Rebuilding the Motor City, and Reconsidering Colonialism in Puerto Rico

July 27, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider post-chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy challenges in Detroit, before turning to legislative and legal challenges to Puerto Rico.

A Foreclosed Motor City Future? In Detroit, time is running out for the owners of foreclosed properties under a new program which arose out of a legal settlement two years ago intended to protect the rights of low-income owner-occupants of foreclosed homes to purchase back their properties back for $1,000—a plan which provided that occupied homes on tap for this coming fall’s tax auction will instead be purchased by the City of Detroit and sold to owner-occupants who can prove they qualify for the city’s poverty tax exemption or have in the past—an exemption which would reduce or eliminate property tax liabilities for those who qualify. The plan is an indication of one of the most challenging aspects of fashioning a plan of debt adjustment for recovering from the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history: how does one enhance the property tax base by attracting higher income families to move back into the city without jeopardizing thousands upon thousands of the city’s poorest families?

To date, with a looming deadline in a month, the United Community Housing Coalition has received about 140 applications—the foundation received funds from the City and foundations to purchase the homes—with the assistance available to prospective homeowners who can prove they could have qualified for the tax exemption between 2014 and 2017, but did not receive one—and that they agree to sign a sworn statement they would have qualified in the past. The effort matters: Wayne County Treasurer Eric Sabree estimates as many as 700 owner-occupied homes in Detroit are at risk of being sold at the fall tax foreclosure auction.

Quien Es Encargado? (Who is in charge?) U.S. District Court Judge Laura Taylor Swain Wednesday stated she would issue an opinion soon with regard to the hard federalism question emerging from the by Puerto Rico versus the PROMESA Oversight Board over their authority, noting at the end of the Title II bankruptcy hearing: “I realize the urgency of the situation,” at the end of a Title III bankruptcy hearing in San Juan, referring to two adversary proceedings against the Board–one brought by Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, and the other by the Presidents of the Puerto Rico Senate and House of Representatives—while PROMESA Board attorney Martin Bienenstock described the Governor’s effort to challenge the Board’s efforts to preempt the legislative power and authority of the U.S. Territory’s elected Governor and Legislature as “ineffectual.” Mr. Peter Friedman, representing the Governor and Puerto Rico’s Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority (FAFAA), responded that the Governor was just trying to raise a narrow set of issues: they want the federal court to reject the notion that they have no meaningful role in governing.  But the unelected Mr. Bienenstock said the Governor’s challenge is based on five discrete issues intertwined with the PROMESA Board’s ability to revive the economy, regain capital markets access, and do other things mandated by the PROMESA law, as he focused especially on two issues: what he characterized as the Board’s power over “reprogramming” the use of unused Puerto Rico government funds, arguing before Judge Swain that if the Governor were permitted to appropriate and authorize funding to carry out his responsibilities, then the PROMESA Board would have lost control over the budget, fiscal plan, and debt restructuring.

In response to this extraordinary claim, Judge Swain said that while she recognized the Board has some authority, she questioned whether it applies to funding lines that had been authorized before PROMESA’s passage, describing the issue as a “conundrum,” even as Mr. Bienenstock testified that the Governor wants to make it legal to “knowingly and willingly” spend more than the PROMESA Board budget authorizes. This raised an issue which goes to the heart of governance in a democracy: should those elected by the citizens of a jurisdiction have the final say as opposed to those who neither reside in nor come from such a jurisdiction have the final governing authority?

Crossing Swords. Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló, stated he would not testify before the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee unless Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) said he was sorry for a Tweet tweeted from the Committee’s account last week: “Call your office, @ricardorossello,” accompanied an invitation to the hearing, where invited witnesses were to be grilled on a management crisis at PREPA. Gov. Rosselló noted the tweet falsely suggested that he was hard to reach. Perhaps more importantly, for the Governor, the Chairman’s comments appeared to reflect a disrespect which would not be shown to the Governor of any State, emphasizing the perception that the federal government has a colonialist attitude toward the Commonwealth, where residents are U.S. citizens, but are barred from having a vote in the House and Senate. Chairman Bishop did not apologize for the demeaning tweet, asserting that its removal meant no apology was required—a position hard to imagine he would make to Utah Governor Gary Herbert.

Converting Swords to Plowshares? With Congress adjourning today for six weeks, Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Jenifer Gonzalez hopes her pro-democracy project can be discussed by Chairman Bishop’s Committee in September: her legislation, HR 6246, would enable the admission of the territory of Puerto Rico into the Union as a State. Chair Bishop, according to the Commissioner, “has a plan” to move the prospects for statehood forward in the short 19-day legislative window before this Congress adjourns in November. Rep. Gonzalez affirmed that her legislative goal is to incorporate Puerto Rico as a territory, which would be considered as a promise of statehood, and create a Congress Working Group, so that, within a period of just over a year, there would be a report on changes to laws that would have to be put in place to admit the island as a state in January of 2021.

Lighting up PREPA? Puerto Rico’s Governor Ricardo Rosselló was a no-show at a Congressional hearing Wednesday afternoon on efforts to wrench control of the bankrupt Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority from Puerto Rico’s government—a hearing, “Management Crisis at the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority and Implications for Recovery,” with regard to which Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) had written: “Despite your recognition of the politicization that has plagued PREPA and your commitment towards allowing for independence, the recent departure of PREPA’s CEO after only four months of service and the resignation of the majority of PREPA’s governing board are the most recent signs of the utility’s continued dysfunction and a sign that ‘political forces…continue to control PREPA.’” The Governor, late Tuesday had announced he would not be able to participate in the hearing—a hearing at which there was to be a focus on corruption within the utility and the possibility of privatization—but at which the Committee was scheduled to receive testimony from the invaluable chapter 9 expert Jim Spiotto, as well as DOE Assistant Secretary Bruce Walker.  In its most recent audit, Ernst & Young had noted there substantial  doubt whether PREPA could continue as a going concern, since it does not have sufficient funds to fully repay its obligations as they come due and is restructuring its long-term debt. (PREPA utility filed for bankruptcy one year ago in the face of accruing $9 billion in debt, under PROMESA’s provisions in Title III.

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Ending a State’s Fiscal Emergency Manager Preemption, & Who’s on First in Puerto Rico’s Governance?

July 2, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider what might be the end of the State of Michigan’s much maligned emergency manager program, before returning to assess the question with regard to whether a governor and legislature or a quasi U.S. bankruptcy court are in charge in Puerto Rico.

Exiting from Municipal Bankruptcy. For the first time in nearly two decades, a state-appointed Emergency Manager governs no municipality or school district in Michigan, after the state released Wayne County’s Highland Park School District in Wayne County from receivership under Michigan’s Local Financial Stability and Choice Act of 2012. Indeed, Michigan Treasurer Nick Khouri reports that Michigan municipalities have worked hard to become financially sound, noting: “Today’s achievement is really about the hard work our communities have accomplished to become financially sound…I commend the efforts of our local units to identify problems and bring together the resources needed to help problem-solve challenging financial conditions.” Under the terms of the release, Highland Park School District’s locally elected school board will oversee the contract for Highland Park Public School Academy and the cooperative agreement with the Detroit Public Schools Community District for the continuing education of students. In addition, the board will manage the repayment of long-term debt obligations. The Highland School District has a quasi-chapter 9 plan of debt adjustment in place to address its $7.5 million general fund deficit, with revenues from property taxes imposed on non-homestead property dedicated to finance outstanding debt, as well as an approved two-year budget. According to financial statements, as of the end of last year’s fiscal year, the District had $2.4 million in general obligation bonds outstanding.

The agreement means the school district, which had been under emergency management since January of 2012, and for which the state-appointed emergency manager had established Highland Park Public School Academy to provide educational services to district students while the school district paid off long-term debt obligations—for which, since 2015, said public school academy has been educating students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grades, and for the scholastic years through high school via a cooperative agreement with the Detroit Public Schools Community District, which has been providing educational services to students from ninth through 12th grades.

Nevertheless, the State of Michigan continues to maintain an oversight role in a limited number of Michigan communities: public school districts in Benton Harbor and Pontiac are operating under a consent agreement with the state, and the Muskegon Heights school district is overseen by a receivership-transition advisory board. The critical fiscal recoveries were marked by April’s exit from state oversight by the City of Flint, after seven years, and then, the following month: Detroit.

