Addressing Municipal Fiscal Distress at the White House and State House

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07/31/17

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Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider whether President Trump’s appointment of new White House Communications Director of Communications might have fiscal implications for Puerto Rico’s fiscal future; then we turn to leadership efforts in the Virginia General Assembly to refine what a state’s role in oversight of municipal fiscal distress might be. 

Might There Be a Change in White House Direction vis-à-vis Puerto Rico? Prior to his new appointment as White House Director of Communications, Anthony Scaramucci, more than a year ago, questioned whether the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico should be granted authority more akin to a sovereign nation than a state—power which would, were it granted, authorize Puerto Rico to authorize its muncipios the authority to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, writing in an op-ed, “The shame of leaving Puerto Rico in limbo,” in Medium a year ago last May, just as the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee was seeking to report the PROMESA legislation. Mr. Scaramucci then indicated that creditors wanted to file with regard to the actions taken by the Puerto Rican government as if they were “equal to the intransigence of the Kirchner government in Argentina, but in reality the situations (of both countries) are completely different.” He explained: Not only does Puerto Rico not have the same public policy options as Argentina, but its economy and ability to pay its debts are worse off: Not only does Puerto Rico not have the same public policy options as Argentina, but its economy and ability to pay its debts are worse off.” He further noted that House Speaker Paul Ryan (R.-Wis.) was in a difficult situation to deal with the situation in Puerto Rico, amid what he described as a “civil war” within the Republican Party—a war he described as “induced by Donald Trump.”

Now, of course, Mr. Scaramucci is in a starkly different position—one where he might be able to influence White House policy. Having written, previously, that the “tax code of the Commonwealth must be revised to be more friendly to economic development…Social assistance programs should be drastically reduced and labor laws softened,” Mr. Scaramucci has also called for public-private partnerships to make “essential” government services more efficient, such as the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority—noting: “Ultimately…we must also allow Puerto Rico to operate as a sovereign country or grant them legal protections more similar to those of the states (which is the preference of the Puerto Rican people).” He argued that the case of Puerto Rico represents a “failure on multiple levels: the insatiable desire of US investment funds for Puerto Rico triple exemption bonds; U.S. Congressmen of the status of the Congressionally-created territory, and misappropriation of funds by the Puerto Rican government: “We must now face our failures and take pragmatic measures to create a better future:  The tax code of the Commonwealth must be revised to be more friendly to economic development; social assistance programs should be drastically reduced, and labor laws softened.” He noted that public-private partnerships could be vital in rendering “essential” government services more efficient, such as the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, noting: “Ultimately, we must also allow Puerto Rico to operate as a sovereign country or grant them legal protections more similar to those of the states (which is the preference of the Puerto Rican people).” Referencing that, as in the Great Recession of 2008, he noted the case of Puerto Rico represents a “failure on multiple levels: the insatiable desire of US investment funds for Puerto Rico triple exemption bonds; U.S. Congressmen of the status of ELA (Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico), and misappropriation of funds by the Puerto Rican government…But as we did after 2008, we must now face our failures and take pragmatic measures to create a better future.”

Mr. Scaramucci’s comments came as the City or Pueblo of San Juan has filed a legal challenge to the PROMESA Oversight Board’s approval of the Government Development Bank (GDB) for Puerto Rico debt restructuring agreement: San Juan is seeking a declaratory judgement and injunctive relief against the PROMESA Oversight Board, the GDB, and the Puerto Rico Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority before U.S. Judge Laura Swain Taylor in the U.S. District Court for Puerto Rico—a judge by now immersed in multiple bankruptcy filings, after the Bastille Day PROMESA Board’s approval of a restructuring agreement for the GDB’s $4.8 billion in debt—an approval for which the Board asserted it had authority under PROMESA’s Title VI.

San Juan’s filing claims the GDB holds more than $152 million in San Juan deposits—deposits which the city asserts are the property of San Juan, and thereby ineligible for Title VI restructuring, which explicitly addresses only municipal bonds, loans, and other similar securities. San Juan then claims the GDB deposits are “secured,” unlike the funds which the GDB owes to municipal bondholders—even as the PROMESA Board’s approved Restructuring Support Agreement provides for the municipalities to vote in the same class as all the other GDB creditors, asserting that such a voting practice would be contrary to PROMESA. The suit also notes that, under Puerto Rico statutes, municipal depositors are allowed to set-off their deposits against their GDB loan balances; however, the Restructuring Support Agreement (RSA) is grossly inaccurate in accounting for these deposits against the loans and, thus, the agreement is breaching the law—asserting:

“The ultimate effect of the RSA would be to provide a windfall to the GDB’s bondholders by using the resources of San Juan and other municipalities for the payment of bondholder claims while imposing enormous losses on those same municipal depositors through the confiscation of their excess [special tax deposit] and their statutorily guaranteed right to setoff deposits at the GDB against their loans from the GDB.” The suit further charged that the PROMESA Board convened illegal executive private sessions concerning the creation of the RSA—sessions which included representatives of the GDB and FAFAA. (The federal statute only allows executive sessions with board members and its staff present, according to the suit.)  Thus, in its complaint , the city is requesting that Judge Swain find the board’s approval of the agreement invalid, and that Judge Swain further find that PROMESA and Article VI, Clause 2 of the U.S. Constitution preempt Puerto Rican laws and executive order that have stopped the municipalities from withdrawing their funds from the GDB for over a year.

