The Challenging Transition in the Wake of a State Takeover

September 25, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we report on the likely extension of the Garden State takeover of Atlantic City, because, as one of our most respected and insightful fiscal experts there, Marc Pfeiffer, the Assistant Director of Rutgers University’s Bloustein Local Government Research Center, put it: it is important for New Jersey and Atlantic City to focus on long-term challenges beyond the state takeover period. That is, Mr. Pfeiffer believes continued state oversight will be a positive for Atlantic City municipal bondholders, because it assures more fiscal discipline will be in place—or, in his own words: “You are going to have ongoing stability while the state is involved…The city will have to show that it can stand on its own.”

The Steep Road to Municipal Fiscal Recovery. In the wake of a release of a new state report, “Atlantic City, Building a Foundation for a Shared Prosperity,” [64-page report]  released by New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration, a report recommending continuation of the almost two-year-old state takeover of Atlantic City’s finances, that state governance now appears likely to last a full five years, due to “longstanding challenges” to New Jersey officials, as recommended by the Governor’s office. While the Governor, in his campaign, had, as part of his platform, a commitment to terminate the state takeover of Atlantic City, now, three-quarters of a year after taking office, the Governor appears likely to leave the state takeover in place—indeed, possibly for an additional three years.

The Murphy Administration has released a plan to assist the city to get back on its fiscal feet, a plan which benefited from input from numerous study groups, task forces, and committees, as well as a redirection of some state government funds to youth programs, and a training program for municipal department heads; that plan does not end the takeover; rather the report recommends keeping the takeover in place for the full five years called for under the 2016 law, unless signal fiscal and financial improvement is put in place before then, including the significant reduction or total elimination of Atlantic City’s reliance on state aid—or, as Gov. Murphy put it: “We had a pretty clear-eyed sense of what the challenge was…That doesn’t mean Atlantic City doesn’t need the state, that the state won’t continue to stay the course and be a partner. We’re not going away; we’re going to go out and executive this plan.”

Under New Jersey’s state takeover law gave the state broad powers, including the right to overturn decisions of the city council, override or even abolish city agencies and seize and sell assets, including Atlantic City’s much-coveted water utility. The statue empowers state overseers, in addition, to hire or fire workers, break union contracts, and restructure Atlantic City’s debt, most of which was done to varying degrees, although no major assets have been sold off.

What Is the City’s Perspective? Atlantic City Mayor Frank Gilliam has conceded the uncomfortable governance challenge under the takeover, which was initiated in November of 2016 by former Governor Chris Christie, but he notes that Gov. Murphy’s administration has been willing to listen to concerns and work with city officials, even as it has retained the final governing say-so.

How Can a State Transition Governance Back to a City? Unlike under a chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, where a federal bankruptcy court has the final say in approving (or not) a plan of debt adjustment under which governance authority reverts back to a municipality’s elected leaders, a state takeover lacks a Betty Crocker cookbook set of instructions. Gov. Murphy’s quasi-emergency manager, Jim Johnson, whom the Governor named to review Atlantic City’s transition back to local control, said the state administration should remain in place for an additional three years, unless Atlantic City’s reliance on state aid has been “substantially reduced or eliminated” and that its municipal workforce is on “solid footing.”  Under the provisions of the state takeover, enacted shortly after Atlantic City nearly defaulted on its municipal bond debt, the state was empowered to alter outstanding debt and municipal contracts—or, as Mr. Johnson wrote: “Atlantic City has a set of fiscal, operational, economic and social challenges that will only be resolved with significant direction from, and partnership with the State.”

Focus on the Fiscal Future. Mr. Pfeiffer said it is important for New Jersey and Atlantic City to focus on long-term challenges beyond the state takeover period, adding that the continued state oversight will be a positive for Atlantic City municipal bondholders, because it will assure greater fiscal discipline will be in place, or, as he put it: “You are going to have ongoing stability while the state is involved: The city will have to show that it can stand on its own.”

The report outlines a series of recommendations such, as:

  • the importance of diversifying Atlantic City’s economy beyond casinos,
  • providing increased training for senior municipal workers, and
  • purchasing data that can better track city services.

Mr. Johnson also urged Atlantic City to redirect Casino Reinvestment Development Authority funds into new development projects and toward providing increased financial support for youth programming.

Transitioning Back to Local Control. Atlantic City Mayor Frank Gilliam noted: “The citizens of Atlantic City deserve to have their local elected officials control their destiny…I am very optimistic that this is a huge step in the right direction for Atlantic City and its future.” Mr. Johnson, who was a primary challenger to the Gov. two years ago, was named after that election as a special counsel to review the state’s oversight of Atlantic City—and he came somewhat prepared thanks to his previous service as a U.S. Treasury Undersecretary for enforcement under former President Bill Clinton.