Conflicted Fiscal Governance. With the beginning of the new fiscal year, Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares still assessing fiscal options, as well as his authority to address the $8.7 billion operating budget imposed yesterday by the PROMESA Oversight Board on the U.S. territory–or, as he put it: “We are evaluating the budget certified by the Fiscal Oversight Board on the U.S. territory. Certainly, the impact on the budget of the three branches of government and municipalities will require additional adjustments that will limit our ability to provide services.” Ramon Rosario, Puerto Rico’s Secretary of Public Affairs, noted:  “The Governor and his cabinet continue to analyze all possible alternatives to the scenario.”

There was no public reaction to the imposed fiscal preemption of elected authority by House President Carlos Johnny Mendez, nor Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz, respectively, to the budget imposed by the JSF. The Governor indicated, however, that some of the biggest concerns of the Executive are public employees and the payment of the Christmas bonus, as well as the elimination of funds for economic development.

The Board’s proposed budget, interestingly, is greater than that approved by the Legislature; however, it imposes additional cuts of up to $345 million. It does not repeal Law 80-1976, the Law Against Unjustified Dismissal. It does preserve the Christmas bonus for public employees and establish two funds, one of $ 25 million for the University of Puerto Rico, and another of $ 50 million for municipio recovery. PROMESA Board Chair José Carrión, in a written statement, noted: “The course has been drawn, and although it will be a challenge, we cannot afford to deviate. We must all work together.”

Working together would be a challenge—and a question now for Puerto Rico is whether to comply or go to court to preserve, ironically, an approved fiscal budget smaller than that to be imposed by the PROMESA Board: that is, what if the Governor and Legislature were to opt not to implement the unelected PROMESA Board’s proposed budget? One attorney noted: “There would be a confrontation that would generate a controversy in the court, because, then, the Board would have to go to the court and ask it to force the officials to comply with the budget.” Under such a scenario, the unelected fiscal oversight Board would issue a certification of non-compliance, which, were it not to compel the elected government of Puerto Rico to comply, could entail the Board availing itself of the mechanisms in the PROMESA statute preempting Puerto Rico’s governing authority. Independence Party’s Denis Márquez remarked that his “exhortation is not to obey the Fiscal Control Board, but they always tell you that you have to be against the Board, but at the end of the day you look for a reasonable accommodation that always ends up hurting the country.” However, unlike a chapter 9 governance situation, where a federal bankruptcy court assesses a municipality’s plan of debt adjustment, PROMESA allows the Board to establish the budget at its sole discretion. It appears to be virtually a form of colonialism.

As the oversight board had advanced during its approval of the fiscal plan last Friday, the public expenditure scheme contemplates reductions greater than those set in the first version of the document approved by the Legislature: the budgets of some agencies seem to have an increase compared to the current fiscal year, but this is due to the fact that, for the first time, each one was assigned an authorization corresponding to the payment of their employees’ pensions (pay as you go). A spokesperson for the Popular Democratic Party in the House noted: “The vision of the Board is the republican vision, a small government with less participation.” Indeed, the version to be imposed by the Oversight Board contemplates major cuts for the Department of Education, which ended with an allocation for this fiscal year of $2.479 billion, about a 5% cut for what the Legislature had approved, with the deepest cuts coming in payroll and operating expenses, even as the Board added nearly $30 million to “cover services related to the provision of therapies and other services for special education children, and $ 23.8 million for the payment of salary increases to teachers—leading Puerto Rico Senate Education Chair Abel Nazario to note that the PROMESA Board “itself recognizes that these measures must be maintained in the coming years is an achievement that we recognize and appreciate.”

The Board imposed a number of deep cuts, such as the Bureau of the Fire Department, where the Board cut operating expenses of $576,000, as proposed by the Legislature, to $148,000; it slashed just over $1 million for firefighter protection equipment, and cut the police department payroll by $587.1 million, as stipulated in the Legislature’s version, to $ 570.2 million, but the Board retained the proposed $18.8 million for increased police salaries.

Imbalanced Governance? The Board cut funding for the Governor’s office in excess of 10 percent, and funds for the Puerto Rico Legislature by nearly 20 percent; it cut funding for the Puerto Rico Health Department by just under 10 percent.

Can there be Shelter from the Storm? Meanwhile, in a different courtroom, U.S. District Judge Leo T. Sorokin of Massachusetts has ordered that FEMA cannot end its Transitional Sheltering Assistance program until at least midnight tomorrow, granting Puerto Ricans who fled Hurricane Maria’s devastation and have been living in temporary housing on the mainland a very brief reprieve. Christiaan Perez, manager of advocacy and digital strategy for the civil-rights group, LatinoJustice, the national civil-rights group which filed a lawsuit Saturday seeking the restraining order told the court the end of the FEMA assistance would lead to Puerto Rican evacuees being evicted. The temporary restraining order is projected to offer some protection for about 1,744 Puerto Ricans for whom the FEMA transitional assistance was to end Saturday. Judge Sorokin has scheduled a telephone hearing for today.

The outcome will impact many of the families who left Puerto Rico in the wake of the storm for the mainland who have been living in hotels in New York and Florida and those who have been unable to secure affordable housing and are now worried about what happens as FEMA assistance expires—or, as Cynthia Beard, one of the 600 Puerto Rican hurricane survivors living in New York, told NBC News this week: “I don’t know what’s going to happen. The city called me and said there’s a shelter, but there’s no guarantee; they didn’t say everything is going to be OK.” According to Mayor De Blasio’s office, New York City has a program in place to direct transportation from the hotels to the shelters. Once there, families have to find out if they are deemed eligible to register into the city’s shelter system: if accepted, families are assigned to case management and housing assistance services to help them find permanent homes. 

But FEMA has also offered displaced Puerto Ricans the option to return to Puerto Rico, asserting the agency has called more than 1,500 displaced Puerto Ricans to offer to pay for their plane tickets to return to Puerto Rico by yesterday or recommend them ways to look into their respective state’s shelter system. As of June 27, only 145 families had either booked their plane tickets or already returned to Puerto Rico. It appears the majority of displaced Puerto Rican families have opted to remain stateside, even though many do not have a permanent home. The offer came in the wake of four different deadline extensions, during which, under FEMA’s TSA program has housed Puerto Rican hurricane survivors for nearly 9 months. During other disasters, survivors participating in that program were given up to a year and a half—even though officials have said that the program normally lasts 30 days. Nevertheless, FEMA warned it was ending Transitional Sheltering Assistance for survivors of hurricanes Maria, Irma, and Harvey on Saturday, asserting it has spent more than $432 million on survivor lodging as part of the program, and that it has provided rental assistance to more than 25,000 TSA participant families to help them find permanent housing.

Municipal Fiscal Distress & State Oversight.

June 18, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider a new study assessing the potential role of property tax assessments in Detroit’s historic chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy; then we observe, without gambling on the odds, the slow, but steady progress back to self-governance in Atlantic City, and weaning off of state fiscal oversight; before, finally noting the parallel efforts to exit state oversight in Flint, Michigan—where the proximate cause of the city’s fiscal and physical collapse occurred under a quasi-state takeover.

Foreclosing or Creating a City’s Fiscal Recovery? One in 10 Detroit tax foreclosures between 2011 and 2015 were caused by the city’s admittedly inflated property assessments, a study by two Chicago professors has concluded. Over-assessments causing foreclosure were concentrated in the city’s lowest valued homes, those selling for less than $8,000, and resulted in thousands of Detroit homeowners losing their properties, according to the study: “Taxed Out: Illegal property tax assessments and the epidemic of tax foreclosures in Detroit,” which was written by  Bernadette Atuahene and Christopher Berry. Chicago-Kent Law School Professor Atuahene noted: “The very population that most needs the city to get the assessments right, the poorest of the poor, are being most detrimentally affected by the city getting it wrong: “There is a narrative of blaming the poor that focuses on individual responsibility instead of structural injustice. We are trying to change the focus to this structural injustice.” (Professor Atuahene is also a member of the Coalition to End Unconstitutional Tax Foreclosures.) Their study came as the Wayne County Treasurer has foreclosed on about 100,000 Detroit properties for unpaid property taxes for the period from 2011 through 2015, about a quarter of all parcels, as the Motor City suffered the after-effects of population decline, the housing market crash, and the Great Recession.

