Physical & Fiscal Storms

September 20, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the fiscal challenge confronting the small Virginia municipality of Pound; then we turn to the fiscal and physical storms pounding the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

Pound fiscally pounded. The Council of the small Virginia Town of Pound, the original home of former U-2 pilot Gary Powers, with a population under 1,200, where the median income for a household is under $30,000, confronted by an inability to make payroll and pay other bills due has unanimously agreed in an emergency meeting to borrow enough to pay employees, but not any other outstanding obligations. The Mayor and interim Town Manager George Dean advised the Council that resources in the general fund get low about this time every year; this year, he noted, however, the town has experienced some unanticipated expenditures; thus it needed to tap into its line of credit. As factors, Manager Dean identified unbudgeted overtime, especially in the police department, as the single biggest problem.  He added: “I did not budget to have a chief of police and an assistant police chief in the office side by side,” adding the town could not sustain the current level of overtime. In response, Councilman Terry Short said that with eight officers, there should be no need for overtime, asking how the officers are receiving more overtime than is budgeted. The Manager responded: “You have to ask him,” referring to Chief Tony Baker—which unsurprisingly led Councilman Clifton Cauthorne to note that the town manager is in charge of the finances. But Manager Dean was clear: “I’m not telling the Chief of Police how to run his department: You all need to address that.”  But Councilmember Short noted that when four full-time officers are receiving more than 100 hours of overtime, “we’ve got a problem.”  Town clerk and bookkeeper Jenny Carter, however, said the Police Department was not the only position drawing overtime out of the general fund, telling Council her position also is paid through that account, and she logs considerable overtime, because the office is so understaffed. She had four meetings last month, Ms. Carter noted, and it took 23 and a half hours to type up all those minutes. So, how much was budgeted, Councilman Danny Stanley asked. Eight hours, Ms. Dean responded. While there was some discussion that the seasonal financial crush should ease when the town converts to a twice-annually billing cycle, Ms. Carter said she was confident that will resolve matters in the future; however, she also suggested Council consider increasing the town’s line of credit—a suggestion Councilmember Cauthorne was quick to oppose, noting: “I feel that is like giving a drunk more booze,” adding this was not the first year the town has run into this fiscal problem—or, as one of his colleagues added: “[it] just continues to snowball,” overspending every year, robbing Peter to pay Paul, borrowing money it does not have and without a method to pay it back. Asked how much the town has repaid of its original debt, Ms. Dean said the town still owes the bank about $65,000, adding the town has access to roughly $35,000 available of a $100,000 line of credit, while Ms. Carter said the town is negative $24,500 in the general fund, with open payables of almost another $10,000. If the Council is going to put any more on the line of credit, Councilman Cauthorne made clear he wants to revisit automatic spending cuts—reminding his colleagues that Pound had adopted a plan in 2014 to trigger automatic cuts if the town ever reached $55,000 of its line of credit—an action the Council rescinded a year later.

Councilmember Short said the town’s internal controls require use of time cards, and other kinds of time sheets have not been approved, moving to mandate immediately that all employees use time cards as required by Pound’s internal controls policy: he further noted that the town has a budget and has policies and procedures to control operations, adding: “All we have to do is follow it. It’s that simple.” Council unanimously endorsed requiring time cards as per existing policy. Councilmember Short then moved that all overtime require approval of the town manager, including the police force, but Manager Dean immediately objected, stating: “That’s not going to work,” adding he was not going to comply and Council would have to figure out who was going to tell the police chief, adding: “I am not in control of the chief of police’s overtime hours…He works for you…We’ve got a financial problem here and we’ve got to do something about it: the Council is being asked to borrow money to pay for bills which “we are not controlling.” With regard to employees spending more money than is budgeted, he added: “I don’t know of any business that works like that. If they do, it ain’t long before they are out of business…” He noted they are obligating all taxpayers in the town when they sign contracts borrowing money and citizens are financially obligated to repay that money if the town goes under.

Fiscal & Physical Storms. Promesa Oversight Board Executive Director Natalie Jaresko, in an interview with the Bond Buyer, warned that Puerto Rico is confronted by what this morning could be the strongest hurricane to ever hit the U.S. territory, further decimating public utilizes and forcing the virtually insolvent government to rebuild dozens of communities. But she also said she anticipated Puerto Rico’s fiscal ability to make its requisite municipal bond payments should improve after nine years, expressing optimism with regard to Puerto Rico’s future and the PROMESA board’s relationship with the government of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló—albit, she added, the next few years of reform will inevitably be tough: the PROMESA Board does not expect Puerto Rico to return to nominal gross national product growth until FY2022 and inflation-adjusted growth until FY2024, adding that by the end of the next decade, she anticipates Puerto Rico’s economy to be growing, noting: “In the years 11 to 40 there’s bound to be more cash in all the estimates available for debt service: So creditors shouldn’t only focus on the 10 years.” She added that the Board is working on a “plan of adjustment” for the debt, as provided under PROMESA, albeit she was uncertain when the plan would be publicly released. With regard to timing, she said, in the interview, that Judge Swain has said she plans to rule by mid-December on the dispute between the Puerto Rico Sales Tax Financing Corp. (COFINA) and Puerto Rico over the ownership of sales tax proceeds allotted for the former. Once this is done, she noted, Puerto Rico may pay some of the debt due this fiscal year, adding that work on restructuring all of Puerto Rico’s public sector debt is proceeding simultaneously on three tracks: in negotiations, in the private mediation process overseen by Barbara Houser, and in the Title III litigation process overseen by Judge Swain. She added that the PROMESA Board is working with PREPA and parts of Gov. Rosselló’s administration to adopt a new fiscal plan for PREPA, noting that lowering Puerto Rico’s electric rates would be a vital step for enhancing the economy—albeit Hurricane Maria appears to have very different implications.

With regard to the relationship between the PROMESA Board and the Governor, the Director was generally positive, adding she said she was satisfied with government’s progress in releasing financial information to the board, noting that the Rosselló administration is providing the PROMESA board a report comparing budgeted to actual spending department by department, as well as weekly reports on cash and liquidity, adding that Puerto Rico is moving towards better accounting practices.

Interestingly, the Director said the experience she gained from her service as the Minister of Finance for Ukraine from 2014–2016, taught her “implementation is everything.” Last month, she said, a lack of implementation plans had led the PROMESA Board to order Puerto Rico to institute furloughs, noting: “There are governments aplenty that can adopt plans, adopt laws, have full commitment and desire to change but implementation at an agency level in a bureaucracy is extremely difficult: that is the key to success,” adding that she believes the Rosselló administration has been “committed” to the fiscal plan: “If you take the case of right-sizing the government, I have no doubt there is a desire and intent and it is part of the public campaign of the governor to right-size the government. So I don’t think there’s not an alignment in the goal.” Nevertheless, as she put it—and as we have learned from Pound: “[T]he devil will be in the details of the implementation and enforcement of the fiscal plan, and that is the biggest lesson learned [from the Ukraine.]” to execute cuts in an agency, the agency can run out of money eight or nine months into the fiscal year, she said. “Then the agency usually turns to the central government for an additional allocation to continue operations…“There is a general fatigue among creditors [with Puerto Rico’s continuing problems] and I understand that because they have been dealing with these problems for years. But the problems that grew didn’t evolve overnight and didn’t evolve over one year and resolving them is also going to take time.”

