state’s House of Delegates, who, today, serves as Senate Finance Co-Chair, and Chair of the Health and Human Services Finance subcommittee, has filed a bill, SJ 278, to study the fiscal stress of local governments: his proposal would create a joint subcommittee to review local and state tax systems, as well as reforms to promote economic assistance and cooperation between regions. Although the legislation was rejected in the Virginia House Finance Committee, where members deferred consideration of tax reform for next year’s longer session, the state’s adopted budget does include two fiscal stress preventive measures originally incorporated in Senator Hanger’s proposed legislation—or, as co-sponsor Sen. Rosalyn Dance (D-Petersburg), noted: “Currently, there is no statutory authority for the Commission on Local Government to intervene in a fiscally stressed locality, and the state does not currently have any authority to assist a locality financially.” To enhance the state’s authority to intervene fiscally, the budget has set guidelines for state officials to identify and help alleviate signs of financial stress to prevent a more severe crisis. Thus, a workgroup, established by the auditor of public accounts, would determine an appropriate fiscal early warning system to identify fiscal stress: the proposed system would consider such criteria as a local government’s expenditure reports and budget information. Local governments which demonstrate fiscal distress would thence be notified and could request a comprehensive review of their finances by the state. After a fiscal review, the commonwealth would then be charged with drafting an “action plan,” which would provide the purpose, duration, and anticipated resources required for such state intervention. The bill would also give the Governor the option to channel up to $500,000 from the general fund toward relief efforts for the fiscally stressed local government.

Virginia’s new budget also provides for the creation of a Joint Subcommittee on Local Government Fiscal Stress, with members drawn from the Senate Finance Committee, the House Appropriations, and the House Finance committees—with the newly created subcommittee charged to study local and state financial practices, such as: regional cooperation and service consolidation, taxing authority, local responsibilities in state programs, and root causes of fiscal stress. Committee member Del. Lashrecse Aird (D-Petersburg) notes: “It is important to have someone who can speak to first-hand experience dealing with issues of local government fiscal stress…This insight will be essential in forming effective solutions that will be sustainable long-term…Prior to now, Virginia had no mechanism to track, measure, or address fiscal stress in localities…Petersburg’s situation is not unique, and it is encouraging that proactive measures are now being taken to guard against future issues. This is essential to ensuring that Virginia’s economy remains strong and that all communities can share in our Commonwealth’s success.”

Municipal Bankruptcy—or Opportunity? The Chicago Civic Federation last week co-hosted a conference, “Chicago’s Fiscal Future: Growth or Insolvency?” with the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, where experts, practitioners, and academics from around the nation met to consider best and worst case scenarios for the Windy City’s fiscal future, including lessons learned from recent chapter 9 municipal bankruptcies. Chicago Fed Vice President William Testa opened up by presenting an alternative method of assessing whether a municipality city is currently insolvent or might become so in the future: he proposed that considering real property in a city might offer both an indicator of the resources available to its governments and how property owners view the prospects of the city, adding that, in addition to traditional financial indicators, property values can be used as a powerful—but not perfect—indicators to reflect a municipality’s current situation and the likelihood for insolvency in the future. He noted that there is considerable evidence that fiscal liabilities of a municipality are capitalized into the value of its properties, and that, if a municipality has high liabilities, those are reflected in an adjustment down in the value of its real estate. Based upon examination, he noted using the examples of Chicago, Milwaukee, and Detroit; Detroit’s property market collapse coincided with its political and economic crises: between 2006 and 2009-2010, the selling price of single family homes in Detroit fell by four-fold; during those years and up to the present, the majority of transactions were done with cash, rather than traditional mortgages, indicating, he said, that the property market is severely distressed. In contrast, he noted, property values in Chicago have seen rebounds in both residential and commercial properties; in Milwaukee, he noted there is less property value, but higher municipal bond ratings, due, he noted, to the state’s reputation for fiscal conservatism and very low unfunded public pension liabilities—on a per capita basis, Chicago’s real estate value compares favorably to other big cities: it lags Los Angeles and New York City, but is ahead of Houston (unsurprisingly given that oil city’s severe pension fiscal crisis) and Phoenix. Nevertheless, he concluded, he believes comparisons between Chicago and Detroit are overblown; the property value indicator shows that property owners in Chicago see value despite the city’s fiscal instability. Therefore, adding the property value indicator could provide additional context to otherwise misleading rankings and ratings that underestimate Chicago’s economic strength.

Lessons Learned from Recent Municipal Bankruptcies. The Chicago Fed conference than convened a session featuring our former State & Local Leader of the Week, Jim Spiotto, a veteran of our more than decade-long efforts to gain former President Ronald Reagan’s signature on PL 100-597 to reform the nation’s municipal bankruptcy laws, who discussed finding from his new, prodigious primer on chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. Mr. Spiotto advised that chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy is expensive, uncertain, and exceptionally rare—adding it is restrictive in that only debt can be adjusted in the process, because U.S. bankruptcy courts do not have the jurisdiction to alter services. Noting that only a minority of states even authorize local governments to file for federal bankruptcy protection, he noted there is no involuntary process whereby a municipality can be pushed into bankruptcy by its creditors—making it profoundly distinct from Chapter 11 corporate bankruptcy, adding that municipal bankruptcy is solely voluntary on the part of the government. Moreover, he said that, in his prodigious labor over decades, he has found that the large municipal governments which have filed for chapter 9 bankruptcy, each has its own fiscal tale, but, as a rule, these filings have generally involved service level insolvency, revenue insolvency, or economic insolvency—adding that if a school system, county, or city does not have these extraordinary fiscal challenges, municipal bankruptcy is probably not the right option. In contrast, he noted, however, if a municipality elects to file for bankruptcy, it would be wise to develop a comprehensive, long-term recovery plan as part of its plan of debt adjustment.

He was followed by Professor Eric Scorsone, Senior Deputy State Treasurer in the Michigan Department of Treasury, who spoke of the fall and rise of Detroit, focusing on the Motor City’s recovery—who noted that by the time Gov. Rick Snyder appointed Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, Detroit was arguably insolvent by all of the measures Mr. Spiotto had described, noting that it took the chapter 9 bankruptcy process and mediation to bring all of the city’s communities together to develop the “Grand Bargain” involving a federal judge, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, the Kellogg Foundation, and the Detroit Institute of Arts (a bargain outlined on the napkin of a U.S. District Court Judge, no less) which allowed Detroit to complete and approved plan of debt adjustment and exit municipal bankruptcy. He added that said plan, thus, mandated the philanthropic community, the State of Michigan, and the City of Detroit to put up funding to offset significant proposed public pension cuts. The outcome of this plan of adjustment and its requisite flexibility and comprehensive nature, have proven durable: Prof. Scorsone said the City of Detroit’s finances have significantly improved, and the city is on track to have its oversight board, the Financial Review Commission (FRC) become dormant in 2018—adding that Detroit’s economic recovery since chapter 9 bankruptcy has been extraordinary: much better than could have been imagined five years ago. The city sports a budget surplus, basic services are being provided again, and people and businesses are returning to Detroit.