Professors Atuahene and Berry acknowledged many factors can trigger tax foreclosure, estimating that the number of foreclosures was triggered by over-assessments, in part by calculating the foreclosure rate if all properties were properly assessed. The study also controlled for properties various purchase prices, neighborhoods and sale dates.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan has, as we have noted, acknowledged such over assessments; yet he has made clear accuracy has improved with double-digit reductions over the last four years—and completed the first comprehensive such assessment two years ago for the first time in more than half a century. The city’s Deputy Chief Financial Officer, Alvin Horhn, last week stated he had not reviewed the study; however, he noted that “most of their assumptions rely on data that does not meet the standards of the State Tax Commission and would not be applicable under Michigan law,” a position challenged by Professor Atuahene, who had previously stated the data does comply with the law, noting: “We believe the citywide reappraisal has been an important part of the major reduction in the number of foreclosures occurring in the city, which continue a steady decline and will provide a solid foundation for future growth: The number of foreclosures of owner occupied homes, specifically, has gone down by nearly 90% over the past few years.”

The city’s authority to foreclose, something which became a vital tool to address both property tax revenues and crime in the wake of the city’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, was enabled under former Gov. John Engler 29 years ago under a statewide rewrite of Michigan’s property tax code: changes made in an effort to render it faster and easier to return delinquent properties to productive use. On a related issue, the Motor City is currently facing a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan—a suit which maintains the city’s poverty tax exemption, which erases property taxes for low-income owners, violated homeowner’s due process rights because of its convoluted application process, arguing that the practice violates the federal Fair Housing Act by disproportionately foreclosing on black homeowners. However, the Michigan Court of Appeals has upheld a ruling by Wayne County Judge Robert Colombo, dismissing Wayne County from the lawsuit, ruling the suit should have been brought in front of the Michigan Tax Tribunal. 

Pole, Pole. In Bush Gbaepo Grebo Konweaken, Liberia, a key Gbaepo expression was “pole, pole” (pronounced poleh, poleh), which roughly translated into ‘slowly, but surely’—or haste makes waste. It might be an apt expression for Atlantic City Mayor Frank Gilliam as the boardwalk city has resumed control back from the state to forge its own fiscal destiny—presumably with less gambling on its fiscal future. In his new $225 million budget, the Mayor has proposed to keep property taxes flat for the second consecutive year, and is continuing, according to the state’s Department of Community Affairs, charged with the municipality’s fiscal oversight and providing transitional assistance, to note that the Mayor and Council President Marty Small’s announcement demonstrated that “an understanding of the issues that Atlantic City faces, and an emerging ability to find ways to solve them without resorting to property tax increases: This is a solid budget, and the city staff who worked diligently to draft it should be proud of their efforts.”

Under Mayor Frank Gilliam’s proposed $225 million budget, property taxes would remain flat for a second straight year, there would be some budget cuts, as well as savings realized from municipal bond sales to finance pension and healthcare obligations from 2015. The Mayor also was seeking support for capital improvements, additional library funding, and one-time $500 stipends for full-time municipal employees with salaries below $40,000. The ongoing fiscal recovery is also benefitting from state aid: the state Department of Community Affairs reported the state is providing $3.9 million in transitional aid, a drop from the $13 million awarded to the City of Trenton in 2017 and $26.2 million from 2016. Last year Atlantic City adopted a $222 million budget, which lowered taxes for the first time in more than a decade. The Department’s spokesperson, Lisa Ryan, noted: “Yesterday’s announcement by Mayor Gilliam and Council President [Marty] Small demonstrates city officials are showing an understanding of the issues that Atlantic City faces and an emerging ability to find ways to solve them without resorting to property tax increases: This is a solid budget, and the city staff who worked diligently to draft it should be proud of their efforts.”

Gov. Phil Murphy scaled back New Jersey’s intervention efforts in April with the removal of Jeffrey Chiesa’s role as state designee for Atlantic City. Mr. Chiesa, a former U.S. Senator and New Jersey Attorney General, was appointed to the role by former Gov. Chris Christie after the state takeover took effect.

Not in Like Flint. The Flint City Council was unable last week to override Mayor Karen Weaver’s veto of its amendments to her proposed budget: the Council’s counter proposal had included eight amendments to the Mayor’s $56 million proposed budget for 2018-2019—all of which Mayor Weaver vetoed in the wake of CFO Hughey Newsome’s concerns. The situation is similar to Atlantic City’s, in that this was Flint’s first budget to be considered and adopted in the wake of exiting state oversight. Mayor Weaver advised her colleagues: “This is a crucial time for the City of Flint: this is the first budget we are responsible for since regaining control…I am proud of the budget that I submitted, and I have full faith in the City’s Chief Financial Officer. Just as I have the right to veto the budget, the City Council has the right to override that veto. It is my hope that they would strongly consider my reasons for vetoing and that the Council and I can work together to create a budget that can sustain the City for years to come.” Her veto means the budget will be before the Council for a final vote in order to have it in place for the new fiscal year beginning on the first of next month.

Among the Council proposals the Mayor rejected was employee benefits, including a proposed pay raise for the City Clerk of $20,000, the creation of a new deputy clerk position, a new parliamentarian position, and full health benefits for part-time employees. Or, as CFO Newsome noted: “The risk these added costs could pose on the city’s budget is not in the best interest of the city nor the citizens of Flint,”  as he expressed disappointment over the time wasted on arguing over what amounted to $55,000 in the Mayor’s budget, especially when the city was currently tackling bigger fiscal challenges, such as its $271 million unfunded pension liability and keeping the city’s water fund out of red ink, noting: “These are things that we are looking at, and during all of these [budget] proceedings so little attention was paid to that.”

That is to note that while sliding into chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, or, as in Atlantic City, state oversight, can be easy; the process of extricating one’s city is great: there is added debt. Indeed, Flint remains in a precarious fiscal position, confronted by serious fiscal challenges in the wake of its exit from state financial receivership the month before last. Key among those challenges are: employee retirement funding and the aging, corroded pipes (with a projected price tag of $600 million) which led to the city’s drinking water crisis and state takeover.

On the public pension front, in the wake of state enactment of public pension reforms at the end of 2017 which mandate that municipalities report underfunded retirement benefits, Flint reported a pension system funded at only 37% and zero percent funding of other post-employment retirement benefits, which, according to the state Treasury report, Flint does not prefund.

The proposed budget assumes FY2019 general fund revenues of approximately $55.8 million, of which $4.7 million is expected to come from property taxes. This would be an increase of about $120,000; Flint’s critical water fund will have a $4 million surplus at the end of FY2018; however, CFO Newsome warned the fund will fall into the red within the next five years if it fails to bring in more money.

Catalysts to Fiscal Recoveries

November 10, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the ongoing challenges to Detroit’s recovery from the nation’s largest ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy; the State of Michigan’s winnowing down of municipalities under state oversight; and the ongoing physical and fiscal challenges to Puerto Rico.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

