The Daunting Road to Recovery from the Nation’s Longest Ever Municipal Bankruptcy

Share on Twitter

eBlog, 12/09/16

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we look back on the long and rocky road from the nation’s longest municipal bankruptcy back to solvency taken by the City of San Bernardino, a city in a Dillon Rule state, which we described in our original study as the former gateway from the East to Midwest of the L.A. basin and former home to Norton Air Force Base, Kaiser Steel, and the Santa Fe Railroad, but which in the 1990’s, with the departure of those industries and employees, fell into hard times. By the advent of the Great Recession, 46% of its residents were on some form of public assistance—and nearly one-third below the poverty line. By FY2012, the city faced a $45 million deficit; its fund balance and reserves were exhausted—leading the city to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy (note California codes §§53760, 53760.1, 53760.3, 53760.5, and 53760.7—and where, effective on the first day of this year, new statutory state language specifically created a first lien priority for general obligation debt issued by cities, counties, schools, and special districts, so long as the debt was secured by a levy of ad valorum taxes pursuant to California’s Constitution.) As we have noted, in the 18 states which authorize chapter 9 filings, states have proscribed strikingly different legal mechanisms relating to the state role—varying from a state takeover, such as we have described in the case of the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy in Detroit, but to a very different regime in Jefferson County and San Bernardino—where the elected municipal officials not only remained in office, but here the respective states—if anything—contributed to the severity of the fiscal challenges. Then we turn to what might be Congress’ last day in town this year—and whether funding to help the City of Flint might be enacted: Will Congress pass and send to the President a bill to provide emergency assistance to Flint?

Back to a City’s Viable Future. San Bernardino leaders this week issued a detailed statement on the arduous road to recovery they have travelled and what they intend for the road ahead, albeit noting the city is already well along its own blueprint for its recovery, as it awaits formal approval from U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury from its chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy early next year. In its statement, San Bernardino reported it had implemented about 70 percent of its recovery plan. That’s turned once-dire projections for the future upside down—a virtual u-turn from when the city’s fiscal analysts three years ago projected that in FY2023, the city would have a deficit of $360 million if dramatic changes were not achieved. But today, the city instead projects an unallocated cash balance for FY2023 of $9.5 million, or, as the statement reads: “Now, the city is on the cusp of emerging from bankruptcy as a changed city with a brighter future.” The municipal statement is primarily focused on the governance and fiscal changes made to create a virtual u-turn in the city’s fiscal ship of state since entering what became the nation’s longest municipal bankruptcy—a change in fiscal course without either state aid or state imposition of an emergency manager or a state takeover. The statement notes: “Given the emergency nature of its filing, it took the city several months to assess its financial condition—until April 2013, at which time the city adopted a final budget for fiscal years 2012-13 and 2013-14…The city’s initial financial assessment, however, only reflected further concern over its financial future. In September 2013, Mayor [Pat] Morris announced that absent fundamental modernization and change the city faced a 10-year deficit of a staggering $360 million. The future of San Bernardino looked bleak.”

The statement itemized what appeared to be the key steps to recovery, including achieving labor agreements—agreements which resulted in savings in excess of $100 million, and involved the termination of virtually all health insurance subsidies coverage for employees and retirees, writing that the city calculated the resulting savings to amount to about $44 million for retirees and $51 million for current employees. The statement notes some $56 million in other OPEB changes. A key—and hard-fought change—was achieved by contracting out for essential public services, with one of the most hard fought such changes coming from the annexation agreement with the San Bernardino County Fire Protection District: an agreement under which the county assumed responsibility for fire and emergency medical response—a change projected to save San Bernardino’s budget nearly $66 million over the next two decades just in public pension savings, but also as much as $5 to $6 million in its annual operating budget—and that is before adding in the parcel tax revenues which were incorporated in that agreement. San Bernardino also switched to contracting out for its trash and recycling—an action with a one-time franchise payment of $5 million, but increased estimated annual revenues of approximately $5 million to $7.6 million. The switch led to significant alterations or contracting out for an increasing number of municipal services. Or, as the paper the city released notes: “Modern cities deliver many services via contracts with third-party providers, using competition to get the best terms and price for services…The city has entered into a number of such contracts under the Recovery Plan.”

Governance. The city paper writes that the voters’ approval of a new city charter will allow San Bernardino to eliminate ambiguous lines of authority which had created a lack of authority, or, as U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury put it earlier this week: “(City officials) successfully amended their charter, which will give them modern-day, real-life flexibility in making decisions that need to be made…There was too much political power and not enough management under their charter, to be frank, compared to most cities in California.”

Rechartering San Bernardino’s Public Security. San Bernardino’s Plan of Debt Adjustment calls for increasing investment into the Police Department through a five-year Police Plan—a key step, as a study commissioned to consider the city’s public safety found the city to be California’s most dangerous municipality based on crime, police presence, and other “community factors.” The study used FBI data and looked at crime rates, police presence, and investment in police departments as well as community factors including poverty, education, unemployment, and climate: The report found a high correlation between crime rates and poverty—with San Bernardino’s poverty rate topping 30.6 percent. Thus, in the city’s Police Plan portion of its plan of adjustment, the report notes:  “The Mayor, Common Council, and San Bernardino’s residents agree that crime is the most important issue the city faces,” the city says in the Police Plan, submitted to the federal bankruptcy court as part of its plan. The plan calls for $56 million over five years to add more police, update technology, and replace many of the Police Department’s aging vehicles.

