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.

 

The Indelicate Challenge of Restoring Political Authority in the Wake of Municipal Insolvency

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the historic Civil War municipality of Petersburg’s, Virginia’s steps back to solvency and restoration of municipal control, and then to the indelicate imbalance of fiscal power in Puerto Rico—and whether the federal preemption might be causing more fiscal damage to its fiscal future.

Returning to Solvency. The Petersburg, Virginia City Council last night approved its FY2018 budget, a budget which includes outsourcing jobs—with more than a dozen city employees slated to lose their jobs as a result. The new municipal budget includes an increase in water rates—an increase of nearly 15%–an increase the city’s elected officials deemed necessary in order to finance needed repairs, as well as to update its systems for billing and collections—and to cover its past due arrears of $1.9 million. The session came as the Council began discussions with regard to hiring a new city manager and police chief—and whether to beef up is personal property tax enforcement: the city estimates it could be losing as much as $7 million annually from inadequate collection efforts. The actions by the Mayor and Council reflect a restoration of municipal authority in the wake of state intervention.

The Unpromise of PROMESA? Neither the government of Puerto Rico, nor the PROMESA Oversight Board has been able to state how much in municipal bond interest payments will be made for the next fiscal year—even as the gates of the University of Puerto Rico have been locked, depriving the U.S. territory of the jewel in its crown. The University, which has relied upon 30% of its financing from the government—financing critical to Puerto Rico’s hopes to keep its most promising future generation on the island, rather than incentivized to leave for New York City or Miami—increasingly threatening to leave behind an older and less educated population, more dependent on governmental services, but less able to pay taxes. However, as the PROMESA Board struggles over its preemptive decision with regard to what percent of Puerto Rico’s debt obligations to its municipal bondholders should be mandated, (according to the Board’s March approved fiscal plan, the bonds most closely associated with Puerto Rico’s government would pay $404 million in debt service in the coming fiscal year—approximately one-eighth of the $3.28 billion debt service due), the question with regard to investing in Puerto Rico’s fiscal and physical future remains murky—indeed, murky enough that the balance between Puerto Rico’s $404 million in debt service costs versus investments in its future has been left hanging.

Part of the challenge of preemptive governance is, as we perceived in the first instance of the Michigan takeover of Flint, that there can be signal human and fiscal damage to life, property, and fiscal solvency. Thus, the imbalance where the federal takeover under PROMESA, the Act intended to serve as the fiscal guide through FY2026, is to what extent disinvestment in Puerto Rico’s physical infrastructure and its municipalities might aggravate, rather than restore the territory’s solvency and create a fiscal foundation for its future. And that future is at stake—a future where the gates of its premier university are locked, and where demographers report the loss of population of 61,874 in one year—and where last Sunday’s plebiscite witnessed a drop of more than 50% in voter participation, with markedly reduced percentages in Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities—where participation was 23%, less than a third the level of 1998. Demographer Raúl Figueroa noted: “The population is declining…To give people an idea, from 2015 to 2016, the loss of population was 61, 874,” adding that every year between 1% and 2% of the population is lost. The Mayors of Yauco (a municipality which lost nearly 10% of its population over the last decade) and Ponce, Puerto Rico’s second largest city, known as the City of Lions (population of 194,636), founded in 1692, an important trading and distribution center, as well as a key port of entry—indeed, one of the busiest ports in the Caribbean, which has seen a 9.36% decline in its population—a decline which Mayor Maria Mayita Meléndez, attribute to emigration: Mayor Meléndez notes that since 2006, more than 25,000 Puerto Ricans have left Ponce.

State Oversight & Severe Municipal Distress

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eBlog, 04/24/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the unique fiscal challenge confronting Detroit: when and how will it emerge from state oversight? Then we spin the tables to see how Atlantic City is faring to see if it might be on the shores of fiscal recovery; before going back to Detroit to assess the math/fiscal challenges of the state created public school district; then, still in Detroit, we try to assess the status of a lingering issue from the city’s historic municipal bankruptcy: access to drinking water for its lowest income families; before visiting Hartford, to try to gauge how the fiscally stressed central city might fare with the Connecticut legislature. Finally, we revisit the small Virginia municipality of Petersburg to witness a very unique kind of municipal finance for a city so close to insolvency but in need of ensuring the provision of vital, lifesaving municipal services. 