Gov. Murphy, who had been critical of the state takeover during his gubernatorial campaign, and who had criticized former Gov. Chris Christie’s administration for implementing it without support from former Mayor Donald Guardian, noted: “This is a community that needs the state’s help as a partner, not as a big-footing jamming down, taking away—you know, taxation without representation,” adding: “That doesn’t mean that Atlantic City doesn’t need the state, that the state isn’t going to stay the course and be a partner.” The Governor, soon after assuming office, had removed former Gov. Christie’s designated takeover manager Jeffrey Chiesa as the state designee to oversee the state role in Atlantic City. It should be noted, as we have previously, that Mr. Chiesa forged a number of settlements on owed casino property tax appeals and effected a $56 million reduction in Atlantic City’s FY2017 budget. All of which brings us back to the wary fiscal trepidation of Mr. Pfeiffer, because Atlantic City’s debt is still in the high risk range so favored by some casino players in the city: a CCC-plus from S&P Global Ratings and Caa3 from Moody’s Investors Service.

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The End of State Usurpation of Local Elected Authority? Uneasy shelter from the Fiscal and Physical Storms?

August 31, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the end of the State of Michigan to usurp local authority via the appointment of an Emergency Manager, the safety of school drinking water has become an issue in Detroit—especially after Flint, and we consider the extraordinary revisions in the projected Hurricane Maria death toll in Puerto Rica—and the White House response.

Protecting a City’s Children. Detroit Public School Superintendent Nikolai P. Vitti has directed turning off drinking water across the district’s 106 schools  in the wake of after discovering higher-than-acceptable levels of copper and lead in some facilities, with Superintendent Vitti noting his decision came out of caution “until a deeper and broader analysis can be conducted to determine the long-term solutions for all schools.” he said in a statement. Test results found elevated levels of lead or copper in 16 out of 24 schools which were recently tested. Supt. Vitti stated: “Although we have no evidence that there are elevated levels of copper or lead in our other schools where we are awaiting test results, out of an abundance of caution and concern for the safety of our students and employees.” His actions, no doubt affected by fiscal and water contamination in Flint, came even as Detroit officials and the Great Lakes Water Authority sought to assure residents that water provided by the authority is safe to drink: they pointed to the city’s aging infrastructure as the problem.  Superintendent Vitti said he will be creating a task force to determine the cause of the elevated levels and solutions, noting he had initiated water testing of all 106 school buildings last spring to ensure the safety of students and employees. Water at 18 schools had been previously shut off. He added: “This was not required by federal, state, or city law or mandate: This testing, unlike previous testing, evaluated all water sources from sinks to drinking fountains.” The District does not plan to test students: a spokesperson for the school system noted: “Dr. Vitti said…he has no evidence at all that children have been impacted from a health standpoint.”

Fiscal & Physical Challenges: Earlier this summer, Supt. Vitti released details from a facilities review which had determined the school district would need to spend $500 million now to fix the deteriorating conditions of its schools—an effort for the system projected to cost as much as $1.4 billion if there is a failure to act swiftly, with the Administrator pointing to the failure by former state-appointed emergency managers to make the right investments in facilities while the system was preempted of authority and state-appointed emergency managers from 2009 to 2016 failed to make the right investments, sending what Dr. Vitti described as “the message to students, parents and employees that we really don’t care about public education in Detroit, that we allow for second-class citizenry in Detroit.” The remarks raised anew questions with regard to Michigan’s governance by means of gubernatorially chosen Emergency Managers.  

Superindent Vitti said he had notified Mayor Mike Duggan of his decision to shut off the drinking water, and a spokesperson, John Roach, noted: Mayor is “fully supportive” of the approach Supt. Vitti has taken, adding: “We will be supporting Dr. Vitti in an advisory capacity through the health department and the DWSD (Detroit Water and Sewerage Department) has offered to partner with the district on any follow-up testing that needs to be done.” At the same time, the Great Lakes Water Authority issued a statement in an effort to assure “residents and customers of GLWA’s regional system that they are not affected by the lead and copper issues,” noting: “Aging school infrastructure (i.e. plumbing) is the reason for the precautionary measure of providing bottled water,” adding water treated by the authority meets and surpasses all federal and state regulations, albeit adding: “A task force will be formed consisting of engineering and water quality experts” to will help the district “understand the cause and identify solutions.” (Initial results this past week showed elevated levels of copper, lead or both at one or more water sources in 16 of 24 school buildings, according to the statement. Water bottles will be provided at the schools until water coolers arrive. The district also found water-quality issues in some schools in 2016.)

The incident in Detroit raises a host of fiscal and governance issues—especially in the wake of the tragedy in upstate Flint—with, in both cases, the state’s history of appointing Emergency Managers to preempt the authority of local elected leaders. In the case of DPS, Dr. Vitti has contacted the Mayor, the Governor, and a task force of engineers and water experts to understand the cause and possible solutions; Superintendent Nikolai P. Vitti opted to close the water taps out of caution “until a deeper and broader analysis can be conducted to determine the long-term solutions for all schools,” with the decision coming just days before the school district’s 106 schools are scheduled to open next Tuesday. (Water bottles will be provided at the schools until water coolers arrive.) Water officials have blamed aging infrastructure as the cause of the public safety threat. Now Dr. Vitti has asked Mike Duggan and Gov. Rick Snyder to convene a task force of engineers and water experts to determine the cause of the elevated lead and copper levels, and to propose solutions. 

