The Challenging Transition in the Wake of a State Takeover

September 25, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The report outlines a series of recommendations such, as:

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

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

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

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

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

August 31, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fiscal, Physical, & Human Challenges of Municipal Governance

August 6, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the awful physical, fiscal, and human challenges of municipal governance.  

An Enduring State of Emergency. Governor Rick Snyder of Michigan was in West Michigan yesterday morning: he was touring a water system construction site in Parchment, a municipality in Kalamazoo County of less than 2,000. The construction here includes a new pressure reduction system, which will allow Parchment to transition to the City of Kalamazoo water system. The city’s water supply is being flushed out, and the city of Kalamazoo will provide water to Parchment and Cooper Township residents. The transition, raising eerie memories of a previous transfer by the Governor in Flint, comes in the wake of finding that water in Parchment was contaminated with man-made chemicals called perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). City residents were warned to stop using the water due to the contamination on July 26th, after water tests showed the PFAS level in Parchment was 20 times higher than the EPA recommended amount of 70 parts per trillion. A local state of emergency has been set for Parchment, and neighboring Cooper Township, after, just last week, Gov. Snyder declared a state of emergency for Kalamazoo County.

Fear for children—fear that the impact of Flint’s lead-tainted water could last decades—and distrust in the state and local governance to make decisions affecting children whose development could be hurt, is, unsurprisingly causing generations of residents to lose trust in government. It is, of course, at the same time tainting the assessed property values of homes in cities in Michigan so adversely affected for decades to come by state-imposed emergency managers. What parents would wish to move to a municipality knowing the drinking water would have long-term devastating consequences for their child?

What are the fiscal challenges for municipal elected leaders—especially in a state where the long-term physical and fiscal damages were wrought by state-imposed emergency managers? What do the long-term health effects for children exposed to the lead-tainted water mean for a municipality with regard to legal vulnerability and to financing a long-term recovery? At a conference at the end of last week, Detroit News reporter Leonard Fleming noted: “They don’t trust government officials: It could take a generation or two for residents to trust the city and state again and its water.”

At the conference, Dr. Lawrence Reynolds, who was on the Governor’s Flint task force, said some health officials have tried to minimize the effects of the water on residents; nevertheless, he warned there are babies who drank lead-tainted formula for six to nine months who could experience serious disabilities later in life: “It was a civil rights crisis, a human rights crisis, an environmental racism, and there is no excuse for what was done.” Moreover, there appears little end in sight: Cynthia Lindsey, an attorney representing Flint residents in a class-action lawsuit, said it could take three to four years for the legal process to play out. That is, Flint is held hostage by decisions imposed upon it by a state-imposed emergency manager, and now the question of who will finance—and how long will it take to replace all the city’s pipes, provide it access to safe and affordable drinking water, and long-term health care appear to be decisions to be made in a courtroom.

The fateful decision that led to the lead water contamination was not a municipal decision, but rather one made by the state in 2011 via a state imposed emergency manager, Darnell Earley. That was a decision which led to the finding that hundreds of children have since been diagnosed with lead poisoning; a dozen Flint residents have died of Legionella from drinking river water. Today, some 15 state public employees have been indicted by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette for their roles in the water crisis—indictments on charges ranging from obstructing an investigation to involuntary manslaughter.

Now Attorney General Schuette is running to replace the term-limited Governor Rick Snyder. Some in the state claim the candidate is using the Flint charges to “make himself look like a hero.” In the Democratic gubernatorial primary, ex-state Senator Gretchen Whitmer (D-Lansing) has released a plan to speed the replacement of lead pipes, while former Detroit health director Abdul El-Sayed received the endorsement of “Little Miss Flint,” the student whose letter brought former President Barack Obama to the community.

Former Flint Mayor Dayne Walling, who lost his first race for that position in 2009 to a car dealer named Don Williamson, but, when former Mayor Williamson resigned to avoid a recall for lying about the city’s budget deficit, was elected in a special election to replace him: he was elected after promising “to transform Flint into a sustainable 21st-century city with new jobs, safe neighborhoods, great schools and opportunity for all.” Candidate Walling reports that his own trust in government is lower than it was prior to the city’s drinking water contamination; now he claims he wants to take the hard lessons he has learned to the place he sees as the major source of Flint’s problems: the state capitol in Lansing.