Not Petering Out. In the Virginia Legislature, Del. Lashrecse Aird (D-Petersburg), the youngest woman ever elected to the House of Delegates, recently noted: “In this session, I’m carrying a very light load, just four or five bills, that are locality bill requests: As a lawmaker overall, you will always see me supporting those initiatives and those policy issues that reference those three priorities: jobs, education, and healthcare. I think that if I can execute on those priorities, that will definitely improve the quality of life for the citizens, the families and kids, not just for Petersburg but the entire district.” Del. Air noted that last year, the City of  Petersburg’s financial situation made headlines throughout the Commonwealth, and led to serious conversations about the financial health of Virginia’s cities and counties: “What we saw in Petersburg, in addition to a declining economy nationwide, was longstanding financial mismanagement, negligence, and declining cash balances dating back to 2009. And, what we saw in localities like Emporia, Martinsville, Lynchburg, Buena Vista—all classified as having significant fiscal stress—is that these historic cities were displaying similar indicators, and they were largely going unaddressed.” Thus, she played a key role in creating a work group which has examined local fiscal distress—and which has produced an action plan, a plan from which components have been incorporated into the state’s new budget: including:

  • improving how the Commonwealth of Virginia monitors fiscal activity and increases the level of oversight by the auditor of public accounts;
  • establishing a mechanism which is responsive to situations of local fiscal distress; and
  • providing readily available resources should intervention become necessary.

As a start, she noted that Virginia House has adopted a budget which allocates up to $500,000 to conduct intervention and remediation efforts in situations of local fiscal distress that have been previously documented by the Office of the State Secretary of Finance prior to January 1st, 2017. As part of a longer-term approach, the effort incorporates additional language establishing a Joint Subcommittee on Local Government Fiscal Stress, with the new subcommittee charged to review:

  • savings opportunities for increased regional cooperation and consolidation of services;
  • local responsibilities for service delivery of state-mandated or high-priority programs;
  • causes of fiscal stress; potential financial incentives and other governmental reforms for regional cooperation; and
  • the different taxing authorities of cities and counties.

Or, she she put it:

“An integral part of the approach we take towards addressing fiscal distress must also include conversations about electing capable local leadership and providing training in areas most critical to effective governance and financial management. Where there are gaps in knowledge and understanding, elected officials must be willing to educate themselves in every area necessary for good governance.”

Is There a PROMESA of Recovery?

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Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the growing physical and fiscal breakdown in the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico as it seeks, along with the oversight PROMESA Board, an alternative to municipal bankruptcy, after which we journey north to review the remarkable fiscal recovery from chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy of one of the nation’s smallest municipalities.

Tropical Fiscal Typhoon. Puerto Rico is trapped in a vicious fiscal whirlpool where the austerity measures it has taken to meet short-term obligations to its creditors all across the U.S., including laying off some 30,000 public sector employees and increasing its sales tax by nearly 75% have seemingly backfired—doing more fiscal harm than good: it has devastated its economy, depleted revenue sources, and put the government on a vicious cycle of increasingly drastic fiscal steps in an effort to make payments—enough so that nearly 33% of the territory’s revenue is currently going to creditors and bondholders, even as its economy has shrunk 10% since 2006, while its poverty rate has grown to 45%. At the same time, a demographic imbalance has continued to accelerate with the exit of some 300,000 Puerto Ricans—mostly the young and better educated—leaving for Miami and New York. Puerto Rico and its public agencies owe $73 billion to its creditors, nearly 500% greater than the nearly $18 billion in debts accumulated by Detroit when it filed for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy four years ago in what was then the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. Thus, with the island’s hedge-fund creditors holding defaulted municipal general obligation bonds on the verge of completing a consensual agreement earlier this week, the PROMESA oversight board intervened to halt negotiations and place Puerto Rico under the Title III quasi municipal bankruptcy protection. That will set up courtroom confrontations between an impoverished population, wealthy municipal bondholders in every state in the domestic U.S., and hedge funds—pitted against some of the poorest U.S. citizens and their future. Nevertheless, as Congress contemplated, the quasi-municipal bankruptcy process enacted as part of the PROMESA statute provides the best hope for Puerto Rico’s future.