Importantly, it seems the public safety risk is limited to Detroit’s public schools: water officials released a statement Wednesday assuring residents and customers of the Great Lakes Water Authority and the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department that they are not affected by the lead and copper issues at the school district, noting: “Aging school infrastructure (i.e. plumbing) is the reason for the precautionary measure of providing bottled water…The water at GLWA’s treatment plants is tested hourly, and DWSD has no lead service lines connected to any DPSCD building. The drinking water is of unquestionable quality.”

Nevertheless, the threat to public safety—combined with the heartbreaking, long-term threats to Flint’s children from that city’s public water contamination—could add further challenges to Detroit’s recovery from the nation’s largest-ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy: a critical part of the city’s plan of debt adjustment was to address its vast amassment of abandoned houses by enticing young families with children to move from the suburbs back into the city—an effort which had to rely on a perception of the quality and safety of its public schools. Now, for a system itself recovering from bankruptcy, DPS faces a bill of at least $500 million to repair its buildings: approximately 25% of the system’s school buildings are in unsatisfactory condition and another 20%are in poor condition, according to the report. The district noted nearly $223 million of high-priority repairs involving elevators and lifts, energy supply, heating and cooling systems, sprinklers, standpipes, electrical service and distribution, lighting, wiring, communications, security system, local area networking, public address and intercoms, emergency lights and plumbing fixtures.

Mayor Duggan’s office and the Detroit Health Department Wednesday issued a joint statement supporting “the approach Dr. Vitti has taken to test all water sources within DPS schools and to provide bottled water until the district can implement a plan to ensure that all water is safe for use,” noting: “We will be supporting Dr. Vitti in an advisory capacity through the health department and the DWSD has offered to partner with the district on any follow-up testing that needs to be done. We also will be reaching out to our charter operators in the coming days to work with them on a possible similar testing strategy to the voluntary one Dr. Vitti has implemented.”

Restoring Municipal Authority. Mayhap it is ironic that Michigan’s relatively rare authority for the Governor to appoint an emergency manager to preempt local elected authority reflects the uneven results of the program—a program I well remember from meeting with Kevyn Orr, whom Gov. Rick Snyder had appointed as Emergency Manager  (EM) to preempt all governing authority of Detroit’s Mayor and Council, at the Governor’s office in Detroit on the first day the city entered the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history—and after the grievous failure of a previous gubernatorially-appointed Emergency Manager to help the Motor City. The very concept of state authority to appoint a quasi dictator and to preempt any authority of local leaders elected by the citizens, after all, feels un-American.

Yet, from that very first moment, Mr. Orr had acted to ensure there was no disruption in 9-1-1 responses—and that every traffic and street light worked. Unlike the experience under an Emergency Manager in Flint, Mr. Orr was intently focused on getting Detroit back on its fiscal and physical feet—and restoring elected leadership to today’s grieving city.

Now, as of this week, Michigan no longer has any local government under a state appointed emergency manager—and observers are under the impression the state program to preempt local authority may be quietly laid to rest. It has, after all, been a program of preemption of local democracy with untoward results: while it proved invaluable in Detroit, it has proven fiscally and physically grievous in Flint, where it has been blamed for contributing to Flint’s water contamination crisis. Indeed, two of Flint’s former EMs have been criminally charged in connection with the crisis. Their failures—at a cost of human lives, appears to have put the future of state pre-emption of local governing authority—may well make state officials leery of stepping in to usurp control a local government, even as some municipal market participants and others see state oversight programs as a positive credit feature. The last municipality in Michigan to be put under a state-imposed emergency manager was Lincoln Park—an imposition which ended three years ago. Michigan Treasury spokesperson Ron Leix noted: “Each situation that led to the financial emergency is unique, so I can’t give a broad-brush assessment about how the law will be used in the future…For the first time in 18 years, no Michigan municipality or school district is under state financial oversight through an emergency manager. This is really about the hard work our local units of government have achieved to identify problems and bring together the resources needed to problem-solve challenging financial conditions.”

In Michigan, the emergency manager program was authorized twenty-eight years ago, granting the governor authority to appoint a manager with extensive powers over a troubled municipality or school district. By 2012, Michigan voters repealed the emergency manager program in a referendum; notwithstanding, one month later Gov. Snyder and legislators re-adopted a similar intervention program—under which local governments could opt among three new options in addition to the appointment of an emergency manager who reports directly to the Governor: chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, mediation, or a consent agreement between the state and the city to permit local elected officials to balance their budget on their own. (In Michigan, municipalities which exit emergency management remain under the oversight of a receivership transition advisory board while executive powers are slowly restored to elected mayors and city councils.)

