A Tale of Two Cities

July 3, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider a tale of two cities connected by geography and history, but divided by a fiscal chasm.

A Fiscal Dividing Line. Mayor Kevin Mumpower was reelected in a unanimous Council vote, Tuesday, to serve a second, consecutive term as Mayor of Bristol, Virginia, an independent, border municipality in southern Virginia of just over 17,000, where, on Thursday, the Council has scheduled a work session to complete its review of applicants for boards and commissions. The Council’s first regularly scheduled meeting is scheduled for next Tuesday. The city is twinned with its neighbor, Bristol, Tennessee, which has a larger population of over 27,000. The twin cities’ heritage dates back more than 250 years to when Evan Shelby came to the area in 1766—an area once inhabited by Cherokee Indians. At first, Mr. Shelby had settled his family at Big Camp Meet—the current day site of the twin border cities, but a site then which Shelby had renamed Sapling Grove, where he built a in 1774 on a hill overlooking what is today downtown Bristol, but which was then a key stop on an expanding nation’s road West for early American explorers such as Daniel Boone and George Rogers Clark—a fort known as Shelby’s Station. Nearly a century later, in 1853, Joseph Anderson, when surveyors projected a junction of two railroad lines at the Virginia-Tennessee state line, Reverend James King conveyed much of his acreage to his son-in-law, Joseph R. Anderson, who then laid out the original town of Bristol, Tennessee/Virginia. About that time, Samuel Goodson, who owned land adjoining the original town of Bristol at the Virginia-Tennessee border, with Beaver Creek serving as the dividing line between the two colonies, began a development known as Goodsonville; however, he was unable to incorporate Bristol across the state lines of Tennessee and Virginia. Three years later, in 1856, Goodsonville and the original Bristol, Virginia were merged to form the composite town of Goodson, Virginia—the very year when the Virginia and Tennessee Railroads reached the cities, with, ergo, two depots, one in Bristol, Tennessee, and the other in Goodson, Virginia; albeit the depot located in Goodson continued to be referred to as Bristol, Virginia. Thirty-four years later, Goodson, Virginia once again took the name Bristol. In 1998, Congress declared Bristol the “Birthplace of Country Music,” in recognition of its contributions to early country music recordings and influence.

Contiguous to the Virginia Bristol is Tennessee, Bristol, with a slightly greater population of around 25,000, has a median income for a household in the city just over $30,039. Nevertheless, despite their abutments, the twin municipalities have starkly different fiscal situations—with the southern twin in Tennessee in fiscal health, but its northern Virginia twin in a near fiscal crisis, seemingly overwhelmed with debt—even after assistance from the Commonwealth of Virginia helped avert deep cuts in funding for the municipality’s public schools. At present, it appears that interest payments by the city are on a course to consume as much as a quarter of the city’s operating budget—or, as City Manager Randall Eads put it: “We’re about as low as you can go and not have cuts to services…We are truly rebuilding this city from the foundation up.”

While the Commonwealth of Virginia does not specifically authorize chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, the state’s courts, six years ago, ruled that “local governing bodies have only those powers expressly granted, those necessarily or fairly implied from expressly granted powers, and those that are essential and indispensable” (see Sinclair v. New Cingular Wireless PCS, 283 Va. 567,576 (Va. 2012), the state’s Dillon Rule compounds the fiscal quandary, providing that if “[T]here is a reasonable doubt about whether legislative power exists, the doubt must be resolved against the local governing body.”

Nevertheless, as the Commonwealth’s Auditor of Public Accounts, Martha Mavredes notes: “The state takes great pride in fiscal soundness and when localities start to falter, that reflects poorly on the state.” Indeed, as we have previously noted, the Commonwealth, two years ago, as Petersburg teetered on the verge of insolvency, had tasked Ms. Mavredes to develop a municipal fiscal early-warning system—a system which, in its first report, put Bristol, along with Petersburg, at the head.

Manager Eads noted: “One of the biggest things we have to overcome as a city is our demographics,” referring to the fiscal challenge in a municipality where nearly a quarter of its residents are in poverty, with more than 40% on some of government assistance, and more than 80% of its school population eligible. That is, it has become clear to Mr. Eads that a new fiscal approach will be necessary.

