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.

Municipal Sovereignty: What’s at Stake?

eBlog, 9/26/16

In this morning’s eBlog, we wonder whether the end for Atlantic City is nigh: will the state, in fact, take it over? Then we turn to the beleaguered cities of Cleveland and East Cleveland as they contemplate a potential merger: could that avert a chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy—an option which the State of Ohio has made like waiting for Godot? Then we veer east to Connecticut, where the capital City of Hartford faces insolvency—captive to fiscal and physical borders bequeathed from Pilgrim times. Just as inequality in that state’s schools propelled a powerful Connecticut Supreme Court decision, so too, we consider an insightful piece about the inequity of the post municipal bankruptcy Detroit school situation. What might it augur for the city’s post-bankruptcy future? Then, as Horace Greeley asked, we go west, where the governance challenges in San Bernardino and the upcoming ballot question about marijuana have made for heated debate about what kind of debates can the city hold to inform voters on an upcoming election critical to the city’s post-municipal bankruptcy charter. Finally, we look south to the U.S. Virgin Islands—just a hop, skip, and a jump from Puerto Rico to consider how this U.S. Territory is addressing its fiscal challenges. Phew!

Can a City Maintain its Sovereignty? The New Jersey Division of Local Government Services has notified Atlantic City that it has until next Monday to comply with the terms of a $73 million state loan or face the possibility of default because it is in violation of its loan terms, so that it must act swiftly to “cure the breach to come into compliance with the agreement,” albeit LGS spokesperson Tammori Petty noted: “We decline to speculate on next actions.” The notification appears to be a response to Mayor Don Guardian’s request last week for a reprieve after the City Council failed to agree to meet one of the terms in the loan agreement: dissolving the Atlantic Municipal Utilities Authority by September 15th. Should the city not comply by the looming deadline, the state can demand full repayment of the $73 million as well as withhold any state aid. In addition, the state could also to seize the city’s municipal utility authority or its airport as collateral, based on the terms by which the city had agreed to the bridge loan terms in order to avoid defaulting on a $3.4 million debt payment—a payment, which under the terms of the agreement, fell due at the beginning of last month. Doug Goldmacher of Moody’s noted that the city’s “inability to meet its loan covenants is a credit negative and indicative of the city’s severe fiscal distress.” Should the state take over Atlantic City, the Local Finance Board would be authorized and empowered to alter debt and municipal contracts. For the beleaguered city which has tried to weather the closure of four of its casinos—closures reducing its tax base by as much as 70 percent, in addition to undercutting assessed property values—the options appear to be waning. Nevertheless, the Mayor’s Chief of Staff, Chris Filiciello, stated: “We continue to focus on putting together the 150 day plan…If we are given the time to complete and present it, we know it will be the best plan to move Atlantic City forward while still maintaining our local sovereignty.”

To Be or Not to Be? Two of the nation’s poorest cities, East Cleveland and Cleveland, (East Cleveland’s per capita income of $12,602 ranks it 1,000th in Ohio, while Cleveland’s $14,291 ranks it 887th) are undertaking so far informal discussions about a potential merger, albeit with recognition even a combined municipality would need a sizable boost in taxpayer dollars to make it happen. From Cleveland’s perspective, the city is exploring whether there might be development possibilities through such a combination—albeit recognizing the potential pitfalls: East Cleveland is so impoverished that some residents fill their own potholes. Moreover, from a governance perspective, there appears little initiative: East Cleveland has learned that requesting authority from the State of Ohio to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy is like waiting for Godot. Nevertheless, after long balking at the concept of dissolving their city, its elected leaders agreed last month to pursue annexation by the City of Cleveland without the list of demands it had earlier made as a prerequisite, such as continuing the pay of its Mayor and elected officials as its Council had originally submitted to the dismay of Cleveland officials. Nevertheless, with the writing seemingly on the wall, Thomas Wheeler, President of East Cleveland City Council, notes: “Without a revenue stream, I don’t know how we would exist,” adding he and East Cleveland Mayor Gary Norton recognize their city is out of options: it has millions in unpaid bills, and it has had no access to borrow on the municipal credit market for years; it is so cash strapped that in the wake of deep cuts in its workforce, only five firefighters were available to respond to a recent house fire: it is becoming a municipality of crumbling streets, abandoned buildings, uncertain waits for essential emergency 9-1-1 services, and, increasingly, so dangerous that citizens have armed themselves, knowing it could be a long wait for police. Nevertheless, some Cleveland politicians are enthusiastic about the possibility of a merger, citing development possibilities along a main thoroughfare which connects East Cleveland with Cleveland’s fastest-growing neighborhood, University Circle, the home of its fine research hospitals, Case Western Reserve University, and most of Cleveland’s cultural institutions. Ergo: negotiations by a commission consisting of three members from each municipality could begin sometime in the next few months.