The state intervention/takeover program had mixed success, according to Michigan State University economist Eric Scorsone, who noted: “In some cases it’s worked well, like Allen Park where the situation was pretty clear-cut and the solution was pretty clear as to what needed to be done.” (Allen Park regained full local control of its operations and finances in February of 2017 after nearly four years of state oversight. Last June, S&P Global Ratings upgraded the city to investment-grade BBB-plus from junk-level BB, crediting strong budgetary performance and financial flexibility more than 12 months after exiting state oversight. But the appointment, in Flint, of emergency managers demonstrated the obverse: the small city had four emergency managers: Ed Kurtz, Mike Brown, Darnell Earley, and Gerald Ambrose—where the latter two today are confronted by charges of criminal wrongdoing stemming from the lead contamination crisis and ensuing Legionnaire’s disease outbreak that claimed 12 lives. It was the gubernatorially appointed Mr. Earley who oversaw the decision to change Flint’s water source to the Flint River in April 2014 as the city awaited completion of a new pipeline—a decision with fatal human and fiscal consequences. Indeed, two years ago, Gov. Snyder named a task force to investigate the Flint crisis and review the Emergency Manager law—a review which recommended the Governor consider alternatives to the current approach that would engage local elected officials. (No action has been taken to change the law.)

Because only a minority of states have authorized chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, there is no uniform state role with regard to city or county severe fiscal distress and bankruptcy. Jane Ridley, senior director in the U.S. public finance government group at S&P Global Ratings and sector lead for local governments, has noted that state oversight is considered as part of the rating agency’s local GO criteria: “We do think that having a state that has oversight, especially if it’s a proven mechanism, can be very helpful for struggling entities…If they ended oversight entirely it would likely have an impact on the institutional framework scores and their sub scores.” A Moody’s analyst, Andrew Van Dyck Dobos, noted: “While an EM is in most cases is a last option, the ability for it to implement some policies and procedures is going to be typically viewed, at least at the onset, as a credit positive.”

Ending Shelter from the Storm. U.S. District Judge Timothy Hillman yesterday ruled that temporary housing given to hundreds of Puerto Ricans displaced by Hurricane Maria will end next month, meaning Puerto Ricans will be forced to check out of temporary housing provided by Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as part of the agency’s Transitional Sheltering Assistance (TSA) program. Judge Hillman, in his decision, wrote: I strongly recommend the parties get together to find temporary housing, or other assistance to the Plaintiffs and other members of the class prior to that date,” with his decision coming the same week Puerto Rico updated its official death toll from Maria to 2,975, a vast increase from the original count of 64. Judge Hillman’s decision also comes about two months after a national civil-rights group filed a lawsuit which had sought a restraining order to block FEMA from ending the program. The group, LatinoJustice, argued in the suit that it would lead to families’ evictions. It also came as, two days ago, President Trump met with reporters to respond to questions with regard to the mounting death toll—a session in which the President told the reporters: “I think we did a fantastic job in Puerto Rico.” Some 1,744 Puerto Rican adults and children were in the FEMA program when the lawsuit was filed. U.S. District Judge Leo T. Sorokin temporarily extended the program to the end of last July, and subsequently extended it until today—and then, once more, to September 14th.

Now, the White House is responding to a new estimate which increases the number by about 33% more to 2,975 after an independent study. White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders claimed in a statement that the back-to-back hurricanes which hit last year prompted “the largest domestic disaster response mission in history.” She added that President Donald Trump “remains proud of all of the work the Federal family undertook to help our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico.” She also says the federal government “will continue to be supportive” of Gov. Ricardo Rossello’s accountability efforts and says “the American people, including those grieving the loss of a loved one, deserve no less.” The new estimate of 2,975 dead in the six months after Maria devastated the island in September 2017 was made by researchers with the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University. It was released Tuesday.

The Fiscal Challenges of Federalism

July 13, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Tale of Two Cities

July 3, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Municipal Fiscal Distress & State Oversight.

June 18, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Becoming Positively Moody in Detroit

May 24, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we observe Detroit’s physical and fiscal progress from the nation’s largest ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, before exploring the seeming good gnus of lower unemployment data from Puerto Rico.

Motor City Upgrade. Moody’s on Tuesday upgraded Detroit’s issuer rating to the highest level in seven years, awarding the Motor City an upgrade from to Ba3 from B1, with a stable outlook, noting: “The upgrade reflects further improvement in the city’s financial reserves, which has facilitated implementation of a pension funding strategy that will lessen the budgetary impact of a future spike in required contributions…The upgrade also considers ongoing economic recovery that is starting to show real dividends to tax collections.” The stable outlook, according to Moody’s, incorporates the Motor City’s high leverage, weak socioeconomic profile, and “volatile nature” of local taxes.  Albeit not a credit rating, Detroit likely received another economic and fiscal boost in the wake of President Trump’s actions calling for new tariffs on cars and trucks imported to the U.S., with an estimated additional duty of up to 25% under consideration.