Thus the PROMESA Board has invoked these provisions of the PROMESA statute before a federal judge in San Juan, in what promises to be a long process—as we have seen in Detroit, San Bernardino, and other cities, but with one critical distinction: each of the previous municipal bankruptcies has involved a city or county—the quasi municipal bankruptcy here is more akin to a filing by a state. (Because of the dual federalism of our founding fathers, Congress may not enact legislation to permit states to file for bankruptcy protection.) Unsurprisingly, when Puerto Rico was made a U.S. territory under the Jones-Shafroth Act, no one contemplated the possibility of bankruptcy. Moreover, as chapter 9, as authorized by Congress, only provides that a city or county may file for chapter 9 bankruptcy if authorized by its respective state; Puerto Rico inconveniently falls into a Twilight Zone—to write nothing with regard to access to such protections for Puerto Rico’s 87 municipalities or muncipios.

Moreover, while from Central Falls, Rhode Island to Detroit, the role of public pension obligations has played a critical role in those chapter 9 resolutions; the challenge could be far greater here: in Puerto Rico, retired teachers and police officers do not participate in Social Security. Adopting deep cuts to their pensions would be a virtual impossibility. So now it is that Puerto Rico will be in a courtroom to confront hedge funds, mutual funds, and bond insurers, after the negotiations between Puerto Rico and its creditors over a PROMESA Board-approved fiscal plan that allocates about $787 million a year to creditors for the next decade, less than a quarter of what they are owed, was deemed by said creditors to be a slap in the face—with the Board having pressed for a combination of debt restructuring spending cuts in its efforts to revive an economy trapped by a 45% poverty rate—and where the Board had proposed upping water rates on consumers, liquidating its decades-old industrial development bank, and seeking concessions from creditors of other government agencies. Moreover, amid all this, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, who has recently renegotiated to mitigate politically unpopular fee increases on residents, now finds himself nearly transfixed between desperate efforts to sort out governance, meet demands of his constituents and taxpayers, and negotiate with a federally imposed oversight board, even as he is in the midst of a campaign for U.S. statehood ahead of a plebiscite on Puerto Rico’s political status—and in the wake of being named a defendant in a lawsuit by hedge funds after the expiration of a stay on such suits expired this week. Hedge funds holding general obligation and sales-tax bonds filed the suit on Tuesday, naming Gov. Rosselló as a defendant—albeit, the suit, and others, are nearly certain to be frozen, as the main judicial arena now will fall into a quasi-chapter 9 courtroom epic battle. And that battle will not necessarily be able to fully look to prior chapter 9 judicial precedents: while Title III incorporates features of chapter 9, the section of the U.S. bankruptcy code covering insolvent municipal entities, courts have never interpreted key provisions of Title III—a title, moreover, which protections for creditors which chapter 9 does not.

The Rich Chocolatey Road to Recovery! Moody’s has awarded one of the nation’s smallest municipalities, Central Falls, aka Chocolate City, Rhode Island, its second general obligation bond upgrade in two months, a sign of the former mill city’s ongoing recovery from municipal bankruptcy—an upgrade which Mayor James Diossa unsurprisingly noted to be “very important.” Moody’s noted that its upgrade “reflects a multi-year trend of stable operating results and continued positive performance relative to the post-bankruptcy plan since the city’s emergence from Chapter 9 bankruptcy in 2012,” adding that it expects the city will enhance its flexibility when its plan of debt adjustment period ends at the end of next month—at which time one of the nation’s smallest cities (one square mile and 19,000 citizens) will implement a policy of requiring maintenance of unassigned general fund reserves of at least 10% of prior year expenditures. In its upgrade, Moody’s reported the upgrade reflected Central Falls’ high fixed costs, referring to its public pension obligations, OPEB, and debt service–costs which add up to nearly 30% of its budget—and what it termed a high sensitivity to adverse economic trends compared with other municipalities, with the rating agency noting that a sustained increase in fund balance and maintenance of structural balance could lead to a further upgrade, as could a reduction in long-term liabilities and fixed costs and material tax-base and growth.

 

Fiscal & Public Service Insolvency

eBlog, 03/03/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing challenges for the historic municipality of Petersburg, Virginia as it seeks to depart from insolvency; we consider, anew, the issues related to “service insolvency,” especially assisted by the exceptional insights of Marc Pfeiffer at Rutgers, then turning to the new fiscal plan by the Puerto Rico Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority, before racing back to Virginia for a swing on insolvent links. For readers who missed it, we commend the eBlog earlier this week in which we admired the recent wisdom on fiscal disparities by the ever remarkable Bo Zhao of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston with regard to municipal fiscal disparities.