Hard Fiscal Times for Hartford. S&P Global Ratings has downgraded the City of Hartford four notches, with the downgrade coming in the wake of the Connecticut Supreme Court decision’s [Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding v. Rell] finding unconstitutional the state’s fiscal disparities in school funding—or, as Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin put it: “The rating agency action reflects what I’ve been saying for many months, which is that the city of Hartford can’t cut or tax its way out of this challenge by itself.” Or, as S&P credit analyst Timothy Little put it, “Until the city can adopt a credible plan and sustain improved budgetary performance, the rating reflects our weak view of management conditions.” The city, which is on course to insolvency by the end of the year, reflects what S&P, in its downgrade, cited continued deficits and the “lack of a credible plan” to balance the 125,000-population city’s budget and curb out-year fiscal gaps—and it cited a one-third chance of further downgrades within a year. Mayor Bronin has repeated his call for help from the state and the region’s suburbs, pressing for consideration of a regional tax and state reconsideration of tax laws to abate municipal reliance on property taxes, noting: “We can put Hartford and the capital region on a path to fiscal health and economic growth, but it’s going to take everyone coming together—in Hartford, the region and the state—to face the realities that we need to face.” As our respected colleagues at Municipal Market Analytics put it, Hartford’s struggles parallel those of many older cities: the city confronts high, escalating fixed costs: debt service, pension obligations, and other post-employment benefits—fixed costs which now consume nearly 20 percent of its annual budget, even as it has a depleting or disparate municipal tax base, because more than one-third of its population lives below the poverty line. Unemployment reached nearly 11% in July, nearly double the statewide rate of 5.6 percent. As MMA notes, the fiscal numbers appear to more than offset the capital city’s concentrations of art, entertainment, and hospital clusters—even as its dependence on state aid meant that this year’s $45 million state aid reduction triggered a spike in its reliance on short-term debt—meaning the city’s debt service could nearly double to about $46 million by FY2018, according to forecasts by city officials. Mayor Bronin notes that past budget practices made Hartford a disaster waiting to happen, or, as he puts it: “When governments are in fiscal crisis, one approach is to hide it or minimize it just to buy a little more time. That’s what Hartford did for many years…That’s not the approach I take. We’re opening the books and telling the real story, because that’s the only way we’re going to be able to make real and lasting change.” The city band-aided its FY2017 $553 million budget on reserves and labor concessions—neither of which the city has yet to realize; the fiscal cliff looms larger in the out-years, when there are anticipated gaps of more than $30 million in FY2018, rising to $50 million thereafter.” … Judge Thomas’ ruling in the 11-year case, like those of Horton v. Meskill in 1977 and Sheff v. O’Neill in 1996, spotlights the most glaring feature of Connecticut’s taxing arrangements — the inequity of school funding.

