A Tale of Two Cities

July 3, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Charting a Municipal Rovery Budget

April 5, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we shiver on the Appomattox River at first light in the historic Civil War municipality of Petersburg, a municipality which is on the rebound from virtual insolvency—in Virginia, where the state does not specifically authorize its municipalities to file a chapter 9 petition, but does impose a debt limitation barring any municipality from incurring debt in excess of 10% of the assessed valuation of taxable properties. It is a city, which has been, since the dawn of the republic, a strategic center for transportation and commercial activities, and it is a city, which came closest of any in the Commonwealth to filing for insolvency. But, in the wake of the appointment of a former city manager—as well as a state commission to provide assessment and evaluation of municipal fiscal well-being, it is, today, a city of 32,420 that is returning to fiscal health.

Setting the Path for a Strategic Recovery. In her first budget proposal for the historic Virginia municipality of Petersburg in the wake of its insolvency and near first-ever Virginia chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, City Manager Aretha Ferrell-Benavides, who was hired last June just as consultants charged with turning around the city’s finances told the City Council that it needed a $20 million cash infusion to make up a deficit and comply with its own reserve policies, Manager Ferrell-Benavides proposed a rebuilding budget–even as she  expressed cautious optimism to the Mayor and Council that Petersburg can overcome the challenges it faces and continue to restore its financial standing. Thus, she presented a $73 million proposed operating budget–one which focuses on public safety, more funding for the city’s chronically underperforming schools, but cuts to city departments.

In presenting her proposed FY2019 $102.6 million budget, she told the Mayor and Council the spending plan reflects five “strategic priorities,” led by a focus on establishing the city “as a structurally stable organization with a greater focus on customer service, efficiency, accountability, and transparency.” In addition, she added, she is proposing a budget, which aims to “strengthen our fundamental policy and process to achieve long-term fiscal stabilization.”

She cited other priorities, including boosting economic development, encouraging neighborhood revitalization, promoting community engagement, and neighborhood support. Noting that Petersburg confronts some uncertainty with regard to the levels of funding which will be available from the state and federal governments, Manager Ferrell-Benavides outlined revenue and spending plans, plans which, she advised, were based on “conservatism” in their projections, as she proposed an operating budget slightly under this year’s level–a reduction of about $305,000, or about 0.3 % from the amended budget for the current fiscal year–of which approximately 72% or $73 million would be for the operating budget–a 1.5% drop from the current level, while proposing a 6.4% increase in the capital budget for the city’s Utilities Fund, noting that public safety would remain the largest funding category, at about $18.9 million, or about 26% of the total, comparable to the current level. She proposed $13.6 million for the city’s second largest budget category, Social Services, unchanged from the current level services funding, but recommended an increase of about 3% for the city’s public schools, as part of what she asserted was a continuing effort to restore cuts which had been made during the city’s financial crisis in FY2016. For next year, she proposed that the budget allocate about $9.7 million to the school system, an increase of up about $271,000 from $9.5 million this year.

In a post General Revenue Sharing era, Petersburg, with a nearly 80% black population and where more than a quarter of its families are headed by a female householder with no husband present—and more than 11% of its households headed by a single person over the age of 65—has a median family income of $33,927, with nearly a quarter of its residents below the federal poverty level. It is a city, too, living with fear: on Wednesday, more than 100 guns were taken off the streets and destroyed by the order of Petersburg Police Chief Kenneth Miller, who described these as “illegal guns that were taken off streets.” Indeed, some nine months on the job, Chief Miller has been adamant about his decision to have the guns destroyed and not sold “to put these weapons back on the street for gain…We’re not going to take weapons of destruction and try to make a profit off of that.”

But, fiscally, the city appears to be on a strong road to recovery. Manager Ferrell-Benavides noted that the challenges that the Petersburg still faces include rising health care costs for city employees, aging water and sewer infrastructure, antiquated technology, the need to recruit and retain employees, and ongoing issues with billing and collections. Nevertheless, she said the city’s efforts to date have produced results, notably an improvement in Petersburg’s municipal bond rating from junk status to investment-grade, adding that her fiscal goal is  to wean the city off its use of revenue anticipation notes. Indeed, with her proposed five-year plan in place to build Petersburg’s cash reserve fund to $6 million, a remarkable turnaround from the city’s negative balance in place at the time of the financial crisis, she testified that her proposed budget was intended to help provide stability to city government by seeing the plan through, noting: “I am committed…and our team is committed, to be here for the next five years.” Her proposed $77 million operating budget would boost spending on public safety and restore 10 percent cuts to municipal workers’ pay, while shrinking a workforce that consultants had charged was bloated and structurally inefficient. 

In the wake of her predecessor, William Johnson’s firing for his role in dipping into the city’s rainy day fund two years ago, Ms. Ferrell-Benavides said big goals within her proposal include building up the reserve, reducing reliance on grant funding, and being conservative with estimates. She testified that her proposed budget, overall, represents a $1.1 million decrease from the FY2018 amended budget, and proposes increasing the reserve to $950,000, adding that the city’s reserve funds are out of the red–and, in good gnus, that Petersburg’s bond rating has been upgraded from junk bond status. She noted that Department heads had been instructed to trim their expenses by 10%, but that cutting salaries was not an option. Her proposed budget includes $18.93 million for public safety, a $3 million increase from two years ago–with the increase part of an effort to stem the exodus of public safety workers to surrounding counties. For the city’s kids, she proposed a budget increase of $300,000 over the current $9.7 million level, telling the Mayor and Council: “This is a big step for us. And that was part of the priorities. Our goal is to annually increase our investment in the school system.” 

The consultants are scheduled to be back in Petersburg later this week and will submit an updated report in the coming weeks. Their perspective will help, as the City Council begins the process drill down into the details over the next two months through work sessions and a round of community meetings—meetings scheduled to begin at the end of this month and finish by the end of May: the Council is scheduled to make its recommended changes to the city manager on May 22nd, after which the city has scheduled a public hearing on June 5, with the Mayor Council scheduled to act on final adoption on June 12th.  