Reframing the Motor City’s Post Chapter 9 Future. Nolan Finley, a wonderful contributor to the editorial page of the Detroit News, this week noted “elections are a wonderful catalyst for refocusing priorities, as evidenced by the just-completed Detroit mayoral campaign, which moved the city’s comeback conversation away from the downtown development boom and centered it on the uneven progress of the neighborhoods. Never before has such an intense spotlight shown on the places where most Detroit voters actually live.” He attributed some of the credit to the loser in this week’s mayoral election, challenger Coleman Young II, who forced Mayor Mike Duggan to defend his record on improving quality of life in the neighborhoods. He perceptively wrote that while candidate Young’s ugly “Take back the Motherland” rallying cry was dispiriting, it spoke to the governing challenge the newly, re-elected Mayor confronts, writing: “Detroit is not a city united. It must become one. There were too many skirmishes along the racial divide in this mayoral contest. The old city versus suburb story line was replaced by a neighborhood versus downtown narrative, but both are code for black versus white. Four years ago, Duggan’s election as Detroit’s first white mayor in 40 years suggested much of the city was ready to stop looking back at its dark and divisive past and begin focusing on a brighter future.” Now, he wrote, after Mayor Duggan focused his first term on meeting the city’s plan of debt adjustment, and trying to improve the quality of life for residents—and as developers are beginning to add community projects to their downtown portfolios, “too many in the neighborhoods feel as if their lives are not getting better, or at least not fast enough.” Thus, he noted, Mayor Duggan needs to redouble his efforts to restore the city’s residential communities, and push ahead the timetable: “Four years from now, Detroit cannot still be wearing the mantle of America’s most violent city.” He added that while Mayor Duggan has little—too little—authority to address education in Detroit; nevertheless—just as his colleague Rahm Emanuel, the Mayor of Chicago recognized, needs to strongly back Detroit Public School Superintendent Nikolai Vitti’s efforts to rapidly boost the performance of the Detroit Public Schools Community District: it is a key to bringing young families back into the city. And, Mr. Finley wrote, the mayor “must also find a way to connect the neighborhoods to downtown, to instill in all residents a sense of ownership and pride in the rejuvenation of the core city. That means getting way better at inclusion. Downtown’s comeback must be more diverse, and include many more of the people who have grown up and stayed in the city. Encouraging and supporting more African-American entrepreneurs is a great place to begin breaking down the perception that downtown is just for white people: Detroit needs more diversity everywhere in the city, both racial and economic,” referring especially to young millennials who are steeped in social justice and imbued with the obsession to give back that marks their generation. “They are committed Detroiters. And they deserve to be appreciated for their contributions, not made to feel guilty or viewed as a threat to hard-won gains.”

Free, Free at Last. Michigan State officials have released Royal Oak Township, a municipality of about 2,500 just north of Detroit, from its consent agreement: Michigan Treasurer Nick Khouri said the Oakland County municipality has resolved its financial emergency and is ready to emerge from the state oversight imposed since 2014, stating: “I am pleased to see the significant progress Royal Oak Charter Township has made under the consent agreement…Township officials went beyond the agreement and enacted policies that provide the community an opportunity to flourish. I am pleased to say the township is released from its agreement and look forward to working with them as a local partner in the future.” The township’s financial emergency resulted in an assets FY2012 deficit of nearly $541,000. Township Supervisor Donna Squalls noted: “Royal Oak Charter Township is in better shape than ever…The collaboration between state and township has provided an opportunity to enact reforms to ensure our long-term fiscal sustainability.” Treasurer Khouri also said the township was the last Michigan remaining municipality following a consent agreement: Over the last two years, Wayne County, Inkster, and River Rouge were released from consent agreements because of fiscal and financial improvements and operational reforms. The Treasurer noted that today only three communities, Ecorse, Flint, and Hamtramck, remain under state oversight through a Receivership Transition Advisory Board.

Preempting Authority. House Natural Resources Committee Chair Rob Bishop (R—Utah) this week said the PROMESA Oversight Board should be granted even more power to preempt the authority of the government of Puerto Rico, stating: “Today’s testimony will inform the work of Congress to ensure the Oversight Board and federal partners have the tools to coordinate an effective and sustained recovery,” in a written statement after a hearing of the House Committee on Natural Resources: “It is clear that a stronger mechanism will be necessary to align immediate recovery with long-term revitalization and rebuilding.” Chairman Bishop added: “This committee will work to ensure [the Puerto Rico Oversight Board] has the tools to effectively execute that mission and build a path forward for this island and its residents.” The Board was created last year to oversee fiscal management by the island government, which had said more than $70 billion of debt was unpayable under current economic conditions. Since the hurricane, the Board has clashed with the territorial government over leadership at the power utility. During the hearing the board’s Executive Director, Natalie Jaresko, said the ability of Puerto Rico’s government to repay its debt was “gravely worse” than it was before Hurricane Maria, which arrived Sept. 20. By the end of December, the Board plans to complete a 30 year debt sustainability analysis with Puerto Rico’s government, she said: “After the hurricane, it is even more critical that the Board be able to operate quickly and decisively…to avoid uncertainty and lengthy delays in litigation, Congressional reaffirmation of our exercise of our authority is welcome.” On Oct. 27, the board had filed a motion in the Title III bankruptcy case for the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) seeking the court’s permission to appoint Noel Zamot as the authority’s new leader. The government of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has made it clear that it intends to challenge this motion. The court is scheduled to hold a hearing on the matter on Monday, November 13th.

In calling for more board power, Chairs Bishop and Jaresko probably were at least partly referring to the struggle over PREPA’s leadership. They may also want the Board’s power augmented in other ways: the Board has already announced that it will be creating five-year fiscal plan for Puerto Rico’s government and for its public authorities this winter. Puerto Rico’s government will have substantial needs for federal aid in the coming years, Ms. Jaresko said. Congress plans to tie this aid to the government following the Board’s fiscal plan and this would be appropriate, she said. “Before the hurricanes, the board was determined that Puerto Rico and its instrumentalities could achieve balanced budgets, work its way through its debt problems, and develop a sustainable economy without federal aid,” Ms. Jaresko said in her written testimony. “That is simply no longer possible. Without unprecedented levels of help from the United States government, the recovery we were planning for will fail.” She also said that over the next 1.75 years Puerto Rico’s government will need federal help closing a gap of between $13 billion and $21 billion for basic services. She added the federal government should change tax laws to benefit the island: “The representatives of the Financial Oversight and Management Board (FOMB) who appeared before the House Committee on Natural Resources insist on jeopardizing the necessary resources for the payment of pensions and job stability,” Gov. Rosselló testified in his written statement, adding to that the testimony of Ms. Jaresko and Mr. Zamot “evidenced ignorance about the recovery process in Puerto Rico, presenting incorrect figures relating to the existing conditions on the island,” adding: “I again invite the FOMB to collaborate so that the government of Puerto Rico, together with the support of the federal government, facilitates the fastest possible recovery of our island.” He noted that such assistance should not depend on the Board “assuming the administrative role” which belongs to the elected government of Puerto Rico.

Sanctioned Discrimination. The endorsement that the House Ways and Means Committee effectively incorporated in its “tax reform” legislation reported out of Committee this week appears to discriminate against Puerto Rico, imposing a tariff on the products which Puerto Rico exports to the mainland—threatening to deal a devastating blow to Puerto Rico’s industrial base at the very moment in time the territory is striving to recover from the already disparate hurricane recovery blows. According to economists Joaquín Villamil: “None of these measures, nor the repatriation of profits, the corporate rate and the 20% tax on imports is positive for the island…The companies are not going to pay a 4% royalty to Puerto Rico and a 20% tax to bring their product to the United States. They will leave the island, especially if the tax rate is lowered there.” Mr. Villamil added: “If that happens, 21% of the income received by the Puerto Rican Treasury is eliminated,” he added, referencing P.L. 154, the statute which established a 4% tax on sales of an operation in Puerto Rico to its parent company in the mainland. In its markup, yesterday, the House Ways and Means Committee left almost intact §4303 which establishes a 20% tariff on all imported goods for resale by companies and businesses in the United States. Moreover, the disposition forces multinationals with operations in places such as the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico to repatriate their income to the U.S. What that means is that the production of drugs, medical devices, and many other goods in Puerto Rico is done on U.S. soil; however, for federal tax purposes, Puerto Rico is deemed an international jurisdiction—or, as economist Luis Benítez notes: “This (House Ways and Means bill) generates greater uncertainty about what the economic future of the island should be: with this, the figure of the controlled foreign corporation (CFC) loses the competitive advantage it had (under §936).” He noted that by reducing the corporate rate to multinationals operating in Puerto Rico, the benefit of giving them tax exemptions at the local level is also reduced, as is the case of Law 73 on Industrial Incentives: via the elimination of §936, Puerto Rico, as a place to do business, went from competing with the continental U.S. to competing with countries such as Singapore and Ireland, adding that now a reduction in the corporate rate would cause Puerto Rico not only to compete with the rest of the world, but with jurisdictions on the mainland: “I think that if I were the Secretary of the Treasury, I would tremble with this situation.”