Representation could matter: over the last four decades, assessed property values fell more than 40 percent—and with them property tax receipts. That led to, after the city’s police union’s refusal to accept pay cuts, laying off a third of the police force—meaning that for a period of time, the city, with about 100,000 residents, was sometimes able to put only six officers on the street at one time. Unsurprisingly, murders nearly doubled between 2009 and 2010—a year when Flint had the nation’s highest murder rate—and the year when Gov. Ric Snyder announced he was appointing an emergency manager, Ed Kurz, to preempt local control and authority in an effort to eliminate the city’s $10 million general fund deficit. Just prior to that preemption of local authority, the Flint City Council had endorsed a plan to detach the city from the Detroit water system, due to what the Council believed to be unaffordable rates, and join the new Karegnondi Water Authority, which planned to build a pipeline from Lake Huron. Mr. Kurtz authorized an engineering study to prepare the city’s water treatment plant to process Flint River water instead. A sequential state-appointed Emergency Manager, Darnell Earley, implemented the changeover—a fateful decision with precipitous health and human safety and fiscal consequences. Mr. Earley has been charged with false pretenses, conspiracy, willful neglect of duty, misconduct in office, and involuntary manslaughter—charges which will be aired next Monday at a hearing, where he is likely to maintain That the City Council had decided to draw from the Flint River until the new pipeline was completed, and that he was, therefore, only executing their orders. (Mr. Kurz, who has not been charged, has previously testified before Congress that his responsibility was “strictly finance,” thus, he bore no responsibility to ensure “safe drinking water.”

Today, Mr. Walling, currently working as a public policy consultant for Michigan State University, notes he believes there ought to be changes in the relationship between Flint and the State of Michigan, noting: “The distress of Michigan’s cities, starting with Detroit and Flint, is a direct result of policies made in Lansing,” adding: “The only good news is that policy changes at the state level can help restore Michigan’s once-great cities.”

According to a Michigan State University 2015 study: “Beyond State Takeovers: Reconsidering the Role of State Government in Local Financial Distress, with Important Lessons for Michigan and its Embattled Cities,” by Joshua Sapotichne, Erika Rosebrook, Eric A. Scorsone, Danielle Kaminski, Mary Doidge, and Traci Taylor; the State of Michigan has the second-most stringent local taxation limits in the nation—limits which impose what they term “tremendous pressure on local lawmakers’ ability to generate critical revenue.” The fiscal pressure on the state’s local governments has been intensified by decisions to divert revenue sharing, the former program intended to address fiscal disparities, to instead enable state tax cuts. The decision disproportionately impacted the state’s most fiscally challenged municipalities: Flint’s loss was $54 million; Detroit lost $200 million, contributing to its 2013 chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. Indeed, the state decision indirectly contributed to state imposition of nine emergency managers.

Thus, unsurprisingly, former Mayor Walling has a list of the new policies he wants to enact as a state representative: Allow cities to charge commuters the same income tax rate as residents (instead of just half); broaden the sales and use tax to services; provide state pension retirement assistance. This would have especial import for Flint, where the city’s taxpayers are currently financing the pensions of employees who worked for the city when it had 200,000 residents—pension payments now consuming, he says, a quarter of the city’s budget.

Trust & Intergovernmental Tensions. By candidate Walling’s own admission, throughout most of Flint’s drinking water crisis, he believed assurances from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality that Flint’s water met safe drinking standards. When residents confronted him with discolored, foul-smelling water, he said: “I thought that water had come out of their tap because of a failure in the system at their house or near the house,” adding that it was not until three years ago when, in the wake of listening to Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha describe her discovery that Flint children were showing elevated levels of lead in their blood, did he finally realize the city’s entire water system was tainted, asserting that it was at that moment in time that he ordered the city to issue a lead advisory, advising mothers not to mix hot tap water with formula, and for all residents to filter their water and flush it for five minutes. (In her recent memoir, What the Eyes Don’t See, Dr. Hanna-Attisha devotes an entire chapter to her meeting with Mr. Walling, criticizing him for opting out of joining her news conference on lead levels, because he was more concerned about traveling to Washington to meet Pope Francis.)

Candidate Walling’s campaign flyers assert: “My priorities are roads, schools, jobs.” they declare. As he challenges incumbent Mayor Karen Weaver, he says most voters he interacts with want to talk about the shabby state of Michigan’s roads or the excessive auto insurance rates paid by residents of Flint and Detroit. But, it appears, he is willing to support repeal of Michigan’s Emergency Manager law—a concept which journalist Anna Clark notes, in The Poisoned City, her new history of the water crisis: “The idea of emergency management is that an outside official who is not constrained by local politics or the prospect of a reelection bid will be able to better make the difficult decisions necessary to get a struggling city or school district back on solid ground.” But in Flint, emergency managers made decisions based on saving money, not the health and safety of the citizens with whose well-being they had been entrusted. Candidate Walling, in retrospect, notes: “I wish that I had never been part of any of it: “This has all happened to a community that I deeply love, and it is motivating me to make sure policy changes are made to make sure this never happens again.”

