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.  

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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.”

Exiting from State Receivership

April 9, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we return to Flint, Michigan, where, in the wake of last week’s release by Gov. Rick Snyder of the city from receivership and state oversight—the city will have to make its own way to full fiscal and physical recovery from the many years’ of state-imposed choices—but recovery too after the former Michigan Revenue Sharing program has ceased, making the physical and fiscal challenge ever so steep.  

Setting the Path for a Strategic Recovery & a Return to Home Rule. After Gov. Rick Snyder, at the end of last week, announced he was releasing the City of Flint from receivership and state oversight, he has now announced that the State of Michigan will stop providing Flint residents with free bottled water when current supplies run out, citing nearly two years of test results showing falling lead levels in city tap water. Indeed, preliminary data from early this calendar year showed 90 percent of high-risk Flint water sites at or below 4 part per billion of lead, according to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. Thus, if these results hold through end of June, it would be the fourth consecutive six-month period levels have tested below the federal action level of 15 parts per billion. In the wake of the Governor’s announcement, the state plans to close four remaining water bottle distribution centers when supplies are exhausted—something that could happen within the next week, albeit water filters and cartridges will remain available at Flint City Hall.

In his announcement, the Governor said: “I have said all along that ensuring the quality of the water in Flint and helping the people and the city move forward were a top priority for me and my team…We have worked diligently to restore the water quality and the scientific data now proves the water system is stable and the need for bottled water has ended.”  The Governor did not discuss the state’s role in unbalancing and aggravating Flint’s fiscal misery—one to which the State contributed both through its former imposition of Emergency managers to preempt the city’s elected leaders—and through its elimination of state revenue sharing. By 2014, Flint had lost $54.9 million dollars in state aid—funds which would have been sufficient then to have fully paid off its annual deficit, as well as all $30 million of its municipal bond indebtedness, and still have had over $5 million in surplus

One of the hard questions now will be with regard to the potential impact of assessed property values and tax revenues in a city where those values were so harshly impacted by the fear of poisoned water: property tax assessments are mailed out every March: In 2016, those revenues, $19.7 million, made up about 23% of the city’s $81 million in general revenue. Unsurprisingly, that led to appeals to the Michigan Tax Tribunal for a poverty exemption to property taxes, with residents citing the costs associated with the water problems as one reason. Those lower assessed values added to the challenge to Genesee County to sell tax-foreclosed properties.

Mayor Karen Weaver, who has played a key role in the efforts to replace underground lead service lines at homes across the city, wrote to the Gov. last Friday to advise him that residents had “great anxiety” over the prospect of closing water distribution sites., noting: “As I have stated before and will continue to say, this is not what I want for our city, and I stand by my position that free bottled water should be provided to the people of Flint until the last known lead-tainted pipe has been replaced…We know that the water in Flint is much better than when I made the Emergency Declaration in December 2015, and that is a good thing. However, we also know that trust has to be restored before residents are ready to rely only on filtered residents.”

In response, Gov. Snyder replied that Michigan taxpayers were not legally obligated to fund bottled water or Flint distribution sites after last September; however, “in the spirit of good faith and our continued partnership, the state has continued to provide funding for hundreds of thousands of cases of bottled water for the daily use of residents.” Noting that he had provided the Mayor with Weaver recent water testing data and methodology, he added: “Since Flint’s water system has been and continues to be well within the standards set by the federal government, we will now focus even more of our efforts on continuing with the health, education and economic development assistance needed to help move Flint forward,” adding: “I remain steadfast in that commitment.

Nevertheless, with lead service line replacement set to resume this spring, there remain not just physical and fiscal fears, but also lingering apprehensions that underground work could dislodge lead flakes from existing pipes and again contaminate home tap water. That is, parents are scared—hardly a message which would enhance assessed property values.

Thus, it might seem ironic that Gov. Snyder’s decision to end bottled water service came two days after his administration had, last Wednesday, announced it was releasing Flint from receivership—a receivership under which the fateful, devastating decision to begin drawing drinking water from the Flint River until construction of the new regional Karegnondi Water Authority pipeline to Lake Huron was completed. (The City of Flint has been getting its treated water from the Great Lakes Water Authority since October of 2015. Last November, Flint inked a 30-year agreement to stay on the Detroit area system in November 2017 in the wake of a federal court order mandating the City Council to quit delaying a decision about its permanent water source.)