Petersburg, a city still not completely free from the grips of financial crisis, has rolled out a $73 million proposed operating budget that emphasizes public safety, more money for chronically under performing schools, and cuts to city departments.

Fiscal Sand Traps & Disparate, Inequitable Responses

March 7, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the fiscal sand trap into which the small Virginia municipality of Buena Vista has fallen, before examining the ongoing, disparate physical and fiscal recovery issues in Puerto Rico.

Is the Municipal Fiscal Vista Good? Virginia is somewhat unique in that it does not specifically authorize municipalities to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy; it does, in certain situations, allow for a receiver allow for the appointment of a receiver with respect to revenue bonds (§15.2-4910). Now, the aptly named Buena Vista, Virginia, a small, independent city located in the Blue Ridge Mountains with a population of about 6,650, where, as we have previously written, the issue of non-payments of municipal bond interest on debt issued for its public golf course became an election issue, has, in effect, cone back as a mulligan. This time, the issue involves, again, the municipal golf course, and the issue has re-arisen because of the municipality’s decision not to make the bond payments on a municipally-owned golf course that the new majority on Council oppose as inconsistent with an essential government activity—rejecting a moral obligation pledge on what has become a failed economic development project, as the city’s elected leaders have opted instead to focus—in the wake of the Great Recession—on essential public services, putting the city in a subpar fiscal situation with Vista Links, which was securing the bonds, according to Virginia state records. The company, unsurprisingly, has sued to get the bond payments it had been 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.

Nevertheless, the municipality’s selective payment default on its $9.2 million in lease revenue bonds has driven Municipal Markets Associates to describe the city’s decisions as “perhaps a worst-in-class example of erosion in issuer willingness to pay bondholders. Buena Vista’s default can no longer be blamed on weak local budget or economic conditions; rather, the city is currently choosing neither to pay nor negotiate with bondholders, because the pledged appropriation security permits this to occur. Further, while the commonwealth has applied some pressure to the city by denying it access to state loan funds via the VRA program, Virginia has chosen not to more proactively interfere in city affairs and has made multiple grants to Buena Vista in recent years.” Nevertheless, Buena Vista won the first round in court regarding the bond default, after the court concurred that the city had a moral obligation, but not a full faith and credit obligation. (It is unclear whether there will be an appeal.) While the Commonwealth of Virginia has applied some pressure to the city by denying it access to state loan funds via the VRA program, Virginia has chosen not to more proactively interfere in city affairs and has made multiple grants to Buena Vista in recent years. Two years ago, Buena Vista had made payments toward all other out-standing debt obligations, including $5.5 million in general fund bonds and loans and $7.9 million in revenue bonds; the municipality added $500,000 to its net General Fund net revenues—leaving it in a fiscal sand trap caught between $94 million in obligations towards debt service on its ACA-insured bonds while continuing to growth fund balance.

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 had 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.

The golf course in question, which opened in 2004, never generated sufficient revenue to keep up with loan payments, leading the municipality to default on its $9.2 million bond, which, in turn, led Buena Vista’s municipal bonds insurer, ACA Financial Guaranty Corp., to file suit against the municipality, seeking to have Buena Vista ordered to resume payments—a suit which a federal court last month dismissed, concluding the city was only under a moral obligation, not a legal one, to pay back the loans. Unsurprisingly, ACA has pulled out another club and now ACA plans to appeal the judge’s decision, thereby creating uncertainty with regard to the city’s fiscal solvency—creating uncertainty for the business community. Now, however, it seems that with greater confidence in their judicial outcome, and a key business investment in a number of downtown properties, it appears of developers are starting to pick up on the momentum. Buena Vista Mayor William “Billy” Fitzgerald believes these new potential developments fit perfectly with his goals as the municipality’s newly elected leader: he wants to bring five to seven new businesses and one manufacturer to the area this year. In addition, he said he wants to cut some of the red tape and fees associated with opening businesses, adding that there has been more movement recently than the city’s had in a long time, adding: “In two years, I think Buena Vista will be a different place.”

A year ago, 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.”

Fiscal Darkness & Despair. More than five months after Hurricane Maria plowed through Puerto Rico, some parts of the island remain in the dark; it remains a long, long way from getting back for businesses: the U.S. territory’s patchwork power grid remains fragile, and hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans remain without power. While many have been living in hotels with their expenses covered by FEMA, those reimbursements are nearing expiration—not just in Puerto Rico, but also on the mainland. Today, there are nearly 10,000 Puerto Ricans scattered throughout 37 states and Puerto Rico who have been living in hotels paid by FEMA—aid now on the brink of ending a week from Tuesday. Many of them are poor families, who on the island survived with low wages. Many do not have savings or relatives who can help them or own their homes on the island. Others confront health problems and distrust the medical system on the island or have children with disabilities who need continuous care. Government relief workers have installed 57,000 blue tarps as makeshift roofs on damaged homes across the island. There is no plan for installing permanent roofs. Major intersections in San Juan still lack working traffic lights. More than 10,000 small businesses — nearly 20 percent of the island is total — remain closed. At the upscale Mall of San Juan, two anchor stores — Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom — are shut because of storm damage, although Nordstrom may reopen in a few months. Some hotel workers, cabdrivers and bartenders in San Juan have been living without power since September.

The most optimistic estimate is that Puerto Rico faces a two-year economic recovery. That assumes it can rebuild its power grid, restructure its finances in a court-supervised process and not be struck by another devastating storm. For its part, FEMA reports it has delivered more than $113 million in rental assistance to more than 129,000 Puerto Ricans affected by Maria. Governor Ricardo Roselló has said he has formally requested the federal government to allow families in hotels to stay there until May 14th. That recovery, moreover, is made more difficult by the fiscal circumstances before the storm even struck—when some 45% of the territory’s 3.4 million Americans lived in poverty and more than 16,000 homeowners were facing foreclosure. The size of the human devastation remains stark: more than one million Puerto Ricans applied to FEMA for emergency assistance: less than half have been served. The situation is, as Javier E. Zapata-Rodríguez, the Deputy Director of Economic Development for PathStone Enterprise Center, put it: “This is like the perfect storm of an economic disaster…There is not enough capital flowing, and a lot of small businesses are closing up shop, because they were ailing before the hurricane.” Adding to the dismal situation, even those claims that are being paid have been slow—and 60% have, so far, been denied. Meanwhile, tourism, which accounts for about 6 percent of Puerto Rico’s economy and supports more than 60,000 jobs, is all but gone for this season: nearly a dozen big resorts in and around San Juan are closed, while, many of those which are open and operating are filled not with tourists, but rather with relief workers and government contractors who are permitted discounted rates.