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%.

The Once & Future Puerto Rico?

April 17, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we try to assess the fiscal and future governance options for Puerto Rico: will it become a second class state? A nation? Or, at long last, an integral part of the nation? And governance: who is in charge of its governance?

Before Hurricane Maria wracked its terrible human, fiscal, and physical toll; more than 50% of Americans knew not that Puerto Ricans were U.S. citizens. Still, today, some six months after the disaster, more than 50,000 have no electricity. The fiscal and physical toll on low-income Americans on the island has been especially harsh: of the nearly 1.2 million applications to FEMA for assistance to help fix damaged homes, nearly 60% have been rejected: FEMA provided no assistance, citing the lack of lack of title deeds or because the edifices in need were constructed on stolen land or in contravention of building codes. That is to write that this exceptionally powerful storm took a grievous toll not just on life and limb, but especially on the local and state economy, destroying an estimated 80% of Puerto Rico’s agricultural crop, including coffee and banana plantations—where regrowing is projected to take years. The super storm devastated 20% of businesses—today an estimated 10,000 firms remain closed. Discouragingly, the government forecasts output will shrink by another 11% in the year to June 2018.

It might be, ojala que si (one hopes) that a burst of growth will ensue, with estimates of as much as 8% next year, in no small part thanks to federal recovery assistance and as much as $20 billion in private-insurance payments—as well as Puerto Ricans dipping into their own savings to make repairs to their own homes and businesses. Yet, even those positive signs can appear to pale against the scope of the physical misery: by one estimate, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands will lose nearly $48 billion in output—and employment equivalent to 332,000 people working for a year. Of perhaps longer term fiscal concern are the estimated thousands of Puerto Ricans who left the island for Florida and other points on the mainland—disproportionately those better educated and with greater fiscal resources—leaving behind older and poorer Americans, and a greater physical and fiscal burden for Puerto Rico’s government.

The massive storm—and disparate treatment by the Trump administration and Congress—have encumbered Puerto Rico with massive debts, both to its central government and municipalities, but also to its businesses. Encumbered with massive debts—including $70 billion to its municipal bondholders and another $50 billion in public pension liabilities; Governor Ricardo Rosselló’s administration is making deep cuts: prior to the massive storm, the government had been committed to slashing funding to its local governments by $175 million, closing 184 schools, and cutting public pensions—pensions which, at just over $1,000 are not especially generous. Now, that task will be eased, provided the PROMESA oversight Board approves, to moderate the proposed cuts in services in order to do less harm the reviving economy.

Assisted by federal tax incentives, Puerto Rico’s economic model was for decades based on manufacturing, especially of pharmaceuticals. However, what Congress can bestow; it can take away. Thus it was that over the last decade, Congress steadily eroded economic incentives—Congressional actions which contributed to the territory’s massive debt crisis, and contributing to the World Bank dropping Puerto Rico 58 places in its ranking compared to the mainland with regard to the ease of doing business.

The havoc wreaked by Maria could be especially creative for the island’s private sector, which represents a chronically missed opportunity. Puerto Rico, for all its problems, is a beautiful tropical island, with white-sanded beaches, rainforest, fascinating history, lovely colonial buildings and a vibrant mix of Latin-American and European culture. Yet, with 3.5 million visitors a year, its tourism industry is less than half the size of Hawaii’s. It has an excellent climate for growing coffee and other highly marketable products, yet its agriculture sector is inefficient and tiny. The island has a well-educated, bilingual middle-class, including a surfeit of engineers, trained at the well-regarded University of Puerto Rico for the manufacturing industry, and cheap to hire. But in the wake of the departing multinationals, they are also leaving. Isabel Rullán, a 20-something former migrant, who has returned to the island from Washington to try to improve linkages to the diaspora, estimates that half her university classmates are on the mainland.