Selling One’s City. Petersburg, Virginia, the small, historic, and basically insolvent municipality under quasi state control is now trying to get hundreds of properties owned by the city off the books and back on the tax rolls as part of its effort to help resolve its fiscal and trust insolvency. As Michelle Peters, Economic Development Director for Petersburg, notes: “The city owns over 200 properties, but today we had a showcase to feature about 25 properties that we group together based on location, and these properties are already zoned appropriate for commercial development.” Thus the municipality is not only looking to raise revenues from the sale, but also to realize revenues through the conversion of these empty properties into thriving businesses—or as Ms. Peters puts it: “It’s to get the properties back on the tax rolls for the city, because, currently, the city owns them so they are just vacant, there are no taxes being collected,” much less jobs being filled. Ms. Peters notes that while some of the buildings do need work, like an old hotel on Tabb Street, the city stands ready to offer a great deal on great property, and it is ready to make a deal and has incentives to offer:  “We’re ready to sit down at the table and to negotiate, strike a deal and get those properties developed.”

New Jersey & Its Taken-over City. The $72 million tax settlement between Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa and Atlantic City’s state overseers is a “major step forward” in fixing the city’s finances, according to Moody’s Investors Service, which deemed the arrangement as one that has cleared “one of the biggest outstanding items of concern” in the municipality burdened by hundreds of millions of dollars in debt and under state control. Atlantic City owed Borgata $165 million in tax refunds after years of successful tax appeals by the casino, according to the state. The settlement is projected to save the city $93 million in potential debt—savings which amount to a 22 percent reduction of the city’s $424 million total debt, according to Moody’s, albeit, as Moody’s noted: “[W]hile it does not solve the city’s problems, the settlement makes addressing those problems considerably more likely.” The city will bond for the $72 million through New Jersey’s state Municipal Qualified Bond Act, making it a double whammy: because the bonds will be issued via the state MQBA, they will carry an A3 rating, ergo at a much better rate than under the city’s Caa3 junk bond status. Nevertheless, according to the characteristically moody Moody’s, Atlantic City’s finances remain in a “perilous state,” with the credit rating agency citing low cash flow and an economy still heavily dependent upon gambling.

Fiscal & Public Service Insolvency. One of my most admired colleagues in the arena of municipal fiscal distress, Marc Pfeiffer, Senior Policy Fellow and Assistant Director of the Bloustein Local Government Research Center in New Jersey, notes that a new twist on the legal concept of municipal insolvency could change how some financially troubled local governments seek permission to file for federal bankruptcy protection. Writing that municipal insolvency traditionally means a city, county, or other government cannot pay its bills, and can lead in rare instances to a Chapter 9 bankruptcy filing or some other remedy authorized by the state that is not as drastic as a Chapter 9, he notes that, in recent years, the description of “insolvency” has expanded beyond a simple cash shortage to include “service-delivery insolvency,” meaning a municipality is facing a crisis in managing police, fire, ambulance, trash, sewer and other essential safety and health services, adding that service insolvency contributed to Stockton, California, and Detroit filings for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection in 2012 and 2013, respectively: “Neither city could pay its unsustainable debts, but officials’ failure to curb violent crime, spreading blight and decaying infrastructure was even more compelling to the federal bankruptcy judges who decided that Stockton and Detroit were eligible to file for Chapter 9.”

In fact, in meeting with Kevyn Orr, the emergency manager appointed by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, at his first meeting in Detroit, Mr. Orr recounted to me that his very first actions had been to email every employee of the city to ensure they reported to work that morning, noting the critical responsibility to ensure that street lights and traffic lights, as well as other essential public services operated. He wanted to ensure there would be no disruption of such essential services—a concern clearly shared by the eventual overseer of the city’s historic chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, now retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, who, in his decision affirming the city’s plan of debt adjustment, had written: “It is the city’s service delivery insolvency that the court finds most strikingly disturbing in this case…It is inhumane and intolerable, and it must be fixed.” Similarly, his colleague, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Christopher Klein, who presided over Stockton’s chapter 9 trial in California, had noted that without the “muscle” of municipal bankruptcy protection, “It is apparent to me the city would not be able to perform its obligations to its citizens on fundamental public safety as well as other basic public services.” Indeed, in an interview, Judge Rhodes said that while Detroit officials had provided ample evidence of cash and budget insolvency, “the concept of service delivery insolvency put a more understanding face on what otherwise was just plain numbers.” It then became clear, he said, that the only solution for Detroit—as well as any insolvent municipality—was “fresh money,” including hundreds of millions of dollars contributed by the state, city, and private foundations: “It is a rare insolvency situation—corporate or municipal—that can be fixed just by a change in management.”