As we have noted, the economy is also suffering from emigration: it is not just the 200,000 residents who have departed to live on the mainland, but also how that has altered the demographics of those who remain—generally older and poorer. As the New York Federal Reserve reported last year, four months before Maria, 36% of Puerto Rico’s small businesses planned to hire more workers and 50% planned to invest in new equipment and technologies—all plans devastated by the storm.

Today, in the wake of such an inadequate federal response, the power situation in the U.S. territory remains dispiriting: at the end of last week, many in San Juan and along the island’s northern coast lost power in the middle of the workday. Indeed, generators are no longer an option for a business: they are a necessity—as they are for homes and hospitals with patients reliant upon vital medical devices. For potential overseas investors, new investments appear to be on hold pending some certainty on Puerto Rico’s electric grid restoration and reliability—and how FHA will act on the current moratorium on home foreclosures—a decision with implications for assessed property values affecting municipios bottom lines. The recovery too awaits the progress of what has been, so far, a slow trickle in response to filed insurance claims: to date, while 299,999 claims have been filed by homeowners and businesses, only $1.7 billion in payouts have been approved, according to the insurance department: much of the federal assistance is being dispensed as grants and loans for which businesses and individuals apply for from FEMA and the Small Business Administration, even as attorneys and community groups report that FEMA has rejected approximately 60% of the 1.1 million household applications it has received—a figure, it should be noted, which FEMA deems misleading, because some rejected applicants had received loans from the Small Business Administration or aid from other agencies. One key reason for the disproportionate rejection rate appears to be the stark difficulty many Puerto Ricans have encountered in proving that they own a home: only 65% of properties in Puerto Rico are officially registered, making this an especially harsh and acute problem affecting families and local governments in small cities and rural areas where there’s a custom of property owners not recording titles to homes.

Governance in Recovering from Severe Physical and Fiscal Distress

March 2, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the use of a municipality’s capital assets to get back on its fiscal feet; then we consider the fates, fiscal and physical, for many of Hurricane Maria’s Puerto Rican victims who have emigrated stateside. Are they “invisible Americans”?

Municipal Assets & Fiscal Balancing. In a surprising move, the Petersburg, Virginia City Council has unanimously adopted a motion to opt not to sell the municipality’s public water and wastewater assets, effectively ending a nearly yearlong debate with regard to whether or not to sell their public utility to Aqua Virginia and Virginia American Water, two private providers who had submitted bids in December of 2016—at a time when one of the nation’s oldest cities was on the precipice of insolvency. It would appear the decision was likely affected by several water main breaks and water boil notices in the city last month—forcing legislators and city leaders to act. In the wake of the breaks, Congressman A. Donald McEachin (VA-4) and the Virginia Conservation Network had joined forces to host a roundtable discussion on the dilapidated state of Petersburg’s water infrastructure. Under the successful motion, the Council instructed the City Manager to: 1) reject the offer made by Aqua Virginia; 2) discourage any future offers to purchase Petersburg’s water and wastewater assets; 3) reject the pending unsolicited proposal to purchase Petersburg’s water and wastewater assets. That is, the municipal fiscal and capital policy going forward is to concentrate all available city resources on devising a plan to improve the city’s collection rate—or, as Councilmember Cuthbert put it: “It was a diversion of energy…It diverted the city administration’s energy; it diverted the public’s energy; and it diverted the City Council’s energy.” Councilwoman Annette Smith-Lee noted: “For the citizens, their voice is their voice. We’re on Council because of them, and they did not want us to sell the water.”

Had the city opted to go forward with the proposed privatization and sale, the municipality would have lost control over setting the water rates—an important governance and fiscal issue, as neither the Council, nor many citizens support having a for-profit company to be in charge of the water rates. Previously, several Councilmembers had expressed skepticism about the sale of some of the city’s vital public infrastructure—even as former Richmond City Manager Robert Bobb’s Group, hired to take over the city in lieu of a chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy filing—had repeatedly made pleas to the Council to “open the envelope” and see what Aqua Virginia and Virginia American Water were offering for the system. Councilman Cuthbert noted: “Council realized that for us to sell our water and wastewater assets, it would have taken six affirmative votes, and the votes were not there.”

In the wake of that successful motion, Councilman Cuthbert told his colleagues he saw “no reason to go through another eight months of agony that was going to lead to nowhere.” The decision thus ended a year-long battle—or, as Mayor Sam Parham told his colleagues, Council Members had listened to citizens who were concerned about the sale, control over its water and sewer rates, and it never materialized. Barb Rudolph, one of those citizen leaders, where the citizen group Clean Sweep Petersburg, had questioned the idea from the Robert Bobb Group to privatize, especially after the consultants had departed Petersburg with what they had described as stabilized finances. Yet, even after offers by private companies were rejected, bids still continued to come in: obviously, private, for-profit corporations recognized intrinsic value in the system—and, of course, an opportunity for profit. Indeed, at a roundtable discussion about the city’s water and sewer infrastructure, City Manager Aretha Ferrell-Benavides acknowledged that Petersburg was still being pressured by a private vendor to sell its water and wastewater systems. The fact that Aqua Virginia leaders attended city meetings had not been lost on some residents—one even likened the private vendors to predators. Residents with Clean Sweep Petersburg took photos of empty chairs in the City Council chambers that they say Aqua Virginia executives vacated just after the Council’s vote. Now, city leaders say, energy should be devoted to improving the existing systems. In the past, necessary rate increases that the council approved were never implemented, in part because of turnover within city departments. In addition, billing issues that cost the utility system millions of dollars in recent years ended up slapping some residents with $4,000 bills, and the faulty rollout of a new utility billing system cost taxpayers upward of $1 million more. As recently as last week, some residents at the roundtable said their bills are still volatile. Ferrell-Benavides said a long-term plan to update the city’s infrastructure and improvements to the billing system are necessary and in the works.