Quien Es Encargado? (Who is in charge?) Unlike a normal chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy proceeding, the process created by Congress under the PROMESA law created a distinct governance model—one which does create a quasi emergency manager, but here in the form of a board, the PROMESA Board, which, today, will submit its proposed fiscal plan, or quasi plan of debt adjustment to U.S. Judge Laura Swain Taylor; it will maintain its requirement to propose the reduction of the public pensions of Puerto Ricans by an average of 10 percent. Until last weekend, the PROMESA Board had kept under review the complaints to Governor Ricardo Rosselló with regard to the inclusion in its revised fiscal plan of the central government the base of a labor reform which, among other proposals, calls for the immediate reduction in vacation and sick leaves from 15 to 7 days for workers of private companies, according to two sources close to the Board. Under the fiscal plan proposed by the Governor Rosselló, the cuts would reach $1.45 billion in five years. The PROMESA Board has requested that they total $1.58 million by June of 2023. The proposal, unsurprisingly, has raised questions with regard to whether the Congress has the authority to impose on the government of Puerto Rico a reform of its labor laws—any more than its inability under our form of federalism to dictate changes in any state’s retirement systems—contracts which are inherent in state constitutions.

Pension reductions in chapter 9 cases, because they involve contracts, are difficult, as contracts are protected under state constitutions—moreover, as we saw in Detroit’s plan of debt adjustment approved by now retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, the court wanted to ensure that any such reductions would not subject the retiree to income below the federal poverty level—a level which, Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello told Reuters, in an interview this past week, “many retirees are already under,” as he warned  that any further pension cuts could “cast them out and challenge their livelihood.” That is, in the U.S. territory struggling with a 45 percent poverty rate and unemployment more than double the U.S. national average, the fiscal challenge of how to restructure nearly $70 billion in debt, where public pensions, which owe $45 billion in benefits, are also virtually insolvent, makes the challenges which had confronted Judge Rhodes pale in comparison.  Moreover, with the current pensions already virtually insolvent, paying pension benefits out of Puerto Rico’s general fund, on a pay-as-you-go basis, could cost the virtually bankrupt Puerto Rico $1.5 billion a year. The PROMESA Board has recommended that Gov. Rossello reduce pensions by 10 percent.  

For their part, the island’s pensioners have formed a negotiating committee, advised by Robert Gordon, an attorney who advised retirees in Detroit’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, as well as Hector Mayol, the former administrator of Puerto Rico’s public pensions. The fiscal challenge in Puerto Rico, however, promises to be more stiff than Detroit—or, as Moody’s put it: Puerto Rico’s “unusual circumstances mean that it will not conform exactly” to recent public bankruptcies, in which “judges reduced creditor claims far more than amounts owed to pensioners.” Moreover, the scope or size of Puerto Rico’s public pension chasm is exacerbated by the ongoing emigration of young professionals from Puerto Rico to the mainland—making it almost like an increasingly unbalanced teeter totter.  The U.S. territory’s largest public pension, the Employee Retirement System (ERS), which covers nearly 100,000 retirees, is projected to run out of cash this year: it is confronted by a double fiscal whammy: in addition to paying retiree benefits, ERS owes some $3.1 billion to repay debts on municipal bonds it issued in 2008—bonds issued to finance Puerto Rico’s public pension obligations. Last year, Governor Rosselló had agreed to a reduction in pensions for government retirees, indicating a willingness to seek as much as a 6% reduction. That appears not, however, to be something he currently supports.

A few weeks ago, in the wake of negotiations with the PROMESA Board, Governor Rosselló proposed a labor reform similar to the one he negotiated with members of the Board, with differences with regard to how to balance it with an increase in the minimum wage and when to implement such changes. The Governor, however, withdrew the proposal when the Board required that the labor reform be in full force by next January, instead of applying it gradually over the next three years, and conditioned the increase from $ 7.25 to $ 8.25 per hour in the minimum wage to the increase in labor participation rates. It seems the PROMESA Board is intent upon labor reform as an essential element for future economic growth.

The Challenge of “Shared” Governance. Unlike in Central Falls, San Bernardino, Detroit, Jefferson County, or other chapter 9 cases where state enacted chapter 9 statutes prescribed governance through the process, the PROMESA statute created a territorial judicial system to restructure Puerto Rico’s public debt, creating a Board empowered to reign until four consecutive balanced budgets and medium and long-term access to the financial markets are achieved—or, as our colleague and expert, Gregory Makoff, of the Center for International Governance Innovation, who worked for a year as an advisor to the Department of Treasury in the Puerto Rican case, put it: “While the lack of cooperation with the Board may be good in political terms in the short-term, it simply delays the return of confidence and extends the time it will take for the Oversight Board to leave the island.” Mr. Makoff has recommended the Board and Gov. Rosselló propose to Judge Swain a cut of from $45 down to $6 billion of the public debt backed by taxes, with a payment of only 13.6 cents per each dollar owed, with the intent of equating it with the average that the states have. His suggestion comes as the Board aims to disclose its plans as early as this evening in advance of its scheduled sessions at the end of the week at the San Juan Convention Center, where, Thursday, the Board wants to certify Puerto Rico’s and PREPA’s proposed plans, and then, Friday, vote on the plans of the other public corporations: the Aqueducts and Sewers Authority (PRASA), the Highways and Transportation Authority (PRHTA), the Government Development Bank, the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) and the Cooperatives Supervision & Insurance Corporation (COSSEC).