It is unclear what level of fiscal planning will be sufficient today as Hurricane Maria, bringing sustained winds of 160 miles per hour (mph) appears relentlessly approaching—with the government insisting its the priority is to save lives, even as it continues to deal with the after effects of Hurricane Irma, which passed tens of miles above the north coast. The National Weather Service warned: “It is catastrophic in every way, winds, rain and storm surge. We are talking about an extremely dangerous event.” Along with winds of 160 mph and even higher gusts, Maria was predicted to bring 12 to 18 inches of rain, and up to 25 inches for isolated areas in Puerto Rico: the storm surge is estimated from 6 to 9 feet, with large breaking waves that could reach 25 feet. Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares urged citizens and families to seek save havens to prevent the loss of human lives: “We have not experienced an event of this magnitude in our modern history…An event like this has never happened before. Maria is predicted to be the worst atmospheric event in a century in Puerto Rico, and, if we do not take precautions, we will have loss of lives that we could have avoided.” The Governor noted that yesterday afternoon residents had already begun to move in five communities which are threatened due to their location in flood-prone areas: Juana Matos, in Cataño; Playita, in Salinas; Amelia, in Guaynabo; Islote, in Arecibo, and Palo Seco, in Toa Baja: by yesterday afternoon, there was clearance and authorization for opening 499 shelters, 49 more than for Hurricane Irma: the Gov. noted: “The main goal is to save lives. If you are in a flood area, your life is in danger. If you live in a wooden home, your life is in danger.” Already, from the previous Hurricane Irma 27 municipalities in Puerto Rico have already been declared disaster areas. Thus, even as Maria roars in, there are still many, many customers without power, homeless citizens, houses without walls, trees lying on power lines, and debris accumulated along the roads.

At the request of the Puerto Rican government, President Trump had already authorized a new emergency declaration before the arrival Maria: Puerto Rico FEMA Director Alejandro de la Campa indicated that he had requested more equipment from the US Department of Defense: “We are asking for more ships, and the aircraft carrier (available for the emergency) has moved to be in a safe area… And ships with helicopters that we will use in case of evacuation or search and rescue are still in the area.” Nevertheless, due to the fragility of the infrastructure of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), the Governor anticipates Puerto Rico will be without power after the passage of Maria: “No one in Puerto Rico should expect to have power on the days following María. The time it will take us to fix (the damage caused by the hurricane) remains to be seen.” PREPA Executive Director Ricardo Ramos noted that the total recovery of the system after the passage of Hurricane Hugo in 1989 took about six months. One especially cruel threat will be water: Elí Díaz, the Executive Director of the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority, noted: “If there is damage to large generators, there will be no power generation, therefore, our facilities will not have power to operate,” adding that there are approximately 1,300 generators which received preventive maintenance since the beginning of the hurricane season, but they are not enough for their 4,000 facilities, including pumping stations. By yesterday afternoon, they managed to prepare 110 tanker trucks, more than double those used during Irma, and are already managing imports from the port of Jacksonville in agreement with private companies. He added that since last Sunday, the levels of the Carraízo and La Plata dams have been gradually dropped to about three meters in order to prevent them from having to open the emergency flood gates.

For his part, last evening, President Trump tweeted his support: “Puerto Rico being hit hard by new monster Hurricane. Be careful, our hearts are with you-will be there to help!” The eye of the hurricane passed near or over St. Croix last night, prompting U.S. Virgin Islands Gov. Kenneth Mapp to insist that people remain alert. St. Croix was largely spared the widespread damage caused by Hurricane Irma on the chain’s St. Thomas and St. John islands just two weeks ago; however, this time, the island would experience five hours of hurricane force winds, Mapp warned: “For folks in their homes, I really recommend that you not be in any kind of sleepwear: Make sure you have your shoes on. Make sure you have a jacket around.”

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Measuring Municipal Fiscal Distress

August 29, 2017

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s Blog, we consider the new Local Government Fiscal Distress bi-cameral body in Virginia and its early actions; then we veer north to Atlantic City, where both the Governor and the courts are weighing in on the city’s fiscal future; before scrambling west to Scranton, Pennsylvania—as it seeks to respond to a fiscally adverse judicial ruling, then back west to the very small municipality of East Cleveland, Ohio—as it awaits authority to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy—and municipal elections—then to Detroit’s ongoing efforts to recover revenues as part of its recovery from the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy, before finally ending up in the Windy City, where the incomparable Lawrence Msall has proposed a Local Government Protection Authority—a quasi-judicial body—to serve as a resource for the Chicago Public School System.  

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

Measuring Municipal Fiscal Distress. When Virginia Auditor of Public Accounts Martha S. Mavredes last week testified before the Commonwealth’s new Joint House-Senate Subcommittee on Local Government Fiscal Stress, she named Bristol as one of the state’s four financially distressed localities—a naming which Bristol City Manager Randy Eads confirmed Monday. Bristol is an independent city in the Commonwealth of Virginia with a population just under 18,000: it is the twin city of Bristol, Tennessee, just across the state line: a line which bisects middle of its main street, State Street. According to the auditor, the cities of Petersburg and Bristol scored below 5 on a financial assessment model that uses 16 as the minimum threshold for indicating financial stress, with Bristol scoring lower than Petersburg. One other city and two counties scored below 16. For his part, City Manager Eads said he and the municipality’s CFO “will be working with the APA to determine how the scores were reached,” adding: “The city will also be open to working with the APA to address any issues.” (Bristol scored below the threshold the past three years, dropping to 4.25 in 2016. Petersburg had a score of 4.48 in 2016, when its financial woes became public.) Even though the State of Virginia has no authority to directly involve itself in a municipality’s finances (Virginia does not specifically authorize its municipal entities to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, certain provisions of the state’s laws [§15.2-4910] do allow for a trust indenture to contain provisions for protecting and enforcing rights and remedies of municipal bondholders—including the appointment of a receiver.), its new system examines the Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports submitted annually and scores them on 10 financial ratios—including four that measure the health of the locality’s general fund used to finance its budget. Manager Eads testified: “At the moment, the city does not have all of the necessary information from the APA to fully address any questions…We have been informed, by the APA, that we will receive more information from them the first week of September.” He added that the city leaders have taken steps to bolster cash flow and reserves, while reducing their reliance on borrowing short-term tax anticipation notes. In addition, the city has recently began implementing a series of budgetary and financial policies prior to the APA scores being released—steps seemingly recognized earlier this summer when Moody’s upgraded the city’s outlook to stable and its municipal bond rating to Baa2 with an underlying A3 enhanced rating, after a downgrade in 2016. Nevertheless, the road back is steep: the city still maintains more than $100 million in long-term general obligation bond debt with about half of it tied to The Falls commercial center in the Exit 5 area, which has yet to attract significant numbers of tenants.

Fiscal Fire? The State of New Jersey’s plan to slash Atlantic City’s fire department by 50 members was blocked by Superior court Judge Julio Mendez, preempting the state’s efforts to reduce the number of firefighters in the city from 198 to 148. The state, which preempted local authority last November, has sought to sharply reduce the city’s expenditures: state officials had last February proposed to move the Fire Department to a less expensive health plan and reduce staffing in the department from 225 firefighters to 125. In his ruling, however, Judge Mendez wrote: “The court holds that the (fire department’s union) have established by clear and convincing evidence that Defendants’ proposal to reduce the size of the Atlantic City Fire Department to 148 firefighters will cause irreparable harm in that it compromises the public safety of Atlantic City’s residents and visitors.” Judge Mendez had previously granted the union’s request to block the state’s actions, ruling last March that any reduction below 180 firefighters “compromises public safety,” and that any reduction should happen “through attrition and retirements.”

Gov. Christie Friday signed into law an alternative fiscal measure for the city, S. 3311, which requires the state to offer an early-retirement incentive program to the city’s police officers, firefighters, and first responders facing layoffs, noting at the bill signing what he deemed the Garden State’s success in its stewardship of the city since November under the Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act, citing Atlantic City’s “great strides to secure its finances and its future.” The Governor noted a drop of 11.4 percent in the city’s overall property-tax rate, the resolution of casino property-tax appeals, and recent investments in the city. For their parts, Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, sponsors of the legislation, said the new law would let the city “reduce the size of its police and fire departments without jeopardizing public safety,” adding that the incentive plan, which became effective with the Governor’s signature, would not affect existing contracts or collective bargaining rights—or, as Sen. Sweeney stated: “We don’t want to see any layoffs occur, but if a reduction in workers is required, early retirement should be offered first to the men and women who have served the city.” For his part, Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian said, “I’m glad that the Governor and the State continue to follow the plan that we gave them 10 months ago. As all the pieces that we originally proposed continue to come together, Atlantic City will continue to move further in the right direction.”