Thus, Mr. Pfeiffer writes that “Demonstrating that services are dysfunctional could strengthen a local government’s ability to convince a [federal bankruptcy] judge that the city is eligible for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy protection (provided, of course, said municipality is in one the eighteen states which authorize such filings). Or, as Genevieve Nolan, a vice president and senior analyst at Moody’s Investors Service, notes: “With their cases focusing on not just a government’s ability to pay its debts, but also an ability to provide basic services to residents, Stockton and Detroit opened a path for future municipal bankruptcies.”

Mr. Pfeiffer notes that East Cleveland, Ohio, was the first city to invoke service insolvency after Detroit. In its so far patently unsuccessful efforts to obtain authority from the State of Ohio to file for municipal bankruptcy protection—in a city, where, as we have noted on numerous occasions, the city has demonstrated a fiscal inability to sustain basic police, fire, EMS, or trash services. East Cleveland had an approved plan to balance its budget, but then-Mayor Gary Norton told the state the proposed cuts “[would] have the effect of decimating our safety forces.” Ohio state officials initially rejected the municipality’s request for permission to file for municipal bankruptcy, because the request came from the mayor instead of the city council; the city’s status has been frozen since then.

Mr. Pfeiffer then writes:

Of concern.  [Municipal] Bankruptcy was historically seen as the worst case scenario with severe penalties – in theory the threat of it would prevent local officials from doing irresponsible things. [Indeed, when I first began my redoubtable quest with the Dean of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy Jim Spiotto, while at the National League of Cities, the very idea that the nation’s largest organization representing elected municipal leaders would advocate for amending federal laws so that cities, counties, and other municipal districts could file for such protection drew approbation, to say the least.] Local officials are subject to such political pressures that there needs to be a societal “worst case” that needs to be avoided.  It’s not like a business bankruptcy where assets get sold and equity holders lose investment.  We are dealing with public assets and the public, though charged with for electing responsible representatives, who or which can’t be held fully responsible for what may be foolish, inept, corrupt, or criminal actions by their officials. Thus municipal bankruptcy, rather than dissolution, was a worst case scenario whose impact needed to be avoided at all costs. Lacking a worst case scenario with real meaning, officials may be more prone to take fiscal or political risks if they think the penalty is not that harsh. The current commercial practice of a structured bankruptcy, which is commonly used (and effectively used in Detroit and eventually in San Bernardino and other places) could become common place. If insolvency were extended to “service delivery,” and if it becomes relatively painless, decision-making/political risk is lowered, and political officials can take greater risks with less regard to the consequences. In my view, the impact of bankruptcy needs to be so onerous that elected officials will strive to avoid it and avoid decisions that may look good for short-term but have negative impact in the medium to long-term and could lead to serious consequences. State leaders also need to protect their citizens with controls and oversight to prevent outliers from taking place, and stepping in when signs of fiscal weakness appear.”

Self-Determination. Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has submitted a 10-year fiscal plan to the PROMESA Oversight Board which would allow for annual debt payments of about 18% to 41% of debt due—a plan which anticipates sufficient cash flow in FY2018 to pay 17.6% of the government’s debt service. In the subsequent eight years, under the plan, the government would pay between 30% and 41% per year. The plan, according to the Governor, is based upon strategic fiscal imperatives, including restoring credibility with all stakeholders through transparent, supportable financial information and honoring the U.S. territory’s obligations in accordance with the Constitution of Puerto Rico; reducing the complexity and inefficiency of government to deliver essential services in a cost-effective manner; implementing reforms to improve Puerto Rico’s competitiveness and reduce the cost of doing business; ensuring that economic development processes are effective and aligned to incentivize the necessary investments to promote economic growth and job creation; protecting the most vulnerable segments of our society and transforming our public pensions system; and consensually renegotiating and restructuring debt obligations through Title VI of PROMESA. The plan he proposed, marvelously on the 100th anniversary of the Jones-Shafroth Act making Puerto Rico a U.S. territory, also proposes monitoring liquidity and managing anticipated shortfalls in current forecast, and achieving fiscal balance by 2019 and maintaining fiscal stability with balanced budgets thereafter (through 2027 and beyond). The Governor notes the Fiscal Plan is intended to achieve its objectives through fiscal reform measures, strategic reform initiatives, and financial control reforms, including fiscal reform measures that would reduce Puerto Rico’s decade-long financing gap by $33.3 billion through:

  • revenue enhancements achieved via tax reform and compliance enhancement strategies;
  • government right-sizing and subsidy reductions;
  • more efficient delivery of healthcare services;
  • public pension reform;
  • structural reform initiatives intended to provide the tools to significantly increase Puerto Rico’s capacity to grow its economy;
  • improving ease of business activity;
  • capital efficiency;
  • energy [utility] reform;
  • financial control reforms focused on enhanced transparency, controls, and accountability of budgeting, procurement, and disbursement processes.