The twin positive developments follow just weeks after the 11-member Detroit Financial Review Commission, created to oversee city finances following its 2013 chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, voted unanimously to restore Detroit’s authority to approve budgets and contracts without review commission approval, effectively putting Detroit on fiscal and financial probation, with a prerequisite that the restoration of full, quasi home rule powers be that the city implement three straight years of deficit-free budgets—a condition Detroit has complied since 2014, according Detroit Chief Financial Officer John Hill. Or, as Councilmember Janee L. Ayers told the Commission this week: “Not to say that we don’t recognize everything that you’ve brought to the table, but I do recognize that you’re not really gone yet.” The city recorded an FY2018 surplus of $36 million, in the wake of regaining local control over its budget and contract authority, with a projected FY2018 $36 million surplus via increasing property tax revenues and plans that will earmark $335 million by 2024 to address key pension obligations in the city bankruptcy plan of debt adjustment for its two public pension funds. In addition, Moody’s revised Detroit’s outlook to stable from positive—albeit an upgrade which does not apply to any of its current $1.9 billion in outstanding debt, writing that its upgrade reflects an improvement in Detroit’s financial reserves, which have allowed Detroit to implement a funding strategy for its looming pension obligations “that will lessen the budgetary impact of a future spike in required contributions.”

As part of its approved plan of debt adjustment by retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, Detroit must pay $20 million annually through FY2019 to its two pension funds, after which, moreover, contributions will increase significantly beginning in 2024. Moody’s noted: “The stable outlook is based on the city’s strong preparation for challenges ahead including the need to make capital investments and absorb pending spikes to fixed costs…Underperformance of pension assets and revenue volatility remain notable budgetary risks, but the city has amassed a large reserve cushion and adopted conservative budgetary assumptions that provide breathing room to respond to adverse developments,” adding that the “ongoing economic recovery that is starting to show real dividends to tax collections: Further growth in the city’s reserves and tax base growth to fund capital projects for either the city or its school district could lead to additional upgrades. In contrast, however, the agency warned that a downgrade could be spurred by slowed or stalled economic recovery, depletion of financial reserves, or growth in Detroit’s debt or pension burden, fixed costs, or capital needs.

CFO Hill noted: “A second rating upgrade in just seven months from Moody’s shows that we have created the financial management infrastructure necessary to continue to meet our obligations and enhance our fiscal position…Working with the Mayor and City Council, our team has made a variety of improvements to financial management practices and our financial planning and budgeting practices are strong, as reaffirmed by Moody’s in their report.”

Nevertheless, while the gnus on the ratings front is exhilarating, governing and fiscal challenges remain. A key challenge is the ongoing population hemorrhaging—a hemorrhaging which has slowed to a tenth of its pace over the previous decade, but, according to the Census Bureau’s most recent release, which determined last week that the city’s population was 673,104 as of last summer, a decline of 2,376 residents, slightly down from last year’s 2,770, even as the metropolitan region continued to grow, as did cities such as Grand Rapids and Lansing, which posted among the largest gains. Nevertheless, Mayor Mike Duggan, who, after his reelection last November, said his performance should be measured by the milestone of reversing the outflow, has blamed the city’s schools for the continued losses: “At this point it’s about the schools: We have got to create a city where families want to raise their children and have them go to the schools…There are a whole number of pieces that have gotten better but at the end of the day, I think the ultimate report card is the population going up or going down and our report card isn’t good enough.”

Mayor Duggan added that Detroit utility records show at least 3,000 more homes are occupied than last year; however, it appears to be one- and two-person households who are moving in; families with children are moving out. Nevertheless, researchers believe the overall trend is a marked improvement for Detroit. As we had noted in or report, and other researchers have, the Motor City lost an average of 23,700 annually in the decade from 2000 to 2010; Detroit’s population declined by nearly 1.2 million since its 1950 peak. If anything, moreover, the challenge remains if the city leaders hope to reverse the decades-long exodus: the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments forecasts Detroit will continue to experience further decline through 2024, after which the Council guesstimates Detroit will bottom out at 631,668. 

Nevertheless, Detroit, the nation’s 23rd largest city, is experiencing less of a population loss than a number of other major cities, including Baltimore, St. Louis, Chicago, and Pittsburgh, according to the most recent estimates; or as Mayor Kurt Metzger of Pleasant Ridge, a demographer and director emeritus of Data Driven Detroit put it: “Our decreasing losses should be put up against similar older urban cities, rather than the sprawling, growing cities of the south and west: “I still believe that the population of Detroit may indeed be growing.” (Last year, Detroit issued 27 permits to build single-family homes in the city, according to the Southeast Michigan Conference of Governments–another 911 building permits were issued for multi-family structures, and 60 permits for condominiums. Meanwhile 3,197 houses were razed, according to the Detroit regional council of governments.