For its part, the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, which has been the fiscal overseer of the state takeover of Atlantic City, has touted the fiscal progress achieved this year from state intervention, including the adoption of a $206.3 million budget that is 20 percent lower than the city’s FY2015 budget, due to even $56 million less than 2015 due to savings from staff adjustments and outsourcing certain municipal services. Nevertheless, Atlantic City, has yet to see the dial spin from red to black: the city, with some $224 million in bonded debt, has deep junk-level credit ratings of CC by S&P Global Ratings and Caa3 by Moody’s Investors Service; it confronts looming debt service payments, including $6.1 million owed on Nov. 1, according to S&P.

Scrambling in Scranton. Moody’s is also characteristically moody about the fiscal ills of Scranton, Pennsylvania, especially in the wake of a court decision barring the city from  collecting certain taxes under a state law—a decision Moody’s noted  “may reduce tax revenue, which is a vital funding source for the city’s operations.” Lackawanna County Court of Common Pleas Judge James Gibbons, at the beginning of the month, in a preliminary ruling against the city, in response to a challenge by a group of eight taxpayers, led by Mayoral candidate Gary St. Fleur, had challenged Scranton’s ability to levy and collect certain taxes under Pennsylvania’s Act 511, a state local tax enabling act. His preliminary ruling against the city affects whether the Home Rule Charter law supersedes the statutory cap contained in Act 511. Unsurprisingly, the City of Scranton has filed a motion for reconsideration and requested the court to enable it to appeal to the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania. The city, the state’s sixth-largest city (77,000), and the County seat for Lackawanna County is the geographic and cultural center of the Lackawanna River valley, was incorporated on St. Valentine’s Day 161 years ago—going on to become a major industrial city, a center of mining and railroads, and attracted thousands of new immigrants. It was a city, which acted to earn the moniker of the “Electric City” when electric lights were first introduced in 1880 at Dickson Locomotive Works. Today, the city is striving to exit state oversight under the state’s Act 47—oversight the municipality has been under for a quarter century.

Currently, Moody’s does not provide a credit rating for the city; however, Standard and Poor’s last month upgraded the city’s general obligation bonds to a still-junk BB-plus, citing revenue from a sewer-system sale, whilst Standard and Poor’s cited the city’s improved budget flexibility and liquidity, stemming largely from a sewer-system sale which enabled the municipality to retire more than $40 million of high-coupon debt. Moreover, Scranton suspended its cost-of-living-adjustments, and manifested its intent to apply a portion of sewer system sale proceeds to meet its public pension liabilities. Ergo, Moody’s writes: “These positive steps have been important for paying off high interest debt and funding the city’s distressed pension plans…While these one-off revenue infusions have been positive, Scranton faces an elevated fixed cost burden of over 40% of general fund revenues…Act 511 tax revenues are an important revenue source for achieving ongoing, balanced operations, particularly as double-digit property tax increases have been met with significant discontent from city residents. The potential loss of Act 511 tax revenues comes at a time when revenues for the city are projected to be stagnant through 2020.”

The road to municipal fiscal insolvency is easier, mayhap, because it is downhill: Scranton fiscal challenges commenced five years ago, when its City Council skipped a $1 million municipal bond payment in the wake if a political spat; Scranton has since repaid the debt. Nevertheless, as Moody’s notes: “If the city cannot balance its budget without illegally taxing the Scranton people, it is absolute proof that the budget is not sustainable…Scranton has sold off all its public assets and raised taxes excessively with the result being a declining tax base and unfriendly business environment…The city needs to come to terms with present economic realities by cutting spending and lowering taxes. This is the only option for the city.”

Scranton Mayoral candidate Gary St. Fleur has said the city should file for Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy and has pushed for a related ballot measure. Combined taxes collected under Act 511, including a local services tax that Scranton recently tripled, cannot exceed 1.2% of Scranton’s total market value.  Based on 2015 market values, according to Moody’s, Scranton’s “511 cap” totals $27.3 million. In fiscal 2015 and 2016, the city collected $34.5 million and $36.8 million, respectively, and for 2018, the city has budgeted to receive $38 million.  The city, said Moody’s, relied on those revenues for 37.7% of fiscal 2015 and 35.9% of fiscal 2016 total governmental revenues. “A significant reduction in these tax revenues would leave the city a significant revenue gap if total Act 511 tax revenues were decline by nearly 25%,” Moody’s said.

Heavy Municipal Fiscal Lifting. Being mayor of battered East Cleveland is one of those difficult jobs that many people (and readers) would decline. If you were to motor along Euclid Avenue, the city’s main street, you would witness why: it is riddled with potholes and flanked by abandoned, decayed buildings. Unsurprisingly, in a city still awaiting authorization from the State of Ohio to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, blight, rising crime, and poor schools, have created the pretext for East Clevelanders to leave: The city boasted 33,000 people in 1990; today it has just 17,843, according to the latest U.S. Census figures. Nevertheless, hope can spring eternal: four candidates, including current Mayor Brandon L. King, are seeking the Democratic nomination in next month’s Mayoral primary (Mayor King replaced former Mayor Gary Norton last year after Norton was recalled by voters.)

Motor City Taxing. Detroit hopes to file some 700 lawsuits by Thursday against landlords and housing investors in a renewed effort to collect unpaid property taxes on abandoned homes that have already been forfeited; indeed, by the end of November, the city hopes to double the filings, going after as many as 1,500 corporations and investors whose abandonment of Detroit homes has been blamed for contributing to the Motor City’s blight epidemic: Motor City Law PLC, working on behalf of the city, has filed more than 60 lawsuits since last week in Wayne County Circuit Court; the remainder are expected to be filed before a Thursday statute of limitations deadline: the suits target banks, land speculators, limited liability corporations, and individuals with three or more rental properties in Detroit: investors who typically purchase homes at bargain prices at a Wayne County auction and then eventually stop paying property tax bills and lose the home in foreclosure: the concern is that unscrupulous landlords have been abusing the auction system. The city expects to file an additional 800 lawsuits over the next quarter—with the recovery effort coming in the wake of last year’s suits by the city against more than 500 banks and LLCs which had an ownership stake in houses that sold at auction for less than what was owed to the city in property taxes. Eli Savit, senior adviser and counsel to Mayor Mike Duggan, noted that those suits netted Detroit more than $5 million in judgments, even as, he reports: “Many cases are still being litigated.” To date, the 69 lawsuits filed since Aug. 18 in circuit court were for tax bills exceeding $25,000 each; unpaid tax bills for less than $25,000 will be filed in district court. (The unpaid taxes date back years as the properties were auctioned off by the Wayne County Treasurer’s Office between 2013 and 2016 or sent to the Detroit Land Bank Authority, which oversees demolitions if homes cannot be rehabilitated or sold.) The suits here indicate that former property owners have no recourse for lowering their unpaid tax debt, because they are now “time barred from filing an appeal” with Detroit’s Board of Review or the Michigan Tax Tribunal; Detroit officials have noted that individual homeowners would not be targeted by the lawsuits for unpaid taxes; rather the suits seek to establish a legal means for going after investors who purchase cheap homes at auction, and then either rent them out and opt not to not pay the taxes, or walk away from the house, because it is damaged beyond repair—behavior which is now something the city is seeking to turn around.

Local Government Fiscal Protection? Just as the Commonwealth of Virginia has created a fiscal or financial assessment model to serve as an early warning system so that the State could act before a chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy occurred, the fiscal wizard of Illinois, the incomparable Chicago Civic Federation’s Laurence Msall has proposed a Local Government Protection Authority—a quasi-judicial body—to serve as a resource for the Chicago Public School System (CPS): it would be responsible to assist the CPS board and administration in finding solutions to stabilize the school district’s finances. The $5.75 billion CPS proposed budget for this school year comes with two significant asterisks: 1) There is an expectation of $269 million from the City of Chicago, and 2) There is an expectation of $300 million from the State of Illinois, especially if the state’s school funding crisis is resolved in the Democrats’ favor.