For one of the nation’s oldest municipalities—a key city during both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, a small, majority African-American municipality of just over 32,420, with a median household income of $33,927, where per capita income is about $18,535, and nearly 28% are below the poverty level—the politics of vital access to water matters.

The Physical & Fiscal Costs of Federalism. Physical catastrophes and federal insouciance can wreak terrible fiscal and human costs. In the case of Hurricane Maria, we can see those costs as not just fiscal, but especially in the welfare of our most vulnerable: young children and the elderly. More than 1,800 children have migrated from Puerto Rico and enrolled in Connecticut schools since Hurricane Maria decimated their homeland last September—a human and fiscal consequence of both the devastating physical and fiscal consequences, but also to the difficult fiscal challenges Connecticut is already confronting. Yet, unlike the federal government, Connecticut schools have scrambled to accommodate the new arrivals—most of them non-English speakers, and they have made such human, physical, and fiscal efforts notwithstanding the cash-strapped State of Connecticut. While Congress finally approved a compromise budget bill to provide millions of dollars to help schools care for displaced students (providing the equivalent of $8,500 for each displaced student, $9,000 for each one that is not English-speaking, and $10,000 for disabled students requiring special education); that still left a significant fiscal and physical burden for Connecticut, where State House Majority Leader Matt Ritter (D-Hartford) has set up a working group in the General Assembly to try to provide “one-stop shopping” for displaced Puerto Ricans who need assistance: he notes there “is no question that schools are looking for additional money” to accommodate the influx of unexpected students, many with special needs, and he is “very pleased” Congress finally offered some help. He believes the displaced student funding, part of the budget agreement’s $44 billion hurricane response package, will help. According to the Connecticut Department of Education, there were 1,745 displaced students in Connecticut schools as of mid-February—a slight reduction from the beginning of the year, as some families having opted to return to Puerto Rico or move to other states. Hartford, a city itself in difficult fiscal shape, finds its public schools have taken the bulk of the new arrivals, 376 at last count and 429 at the peak of the migration, followed by Waterbury, New Haven, and New Britain. Yet, while Congress finally provided some aid for displaced students, that aid appears unlikely to help school districts with the children who enroll next year.

Demographically Failing. While, as we noted above, there has been some federal and state aid to displaced children from Puerto Rico, the picture is more grim for Puerto Rico’s elderly: thousands of whom reside in vulnerable conditions outside the radar of government authorities, and too many of whom went hungry and thirsty due to mobility difficulties, or were unable to save their medicines due to the lack of light, without anyone knowing. Indeed, Department of the Family Secretary Glorimar Andújar described the challenge, because, in the wake of the physical destruction, the government lacked vital information with regard to where the most vulnerable were. Secretary Andújar noted the government neither knew where the most vulnerable lived, nor what their particular needs were. Thus, the devastating storm led her to acknowledge: “We have many elderly people in homes that we did not think were going to be in such high concentrations…Urbanizations complete with elderly people who depend on and are nourished by the help given by their neighbors…They are not necessarily under the jurisdiction of the Federal District, because we enter into protection. They are people who live alone and have particular needs, who are supplied by their neighbors: It is important, for future services that develop, to know where each of these populations are located.” That is, unlike children, who could be located via the school system—and could be lifted to accommodating state such as Connecticut, or depart with their families to Florida, Puerto Rico’s most vulnerable Americans were not only left behind, but also largely unaccounted for: as indicated, due to the nature of the services offered, the agency knows about elderly Americans only to the extent that they participate in their programs, such as Nutrition Assistance (PAN), protection services in cases of abuse or the homes of prolonged care—that is less than 3% of Puerto Rico’s nearly 860,000 senior citizens—where 36% live alone. This cohort, described by some as “that population that is most worrisome,” because they are older Americans who reside in the community, but have little support—or, as the Secretary put it: “They are invisible.”

During the most critical phase of the hurricane emergency many institutions did help many who live alone in their homes, offering food or extending electricity via long extension cords, those private efforts were far from sufficient for what is nearly a quarter of the population: In 2016, more than 23.5% of Puerto Ricans were 60 or older—compared to just 19.4% in 2011. It is almost like a teeter-totter, only where it is becoming increasingly fiscally and demographically imbalanced. Now, in the wake of the hurricane, and especially after the wave of immigration to the mainland by children and college-educated Puerto Ricans, estimates are that, by the next census, citizens over 65 will reach 30% of the population.  

To tend to these older Americans after Maria, Puerto Rico actually developed alternate methods of operation, especially because reliance on telephone communication was often impossible—the government sought to provide more personal contact and identify areas of what it deemed “high concentration,” utilizing contributions from organizations such as AARP to provide services. José Acarón, Puerto Rico’s AARP chapter president, stressed that there is “this older adult population, isolated, without a support network, living alone and mostly female, and they do not know where they are…We have to make a municipal census of needs and create community support mechanisms. Then we have to talk about different models of people supporting people, that work strategically and that is part of a plan.”

With estimates that 46.1% of Puerto Ricans live below the federal poverty level, Secretary Andújar said the Department had commissioned a study to verify socioeconomic changes, especially after Hurricane Maria, to the University of Puerto Rico, noting: “We hope to have a more up-to-date visibility of what the percentages are, what is going to throw us, what are the populations that are in those levels of poverty, and, obviously, how aligned our programs are towards services towards each one of those populations that results from the study.” She noted she was unable at present to be certain when that information would be ready. However, in the wake of Hurricane Maria, and by the end of last year, there were 35,000 new applicants for nutritional assistance. Demographer Judith Rodríguez reports that, taking into account only the difficulties brought by the emergency, she can say that the number of poor people on the island has increased: the most recent figures, from 2016, indicated that, in 30 municipios, 50% of the population lived in poverty, and that in six other towns, the figure reached 60%, adding: “Today, more than ever, families need the services offered by the government of Puerto Rico to respond to the changing needs of the people.”