A Tale of Two Cities. In one area where distinguishing one Bristol from another is enabled by small brass plaques embedded down the center line of State Street which have “Tennessee” on one side and “Virginia” on the other, the twin, bi-state municipalities share a library and an emergency dispatch system; they have connected water systems, and they share payments for the electric bills to finance the neon signs over State Street, which read: “A good place to live.” The twin cities’ city halls are just blocks apart.

However, as we know, looks can be deceiving. Here, the issue of waste appears to have precipitated the fiscal parting of ways: the Virginia Bristol’s old landfill reached capacity about two decades ago; so the municipality opted to construct a new one in a 20-acre limestone pit—one in which the walls were porous. In order to prevent seepage of dangerous chemicals, the city had to purchase a new lining for the landfill walls nearly every other year‒at a cost of $1.2 million each time. That meant, with fees insufficient to cover operating and maintenance costs, the municipality was adding to its debt: currently, Bristol is trying to finance more than $30 million in debt from the landfill, forcing the city to write off $22 million siphoned from the general fund to cover expenses.

Even as unanticipated expenses have soared, the city’s tax base has eroded, hard hit by the collapse of the coal industry, especially in the wake of one of the nation’s largest coal companies, Alpha Natural Resources, headquartered in the city, filing for bankruptcy twelve years ago—at almost the same time as Ball Corp. moved its metal lid-making plant to Mexico. A commercial area developed just off I-81 in the 1990s began to sour. The combination appeared to contribute to the consequent closure of Bristol Mall.

Looking for a fiscal and commercial recovery, the city’s leaders opted to try to enter the commercial real estate business, creating The Falls, intended to be a $260 million hub of restaurants and shops—albeit without, mayhap, closely examining how such a commercial development would be affected by an even larger such development in adjacent Tennessee—where the Tennessee General Assembly had enacted legislation intended to assist its border cities compete with rivals in other states. Because the Volunteer State has no personal income tax, but it has sales tax of up to 9.75%, or nearly double Virginia’s, the difference appears to have been an important factor in providing incentives for those who reside near the border between the two states to opt to reside in Tennessee, but shop in Virginia. The new law allowed developers who built retail within 15 miles of a border to recoup some of the sales and use tax, making projects more attractive.

That led one entrepreneur, Steve Johnson to purchase a 200-acre piece of property, valued at close to $250 million, called The Pinnacle, a complex made up of a million square feet of shops and restaurants, anchored by a Bass Pro Shop, CarMax, Marshalls, and a Belk department store. Unsurprisingly, local Bristol, Virginia officials asked Mr. Johnson to consider developing The Falls instead, pressing the Virginia Legislature to enact provisions for sales and use tax revenue rebates for project developers. In the meantime, Mr. Johnson decided developing the site would be too expensive to level and grade, the roads were too small, and the location was just wrong. Undeterred, the city found another developer, so that, today, The Pinnacle counts nearly 70 merchants, while The Falls has fewer than 10. Thus, instead of helping the city deal with its landfill debt burden, The Falls has significantly added to the fiscal quandary, adding nearly $48 million to the city’s debt—and its political dissatisfaction.

Indeed, unsurprisingly, voters tossed all five Councilmembers from office, electing a slate which included two write-in candidates—and a Council which, early last year, hired a new City Attorney, Randall Eads, who had been a criminal defense attorney, perhaps a key factor in a region which has experienced a plague of methamphetamines and prescription drug abuse. Within six months, the Council removed the then city manager and asked Mr. Eads to step in—perhaps a step that opened his eyes to how grave the city’s physical and fiscal challenges were. In a city beset by such serious drug abuse, one of his first challenges was where to host the perpetrators: the city’s jail, after all, had a capacity of 67 inmates, but, in March, 240 prisoners: the escalating drug crisis meant overcrowding in the municipal jail, and unanticipated costs for those who could not be squeezed in at a regional holding facility at a cost of $38 per inmate per day.

That forced Mr. Eads to see if he could find a way to reduce the inmate population, leading him to propose an alternative punishment program for nonviolent offenders, one which would help them find work and subject them to regular drug testing. Simultaneously, Mr. Eads has been replacing city department heads and working to build morale; he has even been paying for staff picnics out of his pocket. However, it seems as if he has been trying to climb out of a sand hole: absent fiscal changes, the municipality anticipates it will soon face a $2.4 million annual shortfall in debt service payments.