Harrison J. Goldin, the founder of Goldin Associates, focused his remarks on the near-bankruptcy of New York City in the 1970s, which he said is a unique case, but one with good lessons for other municipal and state leaders (Mr. Goldin was CFO of New York City when it teetered on the edge of bankruptcy). He described Gotham’s disarray in managing and tracking its finances and expenditures prior to his appointment as CFO, noting that the fiscal and financial crisis forced New York City to live within its means and become more transparent in its budgeting. At the same time, he noted, the fiscal crisis also forced difficult cuts to services: the city had to close municipal hospitals, reduce pensions, and close firehouses—even as it increased fees, such as requiring tuition at the previously free City University of New York system and raising bus and subway fares. Nevertheless, he noted: there was an upside: a stable financial environment paved the way for the city to prosper. Thus, he advised, the lesson of all of the municipal bankruptcies and near-bankruptcies he has consulted on is that a coalition of public officials, unions, and civic leaders must come together to implement the four steps necessary for financial recovery: “first, documenting definitively the magnitude of the problem; second, developing a credible multi-year remediation plan; third, formulating credible independent mechanisms for monitoring compliance; and finally, establishing service priorities around which consensus can coalesce.”

Getting Out of Insolvency & Back on Fiscal Track

eBlog, 04/14/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing recovery of Atlantic City, New Jersey—where the Mayor this week proposed, in his first post-state takeover budget, the first tax cuts in a decade. Then we head west to the Motor City, where the city, as part of its fiscal recovery from the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history is seeking to ensure all its taxpayers pay what they owe, before then veering south to assess the first 100 days of the PROMESA oversight of the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico.

Getting Back on the Fiscal Track. Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian this week presented his proposed $206 million budget to the City Council, which unanimously voted 7-0 to introduce it at a special meeting, and the City has scheduled a public budget hearing for May 17th. In a taste of the fiscal turnaround for the city, the proposed budget includes the first municipal tax decrease in a decade. It also marks the first budget for the city since the State of New Jersey usurped control over Atlantic City’s finances last November. As proposed, it is more than $35 million or 21% less than last year’s and would reduce the municipal tax rate by 5 percent, according to both city and state officials. The city has scheduled a public budget hearing for May 17th.

As proposed, the steepest cut is in public safety—some $8 million, but the draft proposal also seeks cuts in administration costs ($5 million), as well as proposing savings via the privatization of trash pickup, payroll, and vehicle towing services. The smaller budget request is projected to reduce the city’s costs of debt service by $6 million. Unsurprisingly, the proposed tax cuts—the first in nearly a decade, drew the strongest applause: Atlantic City’s municipal tax rate has skyrocketed 96 percent since 2010, a period during which the city’s tax base dropped by nearly 66%. The $206.3 million budget Mayor Guardian presented features $6 million of cuts to debt service at $30.8 million and proposes to allocate $8 million less for public safety.

Mayor Guardian, who is running for his second term as Mayor this fall, said in a statement before presenting the budget that state overseers have played an instrumental role in crafting the new spending plan which features the proposed 5% property tax cut. It could mark a key point in the city’s efforts to regain governance control back from the State of New Jersey—a takeover the Republican mayor had bitterly contested, which took effect last November after New Jersey’s Local Finance Board rejected the city’s five-year recovery plan, or, as the Mayor put it: “From the beginning, I have said that we need to work with the State of New Jersey to stabilize Atlantic City and to reduce the outrageous property taxes that we inherited from years of reckless spending…Even though the entire state takeover was both excessive and unnecessary, the state did play an important role in helping us turn things around.”

For his part, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie praised former U.S. Sen. Jeffrey Chiesa for his role as the state’s designee leading the financial recovery and his contributions in helping to achieve the city’s first property tax cut in a decade. Gov. Christie credited Mr. Chiesa with withstanding union challenges to make firefighter and police cuts, as well as reaching a $72 million settlement with the Borgata casino which is projected to save the city $93 million on $165 million of owed property tax refunds from 2009 to 2015, noting: “As promised, we quickly put Atlantic City on the path to financial stability, with taxpayers and employers reaping the benefits of unprecedented property tax relief with no reduction in services by a more accountable government…I commend Senator Chiesa for leading Atlantic City to turn the corner, holding the line on expenses and making responsible choices to revitalize the city.”

Atlantic City is planning to issue $72 million in municipal bonds to finance the Borgata settlement though New Jersey’s Municipal Qualified Bond Act: the savings from the settlement, brokered by the state, were a key factor in S&P Global Ratings’ upgrade of Atlantic City’s junk-level general obligation bond debt: Atlantic City, which is weighed down by some $224 million in bonded debt, is rated Caa3 by Moody’s Investors Service. State overseer Chiesa noted: “Over the past five months, I have met so many smart, talented, tenacious people who want to see the city succeed. This inspires me every day to tackle the challenges facing the city to ensure that the progress we’ve made continues.”

A key contributor to the improved fiscal outlook appears to come from some of the unilateral contract changes to public safety officials, imposed by Mr. Chiesa, which led to reduced salaries and benefits for police and firefighters, albeit the courts will have the final say so: the unions have sued to block the cuts, arguing the takeover law is unconstitutional. In addition, the state also reach agreement on a $72 million tax settlement with Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa which is projected to save Atlantic City $93 million and essentially put Borgata back on its tax rolls. The casino had withheld property tax payments, but is now paying its part of casino payments in lieu of property taxes, or, as Mr. Chiesa put it: “Real progress is being made in the city, which is great news for the people who live, work and visit Atlantic City.”

Gov. Chris Christie, in his final term in office, praised Mr. Chiesa and jabbed at his political opponents in a statement issued before the City Council meeting, noting: “It took us merely a few months to lower property taxes for the first time in the past decade, when local leaders shamelessly spent beyond their means to satisfy their special political interests,” he said, even as Atlantic City officials described the budget as a collaborative effort with the state. Or, as Mayor Guardian put it: “He’s the governor. He makes those comments…What I think is [that] it’s clear the city moves ahead with the state.” Council President Marty Small, who chairs the Revenue and Finance Committee, said he was “intimately involved” in the budget process, describing it as a “win-win-win for everybody, particularly the taxpayers.”