What about the Youngest? Secretary Andújar reported her staff is aware of the possibility of an increase in the incidence of child abuse: “It is a reality for which we have been preparing. We are active with prevention mechanisms. After a phenomenon like the one suffered by the country, after months, it is expected that these indicators tend to increase.” Her agency noted that in the referrals from the last calendar quarter of 2017 of possible cases of abuse, the totals increased month after month, albeit they were below the records of the same period of the previous year. Due to the U.S. territory’s fiscal distress or quasi chapter 9 bankruptcy, her agency has taken a $605 million cut, with Gov. Ricardo Rosselló advising her: “You do not need more,” even as Larry Emil Alicea, president of the College of Social Work Professionals, notes: “Those who stay and cannot leave (from Puerto Rico), increase social stressors and may be associated with suicide rates: In the case of parents, protective capacities diminish and cases of child and adolescent abuse increase.”

Balancing Fiscal & Public Safety

January 9, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the potential fiscal impact of the expiration of the State of New Jersey’s public safety arbitration cap—with the expiration coming as Governor-elect Phil Murphy has been reviewing a report examining the implications for property taxes, state spending, collective bargaining agreements, and public safety. Then we journey south to witness the denouement of the fiscal siege of the historic municipality of Petersburg, Virginia.

Uncapping & Fiscal Impacts. The State of New Jersey’s statute capping public safety arbitration awards at 2% has been in effect for seven years—it was last extended in 2014. Now, with a new Governor taking office, Moody’s has warned that its expiration on the last day of 2017 is a credit negative for the Garden State—and for its municipalities and counties. Indeed, the New Jersey League of Municipalities has been joined by the New Jersey Association of Counties, the New Jersey Conference of Mayors, the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, New Jersey Business and Industry Association, and the New Jersey Realtors Association to urge the new Governor and Legislature to support permanently extending the 2% cap Interest Arbitration Cap, noting that an expired cap would have a negative impact on property taxes and jeopardize the continued delivery of critical services, as well as adversely impact residential and commercial property taxpayers, working class families, and those on fixed incomes. The League’s President, Mayor James Cassella of East Rutherford, noted that the 2% Interest Arbitration Cap has controlled costs: without the cap, municipalities could see costly arbitration awards that would force local officials to reduce services or lay off employees to satisfy the arbitrator’s award and stay within the 2% levy cap. Similarly, New Jersey Association of Counties President Heather Simmons, a Gloucester County Freeholder, noted that failure to permanently extend the 2% cap on binding interest arbitration awards would inequitably alter the collective bargaining process in favor of labor at the expense of taxpayers, and lead to awards by arbitrators with no fiduciary duty to deliver essential services in a cost-effective manner.

Now Moody’s has moodily weighed in, deeming the expiration a credit negative for the state’s cities and  counties, as has Fitch Ratings.

In New Jersey, interest arbitration is a process open only to police and fire employee unions: it is a mechanism to resolve collective bargaining disputes between local governments and unions: when a public employer is unable to reach a contract agreement with a police or fire union, an arbitrator is called in to decide the terms of the contract. When the state adopted the 2 percent property tax levy cap, a separate 2 percent cap on interest arbitration awards was also imposed: that mandates arbitrators to take property taxes into account when issuing awards and providing local officials with a now proven and effective tool to contain property tax increases. The arbitration cap expired on Dec. 31; however, the property tax levy cap is permanent. The New Jersey League noted: “For nearly a decade, the 2 percent cap on binding interest arbitration awards has kept public safety employee salaries and wages under control simply because parties have been closer to reaching an agreement from the onset of negotiations. Moreover, the 2 percent cap on binding interest arbitration awards has established clear parameters for negotiating reasonable successor contracts that preserve the collective bargaining process and take into consideration the separate 2 percent tax levy cap on overall local government spending. And, importantly, the 2 percent cap on binding interest arbitration awards has not negatively impacted public safety services or recruitment.

In the wake of the expiration of the arbitration cap, it appears likely that arbitrator contract awards would exceed 2 percent. That would likely force cities and counties in the Garden State to reduce or eliminate municipal services—or go to the voters to seek approval to exceed the 2 percent property tax cap in order to fund an arbitration award.

Moody’s analyst Douglas Goldmacher moodily noted: “Given that salary costs are among the largest of municipal expenditures, the cost implications are obvious and considerable. The effect of this is, in most cases, unlikely to be rapid, but ultimately, the loss of the arbitration cap is likely to cause the sector’s credit quality to deteriorate…Although the cap has expired, and it may not be finished. Numerous local governments and local government advocacy groups support the arbitration cap. It is possible that the new governor and New Jersey state Legislature will revisit the matter. Until and unless that occurs, there will be a potentially dangerous mismatch between revenue and expenditures.” The statute, which caps public safety arbitration awards at 2%, came into force on January 1, 2011; it was extended for a three-year period in 2014 when it was last up for renewal. Mr. Goldmacher noted: “The cap played a major role in helping local governments manage public safety costs by instituting a limit on increases in police and fire salaries in arbitration and effectively tying the salary increases to the municipality’s or county’s revenue-raising capabilities…The cap’s expiration, should it prove permanent, is a credit negative for all local governments.” Mr. Goldmacher noted the cap’s existence has been a “valuable tool” in contract negotiations when police and firefighter unions with negotiators often forced to consider small salary increases. A September report by former Gov. Chris Christie’s appointees to the Police and Fire Public Interest Arbitration Impact Task Force stated that municipal property taxes jumped at an annual average of 7.19% for the five years prior to the cap compared to 2.41% since 2011. The report also estimated that the cap has saved taxpayers a collective $429 million. Thus, Mr. Goldmacher notes: “Given that salary costs are among the largest of municipal expenditures, the cost implications are obvious and considerable: Police and fire contracts often serve as a benchmark contract for other negotiations, which had the effect of making a 2% annual increase something of a standard target for most contracts, even for non-public safety collective bargaining units.” While it is possible the cap may be reinstated, Mr. Goldmacher added that as long as no action is taken to address the lapse, New Jersey’s cities and counties confront “a potentially dangerous mismatch” aligning revenue and expenditures, because of how much a 2% property tax cap law would limit their budgetary flexibility, writing: “The effect of this is, in most cases, unlikely to be rapid, but ultimately, the loss of the arbitration cap is likely to cause the sector’s credit quality to deteriorate,” he said. “The degree of deterioration will depend on the idiosyncratic qualities of the given community.”