But just on the other side of the state line, in another Bristol City Hall (Tennessee), Bristol City Manager Bill Sorah, who has previous experience in the Virginia Bristol, notes the legal distinctions, especially the differences in the constitutional status of each city: The Commonwealth of Virginia is the only state in which municipalities are independent entities: they are not incorporated as art of the surrounding county. In contrast, Tennessee’s Bristol is a unit of the surrounding Sullivan County: ergo, it faces no problem with inmate overcrowding, no criminal courts to finance, no jail, and no public school system. It has the legal authority denied its counterpart to annex land—authority unavailable on the other side of the border, where Virginia has had a moratorium on annexation for nearly four decades—one the General Assembly recently extended to 2024.

Searching for fiscal solutions. Earlier this year, Virginia Auditor Mavredes granted Bristol $100,000 to hire a consultant to help determine potential fiscal solutions—help which Manager Eads is sure to appreciate—or, as he put it: “We’re in it…so now we’ve got to fix it.” Thus, the city has jacked up fees at the landfill and is pressing ahead with The Falls, and is focusing on putting together a fiscal blueprint to pay down debt and build cash reserves. Indeed, rather than let his city go to pot, he is even entertaining the potential lease from local investors to purchase the shuttered Bristol Mall: the investors are interested in financing a local start-up, Dharma Pharmaceuticals, which wants to convert the vast facility into an operation producing cannabidiol, the marijuana derivative which the Commonwealth Virginia recently approved for treating certain illnesses—meaning the abandoned Penney and Belk buildings could go to pot.

With city’s fiscal year beginning at the end of this week, city leaders have been looking ahead: Mayor Kevin Mumpower outlined his short-term priorities at the beginning of this week’s City Council meeting, and City Manager Randy Eads reported he had an agenda, but would defer presenting it until after the meeting. Mayor Mumpower said many of his goals focus on the city’s long-term fiscal fortunes: “We don’t want the city to ever get to the place it got two years ago. We want it stable and moving forward, so we’re going to look at the charter, see what we can do to refine it and maybe present a few things to the state legislature to draft for us to solidify the city’s financial footing…We know future Councils can undo what we do, but, the way I look at it, that’s on them. Our responsibility is to try to do the right thing.”

The Mayor noted that this could turn out to be a lengthy, detailed process to determine reasonable thresholds so that, in the future, there would be fiscal strictures on borrowing. He reported that his second priority would be promoting economic development and hiring an economic development coordinator—someone with a focus on attracting new businesses to the city. He described a third priority to develop a program to provide inmates job opportunities in order to reduce recidivism and the city’s expensive jail population, noting: “We want to establish that inmate work release program. That is going to be a home run if Randy [Eads], the Sheriff and the Commonwealth’s Attorney can figure this out: We’ve already had several meetings about how we would train these inmates, get them certified, give them a skill set so they’re employable. That would save the city $500,000 to $750,000 a year—that one goal. If that’s successful, it would be a really big deal for the city.”

A second is completion of a state-funded study of the city’s solid waste landfill operations, with that coming as the Council had just voted to increase residential trash collection by $4 per month in order to help offset operating costs, or, as the Mayor put it: “We need to figure out what we’re going to do with our last big albatross: We’re subsidizing the landfill $500,000 this year—it was $1 million—but we’ve done that at the expense of the community.” Finally, Mayor Mumpower reported his last priority would be to establish restricted funds where funds would be set aside for specific needs, including key capital needs such as a fire truck, a school building fund, and another exclusively to pay down debt service: “We need to have money set aside only for those purchases so we don’t have to worry about where those funds are coming from.”

The Fiscal & Legal Challenges of Smaller Municipalities

eBlog

March 28, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing fiscal, physical, intergovernmental, and legal challenges to Flint, Michigan—as too many parties seek to plead innocent to state actions, which have wreaked such devastating fiscal and physical costs. Then we head east to one of the nation’s oldest municipalities, Bristol, Virginia, which appears to be on the precipice of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy.

Fiscal Fraud & Unfiscal Federalism? Andy Arena, the FBI Detroit office’s former director, and lead investigator into the City of Flint’s water crisis, this week testified before the Michigan Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on General Government that he has launched a new probe amid allegations of “financial fraud” and “greed” as critical factor behind the fateful decision years ago to switch the city’s water source, stating: “Without getting too far into depth, we believe there was a significant financial fraud that drove this,” adding that the alleged scheme benefited “individuals.” Or, as he testified: “I believe greed drove this.”