Don’t Tax Me: Get the Feller behind the Tree! Getting citizens to pay their taxes is a problem everywhere, of course, but Detroit had a particularly hard time going after scofflaws because budget cuts decimated its ability to enforce the law. Even the citizens and businesses who paid up created logistical havoc for beleaguered city bureaucrats. Part of the reason, it seems, is that in Detroit, the only way to file taxes has been on paper. While that might be merely an irritation for taxpayers, it has been a nightmare for the city’s revenuers, who must devote endless hours typing data into computer systems. It appears also to have led to some innovation: last year the Motor City opted to send out more than 7,000 mailings to deadbeat tax filers, that is taxpayers who were still delinquent on their 2014 taxes; the city suspected each delinquent owed at least $350; ergo it randomly selected some taxpayers to receive one of six different letters, each with a different message in a black box on the mailing: One such message appealed to residents’ civic pride: “Detroit’s rising is at hand. The collection of taxes is essential to our success.” Another simply made clear that Detroit’s revenue department had detailed information on the deadbeats: “Our records indicate you had a federal income of $X for tax year 2014.” (Detroit is somewhat unique in that it has an income tax under which residents owe 2.4 percent of their incomes to the city, after a $600 exemption. Nonresidents who work in Detroit pay a rate of 1.2 percent.) Another message made a bold declaration: “Failure to file a tax return is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of $500 and 90 days in jail.”

It seems that threats have proven more effective than cajoling: More than 10 percent of taxpayers responded to the letter mentioning a fine and jail time, some 300% greater than the response rate to the city’s basic control letter. This revenue experiment was overseen by Ben Meiselman, a graduate student at the University of Michigan’s economics department, who manned a desk in Detroit’s tax office to run the experiment. He wrote the messages included in the mailings to reflect behavioral economics research, noting: “I find that a single sentence, strategically placed in mailings to attract attention, can have an economically meaningful impact on tax filing behavior,” in his working paper, “Ghostbusting in Detroit: Evidence on Non-filers from a Controlled Field Experiment,” which he intends to eventually become a chapter in his doctoral dissertation. And it turns out that providing details of a taxpayer’s income boosted the response rate by 63 percent, even as a letter from the city which combined a threat with income information was less effective than a threat by itself. Or, as one city official noted: “Keeping it simple seems to be the key,” especially as city officials learned that appeals to civic pride fell flat: the response rate was just 0.8 percentage points higher than that of a basic letter. Nevertheless, the city still confronts a long uphill fiscal cliff, even if it manages to apply the results of the experiment and triple the response rate from tax delinquents: according to the IRS, approximately six percent of U.S. taxpayers break the law by not filing with the Service each year, but, in Detroit, Mr. Meiselman estimated that some 46 percent of taxpayers had not submitted their 2014 returns by the due date in the following year—and that the return rate was getting worse.

Thus, Detroit’s next step was to back up threats with action—mayhap especially because there appears to have been little enforcement for the past decade: Detroit had not undertaken an audit or tax investigation in more than a decade. One outcome of insolvency and municipal bankruptcy, it appears, can hit hard: Detroit’s tax office, which once had a staff of about 70, is today about half that: it is a department which was recently reorganized, in the wake of last year’s takeover by the state of Michigan, a takeover intended to free up city employees to collect unpaid income taxes. The city also eased such filings by permitting them to be submitted electronically for the first time. And, wow!: 77 percent of filers took advantage. Detroit has sent out 15,000 letters since July 2016 and has collected $5.3 million through letters, audits, and investigations. And some of the amounts collected are significant, particularly for those who have juked, dodged, and evaded paying taxes for years: in one instance, a taxpayer agreed to pay $400,000. Detroit also began filing misdemeanor charges and lawsuits in small claims court to get its tax revenues, especially after learning that only one in five residents in several high-end apartments buildings had filed income taxes, helping to persuade a judge to issue an order requiring landlords to turn over tenant information.

These various steps appears to be helping: The number of residents filing tax returns more than doubled last year from the previous year; filings by non-residents increased by more than a third. City returns from 2016 are due, along with state and federal returns, by next Tuesday—the same deadline as applies to all readers of this eBlog, and, this year, Detroit officials are optimistic—or, as one wag put it: In the past, “people knew we weren’t coming after them…Now we are following up on those threats.”

The Promise or PROMESA of the First 100 Days. The PROMESA oversight board, provided by the Congress with authority over the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, has now surpassed its first one hundred days, created a juxtaposed governance challenge, especially for Governor Rosselló: how can he make sure that the framework set up during this period of quasi dual governance provides for the change Puerto Rico needs? How can he gain the approval of the Board for a long-term fiscal plan as the main achievement of his incipient administration? To prevail, it appears, he will have to convince the Oversight Board that his proposed budgets are based on real possibilities of revenues and that such estimates are free of dependence on loans and that he will conduct the restructuring of Puerto Rico’s public debt on favorable terms, and that he will take the key role in the reconstruction of the government apparatus to higher levels of service, efficiency, participation, and transparency. And, now, there appears to be some evidence that he is achieving progress. Puerto Rico’s statute on permits is intended address a serial inefficiency with regard to the “absurd and abusive terms” to obtain permits, delays which have hindered and discouraged the generation of new economic activity. The effort to provide for the progressive elimination of the costly redundancy in programs and services via the consolidation of agencies, with security first, appear to be key steps in achieving changes to restore financial health. Moreover, the creation of a spending budget 10 per cent below the current one appears to mark an important step in the goal of reasserting self-governance.

Nevertheless, the fiscal and governance challenges of recovering from fiscal insolvency can be beset from any angle: note, for instance, Judge Lauracelis Roques Arroyo has revived an “audit” of Puerto Rico’s debt and reversed Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s attempt to dismantle the debt audit commission. (Judge Roques Arroyo is a member of the Carolina Region of the Puerto Rico Superior Court.) And, thus, he has ruled that Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s attempt to dismantle a commission auditing Puerto Rico’s debt was illegal. The statute in question, law 97 of 2015, created the Puerto Rico Commission for the Comprehensive Audit of the Public Credit. The commission aimed to find Puerto Rico debt which was legally invalid. The commission’s first report in June of last year had reviewed documents connected with the Commonwealth’s $3.5 billion general obligation bond and $1.2 billion tax and revenue anticipation note, both sold in 2014. In this report, the Commission had raised doubts with regard to the legality of much of Puerto Rico’s bond debt. Late last September, the commission questioned the legality of the series 2013A power revenue bonds from the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), raising concerns with regard to the behavior of Morgan Stanley, Ernst &Young, and URS Corp. in the municipal bond sale and the period leading up to it. In early October, possibly in response to the commission’s work, the SEC commenced an investigation of PREPA’s 2012 and 2013 bonds. Ergo, Judge Arroyo’s order late last week returned three public interest members to the board, according to attorney Manuel Rodriguez Banchs; the order provided that the Governor has no authority to intervene with the commission: it said that the dismissal of the public interest members was illegal. The board has $650,000 in its account right now, according to board member Roberto Pagán, e.g. adequate to do a substantial amount of additional work. Gov. Rosselló, thus, is considering how to react to the judge’s order, according to the El Vocero news website.