Nevertheless, in the end, CPS’s fiscal fate will depend upon Windy City Mayor Rahm Emanuel: he, after all, not only names the school board, but also is accountable to voters if the city’s schools falter: he has had six years in office to get CPS on a stable financial course, even as CPS is viewed by many in the city as seeking to file for bankruptcy (for which there is no specific authority under Illinois law). Worse, it appears that just the discussion of a chapter 9 option is contributing to the emigration of parents and students to flee to suburban or private schools.

Thus, Mr. Msall is suggesting once again putting CPS finances under state oversight, as it was in the 1980s and early 1990s, recommending consideration of a Local Government Protection Authority, which would “be a quasi-judicial body…to assist the CPS board and administration in finding solutions to stabilize the district’s finances.” Fiscal options could include spending cuts, tax hikes, employee benefit changes, labor contract negotiations, and debt adjustment. Alternatively, as Mr. Msall writes: “If the stakeholders could not find a solution, the LGPA would be empowered to enforce a binding resolution of outstanding issues.” As we noted, a signal fiscal challenge Mayor Emanuel described was to attack crime in order to bring young families back into the city—and to upgrade its schools—schools where today some 380,000 students appear caught in a school system cracking under a massive and rising debt load.  

Far East of Eden. East Cleveland Mayor Gary Norton Jr. and City Council President Thomas Wheeler have both been narrowly recalled from their positions in a special election, setting the stage for the small Ohio municipality waiting for the state to—in some year—respond to its request to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy to elect a new leader. Interestingly, one challenger for the job who is passionate about the city, is Una H. R. Keenon, 83, who now heads the city school board, and campaigning on a platform of seeking a blue-ribbon panel to examine the city’s finances. Mansell Baker, 33, a former East Cleveland Councilmember, wants to focus on eliminating the city’s debt, while Dana Hawkins Jr., 34, leader of a foundation, vows to get residents to come together and save the city. The key decisions are likely to emerge next month in the September 12 Democratic primary—where the winner will face Devin Branch of the Green Party in November. Early voting has begun.

What Could Be A Constructive State Role in Municipal Fiscal Stress?

August 25, 2017

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s Blog, we consider Virginia’s innovative thinking with regard to a state role in measuring municipal fiscal distress. Then we consider the changes in Detroit’s demographic conditions—changes which might augur further fiscal challenges on the Motor City’s road to recovery from the nation’s largest ever chapter 9 bankruptcy, before, finally, turning to Puerto Rico, where the legislature has just adjourned.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

Municipal Fiscal Distress: What Is a State Role? Martha S. Mavredes, Virginia’s Auditor of Public Accounts, warned the legislature’s new Joint Subcommittee on Local Government Fiscal Stress, a committee created last June in the 2017 Appropriations Act in the wake of the near chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy of Petersburg, a subcommittee which has been tasked with a broad examination of local government fiscal stress, including disparity in taxing authority between cities and counties and local responsibility for delivery of state-mandated services, but also to examine potential incentives to encourage regional cooperation and possible savings obtained from such efforts, that four localities−two cities and two counties−are showing signs of potentially serious fiscal stress. While Auditor Mavredes did not publicly identify the four localities, she did request time first to notify the four and to open discussions to determine whether the initial financial assessments are accurate.

In this instance, the municipalities include one city, known only as City A, which, under the new state fiscal rating system, scored even lower than Petersburg in an assessment of data from 2016 under the “financial assessment model” designed by the auditor and a high-level work group based on a similar system in Louisiana. Both cities scored below 5 on a system which uses 16 as the minimum threshold for indicating financial stress. One other city and two counties scored below 16, and two localities, Hopewell and Manassas Park, have yet to submit financial data for 2016. (Indeed, Hopewell has failed so far to even submit a financial statement for FY2015.) Or, as the Auditor noted in her testimony: “I can’t even review the numbers of these places…I don’t have the data.”

Subcommittee Chairman Emmett W. Hanger Jr. (R-Augusta) concurred that it would be premature to identify the localities prior to notifying them and verifying the numbers used to assess them; however, other Virginia legislative leaders questioned whether the state is doing its job by not sharing concerns with the public—or, as House Appropriations Chairman S. Chris Jones (R-Suffolk) noted: “I think we would want to know those who are below 16: Knowing and not taking any affirmative actions is almost malfeasance.” As a former Mayor, it would seem Chairman Jones knew of what he was speaking. His perspective was reinforced by Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City), who co-chairs the Senate Finance with Sen. Hanger, who noted: “It’s important that we know, and it’s important that they know we know.”

While Virginia does not specifically authorize its municipal entities to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, the state does bar any of its cities or towns from incurring debt in excess of 10% of its assessed property valuation (see §1762), the Commonwealth has no authority to intervene directly in a locality’s finances, albeit Virginia Secretary of Finance Richard D. Brown played a critical role in halting, as we have previously noted, Petersburg’s near insolvency via the provision of state technical support on a voluntary basis to the distressed small city when it was confronted by nearly $19 million in unpaid bills—a fiscal precipice which led both the Virginia Legislature and Gov. Terry McAuliffe to recognize the importance of determining whether there might be increasing fiscal disparities within the state—and whether the state might be able to play a greater role in averting other potential municipal fiscal risks—leading to provisions in last year’s budget to direct the Virginia Auditor to create a municipal fiscal monitoring system to identify potentially stressed localities and offer to help, appropriating up to $500,000 as an incentive to cooperate.

And it appears the Legislature is impressed—or, as Chair Hanger said to Auditor Mavredes: “I’m impressed that you and your team stood this up as quickly as you did.” The new system the Auditor’s team put together examines the Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports submitted to the auditor annually and scores them on 10 financial ratios−including four which measure the health of the locality’s general fund used to finance its budget. That first fiscal scorecard identified Petersburg as the sole municipality publicly identified with a score which fell below the stress threshold for the past three years, reaching 4.48 in 2016, when its increasingly desperate fiscal situation became public. Auditor Mavredes told the legislative leaders: “Petersburg is a locality I would have wanted to look at, having seen these scores without knowing anything else.” 

Nevertheless, Petersburg is not the sole city the Auditor found to be in fiscal trouble: she testified that “City A” also scored below the threshold the last three years, dropping to 4.25 in 2016, testifying: “This is a city (on which) I will be doing follow-up.” In addition, she said she plans to contact at least three other localities, noting that City B fell precipitously from a score just under 50 in 2014 to between 13 and 14 in each of the next two years. She told the legislator her first question is whether the data used in the 2014 assessment are correct. She noted that County A demonstrates what Auditor Mavredes deemed “consistently low scores,” from just under 6 in 2014, to 8.23 the next year, and 7.31 last year; County B declined sharply from a score of 21 in 2014 to under 16 the next year and just over 11 in 2016, leading Co-Chair Jones to comment: “That seems to me to be a huge drop over a two-year period.” However, Ms. Mavredes responded the cause of the drop could be as simple and as unavoidable as the loss of a major employer, which is why she testified she intends to follow-up with the locality to determine what happened. Chairman Jones made clear his preference would be that such a fiscal examination take place in public view—or, as he put it: “If they’re not doing A, B, C, I think the public ought to know what is happening in that community.”

Fiscal Omens for the Motor City? Even as Detroit continues to recover from the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, the recovery continues to be uneven, and now there appears to be an emerging threat to its fiscal future: the number of families with children has declined by 43 percent since 2000 with only about a quarter of households with children, according to a report released this week from the nonprofit Detroit Future City, which also detailed a slowing population decline and job growth. In its report, “139 Square Miles,” the average size of Detroit households has declined over the past decade, with an average 2.6 people per household: Detroit households with children now make up 26 percent of the city, a steep, nearly 33 percent drop from 2000, with the data taking into account other types of households in the city which also experienced a decline. Today, in the Motor City, non-family households make up about 44 percent and households without children, about 31 percent. That compares to seventeen years ago, when, according to Edward Lynch, a planner for Detroit Future City, there were 115,000 families with children living in Detroit compared to only 65,000 families with children by 2015. Mr. Lynch noted: “We didn’t look specifically into the causes, but a lot of people point to different things (such as) schools as to why people have been moving out of the city for quite some time.” Unsurprisingly, but certainly related, is the state of enrollment at the Detroit Public Schools Community District, which is itself emerging from fiscal insolvency, even as it is experiencing ongoing decline: since the 2010-11 school year, the district has experienced a 41% enrollment decline: more than 30,000 students, even as charter school enrollment has increased 14%. Mr. Lynch notes: “We’re trying to provide a baseline analysis of the City of Detroit as it stands at this point in time…We’re hoping this will be used by a broad range of stakeholders and residents to get a clear picture of what’s happening at this point.”