Fiscal Balancing. The PROMESA law authorizes the Board the power to impose a fiscal plan and propose to Judge Swain a quasi plan of debt adjustment, as under chapter 9, on behalf of the government, much as in a chapter 9 plan of debt adjustment‒albeit the PROMESA statute does not grant the Board the power to enact laws or appoint or replace government officials. The Congressional act retained for the government of Puerto Rico the capacity and responsibility to enact laws consistent with the fiscal plan and the fiscal adjustment plan, as well as, obviously, to operate the government.

The Promise & Unpromise of PROMESA: Who Is Encargado II? Unlike in a, dare one write “traditional” chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, where state enacted legislation defines governing authority in the interim before a municipality receives approval of its plan of debt adjustment to exit municipal bankruptcy, the Congressional PROMESA statute has left blurred the balance—or really imbalance—of authority between the power of the Board to approve a budget and fiscal plans, with its possible lack of authority to implement reforms, such as changes to federal regulations it promotes. An adviser to House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop ((R-Utah) recently noted that if the Rosselló administration does not implement the labor reform proposed by the PROMESA Board, the option for the Board would be to further reduce the expenses of the government of Puerto Rico—or, as Constitutional Law Professor Carlos Ramos González, at the Interamerican University of Puerto Rico, describes it, notwithstanding the impasse, “in one way or another, the Board will end up imposing its criteria. How it will do it remains to be seen.” An adviser to Chair Bishop said recently that if Gov. Rosselló’s administration does not implement the labor reform proposed by the Board, the option for the PROMESA Board would be to further reduce the expenses of the government of Puerto Rico—or, as Professor González put it: “In one way or another, the Board will end up imposing its criteria. How it will do it remains to be seen.”

The Uncertain State of the State. An ongoing challenge to full recovery for Puerto Rico is its uncertain status—a challenge that has marked it from its beginning: in February of 1917, during debate on the Senate floor of HR 9533 to provide for a civil government for Puerto Rico, when Sen. James Wadsworth (R-N.Y) inquired of Senate sponsor John F. Shafroth of Colorado whether it would “provide woman suffrage in Puerto Rico?” Sen. Shafroth made clear his intent that the eligibility of voters in Puerto Rico—as in other states—“may be prescribed by the Legislature of Puerto Rico.” That debate, more than a century ago, lingers as what some have described as “the albatross hanging around the island’s neck: the uncertainty over its status.” Is it a state? A country? Or some lesser form of government?  Even though thousands of Puerto Ricans have fought and died serving their country in World Wars I and II, in Vietnam and Afghanistan, Puerto Rico has never been treated as a state—and its own citizens have been unable to decide themselves whether they wish to support statehood.

Some believe Puerto Rico will become a state eventually. But to get there, especially without risking a violent nationalist repulse, Puerto Rico needs to understand what the federal requirements and barriers will be—and what the promise of PROMESA really will mean. And, as they used to say in Rome: tempus fugit. Time is running out: for, absent economic and fiscal recovery soon, the flood of emigration of young Americans from Puerto Rico will become a brain-drain boding a demographic death-spiral, leaving the island with too few taxpayers to cover its more rapidly growing health care costs for an aged population.

Charting a Municipal Rovery Budget

April 5, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we shiver on the Appomattox River at first light in the historic Civil War municipality of Petersburg, a municipality which is on the rebound from virtual insolvency—in Virginia, where the state does not specifically authorize its municipalities to file a chapter 9 petition, but does impose a debt limitation barring any municipality from incurring debt in excess of 10% of the assessed valuation of taxable properties. It is a city, which has been, since the dawn of the republic, a strategic center for transportation and commercial activities, and it is a city, which came closest of any in the Commonwealth to filing for insolvency. But, in the wake of the appointment of a former city manager—as well as a state commission to provide assessment and evaluation of municipal fiscal well-being, it is, today, a city of 32,420 that is returning to fiscal health.