The Key Lessons Learned after a Decade of Municipal Bankruptcies

Share on Twitter

eBlog, 04/07/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider Detroit’s first steps to address the blight which crisscrossed the city leading to its municipal bankruptcy. Then we look to New Hampshire to assess whether the state legislature will preempt municipalities’ authority to set election dates. Then we slip south to assess fiscal developments in the efforts to recover from insolvency in Puerto Rico. Finally, we assess and consider some of the broader issues related to municipal bankruptcy.

Post Chapter 9 Recovery. One of Detroit’s first tests with regard to whether it can find new use for the vast stretches of land it cleared of blight went into effect this week when development teams announced by  Mayor Mike Duggan, along with partners: The Platform, a Detroit-based firm, and Century Partners announced they would be investing an estimated $100 million to rehab the architectural jewels in the city’s downtown—the Fisher and Albert Kahn buildings, with the two organizations declaring they will take the lead in overhauling 373 parcels of vacant land and houses in the Fitzgerald neighborhood on the northwest side, where they will coordinate with other firms on a $4 million development plan to rehab 115 vacant homes over two years, create a two-acre park, and landscape 192 vacant lots—with the work occurring in neighborhoods wherein the Detroit Land Bank took control of most of the properties and razed some abandoned homes. Mayor Duggan and other officials described the plan as a kind of reverse gentrification—or, as Mayor Duggan framed it: “We are going to keep the families here while improving the neighborhoods,” making his announcement on an empty lot which is scheduled to become a city park and include a greenway path to nearby Marygrove College: the city leaders hope to transform the neighborhood into a “Blight-Free Quarter Square Mile,” and, if the model works, seek to propagate it other neighborhoods.

Granite State Preemption or Cure? House Speaker Shawn Jasper wants to give New Hampshire towns that postponed their municipal elections due to a snowstorm a way out of facing potential lawsuits from voters who may have been disenfranchised. Speaker Jasper had proposed letting towns ratify the results of their elections by holding another vote, offering a bill to give towns which moved Election Day the option of letting townspeople vote to ratify, or confirm, the results on May 23rd. However, in the wake of about five hours of testimony, the House Election Law Committee voted 10-10 on the Jasper plan, so that a tie vote killed the Speaker’s amendment, leaving 73 towns on their own to address potential legal problems resulting from their decisions to hold their elections on days other than March 14th. The fiscal blizzard in the Granite State now depends upon whether state legislators determine whether or not a special election is needed with regard to those results. New Hampshire Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan noted: “The concept is not entirely new…what is different is that it is applying to an entire class of towns that decided to postpone.”

In the past, the Legislature has voted to “cure” individual election defects. Speaker of the House Shawn Jasper, (R-Hudson, N.H.) noted: “Well, the fact that a bunch of towns moved the day of their town election was unprecedented…And so as a result of doing that, those towns that moved had to start bending other laws to make other issues related to the election work…The Legislature is just granting the authority to allow the towns to correct any defects that may exist,” he added, listing changed time listings, lack of proper notice, and absentee ballot date issues as possible defects in the process. All of those questions, of course, have fiscal consequences—or, as Atkinson Town Administrator Alan Phair put it; “Well, I don’t know the exact cost, what it would be, but I do know that in our case we certainly don’t have the money budgeted to (hold a special election), because we obviously just budgeted for one election…We would certainly go considerably over and have to find the money elsewhere to do it.” Under the proposed amendment, towns and school districts which postponed would hold a hearing, at which the respective governing body would vote on whether to hold a special election with one question: whether or not to ratify results, where a “no” vote would kick out anyone elected in a postponed vote, while nullifying warrant articles, with elected roles to be appointed until the next election. Salem Town Manager (Salem is a town of just under 30,000 in Rockingham County) Leon Goodwin said his elected leaders were of the opinion that its postponement was legal, so that the municipality is moving forward on projects voted on last month, noting: We’re moving on as if the votes were accepted even though there is a cloud hanging over us from Concord,” adding that town counsel advised the town moderator that it was legal to move elections. Yet, even as he remained confident the election issue will be resolved, he cautioned that the town has not budgeted for an additional election; Windham (approximately 14,000) Town Manager David Sullivan said the municipality’s town Counsel would sign off on the town’s fire truck bond, notwithstanding bond counsel elsewhere in the state advising that ratification of the elections would be necessary.

Municipal authority to act has been hampered by different state House and Senate approaches: while the two bodies have been moving on parallel tracks in the wake of state officials’ questioning the authority of town moderators to reschedule the March 14 voting sessions of their town meetings, the Senate this week passed SB 248, a bill introduced to ratify actions taken at the rescheduled meetings; however, the bill passed with a committee amendment which deletes all of the original language and provides instead for the creation of a committee to “study the rescheduling of elections.” Senators acknowledged that the bill was not likely to pass through the House in that form—asserting the intent was simply to get a bill to the House for further work. Subsequently, a floor amendment was introduced to restore the bill’s original language, ratifying all actions taken at the rescheduled meetings; however, that amendment failed on a party-line vote, with all nine Democrats voting in favor and all fourteen Republicans voting against, leaving most unclear how this could have become a partisan issue. The question comes down to what level of control local officials should have over local elections. The Speaker described the outcome thusly: “I think it was a case of 10 people (on the committee) thinking that what happened was legal;” however, he maintained that the postponed votes were not legal, adding: “The sad thing is that for school districts with bond issues that passed in those meetings, I don’t see a path forward for them,” adding: “I think if you’re afraid of snowstorms, you ought to move your meetings, probably to May,” noting that state officials are forbidden by law from moving state primary and general elections, as well as the first-in-the-nation presidential primary. Unsurprisingly, town moderators and attorneys who work with them on municipal bond issues disagreed with the Speaker’s interpretation that the postponed elections were illegal and his belief that the only way to rectify the issue was for them to act to individually ratify them, with many arguing they acted legally under a state law which allows them to postpone and reschedule the “deliberative session or voting day” of a town meeting to another day; however, the Speaker maintains that law applies only to town meetings, while town elections are governed under a different statute, which provides: “All towns shall hold an election annually for the election of town officers on the second Tuesday in March.” He also noted that the state’s official political calendar, which has the force of law, states that town elections must be held on March 14, adding: “Without trying to place blame, laws are sometimes very confusing if you look only at parts of them,” noting: “I don’t believe for one second that moving the election was legal.”

The Speaker added that still another state law provides that at special town meetings, no money may be raised or appropriated unless the number of ballots cast at the meeting is at least half the number of those on the checklist who were eligible to vote in the most recent town meeting, albeit adding that such meetings do not apply to the current situation, because they are not elections. The state’s Secretary of State said that after three weeks of research, he was able to report on voter turnout at town elections for the past 11 years, advising that 210 towns held elections in March, and 137 of them “followed the law” by holding their elections on March 14th, while 73 towns had postponed their elections by several days. Now Speaker Jasper asks: “Why would we give over 300 individual moderators the ability to do that when our Secretary of State doesn’t have the ability to do that for a snowstorm in our general election or our presidential primary?” The Speaker notes: “I think we need to provide a way to ensure that we don’t clog up the courts, and we don’t have people spend a lot of their own money to fight this, and the towns don’t have to spend a lot of money fighting it.”