The Cost of Fiscal Inattention. Unsurprisingly, the fiscal costs of bankruptcy for a city or county are staggering. The city estimates that the services of attorneys and consultants will cost at least $25 million by the time of the city’s projected formal emergence from chapter 9 next March—albeit those daunting costs are a fraction of the $350 million in savings achieved under the city’s pending plan of debt adjustment—savings created by the court’s approval of its plan to pay its creditors far less than they would have otherwise been entitled: as little as 1 cent on the dollar owed, in many instances. Or, as the city’s statement wryly notes: “In addition, the city’s bankruptcy has allowed the city a reprieve during which it was able to shore up its finances, find greater cost and organizational efficiencies and improve its governance functions…Thus, all told, while the city’s exit from bankruptcy will have been a hard-fought victory, it was one that was critical and necessary to the city’s continued viability for the future.”

Out Like Flint. The House of Representatives on what it hopes to be its penultimate day yesterday approved two bills which, together, would authorize and fund $170 million for emergency aid to Flint and other communities endangered by contaminated drinking water. The emergency assistance came by way of a stopgap spending bill to keep the federal government operating next April in a bipartisan 326-96 vote and, separately, a water infrastructure bill which directs how the $170 million package should be spent by a 360-61 vote. Nevertheless, the aid for the city is not certain in the U.S. Senate: some have vowed to stop it, at least in part because the bill includes a controversial drought provision which would boost water deliveries to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California.

TheExceptional Governing Challenges on Roads to Fiscal Recovery

Share on Twitter

eBlog, 12/02/16

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the hard role to recovery not just from San Bernardino’s longest-ever municipal bankruptcy, but also the savage terrorist attack a year ago. Then we venture East to observe the evolving state role in New Jersey’s takeover of Atlantic City, where the new designee named by Gov. Chris Christie, Jeffrey Chiesa, yesterday introduced himself to residents and taxpayers, but offered little guidance about exactly how he will usurp the roles of the Mayor and City Council in governing and trying to get the famed boardwalk city out of insolvency and back to fiscal stability. Finally, we look north to the metropolitan Hartford, Connecticut region, where the municipalities in the region are seeking to work out fiscal mechanisms to address Hartford’s potential municipal bankruptcy in order to ensure no disruption of metropolitan water and sewer services—a different, but in this case critical element of a “sharing economy.”  

The Jagged Road to Chapter 9 Recovery. It was one year ago today that terrorists struck in San Bernardino—the city in chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy longer than any other city in U.S. history, marking, then, a day of 14 deaths—with victims caught in the crossfire of gun shots and carnage in the wake of the wanton attack by Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik—and a horror still not over, as it will be another nine months before the trial against Enrique Marquez Jr., who has been charged with buying some of the weapons which were used in the attack, commences in September—months after the beleaguered city anticipates exiting from bankruptcy. Because the shootings took place at a San Bernardino County facility in San Bernardino, the long-term recovery has been further complicated from a governance perspective: many of the shooting survivors are accusing San Bernardino County of cutting off much-needed support for the survivors of the attack, including refusing to approve counseling or antidepressant medication. Others, who were physically wounded are seeking, so far unsuccessfully, to get surgeries and physical therapy covered. The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors earlier this week convened a closed-door session at which survivors said they felt betrayed and abandoned, left to deal with California’s complicated workers’ compensation program without guidance or help. Their health insurers will not cover their injuries because they occurred in a workplace attack. Congressman Pete Aguilar (D-Ca.), whose district includes San Bernardino, reports that his hometown had been added to a list of cities with which people are familiar for a terrible reason, such as Littleton, Colo., or Newtown, Conn. Nevertheless, he is defiant, insisting “We will not be defined by this tragedy.”

However, murder rates in the city have been climbing: the city of just over 200,000 is grappling with a spike in violent crime, homicides especially: to date, this year, the city has reported 49 killings, already more than last year’s total, which included the terrorist victims—its homicide rate tops that of Chicago, which has become the poster child for big-city violent crime and is on pace for more than 600 killings this year. San Bernardino Police Chief Jarrod Burguan, however, said the crime wave is not unique to the chapter 9 municipality—a currently bankrupt city where empty storefronts and pawn shops have long lined downtown streets. Nevertheless, Brian Levin, a criminal justice professor at California State University, San Bernardino, who studies hate crimes, yesterday noted: “we’re a better community now, even though we’re hurt.” Professor Levin is one who, in the days and weeks which ensued after the mass tragedy, met with faith leaders, law enforcement, and families of the victims—where he discovered a unity of shock and shared pain. Today, he notes: “The attack will always be a part of our history…But here’s the thing: so will the heroics of those police officers and first responders and medical staff, and so will the grace of the families. We’re writing the rest of the history. The bastards lost.” Now the city awaits early next year for emerging not just from the physical tragedy, but also the longest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy ever.  