Setting the Path for a Strategic Recovery. In her first budget proposal for the historic Virginia municipality of Petersburg in the wake of its insolvency and near first-ever Virginia chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, City Manager Aretha Ferrell-Benavides, who was hired last June just as consultants charged with turning around the city’s finances told the City Council that it needed a $20 million cash infusion to make up a deficit and comply with its own reserve policies, Manager Ferrell-Benavides proposed a rebuilding budget–even as she  expressed cautious optimism to the Mayor and Council that Petersburg can overcome the challenges it faces and continue to restore its financial standing. Thus, she presented a $73 million proposed operating budget–one which focuses on public safety, more funding for the city’s chronically underperforming schools, but cuts to city departments.

In presenting her proposed FY2019 $102.6 million budget, she told the Mayor and Council the spending plan reflects five “strategic priorities,” led by a focus on establishing the city “as a structurally stable organization with a greater focus on customer service, efficiency, accountability, and transparency.” In addition, she added, she is proposing a budget, which aims to “strengthen our fundamental policy and process to achieve long-term fiscal stabilization.”

She cited other priorities, including boosting economic development, encouraging neighborhood revitalization, promoting community engagement, and neighborhood support. Noting that Petersburg confronts some uncertainty with regard to the levels of funding which will be available from the state and federal governments, Manager Ferrell-Benavides outlined revenue and spending plans, plans which, she advised, were based on “conservatism” in their projections, as she proposed an operating budget slightly under this year’s level–a reduction of about $305,000, or about 0.3 % from the amended budget for the current fiscal year–of which approximately 72% or $73 million would be for the operating budget–a 1.5% drop from the current level, while proposing a 6.4% increase in the capital budget for the city’s Utilities Fund, noting that public safety would remain the largest funding category, at about $18.9 million, or about 26% of the total, comparable to the current level. She proposed $13.6 million for the city’s second largest budget category, Social Services, unchanged from the current level services funding, but recommended an increase of about 3% for the city’s public schools, as part of what she asserted was a continuing effort to restore cuts which had been made during the city’s financial crisis in FY2016. For next year, she proposed that the budget allocate about $9.7 million to the school system, an increase of up about $271,000 from $9.5 million this year.

In a post General Revenue Sharing era, Petersburg, with a nearly 80% black population and where more than a quarter of its families are headed by a female householder with no husband present—and more than 11% of its households headed by a single person over the age of 65—has a median family income of $33,927, with nearly a quarter of its residents below the federal poverty level. It is a city, too, living with fear: on Wednesday, more than 100 guns were taken off the streets and destroyed by the order of Petersburg Police Chief Kenneth Miller, who described these as “illegal guns that were taken off streets.” Indeed, some nine months on the job, Chief Miller has been adamant about his decision to have the guns destroyed and not sold “to put these weapons back on the street for gain…We’re not going to take weapons of destruction and try to make a profit off of that.”

But, fiscally, the city appears to be on a strong road to recovery. Manager Ferrell-Benavides noted that the challenges that the Petersburg still faces include rising health care costs for city employees, aging water and sewer infrastructure, antiquated technology, the need to recruit and retain employees, and ongoing issues with billing and collections. Nevertheless, she said the city’s efforts to date have produced results, notably an improvement in Petersburg’s municipal bond rating from junk status to investment-grade, adding that her fiscal goal is  to wean the city off its use of revenue anticipation notes. Indeed, with her proposed five-year plan in place to build Petersburg’s cash reserve fund to $6 million, a remarkable turnaround from the city’s negative balance in place at the time of the financial crisis, she testified that her proposed budget was intended to help provide stability to city government by seeing the plan through, noting: “I am committed…and our team is committed, to be here for the next five years.” Her proposed $77 million operating budget would boost spending on public safety and restore 10 percent cuts to municipal workers’ pay, while shrinking a workforce that consultants had charged was bloated and structurally inefficient. 

In the wake of her predecessor, William Johnson’s firing for his role in dipping into the city’s rainy day fund two years ago, Ms. Ferrell-Benavides said big goals within her proposal include building up the reserve, reducing reliance on grant funding, and being conservative with estimates. She testified that her proposed budget, overall, represents a $1.1 million decrease from the FY2018 amended budget, and proposes increasing the reserve to $950,000, adding that the city’s reserve funds are out of the red–and, in good gnus, that Petersburg’s bond rating has been upgraded from junk bond status. She noted that Department heads had been instructed to trim their expenses by 10%, but that cutting salaries was not an option. Her proposed budget includes $18.93 million for public safety, a $3 million increase from two years ago–with the increase part of an effort to stem the exodus of public safety workers to surrounding counties. For the city’s kids, she proposed a budget increase of $300,000 over the current $9.7 million level, telling the Mayor and Council: “This is a big step for us. And that was part of the priorities. Our goal is to annually increase our investment in the school system.” 