On the plus side, Detroit Future City reports that for the first time in six decades, Detroit’s population decline has slowed, in no small part due to the job growth since the Great Recession: since the first quarter of 2010, Detroit has added 30,000 private-sector jobs, bringing the total jobs in the city to 238,400. The areas of growth include business services, automotive, financial services, and production technology. Perhaps better gnus: the largest increase in jobs has been among those that pay more than $40,000 annually.

ReGrowing in the Wake of Chapter 9. Even as the City of Detroit has razed more than 12,000 blighted houses over the past four years, the challenge of razing or relocating abandoned commercial structures—structures which can be safety threats to the community—has proved more difficult. Moreover, unlike the case with commercial buildings, the city may not make use of federal funds to tear down commercial properties—a stiff challenge, as some 83% of the city’s initial blight force list of over 5,400 blighted commercial properties, of which some 83% had been privately owned. Unsurprisingly, with November’s mayoral election not so far off, the issue has been drawn into the campaign, with the Mayor proposing to double the rate of demolitions to 300—a still challenge as, at least as of the day before yesterday, only 67 have come down. A spokesperson for the Mayor, John Roach, reports that, as of last week, some 97 commercial demolitions were at various stages in the razing pipeline: 18 buildings are currently ready to be razed, while the city sorts through the bidding and contract approval process—and the city’s auditors are assessing the residential demolition program to gain important lessons learned, especially in the wake of changes to the contracting process which mandated that each demolition gain approval from both the Detroit City Council and the Detroit Financial Review Commission.

More and more people are interested in moving downtown; however, the amount of new housing units has not been able to keep up with demand, a new study released Thursday by the Downtown Detroit Partnership said. In its third installment, the Greater Downtown Residential Market Study found that demand for market-rate and affordable housing in the area will grow by nearly 10,000 units over the next five years. The study, commissioned in part by Invest Detroit and conducted by Clinton, N.J.-based Zimmerman Volk Associates Inc., examined the Downtown, Corktown, Rivertown, Lafayette Park, Eastern Market, Midtown, Woodbridge, TechTown and New Center neighborhoods. “We’re seeing a continued demand for residential units, and that demand is increasing faster than the current supply of available units,” DDP CEO Eric Larson said in a statement. “There is a great opportunity in the city for developers for both market-rate and affordable units.”  While the area’s housing demand is projected to swell over the next five years, developers have proposed building roughly 7,400 units over the next three years, shy of the 10,000 projection over five years. Annual demand is projected to be as high as 2,000 units. The study found that 1,750 units have gone up in 2017. Of those units projected to be built in the next three years, 74 percent are forecast to be market-rate rentals and the rest affordable housing. Affordable housing includes those with incomes between 30 and 80 percent of the area’s median income.

Investing in Puerto Rico’s Future. Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello has signed into law four of the five bills approved by the legislature in the extraordinary session that ended last week, including the new statute to guarantee the payment to Puerto Rico’s pensioners and establish a new defined contribution plan for public servants, or, as the Governor noted: “This first special session assured that retirees receive their pensions and that we comply with the Fiscal Plan so that we can continue to provide government services to the people.” The new law is intended to create a legal framework so that Puerto Rico can guarantee payments to its retirees via a “pay as you go” system, or, as the Governor noted: “To leave things as they were would have turned out that as soon as in September, our retirees would not receive the payment of their pension for which they worked for decades in the public service.” Under the new provisions, the General Fund will allocate $ 2 billion this year so that retirees continue to receive their monthly pensions; the bill also creates a Defined Contribution Plan, similar to a 401k, with Gov. Rossello noting: “In the past, public servants were held back by a percentage of their salary and went on to a trust that was used to pay for the administrative expenses and inefficiencies of the Government…That irresponsible practice ended with our Administration.”

Gov. Rossello also signed House Bill 1162, which makes technical amendments to the statute which created the Commission of the Equality for Puerto Rico, to incorporate the results of the plebiscite of June of 2017, providing that the members of the Commission shall not receive any remuneration for their services, noting that “this recommendation of amendment we receive[d] from baseball superstar Ivan Rodriguez so that the expenses of the members of the Commission are not met with public funds in the face of the fiscal situation that the Government is going through…I told the people of Puerto Rico from the electoral process that a vote for this server was a vote for statehood and a government that seeks equality at the national level as American citizens.”

The Art of State Fiscal Intervention

08/08/17

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Good Morning! In this a.m.’s blog, we consider the political and fiscal challenges to recovery for a municipality with disproportionate levels of crime and low income—but aided by state intervention.

Ending the Fiscal Siege of Petersburg. More than a century ago, from June 9, 1864, to March 25, 1865, during the American Civil War, the Richmond–Petersburg Campaign was torn by a series of battles around Petersburg, Virginia. In the past few years, the battle waged has been fiscal rather than physical for the independent city of about 32,420, where, last year, Virginia Finance Secretary Ric Brown, in providing a fiscal update, based on a state audit of the city’s books dating to 2012, had reported the municipality was facing a $12 million budget gap—and nearly $19 million in unpaid bills. But now, Sec. Brown has just announced that the small municipality’s bond rating outlook has been upgraded from “negative” to “stable,” confirming the value of the Commonwealth’s fiscal intervention. S&P’s announcement, coming nearly one year of weathering one of the lowest possible municipal bond ratings, led Mayor Samuel Parham to note: “We are proud of everyone’s efforts who made this positive reassessment possible.” But it is one small, fiscal step: At last week’s session, the City Council agreed to develop a deficit-reduction plan at its next meeting, scheduled for a week from Thursday: more fiscal work portends in the wake of last month’s action by the Council to approve a salary cut for the city’s 600 full-time employees: layoffs of staff and other austerity measures are now a real possibility.

That fiscal endeavor will proceed under a newly appointed City Manager, Aretha R. Ferrell-Benavides, who was appointed last month to be responsible for the day-to-day operations of the city and report directly to the City Council. She does not come unprepared for the task, having served as the interim city manager, where she was put in the awkward role of informing the City Council and a packed hall of residents about the requisite critical cuts to city services and reduced funding for the city’s schools—already among the lowest-performing in the Commonwealth—as well as cuts to fire and police services in a city which has an unusually high rate of crime: some 87% higher than in comparison to the Virginia mean and are 35% higher than the national mean. With regard to violent offenses, Petersburg, has a rate that is 313% higher than the Virginia average; its property crime is 63% higher than the statewide mean. Nearly 30% of the city’s residents live in poverty, more double the statewide rate, and the city has a disproportionate percentage of its population older than 65.  As the population has declined from its peak in 1980, it has also aged — more than 15 percent of residents are 65 or older, vs. 13 percent statewide., and 22% higher than the country’s average—all steps necessary she warned, because, otherwise, Petersburg had about a month before it would confront the unthinkable: total collapse—it was a fiscal state which Virginia Finance Secretary Ric Brown noted to be unlike anything he had ever observed in his 46 years minding state ledgers in various roles.

In describing its upgrade to a “stable” outlook, Standard and Poor’s states that a “stable” outlook means the rating is unlikely to change. This is a slight improvement from a “negative” outlook. Standard and Poor’s Primary Credit Analyst, Timothy Barrett, said that the city had “taken several key steps toward financial recovery, including repaying a portion of past due obligations in addition to creating a viable plan to strengthening budgetary flexibility and liquidity, supported by some recently adopted financial policies.”