Fiscal & Physical Municipal Balancing. Michigan Deputy Treasurer Eric Scorsone is predicting that by “early next year, Detroit will be out of state oversight,” at a time when the city “will be financially stable by all indications and have a significant surplus.” That track will sync with the city’s scheduled emergence from state oversight, albeit apprehension remains with regard to whether the city has budgeted adequately  to set funds aside to anticipate a balloon pension obligation due in 2024. Nevertheless, Mr. Scorsone has deemed the Motor City’s post-bankruptcy transformation “extraordinary,” describing its achievements in meeting its plan of debt adjustment—as well as complying with the Detroit Financial Review Commission—so well that the “city could basically operate on its own.” He noted that the progress has been sufficient to permit the Commission to be in a dormancy state—subject to any, unanticipated deficits emerging. The Deputy Treasurer credited the Motor City’s strong management team under CFO John Hill both for the city’s fiscal progress, but also for his role in keeping an open line of communication with the state oversight board; he also noted the key role of Mayor Mike Duggan’s leadership for improving basic services such as emergency response times and Detroit’s public infrastructure. Nevertheless, Detroit remains subject to the state board’s approval of any contracts, operating or capital budgets, as well as formal revenue estimates—a process which the Deputy Treasurer noted “allows the city to stay on a strong economic path…[t]hese are all critical tools,” he notes, valuable not just to Detroit, but also to other municipalities an counties to help ensure “long term stability.”

On the Shore of Fiscal Recovery. S&P Global Ratings, which last month upgraded Atlantic City’s general obligation bond rating two notches to CCC in the wake of the city’s settlement with the Borgata Casino, a settlement which yielded the city some $93 million in savings, has led to a Moody’s rating upgrade, with the credit rating agency writing that Atlantic City’s proposed FY2017 budget—one which proposes some $35.3 million in proposed cuts, is a step in the right direction for the state taken-over municipality, noting that the city’s fiscal plan incorporates a 14.6% cut in its operating budget—sufficient to save $8 million, via reductions in salaries and benefits for public safety employees, $6 million in debt service costs, and $3 million in administrative expenses. Nevertheless S&P credit analyst Timothy Little cautioned that pending litigation with regard to whether Atlantic City can make proposed police and firefighter cuts could be a fly in the ointment, writing: “In our view, the proposed budget takes significant measures to improve the city’s structural imbalance and may lead to further improved credit quality; however, risks to fiscal recovery remain from pending lawsuits against state action impeding labor contracts.” The city’s proposed $206.3 million budget, indeed, marks the city’s first since the state takeover placed it under the oversight of the New Jersey’s Local Finance Board, with the state preemption giving the Board the authority to alter outstanding debt, as well as municipal contracts. Mr. Little wrote that this year will mark the first fiscal year of the agreed-to payment-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOT) program for casino gaming properties—a level set at $120 million annually over the next decade—out of which 10.4% will go to Atlantic County. Mr. Little also notes that the budget contains far less state financial support than in previous years, as the $30 million of casino redirected anticipated revenue received in 2015 and 2016 will be cut to $15 million; moreover, the budget includes no state transitional aid—denoting a change or drop of some $26.2 million; some of that, however, will be offset by a $15 million boost from an adjustment to the state Consolidated Municipal Property Tax Relief Act—or, as the analyst wrote: “Long-term fiscal recovery will depend on Atlantic City’s ability to continue to implement fiscal reforms, reduce reliance on nonrecurring revenues, and reduce its long-term liabilities.” Today, New Jersey state aid accounts for 34% of the city’s $206.3 million in budgeted revenue, 31% comes from casino PILOT payments, and 27% from tax revenues. S&P upgraded Atlantic City’s general obligation bond rating two notches to CCC in early March after the Borgata settlement yielded the city $93 million in savings. Moody’s rates Atlantic City debt at Caa3.