The new Fiscal Plan marks an effort to achieve fiscal solvency and long-term economic growth and to comply with the 14 statutory requirements established by Congress’ PROMESA legislation, as well as the five principles established by the PROMESA Oversight Board, and intended to sets a fiscal path to making available to the public and creditor constituents financial information which has been long overdue, noting that upon the Oversight Board’s certification of those fiscal plans it deems to be compliant with PROMESA, the Puerto Rico government and its advisors will promptly convene meetings with organized bondholder groups, insurers, union, local interest business groups, public advocacy groups and municipality representative leaders to discuss and answer all pertinent questions concerning the fiscal plan and to provide additional and necessary momentum as appropriate, noting the intention and preference of the government is to conduct “good-faith” negotiations with creditors to achieve restructuring “voluntary agreements” in the manner and method provided for under the provisions of Title VI of PROMESA.

Related to the service insolvency issues we discussed [above] this early, snowy a.m., Gov. Rosselló added that these figures are for government debt proper—not the debt of issuers of the public corporations (excepting the Highways and Transportation Authority), Puerto Rico’s 88 municipalities, or the territory’s handful of other semi-autonomous authorities, and that its provisions do not count on Congress to restore Affordable Care Act funding. Rather, Gov. Rosselló said he plans to determine the amount of debt the Commonwealth will pay by first determining the sums needed for (related to what Mr. Pfeiffer raised above] “essential services and contingency reserves.” The Governor noted that Puerto Rico’s debt burden will be based on net cash available, and that, if possible, he hopes to be able to use a consensual process under Title VI of PROMESA to decide on the new debt service schedules. [PROMESA requires the creation of certified five-year fiscal plan which would provide a balanced budget to the Commonwealth, restore access to the capital markets, fund essential public services, and pensions, and achieve a sustainable debt burden—all provisions which the board could accept, modify, or completely redo.]  

Adrift on the Fiscal Links? While this a.m.’s snow flurries likely precludes a golf outing, ACA Financial Guaranty Corp., a municipal bond insurer, appears ready to take a mighty swing for a birdie, as it is pressing for payback on the defaulted debt which was critical to the financing of Buena Vista, Virginia’s unprofitable municipal golf course, this time teeing the proverbial ball up in federal court. Buena Vista, a municipality nestled near the iconic Blue Ridge of some 2,547 households, and where the median income for a household in the city is in the range of $32,410, and the median income for a family was $39,449—and where only about 8.2 percent of families were below the poverty line, including 14.3 percent of those under age 18 and 10 percent of those age 65 or over. Teeing the fiscal issue up is the municipal debt arising from the issuance by the city and its Public Recreational Facilities Authority of some $9.2 million of lease-revenue municipal bonds insured by ACA twelve years ago—debt upon which the municipality had offered City Hall, police and court facilities, as well as its municipal championship golf course as collateral for the debt—that is, in this duffer’s case, municipal debt which the municipality’s leaders voted to stop repaying, as we have previously noted, in late 2015. Ergo, ACA is taking another swing at the city: it is seeking:

  • the appointment of a receiver appointed for the municipal facilities,
  • immediate payment of the debt, and
  • $525,000 in damages in a new in the U.S. District Court for Western Virginia,

Claiming the municipality “fraudulently induced” ACA to enter into the transaction by representing that the city had authority to enter the contracts. In response, the municipality’s attorney reports that Buena Vista city officials are still open to settlement negotiations, and are more than willing to negotiate—but that ACA has refused its offers. In a case where there appear to have been any number of mulligans, since it was first driven last June, teed off, as it were, in Buena Vista Circuit Court, where ACA sought a declaratory judgment against the Buena Vista and the Public Recreational Facilities Authority, seeking judicial determination with regard to the validity of its agreement with Buena Vista, including municipal bond documents detailing any legal authority to foreclose on city hall, the police department, and/or the municipal golf course. The trajectory of the course of the litigation, however, has not been down the center of the fairway: the lower court case took a severe hook into the fiscal rough when court documents filed by the city contended that the underlying municipal bond deal was void, because only four of the Buena Vista’s seven City Council members voted on the bond resolution, not to mention related agreements which included selling the city’s interest in its “public places.” Moreover, pulling out a driver, Buena Vista, in its filing, wrote that Virginia’s constitution filing, requires all seven council members to be present to vote on a matter which involved backing the golf course’s municipal bonds with an interest in facilities owned by the municipality. That drive indeed appeared to earn a birdie, as ACA then withdrew its state suit; however, it then filed in federal court, where, according to its attorney, it is not seeking to foreclose on Buena Vista’s municipal facilities; rather, in its new federal lawsuit, ACA avers that the tainted vote supposedly invalidating the municipality’s deed of trust supporting the municipal bonds and collateral does not make sense, maintaining in its filing that Buena Vista’s elected leaders had adopted a bond resolution and made representations in the deed, the lease, the forbearance agreement, and in legal opinions which supported the validity of the Council’s actions, writing: “Fundamental principles of equity, waiver, estoppel, and good conscience will not allow the city–after receiving the benefits of the [municipal] bonds and its related transactions–to now disavow the validity of the same city deed of trust that it and its counsel repeatedly acknowledged in writing to be fully valid, binding and enforceable.” Thus, the suit requests a judgment against Buena Vista, declaring the financing documents to be valid, appointing a receiver, and an order granting ACA the right to foreclose on the Buena Vista’s government complex in addition to compensatory damages, with a number of the counts seeking rulings determining that Buena Vista and the authority breached deed and forbearance agreements, in addition to an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, requiring immediate payback on the outstanding bonds, writing: “Defendants’ false statements and omissions were made recklessly and constituted willful and wanton disregard.” In addition to compensatory damages and pre-and post-judgment interest, ACA has asked the U.S. court to order that Buena Vista pay all of its costs and attorneys’ fees; it is also seeking an order compelling the city to move its courthouse to other facilities and make improvements at the existing courthouse, including bringing it up to standards required by the ADA.