The consultants are scheduled to be back in Petersburg later this week and will submit an updated report in the coming weeks. Their perspective will help, as the City Council begins the process drill down into the details over the next two months through work sessions and a round of community meetings—meetings scheduled to begin at the end of this month and finish by the end of May: the Council is scheduled to make its recommended changes to the city manager on May 22nd, after which the city has scheduled a public hearing on June 5, with the Mayor Council scheduled to act on final adoption on June 12th.  

Petersburg, a city still not completely free from the grips of financial crisis, has rolled out a $73 million proposed operating budget that emphasizes public safety, more money for chronically under performing schools, and cuts to city departments.

Exiting from Municipal Bankruptcy

eBlog

March 16, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the Motor City’s final steps in its successful exit from chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy; then we worry about lead level threats in Flint, before journeying to the warmer climes of the Caribbean to update the fiscal challenges for Puerto Rico.

Early Departure from Chapter 9. The City of Detroit this week dipped into its budget surplus to devote some $54.4 million to finance paying off the outstanding municipal bonds it had issued as part of its plan of debt adjustment four years ago, with the borrowing then issued by the city to settle debts with municipal bond insurers related to the Motor City’s pension-related debt—here the payments were to finance the remaining principal and interest owed on $88 million in 12-year Financial Recovery, with the city formally moving to pay off $54 million of its 2014 financial recovery bonds. The unexpected payments might make the leprechaun jump to celebrate still another demonstration of improved fiscal health. Here, the payment had the support of the Detroit Financial Review Commission, as well as the Detroit City Council, clearing the way for the city Wednesday to issue a 30-day redemption notice and report it had fully funded an escrow to retire $52.3 million of remaining principal and $2.1 million of accrued interest to fully redeem the 2014C bonds effective April 13th—an action projected to save Detroit’s taxpayers some $11.7 million in interest savings. CFO John Hill noted: “The Mayor and City Council have again shown their commitment to the city’s long-term financial sustainability by taking action to authorize the resolution for the redemption of the entire outstanding principal on the city’s Financial Recovery Bonds, Series 2014C.”  In this case, the C series of unrated, taxable municipal bonds totaled $88.4 million; they carried an interest rate of 5% interest, with the bonds secured by Detroit’s limited tax general obligation pledge and payable from city parking revenues. According to Detroit Deputy Chief Financial Officer John Naglick, approximately $54 million remains outstanding after early maturities amortized and the $15 million sale of a parking garage triggered a mandatory redemption. The C series was part of $1.28 billion of borrowing Detroit closed on in December of  2014 to fund creditor settlements, as well as raise revenues for revitalization efforts, thereby paving the way for its exit from the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in American history—and mayhap bring the luck of the Irish that the city could exit from direct state oversight within the next few months—especially in the wake of Mayor Mike Duggan recently proposed $2 billion balanced budget—the approval of which could facilitate Detroit’s exit from active state oversight, or. As Mr. Naglick put it: “I expect in April or May we’re going to see the Financial Review Commission vote to end oversight and return self-determination to the city of Detroit.”

The Motor City’s $1 billion general fund, according to the Mayor, continues to be healthy, because the city’s most important source of revenues, its income tax, is producing more revenues. Indeed, the city’s budget maintains more than a 5% reserve, which is projected at $62.3 million. At the same time, the city is continuing to set aside fiscal resources to address higher-than-expected pension payments starting in 2024 when annual payments of at least $143 million begin. Payments of $20 million run through 2019 with no payments then due through 2023 under U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes’ approved plan of debt adjustment. Detroit’s bond ratings, albeit still deep in junk territory, were upgraded last year, with, just before Christmas, S&P Global Ratings slipping down the chimney to upgrade Detroit’s credit rating to B-plus.