Un-positive Credit Rating for Puerto Rico. Moody’s Investors Service has lowered the credit ratings on debt of the Government Development Bank and five other Puerto Rico issuers, with a total of approximately $13 billion outstanding, and revised down the Commonwealth’s fiscal outlook, and the outlooks for seven affiliated obligors linked to the central government to negative from developing, with the downgrades reflecting what the agency described as “persistent pressures on Puerto Rico’s economic base that indicate a diminishing perceived capacity to repay,” noting that while it continues to “believe that essentially all of Puerto Rico’s debt will be subject to default and loss in a broad restructuring, the securities being downgraded face more severe losses than we had previously expected, in the light of Puerto Rico’s projected economic pressures. For this reason, we downgraded to C from Ca not only the senior notes issued by the now defunct Government Development Bank, but also bonds issued by the Puerto Rico Infrastructure Financing Authority and backed by federal rum tax transfer payments, the Convention Center District Authority’s hotel occupancy tax-backed bonds, the Employees Retirement System’s bonds backed by government pension contributions, and the 1998 Resolution bonds of the Puerto Rico Highways and Transportation Authority.”

Puerto Rico Governor Rossello late Wednesday said that the U.S. territory’s fiscal plan, approved by the PROMESA Board, does not contemplate any double taxation, adding that, between the increase in the property tax and the reduction of expenses in the municipalities, he favored the latter as a measure to compensate for the absence of the state subsidy of $350 million. He reiterated that, as a substitute for these funds, the properties which are not currently paying taxes to the Centro de Recaution de Ingresos Municipales (CRIM: the Municipal Revenue Collection Center) should be identified, because they are not included in their registry. The Governor also stressed that the economic outcome of these two fiscal initiatives is still being evaluated, albeit he estimated that they could generate about $100 million, noting: “Whatever the differential after that for the municipalities, there are two mechanisms that can be worked: One, a mechanism to seek an additional source of income, or, two, to avail cuts…The central government has taken the cutting position. We are already establishing a protocol to cut in the agencies, to consolidate, to eliminate the expenses that are not necessary, to go from 131 to between 35 to 40 agencies. That has been our action. The municipalities—now we will have a conversation with our technical team—will have several options: ‘either cut as did the central government or seek mechanisms to raise more funds or impose taxes.’” Currently, mayors evaluate to increase the arbitrage of the real property to 11.83% or to 12.83% in all the municipalities; the concept is for members of the Executive to offer assistance to do the modeling. Thus, the president of the board of CRIM, Cidra Mayor Javier Carrasquillo, said CRIM will be “sensitive to the reality of the pockets of Puerto Ricans: We have to be cautious and responsible in the recommendation that we are going to make…There is nothing definitive yet. There are recommendations.” The Governor noted that the PROMESA Board approved fiscal plan approved last month does not contemplate an increase in property taxation, asserting it was “false to imply that our fiscal plan entails an increase in the rate or a double rate on properties,” albeit recalling that the disappearance of $350 million in transfers to municipalities begins on July 1, when the fiscal year begins, promising it will be done progressively, so that in the next budget (2017-2018) $175 million disappear, and the remaining $175 million, the next fiscal year, describing it as a “two-year fade out.” Unsurprisingly, he did not specify when or how the plan would fiscally benefit this island’s municipalities, stating: “We have already been able to have pilot efforts to identify different municipalities where 60% of their properties are not being assessed…We are going to commit ourselves so that all these properties are in the system.”

The End of a Chapter 9 Era? Municipal bankruptcy is a rarity: even notwithstanding the Great Recession which produced a significant number of corporate bankruptcies—and federal bailouts to large for-profit corporations and quasi-federal corporations, such as Fannie Mae; the federal government offered no bailouts to cities or counties. Yet from one of the nation’s smallest cities, Central Falls, to major, iconic cities such as Detroit and Jefferson County, the nation experienced a just-ended spate, before—with San Bernardino’s exit last month, the likely closure of an era—even as we await some resolution of the request by East Cleveland to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. The lessons learned, compiled by the nation’s leading light of municipal bankruptcy, therefore bear consideration. Jim Spiotto, with whom I had the honor and good fortune over nearly a decade of effort leading to former President Reagan’s signing into law of the municipal bankruptcy amendments of 1988, offers us a critical guide of ten lessons learned:

  1. Do not defer funding of essential services and infrastructure: Detroit is a wake- up call for others that there is never a good reason to defer funding of essential services and infrastructure at an acceptable level. If you do, Detroit’s fate will be yours.
  2. Labor and pension contracts under state constitutional and statutory provisions should not be interpreted as a mutual suicide pact: It appears one of the reasons why resolution of pension and labor costs was not achieved in Detroit prior to filing Chapter 9 was the belief of the workers and retirees that, under the Michigan constitution, those contractual rights could not be impaired or diminished to any degree. This position failed to take into consideration that the municipality can only pay that which it has revenues to pay and, in an eroding declining financial situation, there will never be sufficient funds to pay all obligations, especially those that may be unaffordable and unsustainable.
  3. Don’t question that which should be beyond questioning and is needed for the long-term financial survival of the municipality: A dedicated source of payment, statutory lien or special revenues established under state law must be honored and should not be contested. Capital markets work effectively when credibility and predictability of outcome are clear and unquestioned. Current effort to pass new legislation (California SB222 and Michigan HB5650) to grant statutory first lien on dedicated revenues. Further, as noted in the Senate Report for the 1988 Amendments to the Bankruptcy Code and Chapter 9 “Section 904 [of Chapter 9 limiting the jurisdiction and power of the Bankruptcy Court] and the tenth amendment prohibits the interpretation that pledges of revenues granted pursuant to state statutory or constitutional provisions to bondholders can be terminated by filing a Chapter 9 proceeding”. This follows the precedent from the 1975 financial distress of New York City and the State of New York’s highest court ruling the state imposed moratorium was unconstitutional given the constitutional mandate to pay available revenues to the general obligation bondholders. See Flushing Nat. Bank et. al. v. Mun. Assistance Corp. of New York, 40 N.Y.S.2nd 731, 737-738 (N.Y. 1976). Just as statutory liens and special revenues, there is a strong argument that state statutory and constitutional mandated payments (mandated set asides, priorities, appropriations and dedicated tax revenue payments) should not and cannot be impaired, limited, modified or delayed by a Chapter 9 proceeding given the rulings of the Supreme Court in the Ashton and Bekins cases and the prohibitions of Sections 903 and 904 of Chapter 9 of the Bankruptcy Code.
  4. Debt adjustment is a process, but a recovery plan is a solution: As noted above, while Detroit has proceeded with debt adjustment which provides some additional runway so it can take takeoff in a recovery, such plan is not the cure for the systemic problem. Rather, the plan provides additional breathing room so that the municipality, through its Mayor and its elected officials, may proceed with a recovery plan, reinvest in Detroit, stimulate the economy, create new jobs, clear and develop blighted areas and raise the level of services and infrastructure to that which is acceptable and attract new business and new citizens.
  5. Successful plans of debt adjustment have one common feature: virtually all significant issues have been settled and resolved with major creditors: While the Detroit Plan started with sound and fury between the emergency manager and creditors and what they would receive, in the end, similar to what occurred in Vallejo, Jefferson County and even in Stockton (with one exception), major creditors ultimately reached agreement and supported the Plan of Debt Adjustment that allowed the municipality to move forward, confirm the Plan and begin its journey to recovery.
  6. One size does not fit all: There are many ways to draft a plan of debt adjustment and sometimes the more creative, the better. As noted above, traditionally major cities of size with significant debt did not file Chapter 9. They refinanced their debt with the backing of the state which reduced their future borrowing costs and allowed them to recover by having the liquidity and the reduced costs necessary to deal with their financial difficulties. Detroit chose a different path.
  7. A recovery plan must provide for essential services and infrastructure: “Best interest of creditors” and “feasibility” can only mean an appropriate reinvestment in the municipality through a recovery plan where there is funding of essential services and infrastructure at an acceptable level to stimulate the municipality’s economy to attract new employers and taxpayers thereby increasing tax revenues and addressing the systemic problem. While no plan of debt adjustment is perfect or assured, there should be, as the Bankruptcy Court in Detroit throughout the case pointed out, a plan to show the survivability and future success of the City.
  8. Confirmation of a plan of debt adjustment is only the beginning of the journey to financial recovery, not the end: It is important to recognize, as noted above, that Chapter 9 is a process, not a solution. The recovery plan, which will take dedication and effort by the elected officials of the City along with residents, public workers and other creditors is the only way to achieve success. It is measured not by months, but by years, and by the constant vigilance to ensure that the systemic problem is addressed effectively in a permanent fix.