A key appears to be, as Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel determined in Chicago, the city’s schools. Thus, Mayor Duggan said he hopes the Detroit School Board will approve his bus loop plan as a means to help lure families back into the city proper, noting that many families in the city send their children to schools in the suburbs‒and end up moving there. In his State of the City Address, he said he intended to create a busing system in northwest Detroit to transport children to participating traditional public and charter schools and the Northwest Activities Center. This will be an ongoing governance challenge—as his colleague Mayor Metzger noted: “There’s no lessening of the interest in outlying townships: People are still looking for big houses, big lots with low taxes.” Indeed, even as Detroit continues to witness an ongoing exodus, municipalities in the metropolitan region‒the Townships of Macomb, Canton, Lyon, and Shelby are all growing.  

Detroit Chief Financial Officer John Hill notes: “A second rating upgrade in just seven months from Moody’s shows that we have created the financial management infrastructure necessary to continue to meet our obligations and enhance our fiscal position: Working with the Mayor and City Council, our team has made a variety of improvements to financial management practices and our financial planning and budgeting practices are strong, as reaffirmed by Moody’s in their report.” Thus, in the wake of the State of Michigan’s restoration of governing authority and control of the city’s finances on April 30th, three years after its Chapter 9 exit in December of 2014, Detroit now has the power to enter into contracts and enact city budgets without seeking state approval first, albeit, as Moody’s notes: “Underperformance of pension assets and revenue volatility remain notable budgetary risks, but the city has amassed a large reserve cushion and adopted conservative budgetary assumptions that provide breathing room to respond to adverse developments.”

Motor City Transformation?  In the wake of real estate development firm Bedrock Detroit gaining final approval from the Michigan Strategic Fund for its so-called “transformational” projects in downtown Detroit, the stated has approved $618 million in brownfield incentives for the $2.1 billion project, relying in part on some $250 million secured by new brownfield tax credits, enacted last year by the legislature—a development which Mayor Duggan said represents a “major step forward for Detroit and other Michigan cities that are rebuilding: Thanks to this new tool, we will be able to make sure these projects realize their full potential to create thousands of new jobs in our cities.” In what will be the first Michigan municipality to use the Transformational Brownfield Plan tax incentive program, a program using tax-increment financing to capture growth in property tax revenue in a designated area, as well as a construction period income tax capture and use-tax exemption, employee withholding tax capture, and resident income tax capture; the MIThrive program is projected to total $618 million in foregone tax revenue over approximately 30 years. While Bedrock noted that the tax increment financing “will not capture any city of Detroit taxes, and it will have no impact on the Detroit Public Schools Community District,” the plan is intended to support $250 million in municipal bond financing by authorizing the capture of an estimated average of $18.56 million of principal and interest payments annually, primarily supported by state taxes over the next three decades, to repay the bonds, with all tax capture limited to newly created revenues from the development sites themselves: the TIF financing and sales tax exemption will cover approximately 15% of the project costs; Bedrock is responsible for 85% of the total $2.15 billion investment, per the financing package the Detroit City Council approved last November, under which Bedrock’s proposed projects are to include the redevelopment of former J.L. Hudson’s department store site, new construction on a two-block area east of its headquarters downtown, the Book Tower and Book Building, and a 310,000-square-foot addition to the One Campus Martius building Gilbert co-owns with Detroit-based Meridian. Altogether, the projects are estimated to support an estimated 22,000 new jobs, including 15,000 related to the construction and over 7,000 new permanent, high-wage jobs occupying the office, retail, hotel, event and exhibition spaces—all a part of the ongoing development planned as part of Detroit’s plan of debt adjustment.

In an unrelated, but potentially unintended bit of fiscal assistance, President Trump’s new press for tariffs of as much as 25% on cars and trucks imported to the U.S., Detroit might well be a taking a fiscal checkered flag.

Avoiding Risks to Puerto Rico’s Recovery. Yesterday, in testifying before the PROMESA Board, Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares  told the members his governing challenge was to “solve problems, and not to see how they get worse,” as he defended the agreement with the Oversight Board—and as he urged the Puerto Rico Legislature to comply with his fiscal plan and repeal what he described as the unjust dismissal law (Law 80), a key item in the certified fiscal plan that the PROMESA Board is reevaluating. That law in question, the Labor Transformation and Flexibility Act, which he had signed last year, represented the first significant and comprehensive labor law reform to occur in Puerto Rico in decades. As enacted, the most significant changes to the labor law include:  

  • effective date (there is still no cap for employees hired before the effective date);
  • Eliminating the presumption that a termination was without just cause and shifting the burden to the employee to prove the termination was without just cause;
  • Revising the definition of just cause to state that it is a “pattern of performance that is deficient, inefficient, unsatisfactory, poor, tardy, or negligent”;
  • Shortening the statute of limitations for Law 80 claims from three years to one year, and requiring all Law 80 claims filed after the Act’s effective date have a mandatory settlement hearing within 60 days of the filing of the answer; and
  • Clarifying the standard for constructive discharge to require an employee to prove that the employer’s conduct created a hostile work environment such that the only reasonable thing for the employee to do was resign.