A Silver Lining? Flint lead levels have dropped below 4 parts per billion so far this year, according to the Michigan environmental department; for the second half of 2017, 90 percent of high-risk sites had tested below 6 ppb. Officials also said the state has conducted “extensive flushing and testing” of unfiltered water at schools, day cares and senior homes in Flint—meaning the updated test results are finding lower levels than the statewide 10 parts per billion which Gov. Snyder would like to enforce statewide. Keith Creagh, Director of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, noted: “Flint’s water is undoubtedly one of the most monitored systems in the country, and for the last 22 months several types of extensive testing data points have consistently supported that Flint’s water system has stabilized.”

Nevertheless, the action to stop providing bottled water to the beleaguered city led Michigan Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint) to state: “It’s beyond belief that the Governor expects the folks in Flint to trust the government now, when they lied to our faces about lead in our water just a few years ago…That trust was broken, and families in Flint still don’t feel that the water in their homes is safe to drink.” Similarly, Rep. Sheldon Neeley (D-Flint) stated he was requesting the Governor to continue providing bottled water until the state has successfully addressed the “crisis of confidence” among Flint residents, noting: “From the perspective of Flint residents, it was the same data, personnel and science that failed them. They don’t trust them still.” Rep Neeley added that if the State fails to continue providing services to Flint residents, he would support any legal action the city may take “to compel the state to do its job and continue water service to its citizens.” (The State of Michigan has sent more than $350 million in state funds to Flint since late 2015, in addition to $100 million from the federal government, that has paid for bottled water, water system upgrades, and local health initiatives—with a portion of the funding mandated under a four-year, $97 million settlement reached last year between the state and a coalition which had sued in an attempt to secure safe drinking water. Under the agreement, the state agreed to spend an additional $47 million on top of already budgeted funds to replace lead pipes and provide free bottled water.) Now, an Environmental Department spokeswoman reports she expects the state’s current supply of bottled water will run out within four to seven days.

Mayor Karen Weaver, whose administration is working to replace underground lead service lines at homes across the city, published a letter to Gov. Snyder earlier Friday telling him residents had “great anxiety” over the prospect of closing water distribution sites: “As I have stated before and will continue to say, this is not what I want for our city and I stand by my position that free bottled water should be provided to the people of Flint until the last known lead-tainted pipe has been replaced…We know that the water in Flint is much better than when I made the Emergency Declaration in December 2015, and that is a good thing. However, we also know that trust has to be restored before residents are ready to rely only on filtered residents.”

Fiscal Recovery & Home Rule

April 6, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we can safely write: free, free at last, as Michigan Governor Rick Snyder has signed an order releasing Flint from receivership and state oversight—making it the final  municipality to be under such state fiscal control. Then we turn East to the Empire State to assess whether New York will grant the same fiscal liberty to Nassau County, before dipping into the warm Caribbean to assess the ongoing fiscal and political tug of fiscal war so critical to the fiscal future of Puerto Rico. Finally, before your second cup of java, we jet back to King George, Virginia, as the rural county struggles to reduce its more than $100 million in indebtedness.

Setting the Path for a Strategic Recovery & a Return to Home Rule. Gov. Rick Snyder announced he has signed an order to release the City of Flint from receivership and state oversight—making Flint the final city in the state to exit such oversight and preemption of local authority. His decision came as the lame duck Governor, who has been under fire for his selection of emergency managers to the Genesee County city and handling of the Flint water crisis, came at the behest of the Flint Receivership Transition Advisory Board. The decision marks the end of an era of state usurpation of municipal authority—especially in the wake of the role of state imposed emergency managers in the state’s lead contamination crisis for their decisions to switch to the Flint River—decisions which led to the drinking water health crisis, as well as to the devastation of the city’s assessed property values, as well as contributed to the poisoning of thousands of citizens and the deaths of 12. The Governor stated: “City management and elected leadership have worked hard to put Flint on a stronger path…With continuing cooperation between the city and state, Flint has an opportunity to take advantage of the momentum being felt around the city in terms of economic development, which can lead to stronger budgets and improved services for residents.”

The announcement cleared the path for Michigan state Treasurer Nick Khouri’s expected signature on a “Flint RTAB resolution that repeals all remaining emergency manager orders,” with the repeal effectively securing the municipality from seven years of state emergency management, restoring full authority to the city’s Mayor and Council—or, as Mayor Karen Weaver put it: “We’ve just got our divorce…I feel real good about it…I remember when I was campaigning (in 2015) — it was one of the things I talked about, was I wanted to work on getting home rule back to the City of Flint. I know it’s how we got into this mess (the water crisis), was having an emergency manager and our voice being taken from the city and taking the power away from the local elected officials. We’ve shown that we’ve been responsible, and we’re moving this city forward.” That state preemption had come in the wake of a state financial review team opining that a “financial emergency existed” in Flint, and that the city had no “satisfactory plan in place to address the city’s fiscal problems,” leading to the preemption of local control and state imposition of an emergency manager from that time until shortly after Mayor Weaver was elected in November 2015.