Petersburg Finance Director Blake Rane notes that the improved fiscal outlook will enhance the city’s fiscal “flexibility: It’s clear [the city] has changed trajectory in the past year, to a point where there is no risk beyond what the “BB” already says,” adding: “It’s really hard to move Standard and Poor’s [rating], and get the kind of movement we did.” In its report, Standard and Poor’s noted Petersburg has “taken several key steps toward financial recovery, including repaying a portion of past due obligations in addition to creating a viable plan to strengthening budgetary flexibility and liquidity, supported by some recently adopted financial policies.”

Notwithstanding the good gnus, Petersburg’s leaders recognize this is no time to let up: Despite the good news,  interim Finance Director Nelsie Birch and the other city officials recognize much fiscal effort remains: “It should help the investment community have confidence that the city is moving in the right direction, though we are still non-investment grade credit.” Until the city restores its fund balance, which would require at least $7.7 million dollars, the city’s credit rating will have to await a boost to investment grade—some two notches higher than its current grade—meaning it must pay higher interest rates for capital investment and borrowing than most Virginia municipalities.

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.”

Municipal Moral & Fiscal Obligations

07/27/17

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Good Morning! In today’s iBlog, we consider the state & local fiscal challenge fiscal in the event of a moral obligation pledge failure; the ongoing, long-term revival and recovery of Detroit from the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history, and the revitalization fiscal challenges in Atlantic City and Puerto Rico.

A Fiscal Bogie or a Moral Municipal Bond? Buena Vista, Virginia, a small, independent city located in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia with a population of about 6,650, where the issue of its public golf course became an election issue—with the antis winning office and opting not to make the bond payments on the course they opposed—rejecting a moral obligation pledge on what has become a failed economic development project, as the city’s elected leaders chose instead to focus—in the wake of the Great Recession—on essential public services, putting the city in a sub par fiscal situation with Vista Links, which was securing the bonds, according to Virginia state records. The company, unsurprisingly,  has sued to get the monies it was promised—potentially putting at risk the city’s city hall and other municipal properties which had been put up as collateral. Buena Vista City Attorney Brian Kearney discerns this to be an issue of a moral obligation bond, rather than a general obligation municipal bond, so that “[W]e could not continue to do this and continue to do our core functions.” In the wake of the fiscal imbroglio, the Virginia Commission on Local Government (COLG)—which provides an annual fiscal stress study‒ended up playing a key role in the Petersburg effort in the General Assembly—finding that very poor management had led to an $18 million hole.

Here, the municipality’s default triggered negotiations with bond insurer, ACA Financial Guaranty Corp., which led to a forbearance agreement—one on which the city subsequently defaulted—triggering the Commonwealth of Virginia  to bar financing backup to the city from the state’s low-cost municipal borrowing pool, lest such borrowing would adversely impact the pool’s credit rating—and thereby drive up capital borrowing costs for cities and counties all across the state. In this instance, the Virginia Resources Authority refused to allow Buena Vista to participate in the Virginia Pooled Financing Program to refinance $9.25 million of water and sewer obligations to lower debt service costs—lest inclusion of such a borrower from the state’s municipal pool would negatively impact the pool’s offering documents—where some pooled infrastructure bonds, backed by the Commonwealth’s moral obligation pledge, are rated double-A by S&P Global Ratings and Moody’s Investors Service.

Seven years ago, the municipality entered into a five-year forbearance agreement with bond insurer ACA Financial Guaranty Corp.—an agreement which permitted Buena Vista to make 50% of its annual municipal bond payments for five years—an agreement on which Buena Vista defaulted when, two years ago, the City Council voted against inclusion of its FY 2015 budgeted commitment to resume full bond payments. That errant shot triggered UMB Bank NA to file a lawsuit in state court in 2016 in an effort to enforce Buena Vista’s fiscal obligation. In response, the municipality contended the golf course deal was void, because only four of the city’s seven council members had voted on the bond resolution and related agreements—which included selling the city’s interest in its “public places,” arguing that Virginia’s constitution mandates that all seven council members be present to vote on the golf course deal, because the agreement granted a deed of trust lien on city hall, police, and court facilities which were to serve as collateral for the bonds.

Subsequently, last March 22nd, the city filed a motion to dismiss the federal suit for failure to state a claim—a claim on which U.S. District Judge Norman K. Moon held a hearing last Friday—with the municipality arguing that the golf course’s lease-revenue debt is not a general obligation. Therefore, the city appears to be driving at a legal claim it has the right to stop payment on its obligation, asserting: “The city seeks to enforce the express terms of the bonds, under which the city’s obligation to pay rent is subject to annual appropriations by the City Council, and ceases upon a failure of appropriations.” Moreover, pulling another fiscal club from its bag, the city claimed the municipal bonds here are not a debt of the city; rather, the city has told the court that the deed of trust lien for the collateral backing the bonds is void. That is an assertion which ACA, in its motion to dismiss, deemed an improper attempt to litigate the merits of the suit at the pleading stage, noting: “Worse, the city wants this court to rule that the city only has a ‘moral obligation’ to pay its debts, and that [ACA’s] only remedy upon default is to foreclose on a fraction of the collateral pledged by the city and the Public Recreational Facilities Authority of the city of Buena Vista….If adopted, this court will be sending a message to the market that no lender should ever finance public projects in Virginia because municipalities: (a) have unbridled discretion to not repay loans; and (b) can limit the collateral that can be foreclosed upon.” In a statement subsequently, ACA added: “It’s unfortunate that Buena Vista’s elected officials have forced ACA into court after recklessly choosing to have the city default on $9.2 million in debt even though the city has ample funds to make the payments that are owed…This is particularly troubling, because ACA spent years negotiating in good faith after the city claimed financial hardship, and even provided a generous forbearance agreement that reduced payments by 50% starting in 2011…After the city defaulted on that deal in 2014, it offered ACA only pennies on the dollar, while seeking to be absolved of all future burdens of this financing. Left with no reasonable alternative, we must look to the court for an equitable and fair outcome.”

In the nonce, as its legal costs mount, Buena Vista’s access to the municipal credit markets has not only adversely affected its ability to borrow from state financing programs, but also there is growing apprehension there could be implications for other local governments and potentially the Commonwealth of Virginia. Virginia Finance Secretary Ric Brown, when this issue first cropped up, had written previous Buena Vista Mayor Mike Clements: “This ability cannot be jeopardized or put at risk by permitting a defaulting locality to participate in a state pool financing program such as the VPSA: The Commonwealth certainly expects localities to do what is necessary to meet their debt obligations and to protect Virginia localities’ reputation for fiscal discipline.” (Virginia’s Commission on Local Government has revealed that 53% of Virginia’s counties and cities are experiencing above average or high fiscal stress.).

Motor City Recovery. Louis Aguilar of the Detroit News this week reported that Detroit is expected to grow by some 60,000 residents by 2040—growth which would mark the first time Detroit’s population will have increased since the 1950s, according to a study by the Urban Institute, “Southeast Michigan Housing Futures,” which notes that Detroit will finally end its decades-long loss of residents. Xuan Liu, manager of research and data analysis for the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, said the study builds on recent analyses done by SEMCOG, the Michigan Department of Transportation, and the University of Michigan: “It is a reflection of both the improvements we’ve seen in the city and the changing demographic trends.” The report indicates the region’s population base will include a larger percentage of residents over the age of 65 who are more inclined to remain where they are; the population increase in population will be influenced by the continued inflow of young adults and a small but steady rise of the Latino population. The study warns these changes will present major challenges, including the doubling of senior-headed households over the next three decades: by 2040, the study projects these households will make up 37% of the region’s households versus 22% in 2010; it adds that African-American households in the Detroit metro area disproportionately suffered from the effects of the housing crisis:  African-American homeownership rates dropped from a higher than the national average in 1990 and 2000 to be in line with the national average by 2014. Interestingly, it projects that the demand for rental housing is expected to grow throughout the region, with aging households likely comprising the bulk of this net growth as established renter households age—but warning that the region, and Michigan more broadly, lack affordable rental housing for low-income households. Overall, the Metro Detroit region is expected to gain approximately 380,000 households by 2040, according to the study.