Schooled on Bankruptcy. While Detroit, as noted above, has scored high budget marks or grades with the state; the city’s school system remains physically and fiscally below grade. Now, according to the Michigan Department of Education, school officials plan to voluntarily shutter some of the 24 city schools—schools targeted for closure by the state last January, according to State Superintendent Brian Whiston, whose spokesperson, William DiSessa, at a State Board of Education meeting, said:  “Superintendent Whiston doesn’t know which schools, how many schools, or when they may close, but said that they are among the 38 schools threatened for closure by the State Reform Office earlier this year.” Mr. DiSessa added that “the decision to close any schools is the Detroit Public School Community District’s to make.” What that decision will be coming in the wake of the selection of Nikolai Vitti, who last week was selected to lead the Detroit Public Schools Community District. Mr. Vitti, 40, is currently Superintendent of the Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Florida, the 20th largest district in the nation; in the wake of the Detroit board’s decision last week to enter into negotiations with Mr. Vitti for the superintendent’s job, Mr. Vitti described the offer as “humbling and an honor.” The school board also voted, if Mr.Vitti accepts the offer, to ask him to begin next week as a consultant, working with a transition team, before officially commencing on July 1st. The School Board’s decision, after a search began last January, marks the most important decision the board has made during its brief tenure, in the wake of its creation last year and election last November after the Michigan Legislature in June approved $617-million legislation which resolved the debt of Detroit Public Schools via creating the new district, and retaining the old district for the sole purpose if collecting taxes and paying off debt.

The twenty-four schools slated for closure emerged from a list of 38 the State of Michigan had targeted last January—all from schools which have performed in the bottom 5 percent of the state for at least three consecutive years, according to the education department. The Motor City had hoped to avoid any such forced state closures—hoping against hope that by entering last month into partnership negotiations with the Michigan State Superintendent’s office, and working with Eastern Michigan University, the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, and Wayne State University, the four institutions would help set “high but attainable” goals at the 24 Detroit schools to improve academic achievement and decrease chronic absenteeism and teacher vacancies. The idea was that those goals would be evaluated after 18 months and again in 36 months, according to state officials. David Hecker, president of the American Federation of Teachers Michigan, noted that he was not aware which schools might be closing or how many; however, he noted that whatever happens to the teachers of the closing schools would be subject to the collective bargaining agreement with the Detroit Federation of Teachers. “If any schools close, it would absolutely be a labor issue that would be governed by the collective bargaining agreement as to how that will work … (and) where they will go,” Mr. Hecker said. “We very strongly are opposed to any school closing for performance reasons.”