Addressing Municipal Fiscal Distress

eBlog

Share on Twitter

eBlog, 04/05/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider some unique efforts to address municipal fiscal distress by the Illinois Legislature, based upon tag team efforts by the irrepressible fiscal tag team of Jim Spiotto and Laurence Msall of the Chicago Civic Federation. The effort matters, especially as the Volker Alliance’s William Glasgall, its Director of State and Local Programs, has raised issues and questions vis-à-vis state roles relating to addressing severe municipal fiscal distress. As we have noted—with only a minority of states even authorizing municipal bankruptcy, there are significant differences in state roles relating to severe municipal fiscal distress and insolvency. Thus, this Illinois initiative could offer a new way to think about state constructive roles. Then we turn to Ferguson, Missouri to assess its municipal election results—and its remarkable, gritty fiscal recovery from the brink of insolvency.

Addressing Municipal Fiscal Distress. The Illinois Legislature is considering House Bill 2575, the Illinois Local Government Protection Authority Act, offered by Rep. David Harris (R-Arlington Heights), which would establish an Authority for the purpose of achieving solutions to financial difficulties faced by units of local government, creating a board of trustees, and defining the Authority’s duties and powers, including the ability to obtain the unit of local government’s records—and to recommend revenue increases. The legislation provides for a petition process, whereby certain entities may petition the Authority to review a unit of local government; it also sets forth participation requirements. The effort comes in the wake of distressed local governments struggling under the weight of pension, healthcare, and other debts: it would propose this new, special authority for fiscal guidance to fiscally strapped local units of government, but without mandating severe budget cuts—or, as Rep. Harris described it: a “cooperative effort between the state and financially unit of local government…(one which) involves local elected officials and local governmental bodies and taxpayers, workers, and business entities developing a plan of financial recovery — is the best way to find a permanent solution to current financial challenges.” According to the Chicago Civic Federation, which asserts the intent is to help the state’s municipalities recover without being forced into chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, such an authority could be valuable—especially in a state which, like the majority of states, does not generally permit a city, county, or other municipal entity to file for bankruptcy. Under the proposal, nine trustees would oversee the new authority, including four appointed by the Illinois Municipal League; the Governor, Speaker of the House, and Minority Leader, and their state Senate counterparts would each appoint one member: the new authority would rely on the Illinois Comptroller’s office to provide reports and some operational support; the legislation would also set a fee schedule to enable coverage of its administrative costs.

The exceptional leader of the Federation, Laurence Msall, noted: “The LGPA would serve as a resource to assist distressed municipalities in making determinations as to what essential governmental services are sustainable and affordable and what combination of revenue increases and service cuts, and other actions would be necessary to ensure fiscal sustainability and access to critical services.” Under the proposed legislation, a municipality could petition the authority to intervene; but also, the Illinois Comptroller, a public pension fund, or even a large creditor owed a substantial debt could. The proposal would authorize a municipality to petition too—provided it committed to participate—and provided it met specific criteria, including inadequate liquidity, overdue debt, weak pension funding ratios, or signal budget imbalances. If triggered, the suggested new authority would be authorized to recommend budget cuts, tax increases, and/or pension funding actions: as proposed, the authority would be charged with reviewing whether the city, county, or other unit of government should:

  • try to negotiate a debt restructuring,
  • explore public-private partnerships, or
  • asset sales and consolidation.

The authority would be authorized to consider potential pension reforms, such as whether the municipality should offer more corporate-style retirement plans, as well as whether it should establish a trust to fund its OPEB post-retirement healthcare obligations.

The proposed legislation authorizes authority to set fiscal targets; it offers the option for the proposed new authority to serve as a mediator in negotiations between a municipality and debtors, to endorse tax increases—increases which might trigger a public referendum, and issue recommendations to the Illinois state government with regard to the diversion of funds to address specific municipal funding mandates—granting authority too to seek declaratory and injunctive relief with regard to the exercise of its powers and implementation of its findings and recommendations. Finally, as a last resort, the authority could recommend pursuit of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. The nation’s architect of the federal municipal chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy law, Jim Spiotto, notes: “This municipal protection authority concept could be the means of providing state and local government cooperation and oversight while allowing the municipality, its elected officials, workers and unions, creditors and bondholders to have a means of participation with a definitive end result.” For his part, Mr. Msall described the rationale as vital to establishing “a systematic means of evaluating and assisting these governments,” instead of taking on municipal fiscal distress on a case-by-case effort, noting that “The Civic Federation is very concerned about the financial condition of many local governments in the state of Illinois, and many of them which will not be able to seek assistance unless there is the creation of this authority.”