Sins of the Founding Fathers? Connecticut, like much of New England, traces its municipal roots to the four century-old system of towns, towns based on the parish boundaries of the Puritans, which required that every resident be able to walk to church, meaning, in the case of Connecticut municipalities, many remain approximately the same size geographically, albeit that some of its cities are among the smallest towns (17 square miles in the case of Hartford, 5.5 square miles in New London). From the original parish boundaries have devolved municipal boundaries, each town with taxing power and its own elected council, police department, public works department, fire department and school system. That appears to have contributed to a governance system in which the state is made up of several medium-to-large Metropolitan Statistical Areas, defined as having one or more adjacent counties or county equivalents with at least one urban core of 50,000 population, plus adjacent area tied to the core through a high degree of social and economic integration measured by commuting ties. Of the 382 MSAs nationally, the New York City MSA is ranked No. 1 in population; the Boston MSA is No. 10; the largest MSA in Connecticut, the Hartford-West Hartford-East Hartford MSA, is made up of 29 towns: it is ranked 47th in the country in population. In 2015, it had a population of 1,211,324, just below the New Orleans-Metairie MSA at 1,262,888, and just above the Salt Lake City MSA at 1,170,266. The Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk MSA ranks 57th, with a population just under a million; the New Haven-Milford MSA ranks 65th with a population 859,470; the Norwich-New London MSA ranks 175th with a population of 271,863. If one transposed these places: if Simsbury were in Louisiana, it would be a neighborhood of New Orleans; if it were in Utah, it would be a neighborhood of Salt Lake City. That seems to mean a double fiscal whammy bedevils the state’s municipalities: 1) the terrible disparities or inequities so devastatingly painted by Connecticut Supreme Court Justice Moukawsher in his school decision, but 2) the inefficiency of the arrangement. Or, as Toni Gold, a transportation and community development consultant and a member of the board of the Connecticut Main Street Center, last Saturday wrote: “Regionalism is the dirtiest word in the Connecticut political vocabulary because real regionalism would require small towns and affluent suburbs alike to stop pretending that they have no connection to or responsibility for the center cities on which they depend. This snipping of a state into a lot of minuscule towns is not what the rest of the country does — and for good reason. It is financially irrational…If all legislative remedies fail in the wake of the CCJEF decision, one must ask whether there isn’t a broader legal remedy. All the school funding cases have been brought under the state constitution. Why couldn’t there be a federal case, brought on the broader issue under the 14th Amendment to the federal Constitution, which says in part, “nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws?”

Schooling on Detroit’s Future. The State of Michigan, as we have noted, in the wake of the insolvency of the Detroit Public School System, has created a dual system of public and charter schools, with the former now under the auspices of retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes. Vikram David Amar, last Friday, writing in Justia, “In a Case with Blockbuster Potential, Detroit School Children Assert a Federal Constitutional Right to Literacy,” wrote about a class action lawsuit, Gary B. v. Snyder, pending in the U.S. District Court for Eastern Michigan, which has been filed on behalf of children who attend some of the most dilapidated and lowest-performing Detroit public schools, in which the plaintiffs allege Gov. Rick Snyder and other state officials are violating the constitutional rights of Detroit children by depriving students of their “fundamental right” to literacy under the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process and equal protection clauses. The 129-page complaint “recites in heart-wrenching detail the physical, curricular, and human resource shortcomings of the schools attended by the plaintiffs;” it also documents what he describes as the “woeful underperformance of the students at these schools, as compared to other schools in the state and also to the state’s competency baselines established for various grade levels. It is hard to believe the conditions laid out in the Complaint exist in 21st Century America; at times the allegations seem more like the setting of a Dickens novel.” He notes that the complaint also proposes what he deems an “an ambitious legal theory, effectively asking the federal court to apply ‘heightened scrutiny’ to what is going on in Detroit, and urging it not to apply the deference ordinarily given to state and local school officials [author’s emphasis]concerning their administration of public education.” The complaint identifies two related, but distinct grounds for judicial skepticism—the first being equal protection (describing the plaintiffs as a “discrete class,” almost all of whom are “low income children of color.”), but the second asserts that “heightened judicial oversight is warranted, because in the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause there is a ‘fundamental right of access to literacy,’ which presupposes better facilities, better instructional materials, and better teacher training than exist in Detroit. It asserts a federal “fundamental right” to literacy under the so-called “substantive due process doctrine” of the Fourteenth Amendment, the lawsuit is path-breaking, and perhaps ultimately destined for the Supreme Court. The complaint here asserts that many “Detroit public school children lack any realistic chance at literacy; the Complaint links its concept of literacy directly to expressive and political rights (including military service), saying that literacy is essential not only to success in the workplace and higher education, but also (importantly) to ‘be[ing] an informed citizen capable of participating in democracy.’” He notes that the complaint repeatedly points out, “the State of Michigan (like other states) has made attendance in some kind of state-approved school compulsory, so the State is already interfering with private choices in this realm, and in ways that allegedly make it nigh impossible for Detroit children to attain literacy.” Finally, he writes:

But the affirmative/negative rights line does implicitly bring up probably the biggest hurdle for the plaintiffs—the practical and logistical concerns about appropriate remedies that might disincline federal courts to become deeply involved in decisions about school facilities, curricula, teacher training, and the like. Most of the other settings in which the Court has recognized a fundamental right do not involve the remedial complexity the Snyder case implicates. And as the Court cautioned in Rodriguez, at a time when the federal judiciary was in the midst of a mixed experience of federal judicial oversight over busing, pupil reassignment, and other aspects of the federal judicial effort to eliminate the vestiges of racial school segregation:

He writes: “We stand on familiar ground when we continue to acknowledge that the Justices of this Court lack both the expertise and the familiarity with local problems so necessary to the making of wise decisions with respect to the raising and disposition of public revenues. . . . In addition to matters of fiscal policy, this case also involves the most persistent and difficult questions of educational policy, another area in which this Court’s lack of specialized knowledge and experience counsels against premature interference with the informed judgments made at the state and local levels. Education, perhaps even more than welfare assistance, presents a myriad of ‘intractable economic, social, and even philosophical problems.’ The very complexity of the problems of financing and managing a . . . public school system suggests that ‘there will be more than one constitutionally permissible method of solving them,’ and that, within the limits of rationality, ‘the legislature’s efforts to tackle the problems’ should be entitled to respect.”

Electing a Higher Future for Post-Chapter 9 San Bernardino? With an exit from chapter 9 bankruptcy finally within sight—and elections just around the corner, the San Bernardino City Council has voted to schedule not one, but at least two sets of debates at City Hall, after the Council overruled City Manager Mark Scott’s decision not to permit such debates. Mr. Scott had emailed those seeking or proposing such pre-election debates, debates customary in previous election years, that none would be permitted this election year,  out of a concern about a conflict of interest since the city had placed two measures on the ballot—albeit, in his email, Mr. Scott had written the City Council could vote to reverse him if it wished—an email which, unsurprisingly, drew a response from Council Members, some of whom attacked him for seeking to shut down free speech, while others defended him as implementing the implied direction of a Council that has directed staff not to spend any funds to educate the public about the city charter ballot measure. However, the Council has been unanimous in the vote to allow pre-election debates at City Hall and on the public access channel, waiving fees for both—or, as Councilman John Valdivia put it: “The actual statement from Mr. Scott is that there is a council discretion to overturn his decision, so I think he left it completely wide open for the Council to make the ultimate decision…This is unacceptable on behalf of what Mr. Scott is attempting to do.” Surprisingly, Mr. Scott was not at the meeting; however, he wrote in an email that it seemed “smart to stay completely arms-length” because the city was behind both Measure L (to replace the city charter), and Measure P, to replace the city’s marijuana ban with a regulatory scheme. City Attorney Gary Saenz noted: “It’s necessary to take precaution and care that you don’t cross over the line into endorsement and you stick within the parameters of education…Sometimes that’s hard to do. I personally encountered a forum – or a couple of forums, actually – when I was campaigning and there was a conflict of interest that I believe tainted the discussions.”

Entering Virgin Territory.  Just 17 miles from Puerto Rico lies the insular area, the U.S. Virgin Islands, which consist of the main islands of Saint Croix (where the author trained for his Peace Corps service in Liberia, West Africa) Saint John, and Saint Thomas, as well as many other surrounding minor islands reaching a total land area of 133.73 square miles with a population just over 106,000. Tourism is the primary economic activity, although there is a significant rum manufacturing sector. Previously part of the Kingdom of Denmark-Norway, they were sold to the United States in 1917: they are considered an organized, unincorporated U.S. Territory. The Territory has convened five constitutional conventions; however, its most recent and only proposed Constitution, adopted in 2009, was rejected by Congress in 2010. Thus, its status vis-à-vis the U.S. government, as it confronts severe fiscal challenges, is more difficult than Puerto Rico’s. Now U.S. Virgin Islands Gov. Kenneth Mapp has introduced legislation to authorize issuance of some $396 million in municipal bonds, with the goal of issuance this this fall—with the proposal for the fiscally challenged U.S. territory coming as his government is seeking approval of revenue increases and spending reductions. A confidential draft of the territory’s five-year financial plan of September 15th shows that, absent any changes in revenue measures or spending, the government anticipates operating deficits between $130 million and $140 million from FY2017—FY 2021, thus triggering the government to propose a wide array of revenue and spending initiatives—an array which the government projects would lead to operating deficits of $0.8 million in FY2017, $14.3 million in FY2018, and $13.8 million in FY2019—but followed by surpluses of $50 million in fiscal 2020 and $77.5 million in fiscal 2021. Gov. Mapp has, ergo, proposed revenue initiatives to increase the marine terminal user’s tax (adding $7 million in annual revenue), a new internet gross receipts tax ($5.1 million annually), an increase in cigarette taxes ($6.9 million a year), and an increase in beer taxes ($12.8 million annually)—both to reduce the current and projected deficits, but also to apply to economic development. The cuts he has proposed would affect hat it would produce at least $25 million annually. In the five year plan, Gov. Mapp proposes to take out a $55 million working capital loan and a $55 million draw on a line of credit; he projects using nearly 40 percent of the bond proceeds for operating expenses, and the balance for capital projects. Under his proposal, the interest rate on the bonds may not exceed 9.5%, nor a term of more than 30 years, with the draft legislation providing that the municipal bond issuance will be sold as either: a matching fund revenue bond, paid back with a portion of taxes on the sale of rum in the 50 states that the federal government sends to the Virgin Islands; or a gross receipts taxes bond, paid back from a government sales tax. Compared to Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands have significantly higher unemployment and murder rates, but a significantly better rate with regard to infant mortality.