Thirsty. A difficult issue—among many—pressed upon now retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes during Detroit’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy came as the Detroit Water and Sewer Department began shutting off water service to some of nearly 18,000 residential customers with delinquent accounts. Slightly less than a year ago, in the wake of numerous battles in Judge Rhodes’ then U.S. bankruptcy courtroom, the issue was again raised: what authority did the city of Detroit have to cut off the delivery of water to the thousands of its customers who were delinquent by more than 90 days? Thus it was that Detroit’s Water and Sewerage Department began shutting off service to customers who had failed to pay their bills—with, at the time, DWSD guesstimating about 20,000 of its customers had defaulted on their payments, and noting that the process of shutting off service to customers with unpaid bills was designed to be equitable and not focused on any particular neighborhood or part of the city—and that the agency was not targeting customers who owed less than a $150 and were only a couple of months behind, noting, instead: “We’re looking for those customers who we’ve repeatedly tried to reach and make contact,” as well as reporting that DWSD was reminding its delinquent customers who were having trouble paying their water bills to contact the department so they may be enrolled in one of its two assistance programs — the WRAP Fund or the “10/30/50” plan. Under the first, the WRAP Fund, customers who were at 150 percent of the poverty level or below could receive up to $1,000 a year in assistance in paying bills, plus up to $1,000 to fix minor plumbing issues leading to high usage. This week, DWSD is reporting it has resumed shutoffs in the wake of sending out notices, adding the department has payment and assistance plans to help those with delinquent accounts avoid losing service. Department Director Gary Brown told the Detroit Free Press that everyone “has a path to not have service interruption.” Indeed, it seems some progress has been achieved: the number of families facing shutoffs is down from 24,000 last April and about 40,000 in April of 2014, according to The Detroit News. In 2014, DWSD disconnected service to more than 30,000 customers due to unpaid bills, prompting protests over its actions. Nonetheless, DWSD began the controversial practice of shutting off water service again this week, this time to some of the nearly 18,000 residential customers with delinquent accounts, in the wake of notices sent out 10 days earlier, according to DWSD Director Gary Brown. Nevertheless, while 17,995 households are subject to having their water turned off, those residents who contact the water department prior to their scheduled shutoffs to make a payment or enter into an assistance plan will avoid being cut off—with experience indicating most do. And, the good gnus is that the number of delinquent accounts is trending down from the 24,302 facing a service interruption last April, according to DWSD. Moreover, this Solomon-like decision of when to shut off water service—since the issue was first so urgently pressed in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court before Judge Rhodes—has gained through experience. DWSD Director Brown reports that once residents are notified, about 90 percent are able to get into a plan and avoid being shut off, and adding that most accounts turned off are restored within 24 hours: “Every residential Detroit customer has a path not to be shut off by asking for assistance or being placed into a payment plan…I’m urging people not to wait until they get a door knocker to come in and ask for assistance to get in a payment plan.” A critical part of the change in how the city deals with shutoffs comes from Detroit’s launch two years ago of its Water Residential Assistance Program, or WRAP, a regional assistance fund created as a component of the Great Lakes Water Authority forged through Detroit’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy: a program designed to help qualifying customers in Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties who are at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level—which equates to $36,450 for a family of four—by covering one-third of the cost of their average monthly bill and freezing overdue amounts. Since a year ago, nearly $5 million has been dedicated to the program—a program in which 5,766 Detroit households are enrolled, according to DWSD, with a retention rate for those enrolled in the program of 90 percent. DWSD spokesperson Bryan Peckinpaugh told the Detroit News the department is committed to helping every customer keep her or his water on and that DWSD provides at least three advance notifications encouraging those facing a service interruption to contact the department to make payment arrangements, adding that the outreach and assistance efforts have been successful, with the number of customers facing potential service interruption at less than half of what it was three years ago.

Fiscally Hard in Hartford. Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin has acknowledged his proposed $612.9 FY2018 budget includes a nearly $50 million gap—with proposed expenditures at $600 million, versus revenues of just over $45 million: a fiscal gap noted moodily by four-notch downgrades to the Connecticut city’s general obligation bonds last year from two credit rating agencies, which cited rising debt-service payments, higher required pension contributions, health-care cost inflation, costly legal judgments from years past, and unrealized concessions from most labor unions. Moody’s Investors Service in 2016 lowered Hartford GOs to a junk-level Ba2. S&P Global Ratings knocked the city to BBB from A-plus, keeping it two notches above speculative grade. Thus, Mayor Bronin, a former chief counsel to Gov. Daniel Malloy, has repeated his request for state fiscal assistance, noting: “The City of Hartford has less taxable property than our suburban neighbor, West Hartford. More than half of our property is non-taxable.” In his proposed “essential services only” budget, Mayor Bronin is asking the Court of Common Council to approve an increase of about $60 million, or 11%, over last year’s approved budget—with a deadline for action the end of next month. An increasing challenge is coming from the stressed city’s accumulating debt: approximately $14 million, or 23%, of that increase is due to debt-service payments, while $12 million is for union concessions which did not materialize, according to the Mayor’s office. Gov. Malloy’s proposed biennial budget, currently in debate by state lawmakers, proposes $35 million of aid to Hartford. Unsurprisingly, that level is proving a tough sell to many suburban and downstate legislators. On the other hand, the Mayor appears to be gaining some traction after, last year, gaining an agreement with the Hartford Fire Fighters Association that might save the city $4 million next year: the agreement included changes to pension contributions and benefits, active and retiree health care, and salary schedules. In addition, last month, Hartford’s largest private-sector employers—insurers Aetna Inc., Travelers Cos. and The Hartford—agreed to donate $10 million per year to the city over five years. Nonetheless, rating agencies Moody’s and S&P have criticized the city for limited operating flexibility, weak reserves, narrowing liquidity, and its rising costs of debt service and pension obligations. Gurtin Municipal Bond Management went so far as to deem the city a “slow-motion train wreck,” adding that while the quadruple-notch downgrades had a headline shock effect, the city’s fundamental credit deterioration had been slow and steady. “The price impact of negative headlines and credit rating downgrades can be swift and severe, which begs the question: How should municipal bond investors and their registered investment advisors react?” Gurtin’s Alex Etzkowitz noted, in a commentary. “The only foolproof solution is to avoid credit distress in the first place by leveraging independent credit research and in-depth, ongoing surveillance of municipal obligors.”