& The Winner is: Ferguson, Missouri voters have reelected incumbent Mayor James Knowles III to a third term in the municipality’s first mayoral election since protests erupted there three years ago in the wake of one of the city’s white police officer’s shooting of an unarmed black 18-year-old—a shooting which ignited a national protest and led to a federal Justice Department intervention and harsh fiscal penalties for the nearly insolvent municipality. Mayor Knowles won by a 56%–44% margin against Councilwoman Ella Jones, who is black, in a small municipality which was once an overwhelmingly white “sundown town” where, until the 1960s, African-Americans were banned after dark. Perhaps ironically, the Mayor’s reelection followed just one day in the wake of U.S. Attorney General Gen. Jeff Sessions’ order that the U.S. Justice Department review its existing consent decrees with municipal police departments—the agreement in Ferguson, imposed under the Obama administration, imposed unfunded federal mandates, including demands to levy new taxes. In its report, the Obama Justice Department had alleged that the Ferguson Police Department and the City of Ferguson relied on unconstitutional practices in order to balance the city’s budget through racially motivated excessive fines and punishments, so that former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder stated the federal government would use its authority to dismantle the Ferguson Police Department—a threat, which at the time, Ferguson’s then-Mayor had warned could mark the first time in the nation’s history that the federal government might force a municipality into municipal bankruptcy, and led credit rating agency Moody’s to place the municipality’s municipal bond rating on review for downgrade because of threats to the city’s solvency—with the downgrade of the city’s general obligation rating reflecting what the credit rating agency described as “the continued pressure on the city’s finances from a persistent structural imbalance and incorporating the recently approved U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) consent decree, projected to increase annual General Fund expenses over the next several years,” in the wake of Moody’s assessment after the U.S. Justice Department lawsuit against the small city, noting its downgrade then had reflected concerns related to the uncertainty of the potential financial impact of litigation costs from the federal lawsuit and the price tag for implementing the proposed DOJ consent decree, writing: “We believe fiscal ramifications from these items will be significant and could result in insolvency.”

Indeed, the Justice Department’s unfunded federal mandates included federally imposed financial penalties, and the mandate to levy new, municipal taxes: leading to voter approval of a utility tax hike projected to generate $700,000 annually—an increase which Mayor Knowles, at the time, described as a critical vote, because, had the measure failed, the city’s police force’s authorized number would have been cut to 44, and firefighter jobs would also have been cut; he had warned, in addition, that the vote was intended to make clear the city was fiscally viable. So, today, in the wake of resignations and elections, Ferguson features three black council members, a black police chief, and a black city manager—and, in the interim, Mayor Knowles has survived a recall attempt (in 2015), noting in a Facebook post during the campaign that he wanted to follow the example set by former President Abraham Lincoln: “For those familiar with history, during the Civil War, Lincoln was often criticized by people on both sides of the issues of slavery and the war because of his even-handedness and his resistance to the pressures of radicals on both sides. He knew radicalism, even after the war, would further divide us, which it has for generations.”

Mayor Knowles’ challenger, Councilmember Jones, ran, because, she said, it was “time for Ferguson to unite and become one Ferguson, and we cannot move forward under the leadership that we are under at this point,” harshly criticizing the U.S. Attorney General’s move to review the city’s consent decree—one which Mr. Sessions had previously claimed was based on a report that was “anecdotal” and “not so scientifically based,” with Councilmember Jones warning that the Attorney General’s action was “not going to help Ferguson at all,” adding: “We need that consent decree in order to keep Ferguson moving forward.” Nevertheless, the gritty, can-do leadership of the city’s elected officials appears to have defied the odds: City Manager De’Carlon Seewood recently wrote that in the wake of a “drastic decline” in revenue, “the city’s operating budget is beyond lean. It’s emaciated.”

 

Municipal Fiscal Accountability

Share on Twitter

eBlog, 03/31/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing recovery efforts in Atlantic City after its “lost decade,” before venturing inland to one of the nation’s oldest cities, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania (founded in 1769) as it confronts the challenges of an early state intervention program, and, finally, to Southern California, where the City of Compton faces singular fiscal distrust from its citizens and taxpayers.  

A Lost Fiscal Decade? Atlantic City’s redevelopment effort appears to be gathering momentum following a “lost decade” which featured the closing of five casinos, a housing crisis and major recession, according to a new report released by the South Jersey Economic Review, with author Oliver Cooke writing: “The fact remains that Atlantic City’s redevelopment will take many years…The impact of the local area’s economy’s lost decade on its residents’ welfare has been stark.” The study finds the city to be in recovery—to be stable, but that it is still in critical condition with some work to do.  Nevertheless, its vital signs from developers and its improving economy are all good: that is, while the patient may not regain all its previous strength and capability,  it can thrive: it is “over(cost),” and needs to lose some of the fat it built up by going on a (budget) diet—a road to recovery which will remain steep and tortuous, because it lacks the fiscal capacity it had 15 or 20 years ago—and has to slim down to reflect it.  That is, the city will have to stress itself more in order to get better.  

The analysis, which was conducted in conjunction with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University, notes that vital signs from developers and its improving economy are in good condition—maybe even allowing the city to thrive, even if it is unable to regain all its previous strength and fiscal capacity—put in fiscal cookbook terms: Atlantic City is over(cost)weight and needs to lose some of the fat it built up by going on a (budget) diet.  The report also noted that Atlantic City is on track with some positive developments, including the decision at the beginning of this month by Hard Rock International to buy and reopen the closed Trump Taj Mahal property, as well as a recent $72 million settlement with the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa related to $165 million in owed tax refunds. Mr. Cooke also highlighted other high-profile projects underway, including the reopening of the Showboat casino by developer Bart Blatstein and a $220 million public-private partnership for a new Stockton University satellite residential campus. Nonetheless, he warned that Atlantic City still faces a deep fiscal challenge in the wake of the loss to the city’s metropolitan area of more than 25,000 jobs in the last decade—and its heavy burden of $224 million in municipal bond debt, tied, in large part, to casino property tax appeals. Ultimately, as the ever insightful Marc Pfeiffer of the Bloustein Local Government Research Center and former Deputy Director with the state Division of Local Government Services, the city’s emergence from state control and fiscal recovery will depend on the nuances of the that relationship and whether—in the end—the state imposed Local Finance Board acts with the city’s most critical interests at heart.  