In Puerto Rico, he estimates manufacturing employs approximately 75,000 people directly—a number which rises to 250,000 when indirect and induced jobs are calculated, adding that even though the manufacturing sector has shrunk in the past years, the productive and contributory base rests on that activity, adding that: “As much as it is said that they do not pay taxes, this sector contributes 33% of the revenues…As long as jobs are lost there, the treasury will erode,” noting that the industrial sector plays such a large role in Puerto Rico’s economy that no other sector of the service economy can counterbalance it. He worries that if Congress fails to address the apparent discrimination, the chances that the PROMESA Board and the government of Puerto Rico can put together an economic recovery plan is minimal: “These are implications for all of Puerto Rico: It is difficult to think about options, because if this is approved, it would be disastrous, because of everything that has happened after Hurricane Maria.”

Last night, the former president of the Association of Certified Public Accountants, Kenneth Rivera Robles, who has been part of several lobbying delegations to Washington, remained relatively optimistic that the project language will be amended.

President Woodrow Wilson signed the Jones-Shafroth Act into law on March 2, 1917, with the law providing U.S. citizenship to Puerto Rico’s citizens, granting civil rights to its people, and separating the Executive, Judicial, and Legislative branches of its government. The statute created a locally elected bicameral legislature with a House and Senate—but retained authority for the Governor and the President of the United States to have the authority to veto any law passed by the legislature. In addition, the statute granted Congress the authority to override any action taken by the Puerto Rico legislature, as well as maintain control over fiscal and economic matters, including mail services, immigration, defense, and other basic governmental matters. 

Post-Chapter 9 Elections–and Post Physical & Fiscal Storms

November 6, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider yesterday’s election results in municipalities we have followed through their fiscal stress or chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, including: Flint, and Detroit, in its first Mayoral election since emerging from chapter 9, Then we turn to the historic municipality of Petersburg, Virginia—a municipality which avoided chapter 9 thanks to state intervention. Finally, we consider U.S. District Court Judge Laura Swain’s approval yesterday of an urgent motion from the government of Puerto Rico and the Fiscal Oversight Board (JSF) that requires all federal funds to be allocated for the tasks of assistance and recovery in the wake of Hurricane Maria, removing said funds from possible use in restructuring the U.S. territory’s restructuring of its public debt.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

In Like Flint. Flint Mayor Karen Weaver yesterday prevailed over City Council member Scott Kincaid in a recall election involving 18 candidates, retaining the city’s proposed 30-year agreement with the Detroit water system, with Mayor Weaver prevailing by a 53-32 percent margin, according to the unofficial results. The recall had arisen from a controversy related to the Genesee County’s garbage contract: Mayor Weaver had pressed for an emergency trash collection contract with the former Rizzo Environmental Services in Macomb County over City Council opposition. The controversy arose because a former trash provider, Chuck Rizzo, and his father have reached plea deals with federal prosecutors and are expected to plead guilty this month for their roles in a wide-ranging public corruption scandal in Macomb County—a scandal which has, so far, led to criminal charges against 17 persons. The recall also came amid Mayor Weaver’s ongoing struggle with the Flint City Council with regard to the approval of a 30-year agreement with the Detroit area Great Lakes Water Authority—with City Council opposition arising from apprehension about increased water rates—and in response to last month’s decision by U.S. District Court Judge David Lawson taking the small city to task for failing to act on an April agreement supported by Mayor Weaver, the State of Michigan, and EPA which would have Flint remain on the Detroit area water system. Flint had been supposed to switch to the regional Karegnondi Water Authority; however, Mayor Weaver’s administration rejected that option, because updating of the Flint water treatment facility had been projected to cost more than $68 million and to consume more than three years to complete. The Flint Council had disregarded Judge Lawson’s decision, and approved a two-year extension of service with the Great Lakes Water Authority. Thus, while the prior agreement with the Detroit area water authority had lapsed, Mayor Weaver, the State of Michigan, the Great Lakes Authority, and other supporters have revived the agreement. Last week, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality had filed an emergency motion asking Judge Lawson to approve giving Mayor Weaver the authority to sign the renewed contract by Election Day, because of the inability of the City Council to act—a request from the state which the Judge rejected; however, he has scheduled a hearing on the motion later this month.

Motor City Victory Lap. Detroit Mayor Duggan was re-elected yesterday by more than a 2-1 margin over challenger State Sen. Coleman A. Young II, son of a former Detroit Mayor. In remarks after the decision, Mayor Duggan  noted: “I have been treated with nothing but warmth and kindness from Detroiters in every neighborhood in the city…I hope that this is the year where we put us-versus-them politics behind us forever because we believe in a one Detroit for all of us.” His opponent, in conceding, claimed he had commenced a movement to help the politically dispossessed: “The campaign might be over, but the passion and values are eternal…We are the voice for the voiceless. We are the hope for the hopeless.” Mayor Duggan, who won a write-in primary campaign in 2013 and then defeated Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon in the general election, thus became the Motor City’s first mayor to serve two terms since Dennis Archer in the 1990’s.  In his campaign, the former CEO of the Detroit Medical Center gained prominent endorsements from city labor unions, clergy, and business groups—he overwhelmed his opponent in fundraising: he secured about $2.2 million; whereas Mr. Young raised just under $39,000. Mayor Duggan, in his victory remarks, noted his campaign had focused on spending “time talking about the vision of what we are going to do in the next four years,” adding: “I thought one of the most profound things President Obama ever said was ‘If you have to divide people in order to get elected, you’ll never be able to govern.’”

In his campaign, Mayor Duggan touted public service improvements under his administration in the wake of the nation’s largest-ever municipal bankruptcy, including new streetlights, improved public safety response, and more dependable bus lines. He said he intends to continue work on building a more unified Detroit—focusing now on a series of efforts to fix up neighborhood corridors, roads, and sidewalks—and stating: “There are haves and have-nots in every city in America. We’re building a city here that it doesn’t matter where you start, you have the opportunity to be successful,” adding that he believe the greatest challenge now confronting Motor City residents will be over automobile insurance reform legislation—referring to legislation rejected by the Michigan House last week, but making clear he does not intend to give up: “We were a lot closer this time than we were two years ago, and we have a plan to get it through the next time: It’s going to be one relationship at a time, one vote at a time, but we’ve already had several meetings with both the medical and the legal community, and I think they realize we were three votes away.” 

The Road Out of State Oversight. The re-election comes at a critical time, as the City expects to have its full municipal fiscal authority restored next spring for the first time since it exited the nation’s largest ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy three years ago—challenging the city’s appointed and elected leaders with the task of resuming governance after the end of state oversight—and as the Mayor and Council resume authority over budgets and contracts. With two balanced budgets and an audit of a third expected next May, city leaders anticipate Detroit will be released early next year from the strict financial controls required under the city’s approved plan of debt adjustment—a key issue during the just completed campaign, where both the Mayor and his challenger had proposed plans with regard to how they would fiscally guide the recovering city—and as Michigan Governor Rick Snyder expressed optimism about the city’s ability to manage its finances, telling the Detroit News: “They’ve been hitting those milestones, and I hope they continue to hit them—that’s a good thing for all of us.”

Indeed, the Motor City’s credit rating has been upgraded; its employment rate is up; assessed property values are climbing. In its financial update last month, the city noted economic development in some neighborhoods and Detroit’s downtown, job creation efforts, and growth in multifamily home construction. Nonetheless, the road to recovery will remain not just steep, but also pot-holed: it confronts very large future payments for past borrowing and public pension obligations under the plan of debt adjustment—or, as our colleague Lisa Washburn of Municipal Market Analytics noted: “It really takes the economic environment to cooperate, as well as some very good and focused financial management. Right now, that seems to be all there…Eventually, I suspect there will be another economic downturn and how that affects that region, that’s something outside of their control. But it can’t be outside of their field of vision.”

Petersburg. In one of the most closely watched municipal elections in Virginia, last night, Gloria Person-Brown, the wife of the current embattled City Treasurer Kevin Brown of Petersburg, was trounced by former City Council member Kenneth Pritchett, with Mr. Pritchett winning by a large margin: he captured more than 70 percent of the vote. In his campaign, stating he had been frustrated by the city’s low credit rating, and by the city’s struggles with collecting revenue and timely payment of bills, Mr. Pritchett vowed he would implement policies and standardize internal controls to improve the office’s operations. Likely, in the wake of a Virginia state fiscal report last September—a report which scrutinized eight specific aspects of city governance and fiscal responsibilities—and contained allegations of theft involving Ms. Person-Brown’s husband, City Treasurer Kevin Brown. Some Council members then had called for his resignation, and even Ms. Person-Brown had distanced herself from her husband’s actions during the election, albeit she did not say he had done anything wrong. Rather she ran on a platform of improving the Treasurer’s services, including instituting more checks and balances, and calling for more accountability.