For its part, Fitch wrote: “…the arbitration cap is beneficial to local government credit quality as it helps to align revenue and spending measures and supports structural balance in the context of statutory caps on property tax growth…bargaining groups may become more emboldened to pursue arbitration as opposed to voluntary settlement if the arbitration cap expires. Arbitration awards were significantly higher prior to the cap, ranging from 2.50% to 5.65% from 1993-2010, according to a report of the New Jersey Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC.)” Fitch also noted that the elimination of the arbitration cap “could force local governments to reduce governmental services and/or rely on one-time resources to accommodate higher wage expenses.”

The Fiscal Siege of Petersburg. Jack Berry, Robert Bobb, and Nelsie Birch, writing in a piece, “Overcoming the latest siege of Petersburg, referenced the city’s then vital role in the Civil War, where, as they wrote: “The series of battles known as the Siege of Petersburg lasted nine months and consisted of devastating trench warfare. It featured the largest concentration of African-American troops in the war, who suffered enormous casualties at the Battle of the Crater.” They went on to write: “Some would say that Petersburg has been under siege ever since the Civil War, that there is a siege mentality in the city. Petersburg even has a Siege Museum…But Petersburg has not always been under siege; it is not today, and it will not be tomorrow. Noting that Petersburg was once the second largest city in Virginia—and home to the largest number of free blacks in Virginia, they noted that it was once “a wealthy city, a major industrial center, and one of the largest rail hubs in the nation,” where, in the wake of the Civil War, a “coalition of Africa-American and white, populist Republicans, controlled the state legislature, which led to the creation of two large public institutions in the region: Virginia State University and Central State Hospital. Later, Fort Lee became another major economic engine for the area.” The authors noted, however, that “Jim Crow laws and Massive Resistance devastated the hopes and dreams of black citizens and fueled racial tensions. In 1985, one of the city’s largest employers, Brown & Williamson Tobacco, shut down its Petersburg factory. Later, Southpark Mall was located north of the city, sucking retail sales out of Petersburg.” These events adversely affected assessed property values—in turn reducing investment in public schools. The historic city seemed on a route to chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy—or being, as they wrote: “relinquishing city status—and being subsumed by neighboring jurisdictions,” all because of what they described as a “self-inflicted, mismanaged city government” which “ran itself into a ditch: In July of 2016, the city faced $18 million in unpaid bills. The budget was $12 million out of balance. Petersburg had nearly run out of cash and was dipping into every available pot of money, regardless of restrictions, to pay bills. A botched water meter conversion project impacted utility billings, which made the cash situation even worse.”

Because the Commonwealth of Virginia was apprehensive that a default by Petersburg would have had severe fiscal repercussions for municipalities across the state, the Commonwealth, as we have previously written, provided a consulting team to diagnose the fiscal issues and recommend fiscal measures—including, in its recommendations, pay cuts of 10 percent pay cuts for the entire city workforce. Even as the state-imposed overseer was acting, an aroused citizenry, via a grassroots group called “Clean Sweep,” attended every City Council session, demanding greater fiscal accountability. A year ago last October, former Mayor Howard Meyers and the City Council brought in a fiscal posse in an effort to restructure, hiring former Richmond City Manager Robert Bobb and his team, who set up a temporary war room in the City Hall building where General Robert E. Lee had met with his senior Confederate officers during the Siege of Petersburg. Mr. Bobb wrote of the fiscal war room: “We dug in for the long haul, with Nelsie Birch leading efforts to peel back layers of the financial onion. We got a handle on cash flow, figured out the extent of the unpaid bills, found checks stashed in drawers, arranged short-term financing, crafted a new budget, dramatically cut spending, put pressure on the city treasurer to collect taxes, and revamped the decrepit utility system…New financial policies were put in place; debt was restructured; water and sewer rates were increased to comply with debt covenants; the organization was right-sized; new managers were hired.”

Mr. Bobb described this war room process as one in which—at the same time—his team teamed with Mayor Sam Parham and the members of the Petersburg City Council “every step of the way,” to make the tough decisions, adding that, during this process, “Our strongest ally was the Governor’s Office, in particular, Virginia Secretary of Finance Ric Brown.” Indeed, by last November, external auditors reported a signal fiscal turnaround: Petersburg reported a year-end surplus of $7.2 million—and the report was on time; the auditor’s opinion was clean.

Recovering after a Quasi-State Takeover

December 8, 2017

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s Blog, we consider the fiscal and governing challenges of a city emerging from a quasi-state takeover—and report that last night, House Republicans voted 235-193 to pass and send to the Senate a stopgap bill to keep the federal government open for another two weeks, freeing up space to finish both the federal budget for the year that began last October 1st—and to try to craft a conference report on federal tax reform. The House vote now awaits Senate action, where leaders plan to act swiftly to put the bill on President Trump’s desk and avoid a shutdown on Saturday.

.Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

A Founding Municipality. Petersburg, Virginia—where archaeological excavations have found evidence of a prehistoric Native American settlement dated to 6500 BC, was, when the English first began to settle America, arriving in Virginia in 1607, in a region then occupied by Algonquin speaking early Americans—was founded at a strategic point along the Appomattox River. Nearly four decades later, the Virginia Colony established Fort Henry along the banks of the Appomattox River. The colony established Fort Henry—from which Colonel Abraham Wood sent several famous expeditions in subsequent years to explore points to the west; by 1675, his son-in-law, Peter Jones, who commanded Fort Henry opened the aptly named Peter’s Point trading post. In 1733, the founder of Virginia’s capitol of Richmond, Col. William Boyd, settled on plans for a municipality there—to be called Petersburgh—an appellation the Virginia General Assembly formally incorporated as Petersburg on December 17, 1748.