The Awkward Mix of Democracy, Governance & Insolvency.

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eBlog, 8/29/16

In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the important debate between candidates in November’s municipal election in what could be post-bankrupt San Bernardino on the critical issue of the city’s charter—an issue we had noted in our original report on San Bernardino to be “a key challenge” if the city was to have a future. Then we turn, again, to the aftermath of the City of Cleveland’s rejection of nearly insolvent East Cleveland’s proposal to be annexed by Cleveland: what options are next? Then we veer south to consider the enduring confrontation in municipal distress and bankruptcy between public pension obligations and essential public services—and municipal bondholders—today in not just Puerto Rico, but also in the nearby Virgin Islands.

Is Post Chapter 9 as Simple as a Coin Flip? In our original report on critical factors which forced San Bernardino into the longest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, we wrote that in the estimation of most individuals, “a key challenge for the city is in its charter. Decision-making authority over budgets, personnel, development and other matters is fragmented between and among the mayor, city manager, city council and city attorney—as well as several boards and commissions. Elected officials do not have the power to alter the salary calculations resulting from these provisions (except through voluntary negotiations with the representatives of that set of employees). These provisions greatly reduce the ability and flexibility of the city to adapt to economic and fiscal conditions as they change over time.” So too does the city’s plan of debt adjustment awaiting final approval from U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury’s approval next month. Indeed, the city’s plan calls for the city to “update the charter to operate in a more efficient, accountable, and transparent way.” So now it is that a new version of the charter — in essence, a constitution that structures the city’s government and limits what officials may do — will be on the ballot Nov. 8, after a citizen committee determined that the existing charter contributed to the city’s problems and spent nearly two years writing a new one. But whether it will remain has become a political football.

The argument in favor of the new city charter is signed by Jill Vassilakos-Long, president, League of Women Voters of San Bernardino; Albert Karnig, president emeritus, Cal State San Bernardino; Margaret Hill, board member, San Bernardino City Unified School District; Gloria Macias Harrison, small businesswoman; and Chris Mann, founder, Inland Empire Taxpayers Association.

“The Bankruptcy Court’s Recovery Plan called for the city to update the charter to operate in a more efficient, accountable, and transparent way,” they argue, listing some of the components of the proposed new charter. “Measure L does that so San Bernardino can get back on the right track and begin to move forward.”

Because, now it is that former City Attorney James Penman and his opponent in November’s election, Tim Prince, each believes that changing the city charter would be a bad idea; moreover, they represent groups which have submitted ballot arguments against the charter change proposal. Their arguments, however, are different—creating a distinct challenge for City Clerk Gigi Hanna: on which may voters opine? Being on vacation in Oregon, she opted to flip a coin to decide—an action which the loser, Mr. Penman, the former city attorney, ergo, objected to as a “clandestine” coin toss, saying she should have selected the argument signed by himself and other current and former elected officials: “You have chosen to print an opposition argument with little or no substance, one signed by citizens whom we assume are well-intended but who, unfortunately are not as well informed as to how the repeal of our current, pro-public city charter and its replacement by a voter unfriendly substitute, will impact San Bernardino City governance…Just as disturbing is the fact that you purportedly made your decision based on a ‘coin toss,’ held without any notice or public announcement beforehand.” In a follow-up email, he added that his interpretation of the law his group’s argument should be put on the ballot, warning: “Failure to do so could result in a subsequent invalidation of the election outcome, in our opinion.”