For the Motor City, the report found that by 2016, Detroit’s population had slowed to its lowest pace in decades, according U.S. Census data: as of one year ago, Detroit’s population was 672,795, a loss of 3,541 residents—a decline comparable to the previous year: between 2000 to 2010, Detroit was losing more than 23,700 annually, on average, according to the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments; in the first decade of this century, the region lost 372,242 jobs, its population shrank by 137,375; and inflation-adjusted personal income retreated from 13.7% above the U.S. average to 4.8% below in 2010.

A Bridge to Tomorrow? The Detroit City Council this week okayed the $48 million agreement to open the way for the sale of city-owned property and streets in the path of the new Gordie Howe International Bridge to Canada—with the agreement also incorporating provisions to help residents living near the Delray neighborhood where the bridge will be located. Under the pact, the city will sell 36 city-owned parcels of land–land which Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority Director of Communications Mark Butler siad was needed for the Gordie Howe bridge project. Courtesy of Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority noted: “The funding relates to activities in advance of the P3 partner coming on board…As a normal course of business, WDBA, either directly or through the Michigan Department of Transportation, is providing funds to Detroit for property, assets, and services. The city in turn, is using those funds to purchase or swap homes outside of the project footprint, job training etc.” The bridge authority, a Canadian Crown corporation, will manage the Public-Private Partnership procurement process; the authority will also responsible for project oversight, including the actual construction and operation of the new crossing—whilst Canadian taxpayers will be fronting the funding to pay for the deal under an arrangement with the State of Michigan—under which there will be no cost or financial liability to Michigan or to Michigan taxpayers: Canada plans to recoup its money through tolls after the bridge is constructed. The Motor City will sell 36 city-owned parcels of land, underground assets, and approximately 5 miles of city owned streets needed for the bridge project. Under the agreement, the underlying property has been conveyed to the State of Michigan, but Canada is providing the funds. The bridge authority is expected to select a contractor for the project at the end of this year; construction will begin sometime next year.

Is There a Promise of Revitalization? The PROMESA Board this week appointed Noel Zamot to serve as Revitalization Coordinator for the U.S. territory—with Governor Ricardo Rosselló concurring the appointment would benefit Puerto Rico’s ability to compete—a key issue for any meaningful, long-term fiscal recovery. He added: “With over 25 years of experience in the aerospace and defense industry, we are convinced that Mr. Zamot will contribute to our economic development agenda and increase Puerto Rico’s competitiveness.” The federal statute’s Title V provided for such an appointment, a key part to any post chapter 9 plan of debt adjustment. Direct. PROMESA Board Chair José Carrión III noted: “Noel Zamot’s successful career and multifaceted experience interfacing between the government and the private sector in critical defense infrastructure areas will allow him to hit the ground running to foster strategic infrastructure investment expeditiously.” Mr. Zamot noted: “I am honored by this opportunity to serve and give back to Puerto Rico, my birthplace, and contribute to its success…Over more than two decades of professional experience, I have seen firsthand how investments in infrastructure can have a catalyzing effect on economic growth and prosperity.”

New Jersey & You. With major new developments under construction, renewed investor interest, and a slowly diversifying economy, it appears Atlantic City might be moving more swiftly from the red to the black—at a key point in political time, as voters in the city and New Jersey head to the polls next November for statewide and municipal elections—and, potentially, the end of state oversight of the city. Moreover, two new major projects are set to open next year, mayhap setting the stage for the city’s fiscal recovery—but also economic revitalization. Some of the stir relates to the purchase and $500 million renovation of the former Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort—an opening projected to bring thousands of jobs and a strong brand to the city’s famed boardwalk. But mayhap the more promising development will be the completion of the $220 million Atlantic City Gateway project: a 67,500 square foot development which will serve as a new campus for Stockton University, including an academic building and housing for 500 students, and the new South Jersey Gas headquarters: the company believes its cutting-edge headquarters will trigger recruitment and growth, as it is projected to bring 15,000 square feet of new retail to the boardwalk.  

Interestingly, what has bedeviled the city, low land prices‒at their lowest in decades, is now attracting successful developers, who have been buying up buildings: commercial real estate brokers note an uptick in leasing activity since the Gateway project was announced: the promise of jobs, residents, and revenue no longer overwhelmed by the gaming industry appears to be remaking the city’s image and adding to its physical and fiscal turnaround. Bart Blatstein, CEO of Tower Investments, notes: “Of course I see upside. This is what I do for a living. And it’s incredible–the upside in Atlantic City is like nowhere else I’ve seen in my 40-year career. Atlantic City is a great story. It’s got a wonderful new chapter ahead of it.”

Disparate Fiscal Solvency Challenges

06/23/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the serious municipal fiscal challenges in Ohio, where the decline in coal-fired power has led Adams County auditor David Gifford to warn that if its existing power plants close, the county could be forced to raise its property tax rates at least 500% in order to make its requisite school district bond interest payments. Then we turn to the steep fiscal trials and tribulations of implementing San Bernardino’s post-chapter 9 exit, before finally considering the governing challenges affecting the City of Flint’s physical and fiscal future, and then to the criminal charges related to Flint’s fiscal and moral insolvency. Finally, we turn to the potential for a new fiscal chapter for the nearly insolvent Virginia municipality of Petersburg.

Fiscal Municipal Distress in Coal Country. While President Trump has stressed his commitment to try to protect the U.S. coal industry, less attention has been focused on the municipal fiscal challenges for local elected leaders. For instance, in Adams County, Ohio, where the median income for a household is about $33,000, and where approximately 20% of families fall below the federal poverty line, the county, with a population near 22,000, has been in fiscal emergency for more than two years—making it one of 23 such jurisdictions in the state.  But now its auditor, David Gifford, warns that if its coal-fired power plants close, the county could be forced to raise the property tax by at least 500% in order to make the bond payments on its public school districts debt. (In Ohio, when so designated, the average time a municipality spends in fiscal emergency averages about five years.) Since 1980, when the state auditor was empowered to place municipalities in fiscal emergency, Ohio has declared and released 54 communities—with time spent in fiscal emergency averaging five years, albeit the Village of Manchester in Adams County (approximately 2,000 residents) holds the record for time spent in fiscal emergency — nearly 20 years and still counting. Over the past five years, some 350 coal-fired generating units have closed across the country, according to the Energy Information Administration: closures, which have cost not just jobs, but key tax revenues vital to municipal solvency. It is uncertain whether any actions by the White House could make coal viable as a source of energy generation; it is clear that neither the Trump Administration, nor the State of Ohio appear to have put together fiscal options to address the resulting fiscal challenges. Ohio Municipal League Director Kent Scarrett, in testimony before the Ohio Legislature last February, on behalf of the League’s 733 municipal members, in which close to 90% of Ohio’s citizens live, reminded legislators that “a lack of opportunity to invest in critical infrastructure projects” and “the myriad of challenges that present themselves as a result of the escalating opioid epidemic,” would require “reigniting the relationship between the state and municipalities.” 

Post Municipal Bankruptcy Challenges. San Bernardino Mayor Carey Davis this Wednesday declared the city’s municipal bankruptcy process officially over, noting San Bernardino had come “to the momentous exit from that process,” a five-year process which resulted in the outsourcing of its fire department to San Bernardino County, contracting out waste removal services, and reductions in healthcare benefits for retirees and current employees to lessen the impact on pensions. Mayor Davis noted: “The proceedings guided us through a process of rebuilding and restructuring, and we will continue to rebuild and create systems for successful municipal operations,” as the City Council confronted by what City Manager Mark Scott warned was “without a doubt among the lowest in per capita revenues per capita and in city employees per capita,” yet still confronted by what he described as:  “Among California’s largest cities, San Bernardino is without a doubt among the lowest in government revenues per capita and in city employees per capita…Furthermore, our average household income is low and our poverty rate is high.” Nevertheless, the Council adopted its first post-chapter 9 budget—a budget which is projected to achieve a surplus of $108,000, sufficient to achieve a 15% reserve. To give a perspective on the fiscal challenge, Mr. Scott warned the Mayor and City Council: “Among California’s largest cities, San Bernardino is without a doubt among the lowest in government revenues per capita and in city employees per capita…Furthermore, our average household income is low and our poverty rate is high.” Adding that San Bernardino’s property values and business spending are lower than other cities, contributing to its low revenue, he added: “At the same time, it costs roughly the same to repair a street in Rancho Cucamonga as in San Bernardino: California’s tax system rewards wealth.”