Atlantic City Blues.  Jeffrey Chiesa, a former New Jersey Attorney General, U.S. Senator, and, now, Governor Chris Christie’s designee to run the state takeover of Atlantic City, yesterday introduced himself at a City Council meeting and took questions from city taxpayers and residents. He provided, however, in this first public meeting no details on plans to address either the city’s fiscal plight—or its interim governance. He reported the State of New Jersey does not yet have a plan to address the city’s $100 million budget hole, much less to pay down the Atlantic City’s $500 million debt, noting: “It has been two weeks…My plan is to do what I think is necessary to create a structural financial situation that works not for six months, not for a year, but indefinitely so that this place can flourish in a way that it deserves to flourish.” He noted he and his law firm will be paid hourly for their work, albeit he did not report what that hourly rate will be—especially as the state retention agreement remains incomplete, albeit promising: “We’ll make sure that’s available once it’s been finalized.” Related to governance, he noted that—related to his state-granted authority to sell city assets, hire or fire workers or break union contracts, among other powers—he would listen to residents and stakeholders before making major decisions: “What this designation has done is consolidate authority, per the legislation, in the designee to make those decisions…That does not mean that I’m not listening. That does not mean I’m pretending I have all the answers without consulting with other people.” Describing the seaside city as a “jewel” and “truly unique,” he added that he understood concerns about an outsider overseeing the city: “I know that most of you don’t know who I am…All I can do is be judged by my actions and the decision that I make, and I hope you give me time to do that.” He did say that he would have to move swiftly to address immediate issues, likely referring to reaching agreements with casinos to make payments in lieu of property taxes, and then focusing on the city’s expenses—noting: “That timeframe is pretty compressed…So we will take the steps we need to take.”

Fiscally Hard for Hartford. As we have recounted in the fiscally strapped municipality of Petersburg, Virginia, municipal fiscal insolvency cannot occur in a geographic vacuum: whether in Detroit—or as we note above today, in San Bernardino, fiscal insolvency has repercussions for adjacent municipalities. So too in Hartford, the Metropolitan District Commission (MDC) completed its planned $173 million municipal bond sale late last week, temporarily ending the controversy over a $5.5 million reserve fund. Under the provisions, that fund would be paid by seven of the eight MDC municipalities to cover the sewage fee for the second half of 2017 if the City of Hartford is unable to contribute its share, as it has indicated it will be unable to do. Ergo, it means that adjacent Windsor, the first English settlement in the state which abuts Hartford on its northern border, with a population of under 30,000 would contribute over $700,000, with East Hartford contributing about $900,000. The other group members in the metro region, Bloomfield, Newington, Rocky Hill, West Hartford, and Wethersfield, would pay the remaining $900,000, proportionately. One outcome of this watery alliance and experience is that the MDC will, when the state legislature convenes next February, propose two laws to avoid the necessity for a reserve fund in the future, with MDC Chairman William DiBella suggesting that the eight member municipalities be required to set aside as untouchable the percentage of their property taxes the cities and towns already know they will owe to the MDC for sewage services. (Currently, property taxes go into the municipalities’ general funds, and the cities extract the sewage fee when it is due, provided the funds are, in fact, available; however, like water at the tap, that has not always been the experience.) In effect, the consortium is recommending a selves-imposed budgeting municipal mandate, with Chairman DiBella noting: “Every town would have to do it. That way, one town can’t stiff us. You wouldn’t have to go out and borrow money or take charity and hope you get it back.” As the Chairman noted: “We never had a problem like this…Who thought a town would go bankrupt? With the proposed law, if a town were to go bankrupt, the sewage fund would be in a dedicated account and can’t be reached,” or touched in a bankruptcy proceeding. Another potential resolution would be to allow the MDC to borrow money over a long-term for operating expenses. The MDC would then be able to pay Hartford’s $5.5 million bill and look for a city reimbursement in other ways.

There has been increased pressure for a resolution—especially in the wake of municipal bond holders of the MDC, holders who, last week, made clear to the authority they would not buy its municipal bonds if a reserve fund was not put into place. That appeared to be a key incentive for the board’s action earlier this week for the MDC board, including representatives of all eight municipal members, to vote unanimously to adopt the water and sewer service provider’s 2017 budget, which contains the unwelcome “bail-out” fund for Hartford—albeit Chair DiBella said there would be no guarantee the agency could cover a Hartford default or continue operating or pay the bondholders. A key part of the incentive to try to work together relates to potential fiscal contagion: because of concerns over Hartford’s finances and fiscal condition, credit rating agencies have recently downgraded MDC’s bond rating from AA+ to AA, a downgrade expected to cost the agency and its member towns an estimated $500,000 in a higher interest rate for the bonds. The towns, unsurprisingly, are apprehensive the credit rating agencies will now consider changing their credit ratings. In contrast, creating the reserve fund would keep MDC’s credit rating where it is: thus, MDC officials hope that passing the two proposed laws would prompt the credit rating agencies to return its rating to AA+.