Mr. Prince, who ran to replace Mr. Penman as City Attorney, responded: “That’s typical banter from a really disastrous city attorney who took over this city at its top as an All-America City, as a city that had a bright future, and, through his personality, flaws, and defects literally ran us into the ground and wouldn’t let go his clutches until we were gasping for our very life in [federal] bankruptcy court…and he still thinks he has the answer.”

Under California’s election laws, when more than one argument is submitted, the code states that the city election official (Mr. Hanna in this case) “shall select one of the arguments in favor and one of the arguments against the measure for printing and distribution to the voters,” instructing said official to give preference, in order, to members of the legislative body authorized by that body, the sponsors of the measure, bona fide associations of citizens, and individual eligible voters. Although Mr. Penman’s first contention was that the coin toss should have been public, in the wake of consulting the election code, he noted that his argument was the only one signed by a member of a legislative body — Councilman John Valdivia, the only councilman to vote against putting the charter on the ballot; thus he acknowledged that Council Member Valdivia was not authorized by the City Council, but said it would be unrealistic for the majority that voted against him to make that authorization. Ergo, he wrote: “Nonetheless, the intent of the Legislature in passing §9287 is clearly shown by stating that a member of the legislative body was to be given preference in writing a ballot measure argument under the conditions stated…We contend that the spirit of the law, giving preference to a member or members of the legislative body, should be applied by you in this case and the argument against Measure L signed by Council Member Valdivia should be the one printed.”

City Attorney Gary Saenz said his deputy, Jolena Grider, recommended a coin toss — or the roll of a dice in the case of marijuana legalization measures that also drew more than one argument against, but not the controversy.

Mr. Prince’s argument was signed by Clifton Peters III, president, San Bernardino City Library Foundation; Roger Henderson, ambassador, San Bernardino Area Chamber of Commerce; Robert Porter, founder of the Facebook group “I Love San Bernardino;” Richard Avila, business owner; and Prince, who is vice president of the Democratic Luncheon Club of San Bernardino. It notes “checks and balances” of allowing people to elect the city attorney, city clerk and city treasurer, which would be appointed positions under the new charter, and emphasizes San Bernardino’s heritage: “This proposal to throw away our historic charter follows outsourcing City departments and giving away our historic fire department, reflecting loss of pride in our history and hope in San Bernardino’s future…We stand apart from cookie cutter cities in Orange County (from which our politicians’ high-priced consultants hail). Orange County suburbs lack San Bernardino’s time-tested charter, heritage and follows.”

In contrast, Mr. Penman’s argument is signed by John P. Wade, a retired Superior Court judge; former mayors Evlyn Wilcox and Judith Valles; Valdivia; and Mr. Penman: who claim Measure L would eliminate citizens’ votes, lessen accountability, mean no independence, and remove power from the elected mayor to give it to the unelected city manager, claiming it would take away voter choice and reduce “accountability to the people and increase exposure to mismanagement and corruption similar to that alleged in Bell, Beaumont and Moreno Valley.” Rebuttals to those arguments will also be distributed to voters—with the rebuttals due by sundown this evening.

Unmergering. In the wake of Cleveland’s unsurprising rejection of a merger with neighboring East Cleveland, the latter’s Mayor Gary Norton reports his city’s proposed “merger will be delayed until disaster and/or multiple preventable deaths occur; then there will be a shotgun wedding.” Indeed, as we noted last week, it was virtually inconceivable that Cleveland would be able to find any benefit out of what East Cleveland had proposed. If anything, the laundry list of demands likely poisoned the waters for any serious consolidation or merger. That puts the governance ball back before the Mayor and Council in East Cleveland–and the State of Ohio: should it press for the state to give it the green light to file for chapter 9? Should it opt for dissolution? Should it put together a realistic proposal to be incorporated into Cleveland? As they used to say in Rome: tempus fugit. (Time flies.) East Cleveland’s Police and Fire departments have been degraded to skeletal status; the city’s Service Department has only eight overworked souls responsible for the physical upkeep of municipal property. In the end, this is a difficult governance question: who will accept and assume responsibility for the children in East Cleveland so they have some chance for a future?