Nevertheless, even though San Bernardino’s plan of debt adjustment calls for minimal revenue growth over the next two decades, he advised that the plan is focused on making the city more attractive. Ergo, he proposed three criteria: 1) urgent safety concerns, including the relocation of City Hall to address unreinforced masonry concerns; 2) restoration of public safety, 30 new police officers, vehicle and safety equipment replacement, radio maintenance, and a violence intervention initiative; 3) greater efficiencies, via information technology upgrades, and economic development and revenue growth—to be met by hiring a transportation planner, associate planner, grant-writing, and consulting. In addition to the operating budget, the manager also focused on the city’s capital budget, proposing significant investment for the next two to three years. Some of these increased costs would be offset by reducing the city’s full-time city employees by about 4%. Nevertheless, the Manager noted: “The community’s momentum is clearly increasing, and we are building internal capacity to address our management challenges…We look forward to the next year and to our collective role in returning this city to a more prosperous condition.”

Under its plan of debt adjustment, San Bernardino began making distributions to creditors this month: Mayor Carey Davis noted: “From the beginning, we understood the time, hard work, sacrifice and commitment it would take for the city to emerge from the bankruptcy process,” in asking the Council to adopt the proposed $160 million operating budget and a $22.6 million capital budget.

Moody Blues. The fiscal challenge of recovering from municipal bankruptcy for the city was highlighted last April when Moody’s Investors Service analysts had warned that the city’s plan of debt adjustment approved by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury would “lead to a general fund unallocated cash balance of approximately $9.5 million by fiscal 2023, down from a $360 million deficit the city projected in 2013 for the fiscal years 2013-23,” adding, however, that the city still faces hurdles with pensions, public safety, and infrastructure. Noting that San Bernardino’s plan of debt adjustment provided more generous treatment of its pension obligations than its municipal bondholders—some of its unsecured creditors will receive as little as 1% of what they are owed—and the city’s pension obligation bondholders will take the most severe cuts—about 60%–or, as Moody’s moodily noted: “The [court-approved] plan calls for San Bernardino to leave bankruptcy with increased revenues and an improved balance sheet, but the city will retain significant unfunded and rapidly rising pension obligations…Additionally, it will face operational challenges associated with deferred maintenance and potential service shortfalls…which, added to the pension difficulties, increase the probability of continued financial distress and possibly even a return to bankruptcy.”

The glum report added that San Bernardino’s finances put its aging infrastructure at risk, noting the deferral of some $180 million in street repairs and $130 million in deferred facility repairs and improvements, and that the city had failed to inspect 80 percent of its sewer system, adding: “Cities typically rely on financing large capital needs with debt, but this option may no longer exist for San Bernardino…Even if San Bernardino is able to stabilize its finances, the city will still face a material infrastructure challenge.”  Moody’s report added: “Adjusted net pension liability will remain unchanged at $904 million, a figure that dwarfs the projected bankruptcy savings of approximately $350 million.”

Justice for Flint? Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette has charged Michigan Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon with involuntary manslaughter and misconduct in office, making the Director the fifth state official, including a former Flint emergency manager and a member of Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration, to be confronted with involuntary manslaughter charges for their alleged roles in the Flint water contamination crisis and ensuing Legionnaire’s disease outbreak which has, to date, claimed 12 lives, noting: “This is about people’s lives and families and kids, and it’s about demonstrating to people across the state—it doesn’t matter who you are, young, old, rich, poor, black, white, north, south, east, west. There is one system of justice, and the rules apply to everybody, whether you’re a big shot or no shot at all.” To date, 12 people have died in the wake of the switch by a state-appointed Emergency Manager of the city’s drinking water supply to the Flint River—a switch which led to an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease that resulted in those deaths. Flint Mayor Karen Weaver, in response, noted: “We wanted to know who knew what and when they knew it, and we wanted someone to be held accountable. It’s another step toward justice for the people Flint,” adding that: “What happened in Flint was serious: Not only did we have people impacted by lead poisoning, but we had people who died.”

In making his charges, Attorney General Schuette declined to say whether he had subpoenaed Governor Rick Snyder—with the charges coming some 622 days after Gov. Snyder had acknowledged that Flint’s drinking water was tainted with lead—and that the state was liable for the worst water tragedy in Michigan’s history—a tragedy due, in no small part, from the state appointment of an emergency manager to displace the city’s own elected leaders.

The state Attorney General has charged HHS Director Lyon in relation to the individual death of Robert Skidmore, who died Dec. 13, 2015, “as a result of [Mr.] Lyon’s failure to warn the public of the Legionnaires’ outbreak; the court has also received testimony that the Director “participated in obstructing” an independent research team from Wayne State University which was investigating the presence of Legionella bacteria in Flint’s water. In addition, four defendants who have been previously charged, former Flint Emergency Manager Darnell Earley, former Michigan Department of Environmental Quality drinking water Director Liane Shekter-Smith, DEQ drinking water official Stephen Busch, and former City of Flint Water Department manager Howard Croft, each now face additional charges of involuntary manslaughter in Mr. Skidmore’s death—bringing, to date, 15 current or former Michigan or Flint city officials to have been charged.

Attorney General Scheutte, at a press conference, noted: “Involuntary manslaughter is a very serious crime and a very serious charge and holds significant gravity and weight for all involved.” He was joined by Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton, Flint Water Investigation Special Prosecutor Todd Flood, and Chief Investigator Andrew Arena. (In Michigan, involuntary manslaughter is punishable by up to 15 years in prison and/or a $7,500 fine.) The announcement brings to 51 the number of charges leveled against 15 current and former local and state leaders as a result of the probe during which 180 witnesses have been interviewed—and in the wake of the release this week of an 18-page interim investigation report, which notes: “The Flint Water Crisis caused children to be exposed to lead poisoning, witnessed an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease resulting in multiple deaths, and created a lack of trust and confidence in the effectiveness of government to solve problems.”

A New City Leader to Take on Near Insolvency. Petersburg, Virginia has hired a new City Manager, Aretha Ferrell-Benavides, just days after consultants charged with the fiscal challenge of extricating the city from the brink of municipal bankruptcy advised the Mayor and Council the municipality needed a $20 million cash infusion to make up a deficit and comply with its own reserve policies: increased taxes, they warned, would not do the trick; rather, in the wake of a decade of imbalanced budgets that drained the city’s rainy day funds, triggered pay cuts, disrupted the regional public utility, and forced steep cuts in public school funding, the city needed a new manager. Indeed, on her first day, Ms. Ferrell-Benavides said: “To have the opportunity to come in and make a difference in a community like this, it’s worth its weight in gold.” The gold might be heavy: her predecessor, William E. Johnson III, was fired last year as the city fiscally foundered—leading Mayor Sam Parham to note: “We’re looking forward to a new beginning, better times for the city of Petersburg.”

Manager Ferrell-Benavides won out in a field of four aspirants, with Mayor Parham noting: “She was definitely head and shoulders above the other candidates…She had clear, precise answers and a 90-day plan of action,” albeit that plan has yet to be shared until after she meets with department heads and residents in order to get a better understanding of the city’s needs. Nevertheless, City Councilman Charles Cuthbert noted: “Her energy and her warm personality and her expressions of commitment to help Petersburg solve its problems stood out…My sense is that she truly views these problems as an opportunity.” In what will mark a fiscal clean slate, Manager Ferrell-Benavides will officially begin on July 10th, alongside a new city Finance Director Blake Rane, and Police Chief Kenneth Miller, who is coming to Petersburg from the Virginia Beach Police Department. She brings considerable governmental experience, including more than 25 years of work in government for the State of Maryland, the Chicago Public Housing Authority, the City of Sunnyvale, Calif.; and Los Alamos, New Mexico—in addition to multiple jobs with the District of Columbia.