The Act mandates that all Puerto Rico employment laws be applied in a similar fashion to federal employment laws, unless explicitly stated otherwise in the local law. It applies Title VII’s cap on punitive and compensatory damages to damages for discrimination and retaliation claims, and eliminates the mandate for written probationary agreements; it imposes a mandatory probationary period of 12 months for all administrative, executive and professional employees, and a nine-month period for all other employees. It provides a statutory definition for “employment contract,” which specifically excludes the relationship between an employer and independent contractor. The Act also includes a non-rebuttable presumption that an individual is an independent contractor if the individual meets the five-part test in the statute. It modifies the definition of overtime to require overtime pay for work over eight hours in any calendar day instead of eight hours in any 24-hour period, and changes the overtime rate for employees hired after the Act’s effective date to time and one-half their regular rate. (The overtime rate for employees hired prior to the Act remains at two times the employee’s regular rate.). The Act provides for alternative workweek agreements in which employees can work four 10-hour days without being entitled to overtime, but must be paid overtime for hours worked in excess of 10 in one day. The provisions provide that, in order to accrue vacation and sick pay, employees must work a minimum of 130 hours per month; sick leave will accrue at the rate of one day per month—and, to earn a Christmas Bonus, employees must work 1,350 hours between October 1 and September 30 of the following year; employees on disability leave have a right to reinstatement for six months if the employer has 15 or fewer employees; employers with more than 15 employees must provide employees on disability leave with the right to reinstatement for one year, as was required prior to the Act. For employees, the law includes certain enumerated employee rights, including a prohibition against discrimination or retaliation; protection from workplace injuries or illnesses; protection of privacy; timely compensation; and the individual or collective right to sue or file claims for actions arising out of the employment contract.

In his presentation, the Governor suggested that the repeal of the statute would be a vital component to controlling Puerto Rico’s budget, in no small part by granting additional funds to municipalities, granting budgetary increases in multiple government agencies, including the Governor’s Office and the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration (PRFAA), as well as increasing the salary of teachers and the Police. While the Governor proposed no cuts, a preliminary analysis of the document published by the Office of Management and Budget determined that the consolidated budget for FY 2018-19 would total $25.323 billion, or 82% lower than the current consolidated budget, as the Governor sought to assure the Board he has achieved some $2 billion in savings, and reduced Puerto Rico’s operating expenses by 22%.

In his presentation to the 18th Puerto Rico Legislative Assembly, the Governor warned that Puerto Rico has an approximate “18-month window” to define its future, taking advantage of an injection of FEMA funds in the wake of Hurricane Maria, as he appeared to challenge them to be part of that transformation, noting: “We have an understanding with the (Board) that allows the approval of a budget that, under the complex and difficult circumstances, benefits Puerto Rico: Ladies and gentlemen legislators: you know everything that is at risk. I already exercised my responsibility, and I fully trust in the commitment you have with Puerto Rico.”

According to Gov. Rosselló, repealing Law 80, which last year was amended to grant greater flexibility to companies in the process of dismissing workers, would be the first step for what would be a phase of greater economic activity on the island, and would join different measures which have been put into effect to provide Puerto Rico a “stronger” position to renegotiate the terms of its debt, as he contrasted his proposal versus the cuts and austerity warnings proposed by the PROMESA Board, adding that, beginning in August, the Sales and Use Tax on processed food will be reduced, and that tax rates will be reduced without fear of the “restrictions” previously established and imposed by the Board, adding that participants of Mi Salud (My Health) will be able to “choose where they can obtain health services, beyond a region in Puerto Rico,” and that the budget guarantees teachers and the police will receive an increase of $ 125 per month.

Shifting & Shafting? In his proposed budget, the Governor proposed that municipalities would be compensated for the supposed reduction in the contributions of the General Fund, stating: “Through the agreement, the disbursement of 78 million dollars that this Legislature approved for the municipalities during the current recovery period is secured; the Municipal Economic Development Fund of $50 million per year is created.” Under the administration’s proposed budget, the contribution to municipalities would be about $175.8 million, which would be consistent with the adjustment required for that item in the certified fiscal plan. As a result of the agreement with the Board, municipalities would, therefore, practically receive another $ 128 million. As proposed, Puerto Rico’s government payroll would be reduced for the third consecutive year: for example, payments for public services and those purchased will increase 23% and 16%, respectively; professional services would increase by 40%. Expenses for the Governor’s office would see an increase of 182%.

“This is how government should work.”

