Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we look back at the steep road out of the nation’s largest ever municipal bankruptcy—in Detroit, where the Chicago Federal Reserve and former U.S. Chief Bankruptcy Judge Thomas Bennett, who presided over Jefferson County’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy case, has noted: “[S]tates can have precipitating roles as well as preventative roles” in work he did for the Chicago Federal Reserve. Indeed, it seems the Great Recession demarcated the nation’s states into distinct fiscal categories: those with state oversight programs which either protected against or offered fiscal support to assist troubled municipalities, versus those, such as Alabama or California—with the former appearing to aid and abet Jefferson County’s descent into chapter 9 bankruptcy, and California, home to the largest number of chapter 9 bankruptcies over the last two decades, contributing to fiscal distress, but avoiding any acceptance of risk. Therefore, we try to provide our own fiscal autopsy of Detroit’s journey into and out of the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy.
I met in the Governor’s Detroit offices with Kevyn Orr, whom Governor Rick Snyder had asked to come out from Washington, D.C. to serve as the city’s Emergency Manager to take the city into—and out of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy: the largest in American history. Having been told by the hotel staff that it was unsafe to walk the few blocks from my hotel to the Governor’s Detroit offices on the city’s very first day in insolvency—a day in which the city was spending 38 cents on every dollar of taxes collected from residents and businesses on legacy costs and operating debt payments totaling $18 billion; it was clear from the get go, as he told me that early morning, there was no choice other than chapter 9: it was an essential, urgent step in order to ensure the provision of essential services, including street and traffic lights, emergency first responders, and basic maintenance of the Motor City’s crumbling infrastructure—especially given the grim statistics, with police response times averaging 58 minutes across the city, fewer than a third of the city’s ambulances in service, 40% of the city’s 88,000 traffic lights not working, “primarily due to disrepair and neglect.” It was, as my walk made clear, a city aptly described as: “[I]nfested with urban blight, which depresses property values, provides a fertile breeding ground for crime and tinder for fires…and compels the city to devote precious resources to demolition.” Of course, not just physical blight and distress, but also fiscal distress: the Motor City’s unbalanced fiscal condition was foundering under its failure to make some $108 million in pension payments—payments which, under the Michigan constitution, because they are contracts, were constitutionally binding. Nevertheless, in one of his early steps to staunch the fiscal bleeding, Mr. Orr halted a $39.7 million payment on $1.4 billion in pension debt issued by former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s administration to make the city pension funds appear better funded than they really were; thus, Mr. Orr’s stop payment was essential to avoid immediate cash insolvency at a moment in time when Detroit’s cash position was in deepening debt. Thus, in his filing, Mr. Orr aptly described the city’s dire position and the urgency of swift action thusly: “Without this, the city’s death spiral I describe herein will continue.”
Today, the equivalent of a Presidential term later, the city has installed 65,000 new streetlights; it has cut police and emergency responder response times to 25% of what they were; it has razed 11,847 blighted buildings. Indeed, ambulance response times in Detroit today are half of what they were—and close to the national average—even as the city’s unrestricted general fund finished FY2016 fiscal year with a $143 million surplus, 200% of the prior fiscal year: as of March 31st, Detroit sported a general fund surplus of $51 million, with $52.8 million more cash on hand than March of last year, according to the Detroit Financial Review Commission—with the surplus now dedicated to setting aside an additional $20 million into a trust fund for a pension “funding cliff” the city has anticipated in its plan of debt adjustment by 2024.
Trying to Run on all Pistons. The Detroit City Council has voted 7-1 to approve a resolution to allow the Motor City to realize millions of dollars in income tax revenues from its National Basketball Association Pistons players, employees, and visiting NBA players—with such revenues dedicated to finance neighborhood improvements across the Motor City, under a Neighborhood Improvement Fund—a fund proposed in June by Councilwoman (and ordained Minister) Mary Sheffield, with the proposal coming a week after the City Council agreed to issue some $34.5 million in municipal bonds to finance modifications to the Little Caesars Arena—where the Pistons are scheduled to play next season. Councilwoman Sheffield advised her colleagues the fund would also enable the city to focus on blight removal, home repairs for seniors, educational opportunities for young people, and affordable housing development in neighborhoods outside of downtown and Midtown—or, as she put it: “This sets the framework; it expresses what the fund should be used for; and it ultimately gives Council the ability to propose projects.” She further noted the Council could, subsequently, impose additional limitations with regard to the use of the funds—noting she had come up with the proposal in response to complaints from Detroit constituents who had complained the city’s recovery efforts had left them out—stating: “It’s not going to solve all of the problems, and it’s not going to please everyone, but I do believe it’s a step in the right direction to make sure these catalyst projects have some type of tangible benefits for residents.”
Detroit officials estimate the new ordinance will help generate a projected $1.3 million annually. In addition, city leaders hope to find other sources to add to the fund—sources the Councilmember reports, which will be both public and private: “We as a council are going to look at other development projects and sources that could go into the fund too.” As adopted, the resolution provides: “[I]t is imperative that the neighborhoods, and all other areas of the City, benefit from the Detroit Pistons’ return downtown …In turn, the City will receive income tax revenue, from the multimillion dollar salaries of the NBA players as well as other Pistons employees and Palace Sports & Entertainment employees.” The Council has forwarded the adopted proposals to Mayor Duggan’s office for final consideration and action. The proposed new revenues—unless the tax is modified or rejected by the Mayor—would be dedicated for use in the city’s Neighborhood Improvement Fund in FY2018—with decisions with regard to how to allocate the funds—by Council District or citywide—to be determined at a later date. The funds, however, could also be used to address one of the lingering challenges from the city’s adopted plan of debt adjustment from its chapter 9 bankruptcy: meeting its public pension obligations when general fund revenues are insufficient, “should there be any unforeseen shortfall,” as the resolution provides.
This fiscal recovery, however, remains an ongoing challenge: Detroit CFO John Hill laid up the proverbial hook shot up by advising the Council that the reason the city reserved the right to use the Pistons tax revenue to cover pension or debt obligation shortfalls was because of the large pension obligation payment the city will confront in 2024: “We knew that in meeting our pensions and debt obligation in 2024 and 2025 that those funds get very tight: If this kind of valve wasn’t there, I would have a lot of concerns that in those years its tighter and we don’t get revenues we expect we don’t get any of those funds to meet those obligations.”
But, as in basketball, there is another side: at the beginning of the week, the NBA, Palace Sports & Entertainment, and Olympia Entertainment were added to a federal lawsuit—a suit filed in late June by community activist Robert Davis and Detroit city clerk candidate D. Etta Wilcox against the Detroit Public Schools Community District. The suit seeks to force a vote on the $34.5 million public funding portion of the Pistons’ deal, under which Detroit, as noted above, is seeking to capture the school operating tax, the proceeds of which are currently used to service $250 million of bonds DDA bonds previously issued for the arena project in addition to the $34.5 million of additional bonds the city planned to issue for the Pistons relocation.