Stepping in to Help Puerto Rico. U.S. District Court Judge Laura Taylor Swain has approved, with various changes, an urgent motion from the government of Puerto Rico and the PROMESA Fiscal Oversight Board which mandates that all federal funds to be allocated to the country for the tasks of assistance and recovery due to the passage of Hurricane Maria may not be claimed in the process of restructuring the public debt, accepting to the request of the Authority for Financial Supervision and Tax Agency and the JSF during the general hearing held in New York City‒in which it emerged that, in part, the order would restrict the use of disaster assistance funds as a condition of the federal government, so that Puerto Rico can receive assistance: the order will establish that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funds for Puerto Rico following in the wake of Hurricane Maria, as well as funds granted by other federal agencies, will be maintained. Judge Swain granted the order after listening to the arguments of Suzanne Uhland, legal representative of AAFAF, as well as lawyers from municipal insurers and the organized group of General Obligations bondholders (GOs), who underscored the need to incorporate into the order transparency criteria and mechanisms to ensure that some entity such as the JSF has influence in how federal funds granted by the government will be used. Matthew J. Troy, the federal government’s representative in the case, told Judge Swain that to include specific language which would give the Puerto Rican government priority in claiming funds that had been misused by state agencies or public corporations in the Island was indispensable for Puerto Rico to receive funds from the federal government: as part of the order, it would be established that, in the event federal funds were misused, it will be up to the central government to claim these funds from the agency or public corporation which received them from the federal government. Judge Swain has scheduled a follow-up hearing for next Wednesday.

During the hearing, an attorney, Marcia Goldstein, pointed out that it is urgent to know what role if any the Junta de Supervisión y Administración Financiera for Puerto Rico (the JSF) will have with regard to the approval of the contracts for the recovery tasks. The PROMESA law establishes, among other things, that the federal agency has the power to review the contracts granted by the Puerto Rican government or the dependencies subject to the control of the JSF. To date, however, it is uncertain whether the JSF has examined or had influence in the process of hiring dozens of companies which would be responsible for multiple tasks, from infrastructure repair to the audit of federal funds. In an interview with the Puerto Rican El Nuevo Día a little over a week ago, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), in the wake of his visit to Puerto Rico, pointed out that the JSF will have a key role in defining the scope of the aid package that Puerto Rico would need and how such resources would be allocated.

The Import of Accurate Municipal Revenue Projections in Addressing Municipal Insolvency

eBlog, 1/12/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing challenges to Detroit’s long-term recovery from the nation’s largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, before turning to the small Virginia municipality of Petersburg as it struggles to not just avoid bankruptcy, but rather to right its ship of state—both by its elected and appointed leaders.

Detroit Coming Back. Detroit, as we noted in our original report on the city, is quite different than most U.S. municipalities and, indeed, from other cities in Michigan in that its revenues, from taxes and state-shared revenues are higher than those of any other large Michigan municipality on a per capita basis, in part reflecting its reliance on a significantly broader tax base than most cities in the country: property taxes, income taxes, utility taxes, casino wagering taxes, and state-shared revenues. The property tax accounted for 13.3 percent of Detroit’s revenues in 2012, even though the city had the highest property taxes among big cities in the U.S. But it was the 22 percent decline in those revenues over the decade preceding its collapse into the nation’s largest-ever chapter 9 bankruptcy that appeared to precipitate the state takeover via the appointment by Governor Rick Snyder of an emergency manager to steer the city into—and then out of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. The exhaustion of the city’s revenues reflected the overall loss of 15,648 business establishments between 1972 and 2007—that is, even before the massive impact of the Great Recession, or the bankruptcies and subsequent recovery of General Motors and Chrysler and the restructuring of the automotive supplier network—companies bailed out by the federal government, unlike Detroit.

Today, still, despite its lower reliance on property tax revenues, the track of those revenues can reflect the city’s fiscal direction. Indeed, the city’s housing market faces numerous challenges as the city seeks to carve out a path toward less blight, increased housing preservation, and a better functioning residential mortgage market. Zillow reports that median sale prices for metro Detroit homes and condominiums rose 7.2 percent last month compared to the year before: the median home value in Detroit is $37,000, reflecting home values which have gone up even more, by 8.5% over the past year, according to Zillow, which predicts they will rise 4.2% within the next year. At the same time, the percent of Detroit homeowners underwater on their mortgages is 0.4%, some four times higher than Detroit Metro area; the median rent price in Detroit is $750, or about 75% of the Detroit Metro median of $1,050; nevertheless, sale prices across the city have continued to grow, while both the number and share of underwater loans has continued to decline. The average household equity for all Detroit loans reached 29 percent in Q4 2015; the shares of loans in serious delinquency, foreclosure, or REO (property owned by a lender—typically a bank, government agency, or government loan insurer—after an unsuccessful sale at a foreclosure auction) in Detroit are on pace to fall below pre-crisis levels. The data demonstrate a particularly sharp decline in the share of REOs.

However, sales of single family homes in the city in 2015 (about 18,522) dropped about 18% from the previous year, even as Detroit’s median rent stabilized at around $756 a month in December 2015. Unemployment fell again in the early months of last year, and labor force size edged up as well, according to the Detroit Housing Tracker (the Detroit Housing Tracker monitors the latest development in the Detroit housing and community development arena and is updated quarterly: the publication has two sections in which it presents comprehensive market indicators including sales prices and volumes, rental prices, household equity level, delinquencies and foreclosures.) In comparison, in the surrounding four-county area of Oakland, Wayne, Macomb, and Livingston counties, median sale prices jumped from $149,200 in December 2015 to $159,900 in December 2016. According to Realcomp Ltd. II, last month’s figures fall in line with the general trends of 2016: the number of on-market listings in the four-county region last month declined nearly 43 percent year-over-year, from 19,634 to 11,255; however, sales prices in all four of the surrounding counties increased, on average, by 10%.

In Overtime. The city of Petersburg, Virginia added another hefty bill to its payment list after a class-action lawsuit (Thomas Ewers, et al, vs. the City of Petersburg Bureau of Police) between members of the Bureau of Police and the city was settled last week, with the settlement agreement mandating the virtually insolvent municipality to make a payment of $1.35 million in recompense for law enforcement officers’ unpaid overtime. Of that amount, the City of Petersburg will have to pay $800,000, while the Virginia Division of Risk Management will chip in the remaining $550,000. For its part, Petersburg city spokesman Clay Hamner this week reported that that part of Petersburg’s payment is expected to come via a short-term $6.5 million loan secured by Petersburg from Wells Fargo last month; other funds could potentially come from the sale of the city’s municipal water and wastewater assets—especially in the wake of an unsolicited purchase proposal last month by Aqua Virginia, Inc., leading the city to advertise for competing bids. According to the city’s press release, the settlement applies to all current and former law enforcement officers employed between Jan. 11, 2013 and June 24, 2016, by the Bureau of Police at the rank of lieutenant or below who were denied overtime or other wage-related payments. The settlement came as the city’s expensive fiscal turnaround consultants reported the city’s fiscal condition remains, reporting that the fiscal plan Petersburg has been working from since the City Council’s first attempt to strip $12 million from an outsized budget last September no longer reflects its fiscal realities: some elements of those decisions, such as slashing funding for schools, canceling a youth summer program, and boosting trash fees, would provide savings; however, not every plan materialized, according to the consultant’s analysis. Moreover, when combined with the municipality’s past-due payments to companies taken from the current year’s budget for last year’s bills, the consultant’s reported the Council, next week, will likely be forced to take further actions to reduce spending or find other revenues—and will have to include a partial restoration of a 10 percent reduction in municipal worker salaries targeted toward making whole the city’s public safety workers, with Nelsie Birch, Petersburg’s interim finance director, advising: “The reduction of salaries has done significant damage to the city.”