Don’t Run Out of Cash! Wilkes-Barre, first incorporated as a Borough in 1806, is the home of one of Babe Ruth’s longest-ever home runs. It became a city in 1871: today it is a city of over 40,000, but one which has been confronted by constant population decline since the 1930s: today it is less than half the size it was in 1940 and around two-thirds the size it was in 1970. It is a most remarkable city, made up of an extraordinary heritage of ethnic groups, the largest of which are: Italian (just over 25%), Polish (just under 25%), Irish (21%), German (17.9%) English (17.1%) Welsh (16.2%) Slovak (13.8%); Russian (13.4%); Ukranian (12.8%); Mexican (7%); and Puerto Rican (6.4%). (Please note: my math is not at fault, but rather cross-breeding.) Demographically, the city’s citizens and families are diverse: with 19.9% under the age of 18, 12.6% from 18 to 24, 26.1% from 25 to 44, 20.8% from 45 to 64, and 20.6% who are 65 years of age or older. The city has the 4th-largest downtown workforce in the state of Pennsylvania; its family median income is $44,430, about 66% of the national average, and an unemployment rate of just under 7%. The municipality in 2015 had a poverty rate of 32.5%, nearly double the statewide average. Last year, the City of Wilkes-Barre was awarded a $60,000 grant through the Pennsylvania Department of Economic Development (DCED) Early Intervention Program (EIP) to develop a fiscal, operational and mission management 5 year plan for the city—from which the city selected Public Financial Management (PFM) as its consultant to assist in working with the city on its 5 year plan—and from which the city has since received PFM’s Draft Financial Condition Assessment and Draft Financial Trend Forecasting related to the city’s 5 year plan. As part of the intervention, two internal committees were created to develop new sources of revenue for the city. The Revenue Improvement Task Force is comprised of employees from Finance, Tax, Health, Code, and Administration and was directed to analyze and improve upon existing revenue streams; the Small Business Task Force was designed to develop guidance for those interested in opening small businesses in Wilkes-Barre and is comprised of employees from Zoning, Health, Code, Licensing, and Administration. Overall, Mayor Anthony “Tony” George and his administration are confident that they have made significant progress is restoring law and order via the city’s goals of strengthening intergovernmental relationships, improving public safety, fixing infrastructure, fighting blight, restoring and improving city services and achieving long-term economic development.

Nevertheless, the quest for fiscal improvement and reliance on consultants has proven challenging: some of PFM’s proposed options to address city finances have caused a stir. City council Chairwoman Beth Gilbert and City Administrator Ted Wampole, for instance, agreed privatizing the ambulance and public works services as a cost-saving measure was one of the most drastic steps proposed by The PFM Group of Philadelphia, with Chair Gilbert noting: “I stand vehemently against any privatization of any of our city services, especially as an attempt to save money;” she warned the city could end up paying more for services in the long run, and residents could receive less than they get now—adding: “If privatization is on the table, then so is quality.” The financial consultant hired last year for $75,000 to assist the city with developing a game plan to fix its finances under the state’s Early Intervention Program was scheduled to present the options at a public meeting last night at City Hall. PFM representatives, paid from the combination of a $60,000 state grant and $15,000 from the city, have appeared before council several times since December.

Gordon Mann, director of The PFM Group, last night warned: “If the gunshot wound to the city’s financial health doesn’t kill it, the cancer will: both need to be treated, but not at the same time…You need to address the bullet wound, and you need to put yourself in the position to address the cancer.” Mr. Mann, at the meeting, provided an update on where the city stands and where it’s going if nothing is done to address the municipality’s structural problems of flat revenues and escalating expenses for pensions, payroll and long-term debt; then he identified a number of steps to stabilize the city and balance its books, beginning with: “Don’t run out of cash,” and “[D]on’t bother playing the blame game and pointing the finger at prior administrations either,…It may not be your fault, but it is your problem.”

Wilkes Barre is not unlike many of Pennsylvania’s 3rd class cities (York, Erie, Easton, etc.), all in varying degrees of fiscal distress, albeit with some doing better than others. The municipal revenues derived from the property tax and earned income tax will simply not sustain a city like Wilkes Barre—that it, unless and until the state’s municipalities have access to collective bargaining/binding arbitration and pension reform: the current, antiquated revenue options leave the state’s municipalities caught between a rock and a hard place. Worse, mayhap, is the increasing rate of privatization—where an alarming trend across the Commonwealth of communities selling off assets (water, sewer, parking, etc.), more often than not to plug capital into pensions, is, increasingly, leaving communities with no assets and with no pension reform facing the same issue in the future. 

Not Comping Compton: Corruption & Fiscal Distress. In Compton, California, known as the Hub City, because of its location in nearly the exact geographical center of Los Angeles County, the City of Compton is one of the oldest cities in the county and the eighth to incorporate.  The city traces its roots to territory settled in 1867 by a band of 30 pioneering families, who were led to the area by Griffith Dickenson Compton—families who had wagon-trained south from Stockton, California in search of ways to earn a living other than in the rapidly depleting gold fields, but where, the day before yesterday, the city’s former deputy treasurer was arrested for allegedly stealing nearly $4 million from the city. FBI agents arrested Salvador Galvan of La Mirada on Wednesday morning, as part of a federal criminal complaint filed Tuesday, alleging that, for six years, Mr. Galvan skimmed about $3.7 million from cash collected from parking fines, business licenses, and city fees: an audit found discrepancies ranging from $200 to $8,000 per day. Mr. Galvan, who has been an employee of the city for twenty-three years, has been charged with theft concerning programs receiving federal funds. If convicted, he could face up to five years in prison. As Joseph Serna and Angel Jennings of the La Times yesterday wrote: “The money adds up to an important chunk of the budget in a city once beset with financial problems and the possibility of [municipal] bankruptcy.” Prosecutors claim that one former city employee saw all these payments as an opportunity, alleging that the former municipal treasurer, over the last six years, skimmed more than $3.7 million from City Hall, taking as much as $200 to $8,000 a day—small enough, according to federal prosecutors, to avoid detection, even as Mr. Galvan’s purchase of a new Audi and other upscale expenses on a $60,000 salary, raised questions.

The arrest marks a setback for the Southern California city which has prided itself in recent years for its recovery from some of the crime, blight, and corruption which had threatened the city with municipal insolvency—or, as Compton Mayor Aja Brown noted: the allegations “challenge the public’s trust.”  Mayor Brown noted the wake-up call comes as the city has been working in recent months to improve financial controls and create new processes for detecting fraud—even as some of the city’s taxpayers question how the city could have missed such criminal activity for so many years. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department had arrested Mr. Galvan last December in the wake of City Treasurer Doug Sanders’ confirmation with regard to “suspicious activity” in a ledger discovered by one of his employees: his position in the city involved responsibility for handling cash: as part of his duties, he collected funds from residents paying their water bills, business licenses, building permits, and trash bills. According to reports, Mr. Galvan maintained accurate receipts of the cash he received for city fees, but he would submit a lower amount to the city’s deposit records and, ultimately, on the deposit slips verified by his supervisors and the banks, according to federal prosecutors. Indeed, an audit which compared a computer-generated spreadsheet tracking money coming in to the city with documents Mr. Galvan prepared made clear that he had commenced skimming cash in 2010—starting slowly, at first, but escalating from less than $10,000 to $879,536 by 2015, a loss unaccounted for in the city’s accounting system. While Mr. Galvan faces a maximum of 10 years in federal prison, if convicted, the city faces a trial of public trust—or, as Mayor Brown, in a statement, notes: “Unfortunately, the actions of one employee can challenge the public’s trust that we strive daily as a City to rebuild…The alleged embezzlement and theft of public funds is an egregious affront to the hard-working residents of Compton as well as to our dedicated employees. The actions of one person does not represent our committed City employees who — like you — are just as disappointed.”