Fighting for a City’s Future. The small city of Petersburg. Virginia, is hardly new to the stress of battle. It was there that General Robert E. Lee’s men fought courageously throughout the Overland Campaign, even as Gen. Lee feared he confronted a campaign he feared could not be won, warning his troops—and politicians: “We must destroy this Army of Grant’s before he gets to the James River. If he gets there, it will become a siege, and then it will be a mere question of time.” Yet, even as he wrote, General Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac was racing toward the James and Petersburg to wage an attack on the city—a highly industrialized city then of 18,000 people, with supplies arriving from all over the South via one of the five railroads or the various plank roads. Indeed, Petersburg was one of the last outposts: without it, Richmond, and possibly the entire Confederacy, was at risk. Today, the city, because of the city’s subpar credit rating, is at fiscal risk: it has been forced to beg its taxpayers to loan it funds for new emergency vehicles—officials are making a fiscal arrangement with private citizens to front the cost for new emergency vehicles, and offering to put up city hall as collateral for said arrangement, as an assurance to the lenders they will be paid back. The challenge: the police department currently needs 16 new vehicles, at a cost of $614,288; the fire department needs three new trucks, at a cost of $2,145,527. Or, as Interim City Manager Tom Tyrrell notes: “Every single day that a firefighter rolls out on a piece of equipment older than he is, or a police officer responds to an emergency call in a car with 160,000 miles on it, are days we want to avoid…We want to get this equipment as soon as possible.” Interim City Finance Director Nelsie Birch has included in the upcoming fiscal year budget the necessary funds to obtain the equipment—equipment Petersburg normally obtains via lease agreements with vendors, but which now, because of its inability to access municipal credit markets due to its “BB” credit rating with a negative outlook, makes it harder than ever to find any vendor—or, as Manager Tyrrell puts it: “We went out four different times…We solicited four different times to the market, and were unsuccessful in getting any parties to propose.” He added that when soliciting these types of agreements, you solicit “thousands of people.” Notwithstanding that the funds for the vehicles is already set aside in the upcoming budget, city officials have been unable to find anyone willing to enter into a lease agreement with the city because of the city’s financial woes.