It seems that the employee turnover and overtime costs have soared even as morale plummeted since the austerity measure was implemented: police, firefighters and emergency communications workers would see their pay rates restored this spring if the council approves the consultant’s plan. That would be important: the city’s violent crime rate is nearly 400% higher than the statewide average. On the upside, the consultant reported that of the $18.8 million that state auditors estimated Petersburg owed to vendors as of last July 1, only $6 million to $7 million remains overdue. That might help as, next month, the city is inviting about 400 of its creditors to meet for discussions relating to past-due bills, and inviting interested buyers to consider purchasing city-owned property—with both city employees and the city’s consultants taking inventory: counting cars, combing through old equipment, and tracking every nickel spent for a dime that could be saved. The consultant addressed one key issue of concern: its current inability by its tax assessors and collectors to provide administrators with accurate revenue projections.

At the same time, the consultants expressed apprehension that city council members must learn to demand that expenses not exceed revenues: in the municipality’s FY2016 books, Petersburg had a $9 million structural imbalance in the general fund used to cover the city’s day-to-day operations: the city had $67 million to work with and spent $76 million. Finally, the consultant noted what he believes to be the source of Petersburg’s fiscal crisis: for too many years (dating back to 2009) the city has spent more than it had, propping up shortfalls from a rainy day fund which had long since evaporated. In response, interim City Manager Tom Tyrrell said the Mayor and Councilmembers could meet with officials one-on-one or in pairs to discuss the details ahead of next week’s votes to balance the current year’s budget—with such sessions not triggering Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act. Under the law, an in-person or electronic meeting of three members of a public body constitutes a quorum.

What Distinguishes a Municipality’s Fiscal Path to Success or Failure?

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eBlog, 10/21/16

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the fiscal and children’s health challenges in Flint, Michigan—problems created under the state’s Emergency Manager system; we consider the ongoing challenge to municipal sustainability in Atlantic City as an impending state takeover threatens; we update readers as San Bernardino nears its municipal elections—and nears its emergence early next year from the nation’s longest-ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy; then we consider a new legal challenge to try to provide for an education for Detroit’s children in a system under a state-imposed emergency manager, but also a state-impose dysfunctional system; then we visit Petersburg, Virginia—where the small, historic city is grappling with hard, hard choices if it is to avoid insolvency, before finally trying to shed a bright spotlight on the signal success of Wayne County, Michigan as it celebrates its formal exit from state fiscal oversight.

Not in Like Flint. A new suit was filed this week charging that public officials failed children in Flint, Michigan by allowing the city’s supply of drinking water to remain contaminated with lead, a known neurotoxin, for a year and a half—with the suit alleging the government is again falling short by failing to provide the city’s children with educational services that they legally deserve and that could counter the effects of the Flint lead exposure: the complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Michigan, argues that the public school system in Flint is not meeting its legal obligation to screen lead-exposed children for disabilities or provide services and interventions that could make a difference in their ability to learn and thrive. It also alleges that the Michigan Education Department has failed to provide Flint schools, which have cut teachers and other staff in the face of a $10 million deficit, with the resources and funding they need to provide those services: the suit notes there are 30,000 children and teenagers under the age of 19 in Flint, and 8,000 of them are younger than 5—those particularly vulnerable to the effects of lead exposure—exposure which can result in diminished academic achievement and a greater tendency to be hyperactive, impulsive, and aggressive. Without meaningful action soon, the complaint says, children’s opportunities to reach their full potential will be “permanently foreclosed,” or, as the complaint states: “In the wake of the Flint lead crisis, Flint children face an unprecedented educational and civil rights disaster.” The complaint seeks class certification to represent all Flint children who were exposed to lead and are—or may be—eligible for special-education services: the plaintiffs are 15 children, ages 3 to 17, each of whom was exposed to lead in Flint; it alleges that they have been denied the special-education services they need and deserve under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and Michigan state law. The suit requests the court to order sweeping changes in Flint schools, including high-quality universal preschool for all 3-to 5-year-olds; enhanced screening of all Flint children to determine their physical, social, emotional and behavioral needs; training for teachers in managing students’ behavior without resorting to physical restraint and seclusion; and regular lead testing of drinking water in Flint schools. It also seeks a comprehensive review of all education plans for children currently identified for special education, to make sure their needs have been properly identified, requesting the federal court to convene a group that would lay out a comprehensive plan for addressing children’s physical, emotional and behavioral trauma in the aftermath of lead exposure, and for a special monitor to oversee the implementation of that plan over the next seven years. (Note: nine current or former government workers have been criminally charged since doctors detected elevated levels of lead in some children due to the discolored and smelly water supply in the impoverished city of nearly 100,000, in the wake of the city’s change from the metropolitan Detroit utility system to a temporary water source, the Flint River, in 2014, a decision made not by the city, but rather a gubernatorially appointed state emergency manager. One of the outcomes could be adoption of a recommendation in a report issued by a panel of four Republican and two Democratic state legislators focused on preventing recurrence of such a crisis. Among the recommendations is lifting emergency managers’ general immunity from civil lawsuits and prohibiting them from using cost as the primary factor in any decision that will affect public health and safety. Other recommendations include the adoption of the country’s toughest lead-in-water rules, increased transparency about water rates and shut-off practices, and the creation of a commission to oversee the state Department of Environmental Quality, which has been deemed primarily responsible for Flint’s water problems. The recommendations also propose that a community’s water source should not be changed absent voter approval. A key recommendation related to Michigan’s 2012 emergency manager law—widely criticized as a key factor in Flint’s city’s water crisis: the report recommends that Michigan’s Emergency Manager emergency managers be replaced with financial management teams that include a financial expert, a local government operations expert, and an ombudsman. Emergency managers would also be mandated to post a $5 million bond that would be forfeited for negligence or misconduct on the job and to host a website to solicit and respond to public comments on their key decisions. Or, as Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint) noted: “The more we encourage…oversight and citizen involvement, the better our government’s going to be.”  The report also calls for:

  • testing water for lead in schools and other facilities for children and fragile adults;
  • the mandatory disclosure of lead services lines in home sales and rental contracts;
  • a constitutional amendment making it easier to discipline state employees and the appointment of an ombudsman to hear confidential state employee reports of misconduct;
  • enhanced criminal penalties for public officials whose misconduct causes bodily harm to others;
  • more robust lead screening of school-age children;
  • assessing children’s past lead exposure by testing their baby teeth, because blood tests only reveal recent exposure; and
  • requiring water systems to inventory their service pipes and other infrastructure and, within 10 years, adopt a full lead service pipe replacement program.

The Edge of the Boardwalk. Chris Filiciello, Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian’s chief of staff this week confirmed that the city did not submit a revised budget to the state, as Mayor Guardian warned in a letter that a tax increase would be “devastating” for Atlantic City, which he said increased taxes by 50 percent over 2013 and 2014. With the debt clock from the state ticking, Atlantic City is now nearly two weeks past its deadline in violation of its $73 million state loan; the next deadline is just over two weeks away—by which time the city must submit a five-year fiscal stability plan. It appears the Mayor believes his five-year budget will save roughly $73 million by 2021, in no small part related to the sale of its municipal airport, Bader Field, and its water authority for $110 million. In addition, the City Council is slated to vote on new labor agreements between the city and its seven worker unions, as well as consider privatizing payroll services. Under Mayor Guardian’s proposed five-year fiscal recovery plan, the city projects $72.9 million in savings from 2017 through 2021 (Atlantic City has annual budget deficits of about $100 million before state aid.). In his statement, Mayor Guardian listed 26 items on which Atlantic City has or intends to cut costs and raise revenues, including 400 fewer full-time workers since 2013, a recent shared-services deal with Atlantic County, bidding out city services, and land sales worth $7.1 million. In addition, Atlantic City has offered early retirement buyouts to 165 senior workers. The plan anticipates saving $7.4 million next year; $12.7 million in 2018; $17 million in 2019; $17.3 million in 2020; and $18.5 million in 2021, according to Mayor Guardian’s statement. The city currently has a fortnight in which to submit its plan to the state—the rejection of which would result in a five-year state takeover. The Mayor described the plan as one which “will include increasing revenue, reducing costs, maximizing redirected funds from casinos, receiving state aid, restructuring of debt payments, early retirement incentives, realizing the value of City owned properties and the MUA, and much more, all while maintaining Atlantic City’s sovereign right to local self-governance.” Nevertheless, how the plan will fare in City Council remains uncertain: the Council has pulled or voted down measures to dissolve the authority five times amid pressure from residents to keep the authority independent. (The Council must approve the sale at two meetings. The sale is also subject to state approval.) In addition, the Council will vote on seven memorandums of understanding with its police, fire, white-collar, blue-collar, electrical, and supervisory employees—with, according to Mayor Guardian, the city renegotiating contracts to include multiple years with no wage increases, restructured pay scales, health care cuts, and reduced overtime and paid-leave costs.