Balancing Unbalance. Even as the inexplicable and unaccountable delay in naming the PROMESA oversight board responsible for addressing Puerto Rico’s insolvency and determining its quasi-plan of debt adjustment debt crisis is deciding how to balance a $70 billion debt load with nearly $43 billion in unfunded pension liabilities pends, fabulous Matt Fabian of Municipal Market Analytics has noted the sharp conflict between the Commonwealth’s constitution, under which Puerto Rico is obligated pay the holders of its general-obligation bonds before making payments for essential public services or public pensions, the new PROMESA law does the opposite: it directs the as yet unnamed board to ensure pensions are adequately funded. It is a Gordian knot—with the option of reducing public pension payouts running the risk of accelerating the out-migration of younger, employed Puerto Ricans: accelerating the loss of those most critical to the island’s future economic growth. It is a problem, moreover, complicated by bondholder creditors, who have sued Puerto Rico in federal court, because the Commonwealth’s adopted budget increases funding for pensions, but does not set aside budget resources to address municipal bond obligations, or, as the hedge funds’ claim puts it: diverts “vast resources to purposes that apparently enjoy political favor but are indisputably junior to constitutional debt.” Municipal bondholders, not surprisingly, are looking to the outcomes of the plans of debt adjustment approved in U.S. Bankruptcy Courts in Stockton and Detroit under which pensioners emerged in better shape than municipal bondholders. (Puerto Rico’s public pension funds have about $2 billion in assets against $45 billion in liabilities: with young professionals leaving for the mainland, the imbalance, moreover, is worsening: Puerto Rico’s pensions are on track to be empty in just three years. The plight was summed up by Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew last May when he noted: “If people leave the island because they’re not willing to work and pay into a system that isn’t going to pay any benefits, how is that going to help the bondholders?”

In Puerto Rico’s Footsteps? Fitch has now joined Moody’s in downgrading the Virgin Islands, a U.S. territory not far from Puerto Rico, dropping its rating on the Virgin Island’s matching fund bonds, backed by the flow of rum tax revenues, and on V.I. Gross Receipts bonds, backed by the Virgin Islands’ Gross Receipts Tax revenues. Fitch added a twitch by dropping the territory’s general credit, or issuer default rating, more deeply into junk status. The downgrade appears to have been the outcome of Fitch’s decision early last month to put the Virgin Islands’ gross receipts bonds and matching funds bonds on a negative watch, in order to assess how the fiscal impact of PROMESA might be. That seems to have translated into Fitch’s decision to lift the Virgin Islands’ bond ratings two notches above its general credit rating, “reflecting Fitch’s assessment that the bonds are exposed to operating risks of the territory but benefit from enhanced recovery prospects assuming passage of legislation by the USVI legislature to provide a statutory lien on the respective revenue streams for bondholders.” Monday’s announcement said…Fitch believes a statutory lien would enhance the recovery prospects for bondholders should the federal government adopt legislation in the future allowing for a restructuring of USVI-backed debt.” In its ratings actions, Fitch noted: “The adoption of PROMESA demonstrated the capacity of the federal government to adopt legislation controlling territorial bankruptcy in much the same manner that a state might do to control the ability of municipalities to seek bankruptcy protection.” Ergo, Fitch plans to treat the territory similarly to a local government in applying dedicated tax bond criteria.

Might there Be a Federal Role in Causing Severe Municipal Fiscal Distress?

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eBlog, 8/23/16

In this morning’s eBlog, we revisit Ferguson, Missouri—a small municipality in St. Louis County struggling to recover from racial violence and an expensive U.S. Justice Department imposition of subsequent unfunded fiscal mandates. Yesterday, a federal judge found the city’s school board election system biased against black voters. The judge’s findings and a Moody’s downgrade combine to raise questions with regard to the municipality’s solvency: has the U.S. Justice Department unintentionally made the small city a candidate for municipal bankruptcy? It brings back to mind, in addition, an old question: are there too many municipalities in St. Louis County? Can we afford so many? Could a municipality dissolve itself? Then we turn to archipelago of the U.S. Virgin Islands—seemingly a hop, skip, and a jump from Puerto Rico, where the U.S. territory’s unbalanced budget, rising debt burden, and unfunded pension liabilities put still another U.S. territory at risk of insolvency.