His testimony came as Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette continued the investigation he started in the wake of Gov. Rick Snyder’s declaration, two years ago, of a state of emergency in the wake of the severe and life threatening lead water contamination, as the criminal probe, which has already led to charges against 15 local and state officials—charges resulting in four plea deals and preliminary exams involving six defendants, including state Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon and Chief Medical Executive Eden Wells continue. Now, the investigation is focusing on the potential motivation behind the decision to switch the City of Flint from the Detroit area water system to the new Karegnondi Water Authority—a decision which, when Flint opted to join the regional authority, had terminated its arrangement with the Detroit water system and opened the fateful portals to drawing water from the Flint River as an interim source, e.g. the dreadful step which resulted in contaminated drinking water and calamitous drops in assessed property values—not to mention grave governing questions with regard to the culpability of state appointed emergency managers preempting local elected leaders. (Within 17 months, the decision, made while the city was run by state-appointed emergency managers, was reversed after outbreaks of Legionnaires’ and increased levels of bacteria, total trihalomethanes and lead were found in water. Five years ago, in March, Flint’s City Council members voted 7-1 to join a new regional provider, rather than remain a customer with the Detroit system—as it had for decades. Three days earlier, Flint Emergency Manager Ed Kurtz had approved the agreement, notwithstanding then-State Treasurer Andy Dillon’s skepticism with regard to whether the new regional authority made financial sense.).

Last week, when Sen. Mike Nofs (R-Battle Creek) asked whether the probe involved local, state, and federal entities, Mr. Arena responded: “It kind of cuts across all lines right now…I don’t know that they were working so much in concert, but the end game was people were trying to make money in different ways.” He reiterated that his FBI team has been heading the Flint criminal investigation for more than two years; however, he testified he was uncertain when it might end, adding: “We’re moving at lightning speed…I can assure everyone here that we are working as quickly as we possibly can: Our bottom line is we want justice for the people of Flint, and we have to do that methodically.” Unsurprisingly, he did not detail what “justice” might mean: would it mean reparations for the fiscally and physically devastated city and its taxpayers?

The case, as we have previously written, commenced after the Governor, five years’ ago, preempted all municipal authority via the appointment of Ed Kurtz as the city’s Emergency Manager, effectively preempting any municipal authority for the brewing fiscal, physical, and health catastrophe; Mr. Kurtz, in this preemptive capacity then signed off on the fateful order in June of 2013 to allow the “upgrading of the Flint Water Plant to ready it to treat water from the Flint River to serve as the primary drinking water source for approximately two years and then converting to KWA delivered lake water,” a source which the city used from April of 2014 until October 2015, when the city was reverted to the Detroit system in the wake of an outbreak of Legionnaires’ cases and evidence of elevated levels of lead in the city’s children—a most ill omen, as it signaled to parents the prohibitive cost of health and safety to continue to reside in the city—and the unlikelihood of any ability to sell their homes at any kind of a reasonable price. Mayhap worse, last October, a federal judge dismissed objections by Flint’s City Council and paved the way for Flint officials to move forward with a long-term contract with the Detroit area Great Lakes Water Authority—a position supported by Mayor Karen Weaver as vital to avert chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. Thus, Mayor Weaver, Gov. Snyder, and the EPA supported a proposed 30-year agreement with the Great Lakes Water Authority—a position on which the Flint City Council did not agree—leading to a successful suit by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to compel approval of the agreement.

Concurrently, in a related trial on these physical and fiscal event, before a Genesee District Court Judge in a trial where the state’s Chief Medical Officer has been charged with crimes related to the Flint water crisis, a researcher, Virginia Tech Professor Marc Edwards, testified before Genesee District Court Judge William Crawford yesterday that Dr. Eden Wells had sought to “get to the truth of the matter,” and that had seen no evidence of Dr. Wells having committed crimes during her preliminary examination on potential charges including involuntary manslaughter.(Prosecutors charge that Dr. Wells, a member of Gov. Snyder’s cabinet, failed to protect the health and welfare of Flint area residents, including victims of Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks in the Flint area while the city used the Flint River as its water source in parts of 2014 and 2015: Dr, Wells is charged with attempting to withhold funding for programs designed to help the victims of the water crisis and with lying to an investigator about material facts related to a Flint investigation by the Michigan Attorney General’s Office.) 