Will Nassau County Be Free at Last? In a comparable governing and federalism issue in New York State, Nassau County Executive Laura Curran, who took office at the beginning of this year, has submitted a revised spending plan which relies upon new revenue initiatives, after, at the end of last year, the Nassau Interim Finance Authority had rejected a $2.99 billion budget and ordered $18 million in cuts due to revenue uncertainty. The new, proposed budget, which was submitted to the Authority on March 15th, contains $54.7 million in projected savings and revenues; however, the Authority’s Executive Director, Evan Cohen, Wednesday expressed apprehensions with regard to required legislative approvals needed for some of the revenue initiatives, even as he praised the new County Executive, who attended the Authority’s session Wednesday evening in an effort to secure support for proposed new revenues and avoiding a reliance on borrowing sought by previous administrations. Director Cohen, in a letter, wrote: “Our analysis indicates that the projected risks confronting the County will impede its chances for ending FY 2018 in [generally accepted accounting principles] balance…Strong management and legislative cooperation will be essential to any chance of success on that fiscal front,” stressing in her epistle that the County is confronted by political challenges to get the Republican-controlled Nassau County Legislature to agree to and implement some of her revenue plans: the County is seeking approval of some $9.7 million of $29 million in additional projected revenues, even as it is already confronting resistance on a proposal to change fees for Little Leagues and other non-profit groups to use county-operated athletic fields. A County spokesperson noted: “It is a viable operating budget except for the risks associated with the overwhelming cost of commercial and residential claims for tax overpayment…Once again, it is clear that the county’s poor fiscal health is intertwined with the broken assessment system and the failed the tax policies of the previous administration.” Nevertheless, the Authority identified $104.7 million of projected risks in the modified budget. County Executive Curran noted that this figure, which is up from $101.4 million of projected risks cited in the December review of the budget, reflects her administration’s decision to fund $43.8 million for to honor a court judgment mandating the payment to two men who were exonerated in the wake of a 1985 murder conviction. The Authority praised the County Executive her fiscal plan to pay off the judgment through operating revenue rather than through the issuance of municipal debt. The gold star from the Authority could begin to clear the path for exit from state oversight.

Modern Day Colonialism? The Puerto Rico Senate Wednesday voted unanimously to terminate its appropriations to fund the PROMESA Oversight Board, which, under the law, is defined as an integral part of the U.S. territory’s government; the federal act specifies that Puerto Rico’s government revenues are to be used for its funding. Puerto Rico Sen. President Thomas Rivera Schatz, an attorney and former prosecutor, who was born in New York City, as well as Gov. Ricardo Rosselló both conveyed messages of defiance to the Oversight Board, with the messages coming in the wake of Gov. Rosselló’s epistle to Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) of the House Natural Resources Committee defending his independent power relative to that of the Oversight Board and denouncing the quasi-imperialist effort to preempt the authority as the elected leader of the territory—an effort unimaginable for a Member of the U.S. Congress to take against any Governor of any of the 50 mainland states. Senate President Schatz noted: “The key message we want to send here is that we do not bend, we respond to the people who chose us, and we defend the Puerto Rico citizens and the American citizens who live on the island.” He added: “If there is anyone who defends the board, I urge you to tell us if the American dream and the principles of freedom and democracy that inspired the creation of the American nation accept as good that the Board’s executive director [Natalie Jaresko] earns $650,000 with all possible luxury benefits…” adding that Ms. Jaresko “lives at the expense of the people of Puerto Rico while trying to eliminate the Christmas bonus to workers of private companies and the government…and is also trying to reduce your working hours or eliminate your vacation. And who is attacking the medical services, education, and housing of the Puerto Rican people.”