Public Schools & Arithmetic. U.S. District Judge Rodney Sippel yesterday, writing that “The ongoing effects of racial discrimination that have long plagued the region, and the District in particular, have affected the ability of African-Americans to participate equally in the political process,” ruled that Ferguson, Missouri’s school board elections are biased against black voters. The suit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, claimed that the Ferguson-Florissant School District makes it unlawfully difficult for black candidates to win positions on the school board. Voters in the district elect school board members at large, rather than on a ward or sub-district basis, a process, Judge Sippel wrote, which has reduced black representation. Currently, three out of seven board members are black, a ratio that reflects the demographics of the city, the school district has argued. Black students make up four-fifths of the 13,200-student population. During the trial, a demographer demonstrated that Ferguson’s black population is concentrated and politically unified enough to affect results if the FFSD were divided into voting districts: black voters would constitute a majority in four out of seven of those theoretical districts. U.S. District Judge Rodney W. Sippel said that while he does not see evidence of intentional discrimination, there is a more subtle “complex interaction” of political processes that deter black voters from electing the candidates of their choice, writing: “Rather, it is my finding that the cumulative effects of historical discrimination, current political practices, and the socioeconomic conditions present in the District impact the ability of African-Americans in (the school system) to participate equally in Board elections.” The Ferguson-Florissant district serves about 11,200 students in parts of 11 municipalities. About 80 percent of those students are black, and 12 percent are white. District residents are nearly evenly split between black and white. (The ACLU filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Missouri National Association of the Advancement of Colored People in the wake of protests over the shooting.) The court decision comes in the wake of Moody’s placing the city’s already junk-level rating on review for downgrade because of threats to the city’s solvency—with the downgrade of the city’s general obligation rating reflecting “the continued pressure on the city’s finances from a persistent structural imbalance and incorporating the recently approved U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) consent decree, projected to increase annual General Fund expenses over the next several years. The downgrade also took into consideration the outcome of an April 5 ballot election, in which voters rejected a proposed property tax hike (but approved a sales tax for economic development). Both ballot measures were integral to city management’s proposed solution to close a large General Fund budget gap that existed before accounting for the additional consent decree costs. Moody’s had acted after the U.S. Justice Department filed a lawsuit in February, marking the latest setback in Ferguson’s struggle to recover from a controversial police shooting in 2014. The Justice Department accused Ferguson of policing and municipal court practices that violate constitutional and federal civil rights. The credit rating company had noted that its rating concerns had been driven by the uncertainty of the potential financial impact of litigation costs from the lawsuit and the price tag for implementing the proposed DOJ consent decree: “We believe fiscal ramifications from these items will be significant and could result in insolvency.”

Is there Promise from PROMESA? Fitch ratings has reduced the U.S. Virgin Islands’ bond ratings to junk level, citing the U.S. territory’s unbalanced budget, rising debt burden, and unfunded pension liabilities. Fitch noted that the enactment of the PROMESA legislation for neighboring Puerto Rico could open the door for a comparable restructuring of the Virgin Island’s debt. The territory, where the author trained for his Peace Corps service in Liberia, West Africa, is comprised of a number of islands in the Caribbean not far from Puerto Rico. The islands cover just under 134 square miles and boast a population of just over 100,000. Tourism is the primary economic activity, with the manufacture of rum a significant sector. The islands are classified as a non-self-governing territory—one which since 1954 has held five constitutional conventions—with its most recent, its fifth, adopting in 2009 a proposed Constitution—one rejected by Congress the following year, with Congress urging the convention to reconvene to address the concerns Congress and the Obama Administration had with the proposed document. The convention subsequently reconvened in October of 2012, but was not able to produce a revised Constitution before its October 31 deadline. In its ratings, Fitch downgraded the Virgin Island’s gross receipts tax bonds, affecting $722 million in debt; Fitch also downgraded the territory’s senior lien matching fund revenue bonds to BB from BBB and subordinate lien matching fund revenue bonds to BB from BBB-minus. In amounts of debt, the former affected $773 million and the latter affected $428 million. Fitch also downgraded the Virgin Islands’ issuer default rating to B-plus from BB-minus. In its release, Fitch noted that the Virgin Islands plans to sell $217 million in gross receipts taxes bonds, $126 million in senior lien matching fund bonds, and $69 million in subordinate lien matching fund bonds near the end of next month—noting that the U.S. territory has a “severely unbalanced operating budget” and multiple years of borrowing to fund operating needs—and is expected to feature ongoing budget imbalances: its debt burden has increased, and its unfunded public pension liability has increased at a faster pace.