Professor Edwards is among those who believe that Flint’s switch to river water without proper treatment to make it less corrosive triggered both elevated lead and increased Legionella bacteria in large buildings in Flint at the time, adding that he disagreed with the approach taken by the Flint Area Community Health and Environment Partnership, which contracted with the state to find the root cause of the Legionella outbreaks, which officials have reported lead to the deaths of at least a dozen people in Genesee County while the river was in use. Thus, Professor Edwards notes, instead of focusing on the potential for the bacteria in water filters, state fiscal resources would have been put to better use if directed to investigate cases tied to large buildings, particularly hospitals, where his own testing showed very high levels were present. Moreover, in response to the query whether Dr. Wells did anything to discourage his research, Prof. Edwards responded: “To the contrary. She seemed interested, and she encouraged it.”

The Fiscally Desperate State of a Small Municipality. Far to the east of Flint, in one of the nation’s oldest municipalities, Bristol, Virginia, a municipality which, in 1880, had a population of 1,562—a population which gradually grew to 19,042 in 1980, before waning to 16,060 by 2016. The area of what is, today, Bristol, was once inhabited by early Americans, Cherokee Indians, with the name, according to legend, because numerous deer and buffalo met there to feast in the canebrakes; it was subsequently renamed the site Sapling Grove, and then, in 1890, finally settled upon as Bristol. It used to have a fort on a hill overlooking what is now downtown Bristol: it marked an important stopping-off place for notables, including Daniel Boone and George Rogers Clark, as well as hundreds of pioneers, who found Bristol, a former trading post, way station, and stockade, to be a cornerstone to opening up a young nation to the West.  Now, a Virginia Auditor of Public Accounts (APA) new report has found the municipality may require state fiscal assistance to address its significant debt tied to The Falls development and landfill operations—having, at the end of last week, in its fiscal distress monitoring report of local governments, assessed the small city as scoring poorly on a set of financial metrics, including debt overload, cash flow issues, revenue shortfalls, deficit spending, billing issues, and a lack of qualified staff. The small municipality today has a median household income of $27,389. Approximately 13.2% of families and 16.2% of the population fall below federal poverty levels–including 25.8% of those under age 18. The Auditor’s report notes: “During follow-up with the City of Bristol, we observed two primary issues that we concluded are contributing to a situation of fiscal distress at the city: issues specific to the operational sustainability of its solid waste disposal fund and the debt and future revenues related to The Falls commercial development project,” positions which Bristol City Manager Randy Eads noted “exactly” portrayed the city’s financial problems, as opposed to preliminary findings released last year which included some incorrect information. Specific findings found that the city does not have unrestricted reserves to use for a revenue shortfall or unforeseen situations, and that the city is not in the “most desirable” position to meet its fiscal obligations without obtaining additional revenues.

As part of the report, the APA issued written notification to Gov. Ralph Northam, the General Assembly’s money committees, the Secretary of Finance, and city officials detailing these specific issues and recommending that Bristol may warrant further assistance from the state to help assess and stabilize areas of concern—with such potential state assistance including an independent consultant reviewing the viability of landfill operations and developing long-range financial forecasts for revenue—each items sought by the city. Or, as Manager Eads noted: “That’s something we requested from the APA. It’s our understanding there’s $500,000 the state has set aside to help low-scoring localities with some of their financial issues…We requested funds for a detailed financial analysis of the landfill and requested funds for a financial planning firm to help us with a three-, five- and 10-year financial forecast.” Manager Eads reports he plans to meet with Virginia legislators to seek support. Bristol’s solid waste fund has $33.5 million in long-term bond debt; the municipality’s general fund continues to transfer funds to pay bills, according to the report. The report notes that city officials completed a significant refinancing of all short-term debt earlier this year; however, debt remains a challenge: “However, the city’s increasing debt service costs continue to be a concerning factor, as Bristol’s ability to pay the debt service will be contingent upon sufficient future revenues received from The Falls project,” according to the report. The auditor’s office notes the city is entitled to additional sales tax revenues under provision of a state law, but notes “Bristol continues to experience some uncertainty with its long-term revenue stream and future growth after all phases of The Falls project are implemented.”