Getting Back to Fiscal Recovery. San Bernardino, the California municipality seeking to become the first U.S. municipality to overhaul its political structure while in chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, and asking its voters next month to approve a new charter that strips the Mayor and city council of day-to-day operational control, has completed all of its required audits for the first time in six years, with the City Council having this week filed its FY2015 final audit, marking the first time since 2010 the city has all of its legally required audits. The FY2016 audit is due by March 31, 2017, a deadline the city will meet, according to Finance Director Brent Mason—albeit the audits were “qualified”—denoting the auditors were unable to find enough evidence the financial statements were accurate in four of 10 areas, leading Councilman Henry Nickel to note: “This is a job well done, but now I think the next step is implementing some corrective actions to get back to where we need to be.” Part of the challenge for the city stems from the 2012 state-mandated dissolution of the city’s redevelopment agency, requiring a significant expansion of the audit, or, as Finance Director Mason notes: “They’re not small-ticket issues to get our hands around, but they’re all doable.” One of the qualified opinion concerns was with regard to the liability for compensated absences, such as vacation and sick time, which San Bernardino has proposed adjusting as part of its bankruptcy exit plan—a plan which appears to have the qualified approval of U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury.

Detroit’s Future? Lawyers representing Detroit schoolchildren last month filed a lawsuit against Gov. Rick Snyder and state officials in what has been viewed as the nation’s which pushes for literacy as a right under the U.S. Constitution: the complaint alleges that the state has denied Detroit students access to literacy, the most basic building block of education, through decades of “disinvestment … and deliberate indifference.” The suit seek broad remedies, including implementation of evidence-based literacy programs, universal screening for literacy problems, and a statewide accountability system in which the state “monitors conditions that deny access to literacy” and intervenes. It documents the low reading and math proficiency rates of Detroit students, as well as classes without teachers and outdated or insufficient classroom materials, it also notes poor conditions, including vermin and building problems, at some schools as recently as this month, seeking class action status on behalf of students who attend the schools. In addition to Governor Snyder, the lawsuit names the state Board of Education, state school Superintendent Brian Whiston, David Behen, director of the Michigan Department of Technology, Management and Budget, and Natasha Baker, the state school reform officer.

Petersburg’s Future? Mayhap ironically the person once appointed as emergency manager by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder to address the Detroit Public Schools’ fiscal and educational insolvency, Robert Bobb, under whose tenure DPS’s deficit steadily worsened, rather than improved—and where now a federal class-action lawsuit a class action suit has been filed, contending that under state control, the Detroit Public Schools have deteriorated to such an extent they violate students’ civil rights. (DPS’s current emergency manager, retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, has called the latest corruption allegations “outrageous;” he has placed all the accused principals still with DPS on unpaid leave, and instituted new oversight measures for approving contracts. Nevertheless, the ongoing events have meant that many Michigan legislators appear to be increasingly antithetical to ever allowing the district to revert to local control—with some even suggesting it should be permitted to become insolvent and be dissolved—leaving the state on the hook for at least $500 million of its massive debt.)

Now, after the Petersburg, Virginia City Council this week was on the verge of hiring Mr. Bobb as a turnaround specialist, the Council developed cold feet: late into a meeting in which the Council took a lashing from city residents upset over what they characterized as a lack of transparency surrounding negotiations with its search firm, Councilman Samuel Parham put the contract to a vote: it failed 3-3-1, meaning the Council must wait at least 30 days before reconsidering a potential agreement which for the insolvent municipality is rumored to cost about $350,000 according to the elected leaders. The delay would mean pushing off any decision about the city’s future—if it is to have one—until after the election—one in which two of three council races on the ballot are contested. The unscheduled vote came minutes after a public acknowledgment from Councilmember Darrin Hill that members’ recent closed-session meetings and interference with the administration of city business deserved scrutiny, or as Councilmember Hill noted: “Ethically I think we can do better as a council as a whole,” he said. “I think a lot of us are being thrown under the bus over the actions of a few.” If the old expression is “time is money,” the delay—even as lawsuits and threats of legal action, much of it over unpaid bills, are building for a small city for which Virginia state auditors have determined is approximately $19 million in the hole, comes after the Council began this fiscal year by slashing about $12 million from the current year’s operating budget—eliminating youth summer programs, unfilled positions, millions in public school funding, and money for travel and training—even borrowing a fire truck from the city of Colonial Heights’ reserve fleet for day-to-day operations. Yet, the anatomy of debt and deficits and how the municipality got there remains clouded; ergo Council members have been asking since last February for the administration to hire a forensic auditor to scrutinize the city’s books. Interim City Manager Dironna Moore Belton this week said the city had winnowed a list down to two firms which could do the work—but of course at a cost of as much as $300,000—leading incoming City Attorney Joseph Preston to request that the Council not authorize a forensic audit, noting that a newly expanded grand jury investigation by a Chesterfield County prosecutor might yield the answers council members are seeking—at County rather than municipal taxpayers’ expense. The inability to act and uncertain state willingness to help has provoked residents, who report they are tired of seeing the city make negative headlines: they are pleading with the City Council to stop holding special meetings at the last-minute and to engage in more robust public discussion before taking votes on consequential matters—or, as one constituent put it: “I would like to know what you’re afraid of talking about in public…It’s very strange, and it’s part of why people are looking at Petersburg.”

Free at Last. The State of Michigan has formally released Wayne County, Michigan from state oversight. The County, whose general obligation bonds Moody’s upgraded at the end of last month, cited several factors, including: improvement in the county’s financial position following substantial reductions in retirement liabilities and associated costs, which will aid the budgetary capacity to address outstanding capital facility needs…,” as well as noting the “county continues to enhance its operating reserves while accommodating increased costs associated with outstanding criminal justice facility needs…” as well as reflect “substantial expense reductions…” thanks to its development and implementation of a “financial recovery plan in May 2015 to correct a structural imbalance that developed during years of rapidly falling property tax revenue. The recovery plan culminated in nearly $50 million of cost reductions achieved with elimination or modification of retirement benefits, contraction of payroll, and other operating efficiencies…” Or, as Wayne County Executive Warren C. Evans noted: the report by the credit rating agency “speaks to the depth of our Recovery Plan and the fiscal responsibility we’re instituting in every facet of County government…This positions us to do more with the resources we have and continue to move in the right direction. While the news is good, there’s a lot of work to do. We’re committed to staying the course and taking on the challenges that remain.” Mr. Evans added, however: “It’s a positive step, but not cause for any long celebrations…The consent agreement allowed us to do what we needed to do, but it was never going to be a cure-all to Wayne County’s finances. It was the necessary means to get our fiscal house in order so we could tackle the remaining challenges.” The strong fiscal discipline brought other good news with it: the State of Michigan formally granted the county’s request to be released from oversight yesterday—just a year and a month after the oversight agreement allowed the county to work with the state to renegotiate contracts, improve its cash position, and reduce underfunding in the pension system, resulting in elimination of a structural deficit. Michigan Treasurer added: “I am pleased to see the significant progress Wayne County has made while operating within the best practices established by the consent agreement.” Under that agreement, Wayne County established a recovery plan and eliminated a nearly $100 million accumulated deficit and a yearly structural deficit of approximately $52 million through various measures that aimed to bring recurring revenues in line with liabilities. The county reduced its unfunded pension liabilities from $817 million to $636 million—reductions, ergo, which also meant some retirees experienced significant reductions in post-retirement healthcare benefits. Wayne County—the county in which the City of Detroit is centered—has now balanced its budget two years in row and recorded surpluses: it ended the last fiscal year with an accumulated unassigned surplus of $35.7 million, of which $5.7 million is available for general fund operations. County Executive Evans said he expects to report a surplus in excess of $35.7 million when the books are closed on 2016. However, he also warned that Wayne County still must address some $635 million in unfunded pension liabilities and over $400 million in other post-employment benefits liabilities, areas where he made clear future budget surpluses are likely key.