Last week, the City Council authorized Mr. Tyrrell to “undertake emergency procurement action” in order for the lease of necessary fire and police vehicles, forcing Mr. Tyrrell and other officials to seek private funds to get the equipment—that is, asking individual citizens who have the financial means to put up money for the fire and police vehicles—or, as Mr. Tyrrell puts it: “We’ve reached out to four people, who are interested and capable,” noting they are property owners in Petersburg who will remain anonymous until the deal is closed, describing it thusly: “[This agreement] is outside the rules, because we couldn’t get a partner inside the rules.” Including in this proposed fiscal arrangement: officials must put up additional collateral, in addition to the cars themselves, and in the form of city-owned property—with the cornerstone of the proposal, as it were, being Petersburg City Hall, or, as Mr. Tyrrell notes: “What they’re looking for is some assurance that no matter what happens, we’re going to pay the note…It’s not a securitization in the financial sense, as much as it is in the emotional sense: they know that the city isn’t going to let it go.” He adds, the proposed financial arrangement will be evaluated in two areas: the interest rate and how fast the deal can close, adding: “Although it’s an emergency procurement, we still want to get the best deal we can.”

The Challenges of Investing in the Future, or, Can God Work a Miracle?

eBlog, 04/18/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the vestige of a most challenging issue during Detroit’s historic bankruptcy: water and sewer fees: how does a municipality balance between its needs and the ability of its lowest income citizens to pay? Then, we look at the same issue—especially because of its regional implications, in the nearly insolvent municipality of Petersburg, Virginia—where, as in many regions, water and sewer services—and costs—have regional dimensions. Finally, we inquire about lingering colonialism in Puerto Rico, where the government is planning a plebiscite so that its citizens can have a voice with regard to the U.S. territory’s future.

Fiscal & Physical Municipal Balancing. The City of Detroit’s Board of Water Commissioners is set to vote on a proposal to scale back a controversial storm water drainage fee in the wake of a backlash from churches and businesses, which have been most unhappy about the newly set $750-per-acre monthly charge—with the Board set to consider an option to reduce the drainage fee to $125 per acre until July, after which it would phase in increases over the next five fiscal years to $677 by July of 2022, according to Gary Brown, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department [DWSD] Director. The Motor City began imposing the fee in July 2015 on the owners of 22,000 parcels with impervious surfaces such as roofs and parking lots which “were not,” as Director Brown noted, “paying anything at all…This essentially is giving them an opportunity to have five years to build green infrastructure projects and get a credit to permanently reduce their costs.”

The issue comes at a politically critical time, as Mayor Mike Duggan, running this year for re-election, has been confronted by opposition to the fee by Detroit’s politically-influential pastors—or, as Pastor Everett Jennings, of New Providence Baptist Church, put it: “They say it’s not taxation, but to me it’s a way to tax the church.” The Pastor notes the proposed monthly water bill for his northwest side church skyrocketed from $650 per month to $7,500 per month after the city began assessing the storm water drainage fee. Similarly, Phil Cifuentes, owner and CEO of Omaha Automation Inc., a small automotive and military manufacturing supplier near the Detroit-Hamtramck border, reports: “I came into a system that wasn’t charging anyone…And then I came into a system that, two years later, was charging the largest water sewerage rates in the country,” referring to the $15,630 bill he received in 2015—with the assessment dated back several years, leading him to note: “If they come down through this new rate, how does that affect everyone who owes them outstanding charges like the $10,000 I owe?”

Property owners will still owe the water department past-due charges at the higher rate; however, according to Mr. Brown, they will be eligible for relief for the next few years. The new phased-in rate structure going before the city water board will commence at $125 effective April Fool’s Day, double on July 1st, increase to $375 in July of 2018, $500 in July of 2019, and $626 in July of 2020. In July 2021, the per-acre fee will increase to $651, followed by a final hike of $26 in July of 2022. Mr. Brown notes: “By having a longer five-year opportunity to phase in, it gives them an opportunity to better budget for the new cost and also to go out and have a green infrastructure project designed.” He added that DWSD customers who were originally being charged $852 per impervious acre will see their rate gradually reduced to $677 by July of 2022 to match the rate charged to the 22,000 parcels in the new five-year phased-in plan: “This all goes away and everybody goes to one flat rate at the end of five years.”