Nevertheless, by submitting a revised fiscal plan—a plan which includes only 20 of the 48 recommendations made by the PROMESA Board, regarding financial and technical matters, Governor Ricardo Rosselló yesterday ruled out any alternative, as he, during a round table at La Fortaleza, insisted that the PROMESA Board may not establish a plan in which it enters into public policy issues, a prerogative that only holds for the Puerto Rico government—as would be the case with any of the nation’s other 50 states. Nevertheless, he added that it is not about having to go to court to assert Puerto Rico’s democratic rights against the PROMESA Board. Simultaneously, the Governor ruled out giving way to a measure such as that approved by the Puerto Rico Senate to stop the disbursement of public funds for the operation of the body of Congressional creation. The projected allocation of funds for the six-year PROMESA Board term is projected to cost the taxpayers of Puerto Rico up to $1.4 billion—a figure which includes operational budget, expenses of advisors, and everything related to the representation for the process of Title III of PROMESA. Thus, the Governor added: “We do not have to go to court. That is what I would like everyone to understand. We are doing what is in law that we must do. Our preference would be that all matters that we can agree, that can be executed. That we can work in that direction, but our action if they (the PROMESA Board) certify something that is the work and the right of the elected government of Puerto Rico, which does not match the public policy of our government, that part is simply not going to take. Our warning is for what to do if what they are going to do is weaken a fiscal plan before measures that obviously are not going to be executed.”

In response to the measure approved by the Puerto Rico Senate, the Governor noted: “[H]here we must show that we are a jurisdiction of law and order, and I am following the steps of our strategy…What I have said is that in the face of the future, I will always seek to defend the people of Puerto Rico. Although I understand the feeling of the Legislative Assembly, the frustration, which is a prevalent feeling, the fact is that everyone’s approach, and we discussed it yesterday in the legislative conference…must be within the subject in law, demonstrate that the fiscal oversight board cannot implement public policy issues.” He stressed that responsible, prudent actions “are aimed at achieving a fiscal plan that is enforceable.”

Referring to the 202-page document, provided to the PROMESA Board before 5:00 pm yesterday, Gov. Rossello said that once the numbers are analyzed “We are basically about [at a] $100 million difference from where they wanted to be and where we are,” highlighting that the document, through structural reforms and adjusted fiscal measures, proposes the government will achieve a surplus of $1,400 million by FY2023—that is, a document which places Puerto Rico on the path “of structural balance and restoration of growth,” insisting it is important to approve the plan Puerto Rico submitted, because it will allow for a better position toward the judicial process for debt readjustment or Title III, comparable to a chapter 9 plan of debt adjustment. Stressing that “after implementing all government transformation initiatives and structural reforms, and incorporating the federal support received for health assistance and disasters, Puerto Rico will accumulate a surplus of $6,300 million by FY2023.”

With regard to other PROMESA proposed changes, the Governor stated that Puerto Rico had agreed to a number of the PROMESA recommendations, mentioning that more than a dozen corresponded to economic aspects, noting, for example, that Puerto Rico had requested $94.4 million in federal disaster assistance because of Hurricane Maria, but on the recommendation of the Board had reduced that by nearly half to $49.7 million. With regard to differences on estimated GNP for FY2018, he noted that it had been readjusted from a fall of negative 3.9% to negative 12%, because of the resulting economic slowdown of Puerto Rico—adding, that by next year, he anticipates a rebound of 6.9%, in part because of the flow of federal aid for post-hurricane reconstruction and disbursements from insurers, which will decrease considerably in subsequent years to 0.6% positive growth in GNP by FY2023. He noted that the revision for the population decline due to migration varied significantly from a fall to negative 0.2% in the previous plan to a decrease of negative 6.4% this year.

For his part, House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Bishop has written to the PROMESA Board to criticize it for its lack of dialogue with the creditor community, lack of sufficiently aggressive action to make structural and fiscal changes in Puerto Rico, and suggesting the Board take steps to end the local government’s separate legal representation in the Title III bankruptcy cases—an epistle which, unsurprisingly, Gov. Rosselló described as anti-democratic and colonialist. Earlier, the Governor made public his own letter to Chairman Bishop in which he had written: “Your letter is truly disturbing in its reckless disregard for collaboration and cooperation in favor of an anti-democratic process akin to a dictatorial regime imposing its will by imperial fiat and decree…I cannot and will not permit you to elevate concerns of bondholders on the mainland above concern for the well-being of my constituents.” In his epistle, the Governor made clear his view that, contrary to its claims, the PROMESA Board does not have the legal authority to “take over the role of the elected government of Puerto Rico.” He added that while the Puerto Rico government “recognizes that structural reforms are key to Puerto Rico’s future success; it does not need the Board to substitute its judgment for our own in that regard.” With regard to reducing the Title III litigation costs to Puerto Rico’s government, the Governor expressed apprehension at any effort to preempt or take away the “government’s own voice and own representation in its own restructuring process,” adding that he believes Chairman Bishop’s committee “faces a fork in the road:” It can support the process found in the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act, or the “other path lies obstructionist behavior that would undermine the duly elected government’s authority and legitimacy…If the committee, led by you, Mr. Chairman, persists on this ruinous path, the people of Puerto Rico and their brothers and sisters on the mainland will know who to hold accountable,” adding: “Your letter embodies everything that is wrong with this process and only serves to reinforce the dismissive and second-class colonial treatment Puerto Rico has suffered throughout its history as a territory of the United States, which undermines our efforts to address the island’s fiscal, economic, and humanitarian crises.”