By the 20th century, the upward growth in one of the nation’s oldest cities peaked—at just over 41,000 residents: by 2010, the population had declined more than 20 percent—and the municipality had a poverty rate of 27.5%, double the statewide average, and nearly 33% greater than in 1999. The city’s largest employer, Brown & Williamson, departed in the mid-1980s. By last year, 100% of Petersburg School District students were eligible for free or reduced price lunch—even as the district lagged behind state graduation rates; the  and the rate of students receiving advanced diplomas. Last year, the city’s violent crime rate was just under twice the U.S. average. By 2014, Petersburg’s violent crime rate of 581 per 100,000 residents was nearly 30% higher than the violent crime rate in Danville—even though, unlike Danville, Petersburg is in the thriving Richmond metropolitan area—and has potential partners in higher education (Virginia State University and Richard Bland College) and philanthropy (Cameron Foundation), as well as a unique concentration of affordable, historic housing. Yet the city’s unassigned General Fund reverses grew from $20.4 million in FY2005 to $35.0 million by FY2014, or 55% of operating expenditures; it has very strong liquidity, with total government available cash equal to 11.5% of total governmental fund expenditures and more than ten times greater than annual debt service payments. Nevertheless, as we have previously noted, a state technical assistance team’s review last year determined that the City had exhausted most of its unrestricted reserves—also noting that in FY 2015, the City’s final budget called for General Fund revenue of $81.4 million and spending of $81.1 million, even as the municipality’s CAFR reported that actual revenue was $77 million, while spending was $82.9 million—leading to a conclusion that, based on General Ledger reports, all funds expenditures exceeded all funds revenue by at least $5.3 million.

Moreover, notwithstanding its string of operating deficits, Petersburg undertook a series of costly, low return economic development investments—purchasing a hotel, supporting a local baseball team, and building a new library—all investments beyond the city’s means. Nevertheless, after a state intervention, after nearly a decade of near insolvency, the city’s most recent Comprehensive Annual Finance Report demonstrates Petersburg is emerging from its fiscal bog—closing FY2017 having collected $73,069,843 in revenues, while spending $65,861,125 in expenditures: meaning the positive $7,208,718 difference nearly eclipsed the $7.7 million deficit which had been carried over from FY2016—unsurprisingly leading Blake Rane, the city’s Finance Director, to note: “We’re really excited about the changes that occurred in 2017: As the new administration, we are super excited that the road we have to go on is starting at a better position than where we thought it would be.” Similarly, Mayor Samuel Parham, at a news conference, noted: “We’re showing outside development that Petersburg is a safe investment…There was a time when people thought we were going to fall into the Appomattox.”

Much of the fiscal recovery credit, as we have previously noted, may be credited in part to strict expenditure practices instituted by the Robert Bobb Group, the turnaround team headed by the former City of Richmond Manager, which ran the city administration from October 2016 until September—where the team found Petersburg had always overestimated revenues, according to former Finance Director Nelsie Birch, so that the fiscal challenge was to get a “handle on spending,” a challenge met via the adoption of a very conservative FY2017 budget with a strong focus on improving Petersburg’s collection practices—including enforcement:  For the first time in several years, the city put delinquent properties up for tax sale—or, as City Manager Aretha Ferrell Benavides put it: “The new billing and collecting office is moving on collecting now: People are realizing that we’re not going to sit and wait.”  The results are significant: Petersburg’s fund balance is nearly at zero after dropping to a negative $7.7 million. Today that balance is a shadow of its former level at negative $143,933, and Manager Benavides notes: “We’re working on building up [the fund balance], because we’ve been very dependent on short-term loans through Revenue Anticipation Notes.”

Other key steps on the city’s road to recovery included selling excess water from the city’s water system, selling pieces of city-owned property, and even selling the city’s water system, or, as Mr. Bobb put it: “Moving forward, the city still needs that liquidity event (that was not intended to be a pun), because a major snowstorm, or a major water line break, sinkhole, etc., those things would be a significant drain on the city, unless it has a major fund balance.” As part of its fiscal diet, Manager Benavides notes Petersburg is still examining options to sell as many as 320 pieces of city-owned property, with the City Council already having approved the disposition of some of these properties over the past several months. The fiscal road, like the city’s history and geography, has been steep, but the fiscal exertions appear to be paying off, as it were.

Governance Amidst Fiscal and Stormy Challenges & Uneven Federalism

December 1, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the fiscal and governing challenges in one of the nation’s oldest municipalities, and its remarkable turnaround from verging on becoming the first municipality in Virginia to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, before veering south to assess what President Trump has described as the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico suffering from “from broken infrastructure and massive debt.” 

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

Revolutionary Municipality. Petersburg, Virginia’s City Council, one of the oldest of the nation’s cities, as part of its fiscal recovery, last week had voted 5-2 to request the Virginia Legislature to change the city’s charter in order to transfer the most critical duties of the Treasurer’s Office to a newly-created role of city collector—a position under the Council’s control, as part of its wish list for the newly elected state legislature. Petersburg, an independent city of just over 32,000, is significant for its role in African-American history: it is the site of one of the oldest free black settlements in the state–and the nation.  The unprecedented City Council effort seeks to strip power from an elected office—an office some believe curried some fault for contributing to Petersburg’s near chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. Ironically, the effort came the same month that voters elected a former Member of the City Council to the office of Treasurer. Councilman Treska Wilson-Smith, who opposed the move, stated: “The citizens just voted in a Treasurer. For us to get rid of that position is a slap in the face to the citizens who put them in there.” Unsurprisingly, State Senator Rosalyn Dance, who for a dozen years has represented the city as part of her district in the Virginia House of Delegates, and who will consider the city’s legislative agenda, said she was concerned. Noting that the newly-elected treasurer has yet to serve a day in office, she added that much of the turmoil had to do with the current Treasurer, so, she said: “I hope [the] Council will take a second look at what they want to do.” Former Councilman and Treasurer-elect Kenneth Pritchett, who declined to comment, ran on a platform of improving the office’s operations by standardizing internal controls and implementing new policies: he urged Petersburg residents to contact lawmakers in a Facebook message posted after the Council took action, calling the decision “a prime example of total disrespect for the citizens’ vote.”