To address an issue which had been raised before now retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes during Detroit’s chapter 9 bankruptcy, Mr. Brown noted that the water department is going to offer grants of up to $50,000 for half of the cost of water retention projects on the sites of large churches and businesses to reduce the amount of storm water and impervious surfaces, according to Mr. Brown, who noted the city agency has budgeted $5 million for the grants, even as he described the drainage fee as having been “a real deterrent” to his plans to buy an adjoining 2.5-acre parcel and build another 40,000-square-foot manufacturing facility. The drainage fee itself was partly a response to a 2015 class action lawsuit Michigan Warehousing Group LLC brought against both the City of Detroit and DWSD for charging some property owners the $852 per acre monthly fee, while charging others nothing or as little as $20 based on the size of their water meter pipe. Thus, as Mr. Brown this week noted: “We’re trying to settle that lawsuit by getting everyone on to a fairer and equitable rate system by putting them on the same rate.” CEO Cifuentes notes that Omaha Automation is part of the class action lawsuit.

The non-paying customers included industrial parcels, commercial buildings, churches, and residential parcels where Detroiters have purchased vacant side lots and built additional parking spaces, according to Mr. Brown: “Parking lots were a big part of it—and they weren’t getting a bill, because they didn’t have an account.” Churches in Detroit received large bills because of their large parking lots: for instance, Shield of Faith Church has racked up a $65,000 bill with the city water department, because the storm water drainage fee costs the 300-member congregation nearly $5,000 per month, according to Pastor James Jennings, or as Pastor Jennings had warned prior to the rollback: “It’s actually causing us not to be able to meet our expenses, and we’re about to go under unless God works a miracle.”

The drainage fee also was imposed to pay for needed sewer infrastructure upgrades and try to reduce the city’s overall storm water runoff that causes combined sewage water outflows to discharge into the Detroit River and River Rouge in violation of state and federal environmental laws. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has mandated Detroit to eliminate all sewage discharges by 2022, according to Mr. Brown. The sewage releases vary depending on heavy rainstorms. Last year, the city released 800 million gallons of combined sewage and storm water, according to DWSD. In 2014, a torrential August rain storm contributed to 6.8 billion gallons of untreated sewage and storm water being released—and widespread basement flooding in the city and northern suburbs.

The Fiscal & Physical Costs of Delay. Unlike the federal government, states, cities, and counties have capital budgets. As we have noted previously, however, failure to properly administer one’s capital budgets can have, as we have noted in the case of Flint, Michigan, signal human physical and fiscal costs—or, as Prince George, Virginia Chairman William A. Robertson Jr. put it, with a case study just across the county line in Petersburg of what can happen if a locality goes too long without upgrading its water systems: “Sorry, but this is something we had to do…We don’t want to end up as a Petersburg or a Flint, Michigan.” Thus, with the vote, the county’s rate for drinking water will increase by 10% and the rate for wastewater will rise by 20% effective July 1st. Prince William Utilities Director Chip England noted that the county had performed a water rate study several years ago which “did call for annual rate increases;” however, he said, this rate increase will be the first in three years and just the second in the past 13 years, noting that, as is the case for most localities, Prince George’s utility system is an “enterprise fund” which is intended to be self-funded through customers’ payments for service. Ergo, he advised: “No general fund tax revenues are used to cover the expenses of the department.” But, as in Detroit, the fee increase did not come without opposition: Joe Galloni, president of the 55-plus neighborhood’s homeowner association, noted that many of the residents there are retired and living on fixed incomes: “A lot of folks over there can’t absorb any more increases.” In response, however, board members cited Petersburg’s financial woes and near insolvency as an object lesson in the need to keep current on infrastructure investments. Indeed, Petersburg officials have acknowledged that the city’s aging water and wastewater system is “on the brink of collapse” and estimate that it will take $97 million to repair the system. Like Prince George, Petersburg had gone many years without a rate increase, causing issues not only for the city, but also the region. Now, the Petersburg City Council has recently approved a 13.4% increase—and slated another increase of 14.3% in the city’s budget for next year—and even set plans providing for additional 15 percent increases in each of the following four years. Thus, Supervisor T.J. Webb noted that Petersburg’s financial crisis last year led the city to fall behind on its payments to the South Central Wastewater Authority, a regional entity which provides wastewater treatment to Prince George, Chesterfield County, Colonial Heights, and Dinwiddie County in addition to Petersburg. Had Petersburg not resumed making its $327,000-a-month payments to the authority, the other member jurisdictions would have been required to make up the shortfall, which would have meant an additional $38,000 that Prince George wastewater customers would have had to pay each month. Indeed, Chairman Robertson noted that Petersburg is considering two offers by for-profit companies, Aqua Virginia and Virginia American Water, to purchase the city’s water system.