Like a severe hook, the city’s municipal public course appears to have been errant from the get-go: it has never turned a profit for Buena Vista; rather it has required general fund subsidies totaling $5.6 million since opening, according to the city’s CAFR. Worse, Buena Vista notes that the taxpayer subsidies have taken a toll on its budget concurrent with the ravages created by the great recession: in 2010, Buena Vista entered a five-year forbearance agreement in which ACA agreed to make bond payments for five years; however, three years ago, the city council voted in its budget not to appropriate the funds to resume payment on the debt, marking the first default on the municipal golf course bond, per material event notices posted on the MSRB’s EMMA.

Federalism & Fiscal Challenges

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eBlog, 2/07/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider some of the implications of New Jersey’s constitution with regard to the state’s takeover of Atlantic City: does the state takeover violate parts of the Garden State’s constitution? Then we head south to the Caribbean to try to understand the extraordinary fiscal challenges to the neighboring U.S. territories of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

New Jersey Federalism? New Jersey Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez has issued an order temporarily blocking the state’s effort to eliminate one hundred Atlantic City firefighter positions—all part of an order which momentarily halts the state from imposing any layoffs or unilateral contract changes to Atlantic City’s 225-member fire department. The issue and legal challenge here arose in the wake of the International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 198, and the AFL-CIO filing a lawsuit arguing that the State of New Jersey’s action under the Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act—which empowered the state takeover of the City, and authorized New Jersey’s Local Finance Board to take over the city, violates New Jersey’s constitution. The suit comes even as the state’s Department of Community Affairs claims the state had already decided before the ruling to push back implementing the firefighter cuts until next September—with the changes to pay structure, hours, and overtime postponed until the end of next week; however, the state made clear the “temporary restraining order signed by Judge Mendez does not change the State’s timetable for advancing reforms of Atlantic City firefighters’ contracts…We decided to delay implementing the proposed contract reforms until February 19th as a good faith gesture to give the fire department more time to prepare.”

Judge Mendez had initially scheduled a hearing for next Monday; however, the state successfully fought to get the case removed to federal court at an undetermined date. Judge Mendez issued the restraining order despite the state, in a court filing, advising the court it would hold off implementing the proposed 100 layoffs until September, and would delay changes to pay structure, hours, overtime, and benefits until February 19th. However, Judge Mendez’s order bars the state from taking any action under the Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act that is “in violation of the Due Process and Equal Protection, Contracts, Takings, Collective Negotiation, and Civil Service clauses of the New Jersey Constitution.” The case marks the first legal challenge to the broad state preemption and takeover of Atlantic City imposed by the state last November: the subsequent court case could shape up to be a significant test of the takeover’s constitutionality against criticisms that it violates residents’ civil rights and the collective bargaining rights of the city’s unions.

The state’s strategy in responding by seeking removal to the federal court seems exceptional—and in stark contrast to the unique concept of dual federalism in this country, especially so in this case, because the New Jersey constitution includes a comparable provision with regard to voiding contracts—or, as a colleague late last night noted: “It’s odd for a state law to be appealed to the federal court when there are state constitutional issues at stake.” Nevertheless, the filing raises two issues: 1) would a federal court even consent? It is, after all, a matter of New Jersey law, and 2) it would seem, especially in a New Jersey court, that the state constitution issue should supersede a federal action.  