Nevertheless, Council Members who supported the legislative agenda language said it was time for a change, or, as Councilman Darrin Hill noted: “I respect the opinion of the citizens, but still, we believe if we keep on doing the same thing that we have done, then we will keep on getting the same results.” Other Councilmembers felt even better about their votes after the Council received good financial news earlier this week when newly audited reports showed a boost in Petersburg’s reserve funds, increased revenue, and a drop in expenditures—a marked fiscal reversal. In addition, the city’s external auditor provided a clean opinion—a step up from last year’s “modified” opinion—an opinion which had hinted the city had failed to comply with proper accounting principles—and a municipal fiscal year which commenced $19 million in the hole—and $12 million over budget—in response to which the Council raised taxes, cut more than $3 million in funding from the city’s chronically underperforming schools, eliminated a popular youth summer program, and closed cultural sites. Former Richmond City Manager Robert Bobb’s organization—which had been hired to help the city recoup from the verge of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, had supported transferring some of the duties of the Treasurer to a city collector position as a means to enhance the city’s ability to improve its tax collections.

Subsequently, late last September, another shoe fell with a 115-page report which examined eight specific aspects of city governance—and found allegations of theft involving current Treasurer Kevin Brown—claims Mr. Brown repeatedly denied, but appeared to contribute to his decision not to run for reelection—an elected which Mr. Pritchett won by a wide margin, winning just over 70 percent.  Nevertheless, Mayor Samuel Parham told his colleagues: “We are treading too thin now to risk someone who is just getting to know the job. We can’t operate as a city of hoping…Now that we are paying our bills and showing growth, there is no need to go back in time and have a situation that we had.” However, some Councilmembers believe they should await more facts with regard to Mr. Brown’s actions, especially with regard to uncollected municipal tax revenues, or, as Councilmember Wilson-Smith put it: “There are some questions which we still have unanswered when it comes to why the taxes were not collected: It appears to me that a lot of the taxes are not being collected, because they are un-collectable,” or, as she noted: Many listed for unpaid taxes were deceased.

David Foley with Robinson, Farmer, Cox Associates, Petersburg’s external auditor, had presented figures before Petersburg residents and the City Council, noting the clean opinion is a substantial improvement from last year, when auditors issued a modified opinion which suggested Petersburg had failed to maintain accounting principles—testifying that the improvement mainly came from the city being able to provide evidence of the status of some of its major financial accounts, such as public utilities. He did recommend that Petersburg strengthen some of its internal controls over the next fiscal year—noting, especially, the reconciliation of the city’s public utility system, which some officials have suggested should be sold to private companies. Indeed, City Manager Aretha Ferrell-Benavides told City Council members that a plan to correct some of the deficiencies will start in January, with monthly updates on corrective actions that she would like to continue to take. The see-saw, key fiscal change of nearly $2 million more than had been projected arose from a combination of increased real estate tax collections, and a $2.5 million reduction in expenditures, mainly came from health and welfare, and non-departmental categories: in total, there was a $7.5 million increase in the city’s chief operating fund. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Foley, in response to Councilmember Charlie Cuthbert, noted: “It was a significant year. There is still a long way to go,” indirectly referencing the city’s commencement of FY2017 $19 million in the hole and $12 million over budget—and with dire threats of legal action over unpaid bills—triggering a tidal wave of legal bills of nearly $1 million—of which about $830,000 went to Mr. Bobb’s group—while the city spent nearly $200,000 on a forensic audit.  Council members received the presentation on the annual financial report with a scant two days prior to the state imposed deadline to submit the report—after, last year, the city was about seven months late in submitting its annual financial report.

Insufficient Shelter from the Fiscal Storm. In the brutal wake of Hurricane Maria, which destroyed about 57,000 homes in Puerto Rico last September and left another 254,000 severely impacted, 50 percent of the U.S. territory’s remaining 3.5 million inhabitants are still without electricity—a lack that has adversely impacted the ability to reconstruct the toll wrought by Maria, not to mention the economy, or loss of those, more than 150,000, who could afford to leave for New York and Florida. Puerto Rico still confronts a lack of drinking water. Governor Ricardo Rosselló had assured that 95% of the island would have electricity by today, but, like too many other promises, that is not to be. An irony is that the recent visit of former President Bill Clinton, who did not come down to toss paper towels, but rather to bring fiscal and physical assistance, may be, at long last, an omen of recovery. It was just 19 days ago that Gov. Roselló appeared before Congress to request some $94 billion to rebuild the U.S. territory—a request unmet, and a request raising questions about the Puerto Rican government’s ability to manage such a vast project, especially in the wake of the $300 million no-bid contract awarded to a small Montana utility company, Whitefish, to restore the territory’s power—an effort House Natural Resources Committee Chair Rob Bishop (R-Utah) described as raising a “credibility gap.” Indeed, in the wake of that decision, Chairman Bishop and others in the Congress have called for the unelected PROMESA Financial Oversight and Management Board, known on the island as “la junta,” to extend its powers to overseeing the rebuilding effort as well—a call which, unsurprisingly, many Puerto Ricans, including pro-statehood Governor Rosselló, see as a further threat to their democratic rights. 

Nevertheless, despite the quasi-takeover threat from Congress, U.S. District Court Judge Laura Taylor Swain has denied the PROMESA Oversight Board’s request to appoint an emergency manager, similar to those appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder in Detroit, or by the former Governor of Rhode Island for Central Falls under their respective authority under state authorizations of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. Puerto Rico, because it is not a state, does not have such authority; consequently, Judge Swain has determined the Board does not have the authority to appoint public officials—a holding which Gov. Rosselló responded to by noting that the decision upheld his office’s position about the board’s power, writing: “It is clear that the [board] does not have the power to take full control of the Government or its instrumentalities…[T]he administration and public management of Puerto Rico remains with the democratically elected government.