Vestiges of American Colonialism. Before dawn this morning, the Puerto Rican House of Representatives passed Senate Bill 427, which amends the U.S. territory’s proposed plebiscite and responds to the demands made by the U.S. Justice Department. The actions came in the wake of the threat by U.S. Acting Deputy Attorney General Dana Boente, who had written to Gov. Ricardo Rosselló that the Justice Department would not notify Congress that it approved the ballot or suggest that Congress release funds to hold the plebiscite and educate voters on it. According to Mr. Boente, the current ballot “is not drafted in a way that ensures that its result will accurately reflect the current popular will of the people of Puerto Rico.” Moreover, the Justice Department has objected to the ballot only offering statehood and “free association/independence” as options; the Justice Department apparently believes that the ballot fails to offer Puerto Ricans the option of continuing in the current territorial status, and has alleged that the ballot statement that only statehood status “guarantees” U.S. citizenship by birth for Puerto Ricans is false, as the current territorial status already does this; the Department is also alleging that the ballot language fails to make clear that a vote for Puerto Rico to have a “free association” with the United States would make Puerto Rico an independent nation and strip Puerto Ricans of their U.S. citizenship.

The Justice Department intervention could also jeopardize the Congressional authorization of some $2.5 million to hold a plebiscite on its status in the United States and to educate its voters. While the authorization imposed no limit on when the funds could be used, it did require that prior to the release of the funds, the Justice Department was to notify Congress that the plebiscite ballot and educational materials were consistent with the laws, Constitution, and policies of the United States. Thus, the amended version (Senate 427) was modified in coordination with the Governor’s office and passed by the Puerto Rico Senate, notwithstanding aggravation with federal interference—a kind of interference virtually unimaginable with any U.S. state. Or, as New Progressive Party Senator Luis Daniel Muñiz Cortés put it: “It’s disgusting what the United States is doing with Puerto Rico. I, totally dissatisfied with the measure, will vote in favor if my Party votes in favor of Party discipline, but totally dissatisfied because it is unworthy for the people.” Nonetheless, Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz said that this status consultation was a necessary step toward a definitive definition of Puerto Rico’s status, although he made it clear that his preference would be not to include “the colony” in the plebiscite: “We cannot fall into the game of those who do not want to do anything in Puerto Rico and do not want to do anything there, in the United States,” noting it was not an option to maintain the current status that “overwhelms the Puerto Rican people.” Thus, the approved version includes the territorial situation of Puerto Rico, but does not make specific mention of the Commonwealth; nor does the document refer to U.S. citizenship. 

Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and legislators from his pro-statehood New Progressive Party, had agreed to a measure authorizing a status plebiscite with the first vote to take place on June 11th—with that scheduled vote apparently triggering the demands from the Trump administration—demands, in response to which, Gov. Rosselló promised that his government would add remaining as a U.S. territory as an option to the ballot—and adding that the Congressional authorization of the $2.5 million requires that the Department of Justice notify the U.S. Congress at least 45 days prior to the plebiscite—that is, with sufficient time to provide Puerto Rico until this Saturday to authorize funds for the June 11th plebiscite. The Governor said Puerto Rico’s legislature would act swiftly—as, indeed, it has done. Now, the question will be how the changes might impact the tax-status of Puerto Rico’s future bonds, its economy, and whether it might mean Congress would treat Puerto Rico more like a state, which would have significant implications for programs such as Medicaid.