Colonial Eras? Meanwhile, in the former British colonies, the aptly named King George County, Virginia, where indigenous peoples of varying cultures lived along the waterways for thousands of years before Europeans came to America, Algonquian Indians some three hundred fourteen years ago first came into conflict, when early colonists retaliated for the tribe’s attacking the farm of John Rowley, capturing and shipping 40 people, including children older than 12, to Antigua, where they were sold into slavery—paving the way for the county to be formally established in 1720, when land was split off from Richmond County, Virginia—before it was substantially reorganized in the critical year of 1776, with land swapped with both Stafford and Westmoreland Counties to form today’s political boundaries—some twenty-five years after its native son, James Madison, the nation’s fourth President, was born there. Today, the county of about 26,000, with a median family income of $49,882, is looking to pay down its debt; however, one of its primary sources of revenue is no longer available: therefore, the Board of Supervisors is working on an ambitious fiscal plan to try to reduce about 30 percent of the county’s debt over the next five years, meaning it will seek to shift some of its reserve funds in order to allocate more new funds each year to pay down its debt—an effort which one consulting firm in the state described as unique: Kyle Laux, a senior vice president of Davenport & Co., a financial counseling firm for King George, Caroline, and Spotsylvania counties, noted: “What the county administrator and board are doing is unique…and it’s unique in a really good way: It’s thinking long-term about the county.”

The effort comes after the most recent campaign, when several Board of Supervisors members campaigned on the need for King George to reduce its $113 million in accumulated debt—debt which, when current County Administrator Neiman Young came on board a little over a year ago, he described as shocking—especially that no actions had been taken to address the accumulating debt. Indeed, at a work session two months ago, Mr. Young laid out numbers that caused those listening to gasp aloud. While the county has a proverbial golden goose with the King George Landfill, it turns out that the bulk of the non-odoriferous revenues generated from the landfill is already accounted for‒for the next two decades. Indeed, even the its expansion, the landfill is expected to reach capacity in 29 years—which, in turn, means that, for the next two decades, $6.2 million of the $7.5 million the county currently receives annually from the landfill is already consumed to finance capital debt. Thus, County officials wanted to change those numbers; ergo, they asked Davenport to rustle up a fiscal plan—and, subsequently, at a recent work session, County Supervisors supported the application of some $3 million from general and capital improvement reserves to pay down capital debt, with the fiscal plan adjusted to mesh with the County’s which provide that King George must have a certain amount set aside. Thus the County is proposing to add about $1 million each year for four years from revenues. Some of that would come from additional revenues King George would receive in the wake of upcoming reassessments, with the remainder from an annual surplus. The idea is to pay down the debt in three different payments between 2019 and 2023—recognizing that because every dollar paid on the debt principal saves about 41 cents in interest, the plan would free up about $11.1 million in cash flow and pay off $6.57 million in principal, according to Mr. Laux.

However, in the world of municipal finance, little is easy. Indeed, as the Supervisors learned during the work session, the amount pulled annually from revenue sources would likely fluctuate in order to address operational needs. Thus, the Board opted to place school resource officers in two of the county’s three elementary schools; it already has officers at its middle and high schools, and is applying for a grant to place a deputy for the third elementary school. Along with other operational expenses, ergo, the county is considering the set aside of some $200,000 from FY2019 revenues, far below the $750,000 proposed—or, as Board of Supervisors Chair Richard Granger put it: “It doesn’t necessarily blow up our plan, but it’s doing something rather than nothing.” He added government debt is like a home mortgage, not a credit card.

The County’s existing debt is based on a fixed rate, and the principal is repaid annually. If supervisors opt not to go forward with plans to pay down the debt sooner, the County is scheduled to repay about half of its debt within 10 years, according to a Davenport report. However, because paying down the principal faster would free up fiscal resources, the County’s new debt reduction and mitigation plan should reduce about 30% of the county’s debt over the next five years, which equates to roughly $22 million, an amount which Administrator Young understandably described as “huge.” But Supervisor Ruby Brabo had the last word: “The landfill is going to go away, folks. We either raise your taxes 30 cents or we make sure the debt is paid off before it does.”