Not in Like Flint. Recent tests of the Michigan City of Flint’s drinking water at elementary schools have found an increase in samples with lead levels above the federal action limit. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality determined that 28 samples tested last month were above 15 parts per billion of lead. DEQ spokesman George Krisztian reported the increase may be due to changes in testing conditions, such as the decision to collect samples prior to flushing lines. (Samples collected before flushing tend to have higher lead levels because the water has been in contact with the pipes longer.) Thus, according to Mr. Krisztian, the overall results are encouraging, because they meet federal guidelines for lead if treated like samples collected by municipal water systems. Most of the more than 90 Legionnaires’ disease cases during the deadly 2014-15 outbreak in the Flint area were caused by changes in the city’s water supply — and the epidemic may have been more widespread than previously believed, according to two studies published Monday. The risk of acquiring Legionnaires’ disease increased more than six-fold across the Flint water distribution system after the city switched from the Detroit area water system’s Lake Huron source to the Flint River in April 2014, according to a report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Despite the improvement in lead levels over the last 18 months, federal, state, and local officials have advised city residents to continue using bottled water—as the city continues its costly efforts to extract at least 6.000 lead lines from houses this year and next—with Mayor Karen Weaver reporting that state-funded bottled water should be available to residents until the work is completed; the effort to test the drinking water in the city’s schools has yet to be completed. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality this week defended its outreach efforts in the city, after the Flint Journal reported on a new report which found that 51% of bottled water users surveyed here said they either had no faucet filter or are not confident they know how to maintain the equipment they do have. Mayor Weaver urges the State of Michigan to continue to finance the distribution of bottled water until the last of the leaded lines are removed.

Even as fears remain about the health of the city’s schoolchildren, the State of Michigan has selected a former emergency manager for two Michigan school districts to serve as interim Superintendent of Flint’s public schools after the school board removed the superintendent and two other senior officials. Thus, Wednesday, Gregory Weatherspoon was unanimously approved for the post by the Flint Board of Education, one day after the Board that Bilal Tawwab, Assistant Superintendent Shawn Merriweather, and the school district’s attorney had been placed on leave. It appears the school district’s roughly 4,500 students, an enrollment that has been falling steadily since 1968, when there were 1000% more students, are still at risk. The lower numbers and ongoing safe drinking water fears augur badly for assessed property values in a city where the population suffered a serious decline from 1970 to 1980, losing nearly 40,000 residents—a loss from which Flint never recovered—and a population which has declined continuously—so much so that an August 2015 WalletHub study revealed that Flint placed dead last, as one of the least healthy real estate markets out of 300 U.S. cities.

Arriba? In Puerto Rico, where about 60% of the U.S. territory’s children live below the federal poverty level, it appears there might be some rising optimism—even amidst growing frustration at the exorbitant costs of the Congressionally-imposed PROMESA process. The optimism comes in the wake of disclosures that Puerto Rico’s earlier estimates of the fiscal and financial impact of Hurricane Maria appear to have been overly pessimistic. The rising optimism appears to be reflected by the rally in Puerto Rico’s municipal bond prices. At the same time, Christian Sobrino, Governor Ricardo Rosselló’s representative before the PROMESA Oversight Board, Wednesday said that the Board’s letter regarding lawyers and advisers high fees in PROMESA Title III cases did “not reflect the truth,” adding he found it “laughable that there are unnecessary expenses on behalf of the government of Puerto Rico:  To start with, the structure of Cofina (the Puerto Rico Sales Tax Financing Corporation) and central government agents was not an invention of Puerto Rico in Title III,” Mr. Sobrino said, referring to the mechanism suggested by the Board to determine whether the Sales and Use tax collection belongs to the corporation which issued the debt or to the central government. He noted that the attorneys and counselors assisting these agents billed, all together, $17 million of the total $ 77.7 million in fees claimed during the first five months of the federal PROMESA law: “These letters reflect imprudence and a ridiculous use of these expressions and do not reflect the truth of what we have done in the government to avoid this. It is out-of-place.”

That led the PROMSEA Board to write to the Congressional leadership to indicate that high expenses for lawyers and advisers fees, participating in that process, are due to the PROMESA—or, as PROMESA Board President José B. Carrión noted: “Historically, the people of Puerto Rico have suffered a problem of wasteful spending, admitting that there has been duplication of efforts in Title III cases.” Representative Sobrino stressed that the government has tried not to duplicate efforts with the Board, but that drawing the fiscal plan and budget, as well as its implementation, are the government’s responsibility, adding that the government agreed that Citibank would act as the leading banker in the Electric Power Authority (PREPA) case, as suggested by the Board, and that only a firm hired by the Board would conduct the audit of the bank accounts. However, Rep. Sobrino stressed that there have been times when the government had to use its lawyers to ensure success in Court, as was recently the case with a claim by the Highway and Transportation Authority bondholders: “We have been forced to hire our lawyers to preserve self-government,” adding that the government intervention prevented that, after Hurricane Maria, Noel Zamot from being appointed as a PREPA de-facto trustee.