At the same time, in a separate fiscal arena, Moody’s Investor Service’s affirmed  Atlantic City’s deep-junk level Caa3 bond rating and retained the city’s negative outlook, citing an ongoing “liquidity crisis” and likely default in the next year notwithstanding the state’s takeover—the city, after all, is confronting a structural deficit of more than $100 million and has suffered five casino closures since 2014; it has $240 million in municipal bond debt and more than $500 million in total debt when factoring in casino tax refunds and other obligations. It would seem Moody’s is seeking to ensure investors are aware of what is transpiring—and needed to remind the city’s municipal bondholders that there will be a new Governor who will have to reassess what actions—and relationship with Atlantic City—they ought to consider.

Statehood I? Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has signed into law a bill for a June referendum on Puerto Rico’s political status. The law provides for a non-binding referendum that would allow the U.S. territory to vote on statehood. The referendum, to be held this June, will allow the voters to choose between statehood and independence/free association. Those in support of Puerto Rican statehood believe approving statehood could help the country restructure its $70 billion in public debt and stave off further federal austerity measures. Functionally, if approved, Puerto Rican statehood would allow the state to receive $10 billion in federal funds per year, as well as allowing government agencies and municipalities to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. In signing the legislation, Gov. Rosselló called the vote “a civil rights issue;” he said the U.S. will have to “respond to the demands of 3.5 million citizens seeking an absolute democracy.” Importantly, if granted statehood, the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico would, at long last, no longer be denied many of the benefits provided to citizens in U.S. mainland and Hawaii, including equal access to Social Security and Medicare, despite paying taxes for these services. In addition, Puerto Rico’s representatives in Congress would be granted the same voting rights as all other Members of Congress—except for the Delegate from the District of Colombia. Under the referendum, voters would, in effect, determine whether to alter Puerto Rico’s status as a territory granted under the Jones-Shafroth Act: they will be asked if they support Puerto Rico becoming a state or a country independent of the United States of America. Should voters opt for independence, a subsequent referendum next October would be held to determine whether citizens wish to maintain some sort of association with the U.S., or become independent. In a written statement from Gov. Rosselló, Puerto Rico House of Representatives President Carlos Méndez said, “The colonial situation that currently defines Puerto Rico has deprived Puerto Ricans of participating fully in the federal government, of voting for the president of the United States, of electing representatives with a say and vote in the federal congress, and of receiving equal treatment in opportunities that strengthen socio-economic development and quality of life.”

Statehood or Independence? Even as Gov. Rosselló has signed into law a provision to allow Puerto Rico’s citizens to vote on their own governing destiny, Congressman Luis Gutiérrez (D-Puerto Rico) today plans to offer legislation in Congress to promote a federal plebiscite in which Puerto Ricans can select between independence and a free association pact between Puerto Rico and the United States, with a draft of his proposal, as reported by El Nuevo Día, stating: “The annexation of Puerto Rico as a state of the Union would be detrimental both to the United States and to Puerto Rico. It is time to return sovereignty to Puerto Rico…Statehood and full assimilation—in which Puerto Rico delivers its nationality, culture, Olympic team, language, and ability to determine its future—is not the only option and is not the best option for Puerto Ricans.” Under the proposed legislation, all Puerto Ricans or a father or mother born in Puerto Rico, would be granted the right to vote; rights granted via federal programs, such as veterans, pensions, and benefits from military service would be recognized. The proposal suggests a process to restructure public debt as well as an agreement to keep the current total of federal transfers, as a bloc, during a transitional period. The bill provides that citizenship of Puerto Rico would be recognized; however, Puerto Ricans would be eligible to retain U.S. citizenship.

Caribbean Fiscal Contagion? Fitch Ratings has lowered its credit ratings for the U.S. Virgin Islands, just seventeen miles from Puerto Rico, downgrading its ratings on about $216 million of the U.S. territory’s water and power authority municipal bonds—acting in the wake of the island government’s rescission of a utility rate increase which had been approved last month. Fitch’s action put the island’s ratings eight levels below investment grade—and near default, and came in the wake, last month, of its downgrade of the Virgin Islands’ public finance authority, which borrows on behalf of the government, writing: “The rating downgrade reflects the heightened credit risk as a consequence of the island’s Water & Power Authority’s continued inability to gain regulatory approval of rate relief needed to address its exceptionally weak cash flow and liquidity.” The downgrade came in the wake of the U.S. territory’s increasing inability to issue municipal debt: the government has been unable to issue municipal debt since December, twice delaying a planned $219 million municipal bond sale. The U.S. territory, confronted by budget shortfalls, had intended to use the bond proceeds to help cover the government’s bills. Virgin Islands Governor Kenneth Mapp has proposed a series of tax increases intended to bolster the territory’s finances and restoring its access to the financial markets. However, as the Romans used to say: tempus fugit: Last week, Gov. Mapp warned the government may not be able to make payroll by the middle of this month if nothing is done.