May 15, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we fiscally visit the small municipality of Evans, New York, a town of about 41 square miles in upstate New York which was established in 1821—seventeen years after its first settler arrived, and today home to about 14,000—but a municipality so broke after years of fiscal and financial mismanagement that it lost access to the municipal market in the wake of the withdrawal of its credit rating.

Absence of Fiscal Balance? Evans Town Supervisor Mary K. Hosler has reported that the municipality was unable to secure a loan in the wake of the withdrawal of its credit rating. In her 3rd State of the Town Address, where she advised citizens that “much can be accomplished when politics are checked at the door, and a spirit of cooperation is adopted at all levels of our town government;” she added that it was her hope that citizens would leave with “a sense that our Town is mending and moving ahead with strength and momentum,” as she noted: “By way of brief overview, as many of you are aware, the Town has been faced with numerous challenges over the past two years. Unfortunately, a decade of financial mismanagement came to a head during my first year in office, and we were faced with what turned out to be the worst financial crisis in the history of the Town. There were very few options available as the Town was facing the possibility of insolvency or a control board.”

In New York, a municipality—or its emergency financial control board, may file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy: the Empire State’s §§85.80 to 85.90 authorize the state legislature to create a financial control board—something created in September of 1975 for New York City; however, the New York State Constitution also contains certain fiscal limitations on municipal debt—including a limit of 9 percent of the average full valuation of said municipality’s taxable real estate for municipalities with populations under 125,000.

Supervisor Hosler introduced Evans Finance Director Brittany Gloss to present the municipality’s financial accomplishments and the progress being made in terms of economic development and, “most importantly: where we are headed,” reminding constituents that any loans would have been “costly to our residents: financially, in the loss of services, and the loss of local control,” adding:  “It has been said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results. Well, we stopped the insanity, which meant we had to identify the problems and take action. Every decision was critical to move the needle in the right direction, and work the Town out of this financial disaster. These decisions were often painstaking and gut‐wrenching, but they were necessary to change the Town’s financial course. They were reviewed from all angles, and made with the taxpayer’s interest and the future of the Town of Evans in the forefront. And these difficult decisions have yielded positive results.” In her introduction, Supervisor Hosler, noting the town’s bond rating had been restored to an A rating, reported: “We’re  definitely on the recovery side of the balance sheet,” with the former bank vice president who played a key role in steering the town toward solvency, telling the audience that the municipality had turned to Erie County for assistance two years ago—or, as Erie County Comptroller Stefan I. Mychajliw recalled, the call came as the town’s payroll and bills were piling up, late at night as he was “on the couch with a horrible flu.” Nevertheless, he stated that he advises every town supervisor to let him know if they ever need anything, adding: “That night I had three or four conference calls with three of my most senior staff.”

Remarkably, by the next morning, he had already helped pull together three possible fiscal plans for the town—with the one which led to the fiscal rescue: an unprecedented $980,000 short-term loan from Erie County.

For her part, Supervisor Hosler knew when she ran for office three years ago that there were financial problems; however, it was not until she took office that she discovered thousands of missing financial transactions, internal audits which had never been completed, and a $2.6 million deficit. The fiscal depths appeared to be the result of the municipality’s debt issued in 2007, when the town had borrowed $12.6 million to install new water lines, hydrants, and a water storage tower. In that transaction, instead of putting those funds into a separate account, as required, the town combined the money with the rest of its municipal funds. Thus, a subsequent New York State audit found that $2 million of those funds were used to cover operating expenses, with the bulk for the municipality’s troubled water operations—putting the municipality on a seemingly unending reliance on tax-anticipation notes to make ends meet—that is, until the ends were at the end—or, as Supervisor Hosler described it: “Not six months into office, I’m thinking ‘Holy Lord, this is a big climb’…We had to keep moving on all fronts.”

A year and a half later, Evans has received an A credit rating from S&P Global Ratings, easing the way for the municipality to issue municipal bonds to finance $5.2 million for a new water tower, with S&P noting: “The stable outlook reflects S&P Global Ratings’ view that Evans has implemented various corrective steps to restore structural balanced operations over the past three audited fiscal years. It also reflects our expectation that the town will likely maintain strong budgetary performance, which will likely support its efforts to eliminate its negative fund balance and rebuild its budgetary flexibility.” Indeed, the town’s current deficit of $320,000 is a shadow of its former $2.6 million—and Supervisor Hosler is hopeful it can be eliminated by the end of the fiscal year—a fiscal accomplishment which could create a fiscal bonus: lower capital borrowing costs on municipal bonds the municipality hopes to issue for its water system.

The $2.6 million deficit is down to $320,000, and now Supervisor Hosler is hopeful it can be erased by the end of this year. In addition, with the credit rating, she is hoping to get a lower rate on water bonds to hopefully lower water rates. As Comptroller Mychajliw put it: “I’m just thrilled for her and the town: This is how government should work.”